Supercrash: Darryl Cunningham’s fascinating comics exploration of the great financial meltdown

Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Or: “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the financial timebomb…“*

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I’ve followed Darryl’s work for years, from his run as our resident cartoonist-in-virtual-residence right here on the blog through his developing work on the brilliant Act-I-Vate online comics collective, then his books, starting with the astonishingly powerful Psychiatric Tales, the insightful Science Tales and the fun of his Uncle Bob Adventures (a second volume of which will be heading our way from Blank Slate, yay!). Equally at home with humour or adventure strips, Darryl is however perhaps best known for tackling some pretty heavyweight, very serious subjects (mental health issues, the growing anti-science attacks by some, climate change and more) and through a massive amount of research being able to distil this research into complex – and often sensitive – issues and then creating an incredibly accessible explanation in comics form. In these endeavours I don’t think it is hyperbole to say Darryl has, for me, become to this explanatory branch of reportage comics what Sacco has become to war zone reportage, in that he shows all sides of a problem in a way the reader can understand, while never losing track of the human aspect in the complex issues involved, and all delivered in a way that only the comics medium can do.

With Supercrash he turns his attention to the global financial meltdown, the myriad causes that lead to it, the reaction of shocked governing bodies to it and the dreadful effects it had, not just on the companies but on millions of struggling individuals and even entire nations and continents (and indeed the effects it is still having, not just in economic austerity but in the attitudes that have come from it and which are affecting present and future political policies). It’s an extremely confusing, complex set of issues, and yet again Darryl manages to take those subjects and not just explain them in a manner any reader could absorb and understand, but equally crucially, he shows thenumerous links between many different causes, influences and events which lead to this dreadful meltdown, giving the reader a much fuller understanding of the various effects because they are now more aware of the causes.

No one helped me, nor do I think it was anyone’s duty to help me...”

The book is broken into three main chapters: Ayn Rand, The Crash and The Age of Selfishness. Rand is a name probably familiar to many readers for her novels such as Atlas Shrugged, although many will not actually have picked up those novels and read them (I don’t recommend them, I have to say). But Rand was more than a novelist and screenwriter, she’s not only included here but given the entire first third of the book because of her political ideology and the cult she built up around it and herself, an ideology which influenced a number of people who would in later life be in influential positions of power, such as Alan Greenspan, a long-serving chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States (from 1987 right through to 2006, a period when many of the protections and regulations created years before, some after the Great Depression, to protect the financial system from abuse, were systematically gutted, contributing directly to the great crash). Rand is a hugely divisive character, her personal ideology praising selfishness and attempting to justify it as a way for the ‘superior’ person to realise their potential without being ‘held back’ by the great mass of lazy and uneducated, and owing no responsibility to others (naturally she counts herself among the superior types).

It’s a very elitist stance and also seeks to explain why taxation is immoral, why someone who chooses to be a social worker is wasting their time and more that many people will find distasteful at best, downright repulsive and amoral at worst. Of course, others, including Greenspan, found her reasoning compelling, and a cadre of core supporters helped spread her message and, as with Greenspan, as they got older some of them found themselves in positions where they could actually influence national policies and put some of her teaching into practise, not least with a lot of deregulation in the financial markets which, it was argued, were not needed to protect markets and institutions and were in fact hampering progress and growth.

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Despite the many flaws in both Rand’s reasoning and her personal character though, Darryl somehow also manages to portray a very vulnerable human being behind all her hateful rhetoric – this is not a character assassination, but an examination, and while many of her beliefs may be vile to many (although again he makes it clear she’s an icon to others) Darryl tries to give her some personal context, from childhood through to old age, personal relationships, money worries and other influences that shaped her and show why she was as she was, when a lazier author might have simply drawn her in simpler, starker terms that justified their own agenda, but Darryl is too good a writer for that. I also suspect the fact he is a person of great personal empathy drives him to try and depict her as an actual, complicated, imperfect, sometimes contradictory human being, whatever his own feelings on her views.

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What makes this a far more fascinating and compelling book however, isn’t just Darryl being able to explain historic and contemporary root causes of the great crash, it is, as I indicated at the start, the fact that he shows the links between the different factors and influences and shows how they converged and evolved to create the fiscal tsunami that the world is still recovering from. More than that though, he shows how those causes such as Rand’s belief system – despite its many inherent contradictions (the powerful individual should thrive, those less able should perish, despite the fact those at the top require the work of those at the bottom and the society – hospitals, schools, infrastructure – that ‘despised mass’ makes happen, or her belief you make it on your own, no help, despite being helped repeatedly herself) – are still being used and still evolving with new generations on the right, with what I suppose we could term the children of the Thatcher and Reagan eras (we’re talking about the sort of top flight City workers who waved bank notes at a passing demonstration of public service workers protesting austerity and wage freezes fairly recently), and how some of these ideas have percolated into the far right and feed back into a general contempt for the have-nots (ie most of us), an overwhelming sense of superiority over the mass of the population and a crushing lack of human compassion, which we also see not only in the high finance business but in the political and media demonising of ‘welfare scroungers’ damaging the economy and straining public finances (at the cost of the ‘ordinary working family’) while ignoring those at the top who make enormous bonuses in businesses bailed out by the same public purse (so much for stand on your own with no help and the decrying of state intervention), or the dozens of top London Stock Exchange listed companies who use a complicated system of entirely legal methods to pay almost no corporate taxes, losing exchequers millions, if not billions, and yet the main political and media discussion still seems to settle on easy targets such as the disabled, long-time unemployed or immigrants, and, more worryingly, seems to be convincing a lot of regular people that these are indeed the main problems ruining our countries, a spiral of hate and distrust, bigotry, arrogance and lack of compassion that is breathtaking and which we are seeing and having to deal with right now in everyday politics, as well as in high business where those same attitudes helped foster the environment that encouraged the risk taking that helped fuel the financial disaster .

