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.

J. G. Ballard, 1930-2009

Ballard, Modernity, Science Fiction, Short stories, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, Visionary, War

What is there to say?

He showed us strange, alien worlds,  and then we’d look around and realise that we already lived in them. It was a bleak privilege to be a part of the culture he was dissecting, and thus receive his writing in the most direct, most living way possible.

There’s much more to be read about him, and his achievement, here at Ballardian, and the full text of a relatively recent Toby Litt interview with him here.

(first of 6 – others can be accessed here – click on ‘More from Adlefred’ at right and they’re all listed there).

Sensawunda removal machine

Landscape, Science Fiction, Space is deep, Travel writers, Violence, War

The original ‘Star Trek’ remains a fascinating show, not least because of the wondrously strange vistas of the imagination it opens up. You want to meet Apollo? He’s there. You want to visit an earth where the Nazis will win World War II? Check. You want to find out how dead satellites become galaxy spanning AIs? They’ve got it. You want to see Spock turn on, tune in and drop out – and then SMILE, blissfully and self-consciously? It’s all there.

‘Star Trek’ has sensawunda, in spades, even if it does wander at times into the ludicrous. Even my jaw dropped when *echo effect* THEY STOLE SPOCK’S BRAIN… an episode only matched for inadvertent comedy by the utterly ludicrous *echo effect* THEY STOLE NYLIX’S LUNGS… episode of ‘Star Trek – Voyager’, or possibly by the enjoyably nutty ‘Riker at the pandimensional alien barbers’ incidents of ‘The Next Generation’.

But the crew of the Enterprise have a more complex relationship with sensawunda than would first appear. In episode after episode they encounter an external threat, feel overwhelmed by its inexplicable (if wondrous) threateningness, develop a rational understanding of it as a problem, in doing so reduce it to a human scale, and then go on to solve the problem and thus neutralise the wonder.

They rarely – if ever – stand back in amaze at the wonder itself; rather, they perceive it as a threat, and stop it dead. Seen from this point of view, the Enterprise is best described as a sensawunda removal machine; something that exists to support a particular kind of reductive impulse as it seeks to re-frame the cosmic in entirely human, profoundly limiting terms, imposing a simple, binary threat / no threat set of judgements on the vast, endless richnesses of alien space, and wiping out its complex wondrousness accordingly.

Remembering Tim Page

Art, Horror, Photography, War

I’ve just been set thinking about Tim Page by an introduction to one of the stories in this year’s ‘Year’s Best Horror’. He was one of my teenage heroes, perhaps the best photographer to cover the Vietnam War. So, I’ve been rooting round on the web to take another look at his pictures.

What’s striking about them is their combination of formal precision and emotional immediacy. Page was always an artist as much as a journalist, creating images that both described the historical moment and spoke more broadly of the shock, disruption and terrible waste inherent in war.

Aestheticising responses to war, to tragedy in general, have been criticised, but I think they’re terribly important. They distance the shock from the moment, helping to move it from the particular to the universal. Page’s photographs were taken almost forty years ago; but they still function as a powerful and effective comment on events of today.

To use Pound’s formulation (given that he’s been such a strong presence this week), ‘art is news that stays news’. Making art from the moment is a process of distancing meaning from the temporary – making sure that the core is preserved, and that the work created will have all the immediacy of the moment 50, 100, 1,000 years from the moment of its creation.

Non-realist writing of any kind makes that distance as overt as possible. In the current critical climate, that openness lays it open (at least if you’re writing prose fiction) to much negative commentary. For me, the most constructive response to that kind of negativity is not to point to the quality of the work itself but rather to the aesthetics that underlie its relationship with reality.

But back to Tim Page. Arguments about aesthetics are really secondary to the quality and impact of the work itself. Here’s a link to his online gallery, well worth checking out.

I tend to over-intellectualise things; looking at his pictures after writing the above has reminded me that sometimes you’ve just got to step back from all of that, and just look at the work, and take it in, and let it go to work on you. His pictures do that; they’re just fantastic. Enjoy!