Category Archives: Ruminations

A Man Called Ove

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I heard a lot about this book and have to confess I was a bit skeptical.

How wrong is it possible to be be?

If you’ve read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson you’ll love this too – it has a very similar style.

Not a word is wasted. There’s very little flowery exposition, just lean spare evocative writing that shows much much more than it tells – the author respects his readers and relies on their intelligence to pick up the nuances and commonalties of human experience and feeling.

Without being in the least saccharin or mawkish, it’s both funny and positive – and surprisingly affecting.

You’ll be sorry to reach the end but exceedingly glad you read it!

Learning from a Presbyterian Buddhist skeptic – David Hume and life

David Hume - Enlightenment Historian
David Hume – Enlightenment Historian

 

Just read this rollicking good tale of unexpected connections and the virtue of tolerance for and learning from divergent views…….

………and the prime dictum of History (and Life – if there’s a difference):

 

Diary of a quarantined man

So, to use a word that has become quintissentially infuriating recently to so many for no really discernable reason,  one had the flu recently.

Which like war is a lot less of an experience than many accounts would have you believe.

Mainly it involves having a brain with the functionality of a sand-filled bobble-headed doll, wedded to the vitality and vigor of a mummified sloth.

There’s not very much interesting about any of it.

Thankfully I’ve progressed to mostly well again, with the odd outbreak of a marshy mucuousy wheeze briefly breaking into a chainsaw buzz death rattle. (I might have made the last bit up).

Thus ended quarantine.

 

Earth as a goldfish bowl?

I’ve just been reading the excellent Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

In just 400 pages or so he traces the history of humanity from our African origins to today – and indeed beyond – it’s truly fascinating, exceptionally written and a trove of interesting information and thought-provoking perspectives on what we are and what makes us what we are; and what we might become.

One of his key concepts – perhaps the overall theme of the book – is that after a period of divergence across the face of the globe, the different branches of humanity are fast reconverging into a single whole. In future the different divisions that we employ today to differentiate between groups of Sapiens will diminish steadily in meaning until it makes no sense to think or speak of anything but a single human society.

Yet Harari also points out that a strong motor and facet of almost all human societies and cultures throughout history has been a strong ‘them’ and ‘us’ distinction. At our origins we there no shortage of others – different species of humans, as well as dangerous animals. Then came migration out of Africa over thousands of years and separation of different human bands across continents.

For thousands of years now though this process has been in reverse, ever more comprehensive and ever faster, with previously distant ‘peoples’ reintegrated into one society. Today only tiny numbers of humans in the remotest of areas remain beyond this renewed shared space – and arguably even they are in truth not detached entirely from the impact of our own world.

The fascinating question perhaps now is what happens when there is no more readily discernible ‘them’ and ‘us’? Harari sees a future where religion and ‘race’ no longer mean very much, and where standards of living are relatively harmonised in a single unified global space.

Who then are the ‘others’? Do we need others?  Will we develop some new divisions? What or whom do we measure ourselves against? Where will the spirit of competition lie? Do we need that? Will there be a fundamental shift in human nature and motivation? Or shall we seek friends and neighbour and yes even enemies beyond Planet Earth? Will homogeneity spur a search for new opportunities for exploration, travel and ‘experience’?

What will historians write of in the (utterly welcome) absence of wars, famine and pestilence? If our dearest dreams come through, what then for humanity? If we live in a world with Star Trek-like harmony and tolerance – but nowhere to go and nothing to do that isn’t already ‘here’? What happens if a species which has been constantly moving and adapting for all its existence arrives at a stage where it can do neither?

What happens if ‘here’ is everywhere? And everywhere is here????

 

The Salt Of The Earth

The Salt of the Earth
The Salt of the Earth

 

How long does it take to plant 2,000,000 trees?

Why would someone give up a safe and lucrative job as an economist with a global institution for the uncertain livelihood of a photographer?

What keeps a person who is steeped in the aftermath of brutal atrocities – and witnesses human savagery up close – sane?

We get an insight into all of these questions in this mesmerising documentary. The range and depth to be found in the experience of the life that Sebastiao Salgado has lived is just hinted at by the variety and profoundness displayed in the previous questions.

 

Serra Pelada Mines - one of Sebastiao Salgado's most iconic images
Serra Pelada Mines – one of Sebastiao Salgado’s most iconic images

Born on a Brazilian farm in Minas Gerais state in 1944, Sebastiao led a conventional life until the age of thirty – earning a Masters in Economics, moving to live in Paris and working on assignment in Africa for the World Bank studying the coffee industry.

He also met and married his wife Lélia Wanick (Salgado) a fellow Brazilian. So far, so usual.

