Reviews


When I was a child Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon had a huge influence on me. I read it very young, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, and I think it was the first fantasy I read after A Wizard of Earthsea. I think I already knew the Arthurian legends (most kids growing up in Britain did) but this novel introduced ancient “pagan” elements to them which profoundly changed my view of religion. I didn’t become a pagan of course, but growing up in deeply misogynist Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, when everything was still steeped in traditional Christian ideology and Britain’s history was only taught to us as a story of greatness and righteousness, the idea that Christianity was wrong and that Arthur was really a pagan compromise, or that there was another, non-christian history to Britain, or that there was a woman’s side to a story, made a huge difference to the way I thought about the world around me. I’m not alone in this: generations of science fiction fans report MZB’s Mists of Avalon as a crucial and eye-opening book. MZB’s work is also heralded as an important milestone for feminism in science fiction and fantasy, and many people report its influence in this regard.

Since then of course we have discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her own daughter, and appears to have been an ideologically committed sexual abuser, who sheltered and supported another sexual abuser and was active to some degree in furtherance of a political ideal of pederasty. All this should have been common knowledge by the time her books were published, but it seems to have remained strangely unreported even after her death, only becoming common knowledge when her daughter disclosed the information to the public in 2014. MZB was a hugely influential figure in modern cultural circles: she founded the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and was also involved in the early establishment of the modern western “pagan” religious movement through her Darkmoon Circle. She also had a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy. But what does it say when a known, ideologically committed child sexual abuser influences your cultural world? Does it have any echoes or influence on the ideals of that movement? I have written before about Jimmy Savile and growing up in a society steeped in child abuse, and how the things that were considered normal when I was young look deeply, deeply creepy in retrospect, so I thought: I’m going to re-read MZB’s work – which so influenced me as a child – and see what it looks like now, in retrospect, and what kind of feminist text it really is. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a feminist and be an ideologically committed sexual abuser of children, and I expect that this should show up somehow in her works. I found this (possibly anti-feminist) rant online about how the books always were creepy, and finding out MZB was a sexual abuser of children suddenly made the creepiness comprehensible, but I decided to do it for myself.

So, I’m going to reread these books, and see what they look like now, in retrospect, as a 48 year old knowing what I know now, revisiting books I haven’t read since (at the latest) my very early teens. Every novel requires the author to make choices, and in this case we are dealing with a novel based on an existing story, so decisions need to be made at every turn about how to present the story and how to change it. For example, MZB makes the decision to blend the characters of Galahad and Lancelot together, which isn’t accidental: for some reason she decided to do this. Her decisions about how to represent key parts of the story, key relationships, and the context of the story, should tell us something about the relationship between her politics of sexual abuse and her writing, just as it does about her supposed feminism and her writing. How does the sexual abuse affect the writing? How does a modern adult interpret the story and what do they feel? Is it creepy? Is there a particular stance or depiction of sexual abuse and of children that is depicted in the text that I did not notice (obviously) when I was 10? This post is just the first attempt to investigate and understand this – there may or may not be more. Also please be aware of the content warnings: These posts will involve extensive discussion of rape, child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, incest, and general arseholery, as well as some fairly serious levels of personality disorder, parental abuse and shittiness. So brace yourself.

Oh, also this post contains spoilers, because I assume the people reading this have read The Mists of Avalon in the past and are familiar with the story (though like me you may have forgotten details).

I will begin by describing the controversy surrounding MZB and her husband’s sexual abuse, to give a little more history to the tale. I will briefly describe what I understand of the politics of paedophilia in the 1970s (yes this was a thing!) as a background to understand how a paedophilia advocate might represent sex and children in their work. Then I will begin describing my key impressions from the first part of the story. I will use some quotes, which I am transcribing, so apologies in advance for any small errors. Brace yourselves, kids.

Outline of the controversy

The general public became aware of MZB’s sexual abuse history after the publication of her daughter’s revelations in 2014, but SF fandom should have been aware of them for much, much longer, because MZB’s husband Walter Breen was a known sexual abuser in the 1960s, and she was known to be facilitating his activities. The early history of Breen’s abuse is laid out in an awful document called The Breendoggle that can now be read online. This document outlines Walter Breen’s history of sexual abuse of children in the “fandom” circles of 1960s Berkeley, and the efforts to get him expelled from a convention. It’s absolutely shocking to read about how publicly and flagrantly he sexually assaulted children, and how sanguine the people around him were about it. At the end of the document we find out why: If they exclude Walter from fandom for openly abusing children, MZB will stay away too.

This is the first hint of MZB’s deep commitment to sexual abuse of children, but it isn’t just a hint. Her husband Walter Breen wrote a book about abusing children, called Greek Love, and also edited a journal devoted to pederasty called the International Journal of Greek Love. MZB wrote an article for this journal about pederasty among lesbians, so she was obviously aware of her husband’s political activities and supportive enough of them to write articles for his journal of child abuse. This journal and Breen’s book, by the way, were cited by the editors of the magazine Pan, which was connected to the North American Man Boy Love Association (a paedophile advocacy group in America) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a similar and at one stage radically activist group in the UK). It’s hard to find Pan online but the index of the site holding MZB’s article includes links to some of its articles. Following links through the articles linked above will also lead to more information about MZB’s open support of child sexual abuse, such as helping Breen to adopt a boy he wanted to abuse, sexually abusing a friend’s daughter, and supporting Breen even after they divorced despite his repeated legal troubles over his paedophilia.

I hope from this that it’s clear that MZB was an ideologically committed child sexual abuser, who was definitely supporting at least one other committed sexual abuser and may have been part of an international network of sexual abusers that was active in the 1970s in the USA, Canada and the UK. So let’s see what the introduction of her first novel in the Mists of Avalon series is like. But before we do, let’s briefly look at the political paedophilia movement in the 1970s.

The politics of paedophilia in the 1970s

I can’t believe I had to write that line, but there it is. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement to normalize sexual assault of children, which had its own political organizations, journals, magazines, meetings and rhetoric. Sadly the most famous part of it was connected to the gay rights movement, and the attempts by these people to insert themselves into the gay rights movement and turn it into a kind of pan-sexual liberation movement were seized upon by conservatives as ammunition against gay rights generally. The most famous organization is the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which is well-described in the documentary Chickenhawk, but there was also a British organization and some groups on the continent.

These groups operated on a couple of basic principles, which are worth bearing in mind as we interrogate MZB’s work. They believed that children had sexual agency, that childhood is not a period of innocence, and that children actively solicited and enjoyed sex with adults. Breen in his journal of Greek Love, and other advocates in the magazine Pan argue that these sexual relationships help children grow and mature, and the exchange of sexual affection from the child for adult wisdom from the man is important for child development – they don’t just believe paedophilia is harmless, but actively beneficial to children. They also believe that these paedophiliac relationships were a normal part of most of human society and have only recently been cast into disrepute, usually due to Victorian prudishness, christian interference, or some form of communist or fascist political program (it seems it can be either). Some people writing in the journal Pan seem to hint that adult homosexuality is wrong but same sex relationships between a man and a boy are okay. They also adhere to strong principles of free speech, both for their political advocacy and for their kiddy porn, which they don’t believe harms anyone. Some of them seem to think assaulting infants is wrong but children above a certain age are fair game (or, as my father used to say with a straight face, “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”). Most of the advocacy seems to have been focused around same sex male relationships, but there was no particular political preference in this regard – I think they just had a clearer voice because briefly in the 1980s and 1990s they were allowed some affiliation with the gay rights movement, to its detriment.

It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were a time of sexual awakening in the west, with lots of new ideas beginning to circulate and important efforts being made to cast off the prudishness and sexual stifling of the last 30 years. This new awakening led to lots of mistakes, including things like manipulative and sexually abusive cult leaders, open marriages, political lesbianism, and a lot of abuse in plain sight. Music magazines, for example, did not ostracize or criticize people like Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who famously had a “relationship” with a 14 year old girl (and who remains famous and well respected despite his long history of sexual abuse of minors). Along with the sexual awakening that was happening at that time came an atmosphere of not judging people for doing things differently, and care about ostracizing or casting out fellow travelers who had some unsavoury ideas. This is why we see Alan Ginzberg defending NAMBLA in the Chickenhawk documentary, and it briefly allowed NAMBLA to have some political influence. But none of this explains the horrendous attitudes described in the Breendoggle document, or MZB’s continuing success when the people around her knew what she was doing. So bear this in mind, and the politics of paedophilia activism, as we delve into the story.

Igraine’s story: A terrible slog through sexual abuse and violence

Arthur’s story always starts with Uther getting Igraine pregnant. In the usual story Merlin puts a spell on Uther so that he looks like Igraine’s husband, so Uther basically rapes Igraine. In the Mists of Avalon we take about 8 chapters to get to this point, and to get there we have to slog through a long and brutal period of Igraine’s life. In this version she was married to her husband Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, at the age of 14 and by the time the book starts has been with him for five years, has a child of 3 years age, and is looking after her 13 year old sister Morgause. She never wanted to marry Gorlois and we are reminded repeatedly that she has just had to put up with five years of unwanted sex and has only just come around to appreciate him as a man and a husband – she has very mixed feelings. It should be mentioned that she was sent to Gorlois by her mother, Viviane, Lady of the Lake, the high priestess of all pagans in England, to seal a deal. Watching her deal with this circumstance is, frankly, a slog, and it is made worse when Viviane and the Merlin rock up and tell her that actually she needs to fuck Uther, because Uther needs to give her a son. It’s unclear if this ends up being done by magic or just bad luck, but Gorlois notices Uther’s interest in Igraine (which may have been manufactured by a magic necklace) and starts a war. At this point he is mad at Igraine, has become impotent in her presence, blames her and thinks it is some magic (which it may be, though not Igraine’s) and beats her savagely every time he tries to fuck her and fails. It’s hard going!

Igraine spends all this time – which seems to cover about a year, though it’s hard to tell – as a sex slave of Gorlois and a vassal to Viviane and the Merlin, who decide her fate. They tell her who she is to have sex with and who she is to have children with, and they have no care for her feelings or needs. In fact the only moment of this entire period when she has any agency and joy is the moment when Uther comes to her in Tintagel, under disguise: she sees that he is not Gorlois, but Uther, and finally gets to enjoy sex she wants. This is a radical turnaround on the traditional story, and ensures that the first 6 – 8 chapters of this book are basically a slog through domestic violence and rape, with one woman being fought over by two men who will do with her as they choose.

Once Gorlois is dead Uther takes Igraine as his wife and you might be thinking that the rape and domestic violence and use of women as vessels for political purposes is over – after all, this is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend in which the isle of Avalon offers women freedom and empowerment – but you would be wrong. Before we get to the rape of Igraine’s daughter by her son Arthur, effectively organized and implemented by Viviane, let’s talk about some other aspects of the gender relations and sexual ideology in this book.

Morgause and children as sluts

It is very clear in this book that MZB thinks children have sexual agency. Igraine repeatedly bemoans her marriage to Gorlois at the age of 14, not because she was 14 but because he wasn’t the man she wanted. But we also hear some damning insights into the sexual nature of children during the early stages of the book. For example, Gorlois says about Igraine’s 13 year old sister Morgause:

We must have that girl married as soon as can be arranged, Igraine. She is a puppy bitch with eyes hot for anything in the shape of a man; did you see how she cast her eyes not only on me but on my younger soldiers? I will not have such a one disgracing my family, nor influencing my daughter!

Igraine agrees with this assessment of Morgause’s behavior, and later cautions her against Gorlois’s attentions, which the book describes her seeking out, and later on Morgaine (Igraine’s daughter and the key narrator in this section of the books) also writes about Morgause that

I knew my mother was glad to have her married and away, for she fancied Morgause looked on Uther lustfully; she was probably not aware that Morgause looked lustfully on all men she came by. She was a bitch dog in heat, though indeed I suppose it was because she had no one to care what she did.

Morgaine is, I think, meant to be the feminist hero of this book. Is this how feminists describe other women, or in this case girls?

There is another scene later in the book, during a pagan ritual, where a young girl who was playing an auxiliary role in the ritual is drawn into the sexual activity that the ritual triggers. It is very clear that this girl is very young, and this is described as

The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.

So even very small children are sexual beings in this story, and their subjugation to older men an inevitability of their sexual nature. I’m 17 chapters (about 22% of the way) into this book and I have been repeatedly told by the main feminist icon of the story that girls (i.e. female children) are sexual predators who seek out men and need to be constrained for their own good. Which brings us to …

Virginity as a sacred duty

Feminists have spent a long time trying to demysticize virginity, to stop it being seen as a special and precious and sacred property of women that is “lost” or “given up”. In this supposedly feminist text the preservation of virginity is an essential goal, taught to young women by older women as a duty and a necessary form of self preservation. Morgause is warned by Igraine that if she fucks Uther and doesn’t get pregnant she will be worthless, and he will force one of his men to take her as a wife, and that man will always resent her for not having been a virgin. This restriction isn’t just a christian trait though: Viviane forces Morgaine (the main character of the story) to stay a virgin until she can participate in an important ritual, where her virginity will be sacrificed for the good of the land. Morgaine almost gives it up for Lancelot/Galahad, but he promises not to push her for sex, and so she preserves it (she of course being just a young woman of 16 or 17 is unable to control her lust and needs a man to control it for her).

