Biting satire in Hannah Berry’s Livestock

Livestock,

Hannah Berry,

Jonathan Cape

I’ve admired Hannah Berry’s work since her impressive, beautifully painted debut Britten & Brulightly, and since then, when it may have been easier to stick with more stories featuring those same characters, she’s created something totally different each time, and I’m pleased to see she continues to do so with Livestock. Here we have political chicanery, corprorate skulldugery, the deliberate manipulation of the media to mislead public opinion, the obsession with celebrity culture that permeates much of Western society, all wrapped up in a vicious satire which shows how all these different facets of modern society are interconnected, from manufactured celebs to Malcolm Tucker-tinged PR svengali (with great lines like “man’s drier than a taxidermied arsehole”. Yes, this is funny, often exceedingly so, but that humour is angry humour, and so it should be, because the Britain painted in Livestock is awfully close to the bone.

In this world the public relations firms are even more powerful than they are in the real world (a scary thought by itself), effectively taking Herman and Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” ideas to a horrible and all-too-plausible extreme. Here Mr Rourke is the mover and shaker, organising both carefully contrived celebrities (of the type that would make the average boy band look like authentic indy rockers) and also PR work for the ruling government and major corporations. And here those are all very much entwined – we’ve had the nightmare of the “military-industrial complex” for many decades, and the mass media has played a role in promoting and normalising and legitimising for much of the 20th century (we can thank famous psychologist Freud’s descendants for much of that particular took becoming so commonly used to subvert democracy). Here the military-industrial complex comes with an entertainment division – I suppose some would argue it always has, to some extent, but here again it is taken to the logical and disturbing extreme.

Have a problem with a pesky government leak exposing some very dodgy legislation? No problem call Mr Rourke, he’ll have his minions spinning more than a legion of spiders on crack. In Livestock the story has broken that legislation passed several years previously contained laws concealed inside various clauses that actually made legal genetic research into human cloning. It will surprise no-one to learn this secretive law was pushed through by lobbyists for a large corporation; such shadowy deals sadly happen on a daily basis in the parliaments and congresses of most of our supposedly democratic societies. The bumbling, hapless minister responsible, a man who would make Jim Hacker look like Lloyd George, is flailing in public as the reporters pounce on a juicy story. Rourke’s team soon deflects public interest with a mixture of carefully-created personal stories (minister adopts hero dog who saved child!) and throwing every more equally carefully-created celebrity “gossip” (entirely manufactured and controlled) to deflect the public’s short attention span.

In Livestock the main glossy celeb in Rourke’s menagerie is Clementine Darling, twice winner of the Best Female Singer and Political Spokesperson at the Twammies awards. For all her celebrity power – media and public alike hanging off every word as this pop star is expected to speak on everything from her new (again manufactured) romance with a fellow star to the morality of genetic research and cloning, her thoughts (all finely rehearsed and fed to her in advance by the PR team) given as much, or indeed more, weight than those of actual experts, while light entertainment programmes are where these important issues are discussed (a total misuse of the term discussed) rather than on serious, hard news programmes. When Hannah was creating Livestock she couldn’t have known when it came out we’d be in the middle of another general election, and one that has seen the prime minister avoiding serious public discussion while happily appearing with her husband to talk inconsequential nonsense on lightweight entertainment shows, but we’ve had that just in the last few days and it makes Livestock feel all the more pertinent than it already was…

Clementine herself comes across as almost a blank slate, practically programmed for her public outings, be they making a new music video or a carefully orchestrated public spat with a rival. She’s treated almost like a child – her minders lead her to the limo after an event, strapping her into her seatbelt, asking if she wants her juice box and allowing her to “watch her programmes” (mostly a sickly soap opera which nicely parodies many aspects of the lives of the characters in Livestock). It’s exactly like parents taking a toddler on a trip, although there are hints that Clementine may be more than the quiet, docile, clay they shape, that she may be more aware of what’s going on. Her life may be even more arranged than those of a classic 30s Hollywood star (when the studio fixers would even go so far as to arrange marriages that suited the public persona of their big names), and her image may be used to not just sell records but sway the public focus on debates, but there’s a hint here that while she is exploited, and so are the press (and public), she may well be doing some exploiting of her own for her own gain.

