I’ve been methodically re-watching great movies that I haven’t seen since my childhood to find out if my impression of them has changed. This is what happens when you hit thirty and you're not dating. On Saturday night, I stumbled upon a fascinating metamorphosis. When I first saw Silence of the Lambs back in the 1990s, I bought the hype that it was sexist trash. Ten years later and it emerges from the chrysalis of time as an anti-sex feminist polemic. A very good one at that.
When it scooped the Big Five Academy Awards, Betty Friedan angrily protested that Silence was misogyny posing as entertainment - after all, the serial killer Buffalo Bill gets his kicks out of making a dress from the skins of women. Gay rights advocates also detested the implication that Bill’s murderous rage stems from transsexualism, from his desire to become a woman. We can shoot down both hypotheses with the same golden bullet. Hannibal Lecter - the movie’s chief source of psychological insight - says that Bill isn’t a real transsexual and that the harm he does to women is “incidental” to his overall design (note that Bill refers to his victims as “it” - “It puts the lotion on its skin…”). Buffalo is a simply a monster who thinks that he can transcend a life of (presumably sexual) abuse by becoming someone else. We never see him kill because all the violence in this movie is incidental. Yes, Hannibal tears a man’s face off with his bare teeth. But that serves the plot device of letting him escape and it deepens his character by reminding us that his Wildean refinement is all an act. Otherwise, the bodies on display are all post-mortem images of women used, abused and discarded.
That’s appropriate because the big takeaway from Silence is that male/female relationships are dictated by expedience rather than affection. Clarice Starling is manipulated or objectified by nearly everyone she encounters. Her boss sends her to see Hannibal knowing that he’ll mess with her mind purely as a gambit to get information. Later, he uses her gender as a tactic to get some local law officers to clear the room (“This isn’t the sort of conversation I want to have with a woman present”); Starling is understandably annoyed, but her boss laughs the insult away. Hannibal asks Clarice if she thinks that he might have any sexual designs on her and she fails to give an adequate answer. Later, the boss gives her a lingering handshake and seems to explore a sexual opportunity. He’s not alone in trying it on. A curator at a natural history exhibition regards her body with all the enthusiasm of zoologist discovering a unique specimen. The director of the mental institute that houses Hannibal asks Starling to dinner and, when she says no, his attitude becomes unpleasant.
Only two men are nice to Starling: her father, who is dead, and Hannibal. It could be argued that Hannibal and Clarice engage in a kind of verbal sexual dance. The metal draw that connects them through the prison bars slams back and forth suggestively, and they swap secrets in the manner of pillow talk - Starling trading stories of her childhood for insights into Buffalo Bill’s psyche. We see fleetingly that Hannibal has drawn a picture of her, which implies some romantic interest. But the rendering is classical rather than pornographic, and his promise not to kill her (“The world is a lot more interesting with you in it”) seems motivated by intellect rather than lust. Both characters retain an asexual presence of mind that all the sexually obsessed characters around them lack. Starling wears suits, works out, competes in a largely male environment and her only intimate relationship is with another female student. If she eventually “gets her man”, it’s because she approaches her work with curiosity and moral clarity. By contrast, the men in her life are motivated and distracted by ego.
The clue to the meaning of The Silence of the Lambs is in its title. Clarice explains to Hannibal during one of their “therapy” sessions that when she was a girl she witnessed the slaughtering of spring lambs. She rescued one and ran for several miles with it before being caught by the police. Curiously the farmer that adopted her (“a decent man,” she insists) sends her to an orphanage in anger. Why such a vindictive punishment for such a harmless crime? It’s because the lamb is a metaphor for innocence and by trying to rescue it Clarice denies the farmer’s patriarchal authority – she denies his ownership of her own innocence and, we can infer, her body. Contrary to Friedan’s analysis, Clarice is a classic feminist hero. She wants to save women from men.
Which leaves us with the curious role of Hannibal Lecter in Starling’s rise to the top. Rather than would-be sexual partner, it's better to regard him as her substitute father figure. Who else is there to help her defend the lambs and stop them screaming? He chides her when she is foolish, encourages her when she gets something right, and even forgives her when she betrays him with a false offer of “a view” in exchange for information. Sure, we know he is a monster. But, like Clarice, we’re drawn to that part of him that is brilliant and perceptive. The genius of Hopkins’ performance is that he understands that the ugliness and the beauty aren’t bifurcated but part of the same man. He can be terrifying while being charming and curiously engaging while jabbing a pen in your eye. It would almost be a pleasure to be eaten by him.
I ended up having an Old Rite Christmas. We were joined by an ill friend for Christmas Day, who brought along his family. The average age was about 75, which meant that once the turkey was eaten and the port drained, we all gathered around the piano. There is no greater joy than drunkenly bashing out We’ll Meet Again
surrounded by liquored-up oldsters who know the words – a great, boozy chorus of good memories and rampant patriotism. Afterwards we played Cluedo and Trivial Pursuits. No telly, no Xbox, just good old fashioned clean fun. It was worth the hangover.
