17 Apr

The Harrison Ford Shaped Hole

There’s nothing I can say about the new Star Wars trailer that hasn’t already been said by people much nerdier than me and with a much better collection of action figures (and all, no doubt, still in their original packaging). For the record, I don’t actually own any Star Wars action figures and I don’t think I even owned any of the official merchandise, with perhaps the exception of some old dusty paperbacks and a super deluxe collector’s edition box set of the original VHS tapes probably now not worth shelf dust.

Anyway, I sat down today to watch the new Star Wars trailer and my first conscious thought was about the opening shot of the Star Destroyer, lying ruined in a rocky desert on some unknown planet. I should imagine on the big screen it will have the same ‘wow’ factor that the opening shot from the original movie apparently had on audiences in 1977. That shot established mythology, history, scale, wonder and was just possibly the most evocative way of introducing the series beyond the familiar strains of John William’s score.

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My second thought was about that strangely mangled Darth Vader helmet. I think it’s because it seems to have strange teeth that I found it slightly creepy but also mildly amusing. For no explicable reason, I thought ‘melted Chuckle Brother‘ and I now can’t get that image from out of my mind.

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What followed, though, really told me nothing about the movie. More X wings flying through water, men whooping, a noticeably young, pretty but (I thought ) bland set of casting choices, vaguely defined bad guys with red light sabres, and the whole thing having a slightly modern vibe, with chromium troopers reminding me of the original series of Battlestar Galatica. And none of that really excited me.

Then I heard the voice I recognised and I felt a shiver.

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Sure, he’s looking older but he’s in no bad shape. I know this is Harrison Ford pre the plane crash Harrison Ford but I’m not sure if it’s the post-broken ankle Harrison Ford. I know my Fords but I struggle to identify vintages to that level of specificity.

This leads me to my revealing and slightly sad confession of the week: I’ve been checking for progress reports on Harrison Ford every morning since he went propeller-first into a golf course. I’ve probably not missed a day checking Google for news. On quite a few days, it might even be the first thing I do when walking up, sometimes even before checking my email. I know. I know. It’s pathetic. I can’t explain myself. I didn’t even realise that I was this much of a Harrison Ford fan.

Yet there’s always been something about Ford which defies logic. There are certainly better actors out there, many with more personable personalities. And though Ford is the star of some great movies, he has also, admittedly, made some stinkers too (‘Hollywood Homicide’, 2003). He’s an actor who seems to have a particularly difficult sense of his best qualities and sometimes seems to go out of his way to infuriate his fans. For a time, he thought of himself as romantic lead, making many of his fans (myself included) pull out our hair in frustration. I mean, what the hell was he thinking when he made ‘Sabrina’ (I’m not even going to bother looking up its year)? Then there was ‘the earring’, which, I confess, I’ve never totally excused or accepted. There was no rhyme nor reason behind it, so I resorted to telling myself firmly postmodern arguments such as ‘well, he’s ironically commentating on his place in male culture… He’s so far over on the manliness spectrum, he’s started to come back around the other way…’ Or something like that…

Ford has often been his own worst enemy, which is itself an endearing quality. It’s only recently that he’s been anything other than dismissive about ‘Blade Runner’, a film celebrated for its production design but a film I only go back to because of the stars: Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Daryl Hannah and, well, just about every speaking role in the film, filled with exceptional talents. People talk about the look of the film but I maintain it’s the cast, all of them great, but the whole thing is held together by Ford.

Ford is best when he’s not the straightforward hero. Sure, I love Indiana Jones and I’ll watch the new Star Wars films with eager anticipation. But they’re franchises and I rarely get excited by marketing. They’re certainly not the films I reach for when I’m having a bad day or week and want to cheer myself up. My favourite Harrison Ford movies were not even blockbusters when they were released and they aren’t even all that highly rated now except by myself. My favourites are movies like ‘Frantic’ (1988) and ‘Patriot Games’ (1992), films that are generally forgotten but, for me at least, are better because they lack the lights and show.

