A Stroll Among Pensions

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A pensioner counting coins is desperately trying to make them stretch a month

Those profoundly concerned by right-wing extremist rhetoric are apt to say neo-liberals are trying to take us back to feudal times. They make an ominous point. We feel the lash of neo-liberalism, particularly the vulnerable among us.

Functioning democracy has declined.

If you can stand back for  a minute you will see the UK’s growth has slowed, productivity growth has deteriorated, real wage growth has declined, even that middle-class marker of wealth, house values, has slowed or reversed in some cases, inequality has risen markedly, and except in Scotland, average unemployment has risen. Civil rights, such as the right to organise plebiscites, are challenged daily. It amounts to a disturbing pattern.

Baron bad

In England’s dark ages your local tax demand came from a baron. The baron was generally an unfriendly sort, a man with allegiance to a king and not to commoners. He took taxes and large amounts of your harvested grain stored from your toil for winter food, took livestock too. As a commoner you had no status.

In Scotland the demand for a share of your output came from your clan chief, but he distributed the money among the people of the clan, and you had status and dignity as an individual member of that same clan.

Today’s robber barons are businessmen. They still don’t pay taxes. “I should be allowed to keep what I earn,” they wail. This principle is not applied to Scotland. Democracy is sacrificed on the alter of neo-liberal progress. Scotland isn’t allowed to borrow money, nor amass debts. But we do have safety nets called pensions and welfare.

Pensions and welfare are not devolved matters.

Pensions are supposed to be protected. Criminally, funds are raided on a regular basis – to prop up ailing banks, lost on the stock market, stolen by corporate bosses for personal gain, or shifted to another company to give the impression of profitability.

Changing society by tyranny

We’re in the midst of probably the biggest if not the last neo-liberal push to reconstruct society in their image. Labour and Tory tell us there are few working class left to support, we are mostly comfortable middle-class. They aver we don’t need pensions these days, social security, or a free national health service. The threat of low pension funds is being used to destroy the welfare state which is basically sound.

We’re told the pension system will crash by 2050. Projections that far ahead are meaningless. There is so much that can alter the economy between then and now, including wars.

The new orthodoxy

Tories, privileged people who stop work at around 45 and coast the rest of their days, talk of pensions delivered at 70 not 65. Seventy is a stepping stone to 75. Everywhere is talk of reform. They mean ‘dismantle’.

A recent UK government Green Paper from a Tory committee recommends allowing small or struggling businesses to ‘cut or renegotiate’ staff pensions. A GMB (Union) spokesperson said, “Allowing schemes to break promises on pensions and raid workers’ retirement savings to cover for mistakes in the boardroom will not be music to the ears of employees. However, it will no doubt go down very well with the big business bosses who bankroll the Conservatives.”

Neo-liberals want pensions withdrawn from certain individuals, and after dumping Europe, can’t guarantee British patriots living there will receive their pensions at all.

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A good upright male citizen collecting his pension from the Post Office 1909

When did pensions begin?

Back in the day old age for the masses meant the shame of the workhouse. You were taken off to the knackers yard. Someone realised, if you donated a few pence of your monthly wages to a fund that gained interest, you could get it back on a monthly basis to assist with your old age, non-working days.

A stroll through the development of state pensions is an eye opener, with or without the aid of a Zimmer. For perspective, it should be noted the UK and USA’s Social Security systems – two lands that boast of their wealth – is one of the least generous public pension systems among advanced countries, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The first “old age” pension was introduced by a Liberal Government in 1908 not all that different from the Tory-leaning liberals with which you and I are familiar today.

Scot Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was a radical: pensions, a united Ireland, free school meals, and free trade were a few of his beliefs. He served three years and then – terminally ill – handed the baton to H.H. Asquith as Prime Minister, (Lloyd George came later) all leading a government in reform mood, but cautious about implementing anything in a universal way. The administration did abolish the Lord’s veto over Commons business, and reduced parliaments from 7 to 5 years. (Theresa May has reduced them to as short or as long as you want.) Reforms were selective.

How much were pensions?

The pension paid five shillings a week, (worth around £14 today) and 7 shillings and 6 pence to married couples. A pension at 70 sounds humane, but the gallows humour at the time of the introduction had the average life expectancy at 47.

Strings attached

The pension was only only available to men aged over 70. (Sound familiar?) You didn’t get one if you were homeless, a drunkard, had been in prison within the previous ten years, had too much furniture,  (IKEA would be shocked!) and earning more than £31. 10s a year, the 10 shillings an arbitrary sum worked up by some faceless bureaucrat.

In other words, you had to pass a character test. To pass the test of  ‘Good Character’ you generally needed to dress well, be clean and tidy, pay attention to bourgeois good manners, and know your place in society. Pretty well, how we judge a man of good character today!

Finally, you got no pension if you were in a lunatic asylum, mentally ill or not, or in receipt of “poor relief”.

From those conditions you begin to perceive where the British right-wing are aiming to take us in the 21st century.

Who dispensed the pension?

A pension application form came from the Post Office, and you also collected your pension from a local post office to avoid you being seen in lowly company, such as community poor house associations. The government cared about personal dignity.

The claims were assessed by the Pension Officers and then sent to the Local Pension Committee for approval.

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Police officers were among the first to be given a pension, women the last

Was the state pension the first pension?

Pensions specific to  categories of trades already existed. Schemes covering civil servants, teachers and police were set up in the 1890s. Railway companies were the first industrialists to offer pensions, followed by Reuters in 1882, WH Smith in 1894 and Colmans in 1899.

For the public in general coverage remained thin, until the 1921 Finance Act introduced tax relief on pension contributions. This was followed, in 1925, by a skeleton contributory state pension scheme for male manual workers who were earning less than £250 a year. It paid a total of 10 shillings weekly (around £15 today) from the age of 65.

The modern compulsory state pension didn’t arrive until 1948. The 1942 Beveridge Report envisaged a social insurance scheme – never implemented – designed not to provide a comfortable income in retirement, but a safety net against destitution. Indeed, that’s been the official attitude ever since: give people just enough to keep them from sleeping on the streets, but not enough they’re rewarded for a lifetime’s service to society. And don’t allow them to think a pension is theirs by right.

In 1993 it emerged that some unscrupulous financial advisers had been mis-selling personal pensions, (a Thatcher reform) to earn fat commissions. This triggered payments of more than £11bn to six million people caught up in a mis-selling scandal.

How were women classed?

