Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s Foreplay

The Theatre Royal, Stratford East is a theatre not far from home which regularly punches above its weight. ‘Township Tarantino’ Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom‘s collaborative work Township Stories was a punch like that, so when Matt told me that Stratford was getting another of his productions, performed by the South African State Theatre, we decided to go and see it.

Foreplay is a scene by scene adaptation of Schnitzler’s fin-de-siecle play Reigen better known by its French title, La Ronde (tangent – when it was condemned in Vienna as obscene, causing vandalism of shops which stocked the script, Schnitzler was branded not simply “pornographer” but “Jewish pornographer”).

Matt booked for five of us at £5 each but we didn’t know where we were sitting. I wondered whether I was going to be showered in bodily fluids. As it turned out, we were in the front row, me in the middle, and head to head, face to face, with acts of rape, copulation and love-making. I’m not prim (well, not at weekends) – I am, however, overcome by violence, so it was lucky that what we thought was a programme turned out to be a script which I peered at during the sickening parts, instead of the stage.

The production was very good and the cast enormously talented as actors and dancers. There were maybe 10 scenes of dialogue (the production departed a little from the script) with continuity offered by a series of sexual encounters where each character has sex, in adjacent scenes, with two others.

Foreplay is an essay on sex in Pretoria townships. There are chinks through which comment on South Africa is dangled – but just chinks. It’s mostly sex and sexual relations in the townships.

Also carried from scene to scene is HIV, taking form as pink bubblegum and later (incongruously) balloons, which I hope didn’t pun on full-blown aids. Condoms are also like balloons; condoms were entirely absent from this play and this absence, along with the gum, was the masterfully communicative, wordless reference to HIV. By the end of the play, the entire cast of characters is infected, and the instances of mutual love-making no less than the abusive or exploitative sex. HIV, like sex itself, is a great leveller of social groups. La Ronde had a message about class and about pleasure in repressed times – Foreplay communicated to me that HIV and exploitation corrupt sex; sex itself is not corrupting.

The corruption resides in the male characters:

The hypocrite preacher:

“…inappropriate physical involvement outside marriage… People call it moral failure and in turn demand that those preachers step down from moral leadership… but I call it proof of pastoral humaness.”

The self-righteous politician, before anally raping the prostitute as punishment and after killing her Nigerian pimp:

“…because you’re a woman and also – maybe – because you are a citizen of this country, I am willing to look at your transgression as ignorance merely… Because, that’s what you are… like many other women in this country, ignorant… nothing but ignorant… Maybe you don’t understand how important I am… maybe you’re just incapable of understanding that fact… Understanding what my mandate is! Huh?… My mandate is to lead you, you ignorant bitch!!… Do you understand that!?… To LEAD YOU!!… Who will lead you when you bring people like me down?… Huh?… Who will lead you?… … You’re just a capitalist bitch… who sees even her own cunt as a capitalist tool.

Those who are not hypocrites are deep cynics with a little sadistic gratification thrown in: the playwright who instrumentalises personal tragedy; the spoilt young man.

At the beginning, the prostitute makes contemptuous observations about men:

“…they wonder why women, all over, even those who are not prostitutes, end up using their cunts as a bargaining chip… as a weapon”.

The subsequent scenes prove her cynical. The women of this play are worked on to give sex freely to men of whom they are wary but to whom they are attracted, or they sell, or are seduced, or raped. With the exception of the prostitute, any bargaining they do is concerned with affection; there is no empowerment (except perhaps the preacher’s wife, an older, affluent woman). The men are detached after sex. This is a play about women being exploited, men exploiting women, and the spread of HIV.

I don’t know La Ronde, but Grootboom makes a number of references (self-conscious references?) to artists’ instrumentalisation of bad sex. There is a curious scene where nobody has sex with anybody but the tutor-playwright character gratifies himself by pressuring the schoolgirl to divulge her personal tragedy:

“You’re not going to become an actor if you’re not honest…you see, if a part demands you to be a bitch, you have to realise what a slut you are to play it… as an actress you have to recognise what you do or how you once felt like that and use it”

The Stratford East theatre has the kind of bar where you can bump into the cast after the production. Matt found out that we were a good audience – responsive, and we laugh in the right places. Did I mention that it was also a funny play?

