Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Why I Like The Movie Of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003)

I was reading last month that the movie, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003), ended Sean Connery's movie acting career.  The fact that he was 73 at the time and commanded a fee of US$17 million (equivalent to £10.9 million at current exchange rates) per movie, may be other feasible explanations.  A multi-millionaire tax exile, Connery is known to have strong views on who he works.  Certainly, director Stephen Norrington and Connery did no get along well in making this movie.  Norrington also retired from movies following the release of this one.  The movie took US$179 million (£115 million) across the world. Added to this has been a further US$48 million (£30 million) from video and DVD rentals and sales.  Yet, you read it was a 'flop'.  I think this is, partly, because it garnered poor reviews from the media, though I would have anticipated that even before it was released. 

I have been reading how actors found 'The Matrix' difficult to understand even though school children I know have no difficulty with the concept of people being downloaded into computer systems.  We know from the example of the 'Fatherland' (1994) movie how audiences dislike movies which mess around with history.  They are often not certain of what really happened, so feel uneasy when this is subverted.  'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is both a counter-factual and a steampunk movie.  Outside Japan, steampunk is not familiar to the general movie-watching public, so this movie was always going to face difficulties in being accepted.  In turn, however, it was also going to battle with finding support among a 'cult' audience, partly because they always expect very close adherence to the original novel/graphic novel in any movie adaptation.  Similar problems were encountered producing the 'Watchmen' movie (2009) based on Alan Moore/Patrick Wilson's graphic novel (1986/7) of the same name.  Like 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (1999-2009) graphic novels, 'Watchmen' was authored by Moore and had counter-factual elements.

Alan Moore always distances himself from any movies made of the graphic novels he has authored.  Moore responded as equally negatively to the 'V for Vendetta' (2006) movie.  Kevin O'Neill, the illustrator of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' graphic novels, argued that 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' movie failed because it was too far from the original source material.  Moore and O'Neill seem ignorant of the fact that no movie can be like a novel.  Directors are very constrained by the expectations of their audiences, as channelled through producers and movie-making companies, and, as noted above, the expectation especially in the USA is for movies which are eye-catching but do not seriously challenge the audience intellectually. 

Things which can be explored in a graphic novel, especially with illustrations as detailed as Moore/O'Neill's work, would be very bitty and messy in a movie.  Authors seem to believe that their ideas will work in any media, but this is unlikely to be the case and they have to yield to a whole different set of constraints: to expect anything else is very naive.  Novels of any kind can conjure up entire universes and refer easily in passing to many background elements that it can be very difficult to introduce into a movie without seriously disrupting it, or at best, slowing the pace of the movie to an extent which loses audience.  This has been recognised at least since '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) if not longer. It seems that many authors, even of graphic novels which have a 'cinematic' aspect to them, do not really comprehend, not only the 'language of film' but also what limits there are to its 'vocabulary' and 'grammar' when people are trying to make money out the movies they produce.

It does seem that Moore has great difficulty with the whole movie industry.  He was angered by the case brought by Larry Cohen and Martin Poll against 20th Century Fox who had made 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen'.  Cohen and Poll argued that the movie had plagiarised their work called 'Cast of Characters' which they had offered to Fox in the mid-1990s.  The case was settled out of court.  Moore felt he personally was being challenged by Cohen and Poll and wanted a court case to exonerate himself of plagiarism.  He missed the entire point.  First, the case was not brought against him, even though his graphic novel came after their proposal.  Second, Hollywood finds difficulty in really engaging with good stories; see my posting:  Consequently as they have often done with other good styles/characters they scrabbled around for a plotline to hang that setting/characters on.  Hence, they used that of Cohen and Poll, which, featuring some of the same characters as Moore's work, would have seemed ideal.  Again, this is more about the state of how the US movie industry and its prime audience (Americans) sees the right way to make a (financially) successful movie.

Of course, Cohen, Poll, Moore and O'Neill, had all raided a lot of other people's work, who in fact, seem to get no attribution anywhere.  The graphic novel of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' features, amongst others, characters such as Allan Quatermain based on the Allan Quatermain of the novels of H. Rider Haggard (published 1885-1927), Wilhelmina 'Mina' Harker from Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' (1897); Captain Nemo from 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea' (1870) and 'The Mysterious Island' (1894) by Jules Verne; Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde from 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1886) by Robert Louis Stephenson and Dr. Hawley Griffin from 'The Invisible Man' by H.G. Wells (1897). 

The graphic novels of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' make a point of taking characters from numerous Victorian and 20th century novels and yet, Moore/O'Neill seem to feel that the characters have become theirs rather than being the property of the original authors. O'Neill laughably complained that he did not recognise the characters as portrayed in the movie script; I wonder if Verne, Stoker, Stephenson, Haggard, et al, would recognise their characters at all in Moore/O'Neill's work?  Even the title of the graphic novel was borrowed from 'The League of Gentlemen' (1960 movie; from 1958 novel of the same name by John Boland). This preciousness about the graphic novels helped damp cult following of the movie.

A particular criticism of the movie is that characterisation is shallow.  This is again a laughable complaint.  Movies are far shorter than people think and lack time to fill in characters, especially as in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' in which there are so many lead characters.  In the movie, in addition to the characters listed above, there is also Dorian Gray who is pictured in the graphic novel, but is not a character.  Gray comes from 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (1890) by Oscar Wilde. 

To appeal to the US audience and to have a character who is younger, Tom Sawyer is also featured; he appeared in four novels by Mark Twain published 1876-96.  Sawyer in the movie is shown as being 18, though if in 'Tom Sawyer, Detective' (1896) set in 1896 and showing Sawyer as 17, then by 1899 when 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is set he should be at least 20.  The League's opponent in the original graphic novel was Fu Manchu, but such stereotypical, dated portrayals of Chinese would have gone down poorly in the 21st century.  Consequently, in the movie, he is replaced by Professor James Moriarty from a number of Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though he also referred to early on in the movie as 'M' a reference to James Bond's boss.  His use of the disguise of the 'Phantom', described by Quatermain as 'operatic', references the phantom of the opera in Gaston Leroux's 'Le Fantôme de l'Opéra' (1909-10).

The movie, then, has to sketch in eight major characters with Rodney Skinner replacing Dr. Hawley Griffin as an invisible man after Fox were unable to secure the rights to Wells's character.  Of course, there is a benefit that many of the audience would know these characters from other movies and the various novels.  Some will know them from the graphic novels (I have read all of these), though despite O'Neill's complaints against the movie, their characters are not particularly well developed in those stories either (graphic novels, like movies, lack the space novels have to develop characters, except over sustained editions). 

