sâmbătă, 9 decembrie 2017

Edge of Empire

S.J.A. Turney - Praetorian III: Eagles of Dacia, Mulcahy Books, 2017

There are two main reasons this book is special to me: it is the first time Simon writes about Dacia (and it's my first contemporary read about Dacia written by a non-Romanian) and I get a mention in the book dedications. While a huge honour and an unexpected surprise, I also believe this to be rather undeserved, though I shall accept it nonetheless.

After a quick rise through the ranks in the first book of the series and just as quick a fall from grace in the second, Gnaeus Rustius Rufinus is sent to Dacia in something that is halfway between a mission (to check the loyalty of the governors) and an exile (Cleander, the imperial chamberlain wanting to send him as far away as possible from Rome). It is this journey that is covered in the book, plus a whole bunch of trouble that Rufinus has a real talent for getting himself into.

Rufinus is accompanied by Senova, the freed slave girl he meets and falls in love with in the first book, and Acheron - the dog he acquires from the dead Sarmatian guard Dis, also in the first book. On the way they'll acquire a slave boy, Luca, putting the numbers of the travelling party up to 4 (5 if we consider Atalanta the mare). The journey starts immediately outside Dacia, in the province of Moesia, and so does the intrigue. An adventure full of twists and bumps follows, taking our heroes at the Northernmost reaches of the empire, followed by a journey down through barbarian lands and an unexpected end point. It's hard to speak too much about the plot without giving away the pleasure of discovering it, as Simon does a fine job of always adding unexpected turns. Therefore, even this is a book centered around a journey, there's plenty of adventure to be had on the way, peppered with the usual sieges, battles and fights.

I suppose one way of looking at the Praetorian series is that adventure is the substance being molded into the various shapes of each book: political intrigue in the first, addiction and fall from grace in the second, travelling and discovery of exotic lands in this third. And all of this is backed by Simon's excellent documentation and research, recreating the atmosphere of late 2nd century Rome in fine detail. This recreation of the atmosphere includes gems like 'They had acquired four local guards with unpronounceable names, only a dozen teeth between them and less command of Latin than your average pomegranate.' or 'A good punishment detail will change arms with each stroke so that the blows cross and do more harm.' They don't teach this kind of stuff in religious studies.

While all the story-lines in the Praetorian series are works of fiction, they are based around important historical events, and although we do not know of the historical existence of any Praetorian soldier called Rufinus, the historical characters in the books are captured not only accurately, but by giving them a real voice it becomes very easy to understand their thoughts and motivations. After we've met Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in the first book, Pertinax and Septimius Severus in the second, in Praetorian III we get introduced to two other Roman emperors, namely Clodius Albinus and Pescennius Niger, bringing the gallery of emperors in the Praetorian series up to an impressive six so far (although 3 of them will have a very short lived reign). But while the list of Roman Emperors reads Commodus (177-192) - Pertinax (193) - Didius Julianus (193) - Pescennius Niger (193) - Clodius Albinus (193) - Sepimius Severus (193-211), having them as characters in a book gives a better understanding of how the wheels of the 'great game' spin.

There are three elements that I particularly appreciate about Praetorian III, though I will only mention each of them without too much details, with a view to the same care I mentioned earlier, not to spoil the book for people who might read this review first:
 - the mirror journey: over the course of two weeks in April 2017 Simon took a trip largely along the route he will send Rufinus on, later in the year. There is a bonus feature in the book that makes the reader part of both adventures;
 - the gold mines plot: contemporary sources give the gold of the Western Carpathians as one of the main reasons for Trajan's invasion of Dacia. Impressive quantities of gold are mentioned in relation to Trajan's plundering of the province, but more impressive still is the fact that 19 centuries later Gabriel Resources spent an alleged $17 million in bribes for the rights to keep mining gold from a region where gold has been mined since Roman times. It is therefore right that the gold mines at Alburnus Maior feature heavily in the plot of Praetorian III and Simon has found a way to do this that is entirely believable.
 - the end twist: I will not say much about it, obviously, just that I am rather excited about Rufinus' new patron and I am therefore looking forward to Praetorian IV. Late 2018, I hear.

duminică, 29 octombrie 2017

American burlesque

Liz Goldwyn - Pretty Things (The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens), Regan, 2006

This is an excellent resource for anyone with an interest in burlesque as an art form, though unfortunately it falls short of being a great book in itself as the author hesitates between publishing a coffee table book, a costume note archive or a history of the movement.

I'm not a big fan or consumer of coffee table books, but I can understand their purpose. Pretty Things checks all the boxes of the definition of one such book, though it is larger in scope, aiming to document an entire cultural sub-genre. In the process of documenting the book, Liz Goldwyn stumbled upon a real treasure: Rex Huntington's books, notes and ledgers. Rex Huntington was one of the most prominent costume designers of the burlesque era, so his archive documents a lot of the burlesque dancers' measurements and designs. Therefore, for any burlesque scholar, this is an invaluable resource and publishing it in its entirety would have been an excellent idea, even if the appeal would have been a lot narrower. As it is, there are a lot more of Rex Huntington's notes being left out than there are included, which can be frustrating for the meticulous researcher.

