William Boyd (2002) Any Human Heart.

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Sometimes we get caught up in hype and say things like Any Human Heart is ‘unforgettable’. But I’d forgotten I’d already read this book. There was something vaguely familiar about The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (LMS) 1906-1991 when the reader is told he dies of a heart attack and on his tombstone has chiselled Escritor, Writer, Ecrivain.

It’s the bit in between those two dates that interest us and LMS has a Zelig like ability to span continents and mix with all the great writers and artists of the day, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. He kisses Evelyn Waugh at an Oxford soiree. The latter grabs his groin, but LMS might have been like Waugh, a former public school boy but now decidedly is practicing heterosexual sex with his best friend’s girlfriend. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and Hemingway in Paris and, later, the exiled American during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso gives LMS a sketch, which he later sells to make good the final days of his former lover that was there on the page with him. He hobnobs with royalty and shows how spiteful, treacherous and miserly the Duke of Westminster and Mrs Simpson really were (as expected).

LMS was an art dealer in New York when the avant-garde painters were selling canvases for crazy money and poets such as Frank O’Hara were emerging, with bitterness and wit and not enough money.

LMS married for the third and last time in New York. The entry for June 1957 has him meeting with his psychiatrist Byrne and he asked:

what persuasion he was – Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, whatever. None of the above, he said. I’m basically a good old-fashioned S&M man. S&M? Sex and Money. He explained: in his experience, if you were not clinically ill – like a schizophrenic or a manic depressive – then 99 per cent of his patients’ neuroses were generated by either sex or money, or both.

LMS proves the case in point, fleeing New York for his London flat after having sex with, ‘Monday,’  a sixteen or seventeen-year-old minor who passed herself off as being his dead son’s grieving girlfriend and aged 19 or 20, one of which proved to be true enough for a statutory rape charge.

LMS saw man walking on the moon, he poetically stepped outside to look rather than watching it on television and got involved as reporter in the Biafran War.

And surreally he found himself involved and carrying sticks of dynamite in a suitcase filled with old clothes for the Baader-Meinhoff gang. These are the bits of the book I remembered, finally.

The wisdom of the fictional man is on the page, a remembrance of reader to reader or writer to writer. After fleeing Britain after Thatcher is elected (foreseeing the offering up of the poor to the rich) he flees to the French countryside to squeeze in one more doomed love and offers a guide to style and life while trying to write a work of fiction, Octet. The entry between 1986-1988:

Reading Nabokov’s Ada, an intermittently brilliant but baffling book – an idee fixe on the rampage, leaving readers stunned and exhausted behind. I have to say as an admirer of style – a loaded word, but actually best thought of as a synonym for individuality – VN’s mannered artfulness, his refusal to let a sleeping word lie, becomes more and more like a nervous tic, than a natural, individual voice, however fruity and sonorous. The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing, and one longs for a simple, elegant discursive sentence. This is the key difference: in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.

LMS’s journal in Any Human Heart achieves that individuality, that style and the voice is one you believe in.  As an avid reader (with a poor memory) William Boyd is indeed a great artist. Let’s not forget that there is nothing baffling about this book but its brilliance.

 

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Trust BBC 2, iPlayer, written by Simon Beaufoy, directed by Danny Boyle.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p06g8bcy/trust-series-1-1-the-house-of-getty

Donald Sutherland is the eponymous John Paul Getty senior in BBC’s big-budget drama. My knowledge of Getty was negligible.  I knew he was one of the richest men in the world and I knew he had a pay phone in his house, so unpaying guests wouldn’t chisel him and make long-distance phone calls at his expense. Yep, tick that one off; it happens in this drama, which counterfeits itself by using the clichéd tag, inspired by actual events.

The story is quite simple John Paul Getty’s grandson is kidnapped and he failed to pay the ransom.

A lot of fun can be had from that simple premise as a jumping off point for writer Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle. Only two things really matter. Money and sex.

Here we begin with images of the grandson John Paul Getty junior-junior or John Paul Getty III (Harris Dickinson) running through a field and cornflower and cut to a Gatsbyesque party in which John Paul’s eldest son, and we’re following the feudal process of primogeniture, commits suicide. Long live the king. The heir to the throne is dead, but who is next in line?

