My night with the Berlin Philharmonic

I have not made any forays into high culture since beginning this blog, as the mission statement indicated I would. Cries of “fraud” and “charlatan” I have not yet heard, in truth, but it does feel that I haven’t honoured the mandate I awarded myself when I started out. Up to now, I’ve felt a bit reluctant to offer opinions on the refined, the recherché, and the avant garde. How initiated does one need to be to dare express thoughts on art that doesn’t make compromises? In this post, I’m not going to pose as a critic, but I will write about the experience of being in an audience for a concert that took place a few months ago.Read More »

An era when a truer measure of virility is softness

In 2009, this writer stood no more than 20 metres from the orator delivering what can fairly be described as one of the most famous speeches of the 21st century so far. I was standing among a crowd that has also been subjected to the most withering contempt from writers on both the left and the right in the intervening years. I must insist, however, that I was carrying neither an American nor a Czech flag in Hradčany Square on that hazy Sunday morning, and I only ever whoop and cheer for live music. But let’s broadly concede that those attending were uncritically appreciative of the new US president, and there were no noises hinting at scepticism as he called for a world free of nuclear weapons. At that time, Barack Obama’s aura was very strong, and, recalling how the powerful sun hadn’t yet penetrated that morning’s cloud, watching him mysteriously emerge on to the stage against a wall of nebulous white did accord with the exalted status he then widely enjoyed. His stock remains fairly strong, if only by comparison with the process by which his successor will be elected, but that’s for another time. And indeed a previous musing. Returning to the Prague speech, many on the right scoffed Obama, declaring it irresponsible to even hint at the United States relinquishing its nuclear power status when there are so many bad actors in the world seeking such a capability for themselves. Left wing commentators held that the Empire would never give up their weapons of mass destruction, and that this was just a shameless PR exercise by Mr Hopey Changey. Both strands of opinion sneered at the “adoring” crowd, and I’ll admit I’ve never gotten over my sense of resentment at being dismissed so lightly.Read More »

The five stages of Brexit

Watching David Cameron announce his resignation following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last Thursday elicited a curious mixture of feelings.  The Prime Minister has always been good at looking the part when responding to momentous events, and this was a performance exquisitely calibrated to invite empathy flow in his direction from those watching. Then I remembered that he was the architect of his own Waterloo. However, unlike Napoleon’s last desperate roll of the dice, Cameron’s final stand was largely driven by the smaller matter of internal party management. As so often in his career, manoeuvres for short term tactical gain won out over the strategic longer game. Over such trivialities can hugely consequential ramifications ensue, and we can’t even begin to imagine what longer term impact this will have on Europe. As for Cameron’s gift for presentation, was he anything other than a PR man in the end? The sober analytical side of me told me that I should be contemptuous of Cameron and where he had led the country to, and yet my feelings were more complicated. Maybe this weakness made me the real compassionate conservative.Read More »

There are multiple possible Brexits, but only one is on offer

Sometimes I wonder if I receive tragic news with too much coolheaded equanimity, but I felt myself physically sagging when news of the murder of Jo Cox came through on Thursday. I cannot remember the last time I experienced that sensation. While we cannot yet truly know what was in the mind of the killer, and while full details of the killer’s motives will take time to emerge, it would be preposterous to strip away the context in which this savage killing took place. Truly it was a day of infamy. Many Leavers in the European Union referendum debate have been complaining about the “politicisation” of Cox’s murder. Some have even been reducing it to a mental illness issue, as happens in the United States following a gun rampage. But it is undeniable that this was a targeted murder, and that it carries immense political significance. An act of terror. And it has occurred against the backdrop of a hateful and divisive referendum campaign that has exacerbated underlying trends which coarsen and inject poison into a now vitriolic political arena.Read More »

The incomparable distinction of The Greatest

It has frequently been remarked that 2016 is a year of living dangerously for celebrities. One had expected that to be invoked again following the death of Muhammad Ali last weekend, but this writer hasn’t encountered any such talk. It’s as if Ali is in a category of his own, or hors catégorie, as the mightiest mountain passes in the Tour de France are nowadays defined. It’s perhaps apt to describe such a transcendent figure thus. Yesterday he was laid to rest in Louisville, and, given how much he suffered throughout his mental and physical decline after retirement – or perhaps it would be more apt to trace his degeneration to that brutal contest with Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975 – one is tempted to regard his passing as a mercy or release. But any questioning of the extent to which one should feel sorrow is mitigated by knowledge of the absence of regret from Ali himself throughout his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Of course it’s a time to be sad for this 20th century titan.Read More »

The New Top Gear – less politically correct than you imagine?

