Monday, 9 September 2013

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free (SHUUUT UUUP!)

So, a while ago someone made a throwaway comment about a friend wearing a pith helmet looking like Don Estelle from 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum'. And that set me to thinking about David Croft and Jimmy Perry's less appreciated sitcom. Yes, they wrote 'Dad's Army', and we'll try to forgive them for 'Hi De Hi', but apparently the BBC, when considering during 2012 what shows they could repeat, took one look at 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' and decided that it basically could never, ever be shown again.

Now. Some of this is perhaps down to the treatment of transvestite gunner 'Gloria' Beaumont (although M*A*S*H got away with it), but I am sure that the main reason is Michael Bates' character, Ranjit Ram. Michael Bates is a white man (albeit of Indian ancestry) playing an Indian, complete with blackface (well, brownface, but still - not even Ben Kingsley could get away with that these days). Bates may have grown up in India and speak fluent Hindi, and the character may well be a largely sympathetic one, but he is still a figure of fun, and there is a bit too much of the aura of the 'Black And White Minstrel Show' about him. And fair enough - this is 2014, after all. But watching a couple of episodes tonight on YouTube, it strikes me that there's actually a deeper malaise at the heart of the show. It made me think back about the series and the way I had laughed at it as a young boy. I was eight when the series started, and nearly 16 when it finished, and by 1984 it was already a creature of another era, somehow belonging to the 1970s and 'Love They Neighbour' era, rather than the 'Alternative Comedy' of the 80s that seemed to speak to me and my generation. But in fact it was actually far older than that. The reason that 'Dad's Army' and 'Hi De Hi' felt authentic was that even in the 1970s and 80s they were period pieces, harking back to the 1940s and 50s, and Perry and Croft were obviously writing it based on their own experiences of that time. 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' was as much a creation of the 1940s and 50s as Anthony Eden, rationing and Brylcreem. And looking back on it, it seems to me no accident that this was the time of the retreat from Empire - the unravelling of a world-spanning power that before the war had stood for 200 years and people expected to last for many more. In a peculiar way, the programme is its own unwitting testimony to that era, and why the Empire was doomed.

Consider this: Ranjit Ram is a devotee of Britain. He speaks fluent English (albeit with plenty of dialect thrown in), he is in, or attached to, the British Army, serving the British Empire, fighting Britain's war against the Japanese. He even sings 'Land of Hope and Glory' during the closing credits of every episode (and is told to Shut Up in no uncertain terms by Windsor Davies' Welsh sergeant). Today, you'd have to ask the question; how much more British could he possibly be? He'd pass the Tebbit Test, and probably even most of the hoops that the Home Office makes prospective Britons jump through. And yet, when he says "We British" - and this is quite uncomfortable to recall today in 2014 - the 1970s studio audience laughs at his pretension to be something that he is, as far as they are concerned, 'evidently' not.

Empires rise and fall, and how and why they do is to me an interesting question. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers took an economic perspective, arguing that Empires rise to the point where the cost of defending and policing them outweighs the benefits, and he looked at Spain, Britain and the United States in those contexts, but what he didn't really examine was their social and political make-up. The most successful western empire that we know of, and the one that all western empires (even the Muslim ones) have ended up harking back to, is the Roman Empire, but for all of its classical columns and boys doing their Latin prep at Eton, it's belief that like the Romans they were spreading "civilisation", the British Empire was of a fundamentally different character to the Roman Empire, because the Romans were altogether more inclusive in a way that the British Empire never was. The Roman Empire progressively gave its citizens the same rights wherever they were, and allowed free movement throughout its borders. It tolerated and incorporated local religions and co-opted local elites. Yes, it could be ruthless with dissent, but provided you accepted a minimum standard of 'Romanness', it didn't matter whether you were Italian, Syrian, or even British (ironically, a by-word for barbarism in Rome). The British Empire did some of those things as well, but it never accepted Indians, Africans or even its American or Australian colonists as being on a par with the citizens of the motherland. There was no British equivalent of Augustus inviting the Gauls to send senators to Rome - no members of parliament for Calcutta West or Hong Kong - remember this was basically the straw that led to American Independence, which should have been the wake-up call for Britain. And as for an African leader, like Septimus Severus - the idea of a Nigerian prime minister would have been unthinkable for a 19th or even 20th century Briton.

So today, when Ranjit Ram says "We British", it's that mocking laughter that breaks my heart. Never mind any of the geopolitical arguments; that laughter is the reason why the British Empire is rightly confined to the history books, and the series is best confined there too.

