Reviews


Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Every time you criticize Mandela a fairy puppy dies

Nelson Mandela’s passing was only a few days ago and already the left-wing press and counter-press have managed to come up with a wide range of criticisms of someone who should, ostensibly, be their hero. Slavoj Zizek, that staunch opponent of anything modern in the left, is recycling the old claim that Mandela simply changed the skin colour of the overlords; Counterpunch is leading the charge to claim that he was just a neo-liberal friend of the rich, and black people didn’t benefit from the ANC at all; the Guardian managed to give a thoroughly negative review of his funeral, with the cherry on the icing being their focus on Obama rather than, you know, the South Africans who Mandela led; and they even managed to give Simon Jenkins a go at criticizing the coverage of Mandela’s death. I can’t decide which part of Simon Jenkins’s article is worst – the fact that he paraphrases the title of a profoundly important book about the holocaust in order to criticize coverage of a hugely liberating figure; or the fact that he is writing it at all, given that he is a confirmed HIV denialist and was directly involved in promoting HIV denialist science, which cost South African blacks so many lost lives and chances.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no fan of hagiography and I’m happy to criticize my heroes, but I would have thought that in this case someone as profoundly important as Mandela could be given a week or two before the critical analysis of his legacy began. I mean, he only just died and the left – which historically was most broadly supportive of him – have been really quick to start pissing all over his legacy. I guess it’s largely the British left I’m quoting here, but over at Crooked Timber’s comment thread on Mandela a wide range of commenters seem to have joined in with this “he didn’t immediately undo all the economic wrongs of apartheid so he was bad” chorus, and a lot of the commenters there must be American. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, especially since those on the right who were famously opposed to Mandela at the time (people like Bush, the entire Israeli government, etc) have largely refrained from resurrecting their criticisms of the time. Surely if his opponents of the time don’t feel it’s right to say anything bad about him for a week or so, it might be worth one’s while to stow it for a bit?

One of the main threads of left-wing criticism of Mandela appears to be that he didn’t do much to reduce inequality, and we see various strengths of this argument ranging from “he blew a chance” through “he let down his communist allies” to the extreme “he just swapped racial oppression for economic oppression” or “swapped one set of overlords for another” type arguments. I think there are two huge flaws in these opinions (aside from their obviously terrible timing): the first is that the data from within South Africa is not so clearly supportive of the conclusion that Mandela (and more broadly the ANC) have failed to do anything about inequality; and the second is that progress on inequality and the related left-wing complaint of a failure to rein in neo-liberalism’s negative effects needs to be judged against the context of progress in the rest of the world over the same period, and against the backdrop of HIV in South Africa.

What does the data say on inequality in South Africa?

My first complaint with criticisms of these claims is that the data on inequality in South Africa is not being well assessed, and that the broader development issues South Africa faced are not being considered. Let’s consider that second complaint first. In the Counterpunch article I linked to above, for example, Patrick Bond writes critically:

the sustained overaccumulation problem in highly-monopolised sectors continued, as manufacturing capacity utilization continued to fall from levels around 85 percent in the early 1970s to 82 percent in 1994 to below 80 percent by the early 2000s

This seems hugely unfair to me. I don’t know a great deal about South Africa, but I’m guessing that “manufacturing capacity utilization” in the 1970s was highly dominated by the use of cheap, exploitable labour who had no rights and no capacity to control the extent to which they were “utilized.” Furthermore, the sanctions of the 1980s would have further restricted the ability of South African industry to modernize in a way that would improve capacity utilization, and by the time their investments were up and running in the early 2000s they faced … China. This capacity utilization also looks pretty favourable when compared to the USA, where in 2009 it was 64%. It doesn’t seem to me that this claim is fair.

We’ll come back to this problem of context and comparison with the USA later, but for now let’s look at the data. It’s true that South Africa has a terrible level of inequality, with a Gini index of between 0.6 and 0.7 depending on how you measure it. The world bank suggests that there has been an increase in inequality (measured using the Gini), with Gini values in 1995 of 57 and in 2010 of 63. That’s not a big change, though – this UNU working paper shows that World Bank estimates of the Gini coefficient in 1995 showed a wider range of values than the entire change recorded by the World Bank between 1995 and 2010. There is no clear method for calculating variance in Gini coefficients, and not enough data generally to establish what that variance might be, so whether or not the change from 1995 to 2010 is significant is hard to know.

The story becomes even more complicated than that when you consider the data challenges in nations like South Africa, and look at more nuanced research into inequality in South Africa. It’s difficult to believe that data on black South Africans collected before 1995 was really very good or complete, so the true depth of inequality in apartheid South Africa is hard to be confident about. Furthermore, assessment of wealth in low income countries is not so simple as simply calculating income – it is typically done through assessment of consumption expenditure. This is done because poor people in low income countries tend to underestimate or misreport their income, and much of their wealth can be tied up in informal markets and means of exchange (e.g. they have land and pigs but little money). Measures of Gini in South Africa based on consumption expenditure tend to be different to those based on income, and measures of wealth based on consumption are not readily available in earlier years. Furthermore, the Gini is a very poor measure of inequality – not only is uncertainty usually not calculated, but it doesn’t give any meaningful distinction between different types of inequality, and I seriously doubt it’s linear. For example, a change in Gini index from 0.35 to 0.40 may have a very different meaning to a change from 0.57 to 0.63. I don’t think any realistic work has been done on how useful the Gini index is for either within- or between-nation comparisons.

However, there is some recent research available on inequality in South Africa that paints a more nuanced picture. This research, from the University of Stellenbosch, suggests that poverty – measured in absolute and relative terms – has declined in South Africa, and that inequality within racial groups has increased while inequality between racial groups has decreased. In fact, according to this report:

  • The proportion of households with children reporting any form of hunger has declined by 15% in the past 6 years
  • The share of black people in the middle class has increased from 11% in 1994 to 22% in 2004
  • Poverty headcount rates have declined from a peak of 53% in 1996 to 44% now, a record low
  • Income growth over the period 1994-2010 has been approximately similar amongst whites and blacks
  • The proportion of total income earned by black people has grown from 33% to 39%, while amongst whites it has declined from 55% to 48%
  • Within-race inequality contributed only 39% to inequality in 1993 and now constitutes 60%

The report also points out that World Bank Gini coefficients don’t properly adjust for household size, and household-weighted Gini coefficients were 0.67 in 1993 and are 0.69 now. They write:

A decomposition of the Theil index shows that the decline in income inequality between race groups throughout the period offset the rising inequality within groups. This trend of falling inter-racial inequality coupled with rising intra-racial inequality is also a continuation of a phenomenon first observed in the 1970s (Whiteford & Van Seventer 2000). Note that these estimates of the population Gini are near the upper end of South African Gini estimates, although they remain smaller than those calculated by Ardington et al. (2005) using the 2001 census. The trends in inequality derived from the AMPS data are likely to be more reliable than the estimated levels, as the levels may be more affected by the nature of the data (household income estimates in income bands based on a single question).

