It was Nero’s 1,979th birthday yesterday and I think it’s probably time to look at him again. Among the general public he is generally regarded as a lunatic who burned Christians to death and fiddled while his city burned. Among historians he is generally regarded as a slightly fey fop who was in far over his head and lost his mind when he began to understand the sheer scope of his power.
To my mind both of these views are insufficient.
Picture a man who knows himself to be a God. He is not big headed or arrogant as such, he is a God. He is a God, a descendent of Gods and he carries on the work of his ancestor Gods. And yet, despite this knowledge of his own divinity, he is most fond of some of the most despised people in his dominion.
Nero loved acting, poetry and singing. According to Seutonius ‘he often appeared in public in a dining-robe, with a handkerchief bound about his neck’ and he never wore the same garment twice. He loved theatre above all, it was his abiding passion. He was, let’s face it, a cravat wearing 19th century fop born a couple of millennia too early.
Which is why it is perhaps stunning that, in the early part of his reign, he was reasonably well regarded by the masses of the roman people. Not the aristocracy, of course, they thought he was a disgrace. And when he took to the stage to pursue his dream of being an actor the aristocracy regarded it as a dreadful, undignified scandal. He performed his poetry to the public, he sang and played his lute for them, and though they had no option but to do so there’s no real evidence to suggest their applause weren’t genuine.
Then, before the horrors of his later life when ultimate power would consume him utterly, Rome burned. Nobody knows the cause, though it was most probably arson and could very possibly have been arson by Christian terrorists. Later it would be said that he cackled, that the scandalous lover of music watched Rome burn and did nothing but play his fiddle, but contemporary accounts tell a different story.
He opened his private estates to refugees. He did his best to prevent looting. He began a huge program of public works to rebuild and to employ the thousands upon thousands who had lost everything in nine days of inferno.
But his vision stretched further than that.
Nero was never a man to think small. He saw an opportunity to remake the eternal city before him. Instead of cramped alleys and impenetrable mazes there would be plazas, and statues, and wide avenues. His would be a Rome of art and high culture, not stern and stoic functionality. He would rebuild the empire to suit his vision, it would be an empire of staggering beauty and soaring art. No longer would actors be viewed as the scum of the earth, no longer would poetry be the domain of the young and empty headed, Rome would reshape the world to be elegant, inspiring and majestic.
It didn’t work, of course. The cost of such an operation would have been incomprehensibly massive. The world turned, Nero began to resent his failures and from there on his reign is a cascade of increasing horror. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, being a good man is incompatible with being a God.
But imagine for a moment that it had worked. Picture it; the civilisation that lies at the foundation of all of western culture turned primarily to the creation of beauty. What could have come of that? What sort of a world would we live in? It may well have been worse, of course, but think of the possibilities of a world founded and grounded in the philosophy of the aesthete.
Nero failed, but his vision as he stood and gazed at the ashes of the greatest city in the world is one that would have swept me away. I would have loved him for that romanticism, for that glory. Perhaps loved him enough to follow him as he marched into hell.
With thanks to LJ Trafford for drawing my attention to the Suetonius quote on Twitter and to Tom Holland for the excellent narrative biography of his life in his book ‘Dynasty.’
Tradition matters. In a way I wish it didn’t, a world in which we could pick up and put down customs at the drop of a hat would certainly be a more harmonious one. It would also be far more empty, a joyless trudge through time with no festivals, no holidays, and no town criers. I like traditions, but they can be problematic; it is the nature of traditions that they are abandoned only rarely, because without continuity they are nothing.
I want you, if you’re unfamiliar with British folk dancing traditions, to bear the above paragraph in mind when I tell you that some Morris sides still perform in blackface.
I’ve been brought up in a family deeply involved in folk music in general and Morris dancing in particular. My Dad started Pigsty Morris in 1987 and my Mum has been a clog dancer since 1976, my brother and sister enjoy ceilidhs and folk festivals and, though I have drifted away from it over the years, I still have a fondness for some of my childhood memories of the folk scene. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that Pigsty Morris have never performed in blackface.
‘Well?’ I hear you say, ‘when are you going to get to the point?’
Fair enough. There is a debate currently raging about the use of blackface amongst the Morris community.
At first I could not comprehend why this was even in question. It’s blackface. A historical blot that I instinctively find uncomfortable at best. What mad ideas have led Morris dancers to think they can get away with blackface when Al Jolson and the Black and White Minstrels have almost been deliberately erased from the cultural history of the western world?
Well, actually, a few things. None of them are good enough, nothing could be, but they might explain why the debate is raging instead of long over. Also I should point out that I don’t believe anybody in the debate is deliberately racist, honestly, you’ve largely never met a more strident bunch of liberal lefties in your life.
Firstly; like most things to do with Morris dancing, the actual reasons for it are a mystery. It almost certainly doesn’t have roots in racism. Some people say that blacking up began as a kind of crude disguise, a way to hide your identity from meddling priests or landlords. I think it was more likely something to do with industry, miners meeting to practice at the end of a shift and adapting it to be part of their costume. Maybe that’s all wishful thinking. Maybe it has racist origins, maybe not, maybe there’s no real reason beyond a simple way to make your costume more striking and outlandish.
Secondly; it’s a tradition. It’s at least a couple of hundred years old, maybe more (people tend to write a lot of authoritative pieces dating the origins of Morris dancing, they have wildly different dates and are never backed up with any kind of solid evidence. It’s a mystery, and I’m okay with that). If you become, by dint of effort, the guardian of a tradition then it is your duty to defend it. It’s a good thing to do, preserving traditions serves a useful purpose.
Well… everything else really. I used to quite like it when I was a child. A white child. I even used to like their dogged determination to ignore the changing times when I was a teenager. I understand their trepidation, but Morris dancing is a living tradition, and life is change.
I also understand why the people doing it might be so upset. There is a tacit suggestion that they are racist in urging them to stop doing the thing they’re doing. They think ‘I’m not a racist, I’m the person doing it, therefore it can’t be racist.’ There’s reason there, but there isn’t logic.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the pro-blackface camp: you are wrong. Right now I can just about understand that you’re trying to maintain a tradition and that’s very much a part of what you’re supposed to do. But if you keep this up it will start to get dismal. That instinctive urge you feel to keep blackface is the same urge that keeps bullfighting in Spain and dog restaurants in China. I get it, I get why those traditions carry on, but I understand even more why they shouldn’t. And please know that if you don’t stop, soon, the rest of the world will begin to notice and you will very publically be on the wrong side of history.
