Sunday, 3 June 2018

Our Brilliant Friends - Life Under the Volcano

Lenu is serious, bookish, nerdy ... and Lila something of a femme fatale, even at the age of 18. Lila 'has eyes like a bird of prey' and embarks on a mission to bed the most eligible man in their impoverished Neapolitan neighbourhood - with ruthless success. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante has been a run away best-seller, and this is the first book in her series set in Naples.

The two girls in HBO's rendition of My Brilliant Friend
Lila is both fascinating and repellent … in her superficiality and glamour she is like a minor refugee from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita,  also set in the 1960s, and she seems to be a rare creature quite well adapted to the harsh Neapolitan post-war world, with its working class kids striving for success, wanting to ‘marry well’ … obsessed by status, by clan honour and by family loyalties.

The novel was also a reminder – to me – of how much more socially adept women are than men … how extraordinarily calibrated they are, at least in this world, to status, alliances, secrets, slights, desperate hidden loves.

In some ways My Brilliant Friend is reminiscent of Marquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its feuding families, passionate Latin grudge-bearing, and doomed romances … but Marquez focuses on the poetic grandeur rather than the status feuds of these sprawling families wrecked by machismo, so his book feels much more profound.

I have stayed in these working class areas of Naples, and this novel is a compelling glimpse of the desperation of that supremely dysfunctional city in the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius.

Those of us who like Lenu were readers and good at school, often had a friend like Lila … someone shrewd, glamorous, cunning, but unwilling to turn those native gifts into academic success.

Working class, or with parents who had no particular professional ambitions for their child, such a person helped burnish our more mundane lives – and such people are attracted to bright nerds because of our seriousness, professional aspirations, more expansive ambitions.

Perhaps this story is the tale of the working class suburbs of great European cities more generally: Kings Cross, London, where I spent ten years in my 20s and 30s was notable for its wars between clans, beatings between family members … feuds that could only be settled with shocking savagery. The Cockneys and Neapolitans have quite a bit in common – spontaneous, affectionate, quick to anger – prone to settle grudges with breath-taking violence.

Lenu on children ...

But what holds this massively best-selling book together is the narrator Lenu’s intelligence … she is prodigiously attuned to social nuance … an astute and wily observer … she is also the nerd made good and something of a Cindarella ... and that has its appeals.

In our atomised, alienated urban centres, My Brilliant Friend creates a nostalgia for cities that used once to be collections of fiercely loyal neighbourhoods – urban hamlets – where everyone knew everyone else’s business, and gossip was king.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Romancing a pig-farmer

Perhaps it was the resonance of my own parents' romance (they met in the Indian ocean on a ship leaving war-torn Europe); perhaps it was reminder of the price of heroism under fascist occupation; perhaps it was the ability of literature to keep alive empathy for the outsider in times of hatred and intolerance - but I loved the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a new film by director Mike Newell.

It's 1946 and Times of London columnist Juliet is reeling from the death of her parents in the Blitz. She's engaged to a wealthy American officer. She travels to the Channel Island of Guernsey to cover an eccentric literary society who have resisted the German occupation, but whose antics are shrouded in mystery ...
Love in war-torn Guernsey

There, she befriends a rugged Guernsey pig farmer, Dawsey, who is fostering a girl whose mother was taken to the Nazi concentration camps. Her crime? Helping the slave labourers of the German Todt Organisation. 

Dawsey is a haunted, loving step-father, and the backbone of the literary society. He is a complex man and has befriended a compassionate Wehrmacht doctor during the occupation. This doctor is the father of his step-child, so there is a Gordian knot of loyalties at the heart of the film, that defies cheap stereotyping.
The batty little literary group recite passages from Charles Lamb's book, Tales from Shakespeare and other literary works during the long nights of the occupation, and fashion pies from potato peel and other modest ingredients.

The strength of the movie lies not in the fairly predictable love story between Dawsey and Juliet, but in its clear-eyed look at the collaboration and betrayal that lay at the heart of many countries occupied by the Nazis in WW II. (Think the trial of Klaus Barbie - the Butcher of Lyon, in 1987 - and its impact on France.)

Love stories set against a backdrop of war (Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms; Michael Curtiz's movie Casablanca) have their own special pungency; the stakes are so much higher; the loyalties profoundly torn - the betrayals that much more hideous. There are aspects of the movie that are undoubtedly twee ... a strong whiff of sentimentality at times (Guardian and Observer reviewers note its affection for Northanger Abbey-style costume drama conventions) but this doesn't detract from the moving portrayal of an island torn apart by the arrival of brutal interlopers.

The Nazi occupation of Guernsey
I came out of the cinema thinking how WW II was a catastrophic blow to the shared integrity of European culture - the notion that we Europeans are united in a common vocabulary of values, music, literature - and moral sensibility.

