Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Eve Babitz

photo Julian Wasser
I confess I had never heard of Eve Babitz until just recently. But I had seen this picture before, "Nude Considering Her Next Move", by Julian Wasser, Eve Babitz is the woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp. She bowled over just about every man she met in Hollywood in the 1960s. Including Jim Morrison. Harrison Ford. Oh and of course Warren Beatty. Parents a Jewish violinist and an artist from Texas, Eve grew up in Hollywood, and has never really left it. Igor Stravinsky was her godfather. She graduated from Hollywood High and became, in her words, an adventuress. What distinguishes her from, eg, Edie Sedgwick, is that she wasn't daft enough to OD at 27. Nobody's fool, talented, witty, never pretentious or self-pitying, the woman can write. I am at present gloriously wallowing in "Eve's Hollywood", a book of very short autobiographical essays first published in 1972 and 1974. What a terrific broad she is. She doesn't write any more - she is in her 70s now - since a freak accident in 1997, in which the cigar she was smoking set fire to her skirt and burned two-thirds of her body. But she has written a lot, and she gets it like most never did. Here:

"The best capsule description of F. Scott Fitzgerald I ever read was a brief biography which began 'Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and died 44 years later in Hollywood.'"

Read Eve. I'm your fan, Eve.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Shawcross and his unfashionable views

This book, by William Shawcross, who is an intellectual and (kind of) a part of the Establishment in the UK - I know there are many who do not like his writing, but I do - was published rather a long time ago, after 9/11 and after the invasion of Iraq by the US-led Allies, but not long after. It took some work to track it down once I became aware of its existence. The views and ideas it contains were unfashionable at the time, and not only among the complacent chattering Guardianistas, who unfortunately are still with us, but broadly unfashionable in every sense, which is why the book sank without trace. I think I paid about a euro for it from some obscure book dealer, after Amazon tried to tell me it was unobtainable. A pity. I don't like buying second-hand books, especially if the author is still alive, as the creator of the work gets nothing from it, and Lord knows it's hard enough to get paid to write anything at all. But it is worth reading this book, I promise you, even if your prejudices, fully formed beliefs, intellectual worldview, whatever, compel you to think he is wrong.

It starts this way: "The Arab narrative of the 'Fallujah butchery is ... pernicious nonsense." About 270 were killed in Fallujah, almost all of them fighters, almost all of those former Iraqi army officers under Saddam. He quotes the Iranian journalist Amer Taheri on the killing of the American hostage Paul Johnson at that time: "Paul Johnson was killed by lies spread by Arab elites ... he was killed by the over 1,500 Arab lawyers who have volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein but who were nowhere to be seen when he was engaged in genocide against the Iraqi people." Shawcross says "Saddam may not have been an immediate threat but he was an inevitable one." He notes (in his preface to a later edition) that the Arab Spring had its harbingers here, in 2003.

UN weapons inspectors were banned from Iraq in 1998, and the Allies bombed Iraq that year. Remember that? Remember the millions marching against it? Nor me. One member of my local Labour Party at the time timidly approached me to express disquiet about the bombing of a sovereign nation. But only one. UNSCOM's final report on this, in 1999, said that vast numbers of WMDs could not be accounted for. Shawcross goes so far as to give the need to contain Iraq in the 1990s as the reason for the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia.

Shawcross is good on the humbug there is about the "neocons". At the time of that liberal hero JFK's presidency, in 1962, a legal opinion given by the Justice Department noted "the UN Charter does not prohibit the taking of unilateral preventive action in self-defence prior to the occurrence of an armed attack." No. It did not so prohibit then, and it does not now. Shawcross concludes "Surely everyone would agree that it would have been better if the United States had pre-empted 9/11 by confronting Al Qaeda and the Taliban before September 2001. There was ample cause." Yes.

Very few European intellectuals saw 9/11 as a threat. One who did was Ralf Dahrendorf (contrast the late Gunter Grass) who said that first, Western values do exist; second, power is needed to defend them; third, defence might have to be done by force of arms. Michael Ignatieff and Bernard Kouchner were two others who took this view.

