Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Impeachment: Nancy Pelosi has taken it off the table, but people in the State of Maine say they'll put it back (yes, a State can start impeachment)

1. Activists start DIY impeachment effort
Accountability -- by JAMES MIXON /The Phoenix

They are not stopping traffic or waving picket signs: a group of concerned peaceniks from the Brunswick area have found another means of change. According to the rules of the US House of Representatives, any state legislature can present a resolution to impeach the president.

Deborah Gordan and Stan Lofalia of hope Maine will be the first state to do so, though similar efforts are under way in several other states.

The group of artists and activists has collected 3600 signatures on a petition to US representatives Michael Michaud and Tom Allen, as well as to state lawmakers, hoping to push any or all of them toward seeking impeachment. Organizers say they want to collect 10,000 signatures before formally submitting them to Michaud, Allen, and others.

The Website lists ten reasons for impeachment: launching a war without a cause; authorizing the use of torture; detaining Americans and non-Americans without due process or cause; violating the Geneva Conventions; using illegal wiretaps against American citizens; the use of “signing statements” to defy Congress; obstructing honest elections in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006; using disinformation and paid propaganda to deceive the public; abusing presidential powers; and negligence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“How can I have any pride in my country?” asks Gordan. “People thought we were communists because we were selling bracelets that said ‘I didn’t vote for Bush’ and that’s as radical as we would get.” But now many people are growing more determined, and the MaineImpeach gang is morose and concerned.

“Trying to make a change can seem very overwhelming and impossible,” says Tom Fronceck of Brunswick. “But every water drop in the bucket adds up.” The group hopes the message will spread, especially to the younger generation, whose voice can really make a difference.

Group member Gary Higginbottom says, “we need to demonstrate to people in the state that it’s not just a bunch of peaceniks that want this to happen . . . it’s not a few people, it’s a lot of people.”

2. Why George Bush is Insane – by Harold Pinter/The Assassinated Press/Znet

Earlier this year I had a major operation for cancer. The operation and its after-effects were something of a nightmare. I felt I was a man unable to swim bobbing about under water in a deep dark endless ocean. But I did not drown and I am very glad to be alive.

However, I found that to emerge from a personal nightmare was to enter an infinitely more pervasive public nightmare - the nightmare of American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence; the most powerful nation the world has ever known effectively waging war against the rest of the world. "If you are not with us you are against us" President Bush has said. He has also said "We will not allow the world's worst weapons to remain in the hands of the world's worst leaders". Quite right. Look in the mirror chum. That's you.

The US is at this moment developing advanced systems of "weapons of mass destruction" and it prepared to use them where it sees fit. It has more of them than the rest of the world put together. It has walked away from international agreements on biological and chemical weapons, refusing to allow inspection of its own factories. The hypocrisy behind its public declarations and its own actions is almost a joke.

The United States believes that the three thousand deaths in New York are the only deaths that count, the only deaths that matter. They are American deaths. Other deaths are unreal, abstract, of no consequence.

The three thousand deaths in Afghanistan are never referred to.

The hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead through US and British sanctions which have deprived them of essential medicines are never referred to.

The effect of depleted uranium, used by America in the Gulf War, is never referred to. Radiation levels in Iraq are appallingly high. Babies are born with no brain, no eyes, no genitals. Where they do have ears, mouths or rectums, all that issues from these orifices is blood.

The two hundred thousand deaths in East Timor in 1975 brought about by the Indonesian government but inspired and supported by the United States are never referred to.

The half a million deaths in Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Argentina and Haiti, in actions supported and subsidised by the United States are never referred to.

The millions of deaths in Vietnam ,Laos and Cambodia are no longer referred to.

The desperate plight of the Palestinian people, the central factor in world unrest, is hardly referred to.

But what a misjudgement of the present and what a misreading of history this is.

People do not forget. They do not forget the death of their fellows, they do not forget torture and mutilation, they do not forget injustice, they do not forget oppression, they do not forget the terrorism of mighty powers. They not only don't forget. They strike back.

The atrocity in New York was predictable and inevitable. It was an act of retaliation against constant and systematic manifestations of state terrorism on the part of the United States over many years, in all parts of the world.

In Britain the public is now being warned to be "vigilant" in preparation for potential terrorist acts. The language is in itself preposterous.

How will - or can - public vigilance be embodied? Wearing a scarf over your mouth to keep out poison gas? However, terrorist attacks are quite likely, the inevitable result of our Prime Minister's contemptible and shameful subservience to the United States. Apparently, a terrorist poison gas attack on the London Underground system was recently prevented. But such an act may indeed take place. Thousands of school children travel on the London Underground every day. If there is a poison gas attack from which they die, the responsibility will rest entirely on the shoulders of our Prime Minister. Needless to say, the Prime Minister does not travel on the underground himself.

The planned war against Iraq is in fact a plan for premeditated murder of thousands of civilians in order, apparently, to rescue them from their dictator.

The United States and Britain are pursuing a course which can lead only to an escalation of violence throughout the world and finally to catastrophe.

It is obvious, however, that the United States is bursting at the seams to attack Iraq . I believe that it will do this - not just to take control of Iraqi oil - but because the US administration is now a bloodthirsty wild animal. Bombs are its only vocabulary. Many Americans, we know, are horrified by the posture of their government but seem to be helpless.

Unless Europe finds the solidarity, intelligence, courage and will to challenge and resist US power Europe itself will deserve Alexander Herzen's definition (as quoted in the Guardian newspaper in London recently) "We are not the doctors. We are the disease".

3. Time is Right For Impeachment Vote -- by John Nichols/ The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Stoughton will vote next Tuesday on the audacious question of whether the president and vice president of the United States should be impeached.

It won’t be the first community in the nation to do so. Earlier this month, more than three dozen town meetings in Vermont did so, and cities across the country have held referendums calling for Congress to hold President Bush and Vice President Cheney to account for manipulating the intelligence that led this country into an unnecessary war, for authorizing warrantless wiretaps and other forms of spying, for encouraging torture and extraordinary rendition, for seeking to punish political critics, and for other acts that would seem to fit under the heading of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

But it seems as if Stoughton may be voting at precisely the right moment.

Former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough had me on his MSNBC show the other night to talk about impeachment.

It was a smart, civil discussion that treated the prospect of impeaching the president as a serious matter.

Scarborough took the lead in suggesting that Bush’s biggest problem might be that Republicans in the House and Senate do not appear to be rallying around the president. The host’s sentiments were echoed by two other guests, columnist Mike Barnicle and Salon’s Joan Walsh.

The impetus for the show was Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel’s ongoing discussion of the impeachment prospect — Hagel’s more a speculator than a supporter of sanctioning Bush — and a new column by Robert Novak that suggests Bush has dwindling support in Congress.

Speaking about impeachment on ABC’s “This Week,” Hagel said, “Any president who says I don’t care’ or I will not respond to what the people of this country are saying about Iraq or anything else’ or I don’t care what the Congress does, I am going to proceed’ — if a president really believes that, then there (are) ways to deal with that.”

Novak wrote, “The I-word (incompetence) is used by Republicans in describing the Bush administration generally. Several of them I talked to described a trifecta of incompetence: the Walter Reed hospital scandal, the FBI’s misuse of the Patriot Act and the U.S. attorneys firing fiasco. We always have claimed that we were the party of better management,’ one House leader told me. How can we claim that anymore?’ “

Scarborough asked whether Bush could count on Republicans to block moves by Democrats to hold him to account.

When a conservative commentator who was on the front lines of Newt Gingrich’s “Republican revolution” entertains a thoughtful conversation about the politics and processes of impeachment on a major cable news network, it should be clear that the cloistered conversation about sanctioning this president has begun to open up.

What I told Scarborough is what I have been saying in public forums for the past several weeks: We are nearing an impeachment moment. The Alberto Gonzales scandal, the under-covered but very real controversy involving abuses of the Patriot Act, and the president’s increasingly belligerent refusals to treat Congress as a co-equal branch of government are putting the discussion of presidential accountability onto the table from which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tried to remove it.

Does this mean Bush and Cheney will be impeached? That, of course, will be decided by the people. Impeachment at its best is always an organic process; it needs popular support or it fizzles — as with the attempt by House Republican leaders to remove former President Clinton.

While the people saved Clinton — by signaling to their representatives that they opposed sanctioning a president for his personal morals — it does not appear that they are inclined to protect Bush.

With each new revelation about what Gonzales did at the behest of the Bush White House to politicize prosecutions by U.S. attorneys, the revulsion with the way this president has disregarded the Constitution and the rule of law becomes more intense. And citizens are not cutting their president much slack.

A new USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted over the weekend shows that, by nearly 3 to 1, Americans want Congress to issue subpoenas to force White House officials to testify in the Gonzales case. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed say the president should drop his claim of executive privilege in this matter, while only 26 percent agree with the reasoning Bush has used to try to block a meaningful inquiry.

If the president wants to fight with Congress over how to read the Constitution, it appears that the people will back Congress.

As Hagel says, “This is not a monarchy. There are ways to deal with (executive excess). And I would hope the president understands that.”

If not, perhaps Stoughton, and other communities like it across the country, will remind him — just as they will remind Congress that it is time to take the “I” issue up.

(John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.’”)

4. Bush Team Is Adept Only at Bungling
by Andrew Greeley/ The Chicago Sun Times

The Bush administration reminds me of Jimmy Breslin’s comic novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The premise of the novel was what if you had a Mafia gang whose members were incompetent at the things that mafiosi are supposed to do. Similarly, the Bush administration has often shot itself in the foot because its key players are not qualified for their jobs. They make a mess of the job and are protected by secrecy; or if that isn’t possible, by spin. The current example is the selective firing of U.S. attorneys for reasons that are not yet clear. The gnomes who created the mess are two of President Bush’s old cronies from Texas: Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers. Neither, as is now patent, is a heavy hitter. Gonzales has been involved in controversies over the Geneva Convention (which he called “quaint”) and legal memos that appear to involve approval of secrecy, torture, imprisonment without trial and spying on Americans without legal warrants. Small wonder the president does not want him to testify under oath.

Another example of not being able to do the job were the men who were supposed to deal with Hurricane Katrina: Michael Chertoff and Michael Brown (of Homeland Security and FEMA, respectively), neither of whom had the intelligence to deal with a catastrophe or the experience of responding to major disasters (unlike Brown’s predecessor Edward Witt). However, they were loyal Republicans, so no other competence was required. New Orleans continues to be a mess; FEMA continues to be unable to spend the money. No heavy hitters in this mess.

