With a Whimper

November 19, 2012

Polling Station SignIt was a marked contrast to the flashbulbs and glory of President Obama’s re-election; on November 15, I awoke at my usual time, 5:30 AM, fed the cats, made coffee, and took out the trash. Then I walked down to the community centre attached to the local Catholic primary school; the sun was not quite up, but nevertheless it was obvious that it would be a dark day. The clouds seemed to be sitting low, almost hugging the ground at point of the horizon. The lights in many of the houses across the east Bradford skyline were switched on; the city was slowly stirring to life, stretching, yawning, pouring out its cups of tea, turning on its hot showers and getting ready to go to work or school. My footsteps felt heavy; my shoulders had that slight ache that prevails before one’s joints have fully warmed up. At last I arrived at the alabaster brick entrance to the centre; a black and white “Polling Station” sign was stuck to the wall.

I was relieved. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales had been very poorly publicised in Bradford; I had not received a polling card indicating where to go and the hours the polling place would be open. I correctly guessed I should go to the same place where I’d voted in the local elections earlier in the year.

A cold wind whipped up behind me; as I possess an overly romantic imagination, I thought it felt like the year was drawing one of its last breaths. 2012 has had its attractions and intrigues, but now has overstayed its welcome: yes, I thought, we had moments of perfect beauty, like Mo Farah victoriously crossing the finish line and times of deep despair, like seeing Gaza set aflame and the bodies of dead children hustled out of the rubble created by Israeli bombs. Overall, the year now feels like it’s staggering on its feet, waiting to drop dead from exhaustion at the finish line.

The wind picked up again. I drew my coat more tightly around me and went into the brightly lit building.

The three people managing the polling station seemed surprised to see me. An elderly lady wearing a floral print blouse and thick glasses crossed my name off her list and handed over the ballot paper. This presented me with my surprise: though I consider myself relatively well informed, I had no idea that there was a first and second preference associated with the this vote. I made my choices and as per the stated procedure, showed the back of the ballot to the returning officer. He seemed altogether too bright, cheerful and neatly pressed for that early hour; after he smiled and nodded his approval, I then stuffed the paper into the ballot box.

As I made my way home, I realised that was the last big exercise of democracy for the year; however, I didn’t really care about the outcome. I’m sure the Commissioner’s role is somewhat important, but it’s difficult to escape the impression that it is a new layer of governance whose sole purpose is to absolve the national government of responsibility. If a crime wave breaks out in Bradford, who will get the blame, the new Commissioner for West Yorkshire or the Home Office? The cuts the latter makes will certainly hinder the former, but it will be the former which will be told that it’s their job to make do and indeed improve the situation. Far from achieving the Tories’ stated purpose of achieving greater accountability, it is likely to diffuse it. We, the public, have had little choice except to either eschew our democratic right to pick the Commissioners, or go along with a farcical process. I thought about spoiling my ballot as a protest: however, my respect for democracy wouldn’t allow me to do so. Most people didn’t even bother to vote. It was an unedifying spectacle, and an unsatisfying conclusion to the year’s politics.

Yes, there are by-elections in Rotherham, Middlesborough and Croydon North on November 29th and yes, there are negotiations regarding its impending “fiscal cliff” to be endured in the United States. But despite the hype ascribed to these events by the media, these are relatively minor happenings: there’s little doubt that the by-elections will yield Labour MPs to replace the Labour MPs who left office. It’s unlikely that the United States will fall off the “fiscal cliff”; all parties will prefer another helping of fudge to triggering a bruising resumption of the recession. I can already feel a punch of nausea at the thought of the publicity surrounding a counterfeit “grand bargain” which will leave the genuinely difficult decisions for another day.

Tony Blair Middle East EnvoyIt’s conceivable there will be other important developments: President Obama will need to appoint new cabinet members, some like current UN Ambassador Susan Rice (intended to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State) are controversial and worthy choices. Perhaps if the President wanted to end the year in a proactive way, he could travel to Gaza, Cairo and Jerusalem and try to prevent the situation getting worse. But perhaps the West feels its power to improve the situation is limited, an impression which is exacerbated by the foibles of its representative to the region, Tony Blair. Apart from the fact that his selection was about as apropos as putting Dr. Harold Shipman in charge of a geriatrics ward, the public would be right to ask what Blair’s eighty-plus visits to Jerusalem have achieved apart from earning him loyalty points from airlines and five star hotels. The Palestinians are still on the end of harsh and murderous treatment, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem face rocket fire: Netanyahu says that what he does is to improve Israel’s peace and security and does not get pulled up on his brutality, idiocy or hypocrisy. Indeed, he may be re-elected in January.

No, the year falters along with our wisdom: the local supermarket calls time on 2012 by indulging in bad marketing puns involving the word “Yule” in place of “You’ll”. People shuffle in and buy Cadbury Roses, coloured Christmas lights, and cheap wrapping paper to put around their purchases from Amazon. There are repeats on television. The hours of daylight diminish. Office workers stand on tiptoe waiting for the calendar to turn over to December and for company parties which will serve up cheap wine and canapés from Iceland which were better off left frozen. This activity masks the fact that fatigue is endemic: it feels like we all need a bit of rest and large helping of hope.

Yet, 2012 has had its highlights: it was an Olympic year for Britain, also one in which the Queen celebrated sixty years on the throne, a great if perplexing achievement given what an anachronism the monarchy has become. It was a year of significant debates in the United States, and a momentous choice between the future and the past was made: most were cheered by America’s decision to stick with modernity. But that’s it: what remains now are like stale leftovers, some offensively rotten, like the case of the woman who died in Ireland because she couldn’t have a medically necessary abortion. The Economist, perhaps feeling the pinch of a deficit of inspiration, decides to criticise France via one its patronising Special Reports: a task which is about as easy for a neo-liberal magazine as it is for the BBC to offend the Daily Mail. The Euro crisis drags on, but is now so dull and smothered in diplomatic treacle that no one wants to speak of it any longer, despite the fact that much of southern Europe is crippled by intermittent strikes and Athens frequently burns. Syria’s civil war drags on, occasionally provoking retaliation from its neighbours; Russia and China won’t allow the international community to act. Britain and America are mostly helpless, and moreover shown to be ineffectual in moderating the harsh winds that are blowing: in Eliot’s words, we end not with a bang, but a whimper. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps we will be lucky; crisis may give way to sense, Israel might halt its aggression, the European Central Bank could be given more freedom to act, austerity possibly will ease. However, this seems unlikely: 2013 may be like 2012 without the promise of any grandeur. Or perhaps there will be grandeur of a different kind: after all, the lack of turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner election may have been the best kind of protest, the public’s revulsion at the assault on Gaza has been far more eloquent than any statement made by any chancellery. 2012 breathes its last; we will have a brief space to contemplate what clouds embrace the horizon, before we gather ourselves up and proceed towards it.

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The Bittersweet Hereafter

November 9, 2012

Old HandsElection Day always makes me think of my grandfather. Had he lived to see this one, he would have been 104 years old; however, I doubt advanced age would have deterred him from going to the polls. I can see him in my imagination: his sparse white hair and twinkling eyes, wearing a neatly pressed brown suit with a gold pin stuck in the lapel and he would be carrying a polished wooden cane. Movement would not come easily to him; he’d need to be driven by a neighbour. Getting out of the car would be problematic; late in life, his inability to move as freely as he once did frustrated him. I recall us washing our hands side by side in an airport bathroom in 1996; my grandfather was irritated by the amount of strength he had to use to get the paper towels out of the dispenser. He told me with a sigh, “It’s not good to get too old.”

He was an immigrant. He came to New York from the west coast of Norway: I have seen photographs of him as a young man, dressed in a grey suit and wearing a fedora, an outfit which hinted at aspiration as well as poverty. Nevertheless, the look he gave the camera was hopeful, optimistic; he needed that faith when he left everything behind. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to come: he arrived in 1928, and shortly thereafter the economy collapsed due the Great Depression. He talked about how he had to work odd jobs, such as scraping tiles off of walls, for very little money, sometimes for as little as 10 cents an hour. These experiences coloured his political outlook: he was a New Deal Democrat. After he secured long term employment on a dredge, he joined a trade union. Of course he voted: he had the gnarled hands of a working man who had wrung prosperity out of years of manual labour and by a stubborn refusal to be kept down by all the forces arrayed against him. He had made himself middle class; he had worked so his daughter (my mother) could go to university. He felt he owed it to posterity to have his say so that their lives could continue to improve.

