This evening I finished Barack Obama’s 1995 autobiographical work, Dreams From My Father. I read it ‘diagonally’ once before, but this time I read it properly, attentively, cover-to-cover. It is a truly remarkable work. In the first place, it is a literary achievement. To call it ‘faction’ would be to demean the book, but it is not straightforward autobiography. Obama conflates characters and invents dialogue to get his story – and it’s quite a story – across. At times, he writes with beautiful lyricism and brings an almost poetic eye to his descriptions, whether it’s the ‘barracuda-like silence of police cars’ on Chicago’s South Side or a herd of goats ‘like lichen’ against the Kenyan earth. In the second place, this is a moving account of the quest for identity (later, identities) of an African American, born in Hawai, brought up in Indonesia and with a remarkable family diaspora descended from African patriarchs. As such, I would warmly recommend it to, say, a young Turk in Dusseldorf or a young Pakistani in Bradford. It is relevant to all who are uncertain about whether and where they belong and why. Obama struggled and went through bad times and he writes with a very special candour (surely unique?) for a man who was on the eve of a glittering political career that would take him to the Presidency. In the third place, the central account of Obama’s time as a community worker on the Altgeld Gardens housing project on Chicago’s South Side is a sort of text-book description of an activist’s coming-of-age. He unflinchingly describes a process whereby upwardly mobile black families buy properties in lower middle-class white neighbourhoods. A tipping point comes and the whites start to move out and then property prices go into a tailspin and what was a reasonably prosperous suburban community becomes a slum. (Many European cities have known similar experiences.) Obama writes honestly about the difficulty of re-creating a sense of community in such areas, as he does about his own subsequent ’escape’ to Harvard Law School. Last but not least, surely, from Obama’s point of view, he has set out as full a history of his family as it is probably possible to provide, both for himself and his children, but also for all of the aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters he so affectionally describes in the book. (He ends by proudly recording that his brother has converted to devout Islamism.) I remain convinced that Obama is a very special President. His commitment to social welfare reminds me of Clement Atlee. He was dealt a bad hand (Attlee’s great post-war administration similarly had to contend with an effectively bankrupt state) but he has already achieved more, in terms of his flagship priority of health care, than the Clintons (assuming his policy survives). Time will tell whether his compromise with the Republicans on tax was astute, though he is clearly now playing the long game. If you read this book you will see that, although Obama may not always have been destined for great things, his constant questioning of self increasingly set him aside from the ordinary.
Having got to a mountain top two days ago, today we went for a ‘flat’ walk out to the mouth of the Adda river, which is the primary source for Lake Como. We walked most of the way along a dyke and it was clear that before the dykes were built the whole area was an alluvial flood plain, a vestige of the glacier age. Indeed, the hills on which now stand the ruins of Fuentes castle and the First World War fort of Montecchio are quite clearly moraines. It was beautiful weather again and all around us ranged the snow-covered alps, stark in their whiteness against the blue sky. At the mouth of the river we met a man training three setters. They ran back and forth and he directed them to search in particular directions, sending them dashing through reed beds and scrubland. He explained to us that he competes in what must be a sort of Alpine version of sheep dog trials. We also encountered three riders, galloping along the thin beach that limns the lake and the marshland. We could have been in the Middle Ages. The lake was mirror-smooth and once the dogs and the horses had gone we walked in close to absolute silence. It was an almost mystic moment.
Today, a spectacularly beautiful day of blue sky and almost-warm sunshine, we added another peak to our tally; Monte Legnoncino. At 1,714 metres it’s something of a mini-peak but this was a reconnaissance mission with a view to conquering the mountain’s big brother, Monte Legnone (behind me in the picture). At 2,609 metres, Legnone is the big boy of the neighbourhood, but it’s only a matter of time now. The starting point for both peaks is the same refuge which, in the summer, can be reached by car. Today we made our way up on foot through snow and ice, climbing some six hundred metres up to the refuge and beyond it to the summit. We were accompanied on the last stretch by an Italian couple with snow shoes and they, practised mountaineers, gave us a series of tips about how to tackle Legnone. We’ll have to wait until June, though, to be sure that the way is clear of snow and ice. Our plan is to conquer all of the summits that we can see about us. With Bregagno (2,100), Berlinghera (1,950) and Legnoncino (1,700) under our belts, we are well on the way.
