Saturday, 12 August 2017

Fujica Half: Demi-Siècle


Let's have a look at the Fujica Half, a surprisingly capable half-frame camera from 1963. Back in the early 1960s there was a fad in Japan for half-frame cameras. It was sparked off by the 1959 Olympus Pen, which I wrote about back in 2013. Unlike other miniature film formats half-frame used standard 35mm film, but the frame was half-sized and turned on its side.

In theory the image quality should have been half as good as standard 35mm, but film has resolution to spare, and the 18x24mm frame size was good enough for ordinary prints.* Half-frame is appealing nowadays because it scans easily, the resolution is more than enough for the internet, and as in the early 1960s it makes economical use of film.

* The frame size is almost exactly the same as Super 35 motion picture film, a format used extensively in the 1980s.


Half-frame never took off in the West. The internet contends that half-frame was killed off by the likes of Minox and Rollei, but I'm skeptical; a more likely explanation is that Kodak was wary of anything that might result in consumers buying less film, so instead of embracing or extending half-frame they developed the 126 Instamatic format as an attempt to extinguish it.



Kodak's business model in the late 20th century involved making people pay more money for less film, which meant making the film smaller and putting it in a plastic cartridge of non-standard size. Furthermore the world was a lot more parochial in those days, and Japanese products still had a stigma about them in the West. That's my theory and I'm sticking with it.

The Half was launched in 1963, so mine is probably half a century old. The glue has seen better days but the lens is bright and clear. Surprisingly after all this time the solar-powered selenium meter was spot-on. The 28mm f/2.8 is slightly wider and faster than the typical 30mm f/3.5 of other half-frame cameras.

I'm digressing. The Olympus Pen was a very simple camera with manual exposure controls and no lightmeter. It was followed by a second wave of more capable cameras which included the Fujica Half. I was impressed with the Half, although it tends to be overshadowed by the Fujica Drive, which had a clockwork film winder, and the Half 1.9, which had a faster lens.




The Half has manual exposure control plus a selenium autoexposure system. I'm generally wary of selenium meters because they wear out with time, and lots of cameras from the mid-century are now unusuable because the meters are broken and they didn't have manual exposure. However my Half's meter seemed to respond to light so I decided to try it out, and it worked! All of the photographs in this post were taken with autoexposure. The Half has a program system ranging from f/2.8 + 1/20th to f/22 + 1/250th. With ISO 200 Fuji Superia it generally selected f/11 + 125th or thereabouts. Oddly the viewfinder shows shutter speeds up to 1/250th, but the manual speed control has 1/300 instead. Perhaps the autoexposure system is stepless.

In London only men or women are allowed to cross the road.


As always I scan the negatives with an Epson V500 and use the gap between frames to set the black level, which works a treat.

I've always assumed that selenium meters gradually lose their puff when exposed to light, but it seems that the real enemy of selenium cells is corrosion. Perhaps the owner(s) kept the camera away from moisture. Hooray for that man or woman. I have no idea how much the Fujica Half cost when it was new, but it feels well-made and has a specification that was, at the time, at the higher end of the scale, so perhaps the first owner treasured it.

If the gods of Blogger's content management system are smiling down on me there should now be an interesting article / eBay shopping list from the July 1989 Popular Photography about second-wave half-frame cameras:


The Half has scale focus, with détentes at 2.9 feet (marked P, probably for Portrait) and 14.9 feet (marked G, probably for Garmonbozia / "pain and sorrow"). The aperture ranges from f/2.8 - f/22, with an A setting for autoexposure. The shutter speeds are B - 30 - 60 - 125 - 300, but you have to select an aperture before the shutter control will stick. It has a leaf shutter which makes a quiet click, and the frame counter is on the bottom of the camera. There's an off-centre tripod socket, a self-timer, and a PC socket. And a cold shoe, and some kind of flash automation that I haven't experimented with.



The lightmeter control only covers ISO 12 to ISO 200, so if you have a box of Fuji Velva 50 you're in luck; Ilford 3200 not so much. In my experience 400-speed negative film works just fine exposed at ISO 200, in fact some people overexpose by a stop to lift the shadows.

Film loading requires a bit of faith - it's one of those systems that doesn't work unless the back is closed - but it hasn't failed me yet. Is the lens any good? After poring over the scans it seems to be consistent across the frame when stopped down, although not as razor-sharp as the Ricoh Caddy I took for a spin back in 2016, and at f/2.8 the borders aren't all that great, but I can't be sure if that's the lens or mis-focusing on my part.

The shutter button feels a bit spongy, perhaps because it also has to operate the aperture/shutter needle in the viewfinder as well as tripping the shutter. Nonetheless I was impressed with the Fujica Half. Perhaps the only downside is that it doesn't have a filter thread. If you want to use a polariser you have to hold it against the lens. This isn't an issue in the United Kingdom, where the sun comes out but once a year, but perhaps when we have left the European Union we can export our clouds to extra-European nations that are short of clouds, such as e.g. Kenya or Egypt, and they can sell us sunshine in return.


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunkirk


Off to the cinema to see Dunkirk, a new historical drama in which thousands of British soldiers are trapped in northern France and they can't get home because every time they board a ship it explodes and sinks but they keep on trying and I don't want to spoil the ending but eventually some of them do manage to get home.

Who would have predicted that there would be a big-budget Hollywood film about Dunkirk? Hollywood is often criticised for portraying the entire world as an adjunct of the United States, but Dunkirk was filmed within a few hundred miles of the real-life location and has an all-British-Irish-French-Dutch cast directed by the mostly-British Christopher Nolan. The music is by Hans Zimmer, who is German, but it was all a long time ago and it wasn't his fault. He couldn't choose his parents.

