Sunday, October 1, 2006

Independent on Sunday: What It Feels Like ... To Be Caricatured

Name: Kenneth Baker
Age: 71
History: As an ex-cabinet minister Lord Baker has been the subject of many cartoons. He is the author of 'George IV: A Life in Caricature' (Thames & Hudson) and helped to establish The Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London W1 (www.
Interview by Keith Laidlaw

There is a very interesting relationship between politicians and caricaturists - most politicians love to be caricatured, because once you have been, you've arrived. It's a tick in the right box, as it were.

I was caricatured a lot when I was Education Secretary because I was doing such a lot and changing things. Because I was a rather cheerful chap I was often caricatured as the Cheshire cat, sometimes as just a smile, and in all sorts of ways: a snake, a lizard, a slug, even a lion at one stage, which was an unusual one.

The important thing is you mustn't mind, because the caricaturists aren't there to flatter you at the end of the day. Blair has been savagely caricatured, as was Margaret' I don't quite know how Blair feels about it, but Margaret didn't care a button. I was also attacked a great deal, but it seems to be difficult to get through my thick skin' I've written books about satire and caricature, so I'm at one with the art form.

There's a lovely quotation from Dr Johnson, who said, "I hope the day will never arrive when I shall neither be the object of contumely or ridicule, for then I shall neglected or forgotten."

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Independent on Sunday: Crazy Frogmen

The broader picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Philippe Poulet: opens in a new window

Combining the dual roles of commando and diver in one Gallic package, these French soldiers represent the ultimate dream for any little boy who has picked up an Action Man and fantasised of one day becoming a black-clad special forces operative for real, creeping with ninja-like stealth behind enemy lines to fearlessly conquer some faceless foe. Less well known than their Navy counterparts, these French Army divers are trained to carry out tasks in rivers and urban water systems such as underwater engineering, bomb disposal, information gathering, demolition and clandestine attacks.

Strangely, their lack of fame and the fact that they regularly have to do their dirty work in sewers only seems to add to their aura of gritty cool. Indeed, the French seem to have the monopoly on special forces work in Hollywood. Actor Jean Reno in particular has become the Gauloises-puffing go-to guy for such roles in films including Ronin, Mission: Impossible, Leon and even Godzilla).

This is probably no coincidence: the words sabotage, assassin and reconnaissance all have their roots in French, after all. And the country's military seems to have a certain reputation for cold ruthlessness - probably thanks in no small part to the secret service frogmen who, in 1985, attacked the unarmed Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand. Neither cool nor even very difficult, the incident nevertheless confirmed that the French shouldn't be messed with.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Independent on Sunday: Trailer Trashed

The broader picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Robert King: opens in a new window

It is a combination of two particularly American traditions: trailer parks and ghost towns. But the approximately 11,000 mobile homes sitting empty at Hope Municipal Airport in Arkansas are actually a very visible reminder of two other, more modern phenomena: the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina and, more specifically, the problems that the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) had trying to deal with its aftermath.

Immediately after Katrina hit, Fema ordered more than 100,000 such trailers for families left homeless by flood waters. However, Fema's regulations state that the mobile homes it provides can't be placed in a "flood way or high coastal hazard area" - ie, a floodplain - meaning many couldn't be used in the areas that most needed them. (Fema couldn't install more sturdy pre-fab homes either, as it isn't allowed to pay for anything classed as "permanent" housing.)

But spending over $431m on these trailers wasn't a complete waste, it seems. The nearby town of Hope, whose population of 10,616 is just a little fewer than that of the trailers, has seen a new industry spring upon its doorstep. As well as employing security guards and maintenance staff for the trailers themselves, Fema also had to spend $6m laying a bed of gravel on the airfield to stop the trailers sinking into the mud. And, at least the agency has plenty of mobile homes ready should the unthinkable happen again during this year's hurricane season.

Independent on Sunday: Music Review

TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain 4AD
By Keith Laidlaw

This album will probably seem odd even to those familiar with the Brooklynites' debut, Desperate Youth, Bloody Thirsty Babes. Sure, there are arrhythmic beats, falsetto barbershop harmonies, oblique lyrics, distorted horns and guitars, waltz-time arrangements and overlapping samples seemingly played at several different wrong speeds. But underlying it all is a glorious pop sensibility. "Wolf Like Me" recalls the stomping pomp of OutKast; opener "I Was a Lover" may have got lost on its way to Björk's house. Elsewhere you'll hear Peter Gabriel, Arcade Fire, Kate Bush and Prince all being tossed into the incinerator.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Independent on Sunday: Lost Resorts

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by NPA Group: opens in a new window

In ancient times, the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii on the edge of the Bay of Naples (pictured) were popular holiday destinations for wealthy Romans looking to enjoy lavish holidays, and the coastline around them was peppered with opulent villas. So, when Mount Vesuvius erupted at the end of August, AD 79, the area was bloated with summer visitors, many of whom perished and were buried under falling ash.

But, rather than act as a discouragement to visitors, the remains of the resorts are a huge tourist attraction today. Meanwhile, the modern city of Naples has expanded to the edge of Vesuvius, with a million people living within four miles of the cone (Pompeii was five miles away). True, the volcano is enjoying a dormant period, but it is by no means extinct and the last eruption only ended in 1944. Plus, the eruption of AD 79 was far from being the most spectacular in its colourful history of sudden, violent explosions; the Somma Rim (the arc just north of the current crater) is all that's left of an even larger volcano destroyed 17,000 years ago, while the new cone was formed by a series of eruptions, including two in 5960 and 3580 BC, thought to be among the largest Europe has ever seen. The next could start at any time.

The accompanying picture is take from 'Above the World: Stunning Satellite Images from Above Earth' (Cassell Illustrated, £30) which is available now.