What is the sacred secret of what women want?

April 4th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I recently caught up with the 2007 film “P.S. I Love You” [my review here] and I enjoyed this exchange of dialogue:

Daniel Connelly
: I don’t meant to throw this at you from left field, but what do women want? I mean, I can’t figure it out. They want us to ask; they, they don’t want us to ask; they want us to make a move, not make a move. They want us to be on bottom; they want us to be on top. Use hair products, don’t use hair products. What do you people want? 

Holly Kennedy: I’ll tell you. But you have to promise not to say I told you. 

Daniel Connelly: I, I swear. 

Holly Kennedy: Because it’s a sacred secret. 

Daniel Connelly: A sacred secret. 

Holly Kennedy: You ready? 

Daniel Connelly: Yeah. 

Holly Kennedy: You sure? 

Daniel Connelly: I think so. 

Holly Kennedy: [whispering] We have absolutely no idea what we want. 

Daniel Connelly: I knew it!

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Have you ever visited – or wanted to visit – the Peruvian site of Machu Picchu?

April 4th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Well, as this recent article explains, a new academic paper argues that, since its rediscovery in 1911, the site has been known by the wrong name.

A Peruvian historian and a leading US archaeologist argue that the UNESCO world heritage site was known by its Inca inhabitants as Huayna Picchu – the name of a peak overlooking the ruins – or simply Picchu.

In 2001, I had the pleasure of visiting Machu Picchu and spending a night there. You can read about my time at the historic site here.

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A review of a history of Ukraine: “Borderland” by Anna Reid

April 1st, 2022 by Roger Darlington

On 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale Russian invasion of the independent state of Ukraine and immediately I was keen to learn more about the history of the country being violated. I was pleased to find this work which is immensely informative and very accessible. “Borderland” was first published in 1997 and republished in 2015 and therefore it is in two parts. 

The first part was written after Reid served as the Kiev correspondent for the “Economist” and the “Daily Telegraph” from 1993 to 1995. Helpfully it starts with a map of the country and a four-page chronology of its history. What follows is a 1,000-year history of Ukraine but the material is not presented in strict chronological order as it is structured around Reid’s travels through the country, so that the subtitle of the book is “A Journey Through The History Of Ukraine”.

The second part was crafted after Reid returned to the country in the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution, Russian occupation of Crimea, and uprising in the Donbass. It provides a chronological account of what happened in the two decades after the first edition and provides an extra 60 pages for the second edition taking us up to February 2015.

Reid begins by explaining that the word Ukrainia is literally translated as ‘on the edge’ or ‘borderland’ (hence the title). For many centuries, most of what we now call Ukraine was ruled by Lithuania or Poland or a combination of the two. For many centuries afterwards, Ukraine was ruled by Tsarist Russia or the USSR. The time of the switch can be precisely dated and attributed.

It was January 1654 when Bordan Khmelnytsky, the leader of the Hetmanate Cossacks who led a successful uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, signed an agreement which provided that, in return for allegiance to the Russian Tsar, the Cossack Hetmanate would receive the military protection of Russia. 

For the next three and a quarter centuries, Kiev (now Kyiv) would be ruled from Moscow. It is a tragic, often violent, history. In the 20th century alone, about 1.5M were killed in the First World War and the Civil War between 1914-1921, up to 12M ‘kulaks’ were deported in 1929-1933, up to 5M peasants died of starvation in 1932-1933, there were massive purges in 1930 and again in 1937-1939, there was the German occupation and slaughter of the Jews in 1941-1944, the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944. 

Although calls for Ukrainian independence have ebbed and flowed, they have usually come from a small intellectual minority. Until fairly recently, the nearest that the country came to independence was the period between the end of the First World War in 1918 and the victory of the Red Army in 1921. In Kiev, there was a Central Council or Rada in competition with the Soviet of Soldiers and Workers, but it had very little power and survived less than a year.

As Reid put it writing in 1997: “Ukrainians won independence on 24 August 1991 by default. Many had dreamed of independence, but none had expected it, none had prepared for it“ and she refers to “Ukraine’s fuzzy sense of national identity”

However, in the second edition of the history, she asserts: “The biggest change since I lived in Ukraine is that it now feels like a real country. Though plenty of people would have got cross if you had said so, it used to have something of a make-believe, provisional air. With nearly a quarter of a century and two patriotic revolutions under its belt, that has all gone. Ukraine is no longer a borderland. It is its own place and here to stay.”

In her final paragraph, Anna Reid writes presciently: “We in the West should be very clear with ourselves. If we let Russia wreck Ukraine – if we are feeling too poor, anxious, or distracted to fight Ukraine’s corner – we will not only be undermining our own security, but betraying 46 million fellow Europeans.”

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A review of the new Norwegian film “The Worst Person In The World”

March 31st, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Joachim Trier is the co-writer and director of this Norwegian-language, Oslo-set, award-winning romantic drama which managed to secure – but not win – Academy Award nominations for Best International Film and Best Original Screenplay.

Structured in 12 chapters with prologue and epilogue, it tells the story of Julie, who becomes 30 in the course of the narrative, played wonderfully by the delightful Renate Reinsve making her feature debut. In a rarity for a drama, all the characters – except Julie’s father – are sympathetic and likeable, especially her two major lovers (Anders Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum). The acting and dialogue are very naturalistic, although there are two fantasy sequences, in this genuinely appealing work.

I loved the film, I loved the character Julie, and I loved the performance by Reinsve. Yet Julie is a deeply enigmatic and frustrating person, if far from the worst in the world.