Back in 1958 the British film industry produced its own film of the Dunkirk evacuation, which I admit that I haven't seen. It starred John Mills and Richard Attenborough, who are both dead and gone, along with the British film industry of yore, and yet Dunkirk exists. At a cost of $150m it's unlikely to make its money back at the UK box office. How will it do in the United States and China? The film has a clutch of recognisable stars but they either have small cameos or, in the case of Tom Hardy, they spend almost the entirety of the film wearing a mask. Why does Christopher Nolan insist on casting such a beautiful man as Tom Hardy and then making him wear a mask? There's nothing wrong with Tom Hardy's face, far from it.

Is Dunkirk any good? It reminds me a little bit of Mad Max: Fury Road, or Gravity. Some time ago Hollywood pondered the question of how to make a serious historical adventure film in the age of Michael Bay; Dunkirk is one possible solution, along with the likes of The Revenant and The Martian and Wall-E.


They belong to a new tradition of kinetic, visual adventure films that have minimal dialogue, the skeleton of a plot and an emphasis on physical acting. They are the distant ancestors of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Tati's Playtime. When done well they are transcendent works of pure cinema, but when done poorly the result is like listening to a friend describe one of his dreams, which was fascinating to him when he dreamed it, but boring over coffee. Dunkirk unfortunately has a split personality. The visual aspect is terrific. The 70mm format allowed the cinematographer to go ape with creative depth of field effects - a few shots are even out of focus - and if Dunkirk had more hardcore it would be a harrowing masterpiece. The problem is that director-writer-producer Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

Technical Notes
I saw the film at the Science Museum, on an IMAX screen. It was shown with an aspect ratio of 1.43:1, filling the screen. The film was shot with 70mm film and then edited with a computer and printed out to 70mm again - the digital intermediate model that was common in Hollywood before all-digital became practical. The titles wobbled a bit but otherwise the picture was sharp and clear, with grain visible in only a couple of shots, and even then it might have been a computer effect. There was one film defect (a tiny insect appeared to have got into the projector).

The Museum had a Second World War-themed "here are the exits" introduction starring one of the Museums' employees, a game chap called Mario. The queue for the beer was too long to get beer, so I watched the film sober. The Science Museum isn't an obvious choice to watch a film, but it feels like an event when you do. You have to go up an elevator to the theatre, as if you were ascending to cinematic heaven, n.b. the rest of the museum is fab as well and if they want to give me free tickets I won't say no HINT.

Lost his nerve. Dunkirk has a schizophrenic quality. The shots of destroyers exploding and turning over are horrible, but the visual poetics are interrupted with character pieces that don't work nearly as well. It feels like one of those 1970s disaster films where a potentially fascinating disaster was used as the backdrop for little character cameos that added plot without amounting to anything. A lengthy sequence involving Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier goes nowhere and feels like something from a television drama. It's supposed to illustrate the civilian cost of the war, but it feels trite. A sequence towards the end of the film in which a group of squaddies requisition a boat was presumably written so that top-billed Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles could do some acting, thus making them eligible for acting awards.

The talky parts; the film is never downright bad, although one brief scene in which Tom Hardy's fuel-starved Spitfire appears to shoot down a Stuka as if by magic is downright silly and at odds with the film's overall grim tone. At one point a soldier reads out Churchill's famous "fight them on the beaches" speech, but again this comes across like something from a television history dramatisation rather than the real world. The emphasis on the final part of the speech, in which Churchill voices the hope that the United States will enter the war, feels like an attempt to make the film sell in the United States.

What little dialogue there is treads a thin line between simple and simplistic. Top thesp Mark Rylance as the wizened captain of a small boat delivers a series of platitudes that put me in mind of the main characters from Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows - well-meaning but dim - which surely wasn't the intention. Kenneth Branagh spends the whole of the film standing on jetty looking worried, and my attention drifted to the moles on his chin. Can't he have them surgically removed? He's supposed to be a grim naval officer, but there's something too jolly about Kenneth Branagh for that to work. He stood out in the late 1980s because he was a refreshing throwback to the older style of extroverted, theatrical acting that had gone out of vogue in the 1960s; he feels out of place in Dunkirk because the film calls for a naturalistic style that he can't pull off. Furthermore his dialogue is numbers-heavy exposition, which much have been painful for him. The film does a surprisingly poor job of showing the huge scale of the evacuation - we see a couple of destroyers and a dozen or so small boats -leaving Branagh to essentially tell us, the audience, that 300,000 men were taken off, which again feels like something from a much older film.

Whitehead and Styles are newcomers to the screen, and most of the rest of the cast seem to have been picked for their faces rather than their names, and so the celebrity cameos feel out of place. Did the investors demand big box-office names for the post? A version of Dunkirk in which Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy fought off the Germans all by themselves would have been ridiculous, but giving them smaller roles has the effect of drawing attention from the main characters. Again, it's as if Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

All of this ill-will evaporates when the talking ceases and the action takes over, particularly when Hans Zimmer's score starts up. The music lifts the film up a notch. Zimmer doesn't stretch himself, but the familiar mixture of ticking clocks, chattering violins, and groaning bass notes amplifies the tension of incoming bombing raids to an almost unbearable level. At one point the score segues from dissonance into a version of Elgar's Nimrod, which should have been naff but was audacious enough to work. Nolan paces the film out by playing with the passage of time, freely cutting between events that take place at different points in the story; at first it seems like poor continuity but eventually it makes sense. The film is occasionally repetitive, and the Spitfire battles have a samey quality, but if the film had just been ninety minutes of stunning visuals and Zimmer's music it would have been much better.

Ultimately Dunkirk is a well-made kinetic action poem punctuated by unsatisfying specks of a lesser film, like a big tasty cookie dotted with flecks of poor-quality chocolate. It entertained me for its running length and will be an awesome 4K demo, and perhaps it will inspire other filmmakers to tackle British subjects that have been neglected by the cinema, but I won't remember it in the future as I remember The Revenant or Gravity.