It was not until 1940, after the outbreak of the Second World War, that women got a pension with the need of a husband.  The Old Age and Widows’ Pension Act introduced a pensionable age of 60 for unmarried women who paid in, and widows of insured men.

Where are we now with pensions?

Every part of the Welfare State is under attack. We are told over and over again our wealthy nation is, in fact, very poor. We can’t assume there is a counter orthodoxy.

Neo-liberals with wealth and power are inured to the vagaries of a fluctuating economy. They assume the rest of are too. Retired senior citizens are described as unproductive, contribute nothing to the state, a drain on its health service funds. In short, they should be left to crawl under the nearest bush to await death, stoically like an animal.

If you vote Conservative, Labour or Ukip you are asking for your pension to be reduced, and you to keep working until unable to walk. That is to suppose you live that long. Thousands never receive a pension because they die early. Some commit suicide because of the loss of state aid and never reach pensionable age. Some have company related pensions that carry severe penalties if you leave the company.

The Right sees pensions and social security as extremely dangerous to society’s well-being. Caring for the old and the infirm is subversive.

KEY DATES

  • 1880-90s Beginning of occupational pensions
  • 1908 First “old age” pension paid by the Government
  • 1921 Finance Act introduces tax relief for pension contributions
  • 1924 Voluntary contributory pension for those who could afford to save
  • 1948 Modern state pension is introduced under the Beveridge Report
  • 1978 State earnings-linked top-up (Serps) provided
  • 1985 Pension funds made to increase payments to company leavers
  • 1988 Thatcher pension reforms
  • 1989 Barber judgment ruled pension ages must be equal between men and women
  • 1991 Robert Maxwell rips off £400 million pension fund
  • 1993/4 Pensions mis-selling scandal
  • 2004 Pension commission under Lord Turner set up to investigate private pensions
  • 2010 State pension age for women starts to rise from 60 to 65
  • 2012 Auto-enrolment begins for big employers
  • 2012 New universal flat-level pension is announced for all
  • 2014 Budget announces new freedoms to cash in your pension
  • 2015 Freedom and choice regime begins
  • 2016 Sir Philip Green rips off £480 million pension fund
  • 2017 New flat-rate state pension to be launched…..

 

Posted in Scottish Politics | 2 Comments

Smoking Mirrors

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Good old diesel, still choking us to death

For my occasional essays on the car industry I freely admit I veer from excessive adoration of good design – cars are not art though there’s art in their design – to outright condemnation of  what cars and their makers have done to society, now and then.

It’s an unhealthy state of affairs, a bit like being very friendly with a Tory MP whilst detesting everything he stands for.

The relationship is one of love and hate. I dare not think of the money I’ve poured into car ownership over the years because it will remind me of how wealthy I might have been if I’d any sense at all and stuck to bus and rail travel. What can I say? We all have expensive pastimes.

So, what’s been happening while we’ve been obsessed with elections and referenda?

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Luckily, no one was in the car when it burst into flames

Flaming hell

What’s the point of banning smoking in cars when so many models suffer from spontaneous combustion?

This week saw Vauxhall getting into a spot of bother when one of their models attracted a lot of publicity by catching fire, a Zafira, a kind of people carrier. You see them around town a lot, up to seven seats, and only the driver’s occupied. (Why not go the whole hog and drive a small bus?)

The car maker is sending letters to 220,000 drivers who could be at risk.

Owners of Zafira B models built between 2005 and 2014 are to be told to get in touch with local dealers where they will be offered free inspections and repairs. It comes after shocking reports of more than 130 cars “erupting into terrifying fireballs.” That’s how the press put it. Unless after the insurance, your car in flames isn’t exactly a warming sight.

The most significant aspect of this incident is the fact that Vauxhall has known about the possible faulty heater problem but kept quiet. This is classic manufacturing behaviour: don’t publicise the problem to save lives, call in the vehicles for a ‘manufacturer’s check’, and hope most drivers will hear of the recall. The car maker’s doctrine is, cheaper to pay out on individual cases, than redesign a car while it’s in production.

The additional problem for Vauxhall is it isn’t only Zafiras that are prone to instant destruction. The popular Corsa is another victim to self immolation, as is the Vivaro van.

We probably would never hear a thing about these conflagrations were it not for internet social sites. It’s in those chat places that the instances are accumulated. You’ll hardly see a mention in the plethora of British right-wing car magazines, mostly owned by Michael Heseltine’s Haymarket Publications. It’s all “look at this stunning new supercar” free commercials in those rags.

But hey, no problem. General Motors has sold off Vauxhall to Johnny Foreigner. Do you think Vauxhall knew something our European friends didn’t? Just asking.

Choking fumes

News managed to give a mention to diesel fumes addling the brains of children. It makes a change from sugar-laden breakfast cereals, and Internet porn.

The fumes can cause inflammation of the airways – yer nose and throat – and worsen breathing for anyone. NOx emissions can also react with other compounds to cause more serious respiratory conditions and aggravate heart problems. Long-term exposure to the pollution hastens death: research this year linked high levels of NOx to 9,500 premature deaths “annually in London alone“.

I put those last four words in inverted commas because that’s always how the press and car magazines report car problems. The comparison is always with London. The media remains metro-centric.

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Volkswagon’s Wolfsburg  factory protest – inside VW executives shredding documents

VW makes its employees pay

Volkswagen recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges in a brazen scheme to get around US pollution rules on nearly 600,000 diesel vehicles by using software to suppress emissions of nitrogen oxide during tests. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The German automaker has already agreed to pay $4.3bn in civil and criminal penalties – the largest ever levied by the US government against an automaker –although VW’s total cost of the scandal is estimated at about $21bn, including a pledge to repair or buy back vehicles – but not those affected in the UK. We don’t have such a powerful anti-corporate lobby.

As recently as February, the company’s executives insisted they had “misled nobody” in testimony before the British House of Commons’ transport select committee. Well, that’s how a global company sums up a calculated offense. It’s a “momentary lapse of judgement.”

Taken to its logical conclusion, you could describe most disasters as momentary lapses of judgement: the invasion of Iraq, the elevation of Paul Hollywood as an actual chef, and Theresa May as Prime Minister.

Although the cost is staggering and would bankrupt many companies, VW has the money, with $33bn in cash on hand. Volkswagen previously reached a $15bn civil settlement with US environmental authorities and car owners.

But guess what?

