Archives mensuelles : janvier 2015

A bi-polar life

Back in Freetown after another intense week with the family in Abidjan. I don’t think I’ll ever be used to this slightly schizophrenic life separated by a two hour flight. As soon as I get to Abidjan it’s all about my wife and baby. In Freetown, life largely revolves around work.

In the latter I have good internet, hot water, a spacious apartment. I survive on sardines, I exercise regularly, I don’t spend much, and I have a car. The opposite is true in Abidjan where we squeeze into a small studio, eat well, and the city is choc full of friends.

It’s actually difficult to imagine these world’s coming together, and it’ll be a radically new experience later in the year when they do, as Ebola fades.

Review: The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is a remarkable film telling the story of a 65 year old Italian culture journalist, Jeb Gambardella. He wrote a book decades back after a young romance, but since then has settled for the life of a socialite in Rome.

– You can excuse great films being long, but a few scenes could have been cut here. I’m really not sure on the justification for the opening scenes of a choir singing next to a classical fountain, an Asian tour party, and a Chinese-looking photographer-tourist who shoots the Rome skyline and then has a heart attack. In many films, re-watching these unfamiliar faces at the start would suddenly make everything click (“wow, the woman who later does X, was there at the start reading that newspaper”) but as far as I can tell, no-one in the opening scenes ever appears again. Sure it’s very arty. Is the poor tourist simply overcome by the great beauty of the capital? This isn’t Hollywood, and the girl you see in scene 3, doesn’t need to reappear in scene 24 as a decisive character. Sometimes people are just there in European cinema for no reason; just for the beauty and poetry of the moment. But still, some things didn’t seem to contribute much except confusion.

– As an unrelated point, it’s awful when the tourist starts snapping away with his camera. He’s so obviously ACTING at taking photos. It’s so common to see bad acting when it comes to people in films taking photos – showing they almost certainly have never used a camera before. But what’s odd is that this isn’t a skill like playing the piano. They are actors on a film set, surrounded by camera enthusiasts! Can’t someone just show them what people really look like when they’re taking pictures?

– The dance scene that properly introduces the key characters is one of the most remarkable cinematic scenes I think I’ve ever seen. It is totally over the top and riotous. The quick cuts and up-sound make for an incredible mix.

– One of the key point of the film seemed to be way people use high culture to boast and be snobbish. We see inflated egos talk about their love for Proust, never watching tv, adapting plays, doing venerable work. As is said at the end, there’s just so much ‘blah blah blah’. Reference is twice made to Flaubert’s reported attempts to write a book about nothing, hinting that this is a film about people who are vacuous. Rome in itself is treated as a symbol of this – several of the characters came to Rome, and failed to achieve their dreams or produce real art. Getting away is what can save them. Rome is a trick. Rome and its high life makes people ‘fall’ from the greatness they could otherwise achieve. Jeb doesn’t have an answer when a child says he is nothing. The congo dance at Rome’s parties are described as the best because they don’t go anywhere.

– There’s a lot of ridicule for the contemporary art scene; from the aqueduct actor who can’t explain what she’s doing, to the child painter, and perhaps also the magician and the stylised botox injections. But art is not entirely dismissed – the photographic exhibition that Jeb visits is seen as genuinely remarkable.

– The lead character’s clothes were incredible. It made me want to go out and visit the tailor, being sure to stuff a handkerchief in my breast pocket.

– Other things I liked – the sweeping camera movements, the little scenes of detail, some incredible and eclectic music.

– As with so many journalists in film, this one is clearly doing well for himself. His luxurious apartment directly overlooks the coliseum. In short he lives like a millionaire. I’m not sure journalists in real life live so well.

– Technology is frowned upon – when his initial love interest talks about posting pictures on Facebook it strikes a discord with the classical Italian beauty of the piece, and spells the end of her chances. The playwright who tries to impress the girl finds that at the end of his masterpiece, she’s staring into her smartphone. We know where the film director’s sympathies lie.

– This being Italian cinema, the Catholic church plays a central role, though as in Dolce Vita, it is really a complete mystery to the lead characters – a mix of crooks, eccentrics and non-rational mystics. The traditions and religious art have a power, but anything religious is a chasm away from our high society characters, and church figures have no answers to give. There’s a sense of incomprehension.

