Sunday, July 17, 2016

My Log 521 July 17 2016: France on my mind: recollections of a wonderful 1952 holiday on a tandem; in thrall to the Tour de France; delighted by a superb film

France has been very much on my mind in the last week or two, not only because of the horrendous killings in Nice, but because I have been following the Tour de France on TV, and last night I watched again one of my favorite movies of all time, Cycling With Moliere.
I have to confess to being an inveterate francophile, which I became in 1952 when my wife and I took off for a month on a pre-war tandem bicycle that became the most memorable holiday in my life. Not that there was anything special about it: we simply rode every day from about six am to early afternoon, when we usually stopped in the camping ground of some small village --- taking advantage of the fact that in those days at least every tiny village had its campground that provided at least running water and a place to wash in, if nothing else, at a cost that was close to no cost at all.  At first it was fairly rough going, across the ups and downs of the beautiful Normandy countryside, steep enough to require that we had to walk our tandem up the hills, which might take us up to an hour or more, and then coast down the other side, which we could do in five minutes. But we were young, in our early twenties, and if we were not exactly fit on takeoff, we quickly became fit, so quickly that I can remember the exact stretch of road between a small town called Bellac and one called Confolens when the southward lay of the land finally came to be in our favour, and a helpful back wind allowed us to feel that we were flying.  We stayed that night in a field as usual, went to a neighbouring farmer to ask for water, or eggs, and were invited in to share their magnificent apple pie as they were gathered around for dinner.
South of Bordeaux we paused for a drink on a long, lonely road, and we read in a newspaper about an English family called Drummond having been murdered in a place that seemed to us to be not too far from where we were. But further on, in a town called Mont de Marsan, a few miles short of the foothills of the Pyrenees, that I became  a lifelong  francophile; a couple of ruffians, we decided to go to a local hotel, the Richelieu (which the Internet tells me is still there),  for our first French meal. Wearing only shorts and t-shirts, brown as veritable berries, tousled by our battle with the winds, we were greeted in their dining room not as bums, but rather as if we were a king and queen, ushered with ceremony into the formal dining room, for a wonderful meal which convinced us that French cuisine must be the best in the world (a judgment I have had reason to modify since that day.)
We went at the beginning of August, were in France for a month, and it rained only once, giving me the entirely false impression that it never rains in France in August. Anyway, not to bore my long-suffering readers, this was the first of many trips to France in the following two decades, eventually with three small boys in tow,  and my impression has always been of it as a wonderfully beautiful country whose inhabitants live a civilized, relaxed existence that should be the envy of most other countries. (I recognize this is an unreasonably favorable view of France and the French, but wot the hell!)
I watch the Tour de France every year not only because of the glorious eccentricity of the race itself, but to catch a glimpse of the beautiful little villages the  impressive landscape, the many remarkable chateaux and other buildings that the following helicopters favour us with.
For anyone who doubts the eccentricity of the race, hear this: an Englishman, Mark Cavendish, has won four of the 15 Stages so far contested, taking his overall stage wins to 30 over the years, certainly making him one of the world’s leading cyclists, right?  Yet after his fourth win, yesterday, he still lies 165th in the field of 185, lying almost  two and a half hours behind the leader. Figure that one out, if you can. This is a race like no other on earth, 21 days equivalent to running a marathon every day, a race studded with spectacular crashes, some of them caused by the insanity of the spectators who line the road, pressing out into the path of the cyclists , waving flags that get caught in the wheels, often running flat out alongside so close to the competitors that on an early stage this year, the leader, another Englishman, Chris Froome, actually lashed out with his fist at a spectator and caught him a hefty blow on the jaw. On an even earlier stage Froome was brought down in a spectator-caused imbroglio, and had to run on foot to the finish line so as to retain his place in the race.
Finally, just a word of two about Cycling with Moliere. It is a delightfully amusing, brilliantly acted French comedy about a matinee star on TV, played by Lambert Wilson, appearing suddenly at the home on the Isle de Re off the Atlantic coast of a retired film and stage actor played by the brilliant Patricio Luchini, with the objective of persuading the retired actor to return to play Le Misanthrope together on stage. The actor was not interested, because he was offered a secondary part, but when the star suggested they could alternate in  the main part of Alceste, he became interested. For day after day they rehearsed, the old actor throwing everything into his declamation of the sacred words of Moliere, and each of them often using the playwright’s words to describe their dissatisfaction with each other.  The action is interrupted from time to time to allow the visiting star --- recognized immediately by everyone for his role as a doctor in the TV series --- to pretend to be examining houses with a view to buying them, a pretence needed to convince the elderly actor of his sincerity.
On one of these occasions the owner wanting to sell her house is an explosive, extremely attractive woman, beautifully played by Maya Sansa, an experienced actress I had never seen before,  who denounces the very profession of acting vehemently, declares she hates actors  and hurries them out of her house. Later, calmed down, she offers a lift to the old actor, and they begin to arrive at a rapprochement. Cycling around the island both actors are at different times thrown into the sea by the lack of brakes on the old actor’s bicycle…. .these quarrels are interspersed with moments of intense feeling  as the players begin to approach and even like each other, while each maintaining his reserve, as befits actors, they said.  Needless to say, it is the woman who unwittingly comes between them, and  the ending is not a happy one. A wonderful movie that has such depths that I could see it repeatedly.
In just the same way that I cannot resist, each year, the Tour de France.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Log 520 July 14 2016: Appointment of the ineffable Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary proof of the continuing effortless eccentricity of the British Tory party

