The Cruel Sea

Shift over, survivors of the North Atlantic convoys! Here’s a real story of nautical hardship:

When British artist Rebecca Moss was told over a ship’s breakfast one morning to sit down and brace herself for bad news, she wasn’t expecting to hear she was now stranded at sea.

She was told by the captain of the Hanjin Geneva that its South Korean owners had gone bankrupt, so the ship was barred from international ports.

The 25-year-old is taking part in an artist in residency programme, which was meant to be “23 Days at Sea”.

I don’t know what “art” she was supposed to be creating on this vessel had things gone according to plan, but it’s hard to imagine that the world will be denied a cultural treasure by this turn of events.

Rebecca figured it would just be a hiccup when she first heard the news.

She thought their ship would be redirected to a different port, or that a boat would be sent to fetch the passengers.

That was 13 days ago.

Aren’t artists supposed to draw inspiration from something new, something different, something unexpected, something challenging?  Any artist worth their salt would see this as an opportunity.  Alas, our intrepid artist-in-residence aboard the Hanjin Geneva sees only an opportunity to whinge:

“I have found the indefinite duration the most difficult aspect to deal with as an artist,” she said. “Formulating a strategy to make work becomes impossible when things could change at any minute”.

You’ve been stuck on a ship for 13 days.  You mean to say you’ve not been able to work because things could have “changed”?  This woman makes Frank Gallagher from Shameless look like a regular Stakhanovite.

Her daily life on board she says, is structured around meals.

Presumably if Hanjin had stayed in the black she’d have been working double shifts on engine maintenance.

There is enough food and drink on board to last them a few weeks.

Pity.  Live tweeting acts of cannibalism sounds like something worth following.  Especially if the tweeter is the one being eaten.

The programme, which started last year, sends artists across the Pacific Ocean each year between Vancouver and Shanghai and is meant to spark their creativity.

Yet God forbid anything happens which might potentially cause dreaded change.  Or mild inconvenience.

“I was, and am, excited about the trip as it chimed with a lot of my interests as an artist,” she said.

Getting free publicity for doing fuck all?

Her proposal for the trip was to explore how comedy arises in the tension between a mechanical system imposed into nature.

Leaving aside the issue of tension between a single system, this sounds about as funny as the cargo manifest.

“The situation is completely ironic,” she said. “It is bizarre how much it suits my interests.”

Hang on, weren’t you telling us a few minutes ago that you weren’t able to work?  Or is that what she means?

“I want to be informed of a definite plan for how the passengers are going to be able to disembark. I can work with a plan,” Rebecca said.

Funny how often these carefree, spontaneous, maverick “artists” need everything to be safely arranged in advance.  Usually by someone else.

The first thing she wants to do when she gets on land, she says, is meet up with other artists “in whatever place that ends up being”.

Which, I suspect, means meeting up with like-minded layabouts who are as much artists as I am a beekeeper.

“Every day I hope will bring news that we will get into a port,” says Rebecca. “(But) nothing has changed.”

Yeah.  So you could have done some work after all.

Unfortunately, she is now back on dry land and “due to start the final year of a postgraduate degree in fine art.”  Lucky us.

New York Red

While I was emerging from a subway station on Manhattan’s upper West side last week, I was hollered at by a chap in his mid-to-late twenties sporting a black t-shirt and ginger beard who was standing on a corner handing out newspapers.

“Hey man,” he said “you have a red shirt on, you should read this!”  He thrust a newspaper in front of me that was some Commie publication and had as its headline a call to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act.  I have read that reinstating Glass-Steagall wouldn’t solve much despite its repeal being blamed for the Global Financial Crisis, but I was in no position to argue this particular technicality.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Britain” I said.

“Oh man, with Barclays!  Those assholes have screwed everything!”

“Yes”, I said “they are assholes.”

“So what are we gonna do about it, man?” he asked, thrusting the newspaper at me.

I thought about a response.  What are we going to do about it?  I was going to suggest hanging politicians and lawyers, but I guessed his victim list would differ from mine and I didn’t want to encourage him.  As I was pondering the question he chimed in with “And no, war with Russia isn’t the answer.”

“Ah Russia,” I said “I know the place well.  Lived there for a bit. No, going to war with Russia won’t help much.”

“You were in Russia?  I heard St. Petersburg is beautiful!”

“It is.  It’s a shame everything over there is built on a few million corpses, though.”

