Thursday, May 31, 2007

That's Great Tax-Returning Weather, So It Is

The weather is miserable this week, cold and drizzly - more like Dublin in mid-February - and tax returns are due in tomorrow. For somebody with no dependents, no property and a narrow range of renumerative activities, filling in the form should be straightforward enough. But, of course, it's not. I think I've cracked it now, and with work in the morning - to be rapidly followed by dropping it in person into the tax office, just to be safe - I have no desire to pursue the issue any more. Let them come after me if they want to. I'm off to bed.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

News Round-up

Gay people are having a rough time of it in Eastern Europe of late, especially at Sunday's Gay Rights protest in Moscow, where a shower of Nazi thugs laid into the likes of Peter Tatchell, Fred Fairbrass, and, I imagine many, more, lesser known people. The cops stood by and intervened only to arrest those that were being attacked. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov has vowed to never allow Gay rallies in the city (despite homosexuality being legal under Russian law), calling them 'satanic'. I have always thought there was something fishy about them queers but couldn't put my finger on it. Thanks to Mayor Luzhkov for clarifying the matter for me. Incidentally, the young thug preparing to punch Tatchell in the Guardian's photograph (don't you just love all those cameras primed, ready to intervene?) has a curiously 'manly' 'tache. He couldn't possibly have been there for other motives, could he have?

Further west in Poland, a country that is labouring under the right-wing Catholic fundamentalism of the Law and Justice Party and the President-Prime Minister double act the Kaczynski twins, that government's spokesperson for children's rights has asked psychologists to determine if handbag-swinging Teletubby Twinky-Winky is gay. Ms Ewa Sowinska thus takes up the mantle of the late, unlamented Jerry Falwell, who, at least, did not deign to ask a psychologist for their opinion. Falwell knew a propagandising fag cuddly toy when he saw it. Interestingly one of the Kaczynski twins is rumoured to have exotic tastes in young men surprisingly at odds with his government's hounding of gays.

Old Europe is not to be outdone however, a Dutch reality TV show has needy contestants competing for a dying woman's kidneys. The producers claim that they have a serious sociological intent in making the show but one suspects that they are not going to donate the royalties to the Dutch kidney foundation.

In Sweden, the lodestone of European righteousness, the nation pressurised Miss Sweden Isabel Lestapier Winqvist into withdrawing from the Miss Universe competition, because of it being 'demeaning to women'. Ms Winqvist, presumably fearful of becoming a Nordic Hester Prynne, complied and even the organiser of the Swedish franchise, a swimsuit company that has done away with the swimsuit section of the national competition, stands by the decision to boycott the competition. While I will not disagree that a competition as grotesque, inane and tacky as Miss Universe degrades women and many of the women involved are objects of pity more than anything else, this official stance by Sweden strikes me as the worst form of pedantry, a grandiose smashing of a walnut with the biggest mallet that Protestant Social Democracy can buy. There are far more important issues that concern women worldwide, such as people trafficking, unequal pay and even underprovision of toilet facilities (in the third-world particularly, a hidden killer). Attacking Miss Universe looks like Sweden wants to say something to the world about itself rather than the rights and concerns of women.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Unnatural High

FIFA, the fools that run international football, have announced that they are to ban international matches at altitudes higher than 2,500m, which will mainly affect Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. FIFA cite health reasons because of the difficulty players unused to the thin air at high altitude have breathing but I suspect that the objections of Argentina and Brazil - two countries that are used to getting their own way in the world of football geopolitics - were of greater concern. Not to mention the fact that both tend to do poorly when playing at altitude - Brazil nearly missing out on the 2002 World Cup because of a defeat against Ecuador in Quito. FIFA had less qualms when staging two World Cup finals in the elevated Mexico City, though at 2,250m that does come just under the threshold of acceptability. I think that Mexico was too influential a customer to meddle with on that one. What will FIFA do next? Ban games in temperatures of more than 20˚to facilitate British teams, who never tire of using the heat as an excuse for their poor performances in major championships, while conveniently forgetting that the South American winters of the World Cups of 1950, 1962 and 1978 were no more favorable to them? Ban players from smaller nations tackling Ronaldinho and David Beckham?

Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French

I remember watching, as a very young lad, the 1982 RTÉ-Channel 4-France3 co-production The Year of the French, an adaptation of Thomas Flanagan's novel about the 1798 Rebellion (or Revolution, as it has come to be erroneously known). It is striking how vividly I remember the mini-series, which I watched compulsively every Sunday night and despite not having seen it since I can still recall the title sequence where a sleán digs brutally into the ground in extreme close-up. Likewise I remember the scenes at the end where the rebels are hanged for their acts, especially the face of the Romantic hero, the rakish Gaelic poet-hedgeschool-master Eoghan Ruath MacCarthaigh. I had suspected that my admiration for the show might have been a bit misplaced because of how young I was at the time but a few people a good deal older than me have confirmed my memories of it. Which makes one wonder why it has never been screened since - to the best of my knowledge it did not even get an airing during the bicentenary commemorations nine years ago - or released on video or DVD.

Flanagan's novel stood on the shelf at home for years when I was growing up, not too far from Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, another doorstopping bestseller that was adapted for TV at the time. Because of this I imagined for a long time that Flanagan's novel was a Leon Uris-style potboiler, a novel that peddled comfortable truths about the glorious failure that was the rebellion and the foundation of modern Irish Republicanism. Last year I came across a re-issue of the book, published by the New York Review of Books, a publication that usually knows a good thing when it sees it. Flanagan, a third-generation Irish-American from Connecticut, and a childhood friend of Truman Capote, was a pre-eminent scholar of Irish literature - particularly the nineteenth-century, pre-Celtic Twilight variety, and published often in the NYRB, which has also re-issued his collected essays. He was one of those Americans (of whom there have been quite a few) that knew Ireland and its history better than many natives of the island, and he brought his extensive reading of 18th and 19th century writing to bear on the stylistic and political tour-de-force that was this, his first, novel.

The 1798 rebellion, like much of Irish history, is enveloped in the mists of collective memory and is usually evoked as an event far more cogent and straightforwardly noble than it actually was. From a modern perspective, it seems like an easy choice to make between the two principles: an avowedly non-sectarian Republican movement founded on Enlightenment ideals versus a foetid, decrepit oligarchy given free rein to rule at whim by a reactionary crown in London. Many of us - myself included - would naturally choose the former party though in doing so one runs the risk of extricating the event from its historical context. Flanagan's great achievement is to flesh out that contemporary world of the rebellion and to people it with characters with credible (if sometimes venal) concerns and motives. His narrative is a masterpiece of dialectical story-telling; though his sympathies are clearly with the rebels, there are few outright villains to be found on the side of either the loyalists (many of them Catholic) or the British. Flanagan is a believer of Jean Renoir's adage that 'every villain has his reasons'.

The novel makes use of a polyphonic narrative, much like a 19th-century novel, using multiple narrators, some in the first and some in the third person. The main character is the poet-schoolmaster MacCarthaigh, emblematic of the old Gaelic world that is about to die out, no matter how the Rebellion might fare. He wavers between idealism and cynicism, trusting neither the United Irishman leading the rebellion nor the French prosecuting the military expedition, reserving his chief concern for the wretched Irish peasants, his own people. There is also the narrative of Malcolm Elliott, a Mayo solicitor and landowner and United Irishman, who leads the insurgency in Mayo (the scene of the French landings and the start of the latter part of the rebellion); that of Arthur Broome, the humane Protestant minister of Killala; some exhilarating passages involving Wolfe Tone in Revolutionary Paris cajoling the Directory and Bonaparte into sending troops to help the Irish, and other narratives from the British perspective, many of them laced with a mixture of paternal condescension for and disbelieving resignation at the status and behaviour of the Irish peasantry and their aristocratic overlords. There is much in their narrative that many Irish nationalists will recoil at and denounce (quite rightly) as racism but Flanagan never allows his convictions to cloud his cool command of the narrative.