17 chapters into this supposedly feminist book, I have not met a priestess from the matriarchal isles who has been able to decide for herself when and how she first has sex. This is an important part of this story: matriarchal society is extremely heirarchical and abusive.

The abusive society of Avalon

The original pagan survivors of England are all gathered in the Summer Country, on the misty isles, which float in a kind of separate world overlaid over christian England, separated from it by mists. This is very cool! On the central island of Avalon (which I guess is approximately Glastonbury in the real world), the priestesses of the old pagan religion reign supreme. Or rather, Viviane, High Priestess, Lady of the Lake, rules as an absolute tyrant over all the girls and women who live there. She dispenses them across the land to be used as sexual bargaining tools for the restoration of pagan culture in England (as Igraine was); she tells them when and how they can have sex and who with; and she subjects them to whatever torments she sees fit as part of her religious dictatorship. For example she makes a priestess called Raven take part in a ritual which leaves her vomiting and pissing blood for days, just in order to have some random vision that doesn’t make sense. No one is allowed to speak before she speaks, and junior priestesses in training have to wait on senior ones like slaves.

When she first brings Morgaine to the island to begin her training as a priestess, Viviane repeatedly considers exactly when to begin tormenting her, and we discover that she was initially considering beginning the torments the same night that they arrive, when Morgaine is tired and hungry. We are repeatedly reminded that Morgaine is used to going without sleep or food, and to being cold. It is very clear that Avalon’s matriarchal society is intensely heirarchical, and all the women on the island are Viviane’s to dispose of as she wishes – and we will see this is exactly what she does.

Competition between mothers and daughters

A particularly unsavoury element of the story so far is the competition between mothers and daughters, and between older and younger women. Igraine is jealous of Morgause (her younger sister) and in a very telling moment, Morgaine is deeply jealous of a very young girl, Guinevere, who is lost on Avalon. She had been having a nice moment stripping off for Lancelot (who ostensibly isn’t going to fuck her) when they hear Guinevere’s cries of distress and go to rescue her. Lancelot helps the girl out of some mud, and we read that

Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it

This is how our feminist icon reacts to Lancelot helping a female child escape some mud! This is interesting because we outsiders reading this just see a man being nice to a distressed girl, he really is just being a good samaritan. Yet Morgaine is dying inside at the sight of it! We will come back to this later, because a big issue with this book is that every character is a horrible person.

This jealousy is repeated often, with younger women seen as competitors and replacements for older women, who are always angry at them for their youth. This includes children, who remember are treated in this book as sexually active agents of temptation, and thus need to be guarded against. Every older woman needs to be on her guard against a younger woman taking her place! The ultimate expression of this comes after Uther Pendragon dies, and in his death moment appears to Viviane as a vision. In that moment she realizes that they have been tied together through many lives, and becomes jealous that her daughter Igraine got to have Uther rather than her:

She cried aloud, with a great mourning cry for all that she had never known in this life, and the agony of a bereavement unguessed till this moment

The only pleasure she gets from this vision is the knowledge that in his dying moment Uther thought of her, and not of the woman he loved (Viviane’s duaghter). That’s right, the feminist leader of the matriarchal island is jealous of her own daughter.

Men eat, women pick

Quite often this book reads like a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) re-enactment, with a lot of focus on what people wear and eat in a mid-century American’s idea of “authentic” mediaeval British culture. Actually when I was reading the early parts of the book I thought to myself “this reads like an SCA document”, and only discovered later on reading her wiki entry that MZB started the SCA – it stands to reason I guess!

As part of this there are a lot of eating scenes, and it is noticeable that in every eating scene, women pick at small amounts of bread, honey and a little milk, while men eat fresh meat, bread, ale and other richnesses. I swear every time they eat, women are picky eaters who take as little as possible while men pig out. This is also seen in the sex: 17 chapters in and no women has had sex for fun with someone of her choosing, while multiple men have reputations for having fucked anyone they fancy. This might be excusable as a consequence of the christian world, but we are repeatedly told that “on the Isle” women are free to choose who they want to be with and men respect women as sexual equals. Except we never see it happen! Women in this story never get to have any fun, and the least enjoyable lifestyle is reserved for the “free” women of the supposedly sexually liberated isle, who are constantly fasting, going without sleep or warm clothes, and never having sex with anyone they want to.

Some utopia!

Everyone is horrible

I’m 17 chapters into this book and I haven’t yet met a nice character. I know it was written in the 70s when everyone wore brown, but these people are just awful. Igraine is a powerless wretch who is constantly crying; Morgaine is a jealous and angry woman who is also a complete sucker for Viviane’s power and is easily fooled by everything Viviane says; Morgause is a dirty slut who just needs to be rutted constantly and kept out of sight of men; Viviane is a manipulative, power-hungry and arrogant horror show who never accepts she is wrong and only ever sees people for their uses – she has no humanity at all. The men are all idiots, even the Merlin, who also have uncontrolled appetites and weak minds. Some, like Kevin the Bard, who is supposedly going to be the next Merlin, openly hate women. The most likable character so far has been Lancelot, who rescued Guinevere from the mud and promised not to despoil Morgaine even though she wanted him, but he also seemed to transfer his attentions from Morgaine the moment he saw a blonder, prettier girl, so who can say? Everyone is completely awful, and I have to read 600 more pages of this!

Ritual incest

The most shocking part of the story though is the ritual in which Morgaine is supposed to sleep with a future king of England in a ritual after he kills a stag with a flint knife. Viviane arranges this ritual, which is an ancient thing that is supposed to bind a king to the land. It’s also a kind of test (maybe the Stag would kill the king) and the only time you see a woman eat meat (Morgaine does, at the end of the ritual). Viviane set this whole thing up as a way to bind Arthur to the pagan parts of England, so that all the pagan cultures will follow him and he won’t be able to turn his back on the old ways even though he was raised a christian.

But the thing is, she doesn’t mention to Morgaine that Arthur is the king who is being tested – and Arthur is Morgaine’s half brother. So they go through the ritual, Arthur kills the stag, they fuck in the darkness of a cave covered in the stag’s blood, in the morning they wake up and fuck again, and then and only then does Arthur realize the girl he’s fucking is Morgaine (they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and they’re both about 16 or 18, so it makes sense they don’t recognize each other immediately).

Morgaine of course is heart broken, because she has been tricked into incest with her half brother. What does Viviane say 10 days later when she finally allows Morgaine to speak to her about it?

“Well there’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said. “Done is done. And at this moment the hope of Britain is more important than your feelings.”

Did I mention that in this story everyone is horrible? There’s exhibit A. And also exhibit A of the idea that women’s sexuality is only there to be used for a purpose, women have no free agency over it, and it should be tamed and put to work for the greater good.

Conclusion

So far I am 17 chapters in and this is what I have seen so far: a bunch of horrible people who think children are all sluts who need to be controlled, virginity is a gift that should be preserved and given away only to the right man or for the right purpose, who see women’s sexuality as a tool to be deployed in the interests of family or nation, and who think incest is completely okay. The older women are all intensely competitive with and jealous of younger women, and no woman is free to be herself on a supposedly feminist island that is actually an authoritarian dystopia where everyone exists to serve a religious dictatorship led by a brooding, narcissistic, tyrannical old woman who is jealous of her own daughter for the marriage she arranged.

It’s hard going.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist, and I don’t think men should claim to be feminists or to have some great insight into feminist theory, but I really don’t think this is a story that is consistent with anything I know of feminism. It’s a hard slog in which women are abused regularly and viciously by all men, and by any women who is older than them and has power over them. This social circumstance isn’t presented in a context of overthrowing or critiquing it though – the goal is clearly (so far) to preserve the power of the matriarchal theocracy by brutally using its junior female members’ sexuality in any way necessary. If this is feminism, it’s a kind of lesbian separatist, almost fascist vision of feminism that was briefly in vogue in the 1970s but quickly died out. It’s the feminism of the anti-sex work activist Julie Bindel, who advocated political lesbianism (in which heterosexual feminists have lesbian relationships so as not to betray the movement), or of the anti-trans movement of the 2010s, which is spearheaded by older women insecure in their aging. It’s the kind of feminism we sometimes hear now from some second-wave feminists, bemoaning the fact that young women like to have sex with whoever they want and get Brazilian waxes, the feminism of women who distrust and don’t respect open expressions of female sexuality.

However, this ideology is tempered in this case by a foul attitude towards (female) children, in which they are seen as sexually permissive, sexually active predators who need to be constrained or married off early, and who are easy prey for older men – and who deserve it if they suffer bad consequences of their sexual activity. There is no mercy or pity for girls taken by older men, indeed no sense that it is wrong at all for girls to be given away to men to be used. It is unsurprising to read this attitude from a woman who actively supported the sexual predations of her husband, wrote articles in his paedophilia journal, and sexually abused her own daughter.

There’s a lot more of this book to go, so I will revisit this topic later. I am interested in how she influenced those who followed her in the genre, how she has misused paganism and pagan concepts for her own political purposes, and what her final conclusion will be about the Arthurian tragedy. I also don’t think the child abuse and incest will stop with Arthur’s unknowing rape of his half-sister (and I guess his being raped by her). My guess is there is worse to come. Let us see what horrors this paedophile activist is capable of conceiving of as acceptable, how she butchers the Arthurian story, and what influence she had on subsequent generations of fantasy writers and feminists. Stay tuned!

I found Jock Serong’s novel Preservation through the pages of the sadly defunct magazine Great Ocean Quarterly, of which he is the editor. Great Ocean Quarterly is an Australian magazine about the sea that was published between 2013 and 2015, covering miscellanea about life around and in the sea, art and culture connected to the sea, and with a distinctly southern hemisphere feeling and aesthetic. It’s a beautiful magazine and a really worthwhile addition to my library, one of those quality publications that, like a good role-playing book, really needs to be held and physically savoured to properly enjoy. I don’t think it’s possible to buy this magazine for love or money, so I count myself very lucky to have stumbled on it when I did (through instagram I think) and to have been able to pick up most of its issues.

It’s probably difficult for non-Australians to understand, given our reputation as uncultured sports jocks, but there is a very distinct aesthetic and sensibility to Australian culture, a sense of style that comes from living in a huge, harsh land near the edge of the world, under a high blue sky and blessed with some of the best weather in the world, where the seasons don’t match the flow of time that our western cultural heritage says they should, and none of the origin stories of the western part of our culture match where we live. It’s a land of washed-out colours, ochres and yellows rather than greens and blues, storms and bright sun rather than rain and snow. If you have left Australia and lived in the north you can definitely feel the huge distance between our Australian sensibility and that of the northern hemisphere, and if you have lived in the old countries – places like Japan and Europe with long histories – you can also feel the huge gaps in our cultural memory, and maybe get some sense of the effect of those gaps on how we think about ourselves and the world.

Serong’s novel Preservation dives straight into one of the bloodiest and most shameful of those gaps, the lost history of the settlement of Australia and the many dark holes left in that history by rapacious westerners burying the bodies of their misdeeds – and the stories that should have been told about what really happened when westerners came here. The novel tells the story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, a ship that was wrecked near Tasmania in the Furneaux islands in 1796. At this time there were no maps of most of Australia, and nobody knew that Tasmania and the mainland were not connected, believing instead there was some kind of bay between what was then called Van Diemen’s Land and the eastern coast. Three of the shipwreck survivors set off by longboat along with 17 Bengali sailors (called Lascars) to cross this “bay” and find help at Port Jackson. However, they were wrecked again at Ninety Mile Beach on the mainland and so set out on foot from there to try and reach the settlement in what is now Sydney. This required 400 km of walking on land no westerner or Bengali had ever set foot on, and only three people survived the journey – one Bengali sailor and two white men, one of whom kept a diary. This novel tells the story of all the gaps in that diary, including how the other members of the expedition died and what really happened when this motley group encountered Indigenous people on the journey.

