Postmodern Doctor Who is rubbish. It’s shallow, unintelligent and borrows generously from the plots of other, better shows. It confuses choral music and incessant blubbing for genuine emotion. Its approach to history is sexual biography; its approach to science is magic show. Its politics are so brazen that at times it feels like a party political broadcast for the Labour Party (with an occasional thought piece by Richard “I Have No Soul” Dawkins.) Worst of all, it is smug. It’s the kind of show where the characters stop mid-action to stand around in awe at the computer generated sets (actually a green screen held aloft by a technician called Bob) and say, “Isn’t this amazing?!” No, it’s not. It’s teenage rom-com masquerading as serious sci-fi, and it only gets away with it because it’s unique. If ITV was to air an American import at the same time – say Battlestar Galactica or Falling Skies – no one would watch Doctor Who.
It wasn’t always this way. The original Doctor Who series that ran from 1963 to 1989 was low on production values but high on thought. Sure, almost every episode featured a man in bubble-wrap colluding with a hosepipe in a misguided attempt to take over the world. And some of the dialogue was sub-porn (In Revenge of the Cybermen, the Doctor informs his companion, “We’re headed for the biggest bang in history.” Oh, yeah baby.)
But what it lacked in money it made up for in intellect. There was an entire season devoted to the problem of entropy; another tackled social Darwinism. Historical period was used not just as a backdrop but to teach the viewer something about the past, including obscure epochs like the French Wars of Religion. Stories could last up to 13 episodes, testing the pre-internet attention span to the max. As a character, the Doctor was more MacGyver than Merlin, using brainpower and tea spoons to save the world rather than vague alien powers
. The series respected its audience’s intelligence. It presumed that they were watching a sci-fi show because they wanted to see sci-fi, not young people canoodling beyond the stars
. Not that Classic Who featured much canoodling. Being technically a kid’s show, its lead was usually an old asexual man whose velvet smoking jacket said, “Look but don’t touch.” One or two of the assistants were what the ugly men of yesteryear used to call “strumpets.” But the strumpet is purely autoerotic. She would never have presumed to flirt with our hero, who was too busy reversing the polarity of his neutron flow
By contrast, New Who belongs very much in the Princess Di era. Thoughts have been replaced by feelings, ideas by issues. Producer Russell T Davies (whose work has been downhill ever since Dark Season
) spoke openly about creating a soap atmosphere, filling the show with characters that ordinary people could identify with. Nothing wrong with that, except that in sci-fi ordinariness should never be the focus of attention. Yet Doctor Who is so obsessed with bringing everything back “down to Earth” (or, more specifically, to Cardiff) that it often makes its epic events feel mundane. Every serious idea that is explored is quickly eclipsed by an engagement, a wedding or – as in Saturday’s episode
– a divorce.
That might not be a problem if the doctor was removed from the emotional action, but he isn’t. The postmodern doctor is hinted to be sexually active (I write of the clumsy metaphor of dancing
). He frequently falls in love with his companions and spends what feels like hours talking about how he doesn’t want to hurt them by getting too close. He’s forever getting angry, excited or mournful, throwing himself about like a hormonal teenager. And then there’s that grin, that insufferable, awful grin. It’s supposed to communicate wondrous possibilities. It looks like the poor fellow is sitting in casualty waiting to have a light bulb removed from his posterior and is trying desperately to hide the pain.
Compounding the problem is the show’s politics. Doctor Who is a recruiting sergeant for young liberals. Episodes have critiqued the war in Iraq, patriotism, capitalism and car ownership. It almost goes without saying that God doesn’t exist
, although the Doctor might just be Jesus. The series’ current producer, Stephen Moffat, has denounced the Conservative Party publicly
. Can you imagine a Doctor Who writer announcing that he’s joining UKIP because he’s opposed to green taxes? Polly Toynbee would be calling for his extermination.
It should be noted that the old series often had a Left-ward bent
, too (although it sprinkled attacks on Margaret Thatcher with parodies of Labour chancellors and trades-unions). But it didn’t matter because intelligence and charm came first. What the old show understood that the new one doesn’t is that in good sci-fi, ideas and wit trump identity politics and tawdry emotion. By contrast, the current series has created a product that is higher in production values but far reduced in imagination. Populated by smug twenty-somethings falling in and out of love - with themselves and each other - poor old Doctor Who has regenerated into Friends in space.
Nothing says “welcome to Los Angeles” like a hotel that offers a food menu for dogs. For $10 here you can buy a bowl of steak and wild rice for your pooch. I’m tempted to order it just to see the porter’s look when he brings the tray into the room and realises I have no dog. In America, the customer is always right – no matter how insane.
I’m in California to film a TV documentary for the BBC about the election. I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk or Tweet about it, so it’s radio silence from here on in. All I can give is a couple of impressions of Los Angeles. Earlier in the week, we got into an argument with Darth Vader on Hollywood Boulevard over a patch of ground we were both trying to work. He (being an actor in a costume posing for tourist photos) was reading us the riot act when he was joined by a man dressed as a storm trooper. The storm trooper wasn’t there out of necessity but instinct: he saw his fictional boss flexing his authority and thought he ought to stand next to him in the bodyguard position. The cameraman said to them, “These are not the droids you are looking for.” Behind his mask, Darth breathed angrily. A few yards away, I spotted Wonder Woman smoking a cigarette behind a parked bus.