This is not say that my grandfather was what would be called a “modern progressive”. He was the son of a Lutheran minister. I’ve seen photographs of my great-grandfather: while the expression on his face was genial, he always wore a dark suit and tie which hinted a streak of austerity and authority. Although my grandfather didn’t go to church every Sunday, this upbringing probably made him wary of God’s wrath. Nevertheless, he understood that life was complicated: when he met his wife, my grandmother, she was married to an absent Swedish sailor. According to my grandfather, he quickly realised that she was the love of his life and that he wasn’t going to be deterred by her situation. Nor did he stop trying to woo her when she said in response to his declaration of devotion, “You? I don’t love you! Go find yourself a nice young girl.” Eventually, it emerged that she loved him in return. Because divorce was neither an easy nor simple matter in the 1930’s, at first my grandfather and grandmother lived together without being married; back then, that was a scandal.

So what would my grandfather have done in 2012? He probably would have been befuddled by many of the changes which have occured in recent years. He could have been called an “early adopter” in terms of technology; he learned how to fix radios and televisions, and he had many fine old sets which he kept stored in his cellar. However his interest had limits: he probably would never have owned a laptop. He might have had a go on an iPad, as he could have used Skype to video chat with his grandchildren; in the early 1990’s, he had one of the first video phones that were available. Twitter, Facebook and other social media probably would have perplexed him; he would wonder why you would want to talk to people that way when you could just as easily have a chat with your neighbour over the garden fence; furthermore, you could invite them in to have coffee. He would also feel removed from many of the social changes that have occurred; but his attitude towards abortion was perhaps telling, he didn’t like it, but he felt that it was better off safe and legal than unsafe and illegal. Tolerance, albeit from a distance, would likely have been his stance. Really, so long as his family was safe and well, he was happy.

My grandfather would do his best to keep informed. Without fail, he would sit on his old brown recliner chair every afternoon and switch on the “1010 WINS” radio station which told listeners “give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world”. The radio was old, tinny: it always sounded like the broadcasts came from 1955. This station did not feature Rush Limbaugh or any of the other “shock jocks”, it provided an impartial telling of the day’s events, done entirely without verbal pyrotechnics. After the programme finished, he’d switch it off and read his copy of “Newsday”.

Roosevelt and TrumanI doubt he would have cared much for Romney; I recall him stating his admiration for Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He felt more strongly about Truman. I believe there was something about the haberdasher from Missouri: honest, uncompromising, purposeful that struck a chord with him. My grandfather heartily agreed with Truman’s sacking of Douglas MacArthur; I didn’t realise when he told me this what a minority opinion this was. I also believe that Truman’s modest background enhanced my grandfather’s belief in America; he told me that I could be anything I wanted to be “in this wonderful country”. Harry Truman’s improbable rise must have seemed like proof of this proposition. Romney, although he gave away his inheritance, wouldn’t have given my grandfather additional confidence that this idea still held true.

Furthermore, my grandfather had a dislike for absurd inconsistency. One of the last political jokes I heard him tell was in relation to Bill Clinton’s statement that he “smoked but didn’t inhale”. To my grandfather, that was a “crazy” thing to say and a statement that should be punctured. Romney’s consistent adoption of a variety of opinions would have probably invited even more witticisms from him.

Sometimes my grandfather wondered aloud about where the country was headed; I think the collective loss of integrity over time bothered him the most. For example, he was always very careful with money; he made sure he developed a personal relationship with his local banker. Honest dealings were very important to him; his experience of the Great Depression suggested that this was only real insurance one had. He passed away before the regulatory wall between investment and savings banks fully disappeared. Had he lived, he would have been horrified by the subsequent explosion in “casino” banking and the swindles perpetrated by the financiers; the crash in 2008 would have had many unpleasant echoes for him. Had he had voted in 2012, he would be looking for a Roosevelt or Truman to fix the mess, rewind the destructive changes; Romney would have likely have looked much more like an ineffectual Herbert Hoover to him.

But what about Obama? It’s likely my grandfather would have found his biography inspiring; however, his Scandinavian parsimony would compell him to ask, “Do we really have to spend so much money?” Furthermore, Obama is neither Roosevelt or Truman, he is carving his own niche in history. My grandfather probably also would have raised an eyebrow at the coalition of the young and trendy around Obama. He felt and understood that America was all about change, indeed, it had transformed him as well as transformed around him. Nevertheless, I’m sure that by the age of 104, change would have run its course for him. In this sense, Romney would be the choice that would seem more familiar, more comprehensible. But does one vote for an America that was or the America that is? I dare say my grandfather, who was both practical and bold, would have gone for the latter: but not for his sake, but for those who followed him.

I have inherited much from my grandfather; while I don’t have 1010 WINS to offer me the world in 22 minutes, I do utilise the internet and regularly watch the BBC. I couldn’t help but think of him again on the day after the election, a time of bittersweet hereafters. For him, life would have carried on: on the day after a most momentous election, he would have taken a walk to get the newspaper or go to the bank or to buy a gallon of milk, certain to wrap up warm against the November chill. In contrast, I was absorbing all that had occurred and thinking of all the detritus of the victory party being swept away. Confetti goes into recycling bins, balloons deflate and are thrown away, vacuum cleaners drone as the floor is made clear of dust. Many “Obama Biden” signs are destined for the shredder, some will be preserved for posterity. President Obama is long gone, headed back to Washington to contend with a “fiscal cliff” which the news channels have suddenly realised is looming. Life goes on. The Republicans are now engaged in a bout of self-recrimination which is more akin to a cannibals’ feast: yesterday, I heard Laura Ingraham attack Ann Coulter, a most unedifying spectacle. I had enough after less than ten minutes. It’s clear that some on the right believe that they lost because they weren’t sufficiently right wing, and thus couldn’t express themselves with clarity. Others believe that they didn’t keep up with demographic changes. I suggest it’s because they didn’t realise that “life goes on”. My grandfather may not have fully understood change, and indeed, sometimes he would have been reluctant about it, but he wouldn’t have prevented it; he lived his life the way he wanted to but didn’t tell others how to live. He seemed to think that this was part of being an American. Until such time as the Republicans rediscover this idea in relation to women and minorities and gays, they have no chance of being victorious in elections to come; they’re still casting a look over their shoulder at a past that is becoming ever more distant. Furthermore, the Republicans continue to harken back to the days of Ronald Reagan for their economic ideas; this hints at intellectual stagnation. Political movements which get stuck in such ruts tend to have a limited life expectancy. Sometimes one has to roll the dice, leave everything behind, cross oceans full of doubt to an uncertain land: as my grandfather might have said, it’s the only way to secure the future.

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Fired Up. Ready to Go.

November 6, 2012

Obama at RestBy the time this essay is published, most people in the United States will be fast asleep. No doubt there will be exceptions: some journalists and campaign staffers will work through the night. Perhaps President Obama will sit in the darkness of his hotel suite with the radio and television switched off while he sips a cup of coffee; I imagine that he is the kind of person who enjoys silence from time to time. Presidential campaigns have a notable lack of this: there are so many raucous crowds, so many questions to answer, so many loud ringtones and clicks of cameras, so much dramatic music, so many engines running. It must be a luxury for him to have a moment alone with his thoughts and to partake of a simple cup of java, with its rich scent and steam rising off its dark surface. If he cares to look out the window, he will probably be able to track the progress of the night. The orange sodium lamps and neon lights of the city will drown out much of the starlight. Nevertheless, a few bright specks in the sky will likely be visible, as will the moon. The earth will do one more complete spin on its axis; by the time he sees the moon and stars again, he will certainly know his destiny, and that of the country.