The New Year, by contrast, has been painfully dry and, so, TV heavy. I’ve decided to quit drinking for January – and that basically means becoming a shut in. One of the benefits is that I’ve been able to devote more time to watching YouTube. My best discovery so far is the BBC sci-fi serial Doomwatch
. Running for three psychedelic series from 1970 to 1972, the show was about an eponymous government department that investigated environmental threats to the future of mankind. The subject could be as banal as it sounds (one episode dealt with the medical dangers of jet lag), but it captures nicely the apocalyptic mood of the era. This was the time of Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, when people were becoming aware that the greatest threat to humanity’s existence wasn’t natural or supernatural but man made.
A lot of its concerns have been dismissed (jet lag really hasn’t had the impact they imagined) while others still linger (genetic engineering was a running theme). Unfortunately, the show is best remembered for one brief and silly scene in an episode called Tomorrow the Rat (Clive James provides hilarious narration from 2:00 onwards). The plot is preposterous. A sexy female scientist is employed by the government to develop a clever strain of rat that will kill all other rats. For reasons of budgeting (thankyou, Ted Heath) they ask her to conduct the experiments from home. The rats get too smart too fast and plot their escape (Using levers. Yep. Levers). We catch up with the critters as they assault a family kitchen – and it’s an absolute hoot. RADA trained actors try to look terrified as they clutch plastic rats at their throats and pretend they're being attacked. A dozen are pulled along tied to a string, while a woman walks in and faints with horror (I suspect that wasn't in the script). The clip is hilarious but it distracts from what was actually a very disturbing bit of telly. The sexy female scientist is full of regret and turns to casual sex and drink. When the mother of a child that has been killed by the rats attacks her unsuccessfully with a knife, she is left alone with a vividly bleeding arm. The audience knows what will happen next because we’ve already been tipped off that the rats like blood. But nothing prepares us for the shock of the final scene. A Doomwatch scientist arrives at the house to find that this poor, broken woman has been mauled to death by her own vermin. We see glimpses of lumps of white tissue covered in bites and blood. The image lingers in the mind.
And Doomwatch certainly earned its name. Modern TV tries so hard for gravitas and emotional punch, which invariably means constant action and melodrama. By contrast, Doomwatch hails from an era in which characters intellectualised their way through disasters and the horror was more often implied than shown. The result has far greater impact. One of the main characters (played by future Jesus Christ, Robert Powell) is killed trying to defuse a bomb. An episode was pulled off air when it featured stock footage of a military execution in Laos. Bacterial warfare is accidentally unleashed on a Yorkshire village and we see soldiers shooting an infected dog. The most affecting scene of all can be found in the episode You Killed Toby Wrenn, when a Doomwatch operative breaks in to a lab experimenting on human/animal hybrids. He pulls back a curtain to find a monkey with a child’s head. The monster sits with its back to the camera, so we’re only invited to imagine the face from the mash of hair and pink skin that we can see from behind. It’s incredibly disturbing – a mood made all the worse when the woman responsible for the experiment proudly announces that she’s carrying another hybrid in her womb.
Ultimately, Doomwatch became too absurd. It exhausted the scientific story lines and developed in to a standard, if fantastical, thriller. Nevertheless, it stands as a great example of how great TV can be made on small budgets enlarged by big ideas. I don’t want to succumb to nostalgia and say that such a thing wouldn’t be made any more – because that’s just not true. The Americans make this sort of bold, imaginative show all the time. But it’s become all too rare in Britain. And I’m sorry but the soapy, silly Dr Who is no substitute.
After all these years, I think I may have found the statement that best
articulates my view of sin. Unsurprisingly, it’s a country and western song. Written by Bill Anderson and made famous by Cal Smith, The Lord Knows I’m Drinkin’ is, at face value, a denunciation of small town
self-righteousness. Cal is sittin’ in a bar with an unnamed woman (what’s in a name?) when a Sunday school teacher drops by to pour scorn. Cal lets her have it: “ The Lord knows I'm drinking and running around,/ And He don't need your loud mouth informing the town,/ The Lord knows I'm sinning and sinning ain't right,/ But me and the Good Lord's gonna have us a good talk,/ Later tonight.”
The song’s thrill lies in Cal telling this madam what all red blooded men really think of her. But the humor is misleading. Yes, the teacher’s Puritanism comes in for a knocking, but just because she’s annoying doesn’t mean that she’s wrong. After all, Cal says, “The Lord know I’m sinning and sinning ain’t right.” The message of the song is threefold: 1) Yes, I’m drinkin’, 2) Yes, it’s wrong, 3) But it ain’t none of your darn business.
It’s a formula that’s repeated again and again in country music, which often combines a weary acceptance of sin with a refusal to judged about it. Its most defiant expression can be found in Johnny Cash’s prison albums. These are a peculiar mix of sweet gospel, love songs and songs about killin’. There are few greater statements about man’s capacity to do bad than, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” But although the Fulsom Prison Blues are nihilistic, Cash makes sure that the boys of San Quentin get a blast of Peace in the Valley at the end of the show to give them hope. When you’re stuck in a cell with no chance of getting out, the only way is up…
Another great example is Harper Valley PTA, sung by Jeannie C Riley. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl, it tells the story of what her mother did when she received a note from the PTA telling her that she was “Wearing your dresses too high.” Outraged, Mrs Johnson storms into the PTA meeting and tells the board members that she knows they’re not angels either (“Mr Baker, can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?”) It is not denied that Mrs Johnson has been “drinkin’ and a-runnin’ roung and going wild” – and the daughter’s embarrassment is implied. But the real outrage is directed at the hypocrisy of a corrupt society that has the nerve to try to censor one sinner. And listen to the audience roar with approval.
