Reviews


I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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Imagine if you will an anime set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 about a man called Mr. Stonewell, a former soldier from Unit 731 who has returned to Japan and is having difficulty fitting in. He bears a terrible secret about the involvement of senior military figures in the murder of many of his comrades to cover up a heinous crime. The crime in question was a major antiquities theft ring, which was operating in occupied China and smuggling ancient Chinese artifacts to collectors in Japan and other parts of South East Asia. Now the war is over, and Mr. Stonewell has lost his family and many of his friends as a consequence of his superiors’ efforts to cover up the smuggling ring. Fortunately Mr. Stonewell is a master of biological warfare, and has killed off everyone involved in the cover-up and subsequent murder of his family and friends, though he has never seen the people involved brought to justice, and the crimes have been buried, hidden from history. In this show, called the Avenger, we encounter Mr. Stonewell as he attempts to fit into ordinary society after his demobilization. He and his former comrades feel misunderstood and abandoned, nobody understands the things they had to do, or how much they suffered, they are on the fringes of society, abandoned and rejected. We see Mr. Stonewell lurking at a support group for ex-soldiers, we see his flashbacks to the terrible things he had to do and we understand how he suffers under the burden of the tasks he undertook for the freedom of his country. Meanwhile some of the loose threads of his military past are being tugged, and we discover that perhaps that heinous crime – the murder of soldiers to cover up a corrupt trade in antiquities – hasn’t been fully buried. We can expect in later episodes of this show to see Mr. Stonewell using his chemical and biological warfare skills to kill a sequence of bad military leaders in inventive and disturbing ways, it’s going to be great. In episode 3, with this groundwork laid, the anime takes us on an extended flashback so we can see exactly what terrible deeds Mr. Stonewell had to do in defense of his country. We see the briefing at the formation of his new unit, where one of his fellow soldiers makes an off-the-cuff comment about how their work isn’t exactly going to abide by the hypocratic oath; then we see him vivisecting American soldiers, conducting horrific experiments on them to develop better weapons so that his army can win this terrible war against this implacable foe. We understand he didn’t want to do these awful things but he had to, because it was a war and he was told to. We come to appreciate his moral struggle, but we accept that he is a good man because he is Japanese, and all Japanese soldiers are by necessity good people. This is why the murders of his comrades to cover up mere smuggling are such a heinous crime.

Do you think that this show would be popular in America, and non-controversial? Do you think it’s an acceptable moral frame for your hero? Because in episode 3 of Marvel’s The Punisher we see its putative hero, Frank Castle, shoot a suspected Iraqi terrorist captive in the head, killing him in cold blood in direct contravention of the laws of war, but we move on to discuss the more important issue of how this was wrong because Castle was inadvertently doing it to cover up a heroin smuggling ring. The fact that he just committed a crime for which, in America, he should receive the death sentence, is just irrelevant to the story. This happens in the context of his and his friends’ struggle to deal with the terrible things they had to do for the war effort, and after one of them makes an off-the-cuff reference to Operation Phoenix, so they know they’re doing things against the law of war but they, the directors of this shitshow, and we are meant to not care about that. Castle’s moral struggle and flashbacks have nothing to do with that, although sure he didn’t like killing people. Castle’s real problems are all to do with the real crime at the centre of this show, the heroin smuggling ring which he bravely – and morally – lost everything to break.

Frank Castle is a war criminal, and this terrible tv show is a paean to war criminals. There’s a heirarchy of moral ills in this show, with killing your own soldiers to cover up a crime right at the top, and murdering a captive in cold blood right at the bottom. Even the special agent trying to find out about the crimes Castle committed isn’t interested because there was a clear and extensive violation of the laws of war – she’s interested because one of the victims was a friend of hers, and he was innocent. The implication here is obvious – that these wouldn’t be considered crimes at all if the people who suffered them had all been guilty. Here we see the insidious effect of 15 years of wars of aggression, extra-judicial killings and egregious violations of the Geneva convention on the mentality of ordinary American producers of culture – they have lost their understanding of what a war crime is, and of how Americans can be guilty of … well, of anything at all really. And so it is that Castle sails through this show bearing the scars of everything wrong that was done to him, and blissfully free of any guilt, trauma or even recognition of all the things he has done to people.

It’s worth noting that there is a controversy attached to the Punisher, but this controversy is all about the timing of its release, and how its gun violence might be triggering for many Americans after the Las Vegas mass shooting. The valorization of a war criminal isn’t mentioned, and although some reviews dwell on the trauma he experienced, none seem to have noticed that he’s a war criminal. It’s remarkable that this central part of his background is completely missed in favour of the wrongs done to him. Have Americans managed to completely insulate themselves from the consequences of their own wars? Are they now completely morally impervious?

Another aspect of this show that is tired and boring and that I am completely over in American TV is the stereotype of the neglected and abandoned veteran. This is heavily present in the first three episodes, as we see Castle lurking around a support group for veterans, and hear their complaints about how they have been abandoned on their return, how the world doesn’t understand them and hasn’t made a place for them, they’re alone and lost in the world. This overdone stereotype is, frankly, complete bullshit. Returned veterans get access to a nationwide network of socialized medicine, they get discounts on student fees for retraining, they get two weeks of NFL games devoted to them, there is a transnational sports event for disabled veterans with very senior political figures as its patrons, and they get a plethora of TV shows about their struggles and issues. Where and how exactly are these people being abandoned and neglected? Like every other show that ever dwells on this issue, we hear lots of vets saying it’s an issue, but none of them actually tells us what was done to them, or what happened to them. This is particularly insulting in a show that is devoted to exploring the trauma issues of a returned vet, while ignoring the fact that he’s a criminal who should in be prison for life (at least). It’s right up there with right wing talk show hosts using their nationally syndicated tv show to complain about how the media is censoring them – a show about a vet’s trauma, complaining that vets don’t get enough attention to their trauma. Just drop it already. Or better still, make a TV show about a vet returning to America proud of his contribution to the army, counting the notches on his belt of the enemy he has killed, willing to defend his actions in a foreign war he didn’t choose. This story would be much closer to the truth of life for a returned vet, but for some reason we have to be subjected to its exact opposite, this boring trope of the vet who can’t get a break.

