Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Log 311 July 26 2012 AlJaz shows a superb documentary about one man’s effort to save 32 Iraqi war orphans

Logo of the networkLogo of the AlJazeera network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night I saw a really wonderful little film on AlJazeera called In My Mother’s Arms. It dealt with the heartbreaking effort of a man in Iraq to safeguard and bring up 32 orphans who he had claimed from the violence with which they were confronted in state-operated orphanages.

This man rented a temporary space for them, crowding all of them into two small bedrooms, and trying to find money to keep his show going, and methods by which the children could transcend the traumas they were suffering from the terrible events they had witnessed.

In face of complaints from his wife, who said he was neglecting the upbringing of his own son, and the indifference of the civic authorities to his work, he kept on against every discouragement, never really winning any successes. One little boy,

Saif, whom he had reclaimed from a life on the streets, would scarcely speak to the other children, but got into fights with them when they taunted him by calling him by his mother’s name. For the rest of the time he just sat there, unresponsive.

Eventually the boss had the bright idea of asking a local theatre group to work with the children on a play that would enable them to express the pain they were all feeling. They began to sing songs about how they longed to be with their mothers, how they hungered to feel her arms around them, and --- although frankly I wondered if such a treatment could possibly work --- eventually these songs brought Saif into the circle.

Hovering over everything, however, was the constant threat that the whole enterprise was going to be evicted by their landlord so that, he said, he could sell the property.Then came news that the United Nations was ready to make a grant to cover their costs, and the search for a place that would take them began. Unfortunately, no one would rent them a space, and so the UN offer lapsed.

This film backed me up against the question of what makes a great documentary. I remember having seen a marvelous film --- this was long before I ever made a film myself --- made by the French Communist director Chris Marker about the battle for Chile. Much of the film was made up of TV clippings that could scarcely be seen, but in spite of these imperfections, the subject of the film was so raw, its treatment so direct and powerful, that I thought the film a masterpiece.

Later, when I went to work in the National Film Board of Canada I was at first extremely impatient with their constant demand for high quality production. To me, the content was more important than the vehicle that carried it. For example, I remember my disgust when on one occasion we were filming a riveting interview in a Cree hunting camp in the far northern wilderness when the sound man ripped off his earphones and said, “It’s no good! I can hear the snow falling on the tent.”

I thought that utterly ridiculous, and only gradually did I begin to change my mind and accept the wisdom of the film technicians who insisted so rigorously on a well-produced product. At that point I began to realize we had a cupboard full of video tapes that had been shot by amateur activists, and that no one would ever want to look at again because of their poor quality.

These thoughts arose as a result of seeing last night’s programme. It was impregnated with the urgency of the dilemma facing the people running this small orphanage against every possible discouragement. One scarcely had time to wonder whether it was well-shot, well-directed, or even well-conceived: the story just existed in its own right, and nothing else mattered but telling it, working towards a successful ending, towards some kind of resolution that would enable the orphanage to continue to exist.

In that I thought whoever made this film --- unfortunately I was unable to find any reference to it on Al Jazeera’s web site this morning --- was spectacularly successful, and I was gripped by his tale from beginning to end.

Although no satisfactory resolution was reached before the end of shooting, a note on the screen said that later they were given a one-year reprieve by some authority of other, which came as a big relief.

Just as Saif was emerging from his trauma was certainly not the time to put all these children either into the brutal state-run orphanage system or back on to the streets. The film was a tribute to the resiliency of human decency, manifest in the figure of the man who was trying to carry this off. And the most sobering news came last: that there are 800,000 war orphans in Iraq, and no laws for their protection.
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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Ins...English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Institute of Technology about global warming, consumerism, the economy, and his organizations, 350.org and Step It Up. McKibben's book, Deep Economy, was the common reading for all incoming freshman for the fall 2008 quarter at RIT. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Link of the day: July 25 2011

Veteran climate change activist Bill McKibben comes up with a remarkable article on the desperate position of the world in relation to global warming: I happen to see it on the very day that NASA discovers that melting of Greenland’s ice cover this summer has been 97 per cent, whereas normally it is 50 per cent. The figures given in McKibben’s ROLLING STONE article indicate we are dancing our way, as a planet, to an almost certain death. Read the article here

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Monday, July 23, 2012

My Log 310 July 23 2012 The motor-scooter, still ubiquitous in Europe, and the source of endless memories of postwar-holidays.

English: Lambretta GP200.English: Lambretta GP200. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) As far as I am concerned, the peak age of the motor scooter was the mid-1950s, when the top speed was 30 mph, or 34 while drifting down a steep hill.