Venice Beach continues to fascinate and terrify. There’s an outside gym where absurdly muscular men throw around barbells. They sit on the concrete steps, rising up in order of biceps like lions using higher ground to assert their authority. Sitting at the bottom was a huge fat black guy in a pair of red trunks and a golden medallion. Perhaps, thirty years ago, he belonged on the top. Now he lived on the bottom rung, his life’s possessions squeezed into a plastic bag.
Two observations about LA people. Frist, few of them have just the one career. I met an Englishman who moved out here to become an actor. He does do work in movies but has also branched out into building orphanages in Haiti. Another friend now combines real estate with movie directing and being a lifestyle coach. The latter seems to involve sending clients emails every morning with a phrase plucked from a Chinese fortune cookie: “Tomorrow will be another day.” “Yesterday is all in the past,” etc. A lot of people say they are in between jobs, which is code for “can you find me one?” The line between conversation and begging is thin.
Second, a lot of people lie all the time. Everyone is doing fine, everyone knows someone, everyone can help, everyone is a friend of Steven Spielberg. Don’t believe a word of this and doubly beware overuse of the word “friend.” It means nothing. For example, “I’m a close friend of David Geffen,” translates as, “I once saw him across the counter in Dennys.” For friend to really mean friend, they have to up the stakes by saying something like “I had his love child in the 1960s,” or actually show you his cell number tattooed on their arm. The exception to this rule seems to be Shia LaBeouf, who is easier to meet than Rod Blagojevich. Seriously, just look him up in the book and give him a call. He’s got nothing better to do.
I fly out of here on Wednesday – straight to New York City. Out of the frying pan and into the fire...
This is not a good time to be in England if you detest sports. Living through the Olympics must be akin to forcing someone who is tone deaf to sit through the entire Ring Cycle. It seems to go one forever…
I know that as a Brit I’m supposed to be thrilled by the games because they’re being held in “London Town,” but I just don’t get it. I can’t get excited about someone running, cycling or swimming - and while there’s a voyeuristic thrill at watching all those beautiful bodies bobbing about during a game of beach volleyball, it isn’t enough to carry me through to the rounds of shot put. Just so long as we beat the French, that’s all I need to know.
What to do on a wet summer’s day when the television is a no-go area? I’ve been working my way through the music of Frederick Delius. I discovered it after watching Song of Summer, a 1960s television movie by Ken Russell. Russell thought it was his finest film, and it’s hard to disagree. He eschews his usual stylised, operatic imagery for a stark and naturalistic black-and-white look that allows the music to speak for itself. Song of Summer finds Delius in his later years, paralysed by syphilis. He is visited by Eric Fenby, a 22-year old devotee of the composer who offers to help transcribe his final compositions. Fenby is shocked to discover that one of the giants of the English Musical Renaissance is actually a cantankerous, atheistic, poisonous old man who also can’t stand England. Fenby says, “I can't reconcile such hardness with such lovely music.” The theme speaks to a sad truth: art may be sensitive, lyrical and beautiful, but the ego and discipline required to create it can turn the artists into monsters. Several of Gore Vidal’s obituaries have made just that point.
My one criticism of the Olympics Opening Ceremony is that it didn’t include more music by Britons like Delius (throughout this post, I’ll be confusing British and English – sorry). A bigot might counter that Delius was hardly British at all; his parents were German/Dutch and he lived a great proportion of his life in France. Likewise, Holst was from a Scandinavian family, Elgar was Roman Catholic etc. The backgrounds of many of the great English composers exclude them from the Far Right’s narrow, genetic definition of what makes an Englishman (as does my own messy family tree), yet all of them created a sound that still defines the way we think of England today. Listen to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor and one is lost on the moors of Hardy’s Wessex, stumbling into the arms of Eustacia Vye.
There has been a lot of discussion about how accurate a portrayal of Britain the Opening Ceremony was. Worryingly, the debate came down to a conflict between different institutions. For the Left, the event showcased the rise of Britain from a feudal state to a socialist democracy via the NHS. The Right complained that it over-indulged social democracy and promoted multiculturalism. Both sides seem to presume that England is defined by “values.” The Left says we are all about fair play, equality, tolerance. The Right prefers individualism, freedom, national community. They’re values that mix the vague and the historically specific – and previous generations of Britons wouldn’t recognise them. Henry V (who exterminated the Lollards, crushed the Welsh and claimed the crown of France) would laugh at pluralism and free speech. Yet is he any less English for having nothing in common with the 20th century? Of course not.
Britishness is impossible to define in words or biology, which is why I wish we could’ve heard some Delius as the torches were carried into the Olympic stadium. National identity is like one of his tone poems. It’s a collection of memories, faces, places, tastes, sounds and sympathies that are summarised in one word: Britain. Anyone who happens to live here can share in it. By the same token, anyone who happens to be born here and doesn’t like it is free to define themselves as something else. To be part of a nation is like being part of a family, with the added benefit that you can join or leave as you wish. As with any other family, the members of a nation have an instinct to care for each other that goes beyond charity. We might call it duty.
