Drowning, Amidst the Sound of Laughter

July 19, 2008

Parliament is due to break up next week for summer recess. As Matthew Parris tells us, this imminent holiday has caused the government to go into overdrive with a slew of “initiatives” intended to make us forget that they have wrecked the public finances, turned environmental policy into a swindle, and destroyed civil liberties.

However, this government has long been laughable; hopefully our humourists will now go in for the kill. I can think of none better for the job than the impressionist Rory Bremner; he was certainly partially responsible for laughing the anti-liberties Home Secretary (and later Work and Pensions Secretary) David Blunkett out of public life, as this clip demonstrates:

David Blunkett: Unlikeliest Sex Star Ever

I know that a lot of people are afraid about what a new Tory government means; it probably means more of the same. But at the very least, the ability to remove one bunch of criminals from power does mean democracy is still functioning, and complacency is still punished. So, while the Labour government drowns, it should be to the sound of laughter.

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Waiting for Santos

July 19, 2008

Santos McGarryI have had a half and half life: my formative years were in the United States, my later years have been spent in Britain. Because of this mixture, I sometimes am struck by the comparisons and contrasts that can be drawn between the two countries. Contrary to what some French thinkers may believe, there is no unifying “Anglo-Saxon” culture; the variances can be quite stark.

I encountered one of the differences on Thursday night; I was watching Season Seven of The West Wing, the plot concerned a fictional 2006 Presidential election. Halfway through, it dawned on me that this was an example of how differently Americans and Britons view their government: Americans tend to make dramas about politics, the British tend to make comedies. The West Wing is one of my favourite dramas. “Yes, Prime Minister” and “The New Statesman” are two of the funniest programmes I’ve ever seen.

This is not to say that this is exclusive: America has plenty of satire programmes (The Daily Show springs to mind). Dramas about British government have also been made, including the House of Cards series; with a certain generosity of spirit, the John LeCarre “George Smiley” dramas can also be included in this list.

Comedy and reality have collided in Britain: the well-timed remark by the Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable about Gordon Brown’s transformation from “Stalin to Mr. Bean” is a leading example. Similarly, drama and reality are fusing in America: there have been a number of commentators on both sides of the Atlantic which have noted the striking similarity between The West Wing’s seventh season and the 2008 election. The Republican candidate in the programme, Arnold Vinick, was obviously based upon John McCain: he is shown as a man who is out of step with his own party, and primarily famous for “straight talking”. He also is from the West, albeit in his case he is from California rather than Arizona.

The Democrat candidate, Matt Santos, is also rather like Barack Obama in a number of ways: he is a candidate with a minority background, articulate, compassionate and youthful, with a limited tenure in national government. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the writers of the West Wing were in touch with one of Obama’s campaign managers, David Axelrod, who suggested they use many of Obama’s attributes in formulating Santos’ character.

It is a fault of our age that many apparently believe the line between fiction and reality is blurred. Many young people grow up with the aspiration to be on television; the thousands of people who volunteer to be imprisoned on the Big Brother programme for several months is ample evidence of how this desire permeates society. This can lead to a perception that television is real life; perhaps some are subconsciously waiting for Santos in their support of Obama.

It’s a nice idea: Santos is an attractive character. His “biography” states he was Mayor of Houston, and is a reservist with the United States Marines. He is also a proven liberal Democrat with a passion for education reform. He wears the mantle of responsibility with aplomb, and even after he wins the election, he does not appear to take himself too seriously. He is genuinely bipartisan, and he gives the vanquished Vinick an important role as Secretary of State.

When Senator Obama began to run for President, it is perhaps understandable that there were some who wanted real life to be made analogous to the West Wing script. A sketch on the British comedy programme Dead Ringers made clear the difference: in it, a scene from the West Wing was re-created, starting with a President Bartlet impersonator writing a letter in Latin to a foreign dignitary. He sadly informs those around him that he is not the actual President; when the other characters ask him who the real one is, the lights went up on a comedian dressed as President Bush, who let fly with a burst of staccato, idiotic laughter.

West Wing viewers never see Santos do anything underhanded or dirty. We never see his morals falter; certainly, he has doubts, but these have more to do with making the right decision rather than personal ethics. The closest he comes to having any moral quandry is when he has to decide whether to purge a large number of his campaign staff, and having decided to execute on it, he leaves the job to his subordinates.

