Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

As the wisdom of the ancients tells us, a journey of 3500-ish miles begins with a short trip on the U1 BrookesBus. Having bidden a fond farewell to my landlord and landlady (‘I’m just popping out to Kyrgyzstan – back in a couple of months’), and spent the best part of an hour contemplating the importance of a close reading of the bus timetable, especially on a Bank Holiday weekend, I find myself on an almost-deserted Heathrow Express coach, contemplating an overcast evening and a trip which I would never have anticipated two months earlier. Was this how Sean Connery felt as he slipped the dinner jacket back on in 1982? It occurs to me that, actually,  I never said ‘never again’, but it certainly felt that way for a long time. And yet here I am, once more Bishkek bound.


Quite soon I am reminded that while I love to travel, the actual travelling is often not what it’s cracked up to be. The only really pleasant experience of air travel I’ve ever had was when I got bumped up to First Class flying home from Sri Lanka  in 2010, and you can’t rely on an exploding volcano every time you go anywhere. Quite apart from the grim food and the lack of sleep and legroom and all the hanging about in departure lounges, I always find airports to be rather dispiriting places.

In theory it should not be this way. Airports should be the closest thing to a crowd scene from a Star Wars or Star Trek movie that you’re ever likely to encounter in real life, as individuals from all ethnicities and cultures mingle indifferently with one another. And there is indeed an element of this. But it inevitably gets eclipsed by the Gucciness of everything: any sense that you are entering a global realm of infinite possibilities is branded into oblivion long before you get on the flight.


The evening wears on and shortly before 11 we pile aboard the good ship (well, Airbus) Boris Pasternak, a proud aircraft operated by (according to our captain) ‘the legendary Aeroflot’.

Well, maybe, for a given value of ‘legendary’. When I was a young man and had no ambitions to even learn where Kyrgyzstan was, let alone go there and play a role in shaping the future of this proud nation (hey, it could happen), I was still aware of the eye-opening reputation that Aeroflot had acquired in the early years of the post-Soviet era. Many jolly tales of people with crossbows in their carry-on luggage and flights being diverted after the discovery that the plane’s hydraulic fluid had been topped up with lemonade were in circulation, all good fun until you actually have to trust them to get you somewhere in one piece.

To be fair, Aeroflot seem to have got their act together in the nine years since I last travelled with them, and the experience is generally speaking much less character-building this time round. The flight is less than half full, giving everyone plenty of space to stretch out and relax during the short flight to Moscow; I am even able to ignore the person in front of me watching A Quiet Place on their seat-back screen and get it well out of my eye-line.

It’s still hard to ignore the fact that the airline feels a lot more slick and corporate than it did even ten years ago. Adverts for the ‘Aeroflot Bonus Scheme’ regularly flash up on the seat-backs while we are waiting to fly, and just below in the pocket is a hefty catalogue proudly entitled ‘Sky Shop’. They have learned to play this game rather well. Even the polystyrene cups that the water and fruit juice come in features the Aeroflot logo in conjunction with that of the Coca-Cola company. Globalisation at its most thrusting.


On the other hand, it is still broadly speaking true that Aeroflot’s female cabin crew fall into two camps: those who look like they just failed to make the cut at supermodel school, and those who resemble niche-market dominatrices coming up to retirement age. The airline appears to have changed its uniforms since the last time I was in these parts, investing in lurid red-orange outfits for the flight attendants. All this, added to the fact the company logo still incorporates a discreet hammer-and-sickle motif, makes it hard to shake the impression that I am somehow appearing in a dodgy Brezhnev-era Gerry Anderson knock-off.

Partway through the flight they come round with the food and the attendant looks earnestly at me as he asks what I would like to eat: ‘chicken or lamp?’ I play it safe and go for the chicken; I’m 90% sure I know what he means, but this is still Aeroflot, after all.


It was Douglas Adams who wisely observed that no language on Earth contains the saying ‘it was as beautiful as an airport’. Ten years ago, Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow was particularly offensive to the eye, resembling a recession-struck shopping centre in the grim north of England, but these days it is borderline appealing. In addition to various places selling ethnic food from the former SSRs, ten metres from my departure gate there is even a branch of Burger King (or ВУРГЕР КИНГ, as the logo reads in Cyrillic). It seems this is to be the theme of my journey: the deafening sound of big brand music.

And it makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose. Airports and the like are the only truly international spaces, after all, so of course visiting them will reveal what it really is that holds international society together. And at the moment it seems to be fast food, big-name soft drinks, and fashion labels. The young Russian tourists waiting for their flights are often indistinguishable from their American counterparts, all of them in baseball caps and ripped jeans and other bits of designer clothing. They queue for the toilets (which seem to have temporarily packed up) with the greatest of equanimity, apparently united by their membership of this particular global fraternity.


And so to leg two of the trip, aboard the Adolph Joffe (no, me neither). Possibly because Mr Joffe is less famous, his plane is much smaller, and packed out with people heading to Bishkek. I am, to be honest, flagging by this point: my head thinks it’s 6am and I have only managed a few short naps in the preceding 24 hours. It’s not the fault of anyone, but this particular journey is air travel at its worst, for me – I can’t stretch my legs, which starts my knees aching, and every time I nod off I am snapped back awake by the lack of any real neck support. A long haul flight like this would be up there with waterboarding on my list of things to avoid.

Thankfully, however, this flight only lasts three or four hours and we arrive at sunny Manas Airport (27 degrees) in the middle of the afternoon (spending this last summer in the UK has at least prepared me for this kind of unreasonably warm weather).

I am collected from the airport and very soon we are heading into Bishkek itself, across the plains north of the city. Road signs with messages like ‘TASHKENT 536 miles’ flash by – only in Central Asia. And I have a very Bishkeky experience for the first time in years – looking out of the car window, I find my attention drawn to some unusual and distinctive clouds, only to realise a moment later they are actually the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains, looming over the city from the south, most of their bulk rendered almost invisible by the distance. I begin to remember just why I have come back here.

And, to be honest, even though there are countless adverts for Coca-Cola and KFC lining the road into Bishkek, I realise I don’t really have any justification for taking the moral high ground. It may indeed be that the consumerist element of globalisation consists of big brand names persuading people that they are, somehow, objectively better and more desirable than local alternatives, but then I am arguably in the same game myself, a footsoldier (or maybe now an NCO) in the battle to homogenise the world.