The story is reconstructed by Joshua Grayling, the governor’s assistant, who shuttles between interviewing the diary keeper, William Clark, the Bengali sailor, Srinivas, and a third survivor, Mr. Figge. It is clear that they all hate each other and that bad things happened on the journey, and Grayling and the governor are both very suspicious of everyone’s story, but they need to find out what happened so they can send a ship for survivors, and as their suspicions grow so that they can decide who to punish. Grayling’s attempts to learn the truth of the journey happen against a backdrop of increasing political tensions within the Sydney colony, his own wife’s growing sickness and her strange fascination with the bush, and growing tensions between white settlers and the Indigenous people around Sydney. Outside the cleared area of the settlement itself the Aboriginal people are beginning to fight back, with famous warriors like Pemulwuy leading attacks against the settlers and striking fear into the hearts of the colonizers; meanwhile, convicts would escape and run away to join the tribespeople, or live wild in the bush. Knowing what we now do, we are aware that stories about William Clark’s encounters with the Aborigines on his way north will affect the way the colony treats them, that lies about their behaviour are too easily believed and misdeeds by white settlers too easily ignored. It also becomes clear that Figge is a uniquely evil man, and that Clark is a dishonest and selfish man with a lot to lose.

The story is a kind of survival horror, with the group unraveling as they head north, various schemes and objectives playing out, and everyone becoming increasingly desperate as their food supplies run low and their clothes, shoes and strength begin to fail. At times the going is quite grim, and there were one or two points where I put the book aside for a few days so I could take a break from the viciousness. I think it’s safe to say that the ending won’t satisfy everyone, and as the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer notes, there are a lot of stories left unfinished, which will leave one pondering what might have been long after the book is put down. There is also a constant sense of dread and looming disaster, even in the bright sun of the colony, so that you never can be sure when, how or if the horrors of the journey are going to be unleashed within the colony itself. If you can’t handle this kind of horror and slow unraveling then this story is definitely not for you, and the violence is neither cathartic nor enjoyable when it happens. Even at its worst though it is well tempered by Serong’s writing, which is rich with descriptions of the Australian bush, terse when it needs to be and expansive when it suits, with a good pace. The story is told from several characters’ point of view but manages to present them – through speech style, perspective and tone – as different voices, something many writers fail at, and an achievement that makes it much easier to immerse oneself in the book. There are jarring moments when I switch to a new chapter, expecting to continue the story of a particular character, and suddenly realize from the change of tone and perspective that I’m someone else – this is good, a sign of a good writer really bringing his characters to life.

Through these characters we learn the true story of the survivors of the Sydney Cove, their interactions with the natives as they traveled north, and what happened in Sydney when they arrived. We also see a vision of how the land was before it was “settled”, and get to imagine how the first Australians dealt with these strange and confusing interlopers before they knew anything about them. There can be no truth about any of this, of course – we don’t know enough about the history of either the early colonists or the Aborigines whose land rights they extinguished to be able to say – but it offers a welcome opportunity to try and imagine that land in that time, and how white settlers presented themselves when they were there. At times it is a grim and nasty read, and it will leave you unsettled, but it is an excellent book and well worth whatever effort you need to make to overcome its harder moments. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is interested in how we can reimagine the gaps in Australia’s past, and people who dream of what might have been.

I have just finished reading The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, by Peter Hessler. I found this book because I stumbled on some tweets of his that suggested he actually had a nuanced view of China, which is highly unusual for a western journalist. He is a journalist working at the New Yorker, who spent several years in Beijing, and this book is his account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which unfolded as he was living and working in Egypt. Hessler is also unusual for a journalist from an elite publication in that he actually learnt the language of the countries he reported on, and attempted to meet people outside the expat bubble, something which is incredibly rare in journalists in Asia and I’d guess (especially now) even rarer in journalists covering the middle east. So I was interested in finding out what he had to say about the Egyptian Revolution, and how he linked it to the archaeology of Egypt’s ancient sites.

The book is divided into three parts, which describe the events immediately leading up to and around the revolution; the fallout and subsequent collapse of that revolution and Morsi’s rule; and then the long-term consequences for Egypt. Through the three parts he weaves together accounts of his own life in Egypt, the lives and tribulations of the Egyptian people he knew, and the things he learnt about the ancient history of Egypt, in particular a specific lost city in the desert that appears to reflect many of the classic mistakes of modern Egypt. This style of storytelling is engaging and interesting but also infuriating, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere at times and you can’t feel that the guy is making a point; as a result I had to go away and come back to this book several times, when my interest in what he was trying to say overcame my frustrations at his failure to get anywhere closer to saying it. I think it’s safe to say that there is very little plot or structure to this book, just a series of anecdotes laid out in approximately temporal order, with some interesting asides.

The most enjoyable part of this storytelling conceit by far is the tales of the Egyptians Hessler meets. He studies Arabic with a man called Rifaat, who is a cynic out of place in modern Cairo, and practices his Arabic with the local waste disposal man, Sayyid. He also gets help in the early years of his stay in Cairo from a gay Egyptian man called Manu, until his Arabic is good enough to work by himself, and also meets people associated with these men. Later on in the story he begins to meet and talk to Chinese lingerie merchants, using his experience of China and Chinese people to learn about Egypt through their eyes. These people are all fascinating individuals, leading complex and compromised lives in the face of a social system that is extremely different to our western ideals, an increasingly authoritarian state, and in Manu’s case the constant threat of physical harm from the extreme prejudice he is constantly exposed to. Some of the people in this story have extremely disappointing, even distressing, endings, and Hessler describes them with sympathy, empathy and care, which makes their stories simultaneously powerful, entertaining, and frustrating, and sometimes ultimately disappointing in different ways. Through them we gain some insight into how Egyptian culture works and how Egyptians view their own problems, and we also get a very personal sense of how the overbearing patriarchy and the increasingly intrusive authoritarianism affect ordinary people’s lives and decisions.

Hessler tells these stories and the experience of the revolution with a genuine respect and empathy for the people involved, and without much of the usual patronizing interventionist snootiness of western journalists reporting on other cultures. He is very clear about his position on various moral issues but does not allow this to cloud his understanding of what these people who grew up in this system believe and think about the world around them. His tone is very much like the tone I am familiar with from foreigners living in Japan who actually love and respect the country but aren’t foolish enough to think that the only way they can fit in here is by being and thinking Japanese: a kind of detached and respectful love and simultaneous exasperation, and an appreciation of how differences can be simultaneously frustrating or crazy but also necessary and beneficial, and enough humility to understand that his own perspective is not universally right or effective. Through this perspective he tries to understand values he doesn’t share, actions he would never take, and decisions that on first blush look completely crazy.

Hessler also approaches the revolution from a relatively open-minded standpoint (for a westerner, and especially an American). He talks to people from all sides of the political battles, and he attempts to identify facts and understand patterns and systems where most journalists would just look for confirmation of their pre-existing biases. Through his careful work we learn that the Muslim Brotherhood was massively overstating its membership and its charitable works; that many Egyptians came to think the Brotherhood was an American plot; that many people in leadership positions on all sides had no plan or system for the revolution; and that much of politics in Egypt did not change with the revolution. We get a street-level view of how mistakes happened and how some decisions and responses were inevitable or uncontrolled, and we see how events or processes that from the outside looked carefully planned and executed were actually happenstance. This is interesting and insightful stuff, and the first time I’ve tried to understand the Arab spring in any detail.

For this insight into the revolution and the stories of the people he knew, this book is definitely worth reading. However, it suffers from a couple of flaws that I think are all too common in journalistic work. First and foremost, just like the other book by a journalist that I recently finished, there is no real conclusion and a poor logical structure. I don’t know what journalists learn at school but a common flaw of opinion and discussion pieces by journalists is that they don’t know how to build up from evidence, using logic, to a conclusion, and this seems to happen in their books too. In this case I don’t necessarily need to see logic or some kind of scientific method of Egyptian revolutionary studies, but I’d at least like a conclusion, and the book just kind of fizzles out without saying anything. Like much of journalistic work, it ends up being a discussion of a big national event through how it affects 3 or 4 random people the journalist knows. That’s a nice story but to my mind it’ s not saying anything. Choose a different 3 or 4 random people and I’d get a completely different set of consequences of the revolution, a different sense of its importance and its effects, and a different understanding of the world. That’s well and good as a story but it’s also very limited as a form of essay about a revolution. I want more! And somehow I don’t get it. The stories get wrapped up but nothing else is finished or even said, in the end. It’s a strange feeling to read 100s of pages of non-fiction and come out having learnt a lot and seen a lot but simultaneously having learned nothing. Kind of like reading a modern newspaper, I guess.

But besides this, and the slightly loose way in which the narratives of the different people and ancient cities intertwine, this book is excellent. It is sensitive to the people, it gives a feeling of being in Cairo without losing the sense of being an outsider, it’s not patronizing or chauvinist, and it gives people outside Egypt an insight into the revolution that is aware of its own limitations, careful about its own subjectivity, but thorough within the limitations of its writers frame and abilities given the context in which he collected his stories. I strongly recommend this book as both a series of biographies, an account of the revolution, and a study of a country. Despite its flaws and its ultimate lack of conclusion, it’s a powerfully empathic discussion of a difficult time that has already been warped into propaganda by western governments and media, its truth lost to time. At least with this book we can dig up a little of the truth, even if only glimpses, and understand something of the archaeology of the revolution, just as its title suggests.

How it should have ended

I just finished reading A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, an entertaining story about the collapse of a small American town by a local journalist, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. It was a fun and engrossing tale with a lot of good points which I really enjoyed reading, but ultimately it failed to live up to its promise, and here I want to explain what was great about it, and why it ultimately failed. Unlike many of my reviews, I think this one is mostly spoiler-free.

The book is a recounting of real events in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire, USA, between about 2004 and about 2018. Grafton is a small rural town in backwater New Hampshire, with a history of opposition to taxes, low property values and rural individualism, and in about 2004 a bunch of libertarian activists decided to take it over in what they called the Free Town Project. This project – which apparently once had a website and a dedicated political program – recognized that the town was politically vulnerable and potentially ideologically sympathetic to their goals, and decided to buy up land, move in, and take over politically. This mean stacking the school board, the local town council, and any other institution that they could democratically invest. They would then implement libertarian policy: defund local government agencies, remove any planning laws and zoning rules, and open the entire town up to the liberating effect of small government politics at its most extreme.

In the book’s telling, as a result of these changes the town’s social services failed, and in the chaos that followed the New Hampshire bear population overran the town, stealing food and terrorizing the locals, killing cats and livestock, and ultimately severely injuring several humans. The bears’ invasion of the town happened slowly, encouraged by poor trash management, ineffective local infrastructure, lack of regulations on how humans and the environment interact, and a breakdown of basic social order which prevented people from living according to common rules. In the book’s telling this is primarily the fault of the libertarian takeover, but I don’t think the book makes the case very strongly, and its disordered framework, combined with a lack of political sense by the writer, means that the libertarians get blamed for the much bigger, much more insidious problems that really drove the confrontation between bears and humans in this small town.

A light-hearted series of anecdotes telling a powerful story

The book is basically a loose history of the town’s last 10-15 years, hung in a fairly loosely-structured way over some key anecdotes from the time when the libertarians invaded. These anecdotes hold up the stories of several key figures in the town’s recent history, either libertarian invaders (like John Connell in the church), libertarian sympathizers (the Barbiarzes), or town residents with various relationships with the bears (like “Doughnut Lady” and Jessica Soule. These people themselves have interesting and sometimes complex back-stories, in some cases having their own part to play in other important historical events (like Soule’s connection to the Moonies). They are often given sympathetic and rich depictions, and their stories, though sometimes sad, are presented relatively objectively. The writing style is light-hearted and chatty, with frequent asides and a careful awareness of the perspectives of everyone involved in the story, including the bears. In this sense I think it is good quality journalistic writing, easy to keep reading and engaging. In between the anecdotes and character histories there are interesting discursions on the politics of the town and the state of New Hampshire, with broader political and economic context presented clearly and simply so that the information is easy to absorb and doesn’t distract from the fundamentally personal nature of the story. Even with obvious arseholes like Redman (or in fact most of the libertarians in the story) it tries to hold off from being openly judgmental or scornful, to the extent for example that the constant threatening, heavily-armed atmosphere of the town is simplified to the concept of Friendly Advice (capitalized), rather than depicted as an openly menacing wild west trashpit (which is what the town seems like to this reader).

This is good work, because what Hongoltz-Hetling is ultimately doing here is telling a story about how a bunch of dickheads walked into town, co-opted its political institutions, destroyed them, physically destroyed the town environs themselves, refused to do anything to help the town or each other, then upped and left the ruins they had created when the going got tough (i.e. when the bears came). They left behind them an elderly, poor and vulnerable population whose social services had been gutted, and whose gardens and roads had become, where they were still passable, dangerous bear-infested wilderness. And make no mistake, a lot of the people described in this book are quite unpleasant: the aforementioned Redman, who can’t shut up and can’t keep his gun in his pants; Pendarvis the paedophile who gets booted out early not because anyone disagrees with his stance on children, but because it’s a bit too publicly embarrassing; John Connell, who took over a 300 year old church, destroyed the local religious congregation and then trashed the church itself; and pretty much everyone involved in the Campfire incident. Other characters, like Doughnut Lady, were at best clueless and at worst actively dangerous, and nobody involved in this story seems to have any sense about how stupid what they’re doing is. It’s really a rogues’ gallery of idiots and arseholes, living in their own filth. Despite this – and the fact that the bears are the most endearing characters in the book – the book manages to keep you involved, and it really is fun to watch, like watching a car crash if the car was full of clowns or something. It’s definitely worth reading, and enough of a page-turner that I tore through it very quickly.

