Two former pupils who got in to Oxford and Cambridge, invited back to school to present prizes at Speech Day. That’s what it looked like. It was a kind of Speech Day; but not back to school. Instead the whole country, represented by the workforce of CNH Tractors in Basildon, Essex, was being schooled by Nick (Clegg, Liberal Democrat, deputy prime minister) and Dave (Cameron, Conservative, prime minister) on the Merits of the Coalition. After their political parties polled poorly in last week’s local elections, the Coalition leaders travelled to Essex to lecture us all on why they’re right and we’re wrong not to see it that way. Mouth composed into a perfect ‘O’, Cameron made his choirboy face, then shifted to his other persona: he-man of the jutting jaw. Either way, Clegg looked on incredulously. Later, when it was Clegg’s turn to do the talking, Cameron looked up at him, head drawn back at a slight angle: ‘Y’what?’ Of course the whole thing was a photo/podcast/rolling news opportunity. So well designed, right down to the colour scheme. Cameron wearing a blue tie, Clegg yellow. Some of the tractor factory workers were dressed in blue polo shirts; others yellow. You couldn’t ask for a closer match. However well-designed, though, there’s no hiding how the two boys are coming apart. Nothing in the orchestration of the event could drown out the discord between them. And here are some more entries which I prepared earlier.
(1) Royal Preserve Dateline: 2nd March 2012
Halfway between a wave and the brush-off, Prince Harry gestures to Caribbean photographers at the start of his first solo tour. He is ginger and slightly gauche. Back in London his grandmother, the elderly Queen Elizabeth, looks quizzically at the food hamper produced by Fortnum and Mason to mark her Diamond Jubilee (1952-2012). Nestling among the preserves, 60 years of judgment reserved.
(2) By A Nose Dateline: 2nd March 2012
When injured journalist Edith Bouvier was brought home to Paris from Homs, Syria, she was carried off the plane sheathed in protective padding – only her nose poking out from under the red wraparound. On the runway, in attendance: President Sarkozy. But this homecoming was too intimate – daughters rush forward to hug their mother’s prostrate form – for Sarkozy to make a show of it. Like the estranged husband that no one finds time to acknowledge, the president of France was obliged to withdraw.
(3) Anders Breivik: the fascist salute that hardly was Dateline: 16th April, Central Criminal Court, Oslo
Fat face. Small eyes behind considerable expanse of flesh and forehead. Receding hair and a thin strip of beard with a patch that’s missing – either his beard is also balding, or he made a mistake when shaving. Bulky. Suit, collar and tie in a style that might be 1970s-retro; but isn’t. ‘Defiant salute,’ they said of Anders Behring Breivik’s far-right gesture to the Oslo court on the first day of his mass murder trial. (Norway, summer 2011; 77 dead in a killing spree directed ‘against multiculturalism’ – Breivik’s description). But the Reuters clip shows an understated movement. Breivik’s right arm touches the left side of his chest, grazing it lightly before unbending into the familiar, straight-armed gesture – only for a moment. His arm has performed a cautious curve, not the absolute angles associated with ‘fascist salute’. Completing this modest arc, Breivik sits down with downcast eyes. Perhaps he swore to himself he would salute, then lacked the will to tough it out. Perhaps that’s how he murdered his victims: diffidently. Responding to the rattle and shuffle of countless camera shutters, Breivik half-smiles, his teeth kept hidden by thin lips. Although the cameras are keen, keen, keen to find something striking, exciting, disturbing, there is nothing to show for the extraordinary carnage caused by this seemingly unexceptional person. A man ill-at-ease with himself, but so what? On that score, no different from a billion others.
(4) Jason Russell: textbook study of arrested development Dateline 10th March 2012, Reuters studio
Firm chin, full jaw, and a smile so wide a family of Mexicans could move in there. Of course his teeth are pearly white. Raised in San Diego, graduate of the University of Southern California, Jason Russell’s face testifies to the expansive wealth of the Sunshine State. Co-producer/director of world-renowned viral movie Kony 2012, and co-founder of the charity, Invisible Children, Russell is famous for bearing witness to the plight of African child soldiers pressed into Joseph Kony’s militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army. He has come in to a Reuter’s studio to respond to queries and criticisms of his film. ‘I had just finished my film degree at USC’, Russell recalls, ‘and I wanted that post-graduation globetrotting adventure. I figured instead of backpacking Europe, I’d visit an African genocide.’ ‘Figured’ – early morning reruns of Wagon Train and Rawhide sure left their mark. ‘Visit an African genocide’ – is this Kardashian-style self-obsession? Or candid admission of same, which effectively cancels it out? Russell’s relaxed manner says: you decide; his self-confidence comes with 40 million internet hits. He shrugs off the complaint that Kony 2012 is one-sided: ‘this video is not the answer, it is just the gateway to the conversation.’ But this self-confidence is only skin deep; super-facial. Having exposed the plight of particular children, Russell has to hide behind the condition of childhood in general. ‘When you get older, you get muddled and polluted by the way the world is supposed to work,’ he explains. Thus children respond unequivocally to his film because they ‘have very clear understanding’, not ‘muddled’ or ‘polluted’ by grown-up hang-ups; such as objectivity or getting the story right, right? All that bone and muscle and gristle. So much protein invested in such a prize specimen of American manhood. But still Russell defers to a child’s ‘understanding’. His kind of deference would make kids of us all.
