Armed and Impotent

September 10, 2012

A London TerraceA good memory is both a blessing and a curse. I recall 1997 very clearly: I was 25 years old and just getting started. At the time, I lived in my parents’ home in west London. My bedroom was on the top floor of the house and from my window I could see the rooftops of many terraced homes before me, neatly aligned. I felt like I could skip from roof to roof all the way to the city centre.

I remember May 1997 particularly well. I recall staying up late as the General Election results came in: Tory seat after Tory seat fell as the Labour landslide swept all before it. I remember cheering as likely corrupt and definitely weird Neil Hamilton lost the safe Conservative seat of Tatton to Martin Bell; later, I saw Michael Portillo lose Enfield Southgate to Stephen Twigg. There was a Labour victory rally and Blair said to the crowd, “A new day has broken, has it not?” The response was an enthusiastic cheer; I think everyone in the country felt the same at that moment. The following day was warm and sunny; I remember watching the BBC and seeing helicopters follow various motorcades going to and from Labour Party headquarters to Buckingham Palace to Downing Street. Golden sunlight followed Blair as he pressed the flesh on his way to his new office.

I remember the death of Princess Diana the subsequent August. It was a shock: I went to bed after hearing the news of her being in a car accident. I clearly recall that the newsreader said she had merely broken her wrist. The next morning, I awoke late, stumbled down to the kitchen with bleary eyes. I switched on the television and found to my surprise that she had passed away.

I remember the week that followed her death. Mourners laid flowers at palace gates across the country, a sea of bouquets whose tide kept washing in. I remember the long, slow tragic procession of the news: I recall how plans were made, sensitivites pricked and the Queen herself brought to heel by a demanding public. The questions of “why” and “how” were not fully answered back then, nor have they been completely dealt with since.

On the Friday following her passing, I had a typical day. I’d gone to work, I’d come home, I’d gone shopping at the local Safeway. My younger sister was out on the town; my parents were out of the country on a business trip. I had bought ingredients to make a curry: I intended to eat, go upstairs, use the internet for a while, and then go to bed. At that time, the internet was much less easy to use: there were no wi-fi connections, everything was done through dial-up. I had a desktop PC which ran an old variant of Windows which couldn’t handle multi-tasking. It came with a screeching modem; I had to monitor my usage closely to ensure I didn’t run up a big phone bill.

The curry was an entirely forgettable and thoroughly bland mess thanks to a pre-made sauce extracted from a jar. I tried to enliven it with the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon; it was to no avail. I sat in my parents’ large kitchen at the dining table and ate it nonetheless. The news was on in the background: there was speculation about the state of mind of Princes Harry and William. Blair was doing his best to be mourner in chief; I was rather glad that he was leading the proceedings instead of the washed out John Major.

I finished my dinner and returned to the stove: it had a stainless steel hob. I took off my watch, an expensive gift given to me at graduation, and began to attack the surface with window cleaner and paper towels.

I heard a click at the door. I stepped into the hallway: my parents had recently removed the carpet, revealing some red, white, blue, black and gold Victorian tiles. I thought my sister might have come home early; I was ready to greet her and to offer her the remains of my less than satisfying repast. The flourescent light by the front door was on, the door itself was shut. I guessed I heard the wind rustling outside.

I went back into the kitchen; I didn’t dismiss the click entirely, I still wondered what it was. I picked up the roll of paper towels and began to attack the stove again.

I heard another noise, much closer.

I turned, and three figures, dressed entirely in black and wearing balaclavas burst into the kitchen. I was too surprised to do or say anything. Two of them grabbed me; I felt a blade pressed up against my throat.

One of them grabbed my watch. They then hustled me out of the kitchen. The house had a small basement; a staircase led down to several cupboards and an extra lavatory. In one of the cupboards was a safe.

The robbers pushed me to the floor. I was still clutching the roll of paper towels.

They found the safe relatively quickly and demanded to know where the key was. I didn’t have it, nor did I have the combination; my parents had it. I was certain they would hurt me; I was paralysed with fear, I felt hot tears come out of my eyes.

I offered them the keys to my Nissan Micra and the contents of my wallet, such as they were. They weren’t interested; I suggested they go to my parents’ bedroom to find the keys. My voice was strained, tearful. I was not brave. One of them shouted that he wanted to “cut” me, his threat punctuated with profane language.

I heard two of them ransacking my parents’ room. The one who remained kept asking, where is the key, where is the key, I didn’t know, I could only guess. I told them it was my parents’ home, not mine.

After what seemed like an eternity, one of them said, “Don’t move.” I lay there, silent. I heard the door click. I waited. The house was silent again. The roll of paper towels was still cradled in my arm; I finally let it go.

London Police CarI waited a while longer, listening. Then, slowly, gingerly, I made my way up the stairs and phoned the police. I don’t recall precisely what I said but I am sure I stated that I wanted to be protected. It did not take long; I have never been happier to see the flashing blue lights of a police car. My sister came home. She was a bit worse for wear due to her long night out; she was a bit unsteady on her feet and had bags under her eyes. “I can’t deal with this,” she said. Fortunately, we had a friend of the family who knew the police quite well; she was over quickly. An emergency locksmith was called: he was pale, portly with short cropped red hair. He wore a blue t-shirt and carried a large canvas tool bag. He also remains in my memory the most polite and well mannered gentleman in Britain: he spoke calmly to me, and then set to work fixing the lock, which in his opinion and that of the police, had been jiggled and prodded open. The police suggested later that the trio were “semi-pro”.

A neighbour objected to the locksmith using his drill: I heard their exchange.

“What’s all this noise?” she shouted at him.

“I’m afraid there’s been a robbery, madam,” the locksmith replied.

She retreated. He finished his efforts; he was a genuine craftsman. The locks were set firm and secure; he demonstrated their operation and then departed.

I phoned my parents, who were in Boston at the time; they could hardly believe what happened. My sister went upstairs to collapse in her bed. Our family friend stayed with me for a while; she told me that I did the right thing by not fighting, not resisting, and even offering the keys to my car. I didn’t know. I couldn’t sleep in my bed that night; I lay on the sofa in a spare room with a television. I put on Eurosport, hoping inane statistics and results might lull me to sleep. It was partially successful. The dawn came and life went on.

I am not a hero, nor do I possess extraordinary reserve. It took some time for me to get over this episode; my employer at the time decided that I’d suffered too much of a shock and let me go. I suppose the most brave thing I did was go to a job interview not too long afterwards and secure the position. I did have a panic attack en route: because I perceived the robbers to be young, perhaps no more than teenaged, I discovered I had an aversion to groups of teenagers, particularly if they were loud and using abusive language. Such a group was assembled at Euston wearing dirty t-shirts and swearing profusely; my hands shook. The robbers had wanted to “cut” me; I’d been very fortunate they had not. The police told me that the same gang had put another victim in the hospital. Upon hearing this, I wanted the locksmith to return and fit a third and a fourth lock and to just stay inside; however, I didn’t.

My good memory won’t let me fully forget; as time has gone on, this episode has faded into the background, hidden behind stacks of other recollections, some beautiful, others bad. However, I still make sure that the doors are locked at night. At times, I react to random noises in the house: I am careful to catagorise every kind of rattle and creak. I am cautious about being anywhere that has a reputation for criminality; I recall feeling particularly on edge while walking through Barcelona, feeling as if I were evading scores of pickpockets. Perhaps because of my inclinations or mere luck, nothing quite like that has happened since. Yet, it is only when people speak of how to deal with home intruders as a public issue that this particular memory shakes off the dust and cobwebs for active reconsideration; the incident in which Andy Ferrie and his wife shot burglars who had invaded their Melton Mowbray home performed this function.

Arguments have gone backwards and forwards: did they use reasonable force? In this case, as they didn’t intend to kill the burglars, and no one was indeed slain, I suggest they did. Unlike Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer, they didn’t shoot the miscreants in the back. In my opinion, the Crown Prosecution Service came to a sensible conclusion by deciding not to prosecute. But this should not be considered an advertisement for taking on invaders in one’s home: it’s an exception rather than a rule.

Had I owned a gun, it would not have mattered. I would have needed split second reflexes and required the inclination to keep a weapon beside me throughout the evening. Even if this unlikely coalition of circumstances had come together, I would have still had to deal with being outnumbered. Assuming that I’d been overpowered anyway and the gun was taken from me, what would have happened then? Would I have ended up in the hospital like another of their victims? Would I be dead? Is armed and impotent worse than unarmed and impotent?

Nevertheless, it is comforting to know that if reasonable force had been a viable option, I could have utilised it. My life was genuinely in danger. But this issue will never be anything other than muddy; while the reflecting pools of memory are clear, I do sometimes wonder if there was more I could have done. But as I say that, I cannot think of what “more” might have been. In the end, I have much for which to be grateful: I was physically unharmed. The financial loss was marginal: I lost a graduation present whose value lay more in sentimentality than anything else. My father lost some gold cufflinks. My parents’ bedroom looked like a tornado had hit it. I doubt I would have been much better off emotionally if I had shot the burglars; it probably would still linger in the back of my mind as it was the sudden, startling loss of security that was most troubling. I cannot accurately calculate how I would have felt having harmed another person, regardless of them being a burglar. The sole consolation would have been that the robbers were caught: so far as I know, they were not captured, though hopefully they later made a mistake which put them behind bars.

In many cases, the law is clear and rightly so: murder is wrong, theft is wrong, armed robbery is wrong. Once presented, the evidence can convict or exonerate. When it comes to defence of hearth and home, kith and kin, it is tempting to cling to a black and white certainty that all is permitted. It is to the credit of the British justice system that the word “reasonable” has been inserted; it’s a reminder that sometimes law has to add the human factor, put in a dash of judgement and discernment, which is far from the iron certainty of the printed statute. I sometimes tell myself: there’s nothing I could have done except be reasonable in what I did. The police stated that I conducted myself in such a manner. The Ferrie family was reasonable too. Bad and unreasonable things have happened and will happen, possessions will be stolen and people traumatised; nevertheless, reason, proportionality and sense should not crumble in their wake.

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Redefining Rape

August 21, 2012

Julian Assange on the BalconyIt was all so theatrical: the small balcony, the symbol of the Ecuadorian embassy affixed to the railing, the gold, blue and red of the Ecuadorian flag. Julian Assange, neatly dressed in a blue shirt and maroon tie, stepped out and spoke to his adoring fans.

