Posts Tagged ‘Ben Elton’

Alexei Sayle on Comedy and Politics in Yesterday’s ‘Metro’

September 28, 2019

Alexei Sayle, one of the pillars of the ’80s Alternative Comedy wave which spawned The Young Ones, French and Saunders, the Comic Strip and Ben Elton was interviewed in yesterday’s Metro (27th September 2019). The man’s 67, but still angry – although the interview also says he’s mellowing – and stars in a series on Radio 4 set in a sandwich bar and due to have a headline gig at the Southport Comedy Festival. Speaking to the paper’s Jade Wright, Sayle talked about his career, the state of modern comedy and attacked austerity, the Tories and supposedly ‘moderate’ politicians, who support them. It’s interesting in that Sayle also champions Jeremy Corbyn, without the paper trying to attack the Labour leader in response or a snide aside. The interview on page 51 and continued on page 54 is entitled ‘Sayle Now On’. It’s too long for me to type it up as a whole, but here’s the bits where he mostly talks about politics, along with his family background and the lack of left-wing comedians today.

Alexei Sayle might have been in the comedy business for 40 years, but he’s not lost any of his flair for contemporary analysis. His take that ‘austerity is the idea that the 2008 financial crash was caused by Wolverhampton having too many libraries’ has been spreading like wildfire on social media. May that’s because, as he claims, there’s a surprising shortage of anti-establishment comedians.

‘There’s a gap in the market. Even if they didn’t believe in it, you’d expect someone to do it, just for the money,’ he says. ‘there were loads of left-wing comedians in the 1980s. Where are the new Ben Eltons now?’

His new Radio 4 show, Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar, in which the Wolverhampton library gag first appeared, is the Liverpool comedian on his usual erudite, and angry, form. As is evident from the show, he’s become a passionate advocate for Jeremy Corbyn and the grassroots movement he has created. ‘When people sneer at Jeremy Corbyn, it drives me nuts,’ Alexei says. ‘To hear him being called a racist by racists, it’s beyond belief. And yet I have friends who are taken in by this s**t.’

‘I hear him talk, and it makes sense, then it gets deliberately misrepresented by people who have something to gain from that, people who are very much part of the establishment.

Alexei grew up in Liverpool. His mum, Molly, was a pools clerk from a Lithuanian Jewish family and his father, Joseph, was a railway guard. Both were members of the Communist Party. But, while always political, he was keen from a young age to find his own voice. ‘I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think things are changing’, he says. ‘Voters are seeing through the politicians who claim to have moderate views, but actually what they’re saying is really quite extreme.

‘For a long time the politicians from all parties were all fighting over the votes in the middle. Politics went from strongly right-wing to mildly left-wing and there were lots of voices that didn’t get heard at all, loads of people who didn’t vote.

‘You had all these modern, careerist MPs who were almost indistinguishable from each other. But austerity has disproportionately affected young people and other groups who felt there was no one to speak for them. There are new people registering to vote all the time. Maybe they have more hope now.’

So is Alexei more hopeful, too? ‘Yes,’ he says, before pausing. ‘Maybe. More so lately. Suddenly, from nowhere, they have a genuinely left-wing leader and new voices who are vocally opposing austerity as the political ideal it is.’

‘It was never a necessity for force terminally ill people to look for jobs or to close libraries. That was a series of political decisions that didn’t really save any money any way. Now we have a leader who will speak up.’

I was never a fan of Sayle’s comedy myself, as I simply didn’t find it funny. Much of it just struck me as just abuse, without anything really deep being said. But here he’s pretty much right. The only thing I differ from him here is when he says that things have gone from extreme right to mildly left-wing. Blair was always a member of the Thatcherite extreme right. He and the rest of New Labour really did want to sell off the NHS, although I think he definitely believed in making sure that medical care was free. And he also introduced the work capability tests that have caused so many desperately ill people to be thrown off benefits, to live and die in starvation and misery. What differed about Blair is that he was genuinely anti-racist, pro-gay and anti-sexist – so long as they supported him – and was careful to sound slightly left-wing. Even when he was aiming at the same voting constituency as the Tories, using the same ministers, who had crossed the floor from the Tory party, like Chris Patten, and was taking money from the same corporate donors.

