2014: Tablets of plastic, tablets of stone.

2014 has been a year of portents. Portents mysterious and elusive, half-seen as they emerge through the shimmering curtain that separates reality from myth. News stories were symbols, a code laid out in stone, far removed from our trail in a technological slipstream. The technology allowing us to follow the news may be improving on a regular basis, but the news this year was old  – narratives from older cultures and religious texts. Tablets of plastic emulated tablets of stone.

Enoch was seized into heaven, but in the summer, dozens of unfortunate souls were blasted out of the sky over Ukraine, victims in a conflict that they had no part in, accountable to no one. Death visited them in a flash, as if struck by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts. This was shortly after the Bermuda Triangle decided to go for an extended vacation in the Indian Ocean and swallowed up flight MH370. The data was pored over, the metrics adjusted, the grizzled Australian oceancombers reunited for one last job. Yet the plane remains unfathomable, an anomaly within our quantified spacetime. There may be radar and sonar systems that are aware of its location, but will not divulge it due to the risk of exposing confidential military information. It may be the age of big data, but the military-industrial complex will always be the bigger brother. The plane’s absence has frustrated any construction of a narrative, with only speculative strands able to emerge, like bean plants groping for support in their germination. The deaths of 239 people needed to be accounted for, but no enemy was willing to step forward, despite nominations from China, Iran, and the pilot. It would seem apposite that in a year such as this, the most likely solution is found to be that the pilot, the one responsible for navigating his passengers through the storm, decided to kill himself and everyone else on board.

Moses descended from Mt. Sinai clutching the Ten Commandments, yet for the poor souls trapped on Sinjar Mountain in Iraq, the mountain was not a portent of salvation, but the last refuge as they were slowly wiped out by a fundamentalist wave, cutting like a scythe across the Middle East. The sacred intervention provided at the mountaintop was by air strikes, another interventionist thunderbolt thrown down from the sky. Conflict was charged with as much religious sensation as any account of Old Testament legions, though the weapons may have changed.

In 2012 we watched Felix Baumgartner meteor across the sky, synthesis of man and machine; a worldwide event, the climax of human potential plummeting towards the New Mexico desert. In 2014, Alan Eustace returned to the same spot in secret, after years of repressed negotiations that would lead to him emulating Baumgartner’s feat. It was all wrong. Baumgartner was the rugged outsider, a man built to BASE jump from manmade skyscrapers, a plummet of human freedom from towers of steel and glass. Alan Eustace was a man in a suit, someone who could convert capital into the equivalent of superior of Baumgartner’s raw daredevilry. Eustace is a vice-president of Google, and his jump seemed oddly coalescent with that corporation’s endeavour to index all information on Earth – content with archiving all information on ground level, they decided to push the vertical frontier in their relentless harvest. Thinking of 2014 as the year of portents, this was the moment that the illusion of a global celebration, peoples united by the admiration for breaking the limits of the human shell, was dustbinned by private discussions and transactions. Baumgartner’s accumulation of distant sympathies was replaced by a disappointing realisation that most events are conducted despite our ignorance, and only made available to us after the fact.

(As an aside, Alan Eustace did not exist until he made his jump. That is to say, he did not exist according to the ontology which is quickly growing to the sole arbiter – Wikipedia. Before the jump, Alan Eustace did not have a Wikipedia article. He needed the gravity one can only experience when falling from 40,000 metres to be catalogued in their database.)

The digital does not decay. It exists in binary, either on or off, 1 or zero. Analogue information disintegrates and is therefore more susceptible to time’s arrow. Perhaps living in a digital space removes from being able to observe that decay is central to nature. Combine this with years of Orientalism towards the African continent, and the anaesthesia towards death imbued by gentrification, and we are not prepared for the outbreak of a viral disease. Or at least, we are not prepared for it to cross the Mediterranean. In a way Ebola actually frustrates our catastrophic instinct – strains of bird and swine flu were given letters and numbers, labels, to show how new they were, so any widespread death could be accepted as a black swan, the unseen monster, the spike in the statistics. Ebola is not a new disease; it has been with us since the 1970s, with each previous outbreak largely contained within Africa.  And we were happy for it to stay there, thinking that the African continent itself was diseased. If 2014 has been the year of portents and stone tablets, then Ebola threatens us with a plague that we hope will not breach the walls of Constantinople. Ebola could be our enemy, the indefensible nemesis against which we launch all of our efforts as any form of religious or political ideology has been deconstructed to the extent that any and all of them can be sympathised with or criticised in equal measure. Yet we cannot even raise the effort to make this so, because it seems that, as if with many events in 2014, we are incapable of viewing ourselves as a common species.

Data might have a colour. Black lives became so dispensable in the USA in 2014 that human beings were reduced to a bundle of probabilities – the odds that the man in front of me is holding a gun, the odds that he wants to use it on me, the odds that he wants to kill me. The number of people killed on those spurious odds tallied until it became a statistic, almost fulfilling Stalin’s aphorism. The audio of the gunshots, the proximity of the props on the crime scene have all been Zaprudered to unimaginable levels, as if the exact quantification of data could make an accurate enough statement about the power dynamics between black and white, as if black and white could be demarcated by hexadecimal codes.

There was still a coda to the bleakness and obliteration of humanity in 2014, as the details of the CIA’s shocking institutional torture were finally held up to the light. The mutual animosity between radical Muslims and the moral cavalry of the West is itself like a ray of light, endlessly mirrored between the two sides until it fulgurates into a mutually destructive beam. I read the details of the report whilst stood at a platform waiting for a train and the bilious reaction I felt towards the inhuman treatment towards the prisoners pulled me self-destructively towards the train tracks from the pit of my stomach for a fleeting moment. So soon after we supposedly learned our lessons from the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, our capacity to commit violence to each other had never seemed more brazen. They were billed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ but the ineffectiveness of torture is so well-known that the pain inflicted upon the prisoners was punitive – a medieval application of morality which wormed its way through damp towels and anal canals.

And all of this leads us to 2014’s greatest phenomenon, the one which captures the spirit of the passing year: Twitch Plays Pokémon. A reservoir of 8 bit memories attuned in a cloud mind. An ultra-democratic interface that created its own mythos within a matter of days. A stage where every facet of human existence could be observed, an anthropological Petri dish. There was war, prompted by sectarianism. Even the days of the week seemed imbued with their own particular baggage (‘Bloody Sunday’) with the sense of Creation at work, where millions of users were spawned instantaneously and grappled in the dark to make sense of a directionless world, trying to work together. The image of Red being pulled in four different directions while repeatedly trying to consult the helix fossil seems like the appropriate image for the year in which the confusion of trying to narrativise the world with an overabundance of information was made plain. Perhaps the way we are going forward is actually the way back, to try and interpret events as portents, to read into them a millennial millenarianist significance that supersedes rational thought.