This show could have had other stories, that would have kept Castle’s background intact but given a more realistic and sensitive approach to the war. The detective pursuing him could be pursuing him for his war crimes, not because her friend was an innocent victim; he could be seeking redemption for his crimes instead of vengeance for his trauma. Someone, somewhere in all this mess could have just tried to at least talk about this aspect of his back story. We could see an arc which ends with him finding redemption for what he did, through extreme violence of everyone else who ever does anything like it. Or he could have refused to be part of that torture and murder network, and all the trauma visited on him could have been a consequence of his principled stand against war crimes. That would make his punisher stick way more believable and way more moral than this elaborate refrigeration of his entire family, with detailed and boring flashbacks, and no real explanation for why he is so uniquely traumatized compared to everyone else (those hammer scenes are really, really overdoing it). We could have been watching a show that once, just once, in the history of American TV since Rambo, actually tries to tell the truth about returned vets and makes some tiny effort to explore America’s war crimes. But probably that would have been even more controversial than the gun porn.

I really wanted to like this show. I like the actor playing Castle, I love vengeance as a theme and I enjoy watching bad guys get their comeuppance, as brutal as you can. So I was looking forward to a long arc of redemptive violence. But I can’t accept this redemptive violence for this reason, when really the first person who should be getting a dose of it is the guy who casually shot a prisoner in the head because he was told to – the Punisher, indeed. So much of everything that has gone wrong in the world for the past 30 years is the fault of America’s policy adventures, and so much of its current mistakes can be laid at the feet of its ordinary citizens and their foolish misguided self beliefs. A million people died in Iraq, and four million were displaced, because American politicians decided to launch an illegal war of aggression, but none of it would have been possible if people like Frank Castle had refused to break the laws of war. It’s an insult to those million dead to make a show about one of their murderers, to gloss over all the bad things he did, and then whine incessantly about how this man who signed up for an illegal war is the real victim. Obviously everyone has their breaking point, and this is mine. I’m not going to watch a show about a war criminal who doesn’t even have to redeem himself, simply because he’s an American. You can keep your war propaganda, and I think Marvel I can’t be bothered with you anymore.

As good a place as any to die

Dunkirk is not a war movie. It’s a movie about staying alive in the places between the world, a kinder of Stranger Things set in the strange space between France and England. This is why there are a million reviews comparing it to Brexit (or saying it has nothing to do with Brexit). Of course it has nothing to do with Brexit, because it’s about an entirely different kind of catastrophe, the catastrophe of young men – themselves still embedded in a kind of in-between place, not yet adults but no longer children – being forced to survive in a space outside of human experience, created by humans and populated by humans but having nothing in common with everything we know as we grow up human. This movie attempts to depict war as a kind of empty, in-between place, where death and struggle are everything to the people trapped in that space, but the broader metaphysics of its structure are unknown and unknowable.

Aside from a few moments at the beginning, where we see the main character of the movie pushed out of the normal human world and onto the beach, and the last few minutes when he returns to a normal railway siding in England[1], this entire world happens in in-between spaces. There are long scenes on the beach, as soldiers wait helplessly for evacuation; scenes in the air, as fighter pilots completely cut off from home do battle with unknowable enemies in empty spaces between the countries; scenes in the water, as the small boat goes about its difficult work on the channel; and scenes at the surface of the sea, between deadly deep blue death and the open sky, as soldiers struggle to stay alive after their sole chance to escape this horrible purgatory is suddenly and horrifically sunk. Everything happens in the Upside Down, trapped between the world we know and hell, or fighting to get out of the gap between France and England. Occasionally we hear people yell names of places, like stone markers in the void – “out of Dartmouth!” – but mostly we are lost in this tiny slip of water and beach and deadly sky, trying to find our way back.

The scenes in the air, in particular, are like battles in the Astral Plane. Is Christopher Nolan a D&D player? We have these two adventurers, flying through a vast blue space, fighting faceless demons that come out of nowhere, going to a specific mission in a far place somewhere abstract inside that blue vault. They are tied to their origin by a thin silver cord, in this case the fuel in their tank, which gives them just 40 minutes of combat time over their destination. Any mistakes, any deviations, any conflict they aren’t expecting, and they risk snapping that thin silver cord and being lost in the blue. Crashing out here means a slow, awful death in nowhere, unless another Astral traveler – one of those small boats “out of Dartmouth” – happens upon you in that vast, empty limnal space between the worlds. We watch people fall slowly and gracefully out of that sky, their power in the Astral plane broken, and we know they are gone forever, slowly and horribly. One person disappears without any word as to how or why. We’re out of time and place, trapped between the worlds, and these things happen. No one comments on it, and the mission continues.