Top Gear returned to our screens last Sunday, and like most, I was a bit disappointed by what was served up. There were moments, to be fair. It was amusing watching the section involving Jesse Eisenberg and Gordon Ramsay, which subverted notions about which of the US and the UK is the bombastic show off nation, and which is the more restrained and dignified one. Overall, what was most notable was how it cleaved so closely to the Clarkson/Hammond/May formula to the extent that it demanded comparison with its predecessor. One would have thought they would try to take it in a slightly different direction, but if any word best characterises the BBC these days, it’s fear. The producers and Chris Evans must have known that a pro-Clarkson mob would mobilise on social media to condemn their efforts, and castigate the new Top Gear (TNTG, for convenience) as a pale imitation. This series might yet evolve, as indeed can first impressions. Some commentators have bemoaned TNTG for being more politically correct than its earlier incarnation, but as I pondered that assertion I wondered was it actually true?Read More »

Jostling on the parliament floor

The glamorous Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, recently lost some of his dreamy glow after a recent altercation in parliament during a contentious vote. This incident occurred during a vote on doctor-assisted suicide legislation on May 18, and this writer has been reflecting since on the ways in which politics mirrors other aspects of life. It is no longer remarkable to invoke Joan Didion’s famous observation that politics is a subset or even lesser branch of show business, certainly when America has allowed itself to sink into dumb fascination with the appalling Donald Trump during this election cycle, to the benefit of no one other than Mr Tangerine Man himself. There is, however, another area of contemporary show business that “Elbowgate” reminded me of, and that is soap opera side of football.Read More »

Leicester City: Searching for cognates in other domains

This blog has somehow avoided commenting on the magnificence of Leicester City’s Premier League title victory. In a world where the big guys seemingly always win, and have the game rigged so that things stay that way, watching an insurgent win in a sport where the decks are stacked more than most others is genuinely breathtaking and life-affirming, and all such other things that are good. This blog has previously written about the neoliberal hyper-capitalist system that pertains in European football, unlike the socialist regimes of the US major leagues. The Leicester Citys of this world have no right to win in the circumstances they must compete in, but Leicester’s title has only been a surprise only to those who have been casually observing the Premier League table and not actually watching what’s been happening week after week. Rationalisation is quite easy if you ignore preconceptions and appreciate that they’re actually just a good side. That hasn’t stopped people from accompanying their encomiums to Leicester with attempts to locate some reference point, to conjure some persuasive analogy, as if such an exercise is necessary to make sense of what they’ve done. And it’s been quite common to invoke other walks of life or to utilise their tools in order to do so.Read More »

Offshore castaways

This blog often comments on big stories stories after the news cycle has moved on to the next big headline. You may say that is because I’m slow to react to events, but I’d like to think it’s because I have been ruminating on the major happenings and the meaning behind them. What’s more, I might even be valiantly striking back against short attention spans, and giving issues the extra consideration that should be accorded to them. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. And so to the Panama Papers, and the inadequacy of how they have been covered. Watching the travails of David Cameron over recent weeks is to be reminded of how the British media is most comfortable discussing the careers of middle aged men. The vast conspiracy of the super rich against the rest of us, which the Mossack Fonseca leak probably no more than hints at, seemed for most news sources of secondary interest to the personal financial arrangements of the Prime Minister.Read More »

Remembering another pop polymath

Comparisons with David Bowie were inevitable following the passing of Prince on Thursday, the similarities not merely outweighing the differences, but also revealing of how singular they both were as artistic figures in popular culture. Much of the comment has emphasised how they not merely projected new forms of masculinity, but were demonstrating these extravagant, ambiguous expressions of identity when it was a lot riskier to do so than it is today. In their own ways, they were the most eloquent and persuasive advertisements for abandoning the inhibitions of convention. We can recognise crassness of exhibitionism for its own sake when we see it, something even very established stars can be prone to. That is why admiration is always due to those who are not merely autonomous enough to make their own rules, but to do so in a way that serves an artistic purpose.Read More »