The new Norma Percy production in the Brook Lapping series of contemporary history documentaries is “The Iraq War”, showing on three successive Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2, starting this Wednesday, 29 May. Norma Percy and Brook Lapping have won numerous awards for their documentaries on, for example, Iran and the West, The Death of Yugoslavia, the Second Russian Revolution and The End-game in Ireland. Their special feature is an uncanny ability to persuade the leading protagonists in each of the crises they have covered to take part in the programme and tell their own sides of the story, sometimes with startling frankness — everyone from Gorbachev to Milosevic. The new programme on the Iraq war should be well worth watching, if Norma Percy’s past productions are anything to go by. It ought to be a good curtain-raiswer for the long delayed report of the Chilcot Inquiry.
Full disclosure: I have no financial or other stake in Brook Lapping except that Brian Lapping, Norma Percy’s Executive Producer, is an old friend from university days and an outstanding television producer. There’s more about Norma Percy at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norma_Percy. I think it’s safe to say that Brian Lapping the television producer is not related to the Brian Lapping of Brian Lapping Massage, Bloomington, Illinois.
BB: Just back from Q Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, which (despite mostly horrendous reviews in the UK media) is actually splendid, but only if you enjoy Tarantino’s unique brand – sprightly horror comics with deliberate anachronisms and numerous jokes and cinema references, some obscure, but with an underlying moral purpose. Always beautifully photographed, accurately and wittily scripted and superbly directed and acted. The buckets of gore in the many shoot-outs are so over the top that they are clearly designed to be seen as symbolic, and the story is a concocted Western that’s also not meant to be taken seriously in itself: it’s simply not presented as a realistic documentary-type movie. The reviews in the Sunday Times Culture magazine and (more surprisingly) in the New Statesman are especially obtuse (one of them even complains that Tarantino’s script talks of people being ‘hung’ instead of ‘hanged’, which is too ludicrous a comment to be believed). The vague Wagnerian/Norse parallel, solemnly discussed (one of the characters is actually called a corruption of Brünnhilde!) is a typical Tarantino tease. Delicious.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea by any means (J wisely didn’t go) and those disturbed by even the most artificially exaggerated depiction of fake violence on the screen clearly need to stay away, but anyone who enjoyed Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill will love this one. Brilliant music too, a reliable pointer to the intended mood throughout, highlighting satire, comedy, narrative, pathos, etc. And a terrific cast, mostly used in uncharacteristic roles. Tarantino has a small but flavoury bit part.
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MH: I’ve not been a great fan of Quentin Tarantino — but then it’s also true that I’ve only seen one of his films, Reservoir Dogs, which I failed to see the point of, despite the critical praise heaped on it. For my taste too much gratuitous revelling in gore and extreme violence for its own sake, not (for me) made more palatable by its being depicted in a highly stylised manner. I agree that he’s a skilful cinematographer. In view of your encomium, and in a spirit of open-mindedness, perhaps it is time to put my anti-QT prejudice to the test. C and I have been to see Quartet, which we much enjoyed despite its somewhat schmaltzy optimism about coming terms with old age (on second thoughts perhaps that’s why we liked it!). What’s known, I think, as a “feel-good” film. Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln looks to be worth seeing.
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BB: Thanks, MH. If that’s how you felt about Reservoir Dogs, I wouldn’t recommend that you visit Django Unchained. The point, to my mind, is that the violence in both films (and some others by Quentin Tarantino, though not all) is not ‘gratuitous’ at all, it’s central to what the films are about; that it’s always deliberately stylised, partly by deliberate exaggeration, so that there’s no danger of it seeming designed to exploit unhealthy appetites or to be disturbing – it’s in the tradition of certain kinds of wham-bang comics and other kinds of film and literature. The films are (among other things) about the reasons why people behave violently (rather a serious issue, especially in the US, where the issue of justified and unjustified violence is of course central to the national legend because it arose in such stark form during the conquest and settlement of the west) and the likely eventual consequences of violence, both criminally and idealistically motivated. The skill with which QT deploys humour, satire, cinematic references and jokes, music especially, discussions of moral and philosophical issues in deliberately anachronistic sophisticated language between unsophisticated characters, outstanding actors usually cast counter-intuitively and out of character, other anachronisms and social inconsistencies to relate the issues in the film to the experience of its audiences (Django when in his gunslinger cowboy role wears sinister sunglasses, for example, despite the antebellum setting), and abrupt, almost shocking, changes of mood and style, all to reinforce the points he’s making, seems to me outstanding, and I relish it.
Incidentally I saw Django Unchained at a downmarket cinema in a shopping centre in the early afternoon when cinemas are generally nine-tenths empty. On this occasion it was 90% full, and the audience watched all 165 minutes in rapt silence, forgetting their huge bags of noisy pop-corn and bags of sweets wrapped in crackling cellophane. It was almost literally stunning.
