PARIS – A 102 year old chapter of history ended on Thursday with the death of David Douglas Duncan, one of the world’s greatest photojournalists, a man who had started his career with a photo of the gangster John Dillinger in 1934, before documenting several wars and many iconic historic events, while also making a sideline career of photographing his friend Picasso from 1956 to the artist’s death in the 1970s. It was also the end of a five-year long chapter in my own life, from when I first learned that Duncan was a fan of Formula One racing, read my coverage of the series in the International Herald Tribune and wanted to talk.
Meeting DDD – as he was often called – in 2013 and maintaining a relationship occasionally over the telephone since then was the most satisfying consequence of my 25-year Formula One writing career. It also kept me humble to think that stories I wrote would be read by a man of this stature. But it was learning from the example of the man himself that was the most important aspect of having known DDD.
You might expect a man who had met and photographed Gandhi, dined with Khrushchev, befriended Picasso, and been in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War among countless other jobs and experiences would be somewhat unapproachable, full of himself and perhaps haughty. But I don’t think I ever met a man as humble, genuine, simple in his personal approach to people, and gifted with an ability to make people who met him feel great about themselves. In fact, I was reminded again and again of a quote I had once noted in my youth by G.K. Chesterton: “There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the real great man is the man who makes every man feel great.”
I could not believe my good fortune in having known Duncan. I learned through a common friend in Formula One that he wanted to contact me about a story I had written, which he wanted to use as the preface to a book of photos of Formula One that he had taken off the Monaco Grand Prix on the television. I got in touch at the end of 2012, and found it was a story I had written in 2000, which he still remembered the details of! It turned out also to be the most unexpected revenge – in my mind only – against an editor at the newspaper who had pulled the story from the page before publication, as he thought it was not worthy of the newspaper. (Another editor defended it, and it was published the next day.) I got a copy of the story to DDD, and then with great pride again, I watched as he prepared the book and ran my story as the preface.
David Douglas Duncan Soldier
I then went to meet him, and his wife Sheila, at their home near Grasse, in the south of France. While there, I asked him if I could do an interview with him, as just meeting him had given me the idea of running a regular column of interviews with famous Formula One fans. He said I could, and told me just to call when I was ready. He was just days away from turning 97, and quite honestly, I was very worried that at that age, I could lose my opportunity, as he might die any day. In fact, while he walked most of the time with a cane after a broken hip, he was still going around his home up and down a hugely steep and narrow stone staircase with no railing – another reason I feared for the future – and was in fact in such incredible health that, yes, he would go on to live more than five years more.
DDD’s first Picasso photo
I cherished every time we spoke – the last time was in February – even though our typical exchanges would be quite short, as he seemed not to want to intrude! So I was instantly plunged into shock and remorse yesterday when I saw the headline about his death while reading my daily New York Times.
Duncan was truly a great man, and the greatest part was what he gave to others. I recall asking him what his favourite subject to photograph had been in his life, and while I had expected to hear any of the usual things – Picasso, a war, a great leader or the jewels of the Kremlin – he said it had been one of his most beloved dogs. He had even made a book of photos of the dog. It was the genuine response of one of the most genuine people I have ever met.
PARIS – It was the first time I had invited my high school friend Mike MacDonald to my home in Ottawa, so when the moment we entered the front door we found my mother sitting on the living room floor with a glass of whiskey and tears rolling down her face as she cried while listening to a Cat Stevens album, I was instantly embarrassed.
“What’s going on mom?” I asked, Mike at my side.
“I just discovered your brother’s collection of Cat Stevens records,” she said, clearly slightly drunk. “It’s so beautiful, I didn’t know he listened to this.”
The idea was that she was learning through this musical find that my brother’s tough outer coating – he was a hard fighting football player – had a sensitive, soft inner part to it that while she certainly knew about it, she was now seeing evidence of it that she had not suspected before.
But I was still wondering how this could possibly play out, certain that my mother’s explanation would never be enough to make up for the embarrassment I felt at having Mike’s first meeting my mom being one of alcohol and tears. Yet Mike, still not yet 20 years old, was a natural comic and reader of human situations. And he found the perfect line to diffuse the tension – and potential for worse embarrassment – when he said in a slightly low, disbelieving voice, but one designed to be heard by my mother as well:
“Jeez, if that’s how she reacts when she listens to Cat Stevens, I’d hate to see what she does when she listens to something good!”
My mother broke through her tears with a bit of laughter, and I chuckled as well, and Mike and I went off to my room leaving my mother with her Tea for the Tillerman, a sad situation having been turned into a happy memory for life.
