Review: “Skyfall” starring Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem

February 20, 2013


I thought that James Bond had turned a page. Both of Daniel Craig’s initial outings in the role were markedly different from the blend of high-tech silliness and misogyny which characterised the previous episodes: his was a James Bond that could genuinely fall in love, get hurt (indeed nearly die), and was kept in check by a formidable matriarch (Judi Dench). I hoped that “Skyfall” would continue this progress; I looked forward to James Bond becoming a more three dimensional character. I relished the prospect of something which had hitherto been ridiculous becoming something interesting, as occurred when “Batman” was revamped. When a “Skyfall” DVD landed on my doorstep, I hastened to watch it.

My first impressions were positive: we see Craig arriving too late to prevent a fellow agent being fatally wounded. A touch of humanity is applied when Bond ignores his superior’s urging to chase after the perpetrator in order to administer some rudimentary first aid. After finding that his efforts are in vain, he’s off again in hot pursuit and is shot during the chase. Following this, Bond disappears.

After this, we are provided with another interesting plot element: we are shown Bond’s retirement plan, namely to feign death and retreat to an anonymous island in the tropics. This is not some winsome paradise, however: he appears bored and listless, and he spends his evenings playing drinking games with a scorpion on his wrist poised to sting him.

Yet another positive becomes apparent after his return to duty: entropy is a major theme. Bond is no longer as physically fit, nor as good a marksman, nor as psychologically prepared for duty as he once was. We see him undergo a series of tests, after which he collapses, exhausted. He stands before a mirror and picks out bits of shrapnel from an old wound. The unflappable, almost superhuman agent is shown to be frail and possessing altogether human weaknesses which are accumulating over time. I wondered if this plot point was directly inspired by the last Batman film, in which the hero was simply too old and broken in body and spirit to carry on as he had previously. MI6’s mission is called into question as well: politicians ask if it’s an anachronism, particularly since a ghastly security breach has led to several prominent agents being killed.

Late in the narrative, we learn more about Bond’s past: it’s revealed he was an orphan, which may explain the contradiction between his general emotional detachment and his unusual devotion to Judi Dench’s M. She perhaps represents the parental influence that Bond lacked; otherwise, humanity offers limited opportunity for him to feel sentiment. We also discover that M prefers to select orphans as agents; this hints at pathological characteristics of her own. Allusions are made to agents operating in the shadows: this suggests that such operatives are shadow people, cut off from having much in the way of roots. I am not well versed in the world of espionage, nevertheless, this idea has resonance.

The film is short on wacky devices. Ben Whishaw has expertly taken up the mantle as Q; he quietly but cleverly derides the idea of exploding pens and other such bric-a-brac. He supplies Bond with nothing more outrageous than a gun that is coded to his hand print and an emergency radio. Q also suggests to Bond that he could do more damage with his laptop, wearing his pyjamas and with a cup of Earl Grey tea in hand than Bond could ever do out in the field with his gun; anyone involved with technology will probably be unable to suppress a smile at that remark.

Finally, it was good to see Britain as the central location for a Bond film: this was an atypical approach and should be applauded, as it has hitherto seemed that Bond simply couldn’t wait to get away from the UK the moment the opening credits finished. Furthermore, while the film is London-centric, it does not take place exclusively in London: we are also taken to the Highlands, albeit it its majesty is shown to be rather bleak.

Javier Bardem in SkyfallAll these positives, however, cannot fully mask the film’s problems. Firstly, the antagonism at the heart of the story is more than somewhat ludicrous: MI6 is threatened by a lone criminal (and his hired cronies) who is hell bent destroying the agency and M in particular. Javier Bardem, playing the villain, looks more than mildly preposterous with blonde hair; he is also shown to be a typical Bond grotesque, complete with a prosthetic device that reminded me of Moonraker’s “Jaws”. His motives are rather facile from a plot perspective: he was once a British agent, later handed over by M to the Chinese as part of a deal. He intends to avenge this betrayal.

Bardem is in control of events in a manner which seems unbearably unlikely: for example, accompanied by only two other gunmen, albeit all dressed in police uniforms, he somehow manages to defeat the entire security apparatus around the Houses of Parliament. He can hack into the most complex systems with ease; furthermore, somehow he has amassed a fortune which has enabled him to afford an army of mercenaries willing to fight and die for the sake of his personal vendetta. He even launches into a typical Bond villain monologue at one juncture, detailing how rats can be made to eat each other. I am certain Bardem enjoyed playing such an over the top character; it was the most “carpet chewing” performance I’d seen this side of Al Pacino’s Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate”. However, the film’s essential grip on some semblance of reality ended the moment he appeared.

Furthermore, though I was initially cheered by the sight of James Bond’s old Aston Martin DB5 (which he utilises as an escape vehicle) this was purely due to my liking of that particular car’s design. I realised later that Craig revving up its engine was a turning point: after this, it seemed as if the old format for Bond films reasserted itself with a flourish. The Aston Martin still retained its old ejector seat, a hangover from “Goldfinger”; Bond shows it off to M. A preposterous gun battle happens in an unlikely location. Bond coughs a bit rather than dies of smoke inhalation after a sizeable explosion. By the end of the film, “M” has returned to the wood panelled office of old, eschewing more modern digs; just outside it, Miss Moneypenny has made a return as M’s assistant, reprising her classic role as a metaphorical used handkerchief full of the sputum of sexist innuendo. As it was with Lois Maxwell and Sean Connery, it is unlikely the relationship will ever be fully consummated or explored. “Bond will be back”, the end credits promised. The old Bond, I sadly concluded, had indeed returned.

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An Ex-Catholic’s Guide to the Papal Succession

February 19, 2013

Catholic Art Praying HandsI was once a Catholic; I went to a Catholic school. I recall receiving my first Holy Communion on a bright Spring morning; all the children taking part were obliged to have a banner made by their families proclaiming their love and support. My Swedish grandmother, though she was Lutheran, made my banner. It read:

“God made us a family. We love one another. We forgive one another.”

This faded tapestry still hangs in my bedroom in my parents’ home, a reminder of love that lingers despite the passing of years and of people.

I recall the kind people who worked at my school; there was an aged nun named Sister Jeanne d’Arc who taught me how to play the piano. She was firm but not strict; I believe much of my love of music came from my awkward fingers plonking out hesitant melodies on old ivory keys in her musty practice room.

I remember the Catholic Church I attended when I lived in London. It was a rare place: it was a venue where all socio-economic groups mingled. The middle class, the unemployed, the native born and new arrivals all gathered together there to pray. Father Godfrey, Father Michael, Father Tony, Father Norbert – all were gentle and generous men who cared deeply about their flock. The church itself was a Victorian neo-Gothic structure but not outrageously ornate; after a time, the parish received some money for a much needed refurbishment. An aesthetically pleasing lick of paint was daubed on its 19th century beauty. My parents renewed their wedding vows there not long after the work was completed: I remember the flickering candles, the freshly clean Victorian tile beneath their feet, the statues of saints all the brighter for their exquisite restoration.

My attachment was not just sentimental. Catholic teachings contain a number of positive social doctrines. For example, Pope Leo XIII wrote in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum about the need for the equitable treatment of labour and said that the State had an obligation to look after the poor. The free market, Rerum Novarum states, is not everything: this sounds refreshing to modern ears, which are weary of the pablum from bankers and politicians which drones otherwise. Rerum Novarum is a moral document that every government, regardless of political complexion, should study and consider.

Given my history, it was with considerable reluctance that I left Roman Catholicism behind. Despite the warmth, the familiarity and the memories that I had built up within the Mother Church’s confines, I could not ignore its treatment of women, homosexuals and the way that it covered up its scandals, particularly the abuse of children in its care. I sought refuge and found some solace in the Church of England and its solid grip on moderation: although it has its problems, and its struggles for fair treatment are not nearly over, at least there is some passable resolution to these questions that can be seen in the middle distance. Some parts of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church in the United States, have made great progress.

In contrast, the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger to succeed Pope John Paul II plunged Catholicism into night. There was always an element of murk and mystery which surrounded the Vatican, things hidden behind clouds of incense; “The Godfather 3” was a subpar film but nevertheless its portrayal of intrigue, scandal and even murder within the Church rang true. During the Renaissance, scions of the Borgia family became popes, so did the Medici: both houses were less than ethically salubrious. The Vatican, then as now, is a surpassing expression of the idea that only God is perfect. Yet Ratzinger, as Benedict XVI, did not throw open the doors, nor did he let sunshine penetrate its darkened corridors. If anything, his detached, somewhat professorial manner only made the gloom deepen. Pope John Paul II was credited with witty sayings such as “Stupidity is also a gift from God, but it mustn’t be misused”, whereas his successor was notable for boneheadedly driving a wedge between the Catholic and Muslim communities by quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus in a less than judicious way.

