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Dubious in Dubai March 18, 2013

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
16 comments
1909 Stag at Sharkey's oil on canvas 92.1 x 122.6 cm

An early Bellows’ work of an illegal NYC boxing bout

Before I get into my brief, gob-smacking trip to Dubai, there’s some unfinished business following the catalogue of cultural recommendations which I unilaterally chose to excrete into the ether last week. Misgivings abound about this, but is it any worse than zillions of my peers’ FarceBerk postings concerning the cute antics of kittens, kids and inebriated colleagues ? Erm, probably.

Anyroad up, there was no room to mention a few exhibitions that have thrilled and delighted recently, and even if you live miles away and/or are ambivalent about art, if you go to only one show this year, make it George Bellows at the Royal Academy. Hitherto unknown to me, in his short life Bellows produced a vast body of work in ever-changing styles (think Lowry, Hopper, Rocker, Nicholson etc) including visceral depictions of illegal boxing bouts in his native turn of the century New York to seascapes to rather formal society portraits but with twists that mirrored his hero Manet at that painter’s maverick best. It’s only a small exhibition in the Sackler Wing but there are some hugely moving works there, including some WW1 reflections that are equaled only by Picasso’s Guernica in their stark, powerful anger.

And talking of Manet, the RA currently has a bigger exhibition of his work, although the numerous deliberately unfinished paintings rather reduced my admiration for him even though his observational eye and subtle use of colour cannot be undervalued. And talking of Picasso, there’s another smallish show of his early work at the Courtauld Gallery which of you’re a Picasso completest (which I am) shouldn’t be missed. Finally in more modern vein the Light Show at the Hayward is worth seeing if only for Anthony McCall’s misty, atmospheric projections and a few pieces by Dan Flavin (who had a literally dazzling solus show there in 2006).  I haven’t yet seen the Lichtenstein at Tate Modern but as someone who sparked my enthusiasm for modern art back in the ‘60s, I’m slavering in anticipation.

And as a postscript to my list of recently consumed literature, I forgot to mention Susie Boyt’s compelling, beautifully wrought new-ish novel, The Small Hours about a plucky, if troubled idealist who in setting up a private school is obliged to confront many of her personal demons.

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Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower – the world’s tallest, obviously

Now Dubai. I’ve been telling everyone that this obscenely rich Emerati state evoked for me the Blade Runner cityscape, but transposed to the desert. The place is awash with skyscrapers, many of which line six lane highways behind which there’s little but desert scrub. Weird. However from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, even these towering edifices look like bungalows. Unfettered by planning requirements, although some of the architecture is aesthetically questionable, some of it is breathtakingly impressive, especially the buildings incongruously lining the Dubai Creek where traditional dhows load cargoes traded along the Gulf and beyond.

And just in front of the Khalifa there was a huge display of classic cars, all restored within an inch of their lives – mainly big fuck-off Bentleys, Caddies and of course the obligatory Ferraris – because thanks to the talented artisans who’ve emigrated from India and further east, Dubai is a centre for cheap, high-quality restoration work.

This of course raises the ugly issue of immigrant labour without which Dubai couldn’t exist. Living in cramped and inhospitable dormitory suburbs, legions of building and menial service workers spend 50 weeks of their year creating the superstructures and maintaining the lifestyles of the copious ex-pats (some 80% of the 2million population) who’ve made their homes there due to the lack of income tax and a shamelessly retail-driven culture.

Visiting the (in)famous ‘Palm Jumeirah’ estate artificially stretching out into the Gulf felt rather like being in The Truman Show, and then rising surreally out of the shimmering desert, there’s the world’s largest shopping mall, and its largest indoor ski slope… All this said, Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is an apparently canny fellow who seeks to undermine any risk of Islamic (or other) revolution by ensuring all his native subjects are well looked after and regularly turns up unannounced, often driving his own Mercedes G-Wagen, to cultural and other events, such as the poetry evening I attended in a desert encampment where he stayed for a good, er, 20 minutes.

