I think much of the bleakness perceived in the 1960s or 70s has to do with an increasingly confident mass media reporting on and communicating the evil of acts of child murder. I remember when I was 10, the prevalence of the story of the murder of James Bulger in Liverpool. You couldn’t be shielded, maybe shouldn’t be from the facts of evil being done. This story by Elizabeth Taylor, born two decades before her more famous namesake, seems a precursor to the 1970s wave of public information films in Britain which used shocking narratives to jolt and petrify children into learning important lessons to make them safe. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973) and Apaches (1977) will remain ingrained in the minds of most British people who are now in their fifties.
As explained by Joanne Kingham in her introduction to Taylor’s Complete Short Stories, she submitted the story to the New Yorker, but William Maxwell didn’t like it and told her to consider altering the ending. Listen, now, to my reading of a horrifying tale that the New Yorker refused to publish.
Now, in May 2020, we heard a lot about the Second World War. Understandably, as this was the seventy-fifth anniversary of D Day and a crucial step in the defeat of the Nazi German regime. You do get a lot of simplified myth making though, which ignores the complex, fraught and not at all homogeneous experiences of people during that conflict. Which brings us to my latest selection…
Wordly, urbane, cynical, lapsed Catholic, full Catholic, left wing. Yep, it’s time for the Greenester! Graham Greenbrother Hugh Carleton Greene was a great reforming Director General of the BBC, allowing it to broadcast TW3, Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home. Mary Whitehouse hated him. Yep, we all know that! Lesser known is his role in propaganda broadcasting in the Second World War and Cold Warrior journalism during the Korean War.
He was a hard-nosed liberal realist. Graham’s fiction isn’t too far removed from Hugh’s general outlook, but is crucially independent from his brother’s largely loyal Atlanticism. In his old age, Graham was opposing the US intervention in Nicaragua, a good example of Pinter’s law whereby you get more anti-establishment when you get older. In his younger days, Graham Greene did get a bee in his bonnet about the saccharine commercialism of Shirley Temple films and was embroiled in a libel suit for his negative view of the film Wee Willie Winkie in 1938. He claimed that the film’s sexualisation of its child star undermined its religious, pro-family values stance. He lost and 20th Century Fox and Temple were awarded £3500 in damages. Worth about 220 grand today! Eleven years later, he wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, which profoundly and chillingly exposes Harry Lime ‘s charming amorality and indifference to people’s lives amid wider society.
Now, I am going to read ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’… This was published in the American magazine Collier’s on 29 June 1940; it is Greene, by this time an MI6 intelligence officer, fashioning a morally complicated myth. This is stark, powerful storytelling published at the end of a dark month in British and world history. It says much about social class divisions, then and now, and makes it clear that “heroism” is not at all clear cut…
This episode was broadcasthere on YouTube on Tuesday 30 June 2020.
This story was written in 1941 by a great and not well known enough German artist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was born in 1887 in Hanover, West Saxony, in North Germany. I first learned of him via an exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, London, in April 2013. I borrowed a friend’s membership card so got in free! Schwitters’s art is a wonderfully everyday surreal art, collaging advertising slogans and material objects from the consumer capitalist society he far preferred to totalitarianism. Lots of sources call him non-political, like Piet Mondrian, but really this his work does embody a worldly liberalism historically embodied from the 12th to 19th centuries by the Hanseatic League. Hanover was a part of the Hansa, a trade confederation of merchant guilds in cities and market towns clustered around the Baltic.
Schwitters’s art work had been publicly ridiculed in the now Nazi Germany of 1935. His close friends the Spengemanns had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1936 and Schwitters fled Germany in January 1937, joining his son Ernst in Norway. Schwitters died in Kendal in 1948, after his experiences in 1940-41 as an ‘enemy alien’ internee in the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. His most famous work the Merz Barn was airlifted in the 1960s from the stone cottage in the Lake District it was made in to Newcastle upon Tyne where it now resides. I’ve seen it – it’s in the Hatton Gallery. It’s a towering, odd assemblage that has been well restored in recent years. Visit it yourself if you happen to be in Newcastle under non-lockdown conditions…
This is a powerful, very simple, folk tale-like short story from Schwitters which I’m sure you’ll enjoy:
On their island, the fisherman and his wife – ‘a god-fearing couple’ – live well enough, depending on nature: ‘excellent fish and lobster’. The nearby townspeople – the fish merchants – are also ‘as innocent as a well-trained house cat, at least to outward appearances’.
The fisherman’s unnamed wife comes up with a scheme to make money – understandable as ‘everything is so expensive’. This involves employing an idiot to assist them with catching and selling the fish; who will also benefit them in that ‘The government will give us money to feed him’.
The idiot, however, shows more cunning than his nomenclature would suggest, selling the same lobster on from one merchant to another; he put the lobster into each pot, but then removed it, finally selling it at a lower price to the communal kitchen. The second merchant wanted the lobster to sell to the ‘big hotel’ that ‘needed’ it for the tourists.
In the saloon bar, the idiot ‘drank so much that he thought it was the best day of his life’. He enjoys the company of Rosa here, but she takes the remainder of his money when he was drunk. The idiot gets thrown out. Then come ‘regret’ and thoughts of the ‘future of his soul’ as a lady from the Salvation Army appears. He does regret, and thus gets coffee and cake and engages in religious singing. He takes the Panglossian view, as satirised by Voltaire in Candide (1759) that everything is as it should be on earth and that things will get better.
When the idiot then returns to the story’s original island, ‘feeling quite depressed’ and expecting to be ‘severely punished’ for his enterprising he also gets coffee and cake from the fisherman, for he was a very good man, or at least he appeared to be.’ (my emphasis) The fisherman heartily and gladly welcomes the idiot for his enterprising plan, as it accorded with his own dislike of the fish merchants.
