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“On Charlie Hebdo: A Letter To My British Friends” by Olivier Tonneau

A great post shared by Mhairi McFarlane about Charlie Hebdo – specifically about the historical context of the magazine, and more interestingly French culture and the relationship between extremism, Islam and French culture.

http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/olivier-tonneau/110115/charlie-hebdo-le tter-my-british-friends

The only thing I didn’t really agree with is the author’s early reduction of an “I am NOT Charlie” position to a callous, simplistic, faux-lefty reaction to some difficult to parse imagery. Elsewhere, I’ve seen it described as “sneering”.

It’s pretty obvious that I’d disagree with this interpretation, as I’ve pretty much taken the “you know what, I don’t think I was Charlie last week, so I probably won’t be Charlie now” position on the aftermath of the attacks on Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve pretty much agreed with quite a few people responding similarly to me, and interpreted their feelings as coming from a similar place.

(Look, this gets really long and probably makes no sense. I kept going back to it during a night of procrastination and head-cold, so nobody should feel they have to read it. It’s brain splurge, and I’ll have forgotten it by morning.)

I know that superficially – despite my usual efforts to painfully, boringly announce and detail every damn feeling I’ve had about a thing – it might’ve looked like I was totally down with censorship, and believe that all satirists should be either kept quiet or murdered. But actually, that isn’t the case. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with, and near the top of that list is that innocent people shouldn’t be killed for making a joke that other people didn’t either understand or like. Yes, I believe that people are still innocent, even after they do stuff that offends people – even quite a few people. I feel that way about Damon Lindelof, and George Lucas, and even Bono.

When I noticed the first few comments about whether or not Charlie Hebdo was a racist rag, I thought it was a) irrelevant and b) a bit soon. The bodies weren’t even cold. Actually, at that point the bodies hadn’t even stopped falling. And now that the funerals have started, I still believe the same thing.

(There won’t be a point where I don’t think politicising the deaths of innocents within minutes of the news breaking won’t be both irrelevant and a bit soon. I’m being pretty consistent about this, too.)

I posted at the time something about the smartness of separating out one’s initial emotional reaction – the one full of grief and shock – and taking the big ideological stances a bit later, when calmer. I still believe that, too. Part of the reason for that is this: It takes a few days for even the smartest, best informed people to start articulating the big points that are really worth reading.

So, my first reaction was “fucksake, people, I know it’s almost always tacky and a bit reductive when people start blindly attaching solidarity hashtags to themselves, but at least they haven’t started on the colour coded profile pics yet… let people have a bit of grief. It doesn’t matter what Hebdo’s content was. The point of lunatic gunmen is they’re lunatic gunmen – you don’t respond to their rhetoric, you respond to the fact of innocents dying.”

Deep down I felt that, like most things, “it’s probably more complicated than you’re suggesting”.

But then within minutes of me seeing those first few dissenting voices, I saw Nigel Farage, on legitimate news sites, using the murders as a springboard to talk about a Fifth Column within “our” (meaning UK) society. And the counter to THAT was almost non-existent.

I DEFINITELY thought “it’s more complicated than Nigel Farage is suggesting”.

Most of the initial responses from normal people I saw weren’t as creepy, but there was this usual blind throwing in with rhetoric that they didn’t know much about. It’s often sincere, but also very immediate and superficial. I didn’t mind it, but I’m apparently a contrarian, so the bluntness of the sentiment didn’t hook me in.

(Also, I love dark satire – Chris Morris is one of my favourite humans – and I’m very conscious that the last thing satire needs is for a mass audience to blindly throw in with it. It’s a comedy that defies catch-phrasing. If you take many lines out of the Brass Eye paedophilia special completely out of context, not only do you sound like a cunt, you also totally break the jokes – which is the worst thing you can ever do to a joke. I wasn’t ever going to claim a different culture’s satire as my own on the spur of the moment like that.)

As the “Je Suis Ahmed” hash-tag started to appear, I got it. I couldn’t claim it either – not my place, and I’m not a big joiner – but I could see how followers of Islam were put in a difficult position by the other hashtag movement. These weren’t last-minute idealists-of-convenience – whether one agrees with Hebdo or Muslims or not, the magazine persistently attacked one of Islam’s deepest held taboos.
It’s impossible for me, and I imagine most of the people I know, to even comprehend what having an article of faith like that is even like, and usually we only see a twisted side of it.
As an atheist, and a Brit, and a white dude with a sociopathic streak, I’ve got even less context for what it would be like being a Muslim in France with a magazine like Charlie Hebdo breaking taboos all up in my face and me just dealing with it, and then the offices being fatally attacked and me having a natural instinct to mourn for the tragedy, than I do about the historical French context of Hebdo.

