A Barstool in Dallas

I wrote this back in 2002, as America girded itself for war with a largely concocted ‘Axis of Evil’. A massive global outpouring of dissent had mobilised tens of millions, sending them into the streets in opposition to the folly of war. Now, as the USA limps home from its latest foreign adventure, it feels like a good time to revisit those sentiments. 

It discusses activism in the 90s and into the third millennium, but obviously without the benefit of seeing how the Occupy movement turned out, or the Arab Spring, or the Iranian uprising, or the Women’s March on Washington, or Black Lives Matter.

And yet….

How George and I found faith

George Walker Bush is an earnest Christian. His road to faith was a hard one.

“A barstool in Dallas,” he is said to have uttered once, to a gathering of Christian ministers in the Oval Office.

He explained, “If it weren’t for Jesus, I’d still be sitting on a barstool in Dallas.” He was referring to a path in life that for some years had kept him drunk and good for nothing better than propping up the right end of the bar.

I know that barstool – at least, I know how to prop one up. I spent ten years of my life doing it. Like George though, I found faith and a desire to do the Right Thing. Now, I can’t speak for George on most accounts. I really don’t know him at all. So I’ll just explain how I came through….

Having arrived intact in my late thirties, I have developed what a friend of mine likes to call a modus vivendi. While I dislike the term ‘survivor’ for its connotations of helplessness, it nonetheless applies to me. I’ve passed through drug addiction and alcoholism, chronic depression and debilitating anxiety. I’ve learned that it’s possible to descend from abstraction and live – more or less – within the world.

The Romanticism that used to insulate me from the often dreary task of living has been reduced to a soft patina. Now, it exists mostly in a few sentimental indulgences: The habit of singing sappy heartbreak songs in the car. A desire to portray the world as picturesque, and to eschew things clever and complicated in favour of simpler, more traditional forms.

I am, however, still afflicted with ideals. In younger days, they led me to join a team of Greenpeace activists in scaling the Angus MacDonald bridge in Halifax, where we hung a 60 by 60 foot banner deploring the presence of a nuclear-armed warship in Canadian territory[1]. My involvement in Greenpeace continued for some time, and led me to occupy the Peace Tower to protest Canada’s involvement in the 1991 Gulf War.

My activist career would likely have continued to this day, had it not been forced to confront a number of trivial, gadding obstacles. A few years after I joined, the organisation hired a freshly-minted MBA to run it. Its popularity in the preceding years had reached such a point that it was finally playing around with a substantial and stable volume of money. So, the logic went, the best way to continue this growth trend was to apply standard business philosophy: Commoditise and pasteurise the organisation by toning down the incediary rhetoric; start putting money into maintaining offices and staff in order to sustain a serious research and lobbying effort; climb further up the power apparatus in order to leverage greater influence into greater income. And so on into cyclic growth that would make Adam Smith a happy man.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. The reasons why are numerous and, frankly, boring. The idealists griped about increasing bureaucratisation. The more mainstream elements griped about the more anarchic ones, insisting that spokespeople be appointed and their comments vetted, in order that everyone stay ‘on-message’. The undertaking soon became so burdened with political dross, and its message so muddied, that it lost the intensity and urgency that had made it appealing in the first place.

I didn’t participate much in the unrest. As soon as I saw how the power had begun to accumulate at the center, with its attendant perquisites and prerogatives, I wandered away.

It’s hardly the first time such a thing has happened. Nor is it a particularly dangerous or damning example. Orwell’s Animal Farm describes something much more hideous. The increasing lassitude of the news media, after a brief (if idiosyncratic) flirtation with social justice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the source of endless flagellation in almost every privileged society.

I have a friend who’s often right. She’s an acute observer of history, quick to point out that the best elements of any society are regularly – cyclically, even – sucked into the centre of the societal vortex. Once there, they are inevitably co-opted. Every interest, once vested, becomes more concerned with self-preservation than with the risks inherent in adaptation to altered circumstance.

It’s easy, therefore, for a privileged white male such as I to spend his youth on the barricades, when he has everything to gain and nothing to lose. But with the onset of a career, family, and other long-term obligations, his concerns become more focused on protecting the little patch of turf that he’s come to identify as his own. Given the right circumstances, the logic states, every Abby Hoffmann becomes an investment adviser.

Every adult activist confronts this Rubicon eventually. Their acceptance within (not by) society is largely measured by the degree to which they compromise in the face of the apparently competing exigencies of making life better for oneself or making life better for others.

