Another Burgess defects: book review / Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess

 

This is the second time that I’ve posted this review of Anthony Burgess’s 1966 spy novel.  The first time, it was immediately bombarded with hundreds of spam messages, most of them emanating from – rather appropriately – Russia.  Such was the intensity of the spam that I took the post down after a couple of days.  I am now reposting it, under a slightly different title.  Let’s see what happens this time…

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

For someone considered a major figure in late-twentieth-century British letters, Anthony Burgess always seemed like an outsider to me.  Unlike many of his literary peers, who were from privileged backgrounds and were Oxbridge-educated, Burgess had a lower middle-class upbringing in Manchester – his dad was a bookkeeper and pub-pianist who later acquired a few tobacconist and off-licence shops – and he attended university in the same city.  By the time he’d become a full-time writer, which wasn’t until he was in his forties, he’d held a number of proper jobs, in the army, in teaching and in the colonial service.

 

An enthusiastic composer and an accomplished linguist as well as an author, Burgess saw himself as a renaissance man and didn’t shrink from showing off his multifarious talents.  I suspect this led to him being frowned upon in some corners of the literary establishment for committing that most British of crimes, of ‘being too clever for his own good’.  He was also an incorrigible self-publicist in an era when it was still considered good form for British writers to be read and not heard.  Rarely did he seem to be absent from the newspapers and television.  A disdainful Graham Greene was known to have marvelled of him: “He talks about his books.”  Of course, were he alive today, when writers are encouraged to be visible and vocal and to miss no opportunity to sell themselves, Burgess would be in his element.  He’d be blogging, tweeting and Facebook-posting like mad.

 

One thing that Burgess was not, however, was a book snob.  Unlike the Gore Vidals, Howard Jacobsons and James Kelmans of this world, he didn’t regard genre writing as being unworthy of literary consideration.  Indeed, in Ninety-Nine Novels, his round-up of the best English-language novels written between 1939 and 1984, he championed works by several writers usually associated with the crime, espionage, science fiction and fantasy genres, including Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Raymond Chandler, Len Deighton, Mervyn Peake, Keith Roberts, T.H. White and (pertinently for this review) Ian Fleming.  And he tried his hand at a number of genres himself.  Though his Dickensian love for eccentric characters meant that all his books contained humour, a few were out-and-out comedies, most notably the Enderby novels.  Meanwhile, his best-remembered work, A Clockwork Orange, could be classed as science fiction, as could the lesser-known The Wanting Seed and 1985.  And then there’s his 1966 novel Tremor of Intent, where he tackled a genre enjoying immense popularity at the time: the spy thriller.

 

Though Tremor of Intent, if it’s remembered at all these days, is probably thought of as ‘the one where the Clockwork Orange man did a Bond pastiche’, Burgess actually drew on two sources for his inspiration.  One source was indeed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which had less to do with the genuine espionage world of the 1950s and 1960s and had more to do with the adventure stories of earlier decades — real-life adventure stories from World War II (when Fleming had worked in naval intelligence and known various military types who’d done heroic things behind enemy lines) and fictional adventure stories from the 1920s and 1930s, like John Buchan’s books about Richard Hannay and Herman Cyril McNeile’s ones about Bulldog Drummond.

 

Accordingly, Tremor of Intent, like the Bond novels and their predecessors, abounds with exotic locations, beautiful ladies, and larger-than-life villains.  Villains don’t come much larger than the book’s Mr Theodorescu, a man “of a noble fatness; the fat of his face was part of its essential structure, not a mean gross accretion, and the vast shapely nose needed those cheek-pads and firm jowls for a proper balance.”

 

The other inspiration for Tremor of Intent was the less sensational, more ‘realistic’ spy novel dealing with moles and double-agents, with betrayal and defection – themes that inform such classics of the genre as John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Len Deighton’s Berlin Game and Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.  These works take their cue from real events – the defections to Moscow of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951 and of Kim Philby in 1963.  Educated at expensive boarding schools and at Cambridge University, Philby, Burgess and Maclean belonged to the upper strata of the class system that was supposed to give Britain its continuity and stability.  Yet, once they’d strolled into jobs in British Intelligence and the British Foreign Office, they started feeding secret information to the Soviets.  The people who were selling Britain out to the communist enemy weren’t working-class militants and revolutionaries at the bottom of the pile – the real traitors were snobs and elitists at the top.

 

(It must’ve been galling for Anthony Burgess in the early 1980s when a survey was conducted to find out how familiar the British public were with their major authors.  When they heard his name, most people identified him as the guy, or Guy, who’d fled across the Iron Curtain in the 1950s.)

 

Tremor of Intent deals with a British traitor, a scientist called Roper, who in the manner of Philby, Burgess and Maclean has defected to the Soviet Union; and a British agent called Hilliard who is assigned the task of abducting Roper back home again while he attends a conference in the Balkans. The twist is that Roper and Hilliard are old friends.  Their relationship dates back to a boyhood spent in a strict Catholic school, staffed by fanatical priests with a predilection for ranting and raving about the sins of the flesh: “This damnable sex, boys – ah, you do well to writhe in your beds at the very mention of the word.  All the evil of our modern times springs from unholy lust, the act of the dog and the bitch on the bouncing bed, limbs going like traction engines, the divine gift of articulate speech diminished to squeals and groans and pantings.”

 

If Burgess’s evocation of Hilliard and Roper’s schooldays brings to mind James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and its passages describing the terrors of Stephen Dedalus’s Catholic education, it’s unsurprising.  Burgess was a big Joyce fan.  He once wrote an introduction to the language-bending Irishman called Here Comes Everybody and Joyce was obviously an influence on his writing style.

 

The young Roper stands up to the priests by bamboozling them with his scientific knowledge, but that’s about the last noble thing he does in the book.  Thereafter, he becomes increasingly wretched.  By the end of World War II he’s spouting pro-Nazi sympathies and soon his loyalties shift further eastwards.  He finally falls into a communist honey-trap involving an attractive but duplicitous East German woman, which seals his fate as a traitor and defector.

 

Hilliard, whom we first meet on a cruise ship heading towards the site of the now-defected Roper’s conference, is a more admirable character.  However, he’s noticeably inept as an undercover spy.  For his mission, he’s assumed the identity of a typewriter technician – a typical flourish from Burgess, who once published a book of essays called Homage to QWERTYUIOP – but he’s soon rumbled by a precocious schoolboy on board the ship called Alan Walters, who knows more about typewriters than Hilliard does.  Alan, in fact, knows a great deal about many subjects and I suspect he resembles the know-all brat that Burgess probably was himself at the same age.  At least, as the novel develops, Alan’s allowed some character development and he ends up as a definite good guy.

 

Inevitably, considering the fact that it uses elements from both the unpretentious Bond stories and from the more cerebral spy novels of le Carre and company, and considering all the additional baggage that Burgess brings along, such as Catholicism, humour and Joycean prose, Tremor of Intent is erratic.  Parts of it work well but other parts of it misfire.  The most effective scenes are those set on board the cruise ship, which is populated in the best Agatha Christie tradition by passengers with dishonourable motives and by crew-members who know more than they’re letting on.  Foremost among the passengers are Theodorescu, a man who makes his money by trading secrets between East and West, and his beautiful but lethal sidekick, Miss Devi.  Among his many bad points, Theodorescu happens to be a paedophile, which is a telling sign of the book’s vintage.  In the 1960s, paedophilia was just another character-trait that added colour to the bad guy in a spy story.  In our ultra-sensitive world today, it would be the defining, be-all-and-end-all trait that damns the character to evilness.

 

Possibly the novel’s best scene is the one where Hilliard and Theodorescu square up to each other for the first time, eager to test one another’s mettle but before hostilities have been openly declared.  In a Bond book or movie, this would usually happen in a casino, over a game of poker.  In Tremor of Intent, it takes place in the ship’s restaurant, when Theodorescu declares, “I will make a bargain with you.  Whoever eats the less shall pay for the wine.  Are you agreeable?”  There follows an epic contest of gluttony, as Hilliard and Theodorescu eat their way through the menu, verbally sparring whilst subjecting their digestive systems to increasing strain and pain.

