Archive for December, 2012

Hey Kid, Build, Don’t Destroy

December 22, 2012

Norm has seen this, and James picked up on it too. If you’re into Marx, or just interested in the state of the world, this essay, by Marshall Berman, is just unmissable. It nails contemporary misunderstandings and perversions of Marxism and class politics in general, and explains why, even after all these years and everything that’s happened, Marx’s writing still draws new generations and still offers beauty and hope. Read it at Dissent:

Marx hates capitalism, but he also thinks it has brought immense real benefits, spiritual as well as material, and he wants the benefits to be spread around and enjoyed by everybody, rather than monopolized by a small ruling class. This is very different from the totalitarian rage that typifies radicals who want to blow it all away. Sometimes, as with Proudhon, it is just modern times they hate: they dream of golden-age peasant villages where everyone was happily in his place (or in her place just behind him). For other radicals, from the author of the Book of Revelation to Thomas Müntzer to Joseph Conrad’s Verloc to the Unabomber, it goes over the edge into something like rage against reality, against human life itself. Apocalyptic rage offers immediate, sensational cheap thrills. Marx’s perspective is more complex and nuanced, and hard to sustain if you’re not grown up. On the other hand, if you are grown up, and attuned to a world full of complexity and ambiguity, Marx may fit you better than you thought.

I’m the Screen

December 18, 2012

New story published at LA litzine Poetic Diversity.

Mediocre Books: The Mary Whitehouse Experience

December 16, 2012

marywhitehouseYou’re a professional in a public facing role. A complaint lands on your desk. The complaint will be at least three pages or a thousand words long. The letterhead address will be a house that has a name, in one of a thousand forgotten English towns. The handwriting will be preposterous, and the prose seasoned with random punctuation and unnecessary capitalisations. Its subject will be some trivial local issue, or a G-spot national policy debate – immigration, international aid, Iraq, Israel or welfare. Regardless of content, the tone will essentially be reactionary, self-satisfied and provincial. The complainant will look down on migrants, foreigners in general, and benefit claimants. (The complainants probably don’t work themselves, but then, why should they?) If the complaint has arrived by email, it will have been cced (not bcced) to every influential person with a publicly available address, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Duchess of Cornwall. There will be little concession to courtesy or readability. The message will end with a thinly disguised threat to take the complaint to the papers if whatever impossible demand is not met. I say threat, but it’s unlikely even a regional editor would be interested in what the complainant has to say. The complainant will be the kind of person who does not appear in newspapers unless the story ends with ‘and ordered to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register for three years.’

In the para above I have tried to encapsulate the kind of complaint that gets sent to councils, politicians, police forces, newspapers and TV stations. These days of course everyone’s a complainant. The internet has given us an orchestra of one-man media monitoring services. Bloggers and tweeters ruthlessly analyse and critique media representations and attitudes. Leveson said the web was an ethical void. If anything the internet is too moral. A UKIP councillor says something bigoted, a newspaper prints a chauvinist op-ed, and it’s halfway around the world in seconds and it dominates the cycle at the expense of more important stories. Where this departs from my dismissive caricature is that many complainants these days are progressive or at least think they are. As the journalist David Hepworth said, Disgusted on Tunbridge Wells has become Appalled of Stoke Newington. And so perhaps this stupid, overlong and overhyped book can actually tell us something. In his introduction to Mary Whitehouse’s letters, Ben Thompson claims that ‘From feminist anti-porn campaigns to UK Uncut, and the Taliban and Mumsnet, Mary Whitehouse’s monuments are all around us.’

Ban This Filth has been reviewed along the lines of ‘Well, we laughed at her, but maybe the old girl was right after all.’ The broadsheet critics have a point. There is far more to complain about than in Whitehouse’s day. How can you not be angry and appalled at a culture that sells dangerous diabetes-inducing junk food to children, where women writers receive violent and sexualised misogynist abuse and death threats, where the broken people are encouraged to parade their dysfunctional lives through reality shows that could have been devised by a Nietzschean fantasist? Too often our culture seems summed up by creepshots and Jeremy Kyle. It’s a world where hatred passes for criticism and casual cruelty passes for comedy.

