Thursday, 30 July 2015

The traces of that great convenient institution, slavery

Hasn’t it been interesting to watch the recent incidents in South Carolina? First there were the killings in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine dead. And then State legislators voted to take down the Confederate flag flying outside the State Capitol.

The events reflect the greatest unresolved issue of US life, a deeply ingrained racism that has its roots in the belief that it was perfectly legitimate for one people, simply on the basis of its skin colour, to enslave another. Not that this was a specifically American abuse: the slaves were supplied to the Americas by European Whites. The cities of Nantes in France, or Bristol and Liverpool in England, owed much of their prosperity to the slave trade.

One of the benefits of the institution, for slave-owning (and therefore wealthy) white men, was that it provided what I suppose we could call comfort, on demand, on their doorstep. It’s now generally accepted that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children on his slave Sally Hemings. The practice of taking a slave as a concubine was not at all rare on the plantations. In fact, it was in that same State of South Carolina, that a lady name Mary Boykin Chestnut, quoted by Jon Meacham in his masterly biography of Jefferson, commented:

Any lady is able to tell who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but their own. Those she seems to think drop from the clouds.

However, there was a benefit – again for wealthy white males – that I hadn’t been aware of until I read another fine Meacham biography, this one of Andrew Jackson. He talks about Colonel Richard M. Johnson, a Kentucky congressman who later became Vice President, and who claimed that he had himself killed the great Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh during the War of 1812.

He lived for a time and completely openly in a common-law marriage with a biracial (“mulatto”) slave called Julia Chinn, and their two daughters. When Chinn died in 1833, he took up with another slave, but discovered that she was being unfaithful to him. So he sold her, and moved on to her sister instead.

Richard M. Johnson
US Politician who knew how to make the most of slavery
Ah, yes. I can see how that would work. It provides a whole new meaning for the notion of a “mistress”, if she’s someone you can simply sell to someone else if she displeases you. A mistress entirely subject to your authority? Must be convenient. And it only needed her to have a small proportion of African descent (one sixty-fourth was enough to hold someone in slavery) to produce that convenience.

It’s not hard to imagine that the possession of such attitudes would leave a mark. Nor is it surprising that two centuries on, they haven’t been entirely expunged.

Again, though, don’t think that this kind of thinking applies only to the US. Today, there’s a serious problem of illegal migrants trying to get through the Channel Tunnel into Britain. And David Cameron, our Prime Minister, referred to them as “swarms” of migrants.

"Swarms" of migrants at Calais
Trying to take advantage of a strike to get into Britain
Human beings reduced to the level of insects. No wonder that back then we had no problem selling other humans to America. To provide convenient but not exactly ennobling services to their new masters.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Labour: the greatest fun for the greatest number

No one’s ever disappointed by the British Conservative Party. It always entirely fulfils expectations, which it has learned to set painfully low. So it generates indifference rather than enthusiasm, shrugs rather than frowns, murmurs of “whatever” rather than cries of “betrayal.”

People hope for much more from Labour. Expectations seem to range from ushering in the earthly paradise down to, at a minimum, ending poverty, eliminating nuclear weapons and teaching business executives a sense of community.

The Party is currently in a contest to elect a new leader, to replace underwhelming and soundly beaten Ed Miliband. And, inevitably, that has engendered disappointment.

The campaign is generally deemed stodgy, dull, uninspiring. Why, even David Cameron, minimally revered Conservative Prime Minister, has got in on the act, warning journalists that Labour seemed not to have learned a thing from its election defeat. It’s a view to be taken as seriously as one would expect, given the acumen he has shown, along with his concern for the good of the Labour Party.

The disappointment’s unfair. The contest has provided many edifying sights. For instance, after calling the 7 May General Election lamentably wrong, you might expect a period of humbled silence from the polling organisation. So it’s been a delight to see YouGov publishing its findings that Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran Left Winger, was set to win the election. By the way, he’s always often to as “veteran”: it seems that the word just means 66 years old, or possibly having been in parliament for 32 years.

Jeremy Corbyn:
Labour's way of spreading delight across the political spectrum
YouGov had Corbyn winning over Andy Burnham by 53% to 47%. Another poll, organisation unnamed (presumably because commissioned by one of the candidates), showing Corbyn winning over Yvette Cooper by 51% to 49%. So polls maintain the track record of consistency which is such a fine indication of reliability.

It’s the election itself, though, rather than polls that is giving the best value for money.

Basing myself mostly on what I can see happening in my local constituency Labour Party and the one next door – both firmly in the Corbyn camp – rather than on polls, a Corbyn win does feel likely to me. In which case it seems to me time for the public to recognise the service that Labour is providing: this is surely the result that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

Most people in the Labour Party will be pleased if Corbyn wins. After all, he says what so many feel. In the past, certain policies that don’t stand a chance of winning majority support have been dropped – say nationalisation of many industries, thoroughly discredited by the experience of the fifties to the eighties: they cost a fortune and delivered lousy service. So instead we preferred to concentrate on the goals that measures such as nationalisation were intended to meet, like reducing poverty, setting out to achieve them by other means.

With Corbyn in charge, though, we could drop all such mealy-mouthed restraint. We can once more proclaim the post-World War 2 commitment to nationalisation, whether voters like it or not.

Moreover, those in the Labour Party who preferred a more “politician-like” response to events have to salute him too. Just a few days ago Corbyn wouldn’t rule out campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union; now he’s clarified his position and favours Britain staying in.