Then there is the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was supposed to govern Iraq in the years after the war. L. Paul Bremer, the head of CPA, did not speak Arabic and had never served in the Middle East. He had been a staff aide to Henry Kissinger and ambassador to Norway. The members of his staff, mostly younger Republicans, seem to have been even less qualified, and according to journalists covering Iraq, did not speak Arabic and rarely left the fortified Green Zone. Whatever Bremer’s intentions, he and his staff must share the blame for what came after the new government was installed. None of them seems to have been a heavy hitter.

The worst example by far of the gang that could only shoot itself in the foot is the president’s foreign policy team. Condoleezza Rice had been provost at Stanford University, which might have qualified her to become president of a state college in the California system, but scarcely the president’s top foreign policy adviser or now secretary of state. Donald Rumsfeld was a hard-driving and arrogant corporate executive skilled at bureaucratic infighting who ignored the advice of the experienced military officers and ran the Defense Department as his own fiefdom. He used the war to prove his hypothesis that a small American military force would easily triumph, and he made no preparations for reconstruction after the war — two tragic mistakes, the results of which are still with us.

Vice President Dick Cheney, on the basis of the ”Scooter” Libby trial, seems an angry man with paranoid tendencies who may even now suspect an Iraq link with al-Qaida and weapons of mass destruction hidden away somewhere. Mixed in were a clique of neocons: Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Libby, who could write strong memos. The only heavy hitter, who might have been able to prevent the mistake of the war, was Colin Powell, whom Rumsfeld and Cheney marginalized. No wonder the war went terribly wrong and tens of thousands have died.

Gonzales, Miers, Chertoff, Bremer, Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz: Could any of the members of this gang have been expected to shoot straight? Besides Powell, where were the wise men (and women) who could have protected the country from a string of disasters?

Bush is a victim of his bad taste in advisers and staff, his propensity to Texas cronyism and his inclination to cover up and spin the truth. There is no reason to believe that he is better advised about the ”new” strategy in Iraq, or that the mistakes will not continue till Jan. 20, 2009. No heavy hitters need apply.

5. Mugged by reality - how it all went wrong in Iraq
From The Economist

“NEMESIS” was the word The Economist printed on its front cover four years ago, when jubilant Iraqis, aided by American soldiers, hauled down the big statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square. For a moment it looked as though all the fears that had accompanied the build-up to the American-led invasion had been groundless. The defeat of Iraq's army in three weeks turned out to be exactly the “cakewalk” that some of the war's boosters predicted. And in many places Iraqis did indeed greet the American soldiers as liberators, just as Ahmed Chalabi, Iraq's best-known politician-in-exile, had promised they would.

How different it looks four years on. The invasion has been George Bush's nemesis as well as Saddam's. The lightning conquest was followed by a guerrilla and then a civil war. Talk of victory has given way to talk about how to limit a disaster. The debacle has cut short the careers of Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair, poisoned the Bush presidency and greatly damaged the Republican Party (see article ). More important, it has inflicted fear, misery and death on its intended beneficiaries. “It is hard to imagine any post-war dispensation that could leave Iraqis less free or more miserable than they were under Mr Hussein,” we said four years ago. Our imagination failed. One of the men who took a hammer to Saddam's statue told the world's media this week that although Saddam was like Stalin, the occupation is worse.

What went wrong? The most popular answer of the American neoconservatives who argued loudest for the war is that it was a good idea badly executed. Kenneth Adelman, he of the “cakewalk”, has since called the Bush national-security team “among the most incompetent” of the post-war era. Others also blame the Iraqis for their inability to accept America's gift of freedom. “We have given the Iraqis a republic and they do not appear able to keep it,” lamented Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the Washington Post .

That excuse is too convenient by half: it is what the apologists for communism said too. But there can be no denying that the project was bungled from the start. Western intelligence failed to discover that Saddam had destroyed all his weapons of mass destruction ( WMD ), the removal of which was the main rationale for the war. However, the incompetence went beyond this. The war was launched by a divided administration that had no settled notion of how to run Iraq after the conquest. The general who warned Congress that stabilising the country would require several hundred thousand troops was sacked for his prescience.

Mr Rumsfeld's one big idea seemed to be that it was not the job of the armed forces he was “transforming” to become policemen, social workers or nation- builders. As a result, he sent too few and they did nothing to prevent looters from picking clean all Iraq's public buildings the moment the regime collapsed. “Stuff happens,” was the defence secretary's comment, a phrase used later as the title of an anti-war play in London's West End.

America's plans for Iraq's political transition were also rudimentary, to the extent that they existed at all. The Pentagon wanted Mr Chalabi and his fellow exiles put swiftly in charge. The State Department thought an American administration would have to be installed. State had organised a pre-invasion Future of Iraq project, but the Pentagon declined to adopt its ideas. Several knowledgeable State Department Arabists were prevented from going to Iraq because they were deemed ideologically unsound. Jay Garner, an amiable general called in from retirement to manage the transition under an understaffed ad hoc body known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, received no intelligible instructions from Washington, and baffled the liberated Iraqis in his turn. “You're in charge,” he told a gathering of 300 or so mystified tribal leaders and exiles who attended a conference soon after his arrival, hoping to discover what the future held under Iraq's new rulers.

When the Americans discovered the obvious—that Iraqis could not take charge of a state whose institutions had collapsed—the amiable General Garner was called home and replaced by a viceroy. Paul Bremer set up his Coalition Provisional Authority ( CPA ) inside one of Saddam's Baghdad palaces, at the heart of a fortified “green zone” cut off by tall blast walls from the life of the city. Unlike his predecessor he had firm views about what needed to be done, views which in short order produced big mistakes. He disbanded the Iraqi army and so put tens of thousands of resentful, jobless men with military training on the streets. And he turfed thousands of Baath Party members out of the bureaucracy, thereby depriving many ministries of their only trained staff.

In the end, the Americans did preside over a political transition of sorts. The CPA handed sovereignty to an interim government under Iyad Allawi, selected on the advice of the United Nations. Then, in 2005, came a year of elections. In January Iraqis voted in their first free election for a new National Assembly; they voted again in October in a referendum on a new constitution; and they voted in December to elect yet another new National Assembly under the new constitution's rules. If democratic politics were about nothing more than casting votes, Iraq would have the hang of it by now.

Unfortunately, few things are more useless than a government that cannot govern. And Iraq's government can't. For although Iraqis voted in high numbers, they voted along ethnic lines, and this produced an impasse. The outnumbered Sunnis feel locked out of a new Iraq dominated by Shias. The victorious Shia block, the United Iraqi Alliance, is itself so divided that it took its factions five months after the election of December 2005 to choose a prime minister. And his authority is limited. Nuri al-Maliki depends for a majority on members loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical anti-American Shia cleric, with a powerful militia at his disposal. The prime minister can deploy patronage, but this has made his administration into little more than a spoils system in which the individual parties, many with their own militias, use control of government ministries to extract resources for themselves.

The main reason for the government's inability to govern, however, is that it cannot stem a tidal wave of criminal and political violence. The Kurds are doing nicely in their northern enclave and much of the south is calm enough. But Baghdad and central Iraq are tangled in multiple conflicts. Many Sunnis have taken up arms against the new Shia-dominated order. Al-Qaeda is running a jihad against the Americans and Shias alike. By killing Shias, especially after blowing up their Askariyah shrine last February, al-Qaeda has succeeded in provoking a torrent of revenge killings. In places, in the name of “resistance” or Islam, Shia militias also attack American soldiers. A poll this week found that half of all Iraqis consider such attacks acceptable (see table). It seems extraordinary, till you remember how at a stroke the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison turned the liberators into torturers in the eyes of Iraqis. The prevalence of violence and the absence of law erodes the legitimacy of the elected government and makes it almost impossible to rebuild an economy that even before the war had been prostrated by a dozen years of UN sanctions.

What now?

It took a long time for the White House to acknowledge the bleak reality. But December's report to the new Democrat-controlled Congress of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan committee chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, forced a change. Its succinct first sentence—“The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating”—made it impossible for Mr Bush to keep on saying with jutted jaw that fortitude alone could retrieve the situation. Nor, however, could he accept the group's recommendation to begin to withdraw troops and launch “a robust diplomatic effort”. That would look too much like declaring defeat and going cap in hand to America's regional enemies, Iran and Syria, to sue for peace. So instead of bringing the boys home, Mr Bush decided to send more.

What to make of the “surge” now starting in Baghdad? It is reasonable for sceptics to argue that Mr Bush is merely clinging to existing policy until he leaves office, when a new president will have to clean up the mess he has made. On its own, adding between 20,000 and 30,000 American troops to the 130,000 already there hardly seems likely to turn Iraq around. All the same, some of the military architects of the surge are true believers. This is not just reinforcement, they say, but a long-overdue reversal of the whole flawed post-invasion strategy Mr Rumsfeld left behind.

From the start, the former defence secretary was convinced that the job of securing and rebuilding Iraq belonged to Iraqis. Even after his grudging acceptance that a widespread Sunni insurgency was indeed under way, American troops concentrated on minimising their own casualties while training Iraq's ragged new army to put it down. This was well beyond its ability. In recent months, since it has become clearer that parts of Mr Maliki's Shia-dominated coalition as well as parts of the police are themselves responsible for murdering many Sunnis, the strategy has made even less sense. In such circumstances, arming a government can be tantamount to taking sides in a civil war—and reducing the incentive of the side you back to make concessions for peace.

Henceforth, say the surgers, American troops will do what they should have been doing all along according to classic counter-insurgency theory. Under the direction of an energetic new commander, General David Petraeus, they will leave their bases and plant themselves in the heart of Baghdad's neighbourhoods in order to give Iraqis the security they crave. And security, they argue, is the key to everything else. Only when the killing declines will Iraq's new government be able to buttress its legitimacy, suck support away from the militias and rebuild the economy.

A few weeks into the surge, it is too early to assess the validity of this beguiling hypothesis. The number of ethnic killings by Shia gangs is reported to be falling, but Sunni car- and suicide-bombers are still killing Baghdadis in their mosques and markets. The obvious difficulty, however, is that even if the Americans have at last lighted on the right approach, General Petraeus may not be given the time to see the job through. That will almost certainly be the case if politics in both Washington and Baghdad continue to move against him.

