Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

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Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.

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Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.

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Commentary: Hansard, the Abridged Edition?

12 October 2009

Lord Solely’s recent Lords of the Blog post on potential reforms included a suggestion of creating a specially edited version of Hansard that might have a broader public appeal: ‘With good editing and with pictures it might sell in the shops and provide people with an alternative to the gossipy and trivial news coverage of Parliament in some of the newspapers.

Without reproducing my own comment verbatim, I can safely say that even though I’m about as close to a target demographic as any publisher might wish for this sort of edited version of Hansard, I doubt that I would buy it. Much as I love Hansard as an institution (and would gladly work as a Hansard reporter or editor, if given the chance), I can’t see much of a market for this kind of publication.

What I would love to see, however, is a series of professionally edited Hansard debates on key pieces of historic legislation. The editions would contain the texts of the debates in both the Commons and the Lords, with an editor’s introduction and conclusion, appropriate scholarly footnotes and references for further reading, a dramatis personae of the key figures in the debate, and perhaps the odd photograph or illustration (such as topical political cartoons). Pick six fairly well-known or noteworthy acts to start with — say, the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts (a two-part set), the 1944 Education Act, the 1958 Life Peerages Act, the 1967 Abortion Act, and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act — and have that be the first series. All of these acts fall well within the 30-Year Rule, so most of the relevant papers would be available at Kew and in various other archives for consultation. Ideally, the volumes would be edited and written to be well suited for A Level and undergraduate study, or just for the general reading public interested in contemporary history.

I haven’t seen anything of this nature available for sale, but I would absolutely be interested in buying it (or contributing to it, for that matter!) if some enterprising publisher wanted to take a chance on it.

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Commentary: Bagehot on the ‘history wars’

5 October 2009

A recent article from the Economist‘s Bagehot on the history wars among British politicians prompted me to ponder the use of history as a stick with which to beat one’s political opponents.

It’s hard to disagree that hearkening back to past failures is, as Bagehot puts it, ‘a comforting kind of displacement activity….less a way of understanding the future than avoiding it‘. Watching Prime Minister’s Question Time during the Blair years was rather like playing a drinking game, preparing a shot glass in anticipation of the first mention of ‘the shambles we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government’ or some iteration on that phrase. At some point around 1999 (possibly even earlier), the phrase lost whatever meaning it might have had, and became an almost expected part of Question Time regardless of who was facing the Prime Minister on the Opposition benches. Good for at least one shot in the PMQs drinking game, if nothing else.

I suspect that much of the impetus for the ‘history wars’ comes from New Labour’s own attempts to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays suggests. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour without much to stand on except its current record, and the Tories aren’t much better when it comes to facing down the demons of the Thatcher and Major years, especially on questions related to Europe. History does make a very good stick for beating one’s opponents, but more often than not it ends up being like the magic cudgel in the Brothers Grimm fairytale that will spring out of its sack and start hitting anyone in sight, indiscriminately, until the right command is found to stop it. At the moment, it seems, no one’s figured out how to make it stop.

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Commentary: SPADs

17 April 2009

Reading the various articles and blog posts (such as Lord Tyler’s post in Lords of the Blog) about the Damian McBride affair, my mind keeps coming back to the use of the term ‘Spad’ (or ‘SpAd’, or however one chooses to write it) as an abbreviation of ‘special adviser’. As both a political and trainspotting anorak, I have to say that I can’t read ‘Spad’ without thinking of the railway use of SPAD: Signal Passed At Danger.

In this case, as I commented in Lords of the Blog, the trainspotting term seems surprisingly apt to describe this situation. A whole series of extended metaphors could be employed about special advisers ‘misjudging the braking distance’ — or more wicked ones that might refer to ministers or civil servants as ‘dim or dark signals’. But again, as with automatic signals, signals can be passed at danger if drivers receive explicit clearance from a signal operator (a minister, perhaps?). I wonder, would it be worth looking to the new rules and technology established by the railways after the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash for even a hint of guidance on how to proceed with a suitable code for the SPADs in Westminster and Whitehall?

Or perhaps I’ll just go back to my line diagrams and/or book reviews, and leave the political commentary to my fellow anoraks.

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Semi-review: The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

25 March 2009

I’ve been attempting to write a book review post on Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, but the Economist has provided an assessment that all but sums up most of my main points. The book is indeed rushed, and though it starts out well enough it does become more uneven as the chapters progress. The earlier chapters do a decent job of introducing the basic evolution of certain key facets of high finance — government bonds, company stocks, insurance and pensions, and the like — but Ferguson drops in a lot of financial terms without always providing basic explanations, which will frustrate the uninitiated and exasperate the expert. Nonetheless, careful readers who are not afraid of chasing up footnotes will likely find much more information for further reading — in fact, one might be better off simply reading the footnotes and starting from there.

The Ascent of Money provided me with a few other titles to look into, so I suppose I owe it to mention that much. But overall, it was more than a bit of a letdown.

(Also, a quick note to mention that my review backlog is reaching embarrassing proportions — I hope to have a few more full reviews ready to post quite soon.)

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Commentary: London Review of Books articles

6 October 2008

Not really a true commentary from me, but rather links to two particularly interesting articles in recent issues of the London Review of Books.

1) From the 11 September 2008 issue, Ross McKibbin on the currently skewed ideological alignments in British politics. It ends with a fascinating thought-experiment on what a reformed three-party House of Commons might look like, even if you don’t agree with how he chooses to parcel out certain MPs.

2) From the 25 September 2008 issue, Donald MacKenzie on the importance of Libor, one of the more crucial but least understood aspects of the world’s current economic woes. Even if you’re suffering from information overload on matters financial, it’s worth reading as a well-written introduction to an often confusing subject.