Monday 31 January 2011

The greater honour

The tunnels are narrow, hot and clammy. Crawling along, even a short passage, is claustrophobic and uncomfortable. This is Chu Chi, a portion of the underground workings once used by the Vietcong during the ‘American War’, part of a sort of theme park, which I can only describe as Cong World. It’s not far from Ho Chi Minh City, the Saigon that was, where you will also find the War Remnants Museum, formerly the War Crimes Museum.

It’s all part of the mythology of the Vietnam War. Is there any conflict, I have to ask, more shrouded in mythology than Vietnam? In the midst of all of the little myths there is the big one – that America ‘lost’ the war. It did not. Such a contention is an abuse of the facts of history.

The simple truth is that the Americans won all of the major battles; that after the Tet Offensive of 1968 the Vietcong, the southern communist guerrillas, were a broken force and the North Vietnamese Army badly bruised. It was, in a sense, their Dien Bien Phu, a reverse of the defeat inflicted on the French in 1954.

If the war was ‘lost’ it was not lost by the soldiers but the politicians, by those who mismanaged the affair so dreadfully. There was also the dolchstoss - for once a meaningful expression -, the stab in the back, administered by much of the national press, ill-informed at one moment, lying at the next. Many of the reports verged on a form of treason, doing so much to undermine the morale of the nation, acting little better than a kind of communist fifth-column. I’ve met former veterans in Georgia, just boys when they returned from the war, spat on as ‘baby killers.’

I’ve been trying to build up a picture of the war from the ground, from the point of view of the ordinary American soldier. Here I have to thank Bob Mack, who served in the 1st Signal Brigade based at Nha Trang from 1967 to 1968, for sending me a copy of A Volunteer from America, a tremendous piece of work, one of the most vivid memoirs I have ever read. The pictures shown here are his also. Bob also runs his own blog, Be sure you are RIGHT, then go ahead (, a conservative delight!

Bob arrived in Vietnam from a station in Germany, immediately becoming one of the FNGs – fucking new guys. This particular FNG was sent to Nha Trang on the south central coast of what was then the Republic of Vietnam, supposedly a ‘safe’ sector. How safe the ensuing Tet Offensive was to show.

From my visit to Chu Chi I got a rough idea how the communist guerrillas used to live. I was under the mistaken expression that the Americans, when not on patrol or combat duty, were much more securely housed. Not so, not when one is also obliged to live in bunkers, places where the rats were the greater nuisance. And, oh my, what rats they were, a foot-long, burrowing endlessly, fearlessly entering ‘living’ quarters, feasting on whatever scraps they could find.

That was one enemy. The other, of course, came in a human form, also from all directions, another kind of scavenger. Conventional war is bad but at least one knows one’s opponents, one knows his dispositions and placements. In Vietnam the enemy was something of a chameleon: a fisherman at one moment could turn into a guerrilla fighter at the next. I can’t begin to understand how wearing this must have been on the nerves. Bob describes a return from a spot leave in Thailand thus;

…Dun Muang Airport…was not a happy place – too many men with guts knotted in dread of the prospect of returning to the hellholes from which they had recently been paroled. One poor soul broke down completely, crying and twitching while he babbled out his own obituary. A pair of G. I.s led him off to calm down while the rest of us looked down and pretended not to notice…

The Tet Offensive itself hit Nha Trang particularly hard. For a time the communists controlled much of the city before they were dislodged by a counter-offensive. Here and elsewhere ‘liberation’ was accompanied by murder. In Hue alone allied forces (which included units from the Republic of Korea, who had a particular loathing for the communists) discovered over 2,800 burial sites, containing the bodies of local teachers, doctors and political leaders. Just how miserable life was to be under what was effectively a form of colonial rule from the North the people of the South were to discover after 1975.

By then the Americans were long gone, the last troops leaving in March 1973. I met people in Saigon- the locals still use that name-, one-time members of the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam, including a former officer who spent twenty years in a ‘re-education’ camp. That was his personal tragedy, one example in so many others. I can’t help but feel that the people of South Vietnam, a legally constituted state, were abandoned and betrayed. But they were not abandoned by the American military, which performed a credible service in the most trying and difficult of circumstances. Theirs is the greater honour.

Sunday 30 January 2011

Carry on Sex

I take pleasure in new discoveries, of books, of movies, of places, of ideas and of people. Thanks to a fellow blogger called Glen, who, amongst other things, writes about individuals and events associated with Kent, his home county (Kent Today & Yesterday), I became aware of Hattie, a biopic about the late Hattie Jacques, a British comedy actress, broadcast earlier this month by the BBC.

I confess the name meant nothing to me, though in fact I recognised her from watching occasional appearances in episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, a classic comedy show which I bought on DVD last summer with the intention of reviewing. In contrast I remembered John Le Mesurier, her husband and fellow actor, quite clearly from television repeats of an old sitcom called Dad’s Army, focusing on the comic antics of a Home Guard unit during the Second World War. In this he played Sergeant Wilson, a rather louche, languid sort of chap, obviously public school, a sharp and amusing counter-point to Captain Mainwaring, the pompous and pretentious lower-middle class commander, so obviously discomforted by his subordinate’s effortless social superiority.

I finally managed to see Hattie on BBC iPlayer, followed by a brief spot of research on Jacques herself. A fat, matronly sort of figure, she clearly played up to this, making her name in a long run of British comedy films with the title of Carry On this, that or the other. I mean no disrespect when I say that these movies are prime examples of British working class humour, lots of double entendres and sexual references of a sort of naughty seaside postcard variety, the kind of thing that does not, I imagine, travel all that well.

Hattie, which I take to be a true account of part of the actress’ life, focused principally on a love affair she had with one John Schofield, such a contrast in every way with Le Mesurier, lower class and roughly spoken, not at all the gentleman.

Now, I should say that I’m not easily discomforted when it comes to matters concerning sexual relationships. I’m tolerant of others and I’m adventurous myself. Having said that, I found the relationship between the three people depicted in the drama risible and oddly bizarre. If I say that Schofield, by his own demand, moved in to the master bedroom with Hattie in her own home, while Le Mesurier was shuffled off to the attic, all while their two young sons were living under the same roof, you may have some idea why I felt like this.

She wanted John to stay; he did not want to go; he did not want to damage her career by the scandal of a divorce. But, my goodness, surely the persona of the unflustered gentleman can be pushed too far? What kind of man, I have to ask, would tolerate such a situation in his own home; what kind of woman would find such an arrangement tolerable? Am I being naïve; are there people like this; is there some kind of vicarious sexual pleasure in humiliation? I felt both sorry for Le Mesurier, for his discomfiture, and angry, for his lack of assertiveness, at one and the same time.

In the end, for all the sexual novelty, the whole silly ménage a trios was just so chintz curtains, furry lavatory seats and mock-Tudor suburbia, all so vulgar and petty-bourgeois, a farcical and comic slice of real life that might very well have served as a script for a Carry On movie.

Oliver’s Head

Today marks the four hundredth anniversary of one of the more bizarre events in English history- the public execution of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, all attainted by Parliament for high treason, arising from their part in the trial and execution of Charles I in on the same day in1649. It was bizarre because all three men were already dead and thus, it might be imagined, beyond all temporal punishment. It was really just an act of symbolic justice, or frustration, in which the condemned were exhumed, their remains then hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the traditional punishment for traitors.

