Monday, 28 December 2009

Capsaicin: the fire every time...

'A great meal fades in reflection. Everything else gains. You know why? 'Cause it's only food...' Thus pontificates Richard Roma, philosophically-minded top-dog salesman in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that I once (rather haphazardly) co-directed while at college. Roma says so as part of a spiel to trap a prospective customer (in a Chinese restaurant...), so I don't know if he means it; but I do agree with him.
This Christmas I have enjoyed some exceptionally fine cooking courtesy of my Darling Wife's family. I even did some OK cooking myself - a braised rolled shoulder of lamb for nine people, weekend before last. In the act of food preparation I can see the point of any number of rigours, whether it's the honey and mustard for the parsnips or the goose fat/parboiling/shaking of the potatoes, or precisely what wine you use to break down the sinews of the meat while steeping in the pot. And this is only to speak of the strictly humdrum middle ground of cookery cares. If it's got right, the taste is the vouchsafe and validation. But on the whole I'm still with Roma, on the grounds that lesser cares can in theory lead to even happier results.
To whit, what little cooking I've done in the months since mine became a four-person household has been heavily 'influenced' by green chillies. I'm not proud, but I am a happy eater. God bless capsaicin, salve for the soul, (possible) reliever of umpteen ailments! I understand the stuff is addictive, but then so is cocaine, and as far as I've heard it that stuff never did no good for nobody, even as it siphoned all the money from their purses.
Tonight, pressed for time, we ordered in pizza and wine, the provider being the excellent Lupa, and my thin-crust pie loaded with fiery red chillies and shaved grana padano was, for me, the definition of culinary heaven - setting aside, just for the moment, certain curry houses dear to me, and the one London fish ship I know where the chips are still done in beef dripping... Cf. Roma, of course, even these simple/glorious meals fade in reflection too. But you can have a lot more of them in this life, for less expense of time and bother; and who thought happiness could be so cheaply bought, if not pursued in anything like moderation?

Monday, 21 December 2009

All I Want for Xmas is a Gritter

So Darling Wife and I got into the car at 3-ish today, bound for the nearest branch of Halford's for to pick up a Disney Princess bicycle on behalf of Old Saint Nick, intended for Dear Daughter #1. It was only while I was inside the shop, discussing self-assembly and spanner sizes, that the snow started falling spandule-like, thick and fast... Anyhow, upshot is, the whole journey added up to 3 hours we'll never get back. Mayhem on the Roads. Gridlock at Every Turn. People Getting Angry. Thank god ours was a non-essential trip of maybe 6 miles round. I pity the poor working men and women who've had to deal with this, and will continue to have to have to deal with this. Because I quit, frankly. Sightings of gritters within the M25 appear to be in short supply. I was just out on the pavements and it's all nice and darkly slushy underfoot out there, just in time for tonight's big freeze, and tomorrow morning's carnage...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Shearer-Berbatov: Football's Philosopher Kings

I always enjoy the experience of shifting my views about people and things, especially if the transformation is 180-degree: such changes of heart are what gives God hope for mankind. Initially I took something of a dislike to the Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov as a footballing personality, perhaps in part because he's one of those guys who wears an alice-band in his hair on the pitch, but mainly because of his associations with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, two 'problematic' clubs; and the unsavoury, protracted, big-money saga of his transfer from one to t'other.
Anyhow, what did I know? I was blind, prejudiced - I just never knew Berbatov's hero and role model was Alan Shearer, not until the two sat down for this Football Focus interview, in which Berbatov's quiet-spoken admiration of Al is incredibly and touchingly direct: 'I was a Blackburn fan when you become champions... I was only a fan of Newcastle because you were playing there.' Good lad, that Dimitar.
Shearer compares Berbatov to his old teammate Matt Le Tissier, a hugely gifted player of questionable work-rate. I've always liked players who walk until they absolutely have to run, so long as the eventual running ends up yielding something splendid. (Consider, for one, Zinedine Zidane.) So, in this light, I now rather like Berbatov's style. But I like even better the flabbergasting way he chooses to express his commitment to the aesthetics of the game, namely by quoting Saint Augustine at Shearer: 'Unless there were beauty and grace in them, they would be powerless to win our hearts.' Truly I have never heard the like of it, not even from Eric Cantona... I don't think Al picked up the theological reference, but I hope he made note of it for the future.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

PBR preview, second annual...

O happy day: amid the nervy, opportunistic, end-of-days irreality of our current politics, as we slouch toward an election - it’s Pre-Budget Report time again. Is it already a year since Alistair Darling did this last? Most of the key stats turned out worse than he predicted then, but he will say that’s no great surprise, and I daresay most of us, wearily or sceptically, will agree.
So what punts into the darkness has he got this time? I'm first to admit I’m no augur, never adept at sifting the guts for omens. Still, sifting the bloody auguries of others, I assume the price of my beer is going up. That NHS IT project will take a slash, presumably. One expects some action on the much-discussed want of Chinook helicopters in Helmand. Me and my Mumsnet comrades can probably expect to witness the further waning unto death of the middle-class tax credit. And it’s mooted there could be some great clunking ‘super tax’ on bankers’ bonuses, or rather the ‘bonus pools’ of specific banks.
If the last is true, one can expect to hear cries of outrage on behalf of the financial services, Britain’s last surviving industry of global stature. This blog does feel that the rich bankers could afford to take a bullet or two for the team, so I wouldn’t cry for them, not least if further changes to personal allowance and national insurance widened the net of straitened households obliged to reckon themselves ‘rich.’
The biggest issues remain the deficit and the scale of borrowing, the sitting-target scale of the public sector, and the quest for a return to growth, all issues that Darling claims to be thinking about for the purpose of the next 3-4 years. This package won’t change any of that, indeed couldn’t, because Darling won’t be Chancellor anymore come next summer, by which time we can expect an emergency budget from the new mob. The other day John Rentoul observed with a dab of acid that ‘Cameron's average lead in the polls has slumped from 14 points to about 12.’ Last year while I was thinking aloud about the PBR I wrote that Cameron’s average poll lead had ‘taken a bashing’ in falling from something like 17 points to something like 11 – obviously a wild provocation, one that briefly got this blog some zealous attention from the sorts of Tory bloggers I’d hoped never to meet outside of Hell, where we're all headed. But presumably those lads are a bit more relaxed inside their skins this year, those poll numbers being so settled, and Labour still led by this Prime Minister, the only cause for fret being the obvious urgency to get on with the great task of transforming the country...

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Esquire (January 2010) now on stands: Nowhere Boy(s)

Robert Downey Jr is Esquire's cover star this month; and approximately a million times better a cover star for a mens' magazine than, just for instance, Simon Cowell. Downey has had an incredible Hollywood comeback from a low, low ebb. Like Sean Penn he's an alumnus of Santa Monica High School, and the two men are friendly, as Penn tends to be with most of the really brilliant American actors. Back in that extended narcotic blue period Downey said of Sean, ‘I remember him saying three or four years ago, “You have two reputations. I think you know what both of them are, and I think you’d do well to get rid of one of those reputations. If you don’t, it will get rid of the other one . . .”’ Well, the other one turns out to have outlasted the first; Sean is one of those Friends of Robert who aided that process.
My film column this month is about Sam Taylor-Wood's absolutely glorious Nowhere Boy, of which I say it 'is probably a softer-edged piece than the facts of this case would suggest, for it offers us a certain closure; whereas the real Lennon (who, aged 30, wept through primal therapy with Arthur Janov, then wrote the anguished ‘Mother’) clearly took longer to find his peace. Movies, though, are more like myths than analyses, and they have a duty to get us to catharsis in a shorter time-span. Certainly I sobbed throughout the last reel of Nowhere Boy. Bouquets, then, to Taylor-Wood, her cast and crew (not least the brilliant cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) for a lovely, lyrical picture that flows – one should say ‘swings’ – just as bitter-sweetly as the rock ‘n’ roll that Lennon and friends invented.'

iToons!

My brother bought me an iPod for my last birthday, an amazingly great gift, and this after a few years of my doggedly saying I didn't fancy one (whenever asked by nearest and dearest.) Well, so much for all that Luddite nonsense, because iPods are, as it turns out, magic. (Did you know that? Why didn't you say?) Of course I am merely and belatedly joining the multitudes. I do remember that in the months after the iPod launch there was supposed to be a steep muggers' premium on those distinctive white ear-plugs and cord. Yesterday, waiting in a queue for a bus and plugged into the 'deluxe' edition of Blind Faith (specifically the bonus 'electric' version of 'Can't Find My Way Home', possibly my favourite song) I turned to see three people sat waiting beside me, all sporting the distinctive white ear-jacks and cord... Hey, we are the world. My only fear now is that I walk blithely in front of a bus while nodding keenly to Aerosmith playing 'Back in the Saddle' live...

