One of my companion books as we travelled across the United States was Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York, by Michelle and James Nevius. I found the book on the eve of our departure from New York and it might seem strange to have been reading about a city that we had already left, but the book, which is divided up into 182 entries and is thus ideally designed for ‘dipping into’, is an excellent thematic and subject-based account of New York’s history and the people, buildings and places that have made it the city it is today, from the original Lenape Indian inhabitants through to the 9/11 attacks and their architectural aftermath. This includes instructions as to where traces of those earlier developments can still be found. The authors, both tour guides, also helpfully provide fourteen walking tours which cover much of the ground set out in their book. If you’re interested in the history of cities and you are going to New York, think of taking this book with you.
Yes, I did – watch the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, that is. I think our American cousins will have been less puzzled with this evening’s offerings than they were with the opening ceremony but, still, there were some strange, quirky things in there. Personally, I was hoping that the organisers had somehow managed to convince David Bowie (whose music was much in evidence at both ceremonies) out of his self-imposed seclusion – particularly since there are growing rumours about a re-appearance this autumn in connection with the forthcoming Bowie: Object (see here). But it was not to be. On the other hand, John Lennon was resurrected, the Spice Girls reformed for one show and there were at least three covers before ageing rockers Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend performed a few of The Who’s greatest hits. As the feel-good buzz slowly diminishes, the burning question on these lips is: where was Elton?
We all have gloomy memories of that dreadful stretch of wet, grey days throughout June and early July here in Belgium. Today, at least, was a glorious summer’s day. We travelled down to the Famennes (the region just north of the Ardennes) for lunch on a terrace and an afternoon snooze in a shady garden. Later, we sat by a large pond and watched the aerobatic skills of the raucous swallows and martins as they came down to drink. We would occasionally catch sight of a swift in the mob. Looking up my bird guide to write this entry I was surprised to discover that, whilst swallows and martins are basically part of the same family (I had thought they were in separate orders), the swift most decidedly is not and – here comes the curiosity – is most closely related to the humming bird. After an early supper I took the train back to Brussels. Summer days do not come much more idyllic than that…
The waiting is over. The US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney today named the fiscally conservative Paul Ryan as the next President of the United States (that was a Romney slip of the tongue). As I reported in this previous post, speculation about Romney’s choice of running mate was one of the consistent areas of interest in the commentary sections of the American press. What would he do? Shore up the base vote, or reach out to the middle? Opting for reinforcement of the base vote is being seen as a tacit acknowledgement that the Obama attacks have been working in the key battleground states. At the same time, the Obama camp is reportedly happy to have a clearer ideological divide, thus enabling it to avoid a referendum on the President’s economic performance. It might seem curious to European eyes to choose as a running mate somebody who apparently has more ideas and policy positions than the candidate himself, but the echoes are that Republicans of all colours are happy. Ryan’s conservatism, so they say, balances Romney’s alleged liberalism (particularly when he was Governor of Massachusetts), and his relative youth (42) balances Romney’s age (65). Interestingly, for a country where these things matter, Ryan is a practising Catholic, so the Republicans have opted for a Mormon-Catholic ticket. His nomination will surely add plenty of grist to the ongoing debate between the ‘Austerians’ (as Paul Krugman has dubbed them) and the New Dealers. But it is another example of the paradoxes of America’s political system that both sides could be happy with the same decision.
It seems that those shrivelled corn fields that I wrote about in this post are going to have a big and potentially alarming effect on world food prices this autumn. This has been the worst drought the US has experienced for at least fifty years and an estimated one sixth of the country’s corn crop has been lost over the past month. The most striking statistic I have read is that US corn farmers have abandoned fields greater in combined area than Belgium and Luxembourg together. In addition to the knock-on effect on world food prices, the drought is going to open up another difficult issue for the US presidential candidates. US corn is mostly used for animal feed and for the production of ethanol (biofuel). Should government now step in and direct production away from biofuel? Already, the UN and the G-20 have started to mobilise. The good news is that the production of other staple crops elsewhere in the world has held up well but it is easy to see how international concern about food prices could become a red hot domestic political football.
A return to Brussels and to the office is also a return to familiar rhythms and habits. Thus, the dog was pretty insistent about taking me for a walk around our favourite circuit at Berthem early this Friday morning. The agricultural landscape here is constantly changing. Some of the wheat fields have already been harvested. The potato crops seem not to have suffered from the persistent rain. But the maize/corn crop and some of the barley fields seem stunted. Nettles in the lanes and footpaths, on the other hand, have rocketed up. At a small pond where normally just a few ducks hang about there was a large gang of geese. Now what, if anything, should that tell us? Could they already be migrating south again? If so, does that signify anything about expectations for the autumn and winter this year?
