Sunday, 19 March 2017

Opera: it's all Welsh to me

The promotional material for the Welsh National Opera (WNO) spring programme has turned up.

The WNO in Spring 2017
The companys staging Madame Butterfly. It seems the “much loved WNO production of Puccini’s tale of love and betrayal returns for limited performances”. I was a little disappointed. After all, they’re charging full price for the tickets, so it strikes me they could fully commit to the production. A limited performance? Count me out.

The WNO is the Welsh equivalent of the English National Opera (ENO), a fine opera company that stages its productions in English. 

Yes, you read that correctly. The statement applies to both companies. You thought the WNO might stage its performances in Welsh? Think again.

There are some 53 million people living in England. Tacked on to the northern end of the country, for now (at least until the next independence referendum), there are nearly 6 million Scots. Pretty much all the Scots speak English, or some dimly recognisable variant of it, and little else. Even within Wales, only about half a million of the 3 million people speak Welsh at all. 

It’s my belief that few even of those really speak it. They can probably pronounce Llanelli correctly, but I doubt they could give you directions in Welsh for how to get there (and why would you want them to, anyway?)

So, the WNO sings in English. And why does that matter? Anyone who answered, “so we can understand the words” can go right to the back of the class. No one understands the words in opera. That’s why they have supertitles, spelling out the words in a great banner above the stage.

And that helps? If you answered “yes”, you really aren’t doing well in this class.

Understanding the words in opera does nothing to improve comprehension. It merely replaces the question, “what are they saying?” by a still more baffling, “why are they bothering to say it?” In opera, it’s best to leave a desire for understanding at the door and just enjoy the music.

That works fine if it isn’t Wagner. Mark Twain, right about so many things, was spot on when he said that, “Wagner's music is better than it sounds.” I once went to a performance of the Ring cycle – the whole thing, four sessions, fourteen hours – and I can confirm Twain’s view.

I say “once” not just because it’s not an experience that I’ve been gasping to repeat in the intervening three or four decades, but because I was surrounded by people for whom it clearly wasn’t a joy to be indulged in only once. At the interval, they were all talking about how that year’s performance compared with last year’s (poorly, apparently) and reminiscing over great productions of the past, in some cases ten or more years previously. 

Wagner, apparently, doesn’t attract appreciation, but worship.

If you’re stuck, as I was, with appreciation, you’re in for a tough time. I spent the first couple of hours hoping for an aria to come along, and then the next twelve trying to adapt to the notion that none was going to, a sense fully confirmed when the final curtain fell.

Still. If they’d been singing in English I don’t imagine the experience would have been any less obscure for me than it was in German.

Why, I could have coped with Welsh and been no less enlightened.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

This ides of March and that one

The Ides of March, to quote Shakespeare, are come. And this year, 2061 after the murder of Julius Caesar that took place on that date – 15 March – it’s particularly apt to mark the event.

Julius Caesar, populist and autocrat
Sadly, we have indeed seen his like again.
Why? Because the assassination of Caesar was an attempt to prevent the conversion of Rome, and its growing empire, into an autocracy. The driving force towards dictatorship? Caesar, a populist who, though an aristocrat himself, had won himself a powerful reputation among the common people as a man to speak for them.

My problem is that I’ve never known who to sympathise with in that incident. There’s no doubt that Caesar was an opportunist, a narcissist and a budding tyrant. He had shown not merely his effectiveness in warfare but his ruthless cruelty, as he wiped out thousands of his defeated enemies, including women, children and the old.

Unfortunately, though the men who opposed him spoke for the Republic, it was nothing like the kind of Republic we’ve come to know and admire since the revolutions – notably in France and America – in the eighteenth century. Entry to the senate wasn’t by election but by appointment from within a wealthy elite. And even elective office was, in effect, bought by those who could win themselves the most short-term popularity with Roman voters.

Certainly, Cassius, Brutus and the rest weren’t fighting for any kind of democratic or popular government that we would recognise. They were trying to defend a system in which they represented the establishment, and which worked to protect their interests and power. It was a system rotten with corruption and principally focused on the needs of the wealthy.

Essentially, the assassination was the culmination of a battle between an autocratic Republican maverick reaching for power on the back of a populist wave, and a corrupt Republican establishment intent on defending its privileges. I can sum up my feelings in another line from Shakespeare: a plague on both your houses.

My main feeling, though, is a sinking one, at the thought that the choice is as poor today as it was 2061 years ago.

Still, today we have a better solution than assassination: we can vote for change. We just need a genuine alternative. Come on Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the United States.

