Friday, 26 February 2010

Singer, Footballer, Prime Minister, Spy

Some household by the name of Cole has been dominating the British press recently. He, Ashley, makes far too much money kicking a football around; she, Cheryl, makes far too much money singing forgettable songs. It seems that their marriage has collapsed into a completely banal string of infidelities and recriminations of the kind that surround us all these days. I have no idea why this is supposed to interest me, or even why it’s news, since it seems to me the papers have been talking about it for months. That didn’t stop one of our tabloids devoting seven out of its first eight pages to the subject recently.

Meanwhile, the political pages are dominated by ‘Bullygate’, the latest manufactured scandal about Gordon Brown. Did he or didn’t he bully staff at Downing Street?

Perhaps one shouldn’t judge people one only knows through their public persona, but I can’t help feeling that Brown is not the kind of man I’d seek out for an evening at the pub: I think his mood swings and his brooding character would make him less than congenial company.

To be fair, there’s nothing to indicate that he’d be any more anxious to spend an evening with me.

Having said all that, I don’t expect the British electorate to select my drinking companions for me – apart from anything else, who knows what they might come up with? All I’d like voters to do is pick people who know how to rise to a challenge when things get rough.

They got pretty grim on Black Friday, 10 October 2008: stock markets were in free fall around the world and the international financial system was close to collapse. Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, as we quaintly call our Minister of Finance, hauled civil servants and bankers into the Treasury – the Finance Ministry – over the weekend. While Brown and Darling jetted around Europe or the States making sure solutions were adopted internationally, the guys in London worked out the rescue package that stopped the whole house of cards falling over.

It strikes me that those are the qualities we should be looking for in leaders rather than conviviality over a pint or two. And, though I don’t want to belittle bullying as a source of misery in the workplace, I actually think that kind of decisiveness actually matters a little more.

So with the press dominated by stories about tedious footballers, their disconsolate wives and the personality of the Prime Minister, it’s been almost a relief to follow the Dubai Mossad hit story. It’s like seeing a Le Carré novel coming to life, with Israeli agents flying around in small groups to Frankfurt, Rome or Zurich, converging on Dubai, tracking their prey (no doubt making heavy use of ‘tradecraft’ and leaving their ‘signatures’ in various places), carrying out the hit and then scattering around the globe again.

It isn’t just any Le Carré novel – it’s The Little Drummer Girl.

In this country, the aspect of the case that’s created the most noise has been the fact that rather a lot of these guys used British passports. We’re most upset. And the Foreign Secretary told the Israeli ambassador so. You can imagine how the Israeli state was shaken to its foundations by so tough a sanction.

The real beauty of the British passport aspect is that it too is straight out of The Little Drummer Girl. At one point, Kurtz, the chief of the Israeli operation meets Commander Picton of the British Special Branch to enlist his assistance. Having agreed to help, Picton asks him to pass on a message to Kurtz’s boss, the legendary ‘Rook’:

‘He will please to stop using our bloody passports. If other people can manage without them, so can the Rook, damn him.’

Hey, Binyamin. Read the book. Follow the advice. Stop using our bloody passports.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sport and skeletons, in or out of the closet

A couple of stories from the world of sport caught my eye this week.

One is the 'sorry' tale of Tiger Woods. Now let’s bear in mind that for his qualities as a golfer he may well be unique. At the very least, you certainly wouldn’t get out of single digits counting the players down the ages who have played to his level.

As a man fascinated by sex he’s little different from the way about 3 billion people round the world are now, recently have been or soon will be.

In other words, as a golfer you might feel that an analogy to the world of beaches would put him on a par with the greatest on the planet – Bondi, say, or Copacabana. As a man, he stands out from the crowd about as much as one of the grains of sand on those beaches.

Curious, isn’t it, that it’s his grain of sand aspect that’s obsessing the media at the moment?

The other story concerned the first British win of an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics since the year before I was born (a long, long time ago). Amy Williams won gold for her performance in the ‘Women’s Skeleton’.

I felt I just had to track down a video of the event, and let me tell you it was pretty dramatic. But not half as intriguing as the name seemed to imply.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Winter travels and travails

It is a truth often asserted, though perhaps not universally acknowledged, that private business does things much more efficiently than the public sector.