Same goes for documenting the stories of burlesque dancers: due to editorial space limitations only a small number of pictures are included and the approach towards individual stories of the dancers is journalistic in style, too shallow and too brief to do them justice. 

This is still a great book and a must-read for anyone with a degree of involvement in the art, but IMHO it fails to engross the wider public. 

The book is divided in two sections, the first one documenting the craft of what was generally called burlesque in early 20th century America (with chapters dedicated to costumes, staging, dance, gimmicks, backstage life and a generic profiling of the burlesque dancer), whilst the second part is dedicated to individual stories (Betty & Dian Rowland, June St. Clair, Lois de Fee and Zorita).

To me, the second part is a lot more interesting, and the piecing together of the lives of these ladies from the elite of the craft provides a real insight into burlesque as it was 100 or so years ago. Each of their stories is interesting, each of them makes me want to know more about them. Would Miss Goldwyn venture to write full biographies for these ladies I wonder?


'What is there to like? Hairy chests? A limp joint? You like them because they're customers, because they admire you, because they applaud, because they spend their money to see you.'
In the early 1950s, Zorita had a child with her second husband, Pete Petillo ('the wop'). The marriage didn't last long, as Zorita wanted to get back to work. She took her daughter to the theater with her, adjusting her routine to include a new baby.

Zorita spoke of her career in burlesque with pride but was not particularly nostalgic for days long past. She kept many scrapbooks on the shelf and told me that until I asked her to pull them out, she hadn't looked at them in years. She said 'Wouldn't you hate to live with somebody that was so hung up on oneself that they were busy looking at scrapbooks all day long and telling you what a great act they were? I know I was good.'

marți, 24 octombrie 2017

Overcoming grief

Rio Ferdinand (with Decca Aitkenhead) - Thinking Out Loud, Hodder & Stoughton, 2017

Repeatedly, during the reading of the book and whilst attending its launch, I took the opportunity to mentally apologize to Rio for all the times I have judged him before understanding him. Luckily enough, he's been a good enough footballer that I have next to nothing to reproach him. Sure, there will always be THAT loss against Portsmouth in 2008, when we missed the chance of a second treble, but singling Rio out for it is too harsh to be accurate. No, no, I've never had an issue with Rio on a football pitch, the defender with the best placement I've ever seen, in the league with Maldini or Baresi.

The issues I've had with Rio, historically, are related to his apparent craving for media attention, the work put in developing the Rio Ferdinand brand sometimes seemingly being prioritized over the work of being the best possible Manchester United team player. It is the lot of the football fan, though, is it not? To hold his heroes to standards impossible to live up to. Once Rio left United for QPR, all of the silly grudges have gone. I've wanted the best for him and I really wanted him to do well at QPR, being very surprised when he didn't. Then one autumn day two years ago, while checking the BBC website for results I saw the news of his wife passing. It sent shock-waves down my spine and through the football world throughout. How can one protect oneself from such a tragedy? Why have I been so quick to judge his form without having any background?

Well, few can cope as well as Rio has. And this book tells the story of how he's done it. I have to admit, even when hearing about the documentary, then the book, I was suspicious. Is this banking on a tragedy? I know now that he's not that man. On the contrary. The documentary (which I am yet to see), the book and the talks Rio is currently doing in various locations are an altruistic enterprise. They're meant to share his experiences, his coping with tragedy, and in doing so, the hope is he'll help people who have or will experience similar traumatic experiences.

This is a football biography unlike any other football biography: the sport only stays in the background and despite the insights into Rio's footballing life, the book centers on his family life. Meeting Rebecca - his future wife, their years together, the tough time of acting as a single parent while his wife was being treated for cancer and finally, his struggle to keep going and having to fulfill, this time for good, the roles of both mum and dad for his three kids.

Sure, due to his footballing talents Rio has had, since his mid-teens, a privileged life, and he doesn't shy away from it. But looking too much at the story from this angle doesn't do justice to anyone, least so to Rio. Tragedy is tragedy, and no amount of wealth or social privilege can protect you from it.

Not having experienced a loss as big as Rio's, I don't know how it feels. But I know that if, God forbid, I would suffer such a loss, I'd like to have a book like this close. And I feel it is a great instrument and has the potential to help a lot of people that go through similar experiences.

I cried a number of times while reading it, and there's also a lot of cute moments in the book, specially when he talks about the relationship with his kids.

Writing this book has been an enormous act of courage for Rio and shows both his strength of characters and his generosity. It is a great read, and I now think of it as a very peculiar cross between biography, self-help book and great literature.

