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

Monday, 27 February 2012

Who was Ned Ludd?

Two hundred years ago today the well known womaniser and occasional poet Lord Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

His chosen subject was not the relative charms of Greek versus Turkish women, nor was it the relative intoxicating effects of laudanum vis a vis opium. Instead it was the rights of men as opposed to machines.

His courageous and lonely stand was against the Frame Breaking Act, by which the government sought the right to put a rope round a man's neck if he damaged commercial property. It was grotesquely unjust piece of legislation, although I suspect even its architects would be shocked by the sending a mum to jail for five months for receiving a pair of looted shorts off her lodger.

The reason for this was that it was kicking off big style in the Midlands and industrial North of England.

Luddites they called themselves, and although there had been protests and machine breaking before, what started at Samhain 1811 was something altogether more organised than what had gone before.

The government reacted by passing new laws, sending in the army (more soldiers headed north to fight the Luddites than sailed to Spain with Wellington) and in another act with modern echoes, sending in infiltrators to pose as Luddites to discredit the cause. Indeed, in one raid at Westhoughton in April 1812 everyone arrested afterwards turned out to be a paid informant - the real Luddites having gone home beforehand, only to return four days later to finish the job and get clean away.

Spies and the army weren't the only weapons used by the authorities - God was turned on them as well. After one raid a dying Luddite was first denied medical care until he informed on his fellow conspirators, and then a Priest was called who solemnly told him that if he died without confessing he would surely go to hell. As he coughed his last the man beckoned the Man of God nearer. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked. "Yes," lied the Minister. "So can I," said the Luddite, and died.

Because of this devotion to death we know very little about the Luddites. Those who told their story did not do so for another 50 years when, in the age of the Chartists and the first Trade Unions, they were happy to style themselves early Working Class heroes.

In truth there was no Working Class in 1812 and the Luddites, formed in close knit weaving communities with their initiation rituals and secret passwords seem in many ways more like the Friendly Societies that were the successors of the Medieval Guilds. They may have been more the last gasp of the old order rather the first stirrings of the new.

Certainly there code of secrecy was very successful, and the only records of the time we have are those of the authorities, who report prisoners who won't talk and intelligence based on nothing but rumour. What, for example, was The Black Lamp? A secret Yorkshire-based group that had the authorities vexed and which has disappeared back into the ether leaving historians baffled.

Even the Luddite's name is a mystery.

Numerous letters were sent out during the troubles signed by one 'General Ned Ludd' with a postal address of Sherwood Forest.

A story at the time was that there was a boy called Edward or Ned Ludd or Ludham, from Anstey in Leicestershire, who had a row with his dad and smashed up a frame, hence generating the expression "to Ned Ludd it".

If this was a serious academic blog I'd stop here, for as we can't prove this never happened we should stick with the story. However, indulge me a little longer if you will.

Other explanations are that the name is Notts dialect, or in some way derives from a place name like Ludlow or Ludbrook. But is also possible to look for more legendary origins.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century classic History of the Kings of Britain, the book that gave us King Lear and which first merged the stories of Arthur and Merlin, we have the story of the Three Plagues of Lud's Town. Here the king fights off spectral foes and in turns gives his name to the town that became London.

Lud in turn probably had his origin in the Celtic god known as Nudd in Wales and Nuada in Ireland. As Nodens he turns up across England from Gloucestershire to Lancashire.

He may also have given his name to Lud's Church, the chasm in Derbyshire that may have been the Green Chapel where Sir Gawaine went to meet his Nemesis and where various renegades from Robin Hood to Bonnie Prince Charlie are said to have hidden.

If so then it was a Celtic God that led these rebels against the future and that's certainly worth a toast - although I fear I'm clear out of laudanum.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Five books that made Glastonbury Avalon

Spring mist under Glastonbury Tor by Tony Armstrong
Anyone who's walked down Glastonbury High Street, otherwise known as Diagon Alley, immediately knows that this is no ordinary English market town.

