Thursday, March 31, 2022

The futures we leave behind...

TWA Hotel

Eero Saarinen's TWA Flight Center opened to passengers in March 1962, just a few months before The Jetsons arrived on American television screens. It's a landmark of Atomic Age optimism and as such makes for a bittersweet experience for those of us aware of just how many gorgeous imagined futures we have consigned to the past

The head house has acted as a front end for the TWA Hotel since 2017, operated as an exercise in nostalgia that consciously or otherwise, also serves as a lesson on the cruelties of the passage of time, scored by dreamy late 60s muzak playlist piped into old terminal and the car park outside, where Up, Up and Away (my beautiful, my beautiful balloon) appears to be on permanent loop. Some of the artifacts one comes across are jarringly poignant, like the beaten up period suitcases piled onto a cart, which brought to mind a Holocaust exhibit. 

The building has a stark sentimental connection for me, for it was the venue for one of the more unsettling experiences of my childhood. On an evening in April 1980 I became marooned there with my parents as the skies blackened and a prodigious thunder storm promptly closed the airport around us. It was as if all I could see outside those immense slanted windows was gushing water. 

After several hours we boarded our TWA jumbo routed to Heathrow but whilst taxiing to the runway the tempest suddenly intensified and we were held there for several more hours. Later on, those few minutes between leaving land and breaking through above the rugged and incandescent thunder heads were exceptionally gnarly.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Special Operation and Peace

The latest addition to our household has been named Zelensky. 

There have been some reportedly wobbly murmurings amongst US officials to the effect that the President of Ukraine needs to find himself an 'endgame'. 

Yet the only person in clear need of fashioning one of these right now is Vladimir Putin. 

For Zelensky the way this ends has to be crystal clear — with every Russian occupier departing Ukraine or contributing to its sunflower crop. 

For this is perhaps one of the most fundamental prescriptions for this stage of any conflict, modern or otherwise. A lasting peace follows when one side admits moral responsibility for what has occurred and agrees to the strict terms of the new security arrangements. This is what Germany and Japan did after WWII. 

However, back in 1918 Germany had had moral responsibility (accompanied by onerous terms) somewhat pinned on it and never really accepted the situation. This was less peace than uneasy truce. 

The underlying conditions for further conflict remained. This is what now has to be avoided in Central Europe. 

An absence of complete clarity is always dangerous. The failure of the GOP to accept moral responsibility for the Trump debacle and the attack on Congress on January 6th last year is disgraceful and has left a festering wound within American democracy. 

These observations come with a particular dose of pique for me as on March 12, 2018 I signed a peace accord with a neighbour who had accused me of an assault when I was not even in the country. 

I somehow forgot the directive to extract at the very least a formal acknowledgement of culpability, if only via a sincere apology. Under the circumstances any decent human being would have offered one, yet there aren't many decent human beings who would sit in front of a police officer dictating a statement full of lies and then sign it.

My only excuse is an (at the time) unfamiliarity with the workings of the local legal system, an assumption that the peace accord and its associated unambiguous court orders would put an end to any conflict and that the neighbour had probably made what might be characterised as a one-off, gross miscalculation. 

I did not learn until October 2020 about the nature of her apparent motive for filing false testimony: we had, her lawyer announced magisterially at the MP, been playing a popular reggaeton track over and over for an entire day and the lyrics were injurious to her client, who thus felt compelled to seek immediate revenge. 

This explanation is as moronic as it is untrue, and surely still not much of an excuse for breaking the law. But she knew that her husband had earlier deployed a similar psy-ops tactic of broadcasting (and singing) a tune by Don Williams that he must have imagined would cause distress on our side of the wall — and not just for a single day — and that there could be an advantage of lodging the allegation first. 

As far as I can tell the more likely rationale for her unprovoked legal strike was our refusal of a sum of money that had been dangled under our noses by a public official in Antigua. If we had taken the bung we would have dirtied our own hands in a situation where our neighbours' hands were already decidedly mucky. 

In the peace accord signed that day in court she not only committed to maintaining relations grounded in 'mutual respect', she formally committed to ensuring that her husband, her family and her household staff were informed of the agreement and would abide by it. 

