Monthly Archives: July 2013

My Weekend Review: Wars Bring Scars

I can understand why GIs considered France as a huge brothel, when they entered it during the Second World War.

Prior to that the majority of Americans did not travel abroad and their knowledge outside their own country was rather poor. Hence, as liberators they struck a good chord with French women since they associated their land with seduction and sex.

However, there was plenty of romance and passion – but also rape and prostitution on a large scale.

A new book by an American historian examines the bonds that formed between the French and their saviours from the other side of the Atlantic. What Soldiers Do by Mary Louise Roberts, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also helps to explain the mutual distrust that has marked post-war Franco-American relations.

On the French side there is an unspoken grievance at the emasculation of French men. On the US side, there is condescension for men who allowed themselves to be emasculated.

Philippe Coste, the New York correspondent for L’Express, said that the book will help to ‘lance a boil that remains painful even after so many years. The French will surely be satisfied that their complex sentiments about their liberators are finally being explained or excused’.

Roberts gained access to previously secret archive material, which she says shows that D-Day was widely viewed in the US army as the gateway to erotic fantasy. The prevailing view was summed up by Joe Weston, a journalist at Life: ‘France was a tremendous brothel inhabited by forty million hedonists.’

Weston says, ‘The American military hierarchy did nothing to dispel the prevalent view of France as a land of low morality and high jinx. Indeed, stereotypes were encouraged.’

The myth of the manly GI turned out to be too successful, the book says. Sexual fantasies about France did indeed motivate GIs to get off the boat and fight, but such fantasies unleashed a veritable tsunami of male lust. Romances flourished, to the anger of French men unable to compete with their well-fed, muscular and comparatively wealthy American counterparts.

Many had assumed that liberation would allow them to regain their pre-war status as citizens of a great power. Instead, as they were booted out of their own bedrooms, they realised that a new world order had been established.

Rural, conservative France suffered a notable shock as American soldiers propositioned the most respectable of women – sometimes in front of their husbands. Prostitution flourished and cities such as Le Havre became what one councillor called ‘the Wild West of France’. Within six months of the D-Day landings, one hundred and fifty-two American soldiers had been prosecuted for rape.

By no means all the consequences of Franco-American wartime relations were negative. Michel Frett, now a retired car worker, was born of the fifteen-day liaison between his mother and a Mr Benson in Echery, eastern France. ‘They had a beautiful romance,’ he said. Mr Fret took sixty-five years to trace his father to Houston, Texas and met him when he was ninety-one – less than a year before he died. He said that his father had seen France as the land of ‘good living and happiness’. His mother, for her part, saw the American soldier as ‘a liberator – and a handsome one at that’.

In times of war the inconceivable happens. The profane, as well as rare acts of goodness, blurs our vision – and we are left with memories that on the whole we would like to bury and forget.

Wars are inhuman and bring out the worst in us. Both conqueror and conquered pay an unacceptable price for the folly of war that leaves no one immune from pain and personal tragedy, and it is always because the lessons of history are ignored and unheeded.

A Woman a Week

Page 3 girls run for cover.

You have a sex siren double your age who at forty-four is sweeping the board of contenders for the sexiest woman around – and who will outrun, outclass, outshine and outstrip the lot of you. She has charisma and a body to cause tremors in every sex aspiring man or woman who comes her way.

Enter Helena Christensen, a Danish fashion model, former Victoria’s Secret Angel, beauty queen and an accomplished photographer. She has also served as creative director for Nylon magazine, designed clothing and supported funding for breast cancer organisations and other charities.

Christensen was a leading star in the 1990s, appearing on many magazine covers including Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and W, as well as in fashion campaigns for Revlon, Chanel, Versace, Lanvin, Prada, Sonia Rykiel, Hermes, Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld. One noted campaign featured her in a twenty-by-forty-foot billboard in Times Square, bare except for a strategically placed banana leaf.

In 1991 she starred in the music video for Chris Isaak’s song ‘Wicked Games’ and the video was later featured on MTV’s ‘Sexiest Videos of all time’.