However, the West Wing’s politics are not realistic. No doubt Senator Obama is having to do more than “grip and grin” and avoid catching colds from all the babies he’s having to kiss. Santos picks up the badge of “liberal” in a national debate, and does so proudly, yet in the end manages to win the states of Texas, South Carolina and Nevada. Senator Obama doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, he and his team are not facing a man as moral as Vinick, who eschewed ads from independent “527” groups. Rather, Obama has a response room whose sole purpose is to anticipate the realisation of ever darkening dreams.

Obama has more personal vices than Santos; he admits that he smokes from time to time to relieve stress. He has been known to get tense when his wife is in the media’s crosshairs; Santos is surprisingly cool under strain.

In fact, Santos is preferable to Senator Obama in most respects: however, Santos does not exist.

I don’t want to blame the writers of the West Wing for the continuing cry of disappointment of progressives with Senator Obama. After all, the creators are purveyors of fiction, who were at the height of their craft when they created the nail biting Season Seven. There is a human instinct to wish for both convenience and completeness; progressives wanted Senator Obama to somehow give them everything, yet to somehow have moderates to come along with him. This was about as likely as America electing Santos’ fictional predecessor: remember, President Bartlet is from New Hampshire, has a Phd in Economics from the London School of Economics, and is highly ethical. In short, in reality, he would have been attacked as a Northeastern liberal who had been trained by European socialists and had delusions of moral superiority; 527 ads would have beaten such a candidacy to death.

Under these circumstances, we should perhaps be glad that Senator Obama is as good as he is, and getting away with as much change as he proposes and yet remains viable. Waiting for Santos, or Bartlet for that matter is relying on dreams. Dreams without practicality have a bad habit of being as strong as a soap bubble, subject to being punctured the moment it is first caught by an ill favoured breeze.

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Calling a Chav a Chav

July 17, 2008

Yesterday, I emerged from my house into a sleepy, sultry and somewhat grey July morning, and discovered that my town centre had been turned into a rubbish tip.

I live a stone’s throw away from a pub, so I’m not unused to tomfoolery emerging late at night; the previous evening, I had heard the usual cacophony of swearing at top volume and standard issue arguments between boyfriend and girlfriend. Sometimes the chatter is amusing: once, a group of teenagers dared each other to pose naked in front of the police CCTV cameras.

However, the spectacle of my town’s streets choked with trash indicated that something more sinister than a torrent of f-bombs had crashed into the neighbourhood. It seems that the vandals had torn open the rubbish bags put out by the local shops and liberally spread out the contents. As I made my way to the train station, I had to step over garbage as wide ranging as torn up shoe boxes to rotten food. Other remnants of the previous night’s mischief included a sign that had been stolen from a pub and placed in front of a shoe repair shop.

Fortunately, the clean up crews were already out in force, sweeping and tidying. I sympathised with them: they were much more perturbed by the insane mess than I was. Furthermore, there was a weariness in their look as they tended to their work, which indicated they had been at it for some time before I had happened along.

I found out from a colleague that a similar incident had occured last week in another nearby town: we theorised it was probably the same youths, given the same mindless destruction, and the same extensive tidy up operation required.

George Orwell sprung to mind. He once said that we had the right to do as we please. In the next breath, however, he said that peaceful people needed to be protected. He was right on both counts.

In another development, it appears that the Fabian Society would rather linger in rarefied heights than think about civil peace. Tom Hampson, one of their spokesmen, said that progressive people should not use the word “chav”, deeming it “way above the level of acceptability”. His justification of this policy was that the “chavs” have no means to defend themselves.

I wish Mr. Hampson could live next to a pub for a while. My local, which generates so much mischief, is a part of the Wetherspoons chain, a group famous for being able to provide cheap beer because it is close to its expiry date. It is where many “chavs” go to imbibe, and plunge into the pleasure of oblivion. Alcohol kills inhibitions; most of the time, we find what was inhibited was the need to swear and yell. As this week’s example shows, it can also liberate a desire to destroy.