Friday, 4 December 2009

Memo to RBS Board: Walk, if you so wish

On the subject of the RBS board's alleged threat to resign should the traditional annual bonus pot be denied them by the Government (on behalf of we the people), the Times hedges its bets in a leader this morning, describing the course of denial as 'tempting' while repeating the oft-heard assertion that banks bleed talent when they can't pay these hard-driving geniuses millions in bonuses.

Thankfully, over on the Times' op-ed pages, Anatole Kaletsky doesn't mess about trying to graze his backside by sitting on the fence:

If these people threaten to resign, the Government should jump at the opportunity to clear them off the board, with no need for compensation payments of any kind... Who could run RBS if all these luminaries removed themselves? The answer is people with a sense of public service who have done well enough in other careers not to worry too much about the modest remuneration on offer — the sort of people who run public bodies such as the Royal Opera House or lead public inquiries into the reform of the health service...
 

The higher the salaries paid by RBS or any other bank, the more likely it is to fail, taking taxpayers’ money with it. The obvious and much discussed reason is that high salaries in finance generally reflect high-risk trading strategies… To maximise the chances of recouping its investment in RBS, therefore, the Government should ensure that the bank is run in the dullest, most risk-averse manner… the simplest banking operations should be quite profitable enough to recoup taxpayers’ money…
 

If limiting the size of the bonus pool encouraged the traders and investment bankers at RBS to move elsewhere, their departure should be a cause for celebration, not concern… What would then happen to the huge trading and investment banking businesses at RBS run by these highly paid and talented employees?... Now that global stock markets are on the road to recovery, selling off the higher-risk and more complex parts of RBS piecemeal would probably be more profitable than trying to keep the group together...
 

Which leads to the question of why bankers earn so much more than other similarly qualified workers. Is it really because they are so uniquely talented? Or is it because they have access to pools of capital, backed up by explicit or implied government guarantees? The answer is obvious… Rather than try to limit pay and bonuses directly, governments and regulators should simply insist that banks use all the revenues that they generate to increase their capital strength. In the case of RBS, a simple demand that the bank add a further £1.5 billion to its capital would drain the bonus pool and solve the problem.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Stately homes of England and me

The family and I passed last weekend in the country, don't you know - Essex Country, mate, a very nice stretch near to Saffron Walden. Our host was my esteemed editor Lee Brackstone (pictured, with me and wor bairns.) When it came to the sightseeing dimension of the sojourn, Lee was fairly sure that I would be wanting to tramp around the very turf where Cromwell made camp with the Roundheads; and ordinarily, of course, I would - but that's not really going to provide the requisite diversion for bairns, is it? In any case, it was classic turn-of-winter weather, hardly ideal for tramping.
Instead we had a fine late afternoon wander round the gardens of Audley End House, the former Walden Abbey, gifted by Henry VIII to Sir Thomas Audley - and the sort of magisterial estate that makes you marvel at the very thought that somebody once called it 'Home'. Late though we came to the tourist-oriented on-site proceedings, we made it at least to the kitchen shop and were able to enjoy a delightful jam-tasting, which was, obviously, just what the bairns had been after.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The invasion of Iraq, and the plain truth



Tony Blair's remark to CNN - concerning the current Chilcot inquiry and the rightness or wrongness of the Coalition invasion of Iraq - that he is 'happy to go through it all again', is likely to divide Blair's admirers and detractors as cleanly as a meat cleaver.
That division was never better exemplified in my eyes than by disparate columns last week from Sir Simon Jenkins in, I think, the Guardian, and John Rentoul in the Independent. Jenkins' sub-editor rather than Jenkins himself was presumably responsible for the headline 'We want Blair's head. But Chilcot won't give it to us.' (The Guardian is very good at speaking as 'We.') But Jenkins himself must be solely responsible for the following:
"We know the truth. The report can be written in a sentence. Tony Blair went to war in Iraq because he lacked the guts to stand up to George Bush, say the invasion was not justified by facts or law, and refuse to join him in Baghdad. Despite being told to his face by Hans Blix that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he deceived the cabinet and parliament and took his nation to war."
Now, quickly, compare with Rentoul on the same day:
"Everything important is known, with the kind of disclosure of official documents in the Hutton inquiry that would normally have taken 30 years or longer... in 2001 the British Government concluded that regime change in Iraq lacked a legal basis... the British view was always that regime change was inadequate legal basis for military intervention; that was why the legal basis was Saddam Hussein's failure to comply with UN disarmament resolutions."
In the gulf between these positions you will never see a meeting, and so like many I don't see the point of the Chilcot inquiry, which looks indeed to be rehashing old ground that was long ago sown with dragon's teeth and harvested bitterly.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Darcus Howe and the cunning of history

In 1981 the leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn, English-born but US-based, returned to the UK for the Village Voice to report on that year's spate of race riots and their originating tensions. Cockburn seemed to find most of what he was looking for in conversation with the then 38-year-old Darcus Howe, renowned Trinidadian-born activist. Reflecting on the Windrush moment of Caribbean immigration Howe made that familiar, plangent and suggestive recourse to the King James Bible, Joshua in this case: 'We were persuaded, encouraged to come to Britain, to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.' Howe's argument was that, while the West Indian generation who arrived in England were ready to put up with certain discomforts in the flux of the moment, their children would not suffer any such slight, or accept any misplaced burden of inferiority; and ought, indeed, to seek common cause with oppressed proletarian white kids. Howe was in favour of a 'black/white mass movement', one that would be necessarily unapproved of by the state. (He squeezed in a shot at the welfare system for its stifling of 'the political initiative of blacks.') And of course he was looking beyond Michael Foot's Labour Party, which in a broader dialectic manner he considered 'the creature of a certain moment in the material organisation of society.' On the decline of Labour (raised by Cockburn), Howe claimed to view this with optimism. But he also granted Cockburn's point that 'pathological symptoms, including racism, will increase as people fight on the scrap heap, as the economy goes down.'
I was reminded of all this tonight watching the beginning of a Darcus Howe season on More 4. Of course, subsequent to his interview with the Village Voice, Howe became a conspicuous filmmaker and presenter for Channel 4: first through the scholarly Bandung Productions, then as host/interrogator on the volatile Devil's Advocate. In 2000 he fronted a series called White Tribe, travelling well clear of London to investigate English identity: I recall him standing outside St James's Park, shaking his head over the pasty-facedness of the Toon Army, branding Newcastle (reasonably) 'the whitest of cities' and musing (rather more naively) that the natives 'were not English at all, they were Geordies. Their loyalty was to their team and to their city. England for them was another country.' (Precisely, and you need to have come lately to the question of English identity to imagine otherwise.)
Howe has since made films about racial hostilities between England's black and Asian populations; about his concerns for the children he's had by various women; and now about his struggle with prostate cancer - though this one, the kick-start for the new More 4 season, is somewhat unhelpfully coloured in the now-standard Jon Ronson manner by the presence of its director Krishnendu Majumdar, with whom Howe has worked previously.
In short, surveying this retrospective of the ‘charismatic black activist’ it's easy to see a story of Channel 4's gradual shift in interests from the polemical to the awkwardly personal - also, more reasonably, a familiar tale of the ageing process, that slow masterwork of Time, the Enemy.
The photo of Howe above is by and (c) Richard Ansett.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

"We've got to get rid of Brown..."

