Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Syrian Job

I gather you've been in lndia for two years, sir.
Yes, shooting tigers.

You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir.
Yes, I used a machine gun.
I often think of The Italian Job when we're driving through the mountains just to the north, between where we live and the border with France. We go there in our VW Transporter van, or our Nissan Micra, rather than a Lamborghini, so we take the bends more slowly and less smoothly than Rossano Brazzi does in the opening credits. But the feeling is much the same, that once you're there, you're up and away, unbothered, on your own apart from the very occasional cars that come past the other way. The snow comes into view and Matt Monro comes with it, smooth as the sweep of Brazzi's Miura.

No harm can come to anybody here, it seems, as long as they stay on the road: and that's what makes the end of the scene so jarring, when the car enters the tunnel and runs into a JCB parked at the exit. I can remember seeing the movie as a kid: I was impressed with the way the broken car rolled right the way down the mountainside and into the river.

The other jarring thing about the sequence, is that however great, it doesn't fit the movie that it opens, a caper movie with comedy Italians outwitted by comedy Brits. It's not so much that Brazzi's ride ends so abruptly: it's that neither the carefree mood of his drive, nor the suddenness of his death, make a proper match with the sudden appearance of a bunch of clowns in black hats standing on alternate ledges while another clown rolls a wreath (why?) into the river. It's as if the opening was a trailer for a film different to the one that was actually shown.

I've not actually seen the film in many years, not all the way through, though I've seen bits and pieces, dubbed into Spanish, a couple of times in hotel rooms on the Paramount Channel. I can't imagine what the Spanish make of it, whether they know who Noël Coward is or care what he's doing in prison, whether they give a monkey's (si les importen un pito) if those three lads in Union Jack helmets driving Minis get away from the police through the Turin sewers, or whether they have any interest in unpicking what is patriotic flagwaving, what is ironic reference to the same and what is both at the same time. Presumably people have the same problem with James Bond.

The subtext of the film is of course that Britain won the war, even though Germans in the movie are thin on the ground (although Rossano Brazzi's character is called Roger Beckermann, and the novelisation of the film featured German as well as Italian gangsters). Still, we beat the Italians as well, and the one thing we all know about our history is that we won the war. We even knew that in the playground - we used to parade round chanting
We won the war!
In nineteen sixty-four!
which especially amuses me, now, given that one thing I do in schools is to give a talk about the first moon landing, which the kids - aged ten to twelve - may place at any point in the last century or even the previous one. The film itself is set in 1969 - the football match portrayed was a friendly that England won 1-0 - and England could still feel they were the best team in the world, even if they had only been third in the previous year's European Championships, also held in Italy. As it turned out, that was the last time England finished ahead of Germany, West or united, in an international tournament until they were third to Germany's fourth in Group A in the European Championships thirty-two years later.

I first watched the film as a child and you have to, really: it's a childish film, but a good one if you watch through eyes that should be old enough to know a little bit better. Troy Kennedy Martin scripted and came up with one of my favourite exchanges in cinema, reproduced  above. It was all childish fun and games back then. Gangsters were only comedy gangsters and if the heroes didn't win in the end they didn't actually fall off the edge of the cliff. But a decade and a half later Kennedy Martin would close Edge of Darkness with a terrorist attack on NATO, and one of which the viewer is expected to approve.

It was much simpler back when it was all about us, and the fact that we'd beaten Hitler. Everybody knows that we beat Hitler, and that as much as anything may explain why it is always Hitler who is invoked whenever we are considering fighting anybody else. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, whether it is the death cult Hitler or the dictator Hitler fighting them or the other Hitler who is fighting on the same side as the second one.

I imagine we could go in easily enough, if we have to (which they will probably have to, though they say that they will not) and drive the death cult away from the centres of population whose people they have spent the last two years persecuting. And then, there they will be, with Assad and Hezbollah to the west of them, the Russians and the Turks to the north, the Iranians and Iraqis to the east of them and the Saudis to the south, but all of these - and the people they are giving arms to - mixed in together and either allied to or fighting one another. And what will happen then?

