Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Log 333 Dec 29 2012 Loss of memory: does it really occur in everyone, or just the aged? Reflections on a couple of recent films, and some small confusions

Cover of "The Man Who Sued God"
Cover of The Man Who Sued God

 A thing that is slightly oppressive as one moves into one’s eighties is the evidence of frequent memory loss. Oddly enough, when I mention this to people --- people of 45 or 50, or even younger --- they always say the same thing, “Oh, yes, that happens to me too.” I am never sure if they are just trying to reassure me, or whether it really does happen to everyone, which, if true would not be really surprising, because it seems to be a fact of modern  life that we now have more information than the human mind can cope with.

A couple of aspects of memory loss that have become persistent for me only in the last few years are first, an inability to remember something I read or watched only yesterday, and secondly, when picking up a book to choose, a difficulty in remembering whether or not I have read it before.  None of these afflicted me in earlier years, and I was surprised a few months ago to find, as I laboured through a new book, that something about it was vaguely familiar, and, as I read on, became so familiar that finally I remembered having read it before. A few years ago I would have spotted that in the first sentence.

Thus it is that I find it hard to remember titles, even of writers many of whose works I have read, such as John LeCarré, James Lee Burke, Ian McEwan, even my beloved P.G. Wodehouse. It happens more and more frequently that I arrive home with a new book, only to discover I have already read it.

Eventually, these traits became so commonplace for me that I have reverted to a habit I had a few years ago, which is to make notes of every book I read, every movie I see, so that, in an extremity, I can refer to the notes and refresh my memory that way.

I have also found myself falling into unprecedented confusion about detail: for example, visiting Toronto over the holidays, my son and I watched three movies. I remembered the last one I had seen, but as for the two earlier ones, their titles had completely vanished from my mind, along with their themes, and even the members of their casts. When he reminded me of the title The Man Who Sued God --- a striking enough title, for God’s sake --- I began to describe the plot to an acquaintance, only to find that the story I was telling was actually that of a film called Find Me Guilty. The common thing between the two movies was that they both had long court scenes as the centrepiece of the action. The third film was one called Harlem Nights, starring such black comedians as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Redd Fox, and some others. Halfway through, as the story about a nightclub during prohibition days unfolded, I said to my son, “What’s this got to do with Robert Johnson (the great black folk singer of earlier years)?”  He said, “No, the story of Robert Johnson was the film we didn’t choose.”  Another memory confusion.

It is probably worth mentioning in passing that  The Man Who Sued God was about the wonderful Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, playing a boatowner in Australia whose boat is sunk during a storm that gave the insurance companies licence to say it was an Act of God, and therefore, not covered. Connolly’s character, a persistent mischief-maker, decided that his best recourse was to sue God, a course he followed with such elegance and vivacity that the churches finally agreed to settle a sum of $150,000 on him against the loss of his boat plus another $200,000 for his trouble and inconvenience, the only rider being that the deal must remain secret.

Connolly thereafter took legal advice and entered a class-action suit for half a billion dollars, representing all the thousands of people who had been cheated by the “act of God” excuse over the years. At this point the tone of the movie changed, became more serious, as a genuine debate broke out about where God was to be found, how he could be held accountable, and finally, whether or not he actually exists. The clergymen, representing their established churches, were forced into a position in which they would have had to argue that God did not exist if they were to win their cause. I liked this film a lot, another good one from the Aussies.

The other courtroom drama, also based on the apparently frivolous fact that it was about an accused mobster, one of 20 charged with mob activities under the RICO act, who decided to represent himself. This film  also took on more serious tone as the mobster, persuasively played by Vin Diesel, began to ask serious questions of the witnesses whom his mob brothers, outraged by his unorthodoxy, put up to denigrate him and call his honesty into question. This developed into an interesting examination of a man under pressure, a man without any significant education, a crook who freely admitted his culpability for a wide variety of crimes, but in whom an unaccustomed path slowly seemed to be settling in his mind --- a path of decency and honour.

This was apparently based on a real-life occurrence. After the longest trial in U.S. history, the jury found all 21 accused innocent --- so all went free except the barrack-room lawyer, who was already serving a life sentence for other crimes.

A footnote recorded that he was released after seven years, and took up a quiet, and apparently crime-free life in the suburbs of somewhere like New Jersey. But not before having been greeted on his return from the court to prison by his fellow prisoners as a hero for his part --- no doubt significant --- in helping to obtain freedom for all the accused, whose confidence he was proud never to have betrayed, even under the most intense provocation.