There are other features to this segment of society besides beer and mayhem; these are the people that read the tabloids, prefer celebrity to intellect, and have little or no consciousness of environmental or health issues. In short, it is most uncultured and suicidal part of Britain.

To be sure, education, or lack thereof, plays a huge role in all this. Somehow our schools did not open the door of knowledge. This may be more a cultural rather than public spending issue; it used to be, in particular during the Twenties and Thirties, that even the poorest Yorkshire miner had access to a lending library that was filled with great literature. These institutions were funded by unions; at the time, the ethos stated that self-improvement as well as political change was necessary to achieve lasting gains for the working class.

They were correct. However, it appears the “chavs” lack the impulse to apply self-criticism, and thus genuine improvement may have stalled. Certainly, economic policy plays a role in the increasing stratification of Britain, but there is an element to narrowing the gap that involves educational attainment and the desire to learn. Allowing this state of affairs to continue is an act of neglect; trying to suggest that progressivism exists to hide the absence of a self-improving instinct is to distort its meaning. On the contrary, progressivism should seek to encourage people to achieve better, and comment on the status quo as something undesirable.

Furthermore, we should not excuse behaviour when it doesn’t allow “peaceful people to live peacefully”; when progressives do try to excuse this behaviour, it switches off the wider public, who see their rights trampled upon in being told what they have to excuse and to tolerate. Progressivism in this scenario becomes a message of a narrow, removed elite, rather than something that can be applied to the every day. Fortunately, Mr. Hampson is apparently out of the mainstream on this: Barack Obama, a reliable barometer of the future, has already spoken about cultural issues and personal responsibility.

So we should call a chav a chav: the label does, as Mr. Hampson says, carry negative connotations. Who knows, perhaps being called a “chav” will be a mark of shame at some point in the future, rather like being a “disco enthusiast” is now, thirty years after Saturday Night Fever deluged the land with the Bee Gees and bell bottoms. At the very least, using the term “chav” should trigger some debate, and perhaps through debate, some idea of an answer.

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Why I Still Like Barack

July 16, 2008

My company’s summer party is imminent, and I’m facing a choice of appropriate attire for the event. Last year, I’m told, the party involved a great deal of drinking under the stars, and saying things to senior managers and salespeople that inhibitions would otherwise forbid. In short, it’s a good time to be disruptive, perhaps the only truly appropriate juncture to wear a statement, though I’ve done so under less propitious circumstances. I could go for a t-shirt which attacks Wal Mart, saying they represent “Always Corporate Greed…Always”. Alternatively, I’ve got my eye on a shirt which shows a clenched fist and says “I’d Rather Be Fighting the Man”. My final selection is perhaps the most subtle option: I have a shirt that reads “Obama 2008”.

Why do this? I think most radical people have an anarchist streak running through their soul: to disrupt, to shake, to rattle, to knock over – these actions cause an intake of breath, the heart to beat faster, a smile to involuntarily appear. Things as they are, are not adequate, therefore the avatars of the present order deserve a hard kick right in the complacency. A t-shirt with a political statement is an admittedly minor form of disruption, but as I am a manager myself, the statement is marginally more magnified. A frisson of disapproval is likely to be all I that I will get, but to me it’s worth doing, a small portion of a larger symphony of resistance.

To be fair, my superiors are not any better or any worse than most of their counterparts in the rest of the business world. In my experience, senior managers have rarely understood the profound effect of what they do. They see fixed and variable costs, and see the people who work below them as “variable”, a number in a spreadsheet which can be reduced without too much hint of conscience intruding. Ironically, however, it is those who are at the base of the heirarchical pyramid who have the greatest stake in the company’s survival: without it, they (and me, for that matter) can’t pay the mortgage, can’t pay for education, can’t pay for energy bills. The company, as Henry Mintzenberg rightly pointed out, is a social organisation, not a pure generator of shareholder value. Few in leadership want to understand this, or care to see, because thinking this way would require more humanity in decision making.

