My Summer with Jez

If you cast your minds back to the dim and distant past (those of you who are old enough) some of you may remember the heady June of 1996. It was a hot and bright summer in the southeast and I was freshly free as school had just broken up. The internet was not what it is today. Whilst my Dad had a modem he used it for work, this was in the days of dial up and high cost for usage, as well as the fact you couldn’t pick up the phone while online. All this is to say as an early teen I wasn’t sitting around watching YouTube (it was still a decade away). It was the year of the N64 release but I wouldn’t get my own for a year or two yet (still the best Christmas present I ever got). As such I buried myself in books in my free time or found my one local friend and played outdoors. I also did a lot of writing at the time, telling epic tales that were light rip-offs of other favourite books/films/comics. Whitstable was less gentrified back then, still a bit grotty with the fronts of houses having last seen a lick of paint in the 70s and the front gardens having over grown in a charmingly wild way, pre-Titchmarsh and Co. Mr. Green was yet to takeover the town so the beach was a bit grubby, the notoriously lethal pre-‘health & safety gone mad’ diving platform still stood in the sea, the Neptune was still allowed its outdoor stage for music day and crowds only flocked into the town during July and August for the summer and the Regatta which always reminded me of that scene in Jaws. John Major was still Prime Minister having limped his way out of Black Wednesday 4 years previous to enjoy something of a reinvigoration of the markets that would lead to the now legendary Labour win the next year. The biggest boon at the time was in British culture, Cool Britannia (bleurgh) was on the up, post Grunge music meant giddy hedonism was in the music charts and it has never been so diverse. The world of modern art led by popular mouthpieces Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin was breaking up taboos and causing controversy. Television was enjoying a renaissance thanks to Channel 4 pushing the stuffy old BBC into more esoteric territory with shows like The Word having ended and TFI Friday and the Big Breakfast ruling the airwaves and setting the anarchic tone. In short Thatcher was gone, culture was fun and the sun was shining. Even for a kid as totally disengaged from reality as me the summer of 1996 felt optimistic and happy.

I have no interest in football. Or any sport for that matter. Unfortunately in Britain that doesn’t matter. During our MANY sporting events you are forcibly swept along and in the pre-digital multi channel days of the 90s, programming and discussion of sporting events dominated everything. World Cup 1990 and 94 were unavoidable, Wimbledon is still a source of national pride, the Ashes and the sodding ‘Ball of the Century’, was in every pub, every paper, every radio and television station bumped usual programming to favour overtime and rain stopping play. Into this all permeating culture of sport and summertime came Euro 96. Sick of the previous World Cup I was delighted to have a 4 year break from inescapable football coverage, sadly Euro 96 appeared and, in some ways, proved bigger mainly because it was held in England. What cut through to me most back then was the football superstars of the decade like Lineker, Seamen and Gazza but after 96 I knew all their bloody names and still do (some of them anyway): Pearce, Ince, Southgate, Platt, Shearer, Sheringham, Anderton, Redknapp, Campbell, Neville, Ferdinand and probably a few I’ve forgotten. As usual for England it was a deliriously gleeful charge toward the semi-finals against Germany prompting what I now recognise as rabid xenophobia and jingoism but was dismissed in the Sun(t) as “Bantahh”. We scraped a draw then lost on penalties because Southgate missed, which was soundly mocked to the point of Gareth being sent up in a MacDonald’s advert. As stupid and pointless as it all was, the march to almost glory caught everyone’s imagination created a new vigour in British pride (Scotland did alright too) and combined with our other cultural exports at the time, the mood was jubilant and even got to a spotty 12 year old me. Out of all this came an unlikely hero: Des Lynam who presented the BBC coverage with a dry humour and genuine warmth. He was a long-serving presenter of sport having even been present at the tragic Hillsboro Disaster 7 years previous, but after Euro 96 he was anointed National Treasure status by many. His stoic manner in the face of such hysteria and hyperbole (and bitchin moustache) seemed to capture everyone’s hearts and he still sticks in my mind as the gold standard for this sort of thing.

In a jump forward to the 1998, Britain was off its nut on itself, high on its own supply of British fervour. New Labour were in on a landslide, Conservatism was dead, Lady Diana’s death became a strange outpouring of grief far beyond that of the death of a former royal seeming to personify an overburdening sentimentality that had been growing and every part of culture was on that odd interim moment of being off your face when the jubilant part of the high has worn off but before the comedown when you’re doing everything to fast, too loud, too often and you’re starting to get on everyone’s nerves. Into this rather explosive mix came the metaphorical ‘second pill’ or ‘fifth line of the night’ that was the World Cup, reinvigorating the waning national fervour for Queen and country, Three Lions on a shirt, etc etc. As a sort of metaphor for this decline towards the millennium and the crashing, toilet coating come down that was to follow, England didn’t even make it to the quarter finals. But to coincide with the start of the tournament the BBC aired a one off TV drama written by comedian Arthur Smith and starring the then ultimate footy lout and man behaving badly, Neil Morrissey and a relatively unknown Rachel Weisz, called My Summer with Des. It’s a Rom-a-Com-a-ding-dong very much in the 90s mould of a Curtis-lite Four Weddings-a-like but played out against the backdrop of Euro 96, even featuring cameos by David Seamen and Peter Shilton. Lynam acts as a commentator on the fairly paint by numbers love story and that’s about the extent of it. It wasn’t particularly good or that bad but what it did do was crystalise that strange period in British culture beautifully and only two years later. It acts like a historical document to a bygone era yet made only 36 months after. Britain was different place and everyone seemed to be longing for that carefree time again. It sticks in my mind as a moment that changed my perception of change and of time, I could already be nostalgic for two years ago as the wizened, aged crone of a 14 year old wistfully remembering his youth and the heady days of summer. The summer of 96 still holds an oddly magical, probably mis-remembered charm to it even now. Abiding memories of reading book after book in the sun but every time I walked past any other part of humanity seeing or hearing three lions, or Blur and Oasis still duking it out in the charts, getting that weird green colour wash over your vision when you head inside after being in the sun all day, watching Dad at the sink whistling to the neighbours parrot through the window, cycling to the golf course to watch thunderstorms roll in, using my imagination everyday and filling whole worlds and my hometown with monsters and adventures I can barely summon through the clouds of cynicism these days, performing a newly learned magic trick to anyone I could collar for longer than two seconds and generally getting a lot out of life without realising it.

Everyone has a completely incorrect appraisal of their youth and loves to roll around in the warm, soft down of nostalgia these days. The digital revolution has killed the wonder and many levels of innocence that the pre-9/11 world preyed on and it is unlikely to get it back. With an electorate pummelled by constant innovation, terrorist extremism escalating, foreign wars, rolling news constantly informing you of it, endless REALITY television, meta-post-modernism being the basis of every artistic output, the lack of any centralised culture like the music chart, a shift by the media in response to all this towards clickbait and highly opinionated argument, all of which is another planet compared to the total stupidity and naivety of the 90s.

But this summer…

The snap election this year was met with a groan by the whole nation suffering from a morbid political fatigue post-EU referendum. With all the problems of the above and the cultural, artistic and commentariat class distancing themselves from any sort of collectivist arrangement, engaging instead in the increasingly niche sectors where their ‘fanbase’ can find them and add to the viewer or follower count, these disparate elements of British society looked set to desparingly nod along with the Tory party line and accept the vitriol and ignorance poured into the water supply by the print media.

Except that didn’t happen.

Instead of riding a wave of national pride and cultural fervour like Tony Blair and New Labour, Jeremy Corbyn shot a flare in the air to start the wave machine rolling. And roll the wave did. Anyone on the ground could see not just a meek and faltering optimism growing but a full-throated roar of hope and glee but that was completely either ignored at best or disparaged and insulted at worst by the media, the political parties (including most of the Labour Party) and wealthy business and investors. Unlike in the 90s the national media is not the main source, we are not limited to a small number of radio or television channels, and newspapers, for once the internet had made a community for the electorate to rally to instead of send everyone skittering away to their dens. Contrary to what many say about “not wanting to be dictated to anymore” by the media I find the reverse to be true. The Murdoch papers and TV love to get vox pops, act as your friend, use the chummy, post-modern, self-referential Bantz of the pub, nudge nudge wink wink, we’re all in it together aren’t we readers? mentality. Looking back to 96 when there was a national contest to rally around where we were GIVEN the story of Cool Britannia which became as self fulfilling prophecy and a tweedy Des Lynam warmly and comfortingly guiding us through it all and softening the blow of defeat. Corbyn did the same. He talked at us, gave us a narrative to understand that could be easily passed on and far from being ordered to your civic duty like the Daily Fail, Corbyn gave you his story and said do what you like with it and like Pavlov’s social reflex we gathered round it for warmth in such a bleak and dark time. As things grew bleaker with three terrorist attacks in two months we huddled closer, finding comfort in each other and a collective movement, a community we all fostered. I have never actively read the paper and certainly didn’t as a teen but I know the wave that met Blair’s campaign in 97 was a response to the ground born, cultural dialogue of the mid-nineties. The same is true of Corbyn, we all knew it, we just couldn’t articulate it, had nothing to rally behind. We just needed to be shown what it was that was pissing us all off. And then there it was, plain as day, and everyone who felt it teamed up and we were back to it being part of culture again with Grime superstars behind it, new media behind it, an en masse shift toward community thinking and rejection of the current political model. Everyone in that Establishment HATED it because you couldn’t make money out of it. This was the major difference with the Blair years, that kind of cultural revolution you could market and sell very easily, this kind you can’t. What Corbyn and his Manifesto offered was something not seen since Labour’s last boon in the post war years and it wasn’t just a return to Socialism. It was an interest and investment in contemporary culture. Labour was a Modernist movement in the post WWII era, using modern art and graphics, investing in new technologies and thinking, radical methods of education and restructuring, real boots-in-soil development of ideas and this was what Corbyn and his team understood but the rest of the party didn’t. Blair saw this was already happening and jumped on board instead of the Conservatives who were actively resisting it or just ignoring it. Corbyn wanted in on the ground floor and importantly LISTENED to what was being grumbled, what was wanted, what was needed: Change.

