Monday, 29 November 2010

The United... Republic?

A couple of weeks ago the UK and indeed most of the rest of the Commonwealth was hurled into a torrent of joy, patriotism and nostalgia with the news that Prince William was to marry Kate Middleton; his long term girlfriend. I know this is old news, but one blog a week isn’t enough to keep up sometimes. I’m also sorry that this is so late; I’ve had a busy weekend.

Anyway, I think I was about the only one in the Commonwealth who wasn’t either very excited at the prospect of a royal wedding or at least apathetic to the whole thing. Ok that isn’t strictly true, but doubters were pretty hard to come by. The fact that so few people seem to think that the continued existence of the royal family is an affront to justice and democracy is almost as worry as the continued existence of the royal family.

‘An affront to justice and democracy’ is a pretty bold statement to make, so it deserves some form of explanation. Let’s define terms first; justice is the concept of getting what you deserve. If you work hard, you’ll be more successful that if you bum around; if you commit a crime, you will be punished; if you treat other with dignity and respect, they will treat you likewise. It’s a basic concept which forms the basis of any society. When if fails, you are left with either tyranny or anarchy. In short justice forms the basis for society.

One born, or indeed married, into the royal family is born, or married, into undeserved and unearned privilege. Palaces and luxury are yours by birthright. From the moment you first draw breath you are destined for wealth and high office. Royalty are destined for privilege that no other citizen can even dream of attaining, no matter how hard they work, and yet they have to do nothing to earn such honour.

Unearned wealth and privilege goes against any rational definition of justice and the royal family embody unearned wealth and privilege. Of course the same can be said of any kind of inheritance, and I would agree with you, however this inheritance is such a gross and overwhelming one that all others pale in comparison. There is no way that any of the royal family could possibly attain what they inherit by their own efforts.

We must not forget also that royalty does not only embody wealth, but also high office. Here is where the democracy comes in. The ideal of democracy is that those deemed most able by the populace is appointed to lead them for a select period of time. It is, in many ways, an extension of justice – a collective choice of leader is made of he who is most deserving and, depending on how good the decision was, the people are either served well or badly. If things go badly, they only have to blame themselves.

The royal family are destined for high office. Prince William, so long as he doesn’t die before hand, will eventually inherit the throne. That means he becomes the official diplomatic, military and political leader of the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth. The people over whom he rules have no say in the matter and have no constitutional capacity to depose him. He will have done nothing to deserve it beyond simply being born for it. His wife will have done nothing beyond being lucky enough to be the object of his affection.

Unelected, indefinite power is not democracy. Sure the King/Queen has no real power – that lies with Parliament, but they still have a significant diplomatic and official role in the country. They often act as our spokesperson and act on the world stage in a very significant way. We cannot possibly call this democracy.

So the royal family is clearly and demonstrably undemocratic and unjust, so why do so many people celebrate their ongoing existence? Most of it is a rather fond nostalgia, harking back to the days when Britain was the world’s only super-power, rather than an increasingly isolated and insignificant island, neither in Europe, nor outside it. This is complemented with a rather large dollop of conservatism.

These arguments are impossible to refute, because they are, at heart, an emotional response that can only be refuted with introspection. There are some arguments, largely straw-men, which can be tackled head on.

The most significant of these is the appeal to tourism. It is argued that the royal family and all the pomp they represent are good for the tourist industry. They are a veritable magnet for visitors to the UK and Buckingham palace is on every tourist trail worth following. The problem is that if you go to France, the Palace of Versailles is just as popular, and yet no living monument to bygone days squats there. No tourist would shun the palace if it were to become an empty shell of our history, rather that a living piece of it.

I don’t think we should shun and forget the rich and long history that the UK has, of which the royal family has played an integral part, but there is a different between celebrating history and living in the past. Just like the monarchies of ever other European country, the gross injustice of monarchy belongs in the past. It should be remembered and the deeds of the great men and women who occupied the position should be celebrated – just as the deeds of the rather worse men and women (of whom there are just as many) should be bemoaned.

The rulers who occupy the pages of history should be studied so that we might understand how the UK came to be the way it is today, but they should not continue to be written into the history books. They have no place in a modern society in which justice and democracy rule, because they contradict both. No amount of nostalgia can fix that.

Speaking of nostalgia and how it is no excuse for progress, you might notice the rebranding. I have a new name for this blog because I didn’t like the old one. The content will not change, but now I won’t be quite so embarrassed by the title. 

