Sunday 31 October 2010

Rally to restore what?

I'm a regular viewer of The Daily Show (or at least, the edited, day-late version we get over here) but I sometimes think the acclaim for Jon Stewart as the liberal saviour of political television is overblown. We often find ourselves switching off at the first commercial break. Stewart's opening monologue/rant can be hilarious, but the fake news reports involving other cast members are frequently juvenile and embarrassing, allowing a single 'joke' to run on far too long. And Stewart's 'interviews' with politicians and other assorted celebrities tend to be wasted opportunities: frustratingly brief bouts of comedic joshing in the interests of book or movie promotion.

Having said all that, I wished Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's 'Rally to Restore Sanity' (held yesterday in Washington's National Mall) well, even if I agreed with some commentators that its effect on the Democratic vote, so close to the mid-term elections, might not be entirely positive. I didn't watch all of the coverage, but I found these comments on the event instructive:

Here's P.Z.Myers expressing disappointment that the rally turned into a plea for 'moderation' in political tone, rather than anything more substantial:
I don't want moderation, especially when the only people who will listen to Stewart and Colbert are the people on our shared side of the political aisle. I can understand where they're coming from; people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Andrew Breibart are poison, Fox News is a propaganda organ without bounds working for the far right-wing, we've got evangelical Christians demanding the installation of a theocracy, and on and on and on. But who, exactly, do Stewart and Colbert regard as the equivalent of Beck and Limbaugh on the left? Is it Rachel Maddow? Amy Goodman? Keith Olbermann?
In other words, the rally could be seen as reinforcing the sense that has pervaded not only this mid-term election campaign, but the first two years of the Obama administration, that Democrats and liberals haven't found the language or the courage to fight back against the lies and insinuations of the Republican right. Myers concludes:
I was left cold by the fuzziness of the event. It could have been great; instead of embracing an apolitical perspective and saying nothing at all about values, it could have been a rally for moderation that emphasized the actual values that moderates hold: we believe in tolerance for people of different ethnicities and religious views and sexual preferences, we believe in building an egalitarian social and economic infrastructure, we believe in privacy and personal freedoms, etc., etc., etc., and they could have held to the theme of the rally by advocating rational argument and unified, organised activism within the system to advance those goals...but they didn't. There was no purpose given other than a generic insistence that we all get along nicely.
As for that plea for a focus on 'tolerance', it would have helped if the rally organisers hadn't included a performer who has expressed the most outrageously intolerant opinions. Appearing onstage in the National Mall was Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who is on record as supporting the fatwah against Salman Rushdie and wishing the author dead.

So, as well as reflecting the US left's failure to find a positive political message with which to hit back at the Tea Party movement, the rally also demonstrated characteristic liberal naivety towards Islamism (some of this naivety was on display in the rush to support the Ground Zero 'mosque' in reaction to rightist intolerance). Someone with Yusuf Islam's views should not have been invited to appear at a rally in favour of moderation and tolerance: his opinions are the exact mirror image of the rightist extremism of Glenn Beck et al that the event was organised to oppose.

Also recommended: the other Martin (Meenagh) on the rally and the congressional elections.

And via Pootergeek, confirmation from Nick Cohen of the culpability and duplicity of Mr. Islam/Stevens.

Friday 29 October 2010

Impressions of LA

We arrived home from our half-term trip to Los Angeles yesterday afternoon. Here are some hastily-composed impressions, and a round-up of some of the things we did.

Our first impression of LA, coming in from the airport along the freeway last Saturday afternoon, was of an endless, repetitive, low-rise sprawl, spread out along grid lines, and made up of fast-food joints, small stores, malls, and rather-down-at heel tracts of housing. From time to time this sprawl would be interrupted, quite suddenly, by something very different - like the long avenues of palm trees and neat lawns of Beverly Hills, the bawdy glitz of Hollywood, or the shiny towers of Downtown. Seen from a hotel window, the place seemed vast and difficult to grasp.

On Sunday morning we went out to Santa Monica, arriving at the iconic pier just as the sun broke through, bathing even the tacky rides and concession stands in cheerful light. In one direction, white surf broke on the golden sands stretching northwards to Malibu. In the other direction, where we walked, were Angelenos enjoying games of beach volleyball, doing yoga, setting up picnics. We strolled in the sunshine, dodging the cyclists and skateboarders, until we reached the clutter of craft stalls and eccentric entertainers that is Venice Beach, a place that reminds you of the tackier and less glamorous side of the hippy era. Then it was on to the Third Street Promenade, uncannily like Lincoln Road in Miami, for shopping and lunch. Later, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped outside the Beverly Wilshire and walked up Rodeo Drive, with its glassy shrines to conspicuous consumption. The Art Deco of buildings like the Beverly Hills City Hall was rather more interesting.