I’m not sure which was worse: Watching members of my generation ensconce themselves within the social apparatus and close the gate behind them, or watching the remaining activists’ ideals become encrusted with political expediency and organisational self-interest.

I’m not confident that my fall away from activism was any less dangerous (or desultory) than the others’. I gave up on formal organisations altogether, reserving my attempts to do good to the most finite of acts. I also avoided the encumbrances of family, mortgage and investment. By refusing to compromise on anything, I removed myself from participation in many common joys, great and small.

Let me tell you, there are worse things than chanting shop-worn, half-relevant slogans while a hundred pie-eyed, unreflective youths batter the conscience of the nation with hand-painted placards. Try standing alone on a frigid February night in 1991, lighting a single candle from the eternal flame on Parliament Hill under the bored scrutiny of the federal police.

That’s how things looked in ’91. Gatherings of the peace movement typically numbered in the dozens, and consisted for the most part of the regurgitative act of reciting second-hand polemic. The news media ignored us – they were off and away, happily scampered about within the playground cordons, gawking at the fireworks over Baghdad.

As the phosphors dimmed from the last smart-bomb video, the machinery of vested interest kept churning out its grist. Back home, artists and thinkers happily traded away the right to speak for others, in exchange for the right of others to speak for themselves – as if the two were mutually exlusive. The pool of rhetoric achieved such shallowness that mere disagreement became anathema. And Heaven help the fool resorting to reasoned critique.

For all that I could see, the 1990s described a descending spiral for much, if not all, of North American society. So, when George Bush Junior[2] stole the Presidency of the United States, and when the electorate rolled over and took it, I was embittered, but not surprised. When his administration undertook to subvert or abrogate virtually every well-intentioned piece of internationalism that a nascent world community had managed to enact, the last patches of my idealism were chafed almost to nothingness.

In the year that followed the attack on the World Trade Center, I watched that truculent late-adolescent toss the furniture of democracy into the fire, stoking the blaze of a Righteous War on Evil without regard for where – or whether – the rest of us would be left standing.

What kind of a man is it, I’ve asked myself, who can pull himself up off a barstool in Dallas, ratchet his way up the political ladder with the zeal of newfound purpose, and promptly push much of the world into the most precarious posture it’s seen since 1961? What kind of a light shines so brightly on George’s path that its shadow threatens to erase everything on which it falls?

I can’t answer that. I’ve tried time and again to understand. We share so much, George and I. We’re both the sheltered scions of privileged families. We’ve both realised, later than most, that life is more than a walking shadow. Poor players both, we’ve embraced what we can of life. But I’ll be damned if I’ve ever possessed his certitude, his faith.

I find myself recoiling from this contradiction, that someone who has found the love of Jesus could engage in such arrant brinksmanship that everyone in his purview is threatened. If it isn’t the theft of liberties or the coercive politics of power, it’s the threat of wholesale slaughter that repels me utterly.

I love Jesus too, as much as I love any human being – though maybe less than some. There’s part of me that wishes, though, that he’d left that man sitting there in Dallas, and bestowed his love elsewhere.

The Romantic in me accepts that it’s unkind to say that of anyone. And the idealist is wont to point out that, in many important ways, a significant part of humanity is poised, metaphorically, on a barstool in Dallas, swilling away its privilege. The cynic in me is inclined to join them for a round or two – at least until the Patsy Cline singalong is over.

So imagine my suprise last Saturday night, when I returned from my local cafe to find that millions – no one knows exactly how many – had taken time from their lives to walk together for a day. And imagine my growing elation as, in one news report after another, these marchers explained in reasoned terms why they felt a thoughtless march to war was wrong. The staff writers at Time and Newsweek must have been baffled by the sudden need to express a world view that was not blind to subtlety, that weighed and balanced the facts, and came to the practical judgement that the presence of evil in the world did not justify the commission of a greater sin. For one day, at least, the Western World got off its barstool.

I’m no longer fool enough to think that this marks the end of our complacency – or even our descent. Nor am I inclined to believe that the light of Jesus has for a moment illuminated all of Christendom. I am chastened, though. Chastened by the realisation that this sudden surge of human concern consisted of a single act multiplied ten million times: A man, a woman judged that this one thing required that she, that he, alone if need be, had to speak. Ten million times, she said this war is wrong.

