Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lord of the Lies

We were walking in the street the other day when we saw a bunch of gendarmes arresting a kid. When I say “bunch”, I mean there were even more of them than the usual phalanx: roughly six or seven cops and one docile teenager, handcuffed behind his back. As we watched this rather one-sided encounter – which looked a bit like Manchester United versus the Dagenham Girl Pipers at Old Trafford with Howard Webb refereeing - up screeched a van-load of reinforcements. As the spectators on the pavement gave ironic cheers and someone suggested they send for the US Cavalry, one of the cops broke away from the crime scene and ran over to confront us, shouting, “We’re not cowboys!” and miming the drawing of a pistol. I took it to mean that he thought overwhelming numerical superiority was better than shooting first and asking questions afterwards.
Then last night I saw Lord Blair of Boughton on TV, labelled as "Consultant on Strategic Policing". Wasn’t he the Prime Minister who said he had been advised by the Lord Chancellor that he could legally start a war? No, that was another Blair – he hasn’t been ennobled just yet. This was the police commissioner in charge when that guy was shot by Met police on the Underground. OK, you mean the Blair who said that de Menezes had been warned before he was shot?
Perhaps the gendarme got it right after all.

Ricky Swannell has trouble with her vowels. She’s the woman who reports on the Australian Open Tennis every morning from “Milbourne”: “Fidera wan the furst sit sucks throy…”. She has no problem with the “the”.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Côte de Blues

Lest I ever give the impression that Nice is a city of perpetual sunshine, let me come clean and show our street a couple of weeks ago. (If you never see my blog again it will mean that the Tourism Police have figured out where I am and zapped my PC.) Today, I hasten to add, it’s not like that: we will soon take our walk along the Promenade des Anglais in our shirtsleeves and find a sunny terrace on which to have lunch. (I think that’s what they told me to say.)

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but, disregarding the occasional blizzard, Nice is nice. It is the birthplace and capital city of the French Riviera. For a few centuries BC it was a trading centre for Phoenician merchantmen, who called it Nikaïa, after the Greek god of victory. When the Romans crossed the Alps in the first century BC, they established a hilltop city here whose ruins can still be seen in what is now the elegant residential suburb of Cimiez. The streets of Roman Cimiez still bear the traces of chariot wheels, but they have hip names (is hip still hip?), like Duke Ellington Alley, Dizzy Gillespie Way and Miles Davis Street – for today it is the home of the Nice Jazz Festival.
Matisse lived next door, and I used to wonder if he moved away for those ten torrid days in July.

France’s – and the Riviera’s - love affair with jazz is as old as jazz itself. While paddle steamers were carrying the new music up the Mississippi to the great eastern cities, GIs on their belated way to World War I carried in their knapsacks the first scratchy products of the burgeoning recording industry. New French words were coined or adopted - "rag-time" became "le temps de chiffon", and swinguer and le big band entered French dictionaries.

I wasn’t there at the time - I’m a relative rookie who’s been attending the Nice Jazz Festival for a mere 29 years. These days we sometimes walk up to Cimiez: the DG likes its fin de siècle architecture but not its exclusivity. But as we pass the Roman ruins I swear I hear music coming from the ancient stones: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Charlie Mingus, Kenton…. Those were the days before Artistes’ Villages and neanderthal security guards: then, the musicians used to eat with the fans. My kids and I would sit and chat with the likes of Michel Petrucciani and Lionel Hampton. Now they and Satchmo are just statues; the rest are street names.

Divided loyalties: Everton played West Ham yesterday, the beleaguered team at the bottom of the table and in need of the points, and supported by one of our dearest friends. Whom do you support, knowing he was going all the way to Liverpool to support them? “Let the better team win”, I prayed, “so long as it’s not the Hammers”. God in his wisdom gave the right result – two-all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

In for a Penny

He was born in Hailey, Idaho in 1885 and raised in Philadelphia. He moved to London in 1908, aged 23, where he lived for sixteen years, and in 1924, he and his English painter wife, Dorothy, moved to Rapallo, on the Italian Riviera.

He was Ezra Loomis Pound, a leading figure in the modernist literature movement, who edited and promoted the work of many of his contemporaries: W.B.Yeats, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot… His astute but ruthless editing - and enthusiastic patronage - were key to the success of Eliot’s The Wasteland. In beautiful Rapallo, writing and producing plays and concerts, he became a much-loved but slightly nutty local character, even as an enemy alien during the Second Word War.

