Failing Well

I was talking with a friend the other day about perfectionism. It’s not an attribute which is much of a blessing; quite the reverse, it’s a yellow-fevered curse. I remarked that I hated to write in ink as a child, since if I made a mistake I should have to cross it out, spoiling the look of my work. The word processor was a godsend, and I still felt comfortable writing, but in pencil with its eraser immediately to hand. He murmured that this was a learned behavior – I wondered if it could ever possibly be unlearned. I thought not and used to hate myself for apparently preferring the style of my efforts rather than their substance. Such behavior, I reflected, has to do with an insularity, an artificial moat with a personal drawbridge that I create around myself. It reminded me of this:


Rangitoto Island, Auckland NZ

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And, therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

John Donne

Donne’s work was the inspiration for someone I had last read a generation ago. The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, used the same wording in the first line to entitle a book of his own. Writing in ‘No Man Is an Island’ he remarked: “The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them.” I found myself mentally applauding, followed by cursing myself for believing it. A friend drew another of his works: ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ to my attention. It’s a Catholic blockbuster, written when everyone’s motivations were being questioned in the aftermath of WW2. In sixteen essays, Merton addresses those in search of enduring values, fulfilment, and salvation in inspiring and compassionate prose; a theme which pursues almost all of us. Merton’s own autobiography ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ tells of the growing restlessness of a brilliant, passionate young man whose search for faith and peace leads him, at only twenty-six years old, to take vows in one of the most demanding Catholic orders – the Trappist monks. And yet, the more he struggles to withdraw from the world, the more he finds himself immersed in it, with its patchwork of imperfections and irritatingly frequent crossings-out.

Having had flu for the past week – it does seem to take longer these days – I found myself almost Trappist-like, disengaged from the world, the drawbridge of my mind pulled up, no sallying forth for a time into the wide, wild hurly-burly. I used the opportunity to revisit Rav Cohen’s classes at Harvard on Judaism and Christianity as well as other inquiries which, had I been well, I would have dismissed as being too time-consuming or nothing more than irrelevant busyness. And yet, actually stepping away into a degree of solitude had the effect of leading me towards engagement with people and things, instead of the reverse which looked as if it might have been a much more probable outcome.

Being almost a professional, if frequently reluctant, spectator, it’s often all too easy to watch, then criticise. Theodore Roosevelt wrote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

We – or rather I – must learn to engage, emotionally and spiritually with the grime of my surroundings, jaggedly imperfect and flawed as they are, trying, even when I might fail, attempting even when the outcome is uncertain. As Merton wrote “A man who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly.”




Darkest Hour

I haven’t written a film review for a while. Probably because I haven’t been to the cinema a lot – today being an exception – on a damp Thursday on the Champs-Elysées.

Romeo y Julieta, with owner.

It’s all so very improbable. Gary Oldman, wolfish and saturnine, to play Winston Churchill, ponderous, overweight with jowls like an English bulldog? Surely not. He’s played Sid Vicious, Beethoven and Lee Harvey Oswald. But, what a spectacularly understated piece of casting – the Churchill to end them all, with apologies to John Lithgow and others. Hand over the Oscar now.
“Darkest Hour” is set in the months after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht overran Belgium and trampled ruthlessly into France. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister, a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The power play is between the terminally sick Neville Chamberlain, pain-wracked and ageing, the barely concealed appeasement of the nearly-leader, Lord Halifax and Churchill himself, set in a dark, monochrome London, full of men who smoke, urgently murmuring in brown, panelled rooms.
Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, (Kristin Scott Thomas) the ballast in the thinking of a sometimes tortured mind was calm and sensible in contrast to Winston’s terrified but hugely competent secretary-typist Miss Layton (Lily James) who’s almost his muse when crafting his great speeches.
The acting talent of the Great Man himself doesn’t pass unnoticed. “You need to reply to the Lord Privy Seal, sir”. Winston’s response, in his pink dressing gown behind the toilet door: “I am sealed in the privy, sir, and I can only deal with one shit at a time.”
The film is claustrophobic, mostly, set as it is in war rooms and corridors of power. There are some memorable interactions at the Palace with a rhotacic Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, in stark contrast to Winston finding himself interacting with the common people who help him make up his mind as he decides to travel to Westminster by Tube.
No blood, guts, sex or glory, but a riveting insight into how a great leader shouldered the responsibilities of war. 9/10.

Fury or Fire

I wrote a piece a while back about the agonies of writing. It’s a savage, rather despondent piece – the link is here for anyone who would like to read it. It’s been quite a grim start to January, so what follows is from a rain-swept and miserable Paris, caught in the fury, swirl and eddy of Storm Eleanor. Happy New Year.

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Trees uprooted central Paris Jan 3

Henry Miller enjoined the writer to work calmly, joyously and recklessly on whatever is in hand. Jack Kerouac invites him to remove all literary, grammatical and syntactic inhibition and, like Proust, be ‘an old teahead of time’. What a delightful phrase – I so wish that I had thought of it.

So, why this sudden interest in writerly things? Perhaps because in a few days a new book is about to be released on the world which makes something of a mockery of the whole tawdry process. The words do not slip down like a fine Montrachet – instead they scamper insolently past us, daring us to believe them. A tell-all called “Fire and Fury” about Trump’s first year in office is about to shake the foundations of the White House – the revelations come like arrows at Agincourt, thick, fast and deadly.  Despite not having yet been published, the book has its own Wikipedia entry. There’s the odour of a septic tank about all of its fragments, half truths and unsubstantiated conjecture, but, like any septic tank, there’s solid material in there. It’ll sell books but let’s all just calm the flap down before actually believing too much of it. The author, Michael Wolff, has acknowledged in the past that he’s not very good at conventional reporting. Instead, he has the reputation of being able to absorb the atmosphere and Screen Shot 3.pnggossip swirling around him at social gatherings, his bum on a sofa close to the West Wing, from which he can fabricate events as if they actually happened.

His great gift, it has been said is to ‘have the appearance of intimate access’ when the truth is in fact quite the reverse – almost no access at all. He’s an expert, it seems, at manufacturing fictional oaks from factual acorns – real and imagined. He claims, amongst many other colourful notions, that Ivanka wants to be President whereas Donald never really wanted the Presidency. Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and the value of a TV empire he was considering starting would skyrocket. Ivanka and Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star and Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching with a discreetly luxurious circle of friends. Having been told he had won, she burst into tears, allegedly. Losing would have been so very convenient for everybody. But, a thousand tweets later and lurching through a first annus horribilis for the Donald and only a 40% chance, the punters tell us, of making it through a second keeps the gossip columnists wallowing in their self-excreted effluvia and will sell multiple copies of Michael Wolff’s book.
There should be books written about the Trump presidency and the man himself. But, not now and not yet. TheScreen Shot 1.pngre is too much at stake to stoke the furnaces of worldwide ridicule any more than they have already been and the revolving door hiring and firing and murderous infighting simply generates headlines. Of course, it was insane to think you could run a White House without experience, organisational structure or real purpose, led by a man who goes to bed at 6:30pm surrounded by cheeseburgers. The next twelve months are going to be interesting.