Archive for November, 2012

All in the Game of Thrones

November 28, 2012

I watched Game of Thrones series one on DVD over the summer, and although I’m not a huge fantasy fan, I got into it and worked my way through the books. If you haven’t seen or read this series, essentially it’s set in an alternate version of Britain, a neverending saga of blood and fire, where the summers and winters last generations, and various families fight through claims to the Iron Throne. Laurie Penny sums up the less than subtle matrix:

Its major plot points, based on George R. R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, are so simplistic that they may as well have been scrawled in crayon on the intricate wallpaper of literary-televisual tradition: the goodies are the rough, noble Northerners, the Stark family, none of whom have any discernible character defects, and the baddies are the yellow-haired Southern Lannisters, prosperous, duplicitous, incestuous, murderous and lots of other horrible things ending in ‘ous’, and somewhere in there are ice-zombies and prostitutes and blood-feuds and dragons and prostitutes and eunuchs and prostitutes and pirates and prostitutes and witches and prostitutes and one randy dwarf with daddy issues.

Penny also highlights the more problematic aspects of the series:

Take, for example, one single sub-plot: a very young princess, a blonde and beautiful thirteen-year-old virgin whose remarkable fairness of complexion is a motif of the series, is sold off as a child-bride by her unscrupulous brother, a man who likes to have sex whilst talking about dragons in the bath.

The unfortunate girl’s new husband is a dark-skinned, savage warlord from the Mystical East who, being a savage, is unable to conceive of any sex that isn’t exclusively rape-based, and as such violently assaults the little princess every night. But it’s all ok because a prostitute slave teaches the thirteen-year-old princess super sexy sex skills, and she proceeds to blow the warlord’s mind so throughly that they fall in love. Later in the series she uses her magical blondness and a bunch of baby dragons to free all the slaves in the Mystical East. If the enormous teetering pile of ugly stereotypes here is not immediately obvious, see me after class and we’ll go through it step by step.

A lot of this is rooted in the generic conventions of fantasy. Penny can caricature and dismiss the argument that ‘Game of Thrones is based on the Medieval World, and the Medieval World Was Sexist and Racist,’ but it remains true. Martin neglected to include full suffrage and a Court of Human Rights simply because most fantasy worlds don’t have them. Fictional landscapes tend to feature elements of injustice and discontent, because these are things that exist almost everywhere, and propel the story.

So women have a hard time in Game of Thrones. They can be married off at twelve, and used as trade in the wartime alliance barter system. Even being male carries its risks: castrations and beheadings are common. There is great hardship, and oppression. The passages dealing with the training of the Unsullied Astaporian slaves are harrowing to the point of unreadable. Does happiness write white in genre fiction, as in literature? Maybe – although Iain M Banks created a compelling series in his Culture books, about a hedonic civilisation that has evolved beyond war, inequality and disease. The Culture novels are no less brilliant for their generally positive outlook.

Not that Penny does not have a point, when she describes Game of Thrones as ‘racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons.’ Look at Queen Cersei: the regent and power behind the Lannister throne, beautiful and unassailable but nevertheless frustrated that she will never be able to rule in her own name. Her ceaseless plotting destroys many good men, and warps her boy-king son Joffrey. At one point she actually curses the gods for not letting her be born a man. Eventually, Cersei overplays her hand, when she strengthens the church in order to frame court rivals as harlots, only to be thrown into the dungeons after them. She is coerced into a walk of shame from the temple to the palace, brute naked along a gauntlet of yelling, laughing crowds. It’s a punishment from the misogynist’s handbook, and a hard scene for the reader, who by now has come to sympathise with Cersei.

