...Views from mid-Atlantic
25 November 2006

This is a roundup in the Guardian of Christmas books that qualify to be described as rude - a word that is often used in Britain to signify something naughty and forbidden, a use that doesn't really exist in the US.

Here's a sample: "In the 'size doesn't matter' category are two A-cup offerings, modest in scale and ambition though not in price. Taking the Piss: A Potted History of Pee grew out of a Radio 4 programme called Taking the Piss Out of London, and that title provides a grade A fact: that the titular phrase, meaning to mock, was first heard in reference to sea captains who shipped urine up to Yorkshire, where it was used in the alum industry. Ashamed of their humble cargo, they would pretend they were carrying wine, but were informed by snickering bystanders that they were, in fact, taking the piss.

"How true this is I can't say, but there are a surprising number of aspects to weeing that are both obscure and interesting. (And a few that aren't, one here being: 'Beer in particular makes you pee more.' Cheers for that.) Highlights include an enlightening passage on post-op transsexuals' 'performance anxiety' and Brian Eno's subversive yet appropriate tribute to Duchamp's famous readymade in MoMA."

Thanks for the tip, Brenda.

Here's another fault line between the Brits and the Americans developing. The Independent says: "An investigation by MI5 and Scotland Yard into an alleged plan to smuggle explosive devices on up to 10 passenger jets was jeopardised in August, when the US put pressure on authorities in Pakistan to arrest a suspect allegedly linked to the airliner plot.

"As a direct result of the surprise detention of the suspect, British police and MI5 were forced to rush forward plans to arrest an alleged UK gang accused of plotting to destroy the airliners. But a second group of suspected terrorists allegedly linked to the first evaded capture and is still at large, according to security sources."

My sense is that something's not right in this story of the Russian spy who was poisoned in London. Scotland Yard has found traces of radiation in three places, a sushi bar, a hotel and his North London home, according to this New York Times piece, and many others like it. In stories published in London, the police are saying the most likely means of delivery of the poison, polonium 210 (here's a little primer on its characteristics), which will not pass through the skin, was by means of a spray of some kind.

I can imagine someone delivering such a poison by spraying Litvinenko's table napkin, perhaps, or his glass, or his fork, but think of the logistics. Did Litvinenko, who was presumably as jumpy as a cat about attempts on his life, not notice his friend spritzing his napkin? Did he leave the table on all three occasions for some reason? OK, these are spies talking spytalk, so his wife's not there, and they're at an out-of-the-way table, but did no one in the restaurants notice something? Getting this done once would be a feat...three times is a Fu Manchu trick.

Scotland Yard should look closely at the possibility Litvinenko did it to himself.

24 November 2006

The Washington Times reports on the part the very popular General Michel Aoun is going to be playing in this current political crisis in Lebanon: "Only after the departure of the Syrian military from Lebanon did Gen. Aoun return from exile. He is now running for president. His supporters in the Free Patriotic Movement see in him a hero and savior. His opponents see someone they say has switched tracks on Syria.

"Gen. Aoun defends himself, saying he always maintained that once Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon he had no reason to hold grudges and supports establishing normal and cordial relations with Damascus. In fact, In a 'memorandum of understanding' he established with Hezbollah, the general specifically states that he wants 'full diplomatic relations with Damascus, including the exchange of ambassadors.'

"Gen. Aoun's opponents point to his alliance with Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian forces. His bid for the presidency is opposed by the anti-Syrian bloc known as the March 14 Movement, of which the young Pierre Gemayel was an active participant.

"In the ironic twists and turns that is Lebanese politics, it was largely due to the March 14 Movement that Syria pulled out of Lebanon, allowing Gen. Aoun to return to Beirut and to run for president against the March 14 candidate."

It's always smart politics to be the man in the middle in a time of crisis, I think.

I don't often quote Robert Fisk, a reporter who sometimes seems not to want the truth to stand in the way of of a rewarding friendship, but he lives in Lebanon, and knows the background of the struggles there better than some Lebanese. In this piece about the funeral of Mr Gemayel yesterday, taken from Britain's Independent, he paints a deeply disturbing picture of the cost of living in a country which has been used so cynically by...well, you draw your own conclusions.

A couple of sad notes. The Los Angeles Times says: "Anita O'Day, who shot to fame as a singer with drummer Gene Krupa's swing band in the early 1940s and became one of the most distinctive voices in the history of jazz, died Thursday. She was 87.

