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'Burning me at the stake is no response'

When Romper Stomper first appeared in Australia one of the country's leading critics denounced the film as Nazi-style propaganda. It has stirred up similar controversy in Britain. Anti-fascist groups have picketed showings and Strathclyde council has imposed a ban on the film, fearing that it will incite a wave of copycat racist violence.
Kirsten Cale spoke to Romper Stomper's director, Geoffrey Wright, about racism, violence and censorship

Kirsten Cale: Why did you make a film about skinheads?

Geoffrey Wright: I had watched the evolution of skinheads from the mid-eighties to the present. Early on they were not interested in race, they were just bored kids who wanted a tribal identity. As the decade wore on and unemployment got worse, they drew more and more inspiration from the British prototypes and developed racist policies and attitudes. I watched astonished as these characters gradually started talking about themselves in a historical way, as the new standard-bearers of a crusade that had begun in the first half of the century. This made them increasingly compelling as a subject for drama.

Kirsten Cale: You are accused of portraying skinheads as heroes - was that your intent?

Geoffrey Wright: Many people would have been happy if Hando [the skinhead gang leader] had displayed less raw courage when caught up in the film's street battle but denying him courage would scarcely make me - as storyteller - more moral. Contradictions in the film abound. Gabe [a woman who falls in with the gang as her previous life unravels] is a vulnerable, almost frail figure; yet she partakes in anti-Asian violence like the boys. Davey [Hando's hang-dog lieutenant] brutally knifes a Viet kid yet is awkwardly groping towards some kind of intimacy with Gabe. Hando is a tower of strength - as a charismatic leader should be - but when he's faced with losing Davey to Gabe on the beach he actually resorts to pathetic, panic-driven pleading. The Viet kids who don't want to get caught up in a revenge attack on the skins, turn out to be right in the thick of it anyway!

Contradictions abound - like life really. The Anti-Nazi League has dreams of a simpler world where the evil enemy can be easily categorised. Well, dream away! Getting on a pedestal with an obvious, verbalised anti-Nazi message would satisfy them but I'd never get under the skin of this issue. 'Monsters' have certain qualities which would, in other circumstances, be regarded as positive. The gulf between 'monsters' and us is not as wide as the ANL would like. Anyone can become a Nazi, they don't come from Mars. They're not a different species. To think so is close to the Nazis' own thing about 'inferior minorities'.

Streamlining culture as the ANL wants to do only contributes to the 'simpleness' which I think is the beginning of the end, paving the way for the simple-minded doctrines like fascism. A culture that is capable of circulating ideas is a dynamic one and far less likely to be dangerous to its members than one where ideas are choked. If I choose to tackle a serious problem in an unusual way, then wanting to burn me at the stake is not good enough as a response.

Kirsten Cale: There is a growing moral panic about violence on film. Where would you draw the line on screen violence, if any is to be drawn?

Geoffrey Wright: At the point at which it can no longer serve a dramatic paradigm. I myself was disturbed by the torture of the young cop in Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino [the director], however, ultimately made his violence work as a dramatic element. Prior to the torture scene, one could find the company of criminals casually reassuring, but when the torture happened you were jolted in to the realisation of just how rough these shuffling kind of amiable guys can play. On one level they are not so very different to us, on another they're appalling, but that's the stuff of drama. Otherwise we're left with newspaper headlines which would be (if Reservoir Dogs had been based on a real event), 'Brutal gang wipes itself out'. And we'd have no further feel for these characters at all.

The thing about drama is that it is supposed to read between the lines, it's supposed to de-abstract the world around us.

Kirsten Cale: Nuns used to picket The Exorcist because they believed that the film would inspire people to commit devilish acts. Today anti-facists picket Romper Stomper because they believe it will inspire cinema-goers to beat up immigrants. How susceptible is the public to cinematic brainwashing?

Geoffrey Wright: It's interesting that the anti-fascists believe that Romper will inspire skinheads. Naturally I don't agree, I wouldn't have made the film if I did. Not a single ANL member will admit that the film encouraged them to become Nazis, yet they insist that it will happen to some other group of people.

Kirsten Cale: Do you think there is any case for censorship?

