Here's something interesting I found in Gisela Kaplan's book on Contemporary Western European Feminism. She puts forward the argument that capitalism and democracy are contradictory. The primary ideal of democracy is egalitarianism, which stands in stark contrast to the strictly hierarchical, competitive and discriminatory nature of capitalism. And yet in Europe the two work perfectly well together. Why? Because democracy, understood only in terms of politics, does not reveal anything about the economic structure and power relations in wider society. However, in post-war Europe, there has been a new emphasis on social democracy -- the need to tackle things like equality of opportunity and distribution of wealth. This outlook is advocated in defiance of the ideological principles of capitalism.

Feminism is an integral part of this movement. It has emerged out of the awareness that the democratic ideal has been inhibited by capitalism. The women's movement is a deus ex machina, created in an environment of industrialisation and parliamentary democracy, and working towards discrediting both. In which case, if the basic workings of capitalism remain, the feminist agenda can go only so far. True equality of the sexes won't be achieved unless the state intervenes in the workings of the capitalist system to enforce it.

Interesting brain food. I'm not sure whether I'm convinced...


I just bought a liter bottle of shampoo from Lidl -- that haven for migrant workers, students and the unemployed. It's called 'Finale', it comes from Germany and it costs 80p. The bottle promises (in many languages, and in not so many words) only that the goop inside will smell nice, and that it won't poison me. I find this straightforward talk refreshing. It feels like we are one incremental step closer to Marx's final historical age, where the real value of labour, goods and people can be discerned.


American Literature

Through some of the prose I've splurged on these pages, I have made known my dislike of simple generalisations (see here and here). But I am, you see, a hypocrite. The following is a discussion of a massive subject -- American Literature -- with reference to an absurdly limited selection of texts: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, and (this is unforgivable) the first 200 or so pages of All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I balance a mountain of shame upon my head, but shall continue.

Hemingway first. Apparently, if you don't weep the tears of giants at the end of A Farewell to Arms you have a gaping hole where your heart should be. My eyes remained dry, make what judgements you will. Hemingway's unique style just left me cold. The reader is aware only of external actions, and the most basic of internal emotions (I felt happy, anxious etc). Because of this, precious little insight into the protagonist and the central romance is possible. I just didn't 'get' any of it. Similarly, The Old Man and the Sea presented me with a very detailed situation, but I was unable to see beyond the surface. I suspect the short story is a parable of some sort. But of what? Don't ask me.

Moving on to Less Than Zero. The writing here is also very sparse, but this serves to produce a very particular effect. Our teenage narrator, Clay, is left emotionally and morally numb by his environment -- wealthy, druggy Los Angeles in the 1980s. The style reflects this. Clay makes no judgements on what he sees. He simply records the (increasingly macabre) occurrences around him. In places it almost reads like a screenplay (I'll return to this in a sec).

Finally, Cormac McCarthy. Like the above, the prose is sparse. A few lines setting the scene, and then dialogue back and forth, much of it mundane. However, this austerity is juxtaposed with passages that are kinda like widescreen cinema epics. An extraordinarily beautiful image of a rider galloping with the ghosts of long gone American Indians will forever be burned onto my brain mush. The effect is to take the regular, humdrum lives of the characters and set them against the magnificent landscape and history of the American West, and so fill these stories with an ominous significance that belies their simple nature. After watching the brilliant No Country for Old Men I can't wait to read more.

Anyway. What links these three books is a particularly bare style of writing, which scratches the surface without going inside the character's heads. The reader simply 'watches' the action, and then has to guess at what's happening underneath. Moments of pathos and meaning are constructed through dialogue or an action (like leaving the room). Seeing as the above three authors are American, I've ascribed this 'screenplay prose' to all American Literature (which is fine, right?). There may be arguments to be made about the influence of Hollywood cinema on authors, but I should leave that to the experts. I've pranced around on their turf enough.

I contrast this with the stuff written by British authors, of which I am almost equally ignorant. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter are who I'm drawing on in the main (and thanks must go to my English teachers for pointing me down this path, I'm very grateful). The prose of the latter two is anything but sparse. And all three seem more comfortable running around their character's heads than describing what's going on in the outside world. I stop at using the words 'modernism' and 'postmodernism' in relation to this difference, partly because I don't quite know what they mean (if, indeed, they mean anything at all). Also because this US/UK contrast doesn't actually exist anywhere outside this essay.

I find I much prefer the 'UK' approach, partly because the prose is more exciting, and also because it plays to the strength of the medium. With straight prose it's very easy to go into the brain mush. You can't do the same thing with cinema except with voiceover (which I've always considered somewhat clumsy -- no one thinks like they are telling a story). For me 'screenplay prose' will work great on screen. It misses the particular opportunities offered by telling a story with words.

In comics, there is a similar UK/US division (probably invalid, but bare with me). Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman (the British elite) are much like Rushdie and co. They make heavy use of first person narration, delve into the minds of their characters, and so their comics often have an air of 'literariness'. The thing is, in comics you have pictures to work with, and long meandering narration is cumbersome. So sometimes I feel such stories are more suited to prose. I prefer the 'US' approach, typified by the three musketeers Bendis, Ennis and Ellis (and yes I know the last two are British). It is more 'cinematic' and so plays to the strengths of the medium. Pictures mean you actually see the action, which gives it a force that is difficult for prose to convey.

Postscript: Morrison is a bit of an oddball in all this. He is also of the 'UK' school, in that his work is 'literary' rather than 'cinematic'. But he is less reliant on a first person narrative voice. Instead, his comics are infused with a knowing artificiality. He often stresses that his stories aren't 'real', they come from the wacky mind of Grant Morrison. And so the point is made that to read a comic is to delve into the mind of its creator. We don't so much explore Morrison's characters as Morrison himself. This is the main reason why I can't love him as much as everyone else on the internet does. While his ideas are interesting, and there's plenty of them, his characters are too outlandish for me to be able to relate to them.


Battlestar Galactica

(In response to The Armchair Critic's review of season one)

I was really excited about Battlestar before I watched it, because (from internet chatter) I thought it would be like The West Wing in space. Take a couple of thousand people, make them fugitives facing extraordinary danger, and see the roots of human society and how it develops. A friend of mine told me to lower my expectations, saying it's more like 24 in space. He's right. The series could have explored ideas that just don't exist in American television. Instead it became a slick, well made, well acted, sci-fi war show. It's Black Hawk Down with robot sleeper agents.

The religion stuff is a perfect example of this. There is nothing in Battlestar about how religion is created or how it works, interesting sociological questions that any sci-fi show worth its salt can grapple with. The polytheism versus monotheism demarcation only serves to suggest that the humans are pluralist and the robots are authoritarian. Tellingly, Joss Whedon's Firefly goes a lot deeper into the workings of religion in the pretty sub-standard episode 'Jaynestown'. And it does this in one episode.

What's strange about Battlestar is that the significance of the entire series will be revealed at the very end, when the central conflict is resolved. Who will win is the question that propels the show forward. But this mystery is no mystery at all. Pretty much from the end of season one, and certainly from the end of season two, it was clear to me that the ending will be a reconciliation between the two antagonistic forces, where the robots learn to dissent, gain their individuality and become truly human. It will be a powerful and resonant statement when it's eventually made. But knowing what it will be sucks the tension out of the immediate goings on (otherwise perfectly interesting) in plot and character. The firefights and avoided disasters become petty developments in a theme that's yet to be reached. I find myself wanting the show to get to the point already. I've still got two seasons to go before that happens.

I'm being harsh. The show really is very good. But the fact that it's the best sci-fi show out there is more a sign of how poor other sci-fi is than it is about Battlestar being fracking amazing. Imo, of course. Shouldn't forget the imo.

Twin Peaks

'I think we need more brown. Can we get some more brown? It's really important that everything be brown' - David Lynch (apocryphal)

Idea for Angel Season 6

Some notes ago, I spewed forth pretentiousness about the tv show Angel. Apart from banging on about how it wasn't as good as Buffy (a semi-subconcious reaction to weirdoes who thought it was), I gave my own interpretation on what the show was ultimately about. In long, Angel started off as a divinely backed Champion of good in Los Angeles, city of demons. As the series went on, the god-like 'Powers That Be' that guide him on his quest for redemption (through visions sent to a sidekick) are stripped of their benevolence. In the third season Angel gets a son, and loses him to his worst enemy. In the fourth season, his conduit to the Powers is gone, and eventually one of the Powers emerges as the Big Bad. In the fifth season, the Powers' promise to Angel to turn him human is undermined by the arrival of Spike, another eligible Champion. Angel in any case has compromised his position by working for the bad guys. At the very end, we leave Angel and the gang with no reward for their labours, but facing an even bigger battle than the ones fought before.

All this powerfully suggests that Angel's predestined course in the first two seasons has gone badly awry. The Powers no longer perform miracles for him ('Epiphany' 2.16, 'Amends' Buffy 3.10). Providence, the guiding hand of a transcendent power, has been replaced with the chaos of life. Free will is what is important -- creating a purpose for your existence that comes from within.

Following on from this interpretation of the series, I got to thinking about how to square the benevolent Powers of the first two seasons with the ambivalent/malevolent ones in the last three. My brain juice came up with a simple idea: the Powers are crazy. They are insane, completely unpredictable, and they get some perverse pleasure from meddling in the life of our protagonist. This keeps the emphasis of the latter half of the series -- life is random, there are no greater explanations apart from the ones you form yourself. This is in line with Joss Whedon's professed existentialist/absurdist philosophy (right?).

