Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Free, and Free-Thinking, Press... via George Orwell

In his essay "The Freedom of the Press" George Orwell warned about a press too wed to the prevailing orthodoxies and interests. 

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news -- things which on their own merits would get the big headlines -- being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that "it wouldn't do" to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is "not done" to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was "not done" to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

True still today.

Hat-tip Brain Pickings and Maria Popova.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Chapel, Hospital of St. Cross, Winchester

The Hospital of St. Cross in Winchester is Britain's oldest charitable institution, founded in 1133 by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and grandson of William the Conqueror.  Pictured here is its chapel.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Random Notes on the North London Pub Quiz Scene

On a Tuesday evening last month, in a corner of North London, the high street was festooned with unusually expensive automobiles.  On one block was a Rolls, a Jaguar, and a Porsche.  What's more, one pub in the center of that neighborhood was rammed.  It turned out that the all-Britain Pub Quiz League was on hiatus, and some of the top players in the nation had turned out for the competition. 

But those cars...  they made me wonder whether pub quiz players the new footballers.

Well one might ask.  Then comes this in a recent Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary:
Spotted in North London... taking a kind of busman’s holiday...  Shaun Wallace, a barrister and the “Dark Destroyer” on ITV’s Quiz Show “The Chase,” slipped in last night to the Prince of Wales to keep his instrument keen.  The pub’s quiz night has been deemed by the Telegraph Britain’s “most respected,” and is even the subject of a 2006 book. To general dismay, Wallace was however pipped to the post by a local team led by Observer writer, and former Review Editor, Tim Adams.  Given that Adams’s team had never before placed higher than seventh a scoring recount was demanded but the results stood.

When next in Los Angeles I may speak with a cable television exec about bidding for live coverage of these events.  But which channel?  ESPN, or Bravo?

In any case, in another corner of London, on local quiz night there was a general predominance of heels.  At the local bistro restaurant, tables of small groups of women on their own.  Apparently, the Wives & Girlfriends of the pub quiz players... or playas as they sometimes styles themselves... had arrived.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Visit with Andres Velasco, Economist and (now) Politician

It is a truism often alluded to that voters should be wary of politicians bearing big ideas.  When in 2006 Chile’s Andres Velasco left a professorship at Harvard’s Kennedy School to become Finance Minister in the administration of Michelle Bachelet he came with many ideas, principally that the cause of political instability in Latin America was due to poor administration of economic booms.

As Finance Minister, then, of a major copper-producing country during a boom in the price of that commodity, his first act was to institute a mechanism inspired by that observation.  A projected mean price was to be set, with excess revenues to be directed to a sovereign wealth fund.  In essence, he intentionally cooled the economy and became, in effect, the wet blanket at the party.

As a result, Chile became the first country to emerge from that world-wide recession, and Velasco, for his foresight, became in his country an enormously popular figure. 

I met Velasco in March not long after he announced his campaign for the presidency.  (Shortly our meeting, Michelle Bachelet stepped down from her position at the UN, returned to Santiago, announced her own candidacy.  She has since won the primary for leadership of the Concertacion Coalition and is contesting the presidency in the general election in the fall.)

But in the spring, when all seemed possible, Velasco kindly answered a few questions...

LINVILLE: How would you do things different? 

VELASCO: Chile is in the midst of a political legitimacy crisis.  Citizens do not trust congress, the judiciary, or the political parties. 

Much of this is related to the presence of a political class that has been in power for over a generation. People here often say: “For thirty years now I read the paper in the morning, I turn on the TV, it’s the same people, the same faces, on the right, on the left, and in the parties.”

One of the big issues that caused many citizens to be indignant is the allocation of government jobs to party friends. On a television programme last year I said that a very senior senator from the coalition I belonged to had pressured me to hire a dozen of his party associates and he had threatened to boycott our legislative agenda if I didn’t give in.  Well I didn’t give in. Dozens have since told me they had the same experience.

LINVILLE: Hugo Chavez died recently.  How will this change the political landscape of Latin America?

VELASCO: Over the last decade or so, two kinds of left governments, and left political parties, have coexisted in Latin America: first, modern, liberal, outward-orientated left-leaning governments, in countries like Chile and Brazil; and then populist governments with a tendency towards demagoguery in Venezuela and elsewhere. I would have hoped in recent years for a more energetic leadership on the part of the modernizers, particularly in Brazil.  Brazil missed an opportunity. At this moment the need is greater than ever to consolidate a modern kind of social democracy for those in Latin America who want their countries to be open, outward-orientated and to use economic development to improve the lot of the people in those nations.

en France...