Apparently when the current King Arthur Pendragon first "came out" and turned up in the town complete with Excalibur to announce his reincarnation he was told he was the second one that day.

Despite being the site of an dissolute monastery, a hill topped with a medieval tower and a natural spring pumping forth reddish water, there was little to suggest the sleepy Somerset town would eventually become "the spaghetti junction of the spiritual journey" (Stone) until late Victorian time.

Then in 1886 efforts were made to restore the Tor and open the Abbey to visitors. At the same time stories that Joseph or Arimathia had hidden the Cup from the Last Supper somewhere nearby started to circulate and the place became popular with Christian mystics.

As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, a certain Dr Goodchild, following a vision, allegedly purchased an antique glass bowl in Italy and buried it in a muddy field near Glastonbury, where it was recovered by fellow mystics six years later (Benham).

After that things developed rapidly. The recovered Chalice took up home at the newly restored chalice well, now owned by the Christian Socialist Alice Buckton, and a community of esoteric people took up residence in the town. Others dropped by for the Glastonbury Festival, which was started in 1914 by the Atheist Socialist Rutland Boughton, took a break for the Great War, and then ran three times a year from 1920.

Supposedly there were long haired bohemians, advocates of free love, spiritualists and vegetarians, who were rumoured to visit the Tor after dark, get their kit off, and engage in idolatrous pagan rituals. Your regular night at the Moot really.

Avalon of the Heart by Dion Fortune (1930)

The chief chronicler of these early days wasn't one of the locals, but a weekender who popped over from London every now and again.

Violet Mary Firth Evans, alias Dion Fortune, said her regular journey from London, past Avebury and Stonehenge, "spans the breadth of England and leads from one world to another".

Her classic book paints a spiritual landscape that dates back to before "the era when the worship of the Son replaced that of the Sun." For Fortune the Abbey was for the Christians and the Chalice Well for the Pagans, with the Tor itself belonging to both.

Lovingly she paints a portrait of the town, a place where the veil is thin and where echoes of an ancient past reverberate in the quiet waters of Chalice Well or the still air atop the Tor.

Possibly because she never lives there, her Avalon is described as a place apart from the mundane world she leaves behind, and the book climaxes with a performance of The Immortal Hour at Boughton's festival.

King Arthur's Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury by Geoffrey Ashe (1957)

Boughton's Glastonbury Festivals came to an end in 1926, and it seemed that with that the sun started to sink on the embryonic New Age scene in the town. However things were starting to stir in the academic realms of Arthurian studies.

Arthur had been going downhill for a century or so, being relegated from a bona fida Welsh hero to a shadowy form haunting the unknown regions of the Dark Ages. In 1936 one Professor Collingham tried to set him up as a Late Roman cavalryman, but the idea foundered on a lack of evidence.

Such problems though did not hold back the Christian mystic Geoffrey Ashe when he set forth his views in this the first of many books on the subject. Hitherto the Welsh had Arthur resident in Caerleon, and the historians tended to have him further north, but Ashe put him squarely where the old monks had had him.

Their story of digging up his bones in 1192 had generally been regarded as bit of English colonial propaganda, stealing Wales's national hero in order to keep down the rebellious Celts across the Bristol Channel.

Ashe though, using the ruse that if it can't be conclusively proven to be false then it must be true, took the story and added to it, setting the whole Matter of Britain more or less within sight of the Tor.

Academics tolerated the book, and when Ashe persuaded renowned archaeologist Leslie Alcock to dig up nearby Cadbury Castle, the resulting finds of a Dark Age fortress further added to the story.

A posse of academics eventually rounded on Ashe and his woolly reasoning and he departed Britain for the more convivial atmosphere of the USA, but for Arthur it didn't matter. He was now back in Avalon.

The View Over Atlantis by John Michell (1969)

Alfred Watkins is generally credited with the discovery, or invention, of Ley Lines. But whilst it's true that his 1921 book, The Old Straight Track, was a minor sensation and had people striding out across the countryside in search of ancient monuments, but there was never anything mystic about Watkins's idea of how ancient Brits got about and it was pretty soon forgotten.

