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Blu-Ray Review: Buried


Being buried alive is up there with drowning and burning to death on the commonly accepted list of the worst ways to snuff it. Cinema has a long history of exploring and exploiting these fears for our viewing pleasure and pain. Certainly there are countless films about infernos or choking on salt water. There are classic scenes in tunnels with dust and dirt threatening to submerge our heroes. But never before has a film been quite so confined beneath the earth as Buried is.

Buried opens, after a slick titles sequence that gives the impression of descending through the soil, with a completely pitch black screen, affording me an opportunity to discover and enjoy high definition darkness. Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq, wakes up in a box below ground before our eyes in this nothingness. This is Buried’s only location, a wooden coffin. It therefore might not seem the best film to enjoy on Blu-Ray, as there are no luscious visuals and locales to gasp in wonder at. The ever so slightly sharper picture and sound quality does truly allow you to appreciate the astounding technical achievement of Buried though.

The textures of the sand and the splintered wood feel real enough to touch at such intimate proximity. Conroy’s face, along with all the varied expressions it shifts through, looks incredibly lifelike. The excellent soundtrack, along with Conroy’s rasping breathing, is crisp and clear. The flame from a lighter looks vivid and dazzling in the sparseness of the coffin.

And the additional special features that come with a Blu-Ray disc are worth a look for once. As Ryan Reynolds, who plays Conroy, says in an interview, realising such a concept from a good script was a feat of engineering as well as filmmaking. Director Rodrigo Cortes explains that seven different coffins, each used for different types of shots, were used to make the 90 minutes or so of film. The variety of camera angles and techniques is incredibly impressive, with Reynolds highlighting that unlike a lot of films the same shot was scarcely used twice here. Most of the shots are entirely realistic, placing you firmly in Conroy’s shoes, with just a couple of exceptions, zooming out and away from him to really emphasise his isolation and loneliness.

One of the crew members interviewed says that if Hitchcock were alive today this is the sort of thing he’d be doing. There is undoubtedly the sense that new ground is being broken, in terms of storytelling and filmmaking. The majority of mainstream releases these days are miles away from the level of audience immersion on show in Buried. Even on an ordinary TV screen in a comfortable living room you feel Conroy’s claustrophobia and live his rollercoaster of emotions. This is as much down to Reynolds’ captivating performance as the fine detail and execution of the production team.

Reynolds copes with everything the script asks of him with very little to work with. He takes us from panic to paranoia, from despair to determination and back again. He deals equally well with anger and heartbreak, often conveying an emotion simply through breathing or a look in his eye. He is helped by some good voice performances by those he interacts with on the phone, his one real lifeline, its battery constantly withering away. Particularly good is Brit hostage negotiator Dan Brenner, played by Robert Paterson, who is convincingly professional and genuinely sympathetic. He managed to calm me down as well as Conroy.

Somehow Buried contains what I can only describe as an action scene, in which both the acting of Reynolds and the inventive wizardry of the director, combine with unbelievable effect. Without giving too much away, there is a snake involved. I was literally on the edge of my seat. And the reason this scene was so scary, gripping and exciting, was how well established the character and situation is beforehand.

As well as inexplicably pulling off a believable and enthralling thriller in a box, Cortes’ directing and Chris Sparling’s script also manages some thought provoking dialogue on major issues of our time. The way these topics are explored is seamlessly part of the action and not forced. During the course of Conroy’s phone conversations we explore not just the depths of his character, but the limits and immorality of bureaucracy and the subjective nature of the word “terrorist”. Buried therefore also has political credentials, without ever leaning too far to one side of the debate.

 With similar limitations to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, Buried is a film reliant on its lead actor. Whilst James Franco was good, Reynolds is even better. In fact Buried is better full stop. For the moving climax alone, that will have you unable to look away through confused tears, it is worth watching. Buried delivers a master class in acting, cinematography, dialogue and political comment. It is a unique and bruising ride of a story. And a must see film experience.

The Shadow Line – Episode 2


Last week I confessed my confusion as to what precisely constituted “event television”. The first episode of The Shadow Line offered up an answer full of lingering shots of shiny details and realistic, stylised dialogue. Opinion was split between the lovers and the haters. Some drooled over the glossy detail and ominous script, whilst others gagged over the pretentious direction and fakery of the lines. I fell somewhere between the two extremes. I welcomed a British show oozing quality and ambition, but I grimaced at some of the glaring blemishes when the script tried too hard.

All in all it was a mixed opener, which set up a myriad of competing plot lines to speculate about. Thankfully the second episode built on the strengths of the first, whilst ditching most of its failings. Last night it felt like The Shadow Line properly broke into its stride. Literally. The episode ended with a selection of the key characters running at full pelt across a park, and then through London streets.

It was a chase sequence that prompted Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character to shout “SHIT!” and “I am on foot. Typical fucking British car chase”. But it didn’t feel like a typical action sequence from British TV for the audience. And it certainly wasn’t shit. Perhaps I was finally beginning to understand this “event television” nonsense. The climax to the episode was brilliantly judged, with the chase sequence moving up through the gears of drama. It featured only one standout stunt, a relatively simple car crash, but it shunted characters from cars to parks to tube stations (Bethnal Green incidentally, one I am familiar with) with expert fluidity.

The episode finally got its hands dirty with some plot progression after all of last week’s posturing and half formed questions on beautiful lips. Essentially it was the story of the hunt for the driver. Young Andy Dixon certainly doesn’t look like your average murderer, but he witnessed the killing of drug lord Harvey Wratten and is the only clue to the puzzle either side, criminal or police, has thus far. Wratten’s nephew Jay, played by Rafe Spall, quizzes Dixon’s mother and pregnant girlfriend menacingly, whilst Ejiofor’s Gabriel interviews them for the police. A third side also emerges, in the form of a character that may or may not be called Gatehouse, played by Stephen Rea.

The characters of Jay and Gatehouse illustrate exactly why audiences are split over The Shadow Line. Both could either be interpreted as colourful villains wonderfully acted or caricatures being painfully over acted. I’m inclined to agree with a comment from “dwrmat” on The Guardian series blog with regards to Spall’s portrayal of Jay: “ Whenever he’s on-screen, I can’t make up my mind whether he’s very, very good or very, very bad, which is a little distracting.”

The same could be said of Rea’s performance, although I instinctively found his mysterious and enigmatic character intoxicating, despite some far from subtle dialogue (“What I’m about to tell you is the most important thing you’ll ever hear. Ever”). His technique of scaring the family and friends of the fugitive driver is subtle however, when compared to Jay’s. The mental nephew of the deceased half drowns a cat and threatens to kill an unborn child to extract promises of cooperation. Rea’s character intimidates via a shadowy knowingness to his words and muted manipulation of his interviewee’s fears.

