Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Should an Eco-warrior like Avatar?


Having refused to succumb to the hype and see it in the cinema, it's taken me a year to watch Avatar, but thanks to a cheap one month trial with Sky Movies I've finally managed to see it.

I doubt I'll watch it again.

However as the bad guys have giant bulldozers and hate trees it does suggest it should be the sort of film eco-warriors ought to like, but then the same was said of Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground, and that was just a load of juvenile rubbish.

However Avatar is certainly a phenomena, so it deserves analysis. Millions of otherwise sane people paid good money to view it and, although they mainly went for the special effects, they certainly didn't complain too much about a plot that seemingly takes to pieces the culture they come from and spits it back at them.

Appearances though can be deceptive, and Avatar I suspect is not what it at first appears.

Firstly it's not that contemporary. Despite the reference to Shock and Awe, we're not in the War on Terror here, we're in Vietnam. We have a jungle, we have helicopters, we have a mad colonel, we have something resembling napalm. Nobody says "Charlie don't surf", but pretty much all the other cliches are there.

Secondly it's not that liberal. Sigourney Weaver's character makes the case for a rational study of the forest but she is brushed aside, first by the Na'vi and then by the military to eventually, like the Headmaster in If, die pointlessly for her trouble. Liberals are clearly loosers.

Instead the Na'vi befriend Sully, an ex-marine who can shoot, fight and perform outlandish macho stunts with the best of them, and eventually leads The People to a Battle of Omdurman style slaughter in the best Hollywood tradition.

I originally called it Aliens meets Fern Gully, but really it's Apocalypse Now meets Dances With Wolves (or rather A Man Called Horse, the film that kick started the genre).

Not that we can blame America too much for this. Imperial England always preferred natives primitive and warlike to the cultured and peaceful. Scottish Highlanders, Zulus and Afghans have of course very interesting cultures, but the Victorians saw them as simple warriors who, despite their intransigence, were far preferable to the peaceful but complex Irishman, Hausa or Hindu.

This is of course a highly reactionary view, and one with a few disturbing parallels that Cameron probably didn't intend.

The corporation with it's giant bulldozers and utter disregard for anything except money is clearly meant to represent Capitalism. However Cameron also appears to lump in science and anything resembling human society as the 'bad stuff' that must be opposed.

The idea that the excesses of Neoliberalism can only be tamed by a rejection of science and a return to a simpler society is one that attracts a few on the fringes of the environment movement, but they generally steer clear of fetishising the violence of the archetypal warrior. New Agers and Primitivists are usually peaceful people.

However the Neoconservative movement in America, of which George W Bush was the puppet, were heavily into the idea. True, they hated trees as much as anyone, but they want to replace reason with the Bible and loved wars. They also idealise a make-believe past, in their case a 1950s America of the white, the straight and the middle class, which is just as anachronistic in the modern world as the society of Na'vi.

Looking further back you can even see similarities to the Nazis, who banned 'Jewish' science, hated Capitalists , dabbled in magic, idolised ancient pagan warriors and supposedly loved their native oak forests.

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

So should eco-warriors like Avatar?

Err, no.

The special effects are good though.

p.s. in case anyone things I'm the sort of boring old git who hates all modern films I should add I watched District 9 last week and loved it!

The Day Hitler Ran Away

Halloween 1914 was a horrible time. Military historians call it The First Battle of Ypres, but that dry name does little to convey the horrors that were taking place in Flanders. The German name for the battle, Kindermord bei Ypern ("The Massacre of the Innocents") speaks much more eloquently. However if events had taken a very slightly different turn that Samhain the world may have been spared worse horrors to come.

The First World War was fought with offensive weapons from the nineteenth century - the bayonet and the cavalry sword, and defensive weapons from the twentieth - quick-firing artillery and machine guns. It was fought between industrial nations who, with steam technology and miles of railways, could support armies of millions in the field all year round. The result were battles longer and bloodier than before or since.

In October 1914 no trenches had yet been dug, and at the northern edge of the line British and German soldiers fought each other in the open in what became known as the Race To The Sea. As each side tried to outflank the other, a series of bloody and confused battles took place.

