November 13, 2015

Helmut Schmidt, RIP

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

David Warren remembers the former German chancellor:

Helmut Schmidt was a highly unusual politician: “intelligent, honest, candid, decent,” as described by old colleagues in Germany; and a smoker, as everyone noticed. This last was important. He smoked everywhere, paying no attention to Nicht Rauchen signs, right up to the day before yesterday. (Literally.) It was part of his charm, a way to signal that he did not care for anyone’s opinion. It was not the occasional cigarette; witnesses, including television audiences, calculated that he lit another every seven minutes.


The Germans are notoriously a disciplined, rule-bound people. But they hate themselves for it, and they loved Helmut Schmidt. There were polls to show, right up to his death, that he remained the country’s most popular politician, even if few wanted him back in office again. They always wanted to hear, however, what he had to say. And to watch the way he said it: like a captain. He could enchant foreign audiences, too, but especially German ones, by being so un-German. But of course he was from Hamburg, the ancient Free and Hanseatic City, which is full of un-German types.

His manner was commendable. People would come to him with some policy matter they thought he must urgently address, and he would say, “That doesn’t interest me.” Then change the subject to something more amenable.

From what I gather, he was miscast as the equivalent of a prime minister. He would have been entirely acceptable as a kind of “constitutional” Holy Roman Emperor; powerless, but constantly telling the merely departmental figures what’s what. It is unfortunate that the office has lapsed; I think Schmidt would have enjoyed it.

The next best thing was writing for Die Zeit. This wonderful post-war German institution is a fat, weekly broadsheet. When displaced from federal office he bought a stake in it, and held court from there as one of the co-editors. Since adolescence, when I could almost read German, I have been trying to follow it. The articles are long, both serious and light, and the attitude is like Schmidt’s: Social Democrat, technically, but against almost everything the Left stands for. And a shameless bastion of pro-Americanism.


A “progressive,” I suppose, but according to the tenets of another generation; the German equivalent of my father, in some ways, who was a “liberal” in the 1950s sense, which is to say, free markets and total opposition to Communism. Who wanted a “social safety net” for the hard cases, but hardly a Kafkaesque welfare state for all. Too, a form of “open-minded” tolerance for what the kids get up to; but nothing like what we tolerate today.

August 9, 2015

Robert Conquest’s historical vindication

Filed under: Books, History, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren on the late Robert Conquest:

[Robert Conquest’s] grand works of historical investigation — The Great Terror (1968), documenting the incredible extent of Stalin’s purges; and, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), surveying the catastrophic effects of his collectivization — were books of remarkable ambition; of bold conception and real consequence. Other writers had (often at the cost of their careers) reported upon Soviet failings. But they had done so in ways modest enough to be ignored, or dismissed by the fashionable Left as “biased.” The broad, massive, systematic nature of Conquest’s researches was something new. It cracked even the faith of many diehard Communists. The history he told fit together; it was all meticulously sourced; it was overwhelming. There was, as it rose on the horizon, too much to deny.

Yet others could still simply block it out. For people believe what they want to believe, and may resolutely look away from what they do not want to see, or even chute the cocksure laugh, in the face of the mounting tsunami of evidence that finally washes them away.

Conquest was also a light or minor poet, and verse translator, of skill, talent, and integrity. He moved, privately, more in literary than in political circles. His closest friends were such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin; another was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

He was no ideologue, and judging by the way he burned through wives, not a moralist either. Outwardly, in the tiny glimpse I had of him, he was not passionate or irascible. Inwardly, he was surely “driven.” But I would count him as a detached artist, working in a rather unusual modern genre: the author of elaborately proven epics of debunkment.

It was not Conquest, incidentally, but Amis who proposed that the revision of The Great Terror, published after the Berlin Wall fell, should be re-entitled, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. But Conquest was content with, A Reassessment. He presented his facts emotionlessly. This magnified his impact, as historian. When he had a provocation to offer, that he was entirely unable to resist, he would put it safely into verse form, so that it wouldn’t be noticed.