This early summer and Corbyn’s joyous, friendly campaign has created an undeniably buoyant mood (for those that agree with it) in a time of bleak and unremitting horror. His supporters understand the need for change and we voted for it. In droves. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, largely because most voters (older voters) have not felt the pinch or seen the depravity to which the Conservatives will stoop. The past and nostalgia is comforting, many want the Blair years back but they won’t come. It was an audacious but failed experiment to try and promote that kind of community but appealing to it through centrist politics as opposed to actual community thinking i.e. respecting diversity of opinion and appearance and integrating it into policy not working around it. This election, far from crushing any will I had for the future of this country as a progressive, intelligent and contemporary element of the modern global society, has instead lit that same fire of the will I had way back when. That general feeling of good being done. Its not perfect and we still live in challenging times and I certainly don’t want to go back to the bloody 90s but I do want that sense of optimism and friendliness to return, the element that has been hammered from us these last 15 years. And for the first time since I was 12 it really feels like its back. So with a long hot summer ahead I hope we can all recapture that sense of community, helpfulness, enjoyment and positivity but minus the rose tinted nostalgia.

And all the bloody football.

Designing the Future

 

In a sea of hot-takes and off-the-cuff put-downs regarding the current snap election in the UK, I realise adding yet another one to all the noise has all the effect of a fart in a tannery but I want to look specifically at the aesthetics of these campaigns and how it reveals more than you might think. A close look at the Labour and Conservative manifesto’s graphics can tell you just as much as the policies inside. In addition I want to look at some of the language used by both sides and how that also – literally – speaks volumes for their ideologies. I won’t be looking at policies necessarily and while there is some cross over this isn’t necessarily a criticism of either parties pledges or policies. Here is a link to Labour’s manifesto and the Conservative manifesto so we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

Let’s start with the most glaring difference between the two: Web optimisation. Labour has dedicated an entire subsection of their site to their manifesto, each section of it has its own webpage making it quicker to load. You scroll or swipe down to carry on reading and on the desktop version an image is justified to the left and remains static. There is a menu for each chapter allowing you to jump easily to the section of the chapter you want to read. This all speeds up load times and is very efficient. The Conservative manifesto is pdf in a media player on a single page of their website. In the page it is small and difficult to read but you can full screen it, however it still displays as a pdf in a book format (complete with animated page turning) and does not fill the browser. The player is much slower to load too due to the more complicated requirements of the animated elements. In addition Labour’s is more web native so downscales well for mobile devices which is how a majority of people will get their first access to it whereas the Conservatives’ relies on the ISSUU player and does not alter its appearance depending on what device you view it from, whilst this maintains consistency cross platform it makes it much harder to read if you’re viewing it on a smaller device. Now, importantly, the Conservative web manifesto is less friendly to the differently abled, certainly people without finger dexterity or who have vision problems, whereas Labour’s is much simpler to use and easier to read.

Now let’s look at font and text layout. The Conservatives have gone for a classical serif-based approach with Garamond (the font this article is written in), Labour instead have gone for the sans-serif, clean lines of Helvetica. As well as being visually opposite to one another the history of these fonts is poles apart too. Garamond was designed by engraver Claude Garamond in the 16th century for old printing presses, Helvetica on the other hand is a modernist font from the 50s by designer Max Miedinger. Generally in English we are used to seeing the printed word in a serif type like Baskerville or Times New Roman (named after the paper it was designed for) as it more readily appeals to our eyes that seek more human handwriting patterns, whereas Helvetica is much more a display font due to its clarity (used in the logos for American Airlines, Toyota, North Face, FedEx). Now on the printed page I’d argue Garamond works better in the lengthier prose sections except it has the effect of making the Conservative manifesto look dense an impenetrable, like the long form prose of a novel. Labour’s font may be plain and rather flat but it looks much easier to take in at a glance and therefore more welcoming. Online however it’s a different story. There are more sans-serif fonts on websites than serif, Helvetica is a fit for purpose multi-platform font that is clear and simple whatever device you read it on, Garamond is not (he said, writing in Garamond). Whilst it is definitely not like other web fonts and certainly looks ‘classier’ it is neither inviting nor easy to read. Unfortunately the Conservatives further compound this illegibility by seriously messing up the kerning (the spacing between characters). The Initial (those big letters that start the chapters) is really badly cramped against the paragraph, to the point of nearly overlapping – a design no no. Labour’s kerning is on point however, plenty of spacing between characters, aided by Helvetica’s clean lines, and a pronounced white box around the Initials Also the Conservatives’ page layout is cluttered and dense, Labour’s is sparse and minimal. The Conservative Manifesto reads more like a text whereas Labour’s reads like a power point presentation. The former is undoubtedly ‘powerful’, with more gravitas, but Labour’s is much more like the bulletin board it should be.

Labour’s Manifesto is much more in keeping with the design aesthetic of today (specifically web design) whereas the Conservatives’ is more like what we picture a formal legal or government document to look like. The latter is very much in keeping with the repeated dirge of ‘Strong and Stable’ and portrays the Conservatives as a more classical, traditional party but it is undeniably drab with it’s dour palette of Black, White and Blue. Labour’s on the other hand looks like every pamphlet you get dropped through the door: bright red, with the white shining cleanly through and – importantly – full colour images and colour coded sections. This speaks of Labour’s idea of inclusion, it is open and inviting with pictures of different people of varying gender and ethnicity. The Conservatives’ speaks more of its belief in individualism and the state stepping back to allow you to imprint you personality on to the policies and their presentation. In both cases both designs are not bad at all, they both reflect the message the party wishes to impart in the content of the writing itself and does so admirably, the point I’m making is that these designs are specifically tailored to appeal to their core voter and any undecided voter. Personally I find the Conservatives’ design to be an ugly, cluttered, austere mess with kerning issues and a shocking lack of understanding about web optimisation, whereas Labour’s is a minimalist, modernist’s wet dream i.e. Me.

Then there is the question of cost. Labour provided a financial break down of their manifesto promise in a separate sheet that broke down the costing. This was due to constant criticism by the press and the other parties that the socialist program was a myth and could not be properly funded. The Conservatives, with no such pressure, have provided no information on how their manifesto pledges will be paid for.

Now let’s look at the language of these manifestos and their respective launches. The Conservatives seem to be pushing the party to the background by constantly referring to Theresa May and her team, her foreword is littered with “I” and “My”, promoting the idea of individuality and (rather ironically given her and the party’s criticism of the ‘identity politics’ around Corbyn) that you would be voting for the leader who is much more popular than her party because apparently people still have the Mummy issues left over from the Thatcher era. Ahem. Labour talk about “we” “us” and “our” promoting their ideology of a shared society, community and a government integrated with the populace instead of one that steps back at times of crisis. Then there was the way the leader’s introduced their manifestos. Alright this is where I really get on my soapbox. Jeremy Corbyn used the same language in introducing his policies in an open airy space, unmolested or delayed by protesters. Theresa May’s however was delayed not just on the day but the manifesto’s printing itself was delayed four times (allegedly). Corbyn spoke of we and you and us and our where May talked of I and me and my. For all the talk of not trusting Corbyn you had better really bloody trust May as her words were that this was “My manifesto … a vision of the country I want this to be after Brexit”. That to me is terrifying and the true politics of identity. She spoke of wanting “to build a country” and that is telling. Brexit to her means destruction. It means the collapse of the previous Britain with its worker’s rights and moves toward equality, so the Conservatives would then have the ability after Brexit to build the country anew in their own image, or should I say hers. Corbyn’s introduction spoke of “unleashing Britain’s potential” after Brexit not attempting to reconstruct and introduced the policies saying “I am very proud to present OUR manifesto”. Believe what you like about the cult of Corbyn he is not the one publicising it, Theresa May – despite point blank denying it – most definitely is relying on the cult of her own.

My personal politics and loathing for the Tories and Theresa May aside what the manifesto launches and the manifestos themselves make plain is what is on offer from either party and not just in the policies themselves. On the one hand you have a severe, cold, austere, classical, stately manifesto of gravitas and great circumstance and on the other you have an open, warm, colourful, modern, simple manifesto of inclusion and assistance. I know which one I’ll be buying a hard copy of.

There’s still time to register to vote. Takes two minutes. Click here. Then vote for anyone except the Tories.

The Market as Automata

The Conservative government recently announced their Spring budget via the near universally derided Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. My loathing for the Tories is undisguised but when they announce their budget for the year ahead it is time to pay particular attention as it describes, better than any rhetoric, what the beliefs and ideologies of Conservatives are and most importantly where their faith lies which is (and seemingly always has been) in that strange and ephemeral thing: The Market. This reliance, even dependence, on The Market demands a close examination of what it actually is, ironically something it resolutely resists. Economists, theorists and sociologists have spent centuries attempting to understand the abstract notion of one country’s market going to a market where other country’s markets are; a Common Market or a Market for Markets. Something that conjures the image in my mind of a town market of wooden stalls selling fish, fruit and vegetables piled on top of one another.

But The Market is somewhere we all sit and something all our lives are irrevocably tied to. Any job we have is apparently part of this metaphorical Market place and anything we buy is defined by this Market. What most interests me about The Market is its abstract (ultimately fictional) nature those invested in it, literally i.e. all of us are, by involvement or association, also abstracted. Dehumanised. We can see this in the language used to describe anything as soon as The Market is involved: people who buy products are ‘Consumers’, a work of creative art like a novel is a ‘Unit’, the Employed & Unemployed are reduced to a figure with no context as to the circumstances of their Employment status. In relation to this and most interestingly The Market actually responds poorly if people are humanised or a company caters to this need for context surrounding the individual that purchases goods or services. JC Penny in the States removed all reduction sales, offers and coupons from its stores and instead passed those onto the shopper by favouring low prices. It did away with attempting to fool customers with deals and treated them as adults with a respect that they would appreciate in a move to simply lower prices. Sadly, sales dropped and their Market share plummeted straight after. EA with the release of their videogame Titanfall 2 at the end of 2016, decided to buck the trend of pure profit online sales after the initial purchase of a game, seen in things like Season Passes and MicroTransactions that allow for further downloadable content, by doing away with these and treating customers with maturity and not attempting to milk further cash from a game that would already cost $60. Yet despite critical praise and a more than favourable audience response, EA found the title under performing in sales and no doubt the bucking of the Market Trend will be blamed for a significant hit in profits in their pre-Christmas sales. In short, if choice or personal/individual response is introduced to The Market it shuns this.