I have no problem with traditional values and there’s a strong case for having some kind of vanguard for public decency. Many of Whitehouse’s targets appeared radical at the time, but were self-satisfied Footlights acts dated even back then. And in an era with only a few television channels and no internet it was fair enough to debate what should fill the limited airtime. But Mary Whitehouse was not content to campaign against merely distasteful and explicit programming. She was a Christian evangelical who wanted to impose her interpretation of the world to the exclusion of everything else. And she had some familiar Christian hangups. ‘I am writing in response to press reports that the ‘EastEnders’ cast is to include a homosexual couple living together,’ she wrote to the BBC. The following para gives us an insight into the nature of bigotry:

I cannot emphasise too strongly our anxiety about the threat to the young – and others – of any ‘normalising’ of homosexual practices in your programmes. It is important that we have compassion and concern for homosexuals. It is equally, if not in your circumstances more important, that concern for the impact of such material upon viewers in particular should be paramount.

This encapsulates Christian prejudice. Whitehouse does not want to lock gay people up or put them in camps. She would probably have been horrified by that idea. The term ‘homosexual’ is used in a clinical sense: Whitehouse sees gay people as if they suffer from some tragic and transmittable disease. Gays are not actively wicked but they are sick and it is necessary that they be kept out of sight, lest their condition become ‘normalised’. This is not homophobia in its contemporary sense, but anxiety and disgust and even a terrible kind of compassion.

Well, Whitehouse lost that one. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out yesterday, it was that cultural  ‘normalisation’ of gay lives just as much as political activism that made equal marriage possible. Conversely, Whitehouse’s attempts at cultural cleansing were undoubtedly responsible for a great deal of avoidable human suffering. There is a letter from a gay man in Northern Ireland asking for help and support for what he saw as a shameful condition.

I have never quite belonged to the lobby who sees the new ‘gaiety’ as ‘normal’ behaviour, nor have I ever joined any gay organisation. As a musician and creative artist I have chosen to channel my frustrations into altruistic channels – but the feedback is not without its moments of despair. I have often contemplated thoughts of suicide.

The letter is heartbreaking to read, and made me wonder why we see Whitehouse as worthy of our time, why her legacy is seen as worth having. I wonder if the gay Northern Irish man is still alive. I hope he learned he had nothing to be ashamed of.

An uninterrupted volume of Whitehouse’s correspondence would be a pointless dirge, unreadable even for ironic value. So Thompson is obliged to pad out the letters with lengthy commentary in that jaunty and verbose style that passes for wit in the English bourgoisie. This is never less than irritating and at some points akin to torture. To give Thompson credit he does touch on the controversial points of Whitehouse’s philosophy: ‘The dispiriting impact of the stratospheric levels of bigotry on display in many of the letters she received is often compounded by a closing signature that begins with the prefix ‘Rev’ (translation: Whitehouse was supported by bigoted priests who shared her prejudice against gays). There are attempts to draw parallels with the Islamic grievances that would hold the creative world to ransom from 9/11 on. In his own review the Observer’s Andrew Anthony quipped that ‘Perhaps Whitehouse would have been taken more seriously by her liberal antagonists if her supporters had offered a plausible violent threat.’

In general Thompson treats Whitehouse with a joshing affection she clearly doesn’t merit. We hear almost nothing about the lady’s personal life – she would want it that way – but you get a picture of a disagreeable egotist: six autobiographies, numerous libel writs, including a private prosecution of the magazine Gay News, after it published an erotic poem about Jesus. Thompson’s epilogue includes this revealing line: ‘When interviewed by David Dimbleby for Person to Person, Mary’s husband Ernest spoke of her in the same breath as the suffragettes and the great anti-slavery campaigner Lord Wilberforce.’ There is a kick in moral superiority. The rush of self-satisfaction is a narcotic.

I’m guessing Thompson’s book went to press before the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, for there’s no mention of it here. I think it’s fair to say that people in the media class knew. There are throwaway lines in interviews and sitcoms that are chilling in retrospect. In Britain, if you have the power, if you’re a big fish in a small pond, you can do pretty much anything. You can rape and hurt women and children, if that’s your inclination. The libel laws will protect you, and hey, it’s all for charity. Think of all those starving kids in Africa and say nothing.

Reading Hunter S Thompson’s letters, I came across a letter to Olympia in which HST turned down the opportunity to endorse George Kimball’s novel, which he saw as a ‘violent sex book’. Thompson was offered $500 to write ten words, and at a time when the money was badly needed. But the drug-fiend gonzo journalist could not ‘under any circumstances endorse that heap of deranged offal that Mr Kimball has coughed up in the shameful guise of art.’ He added: ‘pornography is one thing, but raw obscenity is quite another.’ Around the same time Cyril Smith was mayor of Rochdale and Jimmy Savile was doing youth TV, dancing around at some community fun day, hiding in plain sight. I make this juxtaposition because common decency can come from the most unlikely places. And sometimes it’s wholesome family values that protect and enable the true capering and corrupting evil.