Confession time. This idea isn't really original. I wish my brain juice had such talents. I encountered it in Slaine, by British comics legend Pat Mills. The Earth Goddess that Slaine worships is also crazy. She has three faces (maiden, mother, crone) and she constantly switches between them. In other words, she is completely unpredictable. Slaine can't ever rely on her help when he is in trouble. No deus ex machina and no clear path. In the end this leads to no God, at least in the traditional sense (Pat Mills probably doesn't mind you worshipping the Earth).

Won't this work rather nicely as a final statement for Angel? Or is it nonsense? Angel Season 6 is going on, but I'm not reading it. If no mention of the Powers is being made in there, then I suspect a lot of the above may be a giant sack of manure. Then again, you never know what an Angel series has in store. I live in hope.


Lenin and Biography

I spent some of reading week reading (actually reading!) a recent biography of Lenin by Robert Service. To counterbalance Soviet hagiography, Service takes a rather negative line on his subject. Take this summary of Lenin's early life:

'As a child he had striven to get his own way. He needed help, and used his family and his young wife as a crucial means of keeping support. He was not the fittest of men; and although he showed no outward signs of self-doubt, he suffered badly from nerves and other ailments. He was choleric and volatile. He was punctilious, self-disciplined and purposive. He was awesomely unsentimental; his ability to overlook the immediate sufferings of humanity was already highly developed. But at his core he had his own deep emotional attachments. They were attachments not to people he lived with but to people who had moulded his political opinions: Marx, Alexander Ulyanov [his elder brother, hanged for plotting regicide], Chernyshevshi and the Russian socialist terrorists. He had peculiar ideas of his own. But he aggressively presented them as the purest orthodoxy. He had yet to mature as a political leader. But a leader he already was.'

So not a nice guy overall. I don't really have a problem with this stance. Back when we did the Russian Revolution at school, I had ended up with the impression that Lenin was a nasty piece of work. I remember the repression of the Kronstadt strike in 1921 as being the event that ended my doubts on the subject. Lenin had betrayed his most loyal supporters, and the revolution they had fought for. His socialism was not based on a humanitarian concern for the poor. He wanted control -- to be at the head of the eventual transformation of human society. He wanted to end history, and would do so by any means necessary.

Nevertheless, I have some beef with Service's biography. While the above passage just about manages to retain the tone of objective analysis, at points this objectivity slips. Value judgements creep in. One example: when Lenin complains that his former lover, Inessa Armand, is 'scattering and destroying' him, Service jibes that 'it served him right'. Reading the biography as a whole, it's clear that the biographer has no sympathy for his subject. He ends the book on this note: 'At the very least, his extraordinary life and career prove the need for everyone to be vigilant. Not many historical personages have achieved this effect. Let thanks be given'. For Service, warning against people like him is the only impact Lenin has had which we should be thankful for.

This kind of tear-down job leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Or at least my mouth. One of the reasons why I love George Eliot's Middlemarch is the extraordinary sympathy the author has for her characters -- she maintains it even when she records their failings and bad choices. I feel that biography should attempt to do the same, even for monsters like Lenin. Service's overt dislike for his subject puts him at a distance from the reader. Lenin is standing trial, with only the prosecution being heard. On the other hand, the 'George Elliot approach' makes it easier to understand the person under study, and relate their weaknesses with our own.

We should remember that empathy does not have to include agreement with or support for other people. It's just the ability to see the world through their eyes. And this is what biography is all about.


The West Wing

I lent the first season of The West Wing to a friend recently, and was surprised to find that he wasn’t feeling it so much. I have always regarded the show as nigh on indestructible when faced with any kind of criticism. You will love it if you give it a chance. But this, I guess, is not the case. My friend is much more sensitive and responsive to character than I am, and I think this is where the show stumbles somewhat. The characters that scurry around The West Wing serve as little more than mouthpieces for different opinions. The show’s creator and writer-in-chief -- Aaron Sorkin -- says that he doesn’t delve deep into his character’s psyches, but mainly focuses on the simple question of what they want. A wants one thing, B wants the opposite. Put them in a room, and you get drama. This is the basic building block of the show. And because of this, it is often difficult to nail down precisely what the characters believe. Josh may serve as the pragmatist on a particular issue, and Toby as the man of principle. But at other times, on other issues, those roles are reversed. The characters serve to express opinions and argue through an episode. They are tools that propel the discussion of issues and the development of an episode’s theme. Consistency throughout the series isn’t a major concern. Following on from this, there is very little character development from season to season. Bartlett, Josh or Donna don’t really metamorphose in the long run. How you see them in the first episode is pretty much how they end up in the last.

So wait, The West Wing is rubbish? I don’t think so. While the above is certainly true, in the short run (i.e. in the course of one to three episodes) characters *do* have an arc. A lesson is learnt, an opinion is changed, a new awareness is reached. The West Wing doesn’t just go through the pros and cons of particular problems, it shows the characters who argue about them being affected by the argument. You are able to emotionally invest in them. It’s not a dry exercise in political science. For me, this level of characterisation is enough. But I understand why others can be dissatisfied with it.

And let’s not forget all the other stuff (forgive me if this slips into stating the obvious territory, I do like the sight of my own words). The dialogue in the show is really quite astonishing. In itself, it is a delight to listen to. In different scenes it slices, punches, soothes, weighs down and elevates up. ‘Poetic’ is not to strong a word to describe it, imo.

And then you get the actual ‘what it’s about’ stuff. No other show has addressed the range of concerns touched on by The West Wing. Embarrassing I know, but it has taught me more about politics than any book or lesson on the subject. And most importantly, rather than being cynical, it manages to remain optimistic about government and the people in it, while not shying away from the limitations of both. In an environment of political apathy, it serves as a welcome reminder of just how exciting and vital the stuff going on in the centres of power is.


How I love Warren Ellis...

'...it's very important that I climb into my shiny flying metal pajamas of death in order to wrestle hopelessly with a biotechnological fluke who can chew through monster trucks now.' -- Tony Stark


Claudia and Jim are on a date.

Claudia: Want to make a deal with me?
Jim: OK.
Claudia: What I just said. People afraid to say things. No guts to say the things that are real or something...
Jim: Yeah.
Claudia: To not do that. To not do that that maybe we've done before.
Jim: Let's make a deal.
Claudia: OK. I'll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss, shit and lies that kill other people.

The Wire

Wow. Isn't The Wire amazing? I plan to smear some pretentiousness over this statement, but I feel I should begin at the beginning. The Wire is amazing. Plot, character, dialogue, setting, camerawork, editing, music, the frigging title sequence... all the pieces fit, and all the pieces work.

Now for the sticky pretentious stuff that glues the whole thing together. Episode 6 of season 1 is itself called 'The Wire', and it begins very interestingly. The teaser opens with a shot of a mutilated corpse lying spread-eagled on the hood of a car. The camera then picks up on a rising power line, and follows it over a back garden, through a second floor window, and then comes to rest on a sleeping teenager. From the previous episode, we know that the teenager and the body are linked, and the power line visually communicates this. So although 'The Wire' primarily refers to the wiretaps the police use to build their case against a drug dealing organization, it's difficult not to interpret the opening sequence of this particular episode -- a wire connecting two individuals -- as an alternative thematic statement on what the series is about. Relationships. The wires that connect us to others in our environment. The hierarchies of duty and obedience that structure our lives. And the show demonstrates over and over again how people are oppressed by such hierarchies, both legitimate and clandestine. Relationships -- wires -- create the framework on which a working city is built. But they also create cages that limit our freedom to move and act.

It's extraordinary that such a defining statement is delivered visually, rather than through dialogue. The writers of the show know when to keep silent and let the directors and actors do the heavy lifting. Using non-verbal means to impart messages is one distinctive feature that sets The Wire apart. Another example (of many) that stuck with me is in the final episode of season 1. In a short, throwaway scene at the end, Bodie -- now in control of the Pit -- walks away from his underlings. The camera pushes in to close up as he stares at something above him. What? We don't know. We cut away to another scene. It could be the camera that has been spying on their drug dealing operation. Or it could be a momentary daydream about his new position, and the new heights he has yet to scale.

Leaving the ponciness behind, time for a word on another distinctive feature of the show. Unlike the rest of American television, the characters in The Wire are not all white, straight and handsome. In order to build a realistic portrayal of the city of Baltmore, the creators have gone for 'character' actors, not leading men and women. Certainly no other show has done more to exhibit black acting talent. However, interestingly, there are limits to this race/gender/beauty blindness. Although an ensemble piece, McNulty's character stands a little bit above the rest. Dominic West, the actor who plays him, gets the first credit. McNulty is a semi-protagonist, and is still white, straight, handsome, and a guy. He is a leading man. Similarly The West Wing, the *other* greatest American TV show ever, and another high brow ensemble piece, has a leading man in Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn. Initially, much of the series was going to revolve around him, before the creator realised that C.J., Josh, Toby, even Donna were more interesting. Similarly, Mad Men has Don Draper, and Six Feet Under has Nate Fisher. American television still needs its leading men to look good on the posters and sell the product. The mold is cracking, but it hasn't been completely destroyed.

Top Buffy episodes

Many moons ago I made a list of my top Buffy episodes (see note waaay below) where I was a little bit in awe of season 7. This was mainly a nostalgia attack. I had only seen season 7 once, when it originally aired on the BBC. I've just finished rewatching it again, and it has made me wanna do an updated list, with season 7 highlights. After that, I can finally bury this strange obsession and get on with my life (or what remains of it). Well, that is until Dollhouse comes to our screens later this year.