Today I put that proposition to the test. On behalf of my (private) company, I travelled to Exeter, down there in Devon, in the South West of England. Travel much further West and you fall off the edge into the sea. It meant leaving the house at 6:00 and not getting back until 6:30, and I’m not saying I was gone for half an hour.

And the goal of this process? A one-hour meeting.

A positive one. A constructive one. One that it was a real pleasure to attend. But still just a one-hour meeting.

As it happens, I travelled by train, which is the luxury form of travel these days. The car is exhausting, planes are just buses with wings. The train has a wonderful rhythmic motion to it, that calms you, that somehow feels natural. Sometimes it can lull you to sleep – and that’s the other great thing about the train: you can work, you can relax, you can even sleep. Behind the wheel of a car, all you get is stress (OK, and great radio, but it’s not enough to make up for the tension).

And the train has one massive benefit over planes: it stays on the ground. I’ve often thought that if God had meant us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us the railways.

In any case, it wasn’t really the question of productivity or efficiency that struck me today. It was that on the way home I spent a good hour or so travelling through the same kind of landscape as on the way down: not exactly bitterly cold, but far from mild; bleak in the way that winter is bleak; all under a grey sky. Then soon after we left Bristol, the country changed: suddenly everything was covered in a blanket of white. Beyond Cheltenham, we were travelling through falling snow.

It was wonderful and magical and also the fourth or fifth time – I’ve lost count, to be honest – it’s happened this winter.

What on Earth is going on? This has got to be the winter with the most snow I’ve ever seen in England. It’s probably about the coldest I remember, too.

Come on, Al Gore, I believe in you, I have faith in your message, I want to accept the inconvenient truth about global warming.

But I need to see temperatures a bit higher. And a bit less snow. Otherwise I have to confess that a certain scepticism might just begin to gnaw away at my certainties.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Sublime or silly: curious contrasts in cinema

Watched two films at the weekend.

The first fulfilled a wish I’d nurtured for over forty years. A bit sad, isn’t it? You can decide to watch a film when you’re fourteen or fifteen and finally get round to doing it when you’re getting close to sixty.

It’s like when you live in a place with a must-visit sight-seeing spot and you never go. Ten years I lived in London, and I’ve never been to the Courtauld Gallery.

The film I saw that affected me so much when I was in my teens was Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu. At the time I was still too young to have given up the illusion that I could pass myself off as tough – today I openly admit I’m just incurably sentimental. I’ll get a tear in my eye over episodes of The West Wing (remember when Toby organises a military funeral for a homeless man who died on a park bench but was a Marine Corps veteran? That one does it for me every time). Even as a teenager, though, I realised there was something special about The World of Apu and for the next couple of days bored my school friends telling them about it. Talk that helped me relive the poignancy while also working it off.

The World of Apu is the third film in the trilogy, and I promised myself back then that some day I’d see the other two. Well, on Sunday I finally watched the first, Pather Panchali.

What an extraordinary piece of work. The crew and cast were mostly unknowns, and though some went on to successful cinema careers, several never made another film. Ray financed it out of his own pocket at the outset, which meant it took three years to make – a few scenes here, a few scenes there, as he could afford them. He admits himself that the start is far from perfect – and there were times when I found it slow and unengaging. But then he learned the trick of timing and the film took off, with two moments of exquisite sharpness, and of course the extraordinary scene when the brother and sister wander through tall grass fronds in a field bordered by a railway and, for the first time, watch a train roll past. John Huston saw that scene before the film was finished and wrote home to announce the arrival of a cinematic genius.

Now another genius, I’ve frequently been told, is Quentin Tarantino. I get squeamish at the slightest tinge of horror or gore – I simply will not watch any more films about the Holocaust, and despite my unbounded admiration for Stanley Kubrick, I’ve never plucked up the courage to see The Shining or Full Metal Jacket – so given his reputation, I’ve made a point of not seeing Tarantino’s films either.

But Danielle has a colleague who told her she absolutely had to watch Kill Bill. ‘Much less gratuitously violent than Pulp Fiction, much more cleverly built’. So he lent her Volume 1. We watched it on Saturday.

Ironically, the aspect of the film that worried me most – the gore – simply turned out not to affect me at all. Why, I’ve seen worse in House M.D.: every time they plunge the blade into a patient’s throat for a tracheotomy, every time they make the first cut (neatly down the sternum) for open heart surgery, I frankly blanch. Kill Bill just gave us fountains of red water which, to me at least, felt about as close to the real effect of severing a head or a limb as fireworks are to an artillery bombardment.

