Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cuba, House of Cards and Hamas - Trump That...

Let’s face it, America exists to supply the script-writers of fiction an endless series of dramas – Peyton Place, Dallas, Dynasty, The West Wing, Lonesome Dove, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and latterly Homeland.

After watching, retrospectively, the 11th season of American Celebrity Apprentice, won by country singer John Rich, I’d be inclined to add Donald Trump’s series to the list. The back-biting, the bitching, Nene Leakes’ full-frontal verbal attacks on Star Jones and La Toya Jackson and Meatloaf’s belligerent stand-off with actor Gary Busey, made Newsnight and Question Time seem tame by comparison. 

I should explain that I started watching this programme years ago when it was screened late night on Mondays on BBC1. It got me through several lonely miserable winters. I was fascinated by Donald Trump’s ostentation, his sartorial splendour - especially the red, rose or salmon pink tie which hung like the blade of a short Roman sword from his white shirt. He has a way of narrowing his eyes, like a big cat blinking in sunlight, which usually spells trouble for anyone trying to fake him out.  The man in the long black coat, in the long black limousine, in the topless Trump Tower...It’s show business, I know, but I’ve a strong weakness for this form of larger-than-life reality. You might find that pathetic or even moronic, I couldn't possibly comment.

Anyway, there I was, watching the dvd of the first season of the American version of Michael Dobbs’ drama of political Machiavellianism, House of Cards, when Jeb Bush announced that he might consider running for the White House in 2016. That made Kevin Spacey’s homicidal conniving for the position of Vice President seem tame by comparison.  Could the world stand another Bush fire or another Clinton (Hilary) sashaying over the White House parquet? When I was a child - about seven minutes ago - dynastic empire-building seemed a theme for stage play-acting (Macbeth) or television (Dallas) but, as I suggested at the start, American reality is stranger than fiction. 

Fifty years ago this month anti-Castro insurgents fired a bazooka at the United Nations building in New York in which Che Guevera  was addressing the General Assembly. The year before, 1963. they may have had a hand in the turkey shoot on Elm Street, Dallas, which shattered the back of President John Kennedy’s head and wounded the Governor of Texas, Senator John Connolly. They’re up in arms again, this time over the joint-initiative by President Obama and Cuba’s President Raul Castro, to relax American-Cuban diplomatic relations and ease trade, travel and other restrictions. They want no let-up in the war against dictatorship, and that, reportedly, includes President Obama himself and his use of Executive Orders to push through legislation.

JFK was murdered for going soft on Cuba and the Soviet Union. Yet President Obama, the instigator of punishing sanctions against the former Soviet Union for the war in Ukraine, is being attacked for going soft on dictators because he prefers to rumba with Castro rather than rumble in the jungle.

Good luck to him, I say. He’ll need it, especially now that the European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to recognise the state of Palestine and the EU has removed Hamas from its US-approved list of international terrorist organisations. All this and more – Arab and Palestinian diplomats are discussing with the United Nations a timetable for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank – in the week that the fourth series of Homeland (based on an Israeli television series) approaches its finale.

The politics of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are what drew me to this series in the first place. At times it has struck me as eerily prescient. Before the latest US Embassy security alert, for example, Homeland had the US Embassy in Islamabad over-run and briefly occupied by the Taliban. This series started with a calamitous US drone attack aimed at a Taliban leader but which instead slaughtered a wedding party. This week’s real-life bloody attack on the school in Peshawar, in which 134 children and seven adults were massacred, was committed, say the Taliban, in revenge for drone killings of their women and children.

I don’t suppose Jeb Bush's southern state Republicans and Castrophobes, seething over President Obama’s appeasing of dictators, will measure this view against the claim by others that the President, for approving the increased use of drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan against the dictatorial Taliban, is culpable of war crimes.  American reality is stranger than fiction. Were Donald Trump to pitch for the White House in 2016 against Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton there’ll be a tri-partite dynastic dust-up that could make Dallasty seem tame by comparison.  

Monday, 1 December 2014

An Everyday Story...

So what's the news? expatriates are asking from Los Angeles to Moscow. 'Partly Dave', our Prime Minister, has made a tough-sounding speech about the European Union in the manner of tough-talking Tony - tough-on-crime-tough-on-the-causes-of-crime - Blair. It's a universal truth that tough talking always precedes capitulation.