Here we go:

2.7 Lie To Me
The first episode I ever watched. It's my favourite, but not just for that reason. This was the point at which the series became something bigger. Before it, there was decent mileage from the teenage angst equals monsters set up. But that was pretty much the only level being played. Here, the show really blasted into the stratosphere. With a simple scene at the end, the writers touched on truly poignant and profound ideas. The chaos of life, and our need to make sense of it -- by telling stories, and believing them even though they are lies. Don't take my word for it. Read this and tell me it's not a work of genius:

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: Yes, it's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy: Liar.

2.16 Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered
How hilarious is this? And also completely ridiculous. The jokes and the situations just build and build, but in the end it really revolves around a gooey, warm, heartfelt centre. Teenage relationships done the Joss Whedon way. Confusing, sexy, a little scary. It's the way it should be done.

2.18 Killed By Death
There is something to be said for the creep factor. The show rarely gets to be scary. The horror stuff gets crowded out by all the other genres Buffy works off of. But here there's a monster killing little children in a hospital. And you're at the edge of your seat every step of the way.

3.9 The Wish
Anya and Vamp Willow first make an appearance here, but that isn't the selling point of the episode. It's wonderful how it moves from Cordelia's feelings of betrayal to the sci-fi concentration camp dystopia at the end, and yet manages to build a unifying theme out of such disparate parts. Wishing for vengeance is not the way forward. Wishing for a better world is.

3.10 Amends
Christmas, family and a christmas miracle. This is the episode that gave Angel his own spin off tv show. Good and evil are given a divine transcendent dimension. And both forces are fighting over Angel's destiny, one bringing despair, and the other, hope. The writers of Angel will eventually grow uncomfortable with it, but here is the Buffyverse at its most overtly religious. This is interesting not because the episode is preaching, but because it uses Christian mythology and symbol to layer personal pain and anxiety, and so demonstrates the way in which religion works.

4.10 Hush
The gentlemen are terrifying. In other news, this is the one where everyone loses their voices, and we see how inept we are at truly communicating, even when we are able to speak to each other. A simple idea, executed brilliantly.

4.16 Who Are You?
This is amazing partly for the really rather terrific impersonation Sarah Michelle Gellar pulls off. Secondly for the really rather earth-shattering transformation Faith's character goes through, to be continued at the end of Angel's first season. And finally because the idea of the body swap can keep a philosopher occupied for days discussing what really makes us who we are.

4.22 Restless
A weird season finale, to be sure (and what's with the Cheese Man?). The rather cliche idea of dreams revealing your inner insecurities is at the heart of proceedings, but it is nonetheless exciting to discover new shades and perspectives in what are well established characters. And the whole thing is masterfully put together.

5.6 Family
The title says it all, really. Sometimes your biological family isn't your true one, and it's great to see Tara discover that and really become part of the gang. Also, the oppressive force of patriarchy is shown in all its ugliness, and a distinction is made between it and the values of Buffy and her friends -- love and along with it an acceptance of people's differences and eccentricities (homosexuality, magic). Also, Spike is hilarious.

5.16 The Body
The show's finest achievement. Its pinnacle. It's brutal, and it's beautiful. Nowhere has the process of bereavement been captured so well in television. And this is a show about vampires.

5.22 The Gift
Buffy sacrifices herself so that her sister, her friends, and the world can live. Sound familiar? Whedon doesn't spare the Christian symbols, but he stresses that they aren't the important bit. They just visually convey the emotions being played out. And those emotions really hit you. This may well have been the final episode of the series. The writers were not sure if it was gonna be picked up for another season. And so the fundamental ideas of the show are restated, more brilliantly than ever. Selflessness, friendship, family. The gifts we give one another.

6.7 Once More, With Feeling
Joss Whedon didn't know how to play an instrument six months before writing and shooting this episode. But he wanted to do it, and so he learned. And then he wrote the songs. And then he made the episode. This guy is a genius!

6.17 Normal Again
I bet loads of fans hated this. It turns out the Buffyverse is an elaborate fantasy playing out inside Buffy's head, while she spends her days comatose in a mental institution. The dangers hinted at in 'Lie To Me' are explored here. Sometimes telling stories -- lies -- to shield yourself from the evils of the real world prevent you from living at all. They imprison you. I bet the Buffy writers weren't too comfortable with this episode either. Hits close to home. But there is other stuff going on here. Buffy comes face to face with her mother, and the possibility of regaining her childhood. But she rejects it. She grows up and chooses to live in her own world. What season 6 was all about.

7.02 Beneath You
You know this James Marsters guy? Yeah, he's pretty awesome. His performance here is kinda powerhouse. It's dynamite. It's stand back in awe when the credits roll stuff. It made me want to applaud my computer screen. Give this guy a show already!

7.12 Potential
Dawn got a pretty raw deal season 6, after being a big part of season 5. And she was a big part of why season 5 was amazing, so it's nice to see the character get her moment. Much of the episode is pretty standard, and then Xander starts to speak at the end and I'm weeping into my keyboard. In a season all about power, it's deeply moving to see the regular people gain a kind of grace the powerful will never have.

7.16 Storyteller
I'm in awe of Tom Lenk's comedy chops. I don't think he can really deliver on the emotional stuff, which brings the episode down somewhat. But it is still a landmark episode, because (like 'Normal Again') the writers get to talk about the limits of storytelling. Actually doing something is what is vital. Also, a wonderful symbol at the heart of the episode: atonement isn't achieved with blood, but with tears.

7.22 Chosen
Most tv shows go out with a whimper. Buffy goes out with a bang (and what a bang...). It says a lot about the series that the last episode can be ranked alongside its best. What is the final message? That women everywhere can use Buffy's example and become Slayers, overcoming the forces of patriarchy that oppress them. And Buffy? She can finally go on and live her life. She seems pretty happy about that.

Right. Enough of this nonsense. I'm done. Time for me to go live my life.


Here is what the Guardian said about the film. It got four stars. FOUR. That's about the best a Hollywood fantasy film can hope for in the pages of the Guardian. Peter Bradshaw reserves his five star reviews for European arthouse films no one has ever heard of. Or bothers to see. But FOUR STARS? Huh? Did I see the same film?

As far as I understand, Twilight is being praised for restoring a bit of romance to the highly sexed-up high school genre of the present age. There is no hanky-panky here, as Edward (a vampire) will get murderous. So instead there is much fervent desire being repressed, and a lot of longing stares, sighing, and moodiness. It's like were back in the 19th century. Unsurprisingly, the Times were ecstatic about it.

Is it just me that finds all this slightly ridiculous, and also frustrating? I'm not being a cynic here. I have been known to enjoy my fair share of rom-com dross. I'm looking forward to seeing Baz Lurhman's new film, for example. But Twilight doesn't sell me on the romance between Edward and Bella. I found it difficult to care about either of them. They were boring. It was hard to believe in their relationship. Love is built on communication, and that wasn't shown convincingly. Well, it was -- in montages where you see the couple talking and smiling. But you don't *hear* this process. When it comes to the actual dialogue between them, its back to the awkwardness and frowning. Without showing you what their relationship is like, it gets difficult for you to care when that relationship is in trouble. I needed to see the good times, in order to be moved by the bad.

I knew something was wrong when I found myself preferring the company of Bella's highly annoying friends to Bella herself. It's hard to sympathise with her moodiness when that's all there is to her. I wanna stress here that I'm not dissing the actress, but the script. The acting throughout was great.

All this aside, there remains the problem of exactly what Twilight is trying to say. What does Edward's vampirism mean? Mark Kermode, the BBC's resident film reviewer, argues that it isn't really about sex, but rather about teenage angst and not fitting in. There are too many intense looks between Edward and Bella for me to buy this. More fundamentally, sex is a central component of the vampire idea. Biting the neck is a sensual as well as a violent action, so if there is any neck-biting, sex and death are immediately invoked. I think Bradshaw strikes closer when he talks about 'displacing an irrational horror of sex into a freaky emo crush' and how 'the world of the sexually active may indeed seem like an unlovely vampiric cult'. Fear of sex? My frustration with this film may be due to the difficulty for me to relate to this, and apologies for being horribly insensitive. But I don't think this is quite all of it. The metaphor doesn't quite work in the film, as both characters, minus the vampire problem, seem pretty ready to jump into the sack. Edward desperately *wants* Bella's blood, and has to restrain himself. So maybe it's really about abstinence -- that most traditional of vampire themes. Edward doesn't want to unleash the slavering beast inside him. He's already 'infected', and doesn't want to 'infect' the love of his life. But this is another idea I have difficulty with. Exactly what is so bad about teenagers having sex?

My sister tells me the book is much better. No surprises there. I'm gonna read it (soon...) and see. But so far, this teen phenomenon has been difficult for me to access. Man, does that mean I'm all grown up?

BTW I'm getting very angry at the description of Twilight as a 'post-Buffy' piece. As far as I remember, helpless Bella gets her life saved about three times by the macho Edward. Go feminism! And an audience can believe in and care about Buffy and Angel's relationship, because the two characters have *depth*. Buffy DVDs are in need of re-watching.


As far as I understand it, this is how Marxist political theory runs. It starts of with the recognition of the evils of modern capitalist society, where the labour of the penniless majority is exploited by the idle, rich minority. This inequality is maintained by the idea of property rights. The owners of capital pocket the profits of industry simply because they own capital. The workers who actually produce the goods are only rewarded with the minimum amount to keep them alive. From this analysis, we looks back and find the same structure throughout history. Modern day factory workers are just like the slaves of antiquity or the serfs of the middle ages; the only change is in the level of technology, and the social values of the ruling class (religion, patriotism, self interest etc).

