Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One of his early films is missing

The death of Richard Attenborough (or Dickie Attenborough or Lord Attenborough but NOT Lord Richard Attenborough), announced last week was not exactly tragic news. He was nearly ninety, frail and unwell for a long time and the proud possessor of a spectacular filmography. Nevertheless, many of us felt sad in that the news of his death, coming so soon after the news of Lauren Bacall's, reminded us that the greats of the film industry are going and not being replaced by an adequate number and of adequate calibre.

My own preference is for Attenborough's early films, many of which have a noirish tinge and one, Brighton Rock, is a classic. In fact, a good many of those films were classics. Another one of my favourites is The League of Gentlemen that, for some reason, has not been revived for a many years, despite an excellent plot, a sharp script and a stellar cast.

Yet there is a film that is missing. Well, it is not exactly missing in that I have seen it as did a good many people who were attending the National Film Theatre but it seems not to be listed anywhere.

A few years ago the NFT screened one of Attenborough's early films, Dancing with Crime, in which he plays a newly demobbed taxi driver who tries to steer clear of the post-war black market gangs but gets drawn into action when one of his childhood friends with fewer scruples is killed. His part of the cheerful, strong-minded Ted Peters who wants to get on in life honestly and settle down with his childhood sweetheart (played by Sheila Sim) is as different as it could be from the one he played in the same year, Pinky in Brighton Rock. Dancing with Crime was a good enough film though as black market films go not as good as the brilliant and rarely shown Noose or, as it appears to be known now, The Silk Noose.

There was, however, an extra attraction to that showing: a short film made in 1953 by Eric Fawcett and scripted by Peter Brook, entitled Box for One. In it Attenborough plays brilliantly a minor hoodlum who realizes that he has somehow fallen foul of a big gang and makes ever more frantic phone calls from an old-fashioned phone box (that box for one). I shall not reveal the ending but I can reveal that Sidney (Sid) James appears in it briefly, thus creating one solitary film that links the ultra intellectual Peter Brook with the considerably less intellectual Sid James.

The problem is that this film is not listed in any of the filmographies: not in Attenborough's, not in James's and not in Brook's. What we do find on the latter is two other versions of the Box for One, one made in 1949 with Marius Goring in the main part and no director credited and one made in 1953 for the BBC's Wednesday Theatre, directed by Tony Richardson with Robert Helpmann in the main role. There is also a Danish TV play of 1956, written by Peter Brook (and presumably translated), called Telefonboksen, which I assume to be the same play or, at least, similar to the original. Wikipedia also lists a 1958 Australian version, also starring Robert Helpmann (and here).

But where is the Richard Attenborough version listed? I have seen it, I tell you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is the matter with academics?

Not all academics, of course, but a very large proportion of them. The problem I am going to write about seems to be prevalent in universities of long standing and high reputation as much as in those that are too new to have any reputation at all. And extraordinarily large number of academics with good positions and published works to their names seem unable to write books or articles that express their views and their opinions. All they can do is to quote various other academics and, occasionally, writers outside that world, thus ensuring that nobody but other academics will be interested in even the slightest degree in what they have to say. And why should anyone be interested in a book that is merely a compilation of previous pronouncements, in themselves, one suspects compilations of even older ones. Somewhere at some time there must have been an original thought, idea, thesis or book but it would take too long to find it.

As I said above, I do not consider all academics to be of such intellectually pusillanimous variety and can think of several historians who happily say what they think even if it brings down on them the wrath of their colleagues, of the glitterati, of the serious reviewers (though, one hopes, less so) and of the academic world in general. But these hardy souls are becoming few and far between and that is not a happy state of affairs.

Part of the problem must be the insistence on "peer review" in subjects when such a thing cannot really exist. Peer review in sciences can, as we know in such subjects as climate research, be used to silence current "heresies" but, on the whole, is necessary. Peer review in arts and social sciences is not - it is the reviewers and the reading public that will judge what is acceptable by way of theory and, after all, it is always possible and, indeed, necessary to publish arguments against a certain thesis and to have an academic dispute.

That, apparently, is no longer acceptable. Instead, publishers, as I know from my own and other people's experience, send manuscripts out for peer review, said process being little more than one of ensuring that the author does not step out of line or beyond the currently accepted boundaries.