The savagery and inhumanity that blossomed so quickly on the Continent in my parents' lifetime, is a reminder that the crust of European culture and values is only skin deep, and the forces of racism and militarism can erupt at any time.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

"Will no-one rid me of this troublesome dissident?" The Skripal case

In T.S. Eliot's great verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral, four knights come to the church of dissident Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and cut him to pieces with swords.

The play, based on the historic murder, is set in the 12th century, and the knights are freelancers, spurred on by the ambiguous words of their irritated king, Henry II, namely ...'Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?'

It's possible the Skripal poisoning case was a rogue or ‘false flag’ affair… either by freelance elements in the FSB (the Russian secret security apparatus), or by some oligarch who wanted Skripal dead … and was acting, like the four knights, in the possibly mistaken view that such an assassination would ingratiate said oligarch to Putin.

No party drug
If so, given the massive sanctions against Russia announced this week, the freezing of Putin’s overseas accounts (his oligarch proxies hold his money abroad), said oligarch’s days are numbered, because the FSB will now find and eliminate him.

I even think that there is a possibility that the Skripal attack was a CIA / FBI set-up to frame Russia, given the reluctance by Trump to implement sanctions against Russia, and Trump’s open contempt for the FBI / CIA / American intelligence services. ‘OK, if Trump won’t sanction Russia for making fools of us, see if he can ignore this geopolitical storm’.

These are Machiavellian theories, but with some credibility given the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction fiasco. The CIA have done stranger things, and they may be the only folk outside Russia capable of deploying the nerve agent Novichok effectively.

However, I still put these theories at a probability of no more than about 25%. Maximum.

The historic record; the use of a Soviet era nerve agent; the oft-stated hatred by Putin of ‘traitors’ … the policy of assassination of political opponents within Russia by Putin’s goons, including prominent critical journalists … the assassination of Litvinenko in London with polonium in 2006; all create a compelling circumstantial case for Putin being the culprit.

Case not proven (yet) on publicly available evidence, but extremely strong.

Friday, 30 March 2018

So I'm on my way to hospital, and I'm starting to laugh ...


I've had serious diarrhea for six days, and I'm doubled up in my seat, but not from the impact of my malady. I'm on the remote Tongan island of 'Eua and it's 30 degrees and 90% humidity. My ambulance driver, the lovely Seini, is weaving her way through the potholes on the road, with a majesty that seems to come naturally to 'Euan women. We're in a broken-down transit van with no windows, and mangled upholstery.

Tongan king's palace
My blood pressure is plunging through dehydration, but my spirits are rapidly rising.

On the local radio station, there is an item about the reception, in Moscow, of the new comic movie 'The Death of Stalin'. The Duma is outraged, and an international incident is in the offing.

The Kremlin accuses the UK writer / director Iannucci, of 'driving a wedge between the Russian people.' Yes, that's right, a nervy, Scottish comedy writer is threatening the very stability of the Motherland. He is unquestionably 'an enemy of the state'.

The officials at the premier in Moscow have walked out. As if relations between Russia and the West aren't at a low enough ebb anyway, after the election-hacking scandal, this new insult to the Motherland has not gone down well.

Sexy beast
I am laughing for several reasons. Firstly, according to the US intelligence services, the Russians generated ingenious fictions on a massive scale to scupper Clinton's campaign against Trump. Now the Russians have had their own defenses breached by a low-flying Scottish comedian. Next, the woman news reader, in a beautiful thick Tongan accent, is giving every last detail of the outraged Russian response.

I keep thinking: Why is this news on a remote Tongan island?

I'm also laughing with mad pleasure that someone has had the chutzpah to write a comedy about the death of the greatest tyrant the world has ever known. (Many Russians still revere him, and venerate his memory.)

I thought of the hilarious and terrifying play 'Master Class' by David Pownall, about a meeting between Stalin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, in which Stalin advises these geniuses on how to adjust their music to Soviet ideals. He sits at their piano and bashes out a couple of tunes. Unless they conform, they may be executed.

At the time of his death, Stalin was surrounded by various other tyrants - the police chief Beria, Molotov, Khrushchev ... all of whom were struggling for power. The events in this new film are based on the factual, farcical events that attended his sudden demise, with a bit of poetic license thrown in. (Fact: Stalin's cronies were too terrified to touch his corpse, so he lay in a puddle of his own urine, untouched for many hours.)

But I'm really laughing because I suddenly get the local interest.

The Tongans know a bit about capricious autocrats.

A line of Tongan kings have plundered the country's wealth and helped keep much of the population in poverty. The extent of this corruption is extraordinary (see link at bottom of this post). Beside the potholed track my ambulance is taking, people live in rusty corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors, frequented by wandering pigs.

In 2006, riots in Tonga's capital killed eight people, and struck a chill into the elite. In response, the king began to tamper with his feudal structure a little, and some 'commoners' were admitted to parliament.

