December 27, 2010

Review:The Anatomy of England: A history in ten matches

November 25 1953 is a date burnt into the memory of English football. A team including several of England's best ever players (Stanley Matthews at rightwing, Stan Mortenson at centre forward, Alf Ramsey and Billy Wright) were not merely defeated but were thrashed in the Autumn at Wembley. It was England's first ever defeat at home- a record that had stood for ninety years- and symbolised the ways in which the inventors of football had been left behind tactically and imaginatively. Harry Johnstone, the centrehalf from Blackpool, was unable to find the Hungarian centre forward who played very deep, Matthews was uninvolved until late in the game and his counter part on the left Robb, a school master whose pupils were in the crowd, was completely isolated. The Hungarian side led by Puskas simply left England in the dust, playing the game a way that had been antique twenty years before in a style that was prehistoric. Traditionally this game marked the moment at which England became an inferior side. Previous defeats in the World Cup (against America in 1950) or internationally (Spain in 1928) were ignored domestically or explained a way (dodgy food or heat) but Hungary had taken on and beaten England on a November day in London. Short of dragging the Europeans to Hull and feeding them chip butties for three days, there weren't many more English conditions and the English had been thrashed.

Jonathan Wilson's new book about the history of English football reflects on this and ten other games which have significantly influenced the way that the English have felt about their national game. Wilson's story both magnifies and diminishes games like that at Wembley in November 1953. It magnifies it because it is a story focused around separate matches. There is no denying that football is tied to specific moments: England and Hungary's battle in 1953 demonstrated something about English football. Harry Johnstone couldn't pick up his opponent because England were tactically behind the Hungarians. It also diminishes those games by illustrating how far they are part of a longer narrative, they are peaks in an overall story. England had been beaten before 1953 by foreign sides, in 1929 they were destroyed by Spain for example in the first of Wilson's games. The memory of English defeat though stretches back to the turn of the century with the Scottish sides of the 1900s who passed their way through English individualistic midfielders. Games reflect a longue duree, a history of the game which suddenly is revealed in individual instances. In that sense Wilson performs here the classic task of a historian: he takes isolated moments from the past and strings them together with a philosophical approach, he is both an antiquarian and a philosopher, a Coke and a Voltaire and hence becomes the combination an historian.

So what's the story? Wilson identifies two issues that English football has faced since the 1930s if not before. One is an addiction towards individualism. The greatest exponents of that individualism were the old fashioned wingers. The iconic moment for Matthews in Turin in 1948 was when he was remembered to have gone past a fullback, stopped the ball, taken out a comb and straightened his hair and then gone past the same fullback again. Its untrue but is a wonderful story to exemplify English individualism. Perhaps the greatest exponent of that theme was Paul Gascoigne, a player who could never be caught thinking, was as daft as a brush (and consequently put one in his sock) but for a couple of moments in 1990 and 1996 was a genius. The second aspect, tied to the first, was a reliance on effort over tactics. Ken Wolstoneholme cried out against Hungary that some good old fashioned tackling would sort out the Hungarians. He was the prototype for every football fan who ridicules Arsenal's ticcy taccy style and proclaims that Blackburn, Bolton and Stoke will sort them out by tackling hard. Again you can see the line through to the modern day, Kevin Keegan's England were the epitome of the all effort and no thought. Notice the double theme, whether the winger who stands a solitary genius or the growling centre half (think Dave Mackay holding Billy Bremner) the ideal is not to think. Jonathan Wilson casts English football as an unintellectual pursuit, occasionally wrestled into thinking about itself by a visionary (Ramsey in 66, Venables in 96) or by accident (Robson 90).

Within that macro story, Wilson does allow the celebration of individual generations. For example, he writes perceptively about the England Italy game of 1948. He argues that in that game, England played possibly her greatest ever forward line- Matthews on the right, Mortenson at inside forward, Lawton at centre forward, Mannion as the other inside forward and Finney on the left. The English beat the then world champions four nil in Turin. Wilson argues that this was in part due to the virtuosity on display. He blends through his matches the rise and fall of playing careers- by 1972 against Germany many of the players who had won the world cup especially Bobby Moore the captain were too old. During the 2000s, the golden generation both represented an amazing opportunity- Wilson identifies that players brought up at the same club have an instinctual understanding of where they need to accommodate each other and that generation included the Fergie Fledglings (Neville, Neville, Beckham, Butt, Scholes)- but were brought down by clumsy management (England lost Scholes their best player in 2004) and over expectation. This threading of the generations through the story fuses the tactical with the tale of talent. Football history is about judgement but its about the luck of producing great players at the same time and using them to win something: when a golden generation and tactical insight come together you get the Spanish success of 2008 and 2010.

This is a pretty convincing story: and Wilson makes his points well. The debate over how to fit Lampard and Gerrard into the same midfield is finely ridiculed. His discussion of the older more insular English football culture is brilliant. However one element is missing. When Matthews played, he played in a league where there were no foreign players and no foreign managers: the only foreign players you encountered were oddities (see Trautman, Bert) or Scottish or Irish. Since 1980 and probably since the World Cups of the seventies, through television and through the growth of football as a business, the entire game all over the world has become internationalised. Stephen Gerard for example has been managed for most of his career by a Frenchman and a Spaniard. Frank Lampard has worked since 2001 for an Italian (Ranieri), a Portuguese (Mourinho), an Isreali (Grant), a Brazilian (Scolari), a Dutchman (Hiddink) and another Italian (Ancellotti): it is in that period that all save one of his England caps were awarded. During his time at Chelsea Lampard's most frequent midfield partners have also been international. What you are seeing since 1990 and probably earlier too is a fusion of football cultures. Famously it took place at Arsenal in culinary terms: the new French manager Arsene Wenger refused to allow his squad to eat steak and chips, replacing them with pasta and vegetables. Wilson doesn't fit that into his story of English football nor does he speculate on how that internationalisation of football will leave national style.

The other thing that Wilson doesn't do as well is tie his story back into the story of England and football itself. Obviously the hubris of 1953 faded at almost the same time as Suez, but such a comparison is facile. The interesting questions about English football remain who goes, who plays and who pays and have the answers changed. The 1990s changed the spectators a lot: anecdote suggests more women and middle class people went (as the middle class expanded- another story- football may have been a way for the socially aspirant to retain their origins). Furthermore in terms of the wider history of football, was it necessary for England to lose its power? The magic of contemporary football glimmers with memories of different national styles- Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Uruguay, Sweden, Hungary, Austria all have their proud football histories. Without the achievement of so many nations, would football be as popular? English decline was inevitable because of the size of its population relative to the rest of the world, but one wonders had it not happened- had England dominated as America does in its sports, would football have been so popular.

Wilson's book like all good books opens up further questions, but those questions go out from his matches out into the impact of football onto a wider world- a wider world of class tensions, national rivalries and ultimately the choice of individual humans to watch and play a global and not an English game.

December 18, 2010


I have a confession to make: I am hopeless at foreign languages. I can just about hold a conversation in French but only of the most basic sort and I could at one point read some Latin and Greek but only again basically. I can read no Russian, no Chinese, no Arabic, no German- the worlds of Tolstoy, Confucius, Khaldun and Neitsche are only available to me through transalation and I have no means of judging the quality of what is translated. I find it interesting though to think about which languages people should learn. A recent article in the New Republic, damning the teaching of French in US universities, raised this issue: the author argued that the only languages Americans should learn at university were those that would be crucial to tommorrow's world- Arabic and Chinese. (I have no idea why Arabic was placed ahead of Hindi or Urdu, but then I may not know what I'm talking about!) His argument boiled down to the suggestion that languages should only be taught when they were languages of power: so Chinese for example is an imperial language and the language of a rising power so needs to be taught, Latin's moment passed 1500 years ago so should not be taught.

There are obvious reasons to endorse this argument. An education which means you can read Cicero in the original won't assist you directly in negotiating quotas at the WTO. A deep knowledge of Proust and his language is not going to help you build bridges. Chinese will be more useful as China grows in power and like it or not, most of us are going to be dancing to the tune of Beijing more than we will to the lilt of the Elysee Palace. There are good political reasons though for pausing: America will still need its European allies, they are still pretty big countries, whether you count populations or you count economies. Their importance may be declining but they are still significant and probably will be in 2050. So will some of their colonies which speak their languages- Brazilian Portugeese and Spanish through the whole of South America not to mention Algerian French and English in India. But lets leave that argument aside- again I profess only ignorance about the trends of the next century. I'm not sure this is key either: how many of us become diplomats, how many of us need to know foreign languages because of our jobs- my guess is that there are and will be very few people for whom this is true. The real reasons to learn a language are different. Are there reasons to learn a language which aren't based solely around power?

