Monday, 31 October 2016

EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION: TRUMP AND THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

Is Donald Trump really an outlier in American politics? Should we really believe the stream of rabid rats scurrying down the ropes from the SS Republican who claim Trump is not what Republicans are supposed to be?

This is now. That was then. What the Republicans were is not what they are, and what they are is a party for whom Donald Trump is the logical product of the past 50 years of history...

I've written about this for the Times Literary Supplement's TLS Blog, you can link to it here.

There is much else to write about in this election, especially when you consider the topics which most of the media seems to ignore. Those who cannot remember history are condemned not to repeat it, but to repeat it one circle closer to the centre of hell....

Saturday, 22 October 2016

DON RUSSELL, HONOURING A COACH

The best head coach I ever had, Don Russell, was inducted into my university's Sports Hall of Fame  (our 1969 football team is already in en masse), along with our defensive coordinator, Pete Kostacopolous, who also, in his other role on campus, coached a Wesleyan baseball team all the way to an NCAA final. In fact, in this photo the defense must be on the field, and Don is probably yelling into the headset to ask Kosty what he wants to do!

Let me tell you a few things:
When Don was 'recruiting' me (he spoke at a New Haven Register/National Football Foundation awards dinner where I was being honoured and mentioned I was headed to Wesleyan, which I had chosen after being recruited heavily by the University of Pennsylvania) he told me that if I came to Wesleyan I would play football because I wanted to, not because he or anyone else could make me, or take a scholarship away, and frankly, not many people on campus would care one way or the other. And that sold me on the school. That and my student guide around campus that day driving me home, rather than making me take two buses from Middletown to Milford.


In the summer of 1970, when there were layoffs at the Fafnir plant where my dad worked and I lost my summer job, Don got me one on building & grounds at Wesleyan, and I worked there all year round for two years. At that point, following the student strike, I was seriously debating not returning to Wesleyan, so by a strange synchronicity the loyalty of my football coach in getting me the job I needed to pay my share of the costs not covered by my scholarship was a big factor in my returning for my final two years of college. And doing much better at it than I had in the first two.


And when in 1972 I was applying for conscientious objector status I asked Don to write a letter of reference to the draft board. He wrote that although he disagreed with my stance, he respected the way I'd made my decision, understood my grounds for it as I'd expressed them, and would support me 100% because he believed in my honesty.


All three of those things meant a huge amount to me at the time, and still do. I want to thank him for that, and for being a fine coach who led us to an undefeated season, The Lambert Cup, and two Little Three titles in the two years I played for him (he stepped down in my senior year to concentrate on being AD; we stumbled to a .500 season that year and didn't win another Little Three title for more than 40 years). Don succeeded in part by recruiting a few very good players, but more by understanding that he needed to get the best out of a bunch of less talented players who played because they wanted to, because they enjoyed it, but who also had other options. We called him the Silver Fox, and it was a term of respect.

And I can't help by recalling how the defense on that undefeated team, which Kosty coordinated, featured among others a 175 pound middle linebacker and a 155 pound rover, and when asked by a reporter if he didn't think his players were a little too small, Don reportedly told him, 'we may be small, but we're slow'. And he told another that the key to our beating Williams in 1969 was that we 'held Jack Maitland to 167 yards rushing'.

Plus he (and Kosty) chewed tobacco. I hadn't ever met anyone who did: it was reserved for red necks down south and baseball players, not two mutually exclusive groups. I always figured it was because they were from Maine. But what was frightening, and funny once practice was over, watching the brown juice run down Don's chin when he got angry or excited. I can remember it once spattering over someone still lying on the ground who was being berated for doing something wrong and landing there. It was hard to keep a straight face, but as a football player you knew you had to.

I was very sorry I had to miss that induction banquet. To think all these years later I'd still be doing football on a weekend: this time the NFL playing their first ever game at Twickenham, which I first visited with my Wesleyan teammate Blake 'Mole' Allison, in 1972 to watch the Combined Services play the All Blacks.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

ELECTION RIGGING IN AMERICA

Although Donald Trump's whining about a rigged election is obviously just a spoiled brat loser's ploy to play to his audience, and who knows, maybe incite armed rebellion. After all, most of the guns in America are owned by just a minority of Americans, and they overlap strongly with Trump supporters. Still it's hard to argue an election is being rigged before it even happens, unless of course you have some nefarious evidence. Which of course Trump doesn't have.