Yet it became abundantly clear within a matter of days after the audiencia that she had no intention of doing any of that and in fact the aggressions significantly escalated thereafter and from additional quarters. 

The behaviour of her husband alone between March 2018 and October 2020 would surely place her in a clear state of disobedience of the original court order. 

So, I went looking for an endgame based on forgiveness and forgot the fundamentals. There can be no durable peace without accountability — plus a set of procedures which significantly disincentivise the breaking of any truce. 

Putin thinks his possession of nukes frees him from the need to ever abase himself in front of a set of foes, actual and potential, that he clearly has little respect for. 

They certainly make the quest for a lasting peace more convoluted, yet the West cannot lose sight of the endgame now or the 'special operation' will spin out into multiple threats (as our own defence against 'invasion' did) and will never cool down to the point of bearability. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

"Strong Man"

To be a "Strong Man" is to be a weak man striking a pose. Gaddafi seemed to understand this, much good it did him, along with many other notable occupants of the Hall of Infamy. 

Putin is said to be much afraid of a tumultuous third act like the erstwhile Libyan leader's, but has nevertheless fallen into another trap that always seems to sucker the weak-strong man, and which makes the undesired outcome that much more likely — anticipating a conspicuous weakness in his self-selected foes that bolsters his own delusion of relative strength beyond the point at which the instinct of self-preservation can be of much use. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022


2 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 5 days — the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-44 — claimed the lives of around 800,000 of the city's encircled inhabitants. 

When it was finally lifted on January 27, 1944 the Axis forces were driven back having themselves suffered losses in excess of 500,000. 

My visit to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in 1984 and shortly afterwards to the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery with its vast array of mass graves just outside the city opened my young eyes to the scale of the suffering and devastation in this corner of WWII. It was a part of fairly recent history that I was then only vaguely up to speed with. 

That anything even remotely resembling this horror could be repeating itself now in Ukraine (a land which lost 3m to the Stalin-induced famine of the 30s and a further 8m to the subsequent war) is almost unfathomable, all the more so perhaps as Putin is a little beast from St Petersburg. 

People in Mariupol are said to be collecting snow for drinking water today. 

The suffering in this part of Europe apparently comes in cycles, each new one underpinned by, justified by, the previous. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Meaning Bombs

I suppose us Europeans, perhaps more than anyone at this stage, understand why this war is different — one that cannot simply be ‘stopped’ or negotiated out of existence, one that we now all have to live with in a non-discretionary manner until all of its uncontainable consequences have manifested themselves. 

On our continent the conquest or attempted conquest of one state by another has tended to have geopolitical ramifications which extend for a very long time, centuries even. 

1066: The Norman Conquest of England might have appeared done and dusted in months, but the aftershocks persisted for at least 400 years until the conclusion of the Hundred Years War. And all that. 

From the outset this war in Ukraine has been in a dialogue with history, difficult history. Putin, one might say, has been trying to shout down, overrule history; mansplain at it. 

Europeans now understand that historical lines have been crossed. While the conflict as it stands is more plainly existential for Ukraine, the loom of approaching DARKNESS is being felt continent-wide (and the global economic repercussions unavoidable and, largely unpredictable). 

And so, while the West in the wider sense perceives a direct challenge to itself and the order that has prevailed, more or less, since 1945, for many Russians it is instead necessary to comprehend this as a civil war, with the near necessary fratricidal brutality that entails; its innocent victims mere traitors. 

We thus have two distinct, yet equally authentic ways for this to escalate further. 

Firstly, via the inclusion of additional national combatants and participants in the historical shouting match, yet also via an insane internecine conflict which back-contaminates large swathes of the former USSR. 

Think not that the army or the oligarchs might displace Putin, but that part of the army and some of the wealthy and powerful will try to act, and then remember all those nukes awaiting some sort of factional control. 

The missiles currently in the sky carry a payload of extra meaning. Perhaps Putin always wanted it to be this way, but after that first weekend when the immediate military and political goals were nixed, the need for this to be something more than Russia's private calamity became paramount. 

And for that reason he will surely continue to bomb hospitals, shoot his thermobarbaric weapons and unplug the nuclear reactor cooling systems, for he desperately needs a reaction from us, a retrospective meaning bomb that makes everyone understand why this is at once a global and civil catastrophe and not just his own private misadventure. Something he can duly present to history, in his shouty way, as defensive. 

