Thursday, May 28, 2015

Time Will Tell

So the first draft of history is in and it looks like it's written off Tony Blair's slapstick attempt at playing Middle East peace envoy for the quartet as a failure.  And if we assume that the purpose of "the peace envoy" is to foster harmony and amity between bitter enemies, then I suppose that it has been.

If, on the other hand, you see the main duties of the peace envoy as being

- Giving speeches to Israeli political organisations reassuring them that their opinions are wholly correct and need only to be sold a little more savvily, and issuing the occasional solemn tut-tut noise whenever their government starts smashing up Gaza again, and

- Noisily finger-wagging everyone who will listen about how the best thing to do at any point is whatever the White House wants them to do, and

- Maintaining the reputation of Mr Tony Blair as a political titan, by giving him a suitably statesmanlike backdrop to stand against...

...Well, then I'd say that Tony's tenure has been a rip-roaring success. 

Similarly, there are a lot of LOLS to be had today in comparing Tony's lofty rhetoric to the paltry progress of the peace process, but this surely only works if you assume that "peace" is the point of the process.

Again, if you think that the purpose of having a peace envoy is to convince the Israelis and the Palestinians to come together and to thrash out a painful but mutually-beneficial solution to their neverending pissfight, then Tony has been comically useless.

Mind you, if the actual purpose of the envoy is to make a big, empty song and dance about how you're just questing for peace like a motherfucker, while occasionally squirting a soupcon of legitimacy onto a fairly bare-faced attempt to deliver as many of the Israelis' core desires as possible, so that they incur the minimum amount of meaningful international resistance possible...

...Then I'd say that Tony's tenure has again been a barnstorming triumph, effortlessly achieving all of the key goals that he was set. 

And there's actually a way to measure which of these roles Tony was tasked with fulfilling.  We can look back to 2007 and compare what Tony said he wanted to do, and then compare it to what he actually did do, all the while assuming that he did what he always wanted to do throughout. 

He said he wanted to "try to give effect to what is now the consensus across the international community - that the only way of bringing stability and peace to the Middle East is the two-state solution".  A more modest goal than it may at first sound, given that it's a vow to "try" to do some shit that people think is, like, right.

And what did he do? 

Well, let's just say that he spent rather more time in Tel Aviv telling the locals that they needed to deploy more effective propaganda, than he did banging heads together around the negotiating table, kicking ass and taking names.

All of which suggests to me that far from being seen as a failure, Tony is going to be hailed as a hero in Washington and can now surely walk into whatever thinktank or diplomatic mission he wishes to bless with his patronage.

Time will tell whether I'm right about that, I suppose. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Humping The Shark

This guy, talking about the latest Game Of Thrones uproar*, is both spot on and spectacularly unfair, I think.

To a certain extent, he's right to call the show basically pornographic, in that it's filled with hilariously gratuitous sex, nudity and cartoonish violence.  The show is ludicrously over-the-top even by comparison with the famously fighty-fucky book series that it's based upon, and that's a big part of why it's popular.  If the tone is perpetually adolescent then, well, I'd say that's not always a bad thing.

This isn't to say that the show doesn't feature some cracking drama, because it really does.  It usually attracts comparisons with The Lord of the Rings but I'd say it's the closest thing to I, Claudius** that I've seen in a long time.

From the outset, it established a huge ensemble cast of intriguingly flawed characters who each have clear aims and interests, then sent them off smashing into one another, causing chaos.  For a show that features dragons and magic, it's admirable how organic some of the plot and characterisation feels, and even the bloody cull of the cast towards the end of the third season didn't feel like shock for its own sake.  It felt like it could never have turned out any other way. 

And without dorking out entirely, I'll add that the most gripping scenes in it are quiet and conversational, as characters say their piece against a placid backdrop of unchewed scenery. Consider Charles Dance's first scene, which succinctly and effectively lays out Tywin Lannister's entire character and his domineering relationship with his children.  Or the compelling moment that can be summarised as blandly as - Jaime explains how he acquired his nickname.  Everyone could see Daenerys's Crowning Moment Of Awesome on the funeral pyre coming a mile off, but we all loved it anyway as a great payoff for everything that had come before.

Much of the cast is exemplary.  Peter Dinkelage has been rightly deluged with big-money film offers off the back of his performance, and Diana Rigg quietly steals every episode that she appears in.

Nonetheless, as the show has gone on, the interpersonal drama has waned and it's now relying on shock value and viciousness to keep the punters in their seats, with diminishing returns.  I'm seeing a few people now wondering why that is, and have a couple of ideas on that score...

