Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Transylvania Travel Diary – of Gypsies, Vampires and the Beginnings of a Fabrique

July 9, 2019
bradspurgeon

Garlic in Transylvanian wood shed Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

Garlic in Transylvanian woodshed. Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

TALMACIU, Romania

Tuesday, 2 July:

2:30 AM: Arrived in Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Expected at least one vampire sighting, saw none.

10:30 AM:  Awoke, went to pharmacy for eye infection that looked like vampire bite. At pharmacy, pleasant Romanian able to speak English sold me magic garlic bullet – also contained cortisone and antibiotic – mercifully given me despite it requiring a doctor’s prescription.

11:00 AM:  Went to fruit market to buy lemons, spinach and cloves of garlic.

1:00 PM:  Returned to apartment to work all afternoon on various writing projects, along with Ornella, who is writing an article for an Italian magazine (not about vampires).

7:00 PM: After eating local food made by mother of our host – chicken soup for the soul made from her very own chicken (not killed by a vampire) -, took a walk around Cluj after several applications of garlic gel on eye infection.  Saw many different quarters of university town, from typical public places with bars spilling out under awning-covered tables onto the sidewalks to rapidly flowing, violent river at edge of town to canal that looked like a perfect setting for Dracula to make an attack and lure is into unknown territory. Noticed scary looking metal spike on side of the bridge where Ornella and I both looked at each other and think about Vlad the Impaler.

Saw national theater with Hungarian words in name; national opera; another national theater; a few cool bars reminiscent of Budapest kerts (or beer gardens); noticed barbed wire and old communist era signs in several places.

8:30 PM:  Went out for a glass of wine and chocolate brownie at Charlie’s, a bar with the image of Charlie Chaplin.  First had a local white, then had a local red.  Thought I saw vampire and accidentally spilled Ornella’s wine all over her with overly abrupt hand and arm movement.  Fortunately was the white wine or vampire might have mistaken it for blood.

Found whole city to look like Budapest 20 years ago when first went to that East European country.  Expressed surprise to host on seeing no Roma, or Gypsies, anywhere as I see them on a daily basis in Paris.  Host laughed at me, as she had at every mention of vampires or Dracula.

Wednesday:

10:37 AM:  Woke up after bad night sleep and early morning storm worthy of a vampire (learned later that hail stones the size of golf balls fell on the location of our home for the next week and a half, in Talmaciu). Prepare to go to Talmaciu, to factory that is to be our home for next week and a half.

12:30 PM:  Met at the airport by driver of the Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble – who is in fact not a driver but is the lighting man for the Fabrique.  Drive for three hours plus lunch break to Talmaciu and the Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble.

4:30 PM:  Arrive at Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble to find no gypsies.  Look on Wikipedia and find that population of Talmaciu is only just over 3 percent gypsy.  Find no vampires either. Despite certain parts of factory looking like good homes for vampires (or Roma, or Gypsies).

7:00 PM:  Attend first conference at fabrique, featuring former minister of culture for Romania, and former boss of the Romanian Culture Center in NYC, and former a lot of things.  Learn much about what it was to live under communism.  Learn even more about what it is to have lived under communism and then in 1989 to face freedom.  Hear no word about vampires – except in form of former communist padres – and nothing about Roma, or Gypsies.

12:30 AM:  Begin to jam in dining area of Fabrique RE-Évolution / FREE / France Roumanie Europe Ensemble with musicians.  Have time of life playing music and watching two musicians clown around with the music.

2:00 AM:  Go to bed, closing windows at first tight against vampires, then opening windows but put mosquito repellent against vampires.  (And copious mosquitoes present.)

Thursday:

11:00 AM:  Awake in sunlight, having survived no vampire attack.

2:00 PM:  Take bus to Sibiu, local big town, capital of the county.  Find typical architecture of the region, mix of Romanian, Hungarian and German styles.  Tried to meet Rocco, man of more than 250 guitar collection. Rocco answers phone, says he is many kilometres away in another town. Leaves me with no guitar – because Wizzair wanted me to pay for an extra seat for my guitar, so I did not take it.  (Devise inspirational, brilliant, advertising campaign for Wizzair (also known as Wizz):  “Next time you go on vacation, take a wizz!”)

Transylvania Flower Shop in Sibiu Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

Transylvania Flower Shop in Sibiu Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

3:00 PM:   Find one of two music stores in Sibiu, go there and ask to try cheapest guitar that exists.  Play Emerald green “Flame” guitar costing 60 euros.  Find it more than serviceable, not bad at all. Buy guitar, strap and Fender strings for total of 74 euros.  In store meet elderly, white-haired man with strong accent in English, says he is from Denmark but lives in Sibiu.  Has guitar on back.  After leaving store, elderly man approaches again in street.  Says he owns 250 guitars.  Ask him if he knows Rocco. Says yes, adds, “Rocco has 2,500 guitars.”  Danish man tells me he himself gives guitars away; makes me think 74 euros was thrown in waste.

3:30 PM:  Look for second music store in Sibiu for small percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop, meet up with strange Danish man again.  Says he knows all of the music bars and music restaurants in the city. Suggests I busk in street to earn back 74 euros.  Ask him if he knows the other music store in Sibiu, show him on map, he does not.  But knows others.

4:00 PM:  Eat lunch at restaurant in outdoor awning-covered terrace on main square.  Wait half an hour for food despite no other clients present – or practically none.   Eat quickly, find second music store in Sibiu and second cheapo guitar of same price as new Flame.  Second guitar piece of garbage – despite visually better.  Find percussion instruments for Ornella’s workshop – a tambourine-like drum but without the symbols, and also a tambourine-like loop with the symbols but without the drum skin … leads me to think second music store in Sibiu is trying to make us pay twice as much for same effect in two pieces as if we had just a classic tambourine.

Goanna Lizards at FREE Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

Goanna Lizards at FREE Photo ©Brad Spurgeon

5:30 PM:  Go to main bus and train station of Sibiu to catch bus back to Talmaciu as instructed by host.  Learn at main bus and train station of Sibiu that there are no more buses back to Talmaciu.  Young man approaches – later tells me he saw me playing guitar and singing to locals on the parking lot of bus and train station of Sibiu – speaks in perfect Australian English offering a ride somewhere as we appear in distress.  We tell him we are going to Talmaciu and he says he is passing by that way exactly and offers us a ride.  In his van I learn he is son of a Baptist missionary in Romania.  My family has long line of Baptist missionaries in India, and is directly linked to a famous Baptist preacher named C.H. Spurgeon.  He knows my name and is surprised.  Nice coincidence.

7:00 PM:  Listen to conference on Hamlet at Fabrique given by an American English professor.  Speak to the professor and find he lived in the same building as two of my former newspaper colleagues in Paris.  Nice coincidence.  No sighting of Roma, or Gypsies, but suspect man who directs factory is Roma, or Gypsy, as he brought to conference most interested and interesting spectators:  Two Goanna “monitor” lizards from Australia.  (See photo.)  Goannas listening to Hamlet, Cioran and Pessoa.