But people are waking up to how they were fooled and the country run down by the ‘moderates’ as well as the Tories and the Lib Dems. People do feel they have hope for a better future under Corbyn. As for comedy, the complaint on the right is that there are few right-wing comedians and that it’s all biased against the Tories. Which is rubbish. Buddy Hell over at Guy Debord’s Cat also wrote a blog piece complaining that the contemporary aspiring comedians he’d seen really don’t have anything funny to say. Their act simply consists of them telling the story of their life. I’m not in show business, so I have no idea why this should be so. It might simply be that the people who aspire to be comedians have been inspired by the autobiographical, observational comedy of people like Sayle, but don’t really have anything to say. It may also simply be that as the left-wing comedians of the 1980s matured and were overtaken by other comics, there was a reaction against the older generation’s political comedy. Even so, shows like The Last Leg are still managing to put a well aimed kick to the Tories. But perhaps, if more people are being inspired politically by Corbyn, this will also spur a new generation of angry left-wingers to subject the establishment to bitter scorn and derision. While showing that there can be a better world without people like Johnson, May, Cameron, Swinson and the rest of them, of course.

 

Comedian Alexei Sayle on the Forces Ranged Against Jeremy Corbyn

March 3, 2019

This is another video from Labour Against the Witchhunt, the group formed to defend the victims of the mass smear campaign against supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour party. The video was posted on YouTube on 2nd June 2018, and as Sayle says that he is there to support Marc Wadworth, my guess is that it was recorded as part of the tour Marc Wadsworth did of various cities up and down the country exposing the injustice of his own smearing and expulsion from Labour. Ruth Smeeth accused him of anti-Semitism, because he embarrassed her passing information on to a Torygraph journalist at a press conference. As Wadworth is a veteran campaigner against racism and anti-Semitism, who got Stephen Lawrence’s parents to meet Nelson Mandela and worked with the Board of Deputies of British Jews in the ’90s when the BNP were beating up Jews once again in the east end of London, the charge is risible and obnoxious. But this didn’t stop the press, media and Blairites baying it at every opportunity.

Some of us of a certain vintage remember Sayle as the bald, sweary bloke, who was one of the leaders of Alternative Comedy that came out of the Comedy Store in the 1980s, along with Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders, and Ben Elton. They were an iconoclastic attack on the old style of comedy – anarchic and ‘politically correct’. They firmly rejected the racism and sexism that was part of the ’70s comedy scene. Sayle appeared in the groundbreaking sitcom, The Young Ones, as the heroes’ landlord, and later had his own show on BBC 2. He also did a car advert in which he sang ‘Ello, John, got a new motor?’ until you were heartily sick of it, but the less said about that the better.

He starts by talking about the forces ranged against Corbyn – Capita, neo-liberalism, and fanatical supporters of the state of Israel, for whom it is a fight to the death, and will do anything, to stop the prospect of someone, who prioritises the plight of the Palestinians, of the oppressed than the oppressor, leading a western nation. He says they will lie, cheat and do anything to stop that, and one of the people, who has been sacrificed, who he wanted to speak up for, was Marc Wadsworth.