I suppose the tableau would have been more to his liking if the balcony was set at a much more commanding height: it’s not much higher than street level. Assange’s admirers did not constitute a massive throng. As he emerged, heroic music didn’t rise, Assange did not burst into a revised version of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” which paid homage to the land which had given him refuge. Rather, he droned on about how Wikileaks is being persecuted by the United States government. While it’s certainly true that the American government is going after Wikileaks, Assange is so damaged as a spokesperson for the cause that an observer could be forgiven for thinking that he was talking about himself. He seems more than capable of making the megalomaniac’s error of thinking the cause is himself and he himself is the cause. Presumably, so as not to come across as nothing more than a malignant narcissist, he made mention of Bradley Manning, the former soldier who gave information to Wikileaks and has suffered terrible privations as a result. So as to diminish the perception that he is Vladimir Putin’s puppet, an impression which began the moment he accepted money from the state owned television channel “Russia Today”, he made mention of the now-imprisoned Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot. Then, mercifully, he stopped. Assange disappeared back into the confines of his Ecuadorian bedsit, presumably to remain for the foreseeable future.

According to the Independent newspaper, the Ecuadorian embassy consists of only ten rooms on the first floor. Assange has been granted a small office which has been converted into a bedroom. He’s also been given an internet connection, bathroom and access to a kitchenette. The British Government will not offer him safe passage; Ecuador won’t let Assange be arrested. Thus he remains at liberty, but not really: he is free to wander the ten rooms. His supporters pay him visits; one brought him a chocolate cake. He can witness the occasional Ecuadorian citizen coming into the embassy to get a passport renewed. He can talk on the internet; though one of the conditions of his asylum offer is that he refrains from political activity. He can look out the window and watch London’s life go on. The more he lingers, the longer that life will go on without him. If he persists in his confinement, perhaps he will experience that which he seems to fear the most: obscurity. Indeed, if he stays, he may become a curiosity, a strange relic passed from one Ecuadorian ambassador to the next; there is a precedent, during the Cold War, a Hungarian dissident remained in the United States embassy in Budapest for 15 years. Perhaps Assange knows he may be forgotten. Perhaps once he senses that he is no longer the centre of attention, that will be the moment he chooses to emerge. We’ll see.

Assange, despite what he and his supporters think, is not important. Due process is what is vital: in this case, it has been applied up until the point Assange skipped bail. Sweden went through careful deliberation before issuing an international arrest warrant. Britain granted him every chance of appeal; all were denied, and for good reason. The concept of rape and the inviolable principle of consent were under attack.

Strangely, ugly truths seem to emerge in bunches. The truth about the vileness of institutionalised racism emerged in the 1950’s in both the United States and in apartheid South Africa. The failure of the markets in 2007 was a worldwide occurance. Assange’s case has been followed closely on by two distinct incidents which are just as disturbing.

Todd Akin with Unfortunate SignIn America, Representative Todd Akin of Missouri, a Republican candidate for the Senate, gave an interview in which he stated that pregnancy due to personal violation was rare due to biological defences which engage when “legitimate rape” occurs. This is a particularly unscientific position for an individual who sits on the House Science and Technology Committee to take. It was also no mere gaffe: Akin co-sponsored a bill in 2011 which stopped funding for abortion except in cases of “forcible rape”. Despite being rebuked by Mitt Romney and much of the Republican establishment, Akin has refused to drop out of the race.

George Galloway, the publicity addicted MP for Bradford West, decided to pile more infamy on top of his excremental reputation. Yesterday, he told the New Statesman magazine that Assange wasn’t actually guilty of rape, but rather “bad sexual etiquette”. His comments indicate he is remarkably ignorant of British law: rape occurs when there is no consent. Reports state that Assange took advantage of a sleeping woman, he also did not put on a condom when it was demanded. He seems to have neither responded to nor cared about the wishes of the women in question. This constitutes rape under both British and Swedish law: the extradition proceedings in British courts confirmed this. Galloway appears content to make up his own regulations when it favours someone who opposes the United States.

Despite their disagreements on a variety of other issues, Galloway, Assange, Akin, are all of a kind: they seem to think that there is ambiguity around the subject of rape. There is not: without consent, it’s rape. This is the beginning, the middle and the end of the matter; there is no post-modern analysis to be made, no fiddling about with subjective criteria, no softening of the edges or blurring of the lines. If the women in question did not agree to sexual activity, they were violated. This is a crime, not just in reference to British, Swedish, American and even Ecuadorian law, but rather it is a transgression which violates the sanctity of the person. Our fundamental freedoms rest upon an assumption: you may not own another person, but you own yourself. You may give of yourself, but no one is entitled to take. To suggest that under certain circumstances that such “taking” is acceptable or less than a gross violation is to undermine this concept; it threatens liberty itself. It is no wonder that President Obama rushed to condemn Akin by stating clearly, “Rape is rape”; it is puzzling that British politicians have not responded similarly to Galloway’s comments nor been as forceful in dismissing Assange’s claims. Labour’s reticence is particularly inexplicable: they stand a good chance of reclaiming Bradford West if they go in for the kill.

To be sure, there are discussions to be had about the sexualisation of our culture, the complexity of which may make some politicians blanch. Assange looks like someone who worships at the altar of himself on a regular basis; this may have a more sinister dimension. He perhaps is so weak minded as to have had his sense of ethics ground down by a consumer ideology which tells him “because he’s worth it” and provides an abundance of sexualised images every time he turns on a music video. Because he lacks moral courage, he may have allowed himself to turn into a salivating predator who feels entitled to claim what he wants from the vulnerable, provided they show enough leg and cleavage. He may have been dazzled by a celebrity-focused media and succumbed to the belief that he exists at a rarefied height at which normal rules do not apply. All of this may have occured, but it doesn’t matter: just because one is incited in general does not mean that the specific is permissable. He is an adult and responsible for his actions. The plaintiffs in Sweden deserve to have their case heard, their rights respected, due process honoured. If Assange is found guilty, he should go to prison. To again quote President Obama, “rape is rape”, and it always has been. It cannot and should not be redefined.

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The Bottomless Man

August 17, 2012

Workaholic MottoWe all give off false impressions. The man who seems crass may be trying to protect a sensitive side. A person who appears to be overly ambitious may actually be very fearful. The strong are often weak, the commanding are sometimes morbidly uncertain, the happy are frequently morose. Human society is based on an amalgam of truth and fiction; we frequently reach for fantasies to make reality better than what it is. It’s no wonder a divergence between perception and fact often occurs.

In my case, I time and again give off the illusion of being bottomless or more precisely, having endless capacity. This tends to lead to heavy workloads, and an expectation that regardless of the actual stress in a situation, that I can just “take it”. In many periods in my life, I’ve been asked or inspired to “get on and do it”, without reference or care to anything else that may be going on. I presume some of this is a tribute to my productivity, perceived durability and outward calm; this appearance is also not always a reflection of my actual state of mind or being. For example, while doing my PhD full time, I also worked full time. Additionally, I taught a class for two semesters. A health professional later described my situation as “mentally overheated”; others less inclined to be restrained in their prognosis suggested it was “bonkers”. I did not have an actual holiday during this three year period, nor were the weekends restful. After I defended my thesis and the minor edits were accepted, my health was shattered for several months: in the end, I caught Swine Flu and was bed-ridden for three weeks.

I would not present myself as a metaphor, but I believe there is a prevalent fiction with “the bottomless man” at its centre; specifically, there exists an irrational faith that somehow individuals and societies can just “take it”, “do more” and there won’t be any breakage as a result. Lurking within is a pernicious belief that somehow human beings can be something other than what they are, namely limited and flawed. There appears to be an excessive reliance on this assumption and it is preventing progress and denying compassion to those in most need of it.

Ponder over Greece. Germany and other creditor Eurozone nations seem to believe that they are “bottomless”, that somehow they can absorb austerity package after austerity package without anger and torpor crashing in. They are dismayed and outwardly shocked when it does. Greece is in economic freefall: recent statistics suggested a year on year decline of GDP between 6 and 7 percent. Prime Minister Samaras is trying to find out if an extension on debt repayment is possible. Angela Merkel likely tells herself that the Greeks can “take it” even when all empirical data suggests otherwise. The Far Right is also on the rise, a terrible sign of societal collapse. The xenophobic passions stirred by the Neo-Nazis are already translating into government policy: human rights groups have condemned Greece as an unsafe place for migrants. It would seem that Greece is downing the intoxicating liquor of insalubrious falsehoods to ease its sorrows and imbibing it more regularly.

Consider President Obama. If the Republicans are to be believed, he is a one man or part of a one party juggernaut to prevent American revival and greatness. Talk radio hosts suggest he is mendacious from head to toe: they never point out that the powers of the Presidency are often limited. They don’t say that it is difficult to turn back an economic tidal wave. He can do some things to shore up the nation’s financial defences, but in the face of a Lehman’s or Euro collapse, he would be largely powerless. In such a situation, he would be reduced to being like the Persian king Xerxes, only able to whip the waters of the Hellespoint for turning against him. This is the truth: but it doesn’t matter.

Take a look at the British public. Austerity demands that we swallow galloping NHS privatisation, the tripling of tuition fees, an increase in Value Added Tax, cuts to public services, a giant increase in rail fares and suggests somehow we will have enough resources left over to cause the land to overflow with the green shoots of prosperity. This is an unrealistic expectation of resilience and ambition from a frail and weakened nation; it is no wonder that the most lingering British drought is that of confidence. It is also no surprise that the sporting heroics of Team GB appeal: desperate, our political leaders cling to an irrational belief that the atheletes’ success will somehow ripple out to wider national benefit, aside from a mere, albeit much appreciated lift in morale.

Belief in “The Bottomless Man” can take on more sinister forms than just being afflicted by economic malaise. In 2011, a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer named Peter Greener was subjected to a hate campaign by his neighbour, David McGregor. Among other things McGregor said and inspired his children to repeat, was that Greener was “scum” and a “benefit scrounger”. This case is not at all isolated: a May 2011 survey for ComRes stated that 56 percent of disabled people had experienced “hostility, aggression or violence” from strangers. If things can be in perfect harmony and we are all supposed to be bottomless in our capacity to cope, the differently-abled perhaps strike a dissonant note in indication of a limit; the response of some is to demand the music stops or at least is shouted down.

