June 25, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 7:10 AM


What's German for funny?: What makes Germans laugh - and why is it so different from what amuses the British? The answer may lie in a slapstick English comedy that became a TV favourite in Germany (Philip Oltermann, 2/12/12, guardian.co.uk)

The sketch is called Dinner for One, and it is easily described. The curtain opens on butler James laying a lavish dinner table. The lady of the house, Miss Sophie, wearing an elegant evening dress, descends a flight of stairs, and sits at the head of the table. We soon realise that it is her 90th birthday, and that something is not quite right. "Is everybody here?" Miss Sophie asks. "They're all here waiting, Miss Sophie, yes," James says, gesticulating towards the empty seats around the table. "Sir Toby?" Sophie asks. "Sir Toby is sitting here," James says, patting the back of the chair on Miss Sophie's right, and continues to assign seats to the imaginary guests named by his mistress: "Admiral von Schneider", "Mr Pommeroy" and "my very dear friend, Mr Winterbottom".

The evening continues in this vein. James serves four courses: mulligatawny soup, haddock, chicken and fruit. With each, Miss Sophie requests a different drink: first sherry, then white wine, then champagne, then port. In the absence of any actual people around the table, James impersonates the different guests and toasts the host on their behalf. With each course, James's walk becomes less stable, his tour around the dining room more haphazard.

Much of the comedy in Dinner for One is slapstick, knockabout stuff: James spills wine, drops food, crashes into furniture and downs the water in the flower vases instead of what's in the port glasses. But the most memorable comic moment in the sketch is verbal. Before each change of wine, James stops short: "By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" The mistress of the house looks accusingly at her servant: "The same procedure as every year, James." At the end of the sketch, Miss Sophie decides to retire to her bedroom. James, now completely drunk, offers his arm. For a final time, there is the catchphrase - but this time, the effect is different: "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"

"Same procedure as every year, James."

"Well, I'll do my very best."

As he is dragged offstage, James winks at the audience, baring his gappy teeth for a Cheshire-cat grin.

Originally scripted by the variety playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, Dinner for One, also known as The Ninetieth Birthday, used to be a staple in the music-halls of seaside resorts from Blackpool down to Brighton: a very British kind of pleasure. Very British, that is, until German TV show host Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase watched the sketch at Blackpool's Winter Gardens in August 1962. Straight after the show, Frankenfeld convinced the two performers - veteran comic Freddie Frinton and 72-year-old May Warden - to record their act for German TV, even though it took the show almost another 10 years to find an audience there.

On New Year's Eve 1972, NDR, northern Germany's regional television channel, screened the sketch at 6pm, and something clicked. In fact, something amazing happened: Germany fell utterly in love with it. People put down their plates of potato salad and left their frankfurters to cool; entire parties huddled around the television set. The following year, each of the regional channels showed Dinner for One at 6pm, and a few showed a repeat four hours later. Since 1963, the sketch has been screened 231 times to German audiences, making it the most repeated show on German television, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most popular show in TV history. In 2004, 15.6 million Germans watched it.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:09 AM


The last tower: The decline and fall of public housing (Ben Austen, May 2012, Harper's)

Forty years ago, when U.S. cities began abandoning high-rise public housing, blasting crews would fill a tower with explosives and in a few monumental booms all would be reduced to rubble and rolling clouds of dust. It was as swift as it was symbolic. Now the demolitions are done by wrecking ball and crane, and the buildings are brought down bit by bit over months. This gradual dismantling seemed especially ill suited to the felling, in March 2011, of the last remaining tower at Cabrini-Green. Described almost unfailingly as "infamous" or "notorious," this Chicago housing project had come to embody a nightmare vision of public housing, the ungovernable inner-city horrors that many believe arise when too many poor black folk are stacked atop one another in too little space. For the end of Cabrini-Green, I imagined something grandiose and purifying--the dropping of a bomb or, as in Candyman, the 1992 slasher film set in Cabrini's dark wasteland, a giant exorcising bonfire. Instead, as I watched, a crane with steel teeth powered up and ripped into a fifth-floor unit, causing several feet of prefabricated façade to crumble like old chalk. Water sprayed from inside the crane's jaws to reduce dust.