He then says that perhaps the audience knows the Labour party better than he does, perhaps there’s a plan there. But if it was him, he’d just tell the Board of Deputies to f**k themselves. ‘Not a sophisticated response, but I dunno’. He speculates whether there is a plan to appease them, and wonders if it will work. He then talks about how he was busy with work a couple of weeks previously. It was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. (Sayle’s parents where Jewish Romanian Communists, who settled in Liverpool, and much of Sayle’s comedy is about Marxism and the Russian Revolution. He once did a radio series about a football team, which was fable about the Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik revolution). However, the previous October was the centenary of the Russian Revolution. He expected to be busy with work then, and told his agent to block out all of October. However, nothing happened. But he was able to get a gig speaking at the British Library. He goes on to explain that the history of the Soviet Union has a bit of a blemish when you’re talking about Marxism. Some people would disagree. His own mother would never admit there was anything wrong with the Soviet project. The most she would says was, Mistakes were made’. Or as she would say, ‘You can’t make an omelette without murdering 40 million people’.

He goes on to say that the spirit – the purity of spirit – of the Russian Revolution was crushed when the Kronstadt uprising was put down, the sailors, who were asking for a return to the basic principles of Bolshevism, of the Revolution. He goes on

‘It seems to me a tremendous danger that if you concede, if you start to mess with the basic principles of who you are, if you start to make concessions to people like Ruth Smeeth and Wes Streeting, and these people. And if you start to self-harm in the hope of future gain, you are fundamentally undermining what you are about.’

Wise words indeed, as we have seen this week when the party has decided to suspend Chris Williamson for daring to defend the smeared innocent against their accusers.

Vox Political: ‘Sack Kuenssberg’ Removed due to Misogynist Trolls

May 10, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has put up several pieces about the controversy surrounding a 38 Degrees petition to have the Beeb’s politics editor, Laura Kuenssberg, sacked because of her overt Conservative bias. It seems that the fellow, who put up the petition has taken it down because it had in his view been hijacked by sexist trolls.

See the article at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/05/10/sack-kuenssberg-petition-taken-down-due-to-sexist-trolls/

This follows a piece in the Guardian in which the former political editor of the Independent on Sunday, Jane Merrick, stated that Kuenssberg had faced a level of abuse not directed at male reporters, like Nick Robinson, which was explicitly misogynistic. She reported that Kuenssberg had been called a whore and a bitch on Twitter. She then made general comments about Corbyn’s supporters. They weren’t all sexist misogynists – far from it. But she said that there was a ‘core of hard-left misogyny’ that emerged when he was under pressure. This was the same kind of abuse that had been directed at Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips. She then called on Corbyn, as the advocate of a kinder type of politics, to condemn this abuse of a respected journalist.

See Mike’s article at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/05/10/sexism-accusation-against-anti-kuenssberg-campaigners-is-a-classic-diversion-tactic/

Mike points out in these articles just how overt Kuenssberg’s political bias is.

Mike writes:

This Writer considers the BBC’s political editor to be hopelessly prejudiced in favour of the Conservative Party. It is an issue that has nothing to do with her gender, skin colour, religion or any other such defining factor.

She simply can’t keep her own politics out of her work. For a reporter, that is a fatal error and This Writer cannot understand why anybody would want to support her in it – least of all a Labour MP like Ms Phillips.

If Kuenssberg wants to turn every report into a pro-Tory opinion piece, then let her become a pundit. Stick her on the Daily Politics or This Week with Andrew Neil and give the political editor’s job to somebody who can do it impartially.

He also posts a piece from one of his commenters, who has a nephew, who did some number crunching of his own, which flatly contradicts Kuenssberg’s assertions. Kuenssberg has claimed that these elections are ‘mid-term’, when they are not, and that Labour should be winning hundreds of seats, which they haven’t. Looking at the evidence, the commenter’s nephew says that actually Labour have done quite well, and it is the Tories who have taken the hardest blows. The commenter states:

“In fact this is the worse Tory performance in the local elections since 1996 when John Major only got 29% which was an improvement from 1995 when they only got 25% of the vote. But again this is not being reported.”

Mike also condemns the sexist abuse of Kuenssberg. Not only are such views vile in themselves, but they bring into disrepute everyone, who genuinely wants the Beeb to report fairly and accurately, and have allowed Kuenssberg to get away with her biased journalism.

