Things are not as good as they were…

(with apologies to Ernest Dowson)

Last night, ah, yesternight, again and yet again,
There fell a shadow, Teresa, thy power was shed
The house divided and our nation rent in twain,
Enemies still chasing unicorns and your face ashen
The noes had it as the tellers bowed their heads
You certainly attempted Brexit, Teresa! In your fashion

They hoped we would forget, Teresa, all their porky-pies
Spinning fantasies and promises they could never keep
They offered frantic fancies and crazier lies
They broke the law and whipped up racist passion
They sowed the whirlwind us poor saps will reap
You let them screw up Brexit, Teresa, in their fashion

And when the commission’s report finally came in
You let them get away with it, Teresa, they broke the law
And now the talk of treachery and all that posturing,
Blocking a people’s vote with faux-democratic passion
The self-appointed heroes revealed as men of straw
They’ve properly screwed up Brexit, Teresa! In their fashion

What will remain, Teresa, when you’ve retired?
Instead of founding a future secure and strong,
Your party’s broken and all hope expired
Delivering the impossible became your passion
You let the shameless bastards have their way too long
You finally screwed up Brexit, Teresa! In your fashion.

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The Epic Fails of Boris Johnson’s “Gift” for Oratory

Boris Johnson – he’s not exactly a great advert for Eton College, is he? And particularly not for the teaching of English as a medium of communication. Or maybe it was the fault of his prepper: I can imagine Boris, aged around 9, being given top marks for an essay containing the correct original use of the word ‘titanic’. But it’s staggering – isn’t it? – that in 21st century Britain, a supposedly skilled orator* can talk about making “a titanic success” of Brexit, apparently not anticipating how most ordinary people would interpret that. 

Since then we’ve had “spaffing” something up against a wall – a piece of schoolboy slang which he presumably didn’t anticipate that the BBC would label as sexual innuendo, and evidently didn’t consider to be singularly inappropriate in a discussion about an inquiry into allegations of child abuse.

There, in a nutshell, you have one of the best arguments both for the abolition of private schooling and for total comprehensivization of the state system: the toffs who are seemingly born to rule us don’t actually know how to communicate with ordinary people. That’s why the need the thugs in the nastier sections of the mainstream media to do the bulk of their dirty work for them. Of course, getting others to do your dirty work is a topic on which Johnson really is a bit of an expert, but that’s another story – and one not likely to be published in the Tory tabloids any time soon.

Speaking of being deaf to the connotations of language, we also have his appeal to the spirit of Moses, who spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, during the course of which he offended God so much he was banned from entering the Promised Land. He was also, of course, the man who delivered the 10 Commandments, including those hit numbers: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness”. 

As for ‘Grand Wizards’ … well, perhaps Johnson thought it was a “wizard” name. As for the connotations, I suppose he either didn’t know or didn’t care. Neither is a particularly good option for someone who aspires to be our next Prime Minister. Though, on that theme, I suspect Johnson and his supporters may be considerably over-estimating the appetite of the Great British Public for his putative premiership. Gone are the days when cheery Cockneys would greet his appearance on the streets of the city with the time-honoured cry of “Fuck off, Boris, your Tory tosser!” Very few people, it seems, now like him enough now to indulge in such merry banter.
*Assuming that a gift for oratory is a primary requirement for the Presidency of the Oxford Union, which I’m beginning to doubt.

Sherriff’s masterpiece, translated to film, was good enough.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been pondering the adaptation of R.C.Sheriff’s classic Journey’s End.  It’s no longer our A level set book for WWI Literature, but I took my students to see it anyway (at the splendid Borderlines Film Festival). It was a useful experience for them, giving some indication of life on the front line in the spring of 1918, but I felt the film sold Sheriff’s masterpiece a bit short.

A film is not a play, of course, and we’re 90-odd years down the road from the first staging, so some changes were inevitable, and there are gains as well as losses. One of the features of the original play was the matter of class distinction. As George Bernard Shaw said: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Sherriff grasped this exactly: the class of each character is swiftly established as soon as he opens his mouth, and these distinctions form a significant element in the play. It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to convey all the finer shades of meaning to the greater part of even a British contemporary audience, let alone anyone from a different cultural background. In that respect, the decision to make Trotter a Scouser was a stroke of genius. Next, the issue of Trotter’s tubbiness is sidelined – and that’s not much of a loss. But what is also cut is his (supposed) lack of imagination* which in turn might also hint that, although a decent enough chap, he may not be the brightest spark in the barrel. Actually, though, the loss of that slightly snobbish element could be said to eliminate the play’s greatest weakness.

[We’re moving into spoiler alert territory from this point on, by the way.]

The two changes I take most issue with are the mood of relentless impending doom which is allowed to dominate the film from the very start and the presentation of the character of Stanhope. In a way, I shall argue, the two are quite closely inter-related.

