Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

Fifty Shades of Grey during Lent

Wednesday, 5 March, 2014 0 Comments

It’s Ash Wednesday today. Time to begin the annual Lenten fast. This year, as usual, it means avoiding alcohol and what we used to call “sweets”, which covers everything from confectionary to chocolate to crème caramel. But Lent isn’t just 40 days and nights of penance. It’s a time of meditation, which is enhanced by listening to music such as Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), an extraordinary choral work by an extraordinary English composer who managed to survive the religious upheavals under Henry VIII, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

For the listeners to his masterpiece, Tallis implores Domine Deus/ Creator caeli et terrae / respice humilitatem nostrum (Lord God/ Creator of Heaven and Earth / be mindful of our lowliness”), but it is highly unlikely that his idea of lowliness involved the kind of sado-masochism Christina and Anastasia practice in Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling soft-porn novel by EL James. Yet, there it is:

“The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
“‘What was that music?’ I mumble almost inarticulately.
“‘It’s called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.’
“‘It was … overwhelming.’”

Along with Sex On Fire by the Kings of Leon and Toxic by Britney Spears, Spem in alium by The Tallis Scholars appears on the soundtrack of Fifty Shades of Grey. Odd bedfellows to be sure, but EL James knows that the rapture of music is good for the soul. Spem in alium nunquam habui (“I have never put my hope in any other”) is how this great devotional work begins before its tapestry of sound turns into a plea to the One “who absolves all the sins/ of suffering man” omnia peccata hominum/ in tribulatione dimittis.

Putin’s Rasputin

Tuesday, 4 March, 2014 0 Comments

At the end of January last year, Charles Clover, then Moscow bureau chief of the Financial Times, asked “How much influence does Father Tikhon Shevkunov have over the Russian president?” The question was posed in a lengthy portrait titled “Putin and the monk“. Snippet:

Father Tikhon Shevkunov “Father Tikhon wields influence in the church far above his modest rank of Archimandrite, or abbot, due primarily to his contacts in the Kremlin. The story that travels with him, which he will neither confirm nor deny, is that he is the confessor to Vladimir Putin. The only details he gives is that Putin, sometime before he became president at the end of 1999 (most likely while he was head of Russia’s FSB security service from 1998 to 1999) appeared at the doors of the monastery one day. Since then, the two men have maintained a very public association, with Tikhon accompanying Putin on foreign and domestic trips, dealing with ecclesiastical problems. But according to persistent rumour, Tikhon ushered the former KGB colonel into the Orthodox faith and became his dukhovnik, or godfather.”

Father Tikhon’s other claim to fame, as Charles Clover points out, is a film entitled Gibel Imperii (The Fall of the Empire), which he produced, and in which he argued that the Byzantine Empire fell, not as the result of assaults by the Ottoman Turks, but because its rulers and elites unwisely copied Western social, economic and political models. Worse, the West, especially Venice, supported separatist movements and central government in Byzantium was weakened. Worse again, young scholars went to the West to study and came back with outlandish notions such as individualism, free enterprise and common markets. Thus, was corrupted the soul of the East to the point where its merchants were ruined and the Empire fell.

Gibel Imperii was ridiculed by historians as a crude attempt to fabricate history and create false parallels with Putin’s imperial Russia. The faithful didn’t care, however. Father Tikhon is now the ex-colonel’s dukhovnik and there can be no doubt about what he’s been whispering in his master’s ear.

RT is not TV. It is Russia today.

Monday, 3 March, 2014 0 Comments

Early in his presidency, the ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin took control of Russian television, forcing out the media magnates Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, taking over their channels and creating a climate of fear and sycophancy in which his actions are always praised and never criticized. He is now attempting to do the same in a global fashion with a propaganda platform called RT, the abbreviation of Russia Today.

“Our team of young news professionals has made RT the first news channel to break the 1 billion YouTube views benchmark,” declares the Russia Today YouTube arm. Adding, “RT news covers the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more.” But “more” what? Well, RT specializes in presenting “truther” interpretations of the 9/11 terror attacks and it even ran a lengthy exploration called “911 reasons why 9/11 was (probably) an inside job”. Today, it is broadcasting bare-faced lies such as “675,000 Ukrainians pour into Russia as ‘humanitarian crisis’ looms” and “Tea, sandwiches, music, photos with self-defense forces mark peaceful Sunday in Simferopol.”

Having achieved absolute power within Russia, Putin has negated all hopes of making it a civil society, and he seems determined to reduce his neighbours to the same grim level. With the help of RT, he also wants to convince the world that every country is just as awful as Russia today.

