Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance
Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies
Something else altogether
All of the above
Monday, August 31, 2009
Following on from last year's Man On Wire (which has now bneen on general release and on TV and everything) we have another nutter on a high wire: in this case the cable of the Zugspitz cable car. When I saw the news report on this earlier tonight I couldn't decide whether I was more gobsmacked by the fact that he ran the last ten yards or so, or by the (obvious if you think about it) amazing slope of the cable at the top end.
I know some of the workmen involved ran across the support chain of the Menai Straits suspension bridge after it was first strung, but I think they MAY have been celebrating first. (As celebrated as newts....) And the chain would have provided more purchase for feet than a wire cable.
That it was the correct decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to die in Libya with his family (either in a Libyan jail or - as it turned out - as a free man) is a no-brainer. To the various American family members of Lockerbie victims who have been asking for weeks whether their feelings were to be wholly disregarded in the decision-making process, the only possible answer is "Well, duh!" In Britain, sentencies, probation and release are determined by judges and other legal professionals, not by victims and their families; which just goes to show that our justice system is separated from the lynch mob by many more years than its US counterpart.
What is scandalous about al-Megrahi's release (the scenes when he arrived in Libya were tasteless, certainly, but understandable) is that in order to obtain it he bowed to pressure from the UK government to drop his appeal against conviction. Al-Megrahi has always maintained that he had nothing to do with the bombing, and there is widespread agreement on this side of the Atlantic at least that he is telling the truth. Relatives of several of the British victims, who attended the trial and heard the evidence, are convinced that Libya had nothing to do with the bombing, but that it was carried out by Syria on behalf of Iran. (Remember that a few months earlier the US Navy had casually shot down an Iranian Airbus with the loss of several hundred lives.) However, Syria were key allies in the first war against Iraq so couldn't be touched. Libya, on the other hand, were desperate to be rehabilitated by the West and to have their trade sanctions lifted. If that meant taking responsibility for Syria's bombing an furnishng a scapegoat or two, no problem. So it's no surprise al-Megrahi was greeted as a hero at home: to the Libyans, he's the guy who went to jail to get his country off the international hook.
Conjecture? Undoubtedly. Conspiracy theory? Check. Probable? Absolutely. (Heck, even the Daily Mail, not renowned as a friend to Libya, reckons the wrong guy probably went to prison.) However, now we shall never get to see the facts re-examined by a court, so there is a good chance the real killers will never be found.
Of course, the decision to release al-Megrahi wasn't taken because there was suspicion of his innocence: officially there is none, as he was convicted. It was taken because he is close to death and it was the humane thing to do, in accordance with our values, as Kenny McAskill said. Maybe he has a better appreciation than his American detractors of what Christianity is about. Maybe he just paid attention when he went to see The Fellowship Of The Ring:
Frodo: I am sorry, but I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum....He deserves death. Gandalf: Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.
Anyway, I'm proud of my adopted country and its government for having the courage to stand up to American pressure and - for once - make a decision on the basis of a principle even if it could damage their popularity.
I note in passing the unedifying spectacle of several of the American victims' relatives saying that they don't believe that al-Megrahi is sick at all. Presumably they think that as the doctors who diagnosed his prostate cancer (and its fatal spread) are employed by the NHS they're all incompetent Communists (and probably Muslim immigrants). Scepticism from a position of total ignorance in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence: I bet these guys are all convinced Barack Obama was born in Kenya too.
Courtesy of the BBC's iPlayer facility, I'm listening as I blog to last Sunday's BBC Promenade Concert, which was a celebration of Bollywood. The Proms have changed so much since my youth that this no longer seems surprising, but I can remember the huge fuss when the very first popular music Prom happened, which was on 13 August 1970. There were two Proms that night: the first a programme of Bach, the second by The Soft Machine (the Ratledge/Wyatt/Hopper/Dean lineup). The interest the Softs attracted was immense, and the BBC to their credit gave the event huge publicity. I'd never heard of the Soft Machine before that week, but there was no way I was going to miss the broadcast (it went out on TV as well as radio). I considered myself musically fairly hip for a 15-year-old, but I'd had little or no exposure to what we'd now term jazz-fusion, so the concert was a real ear-opener: Britain's premier jazz-rock band at their absolute creative peak, and doing what as far as I could tell was a good gig. I never got to see the Softs live, though Hugh Hopper's next group Isotope played Durham University when I was a student.