Before you dismiss Django Unchained as cynical exploitation, please read the review of the movie in the New York Times, here, (including the second page) which I think casts useful light on it especially in the context of American cultural forms on which Tarantino deliberately draws.
I should add that J entirely agrees with your comments on R Dogs (and on QT generally), is convinced that the depiction of violence in movies and on TV is sick (she won’t say whether this applies also to the eye-gouging in King Lear or the other violence, incest, etc., in the Oresteia) and that anyone, including especially me, who pretends to enjoy it or who makes excuses for it is sick, too. Another battle in Thurber’s War between the Sexes, I’m afraid.
Yes, Lincoln’s clearly a must-see. You’ll notice, if you read it, that the NY Times review of Django draws attention to the fact that Django U. and Lincoln are about the same issues at the same period (slavery and its cruelties, race relations and the costs of challenging institutional separatism, the effects of slavery on both slave-masters and slaves, the corrupting effect of slavery on some black people who come to identify their interests with those of their white masters, the way these issues remain relevant today, and so on).
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BB submitted the following letter to the Guardian Review (it was not published):
Violence in Tarantino films
Adam Mars-Jones (Roads to Revenge, Guardian Review, 26 January 2013) interprets Schultz’s unconvincing reassurance to Django in Django Unchained (that it’s all right for the latter to shoot a man peacefully ploughing with his son) as Tarantino’s endorsement of the reassurance: “the voice of enlightened common sense”. I read it quite differently. Surely the film’s theme is the moral corruption involved in unnecessary killing and other violence, whatever the motives of the killers and regardless of its nominal legality. Tarantino is suggesting a degree of moral equivalence between the slave-owners who casually kill their slaves on impulse, and the bounty-hunters who kill wanted criminals for money, even though both are acting within the law of the time. This is a theme that seems to me to run through many of his films. Mr Mars-Jones’s comparison with the Oresteia of Aeschylus is very apt. Schultz’s obviously flimsy reassurance, so far from representing “the voice of enlightened common sense”, is designed to remind us of the moral unacceptability of what he and Django are doing, entirely comparable with that of the slave-owners’ treatment of their slaves. The same point is made equally clearly in other conversations between Schultz and Django.
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MH: I enjoyed your letter on Mars-Jones’s review of Django Unchained and agree with its main point. Tarantino also presumably intends us to see some sort of redemption for Schultz when he shoots DiCaprio’s slave-owning plantation-owner in what might be seen as an act of altruistic violence, inspired by an instinctive upsurge of moral revulsion, in which he knowingly sacrifices his own life, thereby (if you like) disregarding the “voice of enlightened common sense”. (I liked QT’s touch in giving DiCaprio horribly stained teeth as the symptom of his inner moral decay. There is, after all, in the American canon no more avoidable or inexcusable defect than bad teeth. Is the generally poor quality of British dentistry, which Americans so often comment upon, one of the reasons why Hollywood so often chooses British actors to play villains, I wonder?) But what is QT saying, if anything, about the avenging violence used by Django, particularly at the end of the film, as a response to slavery? The depiction of violence – throughout the film, but particularly at this point – is so cartoonish (“sanguinary panto”, Mars-Jones nicely calls it) as to deprive it of any power to shock and to trivialise, and even negate, any more serious point either for or against it that QT is trying to make. Similar questions arise in relation to the Monty Pythonesque scene – extremely funny in itself – where the Klu Klux Klan posse fall out among themselves over the poor design of the eye-holes in their hoods. Ridicule is, of course, an excellent way of attacking great evil in men or institutions but more effective when the evil is still rampant (as, for example, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator); less so when it has become a safe and easy target. So, for all the brilliance of the cinematography, the uniform excellence of the performances and the first-rate and often very funny script, I still came out of the cinema asking slightly bemusedly: Why? without being able to come up with any very cogent answer.
I see that Mars-Jones also has reservations about Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I don’t share. I’ll be interested to hear what you and J think.
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BB: I may be seeing Tarantino through rose tinted spectacle lenses, but I do think that there’s an often subtle purpose in everything he does, including the most unexpected and unconventional things. For example, I’m pretty sure that the violence in several of his films (which is what they are mainly about) is deliberately stylised (a) so that there’s no danger of it being pornographic, and (b) so that it will make a powerful impact but won’t be disturbing or overwhelming, and (c) to signal that the film doesn’t seek or pretend to be ‘realistic’, a sort of Brechtian message. I think that (c) also explains the startling and unexpected changes of mood (e.g. the pre-Ku Klux Klan gang whingeing about not being able to see through their hoods, which I thought was marvellously funny as well as making the rather humane point that some of the most brutal killers may actually be moral idiots or buffoons rather than deliberately evil malefactors); and (c) also explains the conscious anachronisms in some of the dialogue and also on the screen (Django’s shades being the most obvious example). The anachronisms serve to remind us that the action has sharp contemporary relevance (contrary to your own complaint – we haven’t exactly succeeded in eliminating non-state violence from our modern world!) even though set in a very different past: we’re not allowed to dismiss it all smugly as down to now discredited moral codes and the ignorance of the ancients. Some of the professional film critics have made themselves look obtuse by complaining about the anachronisms, as if they were careless mistakes.