The depersonalisation at the apex of businesses’ decision making is replicated in politics and government both in Britain and the United States. Worse, America may be an egalitarian country; its politics are not (Britain is almost the opposite). We came very close to a scenario in which we would have had the Presidency held by only two elite families for nearly 30 years. Given this, one of the more laughable spectacles of this election was watching Hillary, a millionairess and doyenne of the establishment, morph into the champion of the working class. By any objective measure, the plight of anyone having trouble make ends meet is something of which she only has a marginal awareness. Why I like Barack Obama, and still like him, is how he has disrupted and continues to disrupt this ridiculous state of affairs.

We must keep in mind that the 2008 election was not supposed to be this way. The script was written well in advance: Hillary was supposed to win the nomination easily. The other part of the script was that the Republican nominee would be a white Protestant: at least that went according to plan. However, there was no room in this scenario for a seismic shift of any kind: politics was to continue to be practiced by a narrow clique of professionals. Certainly, there would be differences in emphasis and on some policies, but it was to be a debate in a country club, not in the town halls or internet forums.

Barack Obama has destroyed this. Few people talk about his nomination in these terms: yes, much is said about his humble origins, and how he is the first African American nominee, and potentially the first African American President. But that’s missing the point: more important than his ethnicity is his outsider status. He did not come from a family belonging to a political establishment; his politics come from community activism on the South Side of Chicago, a pedigree which makes Republican attempts to paint him as some sort of arugula chomping elitist as extremely peculiar. By his efforts, talent and charisma, he has torn up the script, and because of this disruption, politics have become more free flowing. The doors have opened to greater egalitarianism in high office.

It is fashionable among progressives to argue that Barack has abandoned and betrayed them by shifting to the political centre; this is perceived as “selling out” by some. However if the Obama Revolution was to continue to advance all the way into government, he was going to have to bring moderates along with him; he could not win solely with the quarter of the electorate that identifies itself as being “liberal” and “very liberal”. In spite of this, he remains a disruptive influence, that kick in the complacency, that refusal to bow to the hegemony of a few. He may not do everything one would hope for: no politician is a messiah. However, if only for the chaos he has wrought amongst the elite, he is still worth liking, and giving one’s wholehearted support.

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A Nihilist Interlude

July 15, 2008

Nihilism has been a feature of our culture for a while: this past weekend, I saw Cruel Intentions, a 1999 film which drove the point home.

Cruel Intentions [DVD] [1999] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)


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This film recasts the 18th century French novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses” (by Pierre Choderos de Laclos) in a modern setting. Perhaps predictably, the film is set among the superwealthy in New York, and shows the young as amoral, sexually impulsive and overwhelmingly cynical. Cruel Intentions is not quite as amoral as the original; there are redemptive themes of love and genuine sacrifice. However it is worth noting that 18th century France was a regime in its death throes; the world was coming to an end, and the nobility, as shown by Laclos, was apparently more interested in petty intrigues than in trying to prevent catastrophe.

Dangerous Liaisons (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)


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The film may well have been a small symptom of a civilisational crisis in the making, a Freudian subconscious message of decadence, immorality and decline.

The makers of the film intensified the nihilistic theme by inserting the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” in a lengthy scene at the end in which the corruption of one of the major characters is revealed. In some ways, the entire film is reminiscent of a statement from the French film La Haine, in which a character states that while falling, an individual reassures themselves that they’re all right, and does so until they hit the ground. The characters in Cruel Intentions are introduced just before they hit bottom; we see them trying to bundle the reassurance of trivia around themselves as the dive into oblivion is completed.

The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony

Indeed, the Verve may have captured the essence of this “shattering at the perigee” with their music. As Bittersweet Symphony tells us:

‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet, yeah
No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change,
but I’m here in my mold , I am here in my mold
But I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no

Urban Hymns (Audio CD)


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The Verve also are noted for similar anthems such as “The Drugs Don’t Work”, part of their Urban Hymns album, which was first released 1997. Overall, it is definitely peculiar how the film and the album match the spirit of our present times equally as well as the mood of a decade ago.

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The Green PC Option: Build Your Own

July 15, 2008

No matter how efficiently one uses a computer, it is bound to wear out at some point. A colleague of mine has an old Windows XP desktop, and apparently it’s showing its age. I asked him, “How bad is it? Has it completely packed up?”

He responded by quoting “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”:

Ferris Bueller: We can’t pick up Sloane in your car. Mr. Rooney would never believe Mr. Peterson drives that piece of sh**.