July 1, 2015

Remembering Patrick Macnee … I mean, of course, John Steed

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Mark Steyn on the (not-technically) original Avengers star:

But for a while Americans liked The Avengers, and it lingered in the memory so warmly that, three decades later, Hollywood opted to do a big-screen, big-budget remake. Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed, sportingly agreed to do the usual cameo — in this case, as a ministry bureaucrat rendered invisible in some research mishap and now consigned to a cramped office in a Whitehall basement. As I say, he was invisible, so we heard Macnee’s affable drawl (he had a smile in his voice, even when beating up the bad guys), but the audience never saw him, which was probably just as well — because, if they did, they’d remember the sheer affability of Macnee’s Steed. He was never a conventionally handsome leading man — he had a bit of a dumplingy face — but he brought a bonhomous ease to the role of the unflappable secret agent: the bowler, the brollies, the buttonholes and the Bollinger seemed like natural extensions of his charm; you can understand why groovy birds like Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson would dig such an ostensibly squaresville cat.

He wasn’t supposed to be the star. The Avengers began in 1961 with Ian Hendry as a mystery-solving doctor David Keel. Macnee returned to England from an indifferent theatrical career in Canada to play the role of Dr Keel’s assistant “John Steed”. But then the star departed, and Steed found himself carrying the show with a succession of glamorous gal sidekicks — Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, Linda Thorson as Tara King. They were very literal sidekicks in that they kicked to the side, being masters — or mistresses — of martial arts, doing most of the heavy lifting while Steed occasionally boinked someone over the head with his bowler. Many years ago, Dame Diana told me “Emma Peel” came from “M Appeal”, as in “Man Appeal”. But Steed always called her “Mrs Peel”, just as he called her predecessor “Mrs Gale”, because he was a gentleman. And the ladies always called him “Steed” because they were one of the boys, as in that English public-school thing whereby grown-up chaps who know each other well address each other by their surnames (“I say, Holmes!” “Yes, Watson…”).

The Avengers was created by Sydney Newman, the greatest of all Canadian TV producers (he also inaugurated Dr Who), but hit its high-water mark under Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. In the early days, they didn’t have a lot of money, but they spent it wisely. The difference between the two principals was defined in what they wore and what they drove: Steed favored a vintage Rolls or Bentley, the ladies the latest convertible sports car. After seeing Mrs Peel drive one, my dad bought a Lotus Elan — a beautiful ride with a fiberglass body that crumpled to dust when a truck brushed us ever so lightly on the Route National 7 in France. The ladies wore fab gear from Carnaby Street, while Macnee, ditching the trenchcoats he’d worn in the first series, opted for a slightly heightened version of an English gent’s get-up that he designed with help from Pierre Cardin. Laurie Johnson wrote one of the best telly-spy theme-tunes and the opening titles are pure style: Mrs Peel shooting the cork off the champagne bottle, Steed’s unsheathed sword-stick swiping a carnation and sending it flying through the air for Mrs Peel to put in his buttonhole.

June 14, 2015

From SOE to Hammer horror to LOTR, Christopher Lee’s remarkable career

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Mark Steyn looks back at the real life and cinematic exploits of Sir Christopher Lee:

Before he was an actor, he was an intelligence officer, and had, as they used to say, a good war, attached to the Special Operations Executive, or the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, responsible for espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. Afterwards, Lee stayed on to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Back in London in 1946, he lunched with a Continental cousin, now the Italian Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, and confessed he had no idea what to do next, except that he had no desire to return to his pre-war job as a switchboard operator at the pharmaceutical company Beecham’s. “Why don’t you become an actor?” suggested the Ambassador. So he did. Two years later he was a spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, in which he met another up-and-comer playing Osric, Peter Cushing.

