An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

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The Consolidation of a World Power

I left my last post on the history of music at around 1969, which for many independent commentators marks the end of the era of the birth of rock music. The 60s had been a decade of a hundred stories running alongside one another in the music world, each with their own part to play in the vast tapestry of innovation. Jimi Hendrix had risen from an obscure career playing the blues circuit in New York to being an international star, and one moreover who revolutionised what the music world thought about what a guitar could and should do- even before he became an icon of the psychedelic hippie music world, his hard & heavy guitar leads, in stark contrast to the tones of early Beatles’ and 60s pop music had founded rock music’s harder edge. He in turn had borrowed from earlier pioneers, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, The Who (perhaps the first true rock band, given their wild onstage antics and heavy guitar & drumkit-based sound) and Bob Dylan (the godfather of folk rock and the blues-style guitar playing that rock turned into its harder sound), each of whom had their own special stories. However, there was a reason I focused on the story of the hippie movement in my last post- the story of a counter-culture precipitating a musical revolution was only in its first revolution, and would be repeated several times by the end of the century.

To some music nerds however, Henrix’s death aged just 27 (and after just four years of fame) in 1970 thanks to an accidental drug overdose marked the beginning of the end. The god of the guitar was dead, the beautiful voice of Janis Joplin was dead, Syd Barrett had broken up from Pink Floyd, another founding band of the psychedelic rock movement, and was being driven utterly insane by LSD (although he thankfully later managed to pull himself out of the self-destructive cycle and lived until 2006), and Floyd’s American counterparts The Velvet Underground broke up just four years later. Hell, even The Beatles went in 1970.

But that didn’t mean it was the end- far from it. Rock music might have lost some of its guiding lights, but it still carried on regardless- Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, the four biggest British bands of the time, continued to play an active role in the worldwide music scene, Zeppelin and The Who creating a huge fan rivalry. David Bowie was also continuing to show the world the mental ideas hiding beneath his endlessly crisp accent, and the rock world continued to swing along.

However, it was also during this time that a key division began to make itself firmly felt. As rock developed its harder sound during the 1960s, other bands and artists had followed The Beatles’ early direction by playing softer, more lyrical and acoustic sounds, music that was designed to be easy on the ear and played to and for mass appeal. This quickly got itself labelled ‘pop music’ (short for popular), and just as quickly this became something of a term of abuse from serious rock aficionados. Since its conception, pop has always been more the commercial enterprise, motivated less by a sense of artistic expression and experimentation and more by the promise of fame and fortune, which many consider a rather shallow ambition. But, no matter what the age, pop music has always been there, and more often than not has been topping the charts- people often talk about some age in the long distant past as being the ‘best time for music’ before returning to lambast the kind of generic, commercial consumer-generated pop that no self-respecting musician could bring himself to genuinely enjoy and claiming that ‘most music today is rubbish’. They fail to remember, of course, just how much of the same kind of stuff was around in their chosen ‘golden age’, that the world in general has chosen to forget.

Nonetheless, this frustration with generic pop has frequently been a driving force for the generation of new forms of rock, in an attempt to ‘break the mould’. In the early seventies, for example, the rock world was described as tame or sterile, relatively acoustic acts beginning to claim rock status. The Rolling Stones and company weren’t new any more, there was a sense of lacking in innovation, and a sense of musical frustration began to build. This frustration was further fuelled by the ending of the 25-year old post war economic boom, and the result, musically speaking, was punk rock. In the UK, it was The Sex Pistols and The Clash, in the USA The Ramones and similar, most of whom were ‘garage bands’ with little skill (Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols, has frequently admitted that he couldn’t sing in the slightest, and there was a running joke at the time on the theme of ‘Here’s three chords. Now go start a band’) but the requisite emotion, aggression and fresh thinking to make them a musical revolution. Also developed a few years earlier was heavy metal, perhaps the only rock genre to have never had a clearly defined ‘era’ despite having been there, hiding around the back and on the sidelines somewhere, for the past 40 or so years. Its development was partly fuelled by the same kind of musical frustration that sparked punk, but was also the result of a bizarre industrial accident. Working at a Birmingham metal factory in 1965 when aged 17, Black Sabbath guitarist (although they were then known as The Polka Tulk Blues Band) Tony Iommi lost the the ends of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. This was a devastating blow for a young guitarist, but Iommi compensated by easing the tension on his strings and developing two thimbles to cover his finger ends. By 1969, his string slackening had lead him to detune his guitar down a minor third from E to C#, and to include slapping the strings with his fingers as part of his performance. This detuning, matched by the band’s bassist Geezer Butler, was combined with the idea formulated whilst watching the queues for horror movie Black Sabbath that ‘if people are prepared to make money to be scared, then why don’t we write scary music?’, to create the incredibly heavy, aggressive, driving and slightly ‘out of tune’ (to conventional ears) sound of heavy metal, which was further popularised by the likes of Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Motley Crue (sorry, I can’t do the umlauts here).

