Friday, August 28, 2015

Politics: Election Issues 1

The desire to win elections makes politicians crazy.

Here we have Stephen Harper echoing his old refrain that cutting taxes will spur investment. It won’t of course. Businesses don’t invest tax savings, they pocket them. The only thing that spurs investment is the opportunity to retain or increase sales. With our economy edging into “official recession”, businesses won’t invest. Where are the customers?

Then we have Thomas Mulcair sounding even more fiscally prudent than Tony Blair did with his New Labour, which was a thinly disguised ploy to persuade the anti-commie nutbars that Labour was not really pink at all. A balanced budget in the first year of an NDP government? I doubt it. For one thing, the books will certainly show a deeper deficit than Harper as admitted, for another, there’s not enough revenue in added taxes and reversing tax giveaways to the wealthiest 20% to fund the new spending. Cutting subsidies for fossil fuels is a good idea, if it prompts oil-patch investors to shift their attention to renewables. But that entails uncertainty, and investors hate uncertainty. Mulcair is assuming a psychology that rarely operates in a for-profit economy.

Justin Trudeau admits that his plan to put us all to work building and repairing infrastructure will mean deficits for a couple of years or more. That’s a good ploy. It makes him sound honest and up front. Will enough voters agree that we have to spend money in order to make money, or will deficit-fear paralyse the little grey cells? Hard to tell. Most voters are moved more by the leader’s persona than by his policies, and Trudeau still seems too young to too many voters.

Harper merely needs to repeat his claim that he’s brought us through tough economic times unscathed, which is taking credit for the passing of the storm and the coming of the sunshine. Mulcair and Trudeau both think that they’re vulnerable to flank attacks from each other, so they fulfill their fears by mounting just such attacks. They should rather attack their common enemy, and assume that the voters will pick the better of the of the local candidates, that would pretty well guarantee a minority government by one of them, But then they would have to cooperate to make it work. 

Right now, I think the face off is between Harper and Mulcair, with Trudeau as the king-maker if Mulcair achieves a minority government, or needs a coalition partner. That might be a good thing. The Liberals’ desire for power, and the NDP’s yearning for ideological purity have stood in the way of the pragmatic answer to Harper’s Conservatives, which is a merger of the two parties. The fact is that Canada is centre left, not centre right. Harper’s base demands ideological purity, too, and only the centre-left split has kept him in power.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Directed by Martha Henry. Lucy Peacock, Joseph Ziegler, Maeve Beatty et al.
     Charles Marlow arrives at Hardcastle Hall thinking it’s an inn, and behaves abominably to both his father’s friend, Mr Hardcastle, and to his daughter Kate, whom he takes for the barmaid, and whom both his father and Mr Hardcastle hope will prove a suitable match. Meanwhile, his friend George Hastings is courting Kate’s cousin by marriage, Constance Neville, niece of Mrs Hardcastle, who wants her son Tony Lumpkin (Kate’s stepbrother) to marry Constance. So you can see there is a lot of scope for misunderstanding and semi-successful attempts at deceptions and trickery.
     The question is whether this 18th century concoction will work in 2015. It was very popular in its time and ever since. The script has never been out of print, and it’s been “revived” every other year or so somewhere in the world.
     Goldsmith wrote the play to suit his audience. The style is wordy, everybody speaks polite English, most of the jokes depend on the class distinctions that mattered so much at the time. And that’s the problem.  While I could understand that Marlow was misbehaving towards his host by treating him as an inn-keeper, I didn’t feel it. It wasn’t funny. The problem is that our standards of courtesy have changed, so seeing a gentleman treat another gentleman as a servant doesn’t raise a laugh. It’s just not prank material these days.
      So how do you play it? Do you portray Marlow as a boor, or as a bewildered victim? And how do you play Hardcastle? His protestations at the boorish behaviour of his guest must somehow play off his polite behaviour, since he knows Marlow is a gentleman and treats him as such. No wonder Marlow has a hard time reconciling the courtesy of his host with the poor service of the supposed inn.
     In short, the play’s premise is a problem. Marlow should come across as worthy of Kate. His honest love for her as barmaid suggests that he’s capable of ignoring the strictures of class and rank, but if he’s played as a boor, how are we to take the reveal scene in which he discovers that the barmaid is really Kate Hardcastle, whom he has just politely but firmly rejected? Is he an honourable man? Or is he just focussed on his desires, and just damn lucky that they happen to coincide with his father’s wishes after all?
     “We have all been adamant that these characters shall be real” writes Martha Henry. They should not be stylised modern take-offs on the 18th century roles. So we got a naturalistic interpretation of the roles, which worked quite well, despite the Avon Theatre’s atrocious acoustics, which swallow up conversation-level sound. The audience laughed often, so many of the jokes still work.
     But Goldsmith’s wordy style is not conversational. It’s also much of a muchness: the characters all talk the same way. That means we need more physicality in the acting. Henry writes that she and the cast wanted the characters to “live and breathe”. I suspect that this means she wanted people as like us as possible. She forgot that life-like is not the same as like life. The trick is to make unreality seem real. Goldsmith’s world is not our world. His attacks on sentimentality may suit us; but the expressions of sentimentality were different. Sentimentality is always stylised, it eventually becomes stale cliche. How to refresh the cliche so that it can be satirised? Not easy.
     Henry’s experiment in naturalism is a play that pleased but did not engage me. **½

