Why Are We Cool With Lenin?

30 Aug

The other day I met up with my friend and colleague Scott Handcock for lunch at the Cardiff branch of Cosy Club. For the uninitiated, Cosy Club is a vaguely hipsterish chain of restaurants describing themselves as “gents club meets village hall meets cricket club”. If the food wasn’t so nice, it’s the kind of place that would make me break out in hives. Anyway… It was only as we were leaving that I noticed, fixed to the wall, a giant wooden bas relief of Lenin.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club's website) by the blue arrow.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club’s website) by the blue arrow.

And this got me thinking. Why are we OK with Lenin? After all, you wouldn’t expect to see images of, say, Hitler or Mussolini taking pride of place in a Harvester. It reminded me of the episode of Peep Show in which Sophie (Olivia Coleman) takes Mark (David Mitchell) shopping for clothes, and he sees a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of Mao Tse Tung. 

 

Now, while this is just a small, throwaway moment from a sitcom, like the great big Lenin profile in Cosy Club it points to the very weird inconsistency we have with despots. Media outlets in the UK and US were apoplectic at the news that a weird craze for all things Hitler-related was sweeping across Thailand, with the toothbrush-moustached mass murderer himself adorning t-shirts and posters, and that’s understandable. Hitler is not a pop culture icon. 

But neither is Lenin. 

In Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin, Martin Amis asks (and without a copy to hand, I’m paraphrasing) why we laugh so much more easily at Stalin et al than at Hitler, why we take the latter more seriously than the former. Of course, as is often the case with Amis, he’s not quite right. From Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to both versions of The Producers, we’ve always laughed at Hitler, but at the same time we have still treated his crimes with greater seriousness than we have atrocities committed in the USSR – making the Holocaust a staple of the history syllabus, but leaving many students ignorant of Stalin’s purges or the Holodomor.

As Mark says in Peep Show, it’s not a competition, but while it’s true that the industrialised nature of the Holocaust – not to mention its incomprehensibly short time span – make it stand out against all horrors of the 20th Century, the sheer numbers when it comes to those killed by the Soviets are truly staggering, with even the most conservative estimates offering a death toll of 15 million for the Stalin era alone. 

When discussing the (most likely exaggerated) Thai “Hitler craze”, many people put it down to historical ignorance, rather than anything ideological (though, of course, the two may overlap), but if this is true of Thai culture, it is also true of ours. When Cosy Club bought that bas relief of Lenin, did the purchaser have any idea who he was? If they did, perhaps they thought, “Well… It’s only Lenin. I mean… Lenin didn’t do any harm, now did he? All the bad stuff came with Stalin.”

Which – excuse my language – is just bollocks.

Terror and mass murder were a part of communism from the very start, long before Stalin got his claws into it. In his excellent book Black Mass, the writer and philosopher John Gray reminds us that from their earliest speeches, Marx and Engels knew that terror would be an essential part of any revolution. Here they are in an 1850 speech to the London Communist League: 

Above all, during and after the struggle the workers… must oppose bourgeois attempts at pacification and force the democrats to carry out their terroristic phases… Far from opposing so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals etc – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but give them direction.

 

Nice guys.

Nice guys.

 

That culture of violence and violent retribution didn’t skip a couple of generations after the Russian Revolution; it was there from the start. Even if we’re to ignore the shooting of the Romanovs, the years 1917-1924 (Lenin’s tenure) saw more people interned and executed by the Soviet regime than were killed in the preceding century of Emperors. Lenin’s lovely, cuddly, second-in-command Trotsky, so beloved by artists and writers around the globe during his later exile, and mourned in many quarters as a martyr of the one true faith, played an integral role in establishing the Gulags in which over a million people died of torture, execution, starvation and disease.

Even if one was to argue that it’s a time thing, that no-one would complain about a picture of Napoleon or Genghis Khan, and that Lenin’s crimes are almost a century old while survivors of Hitler’s death camps are still with us, that still doesn’t wash, because the knock-on effects of the Soviet experiment are still being felt, nowhere more so than along the border of Russia and Ukraine. 

So my question remains… Why are we cool with Lenin?