But, it misses the point: through a combination of poor structure and politically naivete typical of journalistic writing, it obscures the real problems in the town, and fails to draw the obvious and deadly important lessons that are there to be learnt if one looks at the story with clear eyes.

The problem of unstructured narrative

There is a timeline and a story in this book, which works something like this: in 2004 a bunch of libertarians took over the town, over time they ground its social services into the dirt, and by 2016 the whole project fell apart and they drifted off to take on other tasks, or died. But within this basic framework there are a lot of stories and events that aren’t clearly placed, and the narrative jumps back and forward in time a lot, so that it is difficult to tell how all the events relate to each other. This isn’t a problem for holding together a fun story (which it definitely does) but it doesn’t help to support the book’s central thesis. For example, it’s not really clear exactly when people turned up and when they left or why, or when exactly key events happened that we are supposed to take as indicators of societal decline or ursine growth. It’s also unclear when exactly the author met these people and where he gets his anecdotes from – it isn’t until the very end of the story for example that we learn he only met the Doughnut Lady in 2016, and it’s not clear how often he met her. A related story takes place in 2017, but somehow through the rest of the book we’re suppose to believe things happened much earlier. The story of Mink the bear (in Hanover) takes place in 2017-2019, while the primary bear situation in Grafton is supposed to have happened in perhaps 2012, after the drought, though it’s not clear. At another point the author pinpoints 2016 as the point where the bears got out of control, and implies it is a state-wide phenomenon, but in other places we’re led to believe it happened much earlier.

This wouldn’t be a problem for a standard story, but it complicates the narrative here because the author is trying to construct a tale of decline linked to the 2004 invasion, but can’t seem to put it all into order so that we can see the degeneration. My suspicion is that this is because the order doesn’t work, and it’s not the libertarians’ fault that the bears got out of control, though they may not have helped. There are bigger problems at play here, but the author has either failed to notice them or did not want to damage his story by telling it properly, and drawing out a darker, much more threatening and much less patriotic story, with much more frightening implications.

The problem of political naivete

In the beginning of the book the author devotes some space to describing Grafton’s long-standing anti-tax atmosphere and its feuds with state and federal authorities over this issue. In other parts of the book he describes New Hampshire’s lax attitude towards regulation and taxation – they have no seatbelt laws, no mandatory car insurance laws, and no sales tax – and at the end he notes the success of libertarians in local and state politics, which did not happen overnight. The obvious sub-text here is that Grafton has never had good social services because it has always been anti-taxation. It has always been poor, and its land values are low, and it has always had poor social services because its residents have always refused to fund them. The libertarians kicked this along a little – probably the Grafton residents by themselves wouldn’t have voted to defund streetlights, for example – but it was always there. And this accelerated defunding of public services comes against the backdrop of a state that refuses taxes, and has the motto Live Free or Die. The problem here isn’t a few libertarians taking over a town, but an entire state that has a long history of libertarian ideology, and more broadly a nation that won’t support social services and won’t accept social responsibility or regulation. Bears are a problem throughout New Hampshire, because Americans refuse to take social responsibility or work together to solve problems, as is now abundantly clear from their absolutely appalling response to coronavirus. The defunding of public services in Grafton is a result of a much longer, slower and more ubiquitous pattern of anti-government, “individualistic” politics that is common throughout the country. It’s just more noticeable in Grafton because Grafton is a poor town in a rich state, and these problems always affect the poor first. That’s why Grafton was dealing with bear attacks on humans in 2012, while Hanover (the rich town that is home to Dartmouth College) only started to notice them after 2017. That’s also why the libertarians targeted Grafton in the first place – they would fail to overturn political structures in a richer and better-connected town, and they guessed that when they arrived.

This isn’t just about a small town either. The behavior of Grafton residents was a microcosm of America’s approach to global warming. They knew what they were doing would cause environmental problems but they kept doing it, and then when the problems began to become evident they refused to take the correct measures or work together to solve it, and then piece by piece the town fell apart. Essentially the people of Grafton became environmental refugees, leaving the town in large numbers since the first bear attack of 2012 and abandoning it to its poorest residents – who of course were then even poorer. This is exactly what is beginning to happen across America, as people who can afford to move abandon low-lying and vulnerable coastal areas or drought-stricken inland areas and move to more climatically viable areas. Yet even as people begin to suffer the consequences of a slow-growing crisis that they were warned about for years, and voted not to stop, they continue to argue against any action to either mitigate or adapt to the coming problems. This is Grafton in a nutshell.

But nowhere in the book does the author discuss this. He does not place Grafton’s libertarian politics within the broader context of Republican politics in America; he doesn’t relate it to climate change at all, or draw the obvious links between the small happenings in Grafton and the larger national and global issues we all face; he doesn’t discuss at all what in America’s culture drives people to this intensely sociopathic politics. He misses the opportunity to really interrogate what is happening at this crucial juncture in global politics. And in this sense he is perfect mirror of American journalism more generally, which consistently fails in its responsibilities, and boils huge global problems down to personality politics, cutesy anecdotes, and debates stripped of context, history or class struggle. Just as his book presents us with the failing of American politics in a microcosm, so his writing presents us with the failings of American journalism in its perfect, decontextualized essence.

This is an excellent book and a fun read, but ultimately it failed to rise to the opportunities the story offered, and is yet another example of the millions of ways that American journalism has failed its own people. Read it if you want to enjoy fun stories about idiots ruining their own lives, but don’t look to it for insight into the political challenges America faces, because that opportunity was missed.

America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.


fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.

 

I have just had a knee reconstruction and have spent the last 6 days wallowing in self-pity in a hospital bed in Tokyo, completing the last (I hope) uglinesses of three months of body horror (report to come). With little else to do I have resorted to Netflix, and of course I have watched Tiger King. So far I have just finished episode 5 (I was distracted by The Innocence Files, which I strongly recommend), but by the end of Episode 5 I was convinced that the main character of Tiger King, Joe Exotic, is very similar to Trump, and his public and political reception in America is an example of why Trump was not an isolated phenomenon. Americans, I think, have a problem with people with narcissistic personality disorders – too many Americans admire them – and are way too easily fooled by conmen. Here, I will explain why I think Joe Exotic is similar to Trump and what his public reception says about Trump’s rise.

First some basic background. Tiger King is a documentary about these super weird Americans who keep big cats as pets and money-machines, in these weird and horribly shitty rural zoos that should be closed down with extreme prejudice. The story is that it was meant to be a doco about one particularly weird and flamboyant member of this strange society, Joe Exotic, but during the making of the doco Joe tried to get a rival killed and so the whole thing spiraled out of control. I haven’t got to that bit yet, but everything leading up to is pretty disturbing. The main character is Joe Exotic, a gay gun-toting zoo owner from Oklahoma who has two husbands (not legally I guess?), both of whom are straight, and has a menagerie of something like 220 lions and tigers that he shows off to the public in flamboyant performances. He makes a lot of his money from cub petting, in which he takes newborn cubs (before the mother can lick them!) and allows customers to snuggle and play with them, until they reach about 12 weeks old, after which he dumps them in the zoo with the rest of the adults, where they become mostly just a financial burden (so he killed them or trafficked them). His opponent is a woman called Carole Baskin who runs a (rather dubious looking!) animal sanctuary for abused big cats, and has spent years trying to shut down Joe’s operation, including using a sneaky (according to the doco!) copyright trick to force him massively into debt. Rumour has it that Baskin killed her first husband and fed him to a tiger, information the doco does very little to dispute even though it seems pretty obvious that her husband was up to something shonky in Costa Rica and probably got himself killed down there. There are a few other tiger owners – one called Antle who has a sex cult and another who is a dodgy former criminal – and there is a ragtag crew of people who work for Joe Exotic and go to enormous lengths for him (one of these, who apparently was misgendered in the doco, lost an arm to a tiger and kept working for Joe). In his little menagerie-kingdom Joe keeps a lot of guns and explosives (he is clearly not one of those super-rare “responsible gun owners” that his libertarian political campaign manager would have us believe is the norm), meth and pot, and a lot of boys toys. In general Joe treats the tigers badly, and his relationship with his cats is emotionally very hot and cold and is basically transactional. They make him money, and he plays with them, but he doesn’t trust them and he doesn’t particularly seem to respect them.

It should be added that this documentary is really not very objective and although it’s great viewing, as a documentary it’s shit. It obviously has taken Joe Exotic’s side (at least in the first 5 episodes) and doesn’t show much objectivity about its subject at all.

So how is Joe like Trump? Let us count the ways:

  • He has the same personality disorders: He obviously has narcissistic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, just like Trump, or as some might put it he has the Dark Triad. His relationships are entirely transactional (he basically buys his straight boyfriend with meth) and everything is all about him. This is most clearly seen at the funeral for his second husband, which he makes all about himself, and the subsequent marriage to his new boyfriend within two months, which he uses to humiliate and break his dead husband’s mother. It’s visible in the way he treats his animals, his insatiable need for fame, the way he treats his staff, and the way every emotion he ever shows is clearly and obviously a performance. He can never be wrong, nothing is ever his fault, and the whole world is out to get him.
  • He is deeply misogynist: The videos he makes of Carole Baskin are really shocking, and he cannot control himself when he is talking about her. Even when he is running a political campaign he is making campaign videos calling her a bitch and a whore, and on his youtube channel he put videos of her as a sex doll being face-fucked with dildos, and being fed to his cats. He has the same reaction to a woman challenging him as Trump does to female journalists.
  • He is messy and disorganized and terrible with money: Just like Trump, he is incapable of running or organizing anything, and only gets anything done because a group of strangely loyal misfits jump at his every order and do everything he wants, even when everything he wants is constantly contradictory and changing. He also obviously can barely keep the farm afloat, where a better manager would turn it into a cash-making machine. Whatever money he does get he squanders on bullshit, like meth and trucks for his straight husbands or guns and ammo. This is no clearer than in the stupid brace he wears on his knee for much of the series – he obviously has not got health insurance and hasn’t paid for it for his staff (likely the real reason Saffer chose to have his damaged arm amputated – with no health insurance he could not pay for the reconstruction surgery). He would rather flamboyantly suffer than buy one less truck a year for one of his husbands and pay for health insurance for himself, let alone his crew.
  • He has dodgy mob connections: He obviously has access to a regular supply of meth, and is able to traffick lions and tigers however he wants, and in the first (?) episode we see him cozying up to a drug dealer who is so shady it’s hard to believe. Not only does he have these dodgy criminal connections, but he also obviously admires them – and they obviously see him as an easy mark.
  • He is an easy mark: Like most of the senior figures in the GOP, while he is running a long con on his friends, associates and supporters, Joe Exotic is also easily being conned by others. He got done like a dinner by the Kirkham guy, and when Jeff Lowe gets to him he is so easily tricked into giving up control of everything. Trump is the same – this is why he is owned by Russia. The biggest con-artists are also the biggest marks.
  • He has no interest in truth: He is a classic bullshitter, just like Trump. Whatever he says is true, and if he contradicts himself two days in a row it doesn’t matter because he does not recognize the difference between truth and lies. Words don’t work for him as they do for us.

So of course, just like Trump he runs for political office. First of all he tries the presidential campaign but then failing that he runs for Governor of Oklahoma, with a libertarian (idiot) for a campaign manager and a platform of low regulation. His platform and campaign imagery are so Trumpian – there’s even a scene where he tells some shlubb that if he is elected there will be “someone as broke as you” in charge, trying to market himself as a man of the people. Unlike Trump he doesn’t win, but he does get 18% of the vote. And when people are interviewed about why they will vote for him they give exactly the same reasons as people give for Trump: he’s just like us, he tells it as it is, he’s not politically correct and that’s good, etc. The interviews with his supporters could have just as easily have been at a Trump rally.

Furthermore, his chief enemy (in business, not politics) is so obviously identifiable as a Hillary Clinton-like figure: an older white woman with a real set of goals, who is methodical and prepared and speaks clearly and with intent, who every single media outlet seems to have described with the same adjectives as Clinton – desperate to be liked, unlikable, untrustworthy, etc.

This is the enduring puzzle of American politics. How could an obvious fraud, grifter, gangster, womanizing rapist psychopath like Trump be popular in America? We see the same thing with Joe Exotic: in a Morning Consult poll of 400 viewers of the show he had the second-highest favorability ratings and Carole Baskin had the lowest, and her husband the second lowest – below a libertard gun nut, a tiger-killing narcissist, his meth-head husband, another tiger trader with five “wives” in a sex cult, a rich fraud from Vegas who uses tigers to fuck models (or at least put their pictures on instagram), and another tiger trader who wishes he could learn how to “control women” the way the sex cult dude does. How do Americans judge older white women on a mission to be at the bottom of this pile?