Flanagan's style (or styles, as they change as the narrators do) is elegant but never ostentatious and he has a meticulous eye for detail - both social and historical - that is indispensible in the historical novel. The build-up to the Rebel's ultimate routing at Ballinamuck is masterfully rendered as is the chilling retribution meted out to the Irish peasants by the British afterwards (30,000 summarily executed) which, as Seámus Deane, in the introduction, points out, made the French Revolutionary Terror seem a cake-walk in comparison. But the novel is also thick with the air of tension between the peasantry and the Protestant Irish, bearing in mind that the rebellion spiralled out of control in places, such as Vinegar Hill in Wexford, where the local Protestants were massacred in a horrific sectarian attack. Given the animosity harboured by each for one another, it is remarkable how the rebellion, and later Irish history, avoided a level of savagery that marked many other ethnic disputes throughout 19th- and 20th-century Europe. Often the remarks of the Protestant gentry and their English backers regarding the Irish carry the echo of the pronouncements of many contemporary Israelis about the Palestinian people; there is a willingness to be generous tempered by both a deep mistrust and a failure of introspection.

The rebellion of course failed, having been badly-organised from the start (though the failure of Hoche's 15,000 men to land at Bantry two years earlier was a crucial setback) and its leaders executed, leading to the abolition of the Irish Parliament and the Act of Union, and a century that was as tragic for the Irish as the previous one, though one which ended on a hopeful note, following the Land Wars and the Irish Cultural Renaissance. It is hard to guess how different things might have been had the United Irishmen succeeded in imposing their Revolution. After the fall of Bonaparte at Waterloo, the British would probably have moved back in, for the industrial jewel of Belfast, if for nothing else. Ireland may have become more economically-self-sufficient sooner though it is unlikely that the peasantry would have fared much better and the Irish language certainly would not have survived the United men's 'civilising' drive any more than it did the one that the British later implemented. The ideals of the United Irishmen were admirable though this is no guarantee that they would have informed the state of Ireland that followed; both the 1916 proclamation and the (original, unamended) Irish Constitution were admirable progressive documents that failed to have much effect on the society that followed them. But 1798 was nonetheless crucial in sowing the seeds of Republicanism in Ireland without which modern Ireland would undoubtedly not exist. That a group of men in a small, underdeveloped country in Europe at the time could be so audacious and far-sighted to follow the examples of the US and France and attempt to force change was a remarkable thing.

The streets in the towns of Mayo and Sligo - where much of the rebellion took place, bear the names these days of Wolfe Tone, Teeling - the Belfastman who was a General in the French Revolutionary Army - and Humbert, the French General who led the expedition and whose name has been hardened into English - as it would later be in Nabokov's Lolita - in towns such as Tubbercurry. Flanagan's novel is one of the greatest of all Irish novels of the 20th century - it is, to all intents and purposes an Irish novels - and deserves a new, wider audience.

Monday, May 28, 2007

More Fillums from Cannes

Every year at Cannes there are films that divide - sometimes they are winners of the Palme d'Or, such as Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (though the objections to Moore's Palme d'Or were mainly political). This year such films appear to be Andrei Zviagintsev's The Banishment, for which Konstantin Lavronenko won the Best Actor prize and Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, which shared the Jury Prize. Zviagintsev's previous film, The Return, won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2003 and was a superb, tightly-marshalled tale of the mysterious return after years away of a brooding, sadistic father and its effects on his two sons. The Banishment, however resulted in huge walk-outs among critics; such a divisive film can only be worth seeing. Reygadas' last two films Japón and Batalla en el cielo similarly provoked mixed reactions, not least because of their graphic sex scenes and the extreme violence of the latter. I liked both films, with some reservations, and his latest, a slow, difficult examination of Mennonite farmers in Northern Mexico, looks like it might appeal to me too.

Many critics have spoken of the general quality of films being higher than usual, and one would expect it to be better than last year, which returned very few memorable movies. Gus Van Sant received a special prize for his latest film Paranoid Park and the Grand Prix - the runner-up prize that has been scornfully received over the years by many people such as Krysztof Kieslowski, Von Trier and Michael Haneke - went to Japanese director Naomi Kawase, whose films have been enjoying critical acclaim in France for a number of years but is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. There was also a warm welcome for Garage, the latest collaboration between Lenny Abrahamson and Mark O'Halloran, following the wonderful Adam & Paul. A bleak tale set in the West of Ireland, it stars Pat Short in an unusually straight role, for which he has got good reviews. Short's latest show Killinascully is hugely successful but, from what I hear, dire stuff but it is worth remembering the glory days of d'Unbelievables and his and John Kenny's turns in Father Ted. It is top-class culchie humour, a note-perfect portrayal of the language and mannerisms of small-town Ireland. Like much of the best Irish comedy, it probably wouldn't travel very well. But enjoy it all the same. 'You might as well make tay for them'. Classic.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Cannes Do

I had planned to post on the Cannes Film Festival earlier on but an overloaded hard-drive took its toll on the speed at which I was able to type what was turning out to be a lengthy post. Having cleared up a huge amount of space by getting rid of back-ups that I already had elsewhere, I'm back on the case. However by now the results are known. A film that had been tipped by many to win took the Palme d'Or, it was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu's bleak drama about backstreet abortions in Ceaucescu's Romania. After the honours bestowed on Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu, this is the third year in a row that Romanian films have taken a major Cannes prize. Considering that the country's cinema was scarcely known in Western Europe until a couple of years ago and also considering the relative poverty of the country, this development is nothing short of amazing. It is a film I look forward to seeing when it gets released here.

Painter-cum-filmmaker Julian Schnabel took the Best Director prize for his moving adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir Le Scaphandre et le papillon, which I saw on Friday night. And Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis, which I have written about on a number of occasions on this blog, shared the Jury Prize with Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light. Here's a taster of the film, which is being released over here next month. It's in French but it's going to be released in an English-language version too. Looks good. And it pisses off the fools running the Islamic Republic too. More on Cannes tomorrow.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Times They Ain't a'Changin'

No in-depth analysis of the election results here, I will leave that to others and, in any case, the outcome has left me a bit too weary to do so. In years gone by I would probably have spat fire and declared myself to be disgusted at Fianna Fáil edging closer to an overall majority and Fine Gael approaching fifty seats at the expense of smaller, left-wing parties but I am rather sanguine about the choice made by the Irish people to maintain the status quo (or, perhaps more accurately, to return us to the status quo of an earlier age). The economy, so far, is still buoyant and there is no sense of panic among the electorate; that much was known before the election. As for Fianna Fáil and Bertie Ahern being punished for their blatant corruption, that was never going to happen at the ballot box, as it has never been something that has exercised the concerns of Irish voters too much. I remember my uncle at the time of the 1989 election, complaining that it 'said a lot about this country that blackguards like Seán Doherty and John Ellis coast to re-election while decent people like Ted Nealon struggle to get returned'. Ireland is far from being the only country in the galaxy where that is the case however - one need only look at the selection of convicted crook Alain Juppé in Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet for proof of this. There may come a time when the flagrant abuse of public office by Irish politicians will be effectively tried in court but it will never happen on election day.

The real opportunity missed is for a more civic-minded governance that might have eventually got the country's infrastructural shambles sorted out, the health service upgraded to something resembling that of a civilised country, and faced down powerful interest groups such as the publicans, the builders and the auctioneers. But we all know what party takes care of them. Socially-progressive legislation from Fianna Fáil is most likely going to take the form of the (admittedly admirable) tax on plastic bags. They might even surprise us and fob us off with gay marriages and stronger civil unions for all, but it won't go much beyond that.

