Dudes in the woods

Robin Hood is a Mediaeval superhero. He doesn’t care much about emancipation, but he loves to skip through the trees.

Gross is every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed.


Banner graphic for GROSS - DOuglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in silhouette at an arched window. The word 'GROSS' and the year 1922 are overlaid

There’s something cynical about this film. It’s as if it knew it was going to be the first in a multi-decade franchise, as if it knew it was likely to create the template for the action hero; leaping, laughing and slapping entitled aristocrats and bureaucrats around with gusto. Wikipedia calls Fairbanks’ Robin Hood an “…acrobatic champion of the oppressed” which accurately expresses the balance of his interests – his vibe.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the content of this movie. It’s a genuine epic – one of the most expensive movies of the era with a huge cast and elaborate, beautifully-detailed sets and the action is joyful and often breathtaking, with really good slapstick elements that must have had audiences in stitches.

But the storytelling’s pedestrian and – with the possible exception of Sam De Grasse as brooding, bitter falcon-botherer Prince John – the acting’s unevolved. Wallace Beery throws his head back in Kingly laughter and/or fury so often I fear he must have done permanent damage to his poor neck (he was a big star, he probably had access to a full-time neck therapist back in his trailer, though).

Levelling up

Of course, what’s interesting about Robin Hood is the economics. Seriously. Is Robin an expropriative socialist? A liberal redistributionist? An effective altruist? None of the above, obviously. In this version, Robin’s an aristocrat – a feudal lord gone off the rails. He steals bags of coins and throws them randomly into crowds. This is not a planned economy. It’s levelling-up as jape. He returns from his crusade a reformed baron – a merry prankster, really – and then laughs his way around Sherwood, winning hearts and minds with his arbitrary largesse.

In this role, Fairbanks defines one end of the Robin Hood character spectrum. He’s the big-hearted if haphazard philanthropist. It’s all jumping through windows, roughing up countless chain-mail squaddies and swinging from vines (yes, vines). He overcomes the cruelty (and there is some surprising cruelty – torture, whipping, hanging…) of Prince John by means of a series of joyful flashmobs. And his generosity is that of a child – “what use do I have for money? I live in the woods!”

Yes, Magna Carta

We’re a long way from the brooding latter-day Hollywood Robin Hoods who are basically comic-book toughs – rugged individualists in Lincoln green. In Ridley Scott’s 2010 version, from right at the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe hacks his way across a hostile England with no apparent interest in the welfare of the peasantry. His Robin Hood is a big-picture guy, not a skipping-through-the-woods guy and the director dramatically and implausibly inserts him into history: he somehow contributes to the drafting of Magna Carta: (you have do this in a kind of Irish-Scottish-geordie accent for the full Russell Crowe effect) “If your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of liberties, allowing any man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from conviction without cause or prison without charge…” Achievement unlocked.

In the folklore Robin is always a yeoman – a small farmer – stripped of his land and driven into the forest. In later accounts he’s upgraded. He becomes a fallen aristocrat, acquiring the kind of glamour that’s necessary in the movies – usually just back from the crusades but unfairly robbed of his estates, sharing the woods with vagabonds and freedmen. In the middle-ages this class of landless commoner was a major threat to the dominance of the feudal lords.

The idea of an entirely free man – anonymous, unbound, without loyalty to any lord or parish – was terrifying to the elite. Landless men were harassed, imprisoned, transported, classified as vagabonds, criminalised. Harsh local laws kept the landless to the worst of the marginal land or moved them on all together. Later a law was introduced: “…that all Rogues, Vagabonds, and Beggars do on every Sabbath-Day repair to some Church and Chappel, and remain there soberly and orderly, during the time of Divine-Worship.” – a recognisable example of an authoritarian law that’s presented as a benign improvement – in this case to the observation of the Sabbath. The disciplinary yoke was tight, even at the margins.

For the aristocrats Robin of Sherwood is worse – he’s a freedman who commands the loyalty of others – of a private army, in fact. Essentially the ultimate threat to the peace and wealth of the owner class – Robin thrives outside the baronial economy and beyond the parochial pale. He ridicules the feudal status quo and must thus be chased around, fought and expelled from polite society.

Feudalist realism

But Robin is no freedom-fighter, he represents no challenge to the system and offers no alternative. He’s not a lollard or a leveller, not a utopian. He’s just a guy. A dude. He stages incursions, raids, hilarious stunts. He puts rent collectors and lieutenants in the stocks or hangs them by their braces from the trees, he liberates treasure and hands it out to the peasantry but he offers no vision of liberty or even of equity. The adjustments he makes are local, temporary, essentially trivial. Ultimately he marries with all the pomp of a prince and is accepted back into the baronial fold. Game over.

In this, of course, Robin is the model for all the movie action heroes to come – and especially for the superheroes: an over-achiever who rights wrongs, one at a time, one villain at a time. Not a liberator but a cheerful, reactionary hunk with a big heart.

  • I watched the film on YouTube. A decent print with an orchestral score. There’s a Blu-Ray.
  • You can get these reviews in your inbox over on Substack.
  • Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down is brilliant on all the vagabonds and outlaws and radicals who challenged the feudal norm at the time of the English Revolution and could be describing Robin here:
    • “Vagabonds attended no church, belonged to no organized social group. For this reason it seemed almost self-evident to Calvinist theologians that they were ‘a cursed generation’. Not till 1644 did legislation insist that rogues, vagabonds and beggars should be compelled to attend church every Sunday. Such men were almost by definition ideologically unmotivated: they could steal and plunder, but were incapable of concerted revolt.”
  • Wallace Beery, our Richard I, is probably the most interesting (and ghastly) person in the film, although now largely forgotten. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson calls him “the most notable example of the ugly, stupid, boorish man who was as successful in films as heroes or lovers.” This is the feature that made him a big star. The following year there’d be a sequel: Beery’s character was promoted to lead and Robin was gone all together. Between 1914 and 1916, in a series of shorts, he’d played Sweedie, a comic maid, in drag – a character he’d brought with him from vaudeville. On the Sweedie films he met and quickly married a 17 year-old Gloria Swanson – their marriage soon failed and in her autobiography she accuses him of brutally raping her. He’s a footnote in the second volume of scabrous and brilliant Hollywood Babylon – Kenneth Anger calls him, characteristically. “a turd of a toad” – and he was a drinking buddy of gangster Lucky Lucciano. He not only survived the transition to sound but dominated the new form and his highly-lucrative contract with MGM (which lasted for 20 years) made him the world’s highest-paid actor in the early-thirties. Beery made perhaps 200 films and worked until the year of his death in 1949.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

Learning from old movies

GROSS is my first Substack thing. It’s film reviews, which I hope are funny and interesting and unpretentious.

Logo for Substack newsletter Gross, with an image from The word 'GROSS' in an old-fashioned gothic face is at the left-hand end and a still from 1917 Mary Pickford film The Poor Little Rich Girl at the right-hand end

It’s also my personal low-effort way to learn about the whole span of cinema history. I’m watching every top-grossing film since 1913 and writing them up in a Substack newsletter.