For most, however, sleep will prevail. Farmers in Iowa will snooze in their oak frame beds and cuddle their spouses in order to fend off the bitter November chill. Single city dwellers in New York and Los Angeles will sleep with their arms and legs splayed askew across the battlefield of the mattress. Newly minted Marines, their heads still itching from recent crew cuts, will lay in their bunks, and slumber will bring to them visions of home. Fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters will all be locked into dreams, the one place which seems eternally safe from modern life’s incessant din.

Meanwhile, the first rays of dawn will touch the hills surrounding Bradford and the morning news will be full of last minute analyses. Certainly, the studios in London are being prepared, the pots of coffee set up, and the computers are being readied to collect and analyse the streams of data washing in from across the Atlantic. When the polls open, there will be British and other news cameras on the scene, ready to beam out the first pictures of America making its choice. In my mind’s eye I can see a befuddled, elderly gentleman in a blue parka going to vote and wondering why everyone is making such a fuss.

The markets in London, Frankfurt and Paris will hold their breath and hedge their bets; I can envisage a trader in a white shirt with the collar open and a loosened maroon tie, casting a wide-eyed gaze at a big screen filled with CNN. If Romney wins, he reasons, then investment banks should do well. After all, they were among the largest contributors to his campaign. Obama, in contrast, received a great deal of support from technology companies. Goldman Sachs or Google? Wait, the trader may think, hold back. We will know more soon: but in the meantime, all eyes will remain fixed on America, as if examining the process of voting will somehow reveal the result prior to its actual arrival. Indeed, many will check the internet to see when polls open; come on, come on, let’s start, they think, because the sooner we begin, the sooner we will get it over with. The frustration will boil over: any American expatriate who dares venture into the open will be questioned intently, “What’s going to happen?”

Though I’m now probably more British than American, this is a particularly tense time for me. I recall the last Presidential election: I was living in West Sussex at the time. On that day, I wore an Obama ’08 shirt with a blue cardigan and a “Hope” pin fixed to the lapel. I was busy. I had to go to a seminar on how to best pursue a career in higher education. The convenor, a tall man with thinning brown hair who wore a thick sand-coloured sweater, said to me, “I see where your allegiance lies…I’m afraid as an educator, I have to be impartial.”

He smiled: it was a toothy yet sincere grin. “But,” he continued, “go Obama!”

Gore Vidal on the BBCI was alone that night; I lay on my bed as the results came in, my head propped up on three pillows, as if positioning myself to face the television in this way would be enough to keep me awake. This was overly optimistic: as the BBC droned on, urging patience as they were awaiting the results, I fell asleep. This was to my regret, as I understand the famed novelist Gore Vidal had a hilarious outburst while being questioned by David Dimbleby. It is perhaps the privilege of the esteemed to not be taken too seriously at the right time. In Vidal’s case, he plainly had no idea who Dimbleby was, and furthermore, didn’t care; the response to his befuddlement was well intentioned laughter.

I finally awoke when I heard the sound of a crowd cheering. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the screen: a vast throng had assembled in a Chicago park, the rolling headline at the bottom of the picture indicated that Obama’s victory had been overwhelming. As President-elect Obama strode up to the podium, seeming chastened as well as triumphant, I was quietly hopeful. After his simple, heartfelt speech, I again fell asleep.

The earth has travelled around the sun four times since then and most of us are different people to what we were to a lesser or greater extent; I have fewer hairs on my head and more of what I do possess is grey. I’ve moved to Yorkshire, a place which suits me far better than Sussex ever did. My current work environment is more businesslike: the blue cardigan and Obama t-shirt will remain tucked away in my dresser drawer. The “Hope” pin, however, may make it to my coat’s lapel. My optimism has faded, hope and belief weren’t sufficient in and of themselves to override fully Washington’s backstabbing, dirty dealing and out and out stonewalling. But a lack of forward momentum isn’t sufficient to make me wish for America to press “Rewind”.

We have had four years and four trips around the sun, and while much remains to be done, at least there have been some improvements. For all its faults, access to health care has been expanded. Some vital industries and jobs have been saved. America is no longer seen purely as a nation of insensitive buffoons; Russia’s boneheaded support for the Assad regime is neatly aligning it for the bogeyman role. The American economy is growing at a faster clip than in most developed nations; unemployment, at long last, is headed in the right direction. While Hurricane Sandy was a disaster, at least the recovery efforts are far more competently managed now than they were when Hurricane Katrina struck. Things are better and better should never be seen as the enemy of the good. Yes, it’s not quite the gilded “Yes We Can” romance of four years ago: but to echo another one of the key catch phrases of 2008, I’m still “fired up” and “ready to go”.

Daybreak approaches. The clock radio will sound, echoing with the weather forecast and carrying with it the necessities and obligations of the morning. I will get up, make the coffee, take care of my cats. The dark skies will fade from black to dark blue and then arrange into a pattern for sunrise. America will still be asleep; but no matter what else I do, my day will swing in its orbit. I will keep a news feed on in the background. I will go home. Night will fall. I will perhaps bake a pepperoni pizza I bought at the local supermarket and drink a fine Yorkshire ale. The last voters will file in and out of voting booths across America; my parents in New York may be among them. They may step into the booth, draw the curtains, flick the metal switches beside the names of the candidates they want. Once done, they will each pull a lever to record their selection, simultaneously causing the fabric shroud around them to slide open. Then the polls will close. The results will be tallied; as the moon and stars cast their light down on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually, we will find out what has been decided. Perhaps one compulsion unites so many, American and overseas, Republican and Democrat, President Obama and Mitt Romney: we anticipate this moment to the point we cast ourselves into it in our thoughts. It will come, and while it may not be what we imagine, it retains the possibility of being more than we hoped.

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The Desperate Hours

November 5, 2012

New York After SandyClimate change is no longer a theory. I grew up in a New York suburb which is prim, proper and thoroughly bourgeois: it’s a place that features tidy suburban houses, neatly trimmed lawns and American flags fluttering proudly. While the weather could be wild, I don’t recall it being extreme. I remember one particular rainstorm; I was thirteen years old. I was walking home from school when it began. It was spring, so the torrent let loose the scents of fresh earth and new grass. Trees swayed in the wind, their leaves rustled. The raindrops were huge and soaked me to the skin: my footsteps turned into a run the moment the lightning flashed and the thunder sounded. I ran to my front door, I fumbled with my keys for a few moments before I was able to get in. Fortunately, no one else was home to see me in such a state; I remember how the thunder resounded after I shut the door. It was as if the storm was gloating; it was a powerful reminder that human beings are trivial creatures, and should Mother Nature choose, she could easily flick us off her back.

Nevertheless, that rainstorm, though memorable, was minor; I only experienced one major storm during my childhood, Hurricane Gloria in 1985. My family and I sat in the cellar as we waited for it to pass: the power went out for a few hours, but then life went on more or less as usual.

Superstorm Sandy was an altogether different affair. I experienced it from a helpless distance from my parents who still reside in my former home town. I was horrified by the pictures taken from outer space of Sandy’s swirling, angry storm clouds and distressed by the earth-bound images of violent winds ripping the north east of America apart. Later, my heart sank when I saw shots of the darkened New York skyline: deprived of power, it seemed dead rather than a city that never sleeps.

In the aftermath, the BBC’s reporters visited sights which are very familiar to me, for example, the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. I know it as the main artery by which I’d travel into Manhattan: there have been many mornings and evenings in which I sat in the back of my parents’ car, going to museums, concerts, or just for a walk amidst the city’s concrete canyons. That vital transport link was flooded out; the BBC correspondent stood by what looked like a lake, a flashing neon sign behind her was the only indication of its true function.

My parents were without power for six days. They had prepared for the storm: apparently the advice was to fill plastic bags with water, stick them in the freezer, and thus have additional ice packs with which to keep the contents cold. They had lanterns and candles. After Sandy hit, they were able to reach me only sporadically with text messages from their mobile phones. In turn, I used the internet to find out what was going on with repairs to the electricity grid and found local petrol stations which still had fuel. They told me that the local Starbucks became the place where people congregated for hot coffee, electricity and internet connections. The owners provided power extension leads so they could share sockets more easily; it was a small reaffirmation that the idea of community is not dead, it’s just ordering a skinny latte.