What’s the source of this misapprehension? Could it be that the emphasis on the supremacy of markets for the past thirty years has implanted a belief in human perfection? If the acolytes of Ayn Rand and old-style Stalinists have something in common, it is a faith that somehow man or the product of man can be wiped of significant flaws. Neither could cope when their suppositions were proven incorrect: Alan Greenspan, a Rand disciple par excellence, was stunned that companies didn’t behave rationally, even when it was in their own self-interest. His and Rand’s idea was that markets were self-correcting, i.e., they would eliminate imperfections without outside intervention. This is a supposition of a perpetual machine, something which all the natural sciences tell us is impossible. This faith has persistence even when shown to be false: I recently heard a right wing American talk radio host state that things would be “perfect” if the state would merely get out of the way. It may very well be that if we retain a belief in some form of perfection, however misguided, we apply that yardstick (albeit subconsciously) to assessing a society or individuals. Unsustainable loads are then poised upon their backs, and when the burden breaks them, we blame the carrier and not the weight.

Detail of a Poster Showing Soviet WorkersIn the end, there is only one perfect truth: reality will assert itself, one way or another. Reality wove its way into the dogmatic ghetto of the Soviet Union: eventually, even the most hardened Politburo member was forced to recognise that humanity cannot have all its flaws and blemishes erased and mindless slogans and phony production targets will not make it otherwise. Once understood, it was time to dismantle the Berlin Wall: without a pristine society, there is nothing for it to protect, apart from a pointless, authoritarian cesspit whose only manufactures were misery, dissidence and lies.

Reality hit the markets too: no, they don’t always know best. They get caught up in enthusiasms which in comparison make Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” seem like the reflections of a chartered accountant who refrains from imbibing caffeine. After the hit and the high came the crash and the seemingly endless shaking fevers of withdrawal. The markets and the politicians who do their bidding still linger in opiate dreams, perched on the back of “bottomless” societies and people. But reality will assert itself here too: patience ends, merely coping feels like being oppressed, and then one loses the capacity to stand it any longer. Even the insomniac must surrender to sleep, a society will fall if pushed too far, Athens will burn. Best to stop before that point, best to go to bed before excessive wakefulness leads to psychosis and endless demands lead to explosive anger. We are not bottomless, nor are we as strong as we think, nor can we perfected: perhaps paradoxically, by understanding this, we may get better.

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At the Olympics

August 14, 2012

Eric Idle SingsEric Idle, accompanied by a proverbial crooning “fat lady”, has sung his song. The Olympic flame has been extinguished. The athletes are heading for home: Heathrow has even set up a special terminal for their departure, the front façade of which features a picture of a Guardsman saluting and “Good-bye” painted in white letters. I can imagine a street sweeper, broom in hand, gazing at the vast Olympic Park on the day after. The sunshine on Monday morning was patchy; I envisage him taking in the grandeur of the Olympic stadium, the twisted steel of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower, and realising it’s all done. Usain Bolt has been and gone, Mo Farah flew across the finish line into history, Jessica Ennis became the darling of the nation. The final medal has been awarded, the remaining fireworks have been shot into the air, the last visitors have made their way back to their homes or hotel rooms. Perhaps at Monday’s dawn many of the closing ceremony’s spectators lay amidst tousled sheets, with Olympic paraphernalia on the floor and their heads full of dreams about national anthems, world records being shattered and queasiness about the Spice Girls’ re-union. The hour grew late, breakfast buffets with cheap overcooked sausages shut down for the morning, and many were probably hit with a headache once they dared open their eyes.

All finished, all done. The street sweeper, I imagine, took up arms along with his colleagues and began to brush up the detritus that remained: empty water bottles, discarded pamphlets, tissue papers and candy wrappers. Perhaps he sighed.

All finished, all done: no major disasters. Indeed, there was a glow of quiet pride on the morning of the 13th: everything worked, more or less, and Britain came third on the medals table. Even the ending was well timed: Monday the 13th is an appropriate date for a hangover of a day. Once the Paralympics come and go, and the last of the Proms plays out, we will settle into a dark autumn full of labours and await the arrival of Christmas. It is unlikely the Games will return to these shores in my lifetime; when the New Year rolls around and there is an inevitable discussion of the highlights of 2012, no doubt the Olympics will be one of the few glittering gems in an otherwise midnight tinted year.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to attend the Games. I put in for tickets as soon as I had the chance: in particular, I wanted to see a medal ceremony. On television at least, the award of an Olympic medal is a transcendent experience. The athletes have reached the very pinnacle of their endeavours: there is no one who surpasses them. Thus the medal endows them with a view from the greatest height. Then the national anthem plays, echoing a song of home; there is a pull on the heartstrings, the occasional tear, and then once the flags are raised to their highest height, there is often a wave to the spectators which clearly says “Thank you”.

I reckoned that it would be difficult to get tickets for most popular medal events such as athletics: I therefore placed my bets on sports that are less well known in the United Kingdom. I picked handball, fencing, wrestling and weightlifting. I also chose water polo. In the end, the sole ticket I received was for the Women’s Water Polo final on August 9th.

I came into London via King’s Cross; I fully expected an Olympic city to be absolutely bursting its seams with people. However, the train wasn’t full, and King’s Cross seemed no more bustling than usual. The differences were subtle: there were bright pink signs pointing the way to the Javelin trains for Olympic Park and volunteers in orange and dark purple shirts on hand at Arrivals, ready to dispense maps and information. The volunteers were cheerful and friendly; for someone used to London as being a city of hard edges and frequent scowls, this was a surprise. It is not difficult to think of London as a chilly spinster, one whose cruelties and inconsistencies would make the most ardent lover blanch, but this one time she opened her arms with tenderness.

Prior to arrival, I reserved an overpriced broom cupboard of a room in which to stay. That said, at least it was a clean broom cupboard. Then I took my Olympic ticket in hand and went back to King’s Cross St. Pancras. Prior to my departure on the Javelin, my other half and I had lunch: if there is an Olympic dividend for restaurants such as the one in which we dined, I did not see it being cashed in. There were plenty of empty tables, despite the tempting scent of fresh pizza being baked in a wood fired oven and the establishment being conveniently located at the main terminus for those going to the Games.

Olympic TicketI kept on checking my ticket. The organisers are to be complimented for making the ticket itself special: it came via special delivery in an elegant purple folder. A special London 2012 Travelcard was enclosed along with my bright blue ticket for the event. The pocket inside the folder was emblazoned with the Olympic rings. With this in hand, I could not stop myself from singing “I’ve got a Golden Ticket” as I made my way to the dark blue-gray Javelin train.

Transport had been one of my major worries; I planned my trip around making it as simple as possible to get to and from Olympic Park, thus I was staying in a King’s Cross janitor’s closet. However the Javelin ran frequently, was clean and I got a seat on my trip out. It took less than ten minutes to get to Stratford International. I stood up and saw the golden sunlight reflecting on the station. The second before the doors opened felt agonising; I recalled many years of watching the Olympics on television. I remembered watching Linford Christie triumph in 1992. I recalled Carl Lewis’ victories in 1988 and 1984. I even recollected Torvill and Dean in Sarajevo, 1984 and the last crashing bars of Bolero accentuating the end of their gold medal winning routine. As a boy in America, I remembered how ABC Sports would launch into a brass fanfare prior to any Olympics coverage: this was special. The strains of the fanfare bounced around in my mind as I stepped off the train and found my way to the escalator. I was in an Olympic city, now I was going to my first Olympic Games. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as ABC would have said, lay in store.

Outside the glass and concrete station were people selling Olympic pins arrayed on coloured blankets. The countries and previous Games their wares represented was almost too much to take in: there was even a plastic figurine from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, not a Games noted for its merchandising prowess. I was unsure of the authenticity of what I was seeing, so I bought nothing: I looked up, saw the bright pink signs and carried on towards the Park. I was joining a vast sea of people in the process, a tide that was washing in. After all, the mighty Usain Bolt was due to run again in the 200 metres, and would quite possibly complete a historic double. The wave I was enmeshed in was full of people of many nationalities: Jamaican fans in green and gold, Dutch people in bright orange, Team GB supporters in red, white and blue. The final I was going to see featured a Bronze medal match between Australia and Hungary; the gold was to be decided between the United States and Spain. As an American, perhaps only nominally, I felt it was my duty to support the home team: however, I only had a Team USA LeBron James t-shirt to indicate my allegiance. As a result, I ended up on the more dull end of the spectator palette.

But never mind, the wave bubbled and roiled with enthusiasm and every language that was spoken was a unique means of expressing excitement. I proceeded through the Westfield shopping mall, a rather odd route, I thought, and then onto a walkway. It was at that point I could see the park itself and the stadium.

Words fall away at this point; “majestic” and “splendid” do not do justice to what I saw. Yes, in some ways it was like a gigantic rock concert: when asked later, I said to my interrogator to imagine the largest music gig they had ever attended and quintuple the numbers. It was altogether appropriate that many volunteers directed affairs from lifeguard chairs which stood above the crowds. I made my way towards the security area: my wave was halted by one of the volunteers with a bullhorn and a strong American accent. She allowed another group to cross and then we were permitted to proceed onward.

The tickets said to allow for two hours to get inside, and that security would be rather like in an airport. I entered the security tents with some trepidation: but the queues were short. They were manned by soldiers in desert fatigues and policemen, who were courtesy personified. The police and soldiers had a very close, almost chummy relationship as they did their work. I was screened and out in less than 5 minutes: a volunteer with a laser scanner was on the other side. He was a thin, elderly gentleman wearing a baseball cap. He examined my ticket and said, “Ah, water polo, have you seen it?”

“Only on television,” I confessed.

“You’ll enjoy it,” he told me, “it’s like rugby under water.”

Reassured, I then walked along the main concourse leading to the Olympic Park. It was vast. It is one thing to be told what a massive and expensive undertaking it is to host an Olympics, but here was one in full flow: surely being able to do this at all successfully was a testament to the genius of humanity. After all, when at full tilt, the BBC had 24 television channels up and running to cover all the events. Who manages the crowds, who looks after simple matters such as lavatories? What about ensuring people don’t get dehydrated? The volunteers told us to make sure we took in plenty of water. Every detail matters and has to be thought of: no wonder it’s a symbol of pride to host it well as the chances of failure are so great. But apart from some minor issues with transport and an accidental misuse of the South Korean flag when the North Korean one was required, it had been humming along.

I had a bit of time to wander around the Olympic Park: I bought two programmes rather quickly. There was a “Lucky Number 13” special offer, as it was Day 13 of the Games, so I bought both the main and daily programme for £13 rather than the usual £15. I then wanted to go to the London 2012 megastore, which was a large multicoloured box in the distance. It was ringed with a throng of people. Nearby was one of the largest McDonalds I had ever seen, an odd venue to see at the home of world sport. It was rather like finding a distillery in the middle of a teetotaler conference.