The View Over Atlantis is The Old Straight Track on acid. No longer are Ley Lines there simply to get Bronze Age man home for tea, now they are channels of energy that thread their way around the planet. And at the hub of the radiating orgone energy was Glastonbury.

Visiting Glastonbury last year I struggled to find a second hand copy in the local bookshops, but about half of what they did sell has its origins in this book and Michell can probably claim to rate up there with John Lennon and Jefferson Airplane as someone who helped define what it meant to be a hippy.

That what he actually put in the book is pretty much wrong is really neither here nor there. Michell himself said "like all discoveries at Glastonbury, it came through revelation, which is not a popular medium among the professors" - which may be understating it a little.

People had seen shapes in the landscape before. Doctor John Dee apparently found some sort of Zodiac and Dr Goodchild thought he'd seen the outline of a giant fish, but Michell, by splicing in Aboriginal 'song lines' and Chinese 'dragon lines' along with lashing of sacred geometry, expanded the idea exponentially.

The result was "a poetic rather than a scientific truth", but it was enough to touch off a mystical quest that opened the doors of perception for a lot of people.

Mysterious Britain by Janet and Colin Bord (1972)

Two years after Michell's book came out Michael Eavis relaunched the Glastonbury festivals on his farm in Pilton. Fairport Convention, Gong, Hawkwind and Arthur Brown played on the main stage, which was a pyramid built on a ley line based, after a phone consultation with Michell, on the proportions of Stonehenge.

But the tastes of the audience extended well beyond Michell's spiritual engineering and the Bords's book, which came out the next year reflected this smorgasbord of hitherto distinct subjects.

Ley Lines were there, although the Bords noticed that many didn't actually touch the monuments they were actually supposed to be aligned with - which they put down to respect for their sanctity.

Added into the mix though were UFOs, which were so popular at that the Glastonbury Fayre had a space set aside for them to land, as well as stone circles and holy wells, ghosts and King Arthur. The Bords also included local customs that had been interpreted rightly or wrongly (usually wrongly) by folklorists as pagan survivals.

Here then is the true Re-enchantment of Britain. UFOs have now mostly been dropped, but the publication of similar books persists - and it seems I own most of them.

Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1986)

Thanks to Michell and the Bords the seventies saw the New Age arrive in the town in force.

At first the locals were a bit standoffish and "No Hippies" signs adorned many of the B&Bs and hostelries. Gradually though the barriers came down and peaceful coexistence was the order of the day.

The scene was very nearly complete by the end of the decade, and all it required was one great book to bring it all together.

Marion Zimmer Bradley turned out to be the author.

The role of the female in spirituality had been a theme of the developing Glastonbury New Age scene, from the trio of lady occultists that Goodchild put in charge of the Chalice, to the feminists who attended the festival.

Bradley wove this into the Matter of Britain, giving us three strong and complex female characters in Egraine, Guinevere and most of all Morgan Le Fey, contrasted with a weak Arthur, first seen as an incontinent toddler needing his older sister's care.

In Bradley's Avalon, the Christians live in harmony with the deeper mysteries known only to the Priestesses of Avalon, and whilst Merlin drops by occasionally he is at most the equal of the Lady of the Lake.

It had been a long journey from a good Doctor dropping an old cup in a muddy pool. I suspect that Goodchild would not approve of the commercialism of modern Glastonbury, and may wonder where his Christian mysteries are now. But I suspect he would like Mists of Avalon and approve of Bradley, a woman who wrote of the sacred female but who died a Christian, and whose ashes now rest on the Tor.

References

The Avalonians by Patrick Benham (1993).
The Last of the Hippies by C J Stone (1999)
Glastonbury: A Very English Fair by George McKay (2000)
Witches, Druids and King Arthur by Ronald Hutton (2006)

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who put the 'Terror' into Eco-terrorism?