To France last week to conduct an interview for British Airways HIGH LIFE magazine.  Look for my profile of a major entertainment figure in the September issue.  We did have a moment waterside on the Cote d'Azur, but stayed up in the hills with friends.  A picture from the spot then, somewhere between Grasse and St. Paul, just below which the Tour de France came through.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Nadim Shehadi on Dictators, Revolution and Civil War

The conflict in Syria is difficult even for the experts to grasp.  When I'm looking for guidance I often turn to commentary by Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese-born expert at Chatham House.

Michael Totten recently interviewed him for World Affairs, where the man from Shehadi outlined a Machiavellian tactic of the Assad regime for maintaining control of Syria.  Shehadi playfully offered his explanation in terms of advice for an aspiring dictator:
“What you should do,” he said, “is establish the idea that you're indispensable, that you’re irreplaceable, that beyond you is the abyss of sectarian civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and the breakup of the state. Create problems that only you can resolve. That's the mind game Bashar al-Assad is playing with you. As long as you can't see beyond him, he's safe.”
This has indeed been the essential psychological tactic for the Assad family for the last 43 years.

In practice, internal control is maintained via power over networks and civil groups.  Here from an essay by Shehadi himself:
The regime’s network cuts across sect, class, ethnicity, region and ideology; even the clerical establishment is split along these lines. The regime even has its own Islamists, its own tame opposition and a history of manipulating jihadi and salafi groups and infiltrating them in Iraq and Lebanon. Throughout over forty years of its rule, the regime and its security establishment has penetrated every organization and community and nurtured within them a number of individuals who gained power through their association with the Baath party and the intelligence services. These become the power brokers and act as intermediaries with the state apparatus.

They can get people in and out of jail as well as get them jobs or get them fired, facilitate businesses or close them down, and they maintain control through an atmosphere of fear and mafia-style extortion and blackmail. Very often such individuals rise at the expense of the more traditional leadership and can hold the whole community to ransom.  
In the same essay, he poses another essential question: Is the conflict in Syria a revolution or a civil war?

Read the whole essay by Nadim Shehadi HERE.

Read Michael Totten's discussion with Shehadi HERE.

Claire Berlinski from Istanbul on the Taksim Protests and Erodgan's Prospects

For the past two years, one of the most astute commentators on matters in Turkey has been Claire Berlinksi, and that is all the more so in the last week during the Taksim protests.  Early this week, she wrote:
Erdo─čan may believe that he can outlast the protesters, and he may be right, particularly if the protesters succumb to the temptations of violence and vandalism. So far, they have been reasonably constrained. But the Robocops are exhausted—photos are circulating of them falling asleep on the street—and if there is one thing a prime minister best known for “taming the military” can’t do, it is to call in the army to settle things down. If the protests keep escalating and the crackdown intensifies, it’s hard to see how this can end well. Best case: the protests will spook the prime minister and give him a much-needed dose of humility. Worst case: The protests will spook the prime minister and leave him even more paranoid and vengeful.

Read the whole thing HERE

... and follow her excellent twitter feed HERE.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Other Side of London... a Very Green One

A friend visited London last week on the occasion of his book publication, and he commented that the city seemed very expensive.  Indeed.

Yes, well, my friend was staying at the Savoy Hotel... and then he moved to Brown's Hotel (which is celebrating its 175th anniversary and looks fab).  He was dining at restaurants and private clubs in Mayfair (Mark Birley's new establishment he liked).  Against my advice to him, someone else was choosing the wine at meals.  High tea alone was eighty dollars.  Black cabs he found were astronomical, especially when compared to New York's yellow taxis.  Wifi in the hotels were a good thirty dollars a day.  And the phone bill there!

All true.  But London is a vast city, as spread out as Los Angeles, and there are other neighborhoods than gold-plated Mayfair.  All of London's museums are free.  The underground is not particularly enjoyable but it is moderately efficient, and almost affordable.  Simcards for mobile phones with data are much cheaper than in America, and would have solved his expensive hotel comms problem.  Tea?  Consider PG Tips, with a biscuit.