It took Hammer horror films to make both men stars, albeit B-movie stars. Lee was a very suave and seductive Dracula trying to stay one step ahead of Cushing’s van Helsing while leaving a trail of blood-drained totty behind. As a teenager, I loved the Hammer movies, although I had a mild preference for the lesbian-vampire ones with Ingrid Pitt, Pippa Steel, Yutte Stensgaard et al. The bottom seems to have dropped out of the whole lesbian-vampire genre. No doubt, in these touchy times, it would be a fraught business reviving it. But Sir Christopher’s count holds up pretty well. Aside from bloodshot eyes and stick-on fangs, there weren’t a lot of special effects: Today you’d do it all with CGI, but back then there was nothing to make the horror but lighting and acting. You can see, in middle age, all the techniques that would give Lee an enduring cool well into the Nineties: the mellifluous voice; the flicker of an eyebrow — and then suddenly the flash of red in the eyes and the bared fangs, the ravenous feasting on some dolly bird’s neck, and all the scarier for emerging from Lee’s urbane underplaying.

He was upgraded to Bond nemesis Francisco Scaramanga, The Man With The Golden Gun — and a supernumary papilla, which is to say a third nipple. Lee was a cousin of Ian Fleming, who’d offered him the chance to be the very first Bond villain in Doctor No twelve years earlier. It would have been fun to see Lee and Sean Connery together, but, role-wise, he was right to wait. He’d known Roger Moore almost as long as cousin Ian: They’d first met in 1948. Golden Gun is a mixed bag for Bond fans, what with the somewhat improbable presence in Thailand of redneck sheriff J W Pepper and the other Roger Moorier elements. But Britt Ekland runs around in a bikini, and Lee’s Scaramanga is a rare opponent who is (almost) the equal of 007. Landing at Los Angeles to promote the film on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Sir Christopher had his golden gun seized by US Customs and never returned — a reminder that these guys were pulling this nonsense long before the TSA came along.

His own favorite film was Jinnah, in which he played the title role of Pakistan’s ascetic founder. It’s very credible, but it’s not why audiences loved him. Lee redeemed almost anything he was in, but had his work cut out when George Lucas signed him for the Star Wars prequels. By then Lucas was a director without peer when it comes to getting bad performances out of great actors. Once upon a time Ewan McGregor was one of the sexiest actors on the planet. Then George Lucas cast him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and turned him into a souvenir action-figure with no private parts and a flat monotone voice. As Princess Amidala, Natalie Portman couldn’t be Aniduller. The kid who plays Anakin seems like he should be the shy fellow in the back in some passing boy band but instead his agent stuck him with some lousy movie gig in a language not his own. He and Miss Portman roll in the grass like it’s a contractual obligation. The most fully realized characters are the computer-generated ones, like Yoda, the wrinkly midget with the inverted word order that nevertheless sounds less unnatural than the rest of the inert, stilted dialogue.

June 4, 2015

Posting will be irregular for a few days

Filed under: Personal — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:56

Yesterday afternoon, my sister suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to hospital. She died late in the evening, never having regained consciousness. She was 51. I will be doing whatever I can to support my brother-in-law Gord, my niece Samantha (who is due to deliver her first baby any day now), my nephew Jimmy and my mother.

There will be a few pre-scheduled items posted on the blog, but I don’t expect to be actively posting anything for at least a couple of days.

Hilary Mallett obituary

April 29, 2015

How do you get teens to understand the First World War? Digging trenches is a good start

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Leslie Waghorn talks about the history teacher who literally brought trench warfare to life for her and her classmates:

Mr. Barker-James had planned everything to be as accurate as possible. The students would dig the trenches over a series of months. We would sleep outside and we would only be allowed to take clothing and comforts with us that would have been allowed by our “side” at the time. We would eat what they ate, we would sleep on their schedules.

For two months, after school and during our spare periods, we went to Mr. Barker-James’ farm and hand dug trenches. I remember my hands being blistered and by mid-October being miserable with the choice to either wear gloves and not have a good enough grip on the shovel to break through the frost, or do it bare-handed. One day I remember throwing a 17-year-old’s hissy fit, which Mr. Barker-James stopped by reminding me that a mere 80 years before, boys my age had to do this in France, all day, without the luxury of gloves and wool hats, and snacks.

Point to Mr. Barker-James.

When the weekend of the trench warfare scenario came, I remember there were a handful of seniors on the Allied and Axis (my assignment) sides and we were over-run by sophomores who were ready for a weekend of camping. We were offered our first breakfast of a slice of bread, water and a cheese slice. Many decided not to eat it and instead marched the 8 kilometers to his farm on an empty stomach. By the time we arrived, the mood had gone from excitement to exhaustion.