I have mixed feelings about Oliver Cromwell, at once the greatest commoner and the greatest traitor in our history. The best verdict ever passed on him was by a man who knew him well - Edward Hyde, first earl of Clarendon, the chief minister of Charles II. In his History of the Rebellion he writes;

In a word, as he was guilty of many crimes against which Damnation is denounced, and for which hell-fire is prepared, so he had some good qualities which have caused the memory of some men in all Ages to be celebrated; and he will be look’d upon by posterity as a brave badd man.

A brave, bad man who took a remarkable journey: from burial with all honour among kings at Westminster Abbey to the ignominy of Tyburn just over two years later. How are the mighty fallen, not only in the midst of battle.

In David Copperfield Mad Mr Dick is continually troubled by the question of King Charles’ Head. He might just as well have been troubled by that of Cromwell, which had a far longer afterlife, in and out of the public eye.

After his ‘execution’ his body was cast into a common pit while the head was put on a spike above Westminster Hall, a warning to all the others who would never stand in his place. There it remained for almost twenty-five years, finally being blown down in a storm, disappearing in the streets of London. Despite the offer of a ‘substantial reward’ for its safe return it did not finally resurface until 1710, then in the possession of one Claudius du Puy, a Swiss-French collector of curios, who displayed it in his London museum.

From a sinister warning looming above the skies of London it descended into a prop in a kind of black comedy. After the death of Puys in 1738 it once more vanished from public view before coming into the possession in the late eighteenth century of one Samuel Russell, a failed comic actor and notorious drunkard, who was rumoured to be a descendent of the Lord Protector. Apparently he passed the ‘sacred relic' - his own expression - among his friends during their inebriate sessions, causing further erosion to the features. He finally sold it in 1799 to three brothers by the name of Hughes, who used it as a centrepiece in an exhibition of Cromwell-related items.

The daughter of one the brothers, failing to interest public museums in the curio, sold it on in 1815 to Josiah Wilkinson. It was to remain in his family’s possession until it was finally interred in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Cromwell’s alma mater, in early 1960. Not a bad fate in the end, really, to come back to Cambridge, a place for all sorts of heads, old and new, bad and good.

Saturday 29 January 2011

Death and transfiguration

I love dance; I love to dance. Salsa is my dance of choice, something I do rather well, considering I only took it up a few years ago. When I was little it was ballet. I took lessons from the age of five onwards, passing through the various grades, right up to the time just before I went to prep school. Yes, I wanted to be a ballerina, every little girl’s dream. In the end I realised that I did not have the commitment, I did not have the ambition and I did not have an obsession with perfection.

Perfection, that’s what Black Swan is about, the relentless pursuit of perfection, perfection for oneself, perfection for others. This is not a great movie - there are too many clichés concerning female sexuality, psychological frigidity and breakdown for that - but it’s bold, stylish, visually seductive and highly engaging. Above all it's worth seeing for the performance of Natalie Portman, a pirouette of perfection. I don’t like making predictions –I’m invariably wrong! – but I’m guessing that she will win the Oscar for Best Actress, just as Colin Firth will win Best Actor for his part in The King’s Speech. So place your bets now!

I’m dancing too fast. Let me just pause and say that Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a film set around a New York ballet company’s fresh staging of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Thomas Leroy, the imperious and slightly seedy artistic director, played by Vincent Cassel, as well as planning a novel and starker production is also looking for a new swan to replace Beth Macintyre, the company’s fading and aging star, a brilliant cameo performance by Winona Ryder, echoes, one suspects, of real life. He alights on Nina Sayers (Portman), a dancer who has all of the technical accomplishment to take on a demanding part.

There is only one problem: Nina can play the virginal White Swan, indeed she might be said to have been born for the part, but there is a dark underside – for she also has to take on the role of her evil twin, the Black Swan. Leroy’s principle concern is that his new protégé lacks enough experience of life, enough sensual experience, to play the Black Swan. Here she has to do more than dance; she has to sizzle. To help her ‘loosen up’ he sets masturbation as a homework assignment!

The whole movie is about dualities, about white and black, about good and evil, about doppelgangers, real and imagined. Nina is a vulnerable character to begin with, made more vulnerable in pursuit of darkness, the shadows in her own mind. It’s particularly difficult for her because her experience of real life is almost non-existent. She has emotional and psychological problems, caused not just by her own obsessions, obsessions which steadily turn into nightmares, but by the usual suspect – mummy!

Nina, you see, lives at home with her mother, a single parent, a super performance by Barbara Hershey, chilly, manipulative and controlling. She herself was a dancer, though one who never emerged from the corps de ballet. She is clearly living vicariously through Nina, whom she keeps in a cocoon of childhood, a substitute for her own failures and inadequacies. There is also a slight undercurrent, one suspects, of resentment and jealousy.

Into this complex mix Leroy introduces a new dancer, Lily, brilliantly played by Mila Kunis. What Lily lacks in technique she makes up for in emotional sensuality and experience of life. Here, now, is the central tension of the movie, a fresh duality. Nina is both threatened by Lily and attracted to Lily. Why is she there? Is she a friend or an enemy? Is she attempting to undermine Nina, to replace her? Is Leroy using her as part of plan to make Nina less frigid, less virginal? She is eventually selected as an alternate, though if this is to encourage or to sidestep Nina is uncertain. The ambiguities here are never fully resolved.

Nina both rises to the challenge while descending deeper into isolation and madness, all accompanied by ever more alarming hallucinations. In some ways the movie is difficult to pinpoint in terms of genre. It’s billed as a psychological thriller or as psychological horror. There are certainly elements of both, a distinct gothic veneer with some pronounced creepy moments. I was reminded at points of Suspira, one of my all-time favourite movies, which also happens to be set against the background of dance. If I tell you that Aronofsky lists his influences as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella The Double, then you may very well grasp both the approach and the implied ambiguity. There are also slight David Cronenberg overtones, the sort of gross body alterations that one associates with this director!

But I read Black Swan more simply as a story of paranoia and breakdown, of delusions heightened by the pressures of reality, by betrayals real and imagined. I cannot say just how impressed I was by Portman, an actress I’ve never previously rated very highly. When she finally appears on stage as the Black Swan, having discovered her dark side - by what process I am not going to reveal – I was completely overwhelmed along with the audience in the theatre. That scene, those moments, were the highlight of the whole movie, only equalled by her death – literal – as the deceived and betrayed White Swan. This is death and transfiguration; in the end, as she says, she attained perfection.

Thursday 27 January 2011

The word of man

I mentioned last November that this year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Authorised or King James Bible, one of the great landmarks of English literature. I’ve since discovered one or two additional interesting facts about the history of a book that was never, in fact, ‘authorised’ by James or anyone else.

As Derek Wilson writes in the January issue of History Today, James may have set the translation in motion but he neither paid anything towards its publication nor did he promote its use. Although the new translation got a royal nod of approval, it was only ‘appointed’ to be read in churches, not commanded. Other versions continued to be favoured according to taste, including the puritan Geneva Bible, translated by exiles during the reign of Mary Tudor.

The original publication, moreover, was beset with all sorts of problems, largely to do with inadequate proof reading. In one of the verses in Matthew’s Gospel ‘Judas’ was substituted for ‘Jesus’. In the account of the crucifixion given in Luke Jesus is said to have been executed with two ‘other’ malefactors. Fundamental errors and poor production meant that the new Bible was slow to catch on. Robert Barker, the book’s first publisher, was unable to recoup his outlays, with the result that he finally ended his life in a debtor’s prison.

Even twenty years after the original publication there were still proof reading and printing problems. A 1631 edition was so bad that it came to be known as the Wicked Bible, omitting the word ‘not’ from the commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ In another place God’s ‘greatness’ was misprinted as God’s ‘great asse.’ No, I’m not joking!