Mike in his article also suggests that the sexist comments might be a deliberate strategy to torpedo the complaints about her bias. He states that all a political stooge has to do is get their supporters to sign the petition and leave offensive messages on it. Then all they have to do is make complaints about it. He makes clear that this may not have happened in Kuenssberg case, but it is a possibility, at least from now on.

In fact, this is exactly the tactics Hillary Clinton’s supporters have used against her rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders. She accused Sanders’ supporters of being sexist, especially after a group of them threw money at her in protest at her accepting funding from Wall Street. She also hired an internet company to go online to tackle Bernie’s supporters posing as her supporters. The Company was ironically called Correct the Record. And I’ve posted up a piece a week or so ago from Secular Talk, which reported how a string of pro-Bernie websites got taken down after complaints from Clinton to the host company about sexism and misogyny. The numbers of websites taken down – something like 12, or perhaps as high as 25, I can’t really remember, all in one evening, make it highly suspicious that this was really due to sexism by the sites’ members.

As for Corbyn and the ‘hard Left’ having a misogynist core, well, perhaps. It wouldn’t surprise me. Obnoxious trolls are, after all, found everywhere. But it’s not typical of the hard Left in my experience. In the 1980s the Left was reviled and abused for being PC. This was the decade when alternative comedians like Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, French and Saunders, the Young Ones, Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton burst onto our screens from the London comedy clubs. They refused to make the same sexist and racist jokes as the previous generation, reared in the working men’s clubs, like Bernard Manning. They were explicitly Left-wing, and actually made jokes about the chauvinistic treatment of women and at the expense of comedians like Manning.

They were part of a general trend in the Labour party of the time. Part of what had Ken Livingstone sneered at as ‘Red Ken’ was the fact that the-then leader of the GLC gave his support to a whole plethora of organisations for women and minorities. In his 1987 book, Livingstone’s Labour, the bane of Margaret Thatcher talks about the evolution of human society from primordial matriarchy, and argues for a nationwide network of women’s support offices. This naturally drove Thatcher nuts. At one of the Tory conferences she delivered a foam-flecked rant about ‘Fabian champagne Socialist’ teachers corrupting the minds of their tiny charges with homosexual propaganda and ‘anti-racist mathematics’. Now, thirty or so years later, we have the Tories claiming to be okay with gay marriage. As for misogyny, one of the lads I knew at College, who was a very committed Labour party supporter, was very far from being either racist or misogynist. This was also characteristic of much of the Left outside the Labour party. I can remember reading a piece in the Express about one of the Marxist sects – possible either the Communist Party are the Socialist Workers, or perhaps just Militant in the Labour party, which explicitly noted how anti-sexist the men were, and their rejection of certain forms of traditional masculinity.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been sexist trolls spouting vile abuse at Kuenssberg, who are genuinely left-wing. But after the tactics used by Hillary Clinton to smear Sanders’ supporters, I’m more than a little suspicious.

Meme on the Poisoning of Navajo Land by Mining Corporations

February 10, 2016

The big environmental news in America over the past few weeks is the massive poisoning of the local water supply in Flint, Michigan. This has been going on for years, and the water is seriously contaminated with lead, even in the local hospitals. The authorities did absolutely nothing, and continued to ignore the problem despite coverage from the local press. After about a year, the story’s managed to get through to the national American media, and it’s became a major scandal.

This is another scandal involving the poisoning of a people’s water supply, but it’s one that hasn’t made the news yet. It’s the contamination of the water supply of the Navajo First Nation by abandoned uranium and coal mines. The meme states that 75 per cent of all abandoned uranium mines are on tribal lands, which might indicate that other Native American peoples are affected.

