Sunday, 19 October 2008

Flags of South-West England

I read this week that the county of Dorset had selected a flag for the county. Apparently before this it simply had a design of three lions in a row that looked very like that used by the England cricket and football teams rather than being distinctive. I sometimes drive through Dorset, which is where the South-West region of England begins, though of course the capital of what in the early Medieval period was the Kingdom of Wessex was at Winchester in Hampshire, the next county East, which now falls in the South-East region of England. The impetus for Dorset, which apart from the Poole-Bournemouth-Christchurch conurbation is primarily rural to get its own flag, comes quite clearly from Cornwall.

The St. Pirn Flag of Cornwall

A few years back, probably encouraged by steps towards greater establishment of a Welsh identity with the increase of learning the Welsh language from the late 1970s onwards and the Welsh Assembly more recently, the Cornish began to rediscover their identity and to promote the Cornish language. Cornish, like Welsh, is a Celtic language and its popularity has now reached an extent that there is now a Cornish language Wikipedia. Anyway, the flag of the white cross on the black background often accompanied by the Cornish word for Cornwall, 'Kernow' began appearing on cars right across the South of England. Even when you are two or three counties away from Cornwall you will see it emblazoned in numerous places. Partly I think this stems from the English love of tiny states, a sense of wanting your locale to be independent and of esoteric languages. The Cornish flag is the negative of the medieval flag of the kingdom later duchy of Brittany, another state with Celtic people many of whom came from Cornwall to settle. However, Brittany part of France from the 14th century remodelled their flag in the 1930s to resemble the US flag though keeping the black and white colours.

Not to be outdone by Cornwall, the next county East along the peninsula, Devon, which is often lumped together with Cornwall (for example the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary of police) though the Cornish often dislike the people of Devon, well, in 2003 Devon developed a similar flag but with dark green in the place of black. I have seen this on some cars but not to the extent of the Cornish ones which I feel sell to tourists as well as locals. Devon also lacks that historic identity of being a separate state that Cornwall was until the 10th century and also does not have its own language.

The St. Petroc Flag of Devon

In online discussions there was a debate that with Devon ,which borders Dorset to the West adopting even unofficially such a flag, Dorset should have one too. In a vote ran by the county council, the winning design won 2,086 votes (54% of the share) with the next nearest of the four designs put forward, winning only 856 votes (22% of the share). This is a small proportion of the county's population (145,000 people live in Poole alone) but it follows the theme established by Cornwall and Devon, so I guess it is not going to cause offence. The gold and red were in Dorset's coat of arms and in the badge of the county regiment and it was the colour of the Wessex dragon too, plus, as people have pointed out, local landmarks like Gold Hill and Golden Cap. One of the two designers lives in Sweden and as with the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish flags which all share the cross of St. Olaf as their basis, you can see a developing shape with the South-West flags, though attributed to different saints.

The St. Wite flag of Dorset

It is certainly bright and colourful. I know the red lines are in keeping with the black ones of Devon's flag but they are sensible, as from the numerous examples of this flag that I have seen flying this weekend, the gold becomes very pale in sunlight and it would be difficult to distingush this from the white cross if the red did not mark it out.

Are we going to see a sweep of flags across England now, all associated with local saints, as I suggested for local replacements for St. George's Day? Possibly. A lot of this has to do with the branding of counties and their corporate identity. This may be a challenge now especially in those counties broken up by unitary authorities such as Berkshire (North of Hampshire) and Somerset. Somerset which borders Devon and and Dorset, is in a similar situation to how Dorset was until recently, with a heraldic badge but no flag per se.
The Badge of Somerset

Though parts of Somerset were in Wessex, its dragon is different. A red dragon does appear on the Welsh flag to the North-West of Somerset. I can imagine now, Somerset will come up with its own flag, there are already online discussions about this. Maybe it could adopt something along the lines of 'Land of the Setting Sun', I could envisage that, with a nice blue sky and green base. However, it might also go with the same kind of cross as Cornwall, Devon and Dorset perhaps with the red and blue on white, probably a blue cross, outlined in white, so it does not appear too close to the flag of England as a whole.

The flag of Wessex

Wiltshire, the other county in the South-West (it borders Dorset, Somerset and Hampshire) seems to have gone for something entirely more exotic and which looks more like a flag of some Caribbean island. It was introduced in 2007. The golden bird is a Great Bustard extinct in the UK since 1832 but has been re-introduced in the county. The green and white represent grass on chalk hills of Wiltshire. The circle apparently represents the standing stones at Stone Henge and Avebury in the county and the three white and three green refer to the six counties that currently border Wiltshire. So lots of references in there. However, it does not look that English.

The flag of Wiltshire

Like many people I prefer Chrys Fear's 2006 alternative which was stimulated by chalk horse carvings on hillsides in Wiltshire and seems to sum up the prehistoric culture of the region. The green also echoes that of the Devon flag, a nearby county.

Chrys Fear's flag for Wiltshire

Just to wrap up, I looked at the flag of the main component of Wessex, which is Hampshire, though it falls into the South-East region rather than the South-West. There is a rather dull flag which looks like something that was created by the council in 1977, though it was adopted in 1992 to celebrate the centenary of the county council which had been established in 1889. It had to have special permission due to the inclusion of the crown.

Current flag of Hampshire

The 'Daily Echo' newspaper has launched a campaign for a better Hampshire flag and of the designs on show I like the two from Michael Jacobs:
Designs by Michael Jacobs for flags of Hampshire
These would seem to keep with the style which is gathering momentum along the South coast counties. The rose is an important symbol in the county, which has the Rose Bowl as a key sports venue too. The Tudor rose shown here does appear on Hampshire county badges already. The green and gold of the first design are reminiscent of the flags of Devon and Dorset which seems sensible. The latter references the Wiltshire green but also the naval traditions which are very strong in Hampshire due to Portsmouth and Southampton.

I like the fact that there is cross-referencing between these newly appearing county flags and I hope that Hampshire, unlike Wiltshire, adopts something sensible and that people of the county can be proud of. To show how different things can be when you move to a new region, I include the flag of Mercia which covers what is primarily today the West Midlands of England. This has a Cross of St. Andrew, also known as the saltaire, best known from the flag of Scotland. This could far too easily be mixed with the Scottish flag or even just iconography of the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party).
The flag of Mercia

Dropping the 42 Days Detention Without Charge

I was pleased to read that finally the UK government has shelved its plans for people to be able to be held without being charged, the so-called 'pre-charge detention' which seemed so much like 'protective custody' of the Nazi regime. Of course people can still be held for 28 days without being charged which seems wrong (as Monica Ali has noted, the next closest to us is Australia with only 12 days detention without charge), but at least we have not taken another step to indefinite imprisonment without charge. Neither fortunately have we simply returned to anything like the policy of internment used by British forces in Northern Ireland August 1971 - December 1975 under which 1,981 people, predominantly Catholic (only 107 Protestants were held and none before 1973) were detained without trial on suspicion of being associated with terrorists. Often the wrong person would be arrested; 104 were released immediately when they were found out not to be the suspects. All those interneed received harsh treatment such as beatings. The reaction in terms of strikes and protests by the Catholic population forced the abandonment. The British had a record of internment going back to The Boer War (1899-1902) during which they interned the families of Boer guerilla fighters in concentration camps to put pressure on them to end the war.