Postscript:  What was the soundtrack to such a bleak year? I found no better candidate than the unremitting darkness and monolithic intensity of Andy Stott’s Faith In Strangers. The album cover depicts an enigmatic head situated in front of an apartment window, interrupting any look out of it – towards escape maybe – with an Polynesian style statuette.  The album is punctuated by ghosts, either breathing all over the mix or restlessly banging on pipes. The vibrance of dub and techno is detuned into a cold grey steel which is unrepentant in the darkness it broods. Any sense of urgency has the paranoid powerlessness of a caffeine overdose, with movement a step ahead of thought. At a time where Spotify and the curatorial power of each individual music consumer is more powerful than ever, the experience of listening to work which completely crushes you and drains you is more important than ever – you are accountable to the music, rather than vice versa.

The Imitation Game review: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

‘The Imitation Game’ is a marvellous phrase which this film applies to many fields – cryptography, relationships, and what is considered normal interaction for human beings. But the title is most applicable in terms of its generic occupancy. I feel like I’m at a tipping point because before I sat down to watch The Imitation Game on Sunday evening, I’d already seen it dozens of times.

All of the requisite ingredients of the character-led drama are here: a protagonist on the margins of society who rebels against the system, a love interest, a Muse who helps him discover himself, and an antagonist who eventually accepts grudging respect. The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump…it’s a familiar story. When the protagonist is taking on a project of sorts (inevitable if they work in a scientific field), then you can expect the appropriate ‘sudden revelation’ scene where everything fits together, and it gets an obligatory airing here. The Imitation Game gives an even more specific example of such well-worn ideas in the ‘disastrous interview scene’, which observant viewers may recognise from Good Will Hunting. This leads to an inevitable conundrum. These tropes are used by Hollywood broadly in line with its political sympathies – standing up for the disenfranchised, but it becomes more and more difficult to warm to those themes when they are repeated so much and no longer hold any individuality or originality.

It feels even more galling in this instance, because there are moments where The Imitation Game points towards the film it could have been (though it may be editing/production which stifled it). The scenes where Hut 8 discuss the ethical implications of what happens when they break the code (spoiler alert) is truly powerful and thought-provoking. Indeed, the film explores ethics in general too much through the fulcrum of the awards season vehicle character-led drama. It often feels that its exploration is limited to what it reveals about the main character. The aforementioned scene feels too much like a tribute to Turning’s stern rationalism and ability to see beyond his peers, instead of a sustained exegesis of what on earth the morally correct thing is to do – the film wraps it up quite neatly in a bundle of relativistic twine.

I’m moving into the territory of talking about the film as I would have liked to have made it, rather than critiquing the vision of the director, but I truly think there are artistic gaps in this film that were ripe for developing. The protagonist is someone upon whose shoulders the world’s fate rests, making him an unusual companion to the superhero protagonists who have dominated Hollywood cinema in recent years.  Superhero comics are one of the foremost art forms at turning the marginalised in society into the stars of the show, but the ubiquity of their film adaptations in recent years has, unfortunately, injured that somewhat. In many ways it’s an overly exclusive position to take, but the sheer volume associated with those films (in viewers, sales, and number of films produced) means that as a blockbuster phenomenon, they have drifted somewhat from their ability to communicate the position of the outsider. As much as I don’t like The Imitation Game borrowing too much from genres and films which have preceded it, its subtle interaction with the superhero film gives back some of this power by focusing on a quiet man whose private life is deemed unnatural and punishable by the state.

As part of this hero’s responsibility, he has to become a master of a particular form of language, to understand communication better than anyone else. The irony is, of course, that as someone who is detached (whether by genius or something else) from ordinary human society, he finds it difficult to communicate with the people around him. This is addressed to some extent through the scene in which the code is finally cracked (and in the process giving an example of how ‘factionalisation’ can work in a film’s favour), as one of his colleagues reveals that the Germans slip up in their coding because they insert repeated personal messages. But the clue is not so much the message’s individuality but its predictability. If a German code operator repeats the name of his paramour enough times, does it remain love or does it become robotic? The other clues to the breaking – talking about the weather and saluting ‘Heil Hitler’ both show examples where human conversation has an ostensibly spontaneous impetus, but betrays something more systematic underneath. Alan’s domination of the film ensures that we always consider communication in terms of systems, and thus we are forced to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about it. It’s true that the film lays these clues out for us to consider, but so much of the dialogue in the film is about Alan discovering himself and being abused by the system, it isn’t really developed as an artistic whole. There is some attention paid to the social code of communication which Alan misses, but it’s a bit too cutesy, and usually diverted to Alan’s romantic life, or lack thereof. The film puts this at the centre of attention, when there is potential to make a real concerted artistic statement at the same time.

Something else is missed, another opportunity available with the central conceit: Turing was a man riddled by secrets. He could not reveal to anyone the extent of his wartime work, nor could he speak to anyone about his homosexuality. Keeping one secret was considered to be not just a legal obligation but an honourable practice, while the other was viewed with scorn. In the flashbacks for Sherborne school, for example, the note-passing is shown as a straightforward piece of character development. This is the recurrent problem with character-led drama, the overwhelming desire to sustain sympathy for the lead character and their relationships, to the extent that thought-provoking diversions, or adding an extra layer on top, are often missed. Or when Manchester’s finest are investigating him, any investigation into this binary of secrets is only done in order to provide the undercooked frame of Alan explaining his life, the things he has done beyond the comprehension of ordinary men, to a humble police officer from up ‘North. I wanted the film to explore the definition of secrecy a bit more, and the hypocrisy of being expected to preserve secrets on behalf of the very establishment that deemed his personal secret to be worthy of punishment.

One other area where I feel the film misses a trick is in making a comment about communication, and the interception thereof, in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s monitoring program. The film is simply too ready to hold up the decoding of ENIGMA as a necessary and virtuous quest, central to the war effort, with little investigation beyond the moving scene where its statistical brutality is momentarily laid bare. The back and forth between English and German communications, constantly monitoring each other, is not mined for its potential psychological effects, it’s all really a bit of a joke. Of course, given that most of the messages are banal and mechanic as I mentioned earlier, it would be unfair to expect something akin to the vicariousness of surveillance in The Lives of Others. Nor is it my expectation that films have an obligation to make a political comment. But they do have a psychological impetus. The film is set at a pivotal moment, where widespread real-time covert engagement with human communication begins in earnest. The debate waiting to emerge from the shadows is whether a film like The Imitation Game should really try to be all of these things; whether it is too much to ask, whether it limits the enjoyment of the film, the ability to sympathise with Alan’s plight. I disagree. The film’s funnelling towards a character-driven drama, whenever it happened, left me cold. Some redemption in this regard is given by the character of Mingus, played with cruel, manipulative brilliance by Mark Strong, who steals every scene he is in. Under Strong’s influence, Mingus rises from simple antagonist (represented in the curmudgeonly establishment type by Charles Dance) to become a floating shadow, whose presence demonstrates to Turing that the house always wins. Turing by contrast is (and I hold this to be an inconsistency with the scripting rather than the acting) an unstable character, alternating between wisecracking oddball who won’t play ball, cripplingly shy wallflower, and misunderstood loner. It is as if the essences of many types of Hollywood anti-hero flow through him at once, but cancel each other out.