I think there are reasons to do so. Lets think for a moment about most education. It doesn't teach things that people directly need in their jobs. When I talk to maths graduates or economics graduates, they don't use what they did at university anymore than history graduates do. Unless you do a professional degree you are very unlikely to ever use what you do in your work unless you become an academic or a teacher. That doesn't mean the education is pointless: it merely means that its effects are not direct. So teaching French might not equip you to talk to your Chinese colleague about US trade policy, but it will give you other talents that will enable you to understand his argument. Learning one language helps one learn another language. Learning one literature helps one learn about the ways that human beings work and the way that logic works. Thinking no matter what it is about is good so long as it is done seriously and with effort. Learning Latin for example is good because it encourages that kind of thinking, possibly its more useful than a flaky degree in something more directly useful to a job or a future.

My opponent may take this argument but then reply, but doesn't teaching Chinese have the same effect and doesn't isn't it also more 'useful'. He is right. But lets be careful here. A good discipline in any language is a positive. French may be a door into learning other languages as well: it has more in common with English than Chinese does- so for the pupil first starting to learn languages it is a bridge into another world, a world in which the words we use have subtly different meanings. Chinese is harder in that its structure is so different, French from a pedagogic principle is therefore an easier bridge. But the whole idea that languages deserve to be learnt merely because of their importance now is also bizarre. Learning Chinese or French opens the door to vast civilisations underneath, to ways of thinking that are now long gone. You recover the world of Dumas and you learn something that no paper editorial can tell you about the radically different nature of the past. Chinese gives you the same insight because equally Confucius takes you to a different world. For me that's the real utility of a linguistic education, not that it provides you with something immediately cashable now but because it supplies you with an insight into a world you don't know about.

Who knows whether we will all need to speak Chinese or Hindi in the future, what we do know is that the basic human insight that the world is different to different people needs to be maintained. Whether it is French, Latin, Chinese or anything else languages can mantain and help assist us developing that insight: for me it is immaterial what language someone studies, so long as they study something.

And now I'm going to search for my dictionaries!

November 30, 2010

Dumas's Revolution

One of the reasons that I find the Count of Monte Cristo fascinating is its context. Villefort, the corrupt lawyer at the centre of the book, expresses an analysis of the French Revolution which is precise and fascinating in the light of today. He compares Robespierre and Napoleon thus:

The only difference consists in the opposite character of the equality advocated by these two men: one is the equality that elevates, the other is the equality that degrades; one brings a King in reach of the guillotine, the other elevates the people to a level with the throne. Observe... I do not mean to deny that both men were revolutionary scoundrels, and that the 9th Thermidor and 4th of April in the year 1814 were lucky days for France.
Pause there and consider what Villefort says because what he does is express a classical doctrine which has some interest. The French lawyer discusses the roles of Napoleon Bonaparte and Robespierre: he suggests to us that both were advocates of equality. Robespierre took down a King to the level of a criminal and had Louis executed by the Guillotine. That is easy enough to understand. His words about Napoleon though are more confusing, how did Napoleon elevate the people to a level with the throne. Unbundle those words and they become the signature of plebiscitory dictatorship: the reason Bonaparte did that is that his acclamation as Emperor depended upon them. They were elevated to a throne because they created his new title.

This perception on the part of Villefort of the two alternatives- Democracy and Tyranny- comes from a third perspective. Villefort is speaking here as a royalist, to other royalists. Implicit in his remarks therefore is that he likes neither alternative: both are signatures of equality and he seeks to reduce Napoleonic monarchy to Robespierran democracy. Equality though in Villefort's eyes is here opposite: I think what he means here is that Robespierre's equality is a means to execution, whereas Bonaparte's is a means to dictatorship. I think its fascinating to watch Villefort upon this dilemma both because of the interest of what he says and because it exposes how vulnerable he and we are to words. His stress on the difference between the two forms of government is lost in his stress on the same word- equality- that he uses to describe them. It reveals his argument is too clever: interestingly none of his interlocutors understand what he means. Perhaps that shows their stupidity, perhaps it demonstrates that Villefort's cleverness is really sophistry.

November 28, 2010

The Geography of the Count of Monte Cristo

The geography of the Count of Monte Cristo is very instructive for a Northern European. This is a mediterreanean novel. The main action takes place in Marseilles, then in the Chateau d'If just off Marseilles, then in Corsica, in Monte Cristo itself, in Rome and lastly in Paris and the sea itself. This may seem a blase comment but its not. The entire book is suffused with the Meditereanean. The last fourteen hundred years have seen most people in the West think about Europe as an entity that centres around the Rhine valley, with its appendages to the West (Britain), the south (Spain), the East (Poland into Russi) and the north (Scandinavia). Our political imagination sees the capital of Europe as naturally Brussels or Strasbourg and its political centre naturally running between Paris and Bonn or Berlin. There are many political and geopolitical reasons behind that: it is a longstanding political fact as well, Charlemagne's empire still rules our imagination of what Europe is.

It is worth remembering that that does not have to be what Europe is, nor is it what Europe meant in the past. For the Greeks and Romans, Europe was the northern shore of the Meditereanean and that northern shore formed a geographical unit with its southern shore- rather than the barbaric swamps of Germany. Gaul was to the Romans a massive armed camp, Britain a massive cold and wet armed camp. For Monte Cristo France leads into Italy and Spain not into Germany and Britain. The English make an appearance as exoticisms: the Count disguises himself as the English Lord Wilmott and uses the English offices of Thompson and French to bank with. But his imagination is of the East: he has a Greek mistress, he has Greek art and Greek music, oriental custom excites him and his friends rather than anything from Berlin or Bonn. Furthermore in a book which takes its characters to the Papal States, Lombardy, France, Spain, Corsica, Algeria and the East: none ever goes north or crosses the Northern seas. One of the reasons to read the Count of Monte Cristo therefore isn't just that it is amazingly fun (though it is) but because its Europe is not the same as the Europe that we all think about.

November 26, 2010

The Postman always rings twice

Reading a book about a story that you have seen and enjoyed on the screen is very interesting. The book brings out facets that you never realised were there. Reading 'The Postman always rings twice' several things come out of the book that are not in the film: the book was far more sexually explicit than the film, take this passage

I ripped all her clothes off. She twisted and turned slow so that they would slip out under her. Then she closed her eyes and lay back on the pillow. Her hair was falling over her shoulders in snaky curls.... She looked like the Great Grandmother of every whore in the world. The devil got his money's worth that night.
The thing though that is most noticable isn't the sex or the violence- both of which are more visible- but the story itself. Postman is about infidelity- Cora and Frank get together and then murder her husband and face the legal consequences of that. In the film this is represented as a blighted love story: in the novel things are different.

Two things are different. The first is the background of the characters. In the film they are a drifter and a wannabe star. In the book, the drifter has prison sentences in at least two if not three states. He is not so much a drifter- a happy go lucky hitcher- as a sinister petty criminal. The route from fights in bars and petty theft to murder isn't as shocking as the route from a good time boy to a killer. The girl in the book is idealist: in the novel, she was a waitress at a cheap resturant and spent 'two years of guys pinching your leg and leaving nickel tips and asking how about a little party tonight, I went on some of them parties'. Both of these characters live in the seedy margins of the law and exhibit attitudes to match: he never seems to want to work or understand what it is to work, their relationship is based on violence. Just as importantly their contempt for her husband is based on race. In the film this is never mentioned, in the novel it is explicit. Cora turns to Frank at one point and says about her having a kid with her husband 'I can't have no greasy Greek child'. This isn't the sole example of her prejudice, again the film shows nothing of this.

So what to conclude. The Postman always rings twice is a far nastier and grittier book than the film. What does this show? In my view it shows a couple of things: firstly of course how the Hays Code made Hollywood much more covert in its approach to sex and violence, Lana Turner's legs are no substitute for what the devil had Frank and Cora do that night. But also I think it shows how Hollywood at a particular point in time moved away from reality: Postman is not a realistic film and the choice to make it not realistic was conscious. The source material is realistic and gritty: racism, the seedy underworld, deception and anger are all present in ways that you do not find on the screen. The book is grounded in a reality, in a 1930s America, complete with slang, vocabulary and attitude: the film is a much more universal thing, it is less tied to a class or a place. One of the things that cinema with its universal aspiration has done through the blockbuster is create or try to create universal languages: when you watch Postman and read Postman you can see that process taking place.

