Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Inferno II: Better call soul


When I first read the Divine Comedy it wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare it to a television show – TV was a bit shit in the 80s – but now it does. The first canto is the pilot episode in which we are introduced to the main characters and given a glimpse to the kind of show that the Comedy will turn into. It begins in media res, right in the middle of the action (‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark’…), and a bunch of stuff happens involving exotic wild animals, setting us up for an equally exciting second episode. But those expectations – like in the best kind of television – are set to be confounded.

If in the first canto everything happened, in the second one nothing does. The action spans a few moments, the time necessary for Virgil and Dante to exchange a few words and for the sun to set behind the crest of the hill they are about to climb.

Or are they? Dante is not so sure anymore. His resolve has drained out of him. He doubts that he is capable and worthy of the journey made before him by the likes of Aeneas and Saint Paul. Virgil is unmoved: quit being a coward, he rebukes him. Then, to restore his courage, he tells him of the mission that was entrusted upon him (meaning Virgil) by the soul of a woman, now deceased, whom Dante loved as a younger man. The bulk of the canto takes the form of a flashback, or rather a series of nested flashbacks, as the plan to shepherd Dante out of his dark forest is formulated and transmitted through the celestial chain of command, from the Virgin Mary down to Virgil. The speech has the desired effect on Dante, who is once again ready to take his first step up the hill. We are back to where we started.

A 15th century illustration of the canto by Priamo de la Quercia
But a synopsis does not account for what words make happen in this canto. We are at the threshold between cultures: from the classic one of Virgil to the middle-age of Dante, at the height of the Catholic Church’s secular dominion over Europe; but also – like a prophecy – from that late feudal age of almost universal illiteracy into the modern one, in which an encyclopaedic poem about theology, philosophy, politics and history is accessible to the masses.

In the early 14th century, Latin was still the language of the pan-European intellectual class. It was also the language of the fathers of the church, therefore things spoken or written in Latin were automatically closer to the truth.

Dante’s decision to write the great poetic testament of European medieval culture in the vernacular, that is to say the language of the people, was both daring and visionary, for it presupposed a public that didn’t yet exist, in a country that didn’t become a country for another five and a half centuries. In so doing, not only did Dante practically invent the Italian language, but the very idea of Italy.

William Blake, 'Dante and Virgil enter the woods'
But the poem has just begun, in fact it’s almost unbeginning, retracing the steps of that boastful first canto. We’re still at the foot of the hill and the edge of the forest, and simultaneously in the present time of Dante-the-writer, as he sets down to record his adventures. After the ritual invocation to the muses, in a famous line he appeals to the mente che scrivesti ciò ch’io vidi, literally ‘the mind that wrote down the things I saw’, although back then ‘mind’ really meant ‘memory’.

It’s a dense and contradictory image, that of the poet seeking divine inspiration while at the same time claiming that his job is merely to jot down the things he remembers, in the order in which they occurred. Of course this is a narrative frame, as any of Dante’s contemporary readers, if pressed, would have acknowledged: none would be so credulous and devout to think that the poet had really travelled to the other world, on a mission from God. Yet those same readers would have also believed – as no doubt Dante himself did – that poetry was an instrument for investigating the truth. Their relationship with the text, which we can only vaguely imagine, would have been radically different from that of a modern reader. But it pays to bear that radical difference in mind, as the question of what is true in the poem and about the poem is a key to its interpretation.

The ritual invocation to the muses and the power of memory segues wonderfully into Dante’s doubts – as expressed to Virgil – that he is the guy for the job. Here Dante is simply trying to talk himself out of proceeding, like someone who disvuol ciò che volle –unwills what he willed. Had Dante succeeded, there would be no poem. So naturally Virgil has to dissuade him. "S’i’ ho ben la parola tua intesa, l’anima tua è da viltade offesa. Or, in prose: ‘If I get what you’re saying, cowardice got the better of you.’

Gustave Doré, 'I am Beatrice'

What follows is Virgil’s account of having been approached in limbo (where he dwells as someone who died before the birth of Christ) by a donna beata e bella – ‘a fair, saintly lady’ (per Longfellow): it’s Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine banker, whom Dante loved desperately as a young man but who was married in her teens into another banking family, and who died – probably of childbirth – at the age of 24, ten years before the setting of the poem. Beatrice explains she was approached by Santa Lucia, who alerted her to the grave circumstances in which Dante found himself. Santa Lucia in turn had been sent by the Virgin Mary herself, this triple relationship symbolically reflecting three different stages of Christian grace. But Beatrice – who will play a starring role in the Paradiso, 66 cantos from now – is not merely a symbol, nor a messenger. Her eloquence is her own, as is the pity she feels for the man who once loved her, and she is not shy about asserting her own identity:
I’ son Beatrice che ti faccio andare;
vegno del loco ove tornar disio;
amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare.

Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go;
I come from there, where I would fain return;
Love moved me, which compels me to speak.
The effect of these words on Dante borders on the erotic:
Quali fioretti dal notturno gelo
chinati e chiusi, poi che ’l sol li ’mbianca,
si drizzan tutti aperti in loro stelo,
tal mi fec’io di mia virtude stanca
More or less: ‘Like little flowers that the chill of night had forced to bow and close, once warmed by the sun open up and stand upright on their stem, so did I regain my exhausted strength.’