They have Harrison Ford and Ford fits the shape of my world. He’s complicated and truculent, largely hostile to the spin machine that operates everywhere these days. He plays the lead without the swagger you get in most movie leads these days. I’m sure he knows which is his ‘best side’ but I hope he’d never dare suggest as much to a director of photography. Ford is a man of the short quip, the demoralising put down, the cutting admission that he’s been lucky in a bat shit crazy world. As he was recently quoted to have told actor Oscar Isaac about ‘flying’ in the new movie: ‘It’s fake. And it’s in space, so none of that applies, really.’

The defining quality, I guess, is that ability to express our very modern frustrations. He shines when trying to explain his troubles to inept policemen or bureaucratic officials. My favourite Ford moments are those when he’s struggling to explain the world. I love the way he manhandles John Mahoney around the office in ‘Frantic’, sticking his fingers into his ribs imitating a gun. It’s an almost bullying  physical presence but a presence made bullying by the inability of the world to follow his logic.

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So when Harrison Ford crashes an old World War 2 plane on a golf course, the world asks why he’s flying such junk around in a residential area. My answer to that is: I don’t care and I hope he doesn’t care either. The scar on the golf course is like the scar on his chin and (no doubt) the scars now on his head. People do dumb things that are fun and there’s no point in trying to apply health and safety to the human spirit. It’s a just a fact of the real world that people like doing the sometimes crazy things that define us as people. Screw Justin Beiber and screw his tattoos that mean nothing beyond his vain ego. It’s the real scars that mean everything.

So, when I check first thing every morning, it frustrates me to not really know how Harrison Ford is doing. Yet I accept the reasons why nobody really tells us about his progress. I find it frustrating but, at the same time, I find it reassuring that he’s not become the victim to the witless TMZ generation. He’s not been pursued into his local grocers when he’s buying beer or lactose free yogurt. Knowing about the earring was too much for me. I don’t want to see him in yoga bottoms. I want to think that Ford is the few ordinary guys in an extraordinary business. He has something that no special effect or clever piece of production design can replicate. What he brings to a film isn’t polish. It’s something that’s harder to define but is more essential. The second Star Wars trilogy films were fun, enjoyable (I’m one of their few defenders) but they were always lacking something. It was the Ford quality. For want of a better phrase, it’s knuckle spit. It’s that great big ‘screw you’ attitude that an otherwise bland uniform world would hammer out of all of us.

Currently it feels like there’s a Harrison Ford shape hole in the world. I just hope he’s doing well and will soon be fit enough to fill it again.

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17 Apr

Friday Notes

Posting my ‘daily cartoon’ the next day is the worst part of drawing them. Firstly, it’s a mark that you’re finished with one and that you have to start another. Secondly, you hope for feedback saying it’s the best cartoon you’ve ever drawn when the reality is that it’s barely looked at and, even when it is looked at, it’s often passed over with a shrug of the shoulders. This feels particularly bad when you do happen to think that it is the best cartoon you’ve ever drawn

Last night’s was one of those rare cartoons when I thought I’d ticked my personal boxes. Perhaps I’m just pleased because my cross hatching worked out and that the cartoon tried to say something. I don’t know if I can judge. The left side could do with more work and I’m not satisfied with colour. It looked good in black and white but colour, for me, distracts. Yet colour is expected so I needed to add some…

I’ve been providing some cartoons for Tim Marshall’s new venture over at The What and the Why. Because the focus is on international affairs, I’ve been trying to spot cartoons with a world theme. It’s not always easy but it’s helpful to me because it forces me to draw things and people I wouldn’t normally be drawn to satirise or even think about. Today’s cartoon was different. A vain president jailing cartoonists would always draw my attention. Apparently Turkey’s Erdogan doesn’t like to be ridiculed (explanatory BBC news report in the link), which seems like an eminently good reason to ridicule him. My first attempt was probably a stretch too far. I started drawing jowls and, naturally, I thought I’d see how far I could take them. By 11pm last night, I realised I’d probably taken them too far so I tried again.