Tu Es Petrus - VaticanPerhaps thanks in part to Benedict’s reactionary temperament, the Vatican is still one of the few places in which the past not only lives, it’s nearly as tangible as the present. The unearthing of deceased Popes began the moment that Benedict XVI announced his retirement: it was pointed out he was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, which was done to heal a schism in the church. Some have qualified this statement by saying Benedict is the first Pope to quit voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294. There is an additional argument which could be made: there was a period in which there were several Popes all vying for recognition. One of them, Felix V, gave up his claim in 1449 and was later made a cardinal; this act brought the period of multiple popes to an end. One would think that with this track record that there would be little dispute that the Pope can quit: as is apparent, for a time they were abdicating left, right and centre. As with anything else associated with the Catholic Church, this is not the case. I have visited St. Peter’s Basilica, and inscribed on the inside of its main dome are Christ’s words to Peter: “Tu es Petrus”. This translates as “Thou art Peter”: as any Catholic schoolboy can tell you, Peter means “rock”. This is followed by Jesus’ addendum, “et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum”, which means “And upon this rock I shall build My Church and I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” These words represent authority: the Popes are referred to as Peter’s direct heirs. The supposed “keys to Kingdom of Heaven” are part of the Papal seal. Some Catholics no doubt argue or at least feel that such an obligation cannot be simply cast aside. But the Pope is also supposedly infallible on matters of doctrine “concerning faith or morals”, or has been since the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). But in the end, the arguments are for nought: Benedict will leave at the end of the month. There will be a conclave of the College of Cardinals, a cloistered event which in the era of “Big Brother” should likely be televised and narrated by someone from Newcastle until they’re ready to proclaim “Habemus Papam”. That’s that.

Or is it? After all, Benedict will be living in a refurbished apartment in the Vatican; he will be a neighbour to the next Pope. It is entirely possible that while he lives, he will be seen as the “true pope” by people who oppose his successor’s policies, particularly if those are out of kilter with a traditionalist point of view. To be fair to Benedict, he has said he’d like to spend the remainder of his life in prayer; prayers, however, can be heard by others than to whom they are directed. Is this interlude a break with Papal history or merely a latter day repeat of the period in which there were several Popes at once? Given this potential handicap, could there be a charismatic liberal Pope and a period of reform in which openness and transparency become, if one will pardon the pun, cardinal virtues?

Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless it does matter: while the Pope is no longer the arbiter of Christendom, and he can’t stand at the gates of Rome like Leo the First and command Attila the Hun to leave the city be, he still can influence the priorities for over a billion worshippers. He can speak about moral and social issues in a way which few can; there could and should be another Rerum Novarum for the Twitter age. He has the chance to sustain and nurture the institutions which provide a beneficent upbringing like mine. He has the opportunity to extend Jesus’ dictum of “Love one another as I have loved you” to whole segments of humanity that have been hitherto shunned or misunderstood by the Church, and by so doing thus remove the necessity for those who love justice as well as God to leave its embrace. He can be a true disciple; he can also lead. Time will tell.

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Four More Years

January 22, 2013

A Tea Party Protestors SignNot every member of my family supports the President. Some are aghast at the idea of ever watching MSNBC. My mother believes that previous attempts I’ve made to obtain employment in the United States were de-railed by the economic policies of the man she calls “The Bamster”. My father opposes what he refers to as the President’s “European Social Democratic” ideas. However, his denunciations are relatively mild, and sometimes his criticisms are valid: for example, he doesn’t understand why the President set aside the recommendations of the Simpson Bowles Commission to reduce the deficit. In contrast, most of the invective I’ve heard is generally much more extreme and nonsensical. Mother Jones recently published a chart detailing all the prevailing conspiracy theories surrounding President Obama: the accusations range from him being Muslim, to secretly homosexual, to openly Communist. Never mind that many of these allegations are contradictory, the theories solely exist to prove the President’s unrelenting malevolence.

While the aspersions cast on the President are often irrational, there is a rationale behind them: the concept of a “paradigm shift” has been worn out by political science scholars, but it is fair to say that President Obama represents a rupture. The certainties of an older America, more reflective of Norman Rockwell prints than the nation’s actual state of mind in ages past, are disappearing: America is becoming more ethnically diverse, its position as a world leader has become increasingly challenged, and it is becoming obvious that supposedly “socialist” Europeans or Canadians don’t necessarily live more poorly than Americans do. Certainly, if you’ve made it in America, then you get more jouissance out of that achievement than you might elsewhere. But is the average American that far ahead of the average Australian, Canadian or German? Or do the latter have advantages that would be welcomed by most Americans? President Obama apparently thinks so. But this isn’t the American way, or at least, what has hitherto been perceived to be the American way. Some ask: who is this liberal elitist who casts his eyes across the ocean and wants to incorporate the ideas arising from other lands; in the process of assimilating the experiences of elsewhere, will he undo that which makes America unique? What they don’t ask is if some of what makes America exceptional, such as its lack of gun control laws or a comprehensive health system, are not things of which one should be proud.

My other half has American relatives. Her uncle suggested we watch a documentary about President Obama which had been put together by Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer. We saw, or rather, endured it. Its primary thesis is as follows: the consistent thread in Obama’s thinking is “anti-colonialism”. After all, Obama’s father, a Kenyan whose life chances were constrained by the confines of British rule, held strong anti-colonial views; according to D’Souza, Obama had apparently set himself the task of fulfilling his father’s vision. What Obama inherited from his dad was supposedly re-enforced by an education that included mentoring by the late Frank Marshall Davis, a poet and journalist. It’s alleged that Davis was a member of the Communist Party at one point in his life: he certainly was a man of the left. He worked with trade unions and thought “race”, per se, was more a social than a biological construct and thus racism was an immoral fiction which should be eliminated. Davis apparently once said of his activism between 1935 and 1948: “I worked with all kinds of groups. I made no distinction between those labeled Communist, Socialist or merely liberal. My sole criterion was this: Are you with me in my determination to wipe out white supremacy?”

Stalin Time Man of the Year 1942The Thirties and early Forties were also a period in which many people thought that the Soviet Union had somehow avoided the ravages of the Great Depression without resorting to Fascism and its brutal necessities of militarism and racism. The Soviets’ reputation was further enhanced by the bravery and sacrifices made by the Russian people during World War II; Churchill once noted in a meeting with Stalin that the British public had become “pinker”. Stalin replied that this was a “sign of good health”. The United States was not immune: Stalin was made Time Magazine’s man of the year for 1942, despite the fact that he was a brutal tyrant who terrorised and murdered his people in numbers that far exceeded those which resulted from Hitler’s atrocities. The point is, Marshall Davis was swimming along in a broader current. By being on the conspicuous Left in the Thirties and Forties, in particular by working with trade unions, he opened himself up to the allegation of being a “Communist” henceforth and forevermore. Never mind that a change of heart seems to be a feature of many figures on the right, such as Ronald Reagan, who was once a New Deal Democrat, and David Horowitz, who described himself as a “Red Diaper Baby”: if you once associated with Communists and you didn’t fully exit the Left, in the D’Souzan world view, you’re still a Communist regardless of any sign that you have mellowed. And furthermore, your Communism also touches the lives of everyone around you, and influences young people to become Marxists as well.

Of course, most reasonable people would concede the process of mentoring and maturing is not like a viral transmission, but we are not contending with rational perspectives. D’Souza also embroidered his “anti-colonial” thesis by referring to Obama’s supposed decision to send a bust of Winston Churchill back to Britain; it had hitherto sat in the Oval Office. As it turns out, there were two busts of Winston Churchill in the White House, one of which was returned to the British Embassy in Washington as a matter of course after President Bush’s term expired. But even if it had been a deliberate choice on Obama’s part not to keep both, it’s too glib to suggest that this move was merely due to “anti-colonialism”; it’s just as plausible to say that a key part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 was his desire to break with the President Bush’s warlike policies. While Winston Churchill represented the bulldog spirit of Britain during World War II, he was less talented as a peacetime leader; furthermore, Churchill’s visage could suggest the psychology of a nation under siege. Did Obama want to send messages to leaders meeting him at the White House that he still saw America as being combative? Or rather, did he want to ensure that conciliation was his theme? It is reasonable to say that this was an unfortunate oversight and a public relations mistake: it would have been much more adroit if the President had asked for a bust of William Wilberforce, the man who fought against the slave trade, in Churchill’s place. Nevertheless, the motivations behind this incident may have had nothing to do with feelings about colonialism: we just don’t know. It’s arrogant to presume that we do, and turning it into an accusation smacks of paranoia.

