Badgeland: Memoir of a Labour Party Young Socialist in 1980s Britain, by Steve Rayson. Published: 7th February 2023
Steve Rayson has worn a few badges in his time.
The 1980s was a time when badges were often worn to convey political slogans, at least by those on the Left. Slogans like: ‘Coal not Dole’, ‘Nuclear Power, No Thanks’, ‘Rock Against Racism’, ‘Jobs not Bombs’, ‘Tories Out’, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, ‘Tony Benn for Deputy’, and ‘Keep GLC working for London’.
The book opens in Swindon in the late 1970s, at the exact point that Steve’s teenage preoccupations with football, fishing and females start to give way to a wider interest in promoting the Labour Party and socialism. It is a cause that will dominate the next decade of his life.
Opposition to his newfound idealism can be found everywhere. The old lady on the bus who refuses to accept that his ‘Anti Nazi League’ badge is not somehow intended to promote Nazism. The friend who rubs his hands with glee at the thought of helping his mother buy her own council house under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. The short-lived French girlfriend who proclaims, “I really admire Margaret Thatcher.” The man who concludes, ”I wouldn’t trust Labour with my money…Red Ken would just give it all to black lesbians.” Worst of all is the cool indifference of his working-class father who just seems embarrassed by his son’s frequent left-wing outbursts.
Over time, Steve sees his hometown and his country transformed. Indeed, he is transformed himself, never betraying his principles but forced to make compromises as he attempts to find his place in a rapidly changing new Thatcherite world. The book covers similar territory to other political memoirs by people of a similar age such as Mark Steel’s Reasons to be Cheerful or John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better. Steve Rayson lacks the comedy background of either of these two fairly well-known figures: until now, he has been best known for his more sober analysis of the reasons behind Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat, The Fall of the Red Wall (2020).
But this is, overall, a very readable, engaging and sometimes funny account of one young man’s decade-long campaign to attempt to halt and ideally reverse the nation’s gradual transformation into a new, crueller, harsher new Thatcherite reality.
At some point after Stargate but before the Star Wars prequels came Starship Troopers. The most underrated science fiction film of the 1990s made landfall across Earth in 1998. Would you like to know more? Join Chris Hallam as he goes on a bug hunt…
A war correspondent in full futuristic military uniform reports straight to camera from a battle scene. His location is on one of the bug meteors in the Klendathu system, whose deadly inhabitants, the giant insectoid Arachnids have been launching a series of devastating attacks on the Earth.
“It is an ugly planet! A Bug Planet! A planet hostile to life…” he states before he is brutally attacked mid-rant by one of the Arachnids. He does not last long. As if personally insulted by his harsh words about its home world, the monster proceeds to tear him apart in full view of the camera
“Keep moving! Get out of here NOW!” a passing mobile infantryman – in fact, our hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) warns the cameraman – and thus in true B-movie style, us. Soon afterwards, another soldier and the cameraman are also attacked by the same creature. So, begins 1997’s science fiction romp, Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name.
MAN VS BROOD
It’s a familiar story. Boy meets girl. Boy joins the Federal Service, where despite the opposition of his wealthy parents, he becomes a ‘Roughneck’ i.e. an infantry man. The girl becomes an ace space pilot, but living an entirely separate life, soon breaks up with the boy.
Okay: admittedly this isn’t a familiar story. It doesn’t really matter. For this is just the beginning. Soon the lives of Johnny and Carmen (Denise Richards) are transformed by the devastating war which erupts between the humans and the Arachnids. The various entanglements between, say, Johnny and fellow Roughneck “Dizzy” (Dina Meyer) soon fade into insignificance as the film becomes increasingly focused on the devastating physical confrontations between man and alien.
Or perhaps we should say “person vs alien”? For despite being directed by Paul Verhoeven, the man who brought the world Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the society in Starship Troopers is refreshingly lacking in prejudice based on gender or, indeed, race. Only the fictional species of giant killer insectoid aliens are treated badly. And criminals. And cows.
This liberal attitude extends to a scene in which many of the cast (including Dina Meyer) stripped off in front of the camera, for a unisex shower scene. Somewhat apprehensive, the young cast reportedly only agreed to this, if director Paul Verhoeven agreed to get naked himself while filming. Verhoeven, then overweight and fast approaching sixty was happy to do so. Thankfully, no images recording Verhoeven’s gesture seem to exist.
Actress Denise Richards who played Johnny’s initial love interest Carmen was crucially absent from this scene: in fact, her character was elsewhere, and it would have made no sense for her to have been involved. This did not stop the film and others such as Wild Things (1998), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and the Bond film, The World Is Not Enough (1999) launching Richards’ career as a major film star and sex symbol of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Neil Patrick Harris – then, best known for his early 90s teenage TV role as Doogie Hauser MD – plays Carl, the gang’s slightly geeky friend, who ultimately turns out to be psychic. Harris would achieve stardom only later. Today, it is he and Richards not Van Dien, Meyer or even established characters like the late Rue ‘Blanche from Golden Girls’ McClanahan and Michael Ironside, who are easily the most famous people in the entire film.
Has Starship Troopers dated? “Hell! Yes Sir!” Some of the CGI inevitably looks less impressive now than it did at the time. And while fighting aliens in space is still very much the stuff of science fiction, a viewer today in the ae of Zoom, would be forgiven for not noticing that Carmen’s electronic conversations with her long distance boyfriend, Johnny, were anything unusual when the film was made in the 1990s.