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As I redrew the majority of the cartoon, I watched the challenger’s debate from earlier in the evening, followed by hours of analysis. Some of it made sense. Much of it didn’t. The parties were engaged in their typical spin operations and sometimes even the strongest will struggles to avoid following their bad logic down the rabbit hole of political bias.

I thought the biggest loser of the evening was (surprisingly) David Cameron. I hadn’t expected the Prime Minister’s absence to hurt him so bad. Yet listening to him claiming credit for the debate earlier in the day was simply nauseating. He spoke of unblocking the logjam when he’d been the cause of the logjam in the beginning. It made the resulting debate feel like justice in that it was an hour and a half of solid government bashing. No having somebody on the stage to defend their record might well be one of the biggest miscalculations of the election. It was bruising stuff.

Of the participants, my verdict was as follows.

Ed Miliband

Miliband didn’t need to do much and just stay clear of trouble. He’d won the evening by simply turning up. What followed was, to use a cricket metaphor, a display of playing every ball with straight bat. He never looked like edging a ball to slip but, then, his opponents were hardly steaming in with their fastest deliveries. He ensured his victory at the end by challenging Cameron to a debate. It was a win-win move. If Cameron refuses, he looks week and undemocratic. If he accepts, Miliband gets to debate with Cameron who seems singularly uninterested into entering into any democratic process. From Cameron’s point of view, he can’t win either way but I think he stands more of a chance by debating.

Natalie Bennett

I can’t explain why I have a soft spot for Bennett. Everything should go against her: that accent, those policies, a few woeful performances in various media spotlights. Yet each time she stands up to speak, I find myself surprised by how much I both like her and how much I agree with her. She was the only person to speak up for people who are too sick to be considered ‘hardworking’. That, for me, spoke volumes. I know the Green manifesto is filled with risible nonsense. Andew Neil has done enough this election to prove that. However, Bennett has a knack of speaking about things which the other parties don’t address. Not sure any of that makes sense but I’m not sure I can explain why Bennett keeps impressing me.

Leanne Wood

Wood attempted to relive her success of the opening leader’s debate and she probably suffered for that. She seemed eager to lay into Farage, no doubt knowing it was the thing that she was praised for the last time they met. Beyond that, she spoke to her audience in Wales and about that I’m not really qualified to comment. She doesn’t have that connection to English voters that Sturgeon has oddly seemed to have fashioned.

Nichola Sturgeon

People have constantly praised her performance throughout the campaign’s debates but last night was the first time I sat up and thought she was something special. She repeatedly had the best answers on the night, though perhaps too few hard questions were directed her way. I can see why she appeals to so many. She has become the face of the election and has replaced Farage as the fashionable outsider that non-voters would like to vote for if they’re in England and will vote for if they’re north of the border.

Nigel ‘Nige’ Farage

Not so much a one-trick pony as  a pony who has learned a few good tricks which he performs every time he’s trotted out onto the national stage. Last night was more of the same from Nige. His tactic is clear. He wants to lose the studio but win the living room. Turning on the audience was probably a masterstroke. He obviously needed the boos to make his point. He wanted to portray himself as the man who speaks for the common folk who never get their opinions aired on TV. He summed it up with his line about ‘I say what many of you are probably thinking’. He effectively acknowledged that ninety percent of the people in the room would dislike him and never vote UKIP. He took that fact and turned it to his advantage, reaching out to his core voters to remind them why UKIP is different to the rest.

 

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16 Apr

Election Notes

Okay. Today’s cartoon finished and posted. Now time to write some words…

Another of the many frustrating parts of the election coverage is the way the media seem to be giving the most attention to the generally slack jawed and indifferent. I suppose it’s  ‘news’ that some people have no interest in politics but I’m not sure it’s really important news. It’s certainly a fact not worth repeating in every single news item.