What will happen is that David Cameron will turn round and say to us:
Hang on a minute lads. I've got a great idea.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Swimming to the caliphate

No-one could really figure out how something like that could have happened.
I must have seen Swimming to Cambodia pretty much when it came out, in 1987. I think I actually saw it before I saw The Killing Fields, which had come out three years earlier and which you probably need to have seen in order to make Swimming to Cambodia entirely comprehensible. The Killing Fields itself is about destruction and mass murder in Cambodia - which may not be entirely comprehensible at all.

You can try, though. It's an Enlightenment thing: part of the long project of freeing us from the spell of superstition and the yoke of religious authority was, and is, the insistence that all things are subject to rational explanation, that the allied powers of reason and scientific investigation can ultimately provide us with explanations. It's permanently a work in progress: never completed, like Paul Valery's art, but unlike that art, never abandoned unless we choose to do so.

We can abandon it. We can opt for unreason and most people, on one level or another, choose to do so: the number of people who care what is true is nearly always smaller than the number who do not. We mostly fit our facts to our opinions, like we were choosing curtains to suit a room already painted. It doesn't make us killers - much of the mass mechanical killing of the twentieth century, of which the murder of Cambodia was one of the final acts, was carried out by people who thought they knew the truth, and many of the victims were people who had lived happily and harmlessly without concerning themselves too much about it.

You don't have to opt for reason. But you can try.

There's a passage I remember - in the sense of remembering being struck by it, rather than remembering it like a poem that I once learned for recital - in Swimming to Cambodia. It's not the one below, though the one below is striking too.

The passage I remember describes how the Khmer Rouge became the thing it did, paranoid beyond all understanding, industrial in nothing but its means of committing and recording murder. It's recorded thus on IMDB: I'm not sure they have it down completely accurately but I don't have the original, or the text, to check against. It may be close enough. I like it as it is.

It doesn't insist on any single given explanation for the Khmer Rouge. It doesn't shy away from ideology
an education in Paris environs in strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau
nor even the role of the apparently inexplicable, of a form of madness we can describe as evil
including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America
but nor the element of what happens to people if you subject them, for years, to pitiless and extensive aerial attack.
Five years of bombing.
Five years of bombing. That was the thing that we contributed. That was the thing we did that we didn't need to do. And if we are looking for explanations, and we leave that bit out, we leave behind any chance of arriving at an explanation.

But we don't have to look for explanations. We can talk about the Khmer Rouge simply as a death cult. And we can talk similarly of ISIS. A fascist death cult, if we wish. There's a lot of it about. Here's Chris Riddell, a fine illustrator of children's books if a mediocre political cartoonist, calling ISIS "a murderous death cult" in a cartoon with a headline The plain truth about ISIS. (I feel guilty italicising it. You probably shouldn't italicise anything so plain.)

 I don't know if the headline belongs to the cartoonist, but murderous and death cult and even plain and truth are better terms than the. What is this the? There is no the.

But there's a lot of this particular the about. Its authorship is claimed by Michael Burleigh:
Attacks like these almost always result in the deaths of the perpetrators, for both Al Qaeda and Islamic State are 'death cults' (a term I coined).
I'd want convincing that the claim is valid, though I'd not begrudge it, since previously Professor Burleigh's only contribution to our intellectual life of which I was aware was his role as an arse-kisser to Niall Ferguson. So why not? Give him credit for the term, the main function of which is not to illuminate its subject but to assure us that all the light we need has been shone already. ISIS is a "death cult". More than that we do not need to know.

And hence we do not need to worry that we might be doing the very thing we do not need to do.

At the end of the clip above, Gray says this:
I get very confused. And Roland Joffe came to me and said "Spalding, I hope this film has taught you that morality is not a movable feast".

I get dizzy. Cause I keep seeing it moving all the time.
That's one way of looking at it - if we accept that there are ways, more than one, of looking at it. Or we can opt for certainty and the knowledge that what we're speaking of is beyond all reason, either ours or its own.
Listen, and understand. It's out there. It cannot be bargained with. It cannot be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

It's true, in a film. And that strategy works, in a film.

So let us therefore hope this is not real life. Let us hope that this is actually a film.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Fighting at a funeral

I had a fight at a funeral once. Not really a fight, just a bit of tugging and pulling. I'm not proud of it.