I’ve been doing it for a couple of months now. It’s my Saturday morning treat (like when I was nine or something). I’ve learnt a few things:

  • If I’m honest I was expecting the early part of the journey to be a bit tiresome. I expected to encounter a lot of fairly primitive storytelling from back at the beginning – flat scenes, static cameras, theatrical mugging. This did not happen. Almost everything I’ve watched so far has been in some way impressive or interesting or beautiful – ambitious works, full of love for the form.
  • I expected that for some of these films I wouldn’t find much to say, that they might be entertaining, even beautiful, but not particularly interesting. Also not true. Every one of them has been a jewel of history, culture, politics and technology. Every one brings with it a mind-expanding context, even the really teeth-grindingly awful ones. This horrible, callous 1920 Cecil B. DeMille picture, for instance, tells us so much about morality in the twenties, advances in movie-making tech and about the fate of the big silent stars as sound arrived.
  • I’m also learning about the complex and influential stars of the period – Mary Pickford (the first America’s sweetheart), Mabel Normand (the greatest movie comic you’ve never heard of), Gloria Swanson (the star everyone just called ‘Gloria’) and about the emerging grammar of performance and stardom.
  • I’m surprising myself every week with just how technologically advanced these movies were, just how bold and creative the technicians and creatives behind them were. The jaw-dropping electronic surveillance storyline in 1913’s Traffic in Souls, the vastly ambitious underwater tech developed for 1916’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the imaginative play with light and dark in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Nothing here is small or unambitious – everything is grand and overreaching.
Black and white film stills of Mabel Normand, film comic and director of the silent era and Vladimir Lenin, revolutionary and leader of the Soviet state
Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

Anyway, sign up on Substack and you’ll receive updates about once a week and you can log in to the website to read all the earlier posts. It’s all going to be free until there’s some kind of audience breakthrough or until I develop a spine. Please tell the film fans in your life about GROSS.

  • I’m relying on a couple of lists of top-grossing films for this exercise. This one and this one. Neither is very reliable (and they seem to disagree) but I think that’s okay. The stakes are low.
  • Here’s a Letterboxd list, where I’m logging all the movies I watch.

Chaps in trouble

We’ve got to 1919. The officer class over-reaches itself and gets stuck on the ice. It’s a disaster but it all works out in the end.

Every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed. Part seven.


It’s not an adventure, most of the really dramatic events are missing, there’s far too much penguin footage and we never get to know any of the main characters – but it’s an astonishing document of Ernest Shackleton’s catastrophic 1914 expedition to the South Pole anyway.

The record we have of this wildly unsuccessful mission and the truly heroic recovery orchestrated by its leader only exists because of the photographer sent along on the boat. Frank Hurley was already an Antarctic veteran when he signed on for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, so he knew something of what to expect.

He took with him a huge amount of absolutely state-of-the-art kit – in the present day he’d have taken crates of drones and GoPros and some kind of virtual reality rig. Everything would have been 8K for the IMAX release (there’d have been a partnership with Apple or the BBC). Hurley’s kit included his bulky ‘cinematograph machine’, a chunky 6-3/4 x 8-1/2″ plate camera and some smaller Kodak cameras, along with various lenses, tripods, and chemicals to process the film.

When Endurance finally sank, Hurley found himself wading into the icy slush that was filling the ship to rescue his exposed plates. And it gets worse: later he had to leave most of his work behind – smashing hundreds of precious glass negatives on the ice so he couldn’t change his mind about which ones to keep. That anything at all survived the arduous journey home and that we have this film to watch is another tribute to Hurley – he seeled his exposed motion picture film and all those glass plates into a tin can and soldered it shut for the journey across the ice and the Southern Ocean.

Four sepia-toned stills from 1he 1914 Shackleton film South. From top left to bottom right: Ernest Shackleton, leader of the expedition; Captain of the Endurance Captain F. Worsley, Lieutenant J. Stenhhouse, Captain of the Ross Sea vessel Aurora; Captain L. Hussey, mateorologist and banjo player

Right at the beginning of this film we meet these four sepia-toned gents. Shackleton himself, the already-famous polar explorer and leader of the expedition to cross the Antarctic (at top left) and three of his senior crew. These gorgeous, fine-grained portraits (made nearly 110 years ago) promise an encounter with the upper-class adventurers aboard Endurance. We’re set up to meet the insouciant officer class tested in the cold. But it never happens.

Hurley wasn’t a storyteller. He had no script and only a reluctant cast. Locations were provided for him by the unfolding disaster of the expedition. He was there to make a high-tech document of the triumphant high-tech crossing of the Antarctic and he plugged on, as the mission collapsed, as the beautiful ultra-modern vessel they relied on was trapped in the ice and gradually destroyed. He created some of the most memorable images of the most forbidding landscape on earth and, incidentally, a record – although a frustratingly incomplete one – of the epic human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness that brought all 28 members of Shackleton’s mission out of the wilderness two years later.

Photographer Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance
Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance

But there’s no story here. The laughing, officer-class chaps in the picture (with their fabulous upper-class teeth) are never this close to the camera again. Nor are the other ranks below them for that matter. Shackleton is seen occasionally, usually shouting instructions from an ice hummock (we learn what an ice hummock is) or through a megaphone from the top of the main-mast. Early on, before the catastrophe, we see lots of charming footage of the crew caring for the 70 sled dogs kept on-board (I’ll leave you to figure out what happened to the dogs after everything had gone wrong) and there’s evidence of a tough work regime on the ship and on the ice.

Early in the film there’s an intertitle that basically gives the game away, though, telling us what we need to know about the recklessness of the upper-class adventurers who brought all this about. It accompanies some amazing footage of a huge pod of seals sailing, let’s face it, in the opposite direction. It says:

Intertitle reads: A phenomenal sight - migration of Crab-eater seals. They knew by instincer that an abnormal season was coming and flocked North to warmer waters before the sea froze over.

So we learn that, on the way in to the ice chaos of the Weddell Sea, these pig-headed Englishmen were actually warned by the locals and yet they carried on, on into the inescapable bay.

Later it’s mostly hard yakka on the ice as the crew try first to rescue their ship and then, as it breaks up and sinks, to rescue themselves. There’s footage of the crew’s increasingly desperate efforts to rescue what they need from the listing and sinking Endurance and they try out a kind of high-tech prototype skidoo but, an intertitle explains, ‘it proved entirely unsatisfactory’. The dogs tumble down to the ice on a tight-stretched sail like passengers escaping an airliner down one of those emergency slides.

So, in narrative terms, it’s kind of a mess, but the film is never less than absolutely engaging. It’s so beautifully filmed – Hurley was an instinctive image-maker and was using an up-to-date camera and the best lenses money could buy. He processed his 35mm film using the Paget process, which applies the various lovely tints we see throughout. God knows how he managed all this on board the Endurance (amazing shots exist of Hurley – on another Antarctic mission – washing his film during processing by trailing a frame in the freezing ocean!).

And he was brave – watch this clip showing the Endurance’s solid Norwegian-made bow cutting through the ice and think about how that shot was obtained, then wait for the end of the clip and you’ll see how. Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera. He would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Others called him ‘the mad photographer’ (he went on to be a famous war photographer and is known today for assembling composite images from multiple negatives to achieve the drama he was seeking).

The wildlife footage is good (and it must have been startling for audiences five or six decades before the first Attenborough epic) and would have made a delightful secondary storyline if the expedition had succeeded. As it is, the long sequence of penguins and sea lions at the end is a confusing distraction from the action we know had gone on but see nothing of.

The expedition’s escape from the ice is one of the great 20th Century adventure stories and it involved an 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean in a hastily adapted open lifeboat (these guys named everything – huts, piles of snow, desolate camps – so this boat was called the James Caird after one of the mission’s sponsors). Hurley had to stay behind with the main part of the crew on the wildy inhospitable Elephant Island (they named their hideout under a glacier Camp Wild), so we see nothing of what must have been one of the most remarkable journeys ever undertaken. As a result the film ends in anticlimax and we have to imagine the excitement and the privations of that voyage. Likewise the four separate attempts to rescue the men left behind and Shackleton’s canny begging and deal-making with the Chilean authorities to secure the ships to do it. But there’s something profound about this giant gulf in the story, something essentially emotionally correct – properly tragic – about missing out the trauma – frostbite, hunger, anger and fear – that must really be the heart of this story.

