Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Clunking Fist Goes Virtual

"The Brain" is wobbling. As a champion, throughout the Blair years, of Gordon Brown and his more cerebral approach, his recent fall from grace has been uncomfortable to watch. Once public opinion turns, it's like watching a stunted, anaemic child being ripped apart by a pack of schoolyard bullies.

What really disturbed me though, was Brown's response to the disastrous local elections: the pledge, like that of a beleaguered football manager, that he would "work harder". Brown has, according to observers, raised his already Hurculean workload to truly Stakhanovite proportions. He is reputedly getting by on a spirit-withering, Thatcher-esque four hours of sleep per night.

This desire for hard-graft, for "getting stuck in", is coupled with an obsessive desire to consult the public. Brown recently claimed that Labour's problem was that it hadn't been listening hard enough, and Downing Street advisers clearly agree, having decided that the way to combat Labour's calamitous showing in the local elections is to slingshot the PM into cyberspace, where he will be able to "engage" with those elusive young voters on YouTube:

Gordon Brown recognises that Labour is unwell, but his diagnosis is wrong-headed. If all Brown's "hard work" and engagement with the public is to pay any dividends though, he has to accept that merely refining policy is not enough. He refuses to be drawn into "the politics of personality", but he must accept that Prime Minister is a talismanic position, a figurehead. In The Political Brain: How People Vote and How to Change Their Minds: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen writes persuasively about the preponderent role played by emotion in politics. Both Al Gore and John Kerry lost out to Dubya, Westen claims, because they harped on about policy, fixated by the minor details, whilst Bush made broad-ranging emotional appeals to his audience.

The thing that excited the nation about the New Labour project in the first place was not policy details, it was the emotional charge of it's "narrative" - Britain as a young country, on the cusp of a new dawn, ready to do away with stale grey men in grey suits and embrace the new millennium.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Toilets Not Included

The other day I overheard two girls comparing the Fritzl case with that of Natasha Kampusch, another Austrian, who escaped to freedom in 2006 after seven years in captivity, in a bid to decide which case was worse. One of the girls definitively claimed that the Kampusch case was worse, “because she didn’t even have a toilet”.

Okay, now I am a big list-maker, as a sports fan I love statistics and league tables and the idea of comparisons, but the idea that it was necessary to decide which involuntary detention and rape was “worse” left me slightly queasy. Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that the provision of toilet facilities entirely compensates for the extra 17 years of imprisonment and rape.

Sharon Hogan wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian about how her hunger for details on the Fritzl brouhaha made her feel like a pervert. I would argue that the need to know these baleful details is natural - there's nothing more human than curiosity. Also, stories of incest and imprisonment are piercingly dramatic. As my former English teacher once said: "the three most interesting things in life are sex, death and suicide."

The truth is, it's part rubbernecking, part empathy. Hogan frets about hoovering up the gory details whilst luxuriating in domesticity. As she puts it: "I want the full story. I want to read about it in the morning while I munch a croissant with SpongeBob on in the background. We imbibe these tales of gruesome horror while going about our everyday lives." That is the nature of suffering though. If we spent every waking moment pondering other people's suffering, we'd be blithering, jelly-like moral wrecks. As Auden put it in his wonderful 'Musee des Beaux Arts':

the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

Sharon Hogan, 'From Josef Fritzl to Fred West, why do I lap up every sick, perverted detail of these vile stories?'

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Fritzl and Fiction

The thing that really struck me when the details of the Josef Fritzl case first came to light was it's implausibility. It's that hoariest of cliches, the one that Tom Wolfe felt obliged to confront when he wrote 'Bonfire of the Vanities': truth really is stranger than fiction.

Nevertheless, when the case first appeared like a genetically-mutated deer in front of the headlight's of the world's media, there were two obvious cultural parallels that sprang to mind. The first was Chan-wook Park’s film Oldboy, a dark, keep-you-guessing thriller, in which a man is arbitrarily imprisoned in a single room for seven years before being released just as arbitrarily.

The other, slightly less explicit, was John Fowles’ 1963 novel The Collector (made into a film two years later by William Wyler), which tells the story of Frederick Clegg, a butterfly collector and city clerk who decides to kidnap the object of his affection – a beautiful art student at Slade – and induce her into loving him. After chloroforming her, Clegg stashes her away in his cellar and, after several aborted escape attempts, the student eventually succumbs to illness (echoes of Kerstin, Elizabeth Fritzl's daughter, the reason Fritzl was finally found out). True story: my mum once told me how disturbed she was when she read Fowles' novel because the lead character not only shared the same name - Miranda - but my mum also happened to be a librarian at the architecture library at UCL, next door to Slade, where the collector stands and observes his victim. The kidnapping itself takes place outside the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, one of her favourite haunts at the time.

As horrific as Fritzl's acts were, they were not entirely alien to us. I think Nicci Gerrard hit the nail on the head when she observed that the Fritzl case was "beyond the wilder shores of our comprehension and yet it fits with an unsettling neatness to a whole set of domestic stereotypes." The idea of a dark flipside to suburbia now seems rather trite - Twin Peaks is virtually a period-piece, and American Beauty seems, if anything, rather glib. In fact, there was even a Desperate Housewives plot involving a son kept chained in the cellar. The notion of the mirror image - above ground, a world of domesticity, family values and good, wholesome fun; downstairs, a subterrean realm of of murky sexuality, pain and torture, is a familiar trope of fiction. The tragedy of Josef Fritzl is that he misunderstood which was which. In his "confession" Fritzl rationalised his actions, claiming that he imprisoned his daughter in her makeshift penitentiary to “protect” her from the damaging influences of the modern world. For Fritzl, the "cellar family" was the utopain idyll, whilst the outside, "real" world was brimming with corruption and prurience.

Nicci Gerrard, 'A monster from the pages of a Grimm tale'