What To Watch…
The big find for me this month has been Undercover, on Netflix. This is a cat and mouse, crime series from Belgium. I tried to watch it once, but didn’t persist. This second time, I realised it was brilliant. You have to stick with it. Two cops, a man and a woman pose as a couple to go deep undercover in order to bust a major European drug cartel. Rather than meeting in “safe” houses in Antwerp or Brussels, the drug gang operates out of a pretty, manicured campsite, around a small manmade lake on the edge of Antwerp. All the gang members lease or own chalets or camper-trailers. What a good idea! They meet outdoors at picnic tables and around BBQs – rather than in dark bars or basements. I’m now deep into season 2 which takes place in another unexpected and delightful venue – here’s a trailer for it.
Key cast members (Wiki-Fandom); and the holiday camp where Undercover was filmed: Oostappen Vakantiepark Blauwe Meer NV
Reds is marvellous. The 1982 film was based on the bestselling 1919 book, Ten Days That Shook the World, written by John Reed, a prominent American socialist writer. Reed wrote a firsthand account, of the October Russian Revolution in 1917. I could barely remember the film when I saw it almost exactly forty years ago, but my son Omri was watching it and wanted to discuss it. The first time I saw it, I recall I grimaced at what I thought was overacting by Diane Keaton in the role of Louise Bryant. Bryant, an aspiring left-wing journalist, was John Reed’s wife. Watching the film again, I was impressed by Keaton’s independent streak and her profound love for Reed and his idealism. Reed’s optimism and drive is well portrayed by Warren Beatty. My favourite part of the film is in the second half after the intermission (yes there is an intermission!). The socialist propaganda train goes cross country through the Caucasus, and Central Asian countries to the western fringe of Russia. Fascinating and well done. The political arguments John Reed had with Zinoviev showed the latter’s lack of flexibility—in a way his lack of humanity. This is a great and uplifting film; you can see it on Kanopy – free with your public library card. Here’s the trailer.
Give the British series Secret State a miss. I’m usually a sucker for British espionage drama, but this one is pathetic. At the start I thought “goodie, this is all about a factory blowing up and a corporate cover up backed by the British government.” If only. There’s a lot of monosyllabic talk by the prime minister Tom Dawkins and his aides as they walk up and down the staircase at 10 Downing Street. There’s a very attractive woman investigative journalist who manages to buttonhole the PM at any time, any place, and even gets into the PM’s residence to have a chat (no sex). Clearly that would never happen – given security considerations. The best review of Secret State is worth a read – it’s hysterically funny, and you must read it: You can watch it if you like on Netflix. By the way, this trailer makes it look really exciting. One of the comments on trailer’s Youtube site wistfully reads:
“Some day the world might hopefully have a Tom Dawkins (by Byrne) in the real world.”
Ozark: more from our favourite drug money-laundering all-American family
Everyone’s favourite drug-money laundering couple, the Byrdes, is back – I urge you to watch the first three seasons of Ozark, which are funny, sometimes sentimental, but also rather nasty. Good writing, plus the action is fast and the actors are all vulnerable. I think the best were the first two seasons, the third was a bit weak, and the fourth season is just out– all on Netflix. And here’s the trailer.
My favourite 15 minute video this month is Leon the Lobster. If you like to eat lobster and seafood you have to watch this short video on Youtube. A man in South Carolina who likes “different” pets, pays $19 to take a live supermarket lobster home. What follows is a loving portrayal of his new pet. At first after the man, with manicure scissors, carefully cuts the tape that bound the lobster’s claws while he was in the tank. The man notices the lobster can’t use his left claw at all – perhaps, he suggests, because it was immobilised for weeks in the supermarket tank. But after a few weeks in the man’s saltwater tank, the lobster’s dexterity comes back and he can once again grab with it. The lobster loves to solve problems – such as opening a clam shell. He also cleans his home– the tank– and moves old shells, dirty bits of crushed coral and his feces to a pile in a corner at the other end of the tank from where he sleeps. There are several other episodes of Leon the Lobster. But the first one is particularly touching; it will make you think twice before you ever eat this delicacy again. Watch it here.