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows… Sort Of

I stopped really enjoying Harry Potter books and films a couple of years ago when I realised that it contained very little that was terribly original and the books were not actually that well written, so I was not expecting much from the latest HP film. I was not disappointed. Well I was disappointed, but not at all surprised.

I have many problems with the books and, by extension, the films. The principle of these is that it’s all too cliché. Rowling extracts, pretty much unaltered, almost everything that popular folk law has to offer and stuffs it clumsily into her world. Creatures from across the globe cram into the forest outside Hogwarts without any attention paid to the context and subtleties of the myths with which they’re associated. This leads to a paper thin and rather unsatisfactory world in which the story it set.

The magic in the story suffers from much the same problem. Rowling never really sets any rules, either implicitly or explicitly. There are vagaries about relative strength and many of the Witches and Wizards at Hogwarts struggle to get to grips with the stuff, but once they reach adulthood, it seems that they can do pretty much anything that needs doing without too much trouble – unless of course the plot demands that they have trouble with something for the sake of tension. As such Magic just becomes a convenient plot device to be wheeled out whenever something needs to happen, rather than an integral part of the conflict, contributing in some meaningful way to the characters or themes being explored.

Examples of this is seen repeatedly in The Deathly Hollows; right at the beginning, for example, when Hermione extracts herself from her parent’s life with magic – which is an incredibly complicated and difficult thing to do properly when you consider the profound influence even relatively minor people in our lives can have. Magic is used here to perform the act with relative simplicity, but healing flesh wounds seems to be beyond the talents of everyone. If wounds were healed with as much ease as memories were selectively wiped, the tension and difficulty created later on by physical injury would be shattered. Magic has limitations when it’s convenient, but now when it doesn’t need to, and it becomes somewhat jarring.

Rowling’s world, on the whole, is pretty paper thin. It compared very unfavourably to the incredibly vivid worlds created by other Fantasy writers such as Tolkien and, more recently, Robert Jordan (one of my personal favourites) among others. Of course world building is not the be-all-and-end-all of fantasy. As with any story the plot and characters are by far more important that the setting. Rowling’s focus most certainly lies with the former, so it’s prudent to examine those further; writers should, on the whole, be judged according to their own priorities.

Rowling performs somewhat better in terms of characters and plot than she does on setting, but it still lacks complexity. HP essentially boils down to a very simple and overused fantasy structure; a young hero ignorant of his past and of his true place in the world is thrown into the world beyond his limited childhood and faced with his shadowy past. He much strive with his friends (many of whom are in a similar position to him) to foil the undoubtedly evil antagonist, who is somehow linked to the hero’s own past, in his plot to rule the world. Now this in itself in not inherently bad – Jordan’s Wheel or Time series is based on exactly the same model – but is only effective if it is build upon by interesting and original layers of complexity, as well as well thought out characters.

While Rowling does succeed in making it slightly more complex than the above model, it’s still pretty shallow; Voldemort’s motivation beyond being an evil bastard is pretty weak and the setup of Harry’s character is very standard. The link between the two is relatively interesting and well played out, but the lack of ambiguity spoils it somewhat.

Indeed the lack of ambiguity is one of the most glaring flaws in the series, along with most fantasy of similar ilk. There is no question of whether Voldemort or any of his cronies are evil; indeed the evil is, at times, cartoonish. The antagonists of Harry’s childhood; the Dursleys, are a perfect example of the unrealistically dislikeable characters. They are straw people designed to ally the reader’s sympathies with Harry straight off. The opportunity was to pose interesting questions on the tragedy of an unwanted child for whom the parent’s can’t care for, but it was ignored in favour of a childishly simplistic foil to the protagonist.

This is a theme through the books. Think of all the ‘bad guy’ in the series and try to think of one with whom you can actually sympathise. As far as I can remember, they’re all comically hate-worthy, with hardly a single saving grace amongst them. In the film for example, it is reinforced early on that Voldemort’s secret council is full of evil people (as if that wasn’t obvious by the fact that they all look shady and murderous), by having them feed some random Witch to a snake, just in case we didn’t realise that they were the bad guys. Similarly the Ministry of Magic is turned into some modern reimagining of Nazi Germany, just to make sure we were aware that they were the bad guys too.

This kind of paper-thin, black-and-white, good-vs-evil setup is so simplistic and juvenile as to be insulting, even keeping in mind that the books and films are aimed at a young audience. Young people can still understand and grapple with ambiguity. The books and films would be far richer if they encouraged the audience to consider the arguments of both sides and displayed an appreciation for the moral greyness of reality, rather than propagating a rather simplistic idea that there are good guys and bad guys and no-one in between.

