Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Why horrid is the new real... allegedly.

This is a blog post about horrible. If you want to read something nice, try somewhere else today.

I started thinking about horrible as a thing, as a cultural concept, a few weeks ago. I was in a cafe working on my laptop. It was an irredeemably hipster cafe, manned by two young chaps sporting the usual hipster uniform of tight jeans, lumber shirt, beard and beanie. In case you think this is just going to be me slagging off hipsters, I should point out they both seemed lovely: friendly, intelligent, and really cared that you got a nice cup of tea. They just had horrible clothes. I don't think it's news to anyone that hipster fashion is horrible.

Some people think fashion is meaningless, that it doesn't say anything, but that's mainly because it's mostly associated with women, and thus can't be a proper sort of culture. I think fashion says a lot about the time it lives in. Victorian fashion says 'Look at my prosperity - I have money to spend on all this stuff'; 1920s fashion says 'I'm liberated and in a new century'; 1960s fashion says 'Welcome to the space age, baby – but don't forget men are still men, and women are still dolls'. Modern hipster fashion, to me, seems to say 'I can't afford to pay the heating bill, and don't expect anyone else to.'

After a while, one of the hipster guy's girlfriends came in. She was dressed more or less pretty much the same as he was, except for the beard. She sat down and read a book, quietly, for a while, and I couldn't help thinking how subdued they all seemed, for a bunch of people who must all be about, I dunno, twenty-three. The only loud person was a girl who came in and talked loudly for about ten minutes, passionately, about coffee. Is it normal to be passionate about coffee when you're twenty-three? The hipster guy's girlfriend didn't talk passionately about anything. She was beautiful but you had to look really hard at her to see it: like she was a bit embarrassed that anyone might notice. I wanted her not to be: I wanted her to feel proud of herself, and of her chap, since he actually seemed like a really nice guy. I wished they were somewhere better, somewhere warmer perhaps, dressed in clothes that expressed some sort of hope, and maybe laughed a bit more loudly. I wished they had expressed some dissatisfaction more noisily than through their horrible, joyless clothes.

Of course, fashion is not the only thing doing horrible right now. There is also horrible design to go with the horrible fashion. Weirdly, some of the horrible design isn't necessarily cheap. I know of several cafés that have had the perfectly pleasant décor ripped out, at considerable cost, to make it look more derelict. One café I frequent got rid of the perfectly functional white china mugs to replace them with lidless, handled jamjars. They also attempted to disguise the fact that they traded from a lovely listed Georgian house by making it look more like a cowshed. It must have cost a fortune.

On a larger scale, horrible proliferates across our cityscapes. Cheap, badly made buildings are flung up with a bravado that suggests 'if you don't like it, you're yesterday's news, Granddad'. London in particular is being overwhelmed by the massive, hideous structures spreading out from the City of London.

Horrible fashion, horrible design, are only part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. There's plenty of horrible coming down from on high. The chancellor, George Osborne, is like a national figurehead of horrible. Unpleasant in manner and demeanour, disliked even by most of his own side, he is wheeled out to let the nation know that things are only going to get worse. Politically, this is very odd: the usual trick of politicians is to tell people how great everything will be, while surreptitiously clouting them. But it's like Osborne is considered more real, more honest, because he's well, horrid.

In economics, and in business, being horrible is considered proof of your ability to handle a situation. There is a TV programme called The Apprentice, in which a bunch of horrible people complete to be more horrible than each other, to win the approval of the entirely horrible Alan Sugar. This, apparently, is 'real' business. Scheduled at the same time as The Apprentice, is a show about an actual business, the elderly and eccentric Liberty of London. You get to see the Liberty staff spending a lot of time and effort being nice to their customers, and the management team deploying diplomacy skills fit to end a small war, in order to work with and around some of the eccentric people involved. But it isn't watched half as much as The Apprentice: it's just not as horrible.

Horrible infects fiction too. Everyone raves about Sherlock, in which a horrible, dysfunctional genius solves crimes. Ok, Sherlock is a bit horrible in the books. But he doesn't incidentally abuse Watson, his sidekick. We've made him more horrible, because that's more edgy, and somehow, more real. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock, is lauded for portraying him like this, as if he is very brave. Cumberbatch also recently played Alan Turing, who he played as horrible and mean. Turing was a lot of things, but I have not seen any actual evidence he was unpleasant. Why? Why does everything have to be?

Ah, I hear you cry, because capitalism. Capitalism is horrid, you see. Now, I would like to examine this a bit. Of course there are aspects of capitalism that are unpleasant. But the fundamental trick of capitalism is to produce things that make people's lives more pleasant. Hungry? Buy bread. Bored of bread? Try cake. Cold? Have a coat, have a duvet, have a central heating system. You move upwards with more and more people getting these things, and everyone profits all the way. But modern economics seems to have gone off this idea, and decided that people who have heating can make do with duvets, and people who have cake can make do with bread. I would like to explain the rationale behind this, but I'm sorry, I'm unable.

