Sunday, 27 February 2011

The King's Speech

I keep saying that I should make an effort to go see more movies so I can review them, because I do really enjoy doing it and it’s a pretty easy way of making sure I have something to blog about. You saw what happens when I don’t last week. So this week I trotted down to the local cinema to watch The King’s Speech, which has been justifiably well reviewed by everyone. You might ask why I haven’t done this before, given that it’s been out for a couple of months now, and I would reply that the local cinema only started showing it a couple of weeks ago. And I’ve been busy.

The King’s Speech is, fairly obviously, about a speech made by a king; more specifically King George VI of Britain, father of the current Queen, and his speech at the outbreak of the Second World War. Actually it’s about a man trying to rise above the bullying and scorn of his youth and grow into the role to which he is destined. It’s also about the nature and necessity of Kingship in the modern age; the conflict between self-interest and duty; and the treatment of colonialists in Britain in the twilight of The Empire.

Most importantly it is about the man. Two men actually. Bertie: King George, and his speech therapists, an Australian failed actor, Lionel Logue. You see, Bertie has a terrible stutter. In the age where radio is beginning to be a world wide phenomenon, a stutter is a rather terrible thing for a prince to have. He is expected to be a public speaker, so must learn to speak.

The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is fascinating. It begins as a purely professional one; any intimacy barred by the impenetrable walls of class that existed in 20th century Britain. Bertie is an aristocrat and Lionel is not even British: he’s an Australian, a colonialist, a nobody. There should be no way, in such a society, that they could be anything but professional acquaintances. The Prince knows this. Lionel chooses to ignore it. He constantly and persistently pushes the bounds their relationship. He suffers Bertie’s temper numerous times, but persists in his attempts to become friends with him.

As the story progresses, Bertie realises that he not only can be friends with Lionel, but that he must in order to find his voice. He’s lived a friendless, isolated life, and Lionel is the only person to whom he can actually talk about his past. His stutter has made him an object of mockery, particularly at the hands of his brother, egged on by his father. Only by opening himself up to Lionel, can he acknowledge the fear and resentment that have stolen his voice.

However in the act of opening himself up, he leaves himself open to being hurt. Lionel is frank, crass and forthwith. Princes are not used to being treated as Lionel treats Bertie; as an equal. This is the main cause of the conflict between the two; Bertie repeatedly fails to accept Lionel’s treatment of him. The thing is, this problem never goes away. Lionel repeatedly provokes Bertie, even up to the scene towards the end in Westminster Abby prior to his coronation. Everything does not end perfectly; they do not get on completely. Their friendship overcomes the conflicts which arise, partial, from Lionel’s attempts to provoke Bertie (he doesn’t stutter when he’s angry), and, as all friends must, they learn to live with each other’s imperfections.

The King’s Speech really is a wonderful study of a relationship that must develop and grow, but is consistently stunted by assumptions and conflict. Both of these must be overcome in order for The King to deliver his speech. However it is so much more than that.

One of the main themes of The King’s Speech is the relevance of Kingship itself. Bertie keeps coming back to the paradox of kingly authority in Britain. He is in the paradoxical position of having huge responsibility and absolutely no power. He cannot make laws, raise taxes, or declare war. He is a figurehead; the voice of the nation. But he has no voice. He is there to inspire, to lead, and to rally. With war looming, such responsibilities are becoming ever more important. Yet he is still just a figurehead. Bertie’s feeling of helplessness is all the more poignant because he doesn’t have a choice. His stutter wouldn’t be much of a problem if he was an ordinary person, but his birthright puts him in the terrible position of needing a voice, but not having one. Bertie wrestles with his responsibilities and curses his lack of tangible power, but ends up accepting the inevitable and rising to it.

