King Leopold

Anyone who knows the name “King Leopold“, and knows enough to connect that name to Belgium, should be expected to know who King Leopold was. Here in San Francisco, we should be conscious that Mark Twain campaigned against the evils of Leopold’s regime in the Belgian Congo. History has plenty of “greatest monster” candidates. Leopold is one of them.

Here is Nsala Wala. He and his family were kidnapped and pressed into slavery. He didn’t collect enough rubber sap quickly enough, so his daughter was tortured, mutilated, and murdered. He’s been given her dismembered little hand and foot. That’s what he’s looking at. This was done by King Leopold and his man on the ground, Henry Morton Stanley.

Inline image 1

This is not news. What happened in the Congo is well known. The book “King Leopold’s Ghost” is not, exactly, obscure. Certainly, anyone who knows who King Leopold was should know who he actually was, and what he did.

So, of course, there’s a brewery, “Triple Voodoo”, that just opened its doors here in San Francisco and they think it’s hilarious to brew a Belgian Stout and call it “King Leopold”. And no-one who writes for the industry press or blogs for the industry blogs batted an eyelid.

 

WhiskyFest Chicago

I’m starting to feel like I know my way around Chicago a bit and it was great to see old friends and new folks. A few people I missed, I’ll come back. Importantly there was WhiskyFest Chicago, of which, some notes:

  • Koval Oat — Koval is based in Chicago and they do some interesting grain combinations. I loved their four-grain (corn/barley/wheat/rye). The 100% oat has a supple satiny aromatic quality to it that was completely new to me.
  • Tomatin 30 year old — The other Tomatin expressions were, I thought, either “sherry bombs” (as Brad put it) or not much of anything. But the 30 year old was special, lovely balance of heat and spice and vanilla surprising for a product that’s been in the wood so long.
  • Glendronach 14 year old “Virgin Oak” — My first sample of the night and a great way to start. Very distinctively, deceptively simple, like a baseline reference for an excellent single malt. Anchor is distributing this in the US now, apparently.
  • Cody Road Rye Whiskey — Fine pure rye from Mississippi River Distilling Co in Iowa, by far the best of a thin crop of new ryes.

Also went to The Map Room, wherein:

  • Big Muddy Monster — An “India-Style Brown Ale”, they call it, more like a blend of different beers, like a rich brown ale married to a hoppier pale.
  • Darkhorse Plead the 5th — Well, here’s an Imperial Stout for you. Superb. Vinous, old fruit, dates and leather, good heat, good balance.

Arletty vs Steel Panther

The local bar has one of those Internet jukeboxes, and the other night someone put on a song by Steel Panther. They’re one of those goofily bro-friendly acts along the lines of The Bloodhound Gang. The refrain to this song goes:

“My heart belongs to you,
 But my cock is community property”

You have to laugh. But it happened that at the time I was reading the chapter in Keith Lowe’s book “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II” about how real and accused collaborators were treated in France, so I animatedly explained that this must have been inspired by the French actress Arletty and her defiance in the face of condemnation for her wartime affair with a Luftwaffe officer: “mon couer est français, mais mon cul est international“, and … I’ll get my coat.

Anyway, Arletty was traduced, dragged through a kangaroo court of sanctimonious men who had suddenly and very recently become great supporters of the Résistance, and imprisoned.

All the members of Steel Panther remain at large.

Friends in Slime: Labour’s Jimmy Harte and the Indo’s Greg Harkin

“It’s easy to spot the cyberbully. He’s the one with the small blog.”

– with apologies to Brendan Behan

Bullying, by definition, is committed by those with power against those without it. The current furore over “bullying” on social media was originally, partly at least, grounded in the best of intentions — the need for support and protection of those teenagers and vulnerable people who are hounded to despair and even suicide is self-evident. But who would seek to co-opt this social instinct for their own ends? Who would be venal and self-serving enough to seize on a discussion of the most powerless, the most helpless, and turn it into an appreciation of themselves? Well, have you ever met an Irish politician?

It took almost no time for Senator Rónán Mullen to decide that the discussion of bullying should be less about the actual bullying of lonely and frightened children and more about political criticism and satire at his expense. His partner in the clubbable, cozy, male political establishment, Pat “lying is what you do” Rabbitte, was quick to reach across party lines and provide a shoulder for Mullen to cry on. It turns out, you see, that social media is used to criticize politicians! And to make fun of them! Well, we can’t be having that.