The reviews I’ve found are too cursory to bother linking to. Not sure why – this is a very powerful play. Anybody read French?

Catch the London production until Saturday 13th June.

Religion, intellectuals, transcendence, Auschwitz

I’m atheist.

In the benign secular society I inhabit now this outlook is no impediment, as Jesus and Mo summarise nicely:

2009-05-12

As well as being atheist, I’m also progressive. In the malign circumstances which overtook Jean Amery, my kind of outlook left a void which leached away ones life force.

“He survived—somehow. Unlike his fellow Auschwitz inmate Viktor E. Frankl, Améry refused to derive theory from his survival. Many years later he agreed that the “religiously or politically committed” (Orthodox Jews, orthodox Marxists) had a better chance of surviving, or at least of dying with more dignity. They were able to look beyond the basic reality of Auschwitz. For them the horrors were weakened by being reinterpreted as a renewal of creation when evil was released into the world or as natural political martyrdom. They had, in other words, a mode of transcendence that was anchored to a reality that the Nazis could not reach, because it existed in faith. “[W]hoever is, in the broadest sense, a believing person, whether his belief be metaphysical or bound to concrete reality, transcends himself,” Améry says. “He is not the captive of his individuality; rather he is part of a spiritual continuity that is interrupted nowhere, not even in Auschwitz.” But Améry was an unbeliever from first to last. He had nothing but himself to fall back upon. He was an intellectual, but confronted by a reality that could not be interpreted as anything other than horror, he found that intellect had lost its fundamental quality of transcendence. There was no other reality to which a mere intellectual could appeal. The claim of Auschwitz was total.”

You can’t choose faith – faith chooses you. But you can work on society.

UCU Congress delirium

David Hirsh has live-blogged discussion and voting on the international business of UCU Congress 2009.

Aung San Suu Kyi? You must be joking. Israel and the Socialist Worker Party’s cherished boycott. There were 4 late motions, which breezed through undiscussed and unopposed in a derisory 10 minutes.

The Israel business took well over an hour.

Consider for a moment everything that is going on in the world, and then think about how shocking and dysfunctional that is.

The Union’s own legal advisors ruled motions on Israel which campaigned for boycott discriminatory and ultra vires. Two other legal teams working for anti-boycott groups confirmed this. The majority of the membership is against a boycott, no branch has ever managed to carry a boycott motion, and yet the SWP persists (read Jon Pike’s periodical updates on Engage for this). A group of members threatened litigation. These threats sent the SWP into a frenzy of defiance against groups they identified as Zionist, and now they will, they will, have their way and to hell with democracy and governance, obliging the union President to tag on ridiculous additions like this to the motion 28 in the agenda:

“The union received advice from Leading Counsel that to pass this motion would be unlawful because it is likely to be viewed by a court as a call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The union has previously followed advice from Leading Counsel that such a call would be outside the powers of the union to make. If the motion is amended to remove the affirmation of support for the Palestine call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign, Leading Counsel has advised the union may lawfully pass this motion. If the motion is passed in its unamended form the President has been advised that she will have to treat it as being void and of no effect.”

When that was mentioned, there was a point of order which went something like:

“If this motion if passed is void – what is the point of continuing?  do we debate it or not?  we need some guidance.  it is avalid point of order to know what we’re doing with it and what will happen to it.

Sally Hunt [UCU President]:  If it is passed amended we will be able to act on it.  if unamended we will not be able to act on it.”

Then it gets difficult to tell what happened, because the records and agenda don’t show which amendment got voted for (there were several). I guess they decided to test the law. But what does this mean? The union leadership won’t allow them to test the law – what they’ll end up doing is boycotting as individuals, in which case the union won’t be liable. I can’t really claim to understand. And the reason I don’t understand is that this isn’t pro-Palestinian activism, it’s a bunch of people masturbating each other.

I think boycotters in my union are in the grip of a collective delusion. They seem to be in a bubble where they confirm and reassure each other. This is what the SWP is famous for, hollowing out the organisations they colonise. They’re well on the way with UCU. Engagement is terrible unless there’s a pay and conditions crisis on.

I reproduce some of the most illustrative parts of David Hirsh’s write-up, and be aware that the quotes are from his transcript, which he notes is rough.