I started out, somehow or other, to write about a book I have just read, but it will have to wait for next time.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Log 332, Dec 19 2012 Five Broken Cameras, the sort of film everyone should see, watched by me and nine others last night

Cinq caméras brisées - un village contre une a...
Five Broken Cameras, a Village against an army by Emad Burnat et Guy David :  (Photo credit: ☪yrl)

  Last night at my local movie house, Cinema du Parc, in Montreal,  I saw one of those gritty amateur documentaries that sometimes tell us much more than the smooth, professional effort. The movie --- Five Broken Cameras ----was about the daily life of a Palestinian village, Bi’lin on the West Bank, and its struggle to oppose the brutal occupation of their lands, the theft of their lands to give it its correct name, by the Israeli army and settlers.

The documentary was shot by an ordinary Palestinian peasant, as he described himself, Emad Burnat, who had no intention of making a film, but when he was given a camera started to shoot what was happening to him and his family. He went on filming against all discouragements, for more than five years, recording the arrival of the Separation Wall, built on his family’s land, the burning of his family’s olive trees from which they had always made their living, the birth of his youngest son, and the slow development of this child into what seems likely to become another irreconcilable Palestinian “terrorist” filled with hatred for the Israelis, as he watched his father being beaten, injured, his uncles and other role models killed, by a group of ever-changing soldiers who responded to every challenge with volleys of stun gun fire, tear gas canisters, and live ammunition.

This film allowed us to see the destruction of a way of life by the arrival of bulldozers, clearing the land that once was productive for a village of peasants, clearing it to make way for apartments for settlers from abroad, or wherever they came from. Eventually, the soldiers realized they should not permit this sort of thing to be photograhed, warned the intrepid peasant cameraman that he could suffer the same fate as some of his friends (dead) if he continued to film, and finally directed violent assault against his camera.

This happened five times --- five separate cameras smashed, replaced, and smashed again , until the film ends as a sixth camera swings into action to keep going.

Meantime, as pressure mounts against the cameraman, he records the pleadings of his extremely sympathetic wife to “for God’s sake stop this filming.  I can’t take any more of it,” she said. “Can’t you stop it, and find something else to do?”  Her husband is on the point of arrest and imprisonment. “What are we going to do when you are gone, me and the kids?” she pleaded.

But this filming had got under the skin of this peasant, and he couldn’t stop, even if commonsense told him he would be safer to do so.

This is the kind of film of which one says, “Everyone should see it.”

It is encouraging to record that many Israeli names were attached to the credits in the making of the completed 90 minute film, prominent among them being the co-director Guy Davidi.

But that is almost the only encouraging thing about this harrowing film. I was left with a terrible sense of the futility of it all. Here documented before our eyes was a monstrous act of theft, and one that is not only permitted by the leaders of the Western world, but is actually enabled by them through the use of Western-produced armaments.

Part of the futility came from the extremely barren nature of the land, which looked  like the only thing it could grow were the olive trees through which these peasants have for centuries eked out their precarious existence. The only criticism I could make of the film was that it left us wondering how these people kept going, what were they eating, what did they do for money, how did they keep at it through these terrible five years? We could have done with more information on that context of their lives.

And as for everyone seeing it. In the same cinema immediately before it was screened a packed audience was present to watch a film of the best advertisements of the year. Packed  --- standing room only, extra chairs needed to accommodate the public interest.

But for “Five Broken Cameras,” immediately after, there were just ten of us. Part of the sense of futility I was left with came from the  evident  fact that these peasants in their struggle for justice cannot depend on the world that calls itself democratic to help them in their struggle.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

My Log No. 331: Dec 14 2012 I find a great second-hand bookshop, The Word, on Milton street, Montreal, that has already wormed its way into my affections

Bookshop (Photo credit: conxa.roda)
Bookshops have always played an important role in my life, especially second-hand bookshops. This dates from my first sojourn in London, England in 1951, when I quickly became a regular habituee of the bookshops along Charing Cross Road, and later to the year I spent in or near Edinburgh, Scotland, which had the finest second-hand bookshops I have ever come across.

In those days one could buy for almost nothing fine, beautifully printed on rice-paper, and leather bound copies of old classics, many of which I bought at the time, and a few of which I still have on my shelves.  The price was usually around 1/6 in the old English reckoning, which would be equivalent today to about 30 cents or so, I imagine.

The trouble with the Edinburgh bookshops was that they ruined me for all those that followed them, which usually did not have the same quality of books, and certainly none at the same low prices.

