hope and glory

Film, Liberties, Politics, War

Years ago, when I was about ten, I briefly had a particularly terrible teacher. He was a hateful, poisonous old man, loathed by all his pupils for his spite and malice. I’m not sure how he ended up teaching, and to this day I really don’t understand how he held onto his job.

For a short while, though, I saw another side to him.

When the Falklands War began, he put a big map of the islands up at the bottom of the school stairs. Every morning he’d carefully move little coloured pins across it, updating us all on the latest positions of the British and Argentinian Forces.

There was an entirely uncomplicated, entirely boyish glee to him as he did this. A child myself, I saw the ten year old in him. I imagined him back in the ’40s, his life still rich with love and promise, following the Allied troops as they fought for Europe, marking out their progress on a map with his little pins.

He’d have been old enough to understand the scope and importance of their achievement, but still too young to really take in how much pain and loss that victory contained. Perhaps his war had been some sort of ‘Hope and Glory’ experience:

And so when another war came towards the end of his life, he was full of joy. For a moment, he could be a child again. I still loathed him, but I was happy for him too – glad and even touched that, even just for a moment, he could find a way past the fog of bitterness that normally enveloped him.

I’m reminded of him now, when I see Michael Howard rattling sabres at Spain:

There’s that same nostalgia there; at once a yearning for and a re-experiencing of a simpler, happier time. And there’s that same joy at the thought of a Great British war, that same absolute blindness to any of its darker aspects.

But what’s forgivable – even touching – in an ageing primary school teacher is appalling in a senior British politican. Brexit as currently managed is government by fantasy and nostalgia. All adult considerations are put aside, replaced with a short-sighted, childish glee that – if allowed to reign unchecked – could cost us all so much, for so little.

I think even my bitter old teacher would have seen that. He taught us history; and the one thing he was always very clear about was that we didn’t fight the Second World War against Europe. We fought for it and as a part of it:

So, to my surprise, I almost find myself wishing that he was here now, so he could teach the Michael Howards of this world exactly what it means to walk away from, to so casually dream of shattering, that peaceful union we’re all a part of; that union that past generations fought so hard, and gave so much, to create.

bowie’s in space

Aliens, Art, Ballard, Modernity, Politics, Science Fiction

It’s been fascinating watching people mourn David Bowie. There’s a sadness there that I suspect comes from more than just the loss of a major creative icon. I think we’re also mourning the loss of the conditions that created and supported that kind of icon.

Bowie’s iconic status was a product of certain cultural and technological factors. Like all the gods of rock, he came up in a world with relatively few ways of creating and sharing media. And when most people are only spectators, and there are hardly any other channels or stations to turn over to, then it’s that much easier to dominate the the national conversation.

Our modern media world has blown that cosy homogeneity apart. There are so many different ways to enjoy media, and so much of it out there. The idea of any sort of mass canon is dead – instead, there’s only personal gathering of personally meaningful music, film, TV, games and just about any other kind of content you can imagine. These days, we’re all micro-curators of our own micro-channels, enjoying a range of media fully shared with at most probably a few dozen people.

Of course, Bowie was never cosy. But he needed a homogeneous, coherent cosiness to push against, to become coherent himself. That pushing against defined him in ways that would be impossible now. You can push against a hub; with a bit of effort, you can push against a node – but how do you push against a decentralized network? You can’t – if you try, it just melts away. The internet routes around rebellion as quickly and efficiently as it routes around blockages.

And there’s one other thing to mourn. Bowie wasn’t just a media construct. He was also built by the drama schools and generous state benefits of the 60s, supported by a society that understood that creativity both has profound value and needs time and investment to bear fruit. Those conditions helped post-imperial Britain understand itself in new, exciting ways. They no longer exist.

So we’re not just mourning David Bowie. We’re mourning the condition of full-spectrum stardom, broken by modern media. And we’re mourning the mirror we helped him – and so many like him – hold up to us all, shattered in the name of prudence.

The dark young of Arsene Lupin

Gentleman thieves, Narrative, Politics

A weekend of helping H move into her new place, previewing Zali’s new album (which is fantastic), and grooving to Maurice Leblanc’s ace crime novel ‘The Hollow Needle’. La! North London life, but as this is a blog about writing I’m going to focus on Leblanc (tho’ there’ll be more on Z’s new album when it’s out and about – back catalogue downloadable here).

