Friday, 12 September 2014

Referendum 2014, #indyref

Or: A southern Northerner looks north

In just a week's time, my home for the first half of my life will be voting on whether it should secede from my home for the second half of my life. Before the result is known, I thought that it might be a useful exercise for me to record my views on such a momentous subject. In no small part so that I can't rewrite my personal history in the future to suit the outcome of the referendum vote. But also because it's a subject that's probably exercised most Scots across most of their lives to some degree. As such, opinionated I most certainly am.

So, where to start? I suppose the obvious place is "which way would I vote?". Which is perhaps not-so-obvious since, as a long-time resident of England, I don't actually have a vote [*1]. But glossing over this mere technical detail, what's my overall take on the question at the heart of the rapidly-approaching referendum: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" I'd like to be able to say that I'm somewhat ambiguous on the subject, that I can see and appreciate that it's not a simple question, but, quibbles asides, I'm firmly in the "No, thanks" camp.

A big part of this for me is that my gut reaction to expressions of nationalism of any stripe is to suspect (and usually find) bigoted small-mindedness. Or, worse, malevolent insularity and racism. This is exactly how I feel about English nationalism - that has always struck me as a veil shielding underlying National Front-esque racism. I don't see Scottish nationalism in anywhere near the same way [*2], but I do still find that this is often cloaked (credit where credit's due: it's not hidden) in transparently ridiculous anti-English sentiments. Either way, nationalism for me is always to be treated suspiciously.

A larger part can simply be bracketed under the heading "Identity". When I was young, Scotland's relative insularity and resulting homogeneity meant that it was actually difficult for me to identify what being Scottish actually meant - I was simply constantly awash in it. By the time I was old enough to see further afield, all I could see of Scottish identity was an anti-English, chip-on-its-shoulder attitude that was pretty far from progressive (though some of this was understandable under the evil Iron Lady). Going first to university in Scotland, and then to England itself (by way of a formative stint in Los Angeles), exposed me to much more diversity and gave me more perspective, as well as the realisation (rightly or wrongly) that my values were more broad British than provincial Scots [*3]. And down the years this has stuck - quite possibly in no small measure because I've been south of Hadrian's Wall for so long.

By "identity" here, I'm thinking of the whole gamut, rather than the minutiae. So cultural touchstones like literature, cinema and art, in which I discern variability but certain common threads across the United Kingdom. The BBC, as a specific example, looms large on this front (melodramatically, I might even say I'd die for this National Treasure were it not for the likes of Strictly). But I'd also include the gloomy, sarcastic, ironic sense of humour of the UK - again, it varies, but it also unifies (even if the Scottish variety can be a bit more sweary). There's simply something reassuring to me that two people from opposite ends of Britain can agreeably moan on about the Tories, the trains or how the former is running the latter (not to mention the NHS) into the ground [*4].

A deeper part of this - again, for me, your mileage may vary - is what we think of when we think of "history". More or less everything that I think of under this is the modern history of the UK as a whole. And I'm not just thinking of the "admirable" bits like WW2 - to me, Britain's malign history as an imperial power is at least as an important part of things too [*5]. All of it binds the whole of the United Kingdom together, and it's not possible (for me, at least) to credibly think of separate pasts for England and Scotland. True, there's what I call "Braveheart history", over-emphasised in high school [*6], but it relates to a past that's simply too remote and too alien relative to the present-day to have any real meaning for it. In short, when I think of national history, I think of British history, for better and for worse.

A more minor part of my "Better Together" [*7] sentiments stems from the fact that I simply abhor secessionism. In a world blithely walking into a climatically-compromised Anthropocene age, few organisational things strike me as more stupid than having to put more chairs around the table when things are getting sorted out. As such, the proposed secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom seems unlikely to facilitate any efforts in global governance. Not, of course, fatally (splitting the UK isn't like splitting the US would be), but a complication that the world would arguably be better off without [*8]. This is, of course, allied to my unfashionable One World State views, so can be discounted as such.

A related reductio ad absurdum I'd make is why not continue seceding all the way down to the region, town, family, individual? Take Thatcher at her word, decry "Society", and continue devolving further. Of which, I can't help but raise an eyebrow at the stifling - by no less than the Scottish Parliament itself - of an attempt (admittedly by some cranks) for a further referendum aimed at separating (oil-rich) Orkney and Shetland from the Scottish mainland. What's good enough for the goose ...

Leaving aside these mere feelings about the place of Scotland within the United Kingdom, I'm sure most of us with a dog in this race have also considered practicalities. As reports on the news (the BBC, naturally) have been constantly been reporting, it is, however, difficult to work out how these stack up. There are simply too many if ... then ... else loops in the wider economy for anyone to be sure. Chances are, Scotland can almost certainly make a good fist of it - plenty of other similarly-sized countries do. But, equally, it's difficult not to see dark clouds such as demography, currency confusion [*9], stranded assets and nervous investors as being at least on the horizon. And just because there are already successful countries of the same size, it doesn't follow that Scotland can immediately transition into one of them. What if it takes decades? Anyway, where people fall on the hope-fear axis is liable to steer their decisions on this score. And I do think it would be wrong to focus too much on the fear side - always leaning this way would stop one getting out of bed in the morning.

