That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

Whoar! And Peace

Or, Gone with the balalaikas

Random thoughts on the latest television dramatization of War and Peace which showed on free-to-air here in Australia in September.

In the early ‘seventies, I went through a ‘Russian’ phase, wading patiently and pensively through the greatest literary hits of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Solzhenitsyn. They seemed to suit my temperament during the cold, damp winter months as I journeyed back and forth on the London Undergound to mundane and monotonous temp jobs. I recall watching all seven hours of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic ‘sixties adaptation in one overnight sitting at at an art house cinema in Bloomsbury Square in 1973. But I fell asleep during the thunderous battle of Borodino. The BBC crammed its 1972 adaptation of War and Peace into fifteen hours over twenty episodes – the film that shot Anthony Hopkins and Robert Powell to stardom.

How on earth do you compress some 1,500 close-typed pages into just six one-hour episodes, as the Beeb’s  latest period piece does?  A lot, obviously, has to go.

So, out go all the long expositions and naval-gazing ruminations. There no need to ponder much on the inner manifestations of the ‘Russian soul’, whatever that might be. The philosophizing that was left in felt lightweight and incongruous against the splendor of the social scene, the rural vista, the battlefields, and great historical events. Hence Andre’s deepandmeaningfull thoughts on glory, and latterly, on bucolic visions, seemed a tad intrusive. Pierre’s thoughts on freedom. freemasonry and, latterly, after his near-death experiences, on brotherly love and the simple life, appear lightweight and cloying.

And to suit our twenty-first century tastes, in comes some glamorous naughtiness – a surfeit of sexy bits which old Leo Tolstoy would probably have loved but would never have committed to print, with some poetic license (or licentiousness), bare thighs and cleavage, so that we well and truly got the message. It was, nonetheless a “polite society” sans filth, blood, and profanity.

What Tolstoy left to surmise and imagination, this down-sized saga leaves no sheet unturned. Helene and Anatole Kuragin really do appear to have had it off together, and she does indeed bonk Nikolai’s mates Dolokhov and Drubetskoy, and sundry others – she was quite clearly the Petrograd bike. And, of course, she comes to a bad, hallucinogenic, and sanguinary end. The families are well drawn, and quite humorously depicted. The scheming, naughty Kuragins; the affectionate and lighthearted Rostovs, headed up by their bumbling, adoring and ultimately impecunious papa – well played by comedian Adrian Edmondson. The uptight, and undemonstrative Bolkonskys, with Jim Broadbent giving a masterclass in fine acting – “best in show” indeed. We get a fair if Kubrikesqe ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ picture of Pierre Bezukhov’s wicked, dissolute lifestyle, and his faltering, stumbling road to redemption.

So, does this truncation of the big book work? I would say yes. The story flowed, the various story-lines held together, and it was relatively easy to keep track of the characters by their appearance if not by their long names. The best way to judge a serialization is by the question: do you finish an episode looking forward to the next? And the answer is yes.

As for the cast, it appears like anyone who was anybody in British television drama or comedy, looked good in historical costume and was not in Game of Thrones, got a gig and a chance to do Napoleonic dress-ups – with the exception perhaps of Colin Firth, Aiden Turner, Jenna Coleman and Claire Foy.

Lily James is gorgeous in an elfin, ingenue way. Although her Natasha Rostova looks and behaves like an eighteen year old throughout, and not the thirteen years old who ages in years and wisdom as portrayed by Tolstoy. She sang beautifully, and she sure can dance. The famous Natasha’s Dance scene was nicely done if too brief. It was over too quickly and failed to show how important this particular scene was to Tolstoy ; in the book, the Rostovs retire to a wooden hut at the end of a day’s hunting, where folk songs are played to the balalaika. Natasha dances to a song, but it is not a waltz or polka she is doing – instinctively, she dances like a peasant girl. The Russian soil is in her blue blood.

Paul Dano, the slim, young, scheming, preacher of There Will Be Blood, as Pierre Bezukov? Still slim and young looking, though “kinda funny looking” as they say in Fargo-speak. But portraying the tall, fat, shortsighted, dissolute and bumbling Pffierre? Amazingly, it seems to have worked. His is a credible performance, although his “niceness” to the Rostovs and Bolkonskys, and his transformation to all-round good guy could be quite irritating. Inept, opinionated, inadequate, and out of his depth both romantically and socially. My favourite Pierre moment in the book is when he resolves to  liberate or lighten the burden on his serfs – a subject close to Tolstoy’s heart – and how his steward circumvents his wishes. This was not even touched on in the film.

Jim Broadbent as the crusty, cranky old curmudgeon Bolkonsky Senior was a tour de force. He stole every scene he was in, and although he was not like I imagined from the book – less ascetic, more rough-edged – he was the best character in the film.

Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders’s other half, and bad boy of The Young Ones and Bottom, was an unexpected delight as the genial but incompetent Rostov patriarch. He played it for laughs, and his decline under financial pressures and family tragedy was nicely handled.

James Norton’s wannabe martial hero Andrei Bolkonsky was a stitched up, uptight, frustrating, and irritating jerk. You wanted to give him a good shake. And that’s just how Tolstoy would have liked it. He looked good, especially in uniform, and carried himself just as a stitched up, uptight jerk would. I guess that makes his apotheosis and death all the more interesting. So nice that everyone got to say their goodbyes. The Gladiatoresqe ‘out of body’, vanishing into into the Russian sunset sequence as he passed on was a bit too much, but.

Jessie Buckey as his sister Princess Marya was excellent. Whilst she was in no way as plain and unprepossessing as Tolstoy painted her, her “ugly duckling” transformation was lovely to behold. I actually felt happy that she finally found happiness. She had to lose her father and brother to find herself, and also, find Nikolai, the naive and gallant hussar.

Jack Lowden’s Nikolai, Natasha’s air-headed, profligate brother, was very well cast. A selfish prick who takes his folks for granted (and bankrupts them for bad measure), and treats pretty, poor, patient, pauper Sonya terribly, he has awful taste in friends (except for loyal Denisov) and plays a terrible game of cards,. But he sings beautifully (his duet with Natasha is a delight), and looks great in uniform.

Tuppence Middleton played Helene Kuragin as the soap-opera bad girl. She looked good, took her clothes off, wore see-through fashions, and camped it up (would Tolstoy have let her out like that, I wonder? He would doubtless of appreciated her “indoors,). And you couldn’t wait for Pierre to kick her out.

Helene and Anatole Kuragin

Minor characters were presented – with the exception of Matthieu Kannovitz’s Napoleon – a very poor caricature. I liked Brian Cox’s Kutuzov, but for me, he will always be Dalgeish of Deadwood. And Aneurin Barnard was excellent as the opportunistic Boris Drubetskoy. His meeting with Napoleon was a hoot. He is a great actor, having portrayed Cilla Black’s Bobby in Cilla, and David Bailey in We’ll Take Manhattan . Rebecca Front was very good as his scheming, impecunious and irritating Mama – well remembered from the comedies The Thick of It and Nighty Night, and still, to a degree, playing it for laughs – even when securing Pierre’s inheritance by wrestling a soon-to-be disappearing will from the hands of his avaricious relatives.

Stephen Rea played Prince Vassily Kuragin with a supercilious lugubriousness, whilst Callum Turner portrays his son Anatole as a card-board cut-out rake. Gillian Anderson, looked resplendent as society hostess Anna Pavlovna Scherer, did not have very much to do except play, well, a society hostess. And lastly, there was Tom Burke’s over-the-top bad-boy Fedor Dolokhov. As Tolstoy himself put it: “There are three things I love to do!’ he roared. ‘Fight, drink, and I can’t remember the other one … “ And: “I think you’re an absolute ruffian,’ Helene tutted, branding him ‘disgusting.’

One judges the success of a visual dramatization by how well renders the original’s iconic scenes and set-pieces. Here then is a brief critique.

The famous, plot-setting grand ball was nicely done – the set, the clothes, and the dancing, building up well to Nat and Andy’s meeting and floor show. Natasha’s Dance at the Rostov dacha, so iconic and important to Tolstoy’s narodnik sympathies, was, however, disappointingly undercooked.  Bezukhov and  Dolakhov’s duel in the snow , was deftly done, demonstrating what a foolish, deadly practice this was. Pierre’s Freemason initiation was risably pythonesqe – all signs and handshakes and overdone dramatics. Why bother?

The French Invasion of 1812, heralded Halley’s Comet, as a vast army crossing the Neimen, Boney’s fateful Rubicon, is melodramatically underwhelming but perhaps, to be otherwise would have required a very big budget. and yet, the battle of Borodino – I was awake for this one – was probably the best screen portrayal of this bloodbath that I have seen. The French occupation of Moscow was cliched and cursory, whilst the burning of the city, always difficult portray in film, came across as cut-price CGI. The disastrous French retreat from Moscow, prisoners in tow,  was likewise difficult to portray, but somehow, by thinking small and focusing on the micro-dramas of the debacle, and with some cold-weather channeling of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, it actually worked.

And finally, when the tumult and the shouting ended, the captains and the kings departed, and the characters have met their various ends or apotheoses, what of that bucolic happy families ending?