The Gini coefficients shown here are higher than those often reported. The reason for that is that many Gini calculations use the weighting for the household, without multiplying that by the household size, as should be done: Larger households have more members, and this should be considered in calculating inequality. The Gini coefficients here are thus the correct ones, and much higher than those reported by among others the World Bank, which are based on inappropriate weights. The Gini coefficient of 0.685 reported for 2006 would have been only 0.638 if the more common, but incorrect, weights were used.
This report overall paints a picture of small but noticable reductions in inter-racial inequality, and reductions in the levels of absolute poverty seen before the end of Apartheid. It’s pretty modest, but overall it seems safe to say that South Africa may reduce inequality slightly and cannot be said to have significantly increased it. This claim may seem weak, but when we compare it to the rest of the world and consider it in its proper context, it’s important.
Considering South Africa’s economic changes in the global and regional context
In economics there is a simple method for assessing the effect of an intervention called the Difference-in-Difference model. In this model you compare the actual change in the group that received an intervention with the counter-factual that would be expected if they haven’t; you estimate the counter-factual from a control group measured before and after the intervention. In this case the intervention is the end of apartheid, and the control group is other countries. Consider, for example, how income inequality has changed in South Africa and the USA since the 1970s. According to the World Bank, the top decile of income earners in South Africa control 58% of all income in 2010. Research from Stanford University puts the equivalent number in the USA at 50%, but look at the curve: since the 1970s the share of income held by the top decile of US income earners has increased from about 35% to 50%. Income inequality has increased rapidly in many high income countries under the influence of various forms of neo-liberalism and/or trade liberalization. For example in the UK the Gini coefficient has increased from 0.35 to 0.41 since 1990, a much larger (proportionate) increase than observed in South Africa. Seen against the backdrop of international changes brought about by major international movements, it appears that Mandela and the ANC have managed to resist many of the worst changes that have swept through the industrialized west. It is this international context that is missing from the Counterpunch article linked above, where they provide critical statistics about South Africa’s industrial and economic performance without any comparison to overseas, where equal or far worse changes have occurred in the same time frame. The industrial economies of much of the rich west have been hollowed out by a mixture of ponzi economics and the rapid growth of Asia; South Africa seems to have escaped the worst of some of these changes, and though things clearly aren’t pretty in the economic statistics that South Africa presents, it is also clear that they have got vaguely better and certainly not much worse, against a backdrop of really challenging international and domestic changes.
The domestic changes also need to he emphasized when assessing Mandela’s legacy. He inherited a corrupt one party state with a political system built on state violence against a powerless minority, crippled by years of sanctions and sitting on the silent time bomb of HIV. While the ANC’s response to HIV was terrible, it’s worth noting that the first 10-20 years of growth of HIV happened under apartheid, and it’s really hard to believe that since HIV was identified in 1984 the white regime was doing much to prevent its spread. Against a backdrop of revolution, poverty, discrimination and chaos, what kinds of interventions did de Klerk have in place? And even after Mandela took the reins, most of Africa was still unaware of how to deal with HIV and just how terrible it was going to become; much of the context of the epidemic that unfolded subsequently had already been set and although the response could have been better handled since 1994, and certainly since 1997, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that even a really pro-active intervention would have failed under the circumstances. As a result of this epidemic, life expectancy in South Africa has collapsed, and South Africa is one of the countries facing serious economic challenges because of the epidemic. I have written before about how terrible this epidemic can be for societies suffering it, and challenged readers to consider alternative futures where it arose as a generalized epidemic in the USA or Europe. Does anyone think that the USA would have experienced the same economic growth and changes since 1994 if it had suffered the epidemic the way South Africa is? This needs to be considered when criticizing health spending and economic growth in South Africa.
Given this context, I can only summarize by saying that Mandela and the ANC did okay in handling inequality. Obviously not as well as anyone would have liked but also much better than, say, the US under (lefty) Clinton or the UK under (lefty) Blair. So I think leftists should perhaps be a little more circumspect in their criticisms of Mandela and the ANC’s legacy. Perhaps it would be good if they took a week to laud his obvious achievements, and to read the literature.
A final note about iconoclasm in coverage of Mandela’s death
In case you thought the mainstream left was alone in being a little too quick to criticize Mandela, spare a thought for the lunatic right. The National Review Online editors’ piece on Mandela was remarkable, managing to wrap a vicious and angry rant inside a thin shell of flattery; and its commenters still complained that the NRO has become too left wing in its coverage, and that Mandela committed genocide. But perhaps best is the efforts of the white power losers from the OSR blogosphere, who hate-bombed a thread about Mandela on Dragonsfoot with complaints about his terrorism and white genocide. Remember that next time an OSR blogger drifts over here to complain about my criticisms of Tolkien … still, the OSR being caught up in 1986 I guess they haven’t worked out that apartheid is over.
Anyway, I don’t feel like this has been a great week for the mainstream left media, such as it is, and I hope that some of Mandela’s critics on the left will find this piece and consider a slightly more nuanced understanding of what he did in power. I also hope that people will start using slightly better measures of inequality than Gini indices … but that’s a post for another day!

The 2013 Booker prize shortlist was released recently, and to my surprise I saw a book on the list that looked appealing: Jim Crace’s Harvest. I’ve never read a Booker prize winner and only read two books ever nominated – both by Margaret Atwood – so I thought it would be interesting to see if the prize functions as any kind of recommendation.

I won’t make that mistake again.

Harvest is a novel supposedly about the period of Enclosure in Britain, when land previously held in common was enclosed and privatized. As far as I understand it, the common view of history (and certainly the one I was taught in school in the UK when they taught this) was that Enclosure was an enormously important and beneficial land reform that improved productivity and wealth, and led to the modernization of Britain. An alternative theory of history that I think has some popularity amongst radical leftists (especially anarchists) and eco-radicals is that Enclosure was an act of theft, in which the wealthy and ruling classes of Britain expropriated land from their tenants, drove them out to form a landless labouring class, and then exploited them as cheap labour. I think there is some truth to this claim, though it needs to be counter-posed against whatever horrors subsistence farming on the feudal commons brought about for the peasantry; certainly when I was taught Enclosure at school in the UK, nobody mentioned sheep – it was presented as a way of improving productivity and the lives of peasants, and presented as having been introduced alongside the agricultural advances of crop rotation.

So I was interested in a novel which explored a social drama against this context, of a village life being rapidly changed through Enclosure. The basic story is summarized at the Picador website:

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire.

Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .

Told in Jim Crace’s hypnotic prose, Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed. Timeless yet singular, mythical yet deeply personal, this beautiful novel of one man and his unnamed village speaks for a way of life lost for ever.

