Here’s some good advice: beware of my holiday destinations

January 6th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The joke among our family and friends is that, when I choose to visit a particular part of the world for a holiday, something dramatic often happens there.

The latest incidence of this recurrent pattern follows my recent posting that this year I’m hoping to visit five of the -stans of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This week, we learn the news that there is massive social unrest in Kazakhstan. It is understood that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – an alliance of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – will dispatch forces to “stabilise” Kazakhstan.

I suppose my personal connection between travel and trouble started when I made a first visit to what was then Czechoslovakia in 1988. We smuggled material into the country for the underground movement and took other material out for them. The following year, the country overthrew Communism in its ‘velvet revolution’ which triggered other revolutions in Central & Eastern Europe.

In 2003, I made a visit to Nepal when the Maoist insurgency was still active. The day after our arrival in Kathmandu, the chief of police, his bodyguard and his wife were killed while on an early morning walk on the outskirts of the capital.

In 2008, I made a visit to Cuba. Just two weeks before our departure, Fidel Castro announced that he was stepping down as the world’s longest-serving president after an astonishing 49 years in power.

Then there was my trip to Iran in 2009. A few months before my holiday, the disputed presidential election led to massive demonstrations by the Green Movement. The domestic situation became calmer and we were able to make the trip in the first week of November even though this coincided with fresh demonstrations around the 30th anniversary of the taking of the American Embassy hostages. We visited a member of the Green Movement in his home in Tehran.

The saddest occurrence was the follow-up to my  trip to Syria in 2011. Just a couple of weeks after our departure, demonstrations started that soon led to armed conflict and then a full-scale civil war that has now been running over a decade. Around half a million have been killed and over 12 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes.

In 2013, I visited Bangkok as a break on the flight to Australia. The next year, there was a coup d’état in the country which is still ruled by a military dictatorship.

In 2014, I made a tour of Central America, visiting Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Three of these countries have had brutal civil wars which are now thankfully over, but three have them are ravaged by violent street gangs and drug groups, with two of them having the highest murder rates in the world outside of actual war zones.

In 2015, we made a trip to Ethiopia which had recently emerged from a prolonged period of authoritarianism and brutality. This fascinating country was ripe for a growth in tourism but, a year ago, it descended back into civil war.

In 2017, I had a two-week holiday in Sri Lanka. The bitter civil war was over but, all the time I was there, there was talk of the late arrival of the south-westerly monsoon which they have at that time of year. It hit the island just after I left: at least 100 people were killed and nearly 500,000 displaced.

In 2018, I made a trip to Colombia. The long-running civil war was technically over but, in the city of Medellin, a look at the shanty town of Comuna 13 had to be cancelled. More than 30 street gangs or “combos” operate throughout district. Nevertheless, the area has become a tourist attraction. However, on the morning of our proposed visit, our guide announced that there had been a recent upsurge of violence in the area and it was no longer safe for us to go there.

I think you may see a pattern here …

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Just how common are pandemics? You might be surprised.

January 4th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Currently I am reading “Seven Ways To Change The World: How To Fix The Most Pressing Problems We Face” by Gordon Brown. In his chapter on ‘Preventing Pandemics’, he writes:

“Lest we think COVID-19 is a ‘black swan’ and that global pandemics are one-offs, it is worth examining the evidence. Throughout history, more people have been killed by pandemics than by wars and lesser conflicts.

And indeed it is an equally remarkable contemporary fact that, already in this still-young century, we have witnessed five large-scale epidemics: SARS (2003), avian flu (2009), Ebola (2014), Zika (2018), and now COVID-19.”

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A review of the successful Indian movie “3 Idiots”

January 3rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

This Hindi-language film was released in India in 2009 but I only caught up with it on Netflix on a quiet New Year’s Day over a decade later.

The three eponymous characters are far from idiots: they are students at Delhi’s prestigious Imperial College of Engineering but they do have an unconventional approach to life and studying. The film takes the format of a search, ten years after graduation, by two of the titular characters, Farhan (played by Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi), to find the third, irrepressible Rancho (Aamir Khan).