"Hip-talking, blunt and feisty, O'Day launched her singing career as a teenager to make extra money while competing on the Depression-era walkathon circuit."

One of the reasons she was so revered by musicians was that she made no bones about the part that drugs played in her life, something that many of those musicians who took drugs (and in those days, they were legion) didn't have the courage, or the circumstances, to do.

Britgirl, who's sung a tune or two herself, has sent me this link to the Anita O'Day website, where you can watch a documentary on her life.

And a favourite actor of mine, the Frenchman Phillipe Noiret, has also died: "Philippe Noiret, a beloved French actor featured in the popular films Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino, died on Thursday, the Culture Ministry said. He was 76.

"Noiret was among the most familiar faces in French cinema, making more than 125 movies in a career that spanned more than half a century. Among his first big successes was Louis Malle's 1960 film Zazie dans le metro. With a face and a bearing that could portray a middle-class man or an elegant aristocrat - but not a romantic hero - Noiret conquered his audience with his exceptional skill as an actor.

"Above all a French star, Noiret had his share of international acclaim, notably in Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 Cinema Paradiso and in Il Postino, in which he played Pablo Neruda, a poet and diplomat who counsels his mailman."

This is a well-written piece in the Daily Telegraph by Damian Thompson, the controversial editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, but he's buried the lead. (I say controversial because a few days ago, the Herald quoted the Archbishop of Canterbury as having said he was having second thoughts about female priests. Williams said he didn't say that. Did, did and did, said Thompson.)

In his lead, Thompson's banging on about the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent meeting with the Pope, but this is his longest and strongest: "Clergymen spend a lot of time on the internet, mostly for innocent purposes, such as following ecclesiastical backstabbing. The 'Anglican blogosphere' is a rich source of speculation - very well-informed speculation in the case of the blog written by Andrew Brown, Church Times media correspondent. On November 13 - days before Dr Williams got himself into a pickle by implying that the Church of England might backtrack on women priests - Brown wrote: 'It is the sensible bet that Rowan will retire, defeated if not broken, after the formal schism at the Lambeth Conference [in 2008], and Sentamu will be his successor.'

"The idea that Rowan Williams will step down in two or three years' time - a decade before he is required to - is being discussed in many quarters. It was first floated on Ship of Fools, a theological internet chat site, by someone calling himself 'Spawn', who also predicted that the coming Lambeth Conference would be the archbishop's swansong. Does Spawn have inside information? He makes no secret of the fact that he is Andrew Carey, son of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Like the Pope, Lord Carey has surprised everyone by reinventing himself. As Primate of All England, he was dismissed as a self-important booby: Captain Mainwaring in a mitre. Since his retirement in 2002, however, he has become 'the king over the water' for conservative evangelical Anglicans, who - thanks to mushrooming churches in Africa - now far outnumber communicants of the Church of England."

While I'm on the subject, the New York Sun (and others) are making much of the fact that the Pope has invited people to disagree with the opinions he expresses in a new book, Jesus of Nazareth, to be published in the spring. The paper quotes a professor of the history of the Catholic Church at Bologna University, Giuseppe Alberigo, as having positively burbled about it: "I really believe this is the first time this has ever happened. It is an extraordinarily important gesture. What it means is that the pope is not totally infallible. As well as being the pope, he is a common man, hugely studious in this case, but like all men he is subject to debates, arguments, and discussions."

Sound a little over the top? The Sun says that "In the foreword, (the Pope) states that the book is 'absolutely not' a work of Catholic doctrine but rather the 'expression of my personal research'. He adds: 'Consequently, everyone is free to contradict me. I only ask the readers that they read with sympathy, without which there will be no comprehension.'"

Case closed.

Stanley Crouch, the sometimes fiery columnist for New York's Daily News doesn't have any suggestions about how to deal with it, but he's pretty clear about the problem of childish behaviour by young black males, and he has an interesting insight: "Hip hop began as some sort of Afro protest doggerel and was very quickly taken over by the gangster rappers, who emphasized the crudest materialism in which the ultimate goal was money and it did not matter how one got it. The street thug, the gang member, the drug dealer and the pimp became icons of sensibility and success. Then the attitudes of pimps took a high position and the pornographic version of hip hop in which women become indistinguishable bitches and hos made a full-court press on the rap 'aesthetic'.