We set up camp, laid out wooden weapons, and started our first patrols. At lunch we were offered what soldiers from our side would have eaten: Hard tack and bully beef. I remember cutting the roof of my mouth on the hard tack and dry heaving as I tried to swallow the fatty bully beef. I couldn’t get it down. I was very hungry, but I knew that was the point.

The first battle we recreated was the Somme. I remember being relieved because it was supposed to be easy for our side, the Germans. The Canadians would walk down the hill, in the trench at the base we would mow them down. At first our side was having fun, enjoying as the refs called their friends out as dead. The ‘dead’ students would then revive and move up to the top of the hill and come down again in the next wave, only to be killed by us again.

I remember a girl stopping at one point and saying, “this sucks.” I asked her why, this was the easy part for us. “We’re just killing them and killing them and killing them. It doesn’t stop. We have to do this for 45 more minutes. Just killing people. It’s depressing.” “That’s the point.” I said. I saw the same light go off in her eyes as it did when Mr. Barker-James had pointed out that my sore hands were nothing to complain about. By giving us the opportunity to be outside of the classroom, and gain a first-hand reflective experience of the actual impact of war (however minor), Mr. Barker-James acted as an educational mediator – not a teacher, and yet, higher ranked than any teacher could be. His lessons instilled critical thinking, reflection, curiosity, and a drive for us to understand, which is considered some of the best sort of teaching around.

H/T to BoingBoing for the link.

March 14, 2015

Charles Stross on Terry Pratchett

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Charlie doesn’t describe himself as a close friend of Terry’s, but they knew one another in the British SF community:

Friendship is context-sensitive.

I wouldn’t describe Terry as a friend, but as someone I’d been on a first-name acquaintanceship with since the mid-1980s. If you go to SF conventions (or partake of any subculture which has regular gatherings) you’ll know the way it works: there are these people who don’t really see outside of this particular social context, but you’re never surprised to see them in it, and you know each other’s names, and when you meet you chat about stuff and maybe sink a pint together.

I haven’t seen Terry since the Glasgow worldcon in 2005. The diagnosis of his illness came in 2007; I’d been spending a chunk of 05-07 out of the country, and after the bad news hit I didn’t feel like being part of the throng pestering him (for reasons I’ll get to later on in this piece.)

And on how Terry’s fame grew exponentially not long after they’d first met … and how it changed the public Terry (it perhaps didn’t do much to change the real Terry):

Some time between about 1989 and 1992, something strange began to happen. I started seeing his name feature more prominently in bookshops, displays of his books planted face-out. He started turning up as guest of honour at more and more SF conventions. When a convention did a signing with Terry, suddenly there was a long queue. And when he walked into a room, heads turned and people began to close in on him. There’s a curious phenomenon that goes with being famous in a particular subculture: if everybody knows you, you become a target for their projected fantasy of meeting their star. And they all want to shake your hand and say something, anything, that connects with what your work means to them in their own head. (If you want to see this at work today, just go to any function he’s appearing at — other than the Oscars — and watch what happens when Neil Gaiman walks into the room. He is, I swear, the human Katamari.)

Being on the receiving end of this phenomenon is profoundly isolating, especially if you’re one of those introverted author types who can emulate an extrovert for a few days at a time before you have to hide under the bed and gibber for a while: you’re surrounded by strangers who desperately want to connect with you and after a time it becomes really hard to tell them apart, to remember that they’re individuals with their own lives and stories and not just different faces emerging from the surface of a weird shape-shifting fame-tropic amoeboid alien. It’s not just authors who get this: if anything we get off very lightly compared to actors, politicians, or rock stars. (For some insight into it, go listen to the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.) I should add, this sort of introversion is really common among writers. It’s an occupation that demands a certain degree of introspective self-absorption, alongside a constant distance from the people you’re observing, who — they mostly don’t know this, of course — may provide the raw fuel for your work. So, if you want to hang on to your sanity, eventually you either go and hide for a bit, or you surround yourself with people who aren’t faintly threatening strangers who want a piece of your soul. Which is to say, you selectively hang out with your peers, or folks you met before you caught the fame virus.

