About Me

My photo
Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A very French affair

As President Hollande is caught between two lovers, do the French people care? Not a bit!

You’ve got to love the French. Their President, Monsieur ‘Normale’ Hollande, is photographed trysting with French actress, Julie Gayet, a stone’s throw from the Elysee Palace, where he lives with long-time partner, Valerie Trierweiler. He exits the apartment, disguised (or so he thinks, poor sod) by a motorcycle helmet, climbs on the back of the motorbike driven by his bodyguard (who had, earlier in the morning, delivered croissants to the amorous pair) and goes back home to Valerie and his many duties as President of the Republic.

The photographs duly appear in a French magazine called Closer, and the entire world is agog at the sight of a head of state behaving like a love-struck adolescent. Not so the French. They simply shrug and say the French equivalent of ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do; and what does his private life have anything to do with his public role?’ As for the President himself: not for him, denials of a love affair or anything quite so puerile, thank you. He just puts out a statement condemning the magazine for having intruded into his privacy, to which – like any other French citizen – he is entitled.

Meanwhile, the First Lady (or First Girlfriend, as some cruelly label her) checks into a hospital and lets it be known that doctors have advised her a ‘cure de repos’ (rest cure) to recover from the shock of learning about her partner’s affair (which she likens to being struck by a TGV, or high-speed train). But ‘friends’ of her let it be known that she is ready to forgive and forget so long as she gets to stay on in her role of First Lady.

You’d think by now, the French would have their juices flowing. Mais non. A survey conducted soon after shows an overwhelming majority of 74 per cent reiterating that President’s Hollande’s domestic life and love affairs are entirely his own business, and the media should steer clear of reporting on it.

And sure enough, when Hollande arrives to address his annual press conference at the Elysee Palace, in a room heaving with French and international media, there are just a couple of questions about his tangled love life. Hollande responds that this is neither the time nor the place, and that he will clear up any doubts about who France’s First Lady is before he embarks on a state visit to the US in February. And then he begins droning on about his economic vision for France. A few days later, Valerie checks out of hospital and moves into La Lanterne, the Presidential weekend residence in the park of Versailles, to recuperate in quiet while Hollande decides whether he will stay with her or move on with Julie.

Can you imagine events unfolding quite like this in any other country?

How do you think it would work for President Barack Obama if he were to be pictured sneaking out from a secret tryst with, say, Scarlett Johansson? He would either be doing the full Clinton in a televised press conference (“I did not have sex with that woman”) or he would be writing his resignation after a few left jabs executed by Michelle (she of the perfectly-toned musculature). And all of America would be up in arms at the moral turpitude of their President. (God alone knows how President Kennedy and his harem of women in the White House would have fared in today’s multimedia age; fortunately for him, his Presidency was played out in front of a more deferential world.)

Or let’s say that David Cameron was rumbled having a bit of nookie with a famous model like Kate Moss. The British tabloid press would go into full meltdown mode. There would be editorials asking for Cameron to go, given that he had betrayed the family values the Conservative Party stood for. He would be expected to make a statement clarifying whether he and Samantha were still a couple and intended to remain so. Kate would be door-stepped at her residence. Her friends and family would be harassed for a quote on the affair. Columnists would write endlessly about the fairy-tale union of David and Samantha and how it had come to such a messy end.

There would be none of that Gallic shrugging and saying that this was a private matter between two people (okay, three) and that it was no one else’s business. That a politician’s private life was nobody else’s concern so long as it did not impinge on the performance of his public duties.

As you can probably tell, I am a fan of the French approach. And so far at least, back home in India, we have taken our cue from the French rather than the Americans or the Brits. We have allowed our leaders their privacy when it comes to their love lives, unless of course, it explodes into the public space as it did with N.D. Tiwari’s paternity case. But so long as our leaders have behaved with discretion, we have been content to look the other way and let them get on with it.

And if you ask me, that’s the best way to go. A person’s private life is just that: private. We can judge them by their public conduct but as Francois Hollande put it so elegantly, “Private affairs must be dealt with in private. With respect for the dignity of all involved.”

