'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: Why did you make a film about skinheads?
Kirsten Cale spoke to Romper Stomper's director, Geoffrey Wright,
about racism, violence and censorship
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
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
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
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
A very English poet
Philip Larkin personified the postwar predicament of the English middle
class, believes Alistair Ward
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.
- Prison for the strikers,
- Bring back the cat,
- Kick out the niggers,
- How about that?
- Philip Larkin, 1970
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
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
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