Sunday, 19 June 2016

Vote Remain - to save our society

Dear friends and followers,

I'm writing this blog entry as a letter to you all, personally, as the choice that faces our country this week is one that may have shocking consequences for our society and we all have a responsibility to ensure that we don't throw away all the progress we have made in recent years. We cannot sit idly by while our society is surrendered to the politics of division and hate. 

The country was shocked and appalled by the murder of Jo Cox MP. That event has changed the EU debate, and despite any attempt to the contrary, this referendum will pass into history as resulting in the assassination of an MP who campaigned for Remain and was an outspoken advocate for refugees.

As I write this, right wing Leave campaigners and the press are spinning the ‘mentally ill loner’ narrative as they always do when a terror suspect is ‘the wrong colour’.  What is undeniable at this time is that this was a political assassination. Witnesses heard the perpetrator shouting ‘Britain first’ and when the suspect appeared in court, he refused to give any other name than ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’

Any mention of the name of Jo Cox in relation to the campaign is being jumped on as poor taste or making political capital from a tragedy. But this was a political act of terrorism, and this MP died for her beliefs. If anything, surely her voice should continue to be heard and those figures from all sides of the debate who eulogized her so well must listen again to her point of view and truly recognize what she stood and ultimately died for.

It was a political act, and the reticence in recognizing this fact in the UK is not being reflected in other parts of the world and in foreign media – French and Spanish news media made the link immediately. It has also been acknowledged by foreign political figures; surely the most loathsome of these is Marine le Pen. Le Pen, who was invited to the UK by former UKIP MEP (and now ally in the EU parliament) Janice Atkinson for the Vote Leave campaign, sought to justify the murder.

The #Brexit campaign has been quite deliberately focused by UKIP and then Vote Leave on one issue – immigration. The rhetoric has been unrestrained, UKIP continuing to plumb new depths and being quite explicitly, unashamedly, racist. A poster was revealed by Nigel Farage just before Jo Cox was attacked – a poster that has been widely condemned and even reported to the police for inciting racial hatred. It bears an uncanny resemblance to actual Nazi propaganda footage. Yet Farage defends his campaign and continues to be feted by the press and broadcast media as if this was normal and perfectly acceptable.

UKIP has done this in order to capture the votes of an aging demographic, both old-fashioned Tories and alienated traditional Labour voters. It has fostered a myth of mass migration – and it is a myth – that once internalized becomes part of the identity of their supporters. No amount of facts will ever convince such true believers to change their opinions, as it quite simply is no longer an opinion. It is no coincidence that UKIP get most of their support in places where the proportion of migrants is far below the national average – the believer has no personal experience of the issues they claim are the perfectly rational justification of their standpoint.

In the past week there was a man from North London on Question Time who said that he was unable to get a doctor’s appointment, yet all the GP surgeries in his neighbourhood - including one only a few hundred yards from his front door – are advertising for patients to sign up. On the Today programme, Leave voters from Sunderland quoted the same tropes, but when challenged admitted that they themselves had never experienced any of these problems. “It’s not here, it’s down south,” they said.  On another day, Today interviewed factory workers on a production line down south in Dover. One woman repeated the same arguments, almost verbatim. But when the interviewer pointed out that the man next to her was from Latvia, she said. “Oh it’s not the workers that are here now – they’re brilliant – it’s the others.”

The myth has been internalized to the point that it has become a defining factor in the believer’s own concept of identity. It is a fundamental truth that cannot be contradicted even when shown to be false. At best, when presented with the truth, the believer will experience a kind of cognitive dissonance before abandoning all pretense of reasoned argument to return to an emotional justification for their position.

This is at the heart of the disdain for ‘experts’ and facts that has been popularized recently by the Leave campaign. As independent expert opinions come out in favour of Remain, the facts they present are no longer engaged with or even argued against – they are simply dismissed and ignored. The very qualifications of the authorities in these fields is used as a justification to doubt their credibility.

There is real fear about what will happen if Leave wins and the far right takes that win as a mandate and justification. We have already seen a resurgence in racist attacks across the country (not ten minutes ago as I write this, a group of Asian men were verbally abused in the street outside my house). Last week when I was campaigning for Remain, a Polish man was too afraid to put a poster in his window – in central Cambridge.