Vive La France! Vive La Vie Privee!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Vintage viewing

Settle down for a full dose of nostalgia with some TV shows that never get old

A fortnight ago, I had listed my top reads of 2013 in my column. Since then, I am happy to report, I have had many readers mail me (or tweet to me) about how they bought some of the books on my list and enjoyed them very much. Some of them wrote in to ask if I could do a similar column, giving recommendations of TV shows.

Well, I thought about it and decided that I would draw up a list of my all-time favourite TV shows; but with just a teeny-tiny twist. I would only include classics of the genre, those that have survived through decades, and still make us smile with pleasure, if not laugh out loud. And for your convenience, I would divide them into easy categories.

Classic British Comedy

This is my go-to choice whenever I am in need of some cheering up. Nobody does comedy quite like the Brits, with their turn for self-deprecation, their flair for put-downs, and their take-no-prisoners attitude. My top pick in this category is Fawlty Towers, starring John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, the hotel manager who trundles from one disaster to another while his wife (Prunella Scales) looks on exasperatedly.

But given that only 12 episodes were ever made of the show, the box-set ends all too soon. That’s when I fall back on Drop The Dead Donkey, the TV series said to be based on the early days of Sky News. This is laugh-out loud funny, and quite timeless in its portrayal of a TV newsroom. Up next is Absolutely Fabulous (Ab Fab) created by my favourite British comedienne, Jennifer Saunders, and starring Saunders and Joanna Lumley, who play the truly bonkers duo, Edina and Patsy, as they blunder through the world of London PR and media in a champagne-induced haze.

Also worthy of mention: the Blackadder series, starring Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie; and the Jeeves and Wooster series, with Stephen Fry playing Jeeves to Laurie’s Wooster.

Legal Dramas

My addiction to this genre started with LA Law, which first aired in 1986, with its fabulous star cast of Corbin Bernsen, Susan Dey, Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker and many others. And once my appetite was whetted, there was no going back. Since then, I have devoured all five seasons of Ally McBeal many times over, especially the ones that feature Robert Downey Jr as Calista Flockhart’s love interest. The other legal show that had an almost parallel run, The Practice, is another perennial on my list. And now that Alan Shore and Denny Crane, who first made their appearance in The Practice have moved on to starring roles in Boston Legal, I am guessing that I will be investing in that box-set soon as well. (And no, it’s not a coincidence that all these shows were the handiwork of David E Kelley.)

Detective Shows

My all-time favourite in this category is Remington Steele, which launched the career of an absurdly young Pierce Brosnan, who played the eponymous title role (a conman who is hired to be head of a detective agency by its female owner, played by Stephanie Zimbalist). Combining elements of suspense thrillers, romantic comedies, and sit-coms, this series changed the way detective dramas played out on television. Coming a close second is Moonlighting, starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd as David Addison Jr and Maddie Hayes. Maddie is a former model who is left bankrupt and forced to make a living by running the detective agency she once owned as a tax write-off along with her partner, Addison. This was probably one of the first series to combine drama and comedy – now called ‘dramedy’ – and the writing still sparkles many decades later.

Across the Atlantic, the detective stories that I never tire of watching are those featuring those two timeless characters created by Agatha Christie: Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Miss Marple was first played on screen by Margaret Rutherford, and then by Angela Lansbury (who went on to find fame in Murder, She Wrote) but I infinitely prefer the version played by Joan Hickson, in the BBC TV series. Again, my favourite Poirot is David Suchet, but you should watch them all (Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall, etc.) and make up your own mind.

American Sit-Coms

Cheers is probably one of the first shows that I ever saw, and even three decades later, it never fails to amuse. But it is its spin-off, Frasier, starring Kelsey Grammar as Frasier Crane, which really tops my list of favourites. The writing is laced with wit and humour, the characters are well fleshed-out in their eccentricities and foibles, and the comic timing of all the actors is impeccable. This is truly a show that never ages.