Governance

Jon Pike (important anti-boycotter and campaigner for both Palestinian and our own academic freedom):

“I would like to take this proposal to the membership of the union.

we have been refused the ability to have a ballot.

This is because the membership of this union strongly oppose an academic boycott of israel.

all the votes in branches have indicated 80 or 90 percent of members oppose this call.

Find out.  have a full ballot of the members of the union.”

Somebody who shouldn’t be representing members:

“We cannot rely on votes.  Lets not make this a bureaucratic procedure.

What we have seen is a fundamental abuse of human rights.

the world stands by allowing israel to get away with virtual impunity.”

Tom Hickey, SWP inner circle:

“We make no apology in relation to the legal opinion.

it is only opinion.  has not yet been tested.

it is about time that this union tested this opinion in court.

we have been as a union extraordinarily careful.

it is not an easy decision to boycott other academics.”

[Too easy, I'd say]

“we have an obligation to go further in relation to BDS.

that is what Motion 29 called for originally.

But more.  What was rerquired as a union is to continue the process of debate that we have started and that we have an obligation to continue.”

“…if we lose an argument here then it is back to here that we should bring the argument because if we don’t do that then we rubbish this union and we rubbish democracy.

we should not walk away, whether threatened by the law or by anything else.

Test the law.”

Self-aggrandisement

Haim Bresheeth, chronic Jewish anti-Zionist and boycott campaigner (huh? Iis he now a union rep? Are they desperately short at UEL?)

“i am speaking as an Israeli and as a Jew.”

“it wasn’t just black workers struggle.

It was us – millions of people everywhere that brought apartheid down.”

Camilla Bassi, Sheffield Hallam (she’s not a self-aggrandiser, I excerpt her for purposes of comparison) had just noted that the end of apartheid was brought about by black worker militancy.

“We need to do something to help Palestinians but a boyoctt campaign writes off the role of the Israeli working class.  We need solidarity not boycott.  2 state solution.  solidarity between israeli and palestinian workers.”

Somebody giving the wrong end of the stick:

“If the law says we are not allowed to express our solidarity then the law is wrong.  (applause)”

[If the limit of your solidarity is entrenching divisions, then your solidarity is wrong.]

Topsy-turviness

Steve Wilkinson isn’t gripped by topsy-turviness:

“I beg you read the report produced by Amnesty about Hamas.

Discover what Hamas did to supporters of Fatah.  hamas went round and machined gunned in their hospital bed supporters of Fatah.

That point needs to be made.

Apart from that I support the resolution.”

He didn’t convince them.

Demonisation

Laura Miles:

“British government is complicit with repression against Gaza.

Western leaders failure to denounce by shared silence – to endorse attacks and war crimes.”

Somebody from the Scottish TUC:

“Constructive engagement would be the worst thing.  The only constructive engagement we can have with the Israeli authorities is one  backed up by the idea that they face isolation.

All that matters is the political campaign to end the occupation.  Nothing else matters.”

“Indiscriminate bombing of civilian population in Gaza.  unlawful us e of white phosphorous.  1400 civilians killed, many of whom children.

Not counting those who were severely traumatized.”

That was Motion 25 – Disabled people and conflict – but turned out it was only about disabled Palestinians.

So there we are.

I’m for constructive engagement. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis will be ostracised out of existence, and what we are doing surely strengthens the most virulent elements. I’m for academic freedom – I’m certainly against academic boycotting – it doesn’t even work, it’s just a gesture. And I’m for Jews.

Jon Pike:

“Dr Barham wants us to rank rights, so that “loftier” ones, such as academic freedom, are sacrificed for basic ones. This is deeply problematic. It completely undermines the idea of academic freedom, making it conditional on a wider political project. We are asked to suspend the academic freedom of Israeli colleagues because of our opposition to the actions of their government, but this is not a test applied anywhere else in the world. The proposal to boycott Israel exhibits an unwarranted exceptionalism.

And that is why the proposal is discriminatory. It discriminates against a group of people; applies hard treatment to them. It does so in the absence of a morally relevant property that the group – and no other group – possesses. This makes it unjust.

The group harmed consists almost entirely – and not by coincidence – of Jews. Whatever the intentions of the boycotters, this discrimination against Jews is undoubtedly one effect of the exceptionalism of their proposal.