On May 3, 1945, two days before the end of the war in Europe, he was visited by two armed local ex-partisans, who, saying that the Americans had offered a reward of half a million lire for his capture, arrested him. On May 24, two weeks after Germany had surrendered unconditionally, Pound was taken, under heavy military police guard and handcuffed to a burly military policeman, to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Centre near the village of Metato, a few miles north of Pisa. The word “Training” in its title is a euphemism: the DTC was a punishment camp. Ezra Pound had had no trial, he had been given access to a lawyer, but the lawyer failed to mention that he was working for the US Army. The instructions from Washington were concise: “Afford no preferential treatment” – and they were carried out to the letter. Pound’s “cell” was one of those reserved for the most dangerous criminals or those under sentence of death by execution. It was a six-feet-by-six wire cage with a concrete floor, open to the elements on all sides - an early rehearsal for Guantanamo Bay. He was the only civilian out of almost 4,000 military prisoners; he had no bed and was allowed no exercise or verbal communication; he was fully exposed to the Tuscan sun by day, and by night watched under floodlights.

Pound’s crime was that he had criticised his own government: not only that, but he had done so on Italian State Radio. The content of his talks, which were monitored by the FBI, was both anti-war and anti-Semitic, and the fact that he had agreed to talk solely on condition that each broadcast would be preceded by a statement that he would not say anything “contrary to his own conscience or his duties as an American citizen” was not taken in mitigation.

After more than two weeks under these harsh conditions, he finally cracked: “the raft broke and the waters came over me”, as he later wrote. He was taken to Washington to be tried for treason, the penalty for which was execution. Pound’s breakdown was probably a blessing, because psychiatrists decided he was mentally unfit to stand trial and he was transferred to a medical compound and given a bed, table and writing materials, and allowed exercise. Five months later, before being committed to a Washington insane asylum, he was allowed a visit from his wife and daughter. He languished there for the next twelve years, during which time he completed his famous Pisan Cantos.

He was released in 1958, following a vigorous campaign by his fellow-writers, including Eliot and Hemingway – who, in accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature, asked why Pound was still a prisoner. Pound returned to his beloved Rapallo, and later to Venice, where he died in 1972.

You might say that for speaking on a Fascist radio station, he should have been executed for treason. William (Lord Haw Haw) Joyce was. But try replacing Pound’s name with that of Gary McKinnon, the Asberger’s sufferer who hacked into the Pentagon computers from his bedroom just to see if he could; or that of Julian Assange, an Australian internet activist who thought Governments were too secretive. They and their ilk now face the self-righteous wrath of the land of the Free, but for what - eccentricity? During the same war, P. G. Wodehouse went to Berlin several times to speak on Fascist radio. He was knighted by the Queen.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Happy Return

Taxing times: 15.23 GMT today, to be precise. That’s when Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes acknowledged receipt of my Tax Return. I can now direct my creative talents elsewhere. So – good news – I won’t be spending my birthday in the Tower. Not only that, but he has promised me a substantial refund. Good news? Well, partly –because the HMIT, being more optimistic about my earning power than I was, had taxed me accordingly - in advance of course. In other words, he will be refunding a minuscule proportion of my own money. But at least the nightmare is all over until next January – made slightly more nightmarish than usual because my least favourite financial software vendor, Quicken, pulled the plug on my accounting package, and, since Microsoft already pulled the plug on theirs last year, I had to learn another one. So welcome to Bank Tree – a quarter the price of Quicken and much nicer people.

Now the bad news: according to the BBC, Everton’s Steven Pienaar is to join Tottenham for a fee of about £2.5m. Sorry, how much was that? “He's certainly not dear is he?" said Harry. I know Harry’s a pretty slick deal-maker, and I know midfielders come cheaper than strikers, even those who don’t strike very often and have earlier use-by dates, but 2.5million… Makes you wonder what ‘arry would have paid for Darren Bent – certainly not ten times that, as the former French teacher at my old school just did. But, like the HMIT and Bank Tree, much nicer people.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Umpire Strikes Back