I can’t say for certain what light it was that dawned on me. I know it’s not divine. Not in a sense that any of the ministers in the Oval Office would understand, anyway. And I don’t know for sure whether it’s knocked me clear of the bar. But I know one thing: This coming March, if I find myself walking to Parliament Hill, candle in hand, whether I’m alone, in the company of dozens or thousands, there’ll be one more barstool in Dallas sitting empty.

[1] Which, I hasten to mention, was then and is still illegal. This illegality is conveniently circumvented by a federal government which neglects to ask visiting U.S. and British warships whether they carry such weapons of mass destruction. The warships, in turn, politely decline to confirm or deny the presence of said weapons.

[2] Why does nobody call him ‘Junior’? He’s junior in almost every way.

Coates is not wrong

Posting this here because Twitter doesn’t always lend itself to nuance. (I know! I was gobsmacked too!)

Ta Nehisi Coates gets a lot of pushback from all sides for his polemical stance. It is abundantly true that his view, while popular among intellectuals, is not widely shared. Few people see through his lens on American history with quite the same acuity as he does.

That’s not entirely his fault. Just because you agree with someone’s premises doesn’t that you necessarily have to accept all of their conclusions. His Case for Reparations is a classic example. The line of logic is nearly inescapable. It is possible to quibble around the edges, to thicken the mix by introducing other variables, but the essay stands on its own.

Like the statue in the park, it endures despite the pigeon shit and graffiti.

But I still consider actual reparations a political pipe dream.

I have read Coates more deeply than widely, so if I miss something obvious here, please forgive me. But people who object to The First White President seem to do so because of his insistence of seeing the entire Trump presidency in terms of race. They accuse him, in fact, of buying into the very world-view he abjures. In today’s New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams overlays the German idea of Sonderweg, or ‘special path’ on Coates’ narrative of blackness.

That’s neither kind nor accurate. Coates is not advocating a view of history defined by race; he is admonishing people to accept that America’s history is defined by a particular view of race. Or, if you prefer the more modest argument: Black American’s history is defined not by how they saw themselves, but how others saw them.

If this is sonderweg, it’s through a glass, darkly.

The difference between those two statements seems to escape many. The discourse around Coates’ writing is happening almost exclusively among the intelligentsia—which is only natural, of course; that’s who he is speaking to. These are the people to whom his arguments apply the least.

That last paragraph is a mea culpa. I’m as guilty as any in that regard. But I can offer two observations that support his thesis:

Everything I have seen of local politics—the way that people impose their world view on their immediate surroundings—in the American South supports what Coates says. From road works to mental health services to store hours to zoning by-laws, prejudice and race are baked inextricably into its formulations.

Back during the Dot-Com Boom, I explored the idea of moving to the States to work. I had a lot of American clients, they paid well, and offered some really ambitious opportunities. But I was constantly confronted with the realisation that buying the American Dream meant buying into this nightmare too, at least implicitly.

Even in San Francisco, that bastion of liberalism, the divisions run deep. Lost in the city while searching for a store, I was stopped by a cop. He told me he would escort me back to my car. “You’re gonna turn it around, and never come back here,” he told me, explaining, “The natives are restless.”

I did turn around. And I’ve never been back to San Francisco.

Is just one racist cop enough to convince me that Coates’ depiction of race as a guiding vision is valid? Of course not. That was just the most vivid example.

My second point—and historians might have a field day with this one:

Isn’t America the only nation in history to have fought a bloody civil war over slavery—in which the enslaved were the object, but not the subject, of the effort?

An entire nation ripped itself apart on behalf of the victims of monumental injustice, and neglected actually to enfranchise, or meaningfully involve, those it fought to free.

The United States of America is unique. Its history is defined, if not driven, by a peculiar and distinct view of race. And yes, Donald Trump is the First White President. It would be foolish to deny it.

That’s not all he is, of course, but it is what he is. And Coates is right: it’s useful and productive to look at him in that light.

Searching for JJ

Some people spend their lives in endless, often fruitless pursuit of an Academy Award. Those people are not from Vanuatu.

Vanuatu woke up today to a rather startling piece of news. Tanna, a movie filmed entirely with amateur indigenous actors on location in and around the kastom village of Yakel, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Then it rolled over and went back to sleep.

When I got the news of the nomination, I began a full-court press to get a reaction from the cast.

That turned into an adventure.

I confess it freely: My heart skipped a beat. Not just because of the inarguable beauty of the film. Not just because it is woven of the same stuff that persuaded me to make a new life in the South Pacific so many years ago.