Dante is rearing to go now. It’s his turn to encourage Virgil: tu duca, tu segnore, tu maestro – ‘my guide, my lord, my inspiration’ – as if he had been waiting all the time to be pointed in the right direction.

Thus ends this extraordinary, circular canto, in which nothing happens and human time has no meaning. For when was Virgil summoned by Beatrice? When were those decisions made, and the message passed along, that the poet should be rescued from his deathly moral crisis? Recall how in the first canto Virgil is introduced as someone who had long been silent (che per lungo silenzio parea fioco). Perhaps, then, like this canto suspended in time, Virgil had always been there, a shadow waiting for a man of flesh and blood to get lost in the dark forest of his mind.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Inferno I


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

Italians study Dante the way English people study Shakespeare: reverently, and mandatorily. My father, who attended a vocational school for artisans before starting work at 14, was nonetheless taught about him, and would sometimes recite a few of those classic rote-learned facts. For instance, that the Divine Comedy is a ‘didactic allegory’.

When my turn came to attend a far more academic high school, forty years later, the study of Dante spanned three whole grades. At sixteen we studied the Inferno; at seventeen, the Purgatory; at eighteen, Paradise. Throughout the year, typically at the rate of one hour a week. It was an ambitious programme, befitting the archaic, pre-war design of our school system. When the country became a Republic, in 1946, it did not create new and more democratic schools. Instead, it opened the doors of the schools for the children of doctors and lawyers – the licei – to the children of factory workers and farmers. At least in theory. In practice, the prospect of spending three years studying a medieval didactic allegory, or five years learning Latin and/or Greek, acted as an implicit socioeconomic barrier. Households such as mine – working class, but full of books – were not in the majority.

School was, sometimes, our forest dark: an impenetrable thicket of arcane knowledge and arbitrary tasks, designed to select us and prepare us – although it wasn’t clear exactly for what.

First plate of the Comedy illustrated by Gustave Doré
Dante wrote the Divine Comedy from 1308 to 1321, while in exile from his native Florence. The action however is set in the year 1300, the year of the first Catholic Jubilee. ‘Midway upon the journey of our life’ means at the age of thirty-five, based on the conventional belief – stated by Dante in the Convivio – that placed the duration of life at seventy. (Dante was born in 1265.) The journey of Dante spans one hundred cantos but only seven days, and begins either on the 25th of March – the day of the death of Jesus on the cross – or on the 7th of April, its lunar anniversary in the year 1300. In other words, Easter Friday.

The dark forest represents moral confusion and sin, That’s the first allegory, right in the poem’s opening tercet. There are over fourteen thousand of these tercets in the poem, each comprising three lines of eleven syllables each with alternate interlocking rhymes (ABA BCB CDC and so forth). Think about that design for a moment, and the almost superhuman effort that erecting such an edifice of words might require. And then, to match the formal audacity, a subject matter to rival and surpass ancient tales of journeys into the Afterlife. For while it’s true that Aeneas and Odysseus had walked among the dead, those pantheistic religions were a great deal more accommodating of such fantasies. For a Christian poet to imagine an equivalent journey, not only through Hades but to Heaven as well, would have come dangerously close to heresy.

Placing three Popes in Hell – two of whom were not even dead yet – was pretty gutsy as well.

The first page of Aldus Manutius' 1502 edition
But I’m running ahead of myself. Dante has barely walked out of the forest and begun to climb a rather promising-looking hill that a leopard, a lion and a wolf jump out before him, forcing him to retreat. The word ‘fear’ appears five times in this opening canto, but nowhere more memorably than in the 53rd line: con la paura che uscia di sua vista, which Longfellow translates as ‘the fright that from her aspect came’. But it’s a pallid echo of Dante’s image, in which fear seems to physically radiate from the appearance of the ravenous wolf: as if to give origin to the expression ‘a frightful sight’.

It is then, just as he is about to turn back towards the forest, that Dante spots the figure of a man che per lungo silenzio parea fioco. Both of my annotated editions of the Divine Comedy interpret fioco as meaning hoarse, therefore ‘someone whose long silence had almost deprived of his voice’. That’s the word Longfellow uses in his classic nineteenth century translation, suggesting this interpretation reflects an age-old consensus.

I’m sure that the scholars are correct but frankly it has never made any sense to me. Dante at this point hasn’t heard the man speak yet. How could his voice sound hoarse ? The standard Italian meaning of fioco is dim, as in ‘a dim light’. I prefer to read the line therefore as a classic Dantean synecdoche. After all, haven’t we just been told that in the forest ‘the sun was silent’, meaning that the place was dark? Fioco offers a perfect call-back to that image: Dante failed to see the man because he stood in motionless silence.

William Blake, The Mission of Virgil
No matter. What does matter is the identity of this man, who finally reveals himself. He was born sub iulio – at the time of Caesar – and lived in Rome in the era degli dei falsi e bugiardi, ‘of the false and lying gods’. (I get false, but how do you lie by not existing?) His parents both hailed from Lombardy. He was a poet, and sang of the just son of Anchises, that is to say Aeneas.

He could have just said ‘Hey there, I’m the ancient poet Virgil’, but that wouldn’t quite cut it, poetically speaking.

