29 January 2013

Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Zero Dark Thirty (known to aficionados as ZD30 and meaning 00:30 pm) is attracting much attention, not all about the film itself.  ZD30 tells the story of the search for Osama bin Laden by CIA officers in the years after 9/11 leading to his elimination in 2011 by US Special Forces in Operation Neptune Spear. To call it controversial would probably be an understatement. Many people will find the early interrogation of al Qaeda suspects using waterboarding and the like to be upsetting. Bigelow has defended herself against criticisms of the way the film depicts torture in an article in the Los Angeles Times. She pointed out that her goal was “to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history” and that:
Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.
It’s doubtful whether she will convince many of her critics – some people are viscerally opposed to torture in any circumstances whatever the legalities, just as others are to nuclear weapons.

Another preoccupation, particularly in the US, seems to be the nature and extent of their government’s support to Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal. The National Security Archive hosted by George Washington University has put together in “one Electronic Briefing Book all of the available official documents on the mission to kill the notorious al-Qaeda leader” in an effort to balance the record, because in the absence of an authoritative account of Operation Neptune Spear:
In this extraordinary case, a Hollywood motion picture, with apparent White House, CIA, and Pentagon blessing and despite its historical inaccuracies, is now the closest thing to the official story behind the pursuit of bin Laden.
The document which seems to have generated most excitement is the transcript of the interview which Bigelow and Boal secured with Michael G. Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The fact that it refers to her as “Katherine” only adds to its bureaucratic authenticity. In the background to this fuss are concerns that the original release date for ZD30 would have been just before the presidential election when a reminder of bin Laden’s demise could have been helpful to the incumbent.

Another strand of controversy seems to be about the film’s realism, or rather its lack of it. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian thought ZD30 and Argo should be rated L:
Nothing should be banned, but the British Board of Film Classification should make itself useful and revise its categories. If "true story" appears in a film's preamble and is clearly wrong, the film should carry certificate L, for lie. We would then know where we stood.
His criticism of Argo seemed to centre on its stating that the Brits "turned away" the fugitive American diplomats. The opposite was the case but they did have to be moved on to the Canadians fairly quickly. This was almost certainly a regrettable simplification rather than Argo’s being anti-British. In fact, someone who can be assumed to be an SIS officer is shown providing the CIA with helpful information early on in the film. As for ZD30 being ‘clearly wrong’ – who knows? As Winston Churchill said nearly a century ago, “In time of war, when truth is so precious, it must be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” So films like Argo and ZD30 come, like the original Smith’s crisps, with a pinch of salt to be added at the time of consumption. Do CIA officers really use Le Carré-esque words like “tradecraft”, and can a cell phone only be localised by careering around with a gizmo in the back of a van in its vicinity? Did SEAL Team 6 really do such a good job in destroying the pranged helo? I have no idea and after all ZD30 is a drama, not a documentary. It’s never difficult to find faults in a film, as the contributors to the Goofs on IMDb seem to do without fail:
The breed of dog used in the actual capture of Osama Bin Laden was a Belgian Malinois. The breed of dog used in the movie is a German Shepherd.
"knocking on the moonlit door": SEAL Team 6 near their goal in Zero Dark Thirty
Bigelow, who in the past studied both art and film theory, told the Observer that some of her earlier films:
"took all my semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation and torqued it. I realised there's a more muscular approach to film-making that I found very inspiring". It may come as no surprise to learn that she studied film theory as a graduate student. The upshot was that she decided painting was "a more rarefied art form with a limited audience" and that film was "this extraordinary social tool that could reach tremendous numbers of people".
So being deficient in the semiotics of film theory, I had better confine myself to saying that ZD30 is very skillfully made in a cool and good-looking style in keeping with its director. Jessica Chastain plays the character ‘Maya’, who dominates the film, in the fashionable obsessive-woman-in-a man’s-world mode (cf The Killing, Homeland, The Bridge). As also seems to be currently fashionable, ZD30 is a long film, too long in my opinion! The strongest criticisms of it that I’ve come across are from Tom Streithorst on the Prospect blog:
There is no arc to this movie, no character development—all we see is surfaces. In a few years this tedious, didactic movie will feel dated and inconsequential.
If I haven’t offered enough background links already, Time has some interesting reading based around an interview with Bigelow, copiously so for subscribers or purchasers of the current issue. I would like to know more about Manhunt, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary dealing with the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden from well before 9/11, which has just been shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It includes interviews with former CIA employees (normal Americans rather than Hollywood’s finest, see below) including some of “The Sisterhood” of female CIA analysts supposedly amalgamated into ‘Maya’. Hopefully Manhunt will appear here, perhaps on BBC or Channel 4 before too long.