"At the television studio, as I watched and listened to those young men, each of whom seemed to be auditioning for a lifelong part as a 'man-child,' I discussed this phenomenon with a black woman in her 40s who is a writer. She had worked for rap magazines, magazines that had focused on black women and in black television. Her analysis was quite direct and could be profoundly true. Her profession and being the mother of a teenage daughter has made her pay close attention and forced her to give these issues a good deal of thought.

"The way she understood it was that these young black men do not see growing up as having any advantages to it. One is either current or old-fashioned and outdated. The only success they think they can believe in is had by either athletes or rappers. Young black men. So they hold on to adolescence and adolescent ways as long as they can."

Thanks for the tip, Hip Hop.

23 November 2006

In honour of the American Thanksgiving holiday, I suggest having a look at this little New Yorker multimedia display conceived by Chris Ware, one of the cleverest cartoonists alive, and the author of the ground-breaking book, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

As an admirer of good military ceremony, I regret exceedingly that politically-correct elements in India have persuaded the Government to stop the evening performances on the India/Pakistan border, in which guards vied to see which side could put on the best performance. It might, as the Telegraph says, have been aggressive, but it provoked some of the finest military performances on earth, and their cancellation is to much to be lamented.

"India has brought to an end the aggressive 'peacock-style' posturing by its guards on its border with Pakistan in a goodwill gesture towards its arch-foe.

"Every day before sunset since the British partition of India in 1947, border guards from both sides of the Wagah border crossing performed a testosterone-fuelled 'Beating the Retreat' ceremony. The martial ballet, which takes place on the border's only land transit point on the road between Amritsar in India and the Pakistani city of Lahore, featured guards hand-picked for their height, impressive facial hair and ability to perform a belligerent goose-step."

It isn't, as ceremonial buffs will know, 'Beating the Retreat' (which, if it existed, would mean giving way to the enemy), but 'Beating Retreat', an evening ceremony designed, in the days when military camps included large numbers of service-providing camp followers, to winkle the troops out of wherever they happened to be spending time, to get to their beds in time for lights out.

The New York Times believes, as do many Democrats, that the US needs to talk with Iran and Syria to solve the Iraq problem. The strong suspicion that Syria might have been involved in the assassination of Mr Gemayel ought, you might have thought, given them at least pause, if not second thoughts. Not the Times. In an editorial, the paper seems to suggest that the best thing to do is ignore it: "This page believes that the United States needs to begin a dialogue with Syria, about Iraq and regional peace. But President Bashar al-Assad needs to understand that neither the tribunal nor Lebanon's independence will ever be on the bargaining table. Europe, Russia and all of Syria's neighbors need to join Washington in delivering that message.

"Hezbollah has been insisting on veto power over all government decisions, including whether it will participate in a UN tribunal. If there is any possible good to come from Mr. Gemayel's death, it is that Hezbollah will now have to postpone its announced plan to call thousands of demonstrators into the street to bring down the government. We hope Mr. Siniora can use this time to rally the majority of Lebanese who still believe in national reconciliation and the spirit of the Cedar Revolution.

"We would urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go immediately to Beirut, except we're not sure she would be welcome after President Bush's failure last summer to restrain Israel's disastrous air war. Ms. Rice might still do some good if she brought with her a large group of European and moderate Arab foreign ministers. That is a sad admission about the limits of American influence. But Mr. Siniora needs all the help he can get."

From a practical standpoint, that's no better than gibberish - the Talk a Big Stick, Carry a Marshmallow theory of diplomacy.

Even the UN had a better idea. As the Guardian notes: "The UN security council responded rapidly last night to Lebanon's call for help in investigating the assassination of the anti-Syrian cabinet minister, Pierre Gemayel, promising to dispatch investigators while the crime scene was still fresh."

And the people of Lebanon are being pretty direct. The funeral of Mr Gemayel today was peaceful. Next door, Haaretz said: "Tens of thousands of Lebanese poured into central Beirut to pay tribute to murdered Christian leader Pierre Gemayel on Thursday, turning his funeral into a show of strength against Syria and its Hezbollah allies. Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders have accused Syria of killing Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families. Damascus has condemned the assassination.

"Crowds waving the flags of Lebanon and of Gemayel's Phalange Party packed Martyrs' Square in Beirut before the 1 pm funeral." At least one of the mourners carried a poster with a picture of Syria's President beside the words "Shove Your Civil War".

My source in Beirut says the place is tense and angry, but showing no signs of coming apart at the seams.