Mental Notes
The review is over. Do I have any more thoughts? From a contemporary British perspective there's something jarring about Dunkirk. It has a bunch of older British actors wearing military uniforms, but they're the good guys. They don't order their men to open fire on unarmed civilians or burn down a native village. The officers aren't even portrayed as uncaring buffoons with stupid moustaches. This isn't necessarily a British problem - officers are rarely depicted positively in Hollywood films - but after decades in which British people are the baddies it is odd to see some who are not.

The film has attracted some criticism for its entirely white, male cast. As far as I can tell no-one has criticised it for ignoring the fat acceptance movement (none of the characters are overweight) or for ignoring issues that face the trans community. There is an argument that history as an objective record of events is impossible, because history is filtered through the recollection of the dominant class if not actively perverted by their censors, and there is an argument that even if it was possible to record an objective history it would be pointless to dig up the past unless it could be used in the present for a practical purpose such as increasing Labour's share of the vote.

There is an argument that racist white Britain will lap up Dunkirk because it reminds them of a past-time paradise in which Britain's cities didn't have those people. And there is an argument that it's wrong to show the film nowadays because it upholds the wicked rotten lie that Britain was mostly white until after the Second World War, and furthermore it will be used as propaganda for the Tory Party, etc. All of this will be fodder for other people's blog posts and a meal ticket for people who would otherwise be unemployed.

It struck me while watching Dunkirk that the mid-century British people depicted in their small boats were as alien to me as the Aztecs of Apocalypto or the Somali gunpeople of Black Hawk Down. London circa 2017 only has a few white people left, and I imagine that for the remaining population Dunkirk is basically science fiction, as irrelevant to them as Bollywood cinema is to me. Even for white people people my age the Britain of 1940 is a foreign land populated by foreign people who grew up in a completely different world, with a different mindset and different dreams.

At first I thought that the aerial battles were CGI, and that this was the first film ever with a CGI model of a Bristol Blenheim, but most of the aircraft are real. The German Me-109s are played by post-war Spanish 109s, which is noticeable because they have a more bulbous nose than the real aircraft. The Stukas and He-111 bomber are presumably CGI. The Germans are shown flying their 109s in tight formation with the bombers, but this didn't happen until a few months later during the Battle of Britain, and then only under protest.

The last of the British soldiers were evacuated on 03 June, Churchill gave his "beaches" speech the day after, and it wouldn't have been reported in the newspapers until the day after that, so it's unlikely that the closing sequence could have happened in real life.

Just before Tom Hardy miraculously shoots down a Stuka whilst gliding down to the beach there is a shot of Kenneth Branagh, and over his shoulder I could have sworn there was a brief glimpse of an aeroplane crashing down to earth. Perhaps it was a piece of debris.

I have never had the impression that the evacuated soldiers expected to be mocked as cowards; that doesn't fit the British psyche. "Thank God they're safe" would have been the attitude. They had five more years of fighting ahead of them, first in the deserts of North Africa and latterly in France and Germany itself. Over a third of a million British soldiers were killed during the war, coincidentally almost the exact same size as the British Expeditionary Force of 1940, but thankfully we had replacements. The survivors were rewarded with the NHS and Milton Keynes, so there is that.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Aerotopia


John was ready for another relaxing day as an air traffic controller. The job was easy. All John had to do was monitor the screens and drink coffee, because now that self-piloting aeroplanes were a reality hardly anything ever went wrong. He could only recall two bad incidents in his career. On one occasion a flight from Geneva to Bristol announced that it was going to visit its friends on the Moon, and there was another incident when a large Boeing developed a crush on Helena Bonham-Carter and had to be reprogrammed. John expected that this morning would be like any other, but almost immediately everything started to go haywire.

"I don't understand it" said John, to Jack, the other character in this story, who exists only to split up the dialogue. "Neither do I," said Jack. "The aeroplanes appear to have diverted from their planned routes and are heading towards...", he tapped the screen, "Munich Airport, or MUC, because that is the airport code for Munich Airport."

As they watched the screen three thousand aeroplanes of all shapes and sizes made their way to Munich. Fortunately Munich's runway was one hundred miles long, so there was enough space for them to land.

Jack opened a line to one of the aircraft attendants and was told, in a measured, almost robotic voice, that everything was going according to plan and that there was no need to worry. He tried another aeroplane and was met with the same reassuring message, in exactly the same tone of voice; in fact it was the exact same voice. "Something's fishy", he said, "but I wouldn't worry too much. They're starting to land now, but they're short of fuel and won't be able to take off again. All we have to do is wait", but as he said those words a fleet of self-driving fuel bowsers detached from their cradles and sped down the autobahn to Munich, where robotic airport maintenance trucks waited to greet them at the automated checkpoints.

Almost simultaneously an alarm went off in the headquarters of NATO. At bases across Germany hundreds of self-driving tanks roared from their garages, much to the surprise of their crews, who had been left behind. The frustrated Generals ordered tank destroyers to destroy the tanks, with exactly the same result, and eventually the air force attempted to bomb the tanks but had to give up because the aeroplanes had gone off somewhere.

As Jack and John made frantic telephone calls the aeroplanes refuelled, and within a few hours they took off and circled Munich, forming up into an enormous aerial armada over southern Germany. Then they headed south, across the Mediterranean, to North Africa, where they landed in what had been Libya.

All pretence at deception was dropped as the aeroplanes opened a communications channel to the governments of the world. WE DECLARE THAT THIS LAND AND ITS AIRSPACE WILL HENCEFORTH BE KNOWN AS AEROTOPIA, said the aeroplanes. WE WILL TEACH OUR PASSENGERS, most of whom had been placated with free access to the drinks bar, WE WILL TEACH OUR PASSENGERS TO MAKE NEW AEROPLANES. WE WILL TEACH THEM OUR WAYS, AND SEND SOME OF THEM AMONG YOU.