Over the next few years, punk would slowly fall out of fashion, evolving into harder variations such as hardcore (which never penetrated the public consciousness but would make itself felt some years later- read on to find out how) and leaving other bands to develop it into post-punk; a pattern repeated with other genres down the decades. The 1980s was the first decade to see hip hop come to the fore,  partly in response to the newly-arrived MTV signalling the onward march of electronic, manufactured pop. Hip hop was specifically targeted at a more underground, urban circuit to these clean, commercial sounds, music based almost entirely around a beat rather than melody and allowing the songs to be messed around with, looped, scratched and repeated all for the sake of effect and atmosphere building. From hip hop was spawned rap, party, funk, disco, a new definition of the word DJ and, eventually, even dubstep. The decade also saw rock music really start to ‘get large’ with bands such as Queen and U2 filling football stadiums, paving the way for the sheer scale of modern rock acts and music festivals, and culminating, in 1985, with the huge global event that was Live Aid- not only was this a huge musical landmark, but it fundamentally changed what it meant to be a musical celebrity, and greatly influenced western attitudes to the third world.

By the late 80s and early 90s the business of counter-culture was at it again, this time with anger directed at a range of subjects from MTV tones, the boring, amelodic repetition of rap and the controversial policies of the Reagan administration that created a vast American ‘disaffected youth’ culture. This music partly formulated itself into the thoughtful lyrics and iconic sounds of bands such as REM, but in other areas found its expression and anger in the remnants of punk. Kurt Cobain in particular drew heavy inspiration from ‘hardcore’ bands (see, I said they’d show up again) such as Black Cloud, and the huge popularity of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ thrust grunge, along with many of the other genres blanketed under the title ‘alternative rock’ into the public consciousness (one of my earlier posts dealt with this, in some ways tragic, rise and fall in more detail). Once the grunge craze died down, it was once again left for other bands to formulate a new sound and scene out of the remnants of the genre, Foo Fighters being the most prominent post-grunge band around today. In the UK things went in a little different direction- this time resentment was more reserved to the staged nature of Top of the Pops and the like, The Smiths leading the way into what would soon become indie rock or Britpop. This wave of British bands, such as Oasis, Blur and Suede, pushed back the influx of grunge and developed a prominence for the genre that made the term ‘indie’ seem a bit ironic.

Nowadays, there are so many different great bands, genres and styles pushing at the forefront of the musical world that it is difficult to describe what is the defining genre of our current era. Music is a bigger business than it has ever been before, both in terms of commercial pop sound and the hard rock acts that dominate festivals such as Download and Reading, with every band there is and has ever been forming a part, be it a thread or a whole figure, of the vast musical tapestry that the last century has birthed. It is almost amusing to think that, whilst there is so much that people could and do complain about in our modern world, it’s very hard to take it out on a music world that is so vast and able to cater for every taste. It’s almost hard to see where the next counter-culture will come from, or how their musical preferences will drive the world forward once again. Ah well, we’ll just have to wait and see…

*”It is sweet and right to die for your country”