Dante is ecstatic: this is the author whom he most reveres, and to whose example he feels he owes his style and his fame. A short prophecy later (a man will come who will vanquish the beasts – though none of the commentators can quite agree on whom it might have been), Virgil explains that he will guide Dante first through Hell, then through Purgatory. Once they get to the Gates of Saint Peter’s, however, Dante will have to find another guide, for Heaven has a strict ‘no Pagans allowed’ code.

The canto ends in typical fashion, which is to say dynamically, as a springboard to the next one.

Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro. 
Then he moved, and I followed behind.

Gustave Doré, plate V: end of the first canto
The Divine Comedy is an extraordinary compendium of medieval European culture, and one of the high points of human civilisation. It is also a supreme joy to read, and a reason in itself for learning Italian, as indeed many people have – for instance Ann Goldstein, who went on to become the translator of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. I’m not sure it should be parcelled and served as homework to sixteen year olds, but then it’s hard to find a time in life to read a long medieval poem that doubles as an encyclopaedia to a lost world. Perhaps there is no good time. Which is the same thing as saying that it’s always the best possible time.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How to draw a tree


How to draw a tree. How to draw a person, a house, or the Sun. How to colour-in the sky. Basic skills for children, or adults for that matter, taught via a series of small books. A project very much of its era: for while it’s quite possible to imagine similar books being produced now, the approach to teaching creativity within rules – the classical alongside the modern – is something I recognise from the pedagogical fashions of my childhood.


How to draw a tree was the star of the show, and is still in print, also in English. It isn’t so much an instructional book as the story of how trees are drawn by nature. The inspiration is this drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, on the proportional growth of tree branches (from his Treatise on Painting).


Leonardo’s theory held that ‘all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk’. The book’s author – my beloved Bruno Munari – uses this idea for a collage exercise towards the end of How to draw a tree, but translates otherwise the drawing as the following recipe/mantra repeated throughout the text, in big print and small print, upside and sidewise and down:
Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it.
That is the moral of the story of how to draw a tree.

I’ll get back to the book. But for the purposes of this post I revisited the others in the series, almost three decades on from when I first encountered them. And found them inferior to that first title. How to draw a house (by Roberto Lanterio) is just a catalogue of the different shapes that dwellings take in different cultures. You won’t know how to draw them any better than before you picked up the book. How to draw a person (by Rinaldo Donzelli) is similarly lacking in invention. How much better it might have been had it borrowed Munari’s own approach – from an essay in his seminal collection L’arte come mestiere – to drawing faces out of found design elements and shapes. Fellow children of the Lego generation could really have done something with this.


However I do recall being struck by the book’s central fold-out pages, which vividly illustrate how real-life faces aren’t symmetrical, and also that they are more interesting that way.

Not this

Nor this

But this

I never owned a copy of How to draw the sun, but from what I can gather from the internet it contained another of Munari’s old ideas– namely that ‘the sunset is just a dawn seen from behind’ – and also employed another favourite technique of his, which consist in highlighting a visual element by concealing it behind something else, or pointing to its absence.


Munari’s stated intent in writing or overseeing these books was to help readers avoid the clichés typical of childhood drawings. Trees, people, houses, skies, the Sun: for each of these basic elements of our early art there is a stereotype we can immediately picture in our heads, and easily repeat even as adults. Munari’s method is to strip down these socially acquired conventions, and teach how to look at the world as artists – that is to say, to capture the essence of a subject, its visual signature, so as to be able to reproduce it on the page.

Back to the trees, then, whose job is to grow and branch out.


Every branch is thinner than the branch that precedes it, and this is almost all you need to know.


The growth of our basic tree is shaped and constrained by its environment. For instance, by the wind.


And naturally different kinds of trees branch out in their own peculiar ways.


By observing an oak leaf, we discover that their veining reproduces the pattern of how a tree grows. Take out the outline of the leaf, and we are back to drawing trees.


Some adults, ponders Munari, will resist these teachings. They will say ‘I can’t draw’. But of course you, can, he taunts them. You can draw the letters of the alphabet, for one thing. You can draw them big and small, uppercase and lowercase, in wavy lines or at right angles, can’t you. Yes, yes, yes. Well then, he continues, if you can draw a capital Y you can draw a tree. There are no excuses.


How to draw a tree is less a practical lesson than an extended meditation, the story of how (and why) one might draw a tree. Above all, it presumes of young children and primary school teachers a willingness to engage in philosophical enquiry. For that fact alone it deserves to be reprinted and read and kept around, at least for as long as there are still people and trees.



Bruno Munari, Disegnare un albero. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1978. (Available in English as Drawing a Tree.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Very little Britain


Imagine a distant future in which all that is left of British culture is a copy of The Daily Mail from 19 April 2014. Or, if you prefer, imagine yourself a traveller to Britain who comes to the country armed only with the aforementioned newspaper as a guide. By a fortuitous coincidence, I happen to own a copy of the very issue in question.


What kind of object is this? At over a hundred pages thickly covered in small type, it packs a great deal of reading material. If one were to approach it with the mindset of a future archaeologist, enough to make several inferences about the customs, habits and culture of these by-now ancient people.

