Thursday, 31 October 2019

Boris Johnson - A Pericles for Our Time?

The man who would be Pericles
History can teach, warn and inspire us. If we don't understand the past, how can we fathom today? And as the many times over-used phrase goes, if we don't learn from history, we are bound to relive it.

Our esteemed Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is no exception. He has penned a few histories of varying quality and sometimes at striking odds with his other pronouncements. For example, his Dream of Rome is a deeply Europhile work and the TV version concludes with an unbroadcast peroration where Johnson looks forward with great enthusiasm to Turkey joining an expanded EU as some sort of recreation of the Roman Empire.

But the locus of his historical inspiration is much earlier, and their identity is more than a little instructive as to how the ludicrous occupant of Number 10 views himself as well as his personal hero. For the hay-haired chancer apparently fancies himself as a modern day version of the 5th century BC Athenian leader Pericles, who presided for almost 40 years over what is known as the birthplace of democracy - notwithstanding the exclusion of women and slaves from the "Demos" (citizenship). He keeps a bust of him in his Downing Street office for his visual musings and even quoted him in his first PM phone-in back in the balmy days of August.

On that occasion, as on others, Johnson promoted the idea of Pericles as a cultured champion of democracy and, superficially, you can see what he means: this was after all the man who presided over the construction of the final phase of the Acropolis. This fantastic range of buildings perched above Athens symbolised the city's devotion to the Hellenic gods as well as highlighting its imperial status as the leading power of classical Greece, its powerful navy exporting its form of Peoples' Government to rather reluctant neighbours on the points of their battering rams.

The Acropolis project has echoes perhaps in some of Johnson's own doomed attempts to commission prestigiously wasteful taxpayer-funded initiatives such as the London Garden Bridge that never was or, more recently, to issue a Brexit coin tomorrow morning which has now had to be melted back down. Yet, while Pericles' project was actually completed and substantial parts remain almost two and a half millenia later, when you look at the two men what might initially seem a pompous, facile comparison with the Athenian orator by Johnson actually holds more weight than might be apparent, though perhaps not for the same self-serving reasons.

For as well as divorcing his wife of some years to live with a much younger woman, Pericles had pretty much the same cavalier attitude towards public finance as the PM. On several occasions, he and his associates were accused of wasting Athenian tax money, although there was no charge of inappropriate personal benefit - as a contemporary historian, Thucydides, noted, he was already sufficiently wealthy to not be overly concerned about his own financial gain. Prestige seems to have been the main motivation, and so accusations of unfitness for office would bite all the harder on his noble ego.

By means of deflection, Pericles was happy to launch personal attacks on his enemies and to play to the mob, claiming to be an opponent of the conservative establishment in spite of hailing from precisely that quarter (his noble-born father was an army commander and his mother the descendant of a tyrant) and even using the Athenian speciality of ostraka (ostracism) to exile his key political opponent. Johnson has often cited Pericles' alleged skills as an orator as a personal inspiration, and so it is no surprise that a contemporary of the Athenian leader, the poet Ion, described him as having "a presumptuous and somewhat arrogant manner of address, and that into his haughtiness there entered a good deal of disdain and contempt for others".

All rather familiar somehow.

Similarly, Pericles' introduction of restrictions that limited Athenian citizenship to people who could prove both their parents were Athenian-born smacks of at least the same Tory attitudes towards modern immigration - all the more so as he hypocritically made an exception for his own son by his foreign-born partner Aspasia. His policy of imperialist expansion in the name of spreading democracy again has some parallels with Tory fantasies of "Empire 2.0" floated in the wake of Brexit. Perhaps not so much of a similarity was Pericles' opening up of public offices to less affluent Athenians, while in stark contrast the new electoral identity rules Johnson is implementing for voting seem designed to make it much harder for many poorer people to exercise their democratic rights.

Pericles of Athens
Yet if that is a difference, we need to hope that it is not the only one. For Johnson's hero funded his Acropolis project by embezzling funds from the Delian League, the official term for what was in effect the Athenian Empire. Money was purloined in what Greek historian Angelos Vlachos has claimed was perhaps the largest incidence of fraud in human history and contracts were dished out to Pericles' personal friends to oversee the construction.

He courted further controversy by having a friendly sculptor, Phidias, insert a likeness of himself onto one of the friezes, drawing accusations of impiety. When he finally faced formal charges of impropriety with the public finances, the historian Plutarch claims he provoked the devastating Peloponnesian War to divert attention.