“Corpses?” he asked, looking doubtful.  “Which corpses?  Nazis?”

“No.  Ordinary people.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Which way is Central Park?”

“That way,” he said “but you gotta read this…” His voice trailed off as I walked away.

I hope he somehow gets to read this.

Female Role Models and Women in Films

The good folk over at Mostly Film have asked the questionPositive Role Models: Where are the Women in Film?

This question interests me on two levels.  The first is that I don’t think there are many positive role models for young women anywhere, let alone in films.  I have a habit of asking women who they would consider to be role models for young women and teenagers just to see if they have any more clue than me.  The last person I asked was my ex-pal Angela who was, as I’ve said before, a fully paid-up feminist.  Her first response was along the lines of historical figures, all worthy women: Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and one or two others long dead who I didn’t know.  But when I asked her to name some that are still alive she faltered.  Michelle Obama: successful only in the sense of whom she married.  Elizabeth Warren: best known for having invented a Native American ancestry in order to get into Harvard Law School under an assisted places program.  And that was about it.  Being mischievous, I asked why Condoleeza Rice wasn’t considered.  She said she didn’t know, but I did: she was a Republican, and that would never do.  The same goes for Margaret Thatcher.

In fairness to Angela, she wasn’t the only one to struggle with this question.  A lot of women (including her) don’t follow sports closely enough to know the female sports stars, such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, who could easily qualify.  Most women when pressed propose Beyoncé, at which point I show them this:

Uh-huh.  Just what you’d want your teenage daughter aspiring to.

It’s a difficult question, one that’s a lot easier to answer for boys mainly because most of them are into sports of some sort (as to why boys generally like watching sport whereas girls generally don’t is a question I’d like to have put to Angela; no doubt the answer would have included the term “social conditioning”).  When I was growing up most boys were into football or rugby, so they had the likes of Ryan Giggs and Jeremy Guscott to hang on their walls.  Failing that, there was cricket or motorsports.  Of course we looked up to rock stars too, but the good thing about having sportsmen as role models is they are (usually) in good physical shape and are famous for mastering a discipline rather than doing something outrageous.  I believe girls and young women have a much tougher time finding a decent role model, for the simple reason there are a lot fewer about.

So it’s not surprising that it is difficult to find decent female role models in films, as this is merely part of a wider issue.  But it is also part of a second wider issue: there are not many decent female role models in films because there are so few decent female roles of any kind in modern films.  The reason for this, in my opinion, is mainly due to the dumbing down of all film roles, be they male or female.

In an age where studio executives refuse to take a risk and audiences apparently need to be spoon-fed every scene, film characters have become increasingly one-dimensional to the point that they might as well walk around with labels on saying “Goody” and “Baddy”.  Every “good” character has to have at least one scene early on showing us how noble and righteous he is (usually by kissing his wife and kids, or reading them a bedtime story) followed by one showing him wearing a pained expression during a moral dilemma (Tom Hanks’ recent output has taken this to nauseating levels); every “bad” character must be shown murdering somebody in a gruesome fashion or at least kicking a dog; and each character’s appearance must distinguish which side they’re on as effectively as a football strip (the turncoat in The Matrix was the one character with a huge scar down his face: he was never going to be anything else).  Ambiguity in a character is seriously frowned upon these days, presumably because there is a danger the audience might get confused.

It wasn’t always thus.  I recently watched Hud (1963) in which Paul Newman was cast as an arrogant, violent, irresponsible ranch-hand but somehow the audience ended up viewing him as the hero, much to the surprise of the actor himself.  This was in no small part due to a slick script and some very good acting on the part of Newman and the supporting actors, but it shows that once upon a time a character could be cast with the director unsure of how the audience would receive them.  I noted early on in the film that no modern production would feature a character like Hud, let alone in the leading role.  I also doubt that any modern actor could pull off a role like that.

Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939) is another example of a man cast with dubious morals, played superbly by Clark Gable.  It’s highly unlikely such a film would even get made today without turning into an anti-slavery harangue, and a character like Rhett Butler – who not only fights for the Confederacy but is a shameless womaniser and a blockade-runner to boot – would be sanitised into fighting for the other side as a minimum.

A third example is Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), where he is as close as the story gets to having a hero yet thinks nothing of shagging his partner’s wife and doesn’t care one jot when said partner gets murdered, not to mention his misogynistic behaviour and slapping women around occasionally.  Could you see a modern detective being cast like this?  Not a chance, he’s too morally ambiguous.  In fact, all the characters in The Maltese Falcon are morally ambiguous, there’s not a single one I can recall that is particularly nice.