The UK has these examples from its own history of imprisonment without charge, even if it is not well known by many people especially outside Northern Ireland. It is one of those files of 'secret history'. Why did the government think that moving towards such a policy in the UK again would not radicalise Muslims and other people in the country in just the way they hoped to combat. The USA blunders on in its policies on terrorism but the British who have dealt with terrorist groups from Malaysia to India to Palestine to Kenya to Ireland over the past sixty years should be better equipped. Either the collective memory of the state suffers from Alzheimer's disease, or, I imagine, many in office like the power over the lives of individuals that such legislation gives them. It might be targeted at activists but it also cows the general population. The inheritors of the Blair legacy like a compliant, obsequious population and get irritated when we are insufficiently humble. Interestingly Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said that the 42 days would be introduced in future 'if needed'. Does that mean, when the British interrogators prove to be 3.5 times less effective than Australian ones rather than 2.3 times less effective as at present? More likely it means when the government wants to look tough and aggressive or prove it is a friend, to say, a President McCain led USA. It is interesting that since the credit crunch fear of terrorism on the part of the government seems to have evaporated on both sides of the Atlantic as the economic problems have provided a different way to show how robust the government is.

'The Guardian' yesterday carried an interview with Stella Rimington, Director General of MI5 (Britain's Security Service dealing with internal threats) 1991-6 and her comments have appeared across British newspapers. I was glad that she spoke out in the way she did, though, unsurprisingly she is still a supporter of the British Establishment and its confidentiality, she does have a somewhat liberal tone (going beyond the simple libertarianism found in some British Conservatives) which one can see as the basis of Dame Judi Dench's portrayal of the character of M, head of MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service dealing with external threats), in the James Bond movies since 1995.

I can imagine many British people were glad when she said that the USA's response to the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 were a 'huge overreaction'. The USA behaved as if no-one had suffered terrorist attacks before or that somehow these ones were more evil than any other. As Rimington (1935-) noted she had been living in a country experiencing terrorist attacks for decades. You could argue that the British response in Northern Ireland, notably internment and shoot-to-kill policy of the British Army in 1982 bear similarities to what the USA is doing in Iraq. However, the British could or would not sustain an invasion of another country. The more I write this, the more I see in fact, there is less difference between the British policy in Northern Ireland and the post-2001 US policy in its 'war on terror'. I think it is basically that we see a difference because the British did not publicise it so widely nor adopt that moral tone which the Americans have forced not only on the people they are attacking but also on their allies and on neutral states. The UK is constantly being asked to prove that it is committed to the war on terror, for example, through adaptations to our passports and backing off when the USA detains British citizens at Guantanamo Bay.

You want to say to the USA 'get over it'. It is clear that the Bush administration was in fact waiting for an incident of the kind that happened on 11th September 2001 to introduce harsh legislation and larger funding for the security service. By adopting a very high moral tone it allowed the administration to excuse anything on that ground. This is why they keep re-emphasising the issue of the attacks even seven years later as that is what has allowed them to introduce torture as a method in the US legal system and to invade Iraq in order to secure its oil and keep it out of the hands of the Chinese. If 11th September events had not happened then the USA would have found something similar in order to give this legitimacy to their own actions, which even they knew were morally dubious so had to be trumped by something that they at least could suggest was some kind of ultimate evil.

Whilst the Bush administration used the 11th September attacks in this moral way, they have also commodified the attacks. This is partly as the viewing public of the World, especially the USA has no time to absorb complex messages and forgets them quickly. I always think it debases the deaths of the people in the Second World War to reduce it to 'WW2' and in the same way, if people really respected the victims, from many different nations who were killed on the 11th September 2001 they would not simply term it '9/11' which sounds like a lot number in a auction or simply an address in a building or just like the term '24/7'. It is a quick term which seems to be a key to unlock any form of policy behaviour however widespread and violating of civil liberties it is. Of course, the USA now as in previous decades sees itself as special as having the so-called 'manifest destiny'. I have mentioned the desire to exempt US soldiers from war crimes charges as if what they do will always be 'right'. This harks back to the medieval concept of 'holy' war (both from the Christian and Muslim perspectives) and that carrying it out in fact rather than leading to punishment in the afterlife as other violence would, improves what the warrior will receive when they arrive there. The US soldier who tortures, in George W. Bush's view of the World, as long as he does it to the 'bad' people, is to live forever in the glory of the 'Heaven' of a Conservative USA.

The use of the 11th September attacks to legitimate extreme policies, I feel, is Rimington's key concern. She believes it actually worsened the terrorist threat in the UK by alienating intelligent Muslim men from British society as we can see in the failed attacks on Glasgow airport carried out by doctors. I get angered by how the USA has behaved, its horribly self-righteous, patronising and myopic view (it paid no concern to what other people across the World have suffered, at times at the hands of the USA, just asked the Vietnamese) and how the UK has followed so closely in its footsteps to bring widespread suffering to so many more people. However, I am not a young man filled with anger at life anyway, and not believing in the afterlife I can only see the potential to suffer in detention by MI5. Others will have viewpoints which will give them the courage to discard those concerns for a chance to make their anger heard. If Rimington is not surprised that this is happening in the UK, why should the rest of us think it unusual that it is occurring, and not to see, like her, that the war on terror policy is worsening rather than improving things.

The other particularly UK issue that Rimington raises is the playground behaviour that the war on terror has brought to UK politics especially in parliament. Each party and many MPs try to outdo each other in how tough they are in responding to terrorism, pushing for harsher measures. Though Rimington does not develop this theme to the full, this kind of behaviour is very characteristic of what happened under the Nazi regime in Germany with different agencies in that regime seeking to outdo each other in how successful they were in killing Jews. This is apparent if you see reconstructions of the Wannsee Conference of 1942 where agency heads reported how many Jews they had eliminated (see 'Die Wansseekonferenz' (1984) a real time reconstruction, I saw the German version but it is also available in the UK under the title 'The Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference' and in the USA as 'Hitler's Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference'; see also 'Conspiracy' (2001) with British and American rather than German actors, I have not seen this one). This conference is what led to the extermination camps for not only Jews but also Roma, Poles and Russians.

I am not suggesting that the UK is leading to a policy of concentration camps, what I am warning, as Rimington has done, is that when politicians try to outbid each other in terms of showing how tough they are, especially when it comes to 'security' issues, it can lead to the most extreme policies and move a country down a path into areas of behaviour which up until then would have been seen as unacceptable. The 'norm' is shifted even faster by such outbidding, than even the initial extreme reactions would have done. This is because to say, 'I can go one better' tacitly accepts what has already established, without analysing it, and then says, 'well, this is not strong enough'. In fact, of course, the policy already in place may be too strong, but to say that gains no credit for the politican. Though the UK political system is a millions miles away from that of Nazi Germany, many of the same mechanics are in place in any political system whether it is democratic or not. The rhetoric of outbidding has not disappeared, but fortunately (!) the economic crisis has provided a new arena for it to be carried out, and one that impacts less on civil liberties.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Iconography from 'It Happened Here' (1965)

Note: This posting has been heavily modified since it was orignally put up.  My views on the movie 'It Happened Here' can now be found in my e-book, 'Other Paths II: Further Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War' (2012).  It is available for purchase on Amazon:  

The images on this page could not be featured in this book, so I have altered this posting to simply discussing them rather than the movie more widely.

This began as the tail end of the previous posting, but I felt it warranted something more substantial. It began when I was looking around for 1930s logos for a novel I am currently writing and I came across a propaganda poster. The poster which comes from the propaganda posters section of was a genuine poster trying to encourage British prisoners of war held in Germany in the Second World War to join the German forces, especially particular SS units. The SS had national units for states across Europe and so hoped to have a British one too. The numbers who participated were very small, and most of the British who were recruited were used for propaganda rather than combat duties.