The Democrats in Congress do not want to be seen pulling the rug from under a successful new commander. But nor are they eager to squander more lives and money on a war that many voters think America has already lost. The mood in Washington might be changed by evidence of political progress in Baghdad: the point of the surge is to stabilise the capital and so buy time for Iraq's politicians to reach a power-sharing agreement that might suck some poison out of the sectarian war. But are they capable of making such a deal? Do they even want to?

Iraq's cabinet agreed last month on how to share oil revenues between the regions. In public utterances Mr Maliki is careful to say all the right things about national reconciliation. These are encouraging pointers. The trouble is that Americans who listen in to his government's internal chatter are horrified by what they hear. Some conclude that the Shias have no real intention to share power, only to string America along while using its firepower to destroy rivals and entrench their own dominion. It is also uncertain whether the politicians who claim to speak for the Sunnis in the National Assembly are close enough to the insurgents to make them stop fighting even in the event of a political settlement. In short, time may show that the democratic structure the Americans worked so hard to install can neither run Iraq nor reconcile its warring clans.

That would mark Mr Bush's final failure The chief reason he gave for the invasion of 2003 (and the only one this newspaper accepted) was fear of Iraq's WMD .But this, admitted Paul Wolfowitz, then Mr Rumsfeld's deputy, was only “the one issue that everyone could agree on”. Others included a feeling after September 11th 2001 that America should vanquish any enemy that dared to defy it, and a belief that by turning Iraq into a democracy America could transform the Middle East, ending the rule of the autocrats, draining the swamp in which terrorism festered and promoting an Arab peace with Israel.

What next?

When the WMD turned out not to exist, Mr Bush inflated this “freedom agenda”. In his inauguration speech in 2005, after his re-election, he connected Iraq to America's “great liberating tradition” in foreign policy. Free elections had been held not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. The “Cedar Revolution” turfed Syria's army out of Lebanon and American nagging resulted in an Egyptian presidential election that looked marginally less rigged than usual. But 2005 was the high point. It is now absurd to expect Iraq to serve as a democratic inspiration—it has done more to inspire jihad . As for proving American might, the overstretched superpower looks increasingly like a supplicant, less prone to lecture Arabs on governance than to seek help from former enemies once consigned like Syria and Iran to the “axis of evil”.

Mr Bush's rejection of the Baker-Hamilton report should not have been a surprise. Transparently admitting defeat would have forced America to negotiate from weakness. The surge, in contrast, may turn out to be a case of sauter pour mieux reculer : a way to strengthen America's hand before Mr Bush, or more probably his successor, co-ordinates an eventual exit with Iraq and its neighbours.
AFP Into an unsafe future

The surge in Iraq has coincided with tougher action against Iran. America has sent an extra carrier to the Gulf and is helping to pilot a second sanctions resolution against Iran through the UN Security Council. But it is at the same time putting machinery in place that could be used to make a bargain. Officials from the two countries talked early this month in Baghdad and more senior ones expect to get together at a follow-up next month.

It seems odd after more than quarter of a century of rivalry for America to expect any help from Iran. The Islamic Republic is the big winner from Mr Bush's war. But neither Iran nor any regional power apart from al-Qaeda has an interest in the complete collapse of Iraq. The Iranians in particular worry about what the Americans might do in such a circumstance. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, calls America “a wounded tiger”, all the more dangerous for its sudden weakness. Such has been Mr Bush's failure that the autocrats of the Middle East say that they are trying to rescue Iraq from America and America from itself. It really is a debacle.

If only

It is not enough to say with the neocons that this was a good idea executed badly. Their own ideas are partly to blame. Too many people in Washington were fixated on proving an ideological point: that America's values were universal and would be digested effortlessly by people a world away. But plonking an American army in the heart of the Arab world was always a gamble. It demanded the highest seriousness and careful planning. Messrs Bush and Rumsfeld chose instead to send less than half the needed soldiers and gave no proper thought to the aftermath.

What a waste. Most Iraqis rejoiced in the toppling of Saddam. They trooped in their millions to vote. What would Iraq be like now if America had approached its perilous, monumentally controversial undertaking with humility, honesty and courage? Thanks to the almost criminal negligence of Mr Bush's administration nobody, now, will ever know.

Bookplanet: the first novel blues (it's a wonder they ever get published)

That difficult first novel
There has never been a tougher time to be a debut novelist - only a tiny fraction receive six-figure advances, and most manuscripts end up in the shredder. So, what makes or breaks the first-timers?
By Kate Kellaway/The Observer

Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: 'There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.' He might have added as a PS: a novelist's troubles do not end with publication. Getting a first novel published - and publicised - is harder than ever before. Once upon a time, a first novel could afford to be a dress rehearsal, a proving ground. That is no longer true. As Juliet Annan, founding editor of the Penguin imprint Fig Tree, says: 'The world of booksellers is such that you have to make an impact from the word go.'

First-time novelists divide into those paid small sums by their publishers (rarely above £12,000 for a two-book deal) and a lucky minority who secure flamboyant advances (Orion paid £800,000 for The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; John Murray spent around £500,000 on The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. And celebrities do best of all. Jordan is rumoured to have been offered £1m by Ebury for a clutch of autobiographical novels under her real name 'Katie Price'). What seems to be missing is a middle ground.

One of London's leading literary agents, Pat Kavanagh, points out that high advances can create 'artificial expectations' for writers. Take Gautam Malkani. Last year, his ambitious first novel, Londonstani, about Asian youth in west London, for which he received a £300,000 advance, was hyped to the hilt before publication, then panned. Not a good preparation for writing a second book. And for a distinguished author like Timothy Mo, nominated three times for the Booker, it seems that no longer being able to command the high advances he did earlier in his career has done more than knock his pride. (He hasn't had a novel published since 1999.)

Publishing a first novel is a gamble. Novelists depend on word of mouth, Radio 4, book clubs and prizes - and reviews (always in short supply). The first-time novelist may experience a contradictory mixture of over- and under-exposure. In the past, publishers could fudge sales figures. Now, thanks to the Nielsen Bookscan, there is nowhere to hide. It is possible to look up sales data on any novelist faster than you can say Zadie Smith. And if a book flops commercially, or, to use publishing parlance, 'doesn't work', a postmortem can be briskly conducted. Equally, if it does 'break out' (desperado publishing slang for success), the scale of its popularity can be precisely assessed.

Before I became a journalist, I worked as a reader for Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus. I learnt that if it is true that everyone has a novel in them, most people would be best advised to keep it there. But the job made me realise just how hard it is to write a novel at all. It gave me a respect for narrative - still so often and puzzlingly undervalued as a gift. I learnt that being able to write well is not at all the same thing as having anything to say.

One day, I came upon a first novel. I found it in the slush pile, but there was nothing slushy about it. It was a fairy tale for adults which Cape went on to publish: A Mirror for Princes by Tom de Haan. This was a pseudonym because de Haan, who worked in the City, did not want anyone to know he was a writer. Everyone at Cape was surprised by his quaint, refreshing lack of ego. (Did he see novel writing as a vice?) Tom Maschler, then the editorial director, pointed out that his insistence on a pseudonym might make it tricky to publicise his book. But de Haan would not budge and Maschler tactfully gave in.

Today, de Haan would not have got his own way (and perhaps his books might have sold better). Certainly, the idea of a novel quietly selling itself now, with no sense of the writer behind it, is far-fetched. Kate Saunders, one of the judges of this year's Orange Prize for fiction (the longlist, just announced, has half-a-dozen first novels on it), says: 'It is harder for first novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work - and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.'

Amid the pile of first novels in front of me, a handful of author photos proves her point: Ivo Stourton looks as if he has stepped out of Brideshead Revisited, snapped outside a sunny villa. His publisher makes much of his youth and Cambridge education. And an A4-sized photograph of a smiling Priya Basil slips invitingly out of the review copy of her novel as if to win favour.

That is not to imply that this is a talent contest - only that everything counts. Pat Kavanagh, talking to me about Zadie Smith's White Teeth, acknowledges that Smith's looks are an extra bonus. There seems no such thing as a soft sell any more, let alone a chance for writerly obscurity. And, regrettably, by the same token, Kavanagh observes, a novel by someone of 60 (she has a brilliant one up her sleeve) may prove dicey to sell. Faber boldly published a debut novel by 71-year-old retired civil servant Charles Chadwick not long ago. But in terms of sales, It's All Right Now wasn't quite all right enough.

Publishing is dominated by positioning: 'chick lit', 'mum lit' (is there a 'twit lit' yet?). And herd instinct often operates, a tendency to play safe by imitating known successes. There is no shortage of Salman Rushdie imitations out there. But no one can out-Rushdie Rushdie. And there is something unseemly about a system that routinely compares unknown first novelists with bestselling authors. It is piggyback publicity ('the new JK Rowling' syndrome).

Kate Saunders, while reading for the Orange Prize, felt that 'publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we had to read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.' Perhaps what these writers need is practice. Regrettably, there is no longer much opportunity (with the honourable exception of editor Louise Chunn's initiative in Good Housekeeping) for novices to publish stories in magazines. Publishing your first novel is as daunting as cold calling. 'It is much harder,' Pat Kavanagh says, 'to get first novels across to a general reader when there is no obvious promotional handle'.

The standard ploy of slapping approving quotes all over the dustjacket before the book has been reviewed ought to be more cautiously treated. (Someone should let the unstintingly generous Margaret Forster and Helen Dunmore take a break before they gush themselves into the ground.)

The number of novels that don't get published is 'enormous', says Annan. She reads 10, already filtered through literary agents, in any given week. 'I turn down almost all of them. I've taken on three or four since July last year.' The general quality of novels submitted to publishers has, it is generally agreed, improved, thanks to creative-writing courses. But courses are seen by some in the industry as no more than a cynical way to bring extra revenue to universities. And the problem is that the market is overwhelmed with competent novels.

Annan is looking for novels that are more than competent. They must be 'incredibly distinct, really stand out so that you can position them'. And it is to that word 'position' that we need to be alert. Annan describes many novels she reads as having 'sticky middles' - literary doughnuts. What she is after is something she has just found in a novel called Monster Love by Carol Topolski.

'I started to read it and had an immediate frisson, a feeling of the hairs standing up on the back of my neck'. She probably knows what she is talking about. She published Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a roaring surprise of a bestseller (not least because Lewycka, a lecturer on media and public relations at Sheffield Hallam University, was 58). Lewycka's second, Two Caravans, about emigre workers in England today - Kentish strawberry-pickers, chicken factory workers - is published on Thursday.

