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Monday, November 13, 2017

Life, Lust and Death

Heather, The Totality is a bit like having a shot of strong liquor, in that it’s downed quickly and then it hits you. Written by  Matthew Weiner, whose previous credits include being head writer and executive producer of Mad Men, one the most accomplished television dramas ever produced. 

Heather is devoid of waste. Each sentence and paragraph has been stripped to the bone so that like a good script, only the essential information necessary to the story is conveyed, any fat has been cut away. The result is a sparse novel that can be read in a few hours, the key characters outlined in a few words, there is literally nothing else left in the story, backgrounds and descriptions are just brief outlines if at all, yet it works. 

There is Mark Barrington, bland, funny to his wife, though not it seems to anyone else, and who is better than most at his job at a city traders. He benefits by getting generous bonuses at the end of each year which make him reasonably rich and secure but he doesn’t rise up the ladder to the extent a more ambitious man might have done. Later this becomes an issue.

Mark’s wife Karen is more beautiful than she realises but tends to be eclipsed by her friends and acquaintances, so much so that she often feels sidelined and lonely. When her first and only child, Heather, comes along Karen devotes her life to raising her and being Heather’s best friend. 

Around the time that Mark and Karen met, Bobby is born. Bobby’s mother is a heroin and crack addict with a string of dysfunctional heroin-addicted lovers. Some hit her, some are kind, all are addicts and transitory in the life of her son, Bobby, who grows up in squalor and poverty. Later Bobby develops a taste for violent sex, so much so that the prison gang that beat him up as part of an initiation ceremony,  nicknamed him ‘hard-on’ after he got an erection as he lost consciousness.

What these three will later have in common is Heather…

I read Heather, The Totality in a few hours and was briefly consumed by it and by Weiner’s ability to say almost nothing but at the same time say everything, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks. As when Mark sees his daughter being watched:

Mark wished it were just desire he had seen directed at his daughter and then he nearly collapsed against a bench to catch his breath, his body having deduced immediately what it took his mind an hour to figure out: the Worker’s gaze was so violent and hungry that Mark had actually run away.

Or when he first sees Karen:

Mark liked Karen because she had no idea how beautiful she was…. He thought he would never get tired of having sex with her and he took that thought very seriously and knew they would marry.

Yet novels generally envelop you and if I have a criticism of Weiner’s minimalist style it is that ultimately it is unsatisfying. It leaves you wanting more but in a bad way, a bit like a television drama that lasts for fifteen minutes and plays out brilliantly for that length of time and then ends. So, as the closing credits roll the viewer is left thinking is that it? Could they not write more? Did they run out of money? In the same way, much as I enjoyed this short novel, like the shot of liquor I started with, the effect has quickly worn off and I want more. Next time Weiner should write a feature rather than a trailer.

© Nigel Wingrove, 2017

Heather, The Totality 
Matthew Weiner
Published by Canongate in the UK
and Little Brown in the US, 2017.
138 pages

£14.99 Hardback

Friday, October 13, 2017

Hollywood Coercion: Weinstein and the Casting Couch

The ongoing scandal that Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, allegedly used intimidation, coercion and, if needs be, brute force to grope, abuse or rape women should come as no surprise, and certainly not to anyone who either worked in, or had connections to, the film industry. If anything, it should be a surprise that it has taken so long to come out. 

My own Weinstein anecdote was at Cannes 1997 the year that the first Austin Powers film was released. A good girlfriend of mine had come to Cannes with me that year. She was good looking, sexy and extremely extrovert, so had after
a few days really made her presence felt. One night she rang up very excited because she was on her way to Hotel Cap-Ferrat, one of the top hotels outside of Cannes where a lot of the top Hollywood people and stars stayed, including, I believe, Weinstein. 

She was in the company of an Italian man who’s name I can’t remember, but If was told afterwards that the Italian man’s role was allegedly to act as bait and bring back women for Weinstein. My friend, it appeared, was to be that 
night’s entertainment. In the end my friend was fine, plus she was smart enough and streetwise enough to have handled herself. However, for many young women working in the film industry and caught up in the excitement of Cannes the outcome could have been very different.  

My company, Redemption is very much on the fringes of the film industry but nevertheless during the nineties and noughties for a couple of weeks a year I would always attend the Cannes film festival. Cannes in its heyday would bring in thousands of the great and the good into a what is essentially a small coastal town and transform it into a wonderland of flash cars, yachts, ghastliness, bling and excess. 