Update 21 February

Further interesting views on ZD30 from various quarters. Starting at the top, Leon Panetta, who was director of the CIA at the time and is portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini, was reported by AFP as saying:
… that the Oscar-nominated film did convey some sense of the years of legwork it took the CIA to track down the Al-Qaeda mastermind to a hideout in Pakistan. "I think people ought to make their own judgments. There are parts of it that give you a good sense of how the intelligence operations do work. But I also think people in the end have to understand that it isn't a documentary, it's a movie."
In the middle, as reported in the Pacific Standard last month:
Nada Bakos, who spearheaded the CIA’s Zarqawi Operations team from 2004-2006 as a targeting officer, weighs in. Prior to the operations position, Bakos served as an analyst for the agency primarily in the Counterterrorism Center, and was a member of the team charged with defining the relationship between Iraq, al Qaeda, and 9/11. … Zero Dark Thirty occupied an odd space. It’s not ridiculous enough to allow complete suspension of disbelief. I get that Hollywood needs to sell tickets, but it’s not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences as a CIA analyst and later, a targeting officer in the clandestine service.
And at the bottom, the navy SEAL ("The Shooter") who killed bin Laden was interviewed by Phil Bronstein for Esquire:
During the daylong briefing, the SEALs heard how the government found the compound in Abbottabad, how they were watching it, analyzing it, why they believed bin Laden might be there. He, UBL, had become known as the Pacer, the tall guy in satellite imagery who neither left nor mixed with the others. It was the CIA woman, now immortalized in books and movies, who gave the briefing. "Yeah," she told us. "We got him. This is him. This is my life's work. I'm positive."  
… The Shooter is sitting next to me at a local movie theater in January, watching Zero Dark Thirty for the first time. He laughs at the beginning of the film about the bin Laden hunt when the screen reads, "Based on firsthand accounts of actual events."  
… when a SEAL Team 6 movie character yells, "Breacher!" for someone to blow one of the doors of the Abbottabad compound, the Shooter says loudly, "Are you fucking kidding me? Shut up!" He explains afterward that no one would ever yell, "Breacher!" during an assault. Deadly silence is standard practice, a fist to the helmet sufficient signal for a SEAL with explosive packets to go to work. During the shooting sequence, which passes, like the real one, in a flash, his fingers form a steeple under his chin and his focus is intense. But his criticisms at dinner afterward are minor.  
"The tattoo scene was horrible," he says about a moment in the film when the ST6 assault group is lounging in Afghanistan waiting to go. "Those guys had little skulls or something instead of having some real ink that goes up to here." He points to his shoulder blade.  
"It was fun to watch. There was just little stuff. The helos turned the wrong way [toward the target], and they talked way, way too much [during the assault itself]. If someone was waiting for you, they could track your movements that way."  
The tactics on the screen "sucked," he says, and "the mission in the damn movie took way too long" compared with the actual event. The stairs inside bin Laden's building were configured inaccurately. A dog in the film was a German shepherd; the real one was a Belgian Malinois who'd previously been shot in the chest and survived. And there's no talking on the choppers in real life. There was also no whispered calling out of bin Laden as the SEALs stared up the third-floor stairwell toward his bedroom. "When Osama went down, it was chaos, people screaming. No one called his name."  
"They Hollywooded it up some."  
The portrayal of the chief CIA human bloodhound, "Maya," based on a real woman whose iron-willed assurance about the compound and its residents moved a government to action, was "awesome" says the Shooter. "They made her a tough woman, which she is."

"Where did the makers of movie Zero Dark Thirty get detailed intelligence about the raid that killed terror chief Osama bin Laden? After much claim and counterclaim in the corridors of power in the US, the whodunit now appears to have been solved once and for all."
According to this report, the ZD30 scriptwriter, Mark Boal, was admitted by mistake into an awards ceremony during which Leon Panetta gave a speech which included classified information about the mission.


According to this report last month from Stars and Stripes, the ZD30 investigators are now being investigated themselves by the US Defense Department Inspector General's Office. For those of us a long way from the Beltway, all rather impenetrable.

