This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

Please do not post any comments here. Go to the new address to comment. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Boeing Boeing

Whenever I can, I try to catch a play in the West End. Problem is I dislike musicals and almost all plays in London are musicals. My preference is for comedies, especially ones with dry British humour, and occasionally the serious dramatic play. So I've seen most of the non-musical plays and a couple of times I just turned back from the TKTS booth in Leicester Square empty-handed. Last week I was fortunate enough to get last-minute tickets (albeit in the balcony) for Boeing Boeing, a comedy playing at the Comedy Theatre.

The play is set in France, where Bernard (a successful architect) has three girlfriends, all air hostesses. His life is a delicate balancing act, constantly coordinating between the timetables of the three airlines - TWA, Lufthansa and Alitalia - to make sure only one girl at a time is in his flat in Paris. An old school friend, Robert, turns up unexpectedly and is drawn into this balancing act.

Needless to say, things go wrong and the three beauties turn up in Paris at the same time. From now on, this comedy is a continuous series of chaotic scenes of mayhem, with Bernard and Robert vainly trying to make sure none of the girls meet, even when all three are in the flat.

The sixth actress in this movie is Bernard's housekeeper, Bertha, who reluctantly plays along with her master's whims, but does not miss a chance to impart her sarcastic comments. The plot sounded familiar to me, but it was only after the play that I realised it was made into a movie - two versions, French and American; I watched the American version, with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis, ages ago.

Frankly speaking, this kind of humour is not the kind that usually makes me laugh. Adding to that the fact that the balcony seats were extremely cramped and the theatre was over-heated, my expectations were not too high. However, the actors were all so brilliant that I actually ended up enjoying the play very much. Bertha in particular (Frances de la Tour) was outstanding. Her whole demeanour, a mix between "I couldn't give a damn" and "there we go again", was absolutely hilarious. Bernard's (Roger Allam) performance was also stupendous. Needless to say, the three girlfriends were absolutely gorgeous, but the German one especially pulls off a great performance with her fake German accent.

The middle-aged lady sat next to me was as hilarious to watch as the play; it was obvious the play made her want to laugh, but being English (stiff upper lip and all that) she was fighting hard not to laugh out too loud. At the end of the play she clapped furiously, stretching out her hands toward the stage as if to make sure the actors heard her clapping above everyone else's.

All in all, a rather pleasant experience, especially if you're in the mood for some whacky humour.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Chomesh - A Holiday Activity

Today, hundreds of right-wing supporters, most, if not all, belonging to the religious right, marched to Chomesh, site of a settlement in the Northern west bank evacuated in 2005 during the disengagement plan. The march was organised in protest of that disengagement, calling for a re-settlement of Chomesh as the first step in the undoing of that cursed policy (the protest is called "Chomesh First"). Many of the protesters reportedly arrived with sleeping bags, intending to stay the night in order "re-affirm our right to the Land of Israel".

Israelis greeted this piece news with the reaction it deserves: stifling a yawn. After decades of "settlement" activity, resulting in less than a quarter of a million Israelis willing to live in Palestinian territories (the vast majority of whom are anyway willing to leave and return to Israel given the right compensation), the issue of "settlement" has been settled, so to speak, in the minds of most Israelis. We look at the "ideological right" with a mixture of boredom and puzzlement: why do they keep ploughing on when the battle has been lost?

To me, all this protest comes down to this: a bunch of misguided and bored religious children, who are out of school due to the Pessach holiday, and are looking for some action instead of staying home and being told to help with the cleaning. It's just a shame that my tax money goes to finance this holiday escapade.

British Library, London

With a couple of hours to spare last week in London before my flight back home, I opened a map of the city and looked for somewhere to kill the time. Usually King's Cross is not an area of London I go to unless I have to, but I spotted the "British Library" building next to the station so I decided a library would be a good place as any (at least one is spared the aggravation of walking out empty-handed). Little did I know how much I would enjoy this unplanned visit.

When I arrived at the plaza outside the building I was bewildered to see a large group of people, perhaps a couple of hundred, standing silently in the open area facing the library and looking at the building. Some of them were wrapped in what looked like aluminium foil. At the entrance to the library was a line of uniformed men, blocking the entrance. An eerie sight indeed. Before I had a chance to figure out what was happening, everybody suddenly started moving towards the building and the doors were opened. Apparently, I had arrived in the middle of a fire drill.

After enquiring at the information desk I headed to the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, hosting the permanent exhibition of the library. Entering a large darkened room filled with glass displays I found treasures I had no idea existed in this building. Here is a partial list of the items I remember:

  • The Gutenberg Bible, first book printed using a movable print maching

  • Captain Cook's journal

  • A hand-written application by Lenin for membership in the library

  • Letters written by Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse

  • Letters written by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist

  • Beautiful religious manuscripts, among them siddurim and haggadot

  • Original manuscripts from Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, William Shakespeare and many others

  • Scientific notes written by Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, William Harvey and others

In a separate smaller room, there is a copy of the Magna Carta (I saw it at the British Museum many years ago but didn't realise there was more than one copy).