00:00 PM:  Meet clown musician of night before going to another jam and offers us to join.  I say, “No,” too much work at conference next day.

Friday:

8:15 AM:  Awake in Romanofir factory in Talmaciu, site of FREE.  Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour and sun flowing in window with no curtains.

Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary

Brad and Ornella in front of FREE event diary


9:00 AM:  Start workshop – more or less – in incredible old theatre in factory.   Theatre built as cinema, but with huge stage, lights, red seats for hundreds.  Rundown after years without use.   Building full of nooks and crannies and perfect place for Vampires or Roma, or Gypsies.  No sightings, however, except maybe in projection room a reel of Dracula films. (Just joking.)

6:00 PM:  Workshop ends.  Shower, drink beer, seek dinner.

8:30 PM:  Join members of workshop at their tents, play “Mad World” with Flame guitar.  Informed halfway through song that sheep and goats in adjacent field run around like mad over music.  Approach the animals, but only the three horned leaders come to check me out – and fend me off – as sheep hide in field behind.  No sightings of vampires. Or Roma, or Gypsies.  Continue to play music and listen to workshop participants play music with my new Flame – very good singer and player present among them.  Makes me want to quit.  (Well, ok, no, but you get the idea.)

Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater

Projectors at Romanofir Factory cinema and theater

10:00 PM:  Attend concert of man playing flutes and cornemeuse and Lo Schuh, organizer of Fabrique singing and chanting and reciting to the music.  No sighting of gypsies or vampires, but shadow of Lo Schuh from spotlight on wall of building next-door looking like Dracula, as Lo Schuh wears exotic Dracula-like clothing.

10:30 PM:  Return to campsite, start thinking about vampires and Roma, or Gypsies in moon-flooded night. Romanians at campsite, participants in workshop, talk about how world outside has preconceptions of Romania, especially Transylvania, as land of Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies.  Leap from my chair now aware they are aware of this stereotyping.  Also learn that minority of Roma, or Gypsies badly treated by majority of Romanians.  So Roma, or Gypsies in their mind same as in our mind in the West.

00:00 PM:  Go to bed thinking how stupid I am to reduce Romania to Vampires and Roma, or Gypsies. Then remember moment on the way to listen to Lo Schuh when what seemed like a Vampire bat flew past my head and head of Romanian host.  Host agreed it must have been vampire bat.  Fall asleep anyway, no problems.

Saturday:

8:15 AM:  Awake. Feel fine, despite rooster crowing for 1 hour at least and sun flowing in window with no curtains.  No vampire bats. No Roma, or Gypsies.  Forget all troubles.  Do workshop, day ends well.  Feel liberated to no longer have preconceptions about Roma, or Gypsies and Vampires in Romania.  Have discovered amazing country, like so many in so many ways of those visited elsewhere in the world.  Always people.  Just people.  Not Roma, or Gypsies, no vampires.

More to come in coming days, including explanation of discovery of cloves of garlic in Romanian woodshed pictured in first photo of diary … too busy to keep up beyond Saturday, but new week to deliver new adventures….

Exiting Talmaciu, but not really

Exiting Talmaciu, but not really

 

 

Scoop!: A Surreal Reading of the NYT Obituary of Keith Botsford, Published a Year after his Death

June 17, 2019
bradspurgeon

Keith Botsford in a YouTube interview (before his death)

PARIS – I just had the most extraordinary obituary reading experience of my life.  And I must have read obituaries on an average of at the very least once per week for the last 40 or so years.  It felt at times as if I was reading satire, or high comedy, or was it low comedy?  It felt often like reading something out of “Scoop,” the satirical novel of the newspaper business by Evelyn Waugh.  Although I only saw it today, this obituary ran in The New York Times three days ago under the headline:  “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate, Dies at 90.”   And the wild experience plants itself – as all good journalism should – right in the first paragraph (or lead, or lede):  “Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.”

My first thought was that it was great that The Times decided to run his obituary despite him having died a year earlier. But then in the second paragraph I learn that his death did not really go so unnoticed as all that:  “His death was noted two days later by The New England Review of Books on its website and, 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe, but it was otherwise not reported widely. The Times of London published an obituary two months later, and the Boston University alumni magazine, Bostonia, noted his death in its recent winter-spring issue.”

This reminded me that I had read last year the obituary by The Times of London, or was pretty sure I had. They are among the best obits in the world, and they are quite widely read and authoritative.  So it seemed to me that the media that really missed Mr. Botsford’s death was more The New York Times, not really the wider world as such, as the first paragraph indicated.  This was, in short, no scoop!  But it led directly and immediately to the next extraordinary moment in this reading experience in the third paragraph:  “The New York Times learned of his death on Thursday while updating an obituary about him that had been prepared in advance in 2014. Reached on Saturday, his son Gianni confirmed the death.”

Wait a minute!!!!  Hold it!!!!  Ever since the horrendous Jayson Blair incident at the NYT, when an up-and-coming reporter was found to have fabricated a large number of his articles – i.e., made up the stories, the quotes, and even the travel expenses (as he sometimes claimed expenses for trips not taken, the stories having been written at home) – the NYT devised a number of new rules about reporting that I find absurd, and which it has in many cases stuck to ever since.  One of these is to say exactly where a person was interviewed from:  ie, “said Mr. So-and-So in an email”  or “said Mr. So-and-So in a telephone call” or “said Mr. So-and-So in a text message” etc., which personally I have always found interferes with the reader’s experience of trying to learn about what was said and not how it was conveyed to the reporter.

And one of the often most infuriating – to me – such rules, which I remember as coming from that same Blair period, was the one about having to have confirmation from a family member or some official of the death of the subject of an obituary.  So here we are with the venerable New York Times giving us an obituary in which we are told that the subject died almost a year earlier, that it was reported in several major publications and that there was even a – perhaps obligatory – death notice bought in the formerly NYT-owned Boston Globe…and we have to have the NYT call up the son of the subject of the obit and ask him to confirm the death to put the suspicious reader’s doubts at ease!?!?!  Despite abundant proof that the subject died a year earlier?

This is also the point when the satire of the form of the article begins to create an even wilder mix with the subject of the obituary.  The next paragraph, right below that stylistic convention in the NYT – here absurd – begins with this sentence about the subject of the obituary:  “Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre.”  I said to myself, “So what the hell then would Mr. Botsford be thinking now about this boundary of form of the genre, I wonder?  That the NYT had to ask for confirmation from his son despite ample proof he was dead and gone…or if not ample proof, then at least nearly a year has past, which would be plenty of time for Mr. Botsford to write letters to the editors of the venerable publications that announced his death, complaining, as another famous writer had, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.

We now learn that Mr. Botsford was “a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. … A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen.”