Cameron Frye: It’s not a “piece of sh**.”

Ferris Bueller: It is a piece of sh**. Don’t worry about it. I don’t even have a piece of sh**. I have to envy yours.

This is not indicative of a machine that will be running for much longer. It happens; mass produced PCs are particularly susceptible as the incentives of their business are skewed towards using the cheapest, lowest quality components possible. Dell is particularly guilty of this; worse, they make their parts difficult to re-use. For example, their cases are proprietary in every instance I have come across, thus making it impossible to recycle by installing a new motherboard.

Building one’s own PC may not sound like an attractive option: from a green perspective, it may sound hideous as it involves shipping components individually to a supplier’s warehouse rather than shipping a completed unit; however the prefabricated PC is likely to have incured the same transportation costs, if not more. From this perspective, building one’s own may be better than getting a pre-assembled one; at worst, it’s about even.

A second consideration is energy: while some manufacturers are keen to stress their green credentials, choosing one’s one components is a greater guarantee of having a system that is lower on energy consumption. Additionally, if you build your own, it’s a far easier matter to avoid being saddled with Windows Vista, whose processing requirements automatically imply greater power consumption.

A third consideration is cost: manufacturers are charging a premium for assembly, which becomes apparent the moment one builds one’s own. But not only does building one’s own avoid these costs, but because component selection is done by the individual, greater quality of parts can be ensured, and thus the potential longevity of the computer can be extended.

I have gone through the intellectual exercise of putting together a specification of an energy efficient PC; the good news is that the total cost to build one in the United Kingdom is approximately £300. Better still, this estimate assumes there are no parts from an old computer which can be recycled, such as the case or power supply. This cost, however, is exclusive of a monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers. This specification also assumes use of Open Source software, in particular, 64-bit Ubuntu Linux as the operating system.

The basis of any PC specification is the selection of a processor. It’s not been widely reported, given the obsession with ever greater processor power, but AMD have released a line of low energy Athlon 64 processors. While they are single core processors, and thus not as powerful as the top of the line, they are more than capable of running Linux and doing so very well.

They’re also cheap: the processor I picked, the AMD Athlon 64 LE-1620 costs only £26.90. A similar processor in the United States costs approximately $35. Please note: this ratio of UK costs to American ones is by and large constant.

The next selection is the motherboard. Low energy motherboards have made an appearance; however, a standard one will do to match the processor I picked. Our primary objective in this selection is cost efficiency; the Gigabyte GA-MA69G-S3H motherboard achieves this. It costs £44.57.

Memory is important. Our objective with this choice is to future proof the machine, make it so that it’s not necessary to upgrade it for at least a few years. Furthermore, with the 64-bit version of Ubuntu, one can take advantage of large amounts of memory. A cost efficient way of achieving this is to purchase 2 Crucial CT2KIT12864AA53E 2x1GB PC2-4200 kits, yielding a total available memory of 4 GB. Each kit costs approximately £28.

Another way of achieving energy efficiency is to use a graphics card with a passive heatsink, which tries to diffuse heat from the graphics processor using non mechanical means (i.e., no fan). At the same time, this choice should also provide some level of future proofing: even Linux is making heavier demands on graphics cards as of late by utilising advanced visual effects. In order to balance these two requirements, I picked the Gigabyte GeForce 8500GT 256MB (model no. NX85T256H). At about £40, this is a bargain.

Picking both the hard drive and the DVD-RW drive are a matter of providing future proofing as well as achieving cost efficiency. The SATA standard has proven itself to be faster at data transfers; furthermore, the lack of bulky IDE cables inside the case helps to keep the unit cooler, meaning that an additional case fan is not likely ot be required. As we are running Linux in this instance, a huge amount of storage is not required: the choice for this is a standard Seagate Barracuda, 160 GB drive, with an 8 MB cache. At a flat £30, this is good value. The DVD-RW drive I’ve picked is a Pioneer OEM model, which only costs £18.

Now having defined the heart of the system, we come to the more optional items. The Gigabyte motherboard does come with sound; it’s a matter of personal choice, but I’ve found that onboard sound tends to be less than satisfying. A Creative SoundBlaster Audigy SE 7.1 OEM only costs £19, and has sufficient oomph. The only complication is that the builder will be required to go into the BIOS upon startup and disable the on-board sound so that it defaults to the card.