Clearly, the fact that the idiot finally sells the lobster to a communal kitchen at a low price suggests a more socialist reading of the story. However, the idiot’s is clearly an individual agency; his act of generosity is the result of having money in the first place to paraphrase our not-so-glorious Prime Minister of 1979-1990. Schwitters shows generous largesse as bound up with personal gain.
The idiot does not invest his money, but he has a good time in the saloon: implying the carpe diem attitude within European working-class culture. However, he does ultimately benefit as he has inadvertently picked a side in the turf wars between the apparently ‘good’ lone fisherman and the fish merchants who are also associated with the ‘big hotel’. Surviving within the economic system requires aligning in power formations to rival what already exists – these have historically included guilds, trade alliances like the Hanseatic League, or, indeed, trade unions. It is implied that the idiot’s clever trickery might lead to a profitable arrangement with the fisherman and his wife in future, or, even… a beautiful friendship?
Anna Kavan is a writer I came across when searching for some weird short fiction. Born Helen Woods to wealthy British parents in Cannes, France in 1901 her work forms a temporal bridge between the Blitz in the Second World War and the psychedelic 1960s. Her work is often compared to the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and was praised by J. G. Ballard – who will later feature in this May’s Miniatures parish, or rather, lecture hall… Or is it boozer…?
‘The Old Address’ (1970) is a portrait of individual paranoia and addiction. The incarceration the narrator experiences is more than just that of the medical institution they are about to leave… This story, ‘A Bright Green Field’, from twelve years earlier, conveys one character’s inner world and perceptions of nature upon a train trip to an unnamed archetypal small town…
Broadcast on YouTube, Tuesday 16 June 2020:
NOT perfectly level, no. Not much is.
Size and colour are relative… And, as this story conveys, they are subject to an utterly subjective human perspective.
Kavan jabs subtly, ideologically: in how the passerby elides the workers toiling on the green with pulleys and the like. Conditions have apparently improved for these who are “not criminals but labourers”! The narrator questions their “health and efficiency” and this elicits an admission from the passerby that they are in danger. He uses the word “expendable” and also discursively places that as at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He makes light of their arduous labour and suffering by claiming they are just engaged in “mimicry” of an earlier generation of workers, and in fact have it far better now with “the introduction of the present system”.
Beyond simply this warped sense of historicism, it is notable that the passerby, in ‘brisk’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ tone, gives such a lengthy justification of the labour practices – workers who die there are “buried in situ”! His attempt at reassurance implies both local ‘pride’ but also a defensiveness which tells us that he is putting a gloss on what is ethically indefensible. Perhaps this polite man’s spiel emanates from propaganda that has been spread by the authorities in this settlement.
We never really get any sense of WHY the narrator is there, and that adds mystery and ambiguity. As far as I am aware there are no markings at all of their gender or appearance, which is perhaps more modern in some sense than in identity-centric 2020.
“The invisible armies of night” will battle the field’s colour. It seems to be a portrait of the narrator’s hyper-sensitivity to nature with its “ardent green” of the field. “Its horrid life”. There are adverbs like “fiercely” and countless aggressive verbs like “packed”, “resist”, “vibrating”, “pulsating”, “threatened”, “saw”, “check”, “burst”, “rear up”, “sweeping”, “spreading”, “destroying”, “covering”, “fought”, “cut down”, “was”, “threaten”, “crushed”, “grow”, “seen”, “fed”. Self-doubt is shown in the narrator’s modal auxiliary verb “might” towards the end.
The narrator’s own obscured torment seems to be reflected in their paranoid, obsessive and melancholy view of this landscape they habitually return to. There is a Borges or Ballard-like mock-grand perspective in the reference to “ancient archives kept hidden from us”. Some obscure “variation” that differed from the norm. As with J.G. Ballard’s great climate change dystopian novel The Drowned World (1962), there is a sense of the primal and what might easily underlie the bare sheen of ‘civilisation’. “Variation” suggests the language of Darwinian evolution.
Kavan’s story is an ambiguous, compelling enigma, utterly controlled in its language to convey the lack of individual control and the irrational ways in which we invariably see the world. The crucial middle section suggests the poisons of class hierarchy are intertwined with the absurd, quixotic attempts to control and tame nature.
Now I’ve been nowhere near Barnard Castle, County Durham. Ouseburn Park, about 10 minutes legwork away, is the furthest I’ve been since the 11th of March!
Now, welcome especially to this the very first episode of the first, surely only, series of… MAY’S MINIATURES! Basically, this is a daily weekly reading of a short story that I like, prefaced by a wry introduction a bit like that Anglo-Norwegian gadgie who presented ITV’s late 1970s and 1980s anthology series Tales of the Unexpected from some sort of ornate, drawing room type set… I have no fancy sets, and possibly a bit more chin-stroking earnestness in my arsenal.
Each of these episodes – to be broadcast for the next ten Tuesdays on YouTube – will be accompanied by a blog-post with the text of my introductions, the embedded episode and which gives my further thoughts about the story in question.
Now I don’t do Kindle too often, folks… You’d just have to look at my many double-stacked bookshelves to see why… But I do have a Kindle edition of old Anton Chekhov’s complete works, and in this no-doubt un-scholarly edition this one I have selected is chronologically his very first short story. I must admit I have read very little Chekhov. Studying Literature via the National Curriculum at school and College in Sunderland and the English Tripos at Cambridge uni doesn’t force you to read any literature by the greats of European, American, Asian or African literature… I admit to my reading insurality.
Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a port city in South West Russia, today close to the border with Ukraine. Along with the Scandinavians Ibsen and Strindberg, he is credited as a major innovator in Modernist theatre. Difficult to imagine Beckett, Joyce and others writing in quite the same way without these various forerunners… This early Chekhovian story critiques traditional social mores, with a deft, light touch.
