27 July 2016

On Vatican corruption

The anecdotes are endless: the monsignor who appropriates a room from the adjacent apartment of a poorer priest simply by knocking down the party wall while the other man is in hospital; the diplomat priest who takes advantage of the diplomatic bag to carry mafia money across the Swiss border; the organisation Propaganda Fide, instituted to evangelise the world, that spends relatively little on this mission while owning almost a thousand valuable properties in and around Rome, many of them rented way below market price to friends and favourites.

It is striking how many Catholic organisations seem to do a whole range of lucrative things they were never set up to do, while still enjoying tax exemption as religious institutions. When priests in Salerno were granted €2.3 million of public money to build an orphanage in a depressed urban area, they built a luxury hotel instead. Found guilty of appropriating funds under false pretences in 2012, the archbishop of Salerno avoided punishment when the crime lapsed under the statute of limitations before his appeal could be heard. Others went to jail.

- Tim Parks, 'The Passion of the Bureaucrats', London Review of Books, 18 February 2016

See also:
Italy: Fra Mauro's map, 23 July 2015
Italy96 hours in the Eternal City, 16 October 2010

17 July 2016

I captured a Boyar

Lord Margaer of Ulburban. Don't all queue up at once, ladies.
Indie fantasy RPG Mount & Blade Warband, which I picked up in the Steam summer sale, is a lot of fun but there's a steep learning curve. It's frustrating how comprehensively rubbish I was at combat at the beginning. And in a game mostly about combat that could be considered something of a liability. Like many others starting out, I was captured and imprisoned by more puissant warrior-folk four or five times in a row when I first ventured out into the perilous kingdoms of Calradia. This quickly became irksome. The only solution was finding the wandering ransom broker to sell off some bandit hostages for cash, then track down my two freebie hero companions, Katrin and Ymira, who I was split up from when captured for the first time by some Khergit Khanate pillock with an overwhelming stack of doom. Plus I needed to raise enough to buy another horse, because being a medieval pedestrian totally sucks.

Part of the solution to these problems was capturing a Boyar. Having learned a few of the combat ropes by trial and a lot of error, I barged into a relatively even fight between a raiding Vaegir lord and a Swadian count with whom I had a passing acquaintance, and my 30 meagre chaps tipped the balance. A few days later before I could track down a ransom broker I got a message offering me 3800 denars for my noble prisoner! At the time this was an enormous sum to me, and I wasn't sure what to do with all the dough, but I vowed not to blow it all on a fancy pony.

At this stage I was only just tinkering with giving battle orders, preferring a simple and straightforward approach of going at 'em and trusting to fate. This seems to have worked so far, perhaps because my warrior, Margaer, became somewhat more skilled in evading stronger pursuers.

Not long afterward I noticed a fleeting game message saying Margaer had graduated to the lofty realm of those with ‘right to rule’. This seemed to result in more effusive greetings from nobles who knew me relatively well, and was presumably aided by my recently captured another unlucky Boyar for ransom. This latter gambit didn’t pan out though, because my captive vanished from my inventory before I could cash in when Swadia declared a truce with the Vaegirs.

Having really enjoyed graduating to the ranks of the slightly less insignificant, I particularly relished how the game remembers your dealings with various lords. One Rhodok lord who I’d pleased by laboriously training up six Veteran Spearmen sent me on a message errand to a Khergit lord, and after traipsing for days to the Khergit’s court at the edge of Calradia I was told that we’d met previously on the field of battle. Presumably I’d fled!

By this stage Margaer was keeping a strong well-trained force of around 40 to 45 men including six named companions, and was broadening my search for missions into Rhodok lands. This led to a foolish leap in the dark when on a whim I pledged my allegiance to a Rhodok usurper, seeking to depose the current king. I didn't realise this would mean revoking my hitherto profitable allegiance to the king of Swadia. And the situation became doubly entangled when I cut loose the would-be usurper, without realising the huge impact would have on my character's honour and standing.

However, after this string of mis-steps, things started to look up. Venturing north into the snowy realm of the Vaegirs, I chanced upon King Yaroglek and pledged my allegiance to him. Margaer could've been knocked down with a feather when the king offered him a village of his own to support his efforts in the king's service. Sure, Ulburban is a desolate, poverty-stricken, isolated, snowbound hovel, but it's my desolate, poverty-stricken, isolated, snowbound hovel. Lord Margaer of Ulburban now sports a well-trained fighting force of 60 men in the service of the Vaegirs, and has befriended several influential Boyars, including the current marshall, Boyar Naldera. Things are looking up!

