an alan smithee war

Watch out, this starts off being almost insultingly elementary, but then gets complicated and probably even self-contradictory quite quickly.*

*a perhaps necessary note; “Allan Smithee” is a pseudonym used by film directors when they wish to disown a project

Countries, States and religions are not monoliths and nor are they sentient. They don’t have feelings, aims, motivations or opinions. So whatever is happening in the Middle East isn’t ‘Judaism versus Islam’ or even ‘Israel versus Palestine’, any more than “the Troubles”* were/are ‘Protestantism versus Catholicism’ or ‘Britain versus Ireland’.

* a euphemism, which, like most names for these things is partly a method of avoiding blame – as we’ll see

Places and atrocities aren’t monoliths either; Srebrenica didn’t massacre anybody**, the Falkland islands didn’t have a conflict, ‘the Gulf’ didn’t have a war and neither did Vietnam or Korea. But somebody did. As with Kiefer Sutherland and Woman Wanted in 1999 or Michael Gottlieb and The Shrimp on the Barbie in 1990 and whoever it was that directed Gypsy Angels in 1980, nobody wants to claim these wars afterwards. But while these directors have the handy pseudonym Allan Smithee to use, there is no warmongering equivalent, and so what we get is geography, or flatly descriptive terms like ‘World War One’, which divert the focus from the aggressor(s) and only the occasional exception (The American War of Independence) that even references the point of the war. But, whether interfered with by the studio or not, Kevin Yagher did direct Hellraiser: Bloodline just as certain individuals are responsible for actions which are killing human beings as you read this. Language and the academic study of history will help to keep their names quiet as events turn from current affairs and into history. Often this evasion is done, perhaps even unknowingly, for purely utilitarian reasons, but sometimes it is more sinister.

** see?

As the 60s drew to its messy end, the great Terry “Geezer” Butler wrote lines which, despite the unfortunate repeat/rhyme in the first lines, have a Blakean power and truth:

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses

Black Sabbath, War Pigs, 1970

There is something sinister and even uncanny in the workings of power, in the distance between avowed and the underlying motivations behind military action. Power politics feels like it is – possibly because intuitively it seems like it should be – cold and logical rather than human and emotional. It doesn’t take much consideration though to realise that even beneath the chilly, calculated actions of power blocs there are weird and strangely random human desires and opinions, often tied in with personal prestige which somehow seems to that person more important than not having people killed.

Anyway, Geezer went on to say:

Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor

Still Black Sabbath, War Pigs (1970)

And that’s right too; but does that mean Butler’s ‘poor’ should take no responsibility at all for their actions? In the largest sense they are not to blame for war or at least for the outbreak of war; and conscripts and draftees are clearly a different class again from those who choose to “go out to fight.” But. As so often WW2 is the easiest place to find examples; whatever his orders or reasons, the Nazi soldier who shot a child and threw them in a pit, shot a child and threw them in a pit. His immediate superior may have done so too, but not to that particular child. And neither did Himmler or Adolf Hitler. Personal responsibility is an important thing, but responsibility, especially in war, isn’t just one act and one person. Between the originator and architects of the Final Solution and the shooter of that one individual child there is a chain of people, any one of whom could have disrupted that chain and even if only to a degree, affected the outcome. And that degree may have meant that that child, that human being, lived or died. A small thing in a death toll of something over 6 million people, unless you happen to be that person.

As with the naming of wars and atrocities, terms like “genocide” and “the Holocaust” are useful, especially if we want – as we clearly do – to have some kind of coherent, understandable narrative that can be taught and remembered as ‘history’. But in their grim way these are still euphemisms. The term ‘the Holocaust’ memorialises the countless – actually not countless, but still, nearly 80 years later, being counted – victims of the Nazis’ programme of extermination. But the term also makes the Holocaust sound like an event, rather than a process spread out over the best part of a decade, requiring the participation of probably thousands of people who exercised – not without some form of coercion perhaps, but still – their free will in that participation. The Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder’s famous saying,  whosoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world is hard to argue with, insofar as the world only exists for us within our perceptions. Even the knowledge that it is a spinning lump of inorganic and organic matter in space, and that other people populate it who might see it differently only exists in our perceptions. Or at least try to prove otherwise. And so the converse of Hillel’s saying – which is actually included in it but far less often quoted – is Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. Which sounds like an argument for pacifism, but while pacifism is entirely viable and valuable on an individual basis as an exercise of one’s free will* – and on occasion has a real positive effect – one-sided pacifism relies on its opponents not to take a cynically Darwinian approach, which is hopeful at best. Pacifism can only really work if everyone is a pacifist, and everyone isn’t a pacifist.

*the lone pacifist can at least say, ‘these terrible things happened, but I took no part in them’, which is something, especially if they used what peaceful means they could to prevent those terrible things and didn’t unwittingly contribute to the sum total of suffering; but those are murky waters to wade in.

But complicated though it all is, people are to blame for things that happen. Just who to blame is more complicated – more complicated at least than the workable study of history can afford to admit. While countries and religions are useful as misleading, straw man scapegoats, even the more manageable unit of a government is, on close examination, surprisingly hard to pin down. Whereas (the eternally handy example of) Hitler’s Nazi Party or Stalin’s Council of People’s Commissars routinely purged heretics, non-believers and dissidents, thus acting as a genuine, effective focus for their ideologies and therefore for blame and responsibility, most political parties allow for a certain amount of debate and flexibility and therefore blame deniability. Regardless, when a party delivers a policy, every member of that party is responsible for it, or should publicly recuse themselves from it if they aren’t.

The great (indeed Sensational) Scottish singer Alex Harvey said a lot of perceptive things, not least and “[Something] I learned from studying history. Nobody ever won a war. A hundred thousand dead at Waterloo*. No glory in that. Nobody needs that.” Nobody ever won a war;  but plenty of people, on both sides of every conflict have lost one – and, as the simple existence of a second world war attests, many, many people have lost a peace too.

*Modern estimates put it at ‘only’ 11,000 plus another 40,000 or so casualties; but his point stands

But the “causes” of war are at once easily traced and extremely slippery. Actions like the 1939 invasion of Poland by the armies of Germany and the USSR were, as military actions still are, the will of certain individuals, agreed to by other individuals and then acted upon accordingly. You may or may not agree with the actions of your government or the leaders of your faith. You may even have had some say in them, but in most cases you probably haven’t. Some of those dead on the fields of Waterloo were no doubt enthusiastic about their cause, some probably less so. But very few would have had much say in the decisions which took them to Belgium in the first place.

The buck should stop with every person responsible for wars, crimes, atrocities; but just because that’s obviously that’s impossible to record and even if it wasn’t, too complex to write in a simple narrative, that doesn’t mean the buck should simply not stop anywhere. Victory being written by the winners often means guilt being assigned to the losers, but even when that seems fair enough (there really wouldn’t have been a World War Two without Hitler) it’s a simplification (there wouldn’t have been an effective Hitler without the assistance of German industrialists) and a one-sided one (it was a World War because most of the leading participants had already had unprovoked wars of conquest). But does the history of Western colonialism, the treatment of Germany by the Allies after WW1 and the dubious nature of the allies and some of their actions make Hitler any less responsible for the war? And does Hitler’s guilt make the soldier who shoots a child or unarmed civilians, or drops bombs on them any less responsible for their own actions?

Again; only human beings do these things, so the least we can do is not act like they are some kind of unfathomable act of nature when we discuss them or name them. Here’s Alex Harvey again; “Whether you like it or not, anybody who’s involved in rock and roll is involved in politics. Anything that involves a big crowd of people listening to what you say is politics.” If rock and roll is politics, then actual politics is politics squared; and for as long as we settle, however grudgingly or complacently for pyramidal power structures for our societies then the person at the top of that pyramid, enjoying its vistas and rarefied air should be the one to bear its most sombre responsibilities. But all who enable the pyramid to remain standing should accept their share of it too.

So when you’re helplessly watching something that seems like an unbelievable waste of people’s lives and abilities, pay close attention even if you don’t want to, because the credits at the end may not tell you who’s really reponsible.




a portrait of the author as a young arse




early attempts at writing (and drawing)

Between the ages of 19 and 21, I wrote a series of notes (the longest is about a page, so somewhere between a sketch and a mini-essay I guess) that made up a kind of summary of my worldview at the time. At this point I don’t remember why I wrote them, but I’m sure it wasn’t for its own sake; they were probably things that were to be “boiled down” and processed and incorporated somehow into poetry, strange though that sounds. From an early age, I always wanted to write. The first things I remember voluntarily writing are simplified versions of the kind of fantasy gamebooks that were then hugely popular with kids. The Swords & Sorcery series (more about that by one of the other authors of the series here) emulated Steve Jackson and Ian Livinstone’s Fighting Fantasy single-player role-playing game books pretty shamelessly but were a lot of (complicated) fun to write, though few of them were actually finished. These were followed by (and/or parallel to) various short horror stories, but in the long adolescence that seems to have lasted in my case from 15 until 25 or so, I mostly wrote poetry. It’s fair to say that it was not good.
The notes though, are fun.

They cover a range of topics – politics, religion, aesthetics, social issues, ecology, the monarchy – and are exceptionally embarrassing to read. But interesting too, because although I do of course remember being 19-21, I otherwise only have the distorting mirror of my own memory to go by, and my own taste in music, books etc, which give a kind of connection to ur-me. But these notes are pretty much what I thought, expressed to the best of my ability (or thereabouts). They reveal some interesting things I had not realised about my younger self. Although I generally did fairly well in English at school, I now see that my spelling was quite erratic (especially on words ending in -itely, which I always wanted to make -ately, like ‘definately’) and that I must not have learned the it’s/its rule until later. The pieces are typed, on an actual typewriter as I didn’t own a computer at the time, which was not actually all that strange then. More to the point though, by that age my always-terrible handwriting had deteriorated to the point where I myself found it hard to read things I had written after any length of time had lapsed. The socio-political/geographical background to the notes was the bitter, tail end of the UK’s thousand year Tory Reich that I grew up in. Thatcher had by then gone, but the evolution/mutation into the Major era had made very little difference, except insofar as John Major himself was vastly inferior as a hate figure than Thatcher had been.

