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Bomb-Damaged London & Its Bomb-Damaged Kids

Saw Hue & Cry t’other night on the tellybox for the first time since I was a nipper.

This recently digitally restored kid-oriented Ealing Comedy presents as its climax a London-wide mobilisation of boys (and a few tom-boys) for a ‘big adventure’ – beating up baddies that the police had failed to nab, or even notice. I always loved that kind of film – in which kids show-up the groan-ups, and also give them a good hiding.

Officially the first Ealing comedy, it was directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to direct The Lavender Hill Mob) and shot in 1946, just as the Welfare State was being founded and the horrors of the past were being swept away by the post-war Labour administration of Clement Attlee – who had himself swept away Winston Churchill (the wartime leader who was not nearly so popular as official histories like to tell us).

Maybe it’s because I’m now the middle-aged enemy, but watching it today, Hue & Cry seems really rather disturbing to adult, contemporary health & safety sensibilities. All those kids in rags running around in bombed-out houses, wading through sewers and getting into fights with cops and robbers? Someone call social services!­­­­­­­

The sainted Alistair Sim (and no, I didn’t write that book about him) makes an appearance as the enjoyably eccentric and laughably timid author of the ‘blood and thunder’ comic book stories that the barrow boy protagonist (played with enthusiasm but little skill by Harry Fowler) is obsessed with. Scarf-wearing Sim lives at the top of a German expressionist spiral staircase, his only companions a cat and the Home Service.

But it is bomb-damaged, bankrupted London that is the real star of this movie – shrouded in steam and smoke, with chimneys, spires and dock derricks the only things troubling the still-Victorian skyline. Digitally-restored and viewed on HD widescreen, the past seems almost unrecognisable – even the past in the form of vaguely remembering watching a scratchy print of it on 1970s TV.

Bomb-damaged London is populated, in its bomb-craters and burned-out shells, by its bomb-damaged cheeky-chappy lads and lasses. Intentionally or not, beneath all the jolly cockernee japery, Hue & Cry presents a kind of comic-book PTSD in which the apparently orphaned and traumatised children of the war can’t stop fighting a global conflict that is already over. Note the surprising sadism of some of the fight scenes, in amongst the slapstick (does that baddie really need his head banging on the ground that many times?).

After the clip above ends, the Cockney hero finishes off the mini-tached, side-parted, long-fringed evil-genius (played confusingly by the later Dixon of Dock Green) after  a lengthy showdown in a bunker-esque bombed-out warehouse – by jumping onto his prone stomach from the floor above. With great relish. In an earlier scene the gang tie up a glamorous female villain and set about torturing her to extract the identity of her criminal boss (her terror of mice turns out to be the key to her interrogation).

hue-and-cry-1947-torture

The real version of this world is the one that twins Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in 1933, grew up in: the semi-feral East End gangsters famous for the violence, sadism and terror tactics they employed building and maintaining their underworld empire in the 60s – a parallel demimonde that was both part of and also an affront to the ‘white heat’, glamour and shiny modernity of ‘Swinging London’. The Krays were the sewer rats of social mobility.

Krays

Like the tearaway in Hue & Cry they also couldn’t stop fighting the war that they grew up with – but were only interested in their own war, no one else’s. When they were conscripted into National Service in the early 1950s they decided the British Army was their enemy. By employing all kinds of fiendishly childish and inventively savage tactics (Ronald being proper psychotic probably helped) they won, and the British Army, like the cops and the baddies in Hue & Cry, beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught, giving the twins dishonourable discharges.

They then employed much same tactics on rival London gangs, effectively eliminating the opposition. When this terrifying comic-book duo were finally sentenced in 1969 to thirty years maximum security chokey for murder, the judge dryly observed: ‘society has earned a rest from your activities’. Ronald died in prison in 1995, aged 61; Reggie in 2000, aged 66. But they had already been immortalised on the big screen in the rather good 1990 film The Krays, played by brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, working class London lads who achieved riches and fame by being pop stars in the hit band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s – rather than by switchblades and gangs.

Another working class pop star, Steven Patrick Morrissey, had a year earlier anatomised the highly homoerotic hero-worship of the Krays and the pernicious glamour of violence in his single ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’.

For all their crimes, ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ are almost as fondly-regarded in British culture as an Ealing comedy, and arguably most of the UK gangster movies made in the 1990s and Noughties that followed The Krays were cartoonish homages to the terrible twins. They were certainly comical, even when they didn’t intend to be.