I know supposedly improved models later exceeded 100 mph, but I take leave to believe these were a different type of machine that must have borne little, if any, resemblance to my dear old Doppo around which my wife and I journeyed around Europe for three months in 1954.

I have been driven to these comments by the ubiquity of the motor scooter in Dubrovnik, where I am currently staying. They are everywhere: one cannot go for a walk without having to find a way through the rows and lines of parked scooters, parked on the side of steep streets, where no one could possibly find a space for a car. Thus it seems that most young persons here have a scooter, even if they have a car, because only the scooter will help them get around as quickly as they want, and enable them to find a place to park.

I am not a man who falls in love with a machine of any kind, but I confess I came very close to it in 1954, when we decided we had enough money, 150 pounds, to process up from the tandem bicycle on which we had toured France in 1952, a mode of transportation, the only one available to us at the time, that cost only 15 pounds. All it took, as we looked around the sales room, was one look at the sleek, beautiful lines of the Lambretta to know that we simply had to pay out the few extra pounds over what we could have bought the chunkier Vespa for. Once we learned to ride it, and got our licence we took to calling the little machine Doppo, under the mistaken misapprehension that the Italian name for the motor scooter was Doppolino.

Never mind that, as far as I was concerned, the machine was a miracle of Italian engineering genius. Today I have looked up the Internet for accurate information about the provenance of the scooter. Disappointingly, its origin was in a scooter manufactured in the United States and transported to Europe for the use of troops during World War II. But that was only the germ of the idea for the final Italian product. It was the Innocenti engineering firm of Milan that designed and manufactured the beautiful Lambretta (named after a small stream that ran close to the Milan plant), that became a totally new concept in city travel if only because it was designed to allow women in their skirts to ride and drive it, because they no longer needed to be astraddle the bike’s body. In addition, their clothing was protected by the elegant sideguards that enclosed from the grime and dirt associated with any engine. Designed for two people, the machine was a heaven-sent answer to the problem of post-war Europeans, who did not have the money to buy a motor car, but wanted something quicker and as mobile as a bicycle. The Italian firm of Piaggio manufactured the rather less sleek and beautiful, but considerably cheaper Vespa --- and between them these two machines filled the streets and roads of postwar Europe and provided the basis for a rapidly changing European lifestyle.

Personally I am a man who never has and never will understand how an engine works, but that didn’t matter in relation to the scooter. I discovered during our trip around Europe that the machine would clog up and stop unexpectedly from time to time. No problem --- all I had to do was take the carburettor apart, a simple task, blow on it, put it together again, and away we would fly at our 25 to 30 mph. Marvelous: I still call every success I have in getting a stalled machine to work “my carburettor trick.”

But consider the miracle of what the scooter allowed us to do. I assure you that what I am about to describe is what actually happened, unlikely though it may seem in these high-priced days.

We took a three-month holiday around France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland at a total cost, everything included, of 100 pounds. equivalent at that time I think, to about $250. We camped everywhere, of course, and in those days there were big campgrounds which did not require reservations or foresight, in the very centre of major cities. For example, we camped in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, in the Villa Glori in Rome, in a similarly well placed campground in Florence, and so on. The charge for the night was just a few cents. We carried a huge bag into which we stuffed the few clothes we needed, maps, and a wide variety of books we brought along to allow us to while away the leisure hours. Prominent among these was a huge index of every camping site in France, which --- and I certainly hope this is still true --- proved to us that every village in the country kept a campsite with washing and toilet facilities.

Years later, when we had small children and a car, and the seaside had become clogged with huge tent cities of campers, our adopted strategy was to get a place in one of these village campgrounds ten kilometers inland, usually in some idyllic field with cows munching away at the end of the field, and butterflies flitting from plant to plant with wild profusion, but close enough to the coast to allow us to swim whenever we felt like it.

All along our way, which was on smaller roads, not the super highways that were developing, especially in Germany, we discovered fruits of various kinds, usually blackberries, growing in wild profusion, that we could pick and carry with us to be eaten with cream in the evening. And when it was all over I was able to calculate that during our month in Italy we had lived on pasta that cost us an average of four cents a day. Thus when we finally made it to Paris on our way home we had enough money left over to enable us to splurge on various wonderful Parisian shows, whether on the Left Bank or Montmartre I cannot now remember.

