Monday, 30 January 2012

Total Politics

In my latest piece for Total Politics I argue against the imposition of businesswear. My dandyish friends may not be pleased.

Friday, 13 January 2012

God and Man

God first spoke to him on a Tuesday morning in September. It had been shaping up to be a perfectly ordinary week for a perfectly ordinary man - a week of shuffling papers around his desk, of doing his dull job effectively and well. A week of days which would all end at 5:30 pm sharp and see him return to his bedsit for an evening of reading and a simple home-made meal for one. A week in which, as ever, few people would look twice at a balding man of medium height and medium build. His own neighbours barely knew him, and they were sufficiently incurious as to enquire no further when he told them that he was a civil servant.

The man was quite content to live such an anonymous life. He knew almost all of his friends from school, university, or work. That was nothing to get depressed about: a person could consider themselves lucky if they had five or six really close friends. He took pride in being quietly, almost silently, competent at his work. Those who needed to knew he was completely reliable. His pay was modest, but the security of a civil service job and generous pension arrangements had much to recommend them. He wanted for nothing other than a wife.

He was as aware as anyone that he was a wholly unremarkable man.

Yet God had picked him out and spoken to him, chosen him above all others. And the meaning of what He had said to the man was utterly straightforward. This was not, after all, an obscurantist God who couched His wishes in complex metaphors. What He had told the man was unmistakable. He had told him to kill people.

Naturally, this had come as quite a shock. One moment he had been looking at a spreadsheet, the next God was telling him to kill two people. The man had never, not for one moment, anticipated such a turn of events. It is actually less than likely that a soldier will be asked to kill anybody. It is rarer still for civil servants.

But he had heard God’s wishes as clear as a bell. This was not a suggestion; it was a command from on high. The world needed to be rid of two sinners and it was the man’s solemn duty to do the ridding.

That afternoon he looked around furtively at his colleagues. Travelling home on the Tube (having, as per usual, left work at 5:30 pm) he looked around at his fellow passengers. Could any of them tell? Could they tell just by looking at him what he was going to do?

Of course they couldn’t; he was being irrational. They didn’t know and they didn’t need to know. It was between him and God. They wouldn’t have understood anyway. Not that that mattered either. As long as God was on his side, he had nothing to worry about. And God was on his side – He had made that very clear. The man was an ally of God in the fight against evil.

The man resolved to be calm. That was essential. This was happening. He had to keep it together. He treated himself to a whisky that night, but just the one. He had to keep a permanently clear head. He had to remain sane and sober, not least because God could speak to him again at any time.

It began on Wednesday. One of the man’s colleagues was a woman in her mid-thirties. She was rather attractive. He had never spoken to her, but from time to time they would pass each other in the corridor and she would smile at him warmly. Every time this happened he would feel a little surge of excitement. There was something undeniably life-affirming about being smiled at by a pretty woman.

Even if he had been able to pluck up the courage to chat her up, which was highly doubtful, she was off limits. He had rifled through her file and learned that she was married. But he had also established - by discreetly following her home and watching her from across the road - that she was having an affair. Someone else took the view that she was not off limits, that her marriage vows were meaningless.

This affair had been carrying on for some months. Her lover was a full decade younger than her. He had been born in Bradford to Pakistani parents. A gifted computer scientist, he had moved to London to study and been snapped up by a major consultancy. He was pulling in over £80,000 a year. In his spare time he helped coach a boys’ cricket team.

The man, who was also pretty good with computers, had established all of this within a couple of hours.

On Wednesday lunch-time he left the office with a packed lunch and went to sit in the park. He sat somewhere quiet so he would be undisturbed if God wanted to speak to him again and so he could gather his thoughts. As he nibbled on his cheese sandwiches he watched people around him intently. He liked watching people.

Two runners ran by his bench. They were startlingly fit. They were laughing and joking as they sprinted past – hugely healthy and fundamentally happy in an uncomplicated way. They both wore figure-hugging specialist kit and the man briefly ran his eyes over the woman’s pleasing curves. How agreeable it would be to be married to someone as vital as that.