The story proceeds very quickly from the harvest to the events described above. It is a straightforward plot, viewed through the eyes of a man who slowly gets excluded from his community as events turn nasty. It’s well written and evocative, although one quickly begins to see the technical devices Crace is using, so the prose becomes a bit same-same after a while. This isn’t a bad thing though, since the consistent style and the nature of the imagery are evocative of a late summer in the country of the distant past – you do feel like you’re reading about a different, simpler world of growers and spinners. Crace also manages to very solidly ground the lead character, Thirsk, in the foreground while making many of the villagers distant and washed out figures, not really described in detail and their inner lives hidden, in such a way that you do feel like you stand only with Thirsk, that you are something of an outsider, and that the village has an inner life you don’t understand. I think this is good for looking back at a time that we can’t really understand or feel any common cause with.

However, the book has serious flaws. First and most importantly, the ending is completely unsatisfactory. You don’t find out most of the reasons why most of the things described in the blurb happened, and you certainly don’t get to see any kind of resolution of any of them. Maybe it was Crace’s intention to have 7 days of chaos fall on a village for no reason, to be left unresolved and confused at the end … if so, he’s a punishing and mean writer. I think more likely he thought that he had resolved the story, and didn’t realize he hadn’t at all. Walter Thirsk’s final actions are also incomprehensible and weak, and we don’t see in them what I think Crace intended us to see. The plot is building to an interesting resolution involving several forces – the villagers, the strangers, the two lords and Walter – but instead all these separate threads go basically unresolved (except perhaps the strangers). To the extent that any of these people are built up as characters in the novel (and most aren’t, or drift through it as archetypes), Crace betrays them by showing a complete lack of interest in their fate.
Second, Enclosure plays almost no role in this story. Enclosure does not happen to the village, and the technician charged with the central task of implementing it is treated in such a way as to give the reader the impression that no one is interested in Enclosure and it is not going to happen. We are told that the strangers are fleeing from the enclosure of their own lands but we see no evidence of this, and because we never meet those strangers properly we cannot hear their story of Enclosure or know if their flight was the correct response – maybe they were criminals at home, too? Much of the resistance to Enclosure described in the book is also based on cultural objections, with no deeper political or structural analysis. We don’t hear any hint of empoverishment or land theft, though there is the impression given that some villagers will have to leave; nonetheless the villagers’ objection to Enclosure (described entirely through the opinions of Walter Thirsk) is primarily cultural: they have a way of life they don’t want to change, and they don’t like sheep. I don’t think, given this, that it can be said that “Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed.” There is nothing irrevocable about the enclosure in this book (that doesn’t happen), and the reasons the community is scattered are to do with witchcraft and feudal terror, not enclosure – which most of the community are still ignorant of when they leave. Even the three we supposedly know are on the lam from their previous community are clearly criminals, and could be fleeing for that reason as much as any other. I guess we’re meant to see the interaction between village and strangers as a clash between the new, threatening post-enclosure world and the Britain of the rural past, but I don’t see it, and the villagers respond to the strangers solely on the basis of their foreignness – their response is that of old Britain, and not motivated by (or even aware of) the possibility that these strangers might be a new class of dangerous, land-less worker. There is no political struggle in this book. Which is fine, but I think the role of Enclosure in the story has been completely over-egged.
Finally, this story has no special underlying thread or deeper plot: it is not the case that “something even darker is at the heart of [Walter Thirsk's] story.” It’s just a tale of stupidity and nastiness on the edge of the earth, and the nastiness is so disconnected from sense and so pointless and stupid that it’s hard to credit on its face, let alone as the surface manifestation of “something even darker.” This is a story of a bad lord and some stupid villagers. Maybe the bad lord has a bigger plot to what he is doing, but we don’t find out because his story is not resolved; and if he does have a bigger plot, it’s clear what it is, and it’s not “something even darker,” it’s just plain old-fashioned viciousness deployed in the economic interests of the ruling class – something the book studiously fails to draw out in any great detail.
So in the end I just can’t see what is special enough about this book to win it a nomination for a Booker prize. It’s just a simple though well-written story about some trouble in a village. What are their criteria? Why is this prize special? Certainly some of the winners look like insufferably self-conscious attempts at literary fiction, and I guess that being on the panel must be unrewarding drudgery if you have to read through 6 or 8 novels desperately trying to be “weighty” without offending anyone. Harvest certainly gave the impression of trying to be weighty and literary without actually having anything resembling a decent plot or systematic under-pinning. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional and it’s certainly not well-crafted.
I’ve noticed that the Booker prize has come in for a fair bit of criticism on the grounds that it is really just a sheltered workshop for a dying and falsely ring-fenced genre, “literary fiction,” and I think I’m inclined to agree. This blogger describes the panel as an “ethnically pure, upper middle class cartel” and bemoans the lack of science fiction or fantasy in the prize. Certainly, looking at the lists of past short-lists and winners it seems pretty clear that the “cartel” are restricting the prize to an in-group of a few authors. For example, the 1985 list includes Doris Lessing, Peter Carey and Iris Murdoch – 50% of the list are past winners or regular short-listers. How is it possible that amongst all the literature of the Commonwealth for a single year, the same three people can end up getting in the top 6? Is the pool of good literature in the Commonwealth really so limited? Iain M. Banks’s The Wasp Factory was released in 1984, and he has published almost every year since – yet he doesn’t appear in a single short list, and I can’t see any evidence that this novel made the longlist either. Similarly Mieville’s best-constructed three works (The Scar, Perdido Street Station and The City and The City) don’t appear, neither does Philip Pullman, Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and of course nothing from the crime and mystery genres. I would say that The Rivers of London is a better work than Harvest, yet nothing like it appears on the short list. As others have observed, this prize exists to police the perimeters of a dying genre of literature, whose purveyors are labouring under the false impression is not a genre, but somehow the essence of fiction. It isn’t – it’s a dull backwater for people who take themselves too seriously.
From next year, the Booker will be opened to American writers, and some see this as the end of the prize. I’m not a big fan of contemporary American fiction, so I don’t see that as a likely outcome, but were the Booker panel to consider science fiction, fantasy and genre fiction then yes, that would be it for the Commonwealth writers – and certainly for British writers. How amusing, then, that a Guardian critic of this decision writes:
When eligibility shifts from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe to English-language novels published in the UK, it is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes
Well, whether it’s an economic super-power exerting its literary tastes or a white upper middle class conspiracy theory, we’re not going to see a shift to any kind of recognition of actual quality in literature. At least if the Americans are let in, there might be a chance of introducing a bit of democratic diversity to the judging. Or will there? I bet next year’s prize will contain the same narrow range of “acceptable” lit-fic blandness, and not a whiff of genre fiction in sight. Which is a great thing for all 6 lit-fic authors still plugging away at that stuff, but a shame for all the unsung novelists who write genuinely good stuff that people actually want to read.
At least until it diversifies we can be fairly confident that the Booker prize is a warrant of mediocrity, and avoid wasting money on its nominees …

Today’s Guardian has a front-page article bemoaning the lack of imagination in science fiction cinema, with examples from Bladerunner, Elysium and the Fifth Element, among others. The basic claim is that SF cinema doesn’t try very hard to go outside of the context in which its writers live, and so fails to provide any really serious insights into how we think our society and technology might actually change in the future. The author, Joe Queenan, cites visible tattoos on gangsters, phone booths in Bladerunner, and background music in Star Trek. The examples aren’t powerful but on a superficial level I think they do combine to give an impression of imaginative failure in science fiction cinema. However, I think the article is largely incorrect and furthermore it fails to understand the true importance of science fiction, which, whether in film or literature, serves to give an insight into the society in which it was written just as much (or moreso) than it does the society in which it is set. Science fiction also doesn’t exist just to imagine technology that breaks all boundaries: it also serves to explore the limits of technology, or even to imagine settings which have been opened up by high technology, but simultaneously rendered into a form of new primitive. If one sees SF in terms of these imaginative goals, what a movie chooses to change and how it changes it, and what it doesn’t change, can be equally crucial aspects of the movie’s vision.