Yet the curious dichotomy remains that we talk about The Market as if it is a living entity or in some way is aware; it ‘responds’, it ‘moves’, it ‘dictates’. Marx in the Grundrisse says that Capital – and make no mistake when we refer to The Market we are explicitly referring to Capitalism – cannot abide limits, it has to turn it into a barrier which it then circumvents or transcends. This language of Capital consciously not abiding resistance further muddies the water by personifying The Market further. Some say this is because The Market is run by people, nations, that this anthropomorphises occurs but as stated above The Market ‘resists’ the introduction of consciousness or choice or simply our humanity. Which begs the question: what is it? Well the official answer is that it is a systemic process, an algorithm dictated by the interactions of other financial algorithms. Yet a market ‘personality’ exists, we see it in the post Referendum plummet of the Sterling and most interestingly in the crash of 2008-09 when, in a letter to the queen, leading Economists and business leaders said they “failed to account for Systemic Risk”, which put bluntly means they didn’t expect The Market to change its mind. Yes we know the crash was due to hedge funds, loans and credit reaching a critical mass but the simple fact this was not planned for or foreseen indicates an element of whim (or if you don’t agree with that then its simply supreme idiocy on the part of financiers and business leaders). Beyond this the fact that whole governments and nations bow to the deference to the all powerful, all knowing MARKET could easily be transposed to a religious context replacing that respective deity with any other. Yet I doubt any modern economist or politician would accept that they are kneeling at the alter of Financial Consciousness. It might be easier to understand both the actions of the Market (and by extension any deity’s) actions by looking at the more Economically palatable idea of Automation.

The word Automaton comes from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning self, therefore meaning ‘acting of oneself’. Today it is used when referring to robots or machines acting as people but there is an interesting legal obfuscation in the definition of the word. If you were to kill a passenger in a car because you sneezed and caused a crash this can be legally defined as ‘Death by Automata’ and you avoid personal culpability, a reflex or ‘knee-jerk reaction’ is an automated response, conscious thought and brain function is not involved when a doctor taps your knee and your lower leg springs forward. Most of our definitions of Automation rely on an attachment to, if not a reliance on, human conscious thoughts or at least our human abilities, so the idea of automation within The Market is still problematically human with its capricious changes yet continually resists our introduction. Is this independence from, yet reliance upon humanity and our choices from The Market a sign of a form of intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence has long ceased to be a question of if but when. The greatest minds in the world are trained on developments in this arena as whilst it could vastly increase our quality of life it conversely presents substantial threats to our existence not to mention the moral implications of a conscious mind not bound by the frailties of the human body. We already talk to Siri on our phones and algorithms on Google already predict our diaries, our journeys and destinations, what we buy and who we want to call. The Market is an entirely abstract entity now, the cash in our hand’s worth is dictated by digits being changed in millions of computers across the globe. We have already personified it and left it in charge of our careers and livelihoods to our great cost as we repeatedly discover but still defer to the apparently objective wisdom of this Automated System. This objectivity is supposedly The Market’s greatest strength but objectivity can be a dangerous thing. Objectivity is what we see in the animal kingdom where parents neglect or actively kill their offspring, where many animals are cannibals, or in nature where every volcano, tsunami and earthquake has no subjective interest. And need it be reminded of the existential dilemma presented by the total objectivity of the cosmos in which we sit. Objectivity provides science with some of our greatest innovations yet continually confronts us with moral dilemmas as a direct result of that objectivity coming into conflict with our human subjectivity. Scientists must often intervene with subjectivity on the objective experimentation with foetuses for discoveries within the field of stem cell research, the moral discomfort of using dead foetuses to further the health and prosperity of the human race. As such, is a purely objective Automated System really the best thing to guide our lives and political discourse?

The biggest concern, as mentioned above, is how closely this all relates to magical thinking akin to religious faith. A true regression to the pre-enlightenment era where we create causal relationships where perhaps there are none. We know this Market exists but are its movements and changes a response to our input or vice versa? Is the Market responding to titanic shifts in political power, business mergers, credit sales or are we just responding to The Market shifts?

With Thatcher’s faith in The Market still casting its long shadow, this year’s budget was a terrifying reminder that it is The Market that matters and not people. The tax hike on the self employed is an excellent example of this. With the removal of any sort of job security in the current job Market with the prevalence of zero hour contracts and utterly unreasonable demands being placed on the workforce, the financial market must be appeased with monetary recompense for these foolishly human instabilities. What is most notable about this budget is what it didn’t say and what it did not acknowledge. No mention of climate change, threats to the environment or clean energy, no mention of library closures, not even a mention of the Conservative’s manifesto that promised no increases in NI contributions. And most worryingly not a single mention of ‘Brexit’ which will undoubtedly push the Sterling into another free fall, yet Hammond comfortably made Market predictions well into the 2020s despite the very swift approach of one of the most tumultuous political eras in living memory. Again, The Market will decide. All hail The Market.

In Search of The Worry

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I was watching broadcast television at the beginning of the year at a friends house. My friend and I were babysitting and being forced to endure some inexplicable kids show. During the ad break there was an toy advertisement for something called ‘Worry Eaters’. Children are to write down their worries and concerns and feed them to these knitted creatures who devour and digest the issue and presumably absolve the child. I was struck dumb by this; In a world where children can be prescribed anti-depressants toys are now marketed specifically for the purpose of removing anxiety from children.

The Worry Eater dolls are German in origin and probably have some sort of cultural or folk lore precedence, akin to native American ‘Dream Catchers’. The idea of making an intuitive worry or fear a physical object  so as to dispense with it is an old one practiced by witch doctors and shamans since early man but this was normally perceived as a supernatural concern and one that was not usual to afflict children specifically. The dolls themselves are cute-ified monsters and were apparently quite a hot seller at Christmas so can only be seen as a reflection of something that is a growing prevalence in the young. That they are scared and anxious, even depressed at an age when we assume it is all puppy dogs tails and playing Tag.

In the brief bit of research I made on these toys the highest entry on Google was, alas, the Daily Mail with its typically reactionary and scare-mongering article about how this is an epidemic and no doubt that “something must be done” or “ban this filth”. I don’t know, I didn’t read that far because as I began reading the drivel about why the BBC/the Labour Party/Immigrants/ Benefit Scroungers were to blame for this epidemic my eyes flitted to the side bar of latest articles all containing a montage image with a click-bait headline. Normally involving a half-naked woman or some sort of lascivious detail. This basically explained everything I needed to know.

Historically we have fewer cases of ‘Anxiety’. That’s not to say it didn’t exist but I doubt we had as sophisticated diagnoses or diction to describe this mental state prior to the mid 20th century. Before psychoanalysis developed these kind of mental afflictions were probably described as ‘ Fatigue Syndrome’ or ‘Exhaustion’  etc. You need only read a 19th century novel to see how many people collapsed from ‘Shock’ or a similar ailment  and then put that alongside a modern Panic Attack to see that a similar problem did occur but it does seem to be a much higher percentage of people suffer from these kind of mental health issues today. I wrote about the growing number of Mental Health patients on the NHS in another post but this notion of children suffering to the extent even their toys are used as a way of relieving symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression leads me to some different rather more horrifying conclusions.

Recently I have been reading a lot more Horror. This was prompted by watching the first series of True Detective which under the guise of American Gothic storytelling told a truly murky, bleak and horrific tale of cosmic horror, incorporating the intertextual horror of the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and HP Lovecraft. Delving into this world of episodic cosmic horror has been quite a revelatory thing for me. This kind of writing, far from giving you a monster or ghost to fear simply gives you yourself and the cold, uncaring universe which, frankly, is the most chilling thing of all. The fallibility of our minds and our temperaments and the perilous knife edge on which we survive against incredible odds everyday should be enough to chill anyone’s blood. Lovecraft wrote at a time when we were learning more and more about our place in the universe and when civil rights was at a tipping point (Lovecraft himself was a notorious racist with some dodgy opinions on sex and women to boot) and crafted these feelings of being buried under a tide he could not fight or little comprehend by personifying them as ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars.

Today we are bombarded with information, development and growth of our species that only serves to place us sheep in a vast herd, desperately bleating for significance on a windswept rock on a lonely mountain. That is enough to make anyone anxious. As our populace grows and we create more to distract ourselves and try so hard to ensure the fleeting breath between cradle and grave have some lasting meaning the more we will feel the crushing weight of nothingness that surrounds our little blue dot pressing down on us. The more we search outside ourselves the more we discover and the more alone we feel. The growth of apocalyptic fiction in recent years is a good indicator of this mentality too. we hope for a reset or a recasting in a world that makes more sense, where one person can make a difference whereas in truth there is no purpose and we all know that, probably why so many billions still turn to faith to salvage their sanity and hope there is something beyond that infinite black. All of which recalls Neitzsche’s warning of  “Gaze not into the abyss for the abyss gazes also into you”.

So yes Daily Mail, anxiety and its fellow mental health issues is a more modern problem but is probably a symptom of humanity coming to terms with our own growth and development, a mental evolution following our physical one, the awkward teenage years of the human race as it realises its powerlessness and insignificance in the face of a much larger world. For me as a teenager I took any method I could to relieve that fear and worry so personally I think everyone should have a worry eater doll if it makes you feel better.

Observation Not Admiration

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This post will be a relatively short one as it revolves around a request and a task I’d like to give you. The next time you are out of the house and walking to the shops or walking down your local high street for whatever reason I want you to have a really close look at everything you see. All the stuff you see day in, day out, that you know like the back of your hand, stop and really look at every inch of it, especially the people you pass. I know this goes against the grain of the British temperament of staring at our feet and not making eye contact in case you get beaten up or whatever but just do it. And when I say ‘look at’ I mean observe.

Sherlock made the distinction to Watson that he “sees but you do not observe”. It’s actually very easy to do as we tend to glance at things we pass anyway, all observation is is absorbing what you see and analysing it as opposed to just letting it slide past for the thousandth time. So don’t just watch, watching implies waiting, observe and digest what you see. Look at the condition of the house or the shop, what do they sell? Is it new or old? What do they have in the windows? What day of the week and what time is it? Does the shop or home look welcoming? What are the people you pass wearing? Are they with anyone? Who are they with? What are they doing/wearing? Are they talking? Do they have an accent? What is the snatch of conversation you hear from them about? How fast are they moving? How are they standing? Are they engaged in a task? Just take a stroll down the street you know so well and look at it with fresh eyes.

The reason I ask is, yes, the Election. What I want you to do is look at your surroundings and really critically analyse what you see, then think about how that influences you. Then, MOST IMPORTANTLY, what you don’t see. Our day to day surroundings are the most influential thing to our political beliefs alongside our family.