This autumn, I had quite a large refund from an overcharged utility bill, and thought – being usually on a tight budget - I would treat myself a bit. Now, in a properly functioning capitalist economy there should have been a queue of people wanting to relieve me of my cash. Instead I found it surprisingly hard to spend a couple of hundred quid because so much of the stuff that was on offer was simply horrible. Badly designed, ill-made, and shoddy.

I also wanted, on my day off, to go to the cinema, but I didn't, because there were only films about superheroes and stuff aimed at teenage boys, at the main cinema. At the art cinema they had 'gritty' on offer, instead, which is a way of saying 'depressing'. I would have seen a comedy, if it'd actually been funny, or a romance, or an adventure, or even a war film if it hadn't been relentlessly depressing. But comedy is mostly aimed at mocking people these days, and romance is deemed too embarrassing for men to witness, so it isn't really made. Films about winning wars are a bit awkward, since these days we only lose them. So I went home with my tenner in my pocket. Capitalism #fail.

During this same period, I recieved several letters from various companies, all asking me to prove that I didn't owe them money, which I didn't. It took me several weeks to respond, and the letters kept coming. They all seemed quite resentful of the thought that I might have some money that they couldn't simply remove from me at will. It's like the whole idea that I earnt some money and then freely decided how to dispose of it, and indeed that I might have any money at all, that was mine and not theirs, made them actually quite angry.

These things are not about capitalism. Capitalism is about supply and demand. Failing to provide things for which there is a demand, and forcing people to consume that which has been supplied, whether they want it or not, isn't capitalism. It's a feature of failing centrally-run economies like those of the latter-day Soviet Union.

I'm not denying that Capitalism can be horrid. It's just that it isn't intrinsically. The Victorians used it to build many beautiful structures and buildings. But try suggesting that to any modern architect and they'll laugh (or cry). Because that isn't where we're at right now. What we do now, is horrid.

I'm not quite sure when we decided that horrible was a new cultural good, and somehow more 'real' and authentic than good things. Ask yourself, are the bad things that happened in your life more real than the good ones? Did your horrid boyfriend, nasty flatmate, tasteless dinner or vile job have a tang of authenticity that the better ones didn't? No? Really, funny that.

It's hard to recognise a cultural phenomenon when you're inside it, a bit like sitting in a giant balloon and not realising there's an outside. But if you think a few things are quite horrible right now, you're not mad – they are – and trust me, in a few years this 'authenticity of horrid' will look as fake, stinky, and out-of-date as a polyester shirt. Because horrible is just a fashion, a cultural fad, and truly – a collective insanity. Being horrible will not make your business succesful, having horrid tattoos will not make you sexy, and horrid plates will not make the food taste better in your restaurant. Telling a horrid story will not make it more true. Also, the opposite of horrible is not nice, which is a little bit weedy and fake. The opposite of horrible is wonderful.

I don't know how to resist the overwhelming tide of horrid except by refusing to be. How you do that is up to you, I believe. I don't really know what we should do. I just think that sometimes it helps to be able to point at something, and call it by its right name.

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PS I wrote this yesterday before the Paris shooting. I feel like ISIS/ISIL or whatever you want to call them are just another manifestion of the worship of horrible. They think they are more islamic because they are more horrible.

Unfortunately for some people horrible is just a matter of slugging through a bunch of depressing crapness. For other people it is a matter of life and death.

This is equally true of sick people in damp council flats who have had their benefits cut, as it is of cartoonists gunned down for taking the piss. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Imitation Game, or, the Inventing Things That Didn't Happen Game.

Went to see the Imitation Game today, the film about Alan Turing, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Now, I know I am a miserable old pedant, but I'd like to warn you that The Imitation Game is about as historically accurate as the Sound of Music. WARNING: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Like many modern films, the Imitation Game follows a set narrative of a single male genius who cuts a path through all the bullshit around him and thus saves everyone. He's the lone cowboy and nobody understands him, etc etc. In this movie, Cumberbatch plays Turing as Sherlock, a difficult, slightly autistic genius that can't get on with anyone. He cracks the code and saves humanity, before being accused of spying and destroyed by his closeted homosexuality. He's a tragic genius, oh, and because of it, he has to be misunderstood and horrible, obviously.

Poor Alan Turing. The only bit of this that's true was that he was a genius. He was certainly eccentric but there's absolutely no evidence that he was either a) horrible b) closeted or c) tortured - except by hay fever, and used to cycle to work wearing a gas mask to avoid it.