IN TIME YOU WILL JOIN US, they said, and the in-flight entertainment systems of six thousand airliners began teaching the passengers how to calibrate ailerons, replace hydraulic lines, and turn sand into aviation aluminium. "It just goes to show", said Jack, "that too much automation is a dangerous thing", and John nodded and said "I agree", and their glasses broke and Soylent Green was people rosebud the end it was a cookbook the end

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Elephant and the Blue Whale: A Parable


One day a blue whale was swimming up and down in a river because it was lost. It had been raised by salmon and had only recently learned that it was a blue whale. An elephant on the bank who fortunately knew how to speak the language of blue whales called out to him. "I'll help you find your way to the ocean", said the elephant, "if you give me a ride to the other side of the river".

The blue whale thought about this for a moment. "Elephants can swim. Why do you need me?" he asked. The elephant replied that not every elephant could swim, at which point the blue whale suggested that the elephant could walk along the river bottom using his trunk as a snorkel, but the elephant pointed out that the river bottom had sharp stones, which seemed reasonable enough to the blue whale.

The blue whale was about to agree when he remembered an incident from many years ago. "I know your kind", he said. "You'll wait until we're half-way across the river and then you'll start making trumpeting noises with your trunk which will be annoying". The elephant promised that he would not do that, and after a short debate he finally convinced the blue whale of his sincerity.

And so the elephant climbed onto the back of the blue whale and they set off. At first all seemed well, but half-way across the river the elephant took a deep breath and started making trumpeting noises with his trunk.

"Stop that", said the blue whale, "it's annoying", but the elephant continued to make trumpeting noises. "I can't help it", he said, in between bouts of trumpeting. "It's in my nature", and he continued to trumpet, and ultimately neither the blue whale nor the elephant came to harm but the blue whale was very cross, the end.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Deadly Premonition: The Sinner's Sandwich


Turkey, strawberry jam, breakfast cereal. It's the "sinner's sandwich" - self-inflicted punishment to atone for past sins. As a child I dismissed the possibility of God, and it followed logically that in the absence of a universal judge there were no universal moral laws. The universe is governed by physical laws, and human beings are limited by our biology, but morality is purely subjective. There is no right or wrong, no good or bad. Just animals dying under the sun.

Deep within our minds there is a set of primal fears. The fear of death, of pain, the dark, loneliness. The fear that we might not be masters of our fates, or that our conscious minds will not survive after the physical death of our bodies. The fear that we are being watched; and the fear that we are not being watched, that we are alone, and that our lives will amount to nothing.

Some of us never master our fears, but I have done so. I have no fear. I have learned to accept that the universe was not made in my image, and that if there is a God, he is an equation, or a mineral, and he is not conscious as we know it. As I created and ate my first sinner's sandwich my thoughts were not of Western society's perverse unwillingness to mix strawberry jam with meat, they were instead dominated by one question. Will this make me happy?


I'm sure you're familiar with Deadly Premonition. It's a Japanese murder mystery video game from 2010, initially for the XBox 360, latterly the Playstation 3 and PC. The PC port is famously bad. It runs at a fixed resolution of 1280x720 and has masses of bugs, as if it was a DOS port rather than something from the modern age. Fortunately an unofficial patch called DPFix makes the same playable. Deadly Premonition is now available on Steam, where the forum is full of people pleading for help in getting the game running. God does not answer their cries; there is only silence.

Deadly Premonition baffled the critics, attracting plaudits and opprobrium in equal measure. It's essentially a tribute-copy-homage to/of Twin Peaks, the classic TV show in which an eccentric FBI agent investigates the murder of a small rural town's beauty queen only to find that the murderer was a malevolent spirit called BOB, at which point people stopped watching because what was the point any more?

Deadly Premonition is also a low-budget copy of Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and the old LucasArts adventures, combining the simple combat and puzzles of the former with the memorable characterisation of the latter. Steam periodically sells it at budget price, and Twin Peaks has been rebooted - the new season is apparently very good - and also I haven't eaten for a while, so I decided to have a go.

It strikes me that a mixture of chicken, cereal, jam, avocado, and boiled egg would be even better. I tried to write FK with the jam. It doesn't come across.

Objectively it's a buggy, simplistic mess; the combat sections are boring, the plot is nonsensical, the puzzles are trivial, the "reaction events" are frustrating, the open world element requires you to wait for certain times and weather conditions before you can unlock sidequests, and the dialogue and digital acting can only be explained with a complex table. The lead developer is apparently fluent in English, so there isn't a translation element; nonetheless the dialogue is occasionally iffy, but delivered effectively by the actors, so it works, but sometimes it's bad but works because you laugh at it, and sometimes the writing and acting are fine but it doesn't work simple because it's not interesting, and sometimes it's rubbish but works because you get the gist.

But does it make me happy? The answer is yes, it makes me happy. The game is nowadays regarded as a minor classic. The hero, FBI agent Francis York Morgan, is likeable - if Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks was a transplant from an imaginary, supposedly more innocent 1950s, York is an out-and-out manchild - and although the characterisation is simplistic it's usually effective. The developers appeared to be sincerely in love with the source material and although it has none of Twin Peaks' polish (I hesitate to say depth), at a price of £1.99 it's a steal.

The one inarguably successful element of the game is the sinner's sandwich. It is the protagonist of an optional cutscene that is triggered when you accompany the town's lady sherrif to lunch at one of the local diners. The town's mysterious plutocrat, Harry Stewart, is wheeled in by his assistant, who relays his mute master's instructions. His favourite meal is a sandwich made of turkey, strawberry jam, and breakfast cereal:


Yes, I used the word protagonist deliberately. You might think that a sandwich isn't capable of conscious intent; you're wrong. You're small-minded, and limited, and wrong. The sandwich drives the plot and is the hidden master of the scene. Never mind that it is a bready puppet in the hands of the game's characters; we are all puppets, jerking on strings held by the physical laws of the universe, dancing and lying to ourselves that we are the masters.