 

References

  • Gulag: A history – Anne Applebaum
  • The Great Terror – Robert Conquest
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia – John Gray

‘All Is Lost’

22 Aug

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It’s often hard to believe there was ever a time when movies had virtually no dialogue (you know… apart from title cards saying “Oh no! That dastardly cad has tied my beloved to the train tracks!”). If people praise a film’s script nowadays, very rarely do they mean the deft way the plot is strung together or the richness of the characterisation, but rather the cleverness, the wittiness or the realism of its dialogue. When a film is short on dialogue, it’s the first thing critics will point out, whether it’s novelty pseudo-silent movie The Artist or the bleak and speechless opening scenes of There Will Be Blood.

So tricky is it to develop characters without dialogue, that when protagonists are separated from other people, they are often given either a voice-over (The Life of Pi) or a tendency to talk to animals or inanimate objects (The Life of Pi, Castaway) to compensate, but apart from the briefest opening narration, writer-director J.C. Chandor gives Robert Redford no such props in All Is Lost.

Here Redford plays an unnamed character (listed in the credits simply as ‘Our Man’) whose yacht runs into trouble in the Indian Ocean. The film then follows him as he patches up damage to its hull, and attempts to make his way towards the nearest shipping lanes, with varying degrees of success. And that’s pretty much it. As the title suggests, things don’t exactly go to plan. Indeed, that bit of narration at the beginning suggests things will go very badly, and it would spoil the film completely to tell you how it ends, or anything that happens along the way, because this is a film in which every second, every little moment, counts.

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Without dialogue – save one or two muttered curse words and a single, abortive attempt at an S.O.S. – Redford’s performance is all about microscopic moments, changes of expression. It certainly helps that, while undeniably craggy (he is 78, after all) Redford is still in great physical condition for his age, and the fact that his opening voice-over (a letter to loved ones) is so apologetic, and he is sailing alone on the far side of the world, invites the viewer to craft their own back story for his character. Retired businessman, I guessed, with adult offspring (I pictured a small army of daughters) and at least two divorces under his belt. But despite his relative athleticism, there’s still a frailty there that will have you on the edge of your seat with both worry and suspense.

If the character were played by an actor half his age, that concern just wouldn’t be there, or the film would have to rely on cheap tactics (e.g. a full-blown shark attack, or pirates) in order to place the character in peril. Here, peril is provided by nothing more schlocky than a boat that is sinking, surrounded by thousands of miles of open water in every direction.

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Chandor’s previous feature, Margin Call, was one of my favourite films of 2012, and demonstrated his ability with both an intelligent script (packed full of dialogue) and an ensemble cast. Here, he’s gone in totally the other direction (perhaps a conscious decision), and shows incredible skill at handling both small, intimate moments and the big set pieces. The storm sequences really are the stuff of chewed fingernails and frayed nerves, and some of the underwater photography is just ravishing. The score – by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ Alex Ebert – is also worthy of much praise, adding a transcendental edge to Redford’s aquatic mishaps; though I could have done without the end credits’ song, in which Ebert more or less sings the credits as they roll (far too reminiscent of Whose Line is it, Anyway?)

At a time when so many films are either sequels, remakes or adaptations, and almost exclusively about – and aimed at – young adults, a film as exciting, as dramatic as this, with a protagonist well into his autumn years, is something to be cherished. 

All Is Lost is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Enraged Eric – ‘The Rover’

19 Aug

Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce in The Rover

I think we’ve now reached a point where we can put together a sliding scale of just how horrible the apocalypse and its aftermath will be, based entirely on post-apocalyptic movies. The final scene in 2012, for example, gives the impression that while there may be a whole lot of earthquake-related PTSD to deal with, everyone is quite enjoying the round-the-world cruise aboard their giant, tsunami-proof arks, so we could score that a 1 out of 10 for bleak hopelessness. 

Right at the other end of that scale you have something like the nuclear holocaust docudrama Threads, in which life in Britain is plunged back into the Dark Ages or the big screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which survival means not only foraging for food but making sure you don’t get eaten by redneck cannibals.

Though most high street branches of Tesco were still open for business.

…Even though most high street branches of Tesco remain open for business.

Perhaps three quarters of the way along that scale comes David Michôd’s The Rover. Starring Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson, and set in a dust bowl Australian outback, “10 years after the collapse”, the setting and subject matter were always bound to attract comparison with the Mad Max movies (a fourth installment of which is out next year), but in truth The Rover makes the Mad Max films look like Cannonball Run. 