Isn’t that wonderful? Corbyn’s not above the “clarification” ploy, the standard means by which a politician realigns his views when he realises they aren’t popular. And the “won’t rule out” stance is an excellent preliminary to the ploy: it means “I’m keeping my options open until I work out which way the wind’s blowing.”

Clearly the veteran’s come of age. He may not be quite the Tony Blair yet, but he’s shown that he too can play the duplicitous game.

So Corbyn has everything to please the Labour Party, across the spectrum. And as for the Tories, a Corbyn will delight them. The Conservatives couldn’t possibly hope for an adversary preferable to Corbyn. They’ll pick out quotes from his speeches to turn him into a bogey man to frighten the timid back into their camp. They just have to hope he won’t clarify his position on renationalisation of industries.

It’s hard to imagine what else Labour could do to please so many people, from its own ranks to those of the Tories, in one simple step. Indeed, the only ones who might not be pleased will be far-right UKIP: the radical right probably don’t want to see a radical leader emerge on the left, who might steal some of their thunder.

Still, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I think if we’re doing the Conservatives a favour, that’s already enough in the way of cheering the right. UKIP can look after itself.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Not to be missed. NOT to be missed. AND there's two...

It sometimes shames me to think how much mediocre TV I’ve sat through. So it’s comforting to be able to report on not one, but two great series.

Both are available from Amazon, both indeed made by Amazon.

The first is Transparent. Before you get carried away with the thought that it’s somehow to do with limpid sight, with viewing clearly through to the foundations of things, to no longer seeing through a glass darkly, let me point out that it’s a neat play on words, and that the title could be pronounced trans-parent, with “parent” in the sense of father or mother.

Indeed, its central character (played with brilliant contained neurosis and deadpan sensitivity by Jeffrey Tambor) decides in his sixties that he’s had enough of pretending to be a man. He comes out as trans, preferring to wear women’s clothing in public, and behaving in all respects as a woman. His daughters, indeed, give him the nickname “Moppa”, a cross between Momma and Poppa.

For he has daughters. And a son. But the series is not merely concerned with the impact of their Moppa’s coming out on their lives. Amy Landecker is excellent as the eldest, Sarah, who has herself opted for lesbianism (or has she? imagine the possibilities for ambivalence), whereas the youngest, Ali (Gaby Hofmann – remember the little girl in Field of Dreams? – well as an adult she portrays, with shocking verve, hungry longing, tormented uncertainty, and a capacity for cruelty flowing from the other two) has developed such an appetite for rough sex that she seems unable ever to find any at all.

The boy, Josh (again a fine performance, by Jay Duplass), has the animal magnetism that gives him no difficulty in attracting any woman he sets his mind on, while love remains generally unattainable to him, until he falls for his female rabbi.

Did I mention that the family is Jewish so we get an entertaining subplot of life in that community in LA?

Jeffrey Tambor and Alexandra Billings in Transparent
There are plenty of other supporting characters, and all played well by a highly talented cast. I have to make a special mention of Alexandra Billings, the first trans actor to play a trans character on screen (but not in this series), who is superb. There isn’t a poor performance, or a role without redeeming features, or without terrible faults requiring redemption, in a plot that constantly engages, intrigues and entertains.

Ten episodes in the first season, all well worth watching.

Almost as good, in a completely different genre, is Mozart in the Jungle. Gael García Bernal (remember the sultry young priest in El Crimen del Padre Amaro? He’s as sultry as ever, if a little older) is Rodrigo, the international celebrity, just appointed conductor in residence by the fictional New York Symphony orchestra. It needs his star quality to turn round the orchestra’s rather shaky financial performance, though the man he displaces doesn’t entirely agree (Malcolm McDowell – remember If? He’s as talented as ever but a lot older).

Lora Kirke in Mozart in the Jungle
working for a breakthrough with the oboe
The other main character is played by Lola Kirke as the aspiring oboe player who’s perhaps not quite up to the demands of a top orchestra yet, a role which she gives us with thoroughly believable sensitivity and angst. Saffron Burrows combines powerful presence with great humour and poignancy, as a top cellist who’s beginning to suffer from problems in her hands and is fighting them with drugs, while Debra Monk is a glorious monster as the lead oboist who is prepared, for an exorbitant fee, to teach Kirke even though she has no faith in her.

What makes the series so good, like Transparent, is that all the characters are interesting and usually attractive. To be fair, Mozart in the Jungle takes an easier route, since it makes them more sympathetic, for more of the time. In Transparent characters are occasionally so utterly self-centred as to be quite repellent, calling on all the skills of the writers to redeem them. In Mozart in the Jungle, the moments of unpleasant behaviour are shorter, so it’s perhaps a little too easy to like everyone. Still, they are likeable, as well as believable and often funny. 

And Mozart in the Jungle has one other notable ingredient: the music. I
t’s great. One of my favourite scenes is the orchestra rehearsing on a piece of waste land, wired off with a padlocked gate and a sign warning that trespassing will be prosecuted – and playing an excellent choice of music for that environment.

Gael García Bernal rehearsing the orchestra al fresco
As for the season finale, it alone makes it worth watching the other nine episodes, even if they weren’t fun enough in their own right.

Both series have been renewed for a second season.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Consolation from religion, in a bad week for politics

It’s been a bit of a dismal week for politics, so it’s a comfort to be able to turn to some rather better news from the world of religion.

The bad news politically has been the rediscovery by the British Labour Party of an apparent death wish.

