Category Archives: history

cinema of the Dutch Golden Age


[Jan Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring,  WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

I’m writing a chapter on realism and Golden Age Dutch art, and the films Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway) and Admiral (Roel Reiné). All 3 films are interesting represntations of the Dutch “Golden Age”, yet are totally different in subject and style. I recommend all of them! Girl with a Pearl Earring is about Jan Vermeer making the famous painting (above); Nightwatching is about Rembrandt making the eponymous painting and the consequences of that, and Admiral is about the life of Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter.

To my mind, the main thrust of Girl with a Pearl Earring is to achive heightened realism by the total recreation of 17thC Delft life; Nightwatching‘s thrust is to explore Rembrandt’s painterly techniques transposed onto film; Admiral uses tropes of Dutch painting (from Vermeer to van der Velde) to cement the story’s time and place, give it gravitas and affirm its significance. It’s interesting to see how each film does this and how the paintings they refer to resonate in different ways. Also the totality of Dutch painting as a precursor to cinema is always present in the back of the mind of any who sees these works.

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The first ever horror movie?

Art History for Film Makers

The first ever horror movie?


[the woman holds a ‘magic’ lantern casting the drawing of the Devil onto the wall]

Giovanni Fontana “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” – showing how to create a projection of a Devil drawing, using a ‘magic’ lantern
These were used for a variety of purposes: as entertainment, in theatres, at sideshows and by those seeking to manipulate the credulous.
Fontana was a scientist trained in medicine, but he fancied him self as a bit of a magician (called himself a ‘magus’) and this was probably due to his interest in “natural magic” – a fine line between the natural sciences and alchemy.
The original “bellicorum instrumentorum liber” is in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, but the pictures are all online.
I can’t find a date for the book, but Fontana was born in 1395 and died in 1455 so it was sometime in that period.

The specific technology of the lantern is not apparent here, as the illustrated lantern seems to simply have been a glass  lamp with a candle, with the devil figure drawn on the glass to project a larger image. However, although this does work to some degree, it probably wouldn’t project the image as clearly as Fontana’s drawing suggests. But in this period  Leon Battista Alberti is thought to have possibly projected painted pictures from a small closed box with a small hole* so I am guessing that quite a few people were experimenting with projections, for different reasons – to create theatrical effects, to understand the science of light and vision and – as Fontana suggests – to scare and manipulate the credulous. Fontana seems to be saying that these were used for that purpose and did work. It could be that neither Fontana nor Alberti were quite ready to share the specifics of their own technical discoveries, hence Fontana’s sketchy drawing that does not reveal the mechanics of his lantern, and the absence of detail about Alberti’s box.


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seeking the sublime in Paris

“the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

OK so I’m going to go and do some research in Paris soon. Am going to bunk down in the Large Scale 19th Century Paintings room in the Louvre and analyse what’s ‘cinematic’ about them.


[Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, wikimedia commons]

However back in the day, these gigantic pictures  were often exhibited more like movies: in darkened rooms, covered by a velvet curtain, tickets and at timed entry points.

I’m researching the relationship between realism and the sublime in these pictures and how this relates to the relationship between realism and the sublime in cinema, in films that present historical subjects.

Gericault researched the subject of his great painting, Raft of the Medusa, very thoroughly. he ended up knowing more about the real life shipwreck and the resulting cannibalism than even those who had survived it. Yet when he came to painting it he didn’t try to just replicate the scene, he made it truly terrifying yet awe-fully riveting. Cinema (and present day high-quality TV) does the same thing.

I’m presently compelled by the dramatic fact-ion of Black Sails, for example – a heady mixture of realism and sublime, of historical and material research and high-drama fictive imagination.Many people have been similarly stirred by Gladiator, for instance – a film famously inspired by a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme.


[Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, wikimedia commons]

Ridley Scott therefore had Gérôme, uncredited, on boards as a kind of proto production designer.  It was Gérôme who imagined and worked out how the picture the roaring crowds at the Colosseum and the dire moment of imperial whim over life and death. He exhaustively researched Ancient Rome, but he also must have had a pretty sage understanding of how crowds operate.

Imagine how Gericault might have  production designed for a blockbuster film or series of the Raft of the Medusa story! The writer Jonathan Crary pointed out that about the only in depth research the painter didn’t conduct, was sampling a bite of human flesh from the cadavers he was studying to see what drowned flesh looked like.