– Africa-watchers will probably be less than amused. The continent gets three stereotypical mentions (that I noted) – it is the place where the straw clothed tribal people come from, it is the place ‘The Saint’ works and saves the poor, and it is the place Viola goes to after the death of her son, selling all her possessions to the church. Then there’s the line (below) about ‘Ethiopian jazz’.

– In a way, the film tries to say that Jeb does find some redemption. He learns briefly to love again. He plans to start writing again. He learns that there is some life beneath the blah blah emptiness. He got lazy in the partying for a few decades, but we leave him thinking that maybe he will return to love and art.

– Jeb appreciates that deep down all the characters (all of us?) are failures; the worst is when you don’t see your own lies. One of the most edge-of-seat scenes is when a friend at a party challenges him to explain what lies she tells about herself, and Jeb goes for the jugular and exposes her life for the sham that it is.

– The script was frequently exceptional (and I’m sure even better in Italian). Lines I liked (I have paraphrased, not taking down the lines exactly):
o “Why doesn’t he talk?” “Because he listens.”
o “Rome makes you waste a lot of time”
o “Rome has disappointed me.”
o “The jazz is good!” “Not really. The Ethiopian jazz scene is the only interesting scene nowadays.”
o “What job do you do?” “Me? I’m rich.” “The best job there is!”
o “In this country, to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously!”
o “I didn’t just want to go to parties. I wanted the power to make them fail.”

Down and Out

Just finished reading Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. It’s a quick and easy read, and enjoyable writing too. I do wish the two parts – Paris and London – had been better sown together, though I understand they were written at slightly different times. Still, I would have been personally interested in more comparative discussion.

Otherwise, the book raised a number of interesting points including the humiliation of being the object of charity. Have we yet heard the voice of the Ethiopian or the Central African on what it feels like to be given hand-outs? Would their perspective be the same as that given by Orwell or are cultural outlooks vastly different when it comes to being the recipient of gifts, including with conditionality?

It’s true that Orwell was far from a typical tramp, and indeed perhaps not even a ‘genuine’ tramp. So perhaps in the same way in Africa we need a writer to try to come alongside the poor to be a bridge to these experiences.

Home is where the heart is

You could make the case at the moment that although I’m physically in Freetown, I’m actually really living in Abidjan. For many reasons, that’s not a good situation to be in. I have some great colleagues here, but it’s hard to claim that I have a social life, much activity out of work, and much in the way of soul mates. My wife, my baby, my daughters, many of my friends are in Abidjan. Even my mum is there now for a week. When I go online almost all my contacts are in Abidjan. If there’s a car crash in Abidjan I’ll hear about it, but if there was a similar event in Freetown I would barely know. Every day I read my copy of Abidjan’s Frat Mat newspaper delivered to my inbox. In Freetown I’ve only ever once skimmed through a local paper. I couldn’t name a single government minister in Sierra Leone. In 12 months’ time hopefully my family will be here and I’ll have some sort of life. But for the moment, my heart and body are separated.

Thinking fast and slow

I just finished an interesting book recommended to me by a friend in Nairobi after he read one of the posts here. I later discovered that another friend had previously recommended the book to me in 2013 when I’d added it to my wishlist. It’s ‘Thinking, fast and slow’, by Daniel Kahneman winner of the Noble prize for Economics.

The book is on the long side, but it reveals some interesting facets of human thinking, explaining how the brain works and how that causes us to make rather non-rational choices.