CRITIQUE (best to read this once you’ve watched the episode!):
Chekhov depicts Russian society very much in the grip of traditionally moralistic social values. This is all in the context of late spring and summertime. Chekhov’s opening, presumably set in late May, paints the setting as idyllic, “a lovely spot” with fish and daddy-long-legs traversing the water. There is a paradox in that the lovers Anna and Lapkin’s greatest bliss occurs in their vengeful unity against Anna’s malicious brother Kolya. Yet, right from the off, they are “armed” with fishing rods… Which implies the wider context of aggressive power games.
This story reflects something of the growth in secrecy and spying in European culture. In UK terms, what was a relatively disorganised, piecemeal system became the significantly enlarged ‘Secret State’ of Whitehall that Bernard Porter and Ian Cobain have detailed. I know less about Tsarist Russia, but am assuming that the secret state was more widely organised than in the Chekhov makes the point that children can act as self-interested agents; Kolya might be seen as “enterprising” by some.
Lapkin’s idolising of Anna is courtly work; his frilly, if seemingly heartfelt discourses to his lover are the corollary of what he describes as his “honourable, industrious life”. Once he is able to propose to Anna in late August, the power Kolya has over them dissipates and they, finally, gain the upper hand. An honourable, industrious life clearly depends on social conventions and finding the right words at the right time.
This is no fable with a clear moralistic message to be discerned; instead, it suggests the subjective and objective truth that some people are motivated by pecuniary gain and that power and secret “knowledge” can, in certain circumstances, be more of an aphrodisiac than idyllic summer and courtly words.
For anyone aspiring to “pull” in the lockdown, well, I’m sorry to say it, but lips won’t easily meet accidentally. I feel ever luckier to have been able to enjoy our wonderful marriage day with Rachel and our friends and family back at Tullie House in Carlisle on 6 July 2019.
I have just had a piece published here that makes the case for the BBC as a honest broker and guardian of pluralism, able to cut across binary divides of left/right, Leave/Remain, Labour/Tory and provide a public sphere for all. A subscription model – which is currently unfeasible, as it even its supporters admit – would destroy opportunities for intra-cultural communication and understanding in the UK.
Within the constraints of that piece, there was no space to include crucial additional arguments about the regions and nations of the UK and the reforms that the BBC is crying out for in terms of how it is governed. So, here they are, among other no doubt Utopian ramblings!
BBC PURPOSES #1: a political honest broker?
Firstly, what is the licence fee? Author of a Dictionary of Journalism, Tony Harcup (2014) defines it as the means ‘to fund the BBC as an independent entity’ and as a ‘mechanism to provide public funding for the main public service broadcaster without drawing on direct taxation or coming under the direct control of the government of the day.’
Much of the political left feels, erroneously, that it the BBC is directly controlled by the government of the day. However, its present animus is at least partly well-grounded: the BBC did little to challenge lies spread by the right-wing press, uncritically relaying untruths in how it reported the events of 9 December 2019 when Matt Hancock was reported as being “punched” by punched by a Labour protester who did not such thing. Tweets were deleted, but the memory remains, to paraphrase Metallica featuring Patti Smith… The BBC remains shackled by its own dependence on the government to renew the licence fee every ten years.
While it seems true that BBC may have not fully understood Brexit (1) and has displayed unconscious ‘Remain’ bias, claims that the BBC is biased towards the “liberal-left” do not bear close examination. For every Adam Curtis or Jonathan Meades documentary, there have been several David Starkey documentaries or cantankerous guest-spots and more than several hundred hours of John Humphrys… (2) The MoralMaze and Question Time panel composition repeatedly overemphasises right-wing commentators.
It takes chutzpah for the Cummingsite Tories to vandalise a BBC which has granted Brexit spokespeople significantly more airtime than the Green Party; a recent count gives Farage a total of nine more Question Time appearances than Greens’ Caroline Lucas MP, who has been repeatedly elected to the House of Commons since 2010. The BBC has done immeasurably more to popularise science than Cummings’s rambling blog missives. His boss Johnson should be grateful to the Corporation for how it popularised his performed “loveable buffoon” persona via no fewer than seven Have I Got News for You (BBC1) appearances.
As the likes of Steven Barnett and Andrew Curry (1994) and Tom Mills (2016) have documented, the Director-Generals Michael Checkland and John Birt remodelled the previous pluralistic, ‘One Nation’ paternalism of the BBC into a more market-driven, business-fixated neoliberal institution. It had a populist obsession with programmes’ headline ratings in place of their impacts. However, it remains a public institution which contains within it the potential to be fairer to those of all political views in Britain, whether nationalist, internationalist, left-wing, right-wing or liberal. Or even green, heaven forbid we fail to listen to a global scientific consensus.
Should we see any merits in a putative subscription model? Well, to reconcile differing levels of public commitment to the BBC, we might consider a system of levy payments for ‘public media’ after the recent German model. To try to accommodate the pro-subscription perspectives, maybe an element of gradation in payment could be considered, in addition to some reductions and inceases depending on council tax banding. For instance, BBC “partisans” could pay £35 a month, to get all BBC output and access to more archival material, encompassing iPlayer, BritBox, BBC Sounds and the incredible Box of Broadcasts, only available currently to University card holders. Then, BBC “objectors” could opt to pay £3.50 a month to get the basic channels: BBC1 and BBC2. BBC “fence-sitters” could keep paying the current £12 monthly rate to maintain access to iPlayer, all radio and TV channels and the unwieldy BBC Sounds.