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And the view from the Burj Khalifa

I gather that the Sheik and his family, a/k/a ‘the government’, are tolerant of the many Taliban big-wigs, international criminals and other despots who’ve put their money into Dubai just as long as they cause no trouble or incur debt, in which case they’re out on their ears. Another consequence of his financial strictures was the horde of expensive cars left at the airport, gloveboxes full of maxed-out credit cards, after 2008’s financial crash when their suddenly debt-ridden owners had to flee. And the cars, now covered in sand, are still there…

I spent my final evening with a lively group of young lawyers, digital entrepreneurs  and media-types from China, the Antipodes and Europe who’d made the place their home and who provided sharp insights into Dubai’s still escalating prosperity despite  its lack of oil: it’s become the financial hub of the Arab world, even more so now its troubled neighbours needs somewhere secure to store their capital. But not one of them expected to live there beyond a few more years, and hot, hospitable and intriguingly bizarre though it was, I doubt I could’ve stayed there even a few more weeks.

One final, bleakly instructive thought on where we’re heading economically is prompted by this link (for which I must thank Dick Pountain). How sustainable, I wonder, is a world where such financial inequality continues to exist and indeed, grows?

http://youtu.be/QPKKQnijnsM

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Like Life, Only Better March 10, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, That's Entertainment.
21 comments

One of the (many) criticisms made of this blog is that it’s almost unremittingly doom-laden. To which I’d say, ‘Guilty as charged’. But as one gets older and from a growing catalogue of experience forms a world view, unless you enjoy great wealth and the insulation from reality it can afford, such pessimism is hard to avoid. Being a life-long, card-carrying hack, this augurs an almost feral need to communicate which ignores such constraints as readers’ sensitivities or sympathies, constraints which the nature of the blogosphere, e.g. no editors, no rules, no overriding context, further renders irrelevant.

But it’s not all gloom and dismay out there and as noted at the end of my last bilious outing, I also sometimes arrogantly feel moved to share some of the good stuff that I’ve enjoyed recently, which invariably means kulcher. So…

Thanks to my current day job, I can recommend some cracking films just about to come out, the best being Steven ‘I’m Giving Up Making Movies to Become a Painter’ Soderbergh’s Side Effects. I’m a huge fan of Soderbergh who’s gleefully defied categorisation with films as diverse as crime capers Ocean’s 11, 12 & 13, disease thriller Contagion, his better-than-the-original re-make of Solaris and even that low-key titillation, The Girlfriend Experience. Although revisiting the corporate malfeasance he reflected in The Informant!, just when you think Side Effects is a worthy treatise on the nastiness of Big Pharma, it suddenly goes somewhere else altogether.  And as a trio of characters in a battle of psychologically troubled wills, Jude Law, having recently snoozed his way through Anna Karenina, Dragon Tattoo’s chameleon-like Rooney Mara and much to my amazement, Catherine Zeta-Jones, have never been better.

Theatre director Rufus Norris’s movie debut Broken also ends up being more than the sum of its narrative twists and turns, namely a meditation on the moral state of the nation, (spoiler alert: it’s not looking good). Deploying his native English accent for the first time in ages Tim Roth plays a well-meaning if slightly vapid father of an adolescent daughter who circumstance obliges to grow up fast. She’s played with great spirit and credibility by newcomer Eloise Laurence and although violent, bleak and prone to arguably gratuitous flashbacks, Broken is well worth the ticket price.

Music video director Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch finds James McAvoy playing a bitter cop out to avenge the crook who nearly killed him during a mega-bank heist (the reliably intimidating slap-head, Mark Strong). Structurally it’s kinda Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels for the internet generation, but despite a low-ish budget, its noir-ish view of a soulless London and excellent turns from all concerned including Andrea Risborough as McAvoy’s professional foil elevate it into something rather superior.