In more recent years I have become disillusioned with second-hand bookshops because they have started to charge almost as much for wornout old copies of much–read books as one used to pay for new books --- which themselves have soared in price to hitherto unimaginable levels.

Ottawa, where I lived for more than 30 years, had a lot of second-hand bookshops, but most of them had this double deficiency (from my Edinburgh standards) that they were charging too much, and secondly, that when they put books out on the street as a come-on, the books they put out were always just trash that no one in his right mind would need or buy.

Restored to Montreal after a 37 year absence, I have been looking forward to investigating the Argo on Ste Catherine, which always was my idea of what a bookshop should be like: crowded with books, so many books one had to fight one’s way through them and among them.  I  have always remembered with affection a similar shop, Bonder’s on Bernard street in Outremont, but sadly it has long ago bitten the dust (although Abe Bonder himself just this week celebrated his 90th birthday), as has Archie Handel’s crowded mess of a bookshop at which I used to spent half an hour or an hour every day chewing the fat with the amiable owner when he was on Bleury, and I was on my way uptown to cover the city hotels for The Montreal Star (that was in the late 1950s).

My great good luck has been that I have wound up just around the corner from an admirable second-hand bookshop called The Word, kept by the friendly and knowledgeable maestro Adrian  King-Edwards and his son Brendon (and someone called Donna Jean-Louis, whom I have not yet met, also figures on their calling card, which says, modestly, that they sell “scholarly second-hand books, specializing in literature.”)

I can report that their selection of literature is excellent: I would almost say one could find just about any book one would want there, but they have another feature of their business which has particularly endeared them to me.

Outside their shop they have a shelf on which every day, they place books they are selling for 50 cents, and I can tell you they do not put trash out there, but excellent books, usually in good physical shape, covering a wide range of  subjects.

This has been great for me, because, after having made three moves of residence in the last couple of years, I find I have given away so many books in an effort to lighten the moving load that when I set up my home in a one-bedroomed apartment in Montreal I found I almost had more bookshelves than books. Urgently confronting the need to fill up some of the empty spaces, I have found Adrian’s 50 cent line a ready resource. I haven’t read any of them yet, having been attempting to catch up with a box of books loaned me by a friend, who, unlike me, is a big buyer of new books (that I usually tell myself I can’t afford).

But to give you an idea of the variety and quality of books Adrian puts on his 50 cent line, I have bought novels by Josef  Skvorecky, Yves Beauchemin, Lisa Appignanesi (none of whose works have I ever read before), Margaret Laurence (whom I have read in earlier years, and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing on one occasion when she was speaking at Cambridge University, England), a book on the Shakespearean stage in the sixteenth century, Simon Winchester’s much-praised book on the Krakatoa explosion of 1883, an autobiography by James A.  Michener (a writer who I have always thought had the perfect life in that he would spend two years researching a novel in a different part of the world, two years writing it, and at the end could be assured his book would sell a million copies or thereabouts), a book on the whaling industry of the past (something that, coming from New Zealand, has always interested me), a book by Eric Bentley on the Playwright as Thinker (another subject that interested me especially during those years I wrote a weekly column from London about the English theatre), and even a history of the Trappist monks (a far-out subject for a non-religious guy like me, and one that I think will bear no more than a cursory whip through, if that).

I have of course also bought slightly more expensive works from within the shop, including a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s masterpiece, The Mating Season, whose opening paragraph is such a glowing example of the use of the English language that I am always uneasy when I find I don’t have a copy at hand, as seems to happen: do I give them away or what?) The only one of The Word bookshop books I have read so far is a three-novel compendium of works by Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus, an Edinburgh man,  is one of the great detectives of modern times, scruffy, emotional, drunken and disreputable, but a guy who always seems to get the job done. I had the pleasure of hearing Rankin speak and be interviewed in Ottawa: an amusing, irresistable fellow.

Well this is The Word bookshop, which has already worked its way into my affections, and is well on the way to filling my empty bookshelves.

All hail to Adrian, and The Word! Here’s to their next 20 years!

PS:  For those of you wondering about the Wodehouse opening paragraph: here it is:

Wodehouse classic prose
“While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall I was definitely short on chirpiness. I shrank from the prospect of being decanted into a household on chummy terms with a thug like my Aunt Agatha weakened as I already was by having had her son Thomas, one of our most prominent fiends in human shape, on my hands for three days.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

A contemporary drawing of Karl Marx as a young...
A contemporary drawing of Karl Marx as a young man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Log 330: Joining, but not joining: the English turn against Europe recalls amusing days for a former correspondent

I notice that a recent poll shows that 68 per cent of the British electorate favour Britain leaving the European Community.