Though I've never voted either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in my life, I grew up in a place where people seldom voted anything but either, and Ballymote returned for the first time in history two TDs - one Fine Gael, the sitting TD John Perry (himself a disgruntled renegade from FF a long time ago) and the other, the former Senator Eamonn Scanlon, of Fianna Fáil. I know both men (or certainly knew them better when I was growing up) and I am not so bolshy that I can't wish them both well. In a clientelist system like Ireland's, ideals, or even ideology, count for very little, and I am man enough to accept that, as I am to accept that the depressing prospect of a Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition (five years of which will only damage Labour) is very much alive.

Ideology (or a naïve belief in it) did for the Progressive Democrats, who have experienced a sore encounter with the face-cloth of history. The party's appeal has shrivelled to less than 3% of voters, and their relevance is now in question - after all, who needs a free-marketeer fringe party in a booming economy where nobody calls into question the primacy of the market? To the best of my knowledge Michael McDowell has become the first party leader (or major party leader, at least) in history to lose his seat (Dick Spring came very close back in 1987). I am not claiming any unique insight here as it was a view held by many but this is how I assessed McDowell's election as PD leader last September. McDowell's retirement from public life is one of the few cheering things about this election but it is really only a battle won in an otherwise devastating war. Sad to see Joe Higgins, the Kerry Marxist who was hand-over-fist the most brilliant debater in the Dáil, lose his seat; as Donagh of Dublin Opinion says, Leinster House will be a duller place without Higgins and the keen sarcasm of the Ranelagh Rottweiller.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Equal of Ecuador

A bit on football: the Champions' League final was a disappointment though I imagine that the majority of finals in this competition have been such - they certainly were when I was growing up. Fillipo Inzaghi's first goal was dubious in my view, as it clearly went in off his arm, which when moving propelled the ball in the direction it took. It may not have been intentional but an advantage was gained. The Herald Tribune's news report claimed that the ball struck Inzaghi 'above the left-ear', which reminds me of the apartheid-era police claiming that deaths in custody were due to the prisoner throwing himself out of a window. That Liverpool did not protest much says a lot about their professionalism, even if they failed to produce much that could trouble Milan. A much greater injustice was caused by the organisers' incompetence, which caused Liverpool fans without tickets to be denies entry while some with forgeries got in; UEFA's response was to blame Liverpool fans 'collectively' for the incident. It's the sort of disingenuous idiocy that we have all come to expect from football administrative bodies.

Meanwhile over in a near-empty Giants Stadium in New Jersey, a bunch of callow youths in green shirts (and Kevin Kilbane) drew 1-1 with Ecuador, a supposedly spectacular diving header from Kevin Doyle securing the draw. Stan sent out eleven lads on international duty for the first time, including Joe Gamble of Cork City and Joe Lapira, the American-born star of Notre Dame 'Men's Soccer Team'. Lapira is the son of a Dublin mother and is the first amateur player to play for Ireland since 1964. His uncle works at the FAI, and everyone knows that it pays to be be cosy with Merrion Square if you want to wear the green. There were no fewer than four Corkonians used, as well as a few more that have passed through Turner's Cross; Liam Miller was also recalled for the tour, so Roy's gripe about the blazers' beef with Leesiders is looking increasingly strange. A good result but with the Duffer out for the rest of the campaign things are not going to be easy.

Celtic, having stumbled to their second title in a row, face Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup final tomorrow and I have to say that I will not be too tearful if the relegated Pars upset the odds to win their first Cup in forty years. A bit unnatural to wish your own team ill but Dunfermline deserve something after an excellent run, which has seen them eliminate Rangers, Hearts and Hibs. Stephen Kenny's first season in charge disappointingly failed in that they went down but he has fulfilled the potential he showed at Derry. Whichever side wins I'll be happy. Celtic need to recover some of their hunger before next season.

PR Success

The joys of Proportional Representation; one of the great things about the Irish electoral system is PR. I could say this is so because of the lofty principle of comprehensive democratic representation being guaranteed, with smaller parties having the chance of parliamentary participation, providing a check on political monopolies (though it must be pointed out that Ireland does not suffer from the far-right whose political successes led to the end of PR in France). But the real reason for liking PR is because it livens up the election, stretching it out for a couple of days (unlike in France and Britain where the results are known almost as soon as the polling booths close), and sometimes weeks, as in the titanic struggle between John Gormley and Michael McDowell in 1997, one of the few cheerful results in that election. To spice up an election where a right-wing-dominated government is always guaranteed is no small mercy. And then there are all those labyrinthine statistical permutations that tell their own tales, many tales in fact. Sad, I know, but politics is not interesting per se is it?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

About Tomorrow

A heavy workload today and the Champions' League final will probably prevent me doing a last post on tomorrow's election, so I will simply say that I am hoping for a change of government. No real surprise there - if I were able to vote, it would be going, as it did last time, to my fellow Sligo-man Joe Costello of Labour, running in Dublin Central, with transfers going to the Greens and left-wing independents. As you can see, I don't view Irish politics along the old Civil War divide (though neither, really, do the two right-wing parties that that divide produced).

A feature of this election campaign has been the absence of any substantial economic policies being floated, probably because nobody sees it wise to tamper with the feelgood factor that the prosperous years has produced. It's not the economy, stupid. But there is much discontent in the country also, on the insane price of housing, about the fourth-rate healthcare system, serious flaws in education (ones that have failed to be ameliorated since long before we became rich) and, the pathetically low quality of life available to most people in such a well-off country. One might also add the perennial stench of corruption, most of it emanating from the Soldiers of Destiny, but it appears the Plain People of Ireland are not overly concerned with that. It's a smell they can live with.

The last opinion polls I saw suggested that the two possible coalitions are neck-and-neck, though the Greens were not factored into a Rainbow one. So there is a good chance that there will be a change of government. Ideally it would be a wholesale change but I am sure that Labour, just as in 1992, will ditch their pre-election stance and enter coalition with Fianna Fáil, if need be. It would be hard to stomach but one can at least hope they will put manners on the bastards. The two coalition governments Labour were involved in in the 1990s produced enlightened social legislation that dragged Ireland kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Kicking and screaming indeed as they suffered huge losses at the 1997 election, accused of being arrogant. Electorates anywhere in the world are rarely rational, and Ireland is no different. The most cheering possibility is the likelihood that the lunatic fringe of the PDs will be consigned to history - never before has a party of 2% support held such a disproportionate influence in government. Michael McDowell has been led a merry dance by Ahern and Co. since he assumed the leadership last year, proving himself to be as inept a political dealer as he is a shameless opportunist. After the election he may have very few comrades to provide him with doughnuting services in the new Dáil.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Marjane Satrapi and the Cartoon Characters That Run Iran

I'll write more on the Cannes Film Festival later in the week (though as I am not down there, there won't be a great deal to write about) but here's a brief note about the Iranian government protesting at the presence of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis in competition: the Mullahs bleat that the film gives 'an unreal presentation of the consequences and successes of the Islamic Revolution'. Those leftists and nationalists that perished in the Islamist reign of terror in the years following the Revolution that they themselves helped bring about would beg to differ.

Tehran also claims that the festival is committing an 'anti-cultural' and politically-motivated act in showing the film, which is laughable given the Iranian Islamists' blanket censorship of thousands of films, including many of those by Iran's finest filmmakers. Thankfully Iran is not as influential as China and able to bully distributors and festivals abroad into deselecting dissident films, and what Tehran really fears is the more positive attitude towards ordinary Iranians and Iranian culture that the film will foster, thereby removing the country's bogeyman status, in turn depriving them of their own raison d'être. That Satrapi, being a good Persian leftist, has no time for Bush and the Washington neocons' plans to bomb her homeland is, of course, irrelevant to them.

Non-Stop Stopping at Shannon

A Dublin friend of mine, who is also a former resident of Paris, was over here for the weekend; he has been a tireless campaigner (along with many others) against US Military flights into Shannon for the past four years and he is currently engaged on a quixotic task to get electoral candidates to commit to a resolution that will ultimately apply the law of the land and put an end to the illegal stopovers. There have been a few takers, such as Michael D. Higgins, who has drafted his own statement on the matter, while Ciarán Cuffe weighed in with the wryly-worded 'we hope to be opposed to the stopovers'. The flights are clearly not an election issue - and there is no real reason (other than a moral one) why they should be as elections in any country are rarely fought on matters of foreign policy. I have tried explaining this to American expats living in Paris over the scant reference to such a thing in the French Presidential campaign.

