Posts Tagged ‘‘Monkey’’

A Message for Keir Starmer from a Master of Persian Literature

December 2, 2020

I’ve just started reading Barbara Leonie Picard’s Tales of Ancient Persia (Oxford: OUP 1973). It’s a children’s book, one of a series of books on world folktales and legends. It’s really a retelling of the great Iranian national epic, the Shahname, or ‘Book of Kings’, composed by the poet Firdausi in the 12th century AD. By this time Iran was very definitely a Muslim country, but the book is about the great heroes of Zoroastrian myth and legend, fighting for the good god, Ormuzd or Ahura Mazda, against the evil god Ahriman, his demons and tyrants.

One of these tyrants is Zohak, an Arab prince who has been corrupted by Eblis, the Islamic Satan sent by Ahriman. After arranging for him to seize the thrown and introducing meat-eating, Eblis asked to kiss Zohak’s shoulders as a reward. Zohak allows him, and this results in a pair of monstrous serpents sprouting from his shoulders. Monstrous reptiles that grow back as soon as they are cut off, and can only be satisfied through eating human brains. So every day, two people have to be brought to the royal palace to be killed so that their grey matter can be fed to them.

But Zohak has been warned in a prophecy that a hero, Feridun, will arise and slay him. Forewarned, Feridun runs off to the mountains, where he gathers a small army of loyal followers against attack.

The Persian people put up with Zohak’s oppression until one day a blacksmith, Kava, arrives at the palace. He wants justice. He has had eighteen sons. 17 have been killed, and only one of them remains. But he has been taken and he wants him back, to comfort him in his old age. Zohak agrees to restore the son, and asks him who has done all this. Kava replies that it is him. He has had 17 of his sons killed to feed the serpents. Zohak, however, keeps his promise, and gives his son back to him. Kava seems satisfied at this, and so Zohak believes he will be loyal to him. He therefore asks Kava to swear an oath he has made everyone else in Persia swear, that Zohak is a good and just king and they love him. Kava, a man of integrity, is utterly outraged and not only refuses to swear the oath, but smashes the tablet on which it’s written and storms out. He puts his blacksmith’s apron on a spear turning it into a banner and seeks out Feridun. The two then raise an army. As they march through Persia they are greeted as liberators and people flock to their cause. Finally they storm the palace, Feridun kills Zohak and seizes the throne.

All very stirring stuff, I hear you say, but what’s it got to do with Starmer and the Labour Party? Well, I believe there’s a message here for Starmer. He isn’t a demonic creature like Zohak, and I’m pretty sure supernatural snakes aren’t coming out of his shoulders to munch on people’s brains. Except in a symbolic way, of course. His leadership is so partisan and inept it does seems to be result of mind-destroying stupidity. But in his partisanships and petty vindictiveness he is pushing people into rebellion. He’s done this through his purge of Corbyn’s supporters and the left of the party, and increased this in his suspension of the former Labour leader himself. He’s been forced to reverse this, but has refused Corbyn the whip. But what has added insult to injury is that he and his chairman, David Evans, have issued diktats forbidding ordinary Labour members and constituency parties from discussing any of this, or rejecting the E.H.R.C.’s report on anti-Semitism in the party.

As a result of this and other massive failures by the leadership, ordinary members are leaving the party in droves. People are defying him, taking to social media to discuss all this while a string of local constituency parties, Labour affiliates and trade unions have passed motions of solidarity with Corbyn. Some have also passed votes of no confidence in Starmer and Evans.

A rebellion is going on. And it’s been provoked not only by bad, overbearing and partisan leadership, but by an attempt by the same leadership to stifle debate and discontent. Just like Zohak tried to cover up his tyranny by making the people of ancient Persia swear an oath that he represented good government.

I wonder if there wasn’t a piece of political commentary in this. It’s a great story, and in a freer Iran you could turn it into a fantasy epic, like the Chinese have with Monkey. But apart from its entertainment value, I think Firdausi was also including an important political lesson. He was writing for the shah, Mahmud of Ghazni, and while monarchy everywhere in the Middle Ages was absolute or near absolute, there were rebellions against it. Hence, in medieval Europe at least, there was the literary genre of ‘mirrors for princes’, advising them on good, popular government.