The Olympics, I quickly realised, is like a travelling circus. As I passed the Water Polo venue, I heard a cheerful announcement saying that it was temporary, inflatable and made of plastic. Much of the food was dispensed from tents. My understanding is that the Olympic Stadium will be partially dismantled. This gigantic show is only here for a short time and it’s not intended to be any other way: what comes after two weeks of such intense expenditure and effort? No wonder talk of legacy had littered the news.

I looked around and saw the crowds building further: I noticed that a fair few had clear plastic envelopes hanging around their necks to hold their tickets. Most I saw were off to the Athletics. I thought they were there for Usain.

I plucked up the courage to go to the London 2012 Megastore. Despite it being as large as its name implies, there were two full queues of people waiting to get inside. I swallowed hard and waited in the queue. Along the walls, a mural of athletes sponsored by Visa added to the commercial feel. I was pretty sure that I was about to be ripped off; at that point, I didn’t care. The queue took 15 minutes to navigate; behind me an Austrian tourist talked to some Americans. The Austrian was saying how much he loved London and understood the British people. The Americans were also impressed, commenting on how friendly the volunteers were and how much they were enjoying the Games. I wondered if it would be possible to send a DVD of the Games in place of trade ambassadors like Prince Andrew.

Finally, I got to the head of the queue and burst into the store. I have been through some intense shopping experiences, however, this was full-on contact sport with grabbing hands and even some mild pushing and shoving. I wanted several t-shirts. This ambition was made more difficult to achieve by the fact that at that point in the day the sizes were all mixed up. I reached up to the correct shelf on several occasions and found them littered with all sorts of sizes. The pressure of the crowds behind me meant that I was less discerning in my choices than I would have liked; I did not find a t-shirt for Water Polo, to my chagrin. I bought a Team GB t-shirt which proclaimed that it was “Our Greatest Team”, an Olympic Tennis t-shirt, which I thought was apropos given Andy Murray’s triumph and a London 2012 t-shirt for my other half. I then found a canvas bag with the logo of the 1980 Moscow Games. Finally, I got two Water Polo pins and bolted for the exit. I paid, probably too much, and then burst out back onto the main concourse. Team Jamaica’s fans were increasing in numbers; I thought it a pity there was no Guinness Punch, just standard Coca-Cola and Heineken beer.

I walked a bit further; I noticed a crowd of people looking up at the top of a dark blue edifice with coloured stripes. It took me a moment to realise I had found the studios of the BBC. Television is a wonderful means of conveying the wrong impression. One might have thought that they were in a plush, top quality venue. Rather, the edifice was made out of shipping crates. The studios at the top look pleasant enough, but it’s an illusion: it reminded me of Lego.

Entrance to the Water Polo VenueI made my way to the Water Polo venue; this was accessed via a bridge leading over a canal. A royal barge was parked in the water, resplendent in mahogany and gold. A gentleman dressed from head to toe in clothing with Union Flag motifs, including a bow tie, passed over the bridge; presumably he had attended one of the earlier placement matches. He waved a large Union Flag for the benefit of photographers.

Finally, we were let across the bridge. On the other side were several tents with more volunteers who again scanned my ticket. I got my first close look at the Water Polo venue: although it was temporary, it was nonetheless impressive: the aluminium scaffolding and profusion of plastic did reinforce its seeming transience. I touched a wall: thin plasterboard. I wondered where it would go after all this. What does one do with a temporary, inflatable water polo venue? I made a mental note to Tweet the organisers about this.

Dehydration was fast catching up with me; the summer sun had cooked me somewhat and I had a tell-tale dry taste in my mouth. I bought two bottles of Sprite Zero which looked particularly alluring as they’d been set in ice. It cost £4.60. Never mind, the first refreshing swallow helped.

The time came to go inside. I climbed up the aluminium staircase, feeling slightly as if I was on a construction site. This time next year, I thought, this won’t be here. It will have been recycled into other things. The Olympic Park itself will be rechristened the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park and the stadium will be sold to West Ham. I recalled a visit earlier in the year to Barcelona; I went to their Olympic stadium and could only find a museum and a few bronze plaques to remind everyone the Olympics happened at all. Also, the museum was closed. The only real memorial, I realised as I reached the top, was memory: and I had to absorb all of what I was about to see.

My seat was very high up: nevertheless, I could see the entire pool, which looked cool and inviting. I sat quietly as the crowd filed in. There were hordes of Australians, one bore an inflatable kangaroo. The Hungarians were more subdued: they carried their flags and wore red shirts. There were large numbers of Dutch people there: they had bought tickets in anticipation of their team making the final, however they had been sorely disappointed.

The Bronze medal match began: the water polo athletes paraded out in bathrobes, the Australians in green, the Hungarians in red. Each player’s name and number was introduced, the team captains shook each of their team members’ hands. After the introductions, I wondered if there was anything to be discerned from the way the team acted prior to the match. The Hungarians seemed to be a more tight knit group, with their coach acting as a surrogate father. The Australians dived into the pool in unison and swam across and back: this spoke of a much more professional approach. So: I assumed, this was going to be a contest between a family and an elite corps.

Water Polo matches are generally brief: they are made up of four periods of 8 minutes in length. As soon as one team has possession of the ball, a shot clock of 30 seconds starts counting down, rather like in basketball. This brevity leads to a generally fast pace: an information video displayed on the billboard also stated that each player swims about 5 kilometres per match. An American behind me said to his neighbour that underneath the surface, there is a lot of fighting going on: “It’s basically anything you can get away with,” he said. It often looks rather alarmingly like the players are trying to drown each other.

Hungary has pedigree in this sport; I favoured them. In the 1956 Melbourne Games, their men’s water polo team played in a semi-final against the Soviet Union. Due to the Soviets’ invasion of Hungary earlier that year to suppress a democratic revolution, there was a lot of ill feeling: this manifested itself into a particularly ugly encounter later known as the “Blood in the Water Match”. Hungary triumphed in that instance, 4-0.

Such great issues were not at stake in 2012. The Hungarians started slowly, the Australians were disciplined and focused. I thought I could sense a bit of reluctance on the Aussies part. They had been one of the favourites to win the gold: a bronze was better than nothing for them. The Hungarians, who hadn’t been fancied for anything, wanted it more; they played with passion, even if indiscipline was costly and granted an Australia the lead. The scores came close to evening up by the end of the fourth period. However, Hungary was still behind by one point, 11-10. The Australians began to relax in the final seconds. Then Dora Antal, a Hungarian player, did a final flick shot and the ball went in just as the buzzer rang. It was so remarkable that the crowd nearly gasped as one.

Australia went on to win in extra time; at the end they embraced each other as if they were more relieved than anything else. At least they had gotten the bronze.

As I waited for the next match, I wondered how I would feel once the Americans came in. After all, I hadn’t been to a competitive match of this kind before. Would I turn to a patriotic mess the moment the players walked out? Perhaps distance from the pool helped: I felt nothing in particular as the Americans and Spaniards emerged, the Americans in blue and red robes, and the Spanish wearing robes of red and gold. The same routine with the announcement of players and team captains was gone through.

Behind me, a British man had decided to support Spain. He cried out “Come on, Spain-uh” as loud as he could, as if adding the “uh” to the end of the country’s name would make it sound more sophisticated. When his wife asked him why he was being so vociferous, he replied, “They’re European”.

He was disappointed. The United States started slowly but then deployed a defensive strategy that made it very difficult for Spain to score. At one point the disparity reached six goals, 8 to 2 in favour of the United States. The gentleman behind me sounded almost pleading when he attempted to say “España” and “Come on, Spain-uh”. It was partly his passion which made me shout “Yes!” loudly every time the United States scored; I also may have joined in a couple of the inevitable “USA! USA!” chants. Personally, I didn’t care for the way Spain or America played: I much preferred the devil-may-care, go-for-broke Hungarians even if their methods hadn’t paid off. The Americans were almost industrial in their efficiency; this was until the fourth period when they seemed to be a combination of tired and complacent and Spain clawed 3 goals back. Spain had their problems too: they missed penalty shots they should have easily scored.

The final whistle sounded and the Americans erupted with joy; they pulled their coach into the water with them and formed a circle, celebrating with splashing around. The disconsolate Spanish quietly slipped out of the water. The Americans then emerged, the team posing with the flag for the world’s photographers.

It was not long after this I finally got to see what I had longed to witness. A podium was assembled out of large pieces of purple plastic. A frame was lowered on the side of the pool opposite to the podium; this was to hold the flags. The athletes donned tracksuits in the interim, and were led out to their positions. My mouth agape, I watched as the Australians were first called, and they mounted the podium; they got their bronzes and their flowers. They smiled and waved. It was better than nothing.

Spain was next. They received their silvers. They too smiled and waved. The Spaniards in the crowd started to sing “¡Olé! ¡Olé! ¡Olé!” and the team bobbed along in reply. OK, it wasn’t the gold, but it was an honour.

Then it was America’s turn. The athletes seemed all terribly young and fresh faced: this was an immense honour, earned through very hard work. OK, it wouldn’t be as well remembered as what Usain Bolt was doing across the way in the Athletics stadium, but nonetheless, they had reached their pinnacle. There was no higher to go.

After they received their gold medals and flowers, the announcer invited the audience to stand for the national anthem of the United States of America. The British gentleman who had difficulty pronouncing “Spain” departed. I stood, hand on heart and watched the Star Spangled Banner rise. The anthem, long unsung, tumbled out of my mouth as tears formed in my eyes. It’s been a long time since I departed America and there are days I wonder if there are any genuine ties that bind apart from family members living there. It is where I come from, not where I am or choose to be, but at that moment, it didn’t matter: oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And that was it. I stood and quietly descended the aluminium stairs. I took one last look at the stadium and Orbit tower from my vantage point: they glowed in the darkness. I checked my phone: Usain Bolt had indeed triumphed. No doubt all of Team Jamaica and their supporters would party through the night with the help of Guinness Punch. The vast tide of people was now proceeding out of Olympic Park, I caught onto the wave. I saw my first G4S security person: a gentleman in a bright green shirt. He was heavily outnumbered by regular police. The shopping mall was closed so the flow was redirected around a corner; one of the staff got carried away in showing us where to go. He was young, Asian, skinny and he wore dark framed glasses.

“Folks,” he shouted, “you should go that way!” And then he pointed just like Usain would. I smiled; others laughed.

