Friday, 23 December 2011

The Invisible Province's Favourite Films of 2011

A number of people have asked The Invisible Province to come clean about his favourite films of 2011. So, here are The Invisible Province’s top 6 (I couldn't decide) memorable movies – in no particular order.

1. A Separation directed by Asghar Farhadi

2. Tyrannosaur directed by Paddy Considine

3. We Need To Talk About Kevin directed by Lynne Ramsay

4. Senna directed by Asif Kapadia

5. Weekend directed by Andrew Haigh. The only film that The Invisible Province did not write about. So what is there to say? A small budget movie that is beautifully written, performed and realised. It has a remarkable honesty and candour and is not for the prudish. Its focus is on contemporary gay relationships but the central question about what makes for authentic or inauthentic love applies to all human relationships.

6. Blue Valentine directed by Derek Cianfrance

and the reissue of the year: Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola

and the disappointment of the year: Terence Malick's The Tree of Life...but still worth seeing even though it is a cinematic folly on an operatic scale.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Invisible Province's Top 5 Albums of the Year

Here are some of the albums that The Invisible Province has been listening and grooving to in the past year. A top five, but in no particular order:

1. Raphael Saadiq's Stone Rollin'

Stone Rollin channels the sass of Motown, the funk of Paisley Park and the surf rock of California. But Saadiq achieves this without resorting to retro-soul mush - this is not just another poor imitation of the 1960's but a remaking of all that is glorious and urgent about the soul music of that vintage era. You know you've been here before but Saadiq makes you hear these riffs and melodies with a contemporary ear. Stone Rollin' is an ambitious reinvention of the past that makes you want to celebrate the present.

2. PJ Harvey's Let England Shake

I had the privilege of hearing PJ Harvey perform Let England Shake live at the Royal Albert Hall in November. It felt like I was present at a state of the nation address. It was a remarkable night. An album about war might have referenced Sassoon, Owen & co but Let England Shake is actually in the tradition of Byron, Shelley and Keats at their lyrical and angry best. If you want to hear English songwriting at its best then listen to this exceptional record.

3. James Blake's James Blake

This is an album of inventive sea-saw beats, electronic tics and dissonant auto-tuned vocals. It has a unique sensibility and is unlike anything you are likely to hear in the pop universe. Think Karl Stockhausen jamming with Massive Attack and you're close, but not very close, to the sound.James Blake is wildly beautiful and leaves you in a state of spellbound confusion. This is a truly modern piece of music making - no musical genuflections to the past, but a contemporaneity that is both complex, difficult and riveting. An album very much of the moment.

4. Radiohead's The King of Limbs

Radiohead have never been interested in commercial success and yet, they are one of the world's biggest and most critically acclaimed bands. How to explain this? The King of Limbs goes some way to providing an answer. Radiohead are famous for their unsettling soundscapes - disjointed rhythms, musical interference and Thom Yorke's siren voice. Abstract lyrics allow the listener to fill in the ambiguous gaps. All this is well known. Yet, what is not always recognised is that Radiohead can craft a beautiful melody (see Codex), tease out a bright guitar figure and turn a great pop song....they can also come up with a damn good video.

5. Bon Iver's Bon Iver

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon made a guest appearance on Kanye West's baroque hip hop opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and something of the expansive production values there inform his latest work. This is Bon Iver pimped. For fans of the compelling, For Emma, Forever Ago (2008), the news that Bon Iver have left behind that wintry, bruised feel for a more satuarated sound might be a cause for anxiety. Yet, Vernon's mournful, soulful falsetto remains. The intricately rendered love songs remain. The heartbreaking beauty remains.

and, might as well throw in, The Invisible Province's single of the year...a big, lush slice of romantic pop.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

...oh, and almost forgot SHAME

Shame, directed by Steve McQueen eta January 2012

Sunday, 11 December 2011

What films will The Invisible Province be watching in 2012

It looks like 2012 could be a good year for film. Some serious directors (Guillermo del Toro, Terence Malick, Ridley Scott, Baz Luhrman, etc) are releasing films in the coming twelve months. So, here are some of the cinematic treats that The Invisible Province is looking forward to in the coming year:

1. Prometheus
Director: Ridley Scott, ETA: June 1 2012

There is a lot of speculation on the internet ether about what this film is about. One theory is that Prometheus is a prequel to the Alien series(Ridley Scott directed the classic Alien film that spawned the franchise). Another blog theory, is that it is an autonomous Sci-fi adventure in which the aliens may or may not make an appearance. All we know is that (according to the actor, Michael Fassbender) it is "a journey to the darkest corners of the universe". Westfield, Stratford, then? In Westfield no one can hear you scream. Thirty years after Blade-Runner, the prospect of Ridley Scott returning to the sci-fi genre is reason to be intrigued and just a little bit over-excited.

2.The Dark Knight Rises
Director: Christopher Nolan, ETA: July 20 2012

Only the recent Batman films have come close to translating the action of the comic strip into something that feels like true cinema. Under Nolan's direction this has been achieved by emphasising the heart of darkness of his Gotham City superhero. This is the comic strip re-written by Albert Camus (actually it's his brother, Jonathan Nolan). What do we know about the latest movie? Anne Hathaway is Catwoman (which is a worry but it could have been worse, it could have been Halle Berry), Marion Cotillard is the new love interest and Tom Hardy has been down the gym again and plays a musclebound psychopath called Bane. Nolan has declared that this is the last Batman film he will be involved with which suggests that it could also be the grimmest and most explosive yet.

3. The Great Gatsby
ETA: autumn 2012, Director: Baz Luhrmann

Australia was a turkey, so it will be interesting to see if Baz Luhrmann gets back into the groove with his $125 million version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby. The worry is that it will become another camp meringue, albeit where characters wear white suits and flapper dresses. Can Luhrmann tame his flamboyant directorial style or will the soul of the novel be lost in Luhrmann's jazz age kinetic editing? We wait and see. I suspect this will be a film that will divide critics and audiences. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan star and...did I mention, it's shot in 3D! I want this film to succeed (and if it does it might be brilliant) but there is a little sick feeling forming in the pit of my stomach.

Director: Michael Haneke, ETA: autumn 2012

A new film by Michael Haneke is always an event. Plot details are sketchy but Love seems to be about an elderly French couple, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (both of them in their eighties), whose relationship is severely strained when one of them suffers a stroke. Haneke has said that he is interested in exploring the process of ageing and the indignities of old age. Where Abercrombie youth is exalted, Haneke (ever the subversive) swims against the cinematic tide.

5. The Master
Director: PT Anderson, ETA: early 2013

Paul Thomas Anderson's films(There will be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights) have always referenced religious fervour in an oblique manner, but The Master appears to be an explicit investigation of the varieties of religious experience. From what I can tell, the film centres around a
World War II veteran in the 1950s who decides to invent his own religion. The film has had terrible trouble finding financial backing which suggests that it is serious film making and not multiplex pulp. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix and Laura Dern are in the cast. I can't wait. Can't find any trailers or leaked clips so here is a reminder of PT Anderson's greatness:

And the best of the rest....

The Hobbit, directed by Peter's about small guys with hairy feet, you know.
Cosmopolis, directed by David will be interesting to see if a great director can bring the literary giant, Don deLillo, to the screen.
Seven Days, directed by Michael Winterbottom...the greatest living British auteur?
The Burial, directed by Terence Malick ...because even when he's bad (The Tree of Life), he is good and when he is good, he is mind blowing.
Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino...because we all want to say "that was as great as Pulp Fiction"...we know he's got it in him.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Chavs: the demonization of the working class

Why did the chav cross the road?
To start on the chicken for no apparent reason

What does a chav get for Christmas?
Your bike

What day of the year does a chav find most confusing?
Fathers day

Admit it, did you smile?