As I’m sure you know, Maurice Leblanc was the creator of fictional French master criminal, Arsene Lupin. In his day, Lupin rivalled pulp heroes such as Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake or Raffles (the notorious Gentleman Thief, and come to think of it his closest British equivalent) for popularity; but there’s a Gallic sophistication to Lupin’s adventures that’s absolutely lacking in those of his cross-Channel competitors.

Lupin’s at once profoundly urbane and wildly manipulative, a fascinating cross between an Oscar Wilde protagonist and modern uber-mythmaker Kayser Soze. Like Wilde’s heroes, his very real charm is offset by a sense of amoral recklessness; like Kayser Soze, he understands the value of enmeshing his opponents in a narrative over which he has complete control. Lupin achieves his ends through a kind of personalised propaganda, which Leblanc describes thus:

‘the very mechanism of his way of setting to work, his special tactics, his letters to the press, his threats, the announcement of his thefts, in short the whole bag of tricks which he employed to bamboozle his selected victim and throw him into such a state of mind that the victim almost offered himself to the plot contrived against him and that everything took place, as it were, with his own consent.’

In fact, the whole plot of the novel is one, gigantic con-trick, revealed at its climax to be nothing more than a series of convenient fictions created to support the book’s real hero – Lupin himself – as he moves towards the achievement of his final, and in fact rather admirable, goal. And it’s not giving anything away to say that; key to the joy of reading Leblanc’s stories is the way in which the reader, too, expects to be and is enmeshed in the partial, controlling narratives that Lupin creates.

Fundamental to the creation of those narratives is Lupin’s masterly management of the media of his day. Whether manipulating journalists, publishing in the letters pages, placing just the right adverts, or taking a controlling interest in useful publications, Lupin is always in control of the story. That control is part of what makes him such a fascinating figure for a modern audience; taken historically, it shows Leblanc as a remarkably astute social and even political thinker.

Writing in the opening decades of the century, Leblanc both demonstrated an in-depth understanding, and developed a fascinating critique, of the ways in which an ostensibly disinterested mass media (‘we don’t make the news, we only report it’) can be subverted to serve the interests of a particular controlling elite.

Lupin’s fundamental decency prevents him from excessive abuse of such media; those who came after him would have no such qualms. Twentieth century history is jam-packed with figures of various different kinds – dictators, deciders, chief executives, celebrities – who built power on highly sophisticated perception management.

Lupin was a criminal because he was a thief; these people are thieves too, stealing choice from those they rule and replacing it with a carefully managed, entirely manufactured consent for plots contrived against some or all of those that fall within their sphere of influence.

So Leblanc’s light hearted style, and Lupin’s urbane gaiety, hide a dark, prophetic secret. Theft is a crime against property; but, rather than an end in itself, it’s really only a satisfyingly profitable by-product of perception management, a crime against choice that will as the century progresses come to be one of its unique and defining characteristics.

Oh, and if you want to check out some Lupin, I’d recommend starting with the new Penguin Classics translation of some of Leblanc’s short stories, available here…

Eyes wide shut

America, Fantasy, Politics

Been going back through the notebooks, wondering what to say today, and I lighted on an entry from a while back. The papers had been full of descriptions of Blair and Bush’s relationship in the run up to the Iraq War. Determined to be involved, Blair kept close to Bush and took his assurances about post war planning, etc, as truth.

This led to a confidence in the efficacy of the invasion and conquest of Iraq as a means to establish democracy that was, in retrospect, misplaced. ‘Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it, does he?’ commented Blair after a meeting with Jacques Chirac. But in fact Chirac did get it.

‘[Blair] discovered too late that Bush was only nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraq enterprise. A stark picture emerges of Bush making promises and giving assurances to Blair, which were not delivered because Iraq was being run by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, neither of whom were very interested in their junior British ally.’

Quite apart from the way that this exposes two key Western leaders as wilfully out-of-touch fantasists, it’s interesting because of what it says about the relationship between knowledge and the particular kind of fantasising that they indulged in.

Unlike early Middle Eastern warrior T. E. Lawrence, who saw himself as a ‘dreamer of the day’, one of a group of ‘dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible’, Blair and Bush were dreamers of the night. They dreamed with their eyes closed, privileging inner certainty over external truth.

So, they dismissed those with external knowledge as being at best pessimists, at worst misguided. ‘He just doesn’t get it, does he?’. And that’s one of the great ways of exposing this kind of fantasy.

Poke it with the stick of subjectivity, of hard rational truth; if its defence is either just to dismiss the stick, or hit back with an argument built on an entirely internalised logic structure that takes no account of the external world, then you know you’re talking to people busy dreaming with their eyes shut – and that someone else is probably doing the real work, somewhere else entirely.  