The funeral was my grandfather's and my antagonist was my father. I'd not seen him, save one occasion, for about thirty years. Not talked to him either, save that same occasion. But this was his father's funeral, or rather, the reception at the Legion afterwards. I was avoiding him, he didn't like it and finally he came up to me and said something that he shouldn't. He walked away, I walked after him and pulled him round and said something back I probably shouldn't have either.

I couldn't tell you exactly what - and it doesn't matter what. I could tell you what I think of him: I could tell you he's a louse, and why. But I can't really do that, having told you I was fighting at a funeral. I'm already in the wrong. I'm a louse.

Because you can't fight at a funeral.

I used to think that what you thought, and what you said, was the most important thing about you. I'm built that way, or I turned out that way. It's a view that probably appeals most to the opinionated - and that's how I am. But it's not a stupid view. Ideas have consequences. What you think about other people, how you think they should be treated, has consequences for those other people. A political opinion is not always a private thing in the sense that a preference for pop rather than classical, for league rather than union, for belt rather than braces is. It needs to be defended. Which is to say, from time to time somebody has to challenge it.

But there are times, and there are challenges, and there are ways and means of making them.

The argument about Paris started as soon as Paris happened. I don't blame anybody in paeticular for that. Nobody started it. The arguments are there in front of us whether we choose to make them personally or not. It's an argument we've been having for the last twelve years or so at any rate, apologists on one side and warmongers on the other. You can't avoid it. You can't go on the internet and avoid it.

But you don't have to raise your voice about it. Because raising your voice is fighting. And you can't be fighting at a funeral.

Now nothing I say about Paris matters. And I don't really have any business liking anything about Paris or anything relating to the massacres in Paris. But in so far as "like" is the proper word - and this is all about words, and whether they are properly expressed - I did like the passage here:
the command to not politicise means to not make someone’s death about something else: it's not about the issue you’ve always cared about; it’s not about you.
You can say things, You can look for contexts and you can disagree with other people's contexts. If you want to say that the meaning of murder isn't simply murder, you have to say so and you have to be allowed to say so. But the meaning of murder is death, and death is a time for proper words, spoken in a proper tone. We understand that. We understand the seriousness and sacredness of death. It's why we have funerals, and why we do not just speak and behave and dress just as we please at a funeral: because it isn't about us. And it's why we do not fight at funerals.

Because death is about the people who have died. It's about the people who have lost them. But it's not about you. It's not about your quarrels. If you make death about your quarrels, you insult the dead, regardless of what those quarrels are and regardless of whether or not you are in the right. It doesn't always matter if you're in the right.

Of course if somebody says something that you think is out of order, you can say so. Once. You can do it once, and then you're on the record. Exchange of views. It involves a certain degree - not too much - of etiquette. You don't have to respect your adversary but you have to respect the people who hear you and the situation in which you are speaking.

After that, it's a fight. After that, what you're trying to do is give someone a chasing. And that's a process that is always about you. You, the righteous one. You, the issuer of condemnations. You, the righter of wrongs. You, the crusader.

So while it's perfectly in order to say that Stop The War sent a stupid, idiotic tweet, you don't go chasing after them, after they've withdrawn it, so you can shout about it. That's just carrying on the fight you were already having. And that's fighting at a funeral. That's making it about you.

And while it's perfectly in order to say that John Rentoul issued a petty, nasty tweet, you don't go chasing after him, after he's apologised, to shout about it. That's just carrying on the fight you were already having. And that, too, is fighting at a funeral.
Dr Borkenau has performed a feat which is very difficult at this stage for anyone who knows what is going on in Spain; he has written a book about the Spanish war without losing his temper.
We have been losing our tempers for a dozen years now. And that has been a dozen years of funerals.

I'm not even-handed, in my outlook, in my opinions, between the people who do not want to pursue war and people who think that it's the best course. One of these sets of people frightens me and the other - usually - does not. I'm definitely on one side of the argument. But I'm even more against having that argument, in the form of an argument, and using the funeral parlour as the background.

We are talking about death. And we're probably talking about much more death. You do not raise your voice where people have died. We've had enough of raised voices in plain sight of death. We've had enough of voices that are always raised. This is an argument that needs to stop being a fight.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The struggle of forgetting against memory

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.

