There are two alternative ways of governing a modern city- bullets or ballots. In a sense cinema is the chronicle of the modern city- the gangster films of Cagney or De Niro, the romances of Rosalind Russell or Meg Ryan are all about how to live in a modern city. Bullets or Ballots is not about how to live in a modern city but how to govern that city- how to manufacture and implement authority within the context of a community of millions. The struggle in Bullets or Ballots is an ideological argument about how to do this- how to get your orders and laws obeyed- the struggle is framed by a struggle between the police and gangsters but in reality that is not the centre of the film. That struggle is the problem that must be solved either by the gangsters or by the police- what the film is actually about is the argument within the police and within the gangsters about how best to win this war. Its an argument about the way that force ought to be displayed.
In a Bank in the middle of New York three executives, we are never told who they are but merely that they are extremely powerful men, coordinate the activities of the mob below on the street. They use as their contact a particular individual- a boss of bosses- beneath him there are others who run various rackets, various protection schemes and attempts to siphon off money from legitimate trades. In a sense the set up is the same as On the Waterfront's- the bankers and the businessmen sit at the top of a long trail which leads to the men taking the money out of slot machines and the unionists taking funds from the ships going into New York Harbour. This is pure and simple government: taxes are extracted from a community, they are backed up by coercive action- and there is an infrastructure erected to channel those funds upwards towards those who profit from the government they introduce. The police obviously through John Blake (played by Edward G Robinson) want to crack the mob and set Blake to do it.
The film's argument is largely played out within the mob itself- this group have become a business which likes the profits and doesn't like disquiet. Humphrey Bogart plays Fenner an ancient type of gangster for whom violence and individual effort are more important than the corporate ethos- in a sense whereas the other gangsters are evolving slowly into capitalists, Bogart is evolving into a feudal baron. Bogart's violence at several points threatens the power of the gangsters themselves for it creates attention- bringing down on them the fury of the law. Into this atmosphere comes John Blake, the ultimate in honesty. But Blake comes in as a double agent- what Blake's behaviour shows is two things. Fenner is the only person who detects and can provide a remedy to Blake's falseness- for he lives by his wits and his guns. Ultimately the only protection for the corporate gangster is the feudal gangster- for he is the only person prepared to exert the sanction that authority depends upon. And yet Blake too is the only person on his side, the police side to be able to exert that sanction- again his behaviour risks the state's authority being unmasked but without him the state's authority is merely words.
Ultimately this film is about the balance between the velvet glove and the iron fist. The real issue here is that force lies behind power- it is the threat of death that is the source of human power, authority though rests with the velvet insinuations of persuasion. Persuasion avoids confrontation with other sources of power and the naked use of force is always vulnerable to the next revolution: Fenner and Blake both are vulnerable to a quicker shot and a rougher fist, but without them the states, criminal and civil, that they support have an authority that cannot enforce. The riddle of Ballots or Bullets is a riddle exposed a long time ago by Thomas Hobbes, its terms have not changed since.
June 06, 2009
June 05, 2009
I thought after the last post I'd briefly give a few thoughts on aspects of Benn's life particularly ones i picked up from the biography. This is no way meant to be a summary or a proper appreciation of this fascinating man or his historic impact! For this post at least I will address some thoughts trigged by aspects of his early life.
One is the degree to which British Socialism particularly in its middle class more ideological form was a continuation of radical liberalism. Benn's father Wedgwood Benn latter Viscount Stansgate (given to represent the Labour party in the lords) was a radical liberal a supporter of such trendy post Gladstonian causes as home rule, colonial rights etc. He was also a massive supporter of planning like many radical liberals. His transition into a Socialist in the 1920's happened without any obvious change in views at all. Indeed even in the late 1950's he was agitated strongly for faster decolonisation-and was on the left of the Labour party as he had been on the liberal party. Indeed he seems more radical than the young Benn ( at one point Jennie Lee the leading left winger said to him of his son his becoming a "right little tory" ) and the Labour leadership. Benn himself shared his enthusiasm for colonial independence-and this gave him much of his left wing credentials in this era. Whether or not Labour owed more to Methodism to Marx, it seems fairly clear to me that it owed more to the "new liberalism" which sought to use government action (Rather than the withdrawal of it) as a battering ram against privilege than either.
