Thursday 20 December 2012

With a Bang, not a Whimper

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.  It’s Yule, the Winter Solstice, one of the main Wiccan sabbats, right at the top of the wheel of the year.  After Samhain – Halloween – it’s my personal favourite.  I have a party planned, all the better because mother and father are away in the country.  My close friends and associated hangers-on will be there.  I’m taking lots of trouble over the food and the drink.  For me it is the best or nothing.

Alas, I fear that I am wasting my money and my time.  As I pointed out here recently (Only Two Weeks Left), 21 December also marks the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar.  I do not know any Maya and I hadn’t anticipated any coming to my bash, but they apparently intend gate crashing!  Oh, well, I shall just have to be extra vigilant, making sure that things go with a bang, not a whimper.

Around the world there are people so much wiser than I am.  They are getting ready too.  But unlike me they are getting ready for the end, not for a party.  Actually I’m not quite sure what they are getting ready for.  The end it seems is the end for everyone but me, not meaning me but you, or whoever and so on and so forth.  The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling for you but not for me! 

I’m reminded here of Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues, which concerns a dream of personal survival.  Perhaps you know the words?  If not it concludes thus;

Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then
Sayin’, “Hey I’ve been havin’ the same old dreams
But mine was a little different you see
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me
I didn’t see you around”

Well, now time passed and now it seems
Everybody’s having them dreams
Everybody sees themselves
Walkin’ around with no one else
Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that.

That’s what the count to the Long Count comes down to – the survival of number one, which I personally think is a lot of number two.  Apparently there has been panic buying around the world of candles and survival kits, which suggest that some people have a highly relative view of just what the end means. As I say, the bells of hell and so on. 

In Russia people are sweeping up torches, thermos, kerosene and other supplies.  Some enterprising shopkeepers are taking advantage of the situation, advertising “Meet the End of the World” kits, which apparently include a tot of vodka along with a bar of soap and a piece of rope.  OK, I can understand the vodka, but the rope and the soap?!  The situation is so bad that Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister, has tried to calm the panic, saying that he does not believe in the end of the world, “At least not this year”, he added reassuringly.

In America Ron Hubbard (that’s without the L), a manufacturer of hi-tech underground survival shelters, has seen sales explode.  Oh this is not a mere business opportunity on his part.  He’s taking the whole thing seriously himself, going underground on 21 December and not emerging until two days later.  I won’t bother sending him an invitation to my party. 

It gets worse.  In the French Pyrenees the mayor of the town of Bugarach has banned UFO watchers from climbing the nearby heights of the flat-topped Pic de Bugarach.  Apparently many consider the mountain to be a sort of alien highway.  There all the ETs among us will gather on the final day, taking the humans who happen to be around along with them as an act of charity.  It’s a fair return for past hospitality, one has to conclude.

On that very point I’m going ahead with my own hospitality regardless, no candles, no kerosene, no rope, no soap and obviously no aliens, since they will have previously decamped to the south of France.  Quite frankly I would rather share Yule with a lot of twenty-something loonies in Knightsbridge rather than lunatics underground or on bare mountainsides.  There is one thing I will never be accused of – not knowing how to party.  

Anyway, that’s it for the season or that’s it period.  I’ll see you all in the New Year or I won’t, whatever fate decrees.  If it comes I really hope you all have a great holiday, with or without the Maya.  Happy Solstice and happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.  Listen to this.  It's just so soothing.  

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Brave New America

Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World is, depending on your point of view, a description of a soulless technocratic nightmare or a prescription for a far more rational society.  Personally I’m inclined to the latter.  What a good idea it would be to control the world’s population.  What a good idea genetic engineering would be.  How much happier we would all be as citizens of the World State.  The lower castes, the Betas, the Gammas, the Deltas and the Epsilons, all created in decanting bottles to be of lower intelligence, would be content in their modest and mediocre lives.

It’s just a beautiful dream.  We could not possible create such a rational world, a world devoid of thought, reflection and insight; a world devoid of such unsettling things as freedom.  Or could we?  I was delighted to read that educators in the United States have taken a major step forward in creating a more streamlined society. 

Apparently such unnecessary and inharmonious modern classics such as J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are to be dropped from the school curriculum by 2014.  Instead the Betas, the Gammas, the Deltas and the Epsilons will be able thrill to Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency or, if that’s too exciting, Invasive Plant Inventory by California's Invasive Plant Council.  Yes, I know, not much in the way of plot or human interest but – ask yourself – do the lower orders really need these things?  They are just so unsettling for the humdrum, for those who aimed low in life and missed.

The new school curriculum for this brave new American world will come into force in 46 of the 50 states, making it compulsory that at least seventy per cent of the texts studied should be non-fiction.  A new generation is to be raised on informational handbooks.  It’s all part of a scheme to ensure that Americans are ready for the workplace, assuming the workplace ever comes. 

The new standards are apparently backed by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  It’s also backed by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Apparently it’s intended to help pupils develop the capacity to write factually and accurately, far more useful in the workplace than Shakespeare.

That’s it; that’s the key.  Employment in Obamaland has been so high because people are wrongly adapted.  Think how frustrated employers must be, think how frustrated Bill and Melinda must be, when job applicants come along reciting Whitman or Longfellow but know nothing at all about invasive plants or insulation. 

Plato and Aristotle and the rest of those all Greek fossils got it completely wrong.  Education should not be about encouraging curiosity or developing fully rounded human beings.  It should be about indoctrination, streamlining and targeting.  The aim should be to ensure that the clones are undifferentiated, all fit for purpose.  It’s about ensuring that the ordinary remain ordinary, sub all expectations.

Meanwhile the Alphas for wholly unexplained reasons send their offspring in ever increasing numbers to private schools, those insulation and invasive plant free zones.  There they can continue to wile their time away uselessly musing on Shakespeare.

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

A Christmas Memory

I was a precocious child.  I have before me The Christmas Reader edited by Godfrey Smith, the paperback version published by Penguin Books in 1986.  On the flyleaf I see the following inscription, written in a bold, clear hand – “To mama from Anastasia, Christmas 1986.”  How could I not be precocious?  I was all of six months old!

This collection, at over three hundred pages, is an absolute delight, a treasure chest full of golden literary nuggets - poems, short stories, anecdotes, diary entries, extracts from novels, songs, recipes and menus, all on the common theme of Christmas. 