At the end of the great fight scene, which had some smart choreography but very little else, there was some moaning from casualties, but at no other point do I remember anybody showing any pain from their wounds, or any distress over the loss of a friend or loved one. Why, the five-year old girl who has just watched her mother being murdered stands there looking no more than solemn, while the killer explains that ‘she really had it coming.’ I half expected the orphaned daughter to nod, sigh and go back to her dolls.

So is the genius in the clever writing? That ‘she really had it coming’ comment comes near the start and is delivered as though it was the best line in the film; sadly, by the time you get to the end you find it really was.

The story perhaps makes up for it all. But what is it? Just another revenge tale. The Count of Monte Christo builds the tension more, and even it is by no means Dumas’ best – it can’t hold a candle to The Three Musketeers.

You want a good revenge flick? See The Sting – now there’s a film that knows how to build suspense, how to keep you guessing, how to twist a plot, while at the same time creating brilliantly funny situations and delivering finely crafted dialogue full of wit. Even the horror is better handled: a distraught family, milling aimlessly around the weeping widow; the foreboding with which the character approaches the window to look out; the body spread-eagled on the paving stones below. That’s how to do violent death – make it believable, don’t spray coloured water around.

So a film I expected to frighten me or even sicken me, or otherwise perhaps entertain me, in the end just left me indifferent. It was simply insipid.

Tonight we watched the second Apu film, Aparajito. Tomorrow, we can complete the cycle and I can renew a joy from four decades ago (and then some) by watching The World of Apu again.

It’ll be like Champagne after lemonade.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Tax, tea, tolls and small government

It’s a commonplace, but no less true for all that, that there are two way of thinking of the American Revolution.

The first is the most obvious: the Americans rose in defence of fundamental human rights. It’s all about Thomas Jefferson’s thinking in those wonderful phrases of his about the equal creation of all men and the unalienable rights that flow from it.

Of course, it really was men who were treated as being created equal at the time, not women, and it was white men to boot. The Jeffersonian programme was really more of a work in progress than an achievement. A bloody civil war, the women’s suffrage movement at the start of the twentieth century and the civil rights movement in the sixties, has extended human rights far further than in Jefferson’s own days. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that, say, Michael Bloomberg is the equal of the Hispanic waiter serving him his meal, is badly in need of having a naivety gland excised.

The other way of interpreting the American Revolution is as an uprising of white middle class men who loved their guns and hated taxes. The revolutionary cry ‘No taxation without representation’ wasn’t just about representation, the concern of the democrats, but also about avoiding taxation. This all came to a head when a group dressed up as Native Americans – or, as they would have said, Indians – tipped a shipload of tea into Boston harbour.

Incidentally, to this day, if you order a cup of tea in the States, you’re likely to be served a cup of water which once was boiling and a teabag. Now one forgives that in France or Germany, coffee-drinking nations which know nothing about the need for boiling water to have tea infuse properly, but the US must once have known better. I wonder whether this seminal moment in 1773, the famous Boston Tea Party, when they committed the sacrilege of putting tea into cold water, killed their tea-making skills forever?

Just as the Jeffersonian current of the revolution has continued to this day, so the other tax-averse current still looms large. Indeed, it has taken new form in the tea party movement, consciously named after the Boston incident, and which held its first convention in Nashville last weekend.

My father used to tell an anecdote about the States which deserves to be true even if it isn’t. It seems that John F. Kennedy once held a dinner for Nobel Prize winners in the White House.

‘Never has this room seen so much intellectual power gathered together,’ he told them, ‘since Thomas Jefferson last dined here alone.’

Given that the keynote speaker at the tea party convention was Sarah Palin, we probably have a pretty neat measure of the intellectual difference between the Jeffersonian and tax-and-guns trends of the American Revolution.

Not that the two trends are incompatible. The tea party types want small government, and the great libertarian Henry Thoreau wrote words that are often, and understandably, attributed to Jefferson or even Thomas Paine: ‘That government is best which governs least’. It’s a view I share: the intrusive state that wants to know what I do in my home, on the internet, or even on the street while peacefully minding my own business, gets deeply on my nerves.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. Surely shrinking government has gone too far when things get to the pass reached in Colorado Springs, as detailed in a great news item sent me by my old friend Alasdhair Campbell.