It’s funny; the arrogance and certainty of youth is well-known, but I am very surprised to find it in myself. I have rarely met anyone less sure of themselves or more reticent than my late-teens/early-20s self, but that doesn’t really come across at all, except in a few deliberately self-deprecating caveats, and there’s an infuriating cockiness to some of the writing that I not only don’t identify with, but really detest; what’s mortifying is that I was genuinely trying to think deeply about the issues I covered so shallowly. Oh well, I hope I wasn’t actually that obnoxious in everyday life, but who knows? (anyone who knew me). On the other hand, my actual views don’t seem to have changed as much as I would have expected. I was more of a libertarian, albeit a left-wing one then, perhaps a bit more pessimistic, but on the whole I would still find myself on the same side of most of the arguments I am making, which is reassuring.

I don’t intend to transcribe very much of the writing here because I can’t bear to, mostly, but here’s a synopsis of the contents of the documents and there will be a couple of more extended examples below that illustrate how much/little/comically times have changed since then (the mid-1990s)

I don’t know if these were ever in any order, but here’s what I have:

“Classic Myths” – examining, in very little depth or detail, how things become “classics.” It ends with the question (re. literature) “how many great works have disappeared into the mists of time due to personal taste or political, religeous [sic] or moral qualms on the part of the academics of the past?” At this point I was reading the long out-of-fashion (and out of print) poetry of Robert Southey which was, to be honest mostly pretty hard going – but I was determined to like his early, pro-revolutionary work from his ‘Pantisocracy’ days with Coleridge, and I did, when I could find it anywhere.

“The Eye of the Beholder – One” This was me complaining about how Hollywood/popular culture/fashion were making standards of beauty ever more bland in a diminishing returns/vicious circle kind of way. Its exceptionally snooty tone was coloured by the fact that I was discovering the movies of the silent and pre-Hays code era and my own personal objects of desire were people like Louise Brooks, Joan Blondell and Marlene Dietrich. Sample of tone: “Sadly this means that when a certain actor or actress is in a hit film, similar actors and actresses will appear in similar films and so on and on, to ever-diminishing effect, until a new trend (snowboarding and dark hair, perhaps) transforms the screen for a few months or weeks(…) this ever-growing supply and demand for something familiar makes it hard for original voices to be heard, or any kind of innovation or talent to gain an audience.😬

“Religion Crazy” – This is pretty much what you’d expect from an atheist teenager, full of such blinding revelations as “Religion has often looked to me like a cunning scheme invented by some ancient tyrant to keep the peasants in their place” and, even better, “intolerance of religion and the religious is a vice I magnanimously allow myself to indulge in.” My own lack of belief hasn’t changed in the slightest since the days when I used to look around the room during the morning recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at Primary School, to see who else had their eyes open. But I though I don’t necessarily disagree with him (and actually am him), I don’t really feel much kinship with the writer of these lines, or especially his tone, now: “Am I to believe in a petty, small-minded god who creates something only to punish and destroy it? Maybe in a bored or indifferent god, as is suggested by its (had to correct it, sorry) conspicuous absence in the last few centuries. Perhaps it is more interested in ants than people, and appears to them all the the time.

“Sexuality and Children” Luckily I was aware even then that this was an alarming and “rather dodgy” title, but essentially it was about the debate then ongoing about gay parents adopting children. My attitude (as with many of my then-attitudes) was essentially a slightly shaky but very teenage libertarian one: who is entitled to tell other adults how to live their lives? “Aside from (fairly ridiculous) superstitious quibbles which can be disregarded at once, (by me anyway) there is no reason on Earth why it is the business of any but those directly involved.” I still think the same thing, more or less but again the tone is, to be kind, insufferably annoying.

“Not Winning isn’t Losing” – politics, kind of. Contains nuggets like “My ideal political situation is unworkable (…) (it) amounts to well behaved anarchy.” But again, I still believe parts of it, despite painfully naive bits, like “The impossibility of a left-wing political ideal does not mean it is hopeless – indeed the opposite is true. Because it can never be attained, there would always be a working towards it – the lack of destination would improve the journey. The effect of a constant working towards a state of freedom and equality would inevitably lead to and ever-improving state of more freedom and more equality – which can not be bad.

“Books” – this is funny, so I’ll write about it in more depth later

“Power Crazed”  This is one single line, which I hope isn’t true: “There can never be a good Prime Minister, because Prime Ministers are people whose ambition is to rule the country.

“Limits” – an excruciating piece about nationalism/patriotism and so forth, in which our author pompously concludes “As far as I’m concerned, I find it absolutely impossible to feel either proud or ashamed of anything that occurred completely beyond my control – race, sex (I guess I meant as in gender), sexuality – or where I was born.”

“Money” – a blindingly obvious revelation that the idea of money is, when you look at it, kind of silly. “Why is gold a valuable metal? Presumably because it looks nicer than other metals, and there is less of it.” etc, etc

“Tripping on the Catwalk” In which I make my ignorance about the fashion industry obvious, and which includes the bizarre statement that “its nearest relative is perhaps the academic world of the university. It is completely self supporting, untouched by recession, mainly due to the fact that it is run by bored rich people for bored rich people.” I am now fairly sure that this isn’t 100% true. I also predicted “an eighties-style big shoulders revival (though with a nineties twist of course) before the turn of the millennium.” I don’t remember if that happened or not, but it’s happened since then.

“Royalty at the End of the Millennium” – Oddly, this is one of the longer pieces. As it’s as topical in the new reign of Charles III as it was then (?) I’ll deal with it later

“Part(l)y Politics One” Despite the parenthetical ‘l’ this is pretty much about party politics. In short; the Conservative Party is contemptible (“I have to assume some right-wingers are intelligent, though I have seen little evidence of this”). But I also seem to be saying that because conservatism is based on the fear of change and the desire for stability, plus an array of standard human failings; ignorance, fear, confusion, greed etc, it will always appeal to a large part of the population.

I theorise, not entirely inaccurately, about a pattern that I hadn’t then seen in action and which I later saw parts of in action – because Conservative governments appeal to the worst in people, they REALLY have to mess up before they get voted out. So therefore, any prospective left-wing government will spend a good deal of time un-wrecking the country, with consequent hardships. The public and opposition will naturally blame those in charge for those hardships, the problem then becomes that a progressive party gets voted out, but the incumbent right wing party inherits a country on the mend, which they take credit for, before ruining everything again. That’s not exactly how Tories – Labour – Tories played out in our time but it still feels plausible and at least not untrue.

“interlude” – between the two “Part(l)y Politics” pieces there’s a short kind of non sequitur in which I claim that the politics of the left, taken to their furthest extreme (i.e. ideologically, rather than in real life) is “a nice, if unworkable idea based on equality and human rights” while the politics of the right taken to their furthest extreme is ”at best an extremely nasty and distressingly workable idea based on hatred, repression and manipulation.” Not sure I agree with either of those statements now, though I think my heart was in the right place.

“Part(l)y Politics Two”in which I complain that the Labour Party (and by extension any party of “the workers” is hopelessly compromised by a system in which becoming an MP is an ordinary middle class career choice, rather than being a kind of glorified shop steward. This was the Neil Kinnock/John Smith/Margaret Beckett era and I complain about the same thing that every Labour-voter-by-default has complained about ever since: that Labour in opposition try too hard to be all things to all people, appeal to Tory voters, are middle-of-the-road and inoffensive rather than truly progressive etc. It’s all very pessimistic: “We can only hope that this [middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness] is a sort of ruse to gain power, whereupon the new and hopefully forceful, idea-led Labour Party will throw off its current greyness, the spectre of past success and failure and emerge as a strong socialist party for the twenty-first century (…) The conservatives ‘accuse’ the Labour Party of being the same old socialist party underneath. This seems sadly unlikely – we understand socialism to be a system based on fairer distribution of wealth and of equality etc etc – the Labour Party does not seem to be offering this. We will vote for them, because there is no one else to vote for.

“Opposites Attract” – this is a self-pitying whine about how “the plain or ugly are naturally attracted to the good looking, the handsome, the beautiful. The good looking, the handsome and the beautiful are naturally attracted to the good looking, the handsome, the beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but few beholders’ eyes will want to linger very long on the truly unattractive person.” I actually wrote this stuff down.

“Inhumanity” Here it is: “’Man’s inhumanity to man’ is a phrase used to describe acts which are definingly human. What other species would (or could) have had the atomic bomb, or the holocaust? It is a deceptive and cowardly phrase.” Well alright then.

“Food Philistine” – A strange and very silly short piece in which I discover that my attitude to food (though I had “no aversion to it”) was “the same as my attitude to sleep – if I could do without it, I would.” I don’t feel that way about either food or sleep now, really and until now I didn’t realise I had ever felt that way.

“Money, money, money” In short, class = wealth. The problem with Britain is (I seem to be saying) that the upper class control the wealth of the working class while the complacent middle class are indifferent as long as they are comfortable & therefore provide the upper class with a comfortable mattress to insulate them from the should-be-revolutionary consequences of their greed. It may be true?

“The Eye of the Beholder Two” – this time it’s all about how I prefer brutalist architecture to old churches etc and prefer the “drab emptiness” of municipal parks, deserted backstreets etc to epic, panoramic landscapes. Nowadays I like all of those things.

“Responsibility” A “pro choice” rant that, I’m glad but surprised to say, reads exactly like the social media posts of ‘pro choice’ people in the last few years – it begins “The anti-abortion lobby, for all their rhetoric about the sanctity of human life, seem to disregard entirely (and with great relish) the quality of human life. Indeed, they seem to enjoy inflicting misery wherever they go.” And it ends with the even more 2020s-ish: “To the anti-abortionist, the human being is only a human being until it is born. After that it is not their problem.” I was right then and still am now: yay me.