The proposal is discriminatory, and the union has been told as much by its lawyers. It also takes us beyond the bounds of our proper purposes, which will come as no surprise to lecturers fighting to hang on to their jobs and keep their courses open, frustrated by our obsessive annual slanging match over Israel and Palestine.

We should offer support and solidarity to Palestinian academics. But we cannot and should not exclude Israeli universities from the international academic interchange that benefits us all.”

We mustn’t mistake a campaign of exclusion for a campaign of solidarity.

Press TV on the tube

presstv-ad

Press TV, the TV station of the Iranian ayatollahs (they don’t appear because they’re unphotogenic and scare the kids) is advertising on the tube. I don’t really claim to get the iconography or the strange name (is it an acronym? The idea of a ‘press’ is certainly retro). And the strange fish-eye planet, or is it a lens? Or a button to press? Or is is an ‘O’ as in ‘op(p)ress’?

A voice for the voiceless?

Iran has one of the higher proportions of voiceless journalists in the world, so the irony is jangling. But in itself, the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless is very noble.

I was invited as a panellist on one occasion, and politely refused because having a voice on a broadcast funded through (by? who knows?) the Iranian ayatollahs involves thinking on your feet lest you become a foil for some or other piece of propaganda disguised as a debate between equals. I was in a studio audience once too. Giving the voiceless a voice is fine.

However, when you look at some of the other people who host their programmes, they’re not a good cross section of the voiceless. Rather they are people who are voiceless because they’re marginal and they’re marginal for reasonable reasons. George Galloway is a pompous demagogue who admired Saddam Hussein. Tariq Ramadan (he’s rather well-represented actually) is politely homophobic, although he’s willing to debate about it so he must be a decent chap. Yvonne Ridley defends the Taliban. Update: inappropriate people like Alan Hart get to chair debates. There is a deep antipathy to Zionists. ‘The Zionists’ are basically anybody who supports the existence of an independent state of Israel, particularly if, as is so often the case, they happen to be Jewish. Oliver Kamm:

“I have appeared twice on it — the second time purely because Tony Benn was one of the other guests, and I consider he has an easy ride in the media. I have no criticisms of Gilligan as an impartial moderator.

But I recall him being surprised when, in a discussion of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy, he read out some chilling antisemitic remarks of President Ahmadinejad — and found that they elicited vigorous applause from the invited audience.”

If it was anything like the audience I attended with, it was young, international (though mostly Anglo-English I think), brimming with self-righteousness, over-eager to interrogate and if possible humiliate ‘The Zionist’ with their questions, but mostly courteous and keen to listen. Well-meaning kids – but well-meaning is never sufficient. The road to hell, and all that.

24/7 News Truth?

I’m reading on conspiracy theories at the moment – one book which attempts to place them within an idealistic tradition and another which aims to apprise its readers of the threat they pose. Strange to say that ‘truth’ has a funny way of sounding heroic when it’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” or “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, and wild-eyed when it’s blaring at you from a poster on a Central Line Train advertising Press TV.

Indeed, Press TV have introduced its readers (there’s also a website containing material it presents as news-truth) to Nicholas Kollerstrom, a former UCL academic (special interest in crop circles) who lost his job at UCL for arguing that the Holocaust was a fabrication (in fact he considers it “the greatest lie ever told”).

In a bout of wishful thinking, Press TV has expunged Israel from its maps.

I think that the way Press TV engages in debate is good. However, debates are always framed within a consensus. When they break out of that consensus they become controversial, or should. A responsible news service will not flinch from controversy, but will flag and explain it for its audience in ways which promote critical engagement with the details. It may restate the different varying values, prompting the audience to come to an opinion based on their own.

The framing of debate may sound like an act of suppression, but it happens all the time. It certainly happens on Press TV. Press TV would never host a debate on population control which included somebody who was in favour of paying Chinese parents to euthanase their surplus children and aged relatives. The reason it wouldn’t is that the equitabile framework of debate, giving equal voice to the various positions in an argument, can legitimise ways of thinking which should remain, to use a turn of phrase, unthinkable. Oliver Kamm says “…the most significant aspect of Press TV’s role is its ability to insinuate into public debate the worst and most pernicious ideas around”.

Press TV is 24/7 something, but not News Truth.