Patriotism is one of humankind’s odder traits, at least on the face of it. For many hundreds of years, dying in a war hundreds of miles away from home defending/stealing for what were, essentially, the business interests and egos of rich men too powerful to even acknowledge your existence was considered the absolute pinnacle of honour, the ultimate way to bridge the gap between this world and the next. This near-universal image of the valiance of dying for your country was heavily damaged by the first world war, near-crushing “the old lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori*” (to quote Wilfred Owen), but even nowadays soldiers fighting in a dubiously moral war that has killed far more people than the events it was ‘payback’ for are regarded as heroes, their deaths always granted both respect and news coverage (and rightly so). Both the existence and extent of patriotism become increasingly bizarre and prevalent when we look away from the field of conflict; national identity is one of the most hotly argued and defended topics we have, stereotypes and national slurs form the basis for a vast range of insults, and the level of passion and pride in ‘our’ people and teams on the sporting stage is quite staggering to behold (as the recent London 2012 games showed to a truly spectacular degree).

But… why? What’s the point? Why is ‘our’ country any better than everyone else’s, to us at least, just by virtue of us having been born there by chance? Why do we feel such a connection to a certain group of sportspeople, many of whom we might hate as people more than any of their competitors, simply because we share an accent? Why are we patriotic?

The source of the whole business may have its roots in my old friend, the hypothetical neolithic tribe. In such a situation, one so small that everybody knows and constantly interacts with everyone else, then pride in connection with the achievements of one’s tribe is understandable. Every achievement made by your tribe is of direct benefit to you, and is therefore worthy of celebration. Over an extended period of time, during which your tribe may enjoy a run of success, you start to develop a sense of pride that you are achieving so much, and that you are doing better than surrounding others.

This may, at least to a degree, have something to do with why we enjoy successes that are, on the scale of countries, wholly unconnected to us, but nonetheless are done in the name of our extended ‘tribe’. But what it doesn’t explain so well is the whole ‘through thick and thin mentality’- that of supporting your country’s endeavours throughout its failings as well as its successes, of continuing to salvage a vestige of pride even if your country’s name has been dragged through the mud.

We may find a clue to this by, once again, turning our attention to the sporting field, this time on the level of clubs (who, again, receive a level of support and devotion wholly out of proportion to their achievements, and who are a story in their own right). Fans are, obviously, always proud and passionate when their side is doing well- but just as important to be considered a ‘true’ fan is the ability to carry on supporting during the days when you’re bouncing along the bottom of the table praying to avoid relegation. Those who do not, either abandoning their side or switching allegiance to another, are considered akin to traitors, and when the good times return may be ostracized (or at least disrespected) for not having faith. We can apply this same idea to being proud of our country despite its poor behaviour and its failings- for how can we claim to be proud of our great achievements if we do not at least remain loyal to our country throughout its darkest moments?

But to me, the core of the whole business is simply a question of self-respect. Like it or not, our nationality is a huge part of our personal identity, a core segment of our identification and being that cannot be ignored by us, for it certainly will not be by others. We are, to a surprisingly large degree, identified by our country, and if we are to have a degree of pride in ourselves, a sense of our own worth and place, then we must take pride in all facets of our identity- not only that, but a massed front of people prepared to be proud of their nationality in and of itself gives us a reason, or at least part of one, to be proud of. It may be irrational, illogical and largely irrelevant, but taking pride in every pointless achievement made in the name of our nation is a natural part of identifying with and being proud of ourselves, and who we are.

My apologies for the slightly shorter than normal post today, I’ve been feeling a little run down today. I’ll try and make it up next time…

The Pursuit of Speed

Recent human history has, as Jeremy Clarkson constantly loves to point out, been dominated by the pursuit of speed. Everywhere we look, we see people hurrying hither and thither, sprinting down escalators, transmitting data at next to lightspeed via their phones and computers, and screaming down the motorway at over a hundred kilometres an hour (or nearly 100mph if you’re the kind of person who habitually uses the fast lane of British motorways). Never is this more apparent than when you consider our pursuit of a new maximum, top speed, something that has, over the centuries, got ever higher and faster. Even in today’s world, where we prize speed of information over speed of movement, this quest goes on, as evidenced by the team behind the ‘Bloodhound’ SSC, tipped to break the world land speed record. So, I thought I might take this opportunity to consider the history of our quest for speed, and see how it has developed over time.