We’re back to with John Paul Getty senior at home in his Tudor stately pile in the Surrey countryside with his harem at dinner and in attendance, his fool, the only male at the table. King Lear and ‘nothing will come of nothing’ is quoted.  The King cannot keep an erection, but more worrying is his son, John Paul Getty junior (Michael Esper) is next in line for the fortune. But junior has had a bit of problem with drugs and his dad doesn’t trust him with the Getty Trust. He bemoans the fact his sons aren’t more like the Kennedy’s who, with a bit of help from their bootlegging dad, conquered America. His sons are limp dicks in comparison.

Then John Paul Getty III appears at the funeral. He’s a hippy, with the flared trousers, long hair and not a penny in his pocket. Granddad takes a shine to him. He’s the great white hope of the Getty’s with bare feet and he’s not been ostensibly corrupted by money, because he’s skint. This gives the filmmakers a chance to show how great fortunes are made, which involves oil and horizontal and vertical integration of the production process. The most important point is, Getty senior points out to his grandson, the Trust runs at a loss, so they don’t have to pay up to 70% corporation tax.

Getty III just wants a few thousand dollars to pay back the drug dealers he owes.

Money, sex and tax avoidance gives nineteen seventy-three a contemporary feel. Not really my kinda thing,  trust me, so I was told to say.

 

 

Married to a Paedophile, Channel 4.

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https://www.channel4.com/programmes/married-to-a-paedophile

Married to a Paedophile was, ironically, on at the same time as another outstanding piece of drama, Mother’s Day. The latter is conventional drama in that we start with tragedy and end in triumph – The Good Friday Agreement. The argument is implicit, cause and effect. Married to a Paedophile is more of a Greek tragedy in which, for example, solving a riddle Oedipus on the way to Thebes murders his father and sleeps with his mother.  There can be no triumphant note, even when the villain is punished, but there can be a better understanding.

One hundred people a day in Britain get that knock on the door, a police raid, computers and phones taken away. Downloading indecent images of children is one of the fastest growing crimes and it seems to be, as shown here, it is the middle-class men that are most often caught in the net.

The number prosecuted in no way reflects the actual numbers of paedophiles in our society. One German study (if I remember correctly and usually I don’t) indicated that one in ten men had paedophilic propensities.  The number in Japan… who knows? Manga pictures and child sex dolls sold as part of normal society. What we do know is the more dedicated resources our police were given to investigate crimes like this the more arrests they would make and our vastly overcrowded and chaotic prison system would be unable to cope. We hide from that truth.

Married to a Paedophile claims to be hybrid of fact and fiction in that actors ‘lip-sync’ people who get that knock on the door. A mockumentary or docudrama.

Plotting is as straight forward as in the drama Mother’s Day. We have the characterisation of a good paedophile, a senior school teacher, who is given the name Alex, who has two children, one at university and the other about to go to university. His wife Kate goes through the emotions of disbelief to acceptance that she never knew the man she had married and she shuns him. His children do not.

Alex’s daughters buy into the argument their father offers them that he was depressed and would never hurt them, what he did was wrong, but it was a kind of illness. To my ears it sound very like the arguments used by alcoholics. And I’ve heard it many times. Kate disagrees with her daughter about this. Alex had a choice, she argues. He wasn’t ill, he is a paedophile and she wants nothing to do with him or his ‘illnesses’.

Mad? Bad? Or Sad?

The characterisation of the bad paedophile is Robert. Other people do his talking for him. Unlike Alex he never addresses the camera. He never explains. His wife Helen explains for him.  They have been married for 40 years and she is shown getting ready to go and meet him, making herself nice for him, when he’s realised from prison. She wants to protect him. But he can no longer live in the family home because of their grandchildren. His son’s wife in particular is antagonistic. She had breastfed her grandchildren in front of Robert and one of the images he collected, but claimed not to look at, was of a child being breastfed, taken from its mother and…well, you get the picture. You want to grind glass into Robert’s eyes. But here it is Helen you feel angry at, and in the end, feeling sorry for. Good drama does that.