As Tolstoy himself was to say, in the opening lines of another weighty tome, all happy families are alike. The rural family barbecue was a derivative denouement. The surviving members of the three families, now three generations, gather together after all their trials and tribulations in an idyllic rustic lifestyle bought and paid for with Bezukhov and Bolkonsky money. It is reminiscent of the final scene in Cold MountainShenandoah, How the West was Won, The Sound of Music, and many others in which ‘Good’ eventually triumphs over despair, deprivation and disaster – you know how it goes: “We’re so glad all the bad stuff is over and done – may our lives now be pleasant and delightful”. Or as Tint Tim (of Dickens’ fame, not Tulips) declaimed, “God bless us all!”

But, Tolstoy’s drawn-out, ponderous and indeed, anticlimactic and awful “getting of wisdom” finale would not have worked on screen. “Thankfully!” many would declare.  And anyhow, isn’t this how the classic hero’s quest is meant to end: with revelation redemption, reunion, and a kind of contentment. The old Count, in his mystical, mythic way, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

And after six hours of pretty good entertainment, who am I to blow against the wind?


Here’s what the papers said:

And here is all you ever wanted to know about Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but were put off by three inches of closely-typed mall print:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – digested read

We’re going to speak Frussian, join the army, fall in love, fall out of love, get very cold, and then die
Illustration: Matt Blease
                                                                Illustration: Matt Blease

It was July 1805, and all St Petersburg was concerned about the advance of Bonaparte. Though not so much as to cancel a soiree at which Pierre, a bastard by birth but not by nature, was to be introduced to Russian society.

“Pierre is not one of nous,” several guests observed. “Not only does he forget choses but he doesn’t speak Frussian. Et he drinks even plus que nous.”

Prince Andrew, a bastard by nature but not by birth, cleared his throat delicately. “As a member of the officer class, I have decided to join the army,” he declared.

“I shall join the hussars,” Nicholas declared, while his sister Natasha eyed up potential husbands. They might become rather scarce.

Pierre checked his fob watch. The pages were turning faster than he expected and his father had now died. “I seem to find myself the richest man in Russia.”

War proved more terrible than either Andrew or Nicholas has expected. Dreams as well as men got killed. “How I embrace death,” Andrew murmured as the battle of Austerlitz raged. “Pas so vite,” said Napoleon. “Permettez-moi de vous donner une main. Now I must wash my chubby little body.”

“I’m home,” said Andrew as his wife died in childbirth.

Pierre felt the burden of expectation and married Helene but, helas, she had a bit on the cote. The anguish was intolerable, but Pierre felt obliged not to kill his love rival in a duel and left St Petersburg for many years to ruminate on Freemasonry before deciding a knotted handkerchief was not for him. Instead, he chose to improve the lot of his serfs, who had up till now remained entirely invisible. “Harrumph,” he concluded at last. “I cannot improve their lot because they have never had it so good.” Tolstoy nodded approvingly, lifting his eyes momentarily from the handsome handmaiden beneath him.

“So, 500 roubles on the peace lasting,” said Nicholas, as Napoleon and the Tsar embraced in friendship, thereby losing the remains of the Rostov fortune.

“I am distraught,” Andrew declared as Natasha fell dangerously ill.

It was now 1812 and Pierre was beside himself as the French approached Moscow. “‘I am deranged with symbolism and Helene has left me even though I left her first. I vow to kill Napoleon,” he said.

Je ne peux pas believe que je have just perdu the battle of Borodino,” Napoleon squeaked, his shoe-lifts giving him gip. “The French had by lointhe best army.”

“But Russia had nature and spirituality on its side,” said Tolstoy while a chorus of Volga boatmen sang patriotic songs.

“Can you not faire quelque chose about the fumee in Moscow?” asked Napoleon. “Et quand will I receive the surrender?”

Jamais,” Mother Russia replied. First scorched earth, then General Winter. War is hell.

Pierre hovered between madness and death as the French performed atrocities during their withdrawal from the icy embrace of Mother Russia.

“There is a nobility in being broke,” said Nicholas’s aunt. “So I am going to give you some more money.” “Oh, thank you,” Nicholas replied. “Now I can marry Mary. And maybe you and Andrew can make up now, Natasha?”

“I forgive you, Natasha,” said Andrew, before dropping dead.

“That’s handy,” said Pierre, appearing out of nowhere. “Maybe I can marry you instead.”

“Yes please,” Natasha whimpered. “I can give up my singing, we can have four children and I can become a right old drudge, because Leo thinks that submission is a woman’s natural state.”

Tolstoy bowed his head. He was tired. The novel was a difficult thing. Not that his book was a novel, of course. Though people would be bound to call it that. Fools all of them. We can only know we know nothing.

 Hear Simon Callow read John Crace’s digested War and Peace on the BBC Today programme