First, the interim leader Harriet Harman decided that the best response to a planned new government attack on the most vulnerable members of society, by cutting their benefits, was to abstain. Since many see the purpose of the Labour Party as being to speak for the mass of the people, and especially for those, including the poorest, who can’t generally speak for themselves, this position could really only be described as craven.

Secondly, the party moved closer towards selecting as its new leader a man, Jeremy Corbyn, from its far left. Labour did the same thing after its defeat in 1979 and went down to the worst beating it has had since World War 2 in 1983. It was then in opposition for a further fourteen years.

Now, I find myself in agreement with most of what Corbyn says. But I’m a Labour Party member. We have a lot in common.

Like him, I for instance see absolutely no value in Britain maintaining its nuclear deterrent – it’s so minute, it deters no one, but it costs a fortune. However I know that a lot of people outside the Labour Party who might, at a pinch, vote for us, will be put off doing so if we make dropping the “deterrent" a central plank in our programme. Since scrapping it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the safety of the world – precisely because our deterrent is so small and the main nuclear arsenals would be unaffected – it strikes me as sensible to leave that policy on the back burner.

That would mean we could focus on saving the National Health Service. Or even taking a million children out of poverty, as Labour did last time it was in office, instead of plunging a million back in, as this government seems intent on doing. However, we won’t get a chance to do either if we put off people who might otherwise support us.

Electing Corbyn will, I fear, get us George Osborne (currently Chancellor of the Exchequer: David Cameron plans to stand down after this parliament.) And it could be worse: we have one of the most authoritarian Home Secretaries to have graced that office in Theresa May, and she’s a contender to take over from Cameron; so is Boris Johnson, the apparently amusing buffoon who’s shown as Mayor of London that he’s a thoroughly toxic politician.

Vote Corbyn, get May or Boris? Not a pleasing prospect.

Thirdly, and finally, Tony Blair, the most successful Labour leader there has ever been (three election victories) but also entirely discredited after taking Britain into an unwinnable and probably illegal war, decided to get stuck into the leadership contest. He did it with wit – he advised anyone whose heart is inclined towards Corbyn to “get a transplant” – but he obviously hasn’t gauged just how discredited he is. His intervention only made it more likely that Corbyn would win.

Corbyn, left, is under attack from Blair
And it will do him nothing but good
All this made the political landscape depressing, so I turned for consolation to religion. What, after all, could be more appropriate? People have done that for ages.

The first piece of good religious news was the discovery in a University of Birmingham library of what may well be the oldest fragment of the Qu’ran still in existence. It was missed before because it was bound in with other material. A PhD student, Alba Fedeli, noticed two pages that didn’t belong, and pointed the fact out. Carbon dating on the parchment establishes that it may have been produced within the lifetime of Muhammad; the words may have been written soon after his death.

A lovely piece of serendipity. A heck of a boost for a PhD student. And a major discovery of the Muslim community.

The other encouraging event was the consecration as Church of England Bishops of Rachel Treweek (Bishop of Gloucester) and Dame Sarah Mullaly (Bishop of Crediton). They are actually the third and fourth women Bishops of the Church, but what makes Treweek’s consecration particularly important is that she is the first woman to take one of the Bishoprics that brings with it a seat in the House of Lords.

Mulally and Treweek, consecrated bishops 
Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney, spoke well, expressing the hope that “women bishops will disturb us. I hope they will challenge the conventions of the Church of England, which continues to be led and directed by too many people like me: white, male, middle-aged professionals.”

A laudable desire in a week where too much just seemed same old, same old.

Of course, even if it’s gratifying to see a woman in the post, one does have to wonder why any Bishops, simply by being Bishops, get to sit in the House of Lords. With power to legislate for all of us. Without being answerable to any of us.

But that takes me back into politics. And I’m not going there any more this week.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

WOMAD and bucket lists

There are bucket lists and then there are reverse bucket lists.

Bucket lists contain the things one feels one really ought to do at least once before kicking the bucket. I’ve never been on a helicopter ride, or visited the Taj Mahal, or seen the Northern Lights. They’re all things I’d like to do before I get my visit from the grim reaper (even if he turns out to be rather a sympathetic character, as in the Terry Pratchett view).

On the other hand, I’ve also never visited a firing range or the state of Israel. The first of these I feel no desire whatever to do, the second is one of those things I don’t contemplate with any enthusiasm for the present or the future, but would quite like to have done in the past: I’d like to have already been to Israel, to know a little more about what it’s really like, but as far as any future plans are concerned, it’s probably pretty much at the bottom of my list of places to visit, outside war zones.

Really. Below Minsk, say, or even Pittsburgh. 

I’d actually quite like to go to those places, if only because my grandfather’s family came from Minsk, and Pittsburgh includes the place that was once known as the ‘Forks of the Ohio’ – George Washington was there, as a Militia officer supporting British military operations, and it still feels ironic to me that Washington once served under, rather than against, British colours.

The Forks of the Ohio.
Less built up in the time of loyal British subject, George Washington
Another thing I’ve never done is ever visit a theme park. I say that without pride, though with relief. I gave up going to amusement parks when I realised, aged 22, that rides I’d loved as a child simply made me sick as an adult – anything, in particular, that spun round and round. As for a ride that takes you to the edge of a death-defying fall and then plunges down, my vertigo leaves me regarding the experience as to be avoided at any cost. A source of pleasure? I’m not that masochistic.

That does leave me feeling guilty towards my poor, long-suffering wife. She was once deeply familiar with more or less every theme park from South West Germany (Europa Park) and North West England (Alton Towers), enduring in particular several visits to Disneyland Paris and the nearby Parc Asterix. Somehow I was always unavoidably elsewhere when any of these trips occurred.

