The Big Short (and a little short digression on Brexit)

Reading the book, and watching the film. Focusing more on the book, for there the characters are real, not fictionalised.

There’s something about the financial crash that grabs you. Now almost ten years ago, a mortgage securities crisis for heaven’s sake, we think this is someone else’s bed, but we’re all tucked in, and we’re all sucked in. There are big personalities, outsiders, outlaws almost, and big banks, and tanking economies. Michael Lewis makes a brilliant job telling the story, dissecting and explaining. I am now a little wiser, but not out of the wood.

We didn’t know it was happening. Quoting Michael Lewis:

The monster was exploding. Yet on the streets on Manhattan there was no sign that anything important had just happened. The fire that would affect all their lives was hidden from their view. That was the problem with money. What people did with it had consequences, but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.

Will Brexit just somehow slide into place, we’ll be a little bit poorer, but hardly notice, or a whole lot poorer, but we won’t notice because there won’t be too many crises on route, it won’t be harum-scarum? ‘(People) were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected the one with the other.’ Or maybe we will notice – maybe the crises will be more immediate, urgent, and hit our pockets in very direct and noticeable and politically-accountable way.

Playing with risk, at other people’s expense. Or in the case of Brexit, at a nation’s expense.

Compare Wall Street:.

Salomon Brothers transferred the ultimate risk from themselves to their shareholders. …from that moment, the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risk had no real understanding of what the risk takers where doing and, as the risk taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished…. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had from turning an investment bank into a public corporation and leveraging the balance sheet with exotic risks, the pyschological foundations of Wall Street shifted, from trust to blind faith.

Here, in the UK, we are the shareholders. (Sounds dangerously like Brexit speak!)

Back to the book…

The Big Short book brings you face to face with the detail, and it’s a mighty challenge to follow at times, when CDSs get gathered together into CDOs, and CDOs are packaged together, and sometimes different CDOs are packaged into new CDOs, and the old CDOs show up in the new CDOs as if they were in for the first-time. They were going round in circles, and if anyone cared they didn’t care enough to dig down and find out what was really going on – the money coming in was just too good, on a vast and pretty much unfathomable scale.

(CDO – collateralized debt obligations, CDSs – credit default swaps.)

So much investment bank activity is feeding frenzy. Maybe there’s no longer the same level of skulduggery. But there is the endless and needless creation of new financial products, and new ways to bet, to short, to take options…

Making money out of money, other people’s money, is still the golden road…

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

Room – the movie 

Thoughts on the movie, Room, which my daughter Rozi and I saw last Monday. Though in itself an extraordinary story there are connections with ordinary childhoods, and that’s what I want to explore here.

Room focuses on a mother, Joy, abducted and kept prisoner for seven years, and the boy, Jack, she gave birth to two years into her captivity – the father being her captor. They’re incarcerated in a garden shed, with a skylight, and a TV, and this is the only world the boy knows, until aged 5, his mother explains (quite a challenge) to him that the world he sees on TV is actually (cartoons accepted) the real world. And she plans an escape. I’ll say no more about the plot.

There’s an intensity about the movie, which needs to be considered apart from the book on which it’s based: the movie can’t cover all the book’s elements or subtleties. It focuses on mother and child, and it’s the strength of their relationship which left an indelible impression on me. Joy gives him her total attention, total loyalty, and while in the everyday world parent-child relationships can so easily be inadequate or fractured, in this case Jack grows up, over his first five years, remarkably secure, and with a strong sense of his own identity. It has to be reinterpreted once he learns that there is a real world out there, and of course when he finds himself actually in that world.

But there is an identity on which he can build – and that is the subject of the second half of the movie.

I remember reading a few years ago about the work of paediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, and his  concept of the ‘holding environment’.  And it all seems very relevant.

Winnicott argued that the ‘mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother’, as well as fostering the ability to experience the body as the place wherein the  child – and the adult – securely lives. The capacity for being – the ability to feel genuinely alive inside, which Winnicott saw as essential to the maintenance of a true self – is fostered by the practice of childhood play. (Quotes courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Joy provides so much of what Jack needs, there is a real sense of ‘holding’, and gives him security, and she encourages play – there’s a lot of play in the early scenes of the movie: children can conjure remarkable world of play out of very little. They don’t need Toys R Us or Hamleys.

As for the father – the movie hardly touches on that. Joy rejects ‘Old Nick’ as the ’emotional’ father of the child. But how Jack connects to men and male role models –  that’s another story, and hardly touched on in the movie.

A movie, far more than most, to make you think.