I will leave whether this would work out financially to the BBC’s (understandably many) accountants – but it seems to me that it might be the only model that could feasibly accommodate an element of ‘choice’ but which might financially enable the BBC to maintain its current level of services and role as the national broadcaster. Even this reform would be made impractical by the fact that most homes have Freeview, and this model would require the sort of consistent broadband access across the UK which does not exist and is unlikely to for a long time. Ironic, considering how Labour was planning free universal broadband!
Better, surely, to maintain a straightforward, universally accessible utility. While certain rabid BBC critics may often shout the loudest, they just expose themselves as aggressive, cultural wreckers. The more intelligent of them may call themselves “sovereign consumers” but in their cussed individuality they seem not to grasp the concept and reality of the ‘public’, and thus do not appreciate a national broadcaster which can cater to myriad audiences. The whole of the public should be the BBC’s masters, not Tony Hall or successor, and certainly not Boris Johnson.
BBC PURPOSES #2: Education and Programming
Furthermore, the BBC also has a vastly important role in the field of education. I propose wider public access to existing services like Learning on Screen. The BBC should have a greater role in the classroom from secondary level upwards; why not, when it has produced not just BBC Bitesize but programming as responsible and challenging as The Ascent of Man (BBC2, 1973), Muslims Like Us (BBC2, 2016), its Open University output since the early 1970s and BBC Bristol’s Natural History Unit’s programmes with David Attenborough?
The last decade has seen big-hitting dramas like Line of Duty (2012- ) and Call the Midwife (2012- ), comedies of the calibre of Peter Kay’s Car Share (2015-18), Detectorists (2014-17) and Mum (2016-19); as well as the masterly, currently under-publicised anthology series Inside No. 9 (2014- ). Outstanding documentaries have included Liza Williams’s probing, corrective-to-history The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story (2019), and one that Dominic Cummings might learn from: Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal (2019).
But, it is critical to get away from my own preferences – to see things not just from in terms of “me”, but the wider “we“. Clearly, others deeply value programmes that aren’t my cup of tea like Mrs Brown’s Boys, The One Show or Countryfile. I don’t begrudge them their pleasures. I will however assert that it is time that EastEnders be replaced with a soap opera that tackles social issues like Julia Smith’s creation used to, but also inject some much-needed humour? What about basing it in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a place more culturally aligned with Glasgow than London? The great Tyneside writer Tom Hadaway had a similar idea of a soap set around Newcastle’s Central Station in the 1990s, but his idea was regrettably not realized, as James Leggott (2016) has detailed.
Yes, it is vital to protect the BBC in Joan Bakewell and Nicholas Garnham (1970)’s characterisation of it as a pluralist church. So far, so Peter Hitchens. It is just as important that it be licensed to be in a composite of a Weimar cabaret venue and a national theatre: in which any ideas can be vigorously and sometimes irreverently contested. Still further, not quite so Peter Hitchens!
We need to learn from Jonathan Coe and Chris Morris’s wisecomments on the licensed fool nature of satire these days: it currently serves the right in politics for politicians as a whole to be denigrated. Satire that does not take into account fundamental truths about power is toothless and banal. Of course, all Chris Morrises and Peter Cooks need their Ken Dodds or Les Dawsons and, unfortunately, neither the BBC nor ITV has not done enough to sustain these national traditions of dissident satire and music hall.
All of us benefit when in drama and comedy all different ideologies are rigorously scrutinised and dramatised – an example from my PhD study would be Robin Chapman’s Play for Today – ‘Come the Revolution’ (broadcast 1 week before ‘Abigail’s Party’ in late October 1977). Play for Today has been lazily stereotyped by Dominic Sandbrook as constituting ‘left-wing propaganda’. Yet, Chapman’s play is a complex dissection of a small, left-wing company akin to Portable Theatre being infiltrated and taken over by a doctrinaire Workers’ Revolution Party-like hard left sect. To me, the play signifies that left-wing people should develop the legacy of Theatre Workshop and be cautionary about an agitprop theatre that is a means of power accumulation for sects. It is brilliantly written and has magnificent performances from Vivian Pickles and Kenneth Colley as a pair of smooth, culturally influential sectarians. I sense it is not the only PFT that, in the wake of the IMF and Winter of Discontent “crises”, anatomised the left…
BBC PURPOSES #3: SERVING A DIVERSITY OF NEEDS?
Some on the political right want to destroy broadcasting for all minority interests other than their own. What would they have to say if the political left aimed to end The Last Night of the Proms, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise, Royal family coverage and Test Match Special? I am only enamoured of the last of these, but can see that other people deeply value the others and they share the same country (, so I respect their traditional pleasures. More intelligent and emotionally sensitive Conservatives realise they should permit programmes and stations that younger or more left-wing people value. Football fans, regardless of their team allegiance, can surely agree that 5Live provides immeasurably richer coverage than Talk Sport?
Rather than the government – ironically led by an unelected bureaucrat – taking an axe to a century of accumulated wisdom, triumphs and failures, what about taking away the government’s power to renew or abolish the Royal Charter every ten years? What about placing the BBC on a permanent footing so that it is truly – and not quasi – autonomous from political interference? In addition, we should enact the Media Reform Coalition’s recent proposals that the BBC Board of Governors be comprised of 50% from those elected by staff and 50% from those elected by licence fee payers. It is surely better to democratise the BBC BOG rather than having most of them appointed directly by politicians in government or their appointees. It is about time that the Corporation’s Governors became a corpus reflective of the country at large, and not in the debt of government. It is encouraging that Rebecca Long-Bailey has endorsed these proposals: I await with interest what the other Labour leadership candidates have to say…
When the UK frays, the BBC gets caught in the crossfire; as with the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 when it came under heavy fire from the ‘Yes’ campaign for its perceived pro-Unionist coverage; a coverage inevitable given the ‘British’ third of the BBC’s name. The BBC is incredibly vulnerable now to claims that it just represents the two main national ‘capitals’: London and environs and the Unionist but ‘Remain’ voting stronghold of Edinburgh. It needs to show it cares just as much about the people of Belfast and Basingstoke, Glasgow and Liverpool.