In fact, the last time I was in touch with Mike, by Facebook in January 2016, I reminded him of the moment.
“Thanks for the story–I’m glad it made your mother laugh,” he responded. “Let me know if you’re ever in the Ottawa area–I would love to reminisce and possibly jam maybe–still play the drums…”
Had he heard my music, my voice and songs sometimes drawing comparisons to Cat Stevens (from people who have heard me sing in bars)? Probably. Mike, as far as I can tell during my last 34 years living in the country where he was born as an “army brat” – France – had not changed. Through many of his own hard times, most recently with Hepatitis C leading to a liver transplant in 2013, and treatment for bipolar disorder, Mike had continued to face life with humour as the best antidote to pain.
We were not best friends, but we were mutual friends of a best friend – John Kricfalusi, who went on to fame as a the creator of the Ren & Stimpy cartoon show – and we spent enough important party nights together, and later some moments during his start in show business at the comedy clubs in Toronto, where I had had my own furtive efforts into “making it,” two or three years prior to him, for me to feel the bonds that true friendship and shared lives and experience never lets slip.
What I remember most about Mike’s show business transition from party comic to national comic was linked precisely to that moment of meeting my mother: Mike was a naturally talented, naturally funny man, but also with a sense of deep empathy. Throughout our years at Brookfield High School in Ottawa, Mike was the funny guy at the parties, entertaining us with air guitar before that term was even known, making jokes, acting strange, and generally be crushingly funny/accurate in his summations of people and situations.
Mike MacDonald and John Kricfalusi
As John Kricfalusi put it on his Facebook page today: “It’s a very sad day. One of my best friends from high school, Mike MacDonald has died. We used to sit in our parents’ basements during Ottawa winters and he would entertain us for hours. He could do devastating impressions of every one of us and we would laugh so much that we had tears in our eyes.”
“Mike was Canada’s top standup comedian for years, and he also did intense funny cartoon voices.”
“I will miss Mike. He’s the funniest guy I ever knew.”
When he was voted head boy of Brookfield – or student president, or whatever the role was called – I was astounded. How, I wondered, could a crazy funny party guy like him be voted into a position of responsibility and respect like that, above all the other “serious” candidates? Soon enough, I would understand that it was linked to what came later, both in terms of Mike being a popular guy, as well as in another aspect of his character, something more serious. This was a side of Mike that would also be visible later in life when he would transform himself from heavy drug user to finding religious faith, and using his comedy to help other people in emotional or physical distress.
But it is Mike MacDonald’s transition from head boy to successful standup comic that I want to talk about again: After my early, brief years in show business in Toronto and Ottawa (performing mostly bit-parts, TV commercials, and trying my hand at standup comedy, music open mics and circus) I went on a personal quest of self-discovery in England, Iran and then Africa, returning periodically to Toronto.
At one point during a period in Toronto in the late 70s, I attended one of Mike’s early shows in a bar/restaurant. He was just starting to try out his standup – after careers teaching ballroom dancing, caring for handicapped people, drumming in a government supported band across Canada, and other unrelated things – and I recall attending the show with my uncle, a medical doctor. Mike was not very funny that night, there was very little laughter in the room. My uncle remarked to me afterwards: “That man has a lot of anger inside him. He will never get anywhere as long as he is as angry as that in front of his audience.”
But this Mike was not the Mike I knew – even if the Mike I knew did certainly have anger, and anger was part of what made him funny. The Mike we had seen that night was a Mike who had decided he wanted to be funny, to be a standup comic, to “make it” in show business. Trying to be funny on stage in front of an audience is about a million miles away from being funny either on a stage in front of an audience or amongst friends. I think it took Mike a couple of years of trying to be funny before, eventually, he discovered that if Mike MacDonald simply played Mike MacDonald then it would all come together. Because Mike MacDonald was a very funny man.
When Mike began on stage to become the same Mike who made that comment to my mother, and who regaled us all with his craziness at parties, that is when the comedian was born and began having success.
Why did he never have huge success in the U.S.? He moved to California, he appeared on the David Letterman show, on the Arsenio Hall show, but he never broke out into the bigger, much bigger world of popular culture that his friend Kricfalusi did with Ren & Stimpy, “settling” instead, for a career as a well-known Canadian standup comic. He appeared more than any other comic on the stage of the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, hosted Canada’s Gemini Awards show (Canada’s Emmy Awards), he hosted his own specials on TV, he appeared in some films – one of which was written by Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Clubs of Canada, where Mike (and Jim Carrey) – got his start.