The Cannes film festival is essentially a melée of hundreds small, independent or national film companies trying to do deals to license or sell their films, or to get finance for a script or project, or, if you are an actor, to get a part in a film and so on. On top of that there are the big studios and film companies promoting key films, as well as the prestigious Palme D’or for the best film in competition.

Holding all this together are the marketing, PR and entertainment companies who organise all the parties and launches that go on every day. Finally, there are the journalists, the press and the TV and internet companies who also arrive in their thousands - all wanting a story and an invitation to the party.

Added to this excited mass of humanity will be alcohol, drugs, glamour, money and sex, lots of sex and lots of money with everyone wanting one or the other and the person who had both, plus that rarest aphrodisiac of all, real power, was Harvey Weinstein. 

Its perhaps easy to forget now that in the nineties just how magnificent Weinstein’s record was. This was the man who, with his brother Bob, had either distributed, produced or executive produced some of the greatest and trendiest films of the 20th Century including; Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape, Scandal, Clerks, The Crow, Good Will Hunting and the Scream series all of which helped make Miramax the most successful independent studio in America prior to it being sold to Disney in 1993. 

There is no other industry like film, apart perhaps now in the age of celebrity for celebrities sake when the internet and reality TV have to an extent democratised the pursuit of fame, that attracts so many dreamers, people who are desperate for their first break - to act in a film, or write a film, or direct a film. Film makes fanatics of those that want to be part of it and as such people will do almost anything to make their dreams come true, literally anything … 

So Harvey Weinstein was the man with the midas grope and a finger, at the very least, in every actress. He would, like many popstars and other men with power or fame and with something that women wanted, have seen the exchange of sex for a part in one of his films or work in his company as a fair trade. And Weinstein was in no way an exception to this, its just that he did it all the time and in the main got away with it - if one woman told him to fuck off, then the 
next one would give him what he wanted and get the role or job in return. 

Weinstein’s three mistakes were firstly thinking that this was normal or acceptable behaviour, secondly carrying on doing it when his power was diminishing, and thirdly not seeing that society was changing and that the new generation of women were just not going to except being used for sex if they didn’t want to be.  

I have no doubt that a lot of the allegations now being made are true but also think, now that the worm has turned that there is danger, as with the Jimmy Saville scandal, that a kind of victim hysteria can take over whereby almost any woman that encountered Weinstein will be seeing themselves as having been abused. There is also a danger that Hollywood trendiness could make being one of Harvey’s victims a badge of honour and in Hollywood no one wants to be left out. 

My guess is that this will run and run, with Weinstein’s erstwhile friends proving to be fair-weather and treacherous who will turn on him now that he has no value thus reducing Weinstein to pariah status. However, it would be very wrong to
think that Weinstein is unique because he isn’t, in fact I can think of several film people with similar reputations and I am sure that there are hundreds of others who would have seen the ’casting couch’ as a perk of their office and just as many actresses (and actors) who would, sadly, have seen it as a price to pay for getting their foot in the door.


© Nigel Wingrove 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017

BREAKING THE GIRL - PIECE BY PIECE

Such Small Hands by the Spanish writer Andrés Barba is a truly disquieting tale of a young, newly orphaned girl, called Marina, whose parents were both killed in a car crash, or rather her father was, her mother died in the hospital - a statement of fact that Marina repeats again and again almost mechanically to the child psychologists that question her. Marina herself was ripped open in the accident with a wound that ran from her shoulder on through to her sternum, exposing her white ribs, tearing her young flesh, and leaving her with spectacular scars.

At times the book reads almost like a ghost story or a dream, so strong is the writers sense of the child, of the etherial, and of Marina’s presence, a presence that we are never sure is of her dead, or of her remembered life, or of her now, with her little dolly that she clings to:‘Because dolly was the only one who didn’t lie’.

Marina is, after her wounds heal, taken from the hospital to an orphanage where she seems almost
invisible amongst the other little girls who she thinks are all alike and whose faces blur into one. Yet 
at night while they sleep, Marina wanders around the dormitory and looks at them, at their faces:

She’d slip out of bed feeling the cold floor tiles beneath her feet and creep over to one of them. She’d 
get so close her lips would brush against her. She’d think, “If she woke up now she’d see me,” and that thought frightened her. She’d rest her head very carefully on the pillow, inhaling the girl’s breath.
                Just like pain. Exactly like pain.