OUR BBC’S FUTURE: SOME MODEST PROPOSALS
As Tom Hazeldine rightly argued in the New Left Review in 2017, much of the northern and midlands Brexit vote was down to resentment that investment and economic resources have been concentrated around London and the South East. Most northern and midlands towns and cities have proportionately lost out due to the Cameron-May governments’ economic policies of austerity. There is also much-documented English resentment at Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales having a degree of devolved autonomy and at the Barnett Formula. Now, the drive is rightly on for the BBC to broadcast more from and in the voices of the regions. We need to consign the sort of attacks that Steph McGovern received from those inside and outside the BBC who objected to her fine Teesside accent firmly in the past.
2027 is when the real battle over the Licence Fee will be won and lost; surely, democratic political parties must advocate a reformed, democratised BBC to consign Dominic Cummings’s elitist idea of a neutered, subscription-only BBC to the dustbin of history.
(1) Who has, though?! It could be argued that the government has a questionable grasp of the economic aspects of a No Deal Brexit, just as FBPE-rs have a doubtful grasp of the plurality of Brexiters’ positions: there are indeed thousands of personal private Brexits living in people’s minds across the country… The Yaxley-Lennon minority will be entirely unsavoury, but most will just be a quiet patriotism that does not necessarily want to Other minority groups. I want to hear from British Asian Leavers in Luton, Bradford or Slough, just like I’d want to hear from Remainers in the Brexit central of Lincolnshire… The media has had a role in creating prevalent visions of what ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ are like, based on partial readings of electoral geography; this is regrettable and yet another reason for improved public service broadcasting.
(2) In The Conversation blog piece, I link to John Humphrys without highlighting how he is now being paid to purvey his right-wing, traditionalist views within the pages of the Daily Mail.
(3) Some might say, like Guy Shrubsole, that they don’t share enough…
So, what has happened in the inexorable soap opera since last time? A newly “confident”, “proactive” government led by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, has been installed, on the strength of 92,153 largely elderly and right-wing voters (that’s less of a mandate than IDS or even Ken Clarke achieved in 2001!). Supposed “evil mastermind” – who really just came up with an obvious populist slogan and used data harvesters like Cambridge Analytica – Dominic Cummings, a non-Tory Party member, is apparently holed up in a bunker, able to sack Chancellor Sajid Javid’s advisers with immunity and not consulting Saj. All was going swimmingly according to the majority of the British Press; a claim that later unravelled, as it became clear Johnson had planned to prorogue Parliament since 16 August, and that his “negotiations” with the EU were a “sham”. In addition, he’d won support from more moderate Tories by writing a letter to them that specifically ruled out prorogation.
You see, exactly a week ago, on 28 August, Johnson claimed he was going to “prorogue” Parliament, a legal but irregular and badly spirited move to exert executive power to stop MPs debating, shaping or having any sort of say over a potential “No Deal” exit on 31 October. This move induced outrage from liberals, the left and the shrinking band of Burkean One Nation Tories.
On Monday, a dog was moved into 10 Downing Street. As in the days of the General Strike in 1926, the BBC closes ranks for the establishment. If anything, here, less subtly than Reith managed! This “journalism” is the sort of puff pastry indispensable to those in power and long has been, as satirised by the great Terence Rattigan in his TV play for the cross-European The Largest Theatre in the World strand, ‘Heart to Heart’ (BBC, 1962). The play contains a cat which is utilised by the ironically named, newly appointed government minister Sir Stanley Johnson (Ralph Richardson) for the purposes of deflection, when he is in trouble over corruption allegations in a live TV interview. Johnson, like another of that name, is a self-portrayed “family man” whose heartrending pet story does fool a lot of the people, on this particular occasion.
And so, to Tuesday, and, remarkable scenes: Brexit literally tearing the Tories apart. A chancer of a Prime Minister, found out, completely out of his depth: refusing to do the sensible EEA compromise and actively articulating a desire to send this country off a cliff-edge by running down the clock. He is beneath contempt, as is his oily, smug lieutenant Jacob Rees-Mogg, who apparently knows better about risks to medicine in the event of a “No Deal” Brexit than consultant neurologist David Nicholl.
The 1960s-born posh politicians really are a “class apart”. Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Johnson, and Rees-Mogg were all privately educated and went to Oxbridge, similar to their key, right-wing journalist backers like Allison Pearson, Toby Young and James Delingpole (while Pearson and Young went to Comprehensives, they have done nothing for the cause of equality in education since). Such privilege does not on its own explain these people and their destructive and arrogant acts and words, but is clearly one factor.
This 2011 exam paper shows what Etonians are being trained in: anti-democratic rhetoric to “win” control over a putative 2040 dystopia. Seems the Cameron-Johnson era is planned as at least a forty years project:
Our favourite haunted Victorian pencil also claimed the “Illuminati” were behind Tory rebels. Let that sink in: a UK government minister using conspiracist, coded anti-Semitic language of the Alt-Right in the House of Commons in response to Jewish MP Oliver Letwin’s points. They really are nasty pieces of work, many of these Brexiter Tories. Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of the very worst. Exceeding the irksome sight of IDS picking his nose, Rees-Mogg pompously wittered on for what seemed like millennia and had to be asked five times before admitting he didn’t know that Johnson had planned prorogation since 16 August. He also fell back on vapid Panglossian optimism about what WTO terms would mean, persistently evading the questions of several MPs including the Father of the House, Ken Clarke.
