Word of the day: semiquincentennial

November 25th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Semiquincentennial (also called sestercentennial or quarter millennial) is the 250th anniversary of an event.

I find it really difficult these days to find semiquincentennial birthday cards.

On the other hand, I’m looking forward to the semiquincentennial or 250th anniversary of the 1776 establishment of the United States of America which will fall on 4 July 2026.

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A review of the novel “Winter In Madrid” by C J Sansom

November 21st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Christopher John Sansom is a British writer of historical crime novels best-known for his Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England. He has written two standalone novels: “Dominion” (2012) which I read first and “Winter In Madrid” (2006) which I read rather later.

While “Dominion” is set in a fictional Britain of winter 1952 when Britain has made peace with Nazi Germany, “Winter In Madrid” is largely set in 1940 just after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War when Britain was concerned that Franco might take take his country into the Second World War on the side of Hitler and Mussolini who had assisted him during the civil war. 

There are a limited number of characters, primarily three former students of Rookwood boarding school: Harry Brett who is recruited by the British secret service to establish the details of a suspected source of gold in Franco’s Spain, Sandy Forsyth who is believed to be a key player in the development of a gold mine in the country, and Bernie Piper who was a member of the International Brigades in the civil war and long missing presumed dead.

The devastated city of Madrid, with its appalling poverty and blatant corruption, is almost a character in itself and there is much mention of cigarette smoking and coffee drinking. As with “Dominion”, Sansom does not hide his political stance which, in this case, is anti-fascist and pro-republican but critical of the revolutionary Left.

It has to be said that the historical portrayal of post-civil war Spain in this novel is more convincing than the plot which is very slow-burning with a rather downbeat ending. Sansom – who has both a BA and PhD in history – really does his research but his literary style is quite plain and his narrative is too thin. However, at over 500 pages, it was a satisfying enough read for the second lockdown of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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A review of the 2019 film “Dark Waters”

November 20th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

There is a sub-genre of drama movies that tell true-life stories of how powerful private corporations produced products that seriously harmed consumers and/or citizens, covering up the information and denying responsibility in the face of brave and tenacious individuals who sought to reveal the truth and hold them accountable. I think, for instance, of “Silkwood” (radiation in a plutonium processing plant), “Erin Brockovich” (chromium 6 in water) and “The Insider” (nicotine in cigarettes).

This film is an account of how a corporate defence laywer Robert Bilott used his legal skills to expose the mighty DuPont corporation for its use of a carcinogenic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the manufacture of Teflon. After a twenty-year legal battle, Bilott won three multimillion-dollar settlements against DuPont, forcing the company to settle the remaining more than 3,500 disease cases for $671 million.

It is a wonderful cast headed by Mark Ruffalo as Bilott, a role a million miles away from his casting as the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers series, with supporting roles filled by Anne Hathaway as Bilott’s wife and Tim Robbins as his boss. Furthermore it tells an enormously important story because PFOA and similar compounds are forever chemicals (chemicals that do not leave the blood stream and slowly accumulate) and everyone on the planet has been exposed to them in some way.

The problem is that cases of this kind typically take many years to research and prosecute and the evidence is voluminous and complex. This means that it is hard to make the narrative exciting but not all movies can be action-packed blockbusters. 

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A review of the new Italian film “The Life Ahead”

November 19th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Like my mother, Sophia Loren is an Italian who grew up in Naples. However, Loren has lived longer (she is now 86), she has had a rather more illustrious career (she has won two Academy Awards), and her son Edoardo Ponti has been more successsful than me (he directed this Italian-language film).

Although based on a French-language novel which has previously been made into a French-language film, this particular adaptation is set in the seaside town of Bari at the foot of Italy. Loren plays Madame Rosa, a Holocaust survivor and former prostitute, who now looks after children of deceased sex workers. She is persuaded to take on responsibility for a 12 year old orphan boy from Senegal called Momo, wonderfully portrayed by Ibrahima Gueye.

The changing dynamics between these two characters – so different in so many ways but both needing something vital from the other – is the emotional heart of the narrative, but there are other delightful supporting roles in a genuinely moving story. This is Loren’s first cinematic role in 11 years and it is one of her best ever.

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Why are coronavirus infection rates and deaths so much lower in Africa than in the rest of the world?

November 17th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

According to an article in the “Independent” newspaper, it was a year ago today that the first coronavirus case was recorded in China. Since then, the global pandemic has infected 55.1 million and killed 1.33 million.