“Censored” In which I get on my high horse about the right to watch violent horror movies: “When I hear that a member of the British Board of Film Classification has embarked on an orgy of violence and mayhem using a chainsaw, I will begin to believe that film violence has an effect on the viewer (if it happens twice.)” I DO think it has an effect on the viewer – actually, I hope it does, or why even bother? Disturbing things should be disturbing. But my views on censorship (if no harm is done in the making of it then who has the right to say an adult shouldn’t watch it) are pretty much the same. I probably believe in ‘classification’ and parental responsibility more now than I did then though.

“A Fair Day’s Pay…” Manual workers should be at the top of the pay pyramid as their work is harder and more necessary, but pen pushers are in charge of wages etc so it’ll never happen, he seems to be saying.

“Animals” A very dubious piece in which I query the relative value of human beings and other animals, slightly in favour of other animals, or at least not in favour of us humans.

“Power Corrupts – Small time” Power corrupts – this is an indisputable fact,” I say – but is it? Anyway, my premise is that dictators are bad and all, but for really corrupt power you have to look at school teachers and small-town police officers.

“Grown Men and Women” – Me, moaning about sport

“How to Spoke Proper” – In short,“speaking properly” (in the UK sense) is a classist fantasy based on the random fact that the BBC happened to be founded in the south of England. This may or may not be true.

“Rules of Attraction” – “Sexuality has nothing to do with morality,” he says, “I am attracted to members of the opposite sex because I was born this way – so if I saw a member of my own sex who looked like a member of the opposite sex in a way that I found attractive, I would naturally be attracted to them, for as long as they looked like an attractive female. I do not see how there can be anything wrong with this, or any variation of it.” This sounds like an argument with some lurking real-life subtext, but to the best of my knowledge now, it wasn’t.

“The Sea” – it’s about the sea, which I apparently felt very strongly about. I still love the sea but can’t imagine writing very emotionally about it.

“Philosophy”As an atheist is there any more logical philosophy than to live a life of pure hedonism? I seem to conclude not, but for me at the time this was a purely hypothetical question

“Against Nature” –  Here it is in full: “Humankind is natural, as much a part of nature as anything else on the planet. Everything humankind does is natural. The worst it can do (selfishly speaking) is to kill itself off, which in a universal sense, would be no big loss.” I was in some ways a very standard teenager I guess. Joy Division was probably my favourite band at that point

So, here are the more extended bits.

Firstly, I’ve chosen “Books” because it is the one that most amusingly makes the 1990s seem like it was a million years ago. My main argument is that though people were (as they always seem to have been) predicting the death of the printed word, books are unlikely to be replaced by anything else. But let young Will explain it, as his Nostradamus-like powers of prediction don’t seem to have anticipated the Kindle. More strangely, he does not seem to be aware of laptops, didn’t they already exist in the mid-90s? Surely! To be fair to him though, “we” still prefer a book to a kindle or tablet which I can’t stand using unless it’s the only way to read something.

Anyway, the death of books will not happen, he says, because…
They are convenient, we [he often calls himself ‘we’] cannot imagine taking even a small computer on a train or plane, or to the beach or on holiday in our suitcase – though this may be possible in the future. We like to go back a page and reread something, whilst[!] keeping our place on the page we have reached. We like the thought, whether we actually do it or not, of being able to read Wordsworth in the mountains of the Lake District – we feel that a keyboard and a screen would take away a rather large part of the romance of this.”

Royalty at the End of the Millennium” is fun because it’s surprisingly still topical (up to a point) and begins by saying things, far more grumpily, that I probably still think. I’ll transcribe as much of it as I can bear, with the faulty punctuation and repetition intact because the tediousness is part of the fun. Still, it’s odd and a bit alarming to find a UKIP-ish tone intruding re. the funding of the Royal family, even if I thought I was playing Devil’s avocado (as I might have said) at the time.

Why do (how can) people like the Royal Family? I don’t know. What is even stranger than this affection is the public liking one member of the family, and (apparently randomly) not another. ‘Fergie’ seems to be disliked for acting like any normal person suddenly coming into a huge amount of money i.e. spending it. People who claim to dislike her because of affairs etc seem to forget or dismiss the affairs of (practically all) other family members.
People liking (or even loving) Princess Diana is one of the biggest mysteries of our age. The myth of Diana as a beautiful woman started before the Royal Wedding and continue to this day. Are these people blind? Do they really believe it? Are they just trying to sell newspapers or cash in on Royal memorabilia? Who knows? The fact is that she is an average, ordinary-looking woman in her thirties with a large nose, large chin, and even larger amount of money to make the most of what she has with.*  (The reader may be forgiven for assuming that the writer of these words must be very handsome, to stand in judgement of other peoples looks – this is certainly not the case – but I do not have a media conspiracy trying to convince people that I am).
More seriously (and it is a serious matter when a country is in a serious[!] recession, and yet it’s people give millions of pounds a year to keep one family in, well, the lap of luxury would be a gross understatement – especially when this one family already has millions of pounds of inherited private wealth). What are the reasons for and against the Royal Family?

Well, the for argument usually falls into two compartments[?] – tradition, and (feebly) that the Royals are good for the economy via the tourist trade. The first of these is the stronger of the two and yet doesn’t really bear close inspection – is it necessarily good because it’s traditional? Yes, the family is descended from a long line of noble (i.e. rich) families – but they are not necessarily British families. They are Greek, they are German, but there is not an awful lot of British blood in there. As far as I am concerned, this would not matter, except that the arguments for usually draw attention to it being a great British tradition, or institution. I can only say that it’s not much of a native tradition that has the British public paying money to a European family to make them even richer.”

Some more highlights – this is just too tedious to write out in full:
There are few things as irritating as hearing how hard the Queen works – give me a few million pounds a year and I will be glad to attend dinners, meet dignitaries and travel abroad – not many people would turn down an offer like this.
The arguments against are much easier to state – they don’t do anything, we pay for them for being related to people, they are a British tradition which involves few British people, they could exist in comfort without public money, they represent an outdated (and according to the Prime Minister) non-existant class system, they stagger from one scandal to another and in a country with an underfunded health service, underfunded system of education, a large homeless population and mentally ill people being turned out onto the streets** they are a mockery of and insult to our supposedly democratic society.”

So there we have it, an unexpected meeting with my apparently slightly intense, smart-assed but ridiculous younger self. Nice to catch up but I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with him!

*Yes, I genuinely wrote “to make the most of what she has with”

**I assume this has something to do with the “care in the community” scandal that seemed to be unfolding during the last few years of the Thatcher/Major era




time for a change; the death of a decade


Between the ages of 14 and 16 or thereabouts, the things I probably loved the most – or at least the most consistently – were horror (books and movies) and heavy metal.

These loves changed (and ended, for a long time) at around the same time as each other in a way that I’m sure is typical of adolescence, but which also seemed to reflect bigger changes in the world. Reading this excellent article that references the end of the 80s horror boom made me think; are these apparent beginnings and endings really mainly internal ones that we only perceive as seismic shifts because of how they relate to us? After all, Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert & co continued to have extremely successful careers after I stopped buying their books, and it’s not like horror movies or heavy metal ground to a halt either. But still; looking back, the turn of the 80s to the 90s still feels like a change of era and of culture in a way that not every decade does (unless you’re a teenager when it happens perhaps?) But why should 1989/90 be more different than say, 85/86? Although time is ‘organised’ in what feels like an arbitrary manner (the time it takes the earth to travel around the sun is something which I don’t think many of us experience instinctively or empirically as we do with night and day), decades do seem to develop their own identifiable ‘personalities’ somehow, or perhaps we simply sort/filter our memories of the period until they do so.

“The 80s” is a thing that means many different things to different people; but in the western world its iconography and soundtrack have been agreed on and packaged in a way that, if it doesn’t necessarily reflect your own experience, it at least feels familiar if you were there. What the 2010s will look like to posterity is hard to say; but the 2020s seem to have established themselves as something different almost from the start; whether they will end up as homogeneous to future generations as the 1920s seem to us now is impossible to say at this point; based on 2020 so far, hopefully not.

I sometimes feel like my adolescence began at around the age of 11 and ended some time around 25, but still, my taste in music, books, films etc went through a major change in the second half of my teens which was surely not coincidental. But even trying to look at it objectively, it  really does seem like everything else was changing too. From the point of view of a teenager, the 80s came to a close in a way that few decades since have done; in world terms, the cold war – something that had always been in the background for my generation – came to an end. Though that was undoubtedly a euphoric moment, 80s pop culture – which had helped to define what ‘the west’ meant during the latter period of that war – seemed simultaneously to be running out of steam.