I thought a bit about the American water polo team. They would head back to the Olympic Village, no doubt: from a distance, it looked like a block of flats, albeit with national banners affixed to the railings. I think most of the players were still at university; “Olympic gold medalist” no doubt would add to their resumes. Surely, it had been a wonderful experience: would they go to Rio to repeat? Was this the end? After all, it seemed unlikely the kind of sponsorship deals which would be available to Usain would come to them. When autumn came would they be hastening back to the red brick buildings of their colleges and fall into the mundane realities of exams, essays and the musty odours of library books? Possibly. The Olympics drew together people from nearly every nation with nearly every variant of reality to hand: at the end, the structure collapses and all flee back to their corners of the earth.

I sighed. The Javelin going back was much more cramped than the one I’d taken to get to Olympic Park. I found a place to stand on the 22:37, and after the 9 minute ride was over, I wandered back down the platform. The queue of people was carefully tended to and boxed in with ribbon dividers. One fellow in a blue jacket tried to break out of this; he was stopped by a fearsome West Indian guard with long hair. She brutally informed him that he wasn’t better than anyone else and that he should get into the queue like everyone else. He complied. I couldn’t recall London ever being so egalitarian.

I cast a glance at the train: cleaners in blue smocks were working inside to prepare it for the next trip. I doubted anyone would want to go out there again that night. I looked at my phone: soon it would be midnight and day 14. Time was almost up. All this would come to an end with fireworks, tears and farewells. But at least I’d seen part of it in person rather than through the distorted prism of television. I thought: I’ve had the chance to do a lot of interesting things, not least amongst them write a novel, earn a PhD, go to Prague in the winter, stand on the equator in Kenya, fall madly in love. This was another experience to add to the collection. There’s much more I want to and will do, but yes, I’ve lived.

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Beyond the Race’s End

August 8, 2012

Mo Farah and his DaughterI think I’ll always remember where I was when I saw Mo Farah win the gold medal in the 10,000 meters. During the early stages, I sat in my living room, squirming and restless in my easy chair. I winced when I saw Mo nearly trip as two Eritreans passed him. As the race sped up and the number of laps relentlessly wound down, I became more tense. Finally, I couldn’t sit any longer: I stood up in front of my television, my fists clenched, willing him to break free of the Kenyans and Ethiopians who encircled him. When Mo finally got away, I started shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”; I didn’t care a jot if the neighbours thought I’d gone insane. When Mo crossed the line, his eyes glassy with exertion and perhaps disbelief, I shouted, “Yes!” My other half, bemused and still sitting on the sofa smiled at me indulgently. “Hello?” she asked.

If Twitter was any indication, I was not alone in my exuberance. It was a glorious moment for Britain: a Somali immigrant, a former refugee, raised in London, had become the toast of the nation. Although there was already plenty of evidence to prove that multiculturalism had benefitted Britain, Mo’s triumph (and Jessica Ennis’ heptathlon gold) made the deceits and prejudices of the BNP and English Defence League appear even more pernicious and ridiculous.

It didn’t take Mo long to seek out his family: his wife is heavily pregnant, he lovingly embraced her. He then ran with his young stepdaughter Rihanna along the track; the Union Flag was draped over his shoulders. I wondered what it must be like for his child to be in London, with all the eyes of the spectators and the cameras of the world’s media focused on her and her Dad, the deafening sound of thousands cheering, the bright lights, the scent of grass, the cool breezes whipping through the cavernous stadium. It will likely remain forever in her memory; when she is very old, she will be able to tell her grandchildren about the night that their great-grandfather became a legend.

When Mo spoke to the press, he said something which caught my attention: he stated that as part of his training, he runs 120 miles a week. In other words, he runs approximately the distance between Bradford and Coventry every seven days. It’s difficult to see how he was able to fit a life around this: but it is clear that he found the time to not only become a champion but also a loving father and a husband. Once he runs his last race and his final medal is placed under glass, he has much else to occupy him and many things which he can do. While running the race has been a major part of his life, it is not all of his life.

Félix SánchezIn contrast, Félix Sánchez, the winner of the 400 metres hurdles, seemed to be an absolute wreck after his victory: after he crossed the line, he let out a disturbing cry that sounded like it came from the pit of his soul. When on the podium, he couldn’t stop the tears from flowing: it seemed odd that a winner would be so disconsolate. The scale of Sánchez’s triumph is enormous: he first won the title in Athens in 2004. He didn’t qualify for the final in 2008: his beloved grandmother, who raised him, died prior to the preliminary heats and this affected his performance. However, he is a man who apparently takes defeat to heart: for example, he wore a red flashing wristband between 2001 and 2004 to remind him of the fact that he didn’t qualify for the 400m hurdles final in the 2000 Sydney Games. After his Beijing debacle, it appears that he spent four difficult years climbing back up to the podium; his imperatives were made all the more intense by a promise he made to his deceased grandmother to win an additional medal. I can only imagine his investment of early hours, pain, sweat, and his muscles and joints fighting against the effects of overuse and age. I flinch at the thought of him having to use a weights machine to build up his legs and the sounds of metal wheels turning and squeaking cartilage in his knees. He achieved victory perhaps because he was honed to a razor’s edge of performance that less ambitious and perhaps less obsessive men could not achieve. He attained his objective: so now what? He is 34: will he try again in 4 years? Win or lose, then what? He did not run a victory lap with a daughter or son who would carry his legend forward in time.

It is to be hoped that the Dominican Republic has sports psychologists to hand; certainly, if I were a member of the International Olympic Committee, I would have been somewhat alarmed by Sánchez’s podium breakdown and would want to make certain of his well being. Hopefully he has also more in his life than what has hitherto been seen or reported in the press: it has been said that he had “Grandmother” written in Spanish on his shoes and a picture of his grandmother and himself pinned to his racing bib. It seems like achieving victory has been everything to him; he may not have had time to consider what lay beyond the race’s end.

Sánchez is not only athlete who has been consumed by the pursuit of excellence: Michael Phelps once stated that all he did was eat, sleep and swim. He now is the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympic games and officially, he’s retired; now what will he do? Theoretically, anything he likes: and perhaps he has a sense of humour which will help him when he is no longer the champion. The same assessment can be made of Usain Bolt: his antics, such as late nights spent with the Swedish women’s handball team are funny, perhaps even a bit peculiar, but at least when he hangs up his spikes and is no longer the great runner, he will remain a larger than life personality. But how many athletes, winners and losers alike, have nothing but their training regimen and those few moments of competition in which they can shine? What will happen to them when the flames of London are doused and they board the flights or trains heading for home? Yes, by all means celebrate their courage and achievements: paint the letter boxes gold, issue commemorative stamps, buy the pins and t-shirts, even raise a glass or two. But hope too that more than gold, the athletes have that which should be the birthright of all human beings: a chance at being happy.

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A Season of “Mad Men”

August 3, 2012

Hiroshi HoketsuI wish I had something profound, brilliant and original to say about the London Olympics. However, a quick examination of the morning papers suggests that all the best superlatives and metaphors have been used, nearly every last sporting cliché has been deployed, and even fake sideburns, à la Bradley Wiggins, have become an essential fashion accessory. Sometimes, events are beyond further analysis or comment. The cynic occasionally finds the sharpened tongue dulled by enthusiasm, the sceptic has their dun-coloured outlook brightened by a spectacle like an Opening Ceremony that celebrates the National Health Service, the curmudgeon’s grumbles are stilled by marvels like the 71 year old Japanese athlete Hiroshi Hoketsu taking part in Olympic Equestrian events.

Apart from the Olympics, there is presently a dearth of entertaining television. It’s August: much of Europe is closed for business. In my mind’s eye, I can visualise the entire population of Paris climbing into Citroen 2CVs and aged Peugeots with luggage strapped to the roof, then driving off to the sunshine and beaches of the Riviera. Less romantically, children on both sides of the Atlantic are on their summer holidays. If I ransack my memory for memorable Augusts, I find a noticeable lack: usually, it’s the waiting room of the year, a pause before final blast off in September. The biggest annoyances are generally flies and sudden downpours at picnics; these are soothed with another icy glass of Pimms. Given that it’s such a low octane month, it’s no wonder that the programme planners at the BBC and ITV reach for their dustiest shelves when pulling down recordings of yesteryear’s shows. For example, I think BBC Three is making a point of showing the same aged episodes of “Family Guy” at least three times per week, just to ensure that no one missed them. Or perhaps they thought that people in an August frame of mind wouldn’t notice.

In order to provide a break from sport, tedium and the prevailing overcast weather, my other half bought the DVDs of the first season of “Mad Men”. As with the Olympics, most of the florid language which could be used to describe it has already been deployed. “Stylish”, “brilliant”, “masterfully written” and “beautifully filmed” are all terms which have appeared repeatedly in reference to this show. Previously, I’d been put off by the hype: besides, I had a bad feeling that a period piece about America in the 1960’s would be somehow self indulgent. The United States was dominant during this period and it was reasonable to fear that the show’s American producers would be unable to resist the temptation to paint the time in far too warm colours. Additionally, it was difficult to envisage how a programme that featured the sultry and alluring Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway (a character which is suggested could be Marilyn Monroe’s role model) could be anything other than an encomium to the era.

Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD] (DVD)

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However, it isn’t. The Sixties are presented as a seething, jittery time from the moment we’re shown the opening credits: the theme music suggests jangled nerves and depression, an animation shows a man stepping into his office and then falling through the floor. The characters are a peculiar yet realistic mix of virtue and vice. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the main character, is an advertising executive. He is simultaneously a serial womaniser and a caring father; he is moral vacuum yet also an ethical businessman. The latter quality is illustrated when Draper’s firm is presented with a choice: they could either continue to work with a small, regional airline called Mohawk, or they could drop them in order to have a chance at earning American Airlines’ custom. Draper strongly argues in favour of Mohawk on the basis of principle. He states that it would simply be wrong to drop a customer that had been honest, straightforward and enthusiastic: this objection is ignored. Draper’s agency subsequently fails to land the client due to a change in American Airlines’ management. Whether the writers intended it or not, this episode encapsulated the thinking which eventually led to our current economic problems; ignore the solid if unspectacular, gamble on big gains. Furthermore, senior management do not appear to pay a particular price for this failure and thus are free to fail again due to indulgence in mindless greed.