The main mystery now is who is Gatehouse, and which side of the investigation does he fall under? But other strands of the plot rumble on. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede managed to appease another disgruntled drug lord who hadn’t been paid with some dazzling calculations and a promise of ten million back instead of one. He again insisted to other characters he was simply a front man, installed by recently murdered Harvey as innocent and legit cover. Last week though he seemed to be far more important than that and in charge of things, and this week he’s still making the big deals and having people report back now and then. Ejiofor’s Detective still has a bullet in his brain, his wife wants to try for babies again, and the bullet might yet kill him. Glickman, another vanished but presumably still alive drug lord, remains undiscovered. Could Gatehouse be Glickman? Or working for him? Or is he a corrupt cop or some other darker side of the law?

By focusing on developing these irresistible mysteries and zipping along at a gripping pace, the second episode of The Shadow Line upped its game and got me looking forward to next week.

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Part 2 – Dick and the Illusory War: Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


The final part of my Cold War/sci-fi/American history essay. I was especially pleased with some of the analysis of Dick’s characterisation in The Man in the High Castle but disappointed that I had to rush Do Androids Dream Electric sheep due to word limit constraints:

 

DICK AND THE ILLUSORY WAR

 

In his 1955 talk Pessimism in Science Fiction Dick argued that the collapse of belief in progress had led to an unavoidable preoccupation with doom. Hence the science fiction writer was “absoluted, obliged” to “act out the Cassandra role” of giving early warnings of the grim times to come[i].”

Huxley was not alone in believing that science fiction could act as cautionary prophecy. He was also not the only one to recognise the stagnation of genuine progress during the Cold War period. Here we see that in 1955, in the midst of the Cold War, Phillip K. Dick also asserted that ordinary people’s cosy everyday realities were menaced by “grim times to come”. He felt “obliged” as a writer to highlight what he saw as the main threats.

            For Dick the most important threat seemed to be the manipulation of reality. The “doom” that fascinated him was not simply nuclear destruction but the exposure of reality as a fabrication. Again and again his enormous body of work deals with the idea of life not being what it seems and conspiracies maintaining the status quo. Often his protagonists uncover seemingly pointless and elaborate fabrications that lead them to question their own sanity. “The paranoid theme manifests itself in Dick’s novels through the discovery of institutional conspiracies to promote versions of reality for often ultimate purposes often left unspecified[ii].”In The Penultimate Truth (1964), Dick raises the idea of a ruling elite maintaining the illusion of a long since ended war, in order to maintain their positions of power. The unsuspecting public is imprisoned underground, believing a nuclear war to be raging on the surface. They are kept busy producing lead robots to fight the fake war. The illusion is maintained through state controlled media and the speeches of the “Protector”, a President-like figure “who legitimates the regime by casting the administration as selfless guardians willing to brave the dangers of radioactivity for the public good[iii].”Clearly Dick is drawing a parallel with the ideological conflict sold to the American people at this time. It’s no wonder writers like Dick questioned the Cold War, as by its nature the conflict rarely went “hot” and provided concrete evidence of fighting and if skirmishes did occur they were in far away lands. Dick would also explore the theme of illusion extensively in other novels such as The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and in so doing comment on the political fabrications of the period.

 

There were countless events that may have triggered Dick’s suspicions during the Cold War period. I have chosen two examples of illusion that seem particularly relevant to his work. The first example of Resource War as a stimulus for illusion is linked to ideas raised by Dick’s characters in The Man in the High Castle. In this novel Dick has created his own Cold War betweenGermany andJapan and superficially the reasons for their rivalry are mainly ideological, just like the real conflict. However through his characters musings on the Nazi Party’s grand schemes it emerges thatGermany’s aims are primarily the extension of its own wealth. The most imaginative scheme described is the conversion of theMediterranean into arable farm land. This project clearly has the intention of expanding the resources of the German people and improving their living standards. Ideologically driven projects of genocide are also mentioned but the emphasis is on the lifestyle available inGermany as a result of their material conquests. Dick is clearly commenting on the political conflicts of the time and questioning whether it is in fact greed rather than idealism motivating confrontations with Communism.

            The second example I give as a likely influence on Dick’s work is the myth of the Missile Gap. Dick seems to deal with the idea of producing unnecessary weapons directly in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel an illusion of war is maintained in order to control the awareness of the population and maintain a power structure. In real lifeAmerica produced nuclear weapons, rather than the robots of the novel, to deal with an invented technology gap with the Soviets. This myth was sustained by the media and Dick reflects this in the novel too.

 

We have already seen through Huxley’s criticisms that economic factors were crucial to the rivalry betweenAmericaandRussia. The notion that the Cold War was a purely ideological struggle between democracy and Communism is nonsense.Americawas concerned by the expansion of Communism because it was a system of governance that would ultimately be controlled and exploited by the Russians. The primary motivation for the Cold War was not a moral disapproval of Communism and its failings, but to sustain an economic system and therefore a way of life. The Second World War merely removed all the other competitors for the resources of the world, weakening them to such an extent that to acquire anything they must sit at the table of one of the superpowers. A century before the Second World War, it had already been observed thatAmericaandRussiawould one day be direct and supreme competitors by Alexis de Tocqueville, in De la Democratie en Amerique:

There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.[iv]

The Cold War fulfilled this prediction of Americaand Russiadetermining the fate of at least half the world, as there are few regions the division did not in some way consume. One of the areas particularly embroiled in competition was the Middle East. This was because oil was now the resource everyone craved, just as gold, sugar or coal had been for the competing empires of the past. As Americamade the transition from the world’s largest oil producer to its biggest importer, it scaled up its military presence in the oil rich region. In 1940 Middle Eastern oil only accounted for 5 % of world production, but by the 1950s Americahad moved to secure its potential[v]. It took advantage of British weakness following the Second World War to replace them as the dominant power in theMiddle East. TheSuez crisis of 1956 forcedAmerica to choose between her Allies taking on a dictator who was flirting with the Communists and the oil of the Arab world; it chose the oil. It also repeatedly stopped short of fully supportingIsrael, despite the power of Zionists in American politics, in order to maintain relations with oil abundant Arab states. OperationAjax, a CIA led overthrow ofIran, was carried out in response to the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. There were worries about Soviet plans forIran but these were concerns about the flow of oil, not the method of government or the welfare of Iranians. The Americans knew full well that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company could be influenced or replaced by American firms like ARAMCO or Standard Oil. The Russians, once in place, would be less accommodating.  