How do you make a subtle point about surveillance without being accused of making a cheap political shot by pretentious bloggers such as me? No doubt, it is a difficult balance to strike. But the solution I hypothesised was to conduct more of a post-mortem on exactly what Bletchley Park’s work laid the foundation of. It only had to consist of a sidelong quizzical glance, where the film momentarily cocks its head and asks ‘and how much do we think it’s necessary?’ The film’s makers put in all the steps until the final one, demonstrating how vital ENIGMA’s work was at its historical moment, but then backed away from the overhanging question, of whether a dividing line can ever be drawn between intelligence acting on the behalf of the public and the individual’s rights to privacy – given Alan’s own unique private life, it could have been very potent indeed.

But of course, most people are watching and talking about this film because it represents another step on the ladder to stardom ascended by Benedict Cumberbatch. I wasn’t as wowed by his performance as most commentators, but the role that he inhabits is a testament to how he is reshaping classical British acting. Roger Friedman’s review described him as a natural heir to Sir Laurence Olivier and this is right, but Cumberbatch has done some redesigning of the crown upon inheriting it. Olivier’s career was a sequence of stiff upper lip characters: Henry V, Hugh Dowding, Crassus – even Zeus – whereas Cumberbatch has taken the same English tradition and channelled it into portraying society’s freaks and oddballs, instilling them with a dignity that lifts them out of physical disability (Stephen Hawking), sociopathy (Sherlock) and the judgement of society as a whole (Alan Turing). Of course this reflects deeper lying changes in society, but it still needs someone to act it out. So long as he continues to be the best candidate to fulfil these roles, then he will be one of the most important actors working.

The Bellicose Remembrance

“War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war” – Constance, King John, William Shakespeare

When I started this blog I had no intentions of commenting directly on the news or political events. On Sunday, I opened up my internet browser to be greeted by a putrefying stench – the pervasive smell of fish surrounding the story, first reported in the Sun, about a supposed plot to assassinate the Queen (that’s OUR queen, the British queen, God love her) at the Remembrance Day service in the Royal Albert Hall. Firstly, a lot of news sources reported that it was a gun or a bomb plot, which is not true – the arrests were done on the pretence of there being a ‘stab plot’ against the Queen. In the interest of balance, I won’t commit to any certainties, but nearly every household in this country has at least one knife in it that could probably cause severe damage to an 88 year old woman. These are not people found with bomb-making equipment in their kitchen, there is no smoking gun in this story. In fact, no weapons were found during the initial raids. The men apparently had ‘access to firearms’. What does that mean? With enough know-how I could find a gun if I really wanted to. I find it too convenient that such a story would emerge, on such a flimsy pretext, on this week of all weeks, when the suspects had been under surveillance for months, in the midst of perhaps the worst feelings of insularity and xenophobia I can remember happening in this country. Of course we should be vigilant following the events in Canada. But we should also be careful of turning a blind eye to a degradation in the legal status of British Muslims (or, heck, anyone who happens to look and sound foreign enough for the papers to run a juicy story), one which allows them to be subject to increased police interference and to be assaulted by people in the street.

The phrase ‘routine surveillance’ is one which only uncovers dubious dealings when you really pick it at it. In the context of what the Sun are saying, ‘routine surveillance’ is comfy, a sort of honourable act that the bobbies do in order to keep us safe in the fantastical Merrie England village which the Sun tries to convince its readership it could live in, if only they piggybacked onto enough of the paper’s campaigns. ‘Routine surveillance’ means the Met Police making an order for historical metadata on phone and communications usage – something which does not require a court order. How utterly convenient, then, that a story like this would emerge, where surveillance seems to be what’s needed to keep us all safe, in the wake of the scandal which uncovered just how much ‘routine surveillance’ was carried out by News International. Something seems to be very strange at the heart of it  – it was only a few weeks ago that the Met Police were slapped on the wrists for using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to tap into the phone of the Sun’s political editor. Maybe, while Operation Elveden is still ongoing, it is the Sun’s way of proving that they and the Met are not so different after all – they both act in the public interest, even if they have to be canny in their methods.

There is a deeper lying hypocrisy about this story which I can’t stand either. In the past year people have been thinking critically about religion and the unique idealism it holds which can provoke people into committing heinous acts. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But the way that the Queen (her Maj, our Liz, God love her) is spoken of in most red-tops borders on the religious itself. She is the only person who can make this story work, as she is perhaps the one woman in the world (except maybe Beyonce) who is above all criticism. The Sun is expecting to stoke a righteous indignation in their readers, who in turn would presumably find the idea of faith in the ideals of Islam an utterly intolerable concept.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Remembrance in the past week. Writing that seems like a doubly redundant sentence, but thinking and Remembrance to me seem increasingly mutual exclusive activities. The Remembrance industry, such as it is, is one which appears to provide us with niches for individual thought – a minute’s silence here, an art installation there – but social media has exacerbated the rapacious groupthink which occupies Remembrance. This is what I think Jonathan Jones was trying to get at when he wrote about the poppies at the Tower of London, before he (or his editor) decided to make the article incendiary to the point of embarrassment. The Tower poppies are undeniably powerful. But they are not the type of installation which facilitate an individual response – if you go there, you will be standing on your tiptoes to try and get a better view, you will have other people’s elbows jabbing into you, and generally, you will, through the power of collective experience, feel obliged to view the piece in the manner in which it is expected for you to. Remembrance Sunday is important. The poppy, in its red and white incarnations, is important. But no-one should ever feel that they are obliged to Remember with a capital r. Remembrance should involve personal discretion, whether you’re reading Owen, going through a religious text, scanning through history books (that, heaven forbid, may explore beyond the Western front), looking at the letters of a family member involved in the war. It’s a dexterous feat of historical interpretation to claim that the soldiers in the conflict fought for ‘liberty’, but if we assume that to be the ‘moral’ of this war, then we should use it to justify thinking about it in our own personal terms, not with a sense of obligation and shame that is drilled into us from the newspapers and elsewhere.

One final point – terrorism is scary. That’s how it works. It makes you suspicious of people you walk past on the street, it closes off your mind, it encourages you to accept freedoms being curtailed. But as I mentioned at the top, it is pretty obvious that one party (whether the government, the Met, or the Sun) felt the time was right to launch what was effectively a conveniently timed PR exercise,  moving against four men who have very little in the way of evidence against them. Terrorism also makes you blind. It makes you think that there is only one hot topic in the world, and that if only we could cut it off at the source, we’d be able to go back to the normal lives we once led. Don’t get drawn into the fear stories – think about the real difficulties that this country is facing at the moment; the piss-poor rights for housing tenants, the slow death of higher education possessing any sort of intellectual merit, and loneliness. The last one is different because it is not as contingent upon government policy, or lack of it. But it is perhaps the most preventable. All of those factors work in tandem to create disenfranchised people (who may be succoured into extremism) just as much as any abstract ideology. Initiate contact with a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Call your parents. Say hi to your neighbours. Don’t proceed through the world alone and scared.