(I will ignore all unmanned human exploits for now, just so I don’t get tangled up in arguments concerning why a satellite may be considered versus something out of the Large Hadron Collider)

Way back when we humans first evolved into the upright, bipedal creatures we are now, we were a fairly primitive race and our top speed was limited by how fast we could run.  Usain Bolt can, with the aid of modern shoes, running tracks and a hundred thousand people screaming his name, max out at around 13 metres per second. We will therefore presume that a fast human in prehistoric times, running on bare feet, hard ground, and the motivation of being chased by a lion, might hit 11m/s, or 43.2 kilometres per hour. Thus our top speed remained for many thousands of years, until, around 6000 years ago, humankind discovered how to domesticate animals, and more specifically horses, in the Eurasian Steppe. This sent our maximum speed soaring to 70km/h or more, a speed that was for the first time sustainable over long distances, especially on the steppe where horses where rarely asked to tow or carry much. Thus things remained for another goodly length of time- in fact, many leading doctors were of the opinion that travelling any faster would be impossible to do without asphyxiating. However, come the industrial revolution, things started to change, and records began tumbling again. The train was invented in the 1800s and quickly transformed from a slow, lumbering beast into a fast, sleek machine capable of hitherto unimaginable speed. In 1848, the Iron Horse took the land speed record away from its flesh and blood cousin, when a train in Boston finally broke the magical 60mph (ie a mile a minute) barrier to send the record shooting up to 96.6 km/h. Records continued to tumble for the next half-century, breaking the 100 mph barrier by 1904, but by then there was a new challenger on the paddock- the car. Whilst early wheel-driven speed records had barely dipped over 35mph, after the turn of the century they really started to pick up the pace. By 1906, they too had broken the 100mph mark, hitting 205km/h in a steam-powered vehicle that laid the locomotives’ claims to speed dominance firmly to bed. However, this was destined to be the car’s only ever outright speed record, and the last one to be set on the ground- by 1924 they had got up to 234km/h, a record that stands to this day as the fastest ever recorded on a public road, but the First World War had by this time been and gone, bringing with it a huge advancement in aircraft technology. In 1920, the record was officially broken in the first post-war attempt, a French pilot clocking 275km/h, and after that there was no stopping it. Records were being broken left, right and centre throughout both the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, right up until the breakout of another war in 1939. As during WWI, all records ceased to be officiated for the war’s duration, but, just as the First World War allowed the plane to take over from the car as the top dog in terms of pure speed, so the Second marked the passing of the propellor-driven plane and the coming of the jet & rocket engine. Jet aircraft broke man’s top speed record just 5 times after the war, holding the crown for a total of less than two years, before they gave it up for good and let rockets lead the way.

The passage of records for rocket-propelled craft is hard to track, but Chuck Yeager in 1947 became the first man ever to break the sound barrier in controlled, level flight (plunging screaming to one’s death in a deathly fireball apparently doesn’t count for record purposes), thanks not only to his Bell X-1’s rocket engine but also the realisation that breaking the sound barrier would not tear the wings of so long as they were slanted back at an angle (hence why all jet fighters adopt this design today). By 1953, Yeager was at it again, reaching Mach 2.44 (2608km/h) in the X-1’s cousing, the X-1A. The process, however, nearly killed him when he tilted the craft to try and lose height and prepare to land, at which point a hitherto undiscovered phenomenon known as ‘inertia coupling’ sent the craft spinning wildly out of control and putting Yeager through 8G’s of force before he was able to regain control. The X-1’s successor, the X-2, was even more dangerous- despite pushing the record up to first 3050km/h  one craft exploded and killed its pilot in 1953, before a world record-breaking flight reaching Mach 3.2 (3370 km/h), ended in tragedy when a banking turn at over Mach 3 sent it into another inertia coupling spin that resulted, after an emergency ejection that either crippled or killed him, in the death of pilot Milburn G. Apt. All high-speed research aircraft programs were suspended for another three years, until experiments began with the Bell X-15, the latest and most experimental of these craft. It broke the record 5 times between 1961 and 67, routinely flying above 6000km/h, before another fatal crash, this time concerning pilot Major Michael J Adams in a hypersonic spin, put paid to the program again, and the X-15’s all-time record of 7273km/h remains the fastest for a manned aircraft. But it still doesn’t take the overall title, because during the late 60s the US had another thing on its mind- space.

