A weekend visit to Lille

June 16th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

For our first foreign trip together, Kathleen and I decided to visit Lille, a location neither of us had been to before. Lille is a city of some 230,000 in the north-west of France in an enclave jutting into Belgium and it is the country’s fourth largest city. It is a mere one hour 20 minutes from London by Eurostar which has played a part in the substantial recent revival of the city.

We were surprised at just how vibrant is Lille – lots of cobbled streets, splendid architecture, artisan shops and cultural activities. Perhaps the top three tourist sites – all of which we visited – are the Palais des Beaux-Arts (the second most important art gallery in France), the Musee de L’Hospice Comtesse (a museum of local arts and crafts), and the birthplace of the former President Charles de Gaulle. There are an incredible number of cafes (our favourite was the famous Meert) and wine bars (our favourite was one called BiBo ViNo).

Lille is very close to the location of the trenches of World War One and we took an afternoon tour to two battlefields: Fromelles in northern France (battle on 19-20 July 1916) and Ypres in southern Belgium (five battles including Paschendaele).

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A review of “The President Is Missing” by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

June 13th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Billed as “With details only a president could know and the kind of suspense only James Patterson can deliver”, this political thriller has been a best-seller and is set to to be turned into an ongoing drama series for television. So does it justify the hype? Of course, not. 

On the plus side, it is immensely readable. Using the present tense and the first person perspective of US President Jonathan Duncan, the 500 pages are divided into no less than 128 short chapters (several only a page or less) with most chapters ending with a teasing sentence inviting the reader to keep going. There is lots of dialogue and some (not enough) exciting action. And there are a few political homilies, notabably in a concluding address to a joint session of Congress.

But the plotting – a devastating cyber attack on America foiled by an heroic president – is weak and the writing (for all its military and intelligence references and regular plot twists) is simple as the writers play with the reader’s expectations. The leading personages are cardboard characters and, in the case of the prime villain especially, very much under-written.

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Are 40% of Americans really socialists?

June 11th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Forty per cent of Americans would rather live in a socialist country than a capitalist one, with a majority of younger women having this preference, according to a new poll conducted for HBO by Axios.

This is a fascinating poll, but there are confused views on the nature of socialism (half thinks it means no democracy) and I see little evidence that Americans are willing to vote in accordance with these supposed views.

You can find out more about the poll here. If you follow the link on that page, you can see the raw data (table 25 is the key one).

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A review of the classic 1930 film “The Blue Angel”

June 11th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

This was the film that acted as a bridge from the silent to the sound era for the career of noted Austrian-American director Josef von Sternberg and propelled to stardom its female lead, the then little-known Marlene Dietrich. It was produced simultaneously in German and English language versions and I saw it in German as part of a Weimar Cinema retrospective. 

The titular ‘Blue Angel’ is not a person but a place – a club in smalltown Germany. The star of the club’s show is the sultry Lola Frohlich (Dietrich) who bewitches the middle-aged and pauchy local teacher Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings). The film is best-known for the use of the song “Falling In Love Again” which Lola sings twice: first in a playful and flirtatious rendition and at the end in a colder, more remorseful manner.

This is a sombre work that reminded me of the Italian opera “Pagliacci”. The impact of the film is strengthened by the real-life parallels: director von Sternberg and star Dietrich had a romantic involement at the time and the rise of Lola and the fall of Professor Rath were echoed by the ascent of Dietrich and the decline of Jannings in career terms.

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Went to see “The Blue Angel” last night and heard this in German …

June 11th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

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Is our character essentially formed by the age of seven?

June 10th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I’ve recently viewed three programmes on ITV in a short series called “63Up”. This is the ninth series in a remarkable project that began in 1964 with a series called “SevenUp”. Originally 14 children aged seven, but from different social backgrounds, were interviewed about their lives and hopes. Then the director Michael Apted returned to the same people every seven years for a fascinating longitudinal study.

The premise of the film was taken from the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, which is based on a quotation by Saint Francis Xavier. So is this true?

The nine programmes provide much anecdotal evidence to support the claim: the working class children have generally achieved limited education and wealth, while the middle-class children have largely had the privileged lives that their initial advantage suggested.

I think that I have been fortunate enough to be something of an exception to this pattern of limited social mobility. Ironically I went to a Catholic secondary school run by Xaverian Brothers but I was aged 11-18 at the time. At school, I had free meals and free uniform because of the poverty of my single parent. I went to university from home and obtained the maximum grant from my local authority which enabled me to be the first person in my family to obtain a degree.

So I started life as working class and became middle-class. But I could not have done this without the encouragement and support of my Italian mother and without the welfare state which subsidised my school and university education. There is a lesson here.

You can read more about the Up study here.

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A review of the new superhero movie “X-Men: Dark Phoenix”

June 9th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

Including “The Wolverine” and “Logan” but excluding spin offs (the Deadpool” films), this is the 10th “X-Men” movie and it looks like the last. Set in the early 1990s a decade after the events of “X-Men: Apocalypse”, the story revolves around the acquisition of extraordinary powers by Jean Grey (aka the eponymous Dark Phoenix) played by Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from television’s “Game Of Thrones”) and a battle beween the X-Men team and a group of aliens led by the white-haired Vuk (Jessica Chastain who is known for her red hair). 