Pierce plays Eric who, while refreshing himself at a tin shack passing itself off as a roadside tavern, has his car stolen by a criminal gang, headed by Henry (Monsters and Killing Them Softly’s Scoot McNairy). The gang are on the run from a botched robbery, having left Henry’s younger brother, Reynolds (Pattinson) behind, but when Eric and Reynolds meet, Eric forces the latter to help him find his car.

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What follows is a kind of road-movie-cum-western, as the pair travel from one ramshackle settlement to the next. Quite what caused the “collapse” is never really explained – it’s assumed to have been economic, with Australia’s mining industry just about the only infrastructure still up and running – but its aftermath is felt everywhere, from a glacially calm grandmother attempting to pimp out her grandson to a doctor keeping her dogs in cages, so they won’t be taken away and eaten by thieves. This might not be a world ravaged by environmental disaster or nuclear war, but virtually all sense of civilisation is gone. Violence is sudden, casual and almost inevitable in a world where law and order are provided by ragtag gangs of soldiers, rather than police.

The real revelation here is Pattinson, who I’d previously seen only in a handful of films, none of which were a particularly good showcase for his skills. Some reviewers have singled out his twitchy mannerisms and speech patterns for criticism, reading the character as a simpleton (one even mentioned Robert Downey Jr.’s “full retard” speech from Tropic Thunder), but I can only assume they weren’t paying attention to the film. Did they perhaps miss the moment when Eric overhears Reynolds speaking fluent Cantonese? Were they in the loo when Reynolds takes out a small army unit and rescues Eric, having dug under a fence to break into their compound? The character certainly seems more of a savant than a simpleton; and while Eric may be the film’s protagonist, Reynolds is certainly its heart.

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Pierce’s performance is perhaps not so much of a surprise, having delivered a similarly stoic turn in The Proposition, but his character remains fascinating. It becomes clear, following a shocking act of violence early on, that Eric is an unknowable quantity. If we sympathise with him for the loss of his car – even though his particular attachment to it remains a mystery until the very last scene – that sympathy dissipates pretty quickly, and soon enough it’s clear this is a movie without “goodies”… only “baddies” and “even worsies”.

The film’s major triumph, however, is in its depiction of a society that has come apart at the seams; indeed, one which no longer has the right to think of itself as a society at all. It takes only a cursory glance at recent headlines to realise that the barbarity depicted here isn’t far-fetched, begging the question – is the “collapse” referred to in the opening titles an event we have to look forward to, or something that’s already happened?

Let's face it - it's the latter.

Let’s face it – it’s the latter.

So “So Bad, It’s Good” It’s Bad – ‘Sharknado 2’

2 Aug

Sharknado 2

If, in years to come, the 21st Century is remembered for one thing, it’ll be as the era that witnessed the death of irony and sarcasm. Social media have rendered subtleties in tone obsolete, so that comments intended with tongue firmly in cheek read as utterly sincere, and “parody” accounts and websites such as christwire.org are regularly cited as genuine examples of fundamentalism. (See “Poe’s Law” for further details.)

The late 20th Century’s tsunami of postmodernism left Western culture awash with insincerity, so that almost everything these days is framed with irony. Whereas twenty years ago we might have watched films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or Mommie Dearest because they set out for greatness but achieved only schlock, we are now making films with the intention that they will be “so bad they’re good”.

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Which brings us to Sharknado 2. This TV movie, produced by the SyFy channel, is the sequel to 2013’s Sharknado. We know this, because its full title is Sharknado 2: The Second One, in case some of us fail to understand the concept of sequels. The first film centred around the unlikely premise in which Los Angeles is hit by a tornado that manages to suck all the sharks out of neighbouring waters, and then dump them on an army of unsuspecting Angelinos, including a surprisingly lifelike Tara Reid and John “the dad out of Home Alone” Heard.

Typically, for this sort of movie, it features scenes in which those milling about in the background fail to respond in any way whatsoever to the THOUSANDS OF FUCKING SHARKS falling from the sky, and – despite the dense black clouds overhead and the editor dimming everything in post-production – the streets of LA are brightly sunlit throughout. The sharks look like something from one of the earlier Tomb Raider games, the CGI floodwater looks like mercury, and a climactic scene has our hero, Fin Shepherd (Ian Ziering) fight his way through an unconvincing shark’s innards with a chainsaw.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

Sharknado, in summary, is not a good movie, but even pointing this out feels redundant, because whereas those responsible for Batman & Robin or The Room or Battlefield Earth thought they were making good films, the makers of Sharknado knew it was rubbish. Even so, what they aim for isn’t self-conscious spoof, in the vein of Airplane! or Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, but a strangely lacklustre compromise between the two: Too aware of its own shortcomings for them to be fun, and not funny enough to inspire belly laughs.