Here we begin rising even higher in this crescendo of the extraordinary nature of this obituary and its subject:  Botsford’s life was a tale that might stand beautifully alongside that of Woody Allen’s Zelig, for being a man all over the map, except here Botsford’s talents are clearly exceptional, and not just some chance thing.  (In addition to his literary exploits, the article tells us that, “By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”)

But then the obituary’s extraordinary nature pokes its head out again a couple of paragraphs later with our first “live” quote from the subject of the obit when describing his first meeting with Saul Bellow in the early 1950s at a party, which would lead to the two writers becoming lifelong friends and colleagues:

“It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Mr. Botsford recalled in an interview for this obituary in 2014. “I had just read ‘The Adventures of Augie March,’ so I walked up and started talking to him.”

Bellow, left, and Botsford

Bellow, left, and Botsford

Hold the presses again!!!!  Our first quote from the deceased comes from an interview that was done by the author of this very same obituary and for the purpose of this very same obituary that we are reading.  What?!?!?  I may have been very inattentive in my reading of obituaries, but I feel this is the first time I have been informed that the subject of the obituary was interviewed by the writer of the obituary for use in the obituary itself.  Is this morbid?  Well, thank goodness they informed us in the beginning of the story that the son of this man confirmed to the NYT that this man was indeed dead.   Otherwise, reading that he had been quoted here from an interview he did FOR this obituary, I might have thought him still alive and taking part in some kind of a practical joke about his own death notice….

Wild!  But it also makes me feel as if someone at the NYT must have said, “Gee, we went to so much trouble to write this obit, including interviewing the guy, and we then missed his death and never used it?!  Come on.  Let’s not waste this.  Get it in print.”

The obituary then spends several paragraphs talking about the relationship between these two men – is it more about Bellow than about Botsford?  No, no.  – until I get to a part where I learn that Mr. Botsford and I have something else in common aside from both being fans of Bellow:  “In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.”

Formula One racing!  Which, yes, I wrote about for a couple of decades for the NYT and its International Herald Tribune edition (although I have no longer been employed by either paper since 2016, and I still love reading the NYT, as this rant makes clear).  But that’s just a personal thing that lit a fire for me, and probably has no place in this rant!

We find he also published some two dozen novels, and had the university education and degrees of about three or four people all rolled into one.  We learn that he was born in Europe, and his family background was as fantastic as his own life, particularly the larger than life tale of his mother and her family.  Her name was “Carolina Elena Rangoni-Machiavelli-Publicola-Santacroce,” and, continues the article, “He said that his mother was a descendant of Niccolo Machiavelli and that his father’s ancestors had helped found Milford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, in 1639. Mr. Botsford recalled his maternal grandmother employing 120 servants at her house near Recanati, Italy, on the Adriatic Sea.”

Wow!  Love it!

Picasso and Jacqueline

Picasso and Jacqueline

He ended up moving to Costa Rica and living in a fabulous home overlooking the sea, a house designed by his son, an architect – and the very man who confirmed his father’s death to the NYT a year after it happened – and then one of the most extraordinary moments of all, the kicker, for me, of the tale of Keith Botsford’s extraordinary life:  We learn that he was married three times, and that his last wife was 52 years younger than him!  That stands as a record for me of age difference in spouses, far outdoing even Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill’s 36-year difference, or Picasso and Jacqueline’s 45-year difference!

So here, the subject of the obituary finally takes over in wonderment from the form of the story completely – form follows function at this point – and we are left with a feeling that this was absolutely a unique, extraordinary person, and thank goodness the NYT chose to publish this story, even one year too late.

Having said that, the subject of the obit and the tale of the obit itself, its writing form, come together again in the kicker that the NYT writer left us with.  The following concept may be true of Bellow and Botsford, but it is also clearly true of the way this obit was written – whether intended or not:

“Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:”

“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”

Something tells me that Keith Botsford would have been amused.

 

Follow Brad Spurgeon on Twitter

Open Mic Purgatory Page

February 3, 2019
bradspurgeon

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

Thumbnail Open Mic Guide

PARIS – In further reference to my post of yesterday where I speak of yet another open mic that has been closed down for reasons linked to a Draconian attack by the authorities against live music in Paris, I have decided far too late to create a section on my Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music on which I will place the bars and venues that had open mics until they were attacked by the authorities and told that they had to stop until further notice.

I have put this list there because I realize that over the last couple of years I have had to wipe out one after the other from my list, and the hope is that eventually these open mics will return. So people who are curious can check up the names of those in purgatory to see if they are running or not. I wish, for instance, that I had been able to put the information of the open mic at La Féline bar into that area, but I just wiped it off the page once I learned that La Féline was permanently closed due to these attacks by the authorities.

Anyway, so check out the page and its new purgatory section, which will also serve as a kind of epitaph to each of these wonderful establishments (or at least their former open mics). You will find it on my Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music.

Here is an article from Libération that talks about this sad phenomenon of closing of live music joints in Paris – which has been reported widely elsewhere as well.

Le Truskel Revisited: An Anniversary of a Kind at a One-of-a-Kind Paris Bar Venue

February 2, 2019
bradspurgeon

Brad Spurgeon at Le Truskel

Brad Spurgeon at Le Truskel

PARIS – I had some more really bad news for Paris open mics and jam sessions the other day when I learned that the fabulous Cave Café jam is no longer happening due, it seems, to another move by Paris police to enforce certain regulations. I don’t know exactly which regulations these are, but there have been several articles in the French press talking all about the endless closing down of live music joints in Paris due to the police enforcing sound regulations, safety regulations, and other regulations that are designed to destroy the musical culture and nightlife of an increasingly gentrifying city. It was so depressing to hear that one of my latest favourite places for a jam was no longer in action. I hope it starts up again soon. But immediately follow that news came an invitation for me to do an opening set for a young Paris rock band at a place that I know very well, but have not been to in years. And going last night to play, I was not just relieved, but absolutely ecstatic to find that this bar/venue, Le Truskel, is not just alive and kicking, but it is almost exactly the same as it was when I first played there 10 years ago!

Le Truskel is the place where Earle Holmes’s open mic moved to after it started at the Shebeen and then went briefly to the Lizard Lounge. So it was that in exactly this same period of time a decade ago I began playing every Monday night at the fabulous open mic Earle ran at the Truskel, until he basically quit the open mic business (except for a brief period when he got me to host a Sunday afternoon open mic at the Mecano Bar in Oberkampf, where he was working at the time).

Le Truskel

Le Truskel

There is a magic at the Truskel, with its fabulous stage space, DJ area, dance floor/audience space, horseshoe-shaped bar and now also for many years, the incredible labyrinthine basement room. That room, smokers will delight in, has now been fitted with the necessary apparatus to make it a smoking room. Last night I just loved that while the gig was going on upstairs, downstairs there was a group of 25 or so soccer fans watching a local match and going crazy with chants and whatever else they go crazy with, and nothing upstairs was being affected by this mayhem.