Let us consider some examples that Queenan didn’t touch on, and one that he did. Why is it that the movie Star Wars, which came out in 1977, is able to simultaneously consider faster-than-light travel and planet destroying spaceships, yet when space battles occur between small jets they are essentially World War 2 dogfights? Everything in Star Wars is advanced to a space operatic level, yet the key battles in space  involve primitive aiming systems and lasers that appear to fire more slowly than bullets. What’s the story? By 1977 the USAF had access to the F-14 Tomcat, a plane capable of firing air-to-air missiles with a 100km range that enables it to take out opponents without even seeing them. But a long time ago in a galaxy far far away you need to have a wingman, and you need to get in close behind a spaceship and squeeze off some laser shots if you want to blow them up. Why? I think this is because by the 1970s the world was beginning to get a little bit fearful about the mechanization of war, and harking back to an era when victory depended on human bravery and skill rather than being the first person to notice the other one. By 1977 everyone in the USA knew (even if they didn’t want to admit it) that a plucky rebellion led by a cute princess would be so much burnt flesh if it actually tried to take on the US empire – there is no chance that they could field a small team of dedicated pilots and somehow take out Washington with a carefully-aimed rocket up Reagan’s secret shuttlepipe. They’d all be dead on take off. The final battle in Star Wars tells us more about the wishful thinking of the modern world and its insecurity about the way modern wars are fought as it does about the director’s inability to conceive of how future war might be conducted. It also makes a little bit of subversive anti-US government propagandizing possible. By reducing the final battle to a dogfight, but giving Darth Vader the power to destroy planets at the touch of a button, Lucas makes it clear what he thinks of aerial bombing, agent orange and all the other techniques of mass killing that had been deployed by the USA in its wars in Latin America and south-east Asia over the previous two decades. It’s like a kind of plea for a return to a purer form of war – and that plea wouldn’t be possible if the director stuck slavishly to the “truth” about what would happen in a space opera war. Iain M. Banks made a decent fist of describing how war might actually work in a space opera universe, and makes it pretty clear that once we free ourselves from the constraints of energy limitations, the temptation to free ourselves from all moral constraints in regards to the weapons we deploy is also going to be pretty strong. Is this more speculative by Queenan’s analysis? I don’t think so, I think it’s just a different kind of speculation.

Another speculative example that Queenan didn’t consider is the hard-scrabble life on the frontier depicted in Serenity or Alien, and its antecedents in space opera, where faster-than-light travel exists but travel between the stars can take weeks and messages are no faster than space ships. Both of these situations arise from the possibility that FTL space travel will free humanity to explore and settle different stars, but the distance between settlements and the vast cost of the enterprise will limit the ability to develop and connect those stars. In Serenity and a lot of other stellar rim type settings this is obviously redolent of a sci-fi wild west; but in the Traveller game these problems are explicitly discussed – they are a feature not a bug – and compared with the great Age of Exploration when the societies of western Europe were spreading over vast areas, and fragmenting as they did so under the challenge of maintaining trade and contact. These settings aren’t a failure of imagination, but are an attempt to describe a particular type of future, in which technology has freed humanity but the freedom it grants comes with huge sacrifices and challenges. Sometimes when things change they go backwards (thing of the battery on your smarphone if this seems like a trite observation); exploring how humans handle the trade-offs their new technology gives them is a huge part of the speculative pleasure of science fiction.

Queenan’s amusing example of the phonebooth in Bladerunner. Apparently in Deckard’s world they still have fixed landlines, and Queenan suggests that surely by 1983 in the west phone booths were already going out of fashion? Sadly, no. In the mid-70s in the UK most families still didn’t own their own phone – some communities shared a single phone line, and only one person in a street could use the phone at a time. I remember in the 1980s how rare and fantastic it was to make an overseas call, and even in the early 1990s phone ownership remained a kind of measure of poverty. The fact is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s telecommunications infrastructure was still a new phenomenon – not an established and taken-for-granted part of life like cars and planes, but a relatively modern and expensive technology. I think this is why in Bladerunner they could have flying cars but fixed phones: because cars were a settled technology, that everyone could imagine would change in the future because they are seen as an old technology; whereas phones are so new that people couldn’t imagine that they would take on a fundamentally new form within 50 years, let alone 10. I guess it’s kind of like people in a train in 1910 imagining that within 50 years it would be able to travel at hundreds of kms an hour. The technology is still too new for that. What is seen as changeable in Bladerunner – cars, humans – and what is not – phones, make up – tells us much more about the writer and the frailties of our society than it does about how technology might change.

To me these speculative elements of science fiction are what make it so imaginative, at least compared to fantasy. Queenan, in viewing science fiction primarily through the prism of how it updates technology, misses all the real richness and importance of the genre. It’s like he’s focused on the pointing finger, and missed all the gory of the heavens.

Not enough to save you from castration

Not enough to save you from castration

I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s The Second World War, and I have been very disappointed by its handling of cryptography. Overall the book is an interesting and fun read, not as engrossing or powerful as Stalingrad or Berlin but retaining his trademark narrative flow, mix of military and personal history, and leavened with analysis of the broader political currents flowing through the war. It also doesn’t ignore colonial history the way earlier generations’ stories did, and  it is willing to present a relatively unvarnished view of Allied commanders and atrocities. The book has many small flaws, and I don’t think it’s as good as previous work. In particular the writing style is not as polished and the tone slightly breathless, occasionally a little adolescent. I’m suspicious that his grasp of the Pacific war is not as great as of Europe, and that he may fall back on national stereotypes in place of detailed scholarship, though I have seen no evidence of that yet. But the main problem the book has is just that the war is too big to fit into one person’s scholarship or one book, and so he glosses over in a couple of sentences what might otherwise have formed a whole chapter. This was particularly striking with the Nanking Massacre, which gets a paragraph or less in this book. That, for those who aren’t sure of it, is about the same amount of coverage it gets in a Japanese middle school history textbook – which also has to cover the whole of World War 2. Interesting coincidence that …

Anyway, as a result of this a great many things that might be important are given very little description. For example, the famous technology of the war – the Spitfire, the Messerschmitt, the Zero – are introduced without explanation or elucidation, and though constantly referred to by their proper names we don’t know what their strong or weak points are – it’s as if Beevor assumed we were going to check it ourselves on wikipedia. I was a little disappointed when I realized that Beevor had decided to treat the decryption/encryption technologies of the war – and the resulting intelligence race – in this way. So at some point early in the Battle of the Atlantic he starts referring to “Ultra Decrypts,” as if they were simply another technology.

