Finally…

I could just link to a bunch of articles written by friends and acquaintances about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who because pretty much all of them have written what I’ve been thinking since the reveal on Sunday afternoon.

I hadn’t planned to watch it. Watching tennis bores me (sorry), but not as much as the post match guff. I also refused to allow myself to think that I would be that interested. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked every single actor and performer who has played Doctor Who over the nearly 55 years the series has been running. Genuinely, whenever people ask me who my favourite Doctor is I say all of them because it’s true. I learned a long time ago when I was researching and writing my Masters thesis on the show and its fans that my appreciation of each actor and era depends mostly on my mood at the time.

My interest in the show has ebbed and flowed, too, and not necessarily because of the quality of the stories. I loved the 2017 series, even though my interest had been ebbing a bit. As I have said often at convention panels when I’m talking about the show and my relationship with it, I am far less of a fan of the post 2005 series than I was from the years 1979 (or so) to 1984, and then 1987 to 1989. My fandom then was intense, by the way – publishing fanzines, rocking up to day events in costume, winning trivia quizzes, and writing to the writers and actors. One reason why my viewing has changed is because I know too many people working on the show – either directly, or on the industry around it. I’ve kept away from secrets – that’s never really appealed anyway – but it’s different.

I still love to show. Have missed very few episodes. Rewatch a fair number. Enjoy writing about it still, and writing in it (if you consider the widest possible definition of what the family of Doctor Who is… like I do).

So, it was with low expectations that I kept an eye on the Wimbledon men’s singles final and on Twitter. I had heard no serious rumours, but japed along with mates, and started to feel a little bit nervous. The people I know who normally know these things (or fairly close to guess correctly) didn’t know.

And then finally the tennis stopped, and the post match guff, and the 60 second clip of a person in a coat and hoodie stepping through a lush green forest… I blinked at the feet shot… then the hand with the key… thought no. A tease… and then the pan around as she pulled down her hood and that little quirky smile as she sees the TARDIS…

I feel little chills still as I re-watch it. As I think about it. I smile.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor in those few seconds.

My friends and others have written eloquently and passionately about the hatred of some. I’m not going to add to it. Nick Barlow very cleverly lances the fan sense of ownership and outrage when their thing does something they think it shouldn’t (On the new Doctor, fandom’s reaction and how it all reaches back to a Who story from 1980), and Una McCormack published two excellent pieces about the misogyny of some fans, one written after hearing some people being angry on the radio and the other earlier the same day channelling Ursula LeGuin. All three are brilliant. As is this by Chris Mead, and this excellent piece by Sarah Gailey is sheer perfection.

My piece in the book Queers Dig Time Lords traces how my coming out as gay was inextricably intwined with my love of Doctor Who and its fans. No, it’s not as simple as me having crushes on the companions (though that didn’t not happen in some cases). The theoretical basis of my Masters thesis was queer theory – about otherness. About how those who are ‘othered’ seek out those who are like them… and I found a very few others like me in the amazing world of Doctor Who fans I grew up in as a teenager and young adult. Deep breath here, but I am not exaggerating when I say they saved my life.

Now, as I reach my half century, the wonderful people I have met through this barmy show of many guises (not just the actor who plays the lead role, but the show itself – why it’s possible for so many to love, hate, be indifferent to each offering) are opening up what gender means. I have never felt comfortable being a girl, or even a woman; no. More uncomfortable about the Western cultural pressures of femininity. It’s still not a wholly comfortable fit for me, but I am trying out the label ‘non-binary’, and then trying to grapple what that means in the sense of my homosexuality.

Along comes Missy. Brilliant in her own right, but clearly also an experimental push from Steven Moffat and the rest of the Doctor Who crew.

The production crews over the years have toyed about casting a woman to play the Doctor. Most people think it was a tease – and maybe at times it was – but I think it was just that TV just couldn’t. Unless as a joke (as in the Curse of Fatal Death). Without really thinking about it (I have never played the game of casting anyone in the role, but just having faith in the decisions made and never actually being disappointed) I guess I must have thought that an older woman would play the part as an spinstery geek. Think Amelia Rumford…

For all of how Doctor Who has pushed boundaries, it is also a remarkably small c conservative show. Radical as well as reactionary. The old series as well as the new, and also the books and comics in between and running parallel. Television production has changed over the last fifty years, and Doctor Who has both led the charge with new techniques and resisted others. None of this in an easy progression. It’s always been a few steps forward, a few back or sideways, and a reset here and there. It’s made mistakes, and been absolutely brilliant – in the eyes of different beholders those mistakes and moments of genius have occurred at the same time.

I am gay, a woman interested sexually in women, but more comfortable with the idea of gender being fluid and me being more male than female. I am aromantic (and so, so pleased to know that term now!). I’ve had some fabulous relationships, and one bad one, and now am happily single.

… and one of the things that struck me on Sunday, which surprised me,  was just how cute that little quirky smile is on the Doctor’s face as she sees the TARDIS and the key materialises in her hand.

So, it’s not just about representation and feminism – both powerfully positive things, by the way – but for the first time ever in the 50 years I’ve been watching this show and reading the books I think I have fallen a little bit in love with the Doctor. Like the guys and gals who fell in love with Davison, Tennant, McGann, Smith, Capaldi, McCoy, the Bakers, Troughton… actually, all of them.

It’s a feeling I never thought I would ever feel, and it’s a feeling I’m finding I like.