A lot of the critics also seem to have missed the point I tried to make in my letter to the Guardian Review about the killings by the bounty hunters being very clearly depicted as almost as morally objectionable as the slave-owners’ killings and mistreatment of their slaves, despite both having been ‘legal’ at the time. This is fully consistent with your interesting suggestion that Schultz’s killing of the Leonardo DiCaprio character, which will obviously result in Schulz’s own death, is a kind of act of expiation and redemption. The fact that these are the commonest themes of traditional Westerns (Shane, High Noon, etc. etc.) simply explains why Tarantino chooses to portray the action as a Western, including some breathtaking sequences of riders silhouetted against the skyline, the Western costumes almost verging on parody, all saved by his obvious love of the tradition.
As for the revenge killings carried out by Django, they are surely part of the thesis about the (im)moral correspondence of bounty-hunter killings with slave-owners’ killing of slaves (aka “blacks” or “n*****s” in the film), but also about the philosophical ethics of all acts of revenge, a theme of drama going back to the Oresteia of Aeschylus (mentioned by Mars-Jones in his Guardian Review article but without Mars-Jones apparently recognising the implications of that acute observation as applied to Tarantino movies). As in the Oresteia, Tarantino discusses killings to avenge other killings, and certain kinds of private killings apparently in the public interest and within the law where the law is rudimentary, in a situation where there are effectively no state organs (police, courts, systematic law-based justice on behalf of society) to substitute for private action; action which by its nature leads to a never-ending cycle of violence and more violence, a kind of Omertà but where no systematic social alternative is available. Tarantino demonstrates the inevitable consequence of semi-licensed private killing (in revenge or “in the public interest”) by mounting the almost comically stylised scene of Götterdämmerung towards the end in which not only the main characters on both sides eliminate each other in a final murderous shoot-out, but also the whole building in which much of the action has taken place is blown sky-high, not a bad metaphor for total social breakdown in the absence of the rule of law.
I hope I’m not inventing these interpretations of what Tarantino is up to (J is unshakeably convinced that I am). I think it’s all there if you’re willing to see it – unlike those critics who complain that the characters are all (literally as well as metaphorically) black-and-white heroes or villains, that the violence is “gratuitous”, that the film glorifies it and never recognises its immorality, that it’s full of ridiculous anachronisms, that the symbolisms are simply down to incompetence, that it pronounces no moral judgement, even by inference, other than the insultingly obvious condemnation of slavery and racial prejudice (duh!), and that much of it is “unrealistic”! The last point at least is correct, but then so are Cézanne landscapes and Picasso still life paintings, plays by Oscar Wilde and Michael Frayn, musicals, pantomimes, operas and ballet. And Greek tragedy and comedy, come to that.
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VB: I loved it.
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MH: I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about Quentin Tarantino and Django Unchained. There’s no dispute between us, I think, that he’s a supremely skilful film-maker, I just remain to be convinced that the subtleties and multiple levels of meaning that you find in this film are really there. Film buff friends tell me that I cannot form a proper judgement of QT’s work until I’ve seen Pulp Fiction – something of a cult movie for QT fans, it seems. I must try and repair that gap in my cinematographic knowledge at some point.
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BB: I agree that you need to see Pulp Fiction (especially), both ‘volumes’ of Kill Bill (of which I bought both volumes on DVD today for £5 from poor bankrupt HMV) and Jackie Brown before reaching any final conclusions about Tarantino. Everything he does has at least one purpose, often more than one, and it’s sometimes only afterwards that you realise what he was up to.