D’Souza’s final innuendo is that Obama is deliberately bankrupting the United States. Beggaring America will bring it to the level of Third World countries; this, D’Souza states, is necessary in order to achieve equality and smash colonialism. There is indeed a debt problem, and the deficits have been mounting. However, to suggest that President Obama has a deliberate plan to crash America into the buffers ignores the separation of powers and checks and balances: he could not do it unless Congress went along with him. This idea also suggests that there aren’t enough patriotic Americans within the Democratic Party to prevent such a figure leading them, nor are there sufficient numbers to constrain him. In other words, this is a patently absurd suggestion; it also ignores the fact that the last time the budget was in surplus was under Bill Clinton, a Democratic president. This thesis also conveniently forgets that the Republican House of Representatives simply will not allow taxes to rise to match outgoings. Furthermore, when the Republicans last controlled Congress and the White House, deficits were not brought under control, they exploded. After the financial crisis hit, President Obama was obliged (in some cases by his predecessor) to support banks and major companies: fortunately, the government is now in a position to divest itself of General Motors shares and AIG recently repaid their loan. Obama also had to grapple with another problem: in order for the economy to grow, demand had to come from somewhere. This led to messy, often unfocused spending on programmes of limited utility, rather than emulation of purposeful schemes like the Tennessee Valley Authority as under the New Deal or National Broadband in modern Australia. The same churning, sludgy machinery which hampers American government also produced health care legislation which does more good than harm, but nevertheless, contains kickbacks and other elements that a body truly focused on the common good would not approve. Never mind, D’Souza says, what seems to be gross dysfunction and beyond the ability of one man to fully manipulate or manage, is actually the brilliant execution of a deliberate plan.

The film is somewhat out of date: D’Souza concluded by stating that should Obama be re-elected America in 2016 would be very different from the one we know today. Certainly: but one of America’s strengths is that it is based on a dynamic rather than fixed idea. As the President has reminded us, the Constitution opens by stating, “We the People of the United States, in order to create a more perfect Union”. The key words are “more perfect”: pristine government wasn’t achieved when the document was enacted, rather the Constitution spliced into the nation’s DNA a desire and a process to reach towards ever better. Paralysis for such a society represents its death: as it lives, naturally, it will evolve.

All in all, D’Souza presented a mixture of fantasies and falsehoods which deserves little but derision. But the problem is that D’Souza’s ideas represent a credo for many of President Obama’s antagonists: rather like teenage romantic love, this is a perspective which withstands the assault of reason. When President Obama took two Bibles (one belonging to Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King) in his hand, swore the oath, spoke the words of his stirring Inaugural Address and then stepped off the podium, he must have had a thought stirring in the recesses of his mind that would have to wrestle with this for four more years. I don’t envy him: whatever he achieves will be done against fierce, visceral opposition. If he triumphs to the good of America and world, he will have earned his place in the pantheon of great Presidents.

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Arrogant Whites, Arrogant Rebels

January 15, 2013

Last year, I saw a film entitled “White Material” which featured Isabelle Huppert and Christophe Lambert. The plot focused on the life and fate of a family of white French settlers in an unnamed African country: the country in question is being overrun by rebels. The insurgent army bears a chilling resemblance to the “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda: most of the soldiers are brutalised children. One of the first scenes shows a French army helicopter hovering over Huppert; a solider shouts through a megaphone and pleads with her to get her family out. She dismisses this, her inner monologue refers to the French soldiers as “arrogant whites” despite the fact that Huppert’s character also visibly lacks melanin. She apparently loves her life in Africa, as evidenced by a reckless motorcycle ride amidst the bush.


Her passion is also an obsession. Huppert’s character is absolutely determined to stick it out: she has a ramshackle coffee plantation to maintain, and nothing, not insurgents, not her teenage son being assaulted and robbed by rebel soldiers, not threats of brutality nor the imposition of violence, indeed, not her plantation being burned to the ground, will make her move on. In the end, she is left with nothing; by this point, the viewer is left without much sympathy as it was her stubbornness and wilful ignorance that made it impossible for her family or any portion of her property to be spared destruction. Africa’s red earth and the legacy of terror implanted by the European empires have swallowed her entire: one can damn the character’s apparent stupidity, but perhaps the viewer is meant to linger over Huppert’s initial monologue. “Arrogant whites” somehow thought they could tread upon someone else’s soil, master it, bend it to their will; in the end, the effort is nothing but a blood-soaked waste.

Jean-Bédel BokassaI couldn’t help but think of this film when I heard about France’s intervention in Mali. France is the only European power that presently maintains bases in Africa: they simply did not get the message, as eloquently expressed in Harold MacMillan’s “Wind of Change” speech in 1960, that the presence of European powers in Africa was no longer wanted nor desirable. Not only does the French military remain, France also provides its former colonies with a currency, the CFA Franc, and regularly involves itself in African politics. Sometimes this is positive: in 1979, the French deposed Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the dictator who ruled the Central African Republic. He was so wildly over the top in his pretensions that in 1976 he turned his Republic into a grotesque Empire and had himself crowned Emperor. Among the crimes against humanity that he is supposed to have committed, he turned cannibal. This form of self-indulgence was perversely apropos given how he had otherwise swallowed the country’s wherewithal; a minister who objected to Bokassa’s extravagance and tried to instigate a rebellion, Alexandre Banza, was apparently slashed by the dictator with a razor in front of the other members of the cabinet. Bokassa’s guards then beat Banza until his back was broken and shot him on the streets of the capital, Bangui. Le Monde said this murder was “so revolting that it still makes one’s flesh creep”. Such behaviour ensured no one objected when Bokassa was deposed.

Mali’s situation is quite different. However, it is relatively easy to see why the French would want to involve themselves: the extreme Islamist ideology which inspires the rebels is out of kilter with Mali’s prevailing culture. The current government, while no beacon of liberty, at least co-operates somewhat with international institutions. Furthermore, it wouldn’t do for France to allow an “African Afghanistan” to develop in a region it considers part of its sphere of influence. So in go the French troops, along with the air force and additional soldiers from Burkina Faso, Niger and elsewhere, in an attempt to secure the capital and beat back the rebels. One wonders if the insurgents look at the sky, see the Rafale fighter jets coming to rain down destruction on their positions and say, “arrogant whites”.

François HollandeThere are good reasons to believe that this intervention will fail. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has said that “Operation Serval” will continue as long as necessary: apparently President Hollande is determined to “eradicate the terrorists”. As America’s decade in Afghanistan has illustrated, such “eradication” is difficult to achieve. One can think that progress is being made only to find that the insurgents are suddenly re-vivified. Mali resembles Afghanistan in another respect: its government lacks popular support. The Malian state is rightly perceived as being run by criminals; it’s only there due to a coup d’etat. A quick look at the Heritage Foundation’s “Index of Economic Freedom” illustrates the country’s main problems: Mali ranks in 111th place, and as the Foundation states, its “judicial system is considered notoriously inefficient and corrupted by bribery and influence-peddling.” According to the United Nations, Mali is ranked 175th on the Human Development Index: this puts it below notorious laggards like Haiti, Mauritania and Sudan.

The Malians are justified in wondering how such a miserable situation came about. Furthermore, they are right to ask from whom did they acquire their institutions. Whose laws did they (at least initially) copy? Whose style of administration did they emulate? Who still dominates their economy, including the provision of their currency? Which nation continues to make their presence felt in their affairs? This same country has now returned to prop up a government which has comprehensively failed its people. The Islamists are not in step with most of Malian opinion and represent an ethnic as well as religious divide in Malian society: however at least they arose from its soil. They may be malignant; but at least they are not as alien.