Wireless internet is another key extra. Ubuntu Linux will work with the following card straight out of the box: the SMC SMCWPCI-G 54G Wireless PCI Adapter. I highly advise getting this, even though it is from a more limited range of suppliers, as setting up a wireless card on Linux can be tricky: this saves the entire hassle, and costs only £13.

If one must get a new case, there are some cheap and efficient options. The Coolermaster 330 ATX Elite is only £27. One can spend a bit extra on getting an energy efficient power supply; however, to keep to our limited budget, I suggest a saving energy by obtaining a lower wattage one. A 400W power supply can be purchased for £20.

Having selected these components, the new PC builder may be wondering how to put them all together. There are a number of guides to doing so; one provided by PC World Magazine can be found by clicking here. Ubuntu Linux, which one can obtain at www.ubuntu.com, has a number of set up guides and a forum to assist with installation. In order to take full advantage of the faster web, as one can experience through using Open Source, I highly recommend downloading the Swiftweasel browser and the latest version of the Opera browser. Word processing, spreadsheets and presentations are all available through the Openoffice Suite which comes bundled with Ubuntu. While it is an adjustment for Windows users, once the change is made it, it is often difficult for the user to imagine why they put up with Buellerian piece of computing excrement in the first place. Furthermore, as this has demonstrated, with careful selections, the user can also have a certain sense of satisfaction in being economical, green and as practical as possible.

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The Best of Times?

July 14, 2008

Spanish Civil War PosterThis has been a tense weekend in a number of ways; if the news is to be believed, the folks down at the U.S. Treasury Department have been burning the midnight oil, trying to ensure the biggest dominos of the American financial system – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – don’t fall over. If they did collapse, the government would be obliged to prop them up, and the amount of debt the American government sustains would rise to a level that would justify further devaluation of the dollar. This, in turn, would lead to higher oil prices, as the value of the commodity in relation to the value of the currency in which it is priced, would have dramatically changed.

To use a British phrase, it’s a “right old mess”. Prospects for the world economy apart from China and India, are looking bleak: the Economist warned against the sound of consumers’ purses snapping shut. Even Jeremy Clarkson, the Mad King of the Petrolheads, is apparently now dispensing tips on how to conserve fuel.

There are other items which should worry us; a little noticed problem with bees could have a catastrophic effect on world food supply. The mysterious “Colony Collapse Disorder”, by which bee communities simply disintegrate and die, means there are less of the vital insects to help in agriculture. The Guardian newspaper estimates that without bees, mankind would have four years before starving to death; this item was mentioned en passant on a few websites on Saturday.

Knife crime has also been in the press recently; if the weekend news was to be believed, teenagers are stabbing each other with abandon, and without remorse. A young man interviewed on BBC News this morning was asked if seeing victims of knife crime would influence people to stop using them. His reply was “no”.

In short, we have all the ingredients here for believing that things are as bad as they could ever get. There’s war, famine, economic ruin, and societal breakdown hovering like ghostly spectres across Western civilisation, threatening its demise.

It’s at times like these that it’s important to get some perspective, lest we slide down the precipice to nihilism. Believing that everything is wrong and nothing can improve is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if futility marks every action, then there is no incentive to endure.

On Saturday, BBC Radio 4 had a veteran of the Spanish Civil War as its featured guest. Since he was aged 92, it is highly likely he was one of the last. He spoke very simply and clearly, and unlike most presenters on radio, the one on this programme kept mostly silent, so he could elucidate his tale without hindrance.

The Spanish Civil War was one of the low points of the 1930’s, a decade marked by genuine economic collapse, hunger and violence. The democratically elected Republican government was under siege by a cadre of military officers, who called themselves the Nationalists. The Soviet Union allied itself, albeit tacitly, with the Republican side, and the Nazis and Fascist Italy lined up with the Nationalists. The struggle is considered by some historians to be the opening round of the Second World War.