We saw Lincoln this afternoon. We thought Day-Lewis’s performance obviously masterly and the film had the gravitas that comes from dealing with events of huge significance and resonance, but without Day-Lewis (with whose half-brother I was at school, incidentally) it would really have been a pretty run-of-the-mill historical costume drama which had quite long periods that were frankly dull. I found myself yearning for some Tarantino fireworks, some technical dazzle and some intellectual challenge. Of course talking of Lincoln without Day-Lewis is like discussing Hamlet without the prince, but it’s perhaps fair to note that “apart from that, Mrs Lincoln”, there wasn’t a lot to it. It adequately explored the moral quandary – was Abe right to prolong the bloody civil war in order to get his abolition of slavery amendment through before permitting a peace settlement? – and Spielberg can’t be blamed for failing to suggest an answer (because there obviously isn’t one, which is why it’s not a terribly interesting moral problem). Lincoln discussed the relative merits of two obviously good but (arguably although not necessarily) incompatible causes, while Django Unchained discussed, much more subtly and far more entertainingly, the counter-intuitive moral equivalence of two bad types of violence, one of which laid unconvincing claims to virtue. All the other actors in Lincoln were perfectly competent – Tommy Lee Jones terrific as Thaddeus Stevens, I thought – but the whole thing came to life only when D D-L was on the screen and speaking. I thought it was a great mistake to include the assassination, which was dealt with so perfunctorily and which needs a film to itself to be done at all satisfactorily. In short, I agree this time with Adam Mars-Jones’s serious reservations about Lincoln despite recalling that you didn’t. In particular I agreed with A M-J about the unnecessarily portentous music of Lincoln. But it’s clearly a must-see movie mainly because of D D-L’s fantastic performance (surely a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar?) but also because it’s by Spielberg, whatever its shortcomings. Django was much the better and more interesting film, IMFFHO. We must just agree to disagree, at any rate until you’ve seen some more movies of QT.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3910, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it, but probably no illustrations or comments by others, unless what you want to say is purely personal. (Anyway, I’m away overseas for the next few weeks with only limited internet access, so I’m quite likely not to see your email comment if you send it as an email.) Thanks. Now read on….
MH: Thanks for the feedback on Lincoln. I’m glad that you shared my admiration for Day-Lewis’s mesmerising performance, as well as that of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, but sorry that the rest of the film left you underwhelmed. I agree that it was a tad too long, but I found it gripping none the less and certainly far from being a “a run-of-the-mill historical costume drama”. It was courageous of Spielberg to eschew (except in the powerful opening battle sequence) the action-packed fireworks that are his usual stock-in-trade and focus instead on the nitty-gritty of the political infighting in the months leading up to the passage of the 13th amendment. (In this respect it reminded me a little of Borgen).
It is true that appreciation of the film is enhanced by some detailed knowledge of the historical background, and of the contemporary party-political forces at play, and this may be a drawback for British audiences. I wish that I myself had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book before seeing the film. It is true that we cannot know what would have happened if Abe L had listened to those of his advisers who wanted him to give priority to ending the civil war, rather than to securing the abolition of slavery first, but this doesn’t seem to me to diminish the potency of the moral trade-off confronting him: the certainty of more deaths on the battlefield against the early ending of the vast injustice of slavery. Intuitively, I feel that Lincoln was right to think that abolition would have taken far longer to achieve had he chosen the alternative course some wished upon him, but of course that can only be speculation.
It would have been difficult to have made no reference to the assassination as that is probably the best-known fact about Lincoln’s life. Actually, the assassination itself is not depicted. Instead, we see Lincoln’s son at a theatre where the performance is interrupted when the curtain is brought down and a flustered manager comes on to announce that the president has been shot at another theatre elsewhere in town. I thought this was a rather subtle and economically oblique way of covering the assassination in a way that did not divert attention from what I took to be the main theme of the film: that in a democracy the political pursuit of even the noblest of causes – and there could hardly be a more unimpeachably moral crusade than the abolition of slavery – sometimes, perhaps more often than not, requires a great deal of less than edifying wheeler-dealing, cajoling, bribing, arm-twisting, threats, subterfuge and deceit plus a degree of ruthlessness to ensure success.
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This is a very rough transcript of how I remember Andrew Marr interviewing the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, on the revealingly named “Andrew Marr Show”, BBC1 television, Sunday 30 September 2012. I can’t of course vouch for its accuracy. But for those who missed it, or switched it off after the first three minutes, this may help to give the flavour.
Andrew Marr: I’m joined now by Ed Miliband as he comes to Manchester for his party conference, at which he’ll have to expect to be judged by not only his party but by the whole country on his claim to be the country’s next prime minister. He’s widely regarded as a weird pointy-headed nerdy figure, more at home in the university lecture-room discussing ideas than convincing the man in the pub that he’d be better off under a Miliband Labour Government. Ed Miliband, welcome to the Andrew Marr Show.
Ed Miliband: Thank you, Andrew. Look, I–
AM: So this is your opportunity, Ed, to reveal the closely guarded secrets of what specific policies we may expect a Miliband government to pursue, if you succeed in the elections in 2015. We really have no information so far about what you would do about public spending, for example. Would you cancel the coalition government’s cuts and repeat the familiar Labour policy of reckless spending?
EM: Well, Andrew, obviously where the coalition’s cuts are failing in their objective of reducing the deficit–
AM: So you would increase government spending. I think it’s the first time you’ve admitted that. It means the deficit would also actually increase, doesn’t it?
EM: No, I’m not saying that at all. The deficit is actually increasing as a result of the coalition’s cuts, because –
AM: You still haven’t told us which coalition cuts you would reverse or where the money would come from for all the additional spending. How can you expect to win the trust of the British people when you won’t come clean about your spending plans?