Who could have imagined that the vote for Brexit could have thrown so much of the politics of our Western world into such turmoil? Especially that of the United Kingdom (as it is laughingly called).
One would have imagined that the appointment of Theresa May as UK Prime Minister --- no need for an election, chaps, not at all! ---- would have stilled the fires of idiocy that seemed suddenly to have overcome everybody. Who was this woman, risen from the depths of the Conservative Party to absolute power? We were all just groping around, wondering what to think of her, wondering how much she meant her pledge to care for everybody in the Kingdom, a pledge as far removed from Conservative traditions as it is possible to be, wondering what her occasional sallies of humor might have meant --- for example on one occasion she said that Boris had once tried to negotiate with Europeans, and had returned with three half-working cannons! -----  when the news came that she had appointed the man himself, the unpredictable Boris, as Foreign Secretary. 
The newspapers since have been full of his past gaffes, wallowing in them to such effect that probably everyone reading this has already seen them all, gaffe after gaffe. His insult to Erdogan, of Turkey in a poem he wrote calling him a "wankerer" to rhyme with Ankara, suggesting he had had sex with a goat; his description of Hillary Clinton as having the face of “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”; his description of Africans as “piccaninnies”; his description in Israel of people who oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine as  “really just a bunch of corduroy-jacketed…lefty academics”; 
 --- and so it goes on, the guy has a definite gift for ill-timed description.
Fresh out of 10 Downing street this morning with his new remit in hand in the traditional red briefcase, he had difficulty finding his car, and tried three before he found the right one.  Sounds typical, and perhaps a stirring harbinger of the Tory approach to Europe in the coming days: complete disorientation.
I have, of course, a personal interest in British politics, having lived in that country for eleven years, during eight of which I was employed to write about their politics. I was always astounded by the sheer effrontery of the Tory party, always so unashamed as to be almost admirable, and remember vividly how even the more intelligent of their ministers could stand there before the gathered tribe of Tories and solemnly dedicate them all to serving only the interests of the nation, because of their unshakeable sense of duty.  Tory duty, inculcated at every public school, where the ministers were usually educated because of their wealth and privilege. In those days I had a low opinion of the Tories, but I did develop a slight admiration for Harold Macmillan, descended, as he always reminded us, from a Scottish crofter, the man who picked up the reins after the disastrous Anglo-French  attack on Egypt, led by the bewildered Sir Anthony Eden soon after he took over from Sir Winston Churchill, after a lifetime of being second fiddle.
Macmillan, now that one can see him in the perspective of the past half century, was a remarkably sophisticated Tory who was able to shrug off the attacks of his opponents as if they were annoying flies.  I remember once when he had sacked half his Cabinet, and immediately left for a trip to the Soviet Union shrugging it all off to reporters at the airport as “a little local difficulty.”
He was the only politician I have ever seen who, when he was telling one of his convolute jokes, actually seemed to stick his tongue into his cheek, as if to announce to the dimwitted amongst us that everything he said was said with tongue in cheek! Got it, Harold, we got it, and we were all laughing….
But Macmillan ran up against  De Gaulle, who pushed him away because he didn’t trust the British to be wholehearted Europeans. And was the General ever correct about that! Still Macmillan never was like our modern right-wingers, who, nurtured at the teat of Thatcher and Reagan,  are ready  to pull the whole edifice down around their ears. Although he didn’t hesitate to throw Britain’s ancient allies under the bus when it became clear to him that the country’s best interests lay in becoming closer to Europe, Macmillan  maintained the essential features of the welfare state that had been built largely by the post-war Labour government.
Nowadays, the Brexiters --- that is to say those who are pursuing  the exactly negative reasons for which they joined the European Community in the first place, that they think they can do better outside Europe than inside it, are shoving off from Europe without a second thought, once again abandoning their friends for some higher, poorly explained purpose that leaves only a sense of betrayal.  Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it too! The British are experts at that.
We are all awaiting developments from the slightly eccentric figure who has risen to the top in Britain.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My Log 519 June 29 2016