In order to balance the books VW is laying off workers. Employees are the Chosen Ones, made redundant to pay for fines. And the conglomerates that own magazines? They’ve already begun to blame our emission tests, and wheel out apologists to tell us crooked car makers are really not to blame for what they sell us.

Global corporations, don’tcha just love ’em.

 

 

Posted in Transportation | 4 Comments

The Auld Enemy

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Attendance at the Scottish Tory party conference. Death arrives in many forms

Credo in unum Deum, Toryatrem omnipotente – I believe in one God, the Tory Almighty

Scotland is facing its old enemy again, Britain ruled by the Tory party in all its ugly, nasty anti-democratic fervour. If people were not convinced that the Tory’s Poll Tax was imposed on Scotland by an alien government, surely the Tory’s dragging Scotland out of Europe will convince them.

How did the Tory party get this powerful?

Reasons to be cheerful

Thirty Tory MPs are under investigation for electoral fraud issuing from the 2015 election. Could that be a reason for a snap election?

Reneging on a promise on no General Election until 2020 makes no sense. The EU’s chief Brexit co-coordinator says as much. Guy Verhofstadt said there was “no guarantee the election of additional Conservative MPs at Westminster would give Mrs May more room for manoeuvre in the talks, as some observers suggest.” And Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel makes plain, no talk of EU association until the UK has paid all its debts.

Can May be acknowledging the result of negotiations will be thoroughly unpalatable? Does she expect the result might be draconian tax and VAT increases, and massive subsidies to industry to offset tariffs? Is she planning to  stick a hostile neo-liberal system onto a defenceless society? Does she give a damn?

The more Tory MPs there are, the more the Tory government can tell the UK electorate to accept what is offered or it can lump it. And as for Scotland, it can take a hike. How can we stop the Tories rapacious onslaught? Well, we can refuse to be hapless victims.

Empire 2 – Return of the Tories

All politicians are prone to losing sight of where power should lie – with the people.

The weakest, the ones that resort to authoritarian rule to impose their goals, those that despise the electorate, always demand more power. To get it they rustle up a fearful enemy, and compose demagoguery about how only they can protect us.

When a politician asks for more power they should be given less. They want more power because they feel constrained by the democratic process. Too much power loosens the give-and-take of democracy. Excessive power sets a precedent; the new level of autocratic authority is the minimum, and so on, and so forth.

Tories accepted a faux majority in a yes or no, them-or-us, referendum on Europe. Much the same as the Tory party wins elections by how it  does in in the Midlands, only 37% of England voted to dump Europe and the Europeans, (betraying 30,000 Gibraltarians into the bargain) though London stayed loyal to its money-making and international outlook. Nevertheless, the vote rekindled unhealthy longings for a lost empire.

Imagine the blood curdling outcry from the British right-wing press if Sturgeon accepted a 37% vote as all the support she needed to install independence!

Tories bumping their gums

Here’s the odd thing: Theresa May and the Tory party are in as much disarray as their opponents. Brexit is proving the predicted nightmare it always was going to be. This isn’t the first time in modern history that the Conservative party finds itself in the pleasant situation of facing a weak opposition. However, this time the SNP is at its zenith of popularity. To gain untrammelled control of Scotland Tories must crush the SNP.

Those were the days

Back in 1979 – when I first took notice of Westminster’s power – the Tories were in the ascendency, Labour was unelectable to no surprise, and SNP supporters were at each others throats.

1979 saw SNP MPs fall to two. SNP factions lay thicker on the ground than chewing gum on an Edinburgh city footpath.

The SNP’s ’79 Group had the brash Jim Sillars in charge with Margo MacDonald as cheerleader, and a very slim Alex Salmond as deputy. They were keen to move the party to the Left away from the baleful myth of it as a Tory offshoot. Their opponents could not decide whether SNP were ‘tartan Tories’ or  red commies, so they called them both.

The Tory party was delighted to see their Scottish opponents weak and disorientated. With Sillars arrest for breaking into the Royal High School to make a symbolic speech against mounting unemployment, the electorate did not feel the SNP were fit to govern. All this happened when Tories were decimating Scotland’s main industries. It was a scorched earth policy.

Closures included Wiggins Teape Pulp Mill in Fort William, tractor maker Massey Ferguson in Kilmarnock, French car maker Talbot’s Linwood plant, Caterpillar in Uddingston, Singers in Clydebank, Engineers Burroughs in Cumbernauld, Plessey in Bathgate, Goodyear in Glasgow, Glengarnock Steel Works, and Monsato in Ayrshire, to name a few. Scotland watched on helplessly.

No wonder curious English today ask how Scotland will generate wealth if independent!

Paying the price

The Tories paid a heavy price for dismantling Scotland’s industries, and all but eradicating the Miner’s Union, destroying entire communities in the process. A key component of Scotland’s self-confidence was its ship building industry. By the time the new century arrived it was all but gone.

Opponents of Scotland’s progress will argue the roots of shipbuilding’s demise began decades earlier, but remember, we are dealing with a Tory party that has vowed to protect the British car industry with millions of pounds of tariff subsidies and grant aid, and there is not a single British owned car maker among them.

The contrary Tory credo is, save foreign car makers, destroy indigenous industry.

Thatcher’s legacy

Scotland could vote Labour tomorrow and still get a Tory government. It did in 1979 and got Thatcher, as did two more elections in 1983 and 1987, despite her waning popularity and signs of being unhinged. In the 1983 election her party was so low in the polls she contemplated resigning.

Today Thatcher is still reviled by Scots. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said, “Thatcher was the motivation of my entire political career.”

No one can blame the SNP for the current disintegration of the United Kingdom. Policies during Thatcher’s terms of office, and her successor the invisible John Major, weakened the Union. Leaving Europe puts the handles on the funeral casket.

The destruction of Scotland’s heavy industry awakened nationalist feelings for self-protection. History names Thatcher as “midwife of the Scottish parliament” so detested was she by Scotland. Thatcher was an arch-Unionist. So is Theresa May.

In 1979 the Tories were set against devolution in any form. They were against the Scotland Act and the first thing Thatcher did was to repeal it.  We hear the same refrain again. Balsy Tories talk of reducing Holyrood to a local talking shop or closing it down. For some reason they think that will silence Scotland.

Losing by numbers

The SNP leader, the gauche solicitor Gordon Wilson, decided internal groups were toxic, and at the SNP’s 1982 conference ejected the ’79 Group including Alex Salmond. Tories cheered at the mess. Wilson’s action managed to reduce the SNP’s appeal even further.

