There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
I’d been vaguely aware of these from a while back, but had never looked carefully at them. It wasn’t until they were used as running gags in last week’s New Yorker money edition that I sat up and noticed. Dan Tague has created a series of prints in 2008 of dollar bills folded in such a way as to reveal all kinds of subversions of American capitalism and western materialism. There is something rather delicious about making a dollar spell out ‘American Idol’ or an American revolution battle cry, or the best advice of the contemporary conspiracy theorist.
Ingenious Read more
I’d guess that only the most hardened petrol-heads and urbanites will fail to be moved to awestruck wonder by episodes in the BBC’s latest natural world epic, FROZEN PLANET. Quite apart from the stunning (ant)arctic panoramas, there are the focused dramas of a pack of killer whales harassing and (hours later) overwhelming a minke whale. Or comic moments, like the waddling penguins slipping on the ice, or the traffic jam of two narwhal clusters, equipped with their unicorn-like tusks and having to negotiate a head on meeting in a narrow, one-way only ice channel. Read more
During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc. Read more
Someone made the mistake of asking me the other day what magazines I read. And it came as a bit of a shock to me when I tried to work out my list. I’ve always been a magazine junkie, I suppose – because at their best, they’re far more significant than mere advertising vehicles or glorified gossip columns.
So here’s my main list, in no particular order. I remember Tim Keller saying in a talk once (but can’t remember for the life of me which talk it was, so you’ll have to take my word for it) that he reads a careful selection of magazines simply because they are often the best indicators of the shifts and prevailing winds of popular opinion or insight. Well, that did it for me! I became a professional magazine consumer as a direct result. So you can blame him…
To get a taste of each magazine, click on its image.
Well, some would say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. And it probably is. But here are my justifications (!)
- Wired UK (monthly) – it’s not just a geek’s bible. It often has fascinating and well read, insightful articles about all kinds of technological and scientific advances. It is an education – but a highly enjoyable one (especially for geeks). The heights of human ingenuity are on display.
- The New Yorker (weekly) – ok, yes I know it’s high-brow and its articles are probably the longest on the planet. Each edition will have at least 3 or 4 10 page articles. But this is my biggest treat. It is perfect for long journeys – and it’s range of interests is incredible. One week you can be reading about an American art philanthropist, gun-running in the Sudan, the history of late night chat shows on US TV etc etc. The cartoons are fab too. What’s not to like?
- BBC History Magazine (monthly) – it partly reflects the centres of gravity of modern history teaching (eg there’s always something about the Tudors and the Nazis) which is a bit annoying. But the range of articles is usually good; there is always a fascinating section looking at the historical background of a big news item; and the book reviews are great. Oh and I always enter the crossword competition in the vain hope of winning a book. No such luck so far.
- Private Eye (fortnightly) – during his 5-minute interview on BBC Online, editor Ian Hislop explained that the purpose of satire was “to expose vice, folly and humbug“. Private Eye does that in spades – most of the time, it is not too scurrilous. Much of the time it is doing a great public service and I’m grateful for it. As well as hugely amused.
- Empire (monthly) – probably my longest subscription. I adore movies – and love to know how they were made etc. But I hardly get time to see them or even to watch DVDs these days. So at least I can read the reviews. Though my frustration with Empire is that it is becoming a bit too celeb-dazzled (or has it always been? can’t work it out).
- Christianity Today (monthly) – it’s always interesting to see Christianity from another cultural perspective – and this American mag (if you can get past the interminable adverts for Christian colleges and seminaries in the US) often provides that.
- Tate Etc (quarterly) – this comes automatically with being Tate Friends – and it is lavishly produced and a real treat. Very interesting for keeping up with developments in the art world. Often provocative but always informative and beautiful to look at.
Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking. How on earth does he have time? Doesn’t he have a day job? Should his employers not be informed?
Well, here are my explanations/further justifications:
- Reading stuff is part and parcel of my job – and being in touch with what’s going on is essential to it. So this is work.
- Although it is fair to say that this definitely combines business with pleasure.
- I have strange reading habits – I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick something up and read it for 5 minutes and then come back to it later. So if I’ve got a spare moment waiting for someone to turn up, I’ll read something. In fact, I’m sure I need to see someone about this – but I have a pathological need to be reading something all the time (even if it is about the calcium content of Corn Flakes).
- Most magazine articles are bite-sized anyway (apart from the New Yorker obviously) – and so designed to be read in short bursts. Perfect for loo-reading, then.
So there we have it.
Would be very interested to know if you have particular favourites. Or even if there are magazines you think I should add to the list!! :-)
It was all so predictable. I suppose the only surprise is that it took 14 years to manifest itself. But it seems that the idyllic, picket-fence world of Disney’s ‘perfect’ town, Celebration, is just a facade, as reports on Saturday told of murder and suicide within this corporate utopia. Every detail of the town was planned, owned, controlled by Disney. They presumably hoped that they could purvey their own branded style of happiness. But they couldn’t control the activities and passions of their residents.