Now, we can make some allowances for Mullen possessing the typical tissue-thin skin of the ultra-rightist, and Rabbitte not understanding what the Internet is or that the days are gone when politicians automatically received the deference they demand, so in itself there’s nothing newsworthy here. What would be unbelievable, though, what would be hard to credit, is the entrance on the scene of a politician who can claim no ignorance of social media, a previously-active Twitterer with a propensity for street brawling himself, a man given to paroxysms of incoherent rage — and, dare I say it, “bullying” behaviour — on Twitter. It is hard to imagine what sort of a man would demonstrate such a combination of brass neck and mendacious hypocrisy.

Jimmy Harte

Labour senator and noted lying hypocrite Jimmy Harte

We first met Senator Jimmy Harte a year ago, when he was conveniently available to speak to an Irish Independent writer named Greg Harkin and provide sound-bites for the notorious “Magda”article, a hatchet-job which maliciously distorted an interview with Gaia Kowalik, a Polish woman living in Donegal, to falsely portray her as a scrounging ingrate contemptuous of her adopted home. The Independent was soon compelled to take down the story as the truth behind the interview and article was easily discovered. The article looked like this:

The Independent's original "Magda" article illustrates the coziness between Harkin and Harte.

The Independent’s original “Magda” article illustrates the coziness between Harkin and Harte.

This is where I come in. I was not the only person who immediately detected a malicious stitch-up from the newspaper of William Martin Murphy, and criticized Jimmy Harte for taking the article at face value and for his willingness to engage in populist scapegoating of an unemployed immigrant. What I did not realize at the time was the cozy relationship between Harte and Harkin, a sordid symbiosis where each uses the other to amplify his lies. In this particular case, Harkin needed assistance in ridiculing and slandering a woman who was alone and unemployed in a strange country, and Harte was on call to help. “Bullying”, we might call this alliance of two smug, privileged men at the nexus of political and journalistic power in Ireland, with staffs and pension funds, directed against a woman trying to get by.

Clearly, then as now, Harte was not expecting criticism. His responses began shortly after Letterkenny’s pubs closed. He did not, of course, address the “Magda” issue or the criticisms I had raised, rather he descended into a fever dream of paranoid ranting about his critics being “sad”, “anti Donegal” and, I don’t know, something about Eamon Dunphy.

Fame at last!

Fame at last!

Let’s note that all this took place on February 2, 2012. In the morning, Jimmy bravely — if, no doubt, sore-headedly — deleted his Tweets and has not Tweeted since. As of now, his Twitter feed clearly shows it has lain dormant since this incident.

After a finger-wag from the Labour Party offices, Harte offered a classic not-pology to the aether — he apologized neither to me nor his other new Twitter friends, nor to Ms. Kowalik. I took the matter in stride, and life went on.

What’s Another Year?

So, who should show up like a bad penny as the Irish political and journalistic establishment works itself up into a phony, pearl-clutching outrage about social media? Well, that would be Jimmy Harte. And who is his associate, enabling and amplifying his lies? If you guessed the Irish Independent’s Greg Harkin, you win!

Whereas before we saw Harkin use his political associate to amplify his newspaper’s xenophobia, now we see Harte use Harkin as his mouthpiece to turn his false claims into reported fact. Here’s what Harkin wrote at Harte’s behest in the Irish Independent just the other day:

Harte tells stupid, easily refuted lies, Harkin uncritically reports them as fact. Journalism!

Harte tells stupid, easily refuted lies, Harkin uncritically reports them as fact. Journalism!

We lead with Harkin simply reporting that “Cyber-bullies behind a vicious intimidation campaign against a Labour senator have forced him to quit social media sites.” He states this as fact, but none of it is true, and he knows none of it is true. A journalist who was told this tale by a politician would have sought to corroborate the facts and investigate them. Harkin, though, writes for the Irish Independent and for his pet politicians, and does what he’s told.

As we have already noted, Jimmy Harte closed his Twitter account — or, more accurately, stopped posting to it; it has still not been closed as of this writing — a year ago. He stopped posting after being embarrassed by vicious, nasty things he had posted on Twitter and then deleted. If Greg Harkin were a journalist, he would have reported on that. But Harkin is not a journalist, he is a stooge and a liar who acts in cozy collusion with Jimmy Harte.