And the dramatization of the good and bad paedophile does that, moves you. Well, worth watching, but let’s not buy into it being a documentary or there being any real policing of the net.

Timothy Snyder (2015) Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

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We think we know the bare bones of the history of the holocaust. Hitler as bogey man and the German nation following him to the abyss, where around six million Jews perished and many more minorities. That was my take on it. Not bad, around a D grade. But Snyder does more than root in the history of the past. He drags us into the present and the lessons are illuminating.

For the German nation the war was portrayed as necessary, a colonial war to maintain food supplies, a war against the inferior Slavic nations, or ‘shitty countries’ are our friend President Trump termed them.  But when Lebensraum came unstuck at Leningrad and the Red Army began to roll back German colonial gains the genocidal war against Jews continued and grew even more intense.

‘The Auschwitz Paradox’ the complex of Treblinka, Belzac, Sobibor and Chelmno was a factory in which people were murdered for being the wrong type of people. The gas chambers also stood as a metonym for the evil of a racial policy of mass murder and genocide, but most of the killing had already taken place further East,

‘where tens of thousands of Germans shot millions of Jews over hundreds of death pits over the course of three years, most people knew what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of Germans witnessed the killings, and millions of Germans on the eastern front knew about them…German homes were enriched, millions of times over, by plunder from the murdered Jews, sent by post or brought back by soldiers and policemen on leave’.

Auschwitz processed a lie of left and right, separating the living and dead effectively, and more importantly it allowed a generation of Germans to say they didn’t know. It also allowed the Russians to act as liberators when earlier they had played a large part in the murder of Jews and other Slavic nationals.

The key to survival, then as now was citizenship. Jews in Denmark, for example, retained their citizenship and almost all survived.  In contrast, all 963 Jew in Estonia were murdered, not by the Germans, but Estonian citizens. And from the Baltic to the Black Sea people who killed Jews killed others such as psychiatric patients and gypsies. Lithuanian policemen who took part in the killing of 150 000 Jews in 1941, also starved to death the same number of Soviet prisoners.

Similar elements are at work in the Syrian conflict. Putin’s genocidal onslaught in the second Chechnya war helped set the template for what was to follow.  Russian troops that committed atrocities were fighting terrorism.

When Russian invaded Ukraine its citizens were deemed to be terrorists. Snyder draws explicit parallels with Hitler’s ideology:

In 2013 Russian leaders and propagandists imagined neighbouring Ukraine out of existence, or presented them as sub-Russians…an artificial entity with no history, culture, and language, backed by some global agglomeration of Jews, gays, Europeans, and Americans…In the Russian war against Ukraine, the first gains were the natural gas fields in the Black Sea…annexed in 2014…The fertile soil of mainland Ukraine, its black earth, makes it a very important exporter of food, which Russia is not.

Bashar al-Assad, Syrian’s dictator, whom Putin brought back from the brink of military defeat, using high-tech Russian jets, chemical weapons that put them outside the Geneva Convention, old-fashioned barrel bombs, artillery strikes on hospitals and schools while classifying these murders as fighting against terrorists. There is no such thing as non-combatants.  Women and children are also terrorists.

Three million people in Idib. Three million non-citizens and terrorists. On the Turkish border civilian forces offer a sense of humanity and prepare for a million refugees. Perhaps an overestimate when the Russian fleet offshore are engaged in ‘exercises’. Non-citizens can expect no mercy in a kill-box that would have been all too familiar to Eastern European Jews. Ironically, those fleeing towards Israel in the hope that proximity to another nation state will provide a safe haven of sorts are simply classified as terrorist by another nation state.

Snyder’s template of taking away citizenship as the first step in genocidal murder applies equally to Myanmar’s Rakhine state. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi occupied Poland, on 27th August 2017 Myanmar’s army attacked unarmed civilians and forced more than 700 000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Ian Figel and Benedict Rogers in The Observer report thousands were killed, thousands of women raped. Children were snatched from their parents’ arms and thrown into their burning homes or drowned. Villagers lined up and shot.

