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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If

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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With a Whimper

November 19, 2012

Polling Station SignIt was a marked contrast to the flashbulbs and glory of President Obama’s re-election; on November 15, I awoke at my usual time, 5:30 AM, fed the cats, made coffee, and took out the trash. Then I walked down to the community centre attached to the local Catholic primary school; the sun was not quite up, but nevertheless it was obvious that it would be a dark day. The clouds seemed to be sitting low, almost hugging the ground at point of the horizon. The lights in many of the houses across the east Bradford skyline were switched on; the city was slowly stirring to life, stretching, yawning, pouring out its cups of tea, turning on its hot showers and getting ready to go to work or school. My footsteps felt heavy; my shoulders had that slight ache that prevails before one’s joints have fully warmed up. At last I arrived at the alabaster brick entrance to the centre; a black and white “Polling Station” sign was stuck to the wall.

I was relieved. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales had been very poorly publicised in Bradford; I had not received a polling card indicating where to go and the hours the polling place would be open. I correctly guessed I should go to the same place where I’d voted in the local elections earlier in the year.

A cold wind whipped up behind me; as I possess an overly romantic imagination, I thought it felt like the year was drawing one of its last breaths. 2012 has had its attractions and intrigues, but now has overstayed its welcome: yes, I thought, we had moments of perfect beauty, like Mo Farah victoriously crossing the finish line and times of deep despair, like seeing Gaza set aflame and the bodies of dead children hustled out of the rubble created by Israeli bombs. Overall, the year now feels like it’s staggering on its feet, waiting to drop dead from exhaustion at the finish line.

The wind picked up again. I drew my coat more tightly around me and went into the brightly lit building.

The three people managing the polling station seemed surprised to see me. An elderly lady wearing a floral print blouse and thick glasses crossed my name off her list and handed over the ballot paper. This presented me with my surprise: though I consider myself relatively well informed, I had no idea that there was a first and second preference associated with the this vote. I made my choices and as per the stated procedure, showed the back of the ballot to the returning officer. He seemed altogether too bright, cheerful and neatly pressed for that early hour; after he smiled and nodded his approval, I then stuffed the paper into the ballot box.

As I made my way home, I realised that was the last big exercise of democracy for the year; however, I didn’t really care about the outcome. I’m sure the Commissioner’s role is somewhat important, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that it is a new layer of governance whose sole purpose is to absolve the national government of responsibility. If a crime wave breaks out in Bradford, who will get the blame, the new Commissioner for West Yorkshire or the Home Office? The cuts the latter makes will certainly hinder the former, but it will be the former which will be told that it’s their job to make do and indeed improve the situation. Far from achieving the Tories’ stated purpose of achieving greater accountability, it is likely to diffuse it. We, the public, have had little choice except to either eschew our democratic right to pick the Commissioners, or go along with a farcical process. I thought about spoiling my ballot as a protest: however, my respect for democracy wouldn’t allow me to do so. Most people didn’t even bother to vote. It was an unedifying spectacle, and an unsatisfying conclusion to the year’s politics.

Yes, there are by-elections in Rotherham, Middlesborough and Croydon North on November 29th and yes, there are negotiations regarding its impending “fiscal cliff” to be endured in the United States. But despite the hype ascribed to these events by the media, these are relatively minor happenings: there’s little doubt that the by-elections will yield Labour MPs to replace the Labour MPs who left office. It’s unlikely that the United States will fall off the “fiscal cliff”; all parties will prefer another helping of fudge to triggering a bruising resumption of the recession. I can already feel a punch of nausea at the thought of the publicity surrounding a counterfeit “grand bargain” which will leave the genuinely difficult decisions for another day.

Tony Blair Middle East EnvoyIt’s conceivable there will be other important developments: President Obama will need to appoint new cabinet members, some like current UN Ambassador Susan Rice (intended to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State) are controversial and worthy choices. Perhaps if the President wanted to end the year in a proactive way, he could travel to Gaza, Cairo and Jerusalem and try to prevent the situation getting worse. But perhaps the West feels its power to improve the situation is limited, an impression which is exacerbated by the foibles of its representative to the region, Tony Blair. Apart from the fact that his selection was about as apropos as putting Dr. Harold Shipman in charge of a geriatrics ward, the public would be right to ask what Blair’s eighty-plus visits to Jerusalem have achieved apart from earning him loyalty points from airlines and five star hotels. The Palestinians are still on the end of harsh and murderous treatment, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem face rocket fire: Netanyahu says that what he does is to improve Israel’s peace and security and does not get pulled up on his brutality, idiocy or hypocrisy. Indeed, he may be re-elected in January.

No, the year falters along with our wisdom: the local supermarket calls time on 2012 by indulging in bad marketing puns involving the word “Yule” in place of “You’ll”. People shuffle in and buy Cadbury Roses, coloured Christmas lights, and cheap wrapping paper to put around their purchases from Amazon. There are repeats on television. The hours of daylight diminish. Office workers stand on tiptoe waiting for the calendar to turn over to December and for company parties which will serve up cheap wine and canapés from Iceland which were better off left frozen. This activity masks the fact that fatigue is endemic: it feels like we all need a bit of rest and large helping of hope.