Wordsworth’s Apocalypse

1903 walter crane illustrated edition, courtesy of uni of minnesota

This is a version of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’, illustrated by Walter Crane in 1903. Notice how the scene has been transformed into something that would not look out of place in Greek myth. Credit: University of Minnesota

A hallmark of criticism of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality Based Upon Recollections of Early Childhood’ has been thinking about the primordial light which the poet believes predates our existence to be an implementation of Platonic thought, whereby the world is divided into Forms, with a cleavage between the physical and the ideal. According to this line of thinking, the poet describes how during life the soul is a prisoner inside the body, only free before birth and after death. Certainly, Platonism should be considered as part of the overall intellectual background Wordsworth is working from, but the language is steeped in specific Biblical cadence and terminology too. In a note he gave to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says the inspiration for the poem was his ‘brooding’ over the Biblical stories of Elijah and Enoch as a child, sympathising with their imminent connection to a transcendent state. The Old Testament contains figures like Elijah who are abruptly whisked up to heaven from Earth on a chariot of fire. Wordsworth’s ode on the other hand is like being kicked out of the chariot, with birth as a gradual descent to earth before finally being rooted out of idealism by ‘earthly freight’. The thinking may be Platonic, but the language is shared with the Elijah story, and willingly draws on its connotations in order to reverse its narrative momentum. Another Biblical source it overlaps with is the Olivet Discourse or the ‘Little Apocalypse’ from Matthew 24, also described in Mark 13. Yet the Biblical archetypes in this poem have not really been traced in sufficient detail, and Wordsworth’s invocation of Elijah has not been appropriate judged in the context of the Revolutionary Europe he was a part of.

Writing a poem with millennial undertones in 1802-4 is not unusual; the French Revolution was widely interpreted by popular preachers and writers like Joseph Priestley to be an indication of the coming millennium, whether it meant the end of the world or an overturn, necessitating a complete change in discourse. In the early years of the Revolution Wordsworth was quite radical – his friendship circle with Coleridge and others was spied upon (though quite ineptly) at Nether Stowey by James Walsh on grounds of perceived radicalism, he wrote an apology for the Revolution in a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ features a prophecy of the spread of revolutionary fervour:

                                      Liberty must raise

Red on the hills her beacon’s far-seen blaze;

Must bid the tocsin ring from tower to tower!–

Nearer and nearer comes the trying hour!

Rejoice, brave Land, though pride’s perverted ire

Rouse hell’s own aid, and wrap thy fields in fire:

Lo, from the flames a great and glorious birth;

As if a new-made heaven were hailing a new earth!

–All cannot be: the promise is too fair

For creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air:

Yet not for this will sober reason frown

Upon that promise, nor the hope disown;

She knows that only from high aims ensue

Rich guerdons, and to them alone are due.

 Already here though is a sense of an inward turn; the disheartened change of tone at line 646 shows that Wordsworth cannot completely invest in the promise of an apocalypse, and shows a change in focus to ‘creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air’ as the most important factor in his poetry.

James Gillray - Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

James Gillray – Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

The promise of revolution is completed via an interrogation of the self, not through external activities. This extract shows how militarism is introduced to the poem as an abrupt discursive shift, with the poet unwilling to combine his idealistic idea of freedom originating from the human heart with a more totemic shift in freedom achieved by violent ends, which connects the violence of the Revolution with the suddenness of Elijah’s elevation. The Revolution promises the phoenix-like ‘flames’ and ‘new-made heaven’ which greeted Elijah, but Wordsworth grounds the reality of ‘terrestrial air’ too firmly to allow transcendental escape to be a possibility, and starts to discuss the vagaries of the individual.

Elijah and the figures described in the Olivet Discourse fit quite easily into a narrative of the Revolution – those whose actions during it allow them to be transported to the new, transcendental state, leaving behind their peers who were incapable of doing so, or to interpret it from the other end of the spectrum, teleporting the virtuous away from the apocalyptic excesses of the Revolution. Even by 1798 Wordsworth’s partner Coleridge was comparing the events of the Revolution with the wind, fire and earthquake experienced by Elijah on Horeb in a letter to his brother, writing just as he and the Wordsworths were about to embark to Germany:

Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts most adequately in the words of Scripture: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake afire; and the Lord was not in the fire” and now (believing that no calamities are permitted but as the means of good) I wrap my face in my mantle and wait, with a subdued and patient thought, expecting to hear ” the still small voice” which is of God.

In this particular letter the identification with Elijah is a move away from Revolution, and the same letter details an important turn in Coleridge’s thinking, as he decides to abandon ‘consideration of immediate causes’  which are ‘infinitely complex and uncertain’, preferring to

elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life

One should always be wary of linking Coleridge and Wordsworth too closely together, but in this case the former provides the most adequate summary of their poetry’s inward turn following the excesses of the Revolution, appealing to the potential of the human heart rather than impelling a contingent audience, ready to make revolution a reality. Thus, with the two men in such close company, it is not unforeseeable to think that Wordsworth may have absorbed something of the Elijah story, not to mention that he probably had a very good knowledge of it himself anyway. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth is much less willing to describe an orthodox Christian God, so while Coleridge is lifted up, Wordsworth comes down in the ‘Ode’. Coleridge’s identification with Elijah is a wish to ride out the worst of the Revolution and become a prophet who can detune from such excesses and follow the moral instruction of God. Wordsworth’s thematic and linguistic similarity with the tale is a reconfiguration of such escapist impulses, asking whether humanity actually is something we should celebrate, rather than wish to depart from. Moreover, Wordsworth does not wait for the imminence of an interventionist God that confirms who is elect and who is reprobate, but affirms a common human heart which ensures his religion is always more muted than Coleridge’s.

In the best tradition of Biblical typology, many aspects of Elijah’s ascent are mirrored in the Olivet Discourse, and hence its influence should also be considered upon Wordsworth’s poem.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Jesus’ speech begins with the prophecy of a temple being destroyed, symbolic of abandoning earthly walls and fetters when the Second Coming arrives. Yet in Wordsworth the emphasis is upon life as a gradual realisation of the walls coming in, of the physicality of the ‘prison-house’ or ‘humorous stage’. In the Fenwick Notes to the poem Wordsworth describes the collapse of a childhood ‘abyss of idealism’, whereby one loses the sensation of feeling inextricably connected to the matter of all things. Freedom is something we lose, not something granted to us in miraculous salvation. With such a narrative in place, revolution and apocalypse is not what we’re waiting for; such manifestations at best maintain the tactility of life on earth.

Matthew 24: 16-19 emphasises the importance of abandoning worldly goods when the apocalypse arrives, and while Wordsworth would probably agree with rejecting materialism, his concentration on the ‘meanest flower’ shows another departure of his from the Bible, as he is so dedicated to the miracles of the everyday, especially those tokened by nature. Wordsworth’s idea of redemption comes about after a communion with the common elements of the world that surround him, not through a mystical revelation that pierces through all earthly matter. This is why line 25 is so important, as ‘trumpets’ harmonise the cataracts with the angelic trumpets that are harbringers of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. But in the context of the poem, they announce the May-morning festival which Wordsworth is re-joining, unable to join in the spirit of the occasion in the same manner as the children, but able to take an uplifting moral from observing them, remembering his own enjoyment of it and satisfied that it will continue in the future. They are not a sign of the end, but a sign of another start.

