Tuesday, December 20, 2011

On Britain's "Isolation"

Recently a well-known journalist friend, lamenting Britain's "isolation," commented that the "best quote" to come out of the unfortunate meeting of European leaders regarding the EU crisis was from an unnamed French diplomat, that "Britain is like a man who wants to go to a wife swapping party but refuses to bring his wife."

Given that my friend is a woman I was surprised that she was so amused that a French diplomat would make a joke about women as chattel to be used as a bargaining chip.

In any case, as to the matter of isolation, I would say that Britain is isolated in the way was the man who stood on the dock as the Titanic pulled away. The French diplomat's line is funny but rather than offering bon mots shouldn't he have been addressing the issue of French bank's low capital ratios? It was actually on just such a point that British Prime Minister David Cameron made his stand. The Eurozone is in a debt crisis, and behind that in a growth crisis, particularly along its southern rim. That a European diplomat would, at that moment, tell jokes at the expense of another EU country seems a sign of dangerous denial and that Europe has a leadership crisis.

In the conversation cited above that same journalist friend compared this moment, with Britain's perceived isolation, to 1936. Let me get this straight. We're to believe that Britain's declining to enter fiscal union with an EU dominated by Germany is akin to Britain's pre-WWII aversion to confront Germany's increasing militarism and to PM Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler? Something is wrong with that figuration.

The Dark Knight Rises... and Protects the 1%?

... or has Christopher Nolan crafted a movie critiquing private property and its distribution? I'm not sure how this will go over with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, but from the trailer the film looks good, and Anne Hathaway is the best Catwoman since Julie Newmar.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Golden Ages of Travel Writing

Last week I began to wonder whether we are about to enter another golden age of travel writing, which may be another way of saying that we "live in interesting times." The world is in turmoil, in fact we may be at a major inflection point. There is upheaval in the Middle East, changes that once looked promising and now look like a long, grim road to an uncertain future. This week upheaval in Russia as well, and possibly in the near future in China too. There are a number of a small wars on the verge of commencing (here's hoping they don't). Some smaller, long-running conflicts continue. Travel is cheap and, for better or worse, where it once took Patrick Leigh Fermor a year to walk from the hook of Holland to Istanbul, one can now fly there from London in a few hours for a few quid... though perhaps something may be lost in that translation of time and space. For one thing, where we come from life is not cheap, though it is in some other parts of the world. For all of us, wherever we are, it is however short, as I was reminded by a friend just today. I now recall another time when this was brought home so sharply to me, when I was traveling in La Mancha, on a plain southwest of the town of Soria. The woman I was traveling with told me to stop the car and led me on a hike up the single hill on a wide plane... a mountain it began to seem, after a half hour of walking. Atop it was a castle fortress that had crumbled half to the ground and from which one could see on that clear summer day a score of miles across the plain.

"This must be what... five hundred years old?" I'd guessed that it had been destroyed during the reconquista.

She laughed, laughed knowingly, since she'd grown up near here and had gone to university in Valladolid.

"A thousand?!" Something shifted underfoot.

She shook her head. "Older."

"Whose was it?" She shrugged her shoulders.

That was a lesson, but the real lesson she offered there I missed and did not figure for some years.

Aside from cheap airfare, travel now is however wholly different in that with smart phones and email and globalization one never wholly leaves the known world behind. That's too bad, but you can always turn it all off and tell your loved ones the reception was bad.

This month in preparation for my own travels in the new year, to Mexico and Rome and elsewhere, I've been reading "Paddy" Fermor, Robert Byron (not the lord and poet, but the writer and traveler whose rucksack Fermor borrowed when he set off on his own tramp in 1933), along with Norman Lewis and other British travel writers.