- Randolph Bourne
I remember the first time I watched the poppy ceremony. I was still at school, although off sick that day, or reckoning I was, and hence in front of the television in the morning when the ceremony was shown. I'm guessing it was 1982, since that was the year of the Falklands War, which along with the anti-nuclear sentiment of the time had made me a very anti-militarist teenager.

So when petals fell from the ceiling of Westminster Abbey, each single petal of the avalanche representing a life lost in the First World War, what I saw was not just the loss of life it symbolised, but the people on whom the leaves were falling. The great and good, the holders of power, the makers of decisions, the people in whose interests, as I saw it then, were responsible for all the death among which they were seated. I see it much the same way now.

One reads an image in one's own way, not always the way in which it is intended, and I read it as a scene covered in blood. I say the first time but I'm not sure that I've seen the ceremony since. Nor have I been able to wear a poppy. I don't think I've ever worn once since, although I wouldn't sign my name against that claim. But basically, I don't wear a poppy. It's something I don't do.

I've never talked about it much, because I've never been asked about it much. It's not something that I've asked other people not to do: it's something I don't do myself, just as I don't go to McDonald's and I don't send Xmas cards. Matter of fact I've probably had more conversations about Xmas cards than I have had about poppies.

But then again I emigrated nearly ten years ago. I don't know that I've been in Britain, in November, for a decade. I'm glad about this, because I don't want to have arguments about poppies, or be put on the spot because I do not wear one. From this distance - perhaps from the viewpoint of mostly viewing my home country through a screen, it often seems that not wearing a poppy is no longer a private matter. It is a choice that you have to defend, one that you need to justify to others. It is a suspect political act.

Well, the internet magnifies what is often very small, and people are not always such arses to you in person, but the militarism that has overtaken Britain over the course of that last decade isn't such a small thing. Militarism in the sense of an instinctive and perpetual keenness to engage in war and an equal keenness the motives of people whose instinct is the opposite. But the kind of militarism, too, which loves soldiers, which venerates mlitary uniforms and the people wearing them.

My own football team started holding a Military Day. Why? What has that to do with anything? What are uniforms and soldiers to do with watching yellow-shirted players trying to kick a ball into a net? It says
the club fully supports the work that our military personnel do around the world
which is very far from my opinion, but why does it come into it either way? Is this normal, nowadays? Have I been away so long? Did they do this back in the days of the Falklands War? They didn't, of course. But war was not so normal then.

I didn't miss a home game at that club for more than ten years. I think I'd probably miss these ones. Or maybe just stop going altogether.

Still, it's a small thing, to miss a football game, even if I didn't always think so. Worse things happen in war. And I am not there any more, and places, countries and football clubs all change in your absence. I do not have to worry about poppies in November. In Spain I can look at poppies without any associations that I didn't get from Monet. They do not stand for anything. I am not obliged to have an opinion.

Poppies don't stand for remembrance here. Matter of fact, nothing stands for remembrance. In Spain, the rule is not remembrance, but forgetting. More than the rule, the law. And more than to forget, but to be forbidden to find out what you have never known. The location of the bodies of your family, the place they died, the names of the people who ordered they be killed. The denial of funds to find and investigate mass graves. The refusal to discuss the country's recent history. The silence about guilt. In Spain, uniquely in Europe and illegally in international law, crimes against humanity committed in that very country may not be legally redressed.

It is the opposite, but the same. It says, as does the poppy bullying: this is done and settled, this is the account of history that you must accept. For sure, the consequences are different. To be denied the knowledge that you seek is not to be hounded or harrassed, though which is worse depends on what it is you need to know. But either way the effect, the deliberate effect, is to prevent the asking of questions that people need to ask. And either way the beneficiaries are the partisans of war and uniforms and the sort of people who make it their business to hound their fellow-citizens.

There are reasons. Reasons for forgetting what people wish had never happened, as there are reasons for remembering what should never have taken place. But you see things in your own way and you remember them the same. What I remember is seeing the poppy ceremony and hating it. I read the image in my own way. I read the way that it is used. And I hate it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Preaching of the converted

There is something quite particular about spending the second half of your life taking revenge on the first.1
At one point earlier this year I thought all my epiphanies had come at once.

There was a moment when several people I knew, on various different levels of know, seemed simultaneously to be passing through the phase, particular to middle-aged people with a background on the left, of deciding that the people with whom they'd previously marched were wrong, and wicked, and that the time has come to denounce them.