People are changing. Opinions are changing. The news is changing. Why do you still watch the same tired news channel?

Because I know how it’s funded and I’m satisfied its charter will oblige it to strive for neutrality. It’s very important to avoid bias in your news – leave that to the commentary. Guess what you find when you search for Press TV’s governance documents. The first thing a search for ‘governance’ uncovers is “Israeli lobby hinders change in the US”. There’s nothing more relevant. Guess how much turns up when you go looking for criticism of the Iranian government. And its About Us page? Given its stated “revolutionary” aims, derisory.

Martin Bright and Oliver Kamm have it right – Press TV is something to tolerate. Toleration implies deep disagreement with the tolerated thing, but no intervention. Because unlike Iran, this country has a healthful tradition of free expression to defend.

Update 13 June 09: Press TV has failed to report the hugely important news that there is rioting in Tehran tonight after irregularities with the general election which returned Ahmedinejad to power.

Update 28 June: “Voice for the voiceless”? In the aftermath of the Iranian elections, Iran has been unvoiced by the men who run Press TV, who have organised for democratic reformists and prominent members of the labour movement to be imprisoned and tortured, possible executed.

Update 28th June: open letter on Drink-Soaked Trots to get Press TV adverts off the London Transport System. I agree.

My news channel isn’t tired – it’s fresh. It attracts input from the most talented production team and the main global players. Occasionally it’s even funny. Not as funny as this, though.

Scapegoating in Egypt

The atrocities against pigs in Egypt has disproportionately affected the Christians who farmed them.

“Hundreds of pigs are dragged from their smallholder pens and dumped live and fully conscious into a huge dumper truck. Fighting to breathe, the animals writhe on top of each other. From a distance, the scene almost looks like a tin of maggots. Come closer, and the true horror is clear. The animals are then driven to mass graves where they are covered in caustic chemicals before being buried. Media reports tell of the pigs screaming at the pain of the chemicals for half hour or more before they are dead. This is the intended fate of all of Egypt’s 400,000 pigs.”

This is from Compassion in World Farming. There is a film (it is reputedly nearly unwatchable).

The CEO of CiWF says:

“Egypt’s mass pig kill is quite simply the worst atrocity to farm animals that I have ever seen.

What is so appalling is that it is as unnecessary as it is almost unimaginably cruel.”

If you eat pigs, you can still stand against the slow agonising death meted out to them by the Egyptian government. It might make you feel a bit confused about yourself, but you should do it, because you are a good deal like a pig. If you were piled under other humans you would feel the same blind terror; if your bones cracked under the weight, you’d hurt in the same way, you’d make a frenzied attempt to climb on the others in the same way; if you were doused in chemicals and left to die, your reactions would be very similar – and they wouldn’t be higher-order thoughts. You and I are a good deal like pigs.

The Egyptian government says it wants to clean up pig farming, and that the cull of a quarter of a million healthy pigs has nothing to do with swine flu. The timing says otherwise. Pigs’ name is dirt because of swine flu. These pigs are not unhealthy; they are being needlessly sacrificed. Why is not clear. Maybe, as mainly Christian pig farmers worry, it is simply because they are pigs, farmed by Christians in a Muslim country where the birds which are carrying a far deadlier strain of avian flu are permitted to live on. Maybe it’s to placate the ex-pat and tourist pig eaters who have lost confidence in eating pig. Anyway, it is needless. All of it. Eating pigs is needless, the cull is needless, the death by corrosive chemicals and crushing is needless. It’s an atrocity.

The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) comprising 170 of the world’s leading veterinarians, says that a cull is “pointless”. Today they released this limp statement:

“Paris, May 20 2009- The OIE already strongly advised on the pointless culling of pigs in relation with the recent outbreaks of novel A/H1N1 influenza. In its official statement issued on the 30 April 2009, the OIE advised its Members that the culling of pigs will not help to guard against public or animal health risks presented by this novel A/H1N1 influenza virus and that such action is not recommended.

However, some countries have decided to implement massive pig culling operations in this context, on the basis of the precaution principle. The OIE recalls that culling of animals should always be carried out in accordance with OIE international standards on killing methods for disease control purposes (Volume 1; Section 7; Chapter 7.6 of the Terrestrial Animal Health Code; http://www.oie.int/eng/normes/mcode/en_chapitre_1.7.6.htm).”