He was greatly interested in armies and fleets

Sunday, 2 March, 2014 0 Comments
He was greatly interested in armies and fleets

The word “tyrant” came to the late Middle English from the Old French tyrannie, which had its origins in the late Latin tyrannia, derived from the Latin tyrannus, via the Greek turannos, meaning “monarch, ruler of a polis”. According to Senator John McCain, Vladimir Putin is “a tyrant at home, a friend of tyrants abroad.” […]

Continue Reading »

And the Oscar, we hope, goes to…

Saturday, 1 March, 2014 0 Comments

20 Feet From Stardom. It’s one of the five nominees in the Documentary Category and it tells of the lives and often tough times of the backup singers heard on many of the rock’s greatest songs. Tomorrow night, 20 Feet From Stardom will be up against Cutie and the Boxer, The Square, Dirty Wars and, the favourite, The Act of Killing.

Scotland, Scotch, Scottish, Scot and Scots

Friday, 28 February, 2014 0 Comments

Published in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. is a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson written by James Boswell. Some say it is the greatest biography written in English; most scholars regard it a seminal moment in the development of the biography genre. Then, as now, Scotland was topical in polite London conversation and Boswell captured the mood of the day, and the language used to express it.

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they would choose it.

Johnson: “Why, Sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.”

Boswell: “Come, come, he is flattering the English. You have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.”

Johnson: “Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.”

Scotch, meaning either “of or relating to Scotland” or “a person/the people from Scotland”, was widely used in the past by writers such as Boswell, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. It is now regarded as old-fashioned, but it survives in phrases such as “Scotch whisky”.

Scottish is the everyday word used to mean “of or relating to Scotland or its people”. Example: “She’s Irish, not Scottish.”

Scot is the common word for “a person from Scotland”, along with Scotsman, Scotswoman, and the plural form “the Scots.”

Scots is used to refer specifically to the form of English spoken in Scotland, as in “He’s got a very strong Scots accent.”

Scotch

Dreams and nightmares of a Russian imperium

Thursday, 27 February, 2014 0 Comments

“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” That’s what James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses, and looking at this morning’s news, one gets the feeling that these are Joycean times. Consider this headline: “Armed men seize Crimea parliament and hoist Russian flag.” Now why would they do that? Because of history. In 1944, Crimea’s Tatars were forcibly deported to Central Asia by Stalin as a form of collective punishment for their supposed collaboration with the Nazis. A decade late, Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine, making it the only region of the country where ethnic Russians dominate. In such ways is the nightmare of history, with its memories, hatreds, borders and peoples made. According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, 58.5% of the population of Crimea were Russians, 24.4% were Ukrainians and 12.1% were returned Tatars. Given the fault-lines, this this not bode well for the future.

The Third Imperium Talking of the future, The Third Imperium is a futuristic novel by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Yuriev. It’s set in 2053, a time when Russia has withdrawn from all international organizations and revoked all international treaties. Thanks to this strategy, and the wise rule of a leader who is partly of Chinese origin, it’s doing better than ever. Provoked by the United States, it launches a preventive nuclear strike — although for humanitarian reasons only sparsely populated states such as Nevada and Utah are targeted. America retaliates with a massive counter-attack but since Russia is protected by its superb anti-missile shield, this has no effect at all. The Third Imperium, with its hints of The Third Reich, is triumphant.

Footnote: At the beginning of January, Bloomberg published a story that began: “Mikhail Yuriev, a former Russian politician and businessman, said he’s quitting Russia to invest in the U.S. energy industry where cheaper financing, better infrastructure and support for foreign businesses boost returns.”

Although they’re anti-Western to the core, today’s visionary Russians prefer capitalism to communism, but like their Chinese counterparts, they dream of a world that will be a nightmare for most of its inhabitants. Just take a look at Moscow, Beijing and Crimea.

The Silicon Valley of the Squinting Windows

Wednesday, 26 February, 2014 0 Comments

It’s 1918 and The Valley of the Squinting Windows, a novel by Brinsley MacNamara and set in a fictional village in Ireland, is published. It tells of status anxiety, secrets, privacy and the power of gossip. The reaction is swift. The author’s schoolmaster father is boycotted and has to emigrate; there’s a high-profile court case brought by those who thought they had been described in the work and the novel itself is burned in public.

It’s 2014, and Nick Denton, the founder and owner of a string of gossip websites called Gawker Media, sits down to talk to Playboy. At a time when parents are spending sleepless nights worrying about what their kids are posting on Snapchat, when the NSA is said to be hoovering up all our data, when German newspapers are using Nazi-era caricatures to depict Facebook, when surveillance appears to be omnipresent, this is the right moment to talk about paranoia. Snippet:

DENTON: You could argue that privacy has never really existed. Usually people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on. You could look at this as the resurrection of or a return to the essential nature of human existence: We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.