The message here is simple and eternal. A leader can only push people so far before they will rebel. And they will do so even if, or especially because, of edicts trying to silence them and enforce absolute loyalty.

It’s a timeless message for rulers and leaders. And what makes great literature is that it can speak across time and place to make comments on politics and the human condition.

Including to Starmer. But he’s not listening to anyone except the other Blairites.

Counterpoint on the Stupidity of Boris Johnson as Foreign Minister

July 23, 2016

Counterpunch, an American radical leftwing magazine and site, has put up a piece by Brian Cloughey on the utter stupidity of Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign and Commonwealth Minister. He describes the political machinations and manoeuvrings of Johnson and Gove as they jockeyed for power, how Johnson stabbed Cameron in the back over Brexit for no reason other than that he thought it would bring him to No. 10; the many lies Johnson has spun over his career, and the ignorant, bigoted and sheer racist comments that have made him at once a laughing stock to the rest of the world, and a danger to Britain’s peaceful relations with foreign nations.

Cloughey states that Johnson was sacked from the Times because he made up a quote. In 2004, the-then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, sacked him from his job as front bench spokesman for lying about his adulterous affair with Petronella Wyatt, whom he made to have an abortion. Cloughey describes Johnson as

clever and has a certain juvenile attractiveness for some people because his private life is colorful and chaotic while he has a certain facility with words and gives the impression that he could be all things to all men and to a certain number of women…

The trouble for Britain is that although Johnson is a twofaced, devious, posturing piece of slime who can’t be trusted to tell the time of day, he was most effective in capturing the public’s attention and helping persuade a majority to vote to leave the European Union.

He describes how he lied about the amount Britain contributed to the EU, and notes how after Gove’s betrayal of the treacherous Boris, the Tories ditched him and elected Theresa May instead. He considers Johnson, and the poisonous, racist rhetoric of the Leave campaign to be responsible for the increase in ‘hate speech’ and attacks and harassment of Blacks, Asians and Eastern Europeans which rose to 3,000 incidents in the weeks before and after the Referendum.

Cloughey remarks on the insulting comments Johnson has made about other leading foreign politicians and heads of state. He described Shrillary as having “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”, Obama was ‘downright hypocritical’, and Putin a ‘ruthless and manipulative tyrant’. As for Trump, he described the Donald as ‘out of his mind’ and suffering from ‘stupefying ignorance’.

He referred to the crisis in Turkey as ‘the crisis in Egypt’, declared that ‘Chinese cultural influence is basically nil, and unlikely to increase’. He also claimed that it was said that the Queen loved the Commnwealth “partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.” He was no less sneering about the peoples of the Congo. When Tony Blair went off to visit the country, he declared “No doubt . . . the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”

Cloughey writes that Johnson has tried to excuse his comments by saying that they were taken out of their proper context, without actually saying what the proper context was. And although many people would agree with some of what he said about the various foreign leaders, they are hardly the kind of comments that you want in a foreign minister, part of whose job is speaking diplomatically and trying to establish a good relationship with those with whom he’s negotiating.

Cloughey concludes:

Britain’s prime minister would do well to reconsider her decision to appoint this gobbet of slime to a position of responsibility in her government. He will not serve Britain well.

Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon

Johnson is a clever man, if only in the way he has skilfully creating an entirely false image of a rather Billy Bunterish, lovable buffoon. But his comments about Black Africans and the Chinese are likely to cause offence, and really don’t bode well for Britain’s relations with the rest of the world. Apart from the dated, offensive terms used, like ‘picaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’, the ignorance behind his dismissal of Chinese culture really is stunning. The contribution of the Chinese to science and technology is immense. You only have to open a text book on the history of science to find that many of the most fundamental scientific discoveries, from printing, to paper, to watermills, rockets and so on were made by someone in the Middle Kingdom. The influence of Chinese culture is rather less, but it is there.