More worrying however is the likelihood that the issue of the Shannon stopovers will be sidelined in an eventual coalition government, which is more than likely going to involve Labour, and possibly the Greens too. I cannot see Labour - no matter how strongly individual TDs feel about the Shannon stopovers - exhausting their policy trump card on a matter that the majority of Irish people have but a passing interest in. I would like to believe otherwise but this is the way it is probably going to be, and I can't say either that I would entirely blame Labour for such a stance. Instead I imagine that the world will watch as the Americans pull out of Iraq and in the wake of the Septics' reintegration into the less clamorous world, the issue of the Shannon stopovers will be quietly put to rest. That's politics for you, to paraphrase a former Taoiseach.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

David Lynch at the Fondation Cartier

A brief word on the David Lynch exhibition 'The Air is on Fire' at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The show is a collection of Lynch's extra-curricular production over the last forty years (he has been going that long), consisting of paintings, sketches, photographs, short films, animation and even some music. Though there are many people that see the show as an artistic endeavour in its own right, the work is held together only by reference to his films, and the show reciprocates this by casting some fascinating light on them. The tone is also too jokey to take the intent too seriously, particularly when Lynch avows a fierce taxonomy one moment (his sketches, many of which are self-consciously done on napkins, post-it notes and airline sick bags, are displayed in the order of the way they are collected in his personal binder) and does the opposite the next (his impressive photographs are displayed, undated, as he requests).

There is also the McGuffinesque series of animated films, Dumbland that is sharply at odds with the usual cerebral menace of a Lynch film. His tableaux, heavy on impasto and innocents abroad in a fearsome world, are reminiscent of Max Ernst and Leon Golub, and are the clearest points of reference for the films. As if a point of reference would ever be that clear in the Lynchian world. Even if the opacity of the installation - which has been remarked by many - is really only generated by Lynch's playfulness, the exhibition remains an enigma. You don't leave it thinking that Lynch should be considered either a painter or a photographer to rival his stature as a filmmaker but it is instructive nonetheless. Incidentally I also spotted Stephen Merchant of The Office and Extras there, not near as tall as the Og-monster and seeming to be half-weary, half-hopeful of being recognised in Paris.

If You Can Keep Your Head While All About You Are Losing the Plot...

Last week I read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, the last novel but one of the remarkably prolific American writer. The imagined tale of an isolationist Charles Lindbergh presidency, surreptitiously commanded by the Nazis in order to prevent the Americans from opposing their march to power in Europe, the novel is, like much of Roth's recent work, a meticulous and carefully-reasoned portrayal of mid-century American society, as seen through the eyes of a Roth alter ego (in this case his fictional nine-year-old self). There was much potential for hysterical hypothesis in the story, given the unanimity of contemporary opinion on Nazism and its threat to Western civilisation. Roth however restores the danger to its proper context, and also the complaisance of so many people (many of them decent folk) in the democratic world towards the barbarity of fascism. In a Newark community where most people (including many prominent Jews) take Lindbergh at his word regarding his intentions when he tempers his anti-semitism as soon as he gets into power, the heroes are Roth's parents, his excitable and belligerent father Herman and his world-weary mother Bess, who aren't fooled. The narrative is a masterly depiction of a few people's principled and prescient stand in the face of what they only see as the madness of others. This in itself is an achievement on Roth's part but what makes the novel even better is the way that he laces the tale with the doubt that perhaps it is only paranoia and angst at the Jews' historical persecution that makes the Roth family imagine that they could be at risk in the freest country on earth. The way in which their freedoms are gradually chipped away at - in a very 'reasonable' way - via the 'Office for American Absorption', a tool for dividing Jewish families by targeting their impressionable young is chilling as well as entirely believable.

Roth knows the dangers of precedent in any form of civic persecution and the ghost of Guantanamo and the reminders of the Bush administration that 'we are living in a different world since 9/11' haunt the book. Similarly, though I refrain from making any wild comparisons between the fascist Lindbergh and the recently-elected French president, there is a disturbing echo of the 'Office of American Absorption' in Sarkozy's newly-established 'Ministry of Identity and Integration', as there is of the institutions of Vichy France.

British Vegetarians Free to Eat Shit Food Again

The company that so charmingly calls itself 'Masterfoods' has announced that it is to return to making vegetarian-friendly chocolate bars, following outcries from British vegetarians and, I kid you not, forty MPs that signed a petition calling on Mars bars to be reunited with the UK's lettuce munchers.

I was, for eight years in my youth, a vegetarian, until I copped on in my mid-twenties and with a renewed sense of adventure started trying anything that was put in front of me. So I know all about rennet, gelatine, finings and all those other hidden animal by-products that provide pitfalls for the diligent vegetarian (though I think many of them relish the challenge of examining the small-print on the packaging every time they shop, just as the more puritanical of religious folk rejoice in the existence of the world's carnal pleasures for giving them something to rail against). It is this culinary puritanism that is the most unpleasant and depressing thing about vegetarianism, people who avoid eating meat are depriving themselves of culture, while at the same time giving themselves a nice, uncostly, consumer-driven political cause to espouse. Vegetarians who claim to love food are like those people that call themselves film buffs but can't bring themselves to watch a black and white film.

I know that there are many vegetarians that do qualify, at least in a partial sense, as gourmands, and my own years of vegetarianism introduced me to a range of fruit and vegetables that, as an Irish male, I would probably have otherwise avoided with a forty-foot pole, but such vegetarians are very much in the minority. Why else is there a thriving trade in frozen and processed food that comes emblazoned with the imprimatur of the Vegetarian Society? Veggies getting hot and bothered about not being able to eat Mars bars or Snickers is further proof of this; if you can cut meat, fish and poultry out of your diet with an unstintingly pedantic application of your 'ideals' should it not be too difficult to avoid eating industrially-produced chocolate, that given the scant amount of cocoa solids contained therein, barely merits the word 'chocolate' anyway? Real foodies eat meat and vegetables. Live a little folks. The only good reasons for abstaining from any type of food or drink are ones of health. Vegetarianism is not one of them.

Friday, May 18, 2007

No Parachute

Arno Klarsfeld, friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, telegenic lawyer, enthusiastic Israeli Defence Force checkpoint official (not to mention son of renowned Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who brought Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon, among others, to justice) has been parachuted into the 12th arrondissement constituency in the east of Paris (for centuries a left-wing stronghold) as a UMP candidate for next month's parliamentary elections. Arno lives in the 8th arrondissement, the opposite side of the city and a world away from the slightly more ethnically and culturally diverse 12th. Nonetheless he objects to the use of the word 'parachute'; he tells Le Parisien that he 'passed through the 12th when [he] ran the Paris marathon' and that 'he lives in the 8th, it's not that far away.' With deadpan copy like this, newspapers are soon going to have to strategically place emoticons to avoid any ambiguity. Arno is also a supporter of George W. Bush (which even Sarkozy shies away from admitting to) and has accused the Palestinians of being responsible for some of the Nazis' victims because of their unreasonable reaction to being colonised without their consent in the 1930s. Hopefully the voters of the 12th will show this liar and distortionist of history the door on June the 10th and tell him to in future go search for his votes in the friendlier climes of the 8th.