I think the movie presents a very exotic bunch of characters and in the limited space shows not only their personalities and some of their difficulties with their particular traits, but also the tensions between them. In an action movie with such a large ensemble I would not expect there to be time for much more; compare it to 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960) which similarly has seven heroes and one opponent to detail. Quatermain (who in the original novels died in 1885) is weary of his adventuring life and is patronising to Harker as a young woman. Jekyll fears being controlled by the beast of Hyde and this generates friction especially with Nemo, though the respect between the two grows. Nemo is shown as a worshipper of Kali and is described as a pirate, reflecting his anti-hero standing in the novels.  Despite being an Indian (a Hindu but dressing more like a Sikh), he is accepted by the white characters in a way that may have been unlikely in genuine 1899, though given that all the characters can be seen as 'outsiders' they may have muddled along.  Gray is a hedonistic snob who has had an intimate encounter with Harker, but whilst out for himself, seems also vulnerable given that Moriarty holds his painting.  Skinner is the one looked down upon and suspected, reflecting the real class divisions of the time; he is a burglar anyway, but he seems to be along for the adventure. 

The character with least substance in the movie is Sawyer who seems to be an insensitive American, rather arrogant towards European ways and foolishly being brash about Quatermain's personal losses and over-confident in believing he can seduce Harker; hardly a positive character.  He also wastes bullets in the way Americans are renowned for doing in numerous novels and movies.  This was always going to be a challenge for this movie in the USA: it is full of middle-aged European characters.

I like the movie because it quickly gives us a variety of characters that are different from the usual run of heroes and I think everyone has their favourite.  It is nice to see a movie without too many of the stereotypes of Hollywood action movies, though Connery comes close in his portrayal to many of his other roles.  The fist fight in his club in Kenya at the start of the movie reminds very much of his fist fight when his character goes to prison in 'Family Business' (1989) and his fight in a bar using just one of his thumbs in 'The Presidio' (1988).  Mr. Hyde appears very similarly running across Parisian rooftops as he does in 'Van Helsing' (2004) even down to the bloated upper body.  However, in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' he is captured (as in the graphic novel) rather than killed as he is by Van Helsing. 

In the movie there is ambivalence (in contrast to the graphic novel) as to whether the League is genuine or simply been created by Moriarty.  In the novel it is real and has been subverted by him so he can get his hands on cavorite (the material used in 'The First Men in the Moon' (1901) by H.G. Wells to propel Dr. Cavor's spaceship to the Moon) stolen by Fu Manchu. In the movie it is to get elements of the various members of the league to sell to the rapidly arming powers of Europe.  This fear, that individuals were seeking to profiteer from the clear steps towards war of the 1890s-1910s by fostering these developments, featured in novels of the time, such as 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915).

The world portrayed in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' both the movie and graphic novels, is not our world.  It is a steampunk world, i.e. with anachronistic and fantastical machinery present.  However, the portrayal of cities of the movie is even more distinct.  In the shots of London in July 1899 only horse-drawn vehicles are shown, but, in fact, the car, though rare, had appeared; by 1911 there were 240,000 cars in the UK.  Of course, none of them would have looked like the 1930s-style limousine (especially one with a hard roof rather than one of canvas or leather) used by Captain Nemo, but he would not have had to introduce intelligent people like the rest of the league to the word 'automobile' which had been in use in US newspapers since 1897.

The streets of East London where Dorian Gray lives and, especially, those of Venice shown later, are fantastical versions of these locations.  Venice from the air resembles the city in our world, but its size as a whole and the width of the roads running through it are both far larger than in our world.  You certainly could not raise a submarine in any of the canals and in reality the city has only one enclosed bridge crossing the canals, the famous Bridge of Sighs.  Leonardo Da Vinci produced maps of Imola and the Chiana Valley, but his plan of the foundations of Venice is a fictional McGuffin for the movie.  Thus, despite the huge hangar of Zeppelins in Berlin, we see a world where there are greater advances in technology (throughout history, given Da Vinci's work shown) but which have been kept by the privileged.

Like many steampunk stories, the technology that Moriarty and Nemo use, has simply been brought back in time by twenty-thirty years.  The tank used to attack the Bank of England is very characteristic of those used on the Western Front by the British from 1915 onwards, though it is manned by soldiers dressed in the uniforms adopted by the Germans in the middle of the First World War (when the spikes were no longer put on the helmets).  The uniforms of the men guarding the bank are typical of British soldiers on the Western Front during the war, notably the particular style of helmets.  Interestingly the Metropolitan police officers outside, wear the capes of Parisian police rather than the longer British style.  The radio signal that Nemo follows to track Moriarty to the Amur river on the border between Russia and China, had been public demonstrated in the mid-1890s and transatlantic signals were demonstrated in 1902, though with some possibly successful attempts preceding this, thus this technology is not too advanced.  The 'Nautilus' itself is probably larger even than a modern day submarine, but the missile it fires locking on to a radio signal, even just a couple of kilometres across Venice was not seen in our world until anti-ship missiles introduced by the Germans in 1943. 

We see flamethrowers used by Moriarty's men.  Flamethrowers date back to the 7th century CE but in their modern form were first demonstrated to the German army in 1901, so not out of step with the movie.  We also see assault rifles used by Moriarty's men in the movie.  The Italian Army had been experimenting with them as early as 1890; the Russian Army issued assault rifles in 1915 and through the First World War the French Army developed what can be seen as assault rifles in large numbers.  So, again, this is not an unfeasible development.  Nemo's crew have even more advanced weapons, using silver engraved versions of the British sten gun submachine gun produced from 1941 onwards in our world, though, of course, never as elegantly as the weapons Nemo's men have.  His own pistol is something unique that I cannot identify having an actual parallel.  The Winchester rifle used by Tom Sawyer is presumably an 1894 version as from 1895 onwards they were produced with magazines rather than rounds being held in a tube under the barrel; these were sold in a variety of calibres and 7 million of these rifles had been sold by 2006.  Quatermain's 'Matilda' is a so-called double rifle.  These guns are custom made and hand-fitted.  It may be a Holland & Holland, 'express' rifle firing often hollow or explosive tipped rounds; typically of .450 calibre aimed at stopping big game animals.  Such guns, with the two triggers as shown in the movie, had been around right through the Victorian period.

Though no submarine was the size of the 'Nautilus', they had been used during the American Civil War of 1862-5 and the first British submarine was launched in 1901, so the concept would not have been alien.  One interesting thing about the 'Nautilus' is that it uses solar power to charge its batteries for undersea travel.  In both world wars submarines tended to travel on the surface of the water as much as they could as they were reliant on batteries charged off diesel engines when underwater.  This is something which critics of the movie 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981) miss.  (It is interesting that if you search on Google 'submarine controversy' comes up as one of the commonly selected options).  Yes, the submarine in that movie does not look precisely right, but certainly Indiana Jones could have remained on board as it went across the Mediterranean.  Remember that movie is set in 1936 and the world war has not started, so there would be no need for the submarine to submerge. 

Submarines in the First World War typically had a naval gun on deck and often this would be their prime weapon rather than torpedoes.  It is only people who have grown up in the age of nuclear-powered submarines who expect them to be submerged for more than a minority of the time.  To some extent, Nemo in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlement' falls into this trap of aiming to submerge when he has no need.  Of course, he might be about to enter the fictional undersea tunnel beneath the Suez Canal which allowed him, in the novels, to by-pass Africa when heading towards Asia.