There are plenty of female characters who are not teenage dragon princesses, or bitch queens from hell: the many-faced wanderer Arya Stark, the warrior knights Asha Greyjoy and Brienne of Tarth, and Sansa, who buys all the medieval myths but finds out the hard way that, as Petyr Baelish tells her, life is not a song. Yet gender oppression is not the main driver here. Nowhere is there an indication that any of Westeros’s multitude of claimants were born to be king. The story begins some time after the previous Targaryen ruling family have been overthrown and murdered, and their remnants scattered across the Narrow Sea. The rebel, King Robert Baratheon, doesn’t justify this by blood or virtue, instead maintaining that ‘his warhammer was his claim.’ When Viserys Targaryen complains that Robert has usurped his rightful throne, a fellow exile counters that Viserys’ ancestor Aegon didn’t take the throne because he had a right to it: he took the throne because he could. What matters in Westeros is not destiny but brute strength, and sometimes not even that. Robb Stark wins all his battles but is ultimately outwitted by the cunning Tywin Lannister, who forms new alliances to destroy the Stark pretender. Viserys himself is crowned, somewhat unceremoniously, by a Dothraki horselord who upends a cauldron of molten gold over the Targaryen princeling’s head.

This is more The Wire than Lord of the Rings. Eddard Stark is dragged into King’s Landing and destroyed by the institution as surely as D’Angelo Barksdale. The TV show even has Aiden ‘Carcetti’ Gillen playing the trickster Petyr Baelish. It is brute politics, a Westminster village beyond the law. Even the personalities are similar: King Joffrey is basically a younger George Osborne, Cersei (or maybe Danaerys) a passable Louise Mensch, Boris a King Robert Baratheon (Robert dies on a drunken game hunt, impaled by a wild boar, which is a very Boris way to die) while Jeremy Hunt is essentially Lord Varys, a giggling, de-balled master of whisperers.

Only occasionally does Martin leave the struggles of the great houses, and dwell for a moment on the Westeros masses, to whom the game of thrones means nothing apart from occasionally having your holdfast ransacked by some roaming sellswords, or your son conscripted into one war or another. (‘Obviously you don’t want us to burn down your village, this is a result of tough decisions we have had to take due to the mess we inherited from the previous king.’) It can all get very heavy going and self conscious, but as a demonstration of the crime and the joke of political power – as well as a damn good story – Game of Thrones is well worth the several months you’ll spend getting through it.

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The Sense of an Ending

November 25, 2012

The Guardian carries this piece by Lee Rourke, in which Lee criticises the desire for closure in fiction. Here’s an extract:

The well-worn formula beginning/middle/end is the default mode for pretty much all of the commercial and ‘literary’ novels that currently jostle for ascendancy on our bookshelves. We like our entertainment to make immediate sense, or if it doesn’t at first, it should explain all at the end. Repeat ad infinitum. I would argue there is something crucial lacking in this formula: the power of ambiguity. Closure belittles the complexities of meaning: our meaning, our being here. So what does this desire for closure say about us as readers? Why are we so fearful of ambiguity? Why do we desire novels that, to paraphrase Alain Robbe-Grillet, do the ‘reading’ for us?

Life isn’t like the narratives that make up the majority of novels in circulation today, or like the well-rehearsed scenes we enjoy at the theatre, or in the movies. It’s more complicated than that: steeped in confusion, dead ends, blank spaces and broken fragments. It’s baffling at times, annoying and perpetually open-ended. We have no real way of predicting our future. So why do our novels have to tie all this stuff together, into a neatly packaged bundle of ready-made answers? Something doesn’t ring true.

I read a hell of a lot of contemporary fiction, and the majority of these works, good and bad, are riddled with the same conscious/unconscious desire for the narrative to end.  I can sense this peculiar event just over halfway into most novels: all those random elements that I ordinarily love suddenly begin to act rather oddly: they stop fizzing, they begin to unify, to all move in the same direction, hurtling towards the same fixed point with great force. This event is the author’s doing, of course, forcing chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally. The author fears ambiguity, but more importantly the author fears the reader’s own fears of ambiguity, and this double-edged event makes for a rather predictable read.

It’s no surprise that most novels are ruined by their forced ‘endings’; by our collective desire for them to conclude in an orderly fashion, so that we can get on with our lives after we have closed the book (yes, The Road, I’m looking at you). Marx that told us the novel is a bourgeois construct, its very form reflecting the demands of the bourgeoisie who gave it sovereignty. We hold up our novels like vanity mirrors, hoping to reflect our own dreams, conceits, and liberal aspirations. Duly satisfied with our novels’ conclusions, we put them back down, happy and content. A week later all is forgotten, the previous novel has disappeared from our lives and we’ve moved on to another that’s hopefully a little bit more entertaining.