Liverpool lost their match against Manchester United last week. They were the worse team, agreed, but they should not have lost the match. They lost it through a dubious penalty awarded to the home team (the referee having been the only spectator bamboozled by an obvious Berbatov dive), and the fact that Liverpool had only had ten men for most of the game. The referee who awarded the dubious penalty and reduced Liverpool to ten men, causing their captain to be suspended for the next three games, was the man who refereed the World Cup Final, Howard Webb.
Nothing new there: Rule 20.5 in the referees’ handbook decrees that bigger teams must get more penalties than smaller teams, especially on their home grounds. (Liverpool have “won” more penalties that any other Premiership team: Everton have been awarded one penalty against Liverpool in the last 73 years. Wolves haven’t had a single one this season.) Liverpool drew 2-all at home to Everton yesterday - one of their goals was a penalty.
We know that Captain Webb is way down the list of a pretty dire bunch, but right now, let’s not get into whether he was justified – except that his body language at the time indicated what politicians call a “U-turn”. Let’s not even get into whether a referee who, simply because he was a native of a neutral country, once refereed a World Cup Final - handing out a record 14 yellow cards in the process - should suddenly become all-seeing if not saintly. Surely a medal from the Queen would suffice?
No, this is about a Liverpool player called Ryan Babel, who saw a Photoshop mock-up of aforementioned Webb wearing a Manchester United shirt, thought it funny, and tweeted it. He has been subjected to the full venom of blazerdom and will be summoned to Lancaster Gate, placed in stocks in Hyde Park and pelted with fruit by buffoons called Platter or Blatini. The club has yet to decide his punishment – they are waiting for the Blazers to tell them what it is.
This just in: Babel was fined £10,000 today. Blazers do not do humour.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Too many cooks...

The two-year blog sabbatical has passed: as, we hope, has the English winter – and so, I guess, have the loyal readers. I was tempted to post today on England’s decisive cricket victory, but everyone else is posting it, so I’ll just note a coincidence: my last post before the hiatus was about cricket and Alistair Cooke. So is this: in the final game of the recent Test Cricket series, the man of the match - and of the whole series - was Alistair Cook.

No turgid history of the last two years’ events, I promise – they were a great couple of years, but recounting them would resemble a Windows update: shut down when finished if not before. Briefly then, did some writing – articles, Memoir of my first 25 years, and Foreword to a new edition of Tobias Smollett’s (1766) Travels in France and Italy. Moved house to downtown Nice, (more about Nice later)had a stroke but recovered – thanks to TLC by the DG. We don’t have a panoramic sea view any more, but one more conducive to writing – a library. And started another book, this time Florence and Tuscany: A Literary Guide for Travellers – hence the photo of the Arno.
About to start the most creatively challenging activity of them all: the Tax Return, which has to be submitted by end January.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It's not Cricket

Bleary-eyed again this morning, but happy - my two bottles of Meursault are safe. The Sydney Telegraph front page of a couple of weeks ago carried a full page headline across a picture of Peter Siddle, the Aussie fast bowler, which read, in huge caps: “OUR POM DISPOSAL EXPERT”.

I love it when they do that – it seems to bring out the normally dormant jolly-old English fighting spirit. What does Henry V say? “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility – but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger…” Another Oz journo gem was the “controversial no-ball” that kept Cook in the game. Why “controversial” when 50 million people around the world saw Beer bowl a no-ball – replayed many times over? The same 50 million, plus 40,000 at the SCG, saw that ball hit the ground on its way to Hughes which he tried to claim as a catch. Alistair looked at him disdainfully but didn't move. When it was replayed on the big screen, 10,000 cheered - the Barmy Army. 30,000 were in silent contrition.
Siddle’s contribution: 1 wicket for 98 runs; runs scored: O
Cook's contribution; runs scored: 189.
Hope we finish it off tonight – I can’t stay awake much longer.
Once more unto the breach, once more...

Monday, January 03, 2011

Nice is nice

This is where we used to live - Villefranche-sur-Mer, but we don't live there any more. We decided we would like to try some city living.
Forgive the baggy eyes, but play starts in Sydney each morning at 11.30 am in the England v. Oz “Ashes” series, which is 11.30pm at night here – and I have wagered two bottles of Meursault on the result. (By an amazing coincidence, cricket and Alistair Cooke were the topics subjects of the previous post, two years ago – and England’s leading batsman in the present series is called Alistair Cook - strange?)
We now live five miles eastwards
along the coast, which is nice.
Every good wish for 2011.