Having experienced the death of his mother less than two years after his wife's was soul-crushing even for me when hearing the news. I can only imagine how poor Rio must've felt. All the more admirable that he chose to go through with his projects, all the more admirable to see him weekly in Sky's pundit chair. Even with this review, I feel I've been too harsh with a very admirable man and a great footballer. I'll end with a little story that is, I think, illustrative for Rio's character:

Earlier this month, when attending the launch of the book, we were told that a book is included in the price of the ticket, but there will be no signings, autograph sessions or photo-ops. And it was indeed an unfitting atmosphere for a meet-up between a footballer and his fans: most people in the audience were either recently bereaved or healthcare professionals, Rio's family and close friends were there and yes, there were a few Manchester United jerseys in the room, but they were in no way a focus. At the end, however, ignoring the organizer's advice and venue security's orders, Rio stayed and signed all the books that he was requested to, took all the pictures with everyone who asked him to and was generally an all-round gracious host.

I now feel sorry for ever being judgmental about Rio. Whenever I see him nowadays, whether on TV or in a picture, I just want to give him a big hug.

luni, 21 august 2017

Edinburgh Fringe 2017

Reuben Kaye
I fully realise it's late in the game and most performers are already drawing lines and doing sum-ups of their EdFringe2017 run, so this listing of the shows I've seen this year might not mean much. I am, however, doing it, partly to relive what have been a very fun 3 days, partly to give a plug (such as it is) to all the shows.

I am going to speak about the shows I did not particularly like as well, in the hope that any publicity is good publicity, and also being fully aware that the reception of a show is entirely subjective and even if one particular audience member did not enjoy one particular performance, this is by no means a reflection on the quality of a show. Maybe the respective audience member would enjoy a different performance, or maybe it's just not part of the right audience of the show.

The Omnitorium's Rotating Roster of Erudite Amusements and Motley Delights - *** this is a variety show hosted by Dan Lees and Neil Frost of The Establishment, a comedy group I have seen on a few previous occasion and I always found funny, even though in front of a rarefied audience of a very rainy Monday evening they had moments where they didn't seem to bother all that much. It was, nevertheless an enjoyable show with a decent line-up of acts, two of which really stood out. One is Michael Brunstrom's Parsley, an absurdist comedy about the homonym vegetable. Judging by the 10 minute spot he did, the full show is much funnier than it sounds. The second was Christel Bartelse, a Canadian mask performer whose spot was interesting enough to make me want to know more, though I think it was also quite different to the full show she has on.

The Red Emerald: A Farce for the Colourblind - ** Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with this farcical comedy from a debut company. The script is crafted well enough and the play has a lot of funny moments, but the lack of experience shows through all the cracks in the production. My main objection is the fact that on the whole, the production does not bring anything new, does not contribute to the theatrical craft. It felt a lot like a graduation showcase and, whilst I'm sure there's an audience for light entertainment plays in the traditional vein, I much prefer a script that is trying to bring something new, to challenge an established assumption or norm, such as...

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot - **** Although not a perfect script, the premises of this play strikes a chord with me and I greatly enjoyed Parallax Theatre's production. Very effective set design and some very well written and acted parts (I particularly enjoyed Satan and Fabiana). I have some objections to some of the directorial choices and I would've reworked the lighting quite substantially, but this is nevertheless a powerful piece of theatre and I want to take an in-depth look at the script soon.

Radu Isac: One Romanian Answering Questions - * First stand-up I witnessed and the only piece that was part of the Free Fringe. I was quite excited by the prospect of Romania being represented in the comedy scene of the festival, but unfortunately Radu's show disappointed me. The lazy writing and poor delivery are not redeemed by the odd funny line, whilst the irresponsible approach to some of the motifs treated (immigration, unemployment, environment) made me want to leave the room sooner than I did. Which was before the end of the show anyway.

Sage Francis and B Dolan Present: Tricknology - *** The crazy, dynamic, loud 'mish mash of nonsense' that Sage Francis and B Dolan brought to Edinburgh left me baffled. I KINDA get it, but at the same time I'm not really sure there is much to get. This is absurdist comedy delivered at the pace of high intensity hip-hop battles with a clear protest message, though without a clear aim. I suppose there is a lot more in this show for the hip-hop fans than it was for me. Also, the fact I got in expecting to see a typical hip-hop concert didn't do much for my understanding of the piece.

My Leonard Cohen - *** Stewart D'Arietta is undoubtedly a big Leonard Cohen fan. But his re-orchestrated songs sound more like a cross between Tom Waits and Emir Kusturica with Leonard Cohen lyrics. A good night out, for sure, but the more purists of LC's fans will find plenty to protest in D'Arietta's music. I didn't manage to see the other LC tribute, I am curious how they compare mythologies.

Reuben Kaye - ***** Sure, I can be accused of bias, as I've been working with Reuben for two years. But come on! When the 5 stars reviews are pouring in from every direction, when the whole festival is buzzing with word of how great Reuben's show is and when he is in contention for a number of awards after collecting a few in Australia and London already, you know he must be doing something right. Reuben is a cabaret genius, a great voice and an overflowing fountain of creativity. Not a foot is set wrong in this show, not a breath is out of place. Seamless interaction with the audience, funny beyond compere and subversive by merely existing, this show is one of a kind. If you're only going to see two shows at this year's fringe, go see Reuben twice.