Almost everything else that Harte says in that article is a lie. He claims threats, but there aren’t any. He rails against the “anonymity” of his Twitter threateners — who remain anonymous because he doesn’t name them, not even by screen name, most likely because they don’t exist.

Just How Stupid Do These People Think You Are?

Harkin and Harte speak with one voice in this article to complain: “The final straw came when someone put his home address and personal information online.” Implicit here is that some sort of threat was being made, as if a cabal of sinister Twitter “bullies” had arranged to march on Casa Harte in Letterkenny with pitchforks. Arrant nonsense, of course, no such threat ever existed and if it had then I think a call to the Gardaí rather than your accomplice at the Indo would be in order. But, more fundamental is the absurdity of being  asked to believe that an Irish politician lives in terror of his home address being publicized. Irish politicians live and die by their clinics, their constituency meetings, and being known in their communities. Everyone in Ireland can find their TDs’ home address for the asking, and both Harte and Harkin know this. They publicize their addresses and phone numbers everywhere. On Jimmy’s home page on the Labour Party website, we have this:

"The final straw came when someone put his home address and personal information on line."

“The final straw came when someone put his home address and personal information online.”

Everyone in Ireland knows that this is how the system works. For Harte & Harkin to pretend that the publishing of his home address would represent some sort of vile social media threat is the rankest cynicism.

Where Do They Get Them From?

One might wonder where the Labour Party is in all this. Why do they cozy up to the likes of Rónán Mullen against a satirical Twitter account? Why did they only criticize Jimmy Harte’s intemperate ranting, but have nothing to say about the actual substantive issue — the xenophobic slander of the original “Magda” article?

Why, indeed, do they have Jimmy Harte as a senator at all? He was a failure as a Fine Gael politician, so he left in a huff and became a failure as an Independent politician. The Labour Party, for reasons best known to themselves, thought that was the sort of strong, vibrant leadership they needed so they were happy to invite him in and offer him another chance at a Dáil seat, which he failed at yet again. That, the Labour Party thought, made him the ideal person to parachute in as a Senator. At last, the Oireachtas pension that had eluded him! And the ability to speak under parliamentary privilege! And access to servile Indo hacks on the lookout for opportunities for mutual back-scratching!

Certainly if I were a member of the Labour Party’s grass roots, I would wonder why such preference was shown to an unrepentant Blueshirt failure with a track record in emotional outbursts timed around the statutory closing of licensed premises. The lesson to be learned here is that hard work and loyalty to the Labour Party doesn’t pay off nearly as well as being the right sort of smug, privileged man of the right age who has sufficient establishment credentials.

But that’s today’s Labour Party for you: cozing up to the Independent, tolerant of xenophobia but extremely sensitive about people criticizing politicians on Twitter; not the party of Jim Larkin, but of Jimmy Harte.

UPDATE – Harte and Harkin together in a simpler time …

I just found this; it’s Greg Harkin practicing his Indo-calibre journalism skills for the Donegal Daily back in 2010. Watch as Greg asks Jimmy the tough questions! Truly these two were made for each other.

Donegal Daily "Business Profile" page 1 Donegal Daily "Business Profile" page 2Donegal Daily "Business Profile" page 3

Opera, Whales, and The Simpsons

Twenty years ago, we caught a glimpse of what a bold operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire might sound like, when The Simpsons did it, and André Previn panicked.

The 1992 episode A Streetcar Named Marge deftly imagined the musical Streetcar! and gave us a few bits and pieces of some songs that might belong to it. The result was brilliant, hilarious, and poignantly true to the original:

Ned Flanders/Stanley Kowalski: “You’re a girl, and I’m a fella”
Marge Simpson/Blanche DuBois: “Stanley, stop, or I’ll call Stella!"

Somewhere, André Previn and Phillip Littell watched this and they freaked out. The serious grown-up opera they were working on had just pre-emptively had its imperial wardrobe stripped off. So they decided they’d do something different: they wouldn’t have any of those snappy rhymes or incisive ambiguities, or, you know, actual songs. Those belong in musicals, not in our precious opera, oh, no. This is serious business, so it needs to be duller. To the recitative machine!

Stella Kowalski: “Can I get you a Coke?”
Blanche DuBois: “How about a shot? A shot never did a Coke any harm.”