And in Britain, come on you successor to Jeremy Corbyn – whoever you may be.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Arguing about black actors

There’s an entertaining transatlantic argument going on about whether it’s appropriate for black British actors to play African Americans.

Rather a lot of those actors have been working in the States. There they’ve picked up roles requiring an American accent, and have been performing them rather well. For instance, Chiwetelu Ejiofor playing the American free black sold into slavery in Twelve Years a Slave. Or David Harewood as a senior CIA executive in Homeland. Most remarkable of all, David Oyelowo playing that most iconic of figures, Martin Luther King, in Selma.

David Oyelowo in Selma
A Brit playing MLK? Horror. Heresy. Blasphemy
Among African American actors this development has, it seems, bred a degree of resentment. The Guardian quotes Samuel L. Jackson questioning whether Daniel Kaluuya was the right actor to play an African American in an interracial relationship, in Get Out.

I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that.

The suggestion is that to play the African American well, you need to have experienced his suffering. Otherwise, you might be unable to express his being adequately. However, the Guardian quotes David Harewood as claiming that:

… he and other black British performers are able “to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities – and simply play what’s on the page”.

In other words, they act.

This reminds me of the conversation Laurence Olivier reportedly had with Dustin Hoffman, when Hoffman mentioned he’d stayed up three nights to prepare for a scene of exhaustion in Marathon Man. Olivier replied, “why don’t you just try acting?”

The story is probably apocryphal – it apparently comes from Hoffman himself, and he says his claim to have stayed up three nights wasn’t true anyway – but the point is a good one. You can actually play Martin Luther King without being Martin Luther King, or American, or indeed, I suspect, even black – if you’re an actor.

Another of Jackson’s Guardian comments caught my attention. He said of Kaluuya:

Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for 100 years.

It’s quite flattering to know that, among some African Americans at least, Britain has a reputation for being open on racial matters. Indeed, the suggestion that it has been for rather a long time. It’s almost enough to give Brits a smug sense of anti-racist superiority. At least, until we remember why those black British actors go looking for good roles in the States.

They just don’t get them in Britain.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Roman Britain? Why, for pity's sake?

There’s something strange about the notion of ‘Roman Britain’. So strange as to seem nearly incomprehensible. And never more so than when I travelled home to England from Rome on Friday.

That morning I had a couple of hours free before I set off for the airport. I decided to pack my coat in my suitcase and head out to find ‘I Dolci di Nonna Vincenza’, the pastry shop my wife discovered and was seduced by when she was out there with me in February.

This meant I was out of doors in a shirt and light pullover. Pretty soon, I was regretting that I hadn’t packed away the pullover too. It was early March but I was wandering the streets in shirtsleeves with a pullover draped comfortably if not particularly stylishly over my shoulders.

At the time of Roman Britain, Rome was certainly the most prosperous city in Europe, in the running for most prosperous in the world. And the weather was doubtless as glorious as it is now. Why would anyone want to go and stand guard on the Empire’s borders in fog-bound, rain-swept Britain?

These were thoughts that invaded me once the glow of homecoming with pastries from ‘Granny Vincenza’ had faded to be replaced by the duty – a pleasurable duty but a duty nonetheless – of walking the dogs. They enjoy their walks and I’m sure they cope with the rain. They even look quite amusing when they get soaked, whereas I suspect I just look bedraggled and a bit sad. Wouldn’t it be fun if we had some of the weather here that I was enjoying in Rome?

A certain charm when wet
I couldn’t help wondering why on earth anyone left Rome to go and stand guard in the fog and rain of Hadrian’s Wall, the Trump-like structure the Empire built against the weird and dangerous barbarians who inhabited Scotland then as now.

The truth, of course, is that few of them did. I imagine the officers would mostly have been younger sons of middle-ranking families, perhaps men looking to make a name for themselves in the legions in the hope of building a career later somewhere more promising and more comfortable. Even they, though, would I suspect have drawn a short straw.

Among the rank and file and the non-commissioned officers, there might have been a few Romans. But the majority were Germans. Tribesmen desperate in the ghastly, and even wetter plains and forests of northern Germany, who had worked out there were only two ways of enriching themselves: raid the prosperous empire west of them, or go over to it in the hope of sharing some of its wealth. The ones on the wall had made the wise choice of joining an army they couldn’t beat.

The orders on the Wall were probably given in Latin. I expect they were executed in German. I’m reminded of a young black colleague in South Africa, who explained to me that as well as English, he also worked in Zulu and Xhosa, but “naturally, I know how to take instruction in Afrikaans”. It was probably like that on the wall.