None of these things matter. For at the end of the day, watching Starship Troopers remains an enjoyable experience. The scenes of warriors doing battle as vast hordes of Arachnids can be seen teeming over the horizon remain exhilarating, exciting, gory and fun.
The film is also immeasurably boosted by the series of short, sombrely narrated state propaganda films supposedly created by the ruling regime which appear throughout. Presented in the style of Allied Second World War newsreels, while also attempting to deploy internet type technology (the web was still young in 1997), these somehow manage to seem both old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time.
They are undeniably intentionally funny but also give us a taste of the kind of society, Johnny Rico and his friends have grown up in. It is a society which is comfortable with child soldiers and which (like the modern USA) is perhaps a little bit too relaxed about preventing its children from getting their hands on guns. It is a society in which criminals are flogged and executed not just publicly, but on live TV. It is a society in which children are urged to stamp on harmless domestic spiders by war-mad teachers driven into a frenzy by government propaganda. And as we learn early on in Johnny’s civics class, it is a society where citizenship and the right to vote are not awarded automatically, but have to be earned.
The human society in the film, Starship Troopers live in an Americanised fascist state.
The question is, is this what creator Robert A Heinlein would have wanted, either for a film based on one of his books or for human society itself?
THE STATE THEY’RE IN
One day, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands of the early 1940s, one member of the occupying forces decided to play a cruel game to pass the time. He pointed his gun at a small boy. The boy was naturally terrified and had wet himself publicly before the Nazi stopped.
The boy was Paul Verhoeven. And he never forgot it.
More than fifty years later, he directed Starship Troopers, a film which seemed to confuse many reviewers. Some (for example, the late Jeff Vice) seemed to miss the fact that it was set in a fascist state completely. Others did recognise this, but assumed Verhoeven was endorsing fascism.
The celebrated critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out five. “Starship Troopers” is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate,” he wrote, clearly deliberately insulting it. “(Verhoeven) wants to depict the world of the future as it might have been visualized in the mind of a kid reading Heinlein in 1956.” The book was actually first published in 1959. Scott Rosenberg, writing in Salon was disappointed for different reasons. It “lacks the courage of the book’s fascist conclusions.”
Let us be clear: there is no doubt whatsoever about Verhoeven’s anti-fascist intentions in the film. Nor is there any doubt that the society he and screenwriter Edward Neumeier conceived is sufficiently right-wing to be considered fascist. The military are completely dominant. There is little evidence of democracy. Corporal and capital punishment are in use. The characters’ uniforms sometimes look fascistic in design too. By the end of the film, Neil Patrick Harris practically looks like a member of the Gestapo.
The satirical elements in the film are intended to give the viewer pause for thought, drawing attention to similarities between the US and this ultra-right-wing state.
On the other hand, it is easy to see how some people might get confused regarding the film’s attitudes to fascism. For one thing, as mentioned, the very worst aspects of fascism: the extreme racism and persecution of minority groups do not seem to exist here. Unlike every other Far Right state everyone seems refreshingly progressive when it comes to gender and race. The girls and boys fight … and shower… side by side. Even though many of the girls suffer excruciating deaths as they are impaled by Arachnids at least, as they do so they can take comfort from the fact that they are doing so on equal terms with the chaps.
It also must be said that things do seem to function pretty well in the world of Starship Troopers. Everything seems to be almost perfectly set up to counter the Arachnid threat. One wonders if a more democratic, less military society would be so well prepared to combat an alien menace, particularly if they were more constrained by inhibitions over gender and race.
Actor Michael Ironside, played high school teacher turned Roughneck unit commander, Jean Rasczak recalls being puzzled by Verhoeven’s attitude.
“Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?” He asked. Verhoeven replied: “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me.” He continued: “So, I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking Bugs!”
Many fans of the book had another objection to the film. They didn’t appreciate the implication that Heinlein was a fascist at all. It seems unlikely Heinlein would have appreciated that label either. However, he had died in 1988.
If the novel and film of Starship Troopers are very different, it is perhaps not surprising. The director hadn’t read the book.
“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” Verhoeven admits. “It is really quiet a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing.”
Starship Troopers represented something of a turning point for Heinlein as he moved from juvenile to adult fiction. There are quite a few differences between the book and the film: there is a lot more technical detail about the troopers’ suits and Heinlein’s years of naval experience are clearly in evidence in the text. But there’s no getting away from politics: Heinlein was, in fact, motivated to write the novel after being inspired by his anger over the moderate Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to suspend nuclear testing in 1959. A leftist in his earlier days, by the 1950s, he was clearly firmly on the Right with many of his characters’ words clearly reflecting his own conservative outlook.
The words, “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men,” seems like an early formulation of the National Rifle Association’s famously inane but resonant slogan, “guns don’t kill people: people do”. Heinlein is critical of the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and clearly advocates the notion of citizenry and the right to vote are earned through service and combat. He clearly advocates flogging of juvenile delinquents, using a strange analogy about a puppy to illustrate his pointy. His character, Dubois says of the 20th century: “that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense…half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry.”
It is easy to forget he is writing in the relatively placid USA of the 1950s. Heinlein may not have literally been a fascist, but he certainly had tendencies in that direction. Had he lived to see it, he may not have liked the implication that the society in the film version was fascistic, but it seems unlikely he’d have disagreed with much about how the society functioned in the film.