The X-Files… extreme paranoia

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J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC © SJG 2013

I had just re-watched all of this rather odd little but wildly successful US TV series before they announced its brief revival last year. My thoughts on that I have copied below, taken from my previous blog-site. Most of my observations from then still stand, but some have shifted because of how the world has changed, politically. Plus, of course, there now exists six additional episodes with our old friends and tropes.

Overall, I am surprised by how fresh and lively the first few seasons still are. What caught the imagination of the world back in the 1990s still catches. It’s not until principal filming moved from Canada to California that the shine starts to dull. The Doggett and Reyes year suffers from the show drowning in its own heavy mythology. A shame, because those two characters, and Scully, are great and could have done so much. C’est la vie.

I like the second movie more each time I watch it. There’s an odd moment in it when Scully and Mulder are in the Hoover Building, flanking a portrait of then President George W. Bush. The X-Files theme tune echoes, and they give each other a weird little look. Then knowing, now…

I watched the first two episodes of the 2016 season close to its transmission. I enjoyed them, but work got in the way. I bought the DVD, and then decided to watch the whole series again. Glad I did. I do wonder how comprehensible five episodes of the six would be to the more casual viewer, even with the voice-overs and flash-backs.

The exception – ironically given the in-jokes – was Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Great fun, silly, and caught the essence of the brilliant stand-alone stories of maximum quirk from the first few seasons. It’s also a good tale, imaginatively told, with some fascinating characters.

The first and last episodes of the run top and tail it all, and when watched during the first sixty days of the current presidency of the USA is bizarre. I mentioned in my blog below my thoughts on how the shift in real-world politics also affected the show. My thoughts have sharpened on this.

Most of the X-Files aired during the Bill Clinton administration. There were conspiracies and lies, just as there had been during other presidencies, which is what the show picked up on and ran with. People believed some of what was depicted in the show. I remember smart people at my work who bought into the ‘based on truth’ advertising campaign way back at the start. I talked this over with a friend recently, and they observed that the series caught that comforting type of conspiracy theory where ridiculous things are believed of the government because while presenting a punching-bag to hit at, it simultaneously reassured them that the government was competent.

The 2016 season was made and aired during the end of the Obama presidency; eight years of bonkers conspiracy theories, but not a lot of actual scandal. An interesting shift in the socio-political zeitgeist that the first and last episodes gleefully dive in to play. The role of the internet in airing huge and whacky conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ is poked at, as is the problem of how to work out what is true and what isn’t.

And now we are in a world where during the first days and weeks of a new administration the lines between rumour-mongers, partisan propagandists, and conspiracy theorists and official announcements by the Executive Branch are short. Congress – both main parties, by the way – is also playing these games, but the sound and vision of the White House communications is deafening and blinding those others through sheer volume and boldness. What was obviously planned in an amusing little TV SF show to push boundaries to extreme possibilities mere months ago now looks woefully timid.

I enjoyed my re-watch. I will always have a soft spot for the show, and I am glad they made the 2008 movie and the 2016 episodes. Only one episode truly stood out, though, which makes me ponder just how bankable nostalgia is on a sustainable basis. By the way, by bankable I don’t just mean money; I include the emotional and intellectual investment by viewers and fans.

I’ll end this with a small observation I spotted this time around: the X-Files traces the history of the mobile telephone. At first they are rare, car-bound (pretty much) bricks. The models our heroes use change each season, but most of the show’s run came before cameras became intrinsic to mobile phones. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone has observed that the number of UFO sightings has decreased as the number of phones with cameras and internet connections increased, with a fairly obvious assumed causality between the two phenomena.

The X-Files, re-watched, re-assessed, & re-analysed

Posted originally on 5th January 2014.

When I was in Washington DC in September 2013 I was lucky enough to visit the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover building (pictured above). As a fan of a fair few fictional depictions of FBI agents (Clarice Starling, Dana Scully) it was a highlight of my visit.

On my return to London I decided to watch the TV series I like set in DC. I had the West Wing and the X-Files to choose from, and I plumped for the X-Files because someone had pointed out it was twenty years old.

Twenty years! Gosh. I remembered watching it when I still lived with my parents in their new house in North Sydney. Friends David and Kyla were about the only other folk I knew who watched those first few episodes on its first run on Aussie TV; they because of the links to Kolchack the Night Stalker me because it was like Project Bluebook and had the FBI in it. People picked up on it on its second run, if my memory serves me correctly, and then Australia went nuts about it. Seriously nuts. Gillian Anderson visited and got mobbed. It rated highly, and it was the first ‘genre show’ that got discussed by people not into sci-fi and all that at work. Well, so far as I was aware, at any rate. Though some work colleagues of mine had believed the line about the stories being based on truth and thought it was a series of dramatised documentaries. Oh, dear.

Anyway, I watched all the episodes and the two movies. I didn’t watch the Lone Gunmen series interspersed with the season of the X-Files that they should be. Not too much of a problem, that, although I did have to look up the plot synopses to make sense of one X-Files episode. I love the Lone Gunmen, by the way, just was one of a few underwhelmed by their short-lived series.

Things that struck me were just how good the first few seasons are. Then it seemed to get a bit lost in its own hype, and while I don’t think the quality dips there is a change and it becomes less enjoyable, somehow. Not bad, just missable. That’s roughly when the filming moves from Canada to California, so way before Doggett and Reyes get assigned. I think it’s because it loses a quirky sense of humour and takes itself and its own mythology way too seriously.