Hadrian's Wall: Trump-like structure
A failed last line of defence against the scary Scots
After the Romans left Britain, the Romanised Celts who took over clearly felt they could play the same game. They brought in more Germans, mercenaries, to help them fight the wars that broke out between their little kingdoms. But unfortunately, though they saw themselves as inheritors of the grandeur of Rome (one of them was probably the prototype of ‘King Arthur’), they didn’t have the clout of Rome. At its height, Rome probably only had between 15,000 and 20,000 legionaries in Britain, but they were redoubtable troops and the real fear for, say, rebellious German auxiliaries – maybe 40,000 strong – was that the legions could quickly be reinforced from the Continent by men who would exact a terrible vengeance.

The British kings didn’t have that deterrent force. When their mercenaries decided they didn’t want to go home, but preferred to stay, grabbing themselves some of the best land without so much as a thank you, and more likely with a blow, there wasn’t much the little kings could do about it.

And before very long the Celtic tribesmen, Romanised or not, found themselves either (a) dead, (b) pushed into Wales or (c) assimilated into the new Anglo-Saxon dispensation that had taken over the land. A large portion of Southern Britain had become England.

It occurs to me that this may be the root of the xenophobia so many Englishmen continue to suffer from and which fuelled the Brexit vote. Deep in our atavistic souls we feel that we are immigrants ourselves, outsiders who overstayed our welcome and took over. Some at least fear that the same thing might happen again, as we bring in Poles and Bulgarians to run our health service, our hotels and our trains, and worry that they won’t go home. After all, there’s a terrible risk that Johnny Foreigner may prove much better at those jobs than a lot of our own people.

We know what happened when we pulled off that trick against the original Brits.

Strange, though, isn’t it? After all, if I could choose between a balmy March morning in Rome and a wind- and rain-swept one in England, I know which would seem preferable. 

Believe me, I’ve had recent experience of both.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Italy the awesome

It’s a joy to be able to do spend time in Italy.

Not just because it was where I was born and every time I turn up in Rome, it feels a little like a homecoming, even though I left when I was thirteen.

Not just because you can walk around in shirtsleeves in February and March when in England we still need coats, and waterproof coats at that.

Not just because the setting for the work is often spectacularly beautiful – having come through Venice on the way here, I can confirm that it does rather edge it over my current hometown of Luton (even if Luton has the occasional gem, all the more precious for being so rare…)

Jewels of Venice and Luton
Poor old Luton has its own. Just not at every turn...
It’s also because it provides it’s a land of smiles, and not just smiles of pleasure at the beauty or the warmth, but smiles of simple humour. And humour matters.

I’ve recently been struck by the excessive use of the word “awesome” (or rather “ahsome”) by my American colleagues. It has to be said that my bright American boss did point out to me that we’re just as bad, in England, with the word “brilliant”. I thought that was a brilliant observation.

Places like Venice are, however, literally awesome. I’m using the word “literally”, like the word “awesome”, literally. They inspire awe, and awe is good. But I can’t help feeling that humour’s even better.

The meeting in Venice wasn’t actually in the old city but in Mestre, which is on the mainland opposite. The offices we went to were in Via Mestrina, which I believe means “street in Mestre”. It may just be me, but I couldn’t help smiling about that – it strikes me that all the streets in Mestre are mestrine, so how could the naming be anything but ambiguous?

Or do I mean multibiguous?

Still, that was only a momentary amusement. The real prolonged laugh came when we travelled back to Venice (we wanted a bit of awe, and staying in Mestre would have been a little flat).

Our train was due to leave from Platform 6, but as we reached to the top of the stairs, we saw the sign turn blank. We rushed back downstairs and saw that there was a train due on Platform 3, but when we got to the top of those stairs, discovered that the sign there was blank too. Fortunately, a helpful voice was making an announcement over the PA system.

“The 17:30 train to Venice is approaching platform 9.”

Down the stairs. Back up to platform 9. Just in time for a new announcement.

“The 17:30 train to Venice, scheduled to leave from platform 9, will now leave from platform 11.”

Downstairs. Upstairs. 

The sign proudly forecast the arrival of the train at platform 11 in a few minutes. Then it went blank.

From where we were standing, we could see platform 9 and the sign on it. “17:30 Venice”. It felt slightly Orwellian: “the train is leaving from platform 9, it has always been leaving from platform 9”.

Back on platform 9 we felt we were onto a good thing at last. It was 17:28. Surely it couldn’t change again?