On the plus side, the book shows few obvious signs of racism at all. This is reasonably unusual for an American book of the mid-20th century and very much to Robert A Heinlein’s credit.
THE RETURN OF RICO
The years rolled by. Robert Heinlein’s status as an author steadily increased. By the time of his death in 1988, the man behind Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was regularly ranked as one of the “Big Three” of English language science fiction authors alongside Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The year 1978, meanwhile, had seen a teenaged Sarah Brightman release the single, ‘I’m In Love With A Starship Trooper’ with Hot Gossip. The following year saw The VCs debut in British comic, 2000AD. Unlike the pop song and as he freely admitted, Gerry Finley-Day’s strip clearly owed a lot to Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers.
In the 1990s, a script entitled Bug Hunt At Outpost Nine began to circulate. The script was similar enough to Heinlein’s 1959 book that a decision was to buy the rights and adapt it directly. Paul Verhoeven, the man behind the original science fiction blockbusters, Robocop and Total Recall was hired to direct.
Although not a flop, Starship Troopers underperformed at the box office. Had it been a success, it might well have become a major movie franchise. This may yet happen there is serious talk of a reboot and a script has been written. As it is, there are sequels (see the box out) but none made it to US cinema screens.
As it is, 25 years on the film looks better now than it did at the time. It’s true the acting is sometimes ropey – witness Denise Richards’ sudden dramatic recovery from apparent serious injury in the film’s closing scenes – but the film’s depiction of a militaristic American national security state anticipates the struggles of the next decade (the US not fighting Arachnids but Iraqis) and the arguably fascistic tendencies of the Trump Administration (2017-21).
As Paul Verhoeven says: “It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’
BOX OUT: HEROES, MARAUDERS AND TRAITORS..
At last! All those spin-offs and sequels in full…
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1998-1999): A 36-part CGI animated TV series. Paul Verhoeven was executive producer and featuring characters (although not the voices) from the film such as Johnny and Dizzy. Ended after being beset with Bugs…er… I mean production problems.
Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004). TV film sequel scripted by the original film’s screenwriter Edward Neumeier (who also wrote Robocop). Richard Burgi, later of Desperate Housewives stars as Captain V.J Dax. Two-word review: it’s bad.
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008) Casper Van Dien returns as Rico in this straight to DVD effort directed by Neumeier. Perhaps slightly better than Hero of the Federation, but not by much.
Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017) Japanese computer animated films. Surprisingly, Van Dien and Dina Meyer both reprise their roles from the 1997 film in the second of these, Traitors of Mars.
Remember, remember: Charles and Camilla (Dominic West and Olivia Williams) enjoy the fireworks
John Major is the first living British prime minister to have been portrayed in The Crown and in real life, the man Major is not happy about it. A spokesman for the 79-year-old former premier has attacked the show as “a barrel-load of nonsense peddled for no other reason than to provide maximum – and entirely false – dramatic impact.”
The thought of a fully enraged elderly Major should be enough in itself to make even the toughest of the tough quake in terror. But, in all seriousness, Major’s anger seems unwarranted. His portrayal by Jonny Lee Miller is sympathetic. He is depicted as the loyalist of the loyal. Imelda Staunton’s Queen even praises him for his years of service. What is more, the many problems of his troubled administration are largely glossed over. Unlike Macmillan (Anton Lesser) whose wife’s long affair with another politician, Lord Boothby was shown in Season 2, Major’s 1980s affair with colleague, Edwina Currie is never even hinted at. In truth, Major’s fury seems to have been inspired by newspaper claims that he is shown actively plotting with Prince Charles (Dominic West) against the Queen, something which never happens in the series at all.
His premiership did, however, coincide with many of the most troubled moments of the Queen’s reign. In this episode, for example, we get to relive the embarrassment of ‘Tampongate’ in which a sexually charged private phone conversation between Charles and Camilla (Olivia Williams) from 1989 in which the future King fantasised about being a tampon inside the future Queen Consort is released in the 1990s.
Surprisingly, this conversation is reproduced in a way which makes it less excruciating than you might expect. Looking back, we can see now that they were just two fortysomethings in love. They were very unlucky indeed that their phone chat is intercepted by an amateur radio ham who records it and takes it to the tabloids after recognising Charles’s distinctive voice.
Charles actually comes across well for much of this episode, his attitudes and outlook on many issues in the 1990s now looking way ahead of their time. He is even shown breakdancing at one point something Dominic West naturally looks much cooler doing than the real Charles ever did. He comes across less well in his interview with Jonathan Dimbleby claiming he was faithful “until it became obvious that the marriage couldn’t be saved.”
Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), now separated, knows this account is less than honest. Stealthily, she considers her counter move.
Stand down Margaret: The Princess (Lesley Manville) faces up to the truth
Did you know the Queen’s sister once very nearly married James Bond?
Well, okay, that didn’t exactly happen. But in this episode, the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret (the brilliant Lesley Manville) meets up with her first love, retired equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. And he’s now played by Timothy Dalton, who once famously played 007. You see what I mean? Dalton was, in fact, still officially cast as James Bond in 1992 the very year this episode was set. For all that matters.