Another is the system of controls and restricions that were mostly imposed during the war out of necessity and kept by Labour for numerous reasons-but perhaps foremost the desire to build a better Socialst world. There is a fascinating individal anecdote which I think sums up why Labour ended up losing the 1950 election. Benn and his new wife found they couldn't' bring all her stuff back from American-because of these controls, he is clearly very annoyed in his accounts at the time by this. And let this was Benn- the son of a Labour peer, seeking to become a Labour mp himself. This helps explain why Labour lost the 1950's election. They lost middle class support and the liberals melted down among the middle classes-their voters went massively g for the conservatives who were runniong on "set the people free" ending this system of control and offering the middle classes the hope of something resembling pre war (middle) class standards. This was not due to fall in Labour support among the working class-it rose sharply so much sao that the 1951 election (which they lost due to the electoral system) saw the highest % of the vote Labour has ever got at any election-a tribute to how popular so much of the Labour record (particulary perhaps on health) was. But the middle class backgrounds against less ideological committed middle class progressive "Benn's" nearly obliterated theri majority in 1950 and threw them out altogether a year latter.
The Christian Socialist (arguably Christan radically liberal) nature of Benn's family is very compelling. His elder brother (who was supposed to inherit the peerage that nearly killed Benn's career) who died in a plane accident was very devout-so much so he concluded war was wrong even as he served loyally in the British military.Nor was this confined to him. Strafford Cripps praising his sucessor emphasised his commitment to christianity (to Benn's apparent embarrassment- this was more or less as he was losing his previous faith) as well as socialism. One is tempted to say that the Benn family may not be unrepresentative in keeping their religious attitudes whilst dropping their beliefi n formalised religon one of the biggest changes among the radical left (and arguably the political class in general) over the last few decades. One thing that struck me about the piety of Benn's family is what a high view of humanity it had by traditional Christian standards - indeed Benn's brother in the same moving letters talks of his belief humans can easily work together and become good people. This tempts one to suggest semi seriously that what has held together the British left secular and religious is a high view of human capacity and a belief in the fundamental vulnerability of human evil-or to put it antoher way a renunciation of the traditoinal view of the inherent limits of human character.
Another interesting aspect of the Young Benn is Technology. As his opponent Lord Rodgers pointed out and Jacks' biography shows in greater detail he was a massive pioneer of television and television methods in a very sophisticated form (his main pre political job was for the BBC's world service). This is very interesting given what an old fashioned politician Benn seems today love him or loathe him. It's an indicator that being human politicians tend to become set in their ways - so technologies that come along in the middle of their career they are much less adept with than ones they are More acculturated to. Benn's diaries show he has the discipline which is perhaps the most essential element of a blogger. NO doubt pioneering media politicians of today Will one day seem just as old fashioned as Benn.
They will be lucky if they've had anything like the same impact in the meantime though.
June 04, 2009
This biography of Tony Benn by Jad Adams written in the early 1990'sis of one of Britain's most interesting politicians. . Tony Benn had a parliamentary career stretching around half a century. He was at the centre of major events including the Wilson administration cabinets, the crisis he predicted that allowed peers to renounce their seats to. He is one of the most important politicians never to become Prime Minister or a party leader in the last half a century-and is also an amazing survival. A man who was elected to parliament succeeding Sir Stafford Cripps under Atlee was a leading left wing rebel under Blair. In between he precipiptated reform (rather slight) in the early 1960's Lords and was a technocratic cabinet minister under Wilson organising many important chants in UK life. In the 1970's and 1980's he emerged as a leader of the "left" followed by a time as leader of the "hard left" of the Labour Party.