After reading Owen Jones’s book, Chavs: the demonization of the working class, I think I might be a Chav. Chav – a word that can be used as an acronym for “Council Housed and Violent”. Well, I was raised on a council estate and for most of my life raised by a single parent mother who worked as a domestic cleaner. I went to a comprehensive school. I presently earn less than the national median wage of £21,000. By all accounts, I’m ticking a good number of those chav, underclass boxes. Yet, I’ve never been tempted to wear a baseball cap (and certainly not one with Burberry tartan) or a hoodie. I’m not violent. I have no police record. I went to university and, even got a degree. I’m more likely to be watching some arty-farty stuff on BBC 4, than Jeremy Kyle and his baiting of dysfunctional families. I’m a Catholic priest and, therefore, might be described as part of “the establishment”. Confusing. Maybe, I’m not a chav after all.

Whether I am a chav or not, we all know they are out there – that “feral underclass” of people who are portrayed as “Thick. Violent. Criminal.” There are websites such as “ChavScum” which show these people to be feckless, sponging and immoral proles with no aspirations to better themselves and become middle class. But you don’t need to go on the internet to find them, we can laugh at them from our sofas as we watch Little Britain, Wife Swap, Shameless or slip in the DVD of the horror film Eden Lake, where an affluent couple are tortured to death by some local, dog-owning teenagers. Richard Hilton, the chief executive of Gym Box, provides an articulate, contemptuous description of the chav:

They tend to live in England but would probably pronounce it “Engerland”. They have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write. They love their pit bull dogs as well as their blades. And would happily “shank” you if you accidently brush past them or look at them in the wrong way. They tend to breed by the age of fifteen and spend most of their days trying to score “super-skunk” or whatever “gear” they can get their sweaty teenage hands on. If they are not institutionalized by twenty-one they are considered pillars of strength in the community or get “much respect” for being lucky.

Owen Jones’s indignant and persuasively argued book, Chavs, challenges these caricatures of the working class and exposes them as barely disguised forms of class prejudice. He believes the historic roots of this are found in the Thatcherism of the 1980’s:

In only a decade or so, Thatcherism had completely changed how class was seen. The wealthy were adulated. All were now encouraged to scramble up the social ladder, and be defined by how much they owned. Those who were poor or unemployed had no one to blame but themselves. The traditional pillars of working-class Britain had been smashed to the ground. To be working class was no longer something to be proud of , never mind celebrate. Old working-class values, like solidarity, were replaced with dog-eat-dog individualism.

The role of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also comes under scrutiny and criticism:

In New Labour’s eyes, being aspirational working class meant embracing individualism and selfishness. It meant fighting to be part of Brown’s “bigger middle class than ever.”...New Labour politicians frequently diagnose a “poverty of aspiration” in working-class kids to explain things like poor school results or why poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. For example, former New Labour education secretary Alan Johnson once railed against a “corrosive poverty of aspiration which is becoming particularly prevalent amongst today’s generation of working-class boys.” It is not the lack of jobs and apprenticeships following the collapse of industry that is to blame, but rather the attitudes of working-class children.

Chav-hate, he believes, distracts us from the real issues of widespread inequality within society. Focusing on the “moral attitude” of the working class distorts the debate and diverts attention away from structural issues, such as, employment, housing and just wages. Considering the town of Ashington, seventeen miles north of Newcastle, Jones interviews the local Catholic Parish priest, Fr Ian Jackson, who observes:

For a lot of the younger people, you feel that most of them want to move on and move out, to get out of town really, because there’s nothing for them here! The main industry, I would probably say – you’re looking at the big Asda that’s just been built, and the hospital...I think the young people would say: “What is there for me apart from working in a shop?”

Chavs is a thought-provoking, challenging read. Jones cogently argues that there has been a tendency to view social issues through the prisms of race, gender and human rights. But this ignores the question of class. It is this issue that Owen Jones wants to put back into the heart of the political and cultural debate. Chavs is his provocative attempt to do so.

Chavs: the demonization of the working class, Owen Jones, Verso, 2011

Thursday, 27 October 2011

And the winner is...Kevin

The London Film Festival has given the best film award to We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is a bold - if flawed - piece of film-making, that lingers in the memory long after you have seen it. The image of a desolate Tilda Swinton vainly trying to drown out her baby's screams by standing in front of workmen with pneumatic drills still has the power to chill the blood. After you see this film, you will never romanticise parenthood again.

Below, Lynne Ramsay and the radiantly beautiful (and just a little bit androgynous), Tilda Swinton, talking about the film:

Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens with a scene that is visually beautiful and visceral -an aerial shot of a huge, semi-naked crowd covered in thick, menstrual sludge. A young woman, Eva (Tilda Swinton), fixed in a cruciform position, is passed above the heads of the crowd. And, then, as you are trying to make sense of the image you, suddenly, find its context: a Spanish Tomato festival. It’s a brilliant prologue, a perfectly crafted visual image used to maximum impact but without any whiff of sensationalism. In this image, all the major themes of We Need to Talk About Kevin are contained: the relationship between the crowd and Eva, the crucifixion of that woman due to the unspeakable crime of her teenage son and the effects of that bloodbath.

Based on Lionel Shriver’s popular and acclaimed novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin is the account of a mother’s disintegrating relationship with her sociopathic son. When Kevin goes on a killing spree in his High School, his mother is blamed for his behaviour and becomes one of the most reviled figures in America.

Each scene in Lynne Ramsay’s film has a jagged edged ferocity. Using a fragmented narrative that time travels between Kevin as a baby, a child and a teenager, Ramsay makes the audience work hard at piecing together the images so that they form a cohesive narrative. A lesser director would build scene upon scene in a conventional narrative manner, leading us to the final carnage in the school gymnasium. Ramsay takes a sledgehammer to this approach and, instead, drip feeds our minds with images and scenes throughout the film so that our imaginations automatically create the final horror without any aid. This is brave and bravura filmmaking.

The performances are also exceptional. Tilda Swinton is all fearful, brittle emotion and dead-eyed despair for her son and, in the end, for her own tragic fate. One scene has her prepare an omelette made from the eggs a neighbour has vindictively smashed. In an act of self-punishment for her son’s crime, she mechanically spits out the shards of eggshell from every mouthful. Jasper Newell as the young Kevin shows how children can use their affections and intelligence to manipulate and pit one parent against another. Ezra Millar, as the teenage Kevin, is both charismatic and terrifying, all teenage cool but with something toxic and hateful beneath the surface. This is a young man who has lost all sense of what might be described as “personhood”.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is chilling – visually and psychologically. If you are looking for a popcorn, Saturday night gore-fest then this is not it. We Need to Talk About Kevin requires that you fill in the gaps, make connections, question assumptions. I don’t think that this is a film that you could love but it is a film so clinically rendered that it is impossible to ignore. It reminded me of Andy Warhol’s car crash paintings (and there is a blatant visual reference to Warhol in the film) – horrible, but mesmerising and desperately sad. As much as you may not want to, you just can’t look away.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

And the winner...

...of the Man Booker Prize is The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. A worthy winner. It's a tremendous read. A short novel but with subtle and profound insights into the human condition. I read it in a day and have blogged about it already - click on the link above.

Friday, 14 October 2011

John McEnroe, Catholicism and God

Just finished reading John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious...

p.214: My parents were churchgoing Catholics. My brothers and I had all been baptized and confirmed, and I had gone to Mass every week until I was eighteen. Even though I had decided for myself that organized religion was a sham, and that God, if He exists, must be deaf, dumb and blind – Catholic guilt doesn’t go away easily.

p.309 (on being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 1999): I even mentioned God. “If you believe in someone up above,” I said, “that person, for whatever reason, wanted me to play tennis...Believe it or not, I think God had an enjoyable time watching my tantrums...I think my emotions were on my sleeve. I think that my drive and intensity were on display. But ultimately, I don’t think people would have given a hill of beans if I hadn’t been able to play.”

Muddled theological thinking? The post-modern response to God and religion? The intuition that we need something that transcends corporeal reality and gives our lives meaning?