Smith, formerly a columnist with the Sunday Times, was asked for help by one John Simmons.  Mister Simmons, who belonged to a supper club, had read an extract from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol the previous December.  What could he read them this year, he asked the journalist, that was any near as good?  Smith duly put the question to his readers.  The answers came cascading as from a horn of plenty.  In the end, as he puts it in the anthology’s introduction, there was enough to keep the supper club entertained until the middle of the present century!

I first read my gift to mother when I was about twelve.  I’ve been reading it on and off ever since, always at this time of year, of course, as the days get shorter and Christmas draws near.  There are so many gems that I simply can’t possibly mention them all in a manageable blog article.  There were discoveries that took me, like an explorer, on different journeys.  It was in these pages that I came across American writers like Willa Cather, Truman Capote, O Henry and Damon Runyon for the very first time. 

Runyon is represented, guys and dolls, by Dancing Dan’s Christmas, an amusing tale set in Prohibition days and written in his own incomparable style.  Truman is also represented by a short story, the wonderfully poignant A Christmas Memory, a tale of an unusual friendship between a child and an elderly woman who thought like a child.  It moved me when I first read it; it moves me still, the pair of lost kites, rather like hearts, moving towards heaven.

In the same section – Now One Time it Comes on Christmas…- there is a piece by Alistair Cooke, a journalist based in the States who used to broadcast on life there to people in England.  It’s called Christmas in Vermont, not a short story but an account of the holiday he spent in 1976 with his daughter and her family, who live in a remote farm in the north of the State.  The prose is wonderful, limpid and shining.  Even more wonderful is his description of a Christmas feast where nothing, not even the wine, was ‘store boughten’, as they say in New England.  He concludes by writing of his grandson;

And here, at four, he’s skiing over the deep and crisp and even like a Disney doll.  And this is all the life that Adam knows.  One day he will grow up and, I’m afraid, taste of the forbidden fruit.  One day he will read the New York Times.  And Adam will be out of the Garden of Eden, out of Vermont, for ever. 

Do you heard of John Betjeman?  If not he was once the English Poet Laureate.  His poetry is neither clever nor sophisticated.  Rather it’s full of dry humour and simple sincerity, which made him all the more popular with people who normally take very little interest in poetry.  He is represented in this collection by a poem simply called Christmas.  The last three verses will give you something of the flavour;

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

It really does not matter if you believe or not.  The words are uplifiting enough.

There are other verses including the much-parodied Christmas Day in the Workhouse, parodied in such immortal lines as “Then up spoke one old pauper/With a face as bold as brass/We don’t want your Christmas pudding/You can stick it up….”  I don’t think I need continue, do I?  The original, though now laughable in its dripping melodrama, is evidence of just how dreaded this much-despised Victorian institution once was. 

In his introduction Smith touches on the criticisms of modern Christmases.  I’m sure you know the sort of thing - they are too commercial, too corrupted, too trivialised.  It was all so much better in the past.  But that’s just the point – Christmas is all about the past, all about nostalgia.  It brings a longing for things that have been, things that have passed, and things that never were.  Hilaire Belloc’s A Remaining Christmas, written in the 1920s, calls for Christmas Past.  Then we have Washington Irving’s The Christmas Dinner, written a century before, where the old English squire regrets the passing of traditions two centuries before that! 

There are some seriously funny pieces.  Here I give special mention to John Julius Norwich’s spin on The Twelve Days of Christmas, the traditional carol detailing a succession of increasingly unusual gifts sent by a true love to a true love.  By the end the true love remains true no longer.  In the form of a series of letters from the recipient, it’s better to hear it read aloud with the right pacing, but it’s still very funny on paper.  Here, for example, is letter five, received after the five gold rings:

Dearest Edward,
The postman has just delivered five most beautiful gold rings, one for each finger, and all fitting perfectly.  A really lovely present – lovelier in a way than birds, which do take rather a lot of looking after.  The four that arrived yesterday are still making a terrible row, and I’m afraid that none of us got much sleep last night.  Mummy says she wants to ‘wring’ their necks – she’s only joking, I think; though I know what she means.  But I love the rings.  Bless you.
Love, Emily.

She does not love what comes in the days after.  In the end the whole lot, the birds, the lords a-leaping, the ladies dancing, the pipers piping, the drummers drumming, the maids a-milking are sent back by a firm of solicitors, Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Run, who inform the true love that his true love has taken out an injunction against him! 

I could go on and on.  There is A Child in the Forest, an extract from Winifred Foley’s beautiful and poignant memoir, or the unbelievably sumptous Christmas Dinner at Mount Vernon, the menu George and Martha Washington placed before guests at their Virginia home.   But not wishing to try your patience any longer I must stop.  Let me just say that there is so much more, delights of all kinds.  This, as Mister Pickwick said, is indeed comfort. 

Monday 17 December 2012

A Tribute to Perfection

When you see a beautiful woman, what do your thoughts turn to?   This was a question posed on Blog Catalogue.  It wasn’t about the obvious; it wasn’t about sex: it was about aesthetics.

 I didn’t bother answering because it was chiefly directed at men.  But my thoughts immediately did turn, as the poster put it, to the Beauty of a Woman.  For some wholly unexplained reason they turned to Girl with a Pearl Earring, both the painting by Johannes Vermeer and the 2003 movie staring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.  For me the one complimented the other perfectly, a depiction of peerless beauty inside a seductive enigma. 

I saw the painting several years ago in the Mauritshuis Gallery in The Hague.  I was completely beguiled by the look of the subject, the way she stares out, the way she stares inside.  Girl with a Pearl Earring is sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa of the North, though I find her far more mysterious and captivating than the Mona Liza of the South.

The truth is we know next to nothing about Vermeer, who spent his whole working life in the Dutch town of Delft.  If we know next to nothing about him we know nothing at all about his subjects.  We know nothing about this girl, other than what she conveys by expression alone.  Who was she, this image of perfection, where did she come from?  Was she a member of the artist’s own family, the wife of a patron, or was she, perhaps, simply a household servant?

These questions are unanswerable.  But into the mystery came Tracy Chevalier, who spun a story around this head.  To this story came movie director Peter Webber, who turned a painting and a novel into a cinematic masterpiece, an artistic hymn to beauty and to painting.