On 31st October the Germans attacked and destroyed the 1st Battalion of the South Wales Borders guarding the town of Gheluvelt. By a twist of fate this was the same infantry battalion that had been wiped out nearly 36 years earlier by the Zulus at the battle of Isandhlwana.

The victorious Germans, consisting of the 16th, 244th and 245th Bavarian Regiments had broken through the British line and could have turned the battle. Instead they settled down for a rest in the grounds of the Chateau and a bit of looting in the village.

British Generals of the Great War don't have a terrific reputation, but one who definitely wasn't a Colonel Bogey was Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence. He'd already won a Victoria Cross serving with Baden-Powell in Mafeking and he was about to make a valiant attempt to win another one.


Rounding up the only men he could find, the 2nd Battalion of the Worcester Regiment, he launched a counter attack. He was outnumbered, and German artillery killed or injured a quarter of his men before the attack started, but surprise and pluck carried the day and the Bavarians were routed. The gap was plugged and the day saved.


The Germans had had their chance and blown it. It was to be four long and bloody years before they got another. Fitzclarence though was not there then. Eleven days after the Battle of Gheluvelt he was shot dead whilst leading another counterattack.

The victory restored the status quo, allowed a fixed front line to form and paved the way to four years of murderous and intransigent trench warfare. Perhaps it might have been better if Fitzclarence had been a coward and a duffer, as the war might well have ended up being over by Christmas. But the what ifs of the battle extend well beyond this, and concern the fate of a certain private in the 16th Bavarian Regiment.


On 8th October 1914 Adolf Hitler (seated rather appropriately on the extreme right in the picture) took his oath to the King of Bavaria and went straight off to the front. His job was as a messenger, carrying messages to and from headquarters. Tradition has him braving shell fire at the front, but new research suggests that most of the time he was several miles back with the top brass. He probably also used the telephone as often as his own feet.

Never-the-less the 16th was his regiment and, unless he had been posted somewhere else, we would expect him to be with it. Historians can't definitely place him on the battlefield (the Wikipedia entry is tellingly blank) but he wasn't wounded and there's no record of him being anywhere else. I suspect Hitler's own silence on the matter is revealing. A vain man, if he'd had an excuse not to be associated with the defeat, he'd surely have told someone.

19,530 German's died in the First Battle of Ypres. That one of them wasn't Hitler is surely one of fate's bitterest ironies. Fitzclarence not only saved the First World War for Britain, he also came close to preventing the Second.

But if Hitler was present when his regiment turned tail and ran for their lives, what effect did it have on him? "Who knows?" is probably the best answer, but as this is a blog and not a text book, I'll have a punt.

As most people know, at the end of May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force was trapped in Dunkirk. The German tanks halted allowing the Royal Navy evacuated them by sea. Why?

First this was a act of omission not commission. The Panzers had arrived at the edge of the town with no infantry support. To advance further before they arrived would have been to risk heavy casualties and Field Marshal von Rundstedt's decision, which Hitler endorsed, was tactically a sensible one.

Strategically though, it was a major blunder. Destroying the BEF, Britain's only serious soldiers, would have been worth any losses. Von Rundstudt should have been ordered to press the attack.

The most likely explanation is that the Germans didn't think the Brits were going anywhere. They had their minds on other things and were happy to let the Luftwaffe bomb the Tommies into submission.

But could the ghosts of Gheluvelt had come back to haunt Hitler?

A week before the Dunkirk evacuation began, a British armoured counter attack at Arras had unsettled General Rommel, smashing much of his Division and almost breaking through.

Did this incident bring back bad memories for the Fuhrer?

Did Hitler fear what might happen if he pressed the BEF too hard?

Did he perhaps see the ghosts of his former comrades fleeing from Chateau at Gheluvelt?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Doctor Who Christmas Special


Writing a Doctor Who Christmas special must be a pretty thankless task.

It has to topical (not that easy really), different from the previous however-many-there-have-been and feature a guest celebrity who may not be able to act much as has to be shown in a good light.

I imagine when Steven Moffat asked round the office to see who'd like to pen it he found everyone had to go home early.

Within those limitiations though I enjoyed it. A bit obvious, but the jokes carried it over. The kids were a bit bored because there was no alien invasion, but the grown ups appreciated it.

