This post was supposed to concentrate on Melodrama’s role in the rise of Murdoch and the fall of the News of the World, but since almost everything can be related to it – I’m going to throw in the Norway Atrocity and Amy Winehouse just to keep it current. It takes a somewhat torturous route, but I get there in the end.
Who we are and what makes us tick has been an obsession since the Renaissance. It was during the Renaissance that the past was rediscovered on its own terms. Young Italian intellectuals wondered what it was like to be a Pagan in Ancient Greece, or to be a Barbarian attacking the Roman Empire. And if they could think themselves into another person’s point of view, they could also look at their own perspective from a distance and wonder about it. Since distance is the essence of comedy a spirit of clowning seems to have hit Rome. Indulgences were given purely for money, Priests were heard swearing and mocking Christ as they said Mass.
None of this would have mattered if Europe hadn’t been changing. The plague had ended feudalism, there was more work than workers, wages went up, more land was being bought by ordinary farmers, a gentry started to exist although it was the nobility that had all the power. The first Protestant reformer Martin Luther had a wealthy farmer for a father, a father who was disgusted that his son should become a penniless Monk. This parental disapproval must have made it all the more horrifying when he visited Rome and saw relics being openly faked; while praying on the steps of a Church, shuffling up, deep in fervour, the comic spirit of distance nudged him. He wondered if what he was doing was ridiculous.
Since the Church and the State was the one thing, then attacking the former could be a way of gaining control or freedom form the latter. Heresies had always appealed to localised groups, these groups were tolerated or genocided depending on whom they did or didn’t threaten at any particular time. Lutheranism appealed to Princes as a way of avoiding paying tax to Rome, and to the rising middle-classes as an example of worthy disobience. In John Calvin, the Reformation found its Karl Marx, the proper revolutionary who wanted the people, and not the hierarchy, to be the true Church. Naturally the mix of genuine spiritual beliefs and wanting more self-determination went hideously wrong. Europe was convulsed with war; if you won, lost, lived, died, were valourised or demonised depended purely on if your religious group (if you weren’t switching sides with dexterity) held, lost or gained the territory you lived on.
Once the wars were exhausted Europe was left with a sense of the arbitrariness of fate, plus the practical business of making groups who now absolutely loathed each other, and who might have to live together, since one side or the other hadn’t completely died, get on with each other. This is the root and the reason for multi-culturalism. It isn’t new. There are many Protestant sects, most of whom hated each other as much as they hated the Catholic Church, and as much as the Catholic Church hated them. Old style politics couldn’t cope, new thinking was needed and the Enlightenment – which was the Renaissance with post-traumatic stress disorder – crawled out of the wreckage. The Enlightenment had three strands, still with us today; the Mainstreamers, who wanted things like democracy and freedom, and shared resources to be achieved slowly, calmly and painlessly (they tended to stay Christian), Radicals who wanted EVERYTHING NOW VIOLENTLY (and more or less abandoned organised Christianity) and Conservatives who could be violent, or calm, but who wanted the world to stay as it was, whatever it was, when they noticed it was changing.
And since the Reformation had set Science free and the Enlightenment was searching for new truths to believe in, technology advanced with stunning rapidity. 1740 is the date given for the ascendancy of the Enlightenment, 1750 is the date the Industrial Revolution is meant to have taken hold. The Industrial Revolution ripped up our old ways forever. Our romantic ideas about peasants, stage gypsies and noble savages have everything to do with the wholesale destruction of our old patterns and ties. Thousands of people moved to the cities, skills passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, for hundreds of years disappeared overnight, and the tight bonds of village life gave way to anonymity. Non-nomadic peoples started to move from place to place, money and learning (open to anyone with money) made social climbing (once an arduous family task undertaken over generations) possible within anyone’s lifetime, books meant anyone could read about anything at anytime, no longer tied to the inherited traditions orally passed on to us by our Grandmothers we could create our own personas; Queens could play milk-maids, and tramps could claim to be Napoleon and it was only an exaggerated version of what everyone else was doing.