The internet was not altogether helpful wherever it was accessed: my parents’ local power company hadn’t adequately prepared and some of the most vital parts of their website frequently crashed. Nor were the cellphone companies fully ready: the signal dropped out on my parents’ handset several times and they were forced to go on a somewhat dangerous drive in order to pick it back up. Their electricity did not return until Saturday night: the telephone, internet and cable television systems were restored the following day. Not that the television news proved to be particularly comforting: Staten Island is apparently still in a dire state, the town of Far Rockaway, not far from my parents’ location, was subject to looting due in part to the extended power failure. Furthermore, my parents’ local and learned meteorologist said New Yorkers should expect two more storms of this magnitude by 2015.

No, it was never this bad when I was a boy: nature has become less forgiving, the parameters of what’s possible have expanded to the detriment of those who live in my home town. My parents are thinking of purchasing a backup generator to ensure their comfort and safety. They also bought flood insurance; some of my parents’ friends have already been flooded out. But none of them will attribute the increase in intemperate weather to climate change, not yet; rather, they harken back to storms they experienced as children and are adapting to these changes without assigning them any greater profundity. For the moment, however, they’re managing.

We have now moved on to another set of desperate hours: as I type this, the President and Mitt Romney are embarking on their final tours of swing states, stepping up to podiums in Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia and most crucial of all, Ohio. Ohio perhaps is a microcosm of the country as a whole: in its north, there are rustbelt industries which are struggling to adapt. The state also has old coal mines and new car plants. There are high tech companies as well; several years ago, I applied for a role with one such firm in Colombus which was and is a world leader. The culture and manners of the South make themselves felt in places like Cincinnati. Given this diversity, it is perhaps right and proper that Ohio is the state which decides: it is the true middle, the pivot of the nation as well as the election.

Obama CampaigningThe candidates have to put on their polished shoes, their shirts which thankfully they can now leave open at the neck, their windbreakers which hide sagging shoulders. I suspect they have to pop more than a few throat lozenges in their mouths before daring to speak. Sleep has probably long been submerged in seas of bad coffee or in Mitt Romney’s case, tap water and orange juice. Were I either of them, I’d look at the clock’s advances along time’s path with relief. In the case of President Obama, this is the last election he is likely to fight: while it’s true that he could run for another elected office again regardless of the outcome, the last former occupant of the White House to do so was John Quincy Adams. As for Mitt Romney, this is possibly his last shot at the Presidency; Paddy Power has already paid out the punters in anticipation of his defeat. Election night, win or lose, will bring deliverance from heated rhetoric and anticipation. The wider world can then settle into recovery mode in time for Christmas.

The decision as to who will take up the challenges of 2013 and beyond perhaps lay with a reactive public; rather than adapt to climate change, they would rather clean up the mess afterwards, buy insurance, get a backup generator. Romney is vague on specifics: he will somehow cut taxes, increase defence spending and yet solve the deficit. The Governor has recently relied on a cliched slogan: “Real Change from Day One”, which sounds like a motto better suited to a probiotic yoghurt. The only reason such a platitudinous and intellectually vacuous campaign is at all viable is because it can serve as a reaction to a political and economic storm, namely, the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Similarly, President Obama has found it difficult to return to the themes of Hope and Change given the practical realities which surround him. If something hurts, what do you do to switch off the pain? A reactive person will reach for whatever they can find, even if it is rather like using whiskey to cure a hangover. A thoughtful person will realise that not every remedy that promises immediate relief is worth downing. What response prevails? The polls are finely balanced: almost any outcome can be read into them. Any prediction relies on excessive use of the word “if” – if Ohio tilts the President’s way, the contest is more than likely over. If Ohio plumps for Romney, he could yet scrape his way to victory.

It has reached a point where news programmes blend into each other and newspapers seem to say all the same thing: “if, if, if”. They prognosticate about a tomorrow that is altogether uncertain: perhaps this is why the world’s breath seems to be collectively catching, interspersed with it reassuring itself that surely sense will prevail and Obama will be re-elected. I wish I could be so sure.

President Obama is treading the long and lonely path leading to church meetings, town halls and high school stadiums. Perhaps he has a moment to face the rain and let it soak his face, a brief refreshment before he takes more weary steps towards the next group of voters whom he must touch both with the shaking of hands and the proffering of sensible ideas couched in soaring rhetoric. As he finishes each encounter, no doubt he feels his strength diminished. It’s not long now before the end will come and we can all return to normal, albeit its definition will remain permanently altered. Nevertheless, these are desperate hours and they will be desperate to the last.

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Review: “Sinister” starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance

November 1, 2012

Ethan Hawke in SinisterHalloween offers few forms of entertainment for the middle aged. If one has friends who are throwing a party in the vicinity, then it’s probably best to put on a smudge of face paint, don a white smock with an anonymous red stain, and go. The evening can then be spent in good company while swilling bad Chardonnay as “The Monster Mash” plays in the background. If there aren’t any such festivities on offer, one can stay at home and await the inevitable knocks on the door followed by plaintive pleas for free candy from diminutive ghosts and skeletons. Alternatively, one can go out and see a scary film. Despite the intermittent rain which prevailed over Yorkshire last night, the last option proved to be the most attractive.

Bradford was buzzing: the wet pavements and roads reflected the bright lights of Eid, the Leisure Exchange complex was full of people. Nandos was bursting with families consuming spicy chicken and chips. Inside the cinema, the familiar scents of sweet and salted popcorn lingered in the air and a multitude of televisions blared trailers for upcoming movies. However, the queues were longer than usual: it seemed a lot of people had the same idea. As for the films themselves, there were three “horror” options. First, there was “Paranormal Activity 4”. Given that many film series that have reached a fourth instalment are less than stellar, this didn’t seem like a good idea. Next, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” had just been re-released with extra footage added: it was sold out. This left “Sinister”, starring Ethan Hawke and Juliet Rylance.

At first glance, this didn’t seem particularly promising: there have been a number of recent horror film flops, such as the lamentable “The Devil Inside”, which were solely destined to land on supermarkets’ discount DVD racks. Some subtle aspects of the poor films’ marketing had made their way into “Sinister”‘s promotional materials. Nevertheless, Ethan Hawke has a tendency to bring depth and sincerity to any role he plays; it was worth a try. The rain outside continued in irregular torrents, Halloween’s few remaining hours were ebbing away, there was little to lose.

From the start, “Sinister” is an interesting film. After a bizarre, grainy preface which shows four people with burlap sacks over their heads slowly being hanged, we are introduced to a “real crime” writer, Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) as he moves into a Pennsylvania home with his wife, young son and daughter. He’s changed location because the new house was the scene of a strange and brutal murder: a mother, father and two children were hanged from a tree in the back yard, as was shown in the prelude. Furthermore, we’re told, a third child went missing. Oswalt hopes that by investigating and writing about this tragedy he will revive his flagging career; it’s later revealed that he was last on the New York Times best seller list over ten years ago. From the start, Hawke adds interiority to a character whose biography is almost a cinematic cliché: he has the demeanour of a man who lost his touch and is desperate to regain it. Indeed, he is so driven that he blinds himself to the possibility of danger; for example, at first he does not tell his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) about the home’s dire history, who would have objected to living there. His son (Michael Hall D’Addario) suffers from night terrors; the intensification of these as the film progresses does not spur him to change. His daughter (Clare Foley) paints images of the deceased and missing and yet he is not immediately swayed.

The house itself adds to the rather gloomy atmosphere: it is an unprepossessing brick bungalow, notable for dark, lengthy halls filled with shadows. In the dank and dusty attic, Oswalt finds a box of home movies in Super 8 format; they are accompanied by an aged projector. Strangely, as he discovers, this box was not found in the initial police investigation of the house just after the family was killed.

The films are disturbing records of not just the murder which occurred in the house he’s moved into, but also similar crimes spanning multiple towns and decades. The audience is only spared the most absolutely gruesome details; however this technique, particularly in relation to a grisly incident involving a lawn mower, made the experience even more frightening.

