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Game of Thrones: One show, two approaches to life

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A while ago I went through a course which was intended to train people to be novelists. We learned a lot about sentences, but never about story. The only people who understood that were screenwriters. They had a very clear idea of how to write. With its language of “inciting incidents”, “midpoints”, “innermost caves” and “rebirth”, their understanding of story was as clear and as dogmatic as ang ideology. Sure, we novelists-in-training would answer but what about us? Do we have to follow the same sequence? Obviously, one lecturer would tell us. God no, the next would say.

This difference of approach helps to explain the subtle change that took place in Game of Thrones at the end of series 6 and culminated in this week’s episode.

Up to the end of series 6, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were working with George R R Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire. Essentially, their approach was to follow the plot narrowly and literally, at least at the start, although it wasn’t long before they were cutting whole subplots (eg in the novels, Catelyn Stark is brought to back to life and fights the Lannisters silently from beyond the grave – not thankfully on TV).

Martin, famously, has stalled in finishing off the books. Only five novels out of an intended seven have been published, the last of them eight years ago. He used to tell interviewers that when he started the books he had begun with lots of people in one place and as they split apart more and more characters joined them. At some point they would start moving back together. “I think I’m reaching the turning point,” he wrote in 2011, “that’s starting to happen now.” The rest of us are still waiting.

In all of series 7 and the first three episodes of series 8, you could see Benioff and Weiss imposing the urgency of professional plotters on what had been previously Martin’s discursive, divergent story. One of the show’s two main protagonists Daenerys Targaryen was dragged from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, then north of the Wall and to Winterfell at a pace which would previously have been unthinkable. The Wall collapsed, with the significant exception of Cersei Lannister all the major characters were taken to Winterfell in order to fight a final, decisive battle with the Night King.

Even in episode 3, you could see the same approach at work – a screenwriter’s sensibility. The episode was plotted as a sequence of alternate moments, with good rising then bad, until just when everything seemed lost…

The opening cast the battle through the terrified eyes of Samwell Tarly, the writerliest (i.e. biggest coward) of all the soldier characters. In the middle parts of the episode, once the army of the undead had conquered Winterfell, there were moments of real horror – the spots of zombie blood falling on Arya. The denoument was a beautiful piece of “backwards writing” (i.e. when you start with a scene – the death of the Night King, and plot a route to it from the conclusion). A series of potential “good assassins” were tried but each defeated: Theon with his war charge, Danerys with fire, Jon trapped too far away to be any use at all. It was a bravura piece of writing to keep Arya off-screen for a full 25 minutes as each hero was defeated.

If you could take this single episode and see it in its own terms, it worked.

But did it? If you think of that moment with Arya above the Night King – flying in the air, jumping almost unnoticed: the scene itself requires us to assume an almost supernatural ability for the character to cover long distances through hunting zombies, then to move around Winterfell at almost inconceivable speed – before finally leaping from the snow (trying doing this at winter without losing your footing…). It requires us to imagine her, in other words, having almost superhuman powers. If an audience is willing to give Arya that credit it’s because we’ve been through the previous seven episodes with her, watched her apprenticeship as a Faceless Man at the House of Black and White. It’s because, in other words, Benioff and Weiss were able to trade off a great deal of pre-empting done prior to series 6.

And this was the pattern throughout the episode (as indeed it has been, ever since they took over). The scriptwriters keep on taking from a reserve of goodwill that the previous six series had built up. They never give back.

There was never a “Hodor” moment when you learned something about a character and their story surprisingly, gloriously, made sense in the end.

So in episode three there were repeated moments when characters, having played a role which the whole previous show had built towards – then added nothing to it. The Dothraki horsemen (the series’ principal black characters) rode out to battle and were slain, pointlessly. The Night King died without adding in any way to our understanding of where he came from or who he is except we learned the very mundane fact he couldn’t be killed by fire.

One way to read this is as a bunch of Hollywood scripwriters doing what they excel at – simplifying a complex story, allowing it to end. On that technical score, they seem to outperform the slow novelist.