Britain’s response to refugees mirrors that of the Americans during the Holocaust – no entry. The United States and richest nation in the world patted itself on the back for allowing around 5000 Jewish refugees, around the same number that were gassed in Treblinka in a morning’s work. Remember David Cameron talking about ‘swarms’ of them waiting to cross the English Channel. Swarms of children, who we agreed to take, then reneged on the deal. Without the sovereign protection of citizenship those without passports have no rights and can be disposed of.

With global warming the numbers of refugees Snyder argues is bound to increase exponentially and the poorest nations in the world will be hit first and hit hardest. Already we are preparing our defences. The first defence being rhetoric, them-or-us fundamentalism. The warning from history is a lesson we have learned too well. Enough talk produces hate and murder, but no real people die. Only terrorists.  Believe that and you’ll believe anything. We often do and justify it to ourselves by saying we didn’t know. Read this book.

 

Mohsin Hamid (2007) The Reluctant Fundamentalist

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0144ybj

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I watched The Reluctant Fundamentalist on BBC 2 recently.  Mohsin Hamid was screenwriter and author, and the role of the narrator in the book Change[z] is much the same, but the plotting is slightly different. In particular, Changez’s exotic girlfriend, Erica,  in the book is given a backstory.  Changez, in his doomed love affair,  mirrors her doomed love affair. It’s a short novel. Very few films are better than the book. Ben Hur is an example. This is another.  Here is a reluctant poetry offering reviewing both.

Collateral Damage. 

Sir, you need to be careful here

Corporate collegiality offers a veneer

Deep down we eat our young

Our concern is not to be your friend

And to make you pay

No matter what you say

Foreignness is not a choice

Lucid but without voice

A worldview that is unfair

Mirrors a society that doesn’t care

Time doesn’t diminish identity

Meaning relies on natural empathy

Collateral damage

 

Celtic 1—0 Rangers

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When the talking was over there was only one winner. Celtic dominated the match from start to finish. Hit the bar three time, the post once. Odsonne Edward from a Calum McGregor cross, just before half-time, missed an absolute sitter from five yards out and hit the Ranger’s keeper, Allan McGregor. The Ranger’s keeper proved by far to be Ranger’s man of the match. There’s nothing new in this.  In the last thirteen Old Firm games, in which Rangers have lost all  but two, which they’ve drawn, the Ranger’s keeper has been the Ibrox team’s man of the match. Hamilton came to Celtic Park last weekend and got beaten 1—0, but had more shots on goals than Rangers, more corners and more of the ball than Rangers. The gap between Celtic and Hamilton remains what it was.

Ironically, the Celtic goal when it did come was from a rare Ranger’s breakaway. Tom Rogic, who is not renowned for his work as a midfield enforcer, won a fifty-fifty with Ranger’s midfield enforcer, Ryan Jack, motored up the park, the Aussie passed the ball to Edward who shuttled the ball right to Forrest. The ball was squared to man of the match Olivier Nitcham. Easy-peasy.

Rangers best kick of the match was the boot Alan McGregor gave to Ayer. With the technology used in the world cup this would have easily have been a red card and penalty awarded. Rangers got off lightly. A 1—0 defeat flattered them in the way it didn’t Hamilton the week before.

Hans Rosling (2018) Factfulness

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Hans Rosling is dead, but his work lives on. Clichéd, I know. But Rosling does something we rarely do, he looks at the facts. And he concludes that the world is so much better than it’s ever been. He’s an optimist, a myth buster and all-round good guy.

I’m none of these things. I’m a bit like Calimero, walking about under rainy skies with an egg-shell head and complaining ‘It’s an injustice. It’s an injustice’.

This is a book I should really re-read, but I won’t, of course. It’s an injustice. It’s an injustice.

Let’s look at the facts in factfulness.

The Gap Instinct is when we create a binary world, black and white, rich and poor, celitc and rangers. In between the two groups we place the valley of death with no river styx and no boatman to help us across. Here’s my prejudices. I think rich, elderly, self-serving, white men are responsible for most of the world’s ills. Shhh, whisper it, here’s the rub. I still believe it after reading Rosling’s book. I guess I could quote John Maynard Keynes, ‘In the long run we’re all dead,’ or ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’.