Mr. Boogie“Sinister” could have gone a number of different routes; the explanation provided for the murders is supernatural in nature. We are introduced to a malevolent entity later referred to as “Bughuul”, or as he’s called by some of the children involved, “Mr. Boogie”. This supernatural route borrows heavily from some horror classics: the use of visual media as a means of conveying horror is reminiscent of both the “Blair Witch Project” and the “Ring” series. The entity’s preoccupation with children echoes “Pennywise the Clown” in Stephen King’s “It”. The idea of the young as manipulated instruments of evil echoes “The Children of the Corn”. As the producer of “Sinister” was also responsible for “Paranormal Activity”, there is an unsurprising, though effective use of sudden appearances of people and things, as well as useful doses of bumps in the night. People in the audience gasped and cried out in terror at just the right moments; I was among them. However, there is nothing new here; it is just a well crafted remix.

The story could have just as easily headed down a “true crime” route; it would have been plausible that the films were left by a psychopathic serial killer who wanted to inform Oswalt of his terrible legacy. Such a maniac would have correctly assessed Oswalt as someone who would be an ideal individual to taunt the police about their failure to catch him; an incident at the start of the film in which a policeman (Fred Thompson) upbraids Oswalt for his criticism of law enforcement sets up this possibility. Given the potential of this plot, it is almost a pity that a second “Sinister” was not made. I found myself particularly wishing for this alternative when somewhat dated motifs made an appearance, such as images in still pictures moving of their own accord.

Nevertheless, the supernatural version was perfect for a dark and rainy Halloween night, ideal for obtaining the adrenalin rush that comes from raw terror; after the film ended, I felt as if I had been on a roller coaster ride, roughed up and shaken in the way a good horror film should achieve. As I emerged back into the night and felt the falling rain and cool breezes, I thought that the film and the evening were well suited to each other: it’s unlikely that it will be nearly as scary to those who eventually pick it up on DVD at a supermarket and watch it in the full light of day. It needs both the essential darkness of the cinema and Halloween. It also is enhanced by a crowd: the fact that most of the audience was obviously frightened made it all the more terrifying. Without these factors, it is difficult to suggest that “Sinister” is a great film; nevertheless, when the end of October again beckons and the shadows prevail once more, it would be entirely apropos if some of the parties which the middle aged attend feature a widescreen television, the lights switched off and this film in the player.

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Review: “Prometheus” starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender

October 23, 2012


I’ve long been a devotee of the “Alien” film series: the original 1979 motion picture provided a stark contrast to the optimism which suffused Star Trek and the boyish zeal of Star Wars. Rather, it presented the cosmos as vast, lonely and only the financially strapped or emotionally bereft would dare to venture into its depths. The picture’s strapline was “In space, no one can hear you scream”: the film was effective not just due to its relentless, ravenous monster but as this slogan indicates, it expertly conveyed the terror of facing such a threat alone.

“Aliens”, the follow up, was a more traditional action film but nonetheless entertaining; “Alien 3” again returned to the theme of humanity existing in isolated pockets, alone and in the dark. After this third episode showed the death of the main character, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), I wondered how they could possibly continue with the series. As an experiment, I wrote a piece of fan fiction which suggested that the rapacious “Company” which had featured throughout the films would continue its search for Alien specimens to sell as biological weapons; perhaps the most original idea I had was that they would send another ship to a cluster of stars called “The Maelstrom”. I also wrote about a revived Ripley; in my tale, a clone was created and infused with her memories by a machine that poked a miniscule hole in the space time continuum and sucked her electrochemical brain patterns through the vortex. I added this element because I could not accept that a biological clone would automatically possess Ripley’s mind. I abandoned the project after I discovered that setting up the “Rebirth” scene and explaining the technology involved had swallowed up most of the narrative.

This endeavour represented the end of the line for me; I watched “Alien: Resurrection” with more scepticism than enjoyment. I have not bothered to watch the “Alien Versus Predator” series. It seemed that this particular fictional universe had been tapped out and any further stories would be derivative and tedious.

Sometimes the only way to move forward is to go back: such was the case with the Batman films. By the time the dire “Batman and Robin” appeared they had become a cartoonish parody of themselves. Only reinterpreting the origins of the tale offered a way forward.  Ridley Scott wisely chose this approach in his reboot of the “Alien” series, “Prometheus”. He may have ensured its success by making its relationship to “Alien” mostly tangential.

“Prometheus” is set in the latter years of this century: while technology is shown to have moved ahead by leaps and bounds, this relative proximity to our time provides the narrative with a stronger connection to the audience; it is entirely possible that some of those watching it will live to the year 2089. This link is enhanced by one of the extras on the DVD, a “TED” talk (dated 2023) given by a younger version of one of the main characters. The film also builds upon an idea first postulated by the Swiss author Erich von Däniken, that ancient civilisations such the Mayans and Nazca were contacted by aliens; von Däniken has suggested this thesis is proven by some congruities in archaeological finds. This idea is very questionable as fact but more than workable as a science fiction concept.

Noomi Rapace, whose previous claim to fame was as Lisbeth Salander in the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is almost unrecognisable as the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw. She and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find star maps hidden among the ruins of ancient human civilisations and postulate that aliens were humanity’s creators. They subsequently persuade the Weyland Corporation to spend a trillion dollars in order to take them to the planetary system identified as being the home world of the alien visitors. They find these aliens (which are dubbed “Engineers”), but the “gods” are not all they are cracked up to be. Rather, they are altogether human in being fickle, in their capacity for cruelty and their inability to master their own technology.

These are profound themes; if this film has one particular weakness is that it is rather heavy handed in its treatment of them. The characters purposefully remind us about the “shock and awe” of finding the species which created all that we are and know; somehow the narrative should have found a way to convince us of the magnitude of this event without painting its scenes with such broad brush strokes.

Michael Fassbender as DavidIf the discovery of the “Engineers” is a disappointment, it is more than made up for by the performance of Michael Fassbender as “David”, an android. Fassbender apparently ignored Ian Holm’s performance as the android “Ash” in the original “Alien”, and that of Lance Henricksen as “Bishop” in “Aliens”. Rather, he apparently focused his studies on the replicants in “Blade Runner” and Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey”; as David is a predecessor to Ash and Bishop, this was perhaps wise. An android constructed now would no doubt be subject to these cultural influences, even on a subconscious level. Additionally, Fassbender plays David with perfect ambiguity: is he more machine than man, what precisely does he feel, does he have anything which could be called a moral compass? David’s “inner life” is difficult to fathom and thus the questions are never fully answered: his own creator says that David doesn’t have a soul, yet he has human preoccupations. For example, enjoys films like David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, even modelling his hair style after that of Peter O’Toole. Also, in a disturbing, somewhat Freudian exchange, he states that he wishes his creator was dead. The viewer can’t help but have mixed feelings about him; however the paradoxes presented by his character perhaps leads one to understand why the “Engineers” would have a less than wholesome view of humanity.  An unpredictable creation may be something to be feared.

The film also contains the usual “Alien” mix of terror and isolation: we are presented with the possibility of characters expiring alone under alien skies. The immediate threat, however, is more mutable and perhaps all the more dangerous for being so. We are provided just enough information to be able to understand how the “Alien” came to be. The end leaves us with more than enough questions to justify a sequel: this follow-up apparently will be ready in 2014. I am looking forward to it: while “Prometheus” wasn’t a perfect film, at least it took an enervated franchise by the scruff of the neck, shook the dust off it and gave the viewer something new and interesting to consider. If the original “Alien” was about the loneliness of deep space, “Prometheus” reinforces the idea of an isolated humanity in a universe which is more diverse than previously thought, but also even more hostile.

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A Most Malignant Gathering

October 10, 2012

Emperor ClaudiusPrior to his ascent to the throne, the Roman Emperor Claudius was continually underestimated. He had a club foot, a stammer, was prone to nervous fits and was frequently ill; many of his contemporaries dismissed him as a buffoon, maligned and deformed by nature. The causes of his indisposition are unclear: historians have suggested that he suffered from polio, or perhaps Tourette’s or Aspergers. It’s rare, however, that such infirmity has been so beneficial: his nephew, the Emperor Caligula, habitually murdered anyone he perceived as a threat. Claudius was seen as harmless, and indeed, Caligula found him amusing. However, after Rome tired of Caligula’s pestilential and spendthrift reign and the Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s own protection squad, assassinated the lunatic ruler, Claudius was made Emperor. Apparently freed from the shackles of being considered a fool, his condition improved, and he was one of Rome’s more effective rulers.