Two anthologies: Montaigne and Keillor

     Michel de Montaigne. Four Essays (1680. Translated by M. A. Screech) In one of these essays, Montaigne discusses conversation, by which he means discussion, sharing of opinions, even debate. He’s laid back about other people’s opinions. He’s more concerned with how well people say things, which he thinks is a clue to whether they originated their ideas or merely stumbled upon them. What he wants from his interlocutor is a sense of the person, of the character and the mind. His essays give just this sense of Montaigne the person: he’s curious, he lets one idea lead to another, he has strong opinions, but above all he’s a man who enjoys his world and thinking about it. Screech translates Montaigne as a conversationalist: reading these essays we hear the voice of a man talking to us, entertaining us and himself with the reach and liveliness of his mind. ****
     Garson Keillor. Truckstop and Other Lake Wobegon Stories (1995) A handful of Keillor’s tales, a pleasure to read. On its 60th anniversary, Penguin issued a number of small books of excerpts from its wide range of reprints. This is one of them, and anyone who lights upon Keillor for the first time will want to read the complete editions. I’ve read them all before, but they are as fresh as when first read, or heard on The Prairie Home Companion. The six stories here all deal with the Krepsbachs, and add up to s small novel. That’s Keillor’s genius, his ability to chronicle the lives of the people of Lake Wobegon over dozens of tales. ****

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Caroline Graham. Death in Disguise (1992)

     Caroline Graham. Death in Disguise (1992) An Inspector Barnaby Mystery. Looking at the date, I see why this series is hard to find: paperbacks published twenty-some years have been pulped and made into boxboard.
     The series became the basis for the Midsomer Murders on TV. This book is well done. Graham is especially good at satirising fruit-loopery, in this case a New Age commune living in an ageing manor house. At times, this part of the story verges on farce, but Graham has an ill-suppressed fondness for some of these loopy people, who after all are merely trying to find what we all want, calm and a sense that the Universe isn’t too arbitrarily horrible. The murder puzzle is well set up, but a crucial detail about the killer’s past is omitted. The first victim is put down as an accident; the second and third are clearly murders. The main problem is that no one has any motive to kill the group’s leader, while the third murder looks like self-defence.
     As with all mysteries, we aren’t too involved with the victims, but we do care about some of the suspects. Barnaby is quite likeable, but not as complex as his TV self, but Sergeant Troy is much less likeable than his TV version. The other characters range from a despicable parvenu (but even he has a pitiful need to gain the love of his only child) to a pathetic traumatised boy. The murderer is your garden-variety sociopath: it’s clues to his character that should tip off the alert reader.
     A well done entertainment, which I read because I wanted to see the source of the TV series, which I like very much, even when it stumbles. I likely won’t read another Inspector Barnaby mystery, though. **½

Monday, August 10, 2015

Three collections: Peter Arno, Editorial Cartoons, and Urban Legends.

     Peter Arno: "You give such perfect parties, Alice. Is there someone here that you'd like to meet?" (1979) With an introduction by Charles Saxon. I’ve always liked Arno’s New Yorker cartoons. They have an edge to them. Arno also has an uncanny ability to present a social type and  milieu in a few brushstrokes. His career was with The New Yorker. Of the 248 drawings in this collection, 236 first appeared there. It’s a marvellous collection. I found it at the local food bank’s yard sale. It’s a keeper.
     Arno’s life started well, but ended sadly. He became a misanthropic recluse. Perhaps the politely silent contempt for an artist who was merely a cartoonist finally got to him. Saxon says that a visit to Arno’s studio showed how often he redrew the same image, trying to get it right. His obsession with composition, tone, texture, and line is the mark of an artist. That his pictures also conveyed social commentary and critique makes his work all the more admirable.
     The last cartoon of the book is the last one published before his death. A typically Pretty Young Thing, all perky bosom and thighs, is seated under a leafy tree. A satyr playing the pipes prances by. “Oh, grow up”, the girl says.
     Great book ****

     Guy Badeaux, ed. Portfoolio 13 (1997) “The year’s best Canadian editorial cartoons” the subtitle announces, and it is that. Worth studying not only as a reminder of what worked up our indignation and amusement back then, but also for what has and hasn’t changed. The cartoons range from wry commentary (Man reading paper with headline Banks Enjoy Record Profits says “I guess the times they aren’t a-changing that much...”) to savage (Western diplomat type wades through corpses while vulture labelled Karadzic perches on scarecrow labelled Dayton Accords, says “Getting rid of him would be too messy”).
     A document, a keeper, another find at the yard sale. ****

     Thomas J. Craughwell. Alligators in the Sewer (1999) A beautifully printed and bound book. The contents are the old standbys, a good introduction to anyone who likes urban legends, the kinds of stories that Jan Brunvand pointed out always happened to “a friend of a friend”. Craughwell likes the naughty ones, often obscene, but always morally correct: the sinners get theirs, and then some. A good gift book, a little light on the in my opinion necessary commentary on the age and history of these tales, most of which have been around for generations and even centuries. Only the details of setting and technology have changed, the core narratives are ancient. Some of the tales apparently have figured in best selling novels. **½