Friday, 6 September 2013

This matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling

In the late 1980s, I used to play a great little game on the Atari ST called 'Balance of Power'. It was as good a simulation as 128k of processing power allowed of a world of geopolitical manoeuvreing. You played as either the President of the United States or Premier of the Soviet Union, and got to intervene in a variety of foreign states, pushing your own agenda, sending financial aid, military aid, 'military advisors' or even just outright invading. All of this was fine unless the other side took exception to what you were doing, in which case a Crisis would result. This basically amounted to a poker game where both sides would escalate until either one side backed down (and lost Prestige - the game's victory points) or triggered a nuclear war (in which case both sides lost). For a largely text-based game with rudimentary graphics it could be very tense! The computer player had a degree of AI, but there was also a random factor, and you could never be quite sure which way they would react. One of the things I enjoyed was the diplomatic rebuffs that your computer opponent would give you. If you were up against the US, your actions as the USSR would be greeted with Pentagonese like "the United States considers this a key interest", but if you were the USA, up against the USSR your actions would generate some wonderful Cold War Soviet rhetoric like the title of this post; "this matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling."

I was reminded of the game recently by the Syrian crisis. It feels like Obama effectively just got told: "this matter is rightfully not subject to imperialist meddling", and is backing down. Syria is still a Russian client state after all, complete with naval base, and for all of the rhetoric about "holding the Security Council to ransom", the Permanent Five get vetoes on the UNSC for this exact reason - so that nuclear-armed powers don't end up in military conflict over what they consider to be key strategic interests. The US has used it countless times to head off any criticism of, or international action over, Israel, including its long-standing flouting of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and really has no room for complaint here. But it also underscores the extent to which things have and haven't changed in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War. The world was once - by and large - a two-player, zero sum game; East vs West. Tito, Nasser, Nehru and Sukharno tried to create a third player - the Non-Aligned Movement - but they were only defined by being "none of the above", and had no real collective interest beyond making sure that nuclear armageddon didn't happen, nor did they have any ability to project power or enforce it. But things are changing.

The Balance of Power game unfortunately didn't really survive the end of the Cold War, but it did have a second edition, published in 1990 just on the cusp of the ending of the "old world order", which had a 'multipolar' mode. This simulated a world where not just the USA and USSR were taking action, but also a variety of regional and global players, from Britain, France, India and China to Israel, Iran, Cuba and South Africa. It made the game massively more complicated and enjoyable, but also much more frustrating, as supposed 'allies' could often mess things up for you or drag you into conflicts you didn't want to get involved in. But in fact the ending of the Cold War didn't turn the world into multipolar mode - it just removed one of the two main players. For two decades the world has been defined by a single superpower, and whether you were, in Dubya's memorable phrase "with us or against us". But now it feels like we're finally moving back into 'multipolar' mode. China's economic might is approaching that of the US, it is a major player in Africa, and its military capability is coming on by leaps and bounds. Russia went through a bad patch after the collapse of the USSR but has now re-emerged as an energy superpower in a world where oil prices are $100 per barrel. The EU still can't get its act together, but Britain and France have proved  - in our case over Syria, in France's over Iraq - that they are not just cheerleaders for the US. India and Brazil are up and coming, and a variety of regional players like Turkey, Israel and Iran are playing a chess game across the Middle East. I think the US has been stuck in 'single player mode' diplomatically for too long, and needs to start thinking about how it achieves its ends in a world that has grown more fragmented and complicated.

Monday, 8 July 2013

History be Damned

So I'm finally watching the last of Spartacus, this time the third series, 'War of the Damned'.

It's... okay. But the series has had a downward trajectory, and this isn't the best series of the three. Without the scheming Roman matrons and the rival Praetors, we're left with new entrants Crassus (a rather nobler portrayal than my own idea of him, it must be said), his son Publius - a chip off the old block - Julius Caesar, and a few others. The Cilician pirates are there, and pleasantly sleazy, and Crassus' attempt to play the sternest of Roman paterfamilias' is nicely played. The famous 'decimation' of a force that ran from Spartacus' men is very well done. I hadn't actually realised that the punishment was carried out by bludgeoning, but apparently it was, and suitably grisly. The action has been telescoped a bit - several months of campaigning around southern Italy has been shoehorned into the capture and defence of one provincial port (played here by Dubrovnik) - but that's okay. The whole campaign is confusing and Spartacus' motives hard to discern. Setting him up against Crassus as the main villain, and using Pompey's arrival with his army from Spain as a time limit for action is both pretty accurate and suitably dramatic. A great plus point is that, unlike the Kubrick film, the series doesn't glamorise the slaves or attempt to portray them as ideologically motivated freedom fighters or revolutionaries; they are convincingly chaotic, desperate and unpleasant; out for revenge and plunder and with no credible long term game plan, riven by ethnic and personal rivalries and jealousies. Crixus is nicely edged into being a rival centre of power - in reality he and Spartacus appear to have parted company and Crixus led a contingent of the slaves on a divergent path for over a year until he was cornered and defeated.