It’s all quite poignant. As depicted in The Crown: Season 1, the official refusal to allow the young Princess and the divorced Group Captain (then played by Vanessa Kirby and Coupling star Ben Miles: both seen here in flashback) effectively wrecked poor old Margaret’s life. He went on to marry someone else, happily and successfully. She married too: disastrously, leaving her bitter, boozy and resentful. However, here they get to meet one final time. This apparently did happen but not in quite the way it happens here. Margaret is left shaken not stirred as he woos the living daylights out of her (apologies).
There’s some more dramatic licence here: we see Townsend listening to Margaret being interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs as if this occurred, like the rest of the episode in 1992. In fact, as all true BBC Radio 4 fans will know, that particular episode was broadcast in 1981. Plomley died in 1985, in fact, so it is rather surprising to see him still alive seven years’ later.
Anyway, it becomes clear there is still some lingering tension between the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Margaret over the issue although this all seems to be resolved by the end of the episode. Lesley Manville is great as ever as Margaret. You have to wonder if she was ever considered as a possible option to play the Queen herself
Talking of which, the Queen has a lot on her plate this time. Royal divorces are like buses. You wait ages for one and then three come along at once. First, Anne (Claudia Harrison) wants to remarry after her divorce. This provokes anguished complaint from Margaret. If she can do it, why couldn’t I? In truth, the situations are not actually identical. Anne is the daughter of the Queen not her sister. Anne is also the divorced one in this instance, not her proposed husband. Margaret has also now been permitted to get divorced herself and could presumably remarry if she wished. Margaret also was given the option of marrying Townsend if she was prepared to relinquish all claims on the throne. That said, none of these points are brought up here and Margaret is certainly justified in feeling aggrieved. For the record, Anne’s second marriage to Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence has now lasted for thirty years. It is the most enduring of any of the six marriages entered into by the children of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Next up, the now disgraced Prince Andrew (James Murray) announces his marriage to the toe-sucking Fergie is over (no, not the football manager or the one from the Black Eyed Peas). Worst of all, the once and future king, Charles (Dominic West) confirms his marriage is over too. Then Windsor Castle burns down. If the 1990s was the worst decade of the Queen’s reign, then 1992 was the worst year. Perhaps of her entire life.
This prompts the famous Annus Horribilis speech in which the Queen admits that 1992’s been as Francis of Assisi might have put it “a complete and utter shitshow”. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) objects to the speech: in a touching scene Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and the Queen defend each other. None of the conversation apparently really happened. It doesn’t really matter: the speech undeniably marked a shift away from the stiff upper lipped attitudes of the past towards the “I feel your pain” approach of the post-Diana era.
It’s that man again: Di (Elizabeth Debicki) meets Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau)
One of the fun things about The Crown is that you never know when or where each episode is going to start from. You would sort of expect each show is going to start with a caption reading ‘Buckingham Palace, 1991’ or something predictable like that. But, in practice, it’s just as likely to read, ‘Berlin, 1940,’ ‘Amsterdam, 1664,’ or ‘The Planet Osios IV, Alpha Centauri, 8162.’ (I’m exaggerating a little here. Very few episodes of The Crown are actually set in Deep Space).
This time, we open in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1946. Where is this heading? Alex Jennings makes a welcome return cameo appearance as a visiting middle-aged Duke of Windsor before we realise this is The Crown’s introduction to the crazy world of the Al-Fayed family. We witness the birth of Dodi and as the years roll by, we witness his over-sexed father Mohamed’s attempts to establish himself in British society and the resistance he encounters due to a combination of genuine doubts about his character and the usual snobbery and racism. We see him (well played by Salim Dau) buying Harrods and his and Dodi’s (Khalid Abdalla) often overlooked successes within the British film industry. According to this, they actually watched the filming of the famous opening of Chariots of Fire, a sequence once memorably described by Roddy Doyle as “a bunch of tossers running across a beach.”
We also learn of Mohamed’s apparent obsession with the by then deceased ex-King Edward VIII. He employs Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike) a former black valet to the onetime monarch and see him buy Edward and Wallis’s former home. All true enough apparently. In real life, Mohamed Al-Fayed is now 93. I wonder what he makes of all this?
Anyway, later he attempts to meet the Queen (Imelda Staunton) at a racecourse but is charmed by Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) instead. He likes to be called “Mou Mou.” Dodi meets her briefly for the first time too although it’s not quite the thunderbolt moment we might have expected. Dodi says little to her and Di doesn’t really seem to notice him. This is the only time they meet during this series of The Crown.
Di another day: The Princess (Elizabeth Debicki) spills the beans.
Bad news for fans of Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth II: she’s barely in this episode at all, appearing only fairly briefly at the start and again towards the end. She is, for the most part, Queen Unseen. Queen but not heard.
Never mind: instead, we get lots about Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and old Phillip (Jonathan Pryce). Diana is hanging out a lot with her fried, Dr. James Colhurst (Oliver Chris) who acts as an intermediary between her and author, Andrew Morton (Andrew Steele) as she provides first hand material for his sensational warts-and-all biography of her, Diana: Her True Story.
The Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, is indulging his love of carriage-riding with family friend, Lady Penny Knatchbull (Truman Show actress, Natascha McElhone). Yes, you heard me: carriage riding. Apparently, this isn’t just something people in 1820 used to do, but a genuine hobby which rich people like to do today: restoring and then riding about in old carriages. Each to their own, I suppose.