Given that it was mostly filmed in Canada those first few seasons get DC amazingly well. Obviously the production crew had access to interior shots of the Hoover Building, and external shots would have been easy. The geography made sense, and many of the first set of tales took place in the states close by to DC. I was also rather impressed that places that looked like the DC, Maryland or Virginia locales were used, too. I don’t think there are too many series that would bother if they didn’t need to.

And I loved all the little jokes about how much the X-Files unit costs the FBI in travel expenses.

I know there are a few reasons put forward by various, including Chris Carter and the production crew, about why the X-Files suddenly dived in popularity. I think it was partially that they ran out of stories after nine years, without having to recycle the same old. Also the bizarre paranoia thing about the US government and crazy conspiracies got a bit weird with real-life. Without ducking off into a history lesson, the fact is the USA is no different from any other country or political system in that in order to keep the status quo ‘safe’ there are steps that need to be taken that run counter to that system and its beliefs in its own status as ‘right’ or ‘most ideal’. Hoover pioneered many of those techniques with the early days of the FBI, and he and the Bureau weren’t alone. And, yes, of course they run the risk of being hooked up to a political ideology, and running rampant. There are well-documented cases of this, which makes for fertile ground to sow and reap great stories. In the early Bill Clinton years this all made sense. It wasn’t real, well not excessively so, so we could have some fun with the idea of a global conspiracy hiding aliens.

What fascinates me is just how George W. Bush’s presidency made it impossible to have fun with all this. Why? Because it became too believable. And I don’t think Barak Obama’s presidency is one where having a bit of fun with preposterous government conspiracies is viable for a TV series. Too many people believe the nonsensical – ‘birthers’, UN spoiling to attack the USA, ‘Obamacare’ having ‘death panels’ as a medical treatment strategy…

Yeah. The X-Files was a product of its time.

But, the X-Files was a lot more than just the conspiracy arc. The last time I watched the series (just before the second movie came out) I was really struck by how good many of the standalone episodes are. The oddball in particular. The ones where we never know just what it really was that caused the murders, or disappearances, or whatever it was our FBI Special Agents had to investigate. This re-watch confirmed that for me, and I still adore War of the Coprophages, Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – just to name a few.

I hadn’t noticed the recurring insect people arc until this time.

One of the things that makes the X-Files enjoyable to re-watch are the characters. Despite neither Duchnovy or Anderson being particularly lively, both bring their characters to life, and their characters are pretty cool. There is character development, particularly with Scully, and by the last few seasons she’s rather weary in her shouldering responsibility for Mulder’s mission in life. Her reaction to loving him is fascinating. Anderson grew, I think, as an actor during the nine years she worked on the series and performs the role an increasingly assured but subtle way. And, hurrah, the writers didn’t screw up her characterisation.

Mulder is the main character, though, and even when he’s off hiding in the last few seasons his mark is indelible.

During the last year or so I’ve been reading up on Jungian theory and Meyers-Briggs. Yeah, that stuff that certain management and HR gurus like to whitter on about. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff gets it wrong, which leaves it open to a lot of (justified) attack. However, those attacks were so obvious that Myers-Briggs warned against mis-using it… If only people would read original texts. Even read the stuff from those trained in it – some of whom are trained psychologists! (By the way, any critique that starts off with or includes that Myers and Briggs were ‘housewives’ betrays itself as lazy at best and also sexist.)

Anyway, my take on it all is this: it’s a theoretical model through which to try to explore / explain the different ways in which people understand the world, which manifests as personality. It’s based on models and ideas that have existed for millennia (yes, really). It’s being refined all the time as understanding grows, particularly in relation to physiology. But, it’s a difficult area. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I’ve never had formal training in it. I do know that it doesn’t pretend to be a series of robust experiments, and it is susceptible to confirmation bias… but, it’s a tool that I’ve found useful in terms of understanding why I react the way I do and why it’s different to other people’s reactions. I’ve also found a bunch of folk, amateurs like me, who like exploring this stuff. Key word being ‘exploring’, there, not ‘believing in’. And part of that exploring is playing with it.

So… just doing a quick Google and it seems that there are some folk out there who argue Mulder is an INFP or INTJ, and argue against anyone who ‘types’ Mulder as an INTP. Well I think Mulder is an INTP… and it’s not wishful thinking. It was a continuing series of ‘OMG, that! Wow. He is so INTP’ as I watched the whole series.

I’ve been ‘typed’ professionally by different people – first time in Australia, second and third times in the UK – over the last 20 odd years. I’ve consistently come out as INTP. To spell out the letters to those of you who are probably thinking ‘WTF?’ – I’m an introvert (meaning I need to re-charge in quiet), intuitive (meaning I use my imagination to take in the world rather than my five senses), a thinker (meaning I consider logic over consideration of people) and a perceiver (meaning I keep my options open). That’s my four letter combination out of sixteen possible permutations.

For many, that’s enough. For others there is a slightly more complicated but ultimately more rewarding approach to do with functions and how they appear in the use stack.

Okay, a little diversion. The idea is that these are all preferred ways of taking in and interpreting the world. They are not the be all and end all. The common analogy is handedness – most people are either right or left handed, but if their dominant side was incapacitated in some way can use their other side. Some people are genuinely ambidextrous. So, in the Myers-Briggs world this translates most easily for those who are extroverted / introverted – plenty of introverts can extrovert (and vice versa). If you’re interested, Susan Cain’s book is rather good, as is her TED talk. Easy to search for 🙂

Function theory operates a fairly simple formula which looks at what the sixteen letters represent, asks whether the Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling pairs are extroverted or introverted and what order they come in – there are four preferred and the remaining four are what becomes dominant when I’m stressed.