24 January 2013

Labour’s potential Trident problem

Last month I noted that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the agreement reached at Nassau under which the US agreed to supply the UK with Polaris and later Trident, and wondered whether it would be remembered in the media as the Cuban Missile Crisis had been a few weeks earlier. I didn’t come across any direct reference, but it was touched on in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s article in the Spectator on 5 January, America and Britain - a not-so-special relationship. He began with Dean Acheson and his remark in December 1962 that "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” and went on to deal with the way General de Gaulle impeded British entry to the then Common Market. In passing he mentioned Nassau:
Only two days after seeing de Gaulle [at Rambouillet], Macmillan flew to meet Kennedy in the Bahamas. The Americans wanted the British to give up the Skybolt missile, and Macmillan with difficulty persuaded Kennedy to allow the British to have Polaris missiles instead, which was an unmistakable sop.
Some sop. According to Macmillan’s official biographer, Alistair Horne:
In fact, though, Polaris was to turn out an extremely generous and beneficial deal for Britain. Britain got the weapon at a knock-down price that cost less than 2 per cent of the total British defence budget … while France had to struggle painfully and expensively to construct her own underwater deterrent. Rightly or wrongly, the British deterrent was preserved for another generation, and from Macmillan and Polaris to Thatcher and Trident was as from father to daughter. (Macmillan 1957-1986, page 442)
Macmillan had been able to secure for the UK, despite a marked lack of enthusiasm from the Kennedy appointees present at Nassau, McNamara, Ball and Bundy, what was at the time the world’s most advanced nuclear delivery system. Coincidence or not, 50 years to the day after Macmillan’s arrival in Nassau, the Ministry of Defence presented its 2012 Update to Parliament The United Kingdom’s Future Nuclear Deterrent, describing recent progress on the Trident Successor deterrent submarine programme. This phase of the work leads to the main investment decision to be taken in 2016. In January 2013 the Coalition’s mid-term review, The Coalition: together in the national interest was published, including among its many bullet points:
  • We have maintained Britain’s nuclear deterrent, identified £3 billion of savings and deferrals over the next 10 years from the Trident renewal programme and initiated a study into alternatives to Trident.
On 23 January the Guardian published an exclusive interview with Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat with a Scottish seat and the Coalition’s chief secretary to the treasury. Alexander is now in charge of the Cabinet Office-led Trident Alternatives Review which is due to be completed and published by June this year. Excerpts:
In his first interview since taking charge of the review, Alexander said nothing he had seen or heard in the last four months had challenged his view that replacing the Trident fleet was unnecessary – and unnecessarily expensive.  
Alexander said he could not spell out the alternatives before the review was published – they remain top secret. But he said he had already seen enough to know that the review would provoke serious debate – and that its findings would surprise people.  
One potential option is for the current fleet of Astute submarines to be equipped with nuclear warheads, or to restrict the number of Successor submarines to two or three, rather than four.  
"I would expect we will be able to set out serious, credible arguments and potential alternatives," he said. "I hope [the review] will open up a wide debate, in the public, among experts and the community, around the approach we take to nuclear deterrence.  
"Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.  
"We have just lived with these assumptions for quite a number of decades, and the notion that there is a different but credible way to think about these things may well be surprising to a lot of people. If you are prepared to take a slightly different approach, then it opens up a wider range of alternatives for consideration.  
"I certainly don't expect the review to come back and say Trident is the only alternative or there is no alternative, which is what some in other parties would say."
The article concluded with:
An MoD source said: "The prime minister and the defence secretary are both committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent. A part-time deterrent to be wheeled out at a time of heightened tension would be less credible, vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike and its very deployment would risk escalating a dangerous situation. It would be a dangerous and naive road to go down."
This suggests that there would be some circles to be squared after the 2015 election if the outcome necessitated continuation of the Conservative Lib Dem coalition. But what if Labour were the largest party while lacking an overall majority? Andrew Rawnsley raised this possibility in an article in the Observer on 20 January:
At the inception of the coalition, and for some time afterwards, the working assumption among Lib Dem strategists was that the Tories would be the likeliest winners in 2015. This was also the presumption among most Conservatives and quite a lot of Labour people too. Prospects now look very different. The likelihood of the Conservatives winning the next election outright currently seems very slim. Lib Dems only have to talk to their Tory colleagues in government for five minutes to find out how gloomy they are. So the Lib Dems are thinking harder about what they would do if Labour is the largest party.  
On the Labour side, there has been an increase in confidence that the next election could return them to power, but it is not accompanied by a robust conviction that they would win well enough to form a majority government on their own. Another hung parliament could beckon and the Lib Dems could again hold the balance. Their numbers in the next Commons may turn out to be rather larger than is suggested by their bleak ratings in the national polls because their MPs have been historically adept at holding what they already have and exploiting incumbency will be made easier for them by the killing of boundary changes.
What might seem like a piece of Westminster Village hypothesizing is supported by some early betting at Ladbrokes shown in the table below.