The elderly veteran on Radio 4 was one of the British volunteers who went to fight for the Republic. He described London of the period: there were pitched street battles in the East End between Communists and Fascists. Going to Spain was part of continuing the fight; to get there, he had to endure a long journey, much of it by bus. Some of what he had to do to get to Spain was absurd: he was told, if questioned at the border, that he was a Spanish worker returning home after a fishing trip. Of course, he spoke no Spanish.

The Republican forces were underequipped compared to their Nationalist rivals; the veteran suggested that his gun was part of the refuse from an earlier, probably nineteenth century struggle. Firing it safely was out of the question. Yet, he was sent into battle, and was ultimately wounded. After recovering, he continued to work as a journalist and activist, until the Republican regime eventually fell.

His story turned out well; he ended up as a journalist with the Daily Herald, and had a successful career. He met his wife in Spain. In 1996, he was invited back to Spain by the government to be honoured for his service. However, one cannot escape the sense that as a young man he was operating in a time when the lights were truly going out. Orwell’s idea of a “boot stamping on a human face forever” was very real. Books like Huxley’s “Brave New World” gave us cause to fear mass production. Unemployment, due to the Great Depression, was extremely grim; bursts of optimism, as provided by Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were few and far between.

Yes, things are bad now. However, there is no totalitarian enemy waiting to pounce upon our shores. The skies are not black with bombers. Unemployment is nowhere near what it was; albeit there are pockets like East Glasgow where hopelessness reigns. We have challenges, but we can survive them and overcome them: after all, our predecessors survived much worse. Cutting back on driving and consumption is far less demanding than facing the prospect of being shot or blown to pieces, or even the kind of rationing that was prevalent in previous eras.

It would be wrong to suggest that people didn’t complain back then, however; the presence of a black market during the Second World War was an obvious indication of a lack of acceptance of living conditions. Contrary to what John McCain’s advisors would say, “whining” is part of the natural human condition. Even Karl Marx said that humanity couldn’t progress without the dynamic of criticism; most invention proceeds from the fact that something is inconvenient or uncomfortable. We should complain now about how things are run, but only as a pre-condition for making them better. But at the same time, perhaps we need to maintain a backwards glance, and a little perspective: yes, things are bad, but in contrast to previous eras, perhaps some would say, even our troubled period constitutes the best of times.

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DVD Review: “There Will Be Blood” starring Daniel Day-Lewis

July 12, 2008

There Will Be Blood [DVD] [2007] (DVD)


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“There Will Be Blood”,starring the Academy award winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (as oil man Daniel Plainview) has recently been released on DVD in the United Kingdom. Given how the oil crisis has recently intensified, its re-emergence could not be more timely.

The film is loosely based on the book “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair. This book, along with his other novel, “The Jungle” are strong critiques of early twentieth century capitalism; while the story of “Oil!” has been transformed into something that Sinclair would not recognise in terms of plot, his deeper critiques of man’s inhumanity remain intact.

America has a habit of idolising its entrepreneurs. Bill Gates, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, are all seen as men who built the nation. Additionally, the men who scratched out a living on the frontier in the hopes of one day making it big, are also seen positively: they are often lionised as men who tamed the savage wilderness.

“There Will Be Blood” provides an insight into these individuals: frequently they were driven, unhappy men, who could find no solace in success. The film begins with a demonstration of Daniel Plainview’s overriding ambition: despite having broken his leg in a mining accident, he drags himself and a chunk of silver across a wasteland to cash in.

We move on to just beyond the turn of the century, and Plainview is now in the oil business; the drilling is primitive and the oil is collected in buckets, which are hoisted from the bottom of a deep shaft by hand crank. The dangers of this simple operation are exposed: one of Plainview’s associates is killed, leaving behind a small child. Plainview is shown to be measuring up the child, as if he was guaging the value of a chunk of ore or a drilling site; he later adopts him, adhering to the pretence that young “H.W.” is his natural son.

When Day-Lewis’ character finally speaks, his performance becomes even more mesmerising. Not only has Day Lewis managed to bury his Irish brogue completely in a midwestern accent, the tone and pitch of his voice was altered as well; apparently, he was influenced by the late actor John Huston, and this is evident in the warmly gruff, yet insincere tones he uses.