Kaitlyn Rogers: Can I Get an Amen?! - *** self-crowned queen of sass, Kaitlyn Rogers is an Australian glittery clown-comedian with a love of Whoopi Goldberg wisdom and Destiny's Child empowerment. Excellent show and a funny night, made mostly by Kaitlyn's bubbly personality. I do object to the written material, which is rather sketchy, but I put this down to the lack of experience. Once she'll polish and improve the writing, we'll have a hell of a show on our hands.

Lilith: The Jungle Girl - **** Lilith was one of the most visible shows at the fringe and undoubtedly one of the strongest productions. I loved the unashamed gender bending visible in both script and casting (the assistant, played by a woman, is in love with the professor, played by a woman, who is in love with the jungle girl, played by a man). There is a strong message in this script and some very bold morality. What can I do, I'm a sucker for a good questioning of established facts ('What is nationality if not just a collection of empty symbols and conventions?')

EntryNOEntry - *** I was well impressed with the overall look of the Sri Lankan pavilion that the Colombo Art Biennale set up at the ground floor of Summerhall. And I enjoyed the weirdness of Venuri Perera's one-on-one performance art piece, specially as it's the first of this kind I ever experienced. I'm withholding the fourth star solely because while the debate on the meanings and merits of citizenship Venuri puts forward is more than necessary, she is too quick and too categorical in assuming a position and thus it doesn't leave a lot of space for dialogue.

When We Ran - ** Unnecessarily complicated and a strong feeling of wasted potential is my harsh and off-hand verdict on this show. A promising script but a lot of very wrong directorial and design choices. I'm hoping the company will enjoy box-office success, as they seem to have invested quite a bit in what attempts to be a high end production, but I also think sometimes a play is better served by embracing the scarcity of means that characterizes the theatrical art form. I have heard good things about Patch of Blue Theatre and I want to see more of their work, but I'm hoping it will be better than this.

Brutal Cessation - **** By contrast to the above, Brutal Cessation achieves more than it sets out to. I am a fan of Beth Pitts' previous work and directorial style and this play holds up to her standards. There are multiple layers to the script and I was still discovering them a couple of days after watching the play. I loved the fast pace, the precision of the delivery and the efficiency of the relatively minimalistic but very smart set design. If there is fairness in the world, then I think Beth Pitts is destined for big things and I count myself lucky to have worked with her.

Carla Lippis – Cast a Dark Shadow - **** I was hesitant before seeing this as people whose opinion I respect propped Carla so high up that they've rather dis-serviced the show. Luckily enough, the praise holds water. Carla has a great voice and she is backed by two great musicians, one of which (Vicky Falconer) surprised me with the multi-faceted nature of her musical talents. I do protest to the dark nature of the songs and I think this would be better received if it were a late night slot rather than a 6pm. But I clearly understand how this choice can be quite a luxury at the fringe.

Gillian Cosgriff: To the Moon and Back - **** Gillian was part of my endeavour to see more female comedy, after a quick look through the festival programme left me appalled at the large number of white male comedians and the under-representation of women in comedy. Gillian is a cool Aussie chick who does comedy songs, something that I have seen before on the cabaret circuit, but not so much in stand-up. There is some solid, thoroughly researched and well written material in there, specifically in the first half. Some points are scored on costumes as well, though there is a clear dip in the second half of the show, once the talk about marriage begins. I suspect this has to do with the topic being too personal and the fear that the jokes might strike too close to home. Write what you know, but not what you care about?

Wild Bore - ***** As the Australian third of this show would say, YASSS! This is it! For anyone who's looking for a change in theatrical paradigm, look no further! This show is not subversive, it's the glorious revolution marching vigorously on the capital of established canon. Wild Bore enlarges the participatory nature of the theatrical act to include not only the audience, but also the critics, publicists and front of house staff. And it's mostly the critics that will be uncomfortable with this 180 degrees turning of the lamps, that's why most of them didn't seem to know how to respond to it. But this is not as much a fight back as it is an open hand, an invitation to dialogue that can take place both on and off the stage. And although very much included in the conversation, the almost to capacity audience in Traverse Theatre's main auditorium did not look uncomfortable at all, on the contrary. Saying too much about it spoils the fun, so I'm not going to talk about the apparent reasons behind the dramaturgical intentions of the show, but rather invite everyone to see it. I'm looking forward for it to come to London in October, when I suspect I will attend more than once.

