October 2007


Is there no containing the Mortimer Posty Finger today? Sorry.

A-while-a-back I wrote about the important political concept of “wetting oneself”. I’m not sure that anybody cared, mind.* So to avoid your having to wade through it all again, political self-wetting is when you care about something so much that you abandon the nappy of spin and the incontinence pad of cynicism and just let your opinion flush itself out, probably angrily and publicly and in a way that it is going to be very difficult to retreat from (because you can’t simply sidle away from a pool of urine). Revolts and successful demonstrations are instances of communal mass self-wetting. They’re rather thrilling and make people feel important in the same way any performance art does, and they don’t happen very often.

But when I conceived of this important political meme I was of course thinking about the little people. The sans-culottes, the revolting peasants. It’s comparatively rare that actual real-life politicians, let alone of the top flight, are willing to be seen with properly wet trousers. And so one is all the more impressed with Nick Clegg for the conviction pant-pissing that has gone on today:

If the government seeks to make ID cards compulsory on every British citizen, I will lead a people’s campaign to thwart the programme.

I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will refuse to be forced to register.

This is an issue that is so contrary to the spirit of British liberty and privacy that I would not be able to stand by.

I am willing to do everything in my power to stop this intrusive, expensive and unnecessary imposition on the liberty of the British people.

Reactions have, on the whole, been unsurprisingly positive. It confirms the Cleggery of Andy at Wouldn’t it be scary…, Jeremy Hargreaves is palpably jumping up and down a bit, and the ickety-pickety little dissentient posts at LibDemVoice are overridden (insofar as anyone is ever overridden by anything on that august organ) by the orators.

The excitement and wet pants are owing to the fact that this is not really gesture politics. There is some prospect of its actually being tested. Everyone accuses the Lib Dems of saying what the hell they like because they know they’ll never get into power and have to stand by it. Not applicable this time. If when push comes to shove the Cleggster doesn’t follow through on this one he’s going to look a silly crumbly tart indeed.

With my wise onlooker hat on (for I’m still firmly undecided) I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to mark the real turning point - as opposed to the media-sponsored turning point - in the leadership race. I have not bought into the Cleggarchy so far, nor am I bought into the notion that everyone else is buying into it – I just think those that are tend to be noisier about it. And I am still, I guess, a more natural Huhney Monster** and I might yet vote that way. Moreover, I am fully cognisant that Huhne’s response to the above notion was, essentially, “What a good idea! Yes, so would I,” and, if you’re a grown-up, this is something to admire in itself.

But it seems to me that I cannot escape the implications of my own pant-wetting theory. Secretly, nothing turns Lib Dems on more than the idea of wetting themselves (but in the right causes, obviously, and only after the whole thing has been thoroughly thought through) and the Liberal tradition has been in the care of the terminally continent for a long time. Continence and common sense has been the Lib Dem calling card, the thing that marks them out from the pop-eyed shouty plonkers and undead tight-bottomed control freaks. So it’s not surprising there’s an inner liberal marcher bursting for release on a subject that’s directly germane to the whole concept of liberalism – which Iraq wasn’t, not really. Not like this is.

Civil liberties, leader-sanctioned peaceful protest and that racy edge of danger give off a heady niff for any romantic old liberal - for in a sense, we’re all old romantics. And Nick Clegg is now officially the man with the wet trousers.

Least of all my brother, who was really quite dismissive of my harmless little flight of fancy at the last Chapter Meeting of the Equity Rich Parents Assassination Club (ha! I thought vengefully to myself, you’ll be sorry when I blog about your dismissive attitude, won’t you!) 

** I do wish we could stop all this, by the way. But it’s too late now.

tsdole_enter21.gif

Just had to give these guys a plug really, didn’t I. Their first full album Forward March is something that’s been sitting around in my room unplayed since the Great Twitchy Midnight Finger Amazon Order Incident of August.

And I wish I hadn’t taken so long to get around to listening because they are cocking marvellous. Try if you like the Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands, Walkmen, Kings of Leon, early Flaming Lips and other like whimsical grand-sweep instrumental indie.