Not my words, those, but my old student newspaper editor Peter Hyman's on tonight's Newsnight - a show that has an increasingly ragged, tendentious, feckless air to it in these bunker days that we're living through. Hyman surely reflects a Blairite consensus that would include, inter alia, the likes of his fellow former PM-speechwriter Phil Collins, John Rentoul with his AJ4PM campaign, and the retiring Stephen Byers MP of North Tyneside. But the midnight hour is nigh - can anyone be found among the Parliamentary Labour Party with sufficient backbone for the bloody work being proposed?
How bad could it be for Labour if the Party is electorally annihilated on Brown's watch? If he leads then he will lose, for sure - but how ruinously? One shudders a little at the thought of the floating voter weighing his feelings on another 5 years of Gordon's doughty individual conscience. And could Brown stick around after defeat and play a Michael Howard-like role in helping the team find a new young winning captain? Doesn't seem remotely likely, does it? No, the odds suggest he'd be off in high dudgeon as of May 31, still believing he was right, while Cameron got the removers round. By that measure, yes, Brown should take the bullet now, for all of our sakes.
Like John Rentoul I admired Blair more by the end of his premiership than at the start, when I found it hard to look at him, never mind listen. In that 'final act' swansong period of Blair's he made the stunning observation that, in respect of the century-old split in Labour's origins between proletarian ILP and namby-pamby Fabian, he felt himself to be naturally amidst the party of the former. That he could say this, whether or not he believed it, was part of my creeping regard for him.
His admirers are generally a less breathtaking lot. Last week as I watched Sally Keeble MP on Newsnight effectively warning Brown not to (further) estrange the middle-class Mumsnet crowd over the axing of subsidised childcare for kids of 2-years-plus, I felt ancient, decrepit hackles rising. Be it said, mine is one of those households very, very glad of said subsidy. But is it really, in Sally Keeble's eyes, the moral last ditch of a Labour government? Is it even worthy of consideration as an 'untouchable' in this, the moment of enforced cutbacks in government spending? At any rate, it's got the New Labour ultras rolling their eyes in O tempora fashion. I don't know if I want to sit beside those guys 'n' gals anyhow, and I'm not sure how many of them are really concerned about whether (as some surely hope) the green leather benches can be remuneratively traded for the boardroom. But since it's not my livelihood at stake here, I freely declare from my swivel chair, 'Yep, you've got to get rid of Brown.'

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sting: is from Wallsend

Like a lot of us (this blogger included), and, specifically, like many an entertainer of working-class origin (such as the late John Martyn), the former Gordon Sumner (known to the world as Sting) tends to deploy his native regional accent according to where he's standing and to whom he's talking. Fair play, but - he is from 'Wallsend on Tyne', as he calls it, and his thoughts on that locality and the wider North East are explored at very interesting length in his 2004 memoir Broken Music (which, for some odd reason, is available to browse online as a PDF here.) True, back in the early 1980s when he was en route to becoming a huge superstar he made some very disparaging remarks about Newcastle, making clear that the place had no claim on him and he had no time for misplaced industrial nostalgia. But similar frustrations have been voiced by more than a few artists of Geordie extraction, few of them famous enough to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone. And if you want to be a huge superstar you will probably have to take your leave of Wallsend on Tyne, at least for a fair old while.
Doing the PR rounds for his fine new record, which seems possessed by certain Northumbrian spirits, Sting has been sounding very Geordie, and that's clearly appropriate. Accordingly, people have been asking him what he reckons to the fortunes of the Toon. And in the course of consummately putting the boot into Simon Cowell's ghastly racket, he's paid homage to the pubs and clubs from whence he came as a lost hotbed of popular music. The fact that he now lives in a castle and has chateaux to spare in no way diminishes his points or his sincerity. And yet one sarky reviewer of aforementioned new record referred to Sting in passing as 'the world's most pompous man' - clearly he's yet to see Simon Cowell on ITV1. I've tuned in and out of Sting's stuff down the decades, and winced one or twice over certain ways in which he's chosen to express himself, but, really, what an embarrassment of musical talent this man has in his head and his fingertips, and what a commitment to a personal vision of what 'popular' music can be, whether played on a lute or a horn or in 9/8 time, whether inspired by the streets of Belfast or Buenos Aires - or just because of some girl. Back in 1983 'Every Breath You Take' was a tune I felt bored by after one hearing; now I don't think it's possible to write a more enduring, ingeniously 'simple' pop/rock ballad. Sting, of course, has moved on, though clearly he'll still play the oldies now and then. And were there to be a Sting Night on X Factor, per last night's pipsqueak protest-cum-invitation from La Cowell, I'm sure that song would be the one the karaoke kids fought among themselves for - rather than, say, 'I Hung My Head' or 'Synchronicity II.' However, I doubt Mr Sting will be blessing any such endeavour. I assume he just wanted to make a point. Point (annihilatingly) made.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The PM's Champion: Better a Tory, indeed this Tory

The currently ubiquitous Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has a distinctive intellect and eloquence, though he exercises them in causes and convictions that I disagree with more or less completely. Still, on his blog today he has written what seems to me the best, most passionate commentary we’ve yet had on Gordon Brown’s latest pillorying, an event (in the sense of 'media event') that has made me, for better or worse, angry and emotional, as it clearly has many others.
Here is Hannan’s most distinctive point, and the means by which he illustrates it:
“Now for a hard thing that needs saying. When people are in anguish, they deserve our respect and sympathy, but their opinions don’t become any more or less correct. If you lose a loved one to a dissident IRA bomb, it doesn’t make you an overnight authority on the Northern Ireland decommissioning timetable. Remember the episode of West Wing where Toby is prepping the President in advance of a campaign debate. How would you feel if someone raped your daughter? “I’d want the guy who did it tortured, executed – that’s why I shouldn’t be the guy who gets to decide”.”
This is the sort of tough-minded and fundamentally non-populist sentiment to which nobody holding high political office is allowed to give voice, if indeed they hold it. So Mr Hannan’s ‘iconoclast’ status has usefully served to put it out there into the atmosphere.
Just on a tangent, though – I never watched The West Wing and wouldn’t watch it now, though I never heard the end of its virtues from members of its vociferous fanbase. One thing I’ve never liked about the intersection of Hollywood and liberalism is its tendency to make drama in which presidents and prime ministers are idealised combinations of virtues, compounded partly from real political lives and partly from fairytales, thus reflecting the deep disappointment of diehard liberals in the Blairs and Clintons they actually end up with. Or even, per the scene cited by Hannan above, the Dukakises.
For this was one of the ways in which the Democrat candidate of 1988 came unstuck, wasn’t it? For the second televised debate, moderator Bernard Shaw opened up by asking the staunchly anti-capital-punishment Dukakis if he would favour the death penalty for an offender who had, let's say, raped and murdered his wife Kitty? Dukakis must have felt a tad violated himself, but he stuck to his pre-prepared, anodyne script. It seemed, though, that the public would have prepared him to exhibit a little more passion over Shaw’s scenario. Whereas the backstage Dem wonks would have loved him to answer in the way Martin Sheen (?) managed to answer ‘Toby’ in West Wing a decade or so into the future.
In any case, overnight Dukakis’s poll numbers took a bad hit – this great news for George Herbert Walker Bush, whose military service record was one Democrats could only dream of. Then again, Bill Clinton turned out not to need one of those come 1992, though the movie Independence Day would go ahead and invent a US president who looked like Clinton but flew a war-plane like Bush senior.
Flesh and blood, though, are our leaders, and just as flawed as the figures of drama. Quite often they have to speak their best in the heat of the moment just like the rest of us, rather than reading out the lines of Hollywood’s finest and best-paid scribes. I don’t think I’d want audiotapes of my most awkward telephone conversations put into public circulation and picked over by the ghouls of The Sun. Thankfully they’re not interested; but I do think a lot of us have found the mental exercise of putting ourselves into Brown’s shoes to be a worthwhile one, on this otherwise very regrettable occasion.
The Brown photo is (c) Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Esquire (December 2009) now on stands: beautiful girl on cover

Megan Fox, to be precise. The first time I saw Ms Fox on the front of a magazine (a novelty at the time, a quite familiar experience nowadays) was in autumn 2007, while staying overnight in a Sunderland hotel prior to a literary event (yes, a literary event) at the city's main football stadium the following day. The mag in question was Collective, a clearly advertising-led 'lifestyle' title covering the cultural beat of Sunderland and indeed the broader North East. Wor Megan has clearly done well for herself since those days.
I daresay her success confirms the degree to which Angelina Jolie has set the female standard of Hollywood beauty (lush-lipped, tattooed bodily, essentially dark) over the last decade - before which it was Nicole Kidman in whose honour the chicks were all getting cosmetic surgery, the better to resemble more closely. Megan Fox, I hasten to add, is clearly young enough to have had no need of surgical enhancement or correction. Maybe one day I'll get to see her in a movie, see what (else) all the fuss is about...
My film column this month is about A Serious Man by Joel and Ethan Coen, of which I say:
"A Coens movie with ‘Serious’ in the title filled me at first with the same misgivings as did the idea of Funny Games (1997) by the solemn Michael Haneke. In both cases one anticipates a thumping irony. Joel and Ethan Coen are super-smart guys and consummate filmmakers, but often their tendency to drollery has deprived the films of pathos. A Serious Man is every inch a Coens film, and by no means a tearjerker; yet it looks to me to mark both a departure and a great advance in their work."

Alan Johnson: With God on his side...