One editor, Lorin Stein, recently noted that the English tend to be good at this genre, and its true that late Victorian British travel literature, and the work of those British writers mentioned above is superb, but in fact Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," a best-seller in its time and a work to put alongside his classic "Huck Finn," is a kind of travel book, and I've just downloaded to kindle Twain's "Innocents Abroad." Hemingway's short stories and novels, though fictional, could be considered travel literature. A few years after he published the Knickerbocker Tales, his quintessential New York work, Washington Irving lived in Granada, Spain, working in the consulate there and residing in one of the apartments carved out of the ruins of the Alhambra. His account, "Tales of the Alhambra" (1832), is essential reading before visiting. Through Irving one can see that, the most beautiful palace in the world, not as it stands today, wonderfully restored, but instead lit up at night, spectral, illumined by the dozens of open-air fires that gypsies and other neighbors made and huddled around in the ruined palace's crumbling rooms left open to the sky. Oh, and then of course there is Paul Theroux, author of the classic about train travel through China is still at work today.

In future posts I'll be writing about Camilo Jose Cela, the early twentieth-century Spanish novelist and travel writer, and Cees Nooteboom, the contemporary Dutch novelist and travel writer, but for now here is a wonderful reminiscence by Josh Lieberman, from the Paris Review Daily, about a great American magazine, Holiday, that once published travel literature for a wide audience.

Here’s how it begins. You are in a bookstore on the main drag of a small town. You walk along the mystery and western paperback sections, and then you see a wicker basket overflowing with Life magazines. You idly flip through the stack because you know Life was once an important cultural force but have never seen the magazine in person. The copies of Life are musty and torn, and in the middle of the heap you come across something called Holiday. It has the same heft as Life, more than a foot tall and surprisingly heavy, but in place of a black-and-white photograph on the cover there is a colorful swirling yellow illustration of the sun and the words “California Without Cliches.” The magazine is from 1965 and you think it would look good on your coffee table. Also the ads are campy and fun (“San Diego Is a See-Do Vacationland!”), so you buy the magazine—why not, it’s only a few bucks—and take it home. You turn on the TV and half watch Seinfeld as you flip through for the ads. Then you come upon “Notes from a Native Daughter,” the Joan Didion essay you read in college but don’t really remember. You read how California is only five hours from New York by jet but really that is just a delusion: “California is somewhere else.” Now you are somewhere else. Seinfeld ends and another Seinfeld begins and you read the entire essay and then discover a piece by Ray Bradbury, your old pal from high school English. You read his rhapsodic paean to Disneyland (“No beatniks here. No Cool people with Cool faces pretending not to care, thus swindling themselves out of life or any chance for life”), and you think that’s pretty good, too. You head back to the bookstore to see if they have any more issues of Holiday.

Whenever I mention to someone that I’ve started collecting old issues of Holiday, the excellent yet forgotten monthly travel magazine that was born after World War II and lived until the late seventies, the response generally falls between bafflement and irritation. “Why would you do that?” people ask, as though I’ve just admitted to hoarding old shoehorns or something truly sinister.

Holiday was composed of almost all long-form travel essays—it was not, like many modern travel magazines, list after list of where to eat, shop, and sleep. (There would be little point or pleasure in reading a 1957 Holiday if it were just about where to get the best goulash.) A handful of the pieces are dated, but, like the greatest travel writing, many are timeless. After all, plenty of people still read The Great Railway Bazaar and Travels with Charley, not to mention the roughly 150-year-old Innocents Abroad.

The most puzzling thing about the lost history of Holiday is that the magazine published so many famous writers: Joseph Heller, Irwin Shaw, Arthur C. Clarke, E. B. White, Arthur Miller, Gay Talese, Paul Bowles, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Kerouac, Cheever, O’Hara, Bellow, Thurber, Faulkner.

But more than the essays by major writers, what I find most fascinating about Holiday is the articles by little-known, or totally unknown, authors. In my first issue of Holiday... I came upon an essay by Romain Gary.

Gary’s essay, published in 1967, is a relatively straightforward travelogue about Guadeloupe, the southernmost archipelago in the Caribbean, but it ends with one of those anecdotes you find yourself recalling at odd intervals in the following days and weeks. As part of Gary’s trip he plans to visit an old Royal Air Force buddy from whom he hasn’t heard in twenty years...