This referendum was never about the EU. It began as an election pledge by Cameron, the sole purpose being to unite his party and claim back votes from UKIP. It very quickly became a vehicle for a coup within the party. Opportunists - some of whom in the past had been in favour of the EU – used the campaign to their own ends. UKIP has always exploited xenophobia and a fake nostalgic jingoism, and were allowed by a ratings-hungry BBC and the right-wing press to set the agenda. The official Leave campaign was then forced to follow suit. All the while, pro-immigration parties, such as the Green Party, were not even allowed a party political broadcast.

Quite simply, the referendum on Thursday is about the future of British society, and how we relate to each other and the world. The progress we have made even in my own lifetime in equality, in human rights, in building a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society has been extraordinary. Now through the vanity of some and the bigotry of others, we stand on the very precipice, in real danger of throwing this all away, gifting political and cultural power to fascism and hate, in some twisted parody of history replayed.

There are perfectly good reasons why some of you would vote for Lexit – and if this referendum was truly about these issues I would be seriously considering how to vote. But the referendum was never about the EU, and now in the week of the vote, the issues have been simplified - what kind of society do you want to live in?

Which Britain do you want to wake up in on Friday morning?

So I’d ask you first of all to MAKE SURE that you vote on Thursday as every single vote will count, and I would also ask you to vote Remain even if you have to hold your nose to do it. The future of this country is at stake, and if Leave wins, there will be no way back.

Thank you for your time.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Hateful Eight - Review


This review is of the Roadshow presentation at the Odeon Leicester Square – and there are spoilers in Part Two below – so if you haven’t seen it yet, skip that section below!

A lot has been said about Tarantino’s use of Panavision for this film, but perhaps the most important thing you need to realize is that the aspect ratio is practically impossible to bring down even to widescreen format – just look at the way films like It’s a Mad….World or Ben Hur were re-shot (using projectors), with the frame cropped or having bizarre panning across the frame – if you want to see this film (and it is a film, not a digital file) then you have to go and see it at a cinema.

Some people have criticized the use of this format for what is in effect a three-act theatrical play. In the past the screen was used to show enormous vistas or blockbuster sets with literal casts of thousands. In Hateful Eight for example, there is an extended scene with four characters cramped up inside a stagecoach. But the use of the camera here and in the rest of the film is brilliant. You are brought into the action in such a way that it is easy for you to get involved with the characters, and makes what happens later all the more shocking.

Example – In the second part of the film a stagecoach draws up to Minnie’s Haberdashery, a coach stop literally in the middle of nowhere. The co-driver, Six-Horse Judy, jumps down and puts her head through the coach window to welcome the passengers. The entire screen is the window, and as she smiles and talks to the passengers, she is talking directly to the audience.

Tarantino does act as The Narrator on a couple of occasions, but really the narrator is the camera. He uses it to lock in the viewer, to direct the gaze, in precisely the same way a writer switches between characters in a book to show their relative points of view and internal dialog – their motivations. Tarantino combines the camera shot with the performance of the actors to achieve precisely this effect. You see through one character’s eyes, rather than seeing everything all at once. Like a magician, he only reveals what he wants you to see.

Jennifer Jason-Leigh plays Daisy Domergue, an outlaw under sentence of death, in the custody of bounty hunter, Hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell). Reviewers have talked about the treatment of the character and Tarantino does use the violence against her to shock and for comedic effect in the first part of the film – it changes mood completely in the second. Despite the murderous venom and bigotry Domergue displays, you still feel sympathetic to the character, and even Ruth at times can be seen to treat her with unexpected tenderness. Mark  Kermode says that Domergue references Carrie towards the end of the film, but I didn’t see that at all. I saw one of the witches from Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Kumonosu-Jou (English title – Throne of Blood).  She sits on the floor, rocking, predicting Mannix’s doom. No matter what happens, she is always in control of the situation – apart from once – and that is done so brilliantly yet again you empathise with the character.

