Archive for November, 2010

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the US.  I have a lot to be thankful for as my family are happy and healthy but these are a few of the smaller things I have been grateful for this week :

– having a lie in at the weekend,

– arriving on a subway platform just as the train pulls in;

– meeting up with my book club;

– surviving a two-hour training session;

JK Rowling : I really enjoyed the latest Harry Potter movie as the last book is my favourite in the series. I am so glad she got to finish them all and to introduce so many kids to the joy of reading.

Thanksgiving is the quintessential US holiday so I was surprised to learn this year that it wasn’t declared a national holiday until 1863. The New York Times has an interesting story on how this came about in the wake of the Civil War:

“As national disunion loomed that Thanksgiving, so did hunger and misery for many Americans. Still rickety from the depression of 1857, the stock market had begun to collapse almost immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s election; Wall Street worried that debts owed by Southern planters – many of them mortgaged up to their eyebrows – would become uncollectable. Northern textile mills, fearing a disruption in cotton shipments from the South, began laying off workers by the thousands.”

The mood seems eerily similiar today and I am thankful not to be one of the many millions who is hungry so many years later.

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The company of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre were in New York to perform The Merry Wives of Windsor and put on a production that lived up to the merriness in the title.

Harold Bloom, in his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, says he shares AC Bradley’s indignation about the play:

“[Falstaff is] baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, picked, mocked, insulted, and worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible.”

All these things do happen to Falstaff but the genius of this production is that it’s not at all horrible thanks to the comic timing of the actors and their pitch-perfect delivery of the bawdy language. Being English, I am very fussy about the way Shakespeare is spoken and British actors can make Shakespeare sound conversational – a skill which still eludes many American productions.

It was great fun to see the merry wives – Mistress Page and Mistress Alice Ford – at the centre of the action and coming out on top thanks to their brains and wit after the “fat Falstaff” tries to seduce them both (at the same time) :

“What tempest, I trow, threw this whale with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor ? How shall I be revenged on him ? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of his lust have melted him in his own grease.”

I really enjoyed the play and think it is just as hard to make people laugh as to make them cry. But comedians get a lot less critical acclaim so as my tribute to all comics:  Make ‘Em Laugh, from Singing in the Rain:

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One paragraph from Tony Judt’s essay, My Endless New York, sums up how I feel about the city:

” And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.”

– Judt writes about the decline and fall various cities and Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, gives a fascinating lecture on the rise, and possible, fall of the newspaper industry :

“I want to discuss the possibility that we are living at the end of a great arc of history, which began with the invention of moveable type.”

So it seems fitting to find inspiration in some new multimedia creations:

– the English city of Derby is using computerised lights as art, making streets and buildings seemingly move, dance and even disappear;

National Geographic’s photo contest;

amazing views of London in the world’s largest 360° panorama photo.

Have a great weekend.

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Hopes for my nephew

I was lucky enough to recently spend a week with my one-month old nephew. Spending time with a brand new baby and other young children amongst my friends and family helps put life into perspective.

So these are my hopes for my nephew as he grows up and finds his own way in the world:

– remember that you just need the basics

Babies cry when they are hungry, tired or sick and once any of these are fixed they are content. As you become older, society may try to tell you that owning as many expensive things as possible will make you happy but I hope don’t believe it – being happy, healthy and not having to worry about the next pay-cheque are enough.

– keep trusting people

Kids are incredibly trusting. Although I don’t want you to be naïve, I hope you think that people are basically good – I have travelled a lot and 99% of people I have met around the world have been great.

– keep accepting differences

You have parents who come from different continents, different religions and speak different languages. However, you will have the example before you every day that love can create something wonderful from these differences, so I hope you don’t let grown-ups teach you to be frightened of others.

– don’t lose your sense of wonder and curiosity

Babies are amused by the smallest things and as they grow up they never stop asking why. I hope you approach each day with that same sense of curiosity and never cease to be amazed by the wonder of everyday things.

– continue to play

Kids play with complete abandon and amazing creativity. I hope you never stop trying to learn new things and doing them in your way.

– keep your energy and enthusiasm

Children make it really obvious when they like doing something.  I hope you are fortunate enough to do something that you absolutely love so that you have that same sense of enthusiasm every day.