To be the Home Secretary of Her Majesty’s Government must rank among the loneliest jobs in the world, morally speaking. Just consider the number of hot-button public issues on which you are the nation’s chief and guiding voice – crime, the police, immigration, class-A drugs, the terrorist threat, inter alia. There's a distinct danger you could end up catching the blame for just about everything that's wrong with the nation at any given time.
Whether incumbents are actually fit to hold this post - or merely there because the government of which they are a part could appoint no-one better - is a different matter entirely. For instance, I remember Margaret Thatcher’s last H.S., David Waddington, as a would-be hang-'em-and-flog-'em martinet of such cardboard-cut-out ridiculousness that I always expected him to blow over in a stiff breeze. (Moreover, I don’t think that professional Yorkshireman David Blunkett ever deserved to be taken a fraction as seriously in the job as he took himself; and as for Jacqui Smith, one can, presumably, hold fire now inasmuch as she herself now seems to agree that she was a ‘disgrace.’)
It is tough, though, for an honest man in that job to act on his convictions and carry out policy in the spirit of the public good, without getting pelted by dead dogs. I recall the honourable Charles Clarke going on the BBC to debate his Tory shadow in front of a studio audience prior to the 2005 General Election. For all that no-one was warming to the Tory, Clarke was nonetheless sneered at roundly throughout, and never more than when he defended the need for extreme vigilance, expenditure, and emergency measures to counter the threat of domestic terrorism. Paxman (for he, of course, was our MC for the night) turned loftily to the audience and asked if any of them were feeling remotely threatened in that respect? Not one hand went up, the silence clearly signifying a mass disapproval of Clarke's police-state apologia. Three months later, after the London bombings of 07/07/2005, I’m sure the same mob would have said that Clarke should have bloody well gone to any lengths to avert the atrocity, even without the public’s backing or sympathy (and, anyway, it was all Nu-Labour/B-liar’s fault anyhow, etc etc.)
So, to Alan Johnson. Every once in a while you see a politician who strikes you as a recognisable human being – and an honest, sane, principled, witty and astute one at that. Johnson is the most affable contender in this line whom I can remember, and I wish his career every continuing success. I have watched his tenure at the Home Office meet with various choruses of disapproval, none of them meaningful (and some as ludicrous as the Daily Mail’s campaign to prevent the extradition of the computer hacker Gary MacKinnon, who, I’m afraid, made his bed once he started leaving abusive messages behind him on the Pentagon's systems.)
Currently Johnson is getting it in the neck over his decision to sack a chap called Professor Nutt, chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) after Nutt went to great lengths to ensure the public knew that it was his view – if not the Government’s – that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than cannabis, that taking Ecstasy is no more dangerous than horse-riding, and that cannabis has upgraded to a class B drug for ‘political reasons.’
Here is the nub of the Home Secretary’s existential dilemma. How can drug policy be made subject to scientific finding when the use and abuse of drugs is a social issue, and the effects of same can’t be reproduced in any laboratory? Or as Alan Johnson phrased it in a letter to the Guardian last week:
“As for [Nutt’s] comments about horse riding being more dangerous than Ecstasy, which you quote with such reverence, it is of course a political rather than a scientific point. There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse – there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.”
Yes, alcohol is our national drug and is indulged beyond belief in a culture where the (clear) benefits of cannabis as a form of pain relief for the seriously ill are still (pointlessly) subjected to debate. I would probably prefer it if, rather than this current useless quarrel, we could all have a serious one, about the legalisation of all drugs. But since the public and our politics won’t permit that, let’s deal with the supposedly deterrent measures at hand, i.e. how the Government frames its level of concern over the possible risks of certain drugs, a level at which the keen drug-user must then frame his or her response (i.e., caveat emptor.)
This blog is an unshamed fan of the occasional derangement of the senses, and always has been; and any man who - like this man - appreciates beer, wine and whiskey should therefore try not to make an enemy of the man who finds his contentment of an evening in cannabis. But these fairly like-minded enthusiasms also carry undeniable costs, personal and social, at differential levels; and so all enthusiasts must be ready to circle the wagons around certain agreed norms. A poster calling himself onestepback phrases it well at the Sky News link cited above: "Alcohol and tobacco are of course bad for us, and knowing this we should discourage the use of other substances of like kind. We can do the liberal thing and erode society by allowing everything, or we can apply common sense and limit things that are bad for us to a manageable proportion."
This, de facto, is the position where we find Alan Johnson, and it seems to me the right place for Her Majesty's Home Secretary to be. I hope he has longer to run in this job, and that a yet better job lies in wait for him.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Simon Mann: Plenty of rounds!

No-one who writes for a living and has the usual degree of interest in lawyers, guns and money can fail to have been diverted by the saga of Simon Mann, who today returned to the UK from Equatorial Guinea, pardoned by the dictator whom he once hoped to unseat - on behalf of exactly which interests, we wait to learn.
Like most people who don't know Mann personally, I first spotted him in Paul Greengrass's film Bloody Sunday, and I wrote at the time, "Greengrass's smartest piece of casting is Simon Mann, a chiselled SAS veteran of several tours in Derry, who makes an authentically no-nonsense fist of playing Colonel Derek Wilford, commanding officer of One Para. Wilford instructs his Paras to ‘scoop up’ selected ‘yobbos’ on the march, and fire if fired upon (‘Plenty of rounds!’)."
Mann's best line in the movie, though, comes in the wake of the terrible slaughter to which Wilford has exhorted his men: ‘We’ve just fired a fucking horrendous amount of ammunition, we’ve got to know why, and we’ve got to have some weapons...’ I think I know better now why Mann was so convincing here. (Paul Greengrass, interestingly, has been quoted describing Mann as "very English, a romantic, tremendously good company". Yes, I would imagine.)

NUFC: Sort it out, lads

Those champion-standard NUFC blogs True Faith and NUFC.COM have been staunch in their efforts to marshal and exhort the fans into active protest against the latest risible stunt from that walking gastric hazard Mike Ashley, and that travelling band of monkeys to whom he's given big jobs at SJP.
So, we'll see what transpires in the ground on Saturday as Toon entertain Posh at what might yet (per the impassioned blog of the Chronicle's Lee Ryder) come to be known as Coors Light Park. (Ashley's chief baboon Derek Llambias insists 'that' sort of renaming won't happen: an assertion which, in light of the recent FA tribunal verdict in the Case of Monkeys vs Keegan, is worse than meaningless - or, if you like, just as meaningful as Llambias's infamous overheard remark that he wanted to 'slap' Kevin Keegan - the sort of thing Ashley and his apes like to tell each while supping their lagers and scratching themselves, since talk is cheap, as are they.)
That said, True Faith in particular are now throwing down the gauntlet to fans whom they suspect of big-mouthing it in pubs while hoping that braver cohorts of protesters will get the job of ousting the Monkeys done. Well, come the final whistle on Saturday I'll still be in North London, on my backside, writing a book. So my opinion on this matter carries no weight whatsoever. Still, for what it's worth: Monkeys, Monkeys, Monkeys - Out, Out, Out.
As to the game of football itself, the excellent George Caulkin ran a highly interesting interview with wor skipper Alan Smith in the Times last week, wherein Smith did a convincing impression of a man committed to the team, indeed the club, and to getting us out of Division 2, which he endearingly described as a 'muck and nettles' league ('It's Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday.') Remarkably Smith claims to have 'enjoyed this season as much as any in my career.' Well, I'll go to the top of our stairs. And he even sounded genuinely geed up about wanting 'to lift that Championship trophy.'
In other intriguing news, Caulkin’s piece usefully confirms that ‘a cabal of senior [NUFC] players have fulfilled a powerful role under Chris Hughton’s management.’ To wit, Smith described the dumbfounding events after the team returned from their 6-1 pre-season tonking at Orient:
'It was clear that five or six of the players wanted to leave which was fair enough. We had a meeting when we came back from the game - just us players. We said, ‘Whoever wants to leave, they can leave, and we'll help them to go. Whoever want(s) to stay, then commit yourself to stay’. That was a massive turning point… It was one of the strangest things ever. We were managing ourselves… Chris knew that we were having that meeting and he stood back and let us sort things out.'
Strange, indeed. It must have felt like a good stiff wielding of the broom, though, once the fraudulent badge-kissers like Beye and Duff had cleared their pegs. Smith and Kevin Nolan in particular seem to have brought a much-needed edge of honesty to what has emanated from NUFC this season, in the lamented absence of Shay Given, and in spite of the cloud of lies stirred up by the Monkeys. Nonetheless, this clearly pleasant but suspiciously passive Chris Hughton chap is the one to whom Monkey Mike has just given a full-time manager's contract. So I hope Chris and the Cabal don't have a big falling-out before end of season.