So why not start a new tradition? Why not wear masks? You’re a creative bunch, I’m sure you could come up with something awesome. Why not burn a few pots of shoe polish every year to commemorate the time you used to do that crazy thing?
I’m sorry you’re losing a part of your performance, I’m sorry you feel that it lessens the importance or the art of Morris dancing (which it absolutely does not), but it’s time to put this one to bed. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.
And, now that’s out of the way, it’s time to deal with the Morris Ring.
Okay, look, this is just stupid. We’ve got people on both sides of this acrimonious divide screaming lies at one another and generally making things up, we’ve got racists getting agitated and a focus on immigration that’s making this country a worse place to live. What the hell are we supposed to think? Are we supposed to argue about the Schengen agreement or try to tell everyone the history of the Maastricht treaty? This is the route most remain voters and campaigners seem to be taking and it’s doing no good.
The problem is that the leave campaign has an emotive message and the remain campaign does not. Saying ‘our country is broken because of immigration and foreign interference’ resonates far more than ‘yes the EU is imperfect but it’s better to be on the inside than the outside because the benefits it brings far outweigh the risk of leaving.’
The truth is the EU is a mess. It’s a mountain of bureaucracy which occasionally makes some terrible decisions and its secretive, undemocratic incompetence makes it difficult to defend. Add that to a generation of hostile right wing press and we have a general ambivalence towards the EU that seems insurmountable.
Perhaps the distaste began in Sarajevo. Perhaps the failure of the EU to get its act together and actually do anything about the disgusting war crimes being carried out in its back garden began the slow slide. I don’t think so though. I don’t think most people in Britain know anything at all about the EU, what it does, how it works, its history, its purpose… anything. All we ever hear from the press and politicians is how awful the whole thing is and how bureaucrats from Brussels are ruining our way of life. It’s a joke, a failure of the press that weighs on us now.
So what can be said? What positive messages can we reduce to sound bites in order to convince wavering voters that remaining in the EU is a good idea?
Well for starters we could remind them that the member states of the EU are our friends and allies, not some international coalition of somehow anti-British plotters. Spain is our friend, as is France and Germany, and the rhetoric of the Brexit campaigners is the turgid mutterings of pre-war nationalist thinking.
We could remind them that land wars in Europe have barely happened while it exists. I’m not suggesting, as the prime minister has, that a continent wide conflict would be the inevitable result of Brexit but if you think the prejudices and discontent that precipitated two world wars have somehow gone away then you just need to have a quick look at some of the darker corners of the internet. I don’t want to be drafted in to a conflict that would end in nuclear annihilation anyway, do you?
Talking about the working time directive or the increase in food standards or the cleanliness of our beaches doesn’t seem to be doing much good. I’m mainly voting to remain part of the EU because I don’t trust the political establishment in this country to govern fairly without the checks and balances the EU provides. Do you really want to see Prime Minister Boris Johnson enacting legislation with nobody to stop him? The only people who would have any way to block his choices would be the House of Lords or the Queen, do you want to live in a country where they, inevitably, have greater power? Do you want to live in an even less democratic society?
For all its faults, and they are many, we are better in the EU than out. It, like all governments, does some good things and some bad, but our political establishment are chomping at the muzzle, clawing at power they cannot be allowed to have.
*** Spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice throughout. Though you shouldn’t care because this film is terrible***
For the first time I have been moved to write a movie review. It’s a big movie, you may well have seen it already, and it has received a very poor critical reception so far. Its enormous marketing campaign will ensure it makes enough money to succeed, fans of the characters will still buy its merchandise, but it is still and will remain an abject artistic failure. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has problems far deeper than a poor script, inept direction and awful CGI and I’m still trying to figure out how it went so badly wrong. I shall try to break this review in to sections to better organise my thoughts and stay on topic but it’s probably inevitable that I will digress in to infuriated rants and call for Zack Snyder’s head on a plate, I apologise in advance.
The Good Stuff.
As with all Zack Snyder helmed projects there are flashes of brilliance. Ben Affleck is believable as Batman, for instance, portraying a more psychologically unstable version of the character than Christian Bale’s suave ninja. He is a muscular presence in every sense of the word, occasionally filling the screen with barely contained fury.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is… fine. I suppose.
Henry Cavill’s Superman is also fine, though he is certainly not given enough to do by either the writers or the director.
Gal Gadot was very promising and gave me some hope for the upcoming Wonder Woman film.
There was a jump scare during one of the many poorly signposted dream sequences, it worked. I know a lot of people find jump scares cheap and irritating but I enjoy them, they’re a perfectly acceptable film making tool.
The Bad Stuff.
This film needs an editor. That editor needs to be legally allowed to simply guillotine Zack Snyder and send me his head on a plate if he makes any kind of fuss. The middle third or so of Batman V Superman: Blades of Glory was a meandering, meaningless mess which served no purpose and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
On top of that there were a number of confusing dream sequences. They are very, very poorly signposted, though I suspect this may have been the result of Zack Snyder’s misguided attempts to employ subtlety rather than simple incompetence.
The greater problem with the dream sequences is that they told the audience nothing and did not advance the plot or illuminate the motivations of the characters in any way. At their worst they were effectively adverts for upcoming films in the series and meant nothing to non comics readers. Why would someone unfamiliar with Darkseid and the New Gods react with awe at the sight of an enormous omega symbol burned in to ground? The answer is that they would not, nor would they care or be intrigued by it in any way.