Do I really think this? Only really in my more self-doubting moments. I think that communication can help the world in a way which is largely denied to KFC, Burger King, and even Coca-Cola, and that is what I am here for. I find the prospect just as enticing as that of a chicken burger. The great brute of a city swallows me up: here we go again.

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Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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Dear Dave,

I wonder just how you feel, deep down inside, about the way the last couple of days have gone. Normally I would be one of the last people to express concern for your well-being or mental state, but now… Well, look, I know everyone who goes into public life and politics probably has at least one eye on posterity and how they will be remembered by future generations, so I expect this has occurred to you already, but I just feel the need to remind you that (as things currently stand) you stand a very good chance of going down in history as the man who destroyed the United Kingdom and dissolved the post-war settlement both here and on the continent. How do you feel about that, Dave?


The ironic thing, of course, is that this is the exact opposite to what you actually wanted. The opposite of your stated intentions, at least, and I must confess I do doubt your ability to consistently lie so convincingly. You promised people a vote on Europe in the hopes of preserving unity, and as a result the UK and its people have ended up tearing themselves apart. Nice work, fella.

Is it worth repeating the narrative that this is all on some level the result of Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism? Both the promise of the vote and the fact you found yourself in the awkward position of having to keep that promise are on some level consequences of the Lib Dem’s deeply unwise participation in the coalition government, which would have been unimaginable under the leadership of someone more in touch with the traditional ties between the different progressive parties, like Kennedy. You might want to run one more public health campaign on how alcoholism wrecks lives before handing over to Boris, Dave. Just a thought.

It’s all a bit academic now, though, of course. For whatever reason, there you were, trapped in a coalition with the Lib Dems which it seemed like only you and Nick Clegg really wanted – watching the pair of you often put me in mind of two men in free fall, fighting over a parachute – blasted by the left for the simple cruelty and cynicism of your economic policies, blasted by the right for the progressiveness of some of your social policies, Mr Toad snapping at your heels and threatening to steal all your supporters and MPs for his UKIP bandwagon, the old Tory faultline juddering and shuddering – Europe, Europe, Europe.

Things looked bleak. The Tories seemed likely to tear themselves apart. You couldn’t go down in history as the man who split the Tory party, could you? So promise them a referendum. That’d shut them up, for the time being at least. But promise it for after the next general election, the one which you knew you had no real chance of winning outright. You’re a politician, no-one seriously expects you to deliver on your promises. It was a sticking plaster on a deep wound, but it would do the trick.

But then, of course, the Tory press ground into action, those great engines of loathing and fear which hate you and think they own you. You had reckoned without them, and without the fact that the Lib Dems would be quite so devastated in the election, and the fact that the SNP would be quite so buoyed by your perceived lies in the last independence referendum campaign that Labour would lose its Scottish heartlands. And you found you had won that unwinnable election after all, and were obliged to give the people at your back their prize.

Still, I expect I know what you were thinking – this will be close, but every sane person will stand up for Remain. When the paucity of the case for leaving becomes apparent, people will understand there is only one sensible option for a forward-looking UK.

Of course, you had forgotten that for many people who are mildly unhappy with their lives, any election is an opportunity to reflexively kick against the status quo – one could argue that the whole UK electoral system is founded on the principle that a minority of people are going to switch parties every few elections, regardless of policy or ideology. And perhaps you had underestimated the extent to which we now live in a post-factual world, where reason takes a back seat to simple instinctive emotionalism – ‘we have had enough of experts,’ said your former education secretary and (former?) friend, whether consciously or not giving voice to the anti-vax, anti-evolution, anti-climate change mindset. But could you really have forgotten that the Tory press was also out there?

You know the Tory press well enough. It exists not to tell people the news but to educate them on how it believes they should think. It serves not the interests of the people who fund it by buying newspapers and satellite TV but those of the cabal of rich men who own it. Pulling the UK out of the EU is very good news for them, for they despise all those protections and rights the EU has given to workers and unimportant poor people. Destabilising the European project suits them very nicely. That they could take your head as well, post-Leveson, would be an added bonus.

But they couldn’t campaign for departure on an ‘it will make rich people richer’ basis, which is why we had week upon week of dog-whistle scare stories about immigrants coming, and EU waste, and undeported criminals, and immigrants coming, and Eurocrat arrogance, and immigrants coming. Much of it not true, or totally irrelevant to the vote, but enough to scare people and create the right climate of uncertain hostility. The people responsible don’t care about these things, know that they are trading in lies, but they did enough to get what they wanted: the UK heading for departure. Europe itself gripped by uncertainty. You, off into well-paid millionaire obscurity.

So what does the future hold? (Not for you personally, of course – you’ll be all right, that was never in doubt, though I wouldn’t hold my breath for many sympathetic biographies.) Division in Labour, with Corbyn under attack for his role in the recent disaster. Division in Europe, with other sceptic groups demanding their own referenda. Division in England, with the capital and the provinces, the educated and the ill-informed, the young and the old, seemingly irreparably split. The prospect of division in the UK itself, with a further Scottish independence referendum on the cards – perhaps the ghost of a chance of one in Northern Ireland, too.

(Of course, one consequence of Scottish independence – and I note that this is something your lot are very careful not to mention in public – is that it would practically guarantee Tory hegemony over the rest of the UK, at least in the short to medium term. As we saw in last year’s great disaster, without a strong showing north of the border, Labour will never be able to challenge for a Commons majority, so in some ways the end of the UK as we know it would be very good news for your party, even though the grim right-wing wasteland it would propel the rest of us English people into scarcely bears thinking about.)

But, you know what, there is one place where people seem to be… well, not quite coming together, but at least not trying to tear each other apart with quite the usual gusto. The Tory party’s lethal instinct for power and survival seems to be as strong as ever. Perhaps you have managed to lance the European boil for them, Dave, although not many people are happy about your method of doing so. Perhaps the Tories will become united in a way they haven’t really been since the days of the old hag queen. If so, your plan succeeded. You have managed to unify your party after all. Never mind that there has been a degree of collateral damage on a potentially historic, potentially global scale, maybe you will in fact be remembered as the leader who made the Tory party whole again.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

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Which weighs more, a ton of oranges or a ton of feathers? It’s a trick question, of course: they are, in one respect at least, equal. But not identical: I know which one I’d prefer to nibble on – and which one I’d choose to nap upon, for that matter. I think this distinction between the ideas of identity and equality is an important one, too often overlooked.