Rosling argues and gives statistical evidence to buttress his argument that mostly we don’t change our mind much. Our prejudice remain the same. Our world view undisturbed.

Rosling asks what is wrong with this picture of ‘them’ and ‘us’? We shift ourselves to the side of the angels. Rosling concludes that there is no them and us. There is only us, but he’s talking about a bigger picture and no just my prejudices.

Measuring the gap between rich and poor, the developing world and the developed world here is the matrix he uses to measure progress.  He doesn’t, for example, use the Marxist, or indeed Weberian idea of class. Too messy. He’s looking for something more practical. The world’s population, about seven billion people as split into four income levels. Each figure represents a cohort. On Level 1, for example, about 1 billion people live on a $1 per day.   Level 2, about 3 billion people live on $4 per day. Level 3, 2 billion people, live on $16 per day. Here we are on Level 4, a billion people live here, that’s where I live, ‘you are a rich consumer,’ $64 per day. I don’t feel rich. That’s the problem. It’s not about feelings but facts. The world is becoming richer and more people are moving through the levels quicker than at any other time in history.

Rosling reminds us: Beware the comparisons of averages. Beware comparisons of extremes. And reminds us the view from up here (rich man’s territory) skews our vision and understanding.

We get to, ‘The Negativity Instinct’, familiar territory for me and The Mega Misconception that The World Is Getting Worse’. Actually, I got this question right. I did quite well in Rosling’s quiz. I ticked the box that said the world is getting better. Thinking and feeling again. Rosling shows that those living in ‘extreme poverty’ $1 a day, has halved in the last 20 years and has been falling steadily since 1800s (when measurements began). Average life expectancy is on the up and up. Child survival at birth to five years has taken an exponential leap.   Even Hunger is declining. We’re all fat bastards now, but not equally flabby.

Science, Literacy, Democracy, Clean Water, Immunization rates, Number of Girls in school all increasing.

We don’t Trump the good news. We Trump the Trump, whether that’s a good thing, or a bad thing, it’s a very human trait.

So here’s Rosling’s view of how to think and not feel. Balance negative news with positive news. Trump may be the moron’s moron, but he’s old and he might die soon. ‘Expect bad news’ Trump may get re-elected. ‘Don’t Censor History’. I don’t. I just blame the morons that voted for him.

‘The Straight Line Instinct’ is to be avoided. Here his example is The Mega (he used Mega lots) Misconception That ‘The World Population is Just Increasing and Increasing.  Here Rosling is playing devil’s advocate for us dummies. He concedes that over the next 13 years about a billion people will be added to the population. But the number of children will be about the same. As the world’s population becomes richer we have less children. I can cut in here and say, yeh, I knew that. In South Korea during the 1950s (Korean War) women had on average about seven children. Now, they have one. Yeh, one, it’s causing real problems. As it is in Japan and China.

Rosling’s quick fix here is don’t assume straight lines (question them). Many or most trends are S-bends, slides, humps or doubling lines.

The Fear Instinct is in some ways what makes us human. We think with our heart and not our head. Men in advertising love it. They sell us everyday fear. Your penis is too small. Yes, it is, thanks.  Rosling asks us to ‘be afraid of the Right Thing’.  He gives us a natty equation. Risk = danger x exposure.

The Size Instinct is like the penis risk equation, getting a handle on proportion. Journalists make everything bigger. They direct our limited attention span to how big the disaster they are covering is. Rosling asks us to compare the numbers. In 2016, for example, ‘4.2 million babies died’.  But back in the 1950s it was ‘14.4 million’.

Rosling’s compass. Compare and contrast. 80/20 rule. Look for the largest numbers and deal with them first. They are likely to be more important than the others put together. Divide them. Amounts and rates tell different stories.

The Generalization Instinct is something we’re all good at. It’s a bit of a hybrid. The gap instinct makes us think in terms of us and them. The generalization instinct makes us think them over there are all the same. Think of our old friend the moron’s moron generalizing about ‘shit countries’ – over there.