There are many things being communicated in these songs. The fear of inferiority that pervaded the post-war South, hatred of authority, poverty and that Calvinist fatalism that still haunts old Dixie. But most of all there’s a consistent attitude towards sin that I find very compelling. Man is born to sin. Yes it’s bad, yes it must be stopped, but only when I’ve finished this beer and this young lady has gone home (As St Augustine put it, “O Lord, make me
chaste – but not yet!”) In the meantime, small minded judgment does no one any good. It interrupts the drinkin’.
When I first heard the news, I honestly thought it was an Onion satire. A couple living in Rotherham, England, had their foster kids taken away from them because the council received an “anonymous tip
” that they vote for UKIP. Unless golf has been scientifically proven dangerous to your health, this is a classic example of “political correctness gone mad”. UKIP might be centre-right but it ain’t a racist organisation, yet the council insists
that because the children are from an ethnic minority background it was necessary to separate them from a home environment that contained “strong political views” on subjects like immigration and Europe. In the eyes of some on the Left, right-wing politics is now synonymous with child abuse. The irony is that this knee jerk policy has actually disrupted the home life of three vulnerable children, and Rotherham’s social services have cast themselves as the embodiment of welfare state hypocrisy.
There’s plenty for UKIP to be outraged about. Their policies are little different from those of the Conservative Party 7 years ago and this kind of heavy handed concern would probably never be shown to fosterers who are members of the Socialist Workers Party (even though they could very well expose their kids to a dangerous mix of outright lies and boredom). That said, foster parents should be properly vetted and it’s important to wait for the full facts of the case to be disclosed before rushing to judgement. Nor is social work only the past time of pernicious surrealists – the vast, vast majority of them are decent people doing a difficult job under almost inhuman circumstances. The most thoughtful and intelligent
statement made about the case so far came from the British Association of Social Workers, who wrote, “A willingness on the part of foster parents to respect the culture and background of a child is extremely important, which is why UKIP's reported position on multiculturalism appears to have been a cause for concern in this case. However, membership of UKIP should not be considered, as an isolated factor, sufficient reason to dismiss the suitability of a parent or parents, which is why, given the limited information available, this decision is difficult to fully understand.” Amen to that.
The case will probably be treated as an isolated example of incompetence, but it actually speaks to a troubling development within liberalism. This is how it all ends, with liberals “protecting” children from “illiberal” ideas – and, in the process, destroying liberal democracy.
The greatest historical strength of liberalism has been its respect for free thinking, the rights of the individual and cultural diversity. Yet in recent years liberals have begun to confuse ends and means, presuming that in a liberal society everyone will make the choice to think and live as a liberal. The reality is that some parts of a liberal democracy will always reject the tenets of liberalism (more fool them), and if you are a true liberal then you have to suffer that sad fact. Alas, contemporary liberals seem to think that tolerance of intolerance poses such a challenge to democracy that it must end
. Their clampdown on bad thought has begun on the margins but is slowly working its way towards a new censorship of mainstream political thought. “First they came for UKIP” ... then they came for the rest of the golf club. Before you know it, they’ll be arresting people who vote for Rylan Clark. Bond is back, sadly...
Having written two negative reviews of a movie I’ve never watched, I finally bit the bullet and went to see Skyfall. Sorry kids, but it’s a dull dud. Running at 2 and 1/2 hours, you’d think they’d find time to fit in a death ray, but no. It’s just Daniel Craig running around looking thoroughly miserable, breaking everybody’s ribs. The movie’s only highlight is Javier Bardem as the evil Raoul Silva. With a mop of blonde hair and a girly laugh, he was a delicious throwback to the campery of yesteryear. In fact, Bardem should’ve played Bond and Craig should’ve played the villain. Then we might’ve at least got a ski chase and some hanky-panky in an airplane. “Any higher Mr Bond and my ears will pop!”
One serious complaint: this was one of the most misogynistic movies I’ve ever seen. Bond meets a woman who has been a sex slave since she was twelve. Desperately seeking a hero to rescue her from her pimp, Silva, she tells Bond to meet her aboard her yacht. Later that night the poor woman is taking a shower and, low and behold, a naked Bond appears from nowhere and starts mauling her neck. If Jimmy Savile had done that, we’d rightly be outraged. But Craig seems to get away with this kind of “no questions asked” sexual advance because the audience is primed to think that it’s just “Bond being Bond.” Later, Silva captures the girl, balances a glass of whiskey on her head and, in a mockery of William Tell, purposefully shoots her dead. He asks Bond what he thinks of his sadism. Our hero replies, “What a waste of a good Scotch.” What a schmuck.
How I miss the good old days of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, when Bond was basically Are You Being Served?
with guns. As if it had been commissioned by an old fashioned department store, every movie was just another advert for more nice things: velour tux, cigarettes, golf jumpers and Martinis. Even the henchmen had uniforms. Did every villain have an HR department to design and assign them? I can imagine the board meeting on the first day of building the underwater nuclear base. “Item Six: Uniforms. Have you had any thoughts on this Mr Humphries?” “Yes I have, Captain Peacock. I’m thinking pink for the scientists, blue for the torturers and a nice bright orange for the henchmen.” “And for Mr Blofield?” “A serge uniform with gold braiding – and Mrs Slocombe’s
willing to give him use of her pussy on Mondays and Wednesdays.” A better time.