There is a lot of comedy in the film, aside from the ‘shock laughs’ of the audience. These are delivered through deliberately-crafted stereotypes – as Tarantino puts it in his interview in Sight and Sound, he asked the actors to have their characters play characters. So Mexican Bob (Bichir) plays the dumb Mexican they expect – Mowbray (Roth) plays the toff (he asked him to play it like Terry Thomas!) and Ruth comes across like John Wayne. Also in the S&S interview, he reveals something that Russell told him about when he played Snake Plissken opposite Lee Van Cleef in Escape from New York. He deliberately played those scenes as Clint Eastwood, as he felt completely overawed by Van Cleef, and he knew that two-handed scenes with Eastwood and Van Cleef had worked so well.

And speaking of audience, you really have to see a Tarantino film with an audience. The Odeon was sold out, and it had a great atmosphere. One of my favourite memories was seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time in Leeds, sat on the front row of a tiny cinema (now gone, sadly) as those were the only two seats left. The second half of Chris Walken’s speech to the young Butch was drowned out by laughter – during the OD scene you could have heard a pin drop, and when Butch’s pop-tarts pinged out of the toaster, the entire front row jumped.

Some things to look out for when you see the film:

Hats! When I realized this, I was totally blown away. Tarantino uses hats to signify vulnerability. Minnie’s has a ‘no-hat’ rule - which is no longer observed when Mexican Bob takes charge – so watch who wears hats, and when they are removed.

Watch the camera angles – Tarantino couldn’t use zoom lenses with a Panavision camera, or steadicam (obviously!) so every time the camera moves it’s either on a dolly or a crane. And for close-ups – it’s that close!

The blizzard can be heard moving around the theatre throughout the film. It sets the auditorium walls to be the remaining three walls of Minnie’s Haberdashery. And there is only one door – nailed shut!


It has been called Tarantino’s most political film, but most reviews I’ve seen have jumped on Jackson’s speech “…the only way White folks feel safe is if Black folks is nervous. And the only way Black folks is safe, is if the White folks is disarmed.” This has been taken to reference Tarantino’s involvement with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign and his comments about the US police. But they’ve missed the point. It’s not those two lines – it’s Major Warren’s Lincoln letter.

Jackson’s character, Major Warren, is a renowned retired US Cavalry officer with distinguished service in the Civil War. He carries a letter from President Lincoln in his pocket, his most treasured possession. John Ruth, who lets Warren ride in his private stagecoach, asks to read it, and it brings tears to his eyes. He isn’t impressed when this is revealed to be a fake.

Warren wrote the letter himself and while this deception disgusts Ruth, Warren says, “well it got me into your stagecoach, didn’t it?”

The way I read this is as an indictment of Obama’s presidency – and I don’t mean all the blame falls on Obama – but the even the concept of the first African American president. We were all taken up by the campaign of Hope, and the day he was inaugurated we thought was going to be the dawn of a new day for civil rights and equality not just in the US but across the world. We thought that it would bring an end to US imperialism and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. But this didn’t happen. The racists ran the ‘birther’ campaign, the Republicans blocked progressive policies at every turn. Externally, the secret war campaign started under Bush and aggressively pursued by Cheney was extended, with Obama’s Tuesday morning ‘kill list’ meetings bringing death to anyone, anywhere, including for the first time, US citizens. Camp X-Ray stayed open. More whistleblowers were imprisoned under Obama than under all other previous presidents combined.

This is the disappointment of Major Warren. The letter that promises so much, that he has used as protection and leverage (simply to get an even playing-field) is a fake.

Even after two terms of the ‘first black president’, the levels of deprivation and infant mortality rates amongst African Americans are directly comparable to those 150 years ago.  African American males are disproportionally represented in what is the biggest prison population (as a percentage of the whole population) in the world. And as we have seen over the past couple of years, being black in the United States can get you shot dead by the police, whether you are a child in a playground or a grandmother in your own house.

Nevertheless, right at the end of the film, when Warren and Sheriff Mannix are united as comrades representing ‘frontier justice’, they return to the letter and we hear the full content for the first time. They know it is a fake – and yet the promise of the letter is renewed.