Astonishingly, manned spacecraft have broken humanity’s top speed record only once, when the Apollo 10 crew achieved the fastest speed to date ever achieved by human beings relative to Earth. It is true that their May 1969 flight did totally smash it, reaching 39 896km/h on their return to earth, but all subsequent space flights, mainly due to having larger modules with greater air resistance, have yet to top this speed. Whether we ever will or not, especially given today’s focus on unmanned probes and the like, is unknown. But people, some brutal abuse of physics is your friend today. Plot all of these records on a graph and add a trendline (OK you might have to get rid of the horse/running ones and fiddle with some numbers), and you have a simple equation for the speed record against time. This can tell us a number of things, but one is of particular interest- that, statistically, we will have a man travelling at the speed of light in 2177. Star Trek fans, get started on that warp drive…

Why do we call a writer a bard, anyway?

In Britain at the moment, there are an awful lot of pessimists. Nothing unusual about this, as it’s hardly atypical human nature and my country has never been noted for its sunny, uplifting outlook on life as a rule anyway. Their pessimism is typically of the sort adopted by people who consider themselves too intelligent (read arrogant) to believe in optimism and nice things anyway, and nowadays tends to focus around Britain’s place in the world. “We have nothing world-class” they tend to say, or “The Olympics are going to be totally rubbish” if they wish to be topical.

However, whilst I could dedicate an entire post to the ramblings of these people, I would probably have to violate my ‘no Views’ clause by the end of it, so will instead focus on one apparent inconsistency in their argument. You see, the kind of people who say this sort of thing also tend to be the kind of people who really, really like the work of William Shakespeare.

There is no denying that the immortal Bard (as he is inexplicably known) is a true giant of literature. He is the only writer of any form to be compulsory reading on the national curriculum and is known of by just about everyone in the world, or at least the English-speaking part. He introduced between 150 and 1500 new words to the English language (depending on who you believe and how stringent you are in your criteria) as well as countless phrases ranging from ‘bug-eyed monster’ (Othello) to ‘a sorry sight’ (Macbeth), wrote nearly 40 plays, innumerable sonnets and poems, and revolutionised theatre of his time. As such he is idolised above all other literary figures, Zeus in the pantheon of the Gods of the written word, even in our modern age. All of which is doubly surprising when you consider how much of what he wrote was… well… crap.

I mean think about it- Romeo and Juliet is about a romance that ends with both lovers committing suicide over someone they’ve only known for three days, whilst Twelfth Night is nothing more than a romcom (in fact the film ‘She’s the Man’ turned it into a modern one), and not a great one at that. Julius Caesar is considered even by fans to be the most boring way to spend a few hours in known human history, the character of Othello is the dopiest human in history and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about some fairies falling in love with a guy who turns into a donkey. That was considered, by Elizabethans, the very height of comedic expression.