I haven’t read the novel, though I’m told it’s very good.  In a way I’m glad because the film, which I saw a month or so ago on BBC iPlayer, depends more on image and mood than words.  The dialogue is wonderfully understated, so much depending, like the painting itself, on look.  Scarlett Johansson might have been born to play this part, not just because she a good actress, not just because she is strikingly beautiful, but because she could very well be the Girl herself, come to life but carrying the enigma with her.

Everything about this film for me was perfection - perfection in character, perfection in setting, perfection in mood and perfection in image.  Axel Ruger, the curator of Dutch art at London’s National Gallery, quite rightly said that it takes the atmosphere and some of the pictorial conventions of the seventeenth century and translates them into cinematic language.  It is, in other words, a moving image of the still painting. 

The premise of the movie, the premise of Chevalier’s book, is based on a supposition – what if Vermeer had been inspired by the beauty of a maid who came to the household to create one of his greatest masterpieces?  And thus it is.  Johansson comes as Griet, a girl from a dignified but impoverished Protestant family to serve with the Catholic Vermeers.  

To begin with the artist pays her little mind, isolating himself in his studio, not just to concentrate on his work but to get away from the demands of everyday domestic life.  It’s only after Griet, who moves around bullied and mostly wordless, is given the task of cleaning the studio that she becomes an object of interest owing to her sensitivity towards light and colour.  She is not just an object of interest to the artist, helping him mix his paint, but an object of desire to Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), his wealthy but boorish patron.  When he fails to possess to possess Griet physically he decides to possess her physically! 

A portrait is duly commissioned, a work in progress, hidden away from Vermeer’s self-pitying and jealous wife (Essie Davis).  There is a wonderful wordless frisson between Griet and Vermeer, lots of smouldering sexual tension all the greater because it is so understated.  That consummation when he finally pins the pearl on Griet’s ear is simply breathtaking, virginal, symbolic and erotic, far in excess of any obvious physical act.  It’s a moment of perfection, in beauty, in desire and in longing, captured forever.  It’s a perfect tribute to perfection.  

Sunday 16 December 2012

We Cannot Legislate against Lunacy

This is the most difficult article I’ve ever written.  In the face of the appalling tragedy in Connecticut it’s almost impossible to find the right words.  I love words but sometimes they are so inadequate.  Here it might be said that respectful silence is the only response, silence and sorrow in silence. 

But others are speaking and some are shouting, bawling almost.  I raise my voice in a perfect storm, knowing that I’m unlikely to be heard, or if heard I am likely to be misunderstood.  Just about every report I’ve read about the mass shootings last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the town of Newton has raised the issue of gun control, the equation being that the Second Amendment right of US citizen to bear arms equals periodic massacres.  Few seem to pause and think.  The Second Amendment has been in place for over two hundred years but rampaging madmen are a feature of the modern age.  Why, why and why again? 

I’m going to push these whys but first I should declare an interest.  The thing is I enjoy shooting, which opens be to an additional accusation - that of selfishness. I have licences for both a .22 rifle and a four-ten shotgun. I enjoy target practice and I enjoy rough shooting. I really do have to stress that all of the people I have met through this sport are sensible, intelligent and well-balanced. I first learned to shoot staying with family friends near Moultrie in Georgia.  I have little doubt that most Americans who are in legal possession of firearms are also sensible, intelligent and well-balanced.

I do have firearms but unlike Americans I have no constitutional right to bear arms.  It wasn’t always the case.  The 1689 English Bill of Rights – upon which the American version was later based – enshrined the right of people to bear arms for defence.  And so it remained, right into the twentieth century.  In his A Brief History of Crime Peter Hitchens points out that when in 1909 the police in the Tottenham district of London came under fire from a gang of foreign anarchists they asked the public for assistance. Not only did they borrow guns from the local citizens but they also appealed to members of the public to help shoot back.

Over the course of the last century gun control in Britain got tighter and tighter, largely because governments started to fear the people, chiefly for political reasons.  But tight gun control did nothing to stop the Dunblane School Massacre in 1996.  Gun control has done nothing to stop more and more firearms getting in to the hands of criminals.  The truth is the tighter the gun laws have become the more prevalent gun crime has become.  It might be said that while we have disarmed honest citizens we have armed dishonest gangsters. 

Looking to Europe there is Norway, which has particularly strong firearms control.  That did not stop Anders Behring Breivik going on a rampage.  Now consider another example altogether; consider Switzerland.  This is a country whose proportion of gun ownership per capita is among the highest in the world, not far behind the United States.  This is a country where almost every adult male is required by law to bear arms.  Yet it’s also a country with a particularly low murder rate.  Such gun crime as there is mostly involves illegally held arms.

Now I turn my eyes back over the Atlantic.  So far as the clamour for gun control is concerned it would be as well to consider the words of Sammy Gravano, one-time mobster.  In a 1999 interview with Vanity Fair he said – “Gun control?  It’s the best thing you can do for crooks and gangsters.  I want you to have nothing.  If I’m a bad guy, I’m always going to have a gun.”  The simple truth is that many types of crimes, as Hitchens pointed out in his book, fall sharply in those districts where normal and law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry concealed weapons. 

It might interest you to know that in England approximately half of all burglaries occur while people are at home.  In America this is as low as one in eight.  In those States which openly licence citizens to use deadly force against intruders burglary is virtually unknown.

What happened in Newton was not normal; it was an obscenity, just as Dunblane was an obscenity.  Adam Lanza – I can barely bring myself to write his name - , a maladjusted twenty-year old, went on a ghastly killing spree.  Why, what was his motive?  Will we ever know with exactness?  Possibly not, but possibly it was no more than a desire for notoriety and fame, that shallow contemporary obsession, the shallow obsession of losers and mediocrities everywhere.

But there is more.  As I noted above, this kind of mass shooting followed by suicide is a feature of our age.  Lanza was not normal; Lanza, as I understand from the Washington Post, had some mental or developmental disorder.  The New York Times reports that it was Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. Accordingly it seems he was on strong medications. 

Here I can only agree once again with Peter Hitchens.  Writing recently on his Daily Mail blog, he says that it would make sense for the press to explore this route rather than raise a futile wail in favour of gun control.  Is it possible, one has to ask, that there is a correlation between what happened at Newton and the increasing use of modern medications for mental illness?  We badly need answers here.  Instead we are likely to get the usual clichés. 