From here, we see that these changes are intimately linked with the oppression of one class by another -- that historical progress is ultimately due to struggles between different social groups bound by similar economic roles. And just as the newly emerged factory owners overthrew the agrarian feudal lords at the dawn of the capitalist age, the present day proletariat are also destined to rise up against their masters and usher in a new age of communism.

But this new society is difficult to pin down. We can only define it in contrast to what had come before -- the end of class antagonism (man against man) and the degradation of humanity (man’s true nature as opposed to man today). But what man’s true nature is remains elusive. The coming communist era is one where the oppressive forces of class, property and government no longer exist, and so man is free. But for the earth to be held in common ownership, where each man consumes resources according to his needs, a fundamental change in human behaviour is necessary. Marx argues that this is possible -- that ideas and behaviour change according to the social and economic context. But do they? This is the hinge on which all of Marxist theory rests. For communism to work, people have to be *different*. Can human nature be moulded by the progress of history? I have my doubts.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the Communist Manifesto, Gareth Stedman Jones argues that Marx stumbled on exactly the same point. He spent the last fifteen years of his life studying primitive societies, trying to identify this 'new' mankind. According to Jones, he never found it, which is why the blueprint of communism -- Capital -- was left unfinished.

In a q&a with Alex Callinicos (an expert on Marx at KCL), I raised the issue of the questionable existence of classless societies. He shot back that their existence *wasn't* questionable. Such communities *have* been found. So maybe Marx was right after all. Personally, I'm not convinced.

Buffy Season 8 (warning! here be spoilers)

(Written shortly after the release of issue 19)

Graaah!! Who the HELL is Twilight?!!! My original guess -- Riley -- proved close, but no cigar. After reading the latest issue, I went and trawled the internet for reactions. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who suspected Riley. Him being the masked Big Bad made a lot of sense. He had been pretty badly burned by Buffy, and if his ‘amazing’ wife left him, the misogynistic feelings clearly expressed by Twilight could develop. More broadly, the themes introduced in season 8 echo the ones (somewhat badly) developed in season 4 -- science against magic, male against female, the individual against the collective. And although Riley switched sides, he could easily switch back. He was always too much of a creature of the Initiative to ever fit in to Buffy’s world. And now that she has an army behind her, Riley could well see her reputation for resisting authority as dangerous. All the clues were pointing in one direction. Turns out it wasn’t quite the right one.

What now? The question of Twilight’s identity has been eating at me for days. Initially, I settled on Xander, because what a dramatic betrayal that would be! But there was also the claim made by Joss Whedon (head writer! yay!) that season 8 was ‘all about Anya’, even though she hadn’t really been mentioned much so far. Maybe her death sent Xander round the bend? But no. In issue 1, Twilight is seen floating above Buffy while Xander is still at Slayer HQ. Also, Twilight would have no need for ‘inside men’, Xander being as inside as they come. So dead end.

Maybe Giles? He clearly has few qualms about killing humans, albeit baddies. His would also be a dramatic betrayal. But Giles was all for the empowerment of slayers at the end of season 7. Why would he change his mind? Also, the whole idea behind the second arc was that Giles, Faith, Gigi and Roden were being played by Twilight so that they destroy each other, as Twilight explains to his followers. Why would he deceive them? Plus, like Xander, Giles is on the inside, so no need for an inside man.

Oz? He’s not part of the slayer team, and Willow’s rejection may have burned him up to the extent that he starts hating all women. But that doesn’t really fit Oz, who is cool as a cucumber (normally...). Also, Oz is slated to return in two issues time, in a story about Harmony. Is that gonna be his big reveal? Unlikely.

Angel? He’s tied up in his own season 6, Spike with him. If either of them are the Big Bad, it is because of developments in another series, published by another company, which is both very messy and also bad storytelling. This pretty much rules out any resident Angel series characters (Wesley, Connor, Gunn etc.)

Robin Wood? Twilight lifted just enough of his mask to show us he wasn’t black. Nope.

Andrew? On the inside. Also... no.

Graham, the other surviving initiative member? He shares some Riley elements. But his reveal would be a damp squib. He is too d-list. This also rules out people like Clem, Parker, Willy the barman...

Adam? Again, there’s the Initiative link. But he’s dead. Also, he would require a bit of a personality transplant to sound like Twilight. And a facelift.

The Master? There would be a certain neatness to having him back at the end. And he has a similar voice to Twilight. But, again, he is dead. Also, he has nothing to gain from the closing of the Hellmouths and the end of magic -- Twilight’s ultimate goal. Ditto the Mayor.

I’m grasping at straws. There’s just too little information to go on thus far. I’m gonna go with Adam for now, because I think there is something in the thematic link between seasons 8 and 4. But really all bets are off. This Joss Whedon guy is a genius...

BTW, I’m just gonna put this out there. Issue 5 of the series -- The Chain -- is one of the best things Whedon has ever done. Word is bond.

Hayao Miyazaki

I re-watched Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke recently, and thought I should rave about them for a bit. The former is Miyazaki’s first feature (I think); made all the way back in 1984. And to an extent it shows. There are some jarring elements, particularly the cheery Power Rangers techno music that comes on during the action scenes. Also, some of the dialogue doesn’t quite fit, although that might be the english dub at fault. But this is just pedantry. For the film is otherwise an extraordinary post-apocalyptic epic, exploring MASSIVE themes -- the nature of human civilization, its relationship with nature, the glories of human ingenuity (particularly flight), and the wisdom of women. The whole thing left me breathless.

Before seeing it, I had held a deep-seated prejudice against Japanese manga/anime. I thought I wouldn’t be able to understand it, since Japan’s culture was so alien. Its references, manners and ideas were too far removed from our Americanized cultural landscape. So why bother, when I could find a deeper resonance in western films and comics? I wouldn’t describe this attitude as bigoted. I wasn’t thinking Japanese output was inferior, just harder to access. But I now see how narrow minded it is. Miyazaki’s film showed me how brilliant art transcends all cultural differences, because it taps into emotions and ideas that we all, as people, share.

One thing that will immediately impress anyone watching Miyazaki’s work is how rich the imagination behind it is. For me, he has made every other animated film dull by comparison. The extraordinary range of stuff the guy comes up with: glider jets, flying barges, alien cityscapes, giant steam engines, weird monsters. This is a guy who loves world-building, and has the vision to make his worlds both enticingly strange and yet also recognizable, and relatable. This in itself merits his films wider attention.

But it doesn’t end there. Another constant is his surprisingly sophisticated characters, nowhere more evident that in Princess Mononoke. What is amazing about the film is that there are no villains. Instead, what you get are different characters who’s beliefs and interests collide, but who always have a justification for what they are doing. The same quality is what I like so much about The West Wing, where the bad guys -- the Republicans -- are sometimes quite admirable and sympathetic (amazing, I know). This is another thing I’ve realised from watching Miyazaki’s films. Great storytelling isn’t about exploring objective good and evil, but about the grey areas, where principles are tested by events.

Princess Mononoke revisits the ground first explored in Nausicaä, although this time going to the past rather than into the future. Both films push Miyazaki’s principle concerns -- pacifism, environmentalism, feminism -- which are present in all his work, to the fore. In Mononoke, the kinks in Nausicaä are ironed out -- it has a brilliant score, a great English language dub and effective (quite arty) editing. I personally prefer Nausicaä, just because I am in love with the character, but Mononoke is the (slightly) better film. I think the two are Miyazaki’s masterpieces, because they marry the poignant human stories of his other films with truly epic (am I gonna say it? yeah...) philosophical themes. Few films have displayed such a cornucopia of brilliance.

I realize that I am hopelessly under-qualified to make the following sweeping judgement, but what the hell. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.

Panegyric over.

Comics: a beginners guide

Listen! This is important. Maybe.

The large number of superhero films being made at the moment is not some reflection of the spirit of the times -- where the uncertainties of the war on terror make us cling to very clear definitions of right and wrong. At least, I don’t think so. I believe superheroes have always had a grip on the public imagination, and are an age-old way of portraying the battle of good and evil, and exactly what ‘good’ and ‘evil’ means. The only thing that has changed recently is that technology has made it easier to depict such outlandish characters, and make them convincing. That said, most superhero films have fallen far short of the complexity and brilliance of superhero stories told in almost 80 years of comic-books. This is an attempt to point out some of those stories that deserve more attention. The world of comicbooks can be a daunting place for those who know little about it. When you walk into a specialist store, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of titles on offer. I certainly was. How do you know what is good and what isn’t? How can you ensure you are not wasting your time? After five years of being a comics freak, this is my list of where to start. If you have found yourself enjoying tv shows like Buffy, Alias, Heroes, Doctor Who or 24, or the superhero action summer blockbusters, you may find something below that tickles your fancy. I think you’ll be surprised at how good some of this stuff is.

Here commences the guide!

FIRST: Education. A little knowledge about how the medium has evolved is useful and may be of interest. These books were revolutionary in their day, and profoundly affected the writers and artists that came after. They still make for great reading now.

1) Essential X-Men, Vol. 2. Chris Claremont writer, John Byrne artist.
This title appeared at the end of the 70s, and quickly became a bestseller. This particular volume contains *the* classic X-Men stories: the Dark Phoenix saga and Days Of Future Past. It also contains the work of one of the finest artists to have worked in comics, John Byrne. Overall, the series continued the Marvel revolution began by Lee, Kirby and Ditko, where extraordinary, epic events were experienced by regular people trying to learn how to be heroes. Here for the first time the civil rights theme is pushed to the forefront: The different visions of Professor X and Magneto is clarified. Also the team are more diverse, with strong female characters (Storm, Shadowcat, Mystique), as well as people from very different backgrounds: Nightcrawler is German and Catholic, Colossus is Russian and (kinda) communist. Seeing how these different people come together and become a team is one of the joys of the series.

2) Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller Vol. 2. Frank Miller writer/artist.
While the X-Men title was selling like hot cakes in the early 80s, another quieter revolution was occurring at Marvel. Daredevil had originally been a dashing rogue -- Adam Ant in spandex. Then Frank Miller came along and injected a lot of noir grit (and a Japanese samurai flavour) into the title. Characters became complex and conflicted, the style more cinematic, and the setting -- New York -- was evoked more strongly. It almost becomes a character in itself. All of this would be co-opted and become the mainstream way of doing comics. But before Frank Miller, superheroes stories remained an essentially juvenile pleasure. This volume is where Miller really takes the reigns, and introduces one of the greatest female characters in the history of pop culture -- Elektra. Her fight with Bullseye is another classic Marvel moment, which (like Dark Phoenix) gets referenced over and over.

SECOND: A little superhero deconstruction. The late 80s saw two revolutionary works hit the stands, which stripped superheroes of all their glamour and imagined them as real people living in the real world. The impact they have had can be detected in *every* superhero title that has come after. Trust.

3) The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller writer/artist.
Frank Miller had been doing his thing for years before dropping this bombshell: gothic noir cityscapes; urban decay and corruption; cinematic action; and most importantly, pummeling his heroes until they break down and are reduced to their essentials, which often means angry, desperate and very very violent psychos. But applying the formula to Batman, one of the most well known characters in comics, really turned everyone’s heads. The character was transformed from the greatest do-good detective in the world, into an anti-hero empathising with Two-Face and beating up Superman. I strongly suspect the sequel to the Dark Knight film will use this graphic novel as its template, and that in itself should justify a look through.

A little extra: you can clearly see how Frank Miller built up to the Dark Knight Returns on Daredevil: Born Again with David Mazzucchelli on pencils. The writer and artist teamed up again for Batman: Year One, a new origin story that influenced the Batman Begins film. The Batman stories of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, particularly Haunted Knight, are also worth a look, being directly inspired by Miller’s work on the character.

4) Watchmen. Alan Moore writer, Dave Gibbons artist.
So much has already been written about this book that I don’t quite know where to start. Yes, it does imagine superheroes as real people who, for various reasons, don masks and fight crime. Yes, it has really BIG themes. But it is also a book that awards very close re-reading, so that you pick up the wild experimentation with the form of the comic strip. Look at the way things are framed, the recurring symbols and images, and the way words work with pictures to achieve effects that are impossible in any other medium. It really is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the potential of the form. Lets hope the upcoming film doesn’t cock it up too badly...

A little extra: Almost everything Alan Moore has written is worth reading -- V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea...

THIRD: Saw the films and want a little more? These three titles are all better than the films they inspired. Notice that Batman doesn’t appear here. That is because The Dark Knight has been one of the few films where the portrayal of the superhero has matched the complexity and adult sensibilities found in comicbooks. It was awesome, and so are the following.

5) Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection Vol. 1. Brian Michael Bendis writer, Mark Bagley artist.
This series began in 2000 as part of the ‘Ultimate’ project, where the Marvel heavyweights were re-imagined for the 21st century. Peter Parker is back in school, and has to deal with being a superhero all over again. And thank God for that. While the ‘real’ Spiderman title is swamped by a ludicrous amount of backstory and terrible attempts to make sense of it, in the Ultimate universe, Spiderman is the way he should be -- a teenage hero for teenagers. Although the superheroics are marvelously entertaining, particularly Spidey’s banter during the fights, it is the school-yard drama that is often the most gripping. Through Peter’s internal monologue, Bendis constructs a well rounded, troubled and deeply sympathetic character. A very funny, very resonant, and very polished book. The best Spiderman out there. And just wait till you reach issue #13!

More of the same: teeny Marvel comes no better than the Runaways series by Brian K. Vaugan and Adrian Alphona, about a group of kids who discover their parents are supervillains. Very witty and charming. Fans of the OC take note.

6) Iron Man: Extremis. Warren Ellis writer, Adi Granov artist.
A lot of the resent feature film was based on this six-issue series. The updated origin story was lifted from here, and the artist went on to work on concept designs for the armour on screen. And while this doesn’t have Robert Downey Jr. in it, it tells a better tale, and also, incredibly, packs more of a punch than the Transformers snoozefest that made up the film’s finale. What makes the book a must read is an interview Tony Stark gives to a John Pilger-a-like in the first issue, where the fundamentals of his character, and his conflicts, are laid bare. Difficult to find dialogue of the same quality anywhere else on the small and big screen. Brilliant stuff.

More of the same: Warren Ellis has never really written a bad comic, check out Nextwave with Stuart Immonen and Transmetropolitan with Darick Robertson, where his humour and wackiness come to the fore.

7) Astonishing X-Men: Gifted. Joss Whedon writer, John Cassaday artist
I give the first volume here, but really you should read all four, because the series as a whole is truly astonishing. Buffy genius Joss Whedon, with little experience of the medium, comes to write one of the greatest X-Men arcs of all time. Some of the ideas made it onto the third X-Men film, but really this is a different animal. Really great dialogue, some wonderful takes on established characters, and a story which is twice as epic as any space-opera on screen. A lot of the credit must go to John Cassaday, who manages to draw both awesome spaceships, robots and aliens, and realistic expressions on the character’s faces (the hardest thing for an artist to do). A landmark achievement from every angle.

More of the same: Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men has recently come out in giant trade paperbacks. Events directly lead into the beginning of Astonishing X-Men. Slightly zanier and left-field, but one of the best works from a consistently brilliant writer.

FOURTH: further reading. The problem with indie comics is that there is a lot of choice, more experimentation, and titles targeted at particular niche audiences. In all, it becomes very difficult to tell whether something is good or not, especially if you work as I did, by trial and error. Here, I’m being safe and have focused on the rising stars of the industry.

8) Girls series. The Luna Brothers writer/artists.
This is very much in the tradition of Lost, where regular people are caught up in extraordinary events, and have to react to them. I think this is better overall, however. The level of characterization is about the same, but its wtf?! moments are bigger and more crazy. The story is well paced, and crucially, has a timely ending. What makes the series particularly interesting is the central idea, which is symbolically rich and allows for interesting questions to be asked, and also the cinematic artwork, which uses changing focus to great effect.

If you liked this, you may also like Suburban Glamour by Jamie McKelvie, which has a similar drawing style, and features English teenagers confronting the world of Faerie. Very enjoyable, it its own small way.

9) Queen and Country series. Greg Rucka writer, various artists.
This is a spy series set in England, and does remind one of Spooks a bit. Although the action is gripping, the office drama and the character interaction is what is most interesting. Also overturns convention by having a female spy as the central character, which is still virtually unheard of in tv and film land. Oh, well there is Alias...

If you like spy thrillers, also worth checking out the brilliant Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips for the gritty, noir approach; and Losers by Andy Diggle and Jock, for lighter action fare. Jason Bourne has *nothing* on these guys...

10) Hellboy series. Mike Mignola writer/artist.
The films were overpraised, I think, mainly because critics were still in awe over Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro did not capture the particular magic of the comicbook series. Granted, it is hard to do so, as so much of that magic lies in Mignola’s artwork, which anchors the story in a very particular magical realist mood, owing a lot to fairy tales as well as fantasy authors like Moorcock and Leiber. There wasn’t enough of that in the film. Also, the hardboiled hero in the comics became too much of a kook. So for the authentic Hellboy experience, go for the comics. They are a real treat.

For fantasy fans, lookout for the Red Sonja series by Michael Avon Oeming and Mel Rubi, which (incredibly) makes the bootylicious she-devil into a kind of feminist icon; Slaine: The Horned God by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley, where the barbarian hero is also a feminist champion (what is going on?); and finally the Fables series by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham, which has popular fairy tale characters living in exile in New York, and where (you guessed it!) the ladies usually come up on top.

11) Goldfish. Brian Michael Bendis writer/artist.
I have already gushed enough about this graphic novel (see note below), so I’ll say very little here. If you liked the wit and complexity of his writing on Ultimate Spiderman, you *must* check out Bendis’s indie noir/crime, of which Goldfish is the best; and also his early work for Marvel: Alias (nothing to do with the show) and Daredevil.

Noir fans will have a field day when they dive into the world of comics, as many top creators began their careers in this genre. Frank Miller’s work has always involved noir tropes, and his first straight up noir work ‘Sin City’ is excellent. For fans of the Wire, there is the fantastic police procedural Gotham Central, by writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark. Brubaker has recently began a new crime series called Criminal, which I haven’t read, but have heard is amazing

12) Kabuki series. David Mack writer/artist.
The influence of Frank Miller on the writing is very evident, but that is no bad thing. What makes the series particularly exiting is the artistic talent behind it. In the first black and white collection, Mack’s style shifts along with the events it portrays. In the second collection, prose switches to poetry, and pencils switch to painting and collage. Truly extraordinary stuff.

If you like this series, you really must check out Elektra: Assassin, by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, a writer and artist that have had a massive influence on David Mack’s work.

13) The Nightly News. Jonathan Hickman writer/artist.
Reading this about half a year ago reignited my faith in comics. Hickman introduces graphic design ideas onto the comics page, radically altering the form of the comic book. This perfectly complements the story, which is a scathing attack on how the media operates. There is a Chomsky quote in the front, and as the back cover says: it’s Network meets Fight Club. So you get the picture. The extras and notes make for great reading, and lead to a closer understanding of Hickman’s ideas and method. Overall: a major new talent.