Terry was not only a very funny man; he was an irrascible (and occasionally bad-tempered) guy who did not suffer fools gladly. However, he was also big-hearted enough to forgive the fools around him if they were willing to go halfway to meeting him by ceasing to be foolish at him. He practiced a gracious professionalism in his handling of the general public that spared them the harsh side of his tongue, and he was, above all, humane. As the fame snowballed, he withdrew a bit: appreciating that there was a difference between a sharp retort from your mate Terry at the bar and a put-down from Terry Pratchett, superstar, he stepped lightly and took pains to avoid anything that might cause distress.

Anyway, this isn’t a biography, it’s just the convoluted lead-in to an anecdote about the last time I saw him (which was a decade ago, so you’d better believe me when I say our relationship was “situational friend” rather than “personal friend”).

March 13, 2015

March 12th will be a black day on the calendar from now on

Filed under: Books, Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

It’s the day we bid farewell to Terry Pratchett. While we knew the end was nigh, many of us had hoped it would be postponed for many a year. In the Guardian, Christopher Priest says farewell:

BEING DEAD IS NOT COMPULSORY. NOT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO. These are the words of Death, one of Terry Pratchett’s ingenious comic creations in his Discworld novels. Death has a booming, unamused voice (always in capitals, never in quotation marks), and is the permanent straight man in the comic chaos around him. He goes about his morbid business on a horse called Binky, whose hooves throw up sparks on every street cobble. Death is a skeleton, with eyes like two tiny blue stars set deep within the sockets. He wears a black cloak, carries a scythe and, at the end of a day’s work, loves to murder a curry. At the point of contact with his latest client, he usually spends a few moments having a courteous word or two with the recently deceased, until they fade away.

Now Death has gained a most illustrious client, for Pratchett himself has died, aged 66, after suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The exchange is no doubt unamused but courteous on one side, amusing but rueful on the other, but of fervent interest to both parties. It’s a conversation that millions of Pratchett fans would ache to overhear. Would Death dare to speak in capitals to Sir Terry Pratchett?

Pratchett was, and will remain, one of the most popular British authors of all time. In the modern age, only the career of JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, is comparable. The facts of Pratchett’s success are impressive: the sheer number of books he has sold (some 80m copies worldwide), and the number of reprints, translations, dramatisations on television and stage, audio versions and spin-offs, plus awards and honorary doctorates galore. Then there’s an inestimable amount of Discworld spinoffery: chess pieces, wizardly hats, cloaks and T-shirts, leathern bags, pottery figurines, fantastic artwork, magic clobber of every kind including dribbly candles – all made by and sold to fans. His signings at bookshops were legendary: a queue stretching down the street was de rigueur, and although Pratchett worked quickly at the signatures, he was unfailingly friendly to everyone who turned up. He was open to readers: he answered emails (or some of them, because the volume of incoming messages was spectacular) and he went to Discworld conventions (almost all of them). He was a nice man, unpretentious and with a wry manner.

Pratchett was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, son of David and Eileen. He described himself as an omnivorous reader of books from the local library, making up for his lacklustre years at High Wycombe technical high school. He wrote his first story while still at school: The Hades Business, originally published in the school magazine. It became his first professional sale when it was picked up later by the magazine Science Fantasy. He went into local journalism, working on the Bucks Free Press, and later on the Western Daily Press and Bath Chronicle. While working as a journalist, he wrote innumerable short stories for the newspapers under pen names.

March 1, 2015

Leonard Nimoy “made braininess sexy”

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

ESR talks about the late Leonard Nimoy:

There have been some surprisingly sensitive eulogies for him in the mainstream press, but they all merely skirted the edges of what may have been his most important contribution to popular culture: he made braininess sexy.

Journalists looking back at his life correctly note that despite James T. Kirk’s alpha-male swagger, Spock was the character that made women sigh. But they miss the full significance of this, a significance not easy to see because we live within the consequences of Nimoy’s achievement. He was the first star geek, a role model not just for Trek fans but for generations of bright kids after him.