The French will make mistakes in the course of their operations: it’s impossible for even the most precise bomb to discern between civilian and foe. France 24 may not choose to run the images of Malians mourning their dead. Nevertheless, one can imagine the pictures of makeshift coffins carried to cemeteries, the tears of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters streaming down care worn faces and lamentations bemoaning the cruelty of fate and begging for God’s mercy: this will be remembered, provoking sorrow in some, anger in others. If and when the body count mounts, so will the sadness and rage accumulate, potentially leading to a final scene much like that in “White Material” in which a French Army helicopter gathers the few French citizens that remain before beating a hasty retreat.

The collapse of the European empires provided a valuable lesson: popular consent provides the only means for any government, whether alien or not, to endure. Consent is fleeting if it takes the form of mere acquiescence to force; unless a state is just and seen to be just, it will eventually fall, taking all the grand monuments to its egotism and power down with it. Despite Bokassa’s use of terror, which kept both citizens and ministers cowed for a time, his eagle fell from its Central African perch and shattered. It probably would have done so eventually without intervention; the French may have succeeded in 1979 because they merely accelerated the process.

The French and their allies may get the Malians to bow down to their current corrupt regime under threat of violence or even out of fear of the rebels; alternatively, the rebels may overwhelm the country and frighten their fellow citizens into obedience with a spectacle of brutal street justice carried out in the name of Sharia. Neither scenario offers the Malian people stability or prosperity: arrogant whites and arrogant rebels will only make a nation, whose suffering should be a stain on the conscience of the world, bleed even more.

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At the Opera

December 31, 2012

Metropolitan Opera - InteriorAt the end, there will be a beginning. New Year’s Eve heralds the premiere of a new production of Donizetti’s largely forgotten work, “Maria Stuarda” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The lead role of Mary, Queen of Scots will be performed by the well known mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato. I can imagine what it will be like: the vast auditorium in Lincoln Centre will darken, the crystal chandeliers will rise as their light diminishes. The transfixed audience will be a varied bunch: their attire will range from jeans to black tie. Perhaps on a night as auspicious as New Years Eve and a premiere, those in formal dress will be in greater numbers than usual.

Once the light fades, the orange text on 3,000 miniature LED screens embedded in the seat backs will read “Act I”. The conductor will enter the orchestra pit and take a brief bow as the audience applauds. He will turn to his colleagues and then raise his baton. The music will begin. After the overture, Ms. DiDonato’s voice will augment the instruments. Her recent album, entitled “Drama Queens”, showed how impressive she can be. In particular, her performance of Giacomelli’s aria “Sposa, son disprezzata” from the opera “Merope” was stunning. No doubt she will rise to this occasion with something just as splendid.

Joyce DiDonato, Giacomelli, Merope, "Sposa, son disprezzata"

But the opera is so much more than just the music; I was privileged to get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes a few days before Christmas.

My parents go quite often, and their continued patronage does confer certain privileges. They had mentioned the possibility that I could go backstage prior to the holidays; as I’m an aficionado of classical music, I was excited by the prospect. My parents made the arrangements.

My other half and I followed a familiar route to get there from my parents’ suburban home; we took the train into Manhattan. The station was blasted by winter gusts, there was a hint of icy damp in the air which suggested snow might be on the way. I smiled; I recalled similar scenes from my youth when my father and I would wait prior to embarking on an adventure. One time, we went into Manhattan to have dinner and see an ice hockey match between the New York Islanders (my team) and their arch rivals the New York Rangers. I ate more steak than I thought possible; the Islanders won, my father had to calm me down lest we were roughed up by enraged Ranger fans. We made a hasty escape via Penn Station. Most importantly, my father and I implanted memories which we discuss more than thirty years after the fact.

My sense of nostalgia was heightened when the train finally arrived. It was an aged commuter model from the 1970’s; I remembered how it seemed out of date even when it was new. The seats, upholstered with an incongruous mix of red and blue vinyl, were shiny, perhaps polished involuntarily by so many commuters in wool trousers sitting on them. The wood veneer on the panels was as fake and tacky as ever; never mind, for one brief moment I was ten again and my father towered above me carrying a newspaper and smelling like Polo Ralph Lauren aftershave. My other half squeezed my hand; the gesture drew my thoughts back into the present.

Things have moved on: as a female conductor proceeded down the carriage, checking tickets, I recalled how conductors used to all be male and mostly paunchy. Their belts merely acted as a demarcation point of the middle of their bodies; their bellies frequently encroached over the border. The female conductor pleasantly requested the travellers’ tickets; I remembered how her predecessors had a tendency to wheeze out similar, less well mannered demands.

After she moved on, I looked out the window at Queens. It didn’t appear to be much affected by the recent ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Cynics would no doubt state that it would be difficult to tell if it had. Nevertheless, compared to my last visit, there seemed to be more going on; the people on the train seemed more cheerful. This perception may have been due to the bonhomie of the holidays or a reflection of my own good mood. It may also have been attributable to the year’s labours, including the election, being largely over: catharsis perhaps was the ultimate result.

Lincoln CentreThe train eventually slid into a tunnel; after a few minutes, we arrived at Penn Station. A subway ride eventually led us to Lincoln Centre; upon seeing its white modern buildings, I smiled again. I recalled an occasion in 1988 when my father was away on a business trip and left behind a ticket for a performance of “La Bohème” which starred Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni; I went with my mother. I remember how Pavarotti’s voice reverberated throughout the auditorium as he sang “Che gelida manina” and how tenderly Freni responded with “Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì”.

I took a deep breath; my girlfriend and I went inside and met our tour guide, a well dressed elderly woman who I believe was doing this as a hobby. We were also accompanied by a grey haired gentleman in glasses and his grandson; the grandson told the tour guide that he was studying towards a degree in set design.

Our guide took us through the staff entrance. She informed us that the opera house was finished in 1966, the acoustics were devised by the same man who restored “lost” sounds to the White House tapes which had been so damaging to President Nixon. There had been a predecessor building, however it simply didn’t have the box seats that New York’s leading families required. Furthermore, the new building was intended to have all the facilities to construct and stage any opera they cared to put on.

The result is the most complex edifice I’ve ever visited. It’s also the strangest because it’s simultaneously the messiest yet the most efficient. We were led down winding corridor after winding corridor to various workshops: one area was devoted to carpenters putting together massive sets for forthcoming operas. Another was set aside for metal work, yet another for painting. Costumes had their own department; the clothes for “Maria Stuarda” hung on racks in the hallways. We were advised not to touch them as the oils from human hands might affect their sheen; this was a particular issue, we were told, because of the advent of high definition broadcasts. I had assumed that period costumes were something that could be rented, albeit at great expense; I was wrong. Each costume was designed and sewed by in-house specialists.

The Metropolitan Opera also has its own rehearsal facilities. Our little group passed by a room in which the understudies were practicing; there was a moment of high drama, the mezzo-soprano acting the part of the unhappy Queen of Scots looking suitably distressed. We were assured by our guide that the effort was not in vain: each understudy would get at least one performance.

None of this, however, prepares one for the stage: it is not just vast, it is comprised of a series of spaces, it is also a rotating tableau, and has giant elevating platforms. It’s all designed so large scenes can slide in and out relatively quickly. It also means that preparations for a grand opera like Aïda are quite complex. Our group encountered a gentleman named, appropriately enough, Verdi, who was responsible for the pyrotechnics: he was planning some suitable explosions for that evening’s performance of “Don Giovanni”.

The final stop on the tour was the auditorium. As we settled into the seats, our guide told us some facts about the interior. It features a reddish wood panelling which all comes from one African redwood tree. This particular wood was chosen for its acoustic properties. The tree was 100 feet tall and apparently 30 feet in diameter.

Our guide also informed us that the Metropolitan Opera is a union shop: it has no less than 15 working there at present. The building was constructed with union labour: the guide said this proved to be handy as the design of the interior called for sculpted plaster which demanded curves. The problem was in the 1960’s that no one was utilising curves, so the union managed to persuade retirees to come back into service.

The tour ended. My father had tickets for “Aïda” in a couple of days time; knowing more about what went into such a production made it all the more exciting. At the same time, I knew that having seen all this and considered the expense involved, some might ask “Why? What is it for?” Surely, some would argue, opera is an art form that is the sole province of a removed elite, not there nor intended for mass consumption. The Prussian king Frederick the Great didn’t think so: when he built an opera house for his people in Potsdam, it was there to act as a symbol of enlightenment. Perhaps Frederick’s wisdom is what should endure: the reason opera survives despite all the slings and arrows that the mass media and its marketing minions can throw at it is because it still is a beacon. It represents a supreme achievement in the arts, music, writing, set building, costume making and lighting; it is an even elegant riposte to the idea that unions are out of date. Its place in our culture’s continuity is perhaps symbolised by the fact that a significant premiere is happening at the very point in time at which we swap the old year for a new one.