McAvoy’s been a busy boy lately and will shortly turn up as Bruce Robertson, a decidedly amoral detective in Filth, co-written by another newish director, Jon S. Baird from Irvine Welsh’s eponymous novel. Set like Welsh’s Trainspotting in Glasgow and occasionally saddled with the same incomprehensible dialect – bring on the subtitles, please – Robertson is trying to win back a wife understandably estranged by his wilful, often comically OTT misbehavior.

Even more entertaining, uplifting even for men of a certain age (guess who?), is Good Vibrations, a rousing biog of Terri Hooley, the god-father of Northern Ireland’s punk rock scene. I was barely aware such a thing existed, but Hooley’s transformation from hippie-ish record-shop owner to politically savvy pogo evangelist is most affecting, ending with him leading a raucously improbable version of Sony Bono’s Laugh At Me to a huge, ecstatic Belfast audience. Richard Dormer as Hooley and Jodie Whittaker as his more grounded wife are both fab.

But sadly, man cannot live by celluloid images alone, although David Thompson’s masterful The Big Screen is the best book on their development and social influence yet. And here’s a few more tomes I’ve recently read and can recommend especially if, like me, you managed no more than 0-level English. Very different from Whoops!, his razor sharp critique of cowboy capitalism, John Lanchester’s novel Capital cunningly interweaves the disparate, often deeply unattractive inhabitants of a gentrified London street who’re confronted by a malign trespasser. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on t’other hand is a more straightforward thriller but written in an odd style that quickly turns compelling as the mystery unfolds. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshid Hamid is a thoughtful, cleverly wrought novella whose title says it all, with a pitiless final twist.  Somewhat inevitably I’ll finish with Deborah Moggach’s latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel, which following her movie-inspiring Best Exotic Marigold Ditto gives further hope and hilarity to those of us awash with middle-aged testiness and torpor.

Turning novels into scripts of course courts peril, but having enjoyed Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time I was, ahem, curious to see how it might pan out as a play and given Luke Treadaway’s astonishing performance as the OCD-ridden Christopher Boone, Simon Stevens’ adaptation is just great. Having transferred the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, its stunningly-staged production is now at the Apollo. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that all my other puffs are for National Theatre enterprises, too, although the most extraordinary – and I use the word advisedly – is a walk-around piece performed in the basement warren of Somerset House. In The Beginning Was The End is a witty, engaging and often disturbing examination of corporate and technological dystopia which obviously appealed hugely to this writer.

Also at the NT is Port, a narratively astute celebration of the human spirit, again by Simon Stevens, played across 13 years in a Stockport sink estate with some brilliant performances and a breathtaking stage design. Finally at the Southbank there’s Frances de la Tour’s, ahem, tour de force as the droll, obstinate owner of a crumbling country pile in People. Another magnificent Lyttleton staging, and although some critics disparaged Alan Bennett’s script even my film-fixated sister thought it highly entertaining, infused as it is with his usual subtle poignancy.

But that’s enough niceness for now – next week we’ll be back to grumbling normality with… Dubai!

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The Rise (& Fall) of the Machines March 1, 2013

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics, Uncategorized.
21 comments

Making my journey back home to Wales last Friday, because I didn’t have time to explore the rich culinary paradise that is Praed Street, I found myself buying a sandwich in Sainsbury’s Paddington store. Like its competitors and indeed WH Smith’s cheerless outlet at the same station, Sainsbury’s have replaced most of its human cashiers with automatic scan’n’pay machines. Having a train to catch in ten minutes, I nevertheless ignored the two staffers who urged me to use these machines instead of the lone person manning an old fashioned till, because I prefer to deal with humans wherever possible, and also on the possibly misplaced moral grounds that machines like these deny jobs to people who need them. Indeed it was instructive that it required two people to shepherd customers through the vexatious, time-consuming process of using the computerised facilities, although my principled stance meant waiting ages for a woman who’d apparently done her weekly shop to depart the sole humanly-helmed check-out.