Some years back I contributed an essay to a collection of counterfactuals in history and the editors insisted that every essay in it should be reviewed by other contributors. My own essay looked at 1938 and asked "what if Czechoslovakia had fought and defended the Sudetenland". I looked at what happened in that momentous year from the British, French, German, Soviet and, finally, Czechoslovak point of view, coming to some tentative conclusions as to what might have happened. The essay was sent off to a couple of my colleagues and came back with comments that dealt exclusively with the section on Britain and France, rehashing the old arguments about the Munich Agreement in which I did not chastise Chamberlain strongly enough. I accepted a couple of corrections, argued a couple of others and carried my point (to be fair) and tried to explain that the point of the essay was something quite different. It was published in full so I have nothing to complain about but the whole process did make me wonder about the exercise of peer review.

In a slightly more serious case, which also ended well, I am glad to say, a friend has recently published a well researched and well reviewed book about Islam in Britain, which had been held up, criticized and nearly destroyed by academics to whom it went for peer review as it had not fitted into the parameters that had been drawn up in academia and which were more important to these people that original research and conclusions drawn from it, with which they could have argued, had they wanted to after publication.

So what do we get when academics publish books? By and large, as I said at the beginning of this rant, a string of quotations that places the burden on those who said those things previously and who, if themselves present day academics, probably did the same.

For another blog I have been asked to review a book whose topic is of great interest. The title is A State of Play and the subtitle, British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It. The author is Steven Fielding, is Professor of Political History in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and the Director of the Centre for British Politics as well as an author of several other volumes on subjects political and of a website. Not, you would think, a man who should be worried about expressing his opinion.

Mind you, I have my doubts about somebody who writes about British democracy and its development in the twentieth century without once mentioning membership of the European Union and its effect on legislation and the democratic process, but that is by the by. (I shall eventually do that review and link to it.)

In fact, I have done a certain amount of complaining about this book already.

Setting that aside, why cannot Professor Fielding just say what he thinks about writers and writing of novels and plays and their relationship with their audience or readership. Why does he have to quote on one page Anthony Trollope, T. S. Eliot, the historians Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, the playwright David Edgar and the novelist Maurice Edelman not as people whose ideas need discussing but as the origins of those ideas that are part of Professor Fielding's argument.

Why is it that such an unexceptional and uncontroversial, even banal statement as "[a] work and its reception are entirely different things" can be inserted only as a quote from the playwright David Hare?

I could go on at length but it would only prove the same point, which is unnecessary. Many other academic publications suffer from the same problems. Who apart from other academics, many of whom will simply want to name-check themselves will want to read such books?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lauren Bacall 1925 -2014 RIP

It says something about my taste in films that, although I understood why so many people were upset by the tragic news yesterday of Robin Williams succumbing to the depression that seems to haunt so many comedy actors, it is as nothing compared to the sadness I feel about the news of the, hardly tragic, death of the great Lauren Bacall at the age of 89.

Just in case anyone does not know her story in films and theatre (at the very beginning and towards the end of it), here is a summary by Reuters. It does not deal with her private life or her somewhat silly political pronouncements but it does give the impression many of us share that there was some wastage of a fine talent there. Then again, she may not have felt it was a wastage. It is hard to tell.

Anyway, film clips. One has to be from To Have And Have Not, her first film and the one in which she and Bogart met and fell in love on and off screen. No other film, in my experience, conveys the sexual chemistry between the two stars as well as this one. I decided not to choose the famous clips about whistling but one of Bacall singing while Hoagy Carmichael (Cricket in the film) plays the piano. And yes, she did sing herself. The story of the young Andy Williams dubbing for her is a myth.

The other clip is from a far less well known film but one that shows Bacall in an unexpected comedy role with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, How to Marry a Millionaire.

And last but not least, the trailer from Murder on the Orient Express, not, in my opinion, a particularly good film but with a cast that was truly stellar (though, possibly, the biggest star of all, was the train).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Give more power to elected bodies and all will be well

Or so we are told by a number of people who seem to think that what people do is less important than how they get there and of all the ways of appointing anyone is by some kind of a ballot. This blog is not against elections or elected legislators but it also considers that constitutional accountability is a higher priority and even elected legislators need to be subjected to some sort of checks in order to have those balances. It is no secret that this blog opposes the idea of an elected House of Lords. Apart from a slightly mystical (and misty-eyed) belief in the absolute goodness of a more or less popular vote no rational argument has been advanced in favour of such a system.