I previously described the Trump campaign as similar to WWF, a giant fraud that all its fans know is a fraud but love anyway. Tiger King is another insight into this strange cultural phenomenon that seems to be unique to America, where people fall easily for frauds and gangsters and love them even after their obvious shonkiness is revealed. There is nothing authentic or real about Joe Exotic – he is a narcissistic, manipulative and vicious bastard who uses people for his own ends, and has never shown a true part of himself in his life – but despite the rest of the world watching this doco and recognizing this immediately, somehow to Americans he is authentic and serious in a way that a softly-spoken older white woman can never be.

America has a problem with grifters, psychopaths and narcissistic frauds. Too many Americans cannot understand when they’re being taken for a ride, and too many Americans enjoy being fleeced. This is the essence of Republican politics – it’s a giant con job played on people who are eager to be fleeced by men the rest of the world would not consider fit to lick our boots. It’s terrifying, and if Americans can’t break out of this strange fugue state and start understanding the way they’re being conned, their country is done for.

It’s that time of year again, where I hate -watch the latest Star Wars dump so that you, my dear reader(s), don’t have to. I’m a little late to the party because I was on holiday and had much better things to do with my time than watch a shit movie for this blog[1], so sorry for those of you who already wasted your money on this stinker. This review isn’t going to be quite as expletive-laden as my review of the pile of shit that was The Last Jedi, but that’s because this movie was mostly just disappointing, overblown rubbish, not earth-shatteringly bad.

This review will contain extensive spoilers, so if you really do want to subject yourself to this masochistic annual ritual, don’t read past this paragraph. In this paragraph I present a spoiler-free assessment of the movie, to encourage you to wait until it’s on free-to-air TV. Basically, this movie was boring, insipid and lacking in any real sense of direction. The whole thing was weighed down by all the woeful decisions made in the previous one, and by the ruinous changes to the Star Wars universe that one introduced. It was also weighed down by bad casting decisions made years ago, and by the fact that JJ Abrams is an utterly shit director. It has some nice set pieces but they can’t hold your attention as they should because it’s impossible to bring yourself to care about these people or this story. It’s a washout, and I’m glad the whole sorry travesty has finally come to its ridiculous end.

So now to the part of the review with spoilers.

Why do I care about these people?

The first and biggest problem with this movie – and with so much of modern American cinema, actually – is that I just can’t bring myself to care about any of these people (okay, maybe Chewie and BB8, but no one else). They are just the worst, most boring, most anodyne characters I have seen in an action movie in so long. Sure, Rey is significantly improved from the useless whining loser she was in The Last Jedi, but that just means she has ascended to the level of boring. All the spice in her character in The Force Awakens has been leached out and replaced with, well, with nothing. Finn is a complete waste of space, Rose seems to exist only to worry about Finn (why would she?), there is some old lady who is in a few scenes who kisses another girl who I guess I’m supposed to care about (was she Dorn in the previous one? I can’t tell because these people are so boring that they all look the same). Even the supposedly quirky aliens – like Babadook or whatever the stupid little rat thing was called – are just quirky aliens out of central casting, stereotypes done boringly. Compared to every alien in this movie Ja Ja Binks is a miracle of acting and character development. The cast also acted very poorly – the actors playing Poe Dameron and Rose were super wooden, but everyone was pretty bad – which is really bad when they’re also delivering a bad script in a plot that doesn’t work. Within seconds of coming onscreen for their first introduction every character is reduced to empty nothingness, by a lethal combination of poor script, poor acting and poor character vision. Look at Hux as an example: an Aryan icon giving vaguely meaningful fascist speeches in The Force Awakens gets shot for the most pathetically-acted attempt to lie I have ever seen on screen, an effort that would have made Weasley in the first Harry Potter movie look like the Arch Deceiver himself. And Hux was played by a decent actor! I guess it’s just impossible for them to even give a shit by now, and so why should I?

Poe Dameron needs to die

Poe Dameron was a central problem in The Last Jedi, and he’s absolutely awful in this. I can’t understand why I’m supposed to care about Poe Dameron, or indeed how I can support the Rebel Alliance at all when he’s hanging around it. I would absolutely unleash the Final Order ships on every planet in the universe if it would scrub the universe clean of that man. He’s awful, the worst stereotype of the American jock-hero, with the added crapitude of being absolutely shit at everything he does. In The Last Jedi he single-handedly brought the Rebellion to the edge of ruin, through refusing to behave like a soldier, but somehow in this movie instead of being spaced or fed to the Sarlak in the first scene he is a fucking general, and now everyone has to follow his stupid plans that invariably fail. He – and I guess the director – thinks he’s funny and rogueishly charming but he never does or says a single funny or charming thing, even with the masked chick he just comes across as a sleazy failure (of course we learn that he betrayed and failed his previous gang too). What a piece of shit that character is – and what a piece of shit the director is for assuming we are going to find any fellow-feeling with this worthless scumbag.

The sputtering plot turns

This movie was stupidly long, and a big part of the reason it was stupidly long was that the heroes would be halfway through executing a plan when a fundamental plank of the plan fell apart, so then they have to quickly make another plan to achieve the same objective, and then again, and so on. This meant that a bunch of things happened that just didn’t need to happen, for no apparent reason connected to the overall plot. Or, the heroes would do a thing to achieve a thing, and then something would turn up that meant the goal they achieved was no longer needed. A prime example is the wayfinder, which the heroes spent half the movie looking for just to have Emo Ren smash it, so then Rey just stole his ship. Seems to me like a big chunk of the movie could have been dropped and I could have gotten out of that shitshow about an hour earlier if they hadn’t done that useless quest. Sure I’d have missed the cool scenes on the ruins of the Death Star (just about the only good setting in this movie) and the Big-Haired Black Chick (who I think gave her name only at the end of the movie but I missed it because I was being utterly floored by the sleazy way Lando Calrissian basically made a move on her right there), who was the only cool character in this whole movie. But I’m willing to make the sacrifice if a) this movie can have a bearable length and b) this movie can have a functional plot.

This thing of wasted sacrifices is pretty common in American movies, and it really shits me. The characters spend an hour chasing down an important goal and then it is rendered useless, and I’m meant to somehow maintain a healthy attitude towards the director? The best example of this in history of course is Titanic, where the whole story turns out to have been a complete fucking waste of time. Why would any director think it’s cool to do this to the audience? Ask JJ Abrams I guess because it happened regularly in this movie.

The incredibly stupid plans

I don’t want to sound like a hero or anything, but if I am ever taken captive by a pack of shitstains and held in an impregnable fortress, and you my dear reader(s) are on a mission to save the galaxy, could you maybe consider not putting the entire mission on hold to save my worthless arse? Even if I have somehow managed to graduate to being as charming as Chewie? Just leave me to die and go save the galaxy. Yeah I’ll blame you later, but whatever, you’ll be up to your necks in whatever gender of eager supplicants you want after you become galaxy-saving heroes, and you’ll soon find a way to fuck away the guilt. Don’t do what the idiots in this movie did, and go running to rescue your friend for no reason! And if you do, try to come up with a plan better than “we’ll land in the space ship and start shooting.” That’s not a plan. Oh! Of course Poe Dameron thought of it, so I guess we have to pretend it was a stroke of genius. Just like his plan to take on the largest battle fleet the galaxy has ever seen: take a handful of ships into the middle of the fleet and hope some more will join you later.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to have a movie centred around stupid plans – when you think about it Aliens was a series of increasingly dumb and desperate plans – but it needs to have some other redeeming feature. The original Star Wars movies had fresh ideas and good characters with a tight script, and weren’t exhaustingly long. Here we have boring characters led by an utter shitstain[2], repeatedly fucking up the simplest tasks and taking reckless and irresponsible risks in the middle of a galaxy-threatening event. This is not the recipe to an enjoyable movie!

The power creep

It’s a kind of joke that in each movie the Death Star is bigger than the previous one, and still stupidly easy to blow up, but there is a bigger problem in these movies, that each iteration of the saga we find the ships are bigger, the powers more extensive, and the stakes exponentially higher. We see this power creep in many ways in this movie: the vast Final Order fleet, that just appeared out of nowhere; the sudden revelation that there is a whole planet of Sith; the way that force ghosts can now raise spaceships from the ocean; the use of the Force to, amongst other things, stop spaceships flying or use lightning bolts to wipe out a whole fleet; the deployment of a gun that can kill planets, as ubiquitous now as artillery; the ability of force users now not only to project their image across the galaxy but to interact physically with the location they send their ghost to. It all just keeps escalating, and we the audience get decreasingly emotionally invested in every victory and every defeat. It also seems that with every step in power things also become noticably more fragile: the star destroyers can be blown apart simply by shooting the big planet-killer guns; the bridge of the flagship can be completely destroyed with light artillery; the entire fleet is rendered useless if a single transmitter is knocked out; and so on. There’s no coherence to the power steps, and with each revelation of a new level of power there is a decreasing sense of threat for us the viewers, since we’re so used to everything becoming bigger and nastier, and simultaneously more vulnerable. It’s just puff, useless decoration to hide the fact that there’s nothing underneath the story, nothing to carry the movie.

The problem of hyperspace skipping

So the Final Order have somehow procured a fleet so vast it has enough spaceships to bring every planet in the galaxy to heel, every ship so big and nasty it can kill a planet if the planet doesn’t surrender completely. Very Genghis Khan, much fearsome! Except … there is a super simple way to end this entire strategy. You simply place an old and decrepit ship in orbit of each planet, and when the Final Order ship arrives you just point your ship at it and go into hyperspace. We saw in the Last Jedi that this previously unheard-of strategy enables a small ship to completely destroy a star destroyer. Worse still, these Final Order ships are vulnerable to having their planet-killer guns hit[3], so even a tiny ship capable of hyperspace travel will be sufficient to get the job done – it doesn’t have to be even the size of a Rebel cruiser. We also know that this power move hasn’t been retconned out of the movie, because Poe Dameron uses it in the Millenium Falcon in the first 10 minutes of the movie, to break through an ice wall[4].

So why do I give a fuck about the Final Order fleet, the entire dramatic tension at the centre of this movie? I just don’t care, because in the previous movie these chuckleheads came up with a 100% plot-killing idea that has retroactively fucked the story of every fucking movie in the entire series. What a pack of amateurs.

The stupid rewrites of past decisions

Although JJ Abrams was too stupid to retcon the Hyperspace skip out of his movie, he did make a few efforts to get rid of or explain some of the other dumb-arsed decisions Rian Johnson made, though it didn’t help. We have a training scene where Leia’s Jedi past is explained (spoiler: it isn’t explained, because nothing can explain the awful decision to ruin her character by making her a Jedi); Emo Ren remakes his stupid helmet so he looks even dumber than he did before, like he spilled redbull on his helmet or something; Palpatine is back, because the final confrontation of every trilogy needs a Sith Lord and Rian Johnson stupidly killed Snooky boy back in the last movie; and a few other minor concessions to fandom or to criticisms of some of Rian Johnson’s more bizarre decisions. These just make it seem like the whole trilogy was a dumb dick-swinging contest between directors, and serve to break us out through the fourth wall (though none as badly and awkwardly as the stupid fucking festival of ancestors – see below). They remind us that more than anything else, this is no longer a Saga but a franchise (how I fucking hate that word when it is applied to cultural products), a business whose managing directors have been at odds over the past few years, but which we are now assured has been settled down and is back to sensible business practice. Yuck.

The awful idea of Rey’s parents

I’ve been waiting for the bullshit reveal about who Rey’s parents were and why they matter. It turns out that she is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, because everything in this stupid series has to be some kind of petty family drama, and only rich people matter. So she wasn’t a nobody as told by Emo Ren in the second movie (shock!), so another decision had to be retconned, but whatever. The return of Palpatine was such a dumb idea, and a sign that these writers have no original ideas at all, though I guess it’s better than having a Sith Lord called Snooky Boy, which is the kind of name you give to your dog when it’s being cute, not to a giant force-wielding pscyhopath with very poor recruitment practices. It was also revealed very poorly, and a confusing story revealed quickly with no real sense of meaning or gravity to it. Who cares anyway? It’s been five hours of cinema since we last saw any spark in Rey’s character, so by the time we find out she’s descended from the last good character to die in any of these movies we don’t really care anyway. I think soon after we find this out she dies and gets resurrected by more magic force powers that never used to exist, so it doesn’t really matter. And then at the end of the movie she calls herself Skywalker, probably because the original idea was that she was Luke’s daughter but Rian Johnson fucked all that up. So now this movie also has a completely misleading name – Skywalker died in the last movie and there is no Skywalker to rise, just as the entire second movie was about two Jedi, not the last Jedi. Maybe these guys can’t count, as well as being unable to write.