The Cold War was a resource war on a global scale and the resources involved were not simply fuels like oil.Americagained immensely from friendly, prosperous governments. Therefore wars like the Korean War, whilst not fought to secure control of a particular treasure, were carried out with the aim of acquiring an asset. They were also preventative, in that they halted the Russians from advancing any further and seizing land that may yield future benefits. Importantly they were clearly not ideological, as the Korean War was fought in support of a cruel dictator as tyrannous as the northern alternative, with the exception that he would do business with suited money men.

 

A recent article in The Times analyses the world’s current stockpile of nuclear weapons. The article is prompted by Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club and is headlined “Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas[vi]”. The main message of the article is “the world already has enough nuclear weapons to destroy every single nation on the planet.” Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize for daring to suggest a world without nuclear weapons as President of theUnited States. However the world seems locked into a situation that makes it impossible to get rid of the destructive devices, despite a commitment by the Cold War powers to reduce their own stockpiles. This is because the hysteria of the Cold War arms race was not controlled and now the technology is far too freely available. The origins of this ludicrous ability to destroy humanity several times over lie in the pressure cooker of American politics at the beginning of the 1960s.

            The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik is partly responsible for the sheer number of nuclear armaments produced. It was not just the initial launch in 1957 but a whole series of satellites that shocked and amazed the world. The Americans had dismissed the Russian plans as propaganda but Sputnik’s radio bleeps provided the world with solid proof; Russiawas winning the technological race. The scientist Edward Teller said on television that Americahad lost “a battle more important and greater than Pearl Harbour[vii].”American pride took a severe beating and its military were also given a nasty shock at the realisation that Soviet missiles could soon be reaching US cities. The result of immense public pressure was a flurry of reactionary schemes to close the missile gap, the “technology gap, and behind that an education gap. A lasting legacy of the panic generated by Sputnik was the passing of the National Defence Education Act of 1958, in which at last the case for federal involvement in education was accepted by Congress[viii].”However not all of the schemes enacted in the hysteria were so harmlessly beneficial in the long run. As well as thousands of new university places the panic spawned thousands of new nuclear weapons. In 1959 the defence budget was increased by President Eisenhower to more than $40 billion, over half the entire federal budget. The press saw this as a long overdue response to the Sputnik crisis but a reluctant President Eisenhower had been more realistic. He knew from intelligence reports comprised of detailed photographs by U-2 spy planes, that the missile gap with the Soviets was a myth. However the top secret nature of this information meant he could not use it to ease political pressure on himself and as a result he was forced to increase the production of nuclear weapons anyway. His silence on why he felt reluctant to increase spending had already damaged his administration beyond repair. The American people turned to Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in the election of 1960 instead of Eisenhower’s deputy Richard Nixon. Kennedy placed great emphasis on restoring America’s lead in the technological race, only to find on taking office that America was in reality already far ahead of the Soviets.

Dick chose to reflect the illusory aspects of the Cold War period in his writing. He did this in a number of ways and in many of his works, but I am choosing to focus on two of his best known novels, The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the most obvious illusory element is the fake animal industry. Status within society is determined by whether or not you own an animal. This had led to a supply of fake electric animals in order to satisfy the demand. Dick may have taken inspiration for this fake industry from government reports during the Cold War that recommended the construction of futile nuclear shelters and sanctioned the sale of “private family fallout shelters” by companies at a cost of “$2,395-installation extra[ix]. Here we have a clear example of government orchestrating an illusion in order to gain profit and control. Official reports calling for nuclear shelters served the dual manipulative purpose of keeping the public in fear of attack but also making them feel that they were empowered to do something about it, thus avoiding hysteria. Allowing companies to sell private shelters to families would also have wrongly made people feel that they were taking positive action to protect their loved ones. It also allowed nuclear protection to commercialise and create an entirely new industry based on a fiction. The government directly instigated an illusion for profit.

 

The Man in the High Castle presents an alternative ending to the Second World War, in which the Axis powers triumphed. Whilst this would be a drastically different reality in many ways Dick makes a comparison with his own world by setting up Japan and Germany in a similar superpower standoff to that between the USA and USSR. He comments on the Cold War by creating an alternative one of his own, with arguably more extreme opponents. He reveals shocking snippets of information regarding world affairs in his alternate world, only through the individual musings of his characters. Indeed I think the believable characterisation in The Man in the High Castle is an important part of Dick’s representation of the theme of illusion.

The first character we meet in the story is Mr R. Childan, proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. It is interesting to analyse the way Dick introduces us to Childan, as the novel goes on to introduce us, in my view successfully, to a number of different characters. All of these characters allow us to view Dick’s alternate world from a different angle, but they are all ordinary, accessible people with narrow viewpoints. The result is a tremendously varied novel, with intertwined narrative strands converging upon one ultimate revelation.

            Dick does an excellent job of establishing Childan as a character very quickly. We soon realise that Childan is a proud business minded man firstly because he is thinking about the upcoming business of the day and then from his actions in tidying up the shop. He takes “a cup of instant tea”, which suggests he is unwilling to stop, he likes to be busy. There is also an attention to detail in his preparations that serves the dual purpose of establishing the setting of the shop in our minds and features of his character like pride and tidiness. There is some further background detail about businessmen hurrying to work, purely for purposes of realism, before a more telling detail about Childan’s character.

Women in their long colourful silk dresses…he watched them, too.[x]

Dick does several things to show us that this detail is telling. Firstly the three adjectives, “long colourful silk”, without commas, give the sentence an elongated, seductive sound. They highlight in what way Childan is looking at the women by drawing attention to their “dresses”. Dick also adds in a suggestive pause as Childan’s thoughts wander. Finally there is the “too” tagged on to the end of the sentence, which further sets it apart from other background details. Later in the novel, with Childan’s character more firmly established, Dick hints again at his vulnerability.

I always give satisfaction, Childan thought. To my customers.[xi]

Here it is the “To my customers” that Dick highlights as a telling detail. Just three words tell us an awful lot about Childan’s character and how he has allowed his professional and public appearance to dominate his life. There is a strong indication that something is missing, or of a sense of inadequacy when it comes to real relationships with people. Dick continues to drop hints relating to this theme throughout the novel, particularly when Childan has conflicting feelings about his attraction to the Japanese wife.

            Dick explores the theme of illusion through Childan in several ways. One of these I have touched on in that Childan has an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness compared to an outward professionalism. Another is the way in which Childan can recognise and dismiss one aspect of society as fabrication but not others.