 

Burgess has a field day describing the gastronomic duel and the dishes are served up relentlessly: “red mullet and artichoke hearts… fillets of sole Queen Elizabeth, with sauce blonde… soufflé au foie gras… avocado halves with caviar and a cold chiffon sauce… some lamb persillee and onions and gruyere casserole with green beans and celery julienne… pheasant with pecan stuffing… broccoli blossoms… some spinach and minced mushrooms… harlequin sherbert… peach mousse with sirop framboise… poires Helene with cold chocolate sauce… nectarine flan… frothing Blanquette… chocolate rum dessert, garnished with whipped cream and Kahlua… orange marmalade crème bavaroise, loud with Cointreau…”  The first Bond novels appeared immediately after World War II, when Britain’s economy had been wrecked and food-rationing was a fact of life, and it’s likely that the books’ initial readers lapped them up for their opulent escapism.  A few hours in the company of Commander Bond would transport you to a world of hedonistic consumerism, a world where the food, liquor, cigars, clothes and cars were lavishly expensive and never-ending.  Hilliard’s gluttonous and costly joust with Theodorescu in the restaurant seems to be Burgess’s sly acknowledgement of this.

 

In other places, however, Tremor of Intent goes astray.  Often this is because of Burgess’s writing style, with its Joycean pretensions, which just seems inappropriate for this particular genre.  Never one to shirk the charge of showing off, he pens flamboyant passages of fragmented sentences and disappearing punctuation, of word-puns and alliteration — when, for example, describing the effects of the drug, ‘B-type vellocet’, that Theodorescu uses to winkle information out of his victims.

 

There is also some torturous writing when Hilliard, inevitably, gets to do the dirty with Miss Devi: “With athletic swiftness he turned her to the primal position and then, whinnying like a whole herd of wild horses, shivering as if transformed to protoplasm save for that plunging sword, he released lava like a mountain in a single thrust of destruction, so that she screamed like a burning city.”  Yes, Burgess is taking the piss here, but that sentence would still make a worthy winner of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Writing Award.

 

Graham Greene once remarked that, in an adventure story, the action scenes can only be described in the plainest and most economical of prose – because violence happens simply and it happens fast.  Burgess, whose prose obviously isn’t plain or economical, or simple or fast, deals with this potential problem in Tremor of Intent by not having any traditional adventure-story action scenes.  Even the final showdown between Hilliard and Theodorescu, which involves an elevator, a syringe of B-type vellocet and a chase along a waterfront, is imbued with an unexpectedly slow, languid and ruminative quality.  And to be fair to Burgess, the sequence is actually disturbing because of that.

 

There are issues with the overall tone of the book too.  At times – for example, when he’s describing the hapless Roper’s ethical and psychological decline – Burgess seems close to believing that he’s writing a serious book.  At other times, though, he knows that he’s writing a pastiche, an exercise in a genre that has well-defined rules and limits, and he’s keen to transmit this knowingness to his readers, who are presumably in on the joke too.  Thus, when Hilliard starts blabbing secrets to Theodorescu, we get the jargon of hackneyed spy movies and cliched spy fiction: “Operation Aegir…  A pocket television transmitter called, for some reason, Nur-al-Hihar…  The Nero Caesar cryptogram…  The air exercise known as Britomart…  An atomiser-gun provisionally named Cacodemon…  The Thermidorian tumbrils…  Miniature nuclear submarines called Fomors…”

 

The book’s ending deserves mention, for it sees an unexpected switch-of-location to Dublin – not a city one normally associates with espionage stories – and it sees Hilliard, remorseful for all the bad things he’s done in life, abandon the Secret Service and take on a rather different vocation.  It’s an interesting twist, though not one I found convincing, judging by what I’d already read of Hilliard’s character and motivations.  I suspect this ending, set in the landscape of Burgess’s literary hero, James Joyce, is as much for Burgess’s benefit as it is for his main character.  I know I’d defected for a time into writing spy thrillers, he seems to be signalling, perhaps unconsciously; but don’t worry, now I’ve defected back – back to the land of proper literature!

 

Tremor of Intent, then, is a book with some serious problems.  It’s uneven, its prose-style is often inappropriate, and it doesn’t seem to know if it’s to be taken seriously or to be taken as a joke – sometimes it tries to be taken both ways.  However, if you like Anthony Burgess and if you like Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you should get some enjoyment out of it.  I can happily tick both those boxes but I doubt if many other readers can.  And I suppose that’s why this odd, one-off novel, from a flawed but exuberantly talented writer, is almost forgotten today.

 

Asinine, mindless and irritating – keep up the good work

 

The other day somebody was talking to me about a dance routine that had recently gone viral on the Internet.  Ah yes, I thought, that would be Gangnam Style, the video for the single by the Korean pop singer PSY.  In the video, PSY does a peculiar stomping-around dance that suggests someone has just shoved a lit firework up his arse and he’s trying to dislodge it before it goes off.

 

However, needless to say (because I’m very old, out-of-date and terminally uncool), I was thinking about the wrong Internet dance sensation.  What the person was really talking about was Harlem Shake, which (after consulting Wikipedia) I’m to understand is not one particular video for a pop single, but is in fact an Internet meme.  In other words, people the world over have been uploading to the Internet lots of videos, which they’ve made themselves, which show them dancing in a particular way to a particular tune (in this case, Harlem Shake, by the dance-music producer Baauer).

 

The structure you have to follow in a DIY Harlem Shake video is that you begin with just one person dancing to the tune while everybody else onscreen pays no attention to the dancer and goes about their daily business.  But then a bass thuds in and a deep voice intones, “Do the Harlem Shake,” and suddenly everybody is doing a whacky spasmodic dance for the remainder of the video, preferably wearing whacky clothes and waving whacky props too.  Now doesn’t all that sound brilliantly funny?

 

Well actually, until yesterday, it didn’t.  It just sounded asinine, mindless and irritating.  To my elderly and grouchy sensibilities, it sounded more than a little bit shite.  In fact, I decided, if this was what the youth of today was getting off on, I would just stay in my apartment for the rest of my life and do nothing but listen to Hank Williams records.

 

However, yesterday, on the Tunisian news website Tunisia Live (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/25/harlem-shake-sweeps-tunis-education-minister-launches-investigation/), I noticed a report about a group of pupils at a Tunisian school called Imam Moslem High School, who’d made a Harlem Shake video on their school premises and posted it on the Internet.  As a result, the Tunisian Minister of Education Abdeltif Abid blew a gasket.  Indeed, he went as far as to condemn the pupils’ video as “an insult to the educational message”.

 

Strangely enough, some other activities that could be interpreted as “an insult to the educational message” in Tunisia recently, wherein Salafist religious extremists have rolled up at schools, replaced the institutions’ Tunisian flags with black Islamist Al-Shahada ones, and tried to recruit students into their Jihad, have been ignored by Mr Abid and his ministry.  As soon as some kids make a goofy dance video that lasts for less than a minute, though, his wrath is terrible to behold.

 

Now if I had to choose between watching a half-dozen Harlem Shake videos on youtube and, say, rubbing red hot chili peppers into my eyeballs, I might have a difficult time deciding.  However, if the craze puts at least one blinkered Ennahdha-Party political hack in a state of apoplexy, it can’t be all bad.  In fact, as a gesture to show my solidarity with ‘da kidz’ of Tunisia, I will provide here a link to footage of students at Tunisian higher educational institution IHEC Carthage, performing the Harlem Shake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hX6hOP80ZY0.  And here’s a link to a further video, made by pupils at Lycee Pilote de Monastir: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTlHqAjfObY.  Look closely at these videos and you’ll even spot a couple of Salafists bounding about and enjoying the general fun.  They can’t be the real deal.  Can they?