This has been brought to mind by, of all things, the fall-out from the Sony hacking scandal, one of the consequences of which has been Sony relinquishing its death grip on the Spider-Man movie rights license and agreeing upon a sort of time-share agreement with the people at Marvel Studios itself. And one of the consequences of this looks like being the sacking of Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man’s on-screen embodiment, with open season being declared on recasting the character.

The internet has reacted to all of this with its usual restraint and objectivity. (Apologies, by the way, to any of the friends who’ve already seen me articulating some of the impending opinions in a different venue, and indeed to anyone who feels I misrepresent views which I disagree with.) One of the issues is – I am tempted to say ‘inevitably’ – that of diversity, and the possibility of casting a non-Caucasian performer as Spider-Man’s alter ego.


There is a wrinkle here. The casual movie-goer may be very aware of Spider-Man’s best known secret identity, Peter Parker, who has been a fairly middle-class straight white dude since 1962 – said movie-goer may indeed be sick to death of him, given there have been five Spider-Man movies since 2002. Rather less familiar, however, may be Miles Morales, a parallel-universe version of Spider-Man who’s been around since 2011. The key difference is that Morales is, ethnically speaking, black-Hispanic.

So it’s not just a question of whether the new Spidey should be white or not, but whether they go with the Parker or Morales character. There are, I would say, sound reasons for going with both versions: Peter Parker is almost as famous a character as Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, with the kind of audience investment that goes with this. On the other hand, using Miles Morales could spare us yet another instance of Uncle Ben taking a bullet, in addition to inevitably garnering some publicity for the change of character, and, yes, increasing diversity in the on-screen superhero community.

(I should say I am generally pro-diversity, but not militantly or dogmatically so, quite simply because I am dubious about using mainstream entertainment as an instrument of top-down cultural engineering.)

Having found the Webb-Garfield Spidey films rather dull, certainly compared to the Raimi-Maguire ones from ten years ago, I’d personally be more interested in seeing a Miles Morales Spider-Man film than yet another incarnation of Peter Parker. But I wouldn’t be surprised if famously-cautious movie moguls opted to go with Parker again.

What does bemuse me a bit are suggestions that they go with Peter Parker again but change his ethnicity. This might make a bit more sense if Miles Morales didn’t exist as a popular alternative version of the character, but given a diversity-friendly alternate exists, why make fundamental changes to a 50-year-old and much-loved character? I can’t figure it out.

It’s not as if the movie is going to be called Peter Parker, after all: the name with marquee value is Spider-Man. There’s no reason why people wouldn’t go to see a Miles Morales movie that wouldn’t equally apply to one with an ethnically-transformed Peter Parker. If people aren’t going to go and watch a movie with a black superhero, it doesn’t make any difference what his civilian name is, and if they’re only going to see a movie featuring the Spider-Man they grew up reading, then they’re not going to go and see one with a black Peter Parker because the comics character has a five decade history of being white.

‘Peter Parker is not fundamentally white’ runs the counter-argument here, but I am not even completely sure what this is supposed to mean. It reminded me of a similar discussion – possibly I am gilding the lily here, because at the time it felt like an argument – about whether a particular character had any ‘essentially male traits’. The suggestion in both cases seems to be that being white, or being male, is not a trait – is meaningless in and of itself, and contributes nothing to a person’s essential identity.

If you discard things like gender, race, orientation, and so on, I wonder what is left as a basis of personal identity: memories and experiences, I suppose, but aren’t those fundamentally informed by all the elements I just mentioned? These things are not just cosmetic labels you can pull off and move around without it impacting every aspect of an individual – I said as much when articulating my misgivings about DC’s decision to make a character with seven decades of history as a straight guy suddenly gay. Changing any of these things basically means you’re creating a new version of the character, if you ask me, and to claim otherwise is a bit silly.

Championing the idea of a non-white Peter Parker seems to me to be an attempt at having your cake and eating it: you want to hang on to the name recognition and audience investment that a character has accumulated over decades of publishing history, while simultaneously making fundamental changes to that character in the name of diversity. It completely disregards the fact that characters as popular as Peter Parker have lasted so long precisely because people have invested so much in them: dedicated fans of Spider-Man, which I will freely confess to not being among, really care about Peter Parker, and think of him almost as a real person, complaining when he’s presented inconsistently, and so on. The one thing guaranteed to annoy this kind of fanbase is to make arbitrary, glaring changes.

It almost feels as though there is some kind of secondary agenda at work, one which is trying to suggest that notions of race, gender, and orientation are not just equal but actually meaningless, in the sense of expressing any real difference. I don’t see any problem with accepting that people of different ethnicities or genders or orientations are fundamentally of equal value as human beings. I believe that myself; you would be some kind of medievalist not to, I think. But that doesn’t mean there are not deep and fundamental differences between men and women, or between the cultural histories of different ethnic groups. Equivalency does not equate to identity.

I can’t help but see a parallel with another issue which has caused me some vexation and indeed heartache recently. Not long ago the BBC broadcast a series called Atlantis, about the adventures of a straight white guy. This was the replacement for a series called Merlin, about the adventures of a straight white guy. This in turn followed Robin Hood, about the adventures of a straight white guy. Now, there are arguably sound reasons for making Robin Hood a straight white guy, and also to some extent Merlin the wizard. But the main character in Atlantis was an original creation, and the BBC had a blank slate to do whatever they liked. Did they get any stick at all for not being even a tiny bit more adventurous? Not that I ever noticed.

Yet the voices clamouring for a more diverse recasting in Doctor Who are sort of relentless, once again despite the long history of the character operating in certain terms and the accumulated weight of fifty years of unequivocal masculinity. The demand is once again for absolute continuity and fundamental change at one and the same moment.

Just as the militant pro-diversity movement seems much more interested in interfering with the Doctor’s identity than in persuading the BBC to lead a less high-profile fantasy show with a non-white or non-male character, so there seems to be rather less interest in using the already-existing, diversity-friendly Miles Morales character than in bringing about arbitrary change in the much better-known Peter Parker. And I can’t help but wonder why. You want a non-white Spider-Man? Use the non-white Spider-Man who’s been appearing in books for years. Insisting on turning an established white character black when a viable alternative exists only suggests that this isn’t simply just about diversity.