Monday dawned wet and gloomy, but by the time we headed out it had become another light-filled LA day. This was our Hollywood day, beginning with an excellent guided tour of the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, followed by the predictable photos in front of the Hollywood sign. Then it was time to inspect the stars along the Walk of Fame and the historic handprints outside the Chinese Theater.

Most of Tuesday was taken up with our tour of the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. It's difficult to pick out highlights, but I was particularly fascinated by the mid-western town, where the same buildings have served multiple purposes in different films and programmes over the years. We looked around a wood-framed 'house', for example, which appeared in East of Eden and The Shootist, but (much more significantly for our offspring) also served as the home of Ross and Monica Geller's parents in Friends. The tour included a visit to the set of Two and a Half Men, which was 'resting' this week: just as well, as its star, Charlie Sheen, was busy smashing up his hotel room in Manhattan. We'd tried and failed to get tickets to The Ellen Show, and were frustrated to learn that Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were appearing that day - we saw the massive extra security as we went past the sound stage. They were in LA to lend their support to Barbara Boxer's campaign in the upcoming mid-terms. We thought at first it might be Jimmy Carter, who was in town to promote his new book: they were giving out tickets to his appearance on Bill Maher's show on Hollywood Boulevard.

On Wednesday, before our flight home, we visited The Grove, shopping mall to the rich and famous, where we saw a TV chat show being filmed, stocked up on US political and historical books at Barnes & Noble, and got our daughter's iPhone fixed by a nice tech guy at the Apple Store.

Regular readers will know my penchant for, indeed my skill at, spotting celebrities when we're on holiday. So who did we see in LA? Well, that might have been Jimmy Smits going into a restaurant in Santa Monica, but it was definitely Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianiakis walking through the lobby of our hotel, where they were promoting their new movie, Due Date. They walked right past that English actor who was in Love Actually - you know, the one who takes the photos at his best friend's wedding, when he's secretly in love with the bride, what's his name - Andrew Lincoln. But best of all was finding ourselves having breakfast at the next table to Colombian politician and former hostage Ingrid Betancourt (whom I wrote about here), who I'm pleased to say was enjoying the kind of breakfast that must have seemed like a distant dream during her six years of captivity in the jungle.

By the time we left, our initial wariness of LA had turned into something like easy familiarity, even excitement at its radiant light and hectic energy. A final recommendation: my literary accompaniment for the trip was David Thomson's anecdotal, out-of-left-field but completely compelling history of Hollywood, and by extension of Los Angeles, The Whole Equation.


Turns out Andrew Lincoln was probably in town to promote the new TV series The Walking Dead in which he has a starring role (there's an interview in today's Sunday Times).

Thursday 21 October 2010

I'd be safe and warm...

The sky may not be grey but all the leaves will soon be brown, and it certainly feels like a winter's day out there. Time for some California dreamin', in honour of our imminent trip to Los Angeles, which will mean things are quiet around here for a week or so.

Love the crazy bath-dancing on this Sixties TV show:

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Chile: mine rescue stirs memories

For those of us whose political views began to be formed in the 1970s, watching last week’s coverage of the Chilean mine rescue was a strange experience. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have some good news at last from that benighted corner of Latin America. On the other hand, it was difficult to hear about the part played in the rescue effort by the Chilean military, and to see those familiar helmets and uniforms, without recalling the assault on La Moneda Palace, the torture of prisoners in the Santiago Stadium, and the hundreds who ‘disappeared’ after Pinochet’s brutal coup.

Instinctively, one was suspicious too of the smiling face of Chilean president Sebastian Pinera, used as we are to doubting the democratic credentials of Latin American (and especially Chilean) leaders, particularly when they are also right-wing billionaires. However, it turns out Pinera was elected in a transparently fair election (he even featured a gay couple in one of his election ads), making him the first democratically-elected right-wing Chilean leader in more than half a century. (Which is not to say that he's beyond reproach.)