Ruled by a benevolent Princess with a keen interest in footwear, the Britons were a tightly knit people who loved in a series of villages with names like Cheltenham, Richmond and Teddington, and who appeared to care very deeply for each other's business. Intensely tribal and distrustful of foreigners, the Britons kept mostly to themselves, save for sharing in the occasional amusing, quirky story from faraway lands. But their prevailing sentiment was a generic, all-purpose fearfulness, mixed with concern that they might be getting a bad deal from health authorities or the local supermarket.

18 April 2014 was a slow-news day, at least as measured by the contents of the Daily Mail that came out the next day. The issue is decidedly ho-hum, at least by the publication’s renowned standards. ‘Swarming migrants’ barely rate a mention, and its most lurid tales concern dead celebrities as opposed to active politicians. But it’s a more instructive read that way, without the distraction of overtly fascistic performances. It’s easier to focus on what the bulk of the newspaper is really about, and how it goes about constructing its reader/subject.

Firstly, my Daily Mail has no clear logic or structure. Outside of the business section and the sports section, it consists of a stream of news items in no particular order of salience or gravitas, jumping cheerfully from a mailman being chased by an exotic bird to a child of 7 being set fire to in the street.


The tragicomic style often extends to within the news items themselves. The front-page story about the Duchess of Cambridge walking on a beach in Sydney on wedge heels, for instance, goes from informing us that
the camel-coloured shoes have a braided leather strap at the ankle and a cork platform wedge which does, admittedly, give the wearer slightly more stability than a stiletto of the same height
to an account of William and Kate’s fighting back tears after chatting with the parents of a nine month old boy about to die of meningitis.

In a similar vein, several of the articles contradict their own claims. Take this startling piece on a possible sighting of the Loch Ness Monster via an image from Google Maps.


‘For six months,’ begins the piece, full of the vigour and optimism of youth, ‘the image has been studied by experts at the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club.’ Then, inevitably, a few paragraphs in: ‘Despite the club’s claim, however, another explanation for the shape seen in the image could simply be underwater currents in the loch.’

There is no hierarchy or news, nor a precise sense of what the rules for establishing facts are. What prevails above all is the emotional texture of the stories, at least one of which appears to be sourced from existential dread itself:
Hundreds of young Britons are being lured to join fighting in Syria by the ‘glamorous’ image painted in videos online, it is feared. (The emphasis is mine.)
The general effect is that of a newspaper written for squirrels, or other similarly nervous woodland creatures: always leaping from page to page, always on guard, never sure if the next turn will bring comfort or danger. One moment you read about the crisis in Crimea (‘It’s time to grab Putin by the roubles’, declares an editorial), the next you are warned alliteratively about a salmonella scare in bags of sultanas sold at Sainsbury. No sooner you have digested the tale of the teenage nephew of a British Guantanamo inmate shot dead fighting jihad in Syria, that you learn that a bottle of wine a day ‘is not bad for you’ according to ‘leading scientists’.

A topical advertisement.
It seems that on 19 April 2014 the Daily Mail gave immigrants a break so it could concentrate on bashing the NHS, with no fewer than three stories sounding the alarm on its culture and practices, and an editorial calling for an urgent debate ‘on whether a monolithic and increasingly uncompassionate system, run entirely by the State, is the most efficient means of delivering this country’s ever more complex healthcare needs.’ But leaving the conservative politics to one side, the NHS stories also fit within the newspaper’s borderline obsessive focus on consumer affairs. From the public health service to the bags of sultanas that could give you the shits; through dubious practices at British Gas, bank and insurance terms and conditions ‘longer than Macbeth’, the world’s airport attendants rifling through 22 millions items of luggage every day, and a council in Wales that plans to introduce a three-weekly bin collection, the Daily Mail reader is kept in a perpetual state of anxious vigilance over the workings of all service providers, public or private.

Then there are, of course, the always instructive stories about the petty legal troubles of the have-nots, which feed directly into that running sense of grievance. There is the ‘benefit cheat’ mother of six who was spared jail and is now escaping community service because she ‘claims to be too sick to do it’ (never mind that a court accepted evidence as to her state of health), and the woman who faked her own death to get out of a £39 fraud charge, to which the paper is willing to extend the courtesy of blurring the face of her child.


From there we move to the issue of CCTV cameras being installed on private properties but used to spy on others, leading to what is quite possibly the least self-aware headline in Daily Mail history.


I could go on. And I will. Did you know that  when1 in 5 Britons find a snail in the garden, they throw it over the fence? Or that scientists claim to have found aphrodisiac properties in a Himalayan plant (the ‘super tea that boosts your love life’)? Or that soup spoons sales have plummeted, signalling the end of proper table manners? And if you wonder where Amanda Platell is, well,


The Daily Mail paints a picture of life not in a modern, confident, outward-looking nation, but in a vast, bloated village. Its readers aren’t citizens. They’re not consumers, either. They resemble rather a roving neighbourhood watch, armed with a very long list of things and people which fit the definition of suspicious. I should say something about the advertising, too, which suggests that the readers of the Daily Mail are quite old, as evidenced by full pages devoted to chairlifts, riser recliners, walk-in baths, or a circulation booster called Happy Legs. But I take no comfort in this: the thing about old people is that they always get replaced, and besides the problem aren’t old people but old ideas.