Yes it would have helped if it had been realised a bit less literally; if the sets had suggested Dickensian London rather than looking like the back lot form a BBC costume drama, if 'Clive' had been a flying alien monster that suggested a shark and not a literal CGI shark and so on, but I'll pass on that. This sort of absurdist set design has worked before, such as in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Finally though the Moffat-Smith-Gillian combination don't really need a script at all. The best stories of the last season (The Dream Master one, the Prisoner Zero one, the Van Gogh one etc) had minimal plots and were character led.

Hopefully Moffat will pen a Genesis of the Daleks or similar that will crown Matt Smith's incarnation in the blue box, but whilst we're waiting these character led adventures are great fun.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

My Top 5 Literary Dads

This list turned out to be harder list than I thought.

I never realised until I thought about it how many fools, tyrants and just plain absent Dads there are around. Really, we do get a pretty bum deal from the great writers.

King Lear as a Model Parent? Get away. Heathcliff as your Dad? Sign junior up for an ASBO and counselling ASAP. The father in Swallows and Amazons? His sole contribution to the books is to respond to his children's requests to go sailing with "If not duffers, won't drown. If duffers, better off drowned." I doubt event then you could pass that off as a thorough risk assessment.

So here we go with my top (pretty much only) five fathers in literature.

No.5 Odysseus in the Odyssey


Lets be frank, as a father Odysseus has a few shortcomings. To miss your son's birthday once is sometimes inevitable for a working Dad. But to miss the first 20 is going a bit far, especially when you've spent the best part of the last decade hanging around with nymphs and doing drugs.

When he does get home Odysseus does go a bit OTT as well, murdering all the house guests and stringing up most of the servants. However these things happen in military families, so I'm told.

However at least he gets there in the end, which is what counts I suppose.

4. Prospero in The Tempest


Prospero stands as a literary reminder of the virtues, and pitfalls, of home schooling.

Although I suspect Ariel did all the cooking and Caliban all the nappies, Prospero does seem to have given little Miranda a fairly decent grounding in most of the necessary skills in life, although he does seem to have neglected one rather important area.

Not that this would have mattered if he hadn't ensured that a ship load of lusty Italian sailors would wash on their little island, probably with their shirts sticking to their chests.

Perhaps not the best way to teach your daughter the facts of life, but what teenage girl would really object?

3. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mocking Bird


Shakespeare may have written "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers", but he may have made an exception for Atticus.

The epitome of upright virtue, who shields his children from the worst of the racist society he lives in whilst ensuring they have the values to challenge it, Atticus is also a dead shot with a rifle, which must come in useful at Fun Fairs.

However for all his liberal values, you suspect it was the late Mrs Finch who got her hands dirty when Jem and Scout were little.

The worst that can be said against him is that his example has caused many otherwise harmless young men to take up careers in Law. Personally I'm with Shakespeare.

2. Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice


Having children means having to put your Hell Raising years behind you - or at least postpone them until they go off to University. It's therefore vitally important for a Dad to be able to entertain himself close to home, and Mr Bennett, the philosopher with a fondness for books and nature, does just that.

Laughing at his sillier children, he is never-the-less a best friend to his brighter ones. In a time when parents were supposed to be ogres, Mr Bennett was an early practitioner of the theories of Dr Spock, allowing his daughters the freedom to learn from their own mistakes.

Alas, like many hippy parents, his values didn't entirely rub off on his off-spring, and his second daughter eventually chooses to marry the man with the largest country estate in Derbyshire.

1. The Father in The Road


In a blasted future in which the death of Nature is equated to the death of God, the unnamed man and his son travelling through a Nuclear Winter (or whatever) are clearly going nowhere geographically, but spiritually it's another matter. The man has the map, but the boy has the moral compass.

George Monbiot believes the power of this book is that it shows that although we can survive without civilisation, we cannot survive without a biosphere, and if nothing else it certainly makes you value the cornucopia that is your fridge.

But surgically remove from the story the Mad Max elements, and it is still powerful stuff. As a father, how do you cope with the idea that one day you won't be around to look after your children in a cruel and dangerous world? Can you really claim to be one of the 'good guys' when the way your food gets to the table may not be terribly moral?

Finally, how as parents do we deal with passing on to our children a world which is in considerably worse shape than the one we inherited? Difficult, but important questions.