Terrific piece on Leonard Cohen in today's G2.
Sombre prophet, mordant wisecracker, repentant cad: Leonard Cohen is back with a great new album, Old Ideas – and more wit and wisdomhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jan/19/leonard-cohen
These days, Cohen rations his one-on-one interviews with the utmost austerity, hence this press conference to promote his 12th album, Old Ideas, a characteristically intimate reflection on love, death, suffering and forgiveness. After the playback he answers questions. He was always funnier than he was given credit for; now he has honed his deadpan to such perfection that every questioner becomes the straight man in a double act. Claudia from Portugal wants him to explain the humour behind his image as a lady's man. "Well, for me to be a lady's man at this point requires a great deal of humour," he replies. Steve from Denmark wonders what Cohen will be in his next life. "I don't really understand that process called reincarnation but if there is such a thing I'd like to come back as my daughter's dog." Erik, also from Denmark, asks if he has come to terms with death. "I've come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die," he responds. "So naturally those questions arise and are addressed. But, you know, I like to do it with a beat."
He had lived, and this gave his elaborate, enigmatic songs a grave authority to younger listeners who sensed that he was privy to mysteries that they could only guess at. He was neither the best singer, the best musician nor the best-looking man around, but he had the charisma and the words, and the eroticised intelligence. Perhaps because his style owed more to French chansonniers and Jewish cantors than American folk, he was always more loved in Europe than north America. An early write-up in folk gazette Sing Out! remarked: "No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon."
In 1993, resurgent and well-loved but in a dark frame of mind, Cohen disappeared from the public gaze. He spent the next six years in a monastery on Mount Baldy, California, studying with his old friend and Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, whom he calls Roshi and who is now a resilient 104 years old. "This old teacher never speaks about religion," Cohen tells the Paris audience. "There's no dogma, there's no prayerful worship, there's no address to a deity. It's just a commitment to living in a community."
When he came down from the mountain his lifelong depression had finally lifted. "When I speak of depression," he says carefully, "I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse. I'm happy to report that, by imperceptible degrees and by the grace of good teachers and good luck, that depression slowly dissolved and has never returned with the same ferocity that prevailed for most of my life." He thinks it might just be down to old age. "I read somewhere that as you grow older certain brain cells die that are associated with anxiety so it doesn't really matter how much you apply yourself to the disciplines. You're going to start feeling a lot better or a lot worse depending on the condition of your neurons."
In Paris, after the press conference, I'm discreetly ushered into a back room for a rare interview alone with Cohen. Up close, he's a calming presence, old world courtesy mingled with Zen, and his smoke-blackened husk of a voice is as reassuring as a lullaby. I ask him if he wishes the long and painful process of writing his songs would come more easily.
"Well, you know, we're talking in a world where guys go down into the mines, chewing coca and spending all day in backbreaking labour. We're in a world where there's famine and hunger and people are dodging bullets and having their nails pulled out in dungeons so it's very hard for me to place any high value on the work that I do to write a song. Yeah, I work hard but compared to what?"...................................................
Excellent front page on the Guardian today. Justice!
How News Group hid the phone-hacking scandal
Judge criticises Murdoch empire as it agrees aggravated damages for 37 victims of News of the Worldhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jan/19/news-group-phone-hacking-scandal
A high court judge said the Murdoch-owned company behind the News of the World had made "an admission of sorts" that it engaged in a deliberate cover-up of evidence relating to phone hacking, on the day that the publisher paid an estimated seven figures in damages to settle 37 phone-hacking claims brought by public figures ranging from Jude Law to John Prescott.
Mr Justice Vos, the judge presiding over the hacking cases, told News Group Newspapers (NGN) he had seen evidence which raised "compelling questions about whether you concealed, told lies, actively tried to get off scot free".
The judge read out a section from the confidential court papers detailing the cover-up allegations made by hacking victims against the company's executives and directors. It included the charge that the company "put out public statements that it knew to be false", that it had "deliberately deceived the police" and had destroyed evidence of wrongdoing including "a very substantial number of emails" as well as computers.
Mark Thomson, of law firm Atkins Thomson, said: "After years of denials and cover-up, News Group Newspapers has finally admitted the depth and scale of the unlawful activities of many of their journalists at the News of the World and the culture of illegal conduct at their paper."................................................
Should art really be for its own sake alone?
If art museums are the new churches, perhaps they should end the veneration of ambiguity and start serving our inner needshttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/20/art-museums-churches
by Alain de Botton
Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? Perhaps art shouldn't be "for art's sake", one of the most misunderstood, unambitious and sterile of all aesthetic slogans: why couldn't art be, as it was in religious eras, more explicitly for something?
Modern art museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as "the 19th century" and "the Northern Italian School", which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. A more fertile indexing system might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to our inner needs. A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things that are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.
The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life. Only then would museums be able to claim that they had properly fulfilled the excellent but as yet elusive ambition of in part becoming substitutes for churches in a rapidly secularising society......................................................
Jayati Ghosh is a brilliant economist and an excellent writer:
Could Ecuador be the most radical and exciting place on Earth?
A decade ago, Ecuador was a banana republic, an economic basket case. Today, it has much to teach the rest of the worldhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/jan/19/ecuador-radical-exciting-place
Ecuador must be one of the most exciting places on Earth right now, in terms of working towards a new development paradigm. It shows how much can be achieved with political will, even in uncertain economic times.
A major turning point came with the election of the economist Rafael Correa as president. After taking over in January 2007, his government ushered in a series of changes, based on a new constitution (the country's 20th, approved in 2008) that was itself mandated by a popular referendum. A hallmark of the changes that have occurred since then is that major policies have first been put through the referendum process. This has given the government the political ability to take on major vested interests and powerful lobbies.
The government is now the most stable in recent times and will soon become the longest serving in Ecuador's tumultuous history. The president's approval ratings are well over 70%. All this is due to the reorientation of the government's approach, made possible by a constitution remarkable for its recognition of human rights and the rights of nature, and its acceptance of plurality and cultural diversity.
Consider just some economic changes brought about in the past four years, beginning with the renegotiation of oil contracts with multinational companies.
Increased government revenues were put to good use in infrastructure investment and social spending. Ecuador now has the highest proportion of public investment to GDP (10%) in Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, social spending has doubled since 2006. This has enabled real progress towards the constitutional goals of free education at all levels, and access to free healthcare for all citizens. Significant increases in public housing have followed the constitution's affirmation of the right of all citizens to dignified housing with proper amenities.
There are numerous other measures: expanding direct public employment; increasing minimum wages and legally enforcing social security provision for all workers; diversifying the economy to reduce dependence on oil exports, and diversifying trading partners to reduce dependence on the US; enlarging public banking operations to reach more small and medium entrepreneurs; auditing external debt to reduce debt service payments; and abandoning unfair bilateral investment agreements. Other efforts include reform of the justice system.
All this may sound too good to be true, and certainly the process of transformation has only just begun. There are bound to be conflicts with those whose profits and power are threatened, as well as other hurdles along the way. But for those who believe that we are not condemned to the gloomy status quo, and that societies can do things differently, what is happening in Ecuador provides inspiration and even guidance. The rest of the world has much to learn from this ongoing radical experiment..