What the Daily Mail presents us with, even or perhaps most especially on a slow-news day, is the concrete expression of an ideology. Occasionally, some of the tenets of this ideology are blurted out explicitly (for instance: ‘It’s families that create self-reliant, aspirational, decent citizens – not politicians.’) But mostly it is articulated in the form of stories that reflect a world view, and contribute to viewing the world in a very particular light. As an intellectual project, it is remarkably coherent and consistent. It is also very powerful, in that it emerges from a collection of facts, or things that look like facts. Sometimes you feel like you can almost make out an overall shape. But then you realise it’s only a shadow, or the underwater currents the loch.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tale of a haunting: Jeff Sparrow’s search for Paul Robeson


As is the case with so many public figures, the internet offers no shortage of information on the life of Paul Robeson. Exhaustive and painstakingly annotated biographical wikis, in-depth artistic and political examinations and then – via YouTube and Google’s peculiar ability to skirt modern copyright law – tens of hours of primary and secondary material: not just in the form of samples of the man’s art, or full-length documentaries on his life, but also of his public interventions, including his testimony of May 1948 in front of the US Senate against the passing of the anti-communist Mundt-Nixon Bill, and – even more notably – the audio of his June 1956 hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. All of these documents are remarkable and interesting, just as their availability to anyone with a basic internet connection is an undoubted public good. Yet relevance and meaning don’t arise out of a mass of records. They require a thread, a purpose and a direction. A way to orient ourselves out of the maze that is the story of anyone’s life – let alone a life as large as Paul Robeson’s.


Jeff Sparrow’s No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson is an attempt to offer one such thread, out of the many possible ones. To the extent that it is a biography, it proceeds along a double, parallel track, recounting Robeson’s life at the same time as Sparrow’s own encounters with people who either remembered him or – more frequently – helped the author understand the historical and social circumstances in which he lived. While Sparrow’s admiration for his subject is palpable (and amply justified), the book is never triumphalist or hagiographic – or, worse still, nostalgic – nor are the central claims concerning the relevance of Robeson’s political thought uncomplicated. The book reads rather like the story of a haunting. What is it that moved a white Australian writer to travel the world in search of the ghost of a black American artist? And what did he learn?

Any mention of Paul Robeson, including in a book review, must be dutifully accompanied by a potted list of his achievements: that he was a star athlete in college football and a champion orator; that he graduated with a law degree from Columbia only to become one of the most popular recording artists of his generation, then a film and theatre actor whose credits include revolutionising the role of Shakespeare’s Othello; that he was a polyglot and a self-taught scholar of folk music among other subjects; that he was a champion of civil rights, of socialism, of the struggle against international fascism. That he achieved all of this in spite of being born in dire poverty, and of the horrific levels of racial discrimination that accompanied him even at the height of his fame; and finally that these odds were made even more insurmountable by the political persecution he suffered during the McCarthy era, culminating in calls for his internment, a de facto ban on his ability to perform and earn a living, and the refusal by authorities to issue him with a passport, making him a prisoner of his own country for nearly a decade.

This is Sparrow’s subject: larger than life, barely contained by history. The events that propel him back into our field of vision have to do most immediately with the rise of Trump and a new wave of explicitly racist and supremacist political projects (besides those that never went away), which in turn pose a renewed set of questions on the availability of radical alternatives, and on the political role of art and artists. The echoes are eerie, such as when Robeson was asked to account for his political sympathies in front of Francis H. Walter – the Democratic congressman who drafted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowing the US to ban immigrants on the grounds of their political affiliation, to the eventual inclusion of many prominent intellectuals. On this occasion, Robeson refused on principle to deny belonging to the Communist Party, of which he wasn’t in fact a member, and delivered a thunderous response to the question of why he would not seek asylum in the Soviet Union, since he thought so very highly of it:
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
As this episode exemplifies, Robeson’s story is one of unwavering commitment, a taking of sides that led him to lose his freedom, his fortune and very nearly his life. Yet its lessons aren’t completely straightforward, as the strategic decision by many socialists not to disavow Stalinism – argues Sparrow – produced precisely the outcome that Robeson had sought to prevent: the ‘erosion of the American Left’s moral authority and influence’. This arc mirrors the decline in Robeson’s health – both mental and physical – which resulted in his ultimate withdrawal from public life after one final period abroad, including a tour to Australia and New Zealand; as well as the transition into a new phase in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, to which Robeson was more a witness than a protagonist. But this ending, while sad, was by no means a defeat.

No Way But This grapples with Robeson’s contradictions as well as with the enduring, fierce urgency of his message: that call he made time and again for working people of all races to be allowed to live an ‘abundant and dignified life’. The solidarity that Robeson found outside of the United States – among the miners of Wales and Scotland, or the Republican fighters of Spain, and everywhere he travelled thereafter – forged his mature political consciousness, expanding the worldview of that ‘son of a slave’ born during the Jim Crow era to encompass a vision of global emancipation. Told sensitively and often movingly by a writer awake to the nuances of the political and social contexts in which Robeson moved, it is a story that reverberates today, full of tragedy but also exhilaration and promise. It is the story we need to hear.


This review was first published at Overland.

No way but this: in search of Paul Robeson is published through Scribe Publishing.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

About Firemen


I am a man of simple pleasures. And one of these pleasures is to receive emails from AbeBooks informing me that somewhere in the world they have found a book I have been looking for.


I have a few pending requests. I like that the website keeps track of how long I (or rather, they) have been looking for each book. This one was nearly six years coming. I can now ‘delete my want’.