This really takes me back to the early 1960s when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, having decided that Britain should join, set his minister Edward Heath on the path to negotiating entry with General De Gaulle, who, in his imperious way, had no great fondness for Britain. I was working in London as a Canadian reporter at the time, but more important to my attitude on this subject was the fact I had been brought up in New Zealand, whose persistent and overpowering pro-Britishness I had always felt was cringe-worthy.
Thus, emotionally and temperamentally, I almost automatically sided with those Englishmen who opposed the entry into Europe, because it seemed like a massive betrayal by the perfidious English of the people who had come to their support over the decades in any number of wars --- the Boer war, the First World War, the Second World war, among them--- in all of which thousands of New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, Gurkhas and others had been slaughtered for causes that seemed to have more to do with quarrels between European powers than with people like us living in the far corners of the Earth.
As a kid I remember the declaration of our Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, when he said, “Where Britain stands, we stand.” No ifs or buts. No reservations about the treacherous British conservative establishment who had so flirted with Hitler and his gang. None of that: just a bald statement that whatever Britain wanted, we were willing to do.
I remember reading at the time some psychologists writing about what they called resolution reinforcement being a natural tendency among humans: in other words, if your  opinions tended in one direction, it was natural to seize every fact that reinforced your opinion, and thus the nation quickly became divided into entrenched camps.
For example, in addition to the concerns expressed from time to time by political leaders based on their reluctance to betray people who had always trusted British leadership --- I remember a forceful speech by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell to a party conference in which he said (or words to this effect)  “you may say, we have to change with the modern world, but what about Ypres, Passchendale, where loyal soldiers from the Commonweath were killed in their thousands, in the British interest” ---- in addition to this level of public debate an argument raged based on economic facts. I particularly noticed some Swedish research which seemed to prove that for the developed countries of Europe, by far the most efficient and profitable form of trade was among themselves, and this is why Britain was ready to jettison its long-held arrangements for favourable trade with the far-flung dominions, in favour of freer British entry into European markets.
A clear case of Britain feathering its own nest, and to hell with all its loyal followers around the world.  Moseying up to the Germans and Italians whom they had so recently called in the dominions to fight, and saying, to hell with New Zealand lamb and butter, Australian wool, and so on. Every New Zealand minister who came to Britain complained there was a world-wide conspiracy against free entry of their efficiently produced dairy products, which could have wiped out (for example), the dairying industry  of Canada if only they could have obtained free entry (as the British had given them for years.)
I remember a debate between two Labour leaders, Douglas Jay, who was against British entry, and Roy Jenkins, who was in favour of it, and I wrote a very amusing article suggesting that Jay was against it because he was known to drink cheap sherry, and generally to be rather a wowser (as New Zealand slang would describe him) and Jenkins was in favour because he was known as a bon vivant who loved French food and wine, and all the continental joie de vivre for which Europe was so famous.
Of course, in the event, it probably turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to New Zealand and Australia, who, faced with the loss of their British trade, had to diversify into other countries that were willing  (and eager, as it turned out) to buy their products.
But one positive aspect, I always thought, was that there were great areas of humour to be derived from all this fervent debate, and one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had was to cover the South Dorset by-election, which was centred on the question of British entry. The seat had been held by a man called Lord Hinchingbrooke, who was elevated by inheritance to the Earldom of Sandwich, and thus became ineligible to continue in the House of Commons. (How he could have been eligible as Lord Hinchingbrooke is one of those unfathomable English mysteries.) Hinch, as he was known to everyone, was a gloriously unclassifiable personality, both imperialistic, pro-Russian, anti-American, violently against the European connection, and totally independent. His seat was to have fallen into the hands of a successor, a man called Angus Maude, who had become disillusioned with the comparatively liberal ambiance of the Macmillan Tories, and emigrated to Australia, where he became the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald.  It appears, however, than not only did he not take to Australia and the Australians, but they did not take to him; and so he returned just in time to get back into the House of Commons through this by-election.
But just as he was writing to Hinch soliciting his support, another extraordinary character entered the scene. This was Sir Piers Debenhem, a member of the establishment family that owned a major department store in London, but who had lived his entire life on the edge of the common that was immortalized by Thomas Hardy in his novels, as Egdon Heath, on whose barren wastes he had been planting trees for years. Sir Piers declared he was fighting the election in opposition to the attempt to join the Common Market. Hinch, of course, felt impelled, as a man of honour,  to support him,  and when Maude wrote to Hinch soliciting his support, he received the stunning blow that Hinch was sorry but he could not support him.
Sir Piers in his meetings clutched a copy of the Treaty of Rome, waved it over his head and cried, “This Treaty is about Europe’s borders. They have trouble with their borders. But we do not. We do not need to join this Treaty.” He had a wonderfully archaic pattern of speech, referred to Macmillan as “that old silly who governs us,” and was generally loved by the flock of reporters who descended on the constituency.  Warned that his intervention might conceivably overturn an impregnable Tory seat to the Labour Party, Sir Piers expressed his utter indifference to that.  Maude, facing the disappearance of his safe seat, become more and more hysterical, denouncing this loveable old eccentric in ever more extreme terms --- “a prating philosopher,” he contemptuously called him, which didn’t go over too well with the countrymen who knew Sir Piers well ----  and every one of Maude’s cracks exposed him for what he seemed to be, a rather nasty, jumped-up little careerist.  In the event, that is exactly what happened. Sir Piers got a respectable vote, of some 5,000 if I remember correctly, allowing the Labour candidate, Guy Barnett, an earnest technocratic type, to come up the middle and take the victory.
Well all this fun eventually came to an end when General De Gaulle delivered the coup de grace, shutting the English out of the Community, until the persistent Mr Heath managed to obtain entry on a later occasion.
Still, there is an old English saying, “the foreigners begin at Calais,” and there is every evidence that the British commitment to Europe has never been better than extremely lukewarm. In a way that must surely revive thoughts of “perfidious Albion”, it  now appears they want to remain outside the Euro Zone, while having their say into how it is run. Twas ever thus, I imagine.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Log No. 329: Our great leaders seem to be alive, but they also are living on another planet from me, it seems