However, all that is for another posting. What concerns us here is the European Parliament a.k.a. the Toy Parliament, which is a huge drain on all our resources for no particular purpose as it does not even have primary legislative powers.

We have all heard the arguments, have we not? The European Parliament, unlike the European Commission (the sole initiator of European legislation), is an elected body and represents the people of Europe, however you may define them. So, in order to breach that democracy deficit we need to give them more powers and that is what recent treaties have done. You would expect the people of Europe to be so delighted by this development that they would rush out in ever increasing number to vote for their European representatives.

Not so but far from it. With every new acquisition of powers, in every European election, fewer people bother to vote.

The sad news is that the turn-out for the 2014 European elections was lower even than for the 2009 ones, in itself lower than anything before. In fact, the turn-out was the lowest since the Toy Parliament had become a directly elected body in 1979.
Voter turnout in May´s European elections was the lowest ever, according to newly-released figures which contradict earlier claims of historic participation.

The 2014 turnout figure of 43.09 per cent, based on exit polls, has now been revised down half a percentage point - putting it lower than the 43 per cent turnout in 2009.

Turnout has steadily dropped from 62 per cent in 1979 and the 2014 figures marks a new low point in voter participation.

Senior EU figures had hailed the initial turnout as "historic" and evidence of the EU successfully bridging a "democratic deficit" with citizens.

Former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, now an MEP, said the "increase" in turnout, albeit tiny, was “an endorsement of the European project” and EU commissioner Viviane Reding hailed the apparent reversal of the ever-downward trend in voter participation in the EU-wide poll as a "game changer."

However, the 43.09 per cent figure was based on exit polls so was preliminary and it has taken over two months to establish the real figures.

While voter turnout has dropped in every single European election since 1979, the Parliament´s powers have consistently increased and its choice for the next European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was rubberstamped by member states.
There follows a lot of blah about the need to introduce reforms or something from Open Europe. If readers feel so inclined, they can read it.

It is very satisfying to be able to say that the turn-out in the UK was well under the average at 33.7 per cent, which makes me think that the only lesson the Prime Minister can learn from the European Elections is that the majority of the population cares not a fig for that institution and has no particular preference in the question of whose snouts should be in the trough. And if he does not that yet he must have been hiding in a hut in Outer Mongolia all this time.

Of course, we cannot compete with Slovakia where the turn-out was 13 per cent and in the Czech Republic 18.2 per cent. That was announced on Sunday night. Both figures might have been revised down since then.  

So now what?

To nobody's particular surprise, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld its previous judgement that a blanket ban on prisoners' voting rights breaches their human rights and the fact that the UK Parliament voted to continue with that practice is neither here nor there.

However, the court also decided that the prisoners whose human rights have been breached, are not entitled to any financial compensation.

Where do we go from here, one cannot help asking. Will HMG and the Electoral Commission allow prisoners to vote next time round, say, in next year's General Election? There will be no money handed over to them, which is a relief, as we all know whose money that will be. But what happens if those prisoners whose notion of human rights is a little unbalanced will not be allowed to vote next time either?

For those who are interested, here is the judgement in full.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

And another one

Oh sure! It's all about supporting the Palestinians and opposing the war in Gaza. Nothing to do at all with wanting to punish or, at least, hurt all Israelis, regardless of their views and attitudes, an attitude one never came across in the battles with the Communist countries or the anti-Apartheid movement. Nor is it anything to do with wanting to hurt all Jews. Of course not. Well, here is another example of that: the Londonist site, who, as it happens, have not taken any sides on the Gaza conflict and why should they, reports that
The UK Jewish Film Festival (UKJFF) will not be held at the Tricycle Theatre this year because of a row over funding.

The Tricycle, which hosted the festival for the last eight years, has taken a decision that it can’t accept funding from any government agency or party involved in the conflict in Gaza. The UKJFF is partly sponsored by the Israeli Embassy and the Tricycle asked the festival to reconsider that sponsorship, offering to replace any funds it would lose. The UKJFF decided to keep its sponsorship and has now withdrawn the festival from the venue.
The Director of the Festival told the Jewish Chronicle:
She said: “That the Tricycle Theatre have shown themselves unwilling to work with what is clearly an apolitical cultural festival is tremendously disappointing.

"They have chosen a boycott over meaningful engagement – to the great detriment of this celebration of Jewish culture.”