Monday, 2 November 2009

FT today: RTK on Robert Harris's Lustrum

My short-ish write-up of Harris's second Cicero novel runs in the Financial Times today. This was my first real encounter with Harris's bestselling storytelling, though I've long been a big fan of his non-fiction, especially his books on Neil Kinnock and Bernard Ingham, both of which evoke brilliantly a world of British politics that now feels like aeons ago - albeit not so far-distant as 63BC, where Lustrum begins.
So wryly skilful is the novel's use of ancient history that I wish it had been around in those years when I was studying Classics for 'O' and 'A' Level (years when Kinnock still had his tin hat on, trying to lead Labour out of the trenches, while Ingham was browbeating the press corps Yorkshire-style on behalf of his beloved Margaret.) Still, at least in the late 1980s I had Gore Vidal's scurrilous Creation to help me inject some irony into the 'Golden Age of Athens' part of the examination paper.
Had I the word-space in the FT I would have added of Lustrum that it clearly extends Robert Harris's compulsion to explore the mindset and behaviour of Tony Blair through fictive means. Throughout, there are meaningful if toga-clad allusions to things Blair has said and done, sometimes expressed through the vehicle of Cicero, other times through Gaius Julius Caesar - in other words, sometimes in a reasonably sympathetic manner, other times with the sort of animus that John Rentoul has instinctively deplored.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Tony Blair: Abstention recommended

Hard to argue with Charles Clarke in the Indie yesterday: "Blair's Presidency of the EU... would encourage the rerunning of past battles rather than enabling a new approach to be fashioned." Quite. No-one even knows what the job is really about, and Blair is not even a professed candidate, but still all we're hearing about at the top of the news hour is Iraq, Bush, WMD, 'war crimes' et cetera.
Moreover, as Clarke wisely added: "Whatever the merits or otherwise of this assessment, it remains very doubtful that Tony Blair will command the support he needs to secure this appointment and the UK should certainly not be putting all its eggs in the basket of winning the Presidency." Indeed, tonight it looks like Blair has nowhere near the votes he'd need. On sober reflection he ought to be glad of this outcome.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet: Use Your Disillusion


I totally missed the news that Costello was touring this year in the company of the string quartet with whom he wrote and recorded 1992's Juliet Letters. I loved that record, and still think that some of its songs are among Costello's very finest, though his fanbase and the classical connoisseurs seemed generally less enamoured.
On first hearing the track 'Jacksons, Monk and Rowe' seemed like one of the more obvious and immediately Costello-esque lyrics, and in a rather bittersweetly poppy Elvis-like arrangement to boot. Yet apparently it was written by the Quartet's first violinist Michael Thomas, about his sister Jacqueline (the cellist), and inspired by a nickname their father gave Jacqueline, derived from a firm of Middlesbrough solicitors. (That does ring true if you think about the funny things you call your kids.) Collaboration makes for a kind of fusion: as Costello once advised listeners to the fruits of his occasional joint songwriting with Paul McCartney, "The ironic part is, if [a certain bit] sounds like he wrote it, I probably did, and vice versa."
But Costello was right to say that the chorus-like recitation of 'Jacksons, Monk and Rowe' in the song is "a motif among images of both childhood and adult disillusionment" - culminating in the 'sad divorce' of the final verse (Costello, of course, is thrice-married, twice-divorced.) As a child the very last thing you imagine you'll ever keep in the room where you sleep is dusty box-files of correspondence with firms of accountants and lawyers. But so it comes to us all, sure as the final curtain...

Monday, 26 October 2009

Yer actual Brit-fascist, or Roderick Spode's eternal return


Aryan fascism? My take on the subject is clear to me as the nose on my face, and I've held said view for years, even though it probably only took me about five seconds to form it - as quickly, in other words, as it takes a racist to figure out his measure of a man based on the colour of the epidermis. Still - and yes, call me shallow - but doesn't it strike you too that those in our society who decide to speak up loudly and proudly about a 'master race' (presuming all the while to count themselves as staunch members of said societal backbone) always look to be made out of the most paltry genetic material? You never get the sense that such evolution-resistant specimens could ever have succeeded in getting our great big budding human race out of the trees.
The estimable James MacIntyre of the New Statesman - who has himself done time as a BBC politics producer, putting wise words into the earpieces of adept-if-overpaid anchormen - says all that needs saying here about the risible performance of our state broadcaster last week. Meanwhile, in the absence of a Wodehouse to nail up the latest "perfect perisher" swanking about as spokesman for our Aryan inheritance, we at least have the splicing brilliance of Cassetteboy, below.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Richard Pryor: The King of Comedy

David Trimble's Elvis-like Comeback

If in light of the latest bit of illustrious daftness from Stockholm, you were compiling a list of more or less vacuous awardings of the Nobel Peace Prize then you might well consider the strange case of David Trimble. Trimble's great distinction in life (up to now) has been to lead one of the great historical wastes of space - the Official/Ulster Unionist Party - to a mountain-top where none of its members, including Trimble himself, really wished to be: namely, the long overdue Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
History had earmarked Trimble to be unionism’s chief negotiator that day, even though he was the most inwardly conflicted figure ever to have emerged within the eternally moribund UUP. (Tom Paulin has written well of the party's "demoralised passivity, its sentimental traditionalism, its dearth of ideas, its hangdog lack of creative energy.") Having cut his teeth as a hardliner in the 1970s with an utterly obnoxious shower laughably calling themselves 'Vanguard', Trimble on that Good Friday agreed terms for a reconciliation with the Old Enemy - and such was the insular nature of the man that few within his party had sensed the historic compromise afoot, not least those less willing than their leader to make a leap of faith based on republican bona fides. Yet more damning for the Agreement’s chances of succeeding, Trimble immediately seemed somehow sickened at the prospect of going out to sell the deal he had settled for: during the subsequent referendum campaign he was unwilling to share a platform even with the 'progressive unionist' David Ervine (who died in 2007, and was worth ten of Trimble), much less Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
Some people I know, clearly desperate, like to say of Trimble that at least he had the genuine smarts, and moreover - if looking for some personal trait - that he's a big Elvis Presley fan, which can't be all bad. Nonetheless Trimble led the UUP to a shattering defeat at the General Election of 2005 and so left the party a withered rump, but he was happy to go his own way and the Tories saved him with a life peerage. That must have gratified his strange and innate sense of apartness and superiority. He has since helped to reconcile the UUP and the Tories to the marriage they enjoyed prior to the Sunningdale fallout of 1974, a sort of cluelessly well-heeled 'Keep Ulster British.' Now the very smart Tory thinker and Times blogger Danny Finkelstein today reports that he recently put to Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey the question of whether, "now his party was allied with the Conservatives, he would consider serving in a Cameron government. [Trimble's] reply? "I will do whatever David tells me to.""
How lovely. Or - to look at it another way - urgh.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Beatles: Rock Band

I hope to be writing quite soon about Sam Taylor-Wood's new film Nowhere Boy, concerning the adolescence of John Lennon, which I think is closing the London Film Festival this year, and is for that same reason quite properly under wraps for media coverage until then. Meantime - since I don't listen to 'new' music other than what I overhear on the wireless, and since like a million other people I was lured into a record shop on Wednesday September 9 in order to re-buy records I already own - I've been listening to a lot of Beatles music again lately... Indeed I suspect a million other people like me have been well primed to appreciate Sam Taylor-Wood's forthcoming directorial debut.
I only just realised, for it had quite passed me by, that Philip Norman published a long and newly researched biography of Lennon last year. The newness has to me a special novelty because, in common with a lot of other readers, I think Norman's Shout! was the definitive account of The Beatles' lives and times. That said, I was 10 years old when I read it, and my critical radar may have been a bit shaky. Still, great long passages of it live in my memory still, as much else Beatles-related from that time - which was, to be precise, in the months immediately following Lennon's murder, one of the first news events to truly shock and unsettle my young self.
I'm not sure if at that point I had already acquainted myself with those Beatles LPs that were already in my parents' collection. What I know for sure is that after reading Norman I managed to get for myself what seemed to be the pertinent ones missing from that collection - first Revolver and Sgt Pepper, later 'The White Album', Abbey Road, Let It Be. In other words my folks' Beatles collection stopped at the point where the stuff got a bit darker and stranger and zanier (though, if I remember right, they did have a splendid and rare-looking vinyl of the Magical Mystery Tour, so resuming the continuity around 1967...)
But well I remember my 10-year-old excitement at owning my own Revolver - its very outer sleeve as spidery and enticing and monochrome-cool as Philip Norman had described it in his book, right down to the absence of the band's name from the cover. And the music? Oh boy. Well, 'She Said She Said' remains today one of my favourite songs, and sums up the direction in which John seemed to lead the band circa 1965-66: the worldlier lyrics, the acidic bite of the guitar, the new signature of bass, and John's voice with a new edgier authority too.
At first I used to think pretty much everything that was 'right' about The Beatles was down to John. And then for some years I thought the Stones were far better anyway, because they were less 'English', and properly inspired by Robert Johnson hawking his soul down at the crossroads rather than by Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. But my reacquaintance with The Beatles is giving me a new appreciation for Paul - for 'Paperback Writer', 'Lady Madonna', 'Blackbird', 'Hey Jude' - and yes, I know there's an existing consensus that these were already pretty good songs before I came round to them.
I guess I've also come round to the view that Lennon wasn't always the perfect singer of his own songs. Or at least that some of the cover versions I've heard - of 'Julia', 'Across the Universe', latterly 'Jealous Guy' - make huge leaps in bringing out their deep feeling. Whereas McCartney always had the feeling on tap. With Lennon, of course, there were other emotional issues at play. This is part of what makes Nowhere Boy... But, well, more of that anon, I hope...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Esquire (November 2009) has been on stands a quare while now, truth be told...