I think my biggest problem is with the version of Julius Caesar on offer. The idea that he was around in Rome in 72BC isn't implausible. The idea that he began his association with Crassus then, and that Crassus bankrolled his candidature for tribune is likewise very credible - Caesar was Crassus' protege and Caesar used Crassus' son as an officer on his later campaign in Gaul. His energy, womanising and military genius is well caught. But the idea that he would act as some kind of secret agent behind the lines, acting as agent provocateur, and above all, do it while wearing a beard? No. Just, no. Caesar was infamously fastidious about body hair, and had all of his plucked out by a slave with tweezers, and surely wouldn't risk being in the presence of Cilician pirates again only a year or so after having just had a bunch of them hunted down and killed for kidnapping him. It just feels too big a betrayal of what we know about the man.

All that aside, and in spite of the CGI blood, T&A, and armies full of Kiwis and Aussies, it is still well done. It revels in the '300' school of ancient history, but is far more historical than that travesty was. The use of language is quite interesting; the definite article is dropped, and Latin derived words used in preference for Anglo-Saxon ones; 'gratitude' for 'thanks', 'apologies' for 'sorry'. It makes it nicely strange and outre - as with Deadwood, just alien enough to catch the ear, but not enough to be distracting. I'm glad it was done, but disappointed that they didn't make more of the genuine history, which was dramatic enough!

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Into the labyrinth

I have started reading Labyrinths, a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays. Previously I'd only read a couple of his stories, as they tangentially crossed paths with my own interests; The Garden of Forking Paths, as it deals with multiple parallel realities, and The Zahir, about a mystical talisman that causes obsession, which someone had mentioned in connection with Arthur Machen (who was apparently a big influence on Borges). I also know that William Gibson, one of my favourite authors, is a big fan, and I've talked to other people who've recommended Borges, but in my mind I'd somehow lumped him with other South American writers like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who I had found quite annoying, and never got around to tackling him in earnest.

However, something happened on Sunday that was almost in itself Borgesian. I was on a fairly empty 185 bus, being mildly annoyed by the guy a few seats ahead who was playing Buena Vista Social Club-esque Cuban music too loudly. A girl was sitting opposite and obviously also annoyed. As she got up to get off the bus, she tried talking to the guy, but he was either asleep or feigning being asleep, so she eventually gave up and headed down the stairs to get off. It was only then that I looked back at where she had been sitting and saw she had left a well-thumbed and rather dog-eared paperback behind. By then it was too late to try and return it to her - the bus was already off and moving, and something about the placement almost looked deliberate, as though she had finished it and put it down, leaving it for the next person, as some people do, and since there were only about three other people on the top deck, I reached across and picked up the book. If the young woman from the bus ever reads this - do please feel free to contact me and I will gladly return it. It was of course Labyrinths. Something about the Latin music, the serendipitous nature of the find, and of the work itself, wormed its way into me, and this morning I started reading it. There's definitely an opening of a Borgesian story in there already.

The first thing that struck me is how much he appears to be writing Weird Fiction, which is a bit of a personal obsession of mine - that early 20th century genre of the strange and fantastic that had come from Lord Dunsany and some odd 'decadent' novelists of the 1890s like Robert 'The King in Yellow' Chambers. In particular, in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he is using the Lovecraft trick of strange books and name-dropping real world mystics and outre authors to build a parallel world that moves behind the scenes of our own (it's almost a precursor of the DaVinci Code, only almost infinitely better written). Borges apparently called Lovecraft "an unconscious parodist of Poe", and Lovecraft did draw a lot on Poe as well as the Weird Fiction pioneers in constructing his tales. Anyway, it's a good start. More on this as I get deeper into the Labyrinth, but I'm already regretting having taken so long to discover Borges.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher's children