If so, it was a fatal move on several fronts. The war was to vanquish Athens and reduce it to a vassal of Sparta. The democracy Johnson claims Pericles championed was destroyed for good. His hero however did not witness the apocalyptic denouement - as war raged, refugees crowded into the city, creating cramped conditions where hunger and disease became rife. Pericles duly succumbed to plague along with a good number of his compatriots just two and a half years into what became a three decades long conflict.

So let us hope indeed that the comparison is just the fevered imaginings of Johnson's own self-aggrandising hubris. If he is indeed a modern Pericles, inspired by his ancient hero's imperialist adventurism and readiness to sacrifice his country for the sake of his own beleaguered reputation, it is  absolutely imperative that on 12 December he suffers the fate of so many of the classical politician's opponents and is firmly and permanently ostracised from office.

A vote (unsuccessfully) cast in 444BC to ostracise Pericles from Athens.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Time of Monsters

It's almost passe to say the world is in turmoil. And while to some degree it always has been, a glance at today's news shows just how much: mass street protests from Baghdad through Beirut to Barcelona and beyond to Chile. Governments in paralysis of one kind or another in Israel, the UK, Canada, the USA. Violent protests in Hong Kong, military conflict in Rojava,Yemen... and so on.

Underpinning all of it are two consistent factors. Extreme levels of economic inequality, often accompanied by increasingly visible poverty, and a collapse of faith in political classes seen as self-serving, corrupt and alienated from the Governed. Liberal democracy is teetering on the edge, its once universal nostrums of elected parliaments overseeing a modicum of public services in market economies with private property and supposedly "free enterprise" stripped bare and exposed for the lies that they have been.

Increasingly, we see the vast wealth accumulated by tiny, tiny portions of the population, acquired through a hypocritical combination of ripping off taxpayers through state-appointed contracts for tens if not hundreds of billions of pounds, euros or dollars and in turn corporate and personal tax avoidance. As the system slowly breaks down, no longer responding to the macroeconomic management of the past fifty or sixty years, the social contract is under ever growing pressure.

While as many as two million domestic properties are empty each night in the UK, 25,000 people sleep on the streets. While hedge fund managers speculate and earn millions betting on the future price of food, "gig" economy workers die at 53 years of age because they can't afford time off to visit their doctor - and in one recent Amazon case, they are sent back to work immediately the removal of the corpse of a colleague who collapsed and died on shift after being told to get on with his job by the company doctor.

Globally, resources once prized as being for the common good of all - such as the rainforests and natural sources of water - are seized and commodified by multinational companies with the backing of compliant governments and international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation. Trade treaties like the EU-Canada partnership allow companies to sue the taxpayer if, for example, a hospital contract is taken back into public hands, damaging the private firms profits. The whole system is stacked in favour of the wealthy becoming ever wealthier, even at the huge risk it creates to the future of life on Earth. As the Roman writer Tacitus once lamented of his own society's colonising of all it could grab hold of, "they make a desert, and call it peace."

Here there are dangers and opportunities, and both are already becoming nakedly apparent.

Unreformed, the system will stumble on, the super-rich gradually incorporating it even further to serve their own ends through funnelling public contracts and taxpayer cash into their ever deeper pockets. They will continue to extend surveillance over everyone else, initially in the name of consumer support, but already to control our thoughts, expectations and actions. In such a culture, they will continue to foster and sponsor division - between old and young, white and black, indigenous and migrant. They will fund wars and build walls. To divide is to conquer.

We can see the fruits of this just this week - a survey in the UK, divided between pro- and anti-Brexit supporters, found that a substantial majority on both sides support violence where people can be seriously injured as a valid means of achieving their respective objectives of remaining in or leaving the European Union. This includes those who claim to be anti-populist liberals, their anti-democratic prejudices showing a bit more nakedly than their leaders' spin doctors might ideally like. While actual political violence against individuals remains relatively rare in Britain, we only have to look at the 2016 murder of Jo Cox and the death threats routine received by her successor and other predominantly female MPs to sense that it doesn't lurk far beneath the surface.

Political violence in the USA has risen sharply in recent years - many of the mass shootings covered so luridly as the work of unstable loners in truth the work of politically motivated fascists and white supremacists, while a 2018 survey found that one in five Americans on both sides of the mainstream political divide felt that the country would be improved if a large number of  supporters of the other party could "just die". Similarly, 17% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans believe that is is acceptable to send threats to public officials. One in ten support violence if the candidate of their choice doesn't win the 2020 Presidential election.