The May-morning festival is not only disjunctive because it has pagan origins, but because it is annual. It is a festival whose celebration returns consistently and predictably, yet as has been shown thus far the language overlaps with the prediction of the most totemic event possible – the Second Coming, or the end of history. This shows both Wordsworth’s optimism in a common human spirit, passing on through generations (rather than thinking about his own salvation, which as Coleridge showed, could manifest itself in terms of how to navigate a Revolutionary Europe), as well as a promotion of the miraculous nature of ‘regular’ life. To wit, his depictions of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Discharged Soldier (in fact, nearly all of the people he encounters in the autobiographical Prelude), and the old man in ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay’ are deeply linked to descriptions of pilgrims, but their destination is not as important as the journey, and their continued existence.  At this point in his career Wordsworth is not interested in creating a narrative arc towards an inscribed end point as Coleridge hinted at. He prefers to take the framework of such events and concentrate on the human interactions that happen amidst them.

One of the central passages in the Olivet Discourse is the fig tree analogy, used to indicate omens that the apocalypse is arriving. A symbolic parallel arrives jarringly in line 52 of Wordsworth’s poem, confirming the potency of the tree within the poem as it arrives with an abrupt change of pace. Once again the emphasis changes from harbingers of things to come in favour of things that have passed away – Wordsworth’s tree is a rooted constant in his life, one which he knows he perceived differently as a child and is confronted with it as an adult knowing the perceptual shift he has undergone since then. Wordsworth’s symbols are brought forward from subjective memory, not implemented ab extra.

Looking at Matthew 24: 36 in closer detail can elaborate this lack of faith in omens – whereas the Bible indicates that foreknowledge of the Apocalypse is only in the hands of God, the overarching structure of Wordsworth’s poem, and indeed in nearly all of his great works, is that revelation is a self-driven phenomenon, one that is only accountable to an individual, the experiences they have gone through, and the memories they have formed. The Bible tells us that ‘knoweth no man’ when Judgement will arrive. Wordsworth tells us the opposite; it is only the deeply ingrained experiences which only we know and remember which validate our existence.

Looking at the Ode through the lens of Biblical passages and millennialism facilitates greater consideration of the context of the Europe that Wordsworth inhabited, with a real sense that seismic historical changes were taking place, perhaps even the end of history. Written after the early promise of the Revolution had ebbed away into tyranny and military aggression, Wordsworth turns even further inward, to reinterpret the discourse of apocalypse and end times into a more humanistic renewal, not engaging with external portents but instead bringing forward memories and engagement with nature in order to achieve this. As with much Romantic verse, the emphasis on seemingly trivial subject matter is in fact a demonstration of how Wordsworth is keenly engaged with his political and historical context – but one has to work voraciously in order to trace it. The feeling of imminent historical changes can sometimes be met from the bottom-up, by concentrating on the very verisimilitude of human existence.

 Postscript, or, what’s the point?

 This is something new for me, but I think it’s a helpful exercise. I don’t think art should ever be judged by its immediate political relevance, but I’m going to add these little codas to some of my pieces from now on in order to give some personal ideas as to how and why the preceding essay is at all relevant to the time we live in.

 Any student of history will tell you that disillusionment with Revolution is predictable, but given how drastically bad the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has become following the ‘Arab Spring’, I feel sick to my stomach. That these world events should be presided over by Barack Obama, the world’s first hipster head of state, only adds another twist of the knife. Any chance of idealism has been completely exposed by the nuances of geopolitics and reaction by fundamentalist believers. I watched, with some close friends, events unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011 from some school computers, thinking: wow. We were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but perhaps this is it, the first global news event that we have been old enough to appreciate, that might indicate a new dawn for the world. Events since have proven that thinking in such Cold War binaries is no longer possible. In that respect, Wordsworth’s scrabbling attempt to find something to hold on to following the disintegration of a Revolution in his own time presents us with a good model to go back to the drawing board and reconsider how we interact with the world. Wordsworth is a man who has seen how grand narratives of history and the best will in the world can implode.

 

 

 

Line of Duty and the myth of realism

In March, newspapers and websites alike were already falling over themselves to award Line of Duty with the accolade of TV drama of the year. It is a finely crafted show, of that there is no doubt (even if there was gratuitous and confusing plot dumping in the final episode), but the grounds on which it is praised are somewhat awry. The creator, Jed Mercurio, is somewhat culpable of this, as in an interview with The Guardian he described the genesis of his work:

“I got interested in writing about police corruption, it was a different angle, a police version of Bodies: very grown-up, it had mature themes, an antithesis of the escapist cop show. I am a social realist writer. There were sufficient parallels with the NHS I could write about.”

Mercurio may see himself as a social realist writer, but Line of Duty is at its most powerful when it is consciously fantastical, and I don’t think this is any coincidence.

It must be conceded right off the bat that Mercurio has done an excellent job at translating a previously ignored aspect of police life – anti-corruption and the bureaucratic culture of the police post-New Labour – onto the screen, but that is largely the extent to which his ‘social realism’ delves. There is a curious absence of the social, and that is what I understand in the phrase ‘social realism’ – examining characters based upon their socioeconomic circumstances. To some extent Mercurio’s words work against him, because the show works at its best when it is further from such an ideal of realism.

The leading players on the blue side of the line are generally rendered quite well, and without pandering to types. They are conflicted, and frequently misguided when they pursue what they believe to be true justice. So far, so good. However, the series changes tone when it attempts to address the world outside the police station. The criminal underworld in the series is a shadowy realm whose motivations are never brought forward – it is no coincidence that Gates’ house is broken into by masked intruders in series 1, and that the ambush is perpetrated by all-black wearing motorcyclists in series 2.

 

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

Jackie Laverty about to be killed by members of the criminal organisation she became a part of. The lurch from her and Tony Gates reminiscing over glasses of wine to this is quite something.

 

This does more than perpetuate narrative tension, as it shows the crime originating from the underclass as a strike from the shadows, one which draws power because it is so unexpected and unexplainable, not because the criminal organisations are accountable to any sort of socioeconomic production.  Crime is inevitable, it has no genesis. This is quite unusual, given that Mercurio is so careful to illustrate how the police officers are pressured by factors outside their work to act in the way that they do.

There is, of course, the fact that as a relatively low-budget BBC production, there is only so much time and energy to invest in drawing up the type of finely woven tapestry seen in a series like The Wire. Nevertheless, there are some sinister elements of Line of Duty’s limitations, which suggest there is intent behind the caricaturisation of crime. Namely, crime is seen as one part of a wider umbrella of annoyances in middle-class life, like noisy neighbours, or not being able to afford school fees. The interview with the child Ryan in series 1 does a good job at humanising him, but the impact of his early appearances puts him in close proximity with the demon-child Damien from The Omen, raising the implied question: what if this was your child?