This is still pretty cutting edge stuff. One thing that comes close is Supermarket, by Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson, which has a similar graphic design look, and also addresses issues of corruption in modern society. Some of Wood’s ideas mirror the work he has done designing the Grand Theft Auto series for Rockstar games, so if you liked that...

To sum up, this is a very incomplete list. I’ve made no mention of grand masters like Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Garth Ennis (Preacher), maybe because I don’t like them so much. It is in someways quite a personal list, particularly the indie comics section, where an awful lot of more literary graphic novels are left out to make room for the pulpy stuff. The particular pleasure I derive from these books is seeing how trashy genre stories -- noir, horror, sci-fi, fantasy -- can be used intelligently to explore a wide range of complex themes. You get both your cheap thrills and deeper intellectual pleasures in this sidelined medium. And in my opinion, many of the above books easily triumph over a lot of the genre guff you see on tv and film. So have a go. Wade into the murky waters and see what you’ll find. If you like something, look at the guy who wrote it and see who they work with and who they recommend. There’s a lot of fun to be had out there...

Morrissey and Harriet Wheeler

Some time ago, I was (as is my way) stalking Warren Ellis on his blog, and was delighted to see him upload a youtube link to the video of Can’t Be Sure by the Sundays. Clearly Mr. Ellis was on some wistful early-90s nostalgia trip (he uploaded Soon by My Bloody Valentine a little while earlier). Anyway, he remarked on how Can’t Be Sure ‘encapsulates and largely perfects’ a certain strand of ‘jangly breathy awkward sweet naive’ British indie pop, of which (to my mind) the Smiths were the most widely known for. Nowadays, the Smiths are accepted into the canon of rock and roll genius (a new greatest hits CD has recently been released), and the Sundays have largely fallen by the wayside. But I like the Sundays more. And here’s why.

There’s something about Morrissey’s voice that I find off-putting. The raw anger and loneliness in his lyrics seem filtered through layers of ironic detachment. His sighs and la-la-las have a theatrical, rather than genuine, air. I find it really difficult to take his ‘I’m so very lonely’ sentiment when it is delivered in his operatic baritone. For me, the lyrics and vocals don’t quite work when they are put together -- the whole thing sounds a bit weird.

The Sundays cannot boast of lyrics as brilliant as those of Morrissey, but they more than make up for it in Harriet Wheeler’s astonishing vocal performance. There is absolutely nothing affected in her delivery. There is no thought, only unrestrained, spur of the moment emotion. Her ohs, aahs, don’t you knows and repeated lines work to make it seem like her lyrics are made up on the spot. It’s as if singing is a kind of release: taken up by the music, she murmurs, croons and shouts whatever comes into her head, the words charged with the emotions she is going through. It’s quite incredible the range of feeling she can express with just the sound of her voice, from the ecstatic trilling that forms the coda to My Finest Hour, to the panic-y longing of ‘Don’t go!’ in I Won. Indeed, without the unbounded emotional energy of her voice, the Sunday’s lyrics appear pretty banal: ‘my finest hour that I’ve ever known / was finding a pound on the Underground’. But she is able to lift up such random rambling and make a something out of nothings -- when she sings, her rather unexciting lines feel profound and deeply moving. This is a really rare gift. In my opinion, she is one of the finest female vocalists of the 90s and 00s, along with people like Jenny Lewis, Beth Gibbons, PJ Harvey and Cat Power.

Now to commence plugging. The Sundays released three albums, of which the first -- Reading, Writing and Arithmetic --is the one to get. It has the best tunes, including Can’t Be Sure, My Finest Hour and the one everyone knows, Here’s Where The Story Ends. Although Mr. Ellis thinks the band should have disappeared after recording their debut (and it does pain me to go against his judgement) I think their third one -- Static and Silence -- is also pretty good. If you see any in a bargain bin somewhere, you won’t be disappointed.

(Also, for you crazy Buffy freaks, a Sundays cover of Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones played over Buffy’s dance with Angel at the prom. SO SAD!)

Buffy spin-off Angel

In my opinion, Angel is not as good as Buffy. The latter managed to do something quite extraordinary -- it got better with each season. The writing became tighter, the characters darker, the themes more complicated. By season five, there were no dud episodes. Everything worked like clockwork. Each episode arc possessed dramatic and thematic weight. At the same time, it worked perfectly within the chain of episodes to construct a wider season arc, with its own themes given expression in a climactic finale. For a while, it looked like Angel was going the same way. In the first two seasons, episodes had largely self-contained arcs, quality was pretty consistent, and there was meaty drama and some interesting ideas to be enjoyed. Like Buffy in its infancy, it was still a small-scale show, setting up the rules of the game, and with little thematic unity across a season. However, things take a turn for the worst in the middle of season three, where the season arc completely takes over, and the series starts to suffer from what I like to call ‘continuity clusterfuck’. The twists and turns of the plot, episode by episode, get increasingly convoluted, and put a serious strain on the show’s internal logic. A lot of the time it feels like the writers are making it up as they go along. In the end, after much retconning and lengthy explanation, the story just about hangs together, but you are still left wondering whether the journey was worth it. Season five (the final season) reboots the show somewhat -- coming with a new setting, a new (very popular) cast member, and a return to self-contained episodes. But the tendency towards continuity clusterfuck remains: anyone remember what the deal with Spike’s amulet was? So if the series as a whole had a kinda quality/time graph, it would be u-shaped. The first, second and final seasons being pretty even, and seasons three and four bringing it down.

As for it being a more adult, serious, complex show, I have my doubts. I think Buffy has gone to darker places. Also, for me the idea behind Angel isn’t as elegant as the dynamic that powers Buffy (see note below). There is some confusion over what the show is ultimately about. What is it trying to say? Angel is a vampire who terrorized much of the known world for a century before having his soul restored, and with it a conscience. Racked by remorse and wanting to forget his old life, he travels to the New World. But he remains a loner and a bum -- constantly tempted by a thirst for human blood. After meeting and falling in love with Buffy, he masters himself and becomes committed to fighting the good fight, trying to redeem his evil actions in the process. Redemption is the key theme in Angel’s character -- the drive to reclaim the humanity he lost when he became a vampire. Indeed, at the end of season one he is promised that when he saves enough lives, he will leave the ranks of the undead and become human.

Originally, the show was heavily structured around the noir genre. It’s set in Los Angeles, birthplace of noir, where Angel works as a Private Investigator with the motto ‘helping the helpless’. In a typical episode, he will be informed of a person in dire straits by a vision experienced by his friend Doyle (later Cordelia). Angel helps his client overcome their demons, which in the Buffy universe metaphorically represent the problems and evils of the real world. Often the Angel Investigations team come up against the clients of a demon law firm called Wolfram & Hart, run by amoral humans. A contrast is made between the tiny group of champions defending what’s right, and the soulless, corporate suits perpetuating evil and, through their machinations, bringing about the apocalypse. As the show moves on, it abandons its noir roots and becomes more fantasy based -- focusing less on LA’s demons and more on Angel’s role as a divinely-backed champion of morality in a fallen world. Angel is increasingly depicted as an agent of the god-like ‘Powers That Be’, who send the visions that direct him to the people that need saving. He becomes almost a religious figure. In a climactic episode in season 2, Darla presses a wooden cross into Angel’s chest and cries ‘God doesn’t want you!’, clearly indicating that he is looking for divine forgiveness and a return to God’s grace. In an episode soon afterward, when Angel questions the role the ‘Powers’ have given him, Kate (wearing a crucifix) restores his faith by revealing that he had committed a miracle in saving her. As a vampire, Angel cannot enter a house uninvited, but he needed no invitation to enter Kate’s home when she needed him. The benevolent ‘Powers That Be’ directly intervened in his life to remind him of his divine destiny, and they continue to send visions guiding him on his path of saving souls and fighting evil.

You can see the show becoming very uncomfortable with the somewhat religious tone of season two. It is interesting to note that the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, identifies himself as an atheist and an absurdist, and the goings on in the next three seasons definitely serve to cloud-up this simple theological system. The continuity clusterfuck comes into play. A series of unexpected events start plaguing Angel -- the ‘Powers’ governing his life send him a son, but then they deliver him to his worst enemy. In season four, everyone is being manipulated by a sinister, rather than a benign, force. By season five, Angel has lost his conduit to the ‘Powers’, and doesn’t know whether to trust Their promise to make him human, particularly when Spike (another eligible champion) turns up. Prophesies have come up false, friends have betrayed him, his plans have gone awry. He doesn’t know what to do anymore. Determinism has been replaced by free will -- his destiny swallowed up by the chaos of life. The final episode of the show offers no reward or fulfillment for Angel’s labours. Half his friends have either died or have left him. The rest are pretty beaten up, facing an enormous demon army, with Angel at the van raising his sword and saying ‘Let’s get to work’. There is no divine will in this picture. The heroes left standing are just a ragged bunch of people facing the insurmountable evils of life. But they are brave, determined and tenacious, and will fight to the end to make the world a better place. They are Champions in themselves, not defined by any external force, but by their own freely-chosen actions.

But while there is a profound intelligence working behind the show, and ideas that are sometimes even more complex than those in Buffy, it doesn’t get enough of the little things right. Props to the writers for using the developing continuity clusterfuck as a vehicle for discussing questions of free will, but it still makes for frustrating television. In Buffy, the dialogue is sharper, the characters more rounded and engaging, and (most importantly) the plotting more disciplined. No matter how big the ideas are in Angel (and no matter how cool David Boreanaz is) Buffy still comes up top.