The radio of the pedecab blared out popular tunes, competing with the radios of other cabs, cars and buses. Childan did not hear it; he was used to it. Nor did he take notice of the enormous neon signs with their permanent ads obliterating the front of virtually every large building.[xii]

Here Childan seems to dismiss the culture of advertisement as artificial and false. He lets it wash over him, an unavoidable aspect of his routine but not an influence upon him. He also doesn’t hear the “popular tunes”. The implication of that phrase is that the music is mass produced, lifeless rubbish, worthy merely of the background. However whilst Childan refuses to buy in to the illusion of advertisement, he readily embraces the struggle to climb the ladder of social status. At various points in the novel Childan recognises the fixed nature of the social system, determined almost entirely by race. He appears to acknowledge that his race means he will never advance beyond a certain position. And yet all of his actions in the novel are geared towards how he can advance himself and “have, even for a moment, higher place”.

            Dick also uses Childan to show how illusion can be imposed from above. He has Childan blame the Germans for the racial social structure which is constraining him and then praises them for their vision. Childan describes Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing as works of progress. He even defends what the Nazis have “achieved” in arguments with others. He reflects the theme of Resource War through Childan by having him describe ideological motivations in a way that shows they are actually material. He convinces himself Aryans are better because “Those fellows certainly looked happy. And their farms and cottages were clean[xiii].” Dick suggests that it is the strain of being occupied and ruled by the Japanese that has led Childan to hold such contradictory views at the same time. Dick’s way of showing the enormous influence the occupation has had on Childan is to have his internal monologue mimic the speech patterns of the Japanese he both hates and admires.

Has he stumbled onto correct notion, Childan wondered, that certain of the historic objects in stores such as mine…are imitations?[xiv]

 Here Dick is commenting on the long term effects of American occupation on the minds of people. Dick’s awareness of Japanese culture would have made him mindful of the effects of American occupation on the country and others likeGermany. In particular Dick must have worried about the legacy of resentment that accompanied the dropping of the atomic bombs. He was also fully aware of the mistakes made in the aftermath of the First World War that only lead to greater slaughter. By changing Childan’s speech patterns Dick is suggesting how people can be psychologically altered under occupation in ways they don’t even realise. In a more recent examination of the issue, David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel Ghostwritten has a Japanese character who has become a terrorist partly as a result of the American legacy. Today the resentment felt by many in the Muslim world towardsAmericamay have been caused by a similar process of American superiority.

Despite the various narrative strands at work in The Man in the High Castle, such as Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plan to launch a nuclear strike against Japan and Julia Frink’s relationship with a volatile Italian; it is ultimately The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within a novel, which gives the story its illusory message. Of course there are other elements of the narrative that are linked to the theme of illusion, such as the fake jewellery and antiques business and the uncertainty regarding the identity of agent Baynes, but it is the hope of an alternate future that provides the novel’s key illusion. The revelation at the end of the book is that the truth behind an illusion may be extremely disappointing, perhaps so much so that we might wish to return to the illusion. Here we can draw parallels with Huxley, in how the Savage fails to appreciate the Brave New World. As part of that theme of disappointment Dick deliberately leaves the fates of characters we have come to care for hanging in the balance.  This though is part of the message of The Man in the High Castle. We cannot be sure of anything.


[i] Seed, D. American Science Fiction and the Cold War. Edinburgh University Press 1999, page 135

[ii] ibid, page 136

[iii] ibid, page 137

[iv] Landers, B. Empires Apart, Picnic Publishing 2009

[v] Ferguson, N. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Penguin 2004, page 109

[vi] Binyon, M. 2009 Enough bombs for 2.3 million Hiroshimas. The Times 6 October page 28

[vii] Isaacs, J and Downing, T. Cold War. Abacus 2008, page 173

[viii] ibid, page 175

[ix] ibid, page 178

[x] Dick, P. The Man in the High Castle. Penguin Classics 2001, page 9

[xi] ibid, page 27

[xii] ibid, page 27

[xiii] ibid, page 29

[xiv] ibid, page 175

After AV and election humiliation: what next for Clegg and the Lib Dems?


The result was crushing. A firm no to electoral reform and a pummelling at local level for Lib Dem councillors is a devastating double whammy. The road back to even slight popularity will be rocky and steep, with huge risks of even further falls on the way. The media were quick to pounce on the misery of Clegg and the tensions within the coalition. Whilst exaggerated, there is no doubt that the coverage accurately reflects a permanent shift in the dynamic of the parties in partnership.

Firstly then why was the defeat so bad? And why did the Conservatives not only escape punishment but considerably strengthen their position with gains? In many ways it is pointless to dwell on the results. What’s done is done. Liberal Democrats across the board are declaring the need to move on and get on with the job, seemingly out of bitterness, but also out of practicality and necessity. It is perfectly understandable however that some big names, such as Cable and Huhne, have lashed out at their Tory coalition partners in the dizzying spiral of disappointment and defeat.

They feel, rightly, that their party has become a human shield. They feel that they are victims of immense unfairness, ironic given that the core of their policies on tax, education and indeed the voting system, are intended to increase fairness. The Liberal Democrats had to enter into coalition with the Conservatives. Labour was never a viable or democratic alternative. A minority Tory government would have been ineffective and lacked any Lib Dem input on policy, whether as a restraining or creative force.

They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Clegg would never have been forgiven had he passed up the chance to introduce a host of coveted Liberal measures. As I’ve argued before Clegg also saw an opportunity to open up politics. By showing that coalitions could work, the old seesaw between Labour and the Conservatives would be challenged. Consensus and cross party collaboration would produce broader ideas and solutions to the bigger issues, in a 21st century where ideology is far less important than results, to voters at least.

Where they went wrong is debatable. There are obviously a range of reasons. But primarily it seems to be that too much eagerness and what’s been described as “personal chumminess” between Cameron and Clegg, was on display. The broken promises therefore appeared to be callous and genuine deception, rather than an inevitable concession from the minority partner in coalition. On tuition fees the Lib Dems made the mistake of trying to claim that the new policy was a better one because of changes they instigated. They needed to make a greater show of their overwhelming reluctance to charge fees at all, whilst still championing the restraining measures for fairness that were their doing.

Ultimately it all comes down to Clegg’s economic gamble though. I am still not sure just how fully he buys into George Osborne’s interpretation of the crisis and his drastic solution. It may well be that privately Clegg still stands by his pre-election comments, that the deficit should be reduced gradually with a focus on growth in the short term.  Adopting the Tory approach could be the primary price of going into government for the Lib Dems. But publicly he has signed his party up to comprehensive cuts in public spending that are at odds with the instincts of most Liberals. And you’d have to say that Clegg must believe the Conservative plan will eventually lead to growth, because if it doesn’t his party will be battered once more come the next General Election.