In "The Common Good", the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote that The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”

Noam Chomsky
This could not be truer than now. The poisonous Brexit debate in the UK has pitched ordinary people against each other in ways that have destroyed any faith in ballot box democracy and in each other: different groups denounce each other as traitors and morons, both sides parade guillotines and scaffolds on marches and politics have growing into a new form of sectarianism. Facts do not matter on either side: it is sheer, naked, visceral hatred and distrust. All in the name of what type of trading relationship we have with a free trade block which in truth is neither the colonising behemoth claimed by its opponents, nor the guarantor of civilisation claimed by its supporters.

Happily skating above all this, moving with some ease between both camps, is a rich elite, untouched and unmoved by whether the UK is in the EU or not, but either way continuing to rip off society on an almost unparalleled scale and quite content for the paralysis and division to continue: for as long as it does, they are unchallenged and untroubled. The real issues are ignored.

We can take on the rich and make a better future. For we already live in a world of abundance. There is already more than enough food to feed almost 50% more souls than currently walk our Earth. And just this week a study showed that offshore wind power alone could provide more energy that the world is every likely to need - clean, cheap, and permanent. Artificial Intelligence is posited to "do" almost half of current paid human work by just 2030 - a decent society could use that to give every worker 4 day weekends. A capitalist society will put half of the workforce on the dole: it won't pay a company to keep humans on where robots can take over.

The choice seems obvious, but with all the vested interests and established Power in place, change will not come easily. It will take much more than a visit to the ballot box once every four or five years. The mass demonstrations we see around the planet now have to be the harbingers of wider, deeper change.

But first, we need to make peace with each other and turn together on the real issue, the real problem before the Monsters in charge of our world finally make a desert of it and continue to charge us admission to the "Peace Experience."

Friday, 4 October 2019

In the Land of Nod - Book Review

In these difficult, anxious days, you might imagine an epidemic of insomnia, but somehow even the depths of any Backstop nightmare wouldn't compare to the premise of "Nod" a 2016 novel by Adrian Barnes published from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, of all places. It is one of the most imposing reads I have had for a while. It is dystopian sci fi at its best.

Set in Vancouver, the central premise is that one morning, nearly everyone in the world faces the rising sun having been unable to sleep all night - and over the next day or two, it becomes obvious to an increasingly panicky human race that they are unlikely to ever sleep again. In spite of this mandatory insomnia, the effects of sleeplessness ravage their bodies and over the first week, an increasingly disoriented society crumbles into despair and the apocryphal beliefs for which such times offer fertile soil. Paul, the protagonist, is a writer whose discarded manuscript of a short story about a world where no one can sleep is secretly kept by a somewhat anti-social casual acquaintance, who disseminates it to the despairing as a prophetic bible. In turn, Paul is forced into the role of a somewhat reluctant and disbelieving Messiah to an increasingly unpredictable cult. Headed by the self-titled Blue Admiral, its followers search every moment for an explanation, however bizarre, for what is happening to them, and, equally, for the assumed meaning of it all.

Paul, ironically, can still sleep - as can a handful of others he encounters, all of whom have had the same powerful dream as he has experienced each time he slumbers. Similarly, a number of suddenly mute children still sleep and hide in the forests of British Columbia as the suspicious Awakened alternately fear and blame them for their plight. The blood of Sleepers becomes prized as a possible source of a cure and Paul has to tred an increasingly impossible path between outcast and saviour.

It is beautifully written - both from the perspective of Paul as his partner withers in front of his eyes from her inability to sleep and as the paper thin social conventions of civilisation are torn in a hundred different ways each day. So also it explores the dreamier perspective of a world view dulled and giddied by its increasingly certain demise. Humans' need for purpose and reason, if only to avoid staring at the void of ultimate meaninglessness, is explored in the cult's constant, desperate search for resolution, as well as an ever growing willingness to redefine reality in search of any chance, any possible hope, even when it is so clearly hopeless. Visually striking too are the descriptions of the city landscape and the physical transformation of streets, buildings and, above all, people.

It could be a parable for our times - and the character ruminates on how people have previously denied climate change rather than face its existential threat; and how, ironically, that threat may now be removed by humanity's pending demise. The Awakened, however, do not die quietly - they kick ever more aggressively against reality, seeking solace in a round of activities and the reassuring speeches demanded of Paul by his sometime jailer/ sometime confidante, the Blue Admiral.

It would be interesting to see a film of this - if it was faithful to the book, there would be a plethora of wonderfully surreal characters and scenes to bring to life; and you'd be fairly sure to not doze off mid-tale.

Worth a read!


Tuesday, 1 October 2019

UFO - the fall of the puppets

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson are remembered for their groundbreaking children’s TV animatronics from the 1960s. Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5 (even I am not old enough to recall its first showing!) and Captain Scarlet among others opened up a universe of sci fi to young minds still young enough to think that it was quite realistic - and quite the opposite of a 2017 study, oddly but honestly now debunked by its own authors, that science fiction "makes you stupid" by commanding less attention than other genres.

