Red and Dead

The past scares the fucking shit out of me. Not in the way that a dimly remembered faux pas leads you down the path to self harm; that happens too, but I’m no longer scared, just resigned. The past that makes me uneasy about going to our outside toilet, about looking into a darkened pane of glass, is long before I was born.

Any era most reliably pictured with a woodcut print puts the wind up me in ways I can’t describe. It’s not just the deformed people and perspective. It’s not the evil rictus grins, or the oddly curved limbs. It’s not the veiny skies and fields – they score the vista, making you view the middle ages through a bashed wire fence, but I can dig that. I’ve played a lot of five-a-side, and life during the crusades was very much like the Aston Powerleague on a Wednesday night.

What makes me dive for the comfort of Dave is the terror of time stretching back, year-on-year, each year more gruesome than the last. Peeling back every layer of social reform, of comfort, of law, until we’re eating babies and burning at the stake while Princes flay festering skin from our nether portions.

Empathy is not imagining the feelings of others, it’s worrying what you would feel if subjected to the same transgressions. There is a different type of thought used to consider the plight of the human race, empathy and horror are bedfellows with numbers and hopeful theories.

Robin Hood is the only hope of woodcut-man for compassion, so was he the birth of the welfare state — of the protection of the masses? Even as the medievalist church mis-sold empathy with fear of damnation, he strode around the Midlands propping up failed evolutionary strategy with bags of gold coin and false hope. But Robin Hood wasn’t a socialist, he was simply less of a cunt than the next Earl along. Not that he was an Earl, probably, or even gave to “the poor” (that’s pretty much everyone without a title isn’t it?). Look back at the original ballads, and the best you can hope is that he’d decided it was only worth robbing the really rich people.

My favourite ‘wither Robin Hood’ theory is that the ballads are some great fashion marketing ploy, based on the absurdly high attention paid to costume and cloth within the text – so much that it approaches the work of Bret Easton Ellis. We’re not talking designer label, but do contemporary ballads bother with such mise-en-scène? The suspicion is that the yeomanry or the guilds (prone to the wearing of hoods themselves, it was cold out, they had money for cloth) had something to do with the spread of the stories.

Robin was at best some champagne (mead?) socialist type; he wore Lincoln Graine, which was normally a scarlet red (not green, cloth-fact-fans) while his men wore the cheaper green and bowed at his feet. He’s not that bothered about the tax system, and let’s face it he’s doing nothing but playing to the peasant gallery until he gets his way. Shades of every modern politician — and this was the good guy — there’s nothing more than devotion, just to the best ruler out of a bad lot. You knew where you were with the Thatcher of Nottingham, at least he admitted he was a bastard. Does Robin take Nottingham and then plan a First International, sending Little John off to probe revolution in Derby? Nah.

For real revolt, for reform, you need Wat Tyler. Tyler led the Peasants Revolt and wanted to overthrow the feudal system — and had a good knock — although there is no record of the system that they’d thought up to go in its place. History paints the Peasants Revolt as a fourteenth century G8 protest — anarchy, Mile End and sacking the Savoy. That the protests were whipped up in direct response to the original Poll Tax is a lovely eighties metaphor, but not exactly helpful when you’re trying to work out if this was original collective altruism or just something to do in-between rotating the crops. It seems to have had very little impact on the history of the class struggle in England, if you can’t do better than a few releases on Rugger Bugger Records then you may as well be the Levellers.

Great moralist, and master of the Greek pun, Sir Thomas More is pretty much the first person to have a crack at a collective vision of society. It’s a pity that it’s a satire, and the joyless view of monastic communism is no advert for a socialism that you want to fight kings for. Particularly fat kings who are good at tennis (even if they are somewhat of a one-hit wonder). Fat tennis kings that will pick a fight with the Pope — in the days of proper hard popes, not just the ex-Hitler scouts we get these days — rather than hide the woman in the wardrobe as Brian Rix has taught us.

Was More joking? It’s hard to tell. Generations of translators have added prefaces about whether it’s pun (Utopia is either No Place or Good Place) or politic. Unless it’s some double bluff, I’d probably call a clumsy Bremner. The last translation I read even has the narrator called Nonsenseo. More loses his head, for all his humanistic leanings, which must be preferable to another round of Greensleeves on the harpsichord and sackbut.

But worse, Utopia — socialism — is set in stone from the 1500s as a rather dull place. It gives root to the ideas that creativity can’t function in an equal society, that to create one we must be drugged and the savages only can save us. From Huxley’s Brave New World, to feeding Barney from New Order Prozac — we can’t be happy and creative and fair and equal all at the same time.