Anyway, if someone had told me - or anyone else - back in 1970 that in 39 years there would be a Bollywood Prom, it would have been as hard to comprehend as if they had tried to explain the BBC iPlayer. Serious jazz-rock was one thing, but outright popular music, from films? We wouldn't have been ready for that at the Proms: that was for Radio 2, not Radio 3. In any case, outwith Britain's Asian communities very few people in Britain had even heard of the Indian film industry. In those 39 years not only has the gulf between 'high' and 'low' culture narrowed hugely, but culture has become globalised. Just remember that it was just three years earlier, on 25 June 1967, that the first ever live global satellite hook-up took place. To give an idea of the significance of that, the BBC's contribution was to commission a special song from The Beatles. You may have heard of it.....
OK, enough 60s and 70s nostalgia, back to Bollywood. Here's one of my favourite songs from one of my favourite films, Dil Chahta Hai from 2001. I love the film for many reasons, but one is that the songs all appear in context rather than being totally unrelated to the action. In other words, this song is a disco sequence because in comes in a key early scene in a disco during which one of the film's three couples meet. The films is about three male friends and their very different experiences with romance, and in this song the blokes are strutting their stuff and extolling the pleasure of being young and devil-may-care. To Western eyes it may look rather camp but in India there is no embarrassment about uncomplicated male friendship, even hand-holding. The song was deservedly a huge hit in India. Enjoy it.
And from the same film, here is one of the couples. They were paired off by their parents as suitable partners in an arranged marriage, but both rejected the idea with horror. However, the dynamic of this relationship is that as they get to know each other they do in fact begin to fall in love, and there is then the awkwardness of how you mention to someone who was hugely relieved not to have to marry you that you would, in fact, rather like it if they did. This scene takes place at a point when their feelings for each other are obvious to us but they haven't broached the topic with each other. They go to the pictures to get out of the rain, and this is what they see. It is a virtuoso homage to several decades of Bollywood visual styles: and a great song. Go Bollywood!
I have lived in Scotland for more than half of my life. I love it here, and though English-born I am proud to count myself an adopted Scot. If Scotland became independent (I wish) and I had to choose citizenships I would unhesitatingly go for Scottish (though ideally I'd keep dual nationality out of sentiment).
Tariq Ali - Edinburgh International Book Festival 16 August 2009
Went to see Tariq Ali this afternoon at the book festival. He was here to promote his new book The Protocols of the Elders of Sodom which I haven't read but which sounds interesting. It's in three sections: Literature and Politics, Diaries, and Farewells (this last comprising articles on now-dead friends and colleagues such as Derek Jarman). Tariq's talk was on literature and politics, more particularly on the importance of context when reading. He reminded us, for example, that Milton, Marvell and Dryden were all deeply involved with Cromwell's government and that much of their poetry cannot be understood without taking this into account. (This also explains, he told us, Milton's otherwise surprisingly poor opinion of Shakespeare: while to Shakespeare the monarchy was a given, and any other way of running a country unthinkable, Milton viewed him with suspicion precisely because of his support for the idea of kingship.) Don Quixote, too, is full of social commentary, or as full as is possible when one is writing under heavy censorship and when everybody expected the Spanish Inquisition. Spain under Philip II was the prototype of the modern police state, and as a (f0rcibly) converted Jew Cervantes was all too well aware of its downside.
Tariq speaks as well as he writes. The questions and answers took him to topics such as writers he likes but whose politics are very different from his own, such as Celine and Anthony Powell; to parallels between anti-semitism in Europe between the wars and Islamophobia in Europe today*; to the films of Derek Jarman; and to the vigour of political debate in the USA (for example over Obama's healthcare proposals) compared to the passivity in the UK or Italy, where nothing seems to cause much excitement. (I think he exaggerates somewhat there: while it was largely an issue manufactured by the Daily Telegraph to boost circulation, the interminable saga of MPs' dodgy expense claims certainly galvanised public opinion.)
It seems strange to see a figure I remember as a student firebrand in the 1960s now old and grey (but still vigorous). I shall certainly read the new book. I bought two older ones and got them signed: Street Fighting Years (which I read many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed) and Pirates of The Caribbean: Axis of Hope.
*Tariq cited this article from the Guardian as an illustration of the kind of pervasive unthinking Islamophobia sweeping Europe today.
This piece from the Times provides an interesting corrective to the rubbish of which we hear so much about the niqab (the veil which covers the face except for the eyes).
The comments are the usual depressing round of Islamophobic cack for the most part. I did like the one which said that "covering the face is unacceptable in western society". Strange when you consider how many heroes of popular culture do it, whether you take Batman and Spiderman, or Zorro and the Lone Ranger. And a moment's thought (and reading of the comments) shows that it isn’t facial covering which is unacceptable to these people but Islam: the niqab as just a visible sign of the cultural other that terrifies them so.