For me as an INTP my function stack are, in order: introverted thinking (Ti, meaning I think and analyse obsessively – cannot switch it off, feel better when my brain is working on complex problems); extroverted intuition (Ne, meaning bouncing around from possibility to possibility); introverted sensing (Si, meaning I have a pretty good encyclopaedic memory of things that have happened before); and extroverted feeling (Fe, meaning I care obsessively about what other people think). The below brief explanation summarises it beautifully:

Ti: *masterminding* So, lets find a concise explanation for how this works…
Ne: *extremely excited* IDEAS! FROM MARS! On x and y and z and what about sigma??
Si: *serious and knowledgeable* Well, previous experience tells us that….
Fe: *worried* I do hope nobody minds…
(It’s from some folks on Tumblr – © 2011-14 Red Striped Alibis)

The higher up the stack, so the theory goes, the more developed the process is. The lower down the less developed. They all work together, too, with their varying levels of development. And all that is affected by personal experience, growth, etc, which is why we are none of us clones. But, it is scary when you discover other people who think and feel in ways similar to you, and even scarier when they’ve had similar experiences growing up despite being in different countries – not all English speaking.

Okay, enough about me. What about Mulder?

If he’s INTP then he is Ti, Ne, Si and Fe.
If he’s INFP then he is Fi, Ne, Si and Te.
If he’s INTJ then he is Ni, Te, Fi and Se.

So, what does that mean?

If he’s INFP then he values and considers importance, beliefs and worth first; interprets situations and relationships and picks up meaning and interconnections to other contexts; then reviews and recalls past experiences and seeks detailed data; and then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts.

If he’s INTJ then he foresees implications, transformations and likely effects; then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts; then values and considers importance, beliefs and worth; and then experiences and acts in the immediate context.

Yeah, I don’t think he’s an INTJ at all. Most of the time he’s in trouble because he hasn’t foreseen the implications of what’s going on. His acting in the immediate context is usually because he’s a trained FBI agent. He’s clearly got Ne in his stack, and fairly high up, too (‘extreme possibilities’ is his thing, after all).

What about INFP? Hm. Maybe. But I’m not sure he puts other people first ahead of his quest for the truth.

Regardless of whether he’s INTP or INFP – two of the stack are the same for both, it’s the primary and last ones that are different – and their placings do have an effect – he’s consistently driven to find out the answer to the mysteries presented, and contrary to an idea that pops up when people summarise the characters from the X-Files, he doesn’t automatically plump for the paranormal. In fact, he spends some of the series actively rejecting the idea of the aliens running everything (against Scully and against the evidence, arguably).

I think it does boil down to whether he’s driven by the need to analyse or the need to consider people’s beliefs.

Review: Denial

01/08/2010 20:02:14

Graffito in Köln, 2010

I nearly missed this film and only caught it because a friend, Dr D, had spotted it and wanted to see it. I’m glad she did, and glad we able to find a session that wasn’t sold out. I must say that I am suspicious about how responsive the cinema industry is to suddenly popular films, versus “blockbusters” that tank. Anyway, see it we did last night at the nearly full screening at Clapham Picturehouse.

It tells the story of two historians – one British, one American – who clash over their scholarly interpretation of an event within living memory. The Brit takes the Yank to court in the UK  in a libel case because the Yank accused the Brit of being a racist. The American proves her case against the Brit, aided by her amazing team of British lawyers.

Or, to be more precise, the film charts the first personal encounter American historian Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt had with British scholar David Irving in the USA. He challenged her during a lecture about her work on people who deny that the Holocaust happened the way it did. In 1996 he sued her and her publisher, Penguin, for defamation using the British courts where the burden of proof lays on the defendant. The case rested on the book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published by Penguin in 1994. The judgement itself was made by The Hon. Mr Justice Gray in 2000 and is worth reading, especially given current events.Be warned, though: a version that pops up in google searching takes you to Irving’s site with an annotated and amended version of the judgement.

The film itself is a fairly tight courtroom drama, with some nice nods to differences between British and US legal systems and traditions. The acting from all concerned is first rate, and the script deals with difficult questions of denying one’s immediate, all-to-human reaction, to win a case that seemed simple but really wasn’t. The difficulty was to keep the Holocaust from becoming the issue, and to keep the entire focus on those who misinterpret the historical record (deliberately, or a result of cognitive bias – the difference crucial but a hairline splits them) to deny the Holocaust either happened, or if it did that it didn’t target the Jews, and wasn’t part of Hitler’s plans. Bearing in mind the film is based on court records and Lipstadt’s book about the trial, it was interesting to see character development as Lipstadt and Barrister Richard Rampton QC slowly come to understand each other. I like the little touch of the first day of hearings where Lipstadt refuses to bow her head because she is an American, but by the day of the judgement she does so. The film had moments of gentle humour to break what could have been fairly tedious legal talk.

It also had a sequence that left the audience silent. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a nearly full cinema where for a lengthy sequence there was no noise beyond the film. It was when Lipstadt and her legal team visit Auschwitz.