The sense of dislocation is heightened by the arbitrariness of death in this cruel space. No one here wins by being brave or decisive – death happens in a moment, out of nowhere, or comes screaming down out of the sky and there’s nothing you can do except crouch down and hope it misses you. This is not a war of brave men and heroes, but of ordinary men trapped in horrific circumstances, hoping that the terror will fall on someone else. Even their grift is meaningless – our hero and his French mate find a man on a stretcher and run him to a ship, hoping to get on board and escape with the ship, but as soon as their hapless charge is on the deck they are booted off because there is no room for worthless people. But then they watch as the ship is sunk by a random Stuka, and their lucky break and the cunning scheme that followed is revealed to be just another lottery, that this time they fortunately didn’t win. There is no working this scene, no winning, just the random luck of death or salvation. This limnal space has its own logic, and its own justice, and watching this movie we know we aren’t here to understand it or change it, just to witness it.

This emptiness and arbitrariness lends the movie what to me is its most powerful political message: a story about war as a destroyer of ordinary lives, and the importance of remembering that it is ordinary people who suffer in war. Most of the people in this movie don’t have names – they line up like ants on the beach, they die when the Stukas come, they flee on ships and die when the Heinkels come, they hide in abandoned boats and die randomly for no reason at all, and all the time we understand that they are just ordinary people with no special story or purpose. This sense of war as destroyer of ordinary people is reinforced with the few scenes that connect us to the world outside the channel. The boy in the rescue boat who dies was always a loser at school, and had no special future or dreams; the navy men watch as the rescue boat slides away, no navy men on board, almost dismissive of the efforts of the captain and his crew, strangely uncaring that he has left without his navy attachment; no one believes the small boats will survive in the war zone; when our hero returns to England he gets no fanfare and speeches, but a bottle of brown ale through the window of his train and a simple cheer from a few people on the platform[2]. Even Churchill’s speech is not read by Churchill, but by a boy returning from war, who strips it of all of its import and reads it as if it were a simple statement of narrative fact. There is no moment in this movie where we see the war or the policies that drive the war through the eyes and voice of anyone except a normal, ordinary British person, who of course had no control over the course of political events that led to this nightmare and has no control over the policy that will throw him back into it. There is only one officer in the whole film, and he does nothing to convey the views of the higher-ups except their desperation in the face of the catastrophe unfolding in France. This is a war movie about how ordinary people struggle and die, not a movie about glory, heroism or leadership. Of course there are other war movies that purport to do this, but Dunkirk doesn’t have the sensational gory violence of Saving Private Ryan, or the cruel authoritarianism of Letters from Iwo Jima, stripping the war of all that gore and higher purpose and reducing it to these people trapped in the in-between, looking for a way out.

This kind of work would be a boring two hours’ struggle if it weren’t for a few elements that keep the film going and make sure you the viewer stay on the edge of your seat. The plot is a carefully layered series of interlocking stories that only meet near the end and keep you guessing where you are and what is happening all the way along, without gotchas and without detracting from the overall purpose of the movie. The soundtrack is beautiful and nuanced and carefully balanced to keep you engaged with both the tension and the beauty of the setting, which is very well filmed. The sounds of the sudden violence are also visceral and gripping – the Stukas are especially alarming but the sounds of water and the particular noises of sinking ships, the ticking clock, the horrible sound of the Heinkel’s cannon and the strangely unreliable sputter of Spitfire engines are all designed to keep you on edge and completely engrossed in the experience of being trapped in this world between worlds. The only normal sounds here are men’s voices and our men don’t speak much – and when they do it’s often to tell someone to fuck off, to get off their boat, to get out of their way, to turn around, to stop. It’s one of those movies where the soundtrack, the sound effects, the acting and the setting all work together to produce a powerful and absorbing epic.

If you are into survival horror this is definitely a movie you should watch, and if you’re into classic stories of heroism in war it’s probably not going to appeal. It also won’t work for people who looking for trenchant critiques and political statement. But if you want to see a movie that grabs you at its start, drags you out of your world into a strange other dimension, keeps you tense and terrified until the end, and at least shares a little hope with you in its last breaths, then this is definitely worth seeing. And for its soundtrack and sound effects you need to see it in the unrestrained setting of a large and powerful cinema. It is a beautiful movie with a powerful message subtly delivered, and a unique addition to the war movie genre, and it stands alone in that genre for its unique artistic intensity. An epic achievement by Christopher Nolan, and I heartily recommend it.


Picture note: The photograph is by Morgan Maassen, who I follow on Instagram. If you’re looking for someone to add to your feed I definitely recommend him. Also Tomoka Fukuda and all the free diving instagram accounts related to either of these people.

fn1: Spoiler alert! Most of the soldiers get evacuated by a fleet of small ships.

fn2: This is a simple and yet very moving scene, which leads to him reading Churchill’s speech in the newspaper. It indicates a determination to separate the fates of the men depicted in the movie from any of the great political debates surrounding the key events of the war – very different to a Vietnam or Gulf war movie, which will always have some reference to its own unpopularity buried there.

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I have just finished reading Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John Pfaff. This book describes the growth of mass incarceration in the United States and describes a set of reform policies to reduce the prison population. In itself this is not unusual – the book takes as its launching point the political consensus in the USA that there is a need to “decarcerate” a large number of people – but this book presents a completely different set of causes of mass incarceration to the accepted story, and lays out a very different strategy for achieving real change. It also argues that the existing reform effort, while valuable, may actually sow the seeds of a long term failure to decarcerate, and risks normalizing a political framework that will be disastrous if crime rises again in America.