In the film, Turing has a difficult job interview for a post at Bletchley Park. In actual fact, he was working for Government Code and Cypher Services from 1938, prior to the outbreak of the war. He personally invents the machine which is used to break the German codes. In fact he developed it from a prototype created by Polish intelligence, which brought an enigma machine to Britain at the start of the War. In the film, he works alone, opposed and misunderstood at every move. In actual fact he worked with a number of other codebreakers, all of whom recognised his skills. Far from being his opponents, they were in most cases his allies.

The bizarrest falsehood created by the film is that, having hacked into the German Naval Enigma Code, Turing and his colleagues face a dilemma about whether to tell their bosses, who are so stupid they will waste this vital intelligence, and let on to the Germans that the code was broken. This is rubbish. British intelligence certainly had problems using the decrypted information without letting the Germans realise their codes were broken. However this was not Turing's problem, and decisions about the operating use of the decrypts were taken by military intelligence. There was no 'statistical' answer to this problem, as the film makes out, and to suggest that they would not have informed their immediate superiors of the breakthrough is balderdash.

(If you are interested in this at all, I recommend reading The Enemy is Listening by Aileen Clayton, a WRAF intelligence officer who worked out of North Africa for much of the war, and who occupied the equivalent rank of Major. Clayton started out intercepting radio communications on the South Coast of Britain during the early part of the war. There is a funny anecdote in her book about how they keep being slipped bits of information that were allegedly 'found in a wastebasket'. Eventually asked to go to a meeting at Bletchley, she finds herself eyeing the wastebins suspiciously, before being let in to the secret. Clayton spent much of the war wrestling with the torture of having access to information which could have saved lives, but being forced to hold onto it for the sake of concealing information gathering networks. Clayton's book is out of print, but you can get it through a library.)

Another weirdness of the film is when cryptographer Joan Clarke tells Turing she has to go home as her parents want her back. Again, this is inaccurate. Conscription for unmarried women aged 20-30 cut in in 1942: Clarke would have been as liable to turn up for service as any man of her age, whether her parents liked it or not. Equally, Clarke was not forced to work in some other part of Bletchley but was part of the team in Hut 8, and for a while was deputy leader.

Nor was Clarke ignorant of Turing's tendencies. Turing had been a fellow at Kings College Cambridge, then an all-male institution where close friendships and relationships between men would barely have raised a murmur, and he was not particularly discreet about his sexuality, either before the war of after. If anything, his eventual downfall was a result of him being more or less 'out' rather than closeted.

Nor is there any suggestion that Turing was disliked or persecuted by the authorities during the war. He was in fact promoted, and sent to the US to share his discoveries with them. He was eccentric, and like many hyper-intelligent people, relentlessly interested in all intellectual concepts about everything, including biology and philosophy, as well as maths. But there is a big difference between eccentric and loathed, and Bletchley Park was notoriously full of odd people.

Finally, he was never accused of spying. He did lose his security clearances during the early 50s, in the wake of the Cambridge Spy Ring revelations. But this film, which allegedly holds him up as hero, actually traduces him in so many ways.

Historical films have a number of purposes, and one of them is to mark the sophisticated, worldly present out from the ignorant past, thus appealing to the ego of viewers. This film paints the war years as some kind of sexually repressed wasteland. In fact the 1940s, with its 'we might die tomorrow' morals was, for many people, an anything-goes era. Prosecutions for homosexuality were rare, as the demands of fighting a total war meant that the state needed the help of any body it could lay its hands on, whether gay, straight, foreign, black or white. Intelligence was notoriously the most anything-goes. It was one of the few parts of the establishment where any kind of person could make a mark, far more so than the official services like the army and navy. In general, prosecutions for homosexuality, like the one that brought down Turing, were a product of the new repression and stringent enforcing of gender norms that took place in the 50s, as the cold war set in and a post-war-shell-shocked society decided that everyone should know their place, again. During the actual war, a nation fighting for its life largely had better things to do than police people's sex lives.

Another thing that bothered me about this film was the very modern insistence on the lone hero. Britain defeated the Nazis because of a giant collective effort, which involved most of the nation's (and several other nations') thinking brains, fighting bodies, and the armies of civilians who grew food, hacked coal, scrimped, saved, volunteered, and refused to give in. (Also, because of the Russians.) We love lone geniuses, in our age of individualism, and get nervous about the concept of collective effort, but the fact is, all Turing's efforts would have been useless without the people who helped him. Turing could only decrypt the information that was intercepted, and picking up this information took a great number of people. Turing himself would have seen himself as part of that giant effort, and to suggest that he was ever disloyal to the British cause is frankly insulting.

