Culture at the Commentator

Posted on January 24, 2013

This is just a swift post to let you all know about a new branch of my writing that I intend to expand this year . While CrashBangWallace will continue to be the outlet for my political writing, the team over at the Commentator have kindly agreed to feature my work on the culture front. So keep an eye out there for pieces on the arts, film and wider cultural commentary.

Here are a couple of recent pieces to whet your appetite:

Kate and the Curse of the Royal Portraits

Wanted: Adventurous female to give birth to Neanderthal

I hope this new content will be as well received as the political blogging I do here – your feedback, comments and support are very welcome, as ever.

In memoriam: Ronald Searle

Posted on January 04, 2012

Ronald Searle, the cartoonist who has died aged 91, may be most famous for his creation of St Trinian’s, but I will always remember him for his creation of Nigel Molesworth, the constantly mis-spelling, ungrammatical 1950s schoolboy and self-proclaimed “goriller of 3B”.

If you have never read a Molesworth book I can’t recommend them enough – and you can get a taster from the online version of the books here.

In memory of Ronald Searle, and in celebration of how his art is truly timeless, here is a Molesworth cartoon which applies as much to today’s Euro crisis as it did to Nigel Molesworth’s frustrations with his visiting French exchange student, Armand.

The caption, in the original (mis-)spelling: “It seem that Fr. and Eng. are divided by more than the Chanel”

Royal Wedding Tatwatch #2: The William and Kate Dress-up Dolly Book

Posted on March 10, 2011

Last week I launched #Tatwatch – an occasional series on the bizarre and worrying tat and rubbish being hawked on the back of the Royal Wedding. Commenter Martha S has contributed this beauty/horror:

William and Kate dressing up book

Royals in their pants. Nice.

Yes, it’s the Royal Wedding: William and Kate Dress-up Dolly Book. It’s innovative, I’ll grant the publishers that – I mean, this is the 21st century, why plaster poorly drawn portraits of the Royal couple on a dodgy plate when you can put sketches of them in their pants on the front of a book? A “right royal riot” indeed…

65 years on, Hiroshima was still the right thing to do

Posted on August 06, 2010

Today is the 65th anniversary of the first use in war of the atomic bomb, which destroyed Hiroshima. 145,000 people died. On the 9th of August another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and on the 15th Japan surrendered, ending the Second World War.

There are, of course, major memorial ceremonies taking place for those who were killed in the bombing. It’s right that that happens, and no-one would deny the pain and suffering that occurred as a result of the bombing.

But for all that, after 65 years for the world to reflect on the dropping of the atomic bomb, I cannot think anything other than it was the right thing to do.

While we remember today the people who died, we should also remember all the people who were saved as a result of the dropping of those two atomic bombs.

The war was brought to an almost immediate end, whereas it would otherwise have ground on for months or more. A war of attrition and island-hopping, ending with an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and lasting into 1946 or even 1947 would have claimed the lives of untold servicemen and civilians on both sides.

Millions were freed from slavery – not just the 100,000+ Allied POWs who even with the early end of the war suffered an estimated 25% fatality rate, but the 4 million+ Javanese, the 10 million+ Chinese and the 5 million+ Koreans forced into slave labour by the Japanese military, and many more.

The novelist JG Ballard, whose childhood experiences in Japanese internment camps were immortalised in Empire of the Sun, was a teenager caught in a mad world of death marches, torture, murder and starvation on the Chinese mainland when the bombs were dropped. As he wrote later:

“the atom bombs…almost certainly saved the lives of myself and my fellow internees in Shanghai.”

So while we remember today those who died in the flash and poisonous aftermath of those bombs, let us also remember all those who were saved and freed as a result. The decisions taken 65 years ago were horrific, but they were also the right thing to do.

An instant, life-changing classic

Posted on August 04, 2010

Reading is my most serious addiction – indeed, it’s in equal turns depressing and a source of pride that my Waterstone’s loyalty card normally has more credit than my bank card.

So I promised myself from the outset that this blog wouldn’t just be a venue to say “this book’s really good”. On this occasion, though, one particular book has proved so superb and so moving that it would be wrong of me to resist.

The work in question is Patrick Hennessy’s “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club“, which I’ve just finished.

A memoir of the author’s time as a Guards Officer, it gives the most honest and hair-raising insight into what life is like training at Sandhurst, square-bashing in the Guards’ barracks, peace-keeping in Iraq and re-fighting Rorke’s Drift in Afghanistan that you could possible imagine, short of signing up yourself.

There’s a fine tradition of excellent military memoirs, from the Napoleonic diaries of Rifleman Costello, to George Coppard’s First World War “With a Machine Gun to Cambrai“.