But hang on a mo! Lady Penny is much younger than the old Duke and very attractive. Does the Queen not mind about this? Well, fear not, it all seems to be perfectly innocent. The two do achieve a genuine sense of intimacy, but not in a rude way. In a sudden burst of story, Penny does reveal to Philip what Di’s been up to. Philip is annoyed and arranges to meet with Diana and gives her a friendly warning. Don’t rock the boat, he says. And, for once, he doesn’t mean the Royal Yacht, Britannia.
But it’s too late to cancel the book now and anyway Diana doesn’t want to. This seems to mark the point where Diana goes rogue.
Live and let Di: The Prince and Princess (Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki) go on fighting the Cold War.
It’s 1991 and the political situation is very, very different from how it is today, in November 2022.
Hard as it is to imagine now but back in 1991, Britain had been under the same Conservative government for twelve long years. I know, right? With the economy slipping into economic recession, the Tories had forced out their unpopular woman leader and replaced her with the man who until recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new Prime Minister was the youngest one so far of the entire century. So, as you can see: nothing like the current state of affairs at all.
But never mind all that, where’s the Queen?
Well, the series opens with a supposed bit of newsreel footage showing the Queen attending a ceremony marking the commissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia back in 1957. Older readers will remember that for the first decade of her reign, the young Queen was played by the actress Claire Foy and this is the case here. The flashback ends with Foy’s Queen staring, horrified into the middle distance as if she has foreseen the images which appear in the next scene where she has transformed into Imelda Staunton. We first see Staunton’s monarch enduring the banal necessities of a routine medical examination. We are now in the 1990s and like Staunton herself, the sovereign is now supposed to be in her mid-sixties.
Of course, we already know the real problem isn’t with the Queen herself (spoiler alert: she lives for another 31 years) but with her children, three of whom are about to divorce, almost simultaneously. A frisky Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) is already eyeing up the local talent while Charles (Dominic West) is doing his best to preserve the public face of his desperately unhappy marriage to the much-loved Princess Diana. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki does a great job of replacing the also excellent Emma Corrin in this challenging role, often displaying a remarkable physical resemblance to the late Princess of Wales. But by this point, the marriage is clearly already doomed, wrecked by Charles’s affair with Camilla and by the fact they obviously have absolutely nothing in common.
The onetime Trainspotting actor, Jonny Lee Miller plays Britain’s Prime Minister, John Major. Major mostly sits quietly while lots of people talk at him in this episode. It is not really made clear whether this is because he is supposed to be naturally inscrutable or because he is keeping quiet because he senses he is out of his depth. Prince Charles, in this, seems to be plotting to encourage the Queen to abdicate and waffles vaguely and attempting to draw vague parallels with the decision to replace the ageing sixty-something Thatcher with the male forty-something Major. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) typically attempts to embarrass Major socially. Diana and the Queen are more polite to him. Sadly, there is no repeat of the scene in the Chris Morris comedy, The Day Today, in which the Queen and Major have a full-blown fight during their weekly audience together.
The story so far: Against all the odds, ordinary London girl and granddaughter of King George V, Elizabeth Windsor has risen to become Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Having seen off many perils during her first forty years on the throne including her wayward, drunken sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby/Helena Bonham Carter/Lesley Manville), unstable palace intruder, Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) and non-U-turning, ex-Europhile, Iron Lady, Great She Elephant, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), she now faces her greatest enemy of all: HER OWN CHILDREN. Can the Queen resolve the mystery of the Annus Horribilis? Can this series avoid overlapping with the storyline of the film, The Queen, also written by Peter Morgan nearly twenty years ago? And can the Queen work out why after nearly thirty years as Olivia Colman, she has now suddenly turned into Imelda Staunton? For the answers, read on…
Drama Queen: Actress Imelda Staunton takes over the reign/reins…
This book is advertised as being based on “the struggle which inspired Game of Thrones.” This is sort of true, but also very misleading. You certainly won’t find any dragons or ‘white walkers’ in this account. On the plus side, the ending is arguably rather more satisfactory. The Wars of the Roses are the name given to the dynastic struggles which engulfed England in the second half of the 15th century. When studying the wars, it is important to remember two things: a) the wars were really not about flowers at all. The role played by botany in the conflict has been greatly overstated. b) they were essentially a struggle between different armies led by different men called either Henry, Richard or Edward, who were all vaguely related to each other. 1399: Henry Bollngbroke overthrows and kills Richard II and becomes Henry IV, the first king of the House of Lannister, sorry, I mean, Lancaster. Nobody minds much at the time: Richard was a tyrant. But this leads to problems fifty years later… 1450s: By now Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI is king. Although a good man, he is weak and sometime insane and has effectively lost the Hundred Years’ War to France. He has also fallen out with his old ally, Richard of York who can claim royal descent from the earlier Richard II. Richard rises against Henry. The wars begin! 146os: Richard of York gave battle in vain. He is killed at the Battle of Stoke in 1460. But his son, Edward overthrows Henry VI a few months later. Edward IV becomes the first king of the House of Stark. I mean, York! 1470s: Edward annoys his old ally, the Earl of Warwick (actual name: Richard) known as ‘the Kingmaker’ who teams up with the old Lancastrian bunch to reinstate the now completely mad Henry VI. This doesn’t last long: Edward IV reclaims the throne. Warwick dies in battle. Henry VI is discretely killed off. 1480s: Edward IV dies suddenly. His son, Edward V is now king but is still a boy. Edward IV’s brother places Edward V and his brother (another Richard!) under ‘protection’. The two young ”princes in the tower’ are never seen again. Gloucester becomes Richard III and depending on your view was either good or evil. Two years’ later, Lancastrian exile, Henry Tudor defeats Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard is killed and ends up being dug up in a 21st century Leicester car park. Henry is married to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York theoretically uniting the warring Houses of York and Lancaster. The wars, in practice, continue for a little while longer but as far as 1485 goes, Henry VII is enshrined as the first Tudor king.
