Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Review of Cyprus Avenue (Play by David Ireland at Royal Court, watched online)

As part of lockdown we watched Cyprus Avenue last night, recorded at the Royal Court Theatre in London, though with some intercut scenes that looked like they were actually shot in Belfast. It was a a very effective and absorbing play, well acted, and cleverly arranged and adapted for broadcast. Stephen Rea is a great actor and he could probably read the telephone directory (er, do those even still exist?) and make it absorbing.

But there was something about the play's underlying message that I found disturbing. It's essentially an assault on the Ulster Protestant identity, arguing that it's a false identification with Britishness and an assertion of not-Irishness, and not much else. The main character, Eric, is both aware and afraid of this, and deals with it by increasingly aggressive and then dark assertions of that identity, and by a laughably stupid critique of Irishness that encourages us, the audience, to laugh at him and his ridiculous identity.

I'm not on safe territory here, but I think that characterising identities as felt as either 'real' or 'faux' is not going to work out well. There are lots groups of people who have identities based on the fact that they came from somewhere else - as immigrants, as refugees, as slaves and as settlers. In progressive circles we tend to celebrate the first three and denigrate the fourth - because settlers are somehow related to the agency of a colonial state. But the boundaries between these kinds of group are not clear and firm - what about indentured labourers who never go home, as in Guyana and Malaysia? What about people who came as migrants because of opportunities opened up by a state, but not through its agency - like the millions of Europeans who migrated to America in the nineteenth century?

The flip side of this is the idea of indigeneity - some people were there ab origine, and are felt to be part of the 'natural' landscape and living in harmony with nature, and some are settlers and therefore necessarily inharmonious. Which rather begs the question, when is the cut-off date? The Maoris turned up in New Zealand a little while before the Europeans, and more or less exterminated the aborigines there - and sent some of the native fauna into extinction. Same with the megafauna of North America.

Back to Northern Ireland - is it really helpful to seek to build an all-Ireland identity on the basis of lampooning one side of the sectarian divide, and assuming that your side's identity is inclusive? Or is it time to recognise that Republicanism, as currently constituted, is also a sectarian ideology, even when it's shorn of its mystical and Catholic dimensions?

Something similar occasionally happened in Israel/Palestine - rogue currents in Zionism (even Ben Gurion, sometimes) wanted to teach the Palestinian Arabs Hebrew and turn them into Israelis of the Muslim persuasion, and some Arab Nationalists have been willing to admit 'Arab Jews' as Arabs. It has come to nothing. Surely an opportunity to learn about going beyond nationalism and sectarianism in creating post-national identities?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Review of 'To Calais, in Ordinary Time' by James Meek

Oh this is a good book. So much going on - history of course, but also language, and class relations, and ethics and religion...an absolute pleasure to read, perhaps because of the different voices and language that they use. Some mysteries remain unexplicated (who are Judith and Marc?), some gradually resolve themselves. There are some very funny parts, and some parodies - bits of slapstick, lots of cross-dressing and some gender-fluidity - and I suspect there were quite a few clever jokes that were lost on me. I think the descriptions of the joust are a bit of a skit on modern festivals (with VIP coloured wristbands), and there's probably more that I missed. A minor criticism is that I couldn't always tell all of the archers apart - even when I had their names straight they seem to merge into each other somewhat.

But that really is minor, and the other characters more than make up for it. Wonderful.

Friday, March 27, 2020


My mum made cheesecake, and it was wonderful - well, what amalgam of sugar and fat, with just a faint matrix of starch to hold it all together - isn’t wonderful?  Once I asked her for the recipe, but she wasn’t a recipe kind of cook. She’d learned it from her mother, and all the quantities were by look and feel. I don’t think she even had timings that made any sense because they were all linked to her oven and its peculiarities. When she changed cookers some time in the 1970s it all changed and there were some ruined cakes for a while.

My mum’s cheesecake was wonderful, but it wasn’t a matter for reflection or interpretation. It was a thing in itself, as Kant would say. I didn’t think of it as a Jewish cheesecake, it was just a thing we had in our family, the way we did most Jewish stuff. We were members of a synagogue, but we didn’t really participate in anything communal, family life and celebrations and food were at the core of our Jewish identity. That, and an ongoing anthropological process of classification of things and activities into Jewish and Non-Jewish, in a way that would have been familiar to Lenny Bruce, or - weirdly - to Nancy Mitford. 