I’ve been making an effort to do this as I complain I live in an area that is geometrically opposed to all my political and social values. I am left-leaning (but will never call myself a ‘lefty’) and live in a safe Tory seat. I complain because of all sorts of local bias and so on but I decided this is equally as prejudiced of me as the more conservative attitudes of the locals is. So I took a stroll down the high street with my eyes wide open at the weekend and saw people waving at one another in the street, saw a group of handicapped youngsters in wheelchairs being taken around town by carers, I saw lots and lots of prams with lots of well dressed Mums/Nannys/Grandparents pushing them, I saw a woman taking down a sign for free tea and coffee at the church, I saw form and structure, I saw a lot of elderly people (by which I mean 60+ as the state dictates this is pension age) going about daily errands and an awful lot of well kept cars. I didn’t see any non-white people except one of the people in the wheelchairs, I didn’t see any one not dressed smartly or at least ‘presentably’, I didn’t see any ‘cheap’ clothing, I didn’t see any ‘old’ shops unless they were presented or faked to look as such, certainly nothing that looked like it had been made in the 70s or 80s except some of the people, I didn’t see call signs of poverty (homelessness, poorly tended buildings, a mood of anger or unhappiness), I didn’t see anyone I knew, I didn’t see many smiles and I didn’t see any cars older than 10 years.

I’m not going to tell you what conclusions I drew from that and you are welcome to draw your own but the point was, I observed more than I usually did. You should do the same and think about what you see. We tend to let our surroundings slide by unnoticed due to familiarity and that which we do pay attention we tend to simply admire. There is a difference between admiration and appreciation. To admire is to see something with respect or approval, that tends not to extend to a critical evaluation of that thing. This is not necessarily bad but it doesn’t really benefit anyone. To appreciate means understand something fully, its faults and its favours. To do that you must truly observe it. To observe something means to take notice or literally perceive something. Start observing what is around you: What values do the people in your area have? What values do you have? Are they shared? I want you to keep all that in mind come the 7th.

Life Amongst the Water Lilies

 

I was about 11 or 12 when I first started secondary education at one of the worst schools in the country. We were set a task in Art class to find out about this fella Rembrandt. I came home and because this was the time before the internet was the source of all knowledge I asked my Dad who this person was. In his typical matter-of-fact way Dad told me Rembrandt van Rijn was a painter from something called the Dutch School and was a revolutionary and visionary artist that transformed light on canvas into dramatic and lifelike representations. I noted this down and nodded. That seemed like enough. A few minutes later, Dad being Dad had pulled down a large tome on painting, flicked through and showed me a portrait of Rembrandt by Rembrandt. (A self-portrait used a stick called a ‘brush’. Very different from the selfies and their sticks used today) At the time I was only dimly aware of my Father’s 4 years in art college, despite his job as a graphic designer and penchant for art on display all over the house. I looked at the picture awe struck. Rembrandt sat staring out at me from two dark marbles amongst a deeply shadowed face framed in a halo of yellow. Dad sat me down and we flicked through the book, explaining why Rembrandt changed so much in the art world. Because light, he said, was so spare in Rembrandt paintings it made everything look dramatic. Every face was coated with brilliant light and dark shadows, his landscapes featuring dabs of shimmering colour and the blackest nights, so solid and vibrant they looked more like models to touch. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, The Night Watch, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, these paintings sounded more like the short horror stories I was reading at the time and looked like they were too. Haunted faces, doom laden clouds, movement and action, mystery, suspense, all these were locked and frozen in the frames. Dad noted my awed silence and pointed out what is most important in all of these is that they are not realistic. Showing me some Dutch still life paintings he pointed out it is the light that makes them real but every thing else is much more interpretative. I agreed. He told me to keep a hold of the book for now.

The picture from Dad's book
The picture from Dad’s book

A few days later I flicked through the book and found this painting of a boat being towed along the river. I must have stared at that stupid picture for an hour. I looked at more of this man’s paintings and fell in love. Some were wide, nearly empty vistas with detailed buildings, others were just golden plates that seemed to hum and swirl. ‘That’s Turner,’ Dad told me. ‘Got better as he got older.’ He was right, the later ones got more and more abstract and indistinct but more and more beautiful. They seemed like alien worlds to me, heavy with atmosphere and shimmering light. ‘You can tell he was influenced by Rembrandt, look,’ Dad took the page of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and found a painting by Turner called ‘Dutch Boats in a Gale’. Whilst they both depict a boat on a rough sea over hung with black clouds, their styles differ, ‘But look at the light’ Dad said. He was right. The light caught on the sails and foam of both pictures had exactly the same tone, the shadows the same depth, they both captured the same drama and atmosphere. It was like magic. ‘You think that’s good?’ He flicked forward, ‘You haven’t seen Monet yet.’

I can’t quite explain the sensation of seeing you brain being pulled out and smeared across the pages of a book but that’s as best as I can describe seeing Monet’s water lilies for the first time. It was like someone had seen my dreams and put them on paper. I felt like I could run my fingers through the water. Dad explained this was called ‘Impressionism’ a technique of painting where the artists did not bother with exact detail merely gave the impression of the image, drawing inspiration from ‘Pointilism’, Van Gogh’s own Japanese inspired swirls but most importantly Turner’s magical, misty landscapes. There was a clear line, Dad said, between Rembrandt, Turner and Monet and it all relied on not being real. From that first viewing of Monet’s paintings, specifically the water lilies, I became obsessed. Rembrandt, Turner and Monet are widely acknowledged as three of the greatest artists of all time. That kind of plaudit and acknowledgement normally means that after centuries of analysis and scrutiny and cultural penetration they have nothing left to give and in many ways it is true. Their influence is seen everywhere and in almost every image. They are a visual short hand for so many things in the art world, even the most abstract art has a lineage with these three because they were the first to discover realism was not the objective in art, it was interpretation and the less distinct something is, the more a viewer will project their own details onto it.

Since then I have spent my life chasing these three artists around the globe, but none more so than Monet and his water lilies. My first experience with the water lilies was in London at 15. I was there to see a gig but the famous exhibition imaginatively titled ‘Monet’s Water Lilies’ that was touring the world was at the Tate so I went in early and got my first taste. One thing I was not prepared for was their size. Some, if not most, of the Water Lily studies are enormous. Stood at close proximity to them you could easily fill your vision with them until I get tapped on the shoulder and asked to move aside for other viewers. They are all endlessly inventive, no two alike they literally swim with a variety of colours, painted in different seasons with different strokes and styles. The water lilies are a master working at the height of his powers in the throes of true inspiration. I have now seen Monet in Paris, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Sydney and New York. Where there is a world famous gallery, there is typically a Monet, a Turner and a Rembrandt. I hunt these down at any available opportunity. On my 28th birthday I made the trip to the Tate in Liverpool to see an exhibition entitled ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly’. This was a fascinating exhibit placing the three directly influenced painters alongside one another and whilst I admit, Twombly is not for me, seeing Turner and Monet side by side was a treat for the eyes and a balm for the brain. The most jaw-dropping and akin to a spiritual experience of seeing a Monet came at the MOMA in New York. Not being a fan of most ‘Modern Art’ the only part of the MOMA I enjoyed was the top floor where the ‘Classic’ modern art hides: Cezannes, Picasso, Pollock and Monet. A three panel, room-sized water lilies painting dominates the main room there and almost literally brought me to my knees. I must have sat there for more than half an hour, dumb struck and wide eyed as I submerged into the purple swirls of silk that rippled around me. Apparently the Orangerie in Paris is where the finest examples reside and I am yet to see them but what a day that will be.

The Painting at the MOMA
The Painting at the MOMA

My love for the water lilies drove me to learn everything I could about them. Still whenever there is a documentary or book about them I will have a look to learn as much as I can about my three favourite painters but there was one specific documentary I watched that explained so much. I cannot for the life of me remember the title of it but it involved the presenter going to Monet’s Flower Garden in Giverny where the pictures were painted. Monet designed the garden himself, a keen horticulturalist, and even diverted the nearby river to create the placid waters he depicted. The garden itself is beautiful but oddly small and sterile in comparison to the paintings, but it was then I discovered what really made the water lilies so beautiful. Loss.

Monet’s life was struck with tragedy, repeatedly. He lost his wife and his son and saw his home country torn apart by the Great War after which he stated his intent to paint the water lilies as “A monument to peace”. This blight of tragedy upon a man so talented was no doubt his greatest pain but the world’s true gain. He poured himself into the garden and his painting, every dab of his brush a little blob of his soul on the canvas, the variety of each image a window not merely into the caprice of the French weather and its changing seasons but into Monet’s own tortured or placid mood. To look at the water lilies is to look at Melancholy. As Jacques in As You Like It puts words to the beauty and necessity of Melancholy, Monet gives it voice in his paintings. Yet it  is the loss of one thing that made the water lilies what they are: His sight. He had cataracts that he had operations to remove but most certainly altered his vision. This loss of sight combined with his loss of his loved ones means the water lilies stand as some of the most potent exorcisms of grief ever created and are deeply affecting to witness.

I write this because I was in London at the weekend and decided to duck in to the National Gallery. Inside reside some of the best examples of most great painters but in particular Monet and Turner. You can see Dutch Boats in a Gale and my absolute favourite Turner ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ as well as some studies by Monet and some prime examples of the Water Lilies. As I stood in front of the giant wall sized pond I imagined the man himself stood, brush in hand, by the canvas. Rotund, half blind, his long black and grey beard trailing down his front, the light pouring into the garden or studio as he smeared the paint on the canvas. I wish I could have watched. I wish I could have stood next to him and seen him try to capture the peace he and the world so desperately wanted, needed at the time. I make no shame of the fact I began to tear up then as I thought about this, as I looked at a painting I had seen many times before. It takes a lot to move someone to tears, especially in this day and age, and even tougher to do it with a still image.

The National Gallery, London
The National Gallery, London

I will never be a painter but I thank my Dad for showing these great artists and incredible works of art to me. Typically it was my parent who taught me the most about a subject I love so much and not the education system. But more than that, Rembrandt, Turner and Monet have taught me more about the world and who I am than most. I will never get bored of Rembrandt’s black marbles, nor Turner’s glazed mist and I will always come back to wade amongst the water lilies.

(Post Script: My memory isn’t that great so I have filled in some blanks on my Dad and I’s story, for instance it may have been more than one book but the essentials are there and the above tells the same story. History, like Art, is all about interpretation.)

 

Looking Back at Man of Steel

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Its been a year or so since Zack Snyder’s epic reboot of one of my favourite comic book characters and now the dust has settled and we’re a long way off from the sequel still, I wanted to take another look at it from a safe distance.