First, a quick word of warning: one of the main characters in this novel is referred to only as “the Big Guy” throughout. This frankly takes quite a bit of getting used to, but somehow it is possible. And it’s well worth doing so, for if you can, at the end of the day, this is another fine novel from one of the best American authors around. It’s November 2008 and Barack Obama has just soundly beaten Senator John McCain in the race to the White House. The Big Guy (you see? I know!) is very unhappy about this. He is a rich, ageing conservative and soon begins consulting some of his friends who have similar inclinations as to the best possible response to these events. But what exactly do they intend to do? As others have noticed, this is definitely quite a political book. Homes’ last novel, May We Be Forgiven featured a character who was obsessed with Richard Nixon a lot and this one includes cameo appearances from the defeated McCain as well as from presidents Bush (the second one) and Obama. I enjoyed the political side of the book, but rest assured, there’s lots of other good stuff here too as the Big Guy finds time to reassess his relationships with Charlotte, his troubled, alcoholic wife and with their intelligent, thoughtful daughter, Megan.
For as long as England has existed, there have always been a brave and stubborn minority who have been prepared to stand up and challenge the existing order in the hope of changing people’s lives for the better. That, in essence, is what this collection of essays is all about. Where would we be now if the barons had not risen against King John, leading to Magna Carta? Or without Wat Tyler and the peasants who revolted against the tyranny of Richard II in the 14th century? Or without the Civil War which briefly unseated the English monarchy and beheaded King Charles I in 1649?
In truth, some of these English rebels and revolutionaries were more effective than others. Wat Tyler’s rebellion, for example, appeared to achieve very little at all at the time, but it did at least show that the common people could stand up and rise up against the King. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Richard II was overthrown forever not long afterwards.
But, we should always remember, history is not about things staying the same. It is all about change. And every one of the rebels and revolutionaries described in this book, played some part in transforming England from a medieval feudal tyranny into the democratic constitutional monarchy of today.
Troubled Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has denied that his leadership had been fatally wounded by last night’s confidence vote. In fact, he appeared to deny that such a vote had even taken place. “If there was a large group of MPs gathering in the Commons on that particular date, I was certainly unaware of it,” he stated, in comments made this morning. He promised to launch an immediate inquiry to establish both whether such a vote occurred and whether he himself had been there or not.
Mr. Johnson went on to deny hearing crowds booing him on his arrival at both the Platinum Jubilee Service on Friday or at the special Platinum Jubilee Concert held on Saturday evening. “I am not aware of either of these events or this so-called “jubilee” which everyone in the media seems so obsessed with,” he argued. “Honestly, the suggestion that most people care whether or not we have a Queen or whether I once saw a birthday cake while walking past a shop window at a serious time like this is just plain balderdash.” He added: “The media seem to be convinced everyone is partying and celebrating all the time. It simply isn’t true. In the real world, most ordinary people are too busy struggling with the cost of living crisis and other problems which my government created.”
Elsewhere, Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries also attacked the media claiming recent footage of the Queen sharing tea with Paddington Bear had been faked using “special effects”.
The Victorian era is sometimes remembered as a stuffy, prudish period when radical ideas were either not proposed or not listened to. This is not entirely true. Here, author James Hobson details the lives of nineteen ground-breaking Victorians who boldly blazed a trail for various ideas and positions, which in most cases, were not widely adopted until much later, if at all. Of the nineteen figures included not one, except perhaps Labour Party founder, James Keir Hardie is well-known today. Hobson’s interest is not in those who like Charles Darwin, saw their radical theories widely absorbed into mainstream society during their lifetimes. The book is more interested in the outliers: the often lonely figures who stuck to their guns in the face of almost universal indifference, hostility and sometimes hatred. None of the nineteen figures lived to see their arguments become popular. Some of their outlandish notions, such as gender equality, freedom of the press and the notion of cremating the dead, have become widely accepted since. Others, such as socialism, vegetarianism and republicanism remain significant minority opinions, which are at least tolerated today. Others, such as spiritualism and eugenics have largely fallen out of favour. Th figures included are a mixed bunch. For example, whatever good points they may have had, the vegetarian, Anna Kingsford,, socialist Henry Hyndman and scientist, Francis Galton were all undeniably very racist by modern standards. And while the author keeps an open mind, it is difficult to read the chapter about spiritualist, Florence Cook, without concluding she was some sort of fraud. Many of these figures were eccentric. Some were deeply flawed. All were very unusual.
But some undeniably great things and did much to improve the lives of large numbers of people. The 19th century temperance movement has developed a reputation for hypocrisy and cant. In the chapter on Ann Jane Carlile, Hobson reminds us that this wasn’t always the case and was, at any rate, tackling an extremely serious alcohol problem which was destroying thousands of lives. Josephine Butler, likewise, did invaluable work in combatting the sexual double standard enforced by the odious Contagious Diseases Act. Even Francis Galton, today notorious as ‘the father of eugenics’ was justly celebrated during his lifetime for his very real scientific achievements. His ultimately wrongheaded ideas about selective breeding were shared by many on both the left as well as the right at the time. They would become inextricably linked to the horrors of Nazism, but this would only happen long after Galton’s death in 1911. In short, this book presents a fascinating portrait of a society tentatively taking the small but essential stepping stones towards the world we know today.