On the plus side, there are some fun special effects and I liked the notion of the good X-Men led by Dr Xavier (James McEvoy) teaming up with the bad X-Men led by Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to combat Vuk and her ilk, but the means by which Jean Grey became the Dark Phoenix is risible and the aliens seem to have wandered in from an entirely different film. Also there is a sad underutilisation of acting talent, most notably in the case of Jennifer Lawrence as Raven.

In dramatic contrast to the Avengers franchise, the X-Men series leaves us with a whimper rather than a bang. Stan Lee, creator of the cast of characters in both collections and to whom this film is dedicated, is no longer alive to see this rather limp finale.

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A review of the new film “Late Night”

June 9th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

So here’s a rarity: a film directed by a woman (a first such responsibility for Nisha Ganatra),written by a woman (a first feature film script from Mindy Kaling), with women in the two leading roles (Emma Thompson as the presenter of a late show on American television and Kaling as the token female in the show’s previously all-male writing team).

So, does it work? It has a sharp script – with many funny lines but few laugh-out-loud moments – and some fine acting – especially from Thompson who should receive some nominations for a performance that is one of the best of her distinguished career – but the plotting is a bit too thin and formulaic. 

In film narratives, we so often have the notion of binary opposites and this work is a classic case: Katherine Newbury (Thompson) and Molly Patel (Kaling) represent English/Indian-American, middle-aged/younger, established/aspiring, selfish/caring, uptight/at ease. Naturally this presents many opportunities for comedic contrasts – it’s just not enough.

I was reminded of a film of two years earlier called “The Big Sick” which was written by and starred Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani. That was a better work but, either way, it’s good to see a bit more diversity in American cinema.

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Why are political opinion polls getting it wrong more often? (2)

June 5th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

I wrote a blog posting recently about the growing difficulty for opinion pollsters in forecasting accurately the result of elections. I particularly referenced the recent failure of all the pollsters in Australia to forecast the victory of the National-Liberal coalition.

I wrote: “I think that what we are seeing is more voter fluidity. Class used to be the major determinant of voting behaviour and class does not change quickly, but class seems no longer to be the dominant factor that it was. Voters seem to be more willing to change support from election to election and even, in the course of the campaign, from week to week and day to day.”

We now have more evidence of this – least as regards Australia – from a new poll asking voters when they decided how they would cast their vote.

Almost half of voters, 48%, had made their choice about which party they were voting for well before the election was called. But, more than a quarter of voters in the sample, 26%, had not yet made up their minds as the federal campaign entered its closing weeks. That number was still 11% by polling day, with those voters making their decision on the day they cast their ballots.

There may be a special factor at play in Australia which has mandatory voting. Maybe, in countries without mandatory voting, those who have still not made up their mind by polling day do not actually vote. But I suspect that in many countries a significant proportion of voters only make a decision once they go to the polling station.

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Where are we on research to enable us to combat dementia?

June 4th, 2019 by Roger Darlington

“Over recent decades we have begun to recognise dementia as a significant problem. Resultantly, we arefavouring a focus upon prevention rather than treatment.

The relative number of new cases is now in decline, with approximately 50 million people currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia. However, as our life spans are increasing, so too are the recorded number of dementia cases.

Our understanding of the disease has developed across time, allowing us to identify different types of dementia (such as Lewy Body Dementias or Vascular Dementia). Although, Alzheimer’s Dementia has taken the spotlight due to its higher frequency.

The latest consensus states that Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is identified by the lesions in the brain which can include neurofibrillary tangles, amyloid plaques and/or a loss of neurons.We used to only be ableto recognise these lesions post-mortem, meaning that until autopsy Alzheimer’s Dementia was called “possible Alzheimer’s Dementia”. However, we are now able to recognise these changes before death, either by imaging methods or by the levels of biomarkers (different substances related to the brain that can be measured in blood, urine and saliva).

Alzheimer’s Dementia is the clinical manifestation of the disease. With symptoms including a significantdecline in memory, concentration and orientation, etc.

For many years, we have tried to come across a treatment that would stop or reverse the evolution of the condition. Nevertheless, nearly all clinical trials for Alzheimer’s Dementia have failed and the few medications available tend to succeed in only treating some of the symptoms, rather than the disease itself. Due to the unique nature of the brain and its components, it is likely that our previous approach of targeting the symptoms to obtain a cure may not work with Alzheimer’s as it does with many other diseases.Taking a step back and looking at the disease before it materialises could be what we need, to identify those at risk of dementia and to prevent the negative consequences of this illness.

With the data collected by the CHARIOT PRO Sub Study we are hoping, along with other researchersworldwide, to improve the identification, characterisation and early treatment of dementia.”

A note by Dr Martin E. Cohn.

I am a member of the CHARIOT PRO Sub Study.

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