Pfaff defines the accepted causes of mass incarceration as the “Standard Story,” which argues that mass incarceration is driven primarily by three factors: the war on drugs[1], excessively long sentences, and private prisons. In the first few chapters he demolishes this story succinctly and using detailed statistics. Only 16% of all prisoners are in prison for drug crimes, and of these a large proportion probably were charged on drug crimes as an easier alternative to conviction for violent crimes; and releasing all of these prisoners would do almost nothing to shift the racial disparities in incarceration, because these disparities are universal. Indeed, since 1990 only 14% of new prison admissions were due to drug use, while 60% were for violent crimes. He then presents a wide range of evidence that prison sentences have not actually increased in length over the past 30 years in the USA: Increased prisoner numbers are due to increased admissions, not larger number of prisoners hanging around longer. Finally, Pfaff drags out the statistics on private prisons, to show that only 8% of US prisoners are in private prisons; and he argues that the lobbying efforts of private prisons are tiny compared to the lobbying efforts of prison guard associations, and from other interests that have greater influence in the zero-sum funding environment of state financing decisions in the USA (most private prison lobbying happens at the state level, where a dollar given to one interest is necessarily a dollar not given to another). In fact, throughout this book Pfaff regularly revisits the power of prison guard associations and lobby groups for prosecutors, and regularly makes the point that the USA’s mass incarceration problem is a catastrophe entirely wrought by public agencies on the public purse. Private prisons in the US might suck, and you might think it’s a bad or a weird idea, or that profiting from human misery is nasty, but they aren’t the cause of the problem.

Having demolished the “Standard Story”, Pfaff then goes on to explain what he thinks are the real causes of incarceration in the USA, which is a complex mish-mash of bad design, lack of political accountability, and public choices, against a backdrop of rapidly increasing crime rates. At the core of his story is the prosecutor. Prosecutors in the USA are the equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in the Westminster system, but they are radically different from the CPS. They are generally elected in county (local) elections, and funded at this level, so they are answerable to only local political forces. They have complete discretion as to who to charge, how and with what crime, and they typically are supported by a police force that is funded at the county level. Prosecutors typically are always re-elected, and no incumbent ever suffers from being too harsh on crime. But the real problem is in two aspects of the deployment of their considerable discretion: Whether to charge for misdemeanour or felony, and what plea bargain to make. If a prosecutor charges someone with a felony, that person goes to prison (not jail! The US has some kind of weird distinction!) – but prisons are funded by the state, not the county. This means that there is no financial pressure on them not to send people to prison. But it is the state that makes the laws, and at the state level there is often political pressure to create new laws and increase maximum penalties for those laws. So in recent times the prosecutor has been gifted with a wide range of potential felonies that they can threaten suspects with, that carry very large maximum penalties that are unlikely to be enacted by the judge but sound terrifying to the suspect. This means that it is very easy for prosecutors to get suspects to make plea deals for low level felonies, and there is no local pressure for them not to, but at the next election they are most likely to be judged for successfully putting felons away. This increasing freedom and power has occurred at a time when numbers of prosecutors have increased rapidly, and public defenders – the service that the government supplies to suspects – are massively underfunded and often barely have the time to meet their clients, let alone to help them defend their case. Prosecutors are also notoriously defensive about their work, there is almost no data on what they do, and their representative organizations have enormous clout. These are almost always the people whose perspective you see on shows like Law and Order, Major Crimes, etc.: they are the completely unconstrained and unmonitored heroes of the judicial system, and in the past 30 years the proportion of all cases that they decide to recommend for felony charges has doubled, at the same time as the number of prosecutors has doubled, and crime rates have risen. This, Pfaff argues, is the root cause of the growth of mass incarceration.

But beyond this, Pfaff identifies a much more challenging and much more politically challenging aspect of the growth of mass incarceration, which is going to be very difficult to reverse. Most people in US prisons are in prison for real, serious crimes: 60% of the growth in prisoner numbers since 1990 was due to people imprisoned for violent crimes, and people convicted of the most serious violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, forcible sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery) take up a disproportionately large amount of prison space and prison time. Seriously reducing the US prison population is going to require that the US voter be comfortable with releasing these prisoners, and being less harsh on violent criminals in future. This is a very politically challenging project, and lies at the core of the reform process: If the US criminal justice system doesn’t find a way to deal differently with violent criminals, the prison population will never significantly decline. To his credit Pfaff makes a powerful and clear argument that from a human rights and a law enforcement perspective, more lenient sentences and better policing are the key to reducing crime and mass incarceration. I find his argument persuasive, but then I would, wouldn’t I? And if you don’t, then you have to accept that the US is going to have a very large number of prisoners, much larger than most other countries, and there is no solution to this problem.

Pfaff goes further, to point out that much of the rhetoric of the prison reform movement is antithetical to this ultimate goal. Many prison reform efforts are pushed as efforts to release low-level prisoners to make space for those who “truly deserve prison”, and even if this balance is not stated explicitly it is implicit in the argument that prison should be for violent crime. America is experiencing a period of declining violent crime at present, but if that should reverse then this logic of reform will be hard to reverse, and it will be hard to argue for more lenient sentences for violent criminals after years of arguing that prison is what these people deserve. Pfaff also points out that the last 10 years of prison reform efforts – which he argues have been supported by all sides of politics in the US – have shown very limited effect, and that this is primarily because they are focusing on a very small proportion of the US prison population (first time drug offenders) and that they need to move from these “low hanging fruit” to the real drivers of prison growth – and those who really suffer in this system – violent offenders.

