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


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).


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.)

A definite article

It’s the fastest selling autobiography of all time. It’s A Journey, by Tony Blair. Formerly titled The Journey, but, after what publishers Random House (my publishers!) described as “a minor editorial decision”, this was stripped of some of its portent and pomposity with a clever switch from “The” to “A”. But they’re fooling no one: if this book was just a journey, it wouldn’t have sold so many copies in the first 24 hours of publication, outselling Peter Mandelson’s memoir three to one, and presumably singlehandedly saving the book industry from digital doom. The book is, like its author, very bad at humility.

I was on holiday last week, but Tony Blair followed me. August is known to be a slow news month, so you kind of expect front pages to be built around what’s in some books (Bjorn Lomborg, another twat, enjoyed the front page of the Guardian last week, too, because he’s got a book coming out). But the fanfare which greeted our former Prime Minister’s memoirs was deafening. The salient points were hungrily filleted and splashed across our newspapers, desperate after William Hague’s selfish failure to be gay for revelations about Blair’s record-breaking 100 years in power. These were, in brief: he thinks Gordon Brown lost the last election (he did); he had sex with his wife a bit, and on the day John Smith died – which he predicted! – he was a bit of an animal in bed; he warns against trying to be “matey” with the Queen; he thought the Finnish Prime Minister should “get a life”; and he feels really bad about all the people who’ve been killed because of him, but he “can’t” apologise for taking the country into war. That’s pretty much the long and the Clare Short of it, but love him or loathe him, you had to buy his hardback book, apparently. I own one of Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs, but I bought it in paperback years after its publication, and only because I was planning to write a novel about the Falklands. I expect Blair’s will be just like that: sketchy and selective, and not especially candid. (Admittedly, she doesn’t talk about having sex with Denis. Thank God.)

It seems that even people who hate Tony Blair have bought his book. This must be the case, as most people hate him. Don’t they? And I meant people who used to like him now hate him too, right? It’s the sheer promise he represented that makes him such a historic disappointment. (I got into trouble on Twitter for idly stating, for effect, that “everyone” hates Tony Blair, and a perfectly reasonable woman gently took me to task, as she clearly doesn’t hate him. Fair enough. I was generalising to make a point in 140 characters.) Although the admirable protests that met the author’s arrival at the marvellous and politically-charged bookshop Easons on O’Connell Street in Dublin made the headlines – especially as some protesters threw eggs and shoes – many Blair admirers queued up all night to get their books signed, mainly those who felt his part in the Northern Irish peace process was an achievement and – Blair’s favourite concept – a legacy worth celebrating.

That is for them to decide. For me, the fact that he sold Labour, and the Labour movement, down the river, systematically dismantling all that the party once stood for when it was proudly unelectable, is a greater legacy. And the invasion of Iraq is not even something I’d forgive him for if he had the letters of the words I AM SOOO SORRY tattooed across his, his wife and his children’s faces, one letter per cheek, and was forced to walk in a line with them, in the correct order, for the rest of their lives. Gordon Brown may have proven useless, but it was Tony Blair who lost Labour the last election. It is he who has given us the Tory government so many people seem to reflexively hate. It is he who had made Labour inelectable again, but for shoddy reasons, not noble ones. Without him, we might have a few more up-and-coming politicians who weren’t 41, and didn’t all look the same. He’s arsed it up for a long time to come.

Incidentally, according to the venerable Andy McSmith in the Independent, one of many hacks and politicos forced to speed-read all 720 pages of A The Journey this week in order to bullet-point its contents, this is what Blair writes about his decision to push through the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in 2005: “Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders, you idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate … Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him?” This is Tony Blair showing us that he is capable of the human emotion of regret, and is not afraid to admit what he regards as a mistake. Except shaking his head about the Freedom of Information Act, which has mainly hurt the government and MPs, even shaking it until it falls off, just makes his refusal to regret Iraq all the more galling.

In writing this, I am merely adding to the chatter. His interview with Andrew Marr, which was hardly the Chilcott Inquiry, but which Blair treated with the same grinning contempt (why does he snortingly laugh when exasperatedly reiterating that he takes no pleasure from the deaths of soldiers?), drew 1.8 million viewers, while Jon Snow’s concurrent grilling of the five almost-interchangeable Labour leadership candidates on Channel 4 drew about 0.5 million. It’s as if, truthfully, we’re still dazzled by the man’s celebrity. I say we, because I cannot claim to be ignoring him. I’m not. I’m caught up in it too. I wish he’d fuck off.

Tony Blair is donating his advance and all his royalties from The A Journey to the British Legion so that they can use it to help rehabilitate soldiers injured abroad. Why not – as Al Murray suggested on 5 Live this morning – just see how little your local bookshop is having to slash the book’s cover price to (£12.50 at Waterstone’s, from a RRP of £25), and donate that to the British Legion instead. That way, you circumvent a man’s ego. An ego which needs no further massaging.