The middle-classes were now the dominant group. What they needed, wanted and felt mattered. The Aristocracy had all the glory and the working-classes had the numbers, but the middle-classes had the energy, an energy that they channelled in to THE QUEST. Middle-classers have to be rising or reforming. They have to be controlling, cementing or maintaining their position. They have to be the benevolent saviours of the unfortunate or they have to be the moral superiors of the degenerate. Born out of extreme disruption they rarely settle for enough. They need to consume, they need to earn, they need to tidy, they need to advance. What we’ve clumped into the Left and the Right is more or less the same thing with different strategies, different tropes, different ways of making the same distinctions. To further the Quest we need to bulwark ourselves against it, we long for clear hierarchies where we dream of ourselves as the leader, we long for collective uniformity, a sameness of which our individual selves would be the prototype, we lose ourselves in highs and oblivions (sugar, religion, drugs, praise… anything sensational) somehow convinced that others are watching and will rescue or follow us.
And the narrative form we rely on to keep the chaos at bay and the Quest on the road is the Melodrama. The Melodrama has no contradictions that it will admit to. The good are very good and the wicked are supernatural in their malevolence. Occasionally the good will have a flaw, and the wicked will have a point but that only underlines the values of the storyteller, it doesn’t make the story more complex. Because the State and therefore the Aristocracy censored the stage, melodrama came late to Britain. Its form and themes didn’t find a stage till 1820, where it forced itself past the Lord Chamberlain with subterfuge and stealth. Melodrama relied on stereotypes and stock situations. A particularly pleasing scene would be repeated by the actors at the crowd’s request. Scenes would include songs, and bits of irrelevant business, and would end in a tableaux (the actors on their knees praying for deliverance, for example). The acting was unsubtle. Plays were mostly about love and home and all the things which could ruin love and home, like drink, adultery (in veiled allusions), rent arrears, unemployment. Often they were dramatised sermons. In line with the need to both Progress and Reform, these sermons would often denounce society for not caring for the poor while denouncing the poor for not rising out of poverty. Soldiers were villains because they put down riots against unpopular laws and injustices, Sailors were heroes because they were extending our political and economic power to every inch of the globe regardless of how unpopular that may be with the natives of other lands. Although melodrama often identified the state of the British worker with the condition of slaves, sometimes in the name of solidarity, sometimes to complain that Reformers cared more for the slaves than they did for the British workers (a complaint that lies at the heart of most British National Party wind-bagging – which keeps it a thankfully impotent force in British politics since all you need to do to undermine it is bung some cash or compliments at the locals). Heroines were chaste and heroes were hard-working, except where heroines were wronged and heroes were destitute. Endings were happy because in real life happiness was rare.
As print became cheaper and illiteracy rates dropped, this stereotyped world of dramatized sermons and stock situations in the name of Progress and Reform moved from the stage to our newspapers, where it passed for real life. Any newspaper that pretends to be soberly reporting the facts is trying to protect a status quo, or cover up, or down play a scandal and any newspaper that is OUTRAGED! is trying to get something – a sacking, a promotion, a new law, a conviction quashed, whatever… Which brings me to the NEWS OF THE WORLD, a paper I’ve only read twice in my life, once to write an essay on British newspapers and once to get a free copy of ‘Clockwise’. The ink made me physically sick it was so cheap but I was pleased to see celebrities I had forgotten existed were up to stuff. I thought the parade of affairs, drink binges, cancer scares and vendettas was entertaining. I thought the celebs would be ‘in on it’ staking their place in our fame mythology, hoping to get a book deal out of ‘MY LESBIAN DRUGS HELL’. It was so Over The Top I couldn’t believe anyone was taking it seriously. Why wouldn’t Tommy Sheridan just snigger over the Swingers Club allegations? Why would a group of militant socialists fall out over it? Why sue and give it wider publicity? Why have the whole thing spiral into hysterical accusations of treachery and sectarianism?