Now I mention these three films not just to illustrate complex and questionable characters played by men, but also because of their female leads.  In Hud, the part of Alma Brown is superbly played by Patricia Neal (Roald Dahl’s wife, as I later found out).  Her character is neither one of heroine or villain, she is simply what passes for an ordinary woman caught up in the mess that Hud makes around her.  But that doesn’t mean the character is uninteresting, by contrast she is as intriguing as the male lead with her own set of virtues and flaws, particularly her failed marriage which forces her to work as a housekeeper living in a small annex of the main ranch house.  Even though she is unquestionably a “good” person in the narrative, she ends up worse off than at the beginning through no fault of her own.  Very few, if any, of these elements would make it into a modern female film character, and they would be all the more dull because of it.  Neal’s character is so interesting because she has flaws and is ambiguous (e.g. complimenting Hud on his looks even after he tried to drunkenly rape her) – just like people are in real life.  Funny, that.

Rarely has a female character been better scripted than that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which we can thank Margaret Mitchell.  I read the book when I lived in Nigeria, and was rather surprised to find the character an absolute bitch: she married her first husband in a fit of pique, the second one for money and security and spite, and the third (Rhett) while still pining after bloody Ashley to the point she ends up on her own and doesn’t seem to give a shit.  There is a line in the book where somebody (it might be Rhett) points out that O’Hara didn’t even bother to ask after her second husband upon hearing news that the group he was in had been attacked and some of them killed (including him, as it turns out).  But she’s a fascinating character because despite all of this she is incredibly strong and resourceful and you are always under the impression she is being forced by circumstances into taking certain actions and her heart generally lies in the right place.   What modern film would have a heroine like this?  Or modern book, for that matter?

I am sure modern actresses would kill to have had the opportunity of Vivien Leigh to play a character of such complexity as Scarlett O’Hara.  But as with the men, these characters simply don’t exist as the leads in a modern film, and the best one can hope for is a small supporting role usually as some sort of eccentric.  A female lead these days needs to be one of the following:

1. An innocent victim of some more powerful force (such as a violent husband, or asshole boss) who she eventually overcomes through perseverance and/or being much cleverer than her adversary. (A Goody)

2. A ripped, kick-ass chick straight out of comic-book fantasy who beats up Samoan extras and can throw knives through chipboard.  (Can be a Goody or a Baddy)

3. A sassy, independent, fuck-you-in-your-face, policewoman, soldier, politician, or CEO.  (A Goody)

4. A woman who saves her husband/boyfriend from his own stupidity. (A Goody)

What’s a girl to do if she wants to play Scarlett O’Hara or Alma Brown these days?  Little wonder there are few inspiring female role models in films if each character has been sanitised or exaggerated beyond all recognition of what it is to be human.

While male actors have also seen their available characters stripped down to almost cartoon levels, at least they still have one avenue of opportunity open to those who want a more interesting role: the chief villain.  It’s common to hear actors say they prefer playing villains because the characters are more interesting, and this makes sense: you can take more risks with a character that meets a sticky end (see Leonardo DiCaprio’s repulsive slaver in Django Unchained).

But what villainous roles are open to women these days?  Other than the tank-girl sidekick I mentioned at No. 2 in my list above, they don’t really have much option on that score, either.  Which is a shame, because women have starred splendidly as the villain in the past.  The character of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon is a great example, being fiendishly manipulative and greedy throughout and winding up being carted off to the gallows for her treachery, and played flawlessly by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  More recently is Nicole Kidman’s superb performance as the evil weather girl in To Die For (1995), which I showed to Angela partly to demonstrate my belief that feminist-driven political correctness has over the past decade or two killed off the best roles for women in films.

The one exception I can think of is Rosamund Pike’s character of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014).  That was one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) female characters I’ve seen portrayed in a long time – which is presumably why the film did so well and Pike’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination.  Women deserve better roles in films and scriptwriters should stop pandering to the grievance industry and start creating complex, morally ambiguous, flawed, and sometimes nasty female characters which are also human and therefore believable.  Maybe then we’ll see a role model or two emerge.

Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

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Photos of New York

I found New York a surprisingly difficult place to photograph.  To start with, everything a newcomer would find interesting has been photographed a million times before, unless you are prepared to head out to areas where your camera will get nicked and even then it’s probably been photographed already.  Finding something new in New York is difficult, and for a tourist almost impossible.  If I’m in a familiar city, or one not as spectacular as New York, I can take my time to seek out unusual things in shop windows or down small streets, but in Manhattan my eye was forever being drawn upwards to the large and famous buildings I was usually seeing for the first time.  I’m a tall guy anyway, and my eye is naturally drawn upwards above the heads of the crowds and into the buildings and other structures.  One person who commented on my photos of this trip asked “Where are all the people?” as there don’t seem to be any.  Mostly this is down to my not liking photographing people without their knowing it as a general rule (I could have gotten one great shot of a homeless black guy, but I really don’t like taking these sort of “poverty porn” photos), but also because of the effect I just described whereby my eye was continually being pulled upwards.

One of the other things I noticed was that with modern architecture using so much glass and steel, the towers in Manhattan often look a uniform blue from the reflection of the sky, and hence don’t look particularly good in a photo taken from street level.

Contrast this with the older style of brick building:

On this trip I also discovered – and this is probably the engineer in me – that I like geometry in my photos, particularly intersecting lines and repeated patterns.

In this regard, shooting in Manhattan was pretty easy.  Sometimes I didn’t have my SLR with me, so had to make do with an iPhone, the best picture from which was this one of the sun striking the Chrysler building as I made my way (where else?) to a bar in the early evening:

The full set of my photos from New York can be seen here.

New York

I’m currently in New York where I’ve come on holiday for 10 days or so, staying in a rather nice apartment in Harlem.  That’s a description you’d not have seen written anywhere 20 or 30 years ago, but this part of New York has gentrified considerably since New Jack City was made.  It’s no Kensington, and you still see a lot of people who look like extras from The Wire hanging about outside laundromats and dodgy-looking discount stores, but there’s not much evidence of serious crime.

I haven’t been to New York since summer 2000, when I came here at the start of my 5-week road trip around the USA.  A few things have changed since then, and not just the lower Manhattan skyline.  For a start, people using the visa waiver scheme now need to pay $14 online for an ESTA – Electronic System for Travel Authorization – which is something the department of Homeland Security uses to see if you’re a terrorist or not.  I knew nothing about this until the airline (fortunately) informed me a few days before I flew.  JFK airport doesn’t look quite so impressive now I’ve travelled around a bit, but despite a long line at immigration I cleared through it quickly enough and was pleased to find Uber works for airport collections too.

One of the first things I noticed, sitting in the traffic on what I think was the Long Island Expressway, was how much the cars had changed since I was here 16 years ago.  Back then they were mostly American – either Ford or GM marques- and much bigger than those you see in Europe, totally different models.  Now you see Toyotas and Nissans everywhere of the same or similar models to those on sale in Europe.

The other thing is that the place doesn’t feel as exotic as it did when I first came here.  Last time I had barely travelled anywhere before coming to the USA, but now I’ve clocked up around 40 countries since it’s just like visiting yet another foreign place.  Only as I found with Australia, it seems a bit weird to be in a place which is obviously foreign and everyone speaks English (of a sort, anyway).

I also used the New York metro yesterday, and made a bit of a hash of it.  I got one one train, thought it was going in the wrong direction, got off it, realized I should have stayed on it, then got back on the next one.  And bloody hell, New York is big.  I only went from 135th to 42nd street, and it felt like we’d covered miles, and I was only halfway down Manhattan island.  And despite my being thoroughly familiar with London, New York is another step up in terms of people running around in a mad rush.

My plan here is to take lots of photos, do some shopping, go on the piss, and take a half-day trip out to an area of Brooklyn for some research for a story I’m working on.  And I’m supposed to be going to the US Open tennis on Monday with the chap I’m staying with, who is taking a client there and for some unfathomable reason has decided to being me along.  Incidentally, my host is an American who I met in South Carolina during my 2000 road trip, in a Wal-Mart car park of all places.  Funny how things can turn out.

Turkey enters Syria

The series of proxy wars going on in Syria got a bit more complicated last week when Turkish troops rolled over the border to tackle what Ankara is calling terrorists: both ISIS and Kurdish groups.  Turkey has suffered a wave of suicide bombings in the past few months, almost certainly carried out by ISIS or groups affiliate to their cause, and so have some justification in going after them in their strongholds.  But it’s also likely that Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will use this as an excuse to deploy proper military units against their old foes the Kurds in their homelands, something which they could not have done previously without provoking an international outcry.

