Back to The Iron Lady

Jim Belshaw said, quite understandably, that The Iron Lady was not what he expected. Like me he enjoyed the film: see my post Waiting for Maggie. Today The Sydney Morning Herald recycles a 3 December 2011 article from the London Telegraph.

… Of course she should have a biopic. This is almost nothing to do with the precise content of politics. It is to do with character, with the effect of character on power and the effect of power on character. It is to do with the perennial fascination of the outsider taking on the establishment. And it is to do with sex. The new film, due out in the first week of January, is called The Iron Lady. The title was the obvious choice, but also the right one. Can a woman be “iron” and still be a woman? This is an eternal subject, captured in the story of a real woman – indeed, in the story of a real woman who is still alive.

On this last point, there can be no doubt that it is calculatedly unkind to take a real, living person and portray that person as demented, which this film does. Either such a portrayal is false and therefore indefensible, or it is true, in which case the poor victim cannot answer back. The making of the film is therefore exploitative, and it is bound to hurt anyone close to her, above all, her family. In this straightforward, moral sense, the film should not have been made in Lady Thatcher’s lifetime.

But potential viewers of The Iron Lady can at least be reassured that, whatever the commercial ruthlessness, the artistic purpose is not to demean the film’s subject. The effect is to create sympathy…

As someone who pays extremely close attention to the subject – I have been writing Lady Thatcher’s authorised biography for the past seven years – I notice that Ms Streep captures virtually every mannerism and trick of speech: a slight movement of the lower lip after speaking, the smile that can suddenly frost over, the mixture of very genuine courtesy to people in general and shattering rudeness to senior colleagues (never to junior ones), and the way the voice changed after coaching, in the Seventies, to make it deeper.

The only thing she gets wrong is the walk. In real life, in her prime, Mrs Thatcher moved in what Alan Hollinghurst, in his novel of the Thatcher era, The Line of Beauty, calls a “dignified scuttle”, as she hastened from one meeting to the next clutching sheaves of paper and the famous handbag. Streep, who is taller than her subject, wears lower heels, and walks more erect, swinging her hips.

But this all-but-infallible accuracy never gets in the way of what matters even more – the archetypal…

…Opera could capture the strong colour of the era and of its central character, the emotional force pushed into issues which, in any other hands, would have seemed as dry as dust.

This film takes the operatic route, though Streep never sings (she does dance to the video of The King and I). Many of its most powerful moments are, in effect, arias…

One of the benign effects of the passage of time is that hatred comes to seem an irrelevant emotion. One does not feel that one has to loathe Julius Caesar for capturing Britain, or even Napoleon for threatening our shores. One is simply interested in what these great men did and what they were like. A comparable process is now benefiting Margaret Thatcher. You have to be over 40 to hate her. Young people, I find – whether instinctively pro or anti or, most commonly, not sure – find her extremely interesting.

I watched The Iron Lady with a woman who had worked closely with Mrs Thatcher when she was prime minister. She was upset by the portrayal of dementia, but also very moved as she left the cinema. “I feel so proud,” she said, “to have had the chance to work with such an extraordinary person in such extraordinary times.” The Iron Lady wrote a blazing chapter in the long history of our country. Despite the film’s distasteful behaviour towards a living human being, The Iron Lady rekindles some of that fire for new audiences. It serves the future of Margaret Thatcher well – much better, perhaps, than it intended.

I quoted that extensively because it chimes so well with my own thoughts. I especially like the comparison with  opera. I tried to say something similar: “And yes, it is as good as everyone says, and no, whatever I may have thought about Margaret Thatcher was kind of beside the point. Think King Lear, perhaps, with Maggie as Lear rather than as Goneril and Dennis perhaps The Fool…” Therefore I fear Paul Sheehan rather misses the point in the first part of this extract from his otherwise quite good review:

Even as the film lurches into excessive theatricality and implausible staginess, Streep’s occupation of the role is so compelling that it carries the whole enterprise without a lull.

It’s a bit like complaining that Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective isn’t quite like The Bill.  I felt the “stageiness” essential for heightening the archetypical in this very moving film.

See also: Abi Morgan: ‘I haven’t made Thatcher in to a monster’; How Accurate Is ‘The Iron Lady’?