At the same time, the sight of Bolivian president Evo Morales watching the rescue efforts alongside Pinera was a reminder of the complex and contradictory history of struggles for progressive change in the Americas. On the one hand, the presence of Morales was a sign of hope: here was an elected socialist leader, from an indigenous, working-class background, standing side-by-side with an elected Chilean conservative. On the other hand, it was difficult to forget that this was a man who has allied himself with authoritarian populist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and who, with Chavez, has cosied up to some of the most reactionary figures in the Middle East and elsewhere.

It seems that Morales regards US capitalism as the ‘worst enemy’ of humanity and the centre of the real 'axis of evil' in the world. Understandable, perhaps, given America's Cold War-era support for right-wing dictators in his part of the world. But this anti-American and anti-imperialist stance has led Morales, like Chavez, into some peculiar political contortions. Only this week, Morales criticised the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and the Literature Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa. Apparently the Bolivian president believes that both decisions are 'suspect' because the two men are 'imperialist' and have the same 'tendencies' as that other great enemy of the people, Barack Obama.

This attitude of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' - however reactionary and despotic the latter may be - has overtones of 'progressive' apologies for Stalinism in the 1930s. It doesn't matter that both Xiaobo and Vargas Llosa have stood up for progressive values of liberty and human rights: they have dared to criticise actually-existing 'socialism', whether in China or Cuba. So they must be 'anti-imperialist' and therefore anathema.

Of course, this double-think is not a new phenomenon on the Latin American left. After all, some of the great heroes of the Chilean left (and my heroes too, back in the day), such as Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, regularly visited Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and never uttered a word of criticism of those countries' regimes. The only difference between then and now is that today's Latin American far-leftists line up not with Stalinists but with reactionary Islamists.

Perhaps one day the people of countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile will get the truly democratic and reforming governments they deserve, free from the tyranny of caudillos, whether of left or right.

Anyway, time for a bit of political and musical nostalgia. Although I'm no longer sympathetic to its anti-Americanism or its idealisation of Castro, Guevera and the Sandinistas, this from the Clash seems appropriate:

Sunday 17 October 2010

Festival of light?

I see there's a campaign by some Catholics to 'reclaim' Hallowe'en as a festival of 'light' and to encourage parents to dress their children as saints, rather than witches and demons. Someone on Twitter responded angrily that one of the reasons he'd converted to Catholicism was precisely because of the faith's capacity to incorporate elements of paganism. That wasn't quite the case for me, but part of the motivation for my own short-lived conversion in my early twenties was a desire to escape the bland, happy-clappyness of evangelical Christianity - which now seems to be infecting even the Catholic church. (The biographer John Cornwell writes of his shock on going to Mass for the first time in decades and being invited to sing 'Happy Birthday to Jesus'...)

Evangelicalism seemed to me to have no place not only for the darker side of life, but also for ordinary, messy human emotions. By contrast, the rituals of Catholicism grounded as they were in the cycle of the seasons and in basic human needs, spoke of a more rounded and realistic view of human nature. If you've ever been to a modern evangelical funeral, you'll know what I mean. Grieving seems to be regarded as some kind of failure of faith: you're supposed to smile and be happy that your loved one is now with Jesus, not focus on your own feelings of loss, however devastating. There seems to be little recognition that to experience the dawn, you first have to face the darkness of night, that every Easter needs its Good Friday...

Paradoxically, of course, there's nothing Catholic about contemporary celebrations of Hallowe'en, at least not in Britain and North America. The 'Day of the Dead' festivals in Catholic countries such as Mexico are of a rather different order. But Hallowe'en belongs to an older, grimmer brand of evangelical Christianity, with its roots in the Calvinism of the kirk and the puritanism of Salem. When I was a child in '60s Essex, celebrations of Hallowe'en were almost unknown. The first we knew of it was when a friend who had moved down from Scotland invited me to a party at his house, and I was introduced to the alien rituals of apple-bobbing and pumpkin carving. Now, of course, the influence of American popular culture has made the festival ubiquitous. It's still a shock, though, to be in the States in the week before Hallowe'en, as we have been for the past two years - first in San Francisco, then in Washington DC - and to see virtually every house in Pacific Heights or Georgetown bedecked with multiple pumpkins, and to see skeletons, ghosts and witches dancing from every window.