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But this is not some tirade against Big Business or the rise of the Right. While Darryl does take a stance, he spends a considerable amount of time, especially in the final chapter, examining some of the main characteristics of the Liberal and Conservative (in political ideological terms, not the actual political parties), and he is commendably even-handed here, explaining some of their main thoughts and ideological planks to their side of politics and how there are both good and bad aspects to both, such as a family focus, strong law and order, personal discipline and so on which are hallmarks of the Right and the belief in the community spirit, the creative abilities to think outside the box and the adherence to personal liberties that are more associated with the Left, but also showing how both can be ideologically blinkered to simple common sense. I have to say he’s much more balanced here than I would have been, and again I commend Darryl for taking that sensible and mature approach. This isn’t to say he doesn’t indicate his own leanings and views, but he does so in a very thoughtful and balanced manner, backed up by a ridiculously huge amount of research, which he conveniently documents in the appendix along with a handy glossary of commonly used terms in the book (hedge funds, toxic debt and other phrases that have become common use through media reports yet which many of us probably only have a very basic understanding of).

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I’m not going to get too far into the depths of the historical causes and arguments here, they are simply far, far to complicated for a mere review to try and paraphrase and condense, and besides, Darryl has done such an outstanding job in explaining so much of this that the best I can do is not try to explain some of it but simply advise you to read the book. All of this, as a bonus, comes with Darryl’s unique comic art, again taking deceptively simply cartooning that takes the reader easily into the heart of complex matters that have important influences on everyone’s lives and making it understandable visually as well as with words. His visualisations of Rand as she moves through her life somehow manage to be both intimidating – the dark-eyed, intense stare of someone who is sure they are always right and will brook no dissent – and yet often also suggesting the opposite, a harried, worried, frightened person behind that mask, vulnerable, needy and unable to articulate that need, hiding behind invented ideology instead which never fills that emotional void within, such that much as I despise her arguments (and loathe her badly written novels) I still found myself feeling sorry for her quite often as I read this.

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The three main chapters regularly use a distinctive colour palette to easily differentiate them to the reader – pale greys, yellows and brighter reds for Rand, darker greys and blues for the Crash chapter (although other colours come in for spot effect and for a few pages set on a tropical beach he goes pretty much full colour for a nice contrasting effect of the ‘happy times’ of the booming bubble before the collapse) and a lot of yellows and red in the final Age of Selfishness chapter. And I was delighted to see Darryl work in a few cityscape scenes too – I do love a good Darryl Cunningham cityscape! It’s a remarkable read, visually clever and inventive, as you might expect from Darryl perhaps but still always a pleasure to see, condensing and simplifying complicated inter-related causes that combined to bring the great crash and the subsequent life-ruining austerity measures that have followed in the amazing way that he manages to make seem so simple (but which we know is the result of massive reading, research and thought before any panels were brought to life). A complicated yet eminently readable work on an important subject, this deserves a wide readership, and I hope like Darryl’s previous works this is also one with much to recommend it to book folks outside of the regular comics readership. Much recommended.

* - no, not really, of course…

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Indy Ref – the day after

Spent chunk of the day with visiting cartoonist/journalist I know who was up to cover the referendum, and at one point we strolled down the Royal Mile, passing so many media crews (more camera crews than even during the festival). There was a crowd of Yes campaigners there, this was just after Alex Salmond had announced his resignation as First Minister, although we didn’t know that until we spoke to some of them. This chap got up to make an improvised speech, and, I am glad to say called for understanding and moving on:

Then he finished by calling on the crowd, in Scots tradition, to forget divisions and come together, hold hands and sing Auld Lang Syne, and there they were singing and dancing in front of the Scottish Parliament

This chap started up with his pipes…

And there was the crowd doing some Scottish country dancing, Strip The Willow, right in front of the doors of the Parliament – loved it (and what a contrast to a small cadre of bigoted boot boys in George Square later in the day and their disgraceful behaviour)

And here’s the media village set up by the parliament – think half the world’s media has been on the streets of Edinburgh the last few days

Edinburgh as Scotland decides her future…

Edinburgh is buzzing tonight – Yes and No campaigners out, all seem to be in an almost carnival mood, and our ancient capital is also awash with massed media from all over the world and in addition to many flags – mostly Union flags for the No and Saltires for Yes – there is a sprinkling of foreign flags, notably Catalonian flags and many from Catalonia are here tonight, exuberant, watching closely, offering support and wondering if they will get their much-desired chance for a proper referendum that would decide if they stay or depart from Spain.

In front of Saint Giles Cathedral tonight, appropriately enough in Parliament Square, close to where the original Scottish parliament met before the Act of Union in 1707, the flags of Catalonia and Scotland re-created in coloured glass and fluttering candles. Turnout for the vote is huge, reports say, polling stations now closed as I write, the counting begins, by tomorrow we will know the outcome.