(5) Mourning Man and the Dissolution of Self Dateline 20th April 2012, Jinnah International Airport
Eyes more than half-closed, mouth wide open; thick, upper lip stretched across the horseshoe arch of his top teeth. Whatever it is pouring out of this man’s throat, it clearly means an awful lot to him. If it was his own hand caressing his right cheek, looking at this picture we’d put him in the midst of a vocal performance; and in our minds we would fill in the sound of him singing. But the hand in the photograph is someone else’s, reaching out to comfort this man whose wife, child, father, friend – who knows?, is presumed dead after an airliner fell out of the sky while preparing to land at Jinnah International Airport, Islamabad. Microphones on either side of the mourning man, thrust forward to capture his moans and wails, serve to reinforce the idea of performance. For us, in a way, it is. The curve of his open mouth, the framing of the photograph – this is grief, perfectly formed. But for the man we’re looking at, sheer loss has rendered him shapeless. His feelings are not framed at all. Right now, he does not even have a point of view from which to look back at us.
(6) Sisters of Surprise Dateline: 21st April Bahrain
Her head is loosely covered with a shawl, and a lock of hair has spilled out and splashed over the right side of the young woman’s face. The left side is obscured by the glare of bright sunlight shining through a police visor. Right, left – her face is effectively screened off on both sides. Thus the religious rules are more-or-less observed, if only by chance. Without seeing right through this accidental screening, we are looking at the face of Zayban al-Kkawaja, daughter of human rights activist Adbulhadi al-Khawaja, stopped by helmeted riot cops on her way to the anti-F1 Grand Prix protest in the markets district of Manama, Bahrain. But Zayban is not the one wearing the visor; this belongs to a police officer standing directly in front of her. Zayban is holding her hands at chest height. She has made them into fists, and although we can’t see her eyes, from the tilt of her head we can tell she is looking intently into the eyes of the officer blocking her way. ‘Are you going to cuff me, then?’, her look, which we can’t quite see, would seem to be saying. The officer’s thumb and forefinger are already wrapped around Zayban’s right wrist. In order for the religious rules to be observed, however, the restraining officer must be a woman. The rules that dictate segregated protests in Bahrain (male protestors separated from women), also demand segregated policing – only female officers to manhandle female protestors. Underneath the visor, therefore, a pert nose. Decked out in the stuff of Robocop (matt black padding and webbing), a small, human form. There is even a pouch beneath her helmet at the back of her neck, so that the female Robocop can conceal the rope of her own dark hair.
(7) Pretend Answers and Real Questions Dateline: 24th April 2012, Leveson Inquiry, London
Young James’ eyebrows are raised in a continuous, upward frown. Beneath them, his spectacles are fashionably large, the frames transparent like the Milky Bar Kid’s. The Milky Bar Kid is coming to town. This Milky Bar Kid can’t help himself frown. With his left hand he is holding onto the lower part of his right arm, which is resting – it’s being made to lie still – on the table in front of him. Meanwhile his right hand is tucked under his left elbow, so that the weight of his left, upper arm is keeping it down. Hold on tight, he seems to be telling himself, lest extravagant hand movements lead to loose talk. In town today is James Murdoch, son of, recently resigned from, due to the phone hacking scandal and related events at his father’s News International. At the current session of the Leveson Inquiry, chaired by Lord Leveson and commissioned by prime minister David Cameron to investigate ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’, James Murdoch is being asked to answer for a series of internal emails re: his thwarted attempt to overcome restrictions on UK media ownership and gain full control of BSkyB. The question is: given that the (Liberal Democrat) secretary of state for business was not well disposed towards ‘the Murdoch press’, were you not jockeying for position with the (Conservative) secretary of state for culture, who was likely to look more favourably on a bid from your family firm? Although James clearly feels the need to keep a grip on himself, he seems to be handling the pressure. He maintains that he would not conduct business in a directly politicised manner. While it is hard to credit such a clear cut distinction between business class and the political elite – as if they only ever speak to each other through formal channels, as he makes this distinction and elaborates upon it, Young James’ voice becomes more insistent; he appears to gain in stature. Not for what he is ostensibly saying in response to his inquisitors (the flat denial simply sounds flat), but for the tacit questions underlying his answers: Don’t you people know better than to wash this kind of linen in public? In the tired, old country that you guys live in, have you forgotten what it takes to get anything done?
(8) Messrs Rueful Dateline: 1st May 2012 His hands on the table are the mottled hands of an old man, though his eyes are sharp as pins. Pausing between sentences, his mouth defaults to a downward curve – a pictogram of sadness and regret. Last week, giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Rupert Murdoch kept his composure, managing to maintain his stance as a newspaperman. Particular answers to detailed questions (so much detail from all those emails) were generally a way of saying: that’s who I am – a newspaperman. In front of Lord Leveson, Rupert was careful to regret the damage done to others, ruing the day he allowed himself to be compromised by corporate concerns. If I hadn’t let myself be corporatised, none of this would have happened, Murdoch seemed to be saying. And the way he said it: so much the cartoon he could have been Roger Hargreaves’ latest character, Mister Rueful. This was a more positive performance than last year when, quizzed by the parliamentary select committee for Culture, Media and Sport (a group of senior MPs), Murdoch Snr had seemed like King Lear upon the blasted heath: lost. Days later, he killed a newspaper; akin to suicide for a man like him; or, for the man he wants us to think is him. But then, by launching the Sun on Sunday to replace the News of the World (deceased), he was seen resurrecting himself. In his shirtsleeves among the newsmen of Wapping, Rupert rolled the stone away from his own tomb. Two months later on 1st May, with their announcement that ‘Rupert Murdoch is not fit to undertake the stewardship of a major international company’, members of that select committee are trying to roll it back on top of him; punching his lights out; shutting him out of the corridors of power. They looked nervous, conscious of the whole world watching, even while making their pronouncement. However much they want to be the MPs who dethroned Murdoch, there’s no guarantee that the British government – or even the British people – will let the old king go down. In months or years to come, those MPs may be rueful about what they said today; just as Rupert has come to rue the day he looked the other way.