At the 1983 general election the SNP held onto two seats and only 12% of the vote. Tories laughed all the way to the Treasury. The SNP had banished itself to the wilderness. But like the disillusion carpenter Himself, they arrived back more certain of who they were and what they needed to do to protect Scotland from the scourge of Tory aggression.

At that 1983 election the Labour party regained support in Scotland with 41 MPs but discovered once more they were ineffective against a Tory government in London, a situation that existed ever since Scotland accepted nanoscopic representation at Westminster in the days when Tories where Whigs, and Liberals really were liberal.

Labour in power in Scotland but not in England always finds itself impotent. When in power in both nations, a Labour party led by Scots, seems a terrible betrayal. A Labour party united with the Tories against Scotland – as now – is the assassination of a country.

Driving Labour’s thinking is Tory thinking

The immoveable conviction is, only the Union can keep Scotland safe. But safe from what? Certainly not Tory rule. Safe from Tory scorn and condescension? Here’s what senior cringer, Scots-born Sir John Junior wrote when editor of the Daily Express:

“The Scots are a male chauvinist race, and not any longer intelligent [except him] because most of the people have left Scotland. They are also a whinging people … they have made a mess of industry. They’ve buggered up ship building, they’ve buggered up the motor car industry … Margaret Thatcher was too damn good for you all. You resent the fact that she pulled you out of the shit you put yourselves into over so many years…”

Sir John forgets Scotland was under Westminster rule “all those years”.

Splinter groups and all Tory

The Eighties saw a split in Labour. They were in turmoil. Committed middle-of-the-road socialists and the ego-driven broke free to establish the Social Democratic Party, later to become the Lib-Dems. The MP Gerald Kaufman, a Blairite in the making, famously described Labour’s too left-wing manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”. Historian A.J.P. Taylor averred on BBC’s Question Time that the Labour party “Would rise again; it always does”, he said laconically, which it did, but as a carbon copy of the Tory party. Very soon voters could not tell the difference between one party and the other.

The Nineties saw Scotland’s economy performing better than England’s, but by then Westminster had a welter of placemen in charge of quangos and institutions controlling Scotland’s politics and agenda. Many are still in place to this day.

Then in 1990 came a storm. Alex Salmond took over as SNP leader, erudite, combative, with a clear vision of what his nation needed to regain its dignity and to prosper. It was at that point that the SNP’s standing began to change for the better, and voters saw how a party devoted to Scotland could protect their rights and their society.

Where stands Scotland now?

Labour and other naysayers would rather welcome decades of Tory plunder and empowerment than vote for the one party that will protect pensions, a free health service, bus travel and education, the proverbial turkeys voting for an early Christmas. The Tories sense that mood and exploit it.

In 1988 Thatcher announced in the party’s Perth conference, “As long as I am leader of this Party we shall defend the Union and reject devolved legislature unequivocally!” [My emphasis.] Theresa May has those words memorised. “Now is not the time” says May, restricting free will and choice.

The Tory party sees the UK as a unitary state. Tories pay lip service to the existence of two nations, a principality, and a province. They seek a New World Order led by England and the USA which is actually an old world order that’s crumbling.

Scotland, proud of its independent history, hates being treated as a province of England. It faces its old adversary in battle. It has to retake ownership of Scotland soon or it will be destroyed by Tory isolationism and avarice, to a large extent. Changed days sees Angela Merkel take the lead to lecture the Tories about fair play, liberal values and human rights.

We are witnessing perhaps the most striking assault on the foundations of our traditional liberties in our lifetime. “Now is not the time” to reject those attempting to free us from that careening bus.

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Posted in Scottish Politics | 15 Comments

Their Finest – a review

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Gemma Arterton stars in ‘Their Finest’ – oblivious of double yellow lines in the 1940s

A choice of two films this weekend both annoyingly and unimaginatively navel gazing. They are obsessed with the movie trade. One is British, one American. To irritate all the more they have a women as the central plucky talent trying to make it in the profession.

To be honest neither are inviting if subject matter, cast, and PR blurb are anything to judge by. They read as middle-of-he road slight productions, both destined for late night television before the year is out.

Coincidentally there are other similarities though only one is based on a novel.

Aging Warren Beatty’s look at a year in the autumn of Howard Hughes life as Hollywood movie producer is a love story he has co-written. The other film, how women were allowed into script writing on the British side of the industry, is also a love story, based on Lisa Evans Their Finest Hour and Half. I’ve no idea why the title was shortened, other than easier to get on a poster.  Maybe they thought critics would exploit it for a cheap gag – too long a running length.

A piece of British war nostalgia or a Hollywood vanity project? Hmm.

When I think back to Warren Beatty’s best films none are those he directed such as the seminal Bonnie and Clyde. He did direct Reds and took everybody by surprise, but generally he’s relied on other directors to propel his career.

His problem, it seems to me, is two-fold, behavioural and physical. He carries an air of vanity about him, too self-regarding in whatever character he performs – maybe Carly Simon’s song was ‘about him’. Secondly, his eyes are too close together and beady to be truly expressive. Now enjoying the status of Hollywood royalty, Beatty’s eyes have disappeared to the point of seeming two grains of rice on a terracotta tile. That must be a handicap in a profession where close-ups can make your face 20 feet tall on a screen.

In the event, I plumped for the British version of making movies though anything ‘British’ at the moment has unfortunate overtones of colonial propaganda, and misplaced patriotism. It’s a wonder Their Finest wasn’t entitled ‘The Best British Finest’.

Sure enough, in keeping with the barrage of British propaganda that has Scotland the unfortunate recipient these last years, Their Finest is actually Our Finest, a group of filmmakers finding a story to ‘inspire our nation’ – that is, England.

Released now, during a General Election that the British Tory party hope will wipe out all dissent for the next twenty years, it sticks in the craw. What a coincidence. No wonder we Scots fall foul of paranoia.

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Arterton sleep walks scenes but is attractive in blouses, cardigans and wrinkled stockings

Let’s get one thing out of the road, this is not about the pains of being a script writer. Hardly anybody suffers for their craft. There’s a lot of stiff upper lippery. The film has characters sit at a typewriter, scroll in a sheet of A4, think for a few seconds, hit the keys clackety-clack, and hey presto, out comes a fully formed script. (If only it was like that!)