There’s a lot to be said for Lee’s approach, it’s the journey not the destination, and every reader’s had that hollow feeling at the end of a novel where everything is explained. However, if life is not much like standard narrative fiction, it is not much like Beckett or Joyce either. Life, after all, has a very definite beginning, middle and end. Things that happen in reality don’t conform to conventional story patterns but neither do we live in a state of incidentless and changeless ambiguity.

‘London is full of short stories, long stories, epics, farces, sitcoms, sagas, soaps and squibs, walking around hand in hand,’ says John Self in Money. The reason art cannot accurately portray life is that life has too much narrative, not too little. Think of all the people you know, the people you see every day and make time for: it probably runs into dozens. Most of these people are living out their own stories. A modern literary novelist keeps his cast down to single figures because there simply isn’t room in the standard wordcount to do justice to many more lives.

Consider also the power of coincidence. Time and again, reality delivers flukes and miracles and million-to-one chances that fiction just cannot get away with. The spy novelist Jeremy Duns recently wrote about the Petraeus affair, from the point of view of a fiction editor, and concluded: ‘In my own spy novels, I would never dare to write such a story—my readers wouldn’t stand for it.’

In fictional terms, ‘The Petraeus File’ is not just clichéd, but poorly written. Events that only occur as a result of characters’ ineptitude frustrate readers—especially if, as in Petraeus’ case, they are a senior official. As head of the CIA, he will have been extremely familiar with the concept of men being compromised by sexual attraction. As a ‘reader’ of the story, the revelation that he and Broadwell communicated by draft emails in a joint account they set up has a satisfying irony, in that Al Qaeda has used the same technique, but it is still staggeringly naïve. If this had happened in a novel, readers would have flung the book across the room: ‘Come on! The head of the CIA doesn’t even encrypt his own emails?’

All this is to make the assumption that art should provide a flawless mirror to the world, and I don’t necessarily think that’s true – and from my conversations with Lee, I know that he doesn’t think that either. What we are looking for in fiction is something true that we didn’t know – ‘the truth inside the lie’ – and literary experimentalism and commercial storytelling are just different roads to this truth.

(Image: Ministry of Type)

Pass the Prozac, Designer Amnesiac

November 13, 2012

PCP, a PC police victory

PCP, a PC pyrrhic victory

When I was young, PC meant police constable

Nowadays I can’t seem to tell the difference

– Manic Street Preachers, ‘PCP’

I try to vote whenever I get the chance. But I can’t find any enthusiasm for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections that take place this week. It is unclear what PCCs will actually do, and the whole thing seems like another layer of pension and patronage for career mediocrities in local government. It doesn’t seem like anyone else cares either. Turnout could be low as 15%. With such poor comms, no wonder. For some reason candidate information is only available online, cutting off the seven million eligible voters who don’t have the internet. These seven million have to ring a call centre that doesn’t work. A Home Office whistleblower told the Guardian that ‘The information is only being sent out this week and when people are receiving it, it is just a list of names and it has no information about the candidates at all. There is no way to get this information without going online and as a result whole swaths of the population are being disenfranchised.’ That everyone has superfast broadband and a Foursquare account is a delusion.

Low turnouts are never great and there is an obvious fear that in this case the far right could capitalise. If you think the police are ‘institutionally racist’ now, just wait until your local force is run by the English Defence League. From my point of view, up in Manchester, it’s even worse: no far right candidates at all. At least if my vote could hurt the BNP it would seem like there was some point to the whole exercise. As it stands, I don’t vote Tory or UKIP. There is a guy standing who has actually been a police officer – de rigeur in the US, but a rarity in these elections – only he’s a Lib Dem. I could vote for Labour’s Tony Lloyd, if he didn’t have a bizarre habit of hanging around with Hamas leaders. But I can’t not vote. And I resent the fact that this choice has been imposed upon me, and that my participation will further the careers of these toytown political timeservers.