In contrast, Letwin made the sensible point that it is no sort of viable “bargaining chip” to threaten No Deal to the EU across the canyon if it means you may actually have to jump into the canyon yourself. 21 Tory MPs voted against the pro-rogue government and will earn a decent footnote in the history books. Another, Dr Philip Lee, joined the Liberal Democrats midway through Johnson’s speech, a touch of absurd but effective theatre that notably derailed Johnson’s already rambling flow. To the surprise of the liberal and centrist intelligentsia, Corbyn was able to thoroughly outpoint Johnson in Parliament, countering his blustering, populist incoherence with a reasoned and impassioned case against prorogation and for a sensible way forward.
When the 328-301 Parliamentary defeat was announced, John Bercow seemed to delight in telling a red-faced, rattled and shouting Michael Gove to calm down and behave. You may recall I gave qualified praise to Gove earlier this year for voicing truths on the difficulties of No Deal; yet, he has now thoroughly tied himself to the Johnson project, which either genuinely wants No Deal or wants to get other Parties to “take the blame” for stopping it. I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that Murdoch’s man, a libertarian, warmongering Cameron-Blairite right-winger, would be fully behind a right-wing power-grab. An intelligent, but thoroughly misguided man, cannot now pretend he is any better than Nigel Farage. He is the elite, and he rages against constraints on his own power.
Ultimately, what will linger most from today’s scenes in the House of Commons are the images of Johnson’s angry, bully’s mug and, of course, Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging around the front bench as if he personally owns the place, not listening to his fellow parliamentarians – now, was he dreaming of nanny, the Illuminati or how his global investments are going to do after a “No Deal”? Perhaps this right-honourable member for the 18th century had forgotten that there have been cameras have been installed in and have televised the House of Commons since 21 November 1989. And, thus we can see him and what he is as clear as day.
There’s no better way to finish now than with two of Twitter’s best responses:
Schools are crowdfunding for pencils, glue and books.
Government departments are in stasis, allowing the illusory talisman of “Brexit” to dazzle them still, 37 months and numerous reality-checks later.
‘Austerity’ has been rhetorically ‘ended’ by the outgoing Prime Minister and the resigning Chancellor, when it simply continues: a near decade in which we’ve had the mass redistribution of services and resources from the poorer to the richer in society. The fact of this is backed up by the UN, but is barely raised as a concern within our press or on television.
Theresa May’s tears on 24 May seemed emitted more due to ambition thwarted and sadness that her beloved Party is stuffed than from contrition about the Windrush scandal or Grenfell. On that day, on my way home through the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, I passed about seven beggars. That simply wouldn’t have been the case ten years ago.
The recently deceased Christopher Booker, the first editor of Private Eye who later became euro-sceptic and climate change-sceptic, once described Britain in the 1970s as a ‘Sad Little Island’ (1980: 101). Under May, we have become even more of what can only be described as a ‘Mean Little Island’. Better an island prey to wistful melancholy than to bitterness, bluster and avarice. A United Kingdom – however complex – is better than Little England. As is a UK working with Europe to address climate change.
So, I had, and have, no sympathy. My namesake has been the joint-worst PM of my adult life; a remarkable achievement considering her predecessor was Carlton’s finest, David Cameron! The Daily Mail‘s choice is to be replaced by the Daily Telegraph‘s: such is life in Tory Britain.
On the BBC News on 4 June, a bearded British man, publicly defending Donald Trump, sported a baseball cap bearing the inscription: “MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN”. A few weeks earlier, you can see two further British subjects sporting the self-same sartorial delight in this video report on the Brexit Party. Maybe “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” should have been emblazoned on the famous Brexiter battle bus…?
This last week, we’ve witnessed a preposterous, ornate ‘state visit’ from Donald Trump, whereby British politicians and media have fallen over themselves to indulge him; there is, of course, no contradiction at all in their calls for greater “sovereignty” outside the EU and their offering up of the NHS and other areas as part of a cap-in-hand trade deal with the USA…!
We’ve seen European Election results where Farage’s Brexit Party gained 2% more of the vote than UKIP in 2014: hardly a ringing endorsement of a “No Deal” Brexit. 5,248,533 Brexit Party voters signalled their strong commitment to an illusory patriotic dream, perhaps not realizing that many of their candidates are tax avoiding pirate capitalists. Sadly, my own region, the North East of England, was the most susceptible to Brexit Party’s empty, manifesto-less, empty populism: who, instead of great candidates like the Greens’ Rachel Featherstone, elected a silver goateed Thatcherite Scot who lives in France as a North East MEP:
Some positives? Well, the now unequivocally far-right UKIP flopped, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon humiliated. Moreover, the combined Lab-Green-LD-CUK-SNP-PC-SDLP share of the vote rose to 54.3% from 42.1% in 2014. The combined Tory-BP-UKIP vote was 42.5% down from 50.8% UKIP, Con and BNP got in 2014. The right is not winning as much as it was in 2009 and 2014; even, 2004, remember, which saw the absurd, vanity-stoked rise of Robert Kilroy-Silk MEP! There is a long way to go to defeat these people and their ideas, but, tentatively, the tide is turning as facile, unachievable ideas meet reality. Yet, on the Brexit issue, you sense not enough has changed: a re-run of the referendum would simply be 52-48 the other way. Sadly, bleakly, we may have to suffer the realities of an ever more unleashed pirate capitalism before the largely inattentive part of the public realises it has been sold not just a pup, but a rottweiler.
Do we care more about blue passports or protecting the ideals of the NHS? If the anti-Brexit petition got 6 million signatures, this should be getting even more: as we are now getting to know the shape of an actual No Deal Brexit. It will be a Britain that has literally amputated its own heart and brain if we allow the NHS to be “put on the table” with US profit to be put above UK people’s well-being. Brexiters only plan to make Trump’s America great again, remember?