I wanted class-war on the ice, a story about the collision of the modern and the implacable wilderness, a parable of officer-class hubris and bloody-minded courage. I got none of this but the film is glorious anyway – and gives us a preview of a whole new genre of wildlife and habitat storytelling, of filmmakers and adventurers working together to make entertainment, that these days seems to eat up most of our Sunday evenings in front of the box.

  • South is not, you won’t be surprised to learn, the actual top-grossing film of 1919. That was a Lon Chaney organised crime drama called The Miracle Man, which looks like a blast but is now considered lost. South’s listed gross of  $46,865 would have made it a pretty big deal in Britain, though.
  • The astonishing 1999 restoration of South is on the BFI Player (so you can get it on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to the BFI Channel).
  • Ernest Shackleton was nothing if not an officer and a bit of a prig. After their extraordinary escape from the wilderness he withheld medals from four crew-members he labelled as insubordinate or workshy during the expedition, including one heroic figure who was central to the whole effort and accompanied Shackleton on the epic voyage to South Georgia, Harry McNish.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • This is the top-grossing list from which I get South’s gross income.

This review turned into a disquisition on underwater storytelling

This adaptation of Jules Verne’s great submarine romance was the top-grossing film of 1916and it wasn’t even the first movie version

A poster for 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A huge octopus wraps its tentacles around a circular image of captain Nemo and crew members. Two divers, one on each side of the poster, wear old-fashioned diving helmets

UPDATE, 11 October 2023. I found an absolutely gorgeous restoration of 20,000 Leagues, also on YouTube. Watch that one instead of the horrible one linked below!

The project continues. I’m watching the top-grossing movies of every year since 1913. I’m up to 1916 and it’s a vastly ambitious (and ruinously expensive) Jules Verne adaptation.

Look, it’s not a great film – in many ways it’s horrible – but it’s a landmark in all sorts of ways, not least because of these two lads.

The Williamson brothers – what a pair of sorts

The Williamson Brothers, George and Ernest – “who alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography” it says in a card at the beginning of the film – had invented a way to shoot under water (it was based on a patented invention of their father’s). It took them years to perfect it – by the time this project came around they’d shot tens of thousands of feet of film under water and released two or three one-reelers of their own using the kit in 1914 and 1915, to the amazement of audiences everywhere. This film, an early Universal production, was directed by Brit Stuart Paton, but this is really the Williamsons’ movie.

These guys are the Douglas Trumbull or George Lucas of their era – geeks who love film. The little video at the top is from the opening credits of the movie, which tells you something about their status in the project – not mere technicians. There’s a real commitment to the new tech here. The Williamsons knew that audiences were eager for new sensations and ownership of a whole new category – stories set beneath the waves – might make them some serious money. They developed a slightly unhinged, multi-year obsession with making it work. I’d like to know more about the Williamsons and suspect there’s a pretty good film in their inventiveness and their lunatic drive – perhaps made by the Coen Brothers.

A page from a 1913 Scientific American explaining the operation of the Williamson brothers' underwater filming aparatus in a series of eight photographs

The Williamson method involved a patented 30-foot long, collapsible tube (“a portable hole in the ocean“, they called it) with an iron chamber at the bottom end of it. The chamber was cranked down into the water with a camera operator crouching inside it, presumably praying the studio’s insurance was up to date (some accounts of the tech suggest it was all done with mirrors – which seems to be untrue. The detail here is pretty convincing). Specially developed film stock meant the Williamsons could achieve an exposure of 1/50th of a second, making shooting moving pictures perfectly feasible at 16 frames per second. The operator used a conventional camera and shot the undersea world through a thick glass window. No one had to get wet and no special cameras were needed. Scenes were shot in shallow, sunlit water so lighting wasn’t needed – The effect is impressive – and must have been mindblowing in a darkened cinema in 1916. Huge sharks, schools of smaller fish, a reef and a ship wreck are all seen with amazing clarity.

Look! Sharks!

The way the great sharks in particular circulate in the dappled light of the shallows and then loom menacingly out of the haze is beautiful and chilling. The intertitles use the language of the unmotivated shark attack, man-eaters, killing machines, suggesting that the irrational fear of these beasts long pre-dates Jaws – a whole new genre of fiction is proposed right here.

Later in the film, scenes are shot on the sandy bottom as if on a studio soundstage. Actors (stunt performers?) in big diving suits are directed in an awkward analogue of the dry-land process. Shooting began almost 40 years before the invention of scuba diving so these are not the diving scenes we’re all familiar with now in which actors move naturally, oriented parallel to the surface, kicking to achieve smooth motion and exploring with the freedom of a baracuda or an eel.

So the undersea action doesn’t take place in the magical unanchored world of the water column, with free movement in all directions. It all takes place in the two-dimensional setting of the sea bottom. Motion is achieved by literally walking from mark to mark (in weighted boots). Everything’s basically shifted sideways (and down a bit) to the bottom of the ocean.

Meanwhile, Paton’s artful adaptation of the Jules Verne – he blends the storylines from the original book and its sequel ‘The Mysterious Island’ and develops Nemo’s Indian Prince back-story. Also, balloonists from the Union Army, escaping a civil war ambush, crash on the island (I kid you not). There’s a strange and unsettling sequence where a ‘child of nature’, played by Jane Gail, who was already a big star (and was in 1913’s top-grossing Traffic in Souls, which I reviewed here) is bothered by various boorish and/or murderous blokes until we learn that she is actually Nemo’s daughter and the story begins to resolve itself in the standard melodramatic way. In one bizarre scene, Gail, blacked-up and wearing an inexplicable leopardskin shift, is shown how to wear trousers and a nice white shirt. She quickly takes to the new duds.

A man tries to explain clothing to a woman dressed in a leopard skin shift
Your arm goes in here

There’s much in Verne’s stories about Imperialism, liberty and self-determination. Nemo flees India after an unsuccessful uprising against British rule, he sacrifices all for the liberty of the undersea world. I can imagine a viable, low-budget remake – a festival hit with a post-colonial technofuturist vibe. Nemo was transposed, between the first book and the second, from Polish to Indian. Might he be further transposed to the role of undersea warrior for the Global South? A deep-sea superhero with an agenda?

In this film, which simplifies the geopolitics, let’s face it, the freedom idealised is not the ideal of the book’s French Republican author or even the dippy 20th Century freedom of the nature-worshipping scuba diver but the purposeful freedom of the 19th Century adventurer-explorer – conquering an unknown terrain by just walking off into it with a gun (the divers carry weapons that look like Winchester rifles from a cowboy film – we learn they’re powered by compressed air). There’s a hunting scene in which Nemo and his amazed guests stalk sharks in the manner of big game hunters on safari.

The unconstrained motion, the fish-like propulsion and the elegant forward movement of a scuba diver would have seemed weird, alienating, to audiences in 1916, as these straight-backed hunters walking the underwater range seem odd to us. If you studied the way the undersea imaginary in the movies has evolved since this film you’d presumably locate some kind of pivot – from ungainly and upright to elegant and unconstrained – in the motion of cinematic divers. But when did it occur? 1930s? WW2? Jacques Cousteau’s 1960s’? And was there a resistance to the idea that divers ought to set aside humanity’s pretty well-established bipedal mode for the swishing to-and-fro of a lower species? We’re used to it now but is there something fishy and inhuman about the movement of a scuba diver?