First of all, director Saul Dibbs chose to begin the film with Raleigh’s journey to the front line. Michael Simpson did the same for the BBC version in 1988. Amongst other considerations, such a choice does, of course, underline a very literal interpretation of the play’s title, but that is a relatively minor point and, to be fair, you can hardly expect a film director to resist the challenge of a full-on WWI-setting. So I suppose it is pointless to grouse about the fact that one of the key features of Sherriff’s play is its claustrophobic focus on the bunker – the way that all war-related outdoor “action” actually happens off-stage. Of course, that was a decision largely forced upon the playwright by the realities of the theatre, but he certainly made the most of it: in that fervid atmosphere, the dramas that do explode on stage are intensely personal and thereby give a dimension to the drama which is largely lost in the film, buried as it is under the greater and far more visually exciting real-life horror.

More importantly, when Raleigh asks his uncle to place him in Stanhope’s company, it’s made very clear what a dangerous choice that is – the general knows that a big assault is expected and Stanhope’s company are going to be in the thick of it. This gloomy forecast is heavily and flat-footedly underscored by the endless doom-laden background music. The play, on the other hand, begins with the jocular Hardy trying to dry his sock over a candle, tunelessly humming jolly tunes and joking about Stanhope’s drinking. It is Hardy who suggests to Osborne that the company are going to “get it in the neck”, though Osborne brushes that aside, and the matter is seemingly forgotten the as other characters come on stage. By and large, they seem mainly interested in the quality of the food and the taste of the tea. On a superficial level, it seems that war is a jolly nuisance – it get in the way of meals, and forces on one such discomforts as having to go to bed fully clothed.

The value of this is that, against this seemingly casual, almost light-hearted, backdrop, Stanhope’s emotional volatility quickly emerges as deeply significant. His reaction to discovering that Raleigh has joined his company seems extraordinary and – yes – dramatic (a quality missing from this moment in the film). On top of that, Stanhope’s drinking, his temper, and his nightmare visions of bullets and worms, all help to create a picture of a man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails – and yet, at the same time, doing an extraordinary job as one of the best officers in the regiment. All this is lost in the film, where Stanhope’s drinking and nightmare visions seem entirely of a piece with the doom-laden scenario, and his temper almost disappears entirely. His threat to shoot Hibbert appears merely to be a clever trick rather than (possibly) the almost hysterical reaction of a man living right on the edge.

The greatest loss, in my view, rests on our knowing from the start of the film that these men are doomed. By contrast, in the original play, Sherriff allows that understanding to dawn upon the audience as the play progresses. It’s much more dramatic and moving that way. We watch as Stanhope explains his orders to the others – first breaking the news to the sergeant-major and then to Osborne. Both react in ways that help the audience to understand the full implications: they are going to wire themselves to face the attack, they will not give ground, retreat, or surrender: the only way out is death.

You might think that Sherriff’s original audience would also have known (or guessed) that the play wasn’t going to end happily … well, maybe. Some of them might well have been men who served on the front line, but many others, perhaps the majority, would have had an over-romanticised view of the war. We forget how much our view of WWI has changed since Sherriff’s play was first performed, and how instrumental the play itself was in bringing about that change. Sherriff has been quoted as saying that he never set out to write an anti-war play, and yet the utter criminal futility of the raid in which Osborne is killed would probably have come as a surprise to most of the audience in 1928-29**. Some of them might also have been a bit surprised to hear that the Germans are “quite decent, really” – an element cut out of the film’s script. The youth and vulnerability of the captured German boy is also largely passed over, whereas, in the play the contents of his pockets (chocolate, pencil stubs) emphasise that he’s boy straight out from school.

Speaking of youth and vulnerability, I felt that element was also largely lost in relation to both Stanhope and Raleigh, though their ages are mentioned. The film still casts Stanhope as its hero, but he appears merely as a brave man unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and making the best of it. His drinking and his occasional attack of the heebie-jeebies are entirely understandable and therefore largely unremarkable. Sherriff’s Stanhope is more richly complex: a tragic figure, deeply flawed but all the more heroic because of that, a man haunted from the start by the terrible knowledge that he is at least partially responsible for Raleigh’s arrival in this hell he inhabits. Raleigh’s youth and fresh-faced innocence help to underline the journey that Stanhope has made from excited schoolboy to doomed hero, haunted – amongst other things – by the knowledge that he will almost certainly have to watch while his young friend die. That is why he is so angry with Raleigh, so unfair to him – almost unforgivably so – and that is why the ending of the play is so (at the risk of repeating myself) dramatic: Stanhope faces his worst nightmare and manages to do so with grace, courage and dignity. The film, instead, falls back on blanket coverage of the grim reality of war and the grief of those left behind, all of which is true enough, but (for me, at least) lacked any real impact. Sherriff’s play, by contrast, was ground-breaking, fresh and original. Its power and humanity gave, and still could give, real impetus to a message the world needed – and needs – to hear.

* For a splendid diatribe countering the myth of the more imaginative and sensitive inner worlds of the ‘officer class’ check out Prior’s comments in Pat Barker’sRegeneration.