For now, though, he had another calling.

He went back to work and behaved in as regular a manner as always, albeit that his insides were churning. What he was going to do was God’s will, but it was nonetheless terrifying for that. He left, as ever, at 5:30 pm.

Thirty minutes later he was sitting in a church. It was empty, and he sat in one of the pews looking up to the altar. He wasn’t praying, but he was contemplative. He looked up at Christ on the cross, over to a plaque on the wall which had the names of men who had fallen in each of the world wars, and back at the altar. Perhaps God would speak to him again and give him further guidance. But He didn’t.

Later that night he was dressed in an old tracksuit and was sitting by a commercial dustbin. He was in a dark alley where there were no closed-circuit cameras. He knew that this was part of her route from her lover’s house to her own home. If he waited long enough, she would walk past. She never stayed the whole night, he knew that. Sure enough, some time after one in the morning she came along the alley.

It was foolish of her, he reflected, to walk down such a London street at such a time. Perhaps she was reckless by nature. Perhaps if she were not the kind of person who would risk her marriage she would not be inclined to take this sort of risk. Her infidelity to her husband was going to cost her dearly. She was going to pay with her life.

She walked purposefully down the street; she did at least have the good sense to look confident. She ignored him – unrecognisable under a muddied face - when he asked her for some change. But she was helpless when he stood up behind her and put his arm around her neck. Even an averagely strong man is a formidable opponent when he attacks you from behind.

With one hand over her mouth and nose he squeezed the life out of her before she had time to register more than a moment’s intense panic. She didn’t even get the chance to kick out at him.

He dropped her corpse on the floor and studied it for a moment. Then he bent down and retrieved the keys from her handbag. He waited until his breathing had returned to close to normal and set out for her lover’s house.

Selecting the right key was always going to be the most difficult task. But with God’s command to stay calm at all times he held his nerve and found it by the process of elimination. He knew that her lover was going to be alone – a salary that handsome enabled a bachelor to live by himself even in the capital. If the man kept quiet, he had good reason to hope her lover would stay asleep.

So it proved. The man crept into the bedroom, taking light but deliberate strides. There was some Islamic art on the wall. Her lover was a man of God – but it was not the same god that the man followed. Not at all: her lover was going to die for his perverted, hypocritical beliefs. The man allowed himself a very quick look to confirm that he had the right person. A well-built, sporty man is a tricky proposition in a fight. It was essential, then, to never let him know he was in one.

The man reached over for a pillow and drove it home over her lover’s face. Mounted her lover and pressed with all his might. He died with surprising rapidity.

Then the man made his way out of the house and back to his bedsit. God did not speak to him. But then He didn’t need to ask if the man had done what he had been told to do; he already knew.

The next morning the man did what he knew he must: followed his usual routine. It was late in the afternoon before God finally spoke to him.

The man took the lift to a room on the fifth floor of his office. There sat James Latimer CMG, a senior director of MI5. Officially CMG stood for Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. Unofficially it stood for Call Me God.

Latimer congratulated the man on a job exceptionally well done. He appreciated that being asked to clean up a mess like this in such a way was a tremendously demanding task. It was however, far better that the general public should never know that a female MI5 operative had been passing state secrets to an Islamic extremist.

Latimer told the man to take some time off and, ideally, to find himself a girlfriend. Latimer felt sure that there was someone nice in the building who the man could ask out – it wasn’t as though all female MI5 agents were corrupt.

The man thanked God for giving him the opportunity to undertake a job of such grave importance and then left the building – it was, after all, nearly 6 pm. As he strode along the Embankment the man smiled for the first time in over a week.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Iron Lady

I had resolved that I wouldn't watch it with left wing friends. There's an article forming itself in the back of my mind about how Norman Mailer was correct to say that political differences inevitably put an intolerable strain on friendships. I've been feeling that quite a lot recently, and with no little measure of sadness. I'm still not absolutely sure he was correct though, so that piece may not get written after all. But I was sure that I didn't want to watch The Iron Lady with anyone who wasn't of the faith.