But while the punditariat waves the red white and banner of American democracy, it needs to be remembered that Election fraud is a tradition in American politics, going back at least as far as when the franchise was extended beyond land-owning white males (not to mention the disenfranchisement of slaves, while still counting as 3/5 of a person when determining the population, and thus representation, of a state. Big city machines, rural machines, intimidation by Jim Crow laws, gangs, klans, sheriffs and unions all influenced elections unduly. But I'll bet there isn't a TV pundit in America (under, say, 60) who's read either All The King's Men or The Last Hurrah. There isn't one under 40 who's seen either movie.

In 1960 Nixon did not challenge the incredibly close Presidential election result. We've heard that quoted repeatedly to point out the sanctity of 'the system'. However the Republican Party chairman John Sherman Cooper filed lawsuits challenging the results in 11 states. These were dropped when someone realised that whatever gains Kennedy had made in Chicago (thanks Mayor Daley) were actually surpassed by those favouring Nixon downstate. And that in most of other 10 states the challenge wouldn't hold up anyways.

Since 1960, aided by technology voter registration/polling has improved, and coupled with the decline of monolithic machine politics, that kind of fraud virtually disappeared. Well, until Florida in 2000. Again, Al Gore did not challenge the ultimate result--but Shrub Bush certainly did challenge it, in court, where his lawyers argued (and the Supreme Court, against all precedent and careful to ensure their decision could not alter that precedent, ruled by a 5-4 vote that Bush's right to be spared the uncertainty of not being President trumped the people's right to have their votes counted fully and honestly.Al Gore lacked the guts to challenge further, and note that after the election Gore was deemed to have 'won' Florida by every means of counting the ballots EXCEPT the one his lawyers were arguing be implemented! Note too the vote counting was actually stopped by a mob of Republican congressional staffers who stormed the offices where the recount was being held. But I digress...

Florida 2000 notwithstanding, the past 20 years have seen gerrymandering on a scale never contemplated in the 19th century. They have seen voting machines (Diebold) programmed to change votes, which is why most machines now must have a paper trail. They have seen systematic shedding of voters from the registration lists (55,000 in Florida in 2000 alone) under the guise of keeping convicted felons from voting. They have seen voter ID laws aimed at stopping the poor, racial minorities, and students from voting. They have seen voting machines removed from areas unlikely to vote for the party controlling the state government (Ohio, 2004).

That is the face of voter fraud in America. The actual number of cases of people voting illegally is in double figures. Literally...out of hundreds of millions.

And the guy who is running on behalf of the party that has accomplished most of the frauds listed above is going to complain the system is rigged against him? It's pure Karl Rove: attack the other side for what your own side's weakness might be. The guy who has received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free publicity from the TV networks is going to complain the media is rigged against him? God bless Trump and God bless the United States of America.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

MIRZYA: Bollywood Epic at London Film Festival

Mirzya was the Gala presentation in the 'Love' strand at the London Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. It's a big, colourful romance, which showcases many of Bollywood's finest moments: lush sets, lavish dance and music, and a cast sometimes as ravishing as its sets. It also uses the popular device in current historical/romantic fiction of running two parallel story lines, in this case a love story in the present which reflects the doomed story from myth of Mirza and Sahiban. You might think director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehta has all the materials for a crossover hit.

In fact, it opens brilliantly, with its historical story, told virtually without dialogue, and offering a vast panorama of action, like a Chinese war epic, interplaying with the tale of two children from different backgrounds, but already young sweethearts as students at the same school. When Adil forgets his homework, because he's been fetching a sweet for Soochi, Soochi passes him hers. When she is then punished harshly by a teacher for not having hers, Adil takes revenge. He is sent to a youth prison, escapes, and their lives diverge.