The climax of the movie occurs close to the Amur river at a base that resembles some Russian palace but is filled with an extensive industrial plant.  This is very much in the ilk of the evil mastermind's lair in many movies and novels, which, of course blows up at the end.  Fortunately the 'Nautilus' is vast enough to take away all the scientists and families and other workers from the base, once Moriarty has been killed.

'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is an action movie, but one that I feel rises above many of its kind.  Its range of characters and its steampunk setting make it stand out.  It could never have been a close portrayal of the graphic novel, and yet it avoids being an entirely Hollywood version either.  Possibly this is due to its primarily non-American cast and portrayal of events, settings and behaviour that do not form part of current US consciousness.   In the time it has, I believe, it lays out a far more interesting range of characters and, in many ways, those who come out best from it are those who would not do so in a mainstream Hollywood movie.  Mina Harker is shown as a scientist, eschewing male attention and patronising attitudes.  She is a vampire and fights as effectively, if not more so, than her male counterparts.  Captain Nemo is probably the first Hindu hero I can think of in mainstream movie from the USA, bar perhaps those in 'A Passage to India' (1984) and the biopic 'Gandhi' (1982) and the recent, 'The Last Airbender' (2010), featuring many Asian actors though set on a fantasy planet.  He is gracious, innovative and a good fighter, also a conciliator.  As a consequence of these traits, it is a movie that I return to on DVD and enjoy.  I accept that given my taste for steampunk it would attract me more than the average movie watcher, but I certainly do not feel it should be remembered simply as the movie which seemingly ended Sean Connery and Stephen Norrington's movie careers.  Even if it is, they should feel no shame about being involved with it.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Published Writing: Rise in Quantity; Fall in Quality?

As I have commented before, like many people I tend to get the bulk of my news from the internet and rolling news channels.  In the UK I am aware that we have fewer news stories being broadcast at any one time than, say in France and Belgium, where news broadcasts seem to have twice as many main stories as their UK counterparts.  Consequently, I soon know all that is available about a particular story at any given time.  So that I have something more to engage with, I buy one newspaper per week.  This has long been 'The Guardian' on Saturday.  I tend to read it in the order of magazine, TV guide, news section, money section, jobs section and review.  The money and jobs sections obviously depress me, but sometimes have useful tips on what to avoid in terms of companies and errors in interviews.  The review section does cover music and art but is predominantly about books and writers.  At one time I thought I would one day be among that set; especially when, back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine became a member of the Royal Society of Literature, but now it is like an insight into an alien world.  To some degree it has got more distant because being unemployed my reading (and writing) always falls away sharply.  This is the longest period I have ever been unemployed, in fact, longer than all the previous occasions put together, stretching back over a career which is now 20 years long.  The other thing is that, certainties of publishing of writing and publishing seem to have disappeared, and the writing world and its literary sub-set, in this respect, is a very different place.  It is one, I guess, I feel disconnected from; I imagine those who work in the industry are probably feeling pretty lost too.

People have long spoken of the death of the book and there have been reports of young people from teenages onwards seeing no point in reading books.  To some degree, what a book actually is, has changed a great deal.  Not everyone has a Kindle, but there is a sense that those who read the most before are those most likely to adopt electronic versions of books.  Back in the mid-1990s, when the internet was coming into so much of society, I remember attending a talk by a university lecturer, speaking in East London, about the opportunities which the internet offered.  In the questions session at the end, there was a striking moment when someone in the audience pointed out that internet access was not free.  The speaker, presumably at that time using the internet for free at her university had assumed that was the case for everyone.  Her whole premise that the internet allowed democratic access to information was utterly undermined when it turned out that only a handful of people in the audience could access the internet. 

At the time I knew no-one who had it at home; I used to go to a local takeaway Indian restaurant and pay a fee to use their terminal for 30 minutes.  Of course, the growth of cyber-cafes appeared in the next few years, and I could go to an Easy outlet in a quite salubrious setting compared to the corner of a takeaway, but, still, it was apparent that I was paying.  As the speaker totally missed, the actual future of electronic media, is segregation.  This is not only on the basis of access and even then 27% of the UK population does not have internet access, varying between 17% in London and 41% of the population of the North-East.  In addition the quality of service varies across the country as the reporting of the difficulty of getting internet connections in Cornwall, certainly outside Newquay. Anyway, the speaker believed the internet provided a democratic access to resources, and, I guess if you consider you can use it in libraries (though usually at a fee) and centres assoicated with job centres, this is the case.  However, high quality, home access tends to be for the wealthier. 

Publishing in electronic formats takes this segregation a further stage in segregating those who can access material or not.  When will the day come when certain books, rather than as at present coming in print and electronic format, will just be in the latter, as that is the kind of affluent audience that publishers want to address?  With the news that Britain's last bookshop chain, Waterstones, maybe closing at that online retailer Amazon already has 80% of the book market in the UK, will it be possible to even buy a printed book if you do not have internet access, and importantly, a credit or debit card.  Even in affluent houses, unlike when I was a boy, when I could go to a bookshop and buy any book I wanted, nowadays I would have to engage a parent to pay for it using one of their cards.  The past decade certainly has seen increasing attempts to shut off the less wealthy from accessing more and more of what is being produced.

Aside from the increasing segregation of potential readers, on the basis of wealth and the related access, there is two other developments in publishing which are noticeable.  One aspect is something I have commented upon and of which I am a perpetrator.  The amount of writing, fiction and non-fiction, simply being pumped out into the media-sphere.  This is done in different levels.  Naturally there are thousands, perhaps millions of blogs and websites on which people post their writing.  As I have noted before, there is something like 42-49,000 finished novels in the UK which are entered into national competitions, and I imagine there are many tens of thousands more that are not put forward for competition.  These does not even begin to touch on the short stories that are produced or the poems.

There are also websites run so that people can simply put up their writing, some are genre based, some are simply general.  If you are bored at your desk you can spend hours simply reading stories, for example, on vampires and a whole sub-genre of 'fan fiction' stories written about characters appearing in movies or particularly television series.  I know that people from other European countries often access such free resources as an easy way to improve their vocabulary and their knowledge of contemporary English.  I suppose that this is a true democratic approach to writing, that so many voices can now be heard.  Writing, especially fiction, must be one of the largest hobbies in the UK at the moment.  For some people, like me, for whom it has been a hobby as long as I can remember, there is a feeling of 'why should I bother?', any more.  I read a comment in 'The Guardian' a few weeks back from a reader responding to an article about creative writing courses.  Like many other commentators he noted the difference between skill and talent, most of us can gain creative writing skills, but most of us lack the talent to write well.  He had qualifications in creative writing, but had come to the conclusion that the world did not need any more creative writing which was below the standard of the great novelists and so he had ceased writing, in theory making room for better writers to shine.  I have found myself being tempted to follow that path too. 