Late'n'Live - * My presence to the Late'n'Live is the victory of stubbornness over wisdom. There might be a context when Late'n'Live is fun (in a large group, drunk and without much to worry for the next day), but when I saw it, in the Wednesday of the third week, it was a good reflection of everything that's boring about the festival: 5 comedians, all male, all white and all past the point of even trying to be funny, preoccupied - above all - of dragging as much as possible to fill up the allocated slot. I will not bother to remember any of their names, though I will say the only one who had a whiff of funny about him was the big gay dude from Glasgow talking about his HIV-positive diagnostic. Too bad he was the most heckled, too. It would appear shows do tend to attract the audiences they deserve. For the three hours I spent there I feel deserving of a medal, although quite what compelled me to stay that long I couldn't say. The vain attempt to get at least part of my ticket money's worth back, perhaps?

There we are, this was my EdFringe2017 and I was hesitant in making all of this public as the last thing I want is to upset any of my friends who might find themselves mentioned above. But being the eternal optimist that I am, I'm counting on their intelligence being stronger than their ego.

Other quick points from the festival:
 - too much Trump. Way too much. The less talked about, the smaller he becomes. Let ignoring be a form of resistance;
- much of the same goes for Brexit, though I don't deny satire can play a part in the resistance. Good satire though, the kind of which coat-tailing very rarely is;
- open the festival magazine anywhere in the comedy section and you'll see a bunch of white dudes with the odd woman thrown in. Women are funny, funnier than men more often than not. Also, there is no direct connection between genitalia and the sense of humour. But most of the dudes don't even seem to be trying. Audiences too forgiving maybe?
- I've seen a lot of good stuff, not sure if that's to do with the overall quality or my ability to choose.
- delighted to see cabaret having such a strong presence. Not sure if it's always been like that or if I see it more now.

All in all, Edinburgh Fringe is great. Looking forward to next year!

duminică, 9 iulie 2017

X out of X

S.J.A. Turney - Marius' Mules X: Fields of Mars, Victrix Books, 2016

 Reviewing the tenth book in a series is really just for people who are already familiar with the series to some degree. If you're not familiar with Simon's Marius' Mules (the Falerii saga) I shall refer you to the first book. But be prepared for a binge read of 10+1 volumes, to which Simon says will add another five books. I don't personally agree with his idea of sticking religiously to the timeline of Caesar's diaries as some years of the Gallic wars are rather uneventful, whereas the year of the Arveni revolt could easily fill two or three volumes. Nor am I too happy about the prospect of the series ending with Caesar's assassination (oh, yeah, spoiler, Caesar dies in 44 BC). Because regardless of how it might've started out, this is not the story of Julius Caesar, but of Marcus Falerius Fronto and maybe, just maybe, the saga of the Falerii, depending on how much convincing Simon will need in a few years' time, once he has ran past the events on the Ides of March. What will Fronto do during the battle of Philippi for instance, a real war of brothers, where friends of his will be pitted against each other? What about Actium? Will he manage to be neutral in the battle that marks the de facto end of the Republic? I guess we shall have to wait and see.

In the meanwhile, Fields of Mars is Simon's treatment of 49 BC, the first year of the Civil War that will see the end of the First Triumvirate. It is the year of the Rubicon crossing (along with the famous 'Alea jacta est') and the year by whose end Caesar will secure the loyalty of Italia and Hispania, thus controlling what will later be known as the Western Roman Empire and setting up the decisive clash with Pompey in Greece. 

Unlike the Gallic wars, this is a civil war and will therefore involve as much diplomacy as it will need fighting. Simon, who clearly enjoys writing the latter more, is bemoaning the fact, although I think he does a pretty fine job writing negotiations and politics and it keeps an alert pace throughout the book, even though yes, the maneuvering takes more pages than the actual fighting.

I remember reading Caesar's diaries and being impressed with the siege works built for the taking of Massilia. All of it is well fleshed by Simon, though only after he decides to take Fronto on a tour of Hispania through which his sword gets bloodied a lot less than we're used to.

But there's two major achievements here that make the volume stand out within the series: 

1. The Naval Battle of Massilia. It is, as far as I remember, the biggest naval conflagration Fronto has come across so far and Simon proves he is just as ease writing naval strategy as he is writing field battles or sieges. There's some really spectacular pages there, once again the entertainment factor being doubled by a great history and military history lesson, just as Simon's extremely exhaustive knowledge of the period - in full display here - is double by a very gifted pen.

2. Salvius Cursor. This is a fictional character, and a new addition to the impressive panoply of figures and archetypes of the era. Because Fronto needs an antagonist while Caesar is too edgy and there's not enough fighting to pick someone from the opposing side, it is the legatus' second in command that serves as opposing pole to our man from Puteoli here. I don't want to give too much away, but just like with Cavarinos in The Great Revolt, Simon achieves an impressive feat in creating a character that walks many miles in the grey area between positive and negative without ever really touching its black and white borders. Applying modern military norms, I'm tempted to say Salvius' insubordination would have brought him a much swifter exit either via a metallic tip or via stripping of any sort of military capacity, which tends to happen once a direct order is disobeyed. For the sake of a good read, however, I am tempted to grant this suspension of belief, if only to satisfy my curiosity as to where this feisty tribune will eventually end up.