“The 80s” (I actually owned this poster as a kid, which seems extremely bizarre now)

My generation grew up with a background of brainless action movies starring people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, who suddenly seemed to be laughable and obsolete, teen comedies starring ‘teens’ like Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey, Jr who were now uneasily in their 20s. We had both old fashioned ‘family entertainment’ like Little & Large and Cannon & Ball which was, on TV at least. in its dying throes; but then so was the ‘alternative comedy’ boom initiated by The Young Ones, as its stars became the new mainstream. The era-defining franchises we had grown up with – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Police Academy – seemed to be either finished or on their last legs. Comics, were (it seemed) suddenly¹ semi-respectable and re-branded as graphic novels, even if many of the comics themselves remained the same old pulpy nonsense in new, often painted covers. The international success of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in 1988 opened the gates for the manga and anime that would become part of international pop culture from the 90s onwards.

the 80s: book covers as faux movie posters – black/red/metallic; extremely non-psychedelic

Those aforementioned things I loved the most in the late 80s, aged 14-15 – horror fiction and heavy metal music – were changing too. The age of the blockbuster horror novel wasn’t quite over, but its key figures; Stephen King, James Herbert, Clive Barker², Shaun Hutson – all seemed to be losing interest in the straightforward horror-as-horror novel³, diversifying into more fantastical or subtle, atmospheric or ironic kinds of stories. In movies too, the classic 80s Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises – as definitively 80s as anything else the decade produced – began to flag in terms of both creativity and popularity. Somewhere between these two models of evolution and stagnation were the metal bands I liked best. These seemed to either be going through a particularly dull patch, with personnel issues (Iron Maiden, Anthrax) or morphing into something softer (Metallica) or funkier Suicidal Tendencies). As with the influence of Clive Barker in horror, so bands who were only partly connected with metal (Faith No More, Red Hot Chilli Peppers) began to shape the genre. All of which occurred as I began to be obsessed with music that had nothing to do with metal at all, whether contemporary (Pixies, Ride, Lush, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Jesus Jones – jesus, the Shamen etc) or older (The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Doors⁴, the Velvet Underground).

Revolver #1, July 1990: very not 80s

Still; not many people are into the same things at 18 as they were at 14; and it’s tempting to think that my feelings about the end of the decade had more to do with my age than the times themselves; but they were indeed a-changing, and a certain aspect of the new decade is reflected in editor Peter K. Hogan’s ‘Outro’ to the debut issue of the somewhat psychedelically-inclined comic Revolver (published July 1990):

Why Revolver?
Because what goes around comes around, and looking out my window it appears to be 1966 again (which means – with any luck – we should be in for a couple of good years ahead of us). Because maybe – just maybe – comics might now occupy the slot that rock music used to. Because everything is cyclical and nothing lasts forever (goodbye, Maggie). Because the 90s are the 60s upside down (and let’s do it right, this time). Because love is all and love is everything and this is not dying. Any more stupid questions?

This euphoric vision of the 90s was understandable (when Margaret Thatcher finally resigned in 1990 there was a generation of by now young adults who couldn’t remember any other Prime Minister) but it aged quickly. The ambiguity of the statement ‘the 90s are the 60s upside down’ is embodied in that disclaimer (and let’s do it right, this time) and turned out to be prophetic; within a month of the publication of Revolver issue1 the Gulf War had begun. Aspects of that lost version of the 90s lived on in rave culture, just as aspects of the summer of love lived on through the 70s in the work of Hawkwind and Gong, but to posterity the 90s definitely did not end up being the 60s vol.2. In the end, like the 80s, the 90s (like every decade?) is defined, depending on your age and point of view, on a series of apparently incompatible things; rave and grunge, Jurassic Park and Trainspotting, Riot Grrrl and the Spice Girls, New Labour and Saddam Hussein.

That tiny oasis of positivity in 1990 – between the Poll Tax Riots on 31st March and the declaration of the first Gulf War on the 2nd August is, looking back, even shorter than I remember, and some of the things I loved in that strange interregnum between adolescence and adulthood (which lasted much longer than those few months) – perhaps because they seemed grown up then – are in some ways more remote now than childhood itself. So… conclusions? I don’t know, the times change as we change and they change us as we change them; a bit too Revolver, a lot too neat. And just as we are something other than the sum of our parents, there’s some part of us too that seems to be independent of the times we happen to exist in. I’ll leave the last words to me, aged 18, not entirely basking in the spirit of peace and love that seemed to be ushered in by the new decade.

¹ in reality this was the result of a decade of quiet progress led by writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller
² although 100% part of the 80s horror boom, Barker is perhaps more responsible than any other writer for the end of its pure horror phase
³ Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, though dating from earlier in the 80s, appeared in print with much fanfare in the UK in the late 80s and, along with the more sci-fi inflected The Tommyknockers and the somewhat postmodern The Dark Half seemed to signal a move away from the big, cinematic horror novels like Pet Sematary, Christine, Cujo et al. In fact, looking at his bibliography, there really doesn’t appear to be the big shift around the turn of the 90s that I remember, except that a couple of his new books around that time (Dark Tower III, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game for one reason or another didn’t have half the impact that It had on me. That’s probably the age thing). James Herbert, more clearly, abandoned the explicit gore of his earlier work for the more or less traditional ghost story Haunted (1988) and the semi-comic horror/thriller Creed (1990)– a misleadingly portentous title which always makes me think of that Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy types This is a story about Greed. Joe Greed lived in a small town in Colorado… Clive Barker, who had already diverged into dark fantasy with Weaveworld, veered further away from straightforward horror with The Great & Secret Show while reliably fun goremeister Shaun Hutson published the genuinely dark Nemesis, a book with little of the black humour – and only a fraction of the bodycount – of his earlier work.                                                                                    ⁴ the release of Oliver Stone’s The Doors in 1991 is as 90s as the 50s of La Bamba (1987) and Great Balls of Fire (1989) was 80s. Quite a statement.


how it felt to be alive in February 2020

The correct response to the title here is of course it depends who you are and what you did. But anyway; in a February when the big news story was the alarming spread of coronavirus/COVID-19, which history will tell us is either – (a) a pandemic like none seen since the 1918 flu outbreak which killed between 20 and 50 million people (quite a big ‘between’. that) or (b) an unfortunate but quite normal kind of illness which is causing inconvenience and a certain amount of tragedy but is mainly a media frenzy like SARS or Bird Flu, and will blow over soon – it seems a bit like fiddling while Rome burns to talk about music and books etc. But as everyone knows, Nero didn’t really fiddle while Rome burned, and anyway, the big and relatively thoughtful thing I was writing during the Christmas holidays is no further forward and I mainly spent February writing things for other places than my own website, so there it is.

I just finished reading the newest edition* of Jon Savage’s brilliant England’s Dreaming which is as good as any music-related book I’ve ever read and made me realise how many parallels there are between now and the political situation in mid-70s Britain. Up to a point, that is. It would be hard, even I think for a conservative person, to see the victory of Johnson’s Tories as a return to some kind of sensible order in the way that deluded right wingers saw Thatcher’s victory – which did, it has to be said, render somewhat pointless the extreme right wing groups like the National Front & British Movement that had been growing in strength and influence throughout the decade. As with Johnson/the ERG and their wooing of the UKIP/nazi fanbase though, the reassurance that comes from seeing extremist groups losing popularity is  soured (to put it mildly) by having people in charge who appeal to that demographic.

*the latest revised edition is from 2005, and is the one to get – the excellent introduction, which addresses the ‘Englishness’ of punk within the wider UK setting, is itself quite dated, though more relevant than ever, and this version also contains a brief summary of that most surprising part of the whole Sex Pistols story – the band’s 1996 reunion.

Reading about punk – especially remembering the very tail end of it in the early 80s (i.e. seeing the stereotypical 80s fashion punks and skinheads and reading THE EXPLOITED/OI!/PUNKS NOT DEAD etc spray painted all over the place)  it’s hard to imagine the force the movement had in ’76-7. In my own era, Acid House/rave culture/etc has had an even bigger impact on music and arguably a comparable one culturally, but although it annoyed grownups and upset politicians it was never as deliberately confrontational or as alien and ugly as punk. Its figureheads, insofar as it had any, could certainly be ‘outrageous’ in a way, but Shaun Ryder and Bez swearing on TV was worlds away from the omnipresence of the Sex Pistols in the UK media of the 70s; not least because the Sex Pistols and punk had already happened. Pop stars being obnoxious in the 90s was not a phenomenon – and the Pistols, despite everything, were a recognisable thing – a pop group or rock band.

The public and the tabloids knew about the existence of acid house, and might be alarmed by the ‘acid’ aspect in particular – but as far as signing record contracts, being on TV or playing concerts went, there wasn’t much to report on. An interesting thing about the acid house/rave phenomenon was that, although a musical movement, the music and its makers barely featured in the moral panics that ensued, it was all about the audience. Whether this made it more frightening to the older generation, I don’t know. In the 60s, the Woodstock kids might have been seen as outrageous dirty, drug taking hippies, but maybe the fact that they were being ‘incited’ by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Country Joe etc in a field (much like the teenagers in the 50s were under the influence of Bill Haley/Elvis etc and punk kids in the streets were being led astray by Rotten & co on TV) gave a clear them/us or leader/followers divide and made it easier to condemn/contain/control them? This is an interesting thing that I should think about more – except that I’m almost certain that there will be a book out there by someone who has thought about it more and knows a lot more than I do about the 90s (the most I can say is ‘I was there’, I wasn’t mostly very interested in acid house etc at the time).

Anyway; certainly the punks were heirs to the hippies (not that they would have welcomed the comparison)  in that the visibility of the punk audience (who, whatever their claims of individuality, were clearly – especially by 1977 – dressing in emulation of other punks, of whom Johnny Rotten was the most visible example) marked them out as ‘other’. And made them a target of the authorities, as well as a flag for disaffected kids to rally to. The subtitle of England’s Dreaming – “The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock” is important. The Sex Pistols may not have the strongest claim to have invented punk, but in a sense that isn’t as true for other foundational bands, they were punk; their career trajectory; form band, play shows, cause outrage, record demos, cause outrage, sign contracts, appear on TV, cause outrage, get dumped by label, cause outrage get banned from venues, release singles, cause outrage, release album, cause outrage, split up, have a member die – within the space of around two years, is a microcosm of UK punk. The British punk scene was born with them and it essentially died with Sid Vicious; everything thereafter is either post-punk, second-wave punk or pastiche. Whether embodying a movement is an achievement as such is hard to say and in a way doesn’t matter, but what Savage documents is the way in which a youth movement – one with many and varied influences and antecedents – absorbed and expressed the anxieties of its time and in turn embodied and shaped them.

Away from that book, I’ll keep up with my pick of the most interesting things to be sent my way in February.

