Saturday, 21 September 2013

First get the questions right - Political Communication in Hong Kong, 2004

Unpacking boxes in my new Aberystwyth home, sorting through files and albums, I have discovered some articles and stories - some published, some not. This article was published in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's English-language newspaper, when I was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong (January-June 2004). It refers to a survey published in that newspaper (but also in Chinese-language publications) asking for citizens' views on constitutional development. At the time, I was writing my book., Political Communication and Democracy, and thought this survey a perfect example of poor political communication. 

The original article was published 25 February 2004.  


On Monday, this newspaper - along with every other in Hong Kong - devoted almost a whole page to 'Seeking Your Views', a survey of public opinion launched by the Constitutional Development Taskforce. The survey invited readers to respond to a series of questions relating to passages from the Basic Law that were conveniently printed on the left-hand side of the page for easy reference. Democrats rejoice! The public participation in the political process that you have long demanded is now a reality. You can forget about demonstrating through the streets of Hong Kong and, instead, put pen to paper to express your much sought-after opinions. After all, that is what democracy is all about, isn't it?

Well, no it is not. In fact, the survey does nothing whatsoever to facilitate democratic communication in Hong Kong.

First, it complicates even further the extremely technical debates about Hong Kong's political development that are currently saturating the media. Take a close look at Question A2, on the principles of the 'actual situation' and 'gradual and orderly progress'. Readers are invited to comment on how the 'actual situation' should be constituted, and how we might understand 'gradual and orderly progress'. Another question asks how the development of Hong Kong's political structure could meet the interests of the different sectors of society and facilitate the development of the capitalist economy.

Wow, talk about asking big questions.

Still with me? Good, because when the survey turns to the issues of legislative process, the questions become even more demanding: 'What is the most appropriate legislative procedure for amending the methods for selecting the [chief executive] and forming Legco? Do we need to follow the procedures set out in Article 159 of the Basic Law, if we amend the methods for selecting the [chief executive] or forming Legco as specified in Annexes I and II of the Basic Law?'

And on it goes...

The taskforce has obviously forgotten the first principle: a survey is only as good as the questions it asks, and the questions asked do not invite serious response because they assume a particularly high level of knowledge and comprehension. Has everybody read, understood and, most importantly, interrogated the relevant passages of the Basic Law and all its annexes to be able to offer the kind of critical opinion the taskforce requires? Unfortunately for Hong Kong, political science tells us that, faced with a complicated question, citizens tend to abstain altogether from such surveys because they do not understand the issue, or they vote to keep the status quo (surveys generally being forces of conservative government).

The consequences are potentially ominous: if the average citizen is unable to provide sensible and cogent answers to such surveys based on full information and critical reflection, it is possible to imagine a time when a government concludes that the level of political ignorance is unsatisfactory for any kind of participation. Moreover, if the response rate is low, the authoritarians among us will claim that democracy has failed, and that Hong Kong people are apathetic to politics after all (an argument which the July and January demonstrations prove is nonsense). Or, the technicalities of the questions will generate responses from certain sections of the population only, sustaining an elitist political system that allows for the continued 'tyranny of the minority'. Either way, Hong Kong loses.

The question is only the first stage. The real problems lie in the interpretation of responses. For example, how should the strength of conviction be measured? Should a strong opinion be weighted more heavily than one weakly expressed? Should the taskforce allow for the fact that some respondents will be basing their answer on greater knowledge or information than others? Is the opinion of someone who does not know much about an issue worth the same or less than someone who knows more? Should their opinions be treated equally by decision-makers?

These are important questions, because they lie at the heart of democratic political communication; does or should everyone have an equal opportunity to express their opinions to policymakers, regardless of their access to knowledge and information? This calls for an inquiry into the very value of such surveys, the methods they use, their place in the decision-making process, and the responsiveness of government. They tell us nothing about why respondents hold particular opinions and from where they obtained the information upon which the opinions are based

So if the survey is not assisting democracy, we can argue that it is merely feeding the illusion of participation, transparency and legitimacy. It is providing a fantasy for every Hong Kong resident - Chinese and English-speaking - that his or her views are wanted and valued. The appeal of such surveys is understandable: decisions are considered more legitimate if they have been arrived at by soliciting popular opinion. However, their success depends on voter interest and participation, being user-friendly, and providing information that is of sufficient quality that all potential respondents can form an opinion, regardless of background or status.

Let me summarise my argument in the kind of direct, jargon-free language that the taskforce has decided is not appropriate for its survey: this is bad communication. Political communication turns on the need to persuade people to care enough about an issue that they will form an opinion about it. This survey does neither, and on such an important issue for Hong Kong, that is very worrying indeed.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Dear Kate and William

Congratulations on the birth of your first son. I sincerely hope that he is healthy and happy, and I am sure you will make fine parents. Much of the UK is celebrating along with you today and honouring the birth of their future monarch. You will understand, however, that a great many people have chosen not to mark this occasion.