More importantly you will not get to know London, or Britain, from Mayfair, which is essentially one vast concierge service for the international wealthy.  My NY friend's trip was too short, so understandably he ignored my advice, but after saying goodbye to him I went walking with a London friend.  She has lived in North London near Hampstead Heath, an enormous wild park, for years and knows the trails, and the trees... and the birds.  Since I'm better on the poems than the birds I pointed out that Keats composed "Ode to a Nightingale" nearby in the garden of a pub on the fringe of the Heath. 

Here, below, the view from the start of our walk, at the entrance to an adjacent park.  Andrew Marvell, the poet and one-time secretary to John Milton and Oliver Cromwell, lived in a house fifty yards to the right.

But this walk was not about houses, or even poets.

Below is a broad meadow on Hampstead Heath.

continued after the jump...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Hotel Review - Four Seasons Punta Mita

The juice was green. And because this was Mexico I suspected, correctly, that this might be cactus.

The light, coming off the wide expanse of Pacific, was dazzling. “Glare,” I thought. I adjusted my sunglasses.

Was that a breeze wafting up from the jungly vegetation below and through the expansive lobby? I wrote in my notebook: “Draughty?”

The reception lounge was calm, quiet, with just one couple checking out, far off, at the front desk. I knit my brow, and wondered: “Undue space?”

I saw a splash on the horizon. A dolphin possibly. Exotic birds darted here and there through the palm trees, heading for the Sierra Madre mountains, the haunt of sea eagles, behind. On a rooftop down the hill a lizard sunned himself. I remembered that John Huston’s film The Night of the Iguana was filmed nearby. I sniffed. “All this wild life... ever have any problems?”

The check-in manager sat across smiling, nonplussed by my act. The fact was we were in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, once called by native Americans “the place where heaven and earth meet,” and everything was perfect.

As mentioned in an earlier post (link below), I’d first heard of Punta Mita, a broad green peninsula on the central Pacific coast of Mexico, from a well known “Rockosaurus.” At the top of the enormous Bahia de Bandares, thirty miles from Puerto Vallarta, on a privately-owned six-km square peninsula limned by white beaches, sit two of the world’s most exclusive international resorts, the Four Seasons and the St. Regis. In the middle of a world tour last year, the rocker in question had a short break between legs, and had rented a villa there, inviting a score of family members to join. “Sounds terrific,” I said.

He paused, some dissatisfaction hovering. “I suppose,” he said. “But, well... they wouldn’t let us land our helicopter on the grounds.”

“Oh,” I said. “How inconvenient.” (But how considerate for the other guests!)

continued after the break...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thomas Goltz's Primer on Chechnya

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Chechnya, with its complex and sad legacy, is in the news.

Apropos of that, Thomas Goltz, a Montana-based writer and Caucasus specialist, sent me his notes on Chechnya's recent history.

I met Goltz in London in the late 1990s when my mid-summer visit for Paris Review business coincided with his exit, under a storm of Russian bombs, from a reporting trip in Grozny.  We both landed at the same friend's flat in Belsize Park.  (Goltz, as it happens, introduced me via a tour of Camden pubs to the world of English real ale and explained that REAL ale was a living thing... but more on that another time.)

Shortly after that visit, Goltz was back in Chechnya, and was at one point the only Westerner living in the forsaken town of Samashki, which became the symbol of Russian brutality as a result of a gratuitous massacre. His camera-shaking reportage appeared on PBS stations in the USA and then the BBC. while his writing in all the major US newspapers.

Meanwhile, this week he writes:
To start with what is not obvious to many Americans, the Chechens are not Russians but a distinct national and lingual group indigenous to the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, where they have lived since before recorded history. Rather like Native American peoples known by names given them by the white man and whose sad history in the 18th and 19th centuries is a strange and cruel mirror of the experience of the Chechens at the hands of Russian imperialism, the very name "Chechen" is not what the Chechens call themselves. They are the "Noxchi," which translates more or less as "The People."
During the so-called on-again-off-again Murid wars of the 19th century, the Chechens were the backbone of Muslim tribal resistance to the Czarist expansion south, and earned the reputation of being fanatical, fearless Sufism-inspired warriors. After the resistance collapsed with the capture of Imam Shamil (an event somewhat akin to the surrender of Souix/Lakota Chief Sitting Bull), many of those fearless warriors brought their skills into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where they were stationed in problematic border areas, such as the Balkans and the Arab lands of the Levant, where they became known under the generic name of "Circassians," a term that also includes other related North Caucasus mountaineers such as the Ingush, Abkhaz and Adagei who were also driven into Ottoman exile by the czars.