Out in April is a reissue of a noise-rock classic from 1995:

Caspar Brötzmann Massaker
Southern Lord Recordings
Sounding something like The Birthday Party playing noisy free jazz, the Massaker are a brutal guitar-bass-drums (with minimalist vocals) trio; heavy on feedback, tense dynamics and churning distortion, but sometimes almost groovy and (very) occasionally kind of pretty. Home was their fifth album and it’s pretty similar to the only other one of their albums that I know, The Tribe, from 1987. Squally, angular and dark but with insistent percussion, it’s a great palate-cleanser for your ears after too much pop music.



I could say the same about this, very different but equally eccentric record:

JZ Replacement
Rainy Days Records

Zhenya Strigalev (saxophone), Jamie Murray (drums) and Tim Lefebvre (bass) have made a frankly insane-sounding but weirdly addictive record that at different times reminds me of the John Zorn/Bil Laswell/Mick Harris jazz/grind band Painkiller, Ornette Coleman and King Tubby. But it also has the odd moment of funk, breakbeat and drum-n-bass. Nevertheless it’s amazingly coherent and although at times I thought Murray, Strigalev or Lefebvre was what made it so great, subtracting any one element would make it all collapse.  Recording something at once as familiar and peculiar as any song here (‘Guilty Look 3‘ is a great example) is a special skill. Disrespectful borrows from everywhere and yet somehow sounds like nothing else – and really that’s just what jazz is all about.

Prophecy Productions

This Austrian black metal project has a very specific local (Tyrolean) focus, but judging by its Facebook page is the brainchild of Italian ex-pat Fabio D’Amore of symphonic power metal band Serenity; which makes sense – for all its atmospheric/folkish elements (there are some very nice jangly clean parts), this is a theatrical, musicianly album which feels epic and polished rather than dark and brutal. The band’s name refers to a pagan goddess, and throughout the album an odd, witchy narrator pops up declaiming or whispering, who I assume is the woman in the artwork, who the promotional material refers to as “the front woman [who] will sermonize, face-painted in historical black garb with embroidered belt and cast-iron broom …”

Not really my cup of tea overall, which is a shame because I really like the idea of the Tyrolean folklore etc, but it’s extremely well done and has some very good tunes and with the usual excellent Prophecy treatment it will no doubt find its audience.




a conflict of ghosts


2019 is (to me at least) one of those times when the zeitgeist feels like an actual entity, less the ‘spirit of the age’ and more an actual ‘time ghost’, a baleful Lovecraftian presence whose unseen influence poisons the atmosphere of the era, insidiously affecting the minds of influential people.

A silly conceit perhaps (although few ancient civilisations would have thought so), but a handy one; great swathes of history can be explained by it; ages of empire and revolution and war and faith and enlightenment and (ambiguous word) “progress” of various kinds.
Looked at as a succession of identifiable ages, the idea of zeitgeist (as entity, or in the usual usage) has pluses and minuses. On the one hand it gives us history in a usefully linear, easy-to-summarise/teach/learn kind of way, (too) neatly summarising otherwise amorphous stretches of time. On the other, it removes to an extent the sense of individual and group responsibility at the heart of all human activity and ventures.

This is almost fair, insofar as asking people to act other than as products of their time and environment is pointless; mostly it’s unfair though, since, whatever time people come from, ideas of good/bad (extreme ones anyway) remain somewhat static: people generally do know when they are acting badly. But then again, one has to admit that even rational and enlightened human beings can be counted on to do irrational things like firing missiles at people who they don’t know and have no personal disagreement with, or voting for political parties which it is not in their own interest to have in power, or protesting by destroying the neighbourhoods they live in, when logic would dictate that they should attack those of the people who cause their woes etc etc. Being swept up in the zeitgeist is a thing, and in a way the proof that it is, is that it can be hard to justify afterwards.

Currently, being drunk on bigotry and self-interest seems to be what the zeitgeist desires. The hangover from this kind of a binge we already know; bulldozing piles of bodies into pits and swearing it’ll never happen again. Only the next time, we (or they, depending on how events play out) may have to dirty our/themselves by doing the ‘bulldozing’ by hand, since ignoring ecological disaster in favour of increased profit (as I write, commercial whaling has been resumed after a thirty year cessation) is part of the whole bigotry/self-interest worldview.

In the UK, the two main political parties – theoretically irreconcilably different in almost every respect –  are facing what, however it works out, is one of the biggest political challenges since World War Two (I mean Brexit, I suppose I’d better name it for reasons of clarity, much as I hate to) in exactly the same way. Not – as might be expected (or reasonably, demanded) – by taking steps to prevent the problems that are inevitably to arise, or even (as might be reassuring, if perhaps comical) by plotting some utopian alternative Britain which will blossom in the aftermath of the upheaval, but instead by wringing their hands over the future of the parties themselves in the aftermath of the divisiveness they have helped to fuel, or at best not tried to heal. Oh well.

In 1826, William Hazlitt wrote (not in The Spirit of the Age, though that would have been neater:

…hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.                                                                                                       On The Pleasure of Hating from The Plain Speaker (1826) in Selected Writings, p. 400-1, Penguin Classics, 1982

The extent to which this is still a demonstrably true and relevant statement is depressing, suggesting that while ages may each have their own spirit, the ghost at the heart of them is humanity itself. Like businessmen (and they usually are men) polluting their own land and rioters destroying their own neighbourhoods, it suggests that, if catastrophe comes, it will be human nature that facilitates it, while at every stage, offering apparently valid reasons for doing so; as Hazlitt also noted, ‘Reason, with most people, means their own opinion’ (Ibid, p. 439)*

*he wrote ‘It is always easier to quote an authority than to carry on a chain of reasoning’(ibid; p. 449) too, which is perhaps even more relevant here, as I do it

Having said all that, although “the” zeitgeist is talked and written about, there never is only one spirit of any age. Against Adam Smith’s definitive statements of the Scottish Enlightenment like ‘Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition’. (The Weath of Nations, 1776), you have to set Byron’s memories of childhood in Aberdeenshire at the end of that same century: “I remember a Methodist preacher who on perceiving a profane grin on the faces of part of his congregation – exclaimed ‘no hopes for them as laughs.’”
(Lord Byron Selected Letters & Journals ed. Leslie A Marchand, Pimlico, 1993, p.352.

British life in the 1930s

Two of my favourite books, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool and George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier were published a year apart from each other (in 1936 and 1937 respectively (more about the former here), by people who were not only contemporaries, but who knew each other and went to school together; a narrow focus you’d think, but they perfectly exemplify very different currents in European society of the time. Which brings up the question (because I’m bringing it up) of hierarchies of zeitgeist. The Great Depression and conditions of working class people (Orwell), and the dying years of ‘jazz age’ decadence and the ennui of the moneyed class (Connolly) are almost opposites, but both were to fuel the coming war; are these two zeitgeists or one? The mass of unemployed or poverty stricken working classes for whom the Depression meant starvation and the need for change in order to survive, and the differently disaffected upper class, products of and heirs to decaying empires, but with little desire to deal with the running of them in the aftermath of the seemingly hollow victory (or disastrous defeat) of World War One are the yin and yang of interwar Europe, but are yin and yang one entity, or two? (both, inevitably)

Closer to our own time, what could be more 80s than yuppie culture, racism, Thatcherism and Reaganomics? But also, what could be more 80s than “alternative comedy”, Rock Against Racism and the miner’s strike? In the early 90s, rave culture peaked around the same time as Guns ‘n’ Roses; a disappointingly sturdy beast as it turned out; zeitgeist lore would have you believe that a pincer movement of dance music and Nirvana’s Nevermind swept away cheesy trad rock and its stylings, but in fact “Slash” was miming a solo on an unplugged Les Paul in the desert in the video to a hit single just months after Smells Like Teen Spirit had apparently rendered such things obsolete. So it goes; Mull Of Kintyre was the song that topped the charts as the year of punk came to an end for Christ’s sake. As with empires and revolutions, eras of whatever kind are rarely as neat as we’d like them to be retrospectively; and I say that as someone who owned, without any feeling of incongruity, albums by Nirvana and Guns ‘n’ Roses and the The Shamen.

in 2019, 80s nostalgia is at an all-time (or time to date) high; but, even in the western world, there was more than one 1980s

But away (partly) from music, the ways in which apparently opposed forces come together to define an era is always fascinating to look at. When they are violently opposed, as in the case of something like the hippies putting flowers in guns and then being shot at Kent State in 1970, it’s pretty black and white. Whether or not you think the hippies were ‘the good guys’, shooting unarmed protesters will always make you ‘the bad guys’. The two sides of the conflict were clear. On the other hand, once you remove the life-and-death struggle, things become more ambiguous. To cite a trivial example; the founding of the extremely successful label Earache Records in 1985 as part of a government sponsored enterprise scheme (essentially rebranding unemployed teenagers as entrepreneurs) is often celebrated as a kind of ironic victory of the anarcho-punk-crusty underground over nasty old Thatcherism – label founder Digby Pearson:

“… in the 80s, when you were unemployed in the UK, you had to go to visit the unemployment office every two weeks, and I didn’t fancy doing that. If you start a company, you get the same amount of money and you don’t have to visit the unemployment office every two weeks. You’re not unemployed anymore, so it’s a method for the government to reduce the unemployment figures…They didn’t care what business you did, as long as you did something… it was an excuse to say ‘Wow! I’m a record company!’ But the truth is I had no plans, nothing really.”
quoted in Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death – The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, Feral House, 2004 p.121

Much as one applauds any victory over Thatcherism, isn’t the success of Earache Records (going strong over 30 years later, with offices in London and New York), for all its rebellious, anti-Thatcher stance, just what the government wanted to happen? Doesn’t it kind of prove that, in this one specific instance, Thatcherism kind of worked? Bleh. A silly segue, but it makes me think of this achingly ironic note from Breaking Free (1989) by “J. Daniels” – a very entertaining revolutionary socialist (or perhaps more precisely, anarcho-syndicalist or some such thing) Tintin book in which Tintin and Captain Haddock  help to bring down western capitalism.