A world away from Newton there was another murderous rampage last week, though it has attracted far less media attention.  In central China a knife-wielding man stabbed twenty-two children outside a primary (grade) school.  It was less terrible than Sandy Hook because none were killed, though several were taken to hospital, some with severed fingers and ears.  According to police the perpetrator, since detained, is ‘mentally-ill.’  Tight control on firearms means that gun crime is virtually unknown in China.  Instead knives, and sometimes explosives, are used in mass attacks.  The sad truth is we cannot legislate against lunacy.  

Thursday 13 December 2012

A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day

Lucilla Ochoa Peterson, Lucy for short, is a particularly close friend.  We met when we both came up to Cambridge, full of enthusiasm for the same sort of things…and some of the same boys.  Lucy’s mother is from Peru and her father is Swedish.  She grew up in Sweden and I’ve visited her there on several occasions.  This year I’ve promised, all being well, to go with her to visit her grandmother and other members of her extended family in Lima and Cusco

Today, 13 December, is Saint Lucy’s Day, the patron saint of light.  Lucy was Lucy when she was a girl!  The Swedes have a rather charming tradition, the celebration of an early Christian martyr with strong pagan overtones.  In schools across the country a girl is chosen to head a procession, either holding a single candle or wearing a candle crown.  Lucy was elected not just because of her name but because she is so beautiful, a lovely combination of Nordic and Hispanic looks. 

She with the other Lucys, accompanied by their maids, all wearing white robes with scarlet sashes, processed around their home towns, visiting old people’s homes, churches and other public places, singing and handing out traditional seasonal confections.  I’ve tried the lussekatt – Saint Lucy’s Bun – and it’s really quite delicious. 

So, dear Lucy, this is for you, my Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day. Let John Donne, your favourite poet and mine, sing the song of winter’s shortest and deepest day.  Soon we will pass the solstice; soon we will return to the sun. Splendeat Lux Vestra.  You will remember and you will understand. :-)

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
            The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
    I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
    Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
            Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
    Were I a man, that I were one
    I needs must know ; I should prefer,
            If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
    At this time to the Goat is run
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is. 

Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Hand of History

There are not many jokes in communism. Actually that’s not quite true. A case could be made that communism itself was a massive joke, except those living under it dared not laugh, or laugh only at their personal peril. All humour in what used to be called the Eastern Bloc was inevitably of a subversive nature. For as George Orwell wrote, a thing is funny when it upsets the established order; that every joke is a tiny revolution. The revolutionaries did not want revolution; they wanted total conformity.

Have you ever been in a situation, or a place, say a church or a library, where something struck you as funny? It may not be all that funny on later reflection but just try to contain a laugh when it wants to explode!

I’ve been reading Anne Applebaum’s masterly Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56, a follow up to her equally masterly Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps. There are not many laughs in that, you may think. But you are wrong. I’m not at all sure I could have survived the dull curtain of monotony that descended on Eastern Europe after 1945 for one simple reason – I have an acute sense of humour.

You see, I would have been overcome with explosive fits of laughter over the shear earnest pettiness of it all. Imagine going in to a bookshop and seeing children’s titles like Six-Year-Old Bronek and the Six Year Plan. You leave quickly, only to have your senses assaulted by a propaganda hoarding. There it is, just across the street, boldly announcing “Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to capitalist imperialism!” Your lips are tightly closed; the laughter is escaping like steam under pressure. You don’t want to be seen so you turn away to look at the latest civic art, only to be confronted by a painting entitled “The technology and organisation of cattle slaughter.” Was the Berlin Wall really brought down, I wonder, by a great outburst of laughter? Sorry, I should write the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall, to give its official title.

Yes, there is humour in the story but the bigger picture is altogether bleak. In picturing the history of communism in Eastern Europe I see a façade, eaten hollow from within by termites. In the end the whole thing simply collapsed under its inherent contradictions, to borrow a piece of cherished Marxist terminology.

Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: for people in places like Poland, particularly Poland, the Second World War did not end in 1945. The immediate joy of ‘liberation’ simply gave way to an understanding that a new occupation had taken hold, one that was to last for decades.

The expression ‘Iron Curtain’ did not originate with Winston Churchill but it was he who was to give it greatest resonance in speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri in March, 1946;

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in some cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow. 

Applebaum sets out her stall quickly. She refuses to entertain the revisionist view that the imposition of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe after 1945 was a countermove to American policy at the start of what was to become the Cold War. No, the importation of a Soviet-style system was a deliberate ideological move, all part of the greater revolutionary good. As she quite rightly says, there was a template already in place for this in the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1940, states that had been consigned to Stalin under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

So far as Stalin was concerned there were also foreign policy advantages. The new communist satrapies acted as a buffer zone in a period of growing East West tension. More specifically, an independent Poland would clearly have been a major political embarrassment to the Soviets, doubtless demanding the return of those territories in the east of the country seized by Stalin in 1939 as part of his satanic bargain with Hitler. For Poland it was a bleak choice between extinction and communism.

As always the road to hell begins with noble intentions. Alongside the cynical little Stalins, who had spent years licking the boots of their Master in Moscow, there were genuine idealists, people who believed in the lie. They came as self-perceived liberators, ready to free the working classes from capitalist exploitation. They expected to be welcomed in their establishment of a brave new world. Unfortunately for them it had real people in it.

The truth came quickly; the truth came in Poland. In 1946 the people decisively rejected a communist-backed referendum. Perplexed, the government rejected the people, concluding that they had acted in “some kind of incomprehensible spirit of resistance and complete ignorance.”

Here I immediately fast forwarded to the events of June, 1953 in East Berlin, the first serious uprising against imposed communist rule. Bertolt Brecht, the playwright, had hitherto served as the German Democratic Republic’s tame intellectual and court poet. But even he had enough, offering comment on the worker state’s suppression of the workers in his poem The Solution;

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

That would seem to serve as the very definition of the so-called People’s Democracies. In the place of real people came a hollow cardboard illusion.