To this day, the palace guard of the king of Jordan are all Circassians; in Syria, they are (or were) concentrated in the Golan heights, but are now attempting a reverse migration to their ancestral lands in Russia, even while undetermined numbers of their "cousins" from Chechnya-in-Russia take up arms along side Jihadists against the secular regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
continued after the break...

Hotel Review - The St. Regis Punta Mita

Punta Mita.

I’d first heard of the place, a broad green peninsula on the central Pacific coast of Mexico, from a well known “Rockosaurus.”

At the top of the enormous Bahia de Bandares, thirty miles from Puerto Vallarta, on a privately-owned six-km square peninsula limned by white beaches, sit two of the world’s most exclusive international resorts, the Four Seasons and the St. Regis. In the middle of a world tour last year, the rocker in question had a short break between tour legs, and had rented a villa there, inviting a score of family members to join.

“Sounds terrific,” I said when he told me about it.

He nodded, paused, with some dissatisfaction hovering.  (He's a man of discriminating taste, usually staying when in, say, London at the Berkeley or the Mandarin Oriental.)  “Terrific?  I suppose,” he said.  “But... well... they wouldn’t let us land our helicopter on the grounds.”

“Oh,” I said.  “How inconvenient.”  (But how considerate for the other guests!)

I myself arrived there not by helicopter but by taxi, at the end of a one city tour... as a tourist in fact!  I'd been sent to Mexico City by British Airways High Life magazine to report on the vibrant rebirth of that city and its Nueva Onda of young artists, as mentioned HERE.  The magazine's editor suggested that before heading home I look at one of the resorts on the Pacific Coast.  After braving the Zona Maco art fair, the restaurant visits, the studio look-ins, I thought such a visit might be, if not fully deserved, at least needed.

On the south side of Punta Mita sits the diminutive St. Regis Resort.  It's an elegant, slightly formal place, as befits a resort that is part of a hotel group founded a century ago by New York grandee John Jacob Astor.  Admittedly, I never became accustomed there to having a personal butler, as was assigned to each room, but I suspect that many other guests (including assorted rock stars) arrived already used to such.  The interiors of both the guest suites and the public spaces bring a Provencal touch  to Mexico.  Their spa is an expansive complex of treatment rooms, open-air showers, hot pools and jacuzzis with sunshine beating down and the sound of waves nearby.  Of their three restaurants (and all restaurants are open to guests of either resort) the highlight is Carolina, named after JJA’s wife, an award-winning fine dining restaurant, overseen by Sylvain Desbois.  The wine list has depth and breadth, and I encountered a wine I’d always wanted to try, the legendary Vega Sicilia of Ribiero del Duero, Spain.  It was worth the wait.

continued after the break...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A War-Time Leader, and "The Weight"

... this via a TIMES of London lead editorial, at the time...

Hours before the first shots were fired in the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher noted in a telegram to General Leopold Galtieri, the Argentine dictator, that in a few days they would both be reading casualty lists. "On my side," the Prime Minister wrote, "grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."

Friday, April 12, 2013

Does a Haircut Suggest Your Destiny?

A commonplace question: Does your name determine your destiny?

This week I wonder if your haircut determines your destiny.   Let's hope not.

Below right see Kim Jong Un, current leader of "The Hermit Kingdom," North Korea.  At left, his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, communist North Korea's first leader, who as a young man invaded South Korea and thus his country into a bloody war with a United Nations-approved coalition.

Meanwhile, from London comes a report yesterday that the current restlessness of North Korea is merely a symptom of a split within its armed forces.   Excerpt and link below.


Malcolm Moore of the Telegraph reports from Dandong, PRC.
Divisions within the military, and the desire of a leader who may be only 30-years-old to consolidate his position, could be one factor behind the current spate of aggression. "The further north you go (in North Korea), the more you hear rumours of dissension and divisions over who is or who would have been a better leader," said Joseph Bermudez, an expert on the North Korean military and an analyst at DigitalGlobe. He added that there had been rumours last year of a possibly violent falling-out between two major departments over who would be in charge of army reconnaissance. That, he said, might have alarmed Kim Jong-un, who subsequently reshuffled a host of leading generals.
Read the whole Telegraph story here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Blogging Will be Light. Meanwhile....