Will you turn a blind eye? If you’re inclined to, then at least watch the film.

The Egyptian Ambassador to the UK is the person to email, and there’s a template letter (Word doc – 24.5kb).

More on the precarious existence of Coptic Christians – the Washington Post and the Middle East Pact.

This post is a mess.

Excellent lectures, conspiracy theory, a vegan recipe

I’ve been luxuriating in podcast lectures. Three of the best:

  • Gwen Griffith-Dickson’s Gresham College lecture on Countering Extremism and the Politics of ‘Engagement’, whose central tenet is that the agencies which are doing the engaging should choose their Muslim partners on the basis of how they engage, rather than their denomination, beliefs, the content of their writing or speaking, or trouser style. She anatomises engagement, with many examples. It’s definitely a must-listen / look / read which gave me new criteria with which to evaluate Press TV, say (when I die, I might leave my hoard to Gresham and the RSA). GGD was principally concerned with civil liberties – freedom of belief, to be precise – and the credibility of the engagers, whom she advised (again rightly) to stand for justice. She was spot on in content, but the level of detail left me wondering (and sometimes her tone was blase). Her approach to engagement is a very challenging one, requiring immense skill and wisdom on the part of facilitators. Good – how could it be otherwise – but I didn’t really get the sense that she appreciated this – how would her proposed approach be implemented by Faisal, say? She was kind of detached, like Fenster below, an academic making the recommendations of an academic, and they were very good ones, after all, and based in her evaluation work carried out for the Lokahi Foundation, an organisation which has managed to attract a number of people I very much respect and connect them with Tariq Ali, thus reprieving him somewhat from my Injustice bucket. I think about the “feral media” she derides – bloggers, commenters – and although I realise that her presentation was more of a commission than a how-to, I wish she’d had sufficient time to engage with the challenges in a little more detail. The engagers are, after all, operating in the face of some views which are openly threatening.
  • Steven Lukes’ RSA lecture on Moral Relativism, in which, as well as a penetrating the origins of moral relativism in Anthropology, and nature of moral relativism (researchers asked primary school children “Can you call the teacher by her first name?” They reply “No”- he does the voices a bit. “Can you call the teacher by her first name if she says you can call her by her first name?” “Yes!” they say. “Can you hit little Johnny, your classmate?” “No”, they reply. “Can you hit Johnny if your teacher says you can?” “No!” they shout) he also takes the piss out of Matthew Taylor so affectionately that I burst out laughing on a very windy moor in the Yorkshire Dales, and again on London Bridge a week later. He draws a sharp distinction between tolerance, which is what you do when you dislike what somebody stands for or how they live their life but you don’t intervene, and moral relativism, which is when you believe, on principle, in the equal validity of different ways of life, which in my view and his is a load of old cock. There is also some discussion of neurological aspects and the view of some scholars that there is an innate moral sense in human beings.
  • Explanations of Enmity: Pessimists, Optimists and Sceptics, another Gresham College lecture by Rodney Barker. Perhaps this is my favourite. He considers enmity through the lens of five theorists, including the inspiration of many fascists, Carl Schmitt. He notes, with Ferguson, the great dynamism that a threat can represent. He takes a look at Georg Simmel’s Conflict and its thesis that conflict between societies can build unity within them (the other week I went for dinner with a friend, a Somali exile, who told me how when Ethiopia had invaded Somalia a few years back, for the first time in ages Somalia had mustered a government of national unity, kicked out the Ethiopians and promptly disintegrated into upheaval again) and, following from this, the expediency of enemies. And Schmitt, who yearned for a strong, unified government. A brilliant lecture, and one in which an interesting observation was made and not developed – the rhetoric of enmity does not necessarily lead to enmity being played out on the street (nor between states?).

I finally finished Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (reviewed in The Observer), emerging with the feeling I’d survived an ordeal (New York Times review: “you turn the pages astonished and frightened”), but clearer about my fears (see for example Eve Garrard on today’s Normblog, and see Ignoblus, via Bob) and with a better awareness of the difference between a state on the verge of going fascist, and the state in which I live now.

