The best books written by people I know or have sent me one 2017 (and other partial lists)

I can’t pretend it’s been a bonanza book-reading year by the fundamental measure of pages turned and spines bent, but the books I have read, or, crucially, re-read, have been essential. That my carefully calculated Top 2 are both written by old friends of mine (one of them the subject of a book I’ve written) should not be taken into account. Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow and Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers form a stout pair and can make decent claims to historical legitimacy. Both delve into history – Stuart’s into twin-timeline British history, Billy’s further back into American history – and both present a humane view, bestowing power to the people and planting a flag for the heroic endeavours of ordinary folk, be it the empowerment of working people protesting against poverty, or the empowerment of young people to get out there and form a band in the 1950s. I couldn’t put either book down, and wished neither to end. Stuart has taken the temperature of Brexit Britain (as he took his journey, Trump was in the process of becoming electable, thus sealing humanity’s doom), while Billy allows the reader to apply the template of punk rock to the skiffle boom, and saves up a final twist that brings it all back home. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

I was sent a copy of Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man by its author Mark Searby, and found myself impressed by his doggedness as he set about his labour of finding at least one new first-hand account to accompany each of Pacino’s films, even the duff ones. For instance, he sheds light on the making of The Godfather via an interview with producer Gray Frederickson, Panic in Needle Park with director Jerry Schatzberg, and, well, a magician on Bobby Deerfield. I was also sent Matt Lucas’s memoir to review for the Mail on Sunday, and I gave it a good review, despite its gimmicky A-to-Z format.

As ever, I was moved to revisit old books, most notably A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, one of the bedrock Vietnam War accounts, published in 1988, inspired to go back into the jungle by Sheehan’s contribution to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal The Vietnam War, shown here this year on BBC Four. I found myself captivated again by Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day (like Sheehan, he was an embedded war reporter). I have a dog-eared 1969 secondhand paperback edition – it was published in 1959 – and it’s only at this time of reading it that I noticed just how ahead of the “New Journalism” revolution Ryan was, personalising the events of D-Day and thus bringing them to life.

For those who follow Billy Bragg, an artist age does not wither, you’ll be happy to hear that I am updating his biography Still Suitable For Miners for publication in spring 2018, its fifth edition, which also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the book’s first publication way back in 1998. I followed him to Oxford this time, and, over coffee and cakes, we covered the period 2013-17. We were both 20 years younger when we started this book.

Oh, and by the way, as if it needed saying, the New Yorker continues to fill my head with words, opinions, ellipses, poetic sentence construction and big ideas, and that’s why I don’t pick up a book as often as I’d ideally like. Since Trump started to undo America, the magazine – in particular the near-daily bulletins by John Cassidy – has become even more essential. Here’s how my favourite magazine depicted the Baby-in-Chief this year.

To end, a photo I took of myself “method”-reading Stuart’s Jarrow book: by the side of a fairly busy road, on a bench, and eating some lovely fruit loaf out of cling-film. Try it when the weather heats up again.

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Beach bodies

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It’s rare that I write down an appreciation of a film that I’ve already said to the face of the film’s writer, director and producer, in person. But when I was lucky enough to sit with Christopher Nolan last Thursday for a full 20 minutes for an interview that went out on Classic FM on Saturday (you can Listen Again to the two-hour show until next Saturday, July 22), I began by stating for the record that I believe he has reinvented the war movie, and that his images and sound design fuse with his loyal composer Hans Zimmer’s music in a totally innovative way. He said thank you. I meant it. (I’ve said disingenuously positive things to famous film directors – and actors – in the line of duty before, although I’ve always tried to find honest positive things to say to break the ice, rather than lie, as I am a bad liar. I once held back from telling the still-insecure Christian Bale that I thought he was brilliant in American Psycho because I didn’t want to come over as a brown-noser, but he was a stiff interview and when I told him afterwards that I thought he was brilliant, he immediately thawed, and I wish I had told him before.)

So, we have established that Christopher Nolan really has – in my opinion – made what is essentially, and technically, and generically, a war movie, in that it concerns a military misadventure that took place in Northern France between 26 May and 4 June 1940, and yet, he has turned the war movie on its head. In fictionalising the human stories that tell the bigger picture, he has made a true-life wartime thriller whose lives are not true, and yet which tell broader truths about fear, and mortality, and communality, and youth, and survival. Instead of faithfully providing historical context and individual backstory, Nolan drops us into the action without a briefing. We barely find out the characters’ name, never mind where they come from, or what their hopes and dreams are – other than to get “home.” (We are reminded often that, on the vast, characterless beach at Dunkirk, you can almost “see” or “smell” home, which is only a few miles over the Channel.)

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As well as “home”, the other big theme of Dunkirk is “time.” (In a previous collaboration with Zimmer, Inception, there is a track called Time. Themes tend to tendril much further than one film with Nolan.) Dunkirk is – and was – a race against time. In the pure terms of Nolan’s near-mathematical vision, that’s all it is, even though it’s not all it was. As a war movie, it is more notable for what’s not in it, than what is in it. No politicians. No maps. No lengthy captions explaining where in the war we are, other than 330,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers are on a beach waiting to come “home.” A couple of soldiers are allowed to stand out from the shivering, alert-eyed khaki mass on the beach; they are all played by appropriately-aged relative unknowns. (Unknowns, that is, unless, like me, you watch every drama that’s on telly, in which case you’ll recognise Fionn Whitehead from ITV miniseries HIM, Jack Lowden from BBC’s War & Peace, Aneurin Barnard from Cilla, oh, and War & Peace; Barry Keoghan from Love/Hate, and so on.)

There are big names, too – Mark Rylance as the skipper of one of the “little boats”, Cillian Murphy as an unknown solider, who refuses to even give his name (and remained unnamed in the credits); Kenneth Branagh, channelling Noel Coward as the Commander; and Tom Hardy, as an RAF fighter pilot who – as part of some cosmic in-joke between him and the director of The Dark Knight Rises – acts behind a full face mask for the whole film, rendering him almost Bane-like in his inaudibility.