Blogging will be light here for a few weeks, or even not happening, while I devote attention to a longer writing project. Meanwhile, I leave you with this, from George Orwell, along with at bottom some links to recent popular items.
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin, where it belongs.

-- George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (1946)

Some recent popular items:

"Getting Home"... a missive from India by Anuradha Roy, here

"Tell Me How This Ends"... including that awful mess in Tampa, FL, here.

In the Middle East, Where is the Indispensable Nation? Here

Sherlock Holmes at the Beginning, here.

Billy Wilder on "The Lubitsch Touch," here.

Mencken on the prime function of a first-rate newspaper, here.

Mexico and its New Wave of Artists, here and here.

Tours of Literary New York, here.

The Red Poppy and Remembrance Day, here, with video. 

Response to NYT magazine portrait of London, here.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Downton Abbey, Period Drama, and What Americans Can or Cannot Do

The new season of the series Downton Abbey has begun in the US, and with it the debate about whether this season's offering of the British import lives up to the much lauded first; whether it is or is not as good as Upstairs, Downstairs, another import first broadcast on PBS more than thirty years ago; and so on.

At a seminar recently the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, launched yet another debate... or rather he somewhat put his foot in it... by saying that Hollywood stars just can't "do" period drama.

Presumably he meant American actors, as opposed to the many British and Australian actors who have become stars via films made by American studios and independent companies.

"Our actors," he opined, "have an understanding of period--for Europeans the past is very much in them as well as the present.  Americans find it harder."

Do tell.

I would argue that Los Angeles-born Ryan O'Neal, then a neophyte and heartthrob, had little trouble carrying the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, and made by the Bronx-born filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.  That picture may well be the greatest period adaptation of English literature ever made.  It is worth studying alone for Kubrick's ingenious fitting of vintage super-fast 50 mm projector lenses on to his cameras, allowing him to shoot on film using only available light.  When you watch (below) the scene, set in the evening, of players at a card table lit by candlelight consider that that set was lit only by those candles, giving the whole scene a resemblance to a painting by, say, Gainsborough, one of the masters of the era of the novel from which the film was adapted.

Chinatown was, of course, a period film, and Nicholson and Dunaway were superb in those roles, seemed natural, and were Oscar nominees for their performances.  The Godfather films were, of course, in period.  Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1973 for originating the role of Vito Corleone.  Two years later, Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone in Sicily at the dawn of the twentieth century, won the Oscar for best supporting performance.  Friends who speak Italian better than I do, and who understand the Sicilian dialect in which De Niro delivered his lines, say he handled that well.  Apropos, his performance in Bertolucci's 1900 was superb, and his Italian, the only language spoken in that film, was excellent.  Oh, and then on the list of American-made period films there was, of course, Gone with the Wind.  And more recently I suppose, um, Lincoln.

Perhaps Mr. Fellowes meant American actors are not very good in British period roles, and that may very well be so; but the same might be said of many British actors (excepting Daniel Day Lewis!) taking American roles in period films... though Fellowes, being British, might not be in the position to know this.  Whatever Mr. Fellowes did mean, the collaboration of British and American filmmakers has produced many fine films.  I wonder: since pulling off a superb Olympics presentation, and since winning all those gold medals (3rd place overall), have the Brits started to lose the self-deprecating style Americans so admire?

In any case, Ryan O'Neal is pretty good in Barry Lyndon.  Watch at the beginning of the scene below for a funny subtext, where Lyndon's employer speaking to him (O'Neal) says: "Pretend that you speak not a word of English."  Is this a mischievous Kubrick joke meant to send up attitudes akin to Fellowes's?  (The British sometimes remind their cousins across the sea that we don't speak the English language, but rather something they call American.  H.L. Mencken, by the way, said the same thing, and he wrote three superb books on the phenomenon.)   A bit later in the same scene below watch Hollywood leading man O'Neal pull off dialogue spoken in passable German:

Regarding Fellowes, and his thoughts on the matter, more here.

Please note: this is a revise of an earlier blog post.  A full refund will be offered for all subscribers who apply.