The timing of the release of this film is probably one reason for its popularity. It premiered in the UK on 27 January 2017, International Holocaust Memorial Day. The day that Donald Trump, newly inaugurated President of the USA, issued a statement from the White House that for the first time did not specifically mention the Jews. While incompetence cannot in all fairness be ruled out, the subsequent actions are too close to neo-Nazi tropes to support the idea it was a mistake. The White House doubled down on there being other victims, which is true. But, crucially, the Jews were especially targeted. Lipstadt has commented on there being a spectrum of Holocaust denialism: from total (hard) denial, to a softer version. Regardless, any denial of the historical facts in this case is anti-semitic.

I would recommend this film anyway, but it’s especially pertinent for now. Not only as a warning, but also about ways to confront such lies.

I wrote this blog back in 2007, thought the article itself was from the mid-1990s. It’s about Doctor Who’s depiction of World War II and Nazism, but if you scroll through that there’s a personal bit at the end.

The Pallisers / Brideshead Revisited

img_0165I had never really heard of the Pallisers until a few months ago. I’d not read the books by Anthony Trollope, and had not seen the 1974 BBC-TV series. Two dear friends rectified the latter situation and over the last two weeks I’ve ‘binge-watched’ all 26 episodes.

The TV series first aired throughout 1974, but was disrupted by the politics of that year in the UK. The story is heavily political – the Pallisers centres around Plantagenet Palliser, a Liberal from landed aristocracy and MP, later PM, with a good period of time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is wonderfully played by Philip Latham, who captures his austere and proper manner easily but allows us glimpses of his human warmth.

The heart of the family saga is the Lady Glencora, played brilliantly by Susan Hampshire, who marries Plantagenet against her will, but does her duty. She has a fierce sense of romantic justice, and in another time or place would have been either a Suffragist or perhaps Suffragette, or a feminist.

The political rumble-tumble follows Irish Liberal Phineus Finn (Donal McCann) in and out of favour, and of love with an amazing collection of women of various upper stands of English and European society. I grew to like him, his friendship with the Pallisers.

The last few episodes goes to the next generation, the three Palliser children: Silverbridge (Anthony Andrews), Gerald (Michael Cochrane), and Mary (Kate Nicholls). Silverbridge fails at Oxford, but excels at cricket, and falls in with Frank Tregear (Jeremy Irons) who convinces him that Conservatism is really the party for him. Behind his father’s back, Silverbridge runs as a Tory in the family constituency, and wins, but then gains his father’s semi-approval for his decency and gradually realises that Liberalism is really the better politics. Later, Tregear and Mary fall for each other, but in an echo of the doomed romance of Mary’s mother before she bowed to duty and eventually found a loyal love with Planty, Planty forbids Mary’s betrothal with Tregear.

All in all, I ended up greatly enjoying the series. It is of its time, but then at that time the BBC were making brilliant costume dramas unafraid, really, of making some political hay from the day.

I must confess that the pairing of Andrews as an aristocrat with Irons as his chum found at Oxford University but who ends up influencing Andrews’ character led immediately to a strong desire to re-watch the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I am a fan of the TV series, and I have read the novel on which it is based. I’ve not seen the more recent film version, and so I won’t judge it. One of the appeals of the Granada series is its languid, luxurious, and dreamy meander through the various events of Charles Ryder’s life where it intersects with country pile Brideshead and the Marchmain family.

My re-watch did not disappoint – aside from the extraordinarily dated and annoying anti-IP theft ads on each DVD. I was blown away by how good a pair of actors Irons and Andrews are. Both play remarkably similar (on paper) characters in the Pallisers and Brideshead, but both bring so much difference and nuance to each.

Watching both back-to-back, with the politics of decaying privilege against the backdrop of current world politics has provoked thoughts about all that. More for another time, though.

The West Wing

I find politics fascinating in large part because it reveals so much about human nature. Our expression of our political beliefs betray how we view the world. To be clear, I’m not talking about political party allegiances, but actual politics. Meaning the struggle for power, and how it’s used (and abused), and how we acquiesce to those with power and those institutions and systems built to protect us from the worse excesses of it.

I also relish well-written, acted, and delivered drama. Best with a healthy dose of clever humour.

It’s obvious, but I adore the West Wing because it delivers on both.

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The White House, September 2013 © Sarah J Groenewegen

I had wanted to re-watch the West Wing a few times since my first visit to Washington DC in September 2013. Other TV shows demanded my attention more, and I had a tonne of work to do in both my day job and writing. Anyway, I promised myself I would watch it on my second – longer – visit to DC last year. Both times I was there was for work, by the way. Usually a rare opportunity so I feel doubly blessed for the experience. I smiled at the familiar sites that I had gotten to know through my visits.

I am always blown away by how fast out of the box the West Wing was – the first episode sets the pace, the style, the characters and situations deftly. No, brilliantly. It really is a masterclass in how to do it. I had to remind myself of when it first went out; the real-world events of Syria that is driving so much world politics now features, woven seamlessly into the fictional narrative of a fiercely intelligent (geeky) yet clumsy (okay, a nerd) President. Oh, referred to as POTUS when only a handful of people knew what that term meant.

I skipped the special episode that they made in commemoration of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. I watched it at the time of first broadcast when it fit in the political zeitgeist; now it interfered with the story arc.

The fifth year of the show dips in quality. Creator Aaron Sorkin’s gift at writing sparkling wit is what’s missing. The characters, situations, and delivery are all still high-class, but the particular type of humour. It recovers a bit in the last two years of the show, which gains a bit of confidence again – hey, we can deliver what Sorkin did.