So what is Britain? Traffic jams, tea, dragon flies, stormy afternoons, reggae, Surrey stone circles, bad cooking, a glissando on the strings and a rumble on the timpani. It’s impossible to define, only possible to feel. If you feel it and you get it, then you’ll very quickly fall in love with it. And you’ll discover a profound jealousy when people try to take it away from you (which is why there no more English a protest than an old lady tying herself to a tree to rescue it from demolition). If our identity is ever at risk, then it’s not from Islamic migration or too little money being spent on the NHS (we could be covered in mosques or dying from polio and still be British). It’s at risk because we don’t take enough time out of our lives to commune with it and we no longer teach our children how to experience it. We’d make a good start with compulsory Delius.
The Dark Knight Rises is so aware of its own importance that I’m surprised the cast don’t stop mid-action and start saying, “Wow, dude. Just … wow
.” From beginning to end, it screams significance, without managing to say anything at all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of two and a half hours of a geek shouting, “It’s not a comic book! It’s a graphic novel!”
When I was growing up, superheroes were fun. Adam West’s Batman was a groove-arama and Tim Burton’s was a black comedy. The 1990s movie series hit its peak with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze
in Batman and Robin (1997). Dear old Arnie didn’t so much phone in his performance as he sent a belated postcard from Pisa. Who could pass up on lines like this? “Allow me to break the ice. My name is Freeze. Learn it well. For it's the chilling sound of your doom…” Pure genius.
But between then and now, 9-11 and the Credit Crunch happened. And movies got way, way too big and serious. As is always the case with Hollywood, business masquerades as art. The old studio model was to make several movies for $30 million in the hope that one or two would be hits and cover the costs of the others. But after the success of blockbusters like Spider-Man and Transformers, the suits realized that they could make one movie for $100 million and rake in close to a billion dollars. It was a gamble, so to improve the odds they decided to make films that were rooted in an established franchise (this got so silly that they even made a feature based on the game Battleship). Once they found a brand that sold well, they would exhaust it and then reboot it with younger actors. This year, we got The Amazing Spider-Man and next year we’ll get Man of Steel. By the time I’ve finished writing this, they’ll be planning to re-launch Batman, staring a fetus.
They call these expensive bores “event movies,” because who would want to miss out on an event? And in order to convey that “event” feel, they turn them into epics. They were helped in that task by a rolling media keen to sell copy off the idea that we really ought to care about all this twaddle. That’s how Batman – a comic book about a flying man-rodent who tussles with cartoon psychopaths – got turned into a modern Iliad.
And, o, how The Dark Knight Rises reeks with pomposity. There’s the endless choir music, the ubiquitous shots of an apocalyptic landscape, the talk about the importance of myths (“The people need to belieeeeve…”), the dark shadows, the whispered voices and the constant references to previous movies that make no sense unless you know them off by heart. An example: Catwoman isn’t called Catwoman. The movie needs a Catwoman because, well, Batman is nothing without a sexy feline-themed heroine to spar off. But because this is Batman in an age of seriousness, the kitsch is chiselled off and she is redubbed a “cat burglar” (I see what they did there). So the bare bones of Batman remains, but the fun is excised. Which is a tragedy because the movie was screaming out for a Mrs Slocombe-style innuendo about a pussy that had spent all night in the rain.
All this seriousness is undermined by one horrible error: the villain. Tom Hardy’s performance is already hampered by a giant gas mask covering his face, which gives the impression that he’s got a nasty bout of asthma. But it’s made all the worse by a criminal case of poor-dubbing. The best way I can describe it is like a drunk Sean Connery. The first time I heard it, I was not the only one to burst out laughing. “I shupoose you shink you can defeat me, Mishter Batman,” etc. Every scene he’s in is farcical: Hardy grimaces and flexes while the dubbing artist camps and coos. To use appropriate gay slang, Bane is a Muscle Mary.
Bane’s voice belongs in one of the Burton movies, but not in this adolescent attempt at serious drama. What is the point that The Dark Knight Rises is trying to make? It starts as a critique of one-percenter greed as Gotham slips into peaceful disparity between the rich and the poor. But Bane’s socialist revolution (he uses a bomb to blackmail the city into creating a commune) is sadistic, not egalitarian. The characters bitch endlessly that Harvey Dent’s memory has been used to create a myth upon which they built a police state – but who cares, so long as the murder rate is low? The movie pretends to be about goodness, but its heroes are all pretty shallow. Batman refuses to do what his butler says and help the police. Instead he dons his cape and catalyzes much of the anarchy. Catwoman steals wallets and apples and it’s treated like a joke. Robin abandons both the police and the Church to become a vigilante because he’s tired of working within “structures.” Why? They worked perfectly well until the random elements of Bane and Batman came along. Violence is the only apt response to violence in a horribly violent world. It left me wanting to join one of those encounter groups where everyone hugs each other to whale music.
The only reason why this movie seems clever is that it stands out from the current big budget dross being made by Hollywood. If it doesn’t star Adam Sandler, logic follows that it must be good.