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Strange Fruit

A restaurant, early November 2014:

‘Ah, m’sieur, I see you have finished. Was everything to your satisfaction?’

‘Um, well, no, not really…’

‘I am most sorry to hear that. What was the problem?’

‘Well, you know me, you know how much I love the Special Famous Pie. I’ve been eating it for decades, after all…’


‘Well – I couldn’t help noticing – you’ve changed some of the apple in the Special Famous Pie to blackberries.’

‘Well, as I am sure m’sieur knows, the recipe for Special Famous Pie is constantly evolving…’

‘Oh, sure, I know. Watching it evolve and become more sophisticated down the years is part of the pleasure, and I know that the way you change the kind of apple you use for the main filling is an essential part of what makes it Special Famous Pie.’

‘And so what is the problem…?’

‘Well, Special Famous Pie is apple pie. If you start putting different fillings in it’s not really the same pie, is it?’

‘Well, sir, I have to say that the new pie is very popular with many people. You may have seen a number of recent blog posts with names like Why Special Famous Pie Could and Should Be Made With Blackberries. I should say that we are probably going to change all the apple to blackberries in the not too distant future. ‘

‘You are? Why in God’s name would you do that?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I’d no idea you were that type of person.’

‘What type of person?’

‘The type who is prejudiced against blackberries.’

‘I’m not prejudiced against blackberries, I just don’t want them in an apple pie. I want apple in my apple pie.’

‘Yes, m’sieur, but it’s not called apple pie. It’s called Special Famous Pie. It doesn’t have to have apples in it, don’t you see?’

‘You’ve been making Special Famous Pie for over fifty years, and it’s always, always had apples in it. You can’t suddenly change the heart of the recipe and claim it’s the same thing.’

‘Well, m’sieur, you must recall that Special Famous Pie was invented many years ago, when we lived in an apple-dominated culture, and blackberries have for a long time been under-represented in restaurants…’

‘So make more blackberry desserts. It doesn’t mean you have to put blackberries in the apple pie. It is possible to have both, you know.’

‘Ah yes, but making our Special Famous apple pie using blackberries will be an important statement of principle.’

‘Which principle would that be?’

‘That apples and blackberries are equally good.’

‘No, the statement you’re making is that apples and blackberries are identical, which they are plainly not to anyone with taste buds and a brain. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are fundamentally different things.’

‘M’sieur, it’s very important to have more blackberries in restaurants.’

‘And I’m not arguing with you, but as well as Special Famous Pie you make a lot of other bland and rather dreary apple dishes – you invent a new one every couple of years. Why not stop making those and try making a new blackberry dish instead?’

‘Well, those dishes are not as popular or important as the Special Famous Pie. Also, making an apple dish with blackberries sends an important message that the two of them are of equal importance.’

‘I think it’s sending the message that you’re wilfully trying to ignore the fact that apples and blackberries are two different things. Also that there’s something wrong with apple pie that can only be fixed by making it with blackberries. Which isn’t really much of a fix at all as you’re no longer making apple pie in any meaningful sense.’

‘M’sieur, we are not changing anything. It will have the same name, it will be cooked in the same oven, most of the same ingredients will be same, it will still be a delicious fruit-based dessert -‘

‘Yes, but it was conceived as an apple pie, it became popular as an apple pie, it has five decades of accreted history and traditions as an apple pie, and making it without apple basically means you are making a different pie!!!’

‘The new style Special Famous Pie is going to be a delicious pie, sir.’

‘Yes, I’m sure it will be very popular with people who have it as an article of faith that there is no actual difference between different kinds of fruit. And I suppose there’s even a chance that it will be a good pie. But it won’t actually be Special Famous Pie, because that’s made with apple. That’s an essential part of the character.’

‘The character, sir?’

‘The character of the pie, I mean. What you’re talking about is a new pie with a completely different character. I can’t believe you’re doing this. You wouldn’t do this to any other dish.’

‘Well, that’s what makes Special Famous Pie so special, sir, that we can do this to it. No other pie has both a tradition of regularly changing its recipe and is so non-specific about its ingredients.’

‘You mean that because it isn’t specifically called Special Famous Apple Pie, the apple which is the main ingredient is somehow dispensable? That’s nonsense. You have no idea about what makes Special Famous Pie work.’

‘Well, perhaps, but we are in charge of it and we can do what we like. In the end it is only a pie, after all.’

‘Maybe so, but it’s still a pie I love and it makes me very angry to see it mucked about with this way. If there is no place for traditional Special Famous Pie with apples in it I’d rather you just stopped making it entirely than carried on with this slightly absurd travesty of a pie.’

‘Well, m’sieur, look at it this way: if the new style pie fails we can always go back to making the old pie. I expect we will alternate between apple and blackberry fillings anyway, in future.’

‘But – but – you’re still making two different kinds of pie and pretending they’re the same one. You’re still ignoring how the world actually works. Apples and blackberries are two different things.’

‘I’m sorry, sir, I will have to ask you to keep that kind of opinion to yourself in a public restaurant from now on.’

‘From now on? You actually think I’m going to carry on eating here?’

‘Well, m’sieur, you said yourself you have been eating and enjoying Special Famous Pie for decades, so of course you will carry on eating it, no matter what we do to it…’

‘No! No! Have you been listening to me? It’s not the same pie any more, no matter what anyone says. I’m damned if I’m going to eat blackberry pie and pretend it’s sort-of-like-apple just because you tell me there’s no difference. If I can’t get proper Special Famous Pie, I’ll take my custom elsewhere, thank you very much.’

‘Ah well. We will see you again, when we change back to apple for a bit.’

‘I think you presume too much of my loyalty. This whole situation makes me very, very angry. Can I speak to the head chef, please?’

‘Alas, m’sieur, Mr Moffat is out to lunch.’

‘No kidding.’

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I am lucky enough to have a job where the world walks in my door every morning: well, perhaps not the entire world, but a reasonable chunk of it; certainly enough for me to get a perspective on world events perhaps denied to people whose sole access to them comes from the news media.

Naturally, of course, there are limits to this – while I spend a lot of time with Kuwaitis, Saudis, Spaniards, South Koreans, Japanese, French, Colombians and Germans (to give only a representative sample), they tend to be affluent people from developed countries. When it comes to less lucky people from less lucky countries, I am as oblivious as the everage person.