Yet, 2012 has had its highlights: it was an Olympic year for Britain, also one in which the Queen celebrated sixty years on the throne, a great if perplexing achievement given what an anachronism the monarchy has become. It was a year of significant debates in the United States, and a momentous choice between the future and the past was made: most were cheered by America’s decision to stick with modernity. But that’s it: what remains now are like stale leftovers, some offensively rotten, like the case of the woman who died in Ireland because she couldn’t have a medically necessary abortion. The Economist, perhaps feeling the pinch of a deficit of inspiration, decides to criticise France via one its patronising Special Reports: a task which is about as easy for a neo-liberal magazine as it is for the BBC to offend the Daily Mail. The Euro crisis drags on, but is now so dull and smothered in diplomatic treacle that no one wants to speak of it any longer, despite the fact that much of southern Europe is crippled by intermittent strikes and Athens frequently burns. Syria’s civil war drags on, occasionally provoking retaliation from its neighbours; Russia and China won’t allow the international community to act. Britain and America are mostly helpless, and moreover shown to be ineffectual in moderating the harsh winds that are blowing: in Eliot’s words, we end not with a bang, but a whimper. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps we will be lucky; crisis may give way to sense, Israel might halt its aggression, the European Central Bank could be given more freedom to act, austerity possibly will ease. However, this seems unlikely: 2013 may be like 2012 without the promise of any grandeur. Or perhaps there will be grandeur of a different kind: after all, the lack of turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner election may have been the best kind of protest, the public’s revulsion at the assault on Gaza has been far more eloquent than any statement made by any chancellery. 2012 breathes its last; we will have a brief space to contemplate what clouds embrace the horizon, before we gather ourselves up and proceed towards it.

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The Bittersweet Hereafter

November 9, 2012

Old HandsElection Day always makes me think of my grandfather. Had he lived to see this one, he would have been 104 years old; however, I doubt advanced age would have deterred him from going to the polls. I can see him in my imagination: his sparse white hair and twinkling eyes, wearing a neatly pressed brown suit with a gold pin stuck in the lapel and he would be carrying a polished wooden cane. Movement would not come easily to him; he’d need to be driven by a neighbour. Getting out of the car would be problematic; late in life, his inability to move as freely as he once did frustrated him. I recall us washing our hands side by side in an airport bathroom in 1996; my grandfather was irritated by the amount of strength he had to use to get the paper towels out of the dispenser. He told me with a sigh, “It’s not good to get too old.”

He was an immigrant. He came to New York from the west coast of Norway: I have seen photographs of him as a young man, dressed in a grey suit and wearing a fedora, an outfit which hinted at aspiration as well as poverty. Nevertheless, the look he gave the camera was hopeful, optimistic; he needed that faith when he left everything behind. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to come: he arrived in 1928, and shortly thereafter the economy collapsed due the Great Depression. He talked about how he had to work odd jobs, such as scraping tiles off of walls, for very little money, sometimes for as little as 10 cents an hour. These experiences coloured his political outlook: he was a New Deal Democrat. After he secured long term employment on a dredge, he joined a trade union. Of course he voted: he had the gnarled hands of a working man who had wrung prosperity out of years of manual labour and by a stubborn refusal to be kept down by all the forces arrayed against him. He had made himself middle class; he had worked so his daughter (my mother) could go to university. He felt he owed it to posterity to have his say so that their lives could continue to improve.

This is not say that my grandfather was what would be called a “modern progressive”. He was the son of a Lutheran minister. I’ve seen photographs of my great-grandfather: while the expression on his face was genial, he always wore a dark suit and tie which hinted a streak of austerity and authority. Although my grandfather didn’t go to church every Sunday, this upbringing probably made him wary of God’s wrath. Nevertheless, he understood that life was complicated: when he met his wife, my grandmother, she was married to an absent Swedish sailor. According to my grandfather, he quickly realised that she was the love of his life and that he wasn’t going to be deterred by her situation. Nor did he stop trying to woo her when she said in response to his declaration of devotion, “You? I don’t love you! Go find yourself a nice young girl.” Eventually, it emerged that she loved him in return. Because divorce was neither an easy nor simple matter in the 1930’s, at first my grandfather and grandmother lived together without being married; back then, that was a scandal.

So what would my grandfather have done in 2012? He probably would have been befuddled by many of the changes which have occured in recent years. He could have been called an “early adopter” in terms of technology; he learned how to fix radios and televisions, and he had many fine old sets which he kept stored in his cellar. However his interest had limits: he probably would never have owned a laptop. He might have had a go on an iPad, as he could have used Skype to video chat with his grandchildren; in the early 1990’s, he had one of the first video phones that were available. Twitter, Facebook and other social media probably would have perplexed him; he would wonder why you would want to talk to people that way when you could just as easily have a chat with your neighbour over the garden fence; furthermore, you could invite them in to have coffee. He would also feel removed from many of the social changes that have occurred; but his attitude towards abortion was perhaps telling, he didn’t like it, but he felt that it was better off safe and legal than unsafe and illegal. Tolerance, albeit from a distance, would likely have been his stance. Really, so long as his family was safe and well, he was happy.