To this point the stories have been captivating, but when we rejoin the present, Adil, now called Munish, is working with the horses for a maharajah, and the young prince is engaged to marry Soochi, grown into a beautiful woman. And of course, the prince wants his bride to learn how to ride.  It's relentlessly melodramatic, like a epic tele-novella, and although the smaller scale of the children's tale worked, the larger scale of this love story often seems to trip over its own inconsequence in contrast to the epic tale it mimics. And because the luxury is royal in nature, and so modern, it starts to look like Dynasty or the Trump Towers, again undercutting its parallel tale. Screenwriter Gulzar, himself a director as well as a songwriter and poet, tries to weave elements of Romeo and Juliet into the tale, even self-consciously quoting Shakespeare, but the songs (by Shankar Ehsaan Loy) are often too didactic, as if we, the unschooled audience, wouldn't be able to follow the tale otherwise.

The most believable part is newcomer Saiyami Khar as Soochi/Mirzya. She projects the strength needed for the historical character as well as the awkwardness of the beautiful daughter of a police chief, about to become a Rajput princess. But apart from looking petulant, Harshvardhan Kapur as Adil/Munish doesn't really have the power to carry his role off (though he too does better in the mythical story, perhaps because it's silent). He too is a newcomer, but his also being the son of Anil Kapoor may perhaps explain why he seems to be cast over his skills here.  As the jilted prince, Anuj Choudry plays with the foreboding of the classic second lead, sort of like a handsomer Ross from Friends. Veteran actors Art Malik, Om Puri and K.K. Raina invest the older generation with some dignity, but their roles do little to escape stereotypes.

One element that may be harder for western audiences to accept nowadays is the character of Zeenat, played by Anjali Patil with more fire than anyone else in the film. Spoiler alert: it is always signaled that her love for Munish must give way to his love for Soochi. 'We are all links in a long chain', she explains to Soochi. This sort of inevitability of class might seem antiquated, but when he aids the two lovers in their escape, she pays a price that does not, to our eyes, seem necessary, except to add to the melodramatic build up. But Patil is an actress to watch, at times as fiery as the visual metaphor which puncuates the film. That fire is also captured brilliantly by Polish camerman Pawel Dyllus: you can allow your emotions to follow the feelings his compositions suggest and enhance.

In the end, the modern story falls short of the myth it is tracing--though I would have liked one small bit of extra melodrama as the old story reaches its end. Because so much has been telegraphed, so little surprises us. A tighter film might have been more affecting, but a tighter film is not what this has been designed to be, and bikes down cobblestones, horses across desert, and motorbikes into the sunset need to be played out in their own time.

And one lovely moment that pleased me no end: at one point Khar is shown lounging at the pool reading Zealot, Raza Aslan's study of the life of Jesus and the roots of Christianity. It's not only a tribute to a fine book, but perhaps a sort of ironic comment on our own mythologies.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

WON'T YOU COME HOME DISRAELI, WON'T YOU COME HOME: America & Two-Nation Politics

My friend Michael Goldfarb, just back from rust-belt America researching a pre-election profile of the  turmoil, said today he hopes one candidate, Hillary Clinton obviously, references America in terms of Benjamin Disraeli's idea of Two Nations: "Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets."

Michael writes:
And this divide isn't geographical or over a single great issue: civil rights or Vietnam or even as Dizzy had it, "rich and poor." It is more abstract than that and I don't know a of a single word or phrase to explain it. But it really is soul-split.


Michael and I have discussed two nations before, and I have my own ideas about where this divide may be said to begin, somewhere in the confluence of the civil rights movement and the rise of television. But if we can't define the two nations, we need to reconsider whether there actually are two, or whether numerous smaller fissures in our society, which have always existed and have been exacerbated within our lifetimes, are now converging.

And more importantly, whether that convergence, in the face of our electronic information inputs and electronic discourse outputs, have pressured many people into becoming one-issue fanatical true believers. Those one-issues usually centre around micro-political, personal, 'lifestyle' or 'identity' issues, as opposed to macro-political (economic, foreign policy, wider social justice), and they conform in allowing no tolerance of dissenters. 