Just Like in Real Life

I'm not a fan of the International Herald Tribune but occasionally it does provide a bumper issue within its very thin pages and today's is one of those. We learn of the first rail crossing between North and South Korea since the end of the Korean war fifty-four years ago and the campaign of harrassment and vilification conducted by Hindu fundamentalists against an Indian Muslim artist (it is strange how the Western media, so given to the word 'Islamofascism', has yet to start using 'Hindufascism' even though fanatics allied to the former ruling BJP have been long engaged in undemocratic activities against everyone from Muslims in Gujurat to filmmaker Deepa Mehta to Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty, but I suppose the Western conception of all Hindus as peaceful cow-loving Gandhi-followers precludes such a stance). Best of all is the story from a correspondent in the Czech Republic about Cimrman, a fictitious Czech character born in the 1960s as a satirical prop against the Stalinist dictatorship, and who has since inspired fourteen plays written "on his behalf", given his name to an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is soon to be immortalised in the name of a mountain in Russia. Cimrman is a product of a Central and Eastern European imagination that champions the little man that has produced the majestic oeuvre of Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivo Andric and countless others and which has recently been reincarnated in the superb Romanian films The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12.08, East of Bucharest. The discovery of this fantastic character, so dear to Czechs and an irrepressible resistant against tyranny made my day in a way that few other things have recently. Three cheers for the Czechs.

The closest thing we have to Cimrman in the English-speaking world is Matt Groëning's peerless creation The Simpsons, which celebrates its 400th episode this week. I have long suspected that this most brilliant of TV shows is underappreciated and, most likely, wildly misunderstood in its homeland, and this piece in The Nation confirms this. The liberal scribe muses about the series: "[it's] terribly animated (at least by Pixar or Dreamworks standards), unabashedly crude and, at times, prone to deus ex machina endings". To say that The Simpsons is 'terribly animated by Pixar or Dreamworks standards' is akin to saying that Picasso's 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' was a bit badly drawn compared to John Singer Sargent's draughtsmanship, but middle-brows will be middle-brows. As an example of The Simpson's brilliance, here's a wee taste of one of the greatest episodes. Watch it all; it's funny because it's true...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

More From Sarko and Friends

Seanachie's old friend Nicolas Sarkozy takes the reins of the Fifth Republic today and has continued in his conciliatory mode by naming Socialist and founder of Médecins sans frontières Bernard Kouchner as Minister for Foreign Affairs, something that is not as shocking as it sounds, given that Kouchner had called for a pre-election pact between the Socialists and François Bayrou's UDF before the election and Kouchner has also supported the war in Iraq, one of the few high-profile French politicians to have done so. Many of Kouchner's former comrades have reacted with derision to his acceptance of a post from a political opposite such as Sarkozy: his MSF co-founder Rony Brauman snorted that 'we have all known for a long time that Kouchner has dreamt of being Minister for Foreign Affairs'. But we have all known too that the two men have not seen eye to eye for a long time. It appears that Kouchner is too much of an Atlanticist for the tastes of many on the French Left but this may be part of a tacit deal with the Left on Sarkozy's part: he will temper his pro-Americanism by using one of theirs in the Quai d'Orsay and he will be free to implement his own domestic policy, which is likely to be of more lasting significance.

There is a further controversy involving Sarko and his friends too. It is well known that his wife Cécilia despises him (what the dogs on the French street don't know isn't worth knowing, as Steve Staunton might say) and she surprisingly reappeared after a few month's absence at the post-election party, albeit looking about as happy to be there as Ian Paisley at the All-Ireland final. Sarkozy's mate Arnaud Lagardère, heir to the Lagardère group - one of France's biggest media groups - had previously sacked Paris Match editor Alain Genestar for publishing photographs of Cécilia with Richard Attias, the man she was cuckolding the new pint-sized President with. Sarkozy's buddy pitched in again this weekend by censoring a report in Le Journal du dimanche which revealed that Sarkozy's nearest and dearest couldn't move herself to vote in the second round of the Presidential elections. No love lost there. But you'll always have your friends, Nico.

A Week Off

Back after six days away, and it was a pleasant break to get away from both the blog and the Web in general for a while. Seville is a beautiful, pleasant city though competing commitments prevented me from seeing as much of it as I would have liked. I expect to be going back again soon enough though. In my absence the Premiership (or, the Premier League, as it was rebaptised at the weekend) finished; Ireland finished last in the Eurovision, proving that John Waters' talents are not limitless; Sligo Rovers hammered Cork City 4-1, a team they have failed to beat for a great many years and a Fianna Fáil councillor has blamed the arrogance of his party's ministers on a complacent opposition. Irish politicians shy of pointing the finger? Plenty to write about...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sarkozy and the Leisure Class

Time for one quick post on the way out the door; this one was far too juicy for me to resist. Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who will fulfill his destiny later this week and become the sixth President of the Fifth Republic, is in the news in France for having spent a few days off in Malta on the luxury yacht of loadsamoney friend Vincent Bolloré. The French press - particularly on the left - have been making much of the arrogance of Sarkozy for lazing about so flagrantly after urging the French nation to work harder all through his Presidential campaign. Call me an old Northern European fuddy-duddy but I would rather see it as a case of a man ready to be influenced by his rich friends (and Sarkozy, in defending himself, has said that M. Bolloré is 'one France's great industrialists, the pride of the French economy'). It is not, as some people have alleged, a tendency to the Berlusconian but a more squalid, mundane one to the Blairesque, Blair of course having been long attracted by the filthy lucre of the former Italian Prime Minister. Sarkozy is to meet Blair this week for what one can only imagine is going to be a workshop on vulgar displays of chasing new money.

Most gallingly of all, M. Bolloré has said that it is a tradition in his family to entertain dignatories of the French political world, including former Popular Front Prime Minister Léon Blum, though Blum's family have flatly denied this. Sarko sent many on the left apoplectic during the campaign by evoking Blum and another hero of the progressive Left Jean Jaurès and it now seems clear that the orgy of lying and chicanery has begun in earnest. If Sarkozy is this foolish already, his fall may come a lot sooner than we all expect. BTW, the Libé front cover headline 'Boat people' is priceless.

"Try the Carriage Office!"

Things I've lost over the years:

  • One brown corduroy jacket, lost in the Castlemore 'Night Club', Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, early 90s.
  • One Filofax, on the Dublin-Sligo train, c.2000
  • Three mobile phones, the second of which was lost twice and returned to me twice, all in the back of taxis, various times.
  • One wallet, replete with credit cards and various forms of ID. In the back of a Parisian cab after having shared a joint with a dodgy cab driver, April 2003.
  • One copy of Broken April by Ismail Kadare, in a café in Bastille, September 2000 (since repurchased and read).
  • One copy of All the Names by José Saramago, somewhere on Parliament Street, Dublin, March 2001. Promptly repurchased and read.
  • One copy of The Book of Evidence by John Banville, in a phone box at St-Germain-des-Près, early 2003. Since borrowed and read.
  • One record bag (recovered), containing the following
  • One pocket Paris Pratique (street map) deluxe edition (unrecovered)
  • One Moleskine notebook, the written pages of which were ripped out and posted to me, the rest of the notebook being unrecovered.
  • One copy of In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (unrecovered, still unfinished)
  • One set of keys to my old place in Dublin (recovered)
  • One brown zippy-up top (recovered). All the above lost on Metro line 1, September 2005
  • Two more Moleskine notebooks, one on a Ryanair Dublin-Paris flight, January 2005, one lost three times, twice in cinemas, once in the Bernard Shaw pub, South Richmond Street, Dublin, recovered each time, December 2006-January 2007
  • Two other notebooks, one lost in the back of a taxi, Dublin, July 2001, one lost in Bar du Marché, rue du Buci, Paris, January 2003
  • One copy of Ways of Seeing by John Berger, in the back of a taxi, Dublin, July 2001 (see 'other notebook' above)
  • One Irish passport, new biometric series, the Bernard Shaw pub, December 2006 (see 'Moleskine notebooks' above). Since recovered by helpful bar staff, too late alas.
  • One black turtleneck with red Japanese-style motif on front, the Lizard Lounge, Paris, October 2004 (football weekend)
  • One Colibri ball-point pen (value €50), probably stolen by bourgeois student brat, the Coolín, St-Germain-des-Près, early 2005
  • One copy of Nip the Buds and Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oë (since borrowed and read), somewhere in Dublin, early 2003
  • One CD copy of 'American Recordings: Volume IV' by Johnny Cash, somewhere in Dublin, June 2003
Next week, all those CDs and books I've lent to people and not got back. Name and shame. Until then there'll be no more posting from me. Off to Seville for the brother's wedding so the iBook's staying at home. Have a good weekend all.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Out With the Old, In With the...Old

Someone brought to it my attention last night that Nicolas Sarkozy is teetotal, meaning that he does not partake of France's celebrated wines; as this friend of mine said, a sizeable proportion of his electorate might have been turned off by this had it been better known. But seeing as Sarkozy has managed to cast himself as an outsider despite hailing from an aristocratic background (not quite your average immigrants, the Sarkozys), growing up in Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the wealthiest cities in France and being part of no less than five governments, M. le Président probably would have carried this handicap quite well.