As David Cameron lacks sufficient Latin to discern the meaning of “Magna Carta”, I can’t imagine that this lesson echoed in his mind as he watched Boris Johnson speak yesterday. If he knew this history as well as Boris’ biography, he’d perhaps have had much to ponder. Boris knows illness: he was apparently suffered from deafness as a child. Boris is perceived to be a buffoon: he makes ill considered remarks, he looks like a disorganised disaster. When the Olympic flag was handed over from Beijing to London in 2008, Boris’ dishevelled appearance couldn’t have been a greater contrast to that of the pristinely tidy mayor of Beijing. Boris is a source of comedy, perhaps more intentional than unintentional. Furthermore, Boris went out of his way to praise David Cameron’s leadership, which would have been a Claudian thing to do when in the presence of a Caligula. Johnson, who read Classics at Oxford, likely has studied the histories written by Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Perhaps he also consults a copy of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” from time to time as a bit of light reading, and rather like Stalin did in a biography of Ivan the Terrible, inscribes the word “Teacher” over and over in it in lead pencil.

The lesson is clear: be perceived as non threatening, indeed, be amusing, and the path to power may be cut for you by the Praetorian Guard. No doubt the Tory elders look at Cameron and see a man who is failing: the deficit has not been cut by 25% as has been claimed, rather if BBC’s Newsnight is correct, it’s only been slashed by 2%. Britain’s economy is sputtering at best; its continued languishing in recession compares poorly to similarly structured economies like the Netherlands. Cameron’s policies have meant that the benefit bill has gone up, meanwhile capital expenditure, which would provide the infrastructure the country requires, has been slashed. This is rather like a family saving money by not buying their children textbooks for school. VAT has been increased, a regressive levy, which is as costly and ill-considered as Caligula’s tax on marriage. Whenever Cameron speaks, it is clear that he has difficulty containing his impatience and intolerance of any questioning: rather like Caligula, he sees himself at a remove, an elevation, which is beyond such impertinence. Caligula intended to make his horse Incitatus a consul of Rome, Cameron promoted Jeremy Hunt; the parallels go on. The moment of ultimate disaster for Cameron is not yet, but should he continue to falter, no doubt the Tory Praetorian Guard will sharpen up their swords. If Boris did become Prime Minister, the dismantling of the welfare state would certainly continue apace: however, the public would look on and laugh.

Osborne SpeaksThe Tory conference not only provided echoes of one of Ancient Rome’s darkest chapters, but resounded with mendacity of its own making. On Monday, the anniversary of the death of Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister who created Britain’s modern welfare state, George Osborne stated that there would need to be £10 billion more of cuts to the welfare budget. This is in spite of the fact that food banks in places like Bradford are struggling to meet the demands of the truly hungry; Save the Children estimates that 1 in 8 children in the United Kingdom go without at least one hot meal per day. Osborne stated that he would make the rich pay their fair share, but rejected Liberal Democrat proposals for Mansion and Wealth taxes outright. Rather, Osborne tried to turn communities in on themselves, speaking of the worker leaving his home in the early hours, only to note the drawn blinds of a neighbour who was living off of benefits; a thoroughly scripted and unimaginative man, he repeated this scenario not only in his speech but in interviews on radio and television. Note the intent: rather than suggest that the problem might be a financial sector that became addicted to short term profits off of speculative investments, or indeed that growing inequality between rich and poor might be an issue, he suggests instead that the unemployed are the problem, and wholly responsible for their present state. This message is in line with narratives from the likes of the Daily Mail and Sun, which suggest that Britain is plagued with “benefit cheats”. A quick examination of the figures indicates this is nonsense: according to the National Fraud Authority, tax evasion costs the taxpayer 15 times more than benefit fraud, yet this is not pursued with nearly the same vigour. In reality, the scapegoating of benefit cheats is chaff, intended to keep those on lower incomes distracted and divided and thus unable to threaten the establishment. Nevertheless, blaming “benefit cheats” was the easiest, laziest means of appeasing those who take the Daily Mail and Sun seriously.

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, continued to adhere to base, intellectually stunted narratives on the following day. Tuesday was the anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination by Mark David Chapman: however, Grayling chose this moment to state that the law would be “clarified” so that it would be easier to shoot people. Householders, he stated, will be able to use anything other than “grossly disproportionate” force to expel burglars. As Eddie Mair, the eloquent interlocutor of BBC Radio 4’s “PM” programme pointed out that evening, these cases are extraordinarily rare and even the solicitor who defended Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who was jailed after he shot burglars in the back, felt the present law didn’t need changing. Nevertheless, this legal “window dressing” fits with an easy, lazy narrative that appeals to the Daily Mail’s readership.

Today is the anniversary of the passing of Dame Joan Sutherland, the famous opera singer: apparently it will also be the day the music dies. As I type this, David Cameron is preparing to deliver his leader’s speech: he apparently will not talk of “broad, sunlit uplands” as Churchill did during the darkest days of World War II, nor will he even refer back to his own statement while he was Leader of the Opposition, a demand that “sunlight win the day”. Rather, we are to be told that Britain has no future unless it continues with Conservative rule: if we don’t accept deep cuts, economic stagnation, increased child poverty and a more coarse and unequal society, we have no future at all. William Hague made the case plain on Radio 4’s “Today” programme: we cannot go back, the world is tougher than it was ten years ago. The public ordered roast chicken, all that’s on the menu is thin gruel: we should accept this as the consequence of a changed world and thank the Tories for speaking the painful truth. Meanwhile, they’ll let us shoot burglars and we should despise our neighbours who don’t “pull their weight”. There is no alternative.

A quick look abroad indicates this is nonsense: Iceland, for example, eschewed coddling its wayward bankers. Rather, they jailed them. Iceland reined in its financial industry and is now growing again. France has chosen an alternative strategy: while the full effects of the Socialists’ budget are yet to play out, it’s clear that President Hollande’s priority is to balance the books with more help from the rich rather than unduly burden the poor. To suggest there is no other option is myopic nonsense: there are always alternatives if one has both imagination and courage. At this Conservative Party Conference, a most malignant gathering, it was proven that the Tories have neither.

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Thoughts from the Attic

October 1, 2012

This past weekend, I doubt I could have been more away from it all: I stayed in a holiday cottage in the middle of Cumbria. When I looked out the window, I could see the mountains rising in the distance, with rolling fields below. On Sunday, the landscape was blasted by wind and streaked with rain, adding much more wild to the wilderness. Autumn is here, but those fields were still green, hanging on to the last lingering colours of summer.

It’s good to get away. Sometimes the traffic gets to be too much, the honking horns, drivers not being able to signal properly and sitting in jams for hours on end are all tiresome. Sometimes it’s nice not to stand in a long queue at Morrisons; rather, it’s preferable to take a day trip to Cockermouth for the Taste Cumbria Food Festival, and to sample Loweswater Gold ale and pick up some genuine Cumberland sausage (only seasoned with salt and pepper, no other spices) at Harrison’s the butcher. The tempo of life slows to a crawl, sleep is smooth and even, and mornings climb into the bedroom softly rather than crash in.

St Margarets Church WythopNevertheless, the world keeps turning. I felt as if I was sitting in a pleasant attic of an old home, with much to delight and fascinate around me. For example, on Saturday, I went to St. Margaret’s Church in Wythop, and photographed its exterior and interior: it was pristine and resplendent both in and out, a relic which had last been retouched in the 1920’s. The winds picked up as the sun set, and I returned to the cottage just after dark.