November 07, 2010

The Ghost Rider

Across Europe in the middle of the night, a horse carries a rider and his passenger towards Albania. They pass from Bohemia down through Austria, through province after province of the medieval empire and beyond into the territories of Venice, Hungary and Ragusa until their ultimate destination is reached: Albania. During this ride, they pass from the world of Catholicism- secure in its Germanic and Italian fastnesses- into the world of Orthodoxy. They pass from the Western Empire into the Eastern Empire. They arrive in Albania and the girl, the passenger, dismounts from the horse to tell her mother she has come back, to tell her mother that her brother brought her back. The girl married far away and does not know that her brother- that all her twelve brothers- died before her voyage took place. When her mother hears the news, she screams and both women in shock take to their deathbeds. Whatever happened now resonates through the village to which Doruntine, the girl, has returned and through the wider world, consumed as it is by theological speculation about the nature of life and death and the worship of a resurrected Christ.

We enter this story with the police inspector- Stres. Stres's job in this novel is to reconcile what is irrational and nonsensical with the official narratives of the truth. Stres has to show that whatever happened, several things did not happen. The brother did not rise from the dead and come back to carry his sister to their mother: no mere mortal could usurp the prerogative only granted to the supreme mortal. He has to demonstrate to a village seething with superstition and gossip that everything has a rational explanation: that the world has a reason to it. He has to ensure that in all of this he has regards to the far away Prince of Albania down on the plains. Lastly he is in our position. This story is written about an ancient folktale from Albania. We therefore stand like Stres before a story that we know has been told but we cannot beleive is true: we, Kadare the novelist and Stres the police officer have to understand, have to reconcile what we hear in the tale with what we know cannot be or can be true. Girls do not ride through Europe on the backs of horses with their dead brothers, do they? There must be another possibility- a lover, an imposter, an intrigue of some sort.

Kadare takes us through all of these possibilities and he through his character expresses the view that they are the most probable. They must be right. Yet all the possibilities disappear as soon as they are mentioned. If a man confesses to being an imposter, under torture he reveals the confession is false. If a lover is rumoured, then relatives from Bohemia turn up to deny that Doruntine, the girl, ever had a lover. If the journey is invented, then we learn that those same relatives have evidence that Doruntine set off from Bohemia on one night and we know, through our author's eyes, that she arrived in Albania several days later. At one point Stres goes up to interview Doruntine before her death, his questions rebound off her blank face. In her presence he and we have to believe that what she says is true, that she believed she was riding across Europe with her brother Konstandine. The facts before us, as so often in life, are blank and contradict our theses. Konstandine's grave is disturbed. Doruntine's story was the same in Bohemia as it was in Albania and even tantalising hints, a crossed off word in the note she left her husband, remain just that tantalising and unexplained.

Ultimately all our resources- intellectual and coercive- cannot extract from this story what it means or what it is. Stres with his powers of police work fails to find any rider who came in to Albania with a girl that night and yet the girl is here. Neither the local Archbishop nor the Prince seem able to assist. The puzzle cannot be solved. We cannot do it either- this is not a case in which we know more than the character. Indeed what Kadare does emphasizes how much less we actually do know: we cannot treat the myth as an investigation because we lack any of the sources that Stres has. To investigate the myth we need to create a fictional investigation. The past is blank and looks back to us with a blank face when we ask it whether these things happened or when they did or what they were. Kadare doesn't tell us to give up, he tells us to redirect our energies. This would be an unsatisfactory novel if you wanted to know what happened when the ghost rider took his carriage across Europe into Albania- but there are other subjects worth investigating, worth understanding.

Right at the end of the book, Stres gives a speech about his findings. What he finds he says is not that the girl was lying or any definitive proof of what happened. What he finds is the power of a myth: it was not neccessarily Konstandine who brought Doruntine back to her mother but the power of his promise. He promised a Besa to his mother, a sacred oath, that when Doruntine went away to marry, should she ever be required to return he would fetch her back. Whether Konstandine came back from the grave to fulfill that promise hardly matters besides the fact that the promise was fulfilled. Whoever did whatever they did believed in that promise and enacted what they did as a ritual fulfilment of that promise. We have a hint of who might have done it towards the end of the novel but Stres is clear that that is not what matters. What matters is that the promise became a fact which led to Doruntine's return. What matters is that human action was predicated upon something- something that may or may not be an illusion- but the action and the reactions are not illusions. Kadare directs us to remember the most interesting reflection about folklore and myth is not about whether it happened, but about its power once the story has been repeated.

In that context we can invert everything I have written up until that last paragraph. What the novel shows is not the weakness but the strength of the human imagination. Kadare, writing under communist tyranny, produces a story which shows that even at inception, a myth is more powerful than any intellectual or coercive power deployed against it. This is the reverse of 1984: you will remember in 1984 that Big Brother seeks to wipe out ancient rhymes and rituals (even down to 'Oranges and Lemons'): Orwell imagines that eventually Big Brother will succeed. Kadare argues that it never can and never will.

November 01, 2010

Happy Birthday Bloggingheads

Its the fifth birthday of Bloggingheads. Its a wonderful resource even for those of us outside America- I love some of the diavlogues they have hosted and if you haven't listened, go over there and try something on language, science or American politics.

October 31, 2010

Ronnie Clayton

Ronnie Clayton isn't a person that people seem to have remembered. He was right half for Blackburn in the late fifties. He was captain of the England football team in that period as well, between Billy Wright and Johnny Haynes. He died recently. I don't have any connection with Clayton at all and have no idea of what type of person he was (though by all accounts he was a good man). Save for the fact that I possess his autobiography. Clayton gave it to my father when my father was a teenager in Leeds in the early 60s. I'm not sure what draws me to what Clayton writes. It is definitely a product of a different era: one of the photographs has Clayton and his wife standing in the shop that was his retirement plan. He counsels any young footballer to learn a trade for the inevitable day when he hangs his boots up. Clayton played in the era of national service teams: when conscripted footballers would play for the army in Germany and talks about how tackles in those ugly games could ruin promising careers. The world of Rooney and 500 pound a night call girls seems a long way away from Clayton's footballers in the era before the maximum wage was abolished.

Clayton's autobiography is titled 'A slave to soccer'. What's interesting about that title is the way in which Clayton interpreted it. He like many football professionals believed in constant practice, constant training. Clayton's speciality at Blackburn was long throws and he tells stories about trying to hit the cross bar with a throw from the side of the pitch. His book is filled with accounts of fellow professionals- men like Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards of Manchester United, Stanley Matthews of Stoke and Blackpool and so on. What he does with those pen portraits is not so much to create a sense of the celebrity filled world he lived in: but to create a sense of professionalism. Clayton saw these men as colleagues. I've been reading Max Weber recently and what Weber says about a vocation is very apt as a description of how Clayton saw football. The captain of England viewed football as a craft and saw his career within it as a process of improvement. Clayton in this sense was no different from the other aspirational kids emerging out of Preston at the same time who became lawyers, doctors or foremen in factories: his factory was football.

Clayton therefore was a normal working man. He had to put up with the poison pen letters and the accidental nature of a footballing career: but he also knew he would have to rejoin his more normal generation. So in the biography he talks about buying and running a Tobacconists in Blackburn during the time he was England Captain. When he left football he firstly became a manager- a job at which he did not excell- and then a regional manager for a firm which sold tyres. Clayton the company footballer became Clayton the company man. The point of this is not to disparage him at all: he comes across in his book as a much more pleasant individual to know than a Rooney or a Gerard. It does though throw up further questions. Clayton saw his work as any other aspirational kid from the same period saw their work: he saw it as a vocation, he was a slave to soccer. What's interesting is whether and how that has changed- the work of sociologists such as Richard Sennet suggests that that kind of tie from an employer to employee may be dying: that Weber may need updating for a more flexible world. If so its fascinating to think about how say Rooney's attitude to his work differs from that of Clayton.

The changes in work and the ways that work relates to life effect us all in two ways. Obviously they effect us directly. Less obviously, we all aware that the world has changed. Clayton for me is part of that awareness. By accident, more than perhaps superior players like Edwards, Finney, Matthews, Lofthouse or Revie, Clayton through his words defines for me the footballer of the 50s. Its a world that is prior to Busby (though Busby was a contemporary), Shankly, Revie and Clough: the figures that created the game I watched at the beggining of the nineties. More importantly though Clayton is a natural comparison for me for Rooney and Gerard. He is part of a dimly known and understood past: a place against which the present is measured. In that sense, his relationship to his craft is fascinating, Clayton thought about football as a craft and saw that even for the captain of England a career would end and a new one would have to be created after it finished. Running through his book there is an ideology though- the ideology of a vocation- I think what's fascinating about it is that that idea was not only Clayton's. As Weber argued, it was fundemental to the way that people saw themselves in capitalist society.