There are two kinds of script writers. There are those who work from inspiration, usually politically driven, think of Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, and I, Daniel Blake, and undertake the occasional adaptation, and there are hacks who write cliché to a formula. I’ve done the first two and also ‘doctored’ poor scripts written by others where a character development is missing, or some humour.

The best screenplays tend to come from good novels, the screenwriter knowing what to leave out and what dialogue to add. Usually they leave out a lot of both, films are primarily visual. There are exceptions. Six writers worked on Casablanca, the first the novelist himself. Somehow it still ended as a piece of cinematic art.

In this tale of British filmmaking during World War II, Gemma Arterton – a so-so actress who keeps popping up to no great effect but a lot of chatter – plays Catrin Cole, a plucky young woman who finds work as a propaganda film screenwriter. She’s soon bored by the daily grind of “Britain and the Empire are good for mankind” informationals full of Hooray Henry drivel she has to write. She yearns for something of substance. The task of writing these scripts is presented grandiosely: Catrin receives the directive “We need a story to inspire a nation.” So off she goes to create a spirit of Dunkirk saga.

I can think of half-a-dozen propaganda films churned out by the Hollywood machine, often by some of the best directors, and Their Finest deserves credit for exploring a woman’s role in such an effort. Far too many WWII films are strictly tough, square jawed masculine stories in which women exist as quick-study love interests.

Catrin is more than that, though disappointingly her romantic trajectory is predictable. She’s pretty, empathetic, intelligent and quite witty, delivering her script ideas with enthusiasm.

It might surprise readers to learn that the writer was considered the lowest of the low in any production. They carried less status than the Best Boy, who brought the coffee. Not until the mid-Nineties were they allowed on a set. Directors felt constrained to have a writer sitting at their elbow complaining his work was getting crucified.

A woman screenwriter in the Forties was considered a novelty, and while the film addresses this, (she’s hired to capture “the feminine experience” – yuck!) Catrin’s struggles, sweat and hopes, never play like anything more than a jolly ramble.

Their Finest makes the long process of writing look easy. As I said, typewriter keys get clicked, a paper of two is balled up in frustration and tossed away, but soon enough – kazzam! – a script appears. (I refused computers and stuck with a typewriter until almost the Millennium. When my daughters insisted I use one it was a revelation – but I still can’t get the Snowpake off the screen.)

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It’s not the best film this year, and it not a charming comedy

The film does have a certain  warmth. It’s what’s called, slightly disparagingly, very tasteful. The best moments are those that lovingly show the process of filmmaking.

In one scene, set on a beach, a large piece of painted glass disrupts our field of vision until the shot pulls back and reveals it’s a piece of the set designed to create a cinematic illusion. Such visual invention is mostly kept to a minimum, though, as director Lone Scherfig’s (Lone?) aesthetic is in keeping with English period pieces of the last few years. And she has the smarts enough to engage the considerable talents of Rachel Portman as composer of the film’s music.

Like The Imitation Game and The King’s Speech before it, the film largely relies on small, enclosed rooms, double-breasted jackets, and a muted blue-grey colour palette as a means of tastefully conveying the past.

There’s comic relief in the hoary gestures of the normally droll Bill Nighy, enjoying himself as he plays the vain aging Ambrose Hilliard, the star of the film within the film. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons make welcome appearances as higher ups, which pretty well guarantees Their Finest is nothing if not terribly English.

Playing the lead screenwriter is Sam Claflin. His Tom Buckley is bespectacled and awfully sensitive, and working close to Catrin in a chatty, one lump or two, creative atmosphere inevitably leads to that kiss.

The specter of war is always present, the blitz rages around their heads, delicately muted of course, and loss too becomes inevitable, but tension there is none, and very little conflict either. This is a B movie, and we ‘Brits’ have been churning them out for eons.

In a late scene Catrin finally watches her film with an adoring crowd. The moment and the composition is surprisingly poignant: The colors on the screen within the screen are a welcome burst of brightness, and the audience is rapt. In the world of Their Finest, at least, propaganda works.

Their Finest is a disappointment. It offers very little other than a jolly jaunt in Forties costumes, among Bakelite telephones, and cars with headlights masked. It could have delivered something more. I really should be angrier about the waste of time and talent on a television film, but there are bigger targets to fire at in London at the moment.

  • Star rating: Two and a half
  • Cast: Gemma Atherton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
  • Director: Lone Scherfig
  • Writer: Gaby Chiappe, based on the book by Lissa Evans
  • Cinematography: Sebastian Blenkov
  • Music: Rachel Portman
  • Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes
Posted in Film review | 1 Comment

England The Oil Thief

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The Bank of England. It will shoulder all debts when Scotland opts out of the UK. And it’s as flaky as any bank, implicated in approving manipulation of LIBOR rates

One of the most pernicious lies plied on Scotland by British nationalists is the one about Scotland being a poverty-stricken country, perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, begging for hand-outs. Considering Scotland’s been ruled by Westminster almost 300 years yet apparently none the better for it, that’s quite a con-trick.

England, not Scotland, is the nation prone to bankruptcy, not only economically, but with a Tory party ushering in policies more right-wing than the BNP, it’s fair to add it’s bankrupt ideologically and morally.

The saddest part is how many intelligent, patriotic Scots – as far as they dare be without impediment to their ambitions – actually believe Scotland has little or no wealth of its own sufficient to exist as an autonomous state. Their only answer is the lie they are taught to repeat: “We can’t afford it”.

False Accounting and GERS

How wealthy is Scotland? To squeals of pain from Scotiaphobes, we learn from an eminent, non-partisan English economist and chartered accountant that the UK Treasury system of calculating Scotland’s annual wealth called GERS – Government Expenditure and Revenue, Scotland – is pure hogwash.

Professor Richard Murphy explains most of it is estimation based on conjecture. One might as well ask a blind granny to stick a pin into a bingo card.

The figures are a faux summary inapplicable to the calculation of Scotland’s income and expenditure as an autonomous state. They were conjured out of thin air to befuddle the Left, particularly the nationalists, ensuring neither get near the truth. That some aspects are endorsed by a brow-beaten Scottish Government is neither here nor there. They have nothing else to go on, and the UK Treasury is in no mood to provide the true figures. But think of the logic: you only con a nation when its wealthy enough to steal from it. If poor find an easier mark.

Professor Murphy goes further. He suggest they do not help England to know better how it should shape its annual expenditure in the modern world. Both nations deserve far better. Murphy is not the first to show GERS is so much nonsense, but his report comes from the intellect and reputation of an expert who does not vote SNP, nor advise the SNP.