This month's ish rejoices in no fewer than four guest editors: Nick Hornby, Evan Davis, Rankin, and Ricky Gervais, who bags the cover. My film column is about Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, of which I note, "Parnassus could have been a great role for Christopher Plummer, who recently played Lear on Broadway and has always excelled at a certain kind of blue-blooded devilry." I also out myself as "a diehard fan of the fairytale, and hate to see this form dismissed out-of-hand as artless or childish. Bruno Bettelheim told it right when he argued (in his seminal The Uses of Enchantment) that such stories address our core existential anxieties: ‘the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death.’"

Gordon Burn - Final: Sex & Violence, Death & Silence

In a few weeks' time Faber will publish this collection of Gordon's writings on art - posthumously, sad to say (indeed is there a sadder word in the language?), rather than as the latest entry in what was becoming an ever more phenomenal body of work. I see that The List have flagged up the publication here, and his four northern obituarists - David Peace, Val McDermid, Lee Brackstone and myself - are cited one more time.

Whose NHS?

What’s it worth to you, this National Health Service of ours? Are you a true believer in its virtues? Are you essentially agnostic? Or might you indeed deem the NHS to be the work of the Devil? Of course this issue of the imperfections of our health system became banner news over the summer of 2009 owing to President Obama’s healthcare reform travails. The flat-out moronic element amid the opposition to Obama, as given a prize platform by Fox News, unwisely mouthed off about the communistic horror of Britain’s ‘socialised medicine’ and, quick as Dickens, I – just like you, I’m sure – started getting emails from friends and strangers proclaiming ‘We love the NHS.’ Both Labour and the Tories, meanwhile, acted like they would prefer to talk about something else.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the NHS a great deal, but there’s a debate we all need to have – a debate that isn’t moronic or wicked even though Fox News are among those who would wish for it. ‘In a world of ageing patients, explosive medical costs and galloping scientific advance,’ John Lichfield wrote in the Independent, ‘there can be no such thing as the perfect health service.’ Quite, and that’s why we haven’t got one.
But I have not a moment's quarrel with whatever is my National Insurance stake in the NHS (about £300 a year, I think, though people seem to perceive it as much higher). That is a bargain in anyone's language for the essential services rendered (sometimes frustrating, more often invaluable.) Two months ago my wife gave birth to a baby girl, this after months of hospital appointments with specialists and consultants, blood tests and bloodwork, nuchal-fold and chorionic villus sample tests, umpteen ultrasound scans... After two nights in a hospital bed she was home and then received a dozen midwife/health visits. For these services we received no bill. (If we lived in the USA and didn’t have maternity insurance we might have been stuck for $10,000.) A bargain, and a precious one, simple as that.
I might say that on the second night of my wife's post-natal hospital stay we decided to get her one of the little private bedrooms on the maternity ward so she could be assured of the peace that would aid restful sleep. That cost £100 - perhaps a little over-priced, but that was our choice, and it did the business. I can't say I have any quarrel on paper with the extension of other such chargeable choices through the NHS system. (I can well remember Boris Johnson's idiotic complaint in public about how he'd been unable to procure an extra slice of toast on the ward after his wife was resting up post-labour. Oh, how the free market wept! Clearly Stalin stalks the halls of London's hospitals! Putting a price on toast would be worth it if only to give a further reason for Boris to shut his gob.) Charges, made transparent at the point of access, merely supplementing what could and should otherwise be a good-enough 'free' service, seem hardly a cause for controversy - rather, a solidly good idea.
Our not-quite-‘free’ service isn’t always a good one, but that’s not the main reason why we can’t go on funding comprehensive health care through taxes alone. It’s because even the not-always-good not-quite-‘free’ service could die the death of a thousand cuts unless one makes some strategic incisions now, permitting extra infusions of private-citizen money into the bloodstream. The ongoing duty of care to the elderly and infirm, most of whom will have paid into the system all their lives, is precisely why the rest of us need to look at how we keep the system functional before we ourselves are old and infirm and at its mercy.
The money is the thing, because the NHS now faces the direst financial straits since its establishment, according to The King's Fund and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The costs allegedly run at £105 billion a year. What are the greatest drains within that? Admin and management consultants? Big Pharmaceutical drugs? Doctors and nurses? Foreign nationals nipping in for IVF treatment, non-tax-paying economic migrants bringing the kids? Timewasters, the obese, smokers and drinkers, even if they be tax-payers too? All these play a part, I’m sure, but percentage-wise the chief layout is salaries, isn’t it? Pay and pensions for 1.5 million employees, plus the pensions of those millions who have worked in the system over the last three or four decades.
Our present deficit is such that no-one seriously denies the need for some public spending restraint. We won't go broke, but we can't stay this indebted. The tragedy here, as Phillip Stephens of the FT noted, is that of course the NHS really needs to spend more: ‘Given its demographics, Britain will need to devote a rising share of its income to health.’ But if the state must cut back, there is only one other option, right? As Stephens put it, ‘One way or another, patients are going to be asked to contribute directly to their care.’ I can't really see any other way round it, myself, call me myopic - and so I would like to hear a good and reasoned argument about how and where that charging would operate.
There are some things about the NHS that are sacrosanct. I don't think staffing levels are one of them - or rather, not current staffing levels, or, if you like, allocation and distribution of human resources in the grand scheme of the organisation... We need more qualified doctors, that's for sure. And anyone who lays hands in order to cure should be considered pretty well essential in a hospital. Even though it puts me in company with all those pitiful boarding-school-educated Tories, I'd happily see the return of ward matrons, keeping good order. On a related note, I wouldn't want to lose any cleaners.
So who is deemed expendable? McKinsey filed a report in the summer arguing that 110,000 NHS posts should be cut, including those of "frontline health-care staff." That's too frightening for words, and neither the Government nor the Tories backed the suggestion. Indeed health minister Mike O'Brien got his gloves on: "We have created 80,000 nurses jobs and 40,000 doctors jobs and you think we're going to cut them? Labour created the health service, we want to see it improve." That was classic from-the-gut (or knee-jerk, if you like) Labour/NHS tribalism. So where did O'Brien think the needful savings would be found? 'Focusing on quality, focusing on innovation, focussing on the way in which we improve service will reduce the overall cost without reducing the number of staff.’ No, I don't think he really believes that will do the trick either. But the alternatives are not palatable, even for the Tories, with their Party's traditional hatred for what it sees as the unforgiveable mediocrity and inadequacy of everybody else.
David Cameron has - quite sincerely, I'm sure, and by wisdom dearly bought - been most insistent that the NHS is safe and beloved with his Tory party. MEP Daniel Hannan's embrace of the Fox News platform need not be blamed on Cameron. But he is responsible for this parliamentary party of his and what they'd do in government. Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, tried in rebutting McKinsey to nonetheless applaud the projected slashing of ‘the bloated health bureaucracy.' Yes, I'd be for that too, if I thought it would make such a vital difference, rather than just playing the game of kick-the-faceless-bureaucrat. But no, it's going to take a sight more than reductions in admin costs, isn't it? Tough choices all round.
What proposals have you heard for charging? I’m already paying a whack for my prescriptions these days, such as the tendonitis I’ve got from over-carrying my kids, or the intestinal infection my GP diagnosed that, it turned out, I didn’t actually have… But nationwide these sorts of charges must be throwing more into the pot? There could be a separate budget column labelled Unnecessary Antibiotics for the Middle-Class.
I know the Social Market Foundation suggested patients should be charged £20 to see a GP. Wrong on the face of it, if it deters the poor or the anxious elderly, but then isn’t there a way to make such charges reclaimable? Isn’t that an element of the French system? The vulnerable allure of it is that it would help to get shot of Those People who needn’t really go to the doctor. And shot of them we need to be, somehow… McKinsey reckoned 40% of patients in any given hospital didn’t need to be there. I know... which 2 out of any 5 would that be? Me? Thee? Or Them? You can look around a surgery waiting room or a hospital ward and form your own opinion. Of course, it’s the medical professionals who’ll know better, and it's their time that is of the essence. I’m assuming most of them would naturally want to be part of this debate too, and I personally am really keen to hear any and all opinions - other than the one that goes ‘It’s OK just as it is...’