In many ways (eg Europe) a Lab/Lib Dem coalition agreement in 2015 should be easier to formulate than a renewed Conservative/Lib Dem one, but Trident Successor appears at present to be a significant point of difference. In 2013 it is far from clear who the leading personalities would be on the Lib Dem side of negotiations in two years’ time, but Alexander’s involvement (assuming he retains his seat) seems likely. A compromise on an alternative to the current Trident Successor plan might well have to be found in the Trident Alternatives Review, even if “part-time”, “dangerous and naïve”. In June Labour’s reaction to the Review might well have to be framed by the possibility of having to accommodate Lib Dem sensitivities in 2015.

Of course, there are budgetary pressures to consider whoever is in government. In a Commons debate on the nuclear deterrent on 17 January, Alexander’s predecessor as leader of the Alternatives Review, former Lib Dem defence minister, Nick Harvey, pointed out that the cost of Successor:
… in today’s money will be approximately £25 billion to £30 billion on the capital investment in a further generation of submarines. On top of that, we have to factor in the running costs of a nuclear deterrent on this scale for 30 or more years of through-life costs—more than £3 billion a year in today’s money. Beginning to total that out and factoring in decommissioning at the end, we are talking about an expenditure of more than £100 billion. We need to look closely at whether that is justified in the context of the size of our defence budget, and what we are able to make available for other forms of defence and security in an increasingly dangerous and changing world.  
... In the same period of time, we will have to put the joint strike fighter aircraft on to the two new aircraft carriers and build the Type 26 frigate. Whatever the next generation of remotely piloted air systems and whoever we do that with, it will fall in the same time frame. Bearing in mind that HMS Ocean is due to leave service in 2018, any future generation of amphibious shipping will have to be paid for in exactly that time frame; and whatever we equip the Army with for the 21st century—it has been the poor relation in the equipment budget for many years—and bearing in mind how little seems to be left of the original future rapid effect system, as conceived by the previous Government, again, it will fall in that time frame. If we decide to give the nuclear deterrent a bye and think it has some magic claim on the money, an opportunity cost will have to be paid across the rest of our defence systems.
Quoting cost figures without any comparisons is not particularly helpful. However, and purely as example, the consultancy Oxera has estimated for the Commons Transport Committee that a new four-runway hub airport for London could be expected to cost £50 billion (Paragraph 4.7). Again, a running cost of £3 billion a year is rather less than the BBC licence fee expenditure of £3.85 billion. Perhaps Harvey’s point was made more succinctly in the Bahamas Meetings Joint Communiqués in December 1962:
The President and the Prime Minister agreed that in addition to having a nuclear shield it is important to have a non-nuclear sword. For this purpose they agreed on the importance of increasing the effectiveness of their conventional forces on a world-wide basis.


At the end of a debate on nuclear disarmament in the House of Lords on 24 January, Baroness Warsi, (Senior Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office) stated that:
The Trident Alternatives Study referred to by my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is intended to help the Liberal Democrats to make the case for alternatives to this system, as agreed in the coalition programme for government. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, asked whether we needed a successor to Trident. It is too early to speculate about the conclusions of The Trident Alternatives Study. The study is ongoing and is due to report to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in the first half of this year. As we announced in the Government's mid-term review, an unclassified document will be published in due course.
During the debate Lord Browne (Labour Secretary of State for Defence to 2010) stated (my emphasis):
… we have to work harder to strengthen the grand bargain at the heart of the non-proliferation treaty or risk losing it. We are becoming dangerously complacent about it. All states have a responsibility here, but the nuclear weapons states bear a special responsibility. Successive Governments have reduced the number of warheads in the UK arsenal, but we need to do more. Formally, we are committed to the like-for-like renewal of Trident and the operational posture of continuous at-sea deterrence. The Government and all Members of this House need to reflect further on this position. Are we telling the countries of the rest of the world that we cannot feel secure without nuclear weapons on continuous at-sea deployment while at the same time telling the vast majority of them that they must forgo indefinitely any nuclear option for their own security? Is that really our policy? If so, do we expect the double standard that it implies and indeed contains, to stick in a world of rising powers?
UPDATE 4 February

The Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, has made the MoD position on Trident clear in an article in the Sunday Telegraph:
… But not having a submarine permanently at sea would make us vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. What is more, having to take the decision to arm and deploy our deterrent at sea in a period of tension would risk escalation at the critical moment. And although it may seem counter-intuitive, the evidence points to a replacement for Vanguard being a lower-cost solution than the proposal for a less capable option based on Astute submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.  
… The cruise alternative would mean designing new warheads and missiles, without American partnership, as well as making major modifications to the launch submarines – and the greater vulnerability of cruise missiles means we would need many more of them to deliver any meaningful effect. A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension. So, the cruise option would carry enormous financial, technical and strategic risk.
Defense Industry Daily is providing a helpful “push-down” chronology of the UK Successor programme with numerous links.