After writing this post, I feel slightly apologetic. Stretching a life into the span of an argument feels unfair. Taking a life as an archetype creates dangers in itself: perhaps such dangers are excusable in a blogpost but they are not in the thesis that the post expresses. Its the fate of a historian to be always looking to diminish life into its constants and making an argument from them: for that I can only apologise and hope for some absolution. Clayton is a figure who I never saw play and never met: I have read his biography several times but that is the only contact with him that I have ever had. Still I felt when he died a certain sense of loss, whether appropriate or not, that's where I would like to leave this post.

October 30, 2010

Jane Austen couldn't spell

So Jane Austen couldn't spell. Spelling is an odd issue. Several people today believe they have the right to regulate and to be infuriated about how others spell. For some it is testament to the march of radicalism and the end of reading itself, this is bizarre. Spelling became important in the eighteenth century when the first dictionaries were published. Grammar became important at the same time as part of an effort to latinise English, to give it a formal structure and rules. Its not true that earlier writers couldn't spell or were not interested in those rules, but many of them included varient spellings and many of them did not write in what we would consider correct grammar. Austen was apparantly one of them- Oliver Cromwell incidentally, a fine styllist, was another. The idea that this, as Heffer argues, made either of them a lesser thinker is ludicrous: Heffer himself is not that great a thinker when compared to either Austen or Cromwell. One of the worst spellers and grammarians I know is currently coming to the end of his Oxford PhD!

So what is the point of grammatical correctness? I think it has two points: one is useful, the other baleful. Curiously it is most useful in education. It is useful, for the same reasons as lists of great books, because it creates access to language. Without grammar a kid starting off her education in language and their structures has no structure to grasp. I learnt to read literature by devouring the Penguin Classics: if Penguin and Everyman are the mothers of literary autodidacts, then grammar and spelling are the fathers of linguistic autodidacts. Autodidactism is something we should encourage. The second unimpressive use for correct grammar and spelling is the use to which Heffer and Truss put it. What they are interested in is putting down others, feeling superior and generally ignoring someone else's point because of a misplaced apostrophe. Its the equivalent of school kids in a playground laughing at someone because they wear glasses, and forgetting that he or she can explain something better than they can. A reverence for form is joined here to a contempt for substance: one of the blessed things puritanism has taught me is that the latter is much more important than the former.

Who cares whether something is spelt correctly or where the commas are, so long as the ideas expressed are important or right. Simon Heffer argues that bad spelling implies someone is a bad logician and so rejects any applications he sees for a job on that basis: I'd argue that looking at someone's spelling before their logic suggests Mr Heffer needs to learn a little more about logic!

October 24, 2010

Little Caesar

When you call your film Little Caesar, it means something. You make a statement about what your film is about. Its not about gangsters though that may be its ostensible subject, its not about America though that may its location, its not about the Chicago slums though that may be its environment, its about the world and all that is in it. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's says the Gospel, leaving us in no doubt that what is Caesar's is the world. When Warner Brothers made Little Caesar, they made a gangster film- the type of which with Cagney and Robinson on the books that they made throughout the thirties- but like all Warner's Gangster films the film meant something. The point of the film is to describe the rise and fall of Rico, Little Caesar, as he makes his way out of the gutter and into the bigtime. His progress through the gangster organisation- from the bottom where he holds up gas stations with his friend Joe (a wannabe dancer)- to the top where he meets the big bosses and stands in their offices, dinner suit on and cigar in hand puffing smoke and talking of millions. His desire throughout this, the thing that motivates him, isn't money or girls- that motivates Joe- but is the sensation of power, is being a big shot. Rico's vulnerability is his desire to be a big shot, to be seen, spotted and in control.

That sensation is distinct from the normal attributes of success. Joe becomes a successful dancer, with a wife, but will always be at the mercy of his directors and his wife. He may be successful but he can't order people about. Rico defines success as the ability to control others. Money is almost irrelevant to that. As this article shows in today's context, you can be rich but not in control of your life or the lives of others. The life of respectability is not a life which grants power: it grants good things but not that. This desire for power is linked to Rico's egotism: Rico wants power because he sees the world as something to be mastered, not cooperated with. He desires this because his vision of the world is as a place which men and women attempt to act on, not act in. Whenever he comes up against another gangster leader he tells them that they've lost the ability to take it, though they had it to dish it out: what he means by that is that they've lost the ability to control the world, to remain impervious to it, to resist it controlling them. The only insult that works on Rico is the insult that he too has lost this ability- lost the ability to hold the world at naught. He has no morality apart from independence!

As a film made in 1931 this survives very well. Edward G. Robinson in his prime and Douglas Fairbanks junior carry the film. Robinson's performance captures Rico in all his grandeur, he snarls and moves through each scene with abandon. There have been fewer better gangster actors in the history of cinema than Robinson. The key point about Rico though is how much he is a Robinson character. If you think of the other great gangster actor- James Cagney- he could not play this part, or if he did, he would lose something that made him Cagney. Cagney always had the ballet dancer's poise- when he skips into the car in one film you can see his charisma errupt across the screen. He is the descendent of Sikes and the Dodger, the ancestor of Benny in the City of God. Robinson's character here is much darker and more introspective- the shadows of Capone hang over the performance, the performance hangs like a shadow over the Godfather and Goodfellas, over Pacino and De Niro. Robinson captures something of the reasons that a man might want to be a boss- the film is really about the creation of a boss. Robinson portrays the boss as a stoic gesture, a gesture to become independent.

As the film ends, the gangster lies sprawled on his back like a beetle in the darkness. He cries out to the audience, 'Is this the end of Rico?'. I started with a discussion of politics. One of the famous sayings of Enoch Powell was that all political careers end in failure: all 30s Gangster films had to end in failure for the gangster. Little Caesar does and does not do so: on the one hand there is Rico lying in the dark, on the other he never needed anyone to go with him. The policeman says at the end that Rico and him went on a journey together, actually he lies: Rico went his own way, his was the unsocial sociability that led him to become supreme and alone.

October 17, 2010

What Middle Eastern migration gave us?

One of the odder things about human beings is that we drink milk. Most mammals drink milk when they are babies and as they grow to adulthood they become intolerant of the stuff. That's true even now for some humans. Throughout Europe and the Americas, the Middle East and Northern Africa human beings regularly drink milk- some do it every day as a standard part of breakfast for example. We do this because of a very small alteration to a chromosones which allows us to ingest milk without suffering the consequences. As far as we know, that small alteration means that at least 95% of human beings in Northern Europe can consume milk as normally as anything else. This varies across the world with some African and Asian countries containing populations which are 90% lactose intolerant (source Wikipedia). Why and when did this revolution happen?

The development of milk as a foodstuff is related to the development of agriculture. The key development was the recognition the domestication of animals: if you have cows and bulls for rearing for beef and leather, you can also produce milk from them at the same time. You could not have milk therefore without agriculture. Most historians think that this happened in the last 10,000 years- in Europe it happened at sometime around 7500 years ago. In Der Speigel a fascinating series of discoveries is noted about what happened at that date. The archaeologists argue that a group of people came across from roughly the area of the Zagros mountains (now in Turkey and Iran) and migrated up towards the bospherous and then in stages across into Europe and Northern Europe. The migrating groups brought with them agriculture and in particular cattle- there is evidence of them eating cheese and yoghurt at this point. When they came to Northern Europe though they were able to consume much more dairy produce: the temperature meant that it survived for longer. They also forced out previous hunter gatherer societies and seem to have exterminated them.

I don't know about the credibility of this. Archaeological evidence can often be very difficult to assess, particularly when you do not know the field. It does however throw into relief two ideas which I think are true:

1. That the agricultural revolution was incredibly significant- these scholars contend the development of milk led to child mortality falling (though the article doesn't mention that it probably also led to a falling variety in diet).

2. That the pattern of living in prehistoric times as well as today included vast migration: the idea that migration is only a fact of modern life is a bit like the argument that the earth is flat, its as false. Ultimately we are all mongrels.

It also brings out- hence the title of this post- a third point. The early history of Europe is a history that develops in connection with the histories of the areas around it: with the Eurasian steppe (just think of the waves of Barbarians invading Eastward in the Roman era and realise that they could not have been the first and were not the last), with the Middle Eastern landmasses to the south East and with Africa to the south. Europe has been contested and has contested its relations with these areas ever since and much of what we call European or Middle Eastern or North African is actually an import from one of the other places. An import of course that could stem ultimately from somewhere in India or China, in Nigeria or Zimbabwe. The case of agriculture may be an example- whenever you look at your bottle of milk, remember according to some scholars that's a sign of the Middle Eastern ancestory of European civilisation.