In general, Rosling’s what to do list is generalizable under the headings. ‘Look for differences within groups. Look for similarities across groups, but also differences across groups. Beware of ‘the majority’ (especially morons that label others ‘enemies of the people’). Beware of vivid examples. Assume people are not idiots (unless they’re the current US President).

The Destiny Instinct. I get that all the time. My destiny is told in the nearest puddle. Someone bigger is going to stand on me. For Rosling the Destiny Instinct is the kind of prejudices that make the white man’s burden sound perfectly reasonable. Rosling puts it in terms of snobbish self-regard. But what he does here is confirm my suspicions that the world economy is moving East to Asia. China is the new United States. Britain is a pimple on the end of United States arse. Rosling tells us Africa, with the poorest countries in the world can catch up. As China did, in a relatively short time, before leaving many nations in the wing mirrors. As South Korea did. As India is doing.

His factfulness checklist has in it Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change can translate into a huge change over decades. I’d need to fling in Thomas Piketty’s Capital here. He shows that those whose incomes (the one-percent) grow faster than the 99% then small changes are massive changes and a worrying trend over time.

Rosling asks us to update our knowledge. Yeh, read books. I like that idea. Think for yourself. Go on try it at home.

Talk to grandpa to see how things have really changed. Talk to me. I remember phone boxes that took two-pence coins.

Collect examples of cultural changes. See above.

The Single Perspective Instinct is a variation on the old chestnut when you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail, or when you’re the moron’s moron everybody looks like a terrorist apart from the leader of the terrorist state which invade Ukraine, disembowelled Chechnya and broke so many Geneva Conventions they ran out of condemnations. But as Rosling argues, we find simple ideas attractive, but not as attractive as prostitutes peeing on a bed Mr T? Sorry, I’ll need to be more professional here.

Rosling argues we should trust professionals and experts. Not everyone is equal in what they know, but everybody can have an opinion. Look at the data.  But look at the data critically.

The checklist asks you to test your ideas. Be humble (I like that). Hammers and nails. If you’re good with a tool you’ll want to use it. Number, but only numbers. Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. Get rid of all immigrants and we’ll all be great in Great Britain again. Make America Great Again.

The Blame Instinct is fishing for a simple reason for complex problems. Playing the Blame Game is easy. Do it at home. I blame elderly rich white men. (I’m with Piketty on that one, but they don’t have to be white, just superwealthy, which qualifies as white).

Rosling looks at how we scapegoat ‘Refugees’, for example. I’ll cut to the chase them away. ‘Our European governments claim to be honouring the Geneva convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country [like Syria] to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim…’

Here’s the checklist. ‘Look for causes not villains’ [the 1% who own mostly everything] ‘Look for systems, not heroes [expropriation of capital].

‘The Urgency Instinct’ is human nature. Amazon promises to deliver the next day, but that’s not soon enough. We want it now. ‘Tomorrow may be too late’. Rosling tells us to relax. ‘It’s almost never true’. He tells us to put a foot in our mouth and control the urgency instinct. ‘Insist on the Data’.

Now we’re on my territory. Read This Now. Urgent.

Rosling’s checklist of ‘The Five Global Risks We Should Worry About.’

We can exclude Rosling from this list as he’s dead.

  1. Global pandemic
  2. Financial Collapse
  3. World War III
  4. Climate Change
  5. Extreme Poverty.

These are not independent of each other. Climate Change is inevitable. We’ve missed the boat. And World War III isn’t inevitable, but more likely with the moron’s moron in office and financial collapse would be inevitable should a war start. Maybe not. I don’t want to find out.

Here’s the cure. Take a breath Mr President. Insist on the data. Beware of fortune-tellers Mr President don’t appoint them to the highest offices of state. Be wary of drastic action Mr President.

Rosling’s final words really were his final words. ‘I have found fighting ignorance and spreading a fact-based worldview to be sometimes frustrating, but ultimately inspiring and joyful way to spend my life’. Amen to that.

Yep. Factfulness. We’ve been here before, but with the growth in social -media reports and fake news we never needed it more.