I liked Man of Steel when I saw it at the cinema and seem to be in the minority in this opinion but re-watching it again recently for the umpteenth time I am still curious as to where the backlash came from. It is very clearly not a BAD film at all. It meets a good standard in all points, matching a lot of the much drooled over Marvel offerings in recent years. Yet the vitriol aimed at it on release was astonishing. I admit I am a fan of the character and as a comic book reader I still volunteer myself as a DC and not Marvel supporter (despite the fact Marvel’s comics and films are vastly superior today) but I’m not wholly biased. Green Lantern was an unmitigated disaster, very similar to Iron Man 2 so there’s never a perfect formula but I genuinely feel Man of Steel’s hate was misguided and unnecessary. Why? Well let’s look at the main criticisms people had first of all:

The first thing that people trumpeted high and low as the films most pernicious message and damning fault was its ‘Christian Imagery’. Okay, well spotted, there is a lot of christian imagery in it. My riposte to this is: “So what?” As anyone who knows their comic book theory,  or even Nietzsche, or just cultural theory should realise the Ubermensch or Superman theory. The notion is dealt with best in ‘Watchmen’ and the sublime ‘Kingdom Come’ but also a lot in X-Men, essentially it is the notion that all Superheroes are Gods themselves. A jump of evolution to God-head. An aspirational notion that makes us question our ideas of God and who we are as beings. A noble and valid theological query. Superman himself, taking the name directly from Nietzsche’s theory, is the emodiement of that. In the fantastic Superman comic series ‘For Tomorrow’ Brian Azzarello looks at similar themes questioned by Watchmen and has a priest as a main secondary character, set after a Rapture-like ‘vanishing’ of the world’s populace. Superman and the Priest have numerous theological discussions on the idea that Supe himself is in fact a God. As such, damning Man of Steel for utilising christian iconography that is hardly subtle or hidden to make its point about aspirational attitudes is slightly redundant in my view. Its actually quite an interesting sub-text and lets not pretend these do not exist in other superhero films. I wrote an entire post about the deliberate and various political subtexts within the Dark Knight trilogy right here, not to mention the wild and varied sub-texts in the numerous Marvel universe films. That kind of additional iconography adds a certain amount of depth to a film but if people are for some reason worried it is trying to push a christian agenda: Fuck off. Doctor James Smith discusses Man of Steel’s atheist message much better over at Everyday Analysis (they have a book out now by the way) but even in blunt terms, Jonathan Kent is clearly an atheist. He laughs cynically at the notion of “divine intervention”, there is no sign of religious ephemera at his home, in his car, etc. Also why is no one tubthumping about its scientologist agenda? Aliens occupying other planets? Old spaceships before the birth of man? Or why does no one complain about the blatant facist ideology? Zod AND Jor El’s notion of eugenics is the main theme. Zod is even pictured in a Stalinist relief when shown to Clark. Or what about the environmentalist imagery? Jonathan makes the argument that being a farmer is enough to aspire to, the destructive force of those oil rigs, the constant imagery of nature (Whales beneath the sea, stills of butterflys, etc) should it not be lauded for that? No, people picked up on a theme that is practically unavoidable in superhero stories (assiduously avoided by Marvel thus far and outright refuted in Thor) and had a knee-jerk reaction to it. I am no christian but do not feel its imagery was in anyway pernicious, if anything it added to its depth.

There are, I confess, numerous plot holes in Man of Steel too. The iffy science of the Kryptonian and Earth atmosphere is a bit of rubber band reality that doesn’t quite square at times (how can he breathe in outerspace then?). There are numerous other inconsistencies but in truth I can overlook them, in the same way the Joker needs to be omniscient for his plan to work in the Dark Knight and why on Earth did Loki need to be captured? All pretty stupid but that’s movie logic. Read ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ where Goldman rewrites a scene as if it happened in real life and you’ll see what I mean. Additionally problematic is the film’s pacing. It is overstuffed and the plot makes substantial jumps in time that are not noted and commented on. The Nolan-esque flashback/flashforward editing technique does a lot to make it lucid but it is tightened to an almost emaciated level and has very little breathing room. Avengers, despite its whizzbangs, had a very steady pace to a grand finale, Man of Steel rushes to cram everything in. But to that end Snyder tries his hardest to fit in tonal shots and character beats. The odd gag goes a long way in it and occasionally harks back to the fun of the Christopher Reeve originals, but those shots of nature, the chats with Dad, the chats with Mum, the hitchhiking, all add up to a well rounded film. If they had simply cut some of the action towards the end and made a few scenes longer and shots stretch by a few seconds it would not have felt as rushed as it does.

The one problem that I concur with and I struggle to get over is its somewhat callous preoccupation with destruction and mortality. A LOT of people die in this film and a LOT of buildings and private property is destroyed. In itself this is not necessarily awful but it misses out the depiction of people’s safety that other superhero films go a long way to point out. The Avengers takes great pains to rescue the citizens of New York and the police are constantly pictured rushing people to safety and the public are shown afterwards safe and jubilant at their rescue. For reasons best known to itself, Man of Steel will show people in peril but never shows them rescued or saved. Superman rescues but one soldier – catching him in the air, so when asked if he wants to join Zod his passion for humanity being saved doesn’t ring that true, especially after questioning whether they can be trusted or not. Christopher Reeve wonderfully delivers the line “Stop! The People!” in the Superman 2 and that was almost all you needed, instead Cavill’s Supe is so desperate to save the family in the station at the end he breaks Zod’s neck, murdering him and we see him briefly tortured by this murder but we don’t see the family alive and grateful of rescue and nor does SUPERMAN’S CHIEF MOTIVATION FOR NEVER KILLING get dwelled on beyond his pained scream. Having said all that Man of Steel did have the fight scenes I’ve always wanted from a Superman film. With Gods flying around the cities I’ve long wanted to see some mass and epic destruction in a film such as this and Snyder delivers. But just the briefest shots of people surviving and the notion of mortality would have allayed a lot of criticism. I don’t think it was deliberate however, merely just pressure for time and squeezing stuff in.

Those being the main criticisms why do I love it more and more? First and foremost its a beautiful film. It is shot with a very keen and earthy eye. Snyder makes great use of the natural beauty of this world and Krypton’s. Every scene is beautifully lit in high contrast with lush filters and lots of saturated grain. It is a visually arresting film, probably why the iconography is so eye-catching. The CG is also wonderful, Snyder if nothing else is much better at getting the right look for his CGI. Marvel’s take is big bold and bright, Snyder manages to seamlessly integrate his CGI into the naturalistic camera style and colour palate. Clark’s flight round the world and ascent to the skies is particularly energetic and thrilling. The CGI punch up in the streets is also what I’ve been waiting for in a Superman film since I was 4.

The performances are uniformly excellent. The Man of Steel is a big set of Red Boots to fill especially after so many have done it so well (I thought Brandon Routh was an excellent Superman in a dogshit awful film) but Cavill absolutely nails it; soft enough but tough enough, firm and confident but shy and diffident, confused yet sure of himself he manages the full range and has a great chemistry with the equally great Amy Adams. The Kents are a master stroke of casting, Costner is perfect as Jonathan and steals every scene he is in. Shannon steals it for me though. Zod is a frankly preposterous villain when it comes down to it, even his name is dumb but Shannon gets right into the skin of an unhinged general that’s gone ‘Full Kurtz’ in the reaches of space. The worst villain is the one who makes sense and Shannon puts a lot of effort into making his arguments convincing but equally does the shouty aggression well too. He is a constant and growing threat after his appearance halfway through and is genuinely frightening, more than a match for the Man of Steel. The fantastic line toward the end “Where were you trained? On a farm?!” making him all the more threatening.

The music was never going to be a match for John Williams’ utterly faultless Superman theme which will forever be indelibly linked to the big S but to Hans Zimmer’s credit he doesn’t try. Film scoring has long since dispensed with the symphonic characteristics of its forebears, something I mourn personally, where a film used thematic music for characters and events and places which was a hangover from Opera and the like. Instead today in a postmodernist world music scores for emotion in less Romantic fashion and utilises noise and sound in a modernist way. Zimmer has been honing this skill for decades and has brought this full force to bare in recent years, unlike say Danny Elfman who has simply been repeating himself. With Dark Knight, Inception, Sherlock Holmes and Man of Steel Zimmer has found percussion, synth style noise and the odd key hook to be most effective and whilst he never burdens anything with a ‘Theme’ as such he finds the right key sound for every moment. Relying more heavily on all American military brass sound he captures the Big Blue Boyscout perfectly but equally undermines Zod with the same synthy brass by crashing him about in a Montagues and Capulets way. The finale is particularly rousing.

Also Snyder just gets the tone right. All of these things add up to a film that has real world feel, obviously pushed by Nolan’s Dark Knight popularity, but equally has that slightly high key, pastoral old-cinema effect you want from a comic book film and certainly from a Superman film. Donner nailed this too and it shows, subsequent attempts to revive Supe have never had the deliberately nostalgic, slightly dreamy and yes RELIGIOUS aspect to them. Snyder proved he was a comic fan with Watchmen and Man of Steel is further proof he knows the medium extremely well. Marvel benefit from having an entire studio set up from the comics themselves so cannot help but fall into the comics being a major influence. Warner Bros overall disgust with the fact they have to make Superhero films and DC’s inability to market anyone but Superman and Batman is a massive hinderance but Snyder is proving his passion for the source is just enough to get a truly faithful adaptation to the screen.

The Man of Steel suffered from a backlash of over marketing, bad timing and public and critics jaded by Superheroes in general. Behind the, lets be honest, minor quibbles people level at it, is a decent and enjoyable movie. No its not for everyone, no its not perfect but I am hoping in time it will be seen as more than worthy successor to the original two, which lest we forget were high camp, flared trouser waring, time altering, silly messes of movies too. What you want from Superman, and all superhero films/comics is simple. Clark Kent is a lost soul who struggles with who he is and turns out to be an incredibly powerful being. In short, Clark is all of us. Far from being christian or religious the message of Superman is totally humanist. We don’t know who we are or where we are going. The reason superhero films and comics continue to hold such cultural value is because they speak to us. Theses are written on this topic everyday but at the root of it Superman is the original and the ultimate and Man of Steel nobly addresses this fact. Whilst it doesn’t pose those questions itself it leads us to ask the questions which are tough for anyone. But equally the notions of family, love, isolation and growing up are themes we all understand. Give Man of Steel another try. It really is super.

And Krypton was awesome!

Curt-Swan

In Bed with Stanley

The other day I stumbled across a great deal on an evil, unnamed shopping website for two boxsets of Stanley Kubrick films. I realised I didn’t own a single Kubrick film on DVD which seemed like sacrilege to me so I bought the lot. The next day I had almost all of Stanley Kubrick’s major films minus Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and Lolita so decided on giving my Saturdays over to Kubrick marathons and reacquainting myself with his work.