At the conclusion of the excellent film If A Tree Falls the former Earth Liberation Front fire starter Daniel McGowan, having successfully plea bargained his sentence down from life plus 330 years to just seven, learns that the judge has classed his crime as 'terrorism'. This means he will be sent to a specially designed prison where contact with the outside world is severely restricted.

McGowan's group were well organised. They manufactured incendiary devices inside tents they'd erected indoor to avoid leaving traces of what they were up to. They recced their targets well and arrived in dead of night to set their fire bombs. They acted, in other words, pretty much like anyone would if they were bizarre enough to want to dress up and play at being terrorists for a day.

Properly speaking though, they were not terrorists but saboteurs.

Edward Abbey, who literally wrote the book on environment sabotage, defined it as "an act of force or violence against property". Most monkey wrenchers use controlled force; cutting fences, uprooting crops by hand, sugaring the tanks of diggers and so on, and stay well clear of arson as it is as difficult to control as an anarchist on Ketamine.

However such attacks, especially if they occur anonymously and in the night, often get labelled as terrorism. Indeed, Colorado's Summit Daily reported on June 20, 2003 that when the Police were trying to track down the Earth Liberation Front they first started by checking up on everyone who'd borrowed Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang from the local library.

As crime fighting techniques go that's pretty crude, and you wonder if the Colorado police ever had to track down some real terrorists they'd start by following everyone who'd rented a copy of 24 on DVD.

Tracking suspects via their reading matter may be a little suspect, but labelling your suspects as terrorists is a useful tactic for the morally bankrupt. If the ELF appear to go out of their way to attract the label, other groups have ended up being tarred with the same brush for no readily apparent reason.

One example is the shadowy, and now apparently defunct, Centre for Food and Agricultural Research, which described Greenpeace as under the control of 'left-wing anarchists willing to engage in campaigns of terrorism and intimidation'.

One such attack was described thus:“Greenpeace UK director Lord Peter Melchett pulled out and trampled GM crops on several British trial farm sites where Greenpeace activists commandeered the farmers tractors, crashed through fences and chased his family when they tried to stop them.”

Well I was on that action and I definitely remember that it was the farmers in the tractors and one of the people 'running like Penelope Pitstop' was me, but I guess it's easy to get these things mixed up in your mind.

But who was it who first came up with the idea of labelling environmental saboteurs as terrorists? The question turns out to be an interesting one.

Ron Arnold, veteran anti-environmental campaigner and founder of the Wise Use movement, claims it was him in a 1982 magazine article. However, as his claim comes in the form of a 2007 comment to an online article for the New York free newspaper The Indypendent this claim has to go down as unverified.

According to the article 'Hunting the "Green Menace"' by Chip Bertlet in the July/August issue of The Humanist, security companies started listing eco-warriors as terrorists in 1988. Whether this was a political act or just a bit of cynical marketing though is unclear.

The first verifiable use of the term for political reasons appears to be in a leaked memo prepared by the Ketchum Public Relations company for the Clorox Corporation, who were starting to feel the heat from Greenpeace's campaign to phase out dangerous chlorine compounds.

Meanwhile claims had been circulating awhile in right wing circles that Fernando Pereira, the photographer killed when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in 1986, was not a victim of a terrorists but one himself, specifically a member of the German anarchist group Movement 2 June. Like other seventies terrorist groups November 17 and Black September, the name now sounds dated.

This allegation eventually emerged into the public sphere on 11th November 1991 in an article in the respectable business journal (Sahara Club newsletter, No. 8, Winter 1991).

The group behind this appears to have been Lyndon LaRouche's self named organisation. I regret I really don't have time to do justice to LaRouche, a former Marxist who flipped to the extreme right and who now believes that Prince Philip leads an international drugs cartel and that cosmic rays from the Crab Nebula are the cause of Global Warming.

In contrast to the lavishly funded Wise Use Movement, LaRouche's group is more like a sleazy cult, funding itself via personal loans taken out by his brainwashed supporters. (And that's not a pejorative term, there really is no other word for these conspiracy nutters.)