It's fair to say Margaret Thatcher dominated my adolescence. I was 13 when she swept to power, and 24 when she was dumped by her own party as an electoral liability. Though it's hard to admit now, I - like a lot of the country, was all in favour when she appeared, having mostly inherited my political views from my parents, and with vivid memories of sitting in candlelight as electricity was shut off, and passing mounds of uncollected rubbish during the 'Winter of Discontent'. My slide out of love was like the country's, dismayed by high inflation (22% in 1980, I remember) and soaring unemployment, worried by riots, excited and proud at the Falklands War. By the time I reached 17 and took Economics 'A'-Level I started to realise that Monetarism and 'Trickle Down' were basically nonsense, and when I reached 18 and spent three years in Yorkshire during the height of the Miners' Strike, I became more aware of the terrible damage that her economic shock therapy had done to pretty much everywhere outside the Home Counties. It had been a similar story in my native Midlands, and my home town of Walsall was eviscerated by the loss of traditional 'metal bashing' industry. I got caught by accident in the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax riot and got a taste of what being charged down by police on horseback was like. By the time she went I loathed her - I was an adolescent and hated with an adolescent's passion, so much so that even now I can't hear her voice without almost physically wincing. But I certainly wasn't the only one - something that the Right (still feeling collective guilt from their brutally pragmatic act of matricide) still can't always acknowledge - John Major's approval rating reached an unbelievable 93% in its very early days purely because he wasn't Margaret Thatcher.

Time passes. Experience becomes history, history becomes myth, and myth becomes legend. It's hard now to separate the lived experience of Thatcher from the myths that both Left and Right have built around her. This was something she willingly colluded in - she and her image makers, like Tim Bell and Charles Saatchi, built a weird, quasi-regal, apparently fearless and scarily self-assured image of her, an impregnable cocoon, almost above politics, and we all bought into it. I'm strangely reminded of Caesar Augustus and his relentless public image making. More recently, as time blunts more visceral emotions, nuance has finally and fortunately begun to creep into the collective memory of her - cracks in the Boudiccan facade have appeared via papers and memos released under the 30-year rule and films like The Iron Lady, that reveal and portray the human being underneath the carapace, while her Lear-like decline into senility has evoked sympathy even from  those of us who hated her. But what those on the Right fail to recall now, as they clamour for our obedience to their own vision of her, is that it is the artificial carapace that they loved and that we loved to hate, and it is that carapace that is being hated now, and that carapce whose disappearance is being celebrated, not the confused 87-year old woman that died on Monday. It is the Terminator-like Iron Lady that we despised, not Margaret Hilda Roberts from a corner shop in Grantham. This catharsis is probably too long overdue - in point of fact the Iron Lady essentially vanished in 1990 when she was assassinated by her own party. Only the human being remained behind, declining as we all will.

So given all of that, I really wasn't sure how I'd feel when I heard of her death. I do confess to a brief moment of satisfaction; a kind of "well, that's that, then", but it was quite fleeting. Mostly it has been a kind of wisful melancholy for lost youth and the lost political certainty that I felt back then. There has also been some personal resentment at the kind of enforced mourning that we're apparently about to have to endure - I felt much the same way about Diana and the way the Grief Police tried to ensure obedience to a saintly image of a woman who the week before had been a silly Sloane dallying with an Arab playboy. It is that attempt to control the narrative, to rewrite her historical testament as one of pure achievement, when the record is much patchier than that, that makes my hackles rise. It isn't the feelings of Mark and Carol that these people are trying to spare, it is their own, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to the death of Tony Benn, say, or Ken Livingstone.

And that's not to say that everything she did was wrong. Good Lord, the state of Britain in the 1970s was one it is hard to imagine now. It's genuinely hard to remember now just how much of Britain was in public ownership in 1979. The government (led, lest we forget, by the Right's other darling, Churchill) had taken pretty much the entirety of Britain under government control during the Second World War, and it by and large stayed that way until the 80s. Some of the privatisations were probably long overdue. Some have been undoubted successes, like British Airways, British Telecom, British Petroleum, British Gas. Some, like British Coal and British Steel, were just a way of dodging responsibility for the demolition job that was to follow. Some, like water and electricity, or defence research, probably seemed like a good idea at the time but have not to my mind delivered any tangible benefit. Some, like bus services and the ongoing Post Office sell-off, have been a disaster for rural communities, and of course British Rail's privatisation (albeit finally realised under her successor John Major) has simply been an expensive fiasco.

