February 02, 2008

Criss Cross

"Everyone is either making love or else predicting rain" Bob Dylan Desolation Row

Criss Cross is a minor film noir, starring Burt Lancaster in one of his early roles. But it is still an interesting film. The device upon which the film hinges is the character that Lancaster plays- a drifter in the American West who keeps drifting back to an old love and a failed marriage in Los Angeles. All we know about Steve (Lancaster's character) is that he drifts from job to job and seems to have no independent life outside his family. His brother an impossibly all American lad is going to get married, his wise old mother is he says an object of devotion but in reality is more of a curse as she sees what he cannot. He wanders into LA and works for a firm specialising in the security of armoured trucks delivering money. His pursuit of Anna his ex wife leads him to her new husband, Slim, who is a gangster. In order to convince Slim that he isn't trying to pursue Anna he tells him he has an idea for a heist on the armoured trucks. The heist goes wrong and Lancaster ends up in hospital before fleeing to Anna, at which point Slim arrives and we see the final denoument.

The point about the film though, as ever with noir, isn't really about the plot. We know the plot will turn out bad from the first frame. More interesting are the characters and particularly the character of Steve. Steve doesn't have much of a life nor does he have a narrative of why he has come back from his wanderings to Los Angeles. Noone believes him when he mentions his feeble reasons: they all think he has come back for Anna. And he spends so much time looking for her, that so very quickly do we. We think that he is looking for Anna and in reality the reason he is looking for her is that his mind wanders back to her without much need for encouragement. There doesn't seem to be much else to distract him: he doesn't have many interests, he turns down opportunities to go to the cinema, to ice skating, to divert himself from Anna. Love for him has become the narrative of his life- like Bob Dylan's characters in Desolation Row he either is making love or else sunk in a slough of despond, predicting rain. The point is that Steve doesn't have a life beyond his quest for this one woman- he even says so at one point in the film and its that lack of any other focus that means that he is dragged into a world that he naturally is not part of.

As a morality play therefore about the consequences of abandoning all to love, this film works. It undermines that idea- playing with the suggestion that the man who abandons everything for love is actually a man with little to abandon. Interestingly Anna the other principal in the film is shown as much more calculating, she has genuine affection for Steve (definitely physical attraction) and yet she is much more determined to save herself. She would abandon him for her own chance of happiness. Anna is, we are constantly shown, more intelligent than Steve: she understands unlike him that mere affection only carries you so far, that love is no shield against bullets. She is weak though and dragged into situations: with her a lack of resolve leads her to her doom. But what she demonstrates is that passion can coexist with other emotions, can be present but dominated by other concerns, prudential ones in her case. Steve doesn't get that. He can't get it which is why in the end he is led to his doom. For Steve there is only making love or else predicting rain- and he'd rather be dead than a meteorologist!

February 01, 2008

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man's real name was Joseph Merrick, his picture is above. Merrick was born in 1862 in Leicester. His mother died when he was eleven and he spent time in and out of the workhouse in the city. His disease which caused the deformities in the picture above began to make its appearance at the age of five- he was unable to find work either as a cigar roller (because his right arm was too large to manipulate the cigars) or as a hawker of goods (because his appearance terrified people). He eventually ended up being used by a series of fairground entrepreuneurs as an attraction, a freak that the general public would gaze at. He was an unsuccessful freak in that he was almost too freakish, he terrified most of the people that he came across. In an attempted continental tour, Merrick found little success and was abandoned and robbed by his then manager. At that point he made his way back from Brussels to Liverpool St station and fainted when he reached the station handing over the card of a London doctor Frederick Treves to the station staff. Treves once summoned arrived and recalled inspecting Merrick years before when a junior surgeon, he took pity on the Elephant Man and got him put up in the London Hospital in his own set of rooms. Merrick became a society curiosity- the Princess of Wales was only the most noble of a succession of famous guests- he attended the theatre and stayed in the country. This idyllic lifestyle ended when Merrick died aged 27 in 1890. He couldn't sleep lying down and Treves believed that in a final effort to do so, the weight of Merrick's head either broke his own neck or that his head fell forward and he suffocated himself in his own trunk.