For Republicans like myself, the idea of monarchy is an anachronism in a 21st Century representative democracy. It suggests that we remain 'subjects' rather than 'citizens' who are in control of our own political destiny. Many people with whom I have discussed this over the past 24 hours have pointed out to me that Republicanism does not have the answers to our present political problems, and that politicians cause their own problems and exact their own cost. I agree entirely with these sentiments, and in fact the current government is itself filled by over-privileged public school boys who have never done a job outside of politics; and quite frankly, the other side is not much better. So surely a monarchy is preferable to the incompetent politicians, right? The difference is that at specific times we can decide who is the Prime Minister; we can decide that the government is not acting in our interests and so choose to throw them out at the next election. We have no such option with the current Head of State. The monarchy is not only unelected, but is also unaccountable which goes against the values of democracy.  Moreover, any one of us can decide to stand for election, get involved and facilitate change at the local, national and increasingly international level. None of us have a shot at being King or Queen. William, you will inherit the throne by the privilege - luck and randomness of birth, not by choice or merit.

I have also heard that the monarchy is valuable because your family 'bring tourists to the UK.' So I hate to break it to you, William, but it seems that you are considered nothing more than a very expensive public funded tourist attraction. It must be difficult to accept that you are thought of in the same way as Alton Towers, Madame Tussauds and the London Eye. If that is what the monarchy has been reduced to, then I am sure you will agree we need to seriously consider its place in modern Britain. Besides, whether we actually have a Royal Family or not does not seem to make much difference, as your castles and other stately homes - the principal draw - will remain. Our history will still be celebrated, and the lives of your ancestors remembered. Yet in 2012, Republican France attracted 83 million visitors (where the Palace of Versailles remains a big attraction with 6 million visitors) whereas the international tourists to the UK were a mere 29.3 million. I really think that the tourists will still come to visit us if we decide to become a Republic. The Monarch has no power whatsoever, though we still have a charade that the Prime Minister must ask permission to dissolve or form a government; and the Monarch signs bills into law - bills that have been deliberated and decided by our duly elected representatives.

I am sure that as you reflect on the miracle of birth today and look lovingly into your new son's eyes, you will also wish to think about the society into which he was born. I am sure you will agree that it would have been nice for him to enter a society where one's luck in life is not determined by birth. You may have seen the disturbing reports that one in three children in the UK - that's four million young people - are living in relative poverty. Your son will never experience the trauma or hardship of children born at exactly the same time to families in Britain and across the world with little hope and opportunity. While your son will be feted by the tabloid press and addressed as 'His Royal Highness,' many of these children will be labelled 'scum,' 'chav,' 'anti-social,' and 'feral' simply because of where they were born and who their parents are. They will begin their life, like Oliver Twist, 'badged and ticketed' through the accident of birth.

I am also sure that the mothers who joined you, Kate, in giving birth yesterday would have liked to have done so in a private suite costing £6000 per night. Of course it would be inappropriate to expect a Royal couple to use a seriously underfunded and understaffed NHS hospital, but I am sure you can see why many people are bitter. Likewise the refurbishment of your new home - £1 million - is being met out of money given to your grandmother, the Queen, by the Government. In other words, our taxes are housing you. I hope you can explain this to would-be first time buyers who cannot afford to take their first step on the property ladder, especially in your neighbourhood, or to those on the waiting list for council houses at a time when few are available because of Thatcher's 'right to buy' and the present government's reluctance to invest in building more council properties. Do the three of you really need five reception rooms, three main bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms, a night and day nursery, nine staff bedrooms and more than 20 ‘ancillary’ rooms? Will you be subject to the tyrannical 'bedroom tax' that has scared and blighted the lives of thousands of your future 'subjects'? And we all hope that you enjoyed your recent tour to Singapore and the South Pacific which cost the taxpayer £370, 590 - the single most expensive Royal visit of the year. I would have said travelling is out of the question with a new born baby, but then you will have a huge team behind you to look after your son, so you will never know the trauma of travelling with young children.

Dear Kate and William, the Tory government likes to tell us that, referring to a necessary period of austerity, 'we are all in this together.' This is not true; some by the sheer accident of birth have been lucky to escape the kind of austerity measures being forced on thousands of families across the UK - caps to welfare payments, cuts to disability allowances, increases in VAT. For many the dole is the only way they can put food on the tables for their children. Count your blessings that your son will never have to suffer this way.

So, you will understand why some of us are Republicans and would like to see the abolition of this medieval institution of monarchy. It does not sit well with the kind of representative democracy for which many of our ancestors fought and died; and in a time of economic mismanagement by the government, the life of luxury you and your family enjoy is resented by thousands of like-minded people across the country. We are often reminded, William, that you represent a new generation of Royals; someone who, like your mother, is determined to do things differently and shake up the Firm. I just hope that you are sufficiently courageous and considerate to use the scraps of power you will inherit one day to abolish the monarchy for once and for all. That will be the greatest service you can do for your country.

