Monday, May 30

The strategy of the "colleagues"

The profoundly Eurosceptic EU Referendum blog links to the Daily Telegraph's editorial view today: too much effort has been invested in the European project for it to be scuppered by one referendum result.

The blog goes on to anticipate that "'the strategy of the "colleagues"' in Brussels will be to play a cautious and patient game, hoping that if enough effort is mustered, the referendum in Denmark can still be won - and the British referendum too.

By this time, there would be a new French president who in such a new climate could ask the French people for a second opinion.

While this imagined sequence of events is unlikely to come about in exact detail, EU Referendum is surely right to assume the federalists are a long way from giving up their dream.


(Via Instapundit.) Michel Houellebecq's reaction to the French referendum result? "I am very surprised because normally French are cowards".

Anti-American Tories

As part of an article on whether the term "The West" still means anything, Brian Walden discusses European hostility to the United States.

After first identifying the broad swathe of former and current socialists who are opposed to American capitalism, he moves on to a second group of anti-Americans:

These are old-fashioned right-wingers who bear an ancient grudge. The reason for their hostility to America is that traditionally the US has disapproved of European imperialism. This was a great problem for Winston Churchill in President Roosevelt's later years, particularly at the Yalta conference with Stalin.

In the 1950's both France and Britain felt they had reason to be aggrieved by lack of American support as they struggled with the last of their imperial problems. The Suez adventure, which was a reckless attempt to combat the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, by a temporary alliance between Britain, France and Israel was wrecked by the active disapproval of the USA.

The damage this did to relations with America was hastily covered up and a myth was invented to explain the breach. It was said that poor Anthony Eden was physically ill and wasn't thinking straight. The implication was that few other people fully supported the operation. This version of history is most unjust to Eden. Many notables were strongly opposed to Nasser, including Churchill and Labour's former foreign secretary, Herbert Morrison.

America's lack of sympathy towards the imperial problems of its allies has been swept under the carpet as if everybody is somewhat ashamed of the subject. But it's extremely important. Many people on the political right have never forgiven America.

While the Soviet Union was powerful, mostly they kept silent - though of course President de Gaulle didn't. With the Soviet Union gone these right-wing critics see no reason to support America in anything it does. They are, for instance, virulently opposed to the current campaign in Iraq.

Walden is talking about the right across Europe. What interests me is how much this argument can be said to sum up the anti-American elements in the British Conservative party.

In that party, I would guess there is a spectrum of anti-American feeling. At on end, let us say, the rump of pro-imperial conservatives that Walden is talking about.

At the other end of the spectrum, presumably we have what is simply a grouping of the statist soft left (sometimes referred to as the modernisers).

And while I call this a spectrum of opinion, I wonder whether it really is a spectrum, or a marriage of convenience between disparate groups.

If it is the latter, perhaps a robust brand of Conservatism which was Atlanticist and in favour of economic liberalism could exploit the divide, in order to conquer them.

Walden argues that Conservatives cannot ever be fully at ease with the United States because Conservatives can never renounce the heritage of the Empire. But even within the American Right, there is debate about the extent to which their Republic has taken on imperial characteristics.

In any case, the most recent spat between the Tories and the American government was caused by Michael Howard's electoral opportunism, when he tried to be against the Iraq war as well as for it, rather than any ideological differences.

Thursday, May 26

Personal experience in handling cattle

Professor Reviel Netz has written something claiming to be a work of history, entitled Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. I remember reading a long excerpt from it a while back, in a magazine I have since learnt to avoid, called the London Review of Books.

Now Arts & Letters Daily has brought the Professor's barbed wire thesis back to my attention, since the book has finally now been issued, and reviewed in the TLS.

Amazon's synopsis runs:

In this original and controversial book, historian and philosopher Reviel Netz explores the development of a controlling and pain-inducing technology - barbed wire. Surveying its development from 1874 to 1954, Netz describes its use to control cattle during the colonization of the American West and to control people in Nazi concentration camps and the Russian Gulag. Physical control over space was no longer symbolic after 1874. This is a history told from the perspective of its victims.

In his TLS piece (at least the portion of it that is on the web), Edward N. Luttwak does not address the totalitarian uses to which barbed wire was put in the 20th century.

However, he does use his experience of ranching in Bolivia to take the book's early sections apart with ease, pausing only to speculate that its faults of its author might be

readily explained by a brilliantly distinguished academic career that has understandably precluded much personal experience in handling cattle.

Having once struggled through a book by Michel Foucault, I always enjoy a takedown of books in this vein, particularly ones endorsed (as this one has been) by Noam Chomsky. Luttwak's review is a classic of its kind.

Tuesday, May 24

Radio On

A few weeks ago, I was finally able to see the film Radio On, directed by Chris Petit. I would now like to make a blog entry referring to it using my notes of the time. I present:

Memorable scenes from Radio On by Chris Petit

1. A very slow pan around a flat in Bristol, enlivened by the use of David Bowie singing Heroes, in German. This ends up showing the dead brother who is the focus of what plot there is.

2. A strange sequence apparently showing our protagonist DJing in a factory. (We have also been shown his empty London flat, which for some reason, has multiple TVs in it, as well as a moody woman watching them.)

3. Quite a lot of driving about, with a Kraftwerk tape on.

4. An encounter with a frightening squaddie who has been caught up in the Troubles of Northern Ireland, who luckily gets left by the side of the road before he can cause any more grief.

5. A visit to a petrol station, at the back of which the attendant incessantly plays an Eddie Cochrane song. (The attendant being the young Gordon Sumner.)

