Some films grab you by the throat and don’t let go…films that cross the boundaries of fiction and shatter your cosy world. “Johnny Mad Dog” is one of those films. Released in 2008 and directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, it is based on the novel “Johnny Chien Méchant” (2002) by Emmanuel Dongala.
It follows a group of child soldiers fighting during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. In their march towards the capital Monrovia, they travel through towns and small villages, where they terrify, rape and kill civilians on a rampage fuelled by drugs and fanatical brainwash.
The year is 1959 and the place is New York City. Outside the “Birdland” club, a young musician is taking a break when he is told by a patrolman to “move on”. The musician tries to explain that he works at the club. The policeman punches the musician in the stomach and is then joined by another one that beats the musician in the head. Later that night, the musician receives five stitches for a wound on his head. A few days after the attack, he tries to pursue the case in court but has to eventually drop it in order to recover his license to work in the city clubs.
The young musician was none other than Miles Davis who, in that same year, produced his great masterpiece “Kind of Blue”. One of the many fascinating aspects of that amazing album is how its creation epitomized Davis’ commitment to freedom. A sense of freedom that transpires in the more technical aspects of the work that broke the bebop tradition of complex chord changes in favor of modal scales. Freedom also highlighted by Davis’ decision to give a pivotal role in the album to a white and classically trained musician, Bill Evans. Davis made the change despite the ferocious opposition of some followers and even other members of the band like Coltrane.
Some places deserve more attention than are usually given. In modern cities like London, the underground system is, in my opinion, a prime example. Based on a rough calculation, I reckon that I have spent the equivalent of over one hundred and sixty full days in the London “tube” during the last eight years.
However, I think that the underground is interesting in many ways and not merely because we, poor commuters, are forced to spend long periods of time there.
While suffering the winter cold that the air conditioner fails to mitigate and longing for the ideal holiday portrayed on the inevitable myriad of ads that cover it, there are many things that can be appreciated.
Consider, for example the relentless regularity of certain patterns in the behaviour of the “tube” tribes. Groups of builders discussing football and reading “The Sun” at 5:30am, bankers and lawyers religiously reading the “Financial Times” at 6:30am, noisy children in uniform comparing mobile phones at 8am, the inevitable pack of foreign students wearing their “I love London” t-shirts and going back to the hotel at 8pm, the football fans on their way to Wembley wearing the prescriptive scarfs and face colours, the group of young girls with too much make-up and impossibly high heels going clubbing on Friday nights…
I have made very good friends over the years. They have enriched my life in countless ways and helped me overcome painful situations. Yet, I have never met some of those friends in person. They belong to the world of fiction and an impenetrable barrier sits between us. Well, that is not entirely true…every time I have sought their help they have generously shared valuable lessons and inspiration. They have never asked for anything in return but I feel I owe them and perhaps this humble entry will go some way to repay my debt.
The first one is a Greek king, who went to war in order to “rescue” another man’s wife and experienced the most eventful journey home ever written. Over two thousand years, he has enjoyed an awful reputation as a womanizer, hedonistic and impious scoundrel but in my opinion, his story is one of the best metaphors of human existence ever composed.
Odysseus was extremely resourceful and had in his extraordinary intelligence the key to fool even the wrath of the gods and defeat his enemies. He taught me to pursue one’s goals relentlessly and endure setbacks and pain when they are required to achieve a worthy goal. He was no angel, his hands were covered in blood and left most of his ideals shattered by his journey through life. Yet, he was not afraid of the truth and always loyal to his friends. Odysseus is the only king I would greet with a bow and inspired me with an everlasting fascination for Greek history and myth. I cannot stop wishing that, perhaps one day, I will encounter the old rogue and get to ask him about Troy, Circe and Polyphemus and hear his own account of the tale. More importantly, I would try to convince him to tell me about those other stories that the blind poet forgot to sing about.
Since the time of Herodotus, some historians have followed that rule usually attributed to journalists: ”Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. The danger behind that principle is that tends to cover up reality and is likely to lead us astray.
The history of political institutions provides a perfect example of such a tendency. The story of how the idea of the state emerged first in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world is still told. Yet, if, following Max Weber, we understand a state as a “centralized, uniform system of bureaucratic administration that governs a large population and territory”; the historical evidence indicates that we should look for its origins somewhere else. That other place is China and the time was the period between the eighth and the third century B.C.