One of the fascinating things about the 1970s is its cultural and moral confusion. With so many ideas and interest groups competing for control of a fractured public sphere, it became difficult to tell what was good, what was evil; what was liberating and what was oppressive. I argued in my last piece on the sexual revolution that feminism became a stabilising and sobering force in society by declaring war on pornography. I stumbled upon a similar story of ambiguity when I recently discovered William Friedkin’s controversial movie Cruising (1980)
Cruising is a confusing, ugly film that provoked a corresponding reaction. It tells the story of a serial killer in New York who targets members of the gay BDSM community. Police captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) sends heterosexual rookie Steve Burns (Al Pacino) underground to pose as a gay masochist and expose the murderer. After three brutal murders, Burns fingers Stuart Richards (Richard Cox), a college student with daddy issues. The two meet in a park, apparently aware of their relationship as stalker and prey, and Burns kills Richards. We think the cycle of death is over until the final reel, when it is revealed that Burns’ gay neighbour, Ted Bailey, has been found dead in his bathroom. Captain Edelson is horrified. He suspects, as do we all, that Burns has caught the killing bug and become a copycat.
The movie’s biggest flaw is the casting of Al Pacino, who is neither butch nor feminine enough to play a sexually ambiguous role (and he can’t dance either). But for contemporary audiences the greater horror was the blunt portrayal of the BDSM gay lifestyle. Everything is thrown at the screen – kissing, sucking, deep sea diving with margarine – and all without apology. While conservatives were shocked, liberals were equally disgusted
that Friedkin seemed to think that homosexuality and sociopathic behaviour were one and the same. Today, many still regard the movie as a piece of homophobic propaganda.
In retrospect, Cruising’s tone and style are misleading. It’s not a horror story and it’s not an indictment of homosexuality. In fact, it’s not about homosexuality at all but about the corrosive influence of power relationships. If only it had been set among the Smurfs, its reputation would be much stronger.
The movie is full of evidence of police corruption. At the beginning, two cops discuss their loathing for women. They arrest two transvestites and force them to have sex. When one of the transvestites complains about their behaviour to Captain Edelson, Edelson demands proof that the cops were really cops. At the end of the movie, he meets one of them and realises that the transvestite was telling the truth all along. But he does nothing. Friedkin shows the cops beating up suspects, bungling a sting, searching without a warrant etc. They are the socially acceptable mirror image of the BDSM community.
Literally. In one scene, Burns goes to a club that has a cops themed night. The men cavort in police uniform and when Burns admits that he hasn’t got a shield or a gun, he is told that he’s breaking the rules and is thrown out. This crucial scene could have been scripted by Michel Foucault himself. The oppressed (gay men) break from their oppressors (the cops) and create their own sub-culture. But within that culture they mimic the oppression of their former world by parading as policemen. The liberal might say that they subvert the image of the fascist by reclaiming his authority as a sex game - but by throwing Burns out of the club for "breaking the rules", they actually imitate the bullying of the thugs who once bullied them. Pacino's undercover cop is intimidated by the very people who, in his past life, he might have once intimidated. And so the fascisms of the old society are inverted yet continued in the new.
Alienated from his girlfriend, Burns begins to take solace in the company of his neighbour, Teddy. Towards the end of the movie, he goes to see Teddy only to discover that Teddy’s old lover has moved back in. The two men fight over possession of Teddy and the movie leaves it uncertain which man "claimed" him by killing him. It doesn’t matter: Friedkin’s message is that the heterosexual and homosexual characters are both obsessed with control and power – literal in the case of the police interrogation and figurative in the case of the BDSM sex game.
The character of Burns goes through a cycle. He starts out as a heterosexual cop, masquerades as a gay man, becomes a gay killer, and returns to the police force as a heterosexual killer (presuming that he killed Teddy as a way of expunging his homosexual desires). Although this is a linear story of corruption, that Burns ends up where he started suggests Burns was always latently evil rather than corrupted by circumstance. His original sin is being born a man into a brutal and brutalising culture. Patriarchy is inescapable. The transvestites look like women but are also men. Serial killer Stuart Richards is motivated by a dead father who he wants to please. The only woman in the movie is Burns’ girlfriend, and she seems gentle and compassionate. But while Burns shaves in the bathroom, his lover tries on his leather jacket and shades and is transformed into an alpha male. The patriarchal culture claims another soul.
At the centre of the move’s thesis is its lack of a single, obvious culprit. This is deliberate
. For the four murders there are four potential murderers, and Friedkin often uses doubles and stand-ins to play the killers. Sometimes the victim is even played by a killer. Who "did it" doesn’t matter to the director because what interests him is the complicity of everyone
in the violence on screen. Who did it also doesn’t matter to the characters, because they’re too busy playing out their own psycho-dramas. Burns is a terrible cop. He breaks into Richards’ apartment, lets him know it, and then teases him to come out and play in the park. He doesn’t want to catch Richards and bring about justice. He just wants to kill him.
In short, Cruising is a radical film that borrows surrealist film making techniques to condemn patriarchy and violence. But Friedkin’s great mistake was, itself, a classic act of patriarchy. He thought that he could borrow and exploit the culture of an oppressed minority in order to make a statement of his own. He quickly discovered that, by the late 1970s, gays and lesbians were unwilling to be used as artistic models or scientific studies by mainstream, heterosexual liberals. The postmodern revolution devoured one of its children.