Another cute addition - and it'd be really funny if this were in any way true - is the Gallic Defense Fund, chests of treasure that allegedly were meant to secure Rome against a further Gallic invasion. Along with other artefacts such as 'legion eagles from the time of the war against Carthage', this has gathered dust in the cellars of the Temple to Saturn ever since the time of Brennus and all the way up to it being plundered by Fronto. Come on, is our legate not at the very center of history?

And I shall end my review with a few nuggets of Julian wisdom, via the Turney spectacles:

'Unprepared men lose wars, Fronto' - Caesar acknowledging the de facto state of war.

'I do not like to leave things to chance if I have the option to prepare.' - this reminded me of a favourite Arab saying of mine: 'Put your faith in Allah, but make sure you tied your camel.'

'I have no wish to come between a man and his conscience' - Caesar letting go of Labienus. Titus Labienus' appearance in Caesar's diaries during Civil Wars is so brief that the rift must've been painful. very curious how Simon will handle it.

'First we deal with an army without a general. Then we can deal with the general without an army.' - another reminder of another quote I enjoy, this time by Alexander, allegedly ahead of the battle of Gaugamela: 'I do not fear an army of lions led by a sheep. I fear an army of sheep led by a lion.'

So there. If you haven't read MM so far, go back to book 1, you've got some ground to make up. If you're up to date, join the crowd in awaiting for Marius' Mules XI. Coming 2018, 2066 years after the fact.

duminică, 4 iunie 2017

London Bridge Attack

Here's my 2 cents on the London Bridge attack, 14 hours later:

I work a lot around the London Bridge area, I cross Borough Market at least once a week. This attack is outrageous and even the thought of carrying out something like this immediately devalues you from the position of a human being.

7 innocent people have died for nothing and over 50 have been affected. This is incredibly sad and completely unnecessary.

Unfortunately nothing can be done now to reverse the devastating effects of this mindless act of violence, so here's my look at the aftermath:

1. Absolutely fabulous job, once again, by the Police, paramedics and intervention services. The perpetrators were killed within eight minutes of the first emergency call. The police have secured the very busy areas and all pubs, bars and clubs immediately. The area was cordoned off and police appeared on the streets instantly all the way to at least Piccadilly Circus where I was at the moment of the attack. Not only that, but the whilst the police made themselves very visible, they tried to minimize their impact on the daily bustle of the city. They have mostly succeeded. I don't know and don't really want to talk about the politics of funding intervention services, but I'm hoping they get all the resources they need. They seem to be making good use of them.

2. The mood in the night club I was in immediately soured, understandably so. The overall mood in the city soured immediately. Myself, along with a lot of other people, had to take a detour on the way home. Many more people's journeys will be affected today. But, aside from the grief that the victims' families are feeling, this is it. This is the only effect this mindless act had. Ruining a city's mood for half an evening. Terrorism (defined as control of other peoples' acts, thoughts or feelings) has 0 chances of success. Nothing will change in the life of the city. Whatever random act of violence one might conceive, it will not change anything. The people committing these acts are, first and foremost, stupid.

3. There was an immediate jump to associating the act with Islam in a lot of the reactions to the attack, before any details about the perpetrators were known in the media. This is also stupid and does nothing but fertilize the ground for similar acts in the future. UKIP and its mass of voters, the British tabloid media and whoever else lets their prejudices speak for them (and boy, there's a lot of that) are helping and encouraging the people who committed this attack, the previous ones and the future ones. Among the people helping the terrorists are the current UK Prime Minister and the current President of the United States.

4. The perpetrators of last night's attack are NOT Muslims, regardless of the religion they were born in. As of this moment nothing is known in the media about the identities of the three perpetrators. I will speculate that all three of them were British citizens born in Britain. No normal human being can conceive such an act, and even less so a devout of a religion that has peace and obedience as its main message, during a holy period for the respective religion. At the time of the attack, devout Muslims were thinking about Iftar and about waking up early for the morning prayer. Whoever associates Islam with, or equals it to, the terrorist act last night is part of the aforementioned large mass of willing supporters of future similar acts.

5. In trying to understand what pushes someone to commit such an act, best I could come up with is a very unfortunate mix of cultural, social and economic marginalization layered over a degree of poverty and lack of sense and purpose in society and, to spark it all off, the domestic attitude of daring and not caring, made in Britain. I will speculate again that these people were low income individuals with no jobs or low skilled jobs, low educated and with little access to education, probably part of dysfunctional families. Subjected to a stream of more or less overt discrimination and abuse over a period of time. Once you're in that situation you've got the motives. The opportunity comes at a particular bad time in someone's life. Potentially a family fight, being fired from a job or rejected from one. And the means used were the crudest ones. And BANG! that's your recipe for a terrorist act. Thank God access to firearms is so difficult in Britain, there would be a lot more victims of these random acts if you could buy automatic guns over the counter, like you do in the United States. Driving the car into people is the poor terrorist's mass shooting. And, if it wasn't for the tragic of the situation, the mock-up suicide vests improvised out of beer cans would be ridiculous.