Left: A Fredericton woman is unhappy with how lobsters are being treated in grocery stores. In 2018 she started a petition to ban live tanks in the stores. See this article. Right, “Live Canadian Lobster” (credit Adamseafood.co.uk)
Omeleto released Sweet and Sour. This 23-minute video is about two 20-something young, rough French men who accidentally hit an old man in a city centre. It’s late at night; no one is around, so with no witnesses the men consider leaving the victim and driving off. But the man sits up on the curb and insists he doesn’t want to go to the hospital because he can’t afford to pay. The victim is Vietnamese – and despite his frailty, he drives a hard bargain. Sweet and Sour is a film set in monochrome; it takes place on the foggy non-descript streets of a small town. It’s a wonderful film. Watch it here.
Also from France is a delightful 8 minute film called Omnibus. A middle-aged family man gets on the wrong train for his daily commute and begs the conductor to let him off the train between stops. You won’t forget this film!
The CBC’s Fifth Estate, on the scope and commitment of pro-fascists, and terrorists certainly wakes one up. Base of Hate you can watch here profiles fascist soldiers in Canada’s military. Remember back to the rural Manitoban army reservist farmer and small business owner who drove two days and two nights with an arsenal in the back of his truck to allegedly threaten the Prime Minister. In 2020, he drove into the gates on Sussex Drive and got pretty close to his target. He claimed he was only trying to get the PM to rescind lockdown restrictions, protest Canada becoming a Communist state (!!) and the government’s ban on assault rifles. Read more about him here. And there are many more like him, it turns out.
What to Read…
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota is about 3 young men who have left impoverished lives in northern India to take their chances as illegals in Britain. The men are Sikhs, a religious and sometimes persecuted minority. Of course the racism in the UK is also a harsh reminder that their lives are not much better off, as you’ll read. Jagmeet Singh, Canada’s leader of the NDP, is Sikh. The Year of the Runaways is fascinating, and very shocking. The portraits of the three men are stunning and no reader will confuse one with another. Two were distant friends in India and one was a stranger. But they meet up in a ramshackle house in Sheffield, where they live, with barely any plumbing or heat. Their diet consists of soda pop, tea, two or three rotis a day and a thin bean or lentil stew. They lose weight as they pound the city streets to find any kind of under-the-table work — from cleaning underground sewers, to unloading trucks, to working in a kitchen of a chicken and chips takeout. The racism in the UK is muted and portrayed almost politely as the author has a very light touch — that cuts the reader to the bone. Two of the men start to work in construction and are regularly ripped off by the Indian immigrant bosses who came before them. At one point one of the men has the temerity to tell his gang boss that paying him only one pound an hour and is illegal.
Sikh Temple in Sheffield, UK; 2015 parade in Sheffield (credit: Grumustuks.-SikhPhotos.com)
One of the three men first came to London on a legitimate student visa to attend computer college. But the exorbitantly high international fees coupled with the money he has to send his parents each month so they would not lose their tiny shop (which they mortgaged for his education) means he can’t afford to attend classes, or indeed to eat. He has to work. His student visa lapses. One of the more poignant characters is a professor at the college who befriends him and invites him to his home. The professor came to London as a small child, grew up trying to be “white” in the UK, and has never visited India. He married a physician and enjoys an upper middle class lifestyle; he lacks for nothing. Yet he longs for a life he thinks he missed, a life in which he would have been accepted because of his skin colour — with a rich culture and heritage to celebrate, and a deep sense of family and security. This dream is, in fact, a nightmare, as we see in the first half of the book exactly what the professor has missed by not growing up in India. And it’s a tough life — one in which one of the men walked ten or more miles a day from village to village begging for food or for work– even begging for a cup of water. A life in which the political sands in the country shift – notably under the right-wing ideologue Modi — leaving the Sikhs in physical danger–with violence lurking everywhere.