A further statement from the UKJFF said it had "considered the demands of the theatre to be entirely unacceptable and is now taking its screenings elsewhere".

It added that the festival had received support from the embassy for the past 17 years, "portraying the unmistakable cultural connection between the Jewish people and the state of Israel".

But it stressed that the festival was "entirely apolitical, showcasing perspectives from both sides of the conflict in the Middle East."
I have never attended the festival but have seen the programmes and do not recall it screening any strong Israeli propaganda. The chances are (though, obviously, I do not know) that a good many of those involved with the festival oppose the Gaza war or accept it with a heavy heart as an unavoidable and hard necessity. Apprently, the Tricycle was not interested in establishing the truth about that and its offer of making up the money (out of what?) was disingenuous to put it mildly. The Festival is looking for another home and, if I have anything to do with it, the Tricycle, where I have been, will lose a good many putative audience members.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Well, something good has come out of it

On another forum somebody said in our discussion, mostly rather gleeful, about Baroness Warsi's resignation that it turned out that the Gaza conflict was in Britain's national interest, after all. That may be a slight exaggeration but, on the whole, there has been little sorrow shown at the resignation (probably just ahead of a final sacking for incompetence) of this government's least capable and most over-promoted Minister. Yes, I know: them are fighting words and I look forward to people challenging me with other names.

Guido Fawkes quotes an unnamed Tory source:
Warsi’s resignation is classic Warsi. Attacks her own team, pure grandstanding, and shows that she is a quitter. Her resignation does nothing to help the innocent civilians on both sides who are suffering. She had a much better chance of helping support the ceasefire if she had stayed inside Government. But instead she has thrown in the towel.
He also quotes a few other people, none of whom are shedding any tears. I understand, also that she has chosen a day when the Chancellor is due to make an important speech. No, I don't care much about those speeches either but I am not a senior Conservative politician. Why eactly did she choose today of all days? And why, since we are talking about crassness and grandstanding, did she announce her resignation on Twitter before actually tendering it? (Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted that she or her minions have mis-spelled the word Islamophobia in paragraph 6 of her letter.)

On the other hand, Labour politicians appear to be pleased but that is unlikely to upset anyone, Tory or not.

Two things I find quite extraordinary: one is that Baroness Warsi actually managed to work out what the government's Gaza policy was and that she did not agree with the Foreign Secretary's rather inane comments I blogged on before. Moving on from there, it is hard to know what she thinks the government's policy should be. Does she think we should have sent our few remaining troops to support Hamas (whose stated policy is to use civilians as human shields is a good idea? (I have seen a comment on another forum to the effect that Warsi resigned on the day when an effective truce, or so it would seem, has been noted for the first time in Gaza.)

Cranmer's blog post is interesting. He seems to have found more admirable qualities in the lady in the past than I have but it is true that she has, on occasion, made negative comments about forced marriages and other nastiness. He, too, finds it hard to understand what it is she dislikes about the government non-existent policy and wonders what she would like to see in its place:
But she has resigned from the Government over its policy on Gaza, which she says in "morally indefensible".

This is curious, not least because Foreign Secretary has not articulated any policy at all on the matter. Still green in the job, one gets the impression that he studiously straddling fences and balancing on pinheads in order to avoid offending anyone, possibly in order to bolster the Muslim vote.

But perhaps that is Baroness Warsi's problem. She clearly believes that HM Government ought to join in the global choruses of condemnation denouncing Israel, accusing the Zionist aggressor of war crimes and demanding sanctions. She insists that all arms exports to Israel must stop. And since the FCO isn't prepared to dance to that tune, she has decided to clear her desk and resign.

Perhaps that is a good thing.
I hope His Grace in correct in his brief analysis of what the FCO is and is not prepared to do.

He seems to have followed the good lady's pronouncements a good deal more closely than I have and this is what he has to say:
For all the praise heaped upon her over the years by this blog, she has, of late, completely lost the plot. She lectures us about "true Islam", and mocks those who expose the paucity of her theological understanding. She tweets and tweets about Sharia finance, seemingly oblivious to the religio-cultural significance of the policy. She convened a committee to propagate global religious liberty, but it met only twice for coffee, said absolutely nothing and achieved even less. And she answered many of her critics with veiled allusions to 'Islamophobia', thereby shutting down any valid criticism of her incompetence and deficiencies.