In fairness this is more a criticism of fantasy as a genre than HP specifically, because the latter is very much a product of the former. Even Tolkien is not above unambiguous and poorly characterised straw-man villains. Nevertheless, in HP it is even more cartoonish and over the top than usual. Again the story here is of missed opportunities. Clearly Rowling is going for a Nazi parallel with the obsession with blood and the understandable superiority complex of some of those with magic over those without, and at first this is rather well done, but it becomes somewhat overplayed in the final book and all subtlety is lost. The most jarring thing is that most wizards seem to just go along with it, when there seems no reason to do so. It’s clear that Harry Potter isn’t the villain here because Voldemort so obviously is, so why don’t ordinary people smell a rat? It’s not like the situation in Germany when in the 1930s is anything like the situation in the wizard world; at least if it is Rowling fails to show it sufficiently for the parallel to be anything more than vulgar.

All of the above is forgivable. While there are many major flaws, these could be carried along by sufficiently strong characters. Unfortunately the characters are very much the same as the rest. I’ve talked about the straw-man villains, so let’s talk protagonists. Admittedly Rowling is able to create some likable and well developed characters, but the most interesting tend only to be side characters. The principle protagonists, Harry, Ron and Hermione are, by far, the weakest. Ron is little more than a goofy sidekick who occasionally shows some inconsistent glimmerings of valour to save the day, but spends most of the time just being annoying. Harry meanwhile is brave and heroic to a fault. His boldfaced attempts to try to do everything by himself are noble, but gets extremely annoying after a while. His pathological failure to realise that what he’s dealing with is not just about him gets jarring when it happens in every book. His insistence that no-one risk their life for his sake in the most recent film is not noble; it’s just plain stupid. You’d hope by now that it he’s work out that it’s not all about him, but apparently such intelligence is beyond him. Meanwhile Hermione is the super-rational, emotionally dysfunctional prodigy who is very much like Dr Temperance Brennan in the American crime drama ‘Bones’. The difference is that ‘Bones’ is very tongue in cheek, whereas HP is far too straight faced to pull off such a character without it being unintentionally silly.

Well, what was supposed to be a review of the recent Harry Potter movie has turned into a rant about why I don’t like the franchise, with a smattering of references to the actual film, so I guess I’d better pull out the stops and talk about the film for a bit.

The director was always in for a challenge with converting this book into a film because it’s just so damn big! It’s not just the size, but also the fact that so much happens. In fact one of the problems with the books was that they lacked pacing. Everything happens quickly. Sure it keeps you interested, but Rowling never stop to really describe anything in vivid detail or build suspense. To quote Alan Bennett, ‘it’s just one fucking thing after another’. This means that there’s a lot to cram into a reasonable time space. They’ve already split the thing in two, but still if felt rushed.

There was very little suspense created because there was just so much to get through. Events happened to quickly that no-one, not even the characters, really had time to stop and take stock of what just happened. There wasn’t enough time for the characters to react to events because the next event happened straight away. As such there was very little opportunity to really form the emotional connection with the characters needed for the audience to actually give a damn what happened. Of course it didn’t help that they all acted to jarringly unrealistically and unsympathetically throughout.

There were some positives however; the story of the creation of the Deathly Hallows was really well done, and as ever the magical duels looked fantastic. Editorially it was very well put together and, as you might imagine, no expense was spared in making it look very pretty, however this is all style. Style is great, but it’s nothing without substance.

The film suffers from being part 1 of 2, because the ending is really weak and I left the cinema with a very unsatisfactory feeling. That being said I wasn’t exactly given a great deal of reason to look forward to the next one; I can’t say the characters really interested me enough to want to see any more of them. The books always managed to keep me interested and engaged, even if they were rather unsatisfactory, the films have all pretty much failed to do the same. It’s not just because I know what’s going to happen either; I’ve read the earlier book multiple times and they still engaged me.

In short, save your money, (re)read the book because it’s far more entertaining, or go pick up a much better fantasy series and get into the instead.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Phone Tag

Another little short story for you, because it's been a while. I decided to write this in the first person, partly because I don't write nearly enough in the first person and it's quite enjoyable, but mostly because I feel a little guilty putting so much exposition in when writing in the third person; I prefer to show rather than tell, but that takes much longer, especially when there's so much you need to know to get the point of the story. The pay-off isn't big enough to justify a longer piece, so I decided the change of person was necessary. That being said I rather like the characters, so I might think about a longer story featuring the same people.