Marina tries to fit in and to be loved, to make the other girls love her. She is odd one, the girl from
a nice, middle class home who was taken to Disneyland and had her picture taken with Mickey Mouse, and who went on a rollercoaster ride three times. Then when the adults weren’t looking the other girls would hit her, “Never very hard, usually just softly”.

This is a story that doesn’t so much build but rather envelopes you in a world of child-like menace and loneliness and when Marina stops eating to try to win the other girls love and shows one of them her scars with a mixture of ecstasy and trepidation, we feel her pain, not just the physical but the emotional as well:

…The skin around the scar contracted in a fleeting spasm and the girl opened her mouth, as if she she wanted to devour everything: the air, the feel of the fig tree, Marina’s arrogance, her own fear. It wasn’t the same scar she saw in the bathroom every day when they took their showers; this one was crying out to be touched, to be admired, nothing made it hide now.

One day Marina’s beloved dolly is taken, later the girls return a leg…

This is a short story and at just a 100 pages can be read in one sitting but for such a compact novel it packs a big punch that will stay with you long after the book is finished. It is also, apparently, based on actual events which makes the story even more unsettling . Exquisitely written, macabre and beautifully atmospheric this is a really moving and very unnerving take on childhood innocence, loss and cruelty that for no particularly reason reminded me in places of films like Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath. 

Such Small Hands
Portobello Books, London 2017
Hardback, 101 pages
£9.99


© Nigel Wingrove 2017

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The ‘Far-Right’ reinvented as a 21st Century Political Nasty

When I started my company, Redemption Films, in the early 1990s it happened not because I had planned to do it but rather because the UK film censors, the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) had refused my short film, Visions of Ecstasy, a certificate on the grounds that they felt it was blasphemous, which effectively banned its release in the UK. That action forced my career sideways and I decided that if I couldn’t make my own films then I could at least release the films that l liked.

That was in 1990 and, two years later, in 1992, I founded Redemption with the aim of releasing and distributing european horror and exploitation films. At this time because horror films, and particularly European horror and US exploitation films, had, in the UK, been labelled ‘Video Nasties’ there was an air both of persecution and of subversion in not just watching these films but even of handling or writing about them. Indeed, in the early 1990s when the internet was still in its infancy, word-of-mouth, fanzines and illicit bootlegs were the only way most horror fans read or heard about these films; with fans smuggling in rare or underground films from Holland and other less censored countries.

Ban this Vile Filth!

Draconian fines and occasionally even more draconian prison sentences were imposed on horror fans caught with unclassified copies of films like Nekromantik or The Gestapo’s Last Orgy. This sense of hysteria and persecution increased even more, when in 1994, two ten year old boys were found guilty of the appalling murder of a two year old child called James Bulger, and the judge speculated on whether horror films might have influenced the two young killers? The UK media then had a field day linking films like Chucky to the murder and the BBFC, ever conscious of the public opinion, tightened censorship still further, banning, among many, three of Redemption’s films (Bare Behind Bars, Sadomania and Exorcism), a ban we challenged in court and lost.

In the end it would take several more years of expensive and time consuming legal battles against the BBFC and the UK government before the BBFC backed down and its ruling director, a man called James Ferman, resigned. With Ferman gone following the BBFC’s defeat over pornography in 2000, a case also instigated by Redemption, the level of censorship across all film genres was gradually relaxed with the UK going on to enjoy several years of relatively liberal film classification and censorship.

Now though I am seeing and experiencing for the first time since those dark days new levels of censorship across all media, instigated in part by the UK government and supported in many cases by the mainstream media (msm), while being driven and fuelled by the ideological totems of the left - political correctness and cultural marxism. This time the state’s ire, rather than being directed at exploitation films, is being focused on what it loosely terms ‘right wing and ‘far-right’ politics, the modern day ‘Political Nasty’. Like the ‘Video Nasty’ of legend, the powers that be are determined to turn the Political Nasty into a ‘catch-all’ bogey man onto which they can blame everything from Islamic terrorism to ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crime’.

Currently the Conservative Party are in power and it is a conservative Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who has proposed legislation that would make it a criminal offence to view ‘far-right’ material online. She has also created a 
whole slew of new powers for the police to tackle instances of online abuse and hate speech. 

To take the term ‘far-right’ first, the Conservative Party is technically a rightwing party, though since David Cameron was made leader it has become increasingly Blairite, a shift that has continued under Theresa May’s leadership. It should also be remembered that way back in 2002 that it was Theresa May who described the then conservative party as the ‘nasty party’ and she wasn’t being complimentary.