Mostly, it was because I wanted to see the look on Marceline’s face.

Marceline plays a key role in Tanna’s tragic story. She was nine years old when the movie was made. Significant parts of the film are viewed through her eyes, and her innocence is the gateway to unutterable grief before the credits roll.

I met Marceline on her very first day outside of the island of Tanna. She had never seen a town as big as Port Vila (POP. 50,000) before, and it was exhausting. When she and some of the cast showed up at our radio station late in the afternoon, she was done in. I asked her a few questions in Bislama, and received monosyllabic answers in return. Before the interview was even halfway done, she was full length on the leather couch, sound asleep, her head in cast-mate Marie Wawa’s lap.

Marceline’s world in Tanna is not a fiction. It’s not a memory, either. The scenes you see in Tanna are still playing themselves out today. Her clothing might be a little more natty than what you saw in the film, but grass skirts are still the going thing.

My heart went out to the little girl as I watched her struggling to come to terms with a place that had car after car after car, a place that was noisome and dusty and loud.

I started to take her photo at one point, but immediately relented when I saw her begin to flinch.

One of the stars of the movie Tanna, nine year-old Marceline, smiles during the gala premiere of the movie at Tana Cine in Port Vila. Tanna opens to the public tomorrow.

How in the world was she going to be able to deal with the strobing tumult of the red carpet? The cast members were en route to the Venice Film Festival, following Tanna’s selection in the prestigious Critic’s Week. The film went on to win the People’s Choice award and the Critic’s Award for cinematography.

On their return, I caught up with the group at the airport, shortly before they headed back to their island. Marceline seemed perfectly at home in her skin, a changed creature from the shy and hesitant child I’d seen only a couple of weeks before.

“How did it go?” I asked her in Bislama. “When all the photographers were taking your photo all at once, how did you manage it?”

She shot me a worldly, knowing look, and said, “You get used to it. After a while, it’s no problem.”

The next time they came to Port Vila, it was for the Vanuatu premiere of the film, at our only actual cinema. Marceline and the rest of the core cast members were there, all dressed up in their ceremonial regalia.

This time, when I pointed the camera at her, she gave me a smile as wide as a river.

Starring in one of the most notable films of the year doesn’t quite have the same cachet in Vanuatu as it does elsewhere. For one thing, people have to know about it.

We contacted the Cultural Centre, which facilitates contact with Tanna’s traditional villages. They told us that the phone number they had didn’t work anymore, but there was good news: JJ and Dain, producer and lead actor respectively, had moved up in the world.

They’d both left the island and found employment. As night watchmen with a local security company.

No number was available, but this is Vanuatu, after all. We decided to use the tried and tested coconut telegraph method.

The Cultural Centre worker told us that JJ—whom the world knows as the interpreter on Channel 4’s wildly popular Meet The Natives—was still around. He’d acted as ambassador/interpreter/facilitator between a group of Tannese men from a village that bestowed demigod status on Prince Phillip, and their hosts at different locations in the UK, including Prince Phillip himself.

JJ, happily ensconced at the Daily Post office after a day-long search for him.

JJ is a man about town. He’s gregarious, knowing, worldly and warm-hearted. He’s also a gifted promoter and knows how to keep himself in the story. An essential person, in other words, if you want to spend six months creating a film based on tragic events that are still vividly etched in the memories of the people of Yakel village.

Dain is utterly the man he portrays in Tanna. Laconic, deeply honourable and dignified, terse almost to a fault. And smouldering. Sadly, he’s also gone back to Tanna. He’d had enough of punching the clock.

And we won’t see Marceline until she transits through on her way to Los Angeles.

But we soldiered on throughout the day, fruitlessly searching for JJ, our last best hope. Our Modus Operandi was simple: Find a place he’d been seen, go there, and ask where we could find him.

Again and again, I said the magic words ‘Academy Award’. No bite. People smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’

‘It’s the highest possible prize a movie can win,’ I said.

‘Is it? That’s very good,’ they replied, in the tone a parent takes when a child brags about that shot they took at soccer.

Nobody had seen JJ, and nobody was particularly fussed about that, least of all JJ. We tracked down his dad, though.

‘Do you know where he got to?’ I ask.

‘Oh who knows with that boy? He goes where he wants,’ said Dad, half fondly, half peevishly.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the entire world wants to hear from him. We really anxious to get him down to the radio station for an interview.’

‘Okay,’ said Dad, nodding gravely. ‘How’s tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow’s fine. But today would be much better.’