Then one day he picked up a camera Lélia had bought for her studies – and his life changed utterly.

Fascinated and increasingly enthralled, we might even say bewitched, by the world of images, Sebastiao – fully supported by Lélia – made a very radical decision: he gave up his safe, secure and extremely well-paid job as an economist to begin work on a long-term photography project.

If this had failed we might say he was unhinged to take such a step, but with the benefit of hindsight we can say now that it was inspired.

Never an easy path – Sebastiao spent long periods away from his family, which now included children, two boys, along with isolation in remote and difficult, and often dangerous, terrain – his perseverance, dedication and rare talent eventually made Sebastiao one of the world’s most successful photographers.

Ironically, many of his signature photographs came to be taken on the same ground as he had previously trodden as an economist – capturing stills of workers where he had poured over statistics before. Some of his most renowned photos came from coffee plantations; a revolution complete.

A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers
A coffee plantation and its workers

This documentary by German film maker Wim Wender (with the help of Sebastiao’s and Lélia’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado) delves with empathy and incisiveness into Sebastiao and Lélia’s lives since that momentous change in direction, the highs and the lows, the various projects – including some truly horrendous experiences in Rwanda and Yugoslavia as both were dissolved by the acid of human hate – and their return to Brazil to begin their new project, the Instituto Terra.

If you can see this film, it will be an enjoyable and enlightening experience, tinged with some sadness of course – a bit like life and a fitting testament to a living lens on humanity’s positive and negative elements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cops and Robbers – The Seven Five Precinct

New York City's Police Precinct Seven Five
New York City’s Police Precinct Seven Five

In the early 1990s one Brooklyn gangster, Adam Diaz, sold a kilo of cocaine for $34,000. He sold roughly 300 kilos a week.

Despite operating in a crime-ridden chronically poor neighbourhood, despite the temptation presented by the vast sums of money involved, Diaz never feared his key shipments of drugs would be intercepted.

He had bought his own police escort.

Precinct Seven Five is a documentary telling the story of Michael Dowd, ‘New York’s Most Corrupt Cop’, whom Diaz paid $4000 a week for his services. And what services they were for a serving New York City police officer to provide to one of his precinct’s biggest criminals.

It’s a truly remarkable tale. Almost literally incredible. The truth seems so far-fetched that it would be almost impossible to get anyone to believe the events recounted over these 106 minutes if this was a summer action blockbuster.

Director Tiller Russell uses interwoven interviews with the real-life people to let them tell their own stories in their own words. Explanatory voice-overs are kept to a bare minimum and this makes for a hugely engaging experience for the viewer.

Russell is thoroughly blessed in that the cops and the robbers that form his cast of characters at the heart of the story are all larger than life, almost manically voluble and only rescued from verging into Soprano-esque stereotypes by virtue of the fact that we know they are all real people.

The result is riveting. By times funny, shocking and horrifying, it makes movies like ‘The Departed’ appear understated and restrained – yet these are real people and real events you’re forced to remind yourself every so often, not fictional caricatures.

Michael Dowd
Michael Dowd

Michael Dowd is the hinge on which everything else turns. He joined the NYPD almost straight after high school in the early 1980s. He had no great interest in the NYPD, he just happened to get his result from the Police Department before the Fire Department. The FDNY should thank its lucky stars it never secured the services of Mikey Dowd.

Charming, unscrupulous, up-for-anything ‘Mad Mikey’ cared mostly about being a good cop. He explains this as not being about good policing, about solving crime and catching criminals, but about always, absolutely always, backing up your fellow cops – no matter what.

As Dowd later explained to the Mollen Commission, which investigated corruption in the NYPD, cops who were not regarded as ‘good’ by their colleagues might find help slow in arriving when they needed it. In a precinct like the Seven Five in the 1980s and 1990s – described by cops and criminal alike as a ‘warzone’ with hundreds of reported incidents every day –  slow or no backup could be a death sentence.

This unbreakable code of silence, a blue omerta,  led many of the officers of the Seven Five precinct to serve and protect themselves, with Dowd as their exemplar.

He recalls on camera how he first left the straight and narrow by taking a few hundred dollars to look the other way during a routine traffic stop of a suspected drug dealer. Dowd was short on cash and a long way from pay-day.

Once he’d cottoned on to this new lucrative scheme, things soon escalated and expanded. Other cops refused to work with him until he struck up a connection with relative newcomer Kenny Eurell.

Eurell’s initial idealism soon faded as he was drawn into the murky world of Mike Dowd. Taking a one-off $100 dollars from one of Dowd’s schemes quickly gave way to fully fledged involvement in burglaries, then robbing drug dealers, and eventually working for them – principally Adam Diaz.