The breakdown in the vote for both Sarko and Royal is interesting, and is detailed by both Libération and John Lichfield in the Independent. While many of the findings are not too surprising, especially those concerning the social backgrounds of the voters - the young, a majority of working class voters and public sector employees for Royal; small businessmen, shopkeepers and private sector workers for Sarkozy - it is intriguing to note that Royal quite easily won the election among the electorate aged 59 or less. A colossal 70% of voters over the age of 60 voted for Sarkozy, which makes one realise that those most enthusiastic for the candidate of change who is likely to at least partially dismantle the French welfare state, are those that have benefited most from the old sclerotic system. Their pensions are in the bag, no need to worry, now France can move forward. I have questioned before Sarkozy's real will to implement the sort of economic change that many of his supporters imagine is going to be summoned as if with a magic wand, and there is an excellent piece from the New York Times, published before the election, about the unlikeliness of it happening too quickly. And unlike many Anglo-Saxon opinion pieces on France, this one is well-informed and devoid of condescension and contempt for the country.

Pioneers of the Total Absenteeism Association

Unlike many of his contemporaries back on the old sod, Seanachie has managed to bravely sustain the age-old Irish tradition of impecuniosity, and has thus missed out on the opportunity to become an absentee landlord, a position in society that has scarcely being so popular in Ireland as it is these days. It is therefore with some amusement that I witnessed the collapse of the Spanish property market last month, causing much grief among the Irish landlord class. A story in today's New York Times tells of the new wave of Irish investors attracted to New York by a weak dollar and the possibility of high rental returns. A dream for the Irish boy-come-good. The story ends on a dissenting note though, courtesy of Real Estate agent William Fegan (probably one of our own with a name like that) who said that

he feared that many Irish buyers were too focused on the potential rental income and not enough on all of the other costs of owning an apartment in New York.

“For the life of me I haven’t been able to figure it out,” Mr. Fegan said. “If I was to advise them, I’d probably tell them not to do it. Carrying an apartment in New York City is an expensive proposition.”

Irish people focussing only on a quick buck and not on long-term costs? Who would have thought it possible?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ghosts of Paris

In an attempt to take my mind off the elections I decided to take advantage of the free admission to Paris museums usually available on the first Sunday of every month. But not all museums subscribe to this offer, including the Bibliothèque Nationale at its old site on rue Richelieu, where I went to see a retrospective of the photography of Eugène Atget, the first great photographic chronicler of Paris. The exhibition celebrates the 150th anniversary of Atget's birth and is an impressive show, encompassing some 350 prints, many of which were sold directly to the BNF by Atget himself in the years either side of the turn of the century.

Atget was a superb photographer, an unwitting forerunner of both the surrealists and much 20th-centuty urban photography, producing phenomenal work despite many technical limitations that his descendents did not face. Though he was a former art student he had no grand conception of himself as an artist, operating primarily as a shrewd upmarket commercial photographer with well-chosen clients, such as the BNF and the Musée Carnavelet - the city of Paris' museum. He worked to pre-established themes, possibly the first photographer to do so, and he had a particular penchant for le vieux Paris, which was beginning to recede in significance and visibility due to the Haussmanian overhaul of the city. Interests of his included the city's old mansions - the hôtels of the Marais, the warrens of courtyards on both banks of the Seine and the gens aux petits métiers, the pedlars and chimney sweeps that eked out a precarious existence on the city's streets. There are many tropes and interests that were to become standards (and later clichés - it is strange that in French, cliché has both that meaning and 'shot', as in a photograph) of urban photography: photographs of statuary, of empty staircases that seem to lead nowhere (later to become vital motifs in the works of Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz) and also of the downtrodden folk of the urban landscape.

Another thing that makes Atget's work particularly fascinating is the ghostly quality of the photography, something that endeared him to André Breton and the other surrealists, which was engendered primarily by technical exigency. The photographs are mostly sepia-tinted (he began to print in black and white towards the end of his life) and the lack of fast lenses at the time necessitated long exposure times which resulted in the spectral half-corporeality of many of the subjects, as in the example above 'Rue des Nonnains-d'Hyères', dated 1900. The need to shoot in bright daylight also bestows a ghostly lustre on his work.

It might be said that Atget was an accidental artist because of this, but such is the case of many artists in nascent art forms - particularly photography and its close contemporary, the cinema - and, more importantly, photography has always been and continues to be a synthesis of accident and artifice, something that goes for fashion photography and the staged tableaux of Jeff Wall as much as for more obviously kinetic artists such as Walker Evans, Weegee and Robert Capa.

For someone that knows Paris well (and such a person is still far from really knowing Paris) Atget's work is intriguing because of the brief snatches it offers of a vaguely familiar city - a landscape is given meaning by the outcropping of the columns of a local church or the familiar ornamental stonework of a old town house. It is a veritable jigsaw puzzle, out of which the city, its history and its ghosts can be reassembled and attempted to be understood. I found a similar thing in an engaging film I saw the night before, Emmanuelle Cuau's dark comedy Très bien, merci, which plays about with the Parisian cityscape - no doubt for reasons of budget - expecting us to believe that the Métro station that Gilbert Melki's beleagured accountant gets off at to go to work (Porte des Lilas) is close to his actual workplace (beside the Bibliothèque François Mitterand - the opposite side of the city). Though Cuau's shuffling of the urban topography is duplicitous, its disorienting effect is suited to the film's lean sense of 'rational paranoia'. Another good accompaniment to both Atget and this film is Andrew Hussey's enthralling Paris - A Secret History, which I am currently reading and which is a mine of fascinating information on the depraved, dissolute and glorious history of this wonderful city.

The Hangover

Most people I know are rather down today but none have threatened to leave the country; speaking for myself there is an irony in the fact that I will live in France under Sarkozy rather than in Ireland under a possible non-Fianna Fáil-PD government - it reminds me of what Beckett said about preferring to live in France at war than in Ireland at peace. Le p'tit Nicolas said last night that he represents all French people (no reference of course to the millions of non-native French living and working here) and he has called upon all of France to unite behind him. Nico of course knows that this is bullshit and he now has the historical ignominy of being a President of the Republic who cannot travel to many parts of the national territory without 'packing heat' as they used to say in the old hard-boiled films noirs. As with his counterpart in Washington there is a large number of French voters that will never be won over by him; the 'pas mon Président' T-shirts are already being printed up and the battle is about to begin.

Pas des miracles, tant des problêmes

The miracle didn't happen: Robocop will now have the reins of the Fifth Republic, and it will march forth under the 'candidate for change'. It was striking how similar Sarko's acceptance speech was to the cant spewed by Tony Blair over the past ten years, and on BBC World Blairite lackey Denis MacShane could be spluttering about how he wanted Royal to win and would never take the side against his 'own political family' while conveniently forgetting this article published under his name in last week's Observer. Still, nothing new there, the duplicity of New Labour is hardly anything worth getting that worked up about these days.