Their story has now been revisited again in a recently-released UK film Legend, starring Tom Hardy playing both roles. I’ve seen it and will offer you my pearls about it shortly. Suffice to say that it’s not so much about Ronald and Reggie, or about class, or about London in the 1960s.

It’s all about Tom – and the 21st Century’s obsession with male sexuality.

The Union is Over Already – But ‘Britain’ is Still Keeping England Down

by Mark Simpson (Guardian Unlimited, April 8, 2007)

It’s over. ‘Britain’ and ‘Britishness’ are politically moribund terms. The proof? Scottish-flavoured New Labour’s recent laughable attempts to resurrect “Britishness” as an “inclusive” post-Imperial identity. Not so much because they flopped as the fact that Britannia was now such an empty vessel that she could be so casually appropriated by New Labour in the first place.

Whatever the outcome of next month’s elections to the Scottish Parliament – and at the moment the Scots Nationalists are ahead – unionism as a political force and national identity is finished. Anxious New Labour strategists aside, there’s no real appetite for it either side of Hadrian’s Wall. Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea even ‘British Forever!’ Loyalists like Ian Paisley are now in government with Sinn Fein Irish nationalists.

New Labour’s attempt to buy off Scottish nationalism with parliaments, unequal voting rights, free prescriptions and universities, shiny new bridges, has failed. Worse, it’s only served to ignite the political frustration of those ‘British’ people paying for much of this – people who, despite the best efforts of the political and media classes, increasingly see themselves as English.

Amidst all the chatter in London about whether the Scots will embrace the Scots Nationalists or not in May and whether it will be a good or bad thing for Scotland, hardly anyone is asking what the English want, or even acknowledging their existence.

There’s a good reason for this. Whatever they brought the English in the past, the institutions of ‘Britishness’ are now largely a conspiracy against England and the English. A way to keep them disenfranchised and identity-less – except during international football matches (and then only because the Scots refused, years ago, to join a UK team). Those ‘chavvy’ plastic St George’s flags fluttering from black cabs and housing estates mocked by the middle classes are all the English are allowed. The Welsh can be Welsh. The Scots can be Scottish. But the English have to be British.

The BBC, Westminster, the Monarchy and above all London all block the emergence of an English national – and political – consciousness. Why? Because it would undermine their power, their status and indeed their point. The institutions of ‘Britishness’ may or may not favour ‘Scottishness’ (and ‘Welshness’) but they are quite definitely all set against Englishness. London is the former capital of a global empire turned capital of globalisation still pretending to speak on behalf of a ‘Britain’ that doesn’t exist any more – but located in the heart of an England that actually does.

Such impotent discussions about whether the English should also be allowed a parliament of their own that are occasionally indulged seem somehow to always overlook the rather salient point that there would have to be a revolution before the English got a parliament of their own. Even if Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the blinking Isle of Man all seceeded, London would probably still try to claim to represent ‘Britain’ rather than recognise English sovereignty – or the English.

For England to assert herself power and status would have to be wrested out of the hands of ‘British’ institutions that reside in the English capital.  Institutions that claim to represent a country that no longer exists save in the speeches of apparatchik, globalising Scottish chancellors keen to smooth the way for their London coronation.

The frattish American Wet Dream conquering the World

By Mark Simpson

(Arena Homme Plus, Spring 2007)

The American Dream has turned into a nightmare. Count the shudders and the sweats in reel time: Bush. Iraq. Guantanamo Bay. Global Warming. Iran. Tom Cruise. Pop a Nytol or three with a glass of warm milk and put on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and regress to a happier, more Technicolor dreamtime.

Once the lean, shining beacon of freedom and aspiration, as innocent and happy-go-lucky as Dorothy’s freckles, now lumbering, flak-jacketed, trigger-happy, and yet terrifyingly impotent, America is deeply unpopular. After the twister of the War on Terror the Statue of Liberty has been replaced by an effigy of the Wicked Witch of the West.

America’s triumph in the Cold War and the rapid globalisation-Americanisation that followed has, with irresistible hubris, undone the American Imperium. Everyone is American now so no one needs America any more – so Yankee Go Home. Russian President Putin’s widely-reported recent speech attacking the US’s arrogance encapsulated this sentiment: ‘the United States ,’ he said, ‘has overstepped its borders in every way.’

All this is as obvious and objectionable as America ‘s obesity problem. Except for one small detail: It isn’t true.

Or at least, it’s only half the story. For all its troubles, the American Dream is anything but dead. Much of the world may say it hates America now, but really its heart still belongs to Uncle Sam – it will still pay top dollar to dress up in the lineaments/linenments of the American Dream – as the global triumph of classy Yankee dream-merchants Ralph Lauren shows, this Spring opening up not one but two major new stores in Moscow itself (and perhaps providing the real reason for Putin’s outburst).