Second World War Nazi Recruitment Poster for British Troops

Though this is a genuine poster, it could easily be an illustration for a counter-factual, if for example, Britain had been defeated the way France had been and Germany had held British prisoners in Germany the way they did with the French. With such a victory in the West, Germany would have turned against the USSR and needed British troops in the way it used Italian, Romanian and even Finnish and Spanish forces on that front. This then led me to another counter-factual images. These come from the Penguin Devil blog:

Scene from 'It Happened Here' (1965) showing SS Recruitment Posters

 Here the British soliders are shown as being part of the 'Black Prince' SS unit.

Uniforms from 'It Happened Here' (1965)

German Soldiers on the Steps of the British Museum in 'It Happened Here'

'How it Happened' by Kevin Brownlow

This book is about the making of the movie.  The iconic image of the Nazis marching through Westminster was also the kind used on some editions of Len Deighton's 'SS-GB' (1979) a novel which envisaged a similar scenario. I used to have an edition with that cover, but no longer own it and can see no image of it on the internet.

Shot of Nazi Parade in London from 'It Happened Here'
Picture of Genuine German Parade in the Channel Islands

This cover of the following edition of Brownlow's book is interesting as it is in colour whereas the movie was shot in black and white. Looking at it, it may be coloured or it may have been shot in colour on set. See also:

Scenes of Nazi Force Routing Out and Killing Partisans from 'It Happened Here'

British Union of Fascists (BUF) Funeral Shown in 'It Happened Here'

Female Members of the BUF from 'It Happened Here'
Dr. Richard Fletcher in 'It Happened Here' played by Sebastian Shaw

Scene from 'It Happened Here' Showing Dr. Fletcher and Officers from the Gestapo and Luftwaffe [?]

German Soldier and British Police Officer in London in 'It Happened Here'
Genuine Photograph of British Police Officer and German Officer on the Channel Islands
This is BristleKRS blog. It features input from the 'what if?' author Eugene Byrne too.

Atlas of Imaginary (and Real) Places 13: An Assortment

Today's selection is an odd assortment of things that I have come across. Some I encountered when I was looking for maps modelled on the London Underground map. They are of real places but shown in a different way to what you might be used to. There is also one fantasy map which got filed in an odd corner of my computer which I ran into recently.

Two come from the SystemeD website. The first one is a map of 'hidden' London and shows in particular the underground rivers and waterways of the city as well as other features which have now been built over. I liked this one as it is reminiscent of the sense of Neil Gaiman's London Below which I have written about before. You can see the Hidden London map in a variety of scales at:

Under London Map

This one comes from the following location: which has lots of delightful and quirky elements about London, its history and culture. This one simply shows the waterway system of London, above ground:

London's Overground Waterways

This one is on Strange Maps website: However, it originates almost as conceptual map from an author called George Friedman in his 'The Geopolitics of China: A Great Power Enclosed' (2008) see: You might think this map envisages some immense environmental change for China, but it fact it is more about where the people live. Vast areas of the country are very lightly populated and the bulk of the people live on this 'island' which is as long as the East coast of the USA from Maine to Florida with a bulge stretching as far inland as Arkansas. This is where the bulk of Chinese people live, where its modern industries and its major cities are located. This is seen as the gateway to the rest of the World. However, even Friedman notes that one priority of Chinese governments is to protect the peripheral areas, the hinterland which on this map are underwater.

George Friedman's China Island

The other one I cam across in my odd collection is of a place called Tamriel


This is my favourite version of the map but you can see other versions at the Fantasy Maps website: and others are at: including this one which stretched farther West:
Tamriel and other continents

Tamriel refers to the main continent. These places are on the planet of Nirn which is the location of The Elder Scrolls series of role-playing computer games, the first of which was released in 1992 and the latest expansion: 'The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles' came out in 2007. That a series can run over 15 years demonstrates they must be doing something right. Reviews talk of the skills development system as being engaging for players. The context is classic Tolkienesque with Bosmer - wood elves, Dunmer of Morrowind - dark elves, Dwemmer - dwarfs, Orsimer - orcs; Nords of Skyrim who are Scandinavian in appearance; Bretons are 'half-elves' (perhaps this is a reference to Tolkien as in his works the elvish lands were seen to represent the USA in our world and continental European countries have often see the British, the Bretons as half-American). There are a whole range of types of elves, once the dominant race on the planet, even tropical elves. There are attempts to vary this classic background a bit with peoples such as Ka Po' Tun - tiger-dragon people in a Chinese culture; Redguards of Hammerfell which despite the Scandinavian sounding name is a desert region. There are other races including the reptile people (Argonians), great apes (Imga), catpeople (Khajit), even slug people (!) (Sload).

Looking at Tamriel we see both classic elements of fantasy worlds with some attempts to vary it. Having 'Sumerset' (very like the West English county of Somerset in reality) seems a little weak. There are no real inland seas but two long slender channels in Cyrodiil and Morrowind and a decent selection peninsulas, but no archiepelagos that I can see. To some extent the continent seems to have been assembled from blocks and Cyrodiil, Morrowind, Hammerfell and High Rock receiving the most attention and glued together by less elaborate lands. I respect the effort to create something a little different and mix in well-known fantasy concepts with a few different varieties. Clearly this has worked for the people who enjoy this type of computer game otherwise it would not have continued selling over such a long period.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Jess Nevins's Steampunk Generations

When writing about the Frank Reade steampunk stories of the 19th century recently I mentioned a writer Jess Nevins (a man) who has some excellent webpages about steampunk sources. He wrote the 'Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana' (2005) the bulk of which seems to be online. He is an academic at Sam Houston State University and he is a leading annotator of steampunk works and has also collaborated with Alan Moore. He is incredibly knowledgeable about 'Edisonades' comic-book stories written for young people in the 19th century, including the Frank Reade stories, which focus on using steampunk inventions on the frontier of the American West and once that had been conquered fully by the end of the 19th century how this strand moved into modern science fiction. He rightly teases out the difference between the strand for young readers and that focused more at adults such as from Verne and Wells, whilst recognising a great deal of crossover between the two especially in terms of technology.

To some degree, though Nevins highlights the difference between the youthful and adult strands and shows the heavy American focus of the former, this does tend to lead him to overlook the difference in culture between Europe and the USA. It was apparent in the 19th century and is apparent today in contemporary movies. The USA has an enduring enthusiasm and a belief in technology. Even in post-apocalyptic scenarios there is a far more positive slant, the sense that it will be like the World after the Flood and a better society will rise from the ashes, whereas in Europe to coin a phrase: 'we're doomed' was more the slant. This may be because of the experience of warfare in the last two centuries. Even in the USA's worst war, the American Civil War, you could always escape by fleeing West or into the wilderness, as seen at the end of Ang Lee's wonderful 'Ride with the Devil' (1999). In Europe you had to live among the ruins and try to put back together what had been there before, from the Napoleonic Wars, the First and Second World Wars have all ravaged Europe with the latest technology. I believe we are still conscious of that difference and unsurprisingly it is reflected in popular culture. Hence the work of Verne and Wells is more uncertain and more morally ambivalent than was the case with American equivalents.