Real-world politics is the lens through which I watched it over the last few months. Particularly pertinent for the last year when we are now in the throes of what must be one of the most peculiar US Presidential elections in history. I like the world of the West Wing because the Tea Party never made an appearance. The GOP have reasonable, intelligent, gifted people in it and working for it. They are a credible balance, even with its extreme edge (who are centrists when you compare them with almost the entire crop of the real-world ones).

On a far more positive note, I enjoyed the Santos-Obama feel. When talking about it with a friend last weekend, he mentioned that Jimmy Smits (who played Democratic nominee Matthew Santos) had modelled his performance on the young senator from Illinois.

If you’ve not seen it and you like well-written drama, do give it a go.  I was astonished as to how little it had aged, although – thankfully – we have advanced a bit in terms of combatting sexism as sometimes appears when characters interact and aren’t called out for it.

“Okay… so what’s next?”

The Monday after the referendum in the UK that voted by a margin of 1,269,501 to leave the European Union  (with 72% turnout) and the only certainty is chaos. Political, economic, and social chaos. People are scared, angry, cynical, and bewildered. That’s on all sides, and in many countries, by the way. No one group ‘owns’ this. Both the vote and reactions are, I think, a rather spectacular explosion of what’s been bubbling for a long time. And economic and political chaos breeds more social chaos, and on it can go. And then there is the US elections and the potential for even more shocks.

I spent most of Friday and the weekend grappling with what this all means. To sort out the causes and from that try to work out what to do. I am by no means the only person doing that, even though it’s actually impossible because it’s too big and too complex. There is  no one cause we can identify and then fix.

At base we are talking about the fundamentals of human behaviour and how we think – Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow is an essential read if you want to understand what I mean (Rolf Donelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly is a pretty good summary of Kahneman’s observations and arguments in easily digestible format).

The desire to fix blame somewhere else, to generalise and demonise, to do something – whether it be ridicule, insult, abuse, assault, or even kill – is compelling in our rage born of uncertainty and fear. It’s easier to do these destructive things than really stop and try to think about it, to analyse it in its complexity, to set aside our inherent biases, to recognise our own role in perpetuating destructive approaches, and act in a consistent and ongoing way to genuinely make things better. There is no easy quick-fix; it’s a hard slog to be constructive. We make mistakes. No one is perfect. We are human.

Fans of the West Wing will recognise the title of this post as a catch-phrase of the fictional US President Josiah Bartlett. I’ve been re-watching the series and over the weekend had reached the episodes when loved characters are caught in a terrorist bombing in Palestine, and our surviving protagonists need to make some difficult decisions. Apologies for the spoiler, but we need to be Bartlett taking the difficult road to conciliation and stop giving in to the rage and making things worse for all the short-term relief it gives. I have seen some complain that it’s too late to challenge ‘soft racism’ – I reject that. There  never was and never will be one magical point that could have stopped this. Stopping racism and other forms of bigotry is a long-term and constant effort.

Europe

The UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe has always been complex and multifaceted. That’s not unusual in international relations, by the way. Like every connection in human society, culture and history are not mono – multiple and diverse strands interweave. We like our history to be an easy to digest narrative of absolutes, but events really aren’t those things. Even when people are fully honest their interpretations differ, and misunderstandings abound, even when people speak the same language. That situation worsens when players and observers are less than honest. I say that only to point out to be wary of any commentator identifying one thing as a cause or way to fix things.

To understate this, Europe has a fractious history and that hasn’t gone away. The EU is one mechanism to keep that fractiousness from escalating into armed conflict, and it functions through a complex political, legal, and bureaucratic set of structures set up through negotiations and compromises. As with every democratic system in the Member States, including the UK, there are rules. Some are clear, some aren’t, and all depend on how they are interpreted. There are people who have spent their lives studying them and are skilled at explaining them. Three I find useful are: David Allen Green, Joshua Rozenberg, and Jo Maugham QCHansard and Civil Service World are both useful, too. As is Full Fact.

UK Politics

Politics beyond clearly articulated policy points is messy. I think it is safe to say that the main established UK parties are in crisis. There is no easy out, either. I see a lot of people calling for a general election, but firstly I’m not sure the requirements are actually met under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and secondly I’m not sure a general election would change what needs to be changed anyway.

To serious observers, the chaos has actually been evident for a few decades, and it’s not unique to the UK. While the systems are different, some of the key points outlined in this long Atlantic article about the US political system apply to the UK. I think the EU referendum has ripped open some of these fractures. Just as in the USA there has been a long lead in, and multiple causes, and I’m not entirely convinced there was ever a time of when it all worked perfectly.

I don’t think all is lost. While imperfect I believe the British parliamentary system of government is in practical terms worth working for. I am a civil servant and when I return to work from annual leave I will be one of many doing my bit to ensure that government keeps functioning as best it can in this time of chaos.

I know people think that government is distant and they can do nothing to change it. That’s not true. Beyond voting for your Member of Parliament (MP) in elections you can seek them out and engage with them. Remember that politics and effective democratic government is about compromise for what’s best for as many as possible. Communication – which is listening as well as talking, by all parties – is this process. Venting on social media or heckling at a public meeting may make you feel temporarily better, but ask yourself have you actually achieved anything that isn’t ultimately destructive? Your MP works for you, they represent you in parliament. Party politics complicates it a bit, but if you educate yourself on how that all works then you’ll be surprised at what you can do.