STOP DESATURATING THE COLOURS IN ALL YOUR FILMS, ZACK. I like a bit of darkness in my movies as much as the next Goth but if you don’t have anything to compare it to because everything’s dark then it loses all impact. When Batman and Superman are squaring off against one another while wearing, due to your extreme colour desaturation and decision to shoot in 3D (which makes the resulting film considerably darker) the same grey cape and grey jumpsuit combination while standing on the grey batmobile in a grey landscape under a grey sky then something has gone wrong, hasn’t it? Was anyone on hand to tell you when you’d made a blindingly obvious mistake? When watching Batman v Superman: Tower of Pisa I get the feeling that you were surrounded by yes men, it is the same feeling I had when watching the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Just to make clear how bad the desaturation was; like about 5% of people in the world I am colourblind. I find red and green hard to distinguish and I also have more than my fair share of difficulty with blue and yellow, though as long as the shades are different enough I don’t have much of a problem. Zack Snyder decided to have a man spray paint a slogan on to a statue, a statue which, due to the extreme desaturation effect, was a kind of grey/green colour. The man in the film used a can of red paint. I could not see the slogan he painted at all, and this is the first time in any film that this has been a genuine problem.
The Naked Product Placement.
Lex Luthor eats some sweets. We get a nice close up of the bowl and see that it contains a number of snickers sweets. The close up lingers for long enough for us to read the logo several times. Lex Luthor is wealthy and has Jesse Eisenberg’s hair. You could be wealthy and have Jesse Eisenberg’s hair if you act like him. Go and buy some snickers.
I wanted to call this section ‘The effects’ but I honestly don’t think there were any practical effects in this whole mess. Batman v Superman: House of Pancakes makes no visual sense during action scenes and those are the sequences in which you, as a member of the audience, need the most visual clarity. Snyder spent his time with the FX team telling them to add more clutter to his film instead of going to a nearby guillotine and chopping his own head off after instructing his PA to send it to me on a plate once he was dead. Nothing has any weight in this mess; buildings collapse, everything explodes at the drop of a hat, lightning arcs through the sky and all of it looks bad. When there are no practical effects in a film then objects and people obey the demands of the director rather than the laws of physics and your subconscious mind knows that what you are watching is not real. Contrast this mess of a film (which you will, statistically speaking, go and see even if you haven’t already) with last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road; the action sequences in that were bone crunching, astonishing sights made to feel all the more real because the director insisted on stunt work wherever possible and used digital effects only to enhance what was already present.
Now, granted, some directors fall in to the trap of realising how much of a powerful tool modern computer driven effects are and start trying to use them for everything in every instance because it, genuinely, seems like a good idea (I’m looking at you Peter Jackson) but I don’t think that’s the case here. I honestly believe, from looking at his past work and extrapolating what I can about his personality from interviews, that Zack Snyder is simply too bloody lazy to do it right. Practical effects mean directing sequences with stuntmen, pyrotechnicians, health and safety officials, choreographers and a dozen other people over the course of a long, complex working day. It would surprise me if a man as bone idle about film making as Zack “Sucker Punch” Snyder didn’t look at all that and decide he’d be far happier sat about in an office somewhere occasionally yelling at an animator.
Don’t get me wrong, computer driven special effects are amazing, but the best way to use them will always be to enhance what’s already there or to create something that is otherwise completely impossible.
The Miniature Trailers for Upcoming DC Comics Films.
Wonder Woman, in one sequence, sits at her computer and watches some video files. Each of them showcases a new superhero. Each of these superheroes has an upcoming film. Zack Snyder, unable to think of a good way to hint towards them in any other way, has Wonder Woman sit down and watch video files of them on her computer. This is the laziest, most artistically bankrupt sequence in the movie, to the extent that I suspect even Snyder is a bit embarrassed about it.
I was going to write a long rant in this section. I was going to get really, really cross about his relentless awfulness but I just don’t have the energy now that I come to it. I’ve had too many people try to tell me that there are no politics in a Zack Snyder movie, that I’m gazing too deeply in to a shallow pool. I’m saving my rage for the next part. All you really need to know about Zack Snyder and his infantile politics, especially if you somehow believe he hasn’t got any, is that he has recently expressed a desire to make one of Ayn Rand’s books in to a film.
True to Snyder’s predictable form; it has been a film before. It would be a remake.
The film opens with the iconic sequence. We all know how it goes; mother, father and child step in to an alley, a figure with a gun emerges from the shadows. The mother moves forward to shield her child with her body while the father tries to hand over his wallet and calm the situation. Something goes wrong, a flash of light or a backfiring car startles the mugger. As he panics two bullets make Bruce Wayne an orphan.
Snyder does not understand this story.
In Batman v Superman: Out of Ideas the story goes slightly differently. Mother, father and child step in to an alley. A figure with a gun emerges from the shadows. The mother moves forward to shield her child with her body while the father gets really angry and, like, totally hulks out brah and tries to punch a man holding his family at gunpoint even thought that’s an incredibly stupid move cuz he’s totally badass. The mugger arguably acts in self defence and kills the obviously psychotic and instinctually violent Thomas Wayne, presumably causing his family to sigh with relief. Then he kills Martha Wayne but she’s not a complete moron like her husband and she’s, you know, a girl so she doesn’t really fight. The mugger kills her anyway because the origin story of Batman demands it and for no other reason.
Similarly; Superman does not kill. Many times, in many comics, Lois Lane has been held at gunpoint by some sort of villainous man. In order to deal with this problem Superman has a number of abilities that he can deploy. He can use his heat vision to make the gun hot, forcing the hostage taker to drop it. He can use his freezing breath to encase the weapon in ice. He could, while the gunman blinks, simply snatch the weapon from his hand or deploy his super strength to crush the barrel and render the firearm unusable.
The Superman of Batman v Superman: Horn of Plenty is a bloodthirsty monster.
The first thing he does in the entire film is clearly and brutally murder a guy. In a sequence clearly modeled on Benghazi, because Zack Snyder, Lois Lane is taken hostage. Superman arrives. He has the options outlined above but instead he opts to fly at just under superluminal velocity and smashes the hostage taker through two brick walls. The hostage taker is human and possessed of no special abilities. That man is dead now, there can be no doubt about it.
Zack Snyder does not understand that heroism and violence are not the same thing.
Zack Snyder on Killing.
When Zack Snyder was asked about the fan reaction to the massive collateral damage caused directly by Superman his response was thus:
‘I went, really? And I said, well, what about Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens? In Star Wars they destroy five planets with billions of people on them. That’s gotta be one of the highest death toll movies in history, the new Star Wars movie, if you just do the math.’