In reality, I’m sure that I would be exasperated by her: she changes her lovers, she changes her career aspirations, she changes her hairstyle, she cannot decide whether she wants children … As she herself puts it : “I feel like I never see anything through”. But many people are like that which makes the film so reflective of real life.

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Is Ukraine an artificial state, as President Putin suggests, or a true state, as President Zelensky argues? What constitutes a nation state anyway?

March 26th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

At present, I am reading a fascinating history of Ukraine: “Borderland” by Anna Reid. What is clear is that the reality of Ukraine as a nation state is a very recent one.

For many centuries, most of what we now call Ukraine was ruled by Lithuania or Poland or a combination of the two. For many centuries afterwards, Ukraine was ruled by Tsarist Russia or the USSR.

Although calls for Ukrainian independence have ebbed and flowed, they have always come from a small minority. As Anna Reid puts it: “Ukrainians won independence on 24 August 1991 by default. Many had dreamed of independence, but none had expected it, none had prepared for it“. Writing in 1997, she refers to “Ukraine’s fuzzy sense of national identity”.

Over the past three decades, Ukraine has done a decent job of nation-building, even if that required a revolution and involved an insurgency.

Yet, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were still major cleavages in Ukrainian society: between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, between the west and the east, between the cities and the towns & villages. Ironically what Putin has managed to achieve in the last month is a deeper and more uniform sense of national identity among Ukrainians than has ever been the case in its history.

In my view, Ukraine is now a nation state and deserves that status. Any doubts that anyone might have about this should be dispelled by the bravery and unity of the Ukrainians people in the last month.

But, all over the world, this issue of what defines nationhood is a major political problem. Around the globe, most countries have communities within them that believe that they have a right to statehood. Scotland in the UK, Catalonia in Spain, Kurds in Iraq, Western Sahara in Morocco, Quebec in Canada, Kashmir in India, Tibet & Taiwan in China. The list goes on and on.

Many years ago, I started to discuss this issue of nationhood and wrote a short essay which I think still stands up. You can read it here.

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (2)

Let us hail Madeline Albright, the first female US Secretary of State

March 24th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

I was saddened to hear of the death of Madeleine Albright at the aged of 84 following her diagnosis of cancer. She was an outstanding public figure in American politics and the first woman to hold the post of Secretary of State (in European terms, Foreign Minister) in the Clinton administration.

You can read an obituary in the “Guardian” new paper here.

I have two personal recollections of Albright.

First, since I was married to a half-Czech for 35 years, I was very aware of Albright’s Czech heritage. Born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague in 1937 but known as Madeleine since infancy, Albright fled with her family for London in 1939 after the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia. 

Second, I was fan of the U S television series “Madam Secretary” in which Tea Leoni played a non-party Secretary of State. Albright played herself in a couple of appearances es in the series, showing that she had the common touch.

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A review of the new film “Passing”

March 21st, 2022 by Roger Darlington

The title of this film refers to the practice of a light-skinned African-Americans passing themselves off as white, a situation which apparently was quite common in the 1920s when this story is set. The central characters are Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga), former New York City school friends who meet after a long interval with life-changing consequences for both of them. 

Based on a novel of the same name published as long ago as 1929, the movie was written, produced and directed by the actress Rebecca Hall in her first venture behind the camera. While one might think of Hall as classically British and white, it transpires that her mother was part African-American, so that this is a very personal venture for her. At some level, however, this has a message for us all. As one of the characters states: “We’re all passing for something or other, aren’t we?”

“Passing” is an unusual-looking film. It is shot in black & white in 5:4 ratio and often the picture is blurred and the dialogue is muffled. The pacing is slow until a dramatic and ambiguous ending. I doubt that many would have gone to the cinema to see it, but Netflix bought it and the film is an accomplished and moving work to view on the small screen. 

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A review of the new film “Ali & Ava”

March 19th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

This British film, both written and directed by Yorkshire-born Clio Barnard, is a tender love story – but an unconventional one in many respects.

First, the setting: the work was shot entirely on location in Bradford with its terraced houses and grim vistas. Then the structure: while it follows the classic three-part narrative of friendship, division, reconciliation, almost the entire film is devoted to the first slow-burning segment of this traditional triptych.

Next the music: both principals love their music but have very different tastes which gradually converge, so we hear a lot of (loud) music of an amazingly eclectic nature: Hindi to Czech, Dylan to Rachmaninoff, Buzzcocks to The Specials.

Above all, this is a different tale of affection because of the characters. Both are middle-aged Northerners with their own ethnic heritage; both have had troubled marriages which have left them damaged; both have close extended families; both are gentle and caring.

Ali is a British-Pakistani who is a small-scale local landlord with aspirations to be a DJ, while Ava has Irish roots and works as a school assistant having obtained a degree as an adult. Barnard gives us a portrait of each before bringing them together in a car ride in the rain and exploring the growing attraction over a lunar month.

Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook are simply wonderful as the eponymous couple and we ache for them to be together.

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Who was responsible for those famous Odessa Steps?

March 18th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

As the Russian invaders of Ukraine pose to attack the port of Odessa, a film enthusiast like me cannot help recalling the dramatic Odessa Steps sequence in the 1925 film “The Battleship Potemkin” famously directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Indeed this sequence inspired a similar conflict on long steps in the final scenes of the 1987 film “Untouchables” directed by Brian De Palma.

Meanwhile I am reading a history of Ukraine: “Borderland” by Anna Reid. From this work, I learned that the Odessa Steps were constructed by a British civil engineer named John Upton between 1837 and 1841. Who would have thought?

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What Arnold Schwarzenegger has to say about the Russian invasion of Ukraine

March 18th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

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