I have no answer as to why he did not enter that higher atmosphere of recognition, or reach more people. Recently, for me, sitting so far away here in Paris, but now with greater access than ever before to what is happening in the North American standup world thanks to Netflix, when I compare some of the performances I have seen of MacDonald to those of many of the comics on Netflix, he is on another level.
I knew of his liver problems, his apparent closeness to death at that time, his battles with bipolar disorder, but when I read the news of his death this morning, I was struck by how we all live with the idea that while the world may be falling apart around us, and people we do not know personally may grow old and die – or die young – somehow we and our friends will carry on into old, old age, never succumbing to the inevitable “before our time.”
Losing Mike is a blow. But reading the comments on his Facebook page and in the media covering his death, I can only feel proud to have known him, and to see how deeply he has touched so many people. If that’s how you reacted to life, Mike, I’d hate to see what goes on now in heaven!
* The news reports and some parts of the internet record give Mike’s birth year as 1954. But his own Facebook page lists it as 1955, and my memory is that he was only about two years older than me, not three or close to 4. So I’m sticking with 1955; he would have turned 63 in June.
PARIS – Everything you ever wanted to know about my life and music but were afraid to ask – or maybe didn’t really want to know! – is now in a 50-minute video just released on Escargot Underground Radio’s site via YouTube and Escargot’s Facebook page. This was a riot to do, and makes up part of a series of such video interviews that these people are doing – all in French, so watch out! – of musicians that are part of their Escargot Underground open mic world in Paris in the last half decade or so….
If you enjoyed the interview, they will be posting more of them in the coming weeks, so check them out. Or go to the Escargot Web Radio pageand give a listen to the people they will be interviewing….
PARIS – At a recent party of a friend in Paris, I met a guy from Detroit who has lived in France for a couple of decades. We started talking about various personal projects, specifically film and theater. He had made a documentary film about a century of his family’s life in Detroit. His wife was playing in a one-woman show in Paris, the director of which also had his own one-person show. The man invited us to see first his wife’s show, then the director’s. Little did I realize that it was the beginning of a long string of attending one-person shows, readings, theatrical productions – and film – that would keep me musing for weeks on the meaning of one-person productions on stage, in film, with texts, without texts, the physical versus intellectual and emotional theatrical representation and other profound and less profound thoughts. Let me get to specifics:
The man we met at the party was Steve Faigenbaum, who has had a long and varied career in film and video, but whose recent documentary is his first full-length personal, big production. His wife is Yannick Rocher, a French actress, starring in “La Voix Humaine,” by Jean Cocteau, at the Théâtre de la Contrescarpe. The director of the play is Charles Gonzales, who is starring in his own one-man show in Paris, at the Théâtre de Poche in Montparnasse.
The idea of comparing these two linked shows was too enticing not to try. So it was that after Rocher’s show we then attended “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel“…and, as you may have realized, this might be called a one-woman show as well… or whatever. (Which set up more strands of musing.)
In between those two shows we saw Steve’s film, “Internal Combustion,” (called “City of Dreams” in France) a story based on his return after 25 years to his home city of Detroit, where he retraces his and his family’s past, but simultaneously tells the history of the city and especially its black and Jewish population. (And, through these, a certain history of the United States itself.) The documentary is in some ways a one-man show, since it focuses on Faigenbaum’s look at his own world where he grew up in Detroit; but it is obviously made thanks to a cast of hundreds, including the crew and the many interview subjects and people of Detroit, dead and alive.
Steve Faigenbaum from Internal Combustion
As a grand finale to all of this, we went last Saturday night to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see another one-man show, “Imagine-toi,” of Julien Cottereau. One of the reasons we chose to attend this was to have a direct comparison to the other shows: Because it was a performance told entirely through the movements of the body, and not through spoken language. Having said that, it turned out that Cottereau depends hugely for his communicative effects with the audience on sound. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
I now want to return to look a little at each of these shows in the order we saw them, and in the spirit of my Not-Reviews.*
Yannick Rocher at the Contrescarpe Takes the Neutral Approach to Cocteau
Yannick Rocher’s “La Voix Humaine,” written by Cocteau, and here directed by Charles Gonzales, was the first of the bunch for us. It was in the small, but very cool Théâtre de la Contrescarpe, off the place de la Contrascarpe (Hemingway called this “the cesspool of the Rue Mouffetard,” but it has changed since then, going somewhat upscale). The play is about a woman who has ended her relationship with a lover and is reminiscing with him on the telephone, in a call, or a series of calls. It must have been technically an original concept at the time Cocteau wrote it, to use the telephone as a device for a one-person show.