Party politics is another way you can get involved. Check out the parties and what they really stand for. Look at the history of each – what is the case now has not always been the case. There are newer parties out there just starting out. Look at their rules. Work out which one suits you best. Maybe even consider standing for election with one of them. Remember – parties are collections of people.

Petitions, protests, demonstrations – they all have their place. They can be powerful symbols, but have a limit to their effectiveness. All these methods of being involved in big picture politics are limited, but the longer term ones always have more lasting effect.

The Fourth Estate

The news and opinion media play a large part in UK life, like it or not. There is so much to be said about this, but I shall resist wasting too many words here on it (I’m linking to this because again while mostly to do with the US situation there is a lot of relevance for the UK). I will say: be aware of the political allegiances of the paper you’re reading (online and other versions), the operating procedures of the television and radio you watch/listen to. Be really wary of articles/pieces that only or overwhelmingly refer to other media sources or unnamed sources. Try to check original sources. I’ve linked to Hansard above.

If you have concerns about the way stories are presented, there are mechanisms to complain: IPSO for the press, and OfCom for TV, radio and video on demand (if they don’t cover it, they’ll refer you to where you should send your complaint).

Daily Life

Reports of racist attacks and abuse are up, and it’s not hard to draw direct lines from certain campaign materials and rhetoric to these reported incidents. Clearly the politics of recent months surrounding the referendum is a component, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that it didn’t happen before, or has nothing to do with the various extremist narratives circling the globe. Sometimes the media seems fixated on it (it is newsworthy) and the situation can seem a hopeless and endless march of bigotry. Remember, please, that the media needs to sell copies and ad space and horror sells; and the media focuses on the odd and unusual rather than the everyday (that’s a human thing, by the way). Also, statistics on incidents are imperfect – not everything is reported, and offences change over time.

What can we do? Here is one booklet that spells it all out pretty clearly. [20:15hrs 27 June 2016 update] And here is another useful guide.

The Police

It’s the job of the police in the UK to protect the public. They have the training, and the legal backing.

Find out your local police contact details and put them in your phone. If you have a smart phone then include their notes about who is best to contact in what situation. I shouldn’t have to say this, but the emergency numbers are for emergencies only – if you see an assault in progress, then use it. For other matters use the other numbers or methods.

If you’re travelling, then contact the British Transport Police. Again useful to save their contact details and advice in your phone if you can.

While I wish it wasn’t the case, sometimes the police response can be far short of what it should be. Go here to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for advice and how to make a complaint.

If you have more general questions about how your police deal with hate crimes, or want to be a bit more involved in community policing, then contact your local police to find out. Check their websites first for the best contact point. You can also find out more about your local Police and Crime Commissioner and engage with them.

Don’t be a Bystander

Stonewall launched a campaign in 2015 to combat bullying behaviour against LGBTQIA* people. It has some excellent resources worth looking at, but be aware that it doesn’t apply to each and every situation.

It’s Not all about Them, It’s also about Us

This is the most difficult and challenging thing: reflect on your own behaviour. As I said at the top of this post, the desire to fix blame elsewhere and to attack a generalised conglomeration is strong and entirely human. But, we also have the ability to self-reflect and learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others.

Just one example: if you find yourself railing about all the old people, or all the young people, or all the people in eastern England, or all the working class – please stop. No geographic area and no single demographic voted 100% one way or the other**. All you’re doing is setting up barriers to the conversations that need to be had.

Yes, It’s Personal

I am a migrant to the UK. I was born and raised in Australia – a migrant country – to a Dutch father and an Australian mother (whose background is mostly Cornish, Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian). I migrated to the UK on a Dutch passport I obtained through due legal process. I applied for and was granted British citizenship through the naturalisation process, and I rescinded my claim to Dutch citizenship. I currently retain my Australian nationality for family reasons.

I won’t lie – some of the rhetoric used hit me hard. I recognised the ignorance behind it, and whenever it was spoken in front of me I corrected the speaker. Did what I could to educate them. But, I’m lucky. I’m white. I have never had a broad Aussie accent. My surname can cause a bit of a pause, but I have never had any abuse hurled at me because of it.

A Final Little Note

If you have been justifiably caught up in all this political, social and economic chaos, you may have missed some other things that happened over the weekend. Things that actually give me a lot of hope, and hope is vital to keep working to make the world better for as many people as possible.

LGBTQIA Pride events occurred in various parts of the world. As if we need another reminder of how much work needs to done, the Turkish authorities abused those brave souls refusing to stay cowed. It those who march who give me hope.

The events in London and New York City were the total opposite. In the UK, multiple buildings flew the rainbow flag or lit up their facades in rainbow colours – they included the Royal Military College (Sandhurst), the Home Office, the Welsh National Assembly (Senedd), Thames House (MI5), and a multitude of others. London’s Pride march included large contingents of all the armed forces branches, the civil service (including a few Permanent Secretaries – that’s the heads of major government departments), and the police – I was proud to see a bunch of my NCA colleagues with them.

A UK government minister and member of the Conservative Party came out on Twitter and rather than cause a scandal, she was congratulated by an otherwise absent Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osbourne) and Prime Minister (David Cameron).

Presumptive Democrat candidate for the President of the USA, Hilary Clinton, tweeted in support of LGBTQIA rights – both from her personally, and from her campaign.

US President Barak Obama announced that the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park would become the USA’s first national monument for LGBT people, and that the ban on trans people serving in the US military would end.

That last point has massive implications on so many levels.