Pioneer scuba diver and documentary-maker Jacques Cousteau under water in a scuba diving suit
Cousteau doing his thing

20,000 Leagues wasn’t the first film set on a submarine. Interest in undersea adventures and submarine warfare was heightened by the first world war, in which both allied and German forces had used terrifying, high-tech submarines. Only a year before this film was released, 1,200 people had died when a German U-boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

An illustration showing the sinking ot the ocean liner RMS Lusitania - the ship has just been struck by a torpedo and is listing dramatically to starboard. Passengers on deck are clinging to rails.

Shipping was under constant attack from the huge German submarine fleet which treated all trans-Atlantic shipping as a legitimate target. These events must have been present to cinemagoers everywhere. A submarine was a source of wonder and of dread – the autonomous drone of its day. A marauding agent of hypermodern maritime destruction (30% of the world’s merchant fleet was sunk by German U-boats during the war).

Appropriately Nemo’s submarine is run on naval lines, uniformed sailors salute and parade on the top deck (they wear a natty oversized floppy beret). The elements of the submarine narrative are all already here: hatches and airlocks, bulkheads, valves and dials. Ratings rush hither and thither with messages. There’s a periscope and a realistic torpedo room and a shiny steel torpedo (carefully polished by the crew before launch).

Illustration of the submarine Nautilus from the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The 1954 Nautilus was a pretty grand vessel

But this Nautilus is not really Verne’s fabulous, exotic vessel and definitely not the buttressed undersea gothic cathedral of the 1954 Disney film (this is the adaptation that’s meaningful to people of my generation – it was a fixture at Saturday morning pictures throughout my childhood). For the 1916 film a working (but non-submersible) submarine was built. It’s impressive but it’s basically a cigar-shaped boat.

The submarine Nautilus, a life-sized vessel built for the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, on a calm sea. On the top deck a group of five me stand around.

And it’s not grand – the only concession to Nemo’s flamboyance is a saloon draped with fabrics and hung with artefacts from his past as an Indian prince (Allen Holubar, who plays Nemo, is, uncomfortably, blacked up for the role and brings a kind of Santa Claus meets Jack Sparrow energy). Nemo’s saloon is also the location of the big, round observation window at which his guests gather to watch the action outside.

And speaking of action outside, the other dramatic centrepiece of Verne’s book – the battle with the terrifying giant octopus that threatens to envelope Nautilus and swallow it whole – is here rendered as a – frankly pathetic – man-sized flapping rubber toy, something from Spongebob Squarepants – apparently controlled from the inside by an operator (and also patented by the Williamsons – these guys were the Jobs and Wozniak of silent cinema).

The movie may have cost $500,000 – enough to make a pretty professional narrative film even in the present day (almost five times the budget for D.W. Griffiths’ 12-reel epic The Birth of a Nation, released in the previous year) – but it lacks the intoxicating strangeness of the original. It’s a technological testbed for production methods that would one day become routine but it’s also a clumsily-told story and a cheesy orientalist fantasy. Performances are never better than routine and mis-en-scène is awkward and flat (although I reckon this might be more to do with the essentially impossible challenge of matching the interior narrative sequences with the sensational stuff going on through the big window out on the sea bottom). Poor Stuart Paton.

A cheesy romance, a seaside class-war, a vehicle for the biggest female star of the time

The actual top film of 1914 was an epic 23-part serial called The Million Dollar Mystery, which it turns out is lost (how do you lose 46 reels of smash hit movie history, I find myself wondering?). So, I watched the second-highest-grossing film of that year instead.

Black and white photo of actor Mary Pickford, sad and barefoot, sitting on the floor of her shanty home in the 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country

You’ll definitely like Tess of the Storm Country, but only because of absolutely magnetic Mary Pickford – in feisty waif mode, right at the centre of it – owning the whole thing really. She’s surrounded in this cheesy melodrama by many big slabs of men, implausible blocks of motion picture timber – all tragically rendered exactly identical (apart from their hats) by Pickford’s brilliance.

Three male characters from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country, including, at right, the film's villain, a miserable capitalist called Deacon Elias Graves, who is joyfully reading the text of a law he's just had passed that will make life harder for the landless squatters on his beach-front land

They are either utterly unconvincing landless fishermen or slightly-more-convincing heartless landowners. The miserable, small-town capitalists involved live in the big house above the beach and resent the presence of the squatters below. The film was shot in Santa Monica and Del Mar, so this could literally be the house that Robert De Niro seemed so unattached to in Heat.

Robert De Niro, in silhouette, looks out of over the ocean from his modernist apartment in Michael Mann's film Heat

Of course, this big house is really a classic bourgeois pile, with a columned entrance and a carriage drive, indicating prosperity and respectability (surely demolished and replaced a dozen times since). It menacingly overlooks the strand where the fisherfolk’s makeshift camp cowers.

Two hefty gamekeepers holding a gun menace a fisherman they've detained on a rocky beach

Doing the actual menacing, down there in the lower, realm close to the sea, are various thugs in heavy suits – they are gamekeepers – circulating authentically, armed and dangerous, on the beach and in the squatters’ camp. In the exalted upper section of the narrative swooning ladies in hats and some callow students are also present. The intermixing of these two realms becomes a plot point.

The Great Train Robbery’s famous final shot

Tess of the Storm Country was directed by Edwin S Porter, a veteran who’d made his name with the extraordinary The Great Train Robbery. Pickford, who by this time was already essentially co-directing the films she was in, was unhappy with his old-fashioned ways. The Great Train Robbery was the absolute state of the art when it came out. But that was over ten years earlier and the haphazard, static, flat scene-making we see here was already very out-of-date.

The story is flat too, based on a best-selling news-stand romance by Grace Miller White. Pickford apparently disliked the crudity of this standard-issue morality tale – featuring the staples of the era’s melodramas: dignity in poverty, illegitimacy and extra-marital sex, love between classes, murder and a wrongly-convicted man. Hypocricy in authority also makes an appearance. She recognised a hit when she saw one, though, and signed on without further objection.

TV mobster Tony Soprano smokes a cigar in his swimming pool. He looks menacingly at the camera
Conflicted plutocrat

In movies of this period the wealthy could still be depicted as unproblematically wicked. These are not the ‘complicated’ villains of later eras, nor the conflicted plutocrats or tormented mobsters of post-depression or neoliberal America. These are simply capitalist thieves, exploiters of the vulnerable. In this film (as in others of the period) our principle villain, the head of the wealthy family at the top of cliffs, literally whips Pickford’s character Tessibel.

Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) collapses, whipped by wicked businessman Elias Graves (William Walters). A distressed woman enters from the rear to try to stop him

It’s wooden but sometimes it’s actually clumsy too. There’s an arresting scene where Pickford sics a (very old and gentle-looking) dog on one of her gentleman harassers. She sends the dog off out of the left-side of the frame and, bewilderingly, it arrives, barely slathering, at its victim’s location also out of the left-side of the frame. Pickford then sets off by the same filmically impossible route, arriving in time to steal her pursuer’s gun and depart, with the dog, out of the right-side of the frame.

Inter-title from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country reads, in dialect: "I know we ain't married, Ben, but yer ain't never kissed our baby since he cum."

The film was a massive hit, yielding many times its $10,000 budget. Pickford told a biographer it was “the beginning of my career.” She’d been making films for five or six years, including 75 for D.W. Griffith, so this is meaningful. It was one of the first movies to be made in the emerging Hollywood creative complex and the beaches are all Californian. The community described, though, is somewhere on the New England coast or perhaps even in the old country – the hokey dialect in the intertitles is something between West Country English and Newfoundland Irish. Or something.

