“In every American
community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of
these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left
of centre in good times, ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them
For aficionados of folk music and 1960’s satire, this may be
a familiar sentiment; for critics of the post – Thatcher neo-liberal push of
Western democracies – those so often liberally branded ‘radicals’ – it may
bring a wry smile and a nod of approval.
For the audience of Phil Ochs in 1966, as heard on his
release Phil Ochs in Concert, it was
met with two rounds of applause interrupted with a tittering of nervous
laughter, presumably from those audience members suddenly aware that the
following four minutes would demand either uncomfortable levels of
self-reflection, or at a minimum, cope with four minutes of cognitive
The proceeding song, Love Me, I’m a Liberal, is a caustic tirade by a Marxist against the hypocrisies and social half-heartedness found in self-professed American Liberalism, and of self-professed Liberals in general – or in a more recent context: the mind-sets of those self-satisfied apathetic-through-comfort few that the Centrist Dad meme of 2017 took aim at. From either perspective it’s true that some things seemingly never change. ‘Radicals’ will be idealists intent on dragging the world into chaos. ‘Liberals’ will be standing in the way of progress.
Unfortunately for Liberals and Centrist Dads across the West,
amid the climate of populist surges and unabashed
flirtations with the far right, self-reflection and an examination
of their own system that they have clung desperately to since the Cold War
began is growing increasingly necessary. In a world standing within living
memory of a great many number of human atrocities, the biggest of all unbelievably
and impending, one has to wonder whether the Liberal ideal of utilizing
compromise over integrity as the binding that holds a political system together
might be, ironically, idealistic.
And that segues us nicely to our latest experimentation in
the claustrophobic confines of The Centre: Theresa May.
When Theresa May made her bid for power in 2016 there was,
among moderate conservatives and liberals alike, hope
that they finally had a leader that truly embodied the watered down Centre
ideals; the kindness, maternalism of the left (the first feminist
prime minister, no less!), and the pragmatism of the right as established in her
vision of the country under her leadership. Superficially her vision
was hopeful because she got it – you
know? She understood. A Britain that
works for everyone, a Conservative with the working class, the disabled,
minorities and the young in mind! It’s the compromise that not only led her to
victory, but frankly the humiliation of anyone else in the running for
Conservative leadership, of whom by the final vote, there was nobody left
Finally, the centre would hold.
Except, let us cross examine May’s vision with just a few of
May’s relevant parliamentary
On 16 Apr 2013: Theresa May voted against making
it illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste
On 26 May 2016: Theresa May voted in favour of
repealing the Human Rights Act 1998; against plans to save the steel industry
including fast-tracking infrastructure projects requiring large amounts of
steel; and against a principle of the Government not borrowing to fund
On 9 Dec 2010: Theresa May voted to raise the
UK’s undergraduate tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year.
On 1 Feb 2012: Theresa May voted against those
who have been ill or disabled since their youth receiving Employment and
Support Allowance on the same basis as if they had made sufficient National
Insurance contributions to qualify for a contribution based allowance.
On 1 Feb 2012: Theresa May voted not to make an
exception for those with a cancer diagnosis or undergoing cancer treatment from
the 365 day limit on receiving contribution based Employment and Support
On 8 Jan 2013: Theresa May voted in favour of
capping any increase in working age benefits and tax credits at 1% rather than
potentially allowing them to rise by 2.2% in line with prices.
Oh dear. It appears that we were somewhat misled about Mama
There’s one of two possible reasons for this that I can see:
that she’s a career politician saying what she needs to gain power and to quash
the rising threat of the left (but I won’t say that, I’ll
leave that to members of her own party). I’ll leave that to the
tears she didn’t shed for the victims of Grenfell, or the victims of the
Windrush Scandal that took place under her watch, and the tears she shed
instead for having resigned before being ousted from power.
Instead I will
suggest that she had no political integrity to call upon. Hers’, in true
Liberal fashion, is a politics of compromise. And in true Liberal fashion, as
soon as a strong, emotionally supported opposition appears: be that Rees-Mogg
or Corbyn, she wilted and failed to maintain control of her party and her
However, there appears to be one area where May has at least
been consistent– contradicting herself in regards to the democratic process.
With respect to advisory democracy and its place in
representational offices, she clearly understood the necessity of listening to
the people which her policies are going to affect with a dogmatic
fervour, and if there’s one
thing that we can all agree on it’s that the Liberals will, at least, always
listen to the will of the people for it is in the name of democracy that wars
have been fought and lives lost – it is the cornerstone of our society that
one’s beliefs and opinions should be heard as loudly as the next persons. That’s
the nature of compromise: digging your heels in.
Guess again, as an investigation by Greenpeace has revealed
that Cuadrilla is owned by entities based in offshore tax havens.
As a side note: If anybody cares for ominous foreshadowing,
the overturned council rejection took place in 2016, the day after the Paris
Climate Agreement was signed. The fracking of Lancashire re-started
on 15th October 2018, exactly a week after the IPCC published a
report that we have 12
years to limit the impact of climate change or face a global
catastrophe, recommending the urgent phasing out of fossil
So, a recap: Theresa May’s new-look-conservative government,
after her party squashes a damning reports on the effect of fracking on air
quality and at a time that the
UK is being criticised by the UN for denying citizens human rights to clean air
bypassed a local councils decision to ban fracking, despite the consistent
popular outrage of the constituents it affects, and gave permission for an
exploratory excavation in search of Shale Gas, a week after the UN release a
report stating we have 12 years before climate change becomes irreversible, to
a company that we know will not be putting money back into the system.