“Never say you know the last word about any human heart”
“Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary – it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum”. This line comes from “Any Human Heart”, a profoundly moving novel by the British writer William Boyd. The book portrays its protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, through excerpts from his intimate journals. It provides not only details of his intimate tribulations but a greatly evocative depiction of major historical events through the twentieth century.
Logan is born to a well-to-do English family but his identity is modelled by certain facts and influences that set him apart from the beginning. He is the son of an English father but his mother is Uruguayan and his first written words were in Spanish. The author displays an inclination for introducing these singular traits into a character that comes to exemplify human life in all its vigour and weakness.
Logan records his life on a number of journals that take the reader into an exhilarating ride through school, the life of a promising undergraduate at Oxford University, the early successes and challenges of a young and successful writer, marriage, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the art world in New York, the economic misery of the seventies and the denial of history in modern France….
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
Some individuals are born with great talents but among those, there are a few who will use their gifts generously to enlighten others. Carl Sagan is the perfect example of someone endowed with not only a colossal intellect but also boundless generosity to bring joy and knowledge to others. He devoted his life to science and was professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He also played a key role in several spacecraft expeditions such as Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo. Among countless awards he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service.
Yet, alongside his successful scientific career, he made great efforts to popularise science among the wider public. His TV series “Cosmos” was viewed by over 200 million people in more than 60 countries and exemplified how to explain scientific discoveries rigorously and engagingly. In the book that accompanied the series (also entitled “Cosmos”), he explained the importance of making science relevant to all. After describing the intellectual achievements of the scientists and philosopher working at the Library of Alexandria and how their legacy was virtually obliterated, he says:
“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy”.
Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow School
If someone were to prepare a recipe to acquire political power, I cannot think of a more powerful one than the following: add a big dose of an emotionally explosive component, that can stir the basest human instincts of your fellow humans and spice it up with distorted representations of another community that can be used as a target for violent attacks. The most successful example of the first ingredient is dogmatic religious belief and the most efficient choice for the second one continues to be a different nation or ethnic group. One will provide you with unquestionable authority, impervious to rational argument, and the other with a target to focus your followers’ fears and frustrations.
Most of the Western European countries have excelled at delivering countless varieties of this lethal dish over centuries. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of enlightened thinkers and the sacrifice of many in violent conflict has led to the acknowledgement of political methods, values and legislation to mitigate the proliferation of that poisonous combination. Yet, the recent establishment of democracies in countries like Libya and Egypt has created the perfect environment for ruthless manipulators that are keen to try their hands at recreating that recipe for disaster. After the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring, the murder of the US ambassador in Libya and the tide of violence unleashed across the Middle East have reminded us that democracy and freedom are difficult to achieve and harder to preserve.
“All men having power ought to be mistrusted.” James Madison
A few days ago, a major announcement was made by Mario Draghi, current president of the European Central Bank (ECB), intended to exorcise the spectre of the Euro disintegration. On September 6th, he announced the ECB would resume buying the bonds of troubled countries but upon the condition that those same countries submit to formal and externally monitored reform programmes. Mr. Draghi justified the ECB’s action with the argument that high yields faced by certain European governments are not only the product of a higher credit risk, but also the result of markets’ “unfounded fear that the euro would break up”. My intention is not to assess the decision in technical terms but rather, the extremely worrying political assumptions and contradictions that can be detected in some aspects of the announcement and related press commentary. Read more
Among the many treasures that the waves of history have washed up on our shores, few are as tantalizing as the grave steles that tell us about lives from previous centuries. Sometimes they capture a quotation from the deceased that they saw fit to define the essence of a lifetime. Others record how the owner of the tombstone was regarded by family or friends. The messages they convey are certainly humbling and moving.
Consider the grave stele of Mentor, the gladiator, from II c. A.D. that stoically states: “I, Mentor, have defeated everybody in famous stadiums and died according to fate. Powerful Moria has dragged me to Hades and now, I lie in this grave. My life has ended in the bloody hands of Amarantos.” It is worth noticing that “Mentor” was probably just a pseudonym adopted to evoke a connection with the mythological hero. It is also possible that the grave stele was paid by the same gladiator that killed him.
Mentor, the gladiator