My only grandchild to date has now reached an age where she doesn’t need her grandfather to accompany her to one of those ghastly places. Since my other two sons are proving slow at producing any further grandchildren for us, I expect to be able to plead age and infirmity by the time it comes to taking any of them if, indeed, any of them ever show up.

So visiting theme parks remains firmly on my reverse bucket list: things not to do this side of the grave. I’m making no dispositions for what may happen on the other side. I suspect, given the life I’ve led, that I might find myself condemned to an eternal theme park anyway.

But tomorrow an important box gets ticked off one or other of the lists. I’m still not sure which. Certainly, it wasn’t something I felt inclined to do – otherwise I might already have done it – but nor am I averse to doing it. Either way, it happens tomorrow.

I shall be off to my first ever music festival.

Gets ticked off a list tomorrow
WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance, I’m told), near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. Danielle and I are going and meeting a bunch of friends there. I expect it’ll be fine, though probably not in the meteorological sense of fine: heavy rain’s forecast. But I understand that mud is part of the experience, so thats probably appropriate.

Anyway, at least I’ll be able to tick it off the list. And by the time I get home, I’ll no doubt have decided which list it belonged to.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Luci's diary: it' so hot...

Lucis Diary. It just keeps getting hotter. But playing's still fun. If you find the right companions, or pick the right element. 

July 2015

It’s got so hot! When I was just a little puppy, it was fine. I used to be really proud of my fine coat. It kept me feeling great while all the humans went around being miserable about the cold. But now I’m a big girl: 4.1 kilos, I’m told, and if you think that point-one isn’t important, think again: it puts me in the big dog category for Advocate flea treatment, and that matters.

And I don’t care that the silly owner of one of those stupidly oversized dogs – a Rottweiler or something – reckoned I was just the size of one of his dog’s meals. All that says is that there’s a lot too much of his dog.

Panting time.
I say pants to this hot weather.
Anyway, now I’m a big dog, it’s much too hot. I just hope it won’t go on getting hotter and hotter because, though human number 1 has got my fur clipped really short, I still find myself panting all the time when I’m out walking. And walking has to be my second favourite activity, after eating (you never know, I could make it to 4.2 kilos soon), so I don’t like it being made uncomfortable for me.

Well, I say second favourite. It’s probably third really. Playing with Misty has got to be second. He’s funny about that. Always complaining. He has this silly plaintive mew, and it fools the humans.

Luci,” they say, “stop tormenting the cat.”

Yeah, right. I’ve got the measure of him. If I stop so-called “tormenting” him, he just comes running up to me, saying “go on, play with me, play with me again.” He just likes playing hard to get, that’s all there is to all the fuss he makes…

You think he's not enjoying himself?.
If I stop, he comes chasing me to start again
It’s not just with the cat that playing’s fun. It’s brilliant playing with puppies. And I’ve worked something out: humans have puppies too. They’re the smaller ones, the ones I always liked. Human puppies, if you know what I mean.

It turns out they’re good for a romp too.

We met some in the park the other day. I don’t know if everyone has this problem, but whenever we meet humans they always seem to want to touch me. They come up saying silly things like “oh, isn’t she cute?” (or worse still, “isn’t he cute?”) and then, inevitably, they follow it up with “can we stroke her?”

The puppy humans in the park were just the same. They all kept asking whether they could stroke me, as though it was any good asking human number 2 (he’d come along on my walk.) He said yes, but I shot off as soon as they got close. And – joy! bliss! ecstasy! – they started chasing me. Oh, wow, that was such a great time. Even in this terrible warm weather. Somehow I didn’t notice it so much, oddly enough. Funny how much you can put with when you’re having a good time.

It seems human puppies like playing as much
as the real ones do.

In any case, I’ve found out what’s good in this heat. Water. Go right into it and it cools you down like magic. Don’t think I mentioned before that I’d learned to swim. Well, I have, and it’s great.

It’ll be useful, too, if things just go on getting hotter.

Yup. That's me swimming.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Cameron the unbriefed, setting new standards in the idleness stakes

David Cameron is making up policy on ISIS “on the hoof” according to a senior member of his own party, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Defence, Julian Lewis.

Julian Lewis, leading Tory, concerned about Tory incoherence
He’s worried that the government’s Syria policy is incoherent as a result.

The only surprise is that Lewis might think this is somehow news. It has been Cameron’s way ever since he became Prime Minister: he blunders into situations, making up his position as he’s speaking, and then having to reverse himself later.

This is reminiscent of no one so much as Dubya. The former US president, now viewed in some quarters as officially the worst in history, couldn’t read a proper briefing paper. Staff therefore had to prepare summaries for him. He was never, therefore, fully briefed on any subject on which he chose to pronounce.

Cameron can, no doubt, read a briefing paper, but he shows no sign of actually taking their contents in. Instead, he prefers to improvise, perhaps partly in the belief that this shows his versatility and decisiveness: the man of action who can take clear-sighted decisions on the spur of the moment. In reality, sadly, all it does is set him up for humiliating retreat.

Early in his first premiership, he wandered into a 2011 meeting of the EU discussing steps to support the Euro, and applied his “veto”, only to discover that the Eurozone group could continue meeting without him, and leaving him only with the capacity to “veto” their use of EU offices for their discussions; with bad grace, he realised that this would just be acting like a dog in the manger, and grudgingly allowed them to do even that.

Equally, he decided to sell of Forestry Commission land, only to change his mind, or to stop supporting school sports, later announcing that he wouldn’t after all. And the list goes on.