“…whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling … ” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

Of course, Burke also noted that “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration and chiefly excites our passions.” And he is right: it is precisely our personal ignorance of what it would be like to experience being shipwrecked on a  raft and forced eat my colleague’s dead flesh (hint: awful) – or what it would be like to be a pirate in the early 18th century Caribbean (hint: horrible, by today’s luxe standards)  – that make these scenarios appealing through the medium of art.

So, let’s see what I find. Am not just going to look at Gericault and his friends in Denon 77- I’m also going to see the many dramatic murals that are spread around the city. Paris has many more interior murals than London.

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Art History for Film Makers Facebook page

I have set up a FB page for readers of my book Art History for Film Makers and anyone else who’s interested in the junction between art and cinema.

here’s the link

I would love it if people would actively engage with the subject, so we’ll see.

Meanwhile here is some Eugene Delacroix in advance of the exhibition opening at the London National Gallery on 17 Feb – I have an opening day ticket (excited)


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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

I just finished reading this New York Times article by Timothy Egan talking about how Americans have lost any sense of history and are ignorant about their own history. I don’t know enough about the situation the United States of America today to know whether or not Timothy Egan is correct, but I can say for sure that it is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, where I’m currently living.

Part of what I do is educating, and I find myself confronted by intelligent students coming out of school and college wanting to learn, yet with very little grasp of any meaningful understanding of history. Many struggle to make connections between events in the past and the present, and fail to realise that history is a very broad area that inter-relates culture, art, media, sports, technology, way of life, etc., as well as the ‘boring’ lists of kings, queens, wars and statutes. Explaining to them how the capitalist system came into being and how it actually operates, and its historical context, was a revelation to most of them.

My own school curriculum was fairly mixed, and it really depended on who was teaching the subject. I was really lucky junior high and alternative school to have amazing history teachers, but in regular high school ‘social studies’ just went through the motions, and nobody learned anything.

I think I was always just naturally interested in history, among other things, and that’s what led me to pick it as my major when I went to university. I didn’t go there intending to study history, I went there with an interest in theater and I was studying English, but my history classes were just so interesting I found myself taking more and more of them, right up to PhD. Although I didn’t go on to become an academic historian, the writing of cultural history is  one of my pursuits.  I’m the kind of person who is interested in history and actually reads history for fun, and reads things such as newspapers or watches documentaries or TV programs with a kind of historical and analytical mindset. I’m quite aware that that is not ‘most people’.

However, and here’s where we get back to Egan’s argument, it’s not really necessary for everybody to love history; it is necessary to have at least some kind of grasp of historical context. A very immediate example is what I watched on question time, the British current affairs program on the BBC, last night. Recently, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles was observed having a private conversation, where he apparently (in fact, there isn’t any real evidence of it) made some off-the-cuff remark likening Pres. Putin to Hitler. The media duly reported it as fact. Hence its appearance on the current affairs program alongside actual problems such as Britain’s current housing crisis.

Of course, likening any present day political leader to Hitler is completely egregious as well as totally stupid. I’m not really sure why people keep using the Nazi comparison, except total and utter intellectual laziness.

But that is by the by. What really appalled me was when the politician Neil Hamilton spoke up in opposition to the fairly unanimous mass agreement of the audience and the rest of the panel, that Putin did indeed share a number of characteristics with Hitler. Let me say first, I’m  no fan whatsoever of Mr. Hamilton or his party. This is not the place for me to explain why, but let me just say I don’t share their ideology one iota. I have no plans to vote for them and I’m not impressed whatsoever by Mr. Hamilton’s career as a politician. Nor am I a particular fan of Mr Putin, unlike the leader of Mr Hamilton’s party. (anyway it does not matter if I support Putin)

However, from a historical point of view, Mr. Hamilton was actually correct in what he said. Mr. Hamilton appealed to the sense of historical perspective, and asked the audience and his fellow panelists to consider the historical context of what they were blithely agreeing to. He pointed out that for many different reasons, one cannot actually compare Putin to Hitler, and made the point, which I thought was really good, that to liken Putin to Hitler is actually incredibly insulting,  given the way in which Russia suffered during the second world war fighting Hitler. Hamilton’s appraisal of the comparison was acute and well observed, and backed up by facts which could all be easily checked by recourse to a reasonably decent history book. Actually, even Wikipedia would have been able to inform the audience sufficiently to get them to reconsider their views.