There was a feeling, if not the perception, that this 'Senior Minister of State' had made something of a hobby out of being in the Cabinet, and was using her position in the FCO more for faddish personal interests than the weighty matter of implementing government policy. William Hague was prepared to indulge her and the Prime Minister humoured her: she was symbolically important for Tory detoxification, modernisation and Cameroon rebranding project. It was important that the first female Muslim in the Cabinet was seen to be happy, fully integrated and successful.
She will be missed, he adds, as the election campaign starts.

Will she? I am not so sure. The Conservatives are not likely to gain any more Muslim votes by pandering to the worst possible versions of it, like sharia law or support for terrorists. At present, most Muslims, if they vote at all, will support Labour (and let us not go into the details of some of the voting practices) unless there is someone like George Galloway is standing. Those Muslims who have actively decided to vote Conservative will do so, regardless of whether Baroness Warsi is in the government or not.

Here are a few other reactions:

Tim Montgomerie reminds us that she was effusive in her support of Hamas in the past.

Isabel Hardman in the Spectator:
There had been a concerted campaign in the Conservative party from senior figures with a great deal of influence to get Warsi moved. They felt she was being deeply unhelpful to Downing Street, particularly by going on ITV’s The Agenda and posing with a front page about Eton Mess. But the judgement that the Prime Minister and others took was that it is far safer to keep Warsi, who is a prolific diary-writer, safely in the tent, rather than outside. That she has gone of her own accord does at least mean she will not be tempted to exact revenge. But it’s by no means safe to bet that she will stay silent. She has resigned because she disagrees with the government position on Gaza, and presumably she will want to elaborate on what precisely she disagrees with, at the very least.

As for whether this has a seriously destabilising effect on the government’s foreign policy, Warsi’s insecure position does not necessarily mean that ministers can simply shrug her criticisms off. They come just a few days after Ed Miliband argued that the Prime Minister was not being sufficiently robust in his dealings with Israel. Then, Downing Street accused the Labour leader of playing politics, and Chris Grayling even went so far as to say he was undermining Britain’s efforts to secure peace. It is one thing to say that of an Opposition leader, but if one of your Conservative colleagues makes the same accusation – and the detail of the gripe leading to her resignation may well turn out to be in the same vein as Miliband’s criticism – it is quite a different matter. It gives credence to Miliband’s line if a Foreign Office minister feels she cannot support the government’s position.
On the whole I tend to go with the line that the government has no real policy in Gaza and has no real power to effect anything there. In which case, Baroness Warsi's resignation will be seen for the empty posturing it is and a general desire not to draw too much attention to the twin facts that her job was largely make-believe and her abilities non-existent.

Douglas Murray argues cogently that
The most over-promoted, incapable and incompetent minister of recent times has finally done the nation one service and resigned.
There is more there but people should read it for themselves. He does enumerate her many political "car crashes", just one of which would have lost anyone else their position. But not Baroness Warsi. This, however, is particularly interesting:
Her time in government was filled with disasters. She repeatedly narrowly avoided being sacked. Her car-crashes mostly came over her attempts to develop what was effectively a parallel set of policies to those of the British government of which she was meant to be part. Word was that she had become increasingly angry after various reshuffles in which it became plain that she would never be given a ministry. She doubtless concocted in her mind various conspiracies as to why this might be, but the reason was single and obvious: she did not have the ability.

Realising that this ambition was to be thwarted, she manoeuvred to turn her position in Cabinet into one which was somehow meant to ‘represent’ Muslims. Purest, as well as dangerous nonsense. Everybody in Cabinet is there to represent everybody in Britain. But Warsi encouraged sectarianism rather than diminishing it. And where she could have used her position to side-line the extremists within Britain’s Muslim communities, she spent more of her time trying to stop people criticising the extremists within Britain’s Muslim communities. She was a notable behind-the-scenes critic of genuine Muslim reformers, in particular.
That she was manipulating behind the scenes in favour of the more extremist Muslim groups in this country, I have heard before from good sources; that she thought she would become Foreign Secretary on William Hague's resignation, is news to me. It shows that the woman is quite seriously delusional as well as everything else.

Word is now that she has been an assiduous diary keeper and is, undoubtedly, already in negotiations to have those screeds published. Sadly, for the lady, living politicians' diaries may have been interesting when Tony Benn's and Barbara Castle's were published in a different political atmosphere. They are no longer so.