My grandfather would do his best to keep informed. Without fail, he would sit on his old brown recliner chair every afternoon and switch on the “1010 WINS” radio station which told listeners “give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world”. The radio was old, tinny: it always sounded like the broadcasts came from 1955. This station did not feature Rush Limbaugh or any of the other “shock jocks”, it provided an impartial telling of the day’s events, done entirely without verbal pyrotechnics. After the programme finished, he’d switch it off and read his copy of “Newsday”.

Roosevelt and TrumanI doubt he would have cared much for Romney; I recall him stating his admiration for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He felt more strongly about Truman. I believe there was something about the haberdasher from Missouri: honest, uncompromising, purposeful that struck a chord with him. My grandfather heartily agreed with Truman’s sacking of Douglas MacArthur; I didn’t realise when he told me this what a minority opinion this was. I also believe that Truman’s modest background enhanced my grandfather’s belief in America; he told me that I could be anything I wanted to be “in this wonderful country”. Harry Truman’s improbable rise must have seemed like proof of this proposition. Romney, although he gave away his inheritance, wouldn’t have given my grandfather additional confidence that this idea still held true.

Furthermore, my grandfather had a dislike for absurd inconsistency. One of the last political jokes I heard him tell was in relation to Bill Clinton’s statement that he “smoked but didn’t inhale”. To my grandfather, that was a “crazy” thing to say and a statement that should be punctured. Romney’s consistent adoption of a variety of opinions would have probably invited even more witticisms from him.

Sometimes my grandfather wondered aloud about where the country was headed; I think the collective loss of integrity over time bothered him the most. For example, he was always very careful with money; he made sure he developed a personal relationship with his local banker. Honest dealings were very important to him; his experience of the Great Depression suggested that this was only real insurance one had. He passed away before the regulatory wall between investment and savings banks fully disappeared. Had he lived, he would have been horrified by the subsequent explosion in “casino” banking and the swindles perpetrated by the financiers; the crash in 2008 would have had many unpleasant echoes for him. Had he had voted in 2012, he would be looking for a Roosevelt or Truman to fix the mess, rewind the destructive changes; Romney would have likely have looked much more like an ineffectual Herbert Hoover to him.

But what about Obama? It’s likely my grandfather would have found his biography inspiring; however, his Scandinavian parsimony would compell him to ask, “Do we really have to spend so much money?” Furthermore, Obama is neither Roosevelt or Truman, he is carving his own niche in history. My grandfather probably also would have raised an eyebrow at the coalition of the young and trendy around Obama. He felt and understood that America was all about change, indeed, it had transformed him as well as transformed around him. Nevertheless, I’m sure that by the age of 104, change would have run its course for him. In this sense, Romney would be the choice that would seem more familiar, more comprehensible. But does one vote for an America that was or the America that is? I dare say my grandfather, who was both practical and bold, would have gone for the latter: but not for his sake, but for those who followed him.

I have inherited much from my grandfather; while I don’t have 1010 WINS to offer me the world in 22 minutes, I do utilise the internet and regularly watch the BBC. I couldn’t help but think of him again on the day after the election, a time of bittersweet hereafters. For him, life would have carried on: on the day after a most momentous election, he would have taken a walk to get the newspaper or go to the bank or to buy a gallon of milk, certain to wrap up warm against the November chill. In contrast, I was absorbing all that had occurred and thinking of all the detritus of the victory party being swept away. Confetti goes into recycling bins, balloons deflate and are thrown away, vacuum cleaners drone as the floor is made clear of dust. Many “Obama Biden” signs are destined for the shredder, some will be preserved for posterity. President Obama is long gone, headed back to Washington to contend with a “fiscal cliff” which the news channels have suddenly realised is looming. Life goes on. The Republicans are now engaged in a bout of self-recrimination which is more akin to a cannibals’ feast: yesterday, I heard Laura Ingraham attack Ann Coulter, a most unedifying spectacle. I had enough after less than ten minutes. It’s clear that some on the right believe that they lost because they weren’t sufficiently right wing, and thus couldn’t express themselves with clarity. Others believe that they didn’t keep up with demographic changes. I suggest it’s because they didn’t realise that “life goes on”. My grandfather may not have fully understood change, and indeed, sometimes he would have been reluctant about it, but he wouldn’t have prevented it; he lived his life the way he wanted to but didn’t tell others how to live. He seemed to think that this was part of being an American. Until such time as the Republicans rediscover this idea in relation to women and minorities and gays, they have no chance of being victorious in elections to come; they’re still casting a look over their shoulder at a past that is becoming ever more distant. Furthermore, the Republicans continue to harken back to the days of Ronald Reagan for their economic ideas; this hints at intellectual stagnation. Political movements which get stuck in such ruts tend to have a limited life expectancy. Sometimes one has to roll the dice, leave everything behind, cross oceans full of doubt to an uncertain land: as my grandfather might have said, it’s the only way to secure the future.

