Friday, 18 September 2009

MILLENIUM, JULIA CHILD, JANE JACOBS, HENRY PORTER AND HARLEY GRANVILLE-BARKER

I was catching up with some papers on the flight to the US Wednesday, and was chuffed to see the Observer's house neo-con Nick Cohen quoting Mario Vargas Llosa's article in El Pais about the Millennium trilogy: Vargas Llosa compared them to the same sense of 'feverish excitement' he'd experienced reading 'Dumas Dickens and Hugo as a boy, those stories about what he called 'just avengers'. I couldn't agree more, in fact, Cohen could have found the same take on Stieg Larsson right here, among Irresistible Targets' Bullseyes!

The Observer comment section also included an excellent essay by the definitely non neo-con Henry Porter, arguing for a repeal of all the laws passed during the last 12 years of Blairite government aimed at eroding civil liberties and creating a security state in the UK. He fails to note that on any number of these restrictions, this government has introduced tests, or vetting, which need to be paid for: the citizen as consumer, the subject as profit centre. There is a definite feudal element to this, beyond the obvious apparatchik revival brought on by a government 'socialist' only in the most cynically Stalinist sense of the word.

I then found myself a bit baffled by Philip French's Observer review of Julie & Julia, where he complained the film gave no mention to Elizabeth David, who was writing French cookbooks for the English before Julia Child was doing her TV thing for Americans. Huh? Do we need to check other countries too, to see if they had anyone promoting French cooking? Philip French thought this was as bad as Tom Hanks 'storming up Omaha Beach on D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, and no mention being made of the British Second Army coming ashore on Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. Unlikely as it might have been for the Yanks getting slaughtered at Omaha to wonder for the cameras about how Monty's chaps were faring at the somewhat easier beaches to the east, I should point out that for someone being hypercritical about historical accuracy it's rather churlish to forget that the toughest of those three beaches, Juno, was taken by the Canadian Third Division (although it was part of the British Second Army Canadians are actually not British, and despite Juno's casualties being the second-highest, after Omaha's, the Canadians actually penetrated the farthest off the beaches on the first day).

But the prize for churlishness went to a review by Christopher Turner, in the previous day's Guardian, of Anthony Flint's Wrestling With Moses, a book about Jane Jacobs' battles with Robert Moses which are the background to her classic book on urban planning, The Death And Life Of Great American Cities. In that book Jacobs described the ideal urban environment, which turned out to be exactly the kind of neighbourhood she was living in in Greenwich Village, which was threatened by Moses' plans to extend Park Avenue south through Washington Square Park, and turn Houston Street into a 10 lane expressway to connect the Hudson and East River crossings.

Turner somehow transmutes this into a battle between Jacobs' crowded urban mess and Moses' wide-open spaces. As it happens, I saw my birthplace, New Haven, lose whole neighbourhoods to exactly that sort of road-building (see Murder In The Model City, by Paul Bass and Douglas Rae), and those lost neighbourhoods were re-developed into exactly the sort of urban wastelands Jacobs feared. Yes, she broke the ground for gentrification which has turned the Village into the kind of place the people who made it interesting can no longer afford, but at least you can still walk through it. And by the way, it would be easier to take Turner seriously if he knew that the classic biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, was written by Robert Caro, not Anthony Caro.

There was also a nice little appreciation in that Guardian of Harley Granville-Barker, a much under-appreciated playwright, written by Richard Eyre. I noticed that he described Barker's wife as 'an American millionairess'. How this got past the Guardian's eagle-eyed sub-editors I do not know, as they insist on changing the word 'actress' to 'actor' whenever anyone else uses it, despite whatever confusion that may cause, as when I wrote of porn-director Gerard Damiano saying his experience as a hair-dresser helped him deal with actresses. As I wrote here, the subs changing that to 'actors' rather changed its meaning.

The Guardian insists on a gender neutral word for performers, but not for the very wealthy. They will not use a gender neutral word like 'spouse' to avoid 'husband' and 'wife', nor will they use 'homosexual' or 'gay' in most instances; instead they insist on gender-specific, not neutral, reference as 'gay and lesbian'. I'm sure you can think of other anomalies; that 'millionairess' leapt out at me means either it's a silly proscription or I am a rather sad and pedantic fellow. Probably both.

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