Yet it seems to be a common assumption now that what she did for the economy was an unalloyed Good Thing, even putting aside the exultant glee with which a wrecking ball was taken to manufacturing, or the casual disdain for communities in genuine distress, some of which have never recovered; the uncaring "on your bike" and "the country's got to take its medicine" attitude. But in actual fact the economy has never quite recovered in the way that the Right think it did. The economic shock therapy that led to the wholesale restructuring of the British economy was paid for with North Sea oil, a legacy now gone and wasted. But the much-vaunted 'sunrise industries' of pharmaceuticals and electronics that followed could not replace the jobs lost in less mechanised and more employee-heavy industries like coal, steel and shipbuilding, and of course they appeared at the other end of the country. The biggest slice of GDP came to be occupied by finance, something that seemed to work right up until 2007, when we discovered that it had made us just as big a hostage to fortune as heavy industry had in the 1970s. We merely replaced one Achilles heel in the economy with another. I'm alternately amused and depressed at the Right's outrage now over welfare dependency, when they have created it by destroying jobs in the north and not providing anything to replace them beyond McJobs - call centres and fragile high streets being eroded by technological change. While those that did get on their bikes - like me - have swelled the already overcrowded south east, driven up house prices and accompanying property bubbles, and reinforced rural decline as the newly property rich buy up cottages in the country (I haven't done that, but I have friends that have). Truly, we are all Thatcher's children now.

So yes, let's remember a truly historic personality, one who has definitely remade Britain, some of it for the better, some of it for the worse. But a little more perspective is needed on both sides, I think. And if you're going to insist on a public funeral for such a divisive figure, don't expect everyone to play along with the version of her you want to remember.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Stop the Calvary

Appropriately enough, I spent Easter watching lots of TV about a man who was crucified by the Romans. Spartacus the Thracian gladiator, that is - who did you think I meant?

I posted just over a year ago about the first series, and my orgy (and I do not use the term lightly) of viewing over Easter was of the second series, subtitled Spartacus: Vengeance. Whether due to ratings or simply a wise decision by the writers, the series consists only of three series (plus a Spartacus-free prequel set in the same gladiatorial school - Gods of the Arena). Considering that Spartacus' story has a somewhat... limited arc, this is almost certainly a good thing.

The first series dealt with the intrigues around the gladiatorial school and the city of Capua, and finally led up to the revolt and breakout. This unfortunately led to the death of John Hannah's character, Batiatus, which is a shame, as he was one of the best things in it, but it does illustrate one of the odd and - for a part-time Classicist - oddly invigorating things about the series, which is that whenever there is genuine recorded history (mostly Plutarch and Appian, who occasionally disagree), the series sticks to it very faithfully. While the CGI blood and gore, and non-CGI breasts and bums, are gloriously over the top in a '300' kind of way, the series takes far fewer liberties with history than you might expect. The owner of Spartacus' gladiatorial school was indeed one Lentulus Batiatus (played rather more slimily by Peter Ustinov in the Kubrick film), and he did indeed die during the breakout. The fate of his wife is not mentioned, which gave them the excuse to bring back Lucy Lawless, which is all to the good. Furthermore, rival praetors Gaius Claudius Glaber and Publius Varinius did indeed try to bring Spartacus and his slaves to heel in the early days, Glaber did indeed have to build a scratch force of local militia, criminals and neer-do-wells, since Rome would not allocate him legionaries, and the slaves did indeed hang out at the base of Vesuvius before being driven up the slopes by Glaber's siege of their camp. I'm one episode from the end of the series, and while Varinius appeared to have been killed this time around, the fact that we know he was around later in reality means I suspect he may only have been 'left for dead'. Conversely, Glaber is heard of no more after getting his arse kicked at Mount Vesuvius by Spartacus' very cinematic tactic of using vine ropes to rappel down behind Glaber's troops, and I suspect he may be among the fallen at the end of Series 2, although hopefully his evil wife and Lucy L will still be around, scheming with the now scarred Varinius.

I was also mildly astonished to learn that many of the prominent leaders among Spartacus' men; Crixus, Oenomaus and Gannicus, were also known to history. Crixus, as he is in the series, was apparently indeed a Gaul whom Spartacus had defeated in the arena but refused to kill, and Gannicus a Celt, Oenomaus was in fact also a Gaul rather than being African as depicted, but the ethnic tensions between Gauls, Thracians and Germans in Spartacus' slave army are quite convincingly drawn.