Nevertheless, many on the left view the Conservatives as ‘fascist scum’ and definitely right wing, while Hope Not Hate, the UK’s equivalent to the US’s Southern Poverty Law Centre, describes as ‘far-right’ political parties like
Ukip as well as news site like Breibart so the blanket criminalisation of all sites and organisations to the right of the
now very soft-right conservative party would effectively be a massive act of anti-democratic censorship on a par 
with the worst excesses of the Chinese government and one that would ban thousands of sites.

The UK has no Bill of Rights like the US to protect free speech and no First Amendment enshrined in our constitution so the people look to, and rely on, our government to protect our democracy and our freedoms to say, watch and think what we like, this Conservative government looks set to destroy that trust. 

The Home Secretary cited the sites of ISIS as justification for this legislation and most people would not have a 
problem with that as ISIS’s whole reason for existing is to destroy our way of life and it actively encourages
its supporters to commit acts of terrorism and violence. 

The “far-right” is, aside from a few loonies, completely different to ISIS in every way in that to varying degrees it espouses political opinions and not violence. Many of those opinions are racist, or anti-semitic or offensive to many, but that is the point of democracy, it is our freedom to say what we like no matter how offensive it is. Furthermore the definition of far-right is so nebulous that the Guardian newspaper seriously described the mainstream and establishment Spectator magazine as the originator of the generally far-right Alt-Right, while others have called the entire Trump administration fascist, its leader, Donald Trump, literally Hitler, who in turn supports the Klu Klux Klan. 

The UK has always had an active far-right from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, though to the National Front in the 1970s, through to the British National Party in the 1990s and 2000s which received 
nearly a million votes in 2010 European elections. Ukip got four million votes in the last election and were it not
for the success of Brexit were vying with the Liberals to become the countries third opposition party. 

The far-right, which presumably now includes parties like Britain First and anti-Islamic pressure groups like EDL, have always been tolerated and accommodated by the establishment in the same way that groups like Class War and the Socialist Workers Party are tolerated. They may not be nice, but they have a legitimate voice and a right to be heard and people have the right to listen to them and make up their own minds should they wish to seek them out.

In turn the Alt-Right and Alt-Lite movement that is emanating from the US, but which has similar groups in the UK and Europe, is a young and eclectic mix of people, ideas and opinions covering all aspects of life and the right. There are also, infamously, groups like the Alt-Right headed up by Richard Spencer, that unashamedly promote white supremacy, and sites (when not blocked or offline) like the Daily Stormer’s which are genuinely antisemitic and deliberately offensive, and there are many others that are neither.  

In much the same way that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have activists and think tanks bouncing ideas around so does the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right with talk covering everything from feminism and relationships to immigration and the wall. Some of those ideas are going to be provocative, and unpleasant, or even deliberately offensive as on 4Chan, but they are to paraphrase a certain Lord Mayor, part and parcel of politics online.

These people are not ISIS or advocating terrorism, they are espousing ideas and new ways of dealing with old problems, they are talking and sharing thoughts not bombs, and regardless of the Home Secretaries opinions on their ideas the UK Home Secretary should welcome their expession and not try to shut democracy down.

© Nigel Wingrove 2017




Wednesday, October 4, 2017

WHOSE SPEECH! OUR SPEECH! PART 4: TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY

At the time of writing (October 3rd) it is some six weeks or so since the events at Charlottesville and the ripples caused by the violent clashes between Trumpers, Alt-Righters, white supremacists and rightwing nationalists opposed to the removal of Confederate statues and leftwing counter protestors. Protests which culminated in the death of Heather Hyer - the result of being hit by a car driven by a white supremacist in an act that may have been deliberate or accidental? Dozens more people were injured on both sides, either hit by the car, thrown rocks and bottles, or hurt in fighting between the two groups. 

The fallout is radically changing and polarising American politics, and what happens in America eventually happens everywhere else. So these post Charlottesville events are important. The ’shut it down, shout it down’ nature of the debates between the left and the right and the increasing propensity of both sides to use violence is also creating a dangerous shift in the way that democratic politics functions and operates. Now the extreme position and what was the reaction of last resort, is almost the first reaction and the new normal, with debate bypassed in favour of shouting and fists. 

Charlottesville has also done something else, it has begun to shift the dynamics of power and influence across the board, from left to right, from the mainstream media to the fringes of the internet, all have been and continue to be effected. It is as if on August 12th a game of chess had been in progress and then someone had knocked the board over and when the pieces were put back again on August 13th all the positions had been changed, making some weaker, some stronger and some completely irrelevant.