Within this story there is a lot of other material to consider – this book is a short and well written work with a rich vein of material to consider. It certainly changed my view of the drivers of mass incarceration in the USA and the real reforms it needs. It also shocked me with how callous the US criminal justice system is, and how shambolic. In contrast to the UK, Japan or Australia, where the prison, police and legal systems are all relatively well organized around a single structure that coordinates well, the US system is fragmented and full of perverse incentives, all corrupted by the horrors of having public servants like prosecutors elected at the county level (shudder!) Pfaff also consistently returns to a discussion of how damaging prison is for inmates, their families and the communities they are drawn from, reminding the reader regularly that prison is a destructive experience for everyone involved, and he also reminds the reader regularly of the US electorates’ appetite for punishment. But the real challenge of this book is his focus on the need to treat violent offenders differently. He even challenges the concept of “violent offenders”, arguing that we should refer to them as “people who committed violent crimes”, and argues compellingly that our attitude to violent crime is completely wrong. This struck me because although I’m generally in favour of not sending people to prison for all the reasons Pfaff describes, I am just as prone as anyone else to demanding people be locked up (e.g. that was my first response to the Grenfell Tower fire) or to thinking a sentence isn’t harsh enough (as if I, someone who has never been to prison or spent any time as a free adult anywhere I didn’t want to be, could possibly comprehend whether a three year sentence is any less harsh than a five year sentence!). And Pfaff’s argument is pretty clearly that probably I, and most of the rest of us, have got it completely wrong on prison sentences – that a suspended sentence or a year or two is probably just as good a deterrent as five or ten years, but has significantly less social and economic cost.

If I had any complaints about this book it would be that although he talks about race a little he doesn’t go into a discussion of race in depth, a problem in the American context. Also, although he repeatedly describes the lack of financial disincentives to county prosecutors sending prisoners to state prisons, Pfaff doesn’t seem to draw the obvious extra lesson here – that county prosecutors might have strong disincentives to send people to county jails, which have much less serious ramifications for their inmates than state prisons. In avoiding a full confrontation with the issue of race, and not fully drawing out all the implied pressures on prosecutors, Pfaff manages to miss the obvious possible extension argument underlying the points he makes: that a lot of prosecutors may well be cruel, racist arseholes, and that a root-and-branch reform of the entire prosecutorial system may be in order. But this is a common problem when confronting Americans’ assessments of their own problems, whether its Bernie Sanders or the gun control movement or Black Lives Matter: The American political system is rotten to its core, and it is going to take a lot more than a few piecemeal changes to parts of it to fix the huge problems lurking at its base. We’ve just passed the 4th July, so it’s probably worth reminding my American reader(s): you could ask the UK to take you back, you know. For all its flaws, the UK’s democracy is vastly superior to yours. You’ll have to give up your guns and you may have to learn to shut up occasionally, but in exchange you’ll get a functioning democracy. Think about it!

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a great book, a truly enlightening exposition of one of America’s great problems. If you are interested in drug decriminalization and have always assumed that this issue is at the heart of America’s prison problems, or if you are generally concerned about the way America needs to reform its criminal justice system to become a better country, then this book is a must read. It’s well written, well argued, dry but not exhausting, and compassionate towards the people at the core of the story: the prisoners, who by now are a large proportion of America’s population. If you care about the human rights of all people, regardless of what you might think of their worth as individuals, then this book is a compelling read. I recommend it to anyone interested in this important topic.


fn1: this is often characterized on the left and by libertarians as “the war on (some classes of people) who use (some classes of) drugs” but this book makes it very clear that the prejudice in the criminal justice system extends across the board, and that singling out one class of crimes (drug crimes) as a cause of racial disparities in incarceration won’t work, because the same racial disparities exist across all laws.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
– The parable of the old man and the young, Wilfred Owen

Last weekend I watched Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the highly-rated sequel to an excellent original movie. I went with high expectations because I read some good reviews and because the first movie was so great, but I was let down by this one. It was still fun, but it suffered from some deep and fundamental flaws, including that most basic flaw that spoils so many American movies: Daddy Issues. I’m so over putting up with the blatant, sentimental moralizing of modern American movies, and this one really really laid it on thick. So here is my brief review of the many problems of this movie, followed by an analysis of one possible interpretation of the bad guy’s evil plot, and how it can be read. This review has spoilers.

The daddy issues are laid on pretty thick from the start of this movie. The fundamental plot entangles the same characters from the original story in a madman’s attempt to turn all the planets in the galaxy into a model of his home planet, probably eradicating all life on those planets in the process (this isn’t clear). Of course Quinn, the idiot dude from the first movie, is central to this plot because the bad guy is his dad, and we have the classic American trope of discovering that your dad is not the great guy you believed he was when you were five, but is actually just a dickhead with an oversized ego who will never ever listen to you because you’re his son and therefore nothing you say is important. If you go by American movies, this completely ordinary run-of-the-mill discovery is a deeply traumatic experience for American men, who then (I guess because, pace that classic Monty Python sketch, Americans just won’t shut up) have to go and make multiple movies about it. Perhaps if they didn’t fridge their mothers in every single action movie, they would have a countervailing voice to explain that there’s nothing unusual about finding out your dad is just a paunchy dude who has no power and has some sketchy views about black people.

So then the group of heroes have to spend an inordinately long period of time trying to kill Quinn’s dad, which is cute because this movie combines daddy issues with patricide, which is actually a really pretty seedy basic structure for a movie: Dad had a bad idea, so instead of reasoning him out of it and coming to a better plan, you murder him. Although his bad idea involved serial infanticide, so make no bones about it (there are a lot of bones), he really did deserve to die. Credit where it is due, this movie strips back all the bullshit about daddy issues and gets back to basics: You gotta kill papa before he kills you.