We got back to the station, ran our nightly news piece on the difference between an American Oscar nominee and a Ni Vanuatu nominee. I put the finishing touches on this story and was moments away from filing…

Our receptionist said to me, ‘Boss, there’s a man to see you.’


‘He says he’s from Tanna.’

JJ, at last. He came sauntering in with a casual smile.

I ushered him up to our studio and quickly into the interview. He was imperturbable.

‘Going back to LA is like going back to my home,’ he said with a grin. He’s not exaggerating much. JJ has been a key fixer on two significant television series, and the cast of Tanna have strolled down so many red carpets that they’re beginning to think that’s what a building entrance looks like.

The lesson we take from the day is almost Zen. The movie star who works as an occasional night watchman can wander around town all day without a care in the world or a penny in his pocket, and sleep better at night than Meryl or Leonardo have in their lives.

We finish the interview, take a few photos—in which JJ demonstrates his ineffable cool—and when we’re done and walking to the door, he says to me, ‘They told me you would pay for my bus fare if I came down?’

We should spend more time on sport

Sport and athletic achievement are—when we keep drugs and money out of the picture—one of the few human activities with few if any downsides.

As we saw last week, they provide us with moments of unity and pride the like of which we don’t often see elsewhere.

Individual and simple team sports are low-cost ways of occupying our youth and providing them with invaluable lessons about hard work, achievement and excellence.

In other words, the very attributes that are so lacking when we bemoan the state of society today.

One thing is particularly clear: for whatever reason, Vanuatu’s athletes seem to operate at a higher baseline standard than countries many times our size. Our beach volleyball team came within a couple of rallies of an Olympic berth. Our rowers proved themselves worthy of standing on the world stage. Likewise our boxers and table tennis wunderkind Joshua Shing.

And now, our latest generation of football players is poised to showcase their achievement at football’s premier global event.

Who can read these facts and not ask, ‘How cool is that?’

But there’s more to sport than just that. Look past the puffery and patriotism of competitive sports, and there’s an entire universe of personal discovery and growth.
Read more “We should spend more time on sport”

Consultation means negotiation

Despite friendly advice from numerous people close to the process, it appears that the government is proceeding with its draft revenue review plan much as it has with past policies. Doing things the ordinary way wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this particular policy will have an extraordinary impact on the economic landscape.

Extraordinary policies require extraordinary efforts.

We accept in good faith the government’s promise to deliver a number of important briefing documents, explainers on key topics, and basic information about taxes and how they work. Good information is essential to any discussion.

And we have no reason to doubt the government’s promise to conduct public awareness events, either. They have committed themselves to holding public meetings at least in the municipal centres, and possibly elsewhere.

Some people have voiced alarm at the fact that draft legislation had been prepared even in advance of the CoM decision to proceed with the revenue review plan. This is common practice.

The mere existence of draft legislation doesn’t imply that a fix is in. The Family Protection Act existed in draft format for nearly a decade before it was finally enacted. The draft Cybercrime Bill is still—rightly—getting kicked back and forth. The Right to Information Bill has yet to see the Parliamentary floor, too, in spite of being in an advanced state of completion for some time.

No, the issue that is raising peoples’ hackles, in the private sector and at the grassroots, is the sense that a plan is being prepared, and that the only chance they will have to weigh in on it will be in an up/down vote.

Taxation is one of the most fundamental aspects of any democracy. Along with the ballot box, it’s one of the few ways that a citizen interacts directly in the administration of the country. And that’s why the people need to be presented with alternatives, rather than a simple yes-or-no decision. Read more “Consultation means negotiation”

No apologies, but open eyes

As it does every couple of years, China has invited media professionals from across the Pacific islands to pay a two-week visit to their country.

Part junket, part professional development exercise, the tour is clearly designed to soften views concerning China and its engagement with the rest of the world.

And in important ways, it’s working.

Only one of the Pacific islanders has visited China before, but the first days in Beijing offer some predictable experiences.

In almost comical irony, no photos are allowed at the entrance to the Xinhua News Agency building. One photographer is politely but firmly asked to delete two shots he’s already taken.

Asked why, a minder simply laughs, apparently in appreciation of the absurdity. He says, “I don’t know,” in a tone suggesting that there’s no point in him inquiring.

But the number of unexpected events is, well, surprising.

The delegation is met by senior officials within the Foreign Affairs and Commerce Ministries, and though it’s nearly impossible to judge progress from a single meeting, delegation members were left with the impression that they were being taken seriously.