I am not saying, ‘hurrah, we’ve won!’, and I acknowledge and share some of the concerns from many about ‘militarisation’,  but I am pointing out what we have achieved. What we can do with persistent hard work. Two years ago I marched with the police in Manchester’s LGBT Pride and I will never forget how much of an emotional lift I got when I realised the symbol we sent to the people of Manchester as our joyous shouts and whistles drowned out a group wanting to wipe out LGBTQIA people. I am old enough to remember the reasons why some older LGBTQIA people fear the police.

There is so much work to do to consolidate and keep protecting our legal rights, but it’s work we must do, and what each one of us does matters. I know people are scared that one possible outcome is a total withdrawal from the EU and its human right protections – a valid fear, but one we can start to work against by engaging in each and every facet of public and private life to challenge bigotry in all its forms.


*A note – I use this one to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual. I realise that others use different orders and letters, and I apologise if I cause any offence through omission.

** Gibraltar was the closest with 95.9% voting to remain in the EU, with a turnout of 83.7%.

Adam Sisman, John LeCarré: The Biography

A few days ago I finished reading Adam Sisman’s biography of writer John LeCarré, pseudonym of David Cornwell.

I think the first I ever read of LeCarré’s work was The Little Drummer Girl, and I saw the movie at around about the same time, which was I think when it came out on videotape. I was in my late teens and discovering the world and its politics, safe in my family home. My father is an academic, specifically an economist, even more specifically an economic historian. We had a fairly impressive library at home, and both my parents encouraged us (my brother and I) to visit other libraries. I read voraciously and pursued various obsessions. As a young teenager I had discovered Anne Frank’s diary while we visited Amsterdam, and following that read everything I could find on the Holocaust. Politics and current affairs were always discussed at home, and even as a young child I had been picking up on the terrorism of the 1970s as remote to Australia as it was then.

The Little Drummer Girl was an eye-opener for me. Charlie’s idealism spoke to me at exactly the right age, I think, and the tale is cautionary in the way it shows how complex these things are. How difficult – there is no single right or wrong side, but numerous of each. Makes it easy to cower in inactivity, but actually one of the messages I took from the book is that small actions build into more powerful changes.

I am writing this in 2016 with a Cold War between the USSR and the Western democracies having disappeared into a strange narrative, and the Middle Eastern and West Asian wars having fractured and splintered into multiple deadly offshoots that few understand but many worsen through a simplistic narrative. Spy thrillers like the James Bond books, the Bourne books and movies, etc, etc, etc, all play their part in shaping those narratives. As does political discourse, the advantage of hindsight, the stories written by the victors, the victims…

I majored in politics and political history at university, specialising in international affairs. I took multiple units in Soviet politics and history when the USSR still existed, and we were caught by surprise when the break-up happened so quickly. When George Bush Snr was up against Michael Dukakis in 1988 I took a year-long course in US politics. I dove into the safety of theoretical politics and related philosophies during 1989 and 1990, but dipped my toe into the broiling mess of what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict. I learned to be wary of any simplistic dichotomous explanations, which I have applied to my work during my career. One of the things that appealed to me about LeCarré’s writing is how well he weaved those complexities and contradictions together.

As the biography points out more than once, one of the reasons for LeCarré’s success as a novelist was his apparently uncanny ability to anticipate changes in the world. I don’t think it was uncanny, or particularly prescient, but does illustrate a mind able to see patterns in chaos. I think LeCarré keeps his eyes and ears open, and at some point fairly early on in his life was able to work out that human beings are bundles of contradictions. He is clearly very clever and quick – all great ingredients for an author of books that, for all their adventures and thrills, have people at their heart.

One little scene has remained with me from that first reading of the Little Drummer Girl. When Charlie tells the Mossad recruiters the story of her father returning home from prison, broken, and waiting for someone else to open the doors in her home for him. Then, later, them disabusing her of that tale. The vignette fascinates me because it neatly encapsulates the human capability for self-delusion.

When I read in the biography David Conwell’s description of his father returning home from a stint in prison for fraud it clicked immediately with Charlie’s story as told in a novel written decades later. Self-delusion is a key theme of the biography; the very human way in which we create our narratives about our lives, often without realising it. Sisman’s description of his process in writing a proper biography of a subject who is still alive (at time of writing – 2016 has been a cruel year for celebrities), who has part of his life shrouded in secrecy because of where he worked (MI5 and MI6, variously during the 1940s and 1950s – a very different time and place to now), and who has such a difficult relationship with his constantly scamming father. Then there is the media lens, assumptions made, perspectives filtered through new events and disclosures. Different points of view.

Cornwell strikes me as a principled man who has his flaws, but who doesn’t? I am impressed by the research he does for his books, but also when it’s clear he is writing from his heart. I was interested in what Sisman was able to write about Cornwell’s times with the two British secret services, and also interested in learning more about LeCarré’s writing processes. I am sure that some of my readers will find the tales of book-to-film/TV series to be interesting. For those bits I recommend the book; but if you’re after tales of real-life spying derring-do, then I suggest you stick with the stuff about Ian Fleming… although the notes about the veracity of autobiographical narrative are pertinent.

One last thing – I am amused by the biographer’s name being Sisman. SIS being the initials for the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Sadly, though, I know there will be those who will read far more than amusement into that coincidence… (as I write this I have been reading conspiracy theories stating that MI5 or MI6 will be erasing pencil votes in today’s referendum in the UK…).