Michael Mann's Heat

This film is just incredibly directed. The scene where Al Pacino discovers Natalie Portman was truly horrifying -- one of the few times stoical me actually stood up and covered my mouth in shock at a piece of film. And the showdown at the end, and its dramatic conclusion, was breathtaking. Nothing on screen was by accident. The boxy bunkers show how the wild west has been changed by noir cityscapes. Cowboys no longer shoot each other face to face, but jump out from behind corners. The airport lights in the background remind us of the freedom De Niro gave up to tie-up that one last thread. He tries to use that light/hope to blind Pacino. But he can't: Pacino sees only shadows.

Can't say the same for Michael Mann's writing, however. The scene in the coffee shop is deservedly famous, because you get to see two great actors square up against each other. But they trade neat cliches rather than great lines. And what about the women? 'Heat' is billed as not just another cops and robbers movie, but an exploration of romantic relationships. But all the better halves are so *limp*. Pacino's wife (and daughter) are lost without him. Val Kilmer's wife can't help but help her husband out, even though she was gonna leave his ass in the first act. And one of the most frustrating scenes in the film is sweet, innocent Eady waiting patiently in the car as her murderer boyfriend goes to wreak utter havoc in the building outside. Only when De Niro abandons her does she get out, and then only to flash us the biggest forlorn doe-eyes I have ever seen on screen. She beat Puss-in-Boots in 'Shrek 2'! Where does this loyalty come from? Why are these women in thrall to these powerful, macho men?

I'm starting to believe all this talk of patriarchy I find in my friend's film studies notes...

Ulysses and fidelity

I read Ulysses during a long drawn-out summer holiday, when I had little to do, and was up for some heavy intellectual self-punishment. It was hard going. I got through it understanding about 40% of what was going on. Even so, figuring out the action in the scenes wasn’t all-important (I hope). Instead, what kept me reading was the opportunity to observe and get inside the heads of some really intriguing characters. I enjoyed the company of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and (eventually, when I finally met her) Molly. Through them, I think I grasped a somewhat blurry picture of the ideas that James Joyce was working through. One of them I’ve found particularly interesting.

Ulysses is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, set in Dublin during the course of one day (16 June, 1904). One of the effects of this set up is that it can serve as a contrast between ancient Homeric values, and the modern (utopian?) values Joyce had hoped the 20th century would bring. Thus ‘Odysseus’, the hero of the Odyssey, becomes the Latin ‘Ulysses’. The invincible warrior hero of epic poetry is replaced with a new moral exemplar, the bumbling, good-natured, wise, fallible Leopold Bloom. Some of the differences between the two can already be made out from a short summary of the plot of the two works.

Odysseus is a veteran of the Trojan War, journeying home to Ithaca. Because of various monsters he encounters along the way, this takes him 10 years. His wife Penelope is faithfully waiting for him, but most of Ithaca’s subjects believe him dead, and there are many offers for her hand in marriage. To frustrate her suitors’ advances, Penelope sets them a task of martial skill only Odysseus can pass. When he finally gets home, Odysseus enters his home disguised, passes the test, reveals himself, and slays all the suitors. Right. Leopold Bloom is a gentle-natured Irish Jew, and he spends his day wandering around Dublin, fretting about his wife’s infidelity with the affable and attractive Boylan. At the end of the day, we find out that Molly has been unfaithful, but that she still loves her husband.

In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom doesn’t slay the suitors in any recognizable way. The male pride and warrior’s honour of the Homeric universe demands that Odysseus avenge his wife’s ill treatment with blood, but the modern hero sees no need to. Instead, Leopold Bloom, whilst being aware of Molly’s infidelity, is content in the knowledge that he alone can possess her heart. A difference is made between frivolous, enjoyable flirtation and sex, and the deeper bonds of care and affection that make up love. The former is completely unimportant. The latter is everything.

I wonder if this can really work: qualifying sexual experience so that a couple allow each other to sleep with other people whilst maintaining their love for each other. It would require, to a large extent, the abandonment of pride (that cardinal sin) and jealousy that make such an arrangement unworkable. But possessiveness can often end up wrecking relationships, so I don’t think humility is such a bad thing. A ‘Bloomian’ relationship also requires a large amount of trust, as it can be difficult to distinguish between a purely sexual relationship, and something more serious. I think the latter really would be a betrayal, but I don’t see why the former should be. If true love involves a complete trust in another person, then I do believe promiscuousness can be tolerated, embraced even. It does not have to be the same as infidelity.

But what do I know...

Religion and Richard Dawkins

I am an atheist. It wasn’t particularly easy to arrive where I am. It was a long process, stretching through most of my teenage years. Curiously for a family of atheists, I adopted a broadly Christian worldview, mainly due to the various children’s Bibles I found amongst the fantasy adventures and fairy tales on my bookshelves. Jesus provided a radical, deeply inspiring and seductive moral exemplar. The God as Allfather idea who looked after and cared for everyone infused my mortal frame with a nobility and purpose which proved a great comfort. The eschatological structure of the religion supplied a way out of the horror of death -- that nothingness of not-existing that had the power to keep me awake and quivering in my bed. It also supplied an assurance that those deserving punishment will get it in the end. From this (rather meagre, as religious indoctrinations go) starting point, the doubts began with a dislike of how religious authorities had distorted the original gospel. The church argued that things I had very little problem with were sinful. I didn’t really understand why sex was bad, for instance. They had got it wrong, I concluded, with the arrogance that comes with youth. Instead, I followed my own way, adapting Jesus’s elusive and malleable teachings on love to my own experience. Rejecting the particular God I had constructed for myself took longer. Even after the childish fear of death and desire for vengeance had subsided, I remained troubled by the lack of purpose in the universe when you removed some kind of guiding hand behind it. What if the earth was struck by a meteor tomorrow and all human life was wiped out? What would have been the point? I was convinced for a long time that we had to be here for a reason.

It took two years of philosophy a-level to finally banish this tenacious idea. Of all the arguments for and against God we went through, the attacks by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists proved the most convincing. More and more, I was becoming aware of how religions were molded by people -- that their eternal truths really expressed the opinions, ethical codes and ideas of different cultures. God did not create man in His image, but the other way around. With this thought reverberating in my skull, and my hasty introduction to Existentialism (thanks Joss) over the summer, I arrived at a most joyous, liberating thought. I didn’t need a God to provide a meaning/narrative for my life. Our gods only legitimize what we already think. Human beings have reason and ability enough to create a purpose for themselves.

It was then that I had my sort of semi-Existential experience. It wasn’t really as magnificent as those recorded in Sartre’s ‘Nausea’, but it was a striking sensation nonetheless. I had been rearranging the books on my increasingly overstuffed shelf, and when I had finished, I just sat back and stared at them for what must have been an hour or more. I was overcome by a real sense of the weight of history -- a tradition of great men and women who had recorded and defined the material world -- imbued it with a magnificence and wonder. I marveled at their talent and their achievements, the beauty they brought to life. Another strain of thought moved me to consider the awe-inspiring nature of man and what he was capable of. His capacity to imagine, to create and to love. I realised that the most important thing we could do in our lives was to achieve our potential, as they had done, and which they made appear limitless. I wanted to be better, to help the world in the way that the authors and thinkers in front of me did. I had a purpose.

All this I recount as an example of how complicated the nature of religion is. It caters for a multitude of human desires, some crude (like an escape from death) and others more refined (like providing life meaning). It also serves a variety of social roles: providing a sense of community, a set of rituals that communicate certain ideas and emotions (christenings, weddings, funerals), and most importantly a moral code for a group of people to live by. These social elements are less prominent in my particular case, as my faith was not shared by my family or friends.

Dawkins understands this complexity. For a while I didn’t think he did, but a conversation with a Dawkins disciple set me straight. Dawkins looks at it like this: just as genes carry the genetic information that makes us who we physically are, our mental selves are constructed by handed-down ‘memes’. These are little scraps of information (a catchphrase, a tune) that fill up our brains and form our experience of the world. Like genes, memes survive only if they are useful -- if they provide explanations of how the world works, ethical codes that make for a cohesive society, rituals that bind it together. Religion is just such another ‘meme’, composed of many others, which has been prominent throughout human history because of its remarkable utility. What Dawkins argues is that the religious, superstitious meme has outlived its usefulness. It has always been dangerous, in that it promotes irrational behaviour, even as it binds a community together. Today, we no longer need it. We have science to explain the world, and can use rational values to unite our community.

(By the way, secular ideologies are not necessarily harmless -- fascism, communism and capitalism have all had their victims. But they are at least based on a rational view of the way the world works, which in theory should minimize the *really* crackpot ideas religious cults come up with. Whether that theory is true or not is a question for another day. Sometimes I think that all ideologies are dangerous oversimplifications of reality, other times I deem them a necessary tool to inspire action. But anyway...)

My problem with Dawkins is not particularly with what he says. I have never found his genes/memes analogy particularly helpful, preferring to look closer at the ideas of the psychologists and anthropologists who have come up with the various explanations and purposes of religion. But I have met and talked to people (above disciple included) who have found it a useful way of looking at the progress of intellectual history. So no quarrels there. My problem lies with Dawkins’ approach.