Perhaps it is vanity, that I would rather not be a writer at all than be a poor quality writer.  However, perhaps it is not the correct approach, and I should just write for the enjoyment in brings me; recognising that the only reason why I feel uneasy, is because there is a sense that if you write you must publish: 'everyone can be a millionaire/so everyone has to try' as The The satirised back in 1986.  In addition, I certainly know there are writers who are far worse than me pumping out content, so, to some degree, it is not simply vanity, but pride too, that: why should they be putting their stuff into the world, when I could be putting out better?  I recognise that neither vanity nor pride are acceptable motivators, hence I remain conflicted over whether to even bother writing.

The other development in writing, is a decline in quality, mainly around the lack of editing.  This is unsurprising.  I take a lot of time editing my postings and especially my fiction, before I put them online, but even then, months later I got back and see loads of errors that I have missed.  Regular readers of this blog, going back to an older posting may have found it has changed a great deal from what they might remember.  That is because I have gone back to it and have been startled by errors I missed at the time.  No author can spot everything even with the passage of time.  You are too close to your writing to be able to do it.  Automatically your mind makes the connections and understands the message in a way that any reader could not do, thus you miss weaknesses.

Self-publishing comes in a number of forms these days.  Here I have already mentioned posting on blogs and fiction websites, but, of course, you can self-publish or publish on demand into print form as well.  I discussed issues around this approach back in 2009:   In the old days this was called 'vanity publishing', you paid a company to publish what you wrote with little quality checking and certainly no analysis of any market demand for the book.  These days, authors have both run towards this approach but have also been driven towards it too.  Publishing houses have been struggling for at least twenty years and the online environment has not helped. Despite the fall in production costs other things like publicity and the risk of backing an author who does not succeed are so great that they have sought other approaches; even a great author can fade, think of how many books aside from 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' (1994), that Louis de Bernières has written, which you cannot name.  He has, in fact, written seven others and some short fiction too. Similarly, another author who wrote a 'must read' book in the 1990s was Joanne Harris, author of 'Chocolat' (1999). She has produced 14 other novels 1989-2010, including 12 since 'Chocolat' but I imagine, like me, you could not name a single one. Thus, publishers put more of the work on to the author, that in the past they would have done themselves.

I have known there published first-time authors who have been compelled to handle their own publicity.  Unlike self-published authors they do not have to buy the books from their publisher in order to sell them on, but they do have to organise trips around the country to signings.  I do wonder, with so many bookshops disappearing in the 2000s where such events will now take place.  If you want to do a signing for free at the bookshop in Whitby during the Gothic Weekend, you have to join a very long queue and show your previous sales figures before they will even consider you.  Everyone wants a sign of success before investing anything in a new author.  In fact self-publishing is becoming a route into being published by a publisher. 

Authonomy is run by HarperCollins publishers.  Authors put their material up there for comment and a few are picked up by the company.  A couple of years back one of the three novels they selected had already been self-published and had been selling, before they took it on.  The website explicitly mentions self-published authors as well as unpublished, and in fact, if you look at the list of novels for users to comment on, they all have front covers already, suggesting that in fact they have already been printed.  I suppose self-publishing has now become what community colleges are to universities in the USA, they prove the quality of the applicant before you let them go any further.  I do not know how many hundreds of novels go on Authonomy, but the number picked up is in single figures each year.

We live in an age when audience participation is seen as the sure way to get what the public wants.  Television programmes that allow you to telephone in to determine the fate of the contestants are among the most viewed ones broadcast.  The same goes for fiction.  I have commented on the Amazon competition for new novels a few years back.  I began participating as reader when they reached the 5000 novels on the 'short list'.  Amazon naturally elicited my comments and I contributed as the numbers were whittled down.  However, by the time that they reached the list of 10 novels, I backed out.  I realised that a kind of homeopathic process had been going on and that the 10 novels left completely lacked originality or spark, they clearly ticked genre boxes and were least offensive to the most number of readers.  None of them engaged me in the way the tens of others I had looked at previous had done. 

This is the challenge to the issue of the author giving up writing, that the pathways to publishing that are in place, increasingly do not bring forward great literature, in fact, the reverse.  This may be why there is such a popularity for novels from languages other than English.  Of course, the cultural differences are of interest, but there might also be an issue that the process in which books come to be published, mean that different types of books succeed say in Brazil or Sweden, than would be the case in the UK.

The other element which publishers are economising on, is editing.  As I noted earlier in this posting, editing is a challenging activity.  Traditionally editors were very knowledgeable and intelligent people, not only able to spot inaccuracies and non-sequiturs, but also to contribute to the very fibre of the story, in terms of how characters developed and their actions.  This is a very challenging role and one that needs a high level of literary knowledge as well as 'people skills' in communicating it to the author; skills, which I discuss below, the average reader lacks.  The cost of editing is increasingly being seen as one that can be avoided: but the consequences in terms of the quality of the books we buy seems to already be biting hard.  Note the review of all the errors in Henning Mankell's final Wallender novel, 'The Troubled Man' (2011): clues disappear and Wallender's character alters, from a morning person to an evening person in the course of some tens of pages.  The reader is left seeing the novel as disjointed.  Now, Mankell is a good, successful author, but he, like all authors needs an editor, something it once was the publishing house's job to provide.  A notable case was 'The Corrections' (2010) by Michael Franzen, published by HarperCollins, for which it was noted that an unedited version actually was printed, despite a corrected one being produced.  This shows you that even with a big publishing house, the skimping on editing aspects is having an impact.

I suppose there must be an industry in being a freelance editor.  Whereas in the past when the publishing house would do this, it is given back to the author for them to be responsible for.  I know that some websites offer this service, but my engagement with such editors has been very unpleasant mainly because they forget that any author invests a lot of themselves into a novel and it is hard when it is torn apart.  Alright, if it is not good enough for others to read, say so, but instead you get 'death by a thousand cuts' lots of picking of very minor things, which generally, in the age of the wordprocessor can be rectified very quickly, yet you have to be harangues about every mistake made.

In my experience editing certainly cannot be left to amateurs who seem to lack even the awareness of the relationship between writer and their work that proper editors have.  I am aware that a lot of my writing has flaws.  There are issues like character development, behaviour and feasibility of actions.  However, I am never challenged on these.  The feedback I receive falls into two categories.  The largest feedback is picking up on individual words or names that I have used.  I have even have had people whose names I have inadvertently used in the story, complaining.  I take a lot of effort to get the detail correct.  However, clearly not as much as the seemingly hundreds of people who scour the internet looking for minor errors or even the frequency that certain words are used in a piece of fiction.  I like to get things correct, but am now fearful that too many readers have an entire novel ruined by a single word. 