If Rey’s parents had genuinely been nobodies at least she would have had at least one redeeming feature, but no.

The unseemly arrogance of the Festival of the Ancestors

The first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, and so the entire shabby saga comes to a close here with this shambling boring wreck of a movie in 2019, 42 years later. At one point in this movie our heroes arrive on a planet that is having a festival of ancestors, which only happens every 42 years and is super special and we are told by C3P0[5] is a very rare and important event that we are privileged to see. This is obviously a meta-reference to how this final movie in the trilogy is super important and special and is a festival of the original movie and carries on in its tradition.

Fuck off already, you fuckheads. What an awful, arrogant, stupid and shallow little reference. Everyone involved in making this movie – and the previous one – should hang their heads in shame. You are reprehensible, and you should never be allowed to make another movie.

Conclusion

There are lots of other things wrong with this movie – minor things like how did Lando Calrissian manage to muster up a fleet of thousands of ships from hundreds of star systems in just a couple of hours – but I can’t go exhaustively through all the myriad failings in this and the other recent movies. I think though that it’s enough to say that there are really very few redeeming features in this movie, nothing really to make it worth watching and certainly nothing to salvage the flaming wreckage of this series. The original three movies were fun, charming and exciting, with fresh ideas and a lot of really good acting and writing, but they have been well and truly betrayed by everything that came after them. It’s a shame: the Star Wars universe is rich and diverse and holds a lot of opportunities for good stories, as we saw in Rogue One; but the main story has been wrecked beyond recognition, and all the charm of the original vision has been buried under a mound of bullshit. There is nothing left in this series, and every additional movie is just going to further poison the already much-corrupted legacy of its original stories. Disney need to take this franchise (oh how I hate using that word to refer to cultural product) out the back of the studios and put a bullet in its head. The best option for this decrepit old series now is a quick and painless death, before any other creepy Hollywood Directors further abuse its corpus.

I won’t be watching any more of the main series, and I recommend you do the same. These directors have ruined a once great thing, and they will probably continue to do so. But we don’t have to help them do it.


fn1: For example, reading shitty economic “mathematics” on the plane, in preparation for a post on the disaster that is “analysis” in mathematical economics, oh I do have such a fun life!

fn2: How did Poe get to be leader, btw? Leia was in charge in the second movie, and now suddenly this idiot is running the show. If ever there was a model for a shitty white man failing up, Poe is it.

fn3: Somewhat tragically, these guns hang under the ship like a massive cock, so it’s exactly like kicking the ship in the balls.

fn4: Apparently this strategy destroys Rebel cruisers but barely scratches the Falcon, who knew?

fn5: Who, fair play, is mildly enjoyable in this movie, especially after he loses his memory

The UK General Election has just finished, with Labour losing badly to Boris Johnson’s Brexit-fetishizing Tories. The media are describing Labour’s loss as the worst since 1935, which is true if you look at seats lost but not at the vote – with 32.2% of the vote share it’s the best result for a losing Labour party since 1992, and although the swing against Labour was very large – 7.2% – this is partly because the previous share of the vote that Labour achieved, at 40%, was phenomenally high – Blair only beat 40% once, and many post-war Labour governments have ruled a majority with a much lower share of the vote than Corbyn achieved in 2017.

In the early post-election recriminations people are laying the fault entirely at the feet of Corbyn and the Labour manifesto, but I’m not convinced that a different leader or a less radical manifesto could have helped. The 2019 election was a historic election, similar to the 1945 election, with a huge decision about the future of the UK to be made and a major recent event hanging over the election. In the 1945 election the huge decision to be taken was the establishment of the modern welfare state, and the recent event was the war. In the 2019 election the decision is Brexit, and the EU referendum is the major event overshadowing the election.

This Brexit issue overshadowed the whole election, and in this blog post I will show that it had a huge impact on the Labour vote, which made this election almost impossible for the Labour party to lose. I will show this using a statistical analysis of 2019 election results.

Methods

I obtained 2017 election results and 2015 EU Referendum results from the UK Parliamentary Research Briefings website. I merged these data sets together using ONS ID (the unique number that identifies parliamentary constituencies) so that I had the percentage of each constituency that voted leave in 2016, and their 2017 election results, in one dataset. I then conducted a semi-random sample of the 2019 General Election results using the BBC Election results website. The sample was semi-random because there is no publicly available official dataset at this stage, so I had to enter them by hand looking at each constituency in turn on the BBC website[1]. I started by ordering my dataset by constituency name from A-Z and working sequentially through them on the assumption that I have limitless patience and 10 hours of my life to give to this, but gave up somewhere around “D” and took a random sample of another 100 or so constituencies. Because names are approximately random, this means I have 200 or so approximately random samples from the first stage, and another 100 or so genuinely random samples from the second stage. I may have had a hangover, but there are limits to how much time and effort I am willing to put into rescuing the UK Labour party from bad analysis!

I dropped Northern Ireland from my analysis because a) I don’t understand their political parties b) Sinn Fein’s decision not to enter parliament is weird and c) Northern Ireland should be part of Ireland, not the UK. I kept Scotland but excluded it from some of my figures (see specific figures for more details). I excluded the Speaker’s seat (which was Labour) from analyses of the Labour swing because there was no opponent so the swing was weird; I also excluded another Labour seat with a very high positive swing from these analyses, and dropped one Conservative seat (Buckingham) with the same problem.

Once I had done this I then calculated the swing against Labour, Lib Dems and Tories by subtracting their 2017 result from their 2019 result. I confirmed this works by comparing calculated Labour swing with actual Labour swing from the BBC website (which I entered as I went through my semi-random sampling). I obtained Brexit party vote shares from the BBC website, leaving this field blank if the Brexit party did not stand a candidate[2].

I then conducted several linear regressions of the swing:

  • A linear regression of conservative party swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Labour party swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Lib Dem swing as a function of leave vote in the EU Referendum
  • A linear regression of Labour party swing as a function of Brexit party vote

For all regressions I tested a quadratic term in leave vote, and I included a term for whether the constituency was in Scotland or Wales. I included a term for whether or not the constituency experienced a Brexit party challenge in the first three regressions, and tested an interaction with leave vote. I dropped any non-significant terms in order of their non-significance to get the best model. I also centered the EU referendum vote at its median (53.5% of people voting to leave), so that the constant term in all linear regressions measured the swing against the party in question in the median leave-voting seat.

I then obtained predicted values from all regressions to include in the plots of the swing against the leave vote or the Brexit party vote. Brexit party vote is effectively being used here as a proxy for Labour voters’ decision to abandon Labour over Brexit. I did not model the relationship between swing against Labour and Brexit vote because I think this swing is the Brexit party’s fault, but because I expect it represents the likelihood that Labour voters abandoned Labour over Brexit. One might suppose they abandoned Labour for Tory over general policy, or because they respect BoJo, but the only reason for abandoning to the Brexit party is Brexit, and so this acts a proxy for the possibility that they also jumped ship to the Tory party over Brexit. Because the Brexit party only stood candidates in Labour-held constituencies it is impossible to test what might have happened if the Brexit party stood against a Tory incumbent.

Results

I had data on 341 constituencies, just over half of all eligible constituencies. Among these 341 constituencies 146 (43%) had a Brexit party challenger. Of the 142 seats that were Labour held in 2017, 112 (79%) survived to be Labour-held in 2019. None of the 199 non Labour-held seats in my dataset switched to Labour in 2019. The mean swing against Labour in seats it held was 8.7%, and the mean swing against it in seats it did not hold was 7.5%.

Let us consider the relationship between the swing against Labour and the Brexit vote in seats where it was challenged by this party. Figure 1 shows the swing against Labour in England plotted against the proportion of the vote that the Brexit party won, with the predicted trend in the swing from my final regression model. The final regression model explained 54% of the variation in the swing against Labour, included a quadratic term for the Brexit vote, and included significant terms for Scotland (a 3.5% larger swing against Labour) and Wales (a 2.2% smaller swing against Labour). The intercept term in this model was -3.8, which indicates that in the absence of a Brexit party challenge these seats would have seen a mean swing against Labour of about 3.8% (95% confidence interval 2.6% to 5.0%). In this counter-factual[3], most of these seats would not have changed hands if there was no Brexit party challenge.

Figure 1: Russian Ratfuckery, in its most exquisite form

It is very clear from Figure 1 that the Brexit party had a massive impact on the Labour vote, pulling it down by a huge amount in the seats where they ran a candidate. The Brexit party did not win a single seat in this election, but they cost Labour a lot of seats. Once again, Farage had a huge impact on British politics without ever sitting in parliament. In some of the northern seats the Brexit party got a huge share of the vote, and it is very likely that almost all of it came from Labour. In the seats with a middling Brexit vote, between perhaps 5 and 15% of the total vote, Labour lost between 10 and 20% of the vote share. I think this is a strong indicator that Labour was bleeding votes due to Brexit.

We can confirm this by examining the relationship between the swing against Labour and the proportion of the electorate who voted for leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Figure 2 shows the swing against Labour in England and Wales plotted against the leave vote, separately for constituencies with a Brexit party challenger (red) and those without a Brexit party challenger (blue). Most seats with a Brexit party challenger were Labour seats, while those without a challenger were mostly Tory. The blue and red lines show the predicted swing against Labour from my linear regression model, which explains 39% of the variation in the swing against Labour. This model had a term for Scotland (which had a 2.4% larger swing against Labour), a quadratic term for the leave vote, and an additional effect on the swing due to the leave vote in areas with a Brexit challenger. In the median 2016 EU referendum leave-voting constituency, the swing against Labour was 6.5%, and this was 2.1% higher in seats with a Brexit challenger.

Figure 2: Relationship between the swing against Labour and the leave vote

It is clear from Figure 2 that the swing against Labour was smaller in seats with a Brexit party challenger that voted to remain in the EU. In seats not held by Labour, the swing against Labour was larger in seats that were either strong leave-voting seats or strong remain seats. In these seats – the seats Labour had to win to win government – Labour was being squeezed in both strongly remain and strongly leave seats. In the seats Labour already held (mostly with a Brexit party challenger), or that it did not hold but faced a Brexit party challenger and a Lib Dem or SNP incumbent, the party faced intense pressure due to brexit. In seats it held that had a large leave vote Labour was completely smashed. These seats are mostly in the famed “red wall”, the northern seats that Labour has always been able to rely on. Note the largest positive swing to Labour occurred at about the median leave vote, between 45 and 55.

An interesting phenomenon in this election is the failure of the conservatives to gain a large swing from Labour. The national swing against Labour was 7.9%, but the conservatives only gained a 1.2% swing. The primary beneficiaries of that swing were the Lib Dems and the Brexit party. Of course, these national figures hide major variations within constituencies, which are easy to see if we look at the swing to the Tories at the constituency level. Figure 3 shows the swing to/against the conservatives in England, plotted against the leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum. Red points are points where there is a Brexit party challenger, and blue points are those without a Brexit party challenger (mostly Tory-held seats) At the median leave vote my model estimated a swing to the Tories of 1.3%, with a further swing to them of 1.4% in Wales. This model included a quadratic term in the leave vote, and explained 57% of the variance in the Tory swing.

Figure 3: Observed and predicted swing to the conservative party, by EU referendum leave vote

It is noteworthy that in the seats that voted to remain the Tories experienced a swing against them of as much as 10%, but in the strong leave-voting seats they experienced a huge swing to them. This swing was larger in seats without a Brexit party challenger, presumably because there was no Brexit party to absorb the leave sentiment, but even in pro-leave constituencies with a Brexit party challenger the Tories gained a very large swing. Note, however, that in some pro-leave seats there was a swing against the Tories where there was a Brexit party challenger. These were Labour seats that saw all their pro-leave vote go to the Brexit party. But in pro-leave seats with no Brexit party challenger – the seats that Labour needed to win to form government – there was a consistent large swing to the Tories. We again see here the value of Farage’s decision to stand candidates only in Labour seats.

Finally let us consider the role of the Liberal Democrats, the greatest frauds in modern politics, in destroying the UK. Figure 4 shows the swing to or against the Lib Dems in England, plotted against the 2016 EU referendum leave vote, with the predicted swing from my regression model. Again, red points are for seats with a Brexit party challenger (Labour- or Lib Dem-held seats) and blue points are for seats without a Brexit party challenger (mostly Tory-held seats). This model has no quadratic term for the leave vote: in non-Brexit party seats every percentage point increase in the leave vote was associated with a swing against Lib Dems of 0.2%, but in seats with a Brexit party challenger this swing was only 0.1%. At the median leave vote the Lib Dems experienced a swing towards them of 6.0%, reducing to 2.8% in seats without a Brexit party challenger. Scotland and Wales saw large reductions in this swing to the Lib Dems, of 5.3% in Scotland and 2.1% in Wales. Basically, the Lib Dems performed best in Labour seats in England that voted to remain in 2016. In these seats the swing against the Labour party was often almost entirely towards the Lib Dems. This model explained only 29% of the variance in the swing, probably because the Lib Dems win by very local-specific campaigns, not so strongly affected by national factors.