Beneath that comfortable attic, there was a lot of turbulence. Deep in the cellar, the case of Jeremy Forrest and Megan Stammers appeared to be finally resolved, more or less: Forrest is likely going to prison. There is some debate as to whether or not it was abduction: statutory rape will likely be difficult to prove without a confession of some kind. What is certain is that what Forrest did was completely unethical. As a teacher, he was in a position of power: it can be argued to what degree students look up to their teachers these days, but officially, Forrest had a charge to keep. Namely, he was supposed to open the doors of knowledge to his students and be an impartial guardian. It was right and proper that he care about his students, but that concern had to be independent of any personal gain or desires. Instead, he apparently succumbed to weakness and caused that vital barrier to collapse. I can only speculate that his separate life as a musician indicates some longing for lost youth and a need to be idolised; Ms. Stammers may have been a symbol to him of days past. In turn, she probably is still caught up in the adolescent idea of idyllic, worshipful love, which bears little resemblance to the mature variety: there is nothing wrong with such crushes, provided they are not acted upon, as coming to terms with the imperfections of love is part of growing up. However, given his responsibility and her immaturity, the relationship was shamefully unequal, and Forrest took his failings to a strange and terrible conclusion. Regardless of the illegality or not of what he’s done, he certainly should not be allowed near the young again. Perhaps prudence will triumph and just such an exclusion will be put in place.

Ed Miliband with a purple tieThere’s also a great deal of noise from the ground floor: the Labour Party conference has just begun in Manchester. On Sunday morning television there was a gaggle of politicians from a variety of parties wearing purple ties, perhaps because purple reaches back into our historical memory. Roman Senators had a purple stripe on their togas, Emperors adorned themselves in the colour; Emperor Justinian’s wife Theodora once stated while her husband was under threat that purple made a fine funeral shroud. Or perhaps some media consultant merely told our politicians that it as a neutral colour: red says “Radical”, blue says “Reactionary”, gold says “Liberal Democrat”. The desire to find a neutral position seems to be reflected in some Labour statements; yesterday, as I wandered the Taste Cumbria stands, Twitter told me that Labour would not be reversing many of the current government’s NHS “reforms”. This morning, Ed Miliband said they were. Which is right? Well, full reversion would likely be difficult as the old structure was more or less demolished: so in essence it could be a reform on top of a reform. There is also a question of how much would be spent to achieve this and the instability that would result: would this be throwing good money after bad? Yes, no, maybe?

Similar confusion prevails over university tuition fees. Labour introduced these fees in the first place; the policy was put on steroids by the current government. Ed Miliband has spoken of replacing the current system with a graduate tax. It’s a maybe. But would it cost more for the graduates? Less? How long would they have the millstone of additional tax or debt around their necks? Is it merely a change of name, a bit of re-marketing in order to make it more palatable?

And what about public sector jobs? Miliband was adamant: pay freezes should continue in order to preserve jobs. The two are not necessarily linked: pay has been frozen for a time and yet there are still many more public sector jobs that have gone and will go. The unions pointed this out; will they get a hearing from their own party? Possibly not. After all, if Ed Miliband wants to please the media, he will go back and tell the unions which created the Labour Party in the first place and fund it now that they are wrong. No doubt the ghosts of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin despair from beyond.

But never mind, put on a purple tie, clamber onto the stage at Manchester and say something which doesn’t grate on anyone’s ear. Offer micro-initiatives like using the proceeds from the sale of 4G bandwidth to mobile phone companies to offer a stamp duty holiday; heaven forfend that industrial scale tax evaders like Vodafone should be made to pay their fair share. Bash the bankers because everyone hates them anyway, but make threats which are sufficiently hollow not to rouse them. Perhaps in 2015, David Cameron will have offended so many that anyone who is more pleasant than he will be a shoo-in.

Never mind. On the first floor, there is a bigger issue banging and raging; the sudden floods in Spain after a prolonged drought are indicative of a less predictable climate. On Sunday, the BBC weatherman said that a year ago the weather was much warmer than it was today, indeed it hit 30 degrees Celsius in Gravesend, Kent. The weatherman said it will be below the seasonal average of 17 degrees Celsius today. Locals have told me the weather in Cumbria is more extreme than it used to be. What is happening? “Global warming”, “climate change”, whatever label it bears, the whole issue of the environment has been universally embraced by the politicians in purple ties but perhaps also been smothered by them. We have targets to reduce emissions, but limited means by which to achieve these goals: every time a windmill is erected, a politician in a blue tie and tweed will bang on about how a historic and beautiful view is blocked and how the noise arising from the turbines is a form of pollution. The government hesitates, the opposition wants rural votes, the NIMBYs often triumph, the cheap and easy option is the one generally taken: we will get more gas fired power stations and we’ll miss the target completely.

In short, it’s a home full of trouble. Even locked in the attic and relishing the rain and cool breezes, it’s not possible to completely shut out the thuds and yelling from below. But being at a remove for a time is helpful; yes, there will be time to be upset and angry and to honk on the horn while trapped on the road to Leeds city centre. There will be time to pick apart Ed Balls’ plans and think of the word “bumptious” every time he opens his mouth. There will be an opportunity to dread the leaden celebration of greed and mendacity which will occur at the Tory Party conference next week. The weather report will always be there, reminding us of how unpredictable the climate has become. It’s impossible to shove all this completely out of sight and it would be irresponsible to do so: but at least if one travels up the road, it’s possible, if only for a little while, to keep it at arm’s length.

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A Small Comfort for Calamity Clegg

September 23, 2012

Nick Clegg on Andrew MarrIt’s very clear that Nick Clegg doesn’t watch “The Thick of It”; in the last episode, the hapless (presumably Tory) minister Peter Mannion (played with expert grumpiness by Roger Allam) is rushed back from a vacuous, cliché laden retreat to address a crisis. En route, he’s offered a selection of ties: he rejects a rainbow one, as it’s too flashy for the occasion, he then is offered a black tie, which he regards as too funereal. In the end, he prefers no tie to the wrong one.

Clegg obviously missed this: on this morning’s Andrew Marr programme, he was wearing very dark tie indeed. With the impenetrable grey skies over the Brighton conference unhelpfully lingering in the background, he had the mien of an undertaker who was trying to persuade the family of the deceased that their departed one had merely undergone a “life change”. However, this is a minor faux pas in comparison to others in recent memory: his current crusade for fairer tax doesn’t make use of the Government’s ePetitions website, and thus is likely to be less effective in spurring a parliamentary debate. His “apology video”, rather than drawing a line underneath past mistakes, has been turned into a hit single thanks to some clever sound and visual manipulation. As Clegg retreats to his Brighton hotel room in the evenings, he perhaps collapses spreadeagled on the bed for a moment, stares at the ceiling and wonders how he can make things better rather than worse. He may also wonder why it is that Dame Fortune, who seemed to walk hand in hand with him through much of 2010, doesn’t seem to return his calls any longer. Enoch Powell, in a rare moment of lucidity, once said that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure”. There is so much calamity, perhaps Clegg can see the demise of his career in the middle distance beyond which lay the sheltered isle of Brussels or directorships with large firms and a modest book deal.

But at least, the Liberal Democrats will go on; it is commonplace to pronounce the party dead, but at the party’s core lay the Liberal ideal. The concepts of individual liberty, equality before the law, and care for the disadvantaged, no matter how tarnished by compromise and coalition, still have life in them. So long as these ideals are not dead, then the party will have life. I suggest, however, that the party’s existence in its present form depends on pulling into a tighter orbit around these ideals. The more that it is yanked away by the gravitational pull of power and convenience, the more it will suffer. But at least there are grounds for hope.

The same is not true for the Tories. They should be more concerned about the Andrew Mitchell episode than they appear to be. We’ve always had an idea of who they are, and it’s been commonplace to suggest that they were a party that had ice water in its veins, but now we can also see that its combined heritage has created something of a monster.

There are two distinct strands in the Conservative Party. There were always the aristocrats like Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden; while they were privileged and attended the best schools, at least they had a sense of public duty and a healthy respect for the working man. Edward Heath can also be said to be of this particular school, despite his modest background: when he invited union leaders like Jack Jones and Vic Feather to Downing Street for talks, it was not beyond him to play “The Red Flag” on the piano at their request.