This was one reason why the Cyberpunk stories of the 1980s had such an impact. William Gibson who is seen as the father of the genre is a very 'clunky' writer you can see his plots moving slowly into place. However, he had a good technological imagination, though even there you could argue he grew out of the foundations laid by Walter Jon Williams. What shook up the USA in particular is that Gibson dared show that technology and large corporations could be bad at a time when 'greed is good' was the slogan. He seemed a heretic, a revolutionary even. Of course, to some degree he was only reflecting the experience of the bulk of the USA's population in the world of the 1980s, not benefiting at all from the fast economy and instead living in decaying urban settings. Gibson was not a writer of social problems, but he was awake enough to know that they were not going to improve even with new shiny technology. To some degree 'The Difference Engine' (1990) written by Gibson and Bruce Sterling (a far stronger novelist of many genres) marked the end of Cyberpunk as a fad. It showed that technology had caused problems no matter what the century.

Anyway, the reason why I decided to come back to Nevins is because I was recently given 'Steampunk' ed. by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer (2008) a collection of steampunk authors. Nevins has an essay in the front of the anthology, which covers much of what he has written about the Edisonades. However, he then puts forward a perspective which I have more problems with and am going to focus on in this posting. He sees two 'generations' of steampunk writing. The first beginning in the 1960s, notably with 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' by Ronald W. Clark (1967) which is about the development of an atomic bomb in the 1850s. He then sees 'The Warlord of the Air' by Michael Moorcock (1971) as the next key milestone in the post-1914 steampunk genre. He sees the ending of the 'first generation' of steampunk coming with 'The Difference Engine' in 1990, which most people consider to be the start of the steampunk genre of the late 20th century. Nevins's complaint is that the 'second generation' of steampunk fiction has lost the critical, self-reflective edge of the first generation and as such is falling back into the overly positive, even bigoted Edisonade genre. To see such a sharp division, to me, is heavily flawed and I will explain why. In addition, I will argue why his so-called second generation of steampunk is not as poor in its viewpoints as he makes out.

Two books do not make a genre and to some degree it is wrong to see Clark's and Moorcock's books as being part of an ongoing evolution. Both men wrote for their own reasons. Clark's novel is very much of the age of nuclear war. Many of the issues he tackled about the use of nuclear weapons and the danger of radiation were as current to 1960s readers as climate change is to us today. People find 'Queen Victoria's Bomb' staid and that is because Clark wrote it in the style of Victorian accounts of conquering empire. He is a good pastiche of that style, which I imagine Clark had read. It shows that as a superpower the British would have faced similar challenges to the USA and USSR were at the time with their nuclear weapons. The testing of the bomb causes biological damage and the bomb cannot be used effectively either against a great power, Russia or against African tribespeople. The novel may have steampunk wrappings but it is a 1960s novel written in a style that Clark and many of his original readers would have been very familiar with.

Michael Moorcock is a force unto himself. He has written scores of novels over a career now stretching over 50 years. He has a vast over-arching view of his 'multiverse' and so many of his different characters appear in different novels as if all woven together in a spider's web. Counter-factual has always been a large element of Moorcock's writing, in some books, just a page outlines some particular twist in history. However, Moorcock is also custodian of a great deal of the history of imaginative fiction. This is shown very clearly by his two anthologies of Victorian/Edwardian 'science fiction': 'Before Armageddon' (1975) and 'England Invaded' (1977) and his non-fiction analysis of the genres, 'Wizardry and Wild Romance' (1987; reissued 2004).

In addition, in his novels Moorcock is unapologetic about his fascination for other writers' work. In 'The Warlord of the Air' and its sequels, the hero is Oswald Bastable, a character from E. Nesbit's 'The Story of the Treasure Seekers' (1898) and its two sequels. By doing this Moorcock established a pattern of using other people's fictional characters in his steampunk novels, something taken to the maximum in Alan Moore's 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'. Of other Moorcock novels, 'Gloriana' (1978) is a homage to Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' (1590). He has been very influenced by the work of Mervyn Peake (like David Bowie) especially the Gormenghast triology and you can see that in so many of his lonely anti-hero characters, let alone the architecture they walk through. As I have noted before, once MCG supplied the missing piece for me, 'The Warlord of the Air' (and the two other books of the triology, 'The Land Leviathan' (1974) and 'The Steel Tsar' (1981)) are heavily influenced by the work of George Griffith. Of course, interestingly, 'The Land Leviathan' envisages an invasion of the USA by a vast tank, which seems to turn the Reade stories on its head.

As with Clark, we have to think about what times Moorcock was writing in. He was at the cutting edge of science fiction and fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s and in many stories, especially the Jerry Cornelius series, there is a great deal about the influence of drugs and hallucination, topics which are of less interest to writers today than then. This was an era when society and its assumptions were being challenged and Moorcock was not alone in doing this through science fiction writing. He edited 'New Worlds', 1964-71 and 1976-96, and its anthologies, and if you read the 1960s/70s collections today, the obsessions seem as quaint to a modern reader as those of the 1890s. However, at the time they were radical and challenging, even the phrase 'New Worlds' summed up a sense of potential. Moorcock like liberal-left writers of the time, of course, looked at the established system and sought to invert it. He created Elric, an anaemic, amoral, fantasy anti-hero as an antidote to the muscle bound Conan stories. Probably his most famous novel is 'Behold the Man' (1967), still a really fascinating, excellently crafted story that suggests that 'Jesus' was actually a Jewish time traveller from our times who stepped into the sandals of the son of Joseph the carpenter who was mentally subnormal. Moorcock went after every established bastion. He did not discard it, he just encouraged his readers to think about the assumptions they were making.

The thing that marks Moorcock out from his contemporaries in science fiction writing of the time, and funnily is what has led him to endure and be rediscovered, is his almost childlike love of the early imaginative writing. Moorcock started his career editing magazines carrying Tarzan and Sexton Blake stories. As is shown in the excerpt from 'The Warlord of the Air' which is included in 'Steampunk', he loved the vastness, the excitement of what the technology could do, the elegance of airships. He refers in this novel not only to 'The Outlaws of the Air' but also to 'The War in the Air' by H.G. Wells, most notably in the Fei-chi flying motorcycles which also appear in Wells' novel used by Chinese pilots in their attack on the USA. These are featured in the first novel of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' too. Of course Moorcock shows how technology can be used by the revolutionaries as well as by the authorities. Moorcock is taking from a particular strand which was uncommon even when it was produced. In his career Moorcock has been like Griffith, taking imaginative fiction and putting it to the use of socio-political commentary.

So, Nevins complains that the 'punk' has gone out of steampunk. I would argue it had already gone by the time of 'The Difference Engine'. There is nothing radical in there, nothing challenging society, it is about the dangers of addiction to gambling and hope in new technologies. The reason why there might be no 'punk' in contemporary steampunk is that there is no punk in contemporary society. As I have noted recently, even with the global economy collapsing and environmental change, revolutionaries or even simple protestors are pretty thin on the ground. There are probably authors out there challenging society in their writing but they are unlikely to get any further than their blog pages, certainly not into print. I would suggest Nevins is looking in the wrong place for challenging literature these days, he is more likely to find it in the form of electronic zamzidat work.

Another more fruitful area for more radical writing is in graphic novels. This has probably been the case since the advent of 'Watchmen' (1986/7) though to some degree that reflected 1970s sensibilities. I can see why Nevins works with Moore, because the latter is probably the only 'punk' in popular culture, with the 'V for Vendetta' series (1982-8) and in aspects of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' especially the second series recasting 'The War of the Worlds' but also addressing biological warfare and genetic engineering.