Specifically on Syria, he decided in 2013 that Britain should support a US initiative to launch missile attacks against Assad’s government. That would have meant in effect supporting the jihadists who have, since, set up the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Fortunately, he was forced to back down by a parliamentary vote. As a result, the US too understood that the initiative was ill-conceived and dropped it. Later on, of course, the US started bombing ISIS instead, in effect helping the Assad government that they had previously planned to target.

David Cameron, man of action
A little more thought might be helpful
The latest complaints from Julian Lewis have been prompted by Cameron’s announcing this weekend that Britain should “step up and do more” in the campaign against ISIS. A comment that he has, as usual, made without seeming to have thought through the consequences or decided on the means. And, naturally, without consulting anybody else.

Lewis thinks this is incoherent. I’ll say. But what on earth can anyone expect if policy is being managed by a Prime Minister who seems to find it simply too much trouble to understand what he’s trying to address?

It’s amusing that the talk at the moment is all about the difficulties Labour is having electing a new leader. The real problem, it seems to me, is not in Labour but among the Conservatives. And their leader, sadly, is the present holder of the post of Prime Minister…

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Soapy tricks, and how irritating they are

“Yes, you are better than my old boyfriend,” Donna Moss tells Josh Lyman in The West Wing, after a slightly flirtatious, bantering argument about whether he’s sufficiently concerned with her wellbeing or not.

The comparison with her former boyfriend isn’t that flattering. She’d been hospitalised after an car crash; on the way to see her, he’d stopped to have a drink with some friends. Josh does, indeed, feel obliged to relativise his superiority.

“I'm just saying if you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for a beer.”

“If you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for red lights,” she replies.

Bradley Whitford as Josh, Janel Moloney as Donna
in The West Wing
That strikes me as a pretty clear indication of where we're heading. However, this exchange takes place in episode 18 of season 2. And it isn’t until the closing episodes of the series, in season 7, that the couple finally forms.

The West Wing is one of my favourite series, so I’m not trying to run it down. But that piece of narrative strikes me as one of the worst devices that I associate with soaps: it’s deliberately intended to announce a destination which we’re then going to be delayed reaching for many, many hours more.

That happens a lot in series, where one of the major goals is to keep the story rolling for as long as possible, and you really don’t want to see things wrapped up too soon. One of the simplest devices used to extend the narrative is a failure to communicate. How often have you seen the scene where the male protagonist is seen out one night by the female, in the company of a particularly attractive woman? When they meet, she gives him no chance to explain himself, saying something like “you have nothing to explain. And I certainly don’t want to hear any lies.” 

That means it will be another 39 episodes before she realises that the attractive young woman was his sister.

One of the most annoying occurrences of this kind is at the of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The failure of the male to find out the real relationship between the female and the man he sees her with costs them some forty or fifty years of happiness. Fortunately, it takes only a few pages in the book, so the pain for the reader or the spectator of the film lasts less long.

That example shows that it isn’t only in series that the device appears. Even in a relatively short piece, like a film, it’s used fairly frequently. Have you seen The Holiday, a gentle little feel-good romantic comedy? Twice, to make sure we don’t miss the point, Cameron Diaz, playing Amanda, picks up Jude Law’s mobile to see that he has an incoming call from someone with a woman’s name.

“Sophie, Olivia, Amanda,” she says, “busy guy.”

Fortunately, this is a film so it’s only going to be a matter of minutes before she finds out that Sophie and Olivia are his daughters, from a marriage ended by widowhood, not divorce (leaving him still the perfect man). In a series, it would have been at least five episodes, by which time the spectator would have been screaming, “ask him who they are, for God’s sake.” That, after all, is what any normal person would do; it just doesn’t suit the fiction.

My heart sinks every time I meet this kind of trick. I think of it as “soapy” because I feel it belongs more to the soap genre. That makes it exasperating when it appears in something I otherwise regard as good.

At the moment, for instance, in Britain Channel 4 is showing a skilfully constructed series called Humans. The central theme is that society has developed highly sophisticated humanoid robots; some of them now have consciousness. It’s fun and it’s compelling.
Humans. Compelling.
Particularly when it's not being soapy
So I was sorry when the young man who truly knows the conscious robots, having failed to contact one through his computer, reacts to the young woman who suggests “why don’t we try it my way?” with an immediate rejection. He’s tried everything, and how could she possibly know more about the subject than he does.

Yeah, right. Some time soon we’re going to discover that her way works. But not until the writers have spun out the narrative a bit longer.

Cheap. Facile. Soapy. And I wish they hadn’t done it.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Labour: it's got to be Cooper or Burnham

The main mouthpiece of British high Toryism, the Daily Telegraph, is involving itself in a Labour Party election.

The Telegraph gets stuck into the Labour leadership election
This is made possible by the rules adopted for the election of a new leader to replace Ed Miliband. The old system gave massive weight to the voice of the Trade Unions, which is what gave us Ed Miliband in the first place. This time round every member of the party has exactly one vote (“one member one vote”, as the system is accurately if not imaginatively called).

To accommodate the many trade unionists who are Labour supporters but not Party members, a special category has been created which allows such people to register and, on payment of £3, take part in the election.

The Telegraph has decided to urge Tories to register themselves as Labour supporters and vote for the most left-leaning of the candidates, Jeremy Corbyn. This is because it has rightly decided that Corbyn would stand no chance of winning a general election. Indeed, the paper believes that as leader, he would bury the Party for good.