EM: Look, it’s still 2-1/2 years until the general election, and it’s impossible at this stage to–
AM: All right, so we still don’t know. Now, will you at least tell us whether you would work with the LibDems if there’s a hung parliament after the next elections and Labour is the biggest party? How can you ask voters to support Labour if you won’t even tell us honestly what you would do if you fail to win an overall majority? Isn’t that rather arrogant?
EM: Look, our aim is clear: it’s to win the next election outright, that’s what we’re working for. Of course if–
AM: So you won’t answer my question. Let me put this to you: will it be a condition of a Miliband government working with the LibDems that Nick Clegg is no longer their leader? I think we’re entitled to know that at least.
EM: I don’t think it’s for me to tell another party who their–
AM: Let’s talk about the condition of the Labour party. It’s widely believed that you and the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, have a difficult relationship. Have you really forgotten the harm that was done to Labour by the terrible relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? If so, you must have a very short memory.
EM: Ed Balls and I work very well and amicably together. Take the issue of banking reform, which I would really like to tell you–
AM: We’ll come on to that in a minute. Just now I want to ask you about another thing which you have been very secretive about – the role in the Labour party of your brother, David, who is older than you and more experienced: how does he feel now about the way you wrecked his hopes of becoming party leader, your own brother?
EM: Well, you’ll have to ask him how he feels. He knows that I welcome the active role he–
AM: You’re generally thought to be indecisive. You were certainly decisive when you decided to run against your own brother for the leadership! Can you think of any other clear-cut decisions on policy matters that you have taken since you went into politics?
EM: As leader of the party and Leader of the Opposition, I’m having to make major decisions all–
AM: So you can’t think of a single one?
EM: Andrew, I was trying to tell you that–
AM: All right. Let’s talk a bit about your private life. People have been ridiculing you for having yourself photographed with your wife and two small children, arriving in Manchester yesterday for the conference. Is that what we have to expect now from you: all folksy family schmaltz and no policies?
EM: Not at all. I’m determined that at this conference we’ll be talking in very specific terms about the issues that are making life so difficult at the moment for hard-working–
AM: So you still haven’t told me in concrete terms what you would like to do about relations with the EU, or Afghanistan, or the trade deficit, or how you would get on with Mitt Romney if he wins the US elections, or really anything at all about international affairs. For example, now is your chance to tell me in detail how you would propose to bring the violence in Syria to an end if you were prime minister now.
EM: I’ll be very glad to tell you my position on all those matters, if you’ll give me a chance. On the crisis in the EU, for example, and especially in the Eurozone, we would give strong support to –
AM: We’ll come on to that in a moment. I want to ask you about the banks. You’ve been quoted as saying that you would point a gun at the head of the banks and threaten to nationalise them if they don’t obey your order to separate their international investment operations, or casino banking as I think you call it, from their ordinary high street banking operations. Presumably you don’t mind that this would drive all our banks to close down their UK banking operations and move to the United States where they would be more welcome to make a profit and provide badly needed services to the whole financial system?
EM: That’s a parody of what I have proposed for reform of the banks. I certainly think that a clear separation–
AM: That’s exactly what I said you were saying. How can you–
EM: Can I finish my point? A clear separation of investment–
AM: No, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for. Thank you very much for coming in, although I don’t think you have really shed much light in this interview on what to expect from an Ed Miliband administration in the unlikely event of anyone who looks like you winning an election. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party. Now –
EM: But I –
AM: [Turning away from EM to face another camera; EM now out of shot] Now we’re going to be played out by listening to a very attractive young lady whose recent hit single is currently at No. 788 in the charts and rising fast. What brought you into your amazingly successful singing career, my dear? ….
Two gems from the weekend:
- “[The World Bank's] most recent reforms of voting rights were remarkable only for their temerity.”
The glimmer of a possibility of change at the World Bank, Peter Chowla, Guardian, 14 April 2012.
Who has the temerity to suggest that it might have been timidity that characterised the reforms?
- “I doubt [sc. 'if'] you will ever find a politician more desperate to believe Nietzsche’s aphorism that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger than Mitt Romney.”
Mitt Romney’s erratic judgment is already undermining his candidacy, Michael Cohen, The Observer, 15 April 2012 (opening sentence!).
Amazing prescience on Nietzsche’s part.
And from a little longer ago on the Web:
- “I also recall an interesting essay, More than one English question, … which reveals the diverse political and cultural drivers underpinning the rising tide of English self-consciousness over the last 20 years or so.”
Please draw a picture of a driver underpinning a rising tide.
- “The initially small but revolutionary collection literally explodes.”
About Olaf Benz – Men’s Swimwear … www.olaf-benz.net/?menu_id=4
Blowing the unfortunate swimmer out of the water, I suppose.