It’s a very dark, bitter and entirely too plausible set of scenarios Hannah crafts here (all beautifully illustrated in her lovely, painted style), but fortunately there’s a lot of humour here to leaven those vicious barbs, from the ridiculous collapse of one of the few heavyweight news debates into celeb gossip oooh and ahhh-ing to a nice little aside at a celeb book launch (it took days to write!) where a group of real authors stand around looking at the media turnout and the champagne and muttering how their book launches aren’t like this. One of them adds “I didn’t even get a launch”; that particular author holds more than a passing resemblance to a certain Hannah Berry herself, to my eye. New headline pages of the clickbait variety punctuate the story; where RoboCop used hyped-up US style news programmes as a caustic sidebar to comment on the society portrayed in that film, here we’re down to quick soundbites and links which, frankly, while seemingly OTT for comic effect are actually not as bad as some actual media outlets use now (these also allow for a couple of other famous faces to cameo).

Livestock is dark, clever, bitter, biting and funny satire, laughing at the same time as it weeps at the way our media-saturated, high-channel, low-concentration level society is going, of how easily we can be manipulated, and how much of that blame is on the public as much as the companies, media and governments who try to spin that debate. It will make you laugh while also making you angry, and after the way politics has gone on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few months, Livestock is now even more topical and on the nose than when Hannah started it. Read it before our society devolves even further into the parody-satire that it seems to be becoming.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The Trumpenfuher

Hugely amused to see that the crowds for the massive women’s marches in Washington (and all round the world, including Berlin, London and my own beloved Edinburgh) vastly outnumbered the crowds the day before for the inauguration of Trump. And then Trump, after ordering the gagging of the park ranger’s twitter feed which estimates crowd sizes, had his new White House press spokeperson Spicer, in one of his first briefings to the international press, tell them they were all liars and that the inauguration was the biggest ever. Period. Then stalk off before the world media could ask him why every news agency around the entire globe said otherwise. Mind you it is a common problem for sad, elderly, insecure white men to worry that their inauguration was a lot smaller than a cool, younger black man’s…

I await Spicer holding future press conferences where he reminds us that War Is Peace, Oceania and Eurasia have always been at war and that the White House Press Office was now being renamed The Ministry of Truth. I would like to try and be constructive and positive here, but there is now real way of getting round the fact these people are lying scumbags, with their “post fact” politics, who cannot accept actual reality or even the lightest criticism without a rabid response of nonsense and counter accusations. Somewhere in Hell the ghost of Goebbels is laughing his Nazi arse off – defeated in war by the heroic sacrifice of so many British, Americans, Canadians, French, Norwegian, Polish and others only to find several decades later their modern ilk grabbing power in Brexit Britain, Trump America, Erdogan’s Turkey, marching again in upcoming elections in Germany, France, even the long lovingly tolerant Netherlands. Those who gave all in the 30s and 40 to crush the evil of fascism must look at what is happening our modern democracies and wonder why they sacrificed so much. We need a modern version of the International Brigade.

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it: in Newspeak, “doublethink.”” George Orwell, 1984.

Probably one of the books Trump would like banned, just as he tries to remove funding for independent broadcasting like NPR and PBS in the US because, like most such ego-maniacs who spin their own version of reality, he is terrified of actual facts and truth and learning and reading, the pillars which underlie those faculties critical to democratic society, thought, consideration, learning, toleration and the ability to criticise. They are terrified of real journalists who check sources and facts, of teachers, of librarians, of educated people capable of considering reports and thinking for themselves. And they should be. We don’t carry guns. We carry sharper weapons within.

Meanwhile, do not surrender to despair as the Black Shirts march again, instead think of the Marseille singing scene in Casablanca, filmed in the middle of WWII when the outcome was far from certain, a defiant chorus declaring that in the long run the good guys would triumph. And also to all the women (and men) of all classes, creeds and walks of life who marched on Saturday, more power to you, sisters and brothers. We’re going to need that unity and strength, and we need to remind these people who have seized power that we too have a voice and we too have power. And that we remember the sacrifices of those who came before us to protect those freedoms, and by god we will not allow anyone to take them from us.

Spare a thought for elderly people in decaying, substandard housing…

No, not the many pensioners who have to decide if they can afford to feed themselves or to turn on the heat this winter, but the Queen and the His Royal Bluntness the Duke of Edinburgh, as Buckingham Palace is to have some £369 million pounds spent on refurbishment. Given we have endured years of austerity cuts in public services across the board and are in a country where some are homeless, others, despite full time work, teeter on the edge of homelessness because so much of their pay goes to soaring rents from gouging landlords (including a number of our MPs who make a good income from renting properties out and, coincidentally, get to set the laws on how that area is regulated), the chances for many to now every dream of owning their own home is gone, how exactly is this to be sold to the nation? A Buck Palace spokesperson said they hoped it would “appeal to their sense of nationhood.”

