A review of the book “But What Can I Do?” by Alastair Campbell

February 24th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

The last book that I read was “Why We Get The Wrong Politicians” by Isabel Hardman. In my view, that work put too much emphasis and blame on individuals for the current state of British politics, spent far too much time describing the problem and very little time suggesting remedies, and was overly pessimistic about the present condition of public affairs.

By contrast, this book by Alistair Campbell – best-known as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications from 1994-2003 – takes a more systemic approach to “Why Politics Has Gone So Wrong” (to quote the sub-title), spends even more time on addressing “How You Can Help Fix It” (again to quote the sub-title), and overall is much more positive about the prospects for reform and renewal.

Campbell identifies the tipping point when contemporary politics went wrong as the global financial crisis of 2008/09 and summarises the major causes as the three Ps: polarisation, populism, post-truth. His advice is simple but sensible: resist cynicism, develop a campaigning mindset, be a leader, be a team player, be a strategist, learn confidence, acquire persevilience (what he describes as “the marriage of perseverance and resilience”).

There is nothing particularly new or dramatic here, but there is a great deal of really practical advice from an experienced campaigner with lots of anecdotes and extensive contacts. Campbell writes in a lively, accessible style that draws on his considerable experience and is candid about his own strengths and weaknesses. Whereas the tone of Hardman’s book questions why anyone would want to go into politics, Campbell concludes his work with a chapter entitled “How To Get Into Politics”. 

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How good is your Chinese history?

February 20th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

This week, it’s half-term in the town where my two granddaughters live and I’ve agreed to entertain each of them for a day. Today was the turn of the younger who is seven. I asked her what she’d learned at school recently and she told me that they had been studying the Shang Dynasty.

Now it’s 70 years since I was at primary school, but I’m sure that we never studied anything as remotely interesting as the Shang Dynasty. Did you? Indeed I would guess that most adults in the Western world know nothing at all about the Shang Dynasty, so allow me to enlighten you.

The Shang dynasty was a Chinese royal dynasty that ruled in the Yellow River valley during the second millennium BC, traditionally succeeding the Xia dynasty and followed by the Western Zhou dynasty. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian.

Modern scholarship dates the dynasty between the 16th to 11th centuries BC, with more agreement surrounding the end date than beginning date. I cannot imagine what was going on then in what we now call Britain, but I guess not so much.

So now you know …

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A review of the 2020 film “The Courier”

February 18th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

This espionage drama made little impact on its release because, at that time, we were just emerging from a global pandemic and cinemas were struggling to attract customers. Russia had not yet invaded Georgia and threatened to use nuclear weapons. But it is a film that is worth seeing because it is based on a true story in a period when humankind was facing an even more existential threat than Covid-19 and it is a reminder than you can never trust the Kremlin.

At the height of the Cold War in 1960, a high ranking Soviet official called Oleg Penkovsky (ably portrayed by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze) is so concerned at Khrushchev’s threats to “bury” the West that he reaches out to the CIA with information that he hopes might de-escalate the situation. The CIA works with MI6 to find a safe way to bring our the information and they settle on an ordinary British businessman called Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch who never fails to give a convincing performance). Matters come to a head when Penkovsky provides material of assistance to the Americans in the Cuban missile crisis and when the Soviets realise that they have a traitor in their midst.

Unlike so many films these days, “The Courier” follows a straight and simple narrative with no flash-backs and no twists. As such, it is a workmanlike production which relies on the true story itself to highlight the need for, and the dangers of, spycraft. 

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A review of the 2022 film “Aftersun”

February 17th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

By the time that I caught up with this film, it had received 121 nominations and 33 awards, so the critics clearly adored it, and I wanted very much to do so too. I love to see new talent and this is the feature film debut of Scottish director, writer and producer Charlotte Wells.

The story is the holiday in a Turkish holiday resort of 11-year old Sophie (played by an amazing Franki Corio) and her 31-year old father (wonderfully portrayed by Paul Mescal) who is divorced from her mother. It is beautifully acted but, for me, it is too slow, too little happens, and what is really happening is too opaque.

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Three quotes from three US presidents

February 13th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

“Ich bin ein Berliner.”

— President John F. Kennedy, June 26, 1963

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

— President Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987

“I would encourage [the Russians] to do whatever the hell they want.”

— Donald Trump, February 10, 2024

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A review of the inspirational new film “Nyad”

February 12th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

How would anybody even think of swimming nonstop from Cuba to Florida? This is a 110-mile stretch of ocean bedevilled by powerful currents, sharks and jelly fish. American long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad knew better than anyone what would be involved and how impossible it would be. After all, when she was 28, she had tried and failed. But, aged 60, she decided that she wanted another go. It sounds crazy, but this true story makes for a compelling movie.

