In the evening we at last got to see Christopher Nolan’s Inception, our summer treat. This is a tour de force, up there with Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Di Caprio is brilliant. His forte is clearly the tormented individual but he is going to have to be careful, this film coming hard on the heels of Shutter Island, that he doesn’t become typecast in dream-within-dream films. In its own way, this film is as referential as Castle in the Sky (see previous post), and it seems it is now de rigeur for Hollywood directors to splice in homages to the cinematic greats (and to great cinematic moments). But this is one of those films that is not only brilliantly acted and brilliantly filmed but also brilliantly edited. Apparently, Nolan had been interested in such a concept, of dream-stealers and dream-manipulators, since he was sixteen years old and the risk with such long-term projects is that they become over-written and over-wrought. But that is not the case with Inception – a film with a plot that is, thanks to Nolan’s clever editing, truly what you choose to make of it. And, unlike Shutter Island, there is no POV problem because any point of view is possible. Great fun!
This afternoon I chaired my last big meeting before the summer break. The European Economic and Social Committee’s members are elected for a mandate (previously of four years, from now on, under the Lisbon Treaty’s provisions, of five years). Towards the end of the mandate, the Member States’ governments make proposals for membership under the next mandate. In our parlance, the beginning of the new mandate is known as ‘renewal’. Last year the administration set up a task force to start preparations for the renewal process, which will take place this October. We now have most of the Member State lists of new members in, and so we know that ‘turnover’ will be between a quarter and a third of our membership. The guiding spirit of my mandate as Secretary General is ‘serving the members better’, and the guiding spirit of our renewal task force is ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. This seventh meeting of the full task force went very well. Colleagues have excelled themselves in their efficiency and good will and it was a dream of a meeting to chair. I could not have imagined a more satisfying way of finishing before the summer break.
All asthma and allergy sufferers will know what I am talking about. It has been a tough old year. In addition, there have been several peaks in atmospheric pollution in Brussels during the hotter weather. When we have not wanted to scratch out our itchy eyes, or sneezed uncontrollably, our chests have wheezed heavily. But this night it rained, and it rained properly; not just a passing shower but a proper, long, downpour. I got a chair and sat out on the terrace and breathed in nice, cool and above all washed air. It was a simple pleasure and a delectable one.
I had promised to take the family to see Inception in the evening (see next post). But by the time we got to the cinema there were no places left. So the sprogs were left to choose a mutually agreed DVD. Their choice, exceptionally, was a Japanese anime film, with the English title Castle in the Sky. I thought I could slope off and do something else whilst they watched, especially when I saw the date of the film – 1986! But I ended up watching the whole thing and being enchanted. Afterwards, I googled it out of curiosity and found that it was, or had been, ranked as the second best animated film of all time. It’s proper title, Laputa, which is also the title of a Jonathan Swift novel, signals its ambitions, and there are so many diverse cultural references in the story that it would be difficult to know where to begin. In any case, it was an unexpected pleasure. It was also a trove of metaphors. One I particularly liked was a robot who still faithfully tends his masters’ domain, even though the masters have long since become extinct. How often, in our societies, do we continue to do things long after the original reason for doing them has gone?
A while back we got the complete boxed set of digitally re-mastered James Bond films and we have since been working our way through them. Last night it was the turn of From Russia With Love, regarded by many (says the Wiki entry), as the best ever Bond film and based on the 1957 Ian Fleming novel that President J.F. Kennedy listed as being among his top ten books of all time. What I hadn’t known was just how ill-starred the production had been: for example, the man playing Ali Kerim Bey (the British Intelligence Station Chief in Istanbul), Pedro Armendáriz, was in growing pain and died of inoperable cancer whilst the production was still going on; the helicopter carrying the director, Terence Young, and the art director and a cameraman crashed into the sea off Argyll whilst they were scouting scenes for the climactic boat chase scene – the helicopter sank but they all survived; Daniella Bianchi’s driver fell asleep early one morning and she suffered facial contusions that delayed filming by two weeks; and three stuntmen were seriously injured at Pinewood Studios when a controlled explosion got out of control. Forty-seven years on, the film is still great fun and we much enjoyed it. My better half and I also found it enjoyable for nostalgic reasons. In August 1981 we travelled by rail from Venice to Istanbul (it took three days) and then travelled around Turkey with next to no money for a month. Our train followed the route of the Orient Express but it was the cheaper version, full in the beginning of Yugoslavs heading back to their country from Italy, their rolled up money hidden in empty cigarettes. From Sofia onwards, the train filled up with Turkish gastarbeiter, weighed down with stashed Deutschmarks, their purchasing power increasing with every kilometre they travelled to the south. We ran out of food after a day-and-a-half. We managed to buy some provisions from platform sellers but I shall never forget the generosity and hospitality of our fellow passengers. Nor shall I forget Istanbul and the Turkey of that time (Bodrum was a small, sleepy town then, for example, and not the tourist resort it has since become). And we shall forever remember a picnic on the plains of Troy with food industriously assembled by two cheerful and friendly thieves who’d picked us up as we hitchhiked to the site of Troy itself. (The film jolted these pleasant memories because much was shot on location in Istanbul and on the Bosphorous.)