A visionary work of art, a hateful apologia for slavery and Jim Crow… and a really bad film

The Birth of a Nation was the top-grossing film of 1915…

Actress Lillian Gish is at the head of a huge group of hooded KKK men in D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic film The Birth of a Nation


So I did it, I watched the whole thing. I felt obliged to, as part of my project to watch every top-grossing film since 1913 – 110 years of Summer blockbusters.

This one’s obviously different from the other films on the list. A cause célèbre, a landmark in the emergence of a new, assertive, 20th Century racism, perhaps the most famous revisionist text in history. Everything I’d ever read about The Birth of a Nation led me to believe that it was a brilliant work of art that happened to be ugly and immoral, but that’s not quite it – the film’s certainly an appalling document but, I’m now persuaded, it’s a second-rate film too.

The Birth of a Nation is obviously and in many ways a groundbreaking work – it’s the first 12-reeler (over three hours in length), it’s a complex multi-threaded narrative that sets a family drama against the epic of a country’s self-creation, it’s ambitious, self-confident and totalising.

The back-and-forth between claustrophobic living room and battlefield, rural shack and columned state capitol, tense close-up and chaotic crowd scene – is expansive and grandiloquent. The canvas is the whole history of the United States, the whole of the post-emancipation era. Griffith obviously saw himself as a Tolstoy or a Victor Hugo for the civil war and the reconstruction.

An example of the vignette technique used by D.W. Griffith in his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation - a close-up of man is seen inside an oval vignette against a black background

And the film is certainly packed with new storytelling techniques. Griffith obviously had a kind of technical intuition that’s hardly been matched since. The list of techniques we see for the first time here is long: deep-focus shots where action takes place at different depths; huge scenes in which an enormous cast is choreographed with precision; close-ups that expose character and explain motive. Montages that alternate intimate and overwhelming scale. Sets and locations are used cleverly and there’s an extraordinary sensitivity to mise-en-scène – scenes that are constructed with elaborate care at every scale.

There are breakneck moving cameras, multi-camera shots, aerial shots, mind-bending vignettes that isolate action and emotion, superimpositions and double-exposures (the bewildering final sequence that features the devil and Jesus in quick succession depends on several techniques that I feel certain are brand new).

But other aspects of the film – before we even get to its irredeemable nastiness – are odd, old-fashioned, clumsy, maddening even. Acting is uneven, stagey, 19th-Century. Performers sometimes look like they’re barely directed (especially in the big scenes). And before you argue that this is 1915, before the conventions of screen performance had solidified, contrast this film with the sophistication and subtlety of Traffic in Souls, a six-reeler that was 1913’s top grossing movie.

Still from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation - a scene recreating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Interleaved with the narrative, there are some fascinating and awkward tableaux, in which scenes from the history of the period – including Lincoln’s assassination – are carefully re-staged, with actors holding static poses for an achingly long time, before the action proceeds, absurdly. These odd, static scenes – reminiscent of tuppenny fairground dioramas – are introduced with portentous intertitles (and every card bears the prominent brand of the Griffith Studio and a big logotype, just in case we forget the source of this brilliance).

And then there’s the nastiness. Beyond the grotesque and unrelieved racism that seems almost impossible to account for even from over 100 years later, we encounter an incoherent and parochial morality, a grim misanthropy masquerading as love of people and nation. The nearest thing to politics here is a kind of domestic-scale feudalism – desperate, scrabbling, landowner revanchism. Some have tried to characterise the Ku Klux Klan idealised in the Birth of a Nation as embodying some kind of benign collectivism; community volunteers turned bad – but this theory is weak and excuses the self-conscious brutality of the group and its programmatic suppression of black people. Their Christianity – which is prominent – is a deformed, dehumanised settler creed.

And, necessarily perhaps, there’s not a single sympathetic character – no one you could think of as the film’s hero or heroine. The hundreds of black actors and extras never escape caricature – they are universally monsters or idiots. The dozens of black-face actors – some made-up in paler tones to represent ‘mulattos’, most required to produce debased or retarded or violent – form a kind of shameful battalion. Lillian Gish, one of Hollywood’s first huge stars, never less than 100% committed to the drama, is asked to yell and howl and make terrifying gestures of fear and hysteria – to embody hatred.

Silent actress Lillian Gish screams at a window in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of the Nation. In the background an actor in black-face grimaces

Griffith gives us multiple close-ups in this new style, bringing the camera as close as the optics of the period would permit – and uses vignettes to take us even closer – but the faces he asks us to contemplate are in almost every case bizarrely twisted and tormented – gurning, hysterical, weirdly sexualised, hate-filled, terrified. It’s a bizarre detail, and one I initially doubted (am I over-reading this?). Silent movies obviously require some degree of mugging, emoting, swooning, declaiming – but actors’ faces in this film are either mild and expressionless or wildly over-producing, often animalistic.

Actors are asked to make faces from a mediaeval tableau of hell. It’s one of the most striking aspects of the film, an unavoidable difficulty. The characters we come so close to and spend so much time with repel us. We leave the film indifferent to or hating Griffith’s many principle characters – even the children, even the luminous Gish.

The Birth of a Nation has spawned a whole industry of film analysis, hundreds of books and dissertations and a never-ending stream of newspaper op-eds and features, right up to the present day. When you hear a ‘debate’ about whether slavery was really that bad you’re hearing the continued influence of Griffith’s inversion of antebellum reality.

Worse, its remarkable, out-of-proportion contribution to the culture of Jim Crow reinforced segregation and probably lengthened the battle for black civil rights. At the fringes, the film continues, preposterously, to provide cover for the KKK and its culture of permanent terror. And, as a film, I want to confirm, it does not come close to redeeming itself or its creator and, in fact, is never less than horrifying and infuriating.

Monarchy: to be bothered or not to be bothered?

A night-time aerial view of the convoy of vehicles carrying the body of Queen Elizabeth along the Westway in London
The late Queen entering London via the Westway

Less than half of gen-z in Britain thinks we should keep the monarchy but mainstream politicians can’t get enough of it.

What do lefties and republicans think about the monarchy? Seems obvious, right? Off with their heads! But no, there’s some complexity here and it connects closely with the weird (almost unique on planet earth) constitutional arrangements that persist here in the archipelago.

On the left there are basically two positions on the monarchy. Not on monarchy in general — only one there really — but on Britain’s actually existing monarchy, the Crown-Constitutional Parliamentary state that’s been locked in here since the 17th Century.

In position one, the monarchy is an unequivocally, catastrophically bad thing—a major impediment to meaningful popular sovereignty and an aspect of Britain’s backward machinery of state. Britain’s monarchy, in this view, is a vital contributor to the country’s long-term decline, solidified in the retreat from empire and the disastrous deindustrialisation of the post-war period.

In this perspective, identified with the British ‘New Left’ since the 1950s and developed in great detail in the pages of New Left Review by brilliant writers like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, the settlement that secured the monarchy in 1688 locked in the dominance of sclerotic aristocracy, land-owning elite and the compliant institutions that sustain them. The result is a country that, paradoxically, became a nation-state first and industrialised first but failed fully to make the transition from ancien régime to modernity, whose progress from feudalism to capitalism is still incomplete. In the New Left worldview ceremony, deference and acceptance of hierarchy have naturalised and hardened aristocratic dominance and neutralised the popular radicalism that has expanded democracy elsewhere in the capitalist world.