If you are, like many of my readers, a fan of classic SF, ask yourself this: you had brainy heroes aplenty in your books (and rare that was outside of SF in those days) but who was the first one to be a live presence in media SF where he could influence the mundanes in a way print SF could not? That’s right; Spock. Leonard Nimoy’s methodical self-projection.

Nimoy made space in popular culture for intelligence as a positive quality in a way not seen so charismatically since perhaps as far back as Sherlock Holmes. By doing so, he paved the way for the post-Star-Wars boom in science fiction — and with it the gradual the emergence of a relatively self-confident subculture of bright, imaginative people who in the 1990s would begin to label themselves ‘geeks’. And who, whether Trek fans or not, would half-consciously see him as a role model and universally mourn his passing.

February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy – The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Uploaded on 6 Sep 2011

Sometimes, a body gets a hankering that only Leonard Nimoy singing about hobbits while surrounded by 60’s pixie chicks can sate. Fortunately, we live in a world where those hankerings need not go unfulfilled!

This was originally filmed in 1967, on a variety show called Malibu U. The colour portion of the video is from “Funk Me Up Scotty,” a 1996 documentary from BBC2 about the musical careers of the cast of the original Star Trek. The show cut the last verse and an instrumental/dance interlude, which I’ve restored using black & white footage from I know not where.

January 26, 2015

John Hill, RIP

Filed under: Gaming, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:33

Gerald D. Swick on the death of one of the great wargame designers, the man who created Squad Leader:

Squad Leader game box

If there is a heaven just for game designers, it has a new archangel. John Hill, best known for designing the groundbreaking board wargame Squad Leader, passed away on January 12. He was inducted into The Game Manufacturers Association’s Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts & Design Hall of Fame in 1978; Squad Leader was inducted into the HoF in 2004.

His many boardgame designs include Jerusalem (1975), Battle for Hue (1973), Battle for Stalingrad (1980) and Tank Leader (1986 and 1987), but John was always a miniatures gamer at heart, and anyone who ever got to play a game on his magnificent game table considered themselves lucky. Squad Leader was originally intended to be a set of miniatures rules, but the publisher, Avalon Hill, asked him to convert it to a cardboard-counters boardgame design. His Civil War miniatures rules Johnny Reb were considered so significant that even Fire & Movement magazine, which primarily covered boardgames, published a major article on the JR system. Most recently John designed Across A Deadly Field, a set of big-battle Civil War rules, for Osprey. He completed additional books in the series for Osprey that have not yet been published.

October 22, 2014

“Will the American fashion industry ever tolerate another de la Renta?”

Filed under: Business, Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 06:57

I don’t follow fashion at all, so it hadn’t occurred to me that the recent death of Oscar de la Renta would be much more than a footnote, but Virginia Postrel would disagree:

When fashion designer Oscar de la Renta died Monday, he left neatly resolved two issues that might have otherwise marred his legacy.

The first was the question of who would succeed him. Many a fashion house has been thrown into chaos by the death of its founder. But last week, Oscar de la Renta LLC, the privately held company headed by de la Renta’s stepson-in-law Alex Bolen, said it was appointing Peter Copping, the former artistic director of Nina Ricci, as its creative director. There will be no messy crisis this time.

The second was a matter of state. De la Renta had dressed every first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy — except Michelle Obama. To have the stylish first lady shun the dean of American fashion was tantamount to a public feud. Two weeks ago, the conflict ended when Mrs. Obama wore an Oscar de la Renta dress to a White House cocktail party filled with fashion insiders. Her appearance in the crisply tailored black cocktail dress embellished with silver and blue flowers — a quintessential de la Renta balance of precise lines with ornamentation and color — preserved the designer’s White House legacy.

The clean resolution of these two issues shortly before de la Renta’s passing befits the grace of his life’s work.

But a cultural question remains: Will the American fashion industry ever tolerate another de la Renta? His brand will continue, but the classic elegance for which he was known is as old-fashioned as it is beloved. It defies the prestige accorded to innovators who “move fashion forward” rather than simply creating fresh collections. Michelle Obama wouldn’t have won all those plaudits as a fashion leader if she’d worn his dresses and followed his rules. She would have merely been another tastefully attired Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush.