This biography has many virtues. The author is sympathetic to Benn's politics without quite sharing them (arguably the best position for an author). At a guess I'd state the author has politics very close to those of the Guardian newspaper- "bourgeois" and not quite as radical on foreign policy as the late Benn but otherwise very left wing on the British political spectrum. He had a great of access to Benn, his family and his friends-getting some fascinating insights into Benn and his life ( i particularly liked the 1970's "demonstration" against him not doing household chores by his daughter-he organised a counter one!) . I get the distinct impression that Adams is completely honest- huge rarely pulls his punches (and when one does I thick one can mostly tell.
He provides some good insight into Benn's personality including some that might surprise the casual student of Benn. For example he notes that Benn rarely reads (though conscientious when reading is part of his work) and tends to work through oral contact. Similar he points out that not only when Benn born in the 1920's but his (remarkable -the wikipedia entry is sadly inadequate ) father was old when he was born-so in some ways Benn is something of a late Victorian in personal attitude and approach. He also gives some feel for Benn's obvious enormous charisma and his enormous debating skill.
He does an excellent service in puncturing old myth about Benn particularly personal one. Though Benn's old enemy Lord Rodgers may be right he is biased in Benn's favour he makes some very good (and mostly convincing point). For example he punctures the myth of the enormous American wealth of Caroline Benn ( though he ignores the obvious fact it was still rather wealthier than the average Tory or Labour voter). He shows that far from being a later affection he was always known to his friends as "Tony" and that his family strangely actually called him James! At the same time he does a great deal showing the biased and inaccurate shocking level of so much press coverage of their hate figures- with the telling of lies to a Psychiatrist being only an extreme example.
He also provides information - I learnt a lot about the whole of Benn's life apart from the early 1980s. I did know till I read these books that he invented our current system of post codes for example. He goes into the affair of the pirate pop music radio station of the 1960's and Benn's obsession with crushing them- for motives that could barely be more different than suggested in this film.
There is an understanding of the tragedy of Tony Benn- the prime minster who came about because he managed to allow renouciation of peerage was not Benn but Sir Alex douglas-Home, his changes to the labour election rules managed to help Neil Kinnock and arguably Tony Blair and Thatcher-but his only bid for the leadership under them they actually further reduced what would have already been a pathetic share of the vote.
However this book is not without flaws. Two are very common for biographies particularly though from exclusively or invariably journalist ones. These are is a lack of appreciation for the wider context-and linked a lack of appreciation for those who disagree or fall out with Benn. A classic example of both is his (very interesting) description of Benn's visit to the United States in the late 1940's as a debtor. He records Americans believing that austerity was purely the deliberate result of Socials policies-and Benn's understandable annoyance. However he neglects to point out that there was at least an element of truth in this position-rationing was kept partly to prevent social inequality and to promote planning. Perhaps the most obvious proof of this-was it was removed years earlier in Germany (where contrary to British myth the damage of the war was much greater) where there was a much more right wing and free market government (who indeed liberalised over opposition for the Americans) There were all kinds of arguments for this- for example social equality but the Americans were exaggerating not hallucinating.
Even in terms of Benn's life there are some important gaps. I was enormously disappointed to learn so little about the early 1980's for example- this is partly because much less is devoted to it than say his role in the 1960's. But it was arguably in terms of the impact on political life his biggest impact on the British nation. The labour party seems to surge to the left and then the right like Brownian motion-no notion of agency is given. He fails to explain clearly enough in what ways he differed from the left minority of the Labour party in the 1950's (he was arguably on the left of the Labour party as he claims strenuously even then-but that's different from being part of its left wing minority)
Even in terms of Benn's internal life there seem some big gaps. one gets the distinct impression his remarkable wife Caroline Benn has had a huge impact-for example in making Benn an enemy of private education and a supporter of feminism (at least politically speaking). But very little impression of her views or reasons for them is given outside some individual policies (particularly the House of Lords). I suspect Benn's ideological journey owes a great deal to his religion. Very pious when young he seems to have lost a great deal of his personal belief in the supernatural around 1950 without any explanation being given (it seems to me suspiciously close in time to his marriage but that is not stated as a reason). He identified very strongly with the nonconformist tradition whilst being an Anglican. All this goes unexplored and the complexities and how they affected his politics are not really explored.