Well, it still stands up today, entirely. The first performance of “La Voix Humaine” was in February 1930, in Paris, at the Comedie Française, starring Berthe Bovy. One of the original aspects of Yannick Rocher’s production are the decision to portray the role in as neutral a manner as possible. Her voice remains mostly neutral throughout. It gives a modern sense of gravitas to the play that the original production does not have in the same way.
And that leads to the other bit of originality: The use of a recording of the voice of Berthe Bovy in the original production as a kind of backdrop, or dramatic ploy, which makes its “appearance” several times throughout. It’s an interesting concept, that forces the spectator to compare Rocher’s performance with that of Bovy’s. In other words, you have the lines being spoken by the creator of the role, and then you have the same lines being spoken by the actress in front of you, but in a completely different way. That is quite a courageous thing for any actor to dare to do, I would think, being compared simultaneously with the creator of the role. So kudos to Yannick Rocher.
Yannick, I learned later, has done the role elsewhere in recent years, including in the U.S., and she did not do the neutral approach – which fact I found interesting as well, as I thought it must be like trying different ways to sing and play a song I’ve been doing for years in a certain way, and just completely change it. Not easy.
And then we saw Faigenbaum’s Film about Detroit
The story behind Faigenbaum’s film “Internal Combustion,” is fascinating on its own: This is a film all about the city of Detroit and the life of its black and Jewish immigrant population. It is done entirely in English. But it was funded and produced entirely in France. As I indicated, this is a film that might in some ways also be called a one-man show, as Faigenbaum goes on a personal quest back to his hometown and relates his family life through his own words, and above all, those of other family members and local personalities he interviews.
Internal Combustion trailer
But the brilliance of this film is the way the director manages to go from the personal situation into the general one of the history of the city and the life of all of its inhabitants throughout the 20th Century. He charts the movement of the Jewish and black populations, as they move from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on the social developments. A previously Jewish neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. Some neighborhoods then get wiped out for new projects, highways, modern life that leaves no trace of the old, of the past.
Through it all, is a path of integration – or not – and for me it was absorbing to see an historical presentation – along with the family’s point of view – of the race riots of the 1960s, which I was aware of as a child while visiting relatives on the other side of the border, in Windsor, Ontario, putting a lot of things into perspective for me on a personal level. But I felt the biggest success of Faigenbaum’s film was that fabulous marriage of the personal with the universal, along with Detroit’s story mirroring that of the U.S. as a whole.
And off we Went to the Théâtre de Poche and the Camille Claudel One-Person Show
After the experience of seeing the one-woman show – although I’m not sure that’s the right term for a play with just one actor or actress – we were curious to see how the director, Charles Gonzales, would act and direct himself in a one-woman show starring himself, a man. For I think in some ways it has to be called a one woman show, his “Charles Gonzales Devient Camille Claudel.” Yes, it is a man performing the role of the lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, and sister to the writer Paul Claudel. But Gonzales is clearly trying to live in the skin of a woman throughout.
Or maybe not so clearly. In any case, the story of Camille Claudel is one that has a particular resonance in France in a way that it does not elsewhere in the world. She feels in some ways like one of the great women heroes of the country, like Joan of Arc. And yet Camille Claudel’s story is not one of any sort of heroism that saves the republic. It is more some kind of tale with which the whole country identifies and feels pity and sorrow for. A sense of collective something!
A highly respected sculptress herself, the lover of Rodin ended up spending the last 30 years of her life in an asylum. And with a 19th Century twist to it, this 20th Century story is one suspected of having a grotesque lack of humanity attached to it on the part of her family – and society. Was she really crazy or just locked up for convenience?
The piece was written by Gonzales and has been performed in various different locations – he has become recognized as something of an expert in Camille Claudel. And as I understand it, he had special access granted to him by the Claudel family to letters and papers, from which he draws for the text.
Of course, the originality here is that it is a man playing the woman. On the other hand, I don’t know if it was my lack of adeptness in the French language – although I usually consider myself bilingual – but I could not really see anything in the show to indicate WHY a man is playing this role. I saw nothing in the text or stage actions to indicate the purpose. So I assume it is just the passion that Gonzales has for the Camille Claudel story that drove him to this. And it is clear that Gonzales comes to life through this story, and so carries the audience with him.
The Théâtre de Poche was packed, and with about 90 or 100 seats, that’s pretty good for a play that is running for several months a couple of nights a week.
And off we Went to the Théâtre des Mathurins to see Julien Cottereau in his one-man show
Julien Cottereau has a long and illustrious career in clowning and circus, including working at the Cirque du Soleil. He has also worked much in film and theater. This show, “Imagine-toi,” was actually first performed in 2006, and for it he was awarded France’s highest award in theater, a Molière. But it is the kind of show that cannot age. Full of visual gags and audience interaction, it remains as fresh today as if it was just created.