Anyway, this is rambling on far too long (no change there then ...). I've other, lesser grumbles, not to mention some bitterness at the thought of my fellow Scots cutting and running and leaving us stuck with harder-to-dislodge Tories (on which particular point, I think Irvine Welsh's excellent essay puts me in my place), but it's hardly helpful discussion or constructive criticism. In a week the truth will out. If "no", then I'll be a little bit relieved, and will be hoping that the nationalists take defeat gracefully and wait a generation before revisiting secession again. If "yes", well, things will be interesting. But it's not for nothing that the saying "May you live in interesting times" is viewed as a curse.

[*1]: Which I'm totally OK about - I haven't lived in Scotland for more than 20 years now (though have probably racked up more than 6 months there in that time). But there's a little bit of me niggled at the possibility of having my nationality changed underneath me.

[*2]: In part, I suspect that the key difference here is that Scottish nationalism is not a minority pursuit. As such, its racists (and there are some) are completely diluted out. Meanwhile, English nationalism has been associated with racists for so long (decades?) that it's at the point that racism is basically assumed (English Defence League anyone?), and it thankfully languishes as a niche pursuit.

[*3]: Which is not to say that England doesn't have its own provincialism to deal with, or that Britain is necessarily always broad in its outlook. There are plenty of recent and not-so-recent examples to the contrary.

[*4]: The NHS itself is highly symbolic of unity across Britain. For most people, much more so than the BBC. And the attitude that accompanies the NHS, namely that only nations of savages would do without such a shining beacon (that, to be fair, occasionally requires polishing), is also - for me - a hallmark of national unity.

[*5]: Skeletons in our national closet, while embarrassing to say the least, are useful reminders of the limits and follies of national pride. There's something dislikeable about cultures that gloss over their shortcomings, that prize a muscular patriotism over the harbouring of occasional self-doubts. Scotland, if it does become independent, needs to be wary of this. The campaign has, at times, brought out a lot of alpha-male posturing on the assumed magnificence and exceptionalism of Scotland.

[*6]: Of Braveheart itself, well, I can't let this pass by unremarked. Less so, because of its ghastly (and intermittently inaccurate) hagiography of the life and times of William Wallace, but more because the film has become a grubby touchstone for a particularly unthinking form of nationalism. Without wishing to be rude about Scotland's heroes, I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't recognise the modern nations of Scotland or England, or empathise with the disgruntlement of contemporary nationalists. They'd probably mostly be wondering about where their servants were. Much as England is about the Magna Carta, there's a lot of weight put on history that has only a tangential bearing on our world today.

[*7]: Who came up with this? Admittedly, selling the status quo is difficult at the best of times (hope beats fear), but this just sounds crass.

[*8]: I will, of course, draw a veil over Scotland's role in future climate change measures when its balance book appears to be relying on oil money to keep on an even tiller, and when its nationalist demagogues decry nuclear power.

[*9]: This seems a tricky one to me. Sure, Scotland can keep the pound, but what's the point of being independent if your economy is at the mercy of decisions made elsewhere? Admittedly, this is arguably not dissimilar to the situation Scotland's in now anyway, but there'd be little incentive in the future for said decisions-made-elsewhere to factor it in at all after independence. Plus, how wise is it to use the same currency as your much larger neighbour that you've possibly just pissed off?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Worst. #Coupland. Ever.

Down the years, I've fitfully bemoaned the fall, then further fall, of one of my favourite authors, Douglas Coupland. Like the worst sort of earnest fanboy, I greet the arrival of each of his new novels with credulous excitement, only be cut down by grim disappointment at best and head-shaking disbelief at worst. But he's really done it this time.

With Worst. Person. Ever. he's reached a new nadir in which his remaining talent for spotting zeitgeisty themes (of which, yes, he's still got it) is utterly squandered in (yet) another random tale helmed by a deliberately offensive - and eponymous - narrator. Raymond Gunt (I kid not) is Coupland's worst folly to date - a character whose irredeemability seems initially a clever conceit, then an annoying one, then ultimately a catastrophic self-inflicted gunshot wound to whatever Coupland set out to achieve here. It can be a good thing for a novel to puncture precious taboos, but the reader needs to be brought along for the ride, not abandoned - as here - by a writer riding the one-trick shock-pony. It also helps to aim one's barbs precisely, but Coupland instead favours a blunderbuss approach that leaves one wondering what, exactly, he was hoping to wing. An ending, too, might have been a good idea, but this seems one of the novel's lesser crimes.

The best I can come up with this time is that, hopefully, this is rock-bottom.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Cloud Atlas

It's common for successful novels to be deemed "unfilmable". Typically, this covers those novels where the "action" largely takes place within the mind of a character, or where a novel's strength is drawn from the voice of a colourful narrator. But the novel Cloud Atlas by the British novelist David Mitchell (no, not that one) presents a different class of problem.