Even the world-famous Greyfriar’s Bobby statue has had a makeover, with a natty new doggy coat in tartan all dressed up for the Independence Referendum!

Scotland decides

So today I and millions of fellow Scottish citizens decide on the issue of staying in the Union or returning to a state of independence, the most important constitutional decision in three centuries. I said months ago I thought it would be far closer than the previously  (over)confident No camp thought it would be, but I had no idea just how close it would become this close to the wire… I’ll cast my vote first thing before going to work, no way I will miss this. I decided a long time ago how I will vote, not on nationalistic lines, or from jingoism or feelings towards Westminster but mostly drawing on what I think is the most important thing, what I consider to be the most democratic outcome for Scottish citizens, that gives us the fairest form of democratic represenation.


(aircraft vapour trails crossing above Edinburgh Castle, creating a Saltire-like image, a floating, ephemeral version of the Scottish flag in a blue sky above the great castle at the heart of the capital)

I have held off from talking about it here because far too many people from politicians in London who ignored most of it for two years (until recently!) to that useless parasite of modern society, the opinionated but brainless celebrity, have been busy trying to tell people how they should think and vote. And while I have (surprise) strong opinions, as I tend to do about most things (Neil Gaiman once commented I was opinionated, but in the good way), I have no desire to try and influence anyone. This is not a decision anyone should try to make for you, not foolish, interfering foreign politicians (yes, Mr Tony Abbot, you and others), not the London government, not celebrities (especially those who don’t even reside in the UK most of the time), this is our decision, for Yes or for No, our nation, our ancient nation, and our choice.

And afterwards… Afterwards, whichever way the result goes, no rancour, no discrimination, no in-fighting, we are, as the grand old Scots saying goes, all Jock Tamson’s Bairns. And recall the words of our great Scots makkar and artist, Alasdair Gray, “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Whichever way the vote goes, work for ever more change – because change doesn’t stop because life is change and we can’t stop it as long as we live – change that makes for a better nation, because our nation is ancient and it was passed to us and we will pass it on to others, hopefully changed for the better each generation.

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this work for many months; Bryan and Mary talked about it at last spring’s Dundee Comics Expo then again at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And with the huge success of their previous Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (scooping the Costa literary award, first time ever for a comics work) I suspect there’s a wide range of readers, including many who are not normally comics readers, waiting to read it too. This time Mary has collaborated with artist Kate Charlesworth – Bryan worked on layouts, Kate on the finished artwork – and the result? Oh yes, my friends, well worth waiting for.

Manchester is the moral conscience of England.”

Turn of the century Britain and orphan Sally Heathcote has escaped the workhouse to a job, ‘in service’ to a household headed by the formidable Mrs Pankhurst. Both Pankhurst and her daughters are already busy with others coming and going, their house in Manchester a busy meeting place, and right away the creators show us this is going to be a more nuanced story – this isn’t just about equal voting rights (important though that is), the suffragette movement was born also from people (some men as well as the legions of women) who were sick of the vast inequalities in Britain. Heart of a vast empire and yet while many made large amounts of money and earned titles from those imperial efforts huge swathes of the population lived in abject poverty, going hungry, living in slums, little education, no healthcare. Unions in the vast factories of the industrial north of England, such as in and around Manchester, were forming and were one of the places where women started to come together collectively to wield influence and have their voices heard, and the quest for equal suffrage for women went hand in hand with many other noble concepts – eliminating poverty, care for the sick, rights for workers. The Talbots and Charlesworth are at great pains to show the interconnected nature of the movement, that it was socially driven by many blights in society.

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Servants overhear many things in the grand houses of course, and Sally picks up on a lot of what is going on. She’s well treated (it’s inferred Pankhurst took her from the workhouse and gave her respectable employment) and she’s learning of a much wider world. So when the Pankhursts decide the fight needs them to be in London and not in the union heartlands of the north, where the embryonic Labour Party (partly funded by some of those women’s unions) is starting to gather strength, she’s heartbroken. She finds new employment with some help, but suffers horrible sexual innuendoes and attempted abuse from the men of the house, both the master and some of the other male servants. Horrid though this is though, it gives her the drive to leave and head to London, and it is while searching for work their that she find the headquarters of the movement and some of her old employers, and it isn’t long before she’s happily working among the women there, and becoming increasingly active in the protest movement.

It’s quite something to watch Sally – and the movement – grow. She becomes more confident, from the first timid,  shy attempt to raise a question about votes for women at a local Liberal party meeting (she is thrown out almost at once) to the determined woman not just marching in the streets but a confident, powerful young woman who will eventually stand there in public making speeches herself, not to mention carrying out more daring acts. As the body politic (including, to their eternal shame, a Liberal government that included supposed Liberal heroes like Lloyd George) simply ignores the growing demands of the suffragettes and legal, peaceful demonstrations get rough treatment from police and from crowds of angry men, the movement starts to become increasingly militant, and here we see it all from the inside view of Sally, from breaking windows to setting fires and more. The jails begin to fill up, opinion is divided, some say the militant action loses them public sympathy, others, like Pankhurst call for “deeds, not words”. Splits appear within the movement and tensions rise. Then the hunger strikes begin…

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Demanding to be treated as political, not criminal prisoners, the suffragettes arrested and imprisoned begin a series of hunger strikes. At first it seems to be winning them ground – weakened woman are released from prison by a government reluctant to be seen as essentially killing women in prison. Until the forced feedings begin. In a turbulent tale full of both uplifting moments and terrifying ones, this scene is among the most awful to read, and it’s probably no coincidence that as Sally’s prison time begins the sepia tinged look of the other pages gives way to heavy black borders, ominous, threatening. The security and confidence that comes with acting in concert with comrades sharing the same goal is suddenly wavering – now she is on her own, isolated, in a dank cell.