I suppose the answer is that Tommy Sheridan is at one with the world of Melodrama. Its progress, he’s worked his way up to a villa and can waste money on fake tan; its reforms, he tends to agitate for very specific causes, like closing Faslane; it’s terrors – the middle-classes while on the rise – as he is – are paranoid about two things 1. The Glass Ceiling – that a person or group or personal flaw may be standing in the way of their success; the office bully, an ex-lover, the old school tie, the Freemasons, shyness, etc & 2. Usurpation – that a person or group or bond may take them over and do them down; their son, their secretary, Muslim invaders, the Catholic Vote, not being able to leave home (the focus of the fear doesn’t matter, it’s the fear itself that drives them); and its language, a screaming headline is much the same as one of his ranting speeches, both are designed to vilify or laud without mitigation or doubt because mitigation or doubt inhibits action, inhibits pure emotions, inhibits the clarity that melodrama gives to our fractured, unstable, paradoxical lives. That’s why a nineteen year old victim is a boy (we pity the young) and a nineteen year old criminal is a man (we don’t pity anyone in the prime of life, unless we’re lamenting what they didn’t do with their lives – that’s why we’re pitying Amy Winehouse, all that talent gone to waste)
And while the News of the World was made by our love of melodrama, ironically or fittingly, it was also killed by it. Most of its readers didn’t care about celebrities or politicians, they were conditioned to think of them as corrupt; liars, cheats, drug addicts, fraudsters; the wealthy don’t deserve all the power they have, just as the lazy or manipulative don’t deserve hand-outs (the vice versa would be the wealthy as our role models, the totem that says ‘it is possible’ and those who get hand-outs as being oppressed and needy). Milly Dowler was different. She was an innocent young girl, murdered by a brute, leaving behind a grieving family, a grieving family that was wronged by callous journalists. This is agony piled upon agony, Victorian in its melodramatic perfection. That perfection made NoW vulnerable to attacks by people who long ago focused their reforming instincts on News Corp. For them Murdoch is a genuine tentacled monster who rules every part of their existence and who will destroy democracy and impose the evils of LATE CAPATALISM on us all forever. Since all he’s ever done is produce papers that people want to buy and read, and t.v. stations that people tune into, and since he doesn’t seem to have any interests outside of making money (he told the Select Committee that supporting New Labour cost him 200,000 readers and that seemed to be his way of saying ‘we support right-wing opinions because that’s what sells, not because I give a damn’) objectively it’s hard to see why he was so hated over and above any other news-monger, but monstering him was the melodramatic response to the knowledge that his readers and viewers – huge numbers of them – stood in the way of the ambitions of left-wing liberals and the efforts of ‘Quality Journalists’ who try and cover up the Blood & Thunder of their editorials with bigger words; just as the right fume and obsess over the BBC or CNN.
And we still don’t know where this will end. The Select Committee was a respite for Murdoch; he came across as bumbling, sad and old; some idiot attacked him with a pie and his wife Wendi Deng (a woman who has risen to the top from nothing thereby giving hope to everyone) whacked the pie-man, appearing heroic or hilarious, depending on how camp you are; and his son was like a polite but dim rabbit caught in headlights. They didn’t look like evil schemers; they looked like the victims of evil schemers. Hypocritical scandal-plagued politicians out for revenge; the BBC and the Guardian trying to diddle its bigger-selling, higher-rating competition; or the Lady Macbeth machinations of gold-digging Wendi Deng and her love-bombing LOVE RIVAL Rebekah Brooks. And the saga has been thrown off the news agenda, temporarily or semi-permanently (much to the relief of the Daily Mail, and The Mirror, who might be next) by the Norway Atrocity. The Norway Atrocity is huge. It had to be, the Murdoch Scandal was so all-consuming that even a common-as-muck serial killing nurse couldn’t shift it. The Norway Atrocity had a big bomb, wrongly attributed to and claimed by, Islamic terrorists (A THREAT to our way of life), and it had the shooting of lots of beautiful, socially active, young teenagers on a beautiful, relaxing holiday island, rightly attributed to a blond (ARYAN ALERT), anti-Islamic, cultural Marxist-denouncing, Freemason (WHY are they so secret! WHY do they get all the top jobs!), far right-wing, mother’s boy, loner, nutter, ethnic Norwegian (he must consider this emphasis a category triumph), sweater-wearing, uniform-faking, privileged Neo-Nazi (A THREAT to our way of life).
Norway will probably deal with the fall-out from this far better than we will. They may tighten security and put up their prison sentences, they may cry in the streets and create ostentatious shrines out of roses and candles, but they will likely remain a middle-class nation that has successfully balanced making cartloads of cash with reforming zeal. Its malcontents will channel their restless energy into melancholy and suicide on the one hand, and bitter murderous domestic fury on the other. It’s Britain that gets muddled and hysterical whenever a shocking event catches our eye, part of us witch-hunting so it will ‘Never Happen Again’, part of us enjoying the vicarious brush with sudden death. We have form on this, and when I say we, I sort of mean England, like most Scots I reserve the right to ride on their coat-tails when it’s in my personal interest and denounce them as a right bunch of bastards when it’s not. Our Empire was one giant Melodrama. One minute we’re waving Union Jacks and putting down the Indian Mutiny, the next we’re spreading LIBERTY and lamenting the treatment of the Sepoys.