The other left anti-monarchist perspective, embodied these days by lefties belonging to populist or ‘realist’ strands of the tradition, is much less bothered. These anti-monarchists oppose the unelected power of the monarchy (obvs) but would probably be quite happy to leave the Windsors where they are and get on with the class war. In fact, for left-populists, the fervent opposition to the crown and its institutions embodied by that earlier generation of left-wingers is actually damaging to the cause. For them, the critics and theorists who developed the declinist narrative of the New Left—whose animating idea was that Britain is stuck in a deferential mire and can aspire only to a steady loss of status, relevance and prosperity—are a bit FBPE, a bit ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ and not least because opposing the monarchy puts them at odds these days with a clear majority of the British working class.

It’s not just the left who oppose the monarchy, of course. There’s an indignant centrist/liberal republican movement too – in fact they’ve been at it for longer and they’re more organised than the left. In the Crown’s 19th century slump it was largely Whig/Liberal radicals like Charles Dilkes who opposed the monarchy and, in the present day, the Liberal party itself still has a robust republican strand. The young Liz Truss was not alone in her vituperative opposition to the royals. See also Norman Baker’s book And What Do You Do?

The rehabilitation of the monarchy that’s taken place since the end of the 19th Century, described by Tom Nairn in his brilliant and thoroughly New Left book The Enchanted Glass, has, to put it bluntly, worked. The Crown-Parliamentary state won. In the middle ages, monarchs cowered in their palaces, derided publicly. When they ventured into the streets kings and queens were often booed, some were so often away crusading (or hunting, or carousing) they might not be known to their subjects at all.

Labour leadership and conference officials bow during a minute's silence for Queen Elzabeth at the 2022 Liverpool conference
Labour Conference 2022: national anthem at one end and Red Flag at the other

Working people who, until the early 19th Century, were suspicious of or even hostile towards royalty are, especially in the most recent decades of the Queen’s reign, mostly in favour (the numbers might be a bit different among fans of The Crown and the young, of course). Principled opposition to monarchy will just put the left in conflict with the working class and leave lefties in a very familiar position—thrashing about trying to explain why ordinary people don’t agree with them. It all begins to look a bit Remoaner/People’s Vote/Russian money.

So now, a left wing party or movement that put much energy into opposing the monarchy, that set out policies aiming at an elected head of state or even a slightly less anti-democratic settlement—one that, for instance, removed the monarch’s powers of consent to new laws—could only damage its prospects with working people. Leave the monarchs alone, lefties, they’re not worth it.

Over on Goodreads, I reviewed Nairn’s beautifully-written and highly-entertaining page-turner The Enchanted Glass which dates from the period before the annus horribilus but has two excellent forewords by the author bringing the story well into the 21st Century.

I’d go so far as to say that this is a beautiful book. Funny, angry, imaginative – an unforgiving demolition of the fantasies and self-deceptions of Britain’s backward, complacent, destructive tolerance of the invented rituals of modern royalty – the damage done to our democracy, the permanent strangulation of popular sovereignty, the narrowing of our national potential, the bleak prospect of unstoppable decline made inevitable by our unthinking acceptance of the Crown-constitutional status quo.

Published in 1988, there is absolutely nothing dated or irrelevant about this book – in fact one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the constant, startling correspondences we find between Britain towards the end of the Thatcher revolution and Britain after the Brexit revolt.

The scope of the book is not limited in any way to a critique 0f monarchy or monarchism. My understanding of Britain’s constitutional weirdness (Nairn’s wonderful name for Crown-constitutional Britain is ‘Ukania’) and the powerful parasitic grip of Britain’s social and economic elites has been so enhanced by his excoriating, wide-ranging critique of City, Crown, complacent Parliament, self-interested administrative class, complicit media elite (and so on). I feel I have a new super-power.

Nairn is a brilliant writer, his language sparkles and surprises – you’ll find yourself stopping to look up words you’ve never heard that always turn out to be perfect for the job. It’s an absolute joy – and it took me a long time to read, mainly because I couldn’t help myself from highlighting brilliant passage after brilliant passage on the Kindle (it’s a cause of immense Bezos-directed resentment that I can’t share my highlights with you because I read the book in a non-Amazon format! Sort it out Jeff!).

Nairn, who as of this review, is still with us, developed his powerful argument for the backwardness of Britain’s constitutional arrangements and for the inevitable decline of the state and the polity across his many decades as writer (and editor) at New Left Review. If you have a subscription you can read the entire archive of his writing (and of his pal Perry Anderson – also still with us – another brilliant writer with whom he worked closely) online.

Review of The Enchanted Glass, from Goodreads

I’ve been bingeing on texts about monarchy lately, for obvious reasons. I also recently read David Cannadine’s influential paper ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual : The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’ c. 1820–1977’ which is in a terrific book of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The essay, published in 1977, explains how the rituals and customs invented or updated in the 19th Century rescued Britain’s Crown from irrelevence or even obliteration in a revolution like those that wiped out the monarchies of Europe one after the other (Hobsbawm’s essay in the same book, a wider-ranging survey of the twilight of monarchy across Europe, is also worth a read).

Another good read in this context is a David Edgerton’s 20th Century history The rise and fall of the British nation, which aims to dismantle the whole declinist New Left narrative. Perry Anderson, owner but not quite sole proprietor of the declinist story, predictably enough dismantled Edgerton’s dismantling in the pages of New Left Review (you might need a subscription to read that one).

Listen to this episode of Bungacast, the podcast from the people who brought you ‘The end of the end of history‘ for a good illustration of the modern, populist left perspective on monarchy—dismissive, derisory but definitely not bothered.

Ten times the Labour party stood behind striking workers in Britain

Actually, there aren’t any. Sorry.

The story is that Labour is the only major socialist party in the world that emerged directly from organised labour—every other important party—in the USA, Germany, France Japan—was the product of an actual revolution or of a popular socialist movement. Labour founders Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had both been union leaders and many early Labour parliamentarians were well-known workplace leaders or campaigners for workers’ rights.

(note labour and Labour are used throughout, for obvious reasons).

RMT members holding banners and placards on a picket line in 2022 - photo from the RMT
RMT members on a picket line in 2022 – photo from the RMT

So there’s a logic to the statement that Labour is ‘the party of organised labour’ or ‘the Parliamentary wing of the trade union movement’. And to the reminders that it’s the unions who still largely fund the party and to the shock and upset amongst supporters when Labour’s parliamentary leadership fails to support union action or even opposes it.

His Majesty’s loyal opposition

It turns out, though, that the will of those noble and undoubtedly courageous early Labour leaders – and of their comrades at the top of the union movement – was not to win a victory for workers, to challenge or overthrow the parties of power at the time, to replace or diminish the landowner and business elites, or even to offer a pro-worker counterweight in the Commons. The will of those leaders—as of the current generation—was always to gain access, to join the club, to get their bums on the green benches and to form a polite left-hand hump to the Crown-Parliamentary camel, supplanting the previous occupants of the less-favoured benches and becoming ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’.

Sepia-toned portrait of Keir Hardie, looking directly at the camera. Labour Party founder and first leader. He sits on the edge of a small table, holding his pipe in his right hand and a handkerchief in his left.
We know what Keir Hardie would have done

This sounds cynical. I don’t mean for a moment to discount the contribution of those pioneer socialists to the pushing back of the multi-century stasis of Tory (and Whig) domination. They were responsible, after all, for the epochal introduction into an ancient elite legislature of working people. And, of course, individual Labour members have provided the backbone to countless labour disputes over the years—but it is vital to be clear-eyed about this. Labour in Parliament, from its very beginnings, was not a workers’ party and, in the present day, it’s a progressive party, a party of the Parliamentary centre-left, but it’s not a workers’ party.