It didn’t. 17:30 came and went. At 17:32 the sign went blank. Exactly as though the train had come and gone. Neither my colleague nor I had any memory of that happening. Nor, I believe, did any of the other passengers milling around on the platform. We headed downstairs to consult the signs in the underground corridor. The next train was the 17:43 from platform 3. Once more, we climbed the stairs to that platform.

As we reached the top of the stairs, the helpful announcer gave us some more, and invaluable, information.

“The train now approaching platform 6 is the 17:38 for Venice.”

It really was approaching – we could see it – so it felt like a safe bet for once. But time was short. We ran down the stairs, along the corridor, and back up on to platform 6.

Which, if you’ve been following this tale carefully, you’ll remember was the first one we tried.

The train stopped. We climbed aboard a little suspiciously, worried that it might pull back out the way it had come and dump us all in Udine. But no, it carried on down the track and into Venice, bringing us once more into the joy and wonder – and awe – of canals and palaces, gondolas and bridges.

But in the meantime, we’d had an experience that reminded me of, I believe, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. If I remember, there’s a scene in that classic film where a large number of passengers shift from platform to platform in a station, in response to a series of incomprehensible announcements, only to see the train eventually arrive at the platform they started from. Can you imagine the sheer joy and amusement of reliving a classic French comedy? And our experience lasted far longer than the film scene – no director would ever dare make it that long, worried that it might seem implausible.

It's not implausible in Italy.

Venice is just ten minutes by train from Mestre. Our rushing from platform to platform had lasted at least twenty. And I reckon the exercise we’d had was more than had we walked across.

Ah, Italy, Italy. Beautiful. Warm. Friendly. 


And inimitable.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Stephen Hawking identifies another black hole, called Corbyn

The possessor of one of the most formidable minds of the world today, Stephen Hawking, has joined the growing chorus of Labour supporters calling for the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to resign.

“I regard Corbyn as a disaster,” he told the The Times newspaper, and “I think he should step down for the sake of the party”.

Stephen Hawking sees politics clearly as well as physics
Hawking is one of the leading experts on black holes. No wonder he sees the black hole into which Corbyn’s taking us. Many voters share his vision but not, unfortunately, most Labour Party members: an Election Data poll of members found that he would be re-elected leader if he had to stand again today.

They’re clearly not reading the evidence of approaching disaster the same way as the rest of us, including Hawking.

As is well known, Hawking is a long-term sufferer from Motor Neurone Disease. This led to a fine transatlantic interchange in 2009, when Republicans opposed to Obama’s healthcare reforms made the bizarre claim that the NHS would have regarded Hawking’s life as “worthless” because of his disabilities and refused to treat him. As Hawking replied, “"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS.”

That’s particularly relevant today, faced as we are by a new Conservative budget. It continues the seven years of austerity that we have already had and which have had no impact on the scale of the country’s debt, which keeps climbing to peacetime records. Another group of people has now been attacked, this time the self-employed who are being forced to pay higher national insurance contributions.

This explicitly breaches a pledge made by the Conservatives in the run up to the last election under two years ago.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has found some additional funds to back the ‘free school’ initiative, in reality a most expensive form of schooling, for which the results have been at best mixed. Education desperately needs funding but not in this unnecessary way.

Meanwhile, even the police and prison service, generally the parts of the public sector least abhorrent to the Conservatives, are creaking at the seams, unable to act effectively against smaller crime or control the prison population.

What’s most terrifying, though, and must be particularly hurtful to Hawking is that there is no attempt to address the desperate financial crisis facing the NHS. Two thirds of English hospitals are running at a deficit. Accident and Emergency services are struggling, and frequently failing, to cope. Waiting times for operations are on the climb again, having been brought down to acceptable levels – eighteen weeks maximum – by the last Labour government.

Why is this being allowed to happen? The Conservative majority is wafer thin. With a half-way effective opposition, it would have to think carefully about continuing to undermine the NHS. It would have to wonder whether it could get away with breaking its election pledges.

None of that applies if the opposition has an ineffective leader, leaving it incapable of mounting an effective resistance to its rule. Labour is reduced to meaninglessness under Corbyn, seen by too few as an alternative Prime Minister. The Conservatives could even, as has been rumoured, hold an election shortly and trounce him. Why would they do that? They may be bold enough to feel they can count on Corbyn refusing to step down, on the grounds that he’s had too short a tenure, encouraging Conservative hopes that they could thrash him again five years later.

In February, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, held a 17 point positive rating: 53% of respondents to a survey by Ipsos MORI were satisfied with her against 36% who were not. The same poll found Corbyn had a 38 point negative rating: 24% satisfied and 62% dissatisfied.

