Roving thoughts and provocations

The Third Party Surprise

Jonathan Raban

Britain’s Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Comment Central)

Britain’s first ever televised prime ministerial debate, which took place on April 15 in Manchester, can be seen on C-Span here (though when I watched it the sound and pictures were distractingly out of sync), or heard on BBC Radio 4 here.

There was another first, perhaps more consequentially important than the debate itself: for the first time, the broadcast media gave a Liberal Democrat leader equal time and prominence with his Labour and Conservative counterparts. Since the debates (two more will follow, on April 22 and 29) were announced in March, it’s been said that the outsider, Nick Clegg, would “win,” provided he could hold his ground against David Cameron and Gordon Brown. He not only held his ground, he exacted every possible advantage from the claim that his opponents represented the “old politics” while he stood for the new.

What Woke Me, Or a Story of the Earthquake in Quechereguas: An Old Peasant’s Account

Arturo Fontaine

It was Guillermina who woke me. She always sleeps more lightly than I do. I jumped out of bed and grabbed Pedro and Rosita who never wake up, ever. You know, the young are like that, great for sleeping. The tremor knocked me over. I got up and managed to open the door. I threw them one by one down the corridor. First Pedro and then Rosita. And I held out my hand to Guillermina. She was trying to get out of the room but it looked as if the room was swallowing her . I could feel windows exploding and dust falling from above. The floor was shaking—it was like being in a boat. The orange trees were smashing into each other, their branches were lashing about like madmen, and we could hear the crashing of the zinc panels on the roof and the tiles hurtling off.

They Revived the Pritzker

Martin Filler

Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima standing in front of the building they designed for the Zollverein School, Essen, Germany, 2006 (Thomas Mayer/
A usually melancholy springtime ritual for lovers of the building art is the announcement of the latest winner of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. Thus the revelation of this year’s surprise winners—Kazuyo Sejima, 53, and Ryue Nishizawa, 43, principals of the Tokyo firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates)—has been cause for rejoicing among those who treasure the honorees’ delicately calibrated and deeply humane sensibility. They are further unusual in architecture as a female-male pairing not married to one another, and rarer still, one in which the senior partner is a woman.

An Unfettered Mind: Justice Stevens

Anthony Lewis

In the celebration of Justice John Paul Stevens as he brings his long career on the Supreme Court to an end, it is worth remembering what might seem to be an untypical moment in that career: the flag-burning case of 1989.

Gregory Lee Johnson was convicted in Texas of “desecrating a venerated object,” the flag. When the case went to the Supreme Court, the radical lawyer William Kunstler argued that Johnson’s act was protected by the First Amendment as a form of free expression. Justice Stevens asked Kunstler whether the Government had “any power at all to regulate how this flag is displayed in public places.” Kunstler said he didn’t believe so. “There is no state interest whatsoever?” Justice Stevens asked. Kunstler answered that he saw none. “I feel quite differently,” Justice Stevens said.

Delhi’s Poor: Revolution by Latrine?

Malise Ruthven

Ianthe Ruthven

Walking above the village of Mehrauli on Delhi’s southern perimeter, we pass a woman with a half-empty bottle of water—one of several we have already noticed since daybreak. Dressed immaculately in a brightly-colored sari, she emerges from behind a prickly bush on a tract of waste ground. If she were a man we might not have merited such discretion. India is about the only country in the world where you actually see human adults defecating. When traveling by road or rail you can be struck by the image of men squatting openly, impervious to the public gaze. The UN estimates that 600 million people—or 55 per cent of the Indian population—still defecate out of doors. The practice is clearly born of necessity in a crowded country where the development of public amenities has conspicuously failed to keep pace with economic and demographic growth.

Industrial Lyricism in the Met’s Hamlet

Geoffrey O’Brien

Simon Keenlyside in the title role of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Metropolitan Opera House, March 12, 2010 (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
The new production of Ambroise Thomas’s 1868 Hamlet—the first time the Met has staged the work since 1897—brings to New York a revival first performed fourteen years ago in Geneva. It is an opera that has met with a fair amount of derision over the years, chiefly for its laughable original ending in which Hamlet finishes off Claudius and mounts triumphantly to the throne of Denmark. (The Met production substitutes a cobbled-together and not especially satisfying alternative in which, following an unexpected intrusion of the Ghost into the graveyard scene, the prince more appropriately dies. Perhaps, since no one would mistake Thomas’s Hamlet for Shakespeare’s anyway, it would make more sense to restore the original happy ending.)

Playing Chess With Kubrick

Jeremy Bernstein

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke working on 2001: A Space Odyssey in Kubrick’s apartment in New York (from Moonwatcher’s Memoir by Dan Richter)
In the early 1960s, I wrote an appreciative essay for The New Yorker about the science fiction of Arthur Clarke. Not long after I got a letter from Clarke written from Sri Lanka where he lived. He told me that he was coming to New York in a few weeks and wanted to meet me. When we met, I asked him the purpose of his visit. His answer totally astonished me. “I am working on the son of Dr. Strangelove,” is what he said. The film had just come out and the first time I saw it I was so impressed that I sat through it a second time. “Stanley,” he said referring to Kubrick, “is a remarkable man. You should meet him.”

Did the Gravediggers Arrive Too Soon?

Jonathan Raban

Gordon Brown; drawing by John Springs
Trying to follow the impending British general election from afar, I’ve been reading The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley, chief political commentator for the Observer. Eight hundred pages long, and crammed with “inside” political gossip (or credible intelligence, if you prefer), it’s a book as hard to admire as it is to put down. Though the text is bespattered with authenticating footnotes (many say no more than “Conversation, Cabinet minister”), it reads like airport fiction. Its flawed (and credible) hero is Tony Blair, its cardboard villain Gordon Brown.