By contrast Lionel must deal with the problem of being a nobody. He is constantly reminded that he is Australian – despite his perfectly good English accent (or maybe I’ve been down under too long and cannot pick the difference any more!). He is looked down upon simply for not being English. The underlying racism is dealt with wonderfully because it’s never really explicitly mentioned, but constantly colours people’s attitude towards Lionel. He battles this, not by raging against the establishment, but simply by ignoring it. He ignores customs and conventions, speaks to all as equals and treats all as people, not as Englishmen, princes, or anything else. The way in which Lionel is treated asks the viewer questions about our own prejudices. Those who treat Lionel with distain are not acting out of malice or reasoned contempt; they are simply acting on unspoken assumptions. In retrospect we can see the flaws in their behaviour. The unstated nature of those flaws makes us wonder what unspoken assumptions we might have and how they might effect how we treat others.

I’ve not even mentioned the other characters yet. Bertie’s brother, Edward, was king for about a year, before abdicating. His reason for abdicating: his desire to marry a double divorcĂ©e American. Apparently you’re not allowed by be King and marry divorcĂ©es, which seems terribly unfair on divorced people. He doesn’t want to be King. He’s forced by birth into a job that he doesn’t want, and one that forces him to renounce the woman he loves. We’re not supposed to like Edward; he’s a bully, and an arrogant, selfish fool, but we do have to feel somewhat sorry for him. His unsuitability and lack of desire for rule begs the question of why should someone be forced to do a job they don’t want because of their heritage? Moreover, why should someone be forced to renounce the person he loves because of a duty to people that he doesn’t seem to care about?

As you can tell, I was rather a fan of The King’s Speech. It was a wonderful story that was wonderfully told. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush were fantastic as the leads, and the supporting actors and actresses were pretty flawless too. Ramona Marquez will never fail to be utterly adorable in a role, and Michael Gambon was suitably austere and commanding as King George V. The writing was superb, witty and sincere at the same time, without trying too hard at either. One part stands out in particular. One scene flows flawlessly from a discussion between Lionel and Bertie about Bertie’s past, to Bertie reeling off long strings of swear words (watching Collin Firth striding around a room spewing expletives might just be the most entertaining thing I see all year), to a scene in which the two argue about kingship through foggy London. The film transitions seamlessly between dead serious, side-splittingly hilarious and fiercely dramatic in the space of a couple of minutes.

Another feature that really stood out for me was the use of actual footage, both for George VI’s coronation, and then, more importantly, scenes from The Triumph of the Will, a propaganda film about the Nuremburg Rally. While the transition was somewhat forced, the contrast between the stuttering George VI and Adolf Hitler was incredible. Seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant piece of propaganda fills me with a mixture of dread and awe every time I see it. The line that will stay with me for longest from the film, being a historian and all, comes from this scene. Bertie is asked by one of his daughters what Hitler is saying. He replies ‘I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well.’

The King’s Speech will, no doubt, be fighting it out with Inception for Best Picture at the Oscars (and a whole load of other awards as well, but who cares about those?). If you’ve not already seen it, I suggest you do so, because it’s well worth it. Probably not one I’ll see twice (unlike Inception), but worth seeing once. I say I’d like to do more movie reviews, but both True Grit and The Black Swan have passed me by, it would seem, and I’m not all that interesting in seeing any of the films either out or upcoming until Thor at the end of April. So much for that plan.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Letter

This is a little bit of flash fiction that I wrote last week (I know, late again, bugger off). It's slightly idiosyncratic and very silly, but it was quite fun to write. It's also a true story... kinda

“What's this?” he exclaimed, holding the envelope aloft, “A letter?” 

He squinted at the eloquent hand, trying to decide from whom it was from. He had a fairly good idea in any case; who else sent him letters these days.
His heart rising in his chest, he swiftly tore the top of the envelope, not bothering with the seal, and tearing the stamp slightly. He cursed under his breath before remembering that stamps were so common and lacking in interesting motifs, that no-one collected them anymore. Still, this one was adorned with tartan, wavering slightly in wind that one had to imagine, a silver silhouette of Her Majesty, the Queen perching on the top corner. It was a shame to see such a quaint little thing bear a tear, no matter how insignificant.