Many of the misreadings of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene focus on the misapprehension that he promotes the idea that the human (the “survival machine”) isn’t capable of altruism. He certainly spends much of the book debunking any notion of group selection — which sees individuals subjugate themselves for the good of the group. Where would such an evolutionary strategy end, he says “For the good of the species? The mammals? The vertebrates?” Dawkins doesn’t mean that we can’t act altruistically, although he does a damned fine job of showing the working on why pure utopian communism wouldn’t be, what he calls, an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). I’m simplifying towards no meaning whatsoever, but Dawkins runs us through example after example of how, basically, if everyone’s good all the time, then it’s advantageous to be a cheat. It’s the genes that are selfish, not the machines — and in the second edition there’s a long chapter about how the “generally nice” will prevail — but there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the ideal welfare state. Would Marx and Engels have bothered if they’d have thought about ethnology over economics?

No doubt darling Dickie Dawkins would label the basic premise of Das Capital a meme, pointing to its evolutionary replication — and he’d be right. But it’s a stupendously unstable idea as far as political theories go — and fully in keeping with the exploitative selfishness of the “cheats” or capitalists as we’ve learnt to call them.

There are photos of Marx, with a touch of the Just For Men on the tache—or was it a post-bovril portrait? So although there’s no succour for the proletariat, I can imagine him with a meaty drink. He was a rather chunky fella, so a sudden loss of income wouldn’t have been the end—I can imagine a safe world having seen the reality. Not so for the Paris Commune. Although we’ve moved on from woodcuts, and it’s easy to imagine a team of hot-shot documentary watercolorists setting up easel around the barricades, I can’t place the struggle. I can only fictionalise, and my imagination scares me. That I know that we lost doesn’t help.

Sidney Lumet’s 1965 film The Hill captures this feeling better than anything I’ve ever read or seen. You can lose—there are situations in which you have no control. Set in a North African military prison, it shows inmates helpless against a Staff Sergeant intent on breaking them, over and over again, over a constructed mound of earth. Eventually one dies of heat exhaustion, a chance to expose Ian Hendy’s vile guard, but one they’re unable to take. Roy Kinnear’s fright and Sean Connery’s temper see to it that it’s impossible to do anything but the basest fight-back. And the system wins. Forever. We’re left with sheer heat, claustrophobia and sweat (which works much better in black and white). The frustration drips like the sweat from Kinnear’s brow. The system surely must be changed, but it isn’t.

It’d never be made today, the good guys lose — something it shares with Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One senses that Orwell was always angrier with Aspidistra’s advertisers than ’84’s oppressors, or is it that anger is one of the showier emotions – and incompatible with the totalitarian oppression – and impotence against that? He reserves special distain for the propagandists, or does he hold them and their newspeak in the highest regard? It’s more dangerous than bombs or threats.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four at exactly the right time, the same age at which I watched every episode of The Prisoner. Both affected me in similar ways, and there’s no doubt that they shaped how I react to other realities. The past is nothing if not another reality, and the less control I would have if placed there the less I’m able to comfortably deal with it. For each, the lack of control is total. Well, unless you watch one of the later Prisoners where Patrick McGoohan had stretched himself too thin and his messianic off-screen control had started to affect the story.

A year or so ago, I went on holiday to Pisa by mistake. Pisa’s nice. It doesn’t have much more than the tower though. It’s a day-trip to take when in nearby Florence rather than a destination. Something else it does have is the fading Piazza dei Cavalieri, now a sort of nominal centre for the university, but historically the administrative centre of the town. Guidebooks focus attention on the main building, with busts in nooks and just the right amount of restoration, but I read about the building across the way; home to starvation and cannibalism. At the order of an Archbishop, Count Ugolino de’ Gherardeschi and his offspring were sealed in and left to stave. The Count lasted a little longer than expected, as he ate everyone else, although he doesn’t seem to mention this bit to Dante in the Inferno3. These, I’m forced to remember, are the good guys the Holy Justice, and I couldn’t settle in the square.

I’m not thinking of how the Count feels as he gnaws on a close relative, nor even how the relative felt (or tasted), but the sheer impotence of the trapped. They have no control of the situation, and no hope of a benevolent, well, anything.

And that’s what scares me more than anything.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue One, with the standfirst “Was Robin Hood the first Communist?” and wonderful illustrations.

Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed. His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.

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