This is disappointing because Ultra decrypts aren’t just another technology. There was an ongoing battle between mathematicians and engineers of both sides of the war to produce updated technologies and to decrypt them, and the capture and utilization of intelligence related to encryption methods was essential to this effort. The people who participated in this battle were heroes in their own right, though they didn’t have to ever face a bullet, and their efforts were hugely important. Basically every description of every major engagement in the African campaign includes the phrase “fortunately, due to Ultra decrypts, the Allies knew that …”[1]; the battle of Midway was won entirely because of the use of decryption; and much of the battle of the Atlantic depended on it too. These men, though they never fired a shot in anger, saved hundreds of thousands of tons of allied materiel, tens of thousands of lives, and huge tracts of land and ocean from conquest. Yet they aren’t even mentioned by name, let alone given even a couple of sentences to describe what they did and how they worked. This is particularly disappointing given that Alan Turing, who was hugely important to this effort, was cruelly mistreated by the British government after the war and ended up committing suicide. It’s also disappointing because cryptography was an area where many unnamed women contributed to the war effort in a way that was hugely important. In one earlier sentence during the Battle of Britain Beevor refers to “Land Girls,” the famous women who farmed England while the men were at war. It would be nice to also see a reference to “the Calculators,” young women who crunched numbers before computers were invented.

I find this aspect of Beevor’s book disappointing, and I’m sure that there are similar oversights in reporting the contribution of other “back office” types. Maybe it’s reflective of the modern idea that only “frontline workers” count, and only their stories are important. Or maybe it’s a reflection of a culture in which the contribution of nerds and scientists is always devalued relative to the contribution of adventurers, sportspeople and soldiers. It’s a very disappointing missed opportunity to tell an important and often under-reported story about the huge contribution that science makes to advancing human freedom.

fn1: And usually also includes the phrase “Unfortunately, [insert British leader] was too [timid/stupid/slow/arrogant] to respond and thus …”

A new form of disaster tourism is born ...

A new form of disaster tourism is born …

I don’t really think it’s possible to make a movie of World War Z, which is basically a kind of public policy review document. I also don’t think that the new movie is a particularly good first attempt, but it is a lot of fun. As an adaptation of the book it has so many obvious problems – not least of them that nothing that happens in the book is actually in the movie – that it clearly stinks. It changes the personality and job description of the main character, who is now some kind of crack investigator for the UN with experience in investigating troublespots (do these people even exist in the UN structure?); it changes the origin of the zombiepocalypse from a Chinese dam to a US military base in Korea; it has Israel collapsing near the beginning of the epidemic; and it presents a completely different resolution to the whole problem, one that is much, much less cynical than the horrible tragedy that unfolds in the book. It also doesn’t present a series of accounts from different protagonists collected after the fact, and the best we can do is pinch ourselves and pretend that this movie is a kind of prequel to the book, the story of what the book’s (unnamed?) narrator did during the first horrible days of the apocalypse. From memory we never find this out in the book, and indeed the narrator seems to have emerged from the zombiepocalypse largely untouched by it, unlike any of his interviewees.

It is in this, however, that the movie is most faithful to the book: where the book is a kind of disaster tourism, traveling from trouble spot to trouble spot and zeroing in (mostly) on people whose suffering was genuinely terrible, in the movie we travel from troublespot to troublespot and watch Brad Pitt somehow survive while all around him goes to hell. Everyone in Jerusalem gets eaten alive, but Brad is on the last plane out of there by the most extreme strokes of luck you can conceive of. Sure, he cops a beating and so do those with him (the few who survive, anyway); but compared to what’s going down as he runs away he’s veritably blessed.

And “Jerry” does do a lot of running for a crack investigator, not that you can really blame him given the (literally overwhelming) odds he faces in every circumstance. The movie has a very good pace, from the first encounter with the zombies to the last (slightly jarring) creepy encounter. The pace and frenetic efforts of the survivors are enhanced by slightly beefing up the zombies compared to the book: these zombies don’t shuffle, but run in chaotic gangs and attack with suicidal intent. They keep the hording properties described in the book, and in the movie they can behave like ants, forming self-organizing bridges to get at prey sources and overwhelming almost any defence with their weight and collective aggression. Street scenes with people running and panicking are great because you can’t tell who is what, and in amongst the chaos people and monsters are flying in every direction, getting up, being broken, giving up, fleeing and dying. The movie also focuses on those first few days when society is failing, rather than (as often happens in zombie movies) picking up once the damage has been done and the survivors are on the run. That’s very much what we saw in the book too, and gives a sense of coherence with the book when every individual aspect of the story is completely different.

The movie also completely changes the “ending” of the zombiepocalypse, coming up with a different solution to the problem and straying widely from the cynicism of the story. I guess the solution makes sense in a narrative and figurative (if not scientific) sense but it didn’t satisfy me, but I accept it was necessary – you can’t put the original solution into a movie easily because it was by nature a systemic and policy solution, not a magic bullet, and they don’t fit into a two hour movie.

Which brings me to a final point about this genre in general: modern television has killed the zombie movie. Specifically, The Walking Dead has shown that the best medium for zombie stories is television, not cinema. This is because zombie stories are primarily about the small desperation of ordinary people, gangs of survivors, not about big special effects, and the dramas unfold slowly over long times, as people starve and get alienated and fight and die. You can’t show this stuff easily in cinema, but you can unravel a group of desperate no-hopers over 12 brutal hours on television very nicely. Similarly, you could do a very nice version of World War Z on television, with a different account each week building to a broad story arc about both the original disaster, its causes and its solutions and even about the rebuilding process. You can’t do that at the movies, which is why this movie is a completely faithless rendition of the book.

Still, it’s a really fun movie. There are some clips on youtube (including an illegal 8 minute clip of the Jerusalem scenes) which should help to show the tension and pace of the movie. If you’re into zombie movies and don’t care about a great book being completely corrupted for cinema, then I recommend this movie. If you are one of those fanboys who gets irate if even the smallest detail of your much-loved canon is corrupted, then steer clear, because this one will make you pop a gasket!

Outside the city ...

Outside the city …

I am finally away from my Greek Island and the “five star” resort with no internet access, so I am able to resume blogging. Yesterday evening I arrived in Athens for a three day stay, and as is my wont in a new city, the first thing I did was go out for a wander. My hotel has a rooftop bar with a view direct to the acropolis, which is pretty amazing, and is on the temple slopes so it’s a short walk to the old town. Walking through the old town one can catch regular glimpses of the acropolis from the streets, and also experience the pleasures of a summer night in the city. The streets were heaving with people, all out to enjoy the evening air. All the restaurants in Greece seem to be open to the sky, and alfresco dining is the norm, so everywhere you look people are enjoying eating under the stars. I passed a Suleimanese punch-and-judy show, where the puppets are dressed in Persian-style pantaloons and curled hats (but still beating each other) and the horde of gathered children scream at the villain in Greek. I passed a concert being held in an old temple ruin, all lit up with red spotlights. Every square was full of people sitting chatting and drinking; the main square was absolutely heaving with young people in groups just enjoying the night air. The weather was dry and warm, the temperature perfect, the sky a million miles away and clear and the whole balmy evening cupped within the bowl of the distant mountains, with the Acropolis the gleaming jewel set in the middle of that frame, seen occasionally between buildings and lit up against the night sky.