Sarko was fêted by a large crowd of scary bourgeois at Place de la Concorde (perhaps it's an example of cultural alienation but I've always found willful French right-wing voters more disturbing and unfathomable than their counterparts in the UK, the US or Ireland). One of them said to Libé, 'France has finally asked to be governed', which either demonstrates a predeliction to sado-masochism on the part of Pierre, 50-something, or is a warning to that part of France that didn't ask to be governed in quite the way Sarkozy has in mind, that this is how it's going to go. There was certainly a collective sense of goading among the well-dressed freaks on the TV and their sworn enemies were testing the new régime's mettle with a bit of trouble at Place de la Bastille. To be honest, all there was were a couple of municipal rubbish bins burnt out and cans thrown at the riot police, who responded with tear gas. But we all saw it on CNN almost as soon as it happened. And most of it committed by the usual drunken anarchists; the suburbs have been relatively calm so far, though with a 'certain tension' according to the French media.

While I was sitting in a friend's house in Belleville watching the post-election coverage, the windows were rattled by a loud explosion at about 11.45pm. We ran outside and saw a white van had been set alight by some passing lout. The fireman we spoke to said that there had been a number of such incidents around town tonight, on account of the elections, but nothing more than what was expected. Here is some of the footage of the burning van, shot on a bog-standard Sony Ericsson camera phone so it is unlikely to become the emblem of 'Paris burning' worldwide. Don't bother watching it all, nothing really happens. More tomorrow.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Round Two

Drinkers were in a resigned mood last night in the bars in the 11th arrondissement, the area of eastern Paris where I live. This is left-wing heartland, composed mainly of immigrants, young people and the old Parisian working-class; it was the last area of resistance to fall when the Commune was crushed in 1871, resulting in the covering-over of the Canal St-Martin from rue Faubourg du Temple as far as Bastille, so that the water could no longer provide a barricade for insurgent areas. Few people are convinced that the miracle will happen tonight where Ségolène Royal unexpectedly overturns the polls that have been giving Nicolas Sarkozy an extended lead in the days since Wednesday's debate. Personally I think it is going to be a lot closer than the polls have been suggesting (most likely 51%-49%) but it is unlikely to be in Royal's favour.

So it seems that all one can do is brace oneself for five years of Sarkozy (and possibly a UMP-dominated parliament). The country is split down the middle on him (though there are some on either side that are horrified by his social policies while being attracted to his economic liberalism - however misplaced that might be). There will be tension in the suburbs tonight, as everyone knows, and it will be largely used to vindicate the Sarkozy vote in the more reactionary and racist reaches of French society. The sad thing is that it will take only a handful of hoodlums to start burning cars and things will begin to spiral down again, and chin-wagging editorialists throughout Europe will deplore this contempt for the dramatic wish of the people - thereby missing the point. Sarkozy was a disaster as Interior Minister, there is no reason to believe he will be any different as President.

As a parting shot here is Irish expat man-about-town Paddy Sherlock's amusing view of a France under Sarkozy (or Tsarkozy as he calls him - a splendid moniker that sums up the tinpot Napoleonic ambitions of the little man): the horrors of bad French music are likely to be all part of the package too:

Avec le Tsar - "Kozy"
Y'aura plus jamais Joey Starr - "Kozy"
Rest'ra que Jean-Michel Jarre - "Kozy"
Et Johnny et sa guitare "Kozy"

(With the Tsar/There'll be no more Joey Starr/Only Jean-Michel Jarre/And Johnny and his guitar)

Very funny stuff, circumstances notwithstanding

On éspère, pourtant.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Dammed Up

A rare blind spot in contemporary cinema I possess is the work of Jia Zhang-Ke. I have, despite ample opportunities, failed to see any of the previous films of this young, critically-acclaimed Chinese director (only 36). Now, with the arrival of Still Life, his Golden Lion winner from Venice last year, I finally got my act together and wandered down to Bastille to watch it.

The film concerns Fengjie, a city on the Yangtse that is about to be submerged to facilitate the building of the Three Gorges Dam. There are two distinct plotlines, one in which a migrant worker returns after sixteen years away to find his former wife and daughter, and a second with a nurse looking for her husband, of whom she has heard nothing in two years. It is a difficult film, precisely because there is little in the way of plot momentum and the storylines are thin, but it succeeds in conjuring a mood of longing, loss and impending doom. There is an ethereal quality about the film's visual and aural textures too, the dreamy bleached-out cinematography being some of the most amazing I have ever seen on the big screen, and while there may not be much dialogue, the film's mastery of numerous registers of sound is something that would have made Robert Altman red with envy. It is a film that I will need to see again in order to absorb more - there is an unbreakable tension between the simplicity of the narrative and the richness of the film's visual and aural fabric - but the scenes in which the town is being demolished house by house and walls being marked with future water levels leave a haunting impression.

Lula Spikes Multi-National's Drink

Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio da Silva has barred American pharmaceutical giant Merck from the local market for refusing to drop its prices for the AIDS treatment drug Elfavirenz. Having failed to lower the price to Brazil's request of 65¢, the company was told by Lula that they will no longer have the right to market the drug in the country. The Brazilians also insist that they are not in violation of World Trade Organisation rules, as such a measure is permissible in the event of a 'sanitary emergency'. The AIDS epidemic in the Southern countries is indeed a sanitary emergency as Merck and other pharmaceutical leeches know and see the opportunity to make a sure killing on a ready demand for their wares; they have however been taken off guard by a president with enough balls and power to step in and say that enough is enough. Brazil will now turn to India and the duplication of generic prescription drugs based on Elfavirenz. Free-market fundamentalists, who generally view the rights of corporations as of greater importance than those of humans, will, of course, cry foul but Lula's reaction is in marked contrast to the scattershot confrontationalism of Hugo Chávez, and he is doing something that has already been implemented by India (and hopefully soon South Africa too, once it rids itself of its AIDS-denying President Thabo Mbeki). One also hopes that this increasingly powerful bloc will supply countries smaller and poorer than them with the drug. As for the pharmaceutical companies and their perennially specious analogies of breaking into a pharmacy and stealing stocks, they should be encouraged to go whistle.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Force Feeding

Back in March I reviewed the Austrian documentary Our Daily Bread, which took a cool, dispassionate look at the production process in European agribusiness. Despite the formal placidity of the film it was implicitly critical of the practices it portrayed and now another film has come from the same country that covers much of the same ground while taking a more avowedly polemical stance. We Feed the World (which takes its name from the motto of the German seedling multinational Pioneer, which features in the film) is directed by Erwin Wagenhofer and its target is the commodification and over-rationalisation of food production. While Our Daily Bread offered a critique by its simple unvarnished mounting of scenes of industrial labour, We Feed the World goes straight for a broadside against the deleterious effects of homogenised food and the food subsidies of the developed world (in particular the EU, the US and Japan) and its subsequent dumping of food in markets such as West Africa, making it impossible for local farmers to survive.

The chief protagonist is the Swiss sociologist and UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, who delivers statistic after damning statistic to give the film its primary argument - the pauperisation of the Third World in order to benefit Western producers. The other side is represented in the opening scene by an Austrian farmer who affirms that the only way to maintain one's standard of living at previous levels is to expand one's farm by up to five times. This has resulted in a third of Austrian farmers leaving the land since the country's accession to the EU in 1995 and as the farmer says, a chief motive for this is the public's demand for cheap food. Free marketers will of course ask here what the problem is as according to them, the market resolves such problems of its own accord. There are however too many ill effects to allow this argument to go unchallenged.