Monday, 12 October 2009

Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch: That Old Rugged Cross

Today I gave myself a little treat away from the coalface of work and, just for pleasure, attended an afternoon preview screening of the new movie by Bruno Dumont, whom I tend to think of as my favourite contemporary filmmaker.
One of my fondest film-related keepsaves is a postcard Dumont sent me back in 1999 after I'd failed in a fan-letter effort to entice him to attend that year's Edinburgh Film Festival. (I was at that time the curator of festival retrospectives - in 1999 we were honouring Robert Bresson - and I also did a bit of programming of the main selection, to which I had been thrilled to add Dumont's L'Humanite.) Basically, though he regretfully had other plans that summer, Dumont seemed to appreciate my obvious regard for his stuff, a fact of which I was most glad. But the real added frisson for me was the image on the postcard itself - a soaringly boring flat landscape which I (rightly or wrong) took to depict Bailleul, the town in Flanders where Dumont was born and later made his first two features, La Vie de Jesus and L'Humanite.
What, then, of Hadewijch? What can I say? Well, nobody does it better. But these days, really, nobody else does it. Dumont is assuredly not a religious man, and yet his work is so staunchly anti-psychological in its construction of character and drama, and visually (like the films of his beloved Bresson) so much more reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics than of common-or-garden 'motion pictures' that one tends to reach for the language of the spiritual in discussing him; and this time he has helped us out by making a film about a modern-day teenage Christian mystic, a bourgeois girl from a Parisian political family who elects to scorn delights and live laborious days in the manner of the grand old hymn:
O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
has a wondrous attraction for me;
for the dear Lamb of God left his glory above
to bear it to dark Calvary.
Of course, it's not as simple as that; and I can't begin to explain why. I wasn't always riveted by Hadewijch, but at the times that I was, my main feeling, once again, was 'God, I love this filmmaker.'
A quick word on Dumont and Bresson. Dumont has always made plain his regard for the master, and clearly favours some similar techniques. Yet certain critics who imagine they know better have always used this as a stick with which to beat him. It beggars belief that any viewer who has truly loved the films of Bresson could 'make the best the enemy of the good' and so fail to admire the manner in which Dumont has adopted Bressonian traits (the flattened image, the wilful ellipsis, the 'anti-psychological' drama, the imperative of editorial rhythm, the drilling of performers or 'models') to his very own ends. Then again, there's a whole strain of contemporary commentators on film who take Bresson semi-seriously just like they were taught to, and yet roll their eyes over Dumont; had those same scribblers been around when Le Proces de Jeanne d'Arc or Une Femme Douce or Lancelot du Lac came out and stood in need of support, then you can bet Bresson would have had to whistle for it.
If Bresson obtruded like bones through the flesh of Dumont's (probably over-feted) debut La Vie de Jesus, that influence has been more thoroughly assimilated and built upon since. Admittedly Hadewijch has distinct shades of Mouchette and even Bresson's own debut Les Anges du Peche. This, though, is no mere imitation by Dumont, but – to borrow a term from George Steiner – an 'answering', one that reminds us that the best scrutiny of art is by sympathetic fellow artists. ‘Cruelly, perhaps’, wrote Steiner in Real Presences (1989), ‘it does seem to be the case that aesthetic criticism is worth having only, or principally, where it is of a mastery of answering form comparable to its object.’
This is, of course, an argument on the margins of le cinema. Dumont is the very model of a 'festival filmmaker', an enigma to larger paying audiences; but if it is his lot in life to be adored only by Cannes juries composed of his foremost fellow professionals, then one imagines he could settle for that distinction.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Bertolt Brecht: 'Our love is just begun'

A celebrated film director of my acquaintance keeps a framed photograph of Brecht (not unlike the one to your left) on the wall of the rustic kitchen in his English country cottage. On first noticing said portrait during a visit, I remarked to said director that I hadn’t ever suspected he was such a Brecht fan. ‘Oh I don’t know that I am’, came the reply. ‘I just like to have him around. How could you not?’
Here’s a quick rundown of my own limited but much savoured form in the study and appreciation of BB:
- In 1985 I saw a production of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End mounted by the RSC and presented on tour in the sports hall of a fairly grim ‘leisure centre’ on the outskirts of Belfast. I hadn’t previously seen such a joyous piece of live theatre in all my life; and that evening would still rank right up there in the annals for me.
- By my desk as I write is a humble cassette recording of the cast of The Threepenny Opera from a 1954 staging of Marc Blitzstein’s book and lyrics. I bought that tape in 1988 and it’s travelled everywhere with me in the 20 intervening years. Threepenny is by some distance – i.e. miles and miles – my 'favourite musical'.
- In 1998-99 I was so fortunate as to spend a bit of time in the company of the late John Willett, consummate collaborator, English translator and critical interpreter of Brecht – the sort of laconically brilliant, easily witty man who’d make you proud to be English. My copy of his Brecht in Context is inscribed with John’s small, precise hand, and its introduction, wherein he charts the history of his passion for Brecht, offers repeated proofs of the sangfroid I’m talking about:
‘I had left school early to go to Vienna and spend six months studying the cello… Almost incidentally I became fluent in the [German] language… In the autumn of 1936 I moved on to Oxford to learn politics, philosophy and economics [Love that ‘learn’]… The war came, as we knew it would, and for five and a half khaki-clad years all I was left with was my addiction [to Brecht’s work]… There was in fact only one point of sharp conflict between Brecht and I, when I said I thought war between Communist states was by no means inconceivable. That, he snapped, was ‘eines Gymnasiasten Ansicht’, a schoolboy’s view…’
Superb, eh? Passing through the garden gate of John’s Hampstead cottage and stepping into his book-lined sitting room was for me an experience full of magic that I’ll not forget.
- From the late 1990s through to the mid-2000s I was a not infrequent visitor to Los Angeles for work purposes. And just as most literary-minded visitors to Prague find it impossible to keep Franz Kafka from their minds for long, I would defy any booklover to pass more than a few days in LA without making recourse to Brecht’s diamond-sharp poetry about the city – a place full of ‘houses built for happy people, therefore standing empty / even when lived in.’
- But Brecht’s poetry wasn’t all scathing, which is why my wife and I picked the Sonnet #19 (‘My one requirement: that you stay with me’) as a reading at our wedding ceremony in 2004.
- My all-time favourite Brecht quote, at least with regard to theatre composition and technique, comes in his famous discussion of Coriolanus where he argues that his mission as a dramatist is both to have the pleasure and to convey the pleasure of dealing with what he calls ‘illuminated history’: the dialectic experienced as drama – and not in any rarefied, high-flown way but, rather, where the play has a direct audience appeal and could be enjoyed even in passing at a country fair… because it’s a good old familiar story of the rise and fall of the mighty, the cunning of the oppressed, the hidden potentials of men.
- Brecht's celebrated stage plays haven't always worked the same charm on me as his poems, his musicals, even his handful of movie scripts (chief among them Kuhle Wampe). I enjoy the plays endlessly on the page, less so in performance. Today, though, I dropped into the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre to see a matinee of Deborah Warner’s staging of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children. Such are the perks of my current writing attachment at the National Theatre Studio, and I had a fabulous time. This is a rambunctious, wrenching, endlessly lively piece of theatre. The stagecraft might be of a higher order than Brecht would have thought necessary, but the audience are the happy beneficiaries of all this merry, mauling invention. In the lead role Fiona Shaw is a phenomenon, as usual. I’m not such an ardent fan of hers as are other theatregoers of my acquaintance, but days like today make me feel slovenly in that estimation. Warner’s production derives a big boon from the new arrangement of Brecht’s songs by the Northern Irish singer/musician Duke Special, who also performs in the piece with his band, his contributions deeply treasurable throughout. I noticed Deborah Warner herself at the back of the house, showing a commendable level of immersion in her project to be observing its condition on a Wednesday matinee a month into the run. I don't doubt she's finical about this stuff, but I trust she wasn't too worried...