What do the PCCs promise in terms of policy? Well, they like cops. They like victims. They dislike criminals. Which is all good. The Conservative candidate Michael Winstanley wants to ‘give residents a greater say in policing priorities’. I wonder if he understands why people call the police these days. Customer is king philosophy means that the police, like just about everyone else on the front line, have their time wasted by attention seekers and professional complainants. These are the people who buy houses in the middle of a city centre and then moan about noise from bars.

Top cop Inspector Gadget spent a long night taking complaints about firework noise. On his blog, he scribbled some thoughts he couldn’t say.

1. Where have these people been for the rest of their lives, or do they complain every year?

2. If so, for how many years? Do they do this every year for the rest of their lives? What happened last year when they complained?

3. What exactly do they think a police inspector can do about a national tradition, popular since 1606?

4. Even if we had the power or inclination to stop firework displays; on what scale do they think we could do this? The whole county? Just their street? And do they think I can just turn up and ‘make it stop’?

For Halloween; see above, and repeat as required for New Years Eve and any time we play a world cup match.

Of course this is all really our fault. More specifically, the fault of career hungry senior police officers. These are the people who have promised that the police can solve any problem, attend any incident and satisfy any request or complaint, no matter how insane. They have done this by supporting the so-called public satisfaction agenda, with glossy leaflets and at countless public meetings.

Quite so. And the picture gets darker when you factor in the rise of social media policing. Recently a man was arrested, apparently because he posted footage of a burning remembrance poppy on the internet. The Guardian’s Ally Fogg takes up the story:

It is of course just the latest in a succession of police actions against individuals deemed to have caused offence: mocking a footballer as he fights for his life on Twitter; hoping British service personnel would ‘die and go to hell’; wearing a T-shirt that celebrated the death of two police officers; making sick jokes on Facebook about a missing child, the list goes on. A few months ago, these could have been dismissed as isolated over-reactions or moments of madness by police and judiciary. Not any longer. It is now clear that a new criminal code has been imposed upon us without announcement or debate. It is now a crime to be offensive.

It doesn’t take much to make people offended, and police are supposed to be ‘responsive’. When you govern on majority sentiment, reason and due process go out the window. There will be many more Twitter joke trials under PCCs.

Update: A positive suggestion from Index.

Let Our People Go: On Labour’s Lost Voters

November 3, 2012

Peter Kellner’s findings of Labour’s ‘lost votes’ make interesting reading. The polling supremo has published complex research into the people who stopped voting Labour in the last decade or so. It’s all very wonkish but basically the Labour Party lost around three million voters since the Blair landslide of ’97. The profile of these lost voters is roughly working class and Kellner says that between 1997 and now there has been ‘a marked decline in Labour’s working-class support’. Kellner also found that the views of the three million working class ‘defectors’ are way out of line with the Labour leadership. Defectors read mass market right wing papers rather than Labour house journals like the Mirror or the Guardian. They want us out of the EU, a hard line on welfare and net migration down to zero. No surprise there. Every social attitudes survey of the 2010s has said the same.

Kellner’s research is obviously going to be used as a stick by the Labour right who still don’t understand that the world changed in 2008. The Blairites will say, look, Ed, it’s all very well going on about ‘predistribution’ and banking reform but if you go down the Dog and Duck they will tell you to hang, flog, deport. Forget all this new politics crap and let’s have some honest-to-goodness mid nineties triangulation. And we do need to lose leftwing illusions about the revolutionary potential of the working class. Activist Luke Akehurst writes: ‘We need to be very careful that we don’t start appealing to an imaginary radical working class vote while the real working class vote is assiduously wooed by Lynton Crosby.’

But the findings should also worry the political right – at least, that part of the political right that actually has to be in power and make serious decisions. A conservative friend of mine, ‘TC’, commented that: ‘These poll results should worry Labour and Tories alike. Populist, statist, anti-business on economy, hard right elsewhere.’