The story may sound horrible and whatever Merrick's disease- the most modern guess is Proteus syndrome and possibly a disease of the nerves named neurofibromatosis type 1- he suffered hugely from it. His body as you can see in the photograph above was horribly deformed- with the exception of his genitals and his left arm, his entire shape was twisted and stunted. He limped. He could barely speak comprehensibly, though after much practise others might learn how to hear the words amidst his curious tones. He had continual health problems mainly bronchial but others as well- he had to have a huge overgrowing trunk sawn off in his teenage years. He was completely isolated. Most of his notions of people came from the books he read which were his only consolation. Fascinatingly he saw the normal world not as the world he saw but as the world of a Jane Austen novel- Emma was one of his favourite books. He was not mentally retarded and was perfectly aware of his own condition. He had an incredibly romantic attitude to women- seeing them as perfect and placing on a pedestal- sublimating sexual desire into a reverence for the angelic female. He was cruelly treated, and yet himself very kind, almost saintlike. Its likely that at times in his life- with his mother as a young child, with his early showmen managers and later with Treves that he found real compassion from others but it was only later on that he was able communicate.

His life is an incredible story. It does reveal a lot about the nineteenth century and attitudes to entertainment. We often think of the Victorian era as a censorious one- but in reality the story of Merrick makes us I hope realise that it was merely differently morally orientated. Laughing at Merrick would be seen as immoral today, in the early Victorian fairground it was a way of making money. The story also reveals the limited choices out there for someone like Merrick in the Victorian world: he was incredibly lucky to be found firstly by the showmen and then by Treves but he could have languished in a workhouse for years and years and almost did. The one bitterness that he constantly displayed was about his time in the workhouse and the horrible conditions in which he lived- endless bullying and endless drudgery. He was denied a lot of what we consider to be the attributes of normal life: Merrick had few friends until his later days, was almost childlike in his attitude to the world because his world was merely his own mind, he had so little engagement with other people, he had no relations with the other sex (women ran screaming from him normally: something that caused him great sadness) and though he read voraciously he had little education. But somehow despite that he was almost devoid of bitterness and hatred: the fascinating thing about Merrick is that he was gentle and kind and thoughtful, in a childish way, yet still a genuine way. He managed to overcome his difficulties according to those close to him with a real fortitude of personality.

His tale is interesting and so distinct from the rest of human experience that its hard to read lessons from it, I think what is fascinating about it is the difference that it reveals between Victorian London and our own day and also the ways that this deep interiority was actually a deep resource for Merrick. Cast upon his own mind, he found there the willpower to be a good person. Despite his terrible affliction, and his terrible life, he succeeded in ways that people richer and more powerful than him did not. Furthermore we should also remember that he was lucky: there were no doubt hundreds like him or even thousands who perished, abandoned to the meagre resources of the early welfare state.

January 31, 2008


Andrew Stuttaford is entirely right here when he discusses why its a good idea to talk to Iran. The point is that you might not gain anything, in which case if the talks are done at a low level you haven't lost anything. You might though gain something in which case you have a success. Talking is a bad idea if it gives the other side a propaganda coup- I remember Blair going to Damascus and being attacked by Bashar Assad but if done properly at low levels what is the problem with it. Furthermore if its done properly with a proper arrangement in place, it can even work at higher levels. The point is that negotiations don't lose you anything, they may even gain you advantages.

January 30, 2008


Dave Osler I think is wrong to rebuke the government at Liberal Conspiracy over its latest wheeze to allow major companies to train their workers and receive qualifications worth as much as A-Levels: he fears a polytechnisation of the new qualifications- I can see where he is coming from but disagree. The degrees and A-Levels could work as described here- as effectively qualifications in management. There is nothing wrong with such a qualification- indeed if done well it could lead to jobs in the future- there are management schools afterall now and I can't really see why this wouldn't be a build up to one of those schools.

Where I think the government are wrong is in giving this to the companies to run. Not because there is anything wrong with company run training, but because the reputation of any courses will rest on the reputation of the companies concerned. The real issue here is that what you need is something you see in other branches of the economy. I'm thinking in particular of law and accountancy. In those two proffessions outside bodies regulate professional qualifications and they are well respected, whatever happens to the companies involved. I think that's a much better way of proceeding and it avoids another criticism that people might just be trained in company specific knowledge. What you really need is an association of catering management that say the big catering companies funded and was independent of government but respected by them all: so MacDonalds, Wetherspoons or even just those who had received the degree contributed. I do see that as being a way forward in the way that I don't see these present proposals being a perfect way forward.