The two groups eventually teamed up in 1994 to publish the subscription journal Eco-terrorism Watch, written by Barry Clausen, a private investigator and Wise Use activist, and Roger Maduro, an editor who works for Lyndon LaRouche.

Clausen was a sort of early Mark Kennedy, hired by the logging industry to infiltrate Earth First! and was busy flogging a book about his activities. This was rather an unusual way for a spy to behave and allegedly came about because the loggers had sacked him after he failed to turn up any terrorists for them.

By this time though things were getting serious. Former Wobbly activist Judi Bari had joined Earth First! and brought with her vast experience of labour issues. No longer could the struggle to prevent the clearcutting of old growth rainforest be stereotyped as lazy hippies versus honest workers, and the 1990 Redwood Summer may been Earth First!'s finest hour.


Bari had to be dealt with, and indeed she was - blown up by a bomb planted in her car.

For good measure she was then prosecuted by the FBI for possession of the bomb and it would take twelve years for a jury to decide that the feds had been in the wrong for treating her as a criminal and not a victim. By this time though Bari had died of natural causes, and so she never saw her name cleared.

Who planted the bomb, or exactly what the plot was, has never been conclusively proved, but suspicion does seem point towards the FBI, either directly or indirectly.

As the Bari bombing pre-dates both the Ketchum memo and the emergence of LaRouche's smears against Greenpeace, the FBI can make a decent claim to have been the first to label peaceful protesters as 'terrorists'. If so, then it was the culmination of a decade of dirty tricks against Earth First! which included negative propaganda and entrapment - all tactics learnt in the battle against organised labour in the thirties.

As Bari was a former International Workers of the World activist, the attack on her can be seen as either the start of a new phase of the campaign against EF!, or a continuation of an old one against the IWW.

Not that things stopped here. The following year the Director of Greenpeace USA's science unit Pat Costner had her house burnt down, conveniently incinerating a report she was writing about incineration entitled, believe it or not, Playing With Fire.

An attack on a private house is something that McGowan's ELF never did, and whereas the elves were subject to a decade long investigation by a team of detectives, the people who attacked Costner's house were never caught, despite an eye witness spotting two suspicious looking ex-military types looking for her place. before hand.

This then was the background to events in northern California and Oregon when the first disgruntled EF! activists decided to form ELF cells.

Maybe it doesn't really matter who called who a terrorist first. However I suspect it's not just coincidence that people who were first labelled as terrorists ended up becoming victims of state terror themselves.

Further reading: Green Backlash by Andrew Rowell

Update  On 11 December, 2012, McGowan was released to a halfway house in New York City

After The Trees Fell

Two hundred years ago this week Lord Byron made an angry maiden speech in the House of Lords. The target of his ire was the Frame Breaking Act, which gave the government the right to put a noose round a man's neck if he damaged commercial property.

The United States could well do with a Byron now in its upper house, as the documentary If A Tree Falls, shown the other day on BBC4 shows. The film tells the story of the Earth Liberation Front and in particular Daniel McGowan, who faced life, plus three centuries or so, for arson attacks on environmental targets in which nobody was harmed.

McGowan seems a thoughtful sort of chap with a genuine passion for the trees, and you suspect he committed his crimes more in Thoreau than in anger.

He was radicalised in the Earth First! actions of the 1990s in Oregan, including the Cascadia Free State protests.

These actions were the US parallel of our own Road Protest Movement except that whilst we camped in 70 foot Oak Trees within sight of suburban houses, they camped in 700 year old Redwoods in the middle of nowhere. The key difference though was when you locked on in this country the authorities spent an hour chiseling you out, in the States they rubbed pepper spray in your eyes until you begged for mercy.

After being tear gassed in the Battle of Seattle McGowan and some other Earth First! radicals decided to form their own Earth Liberation Front cell to move beyond the hippy sit down protests and into the dubious realm of arson attacks.

It took the police some time to track them down, by which time they'd all moved on and settled down, and the best tip anyone trying anything similar can take from the story is; if you want your secret cell to stay secret a heroin addict with a large pentagram tattooed on his head is not the best choice of co-conspirator.