** The poetry would have had some impact, of course, and Sassoon was already published, but Blunden’s edition of Wifred Owen’s poems wasn’t published until 1931, more than two years after the first performance of Journey’s End.

More, not less, than human

Warning: This post and the article linked to both contain spoilers for “The Shape of Water.”

Shortly before the Oscar winners were announced, The Huffington Post published How ‘The Shape Of Water’ Makes People With Disabilities Feel Less Human by its reporter Elyse Wanshel. Although some comments are offered that defend the movie, the analysis is overwhelmingly negative:

  • “the story also tells people with disabilities that finding a romantic partner is a rarity and that they should hold on to whoever chooses them — even if it’s a monster.”
  • “It also reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are second-rate humans”
  • “without being cured, we’re not going to be loved or worthwhile to another human being”

I can understand why certain aspects “The Shape of Water”, taken out of context and crudely summarised, might cause such disquiet, but it surprised me that the people quoted, who presumably watched the film from start to finish, found such negativity embedded within it. I would argue that, when you take the film as a whole, you get a number of very different messages.

Firstly, and most importantly, the film is clearly meant to be interpreted as myth. The creature, we are told, is worshipped “as a god” in the Amazon. And consider the thoroughly unpleasant Strickland: a name that can be seen as gesturing towards a stricken land, one not very far removed from Eliot’s vision of the Wasteland. After he creatures retaliates against its ill-usage, Strickland is partially maimed. Like the wounded king of Arthurian Legend, his inner darkness made manifest in his black and rotting fingers – and the resulting sickness destroys him. Also like the wounded king, he has guardianship of something holy (the Grail, in the legend; the creature, in the film). Unlike the King, he does not understand the value of what he holds, but instead hates it, abuses it and seeks to destroy it.

Secondly, although muteness is one of Elisa’s defining characteristics, she is shown as intelligent, brave, warm-hearted and competent. She has acquired skills that enable her to communicate effectively with those she loves; in fact, her use of sign language make is possible for her to establish meaningful communication with the creature when the conventionally able have fallen back on misery, pain and violence.

Elisa’s voicelessness represents a number of things – a disability, yes, but also as something that makes her “other”. Symbolically, her scars are the outward and visible sign of inner wounding: she is both literally and metaphorically scarred by the abuse of her childhood. Combined with her femininity, her lack of a voice also makes her appear submissive, powerless and easily dominated.

In contrast, the apparently powerful Strickland is attracted by her silence – he prefers his women that way – but this in itself suggests that he is emotionally disabled, unable to accept communication from others, even from his wife, especially during the act of love.

Unlike Strickland, the creature is open not only to communication but also to learning. It is strong enough to accept vulnerability and dependence on others. It can also learn: after the killing of one cat, it learns how to subdue its appetite and show these creatures affection. If it is a god at all, it is not an omnipotent and omniscient being: not God the Father at all, but perhaps God the Lover.

The Shape of Water actually offers support for what is called the ‘social model’ of disability: Elisa’s marginalisation, as with that of many other key characters (her gay boyfriend, her African-American co-worker) is not the inevitable result of her impairment but is imposed by a sick and ultimately self-destructive phallocentric, heteronormative culture which would give power only to those made in its own image and abuse or crush all those who challenge its dominance in any way – even by simply daring to be different.

As I see it, the “curing” of Elisa is not taking away her identity as a disabled woman. Her voice returns as she struggles to sing, to express her love. Her union with the creature may also represent the restoration and fulfilment of a previously neglected aspect of her life: she was, we are told, a foundling – and, most specifically, one found by water – suggesting that she may already have a strange affinity with that element. If the “healing” had resulted in Elisa “fitting in”, heading back to ‘normal’ life and continuing to work as downtrodden cleaner in an ugly security facility, then that would indeed have been an insult. However, in the final moments of the film, she dies to the ugly grey reality of Cold War America and is transformed: set free to move to a more beautiful and magical place. She breathes through her scars. What has been achieved through the embracing of otherness is not a healing but a transformation – or, even, an apotheosis

If we had PR, would we be in this mess?

Neither Labour nor the LibDems seem to be showing much interest in an electoral pact with each other and with the Greens – though, the last I heard, Caroline Lucas was saying that the door might still be open. It seems to me that Labour are very suspicious of Proportional Representation (PR) – which has surely got to be a deal breaker – and that is deeply, deeply sad.

I say this because, as luck would have it, about a week before the election was called, I took delivery of ‘The Alternative’i and have been dipping into it occasionally, particularly during the long, dark night of the soul which followed a claim that the Tories had hit 48% at the polls. (Incidentally, let’s hope this means the era of the ‘shy Tory’ is now well and truly over).

Anyway, I flipped through to Katie Ghose’s chapter on PR (‘Embracing Electoral Reform’) and it struck me, whilst reading it, that if we had had a decent system of PR, we probably wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now. (If you don’t agree we’re in a mess, it’s probably not worth your while reading any further.) Continue reading “If we had PR, would we be in this mess?”