Monday, September 19, 2016

My Log 530 September 19 2016: Every now and again, evidence of the One Percenters and their ostentations is laid before our eyes: a glossy ad over the weekend gets me going

I remember in the early 1950s, when I was newly arrived in London, England and unemployed, reading in the newspaper that the dramatist Terence Rattigan, very much the man-about-town,  had leased a flat in Mayfair for 18 pounds a week. I was astonished that anyone could pay so much: how much money would a person need to be able to afford so much? Just to put this assumption in perspective, my unemployment ended when I took a job, for the magnificent wage of four pounds a week,  as a factory worker in Hammersmith.
I wasn’t in it for life, a mere three months, to tide us over a lean patch, but on the conveyer belt on which I worked in the factory I was surrounded by honest working people for whom that wage of four or five pounds a week was the best they could look forward to in the rest of their lives, a paltry sum which the powers-that-be --- who themselves lived in the lap of luxury  ---- decreed had to cover all of their costs for everything they needed.  Some democracy that was!     And is!
Of course, all this has to be judged against the belief I had come to as an enthusiastic socialist  teenager than no one  should earn, for any job, more than 5,000 pounds a year, a sum that seemed to me to be adequate for the living needs of anyone on earth.
In other words, I have been a proponent of social equality ever since I started thinking about the world and its problems. And yet now I find myself in a world where inequality has reached such a level of  criminality that our societies are governed by an oligarchy of the wealthy elite that not only runs the economy but has its palsied hand on every parliament ever elected, buying politicians as if they were boxes of chocolates.
 I have  welcomed the recent agitation of people protesting against the one per cent of wealth owners having collared virtually all of the increase in wealth generated by workers in the last 40 years. Somehow or other I have managed so far to come through more or less intact after a lifetime of journalism and film-making and book-writing  --- none of which paid me more than a sort of lower-middle-class income ---- and now I am existing on the money I have made by owning, and selling at a modest profit, three houses, known to the tax people as my principal residences,  in the last 40 years as I have moved from place to place.
I’m not complaining. I have had a good life in which I have spent every penny I ever earned, have travelled to many parts of the world, have written about every subject that seized my interest, and am still keenly interested in what is happening in the world.
But one thing that seems clear to me now is that the global admiration for the capitalist society of the United States is totally misplaced: rather than deserving our admiration, that country seems to be trapped in completely misplaced, dysfunctional notions of patriotism, individualism, militarism, and aggressive intentions towards the rest of the world.
Anyway, what I set out to write about today was the shock I encountered at the weekend when I picked up a coloured supplement accompanying La Presse, a glossy advertisement taken by the “international realty” company Sotheby’s.
I had always thought of Sotheby’s as a fuddy-duddy English firm, probably struggling to keep abreast of the modern, fast-changing economy (it was, after all established in 1744, and is one of the four oldest auction houses in the world.)  So I was totally surprised to open up this advertisement, printed on a glossy sheet slightly bigger than three feet by two feet in size and containing the coloured pictures of no fewer than 150 houses that are offered thereby to anyone who wants to cap his or her success in life with a magnificent, highly-priced, home.