Zack Snyder thinks this makes sense. Either Zack Snyder thinks the civilisation destroying villains in Star Wars are the good guys or he thinks it’s acceptable for Superman to destroy civilisations on a whim or… what do you mean Zack? Do you even know? He doesn’t know. Zack Snyder is the end product of a Hollywood that happily bankrolls Michael Bay. He is the bastard love child of Renny Harlin and Battle-of-Five-Armies-era Peter Jackson.
On My Own Obvious Fanboyism.
Yes, I am a comics enthusiast. Stop sniggering.
At his best Superman is an immigrant story, or a sun God, or a benign philosopher, and he is always a beacon of pacifism in a complex world. At his best Batman is a saviour and protector, a believer in redemption and mercy who delivers his mentally ill adversaries to a secure mental health unit where they can receive treatment for their afflictions.
These are not optional aspects of the characters. Superman is a hero because of, not in spite of, his pacifism. Can you imagine if such a being existed in reality and he was not a pacifist? Someone who could fly at light speed and annihilate whoever he pleased with a glance? He could not be anything other than a terrifying monster. By the same token Batman, at his best, is a billionaire with mental health problems who has channeled his illness to a constructive purpose. He wishes to make the streets safe for the people of Gotham, to ensure that no child has to go through the trauma he once suffered. If he kills criminals, or allows them to die by his own inaction, then he is a serial killer.
Saviours, heroes, are complex. Their struggles are morality tales, their victories are pyrrhic, their kindness is bottomless and they will sacrifice themselves for you without hesitation. Their actions are not driven by guilt but by compassion for compassion’s sake. Having a punching competition with a green CGI lightning monster does not make for a compelling story. Zack Snyder likes the idea of heroism, but he doesn’t understand it.
It was inevitable. It’s been inevitable since the eleventh of September, 2001. It’s been inevitable since the soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It’s been inevitable since the British Empire carved up the region and empowered a dozen petty despots to rule over oil rich land. It may even have been inevitable since the Ottoman Empire collapsed under its own weight. We’re going to bomb Syria and it’s going to escalate horribly.
Isil/IS/Daesh are a problem. There’s no negotiated settlement to reach with them, they can’t be reasoned with because they believe they are ushering in the apocalypse and, importantly, they believe that’s a good thing to do. Their King, who I will not dignify with the title of Caliph, is a racist, a rapist and a murderer who has used their fanaticism to carve himself a kingdom and now we’re going to bomb it.
So how did it come to this? Well, we’re talking about a region of the world which has arguably birthed all of the world’s most successful religions that sits on top of an enormous volume of oil but very little fertile land outside of Egypt. It’s not hard to see how that could be a powder keg, in fact it’s hard to see how it could not be. These are, however, very broad strokes. A potted, simplified history will follow.
Daesh grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), AQI declared an “Islamic State” in Iraq and changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) because they have no imagination because fascists tend not to. They were no longer getting along with Al Qaeda because ISI were brutally persecuting and murdering Shia Muslims. Why were they persecuting Shia Muslims? They say it’s because they’re infidels but really it’s for the same reason all fascist states start persecuting minorities; a shared enemy is a uniting force. It is an effective, awful way to bind people together.
Of course they didn’t stop there. They did terrible things to Christians, to Jews, to Yazidis, to Druze, to gay people, to anyone who didn’t fit in to their narrow, misogynistic, fascist cult. It wasn’t enough, they underestimated the war weariness of the West so they started to attack targets at home. The Paris attacks were the most notable, though there have been other, smaller atrocities.
So how can I argue against bombing them? How can I, I hear some of you ask, condemn military action against them?
The short answer is that I’m not. They have to be stopped. I’m not against action against Daesh, I’m against this action against Daesh. It’s another open ended mess of meaningless, mission creep drivel. Time and again in the ten hour House of Commons debate we saw MP’s stand and warn us against assuming that we were about to repeat the mistakes of the past. They didn’t really seem to tell us in what way it would be different this time.
This whole thing is probably closest to Libya. Not Iraq so much, though the rumbling war there was an unmitigated disaster by any sane measure. In Libya we sent the bombs down to help a revolution in progress and saw a vile regime replaced by a thousand warring militias and an utterly failed state, a post apocalyptic, Mad Max wasteland nightmare brewing the worst kinds of violence, a chaos of pain and misery.
The Prime Minister claims there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels with whom we can work to build a post-Assad Syria. This claim rightly raised more than a few guffaws. The idea that any kind of remotely accurate data could be extracted from the Syrian maelstrom is laughable at best, I suspect this one is on a par with the ‘42 minutes’ claim made by Blair before Iraq.
So what am I trying to say? Honestly I’m conflicted. I don’t want to see a war over there but that’s not really an option because it’s already happening. Britain does share some of the responsibility for the mess Syria is in, the sense of responsibility doesn’t come from some vestigial colonial urge. Daesh are awful and they absolutely will not stop until they are made to stop and the longer they’re left there the worse it will get both for the people living under their rule and us in the West. Doing nothing could never be an option for any nation in Britain’s position, no matter what form of government or culture or faith.
I suppose, at heart, I feel you cannot fight half a war. We have to speak with Russia to make something workable. We have to help the Kurds find a future. We have to work with Iran. We cannot allow Assad to reestablish control now that the people of Syria have comprehensively rejected his rule. We need a broad coalition, a workable solution and achievable goals. We need to know what we’re getting in to and how to get out of it. We’re not really doing any of those things.
So I’m against airstrikes because bombs alone won’t bring us peace. They won’t lift the spectre of international terrorism from the world. They won’t kill only the bad people, no matter how accurate they are and how much the political leaders might wish it. They can’t emancipate women or rebuild the temple of Bel. They can’t teach a child that a martyr’s shroud is unbecoming. All a bomb can do is explode.
It goes without saying that attacks in Paris on Friday were awful and brutal and the product of a disgusting perversion of faith. The attacks in Beirut too, of course, and their lack of equivalent coverage has been widely noted and discussed. The people who committed the acts were vile people and willing to do vile things. This entry is not about that, I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said by a thousand pundits in a thousand places. I don’t know how to defeat the ideology of IS or their physical forces. I will not refer to them as ‘ISIS,’ Isis is a loving mother goddess and I will not help them to obliterate even a portion of another religion. I don’t know how to bring peace to the middle east or end the endless war, there is no simple solution and its history, when it is written, will take up volumes upon volumes and barely scratch the surface. I don’t know how to change the culture of the various tribes, juntas, theocratic monarchies, warlords and fanatics often described under the umbrella of ‘radical Islam.’ I don’t know how to reconcile differences caused by decades of bloodshed or reconcile the modern world with Wahhabism or counter online IS propaganda. I despair of the armchair generals and insidious ‘us versus them’ attitude about Muslims pumped out by the venal right.