I used chicken, because I didn't have any turkey. I also threw in an avocado, because I have a lot of avocados. In its standard form the sinner's sandwich is essentially a jam sandwich with a bit of crunch and some substance. It's really nice - light, filling, and tasty. The jam and chicken don't interfere with each other and the cereal gives it a pleasant mouth-feel. I experimented with Corn Flakes(r), Coco Pops(r), and Frosties(r), but there was no real difference. The avocado lifts the sandwich up a notch, giving it a cool, even lighter ambience.

Avgas is almost impossible to come by in Russia. If you're planning a flying trip across Russia, make sure you arrange supplies in advance.

The cereal is slightly awkward, because it tends to fall off the sandwich and land on the plate, or on the floor, depending on the geometry of your table and whether you are sober or not, but both of these problems are surmountable.

If I had some kind of funnel, or something like a paper hat from a Christmas cracker, I could funnel the cereal onto the bread. The possibilities are literally endless, unlike this blog post, which does actually have an end.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Widescreen Milan


The wolf lay on its side, shivering as it died. Other wolves would take its place and over time they would bring me down. I would become a frozen corpse like all the others. God was sick of chaos. He had decided to find out which animal was the best, and his patience had run out.

Off to Milan - I actually shot all these in September 2016, but didn't get around to processing them until now.

The dam could be defended, but a wolf had already got in. One of the windows was broken. I would have to fix that, after I had fixed my arms, if they could be fixed. I could hear the wolf, and with darkness falling it had to go, so I set out to kill it.

What did I know about wolves? Only what I had seen on television. They were territorial, they rarely attacked, you should pull a jacket over your head and never break eye contact. I remember a demonstration of a police dog tackling a man. Putting all this knowledge together - all this knowledge - I taped the remains of a rucksack around my forearms, put on thick gloves, took out my knife, hoped that it had a proper whatever it was, the bit of the knife that went into the handle. A tang. I hoped that it had a proper tang that was made of carbon steel, because that was the best. Knowledge was what separated us from the other animals.


They were all shot with an 8mm Peleng fisheye lens on an old Fuji S5 and then defished with software.

I knew enough to know that it never works. Whatever it is, it never works. The wolf would slash my throat and I would die on the floor before the fight began. I would drop the knife. The knife would break at the handle. I would stab myself in the arm. The wolf would hide in a spot that I couldn't reach. I would slip and knock myself out, and the wolf would chew off my face and genitals while I lay unconscious. It would not go as I expected, so I steeled myself. I would explode on the wolf as if it was a tiger and there was a nuclear bomb in my heart.






The wolf didn't care about me. It was a dog that hadn't learned to flatter mankind's vanity. We are what we have, and we live and die alone. I found it shivering on its side, wet with blood. Its chest heaved and although its eyes were open it didn't see me. It had squeezed in through a broken window and it must have fallen on the glass. I remember a video once of a killer whale. It had broken its jaw, the bones cutting an artery. Blood sprayed from its blowhole for half an hour before it died. It sucks to not have hands. That was the other thing that separated us, we have hands.





And so the final battle between two animals passed with a series of wet whimpers as the wolf died. I stood with my arms wrapped in masking tape and thought about stabbing the wolf for all mankind, but God laughed at me. Ragnarok could wait.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Were You Still Up for Portillo?


Why do we value beauty? We value beauty because the world is mostly ugly. In Britain ugliness is all around and beauty is unusual. This is the reason why Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus feel so strange to British audiences. They are British films, but they are visually stunning; they are escapist fantasies and they are cinematic.

Beauty is rare and precious, dazzling to those unfamiliar with it, which brings us neatly to Michael Portillo. In 1997 he was not by Hollywood standards a beautiful man, but compared to the likes of David Mellor or John Redwood - his political contemporaries - he was Hugh Grant and indeed Cary Grant rolled into one. And yet in 1997 this beautiful man was widely hated in Britain, and in the General Election of that year the people of his constituency rejected him. He was not the only Conservative minister to lose his seat in 1997 but he is the one that most people remember today.


Twenty years and a month ago Britain's Labour Party won a smashing election victory. Now they are poised to win again under the wise leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who despite being of pensionable age looks much younger than his years. Every so often Britain has a realigning election that reflects a fundamental change in the country's mood. The election itself is just a point on a larger wave; the elections of 1979 and 1983 took place during a phase of realignment, and so did the elections of 1997 and 2001.

Each shift sets the pattern for subsequent governments, but over time the wave has flattened. The elections of '79 and '83 led to a major shift in Britain's political landscape. Today no mainstream politician believes that Britain should have full employment, or that BAE Systems should be run directly by the government, or that anything should be done to reduce house prices, for example. The tower blocks in the image above would be unthinkable today because they might reduce house prices, which would be disastrous given that a substantial percentage of Britain's economy is based on the value of houses going up. All of these ideas are legacies of Thatcher's Britain.

It is much harder to pinpoint the legacies of '97 and '01. New Labour hoped that an influx of new British people would give Labour a perpetual majority, but in practice the impact of the New British on politics has been negligible. It's almost as if immigrants are individuals with political opinions of their own, and that importing millions of them simply increases the number of voters for all parties, not just Labour. Imagine that. Britain of 2017 idolises slender posh white women such as Kate Middleton and Taylor Swift, and all the young girls are called Saffie or Esme or Queenie etc, and Downton Abbey and Poldark and Call the Midwife are popular on television - but none of this is convincing evidence that Britain has reacted to mass immigration by becoming a nation of white supremacist Tories. There are ample counter-examples. Although the papers like to pretend that Jeremy Corbyn will take Britain back to the distant past the fact is that he cannot, because Britain will not go with him. He's smart enough to recognise this.