The fourth character in The Year of the Runaways is Narinder, a young woman who because her mother had been born in the UK inherited the right to live in the country. She is the most enigmatic character. Her life goes between looking after her elderly father in India, a her life of charity work at the Sikh temple in Sheffield and her tiny orderly apartment. How she connects with the three men, what they ask of her is at the heart of the story. Her early refusal to get involved in their lives quickly erodes.
This book is unforgettable. And brilliant. A must read. I got it on Libby at the library, and read it on my iphone. By the way the book was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Interestingly, no children figure in the book, which is strange because the book revolves around family obligation.
The Elephant of Belfast
The Elephant of Belfast (2021) was recommended in a recent column in the New Yorker. I put off reading it because the first few pages read like a soap-opera. But I picked it up again and found it quite magnificent. I confess, I love Belfast. I’ve been there on a study tour (with the same friend who recommended Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Keefe which I reviewed in my blog here: ). I’ve met IRA people who’d been years in jail, and many in the UVF (the Unionists) who had never been caught. We walked the Falls Road, and sat in a pub with the pro-Palestinian activists among the Irish Republicans. One afternoon I decided to visit the Belfast Zoo. Without a doubt this is the greatest zoo I’ve seen – and having raised two sons, I’ve visited a lot of zoos. There was the London Zoo, the Chester Zoo, the Toronto Zoo, the Edmonton Zoo and more.
The Elephant of Belfast takes place over a few weeks in 1941. Hettie, just out of high school, and landed a job as a part-time animal keeper at the zoo in Belfast. Hettie was assigned to care for Violet a three-year-old elephant from Ceylon. At the time, the zoo was privately owned by a wealthy London family. Like most British women in those days, there was little to no opportunity of going on in school. Her mother, Rose, needed Hettie’s small earnings because her dad had run off with another woman. Rose’s older daughter had recently died under tragic circumstances.
In April, the Germans bombed Belfast because of the heavy industry – including the Harland and Wolff shipyards (where the Titanic was built 112 years ago, and where H&W management told me that due to their security concerns, they wouldn’t give me a tour of the shipyard), and Short Aviation (now owned by Canada’s Bombardier). Author S. Kirk Walsh’s depiction of the bombing of Belfast is terrifying and very real. The only other recent novel about the British “home” war experience, and the blitz that I have read was Noonday by Pat Barker. Here is a good review of Noonday.
The Elephant of Belfast does not try to escape the Unionist vs IRA battle which lurks in every social or work context. That is also fascinating, though I feel discussion about politics is a bit wooden.
My excursion to the Belfast Zoo was on a cold February day; I can now imagine what the much smaller and less well curated zoo of 80 years ago looked like. I saw glimpses of the old Belfast in the author’s description and names of the streets around the zoo, the two-up, two-down row housing and the children playing in the streets. The zoo is well-kept and well-funded as it gets grants from the European Union. Of course with the UK no longer in the EU who knows about the future of the funding for the zoo.
A couple of years later, I visited the Chester Zoo, not far from Liverpool. TripAdvisor says it’s Britain’s best zoo, and the seventh top zoo in the world! I took this photo of two giraffes, which I sent to the Guardian’s photo challenge for the word “crossed.” And it was published, with my name and location as Chester Zoo!!
Substack offers a couple of interesting articles: the first is this one that questions why—if women don’t want to be treated as sex objects, do they dress provocatively? This article is very useful as it explodes the dangerous myths.
Nora Loreto, the Canadian journalist and podcaster, is now on Substack. Her piece that analyses the 19,000 Covid deaths of Canadians in institutions is excellent here. Her latest article in Chatelaine magazine The System Is So Broken”- What It’s Like in Long-Term Care Right Now is also very good– a gripping long read that takes a penetrating look at what we do with our seniors. A must read. It’s here.