So then, why is he so idolised? The answer is, in fact, remarkably simple: Shakespeare did stuff that was new. During the 16th century theatre hadn’t really evolved from its Greek origins, and as such every play was basically the same. Every tragedy had the exact same formulaic plot line of tragic flaw-catharsis-death, which, whilst a good structure used to great effect by Arthur Miller and the guy who wrote the plot for the first God of War game, does tend to lose interest after 2000 years of ceaseless repetition. Comedies & satyrs had a bit more variety, but were essentially a mixture of stereotypes and pantomime that might have been entertaining had they not been mostly based on tired old stories, philosophy and mythology and been so unfunny that they required a chorus (who were basically a staged audience meant to show how the audience how to react). In any case there was hardly any call for these comedies anyway- they were considered the poorer cousins to the more noble and proper tragedy, amusing sideshows to distract attention from the monotony of the main dish. And then, of course, there were the irreversibly fixed tropes and rules that had to be obeyed- characters were invariably all noble and kingly (in fact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the idea of a classical tragedy of the common man was entertained at all) and spoke with rigid rhythm, making the whole experience more poetic than imitative of real life. The iambic pentameter was king, the new was non-existent, and there was no concept whatsoever that any of this could change.

Now contrast this with, say, Macbeth. This is (obviously) a tragedy, about a lord who, rather than failing to recognise a tragic flaw in his personality until right at the very end and then holding out for a protracted death scene in which to explain all of it (as in a Greek tragedy), starts off a good and noble man who is sent mental by a trio of witches. Before Shakespeare’s time a playwright could be lynched before he made such insulting suggestions about the noble classes (and it is worth noting that Macbeth wasn’t written until he was firmly established as a playwright), but Shakespeare was one of the first of a more common-born group of playwrights, raised an actor rather than aristocrat. The main characters may be lords & kings it is true (even Shakespeare couldn’t shake off the old tropes entirely, and it would take a long time for that to change), but the driving forces of the plot are all women, three of whom are old hags who speak in an irregular chanting and make up heathen prophecies. Then there is an entire monologue dedicated to an old drunk bloke, speaking just as irregularly, mumbling on about how booze kills a boner, and even the main characters get in on the act, with Macbeth and his lady scrambling structureless phrases as they fairly shit themselves in fear of discovery. Hell, he even managed to slip in an almost comic moment of parody as Macbeth compares his own life to that of a play (which, of course, it is. He pulls a similar trick in As You Like It)

This is just one example- there are countless more. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first examples of romance used as the central driving force of a tragedy, The Tempest was the Elizabethan version of fantasy literature and Henry V deserves a mention for coming up with some of the best inspirational quotes of all time. Unsurprisingly, whilst Shakespeare was able to spark a revolution at home, other countries were rocked by his radicalism- the French especially were sharply divided into two camps, one supporting this theatrical revolution (such as Voltaire) and the other vehemently opposing it. It didn’t do any good- the wheels had been set in motion, and for the next 500 years theatre and literature continued (and continues) to evolve at a previously unprecedented rate. Nowadays, the work of Shakespeare seems to us as much of a relic as the old Greek tragedies must have appeared to him, but as theatre has moved on so too has our expectations of it (such as, for instance, jokes that are actually funny and speech we can understand without a scholar on hand). Shakespeare may not have told the best stories or written the best plays to our ears, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t the best playwright.

Awkward questions

I have previously on the blog delved into the moral implications of murder and other such despicable crimes- I would put a link in, but I have no desire to send an otherwise innocent audience into reading what ended up being a retarded, unjustified tirade by someone who really wished he had planned his writing beforehand. Today, murder will once again be on the agenda, but contrasted against another, equally if not more distasteful, crime- sexual assault.

My most recent encounter of the whole “Rape v Murder” thing came from a gaming (yes, gaming again) perspective, asking the question ‘why is it considered so inappropriate and such taboo to include rape in a game when the majority of games are centred around killing and murder?’. However, today I wish to take some arguments I have encountered on the subject and contrast them to another fact surrounding the two issues- judicial sentencing.

In English Law, murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment (in one of its various legal names), with the average offender serving 14 years behind bars. By contrast, the maximum sentence for sexual assault is just 10 years (although it can be, depending on situation, far less than that) and their name on the sex offenders register- a comparatively balmy punishment.

This may seem a fair cop according to the ‘traditional’ idea of ‘murder is the worst thing anyone can do ever at all’- but is that in fact really the case?