Of course, there are good movies being distributed. Wes Anderson is back, Ted was hilarious and Young Adult made me seriously consider online dating. But The Dark Knight Rises is the kind of epic-by-numbers that is the product of a movie business that won’t take risks. It’s time to run the suits out of Hollywood.
A hangover is a tragedy in three acts. The first is waking up at 8 in the morning and trying to figure out what the Hell is going on. You will ask yourself a series of existential questions. Where am I? Who am I? And, on rare occasions, who are you? The answers are never satisfactory, for this is the moment when a man first consciously realizes the damage he has done. A few adjustments are necessary to endure the next four hours of sleep. Take off your tie, close the curtains, pour a pint of water, retrieve the keys from the front door, take two asprin, attempt to urinate, return to the bed, and sob back to sleep.
Stage two is the reawakening at midday. All you will know for the next two hours is pain. It starts in the head, which throbs like a lighthouse – strong and bright enough to blind you to all the other terrible things happening down below. If you’re going to vomit, it will be now. You must run to the lavatory (for time is of the essence), kneel as if in prayer, and prepare for the horror to begin. It hurts most when there is so less to offer. Don’t be ashamed to cry; the poisonous ethanol is looking for exits.
Back in the bed and the head is dying down to a low roar. Next comes the stomach cramps. Eat now and you will surely die; wait too long to eat and your brain will think that you are already dead. Inside, you are consume yourself as your organs try to find a morsel of something other than gin. Clench, clench, clench they go, running from tummy to throat, squeezing you inside and out. “God help me! Deliver me from this Hell!” This is the moment that makes cowards into martyrs, for who would turn down the guillotine now?
It is there, at his weakest, that the invalid enters the third and final act: vague recollection of the night before. Kingsley Amis called this “the metaphysical hangover.”
Paranoia overwhelms you. What did I do? What did I say? Did whatever happened in the Bedford Arms end my career once and for all? Don’t make the mistake of calling anyone to find out. They’ll either be so ill that they’ll confirm all your suspicions, or they’ll be one of those dreadful prudes who “never touches the stuff.” And nothing kills someone’s respect for you more quickly than a phone call at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon from a weeping man trying to find out if he’s lost his job.
It might be counterintuitive, but what you need right now isn’t a heart-to-heart with your third wife or a letter of apology in The Times. It’s sugary tea and pizza. Rule out the rest of the day, digest as much fat as possible, and do something wholesome like bleaching the kitchen. Watch something serious but that doesn’t deserve too much attention – Bridge Over the River Kwai is perfect. Around eight, have a hot bath and inspect yourself for cuts and bruises. Depending on how much you drank, you may need to extend this process over two days. If you have the time, do something you don’t really want to do but know you must – like having a haircut or visiting a relative. Minimize contact with important people. You won’t actually call them a Nazi pederast to their face, but you’ll worry that you have. Long after the head and the stomach pains are gone, the paranoia will remain.
But have hope. Within three days you’ll feel as good as before. And you’ll be ready for another night on the town.
The Shard in London was unveiled this week, a glass building so tall and sharp that it threatens to pierce God’s eye. Some think it’s preposterously phallic and ugly. I’m with those that see it as inventive and hopeful. South of the river, London is still dominated by rotting Victorian warehouses and modernist blocks. If The Shard is the sign of a brave new futurism, then so be it. I’d rather live in a city dominated by alien rhomboids and metal cathedrals than the tired slums of yesteryear, when the money was slight and the imagination lacking.
However, I was surprised by my old priest, Fr Ray Blake of Brighton, comparing The Shard to the Tower of Babel in the Bible
. Quite what he means is hard to tell because the meaning of Babel is itself opaque. In the story, a united humanity builds a tower, “whose top may reach unto Heaven.” God sees the tower and says, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.”
There are two ways of reading this story. One is that is simply explains why we speak different languages – man reached a certain point in his civilization and God decided, in his infinite wisdom, to mix things up a bit. Babel is thus an “origin myth” (which could be literally true or fable) that has no more moral weight than all those interminable lists of “begats” that we get in Genesis. This God seems rather capricious.
An alternative explanation is that man was punished for the sin of pride. He constructed a tower in celebration of himself (it was not a temple) and from manmade things. Realizing that man had the capacity to stop worshipping him and start worshipping themselves, God evens the playing field by scattering humanity across the continents. Later, Christians believe, God offers Christianity as a way of reuniting ourselves around the divine made flesh. Of course, we pretty much screwed that up, too.
So is The Shard the new Tower of Babel? I wouldn’t say so. It’s certainly built for the purpose of man’s enjoyment rather than worship of God, but then Christ is healthily contemptuous of such things and urges us to render material them unto Caesar anyway. “You can have your consumerist, wealth-obsessed civilization and keep it,” the modern prophet might say. “We are more interested in what happens next.” Critics of The Shard should adopt the Franciscan approach and wander through the opulent city in the rags of the poor. Be in the world, but not of it and chuckle at the follies of the rich.