I am now really looking forward to the third series (currently showing on TV in the US), as we start to get major Roman personalities like Crassus, Lucullus and Pompey becoming involved, some higher level Senate manoeuvering, and some of the major battles of the Third Servile War, complete with Cilician pirates. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Time and Time Again

I have a bit of a thing about bad time travel stories. Essentially, if your own version of time travel is generating paradoxes, You're Doing It Wrong. There are only two ways of not generating a paradox: either you subscibe to the Einsteinian,  'all events are already embedded in the structure of spacetime' view (e.g. Twelve Monkeys, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, etc), and you have a timeline that is already fixed - past, present, and future - so you can't affect your own past, as it has already happened, and if you try, you'll find out it didn't work for some reason. Or, you go via the quantum physics angle and have multiple parallel worlds/timestreams (Donnie Darko - mostly, and with added mystical bullshit, more more especially the excellent Primer), where the act of time travelling simply propels you into a parallel timestream, so you can affect the new timestream, but - crucially - not the one you came from, and therefore not your own past. There is no other self consistent way of doing it. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. It's just physics.

The most recent example of this, and the one that annoyed me enough to make this blog post, was Looper, which thinks it's really clever, like Inception, but which is basically really stupid, like Terminator. Spoilers follow.

Let's ignore the ridiculousness of the Premise (mobsters in 2074 have access to "underground" time travel technology and use it to dispose of corpses because it's too hard to do that in 2074 - WHAT??) - even swallowing that piece of shit (which is then utterly disproved within the movie by the version of 2074 that we are shown), there is the whole question of how they go about it. Much of the film behaves as though it's Einsteinian, with self-consistent time loops - hence the name. But then, when someone is tortured in 2044, the 2074 version of THE SAME PERSON suddenly finds his fingers disappearing. Er... surely that 'happened' to that character 30 years ago, and he'd already be aware of that?

It's almost - but not quite - as bad as the worst example I can think of: the Kris Kristofferson movie Millennium, where changing things in our present causes things to change in the future, but the propogation of these effects somehow takes a fixed amount of (subjective) time in our timeline. Er, no - for our future these things surely already happened decades ago? Another corker is Star Trek: Generations, which tries to inject some tension by having Kirk and Picard in a 'race against time'. But hang on - a 'race against time' in a movie where you can time travel at will? How the heck does that work? Surely if you mess it up, you can just travel back to before the event and have another go? Jeopardy? What jeopardy? The logical inconsistencies of the Terminator series would require an entire essay. In Back to the Future there's a sort-of half hearted nod at multiple parallel worlds, but somehow, and conveniently for the purposes of the plot, people's memories are able to transcend switching timelines and remember the old, vanished timeline, even though those events NO LONGER HAPPENED. I won't even mention Dr Who. I like Dr Who, but... let's just not go there.

Time travel is just something that stories and movies tend to do really badly. So much so that it actually makes me want to write a self consistent multiple parallel worlds time travel story. In fact, I've already started. Or perhaps I've already finished...

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Making it Clear

I've long been a fan of John Sweeney's reporting, including a piece I re-watched recently on the Nazi re-enactment group the Second Battle Group, who I've encountered myself and found just as dubious as he did. But I think he achieved a kind of apotheosis with his Panorama documentary on Scientology. Since then he's become one of the "Church's" staunchest critics, and written an interesting and - given the cult's tactic of 'Fair Game' - quite brave book on it, 'Church of Fear'. It's well worth a read.

In particular, I found some of what he had to say in the book triggered memories of my own, which have had a major impact on making me into the person I am today. In particular the 'arguing in relays' technique that they used on him was also used by some fundamentalist Christians of my acquaintance who gradually converted most of the Sixth Form at my school, and left myself and two friends rather defensively founding our own mock-diabolic anti-Christian society as a kind of pressure valve. Although I walked away from religion at age 11, I think a lot of my antipathy for it comes from those years, at age 16-17, when I was forced at every break and lunchtime to defend what I believed in (or rather didn't believe in) over and over again, in a manner that was draining both physically and emotionally. A lot of my friends succumbed.