Key figures in the world of the Alt-Right have, like Richard Spencer, founder of the Alt-Right and a key organiser and supporter of the Unite the Right rally have been, if not absent from the scene, then certainly unusually low-key. Nathan Domingo, who headed up Identity Evrope, and was himself a key player in the Charlottesville rally, stood down as leader of Identity Evrope at the end of August in order to pursue other projects. 

Likewise many groups across the right have attempted to distance and disassociate themselves not just from Charlottesville but from each other, or to spin the events either as a terrible failure of leadership and organisation, or praising them as a turning point, or launch pad for white supremacy and the far right movement as whole. Others have been, if not appalled, then certainly concerned at their image, thrust as they were from the relative safety and anonymity of the online world into the glare of the world’s media in the real world where many of them fell far short of their supremacist ideal. 

Charlottesville showed the far-right in all its eclectic glory from the KKK to the preppy looking Identity Evrope and Alt-Right, resplendent in chinos, polo shirts and fashy haircuts, and in-between everyone from the paramilitary looking National Socialist Movement and Traditional Workers Party, to rag-tag brigades of fringe nationalist, militias and confederacy groups, through to isolated nazis wannabes with newly bought swastika flags and replica WW2 steel helmets, and overall it did not look good.

Equally unsettling for the far-right was the subsequent post Charlottesville backlash against them, coming as it did after almost two years of growing support and ascendency in the run up to Trump’s inauguration and presidency. Now the far-right suddenly found that their pariah status was back big time. No only that but as a direct result of Charlottesville and the death of Heather Hyer, coupled with an offensive opinion piece mocking Hyer’s weight and death in the Daily Stormer, that they were being banned online as well.

As already covered in my blog Whose Speech, Our Speech Part 3 - The Great Shuttening, the Daily Stormer’s site was closed down on August 13th, followed by dozens of others, including the long established forum Stormfront, numerous other rightwing websites, personal blogs and thousands of individual Twitter accounts and Youtube postings, many of which were demonetised depriving many people not just of a political voice but an income.

In the White House Donald Trump was assailed by the media for not having specifically denounced the far-right in his first comments on the Charlottesville violence rather than just saying that there was violence on both sides. Later Trump would specifically condemn the far-right but by then his words were felt to ring hollow. 

The media circled with many citing Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon’s links to the rightwing Breibart News and his avowed nationalism as evidence of Trump’’s covert sympathy for the far-right. They also linked in key adviser Sebastian Gorka, an English man of Hungarian descent whose father had fought and suffered at the hands of the Soviets. Gorka often wore a small badge commemorating this which was wrongly and deliberately claimed by the left to be of Nazi origin. 

Whether because of sensitivities post Charlottesville or coincidence, both of these rightwing figures were out of the White House by the end of August, to great cheers from the left who regarded the departure of Bannon and Gorka as a great victory. 

The fortunes of other high profile, but less mainstream rightwingers also suffered. Milo Yiannopoulos, the flamboyant writer and broadcaster, who had been actively rebuilding his personal brand over the last few months after his reprehensible and stupid comments on underage sex torpedoed his career back in March, floundered very publicly again. Milo was the organiser and champion of the grand sounding Free Speech Week at Berkeley University where speakers supposedly included among many Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, Katie Hopkins and Pamela Geller. 

This time rather than being surrounded by rioting students trying to prevent him from speaking Milo found himself outmanoeuvred by Berkeley Uuniversity officials who effectively and peacefully managed to get the whole event cancelled though not before many of the scheduled speakers cancelled themselves or claim that they had not even been booked. In the event Milo had to deliver a twenty minute speech outside the venue to a small desultory group of supporters. There was no Antifa, no riots, no drama and it was all over in a couple of hours rather than the promised seven days which undermined his credibility with distractors and supporters alike. Milo has now taken his brand of camp rightwingism to Australia.

Rebel Media, one of the most successful of the new right-leaning media groups ended up sacking one of its most popular broadcasters, Faith Goldy, for taking part in a podcast affiliated to The Daily Stormer. Goldy had already put herself in her bosses bad books by covering the Charlottesville rally and the Stormer podcast was seen as beyond the pale. Since then Goldy seemed to spend most of August and September keeping an uncharacteristically low profile before she began re-emerging with the new Reddit group TNR or The New Right and appearances on Youtube chatting with fellow ex-Rebel Media colleague Lauren Southern.