About Firemen is a little book about, well, firemen. Gendered profession as there ever was one, but at the time when the book was written – the mid 1930s – it was literally true. D. Richardson (I have never been able to establish what the D stands for) wrote about them in the same way they wrote about dustmen, postmen and policemen, as part of the Introduction to Citizenship series overseen by the Froebel Education Institute and published by Ginn and Company Ltd, 7 Queen Square, London. Richardson wrote the quartet of books in the belief that
children, even quite young children, can and should make contact with some of the essential social services in the community.
The books were written with the school in mind, and link to one of the my favourite recurring topics: the historical representation of work, especially for pedagogical purposes. However, Richardson’s choice of four at the time all-male professions suggests that for them talking about labour ultimately meant upholding a specific ideal of society: namely, one that is orderly (policemen), clean (dustmen), connected (postmen), and safe (firemen). These for the author are the underpinnings not just of any society, but more specifically of democratic ones, in those days of ‘social, political and international unrest’.

Consider About Firemen, then, like the other little books in the series, a treatise on life during a sort of permanent peacetime home front, while fascism raged abroad.


Richardson’s firemen are well-trained, diligent, brave and strong. They wait at the station for the next alarm, either maintaining their equipment or resting or sleeping in their bunks, unless they are first in line to respond to a call. Outside the station is London, with its networks of fire alarms and hydrants, and its symbols for the initiated.


Enamelled tags attached to buildings whether a hydrant (H) or double hydrant (HD) is situated directly underneath (diamond-shaped tag) or on the opposite side of the road (oval shaped-tag), while special boxes allow people to send an alarm signal to the station or firemen to communicate that the situation is under control and no more appliances are needed at the scene.


Other ways to contact the service include special button in police boxes, or personal communication devices that have started to appear in the wealthiest homes.


Back at central station, the commanders track in real time the deployment of appliances on a map of the city.


While other officers operate the switchboard and map out the calls.


Overseen by a military chain of command, this is a model of the city as an organism, a body to be disciplined and protected. The job of the fireman, which in reality must require a great deal of resourcefulness and creativity, is reduced therefore to a series of component functions, or conditioned, automatic responses, to be carried out with efficiency and precision. A strange lesson to teach in the pursuit of civics education, perhaps, if the ulterior motive is say things about the nature of citizenship in a free society.


I enjoy these books. They have a quaintness about it, such as when they admonish against leaving candles on the Christmas tree unattended. I’m old enough to remember Christmas decorations requiring actual flames.


I enjoy finding out in the 1930s in Britain fire brigade call-outs were free unless it was for a flue fire, in which case you were regarded as being neglectful and had to pay.


I enjoy reading about the transition from the classic brass helmets – which as well as being very heavy had become an electrocution hazard since the introduction of electricity to the modern home – to new ones made of cork and rubber.


But mostly I like them for these books for the usual reason: that fewer attempts are made nowadays to teach people about work, or about how things are made and by whom, and it’s a topic I’ll never cease to find interesting, just as I did when I was the age of D. Richardson’s intended reader.

Now, I’m still missing About Policemen and affiliated second-hand booksellers are aware but still, if you should come across it please let me know.



D. Richardson. About Firemen. London: Ginn and Company, 193?


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The dementia village


When my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease, she started to get me confused with her son, who had moved to Brazil at what was then my age. As a result of this, and of the feelings of guilt she still harboured towards him, seeing me had the effect of making her anxious. It was only through conversation that she became calmer to the point where we could enjoy each other’s company.

Eventually I learned that the best course of action was not to correct her misapprehension, but rather to speak with my own voice and to tell her ordinary things about my life. I neither indulged nor rebelled against her fantasies. I let her talk about my grandfather as if he were still alive, and brought the conversation back to shared memories or concrete topics she could still grasp and express an opinion about. The success of this strategy was limited, but one day our conversation went so well I forgot about her illness, or even to keep an eye on the time. The visit ended with my having to literally run across the village to the railway station in order to catch the last train back to the city.


My grandmother’s daily self-care needs were very high, and it never occurred to us at the time that her rigidly segregated, hospital-like rest home might not be the best place for her to wait safely, and in relative comfort, for the end. In those same years, a group of Dutch caregivers began designing Hogeweyk, a village conceived to allow dementia sufferers to maintain a measure of autonomy and control over their environment. Structured around a series of template ‘lifestyles’ – ‘upper-class, homey, Christian, artisan, Indonesian and cultural’ – the group homes at Hogeweyk don’t confront residents with constant, jarring reminders of their illness, but rather encourage social interaction and participation. Other facilities that have been built since then, such as the Fartown village at Huddersfield in the UK, are modelled around 1950s housing and communal spaces, with meticulous attention to period detail.

What in other contexts may strike us as superficial, fashion-driven nostalgia, here serves the pragmatic purpose of keeping residents anchored to their psychological present – that is, to the time to which what is left of their memory most frequently returns. Residents of these facilities can go shopping (using fake money) in stores lined with generic, familiar products. They can walk the streets of the small grid-like quarters in safety, under the watchful eyes of cameras and plain-clothes nursing and security staff. At the Benrath Senior Centre in Düsseldorf, they can even wait at the stop for a bus that will never come.