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Fired Up. Ready to Go.

November 6, 2012

Obama at RestBy the time this essay is published, most people in the United States will be fast asleep. No doubt there will be exceptions: some journalists and campaign staffers will work through the night. Perhaps President Obama will sit in the darkness of his hotel suite with the radio and television switched off while he sips a cup of coffee; I imagine that he is the kind of person who enjoys silence from time to time. Presidential campaigns have a notable lack of this: there are so many raucous crowds, so many questions to answer, so many loud ringtones and clicks of cameras, so much dramatic music, so many engines running. It must be a luxury for him to have a moment alone with his thoughts and to partake of a simple cup of java, with its rich scent and steam rising off its dark surface. If he cares to look out the window, he will probably be able to track the progress of the night. The orange sodium lamps and neon lights of the city will drown out much of the starlight. Nevertheless, a few bright specks in the sky will likely be visible, as will the moon. The earth will do one more complete spin on its axis; by the time he sees the moon and stars again, he will certainly know his destiny, and that of the country.

For most, however, sleep will prevail. Farmers in Iowa will snooze in their oak frame beds and cuddle their spouses in order to fend off the bitter November chill. Single city dwellers in New York and Los Angeles will sleep with their arms and legs splayed askew across the battlefield of the mattress. Newly minted Marines, their heads still itching from recent crew cuts, will lay in their bunks, and slumber will bring to them visions of home. Fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters will all be locked into dreams, the one place which seems eternally safe from modern life’s incessant din.

Meanwhile, the first rays of dawn will touch the hills surrounding Bradford and the morning news will be full of last minute analyses. Certainly, the studios in London are being prepared, the pots of coffee set up, and the computers are being readied to collect and analyse the streams of data washing in from across the Atlantic. When the polls open, there will be British and other news cameras on the scene, ready to beam out the first pictures of America making its choice. In my mind’s eye I can see a befuddled, elderly gentleman in a blue parka going to vote and wondering why everyone is making such a fuss.

The markets in London, Frankfurt and Paris will hold their breath and hedge their bets; I can envisage a trader in a white shirt with the collar open and a loosened maroon tie, casting a wide-eyed gaze at a big screen filled with CNN. If Romney wins, he reasons, then investment banks should do well. After all, they were among the largest contributors to his campaign. Obama, in contrast, received a great deal of support from technology companies. Goldman Sachs or Google? Wait, the trader may think, hold back. We will know more soon: but in the meantime, all eyes will remain fixed on America, as if examining the process of voting will somehow reveal the result prior to its actual arrival. Indeed, many will check the internet to see when polls open; come on, come on, let’s start, they think, because the sooner we begin, the sooner we will get it over with. The frustration will boil over: any American expatriate who dares venture into the open will be questioned intently, “What’s going to happen?”

Though I’m now probably more British than American, this is a particularly tense time for me. I recall the last Presidential election: I was living in West Sussex at the time. On that day, I wore an Obama ’08 shirt with a blue cardigan and a “Hope” pin fixed to the lapel. I was busy. I had to go to a seminar on how to best pursue a career in higher education. The convenor, a tall man with thinning brown hair who wore a thick sand-coloured sweater, said to me, “I see where your allegiance lies…I’m afraid as an educator, I have to be impartial.”

He smiled: it was a toothy yet sincere grin. “But,” he continued, “go Obama!”

Gore Vidal on the BBCI was alone that night; I lay on my bed as the results came in, my head propped up on three pillows, as if positioning myself to face the television in this way would be enough to keep me awake. This was overly optimistic: as the BBC droned on, urging patience as they were awaiting the results, I fell asleep. This was to my regret, as I understand the famed novelist Gore Vidal had a hilarious outburst while being questioned by David Dimbleby. It is perhaps the privilege of the esteemed to not be taken too seriously at the right time. In Vidal’s case, he plainly had no idea who Dimbleby was, and furthermore, didn’t care; the response to his befuddlement was well intentioned laughter.

I finally awoke when I heard the sound of a crowd cheering. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the screen: a vast throng had assembled in a Chicago park, the rolling headline at the bottom of the picture indicated that Obama’s victory had been overwhelming. As President-elect Obama strode up to the podium, seeming chastened as well as triumphant, I was quietly hopeful. After his simple, heartfelt speech, I again fell asleep.

The earth has travelled around the sun four times since then and most of us are different people to what we were to a lesser or greater extent; I have fewer hairs on my head and more of what I do possess is grey. I’ve moved to Yorkshire, a place which suits me far better than Sussex ever did. My current work environment is more businesslike: the blue cardigan and Obama t-shirt will remain tucked away in my dresser drawer. The “Hope” pin, however, may make it to my coat’s lapel. My optimism has faded, hope and belief weren’t sufficient in and of themselves to override fully Washington’s backstabbing, dirty dealing and out and out stonewalling. But a lack of forward momentum isn’t sufficient to make me wish for America to press “Rewind”.