Meanwhile, as part of the Yankee rag-trade pincer-movement on the global psyche, Abercrombie & Fitch, purveyors of the frattish American Wet Dream is building its own overseas Empire, opening its first international flagship store in Europe – on Saville Row, London, home of the bespoke tailor, the place where the British Establishment has gone for hundreds of years to have its inside leg measured. To rub our noses in it, A&F have erected huge billboards of towering god-like Yankee models flaunting their abs and pecs at dumpy London pedestrians shuffling past at crotch level.

At a couple of fashionable strokes, American cultural imperialism has knocked down the Berlin Wall again and humiliated the British Empire Suez-style. Not bad for something as dead as a Norwegian Blue. Hollywood may be in terminal decline, and this year’s Oscar Ceremony a glorified AA meeting, but American men’s fashion brands are still exporting the American way of life, liberty and snappiness.

Perhaps that’s because Ralph Lauren is effectively High Hollywood’s merchandising wing. Born Ralph Lifshitz in 1939 in the Bronx this Jewish boy modelled his clothes on the black and WASP grainy High Summer Hollywood of his childhood: Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper. And as is often the case in the world of images, his faux moneyed Yankee style supplanted the ‘real’ thing. Transformed from privilege into a polo shirt or a cable-knit jumper it was more democratic, more ‘American’. More saleable.

Memorably described by one fashion critic as ‘a white elephant covered in cricket bats’, Ralph Lauren wore the 1980s tied over its shoulders like a cashmere tennis sweater. RL’s cool, leisured classiness symbolised aspiration in the most sweatily ambitious and nakedly American decade. Ralph Lauren rapidly became the world’s first and most successful lifestyle fashion brand, a total, wraparound vision that everyone wanted to share. The Polo logo became the more tasteful, more international version of a Stars and Stripes lapel pin (in 1999 RL formalised its status by donating $13M to preserve the Star Spangled Banner). Today RL have sales of nearly $4B, making it a behemoth covered in cricket bats. RL’s flagship store in Moscow ‘s Tretyakovsky Passage, one of world’s most expensive shopping areas, will paint 8000 square feet of Mother Russia a Yankee shade of red white and blue. No wonder Putin is pissed off.

Mind, the Russians don’t seem to be as upset as the Brits, whose outraged protests forced A&F to reduce slightly the size of the body parts terrorising Saville Row. But this all seems to be part of the naughty A&F gameplan. ‘We’re shaking up the neighbourhood,’ a chirpy spokesperson explained to the press. ‘It’s going to be an extension of the irreverence of the brand into London. It’s going to be fun and we’re thrilled.’ What’s more, the store will be ‘just like our one’s in the US ‘ and the staff will be British ‘but look A&F.’

In fact, A&F are re-enacting in England itself a battle against dusty ‘Englishness’ that they have already won Stateside. Ironically, A&F was once almost the brand that RL sold itself as. Founded in 1892 as an excursion outfitter their clients included Katherine Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway. Elephant-bagging American Empire builder Teddy Roosevelt was one of their regulars.

After the 60s A&F went into decline – it was seen as ‘too square’ and ‘too English’ – and in 1988 were bought by The Limited Inc. who sexed it up, moved its target age down, and wrapped it n a mythical, all-American, 1950s, tanned, athletic boyishness as toothily innocent as it was knowingly tarty; in other words: ‘Weberist’ (Bruce Weber is A&F’s signature photographer). If RL is timeless High Summer Hollywood, A&F is endless Summer on Campus – plus MTV and webcams. RL is the America the world wants to go on safari with: A&F is the America that the world wants to party with.

With sales over $2B a year the A&F lifestyle has sustained unrivalled year-on-year levels of growth. A&F is catching up with RL. As if acknowledging this, RL recently opened a slightly A&F flavoured ‘Rugby’ chain of stores in the US . What’s more, the move into Europe is part of the transformation of A&F into an international luxury brand – once again threatening to tread on RL’s loafers.

For now though there’s plenty of room for both brands on the yellowbrick road of the Global High Street. Whatever they may think of America ‘s actions, dowdy Anti-Americanism isn’t, in the final reel, something that the world’s huddled masses actually want to wear. London will no doubt be a great, chest shaving, success for new Yankee imperialists A&F.

But one that will be dwarfed, I’m sure, by the shrieking, fainting, hair-pulling success of any store they open in that supposed capital of America-hating – Paris.

This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: a 21st  century self-love story’

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