Even if taken only as a matter of protocol, the level of official engagement is far higher than seen in visits to western nations. Then again, the respective roles of media and government are far more closely aligned in China than elsewhere. It could just be the done thing.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to have a serious discussion about Chinese lending and commercial activity in the Pacific with people in a position to speak with authority. Read more “No apologies, but open eyes”

The reporter is not your friend

Ideally, all parties participate equally in the creation of a story. Ideally, we’d all get a pony.

[Originally delivered as a speech on World Press Freedom day]

The reporter is not your friend—and you should be glad of that.

Well, okay, the reporter can be your friend, but she’s the honest friend who tells you yeah, your butt does look big in that. He’s the friend who stands between you and that bully and says, ‘You don’t have the right to speak to her like that!’ And then turns to you and says, ‘And neither do you.’

The reporter is the friend that tells you what your other friends are saying about you. Whether you want to hear it or not.

The reporter is the friend who tells you what you did was wrong, and who still visits you in jail. They don’t hate you when you don’t agree; they don’t like you just because you do.

It never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt for people to see their name in the headline. Good news or bad, it’s a shock.

And it never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt to put your name in the byline day after day. By far, the response to the work we do at the Daily Post is positive. But when the response is negative, you feel it deeply. Read more “The reporter is not your friend”

A Prayer for Fiji

The first survey flights are done, and although there has been welcome evidence that many communities in Fiji have survived intact, the number of towns and villages that have been obliterated is distressingly large.

While we can take comfort that Suva, Nadi and other international ports of call are more of less intact, the numerous smaller islands in Winston’s path, along with the lower part of Vanua Levu, have clearly been devastated.

On Viti Levu, Lautoka, Ba and Tavua all sustained significant damage, and the evidence from elsewhere is that numerous shoreside communities have simply been wiped away by the combination of record-strength winds and a massive storm surge.

None of us who experienced the power of cyclone Pam’s winds can remain unmoved by the photographic and video evidence emerging from the overflights of Fiji’s affected areas. The images are depressingly familiar. The blasted landscape, the corrugated metal roofing dotting the countryside like confetti, ships run aground and ashore, whole hillsides collapsed. Entire villages have been left without a single domicile standing.

This cyclone is the strongest storm ever to strike the Fiji islands. Clearly, Winston’s relief and reconstruction effort will be similar in scale to Fiji’s economy as Pam’s has proven to ours. Read more “A Prayer for Fiji”

BJ Skane is Gone

Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers.’ — Abbie Hoffman

B. J. Skane was the quintessential gadfly. She pestered, questioned, challenged and often infuriated everyone around her. But we are diminished without her.

In preparing this column, I scanned over a hundred pieces that B. J. wrote for the Daily Post over the past couple of years. Topics range from West Papuan cultural legends The Black Brothers to attacks on the folly of the Black sands fish factory (remember that?), to yachting rules, to ground-breaking court cases.

B. J. was a terrier with a story. Once she’d got her teeth into something, there was no letting go. For better or for worse, she would immerse herself in the arcane details of her topic of the day, and she would not relent until she felt she could explain it in perfect detail.

For anyone attempting to edit her work, this proved a fascinating challenge. No one could gainsay her desire to tell all of the truth, whether we wanted to hear it or not. There are few of us here who did not—at least once or twice over the years—feel a momentary desire to hide under the desk when B. J. walked into the newsroom.

But she was rarely, if ever, wrong on the facts. Read more “BJ Skane is Gone”

Barefoot on the red carpet

‘Tanna’ is a gem of a movie, and its stars deserve to shine among the brightest lights of the glitterati

There are two ways to make a movie like ‘Tanna’:

You could spend millions housing and caring for a cast and crew of hundreds, millions more on costumes, sets, make-up and outlandish logistical costs, and even more on lavish, painstakingly built CGI effects.

Or you could take a couple of hand-held cameras and go live in Yakel village for six months.

Both approaches would probably work, more or less. The first will get you The Mission, or Mosquito Coast, or—heaven help you—Fitzcarraldo. But only the latter is capable of capturing the heart of kastom in Tanna.

‘Tanna’ is visually lush and—happily—not polished. The actors have bad hair days, they have calloused hands and dirt under their nails. And this matters, because ‘Tanna’ is not just another hackneyed love story transposed into an exotic locale. It is composed of the essence of life in traditional Vanuatu. Read more “Barefoot on the red carpet”