With our Egyptian holiday cancelled I decided to put the spare time to good use by painting and redecorating N° 2 sprog’s bedroom. So I stripped off the wallpaper, re-plastered the walls (where they needed it), sanded the woodwork and the radiator and repainted the lot. My father was a dedicated DIY-er. In his case, it was a matter of necessity. In my case, I suppose we could have got somebody to come and do the work but in fact I got a great deal of pleasure out of it. It is something to do with the ‘honesty’ and simplicity of physical labour and something to do with the satisfaction of seeing the fruit of your labour materialise. It also provided me with a golden opportunity to listen to BBC Radio 4 non-stop, from news programmes through documentaries and comedy to drama. And when I wasn’t listening to the radio, I was alone with my thoughts and able to think a number of issues through. Last but not least, it was a sort of homage to my late father, since everything I was doing I had learnt from him when, as a kid, I helped him with his DIY activities. Doing things we had once done together brought back happy memories. Indeed, the whole thing was a sort of meditation.
Tonight we watched Mongol (2007), a semi-historical film about the early life of Temujin, later to become known as Genghis Khan. At one level, this is a good old-fashioned war movie, with armies massing and battling each other. But it is also an epic and I think the film is worth viewing for three reasons. The first is the historical aspects. The Russian director, Sergei Bodrov, did a great deal of research into Temujin’s early life and the film faithfully portrays him as being, in turn, an orphan, a slave and a mercenary whose father was poisoned by a rival tribe and whose position as tribal chief was denied him because he was too young. This is Khan the survivor, and not the murderous colonist and monstrous autocrat he was later to become. The second is the extraordinary beauty of the actors, particularly Tadanobu Asano (the – Japanese! – actor who plays Temujin) and Chuluuny Khulan (the Mongolian actress who plays Temujin’s wife, Borte). The third is the extraordinary beauty of the landscapes (the film was shot in China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan). The sheer vastness of the steppes is frequently contrasted with the puny human beings who trek across them on their ponies. Indeed, there are strong echoes of David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) throughout the film. It certainly stood up well against the previous night’s viewing and, indeed, deserved to be more widely distributed.
And so, this evening, to the cinema complex in Les Halles to see at last the Coen brothers’ True Grit - that is, three days before the Oscars. Before I comment on the film, I’d better be clear. I am a fan of the Coen brothers (I have recently posted admiring pieces about Fargo and The Big Lebowski) and of Jeff Bridges (my recent pieces have included The Men Who Stare at Goats and, again, The Big Lebowski). And before Hugo of New York posts a comment I should add that True Grit is great entertainment. But is it a great film? In the nature of things I read many reviews before I actually got to see this film. ‘Unfortunately’, the arguments in one of the more critical reviews stuck in my mind. The first question is why the brothers decided to reinterpret Charles Portis’s 1968 novel (rather, that is, than going for an original script) when they surely knew that comparisons would inevitably be made with the first film of the same name, starring the late, great John Wayne. The second question is to ask where the originality of this version lies. The brothers would argue that they wanted to be more faithful to the novel and, in particular, to put far more emphasis on the character of the fourteen year-old narrator, Mattie Ross (played excellently by Hailee Steinfield), but then why has all the ‘noise’ been about Jeff Bridges (who plays ‘Rooster’ Cogburn)? True Grit has also been portrayed as their homage to the Western genre, but here the critical review pointed out that the film is almost a collection of set piece scenes. Indeed, to come back to the question of originality, I suspect that this lies chiefly in the cinematography. How, for example, do you film a scene supposedly set in a dark forest at night? Or, equally, a black horse galloping across a plain on a moonless night? Roger Deakins somehow manages it and it wouldn’t surprise me if he were to pick up one of the many Oscars that this film is predicted to win.
This morning we visited the Louvre. Whatever one thinks of I.M. Pei’s pyramid in the Cour Napoléon, the underground complex of entrance hall and intercommunicating passageways works brilliantly at dispersing the crowds and avoiding massive bottlenecks. Since we were supposed to be on the Nile this week, we went to the Egyptian section. There is the obligatory selection of monuments, mummies, sphinxes and hieroglyphic slabs – indeed, I was going to illustrate this post with a picture of a wonderful statue of Horus. But what makes this section particularly interesting is a selection of artefacts designed to illustrate the daily life of the Egyptians, with everything from bathroom mirrors to dice, and from chairs to beds. I can never get over the fact that, preserved by the dryness of the desert, many of the carved wooden objects are over two thousand years old and yet in perfect condition, the colours of the paintings as vivid, one imagines, as the day they were done. So I have chosen to illustrate this post with a truly exquisite object. It is a floating soapholder (the soap went on the duck’s back), over two thousand years old.