- The first four seasons were based upon the best of George Martin's novels, back when his writing was relatively compact and his plots comparatively opaque and straightforward.

This season however is based upon the point where the series takes a sudden and baffling nosedive into what is, unfortunately, utter navelgazing bollocks.  Where once the plot was propelled forward by its own internal logic, now it stands around like it's waiting for a bus, scratching its testicles and thinking about what it wants for dinner.

Seriously, here's a brief, non-spoilery summary of A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons:

- Cersei stands around a lot thinking about how pissed off and frustrated she is.
- Jaime wanders around a lot thinking about how pissed off and frustrated he is.
- Tyrion sails down a river getting pissed-up and thinking about how frustrated he is.
- Jon - pissed off, frustrated, wanders about.
- Sam - frightened, confused, wanders about.
- Arya - confused, frustrated, wanders about.
- Daenerys - frustrated, pissed off, wanders about.
- Boring new characters - frustrated, pissed off, wandering about.
- Most of the other interesting characters - Dead.

Etc etc.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  When all of your main characters are pissed off, frustrated and aimless, you can imagine the effect that this has on the reader.  These two books together must clock in at about three thousand pages and contain between them maybe four or five moments of actual conflict or drama.

Personally, I think this happened because Martin realised that the logic of his own premise meant he'd soon have to write massive battle scenes in which a beautiful silver-haired princess flies around on a dragon burning up ice zombies, and recoiled in horror at the prospect.  I think he decided instead that he'd have a bash at writing the Great American Novel, vastly broadening his scope and turning his entertainingly hokey swords-and-tits action series into an extended meditation on power, war and man's eternal inhumanity to man***.

And this is how we've wound up with e.g. last week's gratuitous rape scene.  Even cutting out enormous chunks of the dull source material, the writers are left with only a few dramatic moments to play with.  Rather than use their imaginations a little, it looks like they've decided to stick with what they have and milk it for shock effect.

This is pretty bad news, and doesn't bode well.

- And let's face it, the elephant in the room here is HBO, the production company.  Recall that when HBO writers were asked to depict Cleopatra in Rome, they decided that the best thing to do would be to make the famed Queen of Egypt an opium-sucking nymphomaniac, with predictable results.

All that needs to be said here is that if HBO were going to remake Every Which Way But Loose, the Clint character would definitely fuck the orangutan in the first episode.


All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, if you ever find yourself asking Why did event (x) happen in Game of Thrones, the answer is probably that the writers couldn't think of anything better to do.

I don't doubt that the show will still be entertaining and exciting in future but really, I think its best days are behind it...  Although they really were very good days, at the time. 

*The current controversy is basically the same as the last i.e. the delight that the show's writers seem to take in having their characters sadistically rape and abuse each other, and whether it's acceptable for such things to be used for shock effect in what is, ultimately, just entertainment.

As always happens in such situations, the public's response can be divided into (mainly but not entirely female) outrage;  thick lads honking on about how Bitches Be Crazy LOL, and the majority of viewers who think it's just a TV show and aren't arsed to think on it further.  

The ladies are in the right on this one as it happens, although being right won't do them much good.  A quick Google search will turn up plenty of clever people explaining why, far more concisely than I could.

**Seriously - would a scene like this look much out of place in Westeros?  Would Caligula, Livia, Tiberius or Sejanus clash with the overall tone?  And even if most of the depravity and mayhem is offpage in both the Graves book and the BBC drama, I doubt there's anyone who didn't take vicarious pleasure in Uncle Claudius executing some sense into the Roman aristocracy. 

***And, as you'll have gathered, man's inhumanity to woman.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Why (x) Means That We Should Support My Politics - Part Two

And so to Scotland, where Tony Blair is probably right to say that Labour, or anyone else for that matter, will never win the electorate back by being "more Scottish" or "more left".

The ludicrous irony is that in many ways*, Labour are "more left" than the Nats and my new Scottish National Party MP is an Australian.  Seriously, she once had a bit-part in Home & Away

Nonetheless, this is irrelevant.  It makes no difference at all whether e.g. the few actually redistributionist measures in the SNP manifesto were copied and pasted from the Labour one.

What matters here is that the SNP have retained the entire 45% of those who voted Yes in the referendum, and added to them.  Barring a series of catastrophic SNP mistakes, they're never coming back to the parties that they once voted for.  Once Scottish voters decide that they fancy independence, it's almost impossible to convince them otherwise. 

The brief explanation for all this is that most of the Scottish electorate have finally tired of waiting for the Labour/Lib Dem/Whatever Parties that they've always wanted, and have decided instead that they can make a better fist of it themselves.  Possibly, the surprising thing here is that it took this long to happen.