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Robert Siegel. In the new film "The Iron Lady," Meryl Streep gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder why they even bother with competitions for acting awards in years when she’s in a movie. The iron lady Streep plays is Margaret Thatcher, the conservative British prime minister from 1979 to 1990…

SIEGEL: Meryl Streep is so good, so convincing that her depiction of Margaret Thatcher will likely be the image that most Americans will retain of her, and I say that having worked in London during the years of Thatcher’s first government. This week, mindful of the power of cinema as biography, we’re running some current biopics past some nonfiction authorities for a round of truth squadding. And joining us today from London is John Campbell, who wrote the biography "The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister." Mr. Campbell, welcome…

Well, having seen the film, first, big picture, do you think that they essentially got Margaret Thatcher and her times right?

CAMPBELL: I think essentially they did, yes. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, both of the writer, Abi Morgan, as much as of the star, Meryl Streep. I think it rings very true as a portrayal of her.

SIEGEL: Now, an American unfamiliar with British politics might assume from the movie that Thatcher was not just the first female prime minister, it looks like she was the only woman in the House of Commons. That’s a bit extreme here.

CAMPBELL: That is slightly exaggerated, yes. I mean, there is an aerial picture of her walking in a scene from above with a sea of suited men and one blue-suited woman in the middle of them. The pictures of the House of Commons show no other women at all, which is a slight exaggeration, but it is intended to show how it felt to her. It is her struggle, her battle to assert herself against a lot of patronizing men. So the fact that she felt that the House of Commons was a very male environment is accurately portrayed, even though in fact there were a few other women around…

And back to the neighbourhood, here is another view from near The Bates Motel:


Mount Keira on New Years Day 2012


Just thought I’d say I wasn’t at all offended by the portrayal of Thatcher’s dementia. In fact I found it was very moving. Loved the little exchange with her shrink on hallucinations…


Waiting for Maggie


In Wollongong Greater Union this afternoon where Cheap Tuesday over-rode public holiday considerations – so for $10 I saw The Iron Lady. And yes, it is as good as everyone says, and no, whatever I may have thought about Margaret Thatcher was kind of beside the point. Think King Lear, perhaps, with Maggie as Lear rather than as Goneril and Dennis perhaps The Fool…

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[3]smiley-happy005[5]smiley-happy005[7]smiley-happy005[9] A must see.

Some great TV tonight

Of course I watched the ABC Schools Spectacular.


I watch it every year with great pride in the achievements of the NSW Department of Education state schools. Wollongong schools were well represented in it.

It was as enjoyable as ever but did lack variety compared to earlier years.

The real event for me, however, was the final extremely moving episode of the Channel Four series The Promise on SBS. I can’t think of a better starting point for something like a sane discussion of the Palestine/Israel tragedy. See also:

Better than a thousand pundits and all their learned articles

That is my feeling about Khaled Hosseini’s second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[3]smiley-happy005[5]smiley-happy005[7]smiley-happy005[9]

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years—from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to the post-Taliban rebuilding—that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms. It is a tale of two generations of characters brought jarringly together by the tragic sweep of war, where personal lives—the struggle to survive, raise a family, find happiness—are inextricable from the history playing out around them.

I was irritated by this New York Times review.

In the end it is these glimpses of daily life in Afghanistan — a country known to most Americans only through news accounts of war and terrorism — that make this novel, like “The Kite Runner,” so stirring, and that distract attention from its myriad flaws.

My attention was so distracted that I am convinced the “myriad flaws” exist more in the reviewer’s mind than in Hosseini’s novel, which is not to say the book is perfect but it is pretty bloody good. If it had been published in Australia it would probably be up for the Miles Franklin or something. I think it has suffered from being the SECOND novel after the phenomenon that was, deservedly, The Kite Runner.

t’s the whistling," Laila said to Tariq, "the damn whistling, I hate more than anything."

Tariq nodded knowingly.

It wasn’t so much the whistling itself, Laila thought later, but the seconds between the start of it and impact. The brief and interminable time of feeling suspended. The not knowing. The waiting. Like a defendant about to hear the verdict.

Often it happened at dinner, when she and Babi were at the table. When it started, their heads snapped up. They listened to the whistling, forks in midair, unchewed food in their mouths. Laila saw the reflection of their half-lit faces in the pitch-black window, their shadows unmoving on the wall. The whistling. Then the blast, blissfully elsewhere, followed by an expulsion of breath and the knowledge that they had been spared for now while somewhere else, amid cries and choking clouds of smoke, there was a scrambling, a barehanded frenzy of digging, of pulling from the debris, what remained of a sister, a brother, a grandchild.

But the flip side of being spared was the agony of wondering who hadn’t. After every rocket blast, Laila raced to the street, stammering a prayer, certain that, this time, surely this time, it was Tariq they would find buried beneath the rubble and smoke.