Applebaum is splendid in her treatment of the high politics, in her description of the appalling stooges who reproduced the bleak apparatus of Stalinism in their respective spheres of influence: personality cults, purges, camps, bogus trials, the whole depressing paraphernalia. She also offers a description of the corrosive effects of communism on everyday life. Any kind of personal or free expression, even in the most minor forms of liberty, was excised. Popular consciousness was filled with the state and nothing but the state. One small example serves here. The scout movement was banned as were all other private societies. In 1950 in Poland a seventeen-year-old girl met with friends from a former troop. All were arrested and given jail sentences of two to five years.

Iron Curtain is a splendid piece of work, witty, perceptive, thoroughly researched and superbly written. I was impressed enough to consider it the most important book I’ve read this year, one that will make a lasting contribution to our understanding of this period in history, a tragedy on which the final curtain has thankfully fallen. My main criticism concerns the title. It’s not a comprehensive history of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956, as the title misleadingly suggests, but principally a history of three countries behind the Curtain – Poland, East Germany and Hungary. There is next to nothing on places like Romania, where the whole communist experiment eventually descended to the most degenerate form.

Don’t let that bother you. The history we are given is first class, a journey into a heart of darkness. Iron Curtain is a book that is scholarly and accessible, free of all condescension while losing nothing in the telling. It’s a commendable achievement. I felt both exhilarated at deflated at the end, especially after reading about the brutal suppression of the 1956 anti-communist rising in Hungary, which proved to all who were not blind that the liberation of 1945 was nothing but a lie. I was exhilarated by the narrative and deflated by the fate of some of our fellow Europeans, to whom history had dealt such a poor hand.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Your Horse is Gay!

Homosexuality is just so gay.  I could be prosecuted in England for writing that.  Why?  Because someone or other might conclude that there’s a wounding intent in my words; someone or other might feel ‘insulted’ by my – alleged – inference.  Someone or other might inform the police, who might very well arrest me for a breach of the Public Order Act.

This is just too, too absurd, I can almost hear you thinking.  No reasonable plod would consider such a thing.  A policeman’s lot may not be a happy one, but policemen, by and large are not a stupid lot.  Well, then, let me offer you a different view.

Sam Brown, an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, was out with friends celebrating the end of his exams.  Passing a mounted policeman, he asked in jocular high spirits “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?”  What happened next was not at all gay.  Oxford’s underemployed police people arrested Brown for his ‘homophobic’ remark. 

He was handcuffed and bundled off to the local Bastille for a breach of section five of the 1986 Public Order Act, which outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour.’  Once inside, the Keystone Cops tried to extort an £80.00 ($130) fixed penalty notice.  He quite rightly refused to pay.  Locked up overnight, he was taken to court the following day, where prosecutors – not quite as dim as Oxford’s finest – immediately dropped the case. 

It’s laughable, I know, but it actually gets worse.  Have you ever said boo to a goose?  Just be careful if you do, because a sixteen year old boy from Newcastle in the north-east of England was arrested for saying ‘woof’ to a dog.  This was within the earshot of local police.  He was fined £50 ($80) with £150 ($240) costs for ‘threatening behaviour’ a decision later overturned on appeal by a jury.  The whole silly affair was no joke on taxpayers, because it allegedly cost them £8000 ($12800).   

Another case concerns a boy who held up a placard saying “Scientology is a dangerous cult”, fair comment, in my view, unless you are a scientologist, in which case it’s an ‘insult.’  His offence was reported and he was arrested. 

It’s impossible to make this sort of thing up, and I can assure you I did not.  It would be risible, a massive laugh at the expense of a stupid and literal-minded police force if it did not present genuine dangers to free speech.  No-one likes to be insulted but in a free society no-one has a right to expect not to be insulted. 

For some time now campaigners including David Davis, a former government minister, and Rowan Atkinson, the comedian, have been urging a change in the law.  Atkinson has attacked what he calls a “creeping culture of censoriousness.”  I would go further and attack a creeping culture of mind-numbing stupidity, especially on the part of the police. 

The little light of sanity has at last broken through the fog.  Tomorrow Geoffrey Dear, a former Chief Constable who now sits in the House of Lords, the venerable branch of the British Parliament, will table a motion calling for an amendment to the Act.  This, if passed, and accepted by the government, will remove the word ‘insulting’ from the legislation.  The measure is apparently backed now by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Actually I wonder if the legislation is the problem.  It’s really just a symptom, not the disease.  The disease is stupidity coupled with the growth of thin-skinned sensitivity.  I’m sure that in the past, even in the time when the legislation was first put on the statute book, people would never have imagined that public order measures could be put to such facile use.  There have always been those who are prepared to take offence at the least thing.  For the law to give support to each and every silly ass who can’t take a joke is, quite frankly, beyond a joke.  

Monday 10 December 2012

The Echo of Coriolanus

I shared rooms as an undergraduate with a girl from Beecroft in New South Wales. Quite often late at night in her homesickness she would listen to an online broadcast from Sydney, a sort of comedy talk show, earthy harmless stuff hosted by a man and a woman.

Unfortunately I can’t remember their names or the name of the show, but I’m now beginning to wonder if it was Mel Grieg and Michael Christian, the two radio hosts responsible for the prank call to Edward VII Hospital last week, asking about the health of the Duchess of Cambridge. If it was them I can only say that they are about as far removed from ‘shock jocks’ as is possible to imagine. The latter – I’m thinking of some American presenters - are really nasty, usually indulging in vicious political invective verging on total character assassination.

The nurse business is truly tragic. Who could not feel sorry for Jacinth Saldanha and her family? But the reaction to her ‘apparent’ suicide – this word keeps being stressed – I find shockingly out of proportion. It was a childish prank but childish pranks have been the small change of radio and television for years. What is Candid Camera, or more recently Fonejacker, but a series of childish pranks?

This one, which was directed at the Royal Family, not the nurse, went horribly wrong but the vicious mob calling for the immolation of the two presenters quite frankly disgusts me. I imagine it includes lots who took delight in previous pranks, laughing at one moment, snarling at the next.  These are the canaille, the people that Mark Antony manipulated from one state of mind to another with consummate ease.  In their stupidity they shock me far more than any shock jock. 

It wasn’t the paparazzi who drove Princess Diana to her death but those who lapped up publicity, no matter how the story and the pictures were obtained.  I was only eleven years old when Diana died but even then I felt disquiet that evening her body returned to London, a grim procession through the dark, punctuated by the flash of countless cameras.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing more ghastly than the passions of the mob.  