Figure 4: Look at these arseholes spoiling the Labour vote

Note that in some Tory-held remain seats (the blue dots to the left of the figure) the Lib Dems had huge swings to them, but in many seats they did not win. A good example of this is Cities of London and Westminster, which was Tory before this election and did not have a Brexit Party challenger. The Lib Dems fielded Chuka Umunna, a class traitor who abandoned Labour to join TIG, then jumped ship from them to join the Lib Dems, natural home of fickle and untrustworthy people. He won 30.7% of the vote, scoring a swing to the Lib Dems of 19.6%. This enabled the Tories to hold this seat with just 39.9% of the vote, against Labour’s 27.2%. Had he not stood, it is possible that a large proportion of that vote might have gone to Labour. In the seat he used to represent for Labour, Streatham, Labour held on despite a surge of 17.0% in the Lib Dem vote (this seat is not in my data set so you can’t find it in Figure 4). Cities of London and Westminster voted 28.1% leave in the EU referendum, making it one of the least leave-voting seats in the country; Streatham voted 20.5% leave, making it the second least Brexity in the country. Thanks to Chuka’s “efforts”, the citizens of both these seats will now have to leave the EU.

What it all means

These figures and the associated regression models should make very clear that Labour was screwed by Brexit. The Tories scored huge swings in pro-leave seats, which shored up their vote in seats that Labour had to win and forced Labour to defend seats it could normally rely on. Worse still, Farage’s decision to stand Brexit party candidates only in Labour seats meant that Labour lost large numbers of voters to this no-good Russian con-job, while also facing defection to the Tories. At the remain end the Lib Dems were stealing their votes, so they were bleeding votes at both ends of the leave spectrum. The only way they could have averted this problem would have been to go to the election with a full-throated Brexit strategy – a Lexit manifesto – which would have shored up the red wall and ensured they didn’t lose many of those seats. However, even if this had been successful in the North, it would have cost seats in the cities, where the Lib Dems would have stolen many seats. This is worse than useless, since we know from experience that if they have the choice the Lib Dems will betray the country to the Tories, and will never form a government with Labour.

I don’t think a Lexit strategy would even have been that successful. Just as when Labour goes full racist, the people they’re trying to win back just don’t believe it, and vote for the Tories anyway. Had Corbyn gone to the election with a full-throated Lexit manifesto a lot of the people he was trying to convince would have assumed he was lying, and he would have lost the northern voters anyway, at the cost of the cities and the youth vote. Jo Swinson truly could have become PM!

Given this squeeze I think Corbyn made a sensible decision to run on a big left-wing manifesto and try to make the election about something other than Brexit. This was especially important given the Labour position on Brexit was consistently misrepresented by the media. I saw multiple media figures on Twitter claiming Labour did not support free movement (they did; it was in the manifesto) and saying their position on Brexit was “too complicated” (it wasn’t: they were going to negotiate a good deal and put it to a referendum). Given this their best bet was to try and turn the debate to one on honesty, the NHS, poverty and inequality. I think this is wise messaging and important: the UK is heading into the abyss, and at some point the Labour party is going to have to save the UK from ruin, so why not make this point at a time when you can’t win the Brexit debate?

I think it’s also important to consider what would happen if the party had made a choice to go full Remain or full Lexit. In the former case they’re abandoning their northern seats, telling them that they don’t care about their concerns and won’t listen to their democratic voice. In the latter case they’re abandoning young people, who are much more likely to be Labour supporters, and telling them they will destroy their future. Given that the future is all that young people in the UK have, this is political suicide. The only way to square this circle is to present a policy that offers hope to both these core groups. Labour is the party of the urban poor, industrial labour and young people, but when these three constituencies have radically different demands on the overwhelming issue of the time it’s impossible for Labour to win.

If Labour failed in this election I think it was in failing to convince the electorate of the value of their Brexit policy. But given they weren’t able to express it without the media mangling it and misrepresenting it, and given how dishonest and vicious the campaign was, I don’t see how any other leader could have done better. Even if you credit the notion that Corbyn is hugely unpopular, and assume some part of the swing was hatred of this genuinely decent guy, it makes no difference: the figures I’ve shown here make clear that Labour were fucked no matter who their leader was and what their manifesto was. This was a Brexit election, and the Tories are obviously the party of Brexit.

Three years after he exploded the Brexit bomb, and 30 years after he face-fucked a dead pig so he could win Johnson’s approval, David Cameron has achieved what he originally intended: the destruction of the Labour party by unleashing a racist monster in the UK. History will not judge any of these awful men well.

Where to now for the Labour party?

I think the Labour party should keep Corbyn and keep his manifesto. They aren’t going to win with another Blairist monstrosity – Ed Milliband tried that in 2015 and was sunk by a viciously anti-semitic media campaign that portrayed him as a Jewish communist with dual loyalties[4] who can’t eat a bacon sandwich. By the time the next election comes around the world is going to be desperate, trapped in the throes of global warming and looking for new ways out. Why throw away what the country needs? This election Labour’s manifesto was the best and most inspiring left-wing project in the UK for 30 years, and it was right. Jeremy Corbyn is right – he won the arguments. He just couldn’t beat Brexit.

I have seen rumours that some on the Labour right were cheering when MPs lost their seats. I have seen in the media and on Twitter Corbyn’s old enemies in the Labour party gloating over the Tory victory, laughing at the Labour movement’s disappointment and salivating at their chance to retake control of the party. Perhaps they envisage another illegal war, where they can kill another million muslims? Or perhaps they look forward to palling around with rich non-doms, being “intensely relaxed about people being filthy rich”. Oh, the larks! These people are not part of the labour movement. They’re scabs, and their obvious joy at this defeat is disgusting. They need to leave the movement, and leave it to those British people who actually want to save the country from ruin. During this period of reflection, we should be clear: it was Brexit that defeated Labour at this election, and the direction it was headed under Corbyn is the only future for Britain other than ruin. So these scabs need to get out of the party and leave it for people who actually care about the future of the UK and the future of the world.

Once Brexit is past, and these class traitors are out of the labour movement, we can hold the Tories responsible for what they have done. We couldn’t beat Brexit, but we can hold its architects responsible for the great evil they have perpetrated on ordinary British people.


fn1: It’s okay, I had a hangover and nothing better to do on Saturday

fn2: Or “chump”, to use the preferred terminology for these sad-sacks

fn3: Which is bullshit

fn4: Oh the irony …

In April 2018 I was struck by Ramsay-Hunt syndrome, and half my face was paralyzed. For about two months I had to somehow struggle through a new job with my face sliding off and my entire body completely exhausted and stricken with pain. I recovered over the following year until my face was about (in my estimation) 90-95% better, and probably no long term consequences. Then two weeks ago this awful condition hit me again, though this time I felt it coming, got the treatment early, and avoided any serious trouble. After this last 18 months of face-eating hell, I feel like I’m an experienced Ramsay-Hunter, but when I was trying to understand this disease last year I found precious little information on the internet about it. So, I have decided to use this blog for what blogs are good for, and to give my experience of Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome, as well as some suppositions and general suggestions for dealing with it based on what I experienced, my own hazy research and discussions with different people. Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome (hereafter referred to as RHS) has a very wide range of effects, if the internet is to be trusted, and a lot of them are pretty subtle and unpleasant. So I’d like to outline here what I experienced, some things I think about the disease based on my experience, and some stuff I picked up around the internet. To be clear if you read on: I am not a doctor, I have no medical advice for you, and if you’re coming to me for medical advice you’re in a dire place. This is just my experience, and you should not use it as anything except supportive anecdotal knowledge. Nonetheless, I hope it will help you. If you have experienced RHS yourself and want to add your own experiences in the comments, or are experiencing it and have questions (or want reassurance) then please also comment.

What is this godawful disease?

Ramsay-Hunt Syndrome is basically shingles inside your face. It is caused by Herpes Zoster (shingles) which is a consequence of being infected with chicken pox when you were a child. Basically the chicken pox reactivates, but instead of coming back as an intensely painful rash on your skin (as happens with most people) it comes back as a vicious, cruel, and completely godless infection of your facial nerve. Once it gets its hooks in it does the following things:

  • It causes intense pain in the back of your neck/head/jaw, that is like no other pain you have experienced
  • It causes a rash in one of your ears and/or your tongue
  • It paralyzes half of your face so that nothing moves. Nothing.

This facial paralysis is the worst part of the disease, because it completely disables half of your face, which makes speaking and eating difficult, and also stops you closing your eye[1].

There is no cure for this disease, because it’s one of the herpes family, a cluster of diseases that were designed by satan to annoy human beings. It is easily treated into remission however using acyclovir, an anti-viral drug. If you’ve had cold sores or genital herpes then you’ll probably be familiar with this family of stupid little viruses and their treatments.

Chickenpox is very common, since the vaccine was only available in 1984 and isn’t on the mandatory vaccination schedule of many countries. So if you’re older than about 38 years old chances are you had it, and if you are younger than 38 but from one of the many countries that don’t (or didn’t) have the vaccine in their schedule you may well have had it. If you’re like me you carry the scars of that idiot little disease on your face, but if you don’t have the scars you may not remember if you ever had it, in which case check with your parents. You need to know what’s coming for you.

The common view seems to be that RHS is triggered by stress, just as shingles is. So if you had chickenpox as a kid there’s basically only one way to prevent it: don’t get stressed. Hrmph!

Also RHS is not the same as Bell’s Palsy. Bell’s palsy is a sudden paralysis of the facial nerve, but it doesn’t come with the rash and intense, unrelenting pain, and it doesn’t do the other dodgy shit that RHS prides itself on (see below). I had Bell’s Palsy about 20 years ago, probably as a result of stress in combination with some stupid infection. Bell’s Palsy is a walk in the park compared to RHS.

What happened to me?

So let’s describe my experience. I was just finishing an extremely stressful job where I had been bullied for years by the most vicious pig of a man you can conceive of, and had secured a new job. I was taking a few weeks off and exercising daily, doing two hour morning kickboxing sessions. One Friday in mid-March I visited my new employer to fill in some forms and was informed that my job was guaranteed and I would definitely be starting on 1st April. When I left the workplace I could feel the stress falling off of me like water, and my spirits uplifted, really uplifted, for the first time in a long time. Since I had been training all week I was tired and I had muscle pain in my left shoulder but I didn’t think much of it.

On Saturday morning I woke up relatively early to go to role-playing, and noticed in the bathroom mirror that my eye and face was a bit weird, but I again didn’t think much of it. It was a bit weird but I’d gone to bed late and I think I’d been having celebratory drinks, so I just figured whatever and headed off to role-playing. By the time role-playing started two hours later I was in great pain that intensified over the day. At first I assumed it was some strain from kickboxing, but by mid-afternoon my face was beginning to fail and my speech was noticeably slurred. The pain by then was intense so I was icing the spot and trying to keep my shit together (fortunately I was playing not GMing). My friends started suggesting the possibility that I was having a stroke (I was 45), but as my face slid off I realized what was happening, and assumed I was just having a bad bout of Bell’s Palsy, brought on by the relief of stress on the Friday[2]. Since I’d experienced Bell’s Palsy before I knew what needed to be done: I had to go to a doctor to get some eye drops, buy an eye patch, and wait a few months. A pretty depressing start to a new job but whatever. So I finished the game, went home, slept as best I could, and the next morning I went to a doctor.

So Sunday morning my face was wrecked, and I felt like an operation was being conducted on my jaw. My eye was also now open permanently so things were touch and go, but I got to a doctor by lunchtime. The doctor was a standard internal medicine specialist (in Japan this is basically what you go to when you don’t know what’s up) with a nice surgery who I trusted, and he was very sure it was not Bell’s Palsy. He made me sit in the waiting room while he booked some urgent tests at the local hospital, to rule out a stroke, but then came out after ten minutes or so to check my forehead. He made me raise my brow like a reverse frown (what do you call that?) and upon seeing that my left forehead was completely static – not moving even a millimetre – he decided it must be RHS, canceled the tests, and gave me the medicine I needed. He gave me acyclovir to kill the herpes, pain killers, steroids to help my face recover, and eye drops for my eye. I went to a local pharmacist, hit the drugs, and crashed.