At night, Laila lay in bed and watched the sudden white flashes reflected in her window. She listened to the rattling of automatic gunfire and counted the rockets whining overhead as the house shook and flakes of plaster rained down on her from the ceiling. Some nights, when the light of rocket fire was so bright a person could read a book by it, sleep never came. And, if it did, Laila’s dreams were suffused with fire and detached limbs and the moaning of the wounded.

Morning brought no relief. The muezzin’s call for namaz rang out, and the Mujahideen set down their guns, faced west, and prayed. Then the rugs were folded, the guns loaded, and the mountains fired on Kabul, and Kabul fired back at the mountains, as Laila and the rest of the city watched as helpless as old Santiago watching the sharks take bites out of his prize fish.

Excerpted from A Thousand Splendid Suns copyright 2007 by Khaled Hosseini. Published by Riverhead Books.

People in Immigration should make this mandatory reading for all staff dealing with Afghans. Anyone thinking or writing about Afghanistan or asylum seekers should read this book.  You will understand the place more deeply than if you waded through a thousand pundits and their one-dimensional analyses and learned histories.

In a similar way The Promise, the Channel Four miniseries currently running on Sunday nights on SBS, takes you into the tragedy that is Israel/Palestine and especially the too little known events between World War 2 and 1950 that gave birth to the State of Israel. Based on all my reading in the past and on my experiences at school with the sons of the Holocaust generation and  later at Masada College with a cross-section of Israelis and Jews, I find the program deadly accurate and impartial in the very best sense. It is quite admirable, which is why partisans on all sides hate it.

Last night’s episode didn’t disappoint. Definitely one of the best things on TV in what has been in many ways a very good year. smiley-happy005[12]smiley-happy005[14]smiley-happy005[16]smiley-happy005[18]smiley-happy005[20]

Also on SBS last night was a rather fascinating episode of The Bible: A History. Now this series has in some respects disappointed me, because it isn’t what it says it is. Rather, it is a series of reflections, more or less worth listening to, by a number of people on aspects of the Bible. A systematic history it is not. However, getting Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams to reflect on Jesus was actually quite inspired, if confronting.

As a supporter of the people of Palestine, I believe the security of the people of Israel is tied inextricably with the Israeli government’s need to acknowledge and uphold the rights and security of the people of Palestine. When I have visited the Palestinian territories before, I have been saddened by the awful, visible evidence of occupation and injustice, particularly the failure of the international community to encourage a peace settlement.

This time my visit was non political but the tragic irony was sharpened by my new and growing knowledge of the ancient history of the place. What would Jesus, the Palestinian do?

I came away from this programme more aware of the relevance of Jesus’ message in these modern times. Not just in terms of forgiveness or peace making but also in social and economic issues. Jesus is about equality, the poor and the disadvantaged.

One thing is for certain. The core message of Jesus is relevant in today’s world. It retains the ability to motivate countless billions of people two thousand years after his execution.

If adhered to there would be no conflict, no hunger and no poverty in the world today. No wonder they crucified him.

While I don’t doubt Adams’s sincerity and acknowledge much that is good in him, especially in what he has done in recent years, I don’t entirely buy his justification for what happened in earlier days.

See this review.

There are obvious responses to such a programme. The first is to throw your hands up in horror, to curse and fulminate at what might be seen as the arrogance, hypocrisy or self-delusion of a man who, as a former spokesman-in-chief for IRA terrorism, can here, when asked if he has blood on his hands, blithely reply: “No, I don’t.”

Another, more simple, response is to switch off the television.

Then again, there is what could, in the phrase of that other great peacemaker of our time, Tony Blair, be called the third way. To sit down, watch, and see if one can actually glean something meaningful from it, however offensive it may be.

To choose this option was to be genuinely baffled at how Adams can see anything in the Christian message that corresponds with his own actions. Despite being a regular Mass-goer he always rejected the Catholic church’s condemnation of IRA violence, and refused to see the Troubles as a religious, rather than purely political, conflict.

Here, his trek through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the West Bank, was less a spiritual journey than a history lesson on the Roman occupation of Judea. He seemed to regard his conversations with historians and theologians as opportunities for self-justification and political point-scoring (when Barabbas was described as a terrorist, he interjected “or freedom fighter”) as much as for understanding.

More than anything, his insistence that he could accept or reject whichever elements of Christian belief he likes, and still be a Christian – because “we all do it” – was revealing of a mindset that, fundamentally, sees only what it chooses to see.