I seem to remember complaining once that the New York Times did not include poetry in its annual books double feature, which picks 100 notable books of the year late in November, then distills them to the best 10 of the year early in December. If I did, then the Grey Lady seems to have been listening. This year's 100 contains four books of poetry - including one by Louise Gluck (there's an umlaut over the U which I haven't reproduced, so you pronounce it as Glick), who was the US Poet Laureate in 2003 and 2004, sandwiched between Billy Collins and the present Laureate, Donald Hall. The New York Times reviewer at the time proclaimed Averno her masterpiece, so it's a must-have book. I would be surprised, looking at the competition, if it didn't win a place among the top ten.

22 November 2006

Journalist Henrik Bering wonders why on earth the Danish Government doesn't deport the imams involved in turning those Muhammed cartoons into a deadly, world-wide controversy. In the Weekly Standard, he writes "You have to hand it to them: Few men in recent history have been more successful in creating mayhem than the small group of Denmark-based imams who turned the appearance of cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper into a world event. In a recent Egyptian opinion poll of nations seen as most hostile, Denmark registered third, right behind the United States and Israel, an impressive score for a small Nordic country that is normally known for its pacifism and humanitarian efforts.

"Pretending to be on a mission to create understanding and dialogue, the imams set out from Denmark for the Middle East last December, where they spread false rumors of the Koran being burned on the streets of Copenhagen and otherwise did their best to incite violence against their host nation, resulting in attacks on embassies, trade boycotts, and flag burnings. They were later caught on hidden camera by a French documentary filmmaker, bragging about their exploits.

"Not ones to rest on their laurels, this band of bearded brothers have continued to enjoy great success at getting their names into the headlines; their activities have been followed with particular interest by the Jyllands-Posten, the paper that originally published the cartoons and has had to live under a strict security regimen ever since. As always, there is an element of Monty Pythonesque farce in these imams posturing as holy warriors while being welfare-state spongers, and constantly tripping up in their own lies. Farce, that is, if it were not so deadly serious...

"The question remains why the Danish government puts up with these scoundrels and does not simply boot them out. France has rid itself of more than 20 extremist imams, as has Germany, while Spain and Italy each have deported four, and Holland three. Denmark so far has kicked none out. Surely, enough is enough."

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister, Amir Peretz, are apparently no longer on speaking terms, in the wake of Peretz's unauthorized contact with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. But according to the Jerusalem Post, Olmert lacks the courage to fire him.

"The dispute started on Sunday, when Peretz spoke to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas without consulting the prime minister. Olmert's anger increased later when Peretz told Olmert incorrectly that Abbas had initiated the conversation and when the defense minister leaked details from the talk with Abbas to the press.

"Sources close to Olmert said he 'does not intend to fire him yet,' but put the emphasis on the 'yet.' They said Olmert had seriously considered firing him because of the lost trust between the two, because the prime minister was convinced that Peretz lied to him and because he believed Israel needed a more experienced defense minister to face the threats Israel is under."

If Olmert can't tackle this relatively silly problem, how can he be expected to lead a country under siege around the world?

It's worth remembering that Pierre Gemayel isn't the only Lebanese official to have been targeted by assassins in the last few months. What all these people have in common, says the Wall Street Journal, is their opposition to Syria.

Meantime, this toothless, almost pointless editorial in the Beirut Daily Star illustrates what a tightrope you have to walk in that country now to avoid making yourself a target.

21 November 2006

The man who wrote this Wall Street Journal piece about the politics of Lebanon is himself Lebanese, the opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. He does not seem to share the over-the-top "Lebanon's on the Brink of Another Civil War" opinion that at least one commentator is retailing these days. He thinks the politics of the situation have quite a long way to go before they've been played out.

"That Mr. Assad realizes the fatal implications of this connection (that is, Syria's with the Hariri murder) was evident when British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently sent a senior adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus for a chat. The visit, reportedly approved by Washington, aimed to see if Syria could be enticed away from Iran. If The Economist is correct, and the magazine spoke to Mr. Sheinwald upon his return, the Syrian president has four conditions: an end to the Hariri investigation, a guarantee that the US would not undermine his regime, a return of Syrian influence in Lebanon, and the handing back of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967. No doubt Mr. Assad would demand much the same from the US if it ran to Damascus to 'engage' him on Iraq, assuming the Syrian leader would consider conceding to Washington in a moment of strength what he refused when he was weak.