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep - another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

This woman is a bundle of headlines, all neatly wrapped up like a pile of newspapers in twine. At one point Denton extinguishes a chip pan while she is asleep – another aspect of middle-class hysteria, perhaps.

You can see this in the series 2 sub-plot of Lindsay Denton and her noisy neighbour – the woman’s only purpose in the story is, quite literally, to generate noise. She has no side of the story, meaning that her disturbance of Lindsay is put on a level with the corruption the latter is dealing with. Think back to the robber in series 1 as well, who is accompanied by a motif of loud techno music which acts like a huge flashing banner, shouting “HERE! HERE! THE CRIME IS HERE! ISN’T HE A NAUGHTY BOY?”.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an 'us' and 'them' mentality.

Series 1, episode 2, this robber is accompanied by a motif of banging techno choonez, further consolidating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

Crime and loud noises are combined as part of a general background buzz with other annoyances like paperwork. Sometimes moving away from realism really fits the show, as with the absence of geographical specificity which I’ll refer to later, but at other times it makes the show look refracted through a prism. Namely, that society, its constituents and their motivations are not drawn in an inquisitive manner but according to a ‘worst case scenario’ program, simply rehashing what someone may think or worry that the world outside their immediate view is like, instead of depicting it with a sense of investigation. There is less of a feeling that Mercurio has uncovered hidden elements in our society that we need to have brought to our attention, but that our insecurities are, in effect, being pandered to. Sometimes this is a useful narrative tactic, when Line of Duty takes on a decidedly Gothic flavour, drawing on several tropes of that particular genre.

There’s no peace in your own home. Jackie Laverty thought she had it in the first series, before her home was broken into and she was brutally murdered. The two police officers who supervise Denton during her incarceration in series 2 are Gothic fantasies in two ways: one, in their Kafkaesque rigour to a completely banal and emotionless bureaucracy, and two, because they are effectively doubles of one another. They are not designed to be realistic portrayals of police who were tempted on the wrong side of the thin blue line; their distinguishing feature is that they are always presented as a pair, like the eerie twins from The Shining, constantly intimidating the protagonist by outnumbering them.

twinsshining twins via horrorpedia

Such a trope also promotes another Gothic idea: disrupting humanist belief that each human being is fundamentally different by giving two figures that look and behave exactly the same. Likewise, Tommy Hunter is an angry Scotsman – his only defining characteristic is his Scottishness, which makes him louder and brasher, furthering the portrayal of crime as a noise, something which constantly stampedes upon people’s attempts to get on with their lives, instead of something that is accountable to social conditions. A real student of theory could delve here into the effect of having this Scottishness make him part of the general ‘othering’ of the criminal world within the show, but I don’t think it needs pushing that far – simply recognising the stereotypical traits of the character is sufficient.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

Another great Gothic trope: cross-dressing, with concomitant doubt over gender identities.

The whole estate sub-plot of series 1 is a sequence of ever-descending negatives, where humanity is completely absent: Sarah Hughes in The Guardian describes the overall feel as ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ and she’s certainly on to something. The estate is much more fictionalised than the police station. The estate is a place where crime and evil deeds obviously ensue, whereas the police station at least has the benefit of having each and every motivation and deed interrogated ruthlessly by the programme.  Although Fleming’s undercover work in series 1 was delicately done (and brilliantly subverted in series 2 when Denton called her out on it straight away), Dot Cottan has no such delicacies in his undercover role in AC-12. I understand that Line of Duty has been commissioned for two further series and thus it is perhaps inevitable that it will be explored further, but at the moment Cottan is a ‘Keyser Soze’ figure, a mythical menace within the police’s grasp, one who looks low on the pecking order both in the underworld and the police service but one whose hands remain remarkably clean.

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

The comparison with Cottan and Soze is admittedly a bit contrived, but I put this picture in just so I could say KEYSER SH-OZE!

Indeed, given the gaps series 2 left, I hope it will be the intertwining of police and criminals which forms the backbone of the next series at least. Taking the first series on their own terms, however, there was very little reference as to why Cottan, the two women in the prison, and the police behind the ambush acted in the way that they did. The fact that they show no remorse is telling; these are not conscience-driven characters in the way that the main characters are, they are devils, who commit evil deeds because that is what they are built for. It’s a circular logic; they’re evil because they’re evil. Again, this is odd when the main characters wrestle with a more 3-dimensional picture of what exactly good and evil mean in modern policing.

Sometimes this fluctuation between realism and Gothic benefits the show: they have been unable to specify where the show is set due to changing filming locations, but this has quite a neat effect of murkying the show’s palette even further – the city in which the show is set does not have a history of particular socioeconomic policy directed to it – it’s a city woven out of nightmares, where each character is trapped resolutely within their unhappiness and surrounded by demons. Line of Duty is weaker when it perpetuates extremely negative reports of society without delving enough beneath to surface to justify the label of ‘social realism’.

I have to ask for feedback on this one; Line of Duty is the only Jed Mercurio series I’ve watched. Anyone who’s watched his other stuff like Bodies and Cardiac Arrest, please leave a comment, I’d like to know how the two compare – does he seem more comfortable writing about the NHS, which he used to work in? Is there the same sense of suspended investigation? Do get in touch.

Thom Yorke is the most cliche-ridden songwriter we currently possess. That’s why he’s so important.

In an interview with HUMO magazine, Thom Yorke described the composition of ‘Fitter Happier’, the sequential and thematic centre of OK Computer, in the following terms:

“I had writer’s block for three months. In that period I could only make lists of words. It took me a long way to figure out that the only way I could translate my thoughts was with these lists”

Yet ‘Fitter Happier’ is not eccentric in its lyrical style, particularly for post-2000 Radiohead songs. Indeed, it seems as if Yorke has adapted this style of writing in his later career to slightly different, yet complementary circumstances. Much of his recent work reads as long ‘lists’ of idioms, clichés and generally familiar phrases. Pay particular attention in the quotation above to the two implications of the adverb ‘only’: it means that he realised he should stop thinking about songwriting as an introspective, cohesive manner in favour of a more fragmented approach, but also that the way in which language has been used from the 1990s onwards means that writing in such a manner is inevitable, the true way of marrying form with content in a new age. Yorke wonderfully channels the broadcasts of the modern world, not commenting as a privileged observer but allowing all of the vastness of data to penetrate through the stereo. Yet his use of cliché as a device is often missed or misunderstood (see the Neil McCormick review below). There is scope to examine it from the political angle, and utilise the agitations he has brought to light in interviews, but I am more interested in what it says on a more purely linguistic level, about how language is constructed and disseminated between people. Clearly there is an overlap here, and indeed political themes are unavoidable given the subject matter of Radiohead’s music. Nevertheless, I hope that this encourages a more appreciative look at lyrics which have been unfairly dismissed.