Certainly earlier this year I wrote about a speech in which Clegg made the most compelling argument thus far in favour of extreme deficit reduction, which essentially boiled down to longer term sustainability and strength in diversity for the economy. I still think he may be torn though and that he might accept some of Labour’s arguments that claim a slower pace of cuts would have restored greater growth sooner.

With regards to the referendum on AV Clegg clearly made an error when choosing the date. The key reason for Yes2AV’s failure was that their argument became inseparably embroiled with party politics and the local elections. Clegg’s personal unpopularity rubbed off on the campaign for reform, mainly because of dirty tactics from the No camp. Yes2AV also made ridiculous unrealistic claims about accountability, rather than keeping their argument simple. Celebrities made a late push for reform at a rally but by then it was too late, the argument should have been made more forcefully outside of the political sphere weeks before May the 5th.

Of course the important and interesting question now is what do the Lib Dems do to recover? And how will this affect the coalition? Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain’s third party, was on Question Time on Thursday. He spoke eloquently and with reason on foreign affairs, prompting cheers and claps from the bulk of the audience. But when it came to domestic politics he found himself bogged down by the harsh public opinion of Clegg, so very different from the polls after the TV debates over a year ago. He valiantly defended the courage of his party’s leader under fire but could only react with frustration when the audience flatly refused to hear him out.

Clegg continued to show that courage in an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday. Given the pictures of his gloom and the mountain to climb left by the results, Clegg gave remarkably assured answers and honestly asserted that he’d misjudged things, and that the Lib Dems needed to have a “louder voice” in the coalition. He spoke of the need to sing about the unexpectedly high number of Lib Dem manifesto policies being implemented. But in many ways all this was predictable and necessary.

The efforts to give his party an individual and distinctive again will undoubtedly begin to heal the wounds of defeat. He needs to show greater reluctance when he must go along with Conservative plans, pick the Tory policies he does oppose carefully for maximum impact and point out measures that perfectly illustrate the moderating influence of his party. Clegg has already worked out that NHS reform is the best way to begin a recovery, threatening to block it and demanding changes are made to meet concerns. However what would really give the Lib Dems a distinctive voice back is to propose and explain policies they would be implementing without the Conservatives.

What I mean by this is to set out policies, on tuition fees for example, that the Lib Dems would implement if they had the ideal (but unlikely) scenario of a majority government. These policies should be calculated to appeal to Labour voters and those within Labour potentially open to coalition. The Lib Dems need to reach out to Ed Miliband or those around him with influence, to stop him pounding the human shields of the coalition as opposed to those in the driving seat.  A senior figure in the party, perhaps likeable President Tim Farron, should be chosen to run what would almost be an alternative Lib Dem opposition.

I accept this would be difficult to handle and could shatter trust and cooperation with the Tories. Many might say it’s impossible. But as long as Clegg and key Lib Dem ministers weren’t directly involved, the group did not challenge specific government policy and simply proposed Lib Dem alternatives not covered by the coalition agreement, there would be little the Tories could do to stop it. AV may be lost but the Lib Dems have plenty of arguments they can still make that are unique to them. They must take the philosophy behind AV, choice and fairness, and tie it to attractive policy. For example their manifesto went further on tax, transport, energy and the House of Lords. Choice is the key to freedom in a modern society and the Lib Dems must make the case for the state actively empowering individuals. The Liberals must show how they would liberate.

It’s probably better for Clegg to keep his head down for a while and continue to soak up pressure whilst his party recovers independently. Clegg’s popularity will take longer than his party’s to heal. But this does not mean he is the wrong man to lead it. He has for the most part taken bold decisions both in the national interest and to achieve greater fairness sought by his party’s voters. He has had to concede costly economic compromises, but to overcome these he must be bold again. Frankly after the tactics of the No Campaign, so wholeheartedly backed by Cameron, Clegg must dirty his hands a little. A louder voice will only convince dispirited voters if it hints at what the coalition is doing wrong because of the Conservatives, as well as what it’s doing right because of the Lib Dems.

Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 2 – Day of the Moon


Mmmm….

Whilst I was primarily wowed by last week’s opener to the new series, I wasn’t the only one having worries about the abundance of plotlines being introduced and secrets set up. And with this second episode, cracks in Moffat’s genius are beginning to show.

I know I never thought I’d hear myself say a bad thing about the man. But Day of the Moon simply tried to do too much. The really sad and disappointing thing about it is that it’s made of sublime component parts; it just didn’t work as well as it could have done as a complete whole.

The start of the episode was really impressive. All three companions seemingly hunted and gunned down in stunning and iconic American locations by the FBI. The Doctor locked up in Area 51 with a striking beard and strait jacket. Then of course a brilliant escape. It’s here perhaps that the flaws start to show however. Was anyone else baffled by the need for such an elaborate plan? Especially when later in the episode they simply wheel out President Nixon as the ultimate authority in their favour? Ultimately you can ignore the implausibility of our Timelord’s scheme for the added benefits to the drama; the cinematic scale of Americans locations, the stunning CGI shot of Apollo 11, a swimming pool dive from River and a seemingly bearded and beaten Doctor.

It’s later in the episode, around the middle, when the dialogue gets so bogged down with secrets that can’t yet be revealed, that as a standalone episode Day of the Moon begins to unravel somewhat. It’s simply unsatisfying for an audience to have so little payoff on the hints of huge revelations. In many ways Day of the Moon is too similar to the first episode; I was expecting it to leave a great many of the secrets untouched, to wrap up the story of The Silence in suitably engrossing style. In the end the Doctor sees off the terrifying foes rather easily, even if we’re told that this isn’t quite the end of them.

With the concluding two parter of the last series Moffat demonstrated his understanding of the impact of contrast, and there is not enough contrast between these first two episodes. The scenes in the children’s home are too similar to those in the tunnels at the end of The Impossible Astronaut. They have some wonderfully, typically Moffat ideas that are truly haunting, but throw in all the stuff about Amy’s baby and the completely confusing space suit and it’s all too much. These scenes with images of “Get out” scrawled on the walls and markings on Amy’s skin could have formed the foundation to a brilliant episode, but they are overshadowed by random but no doubt significant moments like the woman saying “she’s just dreaming” from behind the door. They also don’t sit right with the light hearted, race against time that’s the rest of the episode.