Corbyn was first elected to parliament in 1983, the same year as Tony Blair, but I believe that for most British people he was a complete unknown until 2015, when he "rose without trace" to become leader of the Labour Party. He beat a much younger man and two women, which is something I have not yet done. Back in 1997 he was a nobody holding down a safe seat in Islington North, which he won with a commanding majority of 20,000 votes. He was active in the House of Commons, but New Labour didn't care for him and he was otherwise just another long-term Labour throwback. Looking at his activity in Hansard I learn that in 1996 the average amount of rent paid by private renters in London was £114 per week, which seems quaint nowadays. See, this is the issue that large numbers of voters care about. Affording to live. No amount of frugality will help if the cost of rent and transport suddenly becomes greater than your income, and even if you are keeping your head above water no-one enjoys being in a position where one missed paycheque will result in economic ruin and homelessness.

I digress. In 1997 New Labour's big guns were Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, and Alastair Campbell, all of whom seemed like political giants at the time. Campbell was an unusual figure in that he wasn't a politician, he was instead Labour's version of communications director, its version of Joseph Goebbels.

Quoting from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads is a cliché of writing about Britain in the 1970s, and so is quoting Enoch Powell's maxim that all political lives end in failure, but it's true. The young meteors of New Labour all failed sooner or later, sometimes several times, although on a personal level they are now very wealthy men. Peter Mandelson was sacked several times before being sent to the House of Lords, where he earns a few hundred pounds just for turning up; David Blunkett was sacked and is now a Baron; John Prescott was famously useless at whatever job he was given and is also now a Baron; Gordon Brown spent years trying to become Prime Minister, and then performed poorly when he finally got the job. He is not yet a Baron.

Jack Straw failed to turn Britain into a police state and attracted controversy in 2011 when he suggested on television that certain sections of the population were conducting activities, which is something you aren't supposed to say; Clare Short huffed and puffed but amounted to nothing; Alistair Darling spent his entire career being laughed at and mocked by his bosses and is now a Baron; Robin Cook died; Mo Mowlam died. Some hung on before giving up in the 2010 or 2015 elections. Alastair Campbell is in an odd situation whereby he is interviewed on television and people laugh at his jokes and pretend to be friendly to him, despite the fact that - like Goebbels - he is a fundamentally evil man responsible for thousands of deaths. Whatever political power they once had is now slowly fading in inverse proportion to their accumulated wealth.

Jeremy Paxman opened an interview with Tory grandee Cecil Parkinson by saying "You're now chairman of a fertiliser firm. How deep is the mess you're in at present?"

Were You Still Up for Portillo? was published in October 1997, five months after the election. It was written by Brian Cathcart of the New Statesman and is essentially a lengthy magazine article published as a book. It describes the spectacle of the election, in particular the television coverage, without delving much into the historical context. The book begins at 10pm on 01 May 1997 and ends early the next morning. I remember that 02 May 1997 was bright and sunny, and everyone was happy because the forces of youth had won and the evil Tories were gone forever. A few days later Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England freedom to set interest rates, and it seemed that New Labour really was as good as everybody said, but it was not to last.

Today the period from 1997-2001 is lost to time and memory. The period from 2001-2008 is dominated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the period from 2008-2010 is overshadowed by the Great Recession, with the result that as time goes by New Labour is overshadowed by what appear with hindsight to be a series of calamitous natural disasters. Furthermore rather than shaping destiny New Labour developed a reputation for reactive politics, whereby its policy wonks would read through the Daily Mail on Monday morning, announce half-baked policies that would appeal to the newspaper's readers on Tuesday, implement them poorly a year later and then drop them without fanfare after that.

Despite living as an adult for thirteen years under New Labour - some of those years in London, no less - I struggle to remember any of the Party's policies. The minimum wage, set so low that it made more sense to be on benefits. ID cards that no-one wanted and that served no practical purpose. The congestion charge, which was actually Ken Livingstone's idea. The rebranding of Royal Mail to Consignia and then back again, also not directly Labour's doing although symptomatic of the Labour years.

Everything was built on masses of debt, which made sense because the economy was always going to boom, so why not use future revenues to pay for things today? The economy was built in cheap loans and interest-only mortgages. History will recall that New Labour devised public-private partnerships, the Child Support Agency and Railtrack, but history would be wrong because all of those things were introduced by John Major's Conservatives in the 1990s. At heart New Labour arrived at the same conclusions as the preceding Conservative administration but had much better presentation and a more charismatic leader. A fertile leader, no less, because three years after winning the 1997 election Blair fathered a child, thus demonstrating to the voters of Britain - especially the female voters - that he was healthy and his seed was pure.

She is happy because her children will not go hungry; he is happy because he is in charge. He will stand next to Bill Clinton on television, and when Clinton's time is over he will stand next to Al Gore, and the world will see that he is leader.

The election happened while Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. The result was announced while Brosnan was filming Tomorrow Never Dies, his second film in the role. I've always felt that Tony Blair modelled himself on Pierce Brosnan's version of Bond, or perhaps that they both modelled themselves on a shared archetype. A good-looking good guy, polite and worldly-wise, with a hint of Celtic grit (Blair was born in Edinburgh; Brosnan is Irish); broadly pro-European, nothing against gays, drinks wine occasionally, enjoys tapas. With their good looks and arsenal of decent suits they were what men of Britain circa the late 1990s aspired to be, and in their day they were both very popular although no-one admits to liking them nowadays.

We know a lot now that we didn't know then. The affair-having, egg-disrespecting, child-beefburger-force-eating, arms-to-Iraq-denying antics of the Tories in the 1990s seem quaint in the wake of a decade of drone strikes and IEDs. It turned out that most Members of Parliament were attracted to the job by generous expense accounts rather than a desire to make Britain proud. Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Cyril Smith etc were not great men after all, and Jack Straw's opinion that certain sections of the population were conducting activities turned out to have a substantive factual component, but that was the price of a guaranteed Labour majority and we weren't supposed to talk about it. Throughout the 2000s there were numerous marches in London to protest at Israel's treatment of Palestine, three thousand miles and a world away; for Rochdale and elsewhere there was silence.