But I didn’t really know that the cheesecake was Jewish until I found out that it wasn’t. This happened in the late 1990s, when I was working in a tech company based in Hammersmith. Things had started to go not so well with the company, and my workmates and I responded to the failings of strategy and senior management by taking longer and longer lunch breaks. We went further afield in our quest for more interesting lunches, and eventually discovered the cafe in the Polish Cultural Centre that had been in West London since shortly after the Second World War. It was like some inter-war canteen, with the menu mainly in Polish, and the clientele a mixture of really old Polish men who looked like they’d been there since 1946, and recent-wave Polish immigrants - young building workers and tradesmen, and tired looking young women. 

I can’t remember what I ate - something that had a lot of cabbage but no pork, I think - but I finished off with the cheesecake. And it was my mum’s cheesecake - not similar, but exactly the same - a Proustian moment, defined by the texture, the taste, the shape and dimensions of the portion. Of course this was a surprise, but it was one of those special surprises when you realise something that you acknowledge ought to have been obvious all along. Our Jewish cheesecake was a Polish cheesecake.

Well, why not? My ancestors had lived in Poland - a rather vague geographical expression that had shifted this way and that over the centuries - for perhaps a thousand years. What ought to have been surprising was not that they’d picked something up over that period, but how small that something was, and how unacknowledged. Except occasionally to distinguish ourselves from Jews of other kinds of extraction - Litvaks, or German Jews who were ‘Yekkes’, or Dutch Jews who were ‘choots’, we never described ourselves as Polish. If they were quoting their own parents, they’d refer to the place they’d come from as ‘The Heim’, or sometimes as Russia. I knew not one Polish word, and had no idea where in Poland my ancestors had lived. My parents’ memories were of their parents and grandparents speaking Yiddish, not Polish. My Dad did have a memory of his own grandfather, speaking Polish to a lost and bewildered soldier from the Free Polish Army in London - and the point of the story was how surprised he had been that his grandfather could speak Polish.

But there it was, in a cafe in West London - my mother’s cheesecake, a Polish cheesecake. And there I was, brought face to face with the fact that my heritage - however I’d understood it - was part Polish. And this despite the fact that our self definition had not only been not Polish, but self-affirmedly not-Polish. My dad remembered his grandfather - the same one as in the other story - being pleased by the newsreel footage of the Nazi bombing of Warsaw, despite the fact that the Poles were our allies and the Germans our deadliest enemies. “Worse than the Germans,” I’d heard said of Poles often enough as a child. The Jewish Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer writes of Polish peasants with not just loathing, but contempt and disgust. Of course, we knew that none of this counted as racism, because we’d been the victims and the Poles the perpetrators.

A few years later, on a work trip - by then a different tech company - to Warsaw with a Polish colleague, to visit Polish clients, I’d been struck by this all over again. Lots of the food was alien, pork-based stuff, but lots more was recognisable as the food of my childhood...beigels, borscht, latkes, pickled herrings and cucumbers, stuffed cabbage and smetana - exactly like the stuff I’d grown up with. 

Walking up and down the streets I was struck by how similar everyone’s faces were. There was definitely a Polish face, and I knew how much the faces of my ancestors must have stood out, because it wasn’t their face. Though every so often there would be a person who didn’t have that look, whose head was a different shape and whose complexion and hair colour were completely different; and I’d wonder if their ancestors and mine had been related or connected. 

The names of those streets were familiar too, from books that I’d read about Jewish Warsaw - including the works of Bashevis Singer. Jewish Warsaw; one third of the population of Warsaw had been Jewish before the War. What was it like for Warsaw, afterwards, for the Jews who had made up so big a part of its urban life to not be there? What would it be like for say London to wake up one day and find all its Black people - and everything that they contributed to the city - gone? 

I made the mistake of trying to talk about this to my Polish colleague. An expression of fierce distaste descended on her face. “It’s better that we don’t talk about this,” she said. So I wasn’t the only one in denial.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Review of Blinded by the Light

Coming of age film about a young Pakistani Muslim boy growing up in Luton, whose passage into adulthood is eased by the songs of Bruce Springsteen. He's a thoughtful, creative sort of boy, who has been writing poems since childhood, and he's lucky to find an encouraging English teacher at his six form college. He's lucky to have a supportive, anti-racist friend next door who sticks up for him, and for the glum looking older white neighbour to be a sympathetic ex-soldier with anti-Nazi convictions. And for the cute activist girl in his English class to fancy him. And to have a new Sikh mate who introduces him to Springsteen. There's a long period in the middle of the film which is just too feel-good, when everything seems to be going right; I can't help feeling the film would have been better and tighter if it had been 30 minutes shorter.

