Month: January 2021

The Corridor of Selves

alex iby mirror picture provided via unsplash

Listening to old music from my teens, all alone, and I realise how many people we are in our life. Perhaps this is the karmic wheel: we are reborn into each minute as the child of our actions in a former moment just a few seconds before. This, then might be reincarnation.

A vast corridor of selves through which we walk, with each of them looking out at us, as if through a mirror. How can we live like this? With all these strangers in our heads that we hold together with a gossamer narrative?

Is it possible to find a single narrative to fit all those errant, wayward people that we are? And what do we have to sacrifice and suppress in order to maintain integrity of personality?

A gossamer narrative. Gossamer. Spider’s strand. Sometimes we are caught in the unreality of our own being, it seems.

And yet perhaps so. The spider builds a structure to serve its purpose. What do we catch with the story we tell ourselves? Dignity? Denial? Another day we might not have reached were it not for the lies we pretend? Is this, too, reincarnation? How often are we close to death?

Sometimes I wish I could start it all again. “This tangled web we weave”. But we are here only once, and soon are dust. And to start again now is an impossibility. What is life. An ‘F in lie’?

Wonder Woman 1984: a biting Trumpian satire

Wonder Woman 19984

In the wake of the storming of the Capitol by Trump Insurrectionists, Wonder Woman 1984 seems extraordinarily prescient, and here’s why.

!!WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS!!

When I first watched the latest offering from Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and the DC Universe, I admit there was something I didn’t get. Though its opening scenes featured the soaring golden sunlight of Themyscira, and Lily Aspel reprising her role as the young Diana in a gripping action sequence, it then came to 1984 Washington DC. On first viewing I couldn’t work out why.

The hoodlums the Themysciran Goddess wipes the floor of a glitzy shopping mall with in the establishing action sequence seemed slight in contrast to the sombre trench warfare horrors of her first cinematic outing. But I soon realised the flat shadowless colour register straight out of ET, Trading Places and even Superman III revealed subtler horrors – and more urgent one in the context of the modern day.

The very first shots in the mall sequence show a consumer chomping down on a fat greasy burger, while older men exchange glances at the imagined invitation presented by the lycra-pinched posteriors of dancers sacrificing dignity to sell product. That Mall is no coincidence – because this film is all about consumerism, greed, desire and what happens when you ignore the consequences of wanting something to be true so hard you ignore reality.

Maxwell Lord against a gold background.
Trump is often portrayed against a gold background

The villain of this story is Maxwell Lord, portrayed here as a wannabe billionaire willing to offer the masses whatever they want so he can get ahead. The film is awash with parody of phoney self-help products, selfishness, greed and dishonesty – to oneself and others. Lord himself is associated with images of gold and wealth from the very start…

Farage and Trump in a gold lift
Maxwell Lord and far right amphibian super-villain Nigel Fartage against a gold background.

Sound familiar? Those themes are exactly the themes that have blighted America in the last four years – and if you still doubt this is its intention, the film is pretty explicit about which modernday swindler it is targeting.

The dialogue is revealing. When a disgruntled investor calls Maxwell Lord a conman, Lord defines exactly who he thinks he is: “I am not a conman! I am a television personality and a respected businessman…” And just in case you missed the reference, he says this from beneath a mass of bouffoned hair with just a hint of gold, while striding around in an ’80s powersuit.

One of Trump’s favourite insults is spoken through Maxwell Lord’s mouth. When the same investor calls Lord a loser in front of his son, he turns to his boy and tells him, “I am not a loser. He’s a loser!” Anyone who has seen Trump’s tweets knows that one well enough, and they will also recognise his accusation that anyone criticising him is in a conspiracy driven by jealousy – another straight lift from real life.

More of Trump’s false dreams and promises appear as the movie goes on. Take, for example, the sudden appearance in the Middle East of a wall that comes from nowhere at the behest of a fanatical Egyptian royal who wants to reinstate his ancestral realm.

The emir wishes “for all the heathens that have trod upon it to be kept out forever so that its glory may be renewed.” – Really?!? A MEGA movement to Make Egypt Great Again!?! One which excludes foreigners and anyone not from the “in” group? How apt!

In response to this wish of a nationalistic dreamer, a giant wall is created around the lands, described by a reporter’s voice/over as: “A bizarre phenomenon… called the Divine Wall. it’s an unexplainable event that now sees Egypt’s poorest communities entirely cut off from their only supply of fresh water…”

As well as making a wider point about the obviously divisive nature of wall building, one can’t help asking: is this wall a mirror image of the notorious Israeli separation wall that keeps Palestinians penned in with restricted water supply? Or is this an echo of those who died of dehydration crossing the Mexico-US border?

In the DC Universe the tyrant actually gets the wall he dreams of, and nobody pays for it. Except the whole world. But that’s later.

President Trump giving the thumbs up to President Kim
Psychopathic dictator President Kim gets the thumbs up from failed businessman Maxwell Lord.