As soon as I became aware of what they were and their influence, I’ve always claimed Stanley Kubrick as one of my all time favourite film directors. Before you go bashing the ‘pretentious’ button I should add others on this list include Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Nolan and formerly Steven Spielberg who are “Popcorn” directors largely. I always state this when asked about favourite directors but when asked about favourite films I rarely name a Kubrick in the top ten. This is typical of the sort of director who makes the same film repeatedly and whilst Kubrick’s films are the polar opposites of one another they do feel like they are stylistically the same film. This can be a good thing and a bad thing: I am not a fan of Wes Anderson and his films are all stylistically identical, likewise I like Tarantino and his are all stylistically identical. this boils down to what film students and cinema commentators call ‘Auteur Theory’.

Auteur Theory has something of a wooly history and definition. It wasn’t something that evolved it was an idea developed by some writers for a french film magazine that was then adopted by directors to feel big and is now part of cinema law. Originally the studio system dictated what films were made and how, this resulted in what was called the ‘conveyor belt’ system (sometimes pejoratively referred to as the ‘cookie cutter’ method) where the studios decided what films should be made in a box ticking exercise to make money. Directors were simply seen as giving direction to the actors, there were formulas for editing, camera placement, sound design that were all strictly adhered to. The producer tended to have more power than the director in those days as they tended to be studio representatives and the money man (now these are called Executive Producers). Slowly though films became more creative under the guidance of more wilful directors like Truffaut, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Renoir. Influenced by these early talents at making more individual films and the explosion of creativity in the 60s the movie brats moved into Hollywood and the Auteur was king. Chief among these was the likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and if you really want a lesson in all this read the fantastic book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’. HOWEVER, operating through these various shifts in trend was Kubrick, who, from day one it seems, was bucking the trend.

I have a shaky relationship with Auteur theory. There is no denying when certain directors make a film you can say it is most definitely a Spielberg, or a Scorsese, or a Coppola, or even an Anderson but cinema itself and the making of a film is a massive task, certainly for the bigger blockbusters. As such it requires thousands of people to make a film these days and whilst a director may have influence and certain aspects of production they cannot control the exactness of every person’s involvement in a film. Therefore, especially if a director only directs, is it their film? Are they truly the Author? For me one person really was and that’s Kubrick.

Stan the Man co-wrote and directed all his films but most importantly for his early films produced as well. That meant he had creative and technical control of any project he started, even going so far as to having his own production company just so his films could become financed. (A fact regularly over looked by critics and film historians.) As such Kubrick could then be as deconstructive or transgressive as he liked with little fear of the studio stepping in. This also gained him an ominous reputation for being a perfectionist and control freak but the results are incomparable when you see them in sequence and think of his early films in context.

I’m afraid I’m going to summarise each film now so *spoiler alert* and *boring nerd alert*. I watched them deliberately out of order to try and spot ‘Kubrickisms’ where possible but will write them in order. I have not yet seen his first low-budget feature ‘Fear and Desire’ or ‘Barry Lyndon’ either so they are omitted:

Spartacus I saw as a kid but remember it being long and rather dull. I may feel different now but Kubrick disowned it and considered it not part of his “canon”. He was hired in after other directors left the production, this meant Kubrick had less than his usual level of control and despite winning 4 Oscars is not considered his finest work. Equally Lolita is an uneven one. I saw it as an 18 year old after having seen the remake with Jeremy Irons and was not impressed even as I was by then a Kubrick fan. It is peculiarly comedic especially given Peter Seller’s performance as Quilty. The censorship standards were much more strict then, given that a Ratings system was not in place at the time (did a post about that sort of thing here) which meant the book could not be adapted in a more exact way. Lolita’s age was raised and Humbert’s desire was mitigated to real love. The film was still shocking at the time but feels uneven now, I would have been more intrigued if he had directed the 1997 version as it would have probably been much more shattering and hard to watch. As stated though these were not present in my recent marathon so I could be entirely wrong and operating on the vagaries of memory.

Killer’s Kiss is a classic noir about a boxer and a broad in deep with the mob and trying to escape. In many ways if you’ve seen Pulp Fiction you’ve seen this film as Tarantino, to an almost overt degree, has cribbed from it. Other than the now trademark Kubrick camera work it is unremarkable … until the end. The finale in an abandoned department store where a duel is acted out amongst hundreds of mannequins is a work of macabre wonder and is pure Kubrick. It is tense and bizarre and easy to forget its period setting. The chase along the rooftops are a wonder to behold, seeing New York in all its black and white glory. The framing device of the lead character waiting at the station is also wonderful and another trope stolen by Tarantino.

The Killing is even more Tarantino. It is about a group of men (and a woman) planning to rob a race track. It involves a varied rogues gallery of characters and some stellar editing and camera work. In a revolutionary bit of scriptwriting the sequence of events is told out of order and occasionally in flashback and can easily be identified as a blueprint for Reservoir Dogs, in fact most of Tarantino’s output. It also has truly brilliant ending that is honestly tense and I didn’t expect. Despite being very much dated, Kubrick’s tropes are coming to the fore and you can feel him pushing the limits of the medium already.

Paths of Glory is the first that feels like true Kubrick and the first that feels truly modern. The story of a power mad general ordering his troops to their death amongst the trenches and then making an example of three of his troops by putting them to trial and then firing squad is slightly scattered but utterly cohesive. Kirk Douglas and the three men charged with “Cowardice” turn in performances of astonishing subtlety that would be happy amongst more modern filmmaking and still make an impression. The long winding shots of the men in the trenches and the painfully cold “down-the-barrell” shot of the firing squad is startling and proof of Kubrick’s investment in revolutionary and incomparable cinematography. The strange, unsettling and off-kilter finale is textbook Kubrick and most certainly assured Hollywood’s desire for him to direct Spartacus thereafter.

After Spartacus and Lolita came one of my definite favourite films of all time ever: Dr. Strangelove. A cutting-to-the-bone satire of the Cold War it is not simply intelligent, tense and MAGNIFICENTLY acted by the main cast, it is laugh out loud funny, which for a satire is hard to achieve. So much has already been said about it so I can add little but know that it is totally worthy of it all. Sellers is truly great in his three utterly different roles, the War Room is justly remembered as an all time cinema classic set and the themes in our time of Russian propagandising and war mongering seem sadly pertinent. It still holds up, is still painfully funny and still shocking. I can’t recommend it enough.

And then. And then… 2001: A Space Odyssey was used by Nasa to train its astronauts and conspiracy theorists believe it is proof Kubrick directed the moon landings. To be honest I think that’s all that need be said. 2001 is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is always the film I cite as being what cinema *could* be. It is also the most obvious film showing Kubrick’s desire to tell more than one story in one film. It is alternately about the evolution of early man, then a film about commercialisation and tourism, then about Man’s struggle with technology and then Man’s struggle with “God”, whatever that may be. The name ‘Odyssey’ encapsulates it well. 2001 is often cited as a “Film School” film and whilst I feel this is a rather ignorant statement there is a reason for it. To say the film still holds up is an understatement, it still has a broader palate than most films or filmakers achieve, it is so ahead of its time we’re still analysing it. It is admittedly long and very slow, so with modern audiences who demand Michael Bay style whizzbang, kinetic energy it is not a populist film but if you are willing and prepared it is totally rewarding. What still staggers me is that it was made in 1968. 1968! We didn’t even have a full picture of the earth from outer space yet! Star Wars was a DECADE away. The film was the first of its kind, was utterly visionary and still is and its influence is almost inescapable in every corner of cinema. Re-watching it did nothing to dim my beliefs of it and merely cemented its place in history for me. Kubrick went technicolour in every which way.

As if to middle finger everyone after making cinematic art of such titanic scale, his next film was A Clockwork Orange a character drama and a return to satire. Much is made of its greater influence than its source material, the Novel by former fellow Manchester resident Anthony Burgess, and I feel that is justifiable having only recently read the novel. I saw this on its debut in the UK which is not something many can say for 29 year old who wasn’t even born when it came out. This is because Kubrick pulled the film due to our delightful print media destroying it before a frame was shown and he sensibly said “if you can’t hack it, you can’t have it”. To that end it was only formally released in the 2000 after Kubrick had died which is when I, and most people in this country for that matter, saw it. It is a very close adaptation of the source it must be said (minus the ending) and is yet another tour de force of filmmaking. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of brilliant playing the smug and menacing Alex, the production design is a little dated but still striking and the ever present “Kubrick Eye” of cinematography is another standout. The fact so many references are made to it in other novels, films, graphic design, band names, etc is testament to its influence.

The Shining is a tough one. It has been analysed (too much), parodied and pilloried to such a massive degree over the last 30 years it is hard to remove it from all that but the simple fact it IS so ingrained should be enough a testament to its influence. For me its Nicholson’s best performance, its not subtle but it is utterly believable. The editing is still unmatched, staggering considering we now have far more powerful editing techniques available to us and I rate it as Kubrick’s best shot film. The cinematography is pure artistry and is equally unmatched to this day. It has been called camp, slow, long and even (this one is beyond me) “not very scary” but it is a masterclass in atmosphere despite or maybe because of those reasons. I am a fan of horror when it is good. I define a good horror movie as being atmospheric, psychologically affecting, with a simple yet solid plot and good characters. For me that makes The Shining the perfect horror movie. It sits just below Don’t Look Now for me in this regard. Also, spot how many other films reference this one either in parody or homage or even without realising it. Undoubtedly a classic, love it or loathe it. I love it.

Seven years later Kubrick returned to the war movie genre with Full Metal Jacket which looks like it could have been made yesterday. It practically was. War films are still using it as a template. Saving Private Ryan would not have been made were it not for this film. Nor The Thin Red Line. Again Kubrick seems to stitch to different films together: Hartman’s abuse and bullying of Gomer Pyle and his ultimate descent into madness and suicide which shocking conclusion introduces us to the story of Sergeant Joker and his travels through the war zones of Vietnam. Kubrick is firing on all cylinders with jaw dropping cinematography from slo-mo to atmospheric lighting, chilling and deliberately juxtaposing sound design, documentary style shooting, black humour, character drama, satire, cultural comment and much more besides yet as always it remains cohesive and steady. As ever it is slow and luxuriant in its pacing but not to its detriment. It is probably the most readily accepted of Kubrick’s films, being a war movie, but is unmistakably his. It is a haunting and deeply affecting movie and, yet again, changed the genre in which it is set completely.