 

California screaming: film review / Seven Psychopaths

 

(c) Film4

Martin McDonagh’s most recent movie is called Seven Psychopaths because there are allegedly seven psychopaths in it.  This number could be disputed, however.  One of the psychopaths doesn’t do any psychopathic killing, but merely stands around and looks scary – so he might not qualify as a psychopath at all.  Two more of the psychopaths prove to be the same character, while another is played in different parts of the film by two different actors.  Early on, there’s a brief appearance by an additional psychopath who isn’t one of the official seven, a psychopath who finds religion and gives up killing.  And later, the film has cameos by three more surplus psychopaths, including the real-life Zodiac Killer who terrorised northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Therefore, Seven Psychopaths could as easily have been called Five, Six, Eight, Eleven or Twelve Psychopaths.  Just saying.

 

McDonagh’s previous film was 2008’s In Bruges, the story of two hit-men who hole up in the titular Belgian city after a botched job and endure boredom, uncertainty, guilt, existentialist angst, annoying American (and Canadian) tourists, a debauched dwarf and a vengeful gangster boss, and it was an unheralded but absolute cinematic joy.  Seven Psychopaths begins by deconstructing its predecessor.  It shows two more hit-men, not dissimilar to the ones played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason in In Bruges, waiting to carry out a job by the Hollywood Reservoir above Los Angeles and killing time by discussing the logistics of shooting people through their eyeballs.  Once McDonagh gets those hit-men out of the way, however, he zooms in on an Irish writer called Marty, played by Farrell, who’s attempting, fruitlessly, to write a screenplay for a Hollywood studio.  The gimmick of Marty’s script is that it contains – you guessed it – seven psychopaths.

 

Trying to help Marty with his script is his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor who’s blessed with boundless enthusiasm but zero common sense.  Later, Billy’s business partner Hans (Christopher Walken) contributes some ideas too.  Billy and Hans, it transpires, are actually partners in crime because they do a profitable line in kidnapping dogs.  After the distraught owners have stuck up missing-posters and offered money, they return the dogs and claim the rewards.  Then, unwittingly, they kidnap a Shih Tzu called Bonnie, who’s the beloved pet of murderous gang-boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson).  And suddenly, thanks to his two associates, Marty finds himself in more intimate contact with a real-life psychopath than he’d ever bargained for.

 

Just to make things a little bit worse, Billy also tries to aid Marty with the research for his screenplay by putting an advert in a newspaper asking any psychopaths living in the Los Angeles area to get in touch.  As a result, while the situation with Charlie gets seriously out of hand, they receive a visit from a mysterious character called Zachariah, cradling a white rabbit and played by Tom Waits, who has some macabre tales to tell them.

 

So far, so Quentin Tarantino-esque.  However, what makes Seven Psychopaths extra-special is that its main narrative is peppered with stories-within-a-story, whereby Hans and Billy’s suggestions for the script, and Marty’s own ideas for it, are dramatized on screen.  This allows McDonagh to poke fun at the not-very-high standards of the typical Hollywood product these days.  A sequence showing the climax of the script as Billy envisions it is bloodily, stupidly and hilariously over-the-top, though to be honest it’s probably how a normal Hollywood studio would climax a film about seven psychopaths.

 

This self-reflexive approach also allows McDonagh to deflect possible criticisms of his film by making those criticisms of it himself, first.  For example, when Walken chides Farrell for writing his female characters so poorly, McDonagh is surely acknowledging the fact that the film’s two leading actresses, Abbie Cornish and Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko, have little to do besides provide some pleasing eye-candy.

 

Seven Psychopaths isn’t quite the film that In Bruges was.  Despite the Beckettian ennui that pervaded it, In Bruges had a relentless narrative drive.  Gleason and Farrell arrived in Bruges, pottered around, encountered key characters and locations and then halfway through things kicked into life when their volcanically-tempered and thoroughly pissed-off boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrived in town too – thereafter, like the jaws of a mantrap closing, the various characters and locations meshed together to create the film’s long, exciting, funny and bloody finale.  Seven Psychopaths lacks that plot momentum and if anything it turns the narrative-shape of In Bruges back-to-front.  Early on there are characters and incidents all over the place.  Later, however, things slow down and a stillness descends over the film.

 

An additional advantage that In Bruges had over Seven Psychopaths was the city of Bruges itself, which gave the film such a gorgeous and distinctive backdrop that, in a story full of memorable characters, it seemed almost the most memorable character of all.  Los Angeles doesn’t achieve the same effect in Seven Psychopaths, although a Californian friend who watched the movie with me did comment that McDonagh had managed to make L.A. look “nicer than it really is.”

 

Nonetheless, by its own terms, Seven Psychopaths is very good.  Even during scenes where things could have dragged a little, the entertainment value remains high thanks to the laugh-out-loud qualities of McDonagh’s dialogue and the engaging eccentricities of his characters.  The writing is reinforced by the performances.  Harrelson and Waits aren’t really called upon to do much other than appear menacing and grizzled respectively – which both of them do capably.  Farrell, whom I’d never really rated as an actor before I saw In Bruges, gives another excellent performance here.  He’s as mouthy and as harassed-seeming as he was in the earlier film although his Marty character is much more grown-up.  The man-child qualities that made Farrell so funny in In Bruges are here transferred to Rockwell’s Billy.  Rockwell has to balance being loveable with being strangle-able, a feat that he pulls off with aplomb.   We can understand why, despite the exasperation he causes Marty (and he causes him a lot), Marty still regards him fondly.

 

Perhaps the best performance, however, comes from Walken as the gentle and God-fearing Hans (although his religiosity doesn’t stop him dog-napping, which I assume is a sin).  He’s almost Job-like in the punishment that McDonagh’s script visits upon him and he bears it with a melancholy calmness and stoicism that’s truly endearing.

 

Incidentally, it says a lot about the film’s unpredictability that although Christopher Walken is in it, and although it’s choc-a-bloc with psychopaths, Walken is actually the nicest character by far on screen.  If Seven Psychopaths was the sort of Hollywood movie that it spends its time satirising, Walken would no doubt be doing more conventionally Walken things – strutting around, for instance, and shooting people point-blank in the head.

 

Flat-out weird: book review / Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

 

(c) Dover Publications

Among the clergy and the theologians of the Victorian era, there were a fair number of eccentrics.  There was, for instance, the diminutive Reverend Dr William Spooner, the Oxford University don whose absent-minded muddling of his words (“Let us glaze our asses…”) gave rise to the linguistic term, ‘spoonerisms’.  Meanwhile, the Reverend Dr William Buckland is notable for being an early palaeontologist, but he is better remembered now as an experimental gourmet – so obsessively curious was Buckland about how various animal species tasted that he insisted on eating cooked panther, mole, mouse, bluebottle, porpoise and a host of other beasts not normally associated with the dinner-table.  And the shy and stammering Anglican deacon Charles Dodgson, in addition to being a mathematician, logician, inventor and photographer, wrote surreal, at times downright trippy, stories under the penname of Lewis Carroll.

 

I suspect that the Victorian theologian, philologist and schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott was at least a little eccentric too.  Abbott, when he wasn’t writing scholarly tomes like The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman and St Thomas of Canterbury, his Death and Miracles, seems to have spent a lot of time wondering what life might be like for sentient geometrical figures living in a two-dimensional universe.  The results of these musings were published in 1884 as Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a short book that’s really little more than a novella.  Despite its brevity, Flatland packs more strangeness into its pages than many novels of fantasy or magical realism five or ten times its length.

 

Flatland is narrated by one of its inhabitants, a well-to-do square, who describes his world’s social order thus: “Our women are straight lines…  Our soldiers and lowest classes of workmen are triangles with two equal sides…  Our middle class consists of equilateral or equal-sided triangles…  Our professional men and gentlemen are squares… and five-sided figures or pentagons…  Next above these come the nobility, of whom there are several degrees, beginning at six-sided figures, or hexagons, and from thence rising in the number of their sides till they receive the honourable title of polygonal, or many-sided.  Finally when the number of sides becomes so numerous, and the sides themselves so small, that the figure cannot be distinguished from a circle, he is included in the circular of priestly order; and this is the highest class of all.”