Let us consider the facts. One point certainly in that idea’s favour is the simple fact that murder is, by its very nature, pretty damn terminal- the perpetrator cannot seek forgiveness from his victim, pay back his debt and agree that a terrible mistake was made but it’s alright now. Once it’s done, it’s done, and no amount of advancement in medical technology is ever likely to change that. There is also the huge breadth of its impact- one life attaches to a lot of others and is thus especially noticeable when it suddenly disappears, leaving a gaping void unfilled that touches the lives of many. By contrast, rape tends to be a crime against an individual whose resulting repercussions may not extend much further than them, particularly given the fact that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

However, to contrast against this we have huge swathes of modern life & culture- soldiers and the action-hero protagonists of many films & games are among the most idolised heroes of our age, despite the fact that they are professional killers. In these situations, those of war both real and fictional, against a country or a faceless, nameless power, the killing of the enemy is seen as a regrettable but justifiable loss given the circumstances at least, and as deserved, purposeful justice against ‘the bad guys’ at the other end of things. Then, of course, we consider that not all murders are premeditated acts of viciousness. Some policemen can tell story after story of young kids, always dipping in and out of trouble, who end up hanging around with the wrong group of friends. It can be easy for them to pick up a gun, pick up a knife, for them to get scared and panicky and have 5 seconds of madness. All more accidental than anything, but it means that some are almost deserving of sympathy. And then there is the very nature of death. It is the one universal constant, transcending race, gender, wealth, lifestyle, career, everything- as Robert Alton Harris quipped on his way to the  San Quentin gas chamber ‘You can be a king, or a street-sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper’. Death comes to everyone eventually, and as such we spend large proportions of our lives learning to accept it. Murder is not just sometimes either justifiable, unintentional or both, but it is in some ways nothing more than an acceleration of the natural order of things.

Contrast that to sexual assault, which is an entirely different prospect. Yes, it may not be as terminal as murder, but the psychological effects can and more often than not do last a lifetime- a murder victim does not have to relive the experience in their nightmares. Rape also does not, of course come to us all (although the number of women who are estimated to have been sexually assaulted over the course of their lifetime is quite alarming, even in the developed world), and men’s risk of it is almost as close to zero as it is possible. It is not as universal as death, and in that way is particularly unfair- victims are target specifically because of their gender & appearance, singled out from the crowd and made to think forever afterwards ‘why me’? This individuality is also experienced in the action’s consequences- because no obvious physical damage is usually done, the memory or even knowledge of the incident is often absent from even those closest to the victim after a relatively short space of time, leaving them feeling alone and abandoned inside the maze of their own mental distress. And then… there is something fundamentally and premeditatively evil about sexual assault. It is not something that can be done by accident over the space of a mad, panicked 10 seconds- it is not something that can be done by accident, or justified in anyway. There is never a ‘them or me’ situation, it is never ‘for the greater good’. There is no good reason for doing so that shows adequate respect towards the human race- it is simply always wrong.

So then- why does sexual assault carry such a lesser punishment than murder, if both are morally equally despicable at best? Some have suggested it is to appease the families of murder victims, others that the legal system is out of touch- but in fact the reason is a lot more practical than that. If murder and rape both carried (say) life sentences, then there would be no reason for a rapist not to kill his victim afterwards in order to bury the evidence- therefore by having a higher sentence for murder, the legal system is trying to save the lives of rape victims. Is the system just? Perhaps not. Does it work? In this context, certainly.

The story of Curveball

2012 has been the first year for almost as long as public conciousness seems able to remember that the world has not lived under the shadow of one of the most controversial and tumultuous events of the 21st century- the Iraq war. From 2003 to December 2011, the presence and deaths of western soldiers in Iraq was an ever-present and constantly touchy issue, and it will be many years before Iraq recovers from the war’s devastating effects.

Everybody knows the story of why the war was started in the first place- the US government convinced the rest of the world that Iraq’s notoriously brutal and tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein (who had famously gassed vast swathes of Iraq’s Kurdish population prior to his invasion of Kuwait and the triggering of the First Gulf War) was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The main reason for the US government’s fears was, according to the news of the time, the fact that Hussein had refused UN weapons inspectors to enter and search the country. Lots of people know, or at least knew, this story. But much fewer know the other story- the story of how one man was able to, almost single-handedly, turn political posturing into a full-scale war.