The bar has a big following of regulars, mostly people in their twenties, but it also has plenty of older regular clients, and a long, long tradition of nurturing young bands. The band that invited me to open for them last night was called Britches, and it is an international mix of performers, the lead singer of which – Nadeem Hakemi – is a Canadian from British Columbia, with Afghan heritage.

I was flattered as hell to be invited to open for them, which apparently resulted in the interesting turn of events of Nadeem having been a fan of this blog for a while, and then discovering my own “heritage” in the article that I wrote for the Canadian national newspaper, the Globe & Mail, about my return to play music after decades away, at…Earle’s open mic at the Lizard Lounge. So how extraordinary that I should be invited to open for them at the Truskel!

Le Truskel a real musical mecca in Paris

I felt very much at home onstage doing just an acoustic set with my Gibson an no accompaniment. It really, truly, felt as if time had stopped from the 10 intervening years and that I was there again on stage at another open mic run by Earle. Well, ok, it was not utterly bursting at the seams with all the regulars that had shown up week after week for those insane open mics, but the Truskel had not changed one single bit. And that is hugely great news for the Paris live music scene. Especially for the young up-and-coming groups like Britches.

In fact, Le Truskel is not just great for young up-and-coming bands: It has hosted such established acts as Pete Doherty, Baxter Dury, Metronomy and incarnations of bands of Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame…. In fact, it was also a funny, fitting thing that Borrell and Razorlight are performing at the Bataclan tonight.

Back in 1969

Back in 1969

By the way, it was also a great opportunity for me to have a chance to try out my “Lay, Lady Lay,” cover of the Dylan song for the first time in public in preparation for the fabulous gig I will take part in on 19 February at that other famous music venue in Paris, Le Reservoir. That is a show called “Back in 1969,” which will, as its name indicates, celebrate the music of 1969 – ie, 50 years ago – with a diverse collection of very interesting musicians, including the French/Portuguese star, Lio, and Laura Mayne, who was part of the duo called “Native.” There will also be my faithful sax player friend and sometime accompanist, Stephen Cat Saxo – so I’m hoping to feel as at home at Le Reservoir as I did last night at Le Truskel!

P.S. Oh, yes, of course, I had to do my Mad World cover! Thanks to Ornella for filming – and also starring in one of these videos…I wonder which one….

The True Believer: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Today’s Bizarre Social, Political and Crazy World – and it was published in 1951

January 14, 2019
bradspurgeon

My copy of The True Believer

My copy of The True Believer

PARIS – If you want to know what is happening in the world today, read this book first published in 1951. If you are shocked, confused, disgusted or even enamoured by Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, Orban, Gilets Jaunes, Salvini, Putin, Xi, and all this talk about making every country great again until there is no more world, then read this book published in 1951. If you haven’t got a clue about what I just wrote above, then read this book published in 1951. I have never been a person to seek to find all the answers in one place, but having just finished reading “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer, I have found just about all the answers to what is happening in our world – politically and socially – today. And I feel both a little better, and a little worse for it. But mostly better.

That the book was published in 1951 puts our world into perspective, of course. But at the same time, when putting human nature and its political systems into perspective, there should be no surprise for what is happening today. In a nutshell, “The True Believer,” puts it all into a nutshell: The psychology behind mass movements – looking at just about all of history up until 1951 – and sums up without favour to one side or the other exactly why mass movements find their adherents and their leaders. Here we see the common thread throughout human history between such things as communism, fascism, Nazism, as well as world religions like Catholicism and Protestantism and Judaism, and, yes, terrorism, and yes, populism.

Before the pro-Trumps or the anti-Trumps try to put a label on whose side Eric Hoffer is on, please, again, understand that he is not on any side: Hoffer was a longshoreman throughout his life and spent his free time reading, studying and examining both historical and contemporary movements. A longshoreman is a guy who works on the docks in shipyards, loading goods on ships, etc. A longshoreman is a worker. Hoffer was not part of any educational, social or political elite. He published “The True Believer” at nearly 50 years old – he was born in 1898 in The Bronx – and spent his life living his writing and his studies, and not seeking any particular status in society, beyond that of being a longshoreman – until his writing success gave him the possibility to leave the docks in 1964, and then become an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley until 1970, when he retired from public life.

The book, it turns out, became a bestseller, and was republished many times. “The True Believer” is still available if you go to Amazon, where you can even buy a Kindle edition. I came to this book last month as I was looking at my bookshelves and saw it once again (my 1966 Harper & Row, Perennial Library edition); I had picked it up decades ago from who knows where – I think in a pile of books that my fellow employees put in a pile at the office for sharing – and I had put it on my shelf and been attracted to read it many, many times, but never sat down to read more than the first page.

The book begins: “It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life. A revolutionary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change.”

That was it. This time, thanks to our crazy contemporary world, I was hooked from those words onward. I immediately began to think about the social movements the world is facing today, and the common thread that ties them all together: Desire for sudden and immediate change.

As I read the book, I found answers to most of the questions I have had about all the world’s biggest, most obvious social movements of today, but also and most importantly, answers to why people have elected liars, bigots, racists, dictator-leaning leaders, and how they can let such often ignorant, lying, leaders run their countries into the ground.

I cannot go through the whole book here, and prefer to give just enough of a taste that anyone who reads this will get the book and read it. It reads, by the way, like a treatise, or even a manifesto. But it is written in very simple English, and laid out in chapters, subheadings, and other bits and pieces that make it easy to pick up and read in short spurts – as I did – on the metro (were it not for the lack of good lighting these days in public transport built for backlit screens) or in down moments anytime during the day.

Among the fabulous, burning questions it answered for me were such things as why the “true believers” do accept a leader who is a patent liar who denies the truth on subjects that are clearly able to have their facts checked: The reason is because the believers are far more interested in having a person to believe “in” than having a person whose facts are true. The truth, in fact, means nothing to the true believer, only the fact of having a leader they believe will lead them to the change they desire. Ergo Trump, of course, and the fact that he creates his own “facts.” His followers do not care about his lying, only the change they believe he can bring.*

But there is much in the book to give me hope, as well. One of the things that Hoffer says a great leader must have to succeed in a social movement is the ability to develop a core group of close advisers and schemers and lieutenants around him (or her). This group not only sees the mission the way the leader does, but remains loyal – and he to them – and together they work to break down the system and create their new movement. Of course, while we know lots of stories about Trump looking for loyalty above all from government leaders around him, the bigger story of the Trump administration is his complete inability to keep for any length of time any loyal group of advisers around him. Mostly he is himself incapable of being loyal to any other individual, from what I have read in the news.

Of course, some things in history have changed. While Hoffer speaks about the leader’s need to control the media, and in the past this meant state control of the media, today, the new fascist dictators of the world no longer have to control newspapers and television stations when they simply discredit them through their own use of the social media – see Trump and Salvini as among the best examples of this. (Of course, Putin’s apparent setting up of a group of people to manipulate foreign social media could be seen as another kind of example.)