I’m not saying that I did not enjoy Day of the Moon. I am probably just bitter because it so completely baffled me and I’ll look back on it more fondly with hindsight. There were undoubtedly more than a handful of classic moments, and some brilliant dialogue. But it all just felt rather disjointed and overloaded. The relationships and jealousies between the companions are almost beginning to resemble soap opera. Here’s hoping that next week delivers a cracking and clever story truly independent of the secrets of the series.

Of course I’m not going to sign off without mentioning the Timelord child. Is it Amy and the Doctor’s? That’s the constant suggestion, which means it’s not as simple as it seems. Not that it does seem simple. I’m confused. And I have mixed feelings about it. Whilst Moffat should continue to push the boundaries of the character and take risks, he also could push it too far. One thing’s for certain; it’s worth sticking with the series to find out if its fetish for cliff-hangers becomes misguided or is sheer genius.

The failure of Reading and Writing Month – An apology and explanation from Mrt’sblog


If anyone at all follows my blog they would’ve noticed the disappointing petering out of Reading and Writing Month. I feel I should explain as briefly as possible why a project I was very excited about and had big plans for did not turn out as I had hoped.

What happened then? I suppose the simple answer is: real life. It’s an excuse all the same I know but when it came down to it I couldn’t motivate myself to either write for my blog all that much or do enough reading because of actual events and “dramas”. I used to make the mistake of using this blog as an emotional outlet for “real life” and I have no intention of ranting again here and spoiling what I’ve worked hard on. But I also once said I would write on this blog should I ever find that elusive state known as happiness. I may as well say now that for most of 2011 so far I have indeed been happy; the happiest I have ever been probably. I am grateful to have felt that even if it was fleeting.

Enough of that though and back to blogging matters. It really is most regrettable that I have a real life at all sometimes. I am frequently full of ideas for writing but most thoughts never become blog pieces or creative works. Often I know that if I try to realise an idea and rush it to some sort of completion, its quality will disappoint. I know that an awful lot of the words I vomit onto these pages are not examples of the best work I can produce. Sometimes it’s just imperative that I produce something or air my views on whatever issue I am passionate about, no matter how inadequately.

For Reading and Writing Month for example I had numerous ideas in the pipeline. I planned to write on literary classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita, comparing their taboos. I planned to write my own short stories after amateurishly examining a selection of some I had managed to read. I wanted to discuss the future of reading with the coming of Kindles and IPads and audiobooks etc. I intended to explain why I rarely re-read books, and ask why we come back to old favourites when there was so much to discover and consume. Do we all have bibles for certain things, like good writing or storytelling, which we like to re-read to learn again? Like revision almost. Or do we re-read to recapture a feeling? Generally I wanted to have finished reading a lot more books than I did.

More recently in terms of general blog writing I’ve wanted to comment on the Libyan situation and the ethics of a no-fly-zone. Trips to Fulham football club and controversial Champions League games would have once spawned some thoughts. Various television programmes from comedies like 10 O’Clock to dramas like Christopher and His Kind have tempted me to put pen to paper, or finger tips to keyboard more accurately, but I have simply lacked the confidence, the time and the reserves of happiness to begin.

This is incredibly self-indulgent but it does annoy me that a) I don’t write enough and b) I don’t write well enough. Lots of things interest me and I want to write about most of them, but the task often seems insurmountable. The recent impingement of my real life on my blogging has forced me to rethink my writing habits. I shall have to accept that I can’t do it all. Especially if I’m to keep reading. And if I’m to do anything at all with at least a degree of adequacy. So I’m considering drawing up a more regular timetable for posts on particular topics. Film pieces will probably still emerge in a regular messy pattern, but perhaps other things I should simply talk about once a week on a certain day.

It will be sometime most likely before I do anything concrete about this. But it will probably soon have to be done out of necessity and I’m hoping it might help improve both output and quality. If you do drop by now and then I’d love any feedback or suggestions on what readers want and what Mrt’sblog can do better.

In the meantime I am personally trying to convince myself of the positives of Reading and Writing Month, despite its undoubted failure. I read a good mix of short stories and who knows maybe in future I’ll draw on them to write my own. At least for now I have good stories I can return to. I’ve generally rediscovered my taste for reading, not that it ever really went anywhere, even if progress is slow. I’m currently devouring, well gently chewing, Room by Emma Donoghue and soon I’ll start on Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, now a film called The American starring Mr Clooney. After these reads I’ll return to the list from Reading and Writing Month and try to make headway once more.

A heartfelt sorry from Mrt’sblog then, to myself at least if no one else is that bothered. Do follow me on Twitter (@Mrtsblog) and give me that feedback (constructive or completely pointless, all comers welcome)

Blooded


You are a mega-bucks banker, a liberated twenty-something, a first class slut. You’re a whistling milkman, a tearaway toddler, a grieving widow. You’re a freedom fighter utterly consumed by ideological struggle. You’re a madman, a gunman, a best man. You’re an axe wielding gamekeeper in deep, sensuous love with your ladylike employer. You’re a sophisticated stalker, leering like an aristocratic butcher at young girls you view as goddesses; cheap meaty chunks of divine beauty. You’re a prisoner that’s only ever known the reality of four bare walls. You are human.

You’re barely clothed, stripped of decency and alone in the wilderness. You’re unreasonably frightened; terrified merely by nature’s regular and natural breathing. You feel an irrepressible sense of panicky foreboding deep in the truth of your gut. The cold bites greedily at your bare skin, sinking you deep into inescapable agony. You’ve never known anything like it; the never-ending needles of pain, the relentless rattle of your rib cage, the fear. The pain and fear of the hunted as you run for your life. As you run like an animal.

As you read this in the comforting light of your computer screen, chances are you are none of these things. And yet we can all imagine, however slightly, what the existence of a freedom fighter or a widow might be like. We can never truly know until we have lived it, and even then no two individuals will share identical emotions. But as human beings empathy remains one of the handful of characteristics that truly sets us apart from animals and beasts. There’s nothing quite like the sadness of feeling someone else’s loss as if it were your own or the failure of someone close to you to understand your own melancholy. Some may argue in favour of other traits and skills, like language and pure intelligence. In many ways though, empathy is the foundation to all art, the essence and gateway to all storytelling.

Empathy is at the heart of the intriguing central premise to Blooded, a British debut film out on the 1st of April. The release date of April Fool’s Day is fitting given that Blooded is part of the modern phenomenon of “is it truth or is it fiction?” storytelling. It makes use of a documentary/reconstruction format to tell the tale of the kidnapping of a group of pro fox hunting campaigners by an extremist animal rights group in the picturesque, but barren, Highlands of Scotland. Empathy becomes crucial to the story when the mysterious kidnappers release their captives across the wilderness in their underwear, before pursuing them with guns to make them experience the horror of being hunted.  Presumably the horror the foxes feel seconds away from a mauling by the hounds.