We have had four years and four trips around the sun, and while much remains to be done, at least there have been some improvements. For all its faults, access to health care has been expanded. Some vital industries and jobs have been saved. America is no longer seen purely as a nation of insensitive buffoons; Russia’s boneheaded support for the Assad regime is neatly aligning it for the bogeyman role. The American economy is growing at a faster clip than in most developed nations; unemployment, at long last, is headed in the right direction. While Hurricane Sandy was a disaster, at least the recovery efforts are far more competently managed now than they were when Hurricane Katrina struck. Things are better and better should never be seen as the enemy of the good. Yes, it’s not quite the gilded “Yes We Can” romance of four years ago: but to echo another one of the key catch phrases of 2008, I’m still “fired up” and “ready to go”.

Daybreak approaches. The clock radio will sound, echoing with the weather forecast and carrying with it the necessities and obligations of the morning. I will get up, make the coffee, take care of my cats. The dark skies will fade from black to dark blue and then arrange into a pattern for sunrise. America will still be asleep; but no matter what else I do, my day will swing in its orbit. I will keep a news feed on in the background. I will go home. Night will fall. I will perhaps bake a pepperoni pizza I bought at the local supermarket and drink a fine Yorkshire ale. The last voters will file in and out of voting booths across America; my parents in New York may be among them. They may step into the booth, draw the curtains, flick the metal switches beside the names of the candidates they want. Once done, they will each pull a lever to record their selection, simultaneously causing the fabric shroud around them to slide open. Then the polls will close. The results will be tallied; as the moon and stars cast their light down on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually, we will find out what has been decided. Perhaps one compulsion unites so many, American and overseas, Republican and Democrat, President Obama and Mitt Romney: we anticipate this moment to the point we cast ourselves into it in our thoughts. It will come, and while it may not be what we imagine, it retains the possibility of being more than we hoped.

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The Desperate Hours

November 5, 2012

New York After SandyClimate change is no longer a theory. I grew up in a New York suburb which is prim, proper and thoroughly bourgeois: it’s a place that features tidy suburban houses, neatly trimmed lawns and American flags fluttering proudly. While the weather could be wild, I don’t recall it being extreme. I remember one particular rainstorm; I was thirteen years old. I was walking home from school when it began. It was spring, so the torrent let loose the scents of fresh earth and new grass. Trees swayed in the wind, their leaves rustled. The raindrops were huge and soaked me to the skin: my footsteps turned into a run the moment the lightning flashed and the thunder sounded. I ran to my front door, I fumbled with my keys for a few moments before I was able to get in. Fortunately, no one else was home to see me in such a state; I remember how the thunder resounded after I shut the door. It was as if the storm was gloating; it was a powerful reminder that human beings are trivial creatures, and should Mother Nature choose, she could easily flick us off her back.

Nevertheless, that rainstorm, though memorable, was minor; I only experienced one major storm during my childhood, Hurricane Gloria in 1985. My family and I sat in the cellar as we waited for it to pass: the power went out for a few hours, but then life went on more or less as usual.

Superstorm Sandy was an altogether different affair. I experienced it from a helpless distance from my parents who still reside in my former home town. I was horrified by the pictures taken from outer space of Sandy’s swirling, angry storm clouds and distressed by the earth-bound images of violent winds ripping the north east of America apart. Later, my heart sank when I saw shots of the darkened New York skyline: deprived of power, it seemed dead rather than a city that never sleeps.

In the aftermath, the BBC’s reporters visited sights which are very familiar to me, for example, the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. I know it as the main artery by which I’d travel into Manhattan: there have been many mornings and evenings in which I sat in the back of my parents’ car, going to museums, concerts, or just for a walk amidst the city’s concrete canyons. That vital transport link was flooded out; the BBC correspondent stood by what looked like a lake, a flashing neon sign behind her was the only indication of its true function.

My parents were without power for six days. They had prepared for the storm: apparently the advice was to fill plastic bags with water, stick them in the freezer, and thus have additional ice packs with which to keep the contents cold. They had lanterns and candles. After Sandy hit, they were able to reach me only sporadically with text messages from their mobile phones. In turn, I used the internet to find out what was going on with repairs to the electricity grid and found local petrol stations which still had fuel. They told me that the local Starbucks became the place where people congregated for hot coffee, electricity and internet connections. The owners provided power extension leads so they could share sockets more easily; it was a small reaffirmation that the idea of community is not dead, it’s just ordering a skinny latte.

The internet was not altogether helpful wherever it was accessed: my parents’ local power company hadn’t adequately prepared and some of the most vital parts of their website frequently crashed. Nor were the cellphone companies fully ready: the signal dropped out on my parents’ handset several times and they were forced to go on a somewhat dangerous drive in order to pick it back up. Their electricity did not return until Saturday night: the telephone, internet and cable television systems were restored the following day. Not that the television news proved to be particularly comforting: Staten Island is apparently still in a dire state, the town of Far Rockaway, not far from my parents’ location, was subject to looting due in part to the extended power failure. Furthermore, my parents’ local and learned meteorologist said New Yorkers should expect two more storms of this magnitude by 2015.