I do know, however, about how vulnerable a powerless and isolated young person can be in the west.
When you find yourself, for whatever reason, cut off from mainstream society there is still a powerful urge to find something to belong to. Personally I felt isolated mostly because I was bookish and quiet as a child. It was not a good way to make friends in a Bristol school in the 80’s and 90’s, I was the butt of many jokes and casual cruelties and it wore me down until it broke me. Though my social skills blossomed later and I came out of my shell as I entered adulthood I felt no real stake in the world for a long, long period of my life and as a result I resented it. All of it. I began to search for a philosophy, for a group to belong to, to find a tribe and a purpose.
As luck would have it I found Goth. I can’t honestly say why it speaks to me more than any other subculture but the sense of belonging while being simultaneously removed from mainstream society is undoubtedly a part of it. I made friends and had exciting adventures and wild times but before I got there I reveled, for a while, in a much more uncertain and cruel darkness. My isolation led to an extreme resentment against the world, I did many things I regret and I did them without conscience and it took me a long time, and intervention from people to whom I now believe I owe my life, to crawl back out of the nihilistic mire. Essentially I was an empty vessel, seeking something and never knowing what.
If I had been brought up in a different culture, one defined by the stories and history of Islam rather than secular, white England, I might easily have become a fanatic. If I had entered that period of my life and the people there with me had been radical preachers instead of relentlessly carousing, slightly messy and wonderful friends I would have turned out very differently. I can see it, when I close my eyes, a simple and horrible path to becoming a murderous zealot. I needed someone to listen to me, to help me get through the awkward years, to look out for me and to be there when I needed them. If they had been saying ‘make war on the decadent west and give your life for Allah’ in response to my search for meaning I would almost certainly take it on board. Fortunately they said things like ‘try snorting the salt, then drinking the tequila, then squeezing the lemon in your eye, whoever can do the most of those pays for the lot.’
Now I know there are as many ways to become brainwashed as there are brainwashed people. I know, also, that some of them are mentally unstable and some of them are vulnerable and a very few of them are pure, dyed in the wool psychopaths who just want to kill people. I know that, had my life been only ever so slightly different, I could have found myself one of them. It’s important to bear this in mind; can you say you’ve always understood the world and never felt in need of guidance? Can you say that you’ve never felt empty, like your life is freewheeling and without purpose? That’s the vulnerability they exploit most easily and most often, many of IS’s followers have fallen for the con, the man who enters their life and guides them gently in to the grave, broken down and rebuilt as joyless, tedious, death worshiping fascists.
It’s a hard walk back from there but it is not impossible. At the moment they are presented in the media as a cartoon villains with no nuance or subtlety, as inherently bad people with no depth and this is irresponsible in the extreme. Right now, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, it is perhaps understandable to treat IS as somehow inhuman but it is a trend that is now long established. I’m not calling for reconciliation, or for kindness, or for turning the other cheek, I’m simply calling for understanding. Already they prey on the manufactured differences between east and west and in distancing ourselves from any attempt to comprehend them we give them better tools for their awful cause. They can point at us and say ‘the west does not know Islam, they do not care to know us.’ They can use their mystique to lure the lost.
IS are only human, the things they do are human, the way they become who they are is human, a good way to weaken them is to remember that.
So I’ve been working a thousand and one tiny, short term temping jobs for quite some time now and it’s grinding me down, I’ve been sending out my CV everywhere as a response. I’ve even posted it to a couple of websites and allowed prospective employers to look it over at their leisure (despite the fact that getting head hunted is unlikely in the extreme). While my CV was out there, flickering around in the ether, soft and vulnerable, it was spotted by a monster.
It started with a phone call on Friday. An unexpected call from a number I did not know. This isn’t hugely unusual when you’re on the hunt for a job, though it often turns out to be a robot shilling PPI or offering compensation for that accident you haven’t had in the last five years, so I answered it. This was mistake one.
The woman on the end had a melodious, friendly but strong accent and the connection over the phone wasn’t that good. She stated the name of the company but I missed it, I asked her to repeat and she said the same thing again, I didn’t quite catch it that time either so ploughed on ahead regardless, thinking I would have little difficulty googling the company from the address she would inevitably email to me. This was mistake two.
She offered me an interview on the Monday and I accepted. It was a blessed relief to have finally found some traction after months of little movement and I’ve had calls on Friday to ask for interviews on Monday before. I found it a little strange when she said she would text me the details but, well, such is life, businesses often have esoteric methods, maybe this one frowned upon email? It’s not as uncommon as you might think. This was not a mistake, though it was beginning to set a few alarm bells gently ringing.
She sent me the address and I duly consulted Google on what the hell I might be getting in to. At that address were two companies which appeared to do much the same thing. Fine, that’s not uncommon (though it did seem strange that two competing companies would share a hallway and a reception). I began to think it might be a receptionist job I had applied for. I was wrong, but I wasn’t to know.
I asked my girlfriend to use her phone to call them out of office hours. The logic was that the answering machine message would likely say the name of the company and I could figure out what was going on. Instead the message said ‘welcome to Tesco mobile, please leave a message.’
At this point alarm bells were clanging about all over the place. All the same, I am a little desperate.
I rose from my bed on Monday, a nine o’clock appointment for an interview on my mind, and I strolled to the bus stop. There I waited with the other travellers, some going to work, some simply of that age where getting up early seems to present less of a challenge. It was drizzling slightly, this is England after all, and while I stood there in my suit a friend of mine on her way to her job patted me on the shoulder.
‘Good luck with the interview!’ She said.
‘Thanks Max,’ I said with a smile, ‘I’m not even completely sure what it is yet, bit nervous though.’
‘Ah, you’ll be fine’ she said, and then the bus pulled up.