It’s certainly a distinctive and controversial concept for a film. The narrative is presented in unfamiliar layers compared to your average feature. We’re introduced firstly to the idea that a group of pro-hunters were filmed by a group of anti-hunters in the Highlands and that the resulting video became an internet sensation. We then meet the “real” pro-hunter personalities that lived through the event in classic documentary interview style. These interviews continue throughout the film through both voiceovers and close-ups. We also have the majority of the action shown to us via a reconstruction of the “actual” events, with different actors than those playing the “real” people. All of this is confusing and disorientating at first. But not in a bad way.

Just because Blooded has an unusual structure and deals with politically sensitive issues, does not mean it’s destined to fail. In fact last year I loved Catfish, a film in a similar truth/fiction style that dealt with current and also potentially dull and alienating topics. The cocktail of unconventional storytelling and thought provoking subject matter can prove a potent and satisfying one indeed. It has the potential to really set a film apart as an original success. Sadly though it’s a difficult balance to strike and Blooded doesn’t quite find it.

It’s a critical cliché to say that a film has an “identity crisis”. But there is no better way of explaining why Blooded’s bold ideas and execution don’t quite come together. The film opens with a character talking about extremism and how it essentially boils down to two sides trying to outshout the other. Watching it initially I couldn’t decide if this speech was meant to have humorous undertones or comment seriously on the issue. This becomes Blooded’s main pitfall.

As the opening of the film developed, I began to think of Blooded as an incredibly subtle mockumentary. The selection of hunting as the central issue seemed to be a swipe at all the modern day life and death disagreements about ultimately trivial things. The self-important tone of the music in the background, coupled with the overly sincere acting at times and some sweeping shots of grand Highland scenery for the titles seemed to say, gently, “look at this sad bunch of tossers who got mixed up in such an odd ordeal over something as pompous as hunting as if it were life’s defining feature”.

The film walked the line so finely between a tone of mocking and seriousness that I thought Blooded had the makings of a truly brilliant comedy spoof during its steady opening segment. Even beautiful cinematography of the stunning Highlands shrouded in mist and fog and sunshine seemed hilarious when viewed in the right jokey light at times. There were some good funny moments which utilised both the reconstruction and interview format to excellent effect. Most notably, when an American girlfriend of the group has shot her first stag, the experienced hunter takes some blood from the creature and wipes it on her face. He assures us she didn’t seem to mind this “Blooding” ritual, only for her to immediately respond in her interview “I resented that immediately”.

As the film progresses however the laughs are increasingly unintentional, as the story morphs into some sort of horror/political comment hybrid. The problem is that the hazy humour hovers over the rest of the film so that none of the “scares” are shocking. The animal rights activists, whilst extreme and clearly nutty to pull off such a stunt, just have too much of a conscience to be truly horrific foes.

Far too much emphasis is placed on the political issue. After watching Blooded, I delved through production notes from the filmmakers about their intentions and witnessed the “is it real?” marketing campaign online drumming up substantial interest. The filmmakers insist Blooded has no political agenda. It’s a thriller in documentary form and is not intended as a mockumentary. Blooded is meant simply as a thought provoking thriller, shot in a distinctive way, with some vague allusions to modern extremism.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers and director Ed Boase, Blooded fails as a thriller. I think it could have worked as very clever and subtle humour, had there been some more obvious signposts. Blooded ends up being controversial for the sake of it. It’s not enough to be simply thought provoking, especially when the entertainment is feeble and vague. The filmmakers must at least have an idea as to what sort of thoughts they want their audience to be thinking.

Watching Blooded with a friend of mine, neither of us could make sense of it. He said that the ending was “weak” as the film petered out and I agreed with him. As with so many films, Blooded tries to be several things at once, with the result that it does none of them well. My instinct on the one hand is to applaud Blooded for trying something different, but a much stronger voice of reason on the other is saying that the filmmakers needed to think harder about what it was they were trying to do.

Two Eds really are better than one


It has been one of those weeks in politics. As well as dull but incredibly important legislative procedure on issues like voting reform and the EMA, there have been the scandalous, newsworthy, headline-grabbing stories which get everyone interested and have the potential to set the tone of debate for the foreseeable future. On Friday the big story was supposed to be the once charismatic, fallen and tainted PM Tony Blair giving evidence for a second time at a historic war inquiry. Instead both of the major parties faced employment crises that sent morale on an undulating, yo-yoing rollercoaster ride.

At the end of that ride it seems Labour, against the odds, have emerged with their heads held high and full of hope. The resignation of David Cameron’s long-term spin doctor Andy Coulson proves them right on a point they’ve been making in Opposition for months. With little policy of their own to use as ammunition against Coalition cuts, Labour have relished the niggling issue of Coulson’s shady past at the News of the World. By finally quitting Coulson has reinforced Labour’s attempts to expose the “new” politics of the coalition as the same old dishonest, elitist governance of old. Coulson may have tried to serve his employer well one last time with the timing of his announcement, shrouded as it was in theory by the gargantuan story of a Labour frontbench reshuffle so soon after the selection of the original line-up. But for the moment at least it’s Labour that are buoyed by events and the Tories feeling somewhat dejected.

Back in October I aired my views on this blog about the announcement of Ed Miliband’s first Shadow Cabinet. To me the appointment of Alan Johnson was a mistake, and far be it from me to blow my own trumpet, but events have proved my initial musings correct. Johnson went from gaffe to gaffe, showing a worrying lack of knowledge for his brief. Labour continually failed to land palpable hits on economic issues, despite a plethora of targets laid bare by Con-Dem cuts. Meanwhile Ed Balls, after a dynamic and impressive leadership campaign, languished largely unnoticed as Shadow Home Secretary. No one seemed to be pro-active enough to take the fight to the Conservatives on damaging policies in a noticeable way. Balls’ wife, Yvette Cooper, also wasted away shadowing the foreign office brief, despite widespread backing in the party and the potential for public support. The only Labour frontbencher scoring economic points was Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, and even he has left glaring gaps in his arguments and been error prone.

Alan Johnson’s sudden resignation due to personal issues so soon into his new, vital job may be a blessing in disguise for Labour and everyone wishing to see credible Opposition to Coalition cuts. Despite the mistakes, Johnson has once again proved in his short tenure his capacity to be likeable and approachable to ordinary voters. The revelation that it was in fact his wife having an affair, not him, ensures the prospect of return to the Labour frontbench in a smaller, popular role in the future. With Johnson’s static, timid fiscal presence brushed aside though, Labour can at last forge a bold new and distinctive direction on all things economic.