But then, nor does Friends, which I have seen so often that I know all the punch lines by heart. Or even Will and Grace, starring Debra Messing and Eric McCormack, the first TV series about an openly gay character, which made the Cameron Tucker-Mitchell Pritchett pairing of Modern Family possible.

Drama Series

There really is no contest in this category. My all-time favourite here is West Wing, the drama series which ran for seven seasons (1999-2006), starring Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett, and with a superb ensemble cast that included Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, John Spencer and Janel Maloney. Written by the gifted Aaron Sorkin, this series gives us both an insight into American politics and a glimpse of an idealized world in which ideals matter more than realpolitik. An absolute must-watch!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

No offence, but...

Yes, we all say that on occasion, but rarely, if ever, do we mean it – and maybe that’s not such a bad thing

Have you noticed how whenever someone wants to say something offensive, they start off with, “No offence, but…”? How when they mean to sound really disrespectful, they preface their remarks with, “With due respect…”? And that when they want to pass judgement on you, they kick off with, “Not to be judgemental, but…”? We’ve all done this little dance before being offensive, disrespectful or judgemental (or all three) and on the whole we tend to get away with it, because most people are too shamed, scared or polite to call us out.

But, more to the point, what all of this assumes is that being offensive, disrespectful or judgemental about people is plain wrong and we need to put in a quick disclaimer before saying anything that falls in those categories. Well, I am beginning to think that this is where we go wrong; in getting all defensive about our opinions because we feel that might cause offence, be deemed rude or come across as plain judgemental. There really is no need to apologise for any of the above. If we believe in a moral code, and live by certain principles, then there will always be times when we are offended by some people or by certain situations, and it is far from disrespectful to sit in judgement on such occasions.

Speaking for myself, these are just some of the situations in which I reserve the right to be judgemental about people – without caring whether I am offending anyone or, indeed, being less than respectful.

·       If I see another family party sitting down to enjoy an expensive meal in a fancy restaurant while the maid/nanny stands beside the table trying to restore order among the fractious children on the table. Ditto, lazy, feckless parents who refuse to discipline their children as they run around and create mayhem in public spaces. Or those who bring their bawling infants out for a late-night movie when the little mites should be tucked up in bed and fast asleep.
·       I know money can’t buy class, but there is something super-annoying when those who drive in uber-expensive cars, roll down the window at the traffic light to throw out litter, spit on the road, and then shout at the street children who are begging for some money to buy dinner, for dirtying their lovely car with their grimy hands.
·       Men who think that they are paying you a huge compliment when they call you ‘sweetie’ ‘honey’ ‘darling’ ‘babe’ or those who refer to grown-up women as ‘girls’. It’s not cute. It’s not endearing. It’s not acceptable. And you really need to stop, or else…
·       When people are queueing up in an orderly fashion at a bank, at airport check-in, or at security, you need to join the queue. Not at any point where you can squeeze yourself in but right at the back where the queue ends. Don’t tell me that you stepped out to make a quick phone call. Stop insisting that you were always standing behind that woman in the red kurta. And don’t claim that your flight is leaving and you need to be let through NOW. You are lying, you lying scumbag. Now get yourself right at the back, and wait like the rest of us.
·       Surely by now, you’ve seen enough hospital dramas on television to know that you are not supposed to use mobile phones in and around intensive care areas in a hospital. It’s not just about preserving peace and quiet for the patients but also to ensure that the phone signals don’t interfere with the life-saving equipment that is in use. So, while it won’t kill you to turn off your mobile, you may well end up killing someone if you don’t. If you really need to make – or take – that call, step outside.
·       I am all for praying to your particular God, but must you do so in the dead of night or at the crack of dawn, while using a loudspeaker for good measure? You do know that He (or She) can hear you perfectly well without those amplified sound waves, don’t you? But if you turn off that infernal loudspeaker, you may earn the blessings of your neighbours as well.
·       If you are above the age of 10, there really is no excuse for kicking the back of my seat throughout the flight. Or waiting till I doze off before you put your entire weight on my backrest, as you propel yourself out of your seat, so that you can wake me up on your way to the loo. There is a special place in hell for folks like you. And I hope you get a taste of it at the baggage belt itself, when you discover that your suitcase has been dispatched to the wrong destination.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Reading List

Here’s a handy list of my top reads last year: try them if you haven’t; you won’t regret it

If you are a regular reader of this column then you know by now that books are my drug of choice. There is nothing quite as wonderful as discovering a brand-new writer, except perhaps discovering a new book by an old favourite. And there is nothing more comforting that finding solace between the pages of a tried-and-tested comfort read when you are feeling low.