There are dozens more examples of rightwing fracture but the overriding impression is of flux and changing fortunes; that basically whatever certainties were in place on August 12th no longer applied on August 13th. As if to reinforce this Donald Trump brought in former US Marine Corps general John F Kelly as White House chief of Staff and put an end to the state of organised chaos that previously prevailed. Now order and, by Trump’s standards, calmness reigns as was witnessed by Trumps widely praised handling of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. 

Yet now, some six weeks after Charlottesville, all of these repositioned chess pieces are beginning to adapt to their new roles and in many cases are proving to be much stronger as a result. The Daily Stormer, now without doubt the most banned website and publication in world history, has, by refusing doggedly to give up, become more successful and well known to a degree unthinkable a few months ago. Now producing a weekly downloadable edition, and increasingly talking of a future print edition, or of syndicating itself amongst its followers so that their website could in effect be reproduced hundreds of times, the martyred ’Stormer’ has shown that it is not going anywhere and that it would probably have been better if Go Daddy, Cloudflare and Google had just left it left alone.

Indeed many of the companies and individuals that led the attacks on the far-right are already feeling an ill wind. For example, Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare the company whose services had protected the Daily Stormer site from DDoS attacks, has been cited in a legal action by a porn company who has used the closing down of the Daily Stormer’s site as evidence that Cloudflare can, if it wishes, arbitrarily shut down a site if it choses to - the porn company in question is seeking to shut down sites pirating their products. Cloudflare meanwhile says that shutting down sites without a court order is against their policy…

Steve Bannon, the notorious lord of darkness and power behind the Trump throne, at least as portrayed by Saturday Night Live and his leftist critics, has, far from going quietly into the night, begun work on launching a Breibart TV channel with the aim of eventually rivalling Fox News and presumably further spreading the nationalist economic cause he champions. And, no doubt, also being able to use this new TV arm of Breibart to destroy his enemies.

Websites like Stormfront, which was dismissed by many on the far-right as being too old, boring and essentially past it, has proved itself to be both resilient and up for a fight, and is now back online. Equally, by closing down accounts and demonetising thousands of others, Youtube and Twitter have driven many on the right to seek refuge on Gab.ai, the Facebook and Twitter hybrid with a Pepe style logo. While YouTube refugees are fleeing to Bitchute, the new free speech alternative.

Perhaps most telling of all is the attempt by the right to challenge and launch a rival to ICANN, the corporation that controls the allocation and management of domain names, IP address and root servers. The new challenge comes from WeCANN which describes itself as being a ‘web equality coalition for assigned names and numbers’ with the aim of ‘protecting free speech’ by using emerging technologies.

These are all small, David verses Goliath ventures, but nevertheless their existence and growing support has been caused directly by the assault on the far-right, and by the bludgeoning use of vaguely termed ’hate speech’ criteria to silence and shut down anyone, or group, or organisation, that the new ’establishment’. behemoths of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and politically motivated charities like the Southern Poverty Law Centre, decide is guilty.

Acting like a modern day Inquisition these corporations and wealthy charities who have a vested interest in perpetuating ‘hate’ crimes find guilt in the slightest infringement of their ever growing definitions of ‘hate speech’. Once found guilty they hand out any punishment they deem fit, which in the online world means banishment and unpersoning. In the real world it can mean abuse, doxing, loss of a job, career or physical assault. 

The ‘hate speech’ net widens daily and has long moved to include mainstream conservatives and those whose opinions criticise or challenge the left, and who in turn the left then labels, ad infinitum, racists, or homophobes, or Islamophobes, or fascists, or of course, Nazis, the word to use if all else fails. This in turn is, in my opinion, pushing more and more people into the far-right camp, not because they necessarily want to be there but because they have no choice. 

So the legacy of Charlottesville is not just an ever widening gap between the left and right, but an increasingly polarised and hate-filled one. It has also shifted allegiances and the balance of power between friends and foes, and, perhaps most importantly of all, it has seen Donald Trump become more political and a little less Trumpian, but whether that is to the benefit or detriment of his rightwing 
supporters and the nationalists who put him into power is anyones guess. 