The True Believer in its own words

I have done far more talking here than I planned, and I have given far too few examples of the kind of writing this book presents us on every page. So I will here open the book randomly three times in three different places – I took no notes while reading it – and write down below the paragraphs that jump out at me on the random pages in order to give examples:

1) “It is rare for a mass movement to be wholly of one character. Usually it displays some facets of other types of movement, and sometimes it is two or three movements in one. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt was a slave revolt, a religious movement and a nationalist movement. The militant nationalism of the Japanese is essentially religious. The French Revolution was a new religion. It had “its dogma, the sacred principles of the Revolution – Liberté at sainte égalité. It had its form of worship, an adaptation of Catholic ceremonial, which was elaborated in connection with civic fêtes.”

2) Imitation is an essential unifying agent. The development of a close-knit group is inconceivable without a diffusion of uniformity. The one-mindedness and Gleichschaltung prized by every mass movement are achieved as much by imitation as by obedience. Obedience itself consists as much in the imitation of an example as in the following of a precept.
Though the imitative capacity is present in all people, it can be stronger in some than in others. The question is whether the frustrated, who, as suggested in Section 43, not only have a propensity for united action but are also equipped with a mechanism for its realization, are particularly imitative. Is there a connection between frustration and the readiness to imitate? Is imitation in some manner a means of escape from the ills that beset the frustrated?

3) The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. But his appearance usually marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement. The war with the present is over. The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it. Whereas the life breath of the dynamic phase was protest and a desire for drastic change, the final phase is chiefly preoccupied with administering and perpetuating the power won.

The book is almost cover-to-cover such pithy analysis. Unfortunately, it happens to be so apolitical that it ends by actually saying that mass movements are a good thing for the world, despite the usual death and destruction that accompany them. They are bringing necessary change to a system that has become ineffectual, that has calcified.

But here, again, Hoffer does not make judgments. I know that in today’s climate Hoffer will likely be considered by many to be “on the side” of the establishment. Hillary Clinton has read this book and mentioned it in association with Trump. This will lead some anti-Clinton people to say the book must therefore be a plot by Hillary. But they would overlooked the fact that Ronald Reagan bestowed upon Hoffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983, a few months before the longshoreman died at the age of 84.

So, again, I say, read this book first published in 1951, even, in fact, if you have already read it. It will resound with more meaning today in our world gone mad.

* Note: One of the fundamental theses of the book is that the believer is a frustrated person who longs for a movement to actually remove them from the constraints that a free society condemns them with. What constraints? The need to make decisions, to make choices, to face their own responsibility for their frustrated state within a free system. In other words, a mass movement, a dictatorship, a religion, tells the believer what to believe, how to act, no decisions need to be made. Life is “simpler.” So the believers are actually getting the repressive system they want.

Brad’s Morning Exercise Music Rundown, 12th Installment: Pete and the HoboSapiens, Downtown Merrylegs, Aaron Bowen, Scott Bricklin, Rose Gabriel, Box for Letters and Paolo Alderighi & Stephanie Trick

September 20, 2017
bradspurgeon

Sit Ups

Sit Ups

For my 12th “Morning Exercise Rundown,” – the 11th of which ran in May 2016 – I have seven musicians or groups to talk about, all of which were discovered in the open mics I attended since then. (Although I have known some of them for a few years.)

The Morning Exercise Music Philosophy

First, as a reminder, the idea behind this regular – but occasional – column is that for most of my life I avoided classic daily physical exercise because I felt I was able to do without it and it bored me to death. In recent years, I had a kind of flash of aged wisdom and realized that I might bore myself to death if I DON’T exercise. (No time in life for exercise? No! No time in life to NOT exercise!) That did not, however, alleviate the boredom of doing it. So when not doing my nighttime exercise of riding my unicycle around the neighborhood – which does NOT bore me – or jogging – which does bore me to a degree – or riding the apartment cycle in front of the TV, which staves off the boredom – I do my exercises in the morning (sit ups, push ups, etc.) while listening to new (and old) CDs that I acquire from musicians at open mics (and including EPs on SoundCloud or other sites) or from any other source.

I do not pretend to be a music critic, but simply to talk about and describe, and give my impressions of the music I listen to during my morning exercises. Keep in mind that my impressions and opinions, therefore, will have been formed while straining to reach a record number of push ups, sit ups, couch ups, deep knee bends, stretch downs and simply catching my breath. So maybe my opinion will be warped.

Pete and the HoboSapiens


Pete and the HoboSapiens – Time and Place

The thing that really gave me the kick in the butt to get my 11th edition of this morning exercise rundown out fast was the reception yesterday of this video to a new project by Pete Cogavin, his new band called: Pete and the HoboSapiens. I just loved this song, “Time and Place,” and sound and video so much that I thought I should get the thing up on my blog along with the other stuff I have been exercising to as quickly as possible. Pete I met in 2010 or 2011 when he was hosting his own evening of music at Shapko in Nice, France. He let me go up on stage to sing a few songs, as he did most people who asked, in his informal open mic at the time. We met the following year too, I believe, and have kept in touch ever since. I loved his voice and music at the time, but it is clearly growing and developing. There is a song-writing skill here, the music is bright and uplifting, it just bounces along, the voice has its distinct Pete Cogavin quality, and there has been some nice effort put into the video. You can also find Pete and the HoboSapiens’ full new CD on Spotify.

The Downtown Merrylegs: Pollen Cloud

Downtown Merrylegs

Downtown Merrylegs

I discovered this Paris-based English band through performing at the Rush Bar open mic, hosted by the genial Charlie Seymour, an Englishman who has spent decades playing music in bars in Paris without us somehow having run into each other until he began hosting that open mic this year! I usually arrived at the open mic too late to hear his opening set – of which I am ashamed – but one day recently when I gave him a copy of my CD, he gave me a copy of his. What a fabulous surprise this CD and band, The Downtown Merrylegs, most of the songs of which Seymour writes and sings. This is British folk rock of a kind I like, but the thing that was extraordinary was when I suddenly realized how close this man’s voice sounds to one of my favorite singing voices of recent years: Wally Page. Page is a little-known Irishman who has, nevertheless, written songs and performed with Christy Moore, the great Irish traditional singer songwriter of Planxty fame. But while Seymour’s voice may be a dead-ringer for Page’s, the stories they tell are entirely their own.

