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A tremor of intent in Crimea

Monday, 24 March, 2014 1 Comment

The writer Anthony Burgess noticed his hand shaking one hungover morning in 1965. “That”, his wife said to him, “is a tremor of intent”. Thereupon, Burgess conceived an eschatological spy novel titled Tremor of Intent, which would offer an alternative to the humourless fiction of John le Carré and the jingoistic fantasy of Ian Fleming. By terming it an eschatological thriller, Burgess was expressing his view of the Cold War as the “ultimate conflict” for which Good and Evil were, he felt, inadequate terms.

Tremor of Intent Synopsis: The ageing, amoral MI6 Agent Denis Hillier, posing as a typewriter technician, journeys to Crimea aboard the cruise ship Polyolbion on a mission to infiltrate a convention of Soviet scientists and return to Britain his school friend Roper, who has defected to the Evil Empire. En route, he encounters the sexually curious sixteen-year-old Clara Walters, the obsequious steward Wriste and the sexually experienced Miss Devi, secretary to the sinister epicure Theodorescu. All of this allows the genius creator of A Clockwork Orange to describe hilariously graphic scenes involving food, drink, sex, politics, philosophy, history, religion, treason and murder. When Hillier is forced to spend three days in the seedy Babi Humayun (Sublime Portal) hotel overlooking the Bosphorus, Burgess hits his musical stride. Snippet:

“Istanbul disturbed him with its seven hills, as though Rome had tried to build herself on another planet. The names of architects and sultans rang in his mind in dull Byzantine gold — Anthemius, Isidorus, Achmet, Bajazet, Solyman the Magnificent. The emperors shrilled from a far past like desolate birds — Theodosius, Justinian, Constantine himself. His head raged with mosques. The city, in cruel damp heat, smelt of wool and hides and skins. Old filth and rusty iron, proud exports, clattered and thumped aboard under Galata’s lighthouse. Ships, gulls, sea-light. Bazaars, beggars, skinny children, charcoal fires, skewered innards smoking, the heavy tobacco reek, fat men in flannel double-breasteds, fed on fat.”

In this age of Putin and Snowden, it is our misfortune that there’s no Anthony Burgess around to novelize the comic aspects of their Cold War II symbiosis.

Cacti with Alps

Sunday, 23 March, 2014 0 Comments
Cacti with Alps

“It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises — it was comic to […]

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Abandoned City

Saturday, 22 March, 2014 0 Comments

The city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia is filled with office towers, government buildings, museums, theatres, cinemas and sports fields — not to mention acre upon acre of apartments and bungalows. The only problem: Ordos was designed to house one million people, yet hardly anyone lives there.

The phenomenon of China’s empty places has been well documented in recent years, as has the tragedy of Ireland’s ghost estates and the calamity of Spain’s spectral airports. For the architects of all these follies, Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, has composed Abandoned City, a melodic exploration of vacant spaces that’s all melancholy and menace. This is a contender for our “Album of the Year.”

The power of Twitter

Friday, 21 March, 2014 0 Comments

Background: France has a $1.7 billion deal to build a compact aircraft carrier for the Kremlin.

Foreground: Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, admits that while Paris cannot imagine delivering arms to Russia, there is the harsh reality of employment. With his tweet, he reassures Putin that he can humiliate Western Europe as much as he likes.

Background: Hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “wipe out Twitter” following a stream of tweets alleging corruption in his inner circle, Turkey blocked access to the social news site.

Foreground: Claire Berlinski is an American novelist, travel writer and freelance journalist. She read Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, and she lives in Istanbul amid a menagerie of adopted stray animals.

Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations in Ukraine

Thursday, 20 March, 2014 0 Comments

In 1993, Samuel Huntington put the cat among the international relations pigeons with an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled speculatively “The Clash of Civilizations?” He expanded it to book length and it was published in 1996 as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The book was immediately condemned by the multi-cultural complex because of its staunch defence of Western values, but its stock rose significantly after 9/11 as people woke up to the reality that the new, anti-Western barbarians were already at the gates.