No Martians on the Camino

I haven’t see the movie of The Martian. It came out while I was walking the Camino. But I’ve now read the book…

Mark Watney, left behind in a Martian sandstorm, drives his Mars rover 3200 km to get to the MAV – Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will be,  he hopes, his escape.

What I love is the guy’s cool. An engineer and a botanist he comes up with strategies for everything that hits him, sometimes literally, and has the technical nous to tear apart and rebuild and concoct out of nothing on seemingly endless occasions. He grumbles about the audio books – including Agatha Christie – that are all he has to read, and he survives on Mars-grown potatoes. But he stays on course, remains hyper-normal, and mindful. Staying on task is what it’s all about. After a short which ends his communication with NASA he’s in his own, works out his solutions – but guesses rightly that half  the world is watching him on their TV screens.

We sit here in our comfortable chairs reading, entirely passive save for a few firing synapses and he’s taking on the universe, or if not the universe a sandstorm or two, a decidedly oxygen-free world, a surfeit of CO2 (his own fault – he shouldn’t breathe) and a few more problems.

But … seen from another perspective he’s almost an automaton, there’s awareness of his predicament, and a dry (appropriate given where he is) sense of humour but little awareness of self – no emotion, fear, anxiety – no sense of wonder. He’s grateful to Phobos as a navigation system, but decidedly rude about Mars’s smaller moon, Deimos. Maybe after so much time out in space he’s simply inured to it all.

That said, as an inspired problem-solver, he is a wonder in himself. I’ll be interested to see what the movie and Matt Damon make of him.

I first walked on Mars in my imagination when the BBC conjured the planet Hesikos in a TV series, The Lost Planet, when I was all of … maybe 7 years old. It wasn’t Mars – but close.

Mars was a morning star last autumn, innocent in the pre-dawn.

And that takes me back to the Camino, where there was only the day’s walking to plan, the route was more or less pre-ordained. We were solitary, but we were aware of self, and others, and landscape and history, and the wonder of God’s creation.

Two different worlds.

 

Three characters in search of a blog

Frank Auerbach – there’s a major retrospective at Tate Britain, Wilfred Thesiger – living among the Marsh Arabs in Iraq in the 1950s, and Rudolf Abel, from Stephen Spielberg’s latest movie, Bridge of Spies.

A painter, an explorer, and a Russian spy.

Starting with Auerbach, and two quotations:

After each session he scrapes off the paint and begins again. A single painting might take months, even years, before something appears that he hadn’t predicted and, he hopes, means the work is finished. (Catherine Lambert, Tate Etc magazine) and The paint contorts to capture it [nature] …not the ‘character’ of a scene or even its atmosphere, but rather it simply ‘being there’… (TJ Clark, from Frank Auerbach , edited by Catherine Lampert)

Just two studios over sixty years, both Camden Town, subject matter all local to his corner of north London, and very few models for his portraits. Auerbach endlessly reworked his patch of land. Inspiration could come in a moment, realisation take many months, or longer.

I came across a book entitled ‘Zen Drawing’ recently but could find little of Zen in it. There’s much more in Auerbach. (Don’t know though if he’d want to own the idea!) Paintings conventionally freeze a moment in time, make the impermanent permanent. It’s as if Auerbach doesn’t want that permanence, and only when he feels he’s achieved that sense of a painting ‘being there’ is he content.

There’s also that sense of ‘being there’ in Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, which I’ve re-read this week. Remote areas, as far from ‘civilisation ‘ as he could manage, were always his preferred location, and he didn’t travel in a conventional sense – as far as he could he inhabited  a region, shared it with the locals, lived and adopted their lifestyle, and even style of dress. (A cross between the Great White Hunter and Widow Twanky, according to Gavin Young.)

Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flighting in to feed, a boy’s voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reed beds, narrow waterways that wound deeper into the Marshes…. Stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this with life, and to be more than a mere spectator. 

Visiting at least seven months each year over seven years, he saw a millennia-old way of life slipping away at first hand, as oil money literally seeped into southern Iraq. There’s close observation but also the fragility of that evening moment. How much did he sense its imminent collapse? That the young people would leave marshes, maybe yes, but that Saddam Hussein would drain the marshes – surely not.

Thesiger was always on the move, but always within his chosen patch – this time the lower Euphrates and Tigris. Likewise  Auerbach, at a very different, almost infinitely more local level. Thesiger was always open to experience, and so too in his studio was Auerbach, waiting on inspiration and working it up into that marvellous thick impasto which makes some of his paintings as much sculpture as painting.