It’s funny, because I don’t think that, even if the Prince  did mention Hitler, it was anything more than an off-the-cuff remark. What’s really creepy is that whole panel of people, including the ‘PhD qualified’ Cambridge graduate, Tristram Hunt of the Labour [sic]  Party, were quite willing to agree that, yes, actually, there is something to be said for the comparison. I’m really aghast at this. Russia today, and since the late 90s is not anything like Germany after the first world war. It has a lot of problems, but they are not the same problems. The Russians have no systematic program of perceived superiority or desire to wipe out an entire race or sector of people. The Russians have no systematic program to invade and enslave mass populations in order to give themselves ‘living space’: in fact, they barely know what to do with their own enormous amount of living space. As Hamilton pointed out, the history of Ukraine (not to mention the Caucasus)  is extraordinarily complicated, and certainly that complicated history is never properly addressed in media reports about what’s going on there right now. It’s far easier to just have the romantic idea of  “freedom”, and let’s just forget about the facts.

So, just as we’ve been conditioned by the media and craven politicians to believe that Serbians are by nature a bunch of bloodthirsty Balkan monsters led by vampires; and that Egyptians couldn’t possibly have rejected their ‘democratically elected’ leader; and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, we are now supposed to join in the chorus of Adolph = Vladimir and start – start what? Preparing for war? Ok, so where is the new Omaha Beach? Because if he really is Hitler, we must do something about it. But, of course, were not going to, because he isn’t a Hitler and  nobody actually believes he is. But again, we have to have our two-minute hate.

What horrified me more than anything was the way in which the presenter of question time, Dimbleby, shouted down Neil Hamilton’s explanation by saying something like “Enough. Now we don’t need a history lesson.”

But a history lesson is exactly what we need. Where on earth are we going to get it?

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This article:

Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel., by Musa Okwonga

following up to my post about Nelson Mandela – I love this article by Musa Okwonga who takes a clear headed and non sentimental view of things.

The other day on Facebook I too exception to those who felt the need to point out that “Mandela was racist” – there are some stupid far right websites that have concocted this lie in order to push their filthy agendas. Okwonga is the perfect riposte to this: Mandela was angry – and had a right to be; Mandela was a fighter – because something as bad as apartheid and the whole global mind set that is emerges from (colonialism!!!) needs to be fought, not cuddled; Mandela was a pragmatist and a strategist. [1]

Mandela was not a saint;  that would have been creepy. He was a man, among many, who knew they had to fight for freedom and justice In doing so he liberated the minds of so many., But as Okwonga points out, there are many more steps to take. The fight for social justice continues.

I don’t agree with Okwonga that capitalism is race based. The rich are getting richer and the poor are not; but I don’t thing that capitalism is racist, I just think that wealth seeks to preserve and perpetuate itself and to do that it has to deny its benefits to most of us. Fanon points out that the postcolonial elites are not going to be any better than the colonial elites, and so it has proved. It’s the concept of the elites themselves, hoarding the wealth and passing it amongst themselves, that counts.

Today the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that almost 13 million Britons are now living in poverty, having suffered a “sustained” and “unprecedented” fall in their living standards. This means that people with jobs working long and hard, are getting poorer. That myth of “work hard and you will make it” has proved to be hollow in this world where the 1% will not give up their entitlement, but seek instead to enslave us further, no matter our race creed or colur.

In South Africa most of that entitlement is racial, but even if you got rid of the self-entitled white rich they would be replaced by self entitled black rich. It’s the system that has to go.

Let’s not forget, the SA government did not put Mandela in  jail because he was a black activist. The jailed him because they believed he was a Communist. It turned out that he wasn’t.

[1] Okwonga says “You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. “Let’s get together, and feel alright.” Yes, you will do that.” BUT LET US NOT FORGET that reggae music itself is not actually a “sit in the sun get stoned feel good” music. It’s revolution music!!!! Even in his most “touchy feely song” One Love, Marley says “Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armagiddyon” It;’s a call to unit, but to unite and FIGHT.

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December 8, 2013 · 11:36 am

Nelson Mandela, Peace and Love

‘Peace and Love’

that old hippy mantra

cynically, we snigger, “peace and love? As if. What have you been smoking, hippy?”

yet in our lifetimes we knew a man who lived Peace and Love Who practiced it. Who more than any of us, could have been expected to be embittered and turn away from both peace and love.  This man died today.