The excavations fortunately did come to an end before they
truly began, in a landslide victory for the people of Lancashire. Unfortunately,
when I say landslide victory, what I mean is it was stopped because the
resulting tremors from the drilling was measured on the Richter scale. BBC
North West’s environmental correspondent Judy Hobson wished to make it
In possibly the most 2019 tagline you’re likely to find until inevitably, the next one: here we are presented with how literal earthquakes are handling regional environmental policy and protecting the so called democracy-under-siege better than elected party officials. It is a good job that Theresa never suggested that she would be build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.
As she stood on the step of Downing Street numbering her successes with her teary mascara stained fingers, much of the criticism has been levied at her on the basis of an apparent lack of humanity (Grenfell and Windrush apathy – they’re a blemish on her reign, not community catastrophes that cost lives) and her careering in politics. As previously pointed out, the latter could have been observed as soon as she prostrated with her new and completely original idea for Britain, and ought to have been scrutinised more than it was – but what has fallen by the wayside is her insistence on her attempting to deliver Brexit and her past insistence that she is doing so in order to protect the British democratic process.
By her own metric then, she failed: she didn’t deliver Brexit. Further than this, not only did she fail to do so, but while she was spouting her will of the people soundbite, her government was actively supporting the undermining of British democracy on a local and a national scale. If her politics is one of compromise, she failed to do that. She’s a Liberal whose compromising of integrity undermined our democracy and paved the way for a surge in far right populist rhetoric both publicly and within her own political party in order to keep hold of the top seat. Who could possibly have seen this coming?
Ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, ten degrees
to the right of centre if it affects them personally.
Recent years have heralded a growing call within pockets of
the population to become more self-aware in its understanding of Britishness and
British culture at a grassroots level. From the right, and amid a turbulent
Brexit period, those whose political affection points towards Europe have been
branded as “traitors” who are actively working against the interest of their
beloved Britain; at the other end of the spectrum, the need to reassess our
history, through the blue tinted spectacles of empathy rather than rosy
exceptionalism – it is hard to feel exceptional about Britain in 2019, a nation
so politically and culturally divided in a world of divided nations.
It’s always been a divisive topic, for we are a traditionally
divided bunch, with intersectional lines drawn by empire in plurality
throughout the ages, a constant influx of alien cultures over millennia, and class
borders intersecting regional borders. As such it is more than simply a
question of teabags or what to call a barm cake. Further still one cannot
escape the fact that a journey across the Pennine way from Lancashire to
Yorkshire sees a symbolic shift in the township’s brickwork; red brick to
sandstone, and at a risk of isolating an audience, white never felt right to
me. Pretty, yes but who could live in it? Does having an opinion on these trivialities
make me British? Or simply a regionalist? Are the red bricks of Burnley and the
white of Skipton in any way a political distinction?
First, a brief family biography serves as a slipway into the
topic of British cultural identity. I was born in Warrington, England, when Warrington
was Cheshire (it now apparently has a flirtatious relationship with Merseyside),
and as such at the dinner table, if I call myself a ‘Lancastrian’ (which I am –
I was raised in Lancashire after all). My family, two fifths born in Wigan, would
decry that I, in fact, am a “Cheshire lad” and not Lancastrian like they are,
ignoring that Wigan isn’t Lancashire anymore but rather Greater Manchester. My
father, a self-proclaimed Yorkshireman would join in, before we all round on
him, reminding my old man that he was actually born in Isolohn in Dusseldorf on
a British Army base, and only raised in Yorkshire. Whatever that is – it’s only
a historic country that’s now divided into three smaller administrative
entities: the North, East and West Ridings. So, he’s a kraut – kind of. My other
brother, also Warrington born, is ‘Northern’ and proudly so, until it comes to
a question of roses. Then, he’s red over white.
Furthermore there are those who declare that in fact they’re
‘English’. I’ve even heard myself doing so, the words slipping out of my mouth
as I recoil in fear that I may be pushed out of the bougy craft ale bar that
are so comfortable to me and into those pubs with their wide array of three
lagers for sale and red crosses in the windows; those for who are as softly
spoken as I do best to avoid every Eastertime.
This doesn’t feel right. I’m not English; I’m a quarter
Welsh, and with a swelling breast and a rudimentary understanding of British
stereotypes, I proudly sing that I truly am a quarter Welsh, if only to avoid
being English. Really, it means little to me. Still, it’s an uncomfortable
distinction to draw in public, for doing so in certain circles doesn’t make me
Welsh or English but rather “white”, and undeniably so. So to simplify the
ordeal, I’m British. Administratively, I’m British. As a side note I’m pretty vocally confrontational
of the very idea that nationality even exists, and whether it is an illusion
which acts more as a hindrance than a benefit to nations such as ours, but my
passport (Burgundy, and then soon only in spirit) states it clearly: British
Not Northern, nor Lancastrian, nor Cheshire, German, white, or
contentious objector. Intrinsically British. Culturally British.