I found myself watching the 2011 film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo this evening. The Stieg Larsson phenomenon had so far completely passed me by, perhaps because I am not the most avid of readers of crime fiction. I can imagine the book being quite a good read, but the film’s faithfulness to the book (as I imagine it) brings it down more than a little, for the plot is sprawling and the story loses its momentum. (My other, old fogie, gripes would be that there is maybe too much graphic violence and little is left to the imagination.) I should add that this is the American re-make of the 2009 Swedish film of the book. The basic story line – an aristocratic family riddled with extremists covering up for ghastly family crimes – is plausible and the false leads and dead ends are cleverly played out. Daniel Craig (an investigative journalist with the bit between his teeth) and Rooney Mara (the girl with the tattoo) turn in strong performances as the film’s main protagonists. To be fair, I suppose I would be happy to watch the sequels in the Millenium Series, if they are made…
The newspapers this morning carry the obituaries of Marvin Hamlisch. Despite such successes as the film adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music for the film The Sting, The Way We Were (including Barbra Streisand’s hit song of the same title) and Nobody Does it Better for the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, Hamlisch probably remained below the European radar screen for most of his professional life. The piece of his work that I liked the most was his first film score, for the film The Swimmer. Every time Burt Lancaster’s character plunges into another swimming pool, in Cheever’s brilliant metaphor for a damned man trying to wash away his past mistakes, Hamlisch’s strings soar upwards wistfully then flutter down to the reality Ned Merrill can never truly escape. It is a highly accomplished piece of work for a very first film score and, together with Lancaster’s performance, does much to make the film a classic.
At the baggage retrieval carousel we said our farewells to our wonderful guide, Roger Marsden, and the other members of our thirty strong group (most of whom, realistically considering, we probably will never see again) and then set off to the long-stay car park. Traffic on the M25 and the M420 was fluid and we caught our Channel Tunnel shuttle on time. By seven-thirty in the evening we were back in Brussels and unpacking our cases and suddenly America seemed very far away again. Time for consolation with a few facts and statistics about our ‘Grand Coast-to-Coast Tour’. Altogether we visited or passed through sixteen (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California) of the USA’s fifty states , including stays in six great cities (New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco) together with another seven lesser towns and, of course, the R.M.S. Queen Mary on Long Beach. We got to know several of America’s great rivers, from the Hudson and Potomac in the east, through to the fantastic Colorado. We crossed the Delaware and the mighty Mississippi and we stayed on the shores of Lake Michigan. We visited the Rocky Mountains National Park, Goosenecks Canyon, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon and we saw a lot of great animal, plant and bird life. We saw some of America’s mightiest constructions, from the Empire State Building and New World Trade Center in New York through to the Willis and the Hancock Towers in Chicago and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We visited some wonderful art collections, from the MoMA in New York to Chicago’s Art Institute to Denver’s Modern Art Museum to the San Francisco MoMA and we visited the Smithsonian. We saw America’s capital city and its civic architecture, from the Capitol to the White House, from the Supreme Court to the Fed. Including the Channel Tunnel Shuttle, altogether we took ten train journeys, from the mere 80 kilometres from Silverton to Durango (but along some of the most spectacular scenery we saw) to the massive 1,670 kilometres between Chicago and Denver. In total, we travelled 5,708 kilometres by rail, 1,634 kilometres by road and 14,188 kilometres by air, making a grand total of 21,530 kilometres for the whole journey. We travelled across six different time zones (Central European Time, British Summer Time, Eastern Standard Time, Central Standard Time, Mountain Standard Time and Pacific Standard Time). And, of course, we gazed on the Atlantic and on the Pacific Oceans.
On the flight back I watched Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as the FBI’s founding father. The script portrays Hoover as an inwardly tormented and sexually confused man whose driving ambition is never really explained (though it is implied that his domineering mother, played by Judi Dench, had something to do with it). DiCaprio does inward torment very well (think The Aviator) and his performance carries what would otherwise be a lacklustre and somewhat confused film. But he can’t carry it all the way. Altogether, Hoover directed the FBI and its predecessors for 48 years. So what did that make him? The tormented soul of the film version (which doesn’t confront the rumours about cross-dressing, by-the-way) or a highly accomplished bureaucrat who introduced modern methods of detecting and knew how to survive in Washington’s political jungle (not least because he knew where the bodies were buried)? The script has Hoover deliberately plunge into a homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson but the relationship is only portrayed in a series of clichés and, having established his sexuality so firmly, the film never confronts the anti-homosexual prejudices and activites of the institution he was heading up. Was this the ultimate betrayal? We never learn. One of Hoover’s early FBI successes was the killing of John Dillinger and in a sense this film closed a circle that had opened for me in Chicago. But it left me feeling frustrated because, notwithstanding DiCaprio’s thespian heroics, we never really find out what might have made Hoover tick. That’s a shame, because Hoover and the FBI were working at one of the great faultlines of the USA, between the states and the federation. Indeed, the creation and consolidation of the FBI is as much a part of the USA’s evolution as the creation and consolidation of the Federal Reserve and Hoover’s ambitions could only be played out through a consolidation of the federal level.