The Authorised Version only really started its steady advance after William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, banned the Geneva Bible, far too puritan for his High Anglican taste. Even then, mirroring the politics of the day, there was a kind of civil war between the holy books, with the Authorised Version only gradually winning out over its Calvinist rival. Its final triumph came with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The paradox here is that by this time the language used in the 1611 translation was already antiquated in the way that Shakespeare was antiquated. But this only added to its charm and authority, giving it a central role in the rediscovery of a more authentic religion and a more authentic England, uncorrupted by the traumas of the Civil Wars and all that followed.

It was now that the translation, always intended for recitation in church, became a central part of public worship, helped along by the fact that there was no alternative. It was, if you like, the only word of God. But it also took its place alongside the poems and plays of Shakespeare as the word in English, whose beauty and lustre is increased by the passage of time.

The Poison Dwarf

Most of the leading cadres of the Third Reich were, on a simple human level, tiresome bores, Martin Bormann being the most boring of all. There are exceptions, most notably Hermann Goring, the regime’s number-one sybarite, a sort of cross between Nero and Falstaff. But the personality who fascinates me most is Josef Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, widely known, even among his own party comrades, as the poison dwarf.

Dwarf he certainly was; of large head, slight frame and low stature, he was born with a club foot. In every way he was the antithesis of the Nazi ideal of the Aryan superman, all so much ideological window-dressing. He was also an intellectual, of a sort, in a movement made up of so many thuggish boneheads. Above all he was a propagandist of outstanding brilliance, one who always knew exactly how to tailor a political message. As a speaker he was, at a visceral level, even better than Hitler, evidenced, above all, in his infamous 1943 Total War oration.

Now he is the subject of a new biography – Joseph Goebbels by Peter Longerich, published recently in Germany, with an English translation planned. It’s based on a detailed study of the Propaganda Minister’s diaries – he was a life long scribbler -, emphasising the personal as much as the political. He is depicted as a depraved sexual obsessive, full of mawkish sentimentality.

His affairs during his period of power were notorious. Control over the German film industry gave him control over the casting couch, earning him another sobriquet – the ram. Looking at him, looking at his obvious lack of physical attraction, he seems to be a classic example of Henry Kissinger’s dictum, that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. But even before he achieved senior office he had a variety of affairs, which suggests a personality with sufficient power to overcome his physical handicaps.

Paradoxically, though he promoted the racial ideals of the regime, even if he did not represent them, the closest he came to downfall was over a passionate romance he had with Lida Baarova, an actress and a Slav. It was only after Magda, Goebbels’ wife, appealed to Hitler, that he was forced to drop her. Thereafter his standing in the inner circle went in to decline, only to be revived during the war, when he became Hitler’s most important lieutenant and the real face of the Third Reich.

I’ve read some of Goebbels’ diaries, fascinating documents, an exploration of his personal politics and his psyche. The most fascinating of all is that for the period of 1925 to 1926, leading up to the point when he was appointed Gauleiter of Berlin. Never intended for publication, they give away far more than the later documents. He writes in a staccato, machine-gun like fashion, brief sentences, often little more than exclamations. This is an obsessively vain individual, preeningly so, almost school girlish in his expressions of sentiment, most dripping of all when it comes to his descriptions of Hitler. There is no better illustration that evil is not always banal. Sometimes it’s histrionic.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

The Man who was Chesterton

One is invariably being pursued by one’s own prejudices; it takes speed and dexterity to avoid being caught! Unfortunately Paul Johnson, journalist and historian, is not quick enough. In a recent review of The Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, a compilation of quotations by Bevis Hiller, he suggests that prejudice (“the BBC establishment has always hated him”) was responsible for a failure to televise the author’s Father Brown stories, though they are, in Johnson’s words, ‘a natural.’

A quick spot of research shows that this is not true. Some of the stories were televised, though not by the BBC. In 1974 ITV, the commercial television station, broadcast a series of thirteen episodes, staring the late Kenneth More in the title role. The series is still available on Amazon.

Johnson goes on to suggest reasons for this alleged hostility by the ‘establishment’, mentioning and dismissing Chesterton’s alleged anti-Semitism in passing, before alighting on the real cause as he sees it - the author’s Catholicism. Knowing Johnson, knowing something of his own background, I really have to say he would, wouldn’t he!

The more likely explanation, the explanation I see, is that Chesterton was one of those uneven writers who just stopped being fashionable. He stands in this regard in the same pantheon as Rudyard Kipling and Hilaire Belloc, somewhere on the outer reaches of imagination and taste; of their times, not ours.

This does not mean to say that he is a bad writer; far from it. I admit that my experience of his work is fairly limited, confined mostly to The Man who was Thursday, a novel published just over a hundred years ago, and some shorter pieces. I haven’t read the Father Brown stories and probably never shall because I consider the detective genre to be a lower class of fiction. There you are: a prejudice just caught up with me!

Still, sifting through The Wit and Wisdom has opened up possibilities, opened up some of the intellectual depths of this Oscar Wilde of the conservative right. I use this comparison deliberately simply because Chesterton made, in brilliant aphoristic style, one of the most telling observations about the fate of Wilde that I have ever read;

We feted and flattered Wilde because he preached such an attitude [a new immorality], then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out.

Chesterton adopted something of the method, if not the immorality, to carry out his own counter-attack on those aspects of modernity that disturbed him most. Some of his observations are trenchant and witty; others just ill-placed and bad tempered, hence the uneven quality. I’ve compared him to Oscar Wilde though Hiller draws an altogether more apt parallel with Dr Samuel Johnson, whom he resembled not just in literary grumpiness but in corpulence!

I suppose Paul Johnson is right in part in suggesting that Chesterton’s faith accounts for some of the prejudice to which he alludes. But it seems to me it was less because he was a Catholic - by conversion, incidentally - than because he was more orthodox than the orthodox, often a symptom of any kind of conversion. His Catholicism seems to have been of a particularly obscurantist, neo-medieval kind, allowing him to dismiss the Enlightenment in one sweeping announcement: “I know of no question that Voltaire asked which St Thomas Aquinas did not ask before him – only St Thomas not only asked, but answered the questions.” This is a mind not so much closed but bolted shut!

There is grumpiness here; there is prejudice, attitudes that do not quite harmonise with the modern age, an observation I feel sure that would have delighted the reactionary old fogey, who wanted to return to a feudal economy where every man – no mention of women – would be allocated “two acres and a cow.” Yes, grumpiness and dottiness but also charm, good prose and intelligence; wit, occasionally, of quite brilliant intensity. What more could one ask for?

¡Viva la Revolución!

What happens when the legislature turns against the executive, a question that doubtless has engaged Barack Obama since last November? That’s easy: abolish the legislature. If that’s too radical consider the next best thing: get the old legislature to pass an Enabling Act before the new legislature meets.

Ah but American presidents are tied by the safeguards built into the constitution, unlike, say, the president of Venezuela, where the constitution can be set aside with ease. Taking a well-trodden path, Adolf, sorry, Hugo Chavez now has enabling power to protect him and his Communist Reich from the new parliament, recently sworn in following the September election.

Under the new powers the Venezuelan parliament has become something of a political irrelevance, rather like the Reichstag in Hitler’s Germany. Chavez now has the power to rule by decree, while the assembly has been sidelined, meetings now reduced to four days a month. But to make assurance doubly sure all parliamentary commissions have been placed under government control, while speeches in the assembly itself have been limited to fifteen minutes per member. I suppose, on reflection, that’s not a completely bad idea if only it could be applied to El Presidente, who has a tendency to witter on interminably.