I found a stylish open restaurant in the old town, that served excellent food and had a massively camp Swiss host. They serve a chicken cooked whole inside a loaf of bread and cut up on your plate for you, and an exquisite lemon-flavoured pumpkin soup garnished with little cthulhu-esque octopuslets. I didn’t have my camera with me so didn’t order the cockerel; I may return to experience this strangeness this evening. I have to say, the way Greek people use lemons in their cooking – and the predominance of citrus throughout their cuisine – is excellent and commendable.

After dinner I wandered a little more, enjoying the chaos and light-heartedness of the city. I found myself in the area just west of the Syntagma square, which is supposedy full of bars and night clubs, and in front of a rock bar called Six Dogs. They were hosting an American band called The Shrine, some sort of classic heavy rock outfit that I’ve never heard of, so in I went, for my first experience of Greek punk/metal fans.

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

What is on your playlist, Archilokos?

The band was average, I have to say, and somewhat hamstrung by the fact that their singer has exactly the same accent as the weird zoo-owner from the Mighty Boosh. They were a pacey, hard rocking classic metal outfit with a bit of skate-punk overtone, so pretty likeable overall. The crowd, however, were fascinating. First of all they were really lively and cheerful, bouncing around with way more energy than the band deserved, and managing to do spontaneous crowd-surfing efforts even though there were only about 50 of them. This meant that whenever one of their number wanted to go up, he had to get the others to lift him, and then a group of 10 or 15 fans would go charging around the room in a little chaotic loop, carrying the surfer aloft, and then drop him. It’s not quite lollapalooza, is it? But they were really into it. But the best thing about them was the way they looked so … classical.

I think every second rocker in the crowd was basically a classical Greek stereotype, come to life then covered in tattoos and stuffed into a pair of skate-punk shorts and a band t-shirt. They all had the broad shoulders and narrow waste of the classic Greek pottery or statues, and that particular style of Greek beard that you see in the classic pictures: the one that is cropped close to the skin along the jaw and near the ears, but extends to a block or point out from the chin, and merges in a perfect gradient with short-cropped hair. It works perfectly with the classical Greek profile of aquiline nose and strong jaw. The rockers also had the same classical hair style, that is neatly cropped at the back but then a little unruly or longer and forward-pointing near the front.

It was like moshing with the guys from 300, if they had bothered to put on t-shirts. It was one of those classic moments, like when a French waiter pulls a 110% expressive face, or a German man says very precisely about one of his most memorable experiences, “it was in general perfect” with German precision, or a Japanese person bows on the phone – one of those moments where the person you are talking to is subconsciously channelling a million years of cultural history and to the rest of the world they’re a stereotype of fantastic proportions, but to them it is so completely normal that they would never realize they were doing it, even if you could play them a video of the moment. So it was that these Greek rockers were moshing not to the tune of an ordinary Venice Beach band, but to a couple of thousand years of classical Greek history. The Pelopennese war through hardcore, or something. I think I will dub this style of Greek counter-culture “300-core.” I hope to see more of it as I wander this city of romance and history!

Going feral at the ends of the earth

Going feral at the ends of the earth

Top of the Lake is a seven part television series about misogyny and violence, set at the southern tip of New Zealand. It was directed by Jane Campion, director of the Piano, another movie about misogyny and violence in New Zealand that was very well received when it was released. In her return to New Zealand for this show, Campion has moved her setting from the lush fern forests of the North Island to the desolate peaks and wilderness of the far South Island, and has skipped in time from the colonial era to the modern – though looking at the behavior of the protagonists in this movie, it’s hard to find much of a civilizing influence of modernity.

The basic story of Top of the Lake is an apparently straightforward investigation of child abuse. A 12 year old girl called Tui (pictured) is pregnant and a cop from Sydney called Robin is brought in to investigate the case. The story is set in the fictitious town of Laketop, near Queenstown. Robin grew up in this town but moved to Australia to work, and has returned to Laketop temporarily because her mother has cancer, so she’s ideally placed to investigate the crime. Unfortunately, things don’t proceed simply: Tui is the daughter of a singularly malicious and nasty man, Matt Mitcham, who is a Scottish migrant and the dodgiest thug you’ve ever seen (well, at least until you meet some of his associates in episode 5). He is singularly unhelpful in the case, and Tui is also being very unhelpful – it’s not clear if she even understands what has happened to her, and soon after the show starts she disappears. Furthermore, Robin has her own dark history in Laketop, and pretty much every other person you meet is entangled in something dark and horrible: wherever you turn you see a suspect or their conspirator, and it’s really hard to believe that this town is not deeply enmired in misogyny, sexual violence and repression. Through all of this, Robin is trying to find and help Tui, and the rest of the town are taking a singularly colonial-era and feral approach to Tui’s problems, with almost no one seeming to be aware that it’s dangerous for a 12 year old girl to be pregnant, and dangerous for her rapist to be at large.

Campion’s exploration of the setting really helps to give this impression of a town that hasn’t worked out what modernity is, or updated its attitudes towards women accordingly. Queenstown is a famous tourist town and playground of the rich and famous, but we never see that side of the area: as far as we can tell, Laketop is a rundown and wild place in the middle of nowhere, a little cluster of huts hanging off of freezing, windy mountains and staring out at nothing. The children are wild, playing in canoes and on horses, keeping bones in their homes and wandering wild over the hills and forests, and Tui herself is feral to the point of being fey. The adults are also wild, but in a much nastier and ferocious way. Matt Mitcham, his family and associates cast a long shadow over the town, and he is a violent, sinister presence, completely unreformed and often more like a force of nature than a human. His direct children are ill-mannered, stupid thugs; another of his sons lives in a tent by the lake and spent eight years in a Thai prison; Tui is his daughter by a different woman, and there are children in his house who he doesn’t even really seem to know. The people of the town ride horses and hunt, and Mitcham’s associates use severed deer’s heads on poles as an emblem. The police in the town have a very vague understanding of what crime is or what their purpose is as police. The chief of the police, Al – played with incredible subtlety by David Wenham – alternates between being an urbane and intelligent modern policeman and a quietly dangerous, selfish and very sinister figure. The only apparently “normal” people in this show are a group of women from America and Australia who have formed a commune by the side of the lake, but these women are just as touched as the rest of the place: they live in shipping containers on the edge of the lake, they’re all deeply damaged in some way, and their guru GJ is a remote, harsh and judgmental woman who doesn’t appear to have any kind feelings for her charges at all – and these women also don’t seem to have any conception of the importance of protecting Tui or finding out who raped her. All these people are presented against the backdrop of a wild, silent and unforgiving landscape, cold and windy and desolate but stunningly beautiful, that acts as a perfect counterpoise for the wild, strange character of the people we meet.