Perfectly acceptable lines in a play, or a novel — but how awful that sounds when it’s canted operatically! Those two lines take about two minutes and there’s no point. There’s no nuance or interpretation possible, it’s just people intoning lines from a mauled screenplay while an orchestra plays somewhere in the background. The opera of A Streetcar Named Desire is an admission of defeat: a composer supposedly at the top of his game being outclassed by a cartoon parody.

All of this brings me to San Francisco Opera’s production of Moby-Dick.

There already exists a terrific version of Moby-Dick. It’s a novel by Herman Melville. All of the words are there; all of the things that Melville wished to say he said. If you want to do something with it you need to do something different. You can’t just have people put sentences to some sort of melody. You can’t use all the same words that Melville did. You need to write your own poetry, damn it, and you need to set that poetry to your own music. Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer don’t often attempt this.

What are we supposed to take from Moby-Dick? Has anyone ever left that opera humming one of its tunes? Reading the book, Ahab’s chilling “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee” is a challenge for librettist and composer: so make a song of that! Write a song that people might recognize, might have running in their heads as they leave, might look up on YouTube or deliberately cue up on iPod or CD. But I can’t imagine many people seeking out a recording of Moby-Dick in time to come to enjoy at home or in the car.

Of course, the composers of modern opera don’t want to write Broadway musicals. They may also live in terror of the thought of Bryn Terfel performing one of their songs to a few anorak-wearers at a drizzly Opera in the Park event, and who could blame them? But they must acknowledge that opera succeeds when it uses songs, exploits the necessary ambiguity of their lyrics and staging, and uses the contrast with an often absurd and contrived setting to create what is paradoxically simple and universal.

What do we have for songs, then? There is a duet between Queequeg and Ishmael — each on their respective mast, if the subtext wasn’t texty enough — which is poignant and quite lovely. Towards the end, Starbuck makes a last plea with Ahab to turn back by evoking home and family — reminding me a bit of Turandot’s “Ping, Pang, Pong” (and making me wish I was listening to that instead, really). The third instance involved Pip, the cabin boy, a breeches role played by a soprano and the cast’s only woman (19th century whale ships were not equal opportunity employers). Why play Pip in a breeches role? A good question.

Thar She Breeches

As the plodding Moby-Dick was getting all the attention, the SF Opera upstaged itself with its glorious, quicksilver I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Early on we are treated to a master class in getting the breeches role right: the incomparably lovely Joyce DiDonato is Romeo, the leader of the Montagues — but is in another layer of disguise, presenting as a mere emissary, offering a peace deal to a large group of hostile — and male — Capulets. The performer’s femininity underscores the character’s vulnerability and the futility of his mission with heartrending poignancy. Later, Romeo masquerades as a court lady at a ball, his hidden rapier’s hilt disguised as a brooch. It is a delightful mischief as the sword is drawn and the ballgown shrugged off. Throughout, Bellini and Romani use the tension between female performer and male character exquisitely, and the production responds.

Pip, on the other hand, is cozy and chirpy, unconcerned and unconcerning, no more mad before his near-drowning than after it. The duet Pip has with Stubb is a final indignity as the two characters breezily chortle about whale steaks being served “tough, rare, and bloody”. In Melville’s Moby-Dick, the passage from which this is drawn depicts the ugly racial humiliation and bullying of Fleece, the ship’s elderly black cook, by a white officer. To play this as a harmless duet not only undermines that — especially troublesome when Pip is sung by an African-American soprano — also raises the question of why the hell are you bothering with this stupid song? If you deny the scene its whole purpose then you actually are just blathering about how you like your whale steaks cooked. Can I get you a Coke?

A Critical Failure

But wait, you might ask, hasn’t this opera has garnered nothing but the most enthusiastic praise? Who are you, random opera neophyte, to fly in the face of critical unanimity? These are excellent questions and I’m glad I allowed you to raise them through this rhetorical device. Well, the San Francisco Chronicle called it  a “stirring triumph”, and most other reviews were positive, if not quite so emphatic. The Examiner — San Francisco’s answer to the New York Post — went with the headline “A Whale of an Opera” and no sub-editor accepted my suggestion of “A Cetacean Sensation”. Most of them no longer even answer my calls.

However, it’s easy to read between the lines of the reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the North County Times and elsewhere to see that there is a pervading sense of praising a dog for walking on its hind legs — the critical enthusiasm seems to be about the fact that Moby-Dick was attempted at all, not that it is the “triumph” or “revelation” that we really wanted it to be.