But the most important aspect to writing about it here is that where I say this was a show that has no text, no words, a show that depends wholly on visual gags, movement, it is in fact a thoroughly modern show that could not have been performed at the time of Vaudeville when the idea of a modern sound system did not exist. In fact, it could not have existed through most of the 20th century either, as the key to this show’s main effects is the small microphone attached to Julien Cottereau’s head, and into which he makes his noises.
Julien Cottereau in his show
These noises – sounds of bouncing balls, roaring animals, barking dogs, squeaking window cleaning cloths – are also occasionally treated or added to by a sound man at the back of the room, who appears to add reverb or volume and other effects, when needed. So it may be a visual show based on movement and visual gags, but without those popping, bursting, barking, roaring sounds we would just have a mime. Granted, for me this is a mime of a much more dynamic, modern style than the classic Marcel Marceau. Cottereau’s show is just uproariously funny. And I noted that it was enjoyed equally by children, adults and others.
Together, all of these stage productions really got me to thinking about the nature of living theater. What makes a stage production. The importance of movement. The importance of voice. The importance of sound. Emotion. Of text. And, in fact, as it turns out, since seeing these productions we attended in the last couple of days two other shows that were readings of text alone, one of which in a language we could not understand. Seeing a pure “reading” was a perfect counterpoint to provide us with a comparison to the classic stage production and show the utility of memorisation and stage action in holding an audience’s attention.
* Not Reviews: This is a format I use on this blog to write about the music I am listening to, the books I am reading, the shows or films or other things that I do that are often in the habit of being written about by critics – book critics, music critics, theater critics, cinema critics, etc. And my feeling has always been that I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about book critics and how fiction writers themselves should not be writing criticism of other writers, in the spirit of the phrase: “You can’t hunt with the hare and hunt with the hounds.” My idea is just to talk about the books, plays, films and music I listen to or see. Talk about the way it affected me, everything and anything it inspires, but not to place myself on any kind of judgmental pedestal as critics are supposed to do – or are at least notorious for doing.
PARIS – It has soon been four years since Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s angry young men of literature in the 1950s, died as a not-so-angry old man – at age 82 on 5 December 2013. The anniversary has provided an impetus for a couple of unfinished projects to finally come to life: A new edition of my interview book with Wilson, called, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, and the release of some excerpts from another interview I did with Wilson in the same year of the book publication, in 2006. For the book, it was time to update the story and write about the rest of Wilson’s life after the interview, as well as to write a new preface in which I talk about the strange way this book about optimism came at the time of my life when I needed that sense more than ever before.
For the film, it made sense for this project that has been hibernating for 11 years, to finally see some daylight. So it is that Excalibur Productions of Yorkshire, in the UK, and Michael Butterworth Books of Manchester, all agreed to release some excerpts from that never-before-seen video interview between Wilson and me. For me personally, it was very strange to see myself 11 years later, in another lifetime, and having survived that dark period. For fans of Wilson’s writing and philosophy of life, it is a great moment to see this extraordinary British writer as if coming back to life.
Wilson, for those of you who do not know him, shot to world fame at the age of 25 in 1956 with the publication of his first book, called “The Outsider.” It was a kind of popular introduction to existentialism in the UK, a study of such outsiders as Nijinsky, T.E. Lawrence, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, and many others. It came out at the same time and was reviewed at the same time as the playwright John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger,” and the British press decided to label these writers “Angry Young Men.”
The label would be passed on to many other writers of the time, such as Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker, Kingsley Amis and others. Wilson would be no doubt the most prolific of them all, and he was also the one that was ultimately the most difficult to pin down and label as a writer beyond that initial effort. He would write books covering such a diversity of subjects – crime, the occult, philosophy, psychology, biography, fiction and many other things in over a hundred books through his life – that his reception by the critics and the British literary world in general, went through a permanent roller coaster of a ride between respect and reviling him throughout his life.
“Wilson’s philosophy of optimism runs like a clear thread through all of his varied works,” is how my book’s publisher, Michael Butterworth Books, puts it. “It is at the very battlefront of the fight against the pessimistic world-view. At its core lie the twin concepts of ‘intentionality’ and the ‘peak experience’, which show us that if we open our eyes and direct perception properly we can use our minds in the most positive sense to bring change to ourselves and to the world about us.”