And liberals… well, most hard-core liberals didn’t have much choice in the matter either. In this world where nuance is dead on every side of every argument, where it isn’t possible to articulate uncertain or complicated points of view, liberals were stuck, because at a point where sincere offence has been taken by an actually marginalised group, liberals HAVE to take it seriously. As an instinct I think it’s broadly speaking a good one, because nobody should love a bully. But HOW seriously is a matter of personal choice, and like most ideologies it doesn’t scale down well into hash-tags.

And you HAD TO USE a hash-tag, so if you cared but weren’t going in kicking, what could you do? I think the main confusion in Tonneau’s post – at least as far as THIS “je ne suis pas Charlie or anyone” chap is concerned – is that not all of the reaction to this tragedy is just about Charlie. In my case, it’s to the cultural aftershock. (In my case it’s almost ALWAYS about the cultural aftershock). The immediate social networking solidarity, heartfelt and fast and as appropriate as it’s possible for tiny posts about shock and god-bless can be, and then the almost as immediate need for people to make deeper comments about it, before we even knew what “It” was.

Very quickly, before even “Je Suis Ahmed”, the hash-tag solidarity created this sort of “for-or-agin-it” culture. If you had any sad feeling about the attacks at all, it felt like if you didn’t frame it in the most simplistic, already echoing terms, you were INSTANTLY in an argument about how you weren’t being sad about the attacks in the right way – something depressingly familiar in online discussion of any big story, I know. I’ve seen someone cleverer than me refer to it as public mood being set at Dead Diana. It’s weird.

Worse, though – and this was really the point at which I started commenting on Charlie myself, because it’s when it got a bit uncomfortable personally for me – something which started happening among Brits I know, but that Tonneau is lucky to have missed, was that the discussion about Charlie quickly became about people defining what it is and isn’t right to be offended by, and what is and isn’t racist, and wrapping themselves in the Charlie Hebdo flag.

This isn’t a straightforward area – it’s a pure “it’s probably more complicated than you’re suggesting” one. Thanks to Tonneau – and I really do mean thanks! – I now have a better understanding of what the French cultural landscape is and has been like historically.

Among the things I now know – or had my confirmation bias massaged on – are that Muslims are a marginalised group in France, that their leaders have voiced issues with Charlie Hebdo before, but that those same leaders, with no real conflict of interest, decried the attacks. That the treatment of Muslims and immigrants in France is NOT GREAT, which was something that despite misunderstandings, Charlie Hebdo took great issue with. That according to Tonneau, historically speaking it wasn’t Islam or immigration that likely made young men into murderers in this instance.

As many have already said, over and over, France apparently has a tradition of this sort of confrontational satire.

But as much as I didn’t know about French culture, I personally also haven’t been responding to the French cultural response to the attacks. Aside from attacks on some mosques – which is terrible but not unpredictable – the French seem to be responding pretty well – the citizens marching for unity, the politicians acting like they’re down with free speech, and Charlie Hebdo still breaking the same taboo, but doing it in a heartbreaking, incredibly poignant, way.

Many of the Brits and Americans I know – because I’m lazy as hell and mostly only know Brits and Americans – have happily turned it into the same old cultural pissing contest we turn everything into, but with a side-order of sudden inexplicable solidarity with French Culture.

Which is a problem. Because in the UK, while we DO have a tradition of irreverence and satire, we’ve also got a deep seam of racism running through our media and our politics. We aren’t alone in Europe, I know, and at the moment, you’d think we only hate Eastern Europeans, but… But…

When you read about a long-held anti-authoritarian tradition in French culture and humour, that separates the conflation of religion from race – something Tonneau makes a strong case for – it’s worth considering that we don’t really have that same tradition in Brit culture, at least where Islam is concerned.

There are people who make the argument that we DO have that sort of nuance in our culture, but those people are usually quite canny racists, or such hard-line atheists that they don’t always care about the human implications of the ideas they’re leaning into.
Or idealists who ignore our mainstream media, or believe that because our mainstream media are dumb poo-poo heads they somehow aren’t a barometer for our cultural identity.

In the UK, at least in the UK mainstream, Islamaphobia and racism are definitely, often if not always, linked. To the extent that our news media, in the last year or two, have been able to sell a lot of papers and spread a lot of fear, on the idea that shockingly there are now white (WHITE!) fundamentalist Muslim terrorists! I don’t think that’s that controversial a thing to say.