One of these is the homogenisation of food production, witnessed in a visit to a fish market in Lorient in Brittany and a trip aboard a the trawler of a small Breton fisherman who prides himself on making small hauls, thereby bringing in fish unblemished by the effects of enormous nets and increased underwater pressure. There is also Karl Otrok, the head of Pioneer Romania, who admits that he prefers organic vegetables to the uneconomical, tasteless and aesthetically attractive specimens produced by his company's products, and who says that Western agribusiness has already 'fucked up' the West's agriculture. A visit to the enormous greenhouses of Almería (the 'winter vegetable' capital of the world) shows the effects of an economic miracle that is now in danger of producing an environmental catasprophe. The last word is given to Peter Brabeck, CEO of Nestlé, who is obviously on a different wavelength to the film's makers, and who speaks optimistically of the future, seeing only progress. Ziegler has already argued that Brabeck is himself at the mercy of the shareholders and not in a very good position to be too cocksure of his own future prospects.

We Feed the World is occasionally a bit too didactic and its arguments are likely to be already shared by many of its audience but it has a number of qualities that make it compulsive viewing: firstly, all the interviewees - from Ziegler to Brabeck - are all brilliant, fluid speakers, secondly, there is a lot to learn from the film, particularly in terms of agronomy and botany and thirdly, the scenes of people at work are fascinating, the repetition and attention to detail mesmerising just like Gustave Caillebot's celebrated 'Les raboteurs de parquet'. When this labour gives way to mechanical rationalisation later in the film the effect is jolting. If the arguments of the film are somewhat predictable, its method and formal composition are superb. Should be seen, preferably on a double-bill with Our Daily Bread.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Sweeter Sixteen

Austria has become the first country to lower the voting age for all elections to 16. I don't see any reason why not, though I cannot imagine teenagers beating down the doors to vote for the first time. Still, a laudable measure and it seems that Ireland is the only country in the EU allergic to the concept of electoral reform.


As for the football, I had been hoping for a Liverpool-Man U final but given the way that Milan dominated United last night I'll settle for a repeat of the final of two years ago. United's defending was once again abominable but that shouldn't take the sheen off that amazing strike by Clarence Seedorf. Impressive stuff. And Celtic don't look too bad now either.


I didn't watch the Sarkozy-Royal televised debate last night, opting for the football instead, much to the dismay of a number of people I know (though there were some who were criticised for watching the debate on the grounds that they already knew who they were voting for). I caught bits of it near the end as almost all the cafés lined along rues St-Antoine and Faubourg St-Antoine had it on the TV in front of hushed audiences. Today I read the transcription in full in Libé (all eight pages) and I was struck by how Ségo went on the offensive, harrying Sarkozy rather mercilessly - rather like the way that Milan ripped Man U apart in the opening half hour at San Siro. She had no real alternative of course and trying to needle Sarkozy and get him to lose his temper was the trump card. That, as I have said before, leaves it open to question the efficacy of her overall campaign but she certainly showed herself competent and assured - which many people have this far doubted - but Sarkozy was not overly ruffled either. He adopted a mocking condescending demeanour, with a number of jabs in turn designed to rile his adversary. At one point he actually did accuse her of losing her cool but she resumed her composure quite well and, as a colleague of mine pointed out today, her anger is a different, less ugly sort than Sarkozy's. According to the Herald Tribune 9 out of 10 voters have already made their mind up, and it still looks as if Sarkozy will benefit. But Jean-Marie Le Pen's call on Front National voters to abstain may yet be critical, if the race is closer than polls suggest, which I think it is.

As I said the other day, the election has descended into a referendum on Sarkozy, which is a dereliction of democracy, however much I dislike the man. The right-wing has hit back with a few pallid efforts at demonising Royal - I noticed a few of her election posters on the way home this evening defaced with the legend 'Staline en jupon' (Stalin in a petticoat), which reminds me of the Fianna Fáil-crafted slurs on Adi Roche during the 1997 Presidential elections, capitalising upon some former employee of hers that too exception to her businesslike manner. A measure of how much this election has gripped France is the fact that MTV broadcast the debate in its entirety last night. There have also been a number of election-related curios going around the Web too, such as this Ségo v Sarko online game ('dumb but it helps you let off steam' said the person that forwarded it to me) and below, a fourteen-year-old televised debate between the two that provides a fascinating preview of this election.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

'The Way Things Are Going, They're Going to Crucify Me'

The first post in a few days on the French elections. Since the first round, the French media, split on left-right lines, have been agonising over the possibilities of an unexpected Sarkozy defeat; the right-wing Le Point asks on its front cover 'Can he lose?' while the similarly-inclined L'Express wonders 'can he be beaten?'. The leftist Nouvel observateur has a picture of Ségo on the cover with the legend 'can she beat Sarkozy?' This is why I am sceptical about the 84% turnout in the first round: the election has been turned into a referendum on Sarkozy's popularity, and that renders France in as bad a democratic state as when, five years ago, Chirac was re-elected with 82% of the vote because it was either him or Le Pen. Few observers in France have remarked on this, an exception being economist André Grjebine, who in Libération two weeks ago bemoaned this dominance of the cult of personality in the election race. Though Grjebine is himself not too fond of Sarkozy he sees the demonisation of the UMP candidate as a symptom of the 'lepenisation' of French politics, and it is hard to disagree with him. An open letter from prominent leftist intellectuals (some of them are actors, which apparently constitutes an 'intellectual' in France) in yesterday's Libé calls for a vote for Royal and against Sarkozy. Nothing more concrete than that. Is this what has come to pass?

Of course there should be no sympathy for Sarkozy here as he has brought it all on himself. It was he that inflamed the already fraught situations in the banlieues and he has also stated that there are 'two Frances, the sort that gets up early and lazes all day in bed'. That sounds like somebody spoiling for a fight. It is therefore difficult to credit the self-pity he has displayed in the past week, telling Libé that he has 'scars all over' from his past battles, and asking at a rally in Dijon why there is such hatred directed at him - something he repeated no less than forty-five times at the same meeting. It didn't come out of nowhere.

An American/Colombian couple I know have accurately compared Sarkozy to Richard Nixon and Sarkozy has a similar line in ruthlessness, brilliant political machinations, a similar lack of charm and a penchant for playing the victim. He is even small and ugly in the same way as Tricky Dicky, as if to flesh the comparison out in crude signification. Sarkozy's comments in the past week have been like the Checkers speech and Nixon's famous parting shot 'you won't have Nixon to kick around any more' rolled into one. Even the London Independent's Paris correspondent John Litchfield, who, I have it on good authority, is an admirer of Sarko, has adopted a withering view of Sarkozy's persecution complex.

I won't repeat my views on Sarkozy and my reasons for thinking he would be a social disaster as President. But it still looks likely that he will carry the election on Sunday even if there are still a lot of Bayrou's votes up for grabs and the defeated UDF candidate has been far more critical of Sarkozy than Royal. Royal has in turn said that she is open to naming Bayrou Prime Minister should she be elected, which has sent many on the left into spasms. The televised debate takes place tomorrow, clashing, alas, with Manchester United v Milan, and a lot may ride on it. I am not terribly faithful in Royal's ability to sway the electorate in it, judging by the transcription of her debate with Bayrou, which was published in yesterday's Libé. There were far too many rhetorical fudgings and simple innacuracies for comfort.

Thou Shalt Not Travel

The old stalking horse of abortion rights in Ireland returns. News reports say that the Health Service Executive is refusing to allow a 17-year-old to leave the country in order to terminate her pregnancy - the child being unlikely to survive very long after birth. That is correct, they are refusing to let her leave the country. I was naive enough to believe that this particular issue at least was settled in one part of the three-pronged referendum of November 1992 but there are people that clearly think otherwise. Apparently the poor young woman is not sufficiently suicidal to be allowed travel for an abortion. Must try harder...


Another piece from the Christian Science Monitor, which treats of a court case being brought by six imams removed from an American Airlines flight after complaints from concerned passengers. I will let the article speak for itself on this episode of paranoia and ignorance gone mad; the airport police report is revealing of how shallow American understanding is of those crazy guys that kneel and pray to Mecca: '6 suspicious Arabic men on plane spread out in their seats'. 'Arabic' is a language and does not refer to a people, the word they are looking for is 'Arab'. Intelligent people should know the difference.