The concept is highly suggestive, and routinely evokes comparisons to The Truman Show, Andrew Niccol’s sardonically dystopian story of a man condemned to live his life on a television set. In this case, the pretence is humane, as it seeks to restore (as opposed to suppress) agency, but the broader cultural reverberations are hard to ignore. Increases in life expectancy have caused dementia to reach epidemic levels, and many – if not most – families in the West are set to be affected by it as populations continue to age. But its effects are markedly different: for the sufferers, it sometimes takes the form of a long, almost gentle goodbye, the gradual taking of leave from the experiences and the relationships of a lifetime; for their loved ones, it is both heartbreaking and a burden. The duty to care for someone who can no longer recognise us, and increasingly be recognised by us for the person we once knew, is a heavy one. It can also be terribly hard to let go, to accept that the objective facts of our lives cease to matter when measured against the pain and disorientation that reminding can cause. For the families, then, it becomes an exercise in wilful amnesia: we learn to allow our elders to forget.

At the same time as individual lives are getting longer, exposing more people to dementia, our collective life as a species is getting shorter. It is the same progress that presides over both the medical advances and the frantic exploitation of the planet’s resources for present-day use, which threatens to erase the future altogether. Soon there may no longer be a past for anyone to remember, and ‘dementia villages’ like Hogeweyk will become indistinguishable from every other built environment. For now, however, their import is much more symbolic. Like my conversations with my grandmother, these special facilities make concessions to forgetting that our culture is generally unwilling to make so that what is left of experience can be salvaged and shared. They show us that memory can be a burden, too, and how to alleviate it.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How to live 349 years longer


Run 5 minutes a day: 5 years.
Read books: 23 months.
Exercise when you’re old: 5 years.
Play golf: 5 years.
Eat oily fish twice a day: 2 years.
Follow the Mediterranean Diet: 15 years.
Be right handed: 10 years.


Move from Zutphen to Crete: 6 years.
Develop resilience: 10 years.
Take this longevity pill for dogs: 4 years, equal to 28 human years.
Be a Tour de France cyclist: 6 years.
Pursue happiness: 7.2 years.
Pursue wealth: 15 years.
Have children: 1.5 years.
Have grandchildren, care for them: 5 years.
Cut down on calories: 18 years.
Win the Nobel Prize: 2 years.
Win an Oscar: 4 years.
Win an Olympic medal: 2.8 years.
Pray regularly: 7 years.
Run some more: 3 years.


Do this: 2 years.
Do these four things: 14 years.
Walk this way: 5 years.
Play this game: 10 years.
Move to a democratic country: 11 years.
Conquer stress: 10 years.
Be a well-educated person: 7 years.
Get castrated (if a man): 13.6 years.
Do housework (if a woman): 3 years.
Become a cloistered nun (also if a woman presumably): 9 years.
Do regular exercise: 4.5 years.
Garden: 14 years.
Get angry: 2 years.
Become an Adventist: 5 years.
Become a vegetarian: 9 years.


Go to university: 7 years.
Get more friends: 7 years.
Take at least 300 milligrams of vitamin C per day: 6 years.
Be a smoker, then quit when you’re middle aged: 10 years.
Be Italian or Spanish, rather than English: 2 years.
Think positive: 7 years.
Stop looking at your phone: 11 years.
Kiss your spouse in the morning: 5 years.
Use a standing desk: 2 years.
Drink a glass of wine after work: 5 years.
Achieve frequent orgasms: 2 years.
Eat nuts 5 days a week: 3 years.
Socialise with baboons: 2.5 years.
Floss daily: 6 years.

Bonus tip: since each hour spent running adds 7 hours to your life, achieve immortality by running for 3.4 hours a day. Or you could try volunteering, which reduces by 20% your chance of death (the standard human rate being 100%).


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

21 theses about Columbo




1. In Columbo, things are not as they seem. A murder is committed, almost always with premeditation. Sometimes, but not always, the death is made to look like an accident. Either way, things are arranged so that the person who committed the murder appears to be the one with the least opportunity and the best possible alibi.

2. The object of Columbo is not to figure out the identity of the murderer – a banal fact that is almost always revealed to the audience in the opening act of each episode – but rather to examine how circumstances of the murder were dissembled, and finally to uncover the single piece of evidence that can be used to bring the murderer to justice.

3. Therefore Columbo is primarily about the act of staging, rather than committing, a murder. And the talent of the detective consists primarily in deconstructing a fiction.

4. The clue that sets the detective on the right track is a flaw in the story. An inconsistency. A man is strangled, and then his death is made to look like the result of an accident involving a piece of gym equipment. In the process of setting the scene, the murderer must remove the man’s business clothes and dress him in his gym clothes. But when it comes to tying his sneakers, he does it like a man who is tying another man’s shoelaces, not his own. That is what’s wrong with the picture. The detective notices it right away, and spends the rest of the episode turning the clue into an actual piece of evidence. That is the work of the detective.

5. Because Columbo is not interested in human motivation and the social causes of murder, but is concerned rather with staging and representation, in one respect the work of the detective comes to resemble that of a reverse script supervisor or continuity clerk. Sometimes this is literally true, like when Columbo discovers that a security tape was doctored by the fact that a hedge in the earlier portion of the tape appears to have been pruned, whereas later it is shown in a non-pruned state; or when, in one of my all-time favourite endings, he notices that an audio-recording purported to have been made in the murderer’s office is missing the sound of a mechanical clock chiming the hour.