King Tupou IV plus court jester Bogdonoff
Recent Tongan kings have been involved in a variety of scandals; including the employment of a court jester who ran off with the nation's super fund; the selling of Tongan passports to the highest bidders (including the Philippino dictator Marcos), and an expensive scheme to turn seawater into diesel. Yes, that's water into diesel. Forbes Magazine ranked Tonga as the third most corrupt nation on earth. The current king, hailed as a reformer, recently sacked the entire government, only to have those pesky commoners re-elect the same government.

The people who suffer, as always, are the ordinary folk.

And as the Guardian bureau chief in Moscow for four years, Luke Harding, shows in his brilliant recent book 'Collusion - How Russia helped Trump Win the White House', these are the very people who in Russia, will continue to suffer as their masters plunder the wealth of the nation.

For these kleptocrats, oligarchs and Kremlin apparatchiks to have flounced out of Ionucci's movie, is ... well, kind of funny. Even if you have serious diarrhea.

Postscript: For an account by journalist Michael J Field of some of the most bizarre incidents of royal corruption in Tonga click here 


Tuesday, 23 January 2018

A surreal, Orwellian circus

The catastrophe in America right now must lead us all to question democracy. After several thousand years of human of civilisation, the best political system we can come up with delivers us a world leader animated primarily by hatred, fear, and mendacity.

And with a very average hair-cut.

How could it have come to this?

George Orwell's novels, and their brilliant depiction of the way our rulers manipulate truth, contain a dark vision of how this slide into chaos can come about.

If you look at the evolution of political systems over the last several thousand years, starting with the Greeks, you can make a convincing argument for progress.

The Greek concept of democracy; one citizen, one vote, although founded upon a sub-class of slaves, and forbidding women from taking part, nonetheless formed the template for most political systems to come.

It formalised the notion that power should be spread among the populace, and that the citizenry should be able to regularly revoke a mandate given to its rulers. Not a bad start.

With the Magna Carta in Britain further enshrining the rights of citizens against the powerful, and the Westminster system of government side-lining monarchs (destined thereafter to largely shrivel away) humanity managed to come up with a system that seemed to be reaching a kind of humane equilibrium.

Enter imperialism, on a global scale.

It became clear in the 19th century that the next major impediment to civility, peace and justice for all, was the rivalry of nation states in competition for global colonial dominance. After two world wars, and nearly 100 million dead, humanity devised an international order and protocol - the UN - for preventing further such catastrophes.

The problem of warfare became even more pressing, with the advent of a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, capable of wiping out all of humanity, several times over.

Communism seemed to have been a historic aberration, and after the collapse of the Soviet system, its manifestly corrupt and tyrannical aspects appeared to have condemned it to a footnote to history. Putin, seizing on the historic affection among Russians for 'strong leadership' exploited the post-Soviet chaos to establish a malign populist oligarchy, which has aptly been described as a 'mafia state'.

Paradoxically, we now trust the political leader of an officially communist state, China, to behave more responsibly than we do the leader of the world's most powerful democracy.

China has radically tempered its communist theology with a practical state-sponsored capitalism that delivers increasing material rewards to consumerist hungry citizens. Again, its authoritarian past lends it to models of top-down rule, and appears for now, to be keeping most of its citizens happy, or at least pacified by increasing standards of living.

To what do we ascribe the bizarre paradox of a 'communist' state, China, being a more stable force for world peace than America?

The damning answer, in my view - is the American education system.

The incapacity of 53 million Americans to see through the subterfuge; the manipulated Facebook posts; the flagrant falsehoods being propagated on the presidential campaign trail is truly remarkable.

And it points to an abysmal failure of the American education system. Systematic, critical thinking - the capacity to see through the lies of the powerful based on a shrewd assessment of the facts available and the credibility of their sources, is the cardinal role of a schooling system in a democracy.

George Orwell wrote his classic novels 'Animal Farm', and '1984' to warn the populace against malign fictions propagated by a nation's leaders. These books were a ruler to the blackboard of democracy. Double-Think, a term from '1984', refers to the habit of autocrats to repeat a lie so often it begins to resemble a truth.

The American President and his officials (and his allies in the Kremlin) have developed this Double-Think to a whole new level, never before witnessed in a mature democracy. The spectacle of a string of senior officials exiting from the White House, while trying to square the circle of falsehoods has the appearance of a surreal, Orwellian circus.

Until an urgent diagnosis is done of the American education system, and what grievous short-comings in its priorities and curricula has lead to this stunted critical capacity in so large a proportion of its populace, we are likely to have the USA continue to lead the world's democracies catastrophically off-course.

George Orwell's novels, and their brilliant satire on the corruption of political rulers, need to be urgently re-instated at the core of Western education systems.