For activists, a lot can be learnt from the film, from the dangers of taking the law into your own hands to the radicalising power of a policeman's truncheon.

The success of the ELF shows how difficult it is for the authorities to stop small cells of activists. However it also shows the danger of such an approach, as the group torched what they thought was a nursery for GM trees only to find out afterwards it had been sold on to someone else. A broader based group would have found this out.

Arson is an uncontrolled force, as a separate cell found out when a fire meant to destroy a greenhouse of GM crops took out the university library as well.

But the danger wasn't just to innocent bystander's property, the actions of the elves ultimately wiped out the organisations the activists had themselves sprung from. The attacks split the activist community in Eugene and ultimate the ELF themselves, and suddenly an effective protest organisation was no more. Solidarity was eventually in pretty short supply in Oregan.

Finally, to many people, the attacks in many ways ended up justifying the crackdown that had ended the peaceful protests. When the police send someone like Mark Kennedy to infiltrate protesters it is in no small part because they want intelligence on those who may go on to form similar cells.

However history may end up judging McGowan and the ELF a lot less harshly than his peers. Malcolm X was more intolerant and less effective and the Suffragettes more violent and the Luddites outdid both in their time.

The question future generations may well ask is not why did they go so far, but why did the rest of us do so little?

Update  On 11 December, 2012, McGowan was released to a halfway house in New York City

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Top 5 Sword and Sorcery films

I've always been a fan of fantasy films, that is the sort where the heroes use swords and magic you understand, not what you're thinking of.

I can trace this back to being twelve when our evangelical Headmaster banned our Dungeons and Dragons society for being satanic, which caused my anti-authority instincts to kick in.

The trouble is this was the 1980s and there really wasn't many good films of that genre about. I never cared for Conan the Barbarian, or Willow or endless repeats of Hawk the Slayer.

Bizarrely it seems that until special effects allowed the film makers to do things properly you were better supplied with Sword and Sorcery stories on the small screen. Few real films could compare with Robin of Sherwood, or Merlin of the Crystal Cave or Mists of Avalon, not to mention the incomparable Monkey.

In fact lets not mention Monkey, as I can't have been the only one to have been thoroughly confused by fancying Tripitaka, supposedly a boy but played by a very attractive Japanese lady. As I said, that's the wrong sort of fantasy!

Number 5: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)


When I was a lad the only Sword and Sorcery films you ever got on TV watching were the old Ray Harryhausen ones, so one has to kick off this list.

Jason and the Argonauts, the three Sinbad films, Clash of the Titans - I could make a Ray Harryhausen top 5. However instead I'll go for Argonauts as representative of the bunch.

There's actually not a lot to say about the film itself, so lets get straight to the monsters. We have skeletons, a Hydra, Harpies, Poseidon and best of all Talos, who is really a character in his own right.

These days I guess you really can see the join, but when I was young these special effects really were the bees knees. They're still good, and the skeleton battle in particular stands out. Seeing as how you care so little for the human characters it's a shame that all these fantastic creatures have to bite the dust.


Number 4: Time Bandits(1981)

Does Time Bandits count?

Well, there has to be a Terry Gilliam film here somewhere and Jabberwocky isn't good enough, although it does contain a great scene of an anonymous character being picked off by the unseen monster, and Holy Grail properly belongs in the comedy list.

A more serious question is whether it works as a movie. It is certainly episodic and the cameos are far more memorable than the main characters; Ian Holm as Napoleon, Michael Palin as a man who needs fruit, Sean Connery as Agamemnon (and a fireman) and best of all John Cleese as a posh Robin Hood and Sir Ralph Richardson as a very dapper Supreme Being. Sir Ralph had already played The Devil in an Amicus horror movie so this was the completion of a unique double.

Ultimately it's a tremendous amount of fun and the design is fantastic and special effects perfect, which is not something you can say about a lot of fantasy films of the decade.