Perhaps most revealing was Adams’s constant return to the only Christian themes he seemed to have any genuine interest in: forgiveness and redemption…

Well worth a look for its own sake and for what it says about this series is Mark Goodacre’s New Testament blog. “This is Mark Goodacre’s academic blog. It focuses on issues of interest on the New Testament and Christian Origins. I am Associate Professor of New Testament in the Religion Department at Duke University.”

Off to The Shire again today

For my uncle’s funeral.


Fortunately it’s a lovely day and the trains are running again.

Last night I watched The Promise. I get extremely annoyed with BOTH sides in the Israel-Palestine issue. I really don’t want to go into it again either – but see these posts if you really want to know. I am finding The Promise truly excellent – a must see, much more worth bothering with than bloody Charles and Sebastian again! I love it for its recognition of complexity, its having an attention span longer than the past week, and being unafraid of urgers and lobbyists on all sides.

… It’s a common misconception that the conflict between Jew and Arab in the region has its roots in Biblical times. Our research suggests that the two communities lived in relative harmony until the 1930s, intermarrying and speaking the local vernacular – Arabic. The burgeoning of Zionism as a concept coincided with the attempted extermination of Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews in their tens of thousands started arriving at ports in Palestine, often having made the journey from Europe in overcrowded, insanitary and unseaworthy vessels. These survivors of massacred families, some still skeletal in their concentration camp uniforms, were determined to carve out a homeland where they could be safe from further persecution and to oppose, with violence if necessary, any attempt to dislodge them.

Initially, it seems that British soldiers had nothing but sympathy for the plight of the refugees. Some, like our Len Matthews, had taken part in the liberation of a German concentration camp. Others had heard rumours, seen graphic newsreels, spoken to those who had witnessed the atrocities with their own eyes. When British Tommies were ordered to corral newly arrived refugees in cages, strip search and question them, then ship them back west to internment camps in Cyprus, many were deeply uncomfortable. Their behaviour was too obviously redolent of Nazi brutality; the Jews didn’t deserve this further degradation.

Forced to hold the ring between the arriving Jews and Arabs who had lived in the region for generations, Britain enforced its Palestine immigration quotas strictly. Jews fought back with ferocity and cunning. In many ways the Brits bore the brunt of Jewish determination never again to remain passive in the face of an enemy. British soldiers who had fought the Germans for six long years now found themselves branded Nazis, a particularly bitter pill. A large conscript force, they presented an easy target for a highly motivated Jewish guerrilla army, many of whose leaders had been trained in insurgency tactics by Britain for use behind enemy lines in the recent war. Slowly, British sympathy for the plight of the Jews waned, as squaddies out on the town found themselves increasingly falling victim to kidnappings, bombings and shootings, often in broad daylight. In one disturbing incident which we dramatise, described in a report written in December 1947, three soldiers were shot at close range in a busy commercial street by gunmen who melted away into the crowds. The soldier describes how he lay bleeding on the ground but no one moved to help him. Life continued around him as if nothing had happened. Eventually, he dragged himself back into his Jeep and, clutching his stomach wound, drove himself to hospital. One of his comrades had to work the pedals as he began to lose the use of his legs. It was incidents like this which ensured that, by the time they left Palestine in May 1948, the attitude of the average Tommy had undergone a complete change. The truth is, many of them felt hurt by the hostility of the Jews, which they found incomprehensible, ungrateful. “They were happy enough to accept our help in the war,” one said.

At its simplest level, in telling this story in drama form, I’m just responding to a suggestion written in a letter over a decade ago. But, in imagining a character based on the veterans of the Palestine campaign, in interviewing old men still brooding half a century later on those three dark years of their lives, I’ve found myself moved and incensed in equal measure. In 1945, while Britain was focused on postwar bankruptcy and independence for India, these men traded a demob suit and family reunions for a bitter conflict in Mandate Palestine. They were carrying out British policy, even if it’s a policy we would now like to quietly forget. They deserve our gratitude, our respect and, above all, their national memorial.

Peter Kosminsky on The Promise, his drama about Palestine


Really thought-provoking — Adam Curtis on SBS last night

In my post Facebook does it for me again… I wrote:

…tonight I will be intrigued and/or annoyed by All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace on SBS1 at 8.30. There’s some good discussion on the comment thread there.

And I have been more intrigued than annoyed, but I am still processing how much of what Curtis suggests I really accept. Quite a bit eventually, I suspect. Certainly that first episode made very clear, simply by showing the person herself quite extensively, that Ayn Rand was barking mad.

Last night’s episode challenged quite a few things I (and possibly you) take for granted, and on many of these things was very convincing. For example, why did hippydom and all those communes fail, which they did, and achieve very little in the long run?