Christensen is without doubt a formidable woman, no less a goddess whose body must have been crafted by the gods in celebration of lasting beauty. A woman in her forties endowed with a good figure and a sizzling sexual appeal is at the peak of her libido, and is like a cauldron whose thrust and heat is hard to contain. For the feeble hearted, she’s a devouring creature, a passion seeker whose tentacles are erotically geared to give the maximum pleasure to those of us mortals she favours.

Christensen has proved to be a woman for any season. Beautiful, bold, a sexual icon and a woman who has mastered the art of stripping in her own searing fashion with no defined boundaries.

At the age of forty-four, as these stunning photographs show, she still reigns supreme and is likely to go on until her flame expires – to the chagrin of her adoring fans.

I can’t help but admire and salute her in equal measure.

A Rare Airing of Stravinsky’s Original Version of the Ballet, The Rite of Spring

I could not wait to hear the original version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which was premiered one hundred years ago at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris amid howls of outrage at the thumping, discordant rhythms.

The scandal is among the most significant events in music of the last century, in which the Russian composer inaugurated a musical revolution.

The first attempt to recreate the original version was heard at the Albert Hall last Sunday to an appreciative audience who applauded this rare event with great gusto.

Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece was considered so exorbitant when it had its first performance that the audience revolted, first attacking one another in sheer frustration and then the musicians who had to play under a barrage of vegetables. As a result the piece has never been played the same way since.

Under pressure from musicians, who found the work’s eccentric rhythms and register too complicated to play, Stravinsky reluctantly agreed to sweeping changes that persist in the now official published version.

Plucked strings were replaced by bowed ones, trombone parts were beefed up and the bassoon was adjusted to make it easier to perform.

François-Xavier Roth

These changes, however, were reversed when the work was performed as part of the Proms by Franҫois-Xavier Roth, the conductor and his Les Siècles Orchestra, who used instruments from the early twentieth century to reproduce, or for that matter, mimic the sound that caused the initial riot.

Roth said that the performance included a bassoon that was thought to have been played at the premiere. He said ‘the principal bassoon player has had a particularly hard time’.

He added that the piece was impossible to perform.

‘The register was too high for the instrument, but Stravinsky wanted to have the fragile sound at the very top of its register.’

The conductor went on to say that ‘the original version was much too complex and subtle for most orchestras of the period’. Many people wanted to perform it, but as the first performance in Paris was so complicated Stravinsky was pushed by conductors to simplify the music. It is difficult to say if the corrections came from Stravinsky himself. Some of the critics believed that most of them are sure to have come from conductors.

The performance at the Albert Hall was a historical airing. Boosey and Hawkes, the music publishers, granted permission for the concert – but most performances must use the authorised edition published in 1967.

People now believe that Stravinsky was as important to music as his contemporary Picasso was to painting and sculpture. Modern audiences have now been able to listen to his art just as Parisians did a century ago, but most definitely in more conducive and jovial surroundings.

‘Beware the Yellow Peril…’

…a turn of phrase which is politically unacceptable today – and for a good reason.

At the age of sixteen I spent over a year with my paternal grandmother and her unmarried sister in the biblical town of Nazareth, where we lived in two large connecting rooms with high ceilings but no kitchen facilities to speak of.

The lavatory was at the end of the garden, which was a real inconvenience especially at night during the winter months. Given also that we had no electricity, darkness was a problem we had to cope with the best we could. But life in general was pleasant enough and I spent most of my days reading books under the shade of a large pine tree which became my luxury place of repose, a breezy shelter from the burning sun during the summer months.

I read avidly any books I could get hold of, in particular by the American novelist Pearl S. Buck who wrote about China, where she spent a great deal of her time, a country that I longed to visit.

The memories of China as conveyed in her books stayed with me ever since.

Four and a half decades later my dream was to materialise when I embarked on my first trip to mainland China with Shanghai as my initial port of call.

This largely-built European city was as fascinating as I dared to imagine. My wife and I stayed at the Peace Hotel, constructed and completed in 1929 by the Sasoon family of Iraq and where Noël Coward wrote his play Private Lives.

Reading last Saturday’s newspaper I came across an item of news reminding me of that first visit to Shanghai. The story simply reported that ‘the Alcatraz of the Orient’, a notorious British-built prison that was once the largest on earth, is to be deactivated and turned into a giant business complex as part of Shanghai’s astonishing mutation into a twenty-first-century mega city.