Serious, John McEnrow with James Kaplan, Sphere, 2002

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Tyrannosaur is the actor, Paddy Considine’s first film as a director. As a novice, he handles his raw, confrontational material with considerable visual assurance and sensitivity. For example, Considine shows considerable editorial confidence when moving the action from manicured housing closes with expensive cars guarding each door to the decay of the estate, where staffys strain and snarl at the lead. Each location is highly realised and successfully mirrors the psychological territory of the characters. “It’s not social realism, whatever that means,” Considine has admitted in a recent interview, “but I think it dares to be quite truthful in its own version of what truth is, if that makes sense.”

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is an aggressive, violent alcoholic from a decaying Leeds council estate who seeks refuge in a charity shop run by a married, Christian woman called Hannah (Olivia Colman). A relationship is established based on their unspoken understanding of each other’s woundedness. This understanding will lead to tragic consequences.

Using the familiar narrative device of the chance meeting of two people from opposing social classes releases questions of surprising depth and rigour: are the glib assumptions that we make about others an attempt to shore up our own prejudices? Should the sadist be forgiven and, if so, what would that forgiveness look like? Why do anger and violence lurk in the hinterlands of masculinity? In a demoralised environment, does prayer still retain some resonance? Are there people who by their actions place themselves beyond redemption? Why is man’s desire for affection and love so resilient? How do you explain the mystery of goodness in a world so prone to evil?

Considine is more interested in the questions than the answers. But there are answers and these are channelled through the two central performances that capture the change of an emotional key with the slightest shift of an expression. Peter Mullan’s performance embodies all the impotent rage peculiar to some men than can erupt in acts of gratuitous violence. But, beneath the machismo, baseball bat wielding posturing , Mullan’s rounded interpretation reveals Joseph to be a man who is looking for some sort of gentleness and acceptance in a world where doors are continually slammed in his face. This gentleness he encounters in Hannah played with intense, raw power by Olivia Colman. But her facade of sing-song cheerfulness masks the fact that she is on the receiving end of male violence. She is looking for a sanctuary where her own wounds may heal. I predict Colman will win awards for this brave, unflinchingly honest performance.

Tyrannosaur is not without flaws, but these are imperfections in what is, otherwise, a little gem of rare authenticity. On this auspicious form, I can’t wait to see what Considine produces in the future.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Erotic Capital and the Male Sex Deficit

The central idea of Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital appears uncontroversial. Catherine Hakim, a Senior Research Fellow of Sociology at the London School of Economics, claims that beautiful people get noticed, get on and, above all, they get paid. Beauty is an asset and gives someone “Erotic Capital”, a lifetime of benefits in the private and public arenas of life which the plain and ugly are less likely to achieve. She writes:

Attractive people draw others to them, as friends, lovers, colleagues, customers, clients, fans, followers and supporters and sponsors. This works for men as well as women. Indeed, the “beauty premium” seems to be larger for men than for women in public life, most notably in the workforce, where it can add 20 per cent to earnings.

Beauty, she argues, should not be dismissed as some shallow vanity in comparison to intelligence, education and moral integrity but that it has a power of its own. This is an interesting idea and Hakim uncovers dozens of examples to support her case. But then her argument takes a different direction. The way for women to improve their standing in society is to get out the makeup, show their curves and use their sexuality. This is the true feminist response and it works because of what she labels “the universal male sexual deficit.” She writes:

Men generally want a lot more sex than they get, at all ages. So men spend much of their lives being sexually frustrated to some degree...Male sexual desire declines only slowly with age, if at all. Women’s desire often falls rapidly after the age of thirty, typically due to motherhood. The male sex deficit grows steadily over the life cycle...The laws of supply and demand determine the value of everything, in sexuality as in other areas. Male sexuality is worthless, because of excess supply at zeros cost.

Attractiveness then is a bargaining commodity, women using men’s sexual appetites for their own purposes and financial gain. Men are there to be exploited and this is to be achieved by women using their sexual appeal, rather than erasing it. Hakim wants women to act as objects of sexual desire because in this way they can control the market place of private relationships and public commerce. “The male sex deficit allows women to leverage the exchange value of women’s erotic capital to a higher level,” writes Hakim. In other words, Angelina Jolie would not be paid as much as she does if she was plain looking.

Western radical feminism, she believes, has restricted women’s potential to use their erotic capital and in doing so plays into the hands of patriarchy. In Hakim’s thinking the stripper, the lap-dancer and the prostitute are simply using their erotic capital to gain appropriate financial rewards. Women in every sphere of life should do the same in order to gain financial and personal benefits that are presently denied them.

This has happened because, in order to maintain their patriarchal dominance, men have chosen to portray beautiful women as “bimbos” and beauty as only "skin deep.” Hakim reiterates the cliched criticism of Christianity as reinforcing “the Madonna/whore dichotomy of the two Marys – the virginal mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene, the beautiful courtesan and repentant sinner. Pleasure, beauty and sensuality were presented as invitations to sin, transgression, iniquity.”

This is one of the most depressing books I have read for a long time. Life devalued to a series of financial transactions or power games. Men are little more than slaves to their genitals and passions. Women forced to recreate themselves as pornographic fantasies in order to capitalise on the base longings of men. Relationships between men and women, such as marriage, are just bargaining enterprises, where a woman can withhold sexual favours in order to get what she wants. Lipgloss is to be preferred to learning - the fake sun tan to the dignity of womanhood. The idea of love is relegated to some romantic ideal with no currency in the contemporary market place. We cannot rise above our sexual and economic impulses. Money and sex make us who we are.

The problem with this sexonomics vision of men and women is that it does not correspond with reality where the desire for authentic, self-giving and life-giving love motivates us. This reality is concerned with that which lies beyond surface appearances and is the place where the loving heart of who we are is revealed. Here, beauty and truth are related. To live this reality is, I am convinced, what truly liberates men and women.

Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, by Catherine Hakim, Allen Lane, 2011

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

One Man, Two Guvnors

One Man, Two Guvnors is a retelling by Richard Bean of Carlo Goldoni’s classic comedy, The Servant of Two Masters. The action has been moved from Italy of 1746 to Brighton of 1962. While retaining the farce structure of the original, Bean gives the play a very British comedy makeover. This is less Commedia dell’arte and more Up Pompeii and Carry on. One Man, Two Guvnors is two and a half hours of unapologetic silliness and fun. Never have I seen a National Theatre audience enjoy themselves so much and laugh so loudly.

This production (directed by Nicholas Hytner) combines physical and verbal comedy with such wit and imagination that the audience can relax in the knowledge that it is going to be entertained. The scenes with an octogenarian waiter serving soup still has the power to make me smile twenty four hours later. James Corden (of Gavin and Stacey fame) almost steals the show, with his insatiable appetite for food and buxom women – it is a very funny performance – but this is an ensemble piece, with every actor milking their caricatures for all they are worth. The actors appear to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience.

One Man, Two Guvnors has no big message, no existential angst. It is just great fun. Panto for adults and an antidote to Puritanism. One Man, Two Guvnors tranfers to the West End in November. Treat yourself. Fun is good.

Monday, 12 September 2011

P.J. Harvey wins

I wrote an earlier post on P.J.Harvey's fantastic album, Let England Shake...and I'm delighted to hear that it has just won this year's Mercury Music Prize.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

On Canaan's side

If The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is concerned with the unreliability of memory, then another Booker-shortlisted novel is about the necessity of memory for anchoring our identity. Lily Bere, the eighty-nine year old narrator of On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, sifts the memories of her long and tragic life. “What is the sound of an eighty-nine year old heart breaking?” she asks. Her “confession” provides the answer, where “a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.” Raking through the ancient store of her memories, Lily substantiates this assertion.

After the First World War, the young Lily is betrothed to Tadg Bere. He has enlisted for the Black and Tans, the Army regiment recruited to suppress any revolutionary impulses within Ireland. As a Catholic, he becomes a hunted man when a death sentence is placed on his head by the IRA. Lily and Tadg flee Sligo and cross the Atlantic to the security of America.