The always excellent Emily Maitlis spent a good portion of last night’s Newsnight wasting her quality heels wandering around some London hotspot asking smirking idlers about the party manifestos. It reminded me of being back in school when the teacher would ask the snot-nosed gibbon at the back of the room if he knew the name of the title character of ‘Macbeth’. They would give the same shrug, the same creeping smile, eyes looking to friends for affirmation that their stupidity was admirable. And last night the exercise was similarly pointless and taught us nothing except that David Cameron should stop turning his beady eye towards the north when he starts talking about the shiftless.

There is, of course, a difference between wilful ignorance and ignorance that comes naturally. I believe only one guy had read a manifesto, which doesn’t surprise me or, at least, surprised that Maitlis found at least one. I haven’t read a manifesto and I don’t intend on reading a manifesto. Manifestos aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be brandished like a holy book, waved above the head as though you’re holding Dumbledore’s grimoire or, as Maitlis correctly explained, finally opened but only when you want to prove that your government has gone back on its pre-election promises.

At this election, the manifestos don’t even amount to any of those things. The manifestos are written by parties who don’t believe they’ll get into government and therefore are promising us the earth because they know that the juicy parts can be knocked out as soon as they enter into coalition negotiations. I imagine the first words out of David Cameron’s mouth the morning after the election should he win a majority would be the words ‘Shit… What did we promise!?’

Which takes us back to the news.

Today The Guardian are in the nation’s most apathetic constituency which, surprisingly not, is up here in the North in Manchester Central. I sometimes wonder whether these reporters are setting out to find the story they’ve already written. I’m constantly depressed that the media in London talk about ‘ordinary’ folk being turned off politics. I’m not sure how I’m not myself ‘ordinary’. I know a lot of ordinary people who talk about the election. It’s just that the media never turn a microphone in their direction.

There can be no real surprise why so much of the nation is turned off politics and it has nothing to do with a person being ordinary or not. It goes to the heart of why Scotland has turned so much in favour of the SNP, which I’m certain should try to get the word ‘independence’ into their title, if only so that we’d be able to call then SNIP. Supporters of SNIP (for that’s what they effectively are and what they effectively want) are clearly a generation tired of rule from Westminster and feel particularly aggrieved when their vote does not dramatically alter the government. Last time, Scotland voted in favour of Labour but got a Tory government delivering austerity. Yet the same is true of much of northern England and Wales. One Nation Toryism really has disappeared and the last government produced a Two Nation Toryism. It’s everyone south of Birmingham and then the rest of us.

What you get is a sense that large portions of the country simply don’t matter in this election. Where I live, the seat was decided generations ago. I might as well not vote or vote for whoever I like because the result will be the same. I suppose it’s liberating knowing that you can vote Green or go Monster Raving Lunatic without any consequences but it’s also pretty depressing. It means that there’s no real campaigning going on. Nobody visits us and we are left with that familiar feeling that the election is being run by people who really don’t care about the people. Tonight, I notice, David Cameron won’t be attending the leaders debate. It’s what he wanted, of course, and he clearly didn’t want to attend the two ‘debates’ (or pitiful excuses for debates) that have already been held. This is the first time I’ve thought an election was being run by politicians some of whom are even less enthusiastic than the bloody listless public. In a way, I find my opinions hardening around those attitudes rather than the policies. I want to vote for politicians who show the passion and engagement with the public. Not politicians who slyly creep around the country meeting their loyal activists and sticking security personal in the face of some brave soul who dared put a little spice into the general election sing a slightly risqué song on his ukulele.

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15 Apr

An Aside About the Indie’s Attack on UKIP

A brief aside before I go back to drawing tomorrow’s cartoon…

The worst thing about this election is not the leaders who refuse to mix with real people. Nor is it the Tories announcing cynical spending plans after years of ‘austerity’ (thereby proving, I think, that ‘austerity’ was merely a word which helpfully disguised the natural instincts of Thatcherite conservatives to reduce the significance of the state).  No, the worst part of this election is the crass attempts by the media to swing public opinion.

The Telegraph have perhaps been the worst for this, which barely a day passing without some headline screaming out about the virtues of the Tories and the horrors of Labour. Yet the left leading papers are also as guilty and the following is perhaps the worst example I’ve seen so far.