The US is the world’s primary terrorist
Viktor Mihin’s article about the US as the world’s primary source of terrorism is discussed here in NewAge/Opinion. As the author points out:
“In the wake of the US airstrike that killed 10 Afghan civilians, the Amnesty International said: ‘The US must now commit to a full, transparent, and impartial investigation into this incident. Anyone suspected of criminal responsibility should be prosecuted in a fair trial. Survivors and families of the victims should be kept informed of the progress of the investigation and be given full reparation’.”
No trial, however, took place. And it never will… How is it possible to persecute such citizens of the ‘great democracy’?” Mihin asks.
The CIA May Be Breeding Nazi Terror in the Ukraine, sizes up the sizable threat of re-emergence of fascism – and Nazis in particular – in the US’s favourite charity, Ukraine. This article resonates especially when you listen to the relentless drumbeats for military action against Russia, promised by Trudeau and his pet poodle Chrystia Freeland. This article in the left-wing Jacobin is excellent.
Matthew Behrens is a Canadian humanitarian and also a trenchant critic of governments, and bureaucracies. I thought I was reading something from an Amnesty International report about a Saudi escaping torture when I read Behrens’ blog Women Who Choose to Live here. He writes about Helen Naslund who murdered her abusive husband – and in 2020 received an 18 year prison sentence from an Alberta judge who insisted she should not have killed the man as she had “other options.” However, Alberta Court of Appeal judge Sheila Greckol called the trial judge’s sentence “impermissible, outdated, stereotypical thinking.” Originally, Naslund had pled guilty to manslaughter after she admitted to killing her husband after suffering from 27 years of relentless domestic violence and coercive control.
Earlier this month, Naslund’s sentence was cut in half – to nine years — by the Alberta Court of Appeal in a 2:1 decision. The split decision shows that the mainly male-dominated judiciary is still divided on issues of domestic violence and coercive control. This despite evidence that 160 Canadian women died last year at the hands of men – that’s one woman or girl murdered ever 2.3 days. The latest statistic I found was for 2009-2010; that year more than 103,000 women and children were admitted to nearly 600 shelters in Canada. Naslund’s nine year sentence is still appalling to her 80 penpals, and her tremendous number of female and male supporters who say “there but by the grace of God go I” her sentence is still appalling, insensitive and unjust.
You can also listen to Matthew Behrens discussing the Naslund case on Ryan Jespersen’s podcast here. Behrens’ insights are at 6.55 minutes into the podcast.
Vice’s long read How a Married Undercover Cop Having Sex with Activists Killed a Climate Movement is worth a read. Mark Kennedy, a charming and friendly Irish cop, posed as experience social activist Mark Stone. Over seven years, he lived with at least two committed women environmentalists in order to destroy the UK environmental movement. The women had no idea till it was too late. As Kate Wilson, 23, Kennedy’s initial “girlfriend” noted:
Wilson had previously said that learning about Kennedy’s true identity “was like a computer virus. It’s corrupted all my memories of those times, and it affects all the relationships that I’ve had since.”
Incredibly, Wilson took the Metropolitan Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the police watchdog in the UK. She won her case and was awarded £229,471.96. It’s a start.
This tactic has been used by the Metropolitan Police and others in the UK for years. Exactly four years ago, the British government held an inquiry into the police posing as radical men to trick left-wing women comrades into long term sexual relationships. Sometimes the cops fathered children with the women. This had been going on for more than fifty years. From 1968 to 2015, more than 1,000 left wing groups and movements were infiltrated in this way. This article explains it all. A book which reveals the ubiquity of the heinous trickery of left-wing women is: Infiltration: the Secret World of Police Surveillance by Rob Evans, a 2013 book I recommend.