But nobody in a Christopher Nolan film is as big as the film. Them’s the rules. Even Heath Ledger couldn’t quite eclipse The Dark Knight, except in death. Al Pacino and Robin Williams were bit-part players next to the ice floes in Insomnia. Even Leo, doing his best to impress, in Inception, was lost in time. The star of Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan, or, to be more egalitarian, Christopher Nolan’s loyal crew: his composer since Batman Begins; his cinematographer since Interstellar, Hoyte van Hoytema; his editor since Batman Begins, Lee Smith; and so on. In interview, even though he was happy, relaxed and fully briefed to talk about his relationship with Zimmer, Nolan found it difficult to answer a “crew” question without naming all of those who contributed to any success that might be mis-credited to him alone, right down to Benjamin Wallfisch, who conducted the score. When I asked him about certain key decisions along the way, he said, “some of those I’m copping to, some of them I’m not.” He also smiled, which is rare. He is a very serious filmmaker, and Dunkirk is a very serious piece of entertainment.

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I loved the 1958 original Dunkirk as as boy, directed by Barry Norman’s father, Leslie, and produced by Michael Balcon. But that was a war film in the strictly traditional sense, and the evacuation of Dunkirk formed its climactic third act, after a suitable build up through France. When John Mills, Kenneth Cope and the other stranded Tommies finally reach the beach, we’re a good way through the film.  Much of what happens thereafter is replayed in Nolan’s Dunkirk, but we have no “relationship” with the principals yet, and to an extent, never do. Photos of loved ones are not passed around. Bernard’s character literally does not speak when he and Whitehead “meet” on the sand; they communicate with nods and glances. When a group of young men we have latterly come to identify – one of them played by Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction – are shot at in a boat, Nolan doesn’t show us where the bullets are coming from, or who is firing them; we are with the soldiers, and that is the only POV that matters.

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Incidentally, on the matter of the lad Styles, I can confirm that his star-dusted presence does not topple the narrative boat. He’s just another Tommy with sand in his clothes and salt on his eyelashes. But I do wonder why Nolan allowed himself to cast him – even if, as he claims, he didn’t know of the boy’s baggage when he turned up for the audition. What good can come of it, except in marketing terms? Maybe Nolan is so intelligent, and so clever, it’s a ruse and he has double-bluffed us all! Though Harry doesn’t come off badly onscreen – and many old, non-parents in the audiences won’t recognise him – he owned the fan-thronged premiere in London’s Leicester Square on the evening of our interview and that, to me, seems a shame when you’ve put all that academic thought and collective human effort into a film.

Though I don’t give ratings here, Dunkirk is a five-star film by anyone’s stellar judgement. It’s spectacular and intimate at the same time – and short, too, for an epic; Nolan’s second shortest feature since his no-budget debut Following, and a whole hour shorter than Interstellar. Nolan and Zimmer are now fused; inseparable: it’s impossible to say where the stunning, predominantly CGI-free visuals end and the “music” begins. It’s only in the aftermath of seeing Dunkirk that you start to realise how much has been left out in terms of the traditional war film: no enemy, hardly any exposition, no backstory, no prologue, no epilogue, barely a name, no blood, almost no women (in itself a particularly brave but justifiable jetty to isolate yourself at the end of in these gender-rendered times). I was struck – again, afterwards, not during – that this is something approaching pure cinema.

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Nolan has created something visceral and clear and gripping that speaks of human endeavour and sacrifice without prodding the viewer in the chest like a schoolteacher. He has fought convention on the beaches and on the landing grounds and has said no surrender to expectation. And that pounding, race-against-time cacophony from Hans Zimmer begins with the delicate, sampled ticking of one of Nolan’s watches. So it all comes back to time again, in the end. A spinning top. After Interstellar, Nolan gave Zimmer a watch, which was inscribed:

Now is not the time for caution.

In Interstellar, it was said by a robot charged with saving the human race.

★★★★★

 

Net migration

Phonecharge

Before I recycle this October 26 edition of the New Yorker by passing it on to my friend Lucy, I want to direct you to what is a typically very looooooong article detailing the journey of a young Syrian law student called Ghaith from his home town of Jdeidet Artouz, southwest of Damascus, to Sweden, where he now lives. (It’s available to read for free, in full, here.) I was struck, as I always am, by the sheer guts, determination and self-belief that takes a citizen from one side of the world to another, by land and sea. But then I have never fled from war, as I have never been in one. I have never fled from anywhere, except a dodgy early-80s houseparty in Northampton when the front door was being kicked in (a few of us actually escaped via the rooftops and ended up in an old lady’s back garden – she let us go through her house to the street outside and didn’t call the police). I won’t detail Ghaith’s entire, titanic journey – although X-Factor contestants should check their use of the term “journey” after reading about this actual one – as that’s not the point of what I’m writing about.

What fascinated me was the vital role played in one man’s escape from Syria by technology. It’s easy to bemoan the many insidious and disturbing effects of smartphones and the internet on modern society. The fact that nobody looks where they’re going any more, for instance, something that winds me up every time I make my way through a busy station concourse with my eyes straight ahead. I am reading a book called The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen, a former webvangelist who has turned against his master (“Rather than fostering a renaissance,” he writes of the internet, “it has created a selfie-centred culture of voyeurism and narcissism”). He is not the first see the online dream’s wanton destruction of middle class jobs (for which read: jobs) and the way its capacity for generating vast profits for a very slim section of society is crushing those at the bottom while a select few “young white men in black limousines” count their millions based on either having had one idea, or buying someone else’s idea and then selling it, but he sets it out well in a book. I tend towards his neo-Luddite position in my weaker moments of panic. But then I read Ten Borders: One refugee’s epic escape from Syria by Nicholas Schmidle.

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When we join the story, Ghaith’s older brother Ghalib has already fled Syria (initially, and with no choice, leaving behind his wife and three children, as is all too often the case). He did it by hiding in a crate in a truck and has settled in Gothenburg. Ghaith, also married, got a message from his brother via Facebook in May 2014, and this is where the tech journey begins. (By the way, if you ever hear some Daily Mail colonel complaining that the refugees can’t be that wretched, they seem to have enough money for mobile phones, punch them.) The Facebook message advised Ghaith to head to a Lebanese town to secure a fake passport from a smuggler. This didn’t work and he ended up in a detention centre. But he was not deterred. It is here that writer Nicholas Schmidle states, “The impact of social media on the Syrian refugee crisis has been profound.”

He refers to a 2012 paper by Rianne Dekker and Godfried Engbersen, professors at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, which states that social media has not only helped in “lowering the threshold for migration,” by allowing people to remain connected with faraway family members; it has also democratised the process, by facilitating “a form of silent resistance against restrictive immigration regimes.” It’s worth remembering this when we decide that Twitter is a force if not for evil, certainly for cheap distraction and exponential outrage at nothing.