"The Iraqis could not change their own tyrannical government; only outside intervention could do that. There was no better case in the world for such intervention. Tony Blair himself put the issue succinctly later when he told the House of Commons, 'When people say to me, why are you risking everything ... on this issue? I say I do not want to be the prime minister at whom people point a finger back in history and say: 'He knew perfectly well that the threats were there and he did not do anything about it.'"

I cite this book, and quote from it, to indicate that what "everyone" knows, and what "everyone" thinks do not really exist. What you think, and what I think, may differ. We may both find equally sound and convincing bases for our views, and argue them effectively. But a plurality of views there always is, and this must continue. At this time, soon after the savagery of the killings in Paris, and as I write in France under a state of emergency, there is a dismaying chorus of voices, at least in English, informing us what "everyone thinks" and what "everyone knows" - usually that such killings are the fault of "the West". That the Bataclan murders are France's fault for conducting air strikes on Islamic State. Leave them alone and they'll leave us alone. Idiocy. they have already declared war on "us". Hoping they'll leave us alone is like feeding a lion, in the hope that it will eat you last.

The West is at war,whether it wants to be or not. That war started a long time ago. It was formally declared much later, in the 1990s, and Bill Clinton did more or less nothing about it. It was stepped up in 2001, and it has been going on since. You and I cannot save ourselves from attack by Islamist terrorists. But if we shut up, if we blame the West for the attacks, if we say in Nick Cohen's ironic words "Kill us, we deserve it", we are complicit in the ultimate victory of the death-loving barbarians.

As I write there is a hostage crisis in Bamako, Mali. It is taking place at the Radisson Blu hotel in that city, whose guests are not that likely to be Malian farmers or workers. There are signs that it is about to be resolved without the bloodletting we saw in Paris a week ago. I hope so. But hey, that's only over there in Africa.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

downsizing life

a lot of people downsize some time after their children are grown and gone. Move to a smaller house, move away from where their children grew up, perhaps take early retirement. That last is less likely for my generation - we are fitter and healthier than our parents were at our age, for the most part, because we were better nourished as children than they were. We boomers were pre junk food, remember, and we played out unsupervised for hours every day in almost any weather. Our own children (I had mine when I was young, and they are in their 30s now) were more supervised than we were, and their physical activity was more organised - things like swimming club and gym club, which my siblings and I did not have. Mine played out, and rode bikes on the road on their own, but a lot of their friends did not, and of course we lived an urban life. Even then rural children were less likely to be physically active than urban ones, and more likely to be driven everywhere. It's much more so now. My two granddaughters are in outer London, and are lucky enough (because their parents were committed to the idea) to live in a housing development where there are safe places for them to play more or less unsupervised.

I am likely to be forced to retire in three or four years' time. I don't want to. I want to work until I really need a rest, and/or until health problems force me to stop. But I work for an international institution that is not subject to EU law and has a fixed retirement age. This is pernicious, but is how it is.

The cancer I had a scare about a few months ago may become a reality: my French gastroenterologist has told me he thinks it will, in that cheery way they have, and if it does I may have five years maximum from that point. But if, as I think is more likely, it does not (oesophagus, since you ask, caused by smoking), I may have getting on for 40 more years to live. As I now have arthritis, kicked off by the accident I had last year (nobody knows why this happens, but it nearly always does), the quality of that life may deteriorate unpleasantly as time goes on - or I may have one joint replaced after another as technology improves, and still be riding my bike when I am 100.

Whatever happens, one lesson I have learned in recent years (I learned it from my daughter, but that is another story) is that if you are going to make a change in your life, make it when you choose to and when you can control the process - don't make it when you are in a cleft stick and have no other choice. This applies to the ending of a relationship or a marriage (and no one says "bravo" to  you about that one, no matter what the outcome or prior situation) and to moving house/changing the way you live. Move from a house with stairs to a flat on one level before you start falling down the stairs and breaking your hips. Move to within walking distance of shops and public transport before you are forced by health problems to stop driving. End a bad relationship before it damages you so much that you're no longer capable of positive action of any kind, and don't worry about "whose fault" it is that the relationship is bad. Become an accomplished online shopper and consumer of services before health problems make you housebound.