Breaking Free: “we have copyrighted Tintin” – good luck with that

Apologies for abruptly bringing optimism into what has so far been apocalyptically downbeat, but the point here if there is one, is that people can and retrospectively do choose the zeitgeist they prefer (the changing critical fortunes of pop stars are always very interesting to observe – the world is full of “the kind of people who had to wait until 1968, when it became chic to say that Brian Wilson was a genius, before they could admit that they liked The Beach Boys”*) – so why not do it now, and in doing so strengthen the spirit itself? Against Trump, Farage, rigid political ideology and religious dogma you have to set Greta Thunberg, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, David Attenborough, Bonnie Greer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, David Lammy, Stormzy, Carole Cadwalladr and really, so many more; this was a random, pulled-out-of-the-air list, in no way meant as definitive or even representative really.

*Charles Shaar Murray in Cream magazine, 1972, from Shots From The Hip, Penguin books 1991, p.16

revolutionary Tintin

The current, sunnily optimistic issue of the alumnus magazine of my alma mater (well, why not? I’ve never written that phrase before!) pleased me – because if populism and intolerance are ‘the zeitgeist’, then so is this –  and what’s more it is the future too. It’s hard to think of a more conservative (in the tradition-bound sense) institution than the University of St Andrews, but even aside from the cover story (Internationally Scottish; an exhibition celebrating diversity), the magazine regularly celebrates its award-winning graduates from all over the world, the globally important research undertaken at the university and, on a more intimate level, has a news column recording marriages and civil partnerships of its alumni; that is, a hugely diverse mix of people from a multiplicity of backgrounds, doing a range of things. It celebrates diversity (have to admit that phrase is irksome though) – just like movies and TV shows and commercials and shops and organisations now do – not because such things as internationalism and civil partnerships are either ‘politically correct’ or daringly edgy, or because it’s somehow forced on them (by whom, anyway?), but because it’s good business; because it’s society, it’s people, and what people do, how they live and what they want. When people stop being diverse, this will stop happening. And the point is that people always have been diverse, but the people in charge have not. But they are starting to be.

15th century university in the 21st century

Looking at the bigger picture, it quickly becomes clear that all this apparently endless Brexit/Trump reactionary nonsense is just the foamy-mouthed dying throes of old ways of life, ways which, despite the constant yammering about elites and freedom, were established by people with an inflated sense of their own importance and exceptionalism (and/or that of whatever they identify with; nation, gender, ethnicity; the usual suspects) and an interest in a version of freedom which only means their own freedom to do whatever they want to do without interference.

That’s not to say that the dying throes  of outworn cultures are harmless (see WW1 for instance), and I’m not naive enough to say all will be well; but the wave of reactionary negativity is doomed, because ultimately people don’t want authoritarianism unless they happen to be the ones in positions of authority and because people who have grown up and lived in relative freedom will not have it easily taken away; I hope anyway. In history there are very few analogues to the present time, which is probably why the geist of the Weimar Republic hovers so ominously.

Despite the current state of world and British politics, in most important ways, more things are probably better for more people – certainly in the western world (not, I realise, a minor caveat)  – in 2019 than they were in, say 1989 – and the bits that are worse are fixable, given the political will to fix them (always a problem, admittedly; and more and more I feel the will will have to be forced upwards from ‘ordinary’ people).

But while looking forward, it’s instructive to look at what it actually is that people are nostalgic about. Yes, there are those who yearn for times when they could do whatever they wanted because of the class/country/whatever they came from, but there are also things like the wartime spirit, or the solidarity of the mining communities before Thatcher destroyed them. No-one wants to be bombed, and few if any people actually enjoyed working in coal mines – what people generally miss is the sense of community that arises in adversity* The thing to do then, is to try to create the missing sense of community without having to experience the adversity. And people are doing exactly those kinds of things; community projects, ecological movements, local groups, international organisations. Imagine the progress – in the sense of good things for the future of the world – that could be made if people tried to humanise entities like the EU, rather than breaking them apart or divorcing from them or viewing them as first and foremost business ventures – if hate groups are on the rise (and they always seem to be), then more positive movements are flourishing too. Personally, although I think it’s great, I don’t really feel comfortable belonging to things, but I’m glad other people want to. But like the ever more arcane (and ever more necessary) rules about recycling and plastic-usage, I’ll get used to it. We can still be okay in the end, if we want to. This wasn’t what I started out to write, but it’s a nice note to end on.


*Side note: it can be shocking for someone of my generation to realise the extent to which shared experience – already very much in the decline in the 70s and 80s, has changed and all but disappeared. To take a very trivial example, if you were at school in  the UK in the 80s, and if your family was the sort where the TV was on in the evening, you could pretty much guarantee you and almost everyone you know would be watching one of 4 (or even 3) shows at any given time. Not only did you as a child know what was in the top 10 (possibly most kids still know that) but, thanks to Top of the Pops your parents did too, and possibly even your grandparents, if you had such things. I’m not saying it was better, but it was substantially different, and it seems (to me) that what we have in place of that kind of boring, take-it-for-granted shared experience now is similar but utterly different; instant familiarity – ‘re-imaginings’, reboots, remakes, new songs that sound like old songs (I recently heard a hit song that blatantly “borrows” the melody of the verses from Dolly Parton’s Jolene and another which lifts the chord sequence of Every Breath You Take by The Police; these are not obscure reference points, but nor are they acknowledged as pastiches or homages, or credited as samples are). Familiarity, however much contempt it’s supposed to breed, is apparently comforting, or at least saleable.



Someone Of No Importance: Evelyn Waugh and inter-war Futilitarianism


The news that one of your favourite novels is being made into a film or TV show is never straightforwardly pleasurable; yes, there’s an excitement about seeing scenes from the page (and from your own imaginings of them) on screen, but there’s a certain amount of apprehension too. Nobody will look right (at first anyway), they may not sound right, and if you don’t like them you may be stuck with them whenever you re-read the book (especially if you didn’t have a particularly clear image of them in your mind in the first place or if, like me the image you do have often bears strangely little relation to the writer’s actual descriptions). Then there’s the tone and authorial voice/point of view, the inner life of the characters… It’s actually surprising there are any good adaptations of books. But there are many, the best of which (to me at least) are those that capture the essence of the book without necessarily being ‘faithful adaptations’ (Catch-22, Ghost World) or which use the book as a launchpad for the filmmakers’ own ideas (Blade Runner, Jaws). Most adaptations are of course neither of these. Which brings us to the BBC’s ‘not bad’ version of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

It’s first of all a strange book to have chosen; a black comedy whose fans – as with fans of JG Ballard’s Crash, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – know in advance to expect an approximate, rather than precise rendering of. Decline and Fall is not an extreme book in the graphic sense that those three are, but, like at least two of them, its humour is grounded in its unremitting unpleasantness and in the end it’s a bleak, essentially misanthropic, nihilistic kind of comedy, tellingly completed before Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. For a variety of reasons, though, ‘bleak’ isn’t how the TV version feels.

But before moving on to the show, it’s worth looking at why the book is the way it is. Firstly, and most importantly, it’s an exaggerated reflection of certain aspects of its creator’s personality and an expression of his sense of humour. Even post-conversion, when there is a modicum of compassion for some of the characters in his work, Waugh’s books – with the exception of Brideshead Revisited – are mostly funny but extremely mean-spirited black comedies full of caricatures and snobbishness made extremely funny by his writing style, and in his first few novels that’s pretty much all there is. The surprising depth of feeling in even these books comes from the fact that Waugh allows that his characters – even a relative cipher like Decline and Fall’s bland non-hero Paul Pennyfeather – have human emotions, even if they are rarely respected by others or the author. In Decline and Fall , the snobbishness, misogyny and the – to modern readers – strange treatment of child abuse in which certain pupils seem partly culpable in their encouragement of the paedophile (I hope that most of us would now agree that the victim of child abuse can’t really be complicit in it), can be explained pretty simply: it was the milieu that the young Waugh knew. His education at an all-boys public school and his subsequent university life and work as a teacher in (again) an all-boys public school were overwhelmingly male experiences and child abuse was, if not actually legal or even acceptable, then at least a tacitly accepted if not much written about part of public school life. Nowadays, we might find it odd for a writer to include that kind of thing in a book where the original author’s note reads ‘Please bear in mind throughout that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY.’ but although the novel was self-consciously outrageous, the aspects that most trouble modern readers; abuse, misogyny, racism, were probably not that much dwelt upon in the late 20s.

The reason that Waugh’s comedies are so rarely successfully adapted into other formats is that their action is farcical, but not complicated. In 1920s comedy, PG Wodehouse is the obvious star, and his work lends itself naturally to stage and television adaptation thanks to his intricate joke-like plots (complete with a punchline at the end). The comedy is there in the story and the writer’s style is the dressing that brings it to life. Waugh’s early plots meanwhile are loosely constructed to non-existent and chaotic and often implausible (yet somehow also more realistic than Wodehouse) and his writing style is everything. It’s a weird, slightly unworkable comparison, but now that I’ve made it; with Wodehouse, his stories are like a kind of pantomime or fairytale, played out by characters the author loves and which are completely ludicrous but make perfect sense on their own terms. With Waugh, it’s often as though a real (perhaps even tragic) story about real people is being told by someone who finds the whole thing funny and has little to no sympathy for the fools and the predicaments they find themselves in. Wodehouse orchestrates the events like a stage director, while Waugh reports them like a condescending gossip. To me, he is the funnier of the two, but his presence is also necessary; if you remove Wodehouse the narrator from his stories, you are left with characters that embody the warmth and silliness of the narrator’s voice, acting out stories which are in themselves funny. If you remove Waugh you are left with people you never really know making fools of themselves in painful ways. If you had never read Waugh but only watched adaptations of his work, one might expect his books to read something like a posh version of Tom Sharpe; which they definitely don’t.