A full twelve years after that, Kubrick finished Eyes Wide Shut just prior to his unexpected death. It garnered middling returns on its release and came in for something of a critical pasting despite being one of cinema’s greatest at the helm and the two biggest box office draws at the time in the lead roles. Telling the story of a Man’s exploration into sex and desire over a two day period ending in a possible plot on his life and a conspiracy amongst the wealthy it was perhaps still a little ahead of its time. It seems more suited to now. I think it is odd that it is Kubrick’s least ambitious film of his career yet took the longest to shoot. It is also sad that something relatively slight was his swan song yet it does not make it any less brilliant. I had not seen it until the other day and decided to watch it last after having seen all his others in close succession and it does seem like a natural conclusion to his ‘oeuvre’ for want of a better word. With a far greater focus on character it watches like a cinematic version of Joyce’s Ulysses (that is mere conjecture, I’ve not read Ulysses); long, meandering and contemplative it is equally funny, erotic, chilling, frightening, tense, awe inspiring and sad but fiercely contained. You get the impression Kubrick is trying to narrow his massive talents to a single point which, in my opinion, he succeeds at but this is probably why it was so poorly received. Despite being wonderfully grand (the COLOURS!) it only contains a few Kubrickian flourishes which to an idiot might be what you want. It is admittedly slight in comparison to FMJ, 2001 or Clockwork Orange but it is no less a film for that. It initially left me chewing it over and reluctant to state an opinion due to its candour and density but now I feel like it is one of his best. The biggest drawback for me is the casting of Nicole Kidman whose attempt at breathy femme fatale is simply annoying. She delivers every line like a narcoleptic just awoken in what she mistakes for sexy and is generally just a functional character that goes nowhere and Kidman adds nothing to. Luckily Kubrick focusses on Tom Cruise, on fantastic form, and the ancillary characters instead giving them all tragic pathos, the odd funny line and real arcs whether on or off screen. Its sexual politics and already dated appearance will cause problems for many but I think in the future it will be regarded as a classic and have much further reaching influence.

Watching all these in a row many things came to light. First and foremost, for me as a photographer, they are the most cinematically interesting, arresting and innovative pieces of art I’ve seen. Even his earliest films use his trademark unsympathetic, active camera work. Using hard lines, distance, foreground objects, vanishing point perspective and very wide angles, every frame is a picture and truly epic meaning you focus on the figures within these pictures more and that they inhabit a real, large world just like us. Secondly, Kubrick’s preoccupation with Sex. Nudity is not something Kubrick was shy of nor the topic of sexuality at all. Lolita, Clockwork Orange, 2001, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut all concern themselves either overtly or covertly with sex and sexuality. This is often taken as an inditement of Kubrick’s character alongside his other well noted character foibles, that he is a sexist and pervert who is preoccupied with sex. Watching all these together this is not the impression I came away with. Kubrick forever simply observes and the naked bodies of women (and plenty of naked men) are viewed coldly, dispassionately and anatomically whenever in a scene. Kubrick knows that sex is a MASSIVE part of who we are and simply represents that either literally or through imagery (riding the bomb in Strangelove, “getting your gun off” in FMJ or the space child in 2001). He seems to treat sex like a curiosity, an alien brought to earth wondering why humans are so obsessed with procreation. Finally and most pleasingly for me, his misanthropy.

Much is made of Kubrick the oddball, Kubrick the perfectionist, Kubrick the Shut in, Kubrick the tyrant and to me these all speak of a man who – and I flatter myself to compare myself to the great man – like me, largely loathes people and the societies we have created. I may  be utterly wrong but the central theme of each film is almost always: Fuck the Big Guy. Whether its the mob, societies laws, enforced sexual identity/conformity, the chain of command, the military itself, the government, the patriarchal figure, or even the idea of God himself, Kubrick endeavour’s to focus on the individual in any given circumstance and say: “Do what you want to do. People always have done. People always will.” This notion that we are our own masters is refreshing and seems to be something Kubrick believed to his core, separating himself from the glitteratti of Hollywood, it studio system and making his own films his own way seems indicative of what this ideology. As someone who also believes no one has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do as they are just as stupid and self-interested as you are, this is probably why Kubrick’s films speak to me as a whole.

To surmise, Kubrick should be on everyone’s watch list. Similar to the Beatles he is inescapable. He revolutionised cinema practices and storytelling inside and out. Spielberg, Tarantino, Aranofsky, Sophia Copolla, Lucas, Scorsese, Eli Roth, all have visible references to Kubrick – conscious or not – in all their films. As you can see from the list above and not forgetting the four I have omitted, Kubrick was not confined to genre and completely restructured every type of film he touched be it sci-fi, war, satire comedy, relationship drama, histroical biopic, horror, whatever your favourite film is, it is safe to say Kubrick will have influenced it in some way. Also look how varied each film is! Not including his shorts he only released 13 films. THIRTEEN! And look at his influence! Also I would argue he never made a dud, they are all wildly different and polarise opinion but are undeniably near faultlessly constructed pieces. Masterfully executed and wildly differing it is easy to see why he is the director’s director. It boils down to the fact that whether you believe Auteur theory or not, Kubrick’s influence on, not just his own films, but Hollywood itself is unmistakable, far reaching and profound. For such a small body of work made over a lifetime his quality control was set to maximum something no other filmmaker has done since.

In an industry that is very much returning to the classic studio system what with superhero films ruling cinema, adaptations, remakes and rip offs being stock in trade for every other type of film Kubrick’s belief in his ideas and abilities is rare today but equally his ability to challenge himself and his audiences in different ways with every film something that no one is doing anymore and not just in cinema. Cinema is the largest consumed form of entertainment next to computer games. Computer games garner none of the discussion, criticism or awards films do yet are so wildly different and becoming more and more challenging year by year it seems like real Auteurs who might be the next Kubrick would be better served making the switch to computer games where rules are more blurry and where the future of storytelling and audience involvement may lie. Suda 51, Ken Levine and Peter Molyneux are evidence of this altering trend but I for one have meagre hope in cinema thanks to the likes of Christopher Nolan (who seems to be setting his career on Kubrick’s own), Ben Wheatley, Lars von Trier, Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn, Jonathan Glazer and a few others who still try to bring innovation and depth into their medium.

I would urge you to pick up any Kubrick film either again or for the first time and give it a very attentive watch. They are all rewarding films and as a whole speak of an actual creative genius that is, by me at least, sorely missed.

KubrickForLook

Very Language

…Such word.

original

During a conflab with my good buddy and sounding board the other night we got onto the notion of trigger warnings and ableist speech came up. What we were discussing was their practicality. Now before I get every hardcore right wing or left wing political activist/commentator leaping all over me, we were not questioning their merit we were discussing their practicality. Every day a new issue is brought up (almost exclusively on the internet) about these two practices that requires a furthering of their reach. My argument is that anything can be a trigger and almost anyone (that isn’t a white male, ‘playing life on easy mode’) can have discriminative language used against them. So whilst correctly identifying someone’s choice of sex/gender/partnership and sensitively considering the impact of your topic on someone’s mental health is noble and ultimately the decent thing, language and active discussion on almost any topic becomes somewhat over burdened. The problem being that when talking about anything there would have to be drawn out parenthesise, asides, footnotes or explanations for any nouns or adjectives. This can kill a discussion stone dead and is actively inhibitive of necessary arguments that need to be made to further the cause of the topics that necessitate trigger warnings and ableist/gender language.

I am well aware of this being an unpopular view. The journalist Helen Lewis was drummed off Twitter for saying much the same thing but to be honest that’s not really what I want to talk about. I wanted to talk about language’s continued evolution and how it is being forced to evolve quicker thanks to modern technology.

First and foremost, I write poetry and prose so words are close to my heart. I am biased but you would be a fool to ignore the fact that human’s ability to speak (in whatever language) along with our awareness of mortality is pretty much what defines us as a species. Without language we would not be where we are. We are almost entirely made of language. Every language the world over be it French, Cantonese, Finnish, Spanish, Russian, English or any of the multitude of other languages we have on earth, have developed and evolved over the centuries. I recently read Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ which is over 2000 years old and am currently reading Anne Carson’s ‘Red Doc>’ published last year and the leap from translation of an ancient text to modern speech and syntax is staggering. Obviously Art of War is a modern translation but the context is that much more different when Sun Tzu wrote it and let us be clear – this is the whole thrust of my argument – Words have definitions, context gives meaning.

Picking someone up on a (perhaps admittedly poor choice of) word I feel is counter productive, in the same way I want to smash grammar nazis heads in with a fucking rock. The sanctity of language is something humans defend with their last breath WITHOUT the need for its policing. We need language and we need to be understood, even the most wilfully illiterate troll needs his words to get his asinine and prejudiced view across. As such I really feel the aggressive nature with which a misspelled or mistyped word or a poorly chosen word is used and the user actively eviscerated, helps no one. If the speech they are trying to make is generally for the good I’d rather take the whole than the pieces. Details can be deceiving and often a case of not seeing the woods for the trees.

Nietzsche once wrote “I’m afraid we cannot give up God as we still have grammar”. I only heard this quote last week and it struck a deep chord. What (it is my understanding) Nietzsche meant by this is the fact we still use phrases like “It is raining” or “They wouldn’t let it happen”. The ‘It’ and the ‘They’ are non-specific references to some form of linguistic deity. So “God”, in some form resides with in our language. NOW; Due to the world becoming more secular in general and with the advent of the internet (originally a platform for discussion without militant censorship) being an ideal place to foster this notion it seems this particular hiding place for The Man Upstairs is finally being over turned. What do I mean? Ladies and gentleman, I give you: Doge

In the world of the internet Doge is not the first trend of his kind to come along, who can haz forgets LOL Cats? But Doge to me is an indicative point of reference for the use of humour (its always humour that makes the most progressive ideas popular) to disassemble our language. I hate the word “Meme” because its origins lie with someone I detest but seeing as that is how they self-identify I shall use the term: Memes have always deliberately used language badly to make the funnies and give all the lols. To the point where I actually said the word “Obvs” out loud in conversation the other day in an entirely un-ironic way. This is not new.

“He’s going to bring up Poetry again isn’t he?” YES I BLOODY WELL AM.

Modernism is a good place to start when considering how forcefully it tried to “Make It New!” as Ezra Pound once said. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are exemplars of a case to be made for the deliberate and systematic destruction of syntax and words being used incorrectly or at least strangely. These are traditionally seen as being the ‘outsiders’ though, not mass consumed literature or art like Memes and such. Yet for the last 15 years read any self-confessed ‘Literary Fiction’ *spits* and you’ll see the same attempts to reappraise language, Cormac McCarthy being a prime candidate. ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Road’ are sparse, practically barren texts with barely any punctuation beyond a full stop and the odd comma. But for me it always comes down to poetry. Poetry has been doing this since it started being composed and language used in such a way. I remembered a poem by Robert Herrick the other day from the 17th century called ‘Dreams’:

“Here we are all, day by day; by night we’re hurled

By dreams, each one, into a several world.”