How do you follow a brilliant first novel with a second? 'I am staring down the barrel of that particular gun at the moment,' Annan replies. But early reactions suggest that Lewycka and her publisher will do more than survive. Critics Peter Kemp and David Sexton, both adept at putting the boot in where necessary, go so far as to say that Lewycka has trumped her first novel with her second. They describe it as buoyant, witty, complex. So far, there is only one dissenting voice - Sarah Vine on the Times - who says the book is full of 'cheap laughs'.

Every now and again, a novelist makes a career out of just one novel - Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is the shining example - but this is not the norm. And for every person who says first novels are hard, there will be someone to retort that second and third novels are harder still. 'Be as true to yourself as possible,' Annan advises second timers. 'Take time if you need it. Don't think too much.'

Arundhati Roy did just that. She took a long time. Mark Haddon prefers not to think of A Spot of Bother as a second novel (its sales are not comparable with his first). He stresses the importance for him of having more than one iron in the fire: 'The Curious Incident might have been inhibiting if I was purely a novelist but A Spot of Bother didn't feel like a follow-up. I wrote my poetry collection, then a film for the BBC [Coming Down the Mountain]. Bother was just one of the subsequent things I happened to write. That is the advantage of being a jack of all trades with a high boredom threshold.'

Pat Kavanagh was reminded the other day by her husband, Julian Barnes, that when his first novel, Metroland, was accepted in 1980, he was told it was the worst possible time to be published. Publishers are like farmers. Complaint is second nature to them.

I have also spent the past few days talking to novelists who are not complaining about anything. They have gone through the eye of a needle to get published. And together, in their various ways, they prove that talent will out. They may feel vulnerable, not sure of what comes next. But they know there is everything to write for.

Ivo Stourton
The Night Climbers
Doubleday £10.99, June 2007

Ivo Stourton, son of the BBC correspondent Edward Stourton, looks like a golden boy and his first novel is an amazingly accomplished debut for a 24-year-old. The writing is elegant, the story decadent. His influences - Evelyn Waugh and Donna Tartt - are unmistakable. It is about a group of Cambridge undergraduates who go in for illegal night climbing, then commit a more serious crime.

Stourton's publisher lets us know he 'read English at Cambridge' and coyly adds that he has 'attempted night climbing himself'. The truth, Stourton tells me, is that one drunken night, he ended up clinging to a chimney pot 20 feet above a friend's window. He is 'massively frightened of heights,' he adds.

He may have to get used to them - metaphorically speaking. He is industrious, ambitious, charming and does not seem at all pleased with himself. Nor is he taking any chances. He is training to be a solicitor at the same time as writing his second novel (like Priya Basil, with whom he shares a publisher, he won a two-book deal).

His surprise discovery, he tells me, working on The Night Climbers was 'how much stamina you need and how slowly a text accumulates. As my grandfather put it: how do you eat elephant one bite at a time?'

Priya Basil
Ishq and Mushq
Doubleday £12.99, March 2007

Priya Basil won a two-book deal with a six-figure advance for Ishq and Mushq ('Love and Smell'), a tragicomic saga about voluptuous Sarna and her husband Karam. Their marriage, in spite of Sarna's virtuoso cooking, is never uncomplicatedly palatable.

And the plot really thickens when the most secret ingredient in Sarna's life, a daughter she abandoned at birth, catches up with her. 'The advance was a validation of what I wanted to do - a security, a platform,' Basil says. But she admits, if sales were to disappoint, she might feel 'pressure'.

Born in 1977, she grew up in Kenya. After reading English at Bristol, she worked - unhappily - as an advertising accounts executive. Her boyfriend, a German journalist, encouraged her to write and offered to support her. She'd never tried a novel before. Early attempts at writing included 'dabbling at poetry' and a university pantomime Snow White and the 10 Misogynists.

Ishq and Mushq was written in Berlin, where she now lives. The 'dislocation' was essential. In London, she seldom writes a line. She found her publisher through personal connection (someone in Transworld's publicity department sent it on its way to Jane Lawson at Doubleday). The lesson learnt from writing her first novel? 'The most important thing is that every day, you must sit down and do it.' She is hard at work on her second.

Owen Sheers
Faber £12.99, June 2007

Owen Sheers's Resistance impressively rewrites history: it is 1944 and Britain is occupied. It has an established voice, as if Sheers had been writing novels for a lifetime. It is set in the Welsh border valley of Olchon where a community of women achieves a fragile equilibrium with the a German patrol.

Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 (his parents worked for the Overseas Development Agency) and grew up in Abergavenny, where he went to the local comprehensive and to New College, Oxford. His first ambition was to play rugby for Wales, but he ended up writing poetry instead (not, he says with a laugh, as 'uncommon' a swerve as you might suppose). He has won many laurels for his poetry and is also the author of The Dust Diaries, a biographical hybrid of a book about a distant family relative, a maverick missionary sent to Rhodesia.

It was the fictional element in The Dust Diaries that kindled his desire to write a first novel. He is fascinated by narrative drive, the story as an engine. For him, fiction has been a permission: 'Suddenly, I could do anything. It was exciting - daunting - then exciting again.'

Jane Feaver
According to Ruth
Harvill Secker £12.99, March 2007

'I am one of those millions of people who have always wanted to write. I remember making a cloth-covered book for my parents when I was nine with two stories in it,' says Jane Feaver. The novel According to Ruth is, in a sense, another story for her parents (her mother, poet Vicki Feaver; her father, art critic William Feaver).

Loosely based on her childhood, it is beautifully written with an unshowy intensity. It is a partly autobiographical account of the break-up of a marriage and it was the invented parts of her story that Feaver found most liberating in the telling. She overturns the cliche: write about what you know. 'I had to begin with what I knew in order to make the leap into what I couldn't know.' Writing fiction is 'terrifying,' she says. It needs courage because 'you are making something out of nothing'.

Feaver was born in Durham in 1964. She read English at university, worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum and at the poetry department at Faber. In 2001, she moved to Devon to help novelist Michael Morpurgo and his wife run Farms For City Children. She needed to get away to write, to be 'completely on my own'. Not that she is. She lives with her 10-year-old daughter.

She is currently doing a creative writing MA at Exeter. It is not, I guess, easy being a single mother and a novelist even if, as is the case, the house you live in is called Paradise.

How Publishing Works

·Around 70,000 titles are published a year in Britain, of which 6,000 are novels

·Any large UK publisher will receive 2,000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year

·The average sale of a hardback book by a first-time writer is 400 copies

·Many publishers use this rule of thumb to work out advances: they pay 50 per cent of the royalty earnings expected from the first print run

·According to the latest edition of Private Eye, first novel The Thirteenth Tale by ex-teacher Diane Setterfield (author's advance £800,000) has sold 13,487 copies to date. Only 516,129 to go and the book's paid for itself...
Anny Shaw

Robert Fisk on the biggest trouble spot in the Middle East - Pakistan

Fingerprints of history
Gamal Nkrumah and Mohamed El-Sayed gauge the state of the world's most troubled region -- the Middle East -- with eminent author Robert Fisk
From AL-AHRAM Weekly (Cairo)

'I believe that a branch of Syrian Baath Party security assassinated Al-Hariri. I don't say, however, that [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad was involved. I don't think it was sanctioned from the top'

'There is a country in the region that has lots of Taliban supporters, lots of Al-Qaeda supporters, whose capital city is in constant chaos and sectarian crisis, and it has got a [nuclear] bomb -- it's called Pakistan'

'Last summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel was in fact between Iran and America. Lebanon is, as usual, the battlefield of others'

It is Pakistan, not Iran or Iraq, that serves as a true barometer for the future of the region, according to Robert Fisk, The Independent 's renowned Middle East correspondent. This thesis, though novel, is not to be taken lightly. It comes from a man who has lived in, studied and witnessed the region for the past three decades. And Pakistan, indeed, is a country in turmoil.

Fisk, the Beirut-based bestselling and award- winning author, speaks from experience. He covered the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the two United States-led wars against Iraq and the post-11 September invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. His voice is a "passionate outcry against the lies and deceit that have sent soldiers to their deaths and killed tens of thousands of men and women," as the dustcover of his seminal book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, so aptly puts it.

For Fisk to single out Pakistan is an eye- opener, for the populous predominantly Muslim nation is not even considered by some to be part of the Middle East proper. Fisk's contention, however, is that the West is shy to focus on the main game, preferring instead to concentrate on sideshows such as Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Fisk reminds whoever listens were first encouraged and nurtured by the West.

"There is a country in the region that has lots of Taliban supporters, lots of Al-Qaeda supporters, whose capital city is in constant chaos and sectarian crisis, and it has got a [nuclear] bomb -- it's called Pakistan," Fisk told Al-Ahram Weekly . "But General Musharraf is our (the West's) friend. What will happen if Musharraf goes? Pakistan is one of the most fragile and dangerous areas," he ponders ominously. "However, we direct our attention to another country, Iran, just as we always do in the Middle East."

Few Westerners are qualified to write an adequate history of the Middle East, but Fisk is one who is. His first-hand reporting over three decades much informs his analysis of the social and political upheavals witnessed in the region during the past 150 years -- upheavals that have been both dramatic and drastic and entailed much bloodshed and suffering. The ultimate upheaval was the creation of the State of Israel in the heart of the Arab world and the dispossession of the Palestinian people in the process.

Fisk is acutely aware, nonetheless, of a certain basic continuity experienced across the Middle East in recent history. The saga of tragedy and betrayal has not been confined to Palestine. Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan all experienced the horrors of war and violent turmoil. Fisk is an advocate for the study of history. "Journalists should not just take notebooks when covering a story," he insists.

For Fisk, history is personal and the personal is political. "The knights of the First Crusade," he wrote in his book, The Great War for Civilisation, "after massacring the entire population of Beirut, had moved along the very edge of the Mediterranean towards Jerusalem to avoid the arrows of the Arab archers; and I often reflected that they must have travelled over the very Lebanese rocks around which the sea frothed and gurgled opposite my balcony."

"I have photographs on my apartment walls of the French fleet off Beirut in 1918 and the arrival of General Henri Gouraud, the first French mandate governor, who travelled to Damascus and stood at that most green-draped of tombs in the Ummayad mosque and, in what must have been one of the most inflammatory statements in modern Middle East history, told the tomb: 'Saladin, we have returned,'" Fisk muses. "Nowadays, there are 22 times as many Western troops in the Islamic world than there were before the fall of Jerusalem during the Crusades in 1187," Fisk notes.