Finally Adams's own political inclinations cause a great deal of bias. Where Benn agrees with him (or Adams at least has sympathy) then there is who0le surge of support (e.g. during the Gulf war-in fact one of the most popular wars the UK has ever thought). If Adams strongly disagrees with Benn on the other hand then the public is invariably against him. After the defeat of the push for UK withdrawal Benn is condemned for continuing to advocate it 9as I said Adams's politics are very Guardian). Leaving aside issues such as the inaccuracy of some of the "neutral" information or Benn's desire to achieve a planned economy-it's important to note that very rapidly public opinion turned back towards Benn's position-you would not gather this from Adams.
Indeed when a dirty tricks leaflet about Benn was traced back to a copying machine of the European Movement (open too many of their volunteers rather than just staff) Adams very strongly indicates this must have been a cover for elements of the secret services-since obviously the European movement would now have no cover for Benn. This rather naive position ignores that a) the Europe issue was far from dead (besides anything else many members of the European movement wanted much further integration-a goal they have since achieved) as the elections tomorrow for the European Parliament will probably indicate) the secret services presumably have access to more secure copying machines. This is just one example. I'm not seeking to deny the possibly of secret service involvement merely to give you some idea of the absences of the book when discussing such situation –these points are scarcely difficult ones but Adams’s biases seem to blind him to them.
Having said that this books is fascinating, well written, honest and fairly extensive. It's well worth reading-but as I've just said not revering.
June 03, 2009
These blog posts raise an interesting historical question the nature of religious minorities in Confessional states- whether Catholics in the Netherlands or the (by the 19th century much smaller) protestant population of say.
A confessional state is simply speaking a state whose laws privilege a particular religious denomination (or conceivably several denominations). In that Sense the United Kingdom is such a state the "Anglican” Church of England is established in England, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in Scotland and the British monarch on coronation affirms Christianity and Protestantism as the faith of the land. Similar situations exist in some Scandinavian countries (including Finland which has the very large established church of Lutheranism and the very small one of Orthodoxy. Even today dissident Christian denominations in Sweden and groups (such as Jehovah witnesses) outside a small circle of semi-established ones in Germany, face genuine legal problems
However for this article I mean something very different by the term "confessional state". I mean the state's that were routine in Europe till well into the 19th century. States where not only is one confession established by law but confessions that do not meet the law are discriminated against formally in access to political office. This was true in every state in Western Europe in 1780-even states such as Great Britain and the Netherlands long notorious for their tolerance. In less tolerant states very exacting legal penalties could exist quite late-Sweden eliminated exile as the penalty for Catholicism in the 1850's. Political office was mostly or entirely restricted to members of the "established faith" , taxes went to the state churches (and were a much higher % of taxation than the few religious taxes left in the likes of Germany) and were legally privilege in a host of ways.
In such states the religious minorities understandably felt outsiders to the political system. In the French Revolution and afterwards the system of the confessional states (along with linked power systems such as the power of the monarchs) came under huge attack. The early 19th century saw a backlash-or rather a cacophony of backlashes against this "the union of throne and altar" was endorsed in one form or another (including countries like the UK with very few used altars in those churches) in just about every European country. In a sense this created the whole concepts of right and left- and arguably still shapes them they can be seen as those who wish to push relative to the status quo away or towards (right and left respectively) a radical version or extension of French Revolutionary principals Obviously though the debate has rather moved on -but in the 19th century "established church" meant something much fiercer than the current Church of England or even the Lutheran church of Sweden in terms of political rights
Not surprisingly the Confession ally excluded tended to be rather more hostile to the confessional states and sympathetic to a pluralistic or secular system. This took the form of disproportionate support for parties of the left. I have posted about this in the context of the Dutch liberals (till Kuyper reshaped Dutch politics) but it's equally true elsewhere. For example late 19th century British politics can in very crude and broad brush terms be seen as a three way between the party of Anglicans Scottish Presbyterians and Irish Protestants ( Tories) , the party of British Catholics and Nonconformist liberals nod the party of Irish Catholics (home rulers). Similarly in France the most protestant areas of France tended to be among the most radical-and latter socialist and this still tends to be true today.