 

The hierarchy is so rigid that it makes the class system of Abbott’s time look liberal in comparison.  To ascend Flatland’s social ladder isn’t impossible – the sons of the isosceles triangles near the bottom are born with tiny improvements in their angles so that after many generations their descendants can reach equilateral status and join the middle class.  Furthermore, the sons of squares and ‘higher’ shapes are born with one extra side, so that squares spawn pentagons, pentagons spawn hexagons, and so on.  But chances for individuals, as opposed to family bloodlines, to better themselves are not evident.  Power is obviously concentrated with a few at the top, a state of affairs reinforced by the fact that the higher up the multi-sided pecking order you go, the shapes’ fertility decreases and the social system is never going to become top-heavy.

 

Meanwhile, shapes born with irregular sides and angles are regarded as being monstrously deformed and are subject to euthanasia.  This indicates that the society described in Flatland is a pretty severe, if not an out-and-out fascistic, one.

 

It isn’t a place where feminism flourishes.  With regard to the straight lines that constitute the female of the species in Flatland, the square admits: “To my readers in Spaceland the condition of our women may seem truly deplorable, and so indeed it is.  A male of the lowest type of the isosceles may look forward to some improvement of his angle, and to the ultimate elevation of the whole of his degraded caste; but no woman can entertain such hopes for her sex.  ‘Once a woman, always a woman’ is a decree of nature; and the very laws of evolution seem suspended in her disfavour.”  Indeed, the line-women of Flatland seem rather fearsome.  The narrator describes accidents where an unfortunate male has collided head-on with a rushing female – the female’s head being no more than a point at the end of a line – and been stabbed to death.

 

Even when Flatland was first published in 1884, Abbott’s portrayal of the world’s female inhabitants brought him accusations of misogyny.  In a preface to the book’s second edition, Abbott politely points out that he isn’t condoning the situation – he’s merely describing how life is in the place.

 

However, Flatland is about more than one universe with one set of dimensions.  There’s a section where Abbott’s narrator falls asleep and dreams about encountering a one-dimensional world, called Lineland.  He even has a conversation with Lineland’s king: “His subjects – of whom the small lines were men and the points women – were all alike confined in motion and eyesight to that single straight line, which was their world.  It need scarcely be added that the whole of their horizon was limited to a point; nor could anyone see anything but a point.”

 

Later on, the square receives an unexpected visit from a huge and (for him) mind-boggling creature that turns out to be a sphere.  The sphere lifts him out of Flatland into a three-dimensional universe called Spaceland, where the square gets a tour to educate him to the reality of depth, in addition to length and width: “he at last made all things clear to me, so that I could now readily distinguish between a circle and a sphere, a plane figure and a solid.”

 

By way of contrast, the sphere also shows him a sorry world called “the realm of Pointland, the abyss of no dimensions.”  Inhabiting Pointland is a Solipsistic creature of which the sphere says: “Behold yon miserable creature.  That point is a being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional gulf.  He is himself his own world, his own universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not length, nor breadth, nor height…”  The king of Pointland spends his time babbling insanely, “Infinite beautitude of existence!  It is: and there is none else beside it.”

 

Giddy from his experience of Spaceland, the square speculates that there are further universes with increasing numbers of dimensions – four dimensions, five, six – extending into glorious infinity.  For Abbott, this no doubt represents a metaphor for his religious faith, which has God inhabiting some divine plane of existence high above that of His creations.  For the unfortunate square, however, his fancies go unappreciated.  The sphere, which as a three-dimensional creature has treated the square with condescension, gets flustered at the suggestion that there might be bigger and better beings out there with even more dimensions than he has.  And when the square is dumped back in Flatland and starts talking about his experiences, he gets locked up for heresy.

 

Reading Abbott’s descriptions of the minutiae of life in Flatland (and in the other worlds that his hero comes across), I suspect that he tackled the book like some master mathematician tackling a fiendishly complex equation.  I can picture him spending many happy hours in his study, engrossed in figuring out just how Flatland works – how its inhabitants move, see, communicate and generally interact to form a coherent and working society.  Admittedly, he cheats at times.  Flatland’s inhabitants perceive one another by their line-like edges, but this would imply that they have height, admittedly a very small amount of it, which in turn implies that their world does possess a third dimension of sorts.  And though Abbott’s prose gives a vigorous account of the square’s ascent into Spaceland, one wonders how a two-dimensional being would really be able to see and comprehend a universe of three dimensions.

 

Flatland is little book that seems as engaging now as it must’ve done to its original readers in the late 19th century.  I found it captivating – which, considering the difficulty I had at the age of 14 in scraping a ‘C’ in my O-Grade Maths, constitutes a real achievement on Edwin A. Abbott’s part.

 

Some random thoughts about Skyfall

Or…  Another 3000 words about 007.

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m heavily into bondage.  That’s James Bond-age I should add, the practice of obsessing over the licenced-to-kill hero of Ian Fleming’s espionage novels during the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent 50-year cycle series of movies produced by Albert Salzman and the Broccoli family – and not ‘the practice of being physically restrained, as with cords or handcuffs, as a means of attaining sexual gratification’, as The Free Dictionary online drily defines it.

 

Last weekend I finally – finally! – got around to seeing Skyfall, the 23rd film in the official Bond series and the third to star Daniel Craig in the lead role.  Since its release last October, it has also proven to be the biggest-grossing Bond movie to date and has also been one of the most critically acclaimed.  So what did I think of it?  Here I’ll offer a few random opinions.  It goes without saying that, in delivering these opinions, I’ll serve up all sorts of spoilers.  So if you haven’t yet seen Skyfall and don’t want to have its surprises ruined for you, don’t read any further.

 

One.  There’s still a bit of Ian Fleming in it.

 

The Bond-movie producers have long since run out of Ian Fleming novels to base their films on, and to be honest, even when they hadn’t exhausted the original seam of books, the films often had precious little to do with their source material anyway.  For example, the 1955 novel Moonraker was a post-war austerity-era thriller set entirely in the south of England, centring on a disfigured millionaire industrialist, who is actually a former Nazi, plotting to avenge Germany’s defeat in 1945 by destroying London with an experimental missile.  The 1979 movie Moonraker had none of this.  It did, however, have space shuttles, a space station, a big space laser battle, enough nerve gas to destroy the human race, a cable-car chase, a speedboat chase, an ancient pyramid in the Brazilian jungle that’s actually a disguised shuttle-launching base, a Venetian gondola that converts into a speedboat and then into a hovercraft, and a giant henchman with steel teeth.  You get the idea.

 

One element of Skyfall comes directly from Ian Fleming, though.  The opening section, where MI6 mistakenly believes that Bond has been killed in action and his boss M writes an obituary for him in the Times, is lifted from the closing pages of Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice.  (Bond is also declared dead in the 1967 movie version of You Only Live Twice, but in this case his death is faked by MI6, to give him respite from his legions of enemies who want him truly dead.)  M’s obituary reveals that Bond wasn’t the true-blooded Englishman that everyone thought he was, but was in fact the offspring of a Scotsman, Andrew Bond from Glencoe, and a Swiss woman, Monique Delacroix from Canton de Vaud – though Bond was orphaned at the age of 11 when they were killed in a climbing accident.  (According to M / Fleming, he was then sent to live with an aunt in a hamlet in Kent called Pett Bottom, which believe it or not is a real locality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pett_Bottom.)  In its final section, Skyfall explicitly references the Scottish origins that Fleming devised for Bond, but I’ll talk about that a little later.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

One feature of Skyfall that’s particularly Fleming-esque is the amount of alcohol consumption going on.  Never mind the occasional dry martini and lemonade, shaken but not stirred – the literary Bond was a pisshead, often relying on alcohol to smooth the ugly, jagged edges of his existence as a government-employed killer.  (Admittedly, the novels were written at a time when it hadn’t yet become fashionable to fret about the health and social hazards of alcohol abuse.)  In Skyfall, for instance, we see Daniel Craig knocking back some hard stuff in Turkey, not even bothering to deal with a scorpion that’s attached itself to his sleeve until he’s downed the last drop in his glass.  No wonder he suffers from the shakes when he’s re-assigned to duty.  We see in a couple of scenes that Judi Dench’s M is clearly in love with her Scotch whisky too.  Indeed, Skyfall contains one or two moments where you wonder if it might’ve been more appropriately titled Skinful.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Two.  Didn’t we see a lot of this in The World Is Not Enough?