As I sat there, amongst all the passengers, a little worried, a little hopeful, my mobile began to sing. I answered it and, as expected, it was that heavily accented voice confirming my appointment. I smiled, at last something a genuine company does! I confirmed that I would be there and asked which floor to go to.
I got as far as the ‘th’ in ‘thank you’ when I realised she had hung up without a word.
I should have known by now that this was not going to work. Hindsight is 20/20, true, but I should have known. The only reason I can think that I didn’t is that my desperation was turning to delusion and my nervousness at the thought of an interview (praise the Gods) was trumping my scepticism.
Out of the bus and back in to the drizzle. Along the alleys and back streets, near the pub I had DJed on the Saturday night. ‘That’ll be convenient,’ I thought, ‘I can drop in posters and flyers for my nightclub after work now and then if I get this.’
I found the building, an old facade of stone fallen in to disrepair but still maintaining a little of its past glory. Beautiful in that decayed way that only those in-between streets in English cities can be. I relaxed for a moment, foolishly forgetting that a con is as successful as its image for a moment. Inside it was different, inside…
Inside the first thing I saw was a laminated sign above a buzzer next to a thick and grimy security door. The sign, which had clearly been there for some time, said ‘interviewees call for the second floor.’
The alarm bells were back. What sort of company has so many interviewees, so often, that the only sign they place in their foyer tells interviewees where to go? At this point, though, I was too curious to turn back and pressed away. From the crackling intercom a familiar voice bid me to come up, and up I duly went.
Up the grimy stairwell that looked as if it had never been cleaned and in, at first, the wrong door. There stood a near empty office with two exhausted looking young men sat behind a computer screen. They looked at me, I looked at them. I took in the bin bags scattered about, the collapsing drop ceiling and the grim darkness at the far end where the light bulb would likely never be replaced, the filthy carpet and the flaking wallpaper on the walls. ‘Second floor, mate,’ they said, before I had squeaked out a word.
On upwards I went and found the presentable part. Here was an office worker’s office, a brightly coloured, gleaming temple to the joys of administration. On the walls were motivational posters of the kind that make projectile vomiting seem inevitable, there were posters with descriptions of the ‘cycle of development,’ there were people hurrying to and fro in suits with expensive haircuts and, now I consider it, a slightly frightened look in their eyes.
Most of all there was music. Loud and awful though some may consider it exciting and motivating. It was played at high volume (a volume I would likely object to were it not for the fact I’m fairly sure my hearing has been permanently… augmented by my years of gig attendance, clubbing and general carrying on) in the middle of the working day. What the hell was happening here? I realised, to my consternation, that the five other people sitting there were present for interviews as well. Alarm bells were blaring at full volume but at this stage I was too disoriented to simply leave. The woman I had been speaking to handed me a form to fill in, nothing unusual, and when I saw that others were doing the same I put my head down and got on with it.
This is where alarm bells broke from their hinges and crashed and clonged through my mind. The form asked a number of questions, all of which were answered on my CV which they had, ostensibly, read. Education history? You know my education history! Employment history? You know my employment history! What would I say my career goals are? Try and find a broader question!
With music blaring, and now determined to see this through for reasons I have yet to fathom, I filled in the form and sat back in my chair. The staff in the office all looked like they had just stepped out of their teens apart from the man I glimpsed performing the actual ‘interviews’ and the woman at the reception desk I had spoken to before. I found the whole thing jarring and off putting and I turned to the interviewee next to me, ‘don’t you find this a bit of a strange interview technique?’ I said, indicating the speakers next to us.
Before either of us could exchange another word the receptionist bore down upon me and started asking questions. In hindsight it’s obvious they didn’t want us talking to each other, they didn’t want us spreading doubt about the nature of the place. She asked about my personal life, my family, how many friends I had. In retrospect, again, these were questions designed to figure out just how many people, at a minimum, I could rope in to buying whatever the pyramid scheme was selling.
I chatted away though she didn’t seem interested, like she had memorised a list of questions. I should have left then, but I didn’t.
I was called in for my interview. The interviewer, a rotund and greasy man with a short pony tail and disinterested, dead eyes began to ask me questions in a bored tone of voice. ‘Tell me about your family life’ he said, ‘tell me about your friends.’
At this point it had all fallen in to place, you needn’t worry, oh family and friends who are reading this, I lied. I lied and lied and lied. In fact my only regret now is that I didn’t come up with better lies. ‘My family are all dead, they were at Everest base camp during the recent avalanche’ would have been a good one. ‘My friends are all very active in the charity sector and the neo-nazi community’ I could have said. He wasn’t interested in details, you see, he was interested in numbers.
Some chatting followed, obscure details were mentioned while the nature of the job itself was ignored. He spoke very little, studying me like a sample in a microscope slide.
When he asked ‘what can you bring to my company, how do I know you’re going to give 100% to me in face to face sales?’ This was the first time that what I would actually be doing had come up, door to door fraud sounded unpleasant to me. ‘Oh, well, er… that’s a difficult question to answer… er… I suppose… I’m a people person?’
It was the worst answer I could have given but I could have said that I would give 100% because I’m secretly Jesus and it would have been good enough for this scumbag. He nodded, the heavy lids of his eyes unmoving and his expression unchanging, and said he was impressed with me and he would take the results of his interview to his team. If I were someone else, if I were younger or had less experience with interviews, I would have believed him.
Homeward bound and I leap online. I’m sure but I want evidence. I know but I want to be sure what I know is what other people know. “Clover” and “advertising” and “Bristol” and “scam” go in to google and the result come out and… pages and pages and pages of them. A multitude of results. I fond out it is owned by people who used to be called Cobra Group. I read the details of the pyramid scheme. I read testimonials from thousands of survivors of their enslavement. And it is slavery. Their were tales of working a 70 hour week to go home with considerably less than the minimum wage. There were tales of people living in their cars while working more than full time. Tales of brainwashing techniques that aren’t just similar to the methods of cults but are, in fact, exactly the same. Commission was the only pay, and that often cash in hand. There were anecdotes (some of which I will transcribe shortly, I shall try to attribute them all but there are thousands) which made my blood boil. I was so angry I could spit, so enraged that the day, yesterday, was spent in a black, consuming haze of nihilistic fury so total that when they inevitably called back and offered me the job (they offer everyone their ‘job’) I found it difficult to open my mouth and speak.