The legacy of this can still be seen today. In just about every European country the adherents of denominations which were excluded by the confessional state are more likely to support the left than those who were not (this is particularly true if one allows for religiosity). Exceptions tend to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. So for example in Germany Catholics are more likely to support the CDU than Protestants but a) Self declared Catholics are more pious in Germany than self declared Protestants and b) the heavily Catholic areas of Germany-Bavaria etc the Confessional states were classically Catholic. Indeed I recall reading an interview this a devout evangelical Christian in Baravia in the 1950's saying she could no vote Social Democratic since it was atheistical or Christian Social Union because it was Catholic.
The superb religious sociologist Steve Bruce has seen these differences as fundamentally being a matter of the conservatism and traditionalism of the Catholic Church naturally making it the party of the right. He interprets the Catholic tendency to vote for the left (at least till very recently) in Anglo-Saxon countries as a matter of class. Respectufly I think this will not work- in Scotland in the 1950's (bear in mind this is the height of class politics in Britain) working class Protestants were more conservative than middle class Catholics! I think the interpretation should be found in the history of confessional states-and even their death. of which religions were the” traditional” one. So where "tradition" was protestants Catholic naturally lean(Ed) to the left, where Catholic to the right. This can link up and overlap with a religiosity cleavage which are often newer. So in France Protestants vote more Socialist than Catholic but churchgoing Protestants and Catholics alike vote massively more for the right than the non churchgoing.
However this tendency to support the parties of the "left" for religious minorities was not invariable even at the height of tensions. So in the late 1820's Catholic Emancipation (whether Catholics who could vote-very liberal for the time, could also sit in Parliament) dominated "left" and "right" in UK Politics. And yet in the mid 19th century there were Catholic Tory mps!
Part of the explanation was that members of the minority could accept a lesser status either as the best possible deal, as an attentive to a secularism which might be more hostile (in the late 19th century for example British Catholics were more likely to vote Tory in school board elections-because Tories were much more pro church schools and host8le to secular education than liberals) or because they believed in the system-even if they were excluded in it . A combination of this helps explain for example why the Popes tended to be very sceptical of leftwing movements in most non Catholic Countries. . I have already explained how this helps explain why the catholic south of the Netherlands did not join the revolt that created Belgium. In England (not the UK) it was so strong that the "restoration of the hierarchy" provoked outrage among English Catholics. The Duke of Norfolk the foremost Catholic aristocrat (indeed the foremost aristocrat the dukes of Norfolk are to the aristocracy of England what the Archbishops of Canterbury are to the bishops Primus inter pares) was so outraged he took communion in an Anglican church (then even more than now against canon law) to express his fury!
So the story of confessional minorities in the nineteenth century has fascinating nuances but the basic story- of minorities being driven to the liberal of radical left is one that still shapes the politics of the western world today.
The picture is of Henry Fitzwilliam Howard- 15 duke of Norfolk a title so old they are the first aristocrats of England (roughly equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury among bishops) but an outsider due to his Catholicism.
June 01, 2009
From the first reel of Revolutionary Road we know that Frank and April's marriage is in trouble- we see the couple having the kind of fight that only long years of companionship can support. Their dilemma though is wider, as we slowly discover, than a simple marital dispute. They are unhappy with the stuff of their lives. Frank works as a corporate drone- alternating fiddling with the filing and the secretaries. April's life is incredibly exciting- if you find discussing the plants to put up in the drive and the minutiae of suburban gossip and semi-sophisticated snobbery alluring- I and more to the point she don't. They have this idea one night that they might escape and go to Paris- Paris will help April find a job and Frank find a mission in life. Their kids, their money will all be fine- but Paris will rejuvenate their souls. In a sense the film is a story about two people who never read Lucy Kellaway, the FT's management and career's columnist, who argues work is meant to be boring: they want work to be entertaining, they want life to be thrilling. They want their world to be about the moment that Frank walked into fire on the front in the Second World War or that April and Frank first made love- they want excitement.