 

Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as James Bond, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, has a section set in Istanbul, as does Skyfall.  It has another section set in the Scottish Highlands, specifically at Eilean Donan Castle on the Ross and Cromarty coast, which is about 80 miles’ drive north from Glencoe, a location appearing in Skyfall.  Also, in both films, there is a villain (or villainess) whose relationship with M is more complex than one of simple professional enmity; an introduction of a new Q; and a deadly explosion that rocks MI6’s London headquarters beside Vauxhall Bridge and overlooking the Thames.

 

The ingredients may be similar, but there is one major difference between Skyfall and The World Is Not EnoughSkyfall mixes those ingredients together a lot more successfully.  That said, I don’t think The World Is Not Enough is a particularly bad film and it didn’t deserve the critical slagging-off it got on its release.  Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlisle are particularly good in it as the villainous duo planning to destroy Istanbul by blowing up a Russian nuclear submarine in the Bosphorus.

 

But it suffers from an unevenness of tone, the quality stuff cancelled out by some truly duff elements.  Particularly cringe-inducing is John Cleese’s debut appearance as R, the replacement for Q, in which he clowns in the MI6 lab to no comic effect whatsoever with a special coat that inflates into a giant safety capsule.  Compare that with the first encounter between Daniel Craig and Ben Wishaw’s Q in Skyfall, in front of William Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, which manages both to be very amusing and to have a gravity worthy of Stanley and Livingstone’s meeting in Tanzania in 1871.

 

And let’s not even talk about Denise Richards’ performance as ultra-forgettable ‘Bond girl’ Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough.  Her sole function in the film seemed to be to enable Pierce Brosnan to make a quip about Christmas coming more than once a year.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Three.  There’s also a bit of Roger Moore in this.

 

James Bond was rogered in the 1970s in more ways than one.  This, of course, was when Sean Connery retired from the role and it was passed on to suave, safari-suited plank of wood Roger Moore, who then starred in a series of lazy extravaganzas where the only things more airheaded than the leading ladies (Jane Seymour’s Solitaire, Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight, Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova) were the scripts.  1979’s Moonraker, described at the beginning of this entry, is the worst offender.  However, on the greyhound-track of 007-awfulness, there are several other Roger Moore dogs barking closely at Moonraker’s tail.

 

Now that Daniel Craig has played Bond in three films as a rugged and fairly humourless bruiser – even his prominent ears give the impression that his head’s been punched more times than is good for it – the very last things you’d expect to find in the Bond franchise are echoes of the bad old days with Roger Moore.  But I did find a few of those echoes in Skyfall, amazingly enough.  Namely:

 

A. Reptile-treading.  The scene in the Macao casino where Craig escapes from a pit of komodo dragons by hopping onto one of the beasts’ backs, and from there hopping up to the pit’s edge, is reminiscent of the scene in 1974’s Live and Let Die, where Moore runs across a pool in a crocodile farm using the crocodiles as stepping stones.

 

B. Dropping villains from great heights.  Once in a blue moon in the 1970s and early 1980s, Roger Moore’s Bond would be allowed, briefly, to show his dark side – presumably these hard-boiled bits were shot furtively whilst Cubby Broccoli was taking a nap at the corner of the set – and it invariably involved him chucking a bad guy off something tall.  In 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, he tips henchman Sandor (Milton Reid) over the edge of a Cairo rooftop.  In 1982’s For Your Eyes Only, he pushes a precariously-balanced car, containing cold-blooded assassin Locque (Michael Gothard), over an Albanian cliff-edge.  For this reason, I was reminded of Moore when in Skyfall Craig drops international hit-man Patrice (Ola Rapace) from the top floor of a Shanghai skyscraper.

 

C. Bad dental work.  At one point in Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s villain Silva removes some false teeth and shows M the disfiguring effects of a cyanide capsule that he broke in his mouth in a failed effort to kill himself.  Seeing the mangled, corroded state of Bardem’s teeth, I found myself thinking of Jaws, Moore’s nemesis in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, who was played by Richard Kiel and who had surely the worst dentist on the planet.

 

Four.  Bond travels back to his Scottish roots in more ways than one.

 

The final section of Skyfall has Bond and M take flight from Silva and his mercenaries.  They finally hole up in the crumbling mansion on the remote Scottish Highland estate where, it transpires, the young Bond lived with his parents.  We even get a glimpse of his parents’ headstone in the estate cemetery.  Obviously, this plot development comes from the backstory that Fleming created for Bond late in the original cycle of novels.  But it’s significant on a couple of other levels too.

 

For one thing, Bond and M make the journey to Scotland in the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger back in 1964.  Connery, first and greatest of the cinematic Bonds, is of course a Scotsman and so this pilgrimage north of the border can be seen as a tribute to the films’ roots as well.  (The story goes that by the time Fleming wrote You Only Live Twice in 1964, he’d seen Connery’s film debut as his superspy hero and he was impressed enough by the performance to, belatedly, give Bond a Scottish background.  Indeed, he even linked Bond to Edinburgh, Connery’s home city, though their social situations there were rather different.  The young James Bond attended Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy, which was later the alma mater of a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair; whereas the young Sean Connery worked on a milk-round with Alec Kitson, who later became chairman and treasurer of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.)

 

 (c) Eon Productions

 

I was a little disappointed that Kincade, the elderly estate gamekeeper who turns up near the end to help Bond and M out when Silva and his goons lay siege to the mansion, doesn’t have a Scottish accent.  Although it’s great to see Albert Finney in the role (and he has a pleasing chemistry with Judi Dench), his gruff Lancashire tones are scarcely what you’d expect to hear emanating from a bearded ghillie who’s spent a lifetime tramping around the heathery northern Highlands.  I also couldn’t help thinking what a headf**k it would’ve been if the producers had managed to lure Sean Connery out of retirement and got him to play Kincade instead (though knowing Connery, he’d probably have demanded ten zillion pounds for the job).  In fact, since seeing the film, I’ve read that Skyfall director Sam Mendes did briefly consider offering the role to Connery, but decided not to, since it’d constitute a pretty blatant case of stunt casting.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/04/sam-mendes-skyfall_n_2074239.html)

 

One other thing that makes the Scottish-set ending feel appropriate is a sense that the film is paying tribute to Bond’s literary roots too.  In creating Bond, Fleming – like many thriller writers of his day – was influenced by the five Richard Hannay novels written by Scottish author John Buchan between 1915 and 1936.  The first and most famous of these books, The 39 Steps, sees Hannay framed for a murder and then pursued across Britain by the police and by enemy agents.  Just as Bond and M do in Skyfall, he ends up trying to elude his pursuers in Scotland – not in the Highlands, but in the equally scenic and desolate (if somewhat less spectacular) landscapes of Galloway in the southwest.  Hannay is considerably more clean-cut than Bond – as Buchan was himself, he’s a good Presbyterian.  But the character’s influence on the 007 novels can’t be underestimated.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Five.  God knows what James Bond universe this film is set in.

 

The first Bond movie with Daniel Craig on board, 2006’s Casino Royale, was intended to be a reboot of the series.  It opens with a scene where Bond kills somebody for the first time and wins his double-0 status from M.  Thus, it starts the story again from scratch, in the process seemingly discounting all the previous movies with Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan.  Even so, it isn’t particularly convincing as a reboot because Craig is still taking orders from M as played by Judi Dench, who of course had been in charge of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond during four previous films.

