July 25, 2008

Tovarisch! I am not dead!

Garri Urban died in 2004, he should have died several times before. His life was extraordinary- captured by both the Nazis and the Soviets, he went through unspeakable torture, lost his first love to the Gulag, worked for Nikita Kruschev and died in suburban Britain, a doctor, one son Newsnight's diplomatic editor, the other a respected film maker. If anything can sum up the transition of the 20th Century, its awful middle and its benign end in the West, then it is the life of this man. Like so many for Garri Urban the moment of truth was the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Empire and the ending of the second world war on the continent of Europe- not as many people think an event which happened in 1945 but one that happened in 1991 with the fall of the monstrous communist tyranny (one that may be stretching out its dead hands, the siloviki, in Russia oncemore but that is another article!). In 1992 Urban decided to go back and find his file and find out why he had been arrested and what had happened- or at least that's the story that he told his son- and that's the story his son filmed to make what I saw last night at the British Film Institute.

But of course, that is not what happened. This film is about two journeys- one which takes us through the Soviet Union- the Ukraine, Moscow, Tashkent and back again and again and again- the second journey goes into the past and is conducted on film by the director Stuart Urban. The first journey supplies the structure of the film and reminds us that in the ex-Soviet Union it is still the practice to boil one's political opponents alive, to lose documents and to hide the past. The journey into the past though is more fascinating. Garri Urban was born in 1916 in the Ukraine. As a young man, he was a pugnacious womaniser, fearless and intelligent. At one point accosted by a Ukrainian mafiosi and told that the girl he was dating was not worth piss, he knocked the gangster to the ground, took out his penis and lubricated the astonished thug's face- unsurprisingly the next morning he had to flee town. But the story brings out what Garri Urban was and to an extent what he was till the day he died- a sonofabitch to use the American expression who would not give at all to anyone, no matter what.

Fleeing the Germans in the 30s he came to Russia. Then in 1940 he was captured attempting to escape from Russia, swimming across the border to Rumania. He was shot- jumped into the freezing water- they dragged his body out and a KGB agent stooped to find out whether he was dead. Garri Urban shouted 'Tovarisch (Comrade) I am not dead', punched the guy in the face and attempted to get back to the crossing- he was captured and brought to the local KGB headquarters and put in the Gulag. But incredibly he managed to escape- somehow getting hold of a KGB uniform and taking the train to Moscow- where he became a man about town and seduced the editor, model and photographer in Moscow's only fashion magazine- Noka Kapranova. But once again he was captured- tortured horribly- and placed inside the Gulag. He managed to end up though, promoted as a medical supervisor in a whole area of the Ukraine and then he escaped by dressing up as a German POW and fleeing to the allies- to freedom and to Austria in 1946. His family were all shot in the Holocaust- by the Ukrainians before the Germans arrived and in the case of his sister, after they had left. One brother survived- whose story is equally incredible- for his brother escaped the Germans and fought in the Jewish resistance to the Holocaust before leaving to become a commando in the Isreali Defence Forces, fighting the Palestinians.

Back to Garri, his journey into the past is a journey into ambiguity. He never is granted his file completely- and the Russian officer who refuses to hand it over says to his son that there are secrets about Garri in that file that would make his hair stand on end. Indeed the remnant of the file is eventually destroyed in uncertain circumstances- perhaps by Garri himself. There are various loose ends. In 1946 as she waited at a post office, Noka was given a letter from Garri by a woman telling her that he had escaped to the West and was fine- the letter was definitely from Garri but who knows how it got there. His brother implies there is another story here- perhaps a story that Garri under the hideous tortures of the KGB actually worked for the organisation briefly. There are other parts of the story which are just unknowable- how did Garri know the private number of Karimov, the Uzbek President, and why did he hate Kruschev so much as to wish the Soviet leader was kicked even in hell. The scars of torture remain on the frame of this old Jewish man- he was hideously treated- tied for hours to blocks of ice, broken and blasted. The woman he loved was taken from his life- and he never saw her again- he remarried but she did not. There is a tragedy here- moral, personal and private- that we can never guess at. Suffering- both in terms of promise betrayed, the life of a lie and tears- which is unimaginable in these days of plenty.