"There seems to be a consensus in the US, whether in Congress or in the administration, that there is no going back on upholding Lebanese sovereignty or in finding Hariri's killers. But it is not clear to many in Washington that asking Syria and Iran for help in Iraq, if that's what the Iraq Study Group advises, will drastically limit the administration's ability to deny both countries' gains in Lebanon. For Syria and Iran, Lebanon is vital in their broader quest for power in the Middle East. They will collect there on whatever is offered to the Americans in Iraq, and the retreating administration already has far fewer means to prevent this.

"Mr. Baker and his fellow realists, custodians of stalemate in their own way, want the US to return to its previous approach to the region, where interests defined behavior more than values - particularly democracy. But if engagement with Syria, or even Iran, is on the cards, then the U.S. might have to surrender the one genuine triumph it can point to after Mr. Bush formulated a democratic project for the Middle East: the peaceful, popular overthrow by the Lebanese of Syria's debilitating domination. The US might also find itself having to relinquish that all-too-rare happening in the region: a vigorous international legal process that promises to punish a state-sponsored crime. Yielding on Lebanon will not advance American interests; it will only damage them more, turning the severe setbacks in Iraq into a full-scale regional rout."

UPDATE: He may have spoken too soon - a Lebanese Cabinet Minister, Pierre Gemayel, was ambushed and shot dead today in Beirut. He was an outspoken critic of Hezbollah and a member of Lebanon's anti-Syrian movement, so it seems likely that Syria and its supporters in the country will have played a part. Hezbollah will undoubtedly try to take advantage of the situation by trying to deepen Lebanon's present political crisis.

The London Times's man in America, Gerard Baker, makes some points about the legacy of Milton Friedman, in an article published this morning, that are worth remembering. Baker writes, "Yet while he will for ever be associated with the political ascendancy of the Right in America and Britain, it should not be forgotten that in many respects his larger achievement was in helping to transform the whole framework of political debate, so that pro-market economic ideology moved from the supposed lunatic fringes of politics to the consensus.

"Indeed, some on the Left, faced with the stagnation that their own ideologies had produced by the 1970s, actually embraced Friedman's philosophies more quickly than some on the Right. It was, remember, not Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe but James Callaghan and Denis Healey who as Prime Minister and Chancellor first pushed for fiscal discipline and monetary retrenchment to tackle inflation and slow growth in the late 1970s. In lecturing in stark terms to his own party on the inflationary consequences of deficit spending in 1976, Mr Callaghan may have split Labour for a decade or more but he paved the way for what became known as Thatcherism. Paul Volcker, a Democrat-appointed chairman of the Fed, did much the same for US monetary policy...

"The Democrats think that they won this month at least in part because globalisation has given free market economics a bad name. Voters in the Midwest and in northeastern America voiced grave concerns about economic security. These voters are no longer the Reagan Democrats who embrace small government, but steelworkers, car workers and service sector employees who fear for their jobs from global competition. Here, the most worrying aspect is that even the centrist Clinton folks have backed away from the free market ideas they used to embrace. Hillary Clinton bemoans the size of the US trade deficit and calls for emergency measures to reduce it; she excoriates China for its unfair trading practices. And the needs of presidential politics may push her farther down that route as we get closer to November 2008.

"Americans have not given up on the free market yet, thank goodness, but the endurance of Friedman's legacy will be severely tested in the next few years."

I once read a book that suggested booze was good for your health, written, as I remember, sometime in the early part of the 19th Century. Even though it might have been published with the best of intentions, in the light of what the 2ist Century now knows about the effects of alcohol, it was like reading an extended Katzenjammer Kids cartoon. This article in the Christian Science Monitor has much the same flavour. It claims that the slaughter undertaken in the name of one religion or another during the course of mankind's history was really caused by atheism.

The author is a man called Dinesh D'Souza, who the Monitor describes as the Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and he writes: "The crimes of atheism have generally been perpetrated through a hubristic ideology that sees man, not God, as the creator of values. Using the latest techniques of science and technology, man seeks to displace God and create a secular utopia here on earth. Of course if some people - the Jews, the landowners, the unfit, or the handicapped - have to be eliminated in order to achieve this utopia, this is a price the atheist tyrants and their apologists have shown themselves quite willing to pay...

"Whatever the motives for atheist bloodthirstiness, the indisputable fact is that all the religions of the world put together have in 2,000 years not managed to kill as many people as have been killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades.