The true test – when alone, surrounded by those who despise you, imprisoned, do you hold to your moral stance or break? Sally is not one to break, but again this subtle story doesn’t try to give us some ridiculous super-heroine, fearlessly facing her foes regardless of odds. No, Sally is scared. She should be, anyone would be, and she is – it’s very realistic and beautifully managed and it makes the reader believe in the character all the more, makes her more real, more vulnerable, more human. It also put me in mind of the prison scene with Evey in V For Vendetta (a scene I always consider the emotional heart of V): terrified, alone, but clinging to that belief not to give them that “final inch” of themselves; where Evey had the letter sneaked into her cell Sally has one uplifting moment where she hears others in nearby cells singing suffragette songs and a note scrawled on the wall “courage, brave heart”.

And when the forced feedings begin you feel utter shock and horror. There’s no other term for them but a violation of the body, a form of rape – brutal invasion of the body against its will. And like rape this is very much about power – here pretending to be about caring for the women and stopping them from starving, which makes it all the more horrendous. But it is a violation and a demonstration of power, the authorities showing their will over the imprisoned women. It is barbaric and truly horrific to watch the scene, the more so because while Sally may be fictional we really care about her by this point and, worse still, we know this is based on real accounts, that this was done, often repeatedly, to many women who simply had the temerity to be considered equal citizens. It gets worse with the infamous ‘cat and mouse’ act, allowing the authorities to release suffragettes who were becoming too weak, wait for them to recover a little on the outside then re-arrest them without trial and take them right back in and start it all again. And again.

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The book doesn’t present absolutes in terms of wrong and right, however – right from the start we see that certain personalities, such as Mrs Pankhurst, could be hugely divisive. In many ways remarkable and implacable in resolve, standing in the face of all against her, but like many sometimes so concerned with ‘the good fight’ that they become blind to everything else and will use anyone and anything in the service of that fight, even if it hurts and alienates good allies and friends. We also see that despite the union movement that a huge chunk of working men are as hostile to women’s rights as the ruling class males are, and indeed a large number of women, who consider the suffrage demands to be very ‘unwomanly’. We also see our determined Sally carry out all sorts of activities but eventually wondering at some of the methods Pankhurst is demanding they now use – it’s another way in which Sally becomes so very human to us, she had her ideals but she also has her doubts and worries, she isn’t relentlessly singe-minded, her time among so many activists has taught her to question and think for herself, and that includes thinking about the movement. No whitewash here presenting nothing but good, noble women against an evil tyranny, there are nuanced levels, there are good and bad men and women on both sides, and there are some who are so determined to do ‘right’ that they will use any ends (again on both sides).

It’s an absolutely fascinating and compelling look at a very important piece of recent history (consider most of this took place only a century ago – seems unbelievable to modern eyes, but yes, only a hundred years ago this was happening, many of us had grandmothers who remember a time when women weren’t allowed to vote). And like last year’s astonishing March Book One (detailing a personal history of the US Civil Rights movement – see review here) this isn’t static history, this is living history; this is history that is never done and dusted, it permeates the present and influences the maps of the future. It isn’t only about one goal really, about equal voting rights for all, irrespective of class and gender, it’s about equality and fairness across all of society, it’s about our rights to legally protest, to be heard, to demand change and to be listened to, to participate in the democratic decision making, to demand that the laws of the land not be used to enshrine discrimination against one section of society (a fight still going on, think of how we have only just created equal marriage rights for gay people). And like all good histories it echoes with resonance to the here and now – police being used to stifle peaceful, legal demonstrations in our major cities? We’ve seen a sad series of such events in recent years with the notorious use of ‘kettling’ and the like. Those in power, frightened at losing some of that power, stooping to creating reprehensible legislation to ‘legally’ commit immoral acts against protesters, or covert police surveillance of members of the movement, all sadly familiar to today as well (at one point Sally comments on the police having new cameras they use to take pictures of your from a distance to keep an eye on you – the distant ancestor of our current wall-to-wall CCTV Big Brother state).

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But this isn’t just a story of the movement and struggle against the odds, hardships to overcome. This is a personal story too, this is Sally’s story, and that’s our way into this Britain of a century ago, and as a mechanism for engaging the reader and making these historic events more personal, more emotional, it works brilliantly. Most of the pages use a pretty subdued colour palette, with a sepia type dominating, but one colour that always stands out is the copper-red of Sally’s hair. Be it an intimate, close up scene or a sweeping view of a huge crowd of protesters marching the street, our Sally is always visible with that hair, she’s our anchor in the turbulent tides of the period. It’s also a tale of the ways being exposed to new ideas and new people changes us, helps us grow, it’s a story about friendship and even love. As the civil rights demands for women escalate the same tired, frightened old men who govern also find themselves facing the First World War (and coping about as successfully with that as they did with women’s suffrage). The two collide, causing more friction between elements of the movement, but also becoming part of that tumultuous time that would, ultimately change British society forever.

