Calan: Young Welsh band on the Rise

Sain 2715

The name of the Welsh band Calan translates as new year or beginning—think of the root of the word calendar. True to their name, this promising young quintet is a fresh collection of energy, innovation, and a little bit of cheek. Like most young bands, it's a work in progress, but if Dinas ("city") is any indication, we can look forward to flipping to the next page when the time comes. Most of the material is traditional, but there isn't any mold on it. Instead, Calan incorporates outside influences. "Tale of Two Dragons" sets the table as both the CD's opening and concluding track, first in English, then in Welsh as "Chwedyl Ddwy Ddraig." But before you get caught up in cheap psychoanalysis of the split Welsh identity, give a good listen. Its heart racing pace, full instrumentation, and overall wildness are more Scandinavian in nature and reminiscent of the Swedish folk/industrial rock band Garmarna. But the band they most remind me of at this stage of their development is Scotland's Capercaillie. If you happen to own a copy of Capercaillie's 1984 debut Cascade, give it a listen and then dip into Calan sets such as "Fflopsi Mopsi," "Set Stephen," and "Jig-Sô" and you'll hear similar patterns of instruments chasing each other in circles until they produce a musical swell.

It is, of course, unfair to expect Calan's lead vocalist Belthan Rhiannon Williams-Jones to sound like Karen Matheson–a voice that appears once in a generation. Williams-Jones has a much lighter tone and her youth is heard on slower songs, but she can do a few things Ms. Matheson does not: play a mean accordion, or put it down and step dance. Calan's unique aspect is that it supplements strong playing with stunning stage effects. Give a good listen to the percussion on this album. Some of it is guitarist Sam Humphreys thumping a kick drum, but most of it is the sound of feet–lots of them. Williams-Jones usually dances in tandem with fiddler Angharad Siân Jenkins, but even harper Llinos Eleri Jones straps her instrument over her shoulder so she can tap and move to the pulsing beats. (You can hear Jones' harping in a a more tranquil setting on "Y Clychau," as well as some spirited fiddling and even a touch of piping.) To get a sense of how much heat the feet can generate, listen to "Gwdihŵ Shoes" whose effect is that of woodpeckers on a runaway steam train. (It sounds even better live and the dancing is visually spectacular.) The album Dinas also shows there's room for growth, especially in Calan's slower material. I'm not a fan of the more contemporary songs, but that's a personal preference and I'd rather we celebrate the beginning of a superb lineup of young musicians. I'd also like to give a special shout-out to Calan's resident master-of-just-about-everything: Patrick Rimes. All he does on Dinas is play the fiddle, bagpipes, the Welsh pigborn, whistles, accordion, and piano.

Rob Weir


The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a Literary Triumph

Richard Flanagan
Vintage, 416, pages, 978-0804171472
* * * * *

Forget Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, and Tolstoy. Just kidding, but in terms of emotional wallop, one could make the case that the three greatest war novels of our time are: Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried; Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See; and Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The last of these is so good that it won the UK's 2014 Man Booker Prize. Man Booker winners are often as questionable as Cannes film prizewinners–Hilary Mantel? Ugh!–but when the Man Booker committee gets it right, it gets it spectacularly right.

Flanagan's sprawling novel takes on nothing less than the five stages of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and late adulthood), assuming one is lucky enough to make it that far. Its title derives from the 17th century haiku master and travel journalist Basho, who set off from Edo and headed north to inhabit the observation that life is a journey. (Thanks to Smith College's Michael Gorra for his elucidation on Basho.) Flanagan's novel is punctuated with poetry and its various vignettes and musing on life's transitory nature is loosely held together through the character of Dorrigo Evans, whose life stages we observe in flashbacks. His odd name is adopted from an Australian town, which the Tasmanian-born doctor, literature lover, and proclaimed war hero finds infinitely superior to his birth name: Alwyn. It's one of several reinvention attempts, not all of which succeed. Dorrigo's poet of choice is Tennyson, especially Ulysses, who was also a reluctant traveler and Evans decidedly casts himself in a fated, tragic role. Among the haiku he quotes is this one from Issa: "In this world/we walk on the roof of hell/gazing at flowers." 