"It's time to abandon the mindlessly repeated mantra that religious belief has been the greatest source of human conflict and violence. Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history."

The Monitor ought to be ashamed of itself.

As someone who lives in a very old house, I get a little impatient with people who preach that ancient fittings should be left as they are, come what may. The older the house is, the more obvious the impracticality of that view becomes. Anyone who thinks that reading by candlelight, cooking over an open fire, using an outhouse and trying to find turtle oil for plastering jobs is a price that ought to be gladly paid by those lucky enough to live in an old building has allowed romance to banish reason. I agree that the shell of the house should be left alone to the extent it can be, but inside, if the house is not to be kept as a museum, visited but not lived in, then those living in it should be free to make it as modern as their taste dictates.

This Los Angeles Times article, forwarded by Brenda in Britain, leans a little too far towards the romantic, but it still makes some good points about the choices that new owners of old houses have: "In the name of progress, history is often destroyed. One of the biggest mistakes owners of older homes make is altering or removing original features in the name of home improvement.

"New bathroom fixtures are brought in to replace badly stained originals. Old lighting that hasn't been cleaned since the 1920s is taken down. Wood-frame windows painted shut for decades are ripped from their casings.

"When doing any renovation to an old house, it is important to find designers and contractors familiar with historic homes who can advise on what parts should be left intact, experts say. Rare, quality materials often can't be duplicated today and when restored will increase the value of a home more than modern-day replacement items."

Sometimes, though, those rare, quality materials can be found. This is a website that can be very helpful for those on the hunt for hard-to-find bits and pieces, and for fixtures and materials that are appropriate to an old house.

20 November 2006

There's quite a serious political row brewing in Israel today. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is just about to fire his Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, for trying to undermine his authority by ignoring his stricture on contact with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Haaretz says Peretz, who was appointed to his post more because of politics than for his military experience and good judgement, had been told several times to let Olmert make the running, but persisted. Things came to a head yesterday - "A dispute erupted between the prime minister and defense minister Sunday, following a telephone conversation between Peretz and Abbas in which Peretz implored Abbas to act against Qassam rocket fire on Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip.

Peretz is wriggling, but DebkaFile says it has already been decided that his post is to be offered "to the former Labor leader, prime minister, chief of staff Ehud Barak, with ex-Shin Beit director, ex-navy commander Ami Ayalon as his deputy. Olmert plans to offer Peretz the social welfare post with broad powers."

All of this has to be seen against the background of calls for the resignations of the IDF's Chief of Staff, Defence Minister Peretz and Olmert himself for screwing up the campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah. Because of Peretz's stupidity, Olmert is now in the fortunate position of having two lambs to sacrifice to save his own skin. The IDF man, Dan Halutz, has already been urged publicly to leave by his military peers. He is particularly vulnerable at the moment because he is the most likely candidate to have to carry the can for allowing the IDF to use cluster bombs in Lebanon. Haaretz also carried this story this morning: "Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who plans to order an investigation into the use of cluster bombs during the Lebanon war, said Monday that he believed the orders he had given limiting their use had been 'explicit'.

"During the war, Halutz ordered the IDF to use cluster bombs with extreme caution and not to fire them into populated areas. Nonetheless, Israeli forces did so anyway, primarily using artillery batteries and the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS).

"On Monday, Halutz named Major General Gershon Hacohen to head a probe into the use of the bombs. Hacohen was one of the commanders of the summer 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip."

If it can be demonstrated that Halutz's instruction to his troops was less than watertight...well, he would be in breach of a military rule of command which is about as basic as they get. For a man as senior as Halutz, it's a fall-on-your-sword type of failure.

According to some polls, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani is leading John McCain in the race to be the GOP candidate for President. I happened to watch an interview Tucker Carlson did with Charlie Rangel, the influential and very senior New York congressman, a few evenings ago. When Carlson brought up Rudy Giuliani's presidential bid, Rangel got a look on his face as if he'd been asked if he would give Hannibal Lector permission to marry his daughter. He said if it the campaign got serious, New Yorkers would let the country know what Giuliani was really like.

The New York Post's City Hall Bureau Chief says some are already planning to do just that: "Some of Rudy Giuliani's fiercest city critics are set to launch 'swift boat'-type strikes to inform voters around the nation about the former mayor's behavior before 9/11, The Post has learned.

"'There have already been some informal discussions by people who were very involved [in] some of the controversies during the Giuliani era,' said civil-rights lawyer Norman Siegel."