In my journey towards atheism, what I invariably found most helpful were the theories that sought to explain my religious impulse -- why I was feeling that the religious answer was the right answer. Such psychological/anthropological theories, even those subsequently largely discarded (e.g. Freud), convinced me that religions were man made -- what Dawkins describes as memes. From there it was pretty easy to discard the remaining vestiges of a religious ideology. In contrast, Dawkins approaches the goal of promoting the secular worldview from the perspective of a scientist. He methodically demonstrates the irregularities and irrationalities of religion, and how they have lead to great moral evils. But he finds very little time to discuss in detail how religions are formed and spread. So instead of appearing to understand and empathize with the impulse towards religion, he appears arrogant, sanctimonious and condescending -- explaining to stupid people why they are wrong. I feel that the reputation he holds doesn’t always serve his cause. People who may have been receptive to his message are turned off by what they perceive as a hostile barrage rather than a reasonable argument. I long for Dawkins to make a television program where he explores the religious impulse in the detail it deserves, and analyses his own journey from believer to atheist. I think this will humanize him, remove the negative stereotype that plagues his message and hinders the achievement of his goals.

Because ultimately the goal is worth aiming for.

Brian Michael Bendis

I’m no patriot when it comes to comics, even though it is surprisingly easy to be one. Many of the most important writers in the field come from this side of the Atlantic: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Mark Millar (although he really doesn’t deserve such company). All of these guys managed to write American superheroes better than the Americans. They are a big reason why mainstream comics today have become as sophisticated as TV shows, books and films.

Unfortunately, my favourite writer is not part of the so-called ‘British Invasion’, but is found amongst the American big-hitters: Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, Brian K. Vaughan, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid. The American underground is also more vibrant and interesting. Writer/artists to check out include Matt Wagner, Mike Mignola, the Luna Brothers, Rick Remender, Jonathan Hickman and David Mack. The British comics scene revolves around the much-loved magazine 2000AD, which does showcase some of the most exciting artwork out there, but too often relies on stale characters like Judge Dredd and Slaine.

I don’t think there is an active anti-Americanism at play in the minds of British comics enthusiasts -- the medium is just too American. However, I do suspect that most would pick heroes of the British Invasion as their favourite writer, and take pride in how they beat the Americans at their own game. Which is why I feel I need to justify my love of Brian Michael Bendis (a bald jewish guy from Cleveland) a little more than may be necessary.

I often overhear staff at comic book shops (which I frequent maybe too often) grumble about Brian Michael Bendis. How his critically acclaimed run on Daredevil was overrated. How nothing really seems to happen in his comics. How there is always too much chatter and not enough action. These factors, annoying to some, are what makes Bendis’s work so distinctive to me. Uniquely in comics, he places emphasis on dialogue (and so, character) over action (or plot).

One can almost immediately recognize a Bendis comic by the quantity of speech balloons on the page. They often trail across several panels, and sometimes over entire double page spreads. His characters talk. A lot. Part of the reason this doesn’t overwhelm is that Bendis imbues his dialogue with a very sharp, dry, quick-fire wit. To make chatter interesting is very difficult to do, but Bendis has that gift. It’s amazing he didn’t end up writing television scrips, where such a talent is much more important. His writing often reminds me of ‘The West Wing’ or ‘Ally McBeal’, which both manage to make 40 minutes of watching people talking a gripping experience.

But all the chat serves another purpose. While most other comic book writers rely on the narrative voice (whether first or third person) to reveal the themes working behind the story, Bendis often uses a speech or a conversation. Many of his stories don’t end with an action climax and a cliffhanger, but a slow and quiet denouement, where the characters are shown dealing with what has just happened. Bendis’s particular genius is to make such conversations natural, whilst being loaded with meaning. Often, the dialogue centres on ordinary topics (an anecdote, a joke) which nevertheless ends up expressing something poignant and profound. In this sense, Bendis follows writers like Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen, in that there is substance beneath all the noise and funny quips.

This is all rather different from the sometimes very intellectual style of British heavyweights like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Pat Mills. You don’t get veiled anarchist/feminist propaganda, vague postmodernist musing or overt references to Plato in a Bendis comic. Even so, there is an intelligence and subtlety in Bendis’s work that I think can compete with the grand masters. He has shown himself able to address multiple questions, from the personal (see ‘Alias’) to the political (see ‘Secret War’). And his work isn’t didactic -- it doesn’t provide answers. Instead, Bendis comics have open endings: an uncomfortable silence, or a challenge to what had previously been accepted, a counter-argument where you see the villain’s point of view. Bendis has the capacity to leave you thinking about what you have just read -- what his characters should have done, and what they will choose to do next. I think that is a sure mark of a great artist.

And it has made him a successful one. As I write, Bendis is driving forward Marvel’s big summer crossover event: ‘Secret Invasion’. Indeed, he is Marvel’s chief money-spinner, and I am but one amongst thousands of fans who will mindlessly devour anything he produces or recommends. That may be another reason for comic book obsessives grumbling -- no dribbling fanatic likes the starry heights of mainstream success. I, however, see Bendis’s status as a good sign for the state of the industry as a whole. In the past 5-6 years, the big two publishing houses have shown themselves remarkably open to indie creators like Bendis (and Ennis, and Brubaker...), and their new approaches to established characters. They have realized that copyright trademarks like Superman and Spiderman don’t sell on their own anymore, but need brilliant comic book writers behind them. Also, more and more fans are comfortable to stand in the middle-ground between mainstream and indie comics, as so many of their favourite creators work in both. I haven’t been an enthusiast (or alive) long enough to judge properly, but it seems as if there has never been a better time to read comics than now. I advise all of you to get on it.

Here are some of my faves from the Bendis back catalogue. Seek them out:

Daredevil vol. 7: The Daredevil series catapulted Bendis from indie nobody to Marvel’s wonder-boy. The ‘Hardcore’ arc is possibly his best story, but the entire run is amazing and should be sought out (libraries and bookshops usually stock it). Not only is it brilliantly written, but the rainy, grainy, gothic artwork (by Alex Maleev) is phenomenal.

Alias vol. 1: Jessica Jones is a former superhero and currently works as a private investigator. She is one of my favourite characters in comics, hard as nails and vulnerable at the same time. A complete antidote to the very cheesecake female characters of the ’90s. Again, wonderful noiry, grainy artwork by Michael Gaydos.

Goldfish: My favourite graphic novel. I found it I my local library, and picked it up only because it looked similar to the ‘Sin City’ series, which I was obsessed by. Reading through, I was a little disappointed at the lack of gratuitous sex and violence (there was lots in Frank Miller), and you do understand why Bendis gave up on drawing his comics soon after he graduated to the big-time. However, none of this matters, because when you finish the last page, you know you’ve read a masterpiece. This made me sit up and memorize the name Bendis, and seek out the other things he has done. If you come across it anywhere, I urge to to take a look.

The Truth About Markets

‘We who live in rich states are not rich because those who live in poor states are poor. It is simply not true that the market economy and the world trading system are structured in ways in which the rich gain at the expense of the poor. If the nineteen richest states traded only with each other, and had no economic dealings with the rest of the world, their standard of living will not fall by much. Most of the trade is already among themselves. The most important consequence would be a rise in energy costs. Rich states are rich because of the high productivity which results from their effective exploitation of the division of labour and their own modern technology, skills and capabilities.


The difference between rich and poor states is the result of differences in the quality of their economic institutions. After four disappointing decades, development agencies have recognized this and used their authority to demand reforms. But the prescriptions have often been facile. What was offered to Russia was not American institutions, but the nostrums of the American business model. The institutions of the market -- secure property rights, minimal government economic intervention, light regulation -- were supposed to be simple and universal. If these prescriptions were implemented, growth would follow.

The truth about markets, however, is far more complex. Rich states are the product of -- literally -- centuries of coevolution of civil society, politics and economic institutions, a coevolution which we only partially understand, and cannot transplant. In the only successful examples of transplantation (Australia, Canada, USA) entire populations, and their institutions, were settled in almost empty countries. The appeal of the American business model today, as of Marxism yesterday, is the suggestion that the history of economic institutions, the structure of current society and the path of future development have a simple economic explanation and an inevitable outcome. This is as misleading a view of political economy as the Marxist one.

There is no grand narrative, only little stories. But the need for grand narrative is so firmly ingrained in human thinking that the fruitless search for it will never end. This book is dedicated to those for whom a partial understanding of complex reality is better that the reassurance of false universal explanations.’ -- John Kay, ‘The Truth About Markets’

I used to be so sure of myself. I had thought Europe became rich because of its exploitation of workers and slaves, our comfort today ensured by the ruthlessness of our ancestors. Nope. It turns out that people were exploited everywhere throughout history. Europe simply had more developed civil institutions, greater freedoms, bigger ideas and better technology. I had thought we lived off that exploitation today, only that globalization had removed it to the other side of the globe. No again. Turns out that we would be just fine without our sweatshops. I had thought that state control of the factors of production would internalize the externalities capitalism created. The state is, after all, on our side; corporations only answer to their shareholders. Wrong. Planning stifles the forces of pluralism inherent in markets that lead to rapid technological advance and better standards of living. This was what broke the Soviet Union. Markets provide a cacophony of ideas and a multitude of approaches. Many of these will be worthless and fail, but a precious few will be valuable and succeed. This was why America got ahead. There wasn’t one plan (no one person invented the PC), but many: the best of which survived and changed the world.

But most of all, I was adamant that people had to believe in something greater -- what John Kay here calls a ‘grand narrative’ -- even if it isn’t strictly true, because only then can they be inspired to act on their beliefs, to bring the world closer to the ideal in their heads: Heaven, Utopia, Plato’s Realm of the Forms. Turns out ideas can be dangerous, even if they are humanitarian. You end up justifying means by ends. It was why Lenin (and many others) became monsters.

I was wrong. Fantasy isn’t as important as reality. We need what works: what makes people materially comfortable enough so that they can get on with being happy and fulfilled. A thesis or system obscures this. It is the easy way out. That’s the thing with reality. It is really, really hard.