Not long after the book was published, I was invited by the Excalibur people to interview Wilson on camera. This interview too was a long, wide-ranging one that lasted some two hours in total and touched on just about all aspects of his life and writings. Somehow, for many and varied reasons, the film never got released…until now with these excerpts.
So I hope you enjoy this “blast from the past” because it is just as pertinent, or even more so, to our chaotic and difficult present….
PARIS – Until I began playing chess as an adult nearly 20 years ago, there was no activity either sporting, musical or intellectual in my life that I would do unless I felt at least a tiny level of competence. Chess became almost an addiction – the part about playing on the Internet – but I could never fool myself into thinking I was anything other than a horrible, horrible chess player.
As it happens, my son, Paul, was a very, very good chess player from the age of 7 to 15, playing at the national level in France, both amongst children and adults. He suddenly quit chess completely not long after he turned 15, telling me that it would require more work than it was worth to stay at the top levels as he grew older. That made sense. In any case, he quit, while I continued to play as a hack. But I also continued to watch the players of his age group whom he had known or played against as they rose up the categories. One who I had first become aware of when he was about 8 years old, and who was only 6 months older than Paul, was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He was already one of the top young players at that time in France, and he continued to rise steadily up the ratings list and through the hierarchy of national, European and world championships.
Lately, this player has reached as high as No. 2 in the world, and currently sits third in the international ratings list. A couple of weeks ago, in France and in French, he published a book about his life in chess (Joueur d’echecs, Fayard) – at age 27 – and I now learn that while I never doubted that this young player would rise up to challenge for the world title, apparently there were a few times in his career when he had his doubts. His rise up the international standings was not quite as fast as some of his contemporaries – like the current world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, or even Sergey Karjakin, of Russia – but if you watched his career as closely as I have, or even just look at his career ratings chart on the site of the FIDE, you see a trajectory that goes up, up, up, steadily.
But despite having seen Vachier-Lagrave play in many tournaments, having exchanged a few words with him and his parents, and having observed him at the chess club that he and my son were both members of a little more than a decade ago, I never felt I had any understanding at all about who this kid was, this boy who was so clearly made for chess in a way that my son Paul, despite his natural talent, was not. So when I learned that this new book about his life had come out, I immediately downloaded it into my Kindle. And I was NOT disappointed.
Part of the reason I am so bad at chess is my simple lack of attention span when it comes to reading any book about how to play chess. But Vachier-Lagrave’s book has NO writing about how to move the pieces or what an opening, middle game or endgame is. This book is all about what it means to be a professional chess player today, and how he got there. One of his main stated goals is to show that while the game of chess may be extremely complicated in the eyes of most people, and the top level players may be associated with the kind of madness we find in books like “The Defense,” by Vladimir Nabokov, or Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story,” or in famous players like Bobby Fischer, who went slightly off the rails mentally, Vachier-Lagrave sets out to show just how normal a young man he is.
“At the risk of deceiving some people, chess players are not robots, not computers with legs, and not mad scientists,” he writes (here in my translation from the French). “Worse, or rather, better: We are just normal people! With our qualities and our faults, our certainties and our quandaries, some strong points and many weak points. Normal people who are in possession of an abnormal talent – in the first sense of the word, that is, outside the norm – in a specific area, which is the practice of chess.”
He puts chess into a completely different perspective than that of the popular imagination, and for that this is a book that can be of interest to the general reader, although I feel it will mostly be read by an audience of chess players and fans who know who he is. As it turns out, he describes himself almost perfectly whenever he talks about how he may appear from the outside, to others; somewhat diffident appearing, not overly emotional on the outside, but enjoying to let himself go occasionally, including with friends at a bar.
What I realize most through the reading of this book is that like it or not, fair or not, there IS a difference between the extremely talented and those who are not so talented. While Vachier-Lagrave talks about all the hard work he has had to do in his life to achieve the success he has at the moment, he especially emphasises how impossible it is for him to sit eight hours a day, every day, to just study chess. When he does play, he is like a child having fun kicking a soccer ball. It is not work, it is passion. But he never takes it too far, because it is ultimately, also, his profession. In fact, he can go a few days without playing at all, between tournaments. To empty his mind and return with passion again.
But here, no doubt, lies the key to it all – and in contrast to my son’s relationship with chess: First, Vachier-Lagrave says he could never do without chess, that it keeps returning to hims; second, his natural talent is clearly of a massively high level, and his pleasure is rewarded with satisfaction if he works at it so he does not have to work more than he might want to.