Much of the drama centres on the relationship between the young man and his dad, who wants the best for him but also wants him to be dutiful and obedient, even though (as his mum points out) the dad himself came to Britain despite his own parents' wishes. There's enough tension to make this interesting. In fact, I've noticed that coming of age films often seem to have an Asian family background, because they can support that kind of family dynamic in a way that seems implausible in a mainstream Western family. Interestingly the dad tells the boy to follow the Jews, because they have the right kind of ambition and ethnic solidarity; as a kid, in an earlier time, my dad would tell me that Asian families were like us, so it went both ways.

There's some nice depictions of anti-fascist political action in the late 1980s (though I suspect that most of the impetus had gone out of the National Front by then); I can identify with that more than I can with the Springsteen adulation. I like 'Born to Run, but I can't help preferring the Frankie Goes to Hollywood version.

Watched on Amazon Prime via Chromecast.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Review of Justine

Sort of a liberal film for not very liberal Americans. Lisa is a single mum with two mixed race kids who is unqualified (didn't finish college) and unemployed, and she ends up taking a caring job for a young girl (the eponymous Justine) who has spina bifida - as well as horrible affluent entitled parents. They're very controlling, and they belittle Lisa while absolutely relying on her to care for their child, and the dad is privately racist...but Lisa is deserving - she's single because her husband was a marine killed on active service, and she's nice and kind to her chidren and to Justine. There's a redemption at the end, but no-one and nothing has really changed. Watchable but not very satisfying.

Watched on Netflix.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Review of 'The Doors of Perception' by Aldous Huxley

Re-read after an interval of about forty years, following a renewed interest in altered states of consciousness...some bits of this are brilliant, and some bits feel really tedious. I'm aware that he is more knowledgeable about eastern philosophy and religions, and about the history of art, than I am - but it feels a bit like he'd rather show off about it than use his knowledge to educate me.

He's also more interested in the sensory aspects of altered states (the bright colours) than in the...I don't know, there's probably a proper word for it...aspects that relate to the self and identity. I'm aware that others write more about the dissolution of identity and self that comes with psychedelics.

But a good read nevertheless. And I really loved the cover of this edition!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Review of 'The Siege' by Helen Dunmore

What a time to be reading this book. As if everying didn't feel dystopian and collapsing already, I end up reading something about hunger and fear, and survival in awful circumstances. It's made me even more wary and nervous about the fragility of our food system - there are some very memorable passages about cities and food.

It's a very, very good book though. Great descriptions, a good understanding of the siege itself (without lots of dull military description), good characters with interesting backstories. I was very pleased to learn that there's a sequel with the same characters several years on.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Review of Into the Woods

A mash-up of several fairy tales, linked by a frame-tale of a childless couple cursed by a witch - the others were classics like Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, but I didn't recognise this one.

Anyway, nicely done, with pleasant special effects and decent acting. Surprisingly dark, with some deaths and disfigurement - especially in the Cinderella, which is also more than a little erotically charged.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Review of Where Angels Fear to Tread

Another period dress film, this one really quite Merchant-Ivory, even though it isn't actually theirs. Edwardians going off to Italy, that sort of thing. It's based on E M Forster's first novel, which looks like it was quite good, though the film isn't. It's stilted, and the emotional and moral universe of the people involved is incomprehensible - as distant as Saudi Arabia.

A posh family's widowed daughter-in-law (Helen Mirren playing ditzy) goes off to Italy and the family sends a chaperone (Helena Bonham-Carter, looking surprisingly ugly and dowdy). But the chaperoning doesn't go well, because she sends a letter saying that the daughter-in-law is going to marry an inappropriate Italian aristocrat and calling for help. In fact it's gone worse, because when the son arrives she's already married, and not to an aristocrat but to a dentist's son.

And so on, with lots of Edwardian-era racial stereotypes and class prejudice. The film is criticising rather than sharing these, but it still feels uncomfortable and hard to enjoy.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Review of The Aeronauts

Period dress historical pic about meterologist James Glaiser (a real person) and the fictional female balloonist Amelia Wren, who ascend higher into the clouds than anyone has ever. Mainly a ripping adventure yarn, but with some nice moments between the two of them, and ocassional hints about prejudice against women balloonists (she's more a circus performer than a pilot, even though she inexplicably seems to come from a very posh family). Although she's fictional she's apparently based on some real female balloonists.