Founded in 1903 by British authorities and also nicknamed ‘The City of the Doomed’, Tilanqiao is the oldest prison still operating in China – but with Shanghai’s population expected to rise to thirty million by the end of this decade and the downtown jail occupying valuable land, officials view Tilanqiao as an obstacle to development. More than a century after admitting its first inmates the prison is set to close.

Tilanqiao jail

‘We will keep what is worth keeping but urban renovation and development is the inevitable trend,’ said Ruan Yisan, an academic from the city’s Tongji University which is part of the team planning the prison’s conversion.

Planning officials have promised to preserve the prison’s ‘taste and flavour’ while transforming its three hundred and fifty-eight thousand square feet into a ‘multi-purpose complex housing business, culture and commercial official buildings,’ the Shanghai Daily reported.

Historians, however, feel the closure will destroy another chapter of Shanghai’s rich history. Han Sheng, a senior political adviser, has called on Tilanqiao’s developers to preserve the prison along the lines of the Tower of London.

‘We must think about how many of the city’s unique memories we have lost already and prevent this from happening again,’ Professor Hans told the global Times newspaper. ‘A city without a soul is a dead city.

Tilanqiao, which still houses about three thousand inmates, began life as the Ward Street Gaol – a British-run facility for criminals operating in Shanghai’s international concessions.

During the thirties, when this booming port was known as the Paris of the East, Tilanqiao was the world’s largest prison with more than six hundred and fifty thousand prisoners divided into six cell blocks and two thousand nine hundred and twenty-six cells, according to the historian Frank Dikotter. Overcrowded and often violent, the ‘City of the Doomed’ suffered frequent outbreaks of influenza and tuberculosis. But it did have a modern execution chamber where victims’ bodies would drop through a trapdoor into the mortuary.

A 1937 article in the Shanghai Times, unearthed by professor Dikotter, painted Tilanqiao as a den of iniquity housing ‘several thousand erstwhile opium consumers, hypodermic syringe wielders and purveyors of noxious red pills’.

In 1949 Tilanqiao was taken over by Chairman Mao’s communists who waged war on religion and consigned many of Shanghai’s leading Roman Catholics to the prison, including the city’s then bishop Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei. By the 1990s the prison had acquired another nickname, ‘The Monkey House’, and was filled with a mix of thieves, rapists, murderers, drug traffickers, petitioners and political prisoners.

A former British inmate who spent time there during the 90s and declined to be named, said prisoners were split into ‘work brigades’ and were forced to produce golf hats and cooking aprons for export.

Those who broke the rules were taken to the ‘punishment wing’ where they were handcuffed and had a grizzly medieval falconer’s hood placed over their heads.

Guards also used electric cattle prods to punish offenders.

The former inmate said, ‘They would often shave their heads, slap them about a bit and get the cattle prods out – but not in public. It used to interfere with the radio, you could hear it crackling. They would stick a wet cloth in their mouths and do it.’

Feng Zhenghu, a Chinese lawyer held in Tilanqiao from 2001 to 2003, said he had been tortured at the jail, which he described as ‘the most dictatorial place’. ‘I was forced to sit on an eight-centimetre-wide stool from 5am to 9pm every day as punishment for refusing to confess,’ he said.

Resident of the Alley community surrounding the prison recounted equally grizzly tales of prison life. ‘I heard there was one prisoner who tried to escape in the sixties by hiding under a truck,’ said sixty-six-year-old Yan Yingen, a retired special forces soldier whose garden backs onto one of the prison’s electrified perimeter fences. ‘He was caught and executed on the spot.’

Mr Yan said local people welcomed the prison’s closure and their community’s probable transformation into a car park. ‘We really want to be relocated – it is the only way for us poor to have a better life’.

China is certainly the next big dominant power in the world. Cities like Beijing and particularly Shanghai are mushrooming at such a pace it defies logic. What about Hong Kong also?

The might of China is just coming to the surface, as predicted by political pundits of the early twentieth century and popularised by William Randolph Hearst newspapers.