The fifteen-story high-rise was known by its address, 1230 N. Burling. Already stripped of every window, door, appliance, and cabinet, the monolith was like a giant dresser without drawers. The teeth tore off another hunk of the exterior, revealing the words I NEED MONEY painted in green and gold across an inside wall. Chicago was once home to the second-largest stock of public housing in the nation, with nearly 43,000 units and a population in the hundreds of thousands. Since the mid-1990s, though, the city has torn down eighty-two public-housing high-rises citywide, including Cabrini's twenty-four towers. In 2000, the city named the ongoing purge the Plan for Transformation, a $1.5 billion, ten-year venture that would leave the city with just 15,000 new or renovated public-housing family units, plus an additional 10,000 for senior citizens. Like many other U.S. cities, Chicago wanted to shift from managing public housing to become instead what the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) called "a facilitator of housing opportunities." The tenants of condemned projects were given government-issued vouchers to rent apartments in the private market, or were moved into rehabbed public housing farther from the city center, or wound up leaving subsidized housing altogether.

The centerpiece of the plan, though, was an effort to replace the former projects with buildings where those paying the market rate for their units and those whose rents were subsidized would live side by side. Since 1995, when the federal government rescinded a rule that required one-to-one replacement of any public-housing units demolished, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded billions of dollars to cities nationwide to topple housing projects and build in their stead these mixed-income developments.

During his twenty-two years as Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley had moved Lake Shore Drive and created Millennium Park, but he believed the Plan for Transformation represented his most sweeping effort to reshape the city's landscape. Daley proclaimed that mixed-income housing would reconnect shunned sections of the city to services and investment, and that these developments would allow poor African Americans who had lived in social and economic isolation to reap the rewards of a middle-class lifestyle. "I want to rebuild their souls," he said.

In 1995, residential property sales in the two-block radius around Cabrini-Green totaled around $6 million. By the start of the Plan for Transformation, according to an analysis by the Chicago Reporter, annual sales had reached $120 million, and total sales from 2000 to 2005 neared $1 billion. The neighborhood looked like nothing I remembered from my years growing up in Chicago in the Seventies and Eighties. Down the street from 1230 N. Burling stood a mixed-income development of orange-bricked condos and townhomes called Parkside of Old Town. Its squat buildings were outfitted with balconies and adorned with purple ornamentation and decorative pillars. There was a new school, a new police station, a renovated park, and a shopping center with a Dominick's supermarket and a Starbucks. A Target was expected on the site the last tower would soon vacate. Later, I would warm up two blocks south in @Spot Café, where employees from Groupon's nearby corporate headquarters streamed in to pay full price for lattes and panini.

Today, what seems harder to fathom than the erasure of entire high-rise neighborhoods is that they were ever erected in the first place.

Posted by orrinj at 5:06 AM


Why weren't they grateful?: a review of Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue (Pankaj Mishra, 6/21/12, London Review of Books)

Asian intellectuals and activists had begun to challenge the arbitrary power of Western imperialists and their native allies in the late 19th century. The first generation contained polemicists like al-Afghani, who gathered energetic but disorganised young anti-imperialists around him in Kabul, Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran. The next generation produced men like Mossadegh, who had been exposed to Western ways or trained in Western-style institutions and were better equipped to provide their increasingly restless compatriots with a coherent ideology and politics of anticolonial nationalism.

In Christopher de Bellaigue's politically astute biography, Mossadegh is not the 'dizzy old wizard' and 'tantrum-throwing Scheherazade' of countless Anglo-American memoirs and press reports, but a member of 'that generation of Western-educated Asians who returned home, primly moustachioed, to sell freedom to their compatriots': 'Beholden to the same mistress, La Patrie, these Turks, Arabs, Persians and Indians went on to lead the anticolonial movements that transformed the map of the world.' Mossadegh was more democratically minded than Atatürk, for example: de Bellaigue calls him the 'first liberal leader of the modern Middle East' - his 'conception of liberty was as sophisticated as any in Europe or America'. But he was less successful than his heroes, Gandhi and Nehru; he was nearly seventy, an elderly hypochondriac, by the time he became Iran's prime minister in 1951. It was his misfortune to be a liberal democrat at a time when, as Nehru remarked, looking on as British gunboats directed the course of Egyptian politics, 'democracy for an Eastern country seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the behests of the imperialist ruling power.' Though more focused and resourceful than al-Afghani, secular-minded moderates like Mossadegh were often easy victims of imperialist skulduggery. They never had more than a few token allies in the West and at home were despised by the hardliners, who later assumed the postcolonial task of building up national dignity and strength. Khomeini, for one, always spoke contemptuously of Mossadegh's failure to protect Iran from the West.