But I also found, as I read this book – which, by the way, is extremely intelligently written, and shows a decent cultivation, which is not surprising for a chess player who also took a university degree in math – that the similarities between success in a chess career and success in, say, a racing car driver’s career, are many. I thought often of the memoir, “Aussie Grit,” of Mark Webber, the Formula One driver, as I read this book, because Webber emphasises over and over again the need to go to the absolute limit in order to reach the highest level. Many drivers have talent, but only those who make all the right moves and never give up, arrive at the pinnacle.
There are many talented chess players in the world, but despite Vachier-Lagrave trying to look “normal,” what sets him apart is his exceptional ability to roll with the punches, believe in himself, and to continue that steady rise up the ladder in pursuit of the dream of his childhood to be world champion. This is no doubt due to his exceptional lucidity about how to deal with life’s potential obstacles.
“The pages of the history books are full of these great young hopes who remained great young hopes and never managed to “make it,”” he writes. “Everything is a question of talent, work and desire, but not even those things are enough sometimes. Bad luck and the unpredictable circumstances of life can destroy progress forever, and put to an end a career that looked brilliant before it even started.”
doubling back snaking line up at Nanterre prefecture for people with rendezvous
NANTERRE, France – Thanks to the non-democratic and fixed Brexit referendum in the UK – the population most concerned by the vote, that is, the British passport holders living in the EU, were not allowed to vote – I have entered into a nearly full-time job of seeking out French nationality. I’ve been working on this since July 2016. I have yet to hand over my documents to the French authorities to start the process. Today, I arrived at the Nanterre police prefecture to do just that, only to find that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees and other foreigners standing outside in three different line ups, and by the time I figured out where I was supposed to go, I had already missed my meeting. This was the second meeting I missed, and it can take weeks or months to get a meeting. But this time, rather than feeling a huge sense of anger and frustration, I felt only sympathy for the refugees and others who could not even get the official convocation that I had, and who have to wait hours, days, nights, in front of the prefecture.
I was struck by the incredible changes we are seeing in our world today and over the last 35 years. In 1983, while I was preparing in Toronto, Canada to come to study French at the Sorbonne, a colleague of mine at the Globe and Mail newspaper where I was working, said to me: “Your father was born in England, wasn’t he?” I said he was, although he had lived since he was 2 years old in Canada and had never held a British passport, so could hardly be considered English. My colleague said that by virtue of my father’s birth in the UK I was eligible to become British myself. If I became British, I would then be able to work legally in the European Union. So why not try?
It seemed like a great idea. I called the British Consulate in Toronto, asked if this was true, they said it was, they sent me the four or so pages of the application form by mail, I filled it out and sent the relevant paper or two proving my father’s birthplace, and seven days later I received in the mail my British passport and nationality. I never had an interview, never set foot in an embassy, consulate, police station or other official place. I had no lines to sit in, nothing to do but claim my citizenship, then take the flight to Paris, fall in love with the city at first sight, learn French at the Sorbonne, find a job and stay at that same company for the next 33 years, marry a Frenchwoman, father a couple of French (and Canadian) children, and live happily ever after.
Until, of course, the non-democratic, fixed referendum in the UK about Brexit.
Small part of a line up at Nanterre Prefecture
No, wait. In the early 1990s, by point of comparison, I did decide at one point after the birth of my two children to take French nationality for myself. This would be around 1993 or 1994. I went to the prefecture in Paris, took the application form, and filled it out, gathered together the significantly greater number of papers to that of my British nationality experience, and I filed them with the relevant authorities. I then found myself having to go into one personal meeting after another with the prefecture of my arrondissement, then the main prefecture of police in Paris, also I think with my local mayor’s office – although I’m not completely sure about that one – but in any case, I found myself frustrated at a very busy time of my life having to do one meeting after another, and often finding “long” queues of perhaps 30 people waiting for interviews as well.
When comparing that experience to my British nationality experience, I finally decided that it was too time consuming, and anyway, I had the British nationality, and the Canadian nationality, so why did I really need the French nationality. Would it not be cool, I thought, for my two children to really have a Canadian father, without the French nationality part. Would it not be cool that they could really say their Dad was a foreigner?
So, in what I now regret massively, I ended the process of seeking nationality. I was then told that I had to write a letter explaining to the French authorities exactly why I had ended this process. So I wrote the truth: There is far too much bureaucracy to go through, far too many meetings, far too many lines to wait in, etc.
more line up at Nanterre prefecture
I still have my original application form and the paper that says what pieces of identity and other paperwork were necessary to obtain French citizenship. It is minuscule by comparison to today’s necessary paperwork. Minuscule.