The Post lists a number of the issues the Giuliani critics will be using in their attacks.

Great piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about how the Oval Office might be redecorated if a candidate from that City were to win office. On hand, the Chronicle says would be a supply of "California Old Vine Zinfandel. Iconic, to offer friends who are not on the wagon.

"Modern couch and chairs. From Limn, for that ultramodern look. The couch, to stretch out on for meditation moments. The chairs, elegant perches for 'Big Time' in those 'no-brainer' consults with the prez.

"Massage table. For deep-tissue cabinet sessions. Got to keep the whole staff relaxed."

"Hemp curtains. Isn't Woody Harrelson from Texas? It would help tone down some of that giant sucking sound with homegrown products that are pure, natural and sustainable."

Check it out. This one needs Flash, but if you don't have it, this one doesn't.

For form's sake, I guess I must cling to the thought that critics, good though they may be, sometimes get it wrong. However, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is a very good book reviewer - one of the best - and she's dampening my hopes a bit in this piece this morning: "Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day, reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author's might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex." She did say she liked Mason & Dixon, though...

19 November 2006

I think it is surprisingly seldom, in the world of art and antiquities, that museums and galleries do a really good job of putting what you're looking at into context. I had a little epiphany in that area during my trip to Scotland a couple of months ago, and I now think all curators, the world over, ought to be made to visit the Kelvingrove in Glasgow to see how it can be done. There, they know how to do it.

Maybe someone from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art did that, because according to the Los Angeles Times, an exhibition there of Magritte's paintings and other contemporary art has been particularly well presented. "The interview with painter Ed Ruscha is among the best features of the extensive catalog to Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, a large and playful exhibition opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show is a gas, entertaining and insightful, partly thanks to a savvy, subversive installation design by Conceptual artist John Baldessari.

"It brings together 68 paintings and drawings by popular Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte) and mingles them with the same number of works by 31 contemporary artists, including six by Ruscha and two by Baldessari. The goal is to gauge the effect Magritte had on the way art has looked since the 1960s.

"That decade is emerging as a decisive dividing line between an older idea of Modern art, associated with Europe, and something newer and perhaps more distinctly American in tone. What Ruscha has to say is surprising."

When Amalia Rodriguez died in 1999, she was such a giant in the world of fado that it seemed no other singer could ever aspire to measure up to her. But it seems Mariza, a young woman from Mozambique who sang at Amalia's funeral, might just be the one. She's giving a concert in London at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday, which is the occasion for this well-worth-reading Guardian piece: "In 1999 Mariza sang at a memorial service for the undisputed queen of fado, Amalia Rodrigues - Portugal's Edith Piaf. Rodrigues was so revered that when she died the government declared three days of national mourning. The memorial service was broadcast on national TV. Relatively unknown, a slender young Mariza sang in tribute a song made famous by Rodrigues. Her heartfelt performance captivated all who saw it. She was on her way."

If you don't know this music, the Guardian has a little crib at the end of its story: "In the way of great musical traditions, Portuguese fado comes laden with a mystique all its own. Slow, melodramatic and poignant, its roots lie in a tangle of influences - folk ballads, strains imported from Africa and Brazil - to which Portugal's rich literary heritage added dashing, poetic lyrics. Fado translates as 'fate' but the term encapsulates a gamut of emotions: submission to one's destiny, resignation, the mixture of yearning and sadness known as 'saudade'."

Once, I spent a few days in Lisbon with nothing very much to do (don't ask), and discovered, by accident, the world of little fado clubs in the Alfama district and in the Bairro Alto, clubs and restaurants like O Senhor Vinho, Clube de Fado and Cafe Luso. You have to radically alter your sleeping habits to get the best out of them (or I did, anyway) - supper at ten and music till three and four in the morning is the way of it. It was an utterly magical week.

Mariza often sings at Senhor Vinho, apparently. Her 2001 debut album, Fado Em Mim, includes a song called Oica La O Senhor Vinho which I listened to this morning, for the first time, with a little of that saudade.

I'd say if you're in London next week, this concert of hers is not to be missed.

That loudmouth madman Hugo Chavez is facing an election in Venezuela in a couple of weeks. Chances are he's going to win - anybody who recalls what happened around the time of that attempted coup some years ago will understand why - but he's going to have a hard time of it. The Washington Post reports that "with Chavez buffeted by setbacks abroad and rising complaints about rampant crime, corruption and mismanagement at home, the opposition has united in recent weeks to mount a vigorous, if extremely difficult, challenge to unseat him."