See also:
Games: Elite Dangerous, 2 March 2016
Games: Civ 5, 11 February 2014
GamesXCOM, 25 January 2014

06 July 2016

No swimmer will find fault with the baths and conveniences

Thorndon Summer Pool, 2 July 2016

On Saturday 29 November 1924 a new public bathing facility opened in Thorndon, Wellington. The Thorndon Summer Pool has served the city since then, open to the elements and therefore only used for the more temperate months of the year, from late October to early April. For the remainder of the year it looks like the view above: empty until the thermometer rises again. On opening day in 1924 the Evening Post had a thorough report on the new pool, with only a minor gripe to show that everyone's an expert in town planning, even journalists:

The official opening of the new fresh water baths at Thorndon took place at 3 p.m. to-day, when the Mayor (Mr. R. A Wright, M.P.) declared the baths available to the public, who had their first sight of them and afterwards were invited to have a swim, no charge being made on this occasion. The new pool is of the standard length of 33 1-3 yards by 40 feet. The depth ranges from eight feet to three feet. The whole of the sides and bottom are faced in white tiles with lines of green tiles to direct the swimmers. A trough round the sides will provide for clearing the surface water and keeping the baths clean. 
Following the opening, a programme of races arranged by the now revived Thorndon Swimming Club were put on.  
The opinion amongst swimmers is that it will not be very long before alterations will be required at Thorndon. For many years the Te Aro Baths have proved unsatisfactory for the holding of carnivals, one distinct drawback being that spectators were situated so far from the swimmers that it was difficult to follow them. The new baths will be a very distinct improvement in this respect, the spectators being right at the water's edge. However, for the size of carnival and the attendances of spectators that are hoped for in future operations in Wellington, the new baths, it is held by many, should prove quite inadequate in the matter of accommodation for spectators, only one side being gallaried [sic], and both ends and the other side providing no seating accommodation. It is also questionable whether the present number of cubicles will be adequate if the baths prove as popular as they should be. No swimmer will, however, find fault with the baths and conveniences, which are excellent, except that a medium high diving board will be required.
- 'New Baths. Opening at Thorndon', Evening Post, 29 November 1924 
 The official opening the pool, Mr Wright, was a Reform member who was the city's mayor from 1921 to 1925. A little over a month before opening the pool he had also officiated at the opening of the new De Lux Theatre, which we now know as the Embassy Theatre. Following his term as mayor of Wellington, Wright was Minister of Education from 1926 to 1928 in the Reform administration under Gordon Coates.

The Evening Post of 29 November mentions plans in Sydney to build an underground rail network to address the city's traffic problems. It also notes the good sense of good traffic planning for Wellington, an altogether smaller city but one with its own distinct challenges:

Wellington now is in a relative position somewhat resembling Sydney many years ago. The traffic difficulties ahead are becoming apparent. Our city is not likely to grow as the capital of New South Wales has grown, because the New Zealand population is distributed; but we are pressed against the hills as Sydney is not. We should endeavour to apply the lesson while there is yet time, and remodel our traffic routes before the cost becomes prohibitive. It will be more expensive now than twenty years ago, but twenty years hence it will certainly be no cheaper. 
See also:
TransportWellington tramlink, 14 January 2015
Blog: Thorndon Fair 2013, 1 December 2013
Photography: Ans Westra Wellington 1976, 30 June 2013

04 July 2016

A fixed star in a rootless world

On his road trips through America, Nabokov gained a familiarity with the landscape that would inform Lolita, his signature novel. Decades after its publication, Lolita’s subject matter continues to shock, and its most disturbing aspect lies in its basic contradiction: How could something so beautifully written advance a story of such utter debasement? Here again, Nabokov’s enduring fascination with memory figures into his art. The novel’s central character, Humbert Humbert, tells the story in retrospect, giving a morally bankrupt relationship the grandness of myth. Lolita is about many things, but one of its themes is the plasticity of the perceived past—how it can be bent through the biases of recollection to serve our personal conceits. In a kind of counterpoint to [Nabokov's memoir] Speak, Memory’s treatment of the past as pure transcendence when transmuted into narrative, Lolita hints at literary recollection as a corrupting influence as dark as Humbert’s carnal appetites. That Humbert is a supremely sophisticated aesthete suggests the book as a cautionary tale about the black magic of art, its power to not only define reality but distort it.

But in Speak, Memory, Nabokov implies that memory, flawed though it may be, is the closest thing we have to a fixed star in a rootless world. He speculates that, when it came to remembering things, “Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known.”

- Danny Heitman, 'Why Nabokov's Speak, Memory still speaks to us', Humanities, Summer 2016

See also:
Blog: Mr Putin departs Brisbane, 16 November 2014
BlogCharles & Fyodor, 3 January 2014

29 June 2016

Film Festival 2016 lineup

The 2016 Film Festival is just around the corner! As usual there's a strong lineup of great films both new and old to sample. While I'm not a hardcore annual-leave-taking sort, I do try to fit as many films in as possible to the non-work hours for the two weeks from 22 July to 7 August. This year I'm booking 19, which is one more than I saw in 2015. (I had planned to see 19 in 2015 but for some reason Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien's historical drama The Assassin dropped off my ticket purchase).