In the meantime, I hope you both are allowed some time away from the public spotlight to get to know your son, and that the media desist from the kind of obsessive behaviour we have seen in the past 48 hours. May your family be healthy and happy, and I wish you all the best.


A citizen of the UK

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Being a real writer: Notes on John Irving and Philip Roth

I first encountered Philip Roth through the novels of John Irving, specifically his 1978 book, The World According to Garp; and I discovered John Irving through the American actor, Robin Williams.

In the 1980s, Robin Williams was a hero. In my childhood he had starred in an anarchic television series called Mork and Mindy in which he played an innocent alien from the planet Ork (Mork from Ork) who lived with a young human woman. In every episode Mork tried to understand something new about humans and humanity and then reported his findings to his superiors on Ork. In the days before Seinfeld taught us that 'no hugging, no learning' can create great comedy, such edification was quite common in situation comedy programmes. Mork and Mindy was quite funny ... sometimes ... but like Happy Days, the American sitcom in which the character Mork first appeared, it soon "jumped the shark". Jumping the shark is a phrase used to describe a television series which is past its sell-by date and has become unbelievable and unwatchable; and fearing a loss of viewers, the production team resort to gimmicks and sensational story-lines in a last-ditch desperate attempt to save a show: Happy Days' The Fonz water skiing in swimming trunks and leather jacket over a shark in Los Angeles; Dallas's Bobby Ewing returning in the shower from the dead, rendering the whole previous season a dream.

Before it jumped the shark, Mork and Mindy was a showcase for Robin Williams's own brand of high intensity manic comedy. As a stand-up comedian, Williams improvised whole routines, his energy and imagination seemingly infinite, and you can get a glimpse of his genius in his 1987 movie, Good Morning Vietnam. Moreover, Williams was good friends with another of my comedy heroes, John Belushi, star of the first season of Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon's Animal House, 1941 and The Blues Brothers. My visits to Chicago's Second City comedy theatre where many of America's best-loved comedians, including Belushi, began before their graduation to Saturday Night Live, always feels like a pilgrimage; and I met a pseudo-deity on my last visit there when Lorne Michaels (the creator and producer of SNL) was also in the audience scouting for new talent. What I did not know growing up watching Mork and Mindy was that Robin Williams spent almost the entire run on hard drugs, and that Williams was with Belushi the night Belushi died of a drug overdose aged just 33 in the infamous Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.

In the late 1980s, I saw on television a movie which I only watched because it starred Robin Williams. In fact, The World According to Garp (1982) was his second film (his first was Popeye which also seems to have sunk without a trace).  However, not even Glenn Close as Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, nor John Lithgow as the transgender football player, Roberta Muldoon, were enough to save Garp from becoming a box-office disaster. But I was hooked. Telling my friends 'I have to get inside that guy's head' I watched the film's opening again to find out who wrote it and I discovered it was based on a novel by John Irving.

I think to understand my infatuation with Garp it is important to appreciate two things about me. First, I have always wanted to be a writer, 'A real writer,' as Helen Holm, Garp's girlfriend and future wife, tells him.

'With all the reading you do, I think you're going to be a writer,' Garp told Helen ...
'No chance,' Helen said. She had no doubt about it.
'Well, maybe you'll marry a writer,' Garp said to her. She looked up at him, her face very serious, her new prescription sunglasses better suited to her wide cheekbones than her last pair which always slid down her nose.
'If I marry anybody, I'll marry a writer,' Helen said.
Garp had been trying to joke; Helen's seriousness made him nervous. He said, 'Well, I'm sure you won't marry a wrestler.'
'You can be very sure,' Helen said. Perhaps young Garp could not conceal his pain, because Helen added, 'unless it's a wrestler who's also a writer.'
'But a writer first and foremost,' Garp guessed.
'Yes a real writer,' Helen said mysteriously - but ready to define what she meant by that. Garp didn't dare ask. He let her get back to her book. 
I watched in fascination as Robin Williams played out my dream played on the television screen. Sitting at my mother's typewriter at the age of six banging out my first juvenile one-paragraph stories, I learnt that being a writer could be a full-time job. I always wanted to be a real writer.

The second reason that Garp captivated me was the ending of the movie. I cried; and even today every time I watch the DVD which is part of my 'comfort film' collection, I am overwhelmed by a cocktail of melancholy and elation. When Garp is shot and is being flown to hospital in a helicopter, he looks out of the window and discovers that his own boyhood fantasy is now realised: 'Look, Helen, I'm flying.' The helicopter continues on its journeywith Helen and the dying Garp, while the camera pans down to reveal a bouncing baby that first introduced the movie (as the newborn Garp) with The Beatles' 'When I'm Sixty-Four' as the soundtrack. Birth and death. Perfect song, perfect movie, perfect ending.