God knows, I find their patter annoying, but I urge anyone who can to speak to the new SNP voters and to ask them why they think the Nationalists are a good choice.

None of them are much arsed about e.g. Ed Miliband, but almost all of them will raise the Iraq War and the various porkies it was sold with; Labour's intense relaxation about the filthy rich, and the party's craven fellation of Tory/Ukip voters throughout England.

They believe that they'll never, ever get the policies that they want, if they have to wait around for Labour or any other UK party to deliver them.

Even I think they're right about this** but really, it makes no difference whether they're right or wrong.  They believe it and they're going to continue voting like they believe it, for decades at least. 

And it's not like this has snuck up on us unexpectedly, but it looks like it still needs spelling out.  If Labour members want the current political situation up here summarised in one sentence, it goes like this:   

The New Labour project has just cost you Scotland, your most reliable core support, probably forever.  

Which is precisely why Tony Blair and his ilk should all drink a tall glass of shut-the-fuck-up right about now, rather than offering us their views on how best to win back voters north of the Border.

Because none of this is news - all of this is exactly what Yes voters were telling pollsters last year, and what they said consistently right up until election day.  And as best I can tell, few of the other parties seem to have believed that it was actually true.

And it showed, this last couple of months.  It's difficult to overstate the shambolic nature of Scottish Labour's campaign, but you can get an insight here.  The first big point to note is that its leader Jim Murphy started out with the criminally insane strategy of trying to out-Scottish the Scottish National Party.

In short, this amounted to wandering around making a big song and dance about representing the interests of the Scottish people of Scotland and the Scottish services that Scottish people wanted to see in Scotland and Scotland and Scotland.

And - amazingly, astoundingly! - it turned out that none of the new SNP voters wanted to buy Jim Murphy's low-alcohol lager version of what they could get tastier and sexier by doing Jagermeister shots round at Nicola Sturgeon's house.

This is, in part, because Jim Murphy is almost the perfect avatar of the New Labour machine.  Watching him work is like a chapter from a second-rate Neil Gaiman novel, in which somebody crams the abstract concept of Insincerity into a grey suit, pins a red rosette on it and has it wander the streets shaking hands and smiling like a hungry velociraptor.

Never mind failing to connect with voters, or getting across the message that you're all Scottish, eh no.  Murphy seemed to struggle with the basic task of impersonating an actual real human being.

But to repeat myself, the larger problem is this.  These SNP voters don't want Labour or anyone else to come up with new ways to defend Scottish public services.  They don't want "a new relationship with the UK".

What they want is for those parties to fuck off

Scotland already has a nationalist party.  If voters are telling you that they want an independent Scotland and you have no intention of giving them that, then why in the name of sanity would you think that they'll prefer your jibber-jabber to a party that actually will try to deliver them what they want?

Labour, the Lib Dems et al see Scotland as just one part of the United Kingdom.  They find the idea that someone in Edinburgh obviously has more interests in common with, say, an Aberdonian than they do with another person who lives 45 miles away in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, absolutely ridiculous.

And that's fine!  It is fucking ridiculous!  But if you want anyone to even half-respect you for saying so, you can't also lard it up with a lot of argle-bargle about how you're totally going to stick up for Scotland against the party that you yourself are campaigning on behalf of.

50% of the electorate is obviously unassailable, so it's going to be a long, long time before anyone else wins a major election in Scotland.  In the main, this is because most of the country believes that the non-nationalist parties are a shower of liars and frauds.

The best way to change this situation is to stop pandering by telling voters what you think they want to hear, and to start telling them what you actually think***.

The other option is to dig in your heels and stand around repeating yourself, hoping that your foes will eventually crush themselves under the weight of their own considerable contradictions.  Good luck with that strategy, folks.


*Although in some other ways, they definitely aren't, depending on how we're defining "left".

**I also think they're entirely wrong that throwing their lot in with the SNP will get them the better, more humane country that they want and have said so repeatedly, but it doesn't matter shit what I think about it.

***Step one, to be taken immediately, today - for the love of Christ, fire Jim Murphy.  Labour doesn't need to give Murphy more time to recalibrate his message.  It needs to give him a bottle of whisky and a revolver.

Why (x) Means That We Should Support My Politics - Part One

So, a slim Tory majority it is, and it's impossible to see this as anything other than a mandate for five years of greatly increased viciousness, legislative insanity and crackdowns on phantom problems.  

