Who can fill the role of Tom Lehrer today?

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT FEELS quaint now: a man with tidy hair and an elegant suit sits at a piano, his thick glasses sticking to his nose. He makes a few quips, and the audience titters politely. Then the man begins to sing. Flowers in his voice, he tells the story of a local drug dealer.

“He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well
That today’s young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow’s clientele.”

The audience guffaws. “The Old Dope Peddler” was one of Tom Lehrer’s most controversial songs, and Mr Lehrer was once one of the most cutting satirists in America. His icy wit still resonates today. 

Mr Lehrer did not mean to be a musician. He was a mathematician by training, but discovered a talent for parody while an undergraduate at Harvard. His first songs were just for friends, but Mr Lehrer was soon performing for larger crowds. By 1964, his songs appeared on American television, while Mr Lehrer himself…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Who can fill the role of Tom Lehrer today?


A visual history of Benin City returns home

(K. Brent Tomer),

LAST month an extraordinary collection of photographs returned to Nigeria. Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge took pictures of the people of Benin City for over half a century, amassing an archive of more than 3,000 images. Spanning British rule and the early decades of independence, it is a visual record of style and self-expression, of everyday humanity in a country in flux.

As the first official photographer of the court of Benin, Alonge documented palace life and pageantry from 1933 to 1979. In a photograph from 1938, Oba Akenzua II, the monarch, stands between the Earl of Plymouth and Nigeria’s governor-general, looking into the distance. His richly-layered robes and coral beads contrast with the stiff white uniforms of the British, his perturbed but determined stare with their disdainful gazes. A hand-coloured image from 1956 shows the Oba bowing slightly as he shakes the white-gloved hand of Queen Elizabeth II, four years before the declaration of Nigeria’s independence. Again it is a photo of contrasts, his rust-tinted regalia…Continue reading

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“Stranger Things 2” is triumphant return to Hawkins

(K. Brent Tomer),

ALMOST the instant “Stranger Things” was released last year, the baying of fans desperate for the next instalment was ear-splitting. Hopes are so high for the second season—all nine episodes of which were released on Netflix on October 27th—that disappointment seems almost inevitable. But fans can breathe easy: “Stranger Things 2” lives up to its predecessor.

What made the first season such a tour de force was the quality of its storytelling: Matt and Ross Duffer, the show’s creators, had viewers convulsively grabbing their chair arms from the opening scene. The pace of the second season starts slow, but this is no bad thing. The predominant setting (and virtually a character in itself) is still Hawkins, the fictional Indiana town where, despite the presence of a secretive and sinister government lab, it felt as if nothing ever happened. Now, of course, stranger things have happened, and the town’s residents are trying their best to put all that behind them and get on with their…Continue reading

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The evolution of the ghost

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Ghost: A Cultural History. By Susan Owens.Tate Publishing; 288 pages; £19.99 and $29.95.

KINGS, queens, horses, dogs, crows. A “whirling heap of hay”. A wronged lover, an old friend, a stillborn child, an atmospheric light. As Susan Owens highlights in her new cultural history of ghosts, phantasms and spirits have assumed many guises and taken up numerous causes over the millennia. In the medieval period restless souls inhabited whatever shape they thought might get them noticed. One fashion was for a shroud tied at the top of the head in a topknot, and later a loose sheet (for ease of mobility). Some sought revenge or intervened on the side of the oppressed. Others offered moral lessons, or simply popped by for a friendly chat.

Though often dismissed as superstitious piffle, ghosts have proved surprisingly durable. The living have long spied the dead—and sought new explanations for doing so. In the 15th…Continue reading

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How China’s artists made sense of their country

(K. Brent Tomer),

The artistry of the ambulance

HANGING from the ceiling of the magnificent rotunda that Frank Lloyd Wright created for the Guggenheim Museum in 1959 is an undulating black dragon. Twenty-six metres (85 feet) long, it is made almost entirely of the inner tubes of bicycles. Its head is a sculptural confection of broken cycles, its rear a writhing excrescence of black rubber loops. The visual etymology is obviously and satisfyingly Chinese. Then you notice hundreds of tiny black cars crawling all over its underbelly, like head lice on a schoolchild—symbolic of the moment when the country, in the headlong pursuit of economic growth, swerved from pedal power to petroleum.