I think though Dave underrates the importance of lifelong training here. The Leitch report on Skills revealed a lot about the nature of skills in the UK population: I'm not sure about some of the bolder predictions and the bases for them but I can see that this kind of skills training isn't a bad thing. Particularly because not everyone can succeed at school- for many people 16 or 17 isn't the right age to succeed, they aren't ready for it or interested in it and its only later in their twenties that they can succeed. That's particularly true for kids with learning difficulties: I know someone who is a chef at a Wetherspoons because he dropped out of school because of dyslexia, he would be perfect for one of these programs. He has the ability but lacks the confidence and its precisely that person that the government scheme with these companies is intended to attract. I would tweak it so as to make it run independently of the companies- but I do think in principle this is a good idea particularly for those who don't have a good experience of the education system and consequently don't fancy facing an educative institution again, be it a school, night school or the Open University.

Done well this could be a real success- done badly and with too much government control it could fail- but I think it could work particularly if these courses separate themselves eventually from the companies and become courses say at the Institute of Catering Management which companies invite people to apply for. I think it could work and if it did it would be great for many people who the education system fails but who have as much talent as those for whom the education system works. There will always be people, because of the key fact that we don't all grow in the same way at the same times, nor as we find out who we are do we all find relating to authority easy, who get left behind and feel very sceptical about education. This seems to me to be a very good move to get those people back on some kind of education wagon: and done well could be a real boon.

Mervyn King

Mervyn King has received another term as Governor of the Bank of England, thanks in part to his reputation for a sensible inflation policy and partly due to the fact that the recent Treasury Select Committee Report on Northern Rock condemned the FSA and not the Bank of England. I have no quarrel with the decision: I am no expert in who should be Governor of the Bank of England and given the relative consensus about the reappointment see no reason to be disquieted about King's return to the top post. But there is something interesting I think we should reflect on and its this. Increasingly posts like the Governor of the Bank of England or should it become independent the Head of the Health Service and other jobs are getting more and more powerful: at the moment they are appointed by ministers without much consideration by anyone else until after the event, should that be true?

I don't think it should. Ultimately the UK government is beggining to gather and use instruments within the leglislature to check and scrutinise central government. Whether it be the Public Accounts Committee using the National Audit Office to scrutinise government spending or the Select Committee for the Treasury examining the events at Northern Rock almost all of the select committees have had their moment in the sun. Perhaps though its time to expand their role even further and adopt the US model of confirmation hearings- making these senior and responsible appointments subject to public examination. Often the US system doesn't work and there are problems with it: but on the other hand there are merits to any nominee for a senior position like the governorship of the Bank with large discretionary powers in facing Parliament. It would not be appropriate for a civil servant whose responsibility is to ennact ministerial policy: but for someone whose responsibility is to define what policy is, Parliament should be able to hear what their intentions are, what their philosophy of monetary policy (in the case of the Bank) is and how they would behave. The public are also entitled to hear from them: unlike a civil servant for whose decisions the minister is ultimately responsible, the Governor of the Bank, the Auditor General and other officials are not presided over by a minister. The public ought to know who they are, what they want to do and what their responsibilities are. Confirmation hearings can but help.

And we have the appropriate places for those hearings to take place: the Select Committees. The function would strengthen the role of those select Committees politically too- it would raise their exposure and hopefully demonstrate to MPs that there is a career beyond being an executive minister, that there is a career in scrutinising policy as well.

January 28, 2008

The Bank of England

Andrew Lillicoe is entirely right on Conservative Home to draw attention to the fact that the Chancellor needs to explain the way that the Bank of England is and should be interpreting his inflation target. One of the strengths of the model of independence used for the Bank of England is that whilst the Bank is accountable for the operation of monetary policy, the Chancellor is accountable for its ends. The Chancellor sets the rate of inflation he would like to see- and the Bank finds a way to bring that rate or an approximation to that rate into being. That system means though that the Chancellor needs to take control of the issuing of that rate: he is the democratically elected politician and no matter how technically proficient the economists are at Threadneedle Street, it is for the Chancellor not them to decide the ends of UK monetary policy. That means that the Chancellor needs to exercise that power and not be intimidated- there is a worrying trend in British public life for politicians to devolve power to experts. Its not worrying if the experts implement the instructions of the politician, it is if as it seems in this case from Mr Lillicoe's reporting, the politicians forget that they should demand answers if the experts don't produce the conclusions that they have asked for.