It is scarce that politics of cultural identity is prevalent
in in the mainstream of popular discourse during times of economic prosperity –
when your nation is the winning horse you’re sat atop, a cultural consensus can
be achieved for the sake of simplicity and “the greater good”. Unfortunately,
this historically serves to hush the voice of minorities – for their qualms
would rock the boat. See the Lawson boom
of the mid 80s and Labour’s subsequent political alignment with a newly
burdening political participation in identity politics of the 90s,
coincidentally when the bubble burst, and Labour needed a new political base to
oust the Conservatives (a ‘New Labour’
if you will, one that forgoes any traditional allegiances of the worker for the
newly expanding liberal managerial and professionals classes).
And in 2008, as predicted, when the economic inefficiencies
were not addressed, the bubble burst again and the political landscape was
marred, now seemingly unendingly and affording a new kind of political ideology.
One of inwardness, isolation, segmentation fuelled (unfortunately without great
popular detection) by a failing belief in the neoliberal norms of roller coaster
economies. Where trust is not placed in the sleek suited politicians your
mother would want you to bring home, but rather the straight shooting cowboys
offering an alternative politics, the kind that unpicks at the traditional regional
political affiliations in favour for personal absolution from blame for
political inactivity – it’s the immigrants, the English, the cities. Forces
beyond control, sometimes with genuinely good reasoning, although often merely
used as a scapegoat for greater issues (yes, I’m thinking of that ‘Breaking Point’ poster.) Scotland had
their frightfully tight vote. The call for devolution to northern cities grew
louder. The cities faced off with the country over Brexit.
Except, it was divided a long time before that. The United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland hasn’t been united in spirit
since the Conservative reigns of the late 80s onwards – or was it during the
punk era of Harold Wilson? Earlier still? Catholic and protestant then, the Huguenots, or tenant and landowner. It
probably started with the Harrying of the North, that Bastard William. But then
the inhabitants of the Wirral (formerly a major Viking capital settlement often
argued by historians to be the
capital) in a 2009 study still maintained 42% Norse DNA, they ought to have integrated
into British culture better. Like the Mercians, or Saxons, and so on. In fact,
it only united in name in the 19th Century, and even then this was
merely an administrative attempt to unify Scotland, England, Wales and Northern
Ireland. For the Vikings of the Wirral, it wouldn’t have affected their
lifestyles greatly at all.
Before I turn to UK separatist movements in detailing the instability of British identity, the English landscape alone has been divided if resentful of the opposing bun/barm/stottie/roll brigades for a great deal longer, a resentment still seen today most noticeably in cities – most vocally Northern cities, such as Newcastle or Liverpool, who seem to possess the kind of pride of one’s community required to survive a top down destitution; historical cities, once deemed by the administrative classes so important to the prosperity the nation, the industrial shelter of the North that served to build Britain to what it was: an empire.
For all its evils, which cannot be overlooked for sake of avoiding
that pesky self-reflection, each city played its part in the maintenance of
trade and diplomacy, of industry and innovation. And then, suddenly, in a
rapidly changing world spearheaded by neoliberal individualism, certain towns,
villages, regions appeared to fall by the wayside, creating even deeper chasms within
Britain, arguably forcing these communities built on a unilateral scaffolding
of each other’s interests to become, as stated, insular, and entrenching
themselves deeper into the landscape if only to drag each other out through the
rubble of deindustrialisation.
The unique perspective of Afua Hirsch, a Norweigan born
journalist of mixed nationality parentage, (Ghanain and British) and whose
grandfather was a Jewish immigrant fleeing Nazi ruled Berlin, shines a
blindingly exposing super trooper on the culture of Britishness from what she experienced
growing up, from the outside looking in – into a world where “Britishness” is intrinsically
linked to having white skin. In a piece for National Geographic shortly after
the release of her excellent text Brit(ish): On Race,
Identity and Belonging, she wrote:
Britain transitioned seamlessly from an imperial motherland passionately
convinced of its own racial superiority to one with the moral integrity of
having defeated Nazism. Acknowledging the crimes of the British Empire was
neither an appealing nor convenient option.