The matter at hand was by no means insignificant, however, so he did not allow his attention to be distracted by the stamp for too long. With hands clumsy in anticipation, he tore the card from its envelope. A smile grew on his face as he regarded the minimalistic black elephant adorning the front cover, its trunk upturned and a huge love heart sprouting from it, as though the elephant forged the thing from its own nose. The motif was all the more charming and sweet for its simplicity.
He hand trembled as he opened the cream coloured card, noting the beautifully smooth but good quality texture of the paper as he did, and was confronted with a veritable wall of text. He had approached such walls before, and thought, now, about the card and accompanying piece of paper, still nestled in his top draw. He took them out to re-read them every so often. It was with great joy, and a little trepidation at the size of it, that he settled down to read the megalith.
His smile grew and grew as he scanned the adoring words. The flowing, elegant script was, in itself, a joy to read, and the words were doubly so. They were exactly as simultaneously coy, self-righteous (not at all in the arrogant, self-centred way people associate with the word) and loving as he had come to expect from her. He read and re-read it several times, savouring the words. In his head, he heard her voice speaking the words to him, and he smiled at the memory of her powerful, but tender, well spoken but not pompous voice, which he had grown to love so. 
Propping the card up on his desk, having cleared a space for it in his paper-riddled mess, he smiled and settled down to his computer. He opened his word processor, his hands resting carefully on the keys, as comfortable as with a pen in his hand (if not more), and settled down…
…to write this story.

Yeah, I know, Valentine's Day was last week, but shush, I've had a busy week.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

In the Name of Love

Last February I wrote a Valentine’s Day based blog because I was acutely aware of the existence of the day. Well this year I still am for much the same reason (woo, 14 and a half months), so this week I interrupt the recent stream of political outrage (Mubarak has resigned by the way, so congrats to Egypt) to ramble on about love, Valentine’s Day and probably some other stuff – I don’t exactly plan these most of the time.

Of course the build up to Valentine’s Day is plagued by exactly the same dichotomy of idiocy and self-righteousness as any other holiday (especially Christmas). As soon as the Christmas decorations have been taken from the shelves and the festive gifts have been flogged off in the post Christmas sales, they’re replaced by an assortment of teddy bears, love hearts and chocolate, all of which seems legally obliged to contain some red or, even more insidiously, pink. Restaurants scream at us to book up our table for the big day, and rose gardeners sweat over how they’re going to produce enough roses to go round.

Meanwhile all the people who ranted and raved (not without cause) about the commercialisation of Christmas get back on their high-horses, and rant and rave (still not without cause) about the commercialisation of Love. These rants are sometimes made all the more bitter by the loneliness that underpins them – some people just won’t let others have fun unless they’re having fun as well.

The problem with a lot of these protestations is that they claim that there’s no need to have a Valentine’s Day at all. They argue that the whole endeavour is just a pointless gimmick for people who aren’t really in love because they shouldn’t need a special day to show that they’re in love. It may well be the case that most of the dinners, roses, chocolates, teddies and red purchased on Monday (and in the past month) will be in vain, and indeed there’s a good chance that a lot of that money will have been spent purely for the intention of getting laid, in which case one wonders if a hooker might not have been cheaper. However that is not to say that all of the people who are honouring the Patron Saint of love (and plagues, no I’ve not forgotten that one) are fools who have been swept up in the romanticism that is encouraged by commercialism.

That is also not to say that there isn’t a real problem when you walk into Carlton’s and can see nothing but the colour red from the first week in January. The fact that most high streets promote the fantasy that spending money on roses and chocolate will make your relationship work is depressing. It is more depressing that popular culture promotes the insane ideals of romantic love that imply that love does come at first sight, that she is the one and that Mr Right will stroll easily into your life at some point and sweep you off your feet.

Relationships require effort. Love doesn’t just arrive on a platter, it requires work. True love doesn’t spring fully fledged from acquaintance and all the roses in the world will never change that. Relationships develop from simply acquaintances, through friendship and into love. That development needs to be nourished and worked on. The trust and respect that love requires is something that need to be built with time and dedication, not bought with flowers and chocolate.