Just as in The Piano, Campion uses the landscape to stunning effect as a backdrop to the story. It is beautifully filmed and presented, and in our various excursions to the top of the lake and the mountains beyond it we lose all sense that we are in the modern era. Watching the show makes you feel a kind of sympathetic chill as if you were experiencing the wind and rain and cold of the South Island yourself, but it’s impossible not to be amazed by the harsh beauty of the place. In The Piano, the wilderness offered a lush and sensual backdrop to the corrupted sexuality of the main protagonists; in Top of the Lake the chill, serene lake and cold, distant mountains reflect perfectly the sinister secrets of the town and the impenetrable wildness of the town’s main victim, Tui.

The acting in this television series is also exemplary. Robin is played with fine skill by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men, who does a brilliant job of portraying her human vulnerability and professional strength, as well as her bravery in the face of a town that seems determined to destroy her. Her slow unraveling over the course of the story is brilliantly done. David Wenham gives a master class in his potrayal of the chief policeman, Al, whose motives and allegiances are extremely suspicious, and the other major characters – Johnno and Matt Mitcham and his daughter Tui – are all perfectly cast.

The story is fairly simple and well told, without a real twist but with just enough red herrings and dead ends in its development that you aren’t sure you are right about the key points until the very end, and even then a few things are not fully resolved. It’s essentially a story about corruption and the extent to which a few evil men’s influence can completely corrupt a small community, and although it comes to the resolution one would hope for once one knew the facts, it remains deeply disturbing. It’s even more disturbing if anywhere in New Zealand is actually like the place depicted. My main complaint about the plot is that the commune by the lake plays a big role in the show, but is largely irrelevant to the plot and seems like a kind of boutique side story that Campion put in just to please herself. I think this commune should have been given a different, more satisfying role in the plot or should have been dropped, and I can’t work out exactly why it was important. But aside from that, the story is well told and has that feeling of completeness where nothing stood out as wrong or confusing, and the only unresolved parts were unresolved because the characters couldn’t know the answers, not because there were no answers or because of some plot incoherency. Quite a lot happens for just seven episodes, and it’s an impressively tightly coiled story.

I was surprisingly deeply affected by this show. It’s beautiful, the acting is powerful, the story is disturbing and the characters are amazingly engaging. It also tells a story about a side of New Zealand that maybe doesn’t really get shown much internationally in amongst all the Hobbitons and Rivendells that have emanated from there recently. It’s not always easy going, though it’s not openly brutal, and at times it is breathlessly tense, but in an enjoyable rather than an overly terrifying way. This is a good show to watch for anyone who is interested in crime stories, thrillers and mysteries – especially if you’re interested in seeing those stories unfold in a very unique and almost magical setting.

we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain

Historians often struggle to come to grips with the more pathological eras of human history. The holocaust, world war 1, Stalin’s terror and the history of slavery are terrifying periods that are difficult for ordinary people to grasp. Why did people do these things? How did whole populations get caught up in frantic social movements with such a destructive and chaotic bent? Usually, balanced and reasonable historians attempt to explain these movements through a mixture of social, economic and institutional phenomena, with varying amounts of great man theory and good or bad luck thrown into the mix. But ultimately, somewhere along the line, historical theory often loses grip on that most simple of facts: that all historical movements depend in the end on individuals to enact them, and these individuals sometimes have to do terrible things. Though it is a terrible work of scholarship, Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners at least attempts to grapple with this vexing problem when, describing the events at Babi Yar, Goldhagen personalizes the actions of the policemen, and asks the reader to imagine what these men must have been thinking when they marched children to their deaths. But in general, somewhere in historical scholarship there must be some gap of understanding, between the grand social and economic movements that produced a pathology, and the willingness of ordinary people to execute that pathology.

A vivid example of this situation is the problem of slavery in the USA, and the war that brought its end. Scholars may characterize the conflicting forces driving this movement – economic, cultural, historical, geographic – and they can describe with some certainty the opinions and goals of the people involved in the fateful decision to go to war, but they still in the end cannot explain the simple personal fact of slavery in a way we can comprehend. How is it that an ordinary human being – similar, one assumes, in fundamental disposition to my own gentle reader(s) – can go to bed happy, dream of happy things, then wake up, step outside, and reduce another perfectly ordinary human being to a state of complete and humiliating servitude? What was that man thinking when he purchased another human being as chattel, and beat them if they refused to cooperate in their own subjugation? And then, when the rest of the world had made it clear that the trade would have to end, what were these men thinking when they decided that it were better to go to war rather than give up this obvious immorality? And why did ordinary men agree to join such a fight, and kill other ordinary men, over something so simply and obviously wrong as the right to get up in the morning and use another human being as if they were an animal?

Many explanations have been given for slavery and its acceptance, but to me they are fundamentally implausible because they fail to connect the broad social and cultural forces claimed to underlie the slave state with those intimately personal moments of cruelty and brutality that link an ordinary human being and his slave. Any such explanation must necessarily be fanciful and involve a reasonable degree of magical thinking: how can the economic forces of the tobacco plantation change the mind of the plantation owner so that he cannot see the humanity of his victim? There is no explanation for this in modern historical thought, and as such all extant theories of the reasons for slavery seem to me fundamentally implausible.

Last night, however, I watched a documentary that finally presented a plausible explanation for this whole era of American history: Vampires. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter offers the first, and I think we can all agree, the most reasonable explanation for slavery yet contrived: the slave holders were not human. They were vampires, and they built a massive slave empire so that they could feed. While other recent films have presented a shabby depiction of Abraham Lincoln as an ordinary man, compromised by the (unexplained) mores of his time and forced to barter over the freedom of millions, in this documentary we see a more nuanced view of our hero, as a great man of unbending will on a heroic mission to use his super-powers against the forces of darkness. I ask you, which is more believable? Could the man who wrote those speeches have been a shabby compromiser, or a secret demon-slayer?

This documentary helps us to understand many things about the civil war. It shows us that white Southerners were not racists of some fantastic creed, but themselves victims of inhuman monsters. It also helps us to understand how such an abominable slave empire could have been established: no humans, with their simple morality, were involved, but instead the whole edifice was constructed by undead. We also see some insight into why Americans take this civil war so seriously. Where previously I had thought it strange that Americans treated this period of their history with so much importance, given it is so terribly embarrassing to have had to go to war in order to simply abolish an institution that the rest of the world already knew was so thoroughly wrong. But in fact, this war really was a titanic battle between the forces of good and evil, and though not all Americans will tell you about the Vampire aspect, they obviously have some sense of it, and thus are justly proud of the efforts of Americans to win and then recover from that cataclysmic struggle. Finally, this movie also helps to answer a question that has long vexed me about British politics. We all know that Tony Blair is a vampire, but many doubt their own sense of his deep and unrelenting evil because they ask themselves, “how can a vampire be abroad in daylight?” This movie answers that question, simply: sunscreen. Vampires use a special sunscreen, which is why Tony Blair always looks so heavily made up. Other objections to his undead nature (“a vampire could not possibly succeed in the labor party because it has neither the fortitude nor the appropriate level of deviousness” or “why did he become PM of England instead of America”) are either easily answered from the record (“Tony Blair is a devious bastard”) or are also answered by this documentary (“he was kicked out of the USA by Abraham Lincoln and he is mighty pissed about it”). So this documentary doesn’t teach us about only America, but also shows us some important insights into why things went so wrong in the UK. I strongly recommend this documentary as a way of better understanding the true nature of the undead who live amongst us.