A serious-looking A5 booklet fell out of the Grauniad last weekend. Ah, I thought, another timely retrospective of Frieda Kahlo which I shall keep carefully on the floor for some months and mean to read in odd moments, only admitting that no moment is quite odd enough when the booklet has developed a thin patina of sticky fur.

But no, this is The Green Guide, and I flick through to see if there is anything whatsoever I don’t know about lightbulbs, roof insulation, leaving appliances on standby and the remainder. By the seventeenth page of promotional material I have twigged that this is not the usual exquisitely overthought series of Grauniad mini-essays with inset-box vignettes and a postgraduate-level bibliography of further contacts.

This is a 64-page advertising barrage exhorting me to replace my boiler, fit a water meter to my toilet, stick solar panels to my roof, do an environmental audit on my gerbil, open an ethical bank account with a monthly premium and give a tenner to the Forestry Commission every time I use my hair straighteners or else risk being a BAD PERSON. And you don’t want that. Do you.

At first I think myself profoundly depressed by the sinister emotional tools available to green marketeering. And also by the way it reduces environmentalism to the level of lifestyle choice - green marketing has become part of the same marketing “family” as the Boden catalogue. Don’t you want to be irrepressibly happy, middle-class, environmentally conscious, dressed in high-grade combed cotton tops and inclined to leap into the air with a wide grin? What’s wrong with you?

Then I realise that actually I am just resentful because I don’t own a boiler, a toilet, a roof or a gerbil, and therefore no-one is remotely interested in marketing any of this conscience-jangling shit to me. Second class citizen in environmentalism, as in everything else. I’m supposed to just turn the TV off standby and be happy with that, am I? Bastards.

I have put the Green Guide carefully on the floor in case I need it again.

Illisible is French for impenetrable, as in the new European treaty is illisible pour les citoyens.

Valery Giscard d’Estaing has claimed in an open letter to Le Monde that the European constitution and the current treaty are essentially the same.

At least, that is what my epolitix bulletin is telling me and it’s also Giscard d’Estaing’s (which bit, if either, should one use? I am never sure) own headline. The Tories are crowing – the headline is presumably the only bit Conservative spokesman on Europe Mark Francois (is that really his name? or did no-one want the job and it has been shared out between an appropriately titled collective?) looked at before issuing the dire warning that G-D had sorti le chat du sac. Predictably le chat is now peeing all over the Sun.

Not many people in the general scheme of things will read the letter (in translation here) which is a shame because it has the effect of revealing the Conservatives to be shouty pop-eyed plonkers. This is because it has been written from a French – and an avowedly pro-European – perspective and its three main points make incongruous bedfellows in UK politics. I paraphrase:

1. The European constitution, you know, he has been, how you say, picked apart behind closed doors by a bunch of Eurocrats and his main provisions tagged on to previous treaties as amendments. This means, er, zat ze French public will not understand it, and if zat is ze case zen ze British public definitely won’t.

Cue Little-Britain style vomiting at Shouty Plonker HQ: Outrageous! The British People are being froth froth froth icky-icky-fertang!

2. Ze essential elements of ze treaty are ze same. It still makes for more effective, democratic institutions. It still gives more legislative power to parliament. Pas d’inquiete, it will get us some way towards escaping from ze current mess.

Ha, try and get in through the back door would you, with all your talk of less bureaucracy and giving more legislative power to the European parliament. It’s all a plot! Froth froth, oops, one of my eyeballs has fallen out, where’s my assistant? TARQUIN!

3. However, ze major difference is zat all consitutional language and symbols of political unity have been removed from ze treaty. And ze British can opt out of pretty much whatever zey feel like in ze most serious concessions ever offered in a European treaty. Pfah. C’est la vie.

Pick up that eyeball, and- Oh. What did he say? NOT LISTENING NOT LISTENING LA LA LA.

Typical of the rotten Frenchies not to stick to the Tory party line. They’re just so damn contraire.