The programme also puts the mutability and low cunning of capitalism on display. Draper is presented with a leaflet by a younger colleague; it’s written by the avowedly socialist “Students for a Democratic Society”. However, the commercially-minded Draper and his associate are not at all alarmed by the prospect of hordes of young Reds taking over the country, rather, they look at the tract’s implied messages in order to better sell a brand of coffee to the youth market. Lenin once stated that the capitalists would sell him the rope with which he would hang them; Draper proves to be the anti-Lenin, by twisting the words and thoughts of socialists into a lasso which will rope them into buying more of his clients’ wares.

Don Draper Smoking“Mad Men” also makes a statement about America as a whole: essentially, it suggests that it’s a land littered with psychologically questionable yet likeable phonies. Draper is a “self-made” man: his identity is based on fabrication. He possesses intelligence, cunning, but most of all, ambition; behind the winning smile and confident demeanour is a deeply insecure individual who cannot find respite from his desire for more. He does have “better angels”; sometimes they win, probably not often enough. He is furthermore often a slave to passion. Yet the viewer can’t hate him: for example, a visit he makes to his distressed colleague Peggy (who is languishing in hospital) prevents overt dislike of his character. One can’t truly warm to him either: he’s too unreliable. A comedian who has been cuckolded by Draper tells the dapper ad man that he’s “garbage” and “he knows it”; Draper doesn’t argue. Later, however, Draper punches the comedian in the face. It may be that many struggle with emotions about Draper’s country that are just as conflicted as their feelings about him. Many are likely charmed by the idea of a land of opportunity; they dislike what it takes to reach the upper echelons of American society. There is a belief that Americans are forthright; but perhaps “Mad Men” illustrates that this quality is a veneer, an overt falsehood which is all too detectable. It is a country in which many, like Peggy’s family, are imbued with a strong religious faith; it is also a place where casual adultery happens on a regular basis. It’s a nation that prides itself on being free, but “Mad Men” is full of characters like the closeted homosexual Sal Romano and the fad-chasing Paul Kinsey who seem anything but liberated. The Declaration of Independence states the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right, but one of the show’s more memorable quotes is, “Everything you think’s gonna make you happy, just turns to crap.” It is fair to say that every society contains a coalition of opposites and the opportunity to say “on the other hand”: perhaps these contradictions pull at each other with greater vigour in the United States than elsewhere. This may be the subtle cause of the writhing restlessness that lurks behind the sharply tailored suits, the regularity of three drinks at six o’clock, and the brightly polished Cadillacs. The Sixties are shown to be good times, yet much is terribly wrong.

So far as I know, “Mad Men” isn’t being broadcast on British television at the moment; it’s easy to see why it would be out of kilter now given the bonhomie imbued by August and the Olympics. Programme planners would rather endlessly repeat jokes about flatulent cartoon characters for those not focused on the spectacle and wonder we see in London. New episodes of “Mad Men” are generally shown between March and June. A pity: it’s more of a September show, with its bright days and ever darkening nights; now is a time to linger in the sun, if one can find it, dip one’s toes into bright Mediterranean seas, and allow Bradley Wiggins style sideburns, if apropos, to grow. In September, there will be a lot more to think about.

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A Weekend in Dublin

August 1, 2012

A Perfect Pint of GuinnessA trip to Dublin offers me an opportunity to visualise another self. I have had two distinct chances to move to Ireland: the first was when I was a callow intern in the Information Technology industry back in the mid 1990s. Thanks to Ireland’s burgeoning high tech economy, it seemed like a prudent place to go: the opportunity disappeared nearly at the last minute. The second time was in 2002; there was a stock images firm based in County Kerry, and it was entirely possible I could have worked for them as a Webmaster. I recall the cramped Ryanair flight from Stansted, the basic airport, a long taxi ride which cost a fistful of Euros, and the near-empty guest house in which I stayed. The landlady who tended it had short dark hair, introduced me to the glory of Irish cooked breakfasts and told me that I was “very welcome”. I believed her. One night, I went down to a pub in the centre of Tralee; as I entered, I noticed that many awards hung on its old oak panelled walls which stated that it served a top class pint of Guinness. I sat at the bar, the locals somewhat curious as to what I, a foreigner, would make of the glass of pitch black liquid with a creamy head. I brought it to my lips, sipped, and the rich and flavoursome nectar flowed over my tongue. Yes. I sat quietly, no one but the aged barkeep engaged me in conversation; it was fine, given the quality of that pint compared to it’s British counterparts, I wanted to focus my attention on what I was drinking. After I finished it, I quietly said “Thank you”; the barkeep nodded.

Afterwards, I walked back to the guest house. The sky was full of stars; there was no light pollution so even the most dim of them could be seen. As I got further away from Tralee, the few sounds of traffic dispersed: instead I heard distant waves crashing against the shore.

Someone else became their Webmaster; perhaps given what has happened to the Irish economy since that time this was a fortunate turn of events. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like had I moved. I suppose I would have found a way to insert myself into the rhythms of life there, gotten to grips with the various systems, and perhaps even eventually learned Gaelic. I’d read the Irish Times, listen to RTE Lyric FM and gone to the Gaelic Football matches.

Arriving at the age of forty is a chance to look back as well as forwards; thus my other half made an inspired choice by bringing me to Dublin for my birthday. The moment I was able to look out at Leinster’s green landscape, pick up a local newspaper, hear the almost musical cadences in the way people speak, I could almost catch sight of my other self and consider what might have been. Upon reflection, I suppose had I moved, it would have been all right, despite the current poor state of the economy. After all, St. Stephen’s Green looks just as alluring as it did the first time I came to Dublin; the seagulls, swans and pigeons in the pond still compete for visitors’ pieces of bread. Grafton Street was full of shoppers, not all of them tourists, blinking in the July sun. Brown Thomas was as resplendent as ever; the Luxury Hall had Prada iPad cases for sale. Bewley’s was still packed full of people ordering coffee and brown scones with jam. Compared to Barcelona, which I’d visited earlier this year, Dublin looked propserous: indeed, Ireland is doing better than Spain. Last week, Ireland successfully returned to the international bond markets and sold €500 million of its debt. Furthermore, Ireland’s economy is expected to grow this year despite a tough first quarter, which is in marked contrast to Spain, Portugal, Greece and even the UK. Dine at “The Winding Stair” which overlooks the River Liffey: the floors are bare and the tables are not covered in fine tablecloths, nevertheless, the chalkboard suggests exquisite wines to accompany sumptuous dinners. Such variety and sophistication gives Dublin a truly European feel; it may be more cosmopolitan than even London. It can’t just be the tourists; wealth is somehow still being generated, and Europe is still seen as the future.

But look a bit more deeply. There are many signs along Fitzwilliam Street indicating offices to rent: too many, in fact, given the pristine beauty of the 18th century buildings there. Look in the window of a residential estate agent: white stickers cover the original prices of many homes, a sign of a boom turned to desperate bust. The homeless of Dublin sleep in doorways and sit on footbridges, trying to cadge change from passers-by. South of the Liffey, I saw a destitute man wander alongside the now impotent Central Bank of Ireland’s overblown seventies-style concrete offices and adjust his ill-fitting navy blue tracksuit bottoms before running a dirty hand through his thinning brown hair. It would have been altogether poetic had he raised his fist and shaken it accusingly at the edifice.

A Sign of Muted ProtestFurthermore, at least some of the young are completely alienated. A number of lanes intersect Grafton Street: in the bright sunshine, carts selling silver jewellry predominate these alleys. I saw one young man, tall and thin, with blue eyes and blonde hair and wearing a bright green baseball cap, talking to some tourists from Spain as he wrapped up their purchases. The Spanish seemed curious, why hadn’t the Irish rebelled in the same way as their afflicted counterparts in Greece? There had been a referendum on the “Austerity Treaty”, it had passed, and that was all. Why there were no mass movements like the Spanish indignados?

The young man shrugged. “We’re too apathetic,” he said, “We just say, ‘Oh well’ and get on with it, even if everything is going down the toilet.”

He then explained his plans; he said he intends to leave the country as soon as possible. “It’s a tradition in Ireland: we bugger off the moment it gets tough.” He also pointed out, “Ireland’s greatest export is its people.”

This had benefits, he said. “Nearly everywhere there are Irish, and where they are, there will be an Irish pub. Even in the most remote desert there’s an Irishman pulling a pint.”

At that moment, I understood why Dublin has produced no less than 4 Nobel Prize winners for literature: the young man had summoned up a lucid and sentimental vision of his countrymen without even trying. I believe there is a PhD thesis waiting to be written which explores the Celtic imagination and its influence on English literature. However, what the young man said was also deeply depressing: it was clear he was bright, entreprenurial and ambitious. Ireland couldn’t sustain or contain his hopes: he was resigned to going elsewhere to achieving his goals. Meanwhile, it was difficult not to notice that many of the waiters, waitresses, hotel clerks and other customer service personnel I encountered in Dublin were of Eastern European origin. Was this because of wage differentials? Or had Irish expectations been allowed to rise so high that an adjustment downwards would be asking too much? It’s difficult to say; nevertheless, there is something odd about being shown Irish rugby shirts by a young woman whose accent is from much further east than Donnybrook, and simultaneously being aware that the nation’s best talent is fleeing out the back door.

And yet, it should be all right. Go to the Guinness Storehouse: it is an impressive, high-tech and slickly marketed attraction which caps off its exhibitions by offering a free pint to vistors at the “Gravity Bar”. The pint is as good as the one I sipped years ago in Tralee; but now my surroundings weren’t quaint or old-fashioned, rather, I had a 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin. This structure is not the product of a nation that is going to go quietly.

Also, the Irish know whom to charm and how to flatter: one night, at one of Dublin’s better restaurants, I saw an Irish-German Friendship Society dinner taking place at a set of tables opposite to mine. The Germans spoke with genuine warmth about their hosts. No doubt if asked, they would reach into their wallets and save the Irish if necessary, and indeed, they would influence those who could open their wallets wider.

The situation is aided by the fact that the Irish government seems to be one of the better ones in Europe. It’s not perfect by any means, but there is an air of competence which emanates from the Fine Gael / Labour coalition which is lacking from its counterpart across the Irish Sea. The Irish Taoiseach also seems content to keep a much lower profile than his British counterpart; this has arguably allowed him to be more successful.

What may make Irish prosperity certain, however, is their collective mindset. The taxi driver who took my other half and I back to the airport told us that “We had a big party. It’s over now. We’re now tightening our belts so that good times can come back.” Given this attitude, it’s no wonder what the markets have allowed Ireland back in while they shut the likes of Spain out. Call it fatalism or realism, Ireland knows how to endure: it looks problems squarely in the eye, it takes them on, and those who have to leave, will leave, but the door will remain open for their return.