Both liberal and radical Iranians could cite instances of the country's humiliation by the West in the 19th century, when it had been dominated by the British and the Russians. The events of the early 20th century further undermined its political autonomy at a time when its political institutions were being liberalised (a parliament had been established as a result of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-7). In the First World War, Britain and Russia first occupied and then divided the country in order to keep the Ottoman-German armies at bay. The end of the war brought no respite. The Red Army threatened from the north and Britain, already parcelling out the Ottoman Empire's territories, saw an opportunity to annex Iran. Lord Curzon, now foreign secretary and convinced, as Harold Nicolson put it, that 'God had personally selected the British upper class as an instrument of the Divine Will,' drew up an Anglo-Persian agreement which was almost entirely destructive of Iranian sovereignty.

Mossadegh is said to have wept when he heard about the agreement. In despair he resolved to spend the rest of his life in Europe. As it turned out, Curzon, never an accurate reader of the native pulse, had misjudged the Iranian mood. The agreement was denounced; pro-British members of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, were physically attacked. Facing such opposition, Curzon grew more obdurate: 'These people have got to be taught at whatever cost to them that they cannot get on without us. I don't at all mind their noses being rubbed in the dust.' Despite Curzon's stubbornness, Iranian revulsion finally sank the Anglo-Persian agreement. But another inequitable arrangement already bound Iran to Britain. Presciently buying government shares in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1913, Winston Churchill had managed to ensure that 84 per cent of its profits came to Britain. In 1933, Reza Khan, a self-educated soldier who had made use of the postwar chaos to grab power and found a new ruling dynasty (much to Mossadegh's disgust), negotiated a new agreement with APOC, which turned out to be remarkably like the old one. During the Second World War, British and Russian troops again occupied the country, and the British replaced the rashly pro-German shah with his son Muhammad Reza.

In these years, British policy was infused with what de Bellaigue calls, without exaggeration, 'a profound contempt for Persia and its people', which provided the spark not only for modern Iranian nationalism but also for the seemingly irremovable suspicion of Britain as a 'malignant force'. When in 1978 the shah called Khomeini a British agent, he intended it as a vicious slander; it backfired, triggering the first of the mass protests against him. APOC, renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, grossed profits of $3 billion between 1913 and 1951, but only $624 million of that remained in Iran. In 1947, the British government earned £15 million in tax on the company's profits alone, while the Iranian government received only half that sum in royalties. The company also excluded Iranians from management and barred Tehran from inspecting its accounts.

Growing anti-British sentiment finally forced Muhammad Reza to appoint Mossadegh as prime minister early in 1951. The country's nationalists by now included secularists as well as religious parties and the communist as well as non-communist left. Mossadegh, who, de Bellaigue writes, 'was the first and only Iranian statesman to command all nationalist strains', moved quickly to nationalise the oil industry. Tens of thousands lined the streets to cheer the officials sent from Tehran to take over the British oil facilities in Abadan, kissing the dust-caked cars - one of which belonged to Mehdi Bazargan, who would later become the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The American ambassador reported that Mossadegh was backed by 95 per cent of the population, and the shah told the visiting diplomat Averell Harriman that he dared not say a word in public against the nationalisation. Mossadegh felt himself to be carried along on the wings of history. 'Hundreds of millions of Asian people, after centuries of colonial exploitation, have now gained their independence and freedom,' he said at the UN in October 1951: Europeans had acknowledged Indian, Indonesian and Pakistani claims to sovereignty and national dignity - why did they continue to ignore Iran?

He was supported by a broad coalition of new Asian countries. Even the delegate from Taiwan, which had been given its seat in the UN at the expense of Mao's People's Republic of China, reminded the British that 'the day has passed when the control of the Iranian oil industry can be shared with foreign companies.' Other postcolonial regimes would soon nationalise their oil industries, thereby acquiring control of international prices and exposing Western economies to severe shocks. But the British, enraged by Mossadegh's impertinence and desperately needing the revenues from what was Britain's biggest single overseas investment, wouldn't listen.

Britain could no longer afford its empire but, as de Bellaigue points out, in many places, 'particularly in Iran, red-faced men went around in tailcoats as if nothing had changed.' 
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