Geoffrey Wright: Bad, stupid and repugnant films are the price you pay for a dynamic culture. No successful insights without lots of dud or repulsive exploitation films. Let's try and talk more rather than ban films.

I seem to remember reading that Hitler's regime was most concerned about the 'adverse effects' of jazz and modern art on the occupied and home territories. The ANL and Hitler both appreciate creative endeavour in a similar way - something to be suppressed or streamlined.

White suede blues

Steve Banks on the new darlings of British pop

In the mid-seventies, David Bowie immortalised his performances of the time by designating himself the 'Thin White Duke'. 'The return of The Thin White Duke/ Throwing darts in lovers' eyes', he would croon, and the critics swooned. Bowie has been out of favour for several years now, having produced a series of motley albums under different guises. But, if the British music press are to be believed, the spirit of the Thin White Duke is with us again in the form of four young fey men who call themselves Suede.

'Suede', gushed Melody Maker, 'are only the most audacious, androgynous, mysterious, sexy, ironic, absurd, perverse, glamorous, hilarious, honest, cocky, melodramatic, mesmerising band you're ever likely to fall in love with'. The band itself has no doubt about its greatness. 'We always knew what kind of band we'd be', claimed bassist Mat Osman. 'An important, celebratory, huge rock band.' To emphasise the transmutation of lead singer Brett Anderson into the new David Bowie, NME photographed and interviewed the two together, as if to suggest that the wisdom of age was being handed over to the virility of youth. Meanwhile, the band's eponymous debut album went straight to Number One, and sold four times as many as its nearest rival in the first week of release.

So what is it about Suede that has the critics salivating so? Well, it's certainly not their sense of musical adventure. Suede's music can politely be described as small-time English rock, more in the tradition of music hall than glam rock. 'We have a strong sense of where we come from', explained Anderson. 'We are champions of ordinary life. We find England strange, unique and beautiful.'

Where Bowie was exciting, glamorous, ambiguous, even dangerous, Anderson is ordinary, parochial and boring. Explaining why he would rather be English than American, Anderson put it like this: 'It's like exploring your own kitchen rather than becoming an astronaut, finding some interesting pieces of mould rather than a new solar system.' And this is the man who is supposed to be the Ziggy Stardust figure of the nineties?

In the seventies Bowie's ambiguous, androgynous persona (both on stage and in his private life) provided a frisson of sexual excitement. Anderson would make Jason Donovan seem a figure of sexual decadence. 'I see myself', he has claimed, 'as a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience'. Yes, and I see myself as an Albert Einstein who can't add up.

So, if they are neither musically interesting nor sexually adventurous, what have Suede got going for them? Well, for a start they have a publicist who shows a bit more flair and adventure than the band would ever dream of. Long before Suede had put a note down on vinyl, their PR company, Savage & Best, had won the trade paper Music Week's award for the best press campaign of the year.

But Suede's most important asset is that they are not black and they can't rap. At a time of a gathering backlash against rap and ragga - according to DJ Danny Baker, Virgin 1215, Richard Branson's new national radio station, has refused to play any black music - Suede cannot fail.

The attitude of the British press to contemporary black music is a bit akin to poet Philip Larkin's attitude to modern jazz. Larkin was a great fan of jazz - up till the era of Charlie Parker and bebop. For Larkin jazz was about the black man entertaining the white man. After Parker, however, jazz changed. 'From using music to entertain the white man, the negro has moved to hating him with it', he complained. 'Anyone who thinks that an Archie "America's done me a lot of wrong" Shepp record is anything but two fingers extended from a bunched fist at him personally cannot have an appreciation of what he is hearing.'

Today's music press is imbued with the same prejudices. Black music was acceptable so long as it was entertaining and didn't put two fingers up to white society. But today Ice T is to NME and Melody Maker what Archie Shepp was to Philip Larkin. 'The slavish acceptance of all things American', claimed Select magazine recently, 'has damaged the way we see our own culture'. For 'American' read 'black'. Again and again in Britain, black rappers have been castigated for their violence, their separatism and their 'loathsome and provocative racism and sexism' (Select, April 1992). Funny how these same critics manage to overlook Bowie's 'provocative racism and sexism', such as the Nazi chic pose he adopted in the early seventies.