Of course, luck can change. Nearly three years ago I had as a student a former Syrian kickboxing champion turned film producer, in the UK with his wife (a famous actress and star of numerous TV soap operas popular across the Gulf region). At that time the troubles in Syria had been underway for some time – the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya had occurred perhaps six months earlier – and my student expressed some concern over the situation but not, as I recall, any real foreboding.

And yet here we are in 2014, with the Syrian conflict well-established as one of those ongoing wars that’s become part of the background noise of daily life here in the UK and elsewhere (news that a celebrity TV presenter was moving to a new network got more attention than anything happening in Syria this week). My former student and his wife have, I understand, long since abandoned the country for either Turkey or one of the Gulf States. I know much less about what is happening in Syria than I feel I probably should.

So this week I picked up a personal account of the situation in Syria, written by Aboud Dandachi, a software engineer and activist formerly from Homs, but currently another emigre living in Turkey. And yet even here I must confess that the decision to buy Aboud’s book was not entirely motivated by the desire to educate myself about the Syrian conflict: Aboud’s book is titled The Doctor, the Eye Doctor, and Me, and he describes it as ‘analogies and parallels between the world of Doctor Who and the Syrian conflict.’


Well, the Doctor Who book marketplace is a crowded old piece of real estate, and it’s been difficult to find a new angle for some time now… I digress, I am flippant: Aboud has not written this book to get rich, obviously, but to communicate his opinions on number of things he feels very strongly about. It just so happens that the two principal things involved are, from the perspective of most people, totally and utterly disparate.

At first it looks like Aboud is writing one of those my-life-with-Doctor Who kind of books, in a broadly similar vein to (for example) Neil Perryman’s Adventures with the Wife in Space – the history and development of the series used as a framework to hang a few autobiographical anecdotes on, with the unique wrinkle that Aboud only really came to the series in 2011, and his autobiography involves living in a war zone.

The narrative of Aboud’s own experiences certainly takes precedence over any attempt to be comprehensive, when it comes to Doctor Who at least: Aboud came to the series with The Impossible Astronaut, but not every episode following that is covered, while he’s equally happy popping back in time to comment on The Eleventh Hour, or covering ‘extra’ material like Night of the Doctor. The sole criterion as to what he writes about has very little to do with Doctor Who itself and much more to do with his desire to find a useful parallel with events in Syria that will allow him to share his opinions about them.

Even so, the results are often startling, with a high potential-bathos quotient. For example, his piece on The Eleventh Hour makes an extended series of parallels between the challenge facing Matt Smith as a new Doctor in 2010, and that facing Bashar Assad when he came to power in Syria ten years earlier. I take Doctor Who more seriously than is probably healthy, but even my little internal gearbox krrnnked and complained a bit when confronted with juxtapositions like the following one (this is exactly how the text is presented in Aboud’s book, by the way, nothing has been skipped or elided):

‘Sixty five minutes. That’s all the time Matt Smith had to convince a new generation of Doctor Who fans to accept him as the Doctor. The burden and challenges facing him as he went into his first episodes could not be exaggerated.

When the parents of the Dar’a children held Syria’s first anti-government protests in living memory, they were shot at and themselves arrested by Assad’s security forces. And yet [Assad]’s apologists kept insisting he was a reformer at heart.’

Okay, out of context that probably comes across as an even stranger non sequitur than it does in the book, but even reading the whole book it does sometimes feel like you’re reading some sort of exercise in dissonant cut-up situationism.

I am rather more familiar with writings about Doctor Who than with those concerned with the Syrian revolution, so I can at least feel confident when talking about Aboud’s writing on this topic. He’s a competent fan writer, who communicates his passion for the series well, although again there is a slight tension between his gushing praise for virtually every aspect of the Smith era – The Impossible Astronaut was ‘the best acted, scripted, and directed forty three minutes of television I ever remember seeing’ (Aboud, let me introduce you to the middle two episodes of Pyramids of Mars), while regarding Oswin’s introduction in Nonsense of the Daleks, ‘not since The Impossible Astronaut… had I seen a character portrayed so brilliantly’ (Aboud, let me introduce you to the ladies of io9.com, who may well wish to have an interesting discussion with you about how Steven Moffat depicts women) – and the fact he seems to think some of his audience may not be hard-core Who fans (he bothers to explain who Tom Baker is, for example). Even so, you are reminded of the non-professional nature of this book when confronted with repeated references to ‘Russell Davis’ and ‘Stephen Moffat’, and a list of past Doctors that begins ‘William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Pertwee, Tom Baker, Davis, Colin Baker…’

Aboud is equally passionate when it comes to writing about the Syrian conflict, although I feel much less qualified to judge how objectively accurate anything he says is. His abhorrence for the Assad regime comes across just as loudly and clear as his love of the Moffat regime. This is a very personal perspective, at times limitingly so – he provides a lot of background on the crisis, with the history of the regime, and so on, but even so I lack any real context into which to put this. But this says more about my ignorance of the region than any deficiency in Aboud’s writing. Much of what he says is powerful and resonates well with the parallels he draws with the series – his comparison of the latter days of the Time War with the later stages of the conflict, where the Assad regime was set against an Al-Qaida affiliate named ISIS, is particularly persuasive. But elsewhere you get the impression he’s reaching just a bit, possibly because he knows that people who’d steer clear of a worthy, heavy series of polemics about Assad and Syria might well be drawn in by some fairly superficial Doctor Who content.

Well, it’s not all superficial – it seems like being a Doctor Who fan is one of those universal experiences, and I could certainly relate to Aboud’s experiences of fending off disgruntled family members complaining he’s obsessed with a silly TV show. It’s this sort of material that makes some parts of the book very endearing and kept me reading. Aboud’s sheer unrestrained passion for the series is quite charming, and for me rather fascinating. He came on board with The Impossible Astronaut and clearly absolutely loves the current show – for me, as long-term readers may have gathered, this same story marked the point at which I began to be consistently unimpressed with Moffat’s curatorship of the programme. Would Aboud and I actually get on if we met? I don’t know (as I write, he hasn’t responded to my Facebook friend request), but I like to think we would find some common ground, even so.