Over the last year, I have had my fill of both new writers and old favourites. And yes, I have revisited many classics as well, in the hope of discovering something new in them. But here, for your benefit, is the list of my best reads of 2013.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This was by far one of the best thrillers I have read in a long time. The story unravels through the first person accounts of the two protagonists: the husband whose wife has gone missing; and the diary entries of the ‘gone girl’. But as the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing is quite as it seems. Since I hate spoilers of any kind, I won’t say much more than assure you that this is a book like no other. If you haven’t read it yet, then do so NOW.

The Silent Wife by ASA Harrison
Another psychological portrayal of a marriage that isn’t quite what it seems, and in fact, turns out not to be a marriage at all. The characters are acutely drawn, the plot moves forwards slowly but menacingly, and the ‘silent wife’ of the title proves that old adage of still waters running deep.

Longbourn by Jo Baker
I am generally not hot on conceits like rewriting an old classic from the viewpoint of a different character. But I have to say that Jo Baker has pulled off a cracker of a novel, retelling Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servants of the Bennet household. The maid, Sarah, is the central character, whose most memorable line is that Miss Elizabeth would be more careful of her petticoats if she had to wash them herself! A brilliant retelling of a classic; which should become a classic in its own time.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)
Confession time: I first read The Cuckoo’s Calling before J.K. Rowling had been outed as its author. And while it was a good enough story, I have to admit that I didn’t think Robert Galbraith was going to be the next Harlan Coben or even Lee Child. After the author’s identity was revealed, I re-read it. And no, I didn’t change my mind. This was a good enough book as far as murder mysteries go, but  ‘Robert Galbraith’ still has a long way to go.

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George
I really don’t know how she does it. But with every novel in her Inspector Lynley series, Elizabeth George manages to up her game just a little. This, the latest in the series, has Barbara Havers at the centre while Lynley plays a sort of supporting role. Set in Italy, the story gallops forwards furiously, taking twists and turns when you least expect them, the characters evolve in ways you could barely imagine, and in true Elizabeth George fashion, the ending is far from the happily-ever-after variety.

The English Girl by Daniel Silva
Yes, I know. Daniel Silva has gone a tad formulaic on us. But I guess that’s a risk you run when you have the same hero, Israeli agent Gabriel Allon, and are committed to churning out a potboiler every year. So, this book has much the same elements. Allon is put into impossible situations and manages to fight his way out, and save the world while he is at it. But that said, the book is a page-turner, the kind that will keep you up till 3 am, as you read on to find out what happens next.

Mapping The Edge by Sarah Dunant
I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about this one. It started off well, but then got a bit too clever by half, and two-thirds into the narrative, I was more confused than ever. But despite my reservations, I am glad that I read it. Dunant attempts the brave – even impossible, some might say – feat of offering two alternatives to a woman’s abduction without ever indicating where the truth actually lies. But while her writing is, for the most part, assured, there is a real sense in which the reader ends up feeling manipulated by her trickery. Well, at least, I did. You can read it and make up your own mind.

The Golden Egg by Donna Leon
There is something ineffably soothing about the gentle pace of Donna Leon’s murder mysteries. She spends as much time evoking the spirit of Venice, describing the family life of her hero, Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola, detailing the meals they eat and the wine they drink, the books they read, as she does investigating the death that is at the heart of the story. This book is no different, with the story telling us as much about the corruption at the core of Venetian society, as it does about the murder itself. If you haven’t read her, you should start now. (But remember to start at the beginning, and work your way through the 17 or so books she has written.)