Director and co-writer Rajkumar Hirani has produced a wonderful adventure which is a drama, a comedy, and a romance with some inevitable singing, dancing and even farting. But be warned: it runs to just 10 minutes less than three hours. 

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A review of the new blockbuster “The Matrix Resurrections”

January 3rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

“The Matrix” (1999) was a brilliantly original movie; “The Matrix Reloaded” (mid 2003) was enjoyable but lacked the originality of the first segment; “The Matrix Revolutions” (late 2003) was a disappointment with much of the same and no satisfactory explanation of what it was all about. Now 18 years later we have “The Matrix Resurrections”.

So did we need a fourth component of the franchise? Not really, but it’s enjoyable fun even if it adds nothing significant to the narrative.

Of course, things change in two decades. The directors of the first three films, Larry and Andy Wachowski, have now transgendered and are known as Lana and Lilly Wachowski (only the first directed this time). Keeanu Reeves has had recent success in the “John Wick” franchise, but Carrie-Anne Moss has been very much under the radar.

Both the characters they played – Neo and Trinity – died in “The Matrix Revolutions” but have been resurrected – hence the title – for this film. Both the actors who play them are now almost two decades older but look great. Other roles, however, are now played by different actors which can be a bit confusing, as if these films were not confusing enough. 

In short, there’s nothing really new here but it all looks so good (especially on the big screen which is where you should see it). At a time when the global pandemic is still running its course, “Nothing comforts anxiety like a little nostalgia” (to quote the new Morpheus). 

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A review of the new movie “Don’t Look Up”

January 3rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Director Adam McKay is responsible for some fine films, notably “The Big Short” which dissected the sub-prime housing crisis in the US and “Vice” which shone a bright light on the administration of the second Bush president.

Here he presents a hugely ambitious and often sharp satire of the current failure of so much of America’s political and media establishment to accept the validity of science and screamingly obvious facts. If that failure was bad enough in the case of Trump and his supporters in relation to the global pandemic, this movie tells the story of reaction to the news that a large comet is about to hit the Earth and extinguish humankind. 

The work sports a fabulous cast including Jennifer Lawrence as the red-haired astronomer who first discovered the killer comet, Leonard DiCaprio as the bearded lead scientist warning of the threat, Meryl Streep as the blonde-haired president who is in denial, an (almost) unrecognisable Mark Rylance as the IT guru advising the president, and Cate Blanchett as a vapid television host, not to mention Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman and even Ariana Grande.

So much of the script resonates with recent American politics, such as the injunction to the president’s supporters that they can ignore the comet in the sky if they “Don’t look up”, an echo of the call at Trump rallies that the right course of action to Hillary Clinton is to “Lock her up”. 

The film has had a mixed reception. The public has largely loved it but critics have been more sceptical. I confess that, much though I endorse the message that we need to listen to scientists and much though there are some delightfully comic scenes, I incline towards the position of the critics.

Satire needs to walk a fine line between credibility and craziness and, for me, too much of the material is simply cartoonish. Based on his abundant resources of big data and artificial intelligence, the guru figure makes two predictions as to how leading characters will die. His short-term prediction – a matter of months ahead – is totally wrong, while his long-term forecast – 22,740 years in the future – is astonishingly accurate. Does this matter? To me, it represents some of the flaws in the movie: too often outlandish and off-target. 

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The sad burning of the South African Parliament Building

January 3rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I was sad to hear of the news of the fire at the South African Parliament Building in Cape Town. Somehow it seems symbolic of the flawed attempt to create a new democracy in South Africa. But more immediately it poses questions such as: how did the arsonist gain entry to the building? why did the water sprinkler system not work properly? can the building be restored?

In 2004, I went on a holiday to South Africa which included time in Cape Town and I visited the Parliament Building. In my account of the trip, I wrote:

“Friday was our last day in Cape Town and in South Africa – and it was raining. But this did not stop Roger from organising a mini tour which continued the ‘political’ theme of the day before.