I read John Irving's The World According to Garp in two days. It spoke to me like no other book ever had, and from then on I was determined to read John Irving's whole collection.

John Irving can be divided into two: Pre-Garp and post-Garp. Pre-Garp, Irving is clearly struggling to find his voice, to settle down and become the story teller that I came to adore. Novels like Setting Free the Bears, The Water Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage are competent and entertaining, but they lack the depth and breadth, the energy and emotion, the imagination and the character of his later books. Garp is a turning point. I remember making this point when, around twenty  years old, I wrote an unpublished essay which argued that John Irving was the new Charles Dickens:  A sense of  epic proportions; a similar taste for exaggerated characters; slow, deliberate plotting which can tell a whole story over a character's lifetime; the same mixture of bawdy comedy and tear-jerking pathos. Dickens plays a central role in The Cider House Rules (1985) in which the abortionist, Dr Wilbur Larch, reads aloud David Copperfield to the orphans in his care. 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' This famous opening to David Copperfield's biography applies equally to the young Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules and to all of Irving's principal characters post-Garp. All are extraordinary people born on the verge of extraordinary lives.

This essay on Dickens and John Irving was written as part of my training as a real writer. Inspired also by the essays of George Orwell which I recall reading in a Bradford tea-shop opposite the city's only independent bookshop during University vacations.  (Yes, Bradford did once have an independent bookshop, tea-shops and cafes, none of which employed a 'Barista' to froth up your coffee.) I spent the weekdays on my University work and then I devoted  Saturday and Sunday to writing ... anything ... an essay about literature or history, politics or music - the subject was less important than the discipline of writing. If I wanted to be a real writer, I needed to write.

I am now looking at the paperback Penguin edition of Orwell's Inside the Whale and Other Essays which I bought in that Bradford bookshop. I remember staring at the cover for hours. It depicts a desk with a small portable typewriter which resembled my own (a Christmas present at age nine from my parents). On Orwell's desk there are half-filled notebooks, Russian newspapers, a bust of Karl Marx; an empty glass, ink-bottles, numerous pens and pencils; a tattered poster of Lenin surveys the scene from above the desk. That's precisely how I wanted my desk to look; that's where I wanted to be a real writer - in a messy workspace that defined my intellectual aspirations. Even now, fifteen years after my typewriter was made redundant and was replaced by the sterility of a computer keyboard, I still miss the harsh machine-gun sound that defined my early literary efforts, the bell which told me I had reached (literally and metaphorically) the end of the line, the satisfaction of feeding a blank piece of paper into the roller and removing a full sheet of paper after my work was complete; the smell of ink and the stain of Tipex.

With the exception of Last Night in Twisted River (2009) - I struggled with the stereotype Italian accents - Irving's post-Garp novels are stunning. My favourite remains A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) which affected me in a way no other novel ever has. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables moved me and defined for me the power of  story-telling to generate emotion. But Owen Meany affected me: the intricacy of its steady, intelligent plotting and the evolution of its characters to one of the most satisfying denouements in modern literature demonstrated the care that an author must devote to his work. Its opening lines are up there with those penned by David Copperfield:

'I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.'
In these three sentences we are told everything we need to know about the book. We are introduced to the main character (whose voice is depicted throughout the novel in upper case), the story's first plot point, and the ending. What we don't know is how Owen Meany convinced John, the narrator, to become a Christian and this mystery drives forward the 534-page story and explains each of the book's sub-plots. It is a big book (not as big as Les Mis) and I bought the hardback with birthday money in 1989 (price £12.95; my brand new copy of Garp was just £4.95. Such prices quickly date my library).

Since Owen Meany I have waited anxiously for each new Irving book, buying them in hardback as soon as they are available. When Until I Find You (2005) was published, I was in Amsterdam. Because most of the plot occurs there, the book first went on sale in Holland. I bought it and found a new perspective on the city in which I was reading it. Irving's most recent novel, In One Person, was published in 2012 and, having bought it as soon as I could, I resisted opening the pages until my long flight to Australia would give me the opportunity to savour it. I finished it one week later just as my train was pulling to a stop back home in Leeds.

So what about Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize winner and, in 2011, controversial winner of the Man Booker International Prize? To be a real writer one must also be a real reader; and one way of modelling myself on John Irving was to find out who had inspired him the way Irving had inspired me. My copy of Garp contains a biographical note: 'Setting Free the Bears ... was followed by The Water-Method Man, a hilarious tale of a man with a complaint more serious than Portnoy's.' Who or what is Portnoy? Library research in the pre-Google era alerted me to Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint; and John Irving was a literary fan of Philip Roth. If it's good enough for Irving, it is good enough for me, and so began my own admiration for Philip Roth.