We learn about the Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers online community, which was created in June, 2013, by a 31-year-old Syrian known as Abu Amar. He became “an essential guide” for those wishing to escape Syria and re-settle in Europe. At its peak, the Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers group had more than 60,000 members. Someone from the International Organization for Migration told Schmidle that when Syrians arrive in Italy or Greece “they just melt away at the pier … they get on Facebook, and they know where to go.” I’m not on Facebook, and I’m sort of petulantly against it, as it’s run as a megalomaniac’s wet dream, but it’s clear that social networks can be used for more than social reasons.

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Ghaith, like many others, found details of escape through the Facebook group, a “discounted trip on a boat bound for Italy, run by a smuggler,” that departed from Turkey’s southern coast and went via Cyprus. Ghaith “followed instructions from the Facebook post”. For all the physical and corporeal details of his arduous journey, he might simply have never made the trip without online access. Money was exchanged electronically, using codes, naturally.

Boats, docks, life jackets, trucks, offices, shared hotel rooms, skiffs, coast guards: the building blocks of Ghaith’s escape story are solid. But the connecting threads are often ethereal, crackling electronic synapses, passing information, maintaining human contact. No telecommunications giant would dare to use the flight of a refugee to advertise its product, and yet, the flimsy premise of “interconnectedness” used to sell us only marginally improved models of a smartphone can be the difference between life and death. (If Benneton made a phone, they’d have a photo of a group of refugees huddled round a recharging generator on a Greek beach on the next billboard.)

As Ghaith’s journey continues, his sister wires him $1,000 from Saudi Arabia, to help pay for a $4,000 boat ticket, he and his friend Jamil keep in touch “through the mobile messaging service WhatsApp”, the article even reproduces chat-room communications sent between Ghaith and his smuggler (“Is there anything today?”, “Inshallah”). After a perilously overcrowded, aborted trawler trip from Turkey to the coast of Italy, we learn the terrible news: “His phone had been soaked, so he borrowed one to call his wife. Normally, they texted throughout the day, but they had been out of contact for more than seventy-two hours.” (Can you imagine the despair of not being able to use your mobile in such grim circumstances? Puts the Three Mobile network’s failure to give me a signal in the Clapham Junction area into perspective.) During a protracted layover in Turkey, Ghaith “busied himself each day by using an app, Fabulo, to study Swedish.” Again.

En route to the next possible boat out, this time to Cyprus, the go-between Turkish smuggler points to the horizon: “See those lights? Go toward them.” He then directs everyone to “switch off their phones,” as the coast guard picks up transmission signals. This exodus would not be possible without Samsung. On arrival – finally – at Lesbos, Ghaith calls his wife (his mobile has dried out) and she bursts into tears.

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This passage has nothing to do with tech, but it moved me all the same. When Ghaith reaches the immigration center at Lesbos, after many instances of kindness from the strapped Greek locals, it is closed, “so he went to a former swimming facility next door, which had been converted into a shelter. He slept on the tiled floor, using his backpack as a pillow. ‘That was the best feeling in the world,’ he said. ‘For the first time in years, I knew that I could sleep without waking up with sweats, from fear. No bombs could fall on my head, no one would try to take me.’ He went on, ‘In Europe, it’s better to sleep for two hours than it is to sleep for 50 hours in Syria. Because, in Syria, in each one of those hours you’ll have hundreds of nightmares.'”

On the journey from Greece to Sweden, we get this vivid image: “Ghaith and his friends bought sleeping bags, then travelled to Thessaloniki by bus. At a coffee shop near the city’s train station, they charged their phones while Ghaith waited for Ghalib to wire him €1,500, through Western Union.” On a northbound train to Belgrade, Ghaith and pals hide in a bathroom for fear of being thrown off: “After Ghaith took a group selfie, they switched off their phones and locked the door.” I know, maybe the selfie wasn’t vital to their survival, but it may well have distracted them from detention or death.

The cards they played on the train were real. So were the metal police batons used to beat them in Macedonia. The viral, online world exists as an echo of the real one, a parallel universe. I’m using it now to type on a moving train and save my words to a cloud (and to refer to the text of the article on the New Yorker website for accuracy). Part of me does truly believe that the world was a safer and simpler place before the existentially blameless Tim Berners-Lee sent his first email. I grew up arranging to meet people at a certain time in a certain place and then hoping they’d turn up, with no way on earth of contacting them once they had left the house. We survived. Somehow.

And Ghaith survived the long haul to Gothenberg. The thankless Abu Amar continues to run what has become “a hotline for refugees”; he is “up late every night, guiding Syrians across borders and sending them annotated maps.” His Facebook group continues dispensing advice: “The sea today and tomorrow is fatally dangerous. Don’t underestimate the situation. We have enough victims.” … “The storm is practically over. The best island to leave for today is Mytilene.” He couldn’t provide this lifeline using a loudhailer. (He, too, got out, and lives in Hamburg.)

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I liked this section, when Ghaith finds himself stuck in Athens. “In a text message, Ghaith explained his dilemma to Abu Amar, who sent a map directing him and his companions to a nearby hill. They could easily skirt Gevgelija, Abu Amar said, without drawing attention from the authorities. The refugees climbed to the top of the hill, ducked in the bushes, ate from a blackberry patch, and rested until nightfall.” There’s something pleasing about the idea of a blackberry being eaten rather than used to send a text message.

Heading for the Serbian border, Ghaith tries to “preserve his phone’s battery life, in case he needed to use G.P.S.,” surely the defining tribulation for the modern migrant. On, through Hungary, into Austria, and Germany, where Ghaith sent his brother Ghalib “a dropped pin on Viber, the messaging app” (whatever that is), confirming that he was indeed in the country. After all this messaging and pinning and chat-rooming and recharging and life-preserving across ten borders, Ghaith landed in Sweden, where an immigration officer “recorded his fingerprints, ran the data through an E.U. database, and confirmed that he had not previously been processed in Europe. ‘You are now under the custody of Sweden,’ she told him. ‘Sweden will take care of you.'” A happy ending.

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Long, complex, discursive and at times unbearably arduous, I still recommend this New Yorker article. (Boom, boom!) We are living in times as yet unrehearsed, not even in the 30s and 40s. The migration from Middle East to Western Europe defines us, whichever side of the barbed wire fence we sit on. And it seems that if mobile, wireless communications are the scourge of so much of our modern life, leading us to walk blindly through station concourses as we travel freely about the place, they can also truly act as a device for escape, safety, freedom and life.