I have made the journey home from the opera many times; usually the hour is quite late by the time I arrive. I am conscious that by the time the bow tie is off and the shoes are removed and the jacket is hung away that I am in a strange minority, I belong to the select group whose eyes are still open. This acute lateness is much like New Year’s Eve: after midnight, many weary souls will make their way home, remove their finery or dross, reflect on what has been, then go to bed, sleep, and perhaps dream of times to come.

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Notes from a Precipice

December 30, 2012

Arguing ChildrenThe holiday season, as the cliché goes, is a time of family, and this often entails seeing relatives that one doesn’t encounter regularly. Several days ago, my father invited his brothers and sisters to the family home for a meal; it was an altogether Italian affair, with rice balls, eggplant rollatini and strong red wine on the table.

Some of the arguments which inevitably boiled up were political, with my father and his younger brother representing the viewpoint of the world weary businessman; my aunt, a medical doctor, is much more progressive. The waves of discourse crashed up against each other, boiling and foaming, then the surface calmed, largely due to the presence of my six month old niece. Her obvious wonder at it all made accomplished, distinguished adults blow raspberries in order to coax a smile out of her. She’s a happy child; she often complied.

Apart from making attempts to entertain my niece, I was mostly silent; in contrast, on the other side of the table, two of my younger cousins, brother and sister, argued, or rather, bickered. The lad would do something: I presume he was kicking his sister under the table, she prodded him back and told him loudly to stop it. At one point she yelled “Stop pissing me off!” at him; I recall when using this phrase was a serious breach of dinner table etiquette. On it went for much of the meal: my little niece’s attempts to make noises of her own only temporarily stilled this duel. Indeed, it did not come to a complete end until after we had all left the table.

Less than 24 hours later, I arrived in Florida and witnessed a similar altercation. The children in this instance were younger: the bickering took place in the back seat of a minivan. I didn’t get the full context, partially because I was allowing my thoughts to drift elsewhere, but the main issue was that one child was poking the other with a finger made wet with saliva.

I am getting older and thus my memory of childhood is fading, but I don’t recall ever having such fights with my sister; perhaps it’s because there is a substantial age gap between us. She arrived when I was nine years old; by then, I was well past thinking of my spit covered finger as a potential weapon. Given my lack of knowledge about sibling rivalries, I wouldn’t like to pronounce on the state of American childhood; there is, however, a debate which is raging just as fiercely and with a similar level of maturity as any going on in the back of the nation’s minivans, namely in regards to the so-called “fiscal cliff”. President Obama appeared on television several days ago, looking as harassed and tired as a parent of rambunctious toddlers and stated the obvious: most people work to rigid deadlines and they deliver. If those outside government can do this so regularly to the point of it being mundane, then why can’t Congress do so as well? In his best “Don’t make me pull over” voice, the President then told them to get to work.

The issues are grave: the American economy is still unsteady. In Florida, matters are particularly precarious: on the drive away from the airport, I spotted housing developments which had begun but were unlikely to be completed. In the slight rain that was falling, stagnant pools were accumulating on these muddy construction sites. Yes, there are bright silver Mercedes still being driven along the highways, their drivers speaking into their cellphones presumably to make more business deals. Yet, there are also SUVs with dents and rust, old vehicles from defunct brands like Oldsmobile, Mercury and Saturn whose paint has faded in the Florida sun. Along the same road, I spotted a possible symptom of how deeply some got into hock: an SUV pulled along a speedboat whose name, spelled out in bold green letters, was “A Loan Again”.

Unemployed in FloridaGo into a suburban neighbourhood: yes, some houses are pristine and elegant, others seem less well kept, more patched together, the lawns less tidy. Night in Florida as a result is more visually attractive than the day: darkness softens the rough edges, moonlight reflects off the ponds, lakes and the ocean, giving the tableaus a gentle glow. As one drives around, the artificial lights make the discount stores in scattered shopping plazas look more grand than they are. Young people congregate outside a Chinese “all you can eat” restaurant; the dim light helps to hide the fact that their attire is direct from Wal Mart. Drive along further, and in a ditch near a hotel, two young men wearing backwards facing baseball caps walk gingerly, heading towards the highway. Night, and the egregious use of electricity make this scene seem more tranquil than it probably is: after hitting a peak of 11.3% in March 2010, Florida’s unemployment rate is now hovering at 8.1%. This rate still puts it above the national average; worse, thanks to the policies of its Republican governor, Rick Scott, Florida has the nation’s lowest “recipiency rate” at 16%. At most, according to the Miami Herald, only one in three of those entitled to unemployment assistance have actually received any money. Peel back the discrete charms of a Floridian night and look in the windows of those discount stores, or stare in wonder at $3 case of light beer being sold in a pharmacy: the wares on offer speak of genuine poverty.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the politicians are still poking each other with wet fingers and kicking each other under tables. Yes, they know that something must be done: but the pleasures of partisanship appeal far more to their political libidos. It seems as if it almost doesn’t matter if America does fall off this particular precipice, so long as their side can evade the blame. Congressmen will be able to make campaign ads out of the failure of the President or the Republicans to compromise. They can appear on “Meet the Press” on Sunday and look grave and make stern pronouncements on their opposites’ stupidity and avarice. Nothing need actually get done; indeed doing things is less attractive because that invites blame when and if matters go awry. No doubt some genuine idealists remain, I suggest the President is among them, however this propensity for inaction and blame evasion appears to be a bias built into the current system. It is a wonder that total paralysis has not ensued.

This situation is not only morally repugnant, it also shows that the political class is completely disconnected from the man in the rusty Saturn struggling to hold onto his temporary job. Belatedly, the politicians have discovered that they can’t really escape opprobrium for this calamity, or rather, doing nothing apart from making statements to get a particular base riled up is not a no risk proposition. There is the prospect that if recession returns that a “throw the bums out” mood will spread throughout the land and many former Congressmen will be stuck driving old Saturns, or at least, last year’s silver Mercedes. Still, it’s telling that it appears the Senate will likely be where any deal is struck: Senators are elected for 6 year terms, and as such, they can hope that any mistakes made will be forgotten or forgiven by the time they next face the electorate. Furthermore, Washington has a tendency to do that which is easy, namely cut taxes and increase spending, but eschew that which is is difficult, such as increase taxes and cut spending. So, if an agreement is reached, it is likely to contain more fudge than what lay in Willy Wonka’s mythical factory.

As for the American electorate, they along with the President are rather like the parent in this particular national minivan, having to keep their eyes on the road, yet trying to settle the dispute going on beyond their reach; except, in this instance, it’s the children who are doing the driving as they kick and fight and spit on their fingers. America may avoid taking a dive over the fiscal cliff; even so, it’s hardly out of danger.

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Faith and Christmas

December 18, 2012

A Cozy Christmas SceneAs Christmas draws closer, I find everything I do bears an increasing sense of urgency. Upon completing a task, I wonder “Is this it?”: is this the last thing I have to do before I can finish for the year? I frequently harbour visions of sitting on a comfortable sofa with a brightly lit tree and a warm, glowing fireplace in the background. I can imagine picking up a cup of hot apple cider, taking a sip and getting a sharp kick of fruit and cinnamon, and then realising that there is nothing left to be done, at least until we’ve stepped into January. Until that moment, however, there are lists, tasks and errands. Bags are there to be packed, presents are there to be wrapped, the car is there to be fuelled up and driven far on visits to friends and family. The list eventually peaks, and then winds down, leading to that quiet moment when stress finally dissolves, but it wouldn’t be Christmas if there wasn’t a last minute tidal surge of things to do.

Thanks to just such a wave, yesterday I found myself at the White Rose Shopping Centre attending to an errand. I don’t derive much pleasure from shopping, so the idea of plunging into a mall just when the fever for consumption is at its raging height did not appeal to me. After finding a parking place which was mercifully close to the entrance, I stepped inside. The all too familiar theme of “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” played in the background. The stores were decorated with plastic trees in every colour including green, their garish coloured lights blinked. A big poster advertised Canadian diamonds. There was a loud, prevailing hum, the sound of all the conversations happening in the centre combined with the footfall of a thousand pairs of feet. There was the occasional laugh to punctuate the noise; but it was clear that this was a horde: clothes were being tried on, cups of coffee bought, electronics being tested, wrapping paper crunched and toys being squeezed and made to make noise. I wondered if a church choir started up in the middle of the mall with a tune like “In the Bleak Midwinter”, how many would pause and reflect on the true beauty of the season: namely, we have a chance to be quiet, and to reflect on family, love and faith?