Roth is a quintessential chronicler of modern America. His canon, including I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, Everyman, Exit Ghost, The Human Stain and Nemesis, are examinations of the human condition, and specifically the East Coast Jewish Male condition. Everyman, published in 2007, is the book that has touched me most. A slender novel of only 182 pages (yet at £6.99 more expensive than any of my Irving paperbacks) tells the story of us all - regret, loss, stoicism. It narrates the life and death of one man, and in doing so without fanfare or celebration, reminds us of our fragility, mortality and the mysteries of life.

Exit Ghost (2007) also speaks to me. It concerns 75-year old Nathan Zuckerman, a character at the centre of several Roth novels, who travels to New York for a procedure that will stop his incontinence. Having removed himself from life several years previously to live in the countryside free from unnecessary intrusion (' ... with no sense of loss - merely, at the outset, a kind of drought within me - I had to inhabit not just the great world, but the present moment. The impulse to be in it and of it long since killed.'), Zuckerman is reminded of the America he deliberately left behind. In New York he becomes infatuated with a beautiful young and married woman and, in his scriptwriting, fantasises about being her lover. At the same time, he meets friends he has not seen for fifty years, discovers old friends have died and tries to come to terms with his age and the loss of youth, virility and (emotional and physical) self-control. While in New York he also faces up to modernity, and all of us exasperated by a youthful obsession with staying connected while alienating ourselves from the real world will identify with Roth's picture of the mobile phone culture: Through Zuckerman, Roth asks what had made 'incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no-one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire'; only no-one talks on phones any more, rather they butcher the English language via text messages or constantly reveal the trivia of their lives on Facebook. Thinking has given way to saying.

The novel, like Everyman,  is a powerful reminder of our own ticking clocks and is best avoided by men facing their own midlife crises:

'There it was: the tactless severity of vital male youth, not a single doubt about his coherence, blind with self-confidence, and the virtue of knowing what matters most. The ruthless sense of necessity. The annihilating impulse in the face of an obstacle. Those grandstand days when you shrink from nothing and you're only right. Everything is a target; you're on the attack; and you, you alone, are right.
        The invulnerable boy who thinks he's a man and is seething to play a big role.'
 '... I thought in taking on the young and courting all the dangers of someone of this age intermingling with people of that age, I can only end up bloodied, a big fat target of a scar for unknowing youth, savage with health and armed to the teeth with time'.
No-one else has so precisely and accurately summarised the experience of middle age and its disturbing and destructive envy of youth that is the root of many a man's experience with depression. It takes time to learn that the onset of middle age can be a period of mourning that often precedes the transit to the contentment of accepted maturity.

Exit Ghost is not as polished as Everyman; the literary references are too contrived and appear present only to validate Roth's intellect, while the polemic is an annoying and unnecessary distraction ( 'I've served my tour as exasperated liberal and indignant citizen'). The subtlety of American Pastoral that established Roth as that country's narrator disappears in favour of explicit ranting at the post-911 maelstrom.

Yet Roth's genius for laying bare the pain of experiencing love - most often obsessional and unrequited ('a bore', according to The Mamas and the Papas) - is the most truthful. In language that matches Hemingway's in his own story of obsessional love, Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), Zuckerman tells us about the woman at the centre of his thoughts: 'She had a huge pull on me, a huge gravitational pull on the ghost of my desire. This woman was in me before she even appeared.' He feels an incredible passion that he cannot satiate; we feel his pain and desperation.

Writing about Miguel de Unamuno Clive James explains why great writers are great:

'The best writers contain within their souls all the characters they will ever create on the page; and those characters have always been there, throughout history; so the writer, no matter how modern he thinks he is, deals always and only in eternity' (Cultural Amnesia, 2007).

Both John Irving and Philip Roth have brought to life the characters residing in their souls, and by doing so have helped us come to terms with the universal and eternal themes that perplex, haunt, disturb and sometimes enliven us.



Monday, 4 February 2013

Unreasonable Behaviour and the Genius of Man

'It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politics. The unspeakable suffering was not the result of one of Africa's natural disasters. Here was not nature's pruning fork at work, but the outcome of men's evil desires. If I could, I would take this day out of my life, demolish the memory of it. But like memories of those haunting pictures of the Nazi death camps, we cannot, must not be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing to our fellow human beings.'

This is a passage from Don McCullin's autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour. Since the end of the 1950s, McCullin has been a press photographer and documented conflict in Vietnam, Cyprus, Cambodia, Jerusalem and Northern Ireland. He is speaking above of the scenes he witnessed in Biafra in 1970 and his encounter with starving children dying collectively in a mission there as he recovered from malaria. McCullin faces the same dilemma I have heard many photographers voice over the years: when do you put down your camera and do something to help? When do you stop being a mere witness to conflict? In a recent film about his life and work (On the Edge of Reason) it is clear that McCullin has been seriously affected the horrors he has seen. Asked how he sleeps, he answers that he sleeps well; it is during the day time when his eyes are open that he remembers the dead and the dying. His darkroom, he says, is haunted by all the ghosts in his photos, and he now devotes his life to documenting the countryside around his home. However, he only has to hear a car backfire or a gunshot to be be sent back instantly to Vietnam or Biafra.               