But no, that's not the big news. 

Gordon Brown is retiring from Parliament at the May 2015 General Election after 32 years as an MP. As Tony Blair's former Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr Brown did so much to bugger up the economy, from agreeing dubious Private Finance Initiatives, encouraging banks to lend, lend, lend to people who only wanted to spend, spend, spend rather than repay their mortgages, to supporting two costly wars in Afghnistan and Iraq. Arguably, as Tony Blair's successor as Prime Minister, he then did much in 2007 and 2008 to prevent the entire banking sector from imploding, although I suspect that the credit that he and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, got at the time might be a bit muted now in light of further examples of banking hubris, the fines for which are being spent on the NHS and GP funding, or so we are led to believe.

But, no, that's not the news either.

Immigration? Pah. Listen. Last week we went to Liverpool, dropped off our bag, had lunch and then went forth towards the Albert Dock area. The first words I heard were Polish. Almost the first words I heard upon our return to Bradford were, you've guessed, Polish. But for the fact that for the last 65.5 years I have felt a stranger here - on Earth - I might be inclined to think I was getting like Alf Garnett in the autumn of my life. In other words a prime U(kipper). In my experience people generally get along with whomever they are obliged to get along with in daily life. It's only when real life is twisted into an 'issue' on topical affairs programmes and people are encouraged to take sides that the trouble starts. There may be 260,000 more foreigners here than were in the UK last year; but there's sod all I can do about that come Friday afternoon. What I object to is politicians, who created or went along with this situation in the first place, cracking on that they can do something about it.

But no, that's not the news.   

The really big story probably dividing the nation concerns the future of Brookfield Farm in the village of Ambridge. Will David Archer and his prattling wife Ruth really sell up and by so doing sell out a BBC4 Radio tradition that goes back to, when, 1956?  There's more. They want to take Jill Archer with them. Jill is the Mother of the Nation. She doesn't want to leave Ambridge. What those two are proposing is tantamount to abducting a national treasure. What if they sell the farm, remove Jill AND Tony Archer (trampled by a bull a few weeks ago) pops his green wellies? I doubt if the nation could suffer the after-shock. Will the producers and writers really subject loyal Archers fans to days of sanctimonious breast-beating by the awful Peggy Archer?  

What would the Sunday morning omnibus edition be without Brookfield: Stephen Fry's omphalos. Took me long enough to get over the passing of Dan and Doris Archer, Walter - 'Me old pal, me old beauty' - Gabriel, his son Nelson, Tom Forrest, the man-slaying game-keeper who used to introduce the Sunday omnibus, and organ-playing Phil Archer. David Blunkett's on the case, I hear. There must surely be a GET RID OF RUTH AND PEGGY campaign to save Brookfield (scheming Ruth only wants David to sell up so that she can be nearer her sick mum in the North East) from developers and Tony from the crematorium. I bet these story-lines are making Alan Bennett wipe his glasses with unwonted vigour down in Camden. It just goes to prove that fiction is sometimes more compelling than truth or, in this case, Ruth.

That, gentle skimmer, is the news.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Imitation Game Revisited

Art does not imitate life: it re-creates it. Fiction is a form of invented truth. Picasso simply said that to tell the truth art had to lie. For him, art was not a mirror held up to nature, a perfect representation of it. Art in all its various forms moved away from mere representation a long time ago.

Turner's wild pictures show the truth of that. This comes through in Mike Leigh's biopic, which I saw this week and mostly enjoyed. Timothy Spall, as the grouchy painter, deserves an Oscar for his versatile range of grimaces and hog-like gruntings: a true artist-monster, a Caliban in cutaway coat and topper, with a gift for depicting light, colour and motion. In his world, as seen in the film in which the women mostly suffer, human relations take second place.

The same can be said of Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of mathematician and scientist Alan Turing, the man credited with cracking the Nazi Enigma code in World War II, in Morten Tyldum's fine film The Imitation Game. The film has a good script by 31-year-old Graham Moore and a strong supporting cast including Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Charles Dance and Matthew Goode. Anyone who feared or hoped that Cumberbatch would reprise his successful portrayal of cherubic-faced sociopathic Sherlock Holmes were either gratified or disappointed. I didn't think of Holmes at all as I watched the film.

I have seen it twice since Monday. I think the film acknowledges that some of its audience will have seen Hugh Whitemore's 1986 play, Breaking the Code or the subsequent television film made of it, both starring Derek Jacobi. Fewer, I suspect, will have read Andrew Hodges 1983 biography: Alan Turning: The Enigma. I read that Mr Hodges had issues with the film script, for example, Turing's relationship with Joan Clarke, the only female cryptanalyst, if that's the right term, working at Bletchley Park. Turing's genius was not given full credit, he felt.

Okay. But a feature film is not a slice of real life. Keira Knightley probably is more beautiful than Joan Clarke was at her age, but that doesn't disqualify her from turning in an emotionally engaging performance which has nothing to do with glamour. There is no suggestion in the film that their relationship is anything other than platonic. Turing's proposal of marriage is merely a device for deceiving her parents to let their 25-year-old unmarried daughter continue to work at male-dominated Bletchley Park. There is no suggestion that Turing is using it to mask his own homosexual predilection. Apart from any other consideration, Turing the character is too bloody honest (for his own good) to stoop to such subterfuge. The real-life Turing didn't do that either.

The purpose of the film is to tell something of Turing's personal story in the context of his war work at Bletchley Park and, irrespective of his service to the state, how he was subsequently persecuted for what he was. I think both the script-writer and the director devised the story to complement Hugh Whitemore's terrific Breaking the Code which deals more explicitly with Turing's post-war milk bar pick-ups in Manchester, one of which ultimately led to him being charged and convicted with indecency in 1952, when homosexuality was unlawful. The play and the television film also make more of the manner of Turing's death - a cyanide-coated apple - relating it to Turing's fondness for the Disney film of Snow White, which also features a poisoned apple - symbolic of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Book of Genesis. The Imitation Game references both cyanide and apples in separate scenes but does not bring them together. Those who saw Whitemore's work will do that.

After the first time I saw the film I came away thinking it was essentially a story about lost love. The love of Turing's life at public school, a boy called Christopher who died prematurely of TB. Turing called his Enigma code-breaking machine Christopher. It seems that he named all his digital computing machines Christopher after the one human being whom he believed really understood him.

After the second viewing this afternoon I came away thinking it is also a film about deceit and betrayal - ultimately the betrayal of Turing. Last Christmas Eve the Queen issued a feel-good posthumous pardon for Turing, absolving him of the charge of indecency brought against him 62 years ago. She was on the throne in 1954 when Turing, presumably despairing of the chemical treatment he had agreed to take to counter his sexual proclivity - under the threat of two years imprisonment if he did not - ended his life. Yea! That's the way to treat a war hero, Her Majesty. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister at the time too, the same man who gave Turing carte blanche at Bletchley to help win the war.

Call me simple-minded, naive in the real politick of the climate of Cold War politics prevailing in 1954, but I would have expected a grateful nation, in the shape of Her Majesty's Government, to have done all in its power to protect and support Turing after the war, principally telling Manchester Police to bugger off and do something more important with their time other than hounding a conflicted homosexual boffin. Compare Turing's treatment to the leniency shown to Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures. The authorities knew that Blunt was a Soviet spy, a traitor to his country, long before Mrs Thatcher's told the House of Commons in 1979. A friend of the traitors Burgess, Philby and Maclean, Blunt confessed to his wartime spying for Stalin in 1964 but was granted immunity from prosecution and enjoyed a further 15 years of a privileged life at the top. Blunt was also a homosexual at a time when it was unlawful to be so;  but unlike Alan Turing he enjoyed the protection of the high and mighty. Turing, a patriot, was punished: Blunt, a traitor, was honoured. Like John Lennon, I'd return my MBE if I had one. The role of MI6 in Turing's persecution remains a mystery. Perhaps it was in their interests to keep Turing in a state of anxiety, suggesting that his service for the State might be called upon again this time in the war against the red glacier of the USSR. My better half Lesley made this inference from the film.

After leaving Pictureville Cinema on Monday afternoon I did two things. I went into Forster's restaurant and ordered my tea (fish, chips, mushy peas and bread and butter). Having done that I immediately walked to nearby Waterstone's and bought a copy of Andrew Hodges' 600-page biography; I even managed to read 20 pages of the preface before returning to the cinema to meet Lesley and watch Turner. Since then we have been at the Hard Days Night hotel, Liverpool, to visit the boyhood homes of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, so I haven't had time to devote to Dr Hodges' book for which the film inspired me to fork out £8.99 sight unseen.

But I have just turned to the last couple of pages in search of some sort of concluding statement. I found the following:- But he never wanted to be the focus of the modern world's contradictions. It had been his trouble all along that, although driven by the desire to do something, he wanted to remain ordinary, to be left alone in peace. These were incompatible goals, and there was no consistency in him. Only in his death did he finally behave truly as he had begun: the supreme individualist, shaking off society and acting so as to minimise its interference. While Nineteen Eighty-Four, which so impressed him, held references to science and intelligence which made a telling counterpoint to his own ideas, there was a level on which Orwell was saying something very similar to himself. Orwell would have cared very little for the legacy of Bletchley Park, another development of the Ministry of Truth, nor for the computers being built by people utterly heedless of questions such as those of whose intelligence was to be mechanised, and what it was for...Orwell did not lose his faith in the capacity of Oldspeak to convey the truth; and his dream of the plain-speaking Englishman was close to Alan Turing's simple model of the mind - the vision of a science independent of human error.

If the saying is true, that every good act is punished then Alan Turing, who killed himself on the night of Monday, June 7, 1954, was destined to be a victim of his country's patronising hypocrisy; evidently he had neither the talent nor the disposition to cynically play the game. Didn't the Queen herself once aver that dark forces were at work in Britain - or was that just her former butler talking bollocks?

Monday, 24 November 2014


...not the poetic epic by 'Doc' William Carlos Williams about the life and times of the New Jersey city of Paterson, the place referred to by Bob Dylan in his song Hurricane; no, I mean Owen Paterson, David Cameron's former Secretary of State at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whom the Prime Minister had the wisdom to sack.

Why he got rid of one of the sharper blades in his canteen of cutlery, otherwise known as the Cabinet, has vexed more dedicated political bloggers than me. Faced across the green upholstery of the Commons by Adrian Mole and his Labour Party chums, perhaps Mr Cameron was in greater fear of competition for his place as first among equals from his own side of the house. 

If there was a real reason I do not know it. Since dumping Mr P, however, Mr C has lost a couple of Conservative-held seats to Ukip; more than that, perhaps, he has lost face over his huffing and puffing about the European Union. Like demented King Lear on the heath, he threatens to unleash the terrors of the earth (figuratively speaking) upon the EU Commission, but knows not what they are. Reform hardly covers it.

John Major's appearance on Andrew Marr's show the Sunday before last only served to make those dedicated political bloggers I mentioned laugh, principally because the former Prime Minister spoke airily of partial or part-time reform. And didn't I hear him aver that once the economies of the southern european part of the EU had recovered their economic migrants would go home? Mr Major is one of those EUadvocats who maintain that Britain is economically better off inside the EU and would suffer were we to leave it.

Owen Paterson challenged this assumption in his keynote speech today (November 24). We only ever hear about the three million jobs that would be lost if Britain withdrew from the EU, even though Britain is a net contributor to the EU economy. The billions we spend in importing goods from the EU supports five million jobs abroad, Mr Paterson said, and leaves us with a net trading deficit of £66b.

Over the next few days counter-claims will be propelled like fiery ballista projectiles at Paterson's speech, which sets out exactly the steps that Britain can take in extracting itself from the bankrupt political project that the EU, in its various historical manifestations since 1951, has always been. What interests me is how the Europhiles will come at him, what they will do to discredit his argument. Probably the projectiles have already been fired.

While the nation waits for David Cameron's promised speech, his explanation of how he is going to reform the EU, I would like to offer the following opinion. The post-World War II shattered economies of Western Europe were not healed and repaired by the Coal and Steel Union, then the European Economic Community, but by the 1948 Marshall Plan - the $17 billion that was delivered in instalments through until the mid-1950s.  

I like to believe that this was in part because the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War and World War I had finally sunk in. The humiliation visited upon the French by the triumphant Prussians in 1871 were in turn visited upon the defeated Germans in 1919 and, 21 years later, re-visted upon the crushed French by Nazi Germany. The Marshall Plan stopped the cycle of vengeance. The belief was that economic prosperity underpinning a sound system of democratic governance was more likely to keep Germany on the rails.

Leaving the bankrupt political project of the EU does not mean 'leaving Europe' because, as Mr Paterson explains, Britain will remain a trading partner with EU countries and beyond. The rules of trade are made elsewhere by global organisations such as the World Trade Organisation; increasingly the EU is merely a conduit for passing these rules down the line. Extricating ourselves from the Brussels satrapy would enable this country to deal directly with the rule-makers in Rome, Geneva and New York. Britain can start this process by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which allows for any member state of the EU to declare its intention to leave the project. 

The Conservative Party is split on ever greater involvement in the European project because the lauhging Grocer, Edward Heath, lied through his teeth to them and the nation about what membership would mean. Tory back-benchers know all about Article 50. The nation has yet to hear the Prime Minister make any mention of it. If that is about to change, how he refers to it - dismissively, perhaps, or in passing as he hurries on to another point - may be instructive.  

Sunday, 16 November 2014

New Model Army, Nick Cave and David Hockney

Watching War of Words, the BBC2 documentary about British poets and writers who fought on the Somme between July and November 1916, narrated without fuss or portentousness by Michael Sheen, the chorus of a song called Ghosts by New Model Army echoed in my mind:-

And when the music is gone the silence is still ringing
With all these conversations between the dead and the living
For these ghosts become part of us, the ghosts become part of us, the ghosts become part of us

The faces of dead soldiers looming up through water's mirror in rain-drenched shell holes that the likes of Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Wilfred Owen, J R R Tolkien, Robert Graves and others saw; the lives and voices of dead comrades forever echoing.  

Ghosts is the last song on New Model Army's last album Between Dog and Wolf, released last year. The album is also the title of Matt Reid's film documentary which we went to see before War of Words - hence the fusion of the two.

New Model Army was formed in Bradford by Justin Sullivan 34 years ago. He was greatly helped in his ambition to make a career out of being a singer-songwriter-performer of uncompromising attitude by Joolz Denby. Of all the work he has produced I know only that single LP and two or three songs: Green and Grey, Angry Planet and Vengeance.

In Reid's documentary Sullivan said he wrote Vengeance after watching a TV documentary about Nazi mass-murderer Klaus Barbie in which he was addressed as "Mr Barbie". Sullivan's chorus, to a pounding punk beat, goes:-

I believe in justice,
I believe in vengeance,
I believe in getting the bastards, getting the bastards, getting the bastards

Nazi war criminals didn't come into my mind, but bankers playing silly buggers with foreign exchange rates and world economies did; and vicious buggers playing games with the lives of children.

Neither Greenpeace nor the Labour Party's Red Wedge would have anything to do with New Model Army. On the band's one and only appearance on Top of the Pops they insisted on playing live, not miming to a pre-recoded tape. Sullivan also insisted on wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend: Only stupid bastards take heroin. The BBC insisted that all but the b of bastards was masked by tape. When the boss of Sony arrived backstage at a NMA concert to tell the band he would make them rich and famous, Sullivan told him that his job was to promote their music; it was not their job to promote his corporation. Sony dropped them.

Phil Jupitus said Sullivan's insistence on shooting himself in the foot was one of the consequences of being true to his principles. A man after my own heart, I thought: let the work to the talking.

How different to Nick Cave, who spends almost the entire length of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's biopic 20,000 Days on Earth talking about the art of song-writing (when he's not talking about himself). His stage act is very different to Justin Sullivan's, very touchy-feely. With his jet black hair swept back Dracula-style, he leans into the front row of his concert audience saying, repeatingly, Can you hear my heart beat? Very theatrical, but then he has written for the stage as well as the big screen.

While I quite enjoyed watching the Cave man building the song Push the Sky Away in the studio, recording the various parts and splicing them together, as he performed on stage my mind was distracted by his facial similarity to Lee Marvin and his stylistic resemblance to Neil Diamond (with a dash of the younger Leonard Cohen). Lesley thought he was pretentious whereras she thought Justin Sullivan was honest. I wondered who took his kids to school and shopped for the pizza he later ate with them (while being filmed of course). Talking about art can be disingenuous. While you are playing god somebody else is paying the bills or cooking the dinner; but the material aspect of making art is not something that singer-songwriters or painters are either asked about or offer to discuss.

David Hockney is case in point. His father Kenneth gave his artistic son a piece of advice: "Don't worry too much about what the neighbours say."

For the last 50 years Hockney has not spent too much time worrying about what anybody - art critics among them - had to say either about his lifestyle or his work. He appears to have adopted his father's iconoclastic advice as his personal philosophy. Early on in his career he declared portentously: "I paint what I want, when I want." Later on he added to this manifesto, saying that he painted pictures wherever he happened to be - London, Los Angeles or Bridlington.

Hmm, well I can report that he's no longer on the east coast of Yorkshire. Instead he's on back on the west coast of America. The least interesting parts of Randall Wright's biopic homage Hockney take place in the Hollywood Hills. Not that the 77-year-old artist's reflections about his childhood in Bradford are boring, they're not. Hockney's always been an interesting, sometimes mischievous, raconteur. It's just that the more compelling parts of the film, for me at any rate, consist of black and white footage of late 1950s Bradford, the art college where Hockney irritated macho show-offs by drawing studiously for hours at a time, learning his craft, and the early 1960s clips of the Royal College of Art in London.

We see the young Hockney, close-cropped hair dyed blond, pogo dancing with a young woman with evident Yorkshire relish. There is a great deal of youthful joie de vivre, both in his behaviour and in his paintings which in 1962 won the 25-year-old the Gold Medal for Painting. Some of the scenes from London of the early 1970s are clips from Jack Hazan's weird and wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, A Bigger Splash (how did he get them all to, well, play themselves?).

One of the incidental fascinations of Wright's film, apart from John Harle's soundtrack, is the changing timbre of Hockney's voice across half-a-century. Like the colour of his hair, it has gone from craggy Heathcliff black to camp California blond and bleak Yorkshire grey.

Former student colleagues at Bradford, John Loker and David Oxtoby, are among the talking heads who offer anecdotal colour to the Cook's tour of Hockney's life, though there is little or no evaluation of his art. Oxtoby comes closest, declaring that Hockney probably hasn't changed his basic outlook since his days in Bradford. "He's still searching," he says. Okay, but for what?

For me the best sequences of the film belong to the artist as a young man, before fame, fortune and celebrity - and all those honours bestowed by the Queen. We two old queens clinging together. Not that the film goes anywhere near assessing either Hockney's enormous wealth - extensive properties in California, London and Yorkshire - or his attitude to money and posessions.

Hockney describes his father's advice about ignoring the neighbours as "aristocratic, actually, not working class. My mother would have worried about what people say." As far as I know, Hockney showed no inhibition in projecting himself in London, New York and Los Angeles. Does this make him one of life's natural aristocrats or democrats?

The film does not ask this question let alone answer it. He says: "When I didn't have much money I always was always working..." Words to that effect. Now he has a great deal of money, but this doesn't come up in the film and this made me wonder why. Hockney is not obliged to tell anybody outside the Inland Revenue and its American equivalent what's he worth. Like Justin Sullivan, I expect he wouldn't give a damn however little money he had. But wouldn't you expect a documentary film-maker or profiling journalist at least to ask how much? Hockney is fond of expatiating upon the significance of space and time in his art. Well, his economic power has bought him a great deal of both - a dozen or more people depend on him for a livelihood. Hockney's story, indeed the story of his family, is one of rags to riches. They all made something of themselves by their own efforts. How he did it, how they did it, is worth a few minutes. We are all interested in how people rise above their circumstances. Hockney's wealth isn't the key signature of his story, but neither is it a minor part of it.

The most moving moment occurs about 17 minutes in when Hockney's sister Margaret is shown walking along a street of terraced houses off Bradford's Leeds Road. She enters one of them, the former family home, goes up the stairs into a room and looks out of the window. The camera pans round to a mirror on the wall, into which the young Hockney with a hand-held camera, appears. It's a clever, simple, piece of film-making, splicing together past and present; and Harle's accompanying sountrack mirrors the mood perfectly.

Refreshingly, Randall Wright's film has no disembodied narrator. The people who appear on camera - they include Hockney's mother, Laura - speak for themselves.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Branding Russell

Having a private life and promoting a public cause can be complementary, they don't have to be either/or. It seems to me that Russell Brand is valiantly struggling to reconcile these two aspects of who he is, who he is trying to become.

Standing up in public and admitting that he is an alcoholic, a drug addict, in day-by-day recovery is a point of departure for him, not the end point of a confessional. Listening to him the other night, dominating a platform with the Guardian's Owen Jones in London, I was at times deeply touched by Brand's honesty and above all by his willingness to acknowledge the contradictory impulses in his character and his declared refusal to be dominated by them.

Living an outward life, distancing one's self from the gravitational pull of me, me, me, the regret that follows and the subsequent hunger for palliatives to dull the anguish and self-hatred, requires something beyond those selfish imperatives. Buddhists get out of jail by denying the material world. Political activists hurl themselves into it, as though changing the outside will bring transformation on the inside.

Brand engages in the latter activity while simultaneously placing himself in the hands of a benevolent creator. There was an interesting moment when, during the course of one impassioned cascade, he declared that even David Cameron was beautiful. Like every other human being, he too was a child of the creator. I don't think Brand said 'God'; he may not have said 'Creator', but he was clearly talking about a presence, an emanation, beyond this world.

Owen Jones look slightly embarrassed. As an engaged social activist, possibly an apostle of Richard Dawkins and (it follows) a true believer in man-made environmental apocalypse, the idea of a Tory Prime Minister being beautiful, let alone having a soul, was a bit much for Mr Jones. I don't suppose he'd have quite the same difficulty with the idea of Caroline Lucas and Vivienne Westwood having a soul, but Nigel Farage? Ukip's leader was the one most often referred to disparagingly. He's been well and truly boxed and packaged.

Ukip wants Britain to reclaim its soul from the European Union. Russell Brand listed 'Europe' (he meant the EU) as one of the vast trans-national corporate bodies that he wanted people to cut loose from. He has more in common with Ukip than he realises. Green activists, of course, embrace an ever-closer union with the EU because it enforces climate change policies they religiously espouse. In man-made environmental apocalypse they find the certainties that Hebrew zealots in Israel find in the idea of Armageddon. Believers in diametrically opposed ideas have two things in common: a central, over-arching ideal, and passionate intensity. Passionate intensity, as Yeats said in his poem The Second Coming, can lead to terrible acts for politically or morally beautiful reasons.

The world will be saved by wind power, wave power, carbon capture and the transforming potentiality of green technology. That's the mantra. But neither Russell Brand nor Owen Jones made a link between the multi-billion pound cost of this (for the UK rising steeply to 2050) imposed by the EU and its electorally unaccountable panjandrums in the Commission. They see environmentalism as a necessary alternative to morally bankrupt capitalism. It might be if it wasn't so capital-intensive, if it wasn't rich with grants and subsidies. If you embrace the idea of man-made environmental apocalypse then you also embrace the EU as it is, what it was and what it always intended to be - a vast political corporation telling people what they can and cannot do.

Beautiful David Cameron is learning that this organisation cannot be changed from the outside. Russell Brand will too. Activists passionately believe that direct action does force political organisations and corporate bodies to change. Russell Brand doesn't like the idea of coercion, let alone bloody revolution. His idea of revolution has nothing to do with class warfare or Baader-Meinhof-style 'praxis'. Kill bad ideas, not people. He advocated engagement at a local level: do what you can decently do to make a difference for others without harming anyone. He offered his fame and influence to amplify the objectives of good causes. More dubiously he suggested that people should walk into big corporations like Tescos and simply take them over. 

A friend who was with us at the event said afterwards that some of the audience responded to Brand as though he was a messiah. Messianic figures, irrespective of whether they actively seek that status, tend to end up as targets - not for their enemies. It wasn't a Roman who betrayed Christ. The man who assassinated Gandhi was a Hindu, not a Muslim or a Sikh. A Jew gunned down Israel's Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Europhile Tories put paid to Margaret Thatcher's career. And John Lennon's self-proclaimed biggest fan, Mark Chapman, fired five bullets into him. Et tu Brute and all that.

I think Russell Brand is a bright man who is trying to be a good man. He's sharp enough to know when he's being set up and acutely aware of being patronised. I hope he's just as sharp and aware of the motives of seemingly well-intentioned acolytes who look at him as an opportunity to further their own agenda. He'll have to be long-suffering and good-humoured along the way.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Ukip If You Want To - the Party's Not For Sleeping...

Would Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats be sharing power with the Conservatives if the Social Democratic Party had not come into existence in March 1981?

That's an open question, I don't have a ready-made smart answer. Thirty-three years ago the Liberal Party that David Steel inherited from Jeremy - "bunnies can and will go to France" - Thorpe was a bit of a joke. From being a potential power-broker, first with Edward Heath and then with James Callaghan, it became an outlet for disillusioned Labour or Conservative voters at by-elections. But in the autumn of 1981, six or seven months after The Limehouse Declaration and the manifestation of the SDP, Mr Steel felt sufficiently emboldened by events to tell delegates at end of the Liberal Party conference: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for govenment!"

Remember that? It took 29 years, but after the 2010 General Election they got there. The question is: would the Lib-Dems have succeeded without the side-swiping arrival of SDP? Answers on the back of a photo of Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon, please.

The analogy between the SDP and the Sex Pistols is not as incongruous as may first appear. The Pistols were a phenomenon for only about two years, from 1976 to 1978. Although popular music reverted to type after the band's shock wave subsided, the after-effect still ripples to this day. Similarly, although the SDP is no longer a Parliamentary party, arguably its influence lingers on, giving hope to the supporters of Ukip.

Disillusioned ex-Ukippers, who criticize Farage's party for not having a sign-posted road map out of the Euroland, should not be denounced as spoilsports. They serve a purpose, much as the chap who rode on the chariot of triumphant Roman emperors whispering 'memento mori'. Premature ejaculations encouraged by triumphal by-election victories are apt to lead to anti-climax and may screw things up for chaps with a cunning plan who come after.

In 1973 pro-EEC Dick Taverne, left the anti-EEC Labour Party (how times change). He sensationally won a by-election at Lincoln and formed the Campaign for Social Democracy. His blazing success was short-lived, as were the SDP comets of former Labour Party panjandrums Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins in the skies of Crosby and Glasgow Hillhead. I've forgotten most of the great by-election shock nights that I used to stay up for, watching the late Vincent Hannah enjoying himself in obscure parts of the country.

After the Rochester by-election Nigel Farage may well be able to say on behalf of Ukip: 'Now we are two: Carswell and Reckless.' Sounds like a road accident waiting to happen. But Mr Farage should also bear in mind that the SDP's Gang of Four - Bill Rodgers, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins - had 28 erstwhile Labour MPs as well as former Conservative Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler ranked behind them. They did not get into the magic circle of power. They were too pro-Brussels whereas Ukip is not.

Political life in 1981 Britannia was different. Debate was real, heated and meant something - look at the vilification aimed at Tony Benn for trying to make the internal procedures of the Labour Party more accountable. I didn't think he was right at the time, but at least people argued with real feeling. Voting meant something. Parliament meant something. Sovereignty meant something. Since then the people of this country have found themselves chained to treaties they neither voted for nor had a say in formulating. And in that time they have felt increasingly disenfranchised as evidenced by the falling turn-outs at all kinds of elections. Add to that the public's low opinion of MPs and you can see why Nigel Farage believes his party's in with a chance of making a difference at the General Election in May next year.

The two main parties tend to judge the present by the past - 'come the next election voters will revert to type, don't worry old chap'. I hope they get a bloody shock. Both of them are responsible for selling this country out to greedy corporations, the egregious European Union and the United States. If there ever is a referendum on whether we should knock off the EU shackles - which I doubt, for that will take some kind of terrible upheaval - infuriatingly, I probably won't be around to see it.