Mediocre Books: Dominion

December 15, 2012

dominionThis is a very brief series where I talk about books I have read that are mediocre. I would normally review the books on 3:AM, but as these books are so mediocre I can’t be bothered to invest the close reading and intellectual rigour that you will have come to expect from my 3:AM reviews.

You might ask, why discuss a book at all if it’s just average? What can you say about it? And yet true mediocrity is hard to attain. There is a special kind of talent and quality that goes into something completely average. I think it’s right that this should be recognised, if only on an obscure (and average) lit blog.

Mediocre book one is C J Sansom’s Nazi counterfactual Dominion. This is an alternate history where Britain capitulated to the Third Reich during World War Two and is now a German satellite state. It’s set in 1952, and well researched and imagined. A reclusive Hitler, twitching with a multitude of neurological diseases, flings men and materiel into the grinder of Stalingrad. Lord Beaverbrook controls an unelected Vichy government that has just sold out Britain’s Jews for access to Nazi Europe trade markets. The unemployed have been sent to agricultural labour camps as part of some blood and soil workfare initiative. Even the Guardian has been turned into an antisemitic hate pamphlet. (Couldn’t happen today.) Sansom has done his research, as the extensive afterword attests, and it’s convincing. If Britain had fallen on its knees in 1940 the resultant society would be very much like Dominion.

The rest of Sansom’s book is not so convincing. Sansom is so keen to show off his research that the narrative and dialogue is repeatedly hijacked by long chunks of exposition. The characters seem to know more or less everything about the society they are living in and how it works. And that’s what doesn’t convince. Even in a free society saturated by information most people don’t have a fucking clue what’s really going on. There are people who follow politics their whole lives and end up with a completely distorted picture of the world around them. And neither the actually existed WW2 nor Sansom’s counterfactual have been equipped with social media, FoI and rolling news. In his history of the war, All Hell Broke Loose, Max Hastings points out that ‘only a tiny number of national leaders and commanders knew much about anything beyond their immediate line of sight. Civilians existed in a fog of propaganda and uncertainty, scarcely less dense in Britain and the US than in Germany or Russia.’ The best writers on totalitarianism know this too. Margaret Atwood’s wayward rebel Offred doesn’t even have that immediate line of sight: she is forced to wear a thick veil, her vision truncated with equestrian blinkers.

From a liberal writer, Dominion is a golf club of a novel. Most of the main characters are white and middle class. Apart from one impressive set piece of street rebellion (for Sansom can write well when he wants to) there is no perspective from any of Nazism’s Jewish victims. There are actual Nazi characters in the book, and they are portrayed realistically. In a piece for the Guardian Sansom wrote about his Gestapo investigator, Gunther Hoth: ‘With Gunther I have tried showing something different to a stock Nazi, and he has some of the features of the classic modern detective… how a decent enough young German became a slave to Hitler’s ideas is also part of the tale.’ Problem is, Sansom wants his villains to seem human but not too human. Every so often the novelist feels the need to remind us (as if we needed to be reminded) that these are the bad guys. And so Gunther or one of his colleagues will suddenly say: ‘Oh yes, we’re the Nazis. Heil Hitler! Ahahahahahaha!’ That’s not an actual line of dialogue, but it might as well be.

The tone is almost complacent, reminiscient of some postwar imperial children’s comic. You never get the fear that our grandparents must have felt, looking up and seeing the pitiless outline of a Luftwaffe bomber against the London sky. There is an assumption that freedom and democracy will always triumph and British values will forever win the day. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work out like that in life.

Sansom’s book ain’t all bad. It has readability, which is the first duty of a fiction writer. There are some vivid glimpses – the abandoned transport, rocking with the condemned in the middle of some mountain vista, the exploding Russian corpses of Stalingrad. Elsewhere, Sansom falls back on MOR cliche. The main character has the expected affair with a feisty Resistance woman of exotic background. Churchill walks in at one point, ageing and dishevelled, and refers ruefully to his ‘black dog’.

Dominion is a sacrifice of story for accuracy and I am surprised that it was so well received. Especially now I’ve started rereading The Kindly Ones. Littell’s novel tells the story of WW2 through the eyes of a fictional SS sociopath. Both books are based on the record. But only one shows us what the novel can do.