Our middle-class mucking about kept ‘the Irish Question’ unresolved, though really it’s only melodrama that’s made Ireland part of the Empire at all. Ireland is an island right next to Great Britain, its people are the same mix of European tribes; in the early days they invaded us as much as we invaded them, there’s no reason why Ireland couldn’t have evolved into two or three nations, and no reason for it not to fall to a tribe that went by a different name, so it was Gothland, or why its inhabitants shouldn’t have stayed Pagan or turned Protestant or felt English or wanted a Union that made them British. It’s not remotely like taking over India or colonising America. When England broke with Rome in 1534, it did two things, it directly ruled Ireland to keep the Spanish out and it sent agitators up to Scotland to make us break with Rome, which we did in 1560, although we went for Calvinism, not Anglicanism, so we remained a problem – not to England as such, but to their crown. Our Crown (which we didn’t much care for) joined with theirs when Elizabeth I died. James the VI and I disliked war and spent England’s war chest anyway on lions and tigers and bears, so he planted Ulster with Scots after the Earls fled as a cheap way to keep the counter-Reformation and the Spanish from invading. The Ulster Scots were dirt poor and any privileges they gained from the State to help their condition depended on their being and staying Protestant, the Catholic Majority faced with their own chronic poverty and a bunch of stranger heretics who they couldn’t get rid of or marry into, would regularly massacre them as a proxy for the Ruling Class. The Ulster Prods slammed the gates of Derry, formed the Orange Order and really aren’t going to surrender. Not till the melodrama leaves them alone, which it can’t.
It can’t because everything we ever say or think about Ireland is steeped in it. The British Radicals were hoping to ignite another French Revolution, the Irish Americans wanted advancement, the rest of America wanted to break our Empire and nick our trade routes, the Tories wanted to keep the Union since it had a Union and changing the Union would be a change. It had hierarchy; the Protestant Ascendancy or the Catholic Church; it had a uniform identity in all its nationalist symbols, its songs, its colours, its grudges, its language. History is another middle-class obsession. It’s part of the treadmill of high expectations and low opportunities. Almost no one can, or will, make it to the top. Merit is a pyramid scheme. History is a source of collective pride and personal intimations of doom. Great civilizations rise and fall within pages, the rise mirrors our hopes and the fall mirrors our fears. Civilizations don’t die, they morph, but a book will rarely leave a reader with that impression… It had the fairy-folk. It had comical tramps. Irish mothers wept. Irish colleens were wild but pure. Irish lads were dim but faithful. It had terrorists that were noble or evil depending on wither they’d shot a baby or we’d shot them in the back. It had the Orange Order that was noble or evil depending on wither we were against Home Rule or disgusted by the R.U.C. It was Priest-ridden or innocently devout. They gained our hate and our pity on a regular basis. We made political decisions based on who got angry reading their newspaper over breakfast and shouted the loudest and who wept over the famine the longest. Irish Nationalism rarely made the London stage, its patriotism was too intrusive, and one Nationalist play by Dion Boucicault was banned, partly for lyrics that ended like this: ‘Where the cruel cross of England shall never more be seen. And where, please God, we’ll live and die still wearing of the green.’ No one held it against him, but they weren’t going to pay for it. The Melodrama rolls on in St. Patrick’s Day, in Irish Pubs, in the Marching Season, on Bonfire Night, at every Rangers and Celtic match in Glasgow – the supporters are a fairly accurate mix of Irish Catholics and their sympathisers on one hand, and Irish Protestants (who are never referred to as Irish Protestants, partly because their Unionist sympathies make them play down that identity and partly because we don’t like them) and their mostly unwitting allies (and some football fans, but they’re irrelevant). All of it taken to be true and not weird.
Everything in the Middle-class world is weird. It’s an endless binge and a relentless purge. Nothing must stand in its way and something must be done to stop it. It can sell a bra to an eight year old and panic about child abuse. It can put Che Guevara on its wall and buy shares in gas. It can make a Norwegian loser a smirking devil or a defender of Christianity; a junkie Jazz singer a tragic loss or ‘a cheap distraction from the important stories of the day’; a phone-hacking scandal the proof that an evil capitalist overlord has been sneakily destroying our way of life or that everyone is ‘at it’ so they should leave the old man alone. These things will keep happening because we want them to. They’ll keep happening until we obey a new hierarchy, stay content with a uniform identity or lose ourselves in a real oblivion (of sugar, or religion etc); or some other thing morphs our NOW in to our THEN. Blame the Quest, although I guarantee that you will try to learn the secrets of a successful quest while denouncing X, Y or Z for creating it.