Outside of the toxic daddy issues the movie is fun, packed with the same slapstick and chaotic banter as the first movie. The opening 10 minutes is a joyous rampage, worth paying for even if the rest of the movie lets you down, and some of the characters really live up to the high expectations they set in the first movie – especially Rocket, Draxx and Yondoo (as in the first movie Quinn is just a boring jock). The movie also introduces a girl called Mantis, who is well placed right in the uncanny valley, as well as being gloriously stupid and honest and sweet, so she’s a great new cast member. Unfortunately these great characters are merely support to the two boring white dudes fighting their existential battle. The key bad guy – Quinn’s dad – has a plot to destroy the galaxy which has depended on him womanizing his way around it, then consuming all the by-blows of his unions with many different aliens in a desperate attempt to destroy the galaxy. Quinn’s dad is a kind of a god so killing him is tough, and the second half of the movie involves an inordinate amount of flying and fighting and dodging and trying to blow him up. This is unfortunate because both Quinn’s dad himself and all attempts to kill him are just boring. This means that every time the main bad guy is on screen you just want him to go away, he’s so boring, and you just don’t have anything invested in the team’s efforts to beat him. He’s just some philandering idiot with a big ego and you can’t bring yourself to care. This bad guy is no Magua, no Imortan Joe. It’s like if Homer and Bart Simpson were in a fight to the death over who gets to destroy the galaxy. You want to care – your life depends on it – but really? Really? Is this how it ends?!

Which brings me to Trump, and Imperialism. It strikes me as not much of a coincidence that this particular variant of daddy issues – a daddy who is so stupid and dangerous you have to kill him to save the galaxy – comes up now, when America is ruled by the ultimate useless dad. Over the past year of being subjected to daddy issues movies and seeing the way that Americans respond to their presidential candidates, I have started to think that the US president is a kind of embodiment of the same cultural daddy issues that Americans are so obviously desperately expressing through their bloated action movies. I don’t know what is going on in US culture but the entire nation is obviously on a desperate quest to find a decent daddy, and the President is the ultimate embodiment of that. This time around they got a gaslighting, domestic abusing dickhead for a daddy, or as one Facebook meme had it, “It’s like our cool dad left and mum has taken up with a jock driving a trans am” or something similar. This president beats his (metaphorical) kids and is letting the house go to ruin, and the kids are having a huge argument about whether to leave or kick him out or kill him and bury the body under the floorboards, while the neighbours look on in horror. And so it is that this movie comes out that is about a dude who finds out his dad is a murderous arsehole whose plans involve sacrificing his own son to take over the world. Right! No coincidence at all.

Furthermore we learn that this daddy – just like Trump – is a womanizing fool, who has been running around the galaxy impregnating as many women as possible, then luring the offspring back to his home and destroying them in an attempt to take over the world. This is such a transparent play on male sexual insecurities that it’s hard to believe it’s not deliberate, but then Quinn is such a silly useless character that it’s possible to believe that the writers really didn’t get where they were taking this. On another level it could be that this is actually some kind of deep, devious critique of imperialism, because a classic feminist critique of modern imperialist politics is that it consumes the flower of its own male youth to ensure that the older men get to rule over a wasteland. Under this critique the young men are also victims of Imperialism, though some lucky few of them from specific classes get to rise up and rule the roost later, if they can survive the slaughter. The first half of this critique was expressed often by the world war 1 war poets, who saw the destructive half of this sexist order up close in the trenches of the Somme and Ypres. In this movie our hero completely rejects the imperialist order, killing his cruel and destructive dad and destroying the means of domination then disappearing into the horizon with a rat[1] and a foreign woman. Revolution, man! Did the writers intend this as a super-subtle critique of Trump and the general republican politics of wars of choice and infanticidal consumption of their own children that has come to dominate US politics since world war 2? Or did their own overwrought daddy issues lead them to this allegory by accident, as a side effect of their desperate attempts to slay their own useless dad in a movie?

That was a rhetorical question: I don’t care. I just wish these people would get their daddy issues out of otherwise perfectly good movies, and find a better way to humourously critique the current order. Avatar provided a critical analysis of colonialism without daddy issues; Mad Max 3 managed to offer up a perfect piece of savage ecofeminism without any daddy issues. Why do we need to resort to such cheap and boring plot devices as “ooh daddy hates me” or “oooh daddy disappointed me” (or both) in American action movies. Please, please stop it. This could have been a great movie, but it was let down by a boring bad guy in a boring, hackneyed emotional dynamic with a callow main character. It’s still worth watching, but only so you can watch the supporting cast shine. That’s poor movie making, and it’s an insult to me the viewer that I once again have to sit through the same emotional baggage every time I watch an American action movie. It’s not even original emotional baggage.

American movie makers need to grow up. But despite that, go and see this movie for the first half. You won’t miss much if you walk out once Quinn meets his dad, but it’s probably worth sticking out to the end. Unless you get even madder than me at being forced to swallow this horrible medicine just to make the sugar go down, in which case I recommend rewatching the first one.


fn1: Sorry, not a rat. A trash bear.

Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class is a book that, in many respects, is about me. Hanley was born on a working class housing estate in Northern England in 1976, which makes her three years younger than me, and unlike most of her peers she left her working class origins to become middle class, by dint of getting a university education and a middle class job – just like me. In this book, Hanley describes the challenges of getting from there (the working class housing estate in 1980s Britain) to here (her current middle class position and lifestyle), and the challenges of living middle class when your upbringing was working class. Both aspects of this story are very important to me: escaping the bonds of working class life is a kind of cultural version of getting into orbit, requiring a huge personal effort and risk to get a single shot at hitting escape velocity, but the journey doesn’t end there. Getting into a new class, whether stolid middle class or some internationalist transcendental state, is not necessarily enough to free you from the old bonds of working class culture, and you can spend a long time – for me, perhaps a decade or more – feeling like a stranger in a new land, and even after you become to some extent familiar with the rules of your new world, you still feel like a fraud, and you still are stalked by this fear that it can all be taken away from you in an instant, that you’re just there on sufferance.