Read the rest of that tale, and the whole of Lieberman's wonderful piece HERE.

And see Paris Review editor Lorin Stein's indefensible characterization of travel writing as an English genre HERE. I encourage you to give him a piece of your mind on that score. Their comment section is open, his email address is available.

Some hot-links to the books mentioned here:



Washington Irving's TALES OF THE ALHAMBRA.



Cees Nooteboom's ROADS TO SANTIAGO.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Oliver St. Clair Franklin on Leadership... and Jazz

Jazz FM recently broadcast a show featuring my friend Oliver St. Clair Franklin O.B.E., the Vice Chairman of Electronic Ink, the Honorary British Consul for Philadelphia, a one-time investment executive instrumental in bringing growth to the new South Africa as it emerged in the 1990s, and a man deeply involved in the civic affairs of my hometown, Philadelphia. It was a jazz-centric "Desert Island Disks." The opening track is one of my old favorites by Grover Washington Jr, the Philly jazz master who also played years ago at the Main Point coffee house.

Franklin is particularly interesting on the leadership style of London mayor Boris Johnson, the eloquent, witty mayor of London, about whom you'll be hearing a great deal, given that he'll be hosting the Olympics next year.

The program is now posted HERE. The tunes are great, as are Oliver Franklin's pearls of wisdom, about leadership, and the challenges of juggling the intricacies to make a city work.

From Pakistan: A Modern and Moderate Voice

In Washington, discourse has been noisy about this being the noisiest of eras. In Pakistan, the decibel level has been rising too, especially since the NATO incident, and in a place where such can have deadly consequences. It was happy therefore to come across, via a friend's facebook feed, an op-ed from such a modern, moderate voice as free-lance writer Huma Yusuf. Her piece, "In the Realm of Fear," was published this week in DAWN:

The world has heard a collective Pakistani howl, further amplified by dozens of private television channels, Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates and text messages. But listen more closely, and the silence seems even more deafening than the noise. The more precarious Pakistan’s domestic and geopolitical position becomes, the longer is the list of what not to say.
You wouldn’t think it while surfing channels or the Internet, but censorship is making a major comeback — not only as a political tactic, but also as a way of life.
The decision by the All Pakistan Cable Operators Association to stop broadcasting international news channels that air ‘anti-Pakistan’ material is only the latest shenanigan in a growing list of transgressions aimed at making Pakistanis see no evil, hear no evil. In a different world, the Pakistani public would have been relieved to see the uncomfortable issue of the ‘double game’, addressed in a recent BBC documentary titled Secret Pakistan, taken out of the mouths of Washington heavyweights and placed in the realm of reliable journalism.
In that other world, Pakistanis might have used the findings of BBC journalists to trigger a reasoned national debate about why our country finds its foreign policy in such a bind. Rather than reconsider the wisdom of Pakistan’s strategic decisions, we have chosen to ban the channel, thereby taking one step closer to the deluded isolationism that states such as Iran have perfected.
Pakistanis may be laughing at our authorities’ clumsy attempts to censor content, but there is nothing funny about a society intent on silencing itself. Talk-show hosts banter, bloggers blog, twits tweet, but this active public discourse often seeks to silence, rather than engage, voices of dissent. More Pakistanis are making themselves heard than ever before, but this collective noise drowns out rather than develops multiple perspectives. Say something contrary on the comment thread of a blog and strident voices will rally to label you a CIA spy, Hindu or Zionist.
But let’s be honest: the strictest censorship is currently being enforced in our most private spaces — dining rooms, office cubicles, private cars. As Pakistani society becomes more extreme, polarised and moralistic, people are becoming equally careful about what they say in private — amongst friends, family members and colleagues — as in public, on air, or in print. Those who were appalled by Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, but couldn’t denounce Mumtaz Qadri vociferously enough; those who believe an amicable bilateral relationship with the US is to Pakistan’s benefit, but dare not praise Washington in the midst of jingoistic ire; those who think Imran Khan is dangerously soft on extremist groups, but fear being labelled cynics or
traitors; those who believe Ahmadis should be allowed to practise their faith freely, but say little for fear of what might be construed as blasphemy — these Pakistanis see the BBC ban as a logical extension of a cultural characteristic. The most basic criterion for a democracy to function is that all citizens believe they have a voice.