We certainly did not stint on what seemed to us at the time to be the obligatory star-struck tourist-gazing. We saw Chartres cathedral, St Mark’s Square in Venice, we visited the Venice Biennale, where the nations of the world, including Canada, show off their art works, and we retain memories still of the room full of paintings of desperate Italian peasants done by the superb writer, painter, anti-fascist, doctor, and later Communist deputy in the national legislature, Carlo Levi, whose book, Christ Stopped at Eboli had already provided us with an unforgettable portrait of the impoverished life of southern Italy in the 1930s when he was exiled there because of his political activism. We visited the Vatican, the birthplace of St Francis in Assisi--- we actually fell off our scooter while trying to negotiate the winding, steep road from the village of Assisi up to the campground, the only time I can remember that Doppo stalled because unable to handle the terrain.

Ah! Happy days! When we could take a holiday that was within the means of even the most restricted pocketbooks. Lucky was I to have experienced it all.
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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My Log 309 : Sitting again at the feet of Kenneth Tynan, the greatest drama critic since Bernard Shaw, and a model for any writer to follow

English: Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard...English: Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw writing in notebook at time of first production of his play "Pygmalion." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Norman MailerCover of Norman Mailer My friend I am staying with in Dubrovnik has an immense library about (mostly) English things. I mentioned the deceased British critic Kenneth Tynan the other day and she came up with three books by him, which have reminded me of the 11 years I lived in England.

I first read Tynan in the early 1950s when he was drama critic for The Evening Standard, a somewhat meretricious evening paper owned by Beaverbrook.

His criticisms of theatre struck me as rather immature. He was a young man desperately trying to draw attention to himself by making excessive criticisms of iconic figures in the British theatre. Obviously, he could write exceptionally well, but I didn’t exactly warm to his evident ambition.

When I returned to England for The Montreal Star in 1960, I believe he had succeeded in drawing attention to his gifts so thoroughly that he was installed as drama critic of The Observer, that excellent, serious Sunday weekly (which still exists, although now in some sort of marriage with The Guardian, once known as The Manchester Guardian, and today I would think without doubt the outstanding British daily newspaper).

By this time Tynan was able to relax, and reading his criticisms of theatre became a weekly delight. A superb writer, insightful and challenging, he stood for the same sort of values as I felt I did, at least politically, if not personally. The only critic I could compare him to was the great George Bernard Shaw, whose pieces one read simply for the quality of their writing. I was pleased to note in a Guardian obituary of Tynan, who died at the age of 53 in 1980, that Nicholas de Jongh mentioned this comparison with Shaw when he wrote: “He (Tynan) helped in the course of a decade to change the shape and purpose of the modern English-speaking theatre. In the process he became the most influential theatre critic and also the wittiest since Bernard Shaw had acted as Ibsen’s advocate and imposed his own brand of imaginative ridicule upon the trivia of the 1890s.”

I have been reading a collection of Tynan’s pieces in a book called The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, and I was particularly struck by a passage in a long interview he gave to a reporter for Esquire magazine that was never published (probably because so much of it dealt with Tynan’s advanced views on sex and erotica) in which he espoused the value of reporting and other non-fictioinal writing. He estimated that about 30 per cent of fiction writers were following their true m├ętier, but that the rest would have been better off writing non-fiction. As an example he mentioned Norman Mailer, a great reporter, and a second-rate novelist, who, he said, would have been better to have stuck to what he was really good at.

I have thought a lot about this subject, because from the time I first got interested in writing I was convinced that the only writing worth doing was what is usually called “creative writing”, otherwise, fiction, and I have always aspired to produce a worthwhile work of fiction, and considered that my failure to do so is proof that I have never been better than a second-rate writer. I have always harboured a suspicion that this prejudice of mine could be wrong: after all, I have always believed Bertrand Russell is a model writer for all writers, a master of clarity and precision who could explain the most difficult subject so clearly that almost anyone could understand what he was saying.

Here is a typical piece of Tynan, himself an eloquent and clear writer almost beyond compare:

“One must ask oneself constantly about the relevance to life of so many things which we formally describe as art. Let me put it this way: people who are able to share one another’s minds and bodies, people who are able to fulfil themselves adequately by their relationships with others, these healthy people spend much of their thinking, or reading or watching time in venerating the visions and moral insights of neurotic people who are frequently unable to live a shared and fulfilled life themselves, and these latter are known as artists and politicians…. Much of art consists merely of messages transmitted from the lonely to the lonely. There is too much veneration accorded to the imaginative visions of failed human beings. Total happiness, as Cyril Connolly said, is the enemy of art. Forced to choose between the two, I would recommend happiness.”

I can’t help but agree with that, and I agree even more with his next paragraph:

“When one listens to extremely nice, happy, fulfilled, rational humane people desperately trying to accommodate themselves to admiring some perfectly hysterical and ludicrous daub passing as a work of art, one wants to shout STOP! One seems more and more of this, of happy people growing miserable through trying to enrich their already satisfactory lives by struggling to appreciate some vapid trash which they’ve been persuaded they must understand in order to improve themselves.”