All this means that you will often be seen as doing things "too soon", or that those around you will be bemused as to why you are doing them at all. I am currently in the process of selling my home. Well, I think I am, but you know how these things are. I know that some around me think I am crazy for doing this. I intend, not to buy another place, but to rent, at least until I have the retirement plans I am being forced to make firmly in place. In any event the place I live in after this will be smaller than my current place, which is too big to live alone in. Why live with rooms you don't use but have to clean?

Alone. Yes. Significant other has departed. Not from me, but from Europe, to work in Cambodia for at least a year. This has been part of the inspiration for me to make these changes. But not the whole of it. It's time to do it. Live in a clean, clear, smaller space, and use the income I have to do things rather than to have things. As part of this I will be working 90% instead of full-time from 1st January, which will give me enough time (I'm using the pay cut to buy more holiday) to travel. First, of course, to Cambodia, where I have never been. I'll be there in January and will stay for six weeks. Part-time, but keeping up full pension contributions. I'm not THAT daft.

No one was ever on their deathbed saying they wished they'd spent more time scrubbing the skirting boards.

I'm 62 next birthday. It's time to live.   

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Stephen Kotkin, 'Stalin, Paradoxes of Power'

This is a splendid book. Apparently it is the first of a trilogy, and I for one am eagerly anticipating the next one. Highly readable, and brings out the humanity of Iosip Vissarionovich Jugashvili, though it is far from an apology for Stalinism. (I shudder when I think of the apologist for Stalinism I was at times in my youth, but we learn). He has excellent contemporary sources, available of course only some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia's first genuine universal suffrage election took place in November 1917. Lenin had been "against the whole notion of elections ", but changed position at this time. The country voted Socialist. The Constituent Assembly thus elected met for one day. Then the Bolshevik members walked out. The next day, when delegates arrived to resume the session, armed guards refused them entry. Trotsky wrote of the Constituent Assembly just before this "We are not about to share power with anyone". Lenin then named the Petrograd Soviet "a higher form of democracy", and later all mention of the Constituent Assembly was erased from Soviet sources. I didn't know any of this, or I have not retained it from what I read in earlier years, and I should have, because I purported to study Soviet history at one time. But I actually think the Soviet history I was taught at university never told us that. Those were different times, and this is a major contribution to the history of the early 20th century.

There are splendid small reminders in this book that also help us to understand the politics of today, such as "Poland did not exist between 1795 and 1918" *ducks for cover*. And not least that Lenin's cook was Vladimir Putin's grandfather! Imagine, as I do, the infant Vladimir hearing at his grandfather's knee tales of the Lenin kitchen!

It seems that Kotkin has understood, as most other historians do not seem to have, perhaps because they are usually not politicians, why Stalin became the ultimately unchallenged leader he did, when he was not the most intelligent, nor the most erudite, nor even the most politically committed or passionate, of the candidates for that role in the burgeoning Soviet Union. When the gamble [of forced collectivisation of the countryside, about which the late Robert Conquest wrote magnificently in Harvest of Sorrow, please read it] met mass resistance and unfathomable ruin, Stalin saw it through to completion". Those are the politicans we remember. The ones who do it ALL.

Kotkin tells us that Lenin's 'Testament', which appeared not to endorse Stalin as Lenin's successor, was used against Stalin, as you might expect it to be. So Stalin picked up his enemies' strength and used it against them, word by word, line by line. And won. This is the counter-intuitive aspect of political life - use your enemies' strength against them. Drew Westen has written an impressive book about just this, called 'The Political Brain'.

Kotkin refers to Soviet foreign policy in the 1920s as "pretzel logic" - both participating in and working to overthrow the capitalist world order. Some might call this running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, and that is a recipe for downfall, though it usually takes a long time. "Pretzel logic" is an expression I first came across in the 1970s when it was the title of a splendid album by Steely Dan, the thinking rockers. But I didn't know what it meant then, and I don't think most people who bought the record did.

Still and all. In 1927, it was said by those who liked to coin such phrases "Moses took the Jews out of Egypt, and Stalin took them out of the Central Committee."

The first official (ie Soviet) biography of Stalin was published in 1927. It was 14 pages long.