For its part, Sharknado 2 does, at least, aim for the latter, and at times it even comes close. There are some mostly unnecessary “star” cameos from the likes of Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kelly Osbourne, and this time round our “Oh my God… They’re in this?” turns are provided by Judd Hirsch (playing a taxi driver… Taxi… geddit?), A Serious Man’s Richard Kind and Kill Bill star Vivica Fox. Ian Zierling and Tara Reid return as our intrepid, chainsaw-wielding hero and a Ritalin-impaired marionette (at least, I think that’s who Reid plays), and the whole thing ends with a scene in which Zierling surfs a shark through a tornado before landing it on the Empire State Building’s spire. Of course.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

But whereas a movie like Airplane! knowingly sends up the cliches and other weaknesses of disaster movies, Sharknado 2 blunders on, blissfully unaware of its own. New York’s subway system floods, and its tunnels become infested with sharks and – somehow – alligators, yet the streets of Midtown remain surprisingly calm and quiet, with shoppers and commuters visibly going about their business as usual. When three tornadoes (sorry… sharknadoes) converge on Manhattan, an aerial shot shows what appears to be a Sunday morning level of traffic passing through Times Square. That isn’t “ironic cheesiness”, that’s just terrible film-making.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh, and at times I laughed quite heartily at Sharknado 2, but when the credits rolled I was left with that same feeling of hollow dissatisfaction that I had after its predecessor, because in the absence of genuine wit (and that’s the one thing Sharknado 2 is utterly lacking), there has to be someone on the receiving end of those laughs. If you can’t laugh with someone or something, you have to feel that you are laughing at it, and with the Sharknado movies that just feels pointless.

At the risk of taking SyFy’s monster movies way too seriously, it would be easy to dismiss Sharknado and its ilk as just “trash TV”, but I can’t help but feel these movies are part of a wider programme in which our cultural benchmarks are being  lowered intentionally. High production values cost more money, so why not make a virtue out of terrible direction, acting and special effects? Groom people into not only accepting rubbish as the norm, but demanding it, and you can get away with anything.

Too late.

Exhibit B.

 

 

Dennis Hopper’s America

28 Jul

Hopper

Over the last two weekends I’ve been in London, recording interviews with the cast for the next series of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. It’s been great fun, and lovely hanging around in The Moat Studios, but I was very happy to have wrapped up my official duties by 2pm yesterday, so I could shoot off and do a bit of touristing.

With only a couple of hours to kill before my train home, I went to the Royal Academy to check out The Lost Album, an exhibition of photographs by the actor Dennis Hopper. There are more than 400 images in all, taken between 1961 (when his wife bought him a camera) and 1967, shortly before he began work on his directorial debut Easy Rider. Hopper would later portray a mentally frazzled photographer in the film Apocalypse Now, and his reputation throughout the late 1960s and 1970s was as a wild man, but if this exhibition demonstrates anything, it’s that behind the almost cartoonish excess and eccentricity he was constantly engaged with visual arts, both as practitioner and fan.

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

Andy Warhol, Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney and Jeff Goodman (1963)

The writer Julie Burchill once commented – in a scathing (what else?) piece on David Bailey – that photography is “luck through a lens”, and while I’d disagree with the overall sentiment, there is often a grain of truth to it. The Lost Album includes pictures of Hollywood stars such as Paul Newman and John Wayne, and artists of the era, including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein and Andy Warhol, and Hopper was certainly lucky to know them all well enough to take such candid pictures, but where Hopper’s photography goes beyond being the work of a keen and lucky amateur is in his ambition and scope.