I am too afraid of commitment to go to the cinema very often. Going to see a film involves sacrificing time and money with no certain guarantee that enjoyment will result. If I start a book and don’t like it, I can put it down again. If I go to the pub and it’s no fun, I can leave. If I watch a film on tellybox and it only half holds my attention, I can make some tea or paint my nails, read the IKEA catalogue or do a bit of blogging perhaps. But to walk out of a cinema is an admission of entertainment failure and a wanton waste of eight pounds fifty, which you only handed over in the first place so that someone else could control your environment, shroud you in over-heated darkness, crick your knees into arthritic shapes, put small, rumbustuous children behind you and the tallest man in Holland in front of you, give you a raging thirst and a queasy popcorn-filled stomach, and then finally churn you abruptly out of this isolation tank into a somehow unnervingly different world from the one you departed three hours earlier, blotchy-sighted, dehydrated and poorer by some twenty quid. No, you may keep the cinema as far as I am concerned.

Withal, being in the business of making my hangover a chicken and mushroom risotto this evening, I was pleased to find Elizabeth on terrestrial because it falls into the vast category of films I have always badly wanted to see, but didn’t go to the cinema for because it didn’t have the words “Pirates”, “Lord” or “Rings” in the title. I am a creature of habit, you see.

I think I and my hangover were just a little disappointed, after the several years’ low-key build-up. Visually it was gorgeous, and the emotional journey of the young queen from nervous tender-hearted moppet to divine untouchable was subtly drawn – so subtly that I only really noticed that this was what the film was all about in the last twenty-five minutes. I told you I don’t go to the cinema much.

But my main problem with it was that I judge historical films by how successfully they wrestle reality out of history – and I am not, for all the love of heaven, talking about historical accuracy. I really couldn’t give a toss about historical accuracy. No history is accurate anyway, fictional or not. It’s a non-starter to set out to reproduce a historical personage’s mind, opinions, speech, the way they moved through the world and the way that world acted upon them. Your portrayal of even the best recorded individuals, in the most well-documented periods, is never, ever going to amount to even ten per cent of the “truth”, even if we could agree on what the truth is, so you are really better off not bothering and serving the needs of your story instead.

In the case of Elizabeth, that means running a few different plots and happenstances together in a fairly freewheeling way, and it means involving a few people with things they were probably not, in fact, involved in. Fair enough, if it suits the story. I’m no expert anyway – I never could get on with the Tudors, ever since we “did” them twice at school, and “doing” history before GCSE mainly involves colouring in pictures of Henry VIII’s wives. What bothers me far more is that I have no better conception, having watched the film, of what sixteenth-century England was all about. And I think if you fail to answer – even to ask – that question, you have failed to create a piece of working, breathing historical fiction.

This may surprise, but my favourite historical film in the whole entire world ever is Gladiator. Now that I went to the cinema for, and I have never before or since walked home from seeing a movie in such an altered state. It was breathtakingly true to the Roman world. The storyline was an almost complete fabrication from start to finish, but everything I had ever read and thought about Rome was there in the very warp and weft of it – the centrality of family, household gods, the republican ideal, the elevation of talented generals to positions of power, bread and circuses, patricide, the pointlessly bloody frontier provinces, the influx of provincial talent to the political arena. The notion of being a good Roman, and what that was.

The opening and closing images of the film, as Maximus dreams of his modest estate and then returns to it in death, are pretty much an inspired recreation of the sturdy Roman landowner who leaves his farm only to vote or fight when required to do so for the good of Rome. He has done his work for the patria, now he returns to till the soil. The Catos, Elder and Younger, are the source material here, the Elder for his writings on agriculture and the Younger for his famously humourless integrity. The Catonian tradition of the noble, hard-working Roman, master of the world but humble in the home. I’m no fan of either – it’s hard to be, especially when they’re talking about knocking slaves on the head when they get old and feeble – and the ideal selfless Roman aristocrat was a myth even in their day, never mind by the period in which Gladiator is set, but I don’t care. Someone had immersed themselves so thoroughly in the memes, instincts and forces of a long-dead era that the story rang true, so true it provoked an emotional response in me which had nothing to do with the fate of the characters. Hector in The History Boys has it right, though he is talking about written fiction, when he says that coming across a thought in a book identical to one of your own is like “having someone reach out and take your hand”. And if you are thinking this is a rather elevated sentiment to be applying to a Ridley Scott movie, I riposte that Hector is famously an enthusiast of the lowbrow alongside the high.