But what the Tower story does remind us that the antithesis of monotheism – Judaic, Christian or Muslim - is worship of man. That might seem like a harmless assertion, but actually it contradicts the modern impulse to put man first, be it for benign or malign reasons. You find that in theology, where rules and teachings have been adapted to make it easier to be a believer. It sometimes feels like my own Catholicism only encounters orthodoxy for 60 minutes on a Sunday morning. The rest of the week is a constant negotiation over what is and isn’t the right thing to do.
Within civil society, there was a trend in the 20th century to see man as the genius of his own invention, someone who could command his own destiny. Disease, environmental catastrophe, recession and the pitiless logic of war indicate that he cannot. Mankind is primed for self-destruction: only this species would behold a wonder like the split atom and then use it to murder hundreds of thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Love man – yes. But don’t worship him. It’s the failure to recognize a moral order beyond what men want that leads to the collapse of civilizations.
Whoever thought that a conference on education could be interesting? Last week, Laurie Penny and David Starkey made one so
by having a loud dingdong about race. Ms Penny – a columnist for The Independent – called Starkey a racist because he implied that gang culture was an import from the Punjab. Dr Starkey – a freelance historian – lost his temper, pointed his finger at Penny and shouted, “I will not be lectured to by a public school girl
like you!” The whole farce would have gone unreported had Penny not turned to Twitter to imply that Starkey physically assaulted her. The video that leaked out suggests different. Starkey’s rage contains all the terror of a bichon frise growling at a suspicious looking tree. Ms Penny has enough sangfroid to return to the microphone to, once again, call her opponent a big auld racist. It's pure Punch and Judy
The story went global and partisans fell into two camps. The Left said
Starkey’s insensitive pronouncements on British identity made his racism obvious. His vocal outburst, coupled with having the audacity to wear linen in the 21st century, confirmed an implicit violence within his politics. The Right argued
that Penny was the real bigot for twisting the words of a respected historian to denounce all conservative views as inherently racist.
Both sides are equally guilty of misreading the politics of race. The Right often exhibits a paradoxical cultural chauvinism. On the one hand, they will insist that racism isn’t a problem in Britain – partly because our society is more homogeneous
than the Left thinks it is and partly because Britishness is a byword for tolerance. On the other hand, they use this claim of tolerance as a reason to exclude outsiders, because they perceive the “invading” culture to be intolerant. Most of Britain’s problems are imagined to be the result of outsiders getting inside and exploiting the British soft touch: asylum seekers scamming benefits, Islamic sex rings, Muslims building super mosques to preach destruction of the West etc. The repugnant assumption behind much of the conservative take on multiculturalism is either that foreign cultures are breeders of violence or that individuals raised in those cultures are incapable of independent moral action. That’s why Starkey’s infamous claim on Newsnight
that the London riots were a cultural import from Jamaica was so wrong. Civil unrest isn’t unique to the West Indies – the English have been revolting for centuries
If the Starkey’s crime is myopia, Penny is guilty of trying to use the racist label to shut down debate. Consider what happened during the Starkey vs Penny confrontation. On the subject of “What is Britishness?” Penny said, “For people like my colleague Professor Starkey, it’s playing xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs. And if you ask people who organise conferences like this, it’s sitting by politely while people play xenophobia and national prejudice for laughs, pretending that this is an acceptable part of contemporary debate
I highlight the last part of that sentence because this is a key part of the contemporary Left’s agenda: dividing political opinions into legitimate and illegitimate. The Left insists that it is illegitimate to say that homosexuality can be a choice
, that the fetus is a human being
, that the welfare poor must take some responsibility for their life choices
or that there is some other explanation for global warming
. These positions may be wrong or even despicable. But the Left’s very undemocratic goal is to drive them from the public sphere. Happily, all we will be left with once we effectively outlaw cultural traditionalism is liberalism and socialism. Then we can all get on with the business of becoming the kind of people Laurie Penny wants us to be.
Of all the forms of thought policing that the Left uses, the most egregious is the accusation of racism. Of course, racism does exist in both conscious and subconscious forms – given its history of imperialism and slavery, it is truly the West’s Original Sin. But if we overuse the word racism, we dilute its meaning and lose our ability to judge between who is and who is not racist. David Starkey might be prejudiced, but he is in no way analogous to Nick Griffin and the BNP. By labeling Starkey as such, the Left empowers the BNP to claim that its views are both germane to the mainstream Right and the victim of the same kind of thought policing that Starkey suffers. It’s notable that Nick Griffin offered to make Starkey an honorary member of his party
after his Newsnight appearance.
In the same way that overuse of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe things that come nowhere near to the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust is offensive, so too is misuse of racism. It dilutes the power of that word, so that an ugly, stupid throwaway line by a politician about Africans
is treated with the same seriousness as the Rwandan genocide. It also blinds us to non-political forms of prejudice that genuinely need tackling. The worst is the racism of low expectations – a variety of racial oppression that the Left unwittingly participates in. By constantly asserting that ethnic minorities can’t get ahead because of white bigotry, we often condemn them to a culture of low morale reinforced by shockingly bad schools. Aspiration and Capitalism have historically been far kinder to the poor than therapeutic welfarism.