Organised as a disparate sequence of six stories, the novel runs from the 19th century Pacific through to a distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii. This baroque structure is then further complicated by the ingenious splitting of each story, bar the final one, into two parts hinged on a cliffhanger. And then it's rounded off by having each story take a completely different setting and form, including a austere diary, a pulp thriller, a retirement home-set farce, and a future corporate dystopia. Strangest of all, it somehow hangs together, in spite of the only formal connections being inconsequential cross-references and the possession by certain characters of a comet-shaped birthmark. What it all means is very much left to the reader, but it certainly left me with a pleasing, if passing, sense of the connections between people.

Given the preceding, not the most obvious novel to film, and I was certainly surprised to hear that it was even being considered for translation to the screen. Even more so when I heard that no less than the Wachowskis were helming it. Known best for their rather bombastic Matrix trilogy (one genuinely excellent film, two self-absorbed travesties), they certainly didn't strike me as even on the radar for adapting such a work.

All of which goes to show how one (well, this one) can so easily prejudge, and misjudge, things. The resulting film, while still far from unqualified recommendation, actually hangs together very well, and is probably about as good a version of the book as it is possible to make. One early concern that I had was that the innovative structure of the book was ditched in favour of a narrative that jumped back and forth between the component tales pretty willy-nilly. But since the stories contain connections in content, themes and pacing this actually works pretty well. For instance, the novel's cliffhangers that divide each story into two halves, are interlocked in the film in a way that seems surprisingly natural.

It's not all plain sailing, however. Some of the texture of the novel, in particular the different forms of the original stories (diary vs. letters vs. pulp), gets lost along the way, though that's more a limitation of film in general than this film in particular. The story that arguably loses out most here is the final, post-apocalyptic one, where the voice - and perspective - of the protagonist, Zachry, is pretty pivotal to the arc of the story, but this largely has to be covered by Tom Hanks' adopting an intermittently incoherent dialect for the film. And the film makers have definitely made a few changes that make the conclusions of the stories veer a little more into heart-warming territory. Nothing too serious, mind, but it did serve to make the resolution of the film a little more pat.

Notwithstanding my earlier praise, however, I'm not sure what someone unfamiliar with the original book might make of it all. It is still a pretty confusing film, one that may be extremely difficult to follow except by multiple viewings. So though I left as a qualified fan, the film's reputation as a fiasco is easy to understand. On the one hand, a film should stand or fall based on whether it's accessible, but on the other hand, surely there's a place for films that require a little more dedication from viewers? Of course, if that dedication requires the pre-consumption of the source novel, perhaps not. So, overall, though teetering on the brink of disaster more-or-less throughout its running time, I'd still label it a "secret success". But one might need to read that novel first ...

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Before Midnight

Sequel to 2004's sequel to 1995's original [*], Before Midnight runs - at least on paper - the risk of all threequels, of wasting the hard-won goodwill and critical spoils of its illustrious predecessors. Thankfully, it doesn't, and it caps off the trilogy (... so far - I won't be surprised if another appears in 2022) extremely satisfyingly. Not, however, for those uncharmed by said ancestors - this will be the same old chatty bore-fest that you suffered through twice already. So give it a skip if you found Céline and Jesse intolerable the last few times around the block.

That said, Before Midnight is much more of a risk than Before Sunset. That film had "only" to re-establish a romance that the audience probably all wanted to see return. Here, we're another 9 years down the line and, unlike the preceding 9 year gap, Jesse and Céline have spent the entire time together. So making their extended romantic interlude interesting for the audience isn't a given. Simply making the film another enjoyably rambling conversation between two people that slowly edges them towards hooking up at the end wouldn't work, and the film's writers - who include its two stars - don't take this path.

To be fair, there is plenty of enjoyably rambling conversation [**], but it's used more sparingly, and positioned between scenes in which the conversation between Céline and Jesse is much more edgy than before. And the conversation doesn't stop at edgy, tipping over into anguish as the fractures in their relationship are first exposed and then explored. As such, it's not an easy watch like its predecessors, but in allowing the stresses and strains of long-term relationships (the demands of children, fading attraction) to be painted in realistically, it's much more grown-up. Satisfyingly so, ultimately.

As such, and much like that towering giant of successful threequels before it, Toy Story 3, Before Midnight shows other films how to do it. Not just a simple, crowd-pleasing retread of its predecessors, but one which retains their charms but finishes them off with a recognition of deeper waters beyond easy film screen romance. Whew - I'm totally glad they pulled it off.

[*] Not forgetting the brief appearance of Jesse and Céline in the also-excellent Waking Life.

[**] "Enjoyable", that is, if you've already bought into the modus operandi of the films of extended, playful and semi-philosophical banter between the leads.

In passing, I can't resist mentioning Jesse's outline of his planned new novel to his holiday friends. In just a few minutes, the film sketches out what could be a great little book (or, arguably, film), based around characters who're all intriguingly cognitively impaired. I'd read it already.