No one younger than their late forties will have been particularly aware of politics the last time the Labour Party elected a leader from the Left. This was Michael Foot, in the early eighties. Foot was one of the gentlest, most tolerant and most intelligent of leaders the Party has ever had. An expert on Jonathan Swift, he could be regularly seen in the British Library researching the author of Gulliver’s Travels, when he might have been in the House of Commons.

That gentle soul was crucified by the right-wing press. On one occasion he turned up for the annual ceremony commemorating British war dead in a duffle coat. He was mercilessly hounded in the media, as though what mattered in a potential British Prime Minister was his willingness to dress conventionally.

In 1983, Foot led the Party to crushing defeat by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. The Party took fewer votes than at any other election since the end of the Second World War. Indeed, although there has been much heart searching about the disastrous election result earlier this year, the 1983 results were nearly 900,000 votes worse.

The depth of the disaster was due in large part to a massive, radically left-wing manifesto which has come to be known as the longest suicide note in history. It is a measure of the capacity for self-delusion of certain people on the far left – not I think Michael Foot, who was far more of a realist – that another veteran of that wing, Tony Benn, described the result as a major success for socialism.

Michael Foot and Tony Benn
Didn't work out so well as we might have liked
His argument was that never before had eight and a half million people voted for so strongly socialist a manifesto. To Benn it was apparently irrelevant that nearly 21 million had voted against, 13 million of them for the Tories. And as a result one of the most radical right wing governments we have seen was elected with a massive parliamentary majority.

The Daily Telegraph may be obnoxious and unprincipled, but it’s not stupid. It has realise that Jeremy Corbyn as leader would be as disastrous for Labour today as Michael Foot was 35 years ago. It’s a lesson Labour members need to bear in mind. Corbyn may be the choice of many activists, as Foot was. He does not appeal to the floating voters we need to attract back to us, any more than Foot did. To elect Corbyn is self-indulgent and it plays into the hands of the Telegraph and its ilk.

So who should we choose?

I recently listened to Liz Kendall, one of the other candidates, and heard her describe herself, unprompted, as a “fiscal conservative”. We have plenty of those in office at the moment, within the Conservative Party. It’s also beginning to feel as though across Europe, a movement is starting in reaction to the austerity politics such figures represent. In Greece, of course, in Spain too, in Scotland, even in Germany, where protestors have been taking to the streets against the behaviour of their own government towards the Greeks.

It also seems likely that austerity politics may begin to hurt wider sections of the British population who escaped relatively unscathed during the last five years. As they lose faith in the economic policies of the present government, it would seem unfortunate if all we could say to them was “the fiscal conservatism of this government has failed; now give our version of fiscal conservatism a try.”

That leaves only two candidates, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Both are former ministers, and therefore arguably damaged goods, tainted by their association with the Blair-Brown governments. They are also highly experienced, intelligent politicians. Do they have the courage to take the country in the direction it needs to go? I don’t know. But I do know there is no fifth candidate.

Cooper or Burnham may not be the most inspiring of choices. But neither would take us in the direction of the wilderness of 1983, or into the embrace of the very policies that are failing in the government we oppose.

Avoiding either of those alternatives strikes me as vital if we are to give Labour another chance. And the Telegraph the comeuppance it deserves.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The poet and the diplomat: 150 years of Yeats

“My only qualification for teaching this course,” one of my best lecturers told a class I attended, “is a sense of my complete inadequacy to the task.”

He was teaching us about Michel de Montaigne, whose great work is a series of essays. He used the word essay in the literal French sense of a trial, or a test: “these are the trials of my natural faculties” he explained in a preface. It is that sense of tentative reflection that marks Montaigne, and justified our lecturer’s humility.

Two months later, he completed that course and moved on to the poet Ronsard.

“A great many people have written on Ronsard,” he told us, “and you can ignore them all. None of them has understood him. Only I can explain him to you.”

The contrast in the lecturer’s attitude made me smile, particularly as his new mood was, again, so completely appropriate to the subject. Ronsard knew he was the best poet France had ever produced. He would also write in the style of the great figures of antiquity, as if to say, “you think they’re good? Watch how I can do the same thing – better.”

I thought about all this again yesterday, when we attended a talk at the Luton Irish Forum about William Butler Yeats, marking the year of his 150th birthday. The speaker was the Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Daniel Mulhall. 

Daniel Mulhall, in a suit, with pupils of a local school
who contributed to a great evening at Luton Irish Forum
Mulhall showed you don’t have to be one-dimensional to be a senior diplomat. Indeed, he displayed an insightful relationship with a great poet – and he communicated his enthusiasm to others, by talking for just the right length of time, quoting just the right number of poems and commenting on them in just enough detail to be illuminating without ever becoming dull, far less pompous.

He did admit that, many years ago, he had quoted Yeats at some length to a young woman on their first date and, since she had decided to become his wife then, and still is today, it clearly had done him no harm.

Among the poems he quoted, few of which I knew, he recited this one: 

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The woman addressed is Maud Gonne, to whom Yeats proposed not once but six or seven times, being refused on each occasion. As Mulhall pointed out, it is astonishing that Yeats wrote this poem when he was only in his twenties, and yet it looks forward to a time far distant in the future.

When that time actually came, Yeats had been married, in all appearance happily, for nearly twenty years to another woman. Even so, he must have been 60 or so when he wrote Among Schoolchildren, containing the line “she stands before me as a living child”: as an older man he sees Maud Gonne still, though now he conjures up a childish image.