Now, let’s bomb a few more Syrians out of there. No charge.

 

 

Whatever | January 2009

Whatever | Animal racism
Is the gun-toting “management” of the grey squirrel class war?

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This year I have mostly become obsessed by the Mitford sisters, those intrepid darlings of the decadent Vile Bodies era who dallied at both poles of political extremism, Unity befriending Hitler, Jessica running away to fight Franco, while Pamela, a lesbian, became an expert in rearing chickens. Their collected correspondence, Letters Between Six Sisters, spans virtually the entire 20th century, touching on everything from appeasement to the Kennedy assassination.

I should by rights be nauseated by the privileged, ball-going, cousin-marrying exploits of these tweedy scions of the gentry. Instead, they have captivated me. I like to think they represent the last of a doomed uberclass, their extinction predicted by Orwell in The Lion and The Unicorn and memorialised in 1954 by linguist Professor Alan Ross: “A member of the upper class is no longer necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class.”

But don’t be hoodwinked by John Prescott’s claim that we are all middle class now. I recently opened the Observer magazine and staring back at me was the objectionable 6th Baron Redesdale, a congenitally balding 41-year-old in checked shirt and hacking jacket, standing in one of his several hundred rural Northumberland acres and toothily guffawing for the camera as he held out a dead grey squirrel by its lifeless tail.

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Redesdale, a Liberal peer, really hates grey squirrels. He and his all-weather army of volunteers have killed 19,500 of them in 18 months, ethnically cleansing England’s northernmost county. They are the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, whose patriotic, conservationist aim is to restore the native red to rightful prominence by trapping and shooting greys “just behind the ear – if you hit them in the middle of the skull you can miss the brain”. Britain’s greys carry a strain of parapoxvirus that kills their shy, russet cousin, outnumbering them by around two million to 140,000. Thus, the population must be “managed.”

Now, I’m a townie. I’m typically squeamish about talk of genocidal culls. Worse, I’m one of those animal lovers who actually thinks the world would be a better place if it was run by cats. (Well, we’d certainly get more holiday.) I’m also a Darwinist, and if one breed of squirrel does better than another, who am I to arrogantly step in and redress the balance? Sorry to namedrop, but as the vegetarian Paul McCartney once said to me, “A fox’ll kill a sheep. It’s nature. I understand that a hawk kills something. It’s his gig.”

Equally, it’s the grey squirrel’s gig to be hardy and predator-free. Don’t start waving the blunderbuss around like you own the place – even if, due to some hereditary accident, the paperwork says you do. It’s like those simpletons who coo at a nice robin on their fencepost at Christmas but say they hate pigeons. The pigeon’s most heinous crime is to thrive. Why? Because we stuff muffins and croissants into our mouths while we walk along the street and strew crumbs everywhere. To favour one bird or squirrel species over another, particularly on the basis of fur colour, is surely a form of racism.

Listen to the braying Lord Redesdale: “Dipton woods: we took 2,000 out. If you clear a woodland you suck all the surrounding population to it. Then you hit ’em again. Suck ’em in, hit ’em.” Sorry, is he reading from Beatrix Potter or Andy McNab? “In the winter there’s no cover. They all get together in the cold. You can get eight or nine with a couple of shots. All huddled together. We annihilated them.”

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At a decisive House of Lords debate in March 2006, one Lord Chorley warned of the grey menace, even now scurrying across Europe: “There are three colonies in Italy, at least one in the process of crossing the Alps. If they get to Germany there will be a complete invasion.” It’s an unsavoury mixture of incipient island paranoia (“They come over here, they take our dreys”), nostalgia for a lost, Baden-Powell era (It was the Scouts founder’s inaugural camp in 1907 on Dorset’s red squirrel stronghold Brownsea Island, which helped popularise Nutkin as a symbol of English heritage) and a macho trigger-happy bloodlust redolent of tiger shooting in the Raj. It could make class warriors of us all, even in a post-Obama utopia.

The killing joke is, it was the colonial toffs who brought grey squirrels over from America in the first place, as pets. And a pair escaped. Oh, and Baron Redesdale’s name is Rupert Mitford: he’s the great nephew of my six favourite aristocrats. Well, Unity’s pal would have been proud of him.

Published in Word magazine, January 2009

Whatever | June 2009

Whatever | Hero worship
Heroes, princesses and saints: how do we escape the age of the overstatement?

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I don’t wish to blow my own trumpet, but I recently performed a heroic act. A woman dropped her suitcase on the London Underground and got her foot stuck in the gap between train and platform. In one bound, I picked up the case and helped free her foot. I was like the gallant Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, rushing to Elinor Dashwood’s aid when she sprains her ankle in the rain. I must stress that it was no more than anyone else would have done. I must also stress that I didn’t actually do it.

I found out about my own heroism while listening to genial Jon Richardson on 6 Music; the grateful damsel had emailed his show in order to publicly thank me for my chivalry as part of an ongoing quest for “good deeds”. But it wasn’t me. I wonder if perhaps it was the left-wing comedian Mark Steel who freed her stuck foot, as I am often mistaken for him.

It was nice to be a hero, however fleetingly, although sadly the word itself – once the evocative preserve of Greek myth, Hegelian Volksgeist, or at the very least Victor Mature – has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. We live in the age of the overstatement, where Jade Goody can be a “princess” by dint of dying, and a “saint” without any of the tiresome red tape of investigation, exhumation, veneration, beatification and the corroboration of at least one miracle. You can be a “hero” in the Daily Mail for refusing to sort out your plastics and glass in the recycling bins provided.

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The rot started with Diana’s death on August 31, 1997, when Tony Blair coined “the people’s princess”, and the princess’s people struggled to express themselves without recourse to the iconography of playing cards. A similar thing happened on September 12, 2001, when the US media indulged in an increasingly deranged hyperventilation contest, invoking nothing less than the rhetoric of the Bible and/or Winston Churchill.