I remember first hearing of it years ago when I first read Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo – and she really went to town on this fabricated town, seeing it in many ways, rightly, as indicative of the most sinister but logical outcome of any multinational game-plan.
For the families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself (No Logo, p155)
But Mickey’s big ears are never sufficient to mask the human heart. No amount of white picket fences will restrain the antics of those living behind them. We all need something far greater than the ‘perfect’ environment in which to live if harmony and shalom are to be possible.
For, as Philip Yancey quotes in What’s So Amazing About Grace:
After reporting on such moments in church history, Paul Johnson concludes, ‘Attempts to perfect Christian societies in the world, whether conducted by popes or revolutionaries, have tended to degenerate into red terrors.’ This fact should give us pause as voices today call on us to break down the walls between church and state and restore morality to our society. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, ‘The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below.’ (Yancey p234)
So it seems that Celebration is a double whammy – a symbol both of Disney’s profound naiveté about people, and, at the same time, its disturbing ambitions to swallow people up in its corporate machine.
For those who’ve not discovered her stuff, my sis-in-law, Miriam Jones‘ latest album (Fire-Lives) is a treat and a great way in to her music. Have listened to it loads in the last couple of weeks but it now comes out on general release this week – she and Jez and the guys have done a fabulous job on producing an intense, multi-layered and fascinating anthology. This album sampler hints at its joys…
But the single, Wondrous Mysterious (now available from iTunes), is one she gave last year as a ‘Christmas card’. I’ve loved it from the get-go – it’s a superb antidote to the grimly commercialised, schmaltzy, trimmings-laden but emasculated Christmas that we get bombarded with from around August 23rd.
I turned on the tv and it suddenly was Christmas and I hollered at the advert that they wouldn’t get my money and I could not believe they honestly were trying to take my heart for Christmas. The airwaves jammed with snowmen and with santa claus and angels, and I do believe in angels, but not the kind that do not scare you and I prayed some kind of holy fear would find its way to me this Christmas.
‘Cause my heart is dying to prepare for something wondrous, and mysterious, but this world is ringing in my ears and it’s thunderous and delirious.
I walked into town and it was red and gold and sparkling and while I waited for my watch I hovered round the shiny shops, oh you who have no money come and buy, and fill your hearts full up this Christmas. Steering down the sidewalk I could hear a conversation ‘bout a boy who had a head they’d like to push under a faucet and I wondered are we saving up all our loving hearts for Christmas.
Part way through December I pulled out the wooden figures from their boxes and I placed them and I looked into their faces, wondering what they all were looking at…
The lyrics are evocative and concise, full of suggestion. But my standout that I particularly love is line about not believing in ‘the kind of angels that do not scare you‘. A hole in one methinks…
Was leafing through the Royal Academy of Art magazine this week – and encountered this photograph filling a whole page. Was blown away.
It’s utterly mesmerising and bewildering all at the same time. Where are we? An airport? A fancy dress party? A film set? Who are all these people anyway? And what are they up to?
It is in fact a photograph taken in 2007 by Andreas Gursky called Kuwait Stock Exchange I. And it manages to convey the incongruities of the modern world, with a forum equipped with the latest communications technology populated by hundreds of men (not a woman in sight), dressed in the formality and uniformity of classic Arab desert dress. It is a picture of anonymity – even those who knew them wouldn’t really be able to tell them apart from this angle – it all looks beautifully stage-managed and set up. But i suspect it isn’t.
There are all kinds of interesting contrasts with another of his images, this time from the Chicago Board of Trade:
This is equally mesmerising – but this time is a living fireworks display of colour. Half close your eyes, and it could almost be a Jackson Pollock. Wonderful.
Photography at its best should do this – show us the world in a new way. Here is beauty in the rawest of capitalist temples… Surprising really.
Rather a bumper list this time…
- A truly remarkable essay by former hostage Brian Keenan about the importance of hope for those 33 trapped miners in Chile. (HT Nancy H)
- Howard Jacobson reflects on the horror of 9/11 and the sense of feeling left behind and lost. (HT Nancy H)
- Barry Cooper writes warmly about a mutual friend of ours, Tony Jones – I took over the same job from Tony at St Ebbe’s the following year, and am in awe of his capacity for work (I managed only half of what he did!).
- Computer models show how wind could have caused the parting of the Red Sea for Moses! (HT Charles Sperling)
- ‘Cranmer’ detects a great ecclesiastical gag played by the pope at Westminster Abbey.
- There seem to have been a number of events and publications remembering the London Blitz of 1940. This is rather a good website about London’s West End at war, including a page about the night All Souls was bombed. Some of this was drawn from the little history I wrote last year.
Sacred/Secular (?) Treasure
Meanwhile there’s been a lot of comings and goings on the Sacred/Secular divide in the western world – so here’s a new little sub theme with are one or two extra related links on that front:
- Alistair ‘We don’t do God’ Campbell gives an interesting (albeit party-political) take on what he meant by it.