No, it was never this bad when I was a boy: nature has become less forgiving, the parameters of what’s possible have expanded to the detriment of those who live in my home town. My parents are thinking of purchasing a backup generator to ensure their comfort and safety. They also bought flood insurance; some of my parents’ friends have already been flooded out. But none of them will attribute the increase in intemperate weather to climate change, not yet; rather, they harken back to storms they experienced as children and are adapting to these changes without assigning them any greater profundity. For the moment, however, they’re managing.

We have now moved on to another set of desperate hours: as I type this, the President and Mitt Romney are embarking on their final tours of swing states, stepping up to podiums in Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia and most crucial of all, Ohio. Ohio perhaps is a microcosm of the country as a whole: in its north, there are rustbelt industries which are struggling to adapt. The state also has old coal mines and new car plants. There are high tech companies as well; several years ago, I applied for a role with one such firm in Colombus which was and is a world leader. The culture and manners of the South make themselves felt in places like Cincinnati. Given this diversity, it is perhaps right and proper that Ohio is the state which decides: it is the true middle, the pivot of the nation as well as the election.

Obama CampaigningThe candidates have to put on their polished shoes, their shirts which thankfully they can now leave open at the neck, their windbreakers which hide sagging shoulders. I suspect they have to pop more than a few throat lozenges in their mouths before daring to speak. Sleep has probably long been submerged in seas of bad coffee or in Mitt Romney’s case, tap water and orange juice. Were I either of them, I’d look at the clock’s advances along time’s path with relief. In the case of President Obama, this is the last election he is likely to fight: while it’s true that he could run for another elected office again regardless of the outcome, the last former occupant of the White House to do so was John Quincy Adams. As for Mitt Romney, this is possibly his last shot at the Presidency; Paddy Power has already paid out the punters in anticipation of his defeat. Election night, win or lose, will bring deliverance from heated rhetoric and anticipation. The wider world can then settle into recovery mode in time for Christmas.

The decision as to who will take up the challenges of 2013 and beyond perhaps lay with a reactive public; rather than adapt to climate change, they would rather clean up the mess afterwards, buy insurance, get a backup generator. Romney is vague on specifics: he will somehow cut taxes, increase defence spending and yet solve the deficit. The Governor has recently relied on a cliched slogan: “Real Change from Day One”, which sounds like a motto better suited to a probiotic yoghurt. The only reason such a platitudinous and intellectually vacuous campaign is at all viable is because it can serve as a reaction to a political and economic storm, namely, the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Similarly, President Obama has found it difficult to return to the themes of Hope and Change given the practical realities which surround him. If something hurts, what do you do to switch off the pain? A reactive person will reach for whatever they can find, even if it is rather like using whiskey to cure a hangover. A thoughtful person will realise that not every remedy that promises immediate relief is worth downing. What response prevails? The polls are finely balanced: almost any outcome can be read into them. Any prediction relies on excessive use of the word “if” – if Ohio tilts the President’s way, the contest is more than likely over. If Ohio plumps for Romney, he could yet scrape his way to victory.

It has reached a point where news programmes blend into each other and newspapers seem to say all the same thing: “if, if, if”. They prognosticate about a tomorrow that is altogether uncertain: perhaps this is why the world’s breath seems to be collectively catching, interspersed with it reassuring itself that surely sense will prevail and Obama will be re-elected. I wish I could be so sure.

President Obama is treading the long and lonely path leading to church meetings, town halls and high school stadiums. Perhaps he has a moment to face the rain and let it soak his face, a brief refreshment before he takes more weary steps towards the next group of voters whom he must touch both with the shaking of hands and the proffering of sensible ideas couched in soaring rhetoric. As he finishes each encounter, no doubt he feels his strength diminished. It’s not long now before the end will come and we can all return to normal, albeit its definition will remain permanently altered. Nevertheless, these are desperate hours and they will be desperate to the last.

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Review: “Sinister” starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance

November 1, 2012

Ethan Hawke in SinisterHalloween offers few forms of entertainment for the middle aged. If one has friends who are throwing a party in the vicinity, then it’s probably best to put on a smudge of face paint, don a white smock with an anonymous red stain, and go. The evening can then be spent in good company while swilling bad Chardonnay as “The Monster Mash” plays in the background. If there aren’t any such festivities on offer, one can stay at home and await the inevitable knocks on the door followed by plaintive pleas for free candy from diminutive ghosts and skeletons. Alternatively, one can go out and see a scary film. Despite the intermittent rain which prevailed over Yorkshire last night, the last option proved to be the most attractive.

Bradford was buzzing: the wet pavements and roads reflected the bright lights of Eid, the Leisure Exchange complex was full of people. Nandos was bursting with families consuming spicy chicken and chips. Inside the cinema, the familiar scents of sweet and salted popcorn lingered in the air and a multitude of televisions blared trailers for upcoming movies. However, the queues were longer than usual: it seemed a lot of people had the same idea. As for the films themselves, there were three “horror” options. First, there was “Paranormal Activity 4”. Given that many film series that have reached a fourth instalment are less than stellar, this didn’t seem like a good idea. Next, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” had just been re-released with extra footage added: it was sold out. This left “Sinister”, starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance.