Bold = in Oxford idiom dictionary

Italics = other phrase of note

Pablo Honey  (2)

Pablo Honey + Drill + Itch

The Bends (3) The Bends + My Iron Lung OK Computer (5 + 3, not including Fitter Happier) OK Computer + No Surprises/Running From Demons + Airbag/How Am I Driving? Kid A/Amnesiac  (6 + 8)  29 songs Kid A + Amnesiac + I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings Hail to the Thief (13) Hail to the Thief + COM LAG (2plus2isfive)
Blow Out – “all wrapped up in cotton wool”

 Inside My Head – “hold my peace

Planet Telex – “dry as a bone”

The Bends – “blow me sky high”

“High and Dry”

Paranoid Android – “off with his head” + “first against the wall”

Subterranean Homesick Alien – “folks back home”

Exit Music – “all hell breaks loose”

Electioneering – “I trust I can rely on your vote”

“Climbing Up The Walls”

Lucky – “I’m on a roll”

Pearly

In Limbo – “you’re living in a fantasy world” + “I’m lost at sea”

Idioteque – “women and children first” + “take the money and run”

Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case”

“Knives Out”

Like Spinning Plates“feed me to the lions”  + “cloud cuckoo land”

Life In A Glasshouse – “chew the fat”

You and Whose Army?”

Kinetic “you’re being took for a ride

Trans-Atlantic Drawl – “light at the end of the tunnel

Cuttooth – “tanks roll into town

2+2=5 – “put the world to rights”

The Gloaming – “genie let out of the bottle, it is now the witching hour”

Go to Sleep – “over my dead body”

Backdrifts – “damaged goods

There There – “accidents waiting to happen”

I Will – “white elephants” + “sitting ducks”

Myxomatosis – “ate me up for breakfast”

A Wolf At The Door – “take it with a pinch of salt”

A Punchup At A Wedding – “bull in a china shop” + “pot will call the kettle black” + “piss on our parade

I Am a Wicked Child – “straight and narrow

The Eraser (6 + 1) The Eraser + Spitting Feathers In Rainbows (9 + 4) In Rainbows (2CD version) + ‘These Are My Twisted Words’ + Harry Patch (In Memory Of) + ‘Supercollider/The Butcher’ The King Of Limbs (10 + 2)  The King Of Limbs + songs debuted since then Amok (3 + 4) Amok
Analyse – “self-fulfilling prophecy

Black Swan – “blind spot” + “dead horse”

Harrowdown Hill – “walk the plank”

Drunkk Machine – “spitting feathers” + “speaking in tongues” + “splitting hairs”

15 Step – “eyes off the ball” + “cat got your tongue”

All I Need – “waiting in the wings”

Faust Arp – “rise and shine” + “elephant in the room”

“House of Cards”

Jigsaw Falling Into Place – “wound up like a spring”

Videotape – “the pearly gates”

 Down is the New Up – “what’s up buttercup” + “you’re so last week” + “chink in your armour

Last Flowers – “tread on your toes

Up on the Ladder – “puppet on the strings

Little by little, by hook or by crook”

“Give up the Ghost” + “had my fill

Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Lotus Flower – “while the cat is away” + “kick the habit

The Butcher – “spare the gory details

The Daily Mail – “the lunatics have taken over the asylum” + “pig’s ear”

I Froze Up – “like lambs to the slaughter”

 Open the Floodgates

Default – “will is strong, but the flesh is weak” + “slipped my mind” + “made my bed I’ll lie in it

Ingenue – “know like the back of your hand” + “fools rushing in

“Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Amok – “penny for your thoughts”

graph 0

graph 1

I’ve attempted to provide some sort of statistical basis upon which to work from. I went through the corpus of lyrics of Radiohead, Atoms For Peace and his solo releases, finding phrases that were in The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto. Graph A demonstrates how idioms and ‘extras’ have formed the backbone of Yorke’s lyrics since Kid A/Amnesiac, with slight dips for The Eraser and Amok because there is simply less material. Graph B shows a more accurate breakdown as an average is calculated based upon the number of idioms and ‘extras’ added together and divided by the total number of songs from that particular chapter of the band’s career. My definition of ‘extras’ is of course subjective, but I’ve tried to include all the phrases which strike me as being employed because of their familiarity, rather than their originality. As the table shows, very frequently Yorke employs a metaphor not because it is a new, powerful way of perceiving a particular thing, but because it is a metaphor that now lacks imaginative penetration. It should also be noted that I tried to only count idioms that were employed verbatim, so as an example I didn’t include the line ‘Your ears should be burning’ from ‘House of Cards’ because I felt that there was enough originality in the twist of phrasing. The statistical trend to be observed is a steady growth until OK Computer, where by his own admission Yorke’s lyrics became less introspective and more cryptically worldly, taking up the perspective of “taking Polaroids of things moving around [him] too fast”, with another growth up to Hail to the Thief, and then re-emerging even more prominently in his more recent work.

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

One of many such scenes in Meeting People is Easy. Credit: Parlophone

Yorke’s words underscore his divergence from some of his songwriting predecessors; namely Bono, Morrissey and Michael Stipe. Even when Bono (Zooropa) and Stipe (Up) updated their style to fit similar themes explored by Yorke from OK Computer onwards, they are still using the technique of putting their own unique stamp on the language – as a very brief exercise, compare lines like ‘My night is coloured headache grey’ (R.E.M – Daysleeper) or ‘Your wheels are turning but you’re upside down‘ (U2 – Stay (Faraway, So Close!)) in how they depict modern life and overwork compared with Radiohead’s ‘Kinetic’, which puts forward snatches of second-hand language like ‘you’re being took for a ride’ and ‘don’t fall asleep at the wheel’. Stipe and Bono remain as Jeremiahs in the wilderness, while Yorke is more willing to embody the persona of the disoriented participant. There is a subtextual point to develop here too, as using such a device is not only artistic but also allows Yorke to sidestep the pressures of being valorised as a generational voice, with an audience of impressionable minds hanging off an artist’s every word, particularly given the repetitious overexposure through interviews et al demonstrated in Meeting People is Easy. Yorke is much more multifaceted in his approach, as his words are delivered in a disoriented manner, with no real indication of where they emerge from and how much the singer is a mere vessel; invisible speech marks float around, resisting a distinctly first-person interpretation. Yorke feels he cannot emancipate his subjectivity and is therefore constantly trying to navigate out of his complicity while persistently being trapped by language. A helpful visual corollary is the video to ‘There There’: the golden boots that promise escape contrive to leave him trapped. Broken branches trip him as he speaks.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The winged shoes become rooted. Credit: Parlophone.

The gradual shift from introspective and personal lyrics to more abstract and generalised compositions was embodied in the method he used in the Kid A/Amnesiac period; the ‘cut-up’ style, whereby Yorke would compose lyrics by selecting random phrases from a hat. It is interesting that while such a method was perhaps most famously employed by the Dada artists in the early 20th century in order to strike out against bourgeois rationality (which led the Western world to World War One), Yorke’s use of the device is more of a belated integration into a system which favours the soundbite (which helps palliate war, particularly Iraq).  Language, particularly in the world of political ‘spin’, no longer follows a referential function. Instead, language is manipulated, usually to dampen any emotional responses to an event. Yorke commented on the lyrical style of Hail to the Thief in a Rolling Stone interview:

“When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours [America’s] are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back”

When the literal meanings of idioms are lost, they become ripe for appropriation. Yorke’s personal burglary is not entirely successful, however – it’s rare he makes a clean getaway. The brilliant line ‘we are accidents waiting to happen’ in ‘There There’ could be a celebration of spontaneity or inevitability, depending on whether ‘accident’ or ‘happen’ is stressed. The fact that ‘waiting’ is repeated twice in the song inclines me to the latter. Likewise, the cry of ‘over my dead body’ in ‘Go to Sleep’ is alternately defiant and prostrate.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising 'Kleine Dada Soiree' in 1922.