Nevins seems to expect all people writing in a genre to challenge the status quo and that never happens. It is not going to happen in historical drama, detective novels, romance, whatever genre you pick, except with a handful of authors. He seems disappointed that steampunk, somehow has not set itself up as a revolutionary genre, and yet what genre is revolutionary especially in the highly culturally conservative times we have been living in since the mid-1970s? Yet, look at a writer such as Stephen Baxter, and say, his 1993 novel 'Anti-Ice' which references Clark's work, especially with the element in the Crimea, but is probably of the more excited, enthusiastic steampunk pattern that Nevins condemns. It might not tackle things the way Clark did, but neither does it subscribe to the racism and western domination theories that 19th century writers did, it could not in our times. There will always be people at the cutting edge of writing and of particular genres, but following on behind them are more mainstream writers who sustain the genre and make a living out of it. Many readers want to relax with a novel, not constantly be challenged. Novels do inform and challenge but they are also entertainment, and that latter type is much more appealing to publishers.

There have been no generations of steampunk, just different writers at different phases of their careers going in and out of a particular genre. The only generations I see are 1860s-1910s and 1960s-now and even then this might be stretching both periods a little. Two novels does not make a genre as I say, because there are always writers who step outside the currents in writing and Moorcock has always sought to do that whilst simultaneously grounding himself in work he loves. Nevins, I advise, to stop whining about the missing 'punk' especially when the society this work is appearing in, totally lacks such critiques itself. Look for good quality writing and accept, as with all fiction, it reflects the context from which it comes.

Monday, 13 October 2008

How Torture Became Culturally Acceptable in the UK

You may have heard about the recent advertisement that the BBC pulled after numerous complaints. In the UK you have to buy a TV licence every year, it costs £139 (€187; US$265). This money goes to fund the state-run television organisation the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) which now has six television channels and about ten radio channels. The fine for not paying it is £1000 (€1260; US$1780) and if you do not pay that then you get sent to prison. The number of people being imprisoned (usually women are heavily over-represented for this crime) has been falling, in 1996 it was 157 people; in 2000, 20 people, though there were fines and community service orders instead. In 2001 almost 400,000 people were prosecuted for not paying their television licence, but I guess the bulk paid up because the previous year only 2,149 reached court. In the mid-1990s however, more women were imprisoned for not paying this licence than for theft, prostitution, fraud and forgery, attacking people physically, burglary and robbery or drunkenness, so it is a gender-specific crime. Men are more likely to continue defaulting on their payments but eight times less likely to be imprisoned than women. This may say something about how courts perceive the two sexes, and to some degree that in general women are less likely to commit any crime than men are. With various forms of watching television now available there is mass confusion: do a I need a licence if I watch on my computer or my mobile phone? The licence is a state fee so even if you do not watch the BBC channels you still have to pay.

Anyway, people are being fined and imprisoned for not paying their licences and the BBC is effective at catching them. However, this does not seem enough. They feel the need to terrify people into paying the fee and this is where the advertisements came from. They were introduced in April 2008 and faced immediate criticism. They have been likened to scenes from 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' saying that they know where you live, who you are, etc. This is a standard tactic of government departments in advertising, another regular example comes from the so-called Driver Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA).

The most alarming BBC advert featured the consequences of being imprisoned for not paying a TV licence, showing a man in prison and screams coming from a shower block with the tagline that detector vans can always find you watching an unlicenced television and implied that you could also be found in prison. The clear implication is that the prisoner is being raped in the shower block. The BBC admitted it had gone too far with this advertisement but felt that its softer approach in the past had not been successful. Prisons are violent, dangerous places the world over, people are raped in them, but it seems disgraceful that the threat of this should be used to get people to pay a £139 fee. Why does the BBC not cut out the middle man and simply have a van full of rapists which it drives round to the house of any defaulter and lets them in on the defaulter as a punishment rather than go through all the difficulty of sending them to court? Why is homosexual rape more tolerable for prime-time television than heterosexual rape or lesbian rape which is much more likely to be the case given the profile of those imprisoned for not paying?

The only real complaint about the campaign that attracted attention came from the very avuncular presenter Noel Edmonds who worked for the BBC for thirty years and now is on Channel 4. In September he said that he was going to stop paying his TV licence in protest at the heavy-handed approach that the BBC was adopting in its adverts. What is shocking is that there was not more widespread protest and from presenters with gravitas. Perhaps they are fearful of possible treatment from the BBC. How has it happened that the broadcasting corporation whose 'mission' (and it is on their website) is to 'Inform, Educate and Entertain', not to 'Terrify, Arrest and Punish'? I suppose this is part of the 'permissive atmosphere' that you find in authoritarian states. It does not need the dictator to say that various state bodies should act in a certain way, it just needs him to signal that he will do nothing to hinder them if they do. With the Blarite steps towards authoritarianism, this 'permissive atmosphere' has appeared and so state bodies now feel free to try to terrify people into compliance.

This incident got me thinking about how acceptable torture has now become in everyday culture. The BBC advert went out at prime-time which means that children, certainly teenagers would see it. How would you like to explain to a 13-year old or an 8-year old why that man is screaming? Yet, to the BBC supposedly a cornerstone of British culture, it is acceptable. This is because torture has become acceptable. People talk about how television and computer games have made violence commonplace, not something that I accept, but I do agree they can raise our tolerance for such things. The focus is always on the violence by the individual but in fact it works even more effectively for violence by the state. All of this stepped up in 2001 following the 11th September attacks in the USA. This was the excuse the US government had been waiting for and seemed to allow them to do anything now to counter their perceived enemies. It is ironic that in the 1970s the USA led the way in criticising the USSR for its human rights record and in the 1990s, China. Yet in the 2000s the USA has led the way in eroding human rights, snatching people from across the World to be tried under their jurisdiction (well in fact, that legal black hole which is Guantanamo Bay). We had not seen anything like this since the 1960s when Israeli snatch squads roamed the World seeking out former Nazis to abduct and take to Israel for trial. At least in the case of the Israelis generally they had loads of evidence against the people they took, the Americans do not even have this which is why so many of these prisoners have been held for so long and have to be tortured to get anything that will stand up in court.

The 'permissive atmosphere' was very apparent in the Iraq War of 2003 especially the Abu Gharib prison torture. It is clear that ordinary soldiers felt it was acceptable to torture prisoners. In common with torturers from the past notably Germans and paramilitary units of their allies, they were happy to be photographed carrying out these acts. No-one on the ground in Iraq questioned this behaviour; there were no moral questions about it despite the USA very loudly proclaiming itself a Christian country. The Iraqis (like the Vietnamese thirty years earlier) had been so de-humanised in the eyes of the average American, that treatment of them no longer fell within the bounds of what is acceptable for a human. These American soldiers no longer saw their prisoners as human beings, just objects to be abused. This happened in Vietnam too where the Vietnamese became 'Charlie' or 'VCs' not people. The atrocity of My Lai is well known (but too rarely mentioned these days) and it is becoming clear US soldiers in Vietnam were committing other atrocities, the activities of the so-called Tiger Force in the Vietnamese highlands in 1967 came to light in 2003. Quotes from former members of the unit were similar to these days: 'I knew it was wrong, but it was an acceptable practice.' and 'If they ran we shot them, and if they didn't run we shot them anyway.' This unit alone slaughtered hundreds of civilians and I am sure there are many others that will never be revealed. Knowing this is often the standard behaviour of their troops, in 2003 they sought exemption for all US troops from any war crimes charges, the only country in the World that would have been permitted this. Even though they did not get it, the arrogance of such a demand is alarming.