For Lily, America is the promised land. She is an archetype of the grateful immigrant, “a voyager in love with the place of her voyage.” But there is no escape from the enmities of the past and in New York, Tadg is murdered. Lily goes on the run. On Canaan’s Side interweaves the domestic details of Lily’s life in America with the broader sweep of history – the Second World War, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, the nuclear age and the Gulf War.

Employing a heightened lyricism, Barry describes the interplay between the memory of historic events and those quotidian experiences and people that coalesce in the memory to illuminate an ordinary life. For Lily, the memory of a golden afternoon on a rollercoaster with her husband has as much significance as hearing the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Both events make an impression on her, but only the joy of the fairground ride penetrates her being and is formative. “We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that,” Lily points out.

Barry writes with all the concentrated attention of a poet. His prose is attuned to the pulse of life in all its sorrows and solaces– those stirrings and quickenings that reveal themselves to us in recollection and amplify the whispered cadences of the soul. As Lily puts it:

To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow. You have climbed it.

And I notice again in the writing of this confession that there is nothing called long-ago after all. When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again. What it is that allows them I don’t know. I have been happy now and then in the last two weeks, the special happiness that is offered from the hand of sorrow.

On Canaan’s Side, Sebastian Barry, Faber, 2011

Friday, 2 September 2011

Life Together

This summer’s riots in England acted as a catalyst for intense public and private debate about difficult, state of the nation questions. Much of the discussion revolved around the ubiquitous notion of “Broken Britain”, an umbrella term for the sense that this once “green and pleasant land” is experiencing widespread moral, spiritual, economic and social degeneration. “Broken Britain” conjures up images of menacing, dead-eyed youths in hoodies, lawless council estates through which huddles of pale-faced girls push baby buggies. Broken Britain is shorthand for the erosion of anything that might be described as “community”.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2010 book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone summarises this position: by 2009, they claim, Britons had become “anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life.” This is a summary of Britain as a more individualistic society, one where the civil cement that holds people together is crumbling and the idea of “community” is under threat.

However, there exist dissident voices that challenge this terminal diagnosis. They claim that such views simply play to our prejudices, romanticise the past and over simplify the present situation. One such voice is Henry Hemming. In his provocative book, Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, Hemming argues that the current proliferation of small groups and associations – everything from the local book club to the knitting club to the five-a-side kick about to the prayer group – is evidence of a trend moving in the opposite direction to the grim predictions of communitarian demise. This surge of small associations has been largely missed or ignored by commentators who prefer to peddle a pessimistic agenda.

These associations (and there are estimated to be some 1.5 million of them in Britain) are evidence that the ideal of “community” is very much alive and that Britain may not be as “broken” as we imagine. Hemming writes:

…a growing number of Britons now experience community not just in their neighbourhoods, or the ethnic and religious groups into which they are born, but the associations they belong to. In these small groups we forge meaningful and lasting connections to one another: we communicate, make decisions as one, we work together towards shared ends.

Hemming contends that these new associations are gradually replacing static understandings of community (e.g. those based on geography or religious affiliation) with communities that have a more fluid and flexible character. He argues that this has come about, in part, because of the declining influence of Christianity:

A Mori poll conducted in 2003 found that 45 per cent of Britons could not name a single Christian gospel. Only 18 per cent knew the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although our morality and cultural references retain elements of this shared Christian heritage, you will find far fewer Christian narratives, idioms or references in twenty-first century novels, plays, films and obituaries than you would have done half a century earlier.

This loss of Faith, Hemming believes, inevitably involves the loss of a social sense of belonging. Large numbers of people are no longer bound together in community by the life of the sacraments, liturgy or religious festivals. The parish church can no longer claim to be the hub of community life. “And who or what shall fill his place?” asked Thomas Hardy in his poem, God’s Funeral, “Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes/ for some fixed star to stimulate their pace?”

But this new breed of wanderers are not just trying to fill the “God-shaped hole” in their hearts, they are also aware of a gaping church-shaped hole in their social lives that requires attention. And this has led many people to exchange the parish-based community for new, secular models of community that can respond to their social needs. These communities are “creative minorities”, small groups, less fixed and more mobile, communities that people voluntarily join instead of being born into.

What weakens Hemming’s argument is his uncritical regard for the small group, seeing it as the answer to the increased spatial mobility and technological advances (particularly, the advent of the internet) which have undermined conventional expressions of community. For example, he presents all “new” associations in a positive light without giving any consideration to the value of the “things” that have brought the people together. But is there a difference between joining my local BNP group and joining the local Pilates group? What part does the object around which we associate play or is every act of coming together in a small group socially valuable?

On the other hand, Hemming has a low opinion of “traditional” ways of being community, considering them to be calcified. The parish church or the local community can no longer “inspire the same level of commitment, fellowship or identity that you might find within, say, a thriving book group, a five-a-side football team, a residents’ association or a band of historical re-enactors.” This contentious claim is open to question. One might ask, for example, how Hemming measures levels of commitment, fellowship or identity in order to make such a damning comparison.

In his enthusiasm for the idea of community, has Hemming not proposed too rigid a model? Must our understanding of “community” fall within one or other of Hemming’s binary descriptions? Can people not move between different expressions of togetherness – large or small, ancient or modern? Is it the case that new ways of relating necessarily involves the rejection of historically proven ways of relating? Can they not co-exist? Must we polarise our understanding of reality?

Where Hemming is more persuasive is in his evangelical advocacy of the importance of communion for human beings. “What life have you if you have not life together?” wonders the chorus in T.S.Eliot’s The Rock.

Hemming is convinced that community is as important and valuable today as it was fifty, a hundred or a thousand years ago. The heart of the good life is where the personal and communal are held in proper relationship. Associations have the potential to foster fellowship, stability and offer a shared sense of identity that is often expressed (even in its secular form) through traditions, rituals and objects. They make for human well being and can provide respite from the “weariness, fever and fret” of everyday life. They are the places where we explore and learn and play. Choosing to be part of a group can be a positive, radical choice that stops us being swept along by the tide of consumerist options presented to us. In this sense, community has the potential to earth us and gives us what we were made for - a more complete life together.

Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, Henry Hemming, John Murray Publishers, 2011

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Arsenal, Nihilsm and the Meaning of Life

Simon Barnes, the sports journalist, muses (The Times 26/8/11) on the Champions League play off between Arsenal and Udinese. Prior to the match, the majority of pundits predicted that Arsenal would lose. The pundits were proved wrong. Arsenal won. But what caught my attention was a philosophical aside in the article. Barnes writes:

We humans understand what happens in the world by making a story out of it. Narrative is the way we think, the way we see the world. Sport keeps us enthralled not only because of the beauty of its action but also because of the unending narratives it presents us with. And what is a story without a moral? A story that has no meaning is no story at all, it’s just a recording of the chaos of life. We make narratives to make sense of the chaos, to make the chaos bearable.

This appears to be a thinly disguised form of nihilism: life viewed as nothing more than a series of contingent, chaotic events. But human beings, not having the strength to sustain this view in their everyday lives, impose fabricated narratives (in some cases, religious meta-narratives) on this chaos to deceive themselves into thinking that life does have meaning. Sport, Barnes suggests, is one of those narratives that appears “to make the chaos bearable”. But the meaning is an illusion. Life is absurd.

Part of my holiday reading was a collection of essays, Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, by John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. As the title of the book suggests, Haldane opposes the subversive position that “searching for meaning in life is like hunting for unicorns – both are pointless activities based on empty myths.”

The nihilist argues that we cannot trust the cultural order to provide us with clues as to who we are and how we ought to live. The social, moral, aesthetic and spiritual spheres are so fragmented that the tools to construct a human philosophy – a way for living wisely – are no longer available to us. As a consequence, we have been set adrift in an indifferent universe. Our lives are meaningless. The way we understand ourselves and the world around is desiccated. This is “the postmodern condition”.