Hanley describes the social, cultural and spiritual challenges of both stages of this journey in rich and stunning detail in this book. She does not just describe the general challenges, though, but pinpoints specific, stunningly accurate details about the process that speak so powerfully to me of my own experience that it feels as if she has reached out from the pages into my own memory, and crafted an explanation for feelings and memories that I couldn’t pin down and understand until she shaped them. In both the general issues and in these details, she captures the essence of Britain’s class problems brilliantly.

On generalities, she describes the social and cultural barriers to a proper education for working class people in Britain, both those imposed on the class from outside (such as sub-standard schooling, economic barriers to progress, the difficulty of getting into grammar school for working class people) and those imposed on the working class by the working class – things like the way that working class children punish any of their own who show too much interest in school, the way that working class families don’t push their children to achieve or don’t consider the possibility of sending them to better educational opportunities (like grammar school) outside of their own experience, and the punishing assumptions they have about their own limited futures. For example, in describing the general atmosphere of working class culture in Britain in the 1980s, Hanley writes

Casual violence – symbolic, domestic and public – was endemic in the place and times in which I grew up. Casual racism was part of the fabric of daily conversation. Casual cynicism pervaded: a consequence of casual exploitation and casual displacement, which fed into people’s souls and manifested in their treating everything like one great frigging joke, because that’s how they felt they’d been treated their entire lives.

She follows this with a discussion of one of the motivating factors underlying this atmosphere, loss:

You may wonder what led to this collective conviction that there was no point. It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss. Loss is everywhere: the loss of optimism as experience victory-laps hope; the loss of loved ones too soon to war, workplace accidents or to ill-health; the loss of a sense of home, going back generations as families move repeatedly in search of relief from poverty; the loss of close ties as families are broken up in a similar way by moves down south, to America, Canada, Australia; and the loss of a sense of place as families attempt to remain rooted in a changing environment, such as when a local works that once employed just about everyone in the area closes down.

This really struck at my own understanding of growing up poor in Britain – we were always moving looking for a better job or opportunities, then our family ties were broken by moving to New Zealand (and then Australia), and finally my older brother was taken from us by the state because of his continued involvement in crime, no doubt partly because his constant sense of dislocation stopped him having any sense of responsibility to the community he was victimizing. Hanley’s description of the economic, cultural and educational environment of England in the 1980s is exactly how I remember it, and her piercing insight into working class culture of that era really closely mirrors my own.

On the details, Hanley has a remarkable ability to isolate small incidents and moments that bring to life the challenges of trying to grow out of working class culture, and trying to get an education that will matter in an environment that is so inimically opposed to anyone standing out, as well as so committed to its own failings. For example, she describes a simple moment in her day like this:

While working in the library I go downstairs to Greggs to get a cup of tea … In the time takes to reach the bottom of the staircase I overhear a total of two sentences: one, by a woman speaking into a phone, is ‘FUCK OFF about your rizlas, I don’t wanna hear it,’ and the other, from a young man to a young woman, is ‘I can’t hear a FUCKing thing you’re saying with you walking ahead of me.’ My bones turn to glass again and I remember that often things do seem terrible just because of where you are. I’m thrown back into a world of ignorance and everyday violence – and if that sounds extreme, you needed to hear the way in which those ‘fucks’ were said: the desperation and life-fatigue of the first and the casual aggression of the second.

This is such a perfect, crystal clear description of an ordinary moment in the working class world that it might have been grabbed straight from my own everyday life. And it’s a reminder of how hard it is to operate in a different world – a world where people only swear when they’re surprised or angry, and never with the same venom – that you didn’t grow up in and have no familiarity with. Somehow you have to negotiate an entirely new set of manners and norms you don’t know anything about, at the same time as you’re still traumatized by and accustomed to an entirely different set of behavior that marks you out as trouble to everyone else.

This switch in background and norms is hard to adjust to, but it’s made even harder by the discovery of how much you were being held back from, and how much your own class is despised. Early in the book Hanley observes

The interesting thing about entering the middle class is that everything you have known is turned on its head. You go from being invisible to society, and yet at the same time the object of constant scrutiny and mistrust, to being at once anonymous and in possession of a voice. You are trusted to get on with things, and encouraged to go on endlessly about the way in which you do them

Everything about this sentence speaks so clearly to my own experience of growing up a working class boy and then stepping out to middle class life, and the different assumptions and expectations that are made about and of you when you are in one group compared to another. These changes can be like a slap in the face sometimes, in those moments when you realize just how much you were being denied. For example, when I first attended university – my big chance to step out of my class, though I didn’t realize it then – I was surrounded primarily by the children of the wealthy middle class in Adelaide, and I was shocked at the casual wealth of their lives and their casual assumptions about their rights and what they could and couldn’t do in public. These same middle class children refused to believe my achievements in high school, which were far superior to any of theirs, simply because my presentation as a poor kid from the country did not match their stereotypes. These children who had sailed through high school to an assumed berth in university, with the minimum of effort because their high quality schools ensured they got a good education and they had been groomed for progression from birth, were unable to comprehend that in my struggle to escape a terrible school I had worked hard every day and as a result got vastly better marks than them and won coveted awards – simply because of where I was from and what the signifiers of social class attached to me said about my potential. Eventually, of course, as I became more comfortable with the middle class world, I stopped wearing my working class history on my sleeve – changed my clothes, moderated my accent, dropped the swearing and rough language – and people stopped assuming limits to my achievement based on where I was from. Once I became more comfortable navigating the particular landscape of middle class life, people started assuming I was one of them, and a new world of opportunities and possibilities opened up to me.