Given the puritan roots of Hallowe'en, it's odd to witness the modern campaign against it led by evangelicals, or (as I would argue) resulting from the 'evangelicalisation' of other branches of Christianity, including Catholicism. However, it seems to me that both the roots of Hallowe'en, and the current opposition to it, lie in the same strangely literal and superficial understanding of evil (viz. the ridiculous conservative Christian campaign against Harry Potter, despite the Christian-influenced message of the books). Given all the real wickedness in the world - the cruelty, oppression and exploitation that are the daily diet of the news media - it seems perverse in the extreme to take fright at a bit of harmless magic and devilry. By campaigning against Hallowe'en, modern Christians are revealing the persistence of their own naive belief in a literal devil, and their odd lack of confidence in the power of light to banish that imaginary darkness.

Thursday 14 October 2010

About the design...

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed yet another change of design template here at M In The M. A few points to make here:

1) I was feeling guilty at having copied Bob from Brockley's template and, since we tend to hang around with the same (virtual) people, I thought I'd save any confusion.

2) H., my OH, doesn't look in on this blog very often, but when she does, she invariably comments detrimentally on the silhouetted birds in the top right-hand corner of my former template: apparently they look 'very Hallmark'.

3) I really don't like any of the new Blogger designs and don't understand why they had to get rid of the old functional-but-clean look, but I find this one offends my senses least (for now). OK?

Fiction, family history and Defoe

Apologies for the absence of posts. I’ve been experimenting with other social media, for work and pleasure.

In my non-screen time, I’ve got back into reading fiction. This may seem a strange admission for an Eng. Lit. graduate, but over the past couple of years most of my reading has been non-fiction: history, biography, political memoirs. It used to be that H. was the non-fiction reader, and I the passionate absorber of contemporary novels, particularly if they were of southern European or Latin American provenance. But more recently, you’d have found us sitting side by side in bed, swapping quotations from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln book, or the most recent analysis of the Obama campaign, or the latest selection from Alastair Campbell’s diaries, with nary a novel between us.

But in recent weeks I’ve experienced a renewed and increasing hunger for fiction. I put this down partly to my adventures in family history. H. has tried and failed to see the appeal of genealogy – it reminds her too much of tedious family discussions of the ‘old days’ when she was a child – but I’m something of an addict. It’s not so much the construction of family trees or the dry cataloguing of births, marriages and deaths that grabs me, so much as the opportunities offered for imaginatively re-entering the past. Over the past couple of years, thanks to my ancestors, I’ve found myself mentally transported, to 18th century rural Aberdeenshire, Georgian Soho, and early Victorian Bethnal Green.

It struck me recently that this passion to enter into other times and places is rather similar to the appeal of fiction, and perhaps my historical researches have simply substituted for novel-reading in satisfying this part of me. However, history can only take you so far. At a certain point, you find yourself wanting to enter the imaginative worlds of those you are researching, and this is where fiction comes back in. For example, the pursuit of my forebears through the streets and alleys of London in the first half of the 19th century has left me with a desire to re-read Dickens.

So, as I say, I’ve started to read fiction again. Since (for now) it’s the 18th century that fascinates me above all, and since my literary studies left a huge gap in my knowledge of poetry and fiction between the 17th and 19th centuries (thank you, Dr. Leavis), I’ve begun there. My starting-point has been Defoe – partly because the London Dissenting milieu that he inhabited fascinates me, for family and other reasons, and partly because I’ve never actually read him properly. I’ve just finished re-reading Robinson Crusoe. I say ‘re-reading’, but I think I only ever read a cut-down children’s edition before, supplemented by the legendary ‘60s television series, whose haunting theme has been running through my head while I’ve been reading.

For nostalgics of a certain age, here's that theme tune and a short extract from the programme. Imagine it's 1965, and you've just come in from school:

It’s been fascinating to read one of the earliest English novels and to see how different the author’s concerns were from those of later writers. There's no build-up to dramatic events, they just happen out of the blue, and Defoe seems entirely uninterested in elements of the story that would absorb us – such as Crusoe’s feelings on re-entering civilisation, or Friday’s adaptation to European society. And whereas modern readers hope and anticipate that the story will culminate in a dramatic rescue (rather like our expectations surrounding the narrative of the Chilean miners this week), Defoe treats this event in a matter-of-fact way and allows the novel to tail off into an anti-climactic ‘further adventures’ episode. Plus, I don’t remember the casual racism, acquiescence in slavery and advocacy of European imperialism from the children’s edition or TV series….

I’ve now moved on to Moll Flanders, and plan to work my way forward in time, plugging the gaps in the leaky vessel of my literary knowledge until I reach the more familiar territory of the 19th century. I might get to Dickens in time for Christmas...