Archive for February, 2013

A golden age

Borgen Pressemøde

We are currently living in a Golden Age of television drama – well-written screenplays, innovative narrative techniques, significant themes, gripping stories, mostly true-to-life representations, all superbly-acted, and realized with attention to detail and high production values.  See, for instance:

  • 24 (although many implausible plots, the office politics is true-to-life)
  • Band of Brothers
  • Borgen
  • Breaking Bad
  • The Bridge
  • Covert Affairs
  • Damages
  • Deadwood
  • Generation Kill
  • The Good Wife
  • Homeland
  • The Hour
  • House of Cards
  • The Killing
  • Mad Men
  • The Newsroom
  • Political Animals
  • Prisoners of War (Hatufim)
  • The Sopranos
  • Spiral (Engrenages)
  • Spooks
  • Sports Night
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
  • Suits
  • The Unit
  • The West Wing
  • The Wire

Like the golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, one has to wonder:   Why here? Why now?




Irishness and Jewishness

A friend’s thoughtful meditation on the different natures of Irishness and Jewishness:

Irishness, at least in its North London manifestation, was clearly a much more inclusive category than I had been prepared for.  There were quite a few Black Irish people, and one or two Chinese ones.  There were a couple of others with what looked to me like Jewish faces, though they might equally have been Greek.

I don’t know how everyone in the room felt about this; but I do know that there was no outward sign that anybody had any feelings about it at all. Then and subsequently, I have never come across any handwringing about who the traditional music activities ought to be for, let alone ‘who is an Irish person?’ The activity was Irish in content, and that was enough.  Other, non-Irish people’s participation did not detract from its Irishness or threaten its existence or value.

In our community, interest by others in our culture is rarely taken at face value.  Although discussions about Jewish culture are often shot through with barely-veiled assumptions about cultural superiority, we are usually suspicious about anyone else wanting to partake.  Perhaps it’s because we are afraid that it won’t stand up to much scrutiny from anyone without a sentimental attachment to it; or maybe we are worried that they are only showing an interest so that they can insinuate themselves into our superior institutions. Why else would non-Jews be trying to sneak into our schools?

Either way, there is an all-pervasive obsession with maintaining and policing a boundary, with determining who is and isn’t entitled to come in.  Look at the selection processes associated with admission to Jewish schools, or the application forms for joining a synagogue.  No-one at Meitheal Cheoil ever asked me for my parents’ marriage certificate.

I don’t want to imply that Irish culture is inherently inclusive and anti-racist.  I’m sure that someone else could find plenty of counter-examples, together with joyous examples of Jewish inclusiveness and syncretism.  But I don’t think that the Jewish obsession with boundaries and separation, which make up an enormous proportion of our law and our lore, are merely accidental add-ons to our culture either. In biblical and talmudic Judaism, the principle of distinction and separation, and the importance of keeping things from mixing, is always imbued with a moral and theological dimension.

We are forbidden to mix meat and milk; fish and meat on the same plate; wool and linen in the same garment; and forbidden to yoke two kinds of animals to the same plough.  God does not like it when we mix things, stuff, or ourselves.  It’s worth remembering this next time you get into one of those discussions about the essential ethical core of Judaism.

 




Akira Nishimura: Bird Heterophony

Akira Nishimura

Two weeks ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra held a series of concerts at the Barbican and at LSO St Luke’s of new and 20th-century music from Japan.  Parts of these concerts were rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3.  A highlight was a work called Bird Heterophony by Akira Nishimura, who teaches at the Tokyo College of Music.  This music was loud, forceful and exciting, and very impressive.  It reminded me of those great early works of Iannis Xenakis, Metastaseis and Pithoprakta.    Much as I like the impressionism of Toru Takemitsu (whose November Steps was also performed), it is nice to hear modern Japanese music from a vastly different sound world.   It is a pity though about the title:  how much better the music could be appreciated if Nishimura had left the title abstract, rather than steering our mental imagery with a representational title.

The one recording seems to be unavailable, at least in the West.    Messages for the 21st Century Volume 1.   Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, under Hiroyuki Iwaki.   Deutsche Grammophon,  POGC-1719, 1993.