Mannix is seen up to the end of the film as a racist, a true believer in the ‘lost cause’ of the confederacy, a defender of General Smithers – yet when Warren baits Smithers and kills him, he takes no action. The entire point of the film and what creates the tension after that is the decision that Mannix makes – whether to side with the outlaws or Warren. Two of the most diametrically opposed characters as far as race and ideology go are united against a common enemy, in mutual respect – in that Lincoln letter.

The fact that the letter is fake no longer matters. The hope that it represents is not fake – and there is the possibility that its promise can yet be fulfilled.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Silencing of the Lambs - the War on the Peace Campaign

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a deliberate campaign to discredit peace campaigners and lobbyists, the like of which we haven’t seen in recent years. Even the Iraq War did not elicit the kind of relentless vilification of protestors currently published in the mainstream media, the BBC and on social media. Anti-war campaigners have been accused not just of being appeasers or cowards as in the past, but bizarrely, supporters or sympathizers of armed conflict – of being ‘terrorist sympathisers’ by none other than the Prime Minister himself.

There is one campaign but there are two agendas at work behind it. In some ways the motivations interlink, but the emphasis being given to these ends is different in both camps.

On one side, there is the government propaganda campaign. Designed simply to support and justify the illegal action in Syria - though even government ministers only months previously were themselves arguing against it, the Foreign Affairs Committee advised against it, as well as former diplomats and military commanders. We’re still waiting for Chilcot, but here again was another ‘dodgy dossier’ claim of ’70,000 Syrian freedom fighters’ ready to dash into action as soon as they saw the RAF roundel overhead.

There simply is no logical, political or military reason why the military action was extended into Syria – where other countries are currently bombing all the different factions with little or no coordination between them. There is no end strategy, no exit plan, no cohesive mission, and as for targets – what solid infrastructure and assets ISIS/ISIL/DAESH/IS has displayed, have already been long-since obliterated. The US even commented on how pointless the addition of our aging aircraft was to any military strategy. On top of that, every bombing raid is costing somewhere in the region of £0.5m, when we have record numbers of children in poverty and chronic underfunding to social services and the NHS.

We don’t know why the government is hell-bent on war, though there are the usual reasons: the excuse to wind-back human rights; force through draconian laws; divert from mismanagement of the economy or other agendas; boost profits for the arms trade; the promise of eventual carpet-bagging (a seat at the table) of what’s left when it’s all over. In the absence of a solid reason, propaganda and fear-mongering are used to create one. Terror plots with no arrests, charges, evidence etc. are cited. Government initiatives like Prevent and ‘leaks’ to the tabloids are used to create fear and suspicion within communities – and we have seen the rise in racist and islamophobic attacks that have inevitably followed.

It does not suit the government for organized anti-war campaigners to be protesting, fact-checking, countering the propaganda with independent and foreign media sources and lobbying their MPs. For this reason, they have sought to close down the debate, claiming victimhoodfor MPs, demonizing peaceful protest, equating the peace campaigners with the enemy.

This isn’t necessarily new if we look at the history of peace campaigns even in the UK, except this time in its vitriol, relentlessness and resulting actual threat to democracy.

Inevitably there will be, as there are in every movement and attached to every medium, those trolls and fervent tribalists who will go so far as to seek to intimidate rather than argue, to bully rather than lobby, and there are laws and safeguards in place to deal with that minority. But what we are seeing here is the exploitation of that minority to tar the entire movement, and the validity of the argument

On the other side however, we have a group whose only concern it seems is to continue to personally destroy the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He is a life-long peace campaigner, until recently Chair of the Stop the War Coalition – instrumental in organizing the biggest public demonstration in British history. Now he is a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, tantamount to a fifth columnist, even being called a ‘fascist’; a ‘threat to security’ presenting a ‘clear and present danger’. This is being propagated by a faction within the parliamentary Labour Party, who in contempt of the party membership, their own constituents and Labour voters want to usurp the leader and recreate the party in their own image. Whether deliberately or through sheer ignorance, these figures are being courted by the BBC and MSM as this suits their and the government’s agendas. An effective political opposition to the war cannot be tolerated. And therefore it must be discredited and suppressed.