Famously, in his James Bond novels, written in an age when publishers' editing was at its height, Ian Fleming made technical errors, such as which pistol fitted which holster, but I doubt that has stopped many people enjoying his novels even fifty years later.  However, anything I put up is liable to be heavily criticised because I feature the character's name more than a certain number of times, or do not use the contraction that is in common use today, or something of that nature. 

I think one issue is the severity of the language used in the feedback I receive.  Yes, I make mistakes, but a single wrong word does not seem to be the grounds for me being a total idiot or unfit to write as I am all too frequently told.  It is hard to take criticism of any kind, but to be harangued by editors or the public does nothing to improve the quality of the work, it just encourages the author to abandon it entirely as a waste of time.  This is ironic given that it takes months or years to write a novel, and five minutes to drive an author away from ever touching it again. 

To some degree you understand why people adopt self-publishing, they by-pass at least some of the criticism.  However, as I have noted before, this does not lead to better books.  Some compromise between not receiving editorial feedback at all and being harangued so harshly that you give up hope must be found.  While I doubt it would succeed, you almost need websites to train readers on how to be effective editors rather than simple hecklers.

One key problem is the difference between the popular view of something and the actuality.  Novels often face this, whether they need to be altered to fit into what the readership expects or stick to their guns and put down what the author knows to be true, or wants to be true in the fictional world they are creating.   The woman in my house was reading the poem 'The Hollow Men' (1925) by T.S. Eliot the other day, online.  The site she accessed it on allowed readers to make comments.    An interesting discussion had developed about the significance of the poem, especially its relationship to the First World War.  Many of the commentators seemed to be school children, and I liked the fact that these days when assigned to 'do' a poem pupils can discuss it with others around the world.  I have a feeling many of the people going to the particular site were Americans and there was a lot of parallels drawn to the experience for US society in the wake of the US intervention in the Vietnam War (1965-73/5).  However, such interesting parallels and an engaging discussion was constantly knocked aside by what I call the 'nitpickers' coming on to remind commentators that the First World War was not in the 1920s (though the impact Eliot was talking about continued through the 1920s and 1930s in the way the impact of the Vietnam war went on long after the 1970s) and that the First World War was fought in Europe (neglecting the fighting in Asia and Africa and the oceans) and Vietnam is in Asia.  The sense was, as you find on so many sites commenting on writing whether produced by professionals or amateurs, is that the text and comment on it too, must simply refer directly to facts; no parallels or comparisons are permitted. 

Another common difficulty is that commentators assume that the author has to be like their characters.  Do not dare feature a homosexual character or show a story from a criminal's perspective or have someone with psychological differences or comes from a non-Western culture.  The assumption, too often, is that, you are not clever in writing from a different perspective than your own as would have once been the case, but that you must simply be drawing on personal experiences and so must be as 'sick' as the characters you portray.  As I have noted before, if we only wrote about what we knew personally fiction would be incredibly dull and nothing from a historial period would ever feature.

I guess a lot of feedback is about power play, whether writing to the author directly (of course, far more easier than ever in the age of email; authors are now not distant characters but often pretty accessible)  or dismissing people's comments as irrelevant because they are more imaginative than a standard recounting of what the text contains.  Such a recounting of the text is in itself a kind of assertion of power, effectively telling readers that they are too stupid to understand it without someone's help (though, perhaps, all of us who review things are guilty of that; maybe it comes down to an issue of tone).  The power play comes to the fore in the second type of feedback I receive, people telling me that the outcome of the story was entirely wrong.  Often this is on the basis that the direction the narrative took was not the one that they expected (which personally I feel is a positive attribute, but given what I noted above, perhaps writers are obliged to adhere to set story patterns rather than be surprising) or was simply not a topic that was of interest.  You begin to ask why did they bother continue reading if that was the case.

Most websites that carry fiction categorise it; they often have a profile of the author.  Consequently, it is very easy to find out what kind of story you are likely to be reading and even the author's take on particular issue that are likely to appear.  Even more than before we are not compelled to 'judge a book by its cover'.  Yet it is clear that people slog through the novel just so they can tell the author how wrong they have got it.  I guess in an age of consumer choice and viewer power, there is an expectation that novels should also permit this.  I know some even allow readers to pick the next step in the writing, but even then the path the majority selects is not going to please everyone.  I encourage commentators who do not like how my stories unfold to write their own version.  However, it seems that those who are capable of making stinging criticisms lack the ability to commit to something longer, even if it would be more to their taste.

As we head on into the 2010s, what do I see as the future for writing and publishing?  I think the amount of writing will probably not decrease, but the number of printed books will.  There are going to be even clearer spheres of writing that people access: electronic books that the privileged will access through some device (and publishing houses are battling to keep the price high, hence the EU challenge on monopoly grounds) and free comment put up by people on blogs and websites.  What it is apparent is that whilst the quantity will be greater than ever, the quality will be poor.  There are good writers on the internet and good writers in print, but we are going to have to stomach far more errors and anomalies in what we write than we would have expected, especially in printed boooks, even just a decade ago.

Internet fiction is not unpoliced, but the 'editors' and 'critics' adopt a very combative style, which does nothing to help authors develop.  Those who will listen to the criticism will be turned off writing anything more by the aggressive, dismissive tone of the commentators and those who do not give a damn about such comments, will keep publishing with no editorial input.  We probably live in an age with more being written and more accessibly than ever before, but the question remains, that, when there is no effective way to bring objective views to bear on what is produced and popular opinion squeezes the life from novels coming forward: is any of it any good?

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Resisting Counter-Factual Speculation: China And Time-Travel Movies

In past postings, I have looked at how uneasy Americans can be about counter-factual discussions around the history of the USA: and  This seems to stem from an enduring if unstated faith in the so-called 'manifest destiny', i.e. that the USA was always destined to turn out the way that it has and so any discussions of alternatives is a waste of time.  Naturally I strongly oppose that viewpoint, not least because it allows a state to argue that whatever policy it adopts must be correct because it was 'destined' to happen.  The ridiculousness of that is immediately apparent if you compare the policies of President Barack Obama and his immediate predecessor George W. Bush.  Which was truly manifesting the USA's destiny?  Clearly that is not happening, unless it is the USA's destiny is to constantly chop and change. 