For me, personally, at the very least my eyebrow raises when a white Brit friend starts explaining why a marginalised group is wrong to be offended about something, because most of the time it’s quite familiar, with unfortunate associations.

When that group didn’t actually raise the issue in the first place – Je Suis Ahmed seems a fairly diplomatic response to a situation that the murderers raised, and social media responded to, and most of us only know about it because our liberal friends are sharing it – long-winded, well-worn attacks on that group seem extra beside-the-point.

When the comments following most of those attacks very quickly give way to “you can’t say anything about the Muslims these days but I bet if it was a granny accidentally being racist at the Bingo the police’d be right down there” and “this is what happens when a government won’t listen and we’ve been going easy on these people for 15 years” – in THE UK, mind, where the government aren’t going easy on ANYBODY, but for years were happily chucking brown people into detention on the off-chance they might have met a terrorist once – I’m going to have trouble at least not taking the piss out of the commenters, and the post, and Islam and the French and every other fucker. And then I’ll make a joke about how I’m a wanking wanker.

Because we’re ALL ridiculous. And “it’s probably more complicated than they’re suggesting”.

It doesn’t matter whether Charlie Hebdo is racist or not, in relation to the murders, or any unlawful attacks on the magazine. To get into a debate about whether it is is a huge red herring – lots of energy expended, exposing our own personal agendas, while not really making any impact on the tragedy itself. It’s not a discussion that covers any one in glory.

And I’m not even convinced that standing for or against a hashtag has anything to do with free speech. I’m not convinced the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices, or the ones that followed, had anything to do with free speech, and to suggest they were, however well-meaning, is to legitimise the excuses the murdered gave themselves.

I keep reading people with very worthwhile opinions, who are paid to give them, saying that democracy and the right to free speech can not be dictated by a handful of men with guns, and the truth is, they’re right. It can’t, any more than it can be dictated by the death of a dozen cartoonists. To suggest otherwise is simplistic.

At this point I can basically say what I like, right? Nobody ever reads past the second paragraph, and there’s a good chance I’ve been task avoiding on auto-pilot since the first paragraph, anyway. Let’s just say that, if you’ve found yourself disagreeing with me in the last few days on this subject, and yet are WAY more reasonable than, and don’t see yourself in, any of the behaviours I’ve described, than we’ve just been talking at crossed purposes, and have been experiencing slightly different parts of the internet at different times, and I still love you I PROMISE.

Grant me a couple of minutes, and you will see your choice was right. Affair is looking for its chance.

I’m pretty sure that sharing spam messages is old hat by now, and it’s a bit weird to drop this on a blog that’s as disused as this one is these days, but this arrived in a shared inbox at work, and there’s so much whimsical, poetically worded prettiness in it that I wanted to record it somewhere before deleting it forever.

So here it is, from Kelsey:

Hello sexual prince Are you okay? How is your mood? I am very worried and do not know how to start this letter . I am a beautiful , kind and sexy girl . my name Kelsey . I am 30 years old. I have the large business, I am engaged in sale of flowers. I will be very strongly glad to get acquainted with you. So it turned out that business took away too much free time and I didnt manage to find the man. Namely to your city. Certainly I not so imagined the rest and thought that to me will be interesting and cheerful. But now I decided to correct it. I took vacation at work and arrived to your country. I dreamed of that that I will get acquainted with the man and I will spend with him excellent time. But there was all absolutely on the contrary. Here within 3 weeks I am absolutely alone. I will tell you honestly. it is boring for me in your country. I go to bed and wake up one in a cold bed. I will tell honestly. that it is even more difficult to be without sex during the long
time. I forgot when in my life there was a sex. I am the nice, young, beautiful woman. I have money. At present I want to find the man for sex Yes, Yes the man for sex. I understand that I arrive strange but I offer you will meet me. I will pay all expenses. We could spend not bad time together. What do you think of it? I prepared video for you and posted it in the Internet. My spoken language is one many better than written. On it it would be pleasant to me if you watched my video. In it I tell about myself in more detail. I ask you not to write me on Email. As I very seldom check the mail. If you were interested by my offer, ask you to be registered on a site and to find me there. On this site I uploaded the video I Beg you to present to me one minute and to make it. Site Address SEXMEETINGCHAT.BIZ my nickname angelledy On it I will finish the letter to you. I hope that I interested to you. I wait for you on a site. I hug and kiss you in your lips, bye PS Ya publ
ished phone number on the website. I hope that you will call me.

So We Finally Decorated Our Walls

Took these photos a week or so ago, after putting these up. I’m no expert picture hanger, and the frames are just cheap and cheerfuls from The Range, but I think the art in them more than makes up for my lame skillz.