September 8, 2014

QotD: The Economist‘s whitewash of the “Great Leap Forward”

Filed under: China, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

When Mao died, The Economist wrote:

    “In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.” (emphasis mine)

The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death. Critics questioning that figure have suggested that the number might have been as low as two and half million.

I am curious — has the Economist ever published an explicit apology or an explanation of how they got the facts so completely backwards, crediting the man responsible for what was probably the worst famine in history with creating a state “where nobody starves?” Is it known who wrote that passage, and has anyone ever asked him how he could have gotten the facts so terribly wrong?

David D. Friedman, “A Small Mistake”, Ideas, 2014-09-07.

August 13, 2014

Lauren Bacall

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:57

In the Telegraph, Tim Stanley says we’ve lost one of the last of the true Hollywood stars:

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the trailer for the film Dark Passage, 1947 (via Wikipedia)

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the trailer for the film Dark Passage, 1947 (via Wikipedia)

Lauren Bacall the actor has died, a sad thing for sure. But Lauren Bacall the star will live on forever. Because that’s what stars do. They burn bright for millennia.

Born Betty Perske, a Jewish girl from the Bronx, she was spotted by Howard Hawks’ wife on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and invited to Hollywood to screen test. Bacall thought Hawks was impressive but scary — it didn’t help that his method of breaking the ice was to make anti-Semitic jokes. Hawks thought Bacall attractive but lumbered with a high-pitched voice that was all wrong for the sophisticated quick-fire dialogue he liked to write. So she drove her car up into the Hollywood hills and practiced speaking low and soft by herself. Next she had to improve her demeanour — and for Hawks this meant turning from a shy girl into a sexually confident one. When she couldn’t get a ride home from a party at Hawks’ house, he told her that men went for women who insulted them. She insulted Clark Gable and, right on cue, he offered to drive her home.


What defined that character? Friedrich calls it “insolence”. Bacall always played the girl who answered back, the one who had the temerity to ask if a man knew how to whistle. That’s Hollywood censor shorthand for if they knew how to make love. Bacall never went out of her way to please no man; men had to please her. Via a series of noir box office hits, Betty Perske ascended into the pantheon and took the slot of the “sophisticated seductress”. For Golden Age Hollywood dealt not in actors or mere parts, but in stars and archetypes. At any one point there had to be a tough guy, a wise guy, a villain, a maverick. Among women there were the betrayed wives, vamps, innocents and party girls. The name of a star on a movie poster told you everything you needed to know about what would happen in that movie — and you went to see it because the last 48 made in that vein were so darn good. This is the nature of star power, the ability to evoke something with just a name in lights.

May 13, 2014

H.R. Giger, RIP

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:18

Another unexpected obituary notice today for artist H.R. Giger:

Artist H.R. Geiger sits for an April 1994 portrait in New York City, New York. (Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images)

In Scientific American, Glendon Mellow talks about Giger’s impact in art:

Hans Ruedi Giger gave us machines moving like flesh. His airbrush compositions are strongly considered to be descendants of Dalí though I have always felt the unease, the dark mirror of the 1890 Symbolists behind his work. If you cracked open the biomechanoid shell, I always assumed the devastating mythologies of Khnopff, Böcklin and Delville would come pouring out. His paintings were the work of sperm, bullet casings, grotty stone and soft cheekbones. It was not made to be beautiful, it was made to unsettle.

ELP - Brain Salad Surgery cover by HR Giger

Giger’s work unsettled me as a painter and drove me like it did so many others. Are you another painter who paints, in some small way, because of Giger? Share your stories and links to your art in the comments below. Perhaps we will follow-up with a post of art inspired by Giger here on Symbiartic.

Giger is dead. His shadow remains cast over our future. The shadow moves.

I’ve always thought his name was spelled “Geiger”, yet most of the obituaries spell it as “Giger” … but the 1994 image at Getty has it as “Geiger”. I’ve edited this post to use the more common spelling.

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