I would not, myself, vote UKIP, but I think if you’re going to disagree with them, then you have to disagree with them on substance. You don’t start running the kind of entirely risible story The Independent currently have at the top of their website.

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I’ve done a fair bit of Photoshopping in my life and I can tell when a picture have been doctored in order to make it fit a composition. I’ve done this kind of job myself many times, making a bookcase stretch further. It’s done to make the picture fit the page and not, as the Indie claim, to make Nuttall look ‘more educated’.

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They even claim that the book he’s reading is an ‘illustrated picturebook’, which I guess is meant to suggest that he’s reading a children’s book. Thirty seconds of research shows it’s actually ‘a brief well illustrated history of British Rebels and Reformers from the medieval period and the Peasants Rebellion of 1381 to the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century and Anti-Slavery, the Luddites, Chartists, and other reforms to the turn of the century with the Fabian Society and others.’ It just happens to have illustrations.

Now, I know that in the grand scheme of things this is a nothing story. I know it’s a small thing. I guess that I’m the only person this annoys. Yet I don’t see how anybody can complain about Putin manipulating people’s fears through the media in Russia, whilst we in the UK are currently experiencing exactly the same on a daily basis. Aren’t we supposed to be better than this? And if we can’t believe something as trivial as this, how on earth can we trust them about the more serious matters?

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14 Apr

What Classless Society?

I’ve had a few emails in the past few days from people asking about my accent. At least two thought that I’m from Yorkshire.

I didn’t think much about it until I read this morning an excellent interview with the actor Christopher Ecclestone who hails from Salford just down the East Lancs from here. He talks about class in the UK and I liked particular the way Ecclestone talked about himself. ‘I was a skinny, awkward-looking bugger with an accent, as I still am,’ he said, in words I’ve probably used a few times to describe myself. ‘Bugger’ is a word I find myself using quite a lot. It’s distinctly part of the vocabulary of the North West of England.

Yet it’s what Ecclestone went on to say that is more significant. ‘British society has always been based on inequality, particularly culturally,’ he explained. ‘I’ve lived with it, but it’s much more pronounced now, and it would be difficult for someone like me to come through.’

I lingered on this paragraph because just the other day I was discussing with a friend if we really live in a so called ‘classless’ society. I have never been an advocate of ‘Class War’ and my politics have never been so far to the left that I’d ever consider myself ‘left wing’. Yet I maintain that the past five years has seen class divisions grow even deeper. I’m even more aware of my own alienation from British culture where a privileged elite enjoy the arts and the rest of us scrape around looking for greater meaning amid the closed libraries and non-existent gallery space. I write a lot of essays, books and poems, draw my bad cartoons whilst pretending I’m not attempting to be ‘arty’, and I study culture through multiple sources. I have so many qualifications I’ve made myself largely unemployable. You could argue that I’m deeply cultured except I don’t exist in that world where such things are cherished. I live in a deeply working class town where I’m very much the oddball, the outcast, and clearly unwanted. It’s the rich BT engineers who rule the town. They have the money. They dictate our culture or lack thereof.

Yet I digress slightly. I’ve read a few times in the past twelve months of some London-based social critics proclaiming that we’re now living in an age without class. I suppose to David Cameron, the UK does look classless. I imagine it looks amazingly homogenous if you surround yourself with friends from Eton.  Yet that’s not my perception of the UK. Nor, it would seem, is it the perception of one of our best actors.

It goes back to the problem of people not recognising my dialect. It would never have occurred to me that anybody would confuse the Lancashire and Yorkshire accents, any more than somebody would mistake a Newcastle accent for the accent of Cornwall or Birmingham. Yet perhaps the confusion is actually not that surprising given than the accents on the TV tend to be of a very narrow range. There are little bits of the Welsh accent, quite a lot of Scottish, occasional Geordie or Brummie, and once or twice you might hear a Scouse twang. Yet really the rest is just that same flat English of the estuaries or what Ecclestone calls the ‘milky, anodyne culture’.