Number 3: Excalibur (1981)

Making 1981 a significant year for fantasy films, John Boorman's Excalibur was something rather more serious.  


Apparently Boorman really wanted to do Lord of the Rings but instead had to opt for La Morte D'Arthur: The Movie. People at the time laughed at the sight of knights leaping about the place and even siring children whilst dressed from head to foot in full plate armour.

There was nothing impossible about this - they had little chain main flaps to allow access for the child siring bit - but more to the point it was how Malory imagined the stories.

If Nigel Terry's Arthur is a little bland, Nicol Williamson's Merlin more than makes up for it, stainless steel skullcap and all.

Boorman also splices in a bit of paganism in the story of the Fisher King and if the film is crying out for some CGI in places, the Irish scenery, and Wagner and Karl Orff's music, more than compensate.

I remember watching this film at the 1991 Glastonbury festival, my first visit to the part of England most closely associated with the legends, and being struck by the mythic nature of the film. In the last battle Arthur's knights ride out from the fog to fight Mordred, and it is from those Avalonian mists that the film appears to have sprung.

Number 2: The Princess Bride (1987)

Ah, The Princess Bride, a film that is so charming it just grows and grows on you.

I first watched it for a laugh as a stoned student, then watched it again 'for the children' and I'd watch it again tomorrow for myself if it were on.

Considering cheesiness is what defines most eighties fantasy films, it is an achievement that a film about a Princess marrying her one-true-love is remembered for its jokes.

It doesn't just have a few laughs, cinema's best sword fight, numerous quotable lines, an impressive trio of cameos by Billy Crystal, Mel Smith and Peter Cook, cinemas most charming giant (Andre), the wonderful Haddon Hall standing in for Florin and career-best by all the leading players, it also has a heart of pure gold.

Number 1: The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

First lets get things straight - this is one film not three.

Also, Peter Jackson didn't bastardise, ruin or otherwise corrupt Tolkien's story, he trimmed it down to a manageable size and improved it.

Now Tolkien did a number of great things when he wrote Lord of the Rings, he modernised the world's greatest myth cycle, successfully blended a Catholic and pagan world-view and created a timeless realm that appeals equally to hippies, Little Englanders and teenage boys, but he did not write a good book.

Tolkien's writing style could be described as somewhere between soporific and pants. A great storyteller he was not.

Fortunately though he had a great story, and in these films it is improved by Jackson's editing and the performances of a talented ensemble. Special effects now allow the story to be told in all its it majesty, but its not just clever computer work. The design is fabulous too and comes from a team that were genuinely inspired by the story and also by Tolkien, who gave so much depth to his world that they had plenty to go on.

The story is multi layered and you really do need to sit through the extended edition to experience it. The growing bond between Aragorn and Boromir, where the latter pours out his fears and the former slowly comes to accept his destiny, was largely left on the cutting room floor, but is one of the highlights of the first instalment.

Add in a great score and you have the perfect, epic cinema experience; plot, acting, design, effects, direction and music all pitch perfect. Tolkien's book may lack the literary merits to have really earned its numerous awards, but Jackson's film deserved every Oscar it won.

It's been accused of having too many endings, but after twelve hours of viewing you feel you deserve them.

Personally though, I'd have just given the ring to Galadriel.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Will Greece take the neoliberal medicine?


The long and boring crisis of the Euro continuing, with claims that this weekend it's make or break for the currency. However as we've heard this more than once I guess nobody outside of Greece is holding their breath.

The Euro has always been a bit of a political curiosity here in the UK. The whole European Union project has always been somewhat Janus like, with one head facing towards a brotherhood of nations healing the wounds of two hot wars and one cold one, whilst the other points in the direction of the nefarious neoliberal dream.

As a result the Euro has at various times been loved by liberals who ought to know better whilst being simultaneously hated by the right wing Tories who want to privatise everything in sight.

In the end both sides of the project failed as tensions in Europe are at their highest since 1989, if not 1945, whilst the big corporations are looking decidedly wobbly.