As usual, the opportunity to see exciting new films is irresistibly tempting, particularly when they're on the fantastic Embassy big screen. Two will even feature live Q&As with highly respected British director Terence Davies. But there's also the rare treat of being able to sample classic offerings from cinema history. This year it's going to be amazing to see the visionary Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller from 1971, and two Asian masterpieces in Ozu Kasujiro's Tokyo Story from 1953 and King Hu's A Touch of Zen from 1971. There's also the opportunity to view lesser-known slices of the legendary Orson Welles' Shakespeare oeuvre in his performance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight from 1966, and the Weimar-era Berlin of E.A. Dupont's pre-colour, pre-sound Variety, with live accompaniment and a world premiere of a new score. Such fun!

Here's what I'll be lining up to see in the coming weeks. Fingers crossed for good seats when the tickets go on sale tomorrow morning.

Sunday 24 July
I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach, UK, 2016)
Palme d'Or-winning English social realism tour de force :: Embassy Theatre 100 mins

Monday 25 July
McCabe & Mrs Miller (dir. Robert Altman, USA, 1971)
Beatty & Christie and a legendary director light up the wild west :: Embassy Theatre 120 mins

Tuesday 26 July
A Quiet Passion (dir.Terence Davies, UK, 2016)
Cynthia Nixon excels as poet Emily Dickson :: Embassy Theatre 124 mins

Wednesday 27 July
Sunset Song (dir. Terence Davies, UK, 2015) 
1930s coming-of-age tale from rural north Scotland :: Embassy Theatre 135 mins

Thursday 28 July
Land of Mine (dir. Martin Zandvliet, Denmark/Germany, 2015)
Under sandet
Post-WW2 Danish drama, as German POWs are made to clear mines :: Embassy Theatre 101 mins

Friday 29 July
Captain Fantastic (dir. Matt Ross, USA, 2016)
Viggo Mortensen as an off-the-grid father of six :: Embassy Theatre 119 mins + short

Saturday 30 July
Long Way North (dir. Remi Chaye, France/Denmark, 2015)
Tout en haut du monde
Animated adventure as a plucky 15-year-old Russian princess journeys to the North Pole :: Penthouse Cinema 81 mins

Tokyo Story (dir. Ozu Yasujiro, Japan, 1953)
Tokyo monogatari 
Much-revered and rich Japanese social drama :: Paramount 136 mins

Sunday 31 July
Obit (dir. Vanessa Gould, USA, 2016)
NY Times obituary writers doco :: Paramount 93 mins + short

Toni Erdmann (dir. Maren Ade, Austria, 2016)
Crowd-pleasing & subversive inter-generational comedy :: Embassy Theatre 162 mins

The Death of Louis XIV (dir. Albert Serra, France, 2016)
La mort de Louis XIV
Historical drama, the role of Jean-Pierre Leaud's life :: Embassy Deluxe 105 mins

Monday 1 August
After the Storm (dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2016)
Umi yori mo mada fukaku
Family drama from my new favourite director :: Penthouse Cinema 117 mins

Thursday 4 August
Mercenary (dir. Sacha Wolff, France, 2016)
Intriguing tale of New Caledonian rugby player making his way in France :: Paramount 112 mins

Friday 5 August
Midnight Special (dir. Jeff Nichols, USA 2016)
Promising big-screen sci-fi drama :: Embassy Theatre 111 mins

Saturday 6 August
Francofonia (dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, France, 2015)
A Louvre love-letter :: Paramount 87 mins + short

Chimes at Midnight (dir. Orson Welles, Spain, 1966)
Welles as Falstaff :: Embassy Theatre 116 mins

Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954)
Joan Crawford's masteful feminist western :: Paramount 110 mins

Sunday 7 August
Variety (dir. E.A. Dupont, Germany, 1925)
A touch of Weimar with live musical accompaniment :: Paramount 95 mins

A Touch of Zen (dir. King Hu, Taiwan, 1971)
Xia nu
Legendary Chinese martial arts primer :: The Roxy Cinema 180 mins

21 June 2016

Thanks for the memories

Some time after his short, early-1960s stint in 10 Downing Street, Alec Douglas-Home got talking to an old lady at Berwick railway station. “My husband and I think it was a great tragedy that you were never prime minister”, she told him. To which came the embarrassed response: “As a matter of fact, I was”

- ‘The Cameron legacy’, Economist, 26 May 2016