As for the argument forever being wheeled out that the niqab (or indeed the hijab which is the one like a headscarf) is a sign that Islam is a religion which degrades women and denies them equal rights with men, especially in marriage, I am looking forward to watching this programme which I recorded last week. (Bandwidth up here isn't up to watching it online.) I wonder how all the Islamophobes who find feminism a convenient figleaf will react to it. The only discussion I've found so far is on a forum at The Sun's site, where predictably the programme's contant was wholly ignored and the comments were all about how wicked Islam oppresses women. Well, gosh.
A couple of weeks late posting this, but reading of John Ryan's death brought the mempories flooding back. Not simply of Captain Pugwash, huge fan though I was (and for me it will always be a black & white TV series showing at Sunday tea-time, with wonderfully low-tech animation comprising hand-operated cardboard cutouts with mouths that opened and closed at a slightly oblique angle). I was also reminded of Sir Prancelot, which I had forgotten (though the theme music came back to me at once) but which I enjoyed: and also the strip cartoons Harris Tweed (in Eagle) and Lettice Leefe (in Girl). We got the latter to send to my cousin in Ontario, in exchange for which we received the comic section of some Canadian paper. Thus I got not only to develop my feminine side, but to read Dick Tracy, Blondie, B.C., The Wizard of Id and Peanuts before they were widely-known in the UK.
But Pugwash holds a special place in my affections, and whenever Talk Like A Pirate Day comes round it's Pugwash and his Cabin Boy, rather than Jack Sparrow, who comes to mind.
Here's Doug Kershaw demonstrating a kind of country music we don't hear much of in the UK. I mean Cajun country, of course.
That song was my introduction to Doug and Rusty Kershaw, and I first heard it on an album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. This next clip is of the biggest hit from that album - a song I remember hearing Lonnie Donegan doing on the radio when I was quite small.
And the Dirt Band's banjo virtuoso John McEuen provided the arrangements for his school-mate Steve Martin's new album of banjo music, The Crow:
Admit it, you thought he was just a pretty good comedian, right?
Great article (and I don't just mean that it largely backs me up: it's a cracking piece of journalism) by the Guardian's Ben Goldacre (in his regular Bad Science column).
I did spot someone from the organic industry last week bewailing the fact that the FSA hadn't waited for publication of an imminent survey by someone whose name I can't remember but whose job title (Professor of Food Ecology or something similar) enabled the reader to skip the tedium of reading the paper in order to discover its conclusions. In the same way, I wouldn't expect to be amazed by the results of a paper on climate change by a professor of coal science. £2bn a year buys a lot of dodgy science, whoever writes the cheques.
People of course choose to eat organic food despite the enormous mark-up for all kinds of reasons: pesticide residues, carbon footprint, whatever. But to hear the shrieks of dismay from the organic lobby on seeing one of their cherished marketing myths demolished, the Big Nutritional Lie was clearly a significant part of the sales pitch. Elsewhere in the Times, an industry shill suggested that the alternative to eating organic products is junk food ("My family could have been eating £1.99 chicken nuggets with cheese strings and frozen peas for the past few years and ice cream made from palm oil for 74p rather than a luxury brand made from double cream and free-range eggs for £3.95.") Gosh, it's as though most of the shelves in the supermarket didn't exist.
Putting it as simply as possible: I care about the taste of the food I eat and the ethics behind it. I buy tomatoes on the vine, free-range or barn eggs, freshly-squeezed tomato juice (to go with the up-market vodka, natch), avoid mechanically-reformed meat products, eat wholemeal bread and lots of vegetables, and generally avoid generic products and the cheap-and-cheerful end of the market. I don't buy Bacardi, or Coke, and go for Fairtrade produce where I can. On the other hand, the only circumstances under which I ever buy something with an "organic" label is if there is no alternative (or none except something hosed from an abattoir floor). I buy organic milk when Sainsburys sell out of normal skimmed: I grit my teeth at paying a premium for effectively the same product with a fashionable label, but I'd rather that than buy semi-skimmed or whole milk.
What the food industry desperately needs is a Gok Wan equivalent. Someone prepared to buy decent-quality non-organic ("normal") supermarket produce and go head to head, in a contest judged by the public, with one of the legion of I-only-ever-shop-organic-darling Jamie Oliver/Rick Stein/whoever culinary clones sponsored by the multi-million-pound organic food business. (I find it so hard to differentiate them I had to use Google just now to remind myself of Oliver's name, though a friend of mine once pointed out the helpful labelling on a pack of Anthony Worral Thompson's sausages: "Prick with a fork"). Not going as far as Delia Smith with "How To Cheat At Cooking" and using tins of mince or whatever, but simply using decent quality freah non-organic ingredients. If someone were to do that, another holy cow could be disposed of, that of organic food's purportedly better taste. Bollocks. Locally-sourced, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, bollocks (severed with a golden sickle by the light of the equinoctial full moon by a certified Soil Association shaman).