At first glance, this didn’t seem particularly promising: there have been a number of recent horror film flops, such as the lamentable “The Devil Inside”, which were solely destined to land on supermarkets’ discount DVD racks. Some subtle aspects of the poor films’ marketing had made their way into “Sinister”‘s promotional materials. Nevertheless, Ethan Hawke has a tendency to bring depth and sincerity to any role he plays; it was worth a try. The rain outside continued in irregular torrents, Halloween’s few remaining hours were ebbing away, there was little to lose.

From the start, “Sinister” is an interesting film. After a bizarre, grainy preface which shows four people with burlap sacks over their heads slowly being hanged, we are introduced to a “real crime” writer, Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) as he moves into a Pennsylvania home with his wife, young son and daughter. He’s changed location because the new house was the scene of a strange and brutal murder: a mother, father and two children were hanged from a tree in the back yard, as was shown in the prelude. Furthermore, we’re told, a third child went missing. Oswalt hopes that by investigating and writing about this tragedy he will revive his flagging career; it’s later revealed that he was last on the New York Times best seller list over ten years ago. From the start, Hawke adds interiority to a character whose biography is almost a cinematic cliché: he has the demeanour of a man who lost his touch and is desperate to regain it. Indeed, he is so driven that he blinds himself to the possibility of danger; for example, at first he does not tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) about the home’s dire history, who would have objected to living there. His son (Michael Hall D’Addario) suffers from night terrors; the intensification of these as the film progresses does not spur him to change. His daughter (Clare Foley) paints images of the deceased and missing and yet he is not immediately swayed.

The house itself adds to the rather gloomy atmosphere: it is an unprepossessing brick bungalow, notable for dark, lengthy halls filled with shadows. In the dank and dusty attic, Oswalt finds a box of home movies in Super 8 format; they are accompanied by an aged projector. Strangely, as he discovers, this box was not found in the initial police investigation of the house just after the family was killed.

The films are disturbing records of not just the murder which occurred in the house he’s moved into, but also similar crimes spanning multiple towns and decades. The audience is only spared the most absolutely gruesome details; however this technique, particularly in relation to a grisly incident involving a lawn mower, made the experience even more frightening.

Mr. Boogie“Sinister” could have gone a number of different routes; the explanation provided for the murders is supernatural in nature. We are introduced to a malevolent entity later referred to as “Bughuul”, or as he’s called by some of the children involved, “Mr. Boogie”. This supernatural route borrows heavily from some horror classics: the use of visual media as a means of conveying horror is reminiscent of both the “Blair Witch Project” and the “Ring” series. The entity’s preoccupation with children echoes “Pennywise the Clown” in Stephen King’s “It”. The idea of the young as manipulated instruments of evil echoes “The Children of the Corn”. As the producer of “Sinister” was also responsible for “Paranormal Activity”, there is an unsurprising, though effective use of sudden appearances of people and things, as well as useful doses of bumps in the night. People in the audience gasped and cried out in terror at just the right moments; I was among them. However, there is nothing new here; it is just a well crafted remix.

The story could have just as easily headed down a “true crime” route; it would have been plausible that the films were left by a psychopathic serial killer who wanted to inform Oswalt of his terrible legacy. Such a maniac would have correctly assessed Oswalt as someone who would be an ideal individual to taunt the police about their failure to catch him; an incident at the start of the film in which a policeman (Fred Thompson) upbraids Oswalt for his criticism of law enforcement sets up this possibility. Given the potential of this plot, it is almost a pity that a second “Sinister” was not made. I found myself particularly wishing for this alternative when somewhat dated motifs made an appearance, such as images in still pictures moving of their own accord.

Nevertheless, the supernatural version was perfect for a dark and rainy Halloween night, ideal for obtaining the adrenalin rush that comes from raw terror; after the film ended, I felt as if I had been on a roller coaster ride, roughed up and shaken in the way a good horror film should achieve. As I emerged back into the night and felt the falling rain and cool breezes, I thought that the film and the evening were well suited to each other: it’s unlikely that it will be nearly as scary to those who eventually pick it up on DVD at a supermarket and watch it in the full light of day. It needs both the essential darkness of the cinema and Halloween. It also is enhanced by a crowd: the fact that most of the audience was obviously frightened made it all the more terrifying. Without these factors, it is difficult to suggest that “Sinister” is a great film; nevertheless, when the end of October again beckons and the shadows prevail once more, it would be entirely apropos if some of the parties which the middle aged attend feature a widescreen television, the lights switched off and this film in the player.

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Review: “Prometheus” starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender

October 23, 2012

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=’B005ZCHQKA’]

I’ve long been a devotee of the “Alien” film series: the original 1979 motion picture provided a stark contrast to the optimism which suffused Star Trek and the boyish zeal of Star Wars. Rather, it presented the cosmos as vast, lonely and only the financially strapped or emotionally bereft would dare to venture into its depths. The picture’s strapline was “In space, no one can hear you scream”: the film was effective not just due to its relentless, ravenous monster but as this slogan indicates, it expertly conveyed the terror of facing such a threat alone.