Even so, this book is just as odd as it sounds. It’s more a collection of personal opinions than a serious attempt to be objective about either Doctor Who or the Syrian civil war, and as such I suspect the value to Aboud of being able to express his views this way will be at least as great as the value to anyone else of actually reading them. But on another level it speaks powerfully of the real value of passion, and the importance of even fantasy fiction in helping people cope with life and attempt to communicate about it. This isn’t a great book in literary terms, but it’s interesting and informative, and it deserves respect.

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It seems to me that now, before we get too bogged down in 2014, would be a good time to carry out the threatened review of my list of resolutions from this time last year. Anyone expecting a similar list this time round is probably going to be in for a disappointment, by the way. Why should this be? Well…


Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, 2013 proved to be a bit of a big year for me in some respects, and I’ve no expectation that this year can match it, certainly not in terms of major events. Anyone anticipating a brave declaration that this year I’m going to buy my own place, start my own business, learn to drive, or become emotionally intimate with someone new is going to be disappointed. Sorry.

I think consolidation is the word I’m looking for; consolidation and balance (in terms of the different elements of my life). The only thing that did occur to me happened back in April, or whenever it was that Margaret Thatcher finally departed this world. It seemed to me that it’s all very well to make big noises about the state of society and poisonous political legacies, but unless you actually pull up your boots and wade into actual political activism all you’re doing is just mouthing off and indulging yourself. God knows there are enough things wrong in the world today, and enough ways of getting involved should you so wish. But can I actually see myself making that kind of serious, probably thankless commitment? In all honesty, no.

Anyway, moving on to last year’s resolutions and how they worked out:

1. Move Career On. This actually happened, which was probably inevitable, but what’s slightly surprising is that it’s happened in a very positive way. At one point this year I was seriously considering going off to Chile or Argentina and the life of a peripatetic TEFL grunt, but I found I could generate very little enthusiasm for this. That I eventually wound up – more by luck than anything else – working at the very place I would have chosen to, given the option, is obviously a real bonus.

The downside is that, one way or another, I am going to have knock my association with summer schools on the head. This is a cause of some sadness, as I always enjoyed the challenge of the work and it realistically means losing a few good friends who I never see at any other time. But I need to start thinking longer term.

2. Play Some WFB. Er, well. I don’t think half a demo game really qualifies. Partly this is because I went through a real period of engagement with my Blood Angel army near the beginning of the year, and partly because I took six months out of the hobby after having my Eldar army effortlessly tabled by some Space Marines in June. My misgivings with the current 40K metagame are considerable, but on the other hand no-one seems to be playing WFB at the venue I go to. Then again, we are surely due a new edition this year, which may stir things up a bit. Anyway – I would like to play some proper WFB, but a competitive 40K army I am happy with would also be satisfactory.

3. Write More and with More Variety. This didn’t really happen. I blew NaNo again this year, but then again i suppose this is like someone who never goes jogging entering a marathon and complaining they couldn’t finish it.

In the year to come I think I will revise this to ‘Be More Creatively Productive’, whether this means through writing, painting, or practising musically (someone gave me a guitar in November, rather to my surprise).

4. Waste Less Time Playing Computer Games. An indubitably spectacular fail here, given the epic sessions of Civilisation, Total War, and The Sims I have been clocking up of late. But are games as intricate and engrossing as these honestly a waste of time, any more than going to the cinema or reading a book, passive activities I indulge in without feeling the slightest regret? Perhaps the key is to make my sessions a bit less epic – balance, like I say.

5. More Radio and Less TV in the Background: Well, this was never really a big deal, though things have got to the point where I can join in with the voice-over on certain repeats of Top Gear.

6. Sleep More: Marginal. The new job means I don’t have to go to bed quite so ridiculously early, but the effort of will involved in stopping whatever I’m doing and going to bed is sometimes demanding. I am, as ever, reminded of Somerset Maugham’s declaration that he did two things against his will every day: getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

7. Write About Different Old Films: Does gorging on Toho monster movies qualify? I suspect not. I find it hard to feel too guilty about this one, as all the films I write about are ones I enjoy (on some level). I think one can be too aspirational when setting resolutions.

8. Write Proper Doctor Who Reviews: Well, this one definitely happened, and will continue to happen, I think. I predict a touch of seventh Doctor bias in the early part of the year, as McCoy was the guy who I hardly saw anything of this year.

This would be an opportune moment to mention again that 2013 was the year I got my name on the back of a book, Outside In (a collection of Doctor Who reviews, inevitably) – my own contribution being one of least accomplished pieces in it. 2014 promises Outside In 2, featuring a piece written specifically for publication (not to mention, I understand, the second pressing of Who’s 50 with my acknowledgement added). A third similar volume is also on the cards but I am reluctant to say more ahead of the official announcement.

Not too bad a year, then, as I look back on it – certainly not too many regrets. Hopefully 2014 will be more or less the same, but we will inevitably see.

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One of the first things you notice about watching very early Star Trek is that new life and new civilisations are a bit thin on the ground – strange new worlds pop up occasionally, but even they’re mentioned more than seen. I’m no expert on the creative history of Star Trek and so I don’t know if there’s a particular reason for the early episodes to be quite so humanocentric. It may be down to reticence on the part of the producers and a desire to avoid using the bug-eyed alien monsters of kiddie and B-movie SF, or possibly they doubted their capability to produce convincing aliens week in, week out. Less likely, though still possible, this may have been a deliberate creative choice to depict a fictional universe in which intelligent alien civilisations are thin on the ground. Finally, it may be that the intention was to open with a run of episodes focussing on the characters of the main cast and thus bring them to life, before moving on to less introspective fare.

This line of thought started after I watched The Naked Time, The Enemy Within, and Mudd’s Women, the first two of which are certainly character pieces centred on the regular cast. Mudd’s Women is a different kettle of fish, but still has enough in common with the others for them to make a nice triptych of sorts.

The first thing to say is that all three of these episodes are competently made adventure narratives: in each one there’s a serious threat, either to the ship itself or to key crew members, and the resolution of this threat is central to the story. The plot also revolves around a reasonably solid SF idea in all three, too – the central concept of Mudd’s Women is sub-par compared to the others, but we’ll come back to that. You could watch any of these stories as a straightforward piece of entertainment and not feel short-changed.