Amen to that, brother, as the religious guys might say. It is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that one reads critics not for their opinions on this or that play or film, but for the quality with which they write and the unusual insights they offer.
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Monday, July 2, 2012

My Log 308: Auntie Hil, international shil for a corrupt system of government, as the evidence mounts that things are going wrong at home

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 7:  U.S. Sen. Bernie...WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 7: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on December 7, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Obama administration is pushing for Congress to extend Bush-era tax cuts in a compromise with Republicans. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

My daily reading of information about events in the world brings me images of such staggering inappropriateness that I am almost bereft for words.

This weekend we have seen Auntie Hil, schoolmarm to the world, sitting through the negotiation of a compromise solution to the problems in Syria which would require both government and opposition to stop the firing and get together in a unity government, and then, as soon as the ink was dry, taking the microphone to denounce the Syrian leader as a person unfitted to remain in government because of “the blood on his hands.”

Excuse me, madame, are you not the representative of a government that has recently caused blood to flow in copious quantities in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which countries you attacked and invaded in defiance of all the norms of international behaviour? Do you not represent a government that has fifty times more blood on its hands than any leader of Syria? Are you not convicting yourself by your speech of an act of monstrous hypocrisy? And not only that, does your speech, totally inappropriate to the moment, not blast and sink any prospect that the compromise solution might possibly bring peace in Syria? Which surely must be the ultimate aim of your government?

Is it not time that this dreadful person, who looks more like death warmed over on each appearance, be put out to pasture by her master? Of course, it is time for that, but it is certainly not going to happen, because, as Patrick Seale has pointed out in a perceptive article in Gulf News, her master, President Obama, “remains oblivious to America’s meandering foreign policy.”

Then there are other things that have come to my notice in recent days. A recent speech on the floor of the US Senate by Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, (the only socialist in either house of Congress), which has just been distributed by the invaluable Information Clearing House, but has otherwise been ignored by Fox, CBS, NBC and all the other mainstream media, has produced some extraordinary information, viz:

“Today the wealthiest 400 individuals in America own more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people. Today, the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune now own more wealth than the bottom 30% of the American people. One family owns more wealth than the bottom 30%, 90 million Americans. Today the top 1% own 40% of all of the wealth in America. The top 1% owns 40% of all the wealth in America. What do we think the bottom 60% of the American people own? I ask this question a lot around Vermont. People say maybe they own 15%, maybe they own 20%. Well, the answer is they own less than 2%. Less than 2%. So you got the bottom 60% of the American people owning less than 2% of the wealth, top 1% own 40% of the wealth.”

One can sense Bernie’s frustration through his constant repetitions of the information, as if he realizes that just to say it once will not suffice to bring it to public attention.

So, its goodbye to the American dream that Obama was chuntering on and on about during his election campaign.

But an even more devastating nail in the coffin of decent politics was hammered in yesterday in an article by Sarah Jaffe entitled Can We Call It Class War Yet? published on AlterNet. She quotes a writer who in a new book has identified a whole new industry, known as the “income defence industry,” that has sprung up in the wake of this galloping inequality in the United States. (I warn you: this is so grim it could almost be described as a sick joke):

“Chris Hayes, in his new book Twilight of the Elites, notes that the ultra-wealthy have spawned a whole ‘income defense’ industry dedicated to preserving their wealth and power, an industry that works tirelessly to push policies that favor the rich. He writes:

‘Over the last decade, the political arm of the income defense industry has been wildly successful. The tax cuts passed by Bush and extended by Obama represent a total of $81.5 billion transferred from the state into the hands of the richest 1 percent. Meanwhile, hedge fund managers and their surrogates have deployed millions of dollars to lobbyists to maintain the so-called carried interest loophole, a provision of tax law that allows fund managers to classify much of their income drawn from investing gains as ‘carried interest’ so that it is taxed at the low capital gains rate of 15 percent, rather than the marginal income rate, which would in most cases be more than twice that. It was this wrinkle in the law that helped Mitt Romney, a man worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, pay an effective tax rate of just under 14 percent in 2010. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, the House of Representatives passed a bill closing the loophole, only to see it beaten back by an intense wave of lobbying in the Senate.”

I could go on. The whole scenario, with Auntie Hil out there trying to hector smaller nations on the virtues of the American way of government, while the evidence of its corruption and departure from the normal standards of decency that should animate government in the best interests of the governed, appears to grow more persuasive every day, reducing a mere scribbler to appalled semi-silence. I rest my case.

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