And don’t think it just changed the lot of women, proper, universal suffrage for all men (not just the well off and property owners) emerged out of fear of the women’s movement, a transparent attempt by the government to recruit more allies -somewhat similar to the South African government in the dying days of the loathsome Apartheid regime expanding voting to select non-whites (such as those of Indian descent), as a desperate way of trying to fortify their own position, make new allies to hold off the perceived threat. Ultimately it would lead to more equal rights for all, something I’m sure many of those in the suffrage movement would have been proud of. The story is framed by a very old Sally, now with her grown daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, decades later, another nice, emotional touch, but also a way of reminding us that the fight for civil rights and equality for all never actually stops. It was once said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. So too with our rights – hard-won rights, literally fought for and then defended in both fine, stirring rhetoric and, when needed, with blood. Because there’s always some idiot who thinks you can draw a line around one group in society – women, immigrants, people of a different religion, gays – and treat them differently.

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This is a beautifully constructed tale – unsurprisingly well-researched given Mary’s academic background, but so much more than just an accessible way of learning of a hugely important piece of our history. No, Sally Heathcote is much more than an impressive slice of social and political history, it’s a beautifully done human tale. If you’re not emotionally invested in Sally by the end of it then there’s something wrong with you; to be honest you’ll probably fall in love a little with her, it’s hard not to. The artwork is lovely, Charlesworth teases some terrific ‘performances’ from her cast; you can visually see Sally’s growth from shy young housemaid one step from the poorhouse to confident, determined woman in her expression and her stance. Kate also captures that resolute look on the face of Mrs Pankhurst, as determined and terrifying as staring down one of the terrible dreadnoughts of the era (contrast with Sally’s young, eager, open face and smile), while the backgrounds behind those characters is lovely, from the grand neo-classical meeting halls of those Edwardian big cities to fine small period details, like the iconic shape of an old Thames sailing barge going past Parliament. Or serious scenes executed with a light touch, such as a pair of Suffragettes trying to knock on the door of Ten Downing Street, to be told angrily “no, you can’t see the Prime Minister” (those of us of a certain age can doubtless recall when you literally could walk right up to Number Ten’s door, seems unbelievable in today’s post 9-11 society, but we could…).

Without a doubt one of the most compelling, emotional, vital reads you will have this spring. It has funny moments, touching moments, it has moments that will make your blood boil at the injustice of it, and moments of tenderness that are heartwarming. Pleasingly the book also comes with extensive footnotes to explain more of the socio-historical context of some scenes, a timeline and suggested further reading sources – ideal for anyone wishing to use it for educational purposes. It’s only April and I already know this will be on my Best of the Year list come December. I found it so fascinating I read it twice in one week, and I think this is one of those wonderful books that you know you will come back to again over the years. Simply wonderful, uplifting work.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

“I want the names and numbers…”

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s speech to the Conservative party conference recently contained her wrapping herself in the Union flag to attack the pro-independence camp in Scotland. Since the Tories were the only major party to even oppose Scotland having a devolved parliament I tend to pay little attention to what Scottish Conservatives said – they are mostly a fringe party in Scots politics, really, both in terms of Holyrood and Westminster, disliked and distrusted by the majority of the electorate, as their voting habits have shown numerous times in recent decades. Ironically the voting system for the Scots Parliament has been their best hope for clinging on to at least a small amount of politicians in Holyrood…

However my friend Alex pointed out that during her speech to the conference she said:

But 98% of Conservatives said they wanted to keep our Kingdom United.

And friends, do you know what I want? I want the names and numbers of the other 2%

Er, is that right? She wants the names and numbers of anyone who doesn’t agree with her completely? Great British Gods! How dare someone hold or express a different opinion in our democratic society! Fear being tracked down by Davidson’s secret police and dragged away in dead of night for dissenting, you disloyal scum!

Seriously though, that is quite a disturbing thing for a politician to say and more to the point why the hell are the lazy-arse Scottish media not grilling this politician over this remark? That’s their job, to hold politicians to account. And when they utter chilling phrases like that they should be held to account and questioned very closely and publicly on what they meant. Or perhaps like other right-wing politicians recently she will simply say “taken out of context” (the standard excuse) or the “it was a joke” (an excuse for uttering disturbing lines that seems to be making a come back in British politics at the moment). Either way she should have been questioned by the Scots media on this and she should also be a damned sight more careful of the wording of her speeches. As my friend remarked as we discussed this, had a Yes camp politician said something similar there would have been uproar, and rightly so.

And before anyone says I’m just doing some pro-independence biased ranting here, A) I am still waiting on a proper debate (as opposed to simple posturing and either scare stories or misty-eyed rhetoric from each side we’ve had so far) and information on which to base my decision for my vote (and lines like that above don’t help persuade me to the No camp) and B) even if I had decided completely to be in the Yes camp already it doesn’t invalidate the criticism of her quite disturbing wording.