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers re...
ALL SMILES: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks after meeting with Quartet Envoy Tony Blair in the Treaty Room at the State Department. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 I am becoming very conscious of an other-worldly air about the pronouncements of our political leaders.  I’m sure readers must have noticed the same thing. For example, in arguing against the Palestinian case for status at the UN, both Canadian and American political leaders, such as Hillary Clinton and John Baird, not to mention our two supreme leaders, have given as a reason for their opposition that the route to settlement of the dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis can lie only in negotiation. This essay in the UN can only set that peace process back, they have intoned, solemnly, with every appearance that they are putting forward a solidly-based argument.

Is there something wrong with me, or is there some reason why they insult our intelligence in this way?

Everyone knows, I know, my friends know, my cat and dog know (or would if I had any) that the Israelis have killed off the peace process, by the simple expedient of building thousands of houses in the occupied territories of the West Bank, and settling hundreds of thousands of people there.

This has been Israeli’s unchanged policy for years and years, to create conditions on the ground that cannot be reversed, and whose inexorable logic will be the creation, supported by the global powers, of a Greater Israel, occupying the entire area of what once was Palestine.

That this policy has killed off the two-state solution almost goes without saying. Yet these global leaders --- Tony Blair is another I have heard recently along the same lines --- keep insisting on the so-called “road map” put forward by the so-called Quartet of leading powers --- always ignoring the fact that the road map called on the cessation of settlement building. Israel, of course, has simply thumbed its nose at the road map, and at any other proposal they have not been willing to go along with. And yet the Israeli leaders, supported by the European and American powers, keep chuntering on about how they are ready to negotiate any time the Palestinians can get themselves to the table.  Even though we all know they put every conceivable obstacle in the way of such negotiations.

People like me, and millions of others, I suggest, may think that this policy of Israel is like a suicide mission, because if a one-state solution is to be the only viable alternative, then inevitably it must, eventually, lead to the end of the Jewish state, because it will contain more Arabs than Jews.

There is, of course, one other possible route, which is that the Western powers whose support for Israel is so unshakeable, might go along with Israel as a state built frankly on apartheid --- something that has already begun to develop, actually. In other words, a state that is not built on the democracy that the United States is always preaching to the world, but on an ethnically-cleansed dictatorship of one race, one class, over the other.

As I sit here listening  to our great leaders chunter on in this totally unrealistic way I begin to wonder if the world has not gone slightly mad, as if such values as equality between peoples, tolerance among races and religions, decency between classes, have not already begun to disappear from the earth.

Watch the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio as it develops, because if the Israelis are allowed to get away with their long-term plan for a Greater Israel, then we can be certain the value-system we were all brought up to believe in, is on the ropes.