The most incredible moments in this film are the reunions- both of Garri and his brother and of Garri and Noka. The first we only hear discussed- but we don't need to see it- there is so much emotion in it. So much emotion in the way the two talk of each other that you get the sense of a really strong family love. When Garri talks about what happened to his mother- she died before the war- he tells her gravestone that in the Jewish cemetry over her body, thousands of Jews were massacred by the Nazis. Garri and Noka's meeting is equally emotional- this time it is the desperation of the Communist era that is at the heart of the matter. And then there is a last reunion where Garri goes back to the village in which his parents lived and finds people who knew them- people who we know and he knows may have killed them. Its again an amazing piece of cinema- because the history of Eastern Europeans and Jews is not a happy one and beneath the bonhomie there is definitely an edge about that and an emotion about the fact that these are Garri's people, this is his home. His forgiveness for them is a refutation of the cosmopolitan Jew beloved of Nazi and Soviet propaganda.

And yet, and yet I do not think we should leave the film with a message of hopelessness. For the film has a different purpose. Ultimately Noka says it better than anyone- its better to survive and to love, than to die and to hate. These two old people are truly indomitable. They have been warped and possibly betrayed themselves- but tovarisch they survived, they were alive to see the empires that wrecked their lives disappear like Ozymandias into the desert sand of history. In that sense the miracle of their lives is not that so much was lost but that so much survived- its a miracle of much more- a miracle that Europe survived the nightmare of this century- the cost though was dramatic and terrible. It cost Garri Urban his past- both in the sense that he was tortured and treated horrifically and in the sense that so much of it was bound in the ambiguity of what he had to do, which we will never know, in order to survive.

July 24, 2008

Friendship and the Internet

The internet is decidedly a rum thing. It is not just that it facilitates communication over hundreds of miles, between cultures and continents that have never communicated on this level before- or disseminates news so fast that I can beat a BBC correspondent to knowing something and know it seconds after it has happened on the other side of the world- but that it has done things to human communication that other media (with the limited exception of the telephone) could never do. It has given us not a new dimension to our personalities but a new dimension to the way that we communicate. I am writing this- and I know there are about fifty of you, maybe more, maybe less, who are reading it- you could be in Salisbury, Cirencester, Saratoga or Swaziland- I have no idea- all I know is that you are reading it and we are communicating. That's rum. It is something that would not have happened twenty years ago- I couldn't phone fifty people- I might meet fifty people in a day but they would all be in my office, probably live quite near to me and probably have quite similar backgrounds and interests (ie they have turned up in the same place as me at some point in their life). Now though- you are all reading me and I have the same relationship to you in some ways that a film star had to their audience- I know you are there, I have no idea who you are.

Even if I do know who you are the change is still there and still interesting. There are some people who I know read this blog. There are some who I know read it avidly- there are some who I have emailed, discussed issues with, chatted with via the medium of Mr Google and yet have never ever seen in my life. There are some who after having chatted to on the internet- I have met- but most of the people I know through this blog, I wouldn't know if I walked past them on the street. That is an interesting thing to think about- and it is something I want to spend some time working out- because I think that my social interraction with people I know through the internet is different and similar to that with people I do not know through the internet.

Let us start with the basics of a friendship developed over the internet. How do I know you- and how do you know me? We know each other through the written word. We have no idea of what each other looks like or sounds like. That is odd. We all work by looks in every day life. We all think x looks a bit shifty, y looks open minded- and we all rely on physical signals- picking your nose demonstrates that you do not understand modern manners, smelling of sweat demonstrates that you do not understand modern sanitation and so on. We all do it- and those signals are only used because they are useful. If you are incredibly smelly, it could be because its a hot day- but it also could be because you have not bathed for a month. The same thing goes for the way that people speak- if I drone on, its probably because I don't enjoy what I'm talking about which is a good signal that noone else in their right mind would- excitement denotes the fact that someone else might be excited. Conversations are more difficult without those little signals- the sarcastic incline of the head, the joky insult, the moment at which you are close to breaking point and sound angry- those are all impossible on the web- Google chat has as many smillies as you could imagine but cannot cover all of the uses of the human head in the permutations of the 100 or so keys on a standard computer keyboard.

So relationships formed over the internet are bound to be less communicative- they are also bound to take less time. I went out on Friday evening with a friend- and spent around 4 hours solidly chatting with her. I would never spend four hours chatting with someone on Gchat. The longest I have spent must run to half an hour. My longest ever phone conversation runs to three hours. Just think though that in the three hours phone conversation I have the tone of my interlocutor's voice as well as their words, in the four hours with someone in resturants, cafes etc I have their tone and their manner, on the screen I have nothing- potentially the odd smiley and the delay as they write their words which could be down to a computer fault, them getting a cup of tea or just pure irritation with what I last wrote. Its even worse if I am not using a chat program but communicating through the comments on a blog- who knows what reaction I'm getting and how considered it is and how I ought to understand it- and who has ever taken more than 2 minutes over a response to a blog article. Quite simply friendships online are friendships based on so much less in terms of communication. They are based on sentences rather than conversations.