I was happy to go back to Yorkshire, but at the same time, I cannot help but think that my other self on an alternative timeline would have been just as cheerful to remain; who knows, there may be another time in which the chance to be that person presents itself again. If so, I’d embrace it without hesitation.

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July 26, 2012

Peter AndreIn my opinion, only once has Peter Andre been remotely interesting. Several years ago, he appeared on a television programme about age: with the assistance of extensive protesthetics, some acting lessons and clothing procured at a charity shop, he tried to appear much older than he actually is. He attempted to fool his then wife, the pneumatic Katie Price, into thinking he was an Anglican vicar who disapproved of her lifestyle. He gave the game away fairly quickly by addressing her with a private nickname; this thoughtless slip caused the entire prank to dissolve into laughter and embarrassment.

The other participant on the show, Julie Goodyear, had the reverse challenge: she had to come across as being much younger than her years suggest. She was altogether more successful; she even managed to pass herself off as an American. The moral of the story, perhaps, is that it is easier for age to recall youth than for youth to approximate age. Alternatively, it could be merely that Ms. Goodyear is far more intelligent than Mr. Andre.

This lesson has been buzzing around in my brain recently because this week, I will be turning forty. I have been approximating age for a very long time, though perhaps more successfully than Mr. Andre. I recently had occasion to look through old photos of myself: while I saw a younger, fitter version of me with more hair on my head, I also recalled a distinct sense of disquiet. I felt as if I hadn’t achieved who I was supposed to be, my interests and my age didn’t marry up. Others around me sensed this; when I was in my twenties, I briefly was in a relationship with a young lady who would say, jokingly, “You’re 47, right?” Now my years and my outlook align: the face I see in the mirror reflects what I think and feel. I am comfortable in my skin; I should be happy, and in many ways I am. Nevertheless, as I say a final good-bye to my youth, I will miss some of its aspects.

In my youth, I was foolishly romantic. I didn’t quite know back then that true love arose from accepting someone entire, faults and all. I didn’t fully realise that relationships involved extensive compromise and the ability to say “Sorry” and mean it on a frequent basis. Because these concepts weren’t fully formed, I could indulge in meanders down the fantastic and imaginary alleyways of “ideal love”; I believed that the constant searching and restlessness that were the feature of my younger years would find rest in another. I have even had a moment of being thunderstruck by instant affection.

18 years ago, I was finishing up my Bachelor’s degree with a course that took my classmates and myself on a tour of Eastern Europe. We went from London to Brussels to Berlin to Warsaw to Krakow and then to Budapest. By the time the group arrived in Budapest, we were exhausted. As part of the Krakow stop, we had taken a tour of Auschwitz, an experience which still scars my memory. I recall the abandoned crematoria, and the flakes of human bone that they once spewed out which still lay among the tall grass. In the museum, there were piles of suitcases never to be reunited with their owners. The piles of eyeglasses and shoes were just as heart rending.

Budapest StationBudapest, then, was a respite. Red poppies grew in the rail yard and swayed on a warm breeze; the station was a magnificent piece of 19th century architecture, a testament to belief in industry and progress. The silvery Danube flowed through the middle of the city; on both the Buda and the Pest side, there was an air of well-being, punctuated by delicate music plucked out by a busker with a zither. I fear this sense of bonhomie has since deserted the place.

We students were granted a day off. I went on a wander by myself; I first went shopping on the Pest side. I bought a book on the collapse of the Soviet Union at an English language bookstore; this seemed apropos given that the transformation of Eastern Europe was the main subject of my course. I then went walking along the shopping streets, pausing at a shop window that featured a t-shirt emblazoned with the pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the legend “Game Over”. This seemed like a great souvenir; furthermore, given that I had been to Berlin not long after the Wall fell, it was particularly poignant for me. When I was there, I had borrowed a hammer and pick from some students and my younger sister and I had chiselled out several pieces of that hated Wall.

I went in the store and picked out several shirts. A female voice asked from behind me if I needed some assistance. I don’t believe I gave a particularly eloquent reply in the negative. As I went to the counter, I set down the clear plastic bag which contained my book; the same voice asked if I was interested in Russian history. I turned to face my questioner.

She was younger than I. She had golden blonde hair which were done up braids, and she wore a traditional Hungarian outfit in black with applique flowers in pink and white. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, her smile was radiant. My heart raced; my hands shook. I couldn’t leave the store without making a total fool of myself by asking her to breakfast the next morning or at least the chance to write to her. She consented to give me her address. Feeling as if every internal organ had been turned over and twisted, I left the shop and raced across the Chain Bridge. By this time, rain was starting to fall in earnest. There is a set of stairs which lead up to the top of the Buda hills. Despite being slippery and muddy, and the cold rain penetrating my thin denim jacket, I ran up them. I then raced down the narrow streets of Buda, passing the 18th and 19th century homes lined up along cobblestone pavements and found the Matthias Church. I went inside and in the dim illumination provided by candlelight, I said a prayer, for I had thought that in that moment my turbulent soul had found its home. I believed that when I said “I love you” that the person for whom that statement was intended and meant had been discovered. From that moment on, I was sure, I would not only know, but understand: I would also be inspired, the flame of which would keep me alight for the rest of my days.

Sadly, life’s path is seldom covered in rose petals. She and I did write to each other. However, she had a boyfriend; she later married him. It was not too long after I had finished my Bachelor’s degree and found myself living in a tiny, humid cottage in Hertfordshire that I received her wedding pictures: she was a vision in white, her new husband and she smiling happily for the cameras. The photos came in a thick stack. After viewing two of them, I threw the rest in the trash. My older self wishes that I could transport back in time to that younger variant and say “No, don’t go down that path”. A lot of mistakes would have been avoided had I not persisted in my belief. Abjure poetry and reject Cyrano, the reality of love is that you have to be able to laughingly tolerate each other’s foibles and quirks. That may be more profound than the idea of it opening before you like a bloom in the first rays of Spring sunshine as that kind of affection has to flourish in more stony soil.

I say that, and then wonder: perhaps the grief of Budapest and the other sorrows that followed were formative. There were wonderful moments associated with being romantic; there was not just Budapest in the rain, but there was Chicago on a snowy night, Amsterdam in the spring and West Virginia in the summer sun. Time perhaps tempered and refined all my tendencies rather than stilled them completely. Maybe also I couldn’t have learned my final lesson without going through all the other courses associated with it. I found my heart’s home when I least expected to do so, namely not long after I was just about ready to give up. My last date prior to meeting my present significant other was an unmitigated disaster: my companion for the day was a doctoral student of Mediterranean origin and exhuberantly so. She wore red. She pinched my cheeks upon greeting me, a peculiar gesture to a man of 38 years as I then was, and referred to me as a “delightful boy”. This behaviour perhaps could be ascribed to cultural peculiarities, the fact that she was constantly on the phone and strangely temperamental could not. I fled as soon as I politely could; I descended into the bowels of the Victoria Line and heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Now here I am in Bradford, with my home, my other half and our three cats. When I’m at work and the clock approaches the appointed hour, I feel liberated, happy to get in my car and go back to talk of grocery lists and taking out the trash. When I greet her at the door, I recall the day we met and how I plucked a single peach coloured rose from my garden as a gift. No, this wasn’t what I envisaged when I was drenched by the rain in Budapest, but it is better because it is real rather than merely ideal. It endures.

The theme is consistent. Yes, I miss aspects of youth: I could run for miles, I had better cut suits and I fit into them well, there were no grey hairs to vex me, and my knees didn’t creak like they needed oiling. I also had the one great luxury of youth: a belief that vast amounts of time lay ahead, and I had a constant ability to say to myself that I was young and free. But free to do what? I suppose I could stay out all night: and 9 years ago, it was altogether thrilling when I was with work colleagues for a pub lock-in until two o’clock in the morning. I remember the dark wood panelling of the pub, the scent of stale beer, the orange street lamps and all too occasional taxi cabs winding their way up Farringdon Road. Now my liver and stomach would revolt against such consumption of alcohol and very late hours seem stupid; did I lose much by arriving at this conclusion? I gleaned all the pleasure I could from doing it back then; that’s enough, now is better.

I know that age has its pitfalls and pains: a friend of mine and my other half said to us over the weekend that once one hits the mid-forties, certain things, such as putting on shoes and socks, become more problematic. When I descend the stair in the morning and see the cats bound ahead of me, I can sense this physical decline approaching. Furthermore, I am slowly surrendering to alopecia, and it takes ever more cups of strong coffee to get my engine running. Certain things can be improved and I will do so, but as I wrote in an as yet unpublished novel, “Entropy is a fact of life.” All things reach a peak and then decline. I’ve reached the top or nearly the top of life’s arc. This doesn’t mean that what happens from here on in cannot be enjoyed, savoured, relished and remembered. I am older and happily so. That doesn’t mean at all that I am near dead.

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Review: “The Dark Knight Rises” starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway

July 25, 2012

Batman the Dark Knight RisesChristopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has dramatically altered how we view “superhero” films. Prior to “Batman Begins”, there was an expectation that such movies would be as lurid as their printed counterparts; the audience’s suspension of disbelief was taken for granted, their willingness to accept a villain, say, who had fallen into a vat of chemicals at a playing card factory and thus was rendered “The Joker”, was assured. Villains’ lairs could be absurd, like Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face’s divided home, each side featuring its own appropriately attired moll serving quail’s eggs on one half, and donkey meat on the other.

While there are films of this genre which remain ludicrous, they are now seen as and felt to be ludicrous. The paradigm has changed. The Joker is no longer the flamboyant giggling lunatic that Jack Nicholson portrayed in 1989, rather, he has become Heath Ledger’s genuinely menacing psychopath. Batman’s ephemeral searching for romantic fulfillment and mawkish mourning for his dead parents in the earlier films has since been transformed into a set of believable neuroses. The Alfred of old, who was a two dimensional and a somewhat staid and stuffy character, is now portrayed by working class and genuinely sentimental Michael Caine. We have swapped the packaging for the gift inside, surface glamour for depth and interiority. We have even traded lurid comic book colours for washed out shades of brown and grey.

These upgrades have made the Batman story much more interesting. As a result, it was with some sadness that I went to see the last of the Dark Knight trilogy. It is entirely possible that there will be more films made, but this last episode had a difficult birth, not least because it took Christopher Nolan some time to find a story that he particularly liked. Given this, this is very likely the swan song for the “Dark Knight”.