UPDATE 6 February

The Daily Telegraph today gave space to Des Browne (aka Lord Browne, see above) and Ian Kearns to make the case for alternatives to Trident:
It has become clearer, for example, that a set of long-term threats has emerged, to which deterrence, nuclear or otherwise, is not applicable: not only climate change, which can be addressed only through coordinated international action, but also cyber-attacks and nuclear terrorism. Attacks of both kinds will be difficult to trace. Since deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting this category of threats.
Recent research also shows that large-scale use of nuclear weapons by either the US or Russia would be suicidal, not because of a retaliatory response but because global agriculture would collapse as a result, leaving the population of the attacking country to starve. The same research shows that even a small-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan would affect at least a billion people and usher in colder temperatures than at any time in the past millennium.
These facts do not mean that nuclear weapons are totally irrelevant to all future security threats. The weapons may still play important psychological roles in inhibiting wars between major powers; our position is not, as a result, a unilateralist one. What these factors do mean, however, is that nuclear deterrence is decreasingly effective. We could pursue like-for-like renewal of Trident and still perish as a result of a nuclear incident not directly involving the UK.
… While it might make sense to invest a huge portion of the British defence equipment budget, around 25-30 per cent in 2020-2030, into a nuclear system that provides insurance against every eventuality, it makes less sense to invest so much into one that provides less and less insurance against a narrowing range of threats. Given unlimited resources, this would be less of a problem but since 2006 we have also experienced a recession. The defence budget is being cut and reductions in conventional capability are ongoing.
… Some of the supporters of like-for-like Trident renewal argue that anyone questioning the current approach is irresponsible. But in the circumstances outlined, Trident’s advocates also have serious questions to answer. They want to pour limited national resources into a increasingly ineffective nuclear system while being unwilling either to call for higher defence spending to meet conventional shortfalls or to scale back the UK’s level of international ambition. They want a gold-standard nuclear deterrent while under-investing in everything else.
… Given the range of challenges before us and the limited resources at our disposal, if the Government’s Trident Alternatives Review reveals an effective alternative to like-for-like renewal of Trident, such as stepping down from continuous at-sea deterrence and the building of fewer submarines, we should pursue it.
This adds little to what has already been said. No link to the “Recent research” was given . There was no mention in the article of cruise missiles. If Labour has to look for common ground with the Lib Dems after the Alternatives Review, it would seem to be in the abandonment of continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) with consequent savings in the number of Successor submarines required.

UPDATE 20 February

On 16 February the Daily Telegraph carried an interview with Jim Murphy, Labour’s shadow defence secretary by Mary Riddell and Tim Ross. This extract is towards the end of their report:
One way for Labour to save money on defence would be to find a cheaper alternative to Trident. Though more hawkish than some in his party, Mr Murphy claims to be open to suggestions, saying: “No one loves nuclear weapons. No one fetishises them.” Even so, he is dismissive of the claim by Danny Alexander, George Osborne’s Lib Dem deputy, that a like-for-like Trident replacement is unaffordable. Mr Alexander, he says, is “not engaged”.

17 January 2013

Angela Flowers at 80

From boho to Bugaboo bland: is this the death of Dalston? was the title of an article by Alex Rayner in the London Evening Standard’s ES magazine on 11 January:
Three years ago Kingsland Road was teeming with skinny-jeaned, neon-haired hipsters, artists and fashion designers. But then the rents started rising, the scenesters started leaving and now Dalston is deluged with yummy mummies and estate agents. … now estate agents prowl with sheaves of property details under their arms and women in gilets discuss the relative merits of primary schools over a latte. Gentrification. Has it killed Dalston, or just made it stronger?
Fortunately I hadn’t made the trip to Kingsland Road hoping to rub shoulders with “scenesters”, yet alone yummy mummies, but to visit the Flowers East gallery. Even better, their absence didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Angela Flowers at 80, a show celebrating the owner’s 80th birthday (in December) drawing together works by artists associated with the gallery over the last 40 years. As the gallery quite correctly described:
Reflecting Angela's appreciation of art in its many forms, the exhibition will display work by established and emerging artists practicing a number of disciplines including photography, installation, illustration, painting, video and sculpture.
Although the number of works is fairly small, the range is comparable to that to be found at a RA Summer Exhibition and the quality higher.

It seems unfair to pick out particular pieces, but looking into Kleio Gizeli’s small installation, Late Night Commuter 2011, inevitably reminded me of last month’s Hopper exhibition in Paris.