The other strand is comprised of Thatcherites: not so well born, e.g., Mrs. Thatcher was the daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer, they saw the Conservative Party as a means to removing regulation and freeing the market so they could indulge every impulse of commerce and avarice. These two strands have waged war for decades: the Thatcherites regard the aristocrats as coddled and anti-capitalist, the aristocrats regard the Thatcherites as upstarts who lack a sense of duty and dangerous to social peace. Cameron and his acolytes represent a fusion of the two factions: yes, there is a place for the privileged, they are born to rule. And as the elite, they have no duties, only the right to indulge whatever appetites they have without restraint. This “ideology” is masked by spin and rhetoric, it gets buried in the annals of Iain Duncan Smith’s “Foundation for Social Justice”, it is whitewashed with talk about a Big Society. But the plaster cracks, the rot underneath makes its appearance. Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt, Head Boy of Charterhouse School, gets too close to Rupert Murdoch and News International, and yet was trusted to handle the BSkyB affair. Regret flows due to the opprobrium of the non-Murdoch media and public pressure; yet despite being tarnished, he is now Health Secretary, though it has been revealed that he supported Virgin in its £650 million bid to take over NHS health facilities in his Surrey constituency. What can excuse such collusion or at least, such poor judgement? Why would Cameron take such risks? Well, Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt, Head Boy of Charterhouse School is the “right sort of chap” and so he should be able to indulge his penchant for coddling billionaires. It is an abuse of politics in favour of business that is so naked it almost makes Cameron’s lot seem like a tribute band to the Thatcherites rather than anything original: the tunes they play are out of date and mangled by the lesser musicians carrying the tune.

Grasping Andrew MitchellTheir mask perhaps slipped in the most dramatic fashion when Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip, made his unguarded remarks to the police assigned to protect 10 Downing Street. Let’s put his complete loss of composure into context: he was merely told he couldn’t use a particular gate by which to exit on his bicycle. His temper taking flight might be more excusable had his bike been damaged or stolen while the police were there to watch after it; but in his case, he merely was told to use a different exit. His inexplicable response was a foul mouthed rant, during which he apparently accused the police of being “plebs” who should “know their place”.

Was this the id of the modern Conservative Party speaking? Let’s assume that Mitchell’s voice extends out of the darker places in its psyche at the very least: note the snobbery, the presumption, the aristocratic privilege accompanied by none of its manners. Macmillan and Eden would be horrified; they understood that with great privilege came heightened responsibility. Not so for those who adhere to the Cameronite synthesis of privilege and avarice: this is mine, how dare you intrude, and I don’t owe you a thing.

No doubt we will see attempts to re-mask these base impulses at the impending Tory Party conference. I suggest that clichéd and vacuous slogans will be deployed, a la “The Thick of It” until the audience is too bored or nauseated to continue watching. Nevertheless, once the mask has come off, it’s very difficult to put it on again. The Liberal idea may currently be suffering because many Liberal politicians are less than effective avatars for it. The modern Conservative idea gags and gasps when it is exposed for what it is. Perhaps Mr. Clegg, whose troubled tenure should rightly earn him the monicker of “Calamity Clegg”, knows this far better than most. So as he retreats to his Brighton hotel room at night after the speaking and speechifying is done, and he lay staring at the ceiling with his empty red box on his dresser and his shoes on the floor, he can console himself that at least, despite everything, he isn’t a Tory.

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Review: “When the Lights Went Out” starring Natasha Connor and Kate Ashfield

September 18, 2012

Natasha ConnorI moved to Yorkshire in late 2011. Since that time, I’ve found much to admire: the area’s diversity, its many examples of beautiful 19th century architecture, the fine local ales and the friendliness of the people all do much to recommend it. In July, I went to Dublin and while there I attended a whiskey tasting session. The other participants and myself were asked by the guide from whence we came. It was with some pride that I replied, “Yorkshire”; my reply came from the heart. I feel something relax inside me when the signs on the M1 indicate that the next exit is for Sheffield. I know that beyond lay Wakefield, Bradford and Leeds.

But every home has its darker corners; every saint has his or her sins which are shrouded in silence. The new film “When the Lights Went Out”, invites us to explore some of the shadows which linger over Yorkshire, and to view them swirling in a particularly troubled period, the mid 1970’s.

The film is based on a series of true events which occured in Pontefract: a family with the surname of Pritchard was plagued by an annoying and turbulent ghost referred to as “The Black Monk”. It was generally more irritating than menacing: apparently it had a habit of making loud crashing noises. That said, young Diane Pritchard, the daughter, supposedly was once dragged up the stairs by the ghost and suffered lacerations on her throat. According to the family, she also was frequently thrown out of her bed by the restless spirit. Nevertheless, Mrs. Pritchard later referred to the ghost as “Fred”. This series of events have been reinterpreted and sharpened in this film, and the Pritchards were transformed into the Maynard family.

The centre of attention is a house on an unidentified housing estate: we’re merely told that it’s Yorkshire, 1974. From the first moment, the film is an exceptional period piece: we are awash in earth tones, polyester and bad haircuts. The home itself doesn’t look like a dream house to modern eyes, but thanks to Kate Ashfield’s performance as Jenny Maynard, we are forced to see the plain brown brick two up, two down house on a rather dull looking estate as something inviting.

However, there’s something wrong with it. Phantom footsteps echo in the halls; ugly ceiling lamps swing pendulously for no reason, listen carefully and we can hear the sounds of a someone’s terminal breath. The little home is more for the dead than the living; this particularly affects the Maynards’ teenage daughter Sally, portrayed by talented newcomer Natasha Connor.

The Black MonkThe ghost story itself is rather conventional: it is a tale of unfinished business from long ago, old scores being settled, history catching up with a present that wants to ignore it. As it seems scarcely credible that the drab little house itself is the locus which created the supernatural activity, the director (Pat Holden) wisely draws our attention to the woods behind the home. Furthermore, there are frightening scenes which utilise familiar motifs: a ghostly eye suddenly staring out of a keyhole, invisible hands grasping for victims, the unknown in the encroaching dark which is full of terrifying menace, the unseen being far more frightening than what can be viewed. It is worth mentioning that this film is not recommended for those who have a particular fear of hanging or choking.

However, this rare glimpse into the Yorkshire of the 1970’s is far more interesting than the ghost story by itself: we are treated to headlines in the Yorkshire Post about 17% inflation. Working men go to clubs and drink pints of dark ale. People smoke cigarettes almost without thinking about it. The house has a coal shed and coal, presumably from Yorkshire pits, is stored in it to heat the home. Jenny wants a kitchen in avocado green; but her husband Len (Steven Waddington) informs her that they’re broke. They don’t appear to be alone in being short on cash; their possessions have a shabbiness about them which hints at a shallowness to their prosperity. The power fails occasionally; it’s just part of life, something to which people are accustomed. When Sally switches on the oversized colour television, which takes time to warm up, she’s greeted by a very young Noel Edmonds; when she listens to pop, it’s from entirely forgettable bands who echo with an optimism that the shabby surroundings otherwise don’t merit. A teacher has long hair, drives an old Volkswagen Beetle and wears a velveteen jacket and bell bottom trousers.

The film also works because it encapsulates 70’s attitudes as well: there is casual sexism, the expectation that “men are men” and that a “working man” is obliged by certain expectations to provide and protect. Women in this film don’t have careers; children can be smacked hard by their parents without repercussions or being thought of as abusive.

The narrative does eventually get around to explaining and disposing of the poltergeist; by the time this occurs, we’ve had a thorough tour of the material and intellectual universe of a forgotten and somewhat unlamented period. All that remains of that world now is perhaps the outer shell of the home and the rolling Yorkshire hills that surround it. Now, our power rarely fails, our pop music is as vapid, but perhaps more repetitive, no one is driving a Singer Vogue as the father does in this film. Striking one’s child would be cause for a jail sentence, and no longer are we keeping coal by the kitchen, which mercifully is no longer painted in avocado green. Polyester, thankfully, is also out of fashion. In some respects, things are much better now. Nevertheless, we cannot understand how we have arrived at this place without seeing from whence we came: we prefer to think about the Eighties, Sixties or even Fifties in relation to this journey, despite the efforts of brilliant historians like Dominic Sandbrook. This film may not be a great ghost story, and its frights may be infrequent and the special effects may not be the most advanced, but at least it gets deep into the acrylic shag pile of the era, allowing total immersion. For that reason, it’s commendable.

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