Neither of them are sure though about what they really want- they haven't decided what their excitement actually lies in. Neither of them has a vocation- save to be interesting- an interest save in fascination. Indeed they meet through a shared amusement and a shared confusion about what is interesting in the world. Paris fades like a dream because April becomes pregnant and Frank gets offered a job- but you get the sense that that is really not an alternative for these two as much as it is a panacea that will turn sour. What the two of them are protesting about is life itself- the endless mundanity of getting up in the morning, washing dishes, waking kids, going to work with uninteresting people and being a mere cog in a machine. Given that they realise in the course of the film the central fact of their lives is that they aren't brilliant- this is the life that they have to look forward to. Or at least it is the life that they have to look forward to in this kind of society and sociological system- the film never develops a political angle and leaves it as implicit that the world of Frank and April will continue for all recorded time (April may get to the office, and that's all that will change).
There is an aspect here of artists telling the rest of us why they are so happy they made the decisions that they made- the condescension of some of the sequences to those of us who do work in offices is palpable and rather unpleasant. Mr. Mendes ought to grow up and realise that adjusting interest rates might bring more human happiness than a film may. But leaving that aside there is a serious point here- work and family have consumed April and Frank, have rendered them husks without interests. Partly this is because they started out as husks- they started out without interests and thoughts of their own. They only knew that they wanted to live but didn't know how- in that sense their lives are vacuums waiting to be filled, and as the mathematician John points out to them at one point, in his role as an idiot savant (a rather tired piece of plot device) they are drifting, passively accepting their roles as suburbanites. Or at least that is what Frank is doing- passively accepting his role within the universe of the corporate man.
April's passivity is of another type. Her passivity is a reluctance to attempt to transcend her situation and a willingness to blame all its faults on others. She never fully seizes control of her life because like alabaster she throws the blame and hence the responsibility and initiative for shaping it on to others. Should something go wrong, she never finds a reason to live in that new reality- she cannot accept what is not perfect. Here in a sense we have the most fundemental reason why neither Frank nor April can fully cope with their lives. The film demonstrates that in earthly terms, Milton's Satan was right
"The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven./ What matter where, if I be still the same".
Bad theology may be good psychology. April setting her heart on the shibboleth of Paris misunderstands that actually her problems lie closer to home- the mind can craft itself an interesting reality, it does not need the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps ultimately these two are locked together because they are locked in a search for the reason that they feel their lives are futile- both of them have decided that futility is now their end and have to work out how to blame each other.
This film is by turns irritating but also tragic. Mr Di Caprio and Miss Winslet are good actors- Mr Mendes can definitely direct. There are problems within it but there are also great strengths- some of the accusations between the couple are distinctly uncomfortable. The physical weight of pregnancy is brought home with a painful immediacy. The temptations they are exposed to are also there. What Mr Mendes and his cast maybe do not realise is that suburbia is not so much a geographical state as a state of mind- in their semi-sophisticated politeness April and Frank would remain trapped even if they did go to Paris in lives whose only frustration is its futility. To escape that requires not merely the humility to realise ones ignorance, but the discipline to avoid the geraniums and do something about it.
May 31, 2009
When Harold Pinter the British playwright won the nobel prize for literature a couple of years ago it was less for his expletive laden denounciations of Bush and Blair than for works like the Caretaker. Filmed in the early 60s and financed by several of the great and good in British culture (Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers and Noel Coward amongst them) the play made the transition to cinema well. What it concerns, as ever with a Pinter play, is not entirely clear. On a snowy night in London a tramp is picked up by a lonely man, Aston, who invites him home to stay. The tramp, Davies, sleeps at Aston's that night and is surprised in the morning by Mick, Aston's brother, and the actual owner of the house in which Aston lives. The three men then circle each other for the rest of the film- Aston with his hopes of constructing a shed at the bottom of the garden, Davies with his hopes of getting to Sidcup to find his papers and rebuild his life and Mick who longs to turn the house into luxury appartments and transcend his Hackney upbringing to become a cultured man. As ever with Pinter the play is also about power- as Davies attempts to play Mick, the 'normal' brother against Aston who has had mental difficulties in the past.