Continuing our series of cinema classics (in no particular order), we tonight watched American Beauty, now eleven years old but, a chunky mobile phone aside, with no signs of showing its age. Although it defies a single interpretation – even by the director, Sam Mendes – the film is quite clearly a satire of American middle-class suburban life and of the tensions – sexual and other – that lie just below the surface of such apparently still waters (green lawns, white picket fences, etc). The characters are archetypes and Kevin Spacey’s Lester is a sort of everyman, trapped by consumerist and materialist visions of beauty which, through epiphany, he feels he has escaped, although the viewer knows he has simply given up one cliché for another. Redeemed by his abandonment of puerile lust and beautified by death, Lester finally finds a more eternal appreciation of beauty summed up in these closing words, from a remarkable script by Alan Ball.:
‘I suppose I could be pissed off about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.’
The huge success of American Beauty, made from a script plucked out of relative obscurity by a first-time film director, is surely an encouragement for all budding screenwriters and directors: it can be done!
The Christmas movie, in between roast goose, Doctor Who and the tail-end of Strictly was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the Collectors’ Edition). Phew! I find it hard to believe that I first saw this film in 1977. It still seems entirely relevant, though of course a younger viewer would not catch the Cold War allegories (Spielberg reportedly said that ”If we can talk to aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, why not with the Reds in the Cold War?”). Richard Dreyfuss delivers a convincing performance as a prophetic man obsessed, if not possessed, by a vision and, in seeing this film again after so long, I think that is what stands out the most. There are distinct biblical echoes. Convincingly, he sacrifices family and friends and risks everything to get where he knows viscerally he has to go, though he doesn’t really know why he has to go there until he is confronted by his destiny. I was fascinated to learn that Dreyfuss himself suffered from bipolar disorder and that among other actors considered for the part were Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Spielberg, riding on a wave of success following Jaws, took a big risk on realising his longstanding vision. The gamble paid off – richly.
This year we went to St Dominic’s International Priory. The snow was still thick on the ground and the roads treacherous, so we made the trek on foot. We were rewarded with Madeleine Cordez playing lots of Bach on the organ, which was great, and a service in, variously, French, Flemish, German, Polish, English and Italian. Notwithstanding the conditions, the church was full. When I was a seven year-old boy I found a flint stone in the garden that somehow reminded me of a kneeling woman. My brother had just finished making an Airfix kit and had small amounts of brown, red and white paint left. So I painted the stone with his left-over paint and put it in the crib. My mother kept the stone and, when she died, I found it among her effects. And so now this flint woman kneels in our crib every Christmas. A happy and peaceful Christmas to you all.
Our Christmas Eve entertainment, on a proposal from the sprogs, was the phantasmagoric Japanese anime film, Spirited Away. A distinct advantage of having children is that you end up watching films, like this one, that you would probably never have watched otherwise. It won an Oscar (best animated film) and a Golden Bear at Berlin and is among the top ten in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14. (OK, OK; I am not fourteen. On the other hand, the film hadn’t been made when I turned fourteen!) A sulky ten year-old girl, Chihiro, is moving home with her parents, leaving her old friends and school behind. The three are transported into a world peopled by spirits and fantastic monsters. Her parents are transformed into pigs and, in order to free them, Chihiro has to come of age. Through her adventures the sulky brat learns the virtues of hard work and optimism. She discovers courage and determination. She learns to care for others. And all of this takes place in a sort of Japanese version of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, with all sorts of ghouls and ghosties. There is more than a passing resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Once you have made the passage from childhood to adulthood you can never look at the world in the same way again.