October 11, 2010

The greatness of Roger Ebert

I have a lot of time for Roger Ebert. I was just reading an article he wrote recently about his new book, Great Movies. Two passages struck me as immortal. One is about one of my favourite film makers and a man whose vision I have grown to see as one of the key ones of the twentieth century: Ingmar Bergman. He talks of coming home from his sickness, and

Soon after I returned home I turned to Bergman, who is a filmmaker for thoughtful moods. His new Criterion discs have been restored to an astonishing black and white beauty, and I fell into them. It's conventional to write of "his great cinematographer, Sven Nykvist," but my God, he is great, and I found myself trying to describe the perfection of his lighting. I responded strongly to Bergman's passion about fundamental questions of life and death, guilt, mortality, and what he regards as the silence of God. I'd seen all these films on first release, but now, at an older age, having walked through the valley, I saw them quite differently. Norman Cousins famously found during an illness that comedy helped heal him. For me, it was Bergman.
Again at the end of the essay Ebert reaches a truth about literature, film and history. He says
I believe good movies are a civilizing force. They allow us to empathize with those whose lives are different than our own. I like to say they open windows in our box of space and time.
In Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis says at one point that we read to know we are not alone. Ebert makes the point as well but its a point we all do well to remember, to have repeated again and again. Lost in the prison of our own lonely consciousness, film and books, music and history are things which can reintroduce us to a world which we lose every time we close our eyes.

October 10, 2010

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is notable for many reasons. It was the film in which Catherine Deneuve caught the cinematic camera and demanded its attention, an attention that neither the camera nor her audience have relaxed in during the succeeding fifty years. The start of a career of one of the great French film actresses- up there with Moreau- is something to witness. But the film is more important than that in its own respect. The director Jacques Demy was one half of France's great directorial couple- Agnes Varda, responsible for the restoration I saw today, was the other half and Demy knew what he was doing. The film is set in Cherbourg in the late 1950s and finishes in the early 1960s. It chronicles the life of two young people- Genevieve (played by Deneuve) a 16 year old (in 1957) girl who helps her mother manage an umbrella store in Cherbourg, and her lover Guy, a 20 year old car mechanic, who lives with his aunt and her nurse, Madelaine. The two are deeply in love as the film begins.

The first thing you notice about the film is not the direction or the story, but the colour. The film is suffused with primary colours, with blues and reds and yellows. Deneuve's dresses are amazing- her beauty is framed by wonderful patterns and tones. The town itself seems as though it has been put through a filter, every single stone has its own vibrancy, its own richness. The second thing you notice about the film is that everyone sings. They don't just sing the normal kinds of love songs and duets you would expect (though this for example became popular as one such song) but they sing everything. The first scene of the film takes place in a garage and the mechanic's sing to each other- sing single lines about changing the oil in a man's car or where they plan to go out that evening. Its the only film where I've seen an argument about whether dancing, theatre or cinema are better conducted by mechanics is expressed in perfect French song. At times lines are rhymed. The actor's voices were dubbed by proffessional singers. At first this irritated me, but its done on purpose. Demy wants you to take the colour, take the song and fuse it into something else. He wants you to imagine his world is the world of fairytale. When his characters say they love each other forever, they say it with the earnestness of sixteen year olds but the medium in which they sing, the colours behind them turn gaucherie into golden promises.

So much more impressive as all the promises are broken. Demy wants to present you with a picture you'll believe in, only to smash it. The iron laws of history grind over his lovers. War and pregnancy intervene. Parents urge and though no-one behaves badly or unfaithfully, love cannot be. In the world of the film, just as in Brief Encounter, tragedy is a product not of evil men or women but of evil choices. Deneuve's character becomes pregnant by Guy, he goes to Algeria, conscripted and whilst there she makes a pragmatic choice. She chooses to marry someone else: she knows Guy might not come back, she knows that her mother and her are almost destitute. Life is about pragmatism and survival not grand gestures in favour of principles that only look good drenched in song and colour. The film's position is avowedly cynical. Filmed in black and white, it would be a realist tale of disappointment and sadness: in colour and song it seems a celebration. Really it is a proclamation of pragmatism.

Ultimately as a proclamation of pragmatism, its incomplete. It leaves us watching the screen as it fades to black, the lovers are briefly reunited before obligation tears them apart. Just as in Brief Encounter, we know that they cannot be together but unlike in Lean's masterpiece where the characters wake from love, in this film they part with scorn. Guy resents Genevieve still. Genevieve's life after marriage is left to us as a blank: we can fill in the colours should we like. Pragmatism presents us with a world in which tragedy is inevitable, the product of neccessity but that it has costs. We know that one casualty is any chance of friendship between the lovers, another may be the marriage of Genevieve and her husband. We do not know and the film allows no commentary. As a statement it misses its final clause. We know the choices were rational: but the coda isn't present to tell us how they looked in retrospect.

Without retrospect we cannot ultimately judge.

October 09, 2010

Paul McGrath

I started watching football just as a set of players finished their careers. Players like Stuart Pearce, Gary Linekar, even say Paul Gascoigne and managers like Clough and Kendall were finishing their careers as I started to watch the game. Of that generation of players some like Linekar seem to have managed their retirement well- others like Gascoigne seem to have fallen apart in public and more have faded away into obscurity. Amongst the players that I remember hearing of but never really watched was Paul McGrath, of Manchester United and then (and for me during the only period I saw him play) of Aston Villa. McGrath was a very good centre half for club and country but struggled with drink and drugs during his time in football. For whatever reason, he became addicted to the former and was unable to cope- and published a memoir a couple of years ago (which I haven't read) about the experience of being addicted. He's been interviewed by the Irish Independent about what his experiences since then have been, and he has fallen back into addiction, back into drinking.

I don't think there is anything positive about having an addiction. I'm lucky enough not to have one- lucky enough to have been through school and university without acquiring the need to get hammered or to take drugs. McGrath's situation is terrible. By any objective criteria, he achieved about as much in his chosen career as you can achieve, he played for two of the greatest clubs in the world and was capped several times by his national team, yet reading the article you cannot but sense he regards himself as a failure. To some extent he seems to believe that he will lose his battle with alcohol, that where strikers like Rush and Hughes, Linekar and Sheringham failed, the demon drink will succeed. I don't know the man at all- I pity him from afar but cannot and would not know how to help. What it reminds me of though is the utter destruction that having an addiction can wreak on someone: McGrath will have had all the help that money could buy, presumably he has a vast store of goodwill to draw on and yet even he hasn't succeeded. Perhaps as well the real signal of the fact he hasn't succeeded is the fact that he seems to believe that he can't succeed.

I don't think there is anything unique here to football or to class or anything else: there are plenty of middle class and upper class people in professional jobs who have similar addictions. The reasons people get addicted vary. The reason people lose hope and give up on life vary. I'm not sure what answers there are and I'm sure there are psychological blogs out there who do offer answers. All I'm sure of is the sense of destruction that McGrath's account brings home to me: the sense of waste. Ultimately I wonder how many lives in the UK every year are ruined by addiction, how many people die early because of it and how many die lonely because of it. Paul McGrath hopefully has more chances yet, but his story brings home to me at least how addiction can strike and destroy any life whatsoever.

October 02, 2010


Another wonderful article in the London Review of Books from last week caught my eye recently. It concerned Greek names. A set of classicists have since the 1970s being publishing a glossary of every single Greek name mentioned in a classical source. The undertaking is formidable as it begins with the earliest poetry of Homer and Hesiod if not before, and runs all the way forwards into Byzantium. Its a brilliant idea though as even the list of names tells us so much about the way that the Greeks thought and what they believed in. Names are an indicy of what parents want their children to be. I have my grandfather's middle name for example, reflecting the close relationship between my mother and her father. But its not only family affection that names can immortalise: the famous Praise-God or Unless-Jesus-Christ-had-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone was no atheist and nor were his parents! The LRB article has plenty of examples from Greek literature of this kind of thing.

The other wonderful insight that something like a name gives a historian or anyone else for that matter is a window into another life. History is about people who left records. So for example the most famous Roman governor of Bithynia- Pliny the younger- is so because he left his letters behind to immortalise him. I doubt that many people could name many more governors of Bithynia off the top of their heads. If you like history studies the small circle of those who left records behind them. But there is a wider circle who left fragments of their lives in other's records: so for example Pliny's letters might mention a corrupt local official, we know about him because of that and that alone. There is an even wider circle who left nothing but their name behind them: one of my tasks during my PhD was to try and work out who served in the New Model Army and how they related to each other, you could do that in part from looking at petitions sent in to the headquarters, signed by as many as a dozen or two dozen people, whose names are all that we have left of them. Names therefore are the only thing that signal the intentions of these people and their parents, they are the obscured trace of a fingerprint they left in history.