Regular obsessions crop up: The Coca Cola logo, torn posters, cemetery headstones and dilapidated signage, as well as images of America’s nascent counterculture – its civil rights protesters, Hell’s Angels and proto-hippies – come together to form a kind of narrative. The show starts with celebrities, but soon enough we’re side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., or witnessing the Sunset Boulevard riots of 1966, or watching – second hand, via the curved screen of a television –  the funeral of JFK.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

Martin Luther King Jr. (1965)

If his civil rights stuff isn’t as accomplished as Bruce Davidson’s and his images of Mexico aren’t as inventive as Graciela Iturbide’s, that’s forgiveable. This is a photographer finding his way, but engaging with his subject all the same. If a lot of the time he’s riffing on his own influences (Coke bottles from Warhol or Rauschenberg, bull fighting from Hemingway etc), at least he’s influenced by the greats. In a way, if Hopper’s work depicts anything, it’s the forging of a new – and possibly unstable – American identity, one that was post-industrial and almost post-ideological. (There’s still something a little startling about seeing swastika badges on Hell’s Angels’ lapels.)

A middle room in the exhibition, and the room through which you leave the show, has the opening sequence from Hopper’s 1969 movie Easy Rider on a loop. It’s more than just a nod to the actor’s more well-known career as an actor and occasional director. Here, in his montage of bikers (played by him and Peter Fonda) riding across the American landscape (accompanied by The Band’s song The Weight) we see many of the same visual themes and preoccupations, only now they’re in blazing colour.

From Easy Rider (1969)

From Easy Rider (1969)

 

Whatever you now think of the movie itself, it was undeniably groundbreaking. Commercially, it demonstrated that unconventional indie flicks could make money, but it also changed how films look, being one of the first movies in which lens flare was treated as a visual effect and not something to be avoided or edited out. Including the sequence here makes an apt ending to a show that gives some insight into Dennis Hopper as more than just the star of Blue Velvet and Speed.

“I don’t know what art is…” Why Martin Creed is a simpleton or a fraud

16 Jul

Martin Creed

Martin Creed was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, involved in a brief discussion about Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is being exhibited as part of a Tate Modern retrospective that opens today. The painting, for the uninitiated, looks like this:

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That’s right. It’s one of those ‘Ronseal’ paintings. It’s called black square, and it is a black square. It was apparently inspired by the artist’s reading of Schopenhauer, which is way too hefty a subject to get into here without essentially copying and pasting big chunks of World as Will and Representation, but suffice to say, our pal Kazimir wanted painting to move away from the representational, and towards the kind of abstraction that music offers, thereby helping us transcend this dull and dreary world of ours. Hence, a black square.

The important thing to remember about an artist like Kazimir Malevich, however, is that he arrived at his black square through a lengthy process of practice and thought. He wasn’t capable only of covering a canvas in black paint. He could also paint stuff like this:

Dude was versatile, is what I'm saying.

Dude was versatile, is what I’m saying.

Abstraction, in his case, was an artistic choice, not the end result of having little or no skill. The same cannot be said about Martin Creed. I’ve waffled on about Creed in a previous blog, holding his work up as an example of the kind of conceptual art I find not only utterly vapid but nihilistic and viciously elitist. It is the dreary cul-de-sac of 20th Century art. Stick a blob of Blu-Tac to a wall, call it art and hope you can get enough gullible saps to agree. Except, of course, Creed doesn’t even do that. He is either gleefully in on the joke, or a simpleton who is unaware that there is a joke to begin with.

This is Creed's Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like - a scrunched up piece of paper.

This is Creed’s Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like – a scrunched up piece of paper.

On Today, for example, he was asked if he considered Black Square to be art.

He replied, “I don’t know if it’s art or not, because I don’t know what art is, because I think art is just a word… that’s difficult to understand.”

So, if I’m right, because art is an often difficult concept to define, we shouldn’t even bother calling anything art, or trying to understand or define it? Why have that discussion when you could just stick some Blu-Tac to a wall, switch some lights on and off, get everyone else to call it art, and then giggle all the way to the bank? Though, of course, when I say “everyone else”, what I mean is, “Other artists, art critics and people who went to art school.” Not the countless people outside those three categories who can spot the Emperor’s naked, bouncing bollocks a mile off.

The most frustrating thing about Creed is the kind of almost uniform, unquestioning loyalty he inspires in so many art critics (with the notable exception of the Times’ Waldemar Januszczak). The now-defunct Review Show’s four-way rimming session about Creed’s Hayward Gallery retrospective was one of the most unedifying bits of arts programming I’ve ever seen on the BBC, so much so that when the show was cancelled, I found myself thinking, “Good riddance.”