I’ll acknowledge here and now that a) I’m just showing off, because I think some of this stuff is pretty cool, and b) these aren’t great photos: the light isn’t great in the corridors in our house, and I’m just using the camera on my phone, so.

These are as good a place as any to start. Pretty minimal, but cute, tiny triptych we got from one of those trendy replica 70s camera shops in Brighton, but it’s taken bloody ages to actually put them anywhere. They’re on the wall facing the top of the stairs, just outside the toilet. I guess I could claim there’s a water theme going on.

Water Feature

(But there isn’t.)

 

This is our upstairs corridor, and I’m hoping to fill it up at some point. This isn’t a particularly clear photo – there’s no natural light up there – but I wanted to show you roughly how these pictures fit together.

Context

I’ve had this Mucha print for years, hanging about in one of my big portfolio folders that’s knocking around from when I did art A-levels. Last week it came down to either putting it up somewhere or acknowledging that I never would and getting rid of it.

Mucha

It doesn’t really square with the other stuff that’s up – it’s got that weird “embossed/mounted” thing going on – but I’m glad I didn’t get rid of it. It’s a beautiful image.

 

This is one of a handful of these images that found a home on the wall within six months of me buying it. I picked it up from Mr Erskine at ThoughtBubble 2013 – which I think is the first time I met him in person, which was lovely! – and it’s representative of a particular time in comics, and in his work, that really resonates with me.

Erskine

 

We’re lucky enough to have spent a bit of time with the artists on these two pieces.

The Ororo/Storm image is by Dave Stokes, and if you can find him at a convention or online, you should definitely pick up one of his art books, at the very least.

This original art was very reasonably priced indeed!

Stokes_Cadwell

…As was this glorious piece of expressionistic loveliness from Warwick Johnson-Cadwell. Hawk The Slayer, or the Beastmaster? To be honest, I can’t remember without checking… I don’t know either film, but I loved the composition, the very direct colour, and the way Warwick draws scenery!

This is a cool print by David Wynne:

David Wynne

It was part of a set of three, but I couldn’t afford/place all of them, so I picked my favourite. I love the colour, the monsters, and the old-time Hollywood greats in the background.

(If I’m honest, the bit I really focus on are that awesome Laurel and Hardy in the background.)

An oddity, here… I know that Sandman image was promotional, for the Dream Hunters graphic novel, but I’ve no idea where I got it from. I’ve definitely never met Neil Gaiman, or Yoshitaka Amano.

Amato_Langridge

It’s lovely, though!

And this is a page from one of the Fred The Clown comics. I’ve got two original pieces of Roger Langridge art, and I think his was the first original art I ever did buy.

He’s amazing.

This is a Kabuki print thing I got for a birthday, over ten years ago.

Kabuki

It isn’t a particularly unusual image, and to be honest it’s little more than poster (although I think it might be signed, and part of a small cluster of similar items that I got given at the same time). But it’s been knocking around, just resting on top of a shelf unit, for long enough that Amy and I have got quite fond of it.

Here’s one of the oldest, most gorgeous art things I own, nestled in a spot that looks like an after-thought, but is actually right there in the middle of our staircase. It’s a set of lithographs from 1980 called World Without End, painted by Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Jeff Jonest

In another, more beautiful world, Jones is still making comics and art and everybody knows her work.

Not this one.

Downstairs is even more erratic than up. Here’s one wall:

Dining room wall

The far left is one of those cheap-but-pretty canvas acrylics bought from a little shop in a little alley built into a steep hill on a Greek honeymoon.

In the middle there’s a painting by an old friend of mine called Maja Hill. We bumped into her and her husband for the first time in ages the other week.

On the right is one of three commissions we’ve had from indie publishing hero Marc Ellerby. I think this one was a present for my wife, but I can’t remember what the occasion was. The main thinking behind it was that our previous group drawing from him was from before we had the stupid little black dog Willow.

Then there’s these two behemoths:

Blade of the Immortal context

I’m still a little bit stunned that Amy let me put these up, as she has no relationship with the comic they’re from, but I guess the gorgeousness of the painted art won her over. These are both Blade Of The Immortal prints. The one on the left is one of my favourite pieces of art. Both are, I believe, by Hiroaki Samura.

Finally, just a quick bonus shot of what our graphic novels (some of them, anyway) look like since we moved them downstairs. It might not be clear from this photo, but look at the bottom…

Shelves

…these units are pushed back into an odd corner of our living room, and are fitted to the shape of the curved wall. It looks pretty cute in person.