But the item which touched me most was the diary of Robert Scott, the British navy officer that came second in the race to the South Pole (losing to the Norwegian Amundsen). Scott and his companions died on the way back to their base, and the diary Scott kept is on display. It is open on the last page, where the last entry (in barely legible handwriting) reads: "For God's sake look after our people".

I wish I had more time to browse the library, but time flew by very quickly. I will be sure to return here to have a longer look at some of these truly extraordinary historical documents.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

African African-American

A couple of weeks ago, during shabbat lunch in Tokyo, a visitor from the US mentioned an interview on The Colbert Report that, in five minutes, encapsulated the absurdity of "political correctness" in the American political scene. Colbert interviewed Debra Dickerson, an African-American who wrote a book about "The End of Blackness", to talk about the "blackness" of Barack Obama. I think the clip speaks for itself.

American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Levy

This is a book I've been meaning to read for a long time but it took me a while to get my hands on the original French version. I thought that a book written by a French intellectual and philosopher offering ruminations about America deserved to be read in French... A friend finally got me a copy in France last month and I took it with me on my around-the-world trip this month.

Bernard-Henry Levy (henceforth, BHL) is somewhat of a celebrity in France (perhaps the only country in the world where a philosopher can become a celebrity). In recent years, he has moved away from writing "pure" philosophical works towards a more journalistic role. In 2002 he spent almost a year, travelling to Pakistan several times to investigate the murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter that was beheaded by Muslim fanatics. He summarised his findings in a book (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?) in which he minces no words when describing the lawlessness of the Pakistani regime. I vividly recall one sentence from that book (and I'm quoting from memory): "of all the delinquent countries in the world, Pakistan is the most delinquent of all". This was written, mind you, at at time when Pakistan was the US's primary ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

BHL embarked on a year-long journey arounnd the US and wrote his observations in American Vertigo. The project was financed by the Atlantic Monthly journal, which asked BHL to follow the footsteps of Alexis De Tocqueville, the French historian who travelled to America in the early 19th century and wrote an analysis of American civic life in the monumental work Democracy in America, considered one of the classic books in political thought. The idea was for BHL to retrace Tocqueville's journey and provide observations about life in America almost 200 years later. (On a side note: why don't I get offers to travel the world for free for a year? I guess my ruminations are not, sadly, as in demand as BHL's...).

The book turned out to be very different from what I thought it would be like. Instead of a long philosophical treatise about the US, the book is a collection of short vignettes, each 2-3 pages long, about the various encounters BHL had during his journey. Having said that, the last third of the book is a heavy-going "summary" of the journey, more typical to BHL's previous writings.

The journey took place around election time in 2004. BHL covered many walks of American life: politics (he met, among others, Obama, Clinton and Kerry), Hollywood (Sharon Stone, Warren Beatty), prisons (the original aim of Tocqueville was to study the American penitentiary system), entertainment (Vegas, a brothel in Nevada), sports (Baseball Hall of Fame), religion (from born-again evangelists to Brooklyn Jews to Mormons), US history (Mount Rushmore) and much much more. Each vignette describes shortly what he experienced and then expands on the subject by putting it into context. "The big picture" is a motive that runs throughout the book, with BHL trying to frame each experience within the theory he builds for the American experience.

And the theory is as follows: America is indeed an empire, but not of the sort Rome was. Its fierce protection of individualism, coupled with a deep sense of integrity and accountability, make it a power to be reckoned with despite the predictions of its decline. It is a land of contradictions: puritanism coupled with promiscuity, religious fervour coupled with materialism of the lowest kind, isolationism coupled with a sense of global duty. As dysfunctional as America is, BHL believes it will endure. He is an "anti anti-American" and repeatedly berates his compatriots for being so automatically against anything American and for falsely predicting the failure of the American model.

As impartial as BHL tries to be, his love for America is apparent throughout the book (although I think he will refuse to admit "love" is the appropriate word). He writes lovingly about Seattle, calling it the one place he would choose to live in if he were to move to the US, only to trade it later in the book with Savannah, Georgia. All in all, I don't think he was successful in "retracing the footsteps" of Tocqueville, but nevertheless this is still an interesting and stimulating book.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Early Sakura

I was in Tokyo for the weekend and in a park not far from where I stayed I noticed a couple of early-blossoming cherry trees. A bit early for sakura, but I guess the warm winter has brought on the blossom a bit earlier this year.

Here are a couple of pictures of this early sakura blossom in Arisugawa park: