The Obscurer

Month: April, 2005

Signed D.C.

I’ve already written that if it’s a straight fight between being legal or illegal, then I believe the Iraq War was illegal. In brief, I think that even if you agree that Iraq was in material breach of UN resolutions, and you accept that the cease fire after the 1991 Gulf War is therefore rescinded, and that consequently in 2003 we were once more at war with Iraq, the existing resolutions only allowed us to use military force in order to liberate Kuwait, not to invade Iraq and remove Saddam. Unless someone explains where it states that there was some authority for coalition forces to go beyond the Kuwaiti border, then I will stick by my belief that the war must be considered illegal.

Now, supporters of the war often argue that international law is far from set in stone, that it is a complicated and nuanced business, and this is true; further, it is often argued that the legality or otherwise of the invasion is irrelevant next to the moral rightness of the liberation, and perhaps they have a point. I guess if I passionately believed that a certain course of action was justified and moral, and was then told that it was illegal, then I would probably say “sod legality, let’s do what is right”. If back in 1994 a veto from a Security Council member was the obstacle preventing a UN intervention in the Rwandan genocide, then I would know where they could stick the veto and I would support any illegal action required to save lives (in practice I believe the threat of the veto was enough to stall an intervention in Rwanda).

I expect the moral case will now be made to excuse the fact that, according to the documents obtained by Channel 4 News, between the 7th and 17th of March 2003 the Attorney General’s legal advice was stripped of all its conditions and equivocations. The argument as ever will be that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, whatever the Lord Goldsmith said on the 7th. Well perhaps, but is this really relevant? What is needed now is not an explanation of the moral rightness of the war, but of the moral rightness of presenting an unbalanced and one sided version of the legal advice to parliament and the nation in order to persuade and cajole MP’s and the general public into going to war. Unless I hear a reasonable explanation for this action, or some evidence that the document is a forgery, then I will treat any reference to the war itself as an evasion. So far I have heard Clive Soley make the moral case for war on Channel 4 News, while on Newsnight Jack Straw was at his unconvincing best suggesting that all of the Attorney General’s doubts evaporated in the fortnight between the publication of the leaked document and Baghdad’s first taste of shock and awe. Straw suggested that dramatic events during that time (eg. Hans Blix saying Iraq was disarming) made Goldsmith’s caveats redundant; presumably without such vital developments the less strident version of the legal advice would have been published and we wouldn’t have trooped diligently behind the US on the 20th of March. Yeah, right. I wasn’t persuaded and will await developments.

But why am I worrying? Speaking to Sky News Tony Blair says he has never lied; not just on Iraq, but on any matter. He has never told a lie. That means that in the history of mankind he has just joined the exalted company of George Washington and, well, no one else basically. And we only really know that George was happy to own up to some minor peccadillo in his youth regarding a cherry tree; would he have been so forthcoming if he had invaded Iraq? Anyway, how can we be sure that Blair isn’t lying now? That’s the problem with liars; you can never really tell.


Shepperton Babylon

Probably the finest work Harry Enfield has ever done was a one-off spoof documentary for Channel 4 entitled Norbert Smith – A Life. In the style of a South Bank Show special, and even “presented” by Melvyn Bragg, it followed the life and career of the fictional celebrated actor Sir Norbert Smith, a sort of Gielgud/Olivier/ Richardson composite. Through various parodies of different films we see Enfield/Smith star alongside Will Silly in Oh, Mr Bankrobber; in the gritty northern kitchen sink drama of It’s Grim Up North; as the uncool father in the Cliff Richardesque Keep Your Hair On, Daddio; and performing a song and dance routine in the MGM-style musical Lullaby Of London.

At one point we see a clip from Smith’s 1964 film Rover Returns Home, introduced as being part of the Rover series of films, poor British imitations of the successful American Lassie films (it also claims to be the first film to feature the chameleon like versatility of Michael Caine…as the dog). Curiously enough I have recently found out that there actually was a British series of Rover films; but rather than being copies of American movies the first Rover film actually predates Lassie by nearly forty years. Furthermore, 1905’s Rescued by Rover features the first use of many of the innovative cinematic techniques usually attributed to DW Griffiths in his landmark film The Birth of a Nation, which was released a full decade later in 1915.

The source for this information is a new book Shepperton Babylon – The Lost Worlds of British Cinema by Matthew Sweet, and I think the above example rather neatly makes the author’s point, and indeed the premise of the book; that British films have always been under rated and under valued, and that “no-one has hated British film more than the British” themselves.

And who is Matthew Sweet? Well, according to the blurb at the front of the book he is a “writer and broadcaster” who has been, among other things, the “film critic for The Independent on Sunday, presenter of Radio 4’s The Film Programme, and a reporter for BBC2’s The Culture Show”. Strangely absent from this CV is that Matthew and I were at school together, and although we have lost touch with each other over the years I count him as a friend. So, is this post just a plug for an old friend’s book? Well, yes it is, but if you cannot plug a friend’s book in your own barely read blog, then what can you do? (Jonathan Calder has beaten me by several weeks to writing the first review of this book in a blog; he is obviously a far faster reader than I am).

Matthew’s previous book Inventing the Victorians was a re-evaluation of that era, where he sought to show how the stuffy and staid image often associated with the period is false. In Shepperton Babylon he tries to show another side to the much-derided British film industry. An author with a penchant for revisionism then? Perhaps, and both books are clearly personal views; but even if you don’t agree with the author’s opinion (and when discussing films you haven’t seen you have to take a lot on trust) the style of writing is always engaging, and you cannot read his opinions without being fascinated, and becoming more open minded about the subject.

The book follows a largely chronological path beginning during the pioneering days of film, when Hollywood was just “a tangle of cacti and orange trees”, but Hove in Sussex hosted a studio on rails that was moved during the course of the day in order to catch the sun. I think there is something inside all of us that understands the magic of those early days of cinema, some innate sense of wonder; it is the same feeling I remember from watching my dad’s old super-8 cine films which seem so much more evocative and thrilling than the DV clips I have taken on my camera, inspite of the far superior technology we have today. In the early days of British cinema film-makers were happy to create movies with such fantastic names as That Fatal Sneeze (where weights were attached to the camera to mimic the ultimate sneeze itself), The Lure Of Crooning Water and the Venetian romance of The City Of Beautiful Nonsense, and presumably kept a straight face as they did so.

That last film featured Chrissie White and Henry Edwards, who though largely forgotten nowadays appear to have been the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of their age, and it is surprising how often you are reminded of the present while reading about the past. In 1928, long before 9/11 and the building of the channel tunnel, High Treason concerned itself with a terrorist attack on a cross-channel rail link. If you think Little Britain is an original and inventive comedy it is interesting to read about 1952’s Mother Riley Meets The Vampire, where Arthur Lucan performs what Matthew describes as “not quite a drag act”; dressed in bonnet and shawl Lucan shrieks, “I’m a Lady…and I defy you to prove it!” It is also strange to read about the 1916 film East Is East based around a Fish and Chip shop, just like the more well known, but entirely unrelated, film of 1999.

You would expect a book of this sort to wax lyrically about a slew of lost gems, and indeed the descriptions of such films as the 1929 IRA drama The Informer (“a scene in which he offers his condolences to the weeping mother of the man he has helped to kill is as powerful as anything in Cinema”) and the early Ealing films such as Pen Tennyson’s There Ain’t No Justice, and Went The Day Well, leave you itching to see them; but Matthew is happy to put the boot in when required. The Woman From China is “comprehensively hopeless”, and as he is one of only a handful of people who have seen it he is “qualified to pronounce upon the irredeemable awfulness” of the film. Similarly, the gay western of The Singer Not The Song gets a less than favourable review, and unsurprisingly failed to kick start a new film genre.

Just reading the two pages of acknowledgements at the front of the book gives you some idea of the work that has gone into Shepperton Babylon. How many of us can say we have interviewed Googie Withers? Well Matthew can. He has also suffered for his art, and gone places I wouldn’t dare; interviewing the unbearable Nicholas Parsons for one (I saw Parsons on a TV programme the other day talking about his time as a comedy straight man where he said “Although I am not a pompous person in real life, I am very good at playing pompous characters”; oblivious to the fact that only a truly pompous man would come out with such a line). His interview with Norman Wisdom is described as “an overpowering experience: my five hours with him feel as much like a hostage crisis as an interview”; Wisdom even feels the need to “perform a comedy stumble” when they are introduced. Christopher Lee, however, proves to be a rich source of unintentional humour. Irritated that people view him as being just a horror actor, and attacking “sloppy journalism”, he states he hasn’t starred in a horror movie since 1975; which makes you wonder what sort of genre his movies Curse III: Blood Sacrifice (1991) and Talos The Mummy (1998) fall into. He must have been furious when his 1970 film The Bloody Judge, a biopic of the 17th century Lord Chancellor George Jeffreys was released as Night Of The Blood Monster. Poor bloke; even when he breaks free from the shackles of horror and appears in Eugenie…The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion (1991) he “insists he had no idea he was appearing in a porn film”.

The book is almost worth reading for the author’s descriptions alone; Barbara Cartland is a “flushed meringue”; Gracie Fields a “clog-shod Britannia”; George Formby looks like “a human being reflected in a tap”; Diana Dors is “a monstrous Zeppelin of blondeness”; while Dirk Bogarde “manages to suggest barrack-room bullying and buggery just by the way he leans on a mop” in one film; in another he resembles a “quiffed eel”.

As the book tells its story it is fascinating to see relatively unknown actors (at least, unknown to me) like the fantastically named Tod Slaughter make way for more familiar figures such as Lawrence Olivier. With the rise and fall of the studio system movies better known to me hover into view before I am in unfamiliar territory again with the chapters on exploitation and sexploitation films (honest). Along the way there are hundreds of revelations, some quirky, some significant; that 1936 saw the first screen kiss between black actors in Paul Robeson’s Song Of Freedom; how Rank’s move from making big prestige films to mass-market cheaper pictures was partly due to producer Filippo Del Giudice being fired for accidentally urinating on J.Arthur’s feet; that Kenneth More’s first role in cinema was literally in a cinema, monitoring “the audience for telescopes, binoculars, opera glasses and masturbation”; that Larry Taylor featured in the sexploitation film The Wife Swappers before finally finding “fame” as Captain Birds Eye (I will leave you to make up your own jokes).

The book ends on this note, dealing with the sub-Carry On… films of the seventies, a curious time when Adventures Of A Taxi Driver out-grossed Taxi Driver and filmmakers battled to win the Golden Phallus at the Wet Dreams festival in Amsterdam. I personally cannot even abide the Carry On… films, and I am unable to share Matthew’s obvious enthusiasm for them; so when he says that Emmanuelle In Soho is “a kind of endgame for British cinema” from which “ there was nowhere to go but upmarket” you know it must have been a stinker.

We largely know the path British film has taken since then; Matthew writes that “more has been written about the last twenty years of native production than the previous seven decades put together”, and so for a book dealing with “the unknown, the forgotten, the unrecorded” it is time to call it a day. Matthew is obviously a fan of many of these overlooked films, but he is never sentimental; he even asks us not to mourn the passing of such famous names as Elstree and Shepperton. By way of an example he recounts attending a party at the old Gainsborough studios in 1999, shortly before they were demolished in 2002. At one point he sneaks off, hoping to chance upon the ghost of Ivor Novello, but instead encounters only dead and dying pigeons.

In Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions the central character David Zimmer discovers the films of the silent movie star Hector Mann, and it is captivating to read Auster’s descriptions of these imaginary lost works such as The Snoop and Mr. Nobody. I always wanted to be able to watch these films, but unfortunately they are all the work of Auster’s imagination. Matthew Sweet casts a similar spell with his book; the difference being that here he is describing films that actually exist, and which you are able to see. He fires your interest and persuades you of the value of these lost masterpieces, inspires you to endeavour to track them down for yourself; and that is reason enough for me to consider Shepperton Babylon a success.

PostScript: The relevance of the picture? Well, it features the cast of the children’s programme Balamory, including the original and best Josie Jump (her in the yellow). On the far left, wearing pink, is Archie, the Inventor, who for me bares a striking resemblence to Matthew Sweet. Coincidently, next to Archie is PC Plum, who it is claimed is a dead ringer for myself. This is something I refute entirely; but in this matter, as in so many others, I appear to be in a minority of one.

The Other Saint George

I’m a week out. Last Saturday I was lying by the pool at the Hotel San Gorg in Malta. Today, on St George’s Day itself, I am back in Blighty, home of Shakespeare, Darwin, Churchill … in fact, lots of people other than St George himself.

I won’t be taking up the invitation from my local pub (the George and Dragon, naturally) to celebrate St George’s Day. I’m not particularly unpatriotic as such, but I certainly wouldn’t count myself as a patriot. I’m not exactly sure what I should be celebrating anyway. The slaying of a dragon? The life and times of a largely mythical character who is also the patron saint of Portugal, Catalonia, Venice and Genoa amongst others at the last count? Englishness itself? I don’t think I’ll bother.

I am quite happy to count myself as English, this despite the fact that the majority of my relations are Scottish. I just see my Englishness as being more a quirk of fate than a source of pride. There are things Anglian that do stir my spirit – the sound of leather on willow, a wattle and daub country pub, Greensleeves – but St George himself doesn’t really do it for me.

I am not criticising those who will be celebrating today, that is up to them; it is rubbish to equate such festivities with racism. Sure, the racist will be celebrating tonight, but they also commemorate Christmas and birthdays; they probably like eating steak and chips and playing monopoly. Just because some racists engage in an activity clearly does not make that activity racist in itself; just because the BNP will be having a hot pot supper tonight doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also mark the day. Indeed, if this day is reclaimed as a genuine source of English pride, then so much the better. I will also sympathise with anyone who is prevented from flying the cross of St George today by some politically correct council; although actual, genuine and bone fide examples of such actions by local authorities often proves to be about as thin on the ground as real facts about St George’s existence.

It is often said that the English do not celebrate their patron saint, but this is not strictly true. In my youth it was usually marked by letters to the editor of the Daily Telegraph bemoaning the fact that no-one makes a fuss about St George’s Day. More recently, there has been a growing move to observe the event as a reaction to the ever expanding St Patrick’s Day celebrations, with the argument that “the Irish celebrate their saint’s day, so why shouldn’t we?” I don’t see that a load of plastic Paddys downing Guinness in O’Reilly’s Autentic Oirish Bar is something to aspire to, but never mind. The effect is the same; more people seem to celebrate St George’s Day by way of a complaint; a complaint about other nations having better national days that we do, a complaint that we English don’t mark the day appropriately.

Well go on, celebrate it, please. Do whatever it is one is supposed to do to commemorate the life of a dragon slayer. What are you meant to do? Eat a dragon pie? Wear the traditional English dress of , err, jeans and a t-shirt? What? In the absence of anything else, you could just acquiesce to the marketing men’s wishes and go to a pub with a “Celebrate St George’s Day here” banner, and drink some lovely English lager. Good luck. All I would hope is that if you do commemorate the day, do it for a positive reason; because you are genuinely proud and happy to be English and to be toasting St George, and not out of anger and resentment because other countries seem to do these things so much better than we do.

Myself? I will stay in with a bottle of wine; probably Californian or Australian I’m afraid. I suppose I could best be described as English, and ambivalent.

PostScript: If you want a rather more celebratory post about St George’s day, then Tim Worstall’s your man.

Election Update

Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t (I)?

Who Should You Vote For?
Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:Liberal Democrat

Your actual outcome:

Labour -23
Conservative -19
Liberal Democrat 32
UK Independence Party 8
Green 19

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.
Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

A few points here…

  • Why am I shown as more anti-Labour than anti-Tory? Very odd.
  • Why am I shown as even slightly pro-UKIP. At all!
  • Why does it mention the ban on smoking in public places when I am not in favour of it. Unless of course I pressed the wrong button, in which case the whole validity of this survey is thrown into doubt.
  • How fares the election? I have just spent the past few days in Malta, where the only British TV channel was the news-free BBC Prime (it did show The Office, though). It was bliss. The only news I received from the locals was that United had beaten Newcastle; they looked bemused that I wasn’t pleased with this information.

It's In How You Inflect

My son is nearly two years old, and his vocabulary and communication skills are advancing apace (I apologise to those who feel I talk about my family life a bit too much. If that applies to you then I suggest you move along. There’s nothing for you here).

Most of his conversational English is limited to single words, perhaps prefixed be the word “di”, which is his way of saying “the”. So, we have “di out”, when he wants to go outside; “di walk” accompanied by a pointing manoeuvre aimed at his shoes when he wants to go for a toddle; “di bin” when he has found a microscopic substance on the floor which he wants rid of; and “di dance” when he wants me to pick him up and knacker myself out, jigging along to his favourite songs such as “Stumble and Fall” by Razorlight, “Brassneck” by The Wedding Present or “Unbelievable” by EMF (he is clearly up for Backing Blair).

He does occasionally burst out with a few two word phrases that take us aback; “sorry mum” once when he bumped into my wife; “pig book” when he wants us to read “Wibbly Pig” to him; “more fruit” when he wants another peach to eat, followed by “mmm, nice” as he scoffs it, “oh dear” if he drops it, and “all gone” when he has finished it.

We do sometimes get longer sentences; for example “bye-bye, see y’soon” as a ‘plane passes overhead (which happens regularly, we are fortunate enough to live under the flight-path for Manchester Airport) but usually a long sentence requires lots of filling; so instead of saying “father, one is hungry and is most anxious that one may be allowed to partake in a slice, maybe two, of that delicious roasted topside one did most recently purchase from the butchers” we usually get “di di di di di di di di di meat”. Actually, I prefer the latter to the former. Still, the other day I got a hell of a shock when he ran up to me and said “Daddy, what r’y doin’…books?” as I sat perusing a paperback.

Of course, the pronunciation isn’t quite there for many words; he still has his own terms for certain objects. So, chocolate is “dot-dot”, biscuit is “bee bit” and banana is “nanis”, a corruption of the original “nana”. In the main I find these words very cute, but less so when they have been shouted at top volume, continuously for five minutes, while I have a headache that feels as if someone has taken a garden claw to my left temple. Which does happen from time to time.

However, there are a few things I have particularly noticed about the way my son talks, and they are;

  • He pronounces some “l” sounds as “w”. So bottle becomes “bott-uw”, when every one knows that around these parts children should pronounce bottle as “bock-ul”. Similarly, when he once had a fit asking for “we-wees” we were utterly confused, until my wife twigged that he wanted to wear his wellies.
  • For some reason, when my son says “the horse” it comes out as “di ‘ose”, in the way one would imagine a poor David Bowie impressionist would speak the words; a dropped “h”, and the rest of the word said as in“hose”, but with a hard “s” sound rather than a softer “z”, if that makes any sense.
  • Although he eschews the glottal (or should that be “glo’al”) stop, he makes use of its distant cousin, in that rather than dropping “t”s, he drops “p”s; so apple becomes “a’ull”; or rather “a’uw”, since he still pronounces an “l” as a “w”.

The overall result is that my son seems to speak in a vaguely estuary English accent, at least when he says certain words; but why? Neither my wife nor I speak that way. If he has learnt his speech from copying, then from whom has he been copying?

The most obvious explanation is the oft-quoted belief that as we watch and listen to more of the national media our regional accents and dialects will die out, to be replaced by the most prevalent speech form of the times, which is currently believed to be estuary English. This I feel would be a rather sad, but likely explanation. While I would like to think that his mother and I play a major role in his life, I suspect my son pays more attention to the words of Bella from the Tweenies than he does to either of us.

Alternatively, is it possible that my son is simply speaking in the manner that is the easiest for him to enunciate? Is it perhaps the case that he talks in the same way that every other small child in the UK has done for hundreds of years? In other words, what I am trying to suggest is, could it be that the speakers of estuary English are simply using a speech pattern that has failed to progress beyond the standards of your average (not quite) two year old?