Another blogger has reflected on last night’s episode, having also seen it last night on SBS: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts): plausible premise founders on lack of definitions and historical perspective.

Adam Curtis’s “The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts” looks at how rival theories dreamt up by a botanist / socialist and a military man in South Africa in the 1920s came to influence concepts of the self-organising system in systems engineering, environmental studies and studies of human behaviour which fed into popular culture. The idea of self-organising systems posits that individuals are equal players in a system where they co-operate to achieve equilibrium and balance and that this balance is a good thing. There are no hierarchies or notions of coalitions and alliances that compete for power. The idea became popular in new fields of science such as cybernetics and migrated to studies of nature where biologists and ecologists alike believed that natural systems “strove” for stability and after disasters or other disturbances could restore themselves to their original balance. The idea also became popular among hippie counter-cultures in the West in the 1960s and many young people established communes in which they all expected to live as equals in harmony.

Curtis’s documentary shows that the concept of the self-organising system, rooted in idealistic socialist concepts of British botanist Arthur Tansley on the one hand and in Field Marshal Jan Smuts’s fantasy of a steady-state British empire in which everyone and everything knows its place in a stable hierarchy on the other, will ultimately fail in real situations. In the 1970s, biologists and ecologists discovered that natural ecosystems don’t have an in-built stability. Human societies that try to abolish hierarchies and alliances  and which sweep away old political and social institutions can become authoritarian and bullying, as students of the English Civil War in the 1640s, the French Revolution in the 1790s and the Russian Revolution in 1917 and their respective aftermaths will know. Yet the fantasy of spontaneous, self-directed reform movements erupting from youth remains attractive…

What Curtis missed out here too which I consider important is that the concept of self-organising systems where everyone is an individual separate from and equal to others has encouraged the development of atomistic societies where everyone is not only a separate and equal individual but an isolated one as well. Informal networks that arise in such societies are often fragile and break down easily if they lack support from governments. People lose the ability to work co-operatively, to bargain and negotiate with others, and the sense of community may be missing. In such societies, people are no longer fully rounded individuals but are merely consumers or ciphers: they have become machines.

I am still thinking but am so pleased this is being shown.

Interview with Adam Curtis.

See also Cybernetic utopianism and political failure, Marx and Machines of Loving Grace – thoughts on Adam Curtis’ film, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – by Adam Curtis.

The title comes from Richard Brautigan: first published in 1967, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a collection of thirty two poems, was Brautigan’s third collection of poetry; his fifth poetry book publication.

San Francisco

This poem was found written on a paper bag by Richard Brautigan in a laundromat in San Francisco. The author is unknown.

By accident, you put
Your money in my
Machine (#4)
By accident, I put
My money in another
Machine (#6)
On purpose, I put
Your clothes in the
Empty machine full
Of water and no
It was lonely.

Note: I have replaced the first YouTube as the one I had there earlier alters the Curtis documentary.

First taste of summer and bitter taste of tabloid “journalism”

Let’s deal with the second first. Last night Media Watch excelled itself unmasking yet another example of the strident, cynical, and utterly harmful vomit or two minute hate that passes for journalism whenever Today Tonight touches on a serious political issue. You think I overuse  the abusive terms there? Well go to TT’s false facts fuel fear and weep – or better yet flood Channel Seven with complaints as they were up to the same kind of hysterical shit AGAIN the very same night Media Watch went to air!

Today Tonight’s entire report was aimed at fuelling the myth that refugees are given extraordinary treatment.

Margaret Thomas: Well what have they contributed to our country? Nothing. And they’re giving them more money than we get.
— Channel Seven, Today Tonight, 10th October, 2011

And where did Margaret Thomas get that idea? Well, she says, from Today Tonight. She told us that the reporter had …

…showed me on his phone the video of that bloke saying he got $400 a week. Now that just got me very angry. …
I didn’t know he was getting $400 a fortnight. I think that’s very sad and Channel 7 should not do that…I would have preferred to have been told the truth
— Margaret Thomas, 15th October, 2011

Gee, so would we.

Here’s the truth. Asylum-seekers in detention get no cash benefits. Once given visas, refugees, whether or not they arrived by boat, get the same Centrelink benefits as everyone else.
Is it surprising that so many people are concerned about boat people, when they’re fed inflammatory nonsense like this by one of the most popular programs in Australia?

Irresponsible of Today Tonight, wouldn’t you say? But it isn’t about TRUTH is it?

Let’s turn briefly to an interesting graphic from New Scientist:


That links to The 20 deadliest events in human history which in turn cites

But here in West Wollongong we had a touch of summer yesterday.