First, we walked over to the Houses of Parliament [click here] on Government Avenue. The building was originally opened in 1885, but obviously the arrival of a multicultural democracy has transformed the establishment. We asked if we could go on a tour of the building and were disappointed to be advised that a week’s notice of such requests is required. However, we found that a school group was expected shortly and it was suggested that, if the teacher did not mind, we could join her pupils on their tour. 

This is what happened. It was only a short visit, but we were able to see the National Assembly. This has 400 members representing 12 parties who are elected by universal suffrage and proportional representation using the nine provinces as huge multi-member constituencies and the country as a whole as a final constituency to ensure a proportionate result. Members sit in a horseshoe-shaped pattern with the Government (the African National Congress) to the right of the speaker (a woman) and the Opposition (the Democratic Alliance and others) to the left – just like at Westminster (they even call the recording of debates Hansard).

The other house is called the National Council of Provinces. It has 90 members and each of the provincial legislatures nominates 10 members, regardless of the size of the province, four permanent and six rotating. The new democratic parliament has been sitting for ten years and, to mark this first decade, there was a long banner on the outside of the building setting out the titles of the main items of legislation carried.”

You can read the full account of my holiday in Southern Africa here.

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26 people to watch in 2022

January 2nd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The “Observer” newspaper has done us a favour in highlighting 26 people who will play an important part in shaping the next year ranging from UK politics to world politics and from media to sports. Check out the piece here.

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It’s a special anniversary for my diary writing

December 31st, 2021 by Roger Darlington

On New Year’s Eve 1961, I started to write a diary.

Since then, I’ve managed an entry for every single day. So today I celebrate exactly 60 years of recording my daily activities. The total number of daily entries now stands at 21,913. 

The historian David Kynaston has made a total of six visits to study my diaries and included two references in his new book “On The Cusp” on the year 1962 .

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What can the world expect in 2022? Another year of living dangerously.

December 30th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

“On the brink of a new year, the world faces a daunting array of challenges: the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, humanitarian crises, mass migration, and trans-national terrorism. There is the risk of new inter-state conflicts, exacerbated by the breakdown of the rules-based international order, and the spread of lethal autonomous weapons. All in all, for most people on Earth – and a handful in space – 2022 will be another year of living dangerously.”

This is opening paragraph of an article in today’s “Guardian” newspaper which provides an useful, if sobering, review of the current state of humankind.

Speaking personally, I’m hoping that 2022 can be ‘the year of travel’. I really want to go abroad a few times to make up for two years at home. We’ll have to see if that’s possible …

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A review of the classic German war film “Das Boot”

December 29th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

“The Boat” is a German war film with an interesting genesis and aftermath. In 1941, war correspondent Lothar-Günther Buchheim joined German submarine U-96 on a patrol as part of the hard-fought Battle of the Atlantic. In 1973, he published a best-selling novel called simply “Das Boot” based on his experiences aboard U-96. Wolfgang Petersen then wrote and directed a film of the same title based on the novel and this was released in its initial theatrical form in 1981 (how I first viewed it) and then as a director’s cut in 1997 (how I subsequently saw it).

The first version lasted two and a half hours, while the director’s cut ran to three and a half hours. In between the two cinematic versions, German television broadcast a five-hour version as a mini series.

Quite rightly the work has been both a commercial and a critical success and viewing it is a nerve-wracking experience. It is very rare for a non-English speaking film to receive an Academy Award nomination outside of the Best Foreign Film category, but “Das Boat” received no less than six (although it did not actually win any).

The film had one of the largest budgets in the history of German cinema and the sets and sound are terrific with the claustrophobic nature of the submarine constantly hammered home. The captain of the real U-96 during Buchheim’s 1941 patrol served as a consultant which ensured the authenticity of the operation although some of the narrative is fiction. A fine cast is led by Jürgen Prochnow as the submarine captain.

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