In 1990 I remember him walking out of prison. It was incredible. At this moment we on earth actually witnessed an incredibly rare moment of human greatness. South African white President Frederik de Klerk defied the South African system and its apartheid ideology by freeing Nelson Mandela and legitimizing the ANC. Mandela made it very clear that he would work towards equality and a free South African for all.  By 1994 Mandela was himself President.

It was amazing that between them, two individuals could change history, could change hearts. de Klerk by giving up White Political Privilege – not just for South Africans, but – symbolically – for all of us. Mandela for firmly standing by the idea of freedom and dignity in equality. Two Enlightenment men. Who says individuals cannot shape history?

And as President, and for many years after, until this very day 5.12.2013, Mandela has symbolised the successful struggle for dignity and equality and the meaning of freedom. He has, in short, embodied Peace and Love.

…and yet …

almost a year before the great moment of freedom, in China the “communist” government massacred some thousand or so of its citizens in Tianamen Square. Having this shown its hand to the world they then proceeded to instill their version of state capitalism. It seemed so alien so brutal and so inhuman. I can remember turning my face away from the TV in disgust.

But the world we have made since 1990 is a world shaped more by the spirit of Tianamen Square than by Nelson Mandela. Materialism and greed, toleration of unfreedom and disrespect for human dignity is the order of the day, across the planet. We will now watch the world’s leaders and their venal supporters weep crocodile tears for Nelson Mandela.

…. but …

there is still a sliver of hope. Sometimes the world produces visionaries like Gandhi and Mandela. Sometimes it produces intelligent pragmatists like de Klerk. Sometimes good people can change things. Sometimes Peace and Love stop being platitudes and really happen.

Nelson Mandela RIP 18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013


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Syria – thoughts on intervention

– I seem to be blogging more about politics than I used to. This even though I have a (non political) film out that I want to promote… sigh

If I had any reason to believe that UK, French and US intervention in the Syrian civil war would cause the Civil War to end, atrocities to stop, or any of the obvious desirable outcomes to happen, I would fully support such intervention. However, for whole host of reasons, I have no way of believing that military intervention would be a positive step.

I’m going to give a few of these reasons here, but by no means is this a complete list.

The first reason is the obvious one, Iraq. On the day that the US and the UK announced they were going to consider seriously some kind of intervention, buried at the bottom the front page was very familiar news indeed. This news was that 50 people, I repeat 50 people, were killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad. This is the Baghdad that we liberated from the brutal dictator in the 2003 military intervention. Although our leaders have congratulated themselves that Baghdad today, in 2013, is a better Baghdad than it was five or six years ago, the fact is, it’s much worse Baghdad than it was 12 or 13 years ago. This does not in any way exonerate or excuse the regime of Saddam Hussein. But there is surely a difference between an unpleasant regime and a chaotic ongoing situation where people buying their groceries in a market can be blown up by an armed militia with an agenda that is not only completely unrealizable, but appears to be completely inhuman the same time. We all know that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was, whatever the rights and wrongs of its justifications as an actual fact, as it actually happened, was a total and utter failure. We failed for a great number of reasons. Aside from the countless journalistic reports of this failure which are available, books have been written in recent years. One particularly stands out, which is “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” – a 2006 book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

I don’t support the idea of intervention in Syria, not because I support Assad – or, more properly speaking the faction led (at least in name) by Assad and the Assad family. But the reasons the Assad dynasty are even there are very complex and unfortunately, like a whole host of horrors such as Gen. Pinochet in Chile, and even Saddam Hussein himself, were maneuvered into their roles by those great saviors Britain, France and or United States. There are countless examples around the world of regimes friendly to our Western powers, yet extremely unfriendly to their own citizens, who are tolerated, supported and for the most part what they do is ignored. Heaven forbid however, if those regimes turn against our Western powers or for whatever reason lose their support. Make no mistake, the support has nothing whatsoever to do with the way the regimes treat their citizens. Let me say this again: Western support for regimes around the world has nothing whatsoever to do with the way those regimes treat their own citizens.