It is directed by wife and husband team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, previously known for excellent documentaries and here making their feature film directorial debut. The work has a documentary feel to it which draws in the viewer. But it is the casting that makes the movie. Annette Bening, as you’ve never seen her before, is “the swimmer” and Jodie Foster is her former partner, best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll. Both give outstanding performances which understandably have attracted award nominations. 

Of course, all heroes are flawed and Nyad has been challenged over details of her record but, as a film, “Nyad”is a considerable success – gripping and inspirational. You can find it on Netflix.

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A review the new film “The Zone Of Interest”

February 11th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

This is a really disturbing film about the greatest crime against humanity: the Holocaust of the Second World War. It is loosely based on the novel of the same name by British writer Martin Amis and it is both written and directed by Jonathan Glazer who is both British and Jewish. It is largely set at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in German-occupied Poland where over a million, mainly – but not exclusively – Jews, were murdered.

I spent a day at the site in the Winter of 1993 and I will be forever haunted by what I saw.

What is so astonishing about this work is what you do not see but what you hear. The narrative is set largely in the family home of the commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and their five children, which is located against one of the high walls of the camp, and much of what we see is the enjoyment of their domesticity.

But, all the time that we are at their home, we hear in the background the unmistakable sounds of the machinery of genocide – the trains, the shouting, the shooting, the screaming – and, at the very beginning and the very end of the film, there is discordant orchestral music which bookends this tale of horror.

The lead actors and most of the dialogue are German; the support actors and the location shooting are Polish; and the funding was American, British and Polish. It has been nominated for five Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and nine BAFTAs. It is a chilling film that you will never forget.

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I always like to have a project

February 10th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

Last year, my project was to write a memoir in time for circulation at my 75th birthday on 25 June 2023. I did it. It’s called “Roger And (Not) Out” and you can find it in Amazon.

This year, my project is to curate a series of interviews of staff and residents at the apartment unit where I live. I plan to launch it at an event on 19 June 2024. It’ll be titled “Rennie & River: Tales From Two Courts” and will be available on Amazon.

In fact, I’ve been been working on my latest project for eight months and I’m approaching the end of the actual interviewing and writing. I’ve done 34 interviews and written almost 50,000 words.

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A review of the new film “Society Of The Snow”

February 7th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 was the chartered flight of a Fairchild FH-227D from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile, that crashed in the Andes mountains on 13 October 1972. The flight was carrying 45 passengers and crew, including 19 members of the Old Christians Club rugby union team, along with their families, supporters and friends. Three crew members and nine passengers died immediately and several more died soon after due to the frigid temperatures and the severity of their injuries.

During the 72 days following the crash, the survivors suffered from extreme hardships, including sub-zero temperatures, exposure, starvation, and an avalanche, which led to the deaths of 13 more passengers. The remaining passengers resorted to cannibalism to survive. Eventually two survivors, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, made a 10-day trek to find help. On 22 and 23 December 1972, two and a half months after the crash, the 14 remaining survivors were rescued.

This utterly astonishing story of human survival has been told in film before: the 1993 American production “Alive”. It was shot in British Colombia with an American cast led by Ethan Hawke. I never saw that film, but I wanted to see “Society Of The Snow”, the 2023 Spanish version of the story. 

The photography is stunning: much of the film was shot in the Sierra Nevada in Spain but other shooting was in Uruguay, Chile and Argentina including the actual crash site in the Andes. Three replicas of the fuselage wreckage were deployed to considerable effect. A deliberate choice was made to use unknown actors for the Spanish-speaking cast and clearly great efforts were made to consult with the survivors and their families. Spanish director J. A. Bayona has managed to make a film that makes you feel that you are in the action while demonstrating sensitivity to the real characters portrayed and the agonising decisions that they had to make.

The scale and impact of this work cry out for it to be seen on the big screen, but the film has only had a very limited theatrical release in a few countries, so you’ll have to see it – as I did – on Netflix. It has been nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards.

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A review of the new film “American Fiction”

February 4th, 2024 by Roger Darlington

This is an African-American work in the sense that the source material (the novel “Erasure” by Percival Everett), the writer and director (Cord Jefferson in a feature-film debut), almost all the actors, and the subject material are all African-American.

But this is not “The Color Purple”; instead the message of the movie is that most white people only encompass black narratives if they are stereotypically about slavery, poverty or gangsterism. So the lead character, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, is an African-American professor of English who struggles to have his fiction work sold because it is insufficiently stereotypically black. In this role, Jeffrey Wright (whom, I confess, I only know from recent James Bond films where he played CIA agent Felix Leiter), is wonderful and, in an impressive support cast, watch out for Sterling K Brown as ‘Monk”s gay bother.

“American Fiction” is part social satire (the fiction in writing) and part family drama (the roles we play and the secrets we keep). In the former capacity, the film asks us to rethink how people of colour are presented in storytelling media. In the latter sense, we look at the different ways in which we reveal ourselves to family and friends and the benefits of openness and trust. So there is a lot going on here, but the style is light and enjoyable and the ending deliciously multi-choice.

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