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
as the dead carcases of unburied men
That do corrupt the air - I banish you..

Sunday 9 December 2012

Only Two Weeks Left

I read recently that a global poll conducted earlier this year by Ipsos Mori, one of England’s leading market research companies, found that as many as ten per cent of the world’s population believe that the end is nigh. That’s right: get your affairs in order, for everything comes to a full stop in two weeks time. Two weeks, that’s all we’ve got; two weeks that’s not a lot!

What’s the source of this fear? I think that one would have to be an ancient Mayan not to know – it’s the Mayan Long Count Calendar, which reaches the end of its cycle on 21 December. If you don’t know this you really should have paid attention to 2012, the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster which gave lavish details of the coming apocalypse. “We were warned”, said the movies tagline, a point emphasised by one of the characters who said “The Mayans saw this coming thousands of years ago.”

Hey, let’s step back a little. Let’s ask one key question: what exactly did the Mayans see? Nothing, nothing at all; that’s the short answer. You can scour the ancient Mayan texts as much as you like and you will find no support at all for the end of civilization as we know it scenario. It’s all rather boring really. We will, by their calculations, simply see the turn of the thirteenth Bak’tun, a sub-period in the Long Count.

It’s all happened before, the shift from one period to another. There have been several ‘rolling over’ periods in the history of Mayan time, none of which is associated with any destructive or cataclysmic event. I know, I know; it’s just too boring. Better have a bang!

I feel sure that some people will remember all of the dire predictions just before our calendar rolled over from 1999 to 2000, computers crashing, airplanes falling out of the sky and on and on. What happened? You know what happened – nothing. The thing is, you see, it is we who are obsessed with the apocalypse. We have been anticipating the millennia for millennia. Not so the Mayans, far more phlegmatic and pragmatic in every sense.

According to Matthew Restall, a Mayan specialist at Pennsylvania State University, the pre-Columbian Maya had virtually no interest in the apocalypse – “You have to look very hard to see any kind of concern with the end of the world. There are certain creation mythologies but not a lot about the world ending.” The truth is that the cataclysmic mood was imported into the New World, like measles, by the Spanish and other European settlers. In other words, it’s our tradition, not theirs.

We have our own long and short count; it’s come and passed time after time. Who can forget that Judgement Day was guaranteed for 21 May of last year, a rapturous event warmly anticipated by Harold Camping and the delightful Family Radio Worldwide? It was all foretold, Camping informed his happy campers; it was all in the Bible, and the Bible, as we know, is the literal truth.

Oh these literal truths that turn out not to be true at all. As I say, we’ve been here before. I remember reading about a certain Christine Darg, another American evangelist, who was convinced that Jesus would make his reappearance on earth at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem. Certain of the time and the date, she even set up a webcam to record this earth-shattering event. Time passed. Jesus did not come. No Jesus, just lots of profane mooners, anxious to record their asses for posterity. It was the appearance of everyone but Jesus, all those bare backsides, which caused the camera to be removed just as quickly as it was put up.

You see we, in our anxiety, just latched on to the Maya as the most advanced of the pre-Columbian civilizations, reading in to their culture aspects of our culture, importing our obsessions which were not their obsessions. They have no ends or ends, if I can put it like that.

I admire the Maya. I’ve been to Tikal in Guatemala, looking out over the forest canopy, punctuated here and there by those marvellous and mysterious pyramids. Who could not admire their civilization after seeing that? A lot of people think that the Maya disappeared into the mists of time, that they had their own unrecorded apocalypse. But they did not. They are still with us, communities in southern Mexico and Guatemala. For them 2012 is a boom without a boom. What a party they are anticipating on 21 December!

Thursday 6 December 2012

In Praise of William and Kate; in Praise of Monarchy

There was a post on Blog Catalogue congratulating William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on the forthcoming birth of their first child, good news for them in particular and for the British monarchy in general, the succession now secured far into the future.  I added my own congratulations but the post also attracted ignorant comment from people who should know better but don’t. 

One American described our monarchy as a ‘travesty’ and an Australian pompously went on about what an anachronism it was in the modern world to have an inherited head of state.  This was supported by arrant nonsense about philosophers and political thinkers in the seventeenth century being “more modern and more rational.”  It demanded a response and response I gave, highlighting the importance of monarchy in history.  This is my broadside on ignorance.  It’s been slightly adapted and expanded. 

I’m not sure who the ‘more modern and more rational’ seventeenth century political thinkers were alluded to here. It just so happens that the seventeenth century is my speciality, a period of intense political upheaval in the history of England. It was the one time that we got rid of our monarchy, albeit for a brief period.

It was a period when the gentle authoritarianism of King Charles I was replaced by the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell and the dire Puritanism of the Major Generals. In the end the people had enough of Protectors, Republics and Confusion, calling Charles II home from exile. Since then the institution has gone from strength to strength, gently devolving its former prerogatives and powers to Parliament and People.

There is an acute historical irony here.  The monarchy, it might be said, is an institution in evolution.  It evolves now just as it has in the past.  In the eighteenth century the Americans rebelled against the perceived ‘tyranny’ of George III, eventually creating a monarchical republic.  As George and his descendents continued to devolve power to Parliament, an imperial presidency arose in the States.  Presidents as varied as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt exercised forms of prerogative power that even Charles I would have found shocking.

Looking further afield, consider the history of France, where a monarchy was replaced by ‘rational’ forms of terror, mass murder and dictatorship. Look at the history of the last century, conceivably the most terrible in human history, where in place of traditional monarchies in Russia and Germany we had murderous tyranny; instead of Nicholas II we had Stalin; instead of Wilhelm II we had Hitler.

Bringing the story up to date, the most politically advanced, stable and culturally tolerant countries in Europe are all monarchies. Apart from my own country there is the NetherlandsBelgiumLuxembourgDenmarkNorway and Sweden. It was the monarchy in Spain that acted as the midwife to a modern democracy after years of dictatorship.

I do wish people would think a little more deeply before they use words like travesty or before they waffle on about anachronism and rationality.

Anyway, well done William and Kate, two more charming people I find difficult to imagine.  They will make splendid parents just as one day they will make a splendid King and Queen.  

Wednesday 5 December 2012

The not so strange death of Liberal England

I’ve been looking at developments oop north, Rotherham in South Yorkshire, to be precise.  Politically it’s a socialist redoubt, held for years by the Labour Party.  It’s the kind of territory where if a red rosette was pinned on a chimp it would be returned to Parliament. 