What names can tell us is always a bit of a guess. Along with all decisions in human life assigning motivation is always harder than it appears at first sight- why did x do y? The only way to assign motive is to look inside someone's head as they make their decision, and sometimes even that as Michael Frayn warns us in Copenhagen might not be enough. So when we look at those finger prints, the contours are faded, the texture is eroded, but we still have something from their lives to try and learn about the past from. The fascination of history is its incompleteness, we don't know why or often when or what things happened, we only guess in an educated fashion: we grope in the dark towards the past and occasionally our hands hit something, like a Greek name in a letter.

October 01, 2010

My son, my son what have ye done?

There is a murder. A son has killed his mother. He has taken two hostages inside the family house and is holding them at gunpoint. Nobody knows who they are. Outside the police are gathered. They negotiate with him. That is the setup of the most recent Werner Herzog film. All of this is told to you in the first ten minutes of the film and from there on in, assisted by the protagonist's girlfriend and his friend, we observe the police detective in charge of the case being taken through the protagonist's psyche as he wound himself up to the murder. Herzog's film has his own touches- flamingos, ostriches and dwarfs on Shetland ponies chased by mutant giant chickens- but the storyline is not complicated, though it is suspenseful. At the centre of it is the murderer Brad and his psychology.

So what are we told about Brad? He went to Peru, came back and was according to his girlfriend never the same again. He was out cayacking with his friends and they came down a river and everyone died, save for Brad who inspired for some reason decided that he would not join them. His sense of that saving animates him throughout the rest of the film. Whatever God saved him, that God is what enthuses his every action: that voice in his head, the God of the box of Puritan Oats, instructs him in how to live and what to do. This peculiar notion is central to the film: we cannot say it definitely caused his mother's death, we can say it was this mindset that enthuses everything he does. Ultimately the instruction for his mother's death was received from this voice. We see him act bizarrely even scarily, he is unwilling to admit to any constraints imposed by society. He cannot see that the fact that a house is not for sale and that he has no money precludes him buying it. He cannot see that he sounds odd and strange, he has his belief and that belief is a truth that ultimately means more to him than anything else in the world. Wondrously Herzog manages to draw on both the sense of religion as the ultimate social impulse (what could be more social than another presence inside your brain) and also the ultimate lonely one.

Two things fit into this psychological perception. The first out of which the murder arrives is his relationship with his mother. She is overbearing and strange- a Lynchian confection (she reminded me instantly of the Eastern European woman from Inland Empire)- she is protective and irritating. She forcefeeds her son jelly, turns up without knocking inside his room whilst he is in there with his girlfriend and basically treats this thirty year old as though he were a kid. The second is that Brad, during this period, is an actor. His friend is his director. The play that he acts in is famous: its the Oresteia. This series of plays chronicles the return of Agamemnon from Troy to Mycenae. At his return, the Great King was murdered by his wife and her lover. His death is avenged by his son- Orestes- who murders his own mother and then is pursued by the furies to Athens where the case is judged by the Athenian citizens and Athena herself. The point of the Oresteia in this film is to do two things- to give Brad a text but also to suggest that violence lies behind somewhere in the shadows. The family of Orestes were known for their brutality: the House of Atreus included Tantalus who fed his own son to the Gods, Pelops who slew his father in law, Atreus who boiled his nephew and then Agamemnon. Violence lies at the heart of any comparison of a family to that of Atreus- what we wonder happened to Brad's father?

The Oresteia though is more than a parallel. It and his mother's behaviour and whatever happened prior to the film are texts which Brad then uses. He believes in these texts as surely as a fundamentalist believes in the Quran or the Bible. He takes these texts and asks them what do you tell me to do. The high rhetoric of the Greek play, the low ribaldry of his situation, the dark musing of his mind come together to a point of certainty and clarity. A point we might say of insanity. His insanity is of a peculiar kind. He sees the world in a particular way and fits his experiences, scarily, into that framework. The point about this is that it is mad but no more mad than anyone who believes in a truth which leads them to see the world askew. It is evil because of its consequences- murder- but also because of the disregard for others that Brad manifests. Brad does not check his religion with sympathy or empathy, for him God is God, truth is truth and that is all Brad wants to know. Brad's charisma draws others to him: it is why I suspect his girlfriend stays with him. More confused humans come towards his certainty. The sophisticated director sees its aesthetic possibilities but not its profound immorality, like Foucault before Khomeini, he sees that the structure is profound but not that it is murderous.

Always though in the film we come back to Brad, the murderer. He shows us that the world is infinitely plastic. That it can be shaped and deformed by a thousand new attitudes and stories. Everything we know about Brad we are told about him by unreliable narrators. Quite possibly he has no rational account of what he does, but what he does proceeds from an emotional take on the world- a take which is informed by Greek tragedy and his own emasculation. More importantly though its a take on the world which is born out of his sense of having been saved all those years ago, using that as a foundation, incorporating bits of mysticism and religious text, not to mention the text of the Oresteia and his own situation, he commits matricide. The film is less a comment on the unknown murder than on the psyche that preceded it. If Herzog dances along the line in film between sanity and insanity, then its to inform us about our own natures. We too can shape the world in wonderful and terrible ways that have nothing to do with reality, but the consequences can be dire.

September 28, 2010

Oppenheimer Brothers

Brothers are in the news at the moment for some reason- I'm sure its the potential of Anton Ferdinand to play with Rio at some point that's the real reason why they are up there. But its interesting in that sense to look at potentially one of the greatest pairs of brothers in the 20th Century- Robert Oppenheimer and his brother Frank. The older brother Robert was a famous and successful theoretical physicist, he led the project to design the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and became Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. His career was marked by tragedy and the old tale of his failure to surmount slurs he was a communist and his bureacratic checkmate by Edward Teller have been told too often for them to be rehearsed here. The key thing about Oppenheimer was that after his fall and the scandal he never really produced the great work of physics that he could have done, he was less than the sum of his talents. His brother Frank was also a physicist, Robert despised his intelligence- Frank was an experimentalist rather than a theorist- but ended up founding a great American museum.

The contrast is well developed in Steven Shapin's essay in this week's London Review of Books. Ironically Shapin notes Robert ended up in an institution without students but with Professors, Frank founded an institution that aspired to make everyone a scientist but in which noone was a Professor. I think the most interesting contrast was in their view of science. I remember a friend once telling me that you couldn't understand anything about physics unless you had been a graduate in it: strictly that is probably true and Robert Oppenheimer would have agreed. For him knowledge seems, from Shapin's review, to be something only experts could claim. He made the difference between the expert and the non-expert vast: this point of view is shared by those who believe that experts are wonderful and horrible because it assumes they are different and beyond the sight of anyone else. Frank's view was much more participative: science could be diffused and could become a way of changing society. Anyone might be a scientist so long as they adopted a scientific attitude- you might not understand Feynman diagrams, but you could still be a scientist if you agreed with experimental data.

Frank's perspective seems to me to be much healthier and is really the way I think about knowledge. Knowledge is not about exclusion: you can know more or less about a subject but all knowledge has a value. Furthermore there is a distinction between knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge is not the attribute of a particular group of people, its a method. You can be further forwards or back in your understanding of the method and the amount of evidence to which you have applied it but in principle the method is the same. Therefore the separation between the kid with his chemistry set and the chemist in the field isn't that they do different things or that the kid is doing something ignorant, but that the chemist has just done more.

September 26, 2010

Danton's Death

Half way through Danton's Death, some of the actors in the play mounted the back of the stage and sung out the Marseilles over the audience's head. The theatre of politics, a black fringed stage, the actors standing like tribunes of the plebs at the back and the music was awesome: you could feel in that moment the absolute power of what happened in France between 1789 and 1799. This series of events and those that came afterwards (Napoleon, the great conqueror of Europe, the afterthought) have convulsed the world ever since. From the great liberal powerhouse of California to the Shanghai shack in which the Chinese communist party started, our world has been inspired and revolted by the events of those ten years in France. There are few periods in history whose resonances are as profound: the American Revolution is perhaps the only other such episode in the eighteenth century that had such tumultuous consequences for the world. Putting all that on stage is not easy, it is not easy to imagine that the wooden O at the National can indeed hold the vasty fields of France or that within those walls monarchs fall, the guillotine splatters blood and the masses splutter for aristocratic death.