The USA may feel its troops have a right to commit war crimes and carry out torture if they choose, but the rest of the World generally seems to accept this. The focus in the UK seemed to skip past any concern about what was being done at Abu Gharib and instead focus on whether Lynndie England one of the soldiers photographed carrying out torture was a lesbian and so was asserting female control over men which she then sought to publicise across the internet as some sort of threat to male hegemony. How had the focus shifted from 'US troops carrying out torture' to 'lesbian challenging men through torture'? Given that she was pregnant by the time of her trial there might be questions about her sexuality. People seem happy to accept that torture was going on and somehow were more upset at frivolous explanations for the uses it was put to. This is as appalling as the 'causal nexus' explanation for the Holocaust carried out by the Germans in the Second World War, i.e. blaming Stalin's massacres for provoking Hitler's. Both were simply evil men who wanted to kill, there is no need to find a connection.

The reason why people could allow such attitudes without questioning the basic wrongness of torture I believe is because popular culture has shifted us this way. Torture features in serious, if popular television series. I am sure there are many I could mention but many I have not seen. I did watch 'La Femme Nikita' TV series (1996-2000) and in that torture was a weekly occurrence for a sinister US organisation. One week an agent happened to run into an old girlfriend while on a mission and so was routinely tortured by his own side to find out if he had given away anything. Psychological and physical torture were a weekly part of this series. Torture also appeared in another spy series 'Alias' (2002-06), though in less quantity. There was a sense that it gave these series 'edge'. The series 'Lost' (2004-10) also featured abductions, mental and physical torture. One of the lead characters is a former torturer from Iraq and the characters 'The Others' accept torture as a normal way to defend themselves, directed by their charismatic leader. They even blame the heroes of the series for 'making' them use torture. This has parallels with the USA's attitude especially to the Iraqi population, there are parallels to Vietnam too. I imagine these are deliberate on the part of the writers. A UK one is 'Spooks' supposedly an authentic series about the work of Britain's Security Service commonly known as MI5. It started in 2002 and has now run for seven series and does not look likely to come to an end, partly as the cast keeps on being renewed as individual characters are killed. This tries a very British approach on the counter-espionage/terrorist role and shows that even the UK's allies and leading people in the UK cannot be trusted. However, again torture both mental and physical is used. If this is going on in British prisons for real, then there are a lot of UK officials who should be hauled in front of war crimes tribunals too.

All of these series have had high viewing figures both in the USA and the UK and I imagine other parts of the World. They show torture as being something necessary and generally having to be used as a weapon in the war against even more evil people. I know moral ambivalence is 'sexy' these days and is probably an accurate reflection of where people stand, but it does push on the acceptance of such behaviour in real life, especially when in the context of 'them' and 'us' which our governments have been pushing hard right through the 2000s. It also encourages us to think the way that people did in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, not to be concerned if a neighbour or even a family member is arrested, clearly they are wrong and dangerous. Our popular culture is teaching us how to live in an authoritarian state without complaining; to accept that whatever is done however horrific because it is 'necessary' for our 'safety'. You need to remember that the organisation that ran the Terror of the French Revolution was the Committee of Public Safety.

So, I suppose we should not be surprised, if by now, after years of such popular and state propaganda, that the BBC feel it is alright to use such imagery and such threats to encourage people to pay a £139 fee. The question is, given how so few people raise any questions about such methods, how far do we go with the next step?

P.P. 18/11/2008: I had forgotten two more popular television programmes which contributed to the 'normalisation' of torture in the British media. The first was the inclusion of scenes from the Japanese television programme, 'Endurance' in which contestants were voluntarily tortured in a number of ways including sleep deprivation, prevention of urinating, bloating with food, deprivation of food, beating, exposure to creatures such as insects and reptiles often to the face (in actions reminiscent of scenes in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four') and so on. This was shown every week on 'Tarrant on TV' (began in 1992 and still running), certainly in the 1990s, I have not seen it for years. In some ways it was a racist feature inviting the audience to laugh at Japanese behaviour but also it made torture seem something comic rather than alarming. Many of the elements of 'Endurance' particularly exposure to creatures to the face and being forced to eat unpleasant things is a core element of 'I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here' which has been running each year since 2001 with this year's series being watched by nearly 9 million people. Possibly even worse than featuring torture in drama, having it in so-called 'reality' shows makes it seem very normal, and almost to be expected.

P.P. - 05/04/2009: It is interesting that this past week the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, a permanent committee made up of MPs from all parties will begin examining the allegations that have come to light over the past two years about British involvement in torture, especially in connection with the war in Afghanistan and action by the Pakistani Internal Services Intelligence body ISI and the US Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay to which prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq have been flown and held without charge and tortured. In addition, there is the particular case of Binyam Mohamed and other British complicity in torture. Both MI5 (the UK's internal Security Service) and Greater Manchester police have admitted involvement in this torture already.

The fact that a civilian British police force has been involved is even more alarming. I know the Greater Manchester Constabulary have been dangerously odd since the days of Sir James Anderton (nicknamed 'God's cop' for his fundamentalist proclamations) as its Chief Constable (1976-91) and his outrageous statements about purging the city on a kind of religious basis that harks back to the witchfinders of the 17th century. The committee will also investigate the use of British Dependent Territory Diego Garcia for rendition (i.e. kidnap) flights to the USA, oversight of private security companies (i.e. mercenaries) employed by the Foreign and Commowealth Office and incredibly sexual abuse at the British embassy in Baghdad. It is apparent civil service standards deteriorated so far as to be like those of some third rate dictatorship not that of a supposedly leading democracy in the world.

In such a culture of self-righteousness of course torture will be seen as acceptable. I doubt the select committee, whose members are chosen by the prime minister of people previously involved with MI5 or MI6, will probe too deeply, at least some evidence of the shameful behaviour of British bodies is coming to light and makes ridiculous any attempt to portray the UK as a bastion of human rights. Rangzieb Ahmed arrived in the UK having been tortured by the ISI with three of his fingernails missing, so this torture that the UK is supporting is of the most medieval kind. It is sickening.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Memories of Warwick Avenue

There are a number of songs which not only remind me of my past because when I hear them they fire off reminiscences of that time, but because they specifically refer to somewhere that I have had a connection with. Having lived in Woking a great deal it is not surprising that work by 'The Jam' and particularly by Paul Weller himself falls into this category. 'A Town Called Malice' (1982) is supposedly about Woking where 'The Jam' grew up. 'Stanley Road' (1995), Paul Weller's third album is named after a road in Woking which I walked down many times and a video for one of the singles from the album featured the railway station. Ironically Weller as a member of The Style Council also recorded 'Come to Milton Keynes' (1985) which I did in the 2000s. However, the most recent song which has covered a location I knew is 'Warwick Avenue' by Duffy released this year, from her highly successful album 'Rockferry'. As I have commented before Duffy's music owes a lot to 1960s female singers such as Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, even Petula Clark, though with a bit more blues, soul, US influence at times. Her songs are clearly rooted in UK culture and 'Warwick Avenue' refers to 'the Tube' which is the colloquial name for the underground railway in London.

The Warwick Avenue in the song is not the one in West London that I knew because it did not have an underground station and it was a residential road which led to shops and cafes but had nowhere in it that you could meet someone unless going into a private house. The one Duffy is referring to is between Marylebone, Kilburn and Notting Hill in western Central London, which does have an underground station. The Warwick Avenue my grandparents lived in is in Harrow, a large residential area of West London; it has its own postcodes rather than using standard London ones. It is still old fashioned in style, with remains of factories now retail parks, lots of semi-detached houses, small shopping districts, municipal parks, etc. It still sums up the post-war enthusiasm for a decent life with a community of people living in clean, reasonable sized houses and working in manufacturing or the service sector. You can almost feel that in the streets of the area even to this day when things are old and worn and manufacturing has gone. My grandparents seem to fit into that element perfectly. They lived in a semi-detached house in Warwick Avenue (all the streets in that area are named after British castles). It had three bedrooms. That fact in itself is fascinating as my grandfather was from skilled working class, working in car manufacture and my grandmother was a seamstress, yet they could afford to buy a three-bedroomed semi-detached house. My income is much higher than what someone in those jobs would be today. I earn £34,000 whereas an experienced car manufacturer worker earns £20,000. I am finding myself unable to pay for an almost identical house (his gardens were far larger) to my grandfather's even outside London. The purchasing power of ordinary people in terms of property has slipped a long way since the 1950s when he bought the house in Warwick Avenue.

That economic issue aside, this posting is about the memories of my Warwick Avenue, which are stimulated when I hear the song. I think I retain such affection for it because it was always a nice time when we went to visit my grandparents. Everyone would be happy and we would get treats. So, in contrast, to my parents' home it has only good memories. That is even though the last time I went there was following my grandfather's funeral (my grandmother had died a few years earlier) and yet it was a positive experience as he had died peacefully and as people say, you felt he had gone to a better place. In my mind his Heaven, was probably pretty similar to the house where we had the funeral tea.

To a great extent my memory of the house is as if it was an expansion of the rooms that you might see at the Geffrye Museum in Hackney, London (see which has reproductions of rooms through the ages from 1600 onwards with authentic furniture and fittings. My grandparents' house was like that, a collection of furniture and household items from say 1955-85 and each with their own charm, though many would seem rather 'naff' to many people seeing them, they sum up the culture of millions of ordinary British people in those years.

Moving round the house, I remember the metal gate with the rising sun logo so beloved of suburbia from the 1930s onwards, the steel dustbin with the house number painted on it, by the front door; the little indicator for the milkman that could be turned to show how many pints of milk you wanted in the porch by the door; the big shiny front door itself with the spyhole to see who was there as its glass with stained elements, was frosted. The bay window with the pure white net curtains looking out on to the small front lawn and its carefully tended flowers. Inside by the front door on a dark wooden stand was the telephone and the little box with the ditty on about putting in money to save to pay for the telephone bill.

Then there was the living room or sitting room. This was the first place I ever saw a colour television, with the red turned up so that everything was a bright pink colour. There was the glass-fronted cabinet of ornaments and books. I remember the collection of the popular 1970s series about Edward VII there and books about house plants; a shelf of glass and metal ornaments such as the see/hear/speak no evil monkeys. Above the fireplace with a 1970s gas fire was one of those clocks set on the large star metal backing, with long reaching out rays, below a painting of sailing ships by a hard. Below the gas fire a patterned rug, which for many years had tapestry of 'The Mayflower'. There was a sofa, a magazine rack, a small row of library books on the window sill. Then the large television. There was also the drawers, one of which held the toys for the visiting grandchildren, like a plastic Spitfire, the letter cubes, the plastic monkeys which hooked together, a fascinating 'things to do' magazine that I read again and again, with articles on follies and how to make a paper tiger and a puzzle about which of the children had to stand on which one's shoulders to reach the jam on the cupboard.

This was the main room of the family activities, lunch and tea at the folded out dining table. Plain food for my grandfather, and 1970s version of Chinese food produced by my aunt, lots of pork balls with bright red sauce. This was where we ate my grandmother's scones, both plain and cheese with tiny chives. This was where my grandfather would bring the ice cream, bought as a brick-sized vanilla block from the ice cream van as it stopped on the corner having played its tune. This was where we ate perfectly cut sandwiches, delightfully light sausage rolls and brightly-coloured trifle; meat with gravy and stuffing and brussel sprouts. We also had heavy fruit cake with heavy white icing of the kind deemed in the UK to be perfect for weddings and Christmas, and the yellow and pink chequer patterned Battenburg cake. This is all in jumbled order and straddling across seasons, but you get the ideas. Before the main mean were snacks and I was put off nuts-and-raisins for years because a stale packet was brought out my first time and I assumed that that was what they tasted like all the time.

It was in this room that the new technology was tested. I mention the first colour television, but it was also where I first saw a remote control television in use. Being a semi-detached house, there was concern that if it was pointed at the adjoining wall it would change next door's television channel. Here was kept the cassette recorder, that wonderful piece of 1970s technology, the size of a large brick, that allowed us all easy access to music or audio books and for children to record the sound of birds, little plays and quite often 'sound effects' of the toilet being flushed. It was here that I saw an instamatic camera used, with the piece of plastic you had to pull off to show the image. Here too, my aunt's soda stream that was supposed to be the cheap way to produce fizzy drinks by forcing bubbles into a cordial, but came out tasting of chemicals you would never experience in any other place. There was a door out from the living room to the rear garden, but we never went that way, it was always through the kitchen.

The kitchen was a busy place because food played such a big part. It too held gems of mid-20th century culture. The folding step stool, the various kitchen ornaments, especially the coveted Homepride flour plastic man in the black suit with the bowler hat. From the door frame into the kitchen hung coloured plastic strips making a curtain you could walk through, like many shops had in those days. The sinks had long rubber nipples on the taps to stop drips. There was a walk-in larder going under the stairs which was a treasure trove especially of baking ingredients, notably hundreds-and-thousands.

The back garden had the typical plain lawn running down to a high privet hedge which concealed the house behind. There was a small shed in the corner made of sheets of grey concrete. It contained the tools and odd items, but was never as magical as you hoped from sheds as a child and when older we tried to make it more so, designating it as the place to go for non-parent meetings. However, it lacked the smell of wood and gardens that other people's sheds had. This role was filled more by the large garage. This was jammed with old 'biscuits for cheese' and sweet biscuit selection tins full of nuts and bolts, screws, washers, nails and so on. Here my grandfather produced his bird boxes and wooden stalls. He would practice with his very darts to the sound of 'The Organist Entertains' on the radio. By the garage was the vegetable plot which ran beside the house. Not much of interest to children bar the polystyrene ladies wig head and the round mirrors of cord to scare off the birds. In the corner nearest the front was the coal scuttle where I found a German plate from 1941 with Nazi markings. The garden with its high wooden fences was an oasis in the grey urban setting of Harrow. It was functional too, but as children it could have its attractions.

As to the upstairs, well of course, in those days you were never allowed into your parents' bedroom let alone that of your grandparents'. From what I saw I simply remember dark green. I did go in the spare backroom occasionally, to listen to series on the radio that I was following that came on Sunday lunchtimes when I was at the house. I liked the view across the neighbouring gardens, for some reason it made me feel in connection with all the people around. I have always been fascinated by knowing at anyone moment even in a single street hundreds of different actvities are going on. As a child I always wanted to go home at least once with every child in the school just to see their daily routine. I loved the credit sequence of the BBC drama 'Sweet Revenge' (2001) which starts with an aerial shot running over various London streets for much the same reason. I suppose it is an element of nosiness, maybe an aspect of being a writer. I suppose I also like the cool stillness which was in contrast to the often overly warm living room.