Come to think of it Denis MacShane, the previous incumbent, is a bit of a chimp; a chump anyway.  I shall be even more unparliamentarily in saying that he is little better than a crook, forced to resign the seat over expense claims that were ‘plainly intended to deceive.’  That’s the parliamentary phrase! 

Anyway, Rotherham has turned into a bit of a graveyard – a graveyard for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.  It’s also become a graveyard for toleration and the birthplace of something altogether more sinister.

 I’ll come to the latter in a bit but first I need to do a spot of crowing.  Caw, caw, I call; my, how I delight in the decline and decline of the Limp Dumbs.  Can it be, can it possibly be that they will turn in ever decreasing circles to the point of complete extinction, the Incredible Shrinking Party?  Let it be, she sings; oh, let it be. 

The Northern Folk, you see, had a by-election last week in the wake of MacShane’s disgrace and forced resignation.  They got rid of Labour and – guess what? – they got Labour.  The vote is dead; long live the vote!  They voted for another chimp, one Sarah Champion, memorable for being completely unmemorable. 

But the election itself was memorable for other reasons, not least of which was the disastrous showing of the Clegg gang, who slumped to eighth place in the poll, behind the British National Party, behind the English Democrats and behind George Galloway’s Respect. 

Incidentally, the Respect candidate was a certain Yvonne Ridley, a journalist of a sort once held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  She enjoyed the experience so much that she subsequently converted to Islam.  She is also something of an obsessive, vowing to hunt down Zionists wherever they are to be found, yea, even so far as the ranks of Respect, which must be a bit like hunting for a vegetarian among cannibals. Her anti-Zionist credentials are doubtless why she was chosen to stand in Rotherham, that well-known Zionist stronghold.

Sorry for the diversion.  Let me get back to the Liberal Democrats, now in deep mourning.  I dare say they are falling back on the usual guff about not getting their message across.  I rather think the Rotherhamites got a message across to them.  Polling pundits are saying that no major political party has ever performed so poorly in a Westminster by-election.  Eighth place and a mere two per cent of the vote; that is the message they have to bear!

The thing about the Liberal Democrats is that they had no clear idea of what they are and what they represent.  Oh, yes, they were desperate for power, but power has its penalties, most of all on a movement that was really just a collective gripe.  Out of power for generations, the Liberals and subsequently the Liberal Democrats turned into a protest party, embracing every politically fashionable cause, from windmills to gay marriage.  It was a movement for socialists who could not quite define themselves as socialists, progressives who progressed in whatever direction the wind blew.  In the end power was their Inchcape Rock, upon which their fragile vessel shattered.

I suppose the really interesting thing about Rotherham is that the onward march of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has not been halted.  With over twenty-one percent of the vote, they came second behind Labour, well ahead of the Tories, to whom they must now be considered as a serious rival on the right, following the Corby result earlier in the month

Rotherham’s Ministry of Love, sorry, make that Social Services Department, must be seriously concerned by this trend.  I expect they are already scouring their foster register just in case any children have been placed in the care of UKIP supporters.  After all, one’s political views have a clear bearing on one’s suitability as a parent.  The Labour-controlled Rotherham Borough Council certainly believes so, having previously removed three children, including a baby, in the care of a UKIP-supporting family. 

The great crime of these people was their opposition to multiculturalism, which in the eyes of Rotherham’s KGB-trained social workers makes them ‘racist.’  The older children, who called the people in question mum and dad, are said to be traumatised by the whole experience. Apparently in true KGB-style the social service apparatchiks descended on the family after an anonymous tip off.  Here come a candle to light you to bed; here comes a chopper to chop off your head.  Yes, we become more like Airstrip One with every passing day. 

So it’s pretty dangerous to be a supporter of UKIP in Rotherham, especially if one wants to be a parent.  It’s reasonably safe, though, to be a member of a predominantly Asian gang trafficking underage white girls for sex.  Big Sister in the shape of Joyce Thacker, Rotherham’s social services director, goes around the place defending her dawn raid, all the time ignoring that her department was one of those singled out earlier in the year for its negligence over the pimping issue.  If only the perpetrators had been members of UKIP.  That surely would have made all the difference.  

Thacker Speaks

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Light in the Dark

Last week saw a sad anniversary in the Ukraine.  It’s eighty years since the beginning of the Holodomor, literally meaning ‘extermination by hunger’, a Stalin-made catastrophe that is thought to have been responsible for the death of up to seven million people in the years 1932 and 1933. 

It marks the first great moral nadir of communism.  It was a period of forced requisitions, a period when corn, even seed corn, was taken by the thugs of the NKVD, the state security apparatus, and other politically-inspired gangsters.  It was a period when food was marked ‘for export’ while men, women and children dropped dead in the streets.  For some it is comparable to the Holocaust.  While that is probably a step too far, in that there was no discernible racial motive involved, it shows a comparable callousness.

This tragedy is still not widely known outside the Ukraine.  The reason for this is simple enough: it was hushed up at the time by Western journalists who were little better than the stooges and dupes of Stalin.  The greatest stooge of all was Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who received a Pulitzer Prize for the ‘honesty’ of his reporting from the USSR, which might be a good indication of the true value of this benighted award. 

To the cowards and wretches like Duranty there is one honourable exception – Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist and former aid to David Lloyd George, whose reporting of the famine had him banned from the USSR.  He was later murdered in Mongolia, aged only twenty-nine, in circumstances that have never been fully explained.

It was only after the Ukraine achieved its independence that the Holodomor was accorded official recognition after years of enforced silence. Viktor Yuschenko, the former president, initiated a Holodomor Remembrance Day in 2006, marked every 25 November.  There is now a candle shaped memorial in Kiev, the capital, and a Holodomor Museum

Things change.  Yuschenko and the Orange Revolution are, like the Holodomor itself, in the past.  Viktor Yanukovich, the current president, started to backtrack almost as soon as he got into office.  The whole thing has been diluted, with the terror hunger now officially viewed as “a common tragedy of the Soviet people.”  There is politics here, of course; there is always politics, even in death.  The former president pursued a distinctly nationalist and anti-Russian line.  Yanukovich, in contrast, is closer to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Putin is close to the ghost of Stalin. 