 

In Skyfall, however, we get several suggestions that Craig’s Bond is the same secret agent who had all those earlier adventures from the 1960s to the early 2000s.  His first exchange with Q – Bond expressing incredulity at Q’s youthfulness and Q making dismissive comments about “exploding pens” – suggests that Craig had worked with the old Q, who’d been armourer to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton and Brosnan and who’d been played by the much-loved and much-missed Desmond Llewellyn.  And then we get the scene where Craig collects the Aston Martin DB5, out of Goldfinger, from a London garage.  Of course, it could be any old Aston Martin DB5, not the Aston Martin DB5.  However, any old Aston Martin DB5 wouldn’t have machine guns concealed under its headlights, would it?

 

However, just as we’re getting used to the idea that this film is set in the James Bond universe of old, a character whom Bond has only recently met reveals her full name.  She’s Moneypenny, Miss Moneypenny, and she’s taking on the job of secretary to M.  Of course, Miss Moneypenny was a fixture of the films from 1962 to 2002, played by actresses Lois Maxwell, Caroline Bliss and the aptly-named Samantha Bond.  So how can Daniel Craig’s Bond be the old Bond if he’s meeting Moneypenny for the first time only now?!

 

Then again, this is a film series that managed to go from gritty Cold War thriller From Russia With Love to ludicrous sci-fi comedy Moonraker in little more than 15 years.  So these continuity issues probably aren’t worth worrying about.

 

And what did I think of Skyfall overall?  Well, it’s not perfect – the climax is a little too protracted for my liking, and for Javier Bardem’s convoluted computer-hacking plot to work, it needs a prescience of what his adversaries are going to do that’s practically superhuman.  But the film is nonetheless very good.  All credit to Sam Mendes who – in a franchise that isn’t known for allowing its directors to express much individuality – manages to put his own stamp on the proceedings without diluting them and making them anything less than 100%-proof Bondian.  He makes good action-movie use of the Turkish and Scottish settings without resorting to the frantic quick-fire editing that made 2008’s Quantum of Solace migraine-inducing at times.  And with the scenes set in Shanghai – where some violent action takes place against a hallucinogenic backdrop of Blade Runner-style neon – he achieves something extra-special.

 

This Bond movie seems to be imbued with a comfortably patriotic glow.  It projects an image of modern-day Britain that would surely be endorsed by Her Majesty’s Government, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by the British Council – an image of a sometimes battered and harassed little country but one that’s nonetheless very plucky, if not indomitable.  It’s choc-a-bloc with tradition, history and ageless landscapes – great for tourists to visit, incidentally – but is also cosmopolitan, inclusive (as indicated by the ethnicity of the new Miss Moneypenny) and geekily hi-tech and up-to-date.  In a big, bad world, it’s still well-able to punch above its weight.  Small wonder that Daniel Craig / Bond was drafted in for the opening ceremony of last summer’s London Olympics, though one wonders why Danny Boyle got the Queen to parachute out of a helicopter with him.  Who needs the Queen when you hang out with someone as awesomely regal as Judi Dench?

 

This comfortable sense of Britishness may not last, however – not least because of the referendum about Scottish independence planned for 2014.  If a majority of Scots voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, it’d leave the United Kingdom with a diminished presence on the world stage and give James Bond a rather smaller homeland to defend.  Just now, with opinion polls suggesting that only a third of the Scottish population will vote ‘yes’ and nearly a half will vote ‘no’, Scotland’s secession from the UK looks unlikely.  However, Daniel Craig’s most illustrious predecessor may soon be embarking on a mission to change that state of affairs.

 

From www.4.bp.blogspot.com

 

A funeral with a million mourners

 

I was on Habib Bourguiba Avenue around noon yesterday, Friday, February 8th.  If you were downtown then and were sporting a long black beard emblematic of Tunisia’s militant-Islamic Salafist movement, I can only say that you were a brave man.  For yesterday, liberal, left-wing and secular Tunisia was out in force.  It was mourning the socialist politician Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated three days ago – by persons of some extreme political and probably extreme religious persuasion – and who was laid to rest in Al Jellaz Cemetery on the south side of Tunis yesterday afternoon.

 

There seemed nearly as many women as men on the avenue – Belaid’s widow had requested that, in spite of Tunisian custom, female mourners should attend the funeral as well as male ones – and hijabs and other items of Islamic female attire were at a minimum.  Indeed, the vibe reminded me of how things were there just over two years ago, when crowds gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building at the avenue’s end to demand (successfully) the departure of old dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Back then too, the protestors had had a secular, liberal look about them.  On January 14th, 2011, there’d been no guys in beards, smocks and sneakers, no black Islamic flags, no chanting for the introduction of Sharia law – those things only appeared after the revolution, when the Salafists started to crawl out of the woodwork and make the most of their new-found freedoms under democracy (a concept, incidentally, they reject as being un-Islamic).

 

As I’ve said throughout the lifetime of this blog, the arrival of a government dominated by the moderate (it’s claimed) Islamic party Ennahdha emboldened the Salafists in their seeming mission to make life as miserable as possible for their less devout fellow-citizens.  The more aggressive they became, the less willing the government seemed to be to stop them, and so they became more aggressive still – targeting everyone and everything from pub-owners and dramatists to Sufi mausoleums and the American embassy.  Indeed, after some of those outrages, Ennahdha seemed to show more interest in prosecuting the victims – TV stations, artists, academics – than in prosecuting the perpetrators, which obviously encouraged the Salafists to behave even more badly.

 

Some believe that Belaid was murdered by the Salafists, who hated him because of his steadfast support for secular politics in Tunisia.  Some also believe that Ennahdha members themselves were embroiled in the assassination, since Belaid was a considerable thorn in their side too.

 

Yesterday on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, I wondered if Tunisia had changed at all in the past two years – and if it had changed, if it’d actually done so for the better.  The Interior Ministry building was now more fortified than ever, sealed off from the surrounding avenue by no fewer than three coiling layers of razor-wire, stacked precariously on top of one another.  The area inside the wire, immediately in front of the building, was choc-a-bloc with white police vans.  While I was standing there, a vagrant with a grimy beard and clothes that were little better than rags went past, pushing a trolley-cum-wheelbarrow contraption that was loaded with plastic bags bulging with rubbish.  The sight of this rubbish-scavenging hobo against the background of razor-wire seemed to uncomfortably sum up the economic and security achievements of Ennahdha since coming to power.

 

Also walking past me there was an elderly man in a suit, who had the tweedy and eccentric demeanour of a university professor.  He had two corners of the Tunisian flag knotted around his throat, so that the flag itself hung down his back.  He looked like a figure I might’ve seen two years ago during the revolution against Ben Ali.

 

As well as the collective sense of grief, there seemed to be an undercurrent of fear among the people I saw yesterday.  A helicopter chuntering to and fro above, like a big metallic bluebottle, did nothing to ease the tense atmosphere.  Neither did the presence of armoured riot policemen, a few of them wearing grotesque black rapist / terrorist-style balaclavas.  When I reached the intersection of Bourguiba Avenue and the Avenue de Paris, I noticed several people standing and staring fearfully upwards.  I followed their upward gaze and saw that a figure was perched on the roof of the building, about eight storeys high, on the corner across from the Hana Hotel – I got the impression the people on the street were afraid that this was a sniper.  I was spooked myself on a different section of the avenue when two motorcycles, both carrying passengers, came scooting along the pavement.  The two pillion-riders had rifles slung over their shoulders.

 

As it turned out, there were some disturbances – particularly when some opportunistic youths from a rundown neighbourhood near Al Jellaz tried to break into cars that’d been parked outside the packed cemetery, and were confronted by policemen overseeing the funeral.  (“Those kids were probably paid to do it by Salafists,” snorted a Tunisian acquaintance today.)  But overall, the day passed off with considerably less trouble than many had feared.