That not one of the guest critics (Paul Morley, Denise Mina and – most disappointingly – playwright Mark Ravenhill) nor host Kirsty Wark were prepared to stick their hand up and say, “But… it’s all shit, isn’t it?” says a great deal about the kind of cliquey, incestuous media world in which Creed operates while feigning an aloof disinterest; the critics themselves presumably too scared of bumping into him at their next shindig to pipe up honestly.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Martin Creed did not arrive at his empty rooms or his scrunched up bits of paper or his blob of Blu-Tac after a lengthy period of learning his craft, or engaging with contemporary thought. He did it because he is incapable of doing anything else. The only thing original about this routine is that he was one of the first people ballsy enough to produce such blatantly lazy work without bothering to provide any justification and get away with it, and “getting away” with something should not be enough to earn you plaudits. Not when you have slammed a great big door in the faces of anyone not well-versed in art history and said, “Fuck off. You won’t get it.”

What Creed’s work says to all the struggling painters who learned how to paint, struggling sculptors who learned how to sculpt, and struggling conceptual artists whose concepts are original, fresh and thought-provoking, is, “Ha ha ha… Fools! Why did you bother? Look at me. I’m a fucking dimwit, and I get to do this for a living.

If you doubt this is the case, if you think I’m misreading Creed’s work, or underestimating him, I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, about his work The Lights Going on and Off:

“There was nothing that I could think of that was important enough to put in that room and say, “Hey, look at this.” And so, in the absence of that, I tried to do something with the room. And so I switched the lights on and off, because that’s all I could think to do.”

“They do things differently…” – Viewing the past through a modern lens

12 Jul

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A short while ago the writer Philip Hoare penned a piece for the Guardian about Ivor Novello and Noel Coward’s brief “flirtation with fascism” in the 1920s. I’d recommend you read the whole piece to get the full gist of it, but the bottom line is that Novello and Coward contributed to a 1925 fundraising ball for the British Union of Fascists.

The "Bolshie Bug" sounds fun. (Pic courtesy of the Guardian.)

The “Bolshie Bug” sounds fun. (Pic courtesy of the Guardian.)

In its strap line and in the piece itself, Hoare asks if we can “excuse” either man for dipping their toes in the murky waters of the far right

I hadn’t given the article much more thought until today, when I read this piece (linked to by Julie Bindel) about Harriet Capon, a woman who presented herself as a man in order to serve in the army during WWI,  earn more money and support her family. The article looks at the way in which recent commentators have tried to shift Capon’s identity posthumously from that of a woman who considered herself a woman (what the more self-entangling types out there might call a “cisgender woman”) while dressing as a man, to that of a transgender male called Charles (the name she adopted).

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

I won’t go into that post in any detail, because the author of Glosswatch does a much better job of that than I ever could, but the reason I made a connection between Hoare’s nostril flaring and the revisionist take on Capon  is that I think both make the mistake of viewing the past from the comfy (and politically biased) sofa of the present.

Now, of course, it’s difficult to do otherwise. Whenever we look at the past, we’re always judging it with our own values. For me, one of the most shocking scenes in the film 12 Years a Slave was the moment when Paul Giamatti’s slave trader leads his customers around his “showroom”, pointing out the best features of each naked slave for his well-to-do clientele. The later scenes, featuring Michael Fassbender’s deranged plantation owner, would have been distasteful to many people at that time, but the scenes with Giamatti’s character show how normal, how much a part of everyday life slavery was for people who would not have considered themselves inhumane.

But this guy? In real life, this guy must have known he was a piece of shit.

But this guy? In real life, this guy must have known he was a piece of shit.

The problem with viewing and judging the past through a modern lens is that it robs history of its greatest asset – the ability to teach us. This isn’t to say it prevents us from repeating our old mistakes – current events in Israel prove otherwise – but that when progress is made, it’s because history has shown us an alternative. You could even argue that the reason the situation in Israel goes on (and on) is because both sides are willfully ignorant of history, relying instead on mythology as justification of their actions. But if we pretend that the mistakes people made in the past are mistakes we couldn’t possibly make now because we are better people, and not just people with the benefit of hindsight, history itself becomes redundant.

There’s also a tendency in certain quarters – cultural commentary in the UK being one of them – to be highly selective about those we judge, based on political preference. So Hoare asks if we can “excuse” Novello and Coward, and elsewhere you’ll find similar pieces asking if we can forgive the likes of Ezra Pound (big fan of Mussolini),  P.G. Wodehouse (made Nazi-authorised radio broadcasts for the US), Henry Ford (Hitler’s pen pal) or Richard Strauss (who, though never a card carrying Nazi, carried on working under the regime).