And maybe he is almost certain to get it now — for as I say, this war is different, not just an ugly media spectacle where passive (albeit emotive) consumption or humanitarian angst are the only ways to interact with it, because it has an expansionary logic of its own. And we have already arrived at the days when the opportunity costs of mere observation have to be counted by the hour.

Cunning Plans

If Putin's fatal flaw is not letting all the relevant people know what he plans on doing in a timely manner, NATO's would appear to be precisely the reverse. 

This rather elaborate procedure involving Poland sending planes to Germany so that the USA can deploy them against the Russians in Ukraine is really not that much more sophisticated in terms of overall sneakiness than Trump's idea of putting the Chinese flag on American bombers. 

And both of those strategems will tend to be notably less effective as ways of containing the lunatic the more everyone talks about them in advance.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

"I need ammunition, not a ride". 

I suppose those acclaimed, defiant words of Ukrainian president Zelensky already appear on bumper stickers on sale in small rural gas stations in Texas. I stopped at a couple on my way back from viewing The Great American Eclipse in Tennessee in late August 2107. 

The whole "Don't Mess with Texas" vibe is practically a movie genre of its own and it permeates the perpetually-stalled Leatherface horror franchise, really a collection of orphaned stand-alones, rather like its iconic killer here. 

Netflix's latest edition is really a motley collection of characters and familiar off-the-shelf-parts (redneck cops, Confederate battle flag, the gas station shop etc) all wrapped around one key scene which, I suppose, gives the film its reason to exist — the gory carving up of a load of millennial influencers on a bus which begins with them all whipping out their phones to live feed their own slaughter. Mild drollery followed by full on carnage, yet still not quite remarkable enough to justify all the rest of the padding, which includes a half-hearted effort to bring back the survivor from the 1974 original. (More Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) than Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (2018)). 

And once again we see the determination of producers to adopt a point of view carefully calibrated to fully alienate neither the city mice nor their country cousins. 

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Shame not frustrated greed could end this...

If there is to be an internal threat to Putin in the months and years to come, my own suspicion is that it will come not from the (relatively) impoverished oligarchs or even the Moscow masses, but from those that have shared his feverish nationalist dream of a 'greater' Russia. 

There will be many in that camp who are already feeling an element of shame — not for the mass murder that Putin has unleashed against a territory and people they insist should be returned to the mother — but for the relative weakness in Russian might that has been exposed in the conduct of this war. 

Along with that, considerable frustration that the likes of Moldova and Georgia are already on course to join the EU along with a still unyielding Ukraine. Their dream of completeness is being ruined, in some cases before the tanks can roll — and in a manner that promises to be lasting. 

Hitler seized most of the continent and then fought to the bitter end as it was prized from his grip, piece by bloody piece. Putin's putative restoration of empire is apparently already stalling not far from the vestibule. 

It's one thing to model oneself on the great emperors and conquerors of the past — Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander III — but then you have to avoid botching your much-publicised debut on the subjugation stage. 

The oligarchs have probably decided on a policy of wait and see. Time is not on Vlad's side whatever happens. The state will be bankrupt long before its wealthiest citizens, regardless of the sanctions now imposed. 

The nationalists will be fuming. Putin is now in dire need of a bone to toss them. 

I tweeted the other day that Vladimir Putin is currently more likely to be remembered as the 'new' Kaiser Bill (another 'late bloomer') than the new Adolf. 

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Some handy Russian proverbs...

Which may or may not be relevant to current circumstances. 

— It is better to have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles 

(Currently approx. six quetzales.) 

— He who doesn’t take risks doesn’t drink champagne 

(One for the oligarchs around you-know-who.)

— If you do something in a hurry, you will make people laugh at you 

— When one has power, there is no need for intelligence

— It’s nice to visit, but it’s better to be home

— If you’re scared of wolves, don’t go in the woods 

(One for Vlad next time he compulsively watches his vid of the sodomisation and death of Gaddafi.) 

— The first pancake is (always) lumpy

(One for yesterday's circumstances perhaps, but the Ruskies do seem to be in need of a workable Plan B.) 

— No point throwing punches after a fight

— Trust, but verify.