That does not mean that friendship online is impossible. I personally prefer to meet people that I like offline- I then get to understand them better- but some you can't. This article was in response to someone I consider a friend, Ashok, who wrote an article over at his place on a similar theme. But I'd say its more difficult to be friends online than off. Real life friendship and internet friendship are the same beast- fundementally those who think that real life and the internet are completely separate are living in a deluded make believe world- what is different about them is the extent of the communication. When we talk online we do not have the clues that we normally rely on- the reason we rely on those clues is because they are generally useful. There is nothing wrong with having internet friends- but they are harder to understand simply because the keyboard is not as subtle an instrument as the human face.

July 23, 2008

Not looking forward to Hurricane Georgina

An interesting piece of research was just published in the Journal, Judgement and Decision Making. The authors, Jesse Chandler, Tiffany Griffin and Nicholas Sorenson of the University of Michigan came to some rather startling conclusions. Having analysed the register of Red Cross donations in a county in the midwest United States, they found that there was an increased incidence of donations if the person concerned shared an initial with the name of the disaster. Donations from people whose names began with the letter 'K' jumped 31% after Hurricane Katrina, similarly after Hurricane Mitch, donations from people whose names began with M jumped 30%. This is interesting. The researchers are unable, being good scientists to suggest why this might be so- but according to them it harmonises with many other studies done for example on the way that individuals look at historical characters- apparantly studies have found that those whose names begin with R tend to look favourably on Rasputin!

It is interesting- if not just statistical noise and researchers insist that it isn't because it exposes the irrational roots of human behaviour. Lets take an example, I decide to donate to a hurricane- Hurricane Georgina, whose impact was disastrous within the United Kingdom this year. I might think that my donation proceeded from a rational calculation- to relieve suffering- and that my choice of disaster was informed by the fact that those people were people who deserved caring for. But actually that is not the whole story. My bias towards the letter- which Georgina shares with Gracchi- may have influenced my decision- I unlike Matt Sinclair might not have been predisposed to donate to Hurricane Martha. Lots of human decisions are like this- and not all of them involve letters- but one of the interesting things I think about the current state of play in cognitive science is how much more we are learning about the irrational roots of human behaviour. Letters, numbers- we enthuse them all with character- and use them as signs. I don't think anyone quite understands why we do this- but we do- there are names as everyone I am sure recognises in their own life that just sound nice and names which do not. I am well disposed to people called Lucy and hate Agathas. This isn't based on empirical research- I don't know any Agathas- and though I know lots of nice Lucys I had the prejudice before I met them.

In a sense we have been playing this game for a long time. The 18th and 19th Century were filled with great and interesting theories about why we like what we like. Karl Marx's argument about class in part is an argument about culture- or at least became so in the hands of his 20th Century interpreters. Names for instance are very vulnerable to the fashions of class- the preponderence of Ernies as bus drivers or train drivers in the 1930s (and even in Harry Potter novels) has a lot to do with the fact that noone calls their kid Ernie today! But there are more individual things as well- the bias towards letters may be one- which we use to group the world and understand it. In truth the world were we to try to understand it rationally from the word go would just be too confusing- there is too much that is new and radically different- and so we use categories to understand it. Some of those may be rational categories- like for instance the fact that I tend not to like mustard, hence all mustard sauces are forbidden no matter how enticing. Some of them though come from deep in the psyche- I'm sure sexual preference for example influences our behaviour in ways that we are not aware of- equally I'm sure memories of our parents suppressed in our psyches do. These things of course Freud and Jung and their disciples attempted in the 20th Century to get at and still do.

So the simple suggestion that the first letter of our name influences our attitude to the news shouldn't surprise but it should remind us. Know then thyself says the poet- if only we could is the response of the learned modern! And now I'm off to donate to something beggining with G...

July 22, 2008


Youth is a short story by Joseph Conrad, the subject is not difficult to guess. Captain Charles Marlow, a frequent character in Conrad's stories, makes his first appearance in Youth telling the story of his journey to Bangkok as a young seaman in the 1890s. For most critics the most important thing about the short story is that Marlow, the narrator of the Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, makes his first appearance in the story. But actually this is a more significant piece of work than those critics would have you believe. Youth is a simpler piece of work and so often neglected but it has the merits of being both exciting and interesting, and mixing in a flavour of the difference between human generations as well as the flavour of life at sea.