I'm not so fond of this, although I can imagine doing it too, given the right circumstances. The reasons are always good. As these typically involve examining some act of horror and the refusal of one's comrades to act on it, to see it the same way, to give it the seriousness it merits, they're more than good enough.

There's never any shortage of material for this particular script - so long as one looks at the material in a certain way - and never any shortage of volunteers to play the role, to agonise over their choices, to conclude, regretfully, that the time has come to make their confession.

So yes, I might get round to it myself one day. Until then, what bothers me is not that I think this crowd are wrong. It's not the wrongness or the rightness that's the problem. It's that they're fools.

Who says they're fools? They do. They do by their own account.

By their own account, they're fools. There's nothing wrong with that, since there's no road towards wisdom which doesn't start with understanding that you've been a fool. But you don't stop being a fool like that.

When I say that by their own account, they're fools, of course I'm in the realm of the implied. I'm reading between other people's lines and interpreting them in a way they would not recognise. I'm saying you are not the thing you say you are, which is of course what they do - and I said I didn't like what they do. But let me have this one hypocrisy, to make this single point.

If, by your own account, the people you have been working with are anti-Semites, totalitarians, apologists for racism and modern forms of fascism, antidemocratic, hateful and the rest....

...and for years and years you never noticed this, even though by your own account it had been staring you in the face at every moment...

then I'm afraid you are a fool. An idiot. A person who could not see what was in front of them. A halfwit.

Very much a fool.

Not a particular fool. We're all of us fools, in our own stupid ways. It's just that if I said to a newspaper, that up to now, everything I had done in my specialised field had been wrong, that I had completely misunderstood the nature and reality of everything that I'd been working on, they probably wouldn't offer me a weekly column on the subject.

This is an unfair point, for sure, because it neglects the struggles with conscience, the inner turmoil, the weighing-up of loyalties, the humming and the hawing and all the agonising which may have taken years to resolve - as the accounts, since there are nearly always long and personal accounts, nearly always take trouble to make clear.

The reason I neglect them is that I couldn't care less about them. They're important to the people concerned, but not to me, because they mistake the start of a process for its end. You don't cease to be a fool by saying "I've been such a fool".

Nor do you cease to be a fool by shouting about your conversion from foolishness, less still by shouting the opposite of what you used to shout, in the direction of the people with whom you used to shout it.

Better to learn that it's shouting that's the problem. Better to contemplate, appropriately quietly, that a period of silence on your part would be welcome.

Lord, they have so little self-awareness, for people who are keen on talking about themselves. When every event in politics, domestic or international, becomes a platform on which you place your cannon, to fire off another salvo, you may or may not inflict damage on your enemies. But what you're certainly doing is making too much noise.

There isn't too much to be learned from anyone who sits in a bar every night, pulling every stranger over to their table and telling them for hours all about the wickedness of their ex-wife. There might be much more to be learned from somebody who after their initial turmoil and distress, goes away, thinks over their experience, takes years over the process and then, tentatively and provisionally, thinks they might know more than they once did, both about themselves and about the institution of marriage.

They wouldn't shout about it, that's for sure. But you'd be much more likely to listen to them speak. It wouldn't be particularly what they had to say that made the difference. The key would be their way of speaking.

That's the sign of somebody who's actually learned from their experience: that they change themselves, or just as likely, find that they have changed. They reflect more than they did. They are more generous in their judgements. They come to conclusions with much more reluctance, if they come to them at all. They do things differently now. And they are disinclined to condemn other, younger people, for making the mistakes that they once made, for not learning instantly the lessons that they themselves took half a life to learn.

That's the real point, that there's no wisdom in shouting "what a fool I've been", only in understanding that you'll always be a fool. Nor is there any peace to be found in shouting about the people who have wronged you in the past: no itch like that is ever scratched to satisfaction. No grudge is ever settled, unless it goes away of its own accord. You never are at peace, until you understand the only fault that matters, in the end, lies always with yourself.
Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for a phony peace with the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation.2
Here endeth the lesson. This lesson, but not the lesson you hear from the same pulpits, every week, on each succeeding Sunday. The preaching of the converted, all trying to save us from their former selves.

[1 Edgar]
[2 Deutscher]