Acyclovir is a miracle drug, it works on the virus fast and within maybe two days the pain was gone, but my face was done for. I had to go into my new job the next week to begin preparing classes, setting up my work space, transferring grants (which takes sooo many forms!) and so on, but I couldn’t work my face at all and also I was exhausted. I could only work perhaps 3-4 hours a day before I had to struggle home and crash. But the worst was yet to come. After 5-6 days the acyclovir finished, and the disease came back within a day – worse than before. The pain was even worse, and it was hellish. This was when the other symptoms began (see below). Fortunately my new work has a very good hospital attached, so I saw a doctor there and they told me that I had been given an older, weaker version of acyclovir, and the steroid dose I’d been given was way too low to help my face. This doctor gave me valacyclovir, which is I guess the incredible hulk of acyclovirs, and nearly doubled my steroid dose. The pain subsided pretty quickly and over the next two weeks things calmed down. By the time April finished the secondary symptoms had gone and my face was beginning to move. In May the doctor shifted me to a rehabilitation plan, and I set about the long path to recovery.

What are the secondary symptoms?

If you google around you’ll hear all sorts of horror stories about this nasty little bug. I read people saying they lost their sense of balance, that they were always dizzy, that they nearly went blind, and that their ability to think or calculate was messed up. I found this out because in that first week I noticed I was doing things that are really unusual for me, including:

  • Taking the wrong train home
  • Getting confused about where in the train platform to go to get to my work
  • Forgetting names, words and basic facts
  • Confusing chats and sending the wrong messages to the wrong people

I went to hanami at my former work near the end of March and met a PhD student who I had known for three years, who had completed a master’s degree in my department and gone on to finish her first year of her PhD: I asked her when she was starting her PhD. I sent messages for my role-playing group to non-roleplaying friends, and vice versa. Also I was getting tired very quickly, and putting on weight (which may have been the steroids I guess). I went back to kickboxing after maybe a month, and that was okay, but for the first two weeks my whole body was a mess. I also discovered, once my eye could close again, that I had become photophobic. I didn’t notice this until mid May, which is when the sun really comes out in Tokyo, and it made my eyes tear up as soon as I went outside.

I’m also sure that this disease fucked my eyesight. I am longsighted and wear reading glasses but between March and May my eyesight suddenly deteriorated so I had to get new glasses. I also thought I was seeing double, but couldn’t get anyone at the eye doctor to believe me or confirm it.

I also had small pings of pain in the back of my jaw and neck for months after the main source of horror had gone away. It was there, reminding me that I was its bitch.

In preparing this post I did some searching and discovered this review article which describes the peripheral nervous system consequences of RHS. It can do a wicked and wondrous array of nasty little things to you, many of which resolve with rehabilitation and treatment, but some of which I think are permanent.

Rehabilitation experience

Rehabilitation for RHS is primarily the task of recovering facial movement, since this is the main physical consequence of it. For this I was given facial exercises (gurning, basically) and massages to do to try and regain facial function. The recovery rates for RHS are apparently not very good – less than 70% of people get full facial recovery, and the chance declines with age of course. I did my exercises reasonably assiduously, and the facial massages, and after a year I think I got back to about 90% function. I have two remaining problems with my face:

  • If I read while I’m eating my left eye gets strained and sometimes lets a few tears out (it can hurt a bit)
  • If I purse my lips my left eye closes slightly

I can also feel a bit of plasticity in the cheek around my mouth on the left side, and I can see a little pocket of muscle above the tip of my mouth on the left side that is dead and just kind of sits there like a lump of uselessness whenever I smile. That’s not a killer – I’ve never thought much of my smile, and whatever charm I have for the ladies is built on something else I’m sure. Most people don’t notice my face is lopsided, I haven’t lost any speech or anything, so I’m mostly good.

In fact, during rehabilitation I learnt finally how to wink with my left eye, something I never used to be able to do. A career of comedy awaits …

Rehabilitation for this disease isn’t hard. I noticed that my face hurt to touch, all over the left side, which the doctors told me was because the nerves are waking up and getting aggravated, and some of the rehabilitation exercises would make my face hurt as I strained to move shit around. Just like exercising your body, the muscles were weak and underworked, and they got worn down by practice. I also noticed some parts recovered quicker than others, and sadly the fine motor control around my eyes is the slowest to recover.

The doctors also warned me against starting rehabilitation before my viral symptoms were fully gone. They told me that if you begin rehabilitation too soon you can develop bad habits, like for example closing your eye every time you bite, because the nerves learn new pathways (like how I got my new left-eye wink superpower). In fact I think I have this when I yawn – my left eye shuts involuntarily.

The doctors also told me – and I also saw through google sensei – that getting the anti viral medication in early is important. Basically, if you don’t start the miracle acyclovir within 72 hours you’re done for, and the earlier you start the better. I waited a day and then started the weaker old one, so I guess that made my experience worse than if I had scuttled straight down to the best hospital in town, begged my way in on the claim that I was having a stroke, and got myself on valacyclovir from the morning it started. I won’t make that mistake again! But it’s also possible the doctors wouldn’t have recognized the problem and would have sent me in for a series of pointless and expensive stroke checks, and started me late on the anti-virals. The anti-virals really are key.

Actually when I went to the doctor at my university hospital after the pain returned (and got the stronger acyclovir) he wanted to hospitalize me, and put me on a drip for the medicines. He confessed to me that he didn’t think I needed IV acyclovir especially, but he wanted to force me into a bed away from my work so that the stress would stop and my face would recover. He thought stress was the real problem here, driving the whole thing, and was worried the medicine wouldn’t work until I get my work under control. But the thing is I had just started a new job, and he wanted to hospitalize me on the day of my first lecture. It’s not a good look! And in truth I couldn’t stand to spend a week in bed with nothing to do, so I begged off of that. Maybe my recovery would have been better if I’d agreed to that.

So if you want a good recovery:

  • Get on the antivirals as soon as possible (and if your doctor offers bog-standard acyclovir tell him to go jump – go straight for the strong stuff)
  • Get the stress out of your life, including by hospitalization if necessary
  • Don’t start rehabilitation until the awfulness is settled down a bit
  • Do your gurning exercises ruthlessly, and keep an eye out for weird new facial behaviors

Then bingo, a year later you’ll be able to (mostly) get your face back.

And trust me: you don’t realize how important your face is until it falls off. Life without a face sucks!

The second bout and the prodrome

So this year I went on a series of business trips and had quite a bit of stress, and a week ago I could feel this bastard disease creeping in again. I could feel my face getting a bit tired, and when I took a selfie on Monday night last week I could see my smile had retrogressed. Bastards! I could also feel a twinge in the back of my jaw, and when I went to work on Wednesday I was getting confused about train doors and having strange emotions. So I went to the hospital again, explained the whole thing to an otolaryngologist and got the miracle valacyclovir into me before the disease was fully up and running. My face sagged a bit but I’m already doing rehabilitation a week later, because the virus never got started. This time I caught the stupid thing as it was sneaking in the door, and slammed it shut. This time also the doctors were worried it was something else and so put me through some tests: MRI and some blood tests. The MRI came up completely clean and pure, even confirmed I have a brain (who knew!), and after a long and exhausting conversation with the neurologist in which he refused to believe any of the symptoms I just exhaustively described here, I was free to get out and begin the rehabilitation. My next appointment to track facial progress is in two weeks.

This tells me two things about this disease. First of all, it tells me that stress is really bad once you’re at risk of this disease, and you need to keep it well under control. No one warned me that this little shit would come crawling around scratching at my door a second time, but it did. So if you have RHS, and there seems to be a good chance it was triggered by stress, then you need to get that stress out of your life. I would say this means doing whatever you have to do – change jobs, meditate, murder your boss (don’t get caught obviously), whatever it takes. My new job is relatively low stress and all the stress I experienced was from a cataclysmic series of tightly timed overseas trips, and I think I can control that easily by never again making such a series of business trips in such a short time. Compared to the stress that triggered the first bout of RHS what I’m going through now is trivial, and I didn’t even notice I was stressed until this disease hit. I guess I’m weaker than I used to be.

The second thing this tells me – and this is not medical science here – is that this disease has a prodrome. It has early symptoms that warn you it’s coming, and if you notice them you might be able to sense its presence. Looking back at my first experience of this neuropathic party, the neck pain and the slight tiredness in my face were there before the evil little bastard stuck the shank in behind my jaw, and had I known I might have been able to react more quickly[3]. Those same symptoms came this time around, so I went to the doctor early and started the valacyclovir before it could take hold. This theory makes sense to me because it is well known that other herpes viruses have a prodrome: Herpes 1 and 2 both have a kind of itchy weirdness in the area where the sores are going to arise, and if you hit the acyclovir then you may be able to prevent or lessen the resulting outbreak. So I guess chickenpox – which is a herpes virus – could have a similar course. I couldn’t find anything on this on the internet, but it’s my feeling that this is what happens.

A brief note on UHC

Japan has Universal Health Coverage. I don’t recall how much this disease set me back last year but this time the tests, drugs and bothering the hospital doctors without a referral cost me a total of about 30,000 yen, so it would have set me back 100,000 yen (about $US800) if I didn’t have insurance. I’m sure that it would cost a lot more in America’s weird-arsed system, since Japan has strict price controls, but I think it’s safe to say that 100,000 yen is tough for a lot of people to fork out, and the prospect of not being able to get treatment for this because you can’t afford it, and having to live your life with this intense, unbearable pain and the slow degradation of your face for what I can only assume would be weeks before the virus gave up and left – that’s awful. UHC is an absolutely fundamental part of a civilized society, and every political party should be 100% about getting it if you don’t have it, or protecting it if you do. Never let that wonderful part of modern social democracy slide away or be weakened by the vicious jackals who control our conservative parties. Or your face will fall off.

Preventing this disease

The best way to prevent this hairy bastard from coming and fucking your face through your ear is to get vaccinated against chickenpox. Sadly though the varicella vaccine is not in most countries’ mandatory schedules, so you won’t have received it even if you were born after 1984 unless you’re in one of the few that does cover it. Therefore, if you’re a parent in a country without this vaccine on the schedule, and you’re reading this, my advice is: pay the extra amount to get this vaccine for your kids. They will never thank you, partly because they’re ungrateful bastards but also because they’ll never know the fun they’re missing, but trust me it’s worth it. If you’re a policy-maker in a country that doesn’t have this vaccine on the schedule, hurry up and add it.

If you’re an adult who had chickenpox as a child then the first line of defense against this nasty thing is to avoid stress, make a life for yourself that has manageable stress and don’t let whatever stress you do experience last for too long. I went through years of intense stress before the first bout was triggered, but once it was there my next bout required a much lower threshold. So be careful with stress, and get control of your work as much as you can (I appreciate that this is useless advice for a lot of people, whose industry or career options are top-heavy with unpaid work, bullying superiors, and shitty conditions, but it’s the only advice that I have, sorry).

There is some evidence that the varicella vaccine, given to adults who had chickenpox, may reduce the risk of this disease. I’m thinking of getting it once this shit has died down, but it’s also possible that the same people whose low-paid high stress jobs put them at risk of RHS are also unable to afford the out-of-pocket costs for this vaccine. If you’re reading this I’m sorry, I’m out of options. Kill your boss, or find a way to move to a country with a better health system. Or vote Democrat and get that shit fixed[4].

Conclusion

The most important lesson for this is that you need to reduce the stress in your life to avoid this disease, and that as you get older the risk will increase so you need to purge that stress as you age. It might also help to get a vaccine against varicella even if you’re an adult who had chickenpox in childhood, just to get that extra bit of protection, but your doctor may not like that idea.

If you go to a doctor with the first symptoms of this and he/she offers you mere acyclovir, tell him/her you’ll pay the extra for valacyclovir. Wave this blog post at them, and explain the issue. What do they care?! Trust me you don’t want this thing hanging around, so push for it. Then take your rehabilitation seriously, and you may be able to get to a fully functional face once the shitshower passes on. Another thing I think I should have done but didn’t was demand a second course of valacyclovir, to really curbstomp this ugly fucker. Once those drugs are done though, you’re going to be looking at an unpleasant couple of months regardless, so good luck.

If you had other experiences of RHS, or want to rant about this nasty little hitchiker, or are having it now and need reassurance or have questions, put them in the comments. I’d love to hear how other people got through this virus, and I really hope that this blog post can help someone to deal with the horrors of this disease. You are going to get better and you will get your face back, I promise you!


fn1: I don’t know what kind of person designed human beings but requiring a muscle to activate to close your eye, rather than open it, is phenomenally stupid. You don’t realize how stupid that design flaw is until you can’t use that muscle, and suddenly you’re staring at everyone like a pscyhopathic cyclops.

fn2: I have this weird thing, that has existed since my teenage years, where I handle stress well but then when the stress disappears my body completely breaks. Used to happen with migraines, seems to happen with RHS. Others get sick during their stress but my response appears to be delayed.

fn3: I wouldn’t have, because I’d have thought it was Bell’s Palsy and just gone and bought an eyepatch.

fn4: I’m not American, but I’m aware that most people who read blogs like mine are, for some reason, and I have to remain aware of your society’s … shortcomings … when I write medical-related things.

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