Also finally, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War thriller built around the 1957 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and American U2 pilot, Gary Powers. Tom Hanks is puzzled and patient and wise as the lawyer, Donovan, and Mark Rylance is mesmerising, as low-key and dry as can be, as the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. Talking to my daughter afterwards, we both wouldn’t have minded if more of the movie had been a Donovan/Abel two-hander. They develop an understanding born of few words, mutual respect, and Abel’s wonderful dry humour.

‘Aren’t you worried,’ Donovan asks his client. ‘Would it help?’ is Abel’s laconic and deadpan reply.

Connections between the three?  There’s something in their attitude, but also they share a decade…

Thesiger, travelling in 1950s; Auerbach, a young painter finding his way in the 1950s; Donovan defending Abel before the Supreme Court in 1957.

A decade where with each year the threat and fear of a nuclear holocaust grew, and scared me as a schoolboy, the open mind of childhood more than a little tinged by fear.

Auerbach just out of art college responded by producing a series of paintings of building sites, his dark palette obscuring detail. Thesiger escaped as only he knew how. The threat might be a local blood feud, the challenge a dangerous wild boar to shoot or circumcisions to perform. (There was nothing ordinary about Thesiger’s life!)

And the movie? Like me Spielberg is a child of the 1950s, born just thirteen days after me in 1946. What he conveys is a surprising optimism. The inviolability of the American political system, as he and Donovan would wish it, wins out over cynicism and fear. Abel, as Donovan discovers, is a man of integrity, and the American legal system has to respond in kind, whatever the CIA might think.

There a sense of triumph at the end of the movie, something I’m not certain many of us shared in the 1950s, faced with the Cold War confrontations that kept hitting the news. Spy swaps were tawdry affairs. And a Russian spy as a ‘hero’? But in his way, with his quiet courage, that’s how we see Mark Rylance’s Abel.

One final point. The Guardian review of Bridge of Spies suggests that those of us brought up on John Le Carre might expect is ‘shabby compromise and exhausted futility’. What we get instead is ‘decency and moral courage’.

Due process triumphs, as it has so conspicuously failed to do at Guantanamo Bay.

Talking about the BAFTAs

Zenpolitics is not Mark Kermode or any other variant on the theme of film critic. But tonight is an exception. Watching the BAFTAs – yet again I wasn’t invited – I knew when I found tears in my eyes during a clip of a few seconds’ duration that Eddie Redmayne had to win best actor. I would have felt personally cheated had he not done so.

I have yet  to see Boyhood so can’t make comparisons. The very notion of a film so long in the making is heroic, and to give of yourself over so many years is one hell of an achievement. ‘When you make yourself vulnerable you make everyone else vulnerable as well,’ was a comment in one of the acceptance speeches in Richard Linklater’s absence. If they’d all been on their own agendas the movie could never have happened.

Mike Leigh had to be nice, given he was receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. ‘May you rot in hell,’ the fate he wishes in all those who declined to back his movies, was in its own way quite gentle.

‘How lucky we are to have been born into the age of cinema,’ was another Mike Leigh comment. Worth thinking on that one. How lucky we are to have been born at all. And just for today it could have been reading Basil Bunting’s Briggs Flats; a clear cold weather sunset; Venus, an evening star again, in the western sky; highlights of England v Wales rugby; or Man U’s last minute equaliser against West Ham. You make your own luck. Mike Leigh did.

Crass comment, tucked away in a review somewhere – BBC? – was Mark Kermode’s about Whiplash. ‘Rocky on snare drums.’ Whiplash was my third favourite film of the year, compelling, you just hung in there, one hell of a ride, and the drumming and the jazz, the sheer ordinary downhome genius of it all, was something else.

Second best film, Ida, a young Polish novice nun after the Second World War on what might be a voyage of discovery… The most perfect, finely judged movie almost I’ve ever seen. Camera work and settings kept simple, black and white, a bleak Poland where all the emotion lies in the unspoken history and that landscape…

The best film, yes, The Theory of Everything. Redmayne gets as close to being Stephen Hawking as any human either side of the pearly gates could ever do. It’s less about an extraordinary performance from Redmayne, more about his ability to convey an ordinary man, who did and is still doing extraordinary things.

 

 

Robin Williams – in memoriam

A brief time-out while I remember Robin Williams. He was Mrs Doubtfire, the voice of the genie in Aladdin, John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society. In the 90s, when my children were small, he was the finest and funniest actor of them all. To mark his passing and in memoriam tonight we watched Mrs Doubtfire. The last word, his last word, in the movie, is ‘goodbye’.

Two quotes I found on the BBC website, both John Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets’ Society. I can recall the passion with which he said them.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” –

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Carpe diem – that’s for all our lives.

As for the ‘poetry is cute’ quote: that is, I guess, is for me. It is how I see the world. Summed up in one quote.