In response, Haldane believes that it is possible to show that the various areas of human life – society, art, science, nature, politics, morals, religion – do contain objective value and that these values can be known by human reason. Demonstrating this will refute the nihilist’s impoverished view of man and society.

Contrary to the critics, most human beings continue to believe that there are values and goods in life worth pursuing. Such values and goods integrate and stabilise the way we act and think. They make us free and stop us being slaves to whim, desire and fashion. Part of the recognisable human form of life is to look for meaning - that which ennobles and unifies the way we experience and live life. Haldane writes:

I believe we need a re-articulation of older conceptions of human nature, human values and public culture. In the first instance this may be a task for philosophers, but the various intellectual disciplines and the elements of deep culture such as the arts have an essential role to play if a sense of value and meaning is to become prevalent once more. Certainly one cannot operate as if “modernity” had not been, nor should one simply ignore the points made by postmodern critics. Reform and renewal are recurrent necessities in any living tradition: naïve pre-modernism is not an option; and the idea of a Golden Age untroubled by scepticism is a fantasy of the ignorant. But before we try to finesse older ways of thinking we need first to show that they are not bankrupt.

Essay by essay, Seeking Meaning and Making Sense considers those areas of life familiar to humans and uncovers that which is valuable within them. As the quotation above indicates, this is not an exercise in nostalgia nor an attempt to pastiche the past (attitudes that are becoming increasingly fashionable in a number of religious and cultural arenas). Instead, Haldane is attempting something more demanding and subtle – to retrieve those ways of thinking that can now creatively contribute to an animating philosophy of what it means to be human at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He makes no secret of the fact that underpinning this retrieval is his conviction that human beings “can make sense of things by having discovered real truths about human life and its fulfilment”.

In this slim volume, Haldane casts a forensic eye over a wide ranging cultural landscape, from embryonic stem cell research to The Exorcist to the artist, Richard Long. All that is missing is an essay that references Arsenal. If there was one, I am confident that Haldane would make a strong case for homo ludens finding real meaning in his sport and play.

Seeking Meaning and Making Sense, John Haldane, Imprint Academic, 2008

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Leadership and a sacred heart

Earlier in the summer, The Times newspaper carried a photo of the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, carrying a pile of books. His holiday reading. One of the books was Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by two Harvard leadership experts, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. It’s an ambitious and inspirational book, with a wealth of practical advice and vivid stories that successfully illustrate its serious academic intent.

I’ve been thinking about what makes for good leadership - the kind of leadership that carries people through change (sometimes, difficult change where people may be asked to give up values, habits and the things they hold dear in exchange for an uncertain future). A leadership that inspires/ challenges people with new ways of acting and thinking and has the determination to make sure a “vision” doesn’t just remain an admirable idea but becomes a concrete reality that can actually be lived. I thought Leadership on the Line might help knock my undisciplined thoughts into some shape. It did.

Leading is a perilous activity – leading a team, a family, a parish, a company, etc –and is rarely achieved without some personal cost. It can mean making others face uncomfortable truths about themselves and particular situations. Asking people to question the status quo, to consider alternative models of reality and have them accept change is never easy. In fact, it can be very painful for all concerned. People may try to derail, marginalise or sabotage your ideas. Challenging an institution, corporation or society, can unleash personal criticism. You might be ridiculed, ostracised or persecuted. There is a chance that you will be branded a “troublemaker” or, worse, a “traitor”. As Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they get angry, then you win.” Although, experience suggests Gandhi’s upbeat conclusion is not always the case.

There are not only the dangers inherent in presenting your ideas to others, but the challenge of making sure those ideas are taken seriously and acted upon. Finding ways to ensure that a proposed change becomes an historic reality takes time, perseverance and grit. It is rarely achieved single-handedly or overnight.

Given all this, it’s easy to see why we many of us shy away from leadership roles in preference for the quiet life, the one that does not rock the boat and keeps us popular. I’ve heard myself use the phrase, “Let’s leave well alone”, when, in truth, I knew that all was far from “well” but that I wasn’t prepared to take a lead in trying to improve it.

Heifetz and Linsky remind us that although leadership is a risky business, used wisely, it can also have incredible value. Leadership makes a difference. It can bring about positive change and help others to live more complete, stable lives. Leadership gives our lives a potent meaning - one that is, ultimately, rooted in love and service:

…the answer to the question “Why lead?” is both simple and profound. The sources of meaning most essential in the human experience draw from our yearning for connection with other people. The exercise of leadership can give life meaning beyond the usual day-to-day stakes – approval of friends and peers, material gain, or the immediate gratification of success – because, as a practical art, leadership allows us to connect with others in a significant way. The word we use for that kind of connection is love.

To find the word “love” in a textbook on leadership is surprising. But Heifetz and Linsky’s aim is to reveal the fundamental philosophy that lies behind all forms of leadership, the “thing” that will make all the stresses, strains and setbacks of leadership meaningful. Their radical thesis is that love makes for good leadership. Only this orientation gives someone the courage to raise difficult questions and search for creative answers to them. This search can unleash all sorts of tensions and conflict. Yet, you often need some conflict in order for an issue to really surface and be considered honestly, otherwise, the issue lies dormant and nothing changes. But, it is not helpful if tensions boil over and the temperature cannot be controlled. The challenge is to find ways for people to absorb change and to make sure that new adaptations are deep rooted and not just superficial exercises with no long term dimension. Depending on circumstances, this might be achieved in a bold, radical way or by small baby steps.

At the same time, the leader must be aware of his own “hungers”, those human frailties that can so easily distort the very meaning of leadership and turn it into a vehicle of exploitation and abuse. Heifetz and Linsky name some of those hungers: an excessive desire for power and control, the desperate need for affirmation and a sense of your own importance, the use of your position to transgress sexual boundaries in a reckless search for intimacy. Heifetz and Linsky caution:

History is replete with charismatic authorities who, with their self-importance and air of certainty, galvanized people looking for certainty.

Most people who preach or teach know something of this appeal. There is a strong temptation to believe it when people say, “You’re the One.” Of course, you may indeed have valuable wisdom, but the need to be of special importance creates a dangerous condition, where leading can become misleading

What purifies the “hungers” of a leader and keeps them under control is love. We need to develop, what Heifetz and Linsky call, a “sacred heart”. They explain: “A sacred heart means you may feel tortured and betrayed, powerless and hopeless, and yet stay open…you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes.” In other words, love is leadership’s internal dynamic:

Any form of service to others is an expression, essentially, of love. And because the opportunities for service are always present, there are few, if any, reasons that anyone should lack for rich and deep experiences of meaning in life.

Exercising leadership is a way of giving meaning to your life by contributing to the lives of others. At its best, leadership is a labor of love. Opportunities for these labors cross your path every day, though we appreciate through the scar tissue of our own experiences that seizing these opportunities takes heart.

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review Press, 2002

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Project Nim: Chimps and the language of love

In November 1973, the psychology department of Columbia University headed by Herbert Terrace began a potentially groundbreaking experiment. An infant male chimpanzee was taken from his mother a few days after birth and placed in the care of a “surrogate” human family living in Manhattan. The aim of the experiment was to examine whether the chimpanzee could acquire enough sign language to communicate with human beings. The chimpanzee was christened Nim Chimpsky a play on the name of the celebrated linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky, who contends that human beings alone are hard wired for language.

James Marsh (the director of the acclaimed Man on Wire) has taken this experiment as the subject matter for his latest film-documentary, Project Nim. “I wondered whether it was actually going to be possible to devote a whole film to the life story of an individual animal – and one who is no longer with us,” Marsh explains, “Nim’s life was lived entirely in view of humans and was very well documented in photographs and on film.”

Utilising these sources, Marsh adds contemporary testimonies from those involved in the experiment. These provide fascinating insights into the tendency to anthropomorphism and the very nature of language itself. Project Nim is far more than a film about hubristic scientists or animal cruelty. Without sacrificing cinematic pace or tension (the film’s editing by Jinx Godfrey is a thing to behold), Marsh exposes the dubious philosophical principles that underpinned this experiment and presents this as evidence of the larger moral contradictions that existed in the 1970’s.

For example, Project Nim provides a cultural snapshot of sexual mores in the 1970's. Promiscuity appears to have been the norm in this particular academic jungle. Here, the myth of sexual liberation was played out but without any of the ideological sexual theorising of the 1960’s and, before, the spread of AIDS had cast its shadow. Research assistants were invariably young, beautiful women, handpicked by Terrace, to satisfy his sexual, as well as, intellectual requirements. “I don’t think my feelings about [research assistant] Laura [Pettito] got in the way of science,” he feebly explains at one point. The evidence suggests otherwise. Nick Roddick considering such sexual behaviour writes:

“They may tell us nothing about Nim, but they do tell us a lot about the 1970’s. The notion of emotional responsibility – to partners, children, and, indeed, other human beings – is absent, as is any idea of treating Nim himself as a sentient being with his own agenda, rather than the subject of an experiment. As a result, Nim learns more about the people than most of the people learn about Nim.”

This final speculative assertion is open to debate, but what Marsh’s film does prove was that Nim did learn some basic sign language. His favourite signs were “play”, “banana” and when he got bored in the research lab, “potty”, which meant that he would be taken out to the toilet. Nim could make himself understood to human beings. However, the scientists had hoped that by using a language human beings could interpret, the veil separating species would be lifted and we would be given a chimpanzee’s view of the world (a bit like in James Lever’s satirical autobiography of Tarzan’s chimp companion, Me Cheeta). This never happened.

Nim only used language to communicate his immediate needs and wants. His motives (if we can speak of motives) were purely selfish. His language was, thus, limited. When he wanted affection or attention, he would sign “play”. When he wanted food, he would sign “banana”. He had no interest in acquiring language that could express other conditions, possibly because those other conditions (even if they existed within his mental ambit) were of little or no interest to a chimpanzee.

Human beings use language to express needs. But language is also a sublime tool to communicate ideas that transcend such base, self-aggrandizing impulses and passions. On the one hand, language shapes and orders our lives. It helps us describe the world around us and helps us navigate our way through that world in practical and poetic ways. But, language can, also, be used creatively to speak, for example, of the sacred or of the human being as a mystery. There is a language that arises as much from wonder as from knowing. A language that is not interested in explaining life, but is interested in capturing it in all its heartbreaking glory. Such language allows us to utter words of healing benevolence and offer blessings. It feeds the hunger of the soul and makes the invisible appear. Language articulates our disgust at death and acts as a repository for grief.

Above all, human beings use language in a way that points beyond themselves to realities that exist outside themselves. Language bridges these realities, reconciling them without erasing their differences or contradictions. Used in this miraculous way, language becomes a defining characteristic that sets human beings apart from all other animals. Unlike any other species, human beings can speak (often, in a faltering, inarticulate manner) a language of love. We can sound love for each other. Nim couldn’t. The language of love is unique to human beings. It makes us who we are. It makes us more than animals.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Sense of an Ending

Memory shapes who we are or, more accurately, it provides points of reference by which we can claim some understanding of ourselves. Individual memories accumulate like geological strata and have a formative function in accounting for a person. Memories place us within history, assure us that we are not isolated monads. Early memories (our first friendships, our first love affair and so on) have a particular potency. Yet, our memories are rarely reliable accounts of a particular event, let alone accurate descriptions of the person we are. The process of remembering is a slippery affair. It can be partial, prejudiced, tainted with historical imperfections and the desire to reinvent ourselves in the best possible light. As Julian Barnes writes in his latest book, The Sense of an Ending:

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

Tony Webster, the narrator in The Sense of the Ending, is a man in his late sixties who has led an unremarkable life, someone “who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him”. “What did I know of life?” he wonders at the end of the novel. It is a question familiar to many of us.

A mysterious letter makes him revisit his schoolboy friendships with a gang of three boys who were joined by a fourth, Adrian Finn, who possessed a laser-sharp mind. In a history lesson, Finn challenges the teacher about the causes of the First World War: “That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

With the passage of time, the bonds of boyhood friendship unravel and the friends lose contact. Webster marries and divorces and works in arts administration. But, he cannot shake off the memory of his first girlfriend, Veronica, whose family he spent an awkward weekend with. In the end, Veronica dumped him for Finn. Yet, when Webster learns that Finn committed suicide and left him his diary, the past returns with a renewed vibrancy. Finn, Veronica and that weekend begin to acquire new, unsettling meanings. The novel becomes an investigation into the way memory can betray us and can have the property of psychological quicksand. In Webster's case, it is the surfacing of new facts that makes him revise long-held versions of the past that he held to be “true”.

The question Barnes is interested in is how does one interpret the past and one’s involvement in it. Can we rely on memory alone? Is the way we remember figures from our past accurate or is it riddled with the woodworm of falsity? Webster reflecting on Adrian’s early death muses:

When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you are in life, and might become. Later...later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.

The Sense of an Ending has all the tension of a psychological thriller and the final denouement makes the reader question everything he has read in the previous 150 pages. It is a page turner (an intelligent read for any summer holiday), but one filled with unsettling ideas and insights. A lucid and provocative novel that will stay in my memory for a long time.

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, 2011

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Lance Armstrong: cancer, a yellow jersey and life

I recently accused someone of being too competitive. I’m not competitive, he countered, I’m interested in competition. It’s a subtle distinction that you could not imagine the cyclist, Lance Armstrong, making. He is fiercely competitive, swaggeringly self-confident and driven. Putting on his socks in the morning could easily become a time trial for someone like him. But, I suspect, he is not very different to many top class sportsmen and women. Yet, it is the young Armstrong’s braggadocio and intolerance of any form of weakness that make him so difficult to like. He’s an invincible superman on a bike, playing to all the worst American stereotypes: brash, loud, in your face. He doesn’t seem to be one of us or, at any rate, he doesn’t want to be one of those who are known as the mortals.

The compelling quality about Armstrong’s autobiography (ghost written by Sally Jenkins), It’s not About the Bike, is that he exposes these personal defects and makes no attempt to rationalise them away. But this courageous self-knowledge was only achieved after he was diagnosed with advanced, stage 4 testicular cancer in 1996. This gut-winding news made Armstrong realise that he was, in fact, a mortal, one of us:

My illness was humbly and starkly revealing, and it forced me to survey my life with an unforgiving eye. There are some shameful episodes in it: instances of meanness, unfinished tasks, weakness, and regrets. I had to ask myself, “If I live who is it that I intend to be?” I found that I had a lot of growing to do as a man.

I won’t kid you. There are two Lance Armstrong, pre-cancer , and post. Everybody’s favourite question is “How did cancer change you?” The real question is how didn’t change me? I left my house on October 2, 1996, as one person and came back home another. I was a world-class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank...I returned a different person, literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.

However, there are no purple passages in this book where Armstrong romanticises his cancer or makes it a cheap vehicle for self-improvement tips. Any moments of self-understanding are weighed against the terror of seeing one’s mortality up close and personal, the debilitating horrors of chemotherapy, the sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach as you wait for the next scan result, the sadness in the eyes of family and close friends. Illumination is not easily achieved. It is not a superficial process. For Armstrong, the dying to one’s old self in order to rise to a new life, was as gruelling, dangerous and lonely an experience as any Tour de France uphill climb. Yet, it also proved an opportunity to escape from the factory of alibis that maintained the personal inauthenticity he had grown accustomed to. It was a chance to win back his life. He writes:

There is an unthinking simplicity in something so hard [as cycling], which is why there ‘s probably some truth to the idea that all world-class athletes are actually running away from something. Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. “Pleasure” I said. “I don’t understand the question.” I didn’t do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.