And they didn’t stop at the Ladybird Book of Rome either. The staging and scripting of the palace scenes between Commodus and his sister are practically an open homage to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Any piece of story-telling that draws on both original material and other stories that have previously been based on it, and makes them into a flowing narrative entire of itself, is a sophisticated day’s work. Put simply, Gladiator tells you what Rome is all about, what it was about at the time and what it is about now, to us. Yes, it does this with almost ludicrous inaccuracy, including the biggest lie of all in the implication that the Republic was restored after Commodus’ death (which needless to say did not take place in the arena). But it gets away with it, because this is a story conceived by person or persons unknown who are actually interested in the period, interested in what ideas were floating around and what made the political machine tick. They are not interested in staging one-damn-thing-after-another history, or in making a contemporary point. Accusing the film of inaccuracy is as irrelevant as complaining that there are too many different surviving versions of the legends of King Arthur.

Contrast all this with the diabolical shambles that was Braveheart. This film ought on the face of it to please a historian more because it has considerably better claims to your poor old threadbare “accuracy” than either Gladiator or, for that matter, Elizabeth. But it’s not really about twelfth-century Scotland. It’s about eighteenth- and by extension twentieth-century America. If you’re going to have authentic historical personages all but saying the word democracy, it’s safe to say you’re not in the slightest bit interested in the twelfth-century or what you can do with it, and you’re making the wrong film. I do wonder why on earth Crazy Mel bothered. The fact that Patriot came out a year or so later should tell its own story.

And while Elizabeth is nothing like that crass, I am still left with the impression that someone at the heart of the making of that film failed to move beyond the lazy, cliched cloak-and-dagger stuff you learn while colouring in Anne Boleyn’s dress aged nine and a half. What is this “power” that keeps flowing around everywhere and getting into the bedhangings (of which there are many)? Why does everyone sit at the end of long oak tables and talk about their enemies “moving” against them? What does that even mean? What is the actual stuff and substance of all the skulduggery that is supposedly happening at court under the cover of a well-executed quadrille? What do people engaging in skulduggery actually say to each other?

Prithee, my lord, it is time for our skulduggery. The Spaniards look more powerful by the day.

Indeed, see how the ambassador’s eyebrow is a half-inch more lowering than it was heretofore. But soft, my lord! The Lord Chancellor is near. Let us retire to this shadowy recess and plot.

These aren’t people, these are cardboard cut-outs. This isn’t a recreation of the politics of an era, it’s a dead-end alternative world conjured out of a simplistic textbook by someone who hasn’t stopped to ask themselves how it all worked. The glossiness of both production and direction only just disguises the fact that one plotline scene succeeds another like the worst sit-up-and-beg tv thriller. The acting and decent, clean scripting mercifully free of cod-Elizabethanisms ultimately save Elizabeth, but Blackadder II lampooned the hell out of this stuff over a decade before it was was made. The film is interested in the personal journey of an ordinary young woman who suddenly faces great responsibility, and this it succeeds in putting across. But it’s not remotely interested in Tudor politics and it’s only interested in the most wet-palmed way in religious strife, and ultimately that just means the one storyline that is successful gets held up.

Why bother creating fictive history if you’re not interested in the history itself? No-one can be the master, Robert Graves, but film-makers can and should emulate the love he had for his subject. I, Claudius was of course televised very successfully. I chanced upon an old post by Alex Wilcock about this, and I think everything he says about the memorable high-drama moments, the mafiosi overtones, the vividness of the character portraits underlines very effectively what a well-conceived body of work the books were. That’s why they translated so well to screenplay despite being virtually a dialogue-free zone. The world they depict is a real, operative model, the twisting and heavily populated storyline hangs from one conceptual peg. Most importantly, Graves was a man convinced that the slice of history he was remaking was important. Not interesting, not diverting, not scenic, important. And that is what makes good historical fiction, because it’s one of our oldest traits as creatures with a consciousness to recognise internal conviction in a narrative, and to respond to it.