In short, the Right constantly confuses the meanings of culture and race, but the Left does nothing to help by taking an already toxic debate and poisoning it further with a mix of righteousness and paranoia. And the discussion so rarely actually improves anyone’s lives. Step back from the Starkey vs Penny fight and you see two white figures from the establishment claiming to speak for the disenfranchised. They do not. The only thing that distinguishes their privileged voices is that Laurie Penny shields herself from criticism with the claim that she is being physically and intellectually oppressed by violent patriarchy. To his credit, Starkey’s bombast is more honest, cheerful and self-aware. David Starkey doesn’t care who he offends or what people think about him, and that's why his brand endures. He isn’t just thick skinned – he’s all skin.
Last week, I returned to the Baptist church that I grew up in for a wedding. It was quite a culture shock. Having spent ten years going to Catholic Masses – with Latin, choirs and enough incense to suffocate an elephant – I’d forgotten the simple joy of a few chairs slung around a table and a band belting out Shine Jesus Shine (the pastor’s wife was on keyboard). The bride was so overcome with emotion that she almost had to be carried down the aisle (“We finally did it, ma!”). The pastor gave a fine, Old Time Gospel sermon that struck the right note of love and wrath. And afterwards there was even a little wine, soaked up by fruit cake.
One of the greatest gifts we have in life is the sacred. Most of the human experience is mundane or tarnished by mundanity; the body rots, eye sight fails, friends let you down, temptation wins, the will saps and the mind slips. But then there are rules and rituals that help us transcend all of this and experience a moment of Heaven on Earth. Marriage is a good example.
Much of what I’ve seen of marriage has not been great. A good proportion of my family are divorced or raised by single parents, and everywhere else there is routine and bitterness. The closest relationship I’ve known is between my aunt and uncle. My uncle is one of those perennially, terminal ill men who has relied on my aunt for everything. And yet my aunt has never shirked her duty and never would. They are not in love, but they love each other. My aunt says, “He was a very good father and he always looks after us. So now we look after him.” It might not be romantic, but their partnership is rooted in a an old fashioned commitment to the marriage vows. And the vows are strict and unbending. The “in sickness and in health” bit terrifies me the most; I’m far too selfish to waste my time making chicken soup for the ill.
Looking over all the photos on my aunt's mantelpiece, the ones that are still polished and sparkling are the wedding ones. A woman clothed in white, like a princess; a man in top hat and tails like a Victorian gentleman. It says something about the meaning of marriage that no one ever dresses down for it. And why is everyone in tears? Remembering that some folks insist that marriage is purely a social contract designed to perpetuate the Capitalist patriarchy, why does it make people weep for joy? Is this a purely Pavlovian response bred by Hollywood and the Church?
No, the emotion is real and justified. The marriage ceremony takes the banal reality of a very basic human function – the desire to be with someone as much as possible – and elevates it to the divine. It’s a union blessed by God and what we’re witnessing is nothing less than a miracle: two individuals who are broken without each other becoming healed by each other's love. Life is best appreciated this way - as a series of miracles, of which these natural imperatives are among the most wonderful. Next will come conception, then birth, then baptism, and finally death. It isn’t just a biological cycle. It’s a journey every bit as challenging and rewarding as swimming the Sea of Tranquility.
But we have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the splendor, which is probably what accounts for the white dress and tails. I suspect that few people who get married nowadays are as virginal as the bride gown suggests. But romance is all about creating new states of being that take us closer to perfection. Much as the Tristan chord transports us to Valhalla, or the smell of strawberries evokes a perpetual summer, so the ritual of marriage makes us better prepared to receive and love one another. Again, that’s what the sanctification is all about: the transformation of something ordinary into something extraordinary. That experience prepares us well for a lifetime of dull holidays, long silences, arguments over the in-laws, and chicken soup.
How wonderful it is that we have the tools to make this happen, to experience the divine in this life. It's one of the great legacies of a Judeo-Christian culture, which preached that we could know God personally if we wanted. Plato would be jealous. For while he dreamed of imitating the “music of the spheres,” he could never hope to hear it for himself because it was only a metaphysical speculation. We, by contrast, live in an age of miracles. I only wish that we better equipped our people to seek and see them. Materialism and secularism blind us to how incredible ordinary life really is.
I’m obsessed with Richard Nixon. He’s the wonk’s president – the political artist who knew how to manipulate voters and articulate their deepest hopes and hates. He towered over American politics for three decades, as a McCarthyite Vice President in the 1950s, the voice of the Silent Majority in the 1960s and the symbol of bureaucratic corruption in the 1970s. He attracts people who see politics as a game worth winning; he repels dreamers and losers. At the last CPAC I went to, I bought and wore a Nixon ’72 button. Several young Tea Party hotheads told me to take it off. Dan Hannan didn't look too impressed, either.
At the heart of Nixonism was a blend of idealism and realism. That was reflected in his foreign policy. He wanted world peace, but Nixon thought he had to use maximum force in Vietnam to achieve it. Most of all, he always hoped to build a conservative public service ethos that would appeal to the young (see this hopeful 1968 ad
). Ironically, his involvement in the break in at the Watergate Hotel (site of the 1972 Democratic Party’s headquarters) destroyed his reputation and forever damaged public confidence in government. It might seem obvious, but that's really not how Tricky Dick would have wanted it.