I look forward to hearing more from Yusuf. Read the whole thing HERE.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New York City Serenade, at The Main Point (1975)

Some friends have asked about the origin of this blog's name. Mostly, it's meant to suggest that this on-line journal aims to address the main point, whether a cultural or political issue, of any given day that I write... or any given week, since I've been a sporadic blogger.

That said, as one friend just noted, it also pays homage to a coffee house, called The Main Point, in Bryn Mawr, PA, that was at the center of the folk and rock scenes in the Philadelphia area in the 1970s. For such a small venue they had an extraordinary line-up of performers. I grew up nearby though I was too young to ever go, but I still listen to the music, including this bootleg of Bruce Springsteen's "New York City Serenade" from 1975.

Hey vibes man, hey jazz man play me your serenade
Any deeper blue and you're playin' in your grave

Billy, he's down by the railroad tracks, sittin' low in the back seat of his
Diamond Jackie, she's so intact, she falls so softly beneath him,
Jackie's heels are stacked, Billy's got cleats on his boots,
Together they're gonna boogaloo down Broadway and come back home with the loot,
It's midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute, it's a mad dog's
So walk tall, or baby don't walk at all.
Fish lady, fish lady, fish lady she baits them tenement walls,
She won't take cornerboys, ain't got no money, and they're so easy,
I said, "Hey baby won't you take my hand, walk me down Broadway,
I'm a young man and I talk real loud, yeah, baby walk real proud for you.
So shake it away, so shake away your street life, shake away your city life,
And hook up to the train, hook up to the night train, hook it up hook up to the, hook up to the train,
But I know that she won't take the train, no she won't take the train,
No she won't take the train, no she won't take the train
She's afraid them tracks are gonna slow her down,
And when she turns this boy'll be gone
So long, sometimes you just gotta walk on.

Hey vibes man, hey jazz man play me your serenade
Any deeper blue and you're playin' in your grave
Save your notes, don't spend 'em on the blues boy,
Save your notes, don't spend 'em on the darlin' yearlin' sharp boy,
Straight for the church note ringin', vibes man sting a trash can
Listen to your junk man, listen to your junk man,
Listen to your junk man, listen to your junk man,
He's singin', singin', singin', singin'.
All dressed up in satin, walkin' past the alley.
Watch out for you junk man, watch out for your junk man,
Watch out for your junk man.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Microeconomics for Bovines

Sent to me, without attribution... and I'd really like to know who authored this variation because it's my favorite.
- J

You have 2 cows.
You give one to your neighbor.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and gives you some milk.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and sells you some milk.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and shoots you.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away.

You have two cows.
You sell one and buy a bull.
Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows.
You sell them and retire on the income.

You have two cows.
You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows.
The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company.
The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.
You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States , leaving you with nine cows.
No balance sheet provided with the release.
The public then buys your bull.

You have two giraffes.
The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.

You have two cows.
You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows.
Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow has dropped dead.

You have two cows.
You go on strike, organize a riot, and block the roads, because you
want three cows.

You have two cows.
You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk.
You then create a clever cow cartoon image called a Cowkimona and market it worldwide.

You have two cows, but you don't know where they are.
You decide to have lunch.

You have 5000 cows. None of them belong to you.
You charge the owners for storing them.

You have two cows.
You have 300 people milking them.
You claim that you have full employment, and high bovine productivity.
You arrest the newsman who reported the real situation.

You have two cows.
You worship them.

You have two cows.
Both are mad.

Everyone thinks you have lots of cows.
You tell them that you have none.
No-one believes you, so they bomb the ** out of you and invade your country.
You still have no cows, but at least you are now a Democracy.

You have two cows.
Business seems pretty good.
You close the office and go for a few beers to celebrate.

You have two cows.
The one on the left looks very attractive.