Danton's Death attempts to do that. A play written in the 1830s by a German romantic it concentrates on the figure of Danton and his rivalry with Robespierre in the early 1790s. The play represents Danton as a man worn out by revolution. He had led the crowds demanding the King's execution, he had led the crowds demanding the September massacres- but for Danton revolution had an end. He believed that at some point the revolution stopped, that perfection might not be acheivable and that at some point stability was preferable to another cycle of blood. In the play Danton is represented as believing in revolution as a process that achieves an objective and then can cease: like a factory production line that can stop when the car has rolled off the other end. He loves women and wine- we see him clutching at girls and bottles- his allies are perfumed and pumped full of the joys of life. They too share his sense that revolution cannot and should not imperil normal human lives- that it had to go so far, but that it should not go further.

We contrast that vision of revolution with Robespierre's vision. In the play Robespierre first arrives on stage to declaim about terror and virtue. For Robespierre revolution is not a means to remould the system in which men live, but to remould men themselves. Robespierre believes in virtue, disdains the fleshy vices that Danton revels in. Danton's wife contemplates towards the end of the play whether she could save her husband by offering her body to Robespierre's pleasure, but rejects this possibility. The incorruptible is incorruptible and wishes everyone else to be so. Consequently he is quite willing to use terror to create virtue: he is quite willing to execute so that everyone will execute vice. Revolution is not a process to a goal but a process that will continue to the end of time. As human beings are probably not perfect, Robespierre's revolution never ends and whatever he says, he does not mean it to. He is for himself the creator of virtue, for others he is the expression of pain- as an ally of Danton says, the poor have only their pain and a scream which slashes down upon someone's neck.

Two visions of the French Revolution are presented to us- a revolution to help mankind or a revolution to cure it. The play expresses this with dialogue- constant speaking. Almost nothing happens- there are two set pieces the one described in my opening lines and a later one at the end of the play and between them, nothing. This is a play about words and as suits something written in the Romantic era, the words are flowery and often wonderful. One character derides another for example by saying 'he thinks its cool to be a compost heap', another will comment on how death reminds him that human beings are 'Plato's leather bags'. Historical references are flung in as though everyone knows who Hebert is or why Lafayette mattered, what the Girondins were and what the difference between the Club Jacobin and the Club Cordeliers was. That isn't a problem but the play is long and to listen for so long is difficult. These words situate the play at a turning point, or what Buchner the author, thought was a turning point.

I'm not sure that you need to buy this historical analysis or that Danton represented conservatism and Robespierre radicalism in this context to use or understand the play. I think the key point here is the different revolutions; any revolution which seeks to change the condition in which people live is ultimately distinct from one which changes the nature of the people ruled. The latter is a totalitarian ambition, whether clothed in the language of rightwing virtue or leftwing charity, the former is the language of humanitarianism. The play allows us to develop another distinction: what Robespierre argues for is to diminish the value of liberty, to tell someone they should change and you will force them is to deprive them of their liberty. Naturally a modern audience recoils: but he is the more virtuous of the two main characters- Danton is a fornicating drunk who argues for liberty, Robespierre a purist who argues for virtue. There is a lesson in there.

Overall the play is more interesting than entertaining- the performances especially from Robespierre are good but it is hard to keep focussed, especially given the fact that not all of us know our Desmoullins from our St Just. Having said that, the points the play makes are interesting and important. The debate between Robespierre and Danton goes on on both the right and left and has done ever since, a consequence of the development of the modern state, it is not over and I suspect will survive both this play and this reviewer.

September 25, 2010


This is a wonderful setting of Gershwin. As an expression of the city, Raphsody in Blue is probably the closest music can get, to put it to a cartoon like this is pure genius.

September 20, 2010


Alamar opens with two voices, it closes with a city. What fills the time in between is the dignity of cliche. Alamar is about a situation. A young man and woman meet abroad, they fall in love, marry, have a child and then fall out of love. He wishes to stay in his rural idyll. She wishes to return to her city. The child spends time with both his urban mother and his rural father. Alamar focusses upon the father. We see young Natan the son have a shower and pull on his t shirt and swiftly he heads out from Rome, where his mother lives, to the coast of Mexico where his father lives. What he finds there is enchanting. His father lives upon a house on stilts in the middle of the coral reefs. Every day he goes out fishing, diving into the coral reef and spearing lobster and crab and fish and bringing them up to the shore. His father and grandfather dive into the water, swimming underneath it into the reefs themselves (the excuse for some amazing photography). Alternately they sit upon the side of the boat reeling out lines to bait the fish, dragging them in and occasionally clubbing them on the head. This is a world in which a crocodile lives outside the front door and birds walk into the living room.

There is a point here- and its pretty obvious. It might be about male bonding and it might be about the importance of the country and sea over the City. Actually the point is a cliche- but the sea itself isn't. It is endlessly fascinating. Neither is the relationship between father and son. This is handled sensitively. The two bond on a physical level. They playfight. The father corrects the son for winding up the fishing line. The son is allowed to hawl in a fish with adult guidance. He is taught how to take his first tiny steps towards diving. He is cautioned from being eaten by a crocodile. He brings water with which the men wash the boat. Fathers and sons can bond over fishing in a way that they can't over accountancy or law. That point is obvious but the acting, the little touches are far from obvious and much more interesting than that broader point.

Ultimately a film does not have to be about much to be worthwhile. There are all sorts of other problems here: the equation of mother equals boring, father equals exciting, the idea of a community without women. It did not matter to me in the end as I was watching it. The camera loves the open spaces of the Mexican coast. It captures the sunlight shimmering across the sea. It captures the meticulous scraping of the scales off the fish carcasses, and the creation of fish stew which looks so good you can almost taste it from the back seat of the cinema (this like the famous prison dinner scene in Goodfellas is not a scene to watch when you feel hungry). We had a major debate afterwards in the party I went to if the stew was as delicious as the fried fish and tortillas which you also see being made. But its watching the stuff being catched which is extraordinary- these human bodies twisting and turning amidst shoals of fish, lobsters retreating into the coral. Ok its romanticised but still its beautiful and impressive.

I don't claim much for Alamar: apart from this that its a great vision of a life. Its about small touches between the boy and the man and the seascape around them. Its the only film I think summed up by Douglas Adams- so long Alamar and thanks for all the fish!

September 19, 2010

Augustine's relegation of politics

When I went to Oxford to study for a degree primarily about political history, we were told in our first week to read the Bible and given an exam on it at the end of Fresher's Week (while most people were making friends and getting drunk in Fresher's Week, Gracchi and his mates were sitting in the library learning Leviticus!) Christian politics is something that we all know- from Constantine to Benedict and Sarah Palin, the Church and its believers have sought to guide the state in its deliberations about what is and is not moral and what is and is not legal. Looking backwards the story of Christian interraction with politics is a fascinating one and ranges across a vast range of political possibilities, from the utopian radicalism of the Baptists in 16th Century Munster to the fierce reactionary spirit of Joseph de Maistre in 19th Century France and Russia. But there is also an equally strong tradition of Christian anti-politics: it has its roots in the Bible when Christ tells his disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, unto God what is God's.

Augustine's own views of Christian imperium are laid out in the 5th Book of the City of God. He describes the generic Christian Emperor thus:

We do not say that certain Christian Emperors were happy because they ruled for a longer time or because they died in peace and left sons behind to rule as emperors or because they subdued the enemies of the Commonwealth, or becaues they were able to avoid and supress uprisings against them by hostiel citizens. For even worshippers of demons... have deserved to receive these and other gifts and consolations of this wretched life.... Rather we say they are happy if they rule justly; if they are not lifted up by the talk of those who accord them sublime honours... but remember they are only men' (V 24)
Augustine's model of Emperor is that of a saint- a man who did not have earthly gifts but who was 'slow to punish and swift to punish' (V 24), who exhibited private Christian moral qualities. This is key to the way that he views politics- politics is a place for exhibiting private virtues. As an activity it does not actually matter: Augustine says that for the security and morals of most men it matters little 'that some men should be conquered and others conquerors' (V 17)- it does not really effect who will go to heaven and hell. The whole purpose of life is eschatalogical and not political: and the purpose of rule is to demonstrate ethical values which are directed towards salvation not to ensure security or stability. God might intervene to help the Christian Emperor, as he did Augustine says help Theodosius (V 26) but Augustine also notes that 'God removed [Christian] Jovian far more quickly than he did [pagan] Julian' (V 25).

