Book review: Dominion by C.J. Sansom

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Britain 1952 and the nation should be enjoying the fruits of the end of post-war austerity and a new Elizabethan age.

But history has taken a horrendous wrong turn in C.J. Sansom’s all too plausible novel. For this is a world in which the appeaser Lord Halifax became Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill in 1940. Instead of “fighting in the fields and in the streets”, Halifax and his Cabinet opted to sue for peace with the Nazis in the face of apparently certain defeat after Dunkirk. Hitler’s terms seem generous. As in 1938, the people are delighted as full blown war seems to have again been averted. Only over time, does the true cost of British capitulation become clear.

By 1952, Britain is emotionally and physically drained by the strain of Nazi domination and a seemingly endless war with the Soviet Union. The government is an unholy coalition of appeasers and racists some of whom (like Rab Butler and Enoch Powell) were actually in office in the Fifties. Others were not. The British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley was in reality a political pariah by 1952. Here he is Home Secretary and fast growing in influence. After a spell under the inexcusably pro-Hitler former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (who once described the Fuehrer as “the greatest living German” in old age), the Prime Minster is now the unscrupulous newspaper tycoon, Lord Beaverbrook.

But there are grounds for optimism. David Fitzgerald, the conflicted civil servant hero of this novel finds himself involved in a resistance movement apparently led by a rebellious Churchill and Attlee, the two having walked out of parliament after the 1950 General Election was apparently fixed. With Eisenhower no longer a famous war hero in this reality, Democrat Adlai Stevenson has instead won the US presidency and is notably less keen on the Third Reich than his predecessor Robert Taft (in reality, a non-interventionist beaten for the 1940 Republican nomination) has been.

Does David’s troubled ex-university colleague Frank Muncaster hold the key to the regime’s downfall? Can David keep his resistance work from his already suspicious wife? Do the rumours that Hitler has finally died, have any truth in them?

Sansom’s book follows on from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Robert Harris’s Fatherland in imagining a victory for the Axis powers. But it succeeds where most such novels fail in creating compelling characters and a gripping storyline to go alongside its chillingly plausible scenario. It also doesn’t shirk from reminding us of the attractions that an Anglo-German deal in 1940 might have held. At one point, we are reminded that Coventry’s 15th century cathedral (and thus, presumably the city itself) have escaped the 1939-40 War entirely intact.

C.J. Sansom has described Robert Harris’s Fatherland as “the best alternative history novel ever written.” He is too modest. With this book, a splendidly vivid portrait of a nightmare reality that could so easily have occurred, Dominion can now claim this accolade for itself.

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The strange case of Eli Wallach, George Brown and the death of JFK

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Tragedy sometimes brings out the best in people. This is often especially true in thee case of our political leaders. Ronald Reagan, for example, was rarely more eloquent than in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster. John Major rarely had a finer moment as PM than in paying tribute to his opponent John Smith on his death in May 1994.

Such eloquence deserted Labour politician George Brown when he appeared on the TV programme This Week on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Brown and JFK

Brown was not a full blown leader: he had been beaten by Harold Wilson for the party leadership the previous February following the death of Hugh Gaitskell. But he was very senior party figure destined to be Foreign Secretary in the forthcoming Labour Government. He had also been closer to Kennedy than almost any other British Labour politician of the time. But his performance was to be hugely embarrassing “a compound of maudlin sentimentality, name dropping and aggression” according to author Peter Paterson.

Brown (who had had a dispute with presenter Kenneth Harris in the past), took immediate offence at the opening question, “Now, you’re talking about a man who was a very great friend of mine…” and immediately began peppering his answers with over-familiar references to “Jack” and “Jackie” Kennedy. At one point tears welled up in his eyes: “Jack Kennedy, who I liked, who I was very near to…I remember it’s not many weeks ago I was over there with my daughter who lives in New York…and she was talking to Jackie across the garden. One is terribly hurt by this loss.”

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In Private Eye magazine parlance, the Deputy Labour leader was (not for the first or last time) “tired and emotional”. His speech was slurred, his arms moved too much. He was “unwell” in the Jeffery Bernard sense of the word.

He was pissed on air.

Worse had actually occurred behind the scenes before filming had begun. Brown had provoked a fight with fellow guest US film actor Eli Wallach, the star of the Magnificent Seven.

Having noisily asserted to everyone that the new president Lyndon Johnson (who he had also met) would be a great president, Brown began taunting the actor who was subdued and clearly upset by the day’s news, when he refused to be drawn into the conversation. Brown loudly asked why actors were so conceited and suggested Wallach was the sort who carried a newspaper around with him with his name in it. Wallach denied this, saying in fact, many people recognised him but could not place him or identify him by name.

The film actor attempted then to walk away, before Brown followed him and asked him if he had ever been in a play by Ted Willis (a Labour supporting British playwright). “You’ve never heard of Ted Willis? “ Brown exclaimed before launching into more about the conceit of US actors.

Wallach snapped: “I didn’t come here to be insulted. Is this bastard interviewing me on this programme? If so, I’m leaving now!” Brown said more and Wallach took off his jacket “Come outside and I’ll knock you off your can!” Brown told him to sit down and shut up.

