Tape trauma

Front cover of a VHS tape of 1984 cult comedy mystery film 'Repo Man', showing, in the foreground, star Emilio Estevez in front of a car with a group of menacing looking men, one wearing a balaclava and holding a gun

In the late eighties I lived in the East End of London and I used to rent movies from a little video shop on the A11 near Bow Road underground station. The routine – you might remember this – involved picking up a video on the way home from the tube and returning it in the morning. But life changed, I left college and got a job. Things got busy and I just stopped going up to Bow Road. Then one day, of course, I found a tape in the VCR, rented at some point in the distant past, waiting to be returned (pretty sure it wasn’t Repo Man).

Anyway, I was aware of the terrible, ineluctable logic of the videotape late fee. Everyone was in those days, it was a fact of life. No tape rental guy had ever forgiven a late fee, there was no such thing as a discount or time to pay or any kind of compromise. These guys looked like soft-eyed dweebs but we all knew they were backed up by brutes who’d come round and kneecap you for the fee if it went unpaid.

I left the tape there in the kitchen for a few days but it was haunting me. I mean the economics of the matter. I couldn’t sleep. Videotape late fees could only go up and they would never stop. I was watching my life disappear into a videotape-shaped void. You have to know, this wasn’t like dealing with the credit card company or the car loan people. There was no reasoning with a video shop, no restructuring, no resort to arbitration.

VHS tape and case from 1980 UK gangster film The Long Good Friday. The case illustration shows some of the cast, including Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren against explosions and violence

So one morning, accepting the inevitable, I nervously took it up to Bow Road and handed it to the man behind the counter, quivering, trying to smile. He looked it up in his entirely non-computerised records, noted the rental date, raised an eyebrow and calculated my late fee – a daily sum multiplied by months and months. “Four hundred and ninety pounds” he said. At this point I could easily have cried or fainted or something. That would be at least a month’s wages, several months of rent – a ridiculous, comically-large sum of money for a schlub like me at that point, in my cheap suit.

We looked at each other. I instinctively knew what to do and he apparently did too. I said “okay thanks” or something, turned around and walked out. Be aware: this is not what usually happened. What usually happened was you blanched at the number, hesitated and then got your wallet out and paid up while videotape guy just watched. There could be no pleasantries in that moment, no chit-chat. Nothing at all till after the register drawer was closed.

Videotape cassette for 1985 Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club. The tape label shows the cast in a friendly huddle against a white background.

On this occasion, though, he said nothing; didn’t demand payment, nor shout as I left, nor follow me out into the street, despite the iron law, the terrifying rigidity of the video shop fines regime. He just watched me go. So I treasure that moment. A parable of some kind – the silent agreement, the mutual acceptance of the absurdity of the situation, its irresolvability. I never went back and I never heard from that video shop again. And then, at some point, that whole chapter in the history of media technology closed, VHS tapes became awful, unrecyclable landfill, charity shop poison, undisposable at any cost. History drew a line around that moment in time and froze it forever.

Permanent dread

Fear is back in British politics

The entrance to the world war two 'Report and Control Centre' in Radlett in the UK. A concrete-built structure with a large, arched, gated entrance, at the end of a short path covered with leaves and overgrown. An explanatory sign in the foreground reads: 'Radlett & District Museum
HISTORIC BUILDINGS
Radlett Control & Reporting Centre
This Wartime Nissen hut was built in 1939 by local builder Wings, as a key point of contact for civil defence. It cost £425 to construct and has two rooms plus a toilet. Today, the structure is in good shape and in the care of Aldenham Parish Council. It has been used for storage, the restoration of a vintage motorbike and the breeding of maggots for fishing. radlettmuseum.com'

This is a guest post from my friends at Radlett Wire, a local politics blog centred on a small town in the outer London suburbs that keeps a close eye on the work of local MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. This post is about the increasingly grim tone of British politics.


Why does Rishi Sunak want us to prepare for war? Why does Oliver Dowden want us to fill the cupboard under the stairs with tins of beans and bottled water? And what’s any of this got to do with a concrete shed in the middle of Radlett?

If you walk up Gills Hill towards the park you’ll pass a lovely bit of green called Scrubbitts Wood and if you look over the gate at the North East corner you’ll see a concrete structure that looks like an old garage or possibly an air-raid shelter. Everybody used to call it ‘the air-raid shelter’, in fact, but recently a handy sign has gone up by the gate explaining that it’s actually a World War Two ‘Report and Control Centre’.

Round enamelled sign, red with white text, reads: 'Radlett & District Museum
HISTORIC BUILDINGS
Radlett Control & Reporting Centre
This Wartime Nissen hut was built in 1939 by local builder Wings, as a key point of contact for civil defence. It cost £425 to construct and has two rooms plus a toilet. Today, the structure is in good shape and in the care of Aldenham Parish Council. It has been used for storage, the restoration of a vintage motorbike and the breeding of maggots for fishing. radlettmuseum.com'

It’s a communications node in the wartime civil defence system. There was probably a telephone line, quite possibly female volunteer despatch riders. It’s not easy to understand why you’d put such an important bit of infrastructure in Radlett but there it is, defying the passage of time, right in the middle of the village.

Structures like this were put up all over Britain during the war, and were part of a huge – and hugely-effective – collective effort to protect Britain during what was unarguably the country’s greatest crisis for over a hundred years. Civil defence during the war was a bureacratic-voluntary hybrid, of the kind Britain is famed for. It’s how we roll, how the whole Empire was run.