Photos: Book cover for Infiltration: The Secret World of Police Surveillance, Photos of Kate Wilson and Mark Kennedy (undercover cop also known as Mark Stone)
What Podcasts To Listen To…
After Ayotzinapa is on Reveal, which you can access through the Acast platform for free. This is a very good three-part series about the missing 43 young men from the Mexican teachers’ college who disappeared in Sept. 2014. They have never been seen again. While the first episode sets things up, the second episode is extremely shocking – in that the young men’s abduction (and presumed murder) was on orders of a drug cartel based in Aurora, Ill – outside of Chicago. You can listen here.
This Guardian Long Read is about a 58-year-old London upholsterer, Richard Amoah, who was forced to recently spend 2.5 years homeless Accra (Ghana). Amoah, who has four grown children, a girlfriend and a mother he looked after, was trapped in Accra after he took a two week trip to attend his father’s funeral. This is more than a scandal. Nearly three years of enforced joblessness, living in doorways, eating from garbage sites, and scrounging a few dollars each month to use internet cafes to phone home were ignored by a British Home Office. It refused to recognize this black British man’s citizenship. If you’ve heard or read about Windrush generation – this man’s treatment has been much the same. You must hear this!
Photos below: Photo of Richard Amoah (theguardian.com); new British High Commission project in Accra (E-Architect); Biztech, Ghana’s largest internet cafe (Nana Appiah Acquaye)
Why are Toronto Streets Still So Deadly? is a The Big Story interview about why cars in Toronto routinely jump curbs, kill bystanders, and are driven recklessly. Boxing Day saw a car jump a curb downtown in Toronto and killed an 18-year-old young pedestrian. The story shows a lack of political will, a lack of care for walkers and a deep desire to keep the cars and traffic on gridlocked streets. Here it is— 20 minutes long.
The Illegal here is well worth listening to: Jack Barsky is a mild-mannered family man whose career was spent as an IT specialist at Metropolitan Life Insurance in New York City. In real life he was Albrecht Dittrich a trained Soviet sleeper agent who was dropped into 1970s America to spy for the USSR. Sorry to say that the lure of capitalism won out.
George Blake: double agent
Espionage has fascinating podcast on George Blake, who for decades was a double agent– for the British and for the Soviets. A small mistake led to his arrest and trial in 1961; he was jailed for 42 years. But in 1966 he made a daring escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison in London. He climbed down a 20-rung rope ladder which was reinforced with knitting needles. According to the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail,
“Police found a pot of fresh pink chrysanthemums placed below and outside the prison wall, a marker set down by accomplices.”
Clockwise, from top left: Blake is on the left, with a couple Gerd Vespermann / Eitnerand and Brigitte, his wife: Marianne Terplan thought to be double agents (credit IMS Vintage Photos); portrait of George Blake in 2020, before his death (Dailymail.co.uk); Blake (right) with Kim Philby, also a British double agent, near Moscow; Prison shots of George Blake in 1961; HMP Wormwood Scrubs which a report called “filthy and unsafe” (BBC News)..
Concealed in the trunk, he rode with a CND activist family. Blake had met the father of the family when the man was imprisoned for anti-nuclear protesting. The family crossed the channel with Blake in the trunk and then across Europe to Berlin where he crossed to the east. From there he was escorted to Moscow. He lived in Moscow, and married a Russian woman with whom he raised a son. For the 50 plus years he lived in Russia, he was paid the greatest respect by the Russian government. He died in 2020, at the age of 98. Part I of the podcast is on Espionage or you can listen here; part 2 is here.
Sights and Sounds
Sara Avmaat has a new exhibit, drawings from Palestine, at the Craig Gallery in Dartmouth. It’s a lovely show, but only on until 30 Jan. Anytime you can take a virtual tour of her show here. Avmaat is an artist from Antigonish, NS. Thanks to Linda Scherzinger for urging me to see Avmaat’s show.
A 3-D, three-storey high Giant Cat hovers over the Shinjuku train station in Tokyo. here.
Featured image above: Giant 3-D Tabby in Tokyo (credit: Courtesy Yunika).