We must take heed and adapt our thinking to the new realities. Otherwise, trailing behind this enormous giant of a nation will cost us dearly.

The Open Door to Peace

I wish Israel would wake up to the fact that peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians is her best hope for security in the long-term.

Jews and Arabs have lived in harmony throughout the ages and have much in common. Their heritage is not vastly dissimilar and they have historically shared the biblical land for thousands of years, without an inkling of dissent or the merest form of racial conflict.

A recent video posted on the internet by human rights activists showed seven armed Israeli soldiers surrounding a sobbing five-year-old Palestinian boy for throwing a stone at a Jewish settler’s car in the West Bank city of Hebron. The incident took place on the road to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a disputed holy site that has been the scene of some of the worst incidents of violence between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.

The boy, Wadi Maswadeh, is seen screaming and trying to pull away as soldiers put him in a military Jeep to take him to his father’s house. At the house the father, Karam, was handcuffed and blindfolded before being taken with his son to an Israeli military base where they were held for another half hour before being turned over to Palestinian police.

The IDF insisted that the soldiers had acted within the law because the child was never under formal arrest. ‘The child was not arrested and no charges were filed,’ a military statement said. The statement also noted that more than one hundred and fifty Israelis had been injured in two thousand rock-throwing incidents across the occupied West Bank this year.

However, ‘occupied’ is the key word. Occupation brings in its wake disturbances which invariably lead to violence.

The Israeli human rights group that released the video said that it had lodged a formal complaint with the government over what it described as a ‘grave breach’ – both of Israel’s commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its own laws, which set the age of criminal responsibility at twelve.

‘This was not a mistake made by an individual soldier, but rather conduct that, to our alarm, was considered reasonable by all the military personnel involved, including senior officers,’ said Jessica Montell, director of the human rights group.

She added that it was particularly troubling that none of those involved thought that any part of the episode was problematic, from scaring the boy, handcuffing and blindfolding his father, and handing them over to the Palestinian police.

The moral of the story is very simple to see. Incidents of this nature will never be the answer to peace in the Holy Land. Goodwill from both sides must prevail, for the lessons of history tell us that conquest and occupation are the antipathy of harmonious living.

Israel’s security and the welfare of its people can only be secured through the negotiating process with the Palestinians, who I’m sure are as keen to heal the wounds of war which have ravaged both sides to the real benefit of no one.

My Weekend Review: A Yoga Full of Laughter

A funny kind of yoga is currently taking root.

Based on a frenzy of laughter, it claims additional health benefits and has become the latest fad among its devotees.

‘Melanie Bloch laughs. A deep full-throated laugh, it is the laugh of someone enjoying a joke among good friends,’ so Tom Whittle writes in The Times. ‘Slowly, however, it rises in pitch and volume to a different sort of laugh, a more manic laugh. It is now the laugh of someone appreciating a joke on their own while rootling through the bins at a bus station. Then as rapidly as it started, it stops and Ms Bloch, our Laughter Yoga instructor, indicates it is our turn to copy.’

Tom Whittle, who witnessed it all and participated, sees the funny side of the exercise. As an inductee to one of the fastest growing forms of yoga he says, ‘We are here for an hour to laugh whether or not anything is funny. Although, to any observers at least there’s probably a lot about the situation that is.’

He continues: ‘So it is that in a suburban community centre our polite titter rises to an awkward chuckle. If Ms Bloch’s was a manic laugh, ours is a laugh best described as constricted. It is the laugh, say, of a room full of people whose boss has just told a racist joke. It’s also a laugh that we are assured will make us happier, healthier and more relaxed. Because for Laughter Yoga aficionados, this is nothing less than a medical panacea. Just remember even if it feels strange, this is getting your endorphins going.’

Says Ms Bloch, ‘The body does not know the difference between fake laughter and real laughter. Medical research shows this boosts our immune system and gives all sorts of benefits. This is doing you good: laughter is really the best medicine.’

A member of the UK Laughter Network, Ms Bloch came to laughter yoga from more conventional therapy.

And while Tom Whittle may not have been overly impressed by the group’s laughter so far, she clearly disagrees. So much so that she gave the group a new exercise to perform, in which they clap twice then put their arms in the air saying ‘very good, very good, yah!’ – not for the first time Tom was grateful that the windows are frosted.