Now this is very much an American issue, but it’s also part of what’s happening globally. Way back in the 1980s the Telegraph over here was moaning about how environmentalists weren’t letting the uranium mining corporations dig out the fuel from Aboriginal tribal lands in Oz. I’ve got a feeling there’s still a scandal and controversy going on about it, which centres around proper payment for the Aboriginal owners and clean-up operations afterwards. I have a feeling – though I don’t know – that the same is being done to the Aboriginals Down Under. Their land is being trashed, and not cleaned up afterwards.

And I have a horrible feeling that some of those corporate vultures involved may be British, or will want to come to Britain to do the same thing to our Green and Pleasant Land. If they aren’t doing it already, thanks to Bliar and Cameron. One of the companies that poisoned another Amerindian people’s land decades ago certainly was. Way back in the 1980s the Hanson Trust was in the Sunday Express. It was being sued by the Sioux, because their cement works was polluting their reservation. And this didn’t surprise me at all.

Lord Hanson was an asset-stripper, who bought up other companies, only to strip them and sell them off at a profit, before going on to carve up the next one. He was the Thatcherite dream. And he did it to W.H. and H.O. Wills in Bristol. Wills were a booze and cigarettes combine. They had several tobacco factories in Bristol, one of which was a huge construction that was used as a location in the Tom Baker Dr Who story, ‘The Sunmakers’. They also owned Courage’s brewery in the centre of the city. These both went their separate ways when Hanson got hold of them.

And he also tried to get his mitts, Maxwell-like, on the company’s pension fund. However, he found the pensioners’ lawyers were too good for him, and ended up selling the company off a few years later. Although that kind of corporate theft is associated with Robert Maxwell’s looting of the Mirror pension fund, the legislation that allowed it was Tory. It was passed by one Margaret Thatcher. You could also tell how grotty the Hanson Trust was because they also launched a PR campaign on TV. This bent your ear about how many times the plastic chairs they made would go around the world, if you lined them up one by one. It ended with the slogan ‘A company from over here, doing rather well over there’. ‘Over there’ meaning America. Well, God help our American cousins. Ben Elton recognised what they were and sent them up as the archetypal nasty corporation in his stand-up tour, Motorvation.

It doesn’t matter what colour the ordinary man or woman’s skin is to these vultures, whether your White, Black, Asian, Amerindian, whatever – companies like the Hanson Trust just loot, pollute and move on. They’re everywhere, and we need to stand up to them, no matter where in the world they’re operating. Because if the do it to one of us, they’ll do it to all of us.

Navajo Water

If you want to see the original, it’s on the over 18 Tumblr site, 1000 Natural shocks at http://greybeard55.tumblr.com/image/138997619025.

Beyond the affect on the Navajo people’s own health, and the global politics of the situation, there’s also the issue of the destruction of the ancient heritage of the American people as a whole. The Navajo reservation contains some of the most stunning and beautiful scenery in the US. The sand paintings made by the tribal shamans during their healing ceremonies are highly regarded by art connoisseurs. And the area possesses some of the most enigmatic and fascinating indigenous American archaeology in the US. From the 12th to 14th centuries AD the area was the centre of several highly developed civilisations. They built brick fortress cities high up in caves in the canyon walls, and a system of irrigation canals. They also had a peculiar system of roads. These appear to have been cut straight through the landscape, like the Romans. They also made them double, so that there was a pair of roads running parallel to the same destination. No-one quite understands why, though it’s thought that there might be some ideological or religious reason for it. I also think that, like many of the other Native American civilisations in the South West, they had extensive trade contacts with Mexico and the great civilisations there, such as the Aztecs. But it’s another mystery how those trade systems operated. Mesoamerican goods and motifs appear in the remains of the peoples of the Southwestern US, but they don’t appear in the material record of the peoples in between. What was going on? Why not? How were these items traded, and why?

And the history of the area also bears witness to the devastation caused by climate change. Many of the civilisations in what is now the Navajo reservation vanished in the 14th century as drought finally dried up their water supplies, and they were forced to move out of the area. Their cities and crops were abandoned. Now there’s a lesson relevant to today, and the contemporary crisis surrounding climate change and global warming.