Flowers and chocolate are tokens. They’re the things you buy the person you love because you love them, not because you hope that showering them with gifts will make them love you. They are the effect of the effort, the time and the dedication that a relationship takes, not an alternative. Relationships cannot be sustained on flowers and chocolate, nor can they be built with flowers and chocolate.

This is where Valentine’s Day has gone wrong. The concept itself is not inherently unreasonable, but the way in which it had evolved has made it into a farce. Valentine’s Day has become a day where love is celebrated for its outward expressions, such as the giving of gifts, and that which creates that expression is gleefully ignored. It encourages us to replicate the effects without creating the cause. It creates the misconception that we can woo that person who we see in the coffee shop but never talk to, or that we can get the co-worker who doesn’t even see we’re there to fall in love with us, with nothing more than a token, an empty gesture; a bribe.

Love does not take bribes. Love cannot be forced and it cannot be invented. Love is born of respect for the virtues of another and nurtured by the desire for that person to be happy. When we allow ourselves to be bribed by chocolate and roses, by a low cut top and a winning smile, we are exercising our lust, not our love.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Experiencing pleasure with another person simply for the fun of it is fine, so long as this is not confused with having a relationship. To build a relationship on small tokens and mutual physical attraction is like constructing a house on foundations of sand; it might hold up for a while, but eventually everything will come tumbling down.

This damaging misconception is not just the fault of St Valentine. Indeed to blame it simply on the presence of Valentine’s Day would be to miss the point entirely. Popular culture expects, even demands, that the guy gets the girl and everything is ok in the end. Almost any Hollywood romance happens simply because the two characters happen to be of different genders so it’s simply assumed that they will fall in love. Through the film that usually seems to happen for no apparent reason and with no apparent stimulus. It’s just one of the many lies that Hollywood tells on a regular basis because that’s what sells.

Culture needs to get smarter. We could start with how we treat Valentine’s Day. There is a point to the day. Relationships take effort, and it’s sometimes hard for us to find the time to put that effort in. Life has a funny way of getting in the way of living, so we often neglect the ones we love. Love is such an important part of our lives that there really ought to be a day in which we’re expected to do something special for someone special, because they deserve it. We cannot shower loved ones in affection and flowers all the time, nor should we only do it for one day a year, but having a day where we should make an extra special attempt to show our love is no bad thing.

So if you’ve not planned to do anything on Monday for that special someone, then you might think about trying to change that, even if it’s just and email or a Facebook message. You won’t be joining the foolish hordes of people trying to use gifts as a pinch hitter for working at a relationship, because you now understand (if you didn’t before, which you probably did) that gifts are there to show love, not to create it. Sneer at the incarnadine gift shops and couples dining in gourmet restaurants all you like, but remember that Valentine’s Day is what you make it, so get out there and make that person feel special. St Valentine knows I intend to.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

'Muscular Liberalism' and other nonsense

Earlier this week David Cameron made a speech declaring that multiculturalism has failed in the UK and argued that the UK needs a stronger national identity. He criticised groups that promoted extremism and declared that the government would stop supporting groups that did little to combat such extremism, especially in the Muslim community. Most worryingly he called for more active, muscular liberalism. Not only does this display a frightening lack of understanding of the very concept of liberalism and all the trappings thereof, it is indicative of a distressingly illiberal attitude.

Mr Cameron’s comments assume that multiculturalism is some sort of policy that the state should either support or not. It is not. Indeed it is not something that can fail or not, nor is it in any way related to the concept of a national identity, which is, in itself, a worrying one. Multiculturalism is exactly what it says; it’s the mixing of different cultures. When multiple different cultures interact with each other, then we have multiculturalism. Multiculturalism cannot fail simply by virtue of the fact that there exist a multiplicity of different cultures in the world; a world in which it would be impossible for them not to communicate.

Of course one gets the feeling that the PM does not mean that. He does not mean that cultures are failing to communicate. To say so would be absurd; simply walk through any main street in England and you will see that it is not true. Even white people eating at Indian restaurants counts as multiculturalism. Mr Cameron is actually saying that he thinks the fact that Britain is a multicultural place is promoting extremism. Multiculturalism is not working to unite people and exclude the extremist; it is working to legitimise them.