It is a bitter pill to swallow, and somehow a spoonful of
sugar in the face of confronting our plantation riddled, enforced famine laced past
seems somewhat unfitting. But it must be pointed out that the perspective of Britain’s
history is an administrative history – can be done by the bottom in the wake of
top down social imposition, and if discussing the obvious notion that the local
communities benefitted a great deal by this industrial boom on the back of such
heinous acts, even today one third of all wealth in the UK is inherited. As for
this administrative history, this does not start and end with the British
Empire but in the particular and familiar case of England, goes back thousands of
years, as Benedict Anderson in his landmark text Imagined Communities points
out. In regards to the evolution of national linguistics, and how separate yet
affecting the administrative languages, for example, were to the people that
make up the societies of early England, Anderson pointed towards a blueprint of
linguistic evolution on the isles in the face of such cultural impositions:
Prior to the Norman Conquest, the language of the court, literary and
administrative, was Anglo Saxon. For the next century and a half virtually all
royal documents were composed in Latin. Between about 1200 and 1350 this
state-Latin was superseded by Norman French. In the Meantime a slow fusion
between this language of a foreign ruling class and the Anglo Saxon of the
subject population produced Early English…In every instance, the ‘choice of
language appears as a gradual, unselfconscious, pragmatic, not to say haphazard
Anderson goes on to point out that because of this
unselfconscious and pragmatic creation, this does differentiate from “the self-conscious
language policies pursued by nineteenth century dynasts confronted with the
rise of popular linguistic nationalisms”. However, the similarity can be drawn that
regardless of whether it was an enforced policy or “natural” progression, our
linguistic history, the foundation stone of every culture, is formed of a
series top down administrative alterations, done to accommodate and assimilate
those within the society deemed to exist within a superior status. This is not
to be misconstrued as a compliant – for all of its thoroughly thoughtless flaws
and incoherent inconsistencies, it’s a rather wonderful language with which to
sculpt. Rather, this serves to highlight the cultural dynamic of England – as a
‘nation’, we cannot necessarily identify with our historical roots in the same
way that the Irish, whose only real fight has been with England and later
Britain. We have historically enveloped our invaders, though often reluctantly,
and instead have not had the ability to impose a homogenous identity, but
rather have historically had it enforced upon us – Dutch and German monarchies
for example, or the American cultural hegemony of the 20th and 21st
century, and so on. The Vikings of the Wirral are now scouse. In England, as
anywhere, the fingerprints can be found in our vernacular. This nationalised,
imagined “Britishness” is always a Hobsons choice, and as such our language is
made up of borrowed words with roots spanning as ancient as Latin, and as far
reaching as India. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the other cultural
identities of the British Isles – and language paints the picture clearly – the
Irish language (which influenced Scottish Gaelic) became a minority language in
Ireland during the 19th century. Irish nationalism had to punch from
below and impose itself in the late 19th and early 20th
It is no wonder then, that the self-proclaimed gatekeepers
of the British cultural establishment’s, the ‘British Nationalists’, concern themselves
with the likes of immigration, wherein the culture is not changed by those in
power but rather those who really possess very little political sway, often
historically oppressed by the British elite, is the matter of how “immigrants integration
into British culture”. For portions of the working class, once propped up by
Labour but since largely abandoned, the mantra of “they’re coming over here,
stealing our jobs” echoed in rings forged strictly around racial identity. The “they”
being the most concerning (and rightfully alarming), instead of also dealing
with the obvious factor of job stability and security being virtually non-existent
in areas of the country most affected by economic downturns of the last 30
years. Unsurprisingly, when one can harness this as a scapegoat to gain
political sway in today’s climate of career politicians, they will (yes, I’m
talking about that poster again).
From above then, the discourse can be shifted – it’s no longer
about the “jobs” since the economy is slowly growing, as predicted. For much of
the working class, the less politically inclined and long since disenfranchised,
it’s about getting what they’ve asked from their rulers for once. For the
growing right, it’s now about assimilation, of maintaining British values –
whatever they are. One points towards Lord Tebbit’s infamous Cricket test: whether West Indian and South Asian
immigrants support England or their cultural roots, and how it is a yardstick
for the success of these immigrant communities’ assimilation into British
culture. Such realities require examination: If for the immigrant it is not a
question of skin colour, what culture are you demanding they integrate into?
Whose culture? What aspects of culture must they adhere to, and how do you
If the parameters are set by the government, which as Hirsch
pointed out: they were, in a “high profile 2016 poll”, what conclusions can we
draw? The poll “singled out Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as
particularly failing to integrate but found that only one of the factors—the
desire to live near and have the support of a community of people from similar
backgrounds – had anything to do with personal choice. The other factors were
the pull of the labour market and the poverty trap.”
This suggestion, that it is a real choice seems questionable at best. A ‘real choice’ would suggest that integrating into “white communities” during the latter half of the 20th Century would be as easy as integrating into communities of those from “similar backgrounds”. The infamous election slogan of Conservative MP for Smethwick, Peter Griffiths, in the 1964 General Election – “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour” – suggests that this is, perhaps, not the case. (Griffiths went on to win that election by just under 2000 votes, and a British branch of the ultra-white nationalist terrorist organisation the Ku Klux Klan would be set up in its wake.) While it would be convenient to suggest that this was ‘a sign of the times’, and that in the 21st Century such sentiment is much less prevalent, Hirsch points her readers towards a condemning statistic: ‘A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture.’ Sure, the white robes are presumably gone, but the sentiment remains the same.
Then the question remains: what culture do they speak of?
What is the definitive national British culture they speak of – 48% of Scottish
voters chose to leave the Union in their Independence referendum, and Scotland
can hardly be considered united in and of itself. There were murmurings of a Cornish
independence referendum had the Scottish referendum swung the other way. In March 2018, the BBC reported that Plaid
Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, stated that were they wish to hold their
own independence referendum, and on May 11th held a Welsh
independence rally in Cardiff attended by thousands. In a very real sense, the administrative
culture of Britain is built upon more than shaky foundations.
So, if I am supposedly a regionalist and not a nationalist,
let’s assess the unity of the nations’ communities with one another. There is a
clear North/South divide in the Isles in terms of economic prosperity, job
prospects, heritage and history, which as we have seen above plays a huge role
in community strength/identity and outsider immersion. I’ve seen pies in London that where I live, if
you presented them you’d be laughed out of your own dinner party before the
parsley sauce accompaniment arrives. At university I found out that a very
close friend of mine from London had never had a Greggs before, whereas my
brother (the “Northern” one) proclaims, routinely, that he possesses an
instinct wherein he can locate the closest within a 2 mile radius wherever he
finds himself. Amazingly, it’s true. The great ‘British’ tradition of cheese
rolling to me sounds alien. I know next to nothing about the city of Birmingham
outside of Peaky Blinders, despite it being the second most populous city in
the British Isles, and even that TV show stopped focusing on Birmingham after
one season – London shortly after, New York next.