A man with Jimmy Savile’s perverse appetites would have committed his crimes at any point in history. But it’s telling just how many
Jimmy Saviles there were in the 1960s and 1970s. In the last ten years, the media has been full of shocking, historical stories of child abuse and rape emanating from almost every institution that Britain once held dear - schools, churches, scouts, and now public television. That so many institutions harboured, hid and even facilitated sexual abuse within a specific period of time is no coincidence. The crimes of Jimmy Savile and his peers were often an ugly consequence of the 1960s sexual revolution.
Before I unleash my inner-Daily Express
, let’s establish two caveats to this theory. First, sexual abuse certainly existed prior to the 1960s
. The infrequency of arrests is probably due to a culture of silence encouraged by patriarchy, but we still have plenty of evidence of both individual and systematic abuse of minors. Second, the sexual revolution liberated many. It’s simplistic to say that only men benefited from a culture of greater openness and experimentation. An example to the contrary was women’s growing control over their own sexual health
. Second wave feminism is almost inseparable from the sexual revolution because both tried to give women greater independence and agency, which would eventually be the undoing of men like Savile (more on that later).
But the immediate downside of the sexual revolution is that it undid many of the social constraints that policed sexual behaviour. When The Pill hit the market, sex suddenly had fewer consequences and was redefined from a generative to a pleasurable act. In the 1950s
, 60 per cent of Britons had sex before marriage but only
with their intended spouse, and pregnancy led to marriage within the vast majority of cases. By the early 1990s, only 1 per cent of first time sexual encounters occurred within marriage.
Sex became ubiquitous and commercialised. That’s obvious from the culture of the period, which saw hemlines rise and the lyrics of pop songs
become more overtly sexual. Free love was all the rage and TV and film encouraged the idea that sex was on tap – as evidenced by the now infamous clip of Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile getting comfy with underage girls on Savile’s show Clunk Click
. It was a whirlwind of change: divorce became easier, the age of consent fell, strip clubs opened and homosexuality was legalised. The problem was that a society newly liberated from Victorian sexual rules hadn’t yet defined alternative boundaries of acceptable sexual practice. The confusion was aptly demonstrated by the openness of paedophile “rights” groups advocating the abolition of the age of consent
. Poet Allen Ginsberg proudly told reporters, “I had sex when I was 8 with a man in the back of my grandfather's candy store in Revere, and I turned out okay!” The rest of society would beg to differ.
These problems were exacerbated by how long Britain’s creaking institutions took to catch up with the changes in sexual behaviour. Institutions that were defined by authoritarianism, hierarchy and – crucially – access to vulnerable people, lost their ethics but none of their power. Morally hollow, they were captured by networks of abusers who used them to their advantage. They were rarely investigated because while Victorian sexual attitudes were on the wane, deference to authority wasn’t yet lost. Teachers, priests and TV personalities still cast a spell. It’s shocking to read of children who told their parents that they were abused by Savile and their parents not only ignored the complaint but, in some cases, forced the child to apologise for making it.
After Britain divested itself of bourgeois Christian morality it had to find new ways of controlling aberrant behaviour. By the mid-1970s, it was starting to do so. One welcome change was the concept of children’s rights – the idea that children had personhood beyond parents or state. Slowly it became socially unacceptable to physically discipline children and they gained new leverages of power over adults, including organisations like ChildLine. The other movement that restored sexual limits was feminism. If the war that conservatives waged against sexual license just looked like antiquarian prudery, feminists redefined attacks on porn
as a defence of women’s rights – and so created a new political constituency for sexual moderation. By the 1990s, it was unacceptable for men like Jimmy Savile to make unwanted advances to women. The arrival of the sexual harassment tribunal – although a frequent source of amusement to the tabloids – vastly improved the lives of millions of women. Perhaps it’s ironic, perhaps not, that the rather conservative forces of child and feminist rights were themselves products of the liberal 1960s. The very same age that gave us the sexual revolution also created the movements that would curtail and limit it. The Sixties wasn’t all bad, Peter Hitchens.
You might infer from nostalgiacs like Hitchens that nothing good whatsoever came out of the 1960s. But a greater regard for human rights and growing criticism of established authority did have their advantages as Britain tried to establish a post-Victorian social order. Nevertheless, the point stands that this transformation took too long to happen and for two decades the sexual revolution facilitated or excused the abusive practices of men like Savile. The 1960s and 1970s combined a) greater opportunity for sex, b) uncertainty about what was and what wasn’t acceptable and c) declining social sanction. It might seem strange that so many people knew about Savile’s behaviour and didn’t complain. But aside from his use of blackmail
to silence critics, what’s equally remarkable is how many regarded Savile’s crimes as a big joke and effectively tolerated them. The rape of children was treated as (in the words of Esther Ranzen, founder of ChildLine) “green room gossip
That colleagues didn’t take immediate offence to Savile’s crimes doesn’t just testify to the corruption of television as an institution but of Britain as a society. The sexual revolution freed us from the constraints of Victorian morality. But, for a time, it unleashed a great sickness upon the world.