Sunday, 22 October 2017

Blade Runner & the pornography of violence

The Hollywood remake of the classic movie Blade Runner, which I saw last night, begins with a scene in which one replicant, the Blade Runner of the title, kills another, and messily removes his eyeball in order to provide ID for his masters. A replicant scalp.

Despite the lavish sets, the ravishing 2049 urban wastelands, the designer hologram babes in black leather ... the whole movie revolves on the armature of killing; graphic, premeditated, bloody killing, and in that sense it is very much a movie a clef for the American 21st century.

Top eye-gouger
Movie ratings website Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie 8 out of 10. I give the movie a Rotten Tomato.

To me, the ritualised violence of Hollywood movies is a symptom of artistic bankruptcy - and a deeper malaise to boot.

During my ten years in Kings Cross, London, which at the time was the nation's premier red-light and drugs hub, I saw a lot of violence, and experienced a little myself. Violence up close isn't like Hollywood's stylised pornography.

There's no beauty in it ... no discernible aesthetic; no victory for the good guys; no rapid re-mending of torn flesh by advanced self-healing replicant technology. The sterilised violence delivered to us by Hollywood's art directors and production designers is intended to boost box office; to provide a jag of adrenaline and testosterone (for the boys) regardless of the effect on the countless young minds who witness it.

It's also designed, in my opinion, to impart a predatory thrill. In Blade Runner we get to see beautiful, half-naked women being slit open like cadavers on a coroner's block.

Men rule, ok?
As if violence against women wasn't a big enough problem in every nation on earth, we continue to have the most powerful men in Hollywood depicting women (and men) like animal cadavers on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse.

Do I sound a little annoyed?

We go after the National Rifle Association for their stubborn and obdurate defence of the free availability of lethal weaponry in the US. But we rarely condemn the Hollywood moguls for peddling gratuitous imagery of violence that desensitizes our children - particularly - our young men. I have little doubt that the Las Vegas killer, Stephen Paddock, viewed many blockbusters in which macho warriors of the American Dream settled their grudges with prolonged and indiscriminate automatic weapon fire.

I have no doubt that tens of millions of young men and women around the world (including jihadis) unconsciously absorb the implicit message - violence is thrilling, beautiful, taboo ... and kind of ... cool ... y'know?

For those of us with a real and intimate relationship with violence ... soldiers returned from wars; women who have been beaten up in the home; the police ... we know a secret and harrowing truth. Violence - all premeditated violence - is a form of evil, and to present it as some kind of ravishing artistic tableau is corrupting of the soul.

Recent events in the Weinstein brothers' company have shown us one more facet of Hollywood's toxicity. It came as no surprise to me to hear the tsunami of allegations about the abuse of power at the top of the US film industry. Contempt for the common humanity of people - a kind of brutalized and blunted sensibility - radiates from many of the movies disgorged by the most powerful and uncontested myth-making engine on the planet.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

"Can you believe that such beauty exists?!"

You don't know what genuine fear is, until you perform solo with a musical instrument in front of a sizable live audience.

On Saturday night, I played part of a J.S Bach flute sonata to an audience at the Grey Lynn Community Centre in Auckland. This was my third public performance, and trust me when I tell you that it was a pretty terrifying experience. There were about 100 folk there, and it was part of a fund-raiser for the Auckland Buddhist Centre.


J.S. Bach is one of nature's true mysteries. A humble man from a family of musicians whose parents both died when he was ten ... he went on to become the greatest musician the world had ever known. His life was stitched with tragedy - ten of his children died in infancy ... and yet he created a vast body of music that transfixes with its power.

His flute sonatas are finely-wrought puzzles of intricacy. As a musician you play them in a state of awe, hoping to offer some kind of fidelity to the precision and beauty revealed there.

The flute uses both its own body and the skull of the flautist as resonating chambers ... so you find that your entire head is echoing with this sublime music.

I first started playing these sonatas long ago with my pianist father, who asked me why I chose the most difficult pieces in the baroque repertoire. 'Because they're there!' I shouted, modesty repeating the words of George Mallory when asked why he attempted Everest. We would often finish the fiendish first movement of the B Minor sonata - all 118 bars of it - a couple of bars apart, and this was accompanied by quite a bit of laughter.

Sarabande: JS Bach's A Minor flute sonata
To a fairly shy person like myself, the notion of playing this kind of music to an audience of skeptical Aucklanders kept me awake at night for some time before the event. During the actual performance, my fingers kept slipping off the keys with perspiration.

I asked myself why I did it, and I came to the surprising conclusion - surprising to me at least - that I got up in front of that audience because I found it so frightening.

But there was something else, more profound in this offering that helped me stand up there on that musical cliff edge ... something to do with the mystery of the music itself; its astonishing vitality and power after 300 years. It was chance to get up in front of a room of 100 people and exclaim in exhilaration ...

"Look! Listen!"

"Can you believe that such beauty exists!!"