The 26 October 1914 was not a good day for the 2nd battalion of the Cameronians’ rifle regiment. Two months’ bivouacking backwards and forwards in a state of chronic under-equipment around the Ypres hinterland had already caused them to sustain heavy losses, and it can never be easy to have a good day while wearing tartan trousers in any case. On that day they were bedding in around a little hamlet called Le Cateau, and in so doing, had they but known it, they were sowing the nightmarish seeds of four years’ entrenchment. One officer and thirteen men were picked off by snipers in the course of the day, and one of the men was a private soldier called Percy Mortimer.

It is just my hunch, but I think he was a bit peeved by this. He was by birth an Australian of Anglo-Irish descent so it was hardly his war in the first place. He had already done his bit for the Empire - joined up as a young colonial adventurer in the last years of the nineteenth century, fought in the Boer Wars, dived from the tops of masts into the sea, survived Mafeking with the aid of a tea towel and scouted along the North-West frontier on horseback with a turban wound tightly round his head to stop his red hair flaming like a beacon all the way to Lahore (you have to bear in mind a lot of this is family legend). When his tour of duty was over, Percy didn’t go back to Melbourne. He did what we all have to do from time to time and dossed down on a friend’s floor in Finsbury Park, about a mile from where I’m writing now.

When war was declared in August 1914 Percy was within a few days of coming off the reserve list. He had a brushmaking business in Finsbury Park and he had married his friend’s sister. He had a four-year-old son, and he was thirty two. Of course, even if he hadn’t been called up into that funny little ill-starred British Expeditionary Force he would have gone to France sooner or later anyway, and maybe he wouldn’t have survived the war whatever happened. Still, that was how it happened. And it was a bit of a pisser all round.

And it was with these thoughts very much in her mind that, ninety-three years later to the very day, his great-granddaughter, being your current correspondent, alighted from the tube in the very same Finsbury Park dressed as a dead vampire bride, having been viciously mocked all the way from Bounds Green by the Filthy Hun.

My coy plan was to wait for the the kind darkness of Woodstock Road N4 before posying up in the full shebang of bridal-veil-with-dead-crumbling-roses-circlet, so there was no real indication between the black coat, white dress and black boots that I was actually dressed up. I had however done most of the make-up at home, and so it was with ashy countenance and bloodied lips that I plonked myself onto the Piccadilly line opposite two very blonde, very sleek, very nicely dressed young Hildebrunnas who were agen-flagen-eine-kleine-baden-badening away at each other like a pair of diplomat’s daughters.

I get oddly put out when tourists are confident and relaxed on the tube. Is it not crowded and hot and confusing enough down here for you? I’ll have you know this is the most god-awful transport system of any city this important anywhere in the world! The maps are enigmatic hieroglyphs, the platform names perverse and meaningless (having people choose between “Northbound” and “Westbound”. I ask you), the announcements inaudible and the scrolling electronic updates totally redundant unless you are going all the way to Rayner’s Lane and have a short-term memory problem that requires a reminder of this fact to be displayed to you every ten seconds. And there they sit gabbing away in total unconcern as if they were on holiday or something.

But I digress. The kling-mit-schlagklang-klugenfartening stopped abruptly as Mortimer the Great-Granddaughter enters the carriage. I get a couple of odd looks from people who notice the vampire bite on my neck (red nail varnish actually; worked a treat, especially when it started flaking off and looking like a dark clot) but this is nothing to the mocking, balefully flaxen stares of the Hildebrunnas.

They commence to giggle in German at what they clearly believe is my awful make-up. After a while, as an experiment, I take out my mirror and survey my dead bridal face with immense satisfaction. More giggles. I can sort of see what they mean. If you come from a country where there’s no such thing as (a) a Halloween dressing-up tradition or (b) a joke, you might not tumble to what I am about. I am just using ordinary powders and highlighters and whatnot, not actual facepaint, so I probably just look dramatically overdone to the casual, and humourless, and stupid, onlooker.