This work, “Precipitous Parturition” by Chen Zhen, a Chinese-French conceptual artist, is at once fiercely visual, emotional and political. It is the most grandiose work in the Guggenheim’s magnificent new exposition of art, by 71 artists and artists’ collectives, that was made…Continue reading

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A new biography of Muhammad Ali

(K. Brent Tomer),

Ali: A life.authorBy Jonathan Eig.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 630 pages; $30. Simon & Schuster;. Buy from Amazon.co.uk (ISBN=unknown)

HE OFTEN claimed to be the greatest of all time, and he was right. Only a handful of athletes reach the pinnacle of their discipline. A couple of those have done so with a swagger that made them their sport’s chief entertainer, too. Just one has thrown all of that away to do what was unpopular but principled.

When Muhammad Ali died on June 3rd last year he was remembered not only as boxing’s most decorated and enthralling heavyweight, but also for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war as a rebellion against white supremacy. Today, black athletes protest against the government in unison. Ali was alone. After his death Barack Obama, who kept a pair of his gloves in the White House, compared him to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

Jonathan Eig’s book is the first major…Continue reading

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The Israelis and Palestinians are still haunted by their history

(K. Brent Tomer),

Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017.authorBy Ian Black.Atlantic Monthly Press; 608 pages; $30. Allen Lane; £25. 

IN THE roster of new states established in the past century, the creation of Israel has been extraordinary. It is one of the Middle East’s rare functioning democracies, with an intense public debate and a robust court system. It has absorbed destitute Jews from around the world and built a flourishing high-tech industry. All this in the face of wars and the intractable conflict with the Palestinians in its midst.

When, exactly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began is hard to say. Devout Jews have long lived in Palestine, and the first Zionists arrived in the late 19th century. But many historians point to November 2nd 1917 as the starting point. On that day the British government vowed to use its “best endeavours” to create a “national home” for the Jewish…Continue reading

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Zaryadye Park in Moscow is an architectural triumph

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT IS one of the largest architectural projects to be completed in Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the first major public park to open in the city in 50 years. Zaryadye Park, 13 hectares of green space in the heart of the Russian capital, opened to the public last month after four years of construction. When fully complete, 760 trees and 860,000 perennials will frame a series of curvaceous new buildings, including two restaurants, two exhibition spaces, a new philharmonic hall and a bridge that will jut out over the Moscow river. Overlooked by St Basil’s Cathedral and sitting at the foot of the Kremlin, it is one of the most ambitious landscaping projects of the 21st century.

The park radically transforms a historically problematic area. Zaryadye was abandoned by affluent nobles when Peter the Great moved the capital to St Petersburg in 1712. When fortifications were built along the river in the 18th century during the Great Northern War, the land became clogged with sewage….Continue reading

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“Babylon Berlin” could be the next big German export

(K. Brent Tomer),

WITH flashes of drugs, nude bodies and partying, the trailer for “Berlin Babylon” flaunts the show’s sex appeal. Germany’s most expensive television series (it cost €38m—$45m—to produce 16 episodes) kicked off on Sky Germany on October 13th, and has been snapped up by international distributors such as HBO Europe, Netflix, Group AB and Telefonica, to name a few. But police and pornography are not the only realities of life in Weimar-era Berlin. Before the first few episodes are over, we glimpse smuggling, suicide, spying, betrayal and murder. Individual power struggles play out against wider political movements, such as the conflict between Russian Trotskyists and Stalinists, as well as the rise of National Socialism. 

Based on the first volume of “Der nasse Fisch” (which translates as “The Wet Fish”, though it was published in English as “Babylon Berlin”) by Volker Kutscher, the first season is set in 1929, as the Roaring Twenties are coming to a close. It follows Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police…Continue reading

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“Albion” is a state-of-the-nation play for Brexit Britain

(K. Brent Tomer),

WHAT is the essential feature of an English country garden? An old oak tree, a bed of roses or a well-trimmed lawn? The country estate that provides the backdrop for “Albion”, Mike Bartlett’s new play, has them all. More prominent than any of them, though, is soil. Real soil is dug up, bedded down and tossed about Miriam Buether’s leafy set with abandon. 

To refer to “English soil” is not to speak of mere compost. It is to invoke national territory, and the Shakespearean “earth of majesty” that formed England, “this other Eden”. Mr Bartlett’s expansive state-of-the-nation play (the first of its kind to arrive after the Brexit referendum) stages a bitter fight over both kinds of soil, literal and national. Rupert Goold’s skilful direction yields a richly textured allegory, leaving no tastefully-landscaped stone of the English national psyche unturned. 

The aggressor in this battle is Audrey (Victoria Hamilton), a hard-nosed home-counties entrepreneur who runs a company flogging homeware to…Continue reading

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