The film is set 8 years after the last one. Thanks to reforms instigated by the events in the prior episode, crime in Gotham has largely been defeated: this is a transformation which mirrors the changes in New York City. No longer needed to do battle with evil, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, albeit with fingernails and hair that don’t require much trimming. I was delighted that Wayne was shown to be unsteady on his feet: he has been hobbled by his superhero activities. To ram the point home, a doctor gives him a negative prognosis about his joints and flexibility: extreme sports, he’s advised, are out. In my opinion, Nolan has done well by bringing in age, wear and tear as a plot point. This aspect allows a topic to be explored which has hitherto been lacking from such films, specifically what happens if a “superhero” is, underneath it all, an ordinary man? What damage is done by leaping about and getting into fights all the time? Wayne is physically broken and spiritually bereft; but never mind, Batman is needed.

Bane in Dark Knight RisesBatman’s return is necessary because the city is menaced by a new villain: Bane, as played by Tom Hardy. Perhaps the most unsatisfying aspect of the film is the lack of a full explanation of his origins: Bane has the physique and visage of a Mexican wrestler but speaks with the accent, intonation and eloquence of a Shakespearean actor. He is shown to have a sensitivity and appreciation for music, but is also capable of extraordinary violence. It is disturbing to consider that someone so obviously cultured can also be extremely brutal: however, many of the worst monsters that have plagued modern history, for example Reinhard Heydrich, possessed this combination.

At first, Bane’s purpose appears to be to instigate the ultimate “hostile takeover” on behalf of a greedy employer. However, he is actually a hard core terrorist, trained by Batman’s nemesis from the first film, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson); Ra’s al Ghul wished to destroy Gotham, and Bane intends to fulfill this charge.

As for the other antagonist, Anne Hathaway plays Selina Kyle, otherwise known as “Catwoman”. The “Catwoman” moniker was not deployed in earnest in this film, nor is there any particular feline behaviour seen; this is not Julie Newmar’s outrageously purring, meowing Catwoman. Rather, this “Catwoman” is a cat burglar who is also a skilled pickpocket and extensively trained in martial arts. Furthermore, she is not particularly evil: her misdeeds are more self-centred, i.e., she’s more interested in self-preservation and wiping her record clean. She also is capable of feeling remorse and acting on nobler impulses.

The Dark Knight Rises taps into our present societal traumas; this greatly enhances the plot. For example, Bruce Wayne is warned by Selina Kyle that he and his rich friends will have their fortunes swept away. Furthermore, Wayne Enterprises is in trouble due to bad investments; economic chaos is one of the forms of terrorism that Bane’s henchmen deploy. However, I suspect much of the audience developed some sympathy for Bane after he kidnapped selfish, crude yet well-dressed stock brokers to use as human shields in a getaway. A kangaroo court which is formed at Bane’s instigation to punish wealthy and powerful miscreants had disturbing echoes of Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union’s early days. In essence, Nolan suggests prosperity, peace and order are very fragile; this thesis implants an interesting element of social commentary into the film.

The Dark Knight Rises also packs quite a dramatic punch: there is a significant plot twist towards the very end. Up until that point, I had a relatively clear idea of what was happening and what would happen. Then it came, as sharp as a knife: some might say it was contrived, but nevertheless, it worked well and was genuinely surprising.

The Dark Knight Rises is not without its flaws: there are still remnants of the “Batman in Love” problem. In this film, his romantic attentions are divided between Selina Kyle and Wayne’s fellow billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). A lot of very fine actors, including the superlative Gary Oldman reprising his role as Commissioner Gordon, get too little air time. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Detective John Blake was excellent and relentless, he is too obviously set up as Batman’s future sidekick when it’s revealed his legal first name is “Robin”.

Nevertheless, when the film ended, it was rather melancholy to think that we won’t see any more of this; the rest may be left to run in the imagination. But perhaps Nolan knows best: 1989’s Batman, which was less than optimal apart from Nicholson’s performance, segued into some very unsatisfying films culminating in the dreadful “Batman & Robin” in 1997. Nolan has made it clear that he would rather tell no tales than relay a sub-par one: for this he should be complimented. Though the fans may be hungry for more, if he finishes at this point, he can be proud of a fine trilogy which will likely stand as the definitive superhero films of our era.

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A Walk in Bradford

July 20, 2012

A View of Fagley BradfordThere is a path that runs in parallel to the playing fields of St. Clare’s Catholic School in Fagley, Bradford. Along its sides grow thistles and nettles and every type of suburban wild flower. Walk down from the path’s entrance on Moorside Road, avoid the prickles and stinging leaves, and ignore the bark of loud, alarmed dogs from neighbouring yards. At the end, lay one the quietest neighbourhoods in Bradford. I strolled down this way on Wednesday evening.

If there is a part of Britain that feels more removed from the thoughts of leaders and luminaries, I have yet to find it: even the open countryside has English Heritage and others to speak on its behalf. There lies a set of former social housing homes, likely long since surrendered up to a Buy to Let scheme. Some of the houses had tidy yards, others were in a state of advanced disrepair: in front of one home made of crumbling brown brick was a patch of ground that bore nothing but overgrown grass and a rusty trampoline. Crushed cans of Carling Black Label littered parts of the pavement.

There is a small green in the middle of this neighbourhood: the carpet of grass was heavily pockmarked with weeds, nevertheless, a small dark brown pony with a contrasting splodge of white on its back crunched happily on the greenery. The pony’s dilapidated cart was set to one side. I assumed that this was the vehicle for our local scrap merchant whom I sometimes see doing the rounds in my neighbourhood.

Further along, there was a house with a dented yellow skip in its driveway. My other half and I spotted a boy with curly blonde hair; he was probably about six years old, had a bright blue dummy in his mouth and wore a blue cardigan with holes in the sleeves. My other half thought it was curious that such a small child should be out for a walk on his own. Nevertheless, he strode with confidence. He pushed on a gate in front of one of the houses; ah, we reasoned, he was going home. Then he emerged again, dummy still in his mouth. As we got closer, we saw his face was streaked with dirt. He was carrying a hammer which was so large he needed to hold it in both hands. Why? We didn’t wait to find out. The little boy cheerfully said “Hello” to us, and we replied in kind. His young sister, dressed in a dirty pink dress, was standing in the driveway looking on.

By that time, it was about seven o’clock. The sun was still up, and the air was pleasantly cool. There were no sounds of televisions or radios, no idle chatter floating from open windows. I didn’t detect any scent of cooking. Amidst the crooked satellite dishes pointing up at the clear sky and the crushed Cheese and Onion crisp packets strewn on the broken pavement there seemed to be little happening. Perhaps activity was confined to weekends or after dark. I wondered if the children went to St. Clare’s or another of the schools in the area: they vary greatly in quality. For example, Ofsted recently rated St. Clare’s as “Good”; however the Cavendish Primary School up the road scraped by with mostly “Satisfactory” reviews.

“How do you get out of this neighbourhood,” I wondered as we proceeded onward. Its constricting quietude seemed endless. Furthermore, never had I felt the class system quite so rigidly enforced: if one was born in this neighbourhood, it seemed, it was one’s destiny to live in just such a place for good. If you were a lad, you would endure years of schooling and in the afternoons go to the sparse corner store with the wary shopkeeper glaring at you suspiciously from behind the counter. You drank knock off brand energy drinks and would later graduate to cheap lager and you were expected to talk about football. If you were a teenage girl, you perhaps went out to a club on Friday nights, endured the clumsy advances of boys who had consumed far too many Jägerbombs and tried to dance and talk with friends until the dawn. The traditional ladders to climb out of this milieu, such as higher education and well-funded public services, seem to have been kicked away. Furthermore, the opportunity to obtain meaningful employment in a respected trade is long gone: the smokestacks of derelict wool mills in the distance were tribute to that. This is not a Britain that receives much thought: certainly, the desperate and extreme cases in London and other large cities receive some, particularly when the people who live there go forth and riot in more affluent places. But what about the parts of the nation that quietly suffer, endure, and cannot progress? There are generations which while not on benefit, are being condemned to repeat a cycle of near-servitude, earning low wages behind the tills of the service economy, whose true talent lay untapped, potential unknown. Meanwhile, avatars of low intellect like Jeremy Hunt find that because of an accident of birth, their progress through life is relatively smooth. Also, the corruption and mistakes of people like Hunt are, by and large, swept under the carpet.

A Bradford FarmhouseKeep walking: turn off onto another path, and one happens onto another world. Step beyond the concrete bollards ringed with graffiti and rubber tyres, and there are rolling hills and green fields: brown and white ponies graze in open pastures. There is a line of trees along a ridge which sways in the passing breeze. My other half spotted a broken farmhouse, made of alabaster Yorkshire brick which overlooks this scene. In the distance lay the tidy houses of north Bradford, and as I looked at the horizon, I saw a plane making its final descent into Leeds Bradford Airport. This was a view that one would want to wake up to every morning; my other half and I examined the wrecked farmhouse and wondered if it was for sale and how much it would cost to rebuild. I could imagine the floors, now covered in shattered brickwork, replaced with laminate, the scents of coffee and toast emanating from a rebuilt kitchen, and the dawn’s first rays coming through a large window. If I were sufficiently wealthy, I would have run to the nearby riding school and asked “How much?” and endured months of an insane project just to acquire the life the farmhouse promised. But that’s just a dream: we walked on, and found a dip and then a bend in the road which led to a steep incline. A meadow in which buttercups grow lay to our right. A tidy Victorian terrace and several modern cottages overlooked it. We had arrived in Eccleshill.

This stroll was reminder that it’s both wonderful and maddening to live in Bradford; take a different walk on another day through Little Germany in the town centre and one finds beautiful nineteenth century architecture, a legacy of when it was bigger and more wealthy city than Leeds. The offices and flats there have been rebuilt, but they are presently empty. Then look at “The Hole”, also in the city centre, where a shopping mall is supposed to be but isn’t and one sees how far the city has fallen: it was wealthy, but lost it. Now it has all the potential in the world, but seems unable to realise it. Life can be beautiful here and often is, but it isn’t alluring for enough. Those who govern Britain don’t take walks through Bradford and thus have no concept of urban paralysis. They don’t, and thus are unable to at least forestall any further harm. They don’t, and so Britain, in so many parts a lovely country, is also in many ways a very miserable one. They don’t, and it’s to their lasting shame.

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Me And My Blog

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

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