So why did it make me so angry? I’ve met bad men before. I’ve met vile women before too for that matter. I’ve been attacked for no reason but that just made me sad, I’ve been threatened but that gave way to a feeling of being alive that I can almost enjoy, what was it about this that infuriated me that much?
I think it’s that these people are the exact opposite, the inverse, of everything I strive for. As an anarchist they appall me because they are a cult of money worshiping, tax dodging, rapaciously exploitative thieves. As a person it offends me because it reduces people to numbers and treats them as a consumable resource. As a Goth it offends me because while they are villainous they lack the imagination to be anything more than tediously, unextravagantly, unromantically villainous. Because they work by convincing you that making money is great, that they can make you make money in ways other companies can’t and they convince you to stay by convincing you that anyone who doesn’t want to work for them is a loser. On top of all that, and that is more than enough, it got my hopes up and then dashed them completely.
I think back now to the moments I sat in that ‘interview,’ an experience less than five minutes long, and I ponder the man who sat opposite me. What does it take to make a person like that? Who can sit opposite a man and think ‘I will strip away your life. I will strip away your hope. I will reduce every impulse you have to the urge to make money. I will enslave you. I will own you. I will take a portion of your slave wage and I will try to make you in to me.’ What does it take for a person to be able to do that? To look you in the eye while they batter at your soul? It is more than greed and less than a lust for power. There is a banality to that psychopathy that is utterly, undeniably chilling.
Some links to other sources about the parent company:
*** Trigger warning: the following piece contains frank discussion of rape. I would ask any comments remain respectful, level headed and on topic. I respect your right to disagree with me, please respect my right to discuss sensitive subjects. ***
How the hell is a writer supposed to approach the subject of rape? There seems to be no good way to do it, no way that isn’t going to upset someone. It’s a problem particularly for adult fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am rather fond, but it’s a problem for anyone who decides to approach the subject in any form of fiction. Of course, arguably, it is a reasonable response for an artist to say; ‘to hell with it, I shall write what I will and be damned to the consequences,’ a writer’s prerogative in any circumstance. But there may also, again arguably, be a responsibility on the part of the writer to treat rape with the full weight of its awful reality. How then can it be done? How can this brutality be made a part of fiction? There are a number of possible approaches which I’ll detail below but first:
I have never had the misfortune to be a victim of rape. I have been groped, I have been the subject of what some people would consider to be sexual harassment, but I have never been the victim of rape. I self identify as male and I believe consent is paramount in sex. So far, so non-controversial.
I have written a play wherein the plot was primarily moved by a historical rape. I spent several years of my life working at a university and studying rape from a criminologist’s perspective. I am currently about to write a passage in a book I am working on in which there is an instance of male rape. * Game of Thrones Spoiler Warning, skip to next paragraph to avoid it * I did not think the latest episode of Game of Thrones was particularly problematic in terms of its representation of rape.
There, all cards on the table. On to the different methods of writing about rape in fiction:
Method 1: Ignore it.
This I find the worst possible option, especially in fantasy/historical fiction. To ignore it, by which I mean to never mention it and by extension make it not exist in the world of whichever work is being written, is to my mind a travesty. Women and men (though the latter more rarely) the world over are raped every day, every hour. It’s an ongoing problem and it’s not going to stop in my lifetime or the lifetime of anyone reading this.
If anything in fantasy or historical fiction it would be even worse. Fantasy fiction for adults is most often set in a pseudo-medieval world with a feudal power structure and unless the author has created a truly bizarre variant of the politics of those times then rape, particularly marital rape, was practically encouraged. If the setting goes back further towards antiquity (as in the novel containing the passage I’m about to write) then rape becomes a bigger problem along with pederasty and male rape and all the bizarre sexuality of ‘primitive’ cultures.
These things happened. A lot. To ignore rape in a setting where rape would be commonplace, where it would almost be an accepted part of the culture, is an insult to the women in our past who suffered through it.
That said there are some caveats: it is acceptable, of course, to make rape absent from young adult fiction and children’s fiction. It is probably best to make rape absent from anything even approaching comedy unless you’re really absolutely sure it won’t come across as part of the comedy. If it’s not relevant to the tone or plot it obviously needn’t come up.
Method 2: Suggest it.
This seems to be the most commonly used tool for addressing rape in fiction. It works reasonably well but is not always appropriate.
A good example of this might be HBO’s seminal Rome. Most often it came up casually in conversation, as it would have done amongst Roman soldiers, but did not often appear on screen. It worked fairly well, mostly because the series was largely concerned with back room politics. It also took care to establish the alien nature of the men and women depicted. They were creatures of two millenia ago in a culture steeped in tradition, militarism and classical ideas of honour and glory and in that context it managed to make even rapists sympathetic characters (for those who’ve seen it and are wondering who I’m talking about; it’s Titus Pullo, who had clearly indulged himself in the sacking of cities in Gaul and wold certainly have committed rape, probably many times).
There again there are examples where perhaps the depiction of rape need to be more open. Sometimes merely hinting at it isn’t enough, it loses impact and horror when it’s relegated to the same position as discussions of sex in Victorian England; dark mutterings in dark corners can make it an issue clouded in mystique. Rape should not have mystique, though the plot may be better served keeping it ambiguous.
Method 3: Show it.
Here is the nub. Many, many people are upset to their core by depictions of rape. Being upset is, of course, entirely human and reasonable under the circumstances. So are there ‘good’ depictions of rape? Is there a way to show rape that minimises the effect it might have on a traumatised reader/viewer? Is it the writer’s responsibility to tend to the mental wellbeing of a portion of their audience?