Before the cancer, I had never examined the psychology of jumping on a bicycle and riding for six hours. The reasons weren’t especially tangible to me; a lot of what we do doesn’t make sense to us while we’re doing it. I didn’t want to dissect it, because that might let the genie out of the bottle.

But now I knew exactly why I was riding: if I could continue to pedal a bike, somehow I wouldn’t be so sick.

It’s Not About the Bike may focus on Armstrong’s cancer, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse behind the coloured blur of the peloton. I know nothing about cycling. But, after reading Armstrong’s book, I have gained some appreciation of how finely calibrated this sport is, where every fraction of acceleration is analysed and measured. It is a sport of personal rivalry and bodies pushed to the very extremes of what they are physically capable of. And along with the endless manoeuvring for best position on the road, there is the chasing of agents, sponsors and the best support team. This is a game of chess played out on feather light bicycles and at high-speed. The chapters describing Armstrong’s training for the punishing 2,500 km Tour de France in 1999 and his eventual victory are as exciting as any piece of sports writing I have come across. It is a riveting read.

Slipping on the maillot jeune, the yellow jersey worn by the winner of each stage of the Tour de France, took on a symbolic significance for Armstrong. He recognised that he could not be defined by his achievements – however, impressive they were – but that his significance was to be found elsewhere. It was who he was that mattered. “Sometimes I think the biggest thing cancer did was knock down a wall in me. Before cancer I defined myself in terms of winner or loser, but I don’t have that kind of rigid vanity anymore.”

In the final analysis, this autobiography is what it says on the cover. It is not a book about the bike. It is a book about Lance Armstrong and some of those tangible and intangible things that make us want to both embrace and reach beyond our mortality. A book, then, about life.

It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins, Yellow Jersey Press, 2001

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tracey Emin and abortion

In 1990, Tracy Emin underwent a “botched” abortion of twins. It is this traumatic event that provides the centre of artistic gravity at the current Hayward Gallery retrospective of her work. She approaches the subject of this abortion with a range of different media: video, sculpture, letters, scratchy monoprints, appliqued blankets, watercolours and scraps of ephemera. These different expressions conjure up acute and oblique associations with the termination. Together, they provide an artistic time capsule cementing her memory of the abortion to the physical and psychological cost of having it.

There are objects of great tenderness and emotional power: an unfinished baby shawl, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl (1998-2004), and vitrines with neat displays of baby clothes and tiny shoes lovingly created for the human life she terminated. Such objects are vehicles through which Emin can grieve her action, capturing not only the loss of innocent life but, also, the loss of the experience of motherhood.

Emin is not emotionally neutral to the abortion, far from it. There is no sense that she views abortion as just one medical procedure among others or that she is promoting an ideological stance. Emin openly recognises the reality of her actions - that she has ended a human life – and the devastating consequences of doing so. One consequence was that Emin destroyed all her work and did nothing creative for over two years. The abortion creatively paralysed her. In this sense, Emin’s experience is not uncommon to that of many women who have undergone abortions. The raw details in Emin’s work eloquently express how her intentional destruction of an unborn human life inflicted deep psychic wounds on her soul.

And it is this notion of “the soul” that Emin returns to again and again. In Emin’s artistic vocabulary, “the soul” becomes a recurring leitmotif. The 2001 neon sculpture, You forgot to kiss my soul, speaks of desires that go beyond mere eroticism. Her 1994 journey across the United States, from San Francisco to New York, was famously punctuated with readings from her book “Explorations of the Soul”. Of course, it is impossible to establish what “the soul” means for Emin. Severed from any specific religious meaning, the idea drifts and collects secular accretions. Yet, it is clear that for Emin “the soul” is not a completely meaningless concept. It is an attempt, an albeit clumsy attempt, to articulate an interior reality that is unique to Man. An invisible core and unity within us that gives our lives a distinctive dimension.

In the well-known soap opera of Tracy Emin’s life (from Margate "slag" to establishment figure of the contemporary art scene), it is the work around the 1990 abortion that truly resonates. It is a sobering reminder that most women do not have abortions lightly. They do understand the destructive meaning of this action and they often struggle to deal with the consequences of it for many years to come.

Yet, what is absent from Emin’s work (as with much of the “popular” discussion surrounding abortion) is any attempt to provide a moral context. In her twenty minute video, How It Feels, Emin candidly describes her abortion but this is done as an almost entirely subjective, feeling based description. Valuable though that perspective may be, the idea that abortion may also be considered rationally from an ethical standpoint is ignored. Instead, Emin takes the default position: “Abortion has been sanctioned. It is a given” and this is enough to give it some form of moral credibility. There is no discussion of whether this act is morally wrong. Thus Emin concludes, “I would have been so much happier had I not had the abortions, but I truly believe that I would have been so much unhappier if I had had the children." And there the moral debate appears to end in her mind. Yet this hedonistic utilitarian response means she is forced to live with an uneasy tension. And such a tension inevitably leads to a perverse rationalisation of her actions:

When I first started becoming successful, I believed I was in a Faustian pact, and in return for my children's souls, I had been given my success. I am not a Catholic, but I have a profound belief in the soul. It's only now, now that I know that it will never bas filled with strange guilt and misunderstanding of myself. I felt that my abortions had somehow been possible for me to have children, that the guilt has finally lifted. I give a lot out into the world, and I care and love for all that I create. It's a really big endeavour that extends much further than just the ego of myself.

Such muddled, relativising thinking is not uncommon. Emin uses the prevalent consequentialist language of our age where “the ends justify the means”. And yet such language looks suspect before the stark challenge of tiny shoes carefully arranged in a simple, single line.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Body Fascism vs. Lucian Freud

The images that surround us of the human body are largely manufactured, photo-shopped assemblages. They cannot be trusted. They are counterfeit representations of what it means to be an enfleshed being.

The body fascists - those who wish to alter the body's meaning - have made it their mission to uncover every dissident blemish, stretch mark or fleshy ridge and airbrush them out of existence. Women’s bodies have become pornographic constructions. Part Lara Croft and part Barbie Doll. They bear no resemblance to anything that could be described as natural. And that’s the point, the natural is a thing repellent to modern sensibilities where the artificial has captured the imagination of a Nip/Tuck generation. Men’s bodies are also under the same reconstruction. It is the homoerotic body of the gym bunny on the cover of Men's Health magazine that men are to aspire to. A pumped, ripped, shredded physique that has little to do with masculinity and everything to do with a pathological narcissism, a flexing and posing in the mirror of our physical insecurities. In contemporary culture, the idea that we are flesh has become unacceptable. The human body has become a taboo.

Lucian Freud loved the human body. Not the fictions created by advertising agencies and pornographic websites, but the human body in all its fleshiness and rawness. Like all great artists, he wanted to destroy the taboos surrounding the human body. He wanted to represent our fleshy reality with all its fierce imperfections, astonishing proportions and weight, seductive originality. His paintings are works that reverence every natural expression of the flesh and that is why so many people (blinded by the cataracts of body fascism) find his work so disturbing and subversive. Freud’s paintings challenge every manufactured image around us. They bypass false images of the human body and show, in the most candid manner, the glory of human nakedness.

In Freud’s work, every brushstoke, colour combination and assertive line defines the contours and crevices of the human body. There is nothing tight and toned about Freud’s nudes. He is not afraid to show us the way human skin stretches and slips, in fact, he relishes the fact. He loves the sagging midriff, the flabby breast or moob, the slack backside. Training his clinical eye on the human body, he finds its infinite variations a source of aesthetic fascination.