Every nation on earth and every part of the globe has been impacted by the virus, but surprisingly the continent of Africa – in spite of its poverty and poor health systems – has suffered proportionately fewer infections and lower deaths than other parts of the world. Why? It is still too soon to be sure, but there are five possible factors.

  • Most African governments took early action to combat the virus.
  • Public support for safety measures has been high among Africans.
  • The continent has a young population with few care homes for the aged.
  • Higher temperatures in Africa have helped mitigate the spread of Covid.
  • Many African states have developed good community health systems.

You can find a more detailed discussion of these five factors in this BBC article.

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A review of the 2017 film “Mother!”

November 13th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I should have done my homework but, in the middle of the second lockdown of a global pandemic, I was struggling to find an interesting film that I hadn’t already seen. Then I found this movie with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and I’ve been a huge fan of hers since “Winter’s Bone” a decade ago. Plus the support cast – Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristen Wiig – was stellar.

Only at the end did I find that the work was both written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Now I’ve seen six of his earlier films and so I know how strange some of his work can be. But it was too late. “Mother”” starts like a weird dream and slowly morphs into a fiendish nightmare with some truly disturbing scenes. And I have no idea what it all means. But Lawrence is excellent.

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When he becomes President, expect a flurry of Executive Orders from Joe Biden

November 12th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

This time of year four years ago, I was on a flight to Washington DC. The Americans had just had their four-yearly presidential election and, to the amazement of the world, Donald Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College although not in the popular vote.

By chance, I was seated next to an American who had voted for Trump. He was young, educated and articulate, so I was surprised at his choice. In conversation, I learned that he had two particular gripes with the Democrats: first, he had a visceral hatred of Clinton (which I did not understand) and, second, he believed that as president Barack Obama had made hugely excessive use of Executive Orders (which I contested).

An executive order is a means of issuing federal directives and it is used by a US president to manages operations of the federal government. The legal or constitutional basis for executive orders has multiple sources, but they are sometimes criticised for being an abuse of power or simply as a show of activity without real change. Any executive order can be revoked by another president.

Executive orders were used very sparingly until Abraham Lincoln who issued 48. Theodore Roosevelt issued 1,081, while Calvin Coolidge issued 1,203. The record, though, is held by Franklin D Roosevelt with 3,522. He served four terms and it was the Great Depression which explains this number.

So, was my American fellow flyer right to be angry at Barack Obama’s use of executive orders? Obama issued 276 during his eight years in office. That was actually a bit less than his Republican predecessor George W Bush who issued 291 in his eight years in the White House. And what about Donald Trump? In his four years in office, he has used executive orders 193 times. Although Trump has made a big show of signing such orders, his use of them has not been much more frequent than other recent presidents.

Remember all this early next year when President Joe Biden issues a flurry of executive orders to reverse some of Trump’s terrible decisions and to start the process of making America sane again. The Republicans will accuse him of abusing his powers but he will be acting constitutionally and in accordance with precedent.

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A review of the new film “The Trial Of The Chicago 7”

November 11th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The late 1960s was a terrible time in the United States with race riots and anti-war demonstrations. The film “Detroit” powerfully depicted the outcome of a riot in that city in 1967 and this movie looks at the aftermath of a demonstration in Chicago in 1968. Eight activists – one was severed from the case – were prosecuted by the Nixon administration in a farce of a trial that shamed this democratic nation. The demonstration involved a number of political groups and the trial lasted months but writer and director Aaron Sorkin has done a masterful job in synthesizing the events and focusing on the issues. 

There is such a richness of talent in this work. Besides Sorkin who is himself an Academy Award winner, the cast features two Academy Award winners, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance, as well as three Academy Award nominees, Sacha Baron Cohen, Michael Keaton, and Frank Langella. In this very American story, no less than four of the leading actors are British: the aforementioned Redmayne, Rylance and Cohen plus Alex Sharp.

I saw this powerful film during the period between the US presidential election and the news four days later than Trump had been defeated. The divisiveness and intolerance and cultural clevage of 1968 have their profound echoes in contemporary America. As Sorkin has put it: “The script didn’t change to mirror the times. The times changed to mirror the script.”

Wikipedia page on the Chicago Seven click here

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How many cases of coronavirus been caused by touching contaminated surfaces?

