A review of the film “How I Live Now”

December 3rd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

This 2013 film is something of an oddity and I only checked it out (on television) eight years later because I’m a fan of the work of Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“Hanna”, “Brooklyn”, “Ammonite”). She plays an American teenager with mental health issues who is sent to spend time with a bohemian English family and undergoes a transformation from being surly and self-centred to being brave and resourceful.

The background to this change is some kind of war but it is terribly unclear who is fighting whom and for what reason. Ronan is excellent and the other young actors appealing, while there is some splendid cinematography, but it is too all chaotic and confusing. Perhaps it worked better as the source material: an award-winning young adult novel by Meg Rosoff. 

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Ever heard of the Thucydides’ Trap?

December 2nd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In foreign policy discussions, this is a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. As he explained, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

The term was popularised by American political scientist Graham T. Allison to describe an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon. According to Allison, the past 500 years have seen 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a ruling one. Twelve of these ended in war.

The thesis has been criticised by some historians but it is a useful way of looking at geo-politics. Currently the most worrying danger of the Thucydides Trap is the rise of Chinese power in opposition to that of the United States.

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How did Covid variants go from Delta to Omnicon?

November 29th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

At the end of May 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) adopted a new system of naming Covid variants of concern or special interest with letters of the Greek alphabet. It did this to avoid stigmatising countries or regions where such a new variant was first identified.

At the time, there were four variants of this kind and we all remember the Delta variant as the one that soon became dominant worldwide. Since then, there have been eight other variants which have had a Greek letter assigned to them, but most of us missed these because they did not rival the Delta variant in terms of concern or transmissibility.

The thirteenth letter in the Greek alphabet is ‘Nu’ and the WHO decided not to use this letter because it sounds so much like ‘new’. The fourteenth letter is ‘Xi’ and it was decided not to use this because it is a very common family name in China (and, as it happens, the surname of the current president of the country).

The fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet is Omnicon and this is the letter assigned to the variant initially identified in South Africa which it is feared is much more transmissible than any of the previous variants. At this stage, we do not know serious are the symptoms and how effective current vaccines will be against it.

Next up? Inevitably the WHO will name more variants but they will not all make the news. The next letter to be used will be ‘Pi’.

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A review of the new Disney animation movie “Encanto”

November 28th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

For the third consecutive weekend, I spent part of Saturday taking my two granddaughters (almost 11 and 5) to see a new animated movie. I have to say that, from my adult (73) point of view, this was by far the best.

Set in rural Colombia, the colours are wonderfully vibrant and the visuals are quite inventive. The Madrigal family – each of whom, except one, has a special power conferred by an enchanted candle – are delightful. And the soundtrack from Lin-Manual Miranda of “Hamilton” fame is joyous and catchy.

The point of view is that of Mirabel, the one without any powers, who of course turns out to be the true star. So another Disney animation heroine (think “Frozen” and “Moana’) and another success for the studio.

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A review of the new bio-pic “King Richard”

November 26th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I confess that I was first attracted to this movie by the title because my son is called Richard. When I learned that it was a bio-pic about Richard Williams’ creation of tennis super-stars Venus and Serena, I was sure that a young female tennis-playing friend would want to see this work and it has to be said that Gemma enjoyed it more than me. It is a competent and uplifting production and I was told by my friend that the tennis sections were really well-done. But, as cinema, it is lacking.

If the film is really about Richard, I would liked to have known more about how he himself became such a good tennis player and how he put together the 85-page plan to make his black daughters so successful in the ultra-white world of professional tennis. Venus and Serena were executive producers of the movie and have ensured that his image is well-presented with no real edge to the narrative. If, on the other hand, the film is about Venus and Serena, then it concludes too soon with the former’s first professional matches.

Having said all that, Will Smith is excellent as the eponymous uber-parent in a role which is different from that of most of his career and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are appealing as Venus and Serena respectively. It is a truly amazing story but a less than amazing film.

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The latest tragedy to hit the wonderful country of Ethiopia

November 24th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

“… for the tourist who wants something different and is prepared for some challenges, Ethiopia is a great destination. The exotic names of places we visited were themselves magical: Addis Ababa, Axum, Lalibela … But the history was so rich and fascinating, whether it was the skeleton of Lucy, the stelae of Axum, the rock churches of Lalibela, or the castles of Gondar and the terrain was awesome whether it was the mountains of the Simien National Park or the waters of Lake Tana. In fact, four of the locations we viewed are World Heritage Sites.”

“Although … this was probably the most challenging holiday of our lives, we loved it and were inspired by it. We feel sure that Ethiopia has a real future as a tourist destination for the discerning traveller and we were delighted that we had visited before it becomes popular.”

These are extracts from my account of a trip to Ethiopia in February 2015. Now the country is racked by civil war and the capital may be about to fall to anti-government forces. Today the British Government has told all British citizens to leave the country immediately. My heart bleeds for the people of Ethiopia who have suffered so much and for whom the suffering continues.

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Word of the day: uchronia

November 22nd, 2021 by Roger Darlington

The term uchronia refers to a hypothetical or fictional time period of our world, in contrast to altogether-fictional lands or worlds. The concept is similar to alternate history, but uchronic times are not easily defined and are placed mainly in some distant or unspecified point before current times.

The term has been applied to Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” [my review here] and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” [my review here].