The commemorations went ahead anyway, even with the absence of state support.  People were able to taste dishes made out of tree bark or leaves, something the desperate took to in the days of famine, a forlorn attempt to assuage hunger and cheat death.  The occasion was also marked by various symbolic events like the “uncelebrated weddings” and the “unrealised talents”, a commemoration of loss. 

Up to 2000 people gathered at the Holodomor Museum, observing a moment’s silence at 4pm precisely in memory of the dead.  Across the Ukraine lit candles were placed in windows, little stars of light flickering into history’s great darkness.  

Monday 3 December 2012

My Expectations

A Dickens of a year draws to a close.  We’ve had a lengthy party, celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of one of our most cherished writers.  It’s been marked in all manner of ways: in commemoration, in lectures, in biography (a very good one by Claire Tomalin) and in fresh adaptations of some of his books for television and cinema. 

In fact the year has been bookended by visual adaptations of Great Expectations, a novel that might be said to have put the mellow in drama, the first a three part BBC series screened last December, and now a new cinema version directed by Mike Newell, which I saw on Friday, the day it went on general release in England

Who needs this?, you might ask; after all it’s been done so many times, most notably in the David Lean version of 1946, starring John Mills as Pip and Finlay Currie as Abel Magwitch, the standard against which all others tend to be judged. 

Who needs it?  I do, that’s the answer; I needed Newell’s honest and imaginative recreation, Great Expectations as Dickens would have expected but presented afresh for modern eyes, carrying overtones of the director’s previous encounter with the Harry Potter franchise, lovely little touches of Gothic humour.  It may be sacrilege to say so but the Lean version is dating, and in some ways not dating that well.  It’s just a little too stiff in parts.  Oh, I simply can’t resist the sacrilegious! 

Great Expectations, if you are not familiar with the book, is a riddle, wrapped up in an enigma, inside a mystery.  It begins with a terrifying encounter in a graveyard on bleak Kentish marshland between Pip Pirrip (Toby Irvine), the novel’s narrator, then a child, and Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict who, by his appearance, might very well have escaped from hell.  Ralph Fiennes – keep those Harry Potter parallels rolling! – was a superb growling Magwitch, hungry not just for food and drink, but hungry, too, as it turns out, for human charity, the keystone, really, of the whole book. 

David Nichols’ screenplay is excellent because – in contrast to the TV version – he gives Magwitch’s speech to the six-year-old Pip word for word;

You bring me, tomorrow morning early, that file and them wittles. You bring the lot to me, at that old Battery over yonder. You do it and you never dare to say a word or dare to make a sign concerning your having seen such a person as me, or any person sumever, and you shall be let to live. You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler, no matter how small it is, and your heart and liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate. Now, I ain't alone, as you may think I am. There's a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his doors, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep his way to him and tear him open. I am keeping that young man from harming you at the present moment, but with great difficulty. I find it wery hard to hold that young man off of your inside. Now, what do you say?’

Oh, that young man, laid on thick in only the way that Dickens can lay on thick!  It’s all rather ridiculous, terrifying enough from a child’s point of view, as George Orwell noted in his brilliant essay on Charles Dickens, but a wholly inaccurate depiction of Magwitch the man, who is not a bat out of hell at all but something of a holy innocent, quite childish, as we later discover, in his exaggerated sense of gratitude. 

Pip’s next big encounter is with the eccentric Miss Havisham, a bat who lives like a bat among the ruins of a long dead wedding feast.  She is a jilted bride, played here by Helena Bonham Carter, a ghostly and Gothic presence.  I could not help but recall The Corpse Bride, an animation directed by her husband Tim Burton, where she voices Emily, the title character.  It’s in Miss Havisham’s crumbling mansion that Pip is introduced to Estella (Helena Barlow), her ward, a contrast in class and manners that is destined to have a great impact on the boy’s life.  The ghost bride is a puppet master, with Pip and Estella as her leading marionettes. 

All in all the cast were first class, minor and major.  Jason Fleming was a super Joe Gargery, Pip’s blacksmith brother-in-law, mentor and legal guardian.  Sally Hawkins was amusing enough as Pip’s older sister and Joe’s shrewish wife, though she hammed up the shrewishness to the point of excess.  In the minor roles David Williams was an excellent Uncle Pumbelchook, just as I imagine him. 

The laurel wreath I award to Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter again!) as the evasive and self serving lawyer Jaggers.  It is he who comes to the blacksmith’s forge to tell Pip, now grown up and played by Jeremy Irvine (Toby’s big brother), that he has come into money, that he is to leave his lowly life and become a gentleman in London; that he has ‘great expectations.’

Where these expectations come from and who is Pip’s mystery benefactor is the device upon which the rest of the story turns.  He believes that it’s Miss Havisham, an illusion she does nothing to disabuse, just as she does nothing to disabuse him that it is all part of a plan for him to marry Estella.  It isn’t; Estella is intended as a weapon, a heartless missile, Miss Havisham’s revenge on the whole male world. Pip’s real benefactor when he comes – yes, a he - comes as a shock, though it should be no shock to you even if you are not familiar with the story.  After all, I’ve already given it away.

So, then, Pip is magically transformed from an honest blacksmith into a ‘gentleman’ which in essence means someone who has nothing to do but waste time and waste money, a shiftless fop and a snob, evidenced in his conduct towards Joe when he comes to visit.  As a snob he moves only in the ‘best society’, and the ‘best society’ here is the Finch Club, headed by Bentley Drummel (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), a collection of unprepossessing boors and loud mouths whose idea of fun is food fights.  I simply refuse to accept that there was no Bullingdon Club reference here!  But in the end Pip comes good, losing pretence and gaining himself in acts of benevolence and charity, a counterpoint to his forced charity in the graveyard. 

As a love story Newell’s movie does not work; there is simply not enough screen time between the mature Pip and Estella, played in adulthood by Holliday Granger.  But as a tribute to Dickens it does, to all the twists and turns in which he delighted as a story-teller.  The set design and the period details are all first class, with London looking even more frightening at points than those Kentish marshes.  Yes, it has been modernised without being updated and reinterpreted, something I personally loathe.  Of this movie I had great expectations.  These expectations were not disappointed. 

So, I bid a premature farewell to 2012; a farewell to the year of Dickens.