Augustine's view of politics is that it is secondary to the chief object of human life- salvation. Politics matters on a personal level to the Emperor but Augustine is unconvinced that much changes below the imperial level (perhaps this is a product of living in a pre-welfare state society). Even when eulogising Theodosius, he comments that

These deeds and similar ones which it would take too long to recall, are the good works that Theodosius bore with him from this temporal life where the greatest of human attainments and exaltation is but smoke. The reward of these works is eternal felicity which God gives only to those who are truly Godly. All the other things in this life, be they great or small, such as the world itself, light, air, earth, fruits, the soul and body of a man himself, sensation, mind, life; all these things he bestows upon good and evil men alike. And among these things is imperial sway also of whatever scope (V 26)
Augustine offers no Christian prescription to keep a throne, makes no direct policy prescriptions save for be good and advance Christianity because ultimately these things do not matter. They are merely smoke. The thing that matters is salvation, politics is strictly secondary and may even by encouraging a lust for glory be an immoral activity. Whether the Diggers, Benedict, De Maistre and Palin agree, I'm not sure: but what this definitely represents is a relegation of politics to the second division of human concerns.

September 12, 2010

Tony Manero

Tony Manero opens with a queue. The queue to get into a talent show contest where Chilean TV in the 1970s will select the best Tony Manero impersonator- for those who don't know Tony Manero is the name of John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. Our 'hero' Raul is one of the characters queueing to take the floor, but he has arrived a week too early having got the date wrong. He therefore has to return back to his squalid room and his own dance troup (consisting of himself, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's daughter and her boyfriend). The film focuses in on Raul- an unpleasant man who beats to death old women in order to acquire their TVs and who casually murders as a means to achieving his own desires. His desire is to be the best Tony Manero impersonator in Chile: therefore he murders his way to a set of glass bricks to insert on a stage above flashing lights, he murders a projectionist who switches from showing Saturday Night Fever to Grease, and he defecates on the white suit of a rival impersonator. This is man as a moral abyss: his focus is purely upon becoming the best Tony Manero impersonator there is.

The film is set in the Chile of General Pinochet. I make no comment on the accuracy of the film to this period of Chilean history, I do not know enough about it. Allende is but a memory and not mentioned in the film. Opposition whilst possible invites police attention and in the end brutal torture. There is an immediacy to life: none of the characters in the troup have a long term plan. They think about escaping their situation or Chile, but none of them move and all of them anchor such dreams on the unrealistic prospect that Raul cares more for them than he does for Tony. What we have here is a casualness about life and the world. Raul exemplifies it with his murderous tendencies, incidental to a Beejees song. The other characters share this though- they might strive against the regime but fundementally they live their lives for the moment. This derives in part from the fact that none of them have much to live for: the house is dirty, the dance troup shabby, Raul is a dictator and their lives are inching towards the grave. There is something Hogarthian about shabby sex in dirty rooms and feeble impersonations. The Chile of Pinochet is represented here as murky and mundane. Perhaps this is most evident in the streets strewn with stones where the police seem able to create fear but not safety: Manero murders with impunity, only opposition activists distributing newspapers are in danger.

This is fused with the world of celebrity and capitalism. This is a world in which character is driven by commodity. Raul wants to be Tony Manero. His world is impoverished, the culture of the dance troup is vitiated by the world of Hollywood. Raul neglects the Chilean and the interesting for the American and the banal. This tale has been told before in cinema from the 40s in Europe to the 2000s in Latin America, the tale of the American empire of culture that means that we are all truly Americans, is one that's been retold and retold again and again. But the truth is that we are all Americans of a certain type and Raul is not a countryman of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allan Poe: where America's culture runs from top to bottom, from thought to entertainment, Raul creates out of entertainment a philosophy where none exists. He models his life on what was supposed to be a diversion: mumbling in the dark the words of John Travolta he treats the amusement of an idle hour as though it were holy scripture. Empty and filled only with this aspiration, Raul is in truth the most boring of men and the most boring of characters. The fascination of the film lies in the fact that everyone else seems obsessed by this idiot.

Is this what dictatorship and celebrity do? Turn a world of interesting people into a city a boring ones: confine horizons, alter moral consciousness and change the world to make it smaller, drabber and dirtier. There is more here than a purely political comment: Raul thrives in Pinochet's Chile and maybe is an avatar of the dictator himself, but he would be a psychopath in any society. The difference maybe that it is only in dictatorships that he would survive. Like a bug, Raul thrives in the wet and the dark, and dictatorships are wet with blood and dark with censorship. The poverty and poverty of aspiration aids him. At the bottom though this is not a political study, but a study of a psychopath- a man for whom ends outweigh means. A man with a cult- a cult of celebrity- in this case Travolta but it might be a footballer or a Big Brother heroine- its just the same. Raul is a monster- and you feel dirty after watching this film, contaminated by its dankness- equally it is only in the nightstreets of Babylon that monsters can thrive!

September 05, 2010

The Illusionist

This review contains spoilers.

We misuse the concept of tragedy in human life. Tragedies like Macbeth are about crises- something that happens that drives everyone to disaster. One minute the world is stable and the next through a tragic flaw and a sudden set of decisions, the world careers off into a darkened path. Those tragedies tell us a lot about the world and the nature and vulnerability of human life: but they are not the tragedy that faces most of us. Most of us won't have a tragic flaw that creates war between nations- we don't have tragic flaws that are completely irredeemable either. Most of us are flawed but Othello and Macbeth act upon a greater stage. Our tragedy is not that often but its what Konnie Huq describes here, its growing old, and feeling pain and suffering slowly unto death. Age itself is no tragedy, people age well and gracefully- just see John Pocock. However the wrenches of age are something we all have to, hopefully, face. Children leave, someone cleverer comes along at work and someone who can contribute more energy, fashions change, the world moves on.

The Illusionist is about the transition from one world to another. A magician lives in Paris and moves to follow his work. His work is declining though. Who wants to go to a magician when you can go to the Beatles. So the Illusionist- M. Tatischeff- moves over to London. His show closes there and various other shows collapse. He goes up to the North of Scotland through a series of accidents and eventually ends up in an inn there. He does some tricks and the crowd is more appreciative- but in particular one little girl believes in his magic. She believes his tricks are correct. He leaves the island to return to Edinburgh. She follows him, leaving home. He therefore becomes in a sense her father and in Edinburgh we see a series of charming moments in which father and daughter bond over the city and the experience of being in it. She slowly learns how to be a city-girl. He has some success and finds in the other acrobats and show people some solidarity. So you see a relationship evolving- a concern evolving between two people and the way that Sylvain Chomet films this concern developing is beautiful.

So what happens then is the film returns to its poignancy. The magician becomes ashamed of his lack of ability to provide for the girl, for his quasi daughter. His relationship with her is complex: she is slowly discovering his limitations and he finds that process difficult and disturbing. He finds his pride affected by that. Its another symbol of the way that the world seems to be moving on. Furthermore towards the end of the film she discovers someone else- she becomes located in Edinburgh, he still remains a flitting presence for whom Edinburgh is a location rather than the location of his life. This film is therefore one of the saddest you'll see and there are moments which reflect that universal tragedy of time passing. Chomet gets the mixture right: the Illusionist is losing his world- the world of the music hall- but he also has this personal separation from his quasi daughter.

You'll notice I've not mentioned a single actor- that's because there aren't any. Furthermore there is very little in the way of voicing- there are some words but they are in French or Gaelic. They don't really matter- the words are just sounds rather than meaning anything. Chomet draws so well that his characters act, appear very credible. You feel the film is magical- there is a magic in the animation that anyone adult or child can get. The animation is good enough though that the actions, the gestures make sense as actions or gestures. Its powerful both because its animation and because you forget its animation- because these characters matter to you as well as being mythical. Each character, even the minor ones, is captured. For example at one point an American in a white suit comes on to the screen, his casual arrogance is captured to a t from every part of his spotless white suit to the flashy smile he brandishes. Chomet captures Edinburgh brilliantly as well- there is one particular scene on a street corner which gave me a moment of deja-vu. I am sure I have been on that street corner and can remember it exactly. Edinburgh is portrayed as a traditional city, there are other parts of the city to see and this is a chocolat box Edinburgh but on the other hand, it has never been as beautifully animated before. The beauty of the city aids the spirit of poignancy in the film: Chomet makes wonderful use of the lighting and shade in his filming and it adds to what he wants to tell us.

What is that? I think there is something important here about ageing, the process of the world changing and the sadness of losing a career or a world that you inhabited easily, along with losing a child to the world they have grown into. The last shots of the film are about the acceptance of that process by the lead character. Sadness and poignancy does not mean that life has ended, but that one type of life has passed on and another form starts. So the film really offers us the poignancy of ending, but towards the end it shows the new lives on offer to its characters.