The tune changed to “Jingle Bell Rock”; I found the store I needed. The music shifted yet again to Mariah Carey letting fly with her Christmas wishes. I quickly finished my task and walked out. I don’t think I was particularly cautious or conscious of speed as I drove away.

The next item on my list required returning to Bradford. Christmas possesses an air of expectation that we are simultaneously supposed to relax yet be at our best. In years gone by, my father and I would go to an Italian barber near my parents’ New York home for a festive tidy-up. I recall old copies of the New York Daily News in the waiting area containing articles fretting about the Knicks basketball team, the scents of aftershave and hair tonic, and the peeling white formica on the counters. However, my barber now is Mr. Khan, who owns an establishment on Killinghall Road. A modest, quiet man, he told he learned his trade in Karachi; he was taught well. He is the most precise and thorough barber I’ve ever encountered.

I found a place to park and went into his shop: he was shaving a gentleman who wore a light blue kurta. Mr. Khan nodded to me and said “Hello”. I replied in kind. I sat on a black bench awaiting my turn and used my smartphone to consult Twitter. Then two other gentlemen entered the shop: one had a thick black beard and wore a grey sweatshirt, the other, with a less profuse beard, wore a darker grey shirt with a hood. The first man seemed rather agitated and spoke to Mr. Khan in rapid Urdu. Mr. Khan stretched out his hand in a gesture which said, “Be calm”. Then he quietly went over to the bench next to mine and lifted up the seat; this revealed a storage compartment. He pulled out a rolled up rug and unfolded it: it was green with an oriental pattern. He placed it carefully on the floor to face Mecca, and the agitated man quickly took up a position to pray. Mr. Khan returned to his customer. The prayers continued. It was still, it was silent, apart from the sound of clothes rustling as the gentleman went through his devotional motions and the slight scrape of a razor. After he completed his prayers, the man was no longer agitated; I believe he thanked Mr. Khan. The barber nodded in reply; the two men departed. Mr. Khan finished with his client, who then stood and took an admiring look at himself in the mirror.

Mr. Khan turned to me. “Do you mind if I pray before I do your haircut?”

“By all means,” I replied, “You go right ahead.” I felt stupid saying this.

The Holy KaabaI took my seat in the barber’s chair as he began to pray. As I looked up, I noted, as I had many times before, a gilded picture of the Holy Kaaba which he had carefully stuck to the wall. Mr. Khan’s previous client counted his money. Again, absolute silence prevailed. As Mr. Khan finished, two more gentlemen came in: one was elderly and wore a Pakul, a hat most commonly associated with Afghanistan. I don’t understand what he said, but I believe I heard the word “mosque”. Perhaps he wondered why they were praying in a barber’s shop given that there was a large one less than a block away. He cast a glance at me: his gaze was not hostile, but rather curious. After a moment, he went out again. Mr. Khan rolled up his rug, put it away. He then turned his attention to cleaning me up. Two more clients came in and took their seats. They and Mr. Khan conversed mainly in Urdu for a time. The words “Matte” and “High Gloss” were spoken. I can only assume that they were either talking about photography or paint.

As Mr. Khan did his work, cutting, shaving and tidying, I couldn’t help but contrast the peace of the shop to the White Rose Centre. This is supposed to be a season in which there is “peace on earth, goodwill to men”. But where was it at this point, in the din of the shopping mall or in a barber’s shop which was entirely absent of Christmas’ flashiness? In which place would contemplation of man’s place in the universe be more possible? Who was more overtly spiritual, the shoppers quaffing the lattes or Mr. Khan and his neighbours and friends? Perhaps he did have a task list to go through prior to the holidays: it is clear that he works very hard, he is there 6 days a week, his opening hours suggest 10 to 11 hour days. Perhaps even there is a sense of urgency in his preparations for the coming year. But one didn’t feel it in the calm that prevailed.

Mr. Khan is one of the few barbers who still gives patrons a fresh hot towel after a shave. I lay back for a few minutes as its salubrious heat penetrated my face. The scent of disinfectant reminded me of the old Italian barber back in New York. I knew after this I’d have much more to do. After all, I had to feed my three cats and I had trash to take out and dinner to cook. Shortly, I’d be on a plane contending with in-flight meals and limited legroom. I knew I’d have to hoist bags and find a sign with my (likely misspelled) name on it held by an indifferent taxi driver. But for that moment it was quiet; none of the season’s tension was there. Yes, it’s Christmas and paradoxically, it can leave little room for peace and faith, but that space can be found nonetheless.

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A Second Country

December 4, 2012

Champagne Glasses ToastingThe news of the Royal Pregnancy was probably greeted with celebrations down at Number 10 Downing Street. It’s easy to imagine the unholy trinity of Cameron, Osborne and Gove popping open a bottle of vintage champagne in the Cabinet room, filling their glasses and raising a toast to the pending arrival. I imagine such a celebration wouldn’t be solely animated by royalist ardour, rather, I suspect that it would also be an example of the kind of elation experienced by drowning men who had just been saved. No more lurid tales of economic failure and of axed Remploy workers being forced to work for no pay. Now the news will be filled with fluff about the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy: the Daily Telegraph fired the opening salvo of silliness by suggesting that she might be pregnant with twins. In that instance, who is heir to the throne? Presumably, it’s whoever arrives first.

Other outlets focused on the fact that the Duchess has been hospitalised for morning sickness; this is a prime example of lazy journalism. In some instances “morning sickness” is an inaccurate label for a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum, which is very serious. According to Wikipedia, it can cause “renal failure, central pontine myelinolysis, coagulopathy, atrophy, Mallory–Weiss syndrome, hypoglycemia, jaundice, malnutrition, Wernicke’s encephalopathy, pneumomediastinum, rhabdomyolysis, deconditioning, splenic avulsion, and vasospasms of cerebral arteries”. Her hospitalisation is thus probably prudent and justified.

But if it’s unfair to suggest that the Duchess has been unduly cosseted because she received treatment, it is not unjust to state that she lives at a remove. No doubt, she is receiving the best of care at the King Edward VII hospital. This is a private facility, not part of the NHS. According to the Daily Telegraph, “it boasts over 200 handpicked consultants from around the world who are leaders in a wide range of medical fields”. I am certain that she has a private, quiet and comfortable room. Yes, there is a persistent inconvenience associated with being constantly in the public gaze, but when it comes down to something serious like needing the best of medical care, no expense will be spared, no treatment denied, no expertise closed off to her. Her world possesses a velvet lining which softens most of the rough edges. All she has to do is be publicly pleasant and duck the paparazzi.

There is, however, a second country, whose tales are being obscured by the pomp and pageantry. Last week, I saw an item on the news concerning an upsurge in whooping cough cases. One breakfast programme featured a small boy and his mother who had to repeatedly pester their GP in order to get it treated: despite going to see the doctor every day, it was only after the child was admitted into hospital for tests that he finally received appropriate care. Had the mother listened to her doctor as opposed to her parental instincts, it is entirely possible that the boy would not have regained his health; the doctors had kept on telling her that her son was “fine” and it was something from which he would recover on his own. It may have been the doctors in this instance were merely incompetent; however it could also just has easily have been that their incentives, and thus their biases for treatment, may have been skewed. Despite Cameron’s pledge to protect the NHS, it’s clear that the vapid and pernicious directive of “do more with less” has descended from on high to hospitals and GPs throughout the land. Medical professionals and managers will look at their scarce resources and do their best to conserve them; this will not always be to the benefit of patients. On the other hand, if the Royal infant (or infants, as the case may be) ever shows any sign of illness, it will be straight to the King Edward VII hospital he or she will go, and whatever ails him or her will be treated with every ounce of solicitude and skill that can be mustered. What is more, the media will ever be much more interested in this latter story rather than the injustice engendered by the former. The public, by and large, will likely acquiesce in this prioritisation.