Aaron Bowen and his Wide Sky and other CDs

Wide Sky - Aaron Bowen

Wide Sky – Aaron Bowen

Aaron Bowen has a story to tell in his music, sure, like most singer songwriters. But this San Diego musician who visits Paris regularly, also has a very cool story to tell about his music, the latest which release is “Wide Sky” from More Than Folk Records in Paris. Working in a business in his 20s he suddenly had to sell the business, and found himself deciding to make a life in music. One day, jamming with a friend, he had written a song and wanted the friend or someone to sing it. “Oh, you can try to sing it yourself,” said the friend. Bowen, a fabulous guitar player from a musical family, said to his friend that he could not sing at all. The friend pushed him to try. He sang the song, and out poured the most mellifluous and original voice the friend had heard in a while – and it hit every single note perfectly. Comparisons now often come to the voice of Paul Simon. Whatever. A new singing, songwriting career was born, and Bowen never looked back. I love this CD, Wide Sky, one of two he gave me in recent months, the other being a thing call Spring Demo. But I’ll keep that to myself for the moment! Oh, and by the way, I just wrote that story about his vocals from memory after a night at a Paris open mic many months ago. It is quite possible that I got some details wrong, but that’s the gist of it!!!!

Scott Bricklin, Not Lost at all, on Lost Till Dawn

Scott Bricklin - Lost Till Dawn

Scott Bricklin – Lost Till Dawn

Scott Bricklin is a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist from Philadelphia, who had a previous life on a label somewhere in the U.S. with a band with his brother. Now a permanent Paris expat, he is keeping very busy playing here and around Europe, and has just come out with another album of his cool, laid back folk rock. (At least that’s the way I hear it.) What makes this very homogenous album really interesting for me, and maybe for one or two readers of this blog, is that unlike the last CD of Bricklin that I heard – on which he played basically all the instruments – here on “Lost Till Dawn,” a good most of the CD consists of Bricklin playing along with Félix Beguin and Jeremy Norris. These are the same three performers who played on the first five songs on my CD, “Out of a Jam.” (Beguin also played on two of the other five tracks on my CD.) So it was really cool to hear what other fabulous sounds these guys could make, and it was not a disappointment.

Wrapping Up With Rose Gabriel, Box for Letters and Paolo Alderighi & Stephanie Trick

And so I come to the round up area at the end of this morning exercise report. I’m not rounding up these final CDs because they are in any way lesser in my heart, but because, holy crap, if I don’t get this page out there tonight, who knows how much longer I’ll be sitting on it before I finish it! It has already been so long!

Rose Gabriel

Rose Gabriel

I am not one to love country music, but the songs, stories and vocals of Rose Gabriel’s very personal “Desert Flowers” completely subjugated me. Rose is from Austin, Texas, and I have also seen her a couple of times in Paris. But it was not until I listened to her CD that I really sat back and realized the original voice and stories she had to tell – although the last performance I saw of her at the Rush Bar in Paris was so great that I wasted no time at all listening to the CD she had given me that night!! All about life growing up in Texas, this is very coollll… or rather, hot.

Box for Letters

Box for Letters

I met the lead singer, songwriter, for the Malaysian Band “Box for Letters,” on my last trip to Kuala Lumpur last year, and found a highly original voice and temperament, and another extraordinary story to tell: Here was a man with a promising musical career who suddenly, very young, had a terrible motorcycle accident. Among the multiple injuries were a severely fractured jaw. It seemed his singing and playing career was over. But no. It took him a year or two, but he came back with this beautiful recording – Cerap.

Alderighi and Trick

Alderighi and Trick

Finally, and this is not last as least, Double Trio, is the fabulous live album of Paolo Alderighi and Stephanie Trick, a married couple who are both leading stride piano players. I have written about them several times before on this blog, which is why I am not doing more here now, but this CD (with Marty Eggers on bass and Danny Coots on drums) is a real fabulous demonstration of what this couple can do live in their four-hands act. I had the great pleasure of hearing them in Milan recently, and I can attest to it that this CD is a perfect representation of what they do. Alderighi is from Milan, by the way, and is certainly Italy’s greatest young jazz export, and Trick is from the home of stride piano, St. Louis – where they both spend much of the little time they have when not travelling to put on shows!

Well, that rounds that up. Another morning exercise crop of CDs and SoundClouds, my 12th edition since I started doing this in April of 2013….

My Own Personal Refugee Crisis – Nanterre Prefecture by Way of Brexit

August 22, 2017
bradspurgeon

doubling back snaking line up at Nanterre prefecture for people with rendezvous

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.

This, I learned, by both speaking to people in the lineup and then doing some research online, has been going on for months. It is due both to the refugee crisis in Europe as well as problems within the administration of the public offices of the prefecture. It has been particularly bad since June, although the last time I went with my convocation in hand in early June, there was not any such line up. Otherwise, I would have been warned that it was necessary for me to arrive at least 45 minutes in advance of my 10-minute rendezvous if I wanted to get into the building.

tail end of line up at Nanterre prefecture

tail end of line up at Nanterre 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

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

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

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 was a lost battle. Again. But my heart went out above all to these unfortunate refugees and others – I read in one of the reports (in the Huffington Post) that a 77-year-old man who has lived in France for more than 50 years slept out in front of the prefecture in an effort to renew his papers, after a career of 40 or so years working at Renault and many other years elsewhere. (Update: Here is yet another article from the French press about the crisis at the Nanterre prefecture, this time Libération, published as recently as yesterday and sent to me today by a friend after they read this story by me.

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?

Explication of the Text of My Life at the Moment, and the Future of that Life and this Blog

July 7, 2017
bradspurgeon

IHT

IHT

PARIS – No I am not in retirement!!! In recent weeks I have bumped into friends and acquaintances who have wondered about my working status as they have been slightly confused by some of my recent blog posts that make them think that I have, or am about to, “slow down” and “retire.” After another such moment at a bar in the Latin Quarter last night, I decided it was time to make clear to readers of this blog one of the biggest changes in my life “situation,” that came about in phases over the end of last year and the beginning of this year. This blog was always linked to a degree to my world travel to F1 races, so while this is a long, drawn-out and personal post that may not even interest many of my friends let alone a casual reader of the site, it seems to make sense to lay down some markers for the future of the blog as well….

I worked at the International Herald Tribune – which then became the International New York Times – in Paris from December 1983 until December 2016. Last fall, The New York Times decided to close down its editorial and production operation in Paris as part of a global expansion. (Don’t ask me to try to explain that!) This essentially put an end to the 130-year run of creating a newspaper in Paris that started as the European edition of The New York Herald, and that morphed into the Herald Tribune and then in 1967 to the International Herald Tribune (owned by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Whitney Communications), before turning into the International New York Times in 2013 after 10 years under sole ownership of the NYT.

While there was a lot of focus from the media – and rightly so – on the death of this long tradition of an American newspaper in Paris, I want to also note that there still remains a staff of some nearly 50 people in the advertising department and other areas of the New York Times International Edition based in Paris, with many of these people having started out decades ago at the IHT. But as far as producing a newspaper in Paris, with its own editorial and production staff, as had been done since 1887, that came to an end last fall, and 69 people were fired. I was one of these 69 people. But my last, long-standing gig at the paper, which was a full-time job reporting on Formula One car racing, was not one of the aspects of the newspaper that they actually wanted to get rid of. But apparently it made sense to management to fire me along with everyone else, and then offer to me that I continue covering Formula One as a freelance.