Huntington makes a number of recommendations to save Western civilization, including restraining “the development of the conventional and unconventional military power of Islamic and Sinic countries.” But he also urges the West “to accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders.” When it comes to today’s politics, it’s worth examining how Huntington stacks up two decades after his initial analysis, especially regarding Russia.

Stalin In chapter 7, which deals with “Core States, Concentric Circles and Civilizational Order”, he looks at “Russia and its Near Abroad” and lays out several scenarios for Ukraine, “a cleft country, with two different cultures.” Its “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart and has done so for centuries” says Huntington and he suggests that “Ukraine could split into two separate entities, the eastern of which could merge with Russia.” He also quotes a Russian general as saying, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” This leads him to conclude: “Such a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support, is, in turn likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War.”

And here we are 2014, where relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated seriously and talk of a new Cold War fills the air. Huntington rewards reading.

Vladimir Putin’s favourite joke

Wednesday, 19 March, 2014 0 Comments

No, it’s not the one about Obama sending Biden to Poland yesterday, although that has generated its own share of mirth. Despite what his numerous critics insist, Putin does have an impish wit and while it’s not very comical to be on the receiving end of his barbs, as the family of Alexander Litvinenko knows full well, there’s a lot to be learned from what Russia’s latest “strong man” finds amusing. Here goes with his favourite joke:

In the bitter cold of the Russian winter, during a wild storm and with darkness falling, a peasant is wandering home to his humble village. Suddenly, he stops as he sees an exotic bird on the ground, nearly dead from hypothermia and hunger. So, he picks it up and warms it with his breath. The bird revives and the peasant is left wondering what to do next as he cannot afford to feed it. At this very moment a herd of cows appears out of the driving snow and one of them drops a large dollop of shit as it passes by. Knowing that if he puts the bird in the steaming substance, it might live until morning and then fly to a milder climate, the peasant does this and trudges towards home.

Shortly afterwards, however, another peasant comes along and hears the bird chirping happily in its warm surroundings. He picks up the bird, breaks its neck and takes it home for supper.

Putin, convulsed with laughter by this stage, tells his terrified audiences that the joke offers three vital lessons for life:

1. Do not believe that everyone who drops you in the shit is your enemy.
2. Do not believe that everyone who gets you out of the shit is your friend.
3. Whenever you are in the shit, keep quiet about it.

It’s doubtful if he told this joke to Hillary Clinton during the ill-advised “reset.” Wonder if he’d tell it to Mitt Romney, though? He’s a realist, after all.

Valeri Volodin sounds like Vladimir Putin

Tuesday, 18 March, 2014 0 Comments

“The Russian Federation invaded its sovereign neighbour on the first moonless night of spring. By dawn their tanks ground westward along the highways and backroads as if the countryside belonged to them, as if the quarter-century thaw from the Cold War had been a dream.” So begins the second chapter of Command Authority, the final novel by the late Tom Clancy, which was published in December last year. Those Russian tanks are rolling into the Baltic states. “This was not supposed to happen here. This was Estonia, after all, and Estonia was a NATO member state. The politicians in Tallin had promised their people that Russia would never attack them now that they had joined the alliance.”

The leader of this outrageous invasion is Valeri Volodin, a KGB veteran bent on reviving the former Soviet Empire, but as this is a work of fiction characters are a product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Anyway, after Estonia, Putin, sorry, Volodin turns his evil eye on the troubled Ukraine. “Any hopes the police might have had that the situation would defuse itself went away when tents started to be erected on both sides, and nationalists and Russian Ukrainians began clashes that turned more and more violent.”