It describes how falling tax revenues and the refusal of the citizens to pay any more, are leading to library closures, parks being left to go to seed and, if the rains fail, turn brown, while even the fire and police services are cut back.

Alasdhair is equally irritated by the proliferation of toll roads in his own home state of Texas. The truth is that you can be as opposed to taxes as you wish, and none of us actually wants to pay more taxes, but if you want the services you have to pay for them some way or another. If not through tax, then you’ll pay for them some other way, for instance in tolls, or you’ll do without them.

The two trends that inspired the Revolution are still in full force today. But just at the moment, the popularity of the tea party crowd suggests that the tax-haters are on a bit of a high. Which make the Colorado Springs and Texas toll road cases pretty topical, as cautionary tales.

The irony is that this thinking doesn’t even deliver small government. Preventing healthcare becoming public has left one in eight US citizens without cover, inside the most expensive system in the world.

And guess which government around the world costs most per head of its population?

Too obvious, is it?

PS The legacy of Jefferson, the great revolutionary, lives on in the States. In Britain, the Court of Appeal this week ordered the disclosure of information about the torture, under CIA supervision and allegedly with the complicity of British intelligence, of a British resident suspected of terrorism. The judges ordered the publication though the information came from the CIA under conditions of strict confidentiality.

The comment from Washington – and from Obama’s White House, no less? If a British court can order the publication of confidential US documents, then that puts the intelligence relationship between the two countries under strain.

Get this right: a court of law orders the publication of information about a criminal act committed by the British and US governments.

And it’s the court that’s in the wrong?

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Language: much more than words

Step on to the great avenue that opens in front of you when you start to study another language and you’re likely to have the opportunity to pop down a lot of surprising side streets. They can lead to understanding your own language better, they can even lead to understanding yourself better.

For me, it’s been curious to discover how the experience can conjure up some of my favourite passages of writing, a comfort at particularly trying moments in my protracted struggle with Japanese.

I started off in a class in which I was really doing quite well, but the teacher thought I needed to move up a level. It must have been vanity that persuaded me to accept the suggestion – it felt a bit like a promotion – but since the move keeping up has been quite a strain.

‘Not waving but drowning’ springs to mind, from the sparkling little Stevie Smith poem by that name.

It’s taking a great deal more work than I expected just to keep in touch with my significantly more competent classmates; to try to close the gap I need to work twice as hard again. Allusion number 2 – Alice and the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the looking glass:

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

Difficult though it is to keep up, I have been learning a few things. For instance, that ‘desu’, the verb ‘to be’, isn’t a verb at all.

‘Surely you knew that?’ comments my son Nicky, ‘it’s a copular. Even in English.’

It’s a key point in your life when your kids can make you feel ignorant. I passed it some years ago. I should probably be satisfied that it didn’t happen even earlier.

What Nicky means is that in many contexts ‘to be’ merely couples other words, such as a noun with an adjective or adjectival expression – ‘John is tall’, where ‘is’ has no real meaning of its own but merely links the other two words, or ‘George Bush is no longer president of the United States’, which is a blessed relief as well as another example.

Of course, sometimes ‘to be’ really is a verb with a meaning akin to ‘exist’, as in ‘I think therefore I am’.

And here’s my final literary allusion, to that firework display of wit that Tom Stoppard provides in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Rosencrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?

Guildenstern: No, no, no... Death is... not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.

Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.

Guildenstern: No, no, no – what you've been is not on boats.

It doesn’t make the brilliance any less enjoyable to understand at last the device that makes it work, the ambivalence of ‘to be’ as a copular or as a true verb.

Amazing the insights you can get from studying Japanese. And having a smart-arse son.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Lessons and laughter from Maugham, and a dose of denial

Why are we so critical of that invaluable psychological process, denial? It seems to me that it’s often the only defence against devastating self-awareness. Without denial we might have to recognise our faults and then how could we resist the pressure to try to fix them? How would we avoid all the horrors of self-improvement?