So long, in fact, that I had to leave my sandwich in the rack of chocs and crisps in the checkout area and bugger off to catch my train muttering to myself that had all those three staff been working the tills, I might’ve not ended up lunchless. But I doubt Sainsbury’s management would give a toss as they’re obviously in the thrall of expensive technology that dispenses with troublesome human beings even if the customers might not like it. And as they’re in fact deliberately trying to limit or replace staff with machines, it also renders hollow the supermarkets’ claims about job creation when they’re bribing local councils to allow planning permission for new stores. And then…

My journey home involves changing trains at Newport from the amusingly named Inter-City 125 to a usually cramped, draughty bus-on-rails through some stunning Welsh countryside and last Friday, for reasons involving dentistry, I had to break my journey at Hereford whose gaunt, freezing station I later returned to only to learn that a freight train had broken down outside Abergavenny, thus for an indeterminate period blocking anything else from chuffing north. The dread phrase ‘replacement buses’ had been invoked but the admittedly helpful station staff knew not how long they’d be and having to run the local film society box office that night I couldn’t wait indefinitely: long story short, after 90 mins shivering wait I paid £30 to get to my car parked at the next station, but not before one of said staff admitted that broken down freight trains “are a regular bloody problem.”

A little light internet research, albeit involving many incomprehensible trainspotters’ bulletin boards, revealed that the goods train in question was pulled by a Type 47 diesel owned, like most of the UK’s rail freight business, by the German company, Schenker. The Type 47s were built in the 1960s and designed to last perhaps 30-35 years, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that they keep breaking down. But like America’s Northwest Airlines who, until they started falling out of the sky, continued flying a fleet of creaky old Boeing 727s produced in that same era in the belief that it was cheaper to endure escalating maintenance costs rather than buy newer ‘planes, no one at Schenker seems to’ve done a cost/benefit analysis of that. (Aviva Trains Wales, from whom I’m demanding a refund and taxi fare, probably wished they had). And of course if and when the penny finally drops, Schenker will probably buy replacement engines from a German company, not least because by then our last remaining (Canadian-owned) train builder will have gone bust.

These two admittedly unrelated events happened the same week that we learnt that lack of investment over the past 15 years means that our power stations, one of which the Schenker train was delivering coal to, must be de-commissioned well before enough coal-, gas- or nuclear-powered replacements have been built and the regulator, PowerGen, warned that prolonged black-outs can soon be expected.  And then…

I recently took a friend to see Rust & Bone at Belsize Park’s Everyman Cinema, one of a small chain that charges 50% more than the average flea-pit for the luxury of having over-priced drinks brought to your comfy sofa seats by girls called Clarissa. Having already seen the film in the course of my day job, I was surprised, then annoyed to find that the aspect ratio was all wrong and part of the image area was obscured by the curtains which evidently the projectionist hadn’t noticed. After complaining to the callow youth who purported to be the manager, I was told that (of course) there wasn’t a projectionist because the Everymans only use digital projectors and no-one there could do anything about it. And a phone call to an absent ‘technician’ at head-office yielded no remedy, either. So we walked out. (An angrier, more informed treatise on the death of the projectionist in the name of cost-cutting can be read in Mark Kermode’s excellent book, ‘The Good, The Bad… and The Multiplex’). I was going to cunningly use this cinematic debacle to segue into some movie and other cultural recommendations, but as I fear it might unduly test your patience, I’ll leave that ‘til next week .

Instead I’ll conclude from these recent misfortunes that cost/benefit analyses aside, our captains of industry and politicians can’t grasp that by putting people out of work – skilled or otherwise – who are not able to find jobs in the thrusting new industries we were told would be our economic salvation, they are de facto reducing the nation’s ability to well, buy stuff. And since buying stuff is supposed to be what it’s all about, then where does that leave us?

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