Firstly, what a fabulous poem. He wipes the floor with a lot of other poems about dreams in two lines of pentameter. Secondly, check out that last phrase: “A several world”. “A many Cat” “Very Dog” “Such Piglet” “So Poem”. Poetry was body slamming linguists and grammarists from day one. It is where language goes when it wants to cut loose or breed and that fundamentally is the problem with the world’s dogged adherence to by turns ye olde grammar or “must-include-everyone-and-everything” language.

Language is its own thing, whatever language that may be. Like water it finds its quickest path and goes that way weather we build a dam or not. It is a living breathing, creature that grows limbs and shoots lazers from its eyes and has an Adamantium skeleton. Which is why getting on your high horse and berating others for the “your/you’re” SIN seems almost tragically quaint. You can beat the irony drum as much as you like too but bad grammar and silly linguistics are everywhere. It is almost the sole mode of communication on some websites. Use “Meme Speech”, as some nitwits pejoratively refer to it, on Twitter or anywhere on the web and expect a flood of very reply, so response. In many ways, language itself is God. It is our creator and we are at its beck and call all the time. Fascinating then, that so many religions have been built around it. I should stress I am no christian and do not have any fealty to any faith yet nor do I, or would ever, pronounce myself as Atheist. There are just as many churches and doctrines with that particular faith as any that adhere to a deity. Equally words being that which I hope to make a career out of, I most certainly do not feel the need to be its staunch defender. Language doesn’t need my, your or anybody’s help to develop and accommodate new ideas of gender, ableism, race or trauma.

The difference comes with our intent and that is the context in which it is said. If you have an hour these guys make the point but funnier and more in depth than I do but to put it succinctly: If you are talking about a topic in its defence and either through ignorance or poor choice of humour use language someone deems insulting, rude, insensitive or triggering then I’m probably not going to call you on it A) Because millions of people are lurking in wait to do it instead but B) Because the chances are I’ll agree with your argument and want other people to hear it, poorly phrased syntax and all.

We do not own language, it owns us. It shapes and defines us as our identities shift and as our “isms” become more abstract and psychological and so language will move to accommodate. The internet, text talk and literature are actively trying to dismantle preconceived notions of the English language and are transmuting it as I write. Trying to rigidly enforce a set of archaic rules on a system that is already being collapsed so that minorities or the well being of others can be better met seems counter productive as whatever happens with language in the generations to come will be designed around our new method of thinking and broader inclusivity. The language of the 20th century will be as unrecognisable then as Chaucerian English is now.

God may be in the grammar but the Devil is certainly in the detail.

doge copy

In Defence of Curses

*This post will contain very strong language start to finish so if you are of a sensitive disposition or are easily offended don’t be a cunt about it and fuck off now*

I recently had a poem published in Penguin’s ‘Poetry of Sex’ Anthology edited by Sophie Hannah. As you may gather from the title it was a collection of poems about the ‘Physical Act of Love’ i.e. Shagging, Fucking, Doing it, nobbing, slap and tickle, how’s your father, knee trembler in the alley, boning, screwing, buggering, dicking, the old in and out, scissoring, on the job, posh wank, bit o’the other, etc etc etc.

My poem has come in for a bit of a pasting it must be said: A friend of mine described it as fucking misogynistic (which I don’t think it is) and a reviewer in The Times described it as “irredeemable in its witless procession of profanities”. What I am not twatting well going to do is write a long piece defending my poem. Fuck that. Its a poem, it speaks for itself, it can defend itself and certainly doesn’t need me to stick up for it. I am going to defend my use of language within the poem as this seems to be what has warranted such arse-fondling ire.

‘Haikus to Fuck To’ is my poem and as the name implies its about fucking. Not having sex, not procreating, not ‘making love’, not shagging or anything else; its about fucking. To my mind fucking is a great description. There are plenty of different types of sex but the word fuck and in this case its verb form is wonderfully articulate and summons up the exact sense of mind I wanted to present. ‘Making love’ sounds like a slow and romantic act, sex just sounds slightly dismissive like the couple who have been at it for a few days and are relating the third bout, a shag sounds like something you’ve done that’s a bit naughty spur of the moment, and there is nothing wrong with any of the above and I have indulged in all of them but I wanted to write a poem about Fucking. Fucking is carnal, lustful and passionate, something the word itself relates wonderfully. It also imparts the necessary secrecy and the, not in the way you imagine, violent nature of the act itself. Fucking was the perfect word. ‘To fuck to’.

Swears are shitting necessary. Stephen Fry said it really cunting well when he said “The English language has its stately homes and castles and equally has its slums”. As any economist or sociologist knows extreme wealth cannot exist without extreme poverty, likewise buggering sumptuous words that impart the best in us cannot exist with out the cocksucking hideous and mother fucking blunt elements that portray the worst. We need swear words to counter balance what we say everyday, it is in a very small way an act of resistance on our part to use them in everyday speech let alone in a book or public address.

Curse words as they are sometimes known are just fucking that. Words of curse.

“curse |kəːs|

noun

1 a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something …”

So says the dictionary. These could be long speeches condemning the object of hate to a woeful end or a “magic word” that cast its spell over something in hopes of destroying it. These curses were no doubt well thought out and – early on – probably in Latin so they probably extended to some sort of versification i.e. They were lyrical. This meant they struck a subliminal chord with someone hearing it so it sounded cruel and nasty even if you didn’t know what it meant. This is immediately apparent in our ‘curse words’ now. The way we have whittled down our swear words to almost extreme economy is because not only do they have the weight of hundreds of years of usage and the arseing horrible meanings they inflict but they are also perfectly sculpted works of auditory art.

Lets look at the big three: Shit, Fuck and Cunt. All four letters and they all end with those crashing stops – ‘T’ and ‘ck’. They are physically harsh to say. You cannot soften the ends of these words without dropping the letters entirely. The ‘T’ at the end of shit can be dropped but the blunt end is still implied as the ‘i’ sound is unresolved. Fuck sweeps open with the ‘F’ sound before crashing to a halt with the double tap of the ‘ck’. That’s impossible to deaden. Cunt is still considered the worst. Not least because of its sexually derogatory and sexist overtones but because it is the harshest to say. It starts with a hard ‘c’ a hard ‘uh’ sound followed by a hard ‘en’ and finishes with a solid ‘t’ that is practically a smack in the face. There is no letter you don’t pronounce and every single one is a hammer blow. These words are tailor made to be curses and could not be anything else, even without their connotations.

For this reason I still maintain they are works of fucking art in the English language and are some of the only words that carry impact or make people shy away or simply refuse to say them. In short that is gold dust for a poet. Words being a writer’s main currency, swear words – like archaic or forgotten words – are like shit-gargling £50 notes. But like anything of this nature it is the rarity that makes them impactful, overuse and repetition will kill a word or at least strip it of its meaning (another thing poetry deliberately dwells on, as I discussed previously). There is a wonderful South Park episode where they are allowed to say Shit continually through the episode and has a counter tallying up the amount of times it is said in the episode. It literally treats Shit as a “Word of Curse” and it awakens a group of magical warrior knights who bring down armageddon with a giant fire breathing dragon. Obviously this is hyperbole for comedic effect but it rings true. Having slums next to every stately homes, school, hospital and museum might be a bit much in city planning, likewise with language. Swear words serve a purpose but overuse removes them of their jizz-palming purpose.

My poem used these words for purpose. I tried my best not to repeat myself and use as many differing swear words as I could within the poem so it would have an accumulative effect. The words I used in the poem that are deemed not fit for children or mixed company: Tits, Cock, Dick, Wank, Pussy, Cunt, Cum, Fuck and Minge, each word being perhaps wince inducing but with such high density and consistency would make for an impactful poem. What I think was more unpleasant for people was their sexual context, it is a very anatomically descriptive poem and such strong language in a sensitive area of discussion was perhaps too much for some. In this way it worked too bloody well and what I discovered is how for all the right wing press’ arguments for us being a promiscuous society with no morals or taboos left to break, it seems a few little four letter words set in an ancient Japanese poetic form can still turn people’s stomach and rile them to revolt. For this reason swear words are really sodding GOOD. They make a point better than most words and in less time and syllables than other words.

Having lived alone for some years now, I found my language gets worse and worse (or more colourful as I like to cunting think); akin to that sailor talk people frequently speak of. As such when out with friends I find I swear a lot more freely and realise people look slightly embarrassed or at least look around the pub to ensure no one heard me. I remember getting sent indoors while doing a reading of a play about Thomas Beckett at school due to a, in my opinion highly literate and articulate, slew of profanities. The reason I resist the use of the word ‘Profanities’ is for this reason. The idea that these ‘Curse Words’ being ‘magical’ or in a true sense ‘pagan’ are “Against God” and frankly: Fuck that. There is far more cause for ‘Profane’ language than saintly language. We have obtained more from nautical and service language in everyday speech than anywhere else so “sailor talk”, to me at least, is far more valuable than any saintly speech. So my delightful reviewer who (for some reason) perceives wit as being the chief weapon in a poet’s arsenal, declaring my poem in equally cliched journalistic alliteration a “procession of profanities” I consider the shart-darting highest compliment.

In many ways this has made me think of swear words more as ‘Curse Words’ than before because they do almost seem to cast a magic spell. Like JK Rowling’s brilliant subversion of “Abracadabra” in Harry Potter into “Avarda Kedavra”, the worst of the ‘Unforgivable Curses’, the ‘Killing Curse’, swear word’s meanings have altered and changed but their power is still present. Depending on how or where or when they are delivered a curse can be as powerful as those magical curses wizards and witches would bring down on their hated enemies. Love me or loathe me for my appreciation of such ungodly words but as a self-proclaimed “wordsmith” they are some of my most precious fucking tools in my cunting wonderful shitshed.

Poo cum titty willy bum.

P.S. The path to good swears is a long one and the path to enlightenment is and always will be Viz and its saintly work ‘Roger Mellie’s Profanisaurus’. Buy yourself a copy and cry with laughter. Contrary to newspaper criticism some of the sharpest and funniest WIT comes from portmanteau swearing, crass imagery and out-and-out silly words. Pick it up in a bookshop, pick a page at random and scare people around you by collapsing in a fit of very loud guffaws. You fucking well deserve it.