We were supposed to be cruising on the Nile this week but, for entirely understandable reasons, the trip was postponed . So we consoled ourselves with a few days at the end of the week in Paris. This afternoon we went to Notre Dame and admired the great rose window. In 2002 I visited the cathedral one lunchtime during a work trip and recognised the massive bulk of Helmut Kohl, the former German Chancellor, sat in the pews, staring up at the same window. He had lost his wife the previous year and was in bad odour because of a party financing scandal. I had had a ringside seat during the German unification process and the constitutional conferences leading up to economic and monetary union – both achieved thanks in no small part because of Kohl’s statesmanship. He looked ‘down’, and I wanted to say to him only that history would surely judge him kindly. But before I had made up my mind he stood up and a group of about six bodyguards materialised around him – I had missed my opportunity and I regretted this. However, when I came out of the cathedral I saw that he had been spotted by a group of German schoolchildren who had surrounded him admiringly. There was a happy smile on his face and the gloomy introspectiveness of the cathedral interior was forgotten.
Since December last the European Economic and Social Committee has had a new policy setting out procedures for dealing with psychological and sexual harassment at work within the secretariat. Our human resources colleagues organised a lunchtime information session with an excellent guest speaker, Katja Janssens, a psychologist and psycho-social prevention adviser at the Council of Ministers. Although I was theoretically on holiday, I happily returned to participate in this session so as to underline the management’s commitment to the new policy at all levels. One of the more interesting aspects of the new policy is that it recognises the subjectivity of the harassee whilst maintaining objectivity about the alleged harasser. (Within an international, polyglot administration bringing together so many different cultures the potential for misunderstandings is high.) But, as with all the best policies, the basic spirit of the policy is prevention, through awareness raising and mediation, rather than ‘cure’ (formal procedures).
I saw Chinatown when it first came out (1974). With my sixth form film society (which we ran ourselves – I shall write a post about that one day) I had seen Knife in the Water , Cul de sac and Repulsion and I remember having difficulty at the time in making the connection between the darkness at the heart of those films (I hadn’t yet seen Rosemary’s Baby) and the sophisticated, natty, witty, multilayered narrative of Chinatown. In retrospect, having just watched Chinatown again this evening, there is a seamless linkage between it and Polanski’s earlier work and, indeed, several of his later films. What sets Chinatown apart from the Chandler/Hammett private eye yarns that, at one level, it mimics is the nature of the darkness that Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes, slowly uncovers. This is not the sister/daughter of Faye Dunnaway’s character (Mrs Mulwray), fruit of the self-righteous incestuousness of John Huston’s bluff tycoon (Noah Cross), though that would surely have provided a satisfactory climax to a Chandler tale; no, it is the altogether vaster darkness that would turn deserts into orange groves, dam rivers on dangerously shifting foundations, and spread Los Angeles ever further and wider. For the flood hinted at by the name of Huston’s character is the flood of humanity, a race that, as Polanski knew only too well from his own childhood, was capable of unspeakable crimes against itself.
This evening we watched Kes (1969), Ken Loach’s first full-length feature film and ranked seventh in the British Film Institute’s Top Ten (British) Films and among the top ten in its list of the 50 films you should ‘see by the age of 14′. Today, the scenes of industrial valleys and coalminers give the film an elegiac tone that would have been absent when it was first released, and the broad Yorkshire dialects, newsagents, milkmen, paper boys, pubs and council houses add to the impression (as they so often do with Loach films) that one is also watching a slice of cultural history (I wonder how my children related to the caning scenes at school; I never lost my sense of outrage at getting beaten by bullies in suits). The film includes what must be one of the funniest football matches in a film (the only other I can think of is in Bedknobs and Broomsticks - you can see the match here). David Bradley, playing Billy Caspar, is utterly convincing, right down to his desolate realisation that there is no escape from the tedious oppression of economic and cultural deprivation. Caspar, the film hints, is doomed to end up down the pit, like his older brother. This imaginary Caspar would still have been down there in 1984, when the Miners’ Strike signalled the end of an industry and of a way of life. Indeed, both our children spontaneously made the link with Billy Elliott.
Third from the right in the picture is Dave Chambers, who has spent the past five months as a trainee in the Secretary General’s secretariat. The trainees are like gold dust to us. We are a very small organisation and we need all the help that we can get. From Day One Dave was in the thick of things, from business continuity plans to the annual work programme. Like all the excellent trainees before him, Dave became a fixture, an integral part of the team. But all good things come to an end and this afternoon we bade him farewell, convinced that a bright future lies before him. The person in the picture behind us, incidentally, is the late Jacques Genton, the Committee’s first Secretary General. After he passed away in November 2008 we decided to name the meeting room where the management board meets every Monday after him. As I chair the meetings I often wonder what he would think of things today.
Peter Morgan (United Kingdom, Employers’ Group), one of the Committee’s most experienced and respected members, rounded off this morning’s plenary session with an opinion on a new draft regulation for the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA). If you want to learn more about ENISA’s work, it is worthwhile going to its website here. In his modest and characteristically understated way, Peter Morgan scared the daylights out of us all by reminding us that, as we became ever more reliant on the internet, computers and mobile telephony, so we become ever more vulnerable. From identity theft to cyber attacks on governments and industries, what was once a sci-fi future is now decidedly with us. At every level, from the individual to the organisation, from local authorities to governments and international organisations, we have to start taking security very much more seriously.