Your 20th century boy

Culture, Narrative, Novelists, Politics

In the context of yesterday’s comments about the self-justifying self, I’ve been thinking about Michael Moorcock’s ‘Between the Wars’ series of books (‘Byzantium Endures’, ‘The Laughter of Carthage’, ‘Jerusalem Commands’, ‘The Vengeance of Rome’), dealing with the adventures of Maxim Pyat in the 20th Century.

Maxim’s a fascinating character. Both naïve adventurer and lethal manipulator, he at once lives through and embodies some of the worst parts of the last century. From an Eastern European starting point, he travels the world, encountering the best and (far more often) the worst of humanity at every point.

In narrative terms, Moorcock uses him as a kind of fictional mouse-pointer, guiding him around the world to highlight the moments and processes that led up to the Holocaust.

This focus on history makes the books didactic in the best sense; they support a richer, deeper understanding of the 20th Century, one that sees the Holocaust not as an isolated incident but as part of a broader pattern of deep inhumanity that in many ways is still continuing.

But there’s more to Maxim than mere didacticism. As the narrator of all four books, he’s a very developed character in his own right. Key to understanding him is realising just how he manages his own story.

The gulf between his self-image and his actions is huge. His behaviour shows him up as being variously a con-man, drug addict, thief, rapist, pederast and worse. But he consistently presents and understands himself as a thwarted visionary and frustrated romantic.

That broken self awareness is rooted in his situation. Pyat treats others badly; he often presents himself as having been treated worse. His self-deception is in part a function of those perceived or actual brutalities, a necessary defence mechanism as he becomes a kind of emblematic punchbag for the worst that the 20th Century had to offer.

That self deception builds inevitably to the final book’s emotionally shattering climax, but it also performs a valuable thematic function. It helps explore how victimhood can be the most dangerous mask of all, offering a perpetual and immutable moral high ground that legitimises the worst brutalities as a protective response to threat.

Solomon Kane 2007

America, Fantasy, Politics, Short stories

It’s an odd thing, but when Robert E. Howard (yup, the Conan bloke) wrote his Solomon Kane stories, he provided an uncannily precise analysis of a certain kind of American exceptionalism.

Solomon Kane is a sixteenth century Puritan with a thirst for justice, who travels the world righting wrongs. He’s occasionally assisted by an aged Voodoo priest; he carries (the original) Solomon’s wand, introduced in a wonderfully offhand way; and he always fights evil, and he always wins out.

At one point, in ‘The Moon of Skulls’, Howard gives a very interesting description of Kane’s character and motivation. Here are the key elements:

‘He never sought to analyse his motives and he never wavered, once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings… A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, and avenge all crimes against right and justice.’

The contrast between the universality of Kane’s goals and the limitations of his methods is fascinating. Implicit in his character is a lack of a need for knowledge, a sense that by just acting he’ll be right.

You can read that as an illustration of Nietzsche’s ‘noble morality’, whereby the strong perceive any action they make as being by-definition right – but it comes alive politically when you compare it with the famous ‘reality based community’ quote.

Journalist Ron Suskind, interviewing an unnamed White House insider in Autumn 2004, was told that:

‘guys like [Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which [the insider] defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”’

Here, too, is a rejection of a judicious, empirical study of reality – ‘cold and logical reasonings’ – for something far more impulsive. It’s implicit in the rhetoric, which neatly separates thinking from doing: ‘we’re history’s actors… and you… will be left to just study’.

It’s the Solomon Kane ethos writ large, expressed at the level of empire rather than person. I’ve always felt that much US pulp fiction is America dreaming about itself – but who’d have thought that Robert E. Howard could ever have dreamt of the Neo-Cons with such force and precision?

Space is Deep

Aliens, Horror, Music, Novelists, Politics, Science Fiction

A.R. Yngve’s comment below set me thinking about the deepness of space, and a writer who’s dealt with its profoundly dislocating emptiness more successfully than most – A. E. Van Vogt.

Van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of the Space Beagle’ (or ‘Space Bagel’, as it’s known round these parts) couldn’t really exist without that awareness. Its protagonist, Dr. Elliott Grosvenor, is a Nexialist. That is, he uses a variety of disciplines (psychology, hypnosis, etc) to maintain the sanity of a crew faced with an overwhelming external blankness.

The need for Nexialism is established partially by the action of the book itself; Elliott spends much effort managing relationships between different political factions on-board ship, eventually having to stave off disaster by taking it over entirely.

It’s also justified by some disarmingly bleak, off-hand comments about how many spaceships just disappear in the void. Their crews are assumed to have had collective nervous breakdowns, either crippling / destroying their ships as political battles get out of hand and turn into real conflicts, or just vanishing on crackpot, unachievable missions.

For Van Vogt, Nexialism is humanity’s response to the problem of the void. On exposure, he sees us as either dissolving into it or fleeing into cataclysmic claustrophobia. To my knowledge, he’s the only SF writer to not only acknowledge the void issue, but also make its solution a key plot component.

There’s also an interesting broader point to be made. Nexialism is a response to a very real existential shock – there’s nothing out there! It exists as a kind of conscious / subconscious protector and lubricant, forcing spaceship crews to work constructively together rather than collapse into anarchy.

It’s administered by someone who’s effectively an elite priest figure, synthesising all human knowledge for the benefit of the less enlightened. Van Vogt’s description of it points on one level to a politics that despairs of human nature; incapable of dealing constructively with the harsh truths of life, we need to be coerced into ignoring them in order to achieve anything at all by manipulative, all powerful leaders.

That’s unsettlingly close to the Straussian philosophy that – as I understand it – lies behind current Neo-Con thinking. I find that kind of worldview pretty repugnant, and I don’t know anything about Van Vogt’s politics, so perhaps after all I’m being unfair to him.

Maybe he wasn’t trying to do anything more complex than make that point that humanity evolved to live locally on planets – and that stepping out of that into space is such a huge change in scale that we can’t help but risk breakdown by doing it.

Oh, and today’s entry title is a nod to one of my favourite every song titles – ‘Space is Deep’, by the mighty Hawkwind. So, to help you go in search of space, here’s a link to the song, plus a niftily cosmic set of images to go with it.


Big things exploding, forever

Narrative, Politics, Science Fiction, Television

I was reading about the militarization of space, and ended up pondering the militarization of science fiction TV. Take the Star Trek franchise, for example – a set of shows whose heroes are almost without exception members of the military, working compliantly within military structures to achieve the goals it sets for them.

Building on that, I went through the other military based / related SF shows I’ve seen. Immediate ones that sprung to mind were Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, Andromeda, Battlestar Galactica, Quantum Leap, Timecop, The X-Files and Space: Above and Beyond.

These are some of the key US SF shows, and all of them support a view of society in which the military – or related civil institutions – represent the finest exemplars of that society, and are battling to preserve its coherence from one kind of threat or another.

There’s an implied worldview there that’s both fascinating and rather worrying. These are very popular shows. Their viewers (myself included) are clearly happy to buy uncritically into the concept of military or militarised action as the final solution to any problems in dealing with any external, ‘other’ threat.

That’s worrying, for obvious reasons – and it’s also one more symptom of our more general obsession with violence as entertainment. If TV has its way, we’ll all come to see the future as big things blowing each other up, out of a deep rooted and unchallengeable sense of personal righteousness; or, at a more intimate scale, agents of governance stepping in to solve problems before which civilians can only ever be passive.

Bombing the alien

Aliens, Liberties, Novelists, Politics, Science Fiction

Continuing to ponder the alien, in the context of bombings. Recapping yesterday, Lem sees the alien as being inexplicable in common human terms; it happens without apparently comprehensible cause or effect. We can be physically proximate to it, but we can never approach it rationally or emotionally.

So what does this have to do with bombings? Well, it’s a question of motivation. Speaking after the recent failed attacks in Glasgow and London, PM Gordon Brown described this kind of terrorism as being perpetrated by ‘a few extremists who wish to practise violence and inflict maximum loss of life in the interests of a perversion of their religion.’ While in power, Tony Blair consistently used a comparable formulation, talking of an ‘extremism based on a perversion of Islam’.

According to both Brown and Blair, terrorist motivation is rooted in wrong headed faith. Key aspects of faith are that it’s spontaneous; it’s absolute; and it’s irrational. Made wrong-headed, ‘perverted’, it becomes even more so. Given this definition of terrorist motivation, terrorist activity becomes a force of nature – or more appositely, an act of god. It’s something that just happens.

That implied ‘it just happens’ is fascinating. It moves terrorist activity into the realm of the alien, making it something that can’t be understood or engaged with on rational terms.

It can’t be predicted – so sweeping action against anyone who might conceivably be / become a terrorist is justified. It has no clear context – so trying to understand it as a response to (say) the invasion and occupation of Iraq is rendered futile. And it will never go away – so substantial measures against it *have* to be taken, because it’s become a perpetual, ongoing threat.