Laughter Yoga began in India in the mid 1990s, started by Madan Kataria, a doctor. From a few people in a park in Mumbai, it has spread to groups around the world.

On this particular evening, Ms Bloch is continuing Laughter Yoga’s spread by introducing it to Leading Light, a group that tries to boost the self-esteem of people suffering from social awkwardness. Thus far the session has given Tom a strong empathy into their condition. Especially as he says ‘we have to perform again the “very good, very good, yah!” exercise’.

‘By the halfway stage we have laughed in a circle, laughed in pairs, laughed with our eyes closed and laughed at a faster, higher pitch because in homoeopathy tiny things are really more important. Now we are being asked to offer up negative thoughts to the energy all around us. At this point, I feel I need to risk introducing some negative energy. Is there really scientific evidence for the benefits of laughter?’

‘There is an element of truth to it,’ says Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL. ‘The important thing to remember about laughter is we don’t laugh only when things are funny; most of the time we laugh we are talking to friends – it’s social behaviour.’

There is work showing that people get increased uptake of endorphins after laughing. It’s like exercise. ‘Your ribcage is physically working – we know that laughter means good, positive things. It’s a hallmark of the health of an interaction. What the Laughter Yoga people are getting is some of that niceness.’

As the session comes to an end the laughter is coming more easily. Several members of the group have said they appreciate the way it forces them socially out of their comfort zone.

And lying on the ground, instructed to make whatever sounds come into his head, Tom, at last, laughs properly; ‘a genuine laugh at the glorious silliness of it all’. He concludes his experience by laughing at Laughter Yoga and admits he has no idea if that’s subversive or not.

My own view is not dissimilar to Tom’s, having given thought to every point he raised. I am sceptical as to whether enforced laughter has the benefits they claim.

However, natural laughter is certainly a health-booster which has also the uncanny effect of relaxing every muscle in our body and unwinding the stress we accumulate during our intense working day. Laughter is a tonic without which we fare badly, both in our professional and private spheres, and which robs us of the joys of well-being.

It reminds me of John Masefield, poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, whose poem goes as follows:

Laugh and be merry, remember, better

the world with a song,

Better the world with a blow in the teeth

of a wrong.

Laugh for the time is brief, a thread

the length of a span,

Laugh and be proud to belong to

the old proud pageant of man.

A Woman a Week: Gwyneth Paltrow

As I’ve said before, Gwyneth Paltrow is a remarkable woman.

A very successful actress, singer and food writer, she made her acting debut on stage in 1990, and started appearing in films in 1991.

After starring in several films throughout the decade, Paltrow gained recognition for her work in Seven (1995), and Emma (1996) – in which she played the title role.

Following the film Sliding Doors (1998) and A Perfect Murder in the same year, Paltrow garnered worldwide fame through her performance in Shakespeare in Love, again in 1998.

Her ascent to high society has been phenomenal.

She’s always a topic of conversation for her many interests – whether they be fashion, healthy living, or how to stay young and breezy for as long as nature permits. She’s a party animal who does not lose an opportunity to feature in the limelight, as well as being a good and sensible mother to her two children.

She openly discusses her marriage, to Coldplay singer Chris Martin, and admits that a couple such as them must work hard to maintain the solidity of their union.

Perhaps she is too transparent for comfort at times, but one must admire her openness – which is not the norm in Hollywood.

However, her chutzpah is as daring as can be.

Paltrow 1

A new film to be released this September, called Thanks for Sharing – an American comedy drama directed by Stuart Blumberg and starring Paltrow with Mark Ruffalo, set in New York City – centres around three people undergoing a twelve-step process to cure their sexual addiction. In it, she reveals cheekily at forty her well-toned body in sexy black lingerie to the ultimate thrill of her many film fans.

Paltrow 2

All I can say is, Gwyneth, you are a breath of fresh air and we love you for it. Let’s hope you will keep us hooked for many years to come.

Who says women are past their best years at forty? Only blind-folded fools who can’t tell the difference between plonk and great wine of rare quality – some of which are priceless. So are you, Gwyneth.