Here’s a quick summary of the various traps we fall into…
– We often form quick impressions/decisions (‘system 1’) but without the hard-thinking of ‘system 2’. We prefer system 1 because it requires a lot less effort, and we’re lazy thinkers.
– We like things that make sense (are coherent), and so we often impose a story on the world priming us to see certain things that aren’t there.
– When thoughts are easy to think, we tend to conclude they are more true. Things that are repeated seem more true, as does familiarity. Mood and ease of reading a text are also factors that make things seem more true.
– We have a tendency to impose causality and will even on events that are entirely random. This is a feature of system 1 which also struggles with statistics and probabilities.
– Our thinking makes jumps to conclusions that may not be justified.
– We often let our system 1 answer a different question to the one that is asked.
– We let system 1 assume that all that we perceive is all there is when understanding something.
– We struggle to cope with ‘regression to the mean’.
– So-called experts are often wrong in making predictions though we like gurus.
– We don’t take into account where we come from, which makes a huge difference to our appreciation of things like losing and gaining money. We accept high risks to avoid losses but prefer a sure outcome when it comes to gaining. We struggle to abandon losers and don’t forget about sunk costs. We sell shares that are doing well and keep hold of shares that are doing badly.
– Our experiencing self is very different from our remembering self. We can actually chose to repeat more painful experiences because our memories are skewered against duration, and weighted towards how the experience ended.

Reading the book certainly makes me more dubious about ‘explanations’, ‘evidence’ and learning lessons. I’ve caught myself internally asking more questions when people say that X undoubtedly happened because Y.

Looking back and forward

Before looking forward to the coming year, it is of course important to look back. This might be boring for you, in which case skip this post, but for me it’s a useful exercise to reflect on my 2014 resolutions to see how I did.

The short round-up, posted as a comment on Facebook, runs as follows:
#my2014 The joys and sorrows of a birth (daughter), a death (father) and a wedding (brother). Travel to Afghanistan (2 weeks), Jordan (1 week), UK (3×1 week) and Ivory Coast (3×1 week). Changed job, organisation, profession and continent. Moved house twice. Finished reading the Bible, the Qu’ran and the Symposium. Ran a marathon. Didn’t write fiction, learn Arabic, master Lightroom & FCPX, lose weight or pray enough.

I started the year with the growing stress of facing unemployment at the end of the year when my department’s future looked uncertain. But in the end things worked out almost perfectly (both for me and my department). It’s important at this time to look back with gratitude at how worst fears weren’t realised (I guess they almost never are). There were significant amounts of travel, though not much within the Middle East patch, and a lot more time spent in Africa than envisaged.

If you went back through the past years you’d see that some resolutions are definitely easier than others. For instance, I’ve consistently met goals for saving and giving. Same for fitness/exercise, reading, academic study and blogging. But other elements appear in the resolutions list year-on-year without any progress being made – notably fiction/book writing, increased prayer times, writing music and improving my photo/video skills.

Less seriously I always seem to have ‘play Volleyball’ in there somewhere, which never happens. I even once gave my best friend a volleyball for Christmas but nothing came of it. Is there any reason to believe things will be different in future? Certainly blogging, reading and exercise have started well in Freetown. I think there are reasons for confidence that my photo/video skills will improve significantly this year, as I’m doing a lot more of it, making some investments in equipment, and using more of my free time for photo/video activities. I am writing more than usual (especially blogging) though whether this will ever translate to a book, I don’t know. I’m beginning to think I should stop stressing out about book writing.

Will 2015 be the year things finally settle down? Sadly this is unlikely at least in the first six months. My wife and new daughter are unlikely to be living with me in Freetown before the summer – perhaps they will never see the current home I have rented for us. At least work wise, I am on pretty safe ground now in terms of job security – I’m likely to grow a lot professionally and enjoy my time here. I’m a bit worried that the church I’m going to is not as good as previous ones, but the important thing I guess is that I can contribute. Exercise wise, I had thought of 2015 as a year to work on being stronger and slimmer, but I was recently attracted to the rather different goal of doing a triathlon in Assinie (Cote d’Ivoire) which would be fun for a number of reasons – jogging-wise I can already do the running section (10km) reasonably comfortably, and the swimming is fortunately only half of the usual Olympic distance (it’s 800m rather than 1.6km). The off-road cycling will be new, but that’s actually something I’m getting excited about. Cycling might be a good way to go – something one can do in later years, and a good way to see a lot of scenery. In my early teens I used to pour over Mountain Biking UK magazines, and now finally I could conceivably get a decent bike providing I can find a way to ship it out here. On the overall objectives, this year I’m trying to bring greater focus to my resolutions which come in five priority areas: CHURCH – WRITING – EXERCISE – PHOTO/VIDEO – FRIENDS.