As an aside, the documentary is also very entertaining, tells the story clearly and simply without confusion, and has such good footage from the battles of the time that you could almost believe it was made in a film studio. It is an entertaining and enlightening look at a very important part of American history, and has given me a newfound respect for Abraham Lincoln. Others may complain that it excuses white racism of the era, or reduces history to the story of one great man, but I think those criticisms fail to adequately take into account one important fact: Vampires. So if you want to learn more about the evil that threatened America, or you want to reassess the evidence for Lincoln’s greatness, I strongly recommend this documentary.

Looking for the one who got away

Looking for the one who got away

I cannot recommend Ripper Street highly enough. The actors are excellent, the dialogue fine, and the English a joy to listen to. The setting is grim and nasty, the lead characters compromised and gritty, but it has none of the bitterness and cynicism that so often accompanies those traits in a TV show. It’s also, I think, the first TV show I have ever seen that might be described as sex-worker positive. It’s what Deadwood could have been, if it weren’t so deeply and overwhelmingly misogynist.

Ripper Street is a crime/mystery TV series set in the East End of London in the era of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper himself has been and gone, but the show focuses on the detective who failed to catch him, Detective Inspector Reid, his sergeant Bennett Drake (played by Bron from A Game of Thrones) and an American, Homer Jackson, who is their forensic doctor. Reid has lost a daughter, possibly to Jack the Ripper, and his personal life is on the rocks because of it; Jackson is an ex-Pinkerton on the run with his ex-girlfriend Susan, who runs a brothel (where Jackson lives); and Drake is tormented by his memories of soldiering in Egypt, where he may also have joined some satanic sect. The fifth person in the picture above (far right) is Miss Rose, one of Susan’s employees, who is in a relationship with Jackson but being wooed by Drake.

Reid is played by Matthew McFadyen, most famous for his stirring portrayal of D’Arcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and as one might expect from such impeccable credentials, he does an excellent job of portraying a detective trying to use modern, scientific methods to solve crime in a world still steeped in cruelty, superstition and bigotry. Bennett Drake is like a soft version of Bron, capable of being just as vicious but also much more vulnerable. He is Reid’s hard man: in 19th century London no one has to adhere to the human rights act, and when confessions need to be extracted it is Drake who extracts them. Jackson is probably more dangerous than either of them, and has a very dubious past, but provides the medical skills (and to a large extent the real brains of the operation). He is also a selfish, lazy and arrogant man.

So basically this TV series is like a grittier and slightly less fanciful version of From Hell if it somehow crashed into Pride and Prejudice, with Reid as a more down-to-earth version of Abberline, and a team of three putting together a modern approach to policing. In many ways the show seems to have really made a big effort to capture the reality of the times, portraying the East End of London as a far more diverse, contested, and hopeful place than perhaps we are used to seeing in Ripper-era television. I also think it deals particularly well with two classes of person: Americans and sex workers.

The Americans in Ripper Street dress differently, they talk differently, they really do seem to come from a different world. They’re usually either on the run or looking for something, and they aren’t native in London – they don’t know the town, they often hate it, and they’re usually there with a purpose, not usually a good one. They’re gaudier, more dangerous or more sinister, and they’re also more modern – they have ideas and skills and ways of looking at things that the Londoners aren’t used to. This is how I imagine they would have seemed at the time the show is set, and it might be part of the explanation for why British society has such a strange love/hate relationship with American culture. I really like this depiction of the gulf between two apparently closely-related societies, a gulf that I think a lot of people feel in their day-to-day dealings in the real world, and it’s nice to see Americans in Britain being depicted as more than just a different accent.

But where Ripper Street really excels for me is in its treatment of sex work. It’s the first TV show I think I’ve seen other than Deadwood where sex workers are major characters, but unlike Deadwood it doesn’t reduce them to weak and pathetic characters dependent upon men for approval and safety. Though they are constrained by the stupid mores of their time, the sex workers in Ripper Street aren’t weak, and they don’t wait for men to protect them or help them, nor do they seek men’s approval. They are proud, strong women trying to make their own way in a world where women have no formal power. They aren’t sluts or idiots, but ordinary women doing what needs to be done. The show also takes a narrative stance on sex work, not particularly openly, so that we can see the morality of the world in which the women work and trace its hypocrisies and cruelties; this isn’t done in a hamfisted way, generally, and it’s portrayed primarily through the efforts of Reid’s religious wife, Emily, who wishes to establish a shelter to protect homeless women without dictating morals or lifestyle. It’s really refreshing to see a TV show set in an oppressive era that doesn’t fetishize sexual violence and reduce its female characters to victims and objects. If only Deadwood had done the same …

Ripper Street only has eight episodes so far, and a new season won’t be along any time soon, but I strongly recommend viewing what there is. It’s an excellent and enjoyable show, and a welcome addition to that small genre of TV shows about the genesis of modern policing. Don’t hesitate to try it out if you get the chance.

Is it just me, or has the Guardian embarked on a project of excessive tastelessness[1]? In the last two days they have shown video footage of 17 people dying in a hot air balloon (apparently you can see people jumping to their deaths) and of a man being dragged to his death by a South African police van. WTF? I don’t want to watch people die. I was always of the understanding that snuff videos were an urban myth. Call me crazy, but I don’t think media outlets should be showing footage of real people dying. I don’t want my death to be on film, and I don’t want to watch you die. Maybe occasionally there is some social value to watching you die, but in general I think your death should be something kept between you, your family and your god or gods.

I remember years ago some stupid American politician shot himself in the face in front of the media, and pretty much every Australian TV station chose not to play it. I recall one station even had a statement about why they “censored” the sight of a man blowing his brains out. What has happened in the intervening years that grainy footage of some holiday-makers having an otherwise great day ruined by their horrible fiery deaths has become news? Why do I need to see some kid in South Africa being murdered?

I think I can chalk this up as another example of how journalists and the media generally are losing track of reality. But let me say this: to the best extent that I can, I will try to avoid watching you die. Obviously, some stupid media may trick me into watching their horrid snuff films, but if I have any say over the matter, I will not watch you die.

I’m sure that will make you feel better when you do.

fn1: Obviously for a lot of people this has been a rhetorical question for a very, very long time now.

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