What of the soundbites that ‘London is basically a different
country’, or the existing town/regional rivalries that run throughout the
nation, county boundaries that are still based on the bucolic feudal system, varying
local folklores and superstitions, the variations of popularity of local
sporting and leisure activities – I ask again, what does it actually mean to be
This question has a very simple and dissatisfying answer:
there are no unanimous British values outside that of the administrative envelopment
of a number of immediate regional micro-cultures that surrounds the self; and
the ethnicities, sexualities, interests, familial ties or any unforced
commonality that still serves to unite. It’s sort-of true what Anderson said,
that nations are purely imagined communities, but it is a step further than
this – it is a number of real, genuine communities that have the concept of nationality
applied from above and this is something we are born into, and have no say in. ‘British
culture’ is one of self-perpetuating nationalism and nationalism alone, for
what is nationalism but the surrendering of ones identity to a history of intangible
power above by common populace?
Why then does such nationalisms exist?
In times of great hardship, in times of duress or dictation,
it is useful even noble to unite under a banner – you can call this banner what
you want, but since the separatist movements within colonial powers cried for
self-determination the banner has been a most useful tool. Anderson argues that
the Spanish communities of South America were the first self-recognised ‘nation
states’, and I do not wish to suggest that there is no place for nationalist
sentiment. As Anderson again points out
it has brought with it wondrous works of art, literature, music, as well as
historically been an instrumental tool in the overthrowing of Empirical
hegemony – Haiti, for example, would not be the vibrant nation that it appears
to be on a community scale were it not for the banner of nationalism in the
overthrowing of its French owned plantation heritage. More recently, and on a
less significant note, the England football team’s run into the semi-finals of
the 2018 World Cup brought with it a sense of calm among this particular
divided nation within Great Britain, regardless of whether one was interested
in the sport or not; a national unity despite the precedent set in recent years,
where we have been subjected to such horrors as the political assassinations of
pro-European MP Jo Cox in 2016, other acts of terrorism such as the Manchester
bombings a year later. My quibbles regarding the validity of nationality in
general were forgotten during this month long celebration, where I could be
found in a pub in Clapham, a staunch Arsenal fan singing and celebrating the
quarter final victory against Sweden with a stranger in a Tottenham shirt. This
serves as proof of nothing but how genuinely pleasant it is to be united by
Why then would I be so repelled by the notion of being a
part of Britain, if I can support its national football team?
Again, Anderson has the answer, one that dovetails nicely
with Afua Hirsch’s perception of Britishness. “The fact of the matter is that
nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies, while racism dreams of
eternal contaminations, transmitted from the origins of time through an endless
sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history…The dreams of racism
actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of
nation: above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to ‘blue’ or ‘white’
blood and breeding among aristocracies.”
Our ‘culture’, British nationalism; Hircsh’s white British Nationalism, arguably more so than any glamourizes our administrative past: that of Empire, war, cultural plundering, communal land thefts, without any kind of regard for how it has affected our grassroots social cultures and the innumerable cultures across the globe that faced atrocities at the behest of signatures, justified by a perceived racial caste system. Where the example of Irish Nationalism served to break the hegemonic British thumb from below, British nationalism still strives to press without acknowledging that there is a clear difference of intent. If they can be nationalists, why can’t we if the pre-requisite is to simply belong to a nation? It is this specifically and initially that must be scrutinised in this time of required national self-awareness.
The old Empire may in many of our minds be a Victorian
notion: one of khaki clad moustachioed adventurers and Borneo in an age where
we now navigate via satellite, but it is worth remembering that the last days
of Empire are still within living memory of many Brits, and its imprints still
found both geopolitically, and manifested within our national politics. The
likes of former British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson MP as recently as
January 2019 stated his desires of opening British military bases across the
world in order for Britain to have a “global military reach” and to once again
become a “true global player”. This, once again, is our administrative culture
and one that will only perpetuate internal divisions if it continues to avoid
confrontation and a sense of self reckoning on an unprecedented scale during
its time in the driver’s seat of Britishness. If Lord Tebbit’s Cricket Test
holds any truth, it is only because Britain has not from beneath the
administrative boot heel, made Britain for immigrants and for so many natives worth
supporting. Until that is rectified, I’m Lancastrian.
When beginning to build their understanding of cinematography, every budding filmmaker is drilled extensively on the representations and meanings attributed to the size of the shot, and the make-up of the frame. They’re the basics. Camera work 101.
Your wide shots, where you try and pack in as much information
as possible – crowds, landscapes and so on – are largely expositional, or
perhaps highlight the size of the task ahead: the long quest the hero is set to
embark upon, or even to juxtapose the size of the character with the world
around them, perhaps bringing with that whatever existential layers the
director wants to communicate to the audience non-verbally.
On the other end of the spectrum: the extreme close up,
commonly focused on the eyes and face of the subject, are an invitation to
explore the thoughts and emotions of the subject by invading their theoretical
personal space and focusing the spectator’s gaze. They’re stylistic choices –
each director will have personal preferences in how to employ the shot in order
to achieve their desired result.