If you’re tempted to object that polls get figures wrong, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the UK they tend to overstate not understate Labour support.

The Election Data poll of Labour members meanwhile tells us that 51% of Labour members think Corbyn is doing well, against 47% who think he’s doing badly.

It feels to me as though the gulf between voters and Labour Party members is as wide as I’ve ever seen it. No wonder people like Stephen Hawking feel things are heading in a catastrophic direction.

Sometimes I have a nightmarish vision in which backing for Corbyn continues to fall until there are only 300,000 supporters left. Sadly, they are precisely the 300,000 Corbyn supporters who dominate the Party and keep him in office. Giving the Conservatives all the encouragement they need to break their pledges and decimate public services vital to us.

The police. The prison service. Education.

Above all the jewel in the crown, the service that matters so much to Hawking, the National Health Service.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Familiarity breeds belief

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

The words are Daniel Kahneman’s from his Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. Both a young friend of mine and one of my sons had repeatedly urged me to read this excellent book, but though I started it twice, somehow on each occasion I let other things take over and gave up before I’d got far.

Now, however, I’m making good progress and delighted by the insights it provides me, not least the sentiment I’ve just quoted.

Daniel Kahneman.
A Nobel-prize winner I should have paid attention to earlier
There’s an old principle that I’ve always believed, that the truth is often the best thing to tell, if only because it’s the version of events you know best so you’re less likely to get it wrong and end up contradicting yourself. The truth is easy because it’s familiar. It took Kahneman to point out the converse: if it’s familiar, there’s a serious risk you’ll take it for the truth whether it is or isn’t. As he points out, you don’t even have to repeat the entire statement to convince someone of a falsehood.

People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144°” (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true.

We all know that mechanism from within ourselves. Someone tells us a piece of news, and if our first reaction is, “I’ve heard that” then not far behind will be the notion, “it must be true”. If we reflect on the information more carefully – the slow thinking, or “System 2”, of Kahneman’s analysis – we may well reject it, but our first reaction is to believe what we’ve already heard. And how many people go to that analytic phase? As Kahneman points out, System 1, the intuitive reaction is easy; System 2 is effortful and difficult.

Incidentally, I’m making no claim to superiority here: these are statements about all of us – I know that System 2 thinking is as laborious for me as for anyone, and Im as inclined as everyone else to go with System 1 gut feel if possible.

So, say it often enough, and a proportion of the US electorate will believe that Barack Obama was born outside the United States. The evidence is strongly against that belief, but analysis of evidence is a System 2 activity. Even less considered is the seldom-mentioned view that it’s irrelevant anyway: the US Constitution doesn’t require candidates for the presidency to be born in the States, only to be born American. So John McCain could run, though he was born in the Panama Canal zone, and George Romney (father of Mitt) could be a candidate too, in 1968, despite being born in Mexico.

Again, absorbing that information requires System 2 behaviour.

Now consider the Fox News announcement that the attacker at the Quebec Mosque was himself a Muslim. The suggestion was that the six worshippers killed and the nineteen wounded had been targeted by a Muslim terrorist.

The story was untrue. The killer was a Canadian known to the police for his extreme right-wing views. Fox eventually admitted as much and deleted the item. By then, though, it had spread like wildfire across social media.

Would you be prepared to bet that this false story, made familiar by repetition, is now disbelieved by everyone?

Trump, whose favourite news channel is Fox, is emerging as a master of this kind of disinformation. Faced with the refusal of the scandal which may, in time, sink him – his campaign’s contacts with Russia, a story that feels like a new Watergate – he has hit back by accusing Barack Obama of having wiretapped Trump tower. 

Repeatedly hit back.

Trump has offered no evidence for his claim. Indeed, despite having decried unsourced stories himself, he has given no source for it. But evidence and awareness of hypocrisy are System 2 activities.

I don’t know what will come of the accusations. There have been some authoritative denials already but someone may emerge with some supporting information. It doesn’t matter. The story’s out there. It’s being repeated. It’ll become familiar. Many will see it as true. Not just about Obama, either: this is part of a flow of apparent information which will ultimately leave many with the feeling that any opponent of Trump’s is devious or even evil.

The converse also applies. Trump keeps telling us how much he’s achieved and how well his administration is running. In reality, there have been no achievements and the administration is chaotic. Again, it doesn’t matter. His claims will be picked up. They’ll become familiar. They’ll be believed.

There’s not much that’s funny about the post-truth age. But at least we can be grateful to Daniel Kanehman for exposing the mechanisms by which it works.