6. My thoughts go to the victims, but also to my Muslim friends who will now be subjected to even more abuse. They too, are indirect victims of this.

7. Is there anything we can do to prevent future acts like this? I believe there's lots, but there is no quick fix. Any solution will be complex and take time. But here's a few steps I believe can take us towards a safer and more peaceful society: increase social integration; discourage the xenophobic discourse in the media and in society; increase the efficiency of social protection mechanisms by cutting abuses and increasing provisions for the more needy; use legal means to further discourage violence. And most importantly, educate people. As a government, do your best to have your citizens well educated, well fed and welcoming. In other words, eliminate as many ingredients from the destructive mix mentioned at point 5. Discourage your media from promoting xenophobia; discourage your Foreign Secretary from promoting isolationism; discourage your prime minister from promoting economic elitism. Discourage your citizens from voting against themselves.

Does it look like I'm campaigning? I don't think I'm campaigning. I just think this government is an accomplice to last night's attack. A willing accomplice, no less.

duminică, 30 aprilie 2017

Civil War

Paul Gauguin - Bowl of fruit and
tankard before a window, 1890
‘That was a good night. Heavy. Came home late with this girl, but she had something to do in the morning – don’t remember exactly. So she left kind of early. Don’t know actually, I didn’t wake up nor feel her leaving. Kudos to her for not stealing anything though. Miriam I think her name was… not sure. Anyway…  So I woke up early afternoon, 1 or 2 must’ve been, and the sun was up and I could see the city from the window, such a sunny day… ah, beautiful! I sat on the window sill for some 10-15 minutes til I was like ‘Ok, time to face the day’. But God, I was feeling so …lascivious of sorts, and found the tankard half full of Jack. I must’ve filled it the night before. We probably intended to eat some of the fruits the night before, hence the mess, though I don’t think we ever got round to it in the end. So I drank some of the stale whisky, the tankard holds just under a full bottle. And the canvas was just to the left; all laid out, with the brushes at the side, I must’ve wanted to draw something the day before. Grabbed a brush and went for it. I didn’t really plan it, I started out without knowing what’s gonna come out on paper and I didn’t imagine anything useful will anyway. I put the mill in the corner first, cause that shiny yellow wall was just jaw-dropping, but then I realized I drew the line too high up, so I was like ‘Hell, I’ll draw the apples’. Didn’t bother arranging them or anything. And I was drinking all the while, I think I got through the half tankard of whisky pretty quick, so just put it back on the table. Only realized it’s there after I drew its contour on canvas. And I was like ‘Hmmm, well I’ll leave it in now’, but the drawing on it is so intricate I wasn’t really feeling up to putting in the work to draw it. So I left it to figure out later, and that’s actually the last thing I drew. If you look at the carvings on the cup, it’s a whole scene, the detail on it is mind blowing, I was never gonna bother with that. So I just mashed up some lines a la Monet, never figured the canvas is gonna make it anywhere further than the rubbish bin anyway.’
‘It’s a beautiful tankard, babba’
‘I know, got it at this art fair eons ago. In a village east, high in the Kashmir. Zebak or Ziak or something. Don’t think it was made there though, looks like it must come from somewhere South.’

I knew Daoud and daddy are going to be sharing stories for hours on end and I wasn’t really listening to them. I only remembered Daoud’s story about the painting last week, when it got into my hands by a completely unexpected and wonderful accident. I remembered Daoud was saying something about an auction house that was gonna take it to Europe and how he was going to get good money for it. Well, I paid 20 quid for it, though the guy in the flea market was only asking for 10. Truth to be told, I could’ve probably talk him down to 5, but not in the state I was. I’d never really buy anything from the flea market, but I’d go every week as it reminded me of… gosh, I don’t even know if ‘home’ is the right word. It reminded me of something that I felt was a part of me. I was surprised when I spotted it. I remember akaa Daoud gave it to the art museum for a while to be part of an exhibition of his paintings, but then got it back as this dealer kept nagging him about how much money he could make off of it. So naturally, I thought the museum made prints of it and somehow, one of them made its way to this Afghan flea market. I grabbed it to look at it then I saw the burn mark on the side from when Daoud’s flat burned down. I tried hard not to cry, but Farid must’ve seen my tears as he asked me if I’m ok. I’m looking at it now and I have no idea if I should put in on display somewhere where I’d see it every day, or just hide it away just like all the horrible memories I’ve carried with me over two continents.