Whenever adults look at babies we are struck by the miracle of new life and how our capacity to love keeps expanding. So I hope you get to experience a life that always feels miraculous and, above all, is full of love.

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Declaration of the thirteen United States of America, July 4, 1776

The above phrase is famous from the Declaration of Independence but a Brazilian Senate committee has also approved making the pursuit of happiness a constitutional right;

– happiness to me would involve travelling so check out this fab interactive map of fictional and factual greatest journeys;

– more cool images: this year’s best underwater photographs ;

– and what New Yorkers complain about ;

– New Yorkers may use their cell phones to complain but Bill Gates writes about how scientists are exploring ways of using them to deliver much needed healthcare in developing countries;

“For example, Peter Lillehoj and Chih-Ming Ho of the University of California, Los Angeles, received a grant to develop a disposable malaria biosensor based on a SIM card platform. The SIM card-biosensor will allow malaria detection to be performed using a cell-phone, which will make diagnostic testing more widely available in rural and remote areas.”

– more making a difference : Jimmy Pham, the Vietnamese Jamie Oliver,  has helped 400 homeless children become cooks;

– and Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens drew on his own experiences with the Japanese after World War II to speak about tolerance.

Have a good weekend

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Remembrance Sunday ceremony at The Cenotaph

One of the things I miss about the UK is its sense of history, which you don’t get in a much younger USA. The gap between the two becomes particularly glaring around Remembrance Day.

In the weeks leading up to November 11 everyone in the UK wears plastic red poppies in their lapels which are sold by The Royal British Legion to raise money for war veterans, both young and old. In London I used to buy them on regular basis as I could never walk past a former soldier selling poppies without making a donation. In New York I have had to do it online.

It was always incredibly moving to watch the wreath laying at the Cenotaph by the Queen and members of the Commonwealth and to visit the The Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey which is full of crosses and crescents, each with a personal message from a member of the public, to commemorate those who have died in conflict since 1914. The BBC has a wonderful gallery of photos of Armistice Day around the world.

War poetry was discussed on the last Broadcasting House podcast by UK poet Simon Armitage and Iraq war veteran and US poet Brian Turner – what happened after Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and who are their contemporary equivalents.

On this day it seems appropriate to re-read Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. I can still remember the impact this had on me when we first read the poem in school and it led to both my discovery of other war poets and my love of poetry:

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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I was lucky enough to see Singing in the Rain on the big screen as part of the Stanley Donen festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

I like the cinema at the Lincoln Center because it has tiered seats (important for someone as short as me), you can buy coffee (note to big cinema chains) and best of all, the film starts at the time printed on your ticket because they don’t show hours of trailers (also note to big cinema chains).

It was also  amazing to be part of an audience that actually applauded their favourite scenes – and, if I had to choose,  I would plump for this as my all-time number one.

I don’t expect Hollywood to return to making full-scale musicals, but its hard to think of a modern film that just goes for entertainment, does it so well, and makes me as happy.

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poster for The Social Network

I am one of the few people on the planet who is not, and never intends to be, on Facebook. I have the old-fashioned notion that I like to see and talk to my friends – and they mean enough to me that it is worth taking the time and making the effort to make sure I do both.

Nevertheless I went to see The Social Network about the founding of Facebook, just because the script is by Aaron Sorkin , the genius who wrote my favourite TV programme.

I really enjoyed the film because the script is up to Sorkin’s usual high standards and took me back to the dialogue-heavy, fast-talking, walking-in-the-corridors scenes from The West Wing. Sorkin concentrates on the characters, rather than the technology, but credit also has to go director David Fincher, for managing to make scenes about computer programming visually interesting and full of suspense, and to Jesse Eisenberg for his nuanced portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, who comes across as neither a hero or a villain. I hope all three, and the movie, make the Oscar nominations.

Despite the fact he is a billionaire, I felt sorry for the Zuckerberg portrayed in the movie as he is incapable of forming friendships. The movie highlights the irony that 500 million people use a social network whose creator lacks any social skills.

As Zadie Smith points out in her review of the film:

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.”

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The Second Coming by Yeats seems an appropriate poem on the day of the US mid-term elections :

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

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