There are still many unanswered questions, and vital lessons to be learned from the Navajo and similar peoples. The poisoning of them, and the destruction of their land are an attack both on their people and civilisation, and that of the wider American people. And needless to say, they and the people of Flint, deserve better.

Grove, Blackadder and Comedy and Satire in the Great War

November 10, 2014

The idea that we were brought up on, that Europe is the home of civilization in general – nonsense! It’s a periodical slaughter-pen, with all the vices this implies. I’d as lief live in the Chicago stockyards.

Walter Hines Page, American Ambassador to Great Britain, quoted in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 258.

The Knee

A knee is roaming, through the world,
No more; it’s just a knee.
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
It is a knee; no more.

There was a man once in a war
Got killed and killed and killed.
Alone, unhurt, remained the knee
Like a saint’s relics, pure.

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely;
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Christian Morgenstern, op. cit, 218.

Last week I posted a piece on the article on Mike’s site, Vox Political, reporting that Ben Elton was writing a satire based on Michael Gove’s denunciation of the last series of Blackadder. Way back at the beginning of this year, Gove had attacked Blackadder Goes Forth for what he considered to be its unpatriotic portrayal of the soldiers, who fought in World War 1. He criticised the series’ left-wing bias, and declared that it insulted the memory of those who fought and died in the mud and horror of Flanders by portraying them as cowards. To support his view, he then cited a number of history books presenting the alternative view of the War, which had his approval. Gove’s opinions aren’t simply those of a Tory politician, impatient and intolerant with any view that dares to contradict their own. His views were also based on by a number of historical studies of the Great War, that have attempted to overturn the traditional view that it was a bloody, brutal debacle, in which millions of men were sent to their deaths by out-of-touch and incompetent generals. These historians have argued instead that officers and the men, who served under them, got on well and that accounts of the class friction between them have been exaggerated. They concede that there were severe mistakes made during the first part of the War, but that the conduct of the War improved greatly from 1917 onwards, so that phase of the War was actually well fought with a high standard of leadership. A friend of mine a few years ago attended a military history symposium to mark the War. One of the speakers there presented a paper arguing that General Haig was actually a good general, or at least, not as incompetent as previously believed. My friend remained unconvinced.

Gove Missing Point of Blackadder Comedy

Along with Mike and many other bloggers, I also put up a few pieces on this blog arguing that Gove was wrong. At one level, Gove simply missed the point. Blackadder Goes Forth was a comedy, not a work of serious drama or historical investigation. Comedies entertain by poking fun. Their subjects and targets are the vain, the stupid, the pompous, the greedy, and the inept. The character of Blackadder throughout his four series and incarnations is that of a picaresque anti-hero. He is cynical, devious, and callous and manipulative towards his friends, particularly Baldric, but saved because of his cynical comments on the folly, greed or savagery of his social superiors. The audience likes him, without actually approving of his corruption and lack of morals.

And whatever the reality of the War, it left many across Europe feeling betrayed by a political and economic system that given rise to such colossal, horrific carnage. This bitterness and horror was portrayed in verse by poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It also inspired satirists and comic writers and artists across Europe to add their comments to the horror and absurdity of the situation.

Grimmelshausen’s Comedies of 17th Century German War

Writers have written comedies and comic novels about wars and their combatants since Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen wrote his Simplicissimus Deutsch in the 17th century. This narrated the strange adventures of a group of naïve innocents, who managed somehow to blunder their way through the Thirty Years’ War. This was the continent-wide war between Roman Catholics and Protestants during which a fifth of the population of the German Empire died from starvation. Apart from being a classic in its own right, Grimmelshausen’s work has also been important in 20th century literature. It was on Grimmelshausen’s Description of the Life of the Archdeceiver and Vagrant Courasche that Bertolt Brecht based his play, Mother Courage. The cartoons and satires on the War could range from the gentle and mild, to the bitter and savage. Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) cartoon ‘It’s the Little Things that Worry’, with its caption from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “It is an ancient campaigner and he stoppeth one of three’, below, shows a serviceman, ‘Old Bill’, trying to hunt down the fleas that pester them in the dugouts.