This really is an exquisite book for character, for situation and for prose. When they say that Roth is at the height of his powers, they are not kidding. Some things I loved about the story (spoiler follows). I loved it that the son who became a tool of the pro-Hitler regime abandoned his activism as soon as he discovered girls. He didn’t have an epiphany, he didn’t meet a bad end – he just discovered girls. I loved it that the Italian family who moved into one of the houses vacated by Jews who had been repatriated from Newark to the countryside were no less protective of their neighbours than the Jewish family had been. I loved the references to the US constitution, how they were referred to as wall between the Jews of the US and the ghetto, and how, ultimately, they were invoked and applied. I loved the way that the Jews who (like today’s Independent Jewish Voices) sought a personal haven from antisemitism by cleaving to their persecuters and grooming their own credentials, were induced by the collapse of their world to create conspiracy theories which exonerated President Lindberg. Winchell’s martyrdom and the obituary speech that followed were masterful.

Now, and relatedly, I’m reading Fenster’s level-headed and compassionate book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (see his Rorotoko piece) in which conspiracy beliefs are not pathological but part of the popular idealistic tradition which has shaped American culture. We can see the distribution of power between executive, legislature and judiciary as anti-conspiracy measures, for example.

“Conspiracy theories proceed from an assumption that is undoubtedly correct, even banally so: we don’t all have equal access to power and capital. They then seek evidence of the extent to which the system by which those assets are distributed—the state and economy—is both hidden and corrupt, and they construct elaborate stories that explain the conspiracy’s secrecy and villainy. These steps are shared not only by the most committed conspiracy theorists; political novelists and investigative reporters, for example, also try to explain and narrate a world of unequal power. They do so differently, but they share with conspiracy theorists many of the same interpretive and narrative strategies.”

I’m not at all very far through this one. Like Gwen Griffith Dickson, above, with regards to extremism, Fenster seems to feel mercifully free of any sense of personal threat from conspiracy theories. This is to some extent reassuring, but not entirely. So alongside this cultural theorist perspective, I’m reading Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, for which he put in some time at the British Library researching primary sources. Hear him talk about it at the RSA. Even Aaronovitch Watch liked it:

“I’d forgotten that Aaro is a history buff – and is in general a much more rounded and less one-dimensional character than yer average Decent, and he knows how to build a story. The chapter on the origins and dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is excellent and has more or less everything in it that you might need to know. Particularly, Aaro is generous enough to provide you with ample evidence to undermine his whole thesis – in that although the Protocols is a story of a clearly fake conspiracy, the way in which it was brought into general circulation was by the specific and purposeful actions of individuals who concealed their actions.”

I finally got a new foot for my old Singer sewing machine (from the magnificent Ilford institution Regent Home of Sewing, and also home of Keith, who gave us special curtain tracks from below stairs – bet he says that to all the customers – and who knows 45 year old Singers by their 3 digit serial number alone). I made purple curtains with gold ribbon detail, and I got out Matt’s old shirts and made lavender bags from last year’s lavender, for the drawers. I seem to have lost his most playful old shirts, though, and am left with stripes and open checks. I also bought a haunting picture of Bette Davis in 1934, not posed, from Soho.

For the gob, Vegan Society Magazine (is it my imagination or is this improving somewhat?) had an unpromising-looking recipe by Helen Edwards (p24, Summer 09 issue) which I followed only because I had a cauliflower mountain from my local veg box delivery. It was fantastic – the flavours worked in ways I have never encountered. I adapt:

Tahini Fried Cauliflower (serves 4)

Grate the rind of 2 lemons, add to 4 -6 grated garlic cloves and a finely chopped red chilli and gently fry in a big frying pan or wok for a minute before removing to a small mixing bowl. Mix these well with the juice of 2 lemons, 4 tbsp tahini and 4 sbsp water. Cut 1 medium head of cauliflower into small-ish florets. Steam until just tender, and keep warm. Cook 400g of farfalle pasta (I used white), rinse starch off in fresh boiling water, and keep warm. Put a slosh of oil into the pan / wok and fry the cauliflower fairly hard until it browns. Turn down the heat and add the pasta and the tahini mixture. Cook until hot. Stir in 120g hot peas. Eat.

I might consider frying 2 or 3 sliced shallots at the start. Matt said he’d have preferred a little less lemon juice in the sauce, and some texture – I thought some roughly chopped hazelnuts toasted in the pan before anything else would have done it.

That’s all.