Jeremy Hunt, the UK health secretary, has given some hope for a revival of British social conservatism
. Over the weekend, he admitted to an interviewer that he favoured a 12 week time limit on abortions. I say “admitted” for in the UK any statement of sexual conscience is necessarily a confession – usually resulting in public humiliation and an enforced period of abstinence from power. Poor old Hunt got his punishment as the entire cultural establishment came crashing down on his head. Someone should let them know that the time limit in secular, socialist France is … 12 weeks (with exactly the same exceptions for health that would apply in Britain).
Given that Prime Minister David Cameron has also flirted with lowering the abortion time limit, we have a paradox. The UK Conservative Party is committed to legalising gay marriage yet it exhibits flashes of pro-life sentiment. Ordinarily, this would be a contradiction. But it might also reflect the growth of a new conservative consensus on both sides of the Atlantic about social issues. Young people - the so-called Generation Z - are increasingly pro-gay yet also pro-life.
I’m making a show for the BBC (due out on October 27 on BBC2) that explores America through its sitcoms. The argument is that because these shows succeed or fail by ratings, they hold up a mirror to American society (and often what isn’t on screen is as important as what is). One thing I've noticed is that while in the 1970s gay sitcom characters were either invisible or crude stereotypes (think Jodie Dallas on Soap), today there are more gay and lesbian characters on TV than ever before
. By contrast, the sitcoms of the 1970s were prepared to deal with abortion (Maude), whereas today the subject is a total taboo (Family Guy made an episode about abortion that the network refused to air). The exception is probably South Park, which often satirises abortion as a political totem. When a post-gender-change Mrs Garrison shows up at a Planned Parenthood clinic, she demands that they terminate her phantom pregnancy because it's her right as a woman. Meanwhile, Eric Cartman's mother, worried that she can no longer raise her son, lobbies President Clinton for an abortion in the 42nd trimester.
All this reflects the polling, which indicates that significant numbers of young Americans are tolerant towards gays and lesbians yet uncomfortable about abortion
. Likewise, in the UK it is often young people (and women, by a huge margin)
who tend to favour limits on abortion. This new generation is “life-affirmative.” Having grown up around gays and lesbians, Generation Z accepts their personhood and wants to see them take the full advantages of human happiness – get married, have kids, commit adultery, get divorced, retire to Deal etc. It makes perfect sense that they would extend that right to “live life fully” to the unborn. Marriage affirms life, hence they support it. Abortion ends life, so they oppose it. Or, at least, are anxious about it. Given that the pro-life young tend to favour limits
on abortion rather than an outright ban, it could be that they only extend that definition of humanity to people who look fully human (ie, a foetus past the first trimester). Their views are shaped less by theology or philosophy than by emotional instinct. Social conservatives might find the lack of logic frustrating, but the response is unselfish and human. It might be of political use.
In the coming years, the US Right might see greater bifurcation between libertarians and traditionalists over the role of faith and morals in their movement. However, both will probably stick together out of a shared veneration of life and both will continue to resist government promotion of cultural change (even if the libertarians don’t particularly mind the consequences of the latter). In the UK, the situation is more complex. Britain lacks both the religious imperative and the libertarian impulse that are found in the American Right; British social conservatives have to make a case for themselves and build a movement from scratch.
One strategy might be to abandon some traditionalist positions in an effort to win young people over to the cause. Put crudely, the British social Right would drop gay marriage as an issue in order to modernise its image and better advance the cause of abortion limits. Such a course would be controversial. There is an argument that to advance traditionalism by abandoning one of its main planks would be both cynical and counter productive. That would probably be the attitude of the vast majority of the Conservative Party's membership
; opposition to gay marriage is much greater among older Brits, which means that any move made to appeal to the young could alienate the middle-aged ... and undermine the entire movement. Ultimately, it's better that people are guided by conscience rather than ambition.
Nevertheless, David Cameron’s premiership may end up being viewed by historians as the moment when a new, more conservative social contract was born. Welfare reform, redefining debt as a moral issue and limiting access to abortion – perhaps this government is quietly redefining social conservatism for Generation Z.
Polls indicate that Ed Miliband could be Britain’s next Prime Minister. Having abandoned Labour activism a couple of years ago, I have to admit that the news hurts. It’s a little like divorcing your wife on the assumption that you’ll flower as an international playboy and she’ll spend the next 30 years living alone – only to discover that she’s
the one marrying a bionic gym teacher and you’re the one left raising cats. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I'm the one with the great hair.
In fact, my gut tells me that Ed won’t make it to Number 10. He faces the age-old problem that Britain is a country of masochists where we always vote for the fiscally tougher party. Everyone resents the coalition and everyone’s hurting, but we all suspect that we need the pain to cut the spending and make us fit again. How else do you explain 18 years of Tory rule in the 1980s and 1990s? Nobody enjoyed it – we just thought it was what we deserved.
The other problem is Ed himself. A lot is made of his weirdo factor, but that's often just press nastiness (it's not hard to take an unflattering photo
and inset the caption "normal" beneath it to comic effect. Very comic effect
). The challenges that he faces aren't unique to himself but typical to all politicians. Folks just don't like 'em any more.