Cut to an up-market Moscow restaurant where Stanislav Biryukov, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is having supper with a British businessman. “Russia will invade Ukraine, probably within the next few weeks,” says Biryukov, sipping his chacha, a Georgian brandy. “They will annex Crimea. From there, if they meet no resistance from the West, they will take more of the country, all the way to the Dnieper River. Once this is achieved, I believe Volodin will set his eyes on making beneficial alliances from a position of power, both in the other border countries and in the former nations of the Warsaw Pact. He believes he can return the entire region to the central control of the Kremlin. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania. They will be the next dominos to fall.”

But this is just fiction, right? And our dear leaders don’t read fiction.

St Patrick’s Day and the catechism of cliché

Monday, 17 March, 2014 0 Comments

St Patrick's Day Brian O’Nolan, who was born in Dublin in 1911, was best known by his literary alter ego, Flann O’Brien, and he also operated under another layer of creative anonymity as Myles na Gopaleen. From 1939 until his death in 1966, Myles wrote a weekly column in Irish, English or Latin for The Irish Times called Cruiskeen Lawn (‘Little brimming jug’). In several of those columns, he outlined his Catechism of Cliché. “A cliché,” he wrote, “is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the same situations in life.”

Especially for St Patrick’s Day, when Irish clichés abound, here’s Myles deconstructing the language of Ireland’s establishment, which has remained uncannily consistent of clichés over ten decades.

What does it behove us to proclaim?
Our faith.
In what does it behove us to proclaim our faith?
Democracy.
From what vertiginous eyrie does it behove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?
From the house-tops.
At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?
Now, more than ever.
What action must be taken in relation to our energies?
They must be directed.
In what unique manner?
Wholeheartedly.
In what direction?
Towards the solution of the pressing post-war problems which the armistice will bring.
How will the armistice bring these problems?
In its train.
By what is the train hauled?
A 2-4-2 compound job with poppet valves and Pacific-style steam chest.

In the civilized company of the newsosaur

Sunday, 16 March, 2014 0 Comments
In the civilized company of the newsosaur

Last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University reported that 55 percent of individuals under 35 preferred digital media as their primary news source, as compared with 5 percent in the same age category who preferred print. Last week, eMarketer predicted that UK mobile advertising spending will top £2 billion […]

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Golden Youth

Saturday, 15 March, 2014 0 Comments

In the days when record shops were popular, if not entirely profitable, recordings by Golden Youth would be kept in the “Indie / Alternative” section until the band had a hit that could be categorized commercially. The duo from Sacramento in California consists of singer/songwriters Stephanie Lauren and Kyle Monroe.

Chelsea, before it became part of Londongrad

Friday, 14 March, 2014 0 Comments

In light of Sunday’s illegal referendum in Crimea, what now for the West? That is the question. Writing in the Financial Times, John Gapper makes a suggestion: “It could impose asset freezes and visa bans on a few selected oligarchs (perhaps seizing Chelsea Football Club from Roman Abramovich, the minerals magnate).”

Long before Chelsea became the home of resource thieves and their fawning retinues, Sir John Betjeman, the British Poet Laureate, was casting a wary eye on the borough. The transformation of spelling through texting was still a way off in 1977, but punk was in the air and Betjeman was convinced that “the kiddiz know the sound”. And for all those Stamford Bridge fans who think that there is no tomorrow, he reminds them, in gleeful anticipation of the inferno of the oligarchs, that “Satan stokes his furnace underground”. Here’s Chelsea 1977 from from The Best of Betjeman.

Chelsea 1977

The street was bathed in winter sunset pink
The air was redolent of kitchen sink
Between the dog-mess heaps I picked my way
To watch the dying embers of the day
Glow over Chelsea, crimson load on load
All Brangwynesque across the long King’s Road.
Deep in myself I felt a sense of doom
Fearful of death I trudge towards the tomb.
The earth beneath my feet is hardly soil
But outstretched chicken-netting coil on coil
Covering cables, sewage-pipes and wires
While underneath burn hell’s eternal fires.
Snap, crackle! pop! the kiddiz know the sound
And Satan stokes his furnace underground.

Sir John Betjeman (1906 — 1984)