However, in these episodes you can also see a key Trek trait in virtually its purest form – the ability to take an SF adventure yarn and use it to explore surprisingly deep questions of philosophy, psychology and metaphysics, without compromising the entertainment value of the former or the integrity of the latter. If, as a consequence, you never get an absolute blitz of a thriller, and the series never quite attains the levels of profundity it’s clearly aspiring to – well, it’s a compromise I’m happy to live with.

Of course, you can also characterise Star Trek as a series of stock plots deployed in heavy rotation, and in The Naked Time we are treated to an early instance of Stock Plot #1: strange influence causes the crew to wildly overact. In this case it’s an alien pseudo-virus that causes everyone’s suppressed character traits to rise to the surface, and them to act irrationally. What’s interesting is that a lot of the character development this allows is actually given to very minor members of the cast – George Takei gets to take his shirt off and chase people around with a sword (oh my), but before the closing stages of the episode arrive the main beneficiaries are Nurse Chapel and Kevin Riley. (Bones and Scotty manage to dodge the bug entirely.) Shatner and Nimoy emote at each other earnestly but it’s all just a bit histrionic, and the whole thing is almost fatally undermined from the start – the Enterprise‘s biohazard suits are clearly made of bubble-wrap, and not even fully sealed at that. The demands of the plot prove greater than the writer’s ingenuity on this occasion. Nevertheless, as a vehicle for character development it has a certain potential, and you can see why this particular set-up got revisited many years later in an early episode of Next Generation. ‘The Naked Time: so mediocre they made it twice.’

Rather better in every department is The Enemy Within, in which Stock Plot #2 makes its debut: transporter undergoes bizarre metaphysical breakdown with peculiar consequences for transportee. In this case Captain Kirk finds himself physically divided into two entirely separate men, composed of his positive and negative character traits respectively. This is bad news for everyone else wanting to use the transporter, particularly Mr Sulu and his team who are trapped on a planet where it’s getting very, very cold.

The signs were always there.

The signs were always there.

The obvious response from the seasoned viewer is ‘why don’t they just send a shuttlecraft to collect them?’ – hush. Demands of the plot and all that. Less obviously required is a subplot about negative-Kirk slowly dying as a result of being separated from positive-Kirk (positive-Kirk seems physically unharmed, oddly enough).

This functions quite well as an example of the evil-twin narrative, but what makes it noteworthy is the degree to which it goes beyond this into slightly more sophisticated territory (as one might expect, given it’s from the pen of Richard Matheson, much of whose best work is on some level an exploration of the male psyche). The two Kirks are only described as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in passing, and the story avoids the suggestion that the accident has created a new, evil version of the Captain – rather the existing man has been divided in two. The savage, appetite-driven negative-Kirk is a nasty piece of work, but the rational, sensitive positive-Kirk is increasingly useless as commanding officer of the Enterprise. The message is clear: for a man to be whole, and healthy, he must comprise elements both good and evil. That the two Kirks are initially reluctant to be reconstituted neatly suggests the conflict at the heart of modern masculinity between civilised sensitivity and traditional machismo – can’t live together, can’t survive apart. A good one.

If The Enemy Within is, in part, a meditation on the plight of the modern male, the gender politics of Mudd’s Women are considerably less enlightened and in places rather embarrassing. The Enterprise intercepts and takes on board the dubious figure of Harry Mudd, space trader (played, and not underplayed, by Roger C Carmel), in the process severely damaging its power systems. Fixing the ship should be everyone’s top priority, but they find themselves distracted by the three beautiful women Mudd was transporting, essentially as cargo (one of them is played by Hammer glamour girl Susan Denberg, from Frankenstein Created Woman). Mudd’s line is providing wives for lonely space colonists, and I think you can already see why this episode feels horribly dated.

The plot about Mudd trying to use his girls as leverage with the miners with whom Kirk urgently needs to do a deal for new power crystals is efficiently done, but what sticks in the memory from this episode – other than Carmel chewing the scenery – are the repeated shots of the Enterprise’s red-blooded male crew rubbernecking and standing slack-jawed as the eponymous ladies sashay past in their hugely impractical gowns. The musical score and direction are complicit in this – the soundtrack resembles something from a slightly naughty Vegas cocktail lounge, while at one point we’re treated to a close-up of three tightly-choreographed backsides wiggling past the lens.

Even beyond this, the psychological core of the story turns out to revolve around the women’s own life expectations. Not that they have any ambitions beyond cooking and cleaning for their future husbands, of course, but they want to be appreciated as real people rather than glamorous dolly-birds. The SF angle on all this is that Mudd has been dosing the women with a drug which transforms them from frumpy homebodies to interstellar superbabes, and the closing twist – or, if you prefer, the final nail in the story’s coffin – is that it turns out to be a complete placebo anyway. That’s right ladies – you can be a real person and a glamorous dolly-bird, all you need to do is believe in yourself!

Even Spock describes this as ‘an annoying, emotional episode’ and as usual he is on the money. You can, I suppose, credit the series with at least attempting to deal with questions relating to women’s role in society, but the fact they reduce this to a simple dichotomy between slattern and superbabe is – certainly by modern standards – unforgiveably simplistic. Comparing The Enemy Within with Mudd’s Women is revealing – one is surprisingly thoughtful and sophisticated, the other crass and embarrassing. Cheerleaders for Star Trek make a big deal about the programme depicting a ground-breaking, egalitarian vision of the future, with an underlying philosophy of liberal tolerance that’s welcoming to everyone, but at this point in time it is still a series that very strongly gives the impression of having been made almost exclusively by and for men.

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[Oh, God, what can I say? Look, it was 2013 and the bastard seemed relatively benign at the time. Just goes to show you can never be too careful. – A]

The danger when talking about The Dream of Rome, at the moment anyway, is that you start by reviewing the book and end by reviewing the author, for he is journalist, writer, TV personality, politician and Great Blonde Hope of the Tory Party Boris Johnson. Who knows, readers of the future, by the time you read this Boris Johnson may actually have become Prime Minister of Britain (or possibly just England, depending on how that referendum goes).

Johnson cuts such an instinctively endearing figure – it took a real effort of will not to just refer to him as ‘Boris’ just then – that the ever-present danger is of simply focussing on his image and ignoring the substance of the man. This book, written in 2006 before he became Mayor of London, should make some amends in this department.