The film gains an additional dimension when the setting changes to his largest venture yet, the oil fields surrounding the hamlet of Little Boston, California. He first scouts out the site with his “son”, pretending to hunt for quail. He pays what he calls “quail prices” instead of “oil prices” for the site. However, there is a caveat: the owner of the site’s son, Eli Sunday, wants Plainview to benefit him and his church, the evangelical if somewhat apocalyptic “Church of the Third Revelation”.

The relationship between Plainview and Sunday, in my opinion, provides the central tension in the film. In a gentler age, we would expect the greedy oil man to be balanced out by the preacher’s voice of conscience. However, this film is too honest for such a relationship to be established. Eli is just as much on the take as Plainview: we see this in his overt demands for money, and in how his ramshackle church improves in dramatic ways through the course of the film. We, the viewers, are left with a choice as to what we prefer: do we sympathise more with the amoral oil man, who at least wears his greed on his sleeve, or with the hypocritical preacher, whose avarice is wrapped in nauseating piety? It is also difficult to avoid understanding Plainview’s point of view: he states to a conman posing as his long-lost half brother, “there are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking”. In his setting, the sentiment is logical.

“There Will Be Blood” reminds us that it is these type of men who built America; because of Plainview and in spite of Plainview, Little Boston is seen to prosper. A dusty, abandoned train station thrives. A fancy restaurant opens. People and work arrive. While this is a work of fiction, one has to wonder how many Little Bostons there were, and how many Daniel Planviews.

The film would be less believable if there were no bright spots of humanity within it; they shine all the brighter because of its overall darkness. They are mainly focused on Plainview’s son, H.W.: while he is made deaf at an early age by a derrick explosion, he learns sign language, and marries his childhood sweetheart. Plainview himself shows occasional sparks of affection for his son, although he says later that his relationship with H.W. was entirely based on using a “sweet face” to get oil leases.

Plainview ends the tale living in a mansion in Beverly Hills; the setting was (appropriately) the home of Edward Doheny, one of the oil men behind the infamous “Teapot Dome Scandal”. Plainview the tycoon is drunk, dissolute, and ill tempered: having gotten everything he wanted, he has no idea what to do with himself.

It would be wrong to think that “hollow men” are a uniquely American feature; similar demons bedevilled British adventurers in India and Belgian conquistadors in the Congo. However, because America is a nation that was built on the frontier, perhaps these frailties are far more exposed: they have not been shunted to a distant corner, beyond the full gaze of the nations which bred them.

Human wreckage may have led to progress in the short run. However, we’re rapidly discovering that the gains they achieved were transient and uiltimately self-defeating: the oil runs out, the damage to the environment remains (one of the more frightening aspects of the tale is how cavalier Plainview’s operation is in treating the land), and we have discovered that we can’t live this way. “There Will Be Blood” demonstrates above all, any nostalgia may be misplaced, and perhaps we should be grateful that this phase of humanity’s development may have reached an end.

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Just When You Think…

July 11, 2008

…President Bush couldn’t shock you with yet another gaffe, he goes and does it again. As yesterday’s newspaper said:

George Bush surprised world leaders with a joke about his poor record on the environment as he left the G8 summit in Japan.

The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: “Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter.”

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

The Young Turks had the following take:

Bush Attends His Last G8 Summit – Leaves With A Bang

Whoever is managing Bush’s meds, please up the dosage. Or decrease it.

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Wuthering Prime Minister

July 10, 2008

It was reported in the papers today that Gordon Brown sees himself as a latter day “Heathcliff” from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”.

However, as one newspaper reported:

Andrew McCarthy, the acting director of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Yorkshire, told The Daily Telegraph: “Heathcliff is a man prone to domestic violence, kidnapping, possibly murder, and digging up his dead lover. He is moody and unkind to animals. Is this really a good role model for a prime minister?”

I suggest his knowledge of Heathcliff probably owes more to Kate Bush than to Bronte:

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights

But even then, the lyrics state:

Ooh, it gets dark! It gets lonely,
On the other side from you.
I pine a lot. I find the lot
Falls through without you.
I’m coming back, love,
Cruel Heathcliff, my one dream,
My only master.

Come to think of it, hopefully Gordon got mixed up and confused Heathcliff with Cliff Richard.

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