Dorrigo has cause to believe in fate. The heart of the book is about his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War Two–one of the thousands of Australians captured in Burma and used by their Japanese captors as slave labor to construct an impossible folly: a railroad through the jungle to connect Burma and Thailand. More than 90,000 POWs perished, but Evans survived. Please set aside all the romanticism of David Lean's 1957 film Bridge over the River Kwai (or of Pierre Boule's 1954 novel). There are no plucky whistling Brits in this novel–just near-naked, starving men being pushed to the limits of human endurance under blazing suns and drenching monsoon rains, often dying in the mud and runny streams of their own excrement. Who survives in such conditions? How does an officer such as Dorrigo choose which sick men to work, and how does he live with his own conscience, even though his peers and the Australian public hail him for having saved more lives than should have been possible? Answer: You don't. Dorrigo dismisses acclaim: "… the more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it. He did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause." Nor can Dorrigo forget the war, a tainted love affair, his infidelities, the men he commanded, or the patients he could not save. As Flanagan writes, "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else." Dorrigo was decidedly an unhappy man.

As you surmise, this is also a book about memory. Among its many—dare I say it?—virtues is that we see missteps and horrors through multiple perspectives: Ella, Dorrigo's mistress; a condemned Korean war criminal about to hang and angry that he never got the 50 yen his Japanese superiors promised him; camp commander Nakamara, who escapes capture and lives out his life convinced he acted from "duty" and "honor," and is therefore a "good man"; and camp non-survivors such as Darky Gardner, who concludes that life is "a stacked deck. Life was only about getting the next footstep right."

If the book sounds depressing, so it is in places, especially in gut- wrenchingly lurid camp scenes. Belief systems take it on the chin, but there is also immense beauty in the book. There is, first, stunning prose the likes of which you will read aloud to others after gasping, "Oh my God! Listen to this writing." Moreover, though Dorrigo sees redemption as impossible, others find meaning in small sublime moments rather than big complex systems. One chapter involved several camp survivors breaking the window and freeing fish from a Melbourne fish shop once frequented by a dead comrade. Wracked by remorse, several of the men return to confess to the shop's Greek owner, who tells them simply to sit and be his guest–"You must eat. It's good to eat,"–a prelude to talking about winter, apricots, the man's dead wife, his son who died in the war, fishing, how to cook lamb…. The enormous weight of strangers discovering shared humanity made for a moving literary experiences that made me weep. Make no mistake–this is more than a novel; it is literature. If you're uncertain of the difference, Flanagan's passages will illumine.

Rob Weir    


Olympics Makeover Plan

Boston's abrupt withdrawal of its Olympics bid has, thus far, unleashed more handwringers and satirists than serious thinkers. The Boston Globe's Farah Stockman is the latest to unsheathe her satirical sword. Fair enough: I milked the issue for some cheap humor of my own. But Ms. Stockman's swipe at the Lords of the Rings also contained a suggestion that I've been pushing for years: return the summer games to Athens on a permanent basis. It's not only a good idea; it may be the only way to restore anything resembling the intended spirit of the games.

I am not so naïve as to believe that the Olympics will return to the amateur ideals that sparked Pierre de Coubertin to reinstitute an updated version of the ancient Greek games in 1896. I am rather certain, though, that the Modern Olympics have now drifted so far from any sort of idealism that they are just another sporting event insofar as non-participants are concerned. Let's start with the fact that the Olympics were supposed to celebrate individual glory, not nationalism. All the medal count nonsense is the antithesis of Coubertin's hope that the Olympics would defuse nationalism. When you hear people chant "USA! USA! USA!" you should weep, not celebrate. What happened to the days when Americans could fall in love with someone like Romania's Nadia Comaneci, Russia's Olga Korbut, the Czech Emil Zatopek, Britain's Kelly Holmes, or Finland's Paavo Nurmi? Like future organizations such as the United Nations or the Fulbright Program, the Olympics were supposed to promote peace by emphasizing our shared humanity. Blame Carter, blame the Soviet, blame whomever—the "Who won the Olympics?" crap has worn out its welcome. Where better to return to idealism than Athens, the Western birthplace of democracy and standards of personal and public excellence? 
What the IOOC doesn't want you to think about: Athens 2015