"I gave you the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What more do you people fucking want?"

“I gave you the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What more do you fuckers want?”

 

You won’t, however, see many articles asking if we can forgive H.G. Wells (sang Stalin’s praises in New Statesman), George Bernard Shaw (fell hook, line and sinker for his “Potemkin villages” while touring the USSR), Jean-Paul Sartre (apologist for both Stalin and Mao) or any of the countless other artists and writers who either supported Communist regimes wholesale or downplayed their crimes. Even today, we give the likes of Oliver Stone and the Manic Street Preachers a free pass for cosying up with Fidel “My regime murdered thousands of political prisoners” Castro, while excoriating – and rightly so – those Tory windbags who provided shelter to Pinochet.

All this is to go a little off topic, however. My main point is that by asking if we can forgive men for “flirting with fascism” almost a century ago, Philip Hoare is looking at them through a prism tainted by the Holocaust and World War II. He seems blind to the idea that however objectionable many of us would have found fascism at the time, it enjoyed political power nowhere outside of Italy, and many of its supporters saw it as a necessary bulwark against Marxism, which – should we forget – had already seized much of Russia and caused countless thousands of deaths and mass exiles. It is, if anything, more understandable for two men from the middle and upper classes of British society to align themselves with fascism in its infancy than it would have been for either of them to raise the red flag.

For one thing, can you picture this man in overalls?

For one thing, can you picture this man in overalls?

So, if Hoare’s question is “Can we excuse them?”, I’d say the answer is yes. Had they carried on “flirting” with the movement after Kristallnacht, that may have been more questionable. As it was, they didn’t, and so it wasn’t. Trying to tie this 1925 fundraiser to Novello’s ration book fraud is tenuous, to say the least.

It is understandably tempting to make history’s characters our friends or enemies, based on whether we think we would have liked them as individuals, and they would have liked us. In this, our views are often coloured by the way these characters are presented in films, and so when we think of Gandhi, we think of Ben Kingsley’s sage Mahatma saying (as the real Gandhi said), “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”, and not (as the real Gandhi also said), “I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted.”

"And don't get me started on the blacks."

“And don’t get me started on the blacks.”

To bring the subject more or less full circle, we see this kind of revisionism often in modern-day LGBT(etc) discourse, with figures from the distant past labelled gay, straight, bi or trans depending on what scant information we have about their private lives. Even when someone’s proclivities are well-documented, such as in the case of Oscar Wilde, there is a tendency to airbrush that which doesn’t fit the modern narrative, and so we see him as a “gay icon”, ignoring altogether the fact that he was married (and, to begin with, quite happily so) and fathered two children.

At its most dangerous end, this kind of “judging the past from the future” sees nutters with nothing better to do than set up union jack-smothered Facebook pages describe the prophet Muhammad as a “paedophile”, because his wife Aisha was said to have been 9 or 10 years old when they first shared a marital bed. This is dangerous not because we shouldn’t upset Muslims, or because Islam should enjoy special privileges, but because it is said to demonstrate that there is something inherently paedophilic in the religion, a tenuous link to those gangs of – predominantly Muslim – men prosecuted for grooming young girls in recent years. Here, a narrow, ahistorical view of history is exploited to stigmatise people – over a billion of them, in fact – in the present, mindless of the fact that this kind of union, though eye-poppingly distasteful to us now, was common in the 7th Century, and not only in Arabia.

Even in the 14th Century Scotland, it was not uncommon for men in their 30s to shack up with toddlers. According to Mel Gibson.

Even in the 13th Century Scotland, it was not uncommon for men in their 30s to shack up with toddlers. According to Mel Gibson.

The truth of something like an individual’s sexual or political persuasion becomes more – rather than less – complicated with time. Many of the terms we use to describe human sexuality are less than 150 years old, and so it means nothing when we talk about Alexander the Great or the poet Sappho as “gay” or “lesbian”. A word like “fascist” (or even “communist”) has a whole ton of baggage in the year 2014 which it simply did not carry in 1925.

If we’re going to think and talk about our heroes and villains of the past, we’d do well to remember the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: 

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”