I can't stand it at the best of times when someone breaks the spell immediately after a film ends (it often happens during the credits!) and offers a comment. If some pinko (and by pinko I mean anyone to the left of John Redwood) had chipped in while I was trying to digest that film I'd have been beside myself. So I watched it with no-one beside myself, because I also couldn't wait until one of my Tory friends was free to watch it.

Ironically, I don't really believe that film reviews have much merit. Typically they give away far too much of the plot; moreover, I think the most valuable response to a film is one's immediate response: that visceral reaction which trumps any and all deconstruction and theorising. It's why no-one can tell me that Commando isn't a great movie or that The Godfather is.

This one was a bit different. I've changed my mind a bit with this one, and I'm afraid that the passage of time makes me less favourably inclined towards it.

Responses to Margaret Thatcher are not binary. She is held to be an utterly polarising figure, but actually an increasing number of people have come to see her in more complex terms. They feel uncomfortable about what happened to former coalmining communities but feel grateful for her toughness in international affairs, for example.

The makers of The Iron Lady purport to see her in more human than hyperbolic terms and to have put aside their political prejudices. Yet surely they deserve at best two cheers for this. It would have been a pretty poor pantomime if they had not. Recognising the essential humanity of the main protaganist in a political film is surely a basic starting point, not an end in itself.

Credit where it is due, however. Thatcher is shown to be a person of conviction, not venality. My non-Thatcherite readers may howl at this, but that is objectively right. Demonising her as wicked has always been farcical, grotesquely unfair and demonstrably wrong. The film also accepts that there was, conceivably, a military justification for sinking The Belgrano and an intellectual one for the poll tax. Reflexively opposed to all that she stood for it is not. And the scenes which show her as a determined but nonetheless up-against-it young woman are excellent.

So private political views don't get in the way of how Thatcher is depicted personally. They may, though, get in the way of the plot. For the lengthy portions of the film devoted to imagining Thatcher in her later years are not only questionable as a matter of tact; they leave very little room for some monumentally important real-life events.

That is entirely the prerogative of the writer and director, of course. Few things are more irritating than a critic saying in what direction a film should have gone - in one sense any focus is a legitimate one. This is a work of art and not of history, after all. But it does undermine any claim the film may have had to being considered definitive.

Oliva Colman is splendid as Carol Thatcher, but are not Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit of rather more interest? Isn't Ronald Reagan? If Richard E. Grant's work as Heseltine hit the cutting room floor he will have reason to feel aggrieved - it's not a technically accurate impression but it doesn't need to be, and he is very good. Is Norman Tebbit even in the movie - and if not why on Earth not? Why not more of the fantastic John Sessions as Edward Heath?

Ultimately I was left with a sense not of the outrage I feared but of a missed opportunity. The truth, whatever one's political views, is surely far more exciting than the hypothesised and the invented. I would have thought that right and left wingers alike could agree on that. Jim Broadbent is a splendid screen actor. He bears little resemblance, in any sense, to Denis Thatcher. Couldn't we have had more of the 1990 leadership election? That was a moment of immense and intense high drama - were the film-makers perhaps intimidated at the thought that the real thing couldn't be matched?

I know I risk being hypocritical. I would defend to the death the right of an artist to paint whatever portrait they want using whatever colours. It is not that the painting is an awful distortion as so many of us expected- but it is rather boring.

A great deal has been said and written about Meryl Streep's performance. Some of it is preposterously hyperbolic. No-one who has actually met Thatcher (which I have, briefly) could sensibly say, as some of those involved with the film have done, that to see Streep in costume was literally to be in the presence of Thatcher. It is a nuanced and persuasive performance, to be sure ... but it's really not that good. How could it be?

All in all, The Iron Lady is not a film to fall out with friends over - which is good - and it is not an appalling smear on a frail lady - which is even better. Sceptical as I normally am of film reviews, maybe I would do as well to deliver a verdict in the sort of pithy language for which Margaret Thatcher is famous: it could have been better and it should have been better.
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