Don McCullin

My interest in wars and revolutions as historical phenomena is long-standing. As I wrote recently in another blog, my first substantive memory of watching, understanding and liking movies is at age about five or six, and the film in question was a Sunday night television screening of The Battle of Britain. A succession of Sunday afternoon war films, inevitably starring John Wayne, John Mills or Richard Attenborough, followed, and I watch these films again now as much for the memories of childhood and my father who shared my interest in war, as much as for the films themselves.

As my history teachers will testify, my interest in war and revolutions continued all the way through school and I am especially proud of my A++ for a project I completed at 12 years old (complete with index and bibliography) on Wars and Revolutions of the 20th Century. I had wanted to write my whole project on the Russian Revolution - my real historical passion at the time - but Mrs Tones said it may not be a good idea to specialise so narrowly for this particular assignment.

Most of the courses I took at University (we did year-long courses then, not the bite-sized semester-long modules we teach now) in International Relations, Security Studies, Foreign Policy and most of my essays were about conflict. I wrote an assignment about the Six Day War and my tutor said it was more journalism than academic. As my ambition at the time was to be a journalist, I took this feedback as praise.

And so on to my PhD which used as case-studies crises and wars between 1956 and 1965, specifically the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Uprising, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginning of the American involvement in Vietnam. In Phil Taylor, an historian, I had a supervisor who understood my language and my passion.

Now I communicate my passion to my students. My modules on International Crises (basically War and the Media Since 1991) and Communication and Conflict convey the way the media and communications have been central to the way nations and individuals conduct war against one another, seek to hurt and kill each other, and in short demonstrate their inhumanity. I warn the students at the start of the module that I will show them a series of harrowing pictures and video clips, but only when I am sure that such graphics reinforce the message of the lecture. I never intend to shock or offend, but perhaps sometimes we need to shock in order to persuade the world to change. I feel I am losing this battle, just as I felt deflated on the morning of 1 January 2000 when, at the dawn of a new millennium with all its hopes and possibilities, the headline news was of war, death and destruction in Chechnya; nothing had changed overnight as the world moved from one age to another. The world keeps turning.

One of the issues I discuss with students is our de-sensitisation to horror. Is it correct to argue that the more we see graphic images on TV or in the movie theatres, the less we care and the more familiar and usual such pictures become? I don't think so. Every year I show my students the same harrowing footage from Gulf War One - an Iraqi soldier burnt beyond recognition sitting atop a tank on the so-called Highway of Death; Hutus hacking Tutsis to death in the killing fields of Rwanda; mass graves in Bosnia and Kosovo; the traumatic events of 9/11. Every year without fail I choke when I watch again the second plane smashing into WTC Tower 1 and I have to turn my head from the students so they cannot see that I am almost crying. By the end of the module, I am exhausted from talking about and viewing again such carnage, and I genuinely feel emotional for the students who have been subjected to such images. We read together the memoirs of war correspondents from ages past and realise that Don McCullen's reaction is far from unique. All share an intense hatred of war, all are scarred in some way by the butchery they have witnessed.

Above my desk in my office I have photos of some of the Cathedrals and churches I have visited over the last few years, in particular the Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame in Paris, two of Man's most stunning creations. I last visited both alone on Easter weekend 2010, and despite being an atheist I was calmed by the atmosphere and found comfort in just being there, quietly absorbing the scene around me. I have deliberately positioned the photos of these Cathedrals above my desk so I can see them while I am working. I explain to my students that everyday I read, write and talk about man's inhumanity to man, and these pictures remind me that Man is also capable of genius, creativity and beauty.

I refuse to believe that man is naturally evil and that he is, by instinct, a violent creature; and although I love George Orwell with my heart and soul, I cannot agree with him that 'All art is propaganda'. These Cathedrals and Churches - and mosques, synagogues, monuments, art, music, theatre, literature, dance, the movies - all demonstrate that man is capable of finding the most beautiful, inspiring and rewarding ways to express his genius. And anyone who has visited the Pyramids in Egypt, the cave paintings of Lascaux, or has just wandered around the British Museum will know that Man has been producing the most amazing artifacts, monuments and buildings for thousands of years. Sitting on Easter Sunday in the Sacre Coeur I realised: this Cathedral and all the other places of worship I have visited (most recently Istanbul's Hagia Sophia took my breath away) are not really statements of Man's adoration of God or an expression of his religious devotion; they are in fact declarations of Man's own creative genius which in many ways elevates him to his own Heaven. Many of these buildings were created in the so-called Dark Ages which is a completely inappropriate term for such an imaginitive time in our history

Inside the Sacre Coeur

Although I believe in no deity, I hope that I am a spiritual man. I have no faith except faith in my fellow man - his compassion and his intellect. I do find solace in the silence of these buildings. I gaze around at the wonder of 14th, 15th and 16th Century architecture, the craftsmanship, the patience, care and skill that has built them, and I find comfort in the realisation that man's inhumanity to man is only a part of our History.   