I think I saw Michael Sandle’s Encapsulated Submarine 2011 at the RA Summer Exhibition that year – a shame it wasn’t in bronze. It looks like a Type VII U-boat with some poetic licence, but I may be wrong.

I also liked this piece, but shamefully I didn’t record and cannot find its name or its creator's – my apologies.

13 January 2013

Leighton House Museum

12 Holland Park Road was the London home of the Victorian painter and sculptor, Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896). Leighton died the day after his peerage was created and the house first became a museum in 1900. The Leighton House Museum is administered by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and a major restoration was completed in 2010. Two of its most striking features are the Narcissus Hall and the Arab Hall on the ground floor (below, left and right). The former has tiles by William De Morgan and the latter incorporates an extensive collection of Islamic tiles and ceramics.

On the first floor are the artist’s studio and the Silk Room with Millais’ Shelling Peas (left), exchanged with Leighton for a copy of an elegant bronze by the latter, Needless Alarms, also on display. The museum has a unique and exotic atmosphere, quite at odds with its Holland Park surroundings, and is well worth visiting. It is only a short distance from High Street Kensington tube station (and after 2015 will be hardly any distance from the new Design Museum).

Wishing Andrew Marr a speedy recovery

Experienced performers at literary festivals come equipped with a few anecdotal bonnes bouches to amuse their audience and make them feel that they are getting something extra for the price of the ticket. For example, last year I heard David Aaronovitch marvelling at the way a lefty radical student at Cambridge in the late 1970s known as Red Andy had become Andrew Marr, royal biographer. Coincidentally, it was Marr’s critical remarks about bloggers at another literary festival that had led to his first mention in a post here over two years ago. Since then he has been labeled in posts several times, usually in connection with BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, most recently last June when Marr interviewed Tony Blair. Like most people, I was shocked to hear that Marr had been hospitalised on 8 January following a stroke (cerebrovascular accident) and I hope he makes a rapid and full recovery.

As a mere consumer of broadcasting, I wonder about the wisdom of explicitly linking a television series to a particular individual. Of course, there are numerous precedents for doing so: Parkinson and Breakfast with Frost, The Andrew Marr Show’s predecessor, for example. But Newsnight, Panorama and numerous others soldier on, their presenters having come and gone over the years. Perhaps it needs a very high profile presenter to pull in top rank politicians and entertainment personalities for a programme starting at 9 am on a Sunday and get an audience of two million. It also demands a very able and personable interviewer to cover both types of interviewee in succession. I can’t imagine any other programme finishing up with David Cameron on a sofa next to Rupert Everett as The Andrew Marr Show did on 6 January (below, the impressionist Rory Bremner is at far left).

UPDATE 16 January

From the London Evening Standard on 15 January Londoner’s Diary feature:
Things are looking better for Andrew Marr, the Londoner is happy to report.  A senior Radio 4 colleague tells me he is sitting up in bed eating and, more importantly, hungry for news from the outside.   Apparently he has even asked his radio colleagues to get him some DVDs [sic] of Radio 4 output, and one of his requests was for the Desert Island Discs recording of philosopher Isaiah Berlin, made in March 1992.
… Adds a Radio 4 colleague: “We very much hope to be welcoming Andy back to the airwaves — we think it may well happen now.”

UPDATE 1 March

The BBC have reported that Andrew Marr has left hospital to continue his rehabilitation at home and is expected to return to work later this year.

UPDATE 14 April

Andrew Marr appeared on The Andrew Marr Show this morning as a guest in a pre-recorded segment discussing the Thatcher legacy and his stroke and subsequent rehabilitation.

6 January 2013

Julian Barnes’ ‘Through the Window’

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the writers that I identify with most were born, like me, in Britain in the years after the Second World War – Ian McEwan (1948), Martin Amis (1949) and Christopher Hitchens (1949), for instance, and also Julian Barnes (1946). Barnes is the only one of the four I’ve set eyes on - at the National Portrait Gallery’s Wyndham Lewis exhibition a few years ago. A kind person recently gave me Barnes’ Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) (to give it its full title), and thoughtfully chose the version of the paperback with the Dufy* cover (left).