My own revolt against Labour (a family affiliation) was a rejection of politics in general. I could see the way things were going. A new class was emerging of professional politicians – all under 40, bright, obsessive, dedicated, clean (too clean).They were joyless people who would say no to the spliff being passed around the room for fear that it might kill their chances of becoming PM in 40 years time
. They were also sexless (so many seemed sprouted like vegetables) and fanatical about the party in a way that was divorced from history or ideology. I recall being dragged out campaigning within weeks of the 2010 general election and told that winning a seat on a local district council was “where the fight back begins.” It was absurd. I was telling confused old ladies that David Cameron was tearing the heart out of Britain when he hadn’t even moved his tennis rackets into Number 10 yet. From me, the passion was faked. But for everyone else it was scarily real. Their eyes burned with belief as they rang the doorbell, collecting souls from the electoral register. Canvassing for Labour had become like evangelising for the Jehovah's witnesses - but without any Good News.
All three parties have been conquered by what TS Elliot called “the hollow men” - politicians who exist to exist. There is so much in life worth wasting one’s evenings over, including alcohol, Radio 4, jazz, love, God and Hell. But for these kids there is only the party.
Ed Miliband is one of those hollow men. He has worked and lived nothing but politics. The same goes for Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and most of the shadow cabinet. They all share that odd lack of regional accent, having a voice that feels focussed grouped to appeal to everyone from Margate to the Orkneys. Can you imagine any of them writing a book about Persian history? Seducing an intern? Eloping to Scotland? They are all a far cry from the grand party of Neil Kinnock – a man who could rouse, sing and shout in a voice that trembled with working-class dignity. Vote for Kinnock and you were settling a score that was centuries old.
The most important poll isn’t the one that puts Labour ahead but the one that says the British can’t imagine Miliband as Prime Minister. That’s sad, because I’m sure he’s a very nice man who wants to help. But what he fails to grasp – what Labour fails to grasp – is that we are all sick of politics. Most of us blame government as much as the banks for our financial catastrophe, so voting for a professional politician is as stomach churning as voting for a banker. In this climate, the only men who are likely to win the public’s respect are those who stand for something (Salmond), are entertaining (Boris) or speak to some sectional prejudice (Farage). David Cameron wins a second term by default. After all, he’s hurting us … and the Brits live for bondage
I never thought I’d write this, but the Democrats have become the sex party. It used to be that the Republicans were the ones who were unhealthily obsessed with other people’s sexy shenanigans, and although the Democrats erred towards the libertine, they at least understood the concept of privacy. But the positions have switched. In their effort to turn sex into a national issue worthy of government intervention, the Democrats have become the ones who kiss and tell.
Watching the conventions from the comfort of a hotel minibar, it was striking how little the GOP had to say about Biblical morality. Their only big issues now are ending abortion and outlawing gay marriage, but both feel so legally and culturally archaic that they might as well be making a case for forced wearing of the tricorn hat. By contrast, the Democrats were so explicit about their comfort with sex that I was half expecting someone to demonstrate how to put a prophylactic on a banana. The supposed booing of God
(technically, they were booing the convention chair) was far less significant than the platform change that struck the word “rare” from its formula on abortion. The move was logical: why would you want to reduce the amount of something that you feel no moral qualm about? The Democrats are cool with abortion now. Combined with their endless screeds on the importance of free contraception, they have crossed the libertarian line and become active promoters of sex. Don’t get me wrong: in the land of the free you should be at liberty to do whatever you like to whomever you like, and sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic while you’re at it. But it’s not within the American tradition to receive government subsidy or get a shout out from the President of the United States.
For writing the above, I shall no doubt get a ton of angry emails from Democrats and liberals. I’ve noticed something interesting: when I covered the primaries and wrote scathing satires about the Republican candidate, I was rarely accused of bias (except by a few whackadoodles in Idaho). Now that attention has shifted onto Obama (our anointed frontrunner), I’m a tool of the Republican National Committee. Never mind that I’ve called Romney a lifeless flipflopper – that’s journalistic balance. But express some dissatisfaction with the President’s handling of the Middle East crisis and you’ve basically come out as a Bircher.
So this week, I’m not going to write about politics. Not one word. Instead, I’d like to review a hotel I just visited in Oxford, England. For the sake of not getting sued, I’ll rename it The Bentley. But anyone who knows it will recognise it immediately...
For all Englishmen who want to get in touch with their inner-masochist, I recommend one night’s stay at The Bentley. The rooms generally go for around £45, but you should always be prepared for extra costs like flea powder and having your wallet stolen. The official reason why I return so often to the dear old Bentley is poverty. Oxford hotel rooms are absurdly overpriced and the Bentley is only a ten minute walk into town. But part of me also comes here to commune with everything that once made English greatly terrible. Until the 1990s, we were a country that suffered appalling low standards of service with politeness bordering on enthusiasm. We once thrilled at noisy plumbing and broken windows; we soundly slept through bed bugs and police raids. Alas, the vacuity of Cool Britannia and the arrival of American brands like Starbucks raised our standards. Today we act like millionaires, expecting “value for money” and “locks on doors.” The loss of our humility is depressing.
Fortunately, the Bentley keeps the flag flying for low standards. When I arrived on Thursday morning, I was greeted by an extraordinary fellow with the ears and teeth of some venomous rodent. “You are too early!” he screeched, for I had presumably arrived long before they had the chance to remove the dead body left over from the night before. I wandered around Oxford’s beautiful shopping mall (KFC and an animal rights protest) and returned to the “hotel” to discover that the owner was in the building. He’s a very amusing man who covers himself against complaints by making it clear from the get-go that he really doesn’t give a damn whether you live or die. He told me that I had a choice between the basement or the attic. And, no, I wouldn’t be getting any help with my bags.