With the men and material at the Turks’ disposal, I expect they will prevail against the Kurds to begin with.  But the Turkish army has already taken its first casualties, and the longer they stay in Syria, the deeper they penetrate, and the longer their supply lines become the more likely they will be to incur more.  The Turkish military was stripped of much of its leadership in 2010 following the foiling of the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” coup plot, and then last month subject to sweeping purges in the aftermath of the more recently bungled coup.  A military which has had its officer and NCO cadres purged for political reasons and replaced with loyalists tends to lose a lot of its effectiveness, and the degree to which this happens is dependent on how many key, competent personnel have been replaced by idiots.  The Turkish army hasn’t done any proper fighting in generations and few of its personnel will have seen real combat.  They are going up against Kurdish forces who have been doing nothing but fight for years, and unless they finish the job quickly they might find them a tough nut to crack.  The most viable Kurdish strategy would be to drag this out as long as possible, practice hit-and-run tactics on vulnerable Turkish supply lines and rear echelon units, and turn it into the sort of guerrilla war which has done so much damage to American units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years.  But crucial to the Kurds’ success is to secure the backing of a larger power to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, medical equipment, and funds.  I suspect a major reason for Ergodan’s decision to kiss and make up with Putin over the downing of the Russian plane in November 2015 is to prevent Russia from fulfilling this role.  It will now be interesting to see who does back the Kurds (if anyone) and how Turkey’s newly purged military performs.

Ludicrous Indeed

Unsurprisingly, the BBC gives us a puff-piece on Tesla’s latest offering:

[T]his upgrade enables the Model S to travel from 0 – 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, giving it the fastest acceleration of any currently available production car … Like all electric vehicles, that more powerful battery delivers 100% of its dual-engine torque immediately, pushing the four-wheel-drive saloon past records heretofore the domain of million-dollar supercars.

Million dollars? Let’s first be generous and assume this car actually can do 0-60 in 2.5 seconds and will make it into production (visit Streetwise Professor to see why skepticism over Elon Musk’s pronouncements is warranted).  According to Wikipedia, the Porsche 991 can match this which, according to Porsche USA, costs about $188,000.  This isn’t so cheap, but it’s not a million dollar supercar.  And the Tesla is no bargain, either:

The Model S P100D saloon will start at £114,200 and the Model X 100D sport-utility vehicle begins at £117,200, and older Teslas can upgrade their battery packs for a mere £15,000.

£114k is about $150k in today’s money.  That would buy you an awful lot of Porsche.

That’s expensive, but Tesla is taking the Toms shoes model approach to your wallet. “While the P100D Ludicrous is obviously an expensive vehicle, we want to emphasize that every sale helps pay for the smaller and much more affordable Tesla Model 3 that is in development.” In other words, your need to go very far, very fast helps fund the electric vehicle needs of others less fortunate than you.

Hmmm.  As a business model, this doesn’t sound very sustainable.  You could probably expect some cross-subsidising between models in order to maintain a brand and market share, but this seems to be ass-backwards: it’s normally the high-volume margins on the cheaper brands which provide the cash for developing high-end niche products, not the other way around.  Are Tesla really going to be selling enough of these $150k supercars, and the margins high enough, to be able to reduce the cost of the mass-produced models?  I’d love to see the numbers on that.

The holy grail of EV range has long been 300 miles, which would bring electrics into the full-tank range of most petrol-powered vehicles. Now, 300 miles doesn’t make for a stress-free cross-county road trip, but there’s a lot to be said for enjoying a real meal while your Tesla charges rather than buying Slim Jims and Diet Dr Pepper in the 10 minutes it takes to gas up your petromobile.

If sitting and having a meal for a couple of hours is preferable to stopping for 10 minutes, why don’t more people do that already?  After all, there is nothing preventing owners of petrol cars doing so, is there?  What the article is doing is trying to make light of the biggest issue facing electric cars, which I’ve written about before:

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.

The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.

The author’s glib suggestion that people will be happy to sit and have a nice meal while waiting to continue their journey isn’t supported by people’s actual behaviour.  A decent journalist would have addressed this issue properly, but then this is the BBC: the entire article is simply a puff-piece for the latest darling of the political establishment:

Mr Musk is betting big on batteries. He’s going to make sure we get to the future  — and quickly.

This is what £3.7bn per year gets you.  Couldn’t they at least send Tesla an invoice next time?