In the world of documentary making, things work a little differently. Accessible information above all is the focal point of the standard documentary format, rather than taking allegorical measures to get something across to the audience. When David Attenborough highlights the danger of irreversible climate change the camera does not zoom in to his eyes to expose his apocalyptical fear about the matter. There’s more to be gained within a time-lapse of melting icebergs or decaying polar bears. Some things don’t change, however. If you’re telling a story, then tell the story and employ what techniques you must, but it must be remembered that the stylistic choices must not weigh down on the actual informative spine of the documentary. A documentary about somebody scaling a 3000ft granite cliff without any safety ropes in some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth will still employ wide shots from all over – attached to drones, from the bottom of the cliff and so on, to try and emphasise the scale of the achievement without forcing those punters sat in a cinema in Manchester to get a 15 hour flight to Yosemite see for themselves. It’s informative. It would be a hell of stylistic choice to not do so.
Alex Honnold’s eyes are an on screen focus, though many of the
close up shots seemingly only take place because it is being shot in the van he
lives out of. They are doe-ish, bulbous, accentuated by a face stripped of
fat. If blue can be piercing, then brown
is something lasting, akin to haunting without any real implied horror; perhaps
that’s the horror to come, or ab absence of fear where there ought to be. His brown
eyes are instead of magnitude, of scale. His are that of a man who has remained
seemingly ambivalent in an ongoing constant endangerment of himself for mental
stimulation of sorts, and not because he harbours dare devilish qualities. Nevertheless,
he is above all shy and reserved – we are informed that he only began free
soloing because he was too nervous to seek out a climbing partner. And while he
has evidently worked on this, as his many subsequent lectures and talks can
attest, he strikes an interesting subject guided by a balancing act of boredom,
and a single mindedness striving for some kind of perfection. The shots rarely
focus solely on his eyes, but nevertheless they tend to envelope the shot
somehow, with a methodical focus one would hope to expect to find in the man free
soloing El Capitan.
“We were always more interested in Alex as a character study”
one of the directors of Free Solo, Chai Vasarhelyi, told Vanity Fair in early
2019. This seems slightly nonsensical considering the sheer amplitude of the
feat Alex Honnold achieved (something nobody has ever attempted before for
obvious reasons.) But the documentary started its life as just that: a
character study of a person who is known for his free soloing endeavours, and
his world class climbing abilities. Jimmy Chin, a long-time friend of Honnold,
the second director and husband of Vasarlhelyi, recounted to Talks with Google
that Alex did not discuss that he would wish to do this to him or his climbing
friends, but rather to Vasarhelyi during an evening where she was to get to
know him a little better, to see if the idea of a character study of Honnold
would make for an interesting documentary. Here he mentioned his fascination
with El Capitan, and Vasarlhelyi, who is not a climber (as Chin put it, “she’s
from Manhattan”), thought this was an interesting idea without truly grasping the
event and its fatal implications.
Chin is an expert climber himself, and got to know Hannold
through the climbing community over 10 years ago. For anyone who has spent a
day simply hiking up a mountain can attest, those experiences shared with
another stands out as a unique bonding experience, shared interest and sense of
accomplishment are great foundations on which to build friendships upon. This
foundation is seen reflected in Chin’s eyes, as he recounts the story of
Vasarlhelyi calling him up and telling him Hannold’s idea to free solo the
chosen cliff face, even after the event has been filmed, edited, released and
critically acclaimed. As Tommy Caldwell, another world famous climber who helps
Hannold prepare suggested: to the non-climber it seems like an extraordinary
accomplishment – to the experienced climber, who knows El Capitan, it is
Yet Chin’s focus during the press tours seems fixed upon the ethical and moral struggles discussed in the film of being the director who actually climbs with Hannold in order to capture the footage; his accountability should anything go wrong, the potential for any mistakes being reduced to zero, or even whether he should film at all, citing the Hawthorne effect as a major concern of his in completing his task. He appears before the crowd a very thoughtful, and his eyes throughout the film and the interviews and the talks depict a man caught in a bind, between his professional obligations, his dedications to friendships and the existential quandaries crossing these boundaries throws up.
Chin and his crew are a large subject of on screen time, along with Hannold’s girlfriend Sanni McCanndless – a task so desperately unenviable, if not for incomprehensible notion of “fun”, then for his emotionally hesitant on-screen activity. Hannold is even fondly referred to as ‘Spock’ by Chin and the crew, which is admittedly taken to greater heights in the wake of an on screen haircut at the hands of McCandless. Despite being a climber, and a technician charged with ensuring the once in a lifetime footage is not only captured, but does not impede on the ascent, Chin’s eyes are friendly, empathetic, unmethodical, concerned. They don’t absorb the shot, instead they seem to hide within the frame, only to be found by the viewer who wants to see them, as if he does not want his own emotions to become part of the audience’s experience. Still, the direction and production of the documentary paint the cast and crew with very similar narrative brush strokes that they apply to the life of Hannold himself. They are taken along, through practise climbs in North Africa, or their feelings on both attempts up El Capitain are explored in a way that prompts introspection in its audience. All the while, Chin stares back, unmethodical, empathetic.
The demeanor of the entire crew is of reluctant understanding, in the recognition that Hannold will inevitably undertake the task regardless of whether they are there to film it or not regardless of whether they plead with him to rethink his ambitions or not. Chin remarks frequently in interviews that the only people qualified to help film were those who were similarly expert climbers, and also incredible photographers, which leaves him with a “crack squad” of about 3 or 4 people. Despite this, fixed cameras had to be set up ahead of time in specific positions on the cliff face. This is to overcome the aforementioned Hawthorne effect, but also the static cameras are placed at the most dangerous points, seemingly also to spare the camera-person the inevitable trauma of watching their friend fall to their deaths and being unable to help, and as Chin puts it in the documentary, to prevent having to watch Hannold “fall through the frame”.