The bathroom was another shrine to items of popular culture. The floor was yellow linoneum flecked with red and black. There was one of those long single bar electric heaters high on the wall that were switched on and off by a cord. There was Radox, in those days a box of crystals. We never had that at home, but I dreamed of the supposedly luxurious baths it was advertised as supplying, 'Relax in a Radox bath', I remember the slogan. These days the name sounds more like a radioactive chemical. Then there was the crocheted cover for the toilet roll with the little dolls head on top. This was the archetypal item of British culture of the third quarter of the 20th century. It fitted in with the leather covers for copies of 'Radio Times', wooden cabinets to hold the television and video cassette boxes that looked like leather-bound classic books.

So, whenever I hear a reference to Warwick Avenue, I am returned to this bubble of culture and of activity, good times stretched out over many years, but all bundled up together. Though the house's decor is so far removed from the places I live now, I guess that in my Heaven my house would probably look very similar or at least I could go and visit for a scone, a cup of tea and some Battenburg cake (which these days I like).

The Revolutionaries Reappear?

One thing I notice when driving around the South of England is how many universities there are in the average town. In places I visit regularly like Oxford, Brighton and Southampton they now each have two univerisities, usually one out of town which is older and then a newer one in the city centre (Oxford, naturally has it the other way round). Even small towns like Winchester, Chichester, Portsmouth, Reading and Bournemouth have their own universities. This is unsurprising given the increase in university students in the UK. When I went in the 1980s less than 1 in 10 people who were 18 went, not it is 4 in 10 rising to 5 in 10. It has become the norm for many young people to go, and speaking to a man from one, he said that most universities which were around in the 1980s (and so not 'new' universities) have quadrupled in the numbers of students. Cities are complaining about student 'ghettos' where letting agents or landlords/ladies have bought up a row of cheap houses and these are empty all summer. What did the local councils expect when the universities opened and began to grow? I suppose we should not be surprised as these are the same people who invested millions in Icelandic banks and did not pull their money out when the warnings of collapse began coming even last year, let alone this summer.

Of course with the economy the way it is, I imagine these students' experiences are very different to when I went. Even then we looked enviously at the people who had graduated five or ten years earlier before the Thatcher era, who had got grants and housing benefit so could spend their time studying and enjoying life. Students today not only get none of those benefits, they also have fees to pay, so for them doing paid work is often more important than their studies. Even then they are likely to end up with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, which must put a dampener on having fun. The other thing they are far less likely to do is get involved in politics. I was at university in the last days of Thatcher, I even bellowed at her when she visited our campus, so for anyone who was liberal there was a clear good/evil axis and politics had regained some of its passion as seen during the poll tax riot and the anti-university fees demonstration (at which students were ridden down by mounted police and many protestors suffered baton injuries and wounds from horses stamping on them), even five years on from the miners' strike (1984-5) the harsh police suppression of demonstrations was still common. Now of course the students have no time for demonstrations let alone occupying buildings or anything. Most people, and this is not just for students, do not belong to any political grouping and are only really likely to turn out to protest on single issues. Even the sustained protests against the shipment of livestock or animal testing have faded, and now it is middle class, middle-aged or elderly people protesting about the downgrading of a hospital or the building of a prison in their locale. Young people are apolitical, they wander around siloed by their ipods from day-to-day life let alone anything bigger. Of course, given that they need to get a good job with a firm of accountants to be able to even begin paying off their £20,000 of debt this is no surprise. Now we are seeing the depoliticised population that Thatcher was aiming for, so dependent on getting money to stay afloat that they dare not risk this by stepping at all out of line or making any protest. This is why the protests come from those older people who are economically 'safe' and less likely to be sacked for being at a demonstration.

Given the apolitical context in which we are now in I was quite surprised suddenly to see the reappearance of posters talking about the collapse of capitalism. When I was at university in the 1980s there was a plethora of revolutionary groups, usually most prominent was SWSS (Socialist Worker Student Society) but there was also the Revolutionary Communist Party and other smaller groupings like The Socialist Party. They all had their newspapers and the students who would stand with them displayed on their chest and the call 'Socialist Worker!' with the tone rising on the 'so' was a standing joke of the time. I do not remember all of them, one was called 'The Next Step' and another 'The News Line' which I remember was on sale still when I was living in East London. The Conservatives had their own one, I remember seeing most on sale in Oxford, which is probably not surprising. I had worked previously with the man who sold 'The News Line' and occasionally bought one off him because he never seemed to sell many, though I must confess I have no idea what party my 50p went to fund. I remember the man being put down very effectively by Tony Benn at a small meeting. Anyway, this newspaper included the listings of television programmes and I complained to my local seller that they were clearly copied from a mainstream newspaper and there was no attempt at Marxist or even Trotskyite analysis of the programmes being shown. It would have been fascinating to see a Marxist dialectic approach to that evening's episode of 'Eastenders' or 'Crime Watch' or 'The Money Programme' (sorry this is sparking off a range of reminiscences of politicos from across the spectrum, when on a student newspaper as a journalist I covered the occupation of a library, the occupiers had come well prepared and brought board games with them, the Labour Club were playing 'Monopoly' but the SWSS occupiers refused to play this an instead played 'Diplomacy').

While I have not seen the reappearance of the left-wing newspaper sellers on Saturday mornings (a lot of these parties dissolved at the end of the Cold War or a few years later or went into Democratic Left) I was quite stunned, parking near a university the other day to see loads of pictures of Karl Marx with a slogan along the lines of 'Capitalism is Collapsing: Was Marx Right?'. The crash in the global economy does seem dramatic, but given that we have been here before with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and there was minimal spread of Communism after that (I know China went Communist in 1949 and Cuba in 1958) but by then the World economy had altered a great deal and there had been the Second World War, I hardly see revolution on the cards, especially as the general population has less interest in politics now than it even had 20 years ago. People vote for the Blairite Party (which is why the only Labour Party leader still alive who would raise the party's standing in surveys is Blair) which is the British equivalent of a 'government party' in other countries. They think Cameron would supply the same, though are seeing Brown again as the 'safe pair of hands' and he might pull through.

So, it is interesting that there are still some revolutionaries out there, who have been underground since 1991. The poster seem to come from a coalition of left-wing parties, presumably each with a tiny membership. (This reminds me of something else from the other end of the spectrum, when I used to go regularly to Richmond in West London I would always see a poster for an extreme right-wing group, I forget the name but they used the medieval knight iconography that was popular with the Nazis and the slogans said things about defending England or awakening England. They were renewed every few months with something slightly different but always in the same place and I had this image of a one-man party sticking up his diatribe about the decline of England on the same piece of wall and same electricity control box every quarter).

I wonder if revolutionary parties are seeing a rise in membership with this economic crisis or whether life-long members are just hopeful that this is the crisis that will usher in the revolution they have been waiting for, for so long. Of course Marx and Friedrich Engels, believed Britain would have revolution way before Russia, but I think they are the other revolutionaries overlooked how apathetic the British are, and this goes for the rise of a Fascist state as well as for a revolutionary one. It is intriguing, though, to see the sudden flurry of revolutionary posters. Chinese students who are the biggest section of students coming from abroad to study in the UK these days, must be rather bewildered. China says it is a Communist state and uses Communist iconography and yet it is really an autocratic capitalist state, and the reason why the Chinese students are in the UK is to learn how better (or supposedly) to run a capitalist economy. Them seeing the face of Marx around their campus must be rather bizarre (Che Guevara has appeared in the window of an art shop I passed the other day too, though his image has always been more powerful and penetrating than his political message). Maybe it is time to dig out Andy Warhol's Mao portraits, that would be an excellent crossover of the consumerist art with revolutionary icons. As to the revolutionaries themselves, I imagine they will not gain any more members than they currently have and their agenda will not advance any further than it did 20, 40, 60, 70, 79 or 90 years ago.