But even if we put aside idealistic abstractions, it's clear that the Olympics cannot continue to be boons for developers and busts for taxpayers. The games have become examples of what Yale American studies professor Dolores Hayden calls "ballpork," the building of massive sports venues subsidized by public money for the profit of private investors. Olympics promoters descend like carrion birds and make one outlandish promise after another about how the games will benefit a host city, but here's the reality:

·      A short-term construction boom of 14-16 months followed by massive layoffs once venues are completed. Winners: investors playing with other people's money. Losers: workers and taxpayers.
·      A boom for local hotels and restaurants during the two weeks the games are in session. In many cases, though, the expected windfall encourages overbuilding and overinvestment that go belly-up. Winners: Lenders. Losers: Borrowers.
·      Temporary low-wage jobs during the games that disappear when the torch is extinguished. Winners: Vendors. Losers: Workers.
·      Cost projections that are woefully understated. This is the biggest scam of all. The International Olympics Organizing Committee (IOOC) expects a promise that the host city will cover any financial overruns. This was precisely the proviso that led Boston to bow out. (Such promises are also unrealistic in modern democracies. Name a city so awash in cash that its politicians can glibly put taxpayers at risk.) Winner: IOOC powerbrokers. Losers: Tab holders.
·      A lot of needed infrastructure improvements, but also a whole lot of venues that have no purpose once the games end. (Who needs a velodrome or a bobsled run?) What's left that 's usable often requires further expenditures for conversion (an Olympic village, for example). It costs a lot to maintain an empty facility, and a pretty penny to tear it down. Winners: Real estate developers and demolition firms. Losers: City budgets and residents in decaying areas.

It makes financial sense to designate Athens as a permanent home. Build one velodrome, use it for an international meet or two in non-Olympics years, and renovate for the games themselves. Ditto gymnastics venues, pugilism arenas, archery layouts, and other such seldom-used facilities.

Here's how to get the ballporkers and IOOC mobsters to buy in: shift the emphasis from the once-in-a-lifetime-greet-the-world Olympics to ongoing, but humbler-in-scale events. The United States could, for example, build training centers that provided steady use and predictable income. What if, for example, the ballporkers spread the money around: Iowa for wrestling facilities, Texas as an Olympian shooters' training ground, Los Angeles for track and field athletes, Boston for rowers, Detroit for boxers, Ann Arbor for swimmers, etc. Repeat across the globe.

Now imagine these places occasionally hosting regional events such as the Pan-American, the All-Africa, the Pacific, and other such games. These are far cheaper than the Olympics, encourage ongoing improvements, and make investments more than a one-time gamble on a risky roulette wheel. If the IOOC ever really got its act together—hey, I'm dreaming large here—it would also partner with sports federations to hold occasional world championships events in Athens in non-Olympics years. For example, the Union Cycliste International could converge upon Athens in 2021, the FINA swimming championships in 2022, the gymnasts world cup in 2023, and so on. It would have the added bonuses of allowing champion athletes to familiarize themselves with the venues before the games and give the world bodies of respective sports a way a to contain costs every third year. As for getting investors on board, just remind them that TV revenue is way more important than ticket sales or a once-very-four-years building boom.

Athens 2004: What it could be every four years!
Athens as a permanent Olympics site simply makes a lot of logistical and financial sense. It would go a long way to deflecting petty nationalism, saving a bundle, breaking the autocratic hold of the IOOC, and ending the ballpork extortion racket. If the last four sound idealistic, so be it: Greece was also the birthplace of classical philosophy.