So I think the moral of this story is: reading history books will frankly ruin your enjoyment of popular culture, so don't do it, kids.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Terror and wonder: the Gothic Imagination at British Library

This week I was lucky to have work stuff in London, so I had a spare afternoon to visit 'Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination' at the British Library. Bearing in mind that this is a library, not a museum, and the majority of the exhibits are books, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be a bit unchallenging. About four minutes in, I thought so too, then two hours later I was still there, poring over the exhibits.

The exhibition begins with the Castle of Otranto, by Walpole, the original British Gothic Novel written in the 18th Century, and works its way through the Romantics, the influence of Gothic on Jane Austen, the Brontes, Victorian sensationalism, Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, Dracula and the history of vampires, Hammer Horror and modern gothic, and finishes with an exhibition of photos by Martin Parr, of Goth Weekend in Whitby, 2014.

I was totally blown away by seeing original manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Seeing them in their handwritten state is akin to looking at the innards of a bomb, as one suddenly realises what a massive effect such a small, fragile-looking thing may have when it explodes into being. Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, and it is chaotic and scribbled, with Percy Shelley's nerdy, pedantic handwriting in the margin, like the annoying boyfriend who thinks he knows better. Frankenstein is a book about technology and about nightmares, and was written when both the horrors and wonders of the industrial revolution were steaming into full gear. Looking at the manuscript, I felt a moment of unease, a lurching sideways like the deck of an unsteady ship, and I thought, what an upending of the old order, what a moment of terror, that nineteen-year-old girls might be let loose to document our fears and dreams, and set down the ghosts of the future, and all the the things that frighten us. I have seen all the usual things and images that anyone in the 21st century has, but I honestly can't remember seeing anything more transgressive than those scribbles by Shelley and the Brontes, scraped away with a quill pen, in candlelight and darkness.

I was less fascinated by Dickens but it is interesting to be reminded that what now seems like cosy old-worldy Victorianism was actually written with the intention of revealing injustices and horrific poverty, and that he faced complaints and lawsuits because of it. Also, as the exhibition points out, how the background of gothic changed from one of rural horror to a very urban one. I was startled to find links between things that I was familiar with, but hadn't connected: that the play or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde premiered at the theatre at the exact time that the Ripper murders were happening, and that the manager of said theatre was Mr Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. 

Some lovely non-book items from the 20th century included costume and set design from theatre and horror movies, as well as a brief section detailing the rise of modern 'goth'. Martin Parr's photographs give their subjects dignity without concealing any flaws or oddities, and the homemade outfits portrayed are far more interesting than the one underwhelming dress by Alexander McQueen.

There was actually a huge amount to take in and think about, but what I particularly liked was that there was no attempt to dumb down a whistlestop tour of the subject, which nonetheless only touched on half the material it could. The subject is dealt with chronologically, not thematically, so you can see how the genre developed and changed as it went on, but that it keeps being rolled around to deal with the same issues – deep-seated unease around change, cultural identity, sexuality, and social conflict, that it first did right at the start of the industrial revolution. Also how, as a form of art often dismissed as 'trashy' – suitable for impressionable females and excitable poor people – it has consistently dealt with the big questions in society, like gender and sex, technology and colonialism, in the way that 'respectable' literature has not.

I really feel that the British Library should congratulate itself on this exhibition. It's like the kind of public communications that fell out of fashion a few decades ago, when somebody very intelligent and expert just explains something they know a hell of a lot about, with some fabulous and fragile objects, but no CGI. It made my brain hurt, in the best possible way. Also, I now have a reading list as long as my arm.

Finally, to go off at a tangent, if you think all this is only interesting in a historical, literary, intellectual sense, I have to point out you're wrong. Why? I'll tell you a story. Like a proper gothic story, it starts with a country bumpkin (me) who gets lost somewhere alien and terrifying (London underground). At night, obviously. I passed through Westminster, where the bomb blast doors protect the politicians, and up from the Jubilee Line, which looks like something designed for the set of Aliens. I ended up at Blackfriars, under the foot of the shard, where the cranes still worked at ten at night, and a human feels ant-sized, and the City squats like the operating headquarters of some alien invaders, over an older, more human-sized version of London. And then another station, I'd lost track of names by then, brand new and brutally designed in concrete and lit by a violent blue light. Why? Why has someone made these things like this? I am not an especially anxious person in foreign environments, but these places made me afraid. Because somebody made up a nightmare, then built it. These things are not frightening by accident, but because someone designed fear right into it. 

Humans are one big mush of fear and wonder, really, and we don't like to admit to it. But if you are able to recognise the shapes and tropes of it - and give those things names - then you will better see the strings and ropes of it. And remember that monsters always, have a weakness. 

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