What about Lebanon now? "Last summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel was in fact between Iran and America. Lebanon is, as usual, the battlefield of others. No one is being killed now, so until now it's okay. However, the situation is very fragile. I know many Christian families who left their homes in Hamra Street, moving on to other areas. These are very bad signs. Iran and America are supporting different sides, and they keep pushing at this fragile state."

As Fisk notes in his celebrated book Pity the Nation , Lebanon is a microcosm of the Middle East. "Lebanon is a confessional society, so if this pushing continues it will split and be Balkanised. The only solution is for Lebanon to become a modern state. Leadership qualities, rather than tribal or sectarian or confessional affiliations, should be [credentials] for top positions," he told the Weekly . "Thousands of Lebanese children were sent abroad during the civil war, and they came back believing in a modern society. They saw the civil war was ridiculous and childish," he adds.

What about the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri? "I believe that a branch of Syrian Baath Party security assassinated Al-Hariri. I don't say, however, that [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad was involved. I don't think it was sanctioned from the top. I was walking on Beirut's corniche, 400 metres away, when it happened. I got there before anyone and before the police. I saw Hariri on fire in the street. His socks were burning. And when I asked one Lebanese who was assassinated, he told me it was Hariri."

Will the truth of the assassination ever come out? "I think one reason why the Syrians are cooperating [in the investigation] is that the Syrians are pretty sure of what exactly happened, for they have a very good intelligence service. My interpretation is that it wasn't a state murder. Since the assassination and up until now I still feel it was a branch of Syrian Baath security."

What about Iran and Afghanistan? "America failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. There is no democracy there -- warlords rule. Just like the case in Iraq, the government commands just a few miles around Kabul. In many situations coalition forces find themselves outnumbered by hundreds of Taliban fighters," Fisk notes. "Meanwhile, opium production and exports are higher now than at any time before. The United Nations said that in 2001, under Taliban rule, drug production fell by 45 per cent. The reverse trend happened since the invasion. The situation is not as bad as Iraq, but it is still bad," he laments. "I often wonder why we [the West] are there in Afghanistan," he adds.

As for Iran, Fisk is quick to note that Siemens, the giant German multinational, launched Iran's nuclear programme. It was the West that encouraged the Shah of Iran to go nuclear: "The Shah started the nuclear ambitions of Iran. It was also the Shah who sought nuclear power. It was the West that helped Iran build the Bushehr nuclear facility. The Shah once said that he would like to have a [nuclear] bomb because the Soviets and the Americans had it. Then he was warmly received in the White House, because he was our policeman in the Gulf," Fisk asserts.

Ironically, it was the Islamist Iranian Revolutionary Guard that was against Iran going nuclear: "When the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, revolutionaries decided to close the nuclear facility because they said 'it's a work of the devil'." It was only after the Iran-Iraq war that the Iranian regime became interested once again in reviving its nuclear programme. As far as Fisk is concerned, Iran is a critically important Middle Eastern nation, but is laden with the time-honoured bureaucracy, red tape and antiquated or parochial perspectives that have long pulled the region backwards.

Is America the region's engine of progress? Not for Robert Fisk. Empires and superpowers follow their own agenda: "In Firdous Square, Baghdad, US marines pulled down the gaunt and massive statue of Saddam by roping it to an armoured personal carrier. It toppled menacingly forward from its plinth to hang lengthways above the ground, right arm still raised in fraternal greetings to the Iraqi people. It was a symbolic moment in more ways than one. I stood behind the first man to seize a hatchet and smash at the imposing grey marble plinth, but within seconds, the marble had fallen away to reveal a foundation of cheap bricks and badly cracked cement. That's what the Americans always guessed Saddam's regime was made of, although they did their best, in the late 70s and early 80s to arm him and service his economy and offer him political support -- to turn him into the very dictator he became," Fisk notes.

Currently, the American empire faces a crisis -- its military power is failing and it has won over few allies. Fisk sees in this a repeat cycle of history. "It goes something like this: Iraqis don't deserve us; our sacrifices are in vain." He extrapolates: "There is a community of hate on the Internet," emanating from the American neoconservative right. Fisk cites the example of a tongue-in-cheek article published in The Los Angeles Times entitled "Those ingrate Iraqis". "We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude ... We've endured great sacrifice to help them," the article quotes US President George W Bush as saying.

Palestine is a different kettle of fish altogether. "The Islamic Movement Hamas didn't succeed because we (Western governments) didn't want them to succeed. We didn't want to talk to them. And they were under sanctions because the Western governments believe that those pesky Palestinians elected the wrong people. Western governments do not want democracy in the Middle East. We are quite happy to have dictators if they are obedient to us. We like them when they invade Iran, but not when they invade Kuwait. We liked Egypt until it nationalised the Suez Canal. Then we bombed Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. Because we have ideological as well as oil interests, we try constantly to refashion the façade that allows us to support various regimes."

Fisk continues: "Western governments want peoples [of the region] to elect political forces these governments like. The Palestinians didn't vote for an Islamic republic, rather they were sick of corruption. The way [Western governments] dealt with Arafat's regime made it bound to be corrupt. If the Palestinians had elected people Western governments had wanted they would have praised this democracy. Western governments and the European Union didn't want to give money to Hamas. They were used to giving it to a Palestinian Authority that was squandering it." Fisk concludes: "From the very beginning I said Oslo would be a tragedy."

What about the new government of national unity bringing Fatah and Hamas together? "Should Hamas recognise the State of Israel? If Israel really wants peace, why don't they sit with Hamas and have a serious, mature discussion to agree on a formula that would work? The question is: Do we want peace or not? Why don't we refer back to UN Security Council Resolution 242 stating that Israel should withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967?"

Are there other hidden hands in the region's politics? The New Yorker 's Seymour Hersh devotes much time and energy to the role of the Saudis. "By adopting the rigidity of Wahabism the royal family [in Saudi Arabia] found itself in an extraordinary position where they were abiding by the codes of an institution that believes that you should fight corruption, but never overthrow your rulers. So the whole system of the Saudi government walks this tightrope," Fisk muses.

Meanwhile, "Saudi money is going to the Taliban, to our friend General Pervez Musharraf, and it went to Bin Laden." Fisk concludes, tongue-in-cheek: "And money buys respect."

Maybe laughter started about stuff that wasn't funny

What’s So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing -- by JOHN TIERNEY/NY Times

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!”

And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

Did that alleged joke make you laugh? I would guess (and hope) not. But under different circumstances, you would be chuckling softly, maybe giggling, possibly guffawing. I know that’s hard to believe, but trust me. The results are just in on a laboratory test of the muffin joke.

Laughter, a topic that stymied philosophers for 2,000 years, is finally yielding to science. Researchers have scanned brains and tickled babies, chimpanzees and rats. They’ve traced the evolution of laughter back to what looks like the primal joke — or, to be precise, the first stand-up routine to kill with an audience of primates.

It wasn’t any funnier than the muffin joke, but that’s not surprising, at least not to the researchers. They’ve discovered something that eluded Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud and the many theorists who have tried to explain laughter based on the mistaken premise that they’re explaining humor.

Occasionally we’re surprised into laughing at something funny, but most laughter has little to do with humor. It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.

When Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter 20 years ago, he naïvely began by dragging people into his laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County , to watch episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and a George Carlin routine. They didn’t laugh much. It was what a stand-up comic would call a bad room.

So he went out into natural habitats — city sidewalks, suburban malls — and carefully observed thousands of “laugh episodes.” He found that 80 percent to 90 percent of them came after straight lines like “I know” or “I’ll see you guys later.” The witticisms that induced laughter rarely rose above the level of “You smell like you had a good workout.”

“Most prelaugh dialogue,” Professor Provine concluded in “Laughter,” his 2000 book, “is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer.”

He found that most speakers, particularly women, did more laughing than their listeners, using the laughs as punctuation for their sentences. It’s a largely involuntary process. People can consciously suppress laughs, but few can make themselves laugh convincingly.

“Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.”

The human ha-ha evolved from the rhythmic sound — pant-pant — made by primates like chimpanzees when they tickle and chase one other while playing. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Washington State University ,discovered that rats emit an ultrasonic chirp (inaudible to humans without special equipment) when they’re tickled, and they like the sensation so much they keep coming back for more tickling.

He and Professor Provine figure that the first primate joke — that is, the first action to produce a laugh without physical contact — was the feigned tickle, the same kind of coo-chi-coo move parents make when they thrust their wiggling fingers at a baby. Professor Panksepp thinks the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another. The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing, not fighting.

“Primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction,” Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.”

Humans are laughing by the age of four months and then progress from tickling to the Three Stooges to more sophisticated triggers for laughter (or, in some inexplicable cases, to Jim Carrey movies). Laughter can be used cruelly to reinforce a group’s solidarity and pride by mocking deviants and insulting outsiders, but mainly it’s a subtle social lubricant. It’s a way to make friends and also make clear who belongs where in the status hierarchy.

Which brings us back to the muffin joke. It was inflicted by social psychologists at Florida State University on undergraduate women last year, during interviews for what was ostensibly a study of their spending habits. Some of the women were told the interviewer would be awarding a substantial cash prize to a few of the participants, like a boss deciding which underling deserved a bonus.

The women put in the underling position were a lot more likely to laugh at the muffin joke (and others almost as lame) than were women in the control group. But it wasn’t just because these underlings were trying to manipulate the boss, as was demonstrated in a follow-up experiment.

This time each of the women watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who was ostensibly going to be working with her on a task. There was supposed to be a cash reward afterward to be allocated by a designated boss. In some cases the woman watching was designated the boss; in other cases she was the underling or a co-worker of the person on the videotape.

When the woman watching was the boss, she didn’t laugh much at the muffin joke. But when she was the underling or a co-worker, she laughed much more, even though the joke-teller wasn’t in the room to see her. When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good.

“Laughter seems to be an automatic response to your situation rather than a conscious strategy,” says Tyler F. Stillman, who did the experiments along with Roy Baumeister and Nathan DeWall. “When I tell the muffin joke to my undergraduate classes, they laugh out loud.”

Mr. Stillman says he got so used to the laughs that he wasn’t quite prepared for the response at a conference in January, although he realizes he should have expected it.