These vibrations of unease, personal responsibility, and
abject fear line the film. It is split into two clear sections – leading up to
the ascent and the ascent itself. Perhaps in years gone by this triumph of the
human spirit would have been the absolute focus of the documentary, and that
would have been enough. However, even documentary making is about character
building and narrative as any other film, and it’s the natural elements of the
climb that make the watch so very compelling.
Namely, the length of time – it took two years to film, and Chin even points out that there was a period of 6 months or so where he and his crew were not entirely sure that they wanted to film in the end, which plays out on screen. In this period Honnold meets a girl, who he declares that he loves, even though there is a narrative sub-arc regarding how Alex’s brain works, and whether he even feels emotions like fear and excitement in the same way as the Lehman. There is a solemn moment not long before the initial venture up the cliff unaided where Chin gathers all but Hannold and asks them to go over a strategy for “just in case”, and it is largely silence broken up by uncomfortable propositions of “drop everything” and “call 911”.
Chin doesn’t attempt to conceal his discomfort from the camera (even if he does attempt to do so with Alex), and reaches his on-screen emotional crescendo just after Honnold has completed his climb and met Chin at the top. Instead of the camera simply circling Alex and glorifying his achievement, it cuts between close ups of those at the top of the cliff, the view, and then an emotional phone call to his girlfriend, who had dramatically (albeit realistically) decided she could not be around waiting for bad news, a scene wherein she is filmed from inside her car driving away, and a Chin himself. Finally, it shows the reality of the situation – that he still has to make his way back down the mountain. There’s no freeze frame, no fade to black. Just Honnold setting off down the mountain, his phone to his ear.
The success of the documentary is the success of the handing of these situations as they present themselves. Chin declares in interviews that it was part of the method to never to ask when he will actually climb El Capitain, and instead utilises his time waiting for Honnold to feel comfortable probing for insights into his mental state, so as not to disturb his preparation. Ultimately, Vasarlhelyi’s and Chin’s success is the naturalistic and genuine insight into the minds of Alex and the people that surrounds them on offer. It’s not strictly a documentary of triumph, although it’s inevitable that it would be read in this way. After all, it is Honnold himself that is the subject of the documentary, and Honnold alone who makes the free solo climb. The documentary is harnessed securely to a structure based around the journeys of genuine human emotions – fear, ambition, love, pain – of all involved. During the editing process, a decision was made to include a shot of a cameraman who is refusing to look through the camera while Honnold climbs, out of all the film shot in a two year period, and Chin does so and justifies doing so by adhering to his cinematic ideals, where he states that good cinema is all about empathy. It’s certainly a compelling argument to make.
Sometime in the early months of 2018, I sat awake in bed; a
white and blueish hue across my face then distorted with contempt, or
confusion, or anguish, untired. The phone screen read a condemning 03:00. All
else was darkness. There was no music playing, no voices. Outside the Beast
from the East was freezing everything in place. It did not feel like time was
passing in that quiet night. Yet it did pass, and continued to shift ever
onwards and onwards.
Zeros became ones, became twos, fours, eights.
I didn’t notice; one rarely notice their heart is beating. Adrenaline courses beneath skin, edging the glacier towards the sea-line calamity, plunging into the water and re-emerging from the cool blue cocoon alone and adrift. Vigour pumping into thumbs as they worked faster and faster, pressing vacant spaces of mechanised glass harder, reveling in the moment with a smirk nobody else would see.
The radiator omitted a quiet sigh.
And suddenly, accidentally, I swipe my thumb across my phone and the camera opens. There’s a quick flash of light, and my tired face appears on the screen instantly, and then disappears instantly, back into the black. I am afforded a brief moment of reflection in the black.
I paused, closed my twitter feed, and attempted to reach
sleep. The next day, I deleted my account.
In the early hours, arguing with a
stranger – It’s the stuff of opiates, Darren
Aronofsky montages; your pupils dilate, screen flashes bright, you’re
about to score: a stranger who has been afforded the opportunity to represent
themselves with a single photograph, and decided the best course of action was
to use a photograph of (I presume) a family member, taken in sepia and clad in
the uniform of a British world war veteran – caps lock firmly secured, here we
go! The complexities of sovereignty and what the real impacts of a then impending Brexit are. But you must know, you
must, you already know that it isn’t pretty. Not even a little. It’s fun, sure,
exciting even. But the bags under your eyes, the unshaven face of a day’s
proving people wrong – it’s provocative:
Are you representing yourself properly?
Are you Lewis Dale, or your online self?
Is this how you picture yourself?
Are you sincerely gaining anything from being so connected
to everything, all the time, whether you’re sat on the toilet or stood in a
Is boredom so awful?
Are you so anxious that the world is crumbling because you’re
racking up screen times of 8+ hours a day in an attempt to find anything at all
that would confirm your suspicions in the trend tags?
Do you actually care whether Keith from Doncaster agrees
Or are you masochistically chasing endorphins which could be
better found elsewhere?
How will you appear to the people you like to think know
Are you you anymore?