Thus it is that dictatorships are built, piece by piece, not just by hamstringing the legislative branch of government but by controlling the media and packing the judiciary with placemen, all part of Chavez’ recent gleichshaltung, which has even extended so far as higher education. He also intends to neutralise the advance of the opposition in local government, having the power to transfer its functions to ‘socialist communes’, bodies packed, of course, with a lot of chavs.

Control of broadcasting and telecommunications has even been extended to cover the internet and mobile phones, just in case someone says something nasty about the government, the said nastiness, incidentally, being on their own heads. According to a report in The Economist punishments will be meted out for promoting disrespect for the country’s institutions or “alarm” among the population. So I guess Chavez is a fat communist pig is out!

Meanwhile, in reference to this, the opposition is calling for peaceful but energetic resistance against government tyranny and the attempt to install a communist system. It’s a cause that has a wide base of support, with labourers joining farm owners to prevent further Mugabe-style land grabs by the chavistas in the area around Lake Maracaibo. Those who have taken to protesting against Chavez’ coup have been attacked by government thugs, injuring many.

If there is any doubt that democracy is dying in Venezuela one should take heed of the pronouncements of Chavez and one of his senior military commanders on the coming presidential election, scheduled to take place in 2013, in which the dear leader is seeking another six year term of office. An opposition victory, they said, will not be tolerated. Revolutions, after all, can only ever go forward on the tracks laid down by history…and by tweets on Twitter.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Satyrs and nymphs

Last weekend the Times carried a rather censorious leader, tut tuts and finger-wagging, all taking Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s premier and Europe’s premier dirty old man, to task. He must go, it said, for the ridicule that he has brought both on himself and his country. This comes after the latest revelations about his sexual shenanigans, which allegedly included sleeping with underage call-girls. Anyone, young or old, who agrees to go to bed with this old goat surely deserves some kind of compensation, but let that pass.

To the Times I have to say Italy is Italy; it’s a foreign country: they do things differently there. For the rest of us politics is such a serious business; we need some diversion; we need some light entertainment; we need the ongoing farce that is Italian politics; we need silly, theatrical Italian politicians, a blessing on the simple, silly souls. Above all we need dear old Silvio, this seventy-four year old King Knut, desperately trying to hold back the advancing tides of time, with dyes, hair weaves and what have you. Contrary to the Times assertion, we need the opera buffa that we have come to expect from the Italian political class.

My sincere apologies to all my Italian friends; I mean no offence, though offence some of you have doubtless taken. I dare say you are one of the more serious among your nation, one who did not vote for this endearingly comic man, one of those who are not beguiled by his boyish machismo. You may favour the fall of his coalition, you may vote against his party, but do please consider the rest of us. After all what will we be left with if Silvio departs the stage? Herman van Rumpuy and Angela Merkel, that’s what, and not that much in the way of fun and frolics is to be expected from them!

As a good Italian you will know something of your modern history. Silvio admires Benito, you know, that man in the black shirt who only sent opponents ‘on holiday.’ Silvio should admire Benito, for he, too, was very much in the tradition of Italian farce. Now you are even angrier with me. But do remember what Benedetto Croce, the best of your modern philosophers, said in contrasting Nazism and Fascism. You’ve forgotten? Let me remind you then. He said that while National Socialism was a dark shadow, deep and brooding in German history, Fascism, even in the midst of its worst excesses, never quite lost its carnival atmosphere. Yes, and it also did wonders for the sale of castor oil!

So let’s hear it for farce, let’s hear it for carnival, let’s hear it for opera buffa, let’s hear it for Silvio! Italy is the theatre of the comically absurd. Let it remain in a permanent state of emotional adolescence, a place where satyrs are perpetually chasing nymphs. We need it so, a little southern colour in our gloomy northern light.

Monday 24 January 2011

Bogus Journey

There is one glorious snippet of information I discovered about Season of the Witch: Dominic Sena, the director, was apparently inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal, in which a knight returning from the Crusades meets Death in the midst of his plague-stricken land. If I tell you that Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey does it so much better you might get a flavour of this movie!

Starring Nicholas Cage as Behmen and Ron Perlman as Felson, two crusading-weary crusaders, Season of the Witch is a sword and sorcery romp, the sort of thing I normally love. I say crusaders but I could not honestly say which crusade these guys are on – it’s set in the fourteenth century-, who they are fighting or for what end. I can’t even say which crusading order they belong to, though I would have to guess the Teutonic Knights, judging by the black crosses on their surcoats. Actually it’s much more of a Western, or the kind of medieval scenario that might have been found by a Connecticut Yankee visiting the Court of King Arthur!

This is not a bad movie; it’s an awful one. The script is shallow, the editing incompetent, the dialogue laughable and the acting dreadful. It might actually have been quite effective as parody – it certainly carries slight Monty Python overtures – but unfortunately it takes itself too seriously. I have to say that there were points I almost laughed out loud at some of the one-liners. There is Behmen comment on the number of times he has saved Felson’s ass, or his aside in one battle that whoever slays the most men buys drinks.

The one- slightly- bright spot is Perlman, who can do medieval quite well. He was superb as the grotesque monk Salvatore in the film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I had the feeling here that he was the only one to recognise the absurdity of the script, hamming it up accordingly. He only needed a cigar to complete the effect of medieval Europe by way of the Mid-West, playing a kick-ass Sir Rambo. But in the end he was a victim of a director who could not make up his mind about which direction he wished to travel.

Anyway, these two cowpokes, sorry make that knightly buddies, decide enough is enough after about a dozen years of murder and mayhem on behalf of the church. Deserting the cause, they find themselves in a plague-stricken land. It’s the fourteenth century so we are in Black Death country…or are we? As the pals mosey along into town they are recognised as apostates and brought before the local big-wig, a cardinal by the name of D’Ambroise, his face so disfigured by plague pustules, buboes and boils that it’s quite impossible to recognise our own Christopher Lee!

Now the terrible truth is revealed to Behmen and Felson: the plague, it turns out, is not caused by microbes – they didn’t exist in the middle ages -, bad air or Jews poisoning wells; no it has been caused, so the Cardinal believes, by witchcraft, or rather by one witch in particular, only ever identified as ‘The Girl’, played by Claire Foy.

In return for absolution the chums are asked to escort her across country to a distant monastery, where the monks possess knowledge, drawn from a secret book, that will determine whether ‘The Girl’ is a witch or not and lift the curse. They eventually agree, but only on Behmen’s insistence that she gets a ‘fair trial.’ A fair trial, on an accusation of witchcraft in the Middle Ages! Here we are firmly back in Wild West country – we’ll give her a fair trail and then we’ll burn her at the stake!

It get’s funnier. The party is made up of a priest called Debelzaq, played by Stephen Campbell Moore, almost invariably pronounced, at least to my ear, as Da Ball Sac, and a guide by the name of Hagmar, played by Stephen Graham, an English actor who affects here a bizarre American accent in a time centuries before America was discovered. With ‘The Girl’ safely enclosed in a caged witch-mobile off we go.

I say it gets funnier but the humour soon dries up. We are not in the heart of darkness, just the heart of dullness, stock images and unimaginative clichés. At one point the path is intercepted by a precipice that can only be crossed by – guess what – a rickety old rope and plank bridge, possibly left over from an Indiana Jones movie set.