“It was a small conference attended by some of the most senior researchers in the field,” he recalls. “When they heard me, a lowly graduate student, tell the muffin joke, there was a really uncomfortable silence. You could hear crickets.”

This is about a theater company that takes over a whole city, like London, and creates street theater with giants that transfixes everyone in town


Before reading another line, watch the video, especially if you think you’d rather not.
One is hungry for a few facts now.

That was the French street theatre company Royal de Luxe in London last May. The show was The Sultan’s Elephant, created in honor of the Jules Verne centenary in 2005, and performed that year in Nantes. Founded in 1979 by Jean-Luc Courcoult, Royal de Luxe has since then made theatre in public spaces in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. The London engagement, years in the planning by the British production company Artichoke, was the debut of the Little Girl Giant, as she has come to be called, in the English-speaking world. You could probably just make out the Elephant – at least its trunk -- hosing her down. At around 20 and 40 feet high, respectively, both were designed by a longtime Royal de Luxe collaborator, Francois Delaroziere. The video, shot by Mike Connolly of Electric Pig, is by far the best document of the event on the Web, and the place to start if you cannot in person see Royal de Luxe. Les Balayeurs du Desert, a French rock band that has worked with the company since the 1980’s, provided the music. The song is “Decollage” -- their riff on “It Amazes Me” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, the vocal sample by a digitally remixed Blossom Dearie.

Those are the bits I would have found it calming to latch onto when I first saw the video last summer. I needed to be sure it wasn’t Photoshopped, as you do when you see a thing on the monitor that can’t be real. Attaching a name to the consciousness in control of the event became paramount, no less than had it been a towering crime I’d witnessed. But none of this helped, ultimately, for I still can’t take it in. And that, I came to understand, is precisely the point.

Royal de Luxe is both renowned and secretive. Based in Nantes, it has no Web site, doesn’t go in for ordinary PR, and if for artistic reasons the whole company needs to move to Cameroon or to China for many months at a time, then it does so, appearing there as in the West with permission but without fanfare. Gathering outdoors to make the small marionettes that have been their acting partners since long before the Giants, the actors casually attract local interest, which can at first be skeptical. By the time of leave-taking, however, the village is ensorcelled, the months-long interlude most often likened by everyone to dream.

Except in the United States, the fame of Royal de Luxe now outpaces its stealth. So precautions are taken that, despite high anticipation of an appearance, an audience remains in a condition to be startled by it. Jean-Luc Courcoult is far too much the man of the theatre ever to lose the advantage of surprise.

When Royal de Luxe next appears, at the Reykjavik Arts Festival later this spring, no one there but the functionaries who must know them shall have all the details in advance. The venue is simply the streets and open spaces of the city -- by the lake, by the harbor and in the city center. Admission is not only free, but accidental, since the show may begin anywhere, even in two places at once, and will overtake its audience bit by bit, for they shall not have known where to assemble and wait for it. Once it begins, it will keep moving, and people will follow it or even try to run a little ahead of it en route to the next corner it seems bound for, where others shall have started to hear things and look up. No member of that audience, not even the most avid, will see the show in its entirety – like the London event, it will be structured to make that impossible. Courcoult has said only that a special story for Icelanders will be enacted, by Little Girl Giant and other familiar figures, that, on the morning of May 10, “something unexpected will happen in Rekjavik.”

Thus will begin the latest chapter in a Royal de Luxe narrative that spans three continents and fifteen years, The Saga of The Giants .

The Giant Who Fell From the Sky

The inaugural show, The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, was conceived for the people of Le Havre in 1993. Lying supine, his ribcage rising and falling as he exhaled white dust for his own cloudy atmosphere, the 38-foot carved wood sleeping Giant was laced Gulliver-style to the street. Baffled onlookers hesitantly prodded him, and he opened basketball-sized eyes in which blood vessels showed, taking on the look of terrible suffering nobly borne that would never leave him. To walk the city, he was hauled up into a scaffolding six stories high; red-liveried actors hanging onto ropes leapt from it to the ground, landing slowly, counter-weighting and lifting his sandaled feet. He swung his arms, he turned his head this way and that, he parted his lips and gazed down, sweeping the crowd with his eyes as he marched, looking as if he did not quite believe what he saw or the fix he was in, a haggard incredulity being one of his signature expressions. And the faces of the townspeople, from toddlers to the very old, lining the streets six or eight deep and leaning out of windows, were solemn and rapt.

Trucks figured in this -- big ones -- for here was serious tonnage. Apart from drivers, more than thirty liveried actors, in choreographed motion all over the scaffolding, were needed to keep the Giant groomed and on the move. One man turned a wheel the size of a helm to open and close his mouth, another hovered near his shoulder to brush dusty traces of respiration from his lips with a broom. It is one of the paradoxes of the Giants that, seeing an unbelievable thing, and seeing plainly the levers and ropes and pulleys and humans required to make it work – for none of this is ever concealed in a Royal de Luxe performance -- you believe in it utterly.

The stories of the Giant, written by Courcoult, are always very simple – just a few lines long, with deep cultural resonances. To cite a feature that counts heavily with him, you could tell them to a child. Each is enacted over several days, nights included, it being of the utmost importance that the Giant abide with the town. During that entire time, the Giant is out in the open, his hair and face getting wet in the rain, sleeping by night in a chair the size of a cantilever bridge, breathing always -- and dreaming.

On that first visit to Le Havre, the story goes, the Giant was frightening to the people of the town only when he dreamt; the morning after, cars were found impaled on trees, or pinned to the asphalt with a 10-foot fork, the work of his dreams. And so, on the second night a wall of light – motley thousands of battery-operated headlights mounted on a twenty by thirty foot frame -- was erected to prevent his losing consciousness. Head dropping to his chest again and again in the painterly golden light, the Giant spent a wakeful night. A blonde singer, Peggy, wearing a long blue opera cape with a stiff collar, climbed out of a white limo and was lifted thirty feet onto the scaffolding to sing to him, the better to divert him from dreaming. Un bel di vedremo , sang Peggy, a few yards from his face, the anguished and sleepy longing she saw there finally making her turn away. On the morning of the third day, a hole had been torn in the wall of light, the immense scaffolding was torqued and knocked aside, flattening still more cars, and the Giant was gone.

He returned to Le Havre on two occasions between 1993 and 1998. In that time, he would lose a leg – causing middle-aged Frenchmen ordinarily nothing if not buttoned down to weep openly – acquire a son, a 20-foot black giant, on a trip to Africa, regain the leg, and, in 2000, send a crate of giraffes to Le Havre. The giraffes, a tender, tree branch-tearing mother towering delicately over the city, and her calf, all legs, were the crane-operated forerunners of the 46-ton elephant seen by more than one million people in London in 2006.

The Giant’s last appearance anywhere was in August, 2006, in the South of France. Looking as relaxed as his watchful countenance allows, he sat barefoot on a lounge chair anchored to the riverbed by the Pont du Gard. Just as it is understood that the Little Black Giant is his son, Little Girl Giant, last seen in Chile in January, when she chased down and caged a rhinoceros, is his daughter. It is rumored she will face her father in Reykjavik in the spring, and that the meeting might not be friendly.

Telling a Story to an Entire Town

In a conversation with Odile Quirot, Courcoult tells how the idea of the Giants occurred to him.

“For years, I wondered how one could tell a story to an entire town. On a Plane to Rio, the idea of using out-size marionettes came to me… People have believed in giants since the year dot. Every culture on earth has stories about them. I find the giant more powerful than God or religion – because it is more make-believe yet more human.”

Interviewed for Les Cahiers du Channel, Courcoult discusses with Jean-Christophe Planche how The Saga of The Giants works its effects on the grown men who weep, the women of a certain age who lose their composure like maenads.

“Over three or four days I try to tell a whole town something intense which will be talked about everywhere, be it in the bakery or the bar, on the pavement or in the office... I have seen adults crying as the giant leaves. They have obviously lived other things, sometimes difficult, and yet this makes them cry. I don’t believe they are crying because [the Giant] is leaving but because of the loss of their imagination. Over several days, they have dreamt as adults and now it’s finished. Most adults have difficulty dreaming.”

Courcoult has not gone on record – that I could discover – with more theory-bound observations about his method than these. While he is almost always described as a visionary, even by people who mean no very good thing by that term, he is entirely direct in conversation. As an artist, he just wants to knock you down, and to see the look on your face when that happens. “How the public reacts is as important as the form of the show,” he says of the highly participatory experiences he creates for audiences. Music plays a big role in it. “I am constantly on the lookout for sounds from my era. Music…directly assails the emotions and feelings. I take great care with it. It must not crush feelings by crudely emphasizing the action taking place.”

The closest Royal de Luxe has ever come to an indoor performance is the Roman arena at Nimes. One reason for this is that Courcoult is a self-described claustrophobe. But he likes to blow things up and smash them to pieces, too. Open air allows for “poetic risk,” he says, and the light is right: “you can create explosions, hellfire.” A performance in an outdoor public space is by definition a free event open to all comers, and this is key. “By putting on the show in the public arena and free of charge I can reach people as they are, whereas in traditional theatres you only meet those who have dared to cross the threshold…I try to move people, and this ambition will not be restricted by [the audience’s] financial means or their culture.”

Genius Envy

It was not wasted on the British that The Sultan’s Elephant came from France, and was many times more prodigious than any homegrown thing.

Julian Crouch, a maker of large site-specific images and co-artistic director of the company Improbable, writes of seeing the Elephant move for the first time. “The thing was real. It was alive and it was enormous and it was really there. And in the midst of my pure admiration I could feel something crumble inside me.” What crumbled, it turned out, was his notion of how unfeasible it was trying to get a large image to do many things at once instead of just one thing – a idea foundational to his twenty years of experience designing and making such.

With frankness, Crouch tells how it felt to be a maker of theatre watching Little Girl Giant hoisted from the time capsule that had smashed down onto the tarmac in Central London. “When they lifted [her] out of the rocket, the crowd just gasped. Of course I work in ‘the business’ so I tried to stifle my own gasp, but by the time her flying-hat was off and she blinked and shook out her hair, I was absolutely and completely lost. She was beautiful. But really beautiful. In a deep way… And [there was] a little voice in my head that said, ‘you could never, ever have made this.’ ”

Immediately following the event, LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) sponsored a day of discussion among British theatre makers, educators and arts administrators. Reading the papers given on this occasion, one appreciates both the tone of raddled admiration and the newly hatched catch-up strategies. A top administrator spoke passionately about “the next Elephant” – presumably an indigenous one – being inevitable. Some opined that the show had been “about money” or “about power,” as if the lack of those timeless benisons was all that prevented work of similar quality occurring routinely. Julian Crouch attended the conference, as did Helen Marriage of Artichoke, the company that produced The Sultan’s Elephant. That night, Crouch sent an email to Marriage, voicing these sentiments: ”I have no desire to see Britain grow a Royal de Luxe, and will be very irritated if we try. It was such an honour to see that work, and it is insulting to the company and their long history to suggest that it is in any way replicable.”