 

One thing is for certain.  Belaid’s tragic death and the mass grief expressed yesterday – I’ve heard claims that as many as a million people were out on the streets of Tunis paying their respects, and obviously many more followed the funeral’s intensive coverage on TV – have catapulted Tunisia back into the world’s headlines.  For most of the afternoon, for instance, these events constituted the main story on the BBC’s news website.  Thus, with so many eyes upon them globally, politicians here would be wise to tread extremely carefully.

 

Among those politicians, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali surfaced again yesterday afternoon and repeated his determination to dissolve the current government and replace it with a caretaker one, comprised of non-political ‘technocrats’, who’d steer the country on a steady course until new elections were held.  He’d first proposed this on Wednesday evening, to the great surprise of his party, Ennahdha – which promptly responded that no, the government wasn’t going to be dissolved.  Now those party members must be privately wishing that the ground would just open up and swallow their prime minister.

 

What is Jebali up to?  Does he have a cunning plan here that’ll rescue the country from its present political crisis?  Or is the plan designed to serve his own interests?  Or have recent events merely left him dazed and confused?  Time, I guess, will tell.  (http://www.kapitalis.com/politique/14376-hamadi-jebali-attache-a-la-formation-d-un-gouvernement-de-technocrates-malgre-l-opposition-d-ennahdha.html; http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politics2/5493-hamadi-jebali-to-announce-shortly-line-up-of-new-government-and-will-start-consultations-with-parties.)

 

Incidentally, it was reported yesterday – on the Facebook page of Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem, who by a happy coincidence is also son-in-law of Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi – that the government has summoned Francois Gouyette, the French ambassador to Tunisia, for a bollocking.  This was in response to a comment made by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls following Belaid’s murder, about ‘rising Islamic fascism’ in Tunisia, a comment that Abdessalem and company interpreted as being unacceptable French interference in their country’s affairs.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/live-updates-fallout-from-leftist-politician-chokri-belaids-assassination/.)

 

Tunisians mindful of their country’s history must find this ironic.  The last time a major figure on the Tunisian political left was assassinated, it was in 1952 and the victim was Farhat Hached, who’d been the first secretary general of the country’s trade union organisation, the UGTT (which marked Belaid’s funeral yesterday with a one-day general strike).  In this capacity, Hached had focused the UGTT’s energies on winning Tunisia’s independence from France, making it a great rock of support for Habib Bourguiba and his pro-independence Neo Destour Party.  This was too much for the French.  In early December 1952, two carloads of assassins from a French paramilitary outfit called La Main Rouge (quite possibly supported by the French colonial administration) murdered Hached while he was at the wheel of his own car.  The first car fired shots into his vehicle, severely wounding him, and drove away.  When the wounded Hached managed to crawl out onto the road, the second car pulled up and its occupants climbed out and shot him again, finishing him off.  (http://www.opendemocracy.net/rob-prince/tunisia-siliana-and-heritage-of-farhat-hached-sixty-years-after-his-assassination; http://robertjprince.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/farhat-hached-and-the-struggle-for-tunisian-independence-2/.)

 

From ar.wikipedia.org

 

There may well be truth in what Valls has said; but for the French to go lecturing the Tunisians about fascism, given their own history of fascistically eliminating Tunisian leftists, lays them open to jibes about kettles calling pots black.

 

I know shamefully little about Tunisian history, but I suspect that one reason why Belaid’s murder has hit such a massive nerve here is because of how Farhat Hached and his fate three generations ago are engrained on the national consciousness.  Indeed I’ve heard at least one enthusiastic socialist describe Hached as ‘Tunisia’s Che Guevara’.  Seeing how his face is on billboards all over town today, I wonder if poor Chokri Belaid is going to become the new Hached – or even the new Che.

 

From www.lematin.ma

 

Here are a few of the more interesting pieces I’ve found on the Internet about Tunisia, and about Chokri Belaid, in the past few days:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-07/tunisia-s-unravelling-rests-on-islamist-icon-rachid-ghannouchi.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21377325

http://allafrica.com/stories/201302080919.html

 

Nice idea, Hamadi – now shut up

From en.wikipedia.org

 

I ended my previous entry with word that Hamadi Jebali, Tunisia’s prime minister, had just appeared on television and declared that the current government would be dissolved and replaced by one composed of ‘technocrats’, who’d keep the country running on automatic pilot until the holding of new elections.  Jebali’s announcement, it transpires, came as news to the other members of his party, the supposedly moderate-Islamist Ennahdha Party that’s the biggest player in the coalition government.  Jebali’s own deputy prime minister, Abdelhamid Jelassi, said subsequently that “(t)he prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party.”  To put poor old Mr Jebali firmly in his place, he added, “We in Ennahdha believe Tunisia needs a political government now.”  (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/fresh-crisis-in-tunisia-as-pms-party-turns-against-him-8485947.html.)

 

On the Internet today I’ve read speculation about what Jebali was up to when he announced this end-of-government-that-wasn’t.  Some online commentators praised him for trying to put the good of his country ahead of his own personal and party interests – the disappearance of the current Ennahdha-dominated government would certainly be balm for Tunisia’s sizeable opposition forces, who this week were outraged by the assassination of left-wing politician and lawyer Chokri Belaid.  Other commentators speculated that what Jebali was proposing was part of a Machiavellian plot, whereby he’d split Ennahdha in two and, as head of a new faction, secure more power and influence for himself.  Other commentators again suggested that his let’s-dissolve-the-government declaration was merely a case of Jebali running around like a headless chicken after Belaid’s murder.

 

I tend towards that last opinion.  For the same reason, I don’t really believe the conspiracy theories that have circulated since Chokri Belaid was gunned down outside his house on Wednesday morning – theories alleging that he died as a result of a secret and unholy alliance between Ennahdha (some have even pointed the finger at Ennahdha’s supreme leader Rachid Ghannouchi himself) and violent Islamic extremists.  For one thing, conspiracies involve intelligence on behalf of the conspirators, intelligence to plan and execute things – and governmental intelligence has not been much in evidence during the last year or so, judging from how Tunisia has been run.

 

However, one symptom of the government’s lack-of-intelligence has been its failure to tackle acts of violence and intimidation by Salafists and other extremists, which has only emboldened them in their attacks on anything offending their ultra-delicate sensibilities: politicians, journalists, academics, dramatists, painters, galleries, campuses, bars, Sufi mausoleums, foreign embassies, foreign schools…  And the anything-goes climate that’s resulted from the government’s incompetence and / or complacency certainly did contribute to Belaid’s murder.  So I suppose, in a way, the government is implicated.

 

Meanwhile, tomorrow – Friday – sees both Belaid’s funeral in Tunis and a general strike organised by the UGTT, the Tunisian trade union body, in protest against his death.  And of course Friday is also mosque-day.  I suspect that in the many mosques that have been infiltrated and taken over by Salafists during the two years since the revolution, hellfire-and-brimstone preachers will be ordering their faithful to take up arms and defend Islam against the godless communists, socialists, liberals, secularists and atheists who are stalking the streets outside.

 

The last general strike in Tunisia took place in 1978, during the rule of Habib Bourguiba, and it resulted in the arrest of the entire UGTT leadership and a death toll, officially, of 42.  (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/tunisia/politics-1978.htm.)  Unofficial estimates of the number of people killed are much higher, however – one Tunisian acquaintance today told me it had been about ‘300’.  Let’s hope that what happens this Friday is a lot less bloody.

 

No news is good news… Oh

From www.lapresse.ca

 

Tunisia had been relatively quiet of late, at least, in comparison with the turmoil that’s beset Egypt in the past months.  Recently both Tunisia and Egypt celebrated the second anniversary of their revolutions, against hated dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak respectively.  But while the latter country marked the date with riots, bloodshed and fiery resentment against the autocratic rule of Mubarak’s Muslim Brotherhood replacement, Mohamed Morsi, Tunisia seemed somehow to muddle along – give or take a few strikes in the country’s more economically-depressed areas, some occasional demonstrations, and plenty of carping about the post-revolutionary Tunisian government, which is dominated by the supposedly-moderate Islamist party Ennahdha.