Book review: Radical Victorians: The Women and Men who Dared to Think Differently, by James Hobson. Published: May 30th 2022, by Pen and Sword.
November 22nd 1963 was a terrible day for many people. For John McCormack, the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, it was an even more shocking time than for most. For McCormack was initially told not only that President John F. Kennedy, but also that his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had both been assassinated during their trip to Dallas. According to the line of succession this meant that he himself, as Speaker was now the US president. As the news sunk in, McCormack was overcome by a wave of vertigo and found himself momentarily unable to stand. When McCormack learnt the truth moments later: the Vice President was in fact completely unharmed and so he and not McCormack would become the next US president, a wave of relief spread across the old man’s face. Mel Ayton’s book about the protection afforded to both presidents and candidates since the Kennedy era is full of such fascinating titbits. Both JFK and his brother, Bobby who was also shot and killed while seeking the presidency in 1968, both shared a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of assassination. As it turns out, Bobby’s tragic killing could have been very easily prevented. The racist presidential candidate, George Wallace, in contrast was generally very wary of the prospect of attack but was shot and paralysed during a brief moment of recklessness while on the campaign trail in 1972. Perhaps understandably, Ted Kennedy’s political career was haunted by constant fears that he might become the third successive Kennedy to fall foul of an assassin’s bullet. Richard Nixon used Ted Kennedy’s secret service detail as a means to spy on the senator who was a potential rival. Others have abused the secret service supplied, to them. JFK and Gary Hart both used them as a means to help facilitate their own womanising. Others have been resistant or unhelpful to their detail: Nixon’s tendency to plunge enthusiastically into large crowds without earning reportedly led him to be dubbed “a sniper’s dream.” Other candidates have treated their detail with much more respect and even something approaching friendship. Ultimately, this is a full and revealing account of a fascinating subject. It is a shame that in the later chapters, Ayton’s political prejudices. notably his clear hostility to the Clinton family, get in the way of an otherwise compelling and readable factual account.
Protecting the Presidential Candidates: From JFK To Biden, by Mel Ayton. Published by: Frontline Books.
It used to be said that when people went completely insane that they traditionally often came to believe that they were Napoleon. Imagine then how Napoleon Bonaparte himself must have felt. Not only did he spend his entire life totally and utterly convinced he was Napoleon, but it turns out, he actually really was Napoleon all along! It must have been a traumatic experience for him. This old book by the late John Bowle reminds us of the massive impact Napoleon had on the world during his relatively short time on Earth. Rising from humble origins, he not only completely transformed his nation’s military fortunes but revolutionised post-revolutionary France and changed the world forever. He was not the total monster either Hitler or Stalin would prove to be. He did some good while undoubtedly unleashing a significant amount of warfare and misery in his quest for global supremacy. This is a tale that has been told many times before. As ABBA wisely remind us in the song ‘Waterloo’, “the history book on the shelf, it’s always repeating itself.” But Bowle’s version is told very well indeed.
His previous book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson focused on the ten most recent British occupants of 10 Downing Street.
In his new book, even the list of subjects chosen is potentially contentious as Richards has specifically chosen to focus on the ten people who he feels came closest to becoming Prime Minister in the last sixty or so years without ever quite achieving it.
The list actually includes eleven people, not ten, as Richards has judged the two Milibands to be equally worthy of a place here and are both dealt with in one chapter.
The figures included are:
Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
It is a good selection. Of the eleven, only three were ever party leader. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband were both cruelly denied power after losing General Elections (in 1992 and 2015) which most opinion polls and most people expected them to emerge from as Prime Minister, as at the very least, the leaders of a Hung Parliament. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn caused a major upset by wiping out Theresa May’s majority in an unnecessary election which she had expected to win by a landslide. For a short period, Corbyn seemed achingly close to power. But his last two years as Opposition leader were disastrous and in 2019, he lost far more heavily to the Tories, by then under their new leader, Boris Johnson.
Two others on the list, Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine came close to becoming leader while their parties were in power. But while supremely well-qualified for the position of PM on paper, Butler lacked the qualities necessary to secure the position in practice. He lost out three times in 1955, 1957 and 1963. He was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the far more ruthless Harold Macmillan. Amongst other things, his speech to the 1963 Party Conference was much too dull to excite the Tory Faithful.
Michael Heseltine’s party conference speeches, in contrast, were never dull but he faced a near impossible challenge in 1990 in attempting to both remove Margaret Thatcher from office and replace her. He succeeded in the first but failed to achieve the latter despite remaining a potential leadership contender until after the Tories lost power in 1997. Although he wisely avoids going down the counter-factual history route, Richards does speculate that as Prime Minister, Heseltine may well have fundamentally changed Britain forever. Alas, we will never know.
Ultimately, all eleven of the figures featured here failed to win the premiership for different reasons. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke all attempted to swim against the opposing tides then prevailing within their own parties. Onetime heir to the Thatcherite legacy, Michael Portillo, meanwhile, was forced into such a fundamental rethink of his values by his 1997 defeat, that he seemed to have lost all his enthusiasm for leadership by the time he was finally able to contest it in 2001. Many of his original supporters by then had their doubts as to whether they still wanted him to be leader too.