We drove into town en famille to meet up with a group of close friends for a traditional plate of mussels at Chez Léon. The restaurant, usually a busy super-industry with some sixty waiters and other staff bustling around, was half-empty. When we emerged at ten sleety snow was pelting down. We got into the car and arrived home almost two hours later – a trip that normally takes ten minutes. I know; we shouldn’t have taken the car in the first place, let alone try to get back in it. The problem was that all of the roads leading uptown had been closed by the police because they had all become treacherously icy and unscaleable. We saw buses and coaches and cars that had skidded all over the place and we soon realised that our best bet of getting east and uptown was to head west and downtown. After that, it was just a matter of driving slowly and carefully. But the image of the half-empty restaurant kept coming back to me. In this year of all years the last thing hard-hit shops and restaurants needed was a white Christmas.
I am a great fan of Nick Cave (I caught him last time he was in Brussels with the Bad Seeds). Knowing this, a friend, JA, loaned me his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munroe, but I never managed to get past the opening pages. Then another friend, EDN, bought me the book as a gift and so I started it again, and this time read the gruesomely fascinating tale right through. Living in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze, Cave’s monstrously priapic anti-hero hits the road, young son in tow, following his wife’s suicide. Bunny Munroe’s inexorable decline is shadowed by a serial killer’s journey south and the one big disappointment with this tale is that, although Cave was clearly thinking about it, the serial killer and Bunny Munroe do not meet, in Don’t Look Now style (maybe Cave was afraid of being accused of using a cliché). A review in The Brighton Magazine (Cave lives in Brighton and the story is set around the town) well summed up Cave’s imaginary world as being full of ‘characters who dwell on the fringes of society and stumble through life on a diet of drugs, chaos and disappointment, but who’ll never give up stumbling, which is why in part they fascinate us so much.’ Cave writes distinctively, with unflinching descriptions and morbid wit (one character has a nose ‘like a cat flap’), though the reader has to overlook a lot of un-Englishness in what is supposed to be an English tale (Bunny is forever ‘torching’ Lambert and Butlers with his ‘Zippo’). At times, it seems like a prose version of his Murder Ballads. But that sort of thing couldn’t really happen here, could it? Oh no? These two stories – this one, and this one - appeared on consecutive days in my newspaper as I was finishing the book.
We saw La Bohème at La Monnaie this evening. The Director, Andreas Homoki, has stripped the stage down and literally back to the black brick walls, leaving most of the space to the singing and the music. The orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, seemed effortlessly good. Tonight, Mimi was played by Anita Hartig and Rodolfo by Marius Brenciu. I am no expert but it seemed to me that they frequently sung through, rather than above, the orchestra, with their voices, which were very good, occasionally breaking through with high volume, like sudden sunshine through low cloud. The singer who stood out for me was the Greek baritone, Aris Argiris, playing Marcello. He sung and acted with authority. He, Lauri Vasar (playing the philosopher, Schaunard) and Giovanni Battista Parodi (playing the musician, Colline) gave excellent impressions of the Bohemian lifestyle and of later success and prosperity. For the rest, dare I say it, I am not a great fan of this opera as a story, great classic though it may be. I think a big part of the problem was Puccini’s decision to drop an all-important act that explains Rodolfo’s otherwise puzzlingly exaggerated jealousy. As it is, we get references to a Viscount we never see and the best explanations for Rodolfo’s desertion of his great love is either that he’s fed up with Mimi’s flirting (improbable) or that he knows she is ill and doesn’t want her to stay in his cold and draughty garret (improbable) or that he knows she’s dying and is afraid of that (improbable). Stick the Viscount back in and it would all make sense. The applause levels at the end confirmed that Argiris’s Marcello and Vasar’s philosopher had impressed the most.