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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Just Finished Reading: A Brief History of Britain (1660 – 1851) The Making of the Nation by William Gibson (FP: 2010)

This is the third in the series of the History of Britain and covers the period I probably know least about – basically from the Civil War(s) to the height of the Victorian Age. But it’s not nothing much happened in this period. Quite the opposite in fact! We start with the Restoration of the Monarchy (after the death of Cromwell), recovery from the Civil War(s), the Glorious Revolution, The Regency Period and finally the crowning of Victoria. Whilst all that was happening we had the world’s first Industrial Revolution, successfully fought wars with the Dutch (gaining New York previously New Amsterdam), the French and the Spanish and acquiring a global Empire almost by accident. We also trembled in our boots during the French Revolution in case it happened here to and, of course, lost our American Colonies. We also hosted our very own version of the European Enlightenment and made great strides towards becoming a Democracy. During this period Britain became much more recognisable as a truly modern nation with all of the attributes and institutions you would expect. The final bracketing date – 1851 – signified Britain’s growing confidence on the world stage with the Great Exhibition of that year held at the newly built Crystal Palace.

Oddly, not being a royalist in any way, I found the royal succession to be one of the most interesting aspects of this era especially when Parliament got rather anxious over the idea of a potential Catholic monarch and decided to choose a King more to their liking by basically inviting in the Dutch William of Orange and his wife to please rule over us! As it was a pretty peaceful affair as these things go it earned its name of the Glorious Revolution – it was in fact pretty much a coup. Of course later on we decided to bring in The Elector of Hanover to be our King who was crowned as George I ushering in the German line of the present monarchy which was strengthened by Victoria marrying Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whose ancestors later changed their name to Windsor because it sounded more patriotic and rather less, you know, German).

As you might imagine it’s difficult to condense 190 years of history into a few paragraphs. Luckily the author (who, as far as I know, has no relation to the SF author of the same name) had 345 pages to do the period more justice. But as always with such things much of the detail is missing and only the highlights get any kind of wordage. Despite this he did get me interested in an age I am now somewhat more familiar with and I’ll be following up some of the topics covered by him. You’ll probably already be aware that I have a long time interest in the Industrial Revolution but I’ll see if I can dig a bit more up about some of the political aspects of the age as working people, and women, began finding their own voices and their political ‘feet’. Much more British History to come.

Monday, April 21, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Inception

As always when we left the cinema after seeing Inception my friends turned to me and asked me what I thought of it. I remember answering in two words: wonderfully ambiguous – and so it was. The plot is hellishly complex and you really need to be on your toes to keep up with things. It all centres on Cobb (played brilliantly by Leonardo Dicaprio) who is desperate to return home to the US and his children but unable to do so after being accused of killing his wife Mal (played by the wonderfully talented Marion Cotillard). After failing in an extraction – basically industrial espionage inside someone else’s head – he’s made an offer he simply can’t refuse by the man he’s just tried to rob (Mr Saito played by Ken Watanabe). The offer is deceptively simple – insert an idea into someone’s mind and make him believe that it’s his own idea: Inception. A method that Cobb knows to work because he successfully planted such an idea inside the mind of his wife, the deceptively simple and equally deadly idea that ‘this world isn’t real’ which leads to tragic consequences and Cobb’s present predicament. Assembling a team to undertake this difficult mission Cobb needs to recruit a new dream architect (Ariadne played by the ever cute Ellen Page) who becomes aware that Cobb’s hold on reality is slipping and that the sub-conscious energy of his dead wife could kill them all.

Of course the synopsis above really doesn’t do any justice at all to my favourite film of 2010 by far. Not only was this film very intelligent it made little effort to mollycoddle the audience and instead treated them like adults with enough imagination to keep up with the increasingly complex and convoluted narrative. I know at least one of my friends lost the plot and had some definite WTF moments especially when the action became a dream within a dream within a dream and proceeded to move between all three states and back again. I kept up but there were times that I really had to concentrate there! This is mostly definitely not a movie you could watch, pop out for a hot dog, and expect to pick up the storyline as if you had never left (use that pause button on the DVD if you need the loo or a drink – trust me!). But apart from the wonderful way this whole movie was filmed – jaw droppingly good in places – there are two main reasons why I love this movie so much. Firstly is the originality of the whole thing. The script is brilliant and the acting is equal to the challenge. Indeed the only person who seemed to be acting at any point was Ellen Page. Everyone else was seamlessly part of the plot especially Dicaprio (I was seriously impressed by him in this movie) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I thought gave Dicaprio a run for his money).