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A review of “Beyond A Fringe”, the memoir of Conservative politician Andrew Mitchell

November 21st, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In 1971, for the first time I read a memoir by a Conservative politician: “The Art Of The Possible” by Rab Butler. As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, it has taken me exactly 50 years to repeat this experience. My ‘excuse’ is that my son – who works in the international development sector and has recently collaborated with Andrew Mitchell on matters of mutual interest – attended the launch of “Beyond A Fringe” and brought me back a (signed) copy.

I have to say that I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, enlivened by plenty of amusing anecdotes and some self-deprecating observations. It is, however, a strange political memoir: first, because it is not actually that political (which should win it a wider readership than many more ideological treatises) and, second, because the work exhibits a major bifurcation in which the writer becomes something of a different politician and indeed a different person. 

Let us start with the politics. 

Strangely there is no discussion of why Mitchell wanted to go into politics and why he choose the Conservative Party for his ideological home. It is true that his father was a Conservative MP but the book contains very few references to his parents. It is almost as if his classic upper middle-class life – prep school, public school (Rugby), Oxbridge (history at Cambridge), army (a short service commission) and the City (the investment bankers Lazard) – led him to Centre-Right politics without the need for thought.

There is a fascinating chapter on his three years in the Whips’ Office (whipping is so important to British politics but rarely illuminated), yet this period was all about cajoling fellow Tories to vote with the Major Government and there is barely any talk of the actual policies they were being asked to support. There is then his first rung of the ministerial ladder when, as a junior minister at the Department of Social Security, he was responsible for the infamous Child Benefit Agency. He explains how he promoted managerial changes to improve the working of the agency, but there is no consideration of the government’s role in tacking family poverty. 

The best period of Mitchell’s career was his seven and a half years as Opposition spokesperson on International Development and Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DfID). He was industrious and committed in both roles and can rightly be proud of his record. But when he talks of developing “a centre-right British international development policy”, it seems to me that his changes were more about efficiency and focus than about ideology – which is as it should be.

Since he ceased to be a minister, Mitchell has worked especially hard on three areas: international development, human rights and civil liberties. Yet again these are not issues on which there is an obvious or clear Left/Right divide. 

Now that bifurcation.

Mitchell acknowledges in his preface that “Mine is without question a privileged life”. For decades, everything fell into his lap without too much effort or travail. His epiphany came with his appointment – initially by Michael Howard – to the international development portfolio. He admits “I had little experience of my new brief” and “it was not one of those issues I had contributed to in the House of Commons”.

But he read widely, he consulted extensively, and above all he travelled. In Uganda: “It was my first experience of real poverty”. He was especially moved by what he saw in Rwanda: “Throughout the long journey back to Kigali, I cried for one of the few times in my adult life”. He founded ‘Project Umubano’ – the Kinyarwanda word for friendship – which took Conservative volunteers to Rwanda and acknowledged that “It changed our lives – it certainly changed mine”.

Where Mitchell’s deep involvement in international development humanised him, the shock of ‘Plebgate’ – a contentious altercation with policemen guarding the entrance to 10 Downing Street – humbled him. He admits: “It was my weakness – arrogance, indeed – that started it all off”. It changed him financially (he faced legal bills of around £2 million) and emotionally (he suffered serious depression and sought medical help).

The trauma set the seal on his disenchantment with the Establishment of which he had been a fortuitous member. He writes: “in the process, I found that I’d resigned from the British Establishment”. Indeed the subtitle of his memoirs is: “Tales From A Reformed Establishment Lackey”. In the final chapter, he states: “I have somehow become more internationalist, less Anglocentric, less trustful and less respectful of the organs of the state and generally less certain”

One of the enjoyable features of a political memoir is seeing observations on other politicians. To the surprise of many colleagues and friends, Mitchell supported Boris Johnson when he ran for the Conservative leadership. He does not assert that Johnson is a serial liar, but he does not need to. The inference is unavoidable: Johnson clearly indicated that he would return Mitchell to office (he lied), he agreed to keep DfID as a separate department (he lied), and he promised to stick to the UK commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid (he lied).

Mitchell speaks kindly of both Tony Blair and David Cameron and describes William Hague as “the best Prime Minister we have never had” and Michael Gove as “the cleverest man in the government”. His comrade-in-arms and closest political friend is David Davis. 

As for Mitchell himself, I venture to suggest that he would make a better Foreign Secretary than any member of the current Conservative Cabinet.

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It’s World Toilet Day – and that’s serious

November 19th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

World Toilet Day (WTD) is an official United Nations international observance day on 19 November each year to inspire action to tackle the global sanitation crisis. Worldwide, 4.2 billion people live without “safely managed sanitation” and around 673 million people practice open defecation.

Sustainable Development Goal 6 aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. In particular, target 6.2 is to “end open defecation and provide access to sanitation and hygiene”. 

Life without a toilet is dirty, dangerous and undignified. Every day, 700 children under 5 die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation. Toilets literally save lives. We need massive investment and innovation in sanitation for all.

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What do you know about the Central Asian nations with names ending in -stan?

November 17th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

The name ending ‘-stan’ means ‘land of’. In Central Asia, there are seven of them.

I have been to one – Uzbekistan [see travel notes here] – and plan to make a trip next year to five of them: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

There are two others – Afghanistan and Pakistan – but I don’t feel that it would be safe to visit them in current circumstances.

If various political movements had their way, there might be even more -stans.

For instance, the Khalistan movement is a separatist movement seeking to create a homeland for Sikhs by establishing a sovereign state, called Khālistān (Land of the Khalsa’), in the Punjab region. The proposed state would consist of land that currently forms Punjab, India and Punjab, Pakistan.

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