© Nigel Wingrove 2017


Sunday, September 24, 2017

My Absolute Darling: Verbosity and Abuse Californian style

Don’t judge a book by its cover people say, and I would add, or its reviews, for My Absolute Darling, the story of a survivalist who abuses and berates his fourteen year old daughter, Julia, or Turtle as she is nicknamed, in equal measure, has been praised to the heavens. In particular by Stephen King, who declared it a ‘masterpiece’ comparable to Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, after which, the literary world seemingly fell over itself in order to queue up and lavish further glory on this, Gabriel Tallent’s, first novel.

That isn’t to say that My Absolute Darling is unworthy of the praise and the hype, but that it is flawed and falls far short of being the masterpiece that Stephen King seems to think it is.  Set in a remote, coastal woodlands in northern California, where a verbose survivalist called Martyn lives in a rambling house that has seen better days. Living with Martyn is his gun-savvy, tough, wood-wise daughter and alcoholic father, making My Absolute Daring a tale of simmering hatreds, love, jealousy, and sexual violence that occasionally crosses over into actual, physical violence. In the background nature mirrors real life by being as brutal and indifference to the suffering of the creatures that exist in its world. 

At the centre of this world is Turtle, the books sullen heroine, who, when not being raped by her father, spends her time cleaning guns, of which she has several, wandering naked through the woods at night, or being subjected to Nietzschean tests of her will and strength by her controlling and Sadean father. Examples include being forced to do pull-ups from a beam in the ceiling while her father holds a razor-sharp knife between her legs, meaning that should she try to lower herself to the ground before the task was completed that she would be impaled on the blade.

On another occasion, in one of the novels genuinely tense and gripping scenes, Turtle is coerced into shooting a coin directly out of the fingers of a ten year old girl that her father has brought home with him. The little girl holds the coin at arms length as Turtle finally gives into her father’s wishes and pulls the trigger…

But for all the books successes, there are many flaws and appallingly banal sequences, not least in the dialogue spoken by some of the books key characters, which not only seem contrived but undermine the book’s many strengths. This is most notable in some of speeches by Martyn, the abusive father. For example:

“The temperate may rise six degrees in the coming decades, and that’s not just ‘rising temperature,’that’s a cataclysm. You think we can, stop that? People don’t believe in obesity, and that they can see in the fucking mirror. They can’t take care of their own goddamn bodies. How many people because their hearts are grimy with plaque, do you think? A lot. What is it —— seventy percent of all Americans are over-weight? Half of those are obese? And do you think - can this person, this average American, take care of anything? No. Fuck no. So the natural world, which they cannot see for all their roads and gas stations and schools and jails, the fucking natural world, which is more important and more beautiful than anything this average American has ever seen or understood in his whole fucking life, the natural world is going to die, and we’re going to let it die, and there’s no way we can save it. Fuck.”

“Optimism?”

“Optimism, hell,”…

Martyn continues in this vein for another 200 or so words just in that paragraph and there are several more before he pauses for breath. Yet this environmental ranting is as nothing to that of two teenage boys, Brett and Jacob, from the school year above Turtle, who she encounters camping in the woods near her home on one of her nocturnal wanderings.

“I told Brett the whole story over the phone-he was pissed! He was like, ‘I miss everything!’ - I told him how we were washed out to sea and how it was like making furious love to a clash of orgiastic rhinos in a swimming pool filled with broken glass, and how you made a fire by staring balefully down into the reflective bottom of an aluminium can until your immense force of will was concentrated and magnified by the parabolic mirror into a white-hot spark of pure Turtle rage that could light anything on fire, even the hearts of unwary high schoolers.”

Or 

“We could farm mealworms,” Jacob says, warming to the idea, “in our Styrofoam deserts. They can subsist entirely on plastic. I can see us now: farming our mealworms by day, and by night reading Plato aloud to one another beneath the constellations of a foreign sky, accompanied by the vast grind of an entire continent of plastic bottles churning in the current and by the ethereal whisperings of grocery bags saltating across the mounded plastic dunes.”

Teenage dialogue is regarded as literary kryptonite for writers and the interminable eco-twaddle between Jacob and Brett makes me feel that Gabriel Tallent was exposed to a lethal dose around the time that he wrote My Absolute Darling as it not only destroys the brooding menace of earlier scenes but, in the context of two teenage boys, is not so much Stranger Things but just strange in that no one speaks like that.

Tallent also sets up interesting subplots early on in the story around Turtle and then just lets them disappear. In one, Anna her teacher, tries to befriend her and reaches out to Turtle by asking her to help, or put in a supportive word, to new girl Rilke who is being bullied. Yet, despite Turtle doing the opposite and briefly being shown joining in with the bullying, this interesting storyline is not developed. Nor disappointingly, is the relationship with Anna her teacher, as she effectively vanishes after this scene until the end of the novel when her reappearance seems perfunctory and staged.