And a late addition from an email circular from Cunard:
- “We wanted to remind you that as a loyal Cunarder our exciting new 2013 voyages are available for you to book from 8am on 24 April. “
While we are on the subject of the Scottish referendum, I should announce the result of the competition for the most obtuse, confused and misleading contribution to the analysis of the possible consequences of a Scottish referendum vote for full independence. The winning entry is from the Sunday Times of 15 January 2012 (yesterday), in a ‘Focus’ article on page 18 headed “Scot Free”. So, [tearing open the envelope], THE WINNERS ARE: Nicholas Hellen and Jason Allardyce!
Nicolas and Jason, your entry came out on top because of the almost unique way in which it confused England, the United Kingdom, and what would be left of the United Kingdom if Scotland were to secede from it. I am confident that in the coming months many more commentators south of the border will try to live up to the standard you have set.
Here is your winning entry:
At stake is much more than England’s alleged appropriation of North Sea oil revenues. If Scotland went its own way more than three centuries after the 1707 Act of Union, it could raise questions over England’s status in Europe, its claims at the United Nations to be one of the great powers and its relationship with other members of the United Kingdom.
Update, 17 January 2012: For a stark contrast with the sloppy journalism quoted above, you should read an excellent article in today’s Scotsman by Professor Gavin McCrone, a distinguished Scottish former public servant, academic and economist (full disclosure: also one of my oldest friends). After describing some of the complex issues that will have to be negotiated either for Scotland to become independent or for it to achieve devo max, McCrone concludes that –
Sorting out all of these issues and ensuring that they are fully understood by those who will vote is going to take time, so that whatever Mr Cameron says, I do not expect the referendum to take place any earlier than October 2014, the date chosen by Alex Salmond. What worries me most is that as the debate continues, it could become not only increasingly intense but acrimonious. I give politicians the credit on both sides of not wanting that to happen, but they might find it difficult to control. There are plenty of people both in England and in Scotland who might make it so.
All those of us who comment on Scotland’s future, from north or south of the border, in the conventional media or on the blogosphere, have a duty to heed Professor McCrone’s warning. Fortunately, it’s not a zero-sum game: if all concerned play fair, both Scotland and the rest of the UK can benefit equally from whatever constitutional changes emerge from the referendum process. Let’s all go easy on the acrimony, keep the temperature down, and treat each other like friends and neighbours, not as rivals or enemies.
Oh, no, not that wedding again? Calm down, dear, it’s only a footnote. According to the tabloids and the internet, Pippa Middleton, sister of the new Princess William formerly known as Kate, stole the show yesterday for many viewers, not only more than rivalling her sister’s good looks but prompting excited comments about a particular aspect of her figure. A Daily Mirror headline, for example, screams:
Pippa Middleton bridesmaid dress sparks Facebook fan page for her bottom
and sure enough, there’s the facebook page in question, already marked as ‘liked’ by more than 44,000 connoisseurs of the anatomical feature in question. But on a more elevated level, the catapulting to national celebrity status of the lovely Pippa must have sent at least some of us to our collected poetry of the now much neglected Robert Browning:
from Pippa Passes
The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!
– of which the last couplet at least has achieved immortality, if the rest of the long narrative poem hasn’t.
SRD GIRL. [To PIPPA who approaches.] Oh, you may come closer: we shall not eat you! Why, you seem the very person that the great rich handsome Englishman has fallen so violently in love with! I’ll tell you all about it.
Here Browning evidently foresees the impression that some observers claim to have got from the proceedings yesterday that Prince Harry, brother of the groom, sharing responsibility for the young bridesmaids and page boys with Pippa, the sister of the bride, appeared somewhat smitten by her, being overheard (or lip-read) to whisper to her a gallant tribute to her beauty, although whether Browning’s description of young Harry as “the great rich handsome Englishman” fits the bill is for others to judge. Anyway, I doubt if Harry’s long-time girlfriend Chelsy Davy has anything to worry about.
Cole Porter also obviously had a premonition, putting words into the mouth of the groom on the red-quilted palace balcony (only confusing the prince’s nickname with his Dad’s):
So, kiss me, Kate, thou lovely loon,
‘Ere we start on our honeymoon.
So kiss me, Kate, darling devil divine,
For now thou shall ever be mine.
But let Shakespeare have the last word, even if he also gets a little confused over who would be speaking — William, obviously, not Harry, still on the balcony:
Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths, which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging. If thou canst love a fellow of this temper, Kate, whose face is not worth sun-burning, that never looks in his glass for love of any thing he sees there, let thine eye be thy cook. I speak to thee plain soldier: If thou canst love me for this, take me: if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too…
Now, welcome, Kate: and bear me witness all,
That here I kiss her as my sovereign queen.
Well, his queen-to-be, anyway.
Congratulations to Alex Smith and Mark Ferguson of the Labour List blog on coming first in the list of 100 best Labour blogs — the latest results of a poll conducted by the (right-of-centre) Total Politics website of the well-known Conservative blogger and television commentator, Iain Dale. The full list is here: those with sufficient stamina and spare time may even spot the present Ephems blog blinking shyly at No. 77. In the words of Total Politics,
This list is the result of more than 2,200 people who voted in the Total Politics Annual Blog Poll during the second half of July. Click on [any blog in the list] to visit it.