Thus a central shibboleth of Unionist dogma collapses.

Darien – myth and facts

Darien was Scotland’s attempt to set up a trading post unfettered by English interference. It was never the case Scotland was bankrupt as an outcome of three failed Darien schemes. Money circulation dropped by about a third. Some historians place it at a quarter of money lost to circulation. That isn’t bankruptcy.

After Darien, circulation was strong enough for the English parliament to raise taxes to pay for the loan they provided to bail out the few nobles and clergy who sold their country to the lowest bidder. The Treasury made a fine profit for it provided only half the loan promised, the other half worthless company debentures. England needed Scotland docile, paying for protection. It had wars with Europe to conduct.

The First Great Bankruptcy

Having fought Germany in World War II and the Japanese in Burma, England arrived on the day peace was declared pretty well bankrupt. Churchill himself records that if the Germans had sent a second wave of bombers we might all be speaking German as our first language. The public purse was empty.

America came to the recue. It had a plan, the Marshall Plan. It was an ideological strategy. The plan offered billions of dollars in loans to war torn European countries so long as they dropped socialist policies. The money had the expressed aim of buying allegiance and gaining trading territories.

The Marshall plan also used money for ‘dark’ operations. It helped finance the corruption of Italy’s 1948 elections, and that agency later moulded into the CIA. The political nature of this plan was not only to keep communists out of the cabinets of Italy and France, goals which were mainly executed through covert means, but also as then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, “a matter of national self-interest.”

The creation of the system is connected to another goal: building up markets for American exports, which George Marshall, who the plan is named after, expressed in a State Department bulletin in early 1948:

“It is idle to think that a Europe left to its own efforts … would remain open to American business in the same way that we have known it in the past.”

It should be apparent to readers why so many right-wing American politicians dislike the existence of a  European Union. It’s a threat to US trade routes.

America to the rescue with strings attached

To avert bankruptcy Britain took as much as it was offered, and contrary to popular belief didn’t pay it all back until as late as 2006 – 61 years later – having failed six times to repay it’s annual instalments of over £60 million plus interest. Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA almost wholly rests on that loan. Scotland too poor to bail out the collapse of the RBS is bull crap. The UK Treasury paid out from Scotland’s taxes.

For over twenty years the majority of money loaned to the UK and European countries was used to buy American goods, including armaments, all of which benefitted the US economy. American corporations began to appear all over the UK and Europe.

Air bases appeared on Scottish soil as the US ramped up the Cold War with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states. At one point there were over 200 military installations in Scotland pointing at the USSR. The MOD still governs large tracts of land. Try asking for Edinburgh’s Pentland Hills back as a public park.

So long as the USA and puppet England warned of evil commie infiltration so long was the UK happy to have US protection. When the Soviet Union collapsed the influence of the US on British life waned. It isn’t for nothing right-wing forces are again doing their level best to make Russia the big bad bogeyman.

Britain grabs another nation’s oil

The Marshall Plan had a secondary agenda. A hidden aim was to displace British power. The USA also needed oil.

In 1953 Britain had about 100 per cent of Iranian oil – called Persia back then, a 2,000 year old civilisation – the oil held by a company called Anglo-Persian. The contracts were complete extortion, a joke.

Persians got next to nothing. England laughed all the way to the bank. Anybody studying that time of English history will see familiar parallels with the way Scotland’s oil was hijacked and then ring-fenced.

But Persia was a rebellious nation. It had a long democratic tradition. Persia’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegha, nationalised the oil industry – the right thing to do. It advanced the cause of Persian national sovereignty. As far as he was concerned Persia’s resources belonged to its population.

The US was angry with what it saw as an uprising against British approved theft. In cahoots with the English cabinet and British Intelligence Service, the US arranged a coup – a dab hand at regime change – and installed the authoritarian Shah to the throne. He gave 40% of the oil to the USA as a thank you. The UK got next to nothing.

England was furious. Just as British nationalists talk of Scotland as a poor house, the USA and the UK addressed Persia in disparaging terms as a backwater, its people uneducated. Does that sound familiar?

A New York Times editorial praised the coup. “Underdeveloped countries, [ouch!] with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.”  [My emphasis.]

England has never stopped addressing other nations as inferior – except the USA.

The Second Great Bankruptcy

When the British Government handed over billions in state savings to bail out corrupt banks and financial institutions, instead of keeping the prosperous parts and jettisoning the criminal parts, the UK faced bankruptcy a second time. “There is worse to come” said one politician after another, probably after switching their investments to a tax haven. Without Scotland’s taxes England is economically vulnerable.

A Third near miss

Incidentally, the Marshall Plan was not the only time London has had to look West for a bailout. In 1976, the UK borrowed £2.3bn from the Washington-based IMF – the International Monetary Fund, after a slump in the pound threatened to turn into a crisis. By that point it did not realise how much oil was under the North Sea, but a civil servant called Gavin McCrone did in 1974. He advised the British government to stay schtum in case they caused the pesky Scottish natives to rebel.

His report was supressed for 30 years.

Scotland’s oil

“It’s Scotland’s oil” ran the posters in the seventies, eventually sending 11 SNP MPs to Westminster.

Back in the eighties a Department of Energy report stated “The discoveries of North Sea Oil off Aberdeen is probably the most important event since the Industrial Revolution.”

How to keep it? One: play down reserves. Two: play down Scottish wealth without it.

This they did to great success, and still do despite vast new fields discovered in the last two years. They are still doing it, “deliberately”, to quote an old joke.

Alas, the SNP under Willie Wolfe gradually wound down the campaign to regain our oil reserves. They were embarrassed at the slogan ‘Scotland’s oil’ feeling they might be seen as selfish in not sharing it. (I share reader’s exasperation over that climb down.)

The ultra-right-wing Tory, Sir Bill Cash, a chief propent of getting the UK out of the European Union stated, “North Sea oil is in significant decline and it’s not producing the revenues. Even supposing they [the SNP] can get their hands on North Sea oil because there is an issue about territorial waters, which doesn’t seem to get discussed – they belong to the United Kingdom.” When a Tory says the oil is dwindling you know the opposite is true, there is wealth to harness.

The UK needs Scotland’s wealth, desperately. There is lots more oil to plunder. It’s on the path towards another bankruptcy if it goes on the projected borrowing spree that lifts real debt to over £2 trillion.

Taxes will be increased again. And VAT, and National Insurance.

England needs Scotland’s wealth

England’s scrofulous behaviour is unforgivable. It removes not only the wealth of friendly nations, but also their civil rights. Everything is done in England’s interests.

When the clunking intellect of Gordon Brown proclaims the United Kingdom stands for “pooling and sharing” it’s card shark speak for fooling and scaring.

So precarious does the world finance houses think UK to be that they withdrew its hallowed triple A status. At various points in our history Scotland was a wealthier nation than England, vastly so when oil arrived.  We are probably as wealthy today, per capita.

I repeat: England needs Scotland’s wealth. If it sounds eerily like 1707 it is because it is.

Who in their right mind would cosy up to a nation state that has a record of conducting endless wars, causes multiple-bankruptcies, and steals the wealth of other nations?

Post script: The largest recipient of Marshall Plan money was the United Kingdom (receiving about 26% of the total), followed by France (18%) and West Germany (11%). Some 18 European countries received Plan benefits. Although offered participation, the Soviet Union declined, and blocked benefits to such as East Germany and Poland.  It recognised the USA’s hidden agenda.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 33 Comments

The Ineptitude of Theresa May

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I’ve just got here, but don’t shed a tear, because I fear, I must … be going!

Unable to face Her Majesty’s opposition and like Erdogan of Turkey wants unlimited autocratic powers? Playing games with the constitution, or plain feckless?

Donald Trump’s buffoonish reputation for changing his mind from one day to the next depending on who is whispering in his ear is now emulated by Theresa May. As if May’s glad-handing of Trump wasn’t enough to cause us to shiver.

“No general election until 2020” her mantra for months on end, but today it’s time for a general election. The date is June 8th. “Brexit means Brexit” she repeated moronically, as if selling hot cross buns from a stall, “the British people have voted”.

And yet it doesn’t mean that at all. It means the United Kingdom is divided and needs united. But wait, no, it also means “The country (she means England) is united but the House of Commons is divided.” Remember, this is the woman who originally advocated we ‘remain’ in Europe. And she’s already planning to use taxes to pay for systems that were once free – foreign workers will have to get a visa. We’ll need an entire new infrastructure to service that void.

How can you trust May’s word?

Theresa May’s certainty is reversed tomorrow.

Not so long ago Westminster voted overwhelmingly to place on the statute books the Fixed Term Parliament Act to avoid just this sort of cavalier approach to governance. May must now overturn that Act – an indication of how easy Westminster can annul Scotland’s Parliament.

An uncomplicated calculation

With Tories showing a 44% popularity in English ratings against other parties in the lower 20% she aims to capitalise on the surge of admiration for ‘Maggie reborn’ with a bigger majority than the shaky one currently, giving her power to ramrod through Westminster the most authoritarian, uncaring, retrogressive legislation imaginable. Neo-liberal conservatives love fox hunting.

She needs a two-thirds majority in the Commons to activate a general election. Labour, led by salty sea dog Jeremy Corbyn, instead of resisting the stupidity, promise May full support. Once more England’s Labour party offers its mortal political enemy a helping hand back to power. It could well mean Labour reduced to a rump party. As it is, if all opposition parties joined forces they could block May’s attempt at right-wing sainthood.

Flip-flop, zig-zag

Theresa May politics are all over the place one hour to the next. “Now is not the time”, “No one wants it”, “Get on with the day job”, empty slogans she’s thrown at the Scottish electorate and its government. What she is attesting is what we have known for generations: England rules the United Kingdom of nations. Whatever is in England’s interest is in all our interests. Whatever suited its agenda yesterday can be altered today, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow if necessity is the cover for prevention.

Inept or incompetent

Now Prime Minister, the media portray Theresa May as a reborn Maggie Thatcher, strong, resolute not for turning. In that regard there are early signs May is just as  unhinged: controlling of colleagues, bullying, dismissing of ideas, and if her attitude to Scotland is concerned, she’s also vindictive. Her stint at the Home Office was about as incompetent as inept can be.

One of May’s faux pas was her department’s refusal of visas to Afghan interpreters who had served with the British forces in Afghanistan under fire.  Who advised her to do that? There is also nothing  about May’s superhuman skills as an administrative genius that makes sense when compared to the complete collapse of the eBorders IT system. The money squandered is reputed to exceed a billion pounds.

When regaling critics over leaving Europe she invariably emits mention of Gibraltar with its 98% vote to remain in the EU. As a person as unpredictable as Trump will she protect Gibraltar from the Spanish, or will she use it as a bargaining chip with the EU?

Squeaky clean

As I write May has announced she will not take part in televised debates. That’s how much she respects the electorate. Will she change her mind at the last minute? Does it matter? Tories own the game board, the dice, and the score card.

An early General Election is a cynical throw of the dice. “We should stop playing games with politics” was her statement of intent that politics must be treated with respect. Today she plays games as only an extreme right-wing administration dare.

It’s dangerous to take the electorate for granted, to manipulate it, but that’s what May is doing. The only way to describe the move is blatant political opportunism. But inept she is for the election guarantees there will be a second Referendum on the right of Scotland to make its own choice about Europe, the very thing she hoped to avoid.

A Tory one-party state

“Scotland is currently a one party state” opined an idiotic BBC journalist oblivious to the fact that it cannot ever be so under the voting system imposed on it by Westminster, and oblivious to the fact Theresa May is planning on exactly that situation to rule the United Kingdom for … shall we say … a generation, whatever that means, but we can suppose it means twenty years or more.

Can we trust the Tory party not to engage again in creative accountancy with its electoral funds? Can anybody trust a political party that has made tax evasion a billion dollar legal business and starved its own public services in the process? Does the Tory party think voters are stupid. The answer surely is yes.

Jaundiced or cynical

Perhaps, and there’s a chance of this happening, perhaps England’s electorate have had enough of all the machinations and power playing. Maybe they see her doing as Turkey’s Erdogan did – demand more power. They might just give her the shock she deserves.

Faced with a House of Lords that wants EU nationals protected, MPs that know pulling out of Europe instead of joining with other member states to reform it is a disaster, a Northern Ireland ungoverned, and a Scotland that’s given its only dedicated party a mandate for a second Referendum on autonomy, May decides a General Election is the answer. She’s the least astute prime minister since Neville Chamberlain waved a letter in the air as he disembarked from his plane shouting “Peace for our  time.”

This isn’t about greater democracy, this is about junking the constitution, the Tory party ruling till the sun sets on a new empire. Forget an election. It’s a coup.