First War Cartoon

Black Comedy of Christian Morgenstern

Others were far more vicious. The German poet, Christian Morgenstern, was also inspired to write poetry by his experiences in the First World War. His poems are black comedies, which express his sense of how absurdly humorous the killing and death around him was. Morgenstern himself described how he and a friend were on patrol through no-man’s land when a shell exploded nearby. His friend was killed instantly, literally torn apart from the blast, and his head and entrails thrown into a nearby tree. Morgenstern said that far from being terrified, or repulsed by the grotesque sight, he actually found it funny. This is truly black humour, far darker than anything Elton showed in Blackadder.

The Wipers Times

Although Blackadder Goes Forth was fiction, written nearly seven decades after the events it describes, it does accurately reflect the type of humour and the views of the servicemen themselves, who did fight in the War. A few years ago Private Eye’s Ian Hislop presented a programme, with an accompanying book, on the Wipers Times. This was a newspaper written by and for the troops. Hislop commented on how savagely funny and dark the Times’s humour was, stating that it was exactly like Blackadder. I’ve got a feeling it was also viewed suspiciously by the authorities, like Ben Elton’s comic creation and his view of the War.

The Good Soldier Svejk

One of the greatest satirical works of the Great War was Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Hasek was a Czech, and the book satirises the absurdity and incompetence of the War and the multinational army of the Habsburg Empire, of which the Czech republic, then Bohemia, was a part. Hasek portrays the German-speaking generals in charge of the Austro-Hungarian forces as brutal and callous. Svejk’s own motives and character are also ambiguous. He’s incompetent, but staunchly loyal to the empire. It’s unclear whether Svejk is feigning stupidity in order to divert attention from his attempts to get out of the War, or whether he is actually that stupid. The Good Soldier Svejk has become a classic of Czech literature, and been translated into a number of languages, including English. It has been filmed several times, including in German, and a few decades ago Radio 4 broadcast a play based on the book.

Post-WW II Satires on War

Satirical treatment of wars and their brutal, terrifying absurdity, did not stop with the First World War, of course. Joseph Heller famously based Catch-22 on the Korean War. The Second World War and its horrors were the subject of a number of satires in its turn. Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett satirised the war films of the period in their show, Beyond the Fringe, which launched their careers as satirists and performers. The War also inspired and influenced the SF writers Kurt Vonnegut and Harry Harrison. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was partly based on his experiences as a POW during the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut and the other captured American soldiers with him only managed to survive the bombing as they had been imprisoned in an abattoir called Slaughterhouse 5. If nothing else, it shows that the Fates have a very dark sense of humour. Harry Harrison has also served in the Second World War. He began his career as a writer through the education courses the American army laid on in order to prepare their squaddies for civilian life. His experiences of the army and war clearly influence his book, Bill the Galactic Hero. This tells the story of a recruit to the human forces waging a galaxy-wide war against a race of alien lizards. Far from being the murderous savages of propaganda, the aliens are actually highly cultured and civilised. It is the humans, who are the aggressors. His view of the absurdity of war is shown in incidents, such as one in which Bill has an arm blown off during a space battle. He receives a replacement, which to his horror is that of his Black best friend. Furthermore, it’s another left arm, like his remaining limb, as there’s a shortage of right arms. The book also contains Harrison’s comment on the violence and belligerence in human nature. When asked by an alien opponent why humans are always fighting war, Bill replies ‘I think we just enjoy it’. Bill is also given advice on surviving as a soldier by Cain, the first murderer, here presented as the first soldier.