All states exist as a result of a series of accidents combined with deliberate actions, some of which succeeded, some of which failed.  As I have noted before, not every alternative, in the long run, would have led to a great change in history as we have known it.  Conversely, small differences can lead to vast changes in what happened.  Each counter-factual needs to be weighed on its own merits.  In addition, we have to recognise that this is no more than an intellectual exercise, we cannot 'prove' the propositions, but saying that, in many branches of science, that is the same.  Some dismiss counter-factual analysis as a 'game'.  It can be entertaining and is the basis of an extensive sub-genre of fiction dating back many decades.  However, counter-factual analysis is also a vital tool in properly weighing up the different elements which went into our history.  Thus, as I have argued before, it is something that should not be dismissed:

Now, it is probably on the basis of the usefulness of counter-factual analysis, that on 31st March 2011, China announced 'guidelines' effectively banning time-travel movies and television programmes.  In a statement from Li Jingsheng head of television drama at China's State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has said that such dramas (and comedies): 'lack positive thoughts and meaning'; 'its content and the exaggerated performance style are questionable'; 'Many stories are totally made-up and are made to strain for an effect of novelty';  'They casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.'  Of course, many of these things could be charges laid against many genres of fiction, for example, romance, Westerns, crime stories and even historical drams.  It is the last elements about promoting feudalism and fatalism which really cut to the heart of the issue. 

ommentators about Chinese society believe this move has been prompted by recent programmes featuring happy times in China's past (though it is pretty difficult to find any era in Chinese history when a substantial group of Chinese were not suffering).  The key example is 'The Palace', as pointed out by Professor Nie Wei, from the School of Movie and Television Drama Studies of Shanghai University.  The series features a 21st-century girl travelling back in time to the Qing dynasty (which ruled China 1644-1911).  The episodes for the next series are being rewritten.

The movies and series has effectively banned in China on this basis include 'The Terminator' (1984) and presumably its sequels and television series; 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure' (1989) and its sequel; any version of 'A Christmas Carol'; 'Planet of the Apes' (1968) and its sequels, series and remake; 'Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery' (1997) and its sequels;  'Back To The Future' (1985) and its two sequels, 'Black Knight' (2001), 'The X-Files' (1993-2002) though I am not certain that many episodes of this actually featured time travel, 'Doctor Who' (1963-) and 'Star Trek' (1966-9) and presumably all the movies and sequel series.

I can only think of one time travel episode, in the original 'Star Trek' series, 'The City on the Edge of Forever' in the original series which the crew prevent a woman (played by Joan Collins!) being run over in 1930s USA so leading to a subsequent Nazi victory in World War Two including the USA coming under Nazi control.  Apparently, however, three other episodes feature time travel, one taking crew members to 1968, one to 1969, one taking them back 3 days and one to two historic time periods on an alien planet. There is also time travel in the movie, 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home' (1986).  

The fatalism would be seen in movies like 'The Butterfly Effect' (2004) in which a man tries to change his own life by travelling back in time on a number of occasions only to constantly make things worse; in 'Running Against Time' (1990) the repeated attempts by three time travellers to avoid US intervention in the Vietnam War only exacerbate the conflict.  However, this then shows up the contradictions in the Chinese guidelines.  They oppose both time travel that can make things turn out better and they dislike time travel that worsens the situation.  They oppose time travel stories that only impact on the fate of a few individuals and also ones which affect the whole world such as 'The Terminator' and 'Star Trek IV' or 'A Sound of Thunder' (2005) which radically sees humans replaced by a reptillian species as a result of a time traveller to the Cretaceous period treading on a creature.  Of course, the Chinese government could insist that all time travel stories adhere to the Novikov self-consistency principle, that, in fact you cannot alter history as it has happened, any attempt to do so will fail, as shown in 'Twelve Monkeys' (1995) and 'The Time Machine' (2002). 

One movie not mentioned by the Chinese is 'Fatherland' (1994) perhaps because though the book it was based on was a best seller, the movie had little success, especially in the USA.  The movie does not feature time travel, rather it is one of the only actual counter-factual movies in that it envisages a world in which Nazi Germany won the Second World War.  Though not stated, it must be assumed that in such a scenario Japan would have been victorious in the Pacific as victory in Europe would have allowed its forces to be supplement by Germany and its allies.  Despite the fact that Germany and Japan were always awkward allies (as history of wartime Shanghai show), Germany presumably would have put experienced U-boat packs into the Pacific; experienced German pilots and aircraft into the Pacific and China and provided SS units to exterminate Chinese Communists behind the frontlines.  It seems unlikely Japan would have conquered all of China but it would have held the major cities and wealthiest regions, so today, North-East China would still be Manchukuo and Communism would have been eliminated from the Japanese colonies in eastern and central China. 

I believe the movies listed owe more to their international renown than the portrayal of events in specific movies that is what has drawn Chinese state attention to them.  However, there is also the factor of discussion around time travel and the possibilities it may offer to change a country which is what alarms the Chinese government the most.   Despite this, It seems that, in the opposition to time travel, the Chinese are also dismissing a lot of general science fiction.  This may be the authorities' intention. 

Many of these series and movies have other concepts, discussion of which would be seen as a threat, especially 'Star Trek' which often handled moral judgements in story lines and elements such as discrimination.  A fuller part of the SARFT statement suggests this is the case: 'fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and even a lack of positive thinking.' 

The timing seems to be in preparation for the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China being established (and, of course, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution which established the Chinese Republic which the Communists did not control entirely until 1950) and so '[a]ll levels should actively prepare to launch vivid reproductions of the Chinese revolution, the nation’s construction and its reform and opening up.'  Of course, if we travelled back to 1971 for the 50th anniversary, the party members then would be in horror of the capitalist economy now in place in China and would see predictions for 2011 which featured China as one of the leading capitalist states of the world as completely counter-revolutionary and in need of suppression.  Thus, even in its own history, the Communist Party of China has gone down 'alternative' paths that would have been considered highly inappropriate to discuss, even within living memory.

You can see the easy step from thinking about time travel to challenging the current regime, whether to argue that the more Maoist era or the Imperial era or the brief periods of democracy were better than the current state.  Of course, the kind of question that the Chinese regime fears most is 'what if the democracy movement of Tiananmen Square had not been suppressed in 1989?' and other similar ones about Mao being ousted or the Chinese Civil War having a different outcome, all things that may allow people to think that an alternative path would have been better for the country's people. 

China has not been alone in having such concerns.  When the National Curriculum for the UK was launched in 1992, the history section of it instructed teachers specifically not to even suggest that any time period or country was better to live in than the UK at the time.  The Conservative government was seemingly as insecure as the current Chinese government. 

It is interesting that the two greatest Powers in the world at the moment, the USA and China are the ones who are most nervous about any speculation that their histories could have turned out very differently to how they did.  In the USA pressure tends to come by brow-beating or dismissal as irrelevant.  In China, a totalitarian dictatorship which practices extensive censorship, the approach is much more direct.  However, in my view this only adds value to the role of counter-factual analysis. After all, if the Chinese government sees counter-factual speculation as potentially such a threatening tool, one leveraging greater democracy and liberty in the country, to the extent that movies even speculating about it must be censored, then it has some real potency beyond mere entertainment.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Appreciating The Work Of Richard Holmes

These days, with 17% of the population scheduled to live until they are 100, when you hear of a person dying in their 60s you tend to think that they have died 'young', especially if they are celebrities.  In the past fortnight, there have been two such deaths, both as a result of cancer.  The first was actress Elisabeth Sladen, who was only 63 and looked at least a decade younger.  The second was (Professor Brigadier Edward) Richard Holmes who died at the age of 65.  Perhaps he is not as well known to the general public as Sladen, but, I imagine to readers of this blog, interested in the kind of things I am interested, he was a well-known and respected name.  He was a military historian, who rose from the rank of private to brigadier in the Territorial Army; he became the first Director Reserve Forces and Cadets (1997-2000) in the British Army not drawn from the ranks of regular soldiers, and was 1999-2007 Colonel-Of-The-Regiment of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment.  He was an academic as well as a soldier, producing 22 books 1971-2008 and lecturing at the University of Cranfield, 1989-2009.  He was awarded the CBE in 1998 and the Danish Order of Dannebrog.