Such Trumpian echoes, and, for example, the thumbs-ups from Lord, occur throughout the movie. Seen in this way the allegory of the Trumpian wannabe dictator who breaks all the rules is absolutely clear. Just before the film enters its third act, Lord arrives in the Whitehouse and discovers that POTUS wants “more” – in this case, more nuclear weapons. His wish is granted.

Still from Wonder Woman 1984 with Maxwell Lord giving the thumbs up.
Donald Trump giving the thumbs up in Wonder Woman 1984

In return, Lord steals the powers and command of POTUS: “You know what I’d like? I would want all of your power, influence, authority, all the respect you command – and the command everyone must respect! I mean what else is there?”

And then, for all those who have accused Trump of collusion with Russia and other foreign powers, another telling line: “Now, tell your people I would appreciate absolutely no interference whatsoever. No taxes, no rule of law, no limits. Treat me like a foreign nation, with absolute autonomy.”

And so, the Whitehouse is taken over by a businessman whose only interest is to serve himself.

In amongst all of this, the co-supervillain, Barbara Minerva, aka Cheetah begins her own descent into cruelty and selfishness due to the corrupting influence of the Wish Stone. Initially a meek and mousey woman, she becomes a ruthless psychotic cat-creature by the end of the movie.

Picture of Kirsten Wiig in Wonder Woman 1984
Kayleigh McEnany: a semi human predator devoid of a conscience?

Let’s face it: a sweet-looking blonde bombshell who is actually a brawler and bruiser willing to do anything to protect her impostor leader seems eerily familiar to anyone who has seen Kayleigh McEnany, Kelly-Anne Conway or Hope Hicks at work spreading lies and misinformation.

Kayleigh McEnany, Whitehouse Press Office
Barbara Minerva – AKA Cheetah (Cheater?) is played by Kristen Wiig

The movie’s final scenes had a shocking resonance after the horrors of the Capitol Insurrection. In Wonder Woman 1984, the streets of not only America, but the world descend into chaos as the utter selfishness Lord unleashes with no regard for reality.

The Capitol Insurrection
Not Wonder Woman 1984

But this is not the only way in which Wonder Woman 1984 captures the nuances of the disastrous Trump administration. Placing the film in the 80s points directly at the roots of consumerism and greed, of aspiration without an acknowledgement of responsibility and a divorce from the cause and effect that relentless selfishness and shortsightedness has on society today. In fact, the very era when Trump first rose to major prominence.

Scene of anarchy at the Capitol in Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984

The story accelerates toward the end, as we see Lord, the presidential interloper using television to get his message across to the whole world. He promises people whatever they want throughout, while his own power grows and grows as he takes something away from each person trapped by their unrecognised Faustian pact. The metaphor of a charismatic despot feeding on power stolen through abuse of the media is a stark and biting attack on the Trump regime. It is a story exactly of now.

The Capitol Insurrection
Also not Wonder Woman 1984

Each person within the movie is forced to face one painful truth – you can’t have whatever you want without paying for it in some way. When as a viewer I discovered that the supervillain behind this is none other than Wonder Woman’s Golden Age nemesis, the Duke of Deception, the extreme topicality of the movie hit home – it comes now, in the real world, after four years of being told that truth is lies, and that journalistic reports sounding the alarm against tyranny are fake news.

Toward the end of the film, as the world descends into anarchy and I looked at it through eyes that have also seen the Capitol insurrection, I found it eerily prescient – to such an extent that I got shivers down my spine.

We all knew what Trump was capable of but never thought he would achieve… but the sheer collapse of law and order that Jenkins captures in this script is near clairvoyant.

– How did she know? – I asked myself, as the credits began to roll. Perhaps more importantly, how did so many who voted for him not know?

The answer: because they were deceived – and that, in the end is what this film is about.

On hearing Beethoven’s 9th on Brexit Day

Brexit image

Sitting in my car today, on the 1st day of 2021, when Britain has departed from the rest of the European Union, I switched on the radio to hear the steady build-up of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the “Chorale”, and I was suddenly thrown back on myself and the awful struggle that has been part of my life over the last 4 years as I hoped with a passion that Britain would not be so foolish as to REALLY leave the EU.

Hearing the tune that is used at the EU anthem on the day the connection was cut hit me like a hammer blow – the pain I felt, the sadness and the longing that mingled together.

Behind all my rage about Brexit is a simple truth: deep grief about the loss of that part of my identity bigger and better than pure Britishness. It is a psychological diminishment I may never recover from. The EU added richness to my Britishness, it did not limit it.

I mean this in the same way that I am English and Celtic. The Celtic part of my identity embedded me in a rich non-Anglo-Saxon tradition. My European Union citizenship did exactly the same.

It’s interesting to me, and saddening, that while many Brexiteers vaunted identity and a pure British identity as the desired object of their politics, it is exactly the opposite of that purity – the richness of mixing it up – that gave my life a sense of joy.