I start to play little mind-games with them, carefully adding a dab of Sparkling Ice White Eyeglide here, a top-up of dark-Goth-red Lipfinity there, holding the mirror at arm’s length and pouting at myself. It is not difficult to keep their attention. They are actually trying to catch my eye, the better to laugh at me, and I stare unpleasantly at one of them for an eye-wateringly long term before she looks away. Ha, one-up to the People’s Republic! But this is only the beginning.

By the time we pull into Finsbury Park I am almost chalk-white and my mouth and eyes are as red and black as a roulette wheel, and the Hildabrunnas are almost beside themselves with sniggery rudeness.

It is Time! The Mortimers will have their Revenge!

So I glide from my seat and, ignoring their screams of horror, puncture their jugulars and suck all the blood from their veins before alighting to the platform and moving smoothly towards the Wells Terrace exit with a beatific smile playing across my ghastly features. Take that, jerry.

They (the wizards) say that frivolous humour is a smokescreen to mask the absence of anything more meaningful to say. They are of course quite correct as you will now discover in perusing my pictorial reflections on the leadership contest thus far.

Clegg - foreign

“Look, that’s Afghanistan over there.”

 

Huhne

Prove: E° + S°² = E°(S° – P°)

Where E is angle of eyebrow, S is angle of shoulderpad and P is angle of parapet of Westminster Bridge 

 

Chris and Nick

“Ah, the old electric shock hand buzzer trick, eh?”

 

I love you guys. Keep being in genius pictures or I’ll have to invent an actual position to blog about.

I am reading over the results of the Cross River Tram Consultation published by TfL in September (just don’t ask). The first question requires respondents to give their views on the proposed route from Euston to Waterloo.  77% gave positive views about this route and 11% gave negative views. This much I understand.

But 12% of respondents apparently went further and “expressed spontaneous support for a tram on this route”. Which presumably means they approached the questioner, unable to contain themselves, and started talking about it.

You, sir! You look like a sensible chap, I’ll wager you’ll agree with me, sir, when I say that what this country needs, dammit, is a tram that goes from Euston to Waterloo, what what? Else we’ll all go to the dogs. Haaaaaaaaaaaaarrgh [bursts into flames]

Perhaps these people are always hanging around railway concourses waiting to buttonhole the incautiously still. What serendipity that in this case they happened upon the person taking the Cross River Tram consultation survey.

I cannot be the only one to be relieved that all this hat business is over. Every time I stepped outside my front door last week I had to duck and jab my umbrella at the heavens lest I be decapitated by the flocks of flying hats circling the ring.

Everywhere you looked people were about to throw hats, or fending off clamour from hat fanciers trying to persuade them to throw hats, or looking for all the world as if they were about to throw hats but then unexpectedly chickening out. Of course it was clear from the start that the unwary risked a clip round the ear from Chris Huhne’s bowler and Nick Clegg’s fedora. But Vince Cable, whose sombre homberg I admire, clutched onto its felt brim for what seemed an awfully long time before finally putting it back in its hat box. John Hemming’s flat cap only confused matters and left several people with sore heads, and what with all the air traffic control difficulties occasioned by Simon Hughes’ cheeky trilby, Steve Webb’s down-to-earth beanie, Lynne Featherstone’s elegant Treacy concoction, Julia Goldsworthy’s cool floppy Gap cotton sun-hat and Charles Kennedy’s traffic cone, I for one count us lucky to have escaped from the hat-throwing stage unscathed.

I know a bowler and a fedora have many things in common. They are both traditional men’s hats cut from a similar felted woolcloth and shaped with stitching and internal padding - albeit that the fedora has been reinterpreted for the fashion pages in recent times. But let us have an end to this muttering about the need for more hats. We have two perfectly good hats to choose from and I for one am enjoying the freedom to go about my daily business without having to throw myself behind a hedge every few yards.

Last week Turkey declared its intention to send troops into Northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish insurgents, and George Bush addressed the White House press corps as follows.

“Yes, we know there is a terrorism problem in Northern Iraq. But there are better ways of dealing with it than…”

Please complete his sentence using your background knowledge.

(a) uuuh….how they’re dealing with it.

(b) lighting the beacons of Minas Tirith to call upon the horsemen of Rohan for aid, for the great King Theoden is under a curse, as it is said.

(c) invading Iraq.

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