But there’s a second, deeper sense in which Martin’s novelistic consciousness offers a much more interesting idea about how people could live.

The joy of A Song of Ice and Fire is that beneath a cynical exterior (the near-killing of Bran, the Red Wedding), there was always a subtle possibility of change. It was in the same family as “ignore your family and do what’s right,” but it went deeper than that and took in a heady dose of redemption. In the books, this was reflected in the character of Theon – stupid, selfish, and then subject to such long and cruel and humiliating punishments, that you felt maybe he could do alright in the end.

A novelist can wait for this kind of redemption, a film-maker can’t.

The Theon arch was so obvious that even Benioff and Weiss managed not to ruin it (although with their references to “home” and “good man” they did their best).

What they seemed to be doing throughout was steering away from Martin’s notion of a hard-earned transformation in favour of a well-meaning and vaguely liberal attitude towards life in which the small characters win because they are small. In which characters just do what they do. They make mistakes (this isn’t a superhero film), but the misakes have no real weight.

So you end up with the banality of Lyanna Mormont’s death, a sequence in which the baddest of zombie monsters brings a dying hero close to it for no comprehensible motive other than to facilitate its own death.

Or the survival of Tyrion and Sansa in the crypt: after the cleverest character in the show puts an army of children in a situation of utter terror – without any effect, the zombies don’t do anything there – no one dies.

It doesn’t sound like a large difference, but what the episode forgot was that even good people are capabale of such monumental stupidity that you find yourself gasping and wanting to rub your eyes. That mistakes carry consequences. That the monsters in our lives are more than an assembly of glass pieces that fall apart at the right touch. That redemption has to be earned, really, properly earned.

Links, round-up

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Back in May, I gave a talk at a London RS21 meeting with Jairus Banaji on the far-right. There’s a video of that meeting at that meeting here  and the text of the talk is on the Socialist Worker (US) site. I spoke to Quartz magazine post-Charlottesville, and some of my comments made it into the article here.

The big news for lawyers in the UK over the next few years will be the shift to an online court system. I’ve posted some early comments about it here, and was interviewed as part of a BBC programme about online courts here.

The leader whose time has come

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… The closer Brexit comes to reality, the more that centrist voters have rebelled against the idea that last year’s 52-48 majority for exit justifies a complete break from Europe and its model of social liberalism.

Brexit is *not* the principal reason for Corbyn’s success. He has done well because of a manifesto which promised redistribution and renationalisation, and because of a turnout by young voters engaged by Corbyn’s record and his relaxed, personal style.

But it has helped to neutralise the attacks against him. Brexit’s irrationality, its unpopularity with young voters, and its premise that what the country needs is to restrict the migration of foreigners: these have helped Corbyn – in contrast to the autocratic-seeming Theresa May – to look like the leader whose time has come…