The Dream of Rome is an attempt to analyse and explain the grip that the Roman Empire has taken on the political imagination of – it sometimes seems – every other major non-Oriental civilisation of the last two millennia. Boris is trying to discern why Rome was so successful, especially in contrast to the European Union, in many ways its temporal – if not spiritual – heir.

This involves a lot of history, as you might expect, but snappily and engagingly presented, and with some thought-provoking analysis. The book opens with a description of the Varus disaster, which Boris persuasively argues is one of the key events in European – if not world – history, responsible for creating the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and thus the faultline between Latin and non-Latin Europe which remains influential to this day.

Most of the meat of the book is made up of a look at the mechanics of how the Empire operated, and in particular how the various systems of control and unification were instituted by Augustus. For a noted Euro-sceptic, Boris is an unrepentant cheerleader for this previous attempt to unify Europe. Not for him the suggestion that the other cultures obliterated by the advancing Romans were, in their own way, as sophisticated and accomplished: these guys were primitives, and Rome was the best thing that ever happened to them, apparently.

At the other end of the book things are equally interesting, as Boris gives us his take on the final end of the Eastern Empire, which he dates to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This is the occasion for a look at the historically knotty and troublesome relationship between Christian Europe and Islamic Turkey – it’s a brave writer these days who suggests that, really, Islamic culture is not as rich as its Western counterpart, that it appears to have an inherent tendency towards violence, and that it genuinely is less tolerant, but Boris is up for it.

What’s left unsaid – and it may be that Boris himself doesn’t intend to suggest as much – is that the current division in Euro-Asian relations is not a clash between Islamic and Christian values, but Islamic and Roman ones: that our own society is still fundamentally a post-Roman one. The book suggests a close identification between Empire and Church; also that the success of the latter was mainly due to the effortless way in which its power structures mapped onto the pre-existing imperial ones – but holds back from the logical conclusion, the existence of a direct continuity between the two, on some level at least.

No matter what you think of the ideas Boris espouses in this book, the manner in which he expresses them is authentically his own: the massed horns of German barbarians sound like ‘Rolf Harris didgeridoos’, we are told almost on the first page, while Augustus was ‘the cornflake that gets to the top of the packet’. If Boris does ever get to be a world leader, his description of Christ pantocrator, as depicted in Byzantine art across the Mediterranean, ‘looking exactly like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees’ may come back to haunt him.

Even more fascinating are the occasional glimpses we are granted into life chez Boris: stories of our guide cocking up hire-car booking, being put into a coma by Revenge of the Sith, and dragging his family all over various sites of antiquity. Needless to say the emerging picture is one of charming dishevelment: but surely we all know enough by now to be dubious of Boris’ self-mythologising.

As an introduction to the Roman Empire, this book is a jolly wheeze, and impressively thought-provoking. However, at this moment in time, the insights it provides as to what a genuinely very sharp customer Boris Johnson is are very nearly as noteworthy.

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With Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 we once again depart from the arena of film as a form of entertainment – this movie does not set out to brighten your day, make you laugh, or provide you with any kind of respite from reality: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a film with an agenda and an axe to grind, it’s entirely partisan and very forthright about it. As a result – and especially considering the subject matter involved – this is a film which is going to repel large numbers of people simply because of its nature. To talk about it solely in terms of its merits and flaws as a piece of cinema is likewise to almost miss the point of it.


Although, as the title suggests, The Spirit of ’45 is at least partly about Britain in the years immediately following the Second World War, it is also really about the state of the country today. The film’s thesis is that the first Labour government, elected in 1945, brought about one of the greatest and most positive transformations in the country’s history, creating the NHS and the welfare state, nationalising utilities and transport, creating masses of decent, affordable housing, and so on. (The film’s contributors go into some detail concerning the awfulness of slum life in the 1930s – this is very much Road to Wigan Pier territory.)

This is attributed to the sense of national unity and empowerment created by the country’s successes in the war, and the belief that things really could be changed for the better, and the film is utterly unequivocal in presenting these reforms as a wholly good thing. Extracts from the Labour Party Manifesto are reverently recited, and no-one has a bad word to say about any of it, just as the later section of the film covering the rolling-back of much of this work by the Thatcher administration pulls no punches in portraying this as a wholly retrogressive and socially destructive undertaking.

Well, my personal politics are – broadly speaking – very much on the same wavelength as those of the makers of this film, and I agree with most of what they suggest here. But for me the film doesn’t directly address one of the more insidious consequences of the Thatcher era, which is that mainstream British politics are now almost entirely bereft of ideology. Voters aren’t asked to choose between genuinely different viewpoints and principles any more – at an election, you’re not making a philosophical statement, but choosing which person you believe will be a more competent administrator. Thatcher, with the aid of the massively Rightward-leaning UK press, managed to shut down this whole area of debate, leaving the British Left cowed and reluctant to declare itself as genuinely socialist: ‘socialist’ has become a word with overwhelmingly negative associations in British mainstream politics.

The Spirit of ’45 opts not to address this, in favour of recounting more concrete examples of the negative impact of Thatcher. But I think this is a mistake – if the film wants to be a wake-up call for young people today, a reminder of what their grandparents and great-grandparents achieved in the name of Socialism, then it has to acknowledge that this flavour of politics has a massive image problem at the moment. But it seems oblivious to this, just as it seems almost reluctant to engage with a wider audience beyond the Left-leaning faithful. As I say, I’m sympathetic to the film’s agenda, but even I found a lengthy disquisition on the benefits of regulating the labour market for dock workers rather dry and unnecessarily detailed.

And, as with all films like this, I think including a few contrary or neutral voices would have increased its effectiveness considerably. There are problems with the concept of the NHS, just as there are issues with the idea of a universal welfare state – but the film doesn’t even acknowledge these exist, let alone engage with them. It’s very easy to instinctively demonise the Right, much harder to critically examine the capitalist position and produce arguments to debunk it – and the film opts for the first course.

This is a film with its heart in the right place, that talks a lot of sense about many issues still relevant to our lives today. If the rebirth of socialist thinking which it seems to be fervently hoping for comes about, no one would be happier than me. But I don’t think The Spirit of ’45 is going to be the instrument of that change (I can’t imagine what could be, but that’s another set of problems), simply because it does not seem interested enough in reaching for an audience beyond those who already agree with it. Laudable, but very worthy: comfort viewing for old-school Lefties.

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