We’d come to the Ardennes for a two day trek around the Semois valley with an extended group of the in-laws. This is a beautiful part of the world. The Semois is a shallow and placid river at this time of year. We crossed it on a wicker bridge (pont de claies). I’ve never come across one of these before, but such constructions were clearly typical of the region, as can be seen from the images at this site. Not for the first time when traversing European countryside, I was conscious of the industry that had not so long ago given the landscape its characteristic features. In the case of the Semois valley, with its particular micro-climate, it was the tobacco industry. Indeed, some of the older Belgians in the party remembered Semois pipe tobacco as being the best and the most fragrant through until the 1970s. There are still plenty of the special structures in which the tobacco was hung to dry dotted about the landscape but since they are built of wood most will disappear before too long.
This evening we drove down to the Ardennes, picking up a nephew in Ciney on our way down. Recalling my 16 July post about the 14 July storm that hit Belgium, Ciney was one of the worst-hit towns. As we drove off the motorway we saw electricity pylons lying crumpled in the fields. Close to the town, whole rows of trees had not so much been uprooted as snapped off violently, as though there had been one sudden and brutal gust. But the most spectacular damage of all was done to the collegial church in the centre of town, where a large part of the spire fell into the apse (see photo), and a school lost its entire roof. Miraculously, there was only one death, a lorry driver, in Belgium. But it so clearly could have been much, much worse. (In Jodoigne a large group of schoolchildren got out of a gymnasium minutes before the roof collapsed.) Aeons ago, before the motorway was built, we used to drive up to Brussels through a town called L’église. It was just an Ardennes town, but it had one particularity; all of the slate roofs were new. The reason was that the town had been hit by a mini-tornado. I remember thinking at the time that this must have been an extraordinarily rare occurrence. Not quite so rare, it seems….
I have a friend who thinks that those in positions of responsibility and/or working long hours inevitably fall ill during holidays. This is because they can. Put another way, the body and the mind put up an invisible forcefield that enables them to carry on except when they don’t need to. No sooner does the forcefield come down than the opportunistic infections dash in and the body, exhausted, capitulates. That’s certainly what it felt like this morning. However, by the afternoon I was feeling well enough to stagger out of bed and into town to participate in the Belgian National Holiday festivities. We watched the disturbingly low flypast (I was later told that this was because the cloud base was so low and that the low altitude was controversially risky), and then the procession. Later still, we watched the traditional firework display from John B’s terrace. (This time, there was no annoying helicopter. Perhaps my 21st July 2009 post had an effect!) Maybe my illness coloured my perceptions, but it seemed to me that there was an air of economy about the festivities. That would be understandable, but it left us a little disappointed…
There was an interesting and at times impassioned discussion in this morning’s meeting of the EESC’s Budget Group about the post-Lisbon Treaty budgetary procedure. I have bored on about this in previous posts. Suffice it to say here that the smaller institutions find themselves in a weaker position than was previously the case. The general consensus in the Budget Group was, to borrow from Jackie Chan, that we have to ‘focus more on our focus’. Previously, the smaller institutions would only engage in heavy political lobbying if they faced a particular problem or had one-off specific reasons to ask for a significant increase. Now, though, they will have to lobby constantly. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is a crowded marketplace out there and such lobbying will inevitably require redirecting some resources and energy from other activities. Whether this was what the Treaty’s draftsmen intended is a moot point.
I promised to track down the article (see previous post) and have managed to do so. ‘The unlamented West’, by novelist and travel writer Jonathan Raban, was published in The New Yorker on 20 May 1996. The sub-title read: ‘Militias, Freemen, mad bombers – why do so many extreme and dangerous individualists seem to come from one place?’ In this fascinating article, Raban describes how the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul Railroad spread out into essentially unfarmable land in Montana. The railroad company ‘flung infant cities into being at intervals of a dozen miles or so’, in a deliberate attempt to create demand for its own services. On the back of a government bill pushed through Congress for the benefit of the railroad companies, sharp advertising created the illusion that this was the promised land and many families, including many immigrant families, came in the hope of establishing a decent life as homesteaders. What they didn’t – couldn’t – know was that, where it existed, the topsoil was wafer thin and would soon be blown away, that the summers were arid and that the winters were terrifyingly cold. Within a few seasons most of the new arrivals were beaten and would pack up and head back to the nearest city: ‘The corporation bosses… ran their lines to the coast at … the expense of hundreds of thousands of would-be farmers, who bought the government pitch and saw their families ‘starve out’ on their claims.’ We should not be so surprised, writes Raban, that twenty million Americans still believe that the 1969 moon walk was a hoax, perpetrated in the Arizon desert by the federal government, for the financial benefit of the powerful corporations who were the NASA contractors: ‘After all, in 1909 the government really did drop people onto an expanse of land that closely resembles the dusty surface of the moon…’ The federal government, he concludes, ‘would be remembered by many in the West as a trickster, never to be trusted again.’