PLAYBOY: That doesn’t jibe with your other theory about how we’ll judge one another more kindly when we have no privacy. Human history is not a history of tolerance for deviation from the norm.

DENTON: You don’t think there was a kind of peasant realism? You hear these stories about a small town, seemingly conservative, and actually there’s a surprising amount of tolerance. “So-and-so’s a good guy. Who cares if he’s a pig fucker? His wife brought a really lovely pie over when Mama was sick.”

Denton is right, of course, in saying that small-town life is an open book, but he’s wrong in thinking that it’s available for all to read in the public library. Seen from the vantage point of the West Village, gossip is good, especially when it makes one rich and famous; seen from point of view of the normal villager, privacy is still worth protecting because life must be lived forwards, as Kierkegaard put it, and a lot of ugly stuff from the present and the past can get in the way of the future. Ours is now a global valley of squinting windows, but that does not mean that Nick Denton has the right to decide what should be public and what should not be private.

Note: Pope Francis has given his new cardinals a code of conduct that differs radically from the Denton principle: “no intrigue, gossip, power pacts, favoritism.” AP

Bavarian windows

Gass and Gaddis and Blue language

Tuesday, 25 February, 2014 0 Comments

On Being Blue by William H. Gass was first published in 1976, the year when the Apple Computer Company was formed, the Ramones released their first album and Agatha Christie died. Now, it’s being republished by NYRB Classics, with an introduction by Michael Gorras, and here’s a snippet from his appreciation of the amazing flexibility of the English language in the hands of Gass:

“Say it. Go ahead, stand before the mirror, look at your mouth, and say it. Blue. See how you pucker up, your lips opening with the consonants into a kiss, and then that final exhalation of vowels? Blue. The word looks like what it is, a syllable blown out into the air, and with the sound and the sight of saying it as one. You blew blue, though let’s pause a while before getting on to that, and try it out in the other languages you might claim to know. Bleu. But it’s just not the same, your lips don’t purse as much, the eu cuts the syllable short where the ue prolongs it, sustaining it like a piano’s pedal. Blau — that doesn’t work either, and the ow makes the mouth open too far. It’s not quite a howl, it’s a touch too soft for that, and yet it’s a blowsy sound, and untidy. As for azzurro or azul, well, those suggest something else entirely.”

Blue

“The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string.” The Recognitions by William Gaddis.

While Michael Gorras pays tribute to the musical language of William Gass in his introduction to On Being Blue, Gass did something similar for William Gaddis in his introduction to The Recognitions: “I particularly like the double ts with which our pleasure begins, but perhaps you will prefer the ingenious use of the vowel i in the sentence with which it ends… or the play with d and c in the same section,” he wrote. Michael Robbins looks at “How perfectly strung-together words can delight the ear” in the Printers Row Journal.

Ukraine museum becomes dustbin of history

Monday, 24 February, 2014 0 Comments

According to the Azerbaijan Press Agency, the toll from the weekend revolution was high: “All in all, more than 10 monuments to the leader of the 1917 revolution have been pulled down or destroyed in several cities of Ukraine.” It’s obvious from the report that “radicals” are at work here: “Statues to Lenin have been repeatedly coming under attack by radicals since December 8, when a statue of Lenin was toppled and destroyed with sledge hammers in Kiev.” How have the beleaguered comrades responded to this provocation? “Communists have dismantled a statue of Lenin taking it to a museum in Dneprodzherzhinsk, a city in the major industrial Dnepropetrovsk region in the south-eastern part of Ukraine.”

Looking at the TV images of those toppling statues over the weekend, one is reminded of what Lenin once said: “Political institutions are a superstructure resting on an economic foundation.”

Lenin

It may be considered boorish to describe a museum as “a dustbin of history”, but the term is uncannily apt when it comes to Dnepropetrovsk. And there’s more to be done when it comes to filling the museums because this “struggle” is global.

Casa Bacardi

Sunday, 23 February, 2014 0 Comments
Casa Bacardi

Facundo Bacardí Massó was born in Sitges in Catalonia in 1814, and emigrated to Cuba in 1830, where he began distilling rum. Three innovations led to fame and fortune: He filtered his rum through charcoal, which removed impurities; he isolated a strain of yeast that continues to gives Bacardi its taste profile, and he aged […]

Continue Reading »