The essays and the short story have all appeared elsewhere – in the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, particularly. The short story, Homage to Hemingway, possibly contains a warning for readers of the book. The narrator, a less than successful novelist tutoring a creative writing course, observes of his students that “some of them, it was true, enjoyed literature more than they understood it” which almost certainly applies to me. Some of the essays are about writers who Barnes regards highly, but whose works I have never read – Penelope Fitzgerald, Arthur Hugh Clough and Joyce Carol Oates - others about writers I like – Updike and Houellebecq ("a clever man who is a less than clever novelist") – and Barnes’ opinions of them can only widen the appreciation of an ordinary reader. I found some of the others fascinating because they involve France, a country which Barnes knows well and where he is much respected. In fact for me, Kipling’s France, France’s Kipling and the Orwell essay alone would be worth the price of the book. Three takes on Ford Madox Ford might be too many for some, however. The essay I enjoyed most was Translating Madame Bovary which spells out the problems and pitfalls of translation. Difficult enough when it’s the piece of department store puffery I attempted to translate here recently, let alone one of the classics of French literature.

The preface, A Life with Books, is a new piece in which Barnes recalls his years of book-collecting and visits to second-hand book dealers across the country. His attachment to the ‘physical book and physical bookshop’ as opposed to downloading to a Kindle (or other e-reader) is clear, as are his misgivings about the future of the printed book –he quotes Updike on the subject twice, in an essay and in the Preface:
For, who, in that unthinkable future  
When I am dead, will read? The printed page  
Was just a half-millennium's brief wonder…
But he concludes that books will survive although they might have to become more attractive in various ways. Moreover, “books look as if they contain knowledge while e-readers look as if they contain information”. There is another advantage to the physical book which James Panero points out in an article, The culture of the copy On the printing press, the Internet & the impact of duplication, in this month’s The New Criterion. After providing a useful succinct history of the internet (nice to see a US source giving Tim Berners-Lee his due), he compares printed and internet-based media and comments:
A published book is a fixed and polished record of a moment in time. The Internet always operates in the present. Aside from web portals like the “Wayback Machine,” which can provide historical snapshots of webpages, the Internet has no past. With “time stamps” and footnoted “corrections,” web culture has attempted to import the rules of fixed publication, but the Internet still treats all information the same. Any information on the Internet can be updated, changed, or erased at any moment.
The last point was underlined for me reading Barnes’ preface when he recalls his book-collecting habits forty years earlier:
Over the next decade or so-from the late Sixties to the late Seventies-I became a furious book-hunter, driving to the market towns and cathedral cities of England in my Morris Traveller and loading it with books bought at a rate which far exceeded any possible reading speed. This was a time when most towns of reasonable size had at least one large, long-established second hand bookshop, often found within the shadow of the cathedral or city church; as I remember, you could usually park right outside for as long as you wanted. …  
So I would drive to Salisbury, Petersfield, Aylesbury, Southport, Cheltenham, Guildford, getting into back rooms and locked warehouses and storesheds whenever I could. I was much less at ease in places which smelt of fine buildings, or which knew all too well the value of each item for sale. I preferred the democratic clutter of a shop, whose stock was roughly ordered and where bargains were possible.
I stumbled over “smelt of fine buildings” – what did Barnes mean? In his Man Booker prize-winning novella, The Sense of an Ending, there are some minor inexactitudes, “sperm” instead of “semen” and “server” instead of “internet service provider”, but these were, of course, not coming directly from Barnes. Instead they were words he had chosen for the book’s narrator, a character whose raison d’être was being almost, but not quite, right. So I admire Barnes, noting his having trained as a barrister and his The Pedant in the Kitchen reinforced now by Translating Madam Bovary, as a man of verbal precision. Could “buildings” just be a mistyping or a misprint, and the phrase possibly should have been “smelt of fine bindings”?

Well, on paper there may be some hope of finding out – if A Life with Books appears in, say, the Guardian, and if there had been a misprint, it might be corrected, which might also be the case if Through the Window were reprinted. But if the preface existed solely as an e-version it might be changed in an instant of “synching” without its purchaser ever knowing.

*Window on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice, 1938. A frequent subject of Dufy’s, more often with the window open.

3 January 2013

Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Quartet’

Another month, another film actor turns director – after Ben Affleck comes Dustin Hoffman. His Quartet is in the British genre of cinema geriatrica and probably has an eye to the same market as Tea with Mussolini, Ladies in Lavender, and, more recently, The King’s Speech and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. On this occasion Maggie Smith (78) has a leading part but not Judi Dench (78). However, Michael Gambon (71), Pauline Collins (71) and Tom Courtenay (76 next month) turn in faultless performances not quite matched by Billy Connolly (70). Hoffman is 75, incidentally.

Quartet, based on a play and sreenplay by Ronald Harwood (78,) is set in the Beecham Home for retired opera singers and other old musical folk. They are putting on a concert. Will Jean, the new arrival character played by Smith, join with some of the other big names above and perform the quartet Bella figlia dell'amore from Verdi’s Rigoletto? You see, Jean was once married to Reginald, played by Courtenay – can you guess the outcome?