But as comfortable as you become, you never truly forget or overcome that upbringing, and in discussing this Hanley brings up a recurring image that I think very well describes the crippling limitations the working class places on itself: the wall in the head. This is the barrier you build inside your own soul that stops you properly appreciating, and properly navigating, the middle class world you have entered. It can manifest in little ways, like an unwillingness to spend more than a certain amount of money on certain things, or in big ways like a fear of debt or an inability to manage money the way rich people do. It can also stop you grabbing opportunities that your peers take for granted, because it holds back your confidence and makes you timid about your own possibilities, and I think (Hanley doesn’t say this) in some ways it acts as a kind of PTSD, making you subject to a kind of existential fight-or-flight syndrome that makes you fearful of change and easily cowed into not taking risks. This is also part of the second trait of people who have moved up, which Hanley identifies: a fear that it will all be taken away from you in a moment and that you are living in your new, freer world on borrowed time. I think I still carry this fear inside me now, and I think most who have risen out of poverty to the middle class carry this feeling inside them. It can be a positive reminder of how far you have come, but it can also be a whip that strikes to stop you taking risks, or doing things that other middle class people do, because of a fear that you might be pushing your luck. This, for example, is why I did not travel in most of my 20s, even though most of my middle class peers had. Too risky!

Hanley manages to combine this political and economic analysis of the conditions facing the working class with an almost anthropological understanding of how these conditions manifest at a personal level to give a really engaging and powerful description of the process of social mobility, and its consequences for those who are able to climb the ladder. She combines her own insights and stories with the work of a wide array of sociologists who have studied class, in particular a book by Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, that describes the same phenomena in an earlier age, from a similar standpoint. In updating this book for the modern era she incorporates more pop culture, and I guess tells stories that are more relevant to people like me. But in weaving all this together she tells a story that is almost perfectly about me, and I guess about people like me. It is the first time I have ever seen anything about the experience of poor people taking advantage of social mobility, that combines a sensitive and genuine respect for the class she has left with a scathing criticism of that class, without blame or sneering. For that alone, this book was like an awakening for me, the first time I ever thought that my experience of fighting so hard to become a scientist was unusual or challenging or rare, and exactly what forces I had to overcome to do what I unthinkingly did when I was just 17 years old. There are, of course, some differences – she grew up in the industrial north while I grew up in the rural southwest, and she never had the good fortune to migrate to Australia, a country that determinedly set out to make sure that the economic and political barriers to social mobility were lowered considerably (at least for my generation). Australia doesn’t have the same class structure or the same rigid divisions as Britain, and it’s possible that for people who were born and raised in Australia this book has nothing to say. But for someone like me, with an experience grounded strongly in British class barriers, this book was a powerful and eye-opening attempt to describe my own life story – an amazing experience for anyone who sees their story told by someone else, in a sympathetic and detailed account of their own life that mirrors yours. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful for it.

The book does have some flaws, and for me the main one is its poor structuring. The book as a whole and the chapters within it don’t really have a strong introduction/body/conclusion structure, so that at times it comes across more as a rambling series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story. Some chapters end abruptly without anything resembling a review or conclusion, leaving you wondering exactly what Hanley was trying to say, and then the next chapter doesn’t really flow from the previous one, starting almost on a completely separate topic without any coherent structure. For me this was not a problem, since I was reveling just in having my story told, but for someone reading from a more dispassionate or disinterested perspective it might render the book far less readable than it might otherwise have been. Also, for someone reading from outside the class – i.e from the perspective of a middle class person who might influence policy – the lack of coherence might conspire to hide any possible conclusions that can be drawn about what needs to be done. This is particularly problematic when combined with the book’s other main flaw – its lack of recommendations. I would have loved to have seen a conclusion that gives concrete ideas about what needs to be done to make social mobility easier, political and economic recommendations on the one hand for weakening the stultifying grip of Britain’s class culture , and on the other hand a kind of self-help guide for those of us who have managed to climb the ladder. I don’t know how we can climb that wall in our head (or break it down) or how to escape that cloying fear of failure that haunts us, and I wonder if Hanley does either – but if she does, I’d love for her to have shared it with me. These flaws mean that while the book may be a powerful explainer for those coming from inside the experience, and potentially a powerful guide to understanding barriers to social mobility for those in other classes who are trying to break them down, it may only provide a limited guide to what can be done, and may turn off others who aren’t already approaching the problem with a sympathetic ear. Coming from inside the story, I can’t really say how much damage these two flaws do to the book’s overall mission, and I hope that they aren’t too overwhelming for other readers.

I was recommended this book on the left wing blog Crooked Timber, in a post by Chris Bertram, who turned to it as part of his attempt to understand Brexit. I don’t know how much it would help with this but I think it definitely provides a strong insight into how people in the working class experience class, and how hard it is to escape. I have written before on this blog about how I think social mobility is not the solution to inequality that many people hope, and have instead suggested we need to make all work rewarding and dignified. Hanley seems to have absorbed the same lessons from her own experience of changing class, writing in the conclusion of the book

I hope that by using elements of my own experience I have illustrated some of the shortcomings of a political narrative that places the onus for social mobility – for ‘getting out’ of the working class and into the middle class – on to individuals, rather than making it possible for everyone, regardless of occupation, to live comfortably.

I agree with her on the importance of this, and I hope that in reading this book others – especially from those classes that actually influence policy – will see how challenging it is to be ‘socially mobile’, both in taking the chances offered and in living with the consequences, and will rethink the way British society is organized to stop people at the bottom living comfortably, and to force them to climb so high and so hard to get out of the class they’re in. It’s not exactly a manifesto for revolution or social change, but I hope if more people read this book they will come to understand through its eloquence and insight just how hard they make things when they demand that everyone in the working class be respectable, and the impossibility of making Britain a better place by social mobility alone.

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