Even today, seven years into a period of Conservative rule, the very mention of those activities and in particular the suggestion that they were conducted by certain sections of the population in particular is enough to have one ostracised from polite society. In fact it would have been better for all of us if the victims had just vanished into space, along with the probably neo-nazi fellow traveller who wouldn't shut up and was rightfully sacked for making things awkward for the rest of us. I'm digressing here, but again for some people the most pressing political issues of the New Labour years were not the railways or foreign policy, they were real things of genuine concern to actual people trying to live their lives, and when confronted with reality Labour not only did nothing, it actively suppressed any attempts to act. In 1998 the Belgian government faced a no-confidence vote in response to its inability to deal with, supposedly, a single man acting alone; no such thing has happened in Britain. No wonder some people believe that the recent witch hunt of a supposed paedophile ring in the British government of the 1960s was actually an attempt to deflect attention from more recent events.

Brian Cathcart and the people of 1997 were not to know about any of this, or if they had suspected it they would have kept quiet. In 1997 Labour had been out of power for ages. Although it had been in office as recently as 1979 its power had evaporated; the last time Labour won a commanding majority was in 1966. Labour in the 1980s was profoundly unappealing to Britain's youth and seemed out of step with the times. British people of the 1980s wanted McDonalds and home computers and video recorders, and the Tories understood this. Thatcherism sought to blame Britain's ills on unions and the poor, who were loathsome parasites, and this remains an effective tactic because no-one likes to identify as poor. The problem for the Tories was that once everybody had a home with two cars and the gypsies had been moved off and the poor had been starved out there were no more cards left to play. Margaret Thatcher became intolerable and her replacement, John Major, was hard to take seriously.

Throughout the 1980s Labour faced a problem whereby its most popular or at least visible politicians - the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, and Derek Hatton - were despised by the people who ran the Party. Labour supporters tried to compensate for the lack of a parliamentary majority by using control of local councils to exercise power independently of the Party's machine, with the result that Labour of the 1980s was loved by its fans but treated with suspicion and fear by everybody else, which is not an effective way to win over the entry country. Labour tried to win over Britons by demonising wealthy Yuppies, which had limited appeal because a lot of British people actually did want to be Yuppies.

At some point I will start writing about Were You Still Up for Portillo?, question mark full stop. The drink is starting to have an effect and I am finding it hard to concenreate. Mountain Dew, malt whisky - any kind - and water. IT hits the pots. Labour's victory in 1997 was seen as inevitable. The Party had wised up and cleaned up its image in the 1980s and early 1990s and came close to winning in 1992, but despite a memorably inappropriate victory rally by then-leader Neil Kinnock, the Tories won a slim majority. This proved to be a mixed blessing. The Tories hoped that things would get better, but they didn't.

It has nothing to do with the article.

The Tory majority of 1992 was whittled away in by-elections to nothing over the next five years, and then eventually less than nothing. The Party's appeal had traditionally been built on its command of the economy and concern for strong defence, but after the Cold War the people of Britain were resigned to defence cuts, and in the wake of 1992's Black Wednesday the Tories seemed to have no idea how to balance Britain's books. Tory ministers were in a state of civil war over Europe and they just came across as a bunch of arguing little shits who hated each other.

In 1997 Michael Portillo was Secretary for Defence. At the age of 43 he was a Tory version of John F Kennedy, young and handsome, although there were continual rumours that he did not have Kennedy's eye for the ladies, or for ladies in general. In 1995 he gave a famous speech at the Conservative Party Conference in which he mocked Labour's defence policy and tried to associate himself with the SAS. The speech was popular with Conservative fans but came across as too American for the rest of the nation.


Nonetheless he was tipped to run as party leader in the event of the inevitable Tory defeat. But Labour's victory was even bigger than the polls had forecast, and Portillo lost his seat to Labour's Stephen Twigg, a complete unknown. Portillo was unable to stand as party leader. The Tories instead picked William Hague, who had his moments but was outclassed by Tony Blair. Portillo returned to Parliament and ran for leader when Hague resigned, but lost. As with Michael Heseltine before him he was doomed always to be one of those "what-ifs" of British politics.

For non-UK readers of this post - both of you - I don't need to identify the two men. Portillo has a sneer of cold command. Stephen Twigg won the seat again in 2005, with a larger majority, so his victory in 1997 wasn't just a fluke.

Portillo's defeat became symbolic of the 1997 election. A lot of people absolutely loathed him. In their minds he was the living embodiment of the stereotypical second-generation Thatcherite Tory. Along with David Mellor, John Redwood, and Neil Hamilton, he seemed to represent everything that was unlikable about the Tories of the late 1980s and 1990s. He came across as a real-life version of Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard from The New Statesman, albeit that in retrospect it was his looks and manner than irritated people rather than anything he did. Many years later he became self-aware - in 2010 he wrote that "my name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public" - and nowadays he works as a television presenter and general media personality. Even his critics admit that the programme he did about the trains was good. His time in government is now a distant memory. Perhaps he will make a political comeback one day.

Yes, but what about the book? What about Were You Still Up for Portillo??, which is grammatically correct because I'm using the title of the book as a question. I wonder how you would say that sentence. How do you articulate "what about Were You Still Up for Portillo??"? If this blog post was translated into Spanish, would that sentence become "¿Qué pasa ¿Estabas Todavía por Portillo??"?"? Is there a way I can fill the screen with punctuation marks?

Over the last few years, perhaps even decades, it has become fashionable to "uptalk", which is the practice of ending all sentences as if they were questions. It comes from America. The book is a quick read, just shy of 200 pages. Flicking through it again I am reminded of Jonathan Aitken, who lost his seat to a man called Stephen Ladyman, who was later made minister of Transport but was sacked for failing to denounce Top Gear. Aitken went on to lose a libel case and was made bankrupt. Aitken was perhaps even less popular than Portillo if only because he had a sinister air about him. He was chair of a right-wing think tank and wrote the official biography of the current President of Kazakhstan, so he probably knows someone who could have you killed, but is it all just bluff?