The other main reason that Waugh’s early books are the way they are is because he was part of that couple of generations who lived through the First World War, but who were too young to take part. The impact this had is undeniable and the British literature of the 20s and 30s is filled with very different books by very different writers which nevertheless have various things in common with each other and which I like very much.  The early 21st century may be in some ways a far more cynical time than the 1920s, but in effect it is both nicer and nastier. Most of us no longer accept the inequalities of the class system, or discrimination in race and gender. We are also no longer surprised that human beings can slaughter each other in their millions in mechanised ways; but while being used to that idea, it’s also true that, unlike Waugh’s generation, we (at least we in the UK) haven’t had the experience of half of the adult males that were there in our early childhood simply not existing anymore, or living in a country where almost every town and village doesn’t have a monument to those killed in a war we remember. A large part of the literature of the 20s and 30s consists of writers either trying to find meaning in a society whose way of life has been changed forever, whose old beliefs; in religion, in tradition, no longer seem to have any meaning, or of trying simply to escape the realities of modern life altogether. In the mid-to – late 1930s, politics would take centre stage in British literature, but for a period from around 1920 to 1935 the anxieties of the country’s younger writers were revealed in a series of strangely formless but oddly similar novels, which were once labelled ‘futilitarian’.


These are my favourites, might as well do this chronologically…

Aldous Huxley – Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923) and Point Counter Point (1928)


Huxley was in fact slightly older (20 when WW1 broke out, whereas Waugh was only 11) but he could not take part in combat due to his chronically bad eyesight. His early novels (I think Antic Hay is the best) make a very interesting comparison with Waugh’s, because at first they seem fairly similar; modern comedies where the storylines (such as they are) mostly revolve around the social lives of young, wealthy and irresponsible people. But the tone and content is very different. While Waugh was at school during WW1, with not only all the jingoism and propaganda that that entailed, but also the noticeable absence of adult male teachers and role models, for Huxley, WW1 was the period of Bloomsbury (he worked as a farm labourer at Garsington Manor, home of the society hostess and patron of the arts Lady Ottoline Morrell. For him, social life meant intellectual conversation; the discussion of art and modernism, conscientious objection, philosophy, pacifism. The comedy in novels like Antic Hay comes mainly from his satirical portrayals of the kinds of people he was mixing with but they are funny in both a broad way (the hero Theodore Gumbril’s invention of ‘pneumatic trousers’) and a deeper one (relationships and their difficulties). The main difference from Waugh is that whereas the comedy in a book like Waugh’s Vile Bodies arises from the somewhat desperate attempts of the main characters to have fun in the face of the meaningless void underlying modern life, in Huxley’s works the comedy arises from the characters’ often farcical and pretentious attempts at finding meaning through conversation, art and philosophy. The contrast between Huxley’s novels and an apparently very similar one – Wyndham Lewis’ great satire The Apes of God (1930) is especially striking because the milieu the books are set in almost identical (they knew many of the same people) and because, like Huxley, Wyndham Lewis was not nihilistic. He was however, immensely negative and the fact that he had seen active service in WW1 and was also himself a pioneering artist made him extremely impatient with what he saw as the wishy-washy dilettantism of the Bloomsbury artists and writers and their detachment from real life. The contrast between Antic Hay and The Apes of God is the difference between an affectionate Max Beerbohm cartoon and a merciless James Gillray caricature.

Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall (1928) and Vile Bodies (1930)


What makes these books distinctively post-WW1 is the nihilism at their heart. The younger generation of the 1920s were probably more different from their parents (products of the Victorian era) than any generation before or since (excepting maybe that of the 60s) and the tone of Waugh’s novels is resolutely modern and, despite its insistence on/preoccupation with social class, the feel is one of fragmentation and instability, especially in comparison with pre-War literature. When older people are presented, it is almost always as an archaic survival from a distant era. If the war is mentioned at all, its in an almost nostalgic way by people for whom it was the backdrop of their youth or childhood. The most surprising thing about Waugh’s books is the unexpected poignancy that comes from his mostly unsympathetic handling of his characters; Vile Bodies, probably his most determinedly unpleasant book, is also his funniest (aside from the grotesque later masterpiece The Loved One).

Anthony Powell – Afternoon Men (1931)

afternoon men

Of all the books here, Afternoon Men feels perhaps the least ambitious, but makes me laugh the most. I have read some of Anthony Powell’s other books (and started but not finished his Dance to the Music of Time series), but they just aren’t the same. The story is almost identical to those of Huxley and Waugh – a group of young people meet up socially and drink a lot, have affairs etc – although the social class of Powell’s protagonist William Atwater is lowly enough that he actually has a normal, office-based job – a rarity in any of these books. Atwater’s friends and acquaintances are the usual mixture of bohemian high society people but it is Powell’s abrupt, lightly modernistic writing style and feel for dialogue that makes it work so well:

“’I work in a museum’, said Atwater. He was getting sleepier and felt he ought to say something. He had begun to be depressed.

‘That must be very interesting work, isn’t it?’


‘Isn’t it really?’

‘I often think of running away to sea.’

‘I think it must be very interesting.’

‘Do you?’

* * * *

‘What about your books?’ Atwater stood up. He could not do all the stuff about the books. He was too sleepy. He said:

‘There are these. And then there are those.’”

(Afternoon Men, p.35-6, 1963 Penguin edition)

As a writer, Powell is far more deadpan and less misanthropic than Waugh, but he creates a similarly poignant effect; it would be quite possible to film this novel and, used verbatim, the dialogue might still be funny, but what essentially makes the book work is the style in which it is written.

Cyril Connolly – The Rock Pool (written 1935. published 1936)


The Rock Pool is the only novel by Connolly – best known as a literary critic – and it is one of my favourite books. Connolly was the same age and (more or less) social class as Evelyn Waugh, and the novel is the portrait of a snobbish young man of means who goes to the French Riviera to observe life in an artist’s colony, with the explicit intention of writing a period piece about the kind of carefree1920s-style life of leisure that no longer existed in the London of the 30s, but might still be going on there.  In fact, it isn’t  – and instead he finds himself drawn into the lives of the impoverished artists, conmen and bar owners there until it becomes clear that he is not the detached ironic observer he imagined, but has in fact found his niche and his people, whether he wants to have or not. In comparison with Waugh and even Huxley, Connolly is far more sympathetic to his characters and the tone is completely different from Waugh’s slightly contemptuous detachment:

“’Tell me, why do you come here if you are such a snob?’

‘Who said I was a snob?’

‘Why, everybody… I’m sure it must be very amusing.’

He felt old and miserable, going through life trying to peddle a personality of which people would not even accept a free sample.”

(The Rock Pool, p.90-91, Penguin edition, 1963)

The fact that The Rock Pool is a product of the mid-30s and not the 20s is part of its charm. While Connolly’s contemporaries and peers were becoming interested in philosophy and science (Huxley), religion (Waugh) or politics and social commentary (George Orwell, Christopher Isherwood, WH Auden etc), Connolly accepted, with insight, the aimless, aesthetic worldview of his 20s generation, even as it became obsolete.

Christopher Isherwood –  Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935)

mr norris

Isherwood’s first two novels, All The Conspirators (1928) and The Memorial (1932) are also relevant here, but Mr Norris… (probably best known, with its semi-sequel Goodbye To Berlin (1939) as being the inspiration for the musical Cabaret) have more in common with the books described above. While both of his earlier books dealt specifically with the generation gap that had resulted from the First World War (and The Memorial is explicitly concerned with the effects of WW1 on British society), Mr Norris is, although very different in tone, essentially similar to The Rock Pool – a comical story about the adventures of a young upper class person out of his element. Although famous for its evocation of the politics and life of late Weimar and early Nazi Berlin, the novels were born from Isherwood’s desire – in 1929/30, rather than the mid-late 30s of the novels – not for any kind of social or political commentary, but to escape the milieu of upper class England and experience the hedonistic lifestyle of Berlin. As with most Waugh and Powell, the book’s main protagonist is less vividly drawn than the more extreme characters who surround him, and in many ways Isherwood accomplishes a kind of heightened, occasionally grotesque realism something like the Neue Sachlichkeit artists (Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, Christian Schad etc) who were working in Germany in the same period, and whose paintings have often adorned the covers of his books. The fact that his books are partly autobiographical (and written in the first person, as ‘William Bradshaw’, Isherwood’s own middle names) means there is little of the distancing effect of Waugh and although there is much humour in Isherwood’s early novels, often at the expense of his characters, they are written with a warmth and compassion that makes them translate to the screen without losing too much of the feel of the novel – with the exception of the narrator himself, who suffers by being mostly a nondescript bystander, so that in Cabaret, the Christopher Isherwood/William Bradshaw character has to become the very different Brian Roberts.

oh – not chronological now, but also – Stephen Spender – The Temple (written 1929, published 1988)


While Isherwood was in Berlin with WH Auden, their friend Stephen Spender found his way to Hamburg, seeking not only the hedonistic freedom of Weimar Germany, but also freedom from censorship. As Spender wrote in the introduction to the (very) belated first edition of The Temple, England in 1929 was a country where James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned, as was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. In going to Germany, his motives were at least partly artistic, and as he noted, “The Temple is pre-thirties and pre-political.” The same could be said of all of the novels discussed here. In that sense, The Temple sits strangely, but appropriately, in the company of the books of Waugh, Anthony Powell and co. In comparison with Isherwood’s Berlin stories, Spender’s novel is far more concerned with the inner life of its narrator and his Hamburg is less vividly drawn, but at the same time the book is far more explicit about sex than Isherwood (though to be fair Spender revised The Temple before publication in the 80s so it isn’t clear how much of the explicitness existed in 1929 – enough to prevent it from being published though). It’s a summery, if slightly troubled book, not improved by the author’s retrospective awareness of how fleeting the freedom it describes would be. Also, although Spender was himself far from humourless, there’s an earnest quality that makes the tone of the book unique in this list; it’s far more of a considered portrait of a time, than a story about some young people.