Practically every shot in Quartet is beautifully framed and the location is charming. Sheridan Smith (31) plays the Home’s young resident medic with great aplomb given the thespian seniority of the leading lights. Many of the supporting cast seem to be retired musical professionals, all enjoying themselves thoroughly. Most people above 40, say, won’t dislike Quartet but Haneke’s Amour might make them think harder about the realities of old age, should they want to. Whether the introduction of rap was meant to extend the film’s appeal to a wider demographic or just make the target oldies feel “with it”, as they might once have said, who knows? Knowing very little about rap, I still didn’t find it convincing.

David Gritten’s Daily Telegraph article explains how Hoffman came to direct such an English film. Quartet (2012) has no connection with James Ivory’s Quartet (1981) although Maggie Smith is in both!

2 January 2013

New Year Predictions 2013

In January 2011, not long after starting this blog, I posted three predictions (see below) which had surfaced in 2010 and might prove worth revisiting in time. At the beginning of January 2012 I posted three more which had come up in 2011. So what came along in 2012?

Firstly, the future of the UK coalition and the outcome of the next election. On 11 March Max Hastings opined in the Financial Times:
The prime minister [David Cameron] himself looks every inch a king, playing the part of national leader with an assurance Gordon Brown and John Major lacked. Few doubt he will remain tenant of Downing Street after the next election.
But a few weeks later on 1 April, Ed Miliband took the line that might be expected in an interview for the Observer:
Ed Miliband predicts that the Conservatives will be thrown out of office by Labour after one term in Downing Street, … … he said that while his party had much to do, and he was far from complacent, he was now confident the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition would be a one-term government. "Opposition is a long and difficult haul," he said. "It is going to be a one-term haul, I am confident about that."
On 27 June, Tony Blair, with nothing to lose by being cautious, was interviewed by Sarah Sands for the London Evening Standard:
What are his predictions for the next election? “I think the Lib-Dems will struggle at the next election. My advice to the Labour party is to sort ourselves out with a strong modern policy. Frankly you can’t tell what will happen, if there will be a Coalition or not, but I suspect it will be far more of a two-party fight next time.
Secondly, the future of the euro. And two views on the same day, 20 May. Hamish McRae in the Independent on Sunday:
… I thought it might be helpful to sketch my own most probable outcome. The first thing that seems inevitable is that Greece will leave the eurozone. … an exit in the next two years is going to happen. When it does there will be huge political pressure on the rest of the eurozone to hang together. That could work for a while. The most exposed members, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy, will be bullied and bribed to stay. … These countries have to leave the eurozone. I would guess this will be within five years, so let's say 2017.
But Niall Ferguson took a different view in the Sunday Times (£):
… “I am not a federalist,” he says. “But the costs of the single currency disintegrating are really so high and would impact so many people, that the only responsible thing for me to do is to argue urgently for the next step to a federal Europe. I see no alternative at the moment that isn’t a great deal worse.” He has no truck with the increasing number of people, both commentators and politicians, who entertain the possibility of an orderly exit from the euro for Greece. “It’s too late to unravel the single currency,” he says. … “There has got to be a possibility that this [monetary and fiscal union] will all go horribly wrong with a Greek exit, but it has got to be in the 10% to 20% range [of probability] because this would be so costly to everybody. It would be a massive act of self-immolation and I don’t think they’re that crazy.”
And thirdly, the global shape of things to come in the form of a tweet from Rupert Murdoch on 10 November:
@rupertmurdoch: 2012-2016 changes. Iran gets bomb, china begins major reforms, US crash as bond market revolts, N Africa explodes, etc. What next?

Happy New Year!

The Previous Six

10.1 “It will be fascinating to see whether the coalition conceived after the 2010 election holds. It may, since the Lib Dem desire for electoral reform is so intrinsic to them. But if that doesn’t come about, I doubt the coalition will last long. However, I may be wrong ...” Tony Blair, now, more than half-way through the coalition’s intended five year life, so looking as though he was “wrong”.

10.2 “whoever wins this [2010] election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be” Attributed to Mervyn King, who may still be proved right in that many aspects of the UK’s fiscal austerity have yet to be realised.

10.3 Prince Charles will never be King and that William would succeed his grandmother. Attributed to Princess Diana – too soon to tell.

11.1 Adam Posen predicted that UK inflation would fall below 1.5% by the middle of 2012. Oh dear!

11.2 Henry Kissinger worrying that after ISAF withdraws from Afghanistan, an India-Pakistan war may ensue. We will see.

11.3 My suggestion that the Queen might retire in April 2016 after her 90th birthday. Again, we will see.