So there’s nothing new or surprising in the Labour party distancing itself from the interests of working people—do you remember the grim spectacle of Neil Kinnock making a flying visit to a miners’ strike picket, right at the end of the strike and at 5 a.m. so as to miss the reporters? (Of course you don’t, it was barely recorded. See if you can find a photo. There are none). During the long strike Kinnock, the miner’s son, never supported the strikers’ aims, repeatedly called for a national ballot and didn’t once ask workers to respect NUM picket lines. It was perhaps the greatest challenge that a modernising Labour leader could possibly face—and we know that Kinnock was unhappy about the position he had to take. It became the most iconic—and relevant—statement of Labour’s labour ambivalence of the post-Thatcher era.

Going back further, almost to the origins of the party, during the First World War, Labour and the unions agreed an ‘industrial truce‘ in the national interest (Labour ministers joined both the Asquith and Lloyd George coalition governments). After the war, Labour continued to oppose all instances of labour militancy and, in the build-up to the 1926 general strike, as the climate worsened and employers tried to force through wage cuts, the Labour leadership mediated ineffectively. Ramsay MacDonald made grand speeches in Parliament, calling for reconciliation but, when the strike came, he opposed it.

Leave it to the Rotary Club

When the Jarrow crusaders marched to London ten years later they had to depend on a strange alliance of churches, rogue trade unionists and the Rotary Club for food and support along the way—the TUC and the Labour party didn’t turn up (local MP Ellen Wilkinson was a charismatic exception). 20th Century history is studded with examples like this. Even earlier, when Churchill moored a battleship in the Mersey to bring a little jeopardy to the 1911 Liverpool dockers’ strike, the Labour party, already a force in Parliament, was nowhere to be seen.

Communist founder and leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement, carried on the shoulders of supporters outside a court in London
Wal Hannington (activist Emily Rothery waving her hat in the foreground)

In the rough years between the wars there was an explosion of labour activism and confidence—in the face of the great depression, active government repression, blacklisting and a hostile judiciary. Wal Hannington’s National Unemployed Workers Movement moved mountains—organising big marches and actions all over the country. Its leadership was convicted under ancient mutiny laws and imprisoned—right at the sharp end of the workers’ struggle—but for Labour it was a bit too Communist. The party stood back. Likewise, the local councils who defied ancient, repressive laws to hold down the rates and to protect the poor did so without the support of Labour in Parliament. In 1921 dozens of Poplar councillors—mostly Labour, including future leader George Lansbury—were imprisoned for their defiance. The Party leadership opposed their action (in the nineties, you won’t be surprised to learn, Neil Kinnock scolded Labour councillors prosecuted and surcharged for not paying the poll tax).

You’re on your own, ladies
Black and white news photograph of strikers and supporters on a picket line at the Grunwick factory holding placards in West London in 1977
What we’ll do is show up on week 40 of your strike

When in government the party found it even harder to support strikers. The Grunwick workers, whose long strike was about union recognition, were defeated and humiliated while the governing Labour Party withheld support, although in scenes familiar to us now, individual MPs, including cabinet ministers, showed up at the picket line (the record shows that Shirley Williams et al waited until the strike was 40 weeks old and essentially already crushed to offer their calculated solidarity, though). The underpaid women at Ford’s Dagenham plant were left high and dry by a serving Labour government, winning only partial parity, after a long dispute, with the equally-calculated support of then Secretary of State Barbara Castle.

Castle’s own contribution to labour relations was to lay the foundations for 1974 legislation that withdrew important workers’ rights. It was this law that first introduced the requirement for strike ballots – and when the Tories introduced their own anti-union legislation in 1992 it essentially just tidied up Labour’s (the title of the act artfully just adds the word ‘consolidation’ to the name of Labour’s 1974 law). When Blair came to power he moderated but did not remove the Thatcher ‘reforms’ and actually introduced new limits on legitimate action to meet the requirements of his new backers in business and the media. His government’s 1999 legislation on union recognition had essentially been neutralised by employer lobbying by the time it was in the statute book. There was so much Third Way promise in the New Labour programme that optimists convinced themselves of an imminent renaissance for British trade unions after the 1997 landslide – of something like the enduring social settlement that had sustained growth and prosperity in post-war Germany. It didn’t happen.

Striking British postal workers on a protest parade with banners and placards in 1971

After Labour lost power in 1970 one of the biggest strikes of the entire period took place right at the heart of the state—in its very guts you might say. The now mostly-forgotten 1971 postal workers’ strike lasted for seven weeks and had overwhelming support from Post Office workers who had been almost uniquely badly-treated in the post-war period. The strike became a template for Tory government opposition to industrial actionRoyal Mail’s monopoly on delivering letters was suspended in an effort to circumvent the strike’s enormous impact. The strike ended without agreement—a dispiriting defeat. The workers were awarded a backdated 9% pay increase and some changes to working patterns after an inquiry but this didn’t even match what they’d been offered before the strike. No one was happy. Individual Labour MPs, including Tony Benn, who’d been Postmaster General under Harold Wilson in the sixties but by this point was on the back benches, supported the strike. Wilson himself, from the opposition front bench, walked a familiar line, saying that the union’s demands were not unreasonable but advocating independent arbitration by a court of inquiry. He opposed the strike.

The one big win

The extraordinary sequence of slow-downs and strikes that brought about the three-day week and the infamous powercuts in the early seventies is still the only industrial action that has ever brought down a UK government. Heath’s battle with miners and power workers was surely the high-water mark for labour activism in Britain—bringing together workers, party members and movement in a way not seen before or since. It was a highly-effective action, using modern communications to coordinate the strikes and winning significant public support for the cause. The workers won and so did Labour. The Parliamentary Labour Party, while in opposition under Harold Wilson, actually supported the pay claims of the miners (often in House of Commons debates) and, once in office, agreed two 35% pay rises for the miners in the space of two years. In the 1974 election Labour ran on a manifesto that promised to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” but did the party support the strikes that brought about their victory? What do you think?

The series of strikes we now know as the Winter of Discontent was triggered by a Labour government’s imposition of wage controla 5% cap on pay increases. The subsequent industrial action took the form of a battle between state and workers. Fascinating, of course, that the present round of disputes is, at least in principle, more diffuse, pitting workers against dozens of individual employers—many in categories that did not even exist in the last era of union militancy—but that, even in the absence of a government-imposed wage cap, the state is still profoundly present.

The next generation

In the era of apps and zero-hour contracts, the strikes, walkouts and protests by gig workers, outsourced workforces and workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’ policies might seem to offer a useful opportunity for Labour to reconnect with labour, by making an association with a new generation of workers and with an updated labour activism for the social media era—with vivid new causes that have revived support for workers in Britain, especially amongst the young. No chance.

I’m not a historian (no shit, Steve) but it’s been an instructive exercise this, searching for Labour support for striking workers over the years of its existence. For me a fascinating and quite urgent reminder that Labour’s role across the modern period has been much more about achieving and sustaining a position in the Westminster constitutional fabric—holding on to what still feels like a wobbly foothold in the institutions at all cost—than about actually transferring power to working people, or even improving their conditions of work or their pay. The choice was pretty simple: take a polite role in the ancient theatre of the Parliamentary system or work for emancipation, popular sovereignty and worker control. You know the rest.

(Can you think of a time that Labour officially supported an industrial action, in or out of office, in the party’s entire history? Leave a comment).

And my scan of the party’s history suggests that it would really be wrong to expect more from the current leadership while in opposition or in government. For Starmer to even acknowledge what looks to many like an important shift in the terms of the national argument in favour of working people and organised labour would be not only to risk a monstering from the Tory press but would also defy literally the entire institutional history of his party. He leads an establishment party that must, almost as a condition of its existence, retain an even and unsupportive distance from its own organised labour wing.