Assuming that you support policies that are at least mildly humane and would prefer to make Britain a more pleasant place to live, rather than nudging it closer to becoming a series of Croesus-rich gated communities surrounded by a churning ocean of mutual suspicion and recrimination...  Well, it's a screaming disaster.  

It's such a screaming disaster, in fact, that it's going to take two posts for me to make a case for Why Everyone Should Now Agree That It's Time To Support My Politics. 

To England and Wales first of all, where it's long been obvious that a substantial section of the electorate isn't at all interested in programmes that will make their own lives better, but are very keen indeed on vows to smash everyone else into jammy paste. 

Even up here in our supposedly socialist, humanitarian Scottish enclave, there are hundreds of thousands of people who think like this, drawn from every class and creed.  

I've met numerous single mothers and low-wage workers who go to the polls to ask for more violent beatdowns on workshy neds, only to receive even shittier treatment themselves as a direct result, and then return five years later to ask for even more violent beatdowns on workshy neds. Scotland is full of towns and villages where you'll hardly see a non-white face, and yet their inhabitants will regale you for hours about the tidal wave of immigrants blighting their lives.  

And let's not get into a rammy about how this is the fault of, like, the media, innit.  Nobody's forcing anyone to visit the Mail's website every day or to watch Benefits Street, yo.  

People who keep telling you that they want spiteful, resentful policies are going to vote for the most spiteful and resentful candidates that they can find.  And that's in Scotland, where we're all repeatedly told how garrulous and fucking friendly we are, rather than down south where fewer people bother to pretend.

These people don't want Labour or the Lib Dems or the Greens or anyone else, for that matter, to offer a fairer benefits system or to tackle crime* more aggressively.   They don't want to hear those parties' plans for "new controls on immigration", or for anything else. 

What they want is to elect the meanest, most sadistic motherfuckers that they can find, and for all of the touchy-feely parties to fuck off.  

I can't say this strongly enough - if certain voters keep telling you that they want you to turn the DWP into the Gestapo and seal the borders, and you have no intention of doing either, then why in the name of God would you imagine that those voters will prefer your proposals to those of the parties that will beat the poor and shut out all the immigrants? 

Even worse, when you try to court these voters by going on TV and vowing to personally behead seven Romanian benefits claimants a day or whatever, you are alienating your own core voters, potentially forever.  

The viciousness voters will never believe that you're serious, and your own voters always will.  Whatever you gain on the swings of Robust Policies For Hard-Working Families, you immediately lose on the roundabouts of basic human decency.  

Which tells me that the best thing to do is much like that hackneyed piece of advice for getting girls to like you - be yourself, act natural, don't try too hard by faking it.  It's easier to convince people that you're being truthful if you're telling the truth, you see?  

And I'm not even talking about, oh, renationalising the universe here.  I'm saying that you should do what you think is right, and not just what you think people will want to hear.  Sales jobs are a lot easier if you believe that you're selling a good product and - call me hopelessly naive, if you will - I've always found that sincerity has a way of selling itself.

When most people can spot a fraud, putting on an act becomes counter-productive.  I'd say that it's better to just be what you are and to do your best to try to bring the electorate to you.   And if they never come on board, well, at least you'd be able to look at yourself in the mirror.**

Which brings me to yesterday's statement by Tony Blair in which, if I can do great violence to his argument, he is basically saying - if Labour wants to win again, it must stand around noisily advocating for a more polished version of Thatcherism-lite and threatening to kill the workshy, in the hope that sooner or later, the Tories will make an arse of governing.  

And you know, he's probably correct about that, but it calls to mind one of the best descriptions of Littlefinger in Game of Thrones - He would see this country burn, if he could but be king of the ashes.  

It may be true that the quickest, easiest path to power is by triangulating and modernising and all of those other funky-sounding strategies that basically mean "doing the very opposite of what your party is supposed to do".

Whether there will be anything worth governing left at the end of it, that's the question I'm more interested in. 

Next up - Scotland, where the scale of this disaster is actually worse, if anything.


*One of the strangest things about this election, and possibly the last one too - crime was barely an issue.  As you'll recall, crime used to be front and centre, but no longer.  I suspect that this is because the electorate have been fapping so hard, for so long, at the far more hardcore issues of immigration and terrorism that frankly, even the most erotic of stories about serial burglars and muggers and so on are now too vanilla for most folk to work up even a semi-rager.

**Note here that I'm not a member of any political party and I'll probably never be one.  If you are one yourself, then feel free to take my advice, or to immediately bin it.  I'm usually surprised when anyone listens to me for five seconds, and I don't expect any of my suggestions to ever catch on.