The Fifth Estate

fifth estate movie poster

I caught The Fifth Estate film this afternoon; I had my reservations that this fictional (based on true facts, as they say) take on Assange and WikiLeaks would not match the excellent We Steal Secrets documentary I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year. Especially as the trailer tried to make it look like a thrilling espionage flick, although I thought wait till I see it, trailers, after all, are often misleading, edited by marketing bods, not the film-makers. Plus, y’know, this film also boasted Benedict Cumberbatch and his cheekbones. So off to the cinema I went.

Sadly I have to say despite an (as usual) excellent performance from Cumberbatch (playing Julian Assange and bringing out his mix of both prophet and svengali like user and narcissist), my fears were confirmed – this was a dreadful, utterly cliche-ridden film. Within the first half hour I was tired of it and the hackneyed, poorly thought out and executed attempts to ‘sex up the dossier’ – retrieving information, posting it online, hacking, they don’t make for very exciting visuals. And how many times since the 80s have we seen Hollywood coming up with all sorts of stupid-looking attempts to make them look fast-paced, exciting, thrilling even? From Hackers to Swordfish Hollywood has an abysmal record on how to portray this kind of work on a screen. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathise a bit, the film-makers want to make it look a bit sexier for the viewers but if they depict it realistically it won’t look that way. This is the same reason why almost every car shot in the petrol tank or driven off the road into a crash in Hollywood movies then explodes. They don’t in real life, but boy it looks more fun on the screen. But I would submit the sort of people who are interested in the WikiLeaks story do not need it to be Hollywoodized and are capable of accepting a reasonable depiction of information gathering and dissemination, so why the urge to make it look like this? It’s not a popcorn movie, for goodness sake.

So within the first thirty minutes lots of rapid cuts back and forth to try and create tension, the old rotate around the hacker quickly as they type away, have screens that have multiple windows streaming gobbledegook that is just nonsense, the old screen reflected in the lens of someone’s glasses and more shots anyone who has seen more than a few movies will recognise. There’s very little in the editing and cinematography that is interesting or unusual here, instead it lazily lifts already stereotypical ideas of how to show IT and hacking and recycles it, albeit with many more quick cuts. Although that said, the use of a large, dark office space repeatedly to symbolise how the organisation works (or doesn’t!) was not half bad.

So that style had me wanting to walk out after half an hour, but I stuck to it to see how the narrative would go. Sadly this fared no better – again to be fair this is a complex series of events and issues over years that had to be condensed down into a couple of hours running time, no simple task. So I accept streamlining of events and characters to try and fit into a film narrative, but sadly this is just to simplified. There is some attempt to show the moral quagmire of some of the events – yay, the good guys get inside secrets from a whistleblower and put it out there for all to read! But oops, they also put out documents naming people and their personal addresses, families, numbers, information that in the wrong hands could easily lead to them being hurt or worse. But again this is handled so ineptly it is clear the makers didn’t really know quite how to handle this film and also failed to have confidence in their audience, that the sort of cinema-goers who want to see a film based on this tale would be a bit better read and informed and would not need the events glammed up to keep them excited – as I said, this is not a spy thriller, for goodness sake.

The film also skips by the entire sexual assault matter Assange still has hanging over him (it gets a brief line in post-film credits) and poor Bradley Manning’s series of leaks which gave WikiLeaks its greatest coup and brought it to true world prominence via an alliance with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times is simply a device to push plot forward here, Manning is barely mentioned, his reasons for doing what he did and the huge personal cost is also lightly skipped over, which is unforgivable, in my opinion, with many others involved in WikiLeaks similarly given short-shrift. And yes, I know, simplifying for a narrative film, but the documentary managed to cover these people and aspects of the WikiLeaks stories, so why could the screenwriters here not manage it better?

My advice – forget this misfire of a film and instead check out the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets film, which, with a fraction of the budget, conveys far more details and information on these important events in a sensible, non-glamorous, manner where the events and presentation make it engrossing and exciting, not silly cuts and cliched scenes,and we see much more of the people and what they did, why they did it and the effects those events have had on them.

The stupidity of some school authorities

The BBC reports on a young lad, Rhys Johnson, who shaved his head to raise funds for a charity cancer. He raised several hundred pounds – and got disciplined by Milford Haven School. Why? Because his shaved head contravenes the school’s dress code. Seriously?

For starters do the authorities as Milford Haven School know this is 2013 and not 1813? I can understand some school regulations on appearance but find it hard to believe they are this Victorian-minded on things like a student’s hair. I’m not aware of any serious academic studies proving a link between follicle length of adolescents and cognitive abilities. I’d imagine they think this sort of petty rule enforcement ‘makes better, more disciplined students’. In fact it pretty much tends to make most schoolkids think their teachers are buffoons and idiots who delight in imposing inane rules just to annoy their powerless young charges and makes it more likely they will grow up with a strong distrust of authority figures (mind you, that is not a bad thing!). And then to enforce the letter of this rule even in a case like this? This shows astonishing inflexibility and utter stupidity from those in charge at that school. A young boy does something to help raise money for charity, to do something good, school punishes him for it. Way to teach a valuable lesson there, you utter, moronic, rule-bound idiots.

Some 250 of his fellow students walked out in protest at this injustice – the school authorities say they are “disappointed” at their actions. Again, really? Disappointed that so many of your student body saw what they perceive to be an injustice and stood up publicly with their fellows to make a stand against it? Excuse me, but aren’t those the sort of values we want to teach our children??? Do something to make the world a bit better, see injustice and stand up in opposition to it. Good for Rhys, good for his fellow students, utter shame on the hidebound, inflexible fools who are supposedly educating them.