In the immediate weeks that followed I attempted to take a
series of positive steps in my re-immersion back into the world. I began
reading books faster – imagine an ex-smoker incessantly chewing gum, going
through packets and packets of Extra and Juicy Fruit, the silver foil piling up
on the floor around him. I started doing yoga, stopped doing yoga, and started
again a couple of weeks later. Wash rinse repeat. I started writing more,
jogging, blew the dust off my old guitar, made my way through my “to watch”
Maintained eye contact during conversations. I got out of
bed straight after waking up. Woke up earlier. I went to sleep when I turned
out my lamp. Turned the lamp out earlier. The Beast from the East thawed and spring
Of course, it didn’t last.
Instagram. Yes I know.
I rarely post. But digital, listless, intent-less voyeurism
appears to be the direction of the common man of the future. The distracted man.
I try so desperately to be distracted. The world is
crumbling. I need to be distracted.
Since then, however, it’s come to my attention that we are
no longer awful and flawed organisms trudging through the long grass looking
for free food – we have evolved. We are curated beasts, now organised by
designed realities. And there are many, smarter than I, who are taking
advantage of these facts, and are embracing the self-actualised branding.
Opportunities arise. The loop is better maintained if
present, and one must remain within to reap the rewards.
And so begins my slow, marching ascent back into the
promised land of connectivity, of instant news updates and subsequent opinions,
hypocrisies, ideals – What’s happening? What’s happening?
What’s on your mind?
In truth, a level of anxiety about the matter which I wish
dearly that a younger Lewis possessed while attempting to carve out the kind of
perception of myself beyond the confines of my flesh.
An anxiety that I am not only existing within this age of
anxiety, but am both a subscriber and a contributor. That for all my headstrong
tirades and button-click affirmations, I was aware I used it inefficiently,
even irresponsibly. I had to be. Of course I was. There’s a great difference
between knowing and understanding however. I knew what I was doing, I’ll admit
that much, and not long after deleting the app I understood doing it.
For my sake, and the sake of the sepia tone veteran also
awake at 3am and shouting back silently out from the tundra, I had to
And as a generation has seemingly grown up online, it’s
perhaps time to do just that.
Art is not a mirror to
reflect reality, but a hammer with
which to shape it.
Or so said the German 20th Century playwright
Bertolt Brecht, author of such popular early and mid-century pieces as The Threepenny Opera (1928), The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948), and
of course, Mother Courage and Her
Children (1939), a play which has recently found itself at the sharpened
end of a surgical shiv in the round operating theatre of Manchester’s Royal
It is fortunate for theatrical academics and Sunday supplement
arts reviewers alike that he lay down this gauntlet to the world wherever his
audience sit, but especially the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, as Germany
careered into and out of one of history’s many and most prominent still-open
wounds up until his death in the late 1950s.
His work is a litany of socio-economic and politically driven narratives,
and this must, must be acknowledged,
and are not the mirror to the world but rather the hammer with which he wished
to crack the ever expanding present in order to sculpt the future. He does not
show life as it is, but rather intends to inspire a reaction to a reality
perhaps avoided in the everyday humdrum of life. That things are always
Of course, Brecht perhaps more than anyone knew that affecting
the course of the future cannot be done through art alone, but by the audience
who, this time, sit hiding from a chilly February evening, 78 years after the
play’s first performance – the theatre is after all a strictly participatory
art form, and demands the presence of a crowd to exist. Through the voyeuristic
role there exists a scope of historical context through which one must view any
Brecht piece in order to retrieve whatever he is attempting to beat into us
with that great Brechtian mallet.
How then, it must have been asked of Anna Jordan in 2016 when
approached “to breathe new life into a classic script”, can a play
traditionally set during Germany’s Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) exhort
anything in earnest to a Manchester audience so far removed from the original
contexts? Well, before the play even begins there lies a clue: set into the
floor, twelve yellow star shaped lights encircle the blue-lit stage.
The play is now set in 2060, well within the lifetime of many
an audience member I see from the galleries (although realistically, unfortunately,
mostly not), in a Europe now void of any concrete nationality as the ongoing
war between the Reds and the Blues have eroded away any sense permanent borders
into an apocalyptic battlefield dotted only with town squares, checkpoints and
a single trading cart, here an ingeniously designed run-down ice cream van towed by Mother
Courage’s children as they follow the various armies supplying clothing, food,
alcohol and arms.
Amy Hodge’s suitably sparse and uncomfortable direction does,
in part, guise the shortcomings in the renewed script – perhaps most clearly
highlighted by the dynamic performance of the young Rose-Ayling Ellis as the
mute Kattrin often overpowering the more vocal presences on stage. The musical
numbers stray across both sides of moving/corny divide, but what Jordan and
Hodge manage to capture successfully is the illogicality of war in the civilian
realm, and how the casualties of war exist on and off the battlefield, its
barbaric links to capital, and the complicated cynicism that comes with a
stubborn survival instincts, captured by the Janus-facedly charming performance
of Julie Hesmondhalgh as Mother Courage.
And with this in mind we must return our attention to Brecht,
and how in light of its successes we ought to perceive such a rendition of the
play; how we are to hold his hammer in sight of an increasingly more and more
relevant critique of the monetary drive behind war and the capacity for cruelty
and ignorance it fuels. Most simply, it could possibly be best summed up by
Courage’s ice cream van: a warning, a plea, which while the truck undergoes
renovations and dilapidations parallel to Courage’s fiscal success during
wartime, the caustically playful words are splayed, bold and capitalised and
permanent, across its bonnet: