Letterhole Diary – November 2018

Another month passes, and another Letterhole Diary follows. In November we look at the death of Bernardo Bertolucci, the centenary of armistice, and this month's must-reads.

BERNARDO Bertolucci died on 26 November. The imperial Italian director was perhaps most well known for his work on Last Tango in Paris, but his best work is undoubtedly The Last Emperor, which won a slew of Academy Awards in 1988. The film charts the life of Puyi, the last emperor of China, from a stroppy child hidden away in the Forbidden City (unusually for the time, Bertolucci was granted permission by the Chinese government to film on location), to a puppet collaborator during the Second World War and eventually a political prisoner of the new communist regime.

It’s a powerful meditation on the changing face of China in the 20th century, and of one man’s helpless attempt to cling on to the only life he’s ever known in a world he’s powerless to change. It’s wonderfully filmed – Bertolucci makes excellent use of the awesome locations in which he was privileged to film – superbly acted, particularly by John Lone in the title role and Peter O’Toole as his tutor, and beautifully scored. It’s a Letterhole favourite, and a fitting obituary for Bertolucci.

One of the biggest stories of the month was the 100th anniversary of the armistice that brought the First World War to an end. World leaders gathered in France to mark the occasion, the solemnity of which was ruined by Donald Trump’s usual headline-grabbing histrionics.

But for all the poignancy of the memorial, the definitive underlining of remembrance means we often forget about the war’s aftermath. Europe underwent a process of readjustment and realignment for years after armistice as war continued to rage in Poland until 1921 and Russia and Turkey until 1922. In fact, much of the continent remained in a kind of interstitial state until the Second World War, with a slew of border disputes and debatable situations remaining in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

The commemoration, though, was undoubtedly poignant. The most powerful moment came when Macron and Merkel – aping Kohl and Mitterrand three decades earlier – embraced before the memorial. It was a political gesture, yes, but it was also a reminder that 100 years after the slaughter ended, thins really have changed for the better.

Tweet of the month

Macron’s positive optics abroad mask a febrile atmosphere at home. The French president’s plummeting approval ratings have taken a further hit thanks to a proposed tax on fuel; it has produced familiar results, which thousands of French citizens taking to the streets of Paris to engage in their idiosyncratic style of protest, setting fires and overturning cars. They have donned hi-viz jackets as their uniform, earning the nickname gilets jaunes.

As usual, British commentators have been quick to pounce, with some casting it as an unprecedented reaction against an unpopular government, and others identifying it as another symptom of the failing capitalist system. The sorry truth is that these protestors are simply wrong, and Macron’s fuel tax is a good policy. It’s a common-sense capitalist solution to climate change, making diesel and petrol too expensive is a step towards weaning people off its use. While it may have been politically unwise, it’s an eminently sensible policy that Macron will be thanked for in the years to come. Letterhole remains a fan.

Film of the month

Peter Glenville, 1964

Letterhole rating: 7/10

The eternal challenge for a historical film is how much accuracy to sacrifice in the service of entertainment. Any film with Mel Gibson attached, for instance, answers this conundrum by dispensing with accuracy entirely, but Becket tries to stick fairly closely to historical fact.

There is, however, one interesting narrative decision that changes the entire complexion of the story: King Henry II is made a member of the aristocratic Norman establishment, and Becket an indigenous, lower-class, English-speaking ‘Saxon’.

In fact, Henry was French – he was born in Le Mans, son of the Count of Anjou – and Becket was a Norman, a fully paid-up member of the landowning classes.

It’s an interesting deviation, because it sets up the struggle between the two men as being based on class rather than politics. From the very start Becket is a maligned, somewhat anti-establishment figure set against an aristocratic foreigner, a conflict entirely absence from historical reality. In many way that makes it a more modern story; these days narratives of class and nationality are common, and something we can apply instantly to real life.

In this way, Becket becomes a better, more urgent film. Mind you, any production headlined by Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and John Gielgud at the very least has to be worth a watch, and Becket certainly is that.

Essential reading

8 Nov The Economist‘s Bagehot column argues that two alternative interpretations of British history – ‘Peterloo’ and ‘Waterloo’ – defines much of our contemporary political discourse.

9 Nov In the Texas Tribune, Patrick Svitek and Abby Livingstone examine how the charismatic Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within an inch of beating incumbent Ted Cruz in the US midterms.

13 Nov Welsh writer Julia Bell tells the story of her awful, alienating interview at Jesus College, Oxford in 1988 in The Times Literary Supplement.

16 Nov Writing for The Guardian, Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole explains how ludicrous British politicians have always cast the European Union as the heir to Hitler.

19 Nov Andrew Marantz interviews Natalie Wynn, the YouTuber fighting incels, pick-up artists and the alt-right with her unique, stylish videos for The New Yorker.

21 Nov For the BBC World Service, Sarah McDermott recounts the bizarre story of a Japanese woman who hired an actor to pretend to be her daughter’s estranged father.

22 Nov Cas Mudde explains the rise of populism, both as an age-defining idea and a political reality in The Guardian.

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