Ding dong…

… the witch is dead… Hey, right wingers hell-bent on canonising Thatcher as some modern political saint, protesters will stop buying Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to get it into the charts if you stop wasting millions of pounds of the tax-payer’s money on what is essentially a state funeral in all but name. Deal? No? Well if you can close down half of central London and waste millions on a politician who is still despised by half the population decades on then it is fine for people to protest in a witty and sarcastic manner by getting this song to the charts. In fact there is something delightfully, subversively British about the humour behind that, the sort of satire and humour which goes back to the days of Hogarth as a way for ordinary citizens to make their views on their ‘betters’ known and heard.

And on the related note of Hogarth, here’s a recent work from one of that esteemed artist and observer of society’s modern heirs, the excellent Martin Rowson on the whole nonsense surrounding Thatcher’s death (cartoon by and (c) Martin Rowson, published in the Guardian):

I’ve head the pleasure of hearing Martin speak twice now at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and he’s not only very knowledgeable about the history of editorial cartooning and illustration, he is passionate about using it to hold politicians and other public figures to account and letting them know we are watching the buggers, which is vital in any healthy democratic society.

Edinburgh Book Festival 2012 - Martin Rowson 05
(Martin Rowson at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2012, pic from my Flickr)

Discordia

Discordia: Six Nights in Crisis Athens

Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple

Vintage Digital

This digital only book from Vintage is billed as “the first feminist-art-gonzo-journalism ebook ever published, and the best you’ll ever read”. Well I can’t say I’ve double-checked the claim to be first, but it is certainly a fascinating read – and one that is likely to make the reader progressively angry. This may be a little outside our normal sphere of reading coverage, but a chum at Vintage was kind enough to zap over a copy because they knew we’d covered some of Molly Crabapple’s work, and I’m very glad they did as the combination of well known journalist Laurie Penny’s text and Molly’s quite excellent illustration work combine to create an engrossing insight into current events in Greece.

Anyone who has followed either Laurie or Molly’s work will know that both have been actively involved in the raft of protests which most Western countries have seen in recent years, most notably the Occupy movement, and both have documented a number of events in those protests in their own style. Discordia grew out of those experiences and with Greece suffering even more than many other economies and contemplating yet more severe austerity measures to add to the miseries already being endured they decided that this was where they should head to try and dig behind the frankly rather uninformative (at best) or downright misleading (at worst) reports we’ve seen on the situation in our own media through the revolutionary approach of talking to some of the people involved and listening to their first hand accounts. Yes, I know, that’s one of the basic 101 rules for investigative journalism, but it seems far to often to me to be a rule that too many hacks and their editors ignore in favour of a simple write-up that questions little and offers nothing of substance. Hurrah then for those like Laurie and Molly who still follow that time-honoured, venerable yet still indispensable rule.

“In Athens, the writing is so thick on the walls that it blots out the street signs. As you lug your suitcase downtown from Syntagma Square, graffiti covers every hoarding, every pillar, every shopfront. Angry words in red and black and Greek and Spanish and English plaster the streets, ghostly faces in hoods and skulls and stick figures contort over the brickwork and spill onto the pavement.

The words ooze over the street furniture and lamp posts. They crawl up the monuments and statues that attempt to remind travellers that this is still a classical city. ‘Fuck heroes – fight now’ is sprayed in spiky black letters over the base of a statue of Theodoros Kolokotronis, a general in the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.

One of the designs that crops up again and again is a stencil of a girl with a suitcase. She is in her early twenties, and she’s a real person, which is to say that for a cartoon woman her waist and hips are of a biologically plausible ratio, and she wears plain old jeans and a T-shirt, her hair scraped back. Sometimes she is dragging her bags behind her and sometimes she leans against them and into the distance, always leaving or just about to leave.

That’s what a significant tranche of Greek youth are doing right now: abandoning a country which has told those of its young people it hasn’t tear-gassed to go fuck themselves if they thought they’d get work. The slogan on her suitcase changes with every image. Sometimes it says, in Greek – ‘In Spring We Rise Up’. Sometimes it says, in Greek – ‘In Autumn They Fall.

And Molly and Laurie do talk to people, all sorts of people – left wing activists, former party members who have given up on the established parties because they realised the mainstream simply wasn’t capable of representing ordinary citizens properly anymore, journalists (many of whom continue to try and report on unfolding events despite not being paid in months), immigrants, older folk, younger folk, and it’s hard reading. Times aren’t exactly rosy for most Western economies, goodness knows, but the tales these Athenians tells to our intrepid travellers are frequently upsetting and many of them will leave you angry – and you should be angry at the suffering and injustice, and the increasing feeling that money is more important than people’s lives. The feeling of despair is palpable, and Laurie and Molly talk and listen to many locals, those native born and those who emigrated to Greece. Most media reports here seem to me to present the protests in Greece, such as the recent general strike, as a general discontent at troubles brought on because many dodged paying their taxes and their politicians cooked the books to join the Eurozone (while EC officials largely turned a blind eye for political expediency). This gives a much more informed, nuanced view of what’s going on and the causes of it, far too much of which hasn’t been reported very widely in the English language press.