Novelist and essayist Jonathan Coe has written persuasively of the strange movement from Olympics Britain of 2012 to the Brexit vote of 2016, not neglecting to argue that austerity was the harsh reality beyond the optimism expressed in Danny Boyle’s ceremony:
Still stunned by the referendum result, and cowed by the way it was talked up in the media as an overwhelming mandate, our political class remains paralyzed by its own commitment to delivering the undeliverable.
Jonathan Coe, TIME, 06/06/2019
We have been landed in this mess by the Tory Party, whose leadership campaign now is focused on a positive vision for the future of the country – hard-drugs for some and Hard Brexit for all! This article, too, reveals the Tories’ state of perhaps terminal weakness, with candidates scared of the likelihood of ‘Crowds booing Tories’. If they were genuinely confident in their Brexit and indeed in defending their record in government, they would welcome a proper, representative public forum. Instead, they will lobby for a disproportionately blue-rinsed, elderly and affluent assembly of Tory members and voters… And if they do get their way – sadly, the BBC see themselves as beholden to this hapless government – it may surely end up rebounding on them, as people see an audience that manifestly does not reflect the country at large.
Friday morning’s Peterborough by-election result was more heartening than expected: maybe these are the first signs of Brexit fatigue? Or is it evidence of my gnawing suspicion that, beyond the quite large and doggedly entrenched 5 million Leavers and 5 million Remainers, the largest number of people ultimately care more about other, domestic issues…?
It certainly suggests that Labour would be likely to “win” a general election under FPTP but probably with a minority government, so would have to work with other parties (GP, SNP, LD, PC). However, it isn’t going to be quite so simple to “put Brexit to bed” if you’re in power, but they could conceivably do so, and working and compromising with those 4 other parties should be key (and it would show up Theresa May’s failures to compromise even more)… What the result should demonstrate is that the Brexit Party may well gain a lot of votes, but they’ll gain relatively few seats under FPTP and invariably split the right-wing vote in a strange reverse-mirror of the 1980s.
Labour are making some positive steps, policy-wise: Angela Rayner and the National Education Service; Corbyn and Rayner with the absurdly overdue move away from the rhetoric of ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’: these are stale 1990s concepts that just dress up Grammar School-like idea of giving a leg up to a lucky few. Improving opportunities for all, ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ are far more desirable and progressive goals. Let’s hope that Labour can also move towards a fairer system of transparency over land ownership and properly tax the biggest hoarders of land: not ordinary home-owners, but the small number who heard the vast acreage of Britain, as Ian Jack details in the LRB. More school playing fields and libraries and the idea of the Public Good.
Practical steps to achieve progressive outcomes:
1. Labour, after winning an election but without a majority, introduce a programme of constitutional reform including, crucially, Proportional Representation as a genuine sign of goodwill and cooperation towards those smaller parties.
2. They hold a second referendum on the actual Brexit deal that is available (& if No Deal isn’t given as an option, there’s proper public communication about why not).
3. The Labour-led government institute a genuine end to austerity and a return to ideas of the Public Good: NHS, NES, land reform…
4. They begin radical plans to address climate change.
I am of the Left but I care about listening to, learning from and allying with those of social-Liberal (not Orange Book Cleggite) and Green views. I am a Left-pluralist who realises the left’s historical record means it should not assume it has all the answers. New alliances need forming, to outmanoeuvre Johnson and Farage. Too many in both the Liberal-Left and the Left have turned their fire on each other and resorted to Life of Brian-esque sectionalism rather than relentlessly turning fire on the real enemies: especially those two privileged men named above, the lying journalist and the ‘rebel’ stockbroker.
Saving the planet is frankly the biggest issue that faces us. Let’s gradually and democratically consign Brexit to the history books: an impossible dream sold by the Tories on a false prospectus and face humanity’s real crisis and emergency of Climate Change and Britain’s real crisis of austerity. The first will be tough and require significant societal changes, and needs to be done in concert with others, the EU included… The Green New Deal is a good first step, but isn’t in itself going to be sufficient.
So, greater wisdom, humility and willingness to achieve the above four steps is necessary to unite the Left, ecologists and the Liberal-Left and keep the UK together as a political entity.
Last Wednesday, I attended a special event to commemorate the life of film and television academic Peter Hutchings at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Tyneside Cinema, alongside many of his former colleagues and students. This was a lovely gathering; it was great to learn more about Peter’s life, beyond my own relatively brief experience of being taught by him for one academic year when I did my MA in Film Studies in 2004/05.
Part of the event was the unveiling of the results of his Northumbria University colleagues’ apt idea of inscribing a whole row of seats in the Tyneside Cinema’s largest Classic screen, with his name and quotations from some of his favourite films, e.g. Chinatown (1974) and Horror Express (1972). Peter Cushing – so neglected for so long – was clearly Peter’s favourite actor, as his characters such as Dr Wells were well represented, quotation wise…
Inspector Mirov: The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster? Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know.
The speakers, who included Northumbria’s Johnny Walker and Russ Hunter, were often emotional in paying tribute to a man who had helped shape their academic careers. As RH detailed, he could be unpredictable in class when teaching and his musical taste was varied and included the strange likes of Tiny Tim. Recently, he had taken to attending the horror film festival Abertoir, held annually in November at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Ceredigion, and has now had a festival cocktail named after him: the “Hutch”!