This, in any case, is what happened. I at first said yes to the proposal to freelance (I had no choice on the firing business!). It seemed fabulous that I could have my cake and eat it too – i.e., I would receive my indemnities, and my unemployment insurance, and the help from various French organizations designed to aid us in our transition back to employment or, as I chose, to start a new company, and I would continue to work as a freelance. (It’s not quite that straightforward a situation, but that’s what it amounts to.)

But then, in early 2017, I learned that the newspaper would massively reduce the number of special reports about Formula One – the backbone in recent years of my work at the newspaper – to the point that the job I had been doing really and truly no longer did exist! Yes, I would have a handful of articles to write, but not enough to make a living or support a career.

To remain a Formula One expert to write those few articles would nevertheless mean being “on” all of the time regarding the series. Being an expert on F1 is a full-time job, a full-time passion and a full-time preoccupation. All of this would in turn mean that I would not be able to focus enough on my more important job of starting the company – my new legal entity – to build a future life and career. I decided to forgo the bits and pieces of freelance. So it was that the day before I received my 2017 full-season accreditation acceptance for Formula One, my F1 reporting career had officially ended.

Henceforth, I would devote myself to the founding of my new company, which I am calling “Unfinished Business,” and which will be launched officially in November. This will be the legal entity for all of the projects that I am passionate about and was never able to focus on seriously enough while working full-time covering Formula One racing. Before that all-consuming job covering F1 – a gig that lasted me nearly 25 years! – I had many other goals, ambitions and passions in life. This included lots of different and disparate writing projects that had nothing to do with racing. (When I decided to become a writer at age 20, it was never in order to specialize on a single subject, but to explore the world.)

Clown Brad and Ornella Share a Secret

Clown Brad and Ornella Share a Secret

I also have many other areas of my life that are important to me, that need either finishing or further expansion: Making music, finishing my documentary film about open mics around the world, doing future such documentaries, finishing and selling my memoir book about open mics around the world, selling the saleable novels in my drawers, making music videos, writing new songs and making another CD, selling my skills in making and editing videos, and yes, finally, continuing to write for newspapers and magazines around the world, but on all of the many subjects that full-time F1 writing overshadowed. I also want to expand and develop my reach into magazine and web markets that I still have an ambition to write for, but never made it into before. I intend to continue a few sideline activities as well, like clowning around riding my unicycle and juggling!

So while I am in a phase of starting up my company and putting together decades’ worth of paperwork for the transition to this new life, the concept of “retirement” – i.e., losing my ambition to create and execute personal artistic and journalistic and musical projects and earning money – that some people thought might be my current situation is something I can never imagine happening to me either now or in the future.

Ultimately, my life has little changed since I was fired from the NYT last December: I have always worked on personal creative projects outside of the jobs I have done to earn a living to pay for my – and my family’s – livelihood as I dreamed of the creative projects leading to my future livelihood. In that I have been more successful in some areas than others, but that is the way my career grew. Now, I am continuing exactly the same approach to life, but my financial earnings are simply no longer coming from the payslips of the two newspapers where I worked for more than 36 years. (I began at The Globe and Mail in Toronto in July 1980 to September 1983, when I moved to Paris and joined the IHT in December of that year.)

So, for anyone who might have thought that I am about to shrivel up and the sizzle has gone from my life – and therefore from this blog – I just wanted to let you know that the exact opposite is happening. I’m more creatively active and working harder than ever before on the projects that count most to me. And strangely, after working for 36 years in the precarious business of newspapers – I seem to remember a big wave of layoffs at the Globe in around 1982, and the trend never stopped – I have never been, or felt, so financially secure and been able to look so far ahead in terms of where my livelihood might come from as I can since last December when I was fired. That, of course, is thanks to the French social system that was such a big part of my decision to stay in this country during the several occasions when I thought I might leave – the same social system that is apparently part of the reason some international companies want to leave France…. Merci la France!

Garage Discoveries, Old Receipts, Musings on Human Resource Departments and other tales of Three Star Restaurants – Especially Joel Robuchon’s Jamin

July 5, 2017
bradspurgeon

My receipt from Robuchon's Jamin 1991

My receipt from Robuchon’s Jamin 1991

PARIS – I have been spending recent weeks tearing apart all the boxes and other crap in my garage and storage room, digging through a lifetime of papers and crud, trying to find anything at all that can prove to the French retirement agencies that I was employed at The Globe and Mail newspaper from the summer of 1980 to the fall of 1983. A series of emails to the human resources department of the Globe resulted in my discover that they have no record of my existence! (It led me to wonder if they even have any record of the 19 years that my father, David Spurgeon, spent reporting for the Globe from the 1950s to the 1980s! (and also made me wonder once again what human resource departments do other than fire people!!)) While I did manage to find at least one record of one period of my existence there – the last year and a half – I have still to find any official records of my own. On the other hand, I have been absolutely amazed to discover that as far as just about every receipt, metro ticket and French payslip or household bill for my subsequent 34 years in France, I have apparently been a packrat. But one of the most amazing artefacts I found was the sudden appearance last night of the actual receipt for the best meal I ever ate in a restaurant: My 1991 meal at Joel Robuchon’s great restaurant, Jamin. So I have decided to add that receipt (its nearly 3600 francs equal around 557 euros in today’s money, not counting the difference in cost-of-living fluctuations, etc.) to my very popular article about that evening, which I wrote about immediately afterwards and subsequently had rejected from many major publications many times. It has proven to be one of the most popular items on this blog, with almost daily readers from around the world ,which vindicates me a little about having been crazy enough to write it. You can see the receipt on this post, and also now accompanying the story itself in my rejection writings section under the title: A Dinner at Robuchon’s Jamin.

Accidental Spectator Discovers Why; Two Important Films on Hate at CPH:DOX (and Tindersticks vs. Minute Bodies)

March 21, 2017
bradspurgeon

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

COPENHAGEN – Somehow, I ended up in the wrong film at the CPH:DOX festival. I did not choose this film and it was not the film I came to see, it was not the film written on my ticket, although it was the right cinema, and the right auditorium. But then, immediately, as the film began in its strange manner, I decided that it could be a very interesting exercise to watch a documentary that I did not choose to see. And by the time it was over – even before that – I realized that it was a fabulously synchronistic thing to have had happen. The night before, Sunday night, I had seen another film that in fact fit in perfectly with this film. So I realized I had something to write about these two otherwise completely different films: They both deal with some of the biggest problems of our day – but in completely different ways – namely: Ideology, intolerance, hate, lack of love, rejection of people who are different from us, and above all, ignorance.