So anyway, self-indulgent I know, but some of that art is SO DAMN PRETTY. When I get a minute, I’ll link to all of the artists that I got that art from, but you should definitely consider Googling them and throwing some money their way if you have it!

(All You Can Do Is) Step Back In Time

This is going to be a rushed post, because I get the feeling that if I don’t pull the trigger on it fast, I won’t pull the trigger on it at all.

Recently – through tragic circumstances that would make anyone think about the unflinching passage of time, memory and mortality – I reconnected with an old university friend on Facebook.

(Any time I reconnect with someone on Facebook from a very long time ago, it makes me think about memory, time and dying. I am not the person Friends Reunited was invented for.)

SO ANYWAY, that got me thinking. And then a new acquaintance from Twitter – take a bow, Rachael Burns, who is now ancient at thirty years old – was gifted with a lovely collection of vinyl, among which where some albums by the Cocteau Twins.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Cocteaus in the last couple of weeks – eight straight hours of Sigur Ros while chasing down a deadline recently got me thinking a lot about the benefits of ambient, emotional music with nebulous lyrics – and the combination of all these things made me ask this old university chum whether any of the videos we did for our Media course still existed somewhere.

I skipped ahead a bit there. One of our big group projects at uni was to produce a music video. I may be misremembering some of what follows, but I feel the need to share it before I show you what I’m going to show you.

The remit was to make a music video to accompany a song of our own choosing. We had access to pretty up-to-date technology, which at the time were these bulky video cameras – that had a few in-camera filters and effects that were pretty basic by contemporary standards, but addictive as hell, as you’re about to see – modern editing equipment – which at the time meant VHS I think – and we had zero budget.

As I recall, I pushed for the Cocteau Twins, because I loved the Cocteau Twins – I have vague memories of subjecting the group to a battery of songs for tone, most of which were totally unsuitable – and as a group we decided on a music video with a narrative. Both of these things were totally out of step with what the other groups were doing, we would later find. Everybody’s work looked pretty good, but ours was the most swoony, pretty, least heavy song, and the most visceral and horrible video. I have memories of Metallica to swishy shots of autumn trees, and then our melodic scenes of death and destruction.

I felt pretty good about the early stages of the project. I’d got a decent amount of input on the song, and the story – areas I was confident in – but we had to decide on someone to go in front of the camera, and nobody wanted to. I think I may have been out of the room when it was decided that I’d be the central protagonist.

I can’t act. After three years of podcasting, I can still barely deliver a pre-scripted line. I didn’t have a very good self-image at the time, so couldn’t be objective about how I looked on camera, but then maybe that was true of most twenty-year-old media students at the time.

That’s the preamble, which I’ve included because I feel the need to apologise for every damn thing I’ve ever done, and offer CONTEXT. The truth is this was a successful project by most metrics, but I can’t get over how weird it feels seeing myself centre stage at that age, and how much the means of production have dated.

 

Other useful notes:

  • It was all filmed in central Southampton and Bitterne Triangle, mostly in the parks opposite what is now Southampton Solent University, but also in the alleyway near the back of Primark.
  • The make-up effects were entirely provided by McDonalds, which used to be around the corner from our alleyway location.
  • The story, in case it isn’t clear, is that the protagonist lost his girlfriend in horribly tragic circumstances, and is torn up that the last time he saw her they argued. He is drifting around, sullen as fuck and disoriented. People keep disrupting his day, and he has dark fantasies about violent responses. This was that nebulous period on the cusp of the eighties and nineties, pre-irony – girlfriends were always dying, leaving trails of revenge and regret.
  • Yes, he does get himself straightened out in a church at the end. Pre-irony, remember? That church is on my way home from work now. I don’t think we asked for permission to film in there.
  • The bits in daylight are supposed to be real. The bits at night are the fantasy. We decided that this wasn’t a clear enough visual motif, so someone decided that the protagonist should wear different clothes in each, which meant jacket off in one, jacket on in the other. Someone decided that the bits shot at night in Autumn should be the bits where I was in a tee-shirt. That someone wasn’t me.
  • I’m also dismayed to see that the boyfriend/girlfriend bits aren’t as prominent in the cut as I remembered. This is upsetting because a) the happy-couple bits got quite cool and intense and b) because my video-girlfriend felt weird slapping me – I know, right? – I had to get her real-life wound up at me, so when she slapped me on camera, she really slapped me. It seems unfair that our method acting and my pain didn’t quite make it in properly (it probably looked shit).
  • Yes, I know, I was dreamy. I don’t understand how I never saw it before. Sigh.

So, yeah. Time to post this, I guess. Remember, kids: never let other people humiliate you. The only person you should allow to humiliate you is you.