I found him personally very helpful; one of those lecturers who was sharp and expert, yet who you also sensed was thoroughly on the side of students trying to formulate their own thoughts on film and television. He steered me down interesting paths, and helped me refine my voice when writing about film and television; as Mark Jancovich has commented:
‘He wasn’t a Gothic villain who attempted to remake the world in his image. he had no interest in churning out replicas of himself or extensions of his will. Instead, he helped people to achieve their potential, to recognize their intellectual insights and have confidence in the value of their contribution to the world.’
Mark Jancovich (2018) ‘Remembering Peter Hutchings’, Horror Studies 9.1, 4
When getting down to work on my MA dissertation on British cinema of the 1970s – then, in 2005, a very neglected area – he strongly recommended I watch a few episodes of LWT’s 1969-74 sitcom On the Buses, to get a flavour of the era and what was popular with British audiences, and was thus especially significant. I learned from him that the first film adaptation was Hammer’s highest grossing film of 1971, exceeding any of the studio’s horror films of that year. It was clear that he felt this was a matter for some cultural sorrow, though he didn’t explicitly say so. I loaned a single VHS tape from Northumbria’s now sadly defunct “slide library” and proceeded to watch 3 or 4 episodes of the sitcom, which conveyed strangely, horribly virulent gender stereotyping and casual sexism, as well as notable class representations.
Johnny Walker (2018: 454) has argued that Hutchings was ‘not merely a scholar of popular British cinema, but its champion’, who, in addition to his work on horror, explored thrillers, disaster movies, science fiction as well as penning outlying essays on film and TV representations of the culturally marginal region of north-east England. Similarly, a major thing I learned from him was the importance of analysing and taking seriously both popular culture and areas within it that get neglected or marginalised by certain cultural gatekeepers – whether horror cinema or ITV comedies of the 1970s. He was also good at recommending excellent books in this area: Leon Hunt’s British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (1998) being perhaps the most memorable and useful during my MA dissertation.
Prompted by Walker’s tribute which mentions PH’s first published writing in Charles Barr’s ‘pivotal’ edited volume All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (1986), I have read and enjoyed this very piece today. Hutchings’s short essay on Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) closes a book which ambitiously explores institutions, ideology, overlaps between film and television and what Julian Petley defines as ‘the Lost Continent’ of British cinema. Hutchings locates Hitchcock’s film as being around the close of the period of generous US funding of British films, and 9 years before the ‘renaissance’ of Chariots of Fire (1981): a rebirth he regards as questionable as it has excluded ‘broad comedy, horror, melodrama, and ‘bad taste’ in general’. He further argues that ‘a regeneration of British cinema must remain incomplete’ until not just critical attention is paid to neglected popular films but until more such films are made. (Barr, 1986: 374)
He notes that there was derogatory criticism of the Covent Garden-set Frenzy for its Dixon of Dock Green dialogue, highlighting critics’ long-standing snobbery towards television. He conducts sophisticated textual analysis of the film, drawing fascinating links to features as varied as A Canterbury Tale (1944), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1949), The Dambusters (1955), Every Day Except Christmas (1957), Look Back in Anger (1959), Peeping Tom (1960), Hands of the Ripper (1970), Carry On Loving (1970) and Murder by Decree (1978).
Hutchings describes Hitchcock’s first British-based film in over 30 years as a ‘democratic […] compendium’ of post-WW2 British cinematic genres which freely mingle and aren’t part of a ‘static, hierarchical order’. (ibid, 373) The modes of sex comedy, war film, social realism, melodrama and the new X-rated horror are all ripe to be richly exploited by Hitchcock, who saw cinema as artifice and didn’t accept what Hutchings defines as a binary critical paradigm of ‘realist/Good Taste’ (Ealing, British New Wave, Free Cinema) and ‘non-realist/Bad Taste’ (Gainsborough, Hammer, the Carry On series). (ibid, 369) He notes how realism has been critically privileged, with cultural gatekeepers like the Observer film critic George Melly attacking Frenzy for its anachronism. Interestingly, he links Powell and Pressburger with this non-realist tendency, highlighting their critical and commercial decline in fortunes in the 1950s. He places the mass of British war films as somewhere in between the binaries.
In a particularly rich section of textual analysis, Hutchings identifies the film’s exploration of ‘uncontrolled and violent male sexuality’, linking it with the cultural history of Jack the Ripper and Victorian London:
‘It is significant in this light that the first necktie murder in Hitchcock’s film is greeted with the comment that ‘It’s another necktie murder’, a line repeated in newspaper headlines several times throughout the film. One can link this with the reaction to the Glueman in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, the news of whose nocturnal activities – pouring glue into young girls’ hair during the blackout – is greeted with the remark ‘The Glueman’s out again‘. Again and another: two signifiers of indefinite repetition, in a situation where repeated acts of psychopathic violence have become an integral part of the British way of life’
Peter Hutchings (in Barr, 1986: 370)
This suggests so much: not just in its situation of Frenzy within the context of the increasingly ‘violence’ preoccupied 1970s, but also about our own times. Any budding film or television scholar should read this piece (and, indeed, its parent book) and aspire to emulate Hutchings’s incisive range of references and strength of argument.
On Wednesday, it was palpable how highly he was thought of and how he positively influenced and helped shape so many lives. As another colleague said, “He was a gentle man”, and there was a sense of loss as the many people gathered processed upstairs to the cafe bar to further toast his life, to the strains of Tiny Tim’s ukulele-led hit ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ (1968). But there was also a sense of celebration, as his was a life that had made a tangible difference.
Hutchings, P. (1986) ‘Frenzy: A Return to Britain’, in: Barr, C. (ed.) All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 368-74
Jancovich, M. (2018) ‘Remembering Peter Hutchings’, Horror Studies, 9.1, 4 January, 3-6
Walker, J. (2018) ‘Hammer and Beyond: Peter Hutchings’s Contribution to the Study of Popular British Cinema and Television’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 15.3, July, 453-9