Uber drivers carry banners at a London protest. They carry banners for the IWGB union
Gig workers strike in London

The party’s establishment orientation is so durable that it comfortably survived the Corbyn insurrection, living on inside the party in the administration and the political bureacracy. The machine had the confidence to take on both leadership and membership – essentially ignoring two leadership elections – and, after almost five years, ultimately deleted the entire experiment as if it had never happened. Corbyn and his programme left essentially no trace in the party. Starmer was able to pick up essentially where his predecessor did in 2015.

So it seems obvious that Starmer, Reeves et al will not have any difficulty resisting calls to expand the reach of organised labour. Nor in finding good, sensible, tactically-savvy reasons for withholding support from strikers once they’re in power too. The difficult truth for the leadership of a progressive party in Britain is that there is literally no circumstance in which it is tactically correct to support a strike.

Let’s face it, if the Tolpuddle Martyrs were to come back to life and join the party tomorrow morning, Starmer would have issued a statement, suspended their memberships, conducted a disciplinary and kicked them out by lunchtime.

  • Many now think that the huge imbalance of power between owners and workers that’s arisen in recent decades must urgently be corrected. We know that Rachel Reeves has ambitious ideas about what she calls ‘securinomics‘, something that sounds a lot like a rebalancing, but scour the party’s web site as much as you like, you’ll find much about renewing our democracy and rebuilding the economy but no mention at all of organised labour, of unions or of union legislation.
  • Wal Hannington wrote several books. He’s a brilliant example of a phenomenon of workers’ politics in the 20th Century – a self-taught labouring man who came to speak for millions and to defy capital and the social elite. You can still find his autobiography, Never on Our Knees and other political works like this terrific pamphlet Black Coffins and the Unemployed, written for Raymond Postgate’s FACT monthly.

Competence can fuck off

I learn that Photoshop is thirty. The small revelation that goes with this information is that I’ve been using Photoshop for thirty years.

A screenshot from a very early version of Photoshop

That’s more than half of my life so far. I began using it in my twenties, at the other end of the 1990s, under Margaret Thatcher, under George H.W. Bush, before the first Gulf War, before the Internet had escaped from the Universities (before the web had escaped from that cave under Geneva).

The other revelation, the bigger one tbh, is that it’s possible for a person to spend three decades using a tool fairly regularly without ever acquiring more than the most elementary competence. I’m still a total amateur. I have no idea how to do any but the most basic tasks. Most of the tools and functions are mysterious to me. It’s a huge, deep, layered artefact — like one of those infinitely recursive mind-toys in Borges (or maybe one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects).

But there follows another revelation. That maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. That using an important tool—a vital set of practices, a complex cultural gadget—without actually mastering it, is okay. Or at least okay for me. That the constant, low-grade anxiety produced by not being very good at things—or being okay at lots of things—might be wrong, self-destructive, stupid.

Even that, for me, this might be the right way to do things: a workable strategy, an appropriate response to the complexity of the tool-world, the contemporary mess of shit that I’m supposed to learn. Maybe I should just leave perfection, competence and mastery to the deep-but-narrow types. It obviously makes some people happy to know what all the modes on this sodding thing do. Good for them. I’ll be over here, fiddling ineffectively.

Seven things I learnt from the British Library’s Magna Carta show

The British Library has a terrific, totally absorbing show about Magna Carta – which is the cornerstone of world democracy or a sort of baronial shopping list weirdly granted in a field by a King who didn’t mean it – depending on your perspective. It includes two original 1215 manuscripts and dozens of other beautiful documents. It’s not enormous but there is a lot of reading so the audio guide is worth the money. I’m not a historian – or even very bright – so I learnt a lot, like for instance:

1. Magna Carta’s actual connection to the present day is unbelievably tenuous. The whole thing was repealed a couple of months after it was agreed, the Pope (who was technically in charge at the time) rubbished the enterprise completely (which is what reluctant signatory King John wanted him to do all along) and hardly any of the charter’s provisions survive in law. That it has any influence at all should be a surprise. That it’s the central text of representative democracy and the rule of law all over the place is mind-blowing. This is how pieces of paper (parchment) become totems, people.

2. The first one isn’t the important one. Later ‘editions’ of Magna Carta, copied out by monarchs, bishops, lawyers, barons – each introducing their own variations, glosses, limitations, expansions – have been more important in the formation of law and practice. Henry III’s 1225 version is probably the most influential and the nearest to a definitive Magna Carta.

3. Magna Carta didn’t make it into print for nearly 300 years. The first printed edition was published in London in 1508 (Caxton got going in 1473) and the first English translation wasn’t printed until 1534. That’s when its influence exploded. Hardly anyone knew it existed before that – the constitution nerds and rule-of-law geeks of their day. Once it could be passed around, though, in compact printed form, its language began to be used in laws, cited in disputes with overbearing monarchs, quoted in the popular prints. So – you guessed this already – the long-term influence of Magna Carta is actually all about advances in content distribution technology.

Part of the 1689 Bill of Rights
4. The Bill of Rights of 1689 is a much more important document. It’s an actual act of Parliament to begin with, using recognisable legal language, and most of its provisions actually survive in law. It’s the Bill of Rights that we have to thank for the modern idea of ‘civil rights’. Many later documents owe a lot to the 1689 Bill of Rights – not least its American namesake (if you Google ‘Bill of Rights’ the English one doesn’t show up until page two) and the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). I’m happy to learn that the resonant phrase “certain ancient rights and liberties” is from the Bill of Rights. It’s also, incidentally, unbelievably beautiful. Whoever wrote out the original document had the most exquisite roundhand. It makes Magna Carta look shabby.

5. The Cato Street conspiracy is one intense story. And it’s got the lot: a government spy, a honey trap, a ridiculous, hopelessly bodged plan straight out of a Tarantino movie and a brutal response from the state, including the last judicial beheading to take place in England. The conspirators set out not to assassinate a statesman; they set out to assassinate all of them – the whole cabinet anyway. Their beef was, er, vague, but hinged on the oppression triggered by the wave of European revolutions that preceded it. And Magna Carta was cited in the defence when the case came to trial.

Poster for Chartist meeting, Carlisle, 1839, from the National Archives
6. The Chartists knew how to design a poster. As I said, I’m no historian but the orthodoxy is that the Chartists achieved almost nothing. They were after the vote for working men but it was decades before suffrage was extended meaningfully (and did you know that it was 1918 before all men over 21 could vote?). Fear of dissent and revolution meant the Chartists were harried out of existence before they could produce any change. But, while they were active, they were great communicators and the first movement to make really smart use of mass protest, of what we’d now call ‘the street’. This poster, which is in the National Archives, is absolutely beautiful. A vernacular letterpress masterpiece. We should all aspire to such clarity (there are others, like this one, for a meeting at Merthyr Tydvil in 1848 and this one, for a meeting in Birmingham in the same year. All lovely).

7. 1935 was the 720th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta so, unaccountably, a year before that, a great pageant was held at Runnymede, site of the signing.

Advertised as a celebration of English democracy, the pageant engaged some 5000 actors, 200 horses and 4 elephants, who over eight days performed eight historical scenes, the centrepiece being a recreation of the sealing of Magna Carta. (Apparently the elephants were withdrawn at the last minute.)

The pictures and this Pathé newsreel suggest a very English blend of eccentric and noble, camp and dignified. I’d love to have been there. This BL blog post suggests something rather splendid and rousing: ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets a BBC Four history doc.