Decline and Fall – the TV show


So, finally – to that TV adaptation of Decline and Fall. It wasn’t actually bad at all (vastly better than the mystifyingly titled 1969 movie adaptation, Decline and Fall…of a Bird Watcher), but despite all the positive reviews it wasn’t (to me anyway) right either; how come? Firstly, the book was published in 1928 and had a contemporary setting. That means that it is now a period piece, which on the screen, gives an instantly distancing effect. The twenties in particular (actually, the twenties and thirties; TV rarely discriminates between the two) has evolved a certain lighthearted and somewhat cosy screen presence on television over the years, from the nostalgic adaptation(s) of Waugh’s very different Brideshead Revisited to gentle Sunday evening drama of The House of Elliot to Jeeves and Wooster and even You Rang M’Lord.

Thanks to these shows and others like them (not to mention films like Bugsy Malone and The Great Gatsby in its various versions) there’s a kind of visual shorthand for the twenties, consisting of; striped blazers, flapper fashions, art deco, the Charleston and hedonistic and/or gormless aristocrats, the fantasy of being independently wealthy, plus the odd Moseley-inspired fascist and monocled lesbian; all of which fits Decline and Fall pretty well, in a superficial kind of way. But while nostalgia is, appropriately, an element in all of the aforementioned programmes (not so much The Great Gatsby, ironic given how the film version traded on the visual aspects of its high society settings etc), it should really have no place in Decline and Fall. Nostalgia can’t help being present though, just through the accumulation of period detail and the kind of broad acting that a comedy set among the upper classes in the 20s seems to require. This broad approach is again fair enough in a way, since Decline and Fall is essentially a novel where the characters are close to being caricatures anyway.

The most obvious place the book differs from the television adaptation is that in the book, the mostly innocent and bland fish-out-of-water main character, Paul Pennyfeather doesn’t have to be – and often isn’t – particularly likeable; the reader doesn’t have to like him or identify with him to find his story funny and anyway, Waugh makes it explicit that we are not seeing Pennyfeather at his best or most typical or indeed in his element at all. Considering the ridiculous (and at times heartbreaking) circumstances he finds himself in, his outbursts of bitterness are surprisingly few and far between. Presenting a not-very-likeable character having misadventures with even less likeable characters is not, however a particularly ratings-grabbing idea, so it’s not surprising the BBC didn’t play it that way. It would never have occurred to me to cast the comedian Jack Whitehall in the leading role, but the hapless/diffident/youthful/naive sides of Pennyfeather’s nature are not that far removed from Whitehall’s usual persona and I don’t mean it as an insult when I say he captures the somewhat one-dimensional, nonentity-like aspect of Pennyfeather quite well.

But, in the bigger picture, the fact that the BBC is spending money on an Evelyn Waugh adaptation at all may not really be a good sign. As Jon Savage wrote in 1986 (re. the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited):

Waugh’s elevation into legend – as the house god of literary London – has come at the same time as, and may have fuelled, a concerted ideological attack on the social gains of the whole post-war period.” (Jon Savage, Waugh Crimes, The Face, September 1986, in Time Travel – Pop, Media and Sexuality 1976-99, Chatto & Windus 1996, p. 206).

The adaptation of Decline and Fall in 2017 says as much about the current rise of conservatism as the success of Brideshead Revisited did about Margaret Thatcher’s mid 80s, both about the nature of the conservatism itself, and the ways society has changed since the last strengthening of the right.  The choice of Brideshead to capture a conservative zeitgeist was an obvious and safe one; Waugh’s least characteristic, if most successful novel, it is (or at least it can be easily adapted as) a straightforward nostalgic paean to/romanticisation of the leisured life of the aristocracy in the pre-WW2 period, the last time they could be seen as  the leaders of fashion and in a real sense ‘the ruling class’, with an Empire and subordinate classes to (literally) ‘lord it’ over. Then as now, the appeal of traditional ‘Britishness’ was strong, both with the kind of conservative, older elements in society/in charge and those who see progressiveness only in terms of threatening change/instability. Back in 1986, the ‘golden age’ of Brideshead Revisited was still remembered by the older generations, including many who were still active in the political life of the country.

But although the BBC made a costume drama, perhaps the most conservative television form, and although Waugh was a lifelong conservative and reactionary, Decline and Fall the novel, as discussed above, is hardly conservative at all; it doesn’t stand for anything, and its guiding principle seems to be that people are foolish and stupid and ruin their own lives and the lives of others without caring or even noticing. It’s a book which mostly gets away with its casual misogyny and racism because of its overwhelming misanthropy; if these people are laughable and stupid and ridiculous then at least he doesn’t show us anyone that isn’t; the fact that one of the book’s most likeable comic characters is a teacher who is not only a bad teacher, but a serial child abuser shows just what an odd choice it is for a BBC costume drama. The way the BBC tackled the more problematic aspects says a lot about where society is in 2017. In the novel, the (in modern terminology) paedophile teacher Captain Grimes’ abuse of the children in his care is seen by the other characters as distasteful and disreputable, as well as criminal, but is still seen as something one can be funny about. Somewhat surprisingly, this element made it to the screen more or less untouched, albeit without the flirtatiousness of Grimes’ favourite victim (as we, but not he, would see it), Clutterbuck. It is interesting though, to note that when reviewing the show, the word paedophile has almost always been replaced by the equivalent but somehow less inflammatory word ‘pederast’; somehow enjoying the comical exploits of a fictional paedophile might not be okay. It’s presumably the respectability of the source material (Decline and Fall may be outrageous, but Waugh is a pillar of British literature), the broadness of the comedy and the relative vagueness of the acts that makes it acceptable. And I think that’s right in a way; the element is there in the novel, it’s supposed to be and is uncomfortably funny in the novel (Waugh really was a kind of anti-Wodehouse at that point in his career), even though child abuse itself is obviously not funny. It can be assumed I think that the makers of the programme are not condoning anything, and hand-wringing self-censorship would not make the programme better; but there seems to have been a certain amount of that anyway, as we shall see.


As the misanthropy of the novel is reduced in the TV version largely because of Jack Whitehall’s sympathetic portrayal of Paul Pennyfeather, the misogyny of the book more or less evaporates onscreen, largely because the female characters are no more or less caricatures than the male ones, and are played by real women. In the book, the women are mostly predatory in one way or another and are strictly there to be admired, feared or despised – and the admiration always ends in disillusion. In Waugh’s mature books (even his best ones like A Handful of Dust) it could be argued that this feeling never significantly changes.

Where the BBC seems to have been most squeamish is with the novel’s racism. Although the anti-Welsh feeling made it to the screen more or less unchanged and again, partly neutralised by the fact that almost all of the characters were played so broadly, the episode featuring Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s African-American boyfriend Sebastian “Chokey” Cholmondley is more problematic. In the adaptation, Chiké Okonkwo plays the character exactly as written; he is articulate, urbane and enthusiastic about ecclesiastical architecture; but, when he says in the novel, “You folk think that because we’re coloured we don’t care about nothing but jazz. Why, I’d give all the jazz in the world for just one little stone from one of your cathedrals”, it’s supposed to be funny, not just because of the naivety of the lines, but because they comes from a black character. His entry into the book as Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s companion at the school games sets the tone for the whole episode:

“’I hope you don’t mind my bringing Chokey, Dr Fagan?’ she said. ‘He’s just crazy about sport.’

‘I sure am that,’ said Chokey.

’Dear Mrs Beste-Chetwynde!’ said Dr Fagan; ‘dear, dear Mrs Beste-Chetwynde!’ He pressed her glove, and for a moment was at a loss for words of welcome, for ‘Chokey’, though graceful of bearing and irreproachably dressed, was a Negro.” (Decline and Fall, p. 75)

Throughout the scene that follows, Chokey talks about church architecture, music and his race, and did so in the TV version, but the fact of his articulacy and the idea that his presence among high society people is in itself funny remains inescapable in the novel.  Also, what the BBC understandably didn’t include, was the way that almost every other character present comments on Chokey’s presence, or the abusive terms they use when doing so. I’m not sure what else they could have done while remaining at all true to the novel. On the one extreme, removing the single black character from a TV show in the name of  not upsetting people with racism would make no sense, and on the other, having Jack Whitehall say, as Paul Pennyfeather does in the novel, “I say Grimes, what d’you suppose the relationship is between Mrs Beste-Chetwynde and that n—–?” would – to say the least – have spoiled the show and made Pennyfeather a less sympathetic character than the BBC want him to be. But possibly they should have?

When writing about Waugh in 1986, Jon Savage wrote;

“It is extremely important that British culture develops a way of addressing the present and the future rather than the past, that recognises our pluralistic, multiracial society and our position, finger-in-the-dyke of trends in world politics” (Time Travel – Pop, Media and Sexuality 1976-99, Chatto & Windus 1996, p. 207)

and that’s still true – indeed, it’s more true now than it was even five years ago. But Decline and Fall isn’t it. Obviously, its anarchic vision isn’t as straightforwardly nostalgic and conservative in 2017 as Brideshead was in the 80s, but that’s partly because popular culture, post-Brass Eye, post-I’m A Celebrity and post-Operation Yew Tree is massively more coarse and more receptive to deliberate bad taste than the 80s was, or the 20s were for that matter. In its concern with period detail and its twee Jeeves and Wooster-ish execution, the makers of Decline and Fall have swapped the viciously funny nihilism of Waugh’s 1920s for a slightly cosy bad taste pantomime world which is equally as uncomfortable in its own very different way and leaves a comparable, but again different funny taste. Still; it wasn’t awful.