Richards’ list is almost as interesting for those it misses off as for those it includes. From the outset, his position is clear: in this book, he is only interested in the reasons why people didn’t become PM. He thus wastes no time on the tragic cases of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod or John Smith, all of whom lost any chance they might have had simply as a result of their sadly premature deaths. He also wastes no time on no-hopers. Whatever qualities they might have had, nobody ever expected Michael Foot or William Hague to make the jump from Opposition leader to Downing Street, least of all the men themselves.
I am surprised by Reginald Maudling’s exclusion from the list, however. Whatever his flaws, he was widely expected to beat Edward Heath to the Tory leadership in 1965 and from there may well have led the Tories back into power as Heath himself somehow managed to do. Richards also (perhaps after some hesitation) rejects Tony Benn from the list arguing:
“Benn almost qualifies as a prime minister we never had but fails to do so because, unlike Corbyn, he was never leader of the Opposition and he never had a credible chance of becoming prime minister while Labour was in government.”
This is fair enough but it does make Barbara Castle’s inclusion as one of the ten seem a bit conspicuous. She never after all, even stood for party leader. Yet it arguably doesn’t matter. Castle was a colourful and interesting character. She might have become leader and her inclusion proves a useful entry point for discussing other female politicians of the time such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. Richards’ writing is consistently engaging and well-argued. And rest assured, the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot certainly get lots of coverage here anyway.
It is a sad book, in some ways. Neil Kinnock possessed many brilliant qualities and achieved much but his nine years as Opposition leader were generally agonising. He arguably saved the Labour Party only to find that he himself had become their biggest obstacle to it ever winning power. Both Milibands were hugely talented too but ultimately found their own ambitions effectively cancelled each other out with disastrous consequences for both them and their family. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who Richards reliably assures us is almost completely lacking in any personal vanity at all ended up finding himself widely labelled as narcissistic.
It is an excellent book nevertheless confirming Steve Richards’ position as one of our finest political writers. Perhaps Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer should grab a copy and take note if only to help ensure they don’t find themselves in any future editions?
Although not obviously unusually significant, 1922 was a reasonably eventful year in global history. In Italy, a rally organised by Benito Mussolini got out of hand, resulting in a 'March on Rome' and, almost accidentally, the establishment of the world's first Fascist state. In Britain, the BBC (then called 'the British Broadcasting Company') began broadcasting for the first time. T.S Eliot's landmark poem, The Wasteland was published. Music hall legend, Marie Lloyd died. Harold R. Harris became the first man ever to successfully bail himself out of a plane by using a parachute.
An eventful year indeed and all of these events occurred just in one month of 1922 (October). Many more occurred throughout the rest of the year.
On a month by month basis, Nick Rennison's readable popular history book explores a number of the year's events. We learn about feats of speed and aviation, early Hollywood scandals, sporting successes, notorious trials and about Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. We learn about the rise of the Flapper (1920s slang for any thoroughly modern fun-loving young woman) and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Assassins strike. American lynch mobs converge. In newly Soviet Russia, the ailing Lenin watches as Trotsky and Stalin battle to succeed him. The world recovers from a global pandemic.
A fascinating snapshot of the vanished world of a century ago.
Book review: 1922, Scenes From A Turbulent Year, by Nick Rennison. Published by: Oldcastle Books. Available: now.
Talking to people about Facebook is a bit like talking to them about God: no two people see it in quite the same way and most people don’t really believe in it all. My own personal experience of Facebook is that it has become an increasingly faceless experience in recent years anyway. It has certainly never felt anything like reading a book. A book of faces sounds more like an album anyway.
Whatever else it might be, it certainly isn’t very ‘meta.’ Facebook (today aside) does not talk about itself endlessly. This would work better as a new name for the BBC. No, Facebook works best as a means to keep up with old friends or rivals without having to suffer the indignity of talking to them. The name ‘Eyeball’ would work better.
As for Twitter? The name ‘Twitter’ suggests a pleasant, idle conversation, perhaps one overheard in the distance through an open window which you might feel drawn towards joining in. The reality is somewhat different. These days Twitter is more akin to overhearing two cats fighting nearby. It is the living realisation of the Monty Python sketch where a man turns up and politely books himself in to have an argument. Arguments can be found on Twitter 24 hours a day. Just type in one of the magic words, ‘Boris,’ ‘Trump,’ ‘Brexit,’ ‘vaxxers’ or ‘BBC.’ ‘Bluster’ would be a more suitable name than ‘Twitter.’ Or perhaps ’Fume,’ ‘BeltUp or ‘Firestorm.’
Amazon is a dramatically inappropriate name as the Amazon rainforest is the one part of the world most gravely threatened by its continued existence. Perhaps a better name for it would draw immediate attention to its leading role in precipitating environmental catastrophe. What’s the simplest way to make water levels rise? Putting stones in it. Perhaps that would be the idea name for it? Water Stones?
Facebook is, of course, of a similar vintage to MySpace. This was actually a perfectly good name suggesting the user had captured their own little bit of the internet in which they were at liberty to express themselves freely. MySpace is, of course, now long defunct. But we live in an age where ‘extinction’ like ‘meta’ has in itself become a fashionable buzz word. Had MySpace only had the foresight to change its name to something like ‘Extinction’ or ‘Oblivion,’ I suspect it would still be with us today.