A Queue in a Hospital Waiting RoomNo wonder the champagne likely flows down at 10 Downing Street; their thoughts need not focus so much on places like the Bradford Royal Infirmary, where queues for non-emergency treatment can lead to four to five hour waiting times. The doctors there are under pressure, the nurses as polite as endless tension allows. Patients sit in quiet agony in the waiting room, awaiting healing hands to be free to alleviate their suffering. The funds to ameliorate this situation are not there, allocated not just to Royal priorities through the Civil List but also towards providing sustenance to banks whose commitment to civic responsibility is as absent as their common sense. A Royal infant averts the gaze of the second country from itself: it doesn’t look at the back streets of Manchester in which young unemployed men sit on doorsteps and smoke cigarettes and mothers hang their washing on clotheslines in the uncertain December weather. The first country is all show; the second country looks up, sees it, smiles and infrequently considers the contrast.

This is not to say that the nation should not wish Kate and William well; pregnancy and parenthood are generally joyous events and a bold statement of confidence in the face of an uncertain future. But this spectacle may also provide the strongest rationale yet for ditching the monarchy: it prevents Britain from viewing itself with clear eyes. What should be the nation’s priority, the crisis in health care or a Royal child? What should the media cover, the plight of the unemployed or the Duchess of Cambridge visiting her old school? What proved to be more relevant and lasting, the Diamond Jubilee or Danny Boyle’s inspired Olympic Opening Ceremony extravaganza? Should those of us who reside in the second country look at ourselves and address our problems or quaff more champagne, either vintage or that acquired on special from Aldi? What will make us a better nation, continuing as two countries, or proceeding together as one, in which we are indeed “all in this together” and every citizen is equal before the law?

To be resolutely fair, these questions are germinating in fertile soil: Royal propaganda is not as potent as it used to be, and the second country’s appetite for ceremony may not be what it once was. Perhaps by the time the Royal infant comes of age, he or she will no longer be Royal, but rather will find the springtime of their childhood spent in country gardens and schools not surrounded by intrusive cameramen, their unblinking glass eyes ever watchful. Perhaps he or she will go to university and come to meet those who come from the back streets of Manchester or Bradford. Perhaps he or she will realise that accident of birth is merely that, a happen-stance, and one should neither be elevated nor imprisoned by it.

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On the Eve of Leveson

November 29, 2012

News of the WorldSelf regulation of the press in the United Kingdom has failed. The Press Complaints Commission, far from being a fair minded and independent body which protects the individual from trespass by the media, has proven itself to be rather like a bunch of foxes deciding not to eat chicken for lunch after having decimated the henhouse. It is not necessary to once again raise the case of Milly Dowler, to speak of phone hacking or to discuss bribes to the police: the press is more than proven to be crooked, it is seen as being crooked. It is not going to be possible to restore any semblance of ethical behaviour in this industry without the force of law and the heavy hand of its sanction behind it.

This will not spell the end of press freedom, as some editorial writers might argue: rather, the kind of liberty to which they aspire is that of the Victorian candy maker who was able to put sawdust and animal droppings into his sweets, with the only protection from potential illness being the buyers’ nous. Similarly the newspapers would like to adulterate their content with sensationalism for a nefarious purpose, namely, to maintain profit margins insofar as it is possible in a declining market. As was stated in a recent episode of BBC’s “Newsnight”, what was once an £8 billion market is now worth £6 billion: it’s substantial, but it will only be the most high-value content that will allow a newspaper to maintain its present standing. To this end, any tactics, no matter how underhanded, that can be deployed will be utilised: one of the most shocking episodes revealed by Hugh Grant’s recent Channel 4 documentary on press regulation was that of a News of the World journalist who found a former celebrity, destitute and addicted to drugs, begging for change outside of a Tube station. This tale of woe apparently was neither compelling nor tragic enough in and of itself: the journalist offered her money for sex in order to claim she was also a prostitute. Not long after the story broke, she committed suicide. To the journalist’s credit, he quit the industry; others are likely to have fewer scruples.

Given this situation, it is highly likely that Lord Leveson’s report on the behaviour of the press will recommend some form of regulatory regime. By most accounts, Lord Leveson has a reputation for being both honest and thoughtful; furthermore, he appears to possess a moral compass. The enquiry over which he presided was also conducted with utmost probity and skill; Robert Jay, the lead counsel, proved to be a brilliant inquisitor. No doubt the measures Leveson will recommend will be carefully crafted and intended to achieve a balance between preserving freedom of speech as well as protecting the rights of the individual.

But will David Cameron fully accept the report’s conclusions and act upon it? Probably not.

David Cameron in the House of CommonsIt is all too easy to imagine the following scenario: the Prime Minister will address the Commons, perhaps on the day of publication, perhaps delaying the day of reckoning to several weeks after its release, perhaps as long as after the holidays. He will be effusive in his praise of Lord Leveson and thank him for his work. He will then say that any changes to the law would be difficult and that he would rather err “on the side of liberty” rather than create a system which could be open to abuse later. Next, he will say that he has personally spoken to the editors of the leading newspapers and received solemn undertakings from each of them that they will adhere to a new, tougher code of ethics. This code of ethics will be enforced by a voluntary contract which all the editors have promised to sign; the contract will be in line with proposals from Lord Hunt, the last chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Cameron will present this as a historic compromise, one which will secure the blessings of a cliché which he will no doubt deploy as a rhetorical flourish. After a time, things will return to precisely as they were before.

It may seem harsh prior to the publication of the report to suggest that Cameron will act with such craven cowardice. However, Hugh Grant’s documentary provided an intriguing clue as to what the future hold: Grant, who seemed purposeful, intelligent and committed, met with Cameron during the course of the programme. Cameron provided a stark contrast to Grant’s vigour: he seemed pale, tired, nervous, and less than sure of what he was saying. If anything, the actor appeared to be more of a Prime Minister than the politician. This impression of weakness was backed up by what Grant said after the meeting: apparently, Cameron was less than totally committed to following Leveson’s recommendations.

Cameron may have calculated it’s easier to do what the press wants: after all, if he allows them to escape, they will be indebted to him. It’s not difficult to envisage a publication like the Spectator, which has indicated its revulsion at the thought of any press regulation, hailing a half measure as the mark of a statesman. Beyond this, Cameron knows that any chance of his re-election will be partially dependent upon the disposition of the popular press: no doubt the Machiavellian in him has reckoned how easily he can secure this by not embracing Leveson’s recommendations. He may reckon the sole opposition to his caving in will be found on social media, which his “too many tweets make a twat” remark suggests he holds in contempt. Just wait for another episode of “Strictly Come Dancing”, he may think, and the hive mind will be suitably distracted. Of course, this scenario also assumes that Cameron has no consistent ethical framework by which he operates apart form perceiving good in the form of personal gain.

This would, however, be consistent with Tory philosophy: one of the more disturbing episodes in Grant’s programme was a discussion between the actor and Lord Hunt in which Hunt further described his voluntary contract idea. It was a desperate measure. Hunt simply did not want to admit the case for legislation; he felt the voluntary constraints would be sufficient. He’s of the Thatcherite era and has apparently carried from it a distaste for anything which hampers the operation of a free market. He evidently desires no regulations, no formal rules, not even when these would convey the soul of ethics in an environment which had proven to be both feral and toxic. Cameron too comes from this milieu; no doubt he can construct a case within his mind that sees no contradiction between personal advantage and adhering to the values which have hitherto surrounded him. As I type this, he probably is consulting the report, and as he reads the sensible, measured advice, his eyes may glaze over, shutting out any further input. Sweet surrender to the media’s desires may beckon him as loudly as a victory.

Perhaps this is why the Liberal Democrats have asked the Speaker for time in which the Deputy Prime Minister may make a statement of his own, perhaps to rebut what Cameron may say. It would be useful if Labour, who were conspicuous in their absence from Grant’s documentary, also stood firm and backed Lord Leveson’s findings. Perhaps then, mendacity, weakness, cowardice and avarice wouldn’t matter: perhaps then, journalists who somehow lack the moral fibre not to prey on the vulnerable would realise they could get into serious trouble for doing so and refrain. Perhaps, just perhaps, something like justice might be achieved.

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November 20, 2012

Three Thirty AMThe call came in the middle of the night. For each member of the President’s entourage, the message was the same, delivered with military precision: “Get up, get dressed, the President is leaving in one hour.” Hotel rooms throughout Phnom Penh subsequently echoed with a chorus of crisp cotton sheets being whipped back, the sound of hasty showers being taken and suitcases zipped up.

Leaving? But they had just arrived at the ASEAN summit. There were so many issues yet to be resolved: territorial disputes in the South China Sea, trade agreements, the way forward on energy security. The President had seemed cool and relaxed after arriving in Cambodia, sitting back in his chair in a pose that his aides knew as symbolic of his “listening” mode. Yet, some mused as they dried their hair and stuffed the remainder of their possessions into the outside pockets of garment bags, the gaze was somehow darker, more thoughtful. The wheels were turning. But in what direction?