So, what now? Is there actually a future for contemporary English-language opera qua opera, distinct from the musical? There must be. There has to be. Clearly the demand is there; certainly the potential and the talent are. But until we have that challenge answered with more style we should brook no complaints about audiences preferring the classics and companies staging yet more Don Giovannis and Turandots. There are reasons they’re classics, after all.

Until Danny Elfman gives us that full-length production of Streetcar!, of course, because we would totally love that.

Two Documents Diverged

The Ulster Covenant of 1912 and the Easter Proclamation of 1916 belong to each other.

Ulster Covenant

Easter Proclamation

As Europe fell towards the reckoning of 1914, Ireland learned to broaden its demonstrations of independence. Irishness made more room for louche Anglo-Irish urbanity, and that made the flowering of Gaelic League, Abbey Theatre, and Catholic University all the more exciting. Of course a lot of the people who made much of Irishness had always a bit of Dissenter to them — Wolfe Tone was a Trinity debater, like all the best people. When Ireland started to deploy earnest Anglican church ladies and foppish London-based poets, though, it seemed like it was all over and a resignation set in. The House of Commons, bullied by an Irish National Party that sacrificed gentlemanly convention for cold-eyed manipulation of the numbers, had about conceded Irish independence. The irredentists, the rebels, were the Ulstermen.

Like the proudest and most majestic dinosaurs, the fastest Clipper ships, like the strongest fortifications of the Maginot Line, the Ulstermen set about fighting the last war in earnest. They signed the Ulster Covenant in their droves. It’s a message in a bottle from the world before the Great War, and it’s a confused lament of a certain strand of British Protestantism.

There’s a surprising embellishment of the initial capital “B”, and a flourish around all of the sentences, which has a touch more of the Books of Kells and Durrow and the old Irish Christian church than the Calvinists might want to credit. There is a lot more King-licking than I’ve ever thought the true Low-Churchers really wanted, and there are the red-ink “red-letter day” paragraph marks which are from the Ussher Bible, so there are influences that are both uniquely Irish and strangely ecumenical.

This is a contract that was signed, in a weird pseudolegal context. People believed it counted more when it was signed in blood; they queued up to sign; there is even a blank space for your name: “The above was signed by me at ___________, ‘Ulster Day,’ Saturday 28th September, 1912.” It declares for the King, “His Most Gracious Majesty”, and closes with “God Save the King” while frankly threatening armed resistance to his law. Kipling wrote a poem about it.

There was a different document, a “Declaration”, for the ladies.

Then the Great War. Kipling’s son went — he’d die, unmarked — and the world changed. The Ireland of 1916 was a colder and darker place; we had discovered the carnage and brutality that all of Europe had. Less than four years after the Covenant, the Proclamation was of a different time: For good or ill, now we had disciplined, worldly, uniformed men with guns; we had ideas and ideals and organization and more of an equal engagement in the same sort of politics that applied elsewhere.

The Proclamation isn’t a personal contract. It goes up on hoardings, on walls, in great sheets of cheap paper. There are no flourishes, there’s rough printing. You’ll notice that the pages that make it up overlap weirdly, and there’s a novelty OK-Coral Western typeface in the headline. No red letters, no crests or flourishes. It’s a rush job, a commercial job. Corners were cut. But Ireland doesn’t ask for your signature or allegiance; this is not an act of feudal deference. Instead, here is a nation state claiming its prerogative at a time when that whole notion was roiling Europe, and at times it does so with breathtaking clarity:

“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman” … “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland” … “We hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.”

There is a cowardice tending towards apophasis in the self-congratulatory bluster that often infects the Proclamation, though. The cringe-inducing mention of “our gallant allies in Europe” was a filthy payment for a boatload of rifles; the sheer cattiness of references to “an alien government”. The Proclamation was not signed personally, the way the Covenant was. But, with one exception, those whose signatures are recorded were all executed by firing squad, and so many Covenant-signers marched towards the Somme.

The Proclamation is often pompous, and grandiose — but that’s part of the nature of the Rising, holding the GPO and being a futile gesture. And it’s often tender — the religiosity of the Proclamation is more Thomas Jefferson than archbishop McQuaid: there is the bold promise that “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. The Ulster Covenant doesn’t do that.

In the two documents there’s the frustration of our failure to make a go of it together. Both the Republic and the North are much hurt and much diminished.