Top price on offer was $9,500,000 for a Westmount home, a vast structure surrounded by a glorious garden (or as the capton said “nichée derriere une vegetation luxuriante”) on “la recherchée”  Lexington avenue. There were at least eight offered for more than $4,000,000, and to judge by the pictures the offered homes were of every kind, some in apartment buildings, some in huge homes of modern construction (the architect’s fees alone must have cost a fortune), and others in long-established dignified houses set in beautifully maintained grounds. The architectural style exhibited on the page tended towards pomposity, and a few showed what might reasonably be called execrable taste.
What surprised me most was that they were located all over the province of Quebec, from Montreal downtown, to the Eastern Townships, to the North shore, South shore, and in towns that one would not normally associate with splendour --- Boucherville, for example, Kirkland, Candiac, Ile Bizard, Ile Perrot --- islands that I remember driving around in the late 1950s when they were virtually empty except for the occasional eccentric living in a modest shack of some kind, lovely calm and forgotten places that seemed to have been forgotten in the postwar rush for development, tbut that now appear to have become  playgrounds for the rich.
I should not have been surprised by any of this: but it did strike me that here, right under our noses, was evidence of the One Percenters who, nowadays, are dominating our societies, and of how they have collared most of the wealth available, and are spending it on ostentatious self-indulgence.
 I had a similar awakening a couple of years ago when, waiting to board an overcrowded plane from Frankfurt to Montreal, I was, without any request, upgraded from economy to business class. I had, of course, passed through the business class seats on the way to the economy on many occasions, but to suddenly be the recipient of the many privileges to which  my higher-class seat entitled me was a profound revelation: right under my nose all these years, the One Percenters had been living it up, lounging full-out on their luxurious seats, drinking the best of wines for free, eating the superior foods provided to them, while down there we were struggling through the night in our overcrowded seats, crammed like sardines into a can, barely able to sleep for the caterwauling of kids and the sheer sense of oppressiveness.
So this, I ruminated, on that occasion, is how the One Percenters go through life.
Of course, my original belief that 5,000 pounds a year should be enough for anybody has been discovered to be wildly impracticable. (I am reminded of my high school principal, who, during the Second World War told our chemistry class that “there will be no millionaires in the future, you know, that’s over.”) But I have noticed, in some of the programmes of the developing leftist parties that are springing up throughout the capitalist world, various hints that suggest some form of salary cap might still be a good idea. One does rub across occasional examples of people who have stuck with lower-paying jobs to pursue worthwhile work, and one sees on TV every day the devotion of many volunteer, or near-volunteer workers who administer to the victims of the various brutal wars conducted these days, usually under the aegis of the United States.
But even more evident are the examples of egregious waste occurring every day. Like the story of the $500,000,000 programme to train local soldiers, which succeeded in training five people. Like the several trillion dollars spent on wars in the Middle East that have succeeded only in destroying one country after another, killing hundreds of thousands, destroying the lives of the innocent, and achieving nothing of any discernible value.
Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of people are like me, appalled by these things, but at this  level one feels a sense of helplessness, of there being nothing we can do to change it. Yet we are constantly told by those people who never stop insisting that it is all wrong, that change will come only from the development of a great movement in which people demand change.
I hope they are right…..