The narrative of the Watergate scandal needs challenging, if only to respect the memory of man who deserves to be remembered for more than just corruption. And the narrative does have holes. Orthodoxy says that after he narrowly won election in 1968, Richard Nixon decided to use all the power of the imperial presidency to smash his liberal opponents and win re-election in 1972. He used police state tactics to destroy the antiwar movement, covered the White House in bugs, employed dirty tricks to undermine his Democratic opponent and burgled the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg
to dig up dirt on the man who leaked papers that displayed the full mendacity of the Vietnam War project. In June 1972, Nixon ordered a break in at the Watergate Hotel that was presumably a fishing expedition to see what the Democrats had by way of intel. The thieves were caught and the administration’s crimes were investigated by a Senate committee chaired by Sam Ervin. It found evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Rather than face impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency and took his incriminating Watergate tapes with him.In a major feature in the Independent last week
, Woodward and Bernstein – the Washington Post reporters credited with breaking this story - increased the list of Nixon’s crimes to include racism, silencing the free press, subverting democracy and rewriting history. The irony is that in trying to prove that they brought down an evil genius, Woodward and Bernstein make Nixon sound far more competent and Machiavellian than he really was. It begs the question, if Dicky was this tricky, how did he get undone by a “third-rate burglary?”
Based on what we do know (and, crucially, we lack a lot of evidence for Woodward and Bernstein’s allegations – be they true or false) here are a few corrections
to this narrative.1. The bugging system wasn’t as bizarre as it sounds
. Nixon got the idea of taping what went on in the White House from Lyndon Johnson. The idea wasn’t to spy on his staff (although it had that effect) but to provide an accurate historical record of what went on during Nixon’s time in office. Historians are secretly glad he did it, because they leave a remarkably unedited and honest account of White House life.2. Nixon’s dirty tricks were nothing unusual
. Consider that in 1960 the Democrats almost certainly cooked up enough votes in Illinois and Texas to steal that year’s Presidential election
. Nixon’s staff saw dirty tricks as a natural part of the “game” of politics, and when they made a fearsome defence of them before the Ervin committee the issue was dropped.3. We can’t prove that Nixon had anything to do with the Ellsberg burglary
. What we do know is that he actually stood to profit from the publication of Ellsberg’s papers, because they exposed the inept decision making of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.4. Nixon did wage a war against the antiwar movement, and that was probably no bad thing
. The country was close to civil war and the antiwar folks were turning violent: From September 1969 to May 1970, there was at least one bomb threat in America every day. On May 9, 100,000 demonstrators occupied Washington DC. They slashed tires and started fires; nearly 12,000 were arrested in the largest mass arrest in US history. But what brought this anarchy to an end wasn’t the intense surveillance campaign that Nixon authorised, it was his decision to end the draft. As the rate of body bags returning to the US from Vietnam dropped, interest in the antiwar movement petered out. It was basically a spent force by 1972.5. We have no evidence that Nixon ordered the Watergate burglary or knew anything about it
. It is true that we have a recording of him asking an aide to tell the CIA to advise the FBI to drop its investigation. This is the so-called “smoking gun” tape, and it certainly suggests that Nixon tried to pervert the course of justice. The CIA and the FBI declined to accept this request (indeed one of Nixon’s problems was that justice officials would consistently ignore his demands). Nixon did not pursue the idea any further. Nonetheless, this is the one crime on which we can definitely nail him, and it’s the crime over which he was urged to resign by his own staff.6. Nixon was terrible at covering things up
. If Nixon was truly the grand conspirator that Woodward and Bernstein portray him to be, he wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. He failed to destroy the tapes, he (albeit reluctantly) allowed transcripts to be printed that showed him in all his verbal ugliness, he relied too heavily on the loyalty of Senate friends and he failed to use the military or CIA to defend himself in the way that his more paranoid opponents feared. What he did try to do was continue to be a good President. In the midst of the Watergate crisis, he helped prevent World War III starting in the Middle East
.7. The Watergate hearings were a very partisan affair
. Historically, that’s always been the case
with impeachment processes (consider how Bill Clinton was hounded by the Republican Congress). In this instance, the partisanship started when Democrats on the Judiciary Committee decided to expand the grounds of impeachment from something related to criminal charges to what they dubbed “a constitutional safety valve” – essentially a wide-ranging Congressional judgment on the ethics of an incumbent president. Hence, the committee decided to investigate the conduct of foreign policy as well as internal security. It is true that, over time, partisanship broke down as the administration’s crimes became obvious. But be in no doubt: for some in Congress this was a chance to bring down a Republican who they never liked.
Finally, just how non-partisan were Woodward and Bernstein? The Washington Post was effectively a Democrat newspaper; it was published by Katharine Graham, who was an avid New Deal Democrat and friend to both the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson. Aside from the liberalism of much of the Post staff, Russ Baker, author of Family Secrets, claims that Woodward himself was an Agency man
. Baker’s story reads like a lot of conspiracy minded foolishness. But he has a fair beef with Woodward that, far from being an anti-establishment liberal, the journalist has used his credentials and access to write books that tend to be sympathetic towards the Agency or the US military complex. He’s not quite the idealist his Watergate endeavours suggest.