Most disappointingly of all is Martyn, the abusive father, as no real attempt is made to explore or really question his behaviour or indeed why he is being so abusive or even what drives him? Turtles mother is hinted to have killed herself after discovering that he is abusing their daughter, but there is no timeline of the abuse so it becomes difficult to contextualise it within the story. Nor is Martyn’s violence, or his random acts like arriving home with a ten year old girl in tow who he later rapes, an act that triggers the books climatic ending, really believable. For such a strong, controlling character they seem almost too out of control.

If anything, My Absolute Darling, reminded me most of another Stephen King endorsed novel, The Fireman by Joe Hill, which was published in 2016. Joe Hill is, ironically, a pseudonym for Joseph Hillstrom King, one of Stephen King’s sons. I say this because the The Fireman is full of lengthy environmental diatribes and politically motivated speeches which, like Brett and Jacob's eco rants, often seemed more about re-enforcing the authors prejudices than moving the story forward.

That said, the similarities between the two novels stop there and My Absolute Darling has much to recommend and an interesting, strong heroine in Turtle, though she needs to find some friends who can speak properly.

My Absolute Darling
4th Estate, London 2017
(An imprint of Harper Collins)
Hardback, 417 pages
£12.99


© Nigel Wingrove 2017

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Finding the Words to match the Deeds

The only problem with writing an anonymous book about incest and, in this case, the author’s abuse and multiple rapes by her father over nearly twenty years, is that a question mark will forever hang over the book. Did she? Did he? The authors validity is conveyed only by her words and not by her deeds or the verdict of a court and as such the reader has to judge whether what they are reading is true, in which case The Incest Diary is a deeply disturbing description of child abuse. If not, then this book is an appalling attempt to eroticise and exploit child abuse for financial gain and having just finished reading this book I have no idea which verdict is correct?

What makes The Incest Diary truly disturbing is not just the subject matter, but its brutal eroticism and the authors honest depictions of the sex she suffered, endured and, unsettlingly, often enjoyed at the hands of her father. However, if this is fiction, then those descriptions become perilously close to pornography.

From the opening pages onwards the author relates to her father in graphic terms. That she “wanted and didn’t want him to come in and fuck me” and that when her father wanted her; “I felt his eyes on my shoulders and neck, on my legs, my breasts, and my hips” and that she held her body differently when she knew he was looking. 

It is this mix of desire and revulsion that lies at the heart of the book and the anonymous authors cathartic journey, which for some reviewers have made the book a disquieting mix of almost pedophiliac porn and, in that the abused victim admits to often enjoying and desiring the abuse, an abusers validation of underage sex. For others this is a searingly heartfelt and brutally honest description of being sexually abused from the age of three to twenty one by ones own father and as such who are we to judge how the victim describes it?

Stripped bare of any excess, this is a short and succinct memoir, yet it is also profoundly shocking one as well. For example; describing being tied naked to a chair and left in a cupboard she relates “my father tied me up in the closet and face-fucked me until he came in my mouth and I vomited up the semen”.  Or, perhaps more shockingly still, “I liked the feel of his flesh rubbing my flesh. Putting his cock into me was pure pain until my body was big enough, which wasn’t until I was a teenager, I remember being afraid it would hurt the way it has before - like being torn, split in two, blood everywhere, but suddenly it didn’t. My body was finally big enough; I was wet, too.”

The daughter is to her mother the other woman, and to the daughter her mother is the other woman. Each taking their man away from the other while destroying each other in the process. When the author finally spoke out about her abuse and rape her father denied everything, her family and friends sided with him while denying her. In the end she recanted to save her family and, at twenty one, slept for her father for the last time.

She ends by describing her relationships with men now; her ex husband, quiet, calm, loving and gentle but not particularly sexual, who after twelve years she divorces. And her lovers, including one who uses a picture of the nine-year old author as a bookmark - “He tells me that he imagines me as a little girl when he has sex with me …. that he masturbates to that photo”…

If this book is fiction then it is shameful because it exploits all the real victims of abuse in order to sell, and if it real then it is an horrific reminder of just how awful human sexual desire can be without morality or restraint.

The Incest Diary 
Anonymous
132 pages
£12.99 - Hardcover edition
Bloomsbury Publishing 2107

© Nigel Wingrove 2017