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Long Good Friday

My love affair with movies began in 1977 when I queued around the streets surrounding Bradford's Odeon cinema to see Star Wars. Although I had seen other films there before - memorably Disney's Robin Hood and Bugsy Malone - Star Wars taught me for the first time about the power of cinema; of compelling characters and strong storylines; of how cinematography combines with the score to feed, nurture and manipulate our emotions. The empire is instantly recognisable as evil by its own theme, while the future heroics of the day-dreaming, wistful Luke Skywalker are suggested in his gaze at the dual sunset on Tatooine.

An earlier memory is sitting at home on a Sunday evening aged five or six watching The Battle of Britain for the first time. Growing up in a household with three older brothers and a father equally obsessed with war films as I have become it seems inevitable that this movie would encourage an interest in World War Two ("That's an Heinkel"; "No, it's a Messerschmitt"; "Heinkel"; "Messerschmitt"), just as the now painful-to-watch Green Berets got me interested in the Vietnam War.

Star Wars, The Battle of Britain and even The Green Berets are part of what I describe as my "comfort film" collection. These are movies that I can watch again and again; I put them in the DVD when I feel low, ill, tired or just a little restless. I know the words off by heart; I know the story arcs and the fate of each character. And yet, watching them brings some comfort, joy, release and transports me back to another time in my life - usually a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV with Dad. Other films in my comfort collection include older films such as Zulu, A Bridge Too Far, Lawrence of Arabia, and the complete James Cagney (in my view the most versatile actor ever to come out of Hollywood). But I also have a number of later films in my comfort collection: The World According to Garp which got me hooked on John Irving's novels and still makes me cry at the end; Die Hard; The Italian Job (the perfect original, not the travesty of a remake, or as they say today, reboot); any Spielberg movie (Close Encounters remains his absolute masterpiece. I remember writing in a school essay in 1983 that he would be known as the greatest movie director); The Untouchables; the Godfather trilogy (yes, even the third!); Apocalypse Now; Scorsese movies, especially Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino; and the Coen Brothers' Fargo, Bad Santa and Brother, Where Art Thou? I do wonder if my new found love of Ingmar Bergman may mean that his movies Wild Strawberries, Summer with Monika and Summer Interlude will one day become comfort movies, especially as my infatuation with Zhang Yimou's muse, Gong Li, has been replaced by my love for Harriet Anderson and Maj-Britt Nilsson.

A recent addition to my comfort collection is John Mackenzie's 1980 film, The Long Good Friday, which defined both a genre and an era. It gave birth to the British gangster movie that had its greatest success under Guy Ritchie in the 1990s; and it represented the optimism and ideals that are associated with the early years of the Thatcher government. It is hardly a coincidence that the Conservatives were elected to power only the year before the film was released, for it is difficult to imagine it having the same resonance against the backdrop of the severe 1970s and the Winter of Discontent (Mike Hodges' 1971 film, Get Carter, was a similarly brutal and raw gangster film that was embedded in the poverty found among the terraced housing in North-East England). 1980 was a time of possibility, of rebirth and regeneration when entrepreneurship promised to turn the country around. Watching it again in 2012 one can only applaud its prescience, since the movie turns on plans to re-develop the London Docklands a a venue for a future Olympic Games:

I'm not a politician; I'm a businessman, with a sense of history; and I'm also a Londoner. And today is a day of great historical significance for London. Our country is not an island any more. We're a leading European state. And I believe this is the decade London will become Europe's capital, having cleared away the outdated, we've got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity ... so it's important that the right people mastermind the new London ...    
The speaker is Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins in his career-defining and perhaps greatest role), kingpin of London's underworld and aspiring legitimate property tycoon. He is the standard-bearer of what we would later call "The New Right" - a man of imagination, determination; a member of the working class who had pulled themselves up to success of one sort or another. However, the Tory party (of 1980 and 2012) would no doubt recoil from Shand's unequivocal embrace of Europe.