And London's Observer says that at a recent concert by the Colombian singer, Shakira, "the audience erupted into a chant of defiance against one of the most powerful men in Latin America, Hugo Chavez. From the rear of the audience, it rippled forward and swelled until tens of thousands of voices screamed as one: 'To dare! To dare! To dare!'...

"'Hugo, Hugito, apretese el culito!' shouted one young man (bravo to you, senor), an invitation to the president to tighten his buttocks in preparation for a nasty surprise.

"Interviews with Manuel Rosales supporters (he opposes Chavez for the presidency) suggest that many genuinely think their man will win, a dramatic turnaround from August, when the opposition was so fractured it considered boycotting the poll. It is all the more surprising since Rosales, the former mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second city, is a monotone speaker linked to the discredited political establishment widely viewed to have marginalised the poor until Chavez's election in 1998."

I mentioned the poet Paul Muldoon in a post a few days ago (on 22 October, if you want to look), and quoted some really fine lines from lyrics he wrote with the late Warren Zevon. I was sufficiently impressed to buy his new book, Horse Latitudes, last week, about which I'm still thinking, but which certainly contains poetry that has the force of little fireworks. Now the former editor of the NY Times Book Review, Charles McGrath, has written an excellent piece about him in the NYT Magazine today:

"Just about everyone except Muldoon thinks his poetry is often difficult. When I suggested to him once that his work is sometimes hard to follow, he shook his head and seemed almost offended. 'I'm not all that keen on the idea that every poem should be full of allusions,' he said, and he added that what he strove for always was clarity.

"'It's mostly a matter of clearing away,' he said...'the way Frost did.' But then after a pause, he added: 'It's hard to make a poem these days that is absolutely clear and direct - if the poem is really to be equal to its era. This is not an era in which clarity and directness, however much we hope for them, are entirely justifiable, because so much is unclear and indirect. I'm not just talking about willed obfuscation and crookedness, though, God knows, there's plenty of that. I'm just talking about a realization that very little is as it seems, that everything has within it massive complexities - maybe even the inappropriateness of being certain about things. A proper awareness that things are just not at all as they seem - one would wish for more of that, particularly on the political front. Wouldn't you love to hear the president or someone say, 'Well, you know, I'm not absolutely clear on that'?'"

I said I was still thinking about the poetry in Horse Latitudes, and that it was written rather as if he wanted it to go off in your head, like fireworks. So I was intrigued to read this: "Muldoon's great discovery in those years was the poetry of John Donne - and in particular Donne's facility at metaphorically linking vastly different themes and ideas - and to a considerable extent he still hasn't got over it.

"'The nerve, the nerve of the man!' he said to me. 'The delight, the danger, the pushing things as far as they can be pushed; being intellectually on the edge and yet somehow, in the midst of it all, remaining emotionally present. I find that quite extraordinary.'"

Maybe that's what gives me a little pause about this book of verse. It does feel, at first blush, as if some of the poems were just exercises in Donne-amism, to show that he could do that, too. One critic McGrath quotes says Muldoon, in this book, "has been able, in his finely maintained tightrope act, to bear aloft both grief and playfulness." Depth and shallowness, maybe. But then again, maybe there's nothing wrong with that.

Heavyweight hurricane forecasters William Gray and Philip Klotzbach at the University of Colorado say that this year's hurricane season, with only nine hurricanes and tropical storms, was one of the weakest in a decade.

Could this be the reason? The Anchorage Daily News reports that researchers "have found new patterns of cooling ocean currents and prevailing winds that suggested the Arctic, long considered a bellwether of global warming, may be reverting in some ways to more normal conditions not seen since the 1970s.

"An international team of scientists also reported Thursday that rising temperatures are steadily transforming the Arctic - warming millions of square miles of permafrost, promoting lush greenery on previously arid tundras and steadily shrinking the annual sea ice.

"Taken together, these findings may be evidence, the researchers said, of the region struggling to keep its balance, as rising temperatures slowly overturn the long-established order of seasonal variations.

"'This is a region that is fighting back,' said lead author Jacqueline Richter-Menge, a civil engineer at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H. 'There are things that showed signs of going back to norms, trying to right themselves under very dire circumstances.'"


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

Article Archive

2003 Index


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Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
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