But I've also seen the impact that Scientology can have on peoples' lives.A friend of my father, a successful industrialist, ended up spending vast sums on Scientology's bogus courses. It provoked a rift in his family which led to marital trouble, financial difficulties for his company and basically nearly ruined what from the outside had had been a pretty idyllic life.
And I've also had my own minor personal run-in. At University, a friend of mine and myself dropped into the local Scientology centre for a laugh on a bored Saturday afternoon and took their 'Free Personality Test'. I answered mine as a kind of role-play, as an imagined character who was probably a borderline psychopath. The volunteer giving me my results looked genuinely shocked at the results of the test, but of course parroted the Party line that "only we can can help you". I laughed it off and thought no more about it, but for the next few weeks both myself and my friend were followed, around town, even occasionally on campus... it was genuinely quite weird and more than a little unsettling. Eventually they seemed to lose interest and give up, but this was only a tiny taster of what they put Sweeney through, and watching his documentary brought a lot of that flooding back. I could totally empathise with him losing it at the rather weird Scientology android who had been given the task of breaking him down.
So when I found that my father had been given a copy of 'Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health', I probably vented a bit at him. He is a clever man with an inquiring mind, but he left school at 16 and occasionally doesn't have the background in science or history to sniff what is bogus and what isn't, and so is prone to falling for a lot of the 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail', 1421 - China discovers America, and all of that nonsense. Thankfully Dianetics proved to be too heavy going for him.

So I've got form, I guess is what I'm saying. But after reading Sweeney's own account of his breakdown/blow-up at the Scientologists during their 'psychiatric holocaust' exhibition, I was prompted to watch That Clip again on YouTube. I'd watched it before, but this time I took a look at who had posted it, and noted that they had done so complete with links to Scientology-run websites, and when I was inclined to post something sarcastic about that underneath - as you do - I suddenly discovered that the poster of the clip also moderated all comments on it. Yep, it's a Scientology propaganda piece. Well, what a surprise. Again, it's only the tip of a whole iceberg of media manipulation and lawsuits that the cult uses to try and police its image in public.
Ironically, if it hadn't been for that, I probably wouldn't have posted this blog entry. But I don't like feeling censored, and Scientology are all for censorship. They seem to have plenty to hide. So here's to John Sweeney. I hope his book is a success. And I hope you all read it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain

So the science is in, and it looks like the bones found under a Leicester car park really were that of the late King Richard III. To the great credit of the dedicated sleuthing of his modern cheerleaders, the Richard III Society, he was exactly where they said he would be. To their great disappointment, he turned out to genuinely have a severe spinal deformity, if not exactly a hunchback, and to be rather slender, even feminine, in appearance, just as the contemporary historians (many of them Tudor propagandists) said he was. Still, it's nice to have the Middle Ages on the front page for a change.

As the Richard III Society were intimately involved in the discovery, the question of his posthumous reputation came up again, and I find this the more interesting part, since it involves history rather than archaeology. The Society seem occasionally slightly alarming in their devotion to a canny usurper and probable child murderer, and it's interesting to think about why people are so intrigued by perceived historical grievances in this way. I once shared a house with a woman who would literally rage at the historic indignities heaped on 19th century Native Americans, or Britain's actions during the Irish potato famine, but who was largely indifferent to the fate of present day Somalis or Ethiopians.

There is no doubt that Richard III was ill-served by history. Tudors (themselves usurpers) deliberately bolstered their own claim by blackening his name with that commonplace of history, victor's justice, and their accounts went unquestioned by Regency and Victoran historians who liked to pigeonhole historical figures into what '1066 And All That' parodied as Good Things and Bad Kings. Richard III was a Bad King, and that was that. Most damaging for his reputation has been that the main fictional portrayal of him in public circulation is as the Machiavel in Shakespeare's play. The Richard III Society feel this is unfair, and they have a point. But it's not a great one. Richard undoubtedly was a loyal brother while Edward was alive, but when he died he seized his chance with both hands and wasn't too fussy about what happened to those who got in the way, fabricating evidence of his brother's bigamy, ambushing and murdering his sister-in-law's family, arresting and 'disappearing' his nephews, and generally going about removing opponents with a terrible steely-eyed ruthlessness. Yes, he was surely a clever man, a competent general, a capable administrator and inspired genuine loyalty in his followers. Yes, in the 21st century we no longer regard physical disability as an exterior manifestation of a sick soul, as they did at the time. But he was no angel, and in their quest to chip away at some of the accretion of bad history, the Richard III Society have been guilty of some of their own, much of it wishful thinking. Why can't he be regarded simply as a complex individual, with positive and negative facets, like most people, historical and contemporary?