In his quest for legitimacy and respectability Harold echoes Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) who spends his entire time in Coppola's Godfather trilogy claiming he aspires legitimacy for his Family, but never hesitates to resort to violence and intimidation when necessary. (Until Godfather, legitimacy and respectability were never the concern of the movie criminal classes; did Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart or Cagney ever worry about achieving legitimacy? Only Noel Coward's wonderfully menacing, comic turn as Mr Bridger in The Italian Job came close as an establishment figure to be feared, but he was seeking respect - for himself and Great Britain - rather than legitimacy). In the same way that Vito Corleone, the original Godfather (Marlon Brando), is envied ("He had all the judges and politicians in his pocket and refused to share them", says the head of the rival Tattaglia family), so Harold has senior London police officers and councillors on his pay-roll, and he is never reluctant to remind them where their ultimate loyalties lie. Increasingly frustrated by the police's lack of progress in helping him track down the perpetrators of the violence against his 'Corporation', Harold tells Chief Inspector 'Parky' (singer and comedian Dave King):

Don't you ever tell me what I can or can't do! Bent law can be tolerated for as long as they're lubricating, but you have become definitely parched. If I was you, I'd run for cover and close the hatch, 'cause you're gonna wind up on one of those meat hooks, my son.    
In The Long Good Friday Harold's future legitimacy depends on striking a deal with the American mafia (which he describes as "the hardest organisation since Hitler stuck a swastika on his jockstrap"), and the introduction of 'the Yanks' provides a segue in to the film's exploration of class, Britain's place in the world, and the fluid nature of the Special Relationship. "The Yanks love snobbery," Harold tells his partner, the decidedly upper-middle class Victoria (Helen Mirren). "They really feel they've arrived in England if the upper class treats 'em like shit." Harold's contempt for the Americans is exposed when his guests decide to leave London and head home without sealing the deal. Even they find the IRA's move against Harold's empire too risky. In their hotel room, Harold vents his fury:

I'm glad I found out in time just what a partnership with a pair of wankers like you would've been. A sleeping partner's one thing, but you're in a fucking coma! No wonder you got an energy crisis your side of the water! Us British, we're used to a bit more vitality, imagination, touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean? The days when Yanks could come over hear and buy up Nelson's Column and a Harley Street surgeon and a couple of Windmill girls are definitely over.

(American): Now look ...

(Harold):  Shut up you long streak of paralysed piss. What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world. Culture, sophistication, genius ... a little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean? We're in the Common Market now, and my new deal is with Europe. I'm going into partnership with a German organisation. Yeah, the Krauts! They've got ambition, know-how. And they don't lose their bottle. The Mafia? Hahahaha. I shit 'em ...
Although we tremble at Harold's vicious way of doing business - his hanging upside down on meat hooks in an abattoir all his rival London underground bosses and the neighbourhood 'narks' is a memorable set-piece, especially as the scene begins from the distorted point of view of one of the victims as he is pushed and pulled into Harold's presence - we do feel sympathy and even compassion for the man. We know he is not responsible for the attacks against him, but he is nevertheless blind to two salient points which lead to his ultimate downfall. First, Harold is a 1960s gangster operating at the end of the 1970s. The East End of the Krays is long gone, and while he still thinks he can bring order to London ...

For more than ten years there's been peace - everyone to his own patch. We've all had it sweet. I've done every single one of you favours in the past - I've put money in all your pockets. I've treated you well, even when you was out of order, right? Well now there's been an eruption. It's like fuckin' Belfast on a bad night. One of my closest friends is lyin' out there in the freezer. And believe me, all of you, nobody goes home until I find out who done it and why.
 ... Harold is blind to the other reality - that the threat to him is not the other London villains, but an adversary far more obscure, sinister and dangerous, the IRA. The IRA's terrorist campaign on the British mainland was at its height in the 1970s, with London the main target: Parliament, Oxford Street and the Tower of London were all attacked, while the decade ended with the assassination of the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Airey Neave, as he left the House of Commons on 30 March 1979. In 1974 a bomb was thrown through the window of the King's Arms pub in Woolwich. Harold Shand's local, The Lion and the Unicorn, is similarly destroyed by an IRA bomb. Audiences watching The Long Good Friday for the first time would be familiar with the IRA's techniques; Harold's mistake, perhaps like the British army, is to think that he is able to defeat them.

The film's conclusion is the most powerful scene in the whole movie and consolidated Bob Hoskins' position as one of the most accomplished actors of his generation. In the back of a car with a young and silent IRA operative (played by Pierce Brosnan) pointing a gun at him from the front seat, Harold slowly realises that it is the end. As the camera stays focused on Harold, we see his face betray a range of emotions: surprise, shock, fear, submission, acceptance. Both the actor and the camera take their time; this is not to be rushed. A more satisfying denouement is rare in the movies, and for me this final scene and Hoskins' masterful performance, gives The Long Good Friday its status as a British, if not a cinema classic.

There are rumours of a remake: Please, Hollywood, don't do it; leave The Long Good Friday alone, in 1980, with its sparkling performances, witty London-based script (by Barrie Keefe), and New Right optimism. Don't let the IRA become Al-Qaeda ...