 

Things could be a lot better, I thought while I went about my daily life in Tunisia, but still…  No news is good news.

 

Then this morning two motorcycle-riding assassins fired several bullets into the head and neck of Chokri Belaid, general secretary of the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party, co-founder of the opposition coalition the Popular Front, human rights lawyer, leading left-winger and secularist, and a particularly vocal critic of Ennahdha, while he was leaving his Tunis home to go to work.  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/06/tunisian-politician-shot-dead; http://www.lapresse.ca/international/dossiers/crise-dans-le-monde-arabe/tunisie/201302/06/01-4618809-tunisie-le-chef-de-lopposition-a-ete-assassine.php.)  By the time I entered my own workplace this morning, my colleagues had learned of Belaid’s death and were in shock.  His party wasn’t the biggest player in Tunisian politics but he was respected – he’d been, for example, a courageous critic of Ben Ali’s regime when it’d suppressed miners protesting in the phosphate-mining region of Gafsa in 2008.  (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/02/20132610565078813.html.)  And there was general revulsion that a leading voice of the opposition in a supposed democracy could be silenced so ruthlessly and that his killers could strike with seeming impunity.

 

Belaid’s family were quick to blame the Ennahdha party itself.  The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, associations (some would call them militias) comprised of Ennahdha party supporters and religious militants that have sprung to prominence in the past year, have form when it comes to harassing government opponents.  Only last weekend, there were claims of attacks by the Leagues against opposition gatherings in Kairouan, Gabes and the Lac suburb in Tunis (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/04/political-violence-targets-opposition-alliance/).  And Ennahdha has been accused of quietly directing them in their acts of violence and intimidation.

 

Even if Ennahdha weren’t complicit in Belaid’s death – and plenty of people here believe that they were – it’s clear that they’ve failed miserably in dealing with the violence committed by extremist elements, usually ultra-Islamic Salafist elements, that’s blighted Tunisia in the last two years.  Prior to his assassination, Belaid himself had received death threats from the country’s extremist fringe.  As Tunisia’s Communist Workers Party leader Hamma Hammami commented today, “We have already warned that this security breakdown in Tunisia would target him, given the government leniency towards political crime.”  By the mid-morning, a friend of mine who’d checked out the Internet reported that hard-line Islamic websites were gloating already about Belaid’s murder.

 

Another Tunisian acquaintance today expressed a common and bitter frustration about the behaviour of the ruling party since it came to power.  “I hate Ennahdha,” she exclaimed.  “I hate how they’ve split this country, claiming that if you don’t support them you can’t be a good Muslim.”

 

By the late morning, thousands of people sympathetic to the opposition’s cause had gathered on Tunis’s central Habib Bourguiba Avenue in front of the Ministry of the Interior building – ironically the same site where mass protests two years ago had persuaded Ben Ali to get on a plane and flee the country – and were calling for the Ennahdha-led government to go.  Before long, riot cops, armoured vehicles and the inevitable hail of teargas canisters had appeared on the avenue too.  Meanwhile, there were reports of protestors trashing Ennahdha offices in towns like Sfax, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and Monastir (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/live-updates-fallout-from-leftist-politician-chokri-belaids-assassination/).

 

Around lunchtime, I noticed a number of my colleagues hurrying towards the office windows and out onto the office balcony.  I followed them and found myself looking down upon a long, chanting procession of people who were marching on the avenue below.  Prowling slowly along in the very middle of the procession, with marchers flanking either side of it, was an ambulance draped with a Tunisian flag.  Chokri Belaid’s remains, it transpired, were inside the ambulance and those marchers were providing an escort.

 

A little later, I was eating lunch in a local café.  The café’s TV had been put to the France 24 channel and it showed footage of a dense crowd of demonstrators, in front of the Interior Ministry building on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, who were being bombarded by tear gas canisters.  While those people fled from view of the TV camera-lens, a swirling grey teargas cloud slowly and inexorably expanded until it had engulfed the entire screen.  Then footage from elsewhere on the avenue showed the arrival of Belaid’s ambulance – the crowd escorting it was by now larger than ever.  By an ominous coincidence, the weather outside my café turned stormy at the very same moment – rain suddenly pelted down on the road, seemingly out of nowhere, and a great squall suddenly overturned the giant parasol outside the café doors and nearly sent it rolling into the middle of the traffic.

 

Although leading lights in Ennahdha, like prime minister Hamadi Jebali and the party’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi, spoke to journalists during the day and condemned what’d happened, their condemnations failed to convince many Tunisians that they weren’t – intentionally or, through negligence and incompetence,  unintentionally – responsible for Belaid’s murder.  “Rachid Ghannouchi better not come to my brother’s funeral,” snarled his sibling, Abdel Majid, to a reporter.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/06/fears-of-escalating-violence-after-assassination-of-opposition-leader/.)

 

Tonight I hear reports that Jebali has announced the dissolution of his government, which will be replaced by a ‘non-partisan government of technocrats’.  This supposedly will hold the reins of power until new elections take place (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21359260; http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/02/20132683528345786.html; http://www.kapitalis.com/politique/14335-hamadi-jebali-annonce-la-constitution-prochaine-d-un-gouvernement-de-technocrates.html).  What the outcome of this will be is anyone’s guess.  I find myself thinking of the old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” a sentiment that certainly appears to have been foisted upon the inhabitants of modern Tunisia.  That saying, I understand, was never intended to be a blessing.  It was meant as a curse.

 

Heaven knows I’m miserable now


From www.rabble.ca

 (c) The Daily Telegraph

At lunchtime a couple of days ago, I was sitting with a colleague in a crowded and noisy central-Tunis eatery and we were discussing the current, sorry state of Egypt.  (Whenever Tunisians tell me about their frustration and disappointment at the route their country has followed since the revolution, with a stagnant economy, a government seemingly stocked with censorious incompetents, and ceaseless agitation on the fringes by scary-fruitcake Salafists, I tell them to brighten up and think of how their situation could be much worse – they could be living in Egypt.)  My colleague was talking about Egypt under the presidency of ‘Morsi’; but, because of the background chatter, I misheard her slightly and for a moment thought she was describing Egypt under the presidency of ‘Morrissey’.

 

This put a strange thought in my head.  What if Egypt wasn’t being run by the Muslim Brotherhood main-man Mohamed Morsi, but by the Mancunian messiah of melancholia Steven Patrick Morrissey, former singer with 1980s indie-rock band The Smiths?

 

Egypt’s condition at the moment does seem to invoke certain Smiths songs.  Considering how there’s been extensive civil unrest since Morsi bulldozered through a new constitution that, critics say, leaves the door open for extreme-Islamic persecution and oppression of women, Coptics, Sufis, atheists and secularists, and considering how there’ve been states of emergency declared and curfews established in a number of Egyptian cities, you might think of Panic.   Mind you, that song’s famous roll-call of British cities could be changed to Egyptian ones, so that it runs: “But there’s panic in the streets of Cairo / Port Said, Suez, Alexandria…

 

Liberals and feminists fearful that the Egyptian president has an agenda for the complete Islamification of their country might recall the Smiths song Girlfriend in a Coma (which was later used as the title of a Douglas Coupland novel); although they’d probably modify the song’s name slightly, to Girlfriend in a Burqa.  Meanwhile, those revolutionaries in Tahrir Square who were perhaps inspired by the spirit of another Smiths song, A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours, may now be comparing the old regime of Hosni Mubarak with the one that’s replaced it and wondering, What Difference does it Make?

 

I’ve been trying to think of an Egyptian-themed pun to go with There is a Light that Never Goes Out, but I can’t.  Sorry.

 

By the way, here’s a link to an entertaining article in the BBC news-website magazine about the various permutations of facial hair that exist in the Arab world and about what each permutation signifies: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20877090.  I’m working on growing a big, virile Iraqi ‘man-tache’ even as I write this.