Feminist writer Susan Faludi catalogued the farce in her book The Terror Dream. The New York Times set the overstatement ball rolling in an editorial that read, “If one hero has come to stand for all, it is the New York City firefighter,” later using the phrase “knights in shining fire helmets.” Under the headline, “The Firefighter: An American Hero,” People magazine testified, “It is the valiant warriors on a flame-filled vertical battlefield who have taken on the mantle of legend, like the Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, or Leonidas’s 300 Spartans holding the line at Thermopylae.” The Wall Street Journal claimed that firemen “possess a gene lacking in the rest of us,” speaking of a “godlike prowess, beneficence and divinity.” President Bush, posing with firefighters and waving a bullhorn at Ground Zero, said, “These are the men who will fight our wars.” Actual firefighters admirably resisted sanctification of this kind, giving testimony about “inadequate communications capabilities” and “no command structure” – but such inconvenient oral histories were buried for three years.

New York governor George Pataki went further. He proposed that every single one of the 2,974 who lost their lives on September 11 (2,992 if you count the hijackers, which, oddly, he didn’t) be inscribed a “hero” on a memorial plaque. Families of rescue workers actually demanded a distinction between “heroes” and “victims”, at which a semantic tug-of-sentiment ensued.

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The Sun would have us believe that every single man or woman who joins the armed services is a “hero.” The newspaper’s laudable charity for wounded personnel, Help For Heroes, hammers this home, even though many are injured in the mundane course of duty. On April 15, for instance, the US Department of Defense [sic] announced the death in Afghanistan of a US corporal due to “injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident.” He was more heroic than me, or any Sun journalist – to quote Woody Allen: in the event of war, I’m a hostage – but how are we to distinguish between a soldier and a hero if you apply the accolade to somebody just doing their job?

It’s the same kind of breathless but self-defeating overstatement that, from a random recent sample, speaks of “anarchy unleashed” at a largely peaceful protest, or a life “snuffed out” when it simply ends, or indeed that Kelly Macdonald is “cinema’s best kept secret” when in fact she is just an actress who’s not especially famous. Smooth Radio recently advertised concerts by the “legendary Neil Sedaka”. Where does that leave music’s actual legends?

How much slower the “Pugh! Pugh! Barney McGrew! …” bit would have been on Trumpton had each member of Captain Flack’s brigade been dutifully acknowledged as a “hero” by narrator Brian Cant. In the event of an emergency, I’m Mark Steel.

Weapon of choice

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Let’s get this out of the way first: I am against chemical weapons. This really ought not need stating. Who, but a psychopath, would be for chemical weapons? However, after posting the following comment on Twitter the day before yesterday, it was implied by a join-the-dots minority that if I don’t believe it’s right for “Western allies” to bomb Syria, then I must approve of the use of the enzyme inhibitor Sarin on Syrians.

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As you can hopefully see, I was merely trying to expose what I see as the hypocrisy of American outrage at what John Kerry called Assad’s “cowardly” use of chemical weapons. (Anything outside of hand-to-hand combat might be defined as “cowardly”, but that’s a semantic quibble.) To take the moral high ground and start handing down judgements, you’d better be able to defend your position. While 300 or so re-Tweeted my statement wholesale (including Chuck D, one of the more surreal episodes in my life, I’ll be honest), plenty took exception to the link I was making, arguing that Agent Orange was a “biological” weapon only intended to destroy 13% of the vegetation in another country; that the comparison was worthless as it happened over 40 years ago; and that to hand-wring about US warmongering was to let Bashar al-Assad off the hook and – by implication – do a thumbs-up gesture to chemical attacks.

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Hey, let’s be lenient to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and say, OK, they only intended to decimate the trees, plants and crops by dropping millions of gallons of Monsanto and Dow herbicide mixed with jet fuel on rural South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, and that they only truly accidentally killed and maimed hundreds of thousands, and caused untold thousands of future birth defects. (Not to mention health problems from leukemia to lymphoma caused in US service personnel exposed to the same toxins – almost 40,000 disability claims were made against the US government as a result.) This was chemical warfare, pure and simple; it’s just that such defoliants were not subsequently banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty of 1993, so they must be alright. An arbitrary “green line” is thus drawn.

To be honest, whenever the UK gets globally trigger-happy – and David Cameron and his Bullingdon pals seem currently gearing up for a whizzo “arm’s-length” adventure that is pretty much guaranteed not to dirty their hands – I get nervous. Like them, I lash out, but with words only. I grasp for historical comparisons and chinks in armour, and Twitter is a fast-typed medium. It’s the only one I’ve got when I have no time to blog.

At times of war, I become a cartoon lefty with a CND badge. I make no apology for that. Although the defoliation of Vietnam happened in my lifetime, it did not cross my young radar at the time. When Thatcher sent a thousand to their deaths in the South Atlantic in 1982, I felt that deep sense of powerless dread for the first time, and I’ve felt it again, all too regularly and under various administrations, ever since – none more deeply than during the first Gulf War, and none more profoundly than on the eve of the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, against which I marched twice, in disbelief that a Labour Prime Minister would form a human centipede with George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield.

I’m getting that dread now. I can feel it in my chest. It’s hard enough coping with a recession, without war to worry about. And the Middle East is not a region to be messed with, as “the West” knows only too vividly, still wiping its bloodied hands after two previous suicide missions. If “the West” fires missiles at Syria, it risks making matters worse, not better. Assad seems unlikely to back down; he’s clearly a bit of a chinless nutcase with entitlement issues, whose monarchical authority has been under siege since the Arab Spring (remember that?), and whose big-stick regime is propped up by Iran, Russia and China. If we bomb his people, that’s great PR for him in his nice suit with his nice wife.

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The position of “the West” seems to be: shooting your own citizens and blowing them up is acceptable – as is arresting, detaining and torturing them under “emergency” powers, which the Assad family has been doing since 1963 when it seized power and set up its own quasi-royal line for perpetuity – but using chemical weapons on them is unacceptable. (We’ve heard talk of this “red line” that has been crossed, which is in effect a legal one, not a moral one in any case. This is why I made my original comment about US “outrage”. Why wasn’t the Obama administration equally “outraged” when Assad’s troops first fired on Syrian citizens in July 2011? As for the UK and France; we helped carve up the Middle East in the first place in our colonial pomp, but for some reason can’t resist donning the flak jacket and going back to knock on its door and run away.)

I understand that the world in which we’re living exists within a precarious framework of legality in terms of warfare, and the “rules of engagement” are our shared figleaf of decency while trying to kill each other. Conventions are agreed. Treaties are signed. The UN sits and debates. Motions are passed. Threats are made. Counter threats are made back. The Hague is constantly cited. Despots are supposed to be brought to justice, but are often just shot, or left to their own people to dispose of. If Assad has broken the law – a law which almost randomly precludes regimes from spraying certain listed chemicals on its own people as that’s, like, really out of order – then arrest him and put him in the dock. I am anti-chemical weapons, but then, I am the warmonger’s worst nightmare, as I am also generally anti-weapons. The multi-billion dollar defence industry would collapse if I had my dream.