Scary and striking aerial scenes in the balloon.

Watched on Amazon Prime on our smart TV.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Review of The Midwife

Very French, and enjoyable - though not shaped in the way that a British or American film would be. A highly professional midwife whose hospital is being closed down, and has the option of finding a new job in new commercially-oriented facilities that she doesn't really like, is visited out of the blue by her father's former mistress, who went away when she was a teenager and who doesn't know that the father has died. The ex-mistress is a bit of a sponger and loser, but the drama that an Anglo-Saxon movie would have made of this is mainly left out - instead it's about the complexity of the relationship between the two women, and also of the slowly developing and uncertain relationship between the midwife and the truck driver who has the allotment next to hers.

Really rather good, and this description doesn't entirely do it justice.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Review of The Flower of My Secret

We've been working our way through the Almodovar complete oeuvre for a few months, and this was the first one that everyone liked - a proper story without too many slapstick gags or obvious contrived taboo-breaking.

Still lots of very Spanish detail - the return to the village, the interiors heavy with knick-knacks, but no drug-crazed nuns or sex-hungry priests.

Odd relationships to other works; arguably the central scene, in which the heroine's husband comes home on leave from the army, is borrowed directly from a Dorothy Parker short story. The initial scene, in which she acts the part of a mother whose son is brain dead and whose organs are needed for transplants, is borrowed as the basis of another work of fiction, transplanted to California. And the story that's stolen and becomes the plot of a film after the heroine has discarded it, is the plot of another Almodovar film, Volver.

Watched at The Old Co-op in Horns Road as part of Jane's Almodovar season.

Review of 'Gifted'

Nice Hollywood movie about a little girl who is a maths prodigy being raised by her uncle in Florida after the suicide-death of her maths-genius mother. The uncle is nice and kind and doesn't want her to be a socially isolated genius like her mum, the grandmother doesn't want her to waste her talent...

Occasionally schmaltzy but quite good and enjoyable.

Watched on a DVD recorder at Minnie's flat.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Salussola 1945

Salussola 1945

Sometimes when I come home Uncle Stefano’s bicycle is parked at the back of the house. Then I know not to go in because he is visiting Mummy and they are doing private things. Mummy says I don’t want to see the private things so I go back to the piazza and play there. He’s not really an uncle but Mummy says it’s nice if I call him Uncle Stefano, so I do.

I play mummies and daddies with my doll. My doll is Mummy. I don’t have a doll to be Daddy so I use my teddy bear. Daddy doesn’t really look like a bear but I don’t remember what he looks like very well so the bear is good enough. I was only little when he went away to Africa to fight the English. Now he is in Africa but a different Africa and he doesn’t fight the English any more. He is a prisoner but he is not in a prison, he works on a farm. He writes letters to Mummy but it takes them a long time to arrive because they have to go to the Red Cross first. Mummy says the English might send him home now that Italy is not fighting them any more.

Uncle Stefano’s visits to Mummy are a secret, but they are one of those secrets that everyone knows, like who really brings the presents at Christmas. Uncle Stefano parks his bicycle at the back of the house so that everyone can pretend his visits are secret. Mummy says that sometimes the best place to hide a secret thing is inside another secret. She says I will understand when I am older.

Uncle Stefano is gone when his bicycle is not there anymore. Then I can come home and Mummy takes me back to the piazza. I have a lemonade and a little sweet cake, and Mummy has coffee. The old ladies in the piazza, who all wear only black, look away when we arrive and make a clicking noise with their mouths. These noises mean that they think Mummy is not a nice lady. Because Uncle Stefano comes to visit during the afternoons. Mummy doesn’t wear black. She wears a white dress, and lipstick, and she smells nice, not like the old ladies. I wear the pretty blue dress that Mummy bought me.

The Black Brigade sit at a table in the piazza. They wear black shirts with medals, and black boots. They look at Mummy but they don’t talk to us. The Captain makes a nasty joke about bicycles and they all laugh a horrid old-man laugh. Mummy says something quietly, but loud enough for them to hear, about how strange it is that such brave fascists are drinking coffee in Italy and not fighting in Africa or in Russia.

The Captain says Mummy should be glad that he and his men are there to protect from the partisans, because the Communists don’t like whores and string them up when they can. It’s because they believe in free love, he says to his men, and whores don’t give anything away for free. Then they all laugh again.