Let’s deal with the very obvious modern Chinese influences in British society. One of the most obvious are Chinese takeaways, restaurants and cuisine. It may not be high art or great literature, but it is a very obvious Chinese cultural influence. Very many people in modern Britain like Chinese food, and Chinese restaurants and chip shops are a very common feature of our modern high streets. Then there’s the influence of Chinese cinema. A few years ago the Chinese won critical acclaim for a number of art films, but probably far more influential are the Hong Kong Chinese action and martial arts movies, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ever since Bruce Lee sprang into action in the 1970s. This encouraged generations of children to learn the eastern martial arts. Many of those taught are Japanese, but they include Chinese techniques too, such as Kung Fu. And then there’s the influence of Chinese literature and religion. In the 1970s and ’80s a generation of British schoolchildren were exposed to the Chinese classics The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Wu Chen-Ang’s Journey to the West through the TV series The Water Margin and Monkey. There were even two translations of Chen-Ang’s classic novel issued, both abridged, one of which by Denis Waley. The influence of the Monkey TV show and the novel behind it have persisted to this day. The BBC promotional trailer for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 were very much based on Monkey, and made by the same company that made the videos for the Gorillaz pop group. And I noticed that the other night on Would I Lie To You, Gaby Roslin’s response to a stuffed monkey produced by one of the other guests, as to do a mock martial arts move, and intone ‘Monkey’ in the type of strangulated squawk that characterised some of the voices in that series.

Going further back, there was the craze in the 18th and 19th centuries for chinoiserie, Chinese art and porcelain. You only have to turn on one of the antique shows to see at least one of the experts talking about 18th century pottery, exported to Europe, examining pieces of jade, reproduction Shang bronzes, or 18th century wallpaper, depicted with Chinese designs, usually of people going about their business. Quite apart from the very stereotypical images of the country’s art, like the paintings of the two loves on the bridge.
China has also, naturally, had considerable influence on the culture of its neighbouring and other Asian countries. This is clearly an area for someone who knows far more about these nations’ histories and culture than I do. One example of the Middle Kingdom’s considerable influence is Japan. Buddhism was introduced by Chinese monks, and for centuries the Chinese classics formed the most prestigious part of Japanese literary culture. Further west, many of the people depicted in Persian painting have a distinctive Chinese look to their features. This was because of the cultural links and exchanges between those cultures during the Middle Ages.

In short, a moment’s thought reveals that Chinese cultural influence is certainly not negligible. Nor is it likely to remain so. The country has turned into an economic superpower, and has made considerable inroads into Africa. And way back in the ’90s, its space programme was so advanced that the Quantum Physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, published an article in Focus magazine predicting that the first person to walk on Mars was very likely going to be Chinese.

Now clearly, British industrialists and financiers are very much aware of how powerful China now is. You can see it by the way they’re desperately trying to encourage the Chinese to invest, or buy up, British industry, just as they were a few decades ago with the Japanese. No-one wants potentially advantageous trade deals to be scuppered through a few tactless comments from the Foreign Minister.

And BoJo’s comments may very well cause offence. Johnson made much about his suitability for the role on the world stage, because of his position as one of the British team negotiating with the Chinese during the Beijing Olympics. But his comments also suggest that he could well have the opposite effect as well. The Chinese are, as a nation, a very proud people, and I gathered from working in one of the local museums here in Bristol that there is still a considerable feeling of humiliation about their defeat and occupation by Britain and the other foreign powers in the 19th century following the Opium Wars. Many of Britain’s former colonies are very sensitive to what they see as condescension. A few years ago there were diplomatic ructions when one of the Developing Nations – I think it may have been India – accused Britain of showing ‘colonialist and imperialist’ attitudes towards it.

Johnson with his comments about ‘picaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’ uses the rhetoric and vocabulary of 19th and early 20th century racism. If he uses them when he’s foreign minister, he will cause offence, possibly starting another embarrassing diplomatic row. Let’s hope he keeps his mouth shut, and leaves the talking to others better informed.

And just to remind you, here’s the opening and closing titles from the Monkey TV show. Which, even though it’s now thirty odd years old, definitely has more style and class than Boris Alexander de Feffel Johnson.