I do remember that specific day well. I was always happy to about visiting Daoud, as I know I’d see Farrah. And dad was all too happy to visit him as it was the only place where he could have a drink without mum nagging him about heaven and hell and The Prophet and Muslim values.  So it was a win-win, and it was like our little ritual. Dad would usually ask me if I want to go out, I’d always say yes, then he’d pretend he had no idea where to go and call to see if Daoud is free. He was always free, and he’d always ask us to come over and ‘take it from there’. We didn’t really take it anywhere. In a household of five, mum would always cook for about 20, so dad would grab the remains of last nights’ dinner and Daoud – huge fan of mum’s cooking - was all too happy to accept that in exchange for a few glasses of alcohol which, as a good Muslim, dad would never buy. He did take care to stop by the market though, to get something for mum, whose anger at the stink of whisky would be quelled by an incense, or a necklace, or some robe. And once we got to Daoud’s studio, I’d be quick to make an excuse to go out, and that was my day done. Sometimes, Farrah’s dad would come over, in which case I didn’t need an excuse to go out at all, we’d be messing about with the canvases and colours while they’d be putting the world to rights over whisky.

‘Are you not worried at all, Daoud?’
‘Waseed, I’m a Christian, not a Communist. I couldn’t care less who’s in power as long as they let me paint. As a matter of fact, I don’t even care if I ever sell another painting again, I’ve been lucky enough to have already made more money than I’ll ever need.’
‘But herein lies the problem, laalaa. Do you think the mujahideens won’t come knocking to your door specifically because you’re a Christian?’
‘Bah, don’t think so. I’m not a threat, I’m an anomaly. Too few Christians around to be any kind of critical mass in the revolution.  And I’ve never said anything either for or against Islam. To be honest, I think Islam is preferable to the Communists, but not the kind that the mujahideens are hoping for.’
‘Communism is good, Daoud! Without the Soviet Union, we’d still be herding goats instead of driving Ladas. No heating, no blocks of flats…’
‘No fucking individual opinion, either. You’ll see, it will be much better with the Americans.’
‘Why would the Americans care?’
‘Oh, the mujahideens  are all American puppets. You see, they don’t like having the Soviets so close to their oil.’

They were always going on like that. I wasn’t really listening to their conversations; it’s surprising therefore how much I can remember after all these years. Anyway, that afternoon I did not make any excuses. It was a sunny day, probably just as sunny as the one that inspired the painting with the tankard, so I went to the window to see if there is indeed any beauty to the mill, as I knew it to be scary and noisy and dusty. And then I saw Farrah playing jozbaazi. Now you see, that is beautiful, not the stupid mill! Oh, God, it was indeed a scorching day, but she shone brighter than sun ever could! I sat still the whole afternoon, just watching her and smiling like the idiot kid I was, with the occasional bouts of jealousy when she’d be touching someone else, quickly subdued by the sight of her smiling.
‘Ali, what’s the matter, mashwm? You ok? Do you wanna go out?’
‘No, I’m good here plaar. Can I get an apple?’

I knew I loved her. I was looking forward to turning 13, the first thing I’d do was ask dad to go to old Waseem and ask him to let Farrah marry me. And then we would move in together and I’d be with her all the time. What more can one ask?

And yet last I saw of Farrah was her big round blue eyes devoid of life, with a mixture of caked dirt and blood covering her beautiful face. I cried for days, and I think I punched dad pretty hard when he forcefully dragged me away from her body. I kept crying the couple of weeks that followed. Leaving Kabul and heading for the border were all a blur. Thinking back, dad’s bravery makes me very proud and I wonder what I would have done under the circumstances. But back then all I could see were Farrah’s beautiful red lips biting the dirt. I was upset we left. I didn’t care about the fighting and the shootings and the militias; all I wanted was to play another game of jozbaazi with Farrah. On our way to the border, I heard dad telling mum old Waseem and his wife stayed. He didn’t know, but they were probably killed shortly after, as the whole neighborhood was razed to the ground. Couple of guys from the mosque tried to help dad get Daoud out of his studio when the building caught fire, but by the time they managed to get in, he was already dead, apparently. I don’t remember seeing the body, even though I was there when they carried him out, rolled in a carpet. Dad wanted to give him a Christian funeral, but he couldn’t find a priest after two days of trying, so in the end they took him to the mosque with the others, thinking that it was better Daoud gets buried with Muslims than all of us staying and risking our lives too. In all honesty, I don’t think he cared all that much. The folks from the mosque also saved all they could from his flat, including some of his paintings, the one with the tankard amongst them, a week before it was due to be taken to an auction in France. Dad joked it will make it to France anyway, though in completely different circumstances. He tried contacting Daoud’s sister in Paris, but the phone lines were cut and it was near impossible to get a message out of the country in those days. Turns out, it was impossible to get Daoud’s paintings out of the country too. They were withheld by the Pakistani police together with most of his and our possessions. So mum, dad and the three of us had to cross the border and got into the tent camp with only one piece of hand luggage each.

And that’s pretty much how we crossed two continents. Well, the three of us did, Mum and Dad never made it to the Mediterranean. After years and years of nightmares and bad news being the only things reaching me from Afghanistan, akaa Daoud’s tankard painting was the symbol of a time when I was a happy careless child in my parents’ house, just as any child should be. How it ended up in my hands three decades later was a miracle that I didn’t intend to inquire too much about. I decided to hang it in the hallway.