Critics and commentators have covered those aspects of the film and play well enough and also argued that it is part, along with Samuel Beckett's work, of a movement towards the theatre of the absurd. In that sense they have brought to the play a consciousness of its timelessness- they have taken the Hackney of the sixties out of the play and brought the play into the modern era. That approach is completely sound and there are good reasons to read the play as about a contest for power. Davies ultimately is defeated because he misunderstands the fact that Mick will never abandon Aston- he attempts to play the two off against each other and ends up creating an alliance between them to repudiate Aston's latest insane act, bringing Davies to the house and offering him shelter. Davies is excluded and thrown out onto the winter street to roam and wander and eventually one presumes, die alone. That defeat for him is an exile from sanctuary- the sanctuary that we have seen him in for the film, the sanctuary that Donald Pleasance conveys through a marvellous performance he fears he may be forced to leave.
Davies is always keen to concentrate on the fact he has worked in the past and Pinter's psychology of homelessness is acute. Davies feels ashamed of being homeless- assuming that when Aston asks him whether the bed is unusual and this is why he is restless that what Aston means is that he doesn't know how to sleep in a bed, he talks constantly of jobs he does and wants to do but never of his constant state of unemployment. Aston's psychology is as acute. I think Pinter here captures the dilemma of mental illness better than anyone I have ever seen on stage or screen manage it. What he does is tell us that Aston faces a dilemma between treatment that does not help, human beings who send him for treatment rather than opening up their faces and kindnesses to him and staying silent. Eventually Aston chooses to remain silent- to have visions but not to talk because he knows that to talk is to invite rejection- and so he concentrates on the lonely occupation of building the shed and seeks friendship with the one person, Davies, who he feels is as powerless as himself and therefore cannot threaten him. In this reading of the film, Mick, deus ex machina at the beggining and conclusion, is a guardian who cannot understand how to help what he guards. He cannot help Aston out of the dark night of the soul because it is implied, noone can. He has realised unlike their mother that Aston cannot be helped by doctors, all he can do is wait and expect a miracle.
Equally the play is about a period of time- all those comments relating to mental illness relate to that period of time rather than now. But the periodisation is important in other ways. Davies is a former soldier- he served, he tells us, in the colonies. He wants to go to Sidcup- and this is unstated- because it is the base of the Royal Artillery- Davies wants to get there to establish his true identity in a world in which his forged identity "Bernard Jenkins" has worn out its use. This is the world of Britain post world war two- post the era of mass military service- when a man like Davies, an 'old man' could wander as a veteran tramp through an England that had forgotten him. But it is also a world of squalor- its the world of Britain in decline, particularly economic decline. In a sense we have here a generational conflict alongside a personal one: Davies's strenght is ebbing, Astons' is too though he is a younger man- whilst Mick remains vital and strong- unpredictable and terrifying with his ability to surprise and his 'sense of humour'. Aston is predictable and steady- the epitome of the fifties- Davies damaged and poor- the forties, and Mick a representative of swinging London, an Austin Powers man. But of course given this is Pinter- we have those stereotypes twisted into bitterness, the forties man, a tramp, the man of the fifties a madman and the man of the sixties, delusional.
This is a great film- there is no question about that and with great performances to boot. Its intense and melancholy but it is also charming and thoughtful. The ending leaves us looking in like Davies upon the brotherly bond- we can concentrate on the intensity and warmth of the last smile between Mick and Aston as they throw the tramp out on the street or on Davies's fear as he is consigned to a life and death under Waterloo Bridge. Its up to us, whether we empathise with the tramp in the snow or the madman asleep calmly in his bed, Pinter as ever does not direct our sympathy or interpretation, he leaves us with the stage and the gaps between the words. Our task as in life is to supply the story that makes them make sense.