The art critic, Michael Kimmelman has observed that Freud’s paintings and etchings are more than highly-achieved figurative representations but that they remind us of a profound truth, that we are “all vulnerable and sublime in our ordinariness”. The Aryan body physique represents a power and control that aims to rival nature and reinvent creation. It despises the human body in all its weakness and fragile beauty. Freud’s oeuvre places nature in all its ambiguity and strangeness at the very heart of his artistic enterprise. Nature is to be respected. The human form, nature’s most complete and original expression, is a thing which can only make us pause in silent wonder. Freud’s masterpieces remind us of this fact and will continue to do so for many generations to come.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Separation

The Iranian film director, Asghar Farhadi’s film, A Separation, won the Golden Bear at Berlin this year. It is easy to see why. A messy, acrimonious divorce leads to a complex web of social, moral and religious dilemmas. The film is so morally nuanced that every finely calibrated glance or hesitation alters the audience’s perspective on the characters and what we understood about a particular situation. Moral ambiguities ratchet up the tension in the film. Farhadi is interested in the very nature of morality. He asks: "How do we measure morality, and on what basis can we say whether an action or decision is just or not? When I'm asked why I don't divide my characters into good and bad people, my answer is to ask what measurement I should use to divide them?"

The audience, far from being passive popcorn spectators, is cast as a jury who must acquire the wisdom of Solomon and try to determine some form of moral resolution. It is clear from the opening scene – a hearing between the warring husband and wife – that Farhadi is not going to patronise his audience with easy answers but make them work hard.

The marriage of a middle class couple, Nader and Simin, is falling apart. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband and daughter, Termeh, but he refuses to do so. Nader’s main argument for staying is that they must look after his elderly father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Simin moves out, Nader is forced to make provision for his father’s care and he hires a working class woman, Razeih, to look after him while he is at work. In the opening half hour of the film, Farhadi sets up this complex web of combustible relationships. When he lights the touch paper, he ignites questions concerned with the nature of truth and lies, faith and reason, modernizing attitudes and those that wish to preserve the status quo, moral responses that are influenced by secular influences and those where a sense of sin prevails. In an interview, Farhadi says:

Yes, and there are even more divisions – between father and daughter, for instance. But the main separation – the most important in Iranian society – is that between the different classes. A lot of people in Iran today lean towards a modern way of life, yet there are those who are more traditionalist, who want to go back to a mythical olden day. For the middles classes it’s more to do with individual freedoms. Class is where the real struggle lies. It’s turning into a hidden war.

Such divisions in society and religion are familiar in the West. But A Separation never deteriorates into inert ideological positions. Farhadi refuses to take sides. Instead, he uses domestic, human trials to provide a window into the broader legal, theocratic and class structures of Iranian society. Farhadi is determined not to caricature Iranian society, to turn it into a cartoon Muslim state. For example, he makes clear that there is no homogeneous, simple response to Islam. The educated, Nader and Simin, are not devout. The carer, Razeih, is religious. When Nader’s father wets himself, her first response is to phone an imam for the correct religious response. Can she as a woman help clean the old man? What would the Koran permit in such a situation? How far can you go? And it is the Koran in the final scenes of the film that seals the fate of Nader, who is accused of murdering an unborn child.

A Separation is not an Iranian film, but a film about a marriage in meltdown and that is something that transcends cultures. Beautifully acted, A Separation has all the tension of an Alfred Hitchcock film and will leave you with sweaty palms. But it also has a penetrating intelligence that continually shifts moral expectations and makes you think deeply. Not many films do that these days. A Separation honours the audience by treating it as an intelligent community. That is what the very best cinema should and can do. A Separation does.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

London Road

The serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006 and the impact on the local community doesn’t sound the most promising material for a musical, but London Road at the National Theatre is one of the most original pieces of musical theatre you are ever likely to see. London Road is proof that a musical can be more than superficial entertainment, that it can deal with weighty, nuanced subject matter, such as, the meaning of community and the possibility of reconciliation.

In the programme note Alecky Blythe how she interviewed all those who had been affected by the murder of the prostitutes and used these verbatim interviews – with their every “um” and “hmmm” – as the basis of the work:

My first interviews from Ipswich were collected on 15 December 2006: five bodies had been found and no arrests had been made. The town was at the height of its fear. I had been gripped and appalled by the spiralling tragedies that were unravelling in Ipswich during that dark time...It was not what was mainly being reported in the media about the victims or the possible suspects that drew me to Ipswich, but the ripples it created in the wider community in the lives of those on the periphery.

However it was not until six months later on returning to Ipswich to gauge the temperature of the town post arrests but pre-trial, that I stumbled upon what was to me the most interesting development so far. A Neighbourhood Watch that had been set up at the time of the murders had organised a London Road in Bloom competition and the street could not have looked more different from when it had been under siege by the media scrum the winter before. ..Such was the impact of the terrible happenings in that area that the community had come together and set up a series of events, from gardening competitions to quiz nights, in order to try to heal itself.

In Rufus Norris’s brilliant production, this transformation occurs before your eyes as a tea urn produces a hanging basket and the stage blossoms with begonias, petunias, fuchsias and creates an oasis of suburban hope for the community. The composer, Adam Cork, has taken the verbatim testimonies and set them to music, retaining the conversational tics and hesitations that are found in the original recordings. What might have been a journalistic exercise – a conventional piece of docudrama – is taken by the music in a completely unexpected direction.

Simple phrases such as “Yeah, s’quite an umpleasant feeling, everyone is very, very nervous...erm...and very unsure of everything really”, or, “You automatically think it could be him” become the basis for choral singing and complex rounds that take on a hypnotic quality. The natural rhythms of conversation are given a new musical intensity that mirrors the intensity of feeling and emotion experienced by the community.

It is hard to describe the imaginative brilliance of this piece without it sounding like some sort of dodgy experimental theatre. It is experimental and it is theatre but it is very far from dodgy. London Road has one of the most talented and accomplished casts you are likely to see on the London stage at the present moment. This is a production with real imaginative flare and conviction. The subject matter and music gives voice to individuals as they explore the healing properties of living in community and a way of finding meaning and stability in the midst of chaos and violence.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Betrayal and Kristin Scott Thomas

I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in forty five minutes as prep for the new production at London’s Comedy Theatre. On the page, the dialogue looks like mental scratchings. Language pared down to the bare essentials, operating at the outskirts of anything we might commonly recognise as human discourse. Pinter’s tics and pauses carrying the terrifying freight of unspoken meaning. It is in all that is left unsaid or suggested that we complete the picture of ourselves. As Wittgenstein famously put it, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

In Betrayal, communication has been eroded by the failure of human beings to act personally and love faithfully. Infidelity, lies and unspoken knowledge have damaged the channels of human relationships, leaving the participants of this ménage a trois tongue tied by their actions:

You’re looking very pretty.
Really? Thank you. I’m glad to see you.
So am I. I mean to see you.
You think of me sometimes?
I think of you sometimes.
I saw Charlotte the other day.
No? Where? She didn’t mention it.
She didn’t see me. In the street.
But you haven’t seen her for years.
I recognised her.

Betrayal is the perfect play for an actress such as Kristin Scott Thomas. It shows the full range of her remarkable acting ability. She can act below the surface of the words, every subterranean emotion visible in the tiniest vocal inflection or hesitation. Every facial detail or physical gesture signifiers of some pathos at the heart of what it is to be human.

This is not method acting where an actor attempts to psychologically inhabit a character. Instead, this is acting that feels more like a form of possession. Here it is the character that appears to inhabit the soul of the actress. Such acting, bypasses the familiar ways of understanding performance, that is, the action of people pretending to be other people in order to tell a story. The pretence element appears to have almost entirely dissolved, leaving a performance with a crystalline transparency and honesty. Kristin Scott Thomas is a very special actress and acting at the very height of her abilities.

Part of what makes us human is that we are creatures who must communicate. It is not an optional exercise. Discussing the nature of communication, Adam Philips in Monogomy writes, “you cannot be for it or against. You can only do it more or less well – by your own standards or by other people’s – but you can’t not do it.”

In Betrayal, Kristin Scott Thomas’s finely calibrated performance shows how words can mask what we really want or need to say. We are given a real sense that the lies, spoken and unspoken, that surround marital infidelity exist as a cover for our destructive actions. Yet, what we cannot escape, whether it comes to light or not, is the truth about ourselves and our actions.