I got particularly worried about this proposed intervention. When I saw the so-called socialist leader of France, François Hollande, making a rousing speech in support of intervention. Fresh from his success in Mali, intervening in what was actually a local conflict and not a Civil War, Holland was obviously feeling very confident. It goes without saying that, whatever your position on this intervention, the situation in Mali was completely different to what is going on in Syria. In any case, the point is that France has a terrible history in Syria, and this history is the key to the current structure of the country, and its current system of governance. It begins with one of those lovely European “agreements” – in this case the Sykes–Picot Agreement – to which those who are subject to the agreement have no part. Of course, the population of the territory now knows Syria did not enjoy the so-called French mandate very much and they objected. It’s never mentioned in the news today the violence with which the French imperialist put down these revolts and the way in which they manipulated the different and quite diverse groups within this former territory of the Ottoman Empire, in order to create a situation that would be convenient for the French, though not at all convenient for the Syrians.

To me it is an obscenity see the president of France even imagining a French military return to the Syrian territory. It was only in 1936 that something resembling an independent Syrian state actually came about, to the reluctance of France. That this independent state was problematic puts it, alongside so many other countries constructed by, and damaged by, European imperialism. The idea that having failed to bring about your ideals in this territory once, even if it was over 80 years ago, you think you have what it takes to have another crack at it, is questionable. I’m not saying that France today is the same country, country was in the 1920s, with the same mentality. However, in historical time 80 odd years isn’t really very long.

The the third reason for me is whether something is dreadful as using chemical weapons could even be stopped within this type of context. Sadly, I really don’t think that it can. I wish that it could be. If it could be. I be the first person cheering on Obama, etc. But let’s be honest, do we really think it would work? In any case, it’s really not clear what exactly is going on in Syria right now. We have to be very very careful of the trust that we put in video evidence, and in reportage. It’s not that it’s necessarily lying is just the full picture is not necessarily clear. Until the picture is clear, any foreign military intervention cannot happen – and Iraq surely taught us this, if nothing else. I’m reminded of the Kosovo intervention the late 90s. At the time this appeared to be a very clear-cut case of aggression led by Serbian leader Milosevic against a beleaguered ethnic group. Blair and Clinton’s intervention was seen to be justified, and was popular. However, the bombing of Belgrade had significant civilian targets. Subsequently, both Kosovo and Serb leaders were indicted for horrific human rights violations, war crimes, and so forth. A number of these are still unresolved. Deeper research and study shows that the Albanian claim to Kosovo was quite problematic, and the Serbian position was not really considered by politicians at the time. It is quite probable that having failed to achieve a decent intervention in Bosnia, NATO wanted to finally punish Serbia. Unfortunately, it is very likely that Kosovo will be judged by history as an unjustifiable intervention.

Lastly, we do need to address the mindset that says that the traditional imperial powers, Britain and France, together with their ally in the United States have the capabilities of doing a meaningful intervention. By that, I mean an intervention that doesn’t just make an impressive military show, but can actually put into place the building blocks of a permanent or at least long-term settlement in the area. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that this could happen. An impressive military show, yes, definitely. But life is not a videogame. It’s not about explosions and tactical successes. It’s very human lives.

The news from Syria is  terrible. It’s very clear that there are not “two sides” in this complex conflict. That aren’t good guys and bad guys. There are people suffering. If we can do anything at all, we can provide aid and we can use whatever power we do have to push as hard as possible for a diplomatic settlement. We could for example make much more of an effort to have good relations with the territories around Syria. “Soft” power – as diplomacy is sometimes called – is not powerful just because has threat of violence behind it. Soft power is power because it potentially has the power of persuasion, reason and rationality behind it

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WHEN I was growing up in Vancouver the city had a remarkable amount of neon signs. These highly colourful signs advertised everything from diners to dry cleaners. Driving through the city at night in the back of my parents’ car was like vising fairyland. It was amazing.

As I got older I noticed the neon slowly being removed and being replaced with ordinary backlit plastic signage. Much more boring.

I was surprised to find, on a  visit the Vancouver Museum this summer, that some of the old neon has been saved and here it is, a glorious display in the museum – which is well worth visiting in any case. I tok these pics at the museum, but it’s better to see it for yourself, if you can.
Vancouver neon

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The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was a well known jazz club in the 50’s and I heard rumours that Hendrix jammed there in his youth (he lived in Vancouver for a while) but I have no idea if it’s true. It was a legendary punk club in the late 70s.

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The Blue Eagle cafe was on Hastings St. I ate there quite often – stuff like French toast.

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The Owl drugstore at 41st, I used to pass it every day going to high school and university.

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This auto repair sign is just too good.

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The museum display. I spent ages in here, sucking it up. I LOVE neon. Real neon not the crap that “contemporary artists” put out.