Sometimes, though, even the guard of denial fails me. For example, there are moments when I realise that a really harsh critic might regard some of the things I say in these posts as a little sententious. Of course, I retreat into denial as quickly as possible, but the insight leaves me feeling uneasy about the inclination to be self-important. It gives me a sense of affinity with others who might suffer from the affliction, and that makes it peculiarly delightful to catch them out in some authoritative statement proved false by events.

Now, I am a great fan of spy novels. Graham Greene, one of the finest novelists never to have won the Nobel prize, served in intelligence and drew on the experience in his writing, most successfully in Our Man in Havana. It set the benchmark for novels about intelligence fabricators: John le Carré, the master of spy writing, declares that he wrote The Tailor of Panama in conscious emulation of the model set by Greene.

If I say that le Carré is the master I’m really thinking of his writing from the Cold War, the conflict in which he served. The Spy who came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People as well as the masterful and semi-autobiographical A Perfect Spy aren’t just outstanding spy novels, they’re great novels of any type. So is The Little Drummer Girl which dates from the same period but deals with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, in a way that combines gripping narrative with unusually balanced insight.

Le Carré has continued to write since the Berlin Wall came down, but somehow it’s not the same: with the Cold War gone as a backdrop, he’s taken to using his novels to denounce injustice, a worthy aim, but one that gives them an unfortunate stridency.

Having admired Greene and le Carré, I was interested in tracking to its source the tradition of writers using personal experience of intelligence work in spy novels. The first I could find was Somerset Maugham, who was with British intelligence in the First World War. So I went Amazoning (I believe in the US grammar principle that ‘every noun can be verbed’) and I now have a copy of the Ashenden stories, with a preface giving a brief manifesto of Maugham’s views on writing in particular within art in general.

He tells us that the experiences he drew on had been ‘rearranged for the purposes of fiction.’ He goes on to explain that ‘fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion.’ Maugham accepts that some think this is exactly what writing should do: ‘There is a school of novelists that regard this as the proper model for fiction. If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why, fiction should be so too; for fiction should imitate life.’

He, however, argues for artistry, the process by which the writer structures fact to turn it into fiction with literary value.

If Maugham is arguing against trends which culminated in stream of consciousness type writing – in vogue at the time of the preface, published in 1928 – I have to admit that I too find that it lacks – how can I put this – the page-turning quality of, say, Greene’s The Quiet American. Take James Joyce: Portrait of the artist as a young man held me breathless; a dozen pages of Ulysses convinced me that there had to be more to life than ploughing through the rest. Even Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu eventually lost me, even though at 1500 pages I was halfway through before I realised that I really needed no further information about any of those people. These great works are jewels of our culture and it’s comforting to know they’re out there, but it’s a bit like a town’s drains: my life is doubtless enriched by their presence but I feel no need to visit them.

According to Maugham, Chekov is one of those writers who believed in simply imitating life. Though he did it ‘with mastery’, Maugham wonders whether the work will survive: ‘already it is getting a little difficult to care much what middle-class Russians were like fifty years ago.’ Similarly, in visual art, he points to Claude Lorrain whose fine sense of structure distinguishes him from the Impressionists who ‘were content to render the radiance of sunlight, the colour of shadows or the translucency of air.’ Soon after the death of Claude Monet, ‘it is strange how empty their paintings look now,’ Maugham claims, ‘when you place them beside the stately pictures of Claude.’

Chekov revivals happen every year. Monet’s water lilies decorate a thousand student rooms to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of sheets of wrapping paper. When did you last see a poster of, say, Claude’s Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba?

As opposed to some version or another of Monet’s Water Lilies?

Eventually Maugham may get the last laugh of course, when Claude knocks Monet off his pedestal, when Maugham himself returns from his relative obscurity to overtake Chekov in popularity. In the meantime, though, the laugh’s on him.

That will only add spice to my enjoyment of Ashenden, as will my appreciation of the work's artistry.

And I shall continue to resort to denial to protect myself from the suspicion that I might ever be as sententious as Maugham, or as palpably wrong.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Projecting force to protect us all

So the Americans are setting up a missile shield in the Gulf, to protect the allies of the West, including Saudi Arabia, against the threat from Iran.

I’ve been concerned for a while about a nation in the grip of fundamentalist Islam, with only scant respect for democratic process and which rides roughshod over human rights at the slightest provocation.  Its role in fostering some of the worst terrorists the world has seen makes it a particularly worrying player on the international stage.

That being said, Iran is just as bad.