Sometimes there are German soldiers in the piazza. They look tired and their uniforms are not smart like the Black Brigade. They are nervous and hold their guns at the ready, even in the town. The Captain and his men salute the soldiers and heil them but the soldiers do not respond or return the salutes. They smile at Mummy, though, and sometimes she smiles back.

Uncle Stefano used to be a soldier, but in another war, a long time ago. He was wounded and that’s why he walks funny. Mummy says he was very brave and could wear medals if he wanted to, but he doesn’t.

Sometimes at night other men come to visit Mummy. I am supposed to be asleep, but I hear them arrive at the back door, and I hear their low voices in the passageway. Once I crept out of my room to see them. They wear dark clothes, and they have guns like the soldiers.

Mummy gives them grappa to drink, and little packets of brown paper. I don’t know what is in the packets, but I think it might be one of the private things that Mummy does with Uncle Stefano. He brings a bag when he visits, and once I saw that it was full of brown packets like the ones Mummy gives to the men.

Mummy says that honour and shame are cousins, not enemies, and sometimes they help each other out. She says I will understand when I am older.

The Cheat

Scene: A throne room. GOD is seated on a celestial throne. He is reading a report. Beams of light stream from behind him. To his left an angel plays a harp; to his right a twelve-person gospel choir sings.

Enter the Angel of Death. He is dressed all in black and carries a ledger under his arm.

GOD: Well?

AoD: Not this time. Not this time either.

GOD: Again? How many times does that make it?

AoD: Thirty four. Thirty four years, it’s been. Thirty four games, and I haven’t won a single one.

GOD: Obviously.

AoD: Obviously. You know, it wasn’t my idea, the whole chess game thing. I liked it better when I just turned up and tapped them on the shoulder. It was you that suggested -

GOD: Well, it works out just fine for almost everyone. Even Grand Masters, they feel like they’ve had a fair go, and they lose, and they come without a fuss. Everyone except him.

AoD: I think he might be cheating.

GOD: You can’t cheat at chess. It’s all there, right in the open, all the pieces.

AoD: Maybe he’s using some kind of magic.

GOD: Don’t come over all Harry Potter on me, D. There’s no such thing as magic.

AoD: Well, there’s some sort of trick. Something to do with bending time.

GOD: What do you mean, “bending time”?

AoD: Don’t ask me. You’re the one that lives in the Eternal Present. For me it’s all linear, one damn thing after another, until the end of time. But it might be a maths thing. He’s a mathematician, isn’t he?

GOD: (Nodding) He is...well, that would explain why he doesn’t look...what is it, a hundred and three?

AoD: (Consults ledger) A hundred and seven actually. I don’t think he’d have that girlfriend, if he looked a hundred and seven.

GOD: So what happens, when he bends time?

AoD: It feels just like a normal game of chess. I’m seeing like thirty moves ahead, which is enough to beat anyone, right? Only somehow the moves that I’m seeing ahead, they’ve...already happened. So I’m not seeing ahead at all, I’m seeing behind. And pieces that were taken, they’re back on the board again, in different positions.

GOD: Does he...could he just be sneaking them back on, when you’re not looking?

AoD: (Looks at GOD with an exasperated expression)

GOD: Sorry...I just asked.

AoD: And that’s not even the worst of it, not this time.

GOD: What?

AoD: Notice anything? Anything different about me?

GOD: Of course I do. I’m omniscient, I notice everything. Just give me a minute. Oh, where’s your scythe?

AoD: (Points at GOD) Bingo. We’re on the empty beach, and I’ve lost again, and I’m just about to get up and leave. And then he says, “Fancy another game? And just to make it interesting…”

Review of Parasite

Hard to say much about this now that it's won best film at the Oscars. It's suspensful and gripping all the way through, and it feels like it's saying something about class and power...though on reflection I'm not really sure how profound or important the message is. Bad things happen to poor people, and their lives feel like a long series of bad luck incidents - as the father in the poor family says, the best plan is to have no plan, presumably because there's no point in planning when you are so subject to the forces of fate.

This starts out looking a bit like a comedy scam film as the poor family wheedle their way into the gullible rich family and start taking them for a ride, happily trashing the lives of their existing servants to supplant them without much concern. Then it suddenly turns into something a lot more like horror, though there's no real torture-porn and nothing supernatural.

I can't say I 'enjoyed' it, but I appreciated it as a good well-made film. I note in passing that almost no-one has drawn any comparison with Bong Joon-Ho's earlier film 'Snowpiercer', which was also about hierarchy and class power, and had lots of blood and gore.

Watched at the O2 complex in Finchley Road, London.