The figurehead of the Syrian War is curiously not Cameron or any Tory politician. It is Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary. Cited as being the greatest political speech in modern times, his drumbeating patriotic polemic made Tories leap to their feet in applause, and swayed some of the MPs in his own party away from the wishes of their constituents and into the government lobbies. I don’t know what camp Benn is in. He’s been wrong about every single military conflict from Iraq onward. The speech itself was a travesty, re-writing history, painting parliament as the defenders of good against evil, forgetting perhaps not just our appeasement but deliberate establishment and support of fascist states across North Africa, South America, Arabia and the Middle East (and let’s not even mention the crimes of empire). Whether deliberate leadership challenger or naive government and MSM shill, the damage he did was devastating.

Today it was announced that Green MP Caroline Lucas was ‘distancing herself’ from the Stop the War Coalition, and the timing could not have been worse. Now her action and the statement released to justify it is being used by these very factions to further attack the movement, the antiwar case itself and Corbyn in person, and this just days before a mass rally in London.

CORRECTION 12/12/15 - It turns out that Caroline's resignation was used by the MSM - she stepped down weeks ago. The 'statement' wasn't a release but in response to media questions. However, this didn't stop figures even within the Green Party from also using the story to attack Stop the War Coalition in support of pro 'humanitarian bombing' and pro-regime change Syrian groups.

It appears the Green Party has a hawk, seemingly believing that insisting on the primacy of international law and learning the lessons from Iraq and Libya display a 'failure to think'.

At the same time, we have the victory of the FN in France, a country still under martial law in all but name, where the state of emergency is already being used as to curtail human rights and silence dissent, alongside the threat of increased surveillance of its citizens – where those citizens now most under threat of attack are Muslims. In the US, Donald Trump makes one of the most outrageously racist statements of his controversial campaign, demonizing all Muslims, whilst at the same time, islamophobic attacks in the US and UK are massively on the increase. A man who tries to murder a Muslim woman by pushing her under a train isn’t a terrorist – but a mentally-disturbed man attacking a busker in a tube station is – because he mentioned Syria. 

The situation over the next few weeks will only get worse - peace campaigners will be continually attacked in order to discourage protest, propaganda will be stepped up, whilst at the same time the US and UK families actually under threat and living in fear will be British Muslims - whilst the rhetoric from the racist press and government policies further divide our communities. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Corbyn - he's not the Messiah - he's not even a naughty boy

Last night I was one of the Green Party members to ‘sneak in’ to hear Jeremy Corbyn speak at Great St Mary’s in Cambridge. It was packed to capacity, with hundreds outside too - who actually heard Corbyn’s speech before those inside. I went out of curiosity, to catch some of the spirit of this new political movement on the left, a return by the Labour Party to progressive politics. But I came away disappointed, not enthused or motivated as I expected to be.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Corbyn speak. Over the past couple of years I’ve seen him at almost every protest and march I’ve attended, from the People’s Assembly to Stop the War, so I already knew what kind of speaker he was and his point of view. He is not a tub-thumper rabble-rousing public speaker like Mark Serwotka, Owen Jones or even our Caroline Lucas. He is a confident and reasoned orator, more of the ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ model.

His message is nothing new and to be honest, not radical. Most of the policies outlined belonged to the Labour Party as ‘givens’ when I was young and are current Green Party policies. Compared to Green ideals, they seem pretty mediocre and I fall firmly into the camp who say that the Greens need to stay Green as Corbyn’s Labour will not provide our core values or fully address the issues that we will face with climate change and environmental degradation. But I was expecting this too, so this wasn’t the source of my feelings of anti-climax.

The reaction of the crowd was predictably upbeat and excited. They applauded him when he came in, and gave him two standing ovations on the way out. They applauded his policy points (which was great, those policies being identical to Green Party policies!).  There wasn’t a dissenting voice, no comment from the pews other than asking him to stand where most of the congregation could see him.

On the way out it was a slightly different story however. When I go to the theatre or see a film I like to dawdle in the foyer or outside the exit to catch snippets of people’s conversations as they go by. On the way out of the church, most of what I heard was negative. Obviously not everyone in the hall was a Labour Party member or supporter  - I’m not. There were bound to be some there who were sceptical or went along out of pure curiosity. But it really seemed as if some of the people who stood in the ovation only minutes previously were now voicing their actual opinion amongst themselves. But even this surprise wasn’t the source of my lack of enthusiasm.