George Grosz

Some of the most viciously satirical cartoons depicting post-War life were those of George Grosz in Germany. Grosz had enlisted in the infantry when war broke out, but became bitterly disillusioned with the conflict and its carnage. He was hospitalised, and managed to hang on to his sanity by pouring out his rage and hatred into his drawings. He was determined to hit back at the ruling order responsible for the horror, travelling to the USSR after the War. He returned to Germany even more cynical and disgusted in 1922. His cartoons, which appeared in the brief satirical magazines, Die Pleite and Der Blutige Ernst (The Bloody Earnest) depicted a corrupt and decadent society, in which rich profiteers enjoyed vast luxury on the backs of an underclass, eking out a living in slums and flophouses. The cartoon below, ‘Des Volkes Dank ist Euch gewiss’ (The People’s Gratitude is certainly yours’ shows the rich passing a beggar and a maimed ex-serviceman, forced onto the streets.

Grosz Cartoon

War Comics Spoof and Maggie’s Cuts to the Armed Forces

In the cuts that followed the Falklands and Gulf Wars, thousands of soldiers were laid off. Many of these ex-servicemen, particularly those traumatised by their experiences of conflict, ended up homeless and on the streets. Spitting Image satirised this callous discarding of courageous soldiers, who had risked their lives for their country in a spoof comic strip in their send-up of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography, Thatcha: The Real Maggie Memoirs. Drawn in the style of the British war comics of the 1970s, like Battle, the strip told the story of a British soldier coming back from the Falklands. Made redundant from the army, the former squaddie takes out his rage and frustration by gunning a crowd of innocent people waiting on a bus stop.

How Long till Scenes from Grosz in Cameron’s Britain?

The Tories have introduced a series of cuts in military expenditure, laying off thousands of professional soldiers while attempting fill the ranks with recruits from the Territorials. Despite the high profile and work of charities caring for ex-servicemen, such as Help for Heroes and the Invictus games this summer, I wonder how long it will be before we see scenes like the above drawing by Grosz in Britain, as the vicious and decadent British upper class profit from the misery and horror caused by the war in Iraq.

Blackadder Peddling ‘left-wing myths’: Elton Strikes back at Gove

November 6, 2014

Remember how Michael Gove attacked Blackadder Goes Forth at the beginning of this year for ‘peddling left-wing myths’ about the Great War and denigrating the heroism of those who fought in it? Now Mike, over at Vox Political, reports in the article Elton has last laugh over Gove’s Great War gaff that the shows writer, Ben Elton, is planning a satire based on Gove and his comments. It begins:

It seems some prominent people are finding that the metaphorical chickens they had thought long laid to rest are now coming home to roost. The BBC inadvertently invited comparisons with a scene from V for Vendetta during the Million Mask March, after failing to cover a similar event in June, and now Michael Gove is facing embarrassment for things he said even further back in history.

For indeed and yea verily, it was January when Mr Gove in his role as Education Secretary tried to prove that his mission really was to set the UK back 90 years – by claiming that one of Britain’s most revered TV comedies, Blackadder Goes Forth, peddled left-wing “myths” about the First World War, “designed to belittle Britain and its leaders”.

He was quoted as follows: “Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”

One of the show’s stars, Sir Tony Robinson, weighed in with a quick response in contradiction, but now one of the show’s writers has added his two-pennyworth – and sure enough, it seems he’s going to have the last laugh.

Now, immaculately timed to take place right before Remembrance Day for the best impact, Blackadder co-writer Ben Elton told the BBC his latest novel was inspired by Gove’s jingoistic rant. Yes – he’s going to profit from words that Gove clearly intended as a rebuke.

The article’s over at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2014/11/06/elton-has-last-laugh-over-goves-great-war-gaff/. It’s also got a still from the series showing Rowan Atkinson and Sir Tony Robinson as Blackadder and Baldrick, which, as Mike points out, is much nicer to look at than one of Gove.