Thursday, September 8, 2016

My Log 529 Sept 8 2016: I spot a welcome visitor to my apartment which has constructed for itself a world of wonder, capable of feeding, and presumably nourishing, its family.

I live on the 15th floor --- really the 14th, because of the universally-observed superstition of omitting the 13th floor, a superstition worthy of some primitive clan in the back reaches of the medieval forest ---- in an apartment building in downtown Montreal, looking south towards the Eastern Townships and the United States, and in the path of the full sun and the prevailing south-westerly winds.
Below me I can see a surprising number of trees lining the modest residential streets running down towards Sherbrooke street, Montreal’s long-time pride and joy, nowadays transformed from its former elegance into a string of high-rise office and apartment buildings that I would say are a doubtful addition to the ambience of this great and fascinating city.
I have a small balcony, large enough for a couple of chairs and a small table, and one conclusion we have reached from sitting in it, and leaving our sliding doors open most of the summer, without bothering to close even the screen, is that bugs, insects and other tiny denizens of animal life appear to have been expunged from Montreal. Perhaps that is not surprising since I live high above those trees down there, and far from anything resembling a plant or grass or growing live thing, of the kind that might nourish such insects.
And yet --- I am coming to the core of my story --- as the force of the summer sun has diminished, giving way to delightfully mild and pleasant days, a tiny spider has emerged from somewhere and attached itself to my balcony railing, there to set up its field of operations by way of an extensive web.
We have examined this frail construction with amazement for several days, watching as it resists the breezes that never stop blowing up here, not only resists them, but possibly enables their creator to use them to its own advantage. Just how did this tiny creature build this astonishing structure, that appears to have been started against the wall of the building ---- a rough brick structure --- and somehow to have extended itself in a diagonal direction at least two feet across open space, to attach itself to the railing?
This can only be described as a herculean feat, defying, as it does, rational explanation. Did the creator, this tiny spider, weave a long web, let it hang straight down, and then find some way of swinging him or herself on it across the open space, like some spiderman climbing  along the edge of a building, as is so often depicted in thrillers?  That seems so unlikely, unimaginable, in fact, that one wonders if it could have just allowed itself down by its thread until it touched the railing where it connects to the building, then wandered along the railing, pulling the two-foot web behind it, until it reached the corner where the steel rail offered enough material that the web could be anchored to it?  It seems equally unlikely.
Of course all this construction took place before we noticed anything. But once we had become familiar with the work of this master-builder, we decided to call him, or her, Sam, a multi-gendered name that could fit either the possibility  that spider webs are built by the male of the species, or the female, and which, in addition is a memorial for my deceased brother, as well as --- on the distaff side  ---  recognition of a lively new addition to my family through an attachment to one of my sons.
What is evident is that the long-web ---  which in architectural terms would have to be described as a load-bearing module ---- had somehow been put in place and then used as the basis for the delicate web built behind and beneath it, filling the space between building and railing with its complex architecture. We awoke the next morning after we first noticed it, to find that at least two dozen tiny creatures had been caught in the  web, no doubt providing food for a week or two for the brilliant Sam, designer and creator.
It has rained softly a few times since we discovered it, but that seems to have had little effect on the web, although when I went out to the balcony to examine the latest state of play, I found an amazing transformation.
The  nuance, the beauty of the circular portion of the web appeared for the most part to have given way before the overnight breezes, which up at this level can be sometimes extremely brisk. But the web itself still exists, although it has taken on a completely different form.  Now, the load-bearing module has been extended from two feet or so to well over three, possibly four feet, maybe even closer to five feet in length, but is still hanging in place across the diagonal space between building and railing, through taking off from a much higher spot on the building.  Around the railing the foundational attachment appears to have been strengthened, and now winds around the corner post in seven or eight minuscule web-rings, to ensure stability. The inside structure of the web I at first thought had  disappeared, along with the two or three dozens of tiny captives. What was immediately obvious was that some stronger lines had taken the place of the earlier fragile web and  appeared to have caught pieces of detritus,  little bits of rubbish  that must be flying around out there unknown to us. 
On closer examination I realized my first impression was mistaken: the little pieces of tuff that I thought I identified were in fact more like the original victims of the web, now organized into a line, some of them covered with a sort of cocoon-like web, and a couple of others still struggling to escape.
No sign of the miraculous constructor of this masterpiece, none at all. I am not saying he or she has abandoned the structure, since she more probably is in hiding in some tiny hole at one end or the other of the web.
Still extant, though so delicate as to be almost invisible to the naked eye, is the delicate circular web from which all previous victims have been removed, leaving the web to wave back and forth gently in the breeze.
This is one of the most wonderful structures I have ever seen, and it must be that someone, somewhere has already figured out how these spiders work their magic. If so, I am hoping one of my few readers can enlighten me, so that my admiration for Sam and his or her building genius can henceforth be based on some solid information that has so far eluded me.
Before any reader dumps on me, I have to say I am aware that my search for this Knowledge about spiders and their construction methods, is in contradiction with the tone of my previous blog in which I urged university students to abandon their studies because the accumulated Knowledge of mankind, promised them by university-study, could turn out to be a poisoned chalice. 
Of such ambiguities is real life constructed.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Log 528 Sept 6 2016: Some random thoughts on observing the newly-enrolled student body, making its minimally-clad way to class for another season of university brainwashing