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It struck me yesterday, as we joined hands across the world to celebrate those stirring words of Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 – at a time, significantly, when many young black men were fighting and dying in South East Asia for a country that was two years away from enshrining their right to vote – that the world has not progressed that much in the intervening half-century in terms of morality and consistency. We have better technology, and can kill and maim from even greater distances, remotely and cleanly, but we still kill and maim. In the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Americans were prepared to march for causes they believed in (a quarter of a million heard Dr. King’s entreaty for “freedom to ring”). Obama may be the first black president – a democratic achievement beyond King’s wildest dreams – but he is currently gunning to gun civilians down. If he had his way – and if he sidesteps the UN, he is no better than Bush – the Xbox missiles would be raining down tomorrow. Tomorrow!

I haven’t voted Labour since 1997. If Ed Milliband allows this country to bomb another one, I will not vote for them again, any time soon. It is with mixed feelings that I note the number of Tory MPs currently ranging against Cameron’s bellicose wishes – around 70? – as I did not expect to agree with any of those bastards on anything. But to vote “no” to military action is not to vote “yes” to chemical weapons. Remember that. A man called “Greg” Tweeted me and Chuck D overnight – asking us how we’d like our families to be sprayed with Sarin. That showed us, right? For we would not like our families to be sprayed with Sarin. Fuck me, while there are people out there using that logic, we’re in trouble.

Let commonsense ring.

And stop shooting the badgers.

The world at war

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Two films at the weekend which I intend to line up for arbitrary comparison because they are both new, both are foreign language and both were premiered at Cannes last year, where they competed in parallel for the Palme d’Or and Un Certain Regard: from Russia, In The Fog, or В тумане, and from Argentina, White Elephant or Elefante blanco.

They formed a sublime, if challenging and counterintuitive double-bill for me at the Renoir, a subterranean refuge from a sunny Sunday afternoon in London’s Bloomsbury. A barbecue and a beer are not the only ways to celebrate the late arrival of spring; you can retreat underground, on your own, and immerse yourself in Russian and South American poverty. Each to their own!

In The Fog first, a long and courageously ponderous fable set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during the Second World War; 1942, to be precise, where the hanging of three partisans sets the scene in an apparently unbroken tracking shot that discreetly turns away from the moment of death and alights upon a cart piled high with bones instead (animal bones, but you get the idea). Such is the skill and precision of relatively new Belarusian feature director Sergei Loznitsa announced. He previously worked on documentaries, but despite the handheld opening, do not expect a story built with the improvised looseness of photojournalism. In The Fog is in many ways a formal piece, in which three central characters move slowly through the forest, their individual backstories illustrated in flashback.

Not much happens. In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Waiting For Godot. The three main characters seem also to be archetypes, the central protagonist, Sushenya, played by Vladimir Svirskiy, a stoically noble and fatalistic embodiment of the Russian spirit, perhaps. (I am no student of Russian classical literature – this film was based on a 1989 novel by Vasil’ Bykaw – but I’ve seen the films, and I get a sense of the ideological and political forces that shape the national temperament, particularly in times of war or struggle.) There are few laughs to be had – alright, none – this is a fable of death and punishment and separation and hardship. An early scene has one partisan emptying his boots of water and squeezing out his sodden socks, which seems to sum the film up.

Sushenya’s wife, from whose comfort he is taken early on in the film (he also leaves behind the carved wooden animals he made for his young son and the warm bathwater), begs him to take food when he is called in for questioning by two partisans after a fatal misunderstanding. She suggests some lard, or an onion (“Everything tastes better with an onion”); again, this sets the tone of humility and gratitude for only the bare basics of subsistence living in occupied Belarus. It’s hard going. Between the occasional bursts of action, it’s largely men in hats murmuring in a forest. But it feels oddly poetic and certainly measured and sincere, and although the Nazi occupiers are clearly the “baddies”, the internecine conflicts between partisans and collaborators make it morally ambiguous. My favourite kind of cinematic morality.

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For the far more conventional but no less stimulating White Elephant, writer-producer-director Pablo Trapero, who made last year’s memorable ambulance-chasing thriller Carancho (released in Argentina in 2010 but released here last year, and also Cannes-selected), returns to Buenos Aires and to the two excellent stars of that film for a more socially conscious piece about “slum priests”. Ricardo Darín, a big star at home and familiar to international audiences from Nine Queens and The Secrets In Their Eyes, is a likeably crumpled presence with a twinkle in his eyes, here playing what we would call a “community leader” in a shanty town that has grown, like mould, around an abandoned hospital project. (I think I’m right in saying that this is the Ciudad Oculta in real life – it’s clearly a genuine location and the shell of a hospital makes a striking image throughout, a hollowed-out symbol of civic failure and economic collapse – instead of making people better, it houses self-destructive drug addicts.)

We first meet Darín’s Father Julián, a selfless, tireless beacon of commonsense and charity among the dispossessed who live in the slum, when he fetches the younger, Belgian priest, Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) back from a horrific paramilitary massacre at a jungle mission. His own mission is to train up the junior to eventually take his place. It’s a nice touch to show the real-life memorial to Fr Carlos Mujica, shot – and martyred – in 1974; his sanctified spirit lives in Julián, although he cannot perform miracles and make the inevitable drug war go away.

If you’ve seen the Brazilian film City Of God, set in Rio, you’ll know the fatal, bullet-riddled milieu and will not be surprised to see young kids at the centre of it. One school-age addict, Monito (Federico Barga), forms a focus for the priests’ efforts to stem the body count, although their techniques differ: the older priest wants to stay out of the politics of the drug trade, the younger wants to get his hands dirty. Disaster this way comes.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot. The director’s wife and co-producer, Martina Gusman, who was so vital as the flawed emergency-room doctor in Carancho, plays a dedicated but non-Catholic social worker trying to get new housing built, a key player in the conflict between the priests. White Elephant has the same liberal, do-gooder feel as any number of white British or American films about aid workers in Africa, but without the colonial guilt. These slums are local problems on the doorstep of Buenos Aires, and there is something terribly old-fashioned about the Church having to solve society’s ills. The easy banter of the volunteers, and the law-abiding citizens (many of whom must be non-actors) stops it being too earnest or grim, although the conclusion feels a little bit Hollywood.