Really? People are working god knows how many hours a week and they still can barely put a basic roof over their heads because most of their income goes on rent, and this idiot talks about “sense of nationhood”? Well a sense of nationhood goes both ways – why the feck doesn’t Buck Palace show some of that sense back to the rest of the community who are struggling to stay in a home, heat that home, feed their families? If the government can grant millions to this incredibly ugly building that needs so much work because it has been so badly mis-managed over the decades then they have no bloody grounds to then tell the rest of us that sorry, we only have so much money in the pot, we must cut out suit to our cloth, and all the other excuses put forward to excuse cuts which usually affect the worst off disproportionately (to say nothing of being happy to spend billions on new nuclear missile subs or a high speed rail link).

Here’s an idea to fund the repairs without raiding an already badly depleted public purse to pay for dwelling for super-rich royalty – put in lots of cameras, all through Buck Palace, live streamed to the web, a 24 hour a day reality show. Given the (to me anyway, inexplicable) popularity of that sort of viewing they could more than earn the money to fix up the crumbling eyesore that is the palace (a building so hideous Londoners voted it one of the ugliest in the city)

Kaiju attack disables bridge

forthbridge2

The Forth Road Bridge, an enormous suspension bridge which crosses the Firth of Forth, linking Fife to Edinburgh and central Scotland, has been closed due to a structural defect and will remain so while engineers work on the problem, entailing enormous traffic problems for a huge part of Scotland. Or at least, that’s what the authorities are telling us, but some cutting edge investigative journalism by the Woolamaloo Gazette (ie, we made it up) can now reveal the terrifying truth – this damage was not an engineering problem, a structural fault or even work of terrorist saboteurs. No, even more horrifying this was the direct result of a kaiju attack.

godzilla

Godzilla, on his way to pay a festive visit to his Great Aunt Nessie, took the wrong Firth on his trip, ran into bridge and caused the damage before realising he should be a bit further north and sliding back under the cold, tidal waters of the vast firth. A spokemonster for Godzilla reported that it was more of an accident than attack, and that Godzilla was “highly embarrassed” by the mistake, which was put down to a faulty bit of GPS programming.

Electoral Ukes!

Passing Scayles Music on Edinburgh’s Southside this afternoon, spotted these fabulous instruments – yes, Election Ukuleles!!!

electoral ukulele

Apologies for the reflections, normally put lens close up to glass to avoid reflections when shooting through a window, but no way to do that in this instance and still fit all of them in. As ever click on the pic to check larger versions on the Woolamaloo Flickr

The Saviour!!!

Oh but this is just priceless – a mock documentary, filmed much like one of the BBC’s Neil Oliver Scottish history programmes, “Jim Murphy, Saviour of the Union” gleefully shows the hypocritical, self-serving stance of the Scottish Labour party in the Independence Referendum and how their cosying up with the tories (yes, Milliband, we haven’t forgotten you leaping to agree with a tory chancellor) has come back post referendum to bite them, with polls terrifying Labour that they may lose a large number of formerly safe Scottish seats in the election, such is their unpopularity in Scotland now (the irony being the Labour leadership in London was most worried about Independence not on some patriotic grounds but because they couldn’t afford to lose that large block of seats they normally won in Scotland for Westmonster, now they may well lose many anyway), using some cleverly photoshopped famous Scottish paintings to illustrate it. (via Bella Caledonia)

Breaking news…

After being condemned for playing the political blame-game over the disastrous flooding in southern England government minister Eric Pickles reveals he is to be placed into a very large hessian sack and his substantial frame will be used to help plug holes in the crumbling, breached flood defences.

eric pickles body to be used to plug flood defences

 

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)

Nursery Rhymes for the modern audience

Many nursery rhymes have been passed down for generations, but in our modern, wired-up, interconnected age where youngsters are more savvy to trends and tech than ever,  perhaps many of them are losing their relevance to contemporary children, so we need to modernise them a little:

Pat a cake, pat a cake, baker man, bake me a low-fat, high fibre muffin, as fast as you can (and a skinny latte to go with it, please)

Little Jack Horner, sat in his corner, thinking when I grow up I will be a famous paleontologist

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, then called Injury Lawyers For You and sued someone to cover his own clumsiness

Mary had a little lamb, it used to send out her email spam

Old Mother Hubbard, went to the cupboard, then decided it was more convenient to order her grocery shopping online

There was an old lady, who lived in a shoe, because the mean bailed-out bankers wouldn’t give her a mortgage

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, his high-fat sedentary lifestyle made him die

Jack and Jill went up the hill, as part of their daily cardiovascular exercise programme (didn’t want to end up like Georgie)

Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, which she had assembled herself from an Ikea flatpack using an Allen key

This isn’t just any half a pound of tuppenny rice and half a pound of treacle, this is M&S tuppenny rice and treacle

Hipster Hitler

Hipster Hitler,

James Carr and Archana Kumar,

Feral House

I’ve flagged up Carr and Kumar’s clever webcomic Hipster Hitler on here before; I first came across it online a couple of years back and then, as many of you will doubtless know, it appeared in the comics pages that the fine Stool Pigeon includes. Humour, of course, is a very subjective taste – when Richard covered the Stool Pigeon strips this was one that didn’t so much appeal for him, for instance, while I was consistently cracked up by it, so obviously I was pretty happy to get my hands on this collected print volume of the strips.

As you may infer from the title the main idea for this satirical take on the Nazi Fuhrer is conflating one of the 20th century’s most evil dictators with the poseur douche figure of the self-obsessed, style over substance (but pretending to be all substance) hipster figure. And while that does offer up a good comedy image, it’s not quite enough to sustain it by itself for strip after strip, and it’s to Carr and Kumar’s credit that they don’t rely on that idea exclusively; it forms the basis, the format for the series, but there are clever little tricks all the way through, most notably the very changing T-shirts Hitler sports throughout (often very funny if you know your history to get the references – one T proclaims “Triumph of the Chill”, another has “1941: a Race Odyssey”, “Weimar Guitar Gently Weeps”) and the little text introduction at the top of each strip, which manage to combine a bit of actual history with the comedy, one strip on his virulent anti-Semitism starting with the introduction noting how Hitler “blamed the Jews for Germany having lost World War I and further  accused them of degenerating the arts, trying to take over the world and causing the breakup of the Smiths.”

The collected edition is arranged chronologically, sampling the webcomic’s run in historical order, from Hitler’s early life, leaving his rural Austrian home (he is too poor to afford stylishly distressed clothing, he explains to his family) to try his luck in Vienna, before joining up in the German army for the First World War (this allows for some good lines about his changing his moustache style and a nice M*A*S*H* reference when he’s wounded and taken to a military hospital), the inter-war years, and then Hitler in power and the Second World War. The art is pretty simple and clear, rarely bothering with much in the way of background detail, but combined with some clever wordplay it’s pretty effective.

I found something to giggle about throughout all the sections, and more than a few that had me guffawing, and the duo make good use of the real, historical Hitler’s (and a number of other leading Nazis’) penchant for superstition (he consults a fortune reader and is horrified to find she predicts a later dictator who will come after him and who will appropriate his moustache – cue a good dig at barking Bob Mugabe) and his well documented eccentric behaviour (which none of those around him dared to question) in real life here is pastiched perfectly as being because of his hipster values and lifestyle (he tells Goering they will have air superiority for the planned invasion of Britain, but he means he will ground the Luftwaffe to reduce their carbon footprint and pollution, thus ensuring their air is ‘superior’, he likes the idea of a tripartite pact between him, Italy and Japan because it makes “a perfec triangle. Silly, but no sillier than some of the other beliefs of the real Nazi heirarchy). The rest of his rogues’ gallery of henchmen (and women – Leni Reifensthal and Eva get a look in too) are present – Goebbels, Goering, Himmler et al) and we also get a nice line in who’s the coolest dictator between Hipster Hitler and his one-time friend, a very party-on Stalin.

I’m sure some will object and claim this is bad taste, but I can’t agree with that at all. I probably came well primed to appreciate this – it’s a period of history I know well, and I was also geared to comedy lampooning of the characters and events of that period, as the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs (beginning with the brilliantly titles Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall), read way back in my teens, had me well prepared. Personally I don’t find this in bad taste, nor do I think it cheapens or lightens awful events and indeed hideous crimes against humanity, it does instead what good cartooning often does, takes the very serious and lampoons it mercilessly, along the way taking a vile real character and reducing them to utter ridicule, and that’s something satirists were doing actually during the war itself to bolster morale (and even before the war – consider Chaplain’s remarkable The Great Dictator) and afterwards – again think of British comedy genius Milligan (who noted in one volume of his war memoirs that he was convinced our sense of humour about it all was a major part of why we eventually won, it kept us going) or the great Mel Brooks who has delighted in any chance in his comedy career to ridicule the Third Reich. Hipster Hitler does what any good satire does, it takes some of the real aspects of the events and characters, then gleefully distorts them to ridiculous levels for comedy gold. And along the way it takes a vile, hideous dictator and mass murderer and through cartooning and comedy exposes the pathetic little man he actually was, inviting us all to laugh at him.

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)