At a tangent slightly: on The Daily Politics a couple of mornings ago, Andrew Neil made passing reference to the Labour Party’s manifesto launch taking place in Manchester. Neil suggested that Labour were only doing so to avoid scrutiny from the press. This led to a big family debate and I found myself on an unusual side of the argument.

Normally, I defend Neil to the hilt. There’s no journalist I admire more. Yet on this small matter I thought he was wrong. My argument ran: ‘Why shouldn’t Labour launch their manifesto from Manchester? Labour are strong in the north and we’re as much a part of the electorate as anybody in London’.

I was being naive, of course, and Neil was right. All the main political journalists are based in London and though they could travel easily to Manchester, there were possibly fewer of them up north to ask questions of the Labour leader. Yet if Andrew Neil was right in fact, he was wrong in spirit. And that’s what I’m trying to argue here today.

I never think of myself as having much of an accent. I don’t really think much about accent. I watch a lot of TV news. I enjoy debates and newspaper reviews. I enjoy the Neil triumvirate: the Daily Politics, the Sunday Politics, and This Week. I watch Question Time and the new show hosted by Tom Bradbury on ITV whose title escapes me. I watch the Daily Show and Bill Maher’s weekly panel talk show. I don’t consciously think accent. Yet when people think I’m from Yorkshire, it makes me realise how little my Lancashire accent is really heard on TV. When it is, it’s usually the twisted perversion of an accent coming from the mouth of Johnny Vegas. (Incidentally: I really like Vegas but I hate how he represents our area. It feels like he plays the stereotype that confirms people’s worst prejudices about a boorish uneducated North West.)

This might be a trivial point but I’m not entirely sure that it is. Individuals don’t form opinions. Opinions are formed as if in a collective consciousness, as good points are repeated and carried forward by people engaged into the community debate. So, for example, I might watch the news and see Kevin McGuire on Sky News say something I agree with. I hear somebody repeat that on the Daily Politics and the idea hardens into a personal opinion that I might repeat. It enters into the public debate at multiple points and the arguments circulate around it, help develop and refine it, and then the whole mass of ideas moves on as new opinions are generated.

Yet what I notice is how many of the people engaged in that debate live in a closed intellectual biome. Even those like McGuire who speak with an accent do so from a somewhat privileged position. For example, you rarely hear from somebody from Eccles talking about their experiences living in Eccles. Newspaper reviews have the same London suburbanites speaking from a very limited worldview.  The news agenda is incestuous; set by people whose outlook is formed by living a few miles around Westminster, or, more broadly, within driving distance to the main TV studios. It means that their perceptions of culture are different to the rest of the country. They view public transport differently to how people might view it if they live in a poor town in Yorkshire or in the Scottish borders. They are the people who think, for example, that to enjoy culture, those of us in the North can simply hop on a train and visit London. Logically, they might make sense but they lack the practical experience of trying to do that which would demonstrate why it’s impossible. They wouldn’t know, to further my example, that trains into London in the morning are prohibitively expensive, whilst trains to the North in the morning are astonishingly cheap. Trains out of London are prohibitively expensive late in the day, whilst trains into London late in the day are cheap. It makes it easy to travel out of London in the morning and home at night. It’s nearly impossible to do it the other way around. People in London can explore the rest of the country cheaply but those of us in the north are economically restricted from accessing our capital city. You have to travel on a late afternoon train, travel home in the morning, paying for a hotel overnight. It’s hardly a ‘day out’.

This is just one example of many I could use. My point is: as I’ve noted before, it’s remarkable and deeply depressing how politics and political debate is largely confined to people with London identities. I was no fan of either men but, unlike the 1980s, there are no figures like Derek Hatton or Arthur Scargill to provide a different view of reality. Why do none of our big cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Newcastle have people who are recognisably part of the city like Boris Johnson represents London? Where are the social critics giving the point of view of the North West or Manchester or Warrington? There simply are none.

Classless society? I suppose it is if you completely ignore nine tenths of that society and act like the poor buggers don’t exist.

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