Above all, however, what hearing this poem did for me was remind me of another, by Ronsard. Roughly translated, it starts “when you are quite old, in the evening by candle light, sitting at the corner of the fire, spinning and threading, you will say, singing my verses and full of wonder, ‘Ronsard celebrated me, in the time of my beauty’.”

Yeats includes enough allusions to Ronsard to make sure we see the connection: nodding by the fire, thinking about a poem (reading it instead of singing it, but it’s still a matter of recall), thinking back to lost love.

But the contrast is far more striking than the similarities.

Ronsard’s poem is about him. It’s about the wonder the older woman will still feel that Ronsard had once sung her praises – had, indeed, been generous enough to give her his love. In other words, all the arrogance my lecturer had pointed to, infuses the poem.

Yeats, by contrast, focuses on his love and the woman he loved. instead of pride of accomplishment, of conquest, we get wistfulness and a sense of loss: love “hid his face amid a crown of stars.”

I liked my lecturer, but I was never really comfortable with Ronsard’s arrogance. Having now enjoyed the gentle half tones of Yeats’s poem, I can say that it does the same thing as Ronsard – better.

Yeats: a touch more subtle
My thanks for that discovery to a man who represents Ireland to government, and a great Irish poet to the rest of us.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Greek debt: parallels and contrasts with the US

Greeks who remember the German occupation, according to the BBC, are now talking about another invasion by Germany without a shot being fired.

Greece will, it seems, stay in the Euro. At least for the moment. It will do so at the cost of measures that apparently represent more severe austerity than the terms rejected by Greeks in a referendum just over a week ago. It feels like Greek voters have lost, but German politicians – apparently the fiercest critics of Greece and the harshest in their demands of them – have won.

Merkel may have avoided this destiny so far
But certainly not be being gentle with Greece
This reminds me of how the United States dealt with a similar crisis, when it faced debt problems not unlike those of Greece within the Eurozone.

The original constitution of the United States was deeply unsatisfactory, giving almost no power – certainly no power to raise funds – to the national government, and leaving most authority in the hands of the States. It became increasingly clear over just a few years that the situation was untenable and something with a more serious Federal government at its centre would have to be set up.

A Convention met and drew up the Constitution of the United States that we know today (though at that stage without any amendments, of course). George Washington became the first President and, among an all-star cast of Ministers, he appointed Alexander Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury (Minister of Finance).

Now there’s little on which I agree with Hamilton, particularly his views of popular sovereignty, but that’s for another debate. On finance, he was something of a wizard. And one of his first major measures concerned what came to be known as Assumption – not a religious moment, except for those whose God in Mammon, but the initiative by which the Federal government would take over the debts incurred by the individual States in fighting the War of Independence.

That was great news for Massachusetts and South Carolina, which were saddled with heavy debts (viz Greece) but not so good for Virginia and North Carolina which had cleared most of theirs, and didn’t appreciate having to pick up the tabs for the others (viz Germany). There was a battle royal. James Madison, destined to become the Republic’s fourth president, was a Congressman at the time and led the campaign against Assumption. He defeated the proposal.

The story has it that Alexander Hamilton met Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State but destined to be the third President, in the street outside Jefferson’s house. He was distraught and Jefferson invited him in. Hamilton explained that without Assumption, certain States would be driven towards bankruptcy, and also the Federal government would be shown to be powerless to face up to dealing with a financial crisis (viz the Eurozone).

What’s more, Hamilton maintained the apparently paradoxical view that the Federal government would be accepting a “national blessing” by taking on the debt: it would oblige it to collect taxes and establish it as creditworthy (viz the Eurozone again).

Jefferson was a close ally of Madison’s and increasingly an opponent of Hamilton’s. But he allowed his then-colleague to convince him, and took it on himself to win Madison round.

The two allies came up with a compromise solution: Madison would not block the question of Assumption coming up again in Congress; he would vote no, but would not speak against the proposal. That’s what happened, and Assumption was adopted, over the silent opposition of Madison.

At the time, the US had a population of under 4 million. Even the UK had 8 million, and France 20 million. GDP was around $200 million, corresponding to about $4.5 billion today – when US GDP is about $17.7 trillion. The US was, in other words, a minor sideshow in geopolitics back then; today it is the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth.

There is no need for Europe to aspire to that status. European nations have been massive global players in the past, and places like Amritsar or Algiers testify to how badly that went. But it strikes me that Europe needs to get its act together if it is only to defend its status in a world increasingly dominated by huge nations, such as the US, China and Russia.

The success of the US wasn’t naturally entirely down to acceptance of Hamilton’s proposals on handling debt. But they certainly contributed: they set up the notion of the Union has owing a duty to all its components, and therefore being more powerful than any of them, capable of playing a full role on the world stage.

So the US passed its test over Assumption.

I’m not sure the Eurozone has done anything like so well over Greek debt.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

A couple of films not to be missed: A Song for Jenny and Whiplash

It you’re looking for a feel-good film, then A Song for Jenny isn’t for you. Although it left me feeling good – but only through a powerful case of what classical Greece called catharsis, the process by which an audience experiences intense fear and pity, which are then purged leaving them cleansed and uplifted.

Certainly, A Song for Jenny does just that. Based on the story she told in her own book, it tracks the slow realisation of Julie Nicholson that the silence of her daughter Jenny, on the day of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, was not due to lack of mobile signal, or even to injury, but to the worst loss a parent can suffer.

Millions commute in London every day, and 52 were killed by the terrorists. What are the chances that your daughter should be among the victims? But when you phone her office and she’s not there, the iron enters your soul. Julie, superbly played by Emily Watson, asks the terrible follow-up question – is everyone else in? 