Anyway, enough explanation of  my thought process, enjoy Phone Tag.

Andy struck one of his cheesy rock-and-roll poses as he strummed the final chord of ‘Killing in the Name of’ on Guitar Hero. Just as the note faded into the cheering or the crowd, his phone rang. Jumping up, Andy frisked himself in search of his phone and nearly gutted me with the end of the crappy, garish plastic guitar as he spun to find the source of the high pitch tone.
Andy’s face dropped when he saw the caller ID and the excitement of pretending to be a rock star in the living room faded.
“Sorry Steve, I have to take this.” I shrugged and pulled the strap of the guitar over my head. Leaning it on the side of the couch, I slumped into the comfortable seat.
“I was getting bored of Guitar Hero anyway.” I smiled weakly as he pulled the phone up to his ear and turned to leave the room.
“Hi Karen!” Steve called jovially into the phone and walked out of the door into the kitchen of the small flat we shared.
The mention of Steve’s girlfriend snatched my attention. I pulled the remote from down the side of the sofa and hit ‘mute’. Climbing over the furniture, I arranged myself so that I looked relaxed enough, but was as close to the door as possible so I could try to listen to the conversation.
Andy had been acting strangely ever since he got back from work, so I’d had guessed that something must be up, but whenever I’d brought it up Andy had dismissed it as ‘nothing’ and had got angry when I tried to pursue the issue further.
“Listen, Karen, I know what you think happened, and I can see how it seemed that way at the time, but if you’ll just listen, it’s not what you think.” Stress strained Andy’s voice.
I wondered what Andy had done wrong. There was a lot of stuff wrong with Andy, but an adulterer he was not. There were only about two things of which you could be certain when it came to Andy; that he loved Karen and that he was hiding something from you. Andy was a compulsive liar with huge trust issues, which were probably hangovers from his days as an amateur drug dealer back when he was living in Seattle. Since moving to California and meeting Karen he’s cleaned up his act, but he remained a hard man to trust.
“Yes I know I promised honey, and that’s why you know I didn’t do it.” He was cut off mid stream. “But you do matter to me. I love you, which is how you know I’m telling you the truth.”
I wasn’t entirely sure why Karen put up with Andy. He loved her to bits, but was pathologically incapable of showing it. I’d grown up with him, so I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to living with him, but Karen didn’t have the same excuse. He’d barely been in Frisco for a month and they’d hooked up. Karen was my best friend, so I was a little worried when they got together, but it’d turned out surprisingly well so far.
“That’s not true Baby. You know I’m trying. I didn’t betray you I swear, you’ve got it all wrong.” Again he trailed off for a moment. “Of course I want this relationship more, you know that… I have got better and you’re why. I don’t do that any more… What you saw isn’t what happened… No of course I’m not, you’re the smartest person I know, but that doesn’t mean you’re not jumping to conclusions here… I know you don’t trust me, I get that, but please hear me out.”
As I lay on the couch, listening to half this argument, I wondered what Andy had done this time. I was pretty sure Andy hadn’t gone screwing some other chick; Sex had never been Andy’s weakness. I thought Andy had cleaned up has act with regards to substances, but now I was having my doubts.
“OK, I’m coming over, Steve’s here and I need to talk to you in private. You know how nosey he is.” I felt my cheeks heat slightly. “I don’t want to get him involved in this; it’s not fair on him.” I smiled slightly; maybe he had changed since moving from Seattle.
There was a click as the phone was folded shut. Andy walked out of the kitchen with a neutral expression. “I’m heading over to Karen’s, dunno when I’ll be back.”
“Anything up?” I asked from the couch.
“Nah,” he waved a dismissive hand. “It’s nothing.”
As he walked out of the flat, I noticed telltale needle marks on his arms. Maybe he hadn’t changed after all.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

‘They shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’ (Lessons from history 7: The gunpowder plot)

On the night of 4th November, 405 years ago last Thursday, a servant of the English king, James I, searching the store rooms below the Houses of Parliament, found a man who called himself John Johnson and 36 barrels of Gunpowder. The man, who was actually called Guy Fawkes, was executed, along with his fellow conspirators, on 30th January 1606 for plotting to assassinate the king by blowing up parliament.