November 6th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The World Health Organization has warned about surfaces being a source of transmission, while conceding there are no reports demonstrating infection in this way. It said: “Despite consistent evidence as to Sars-CoV-2 contamination of surfaces and the survival of the virus on certain surfaces, there are no specific reports which have directly demonstrated fomite transmission. People who come into contact with potentially infectious surfaces often also have close contact with the infectious person, making the distinction between respiratory droplet and fomite transmission difficult to discern.” Some suggest that surface transmission has been overplayed as a cause of infection at the expense of warning about airborne transmission.

However, as the WHO says, it is difficult to isolate the risk that surface transmission poses. At any rate, washing deliveries is deemed unnecessary by the Food Standards Agency, which says Covid “is not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging” and says the risk is “very low”. It says staff handling food in shops and other food businesses are required to take precautions and emphasises the importance for consumers to do so too, by regularly washing hands with soap and water.

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A review of “China’s War With Japan 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter

November 5th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The Second World War is generally thought to be clearly delineated as taking place from 1939-1945, although the two major allied nations – the Soviet Union and the United States – did not enter the conflict until 1941. For China, though, the Second World War can be seen as a major period in a wider epoch of almost two decades of war.

This started with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, a humiliation about which the Chinese Government was able to do little. Open conflict between China and Japan broke out with the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937 and did not end until the Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. This was not the end of hostilities in China, however, since there was then a civil war between Nationalists and Communists until the latter won in 1949.

In this book, Rana Mitter, a British historian of Indian origin who specialises in the history of republican China, provides a brilliantly researched, well-written and commendably balanced account of the war of 1937-1945, although he frames the story with some information on the periods before and after.

This is not a simple tale of aggressor versus victim, since the Japanese were dealing with three different Chinese groups: the Nationalists in the south and centre led by Chiang Kai-shek headquartered in Chongqing, the Communists in the north under Mao Zedong based in Yan’an, and a collaborationist group in the east headed by Wang Jingwei based in Nanjing. Each of these three groups had changing relationships with the others and each ran an espionage network seeking out spies and dissenters.

As if this situation was not complicated enough, various areas were controlled by Chinese warlords who had evolving alliances with the three main Chinese groups. Corruption was rife and Chiang Kai-shek’s nickname was ‘Cash My Check’.

Most of Mitter’s account is focused on the Nationalists since they did almost all the fighting against the Japanese with the Communists confined to a guerilla campaign in northern China. The Nationalists maintained some four million troops in the most populated parts of China, helping to tie down some half a million or more occupying Japanese soldiers who could otherwise have beem transferred elsewhere.

It is a tragic story.

Mitter narrates the doomed attempt to defend Shanghai which involved more than 200,000 Chinese soldiers, the six-week ‘rape of Nanjing’ by Japanese soldiers in a horrific war crime which caused up to 300,000 deaths, the short-lived Chinese victory at Taierzhuang, Chiang’s decision to breach the dykes of the Yellow River causing the death of half a million Chinese, the Japanese victory at Tianjiazhen achieved with the use of poison gas, the Nationalist burning of Changsha to prevent it falling to the enemy. the endless Japanese bombing of the Nationalist capital Chongqing, a famine in Henan province which caused another four million Chinese deaths, and the messy fighting in Burma.

Meanwhile the United States felt unable to provide more than minimal resources and gave Chiang an American chief of staff Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell whose abrasiveness still echoes in Sino-American relations to this day.

Most people appreciate that the Soviet Union suffered a much, much larger death toll than other combatant nations, but very few comprehend the price paid by the Chinese. According to Mitter, the war against Japan resulted in an “unimaginably great” toll of between 14-20 million dead and 80-100 million refugees plus the devastation of infrastructure. He refers to China as “the forgotten ally” whose contribution to the war was not appreciated at the time and is still not widely understood.

Interestingly it is not just non-Chinese who have neglected the country’s wartime role; it is the Chinese themselves. Since most of the fighting against the Japanese was done by the Nationalists who lost a civil war to the Communists and fled to the island of Taiwan, the events of 1937-1945 do not fit into the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party being the source of all the nation’s success.

The war ended what the Chinese call ‘the century of humiliation’ (1842-1945), when a variety of imperial powers (notably Britain) controlled key parts of the country’s territory and trade, and the Chinese leadership is now determined to see the nation as a global power equal to the United States. As Ritter summarises the Chinese view: “at an earlier time when its contribution was needed, China delivered, and it should now be trusted as it seeks, once again, to enter international society playing a wider role”.

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