Suede provide the perfect antidote to Ice T. They are not black, they are not dangerous and they wouldn't dream of putting two fingers up to anyone - the perfect pop icons of the nineties. I bet they get plenty of airplay on Virgin Airwaves.

A very English poet

Philip Larkin personified the postwar predicament of the English middle class, believes Alistair Ward

Prison for the strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the niggers,
How about that?

Philip Larkin, 1970
A retiring librarian from Hull, and a former unofficial laureate of the literary fraternity, Philip Larkin would appear to be an unlikely target of middle class outrage. But the racist doggerel, misogynist observations and base anti-working class prejudices that litter his newly published private correspondence have suddenly elevated him to the first rank of offenders against respectable taste. Everyone from the literary editor of the Guardian to the Wharton professor of English at Oxford University has taken the opportunity to sound off against Larkin.

Of course this is not the first time that Larkin has come under attack from critics and fellow poets. Throughout his career, he was lampooned by figures like Charles Tomlinson and Donald Davie as someone whose work was symptomatic of Britain's diminishing cultural horizons. An academic community nurtured on the grandiose literary pretensions of prewar giants like Yeats and Eliot had long been affronted by Larkin's rejection of the 'alien' influence of modernism in favour of an insular tradition of English pastoral poetry.

During Larkin's lifetime, however, such criticism tended to be muted and resigned. Most commentators recognised that Larkin's very popularity and significance depended upon his dry and measured evocation of the drab and comfortable world of the postwar consensus. They accepted that the stifling of the elitist presumptions and inaccessible difficulty of modernist writing beneath the provincial stuffiness and jaundiced conformity of poets like Larkin was the price they had to pay for the more egalitarian outlook of the postwar era.

Or such was the case until the publication late last year of Larkin's private correspondence. The exposure of one of England's most eminent poets as racist, misogynist and misanthropic has deeply shocked and embarrassed the literary community. Critics have lined up to denounce Larkin as an unfortunate aberration from the pluralistic, tolerant and humane values of twentieth-century British poetry. They have suggested that his bigotry was linked to his rejection of modernism and of its celebration of the diverse, experimental and cosmopolitan.

In fact, Larkin's prejudices differ little from those of the earlier generation of poets. Eliot, Pound and Lawrence all held an elitist conception of the role of art in a society which they believed was besieged by the barren mediocrity and soullessness of the modern. This led them to a deep suspicion of democracy and contempt for the common man. The modernist belief that the inclusion of the majority into the cultural life of society heralded a new barbarism acquired sinister political connotations in their private correspondence.

Most of the writers of the prewar period dabbled in notions of racial superiority and eugenics. DH Lawrence's private jottings contain fantasies about 'lethal' chambers the size of 'Crystal Palace' for the disposal of 'the sick, the halt and the maimed'. HG Wells advocated an ethical system 'shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity...to check the procreation of the servile types':

'And for the rest - those swarms of black and brown and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency? Well, the world is not a charitable institution, and I take it that they will have to go.'

That Larkin shared many of these prejudices should come as no surprise. Even his parochialism and anti-modernism are not distinct. Larkin stands in the tradition of quintessentially English poets running from Wordsworth, through Tennyson and Hardy to Alden and Houseman and such contemporary figures as Roger McGough.

If anything, the passionate venom of Larkin's private correspondence comes as a refreshing tonic after the stale preoccupations, torpid cynicism and humdrum civility of his public writings. Certainly the exposure of his personal obsessions makes Larkin into a more interesting figure.

The contrast between the civility of his public writings and bigotry of his private correspondence gives expression to the dilemma of the English middle class in the postwar years. The postwar generation was no less racist than the prewar writers. But they lived in an age when the searing experience of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust made the public espousal of such bigotry unacceptable.

The metamorphosis of the strident chauvinism and hatred of the common herd which inflects the work of prewar writers into Larkin's insular pastoralism and eccentric misanthropy provides an insight into the predicament of the middle class throughout the postwar years. His painful sublimation of a lasting fear and contempt for the working class which was no longer in keeping with postwar values of decency, equality and tolerance makes Larkin not the enfant terrible of English letters, but rather its most apt representative.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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