Still, another important glimpse of life during wartime.

How does it feel to be the father of 172,907* dead?

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Who’s old enough to remember the Falklands War? I know we’ve experienced some sabre-rattling about the Malvinas from the Argentine and British camps of late, but it seems unlikely that anybody would go to war over their sovereignty in 2013. I hope not, anyway. Having grown up under the long shadow of the Second World War (my parents were born during it, my grandparents lived through it, one of them fought in it; it influenced the films we watched, the toys we desired and the games we played), and, as a boy, having been fascinated by all aspects of the 1939-45 apocalypse, it was surreal in 1982 to live in a country that was at war, with our tank-straddling Prime Minister sending something called a “task force” to this contested 12,173 square kilometres of dry land in the South Atlantic to repel a South American invader.

There was a war! Alarmist rumours went around school that conscription might be introduced, and, as a paranoid 17-year-old, I had to process what that might mean – even though it was highly unlikely. Anyway, around 900 people died in that stupid war, hence the title of the subsequent 1983 single by anarcho-syndicalist squat-rockers Crass: How Does It Feel To Be The Mother Of 1000 Dead? In many ways, the title was enough, not that it would have robbed Margaret Thatcher of any minutes of sleep on her notoriously short nights.

I hadn’t even fully assimilated my politics at that point, and was still living under the long shadow of my Dad’s, but my eventual conversion to left-wing idealism was taking shape somewhere inside my brain, and it was the accumulation of persuasive signposts like the title of that Crass song – and the collage that packaged it – that helped to build it.

Since 1982, the country I live, pay tax and vote in has been involved in a number of other wars, invasions, air strikes and “humanitarian interventions”, notably the Gulf War of 1990, and the Iraq war, which began with the illegal invasion in 2003 and was never officially declared. We are currently “celebrating” its tenth anniversary, and this means that Tony Blair’s face is back in the news, albeit mostly in montages. In Iraq, which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be in a far worse state than it was before we invaded it, the anniversary was marked by bombs killing 56 people and injuring 200 in Shia areas.

I say “we invaded it” – I didn’t invade it. Irag was officially not invaded in my name, because I marched on February 15, 2003 to say so, along with millions of other sane souls around the world. Ours was the largest march in London’s history, even according to the police’s massaged-down figure. (I also marched against the invasion of Afghanistan two years earlier, on October 13, 2001.) When I look back, I feel proud that I cared enough to march, although it also makes me a little sad, as the marching spirit was beaten out of me by the feeling of democratic powerlessness I felt after Operation Iraqi Freedom (cheers) kicked off regardless at 5:34 am Baghdad time on 20 March, 2003 (9:34 pm, 19 March EST).

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What optimism I must have had in 2001-2003. I did not decide to march; I had no choice. I love the foregone conclusion of the way I felt then. I dislike the lack of fight in me ten years later. But there is, at least, one man to blame. And I still hold him to account for what happened: the Christian sense of destiny behind his dead eyes as he told us that Saddam Hussein could attack us with only 45 minutes’ warning with weapons of mass destruction that he was definitely hiding in Iraq. I didn’t believe a word Tony Blair or George W Bush said. And although this might have been viewed as kneejerk leftist aversion, history tells us that I was right not to. That he continues to stand by his decision to follow Bush into Iraq to help assuage his Oedipus complex rankles with me. He always says he “regrets” the loss of life, but not the decision to do the thing that caused the loss of life.

* He may or may not be the father of 172,907 dead, as a definitive figure is impossible to put your finger on. It could be more, it could be less, but is probably more. This is the best current estimate of the Iraq Body Count project – and of course it’s recently shot up after the violent protests to mark the tenth anniversary – and it’ll have to do. You might say I’m being melodramatic dredging up the Crass lyric, but the whole sorry, disgraceful episode offends me, yeah? And the rich, tanned, our-man-in-the-Middle-East Tony Blair really needs to get out of my sight, please.

And, as previously declared, I am reading Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars, a pretty exhaustive account of the mistakes, assumptions and dangerous strategic miscalculations made by the invading forces in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mentions the abuses and crimes committed). We’re just at the point in 2006 when the author declares “the beginning of the end” for bin Laden loyalist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s archaic “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” network, whose worryingly broad stated aim was to “bring the rest of the Middle East and potentially the Islamic world within the boundaries of a new caliphate.” In November 2005, he claimed responsibility for suicide bombs that killed 60 people in three hotels in Amman in Jordan (including 38 members of a wedding party), after which opinion polls showed that Jordanians turned against the Iraqi insurgents, indicative of a wider rejection. If Burke’s book tells us anything it’s that the country, and the region, fell into factional chaos after the US/UK invasion, and took until 2006 before the death toll abated. Claiming strategic victory for the American “surge” strikes me as patting yourself on the back for removing some of a red wine stain you made by pouring white wine onto it.

So, you’ve got my kneejerk reaction, and you’ve got my well-read, analytical reaction. I’ll give the final words on this blood-stained anniversary to Crass.

Your arrogance has gutted these bodies of life
Your deceit fooled them that it was worth the sacrifice
Your lies persuaded people to accept the wasted blood
Your filthy pride cleansed you of the doubt you should have had
You smile in the face of death ‘cos you are so proud and vain
Your inhumanity stops you from realising the pain

Mission not accomplished

Sometimes, you don’t need to annotate. This is a passage from a lengthy piece in a recent New Yorker (I’m behind; it has a smiling Obama on the cover after the Supreme Court ruling – that’s how behind I am), called After America by Dexter Filkins, looking ahead without optimism to the United States’ 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan and comparing it to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, which led to much of the trouble that caused America to go in, in 2001. Lesson: don’t invade Afghanistan.

After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.

I know. This excellent piece is available to read in its entirety – if, like me, you find war endlessly, grimly fascinating, but, unlike me, can be bothered to read thousands of words on a screen – in the New Yorker’s online archive.

I love this magazine.

Progress report: I now have four issues in circulation (by which I mean, in my shoulder bag, and sometimes carried around the house). The Obama-smiling issue is actually now satisfactorily read, and about to be passed on. I’m into a lengthy piece about the divided Sudan in the issue with the family on the beach on the cover, having already polished off the American drought, linguistic forensics, the Grimm brothers and Frank Ocean. Wish me luck.