Meanwhile a clip of the performance is currently still available from the BBC Radio 3 website for the program, Hear and Now, 2 February 2013 edition.




Public speaking

While talking just now about excellent public speakers, I remembered that I had heard a superb speech last year at a University of London graduation ceremony.   In the USA, these ceremonies are often the occasion for great speeches from invited public figures.  My experience is that this is far less often the case elsewhere in the anglophone world – the speeches tend to the routine or mundane, and outsiders are not always invited to give addresses.   Perhaps this relates to the fact the American universities, alone among those in the anglophone world, still have Departments of Speech, with serious study of argumentation, rhetoric, and oratory.   Since the switch from oral to written mathematics examinations at Cambridge in the 18th century our universities mostly no longer train or exercise people in public speaking skills, despite their evident value for so many careers.  Moreover, writing speeches is often a form of policy formulation, as experienced speech-writers attest.

At a graduation ceremony last October in the Barbican I was fortunate to hear a superb speech by Thomas Clayton, President of the Student’s Union of King’s College London, speaking in his official capacity.   The speech was original, clear, inspiring, and amusing, and was pitched just right for the audience and the occasion.   Clayton himself was enthusiastic and engaged, and his speech did not sound, as many at these events do, as if he was merely going through the motions.      He is evidently someone to listen out for in future.




Zimbabwe’s cohabitation

Matobo Hills Zimbabwejpg

Robert Mugabe is a superb public speaker.  I have been fortunate to hear him speak in public many times, from large ceremonial public addresses on state and official occasions, to speeches at ZANU-PF political rallies (ranging from a few hundred to several scores of thousands of people at Rufaro Stadium, and with both sophisticated urban and traditional rural participants), to addresses to foreign investors and business leaders, to quiet, grave-side orations at funerals of mutual friends.  And I have expressed before my admiration for his rhetorical skills, his superb command of different registers, his intelligence, his Jesuit-trained casuistry, and his guile.  I have never met him, but from accounts of people who have, he can also be very charming when he wishes.

Robert Mugabe

Despite claims by some that he has become diminished with age, and even falls asleep during official meetings, the opposition ministers in his Cohabitation Government say that he is just as charming, intelligent, and wily as ever.  From a  report this week in the Guardian:

Welshman Ncube, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Commerce and Industry and leader of one of the factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), lost his grandfather in the 1980s Gukurahundi. The Gukurahundi was a violent campaign in which thousands of opposition Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu) party supporters were killed and beaten by a brigade owing allegiance to President Robert Mugabe’s government.

Ncube shares his experience working with Mugabe in a unity government since 2009: “Ninety percent of the time, I cannot recognise the Mugabe I sit with in cabinet with the Mugabe who has ruled this country through violence. He shows real concern for his country and people, like a father. And he can master detail over a wide range of government matters. If I had only this experience with Mugabe in government and had not lived through the Gukurahundi and seen him denouncing Zapu with anger and belief on television, and you told me he carried out the Gukurahundi, I would say ‘no, not this man, he is not capable of it’. But I saw him.”

Another MDC minister, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, also struggles to reconcile the man she thought Mugabe was, before entering government, with the one she knows today. “I did not think Mugabe believed in things. Now I know that Mugabe actually believes in things, ideologically, like that the British are after regime change in Zimbabwe. When he believes in something he will genuinely defend it. If he believes in an action, no matter how wrong it is, he will not apologise. That is one hallmark of Mugabe. He is loyal to his beliefs.”

On Mugabe’s personality, Misihairabwi-Mushonga says that she had not known that he was “a serious charmer around women. A very, very, very good charmer . . .  He also has an exceptional sense of humour. You literally are in stitches throughout cabinet. But he also has an intellectual arrogance. If you do not strike him as someone intelligent he has no time for you. There are certain people who, when they speak in cabinet, he sits up and listens, and others who, when they speak, he pretends to be asleep.”

