The new capital

tower blackfriarsI spent most of last weekend walking and cycling around central London. A chance to get reacquainted. Strolling along the Embankment was a joy, but only as long as I didn’t let my eyes linger on the anonymous towers that have sprung up east and west. Edwin Heathcote, the FT’s architecture critic, seems to feel much the same way:

London’s departing mayor Boris Johnson came to office in 2008 on a promise not to let London turn into “Dubai on Thames”, in contrast to his predecessor Ken Livingstone, who had been pro-development and pro-tower. Yet Johnson’s record has been precisely the opposite of his sloganeering, an execrable legacy of ill-planned developments and poorly-designed towers scattered incoherently across the city. The impression is of a capital in thrall to capital, property as asset class — what the former City planner Peter Rees termed “safe-deposit boxes in the sky”…  London continues to attract people from all over the world — even if the young, the creative and the unsure are increasingly pushed to the margins. There was never a perfect moment. Yet walking through its fast-changing streets there is a sense that the new is inevitably bigger than the old; glassier, shinier, but rarely better. “The chief function of the city,” wrote the urban historian Lewis Mumford in 1961, “is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity.” The chief function of London, today, it would seem, is to convert space into money. Is that ambition enough?

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Looking for Miles

My Times feature [£] on “Miles Ahead”. I can’t say I enjoyed the film, although I can see why Don Cheadle wanted to avoid making the usual dull, reverential kind of biopic. His performance as “The Prince of Darkness” really is mesmerising. It’s the plot that leaves you feeling queasy:

How accurate is the film? Did Davis really go around firing guns in record company offices or swooping around New York like the lead in a blaxploitation caper? Much of the storyline — the journalist, the tape, the guns — belongs in the realm of fiction. Faced with the problem of how to present Davis’s life to a modern audience for whom jazz is as alien as a baroque concerto, Cheadle has taken the sensationalist route.

In his defence, the Davis who appears on screen isn’t a million miles from the image he liked to present of himself. He did after all pose as a gun-toting wiseguy on the cover of one of his 1980s albums, You’re Under Arrest. And in his brash, often crass, expletive-spattered autobiography — published a couple of years before his death in 1991 — he proudly recounts how he made a guest appearance in the crime series Miami Vice, playing a pimp and dope dealer. (Aware that he was open to charges of entrenching a racial stereotype, he tried to head off critics, somewhat unconvincingly, by claiming that he played his character as “a kind of businessman.”)

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Dante & the hermaphrodite


At The Wallace Collection yesterday. My first-ever visit. I had no idea there was so much more to the place than “The Laughing Cavalier”

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Being black, sounding white

People think his face and his voice just don’t go together. I’ve met John McWhorter and I’ve never been away of any mismatch at all, which just goes to show, I guess, how non-Americans can miss the subtleties:

I have lost count of how many times callers-in to radio shows I appeared on have assumed I was white (including plenty of black ones) or asked whether I was. Radio hosts often gently advise me to, when commenting on racial issues, mention my race on air—which indicates that it’s not evident from my voice that I’m black… Once, answering the phone for a white roommate, I listened as an old man drifted, when a news event came up, into a diatribe about “niggers” coming over the horizon; clearly, he did not hear blackness in my voice…

My noting that I don’t have a black-sounding voice has, on a couple of occasions, seemed to peeve the black person I was talking to. I think they were wondering whether I was claiming that, unlike other black people, I speak “properly.” I mean no such thing… There has also been the occasional white person who has sincerely suggested that I just take on a black sound if I feel so uncomfortable. But they were unclear as to what I meant when I referred to “sounding black.” One white woman said, while making vaguely vernacular street gestures, “Can’t you just, like, ‘Heyyy…’?”

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Work in progress, Oxford Street


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A classic revisited

“Sing Me Home”, my album of the week [£] in the Sunday Times, doesn’t fall into any of the usual neat categories. Let’s just call it “beyond boundaries” and leave it at that. Leading his Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma sets out to fuse musical traditions, East and West, North and South, classical and folk. The piece that made the biggest impact on me finds Rhiannon Giddens — about whom I’ve gushed more than enough in the last few years — cutting a new path through that venerable standard “St James Infirmary”. It’s also worth hearing Abigail Washburn,  banjo player, singer and long-time student of Chinese culture, helping to rework a familiar Dvořák theme on the track “Going Home”.

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ROUSSEAU. “Do you like cats?” BOSWELL. “No.” ROUSSEAU. “I was sure of that. It is my test of character. There you have the despotic character of men. They do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to be a slave. He will do nothing to your order, as the other animals do.” BOSWELL. “Nor a hen either.” ROUSSEAU. “A hen would obey your orders if you could make her understand them. But a cat will understand you perfectly and not obey them.” BOSWELL. “But a cat is ungrateful and treacherous.” ROUSSEAU. “No. That’s all untrue. A cat is an animal that can be very much attached to you; he will do anything you please out of friendship. I have a cat here.”

Conversation with Rousseau, 15th December 1764, “The Journals of James Boswell”.

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The “Do you live in a bubble?” quiz

“The higher your score, the thinner your bubble…” The questions are geared towards an American audience, but it’s an interesting exercise all the same.

Posted in Class, US politics | Tagged , ,

Les Blancs – too black & white

les blancs

I don’t mind admitting that, until Lorraine Hansberry’s play “Les Blancs” opened at the National this month, I’d never even heard of it. After sitting through Yaël Farber’s production last night, I don’t feel quite so guilty. The London critics greeted this  revival with a blast of four-star raves, but in all honesty it’s a brave but deeply flawed piece inhabited by one-dimensional characters who never seem more than expressions of different political points of view. At a mission hospital, colonists confront “natives”, a revolutionary spars with a liberal, and — always a bad sign  —  a visiting journalist looks on, taking notes for a story. Hansberry,  who didn’t finish the work before her tragically early death (her husband Robert Nemiroff  adapted the final text) is said to have  wanted to draw on Greek classical drama. You can see the reference points clearly enough in the measured pacing and the declamatory dialogue. Unfortunately, in Hansberry’s unnamed country, which has elements of Kenya’s Mau-Mau revolt mixed in with hints of Fanon and Apartheid South Africa, the storyline and the dialogue are politely predictable. Even in 1970, when the play was first staged on Broadway, it’s hard to believe that it seemed particularly incendiary. While the performances at the National are never less than immaculate, the actors often seem in danger of being upstaged by the modish revolving set and the ritualistic music and chanting.  A huge amount of effort has gone into the staging, yet it’s still not enough to camouflage the fatal lack of substance underneath. Reading up on the play this afternoon, I discovered a Guardian review of a Royal Exchange revival in 2001 which praised the production but described the script as “clunky” and “schematic”. I’m relieved to see I’m not alone.

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Sashes Island, Cookham


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