A lot has been made by Owen Jones and other commentators about Corbynmania, about this being the start of something, the English answer to Podemos, Syriza and even the rise of the SNP(!). And after some of the People’s Assembly actions and the Class Conference last year, the Green Surge – I thought it was really happening. I came away from them with fire in my veins  - it was the beginning of a powerful movement. But Corbynmania isn’t it. The energy, the ‘revolutionary zeal’ as some comrades in the SWP might put it, is absent.

What we need, as Cameron throws crumbs to refugees (and commits the first executive ordered extra-judicial killing of a Briton), is real opposition, prepared to leap to the barricades and in the spirit of Corbyn’s parents scream NO PASARAN! But Corbyn junior isn’t it.

Corbyn said in his speech that we shouldn’t shout and throw things at the television. At the most, you’ll end up hoarse with a busted TV. We need to do something real, join with others and get active. What he didn’t say is we need to take back the streets.  And I think that is precisely what he should have said.

On Saturday thousands of people, about 400 right here in Cambridge, took the streets to make it known in no uncertain terms that Refugees are Welcome Here.  Over £600 was collected and the local collection centre was so overloaded with donations of clothes and goods that it had to close its doors.

Next Saturday there will be a mass demonstration in London to demand that Cameron stops shaming this country and admits our fair share of refugees, not just preferentially selected from ‘nice’ camps in Turkey but from Calais, from Italy and Greece, in order to also assist those European countries currently overloaded. This isn’t an Early Day Motion, it isn’t yet another ‘signthispetition’ tweet. It is thousands of people stopping the traffic, making themselves heard and physically seen, to say, ‘up with this we will not put.’

Podemos and Syriza took the streets and the ballot box. In some respects, Syriza was beaten down and failed, capitulating to the unstoppable force of neo-liberalism, the Troika and the banks. But it also shows the limitations perhaps of hoping that by using the system that the elites invented to give the people the illusion of choice and power, that real change can be effected and real power can be distributed to the masses. But this isn’t the case. The whole system needs to be reformed and that cannot be achieved whilst those in power are in power – as they will only seek to maintain their positions for as long as possible. 

Corbyn mentioned reforming the way policy is decided in the Labour Party  - to go back to the way it used to be, to form policy through open debate and fix it through a vote of the membership. It’s a good idea; it’s the way the Green Party do things. But whilst he talked about changing society he didn’t mention electoral reform.

Electoral reform, in particular proportional representation, comes with dangers. It would have meant for example, that the far-right populist UKIP would have dozens of MPs  - but then the argument goes, in a completely reformed system UKIP would not have had half the following they had.  For PR to work it also would need reform of the media, doing away with a biased national broadcaster and smashing media empires – giving independent and local media an even playing field. It would mean the end of private contribution to political parties, funding each party equally from national funds.

But of course this will never happen. The national broadcaster tonight launched the latest smear against Corbyn – a direct attempt to interfere with an internal election of a political party. Clearly the establishment is afraid of what Corbyn represents.

But then Corbyn has become a representation of an ideal, whilst being very far from it. His supporters know his reputation and the smears will only strengthen their resolve. But unlike the rabid personality cult that UKIP cultivated around Farage, it seems that they are also more willing to accept that he isn’t perfect. But he is the best and only chance they’ve got.

Perhaps I’m also expecting too much. Perhaps we should see JC not as the saviour, but ‘as his prophet’. He is a stage on the way to political salvation – the first step as the progressive left stands up again, divided and demoralized as they were, beaten down by Thatcher and Blair. Perhaps to continue the allusion, JC is the one to say to the left, ‘take up thy bed and walk’.

What I was expecting, from the man and more from the movement, was the freedom fighter – casting the money-changers from the temple, talking of bringing figurative swords to the fight.

If Corbyn is the first step, we still have an awful long way to go. And with all the guns of the elite ranged against him, it remains to be seen how successful this forlorn hope is – and if Corbyn does fall, if there will be another to pick up the standard and once more run to the breach.