The Euro was supposed to propel the EU into the economic fast lane by setting up a market that would be the Monetarist's dream. Capital would flow effortlessly from country to country and the most unproductive and protective southern European enclave would become models of Teutonic efficiency, surfing towards a prosperous, if unequal, future on a wave of cheap credit.

To sum up what went wrong the easiest thing to say is that almost none of the planned benefits appeared whilst almost all of the feared problems emerged. Greek workers were no more efficient than before but now cost as much as Bavarian ones and the taxis in Florence still cost more than those in Frankfurt.

If it hadn't been for the Credit Crunch it would still have gone tits up, but thanks to the events of the last five years the whole thing is now going to hell in a Ferrari rather than a handcart.

If you want to think about where we are now its easiest to imagine a game of domino toppling in which the dominoes get progressively bigger.

First to fall was the US sub-prime mortgage market, in which crafty bankers sold houses to people who could never afford to pay for them using the age old trick of passing off the debt to someone else and running. Until it nearly crashed the entire banking system it was a wicked wease.

Incidentally US Republican candidate Rick Santorum now believes that the banks were forced to do this by a cabal of socialists, despite the fact that there's no evidence that they needed any incentive other than greed and that the famously non-socialist George W Bush was in the White House. That's just too bizarre to be even scary!

Anyway that crashed the US Housing market, which in turn crashed small banks like Northern Rock, which then crashed bigger banks and investment houses like Lehman Brothers and RBS which in turn crashed the economies of small countries like Iceland and Ireland.

The next dominoes are medium sized countries like Greece and Portugal, but before we come to them it's worth looking at what happened to the last dominoes, Iceland and Ireland.

Both were small countries that had seen their economies, previously grounded on farming and fishing, leap into the stratosphere on the back of huge bank lending and a turbo boosted property bubble.

The Irish have a proud history of being Europe's victims. Usually it's of English thuggery, but this time they mugged themselves. In order to stay in the Euro they turned 70 billion Euros of private debt into public debt, shrank their economy by 20% and gave themselves the toughest budget in the state's existence. But, heh, they're still in the Euro and it still costs a fiver for a pint of Guiness in Dublin.

Iceland by contrast is a nation of settled Vikings, that was still pagan when Edward the Confessor was born, which invented Parliamentary democracy and the soap opera. Not the sort of people to riot in the street, they never-the-less protested in their own way when such austerity was threatened.

What followed was interesting. They told the banks they weren't paying and halved the value of their currency. The economy crashed, saving and jobs were wiped out, but the state was still able to protect the vulnerable and state pensions and other benefits actually went up as a proportion of state spending and relative to average incomes. They don't buy so many foreign cars these days, but Whale Watching is doing really well.

The result of these two policies is interesting. the rather crude economic "Index of Misery", which is just the unemployment rate added to the inflation rate, hit 25 for Iceland, but is now less than 10, whilst for Ireland it started at 6 and has now passed 17.

Early days, but the future looks better for the Vikings.

Which brings us back to Greece. A previously rural economy, famous for fish and olive oil, relatively recently freed from an Imperial neighbour, with a glittering pagan past. A democratic pioneer, but with a Misery Index on the wrong side of 20 and rising.

Which path will she take, Ireland or Iceland?

The EU wants them to take the Irish medicine, and it has very good reason to do so. If Greece leaves the EU its debts will convert to Drachma, which means that even if they were paid back all its creditors would be able to buy would be retsina.

Mostly this would affect the French, and whilst the Little Englanders might initially sneer as those garlic munching Europhiles watch their banks disappearing into la merde, it will be our banks next as they're joined at the hip to those across the channel. First to go would be our own Royal Bank of Scotland, which really is our own as I'm a shareholder now, along with every other tax payer in the country. That's why they gave their boss a massive bonus. It's the same reason bomb disposal teams in Afghanistan get combat pay.

Faced with the prospect of a second Credit Crunch, its no surprise then that we're still applying a Neoliberal remedy to Greece and trying to bail them out.

Perhaps the real question though is, why are the Greeks still taking the medicine?