I praised Ed Balls during his leadership campaign for going a long way to reshape his bullyboy image. More than any other candidate, Balls looked as if he’d give Labour a truly individual position on policy. Continually described as Labour’s “attack dog” Balls will now have much greater freedom to bite at the heels of the Coalition. As Shadow Chancellor he’ll have to respond to hot, topical issues like tuition fees and bankers’ bonuses; fresh and emotive in the public consciousness. He’ll also have to start winning the argument on growth and investment vs. spending cuts.

Already though he has shown signs of defending Labour’s past record more effectively, explaining his decision to now back the plan he once opposed to halve the deficit within four years, by citing better figures driven by Labour’s spending whilst in government. He’s also been wise to already criticise the government, not for risking a double-dip recession, which looks unlikely, but for wasting an opportunity for greater growth and wider prosperity because of ideological decisions. And growth, Balls will emphasise, is the swiftest, most sustainable route to deficit reduction.

There are still those warning against the potential problems of two Eds at the top though. The primary fear is a return to the Blair-Brown standoff that came to define and overshadow New Labour. This concern adds the extra interest of a helping of recent political history to the mix of this story. Will Labour repeat past mistakes, despite Miliband’s proclamation of a new generation? Even if the new team propels Labour back to government, the same old potentially lethal questions will hang ominously over the partnership between the leader and the treasury.

However I think the doubters are at the very least premature to suspect Balls of wanting to derail Miliband’s revival of the party. Despite the fact he ran for leader, it’s no secret that the job Balls has always wanted is Chancellor. Finally in a position to seize his goal, he is unlikely to turn his fire on his own party. Much more likely is that Balls will electrify the chamber, as one Labour source believes he will, and unleash an avalanche of devastating balls of criticism at the government. He’ll add much needed guts and yes, “Balls”, to Labour’s Opposition. He’s already proved his aptitude for Opposition politics during his leadership campaign.

Balls’ wife will also have greater opportunity to play a key role, replacing her husband as Shadow Home Secretary. She’ll no doubt start picking apart government policing plans. But once again Ed Miliband showed a disappointing lack of courage with his emergency reshuffle. Already he’s failed to take climate change seriously or offer serious backing to voting reform or a graduate tax. And by handing Balls Johnson’s old job, not his wife, he once again missed an opportunity to make his generation truly a new one.

Failing with his initial selection of a cabinet though meant he simply had to give the role to Balls. Who will, I believe, do a genuinely excellent job and accelerate Labour’s journey back to power. The two Eds plan to have adjacent offices and the fears of a Blair-Brown fallout seem unfounded to me. Nevertheless they will not disappear and had Miliband boldly plumped for the equally qualified Cooper, he would have avoided the shadow of New Labour he is so desperate to escape.

In Brief Praise of Bryson and Brooker


I’ve been meaning to sing the praises of two particular writers for some time. However perhaps I have found their work so enjoyable and admirable that I’ve been deterred from writing and attempting to sum up their brilliance, as it’s certain I’ll fall flat on my face in a puddle of failure. Perhaps broadcasting my enjoyment will in some way diminish it. Perhaps I’m embarrassed of elevating these men to the status of idols and role models when I neither write funnily enough to be considered in the same humorous bracket as them, or seriously enough to be amused by their ramblings from afar, occasionally distracted from the rigours of my precise, academic dissections of culture and politics by their simple gags.

I don’t think the craft of these two men is simple or easy though, although embracing the merits of simplicity can often be an important part of their success. It’s a far from facile task to be simultaneously intelligent and laugh out loud funny. Of course one can write cleverly and with wit, but that sort of writing rarely plucks an audible chortle from the depths of the reader’s throat. These two writers share three qualities that I admire and often strive for in my own work: 1) they’re hilarious, 2) they have a knack of describing things in a spot-on, accurate, unique and truthful way and 3) an undertone of self-depreciation flows through their work that makes what they say accessible and allows a degree of more outrageous opinion and conviction.

These men then are travel writer Bill Bryson and critic Charlie Brooker. I’ve recently read Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island and Brooker’s Dawn of the Dumb, a selection of his Screen Burn and opinion pieces from The Guardian. Obviously in subject matter alone these writers are poles apart, but I’ve already pointed out some of their crucial similarities to me. They also have appealing differences. In Bryson’s book he showcases a subtle humour through the description of characters as well as more rib cage rattling stuff. He also brilliantly evokes a sense of place and has encouraged me to consider strongly exploring a number of locations anew and afresh in our glorious land, such as distant Edinburgh and the closer South Coast. In Brooker’s book he consistently demonstrates a commanding handling of contemporary culture and an ability to scathingly insult and pick apart any target he sets his sights on. He also has a wonderful understanding and sense of pessimism about the media age we live in and has mastered the art of the interesting review. His reviews often relate to his own life or a version of it and do not feel like reviews until some way into the article. They surprise and baffle, whilst always capturing something essential about the essence of the show, programme or film.

Indeed both men refreshingly offer up a lot of themselves into their work which gives it an engaging, “real” quality. They basically have a recognisable and distinctive style and voice which most writers, myself included, struggle to emulate, especially as they remain versatile and able to cover a spectrum of subjects at the same time. Often the qualities I have described so far blend in particular phrases and images. For example early on in Bryson’s book he demonstrates his knack for perfect description, “The world was bathed in that milky pre-dawn light that seems to come from nowhere” and later in the same paragraph does the same thing whilst being humorous and self-depreciating at the same time with this gem of a line: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than it”.

That sense of experience pervades Bryson’s writing and he talks hilariously of times when he was still acquiring his nous, and of times when despite his age events still get the better of him. As an outsider Bryson also has a wonderful way of describing the faults and habits of the British, such as a hilarious passage in which he accurately describes the way we discuss traffic and routes on the road with terrible serious and deliberation. He also appears to have picked up a sense of British reserve, for when he insults someone he often qualifies the statement or does so gently but hilariously. Occasionally his musings and rants on architecture become tiresome, but he instantly acknowledges this fact and it is worth it for the injection of identity into the writing.

If Bryson harnesses experience then Brooker channels a youthful fury into his writing and displays consistently the art of the preposterous, rude and yet eerily accurate insult. There are too many to list but a particularly memorable image deployed during a rant against posing Mac owners, Brooker dubs the Apple computers as “glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults”.  I always enjoy his articles, in the book and continually on The Guardian website.

In summary if I end up writing in a similar way or doing a similar job to these men later in life I shall be one happy bunny.