It is through his television programmes, that I imagine he will be best known most widely.  This is one reason why I think his work needs to be remembered.  In many ways he appeared the archetypal British officer, with a full moustache and and real vigour even when in his 50s and 60s, he was shown on television riding around on horseback and firing rifles more actively than many younger presenters.  In some ways, these days, there might be something off-putting about someone so much like an army officer of old.  However, there was an element in him that made his delivery and his sheer enthusiasm come to you through the television.  His voice was clear but with soft tones which made you feel that he was talking to a small group of fellow enthusiasts.  I imagine this comes from him having participated in numerous guided tours of battlefields; he was patron of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.  He managed to pitch the level perfectly, informing without coming across as patronising.  He was not one of these presenters who made you feel you were ignorant, more that in sharing his knowledge you could come to know what he knew.  Conversely, he was not as laid back as Michael Wood, another long serving history presenter who at times seems to be more on an adventure scrambling around places.  I imagine that Holmes's delivery was a product of teaching soldiers and ordinary university students who have many other distractions.  Commentators also note that whilst he covered big events he was also alert to the fate of the ordinary soldier and how they felt when wrapped up in battles.  This always allows the audience to connect more easily with the narrative.  That balance of the strategic and the tactical, down from the level of whole armies to the situation of individuals was well done and, I believe another trait that made Holmes so engaging.

It is many years since A.J.P. Taylor could engage people with basically simply lecturing on television.  However, though far more active, it was that kind of engaging delivery, personal enthusiasm, an ability to conjure up time and place, plus clear communication of facts that made Holmes's programmes stand out.  Newcomers such as Dan Snow, could learn a great deal from watching Holmes's programmes once again.  I have travelled around many of the regions and some of the sites featured in 'War Walks' (1997) and can confirm that he gave you such a good appreciation of what happened in landscapes that look very differen 60, 90 or many hundreds of years later.  Similarly, with his series on the American War of Independence, 'Redocats and Rebels' (2003) explaining a conflict which is always difficult for a British audience not least due to the complex geography of the fronts and battlefields; the same with 'Wellington: The Iron Duke' (2002) especially covering Wellington's career in India.

I think the greatest example of his skill was when flicking through channels I stumbled across an episode of his series 'The Western Front' (2002).  I had seen the whole series before, but in moments found myself engaged in it so much that I watched it right to the end once again.  We need people like this in all kinds of factual programmes.  They have a talent which is not taught, but evolves in people due to their life experiences and Holmes had had the right combination of experiences to provide the ideal presenter, serious and knowledgeable but so engaging that he pulled you right into his narrative.  It is a pity that he was killed by an invidious illness which has robbed us of watching more of his thoroughly engaging documentaries in the coming years.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Creating More 'Working Poor' In The UK

I know that my belief, that the current prime minister has an agenda to push the structure of British society back to the pattern it had a century ago, is not widely held.  However, even if you do not believe that changes to the education system, taxation and benefits are not designed to cut off opportunities for ordinary people and to protect access by the elites to such opportunities, especially in terms of education, the change in society is happening anyway.  I noted back in 2008: and in 2009: that there was a desire among employers to increase unemployment because they felt that the period of prosperity of the previous ten years had led to pay rising too high and workers not being sufficiently grateful for the jobs they had.  This has come about now and you can see it in the reduced salaries being offered.  Back in 2001 I worked on projects in an office, I had no staff to supervise and was paid £24,000 per year (now equivalent to €27,800: US$38,100) and on that salary was able to rent a 2-bedroomed flat in walking distance of my work (for £500 per month) and to buy a small second-hand car and go on holiday once per year.  I was not in a position to buy a flat.  By the time I left that job in 2005, I was earning £31,000 per year.  In my last job that finished in 2010, I managed two offices and for that was paid £42,000 per year (€48,700; US$66,700), which allowed me to drive a larger second-hand car and in combination with another person, to pay the mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in southern England.  It did not permit me to go on holiday at all.

Now, as I look for work, still, as an office manager, I find that salaries are lower even than what I was being paid simply to be an office worker back in 2001.  I will take Southampton as an example.  It is a large, rapidly growing town of around 230,000 people, located at the western edge of the South-East region of England.  Using the official Department for Work & Pensions website to look for jobs, I found that last month the average salary for an office manager is now £23,000, though with some explicitly office manager posts paying as low as £12-18,000.  If you want to earn £24,000 then you need not only to have had office manager experience but also to speak fluent Spanish and Chinese.  If you can speak fluent Chinese there are opportunities for you around the world at the moment, not simply managing an office in a dull second-rank town in England. It is worthwhile comparing the salaries with the rents in the local area.  Southampton is a cheap town to live in.  You can rent studio flats (i.e. without a separate bedroom, you sleep in the living area) for £350 per month (compared to £525 per month as the norm for a studio flat, just 21Km away in Winchester).

Now, if you were starting on £12,000 per year before tax, then over a third of your pre-tax income would be going on simply renting a room.  You can pay £280 per month if you are willing to rent a room in a shared house or as a lodger.  Even if you get promoted and take the £18,000 then it is still a fifth of your pre-tax income, just on housing.  This does not include your food, utilities and travelling costs.  So, with such a job you can cover your expenditure, but with no hope of a holiday or buying a car or ever owning a flat on that kind of income.  Banks generally lend you around three times your income, meaning even at the top salary for that office manager role you would only be lent £54,000 about enough to buy a one-bedroomed flat or a two-bedroomed static caravan in Southampton. 

Perhaps I am being hard, because it is possible to live on such salaries, but I have left out all the other costs of life bar accommodation and in the UK it is easy for a single person to spend around £30-40 per week on food, taking another £1500-2000 out of your earnings each year.  In addition, you have to remember this is the salary for the office manager, I have no idea what the staff that manager supervises must be earning.  The only people who can take such jobs are those who live at home on nominal rent to their parents.  I guess such young people are really the only ones companies are interested in which is why, at 43, I have been unemployed for so long.  What is frightening is that David Cameron has sworn to make sure that you will always be better off in work than on benefits.  With salaries dropping away so fast, the only way to achieve this will be to reduce benefits to pauper levels.

Another factor is that working hours are lengthening.  In my search for an office manager post, I found they all expected you to work 08.30-17.30 rather than the traditional, '9 to 5', i.e. 09.00-17.00.  This means a 45-hour week, or 40-42.5 hours if you remove lunch breaks rather than the 35-37.5 hours per week that were becoming the norm even in the 1990s.  This means the hourly rate in fact falls by an eighth, over what it would have been.  Many jobs now include a caveat about the need for evening and weekend working, effectively a get-out clause to compel you to work, in fact, any hours the employer deems necessary.  Of course, we have to accept such conditions because the alternative is unemployment with a low level of benefits. 