Nelson Chamisa, the MDC Minister of Information and Communication Technology, once thought Mugabe was “unbalanced”, but adds: “sitting in cabinet with him, I admire his intellect. He has dexterity of encyclopaedic proportions. He is bad leader but a gifted politician. Why do I say he is a gifted politician? He has the ability to manage political emotions and intentions. But leadership is a different thing. The best form of leadership is to create other leaders who can come reproduce your vision after you. Mugabe has not done that.”

Zimbabwe-100trilliondollars

I add a note to clarify this post:  None of the above should be seen as an endorsement of Mugabe’s policies, many of which have been motivated by malfeasance, peculation, and plain, old-fashioned, evil.  Unfortunately, his administration, unlike many in Africa, has been overwhelmingly competent, with even the policy of hyperinflation aimed – deliberately and very successfully – at enriching a few thousand people having foreign currency holdings at the expense of every other Zimbabwean.   The pinnacle of this deadly-effective malevolence has been the enrichment of the political and military elite by use of the state’s military forces to operate protection rackets in foreign countries  – eg, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with whom Zimbabwe shares no border nor any strategic interest.




Scotland under cyber attack?

In the past, global empires such as those of Rome or Britain or France could face attacks from anywhere across the empire.   Britain, for instance, fought Imperial wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan.   The Internet takes us back to that situation – any country, no matter how small or obscure, potentially faces cyber espionage or incursions or attacks from people anywhere in the world.   Ask Estonia or Denmark, both small countries that came under attack from cyber attackers.

The Roman Empire never did manage to subdue the belligerent peoples in what is now Scotland.   How ironic, then, that Scots nationalists seem not to have realized that an independent nation will need to defend itself from global attack.   MP Rory Stewart has reminded them, asking some hard, clear-light-of-day, questions about the romantic, candle-lit, vision of Scottish independence.   Questioning Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, who was appearing before the UK House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs, Stewart asked about independent Scotland’s plans for intelligence and security:

Sturgeon came under repeated pressure from the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border, Rory Stewart, a former army officer and Foreign Office diplomat, to explain how an independent Scotland would build, equip, train and fund its own spying and security services.

Stewart said the UK’s current annual spying and security budget did not include the total historic costs of building and equipping its intelligence services, from setting up secure intelligence units in overseas embassies, training its agents, to building and equipping GCHQ.

It would cost billions, he said, to set up the secure communications Scotland needed for its intelligence agencies. For instance, if an independent Scotland wanted to have the same number of embassies overseas as Ireland, which has 97, or Finland, which has 93, it would cost hundreds of millions to equip them.”




One day in the life . . .

Khan-Tengri Mountain at sunset

. . . of Boris N. Delone (1890-1980), Russian mathematician, moutaineer, and polymath, member of a famous family of mathematicians and physicists, whose grandson was a dissident poet:

July 6, 1975, Delone spends a cold night (-25 degrees C) in a tent on a glacier under the beautiful peak of Khan Tengri (7000 m, the Tien Shan mountain system, Central Asia) [pictured, at sunset] at a height of about 4200 m.  In the morning a helicopter picks him up to take him to Przhevalsk (now Karakol), a Kyrgyz city at the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul.  From Przhevalsk he takes a local flight  to Frunze (now Bishkek), the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where the heat exceeds 40 degrees C.   After queuing up for a few hours and with the help of some “kind people” and the Academy of Sciences membership card he succeeds in purchasing an air ticket to Moscow.   Late at night he arrives at Domodedovo airport in Moscow, from which he still needs to go to his country house near Abramtsevo (Moscow oblast).   Taking the last commuter train, he arrives at the necessary station at around 2 am; from there it is another three kilometers to his house, half of which are in a dark dense forest.  He loses his way and, after roaming around the night forest for a long time, leaves his heavy rucksack in a familiar secluded place.  Only in the morning does Delone succeed in getting home safely.”  (page 13).

In that year, 1975, Boris Delone was 85 years old.

Delone-Boris-Nikolaevich

Reference:

N. P. Dolbilin [2011]: Boris Nikolaevich Delone (Delaunay): Life and Work. Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, 275: 1-14.  Published in Russian in Trudy Matematicheskogo Instituta imeni V. A. Steklov, 2011, 275:  7-21.  A pre-print version of the paper is here.