He always puts me in mind of a figure I'm more familiar with, that of King John, another flawed and complex individual, clever - sometimes too clever by half - a gifted administrator with an eye for detail, a competent, even occasionally brilliant military commander who never lost a battle at which he led, undoubtedly charismatic, calculating, but untrusting, occasionally to the point of paranoia, a careless despoiler of his nobles' wives and daughters as a kind of droit du seigneur (albeit no different from Richard I or Henry II in that regard, it must be said, or many Princes of Wales since), and with a cruel and occasionally arbitrary streak that even his admirers found hard to forgive. As with Richard III, history has judged John more harshly than his brother Richard I (who was a very similar personality), because of his expedient disposal of his nephew and rival Arthur, and because the Church (who wrote the histories) were scandalised by his defiance of the Pope. Like Richard III, John has become a Shakespearean pantomime villian, in a play that has done just as much to traduce his own reputation - it is little performed now, but in the 19th century it was one of Shakespeare's most popular. There he is portayed as weak, vaccilating and petulant, a puppet of his domineering and ambitious mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is a view of him which lived on via various portrayals of Robin Hood, especially the Disney cartoon version (where is mother is replaced by a talking snake, with obvious Biblical overtones), which has done for his modern reputation very much what Shakespeare did for him among the Victorians. There is a grain of truth in it, but not much more than that.

And it always makes me wonder why Richard III has a society devoted to rescuing his reputation, but John doesn't. The country owes more to the man who reformed English justice and administration and who (albeit grudgingly, and with his fingers metaphorically crossed behind his back) signed Magna Carta, than the man who plunged the country back into a civil war it was only just recovering from. Such are the vaguaries of history, and the reason it is endlessly fascinating.

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Turks - A Great Bunch of Lads

The world of manufactured controversy managed another great moment last month when a Turkish Muslim group in Austria decided to lash out at the Lego Corporation for 'promoting race hate' by selling a Lego model of Jabba the Hutt's palace from the third 'Star Wars' film, Return of the Jedi (you know, the one with Leia in the slave girl outfit. Yeah, you know...). Their contention was that the model:

Looked like a crude version of the mosque of Hagia Sophia, one of the jewels of Istanbul and a symbol of Islamic civilisation for many centuries:

Now, I'm far from the first person to point this out, but one major hole in this theory is that the distinctive shape of Hagia Sophia (i.e. the central part, minus the minarets) actually began life as a Christian basilica, its construction initiated by the Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, back when Istanbul was Constantinople (cue the song) and its huge dome modelled on the equally impressive Pantheon in Rome:

So it's actually a Christian building based on a pagan design, converted to a mosque in 1453 by the Turks, deconsecrated by the Ataturk government in 1931 and then converted into a museum in 1935. And a damned fine one, too.

But more than that, surely (as the Lego Corporation were keen to point out) the toy is based not on any specific *real* building, but rather a fantastical one from a series of films:

 All well and good, and the controversy has petered out pretty quickly after the initial grab at some headlines (although it may have sparked the petition to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque that has since surfaced), and we can all fit it neatly into the "tch, Muslims are just *so* sensitive!" pigeonhole - see also Danish cartoons - and forget about it.

Except. Lurking at the back there, I can't help but feel that there is a point of sorts. Tattooine is a desert world, and for its architecture and atmosphere Lucas did borrow from a lot of countries that are now Muslim. Most famously, the first film was made in southern Tunisia, and borrowed a lot from local existing sites, including of course Tataouine, the real world town that gave the planet its name. The design for Jabba's palace was done by US conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and does clearly borrow a lot of its look from a kind of generic 'Tales of the 1001 Nights' fantasy Arabia, and no doubt really does lean a little on the look of Hagia Sophia for its exterior, amongst other things. Furthermore, the whole hareem girl set-up inside is meant to remind us of a long tradition of fictional portraits of Arab slave dealers, and in general there is a kind of Orientalist stereotype that is being peddled. And he does have form in this area - it's just part of a rather dodgy evocation of other cultures that George Lucas has done a lot in his 'Star Wars' films, from the comedy Japanese accents of the Trade Federation to the comedy Jamaican patois of Jar-Jar Binks, and the pretty hideous anti-Semitic stereotype of Watto the merchant (also on Tattooine of course), all of which he can get away with by saying it's just "make believe". And of course it is, as far as it goes, but at the same time it is also drawing on less friendly portrayals of these cultures in the past. Star Wars leans much more on these kind of short-cuts and stereotypes than any other SF series I can think of.

So while they were clearly just trying to make some mischief and grab some headlines, and I don't have much sympathy with them, I do think that the Turkish Cultural Community of Austria have a semi-legitimate grievance there, but it's surely with George Lucas, not Lego. I don't think it's racism per se, but it's a rather more subtle evocation of negative stereotypes that comes quite close.