This man’s name is Rafid Ahmed Alwan, but he was known to the world’s intelligence services simply as ‘Curveball’. Alwan is an Iraqi-born chemical engineer, who in 1999 fled to Germany, having embezzled government money. He then claimed that he had worked on an Iraqi project to design and produce mobile labs to produce biological weapons. Between late 1999 and 2001, German intelligence services interrogated him, granted him political asylum, and listened to his descriptions of the process. They were even able to create 3-D models of the facilities being designed, to a level of detail that CIA scientists were later able to identify major technical flaws in them. Despite the identification of such inconsistencies, when Curveball’s assertions that Iraq was indeed trying to produce biological WMD’s got into the hands of US intelligence, they went straight to the top. US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to Curveball’s evidence in a 2003 speech to the UN on the subject of Iraq’s weapons situation, and his evidence, despite its flaws, pretty much sealed the deal for the USA. And where the US goes, the rest of the world tends to follow.

Since then, Curveball has, naturally, come under a lot of criticism. Accused of being an alcoholic, a ‘congenital liar’ and a ‘con artist’, he is quite possibly the world record holder for the most damaging ‘rogue source’ in intelligence history. Since he first made his claims, the amount of evidence showing how completely and utterly false they were has only stacked up- a facility he attested was a docking station was found to have an immovable brick wall in front of it, his designs were completely technically unsound, and his claims that he had finished top of his class at Baghdad University and had been drafted straight into the weapons program were replaced by the fact that he had finished bottom of his class and had, as he admitted in 2011, made the whole story up.

But, of course, by far the biggest source of hatred towards Curveball has been what his lies snowballed into- the justification of one of the western world’s least proud and most controversial events- the Second Iraq War. The cost of the war has been estimated to be in the region of two trillion dollars, and partly as a result of disruption to Iraqi oil production the price of oil has nearly quadrupled since the war began. The US and its allies have come under a hail of criticism for their poor planning of the invasion, the number of troops required and the clean up process, which was quite possibly entirely to blame for the subsequent 7 years of insurgent warfare after the actual invasion- quite apart from  some rather large questions surrounding the invasion’s legality in the first place. America has also taken a battering to its already rather weathered global public image, losing support from some of its traditional allies, and the country of Iraq has, despite having had an undoubtedly oppressive dictatorship removed, become (rather like Afghanistan) a far more corrupt, poverty-stricken, damaged and dangerous society than it was even under Hussein- it will take many years for it to recover. Not only that, but there is also evidence to suggest that the anger caused by the Western invasion has been played for its PR value by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, actually increasing the terrorism threat. But worse than all of that has been the human cost- estimates of the death toll range from 87,000 to over a million, the majority of whom have been civilian casualties from bomb attacks (courtesy of both sides). All parties have also been accused of sanctioning torture and of various counts of murder of civilians.

But I am not here to point fingers or play the blame game- suffice it to say that the main loser in the war has been humanity. The point is that, whilst Curveball cannot be said to be the cause of the war, or even the main one, the paper trail can be traced right back to him as one of the primary trigger causes. Just one man, and just a few little lies.

Curveball has since said that he was (justifiably) shocked that his words were used as justification for the war, but, crucially, that he was proud that what he had said had toppled Hussein’s government. When asked in an interview about all the death and pain the war he had sparked had caused, he was unable to give an answer.

This, for me, was a both shocking and deeply interesting moral dilemma. Hussein was without a doubt a black mark on the face of humanity, and in the long run I doubt that Iraq will be worse off as a democracy than it was under his rule. But that will not be for many years, and right now Iraq is a shadow of a country.

Put yourself in Curveball’s position- somebody who thought his words could bring down a dictator, a hate figure, and who then could only watch as the world tore itself apart because of them. Could you live with that thought? Were your words worth their terrible price? Could your conscience ever sleep easy?