How to describe my basement suite? It had the look and smell of a 1930s doss house, with décor by Fred and Rose West. Lino everywhere, a television made before television was invented, a prison bathroom, a family of spiders and a unique perfume of piss and damp. Some things have changed since I last stayed at the Bentley. Prices have shot up by £5, which I presume was spent to cull all the cats that used to wander through the junkyard into the kitchen. It might also have been done to discourage the use of the rooms by certain female professionals. It’s not unusual to spend a night at the Bentley listening to drunk men arrive and go within fifteen minutes, accompanied by the creaking of floorboards and the slap of leather on bare skin. Well, a girl’s gotta live.
I have stayed in hotels that should’ve been far worse than the Bentley. A motel in Detroit had just four TV channels, one of which was BDSM porn (and after five hours, that losses its appeal). Another establishment in Montgomery Alabama cost just $15 per night and functioned openly as a brothel. But the genius of the Bentley is that everything – service, comfort, heating, violence – is of such a uniformly terrible standard that it feels like a cut-price version of Hell.
Yet a part of me can’t help but love it. I remember Britain before it got all tarted-up in the 1990s – a country where wine and sex were the exclusive preserve of the French. I remember my gran toasting bred over a gas fire, her ceilings yellow with fag ash. For a couple of quid, she cleaned the flat of a woman called Betty down the hall who was addicted to cooking sherry. Everything was brown to hide the dirt. These women thought nothing of puffing smoke in a child’s face and their idea of elegance was a knitted loo roll cover. My grandmother didn’t own a toothbrush.
For me, a trip to the Bentley is a Disneyland for nostalgic Brits. For those who want to see what the world was like before we all went mad for brand coffee and garden decking, I recommend a stay. After an exciting night of blaring TVs and mysterious moans, I went to breakfast. The condiments were obviously condiments that had been collected from visits to other hotels, the food was ripe and the guest list salt-of-the-Earth. A fellow at the next table kept muttering under his breath, “Fuckin’ ‘ell this is bad … Fuckin’ ‘ell.” As I left, the man with the ears asked me, “Enjoy yer breakfast?” I replied, “It was lovely, thank you.” Only the English could lie and mean it all at the same time.
The reason why some people like Obama and others don’t isn’t just about personality or philosophy. It’s a reflection of a voter’s attitude towards politics in general. Obama is a very good politician – a great speaker, a clever strategist, obsessed with winning. Anyone who loves politics will appreciate his skills and, in all probability, come to admire and respect him. Anyone who dislikes politics – who regards the process as corrupt or corrupting – will be inclined to distrust a master of the medium. That explains the media’s exuberant reaction to last week’s Democratic convention. If you’re looking to be swayed by good rhetoric, then you will be. As movie director Paul Schrader once said, it’s not hard to provoke an emotional reaction from an audience. Just shoot a puppy.
Personally, I don’t like politics. That statement might seem perverse coming from a political historian. It’s like reading about the slaughterhouse worker who never eats meat. But it’s true. Of course, there’s much about politics that is salacious and fun – eccentric, insane, amusing and dripping in sex. Politicians can also be very good company, although many develop a pattern of speech that has all the false enthusiasm and rehearsed spontaneity of a Stepford Wife (“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe…”)
But politics ultimately comes down to power. It is an addiction no different from the gambler or the alcoholic, both of which develop clever ways to deceive others into thinking they are perfectly normal and can be safely left alone with the money jar. The politician looks dispassionate, even Vulcan. But beneath the surface, their blood yearns for votes and power. The Left might insist that they went into politics to help other people, but that begs the question, “Why politics?” If you really want to change the world, become a missionary in Africa. It costs much less to do and the News of the World won't take photographs of you while you're doing it. No, you’ve got to be an unusual mix of masochist and egotist to run for office.
To get to where they are, the successful pol has to make sacrifices that no ordinary human being would make: move to a winnable district, become a lawyer, campaign at weekends, stay away from strip clubs, marry, have an enormous blonde family with names like Trig and Trucker, attend football games, spend time cadging money off rich bores, and pretend to like people who smell. Only power lovers, narcissists, and sociopaths would do all of this. Anyone who is very good at it is not to be trusted.
Why then do I obsess about politics? Because the system is what it is and its imperfection reflects our fallen nature. Just as a Roman Senator had to endure Caligula’s insanity in order to get fresh water pumped to his district, so a congressman has to do the rounds of TV shows and barbeques to raise the funds for a bridge to Nowheresville. If you care about anything at all, you usually find yourself drawn back to politics. If you want to talk and write about the way things are, it’s impossible to ignore the powerful. And if you must be political, why not try to enjoy it? Everyone likes to be seduced, which is why ugly romantics do unjustly well. The alternative is that the sociopaths rule without interruption, allowing them to bullcrap humanity into Armageddon. This is what they mean when they say, “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to vote Democrat.” (Joke.)
Politics is a sad duty. The best politicians are those who enter the profession reluctantly and leave it enthusiastically. Those men don’t have to deliver good speeches. They just have to do good … and then they go home. They don’t get big bounces in the polls or flattering reviews on television, and Chris Matthews will never say he loves them. But, thanks to the common sense of millions of voters who don’t like politics, they do occasionally win.