In the end it turns out that the witch is not a witch at all. No, she is simply possessed by a gargoyle – at least that’s what the computer-generated image looked like – which manifests after the chaps try a spot of do-it-yourself exorcism, the monks all being dead from the plague. The appearance of the beast is the occasion for the movie’s most memorable line, Da Ball Sac’s immortal “We are going to need more holy water.” The thing is, you see, the said demonic gargoyle, replete with a wonderful set of wings, fooled everyone into taking him to the monastery so he could lay his claws on the monks' secret book and thus plunge the world into darkness. If he had only flown there he would have saved himself, and us, a wholly wearisome journey.

Even the finale, an extravaganza of demon-bashing and chopping up of ninja-monks, brought to life by possession, is just too silly to engage on any emotional level at all, even one of simple visceral excitement.

Season of the Witch is clearly just another milestone on the seemingly downward spiral in Nichols Cage’s career, so sad when compared with how brilliant he once was in movies like Leaving Las Vegas. Here he is hopelessly out of place, hopelessly miscast, reciting banal lines with a dream-like lack of engagement. I was tempted to write that this movie is so bad it’s actually good, right up there with the Ed Wood masterpieces; but it’s not – it’s just bad, dull and predictable.

Incidentally, ‘The Girl’, the witch who is not a witch, is given a voice-over at the end, telling us her name at last. She is Anna. :-)

The valley of death

It’s Good Friday, April 10, 1846. Jerusalem is packed with pilgrims on an Easter weekend that happened to fall on the same date in both the Latin and Orthodox calendars. The mood is tense. The two religious communities had been arguing over who has the right to be first to carry out the rituals at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest places in Christendom, standing on the spot where Jesus is said to have been crucified.

That Friday was to be anything but good. The Catholics arrived only to find that the Greeks were there first. A fight broke out, priest against priest, soon to be joined by monks and pilgrims from the respective camps. People fought not just with fists but anything they could get a hold of – crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense burners. Wood was torn from the sacred shrines and used as clubs. Knives and pistols were smuggled into the church. By the time the Mehemet Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, had restored order forty people lay dead.

This dreadful incident, all in the name of a shared belief, marks the departure for Orlando Figes’ Crimea, the Last Crusade, the first full account of the Crimean War that I have read. I know Figes well, one of the best specialists on Russian history in the English-speaking world, the author of the superlative A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. Although his history of the Crimean War lacks the range and power of the latter book, he has done a tremendous service, placing the conflict firmly within the context of the Eastern Question – the issues arising from the continuing decline of the Ottoman Empire – and European power politics as a whole.

I’m not completely convinced by his ‘crusading hook’, I have to say. Yes the war did begin with a conflict over who had the best claim to protect the holy places within the Turkish empire, the Catholic French or the Orthodox Russians, and again, yes, Tsar Nicholas I was strong in his conviction that he was a defender of the ‘true’ faith, a defender of the Orthodox faithful in all the Turkish lands. But almost immediately, when the fighting started, the religious issue was obscured by more general issues arising from European geopolitics. Besides, a war which involved Turkish Muslims, British Protestants and French Catholics, on one side, against Orthodox Russians, on the other, does not look much like a ‘crusade.’ The Tsar may have begun with crusading thoughts, but before his death in March 1855 he was more preoccupied by the decline in Russian power.

Figes' greatest service has been to rescue the conflict from fragmentation and partiality, the preserve, at best, of amateur military historians, more interested in the clash of arms than the reason for the clash of arms. The war may have been tragic and ‘unnecessary' but it still marks and important stage in the development of European politics and diplomacy. It marks the end of the Concert of Europe, the arrangement between the powers to police the settlement of 1815 emerging from the Napoleonic Wars. It marks the break in the informal alliance between Russia and Austria that helped preserved that settlement in aspic, allowing for the rise of new nations like Italy and Germany. So, in all, it was so much more than the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Lady with the Lamp.

So far as the conflict itself is concerned there was really no need, as the author shows, for the Crimean War ever to have been the Crimean War. There was no need, in other words, for the landing on the Crimean peninsula, followed by the lengthy, and bloody, siege of the port of Sevastopol, for the simple reason that the Russians had suffered a serious tactical and strategic reverse in early 1854.

They had previously occupied the semi-autonomous Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia, now Romania, with a view to pushing south of the Danube in a march on Constantinople. But unexpectedly tough resistance by the Turks at the fortress of Silistria prevented any further advance. When this was coupled with the landings of the French and British at Varna, in what is now Bulgaria, and the threat of Austrian intervention, the Russians had no choice but to withdraw from the occupied provinces. But the blood was up; the war had to run its course, Russia had to be humbled; Sevastopol had to fall.

Crimea marks a vital stage in the development of warfare, combining elements of the old and the new, combining the Napoleonic Wars at one remove and the First World War at the other. It was the last of the old wars, if you like, containing the seeds of the new. Although it may come as a surprise, the campaign on the Crimea itself, and its eventual outcome, was far more a French than a British affair. The French contributed many more troops. It was their capture of the Malakhov redoubt in September 1855 that led to the fall of Sevastopol and the end of the war.

Diplomatically their role was also decisive. Palmerston, who succeeded the far less militant Aberdeen as prime minister in 1855, rather took on the role of Cato the Elder. Cartago delenda est was his war cry. His Carthage was Russia, which he intended to remove forever as a threat to the British Empire. If he had had his way the Russian borders would have returned to those of 1709, before Peter the Great’s victory over the Swedes at Poltava. The press was behind his war-drive, the people were behind him, even the Queen was behind him; the French were not. He did not have his way because Napoleon III had other visions. Britain may have had the fleet, but the French had the army.

This is a good story, an important story told with verve and style, told in a wholly compelling fashion with plenty of balance and nuance, placing the Crimean War in proper context. The author is to be commended for his industry and his scholarship, for writing a first-class account of an important passage in European history.

War, just and unjust

I turn my attention again to the Iraq War, the first as well as the second. My view is quite clear: I think the First Gulf War was wholly necessary; I think the Second a gross strategic error.

Surely there must be a contradiction here? No, not really. The first war was a necessary corrective to an act of aggression by an unstable tyrant, one, unfortunately, we had previously given succour to in his struggle with Iran, which only served to whet his appetite and further his ambitions. Were we to stand by and allow Kuwait, a member of the United Nations, to be conquered and brutalised? Were we to follow the example of the League of Nations, which stood aside as Japan marched into Manchuria and Italy into Abyssinia? I have not the least doubt that if the United Nations had not acted further targets would have followed, possibly Syria, possibly Saudi Arabia.

Alongside these questions of collective security and national integrity there is the question of oil and the need to ensure a stable source of supply. Saddam’s adventurism also presented a threat here, a serious danger to the integrity of the world economy. To allow this man to obtain an effective hold of a good bit of the world’s fuel supply was simply inconceivable.

So, Saddam was kicked out of Kuwait. His army and his air force were pulverised. He was only allowed so much room to manoeuvre freely thereafter. He was effectively in a cage, a cage of our own devising, no matter how hard he rattled at the bars. But that’s as far as it should have gone. Yes, I know he was a ghastly human being and one can only sympathise with those under his rule, especially the Kurds, but it was not our business to ‘liberate’ Iraq. Iraq humbled still acted as a useful counter to Iran in the complex politics of the Middle East. The position prior to the Second Gulf War made good sense in the wider game of geopolitics.

But then came Bush and Blair, the BB partnership on a new crusade. The country was invaded in 2003 on the pretext of finding non-existent weapons of mass destruction. It was invaded against the advice of experts, historians, among others, who tried to alert Dumb and Dumber to the complex internal religious and cultural politics of Iraq. BB effectively kicked a hornet’s nest, to the benefit of no one, least of all the benighted people of the country.

A door was opened, previously closed, to terrorism and the worst forms of ethnic and sectarian murder. Most serious of all, looking at the wider geopolitical picture, military intervention was a total failure, creating at best a weak, unstable democracy, to the immeasurable benefit of Iran, not Britain or America. BB, by their precipitate action, by their arrogance and their ignorance, found a bad situation and made it infinitely worse. They made a desolation not even possible to call peace.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Exit, pursued by the dead

I should really keep off the subject of Tony Blair for one simple reason: I despise him, I despise him so much, I despise everything he represents - the lies, the dissimulation, the phoniness, the general air of seediness and moral turpitude he brings to everything. I find it almost impossible to be dispassionate about this man and I do so hate my judgement being clouded by my emotions.

It’s not just him as a human being that I despise; I despise the degeneracy that he brought to government. If future historians try and pinpoint the moment when cabinet government died in this country I am convinced that they will alight on the Blair years. He appeared before the Chilcot Inquiry on Friday, set up to look into the exact reasons we went to war with Iraq in 2003, the latest stage in a seemingly endless process of self-reflection.

Amongst other revelations it turns out that in the twenty-eight meetings held by key figures leading up to the invasion only half were minuted. Cabinet ministers were also kept out of these discussions. It was all part of the Blair presidency. Never mind second UN resolutions, never mind cabinet agreement, never mind the consent of Parliament itself; no, for he had privately assured George Bush eight months before the invasion that “you can count on us.” It’s the contempt for the mechanics of government, for the constitution, for the way that British democracy works that fills me with the deepest disgust.

This is Blair’s second act. He appeared before Chilcot last January, hands shaking, sweating – much the same as this time – but with a generally gung-ho approach, singing je ne regrette rein to the gallery, filled with people who had lost relatives in his war. He’s clearly been reprogrammed, singing to a different sheet. This time he wanted to make clear that he regretted “deeply and profoundly” the loss of life. It is too late, as some in the audience shouted, it was always too late.

We should remember that most of our people died after the invasion, after ‘victory’, because in the rush to go to war there was an almost total lack of forward planning, little or no consideration as to how Iraq was to be occupied and restructured subsequent to the occupation. The troops we sent were simply not strong enough for the tasks allotted. There was no proper intelligence, no proper understanding of the internal religious and cultural politics of Iraq, with disastrous consequences. Let’s make no mistake about this: Britain suffered a serious humiliation in Iraq, our armed forces suffered a serious reversal because of Blair’s negligence and incompetence. In any other age he would have been indicted before Parliament. It’s rather a pity this is not any other age.

But if one dreadful war was not enough he, this Middle East ‘peace’ envoy (what exactly does he envoy over? who listens to him?), seems to be pushing for yet another, warning of the dangers from Iran. Yes, Iran is a danger precisely because of the 2003 invasion, which removed the one major obstacle to its regional ambitions. It was Blair and Bush who let this genie out of the bottle, impossible, I suspect, to put back.

In his Coffee House blog on the Spectator website Rod Liddle writes that Blair’s performance on Friday reminded him of some of Neil Young’s lyrics from a song called Ambulance Blues, penned seemingly as an attack on Richard Nixon. They fit our former prime minister so much better;

I never knew a man
Could tell so many lies
He had a different story
For every set of eyes
How could he remember
Who he’s talking to?
Because I know it isn’t me
And I hope it isn’t you

Thursday 20 January 2011

Enemy of the people

It was the same everywhere I went in Cambodia, people willing to tell of the past with only the slightest prompting. There was my driver in Phnom Penn, who pointed out one of the killing fields, bones showing on the surface, a place not visited by tourists, one of the many charnel houses in a country turned into a charnel house. In Siem Reap another driver, the son of a doctor, told me that throughout the time of the Khmer Rouge his father had to pretend to have been a baker. For virtually the first thing they did was kill all the doctors.

Last September I made reference to Enemies of the People (To be good was to be dead), a documentary made by Thet Sambath, a Cambodian journalist, in collaboration with Rob Lemkin, a British documentarian. Then I had only seen it in part; now I have seen it in whole, in a limited screening in this country. It’s a tremendous piece of work, one that he built up over a number of years, all at his own expense, in money and in emotional effort.

It’s also a work of great patience. In looking for answers to the question why, why so many deaths, why so much suffering, over a period of years he steadily gained the confidence of Noun Chea, known as Brother Number Two alongside Pol Pot, Brother Number One. Even the nomenclature is as sinister as the mirthless grins.

This a documentary which also serves as a personal odyssey; for Sambath lost his family in the Killing Fields, a fact he conceals from his interlocutor until the very end. Yet despite this there is not a trace of bitterness or accusation in the film, merely a sense of patient bewilderment.

Oddly enough the interviews with Soun and Khan, now elderly men, two of those who carried out the killings on Chea’s behalf – he is thought to have been personally responsible for as many as 14,000 deaths – are quite poignant. These are not SS or Gulag guards; no, they are simple peasant farmers. Soun, firm in his Buddhist convictions, said that it will be many lifetimes before he returns to human form, all on account of his crimes, the terrible burden he carries. It is terrible. On the film-makers urging he was persuaded to demonstrate how he killed, using a plastic knife on a nervous fellow villager. “I slit so many throats”, he said in the process, “that my hand ached, so I switched to stabbing in the neck.”

These killings were always carried out at night, by the light of flaming torches, while nearby stood the children of the victims, their mouths covered to stop them screaming. Both Soun and Khan recalled that they subsequently removed the gall bladders of the dead, drinking the bitter bile in the belief that this would protect their skins. A woman remembered the water-logged fields, bubbles rising as if boiling when the bodies decomposed. Another still refuses to drink the local water because of the bodies buried all those years ago.

Meanwhile the principle interview with Chea proceeds. At one point he meets Soun and Khan, saying that they are not to blame, for they had no intent, and that Democratic Kampuchea was a ‘clean regime’. The dead are still the enemies of the people, though one has to wonder who exactly ‘the people’ are if not the dead. But, as I said before, when Sambath finally reveals the fate of his family – he had hitherto pretended that his mother and father had died in the 1980s – Chea slips from monstrous abstraction to genuine human sympathy.

Brother Number Two is now in detention, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, crimes against the people. Enemies of the People is a compelling documentary, a small journey into the heart of darkness.

Don’t meddle with a myth

I’m thinking of organising a campaign for the pardon of Robin Hood. Well, why not, especially as Bill Richardson, outgoing Governor of New Mexico, spent eight years, yes, eight years, humming and hawing over whether or not to grant a pardon to William H Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. He has decided, in the end, that it’s simply not worth the trouble. Was it ever worth the trouble, I have to ask?

Bonney, an outlaw and a killer, best known for his part in the Lincoln County War, was shot dead by Sherriff Pat Garrett in July 1881. The story goes that prior to this he had reached a bargain with Lew Wallace, then Governor of New Mexico, a former Civil War general best known as the author of the Biblical novel Ben Hur, who had promised him a pardon for his involvement in the Lincoln County killings in return for testimony on another murder. In the end this alleged promise – there is some ambiguity on the point- was never honoured.

The Kid campaign –opposed by the descendents of Pat Garrett – was headed by Randi McGinn, a New Mexico Lawyer, who organised a petition after reviewing the historical documents on the case. In an interview she said “What I found is that, as ever, history is written by the victors. The other side has had 130 years to make Billy the Kid out as a bad guy.”

But that’s just the point: he was a bad guy, which is precisely why he is so appealing, part of the enduring legend of the Old West, as immortal as Robin Hood. Like Robin he was an outlaw; and, like Robin, he will, thank goodness, remain an outlaw. American state governors should surely have better sense than to meddle with a myth.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

A star in the east

This month will see the publication of Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, taking its cue, I suppose, from Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. I’m looking forward to this; for he is a superb biographer, having written Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin, both exceptional works. There is no better candidate to write the life story of a city.

I visited Jerusalem a few years ago, staying in the King David Hotel, my sitting room looking towards the Ottoman-constructed wall around the old city, the part punctuated by the Tower of David. This city is not part of history; it is history, a heart where the life-blood of three of the world’s great religions flows through. Even my hotel has a story: for the wing I stayed in, formerly British Army headquarters, was blown up by Irgun, a militant Zionist organisation, in July 1946, as the video channel helpfully reminded us!

Jerusalem is really an odd amalgam of the old and the new. It’s two cities, existing side by side never meeting, cultures never melding. The old city, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located, supposedly on the Hill of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, is a complete warren. I suspect not an awful lot has changed since the days of the Ottomans.

After we visited the Church we turned the wrong way, ending up in narrow and narrower streets full of Arab traders, all wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional headdress. I have to say the deeper in we got the more uneasy I became, feeling completely out of place, completely déclassé and alien, all the more so being a female with free-flowing hair, not that anyone was in the least threatening; it’s just that we were the only westerners there, thus all the more conspicuous. I was really quite glad to get out after we traced our way back.

Returning to Montefiore’s book, there is a taster in January issue of History Today, where he has a look at the city during the heyday of the medieval Crusader state (Jerusalem: Dark and Satanic). It’s the little details that fascinate me, the comparison that can be drawn with other times and other places; for Jerusalem in the twelfth century was the centre of the Wild East! This is the time when the incorrigible Melisende was queen. She was also the wife of Fulk, Count of Anjou, the descendent of the depraved Fulk the Black, son of Fulk the Repulsive, nephew of Fulk the Complete Bastard. OK, I made the last Fulker up but the others are real enough. :-)

The city was really a combination of royal capital and frontier town. It was the place to be for fortune hunters, adventurers of all sorts. There were as many taverns as holy places; for this was a town of soldiers as much as a town of pilgrims. Each of the taverns apparently had a clunking chain across the entrance to prevent knights riding into the bar! Saladin’s secretary, who was able to observe things at first hand, describes the prostitutes, who arrived at the ports of Acre and Tyre in boatloads from Europe, thus;

Lovely Frankish women, foulfleshed and sinful, appearing proudly in public, ripped open and patched up, lacerated and mended, making love and selling themselves for gold, callipygian and graceful, like tipsy adolescents, they dedicated as holy offering what they kept between their thighs, each trailed the train of her robe behind her, bewitched with her effulgence, swayed like a sapling, and longed to lose her robe.

Where holiness goes sin is never that far behind!

Jerusalem, as the author says, is in so many ways the universal city; the city of Solomon, Saladin and Suleiman; of Cleopatra, Caligula and Churchill. There is a cast of thousands here, prophets and warriors, politicians and preachers, the famous and the infamous. Disraeli was there as was Rasputin, Mark Twain and Lawrence of Arabia. I was there.

Night monsters

I’ve mentioned previously that the essay stands high among my favourite literary genres. Last year I worked my way through George Orwell’s exploration of subjects as varied as Charles Dickens and naughty seaside postcards, an absolute delight in every sense: in subject, in analysis and in the use of the most limpid forms of prose. This is where Orwell’s true genius lay, rather than in the novel; his efforts here are largely second rate. I also discovered the work of Clive James, an Australian author and broadcaster, who writes brilliantly on a range of literary and political figures; cultural and historical icons of one kind or another.

There are lots of other essayists I’ve dipped into, for the sheer pleasure of reading and for tuition on points of style. My collection includes the work of Francis Bacon, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, William Hazlitt, Michael de Montaigne and Charles Lamb.

It’s Lamb’s Essays of Elia that I’m reading at the moment, a wonderfully whimsical series of dissertations. There is one in particular that induced my own mood of whimsy and introspection - that entitled Witches and other Night Fears. It induced, if you like, a Proustian mood, a remembrance of things past, and that’s without the Madeleine!

In essence it concerns the nature of fear, on the images and ideas that induce fear in childhood. Here is how he describes his own fearful encounter;

From my childhood I was extremely inquisitive about witches and witch-stories. My maid, and more legendary aunt, supplied me with, good store. But I shall mention the accident which directed my curiosity originally into this channel. In my father's book-closet, the History of the Bible, by Stackhouse, occupied a distinguished station. The pictures with which it abounds -- one of the ark, in particular, and another of Solomon's temple, delineated with all the fidelity of ocular admeasurement, as if the artist had been upon the spot -- attracted my childish attention. There was a picture, too, of the Witch raising up Samuel, which I wish that I had never seen…

I was dreadfully alive to nervous terrors. The night-time solitude, and the dark, were my hell. The sufferings I endured in this nature would justify the expression. I never laid my head on my pillow, I suppose, from the fourth to the seventh or eighth year of my life -- so far as memory serves in things so long ago -- without an assurance, which realized its own prophecy, of seeing some frightful spectre. Be old Stackhouse then acquitted in part, if I say, that to his picture of the Witch raising up Samuel --(O that old man covered with a mantle!) I owe--not my midnight terrors, the hell of my infancy -- but the shape and manner of their visitation. It was he who dressed up for me a hag that nightly sate upon my pillow -- a sure bed-fellow, when my aunt or my maid was far from me. All day long, while the book was permitted me, I dreamed waking over his delineation, and at night (if I may use so bold an expression) awoke into sleep, and found the vision true.

But then he grew and attained the age of reason, beyond the power of imagined things. I, too, am beyond their power, beyond the power of the monster under my bed, ready to reach out and pull me to some nether world if I did not get under the duvet quickly enough! Still I have lost something else in losing irrational fears: I have lost a peculiar kind of pleasure.

Pleasure? Yes, pleasure, the pleasure in reading ghost stories in fascination and fear; the tingly pleasure of the senses being alert to every creak and groan made by our old country house; the pleasures brought by the spur of my imagination – put that down, lift it up; I need to know what’s going to happen. I carried this with me even so far as school, reading ghost and horror stories by torch after lights out, stories I then related to the other girls, inducing and sharing in a collective terror. Terror, in this instance, was power!

No longer; it’s all gone, no matter how vivid the story. I think in childhood that each of us relives the passage of civilization, from the night fears of our distant ancestors to a growing belief in the light of reason, a far greater delusion. Perverse or not, I remember with some affection the comfort of irrationality…and the monster under my bed!

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn’d round, walks on.
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Satanic verses

Having reviewed The Libertine I’m in something of a Rochester mood at the moment, rereading a few of my favourite poems. If you don’t know his work I’m guessing that you will be familiar with one brief rhyme notwithstanding;

God bless our good and gracious King,
Whose promise none relies on;
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

The good and gracious King is, of course, Charles II, with whom he had a rocky relationship. Rochester is such an intriguing man, the best example of the Restoration rake, very much in the fashion set by the monarch himself, and the most trenchant critic of the debauchery of the age, allowing some to suggest that he might even have been a secret puritan!

He was nothing of the kind: he was an atheist - only giving way to belief when his brief life drew to a close - and a cynic, bitingly critical of any form of hypocrisy; and there was no time in history more clothed in hypocrisy and double-dealing than Restoration England. Rochester’s Satyr against Mankind compares with anything Jonathan Swift ever wrote on the subject.

As for Charles the above verse is mild compared with some of the merciless lampooning to which he was subjected by the poet;

In th' isle of Britain, long since famous grown
For breeding the best cunts in Christendom,
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool, that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown.
Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.

Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th' other,
And make him little wiser than his brother.
Poor Prince! thy prick, like thy buffoons at Court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.
'Tis sure the sauciest prick that e'er did swive,
The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
Though safety, law, religion, life lay on 't,
'Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

It’s easy to criticise Charles for his sexual excesses but it’s also as well to praise him for his indulgence. For these verses, which would certainly have meant death in the age of Henry VIII, or, indeed, in the France of Louis XIV, the king’s cousin and contemporary, Wilmot was exiled from court for a brief seven week period. A good, gracious and tolerant King!

For me Rochester is the true laureate of the age, far more than John Dryden, providing so much insight to the great highs and the even greater lows. He was never a puritan but he was most certainly a rebel, the kind of person who never rests easily alongside cant and dissimulation.

After singing Psalm the 12th
He laid his book upon the shelf.
And looked much simply like himself;
With eyes turned up, as white as ghost,
He cried, ‘Ah Lard, ah Lard of Hosts!
I am a rascal, that thou know’st.

A pretty, witty poet

I read Graham Greene’s Lord Rochester’s Monkey, his biography of John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, arguably the greatest poet, satirist and wit of the age of the Restoration, when I was seventeen. From this I moved to the poetry, much of it gloriously obscene and utterly delightful. So, I liked Wilmot before Johnny Depp, taking on the part of the great libertine, announced at the beginning of The Libertine, a 2004 movie based on his life, that I would not like him, meaning I would not like the poet as a man as opposed to not liking the actor as the poet. Phew!

Seventeenth century England, particularly the period following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, is my area of particular expertise. The disadvantage in this is that I tend to find historical dramas set in the time immensely irritating, usually because of the cavalier treatment of basic facts (I know, I know; it’s such a bore!). I absolutely hated To Kill a King, set in the Civil War. I did not, therefore, have high expectations of The Libertine, which I saw recently on DVD for the first time.

Surprise: I liked it: I liked Johnny Depp as Wilmot, a first class performance, one of tremendous depth; I liked the feel of the movie, I liked its depiction of Restoration London and Restoration manners. I liked it so much that I was even able to overlook the howling liberties (a syphilitic Wilmot swaying opinion in the Lords during the Exclusion debate!) The script, adapted by Stephen Jeffreys from his play of the same name, was raw and uncompromising, as was the camera work, showing an unremittingly grimy London, corruption and filth in the streets, corruption and filth in the most elevated social circles.

I had fun looking at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, most of them carping and negative, most of them mired in incomprehension. Directed by Laurence Dunmore, the film felt like the play from which it emerged, the emphasis being on words and language than action for the sake of action, the first point on which the critics seem to have stumbled. The second was probably their incomprehension over Depp’s performance, not at all what one expects from a Caribbean pirate! But he was so good as Rochester, obnoxious, self-destructive and unremittingly cynical, the perfect mirror of an imperfect age.

He was Rochester as I imagine him, a complex character, loveable and yet not easy to love, angelically satanic, a troubled genius before people knew what a troubled genius was; a Marquis De Sade with intelligence. His life was his art and his art his life. I see him showing signs of existential nausea, a disease of the spirit that really only became fashionable in the last century.

Were I a spirit free, to chose for my own share
What sort of flesh and blood I pleas’d to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey or a bear,
Or any thing but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.

Wilmot, if you had seen Depp in your shade you would, I feel sure, have been beguiled and amused. You might even – I hope this is not a step too far – have begun to like yourself.

Monday 17 January 2011

The Rough Guide to Eternity

It’s the most fearsome court you will ever face. There you are, standing in a long hall. At the far end sits Osiris, the god of the underworld. To approach him you have to pass a gauntlet of terrifying mummified gods. If you are not already scared out of your wits the Swallower of Shades, the Bone Breaker and the Eater of Entrails should send you into a condition of total collapse. Just when you think things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Here comes the prosecutor, Thoth in the shape of a baboon, sitting on top of a pair of scales that will shortly determine your eternal fate.

Nil desperandum. You have long prepared yourself for this court that no mortal can escape: you have taken out an insurance policy; you have in your hands the Book of the Dead, a sort of Rough Guide to the afterlife, with all sorts of helpful hints on how to address the locals, no matter how elevated.

In Ancient Egypt life was nasty, brutish and short. No, let me rephrase that: it was nasty, brutish and very short. Everywhere one is surrounded by a cult of death, by reminders that this life is a mere antechamber to eternity. The Book of the Dead is therefore an essential acquisition for the literate, full of helpful spells and incantations. We call it the Book of the Dead for obvious reasons, but for the Egyptians in the shadow of the pyramids it was known as the Book of the Coming Forth by Day.

This fascinating document is the subject of an exhibition in the British Museum, scheduled to run until March. Do go if you can; it’s a journey that you are unlikely to forget, taking a path trodden thousands of years ago into the heart of Egyptian mythology, magic and mysticism; a path trodden by the ba, the spirits of the dead.

There is a tunnel at the end of which lies the promise of eternal life, provided one can negotiate a way past the terrors ahead, not just the ultimate judgement but all sorts of demons and monsters. The book is full of spells for fighting off crocodiles and serpents, animal and insect terrors of all sorts, including an entity simply known as The Creature that Swallows the Ass!

Using the right words, one is able to avoid decapitation and decomposition. Another possible danger was being turned upside down, which entailed, as the Egyptians saw it, a reversal of the digestive process. The Book is even prepared for this, some versions including a spell “for not eating excrement or drinking urine in the underworld.”

So, the ba has made it this far, through a series of portals, each guarded by a terrifying gatekeeper. Safe passage has depended on saying the right words, all contained in your guide. The most important test of all comes in a place called the Hall of the two Maats, where Osiris presides with his forty-two companions, where one’s earthly conduct is weighed in the balance, weighed on scales presided over by Anubis, the jackal-headed god. In one pan sits the image of truth; in the other your own heart.

This is it; this is the ultimate test. If one has led a good life the scales will balance. If they do not then the next appointment is with the Devourer, a dreadful beast with the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the haunches of a hippopotamus. The Devourer feasts on the hearts of those who have failed, which involves a second death, one of complete oblivion. Don’t panic, even if you have not exactly lead a blameless life. Open your Book at spell 30B and repeat slowly;

O my heart of my mother! O my heart of my different forms! Do not stand up as witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance.

The interesting thing about this is that while the Egyptians were the first to conceive of a direct relationship between one’s eternal fate and one’s conduct while alive, they still believed it possible to avoid unpleasant consequences in death by trickery. Their gods may have been awesome but they were clearly not all-knowing! In theory, therefore, it would have been quite possible to have been a thoroughly bad person in life and still make it into celestial bliss. It was the Christians who carried the process of judgement through to a logical conclusion.

So, you’ve made it; you have found a way through; the court has declared you blameless. What next, you may wonder? The goals are actually quite varied, differing from Book to Book. In one you might sail with Ra, the sun god, in his chariot across the sky; in another you would live in the underworld, blessed by the presence of Osiris. The third and most common possibility was to live in the Field of Reeds, essentially a divine and perfect version of all that you knew on earth. There the corn grew to unimaginable heights.

Corn? But surely that involves sewing and reaping; surely that involves, ahem, work? Again there is no need for concern, for the Book of the Dead is ready to provide you with one final service. Amongst the things you have carried into the underworld is a small figurine called a shabti. Simply recite spell 6 and it will do all the work for you. Relax; lie back and do whatever one does when there is nothing else to do. You have made it into the Egyptian Paradise.