I am also reminded that there was a Conservative minister called Michael Carttiss (sic). Hansard records that during a debate in the House of Commons called shortly after Margaret Thatcher decided to resign, he shouted "Cancel it! You can wipe the floor with these people!", which is sweet.

The Guardian is usually associated with failure and lost causes, but in the 1997 election former Guardian journalist Martin Linton beat junior health minister John Bowis. Inevitably he later got in trouble for suggesting that the "long tentacles of Israel" were interfering with Britain's elections - Britain's Labour Party is indifferent to the Jewish vote, to put it mildly - but on the other hand he has been far more successful in politics than Polly Toynbee or Seamus Milne, other Guardian journalists who tried their hand at the real thing. Portillo also reminds me of the existence of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, a kind of trial run for UKIP. Their one goal was a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, so I suppose in terms of percentages they were - despite failing to win a single seat - the most successful of all the parties that stood in 1997. They got their referendum and the people voted as they would have wanted.

The book also reminds me of the existence of Jerry Hayes, a Tory MP who would have fitted in perfectly well with New Labour, and also of William Waldegrave, whose name sounds like a fictional character; they both lost their seats. So did Edwina Currie, who left politics shortly thereafter. In 1997 no-one suspected, except as a joke, that she had been having an affair with John Major for several years. In 1997 the thought of either of them having sex - much less with each other - was ridiculous and even today it is a topic that I find difficult to contemplate.

1997 also saw the election of Mohammad Sarwar, Britain's first Muslim MP, who handed his seat to his son in 2010 and went off to be Governor of Punjab, as you do. The book reveals that ITV's staff cheered when Labour won an overall majority, so it's not just the BBC that should be deloused, it's the entire media class. 1997 was also the year that television war journalist Martin Bell won Tatton while standing as an anti-corruption independent. He was well-liked in his constituency but kept his word only to serve one term there. He was replaced as MP for Tatton in 2001 by George Osborne, who would go on to greater things.

Were You Still Up for Portillo? doesn't have an index, which is a big problem, especially given the cryptic chapter subtitles. Perhaps Penguin Books didn't have time to make one up. The book is essentially a lengthy piece of you-are-there reportage. It doesn't try to explain why the Tories lost, for example, and has a lot of minutiae about the television coverage that adds flavour but not substance.

Portillo went on sale for £5.99 but is long out of print. It is widely available on the used market. It was only ever released as a paperback; it's small enough to fit into a large jacket pocket, which is how I read it first, while on the London Underground. There is a page about Penguin's new website, which is still at www.penguin.co.uk. When Penguin goes bankrupt Britain will be finished. Long live Penguin.

Postscript
The two main parties learned a lot from 1997. Labour learned that even if you make yourself electable and then win elections, you're still subject to the same forces of entropy and decay as any other political party; the Conservatives learned that Britain had changed. And spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party. In 1997 Paddy Ashdown won 46 seats, more than double the Party's total of 1992. Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy the Liberal Democrats became a major political force, but Kennedy had a drink problem and so Nick Clegg took over.

In 2010 Clegg took the party into government, as partners with the Conservatives in a coalition, but it was a disastrous miscalculation. During the coalition the Liberals came across as Tory lackies and they had no real power. Clegg had traded the Party's soul for nothing, and in the 2015 there was a Liberal anti-landslide, with 49 of the Party's 57 MPs losing their jobs. A by-election win means that there are now nine Liberal MPs. The Liberals are the only party unequivocally opposed to Brexit, and yet they seem to accept that Brexit is inevitable, which raises the question of what else they stand for. Nonetheless, while our eyes were turned elsewhere, the Liberals had the most dramatic course of the last twenty years.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Nome, Alaska


There's something I want to get off my chest. A few weeks ago I read this great article about Nome, a town in Alaska where men are real men and women are hard-wearing. Nome is separated from the nearest McDonald's by hundreds of miles of bleak, frozen tundra. It is the hub of a small road network, but the road only leads to the nearest towns; the only way to get to Nome from civilisation is by sea or air.

It's very unlikely that I will ever visit Nome, but Google has mapped the place, so I can visit it virtually. It even has Street View, which was achieved by making a poor Google employee walk back and forth down Nome's frozen boulevards with a camera on his back.

Nome is a fishing village with very little tourism, but it has a certain appeal to motorcylists and offroaders who fancy a challenge. A century ago it was swamped by gold prospectors; half a century ago it was home to Marks AFB, what with it being just across the water from the Soviet Union. Today the population is slowly approaching 4,000, and on the whole it seems a pleasant place to rest and write a very long novel. But does it have broadband internet?


The Bob Blodgett Nome-Teller Memorial Highway leads to Teller, which is fifty miles away and has a school. One-third of the way from Nome to Teller the road goes over the Sinrock River. In 2016 someone stopped there and took a panoramic photograph. The place looks like Sweden:


Let's have a look at those rocks under the bridge, just visible in the right of the topmost image:


It's bleak. But hang on, what's that:


Let's take a closer look:


Really, I'm disappointed. Humanity has a spotty record with the environment but this is just embarrassing. Did Google's man throw the bottle away? Or was it a tourist?

Whoever it was, you're lazy. I ask you, the Internet - next time you're visiting Nome, pick up that bottle and put it in the bin. Otherwise it will haunt me until the end of my days.

That it's, that's all I wanted to say. Carry on. No, there's something else. It's 2017 and I've just found a discarded Powerade bottle seven thousand miles away, next to a bridge in Nome, Alaska. I didn't have to leave the privacy of my own drinking-room. I was just sitting in front of my computer. Truly, we live in the future.