Wallach ultimately had to be restrained by the other American guests. “I don’t care who he is, I’ll still knock the shit out of him!”

Later, Brown apparently made amends. But he still insisted on having the last word. “And now you’ll know who Ted Willis is!” he shouted at Wallace later.

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Ultimately, Brown’s appearance humiliated him. His tendency to get drunk very quickly on very small amounts was well known about in Westminster circles already. Now everyone outside Westminster knew as well

Brown made things worse with a badly phrased letter to the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy soon after. The assassination was “particularly harrowing for me” Brown wrote, “since it marked the end of a year which began with the death of my own colleague Hugh Gaitskell.” He seemed to be implying his own suffering was similar in scale to the former First Lady’s.
Ironically, Harold Wilson was effectively an alcoholic too, drinking much more than Brown but functioning better (at least until the mid-Seventies).

Brown survived the scandal but later described the last week of November 1963 as the “most miserable” of his life.

Thanks to “Tired and Emotional: The Life of Lord George Brown” by Peter Paterson (1993).

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How President Kennedy’s assassination changed the world forever

Chris Hallam's World View

JFK assassination 50th anniversary

The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.

But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…

1963

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.

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1964

Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He…

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A song for UKIP

(Actually, more of a poem than a song…)

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Right wing chumps of the world unite!

It’s time to take a stand and fight,

It’s time to desert the sinking ship,

Leave the Tories: join UKIP!

Follow your heart and not your head,

Maggie would back us (were she not dead,)

Listen to the Mail, Telegraph and Express,

Say no to EU bureaucracy and excess!

Are you racist to a small degree?

We’re less scary than the BNP!

If the PC liberals had their way,

Everyone in the world would be gay.

The EU is far too large.

Vote for an Englishman named Farage.

Join the UKIP throng as we march today,

Towards a glorious yesterday!

The rest of us on Planet Earth,

Should cheer on UKIP for all our worth,

For like in 1983,

They’re splitters like the SDP.

For Farage and his doltish band,

Are giving Labour a helping hand,

The bigger the split grows on the Right,

The better things look on election night.

So if you are a lefty liberal type like me,

And value the NHS and BBC,

And don’t blame the poor for being poor,

Or lay all our ills at the immigrant’s door.

If you don’t want to make life a misery,

For the poorest and weakest in society,

Then pray that UKIP win some seats,

And help Labour into Downing Street.

Chris Hallam.

From battlefields to ballot boxes

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How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity?  Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?

Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.

If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.

Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.

General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.

But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.

Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw,  Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.

Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.

Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.

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Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.

In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.

Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft.  But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.

Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.

In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.

Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?

Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?

Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:

1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.

2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.

2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.

2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.

As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.

So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.

In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.

Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.

Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.

Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.

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This is the future: 2013-2030.

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I am certainly no Nostradamus (although let’s face it: neither was Nostradamus). Had I written this a few years ago, I would probably have predicted David Miliband would now be Prime Minister and Hillary Clinton in power in the White House. But just for fun, let’s see what the next few years up to 2020 might have in store…

Scotland will vote to remain within the UK (2014).

The next General Election will have almost as the same outcome as the last one (2015).
I am fully aware this prediction will please no one. But while Labour are currently projected to win a substantial majority, I would expect this to change simply because Ed Miliband remains relatively unpopular and is hated by the press. At the same time, Tory hopes of winning an outright majority seem like overly optimistic wishful thinking. And if no one wins a majority, the Lib Dems in their current form seem unlikely to go with anyone other than the Cons simply because the Lib Dem leadership is basically Tory. So, sorry folks. We may be in for more of the same until 2020. Although there will be a new and slightly amended Coalition agreement, for all the difference that makes. Maybe Nick Clegg will remember to ask for a proper government department this time.

Yvette Cooper will be elected leader of the Labour Party following Ed Miliband’s resignation (2015)

Hillary Clinton will win the US presidential elections (2016).
She will beat Republican Paul Ryan in a close contest. She will be the first woman US president.

The UK will stay in the European Union throughout this decade (2010-2020).
UKIP will do well in the 2014 European elections but will fail to win a single seat in the 2015 General Election. Cameron will somehow dodge having the promised in-out referendum. The issue will contribute to his downfall in 2018.

Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister (2018).
Yes! Horror of horrors! This could actually happen. Start packing your suitcase now!

King Charles III will attempt to disestablish the Church of England (before 2030).
I don’t want to make morbid predictions about the likely mortality of the Queen. But I would guess Charles would be on the throne before the end of the next decade and some move towards reform from him in this quarter.

Underrated: Rob Reiner

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Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.

He has mastered different genres to the extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?

Reiner directed them all.

Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long running Seventies US comedy show All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies. But even these have tended not to be very similar to each other.

Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER star Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.

Stand By Me (1986)

Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body) improves on its source material in depicting four boys on a camping expedition into the woods to find the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes involving slugs and a rail track, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

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The Princess Bride (1987)

Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

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Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

“You can’t handle the truth!” Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

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North (1994)

The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The late critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

The American President (1996)

Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.

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Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies).  Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.

Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?

There are several reasons:

  1. He has genuinely gone off since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
  2. The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
  3. His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful/
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has.

But credit where credit’s due Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.