Until Hennessy brought the genre into the 21st century, though, you’d have to go back to Michael Herr’s brutal, wide-eyed Vietnam recollections in “Dispatches” to find a true classic that summed up both the conflict in question and the culture, tastes and quirks of the people who fought it.

It’s only when you read about British guys of my age going off to war with iPods and DVD boxed sets of 24 that you really start to believe fully in the horrors and heroics that are reported back from the front line. Without that constant reminder that this is now, these are the guys you went to uni with or met at house parties, there’s always the danger that the realities of warfare get filed subconsciously along with the rest of military history.

The aspect of Hennessy’s writing that I found most moving was the way he documents the creeping feeling that going to war has erected a permanent barrier between him and his friends and family back home.

He is proud to have experienced that which the rest of us have not, to have achieved feats beyond our imaginings and to have a unique bond with his men and comrades. At the same time he battles a feeling of resentment against all of us who were back home, drinking beers without a bullet, an RPG or an IED ever likely to smash or destroy our comfortable lives.

As with most of my generation, I know quite a few guys (and girls) who’ve been out to Afghanistan or Iraq – and this got me thinking. How do we appear to them, the people who go through hell and glory for Britain in return for such a shoddy deal for their suffering?

If you haven’t read this book, read the first copy you can get your hands on, and don’t let it out of your sight until you’re finished. You will never, ever forget it.

Asterix and the bureaucrats

Posted on July 20, 2010

Times have changed in children’s literature and TV. Where once you could be pretty sure that the fiction kids devoured encouraged a spirit of adventure and a culture of individual responsibility¬†now you just don’t know.

What is the likelihood of most books being as lackadaisical about health and safety as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons where, when sent a telegram by the children’s concerned mother asking whether they should be allowed to go sailing on their own, their naval officer father replies simply: “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown”?

In the 21st century, Swallows and Amazons would end abruptly with their parents being banged up with Karen Matthews, and the kids sent off into care.

In the spirit of promoting¬†children’s fiction which encourages a healthy view of the world, I’d like to draw your attention to the following clip from The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, in which our hero has to take on the most difficult opponent of all – bureaucracy:

With Lord Mandelson, who knows what to believe?

Posted on July 16, 2010

The press, the airwaves and the Westminster gossip mill are a bit like the Premiership, the FA Cup and the Champions League – it’s an impressive feat to hold all three at the same time. Normally one will run ahead or lag behind the others in the current hot topic.

It takes a big star – or a big scandal – to hold the Treble, and they don’t come much bigger at the moment than Lord Mandelson (take your pick of whether he’s a star or a scandal). His memoirs are occupying enough newspaper space for Wayne Rooney to write out his full bank balance in crayon, and the chatter is only going to grow as the serialisation and publicity campaign rolls on.

The revelations in ‘The Third Man’ seem fairly interesting, giving us more insight into the backstabbing, infighting and conspiracy that ate at the heart of New Labour.

In so doing, the good Lord has only really coloured in more of the general picture that we all knew existed. Everyone knows that Blair and Brown didn’t get along, though it’s nice to get an actual Blair quote about Brown being “mad, bad and beyond redemption”. Everyone knows that Mandelson is an arch-schemer, though it’s good to get an insight into how he went about it.

Most importantly, of course, we all know that many Ministers were lying through their teeth on a regular basis. I’m not going to pretend that this is something that only applies to the recent Labour Government – it would be absurd to do so – but it’s generally acknowledged that New Labour, under the guidance of Messrs Mandelson and Campbell, took it to a new level of accomplishment.

That raises an important question about “The Third Man” as a memoir. Given that its author was the architect of a new type of politics characterised by the telling of untruths in what they saw as a greater cause, can we actually believe any of it?

People often portray New Labour as a cheap con trick, but it was far more intelligent – if not much more honest – than that (see Peter Oborne’s excellent “The Rise of Political Lying” for more). In their early days in particular, they really were setting out to redefine language in order to win political power.

In doing so, they completely severed the already weak links of trust between the political class and the public. Indeed, they lost the ability to trust each other, with Brown telling Blair “There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could possibly believe”. (Ironically, that was probably the moment that Gordon Brown had the most in common with ordinary British voters).

It is fitting that the New Labour era is being brought to an end by a whole book which we don’t really know if we can believe or not. It is equally appropriate that a book which is effectively Peter Mandelson’s longest ever press release is occupying central stage – irrespective of whether it is true or false. Just like the old days, he’s achieved his aim – and whether he told the truth to get there is by the by.