Unfortunately Mr Cameron is, yet again, wrong. Mixing cultures is inevitably going to cause conflict. People disagree, and sometimes people fail to realise that there is nothing wrong with that. However this is not to say that we should not encourage different people to communicate and learn from each other. The more we encourage such communication, the more likely it is that people will realise that disagreement does not imply conflict.

Extremism arises from a sense of exclusion. People do not turn to violence because they feel their culture is being allowed too much freedom to interact with others. People become terrorists because they feel that their way of life is being ignored and oppressed by another’s. Mr Cameron’s call for a greater ‘national identity’ implies exactly that.

I said about seven months ago that I might write a blog about why nationalism is wrong some time; well this might serve as part of that. Mr Cameron’s call for a greater sense national identity is, in essence, a call for a greater sense of nationalism. It is the concept that people who live in Britain ought to feel that they most assuredly are British and should feel a certain pride at that fact. I’d question what exactly distinguishes someone as British. It seems simply to encompass where you live. A Brit is someone who lives in Britain, and what exactly is that? Britain is simply an area of land defined by a whole collection of events from history, encompassing wars, revolutions, and political evolution, reinforced by an awful lot of art. None of this is objective. This is simply the actions of humans, usually to no greater purpose that personal gain. A nation is nothing more than a collective history, confined by lines on a map. There is no difference between Brits, Germans, Indians or Chinese people except that they were born into different histories and in different places. They belong to different cultures, but they should not be defined by that culture. Nationalism seeks to define people not as individuals, but by where they live and which arbitrary, meaningless pieces of history their ancestors belonged to. The most insidious part about nationalism is that it divides people along those lines. We end up seeing Germans in the context of Germany, or Indians in the context of India. Nationalism stops us from looking at people as individuals and forces us to look at them through glasses tinted with their national stigma.

To promote nationalism in the UK would do exactly the opposite of what Mr Cameron desires. He wants to curb extremism by promoting a greater sense of national identity, but to create such a national identity would be to isolate and marginalise minorities, increasing the potential for extremism. A sense of national identity will not make people feel more involved and more welcome; you cannot force someone to love something, especially when it is so steeped in a history to which they do not belong. A sense of national identity will make Britain into an introspective, self-obsessed exclusion area where new people are not welcome and where not being British is a bad thing. That is exactly the kind of attitude that creates extremism; just look at America.

All of the above is caused by a misunderstanding of why Mr Cameron is there at all. His, and his government’s, role is not to promote multiculturalism or create a sense of national identity. Multiculturalism arises from the fact that there are many different cultures in the world and that borders are not walls. People move, people interact, cultures mix. It is a fact of life and that mixture is not something that can and should be controlled. Borders should never be walls and people should never be stopped from moving between them. The government is there to ensure that everybody’s rights are being protected, yet they persist in telling people what they can and cannot do.

Mr Cameron called for what he described as ‘muscular liberalism’. Again he shows a painful misunderstanding of what the concept of liberalism actually means. Liberalism is the idea that everyone should be free do say, do and think exactly what they like so long as those actions do not curb the freedom of another. Liberalism is the triumph of freedom over coercion, of choice over compulsion, of reason over force. To use the world ‘Liberalism’ in the same breath as ‘muscular’ implies that people ought to be forced to be free, compelled to choose and coerced to freedom. Such things are paradoxical and nonsensical. Muscular Liberalism is a meaningless phrase that implies something much more sinister that it sounds. It implies that we ought to force people to live our way; to substitute their values for ours and their way of life for ours. It implies that liberalism is the only right way to live and that we should force people to live it, despite the fact that a true liberal philosophy implies no such thing.

Of course we should not take Mr Cameron’s words to their logical extremes. Politicians rarely take anything to their logical ends and, while his speech sounded hard hitting, in reality very little will change. Rhetoric will alter slightly and some policies may change, but his words are mostly just that, words. They will not be followed up by actions. They never are, and that’s jut the nature of politics. I wish it weren’t, but that’s a whole different blog post.