What’s the old Scot’s saying again about warm clothing? Never cast a cloot till May’s oot”.

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Posted in Scottish Politics | 17 Comments

The Handmaiden – a review

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Koreans Min-hee Kim and Jung-woo Ha having an intimate painting session

The Handmaiden is one hot, sizzling beautiful movie to look at and to listen to. You watch its most erotic scenes either wondering what sort of man is the director – it’s essentially a lesbian parable – or you accept there are genuine, fearless artistes at work here, author, director, photographer and actors as interpreters, in perfect harmonious collaboration. There must have been any number of closed sets to create privacy while the actors got on with the job of acting whilst naked.

As a man I found a lot of the sex scenes cringeworthy, too long, too hackneyed. The joy of this film is in the affectionate and then loving relationship between two strong-willed and smart women, not in the bonking. We revel in their unspoken moments and their secrets. The soixante-neuf sequences are straight out of a yellowing Playboy magazine.

Handmaiden shouldn’t be confused with a much earlier film of a similar title, the 1987 The Handmaiden’s Tale, an all-Hollywood affair, an indifferent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s speculative Utopian novel. This Handmaiden is of a wholly different order.

Though I didn’t read it, I recall the hullabaloo when the novel, set in London, was published in 2002, a gothic lesbian suspense entitled Fingersmith. Lesbianism was becoming a topic for the chattering classes, but not a subject for the commercial silver screen, and not full-blooded one-on-one love-making.  

The novelist, Sarah Waters was on a crusade about the lack of normalized lesbian affairs in literature. When the 2014 year’s movie list circulated showing projects ready for production I was surprised to see director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) was adapting the novel to his tastes – a man, and one usually obsessed with torture and violence.

What can a man add to this story? Well, he adds tremendous artistry, sensibility, suspenseful twists, and a whole skip-load of male fantasy sex scenes. Perhaps the ninety-per cent good bits is why it was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2017 Oscars but didn’t win because of the ten per cent wriggly bits.

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Victorian Gothic, mixed with Korean, mixed with Japanese – but somehow it works

Park transplants Waters’ story from Dickensian London to 1930s Korea. Park offers us a visually exquisite, dazzling, darkly comic story about two women fed up with patriarchy. For once Park ditches his signature cartoonish violence to give us restrained story telling, and just a little bit of gory violence.

Soo-kee, (Kim Tae-ri) is a brash young Korean pickpocket, a fingersmith, and resident of a “baby farm,” where orphans are taken in to learn the craft. When the Count, (Ha Jung-woo) saunters into the old house with an elaborate plan to trick the shy Japanese Lady Hideko, (the  marvellous Min-hee Kim) out of her wealth and into an insane asylum, Soo-kee’s eyes light up at the thought of a fortune. The Count, who can pass for Japanese, plants her as Hideko’s new handmaiden to help in his wooing of her.

Soo-kee is the perfect opposite of prim and proper Hideko, who’s practically a prisoner on the sprawling estate of the uncle, (Cho Jin-woong) she’s supposed to marry. If you accept the patriarchal class system you will accept she is betrothed to a rusty old gent more keen on listening to pornographic literature read, than actually getting into bed with the exotic lady at his feet.

The story begins of two intelligent, but stifled women. The first part is told from the villain’s point of view, the second part is told from the women’s point of view.

Most of Hideko’s time is spent “studying” in a secret, dusty, off-limits library. Hideko’s fascinated with this new woman who can’t even show up to work with both shoes on, and as Soo-kee longingly describes Hideko’s beauty in voice-over, the film quickly turns sensual. These offer some of the best, most erotic moments. The naked writhing’s on various horizontal surfaces destroys eroticism. Sex is what we carry in our imagination. What we anticipate, the journey and release delayed, is the most sensual part, not the graphic final thrust.

Soo-kee dresses her mistress, fingers lingering on the silk-wrapped buttons running the length of Hideko’s spine – a fingersmith of a different kind – while the air is filled with a smoky silence and expectation. It’s all bottled passion amid a warm glow of innocence.

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The plot to ensnare takes more twists and turns than a snake on ecstasy

From a quick glance on Amazon you can tell the original novel has many more characters in it, but here Park gets snippy with scissors to remove extraneous characters and scenes so we are left with the most interesting core material. If only he had done the same with his over-indulgent director’s cut.

Nevertheless, he gives us many  a memorable moment: Soo-kee bathing Hideko, scattering blush-pink rose petals in the tub, fingers of steam rising from the water; Soo-kee rubbing an aching gum with her finger to soothe away the pain; Hideko, desperate to slow down the advances of her male suitor, drinking his drugged wine herself and spitting it into his mouth while they kiss; a garden sequence dappled in sunlight when repressed love is comingled with devious ambition.

As in any good suspense story, happiness must get a kick up the behind. We soon get sucked – if that is the right verb – into the ménage é trois, but from a man’s point of view, that is, the director’s.  It would be enlightening to hear a woman’s point of view, lesbian and heterosexual. That limitation, however, doesn’t stop us seeing the story’s illumination of men’s false perceptions of women and their motives.

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Director Chan-wook Park on the set, probably wondering how women do it

Park allows the two main characters a sense of joy and adventure. And even with all the sex and intrigue, the dialogue is freely littered with humour – especially in a hanging scene of all things – just when the tension needs to be cut, allowing the handmaiden of the title, Tae-ri Kim time to impress with her comic ability.

Despite the many, mostly implausible, garish sex scenes, Park still manages to depict a loving relationship between two women in the middle of a gripping, snaking, humorous suspense film. I’d award it four-and-half stars had it been twenty-five minutes shorter. There’s nothing to bore us, for Park catches us just before we think a scene is too long, but it is far too self-indulgent a director’s cut to be perfectly balanced – sadly, a vain director’s ailment, the inability to leave edits on the cutting room floor.

A final observation: if you keep the analytical side of your mind working throughout the film’s two hours and 25 minutes, and you wish dearly for Scotland’s freedom to make its own decisions again, you’ll spot familiar tropes in this fabulous fable of skulduggery and sublimation. Handmaiden is a quiet lesson in the humiliation that is known as… submitting to colonial rule.

  • Star rating: Four
  • Cast: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha
  • Director: Chan-wook Park
  • Writer: Seo-Kyeong Jeong, from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
  • Cinematographer: Chung-hoon Chung
  • Music: Yeong-wook Jo
  • Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes
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