Me for Africa is a Country

My student; the anti-Semite

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Later today, Paul Nuttall is going to replace Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Independence Party. This will be a strange experience for me. You will see in the coverage of his past career that Nuttall was once, briefly, a history lecturer. Before that he was a student, and in 1999-2000, I taught Paul Nuttall for a year. A year was long enough to get a good sense of a man who is going to be part of our lives rather more in future.
Nuttall was then studying at Edge Hill College on a History BA. I taught in the history department, where I was responsible for various courses including a one-year course teaching the history of fascism in Italy and Germany, for which he signed up. Nuttall struck me as bright and cynical. He was 23 years old – as old as the graduate students we taught, not our undergraduates, almost all of whom were straight out of A-levels. He seemed to have a stronger personality than any of his peers. While most of the students knew only what it said in the various course books, he had read more widely, in books and on the internet. He didn’t express his views openly but from time to time you felt he was testing the water to see what he could get away with.
In early December 1999, Nuttall’s cohort were set a standard essay on the causes of the Holocaust. I forget the exact title, but the question was something like whether the Final Solution was principally caused by Hitler’s anti-Semitism or by other factors related to the German economy or state. To my surprise, Nuttall’s answer worked in two footnotes to different books by David Irving. I wasn’t expecting this, because Irving wasn’t on the course reading list: this was after his libel trial and historians regarded Irving as an unpleasant, racist crank who was beyond the pale.
Moreover the references did not engage with the subject that Nuttall had actually been set: it felt rather as if he had written them in to see whether he could shoe-horn these views into an academic context and “get away” with them.
One of the quotes (for an essay about the Holocaust…) was from a book David Irving had written about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The message of the other Irving quote was that that anti-Semitism had been popular in Weimar Germany: the quote exaggerated the extent of anti-semtiism and carried the implication that it had been popular because it was deserved.
The incident was one of the oddest and most unwanted experiences I’d had as a teacher. I had taught fascism courses in different institutions over the previous three years including to A-levels students at Tower Hamlets college. Those students were under enormous and sometime contradictory pressures from their family, the mosque and the big trends in global politics that were heading in the direction of 9/11. But nothing they had ever written compared to this. I had never seen a student argue anything that could even remotely be characterised as “the Jews deserved it”. While Nuttall’s piece as a whole did not go that far, that seemed to be the message of the quotation he had used
I met Nuttall to discuss what he had written and he gave a tearful denial, saying that his girlfriend had downloaded the references to Irving’s book from the internet, blaming her rather than his own judgment. He accepted that the words could be construed as having an unpleasant, even racist meaning. But he denied that this had been his intention. He seemed shocked to be challenged about anything – like smug, arrogant, people everywhere he was most comfortable in a small bubble where no-one could disagree with him.

Peter Picton (1934-2016)

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My uncle Peter, who died on Thursday, was many things: an entertainer, a proud trade unionist, an author. As Pierre the Clown he was a fixture on children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s. As the owner of the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car from the film, he performed in the 1980s and 1990s at hundreds perhaps thousands of Christmas events, weddings and local shows. He would drive Chitty through crowds in their thousands, waving back as the children in his audience waved at him. He became an honourary, working-class, Royal.

 

Pete never talked about his childhood. As he told it, his life’s story began in his teens when he went to stage school. In his holidays, he worked as a chef’s assistant. In time, he began a new career as the apprentice to Coco, the head clown at Bertram Mills circus. “Coco had a marvellous act, pies and custard, pasting up rolls of paper, rolling them up, rolling them down, so that the paste went everywhere. The humour,” he used to say. “It was all timing, you know.”

 

By 1954 Pete had adopted his stage name of Pierre the Clown. In 1956-7, weeks after the Soviet tanks had put down the workers’ uprising in Hungary, Pete was one of the first western acts to be allowed into Budapest. He worked there with another friend, an Italian clown called Cavalini, “Huge numbers came,” he said. “They love their circus in Eastern Europe, it was their main source of entertainment. For me, they were wonderful days, but the atmosphere was strained, you knew something was wrong.”

 

He had a favourite prop, a black Model T-Ford. Pierre would try to open one door but it wouldn’t and another swung open in its place. Then the doors would open, but they fell off. Miming between each setback incredulity, defeat, renewed hope, Peter attempted to drive the car from its back seat. The car would start before finally spilling him onto the floor.

 

The chef Robert Carrier worked with Pete, and sent him touring around schools talking about dental health. A special poster was commissioned, in typically sixties lurid blues, reds and yellows, “Pierre the Clown says End you meal with an apple. It’s nature’s toothbrush.” Pete was the clown handing John Lennon an apple at the opening of the Beatle’s Apple Boutique.

 

In 1967-8 Pete was now at the height of his celebrity. In 1967, by which time he was the father of a young son Jon, he released a pair of singles, Pierre the Clown in Nursery Rhyme Town and Pierre the Clown in Space Rhyme Town. They start with familiar rhymes, but the rhymes take detours. They become something new and wonderful and strange. He wrote The Gourmet’s Guide to Fish and Chips; and a children’s guide to Hastings.

 

He worked for the Rolling Stone on their circus tour. He was also at his most active within Equity, negotiating the clowns’ pay rates with the major circuses.