They are.
Emily Watson, when denial's no longer possible
The family gathers in London. They check the hospitals, to no avail. The police assign family liaison officers, who act with sensitivity and warmth, but can’t soften what is clearly ahead. Day after day goes by with no sign of the young woman; the police collect DNA samples, and hearts sink further; but still no one is voicing the truth that all of them in their hearts have recognised.

It would have been obvious where we were heading, even if I hadn’t already known from the news reports of that day. It isn’t suspense for the audience that the film builds, but a wrenching sense of the suspense in the family, as slowly it comes to terms with the fact that Julie will never make good on her repeated promise to bring Jenny home.

Harrowing, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. And at the end I felt privileged to have watched something that so powerfully showed beauty in the face of horror.

Whiplash is a completely different kind of film, but no more to be missed than A Song for Jenny. It’s original to the point of being quirky, in the best possible way. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young jazz drummer student, enrolled in a prestigious US music academy. There he’s discovered and picked up by a brilliant teacher, Fletcher, played with genius by J.K. Simmons.

Fletcher is demanding to the point of being abusive. And by “abusive”, I don’t mean that he throws his weight around and is occasionally insulting to his students. He’s viciously cruel to any performance he feels is less than up to his painful standards. In one scene, he sends the other musicians out of a rehearsal room, to force three drummers to keep trying the same passage until one of them can play it as he wants – a process that takes hours and keeps the practice session going into the small hours of the following morning.

Fletcher delivering his own brand of encouragement to Andrew
We repeatedly see Andrew's hands bleeding onto the drums
It seems that the writer and director, Damien Chazelle, gave Simmons the instruction “I don't want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal.” Simmons delivers exactly what he was asked for, and fully deserves his best supporting actor Oscar for doing so.

Now you all know how this kind of film ends. The protagonist rises above all adversity, including the vile behaviour of his teacher, is spotted by a talent scout and is launched on an illustrious career in the course of which he learns to be grateful for the harshness of his training. I’m glad to say that the ending of Whiplash is nothing of the kind: it stops at the right moment, before any definitive tying of loose ends, but on exactly the kind of note that fits the rest of the film. One of those rare jewels, like Casablanca or The Life of Others that gets its ending exactly right.

And, like A Song for Jenny it manages to be cathartic too. With some great music thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Tory financial policies: too clever by half?

Yesterday, George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer – our Minister of Finance – gave the first entirely Tory budget since 1996.

He’s been delivering budgets since 2010, of course, but up till yesterday that was always as Chancellor in a Coalition government where some of the sharpest parts of his edge were taken off by the need to conciliate the Liberal Democrats. Well, yesterday that restraint, such as it was, no longer held him back, and he could be a pure Tory. And he was.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Tories is that they’re devilishly cunning. They know how to get elected. That was all on show yesterday.

George Osborne setting off to deliver the budget
Labour has been hitting the Tory party for being far too closely tied with just a tiny portion of the population, specifically the wealthiest, most privileged people. It didn’t stop them winning the election, but Tories traditionally don’t have to put up with small majorities in the House of Commons. They’re the kind of party that wins big, and they didn’t this time.

A smart way out of the Labour criticism is to reposition themselves as a party for everyone, what’s known as a one nation party. And Osborne set about doing just that yesterday.

First of all, he announced that “Britain deserves a pay rise.” That’s a phrase the Unions have been using for quite a while. 

See what he did? He’s saying you don’t need a Union. A one-nation Tory party will deliver you what you need. Brilliant.

And then, at the end of his speech, the master stroke: he announced that he was introducing a “National Living Wage.” That’s something that the Left has been calling for some time. What’s more, Osborne wants it to reach £9 an hour by 2020 – but Labour had only promised to get the minimum wage, which this national living wage will replace, to £8 an hour by then. 

Talk about wrong-footing the Opposition. They must have felt as though their clothes had been stolen from them, while they were still wearing them.

Two body blows to the other side. Absolutely magnificent. At first sight.

Looking at things more closely, one has to start wondering whether Osborne has perhaps been a little too clever for his own good. You see, “Britain deserves a pay rise” suggests you’re going to deliver one. But in fact, he announced that the public sector pay rises would be restricted to a maximum of 1% a year for the next four years, which will represent a real-terms pay cut.

What about the move the “National Living Wage”? Well, those on the minimum wage today will indeed have a higher increase than that 1%, by 2020. Sadly, however, many of these low earners also receive tax credits at the moment, and they are to be phased out. The Institute of Fiscal Studies think tank calculates that the loss of the tax credits will leave 3 million families £260 a year worse off, despite the the living wage initiative.

So several million people who’ve been told that the country deserves a pay rise, will in fact suffer a pay cut. That may come back to haunt Osborne: he’s made a promise which he doesn’t look like keeping.

What’s more, by talking about a “living wave” he’s moved that notion into the mainstream. As it happens, he isn’t in reality talking about a living wage, just about an increase to the minimum wage. The living wage is a level of pay which should allow someone to live on it without taking a second job. The tax credits Osborne’s phasing out would be part of the living wage calculation. So he won’t be delivering it – though he he has legitimised the demand.

In other words, he’s set the bar high, and doesn’t look like clearing it. Which sounds like a hostage to fortune. 

Setting expectations among voters and then disappointing them? That may not prove to have been as smart as Osborne looked yesterday. If the Opposition can rally and hit back, he’s left them a great target to aim at…