Having become accustomed to walking through the McGill university campus on my way to the best coffee in Montreal in Café Castel on Sherbroke street, run by a bunch of amiable Lebanese and Vietnamese young men who make the most amazingly skilful drawings in the cream that tops their Lattes,  yesterday I took with me a soapbox, mounted it in one of those delightfully arranged plazas that are scattered throughout the campus, and delivered the following oration to a largely unimpressed gathering of young people:
“Students, including frosh (whatever that may mean), professors and hangers-on, lend me your ears for a moment. I am a man of advanced years who has been moving unobserved among you as you have gathered  in ever-growing numbers hurrying towards your new lives, an experience that I believe entitles me to make a few observations on what you seem to be embracing. I have noted your excitement and your urgency and have in recent days become accustomed to feeling the rush of air as some young woman (it is the young women who seem the most urgent) whishes past me urgently on her way to whatever marvellous event confronts her as she plunges into her search for Knowledge. Whish, she goes, and I have become accustomed to indicate the movement with a rapid forward movement of my own arm, adding a yelled commentary each time: “Whoosh! Off to get the Knowledge, are you!? Avid for the Knowledge! Crazy to become the repositories of the accumulated Knowledge of homo sapiens!
“I have not talked to any of you, but I would doubt from your demeanour that you would be interested in hearing my theory that we already have too much Knowledge, that in fact the Knowledge you are so eager to discover, this self-appointed burden you appear to be so eager to undertake, could become for you  a poisoned chalice that will begin to twist and distort your lives from the moment you have to first confront the debt that our grateful capitalist society will impose on you as the price for fufilling your great dream.   
“Be that as it may as the fellow said, somewhere or other,  I hope you will look at yourselves, so young and energetic, so full of life, so determined to flaunt your impressive, undeveloped minds; and I fear that as you look at your professors,  for the most part so grey and burdened with troubles, so conscience-stricken by their half-acknowledged understanding that what they are handing on is so totally irrelevant to what is needed for this world to survive and prosper, as you look at them, I say, the darkness will begin to wrap itself around your hearts and minds.
“Not immediately, of course, for you are in the full flush of your self-awareness as developing beautiful human beings. A notable and surprising change I have noted from the last time --- several years ago --- that I had occasion to brush up against a student body has been to find that the approved garb for academia and its studies has become the same as for international tennis, or beach volleyball  --- that is, the very short short, which could be, but perhaps is not, designed to drive your professors mad. I comfort myself with the thought that professors,  a stern, unforgiving group of gents and ladies,  must be accustomed to being confronted with such youthful vigour as they earnestly plod through their lessons in calculus or astrophysics, or, to take a common philosophical dilemma that has beaten to death generations of similarly eager students, the meaning of meaning. But who, after all, in these days, does not glory in the tanned thigh, the tattooed shoulder?  I think we can depend on the professorial cadre to have only the one thing in mind: they will be straining to ensure you finish your course knowing more than two plus two equals four, and all the other complicated things you need if you are to become the bridge-builders, the railway and aircraft engineers, the rocket scientists, the research chemists, of our growing generations.
“Can all of you, professors and students, thrown together in the cavernous classrooms scattered around the campus, possibly change the stark fact that it is from these institutions, these extremely expensive, extremely pampered, resource-gobbling universities, these learned classrooms, studies and libraries, from these that have emerged all of the highly-trained people, the scientists, philosophers, artists, politicians and even statesmen, who have been so assiduously prepared to go out into the world, armed with the Knowledge they have been taught, but whose very effect has been to transform our world, so beautiful in its origins, into the hell-hole it has become, whose biggest business is to produce killing machines, whose preoccupations are with wars, riots, violence, repression, terrorism and death.
“Students, frosh, hangers-on, mark my words I pray you. You are being prepared to go out and fuck up the world with your inadequate Knowledge.  Quit this place as quickly as you can before your professors have a chance to brainwash you with their useless poisons, turning you into filing cabinets so overburdened with information that you will have no idea what to do or where to turn.
“Save yourselves, I beg of you, before it is too late.”

With that I picked up my soap box and retreated to the Castel for another delicious cup of coffee.