Dowd grew so comfortable in the criminal world and so far from his police oath that he set up his own drug dealing racket on Long Island.

Eventually that came led to his ultimate downfall. But that’s an outcome best and ably described on-screen by those who brought it about first-hand.

If you can at all get a chance to see this documentary, do.

It leaves fictional TV and movies in the halfpenny place by a country mile. Truth is not only stranger than fiction but far more dangerous.

Alive! Totalitarianism in monthly installments….

Front Cover Image of Alive Newspaper June 2015
You’re damned doomed and destined to Hell unless you do everything we say…

 

Another month, another edition of Alive!

If you’ve never encountered this unique publication, think of something like the old Soviet Union-era Pravda ‘newspaper’: unthinking rigid hardcore adherence to an ideology come hell or high water.

In the Soviet Union the rock of belief was Communism, in Alive!’s case its uncompromising doctrinaire Catholicism. The message, mindset and mission makes the Khmer Rouge seem moderate. A claim of care masking razor blades.

There’s no semblance of toleration or even an awareness that there may be more than one valid point of view. It’s black or white, with us or against us.

And if you are against them, it’s not a philosophical opposition. Alive! are sure and certain that those who disagree are diseased of mind, and possibly body; twisted agents of Satan.

That sounds over the top and straight out of either the Middle Ages (with apologies to the Middle Ages) or a bad horror B-movie.

Unfortunately they are serious. No matter what else you do in life, if you don’t it while espousing their exact beliefs to the letter, and obeying ever tenet without question, nothing matters.

Feed the starving? Pointless without prayer.

House the homeless? No hallelujah and it’s all for naught.

Bring about world peace? Not your job, it’s Gods and you have no business interfering.

No matter what good someone might do, how moral they might be, how great an impact they might have for the better, if that person does not adhere to the One True Faith nothing they do can be genuinely worthwhile. Without the magic fairy dust, reality will remain lacking.

The classic example is the cover photo above of Snow White – who didn’t live happily ever after because she wasn’t a good god-fearing Catholic. So now she’s miserable.

There’s a simple solution of course. Every totalitarian belief system has a simple solution – usually set out in a book.

There’s the Bible, Mao’s Little Red Book, and Mein Kampf. Throw in Das Kapital and everything and anything by other Communist prophets.

All aim at the same control and demand the same obedience. All demand complete unquestioning loyalty. All have special castes who interpret for the ‘masses’. All have their own cherished buzzwords and jargon, usually opaque and meaningless.

All cause suffering and pain.

All are spiteful and cruel in language, thought and ultimately deed.

For the greater good of course.

Which is or will be the next/new world. When the revelation/revolution comes.

Though it never actually happens. So someone is to blame, someone is not faithful enough, not pure enough, someone is sabotaging sent by the Devil/Trotsky/Splitists.

And so begins the hunt for traitors and freethinkers.

Welcome to the inquisition.

Next stop a gulag, a camp or an industrial school.

Beware of the unbending sneerers of Alive!, something dark lurks within………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the angle of attack

True Detective returned last weekend for season 2 with an all-new cast: Rachel McAdam, Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughan and Taylor Kitsch.

The first series attracted rave reviews, nearly universally. And good it was, if weird in places.

The second season opener followed the same pattern very closely – a troubled moody cop in an interview room, followed by initially disconnected flashbacks. We don’t know nor understand much of what’s going on but it definitely holds the attention with no shortage of dramatic moments.

It’s almost a carbon copy of last year’s episode 1 in structural terms, and last year plaudits followed, to an almost hysterical level.

This year the reviews are more mixed though the story and the actors are if anything better.

It seems almost as if some critics and some publications have decided to adopt a contrarian view as a strategy to stand out from the crowd. Except that many other outfits had the same idea and the pack have ended up in largely the same place. Again. But on the negative side of the argument.

Is it because True Detective is no longer niche? Or new? Or is just uncool to like it when almost everybody seems to?

Is the way to attract attention, readers and web clicks to find an angle of attack whether it’s deserved or not and rain on the parade long and hard, irrespective of what’s actually happening on-screen? Of how good or bad what we’re actually watching is?

A cynical approach surely but increasingly common, online at least. If the Easter Bunny and Unicorns turned out to be real tomorrow, or world hunger and poverty alleviated,  you can bet someone would find a negative perspective in order to chase the viral wave and elbow themselves to the front of the optic queue.

It’s a cheap and tawdry tactic and hopefully one that falls flat.

Nuanced reality is much more interesting if harder to produce and lets hope it wins out. Or at least survives.