The story is about the voyage of the vessel Judea from England to Bangkok. Its a comically bad voyage- the Judea is an old vessel which seems to break and splutter at the merest indication of hard weather or hard times. They fail to leave England, they fail to get to Bangkok with the vessel intact and the cargo provided for. The captain, Beard and his first mate, are both good seamen who reasons of luck have never in their long careers commanded before- Marlow describes himself as a stripling between two grandfathers. The point though is that their bad luck continues: through no fault of their own they end up on a vessel which is less than sea worthy and which creaks rather than sails. Of course the ironic touch is that for the young Marlow this is an incredible voyage- to the 'East'- it is romantic and character forming. Marlow is tested throughout by wind, wave and the crew and passes the tests with flying colours- he grows before our eyes. The book is also subtlely a celebration of the British merchant marine at the end of the nineteenth century- far more than any other Conrad I have read it argues for those hardy seamen from Liverpool- having said that it is an old man's nostalgic reminiscence of his prime- and we must always read this as Marlow's attitudes not Conrad's- Marlow recalls his crew as an embodiment of British pluck: does Conrad?

I suppose that is what is most interesting about the story- because it is ultimately a reflection on youth as it looks from old age- in that sense it has a lot in common with Ikiru where the hero beleives it is a girl's youth and not her zest which keeps her passionate. So too in this story the romance and the crew's character are portraits from age. They are dramatisations of memory- a memory no doubt scarred by many less exciting and less comical episodes- some of which Conrad was to introduce us to later on in his fiction. Marlow makes his entrance onto the stage therefore of British literature not as an embodiment of slashbuckling youth, but as an embodiment of fond old age- swigging from a bottle (we are constantly reminded of the bottle being passed round as he tells his story) whilst telling his friends of high deeds and comical mishap. In that sense the unlucky captain is both comical and tragic: he is comical because nothing he can do will ever assuage his failure, but he is tragic because no less than Marlow he is the representative of old men who have lost their opportunities, made their choices and sit around the fire at night telling stories of their own youth.

July 21, 2008

Ikiru A thought

I apologise for lack of posting. However tonight I went to see Ikiru- the great film by Akira Kurosawa- the problem with Ikiru is that it is a film which by its nature is not easy to comment on. It is incredibly difficult to grasp what the film is actually about- not because the plot is hard to grasp naturally- but because the ramifications are so dense. In a sense that is what defines a good story- it is defined through the fact it has texture, it has depth. You can go back and back to it, go and rethink an aspect, ask a different question, see the whole story from a different angle. Ikiru is one such film: there are so many different interesting angles that you can see it from, so many aspects to it- like a painting by Escher it repays neverending analysis and thought.

Ikiru is a film about death- we know from the first frame that our hero will die soon. There is no doubt about it and we know the end as soon as we know the beggining of the film. You might think that this takes away the interest of the film- far from it. For this is a film about what it means to die, and therefore about what it means to be alive. How ought one live one's life- if as is said any day could be your last? (In the age of industrial warfare, that sentence has a particular poignancy- especially when stated in a society like Japan in the fifties which had been overhung by war.) Through that Kurosawa investigates any number of interesting issues- the ethical, political, social and bureacratic that defined contemporary Japan. However for today's purposes I do not want to focus on any of those themes- preferring instead to concentrate on something else- Kurosawa's treatment of old age.

The central character in this piece is an old man- but curiously and unlike say other notable filmks of the same era- for example Umberto D- he is an old man surrounded by the younger generation. There is noone of a comparative age in the film (there is actually one minor exception a clerk at the civil service office in which he works) but there is noone else. Noone else is confronted by death in quite the way our main character is. This means that he relates to the others in a curious way. He desires them- for their life. They consider that his desires are sexual- there is one girl who is supposed by many to be his mistress- but actually it is her charming vitality that he desires. She even begins to find him scary, freakishly stalking her, he seems to any dispassionate audience to have lost a sense of perspective and discovered infatuation but in truth it is with what she represents that he is infatuated not her in particular.

The thing that reawakes Watanabe, the old man, is not a young mistress as all his friends think, but is youth itself. Kurosawa is interesting about this- because during the film he proposes a definition of youth- youth is the ability to love life. And loving life is the ability to take what you are doing seriously. He is a council official- the moment that he recovers his youth is when he becomes interested, engaged, involved. It is the moment when he discovers meaning in his life- when he recovers his zest for something- that something being doing for someone else. But it could be anything- it is the interest that gives him youth, the obsession with something, the sense of unreasonableness- the sense of unaccomodating demand upon life. He demands that life be made better for those whom he is responsible to- and demands it despite the fact that it is impolite- he becomes youthful because he enjoys impropriety but impropriety not for its own sake- towards an end.

Movement away from death is not the fact he faces down death nor some potion, but it is that he faces away from death, tears away the swathes of cloth that have mummified him and looks on life again. He dies smiling.