Great example of a Dada poster, by Theo Van Doesburg, advertising ‘Kleine Dada Soiree’ in 1922.

kid a frozzen

From one of Radiohead’s old sites, a page called ‘FroZZen’ – contains lyrics from Kid A, Knives Out, and others. You can almost hear the fury of letters being typed on the keyboard, drowning out the possibility of sending a coherent message. Credit: Radiohead.

Nevertheless, the continuity of this device in his lyrics has a marked social connotation as well, one which has become increasingly relevant following the rise of social media, and helps explain why the device re-emerges following the Orwellian paranoia of the Bush/Blair years. The coalescence of technology with social networks has cultivated new forms of communication which compel semantic near-misses, decontextualisation, and constraint. Character limits facilitate an appeal to common wisdom, often in the form of idiomatic phrases, as the most persuasive form of argument. There is a corollary here with what John Fuller described as the rush to wit in the English sonnet: the presence of a rhyming couplet which closes the poem encourages a summarising epigram within a 14 line space that stands on its own as an example of insight and decorum. The fact that a sonnet consists of 14 lines, and that Twitter’s character limit is 140, has always struck me as an eerie parallel. As such, the inherent limit of the medium requires using language with a summarising function, as well as a referential one. Idioms are thus extremely propitious, because they appear to grant instant authority, utilising a familiarity embedded within the language which effectively draws upon more than just the characters of the immediate tweet. The tonal ambiguity of online messaging similarly facilitates idioms, as stock phrases are used like a safety mechanism, to ensure that meaning can be transmitted without the paralanguage of face-to-face conversation.

Twitter search for 'made my bed, I'll lie in it' - line in 'Default', by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ – line in ‘Default’, by Atoms For Peace

Twitter search for 'lunatics taken asylum', from 'The Daily Mail' by Radiohead.

Twitter search for ‘lunatics taken asylum’, from ‘The Daily Mail’ by Radiohead.

The pictures I’ve attached to this piece demonstrate this – look at the way in which the same phrase of ‘made my bed, I’ll lie in it’ is applied to a number of different circumstances, like a funnel through which thoughts are directed to the same common end point. The fact that ‘The Daily Mail’ is one of the biggest culprits is strong evidence that Yorke’s lexicon is evolving with the times, rather than ossifying with age as Neil McCormick suggested in the Telegraph when he reviewed Amok:

“Yorke seems to have become increasingly conflicted about the very idea of communication, his fondness for cliché indicating a tendency towards self-sabotage.”

The use of cliché in ‘The Daily Mail’ is a riffing exchange with the acute mixture of colloquialism and Daily Hate espoused by the newspaper, drawing up panic and condemnation in equal measure by using language that is malleable because it has been shorn of context while appearing conversational. Hence, Yorke’s lyric ‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ on one level describes the newspaper and culture of the British press in general; that newspapers are now vehicles to transmit impulsive, emotive messages of political contingency that are best equated with lunacy. And yet the only language Yorke is capable of using is that which could be taken from a headline of the newspaper, which makes the pun on ‘asylum’ so telling, given the paper’s denigration of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Headlines and slogans are, of course, another aspect of language which have become more prevalent with the diffusion of mass media; ostensibly neutral but in many cases coded to suit a particular agenda.

You don't tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring 'NO ASYLUM SEEKERS', as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

You don’t tend to see it as much now, but this was not an uncommon sight in the Blair years. I remember wooden signs declaring ‘NO ASYLUM SEEKERS’, as there was a mooted proposal to build an asylum seeker accommodation centre on an old RAF site not far from where I live.

The overall fairy tale feel of Hail to the Thief, with recurrent images of folk creatures (wolves, vampires, rabbits) and story-telling frames like lullabies and bedtime stories, represents another dimension to the Yorkean cliché: language as inheritance. That is, soundbites that are experienced at an early and susceptible age, to the extent that they become part of a linguistic backdrop without ever really being examined; the curious phenomenon where as a child you pick up such constructions from the people around you and use them without being fully aware of their meaning. The interweaving themes of children’s stories act as a vehicle for trying to explore alternative spaces to this inevitable inheritance, emphasising the mental capacity of the listener, rather than becoming passive to the manipulation of language. Children’s stories represent the unique imagination of the child and ability to free the imagination from the constraints of worldly thought and language that idioms represent; a long-exhausted metaphor. In researching this, I read an article by M. Chiara Levorato about an experiment in the childhood acquisition of idioms. In one experiment they tested children 10 years of age (younger children generated different results), with an exercise where they had a choice of 3 answers in order to fulfil the global coherence of a text; one answer was idiomatic (e.g. break the…ice), another was literal (break the…crayon), while a final answer was figurative, but not related to the idiom (break the…fear, when translated from Italian, the language the study was conducted in). The results showed that most of the children actually plumped for the last option, demonstrating that acquiescence into idioms involves a suspension of some original insight into language as it becomes ‘conventionalised’.

Think about how often conversations halt at the apparent insight of an idiom which is never critically examined, where the semantic sense of the idiom has become irrelevant. I’m guilty of this all the time – a particular favourite is using ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ as justification for anything (usually helping myself to a lot of finger food), ending a debate about the merits of performing a particular action with a well-timed idiom. There are some situations in which employing such an idiom is the best option for the conversation, but is often like a termination of internal logic, as these disembodied ghosts of language don’t really connote anything, and yet they appear to represent some great inherited wisdom from the past. This gives a more insidious angle to the albums produced in the wake of all of the band’s members having children; not just a sense of emerging into a politically corrupt world, but also one in which stock phrases dictate a particular world view. The imagery of storytelling and imaginative escape form a tense opposition to this throughout, which is what makes Hail to the Thief an excellent and underrated album within their oeuvre. The band at once tries to build a cocoon from the world narratives being constructed around them with the emergent War on Terror, trying to retain some sense of imaginative autonomy, while being forced to gaze at the newspaper walls within.

Since ‘Fitter Happier’, Thom Yorke’s lyrics have been peppered with idiomatic phrases and cliché. Yorke’s persona is of an individual whose attempts to carve their own niche in language are mollified by the presence of language as a series of recurrent images and ideas which communicate no particular meaning other than their vacuous second-handedness. This semantic gap strikes a chord with the body of their work as a whole, as Radiohead have, for the last two decades, been at the vanguard of music in trying to identify where the individual ends and the system begins. Thom Yorke presents a speaker who has enough know-how to question the system he is a part of, while being unable to vocalise it in anything other than re-hashed terms.