On one hand, advertising and social pressure encourages us to consume and aspire to better items and owning our own houses.  However, with incomes falling this becomes even more of a fantasy than ever.  The only item of clothing I have purchased in the last 18 months was a £14 pair of shoes from Asda to wear to interviews and this was only because there was a hole in the sole of my other pair that let in water no matter how much cardboard I put in the bottom.  How can I aspire even to buy some new clothes let alone think about a new car or a holiday or a new mobile phone?  I have had to leave the house I owned to return to the rental sector because I cannot pay a mortgage and am likely never to be able to do so again; meaning my poverty when I retire is now guaranteed. I am not a person without qualifications.  I got a degree when only 6% of the population attended university.  I have years of experience and professional training.  What hope is there for people with less than that?

I have noted before how that UK society seems to be being pushed to resemble ever more that of the USA.  The cutting back of the National Health Service is moving us in the opposite direction to what the Obama administration is seeking to do with health care and more towards the kind of privatised health system that his Republican opponents vigorously insist on.  We also seem to be moving very rapidly towards having the 'working poor' forming a significant part of our society.  In the USA working poor are defined as being people who have worked at least 27 weeks of the year but whose income falls below the poverty level.  In the USA in 2005, 2.8 million families (made up of 12.2 million people) had a household income of 100% less than the poverty level; in addition, 9.6 million families with work, about 29% of them, were earning 200% less than the poverty level, a level at which they are deemed not to be self-sufficient of welfare or charity.  To give you an idea of the level, self-sufficiency was deemed to be an annual family income of US$39,942 (currently equivalent to £25,120) for a family of four. 

In the EU poverty-in-work is defined as being 60% of the median, not mean, income.  In the UK, median income for men in 2010 was £538 and for women £439, thus poverty is earning less than £322 per week if you are a man and less than £263 per week if you are a woman.  Being paid £322 is equivalent to £16,700 per year.  Thus, the office manager job discussed above, means that your pay is at poverty levels, if you are man, until you rise £4,000 above the basic level.  By definition, all the workers you manage will be in poverty and remain in it in that position.  In 2010 it was stated that 1.7 million children in poverty in the UK were in families that had work, with 1.1 million in families without work.  There were 2.1 million working families in the working poor category and it was anticipated that 8% of the population, around 4.8 million people, were at risk of falling into this category.  We are not talking about people on benefits or retired, they are further categories of people in poverty, these are people actually in jobs but earning so little that they are deemed to be poor.

There has been rhetoric around the 'squeezed middle' especially from the Labour Party.  However, with a lack of regulation of companies' behaviour and, certainly, no attempt to shift pay levels above the minimum wage, to any higher level, there is no clear idea how they will be able to do anything to alter the situation for ordinary people.  I know Labour would shy away from setting salary levels as it would seem too much like wages and incomes policies of the 1970s, which they now find embarrassing.  Ironically, those policies were to keep down pay rises, whereas now we need to see pay rising.  Raising the threshold at which you pay tax is one approach, one favoured by the Liberal Democrats before they went into government.  However, to a great degree this takes pressure off employers who can continue to pay low salaries to everyone (except the top executives, of course).  I have outlined an idea of having the highest salary in a company always kept to a certain ratio to the lowest and I believe that, without at least indications of minimum expected salaries right up the structure of companies, then you will never eliminate the tendency in the UK for pay to pushed downwards for most workers whilst it rises inexorably for the already wealthy. 

You could argue that leading economies need cheap labour to prosper and this is one reason why China is booming at present, as, for every high-earning fashion company executive in Shanghai there are thousands, probably tens of thousands of very low-paid textile workers.  Before the minimum wage was introduced to the UK in 1999, there were complaints from companies and the Conservative Party that it would lead to job losses.  However, this never appeared and this is for a number of reasons.  One is the large profit margins that so many companies maintain selling or providing services in the UK.  Another is that the pay of high executives is so high that even cutting it back by a few percent frees up sufficient funds to pay a lot of low-paid staff.  Another reason is that paying decent pay levels benefits the economy.  Anyone who lived in a poor area, as I did in 1999 in East London, noticed immediately how small businesses benefited from the minimum wage.  Some people saw their weekly pay almost double and they went out and spent it on the basic things that they had previously gone without.  There are a lot of low paid people so a change in their income makes a bigger impact than shifting that of the far fewer high-paid people: there are only so many white goods you can fit, even in a mansion, and only so many meals you can eat.  I certainly believe that the UK's supermarket chains would not have prospered to the extent that they have done if the minimum wage had not been introduced.

There seems to be a lack of basic knowledge in government about how a capitalist economy works.  The UK economy was at its strongest, not in the 1920s and 1930s, times of high unemployment and low wages, but in the 1950s and 1960s with periods of very low unemployment and rising incomes.  The UK economy will continue to be weak now, as long as the numbers of working poor remains high and, especially, as it rises.  These people will lack the ability to consume the products that keep so much of our extensive service sector running.  Of course, the UK does not manufacture much these days and imports large quantities of food, but even selling foreign goods keeps companies like Tesco, one of the cornerstones of the UK economy, thriving and, in turn, employing more people.

Poverty makes people desperate, they are far more likely to become corrupt or steal from their employers.  You can see this in countries with capitalism but a great disparity between rich and poor.  Try travelling on public transport in India or Tunisia or seeking planning permission in many South American states.  The UK has corruption, but generally in the public-facing civil service and most companies, it is very limited.  However, if you increase the number of people in work who cannot afford to live even a meagre life, then you are driving them towards corruption.  Countries like China deal with it by having a harsh, totalitarian police state.  You might think this would be an option for the UK, but interestingly, the Conservatives, to their credit, have begun to reverse the assault on human rights that was seen under the Blair and Brown governments and, ironically, to compel cutbacks in police numbers. Thus, the UK will have an economic pattern that promotes corruption but does not have the police strength to suppress it.

I believe that the current governement's stance is to encourage cheap, malleable labour of the kind employers of the 19th century could draw upon and dispose of at will.  I quite anticipate that characteristics of 19th century employment, such as tied accommodation, even live-in servants, will begin to re-appear.  I have already noted that dated modes of living such as lodging are on the increase once more.  You may contest that Cameron and his gang have any intention of retro-engineering UK society.  It does not really matter if you accept it or not.  What is more crucial is that, if the numbers of working poor continue to rise, then domestic consumption will be pitiful and the UK will be condemned to a weak economy into the coming decades.  Capitalism works on the basis of supply and demand, if you choke off demand as poverty does, then the cycle begins to break down and small numbers of ultra-wealthy people have far less impact than millions of comfortably well-off ones.