While I came to Copenhagen mainly to watch the music documentaries in the Sound & Vision festival-within-the-festival I was going to at least see some of the non-music films. Sunday night’s film was the first of those that I attended, the very powerful “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, and based on an incomplete book, “Remember This House,” by James Baldwin about his relationships with his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The other film, where I found myself by accident, was “The Devil’s Trap,” about a man who grew up in a Christian cult that rejects anything to do with the world outside the cult. The film is by the Canadian Mitchell Stafiej, and it follows 25-year-old Lane, who found the strength to reject the church of his parents, brother and sisters, only to find that he had been permanently rejected by his family.

I Am Not Your Negro trailer

In each film, we find these problems of hate for anyone who is different, intolerance over the differences, and above all fear. Fear of the consequences of living with people of different beliefs, races, colors, creeds. Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro,” I was thinking about how the film answered for me my questions about the current situation in the United States. How could there be so much hate in this country now with Donald Trump’s (mostly white) voters asking for an America that closes out the rest of the world, refuses to accept diversity and refuses to acknowledge that human beings, in order to survive, need a moral standard that cannot include lies and hate?

Watching the “Baldwin-narrated” – an actor speaks Baldwin’s text, and the film tells the story through historic footage – of the history of black people in America answers that question of “how” can things be like this now. Because many of the white American people – not all of them – have been this way through most of their history. As is said at one point in the film, the history of America is the history of black people in America, and you can use the way black people are being treated as a barometer for the health of the whole country.

It’s a stunning, powerful film. James Baldwin was more than a front-row observer, more than a witness of that history of the second half of the 20th century. He was friends with these three prime voices in the battle for black peoples’ rights – or as King said, “duties” – and he himself, as the film shows, made some very clear and powerful statements.

I have always felt close to Baldwin as an expat writer who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He returned to the United States in the 1960s because he missed the people, then spent the decade there in the height of the civil rights battle, before moving back to France in 1970, and settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence until his death in 1987 at age 63 from stomach cancer.

Baldwin had never wanted to be taken as a “black writer” first, which is one of the reasons he moved to France – to write from outside the context of his situation in life in the U.S. During his battles in the civil rights movement, he spoke about how he was raised on the same white culture as his white countrymen and women were raised on, and only once he hit a certain age – still as a child – was he stunned to realize that he was in fact considered by the white people in the same role as the Indians were that John Wayne was killing in the films he grew up watching. He, suddenly realized in his innocence, that he was a target.

The film shows not just the past, but it shows how the problems still exist today, with an appearance or two of Trump’s face and words, and there are references to Black Lives Matter, and other current events and murdered black people.

I left the cinema feeling I understood the current situation with Trump much better – because it has so long been woven into the American psyche.

And then the accidental part of this story with The Devil’s Trap

But the next day, Monday, I ended up by accident in this film about Lane and his family’s devotion to the cult of the Exclusive Brethren. To quote from Wikipedia, this cult is “a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.”

Lane and his family, it turns out, are Canadians. They attended the church in Montreal, where Lane grew up controlled by the doctrines of this church, through his parents’ application of the codes on the family. The film, in fact, takes us across the border to various cities in the U.S. as well, including Washington D.C., where his family now lives.

The Devil’s Trap trailer


I am a Canadian, born and raised, and as I heard Lane speak, I felt I heard my friends and family – eh? So my thoughts about “I Am Not Your Negro,” and the U.S.-specific hate and intolerance came into a different perspective.

Lane tells the story of how he grew up indoctrinated by the principles of the cult through his parents in such a strict way that he felt like a complete outsider in Canadian society. (Although he never used such a national distinction.) He could not watch films, had no right to listen to music CDs, if he swore his father would wash his mouth out with laundry detergent. And when he dared decide to leave the church, his family and eventually join the military, his family not only disowned him, but refused to speak to him. No one paid much attention when he told them that he had been raped at age 13 by a church member at the church.

His parents never want to see him again. First, though, so convinced were they that there was something wrong with Lane, that they took him to the Mayo Clinic for several days of physical and mental examinations. The overseeing doctor at this respected clinic told him after all the tests that he was an entirely healthy teenager, both physically and mentally and he should not let anyone tell him otherwise. That helped him realize that despite hearing that he was mentally ill from his family for years, his inclinations that there was a problem rather with his upbringing were right.

He broke away. But the film shows how he makes a final effort to try to see and meet, and share the life he deserves with his family, travelling to Washington to see them. It is only in this culminating scene that I became entirely convinced myself that Lane was not exaggerating, or perhaps even lying, about the extreme nature of the treatment by his family. We learn through a concealed recording he made of his meeting with his brother – whom he had not seen in years – that his parents would not come and meet him, that it would be too difficult for them to take emotionally. These parents were, however, dying, feeling completely destroyed, by the departure and betrayal against the church and its beliefs, their beliefs, of their son.

In short, their cult religion, their beliefs, were more important than their love for their child. Oh, no, sorry, Lane they do love. But they would only welcome him back home and come to see him, make him a member of the family again if he accepted the dictates of the cult. Only if he sacrificed everything to the cult as they did would they accept that he was worth loving and associating with. Otherwise, he was to be shunned, closed out, shut up, disowned, considered dead.

One difference between the treatment of Lane and the treatment of the blacks in racist America is that at least it would appear that the members of the cult do not intend to actually physically kill those who are different from them, as is the case through the history of violence and hate against the blacks in America. There is, of course, the mental torture his family inflict from their intolerance and ignorance and hateful actions – but at least there is no murder, in this case.

But for me, these two films sum up the depths to which humanity appears to be going at the moment with the extremism that Trump represents. One of the most interesting elements for me, also, is that these people in the cult who hate and refuse to live with those who are different than them, including their own family members, they are from an affluent middle class. We are not talking about physical poverty here – only mental poverty. Most of Trump’s voters, while perhaps being from a lower-income part of the population, are not exactly starving and dying from exposure either. We are, in both cases, talking about people whose basic needs have been met, and now they are free to hate through extreme ideologies. Why is it that with the most common challenge facing humanity being the very survival and feeding and housing of the 6 or 7 billion of us all, we have to try to destroy one another based on ideologies and beliefs? Could fear and cowardice be the answer to that?

Anyway, this has to be one of the most run-on posts I’ve ever done, and I’d probably do much better to stick to writing about the music films at CPH:DOX. But I was affected by both of these films.

And then there was Tindersticks vs. the amoeba

To finish on a lighter note, I also attended briefly the multimedia event of the weekend, the concert by the group Tindersticks, playing at the festival headquarters while overhead some strange video showed of sped-up-motion nature shots of plants and amoeba etc., in Minute Bodies. Don’t bother asking me what it all meant. Check out my video of a minute or so of that concert, if you want to understand. Then get back to me on your theories….

Tindersticks at CPH:DOX

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=ceZb4f0R7Uk

Powered by WordPress.com.