My little phoney

Belatedly caught War Horse yesterday afternoon. (It seemed like it would suit the matinee mood, and it did.) I had been forewarned by enough critics I respect that this was not Spielberg’s finest hour, and that after the clever horse’s-eye-view of the book, and the clever puppetry of the stage play, this was a pretty conventional telling of the tale, so I went in with low expectations. My expectations were met.

I have nothing against Steven Spielberg. It would be churlish to deny him the crown of the-modern-day’s-Howard-Hawks (a big compliment from where I’m sitting), but he doesn’t always knock it out of the park. How could he? But having made two strong, serious films about World War II, I’d hoped for something a bit more meaningful and original from him about World War I. Instead, outside of a couple of good, David Lean-exhuming set pieces, War Horse felt like a string of sometimes excruciating clichés and mechnical story beats. It reminded me more of Lassie Come Home, or, for a more contemporary but no less helpful comparison, Babe, than it did Saving Private Ryan. As has been pointed out already, the establishing act, set in rural Devon, was about as authentic-seeming as The Darling Buds Of May. Since Spielberg went to all the trouble of shooting it in Devon (and a bit of Wiltshire), this is a pretty unfortunate outcome.

A mostly English cast worked wonders with the Devon accent, but set, as they were, within a totally unreal, backlot vision of country life, even the august likes of David Thewlis and Emily Watson sounded hokey. It’s not giving anything away to say that the action returns to Devon at the end, but when it does, Spielberg opts to paint the sky a golden/queasy yellow, as if perhaps Michael Bay had sat in for him that day, and everything looks post-apocalyptic, rather than Gone With The Wind glorious. This heavy-handed approach is fairly typical of the whole film. Nothing is allowed to go past without being sugar-coated or drained of blood.

Based of course on a children’s book, this is a “family film” about one boy and his horse who must both go off to war without losing their 12A certificate, and as such, even the horrors of the barbed wire and the trenches and the mustard gas feel sanitised for afternoon consumption. (At one stage, the sail of a windmill in the foreground helpfully goes past to discreetly mask an act of violence in the background. Technical masterstroke, or cheap sleight of hand?) It’s hard to convey the obscenity of a conflict that killed nine million people without showing bodyparts in massive piles, but co-writer Richard Curtis managed to do it on a BBC Comedy budget 20 years ago, which is ironic.

Novelist Michael Morpurgo’s was such an interesting dramatic approach to the conflict, too; because the Great War marked the cusp of fully mechanised combat, the one million conscripted horses sent over to France from England represented the end of an era. It’s truly bizarre to see the first cavalry charge, on horseback, with swords outstretched, the beasts eventually cut down by German machine guns. This is one of the film’s successful set-pieces. Not only is it technically brilliant, it has something profound to say, and its outcome is unexpected. Spielberg pulls back from the massacre and, in long shot, shows us a field full of dead horses. This is not to suggest that Spielberg does not care about the human dead, as one rather extreme review put it, rather that he is adapting a book and play that put a new focus on the animals, none of whom volunteered.

Hey, I’m the soppy animal lover who’s supposed to lap all this stuff up. And yes, I had a tear in my eye at one point, which I won’t spoil, but I will say it had nothing to do with the suffering of a human man. To be honest, with the subject matter, and with the obligatory button-pushing John Williams score to help prompt me WHEN TO BE SAD, I was disappointed not to be in middle-aged floods the whole way through. But I found War Horse oddly unmoving for the most part, even with all those gorgeous animal actors onscreen. (Apparently Joey was played by 14 separate horses; I was disappointed they were not named in the credits, which I sat through to the bitter end by the way.)

Drama can drift into melodrama very quickly if you don’t watch yourself, and some of the broader strokes in War Horse do just that – the “comedy” goose chasing off the nasty landlord and his men; the entire village turning out to watch Joey pull a plough through an intransigent field. And yet, the film’s most audacious sequence – its equivalent of the famous No-Man’s Land kickabout of legend, whose details I won’t spoil – works.

It’s pretty clear that War Horse is not a bad film, but I fear it was a bad idea to turn an unusual book and an unusual play (I understand Curtis and co-writer the also talented populist Lee Hall took elements of both) into a usual film. Spielberg likes to entertain as many people as possible. This is an admirable ambition, and has led to some of the best blockbusters of my lifetime. But it’s significant, I think, that he went all the way up to a 15 certificate for his two WWII films.

I don’t think you can “blame” the deficiencies of War Horse on the script, and you certainly can’t blame it on  the acting. Some of our finest thesps crop up in tiny roles and do great things with them: Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, Geoff Bell, Toby Kebbel, Johnny Harris. But with all that talent on tap, and with two war horses like Curtis and Hall at the typewriter, something went awry. It must be somebody’s fault. And it wasn’t the animal trainers.

At the end of the day, it’s a battle between sentimentality and horror, and ends up in a no-man’s land of its own making.

I haven’t mentioned Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, and his chance to play the Roman emperor onscreen, having already played him onstage, but if you like your Shakespeare in a modern setting – in this case, an unnamed war-torn Balkan country, albeit filmed in Belgrade so you get the general idea – it’s convincingly done. And Fiennes makes a pretty powerful Coriolanus, with his shaved head, dog tags and khaki vest. Less impressive is Gerard Butler as his nemesis, who mangles some of his lines, but his is not the worst crime; for me, an overcooked Vanessa Redgrave had the effect of smothering all around her whenever she was onscreen. Also, there is too much reliance of faked TV news footage to explain the action and to underline the modern re-staging, and I found Jon Snow delivering Iambic pentameter to be unintentionally comic (unless it was intentionally comic, in which case I withdraw my criticism). But I really liked Brian Cox and James Nesbitt, and I managed to follow the story, which is not always easy with what are, let us not be coy, very old plays. The story is a bit repetitive, but that’s the bloke who wrote the play’s fault, surely?

I always needed a bit of visual help when studying Shakespeare at school, and will always be grateful to the BBC Macbeth with Ian McKellen, and the BBC Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins. I’m sure this will help students of Coriolanus. And hey, it’s another of the 50 films Jessica Chastain made last year. She’s the female Ryan Gosling.

 

 

Apologies for the late running of these film reviews. I am hard at work writing the second series of Mr Blue Sky and that must take priority, as you can imagine. (Deadline for all six episodes: end of February.)