This would suggest a multitude of nations, although the reality is that those multitudes still constitute a minority within the larger multiple groups who engage in discourse. But their energy, harnessed through manipulation by politics and media, pulls the political discourse away from what used to be the overlapping centre, at least as far as a two party system goes. Yet the two party system itself is in some crisis at the moment, which more than anything would suggest two-nation America is a mirage, or at best a fragile illusion. And that Trump and Hillary are not Gladstone and Disraeli.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

BOB WEINBERG'S SENSE OF WONDER: IN MEMORIAM

Bob Weinberg's life will be celebrated this afternoon in Chicago (if you're around there you can find the details here). Bob died aged 70 on 25 September. I had known him for something like 50 years, although we only met twice (or maybe three times, we couldn't be sure). Bob spent an unusually long time on kidney dialysis and last summer he posted a note about his will to live, and his dream of Mars, which I reposted; it was only the third guest post in the years I've been writing this blog. You ought to read his short essay before you continue: you can link to it here.

I admired the way Bob approached his illness, and the vitality with which he kept in touch with his world. Rereading his post, and thinking again of what linked us across the years and the distance, the phrase 'sense of wonder' came to mind; I'm amazed I hadn't used it when I published his essay. It's the feeling that brings youngsters to fictions, especially sf, and which drives what some people derisively call fandom: the ability to retain that sense of wonder as life throws up the kind of reality checks life is inclined to throw up. This is nothing to do with a retreat into fantasy: Bob was hardly one to retreat: the sf world became his livelihood as a dealer in books and art, as an editor, and as a writer. He didn't retreat from illness either.

What a sense of wonder is is the ability to see beyond the cluttered surface of our life, and remain open to the joys hidden beneath, to the wonder of life itself, and the very special wonder of imagination. Because all the best fiction reveals to us the depths which life contains: imagination is our magnifying glass, our microscope, our telescope, our prism through which this fascinating world appears. I mentioned Bob and his tomato crops: I saw the same sense of wonder in the way nature grows, nourishes, sustains, and celebrates our existence.

Bob reminded me one last time of that sense of wonder. I'm grateful that he kept it alive for so long, not just for himself but for those like me whose lives he touched. Man has not yet conquered Mars, and Bob did not live to see that. But in my heart I know that wherever Bob Weinberg is now, he has found his Mars. 

Thursday, 6 October 2016

COACHWHEEL YELLOW: a poem for National Poetry Day

Apparently today is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom. Because I've just been to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy, I was looking for a poem I've done called 'Zinc Door' after the Franz Kline painting which is hanging at that show. I found two other Klines, 'Torches Mauve' and 'Blueberry Eyes', but not 'Zinc Door' on which I've been working intermittently for years, since seeing the painting in, I think, Washington. But while I was looking I came across the manuscripts of this poem, 'Coachwheel Yellow'. I wrote it in May and June of 1978, and it has some personal resonances that go back to that time. Reading it now, I also feel a bit of Robert Creeley it in, which I'm sure I didn't realise at the time, but I now wonder if that influence is exactly why I chose a villanelle; I haven't done much in such strict forms (for good reason, you may say, as I improvised on the secondary rhyme, rather than sticking to just one pair). It may or may not have been published in a magazine called Rogue Raven sometime in 1979....if anyone knows, I'd appreciate a heads-up...



COACHWHEEL YELLOW: A VILLANELLE 

I always wanted to be able to draw.
Have something made solely by eye and hand.
There were paintings in my poems you never saw,

You heard my dreams, but couldn't understand
That my frustrated fingers felt useless, dead weight.
I always wanted to be able to draw:

Those nights in the greenhouse, working late
To convince myself, despite what you said,
There were paintings in my poems. You never saw.

"Your words are your body. Your body's dead,"
You told me, and because it was true that
I always wanted to be able to draw,

I continued to write what I could, and knew that
It was not what you wanted. In words you despised
There were paintings. In my poems you never saw

There were paintings of you. Reflected eyes,
Which, if you'd seen, you might have recognized.
I always wanted to be able to draw.

There were paintings in my poems you never saw.