At the rate of one blog a day, starting at No. 1, you’d get to Ephems in 11 weeks’ time, and by then we’ll all know who has won the election for the new leader of the Labour Party.
As a fairly frequent contributor to Labour List, I’m delighted to see it promoted from No. 3 last year to the top slot in 2010. There’s only one problem with Labour List: there’s so much first-rate material on it that it’s impossible to read it all, and if you’re not careful you end up not reading any of it, like the donkey which, being equidistant from two identical bales of straw, starved to death. Not yet a problem with Ephems!
According to a report in the Guardian of 16 April, ‘Gordon Brown apologised for any disruption caused by the eruption [of the Icelandic volcano] but said, “safety is the first and predominant consideration.”‘ A spokesman for David Cameron immediately welcomed this admission by the prime minister of his responsibility for the eruption of the volcano but said his apology was completely inadequate: “Since Gordon Brown has acknowledged that he is to blame for causing the greatest disaster in European aviation history, he should resign forthwith instead of keeping us all waiting until the 6th of May. He should let Dave take over immediately — only Dave has the skills and imagination required to suppress the eruption of the volcano and to change the direction of the winds to blow away Labour’s ash clouds over Britain.” A Conservative government would act within a week of taking office to get our planes flying again.
Sources close to Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, were saying last night that the closure of all British airports and the uncertainty over when they would reopen demonstrated the failure over the last 65 years of both the tired old parties that had been taking it in turns to govern the country. “Neither Conservative nor Labour governments bothered to do anything to prevent this disaster and it will now be up to a new, fresh, Liberal Democratic government headed by Nick to sort out the mess.” Nick The sources added that Nick Clegg had been the clear winner in the leaders’ debate and looked forward to his invitation from the Queen to form a LibDem majority government. St Vincent Cabling, the LibDem shadow Chancellor, told Jeremy Paxman last night on Newsnight that he had predicted the volcanic eruption as long ago as 1942 and had warned then that the prevailing winds would blow the ash over our airports, forcing them to close, unless we moved the airports to northern Spain while there was still time. Unfortunately his warning had been ignored by the government of the day, as usually happened with his premonitions of assorted impending disasters.
In the same Newsnight programme last night, the Conservative shadow aviation minister, Henry ‘Jumbo’ Bumbleberry pointed out that when Labour came to power in 1997, they had inherited from the Tories a situation in which every single UK airport was open and functioning normally. Now, after 13 years of Labour government, not a single plane was flying in or out of a British airport. For 10 of those years Mr Brown had been responsible for the economy as Chancellor, yet in all that time he had done nothing to prepare the country for the crisis that had hit us last Wednesday. He could not escape responsibility for the sufferings of British familes stranded in dangerous foreign countries such as the US or Australia, or whose binge holidays on the Costa Bravo had been ruined. Who was to blame for “Labour’s ash-cloud” if not the Labour leader? In reply, the prime minister pointed out that for years he had been trying to persuade the G20 to take collective action against Icelandic volcanoes but unfortunately the greedy investment bankers had refused to provide the credit to European governments that would have been needed for firm resolute action to be taken. Mr Brown had himself been firm and resolute and had indeed been recognised as the world’s leader in the struggle against volcanic eruptions, but the rest of the world had lacked both the courage and the credits needed to follow him. However, he had accepted his responsibility for what had happened and had apologised to the nation.
This morning a Liberal Democratic Party spokesperson issued a statement claiming that Nick Clegg had been the winner of the leaders’ television debate. She added that “my Nick’s ready to be prime minister whenever that Gordon realises that with the airports all closed the game’s up and he will have to resign. Gordon was right to apologise, though.”
A spokesman for UKIP blamed the EU for ordering Britain to close its airports so that other European countries could steal business from British airlines. “Britain should get out of this cowardly European Union and order our aeroplanes to start flying again immediately. Our brave British pilots aren’t afraid of a bit of harmless dust even if the faint-hearts across the Channel are.” The BNP said immigration was out of control and that this was to blame for the airport crisis. It was Nature’s wonderful way of preventing yet more immigrants flying in to take away jobs from Englishmen.
In a new up-date at 2am this morning, the Civil Aviation Authority announced that in view of the Met Office’s latest forecasts, all flights in and out of UK airports would remain suspended until 4am on 31 January 2011 at the earliest. A further statement would be issued in the middle of the night on 25 December 2010.
In the latest MeGov opinion poll in the Son newspaper, the LibDems were on 95%, the Tories on 4% and Labour on 1. Experts predicted that if this was still the position on polling day, Labour would be the biggest party in a hung parliament.
[Note: The first sentence above is true.]