 

In 1968, Pete worked as a driver on the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. At the end of the film the props were auctioned off and Pete was able to buy the working car complete with its Gen 11 numberplate. The car was to become the mainstay of Pete’s working life, and for the next forty years he performed at countless shows acting Pete’s own creation, a mixture of Dick van Dyke dashing inventor Caractacus Potts and Lionel Jeffries’ eccentric Granda Potts.

 

In the early 70s, Pete met Susie and they were to live together more 42 years, in Belgravia, then in Shipston and for thirty years in Stratford. They married in 1988.

 

In 2013, Susie and Pete sold Chitty. It was an inevitable and a right decision. Pete  suffered intense arthritis in his hands and knees and found the work hard. But he fought retirement for many years. Even without Chitty, he was still a local celebrity: he couldn’t go to the bank or a shop without meeting or making a friend.

 

Pete was one of those rare adults who believe in children, who are aware of the powerlessness that the young can feel. A stream of youngsters came to Susie and Pete’s house, were given presents of sweets, make-your-own models of Chitty or Smurf stickers. “Here’s something,” Pete would say and they would leave with a five or ten pound note. 

 

Pete was one of those big, bold people whose lives evade categories. Someone who hated racism and homophobia and who paid his union subs years into retirement. But the newspaper he read, even in hospital, was the Daily Mail.

 

I visited him two days before he died, his face covered in an oxygen mask. He could communicate only in sign language and whispers. But he wanted to know how I’d travelled there, how my children were. His face creased in a broad smile when he heard that they were acting and dancing. All of sudden he waved, he pointed. I was wearing trainers, bright red running shoes beneath my grey trousers, my grey top. He pointed to them and he laughed. “I like them,” my uncle the clown said. Even in hospital, Pete was still thinking of other people rather than himself. Fighting for his life, he cheered us up by making a joke. 

Giulio Regeni mural, Cairo

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There are any numbers of photographs of Giulio Regeni with cats. His cat has been tortured (the bandages), in common with so many victims of the regime and it has the wings of a martyr of the revolution. The cat’s eye has been painted clear in memory of the protesters whose eyes have been shot out. On Giulio’s face are the words of his mother at his memorial, that he was killed like an Egyptian.

Solidarity and love to all those fighting for justice for Giulio.

The tactics of Exit voting

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For any readers missing the argument for a left exit vote in the coming referendum, here’s one I prepared earlier. In the EU’s rush to take austerity positions since 2008, the budget mechanisms of the EU have been reimagined and the Commission and the ECB have become devices for forcing cuts on the poorer European states. It is a condition of continued membership that budgets are submitted to the EU each year and there they are scrutinised to ensure a continuous process of cuts, privatisation and diminished collective bargaining. In Ireland, Greece and Spain, EU policies are leading to a rapid diminution of union bargaining, and if these are the worst affected, the direction of travel is the same all across the continent.

That said, while I can recognise that the left exit position can have a principled basis, it’s problem if anything is that it is too principled. I have yet to encounter a left exit argument which finds a transmission mechanism between the high socialist hopes of those that I hear espousing exit and the vote. Why, I want friends to explain, will an exit vote improve the balance of forces for the left in Britain?

Here, it seems to me are the main areas where the advocates of a conventional Brexit are tactically ahead of their temporary allies among the exit voters of the far left:

The vote is / the vote isn’t a vote for restricted immigration. If you study the polls carefully, I understand it is possible to construct an argument that the EU exit vote isn’t just about immigration. When people are asked to explain why they are voting for exit, they do not always put immigration as their sole or even necessarily their top priority. Now one (relatively weak) response would be that data on voting intentions often has this character: if you study people’s reasons for UKIP voting, say, often people have complex and conflicting reasons for voting the way they do.