Lord Ashdown Viceroy Extraordinary!

Peter Cuthbertson is pleased that the Afghan government turned down the services of Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and British peer, as UN special envoy to the troubled democracy. Cuthbertson may be right in the general case: that having failed as a party leader is no qualification to run a country after you leave office. But Ashdown is different and he is different precisely because he is one of those rarities amongst professional politicians: a man who has had real experience outside politics. Ashdown has military experience with British special forces, experience working in the foreign office and even perhaps though he has never confirmed or denied these stories in MI6. He was handled the Balkan role because of his long interest in the region in Parliament- frequently making trips there whilst Liberal Democratic leader. In such a way Ashdown combined real diplomatic, military and intelligence experience with the fact that he had been a party leader in a major democracy and therefore understood the way that politicians and campaigns worked- that unique combination meant that he was well qualified for a role in Bosnia and would have been well qualified having been a success there for a role in Afghanistan.

If politicians have done more in their private life before politics and demonstrated a particular interest and ability in one area, there is no reason that they should not be nominated for office there when their political career is over.

Index of Cinema Posts at Westminster Wisdom

January 27, 2008

A UN University?

No longer a fantasy, it seems from Der Speigel's English edition that a UN university is in the process of being set up. There has always been a UN university but until now it has functioned as a kind of UN thinktank. Now they are thinking of taking on students and becoming a more conventional university based in Yokohama. This is one of the most absurd ideas that has ever been put forward- let me just give a couple of reasons why it is absurd for this body to do that- partly the issue is that the UN University could be doing something very useful but instead is engaged on this vanity project. Lets for a moment think about why the UN ought not do these things and then concentrate on why the University is doing these things and then move to what it could more usefully do.

The argument about why it shouldn't do this is pretty simple. There are a number of great national universities out there in the developed world whose work it would be duplicating- why should there be a UN university- it isn't like the world is lacking in Universities. National Governments and private individuals seem willing to endow great institutions from American Universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to European ones like Oxford, Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute. Furthermore most university systems cope fairly well with all levels of ability- academic students go to the Harvards and Yales, people who want to study vocationally go to say Loughborough (in the UK for sports science) or Westminster (for nutrition). The world is filled with universities- the UN don't need to fill this gap.

The only places which don't have many universities are poor countries- but again though it might seem like a good idea to found a UN university- it isn't. All that this will acheive is to attract even more of the brightest students away from idigenous universities- meaning that those third world institutions are deprived of their best resource- the talent of their students and professors and the wealth of the endowments that they might leave. The foundation of a UN university would just add to the already existing brain drain from the developing to the developed world- why do we need to do this?

Bureacratic vanity is the best answer. Always governments and institutions ought to be asking not whether we can do something- but why we ought to do something. Its a fairly good rule that if the market or other institutions can and do provide a service, that you don't need to get involved. It doesn't work in all cases- but there must be a clearly demonstrable public good from something that the government or an international body does. The reason to do something cannot be as it seems to be here the ambition of one or a couple of individuals: government spending needs to be justified and its justification can't merely be that this is something we can do.

The UN University would far better be employed as a group of elderly, even retired, academics who would help governments that don't have university systems set them up. Say providing exam papers that would be respected as a gold standard and hence gain respect for degrees from new universities in developing nations. The UN University could organise for first world academics to go on regular lecturing tours in Africa or in the poorer parts of Asia. It strikes me that this would be a far better use of time and resource than competing with those new universities. The UN University would be far better used as a resource for all the Universities in the world- if its used at all but it should not compete with them.

We don't need it, we shouldn't have it and the only reason we do have it is vanity. This is exactly the kind of thing that gives government a bad reputation and its exactly the kind of thing which ought to be abandoned.