On 4 March 2010 I described in a blog post how a misleading radio programme, broadcast that day in the BBC World Service, and the BBC’s even more misleading advance publicity for it, had predictably been almost universally misunderstood by the world’s media as evidence that a huge proportion — 95 per cent was even mentioned — of the relief aid given for famine victims in Ethiopia in the 1980s had been diverted for buying arms and ammunition for a Tigrayan rebel army then fighting the Ethiopian government in the north of the country. (In fact the allegations reported in the radio programme referred only to the aid channelled into a small area of Tigray then controlled by the rebels, and not to the huge international relief operation in the rest of Ethiopia.) In my blog post I expressed incomprehension of the BBC’s failure to issue an immediate and authoritative clarification as soon as it became clear that the programme and the BBC’s publicty for it was being generally portrayed as discrediting and denigrating the entire international relief effort in Ethiopia which in reality had saved many millions of lives, and which was anyway not the target of the allegations reported in the BBC programme.
Since then the controversy has continued to rage, with Bob Geldof angrily rebutting any suggestion that money raised by Band Aid and Live Aid for Ethiopia had been diverted in the way being reported all over the media (as a result of the impression given by the BBC, although no such allegation against Band Aid had been made in the original programme). A couple of half-hearted clarifications were issued by the BBC, at least one of them almost as misleading as the original programme and its publicity. But these were barely noticed in the media storm.
I have now tried to bring the story up to date in a new web page, here. I have included a number of quotations to illustrate the way the wrong impression conveyed by the BBC’s original material, never effectively clarified or corrected, spiralled out of control, the world’s media repeating their own misconceptions with further misinterpretations added at every stage, until it’s being confidently asserted in print, on radio and television, and in the blogosphere, that hardly any of the money given in response to Bob Geldof’s historic campaigns, and by numerous governments and other relief organisations for famine relief, ever reached the starving people whom it was meant for.
It’s probably too late now to set the record straight, or to rescue the good name of one of the most successful and effective international disaster relief operations ever mounted. The misconceptions are now in the clippings files of a thousand news desks around the world, and will be trotted out again whenever Ethiopian famine is mentioned. But it seems worth while to make a record of what really happened, how limited in scope and questionable in substance the allegations reported by the BBC really are, and how a seriously misleading story, backed by the good name of the BBC, became what is by now little better than fiction. So I hope that Googlers of the future will notice and have a look at
– or just click this: http://bit.ly/bR2Xq8.
Ephems will shortly be intermittently AFK* for a variety of reasons so please don’t expect any blog posts or responses to comments for a while.
Meanwhile we sit and shiver in sub-zero London and wonder whether our daughter in snow-bound New York is going to make it onto her flight to Heathrow. Global warming? Pah, humbug. Lord Lawson must know something that we don’t.
Many thanks to all those of you who have contributed to lively debates on this blog during the year, and especially those who have challenged my more opinionated and partisan posts. No-one has so far convinced me that our peculiarly British form of preventive detention (Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection or IPPs) can be justified under any civilised system of justice; or that Tony Blair didn’t mean it when he appeared to say that if he had known that there were no WMD he would have had to think of a different, equally bogus, reason for attacking Iraq; or that we’re doing more good than harm in Afghanistan or that if we withdrew all British forces tomorrow, the Pakistan régime would collapse, handing over its hydrogen bombs to al-Qaeda (I don’t see the Americans pulling out just because the British did); or that if we all try hard enough we can prevent the planet warming up to more than 2 deg.C; or that Tony Blair is a middle east peace envoy when he very obviously isn’t; or that Labour promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (or, even if it did, that any government of sound mind would have dared to hold one); or that when government spending is keeping the economy alive (just) pending the long awaited renaissance of demand and supply in the private sector, cutting government spending is a jolly wizard idea — don’t they teach them economics at Eton?; or that Britain will sink beneath the waves if we don’t pay off our national debt within three weeks of the next election; or that al-Megrahi should have been left to rot in his Scottish prison until he died — or that there’s no room for doubt about his share of guilt for the Lockerbie bombing; or that Tony Blair — why do I keep coming back to the old rogue? — would have made an absolutely spiffing President of Europe, even if such a job existed, which it doesn’t; or that if we keep on fighting the War on Drugs, we’ll eventually win it, any more than we did in Iraq or will in Afghanistan; or that everyone in the country watches a programme called, weirdly, “Strictly”, or that anyone I know watches ‘the X Factor’. But on all these great matters, Ephems’s meat and drink in the past year, I readily acknowledge that I could be wrong, and on some of them I hope I am.
So I wish a happy Christmas to those visitors to this site who are of a religious disposition and members of the appropriate sect, and jolly holidays to the rest: and to everyone, my best wishes for a much better year in almost every respect than 2009 has been. It’s a relief to say goodbye to this low dishonest decade (no, I know 2010, not 2009, will officially be the end of the decade, but at least 2009 marks the end of the Noughties. Good riddance to it!).
*AFK: Away from Keyboard (but you knew that really).