More important, is an understanding of how the national exit vote has been planned. The strategists of the exit vote are aware that: i) they have a big lead among the demographics most likely to vote (i.e. over 65s – see graph at top), ii) there is an equally big stay majority among the groups of people least likely to vote (i.e. under 25s), iii) these majorities have different weight. Because over-65s are much more likely to vote (in general and in this case in particular), exit can win without a popular mobilisation, in fact the more that it polarises people the greater the risk that today’s possibly-non-voting stay voters will be converted into tomorrow’s actual stay voters, iv) therefore anything that feels like racism is counterproductive – the UKIP/migration vote is already primed and ready to vote (of all the parties, UKIP supporters report the greatest interest in the referendum and the greatest intention to vote). Raw anti-migrant politics will only produce a reaction in terms of stay voting by the young.

This, I think, explains the way that the exit argument is positioned both in the national media and locally. There is a constant shuffle backwards and forwards between “immigration” and “other” arguments. One day, we are told that the NHS is dying under the weight of prospective immigrants, the next day that migrants are dragging British workers into poverty. Then as soon as these arguments are put, they are withdrawn and replaced with a blancmange of emptiness which is the characteristic mode of the exit argument. It is the same with the local literature: for every letter you find in which exit is presented in terms that would make a BNP voter smile, there are two fliers in which the No campaign avoids text and slogans and limits itself to stating that there is an Exit position, the politics of which are already assumed.

That said, while you can make an honest argument that Exit politics have been “less horribly anti-migrant” than many on the left predicted; you can’t make a compelling case that any significant part of the exit argument in this referendum has been an argument for redistribution, unionisation or socialism.

Who gets to interpret the meaning of a large Exit vote. Imagine a different context: a Labour government is elected, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The government has widespread popular backing and introduces a programme of nationalisations. Some EU institution (the ECJ? – it would only get involved as a result of a legal process starting in the UK, so we are planing already a two-term Labour government) announces that the EU which has previously allowed such nationalisations as Northern Rock now no longer approves of them. Corbyn calls a referendum to leave the EU in order to deepen his reform plans.

Here, I’m not making the obvious point that “this isn’t how we got here” but a (slightly) subtler one. In a democracy, the people who get to interpret a popular vote are the government of the day. Under a Corbyn government the left decides what a vote means, under a Tory government it’s the Tories who choose. A 55-45 exit vote will be interpreted as a the greatest possible popular affirmation of the politics of the Tory right and UKIP in just the same way that a stay vote will be used to bolster Cameron, Osborne and also (although to a lesser extent) Corbyn.

So, while the left exiters might want to interpret a 55-45 vote in “their” favour as an argument for socialism, that’s not how it will be interpreted by the government, and therefore by Parliament in the making of new legislation, or by the members of the main parties. Let alone by trade unionists, migrant workers or the young. (All three of whom have good reasons to fear an exit vote). In all these different constituencies, the dominant interpretation of an exit vote will be a vote for faster neoliberalism, the greater unpicking of reforms, faster privatisation, etc.

Who is actually voting. I’ve alluded to these points already, but to bring them out more clearly. The exit vote corresponds exactly to the demographic of the people who consistently vote for the worst political options in Britain: above all, it is an age vote. In just the same way that Miliband was ahead among the young and lost in every age group above 40, so it is with the exit vote. It is the vote of the old, of UKIP and the worst Tories. Friends on the left shouldn’t tell themselves that you can mobilise the very people in society who are most opposed to you, on their favoured issue, in circumstances they have been preparing for 30 years, with their government is in power and expect anything good to result.

All of this is relevant not merely to how people should vote but what the effect of a large exit vote will be. We live in a society that has for four decades increasingly criminalised migration, and in which non-EU citizens resident in Britain have been denied the vote in the referendum that will decide their future.

It is already the case that such non-EU migration as the UK still allows overwhelmingly comes as a result of EU law. Both EU and non-EU citizens will find it harder to come to Britain in the event of an exit vote and harder to stay. A large exit vote is going to mean an attack on EU migrants – if the left is seen to have voted for that attack we will be in a weaker position to resist it afterwards.

My own view remains that this is a referendum that the left cannot win and that either option will result in further attacks. Yet in the choice between two bad options, one of them is worse.