The cold war

Famous still from 1984 film 'Threads' about the aftermath of a nuclear war in Britain. A man in a traffic warden's uniform has a bloody bandage with crude eye-holes covering almost his whole face. A rifle at his shoulder, dazed expression on his face.

After the war, of course, began another war. And a modernised, atomic-age version of the wartime civil defence structure came into being. One of its functions was to put the fear of God into us about nuclear armageddon. If you grew up in this period you’ll remember the public information films at the cinema and terrifying fictional visions like Threads and When the Wind Blows. Some of us are still haunted by the chilling Protect and Survive booklets you could pick up in doctor’s surgeries and libraries right up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The end of history

President of the USA Ronald Reagan against a blue curtained background making a speech behind two press microphones
Amiable B-movie schlub saves world

But then amiable B-movie schlub Ronald Reagan implausibly won the cold war. Things changed, of course, and there was that odd decade during which everybody felt they could breathe again. The booklets were pulped, they scrapped the sirens and Tony Blair’s New Labour won the biggest electoral landslide in modern British history. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously wrote a book called ‘The End of History and the Last Man‘, published in 1992, in which he proposed that the end of the cold war and the benign economic climate signalled a definitive end to the chaos and conflict of the twentieth century. Liberal democracy had won the battle of the ideologies and would become the unquestioned norm everywhere and forever. Oops. This dreamy mood lasted about ten minutes and was finally finished off by 9/11.

War without end

A large crowd of American soldiers in full uniform with helmets and weapons against a dusty background
Americans

And we entered the era of the War on Terror (capital ‘W’, capital ‘T’). The Americans recruited a ‘coalition of the willing’ (you might not remember this but you were definitely in it) and moved onto a war footing, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq. One of those wars became the longest in American history (and both cost the lives of hundreds of British servicemen and women).

The USA is, in fact, legally and politically, still at war. A law passed in 2001, giving the President essentially unconstrained power to make war against enemies, real and perceived, is still in force, discussed periodically in the US Congress ever since but never repealed. Of course, here in Britain we just do as we’re told, so we’re effectively still at war too. The absence of a written constitution makes it much easier for UK governments to tag along with the Americans (as Tony Blair said to George Bush “I will be with you, whatever”).

A century of emergencies

The happy optimists of the last decade of the last century could hardly have anticipated the chaos and drama of the first quarter of this one. A sequence of regional and world financial crises (including the biggest one since the great depression), a hundred-year pandemic, a major European war, a widespread turn towards populism, all overlaid on the building turmoil of the climate crisis. None of this was in the plan.

And the response of the major powers – including here in Britain – has been, in almost every case, to dial up the anxiety, to legislate, to militarise and to take a variety of increasingly authoritarian actions. In an emergency, all bets are off. A government may require us to stay indoors, allow us to protest but without being a nuisance or impose long prison sentences for non-violent action. Ancient rights are suspended and recently-acquired rights are reclassified and unwound. And we can expect more of this as the multi-dimensional crisis intensifies.

But hold on, what’s this got to do with the tins of beans?

Well, Oliver Dowden, in his role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is in charge of resilience (in addition to a long list of other tasks, including oversight of civil contingencies, the COBRA committee and that portrait of the King…). Resilience in this case doesn’t mean bouncing back when your boss gives you a bollocking. It’s more about preparing for climate change, terrorism and war. Dowden’s brief includes flooding, heatwaves, cybercrime, sabotage by state actors and, for some reason, he’s chosen this moment to amp it all up, to dial up the anxiety and ask us to start hoarding pasta and toilet paper again.

Screenshot from UK government Prepare web site, black text against orange background reads: 'Get prepared for emergencies'

Hardly anyone noticed this but in the morning on the day of Rishi Sunak’s surprise election announcement (do you remember it? It was raining) Oliver Dowden announced something else – he announced an inexplicable new web site and a campaign to persuade us all to prepare for disaster. The web site is called ‘Get Prepared for Emergencies’ and it’s a slightly uncanny throw-back to those cold war public information booklets. There are many exclamation marks and a guide to preparing for the worst. You’ll learn how many bottles of water you should buy (three litres per person, per day, FYI), how to prepare your house for a flood and what to keep in the boot in case you need to leave home in a hurry. There’s a checklist to download.

Geopolitical dread

And this all came about a fortnight after the Prime Minister’s oddly dystopian speech warning us about, well, everything. He spoke, at his lectern, of the threat from “…gender activists hijacking children’s sex education…”, “Iranian proxies firing on British ships in the Red Sea…”, “countries like Russia weaponising immigration for their own ends…”, “criminal gangs finding new routes across European borders.” Read the speech, it’s all there: artificial intelligence, trans ideology, small boats, cancel culture, Putin’s ambitions and… nuclear anihilation.” Sunak’s painting a picture here and it’s not a happy one. It doesn’t actually mention alien invasion but we suspect it’s on a checklist somewhere.

Alien invasion movie still - spaceships hover over planet's surface, dark and frightening background

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Conservatives have decided their last chance against the inevitability of defeat in July is to weaponise dread, to trigger the entire voting-age population, to reduce us to a kind of quivering electoral jelly, waiting for the catastrophe and hoping against hope that Rishi can rescue us. The logic is that this dread will cause us to cling to the Tories when it comes to placing an X in the box, that we cannot imagine a better way out of this miserable, grinding, 14-year nightmare than to vote for the people who made it.

Still from John Carpenter's film They Live. A businessaman in a pin-stripe suit and waistcoat standing at a microphone is revealed to be one of the invading aliens repressing and killing humanity. Behind him a sign reads 'OBEY'

There’s a kind of contemporary horror movie-vibe to all this. These hollow men in suits, standing at lecterns, informing us in bloodless terms that our freedoms are to be suspended and that our larders and cellars must be filled in case of catastrophe. It’s grim.

Signing the pledge

Meanwhile, Labour, of course, in closely shadowing the Conservative policy offer, must carefully match the beligerance and dread Rishi’s bringing. Yesterday Keir Starmer made it clear that he’s not just going to retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent but double down (in fact the party’s calling it a ‘nuclear triple-lock’, which is catchy). Starmer’s promise is not new. In fact it’s consistent with the stance of all UK governments since 1962. In that year Harold Macmillan and JFK signed the Nassau Agreement, permanently cementing Britain’s dependence on the US military-industrial machine. To vary this relationship would be costly and almost certainly diplomatically impossible. Every Prime Minister since then has acknowledged the geopolitical realities of the North Atlantic compact and signed on.

HMS Vigilant, the third of the Royal Navy's Vanguard Class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Dramtically backlit against a cloudy sky

Under this and most of the subsequent agreements the British nuclear deterrent is essentially a North European branch operation of the vast American one. You don’t need to be a peacenik to feel uncomfortable with this relationship, with the fact that important parts of the UK nuclear weapons system literally belong to the United States government, that Britain’s 58 warheads are considered part of a larger US-controlled pool of weapons, that targeting, maintenance and other aspects of deployment are decided by American generals and that although it might be technically possible for a British submarine captain to launch a Trident missile independently, it would be unthinkable in practical terms and could actually be stopped by a US government with a mind to do so. According to one academic, the UK’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t meet ‘the 1940 requirement‘, meaning it could not be used in a situation when the country stood alone as it did at the beginning of the second world war.

No UK government has ever had the courage to challenge this and the economics of operating an advanced nuclear weapons system – with cold-war levels of preparedness – independently of the USA is so scary that this is very unlikely to change. It’s almost certain that even if a unilateralist government were to come to power (as it nearly did in 2017, remember) it would quickly acknowledge the realities and renew the deal. This unequal relationship is a deeply entrenched aspect of the Atlantic hierarchy. It’s essentially impossible to imagine altering it, let alone abandoning it.

Fear wins again

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden is ready for action

Oliver Dowden’s stock of tinned food, Sunak’s dead-eyed scare tactics and the UK’s unvarying committment to the nuclear status quo are all aspects of the same, rigid security orthodoxy and the same increasingly hysterical emergency politics that governs our lives in the developed economies. Fear is a political currency – and when politicians deliberately and cynically mobilise our anxieties it’s a sign of their fragility. It’s undemocratic and regressive and we’re probably stuck with it.


Eras, golden ages, long decades – periodising the movies

I wrote this to avoid writing about Disney’s big hit of 1946

Four characters walk away over a hill  silhouetted against a vivid, pink sunset - animated gif from 1946 Walt Disney film Song of the South

Here’s another post lifted from my cinema history newsletter GROSS. I’m reviewing the top-grossing Hollywood movie from each year since 1913 and, when I got to 1946, I groaned. It’s Walt Disney’s Song of the South, the biggest movie of the year and a nasty piece of work. I was tempted to skip it or write about something else. I didn’t skip it – I wouldn’t do that to you, reader. But this awkward, maddening film and the fact that, here in the mid-forties, we really do seem to have come to the end of some kind of blessed period in Hollywood, got me thinking about Hollywood periodisation. About how we divide up the chronology of the movies. Read my review of Song of the South.

When I started all this I’ll admit I had a shaky sense of the periods, the eras you read about in the film books and reviews. In fact I’d go so far as to say I was suspicious of the whole idea – I mean all these invented periods – generations, long and short centuries, geological eras, obsessively delineated eras of pop – they all seem pretty arbitrary, right?

It’s all a blur

I knew there were all these silent movies (comedies, dramas, adventures, vast racist screeds). And then there were the romances, the screwballs, the Westerns and the gangster movies, swashbucklers, the woman’s pictures, the films noirs and the monster flicks and so on up to the films of the present day.

And of course I knew all of these tens of thousands of movies were arranged on the timeline somehow but the order was hazy to me. Obviously black-and-white was furthest away and then there were those crazy, headache-inducing Cinemascope blow-outs and then the gritty, urban colours of the auteurs and so on. Along the way there were the other traditions – Kurosawa, Varda, Rosselini, Ray – the Russians, the South Koreans, the Iranians, the British, the South Americans, all the rest.

But now, after feeding thirty-odd annual blockbusters into the GROSS time-machine I’ve got, if nothing else, a much improved idea of the sequence. So, let’s break it down:

Still from Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon - animated gif
“The history of cinema is written by the winners…”
  1. Prehistory (before 1913). Before there was an economic model or even a practical method of distribution. Many beautiful, strange and funny films. The moon, the train, the Victorian variety shows, the street-scenes, the gags.
  2. Poetic (1913-1929). This is where I came in, the first year covered in my GROSS newsletter: it’s 1913 and the industry has just begun recording the rental income of the movies released. The first really big, national hits. The first stars known by their names. Studios are going up fast along the un-paved roads and on the empty lots of Hollywood. Capital is engaged, accumulating talent, converting theatres, funding increasingly ambitious projects. Directors in this period are artists, chancers, entrepreneurs – and often self-conscious modernists. They’re a heterodox lot: painters, writers, engineers, accountants, aristocrats – weirdos of every kind. And the writers, designers, editors and crew around them are cut from the same cloth. It’s a period of constant experiment – creatively and commercially. As a result this period is the source of some of the most beautiful and complete works of art of the modern era. By the end of the silent era cinema is a highly-evolved medium and a huge business.
  3. Golden (1930-1941). Sound changes everything. There’s no going back – to the painterly, the lyric, the surreal. It all happens in a rush. Within a couple of years everything tightens up. Capital is now fully in control, studios and their oligarchs dominate. The poets are (mostly) left behind in their reverie. There’s also the Hays Code (enforced universally from 1934). So now we’ve got ‘pre-code’ as a category to get retrospectively excited about and the forensic work of locating the effects of the code in everything that came after it can begin. But what we also have is a golden age. A sequence of perfect movies in this new, crisp, naturalistic style – romances, razor-sharp comedies, musicals on a huge scale, hard-edged crime and stories about businessmen and tough working women. Melodrama has hardened into realistic depictions of families in crisis, grief and sacrifice – the great depression is an unavoidable backdrop, acknowledged or unacknowledged.
  4. Oh dear (1941-). What’s happened? The war’s happened, I guess. And soon after that it’s television. Boom. Hollywood’s disciplined, hyper-effective golden decade has come to a grinding halt. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the absolutely optimal creative conditions of the long 1930s no longer apply. The licence given to the early creators, the urgency and sheer rotational speed of the production routine, the rush of talent into the business. The giant magnet hidden in the cloakroom at the Brown Derby that pulled in literally thousands of geniuses and near-geniuses and genius-enablers – Gable, Stanwyck, Curtiz, Wells, Hepburn, Hawks, Perelman, Davis, Vidor, Von Stroheim, Crawford, Capra, Korngold (ridiculous to try to list them) – seems to have stopped working, even gone into reverse. Hollywood talent is still present, of course, and we’ll see so many wonderful movies in the coming decades, but we’ll also see ‘Mom and Dad’ and ‘Song of the South’.

I should pick up the periodisation when I get a bit further into the sequence – I mean there are many more phases of the project to come – including the long 1970s, which began with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and ended, roughly, with Scarface in 1983. To be honest, I’m a bit worried that I might have to vary the approach a bit here, especially as we enter the 1950s, a period Quentin Tarantino wants us to believe is the absolute low-point of Hollywood cinema.


  • Read my review of Song of the South.
  • Obviously I asked ChatGPT what brought an end to the Hollywood golden age and I got this predictably bland statement. It does mention anti-trust, though, which is something that hadn’t occured to me: “The end of the Hollywood Golden Age was influenced by various factors, including economic changes, the rise of television, shifts in audience tastes, and the decline of the studio system due to antitrust rulings.”
  • The GROSS archive now runs to forty-odd newsletters, including a few diversions from the chronology you might like – Dune and Ripley, for instance. All the reviews are also on my Letterboxd.

Apex capitalism

The Apple Vision Pro represents the end of something. Or possibly the beginning. It’s an apex product from an apex economy.

Stylised front-on photo of Apple Vision Pro VR headset against a black background

(updated on 10 June with some new market valuations)

What we know about capitalism – liberal democracy, Western economic dominance – suggests some kind of discontinuity is coming, some kind of historic break or epochal crisis. A lot of people accept this. Meanwhile, the happy plateau we were expecting from the 21st Century never materialised and the steady growth in incomes and wellbeing we were promised stopped years ago.

The exception

Except in America. Since Covid and the economic shock of the Ukraine war the US economy has essentially entirely rebounded. Growth is up, jobs are up and inflation is close to the Fed’s 2% target. This is not, of course, to say that there’s anything ideal about the US economy or permanent about this upturn. And the paradoxes of US economic power – out-of-control poverty and precarity, healthcare and housing in permanent crisis and so on – are self-evident. The American economy, though, continues to have all sorts of advantages, advantages that compound over time and help us to explain, er, the Apple Vision Pro:

The USA is the largest producer and the largest exporter of both oil and gas. Until 2016 it was literally illegal to export oil from the USA – a remarkable, unprecedented change in direction that is probably the biggest single contribution to the economy’s current robustness. The irony of the fact that the US economy is switching to renewable energy more quickly than anyone anticipated and thus needs a lot less of this oil and gas domestically is, of course, profound.

The country has the largest agricultural sector in the world and is the largest exporter of food. Huge expanses of fertile land of many different kinds, intensive production methods and light regulation (and huge federal subsidies, natch) make food in the USA cheap and accessible. This is not secondary to America’s success. Cheap calories is the most elemental fuel for a booming economy.

The US stock market is vast and getting bigger. The S&P 500, the main index of American stocks, is worth 60% of the whole world’s market capitalisation. The numbers are bonkers. As of today (10 June 2024) the largest company in the American system (Microsoft) is worth substantially ($3.15T) more than the whole of the London stock exchange’s FTSE all-shares index ($2.43T). Every traded business in the UK added together gives you nearly one Microsoft (or one Apple, for that matter).

The country has a larger working-age population, as a proportion of the overall population, than any other developed economy and it’ll be like that for longer. There’ll be a population crunch in the USA but it’s a lot further off than it is in Europe or Asia. Flexible, available labour will continue to drive the American economy (Southern border crisis notwithstanding).

America’s domestic economy is enormous and essentially insulates the country from the vagaries of world trade. Even the biggest world economies depend much more on the continued health of all the other economies. It’s difficult to calculate the exclusively domestic component of the US economy but, in 2022, US households spent $2.39T on food in grocery stores and on eating out – roughly the GDP of Italy. 335 Million people organised into a single economy with a very high level of integration, high disposable incomes and frictionless internal trade – and now energy independence – turns out to be a big deal. The 20th Century logic of world trade is unravelling, mercantilism is making a comeback and economies are hardening their borders. The USA will hardly notice.

Lockheed Martin Tomahawk cruise missile from from below against a blue sky

The tech economy and the warfare economy. You don’t need me to tell you that the US tech sector dominates the world (see the top five stocks above – MSFT, AAPL, AMZN, NVDA, GOOGL) but the country’s military sector – manufacturing and contracting – is also vast and has the unique advantage of not really needing an export market. Plenty of F-35s and Hummers are sold worldwide but the American military buys more kit than all the other militaries put together. Since the Authorization for use of Military Force, passed by Congress a few days after 9/11 and never repealed, military manufacturing in the USA has been on a war footing, both legally and economically, an unending bonanza for the contractors and manufacturers – and for the US economy. The US defence budget for this year is $842B, somewhere between the GDP of Poland and Switzerland. If you add in export income from weapons sales, aid to other countries that returns to the USA in defence contracts and space you have an economic powerhouse unprecedented in world history – a shadow nation grounded in warfare.

And all this is essentially self-sustaining, an arrangement continually renewed by a thoroughly captured Congress: a perpetual motion money printer. If Raytheon never sold another Tomahawk missile abroad they’d barely notice. This cannot be said about other warfare-dependent nations, like the UK, where a constant stream of new beligerant dictatorships must be secured to sustain the industry. The American economy has a military economy – with investment and manufacturing on an amplified, war-footing cadence, on the scale of a large developed country – inside it. America cannot help but pull ahead of those nations lodged in the older model of a civil polity that steps up to war once or twice per century. In combination with that long list of advantages, the USA looks like the unassailable world-historical superpower to end all unassailable world-historical superpowers.

I don’t want to idealise the American economy. I really don’t. And even the most basic logic of reversion to the mean must, presumably, eventually apply. Can a single economy so enormously exceed the mean forever? A quarter of a century past the end of history – and well into the end of the end of history – can an economy expect to continue to add wealth and complexity at the same pace? Can a capitalist economy indefinitely resist collapse into a more primitive shape, a less productive form?

What’s this got to do with anything?

Well, now there’s the Vision Pro, a new product from Apple that seems to stand at the junction, right on the brink of the discontinuity. It’s evidently an extraordinary bit of kit and it has the potential to jar the matrix, change the way we think about computing, in the way the Mac did forty years ago. I haven’t even met one yet but it’s giving me the kind of tingles I got when I essentially bullied my dad into buying me a Mac Plus and when I got an iPod couriered from California before they were available in the UK.

But why all the numbers? Well, this new device is a creature of the American boom and of the spinning flywheel of the American tech innovation machine. It’s a condensation of all those advantages and all those crazy distortions. Not directly, of course – no pork bellies here, no space lasers – but the Vision Pro could not have been produced in any other economy. It combines breakthroughs in half a dozen areas. Not raw innovation – this is an Apple device after all – but brilliant integration of features developed elsewhere. And each one of these features – the gorgeous hi-res displays, the subtle and beautiful UI, the eye-tracking and gestures and all the rest – each one represents the very peak of an industrial discipline, of a software or hardware or project-management culture. There’s a level of integration and completeness that hardly any organisation could match and that really only an American organisation with access to essentially unlimited capital could fund.

In this sense, the Vision Pro seems in some way overdetermined, too richly-provisioned, too designed, too complete. And in this it really does seem like a creature of an economy at its apex, of a culture that cannot be further refined, of a state that has reached its organisational and economic peak.

But I should say that I thought this about previous Apple products too (and I have to remind you that I haven’t even seen one of these things yet so you’ll have to forgive me if when you buy yours it turns out to be a bit Russell Hobbs). I remember an uncanny feeling when I unpacked my first Mac and set it amongst all the junk on my desk in Camberwell. It seemed to possess an extra dimension of detail, of conceptual complexity. It made all the other bits of kit, even the lovely ones, like my Nikon and my Walkman, seem half-finished, barely thought-through. From another era.

On that Mac Plus I wrote my undergraduate dissertation. I’d found a quote from Jacques Derrida about nuclear war. He said that nuclear war, unlike previous kinds of conflict, would be ‘fabulously textual’, which was a phrase I loved. What he was describing was the complexity and technological density of modern weapons systems but also the layers of inscription and meaning embedded in them. I remember thinking my Mac, a product of the Silicon Valley outpost of what had already been the apex economy for decades, was definitely also fabulously textual.


  • The Vision Pro has competition and some devices – from Meta, for instance – have been around for years. They’re basically simpler and cheaper, they come from a little further back down the complexity curve and will mop up billions of dollars of business from the markets and users that can’t quite stomach the cost and complexity of the apex device.
  • Comparing market capitalisations is legit, obviously, but comparing a company’s market cap with the GDP of a country (something people do all the time because it’s kind of dramatic) less so. One is a stock and one is a flow. But, Will Davies says here, this is more appropriate than it used to be.
  • Over the long run, since the 1980s approximately, incomes in the most of the developed world have stagnated for working people. The USA is no exception.
  • This was really all triggered by an ep of the Vergecast. The breathless excitement about the Vision Pro launch was infectious (there was plenty of scepticism too) but what seemed really significant was something kind of hermetic about the discussion. I realised there was no discussion at all of the world beyond the USA (or beyond the product’s highly-paid, tech-literate customer base for that matter). I realised that, for these journalists, there was really no need to consider the world beyond at all. This extraordinary bit of kit, one of the most complex consumer devices ever launched, marrying half a dozen bleeding-edge technologies, will almost certainly produce big international sales but, to be honest, it doesn’t really need to.
  • Of course, when I linked the American warfare economy and the Apple Vision Pro it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be some more concrete connections.
  • Another trigger for this was an episode of the FT’s excellent Unhedged podcast.
  • Since the beginning of the year, Microsoft’s market cap has increased from $2.75T to $3.17T and currently stands at $3.15T – an increase of $400B, approximately the value of the top three UK businesses added together.
  • Since I published this post, Apple and Microsoft changed places at the top of the S&P more than once. Microsoft’s market cap is currently $130B larger than Apple’s. That difference is approximately today’s value of the FTSE’s third-biggest company HSBC. It’s as if non-US stock markets trade in the gaps between individual stocks on the S&P.

How would Rwanda work?

It depends on the carefully measured cruelty of the institutions we ask to be cruel on our behalf

Everyone understands that the Rwanda scheme is designed to provide a deterrent. This is why the scheme doesn’t need to accommodate all the asylum seekers arriving in Britain – or even more than a handful. It’s weighted so that only the precise number that will provide the expected deterrent need be sent there. In fact, for its designers, there’s a kind of ideal outcome: that Rwanda works – provides the necessary deterrent – without their having to send a single person there. In this scenario the cruelty can remain on paper only and need never actually be enacted.

The scheme’s been cleverly designed. Rwanda is a long way from Britain and literally in the opposite direction for most migrants. And, although the genocide in Rwanda was a long time ago, for the scheme’s designers it’s important that people remember it. Ask any advertising creative about this approach – an implicit message that need not be directly stated. The name of the place carries with it almost indelible associations of suffering, up to and including mass slaughter. Those associations are vital to the deterrent. It hardly matters that the country has come a long way, that it’s nominally a safe and well-run country now. It’s enough to chill the blood of even an ordinary Brit, with no prospect of being sent there. For suffering migrants, even migrants who are fully up-to-date with the happy state of Rwanda in 2024, it can only amplify the fear and stress – “they want to send me where?”

But, we should acknowledge, states are cruel. Even comfortable and relatively prosperous ones like the one we live in. The state won’t let you off a parking ticket, will chase you for a student loan for the rest of your life and, in some places, will deliberately take your life if you do wrong. But it’s usually hoped that a state, although it must be cruel, need not be very cruel, or more cruel than is strictly necessary. In this case, just cruel enough to stop the boats. Then we can stop being cruel. It’s an essentially utilitarian argument. But this is a complicated business, so we’ll have to be prepared to be cruel again, or even to come up with some new cruelties – if the boats keep coming.

And, of course, that’s likely. After all, this problem of uninvited migrants isn’t going away – and will probably get worse. The arrivals might continue. They may well do so even if flights to Rwanda actually begin, because migrants are weighing one cruelty against another – and calculating the odds of winding up on one of the planes. And this is also why opponents of Rwanda who say “it won’t work” are wrong. When a critic says that the Rwanda scheme is an expensive waste of money they’re doing so for a reason.

They say these things because they don’t want to say that the scheme is cruel, because they think it would be damaging, in electoral terms usually, to say this when their data suggests the electorate broadly accepts that the cruelty is necessary. These critics fall back on ‘effectiveness’ and ‘competence’ when they think they can’t say ‘cruelty’ (and there’s another concern, in the backs of their minds, that they might feel obliged to pursue a similar policy, so it would be wise not to expose themselves to future charges of hypocrisy by going on about cruelty now).

The prototype for Rwanda is the Australian offshoring scheme. That scheme worked and the cruelty has now been cancelled, warehoused. Kept in store for another occasion. Australia is no longer cruel but, critically, reserves the right to be cruel again as needed – “we were cruel, but only for a few years and once the cruelty worked we stopped.”

To repeat, sometimes the state is cruel. And we ask our state to be cruel on our behalf. It’s literally one of the perpetual functions of the state, across the whole of modernity. To insulate citizens from being cruel, to promise that we won’t need to be. And we ask the state to do many cruel things.

And if Rwanda does work, the effect of the policy will have been to protect us from the indignity and unpleasantness of being cruel ourselves. It will have displaced the cruelty, pushed it back up the pipeline, back to the countries upstream from here. Still cruel, just not our cruelty. And, let’s face it, those countries are probably hoping that this cruelty – the Rwanda cruelty – will work for them too, by discouraging migrants from entering those countries on the way to Britain, and that this will have the effect of pushing the cruelty back to a country further up the chain. Job done.

Ultimately, of course, we all hope that the cruelty can be pushed right back up the refugee supply chain to the ruined cities and impoverished regions the migrants come from so we can stop thinking about them all together. So that we need never be cruel again.

On the spectrum

Two novels, one small and mean, one vast and generous, both magnificent

Composite image - on the left a tiny photo of author Vladimir Nabokov and on the right a much bigger photo of Victor Hugo

This year I started a bookclub in our house – with mixed results if I’m honest. It’s called ‘The Small Book Club’ and I seeded it with a pile of cheap and second-hand novels all of which are less than 200 pages long (some less than 100). You can see what I’m trying to do here – I’m trying to overcome the collapsed attention spans and poisonous TikTok habits of my family by offering them only short books to read. Like I said, mixed results (my own collapsed attention span and poisonous TikTok habit aren’t helping).

Anyway, one of my children actually read a book from the pile – Nabokov’s ‘The Eye‘ – and, when we were chatting about it afterwards, provided a review that ought to be printed on the back of the book. She called it: ‘incel Sherlock Holmes’.

I honestly can’t argue with that. I mean this little mystery is a malignant jewel, composed of equal parts corrosive irony, elemental disdain and lofty amusement. Nabokov doesn’t have a humanist bone in his body. He’s like an aesthete Jordan Peterson. His perspective is so powerfully misanthropic – even the sympathetic characters are drawn with such withering hostility that it’s impossible to identify with anyone here. And the other characters occupy a spectrum that goes from weak and insipid, via stupid and venal all the way to cruel and murderous (also imaginary or dead or both).

I know this doesn’t come close to capturing the magnificence of Nabokov – and I wouldn’t be grand enough to think that I could – and I may have been sensitised to this little book’s nastiness and disdain by the fact that I’ve almost finished another, much bigger book – Victor Hugo’s vast, I mean really vast Les Misérables, which – at least for the minute – is the grandest, most big-hearted and humane (also silly and occasionally demented) work of art I’ve ever encountered.

In fact, I grandly conclude that the two novels define, between them, the entire universe of possibility for a novelist. The whole spectrum. Everything that is achievable in a novel must, necessarily, sit on the line between these two books – between The Eye’s perfect and hateful 80 pages and Les Misérables’ perfect and generous 1,500.

They’re as different as two novels could possibly be. The Eye embodies what must be the very end, the very end-stop, of the novelistic form – beyond which it collapses into all those shorter forms and less magically coherent shapes. And I’m sure Les Misérables must constitute the most expansive form that the novel has ever taken (seriously, it’s bigger and more inclusive than Ulysses – in fact, imagine Ulysses exploded and stretched across 17 years and every lane and back alley and upstairs room in France and you have Les Misérables).

And, really, I’m ready to accept that this spectrum of novels thing is almost certainly unsupportable. I mean there are probably other axes that go off at various angles from the line at the very least – where you’ll find all the other branches of novel-writing and literary expression and involvement with life and love and death and so on.

I’ve been reading Les Misérables for over a year. It was supposed to be all over on 31 December last year (there are 365 chapters, you see, so I’d been getting through it one short chapter per day in a satisfying way) but my Kindle died in October and a kind of defeated tech ennui set in so the project stalled. But I’m back into it now and in the final stretch. Hugo had some ambitions for this one, his eighth novel:

The book before the reader’s eyes at this moment is from start to finish, in its entirety and in its detail – whatever the inconsistencies, the exceptions and the failings – the progression from evil to good, from wrong to right, from night to day, from craving to conscience, from putrefaction to life, from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Point of departure: matter. Point of arrival: spirit. Hydra at the outset, angel at the last.

Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables (Penguin Classics) (p. 1114).

Nabokov had some thoughts about the scope of his book, but they’re different – somehow meaner (this is from the 1965 foreword):

I have always been indifferent to social problems, merely using the material that happened to be near, as a voluble diner pencils a street corner on the table cloth or arranges a crumb and two olives in a diagrammatic position between menu and salt cellar.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Eye (Penguin Modern Classics) (p. 2).

Of course, we enjoy Nabokov’s disdain for us: for his meal ticket, his reason for being. It’s bracing. We forgive him even the several gargantuan spoilers, right here, in the book’s foreword (added for this English edition in 1965). We must be weak.

  • Vladimir Nabokov, The Eye, 1930 (Nabokov’s own 1965 translation).
  • Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862 (Christine Donoghue’s 2015 translation).
  • All the books in The Small Book Club, so far.
  • When reading Les Misérables i was constantly getting lost (partly because of the ridiculous way Kindle eBooks are organised, it should be said. Thanks Jeff) so I – seriously – made a spreadsheet listing all 365 chapters so I could tick them off. It’s public. You’re welcome.
  • Margaret Lockwood loves Nabokov.
  • You can get this stuff on Goodreads.
  • And if you’re going to tackle Ulysses, do yourself a favour – own the book obvs but listen to the sublime audiobook, read by peerless Jim Norton (Bishop Whatsisname from Father Ted) and an uncredited (also peerless) woman for the Molly bit.

Offset

Grey-painted window frames courtyard at Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Geometric pattern of windows and wall panels creates abstract image. Bright orange panel on opposite wall is a highlight
Grey-painted window frames courtyard at Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Geometric pattern of windows and wall panels creates abstract image. Bright orange panel on opposite wall is a highlight
Grey-painted window frames courtyard at Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Geometric pattern of windows and wall panels creates abstract image. Bright orange panel on opposite wall is a highlight

More like this on old-school photo-sharing site Flickr. And, incidentally, I’ve been sharing my pics to Flickr for twenty years, which is making my head spin a bit. Still the only place that gives me the control I like over metadata, privacy and ownership, though. Seems crazy that Flickr still has essentially no competition, even from the brilliant, AI-assisted Google Photos and Apple iCloud.

Three films that are not one hundred years old

My Substack newsletter is called GROSS. I’m writing about all the top-grossing films since 1913 – but I’ve made an exception for the new year and reviewed three films from 2023.

I feel like I want subscribers to know that I occasionally watch a modern film. Normal service will resume with the next movie, 1931’s biggest hit the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein OMG.

(What you’ll get from GROSS is plain-language film reviews with some political, cultural and economic context – a materialist critique of the immaterial joys of the movies)

Animated gif from 2023 film May December. In the foreground Julianne Moore as Gracie. Over her shoulder her Natalie Portman as Elizabeth approaches

May December – never mind the quality, feel the width

Everyone loves this one. It’s in all the best-of-year lists. So you’ll probably disagree but I found it impossible to get past the acting. I mean there’s so much of it. So much in fact that the film turns in on itself and becomes hard to watch – involuted, hyper-ironic. By the time we got to the bit where one of the actors is acting the role of the actor acting the role of the real person who’s actually acted by one of the other actors, I’d essentially lost my grip on reality and found myself just randomly acting in my own house. And I’m not an actor. I understand this excess of acting may be some kind of second-order acting gag. That I might be supposed to laugh at all this acting and acting-upon-acting, that it’s a kind of actors’ in-joke. Actors laughing at themselves for all the acting. Sorry, I cannot.

Animated gif from 2023 film The Creator. Madeleine Yuna Voyles as AI robot Alpha-O/Alphie turns her head

The Creator – geopolitics in the future is hilarious and stupid

I honestly wanted to like this one. The grand imagery is persuasive, the central robot character is charming. But I ultimately couldn’t handle the ton-weight of Vietnam War analogies (and the grating analogies for American folly in general). My Lai, wartime Saigon, Abu Ghraib, Shock and Awe, Kilgore in his chopper, the highway of death, a kind of Cheney-McNamara hybrid, the Vietcong and the NVA, Condoleezza Rice, a traumatised vet with a grudge. They’re all here. And American policy in the movie seems to be essentially a Kissinger-inspired illegal bombing campaign. It’s a neocon-end of history clusterfuck. American imperial stupidity and solipsism projected forward 40 years.

The future world (we’re in the 2060s) seems to have been divided up using something resembling Orwell’s old map – the ‘New Asian Republic’ is the embodiment of the various paranoid Westen ‘Greater China’ fantasies – it seems to take in a large part of the Continent.

The story’s laboured AI parable is hardly less grating. The film wants us to believe that all the American corporate AI hysteria of the present day evolves into a lethal and deceptive military-industrial conspiracy (not, in itself, implausible). And that this machine is intent on destroying the benign AI settlement arrrived at in New Asia – where robots and humans (and ‘simulants’) co-exist happily, working in rice paddies and robot factories in happy mixed crews. In one establishing scene, a subtitled villager, about to be mown down by a stupid American special forces grunt, shouts something like “you can’t fight AI, it’s evolution!”

In fact, the stupidity and wickedness of the American forces is a theme. The squad sent to recover ‘the weapon’, a device thought to have world-ending power, is so inadequate as to be laughable. At one point, a distracted sergeant and ‘the new guy’ (our equally distracted hero, a human who has sympathy for the AIs because he’s going out with one) are left to recover it from an underground mega-vault. The sergeant is soon dispatched, of course.

Meanwhile, the weapon (actually a cute child-robot hybrid engineered to end all weapons) and our hero basically wander off. This happens multiple times. Vast American resources, er, miss the target, fall into the sea, get blown up by their own bombs (later on we learn that the destruction of Los Angeles – blamed on the AIs – that triggered all this argie-bargie in the first place might even have been American nuclear ‘human error’ – by this point we are not surprised).

I can’t tell if this focus on American incompetence is a deep critique of US military hubris or a cheap way to advance the story. You could easily decompose The Creator’s script into a series of material errors – oops – each of which terminates a scene and sets up the next. It’s mechanical. I won’t tell you how the film ends. I think you can probably work it out. It might be a metaphor for Taiwan or Ukraine or ChatGPT or Elon Musk or something.

Animated gif from 2023 animated film The Boy and the Heron. Frogs climb over a boy

The Boy and the Heron – dark swansong

It’s Miyazaki Hayao’s twelfth feature as a director (and his first in ten years). Most people had assumed he’d retired. If it were a live action film it would be in the horror section. Large parts of the movie, especially the middle section, take the form of an arbitrary sequence of inexplicable events, structured like a dream – a nightmare, in fact. In the cinema where I saw it people were laughing at the giant parakeets. This was a nervous reaction. The parakeets are terrifying and obviously the product of a nightmare (I read that they stand for the fascist bootboys of the wartime regime in Japan).

Likewise the bitter little old man who’s somehow lodged inside the beautifully-drawn heron of the title and the endless corridor of randomly numbered doors (I’m pretty sure I’ve had that dream) and the series of portals linking one unlikely location with the next and the ravenous pelicans and the long corridor that ends in a bright light and the tiny wooden dolls and the spooky stacking stones and the frightening avatar for the hero’s dead mother who haunts the film (and don’t get me started on the frogs).

And this nightmare is a profound one that begins in the trauma of a child’s experience of fire bombing. The war is present – floating embers and fierce flames recall the raid that killed our hero Mahito’s mother and we see the the fighter plane parts that his boorish father’s factory makes – fighter plane cockpit farings inexplicably shipped hither and thither on donkey carts – themselves from a bad dream.

We’re in a recognisably Ghibli world – the gorgeous clouds, the fields, the steam trains, the cute Datsun. But this is not Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. The boy is on his own (his father’s a bore), the characters he meets are more likely to mean him ill than to help. Chaos and confusion are not resolved. It’s a dark and disorienting world. This one’s going to be with me for a while.