The Gunpowder Plot, as we now know it, has been popularised by ‘Bonfire Night’ a night were we burn an effigy of Fawkes on a bonfire. It was also the inspiration for the graphic Novel, later turned into a film, called V for Vendetta, which is a fantastic film and you should all watch it. The film portrays Fawkes as a hero of freedom and free speech, attempting to commit treason in the name of the people and paying the ultimate price for failure. However history is very rarely so clear cut or idealistic; Fawkes was not some hero of freedom, fighting for justice and righteousness.

By 1605, the Church of England, having been established in the middle of the previous century, was well established as the principle religion of England; Catholicism having been repeatedly persecuted by Henry, Edward and Elizabeth, with only a brief reprise under Queen Mary. With the end of the Tudor dynasty however, it had been hoped that the Stewarts, descended in part from Mary Tudor, might be a little more lenient on Catholics in England. Indeed in James I’s early reign it was; he prefered to deport renegade Catholics, rather than behead them. However with growing fears of papal attempts to regain influence in England, and a preference to strengthen ties with the very protestant Scotland, of which James was also king, his position against Catholics became arguable more strict that his predecessor. This was made worse by the influence of Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State, who was very Anti-Catholic.

Guy Fawkes, and his fellow conspirators; he was not even the ring leader, just the man caught red handed, were Catholics seeking greater freedom to practice their religion and indeed seeking the return of Catholicism to being the official religion of England. They were not only seeking freedom from oppression, but dominance of their own view. They were not V for Vendetta’s heroes of freedom and justice, but then Catholicism isn’t such a universal theme on which to sell a hero, so we might just let that slide.

On the face of it the plot was simple enough; blow up the House of Lords on the State Opening of Parliament, killing the king and many leading political figures, decapitating the English leadership and paving the way for a more sympathetic government to be installed in their place. It’s very doubtful that it would have worked had they not been found; given that most people had a stronger allegiance to King and Country that to Rome and Catholicism probably means that things would only have gotten tougher for English Catholics.

Unfortunately among those set to be blow up were a number of Catholic Members of Parliament. One in particular, William Parker; Baron Monteagle, was the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators. Monteagle received an anonymous letter in late October, warning him to stay away from the State Opening of Parliament, warning that ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament’. Inevitable Monteagle reported the letter to Salisbury, who, having already has some suspicions of a treason plot planned for the opening on Parliament, ordered a thorough search of the House. In the search Fawkes was found with the gun powder and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

There have always been some doubts over the story and many through history have asked if it was all a setup. These questions do have grounding in some facts which seem to be a little suspicious. For one the conspirators were allowed to rent a cellar under Parliament suspiciously easily, especially given that they were Catholics. Likewise they were able to obtain an incredibly large amount of Gunpowder; a commodity monopolised by the Government.

There have been some, even professional historians who have claimed that it was all a set up by Salisbury. What better way to ensure the ongoing persecution of Catholics than to catch them in the act of committing treason and murder on a massive scale? It’s unlikely that Fawkes and his fellows were Martyrs for the cause of Protestantism, but it’s argued that they were effectively duped into thinking they were pulling off a coup, when really they were all part of the plan.

Appealing though this story of intrigue and subtle manipulation is, the evidence simply does not add up. Gunpowder may be a Government monopoly, but the Black Market existed then as it does now. Smuggling was rife and determined men could easily have obtained enough Gunpowder for the plot. The cellars under Parliament were often rented out to members of the public and the conspirators used fake names, so there was no way to know that they were Catholics. None of the confessions even begin to suggest a conspiracy and neither does the plotters actions after being caught. While we should never rule out such a possibility, it seems unlikely that Salisbury planned it all from the beginning.

That is not to say that all is how it seems however. Such a large amount of Gunpowder might well have attracted attention and Salisbury’s spies no doubt watched the houses close to parliament. No doubt Salisbury suspected something and the Monteagle letter simple confirmed his suspicions. However the letter was delivered on 26th October, well before the opening of Parliament. Why then were the cellars not searched before the night of 4th November?

It seems clear that the most reasonable explanation lies somewhere between the extremes (as is so often the case in history). Salisbury had an idea that something was being planned at the Opening of Parliament, but decided to wait until the eve of the Ceremony because he was chasing publicity. The closer the plotters got to kill the king, the greater the backlash against Catholics. Salisbury manipulated events to make sure that he could make the most of the plot that he had pretty well under control. As a result the king turned even more strongly against the Catholics, just as he wanted.

And as an even more ludicrous PR exercise, 5th November became a national day of celebration and anti-Catholicism, Guy Fawkes is the national enemy who tried to kill the king and we are all encouraged to ‘remember, remember the 5th of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I know of no reason, why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’