But above everything else was the whole idea of the nature of reality. Not long after the movie came out there was much discussion about whether or not the whole movie was in fact inside a dream – presumably Cobbs’. After several viewings I come down firmly on that side. There are numerous examples of characters in the movie (or bits of his subconscious) telling him to ‘wake up’, ‘come back to reality’, ‘stop fooling himself’ and so on. There are so many references to the unreality of the situation – often quite subtle – that if you look for them they crop up everywhere: just like in a dream. Then, of course, there’s the ending. Cobb needs to know (does he suspect) if this is real or just a dream – and we’re never allowed to find out, hence the wonderful ambiguity. But think on this – Several characters tell Ariadne that she must use a device she made herself (or uses exclusively) to tell her if what she is experiencing is real – and yet Cobb uses his wife’s totem……. I do so love to read between the lines in movies like this. The construction of the whole thing is a work of genius and is a practically faultless film. It’s not often that I use words like that. Brilliant.  

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Thinking About: Individuality

Our culture idolises the individual in books, movies and music. The hero, alone, different, superior, triumphs over the mass, the mob, the group every time. He (or more rarely she) is iconic and held up to be praised and emulated. The heroic individual (who is, rather ironically, usually an outcast in one way of another) is the one who produces the answer to whatever challenge is presented to us, be it a monster, a disaster, an invading force, the workings of twisted politicians or just the run-of-the-mill evil bad guy. It is the individual, initially dismissed as a crank or worse, who follows their own individual instincts (after being warned not to or simply being laughed at and ignored from then on) who puzzles things out, builds the outlandish weapon, tracks the creature to its lair or discovers the alien/creatures hidden weakness (which is often pretty mundane) and saves the day against all expectation and prediction. Initially feted for doing so they are often then ignored or shunned again because they are simply too different or, at least sometimes, welcomed into the fold – thereby implicitly losing their individuality at that point – once things have become normal again.

Of course that’s one of the great ambiguities of the hero – both idolised and isolated, or accepted and, by extension, destroyed. Yet we are expected not only to look up to the hero of the piece but also to emulate them. We are told, both explicitly and implicitly, that it is the individual that saves the day whilst the group flounders in argument, confusion and in-fighting. Working alone, to their own agenda, the individual is free of all of this. The hero’s doubts are their own and are not compounded by the doubts and failings of others. Flawed, they are still free to act in ways that the group, the herd, the mass cannot or will not. This is their strength and why they are heroes in the first place. They can act, decisively, to end whatever crisis is in front of them.

Meanwhile, in the real world, things are not exactly so clear cut. Despite individualism being apparently so highly valued at a cultural level it is usually viewed as at the very least odd and at the extreme seen at best as challenging or even dangerous. People who flaunt their individuality are, more often than not, outcasts. They, quite obviously, don’t fit in. They’re not ‘team players’, they’re not ‘with the programme’, they’re disruptive, asking difficult questions, challenging decisions, even shockingly, undemocratic. Generally such people are laughed at (or at least sniggered at behind their backs – if not to their faces), talked about in derogatory fashion, wondered about, pointed at, questioned, ignored, marginalised, discriminated against and, from time to time, hounded, expelled, exiled or, given the right set of historical circumstances, eliminated.

As you can imagine this is all rather confusing. How can individuals be both lionised and feared, extoled and exterminated? Is it that our culture, for thousands of years, has a deeply dualistic nature? That we want people to be individuals but only within the safety of groups? Are only culturally approved versions of the individual allowed and anyone who steps outside of those bounds to be punished for being just too individualistic? It would seem to be that way. Unless it’s designed to be this confusing. Are we being encouraged to be ourselves only so that we can be punished for it? It that the real reason behind the deep gulf behind culture and reality? Are individuals so dangerous to society that they must be controlled through this kind of social-cultural double think – be an individual but don’t express it too much? Being careful not to cross the line – which you aren’t told about until you cross it – whilst being encouraged to do just that? Is our cultures portrayal of the individual just yet another means of control? Is it worth the effort being a wolf when you can lose yourself in the herd of compliant, peaceful, seemingly happy sheep?