6. A wander round the flat in Bristol, a visit to a burger van, a meeting with two Germans, who are staying in a hotel.

7. An excellent part: the Germans are looking out of the hotel window, when the camera suddenly zooms past them from the outside, along the weird overpass road that the protagonist's car went along earlier. This is a genuine coup on the part of the film-maker and the most memorable and odd moment.

8. A scene at a pier; a scene in a pub, getting knocked off a bar stool by a horrible woman; a drunken scene in a car, at a quarry, in despair; attempted suicide.

These scenes are not really dramatised. Our interest is generally only held by the soundtrack; and the camerawork; and the roadside scenes, landscapes, buildings, and interiors which are constantly in front of the camera.

My conclusion

Surely this film evokes its period (Britain at the end of the 70s) like no other.

The soundtrack is perfect (it reawoke my interest in the music of the time).

The film evokes its period in a slightly bad way. It is rather broodingly, pointlessly existentialist. Being made by a former leading film critic of Time Out, it could even be seen as predictable social criticism of the early part of Thatcher's Britain, from the viewpoint of some sort of trendy London set.

Yet: the positive side of Chris Petit's very painstaking alienation and passivity is that there is such a strong sense of his being removed from everything happening in the film, that it becomes almost a documentary rather than a work of fiction. He notices so much of the way everything looked at that point in time, that this film is surely a classic despite its faults.

A third listen to David Bowie's Lodger

1. Fantastic Voyage
A low key start. I can't dismiss my idea that it inspired the low-key, Bowie-like opener on Pavement's Wowee Zowie. "I've got to write it down/And it won't be forgotten", he says. I suppose "it" hasn't been forgotten yet at least. Good melody.
2. African Night Flight
There is a very annoying start to this song. Eno at his most whimsical. Gets better after a minute or so, but not that much. At least it is not PC in its African imaginings. Some quite decent buzzing noises coming out of the right-hand speaker.
3. Move On
Bowie sounding good at the bottom of his vocal register. Seems to be done in 2 alternating sections. Memorable chord progression in the first section. The second section feels nicely out of step and tuneful.
4. Yassassin (Turkish for: Long Live)
This track is built on an off-beat, hence has a reggae feel that comes across more strongly than the occasional Middle Eastern effects. I have never heard David Bowie try to sound like Damo Suzuki before. I don't really like this and again, I mostly blame Eno for being whimsical here. Although the song is credited to Bowie! The first track on the album that I feel like skipping past.
5. Red Sails
An excellent attempt to sound like Neu!, but with a charming Chinese theme. Some fine wah noises on the guitar. Bugs me in the way it happily evokes communism. Lovely washes of synthesizer and guitars over the driving beat, though. One of the best songs on the album.
6. DJ
The dated backwards string sounds belong to the other end of the 70s but I suppose they are supposed to sound disco, like the bass and guitar. The chugging piano does not quite fit. The lyric and chorus is boring and reminds me of Robbie Williams. But as a piece, not as bad as I have made it sound.
7. Look Back in Anger
A driving hard rock rhythm, possibly modelled on Jaki Liebezeit. A real, early New Romantic vocal from Bowie which works very well. My ear keeps going back to the beat, which could have been mixed louder; I also keep noticing the cymbals and fills. I don't like the way the song has borrowed its title, but this is probably the highlight of the album. Sweeping and echo-ey sounds work so well over hard rhythms.
8. Boys Keep Swinging
More piano-chugging, presumably borrowed from the Velvet Underground. The notion of fashionably bisexual boys "checking each other out" seems quaint. It sounds like Eno is doing the backing vocals and he sounds pretty good. Apparently this is a reasonably well-known song, but like the rest of the album, until last week it was all new to me.
9. Repetition
Nothing to do with the song by the Fall that must have come out slightly before this. A strong bass riff, with very simple drumming, and the guitar gets its wang bar interfered with a lot. Not bad.
10. Red Money
Another red song. What is so good about the colour red? "Project cancelled", he sings. Quite dull. After a minute and a half, I'm still waiting for something to happen. After 3 minutes... still waiting, although it has managed to gradually build... just before it ends, I have to admit it does make sense as a closer.

The verdict:
I was hoping for something as good as the first half of Low. None of it is quite on that level. It is a better album than its individual tracks, but just a tiny bit too much of its time. There is no song as spine-tingling as the song Heroes, from the same time. But it makes me want listen to the album Heroes, which I have never taken to, again. So I am obviously not quite done with David Bowie.

Tuesday, May 10

Lebrecht: bargain CDs at risk

I recently acquired a lovely CD of Maria Callas singing the lead in Norma re-issued on Naxos for the bargain price of 15 quid. The copyright on this 1953 recording had lapsed after 50 years. I had then been looking forward to snapping up many more such reissues. (I have also been able to get some handy box sets of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong from Proper Records thanks to this bargain-creating law.) But apparently all this potential bounty for CD-collectors is at risk. Norman Lebrecht informs us that the record companies, led by EMI, are fighting to extend their period of copyright.

Sunday, May 1

Bresson's visions

L'Argent (1983) is the last film of Robert Bresson (1901 - 1999). In its austerity, it is typical of all the films of his maturity.

He based it on The Forged Note, a short story by Tolstoy.

One deceitful act, the passing on of a forged high-denomination note, leads into a spiral of immorality: first, a false testimony against an innocent man, then robbery, tragedy and murder.

Bresson's storytelling refuses us direct access to his characters' minds. He always cast "models" (as he called his amateur players) rather than actors, because professional performances would not have given him the inscrutable effect he required.

Instead, Bresson's camera scrutinises only the actions of his characters. These are shown with the clarity of an information film showing how to operate machinery.

Bresson's economy of means and power of storytelling set him apart from other major directors, who can look lazy and thoughtless in comparison. There is something self-denying in Bresson's approach, as if he is fasting himself so that he can receive religious visions.