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A Booker Prize for Hilary Mantel

If the historical novel is enjoying a resurgence, as the commentators seem to be saying this evening at the Guild Hall, then I'm all for it; and if a novel clocking in at 600pp+ is commended both for its ambition and for the demands placed upon the reader by its hefty proportions, then I'm ready to raise a cheer too. Mantel clearly has a good nose for subjects in general, and in this case - Thomas Cromwell - I'd say particularly so.
I've taken Wolf Hall onto the tube with me a few times in the last fortnight, just because I happen to be commuting into town daily at present. I can't say I've cracked too far into it as yet. But then that's the Long Novel for you, isn't it? It reveals its delights slowly, repays revisiting, is meant to live by one's bedside or in one's saddlebag a while, take a few knocks and so become a trusted friend in the process - rather than, say, the fairweathers and the one-night-flings that one tends to buy in airports and leave behind in hotel rooms... But then I suppose part of the joy of the Booker, and the attendant boon for Hilary Mantel's pocketbook, is that her ostensibly daunting novel will now attract some of those more casual/promiscuous customer-readers too...

Boris Johnson: As Funny as a Crutch

At any given moment there can only be a handful of people among us able to harbour not merely the idle dream but also the realistic hope of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain. Sadly, it's rare that one can find much to approve of in any of the individuals comprising this elite band. For some time I've considered Harriet Harman the most risible personage lucky enough to be up there (on the unavoidable strength of her position as Deputy Labour leader.) But of course I'm forgetting that there's someone who could make our nation look yet more ludicrous in the eyes of the world, and that's the current Mayor of London, who is unable to keep his blithering gob shut or his mug far removed from cameras whenever (as at Tory Party Conference) the stage permits him to lumber about in the manner of some populist political hero.
Interviewed on Newsnight by Jeremy Paxman last night, Johnson didn't come across much worse than the enervated Paxman himself, who clearly needs a new challenge in life. But then Paxman doesn't aspire to Number 10 Downing Street, whereas Johnson's clearly irrepressible desire to upstage his 'friend' Cameron on any fit occasion, now or in future, is a glaring reveal - glaring, one might say, as a fat arse riding out of a pair of Union Jack underpants.
You would think that Johnson's 17 months as London mayor had been some barrage of bold initiatives and achievements. As it is, I can't think of a thing he's done other than to make Ian Blair's position untenable and then boast about it, cheered to the rafters by his toadies. Perhaps, then, what drives Johnson onward to greater heights is pure self-confidence - one might call it a sense of entitlement? It would be useful, then, if he ever said anything intelligent, or could at least stop himself sounding like a blithe cocktail of Prat + Snob. But a lot of people - indeed most Tories, it would appear - think he's a tremendous wit, per his irrepressible glibness on the subject of any part of this country lying north of Watford.
Still, I suppose such prejudice doesn't disqualify one from being Mayor of London; and you might get extra points, plus much love from free-market Tories, if you defend the City of London to the death, even in the teeth of our Great Crash as provoked by investment bankers buying and selling toxic junk and clearing fat bonuses for it. Boris is still quick as Dickens to shout out whatever pumped-up percentage of our economy is attributable to the City, as if that preponderance for making toxic junk (rather than useful goods and commodities) had not now been exposed as part of our problem. Likewise, Boris is a big booster for all the riches the City gives back to the country in taxes, as if the City didn't steal a far bigger slice of what it 'earns'. But of course he's only parroting the bankers. In his long-gone pomp Sir Fred Goodwin used to say the same thing endlessly, boasting about how much of what RBS 'earned' duly kicked back to the Exchequer. Bullish, assured, thrusting people like Boris and Sir Fred - we shouldn't really stand in their way of their ambitions, should we? Clearly their phenomenal confidence betokens an actual competence of which you and I could only dream... So let 'em have it, eh?

'Lolita' par Adrian Lyne: Not at all bad...

Ever since the Adrian Lyne filming of Lolita struggled to reach screens back in 1997 a critical consensus seems to have developed that Lyne's version was not at all a bad effort: perhaps doomed to a small audience, given its unhappy subject (so missing the mainstream) and its director's dodgy track record (so losing the arthouse crowd, who were never going to pause to re-evaluate Flashdance.) My fellow Faber and Faber scribe Gilbert Adair put the Case For pretty well unimprovably in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro: "[Lyne's] Lolita is rather more faithful to the spirit of the novel than Kubrick’s, more lusciously erotic, also more tender and poignant. As for Dominique Swain in the title-role, she gives (I weigh my words) an extraordinary performance, and the wreck of her career by the near-universal contempt with which the film was greeted is something of a tragedy." Having finally caught up with Lyne's movie on Film Four last week, I too find myself among those who can give their (measured) approval of the venture.
Kubrick's film was a comedy of manners, such as 1962 permitted; I'm sure Stanley would have made it racier had the censor allowed, but instead (helped by Peter Sellers, James Mason and Sue Lyon) he made it very, very blackly funny, and his screenplay, which made Nabokov rather wince, is a serious achievement. (You can read Nabokov's own effort at adapting Lolita if you wish, because he published the thing separately as a matter of pride. But you wouldn't ever want to watch it...)
Some smart fellow once said that it's pointless to pretend you can 'film a book'; the best a filmmaker can do is come up with something that reminds one fondly of the source. Lyne's Lolita certainly accomplishes that. Watching it, I was frequently and happily put in mind of my first meeting with Nabokov's novel. When Lyne was doing junkets for his movie's release he was quick to confess that originally he had "read Lolita for all of the wrong reasons." Yeah yeah, you and everyone else, pal. Certainly as an adolescent I sought it out for its notoriety as a 'hot book' and instead, like a million others, was quietly stunned by one's first encounter with the high style of twentieth century English literature.
Of course, the book still describes sexual heat, and Lyne obviously couldn't resist visualising some of that, in his very own breathless fashion. But where his film most memorably refracts the novel is in its poignancy, its villain's creeping awareness of his terrible, unretractable sin. How bold and honourable was this Lolita to end on the note of Humbert Humbert's self-realising moment as the police cordon closes in on him while he stands on a hilltop, hearing the far-off sounds of children at play in a little hamlet snuggled in the valley below - knowing that, whatever feelings of 'love' he has professed for his stepdaughter, the truth is that he robbed her of her childhood, and her every chance of happiness in the bargain. Thus: "The hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord..."

Monday, 28 September 2009

The People versus Roman Polanski

I wonder what LA's district attorney Steve Cooley thinks he's up to with the renewed pursuit of Roman Polanski; and I suppose we'll find out soon enough. Perhaps he thinks he's reminding us that justice never sleeps, even when, as in this decades-old case, the crime no longer has a plaintiff, the victim Samantha Geimer having moved on with her life. Perhaps, too, Cooley, a reputedly resolute and conservative ex-policeman, wants the world to know that Los Angeles is not merely a bolthole of liberal Hollywood types who want their excesses and turpitudes forever excused without retribution.
Cooley is reported by the Telegraph as saying, '[Polanski's] been trying to get it resolved on his terms but it's going to on the terms of the Los Angeles County justice system. Some form of justice will finally be done... He received a very, very, very lenient sentence back then which would never be achievable under today's laws." So what now? He wants Polanski to be sentenced anew with the power of hindsight, befitting the manners and mores of the 2000s rather than the 1970s?
Well, of course I can't know the lawman's mind, but I guess he feels the 76-year-old filmmaker has certainly made his own bed in that respect. Does he feel that the 42 days Polanski spent in Chino jail back in 1977, locked up alongside 'incredible murderers' (as the director once recalled to Martin Amis), cannot stand as adequate penal servitude for the crime? That the role played in Polanski's decision back then to skip bail by the capricious and dishonourable Judge Rittenband can be, essentially, overlooked? That, since the law and not the victim determines what punishment fits the crime, Samantha Geimer's opinions are immaterial? Again, on all counts, we shall see.
The Telegraph also reports that Cooley "is facing questions in California over the cost of pursuing Polanski when the state is having to release 40,000 inmates because of prison overcrowding." But I doubt that will perturb DA Cooley for one moment if, as it seems, he's a man who believes the sword of truth may indeed rust in its scabbard for however long it takes to get the blade out and the lopping done proper.
My own second-rate opinion, as you may have guessed, is that this is all a colossal waste of time and endeavour over a wrongdoing that was admitted to and paid for long ago.
The famous image of Polanski above is by and (c) Harry Benson.