Faites vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs, faites vos jeux: British and American politics in turmoil, as capitalism seems ready to fall into the hands of the clowns

As the smoke has begun to clear from the so-called disaster of the Brexit from Europe, I am finding it easier than I had expected to decide on my view of it.
One helpful thing is the unanimity of the ferocious attack on Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by the combined forces of the establishment, including all the stakeholders in capitalism, such as the mainstream journalists, all right-thinking Conservatives (desperately trying to persuade the world not to notice the monumental balls-up created by the Eton-educated, Oxbridge graduated Tory leaders), and by the right-wing members of the Labour party establishment, who, seizing the chance to oust their leader in a pre-planned coup, have betrayed nakedly their support for the neocolonialist agenda that has become the norm in  Western world governing circles.
The pity of it is that Corbyn, who has apparently never been keen on the European Union, no doubt on the grounds that it was set up to be a stronghold of capitalism and its values, succumbed to the intense pressure of his Parliamentary colleagues to support the case for Remaining in the UE. In hindsight one can see it would have been better if Labour, fulfilling its role as Opposition to the Tory government, had plumped for the Brexit, and prepared a solid social plan for managing the changes required to create a new sort of Britain following departure from the Union.  Unfortunately, that did not happen, so there is no point really in wishing it did. But the result of the Brexit has been to leave Britain rudderless, still trying to play its old game of having its cake and eating it too, right up until last weekend, with  even members of the Brexit leadership writing that perhaps Britain could become an associate member, like Norway, only refusing to accept the free movement of peoples from state to state within the Union.  This, it has been made clear from Europe, is never likely to fly, having been denounced by Mme Merkel as “cherrry-picking”, accepting the best and rejecting the worst of the Union rules.
The European leaders wish the British would get on with it. And I am persuaded by the perception of the Dutch journalist I quoted in my last post, that Europe, so desperately in need of reform if it is to advance along a humane and socially acceptable line, will be much better able to achieve such reform without Britain than with it inside the Union  continuing its constant undermining of all change in the only direction that can make sense of the Union.
Perhaps the revolt within the Labour Members of Parliament is the most interesting thing of all. Corbyn was elected by an overwhelming majority of Labour party members: something like 62 per cent with the second place finisher on 19 per cent. But the Members of Parliament  are hangovers from the days of Tony Blair, when the members had little or nothing to do with the selection of their candidates: thus there is an antagonism between the MPs and the party members at large, and it seems that Corbyn might be well-placed to continue in office, even possibly to win an election for leadership, if it comes to that, and to hell with his MPs, whose removal would have to await the next election.  Interestingly on June 13 the Daily Telegraph newspaper, always well informed about right-wing thinking, prophesied that a plot was already planned, regardless of the referendum result, to oust Corbyn by the unconstitutional method of having his Parliamentary colleagues resign from his shadow cabinet, thus literally forcing him to accept a forced resignation.
I doubt that any manoeuvre so nakedly based on blind ambition has ever been pulled in British politics before, and it will be fascinating to see how this all comes out.
Meantime, the battle for leadership of the Tories is already underway: since the Brexiters won the day, surely they should be elected to lead the party? Right?
Wrong. That does not seem to be the plan.  The plan, such as it is, seems to be to reassert the control of those who, like Cameron, led the Remain team, and so to delay any action as to hope, vainly, that they might find a mechanism for turning it all around (and thus rejecting the will of the people.) 
Well, I can’t say much more than that. I will watch this with fascination, almost equal to that of the fight between two widely hated candidates for the presidency of the United States.
Take your pick, anyone….fait vos jeux, faites vos jeux, ladies and gentlemen….

This is one for the books.