This is not to say a hard look at the conditions friendly to Royal de Luxe could never be instructive to the British or to any other people pondering the direction of public art in their lands.

Conceding that the success of Royal de Luxe is “due to the power of their work, its popularity with the public and their uncompromising attitude in presenting it,” Edward Taylor, a joint artistic director of the Whalley Range Allstars, a British outdoor theatre troop founded in 1982, writes about other factors that provided a crucial nudge. “The development of street theatre in France was helped no end by the levels of financial support in a system which demonstrates what is possible in the arts if you put serious thought into how to sustain the people who make it happen.”

Taylor argues that not only national, regional and local funding are necessary – and did, in the case of Royal de Luxe, unstintingly kick in – but also the setting up of various “regional creation centres (large workshops where companies can live and create work without unnecessary interruption).” And more: that the French national benefit scheme paying performing artists a wage when they’re not working is what enables large-scale groups to stay together during a non-performing period, taking the rehearsal time they need. It’s all to do, Taylor says, with whether performing artists are regarded as an important asset in a nation’s economic life. In any case, this is exactly the level of support that has led to “larger and more expensive French shows being created over the years.” Note, Taylor does not insist, superior ones. “Of course, big is not necessarily better,” he concludes, “but when a work of this scale [The Sultan’s Elephant] can convey such strong emotions to large audiences, it has an irresistible power.”

For A Few Good Pieces

Artists beset with frequent interruptions of their work, who live without medical care in poor housing and exhaust themselves with two or three dead-end jobs at a time to keep going until they are next paid to perform, may look on the French system as a Utopia greatly to be desired. Yet the same model is repugnant to anyone suspecting that money would only be wasted on cheap red wine, exorbitant rehearsals, and plain old hanging out. Everyone can agree, however, that The Saga of The Giants is no accident, and is anything but the product of social Darwinism in the arts.

The big question, then, is how, in making a policy decision for such as Royal de Luxe potentially to develop and flourish, can anyone be sure the result will not come artistically closer to synchronized swimming than to Royal de Luxe? To the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade than to The Sultan’s Elephant? One answer is found in mulling over yet another question – why we would expect public funds spent incubating the arts to produce more precise results than like amounts spent on other necessarily speculative programs in the public interest.

The terrible risk of falling short of the intended superb work is and has always been borne chiefly by artists, the very last people on earth to spare themselves or to value compromise. As the choreographer in Lorrie Moore’s short story, “Dance in America,” says, “I’ve burned up my life for a few good pieces.” But for there to be risk, the vision of the artist must be made real – air-guitarists risk nothing. And art that is real incurs real risk, including that of artistic and commercial failure. The only policy that could ever reduce that risk is the policy that, by default or by design, reduces the occurrence of art for public money; if there is no art, there is no failed or silly art. And there is no revealing – no dreaming – what an era is capable of, no discourse that can reach into the mind of the future, creating it.

The cost of nurturing Royale de Luxe from 1981, when the company did Roman Photo, its first show to tour widely and make a huge impact, through the premier in 1990 of The True History of France, its first show to make extensive use of the engineering gifts of Francois Delaroziere, who designed the 10-ton pop-up book from which asynchronous events in French history sprang, to the present, wherein the company is celebrated all over the world except in the United States, is not a figure that research into public information can produce. Starting in 1989, when the company moved from the South of France to establish a base in Nantes, the scope and ambition of its productions soared. Serious financial support from the French government and from the city of Nantes began in 1990. For the creation in 1993 of The Giant Who Fell From The Sky, Royal de Luxe was given money by the Theatre Le Volcan in Le Havre, led by Alain Milianti, one of France’s most important theatre and opera directors. Edward Taylor, who has followed for many years the evolution of Royal de Luxe, writes that this money came seemingly in the form of “carte blanche to do something,” but no figure attaches to it.

Here’s a telling figure, though. It comes from Helen Marriage of Artichoke. The cost of bringing The Sultan’s Elephant to London amounted to about one million pounds. “At one pound a head,” Marriage says, referring to the number of Londoners who experienced it, “I call that cheap.”

Trying Constantly to Find Our True Self

The work of Royal de Luxe as we are beginning to know it could not have found form without specific personalities igniting one another to prodigious feats. It is easy to cast Courcoult as the visionary, Delaroziere as the engineer. But close watchers of Royal de Luxe have noted that the young Delaroziere was performing in the early 80’s in Le demi-finale du waterclash, one of the first Royal de Luxe shows in which by now iconic images – smashed and flaming cars that somehow still run, and the trademark “transformed vehicles,” motor-scooters fitted out with toilets and tubs – began to appear. He is said these days to be the quiet type, donning the red Royal de Luxe livery with the rest of the actor-technicians when his creations perform.

In 2006, the productions of Delaroziere’s shop, La Machine, were exhibited in Paris at the Grand Palais. The show demonstrated the scope of his two decades of work for French street theatre companies, Royal de Luxe chief among them. In the book he authored about his creations, Le Grand Repertoire: Machines de Spectacle (Actes Sud, 2003), he somewhat uncorks his method. Inspired most of all by Leonardo’s drawings for gigantic never-built battle machines, Delaroziere has also taken a leaf from Dada, in particular the “useless machines” and “ready-mades.“ He cites, as well, Bruno Munari’s 1952 work, the Manifeste du Machinisme: “The machine must become a work of art -- for us to discover the art of machines.” What unites the diverse forces in his work, he writes, is “the resolute will never to enter a norm or a system.” He conceives of his machines as artistes in their own right, endowed even with a sense of humor, to whom “nothing is truly important because it all weighs too much!”

In Courcoult, he met a man of the theatre who had long thought about where the machine – indeed, the technician -- fit in. Before the time of the Giants, or even the 10-ton picture book in The True History of France, Courcoult was forging that unified vision of how theatre is made, the vision that would ultimately lead him to make theatre of how theatre is made, disguising no process that feeds into it. In his company, there are no principals and the technicians are actors. The audience, too, is an actor, as examining the decades-long documentation of Royal de Luxe performances and audiences by the photographer Jordi Bover will show. Hands extended to touch in order to believe, awe, tears, joy – all this is necessary for the total effect, the day-lit Dionysiad that is a true cultural festival.

Not that any of this is entirely original to Royal de Luxe. The Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of all the arts, goes back at least to Wagner, who, impatient with the fragmented nature of typical 19th Century opera, retrieved from the Greeks the idea of the music drama subordinating every part to a compelling whole. This put paid to the notion of opera as little more than a string of arias so occasionally thrilling that an audience would cease chatting to be enraptured, instead demanding that the audience give itself over to an hours-long spell. With Marinetti, Moholy-Nagy, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and others it became canonical mid- 20th Century avant-gardism to incorporate process into performance. Cunningham, for instance, redefined performance as what happens when dancers who have rehearsed their separate parts come together. That coming together is not the dress rehearsal of the piece, but its final form that is necessary or interesting -- performance.

Roman Photo, premiered by Royal de Luxe in the early 1980’s, tells stories familiar from the goriest, most teen-aged Italian movies of the post-war era – car chases, narrow escapes, crimson-lipped white-gloved girls in big, big trouble, and mayhem. Edward Taylor, the British theatre director, observes that “like many of the subsequent shows of Royal de Luxe, [ Roman Photo ] features the dynamic between a small team of actors acting out a melodramatic or historical scene and a larger bunch of technicians using a variety of effects to bring that scene to life. The technicians are visible just outside a series of metal frames, which set the borders of the scene to be photographed.”

So everything that happens – that is, everything -- becomes part of the overall narrative. Yet it isn’t a “happening” in the sense Allen Kaprow assigned to the term in the 1960’s. It is all choreographed and rehearsed down to the last detail, producing -- exactly where you do not expect it -- that heightened feeling of both spontaneity and inevitability associated with the Comedie Francaise, for instance, and not, particularly, with the arts of the street.

This light-handed, startling equation of all parts cannot necessarily survive the introduction of a 46-ton elephant, however, unless a transformative process takes place. Describing the Royal de Luxe method as profoundly non-hierarchical, and himself as an intuitive, Courcoult calls the whole company “a living organism.” A legacy to him from Jules Verne is “the encounter with the machine, which is a leitmotif” in his work. And the drama of that encounter -- the towering machine brought into the fold to become a personnage, an artist in its own right with a unique and characteristic gestural language -- is theatre that steps just outside the possible. “We try constantly to find our true self,” Courcoult observes. “…So we make an image that outstrips imagination.”

The Sultan’s Elephant

Created for the Jules Verne centenary in Nantes in 2005, The Sultan’s Elephant was both deeply fated and born by chance. Nantes is the birthplace of Jules Verne, for whom Courcoult has had affinities since boyhood. He tells Les Cahiers du Channel that “as an adolescent, his were the only novels I stole from bookshops.” It was Delaroziere who potentiated the show, however, by means of a drawing at first unrelated to it, a drawing that was a depth charge. “It happened that he had already drawn an elephant carrying a house on its back, with windows copied from the town hall of Calais,“ Courcoult recalls. “He showed me these drawings and asked me to keep the one I preferred. Six months later, I woke up and an incredible story came to me: a sultan traveling through time and through space, around the planet, on the back of an elephant.”

Like many of the stories in The Saga of The Giants, this one concerns dreams and their precondition, sleep. A sultan in India is haunted in his sleep by dreams of a time-traveling child. To obtain relief, he must find her. With a retinue of dancing girls, he sets off, sleepless in the splendid howdah on his best elephant’s back. Thundering through space-time, he senses his convergence with the girl who has so disturbed him. Their first actual rendezvous is in Nantes, where her time capsule has touched down in front of the Cathedrale St. Pierre.