“Aliens”, the follow up, was a more traditional action film but nonetheless entertaining; “Alien 3” again returned to the theme of humanity existing in isolated pockets, alone and in the dark. After this third episode showed the death of the main character, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), I wondered how they could possibly continue with the series. As an experiment, I wrote a piece of fan fiction which suggested that the rapacious “Company” which had featured throughout the films would continue its search for Alien specimens to sell as biological weapons; perhaps the most original idea I had was that they would send another ship to a cluster of stars called “The Maelstrom”. I also wrote about a revived Ripley; in my tale, a clone was created and infused with her memories by a machine that poked a miniscule hole in the space time continuum and sucked her electrochemical brain patterns through the vortex. I added this element because I could not accept that a biological clone would automatically possess Ripley’s mind. I abandoned the project after I discovered that setting up the “Rebirth” scene and explaining the technology involved had swallowed up most of the narrative.

This endeavour represented the end of the line for me; I watched “Alien: Resurrection” with more scepticism than enjoyment. I have not bothered to watch the “Alien Versus Predator” series. It seemed that this particular fictional universe had been tapped out and any further stories would be derivative and tedious.

Sometimes the only way to move forward is to go back: such was the case with the Batman films. By the time the dire “Batman and Robin” appeared they had become a cartoonish parody of themselves. Only reinterpreting the origins of the tale offered a way forward.  Ridley Scott wisely chose this approach in his reboot of the “Alien” series, “Prometheus”. He may have ensured its success by making its relationship to “Alien” mostly tangential.

“Prometheus” is set in the latter years of this century: while technology is shown to have moved ahead by leaps and bounds, this relative proximity to our time provides the narrative with a stronger connection to the audience; it is entirely possible that some of those watching it will live to the year 2089. This link is enhanced by one of the extras on the DVD, a “TED” talk (dated 2023) given by a younger version of one of the main characters. The film also builds upon an idea first postulated by the Swiss author Erich von Däniken, that ancient civilisations such the Mayans and Nazca were contacted by aliens; von Däniken has suggested this thesis is proven by some congruities in archaeological finds. This idea is very questionable as fact but more than workable as a science fiction concept.

Noomi Rapace, whose previous claim to fame was as Lisbeth Salander in the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is almost unrecognisable as the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw. She and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find star maps hidden among the ruins of ancient human civilisations and postulate that aliens were humanity’s creators. They subsequently persuade the Weyland Corporation to spend a trillion dollars in order to take them to the planetary system identified as being the home world of the alien visitors. They find these aliens (which are dubbed “Engineers”), but the “gods” are not all they are cracked up to be. Rather, they are altogether human in being fickle, in their capacity for cruelty and their inability to master their own technology.

These are profound themes; if this film has one particular weakness is that it is rather heavy handed in its treatment of them. The characters purposefully remind us about the “shock and awe” of finding the species which created all that we are and know; somehow the narrative should have found a way to convince us of the magnitude of this event without painting its scenes with such broad brush strokes.

Michael Fassbender as DavidIf the discovery of the “Engineers” is a disappointment, it is more than made up for by the performance of Michael Fassbender as “David”, an android. Fassbender apparently ignored Ian Holm’s performance as the android “Ash” in the original “Alien”, and that of Lance Henricksen as “Bishop” in “Aliens”. Rather, he apparently focused his studies on the replicants in “Blade Runner” and Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey”; as David is a predecessor to Ash and Bishop, this was perhaps wise. An android constructed now would no doubt be subject to these cultural influences, even on a subconscious level. Additionally, Fassbender plays David with perfect ambiguity: is he more machine than man, what precisely does he feel, does he have anything which could be called a moral compass? David’s “inner life” is difficult to fathom and thus the questions are never fully answered: his own creator says that David doesn’t have a soul, yet he has human preoccupations. For example, enjoys films like David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, even modelling his hair style after that of Peter O’Toole. Also, in a disturbing, somewhat Freudian exchange, he states that he wishes his creator was dead. The viewer can’t help but have mixed feelings about him; however the paradoxes presented by his character perhaps leads one to understand why the “Engineers” would have a less than wholesome view of humanity.  An unpredictable creation may be something to be feared.

The film also contains the usual “Alien” mix of terror and isolation: we are presented with the possibility of characters expiring alone under alien skies. The immediate threat, however, is more mutable and perhaps all the more dangerous for being so. We are provided just enough information to be able to understand how the “Alien” came to be. The end leaves us with more than enough questions to justify a sequel: this follow-up apparently will be ready in 2014. I am looking forward to it: while “Prometheus” wasn’t a perfect film, at least it took an enervated franchise by the scruff of the neck, shook the dust off it and gave the viewer something new and interesting to consider. If the original “Alien” was about the loneliness of deep space, “Prometheus” reinforces the idea of an isolated humanity in a universe which is more diverse than previously thought, but also even more hostile.

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