- A fascinating article and graphic comparing national prosperity and levels of religious faith (from NY Times – HT Drew Woolf)
- And while we’re on the subject, Time magazine asks if France has taken secularism too far…
- But interestingly, recent surveys suggest that church attendance in the UK is stabilising or increasing.
- If this doesn’t put you off going to sea, I don’t know what will.
- A whole new way to check on flight arrival times…
- Truly inspiring images from The Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photography Competition
- Amazing Robert Capa photos discovered from the Spanish Civil War.
- Astonishingly good quality colour photos from Imperial Russia in 1910 (HT John Goering)
- Lovely flowing redesign suggestion for the London Underground map (HT Information is Beautiful)
- I love these – I wish they were distributed daily in newsagents…
- This is an extraordinary journalistic sight – the mind boggles about seeing the banners of the Telegraph, Times, Grauniad, Mail, Sun, Mirror, Exchange and Mart, and the Racing Post all on one front page.
- Amazing coincidence that helped with the translation of the Rosetta Stone.
- Swish politician catches the giggles because of bureaucratic legalese.
- You have never seen time-lapse photography like this from Dan Eckert – the camera moves as well… (HT Kuriositas)
- 100 years ago, the only alternative to Google was this (HT 22 Words) – A cross-section of New York Public Library in 1911
While working on something else, I was glancing through some old notes I’d taken on various books, and retrieved this brilliantly incisive description of the way the western culture of capitalism makes us conform, in Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo (recently updated for its 10th Anniversary).
This was written in 1999, but we appear not to have moved on that much…
The Kinko’s, Starbucks and Blockbusters buy their uniform of khakis and white or blue shirts at the Gap; the ‘Hi! Welcome to Gap!’ greeting cheer is fuelled by Starbucks double espressos; the resumes that got them the jobs were designed at Kinko’s on friendly Macs, in 12-point Helvetica on Microsoft Word. The troops show up for work smelling of CK One (except at Starbucks, where colognes and perfumes are thought to compete with the ‘romance of coffee’ aroma), their faces freshly scrubbed with Body Shop Blue Corn Mask, before leaving apartments furnished with Ikea self-assembled bookcases and coffee tables.
Naomi Klein, No Logo, p131
The irony, it seems to me, is that it results in a uniformity every bit as powerful as that which communism attempted to impose… with one essential, but subtle, distinction. We actually choose this conformity under the illusion that we are autonomous.
So yet again (a theme I return to repeatedly on Q), Communism and Capitalism are merely different manifestations of the same dehumanising, modernist worldview.
Every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. And recently, I’ve found this happen more and more with contemporary Chinese artists. Q regulars may remember the powerful impact of Xu Bing’s work with his meaningless words. Well here’s another…
As this picture above illustrates, Chinese classical art is world-renowned for its stunning landscape painting (especially for the ways that the natural world is evoked by the slightest of brushstrokes).
But check this out.
Here are a few variations on the theme by the remarkable artist, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang. At first sight, they seem to follow closely the path and styles of the old masters. But look closer – and you see that all is not as it first seems – for a start, they’re actually produced on an inkjet printer. Then he’s presented an incredibly powerful subversion of the style, as a way of exposing the way that aggressive capitalism and environmental exploitation have destroyed so much of the uniquely beautiful Chinese landscape.
No wonder that they have been appropriated by the China Environment Protection Foundation. No idea who or what they’re like, but i sure hope they’re able to stop at least some of the insanity.
Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang
- This is so encouraging – the Africa Bible Commentary – now in Kiswahili
- Antony Billington gives another helpful list of 6 of the best: this time on handling different biblical genres.
- Neil Robbie has a nice venn diagram to illustrate what makes up good preaching (based on a seminar by Rico Tice)
- Marcus Honeysett on handling criticism in ministry
- For those who liked the sorts of thing Maggi Dawn’s book offers (reviewed last week), Artway is a wonderful site (in Dutch & English). It offers meditations on different artworks, and you can sign up to get them regularly emailed. (HT Paul Windsor).
- Wow – radical. Why not actually buy a newspaper to get your news…?
- Scary graphic stats for musicians trying to make their way in the world: what it takes to earn the minimum wage
- Another scary graphic illustrating how US laws are made (just like sausages) HT Graphic Sociology
- Some interesting pie charts illustrating the similarities between Coalition & Shadow Cabinets.
- Incredible: live map of where every London underground train is. A techie’s or a terrorist’s dream?
- I like this (HT: 22 words):
- Wiltshire vicar revives law to call villagers to archery practice…!
- Very awkward: what happens when you forget to wear a belt to work
- A classic from one of my favourite blogs, Futility Closet: great errata from the New York Times.
- I’m with stupid…
- I think these Fedex ads are great:
When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).
Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!
- The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
- Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.
But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:
- ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
- crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
- military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
- determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
- feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
- derivative plot
- ham-fisted moralising.
In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point
- Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
- Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!
Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.
So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).
And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…