One way of seeing Watergate is an alignment of anti-Nixon forces in politics and the press that conspired to oust a man who had proven unreliable. Or, even worse, rather too good at his job. Although Nixon’s crimes were real, his greatest crime in the eyes of many of his opponents was that he had brought peace to Vietnam, went to China, stolen power from the FBI and CIA, broken the antiwar Left and won re-election. Thanks to Watergate, however, he’ll be forever known for that third-rate burglary. That’s not fair.
Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien franchise – is an exercise in hype. The buzz started twelve months ago with the trailer, notched up with the viral videos, and then went crazy with the word of mouth (I was told that a friend fainted during a screening). The problem is that the hype doesn’t stop at the start of the movie. The film continues to promote itself all the way through, stopping every so often to tell us what’s going on and why it’s so important. Prometheus is an event movie. Sadly, it’s an event in the style of the Olympics: self-important, way over budget and tedious. At least the Olympics has the erotic delights of the volleyball heats. All Prometheus has to offer are contract-stipulated, repetitive shots of Charlize Theron’s fully clothed backside.
The original Alien movie was all about man’s complex relationship with nature. The titular monster would smother its victims, lay an egg inside them and then burst out as a rampaging xenomorph (and he doesn’t even buy you dinner ). The embryonic stage plays with fears of rape and disease. As a xenomorph, the creature is a metaphor for the relentless, destructive power of nature. It is the answer to every fear about what lurks beneath the surface of a dark sea; a raging, unstoppable beast that answers only to the logic of its own appetites. It cannot be reasoned with.
Crucially, Alien and its sequels didn’t state any of these ideas openly. The 1979 movie works on the level of the id. The interior of the humans’ spaceship is soft with undulating lights, like a womb. The craft in which the monster is discovered has the smooth, black rubbery interior of a bondage workshop. The creature does its dirty work with a penile appendage, and the xenomorph’s head is phallic. The reason why Alien stays inside your head for so long is that its images are unsullied by explanatory dialogue, which would reduce fear to theory. It’s a nightmare made flesh.
The problem with Prometheus is that it approaches its issues literally and unimaginatively. Of course, there are a lot of other problems, too. The acting is variable (Noomi Rapace accent wanders from Scotland to Wales, via Long John Silver) and the stand out performance by Michael Fassbender is undermined by his character’s decapitation. The movie loses all gravitas when Fassbender’s head rolls around the floor chatting away in his creepy camp monotone. The plot is unoriginal (a mix of Leviathan and Quatermass and the Pit) and everyone’s motivations change halfway through (when everyone stops to have sex). The heroes are supposed to be archaeologists, but their approach to their craft is more akin to demolition experts. All the characters are dumb. Where would you choose to spend the night when trapped in an alien spaceship? Somewhere near the exit or camped out in a room full of oozing black liquid? Worst of all, it’s unscary. When a flapping, gooey monster is plucked from Noomi’s belly, my theatre companion shouted out “Who ordered the calamari?” Seriously, there’s about five minutes of gore in this “horror” movie.
But the most annoying thing is the way that the movie signposts its themes. The big one is the relationship between parents and children. The movie opens with the ultimate generative act: an alien “engineer” dissolves himself into the waters of the young Earth to create the primordial soup from which we evolved. Flash forward and the humans go in search of their parents … only to discover that mommy and daddy want to wipe them out by returning to Earth with a cargo of alien DNA. Meanwhile, the head of Weyland industries has two children – a daughter that he seems to despise and an android who is devoted to him (although the android later suggests that he’d like to kill his father; Sigmund Freud, they’re playing our song). Noomi Rapace can’t have a baby but gets impregnated with alien DNA and ends up birthing a jellyfish, which she does her best to kill. The only person in the movie without daddy issues is the wisecracking, cigar smoking black pilot. He’s too busy being a cliché.
There’s nothing wrong with a touch of metaphor, but Ridley is so obsessed with showing us how clever he is that these allusions crowd out the plot and might be why the movie grinds to a halt halfway through (something many reviewers have spotted). Whereas Alien was a tight, taught little movie with sparse dialogue that let images speak for themselves, Prometheus is so in love with its own epicness that it forgets to tell a story. It’s Ben Hur without the chariot race. Prometheus even comes with a soaring strings soundtrack that (while very good) undermines all the onscreen tension. It’s hard to be frightened about the descent into the bowels of an alien craft when the journey is accompanied by the theme tune to Gone With the Wind.
All of this might have been forgivable if there were some interesting answers to the questions that Prometheus throws up. But there aren’t. The engineers who created us are, despite their high technology, roaring beasts of the living dead variety. There may or may not be a God; life may or may not be worth living. Nihilism rules everything: children want to kill parents, parents want to kill children. The movie has no moral centre or voice of responsibility, only a constant search for knowledge. It's an episode of Star Trek, written by Richard Dawkins.