I can certainly talk about some really fucking awful, ham fisted and feckless depictions of rape. The otherwise excellent film ‘Straw Dogs,’ in which the heavy implication is that the victim, on some level, begins to enjoy her gang rape is utterly unacceptable in a modern context (which is a good thing, it means attitudes have changed). Series 1 of Game of Thrones sees Daenerys raped by her husband Kahl Drogo for some reason and then go on to have a loving relationship with him… I should point out here that I say ‘for some reason’ because in the books she quite confidently seduces him. DC comic’s ‘Identity Crisis’ tried heroically to deal with the issue in an adult way but fluffed it, mostly as a result of the larger than life characters of the Justice League being entirely ill equipped to deal with it. I would recommend Identity Crisis to anyone who read past the trigger warning at the beginning of this article, it’s a fascinating study of a writer showing precisely how to pave the road to hell with good intentions. Much like, I fear, this article might be. A final example of ham fisted rape imagery; the ‘tree rape’ scene from The Evil Dead. At the time it was considered extreme, though it has lost its impact with time and ageing special effects.
Once a writer has determined a character will be raped there are a fresh raft of difficulties. Do they dwell on it? Does it change them forever? Are they just fine? Are they angry? Depressed? Embarrassed? Misguidedly guilty? These are all possible reactions from people in real life (yes, there are plenty of people, some of whom are friends of mine, who have been raped and were just fine, though angry).
The truth is that there is no way to guess how someone will react to being raped. Some people break down, scarred and terrified by the ordeal they’ve been through, others hide, become depressed, drink, or use any number of an infinite variety of coping mechanisms. So what should a fictional character do when they suffer through rape?
It seems at the moment that we’re trying to have it both ways. There is an idea growing in society that rape is an unacceptable thing to depict in any way and this worries me. If we, westerners most often against censorship, find war crimes and infanticide acceptable things to depict in fiction can we really put limits on an artist’s decision to depict rape? I, of course, am against rape (as if that needed to be said) and I find some depictions of rape troubling but it has its place in fiction, like any other atrocity. I’m about to write a sequence in which someone is raped, it’s going to be hard for me to write and I’m going to find the experience uncomfortable but there’s no way out of it now and it serves a vital role in the story I’m trying to tell. How should the character come out the other side? I already know how I’m going to write it, my character will be traumatised, angry and have a touch of PTSD as a result, but should they? Should they retreat from the world? Fill up with hate? Should they remain unchanged and unruffled?
Context is king, as always, but if anyone is writing a story that needs a rape in order for it to be told and they decide not to write it for fear of the backlash then the world is a place with less art, and that can only be a bad thing. Just go carefully, I suppose, and know and understand the issue before you engage with it.
And in case it needed to be said: I do not intend to insult or upset anyone with this post. This was a discussion about rape as it pertains to fiction, in real life it is and always will be inexcusable and unacceptable without exception.
Let me tell you about the largest, most powerful, richest and arguably most villainous criminal organisation in the world. It was born in the opium trade between Britain and China, it has links to some of the most disgustingly and arbitrarily violent people anywhere, it intimidates national leaders without lifting a finger, it is extraordinarily avaricious and it can act blatantly and openly without interference from government because the power it holds is so vast and preposterous. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation might just be the most vile systemically corrupt and disgusting barrel of bastards in the world and most of their history is kept as quiet as possible.
You know the most jarring thing? I actually have to be quite careful about what I write here because it is genuinely possible that I’ll find myself on the wrong end of a speculative lawsuit launched at me by honourless lawyers. The only reason I’m going to write this anyway is because they’re in the news here in the UK at the moment and they really are (and always have been) unspeakably disgusting. They are not merely ‘incompetent’ as some MP’s are beginning to suggest as they begin yet another round of fruitless name calling after yet another thieving scandal, they are thieves and cons on a colossal scale.
So how evil is HSBC? Well when the Emperor of China outlawed the opium trade the British Empire responded to this loss of income by declaring war and bombarding his palace (and, of course killing a huge amount of innocent peasants in the process). The Emperor sued for peace and allowed Britain to resume the trading of opium and take control of Hong Kong. It was a terrible settlement for China and a fantastic one for Britain, so good that the shipping companies needed a new bank to deal with the enormous amount of money rolling in. That bank was, of course, HSBC.
At this point it’s worth jumping ahead to the twenty first century for a number of reasons. Firstly banking was even more horribly secretive than it is now for most of the intervening time and secondly if I went through every scandal this article would take forever. I won’t go in to detail about the way they have kept billions of dollars of Colonel Gaddafi’s money from the country that morally owns it. I won’t go in to detail about their horribly cozy relationship with Malaysian timber conglomerates who stand accused of some of the most rapacious deforestation practices I’ve ever heard of. I won’t go in to detail about their close relationship with the Saudi Al Rajhi bank, which has well documented links to Islamic extremist terrorist organisations. Instead I shall go in to detail about HSBC laundering the money of their good, close friends in the Sinaloa Cartel.
In 2012 HSBC was told to pay a fine of $1.9 billion. It was found that HSBC had spent years ignoring the very obvious signs of money laundering and heavily implied that they might have been actively helping the Sinaloa cartel of Mexico (which is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and is purported to have in place a daily murder quota, seriously). So much money was flooding in from their friends that they seriously considered enlarging the teller windows to fit larger boxes of cash. They allowed cartel members to open bank accounts without submitting even basic information about their existence or providing any form of ID. 15 percent of their Mexican customers didn’t even have a file on record anywhere in the bank, just a numbered account.
This behaviour spread, of course, a number of Russian customers who claimed to be used car salesmen were depositing over $500,000 per day in to HSBC accounts. HSBC almost certainly began to help Sudan, Burma and North Korea evade sanctions.
Now on the face of it you could say that the latest scandal pales in comparison, it is just tax evasion after all, but it’s symptomatic of a wider problem; they are above the law. It’s often said that they act like they’re above the law or that they think they’re above the law but that’s only because they are above the law. $1.9 billion sounds like a huge number to us lowly plebs but it’s barely five weeks of profit for these bastards and nobody went to prison. Nobody ever goes to prison.
And they are bastards. Stuart Gulliver, the current thief in chief of HSBC, is being paid through a Panamanian company with a private account in Switzerland and he says that’s all standard practice and perfectly innocent and he expects you to believe him and he gets angry when you don’t. He thinks it’s not your place to question the likes of him. Who’s to say he’s wrong? He is above the law, his colleagues are above the law and our politicians are too spineless to nationalise the whole fetid enterprise. This is what’s wrong with so much money being so concentrated: feudal privilege makes a comeback and the misshapen, decaying shell of representative democracy is further battered in to meaninglessness on the anvil of capitalism.