Yes, flash forward 2016 and the fixed, undemocratic Brexit vote in the UK forcing British expats to seek out local nationality in their country of EU adoption – or wait with crossed fingers that some kind of solution can be found for these people to not have to return to the UK in a future glut of refugee proportions. The first step was to download from the Nanterre prefecture – the relevant authority where I live – the application form and list of necessary documents. The list is as long as the Bible, and now includes such things as an official paper to prove that you comprehend the French language. This has been instituted since 2012. It is not necessary that you actually comprehend the language, just that you have a paper that says you do. According to my researches, my diploma from the Sorbonne will do this trick, so I felt lucky on that.
But I have spent a couple of hundred euros or more having official translations made of things like my long-form birth certificate, a proof of my parents’ place of marriage and date of marriage (in 1953!, and both are dead), and one or two other items. I have had to provide a proof that I have paid my taxes in France for the last three or so years, and this proof can only come in the shape of a particular official paper from my local tax office. Obtaining that paper is what caused me to miss my first appointment in June, by the way, as the local tax office blamed a computer breakdown that morning for them being unable to get the document. (Although I could see instantly that the person whose job it was to get the document did not want to do the job that morning. She did it that afternoon, but it was too late.)
I have to provide proof of ownership of my apartment, my employment history in France, my personal addresses for practically my entire life, a stamp to pay for the work of the bureaucracy…the list goes on and on and on. And it takes forever to accumulate all of these papers.
But the worst part has been the part of the process that has been automated to help the unfortunate, under-staffed civil servants of the prefecture of Nanterre: In order to obtain a rendezvous of 10 minutes to hand over all of these documents and begin the process of naturalisation, I have to go onto the web site of the prefecture and make that rendezvous via a special dedicated page and system. This, I learned after months of trying and failing, can only be done on Mondays at high noon!
Yes, every Monday only, the Nanterre prefecture reboots the citizenship rendezvous system and the charge begins. Try it out for yourself! Go to the site, and at noon, start your slot machine going. I have tried week after week for up to an hour and a half each time to try to get through the process of booking a rendezvous. That period is spent getting through various stages of the process before I either find that the place I am being promised no longer exists – it’s first come, first serve and the computer seems to accept hundreds of people for each spot before the fastest mouse manipulator wins the meeting – or the site simple “times out.”
view from across the street of Nanterre prefecture and its refugees
What is happening, of course, is that there are thousands of people, perhaps even 10s of thousands of people, every Monday logging in at the same moment and trying to win the lottery. This kills the server of the prefecture. The whole process goes on until all of the rendezvous spots have been taken, and then it goes dead for another week.
I first learned of this process in around January or February, and scored my first successful rendezvous hit in around early May for the meeting in early June. I missed that meeting by about five minutes thanks to the tax office mishap, but even then it was hopeless as I did not even have that tax office piece of paper proving that I had, yes, paid all my taxes for the last 3 years (as well as the last 33 years).
As an aside, although the tax office sent me that piece of paper that afternoon and told me that they would send the original by post, it took another three emails over the next six or eight weeks to actually receive the original by post, and ensure that I had all the documents ready for this morning’s rendezvous. (Which, by the way, I was able to score in a record three week period of seeking.)
Today, having left 40 minutes early from my home to do the 17 minute-drive to the prefecture, I was feeling very proud of myself until I encountered traffic on the quays due to a car stopped on the edge of the road, which resulted in my not arriving 20 or 24 minutes early for the meeting, but only about 11 minutes early. And that is when I encountered the refugee crisis and realized that I had once again missed my appointment and would have another couple of months of waiting to do before I could even leave my papers (which I keep having to update in certain areas with newer papers as time moves on, by the way).
Today, I spoke to a couple of people in the line ups and realized they came from all over. One guy was a Sri Lankan trying to get a refugee visa for his passport. He told me he had been coming for days without success. He was in the line yesterday for three hours before being refused entry.
There were three different line ups, including the shortest line up being for people with the piece of paper I had, the convocation. But that line up was being controlled by policemen, and they were holding off the line up and sending people in through the gate in groups in order to go through the security check before being allowed to enter the building. That security check line was about 25-people thick when I had already hit the deadline for my meeting, and I knew that I would be 15 to 20 minutes late for a meeting that was set for precisely 9:55, with only a 5-minute allowance for lateness.
It all made me realize that my own refugee crisis is nothing compared to theirs…but ultimately it also did anger me once again about the spoiled children of the UK who rigged the election in a country that has it so good it has lost its sense of proportion. The UK doesn’t like being in the EU? It wants to create the sorts of difficulties I am now facing for millions of people on every level of society and business? Look at Syria. Look at many African nations. Look at Afghanistan. Look at the countries in the world with REAL problems, and why make more rather than thrive?