What I find fascinating is the feeling comes form the tangible. I had often mocked Brexiters for becoming so passionate about the colour of their travel document, but now that I see the legal support and underpinning, the treaties and the international understandings a passport represents removed from me, I can at least understand something of their passion, even if the thing in itself that I miss is the direct opposite of what they wanted.

Let’s be clear, the future that I imagined and loved was a European one, just as they imagine a British one.

I don’t know how that rift will be mended within a UK that essentially is two nations now: one that looks to its homeland in Europe, with all the enlightened attitudes and politics that entails, and its opposite – an aggressive nationalism. Do I feel I have more in common with friends in France, Germany or the Netherlands than I do with my next door neighbour? Yes, absolutely. I was quite happy to accept them on terms of equality under the stars of the EU flag, rather than regard them as strangers under two flags. We were, somehow, sharing an endeavour of building a unique civilization that was broad, big and most of all optimistic.

I have no idea how to stop this pain. The thing Brexit has taught me, is after this sense of loss and pain, I am now a European more than I ever was when I was in the EU. The parting and pain makes the identity more meaningful. This will never go away. So, we are two nations in the UK. I will never love my country in the way I once did, because that country has told me I cannot be who I am at my heart.

I distrust narrow nationalism with a passion that comes from hating the nationalism of The Third Reich or of The British Empire. Neither were about equality, and this is what I find so troubling about the direction Britain is now headed in.

But that is enough. For now, I’ve had my say.

For New Year 2021 Give Me A New Type of Story

As we enter 2021 together, I do so personally with a deep sense of foreboding.

Degradation of the planet and use of resources, mineral, vegetable and animal is accelerating, sea levels are rising and more and more people are being displaced. In response, nations who could help to solve these problems have instead of reaching out retreated into nationalism and racism to preserve what they fear others will steal from them.

Those baser instincts are being repeated across the world, now. As countries seek to hold on to the resources they have, be they fish, or land, or oil or whatever, co-operation is undermined and the game of King of the Hill continues apace among people and nations alike.

It has to stop. The dangers facing the world, be they the pandemic, climate change, deforestation, slavery, plastics poisoning, carbon emissions, pollution, overproduction are all based on an economic and political model that simply cannot hold any more. And that reality, once again, that pressure for change, has people afraid of others.

Leaders like Trump and Johnson – and there will be more like them – plug into the cognitive dissonance of those who refuse to accept the real causes of their situation and turn to conspiracy narratives and simplistic solutions for comfort.

So, do I stand at the start of 2021 with the normal sense of hope I feel at New Year? No. I can’t pretend I do. Even that energy has been sucked out of me by – not by the pandemic alone – not by one thing or another – but by a sense of tiredness that people seek to solve difficult problems with simple answers, with narratives that cast others as “evil” and themselves as “good” – and that the storytelling instinct applied in this way makes no sense and is destroying the world.

We need new ways to tell stories.

Ways that will pull together people from across the world in shared endeavour, events that will cause people to lower the drawbridge and help people connect.

In 2019 I was involved in just such a project – the transmedia storytelling event that was Cursed City: Dark Tide, which grew out of my novel The Snow Witch, and which generated a brand new narrative created by numerous writers, based on the characters from the original story.

Fumbling our ways through learning how to make narrative in entirely new ways, with stories fractured across numerous media, from street art to facebook to art exhibitions to a Tarot-reading night to musical performance was deeply liberating. After three weeks, it culminated in this magical night of music, that I give you a snippet from here:

After three weeks of storytelling and teasing our audience, we came to the final magical gig…

No longer was I just a writer working alone in my room to wind out a story, but was part of a massive group of artists and writers who made storytelling something I never knew it could be – far more interesting and diverse than I ever imagined.

It was our first attempt at storytelling in this way, and so of course we made mistakes. But it was also a joyous event and it showed us ways to draw people together in ways we had never fully anticipated.

This, then, is what I wish for 2021. For new ways to deliver stories, to weave stories in a more complex manner than before and to engage a general public in solving problems and learning more about themselves and others. It is a small thing, really, but it is the expression of a different type of consciousness from the one that has reigned for the last decade, and especially the last year.

 Jo Oliver's Snow Globe of The Snow Witch.jpg
Jo Oliver’s Snow Globe of The Snow Witch

2021, then, you may be a monster ahead, but we will go round you and through you, and you will become our friend. We need to train you, and contain you and show you, in the end, that love is stronger than hate, that curiosity and interest will burn through fear and that difference between people is constructed from lies and fear.

2021, let’s remake you in our image with art, hope and kindness. Let’s bedeck your pelt with stars and feed you with love and tickle you with joy so that you become tamed, and trained and you learn that we are all on this planet together and have to find a way to live and love side by side with the hate and anger gone.

Quite a task ahead, then.