And for those of us who read our history there are far too many disturbing similarities to the 1920s and 30s, the Great Depression – not just in terms of terrible economic hardship, poverty and the dashing of hopes, but in the seemingly relentless growth of ‘hunger politics’. The black shirts are marching again and people who are suffering are sadly only to eager to have someone to blame, even if those they pick on have nothing to do with the nation’s woes, and the far right groups, then as now, exploit that fear during the lean, hungry times, stoking prejudice and bigotry in the guise of doing something positive and constructive, while their party leaders attempt to portray them as genuine democratic political parties, while their members are actually often out on the street attacking unionists, immigrants, homosexuals and anyone else who they deem different. Sadly Greece isn’t alone in this – many countries have variations on these quasi-fascist organisations who pretend to be acting out of ‘patriotism’ but who are really small-minded hate-mongers happy to exploit the situation to gain any power they can.

The difference in Greece is that the main far right party, the Golden Dawn (now infamous for one of its politicians physically attacking an opponent during a televised debate, which gives you an idea of the thuggish roots of this group) operates openly in the streets, intimidating, attacking, like something from the rise of Nazism in Weimar era Germany, while some in authority, especially in the police (who despite the massive cutbacks in the rest of government spending can still spend millions to buy stocks of CS gas to use on their own citizens), where it is estimated about 50% of officers supported the Golden Dawn at the last election, and have frequently been seen to turn a blind eye to their violence, arresting victims and doing nothing about the fascist bully boys who attacked them. And while some may think that can’t happen here both Laurie and Penny compare this to some of the Occupy protesters in the US who have found themselves manhandled roughly, arrested, pepper sprayed in the face (often right under the lens of the media, with little or no come back to the officers involved) – and they’re not talking left wing agitators, they’re talking the sort of college educated, middle class people who would normally trust and support the police and suddenly finding those same people they trusted are willing to turn on them when they try to use their right to protest. It’s a terribly bleak prospect and it’s no wonder Molly depicts the Greek police in such a monstrous manner, like some warped form of human and animal that came through a lens of  Steadman and Gilliam.

For those of us who have always valued Classical culture there is something especially poignant about these dreadful events occurring in the birthplace of democracy, from the ancient city-state that has influenced the development of the whole of Western civilisation – politics,philosophy, the rhetoric of reason, the arts, architecture – and seeing it not only buckle under the economic hardships but the society turning on itself, the splintering of the left, the rise of, let’s be honest, neo Nazi right wing hunger politics (right down to a logo that is quite obviously a variation on the swastika and black-shirted hoodlums marching in the street) and the oh-so easy targeting of anyone different (immigrants, homosexuals). What Molly and Laurie present here is a view of that old beast History knocking on the door to repeat some of itself, seen through the eyewitness accounts of the people trying to live through it and trying to deny it entry to the world once more. Sad, but why be concerned with it when we have our own problems? Again as History shows that was an attitude many had to the rise of the Nazis as Weimar Germany crumbled and eventually faded into dictatorship. Which isn’t to say Greece would go that way, but it has too many alarming parallels to be comfortable for anyone reading this, and besides, the way all of our world economies are interlinked in the modern world huge upsets in one nation have knock on effects on others; we all have similar worries and problems and being informed is always preferable to ignorance.

Both ladies offer up a very accessible view into the Greek situation, along the way taking in the austerity and Occupy and other related movements and protests in the US, UK and elsewhere, exploring economics, corruption, incompetent authorities, racism, sexism and the damned mess these negative qualities lead us into and showing how those problems in one nation relate to those in another. Laurie’s prose is, even when describing terrible scenes, enjoyable to read, while Molly’s artwork adds another dimension to the whole book. Molly herself notes that in an age where journalists and citizen reporters armed with digital cameras, web enabled phones and the like can beam photographs and video of events as they happen she wondered about the role of the artist; determined to be out of her studio and recording it in the field, she felt in a digital photo-rich world there was still a role for an artist in recording events and the thoughts of those involved, and I agree (in much the same way  – much as I admire photography there is still much to be said for illustration in reportage, in filtering through the human mind via the brushes, and Molly delivers a mix of rougher sketches carried out on the spot and more polished, finished works, more than a few of which I thought showed a Steadman influence, which I mean as a compliment. Well written prose or well executed art can be powerful, but combine the two successfully and you create a work that becomes more than the sum of its parts. Much recommended, thought provoking reading.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Milk piracy

Government, supermarkets and other buyers and representatives of dairy farmers are still negotiating over the scandal of large companies like supermarkets paying such a low price to farmers for milk supplies that they make a loss on every pint. The large supermarkets, who are often the target of ire for using their bulk buying and selling power to bully suppliers like farmers into ridiculously low prices have retaliated however and explained the very low price of milk is not because of supermarkets rigging prices through buying power but caused directly by online milk piracy. In this they have been backed up by figures from the music and film industry who say that alongside music and movie piracy the illegal downloading of copied milk via web pirates was costing farmers dearly and destroying the industry. It’s thought when they attempt to lobby yet again for draconian new internet piracy laws the dairy farmers will also be leaning on politicians to bring in penalties such as the ‘three strikes’ rule for anyone suspected of illegally downloading milk or any other dairy products.

(a dairy cow yesterday, she answered no comment to the Woolamaloo Gazette’s reporter when asked about milk piracy)