The Andersons had bigger ambitions than children’s TV though and in 1970 produced UFO, a science fiction series pitched at an adult, especially American audience. Unfortunately, it did not get recommissioned although a second series was planned and instead the Andersons went on to develop the longer Space 1999 franchise with somewhat higher production values and a more expansive storyline. However, I have recently nostalgically watched the single but substantial run of 26 episodes of UFO, some of which I don’t recall seeing before at all, others half-remembered. A particular pleasure is how “1980” flashes up in the title credits to signal its amazing setting in the future!

It is a curious cross-over from puppetry to live action. It still uses scale models for many outdoor scenes, often very evidently so, though by contrast a couple of space-walk scenes are incredibly well done and would easily hold up in the digital era. But in the bunker-like headquarters of SHADO (a secret organisation protecting the Earth from alien UFOs that prey the planet sometimes to steal human organs and other times simply to cause maximum damage), real actors take the place of the Andersons’ puppets (many had notably voiced puppet characters in earlier programmes) though I do have a friend who once watched an episode almost all the way through thinking the actors were actually mannequins.

Leading SHADO is Commander Ed Straker, played by the late American actor Ed Bishop. And this is where things get surprising. Straker’s character at first seems cold and one -dimensional, but back stories about his divorce and the loss of his son, as well as a hinted drink problem, allowed Bishop to develop the role into a rather humane but tortured, dutiful but exhausted character with much more depth than immediately apparent.

Less so is the case with most of the others: Alec Freeman, Straker’s deputy, played by George Sewell is a credible foil to Straker, but beyond that the characters slip into single dimension and there are some inventive but ludicrous concepts. Inexplicably, on Moonbase female operatives wear purple wigs and shiny outfits which leave you expecting them to burst into some 1970s disco number while the crew on the Skydiver submarine are equally bizarrely togged out in string vests. Meantime, on land for some reason SHADO’s secret base is located below a film studio where Straker pretends to be a producer. When he talks into a cigar box (almost everyone smokes, even on spaceships) the whole room sinks underground to his base rather than have the Commander just use the stairs or the staff lift.

Essential 1980s Lunar gear
Although many later well known faces from British TV can be found as guest actors, the scripts are variable and sometimes include a lot of rather baffling shouting and some stormingly bad one liners. In the first couple of episodes there is a deeply off-putting welter of sexist stereotyping, while, when an African man worries about facing racist hostility when he is appointed Commander of Moonbase, Straker off-handedly dismisses the issue as having “gone out the window five years ago.” 

So that would be sometime around 1975. If only... 

It strikingly recalls just how very different the nostrums of popular culture were back then - this was the era of Man About The House, Til Death Do Us Part (Alf Garnett) and Love Thy Neighbour. To be fair (just), SHADO personnel do have a markedly greater degree of racial diversity than the norm for 1971 TV and later episodes cast some strong female characters as leaders and show male emotional vulnerability as acceptable.

Many of the storylines are rather intelligently developed and themes include a degree of ambiguity about the alien enemy: their motives are shown as desperate and survival-focused, and at times they demonstrate compassion towards the humans. The ethical limits of authority and secrecy are explored, as is the toil on individuals of constant struggle. Notably, the series cleverly anticipates the impact of later developments like electric cars and solar energy, mobile phones, voice identification and mass surveillance - although it does not question the need for the latter in fighting the alien threat.

The ambience is effectively done. Although the 1980s never looked as predicted, the detailed set designs by award-winning architect Norman Foster and fashion by Sylvia Anderson (wigs and sewage-coloured cars aside) do  provide a sense of a fairly credible alternative future. Doubtless if made now it would look even better, and while it is all too easy to reminisce and snicker at it, for its time it represented an enjoyable and thoughtful development in science fiction.

So UFO is worth watching if you are an aficionado of sci fi or if like me grew up in the 1970s and would like an affectionate stroll down the old memory lane of vintage fantasy. There’s even a very seventies soundtrack with background organ and electric guitar muzak permeating each and every episode. 

Also enjoyable are the occasional politically-oriented nuggets, apparently echoing Bishop’s progressive political views - a Green Party activist, he first met his third wife while dressed as General Pinochet when he gatecrashed an arms trade fair to protest against weapons sales. As well as many references to protecting the Earth from environmental degradation, I smiled at one of his best lines when, faced with a private mining company’s activities threatening the security of Moonbase, Commander Straker growls contemptuously, Corporations? There’s no place for corporations on the Moon!

Trailer here:UFO