Minivans parked outside of hotels and bleary eyed staff piled into them, heaving their overladen cases into the back. They wore suits, they sweated: even at night, the heat and humidity were oppressive, the warmth rose in waves from the ground. The scents of tropical plants, asphalt, diesel and unwashed bodies predominated. Night sounds of insects surrounded them; there was the incessant dull roar of Phnom Penh’s traffic.

Leaving? Why? What for? Some fortunate souls had managed to grab a cup of coffee from room service; they had been poured into cardboard cups and drunk with more desperation than relish. Complimentary packets of non-dairy creamer, which had been hastily stirred in, made the drink curdle in their stomachs. It was an honour to serve, they reminded themselves, but sometimes it felt more like a duty than a privilege.

The vans proceeded through the darkness, evading potholes and other drivers as best they could en route to the airport. The aides barely spoke to each other, most were still halfway locked in a dream state and hoping for respite once on Air Force One. OK, it wasn’t a bed, but once in their seats, they could hope for a few hours more of precious rest.

Where are we going, many thought, are we headed home? Has there been some sort of emergency?

The vans then pulled up onto the airport tarmac; in contrast to the somewhat makeshift airfield, Air Force One looked magnificent and proud, its blue and white hull gleaming in the dim light. Lights were already on in the windows; yes, the President was aboard.

Gazing through his window located towards the front of the plane, President Obama saw the vans arrive.

“Good,” he said, “the rest of the staff are here.” He rolled up the white sleeves of his dress shirt and loosened his blue silk tie.

He turned to his flying companion, Hillary Clinton. Her blue eyes were clear, her blonde hair pulled back into a tight hairstyle. Her navy blue jacket was neatly pressed. She held a Blackberry in her right hand; its screen was lit up from recent use. The President could detect no scent of perfume from her, just a hint of soap.

“Are you sure about this, Mr. President?” she asked.

Obama paused. “About as sure as I am of anything,” he replied.

She pursed her dark pink lips. “Going to Cairo, however…now…”

They had been over this a few times. The president sat back and clasped his hands, nearly achieving a gesture of prayer. For a brief moment, he thought of being back in Chicago, attending church on a Sunday morning and asking for God’s help; he recalled sitting in a polished wooden pew, the musty scent of old Bibles and fresh flowers in the air, and he could almost hear the choir preparing to sing the first notes of a hymn, a low growl of music rising from their throats.

The thought passed. He was still here with his disciplined Secretary of State observing him intently. She would be leaving office soon; he could see that she was relishing the prospect. Make up, no matter how well applied, could not hide the bags under her eyes, a symptom of fatigue piled upon fatigue. But he needed her. She knew Netanyahu and could speak to him on a first name basis; the President had problems even starting up a conversation with the man. The last time they’d spoke he’d said, “Bibi, you need to stop building settlements in the West Bank now, you’ll provoke a backlash.”

Obama and NetanyahuThey were in the Oval Office, seated in the two wing chairs standing on either side of the fireplace; the reporters had left after the two leaders had expressed the usual platitudes about the special relationship between America and Israel. The President, finally, could be blunt. The chairs were parallel, they didn’t face each other directly. In reply to Obama’s warning, Bibi turned his head and looked directly at the President; the gaze was hard though not unintelligent. “No,” Netanyahu replied. This was not a refusal which could be reasoned with; Bibi’s world was painted in shades of black and white, Obama mused, you were either with him or against him. At that moment, he’d decided that Obama was against him.

So, Bibi had embraced Mitt Romney upon his visit to Jerusalem. The President was aware that Bibi had used every last bit of influence he had with America’s Jewish lobby to try and get the Republican elected. He’d gambled and lost; his response had been to double down. A folded up Washington Post that rested on the glass coffee table positioned between the President and Secretary of State showed a front page picture of a Palestinian man, in tears, holding the lifeless form of his dead small son.

No, no, this had to stop. To be the President means that one can do things, Obama thought, that was why I wanted the job. Most powerful man in the world, supposedly; but what is the pomp of the office but a hollow relic if it cannot save lives? The Marine band can play “Hail to the Chief”, the warm tones of its brass instruments hanging perfectly in the air on a warm Spring afternoon as cherry blossoms fall on the green grass of the Mall, but the song is entirely ephemeral, a whimsy, if the Chief has done little that merits the anthem.

“Your trip is going to be a security headache,” Hillary reminded him, snapping the President back into focus. Her brow was furrowed.

Obama nodded. The Secret Service had gone ballistic, well, as ballistic as any agency so devoted yet devoid of emotion could be. They had expressed “concerns” over the “threat vectors”. He’d understood; he’d expressed the service’s fears to President Morsi of Egypt when they’d spoken the previous day.

Morsi had been surprised to hear from him, Obama recalled.

“Yes, Mr. President,” Morsi’s translator had said in a clipped English accent upon picking up the phone.

“President Morsi,” Obama had said, “I would like to come visit you in Cairo and help faciltate the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian delegation. I would also like to see conditions in the Gaza Strip for myself.”

The translator turned Obama’s words into Arabic. Silence.

Morsi replied: hesitantly at first, Obama thought. The translator followed after him, “That’s very generous of you, Mr. President. We’ll be delighted to welcome you.”

The plan was, and Hillary had worked out the details, was to go to Cairo, and then meet with President Morsi. Then he’d visit both the Palestinian and Israeli delegations which were there and impress upon them the necessity of peace and attempt to facilitate the negotiations. Then, he would go to Gaza himself. If all went well, he would then follow this up with a trip to Jerusalem; Hillary thought it wise that Netaynahu was not informed in advance.

“You want to catch him off guard,” she explained. The President had understood: if Netanyahu had the opportunity to make his mind up about how to react to a particular event, he’d stick to it come what may.

“Are you certain about going to Gaza?” Hillary queried again. Obama nodded.

If the President was going to make the American public understand the need for peace, he would have to drag the American media in behind him. He knew all too well that there were far too many Americans who sat in homes in Dallas and Tucson and Salt Lake City who still lived with their mental pictures framed by the previous Administration. The Palestinians were Muslims, the Israelis said they were terrorists; pictures of Palestinians celebrating the World Trade Centre attack had streamed into American homes on September 11. They’re enemies, the Fox News watching public had reasoned: blow them up. The mainstream media didn’t care to show the parents and children huddled in dusty cellars during sleepless nights as bombs exploded and the earth trembled. Leave that to Al Jazeera, the media thought, we have prejudices for which we must cater so that we continue to accrue advertising revenues from Boeing and Coca Cola.

Perhaps, Obama thought, if he wandered amidst the wreckage, wiped the dust from his forehead and talked with workers from the Red Cross while the cameras rolled, maybe, just maybe, the complexity of real life would filter back across the ocean. Perhaps the Palestinians would be seen as they were: a people who had been yanked out by the roots, who were finding any remaining patch of earth in which to plant themselves hard to come by. Compromise, reason, rationality were the only way forward.

But then again, the Republicans could just accuse him of pandering to America’s enemies and blast him to pieces again on Fox News.

He sighed. An Air Force colonel, wearing a blue uniform with crisp seams entered in. His grey eyes were focused, emotionless.

“Mr. President,” the colonel said, “We’re ready to depart.”

The President nodded. He cast another gaze out the window; the vans had departed back into the night. By the time Phnom Penh awoke to its orange and azure dawn, he’d be gone; he had left handwritten messages for the other ASEAN leaders apologising for leaving in haste. He hoped they would understand; he was certain they would.

“Let’s go,” Obama said. The colonel nodded and departed.

Hillary looked at him; the President knew her well enough to read her thoughts, namely, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I hope so too”, he thought back. He settled into his seat and shut his eyes. All this was hanging around one word: “if”. He had mused about this with Hillary and Michelle, “If I go,” he had asked, “will I make a difference?” They weren’t sure. All he knew was that those bent on war seemed irredeemably so; the only person who had even a glimmer of a chance of moving them was himself. If he could advise, cajole, persuade, and even threaten successfully, maybe, worse than what had already happened could be prevented.

He swallowed hard. The plane began to taxi. Soon the engines would accelerate and Air Force One would launch into the darkness. He too would be flinging himself into the void. All in vain? He’d soon find out.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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