6. As a consequence, finding continuity errors or inconsistencies in Columbo-the-show can be uniquely jarring. The episode in which Martin Landau plays two identical twins, for instance, was spoiled for me by the clumsy choice of the extra who played the other twin when both of them appeared in the same scene.

Not what Martin Landau looks like from behind
7. The problem with Columbo is that every episode needs to be perfect, and not all of them are. Conversely, so many moments and scenes of Columbo are just that, perfect. Like the reverse tracking shot from his car driving down the street into the office where a writer is about to get killed in the Steven Spielberg-directed Murder by the Book. Or the projection onto Robert Culp’s glasses of how he’s going to get rid of the body of the woman he’s just killed in Death Lends a Hand.


Or the long speech that Columbo delivers with his back to the camera in Prescription: Murder.


Often this style calls attention to the artifice, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, like this shot from Lady in Waiting.


8. So Columbo is both about the staging of murder and also of a TV show about a detective. Hence the plethora of episodes set in the worlds of cinema, television, publishing, radio and theatre.




9. As well as being concerned with representation and dissimulation, Columbo is – just as importantly – a show about work. Playing opposite an eminent psychiatrist who murdered his own wife in Prescription: Murder, Columbo explains:
Cops, you know, we're not the brightest people in the world. Of course we've got one thing going for us: we're professionals. I mean, you take our friend here, the murderer. He's very smart, but he's an amateur. I mean, he's got just one time to learn. Just one. And with us, well, with us, it's – it's a business. You see, we do this a hundred times a year. I'll tell ya, Doc. That's a lot of practice.
10. Columbo is a diligent and honest worker. He’s not a genius: he’s just the employee of the month for 38 years running.

11. As well as being good at his job – which he often admits to enjoying – Columbo is both temperamentally and professionally interested in other people’s work. For solving the murder often involves being taught the details of somebody’s else job, no matter how apparently menial. Like when he asks a cleaner to show him exactly how she cleaned the fridge in the victim’s apartment on the day he was killed in It's All in the Game. There are endless examples of this.

Another favourite ending: Columbo was wearing gloves the whole time
12. Yet ironically one of Columbo’s talents consists in hiding the fact that he’s good at his job, in order to ingratiate himself to the suspect and appear less threatening. Just as the murderer stages the murder, Columbo dissimulates his investigation, which becomes a counter-fiction to the murderer’s fiction.

13. The suspense in Columbo consists principally in the murderer coming to the realisation that Columbo is not an idiot.

14. Columbo has very little regard for morality. Its murderers aren’t monsters, even when their crimes are nefarious, and the detective often treats them with respect if not downright sympathy and comradery. In Try and Catch Me, he says to the character played by Ruth Gordon: ‘Sometimes I like the murderers that I meet, if they’re intelligent or funny or just nice.’ By which he obviously means to include her, even though he knows she left a man to slowly suffocate inside a vault.

Oh, Ruth
Similarly, in Ransom for a Dead Man Columbo points out to the suspect that she has no conscience not in order to formulate a judgement, but merely to remark that he exploited this weakness to make her reveal a key piece of evidence.

15. Murder in Columbo is not an index of moral degradation or social malaise, either. And not only because the murderers are mostly the product of affluent Los Angeles society. Murder merely happens because people are sometimes motivated to kill other people, and also have the opportunity to do so.

A murder weapon
16. In Columbo truth is plain, and it can be uncovered via logic and observation. While ‘the boys at the lab’ often lend a hand, they are there to examine the scene as instructed by the detective, not to make their own deductions. In fact the only time a crime scene investigator takes on a larger role, in A Trace of Murder, he turns out to be the murderer.

17. Unlike in the CSI era, truth in Columbo is macroscopic, not microscopic.


18. There is very little darkness in Columbo, both metaphoric and actual. Every interior is thoroughly lit, every surface gleams, as if waiting for the detective to search it for clues. Outside, the Californian sun is always shining, making Columbo’s raincoat seem even more incongruous, and even the night scenes are often shot by day, such as in the climax of Any Old Port in a Storm.

19. Columbo doesn't get old. He always stays a lieutenant. Coming back from the series 11-year hiatus, he wears the same raincoat. His sergeant is still a sergeant. He drives the same car (a dilapidated 1959 Peugeot convertible). The dog is still alive.


20. Yes in spite of the detective’s infinite reserve of bonhomie and anecdotes about the wife, his love of food, the sun always shining, and time never passing, occasionally Columbo reveals a darker side. It’s when we’re allowed to see Columbo through the eyes of his suspect, as an almost demonic presence, or the unlikely incarnation of the narrative principle of detective fiction, whereby the truth will always out, no matter how carefully one might try to disguise it.

You can't get away from Columbo
21. But mostly, Columbo is just nice, and his genial nature is at the heart of the show. ‘That's me. I'd like to see everyone die of old age.’ Columbo would be happy to live in a world in which there is no place for him, and while he’s certainly not naïve (‘Every time I see a dead body, I think it's been murdered’), he’s always kind. Almost to the point of being sorry, sometimes, that he’s so good at solving murders.

In lieu of an ending: a random gallery of what people look like right after Columbo has left the room.











Oh, and one more thing...


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