Take the example of immigration. People who want zero net migration – a huge 78% of our defectors – aren’t going to be satisfied by Tory crackdowns. The coalition has slammed the door on the family route and the student route but even with a migration cap we are still going to have some inward migration – as does every country in the world except maybe North Korea.

Which brings us to another problem for Labour activists: the policies that the lost tribe want are completely unworkable. This applies to all their policy demands but again let’s stick with the call for zero net migration. Here is Hopi Sen:

The last time there was zero net migration in the UK was the early nineties recession, and it was not a good thing. the big shift since then has been a major increase in people coming to the UK for formal study, and while there are certainly some abuse issues there, for the most part this is a huge transfer of income to the UK, without which we would really suffer.

Aside from the ‘cutting off our nose’ element to this policy, there’s a whole host of practical problems. To run this policy, you need a one in-one out style rule. So you’d be trying to estimate how many people want to leave the country, then trying to replace them, preferably with younger, better models. But say you got it wrong, and hit your cap just as Infosys or Wipro say they want to set up a major research centre just outside Cambridge, which would need around a thousand potential migrants.

Do you say ‘No’? Of course not. In which case you’ve just admitted your policy is a joke on the macro scale, which means it’s a joke on the micro scale too.

So what do you say on the doorstep? Hopi Sen gives us two potential options. The first is to make sympathetic noises: ‘say that you certainly understand why people are concerned about these issues, and that their concerns are reasonable, and founded in a real concern for their communities.’ This has been Labour’s strategy so far, when every six months the leader makes a well publicised speech in some godforsaken cowtown saying it is time to ‘listen to people’s concerns’ and ‘have a proper debate’ about immigration. This is basically a rite of propitiation and has absolutely no impact on policy. It’s a condescension, and therefore an insult to the white working class voter.

Notice that so many of the tubthumpers who are always telling us to ‘engage’ with the council estates on this issue, have almost nothing to say on the multitude of other problems facing the working class, on jobs, housing, welfare, debt, crime, health, education, access to legal representation and life chances. Chris Dillow nails it for me: ‘There’s something nastily hypocritical about a political class which has been indifferent (at best) to the well-being of the unskilled suddenly caring when it comes to immigration.’ The ‘engagement’ approach debases political discourse, and disillusions white working class voters, many of whom defect to the far right. Say one thing about the BNP: when they tell you they are going to kick the Pakis out they mean it.

Hopi’s second idea is to simply be honest. Tell the angry doorstep fishwife that ‘you’re not going to do what they want, because it’s a load of bollocks that would end up costing them their job.’ This is my preferred option. But where do we find an activist or a politician brave enough to tell people what they don’t want to hear?

There is also the fact that our lost three million is nevertheless a minority. This passage of Kellner’s really jumps out:

Half a century ago, two-thirds of voters were working class. In 1997, they still outnumbered middle-class electors by two million. Today, Britain has six million more middle-class than working-class electors. Of course the profile of Labour support has become more upmarket since 1997. That’s because Britain’s economic structure has changed, not because a disproportionate number of the party’s historic core voters have rebelled against the policies of the Blair/Brown years.

That is striking. People like me think of society as a pyramid with the bottom composed of the proletarian muscle and blood that holds the country together. If Kellner is right, the masses are actually composed of bourgeois voters living in various degrees of precariousness. How do we explain this change? Is it that low income people are self identifying as middle class or that more and more bourgeois graduates are slipping into warehouses and service industries? Is it even a good thing: do we want a society defined by Twitterstorms, burgers on sticks and smoking bans? Whatever, Kellner’s results are gamechanging. The BNP, Telegraph Blogs, the Daily Mail, the Labour right and everyone else who claims to represent The People are just ventriloquising for another minority interest group. The white working class is approaching extinction. They’re done.

All the more reason for sane heads to take the initiative. I can’t agree more with Dillow’s prescription:

The ‘debate’ on immigration is currently skewed against the evidence, and against freedom. Personally, I think the role of decent informed people… should be not to acquiesce in this bias, but to fight it. We should try to shift the Overton window towards good policy. And this means being less tolerant of those who’d like to sympathize with ‘concerns’ about immigration.

A concerned focus group, yesterday