John Gardner, events planning manager for London Bus Services, was in Nantes when this happened, invited there, along with representatives of the Metropolitan Police and other skeptical functionaries, to judge of the difficulty of maneuvering the elephant around London in a year’s time. “It was awe-inspiring,” Gardner said. “We English can be a little stuck in our ways.” A mind-boggled spirit of cooperation overtook the special events team for the City of Westminster, the executive director of Arts Council London, the Royal Parks manager and the office of the Mayor of London. It was agreed -- endless impossible-seeming accommodations to the show would definitely be made. “That’s how seeing the elephant affects people,” Helen Marriage of Artichoke told The Times, “Suddenly instead of asking “Why would we do this?” the question became, ‘Why wouldn’t we?’”

Not to say anything was easy or fast. It would take Marriage and her partner Nicky Webb more than two years to negotiate the details, a labyrinth of red tape even if gob-smacked officials stood at the ready to snip away at it. And it was hardly as if Marriage and Webb felt they would be giving the public what it wanted, either, for their mission exceeded that. “Audiences in general can only imagine what they already know,” Marriage writes. “It’s the job of a programmer to lead that expectation, to produce work that surprises the public with its own pleasure… Our point was this – unless such work [is] properly resourced, taken seriously, given its rightful place in the range of events for which we British…are prepared to disrupt our cities, then audiences and artists are…shortchanged, their imaginations stunted and their sense of the possible curtailed.”

On the morning of July 7, 2005, the public’s sense of the possible was hideously expanded. Terror came to London, with bombs detonated at rush hour on three crowded trains and one bus. More than 50 people died, including the four suicide bombers, and more than 700 were injured. It was the deadliest attack in Britain since World War II, and why it is that some Londoners reported not feeling lighter, after that, until the elephant came is one of those mysteries that need pondering, both for its lessons about the unreasonable power of art, and about a people taking back their city, experiencing it not in fear but in joyful awe.

That the Elephant and Little Girl Giant were enormous moving structures could in nervous times have seemed sinister, for the Trojan Horse was such a structure, and neither the Elephant nor Little Girl Giant is exactly anodyne. They possess, rather, the uncanny quality that allows art to strike us deep and make us wonder, relieving us for a time of our formulas for understanding. People who like this effect tend to like it awfully well, but that’s not everybody.

“I’d hit that! I’d hit that!” reads one of nearly 800 comments about the YouTube video with which this article began, a video by now viewed well over a million times. And a MetaFilter member writes, “i am creeped out on so many levels by this…” They’re not alone, but they are the minority that lets you know you're conjuring not with Dumbo but with The Sultan's Elephant, one very sound test of the realness of art being that some people will take viscerally against it. An influential London theatre critic, Michael Billington, who blogs for The Guardian Web site, was one of those offended by the show, calling it an “appeal to the mood of infantilism that seems to be taking over… and a spectacular irrelevance to the business of theatre.” Among the comments on his post is one that reads, “He’s winding us up, right?” “Poor old man, ” writes another reader.

In 1970, Dr. Masahiro Mori of Japan, turning his attention to human-robot interaction, posited the Uncanny Valley – that chartable realm in which robots appear all too nearly human but not utterly human. It is precisely in the Uncanny Valley, he found, that robots repel us rather than inspire feelings of comradeship or cooperation. Thus, R2-D2 is cute and Data is forever and tragically Other. A 46-ton elephant as high as the Admiralty Arch, created of wood, leather and metal, making no secret of its sprockets and gears or of the scores of people needed to operate it, though it may curl its trunk and shower the crowd, pick up its feet and swing its tail, bat its lashy lids and cry out in that elephant way meaning joy or pain, treads nowhere near the Uncanny Valley of Dr. Mori, for we know it is Other – it’s an elephant. About the nature of Little Girl Giant, it is nothing like so easy to be sure.

Little Girl Giant

The tails of fifty horses were needed for her hair, her eyes are tea-colored glass, a motor inside her lifts and contracts her diaphragm night and day: she breathes. Like the first two Giants, she’s fond of sleep, and naps in broad daylight, her head thrown back. Every now and then, it’s possible to see her much commented upon tongue, for thanks to an accordion hinge in each cheek, she parts her lips. The tongue is an intricate, Leonardesque affair, giving her – almost – the appearance of licking and devouring her now famous lollipop. She pees, too, crouching to the street and actually making water, looking unembarrassed as the 18 liveried actor-technicians who operate her turn their heads the other way.

While it can all seem almost holy to the enthralled, there’s nothing remotely cute about any of this, especially not her tongue. ”Eow, that towngue,” as a wag on Metafilter writes. But are we in Dr. Mori’s Uncanny Valley? Oh, probably not – the kids lifted up to be rocked on her arms look her full in the face, so she must be okay. Still, it would depend on whom you asked, because she’s Other, all right. But also terribly convincing as a child waking up to see the world anew every day, regarding it all with sleepy wonder. Walking in St. James Park, as tall as most trees in her leaf green dress with white piping, she is every inch the child taking in what she sees. “IQ – just average. Height – just average,” Blossom Dearie singing her song assures us. The distortions in scale may stimulate a deep recall, too, as opposites can imply one another – once, we were small, with everything not ourselves too large, and still our job was to take it all in.

While the original Giant expresses uncomprehending sorrow at the world of people and things, Little Girl Giant has many modes of being. She is bemused, or cunning, or carnal. Never more believable than when, towering over familiar structures, filling windows with her face, she appears to know just too much, she is once in a great while illuminated by an almost Marian tenderness for whatever she sees. Considering that she has no special equipment – only, like many marionettes, eyes that orbit, lids that drop, lips that part -- how can this be?

Looking closely at her face, it’s possible to see the minute asymmetries – her nostrils do not match exactly, for instance -- and the traces of the chisel that give life to sculpture, endowing the sculpted face with the suggestion mood and variation. It ruins absolutely nothing to know that the sculpture’s changeability exists in the viewer’s imaginative appreciation of light and motion. Indeed, all art is participatory owing to a quality that art historians call “the viewer’s share”— the finding of meaning in what is seen. Partly, this consists in a viewer knowing or guessing the intention of the artist. “She looks lonely,” we might say of an image of the Virgin Annunciate, “singled out, and in awe.” How much we see because we know to look for it and how much an image conveys through the skill and inspiration of the artist is the mystery at the heart of imagery. Every image posits a viewer seeking meaning, and all art is -- to at least that extent -- performance.

Helen Marriage reflected that knowledge and culture – the background that prepares us for an experience of art - were not necessary for The Sultan’s Elephant, that the only decision anyone needed to make was whether to go see it. If you did go, you’d be gorgeously overwhelmed. “I have the strangest feeling today, something in between grief and joy,” a Buckinghamshire man up for the day in London said after the show. If you didn’t go, then you’d miss out on a life-altering event, a barriers-down experience you’d share with one million other people.

How much, then, does the story matter? It matters very much indeed if people tell it to each other all day for four days, trying to keep abreast of the simple tale, to know exactly where in London Little Girl Giant and the elephant are at any given moment, and exactly what they are doing. It is telling that people did not so much follow the elephant or the girl giant, as run ahead, the better to turn around and see them coming, or mass on corners, because corners made it all take longer to happen. This demand for investment, this huge claim on the life of the imagination, is the power of story, not spectacle.

In her four days in London, Little Girl Giant did ordinary things made extraordinary by her doing them, and doing them for all to see. Rising, shaking off sleep, dressing, peeing, walking in St. James Park and stopping to play with kids, passing rather than entering the National Gallery, sizing up Trafalgar Square – all the things a time traveler, or any other kind, might want or need to do. Julian Crouch, the image-maker, describes waiting in queue with his little boy, James, hoping for James to get a ride on Little Girl Giant’s arm. Crouch realized that might not happen, and the thought was a torment to him. He wept with relief when James got his turn.

There was mischief with automobiles, too – it wouldn’t be Royal de Luxe if there were not. Almost flattening the cars she saw parked along Pall Mall, right outside all the posh men’s clubs, Little Girl Giant sewed them tightly to the street with heavy-gauge cable, leaving them for everyone to find like that early one morning. At last meeting in space-time with the sultan, she appeased with her presence in the same coordinates his fevered curiosity, was lifted off her feet and high into the air on the elephant’s tusks.

Then, on the afternoon of the fourth day, a Sunday, it was time to go. At Horseguard’s Parade, Little Girl Giant was helped into her goggles and her Lindbergh-era aviator’s cap, and climbed back into her ornate 19th Century rocket. With its trunk, the elephant brushed her cheek – it was farewell, but having found her, the sultan intended to follow her, and was all set to go. Little Girl Giant took one more look around London, then the hatch went down and the engines were fired. There came an enormous explosion under the fuselage – the hellfire in broad daylight that is a Royal de Luxe specialty, and a mighty effort at a lift-off into another dimension.

Of course, the rocket went nowhere. But when the hatch was opened, Little Girl Giant had gone -- hurtling through time without her rocket. So the sultan was launched once again on a fathomless quest, his bearings to be taken in dreams. And the red-liveried actors, their faces impassive, piled expertly onto the top level of a London sightseeing bus, to rumble away from all that they had wrought.

A NOTE TO READERS ABOUT RESOURCES. When, last summer, I started researching Royal de Luxe, I assumed that much would have been written about a theatre company making a unique and irreplaceable contribution to our times. I was wrong about that. So I set out to write the article I would have appreciated finding. To that end, several books and videos were essential. In English, Four Magical Days in May (Artichoke Trust, 2006) offers many points of view about the performance in London of The Sultan’s Elephant, with excellent photos. In French, Royal de Luxe, a black and white photo book by Jordi Bover, (Art Books International, 1997) is easily the best visual record of the company’s work up to the publication date, though out of print and hard to get. Also in French are Royal de Luxe, 1993-2001, amply illustrated interviews with Jean-Luc Courcoult (Actes Sud, 2001), and Le Grand Repertoire: Machines de Spectacles, by Francois Delaroziere (Actes Sud, 2003.) The films of Dominic Deluze, Royal de Luxe et le Mythe du Geant and Les Voyages du Royal de Luxe provide 320 minutes of documentation of Royal de Luxe projects since the early 1980’s, in particular, trips to the USSR, Morocco, Cameroon and China, and the performances in Le Havre, up to 2000, of The Saga of The Giants. These are available on DVD. Numerous Internet resources provide mainly photo-documentation, most notably the Royal de Luxe Group on Flickr, administrated by Kris Blomme (a.k.a. KrieBel), who has compiled an excellent list of external links.