AND here’s two more that are still in situ:

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You can see more on this great site:

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Egypt, colonialism and terror

NB: a very long historical article; I tried to make it as non-“academic” as possible.


Am American friend just posted on her FB that “It is hard to get any decent unfiltered, unbiased information anywhere. “. And that is indeed the situation we are all in. I am getting real time updates via friends and family in Egypt, and these do not tally at all with what the BBC and other major news orgs are pushing out.


The gist of it is, that the majority in Egypt, the vast hordes who came out on June 30 demanding the ouster of the MB government, are more afraid of the MB and the islamists than they are of the army. Ergo, they are supporting the army in cracking down on the MB protests. These protests have included many things not reported internationally: the destruction of many churches (to be fair, CNN did report this) and an attack on the UNESCO institution of the Alexandria Library, nearly killing the librarians, (We don’t even need to discuss the morality of a “protest” that attacks a library and tries to kill librarians) for example.


That it should come to this equation is of course dreadful. Before 30 of June Egyptian society was growing increasingly horrified by the direction the government was taking, and felt it was driving Egypt to being a totally different country. The president’s exhorting of Egyptians to go and fight Assad in Syria is one example People were appalled Why should we do that? What is Assad to us? And the president standing by seemingly approving an anti-Shia speech that resulted in fanatics attacking and killing a family of Shia, beheading them in the street. I saw the video, it was extremely upsetting. Ordinary citizens feared that if this was the direction the government was going to take Egypt in, it had better be stopped now.


Pundits and Western politicians like to point out that they could have waited for elections in November. But this is disingenuous. Even in the precious West, we know that elections do not necessarily deliver justice. Look at Scotland. They have exactly one Conservative MP, because the Scots do not like Tories and do not elect them. This means that Scotland is basically unrepresented in the present UK government, and therefore has no influence in decision that affect it. (there are Liberal Democrat MPs but clearly they are not running the coalition in Westminster) This is how the Westminster system works and if it is unfair, its tough titty because the system more or less works. But it works because so far anyway no British government of any stripe has attempted to do anything truly dangerous inside the country (I mean, Iraq was dangerous but it happened far away).


In Egypt people feared that by November the elections would either not be held, or be rigged so that the MB would solidify their hold on power through terror. So, on 30 June they came out to demand change.


The result as we have all seen on TV, is that the MB and its supporters are resisting the crackdown, yet most others support it. Many deplore the violence, but an alternative solution has yet to be found. I myself deplore the violence totally, yet the violence is on both sides and when this happens, when protests turn violent or protesters attack civil targets (libraries, churches etc.) it is normal that the state respond with force.

Of course, here in the West the state responds with force even if there is not violence – everybody saw the Occupy clearance in NYC, and elsewhere,  the behavior of the Turkish authorities in Gezi Park. What about our dear ally Bahrain?

However it is not really important what I think, or what you think. We are not in Egypt and we are not Egyptians. As with Syria and Iran, the roots of what is happening today are long and historical and are mired in that unpleasant and little understood and still less acknowledged era we call “colonialism.”


Egypt has existed as an integral nation state for at least 7000 years and maybe more. Yet it was only in the beginning of the 19th C that it was “discovered” by Europe. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte alighted upon the shore of what by then was a fairly sleepy province of the Ottoman Empire, and was amazed by what he found. Aside from starting the practice of shipping great chunks of Egypt’s antiquities over to Europe (which is why you see obelisks and sphinxes in incongruous places like London and St Petersburg), he did bring an army of scholars to explore and catalogue the country. In the mind of Europe, Egypt was “born.”


After Napoleon’s defeat by the British, Egypt, by now “on the map” once more, was seized by the Albanian mercenary Muhammad Ali. But unlike most foreigners who have meddled in the country, Ali actual wanted to develop Egypt and make it something great again. He went a long way in starting this process, as did his successors. But they reckoned without the rapacious nature of European capitalism.


When the French proposed the canal at Suez, it seemed like a good way to enrich Egypt, and the King was keen. The British banks got involved, and soon it became clear that, like every major public project (Olympics, anyone) it ran massively over budget. Now what the Europeans did here is the absolute root and core of today’s problem They introduced Anglo-French capitalist banking systems into a Muslim society where usury is a sin.


The result was not terribly different to what happened to the American natives when the Europeans came and explained the process of material exchange to them. “you give me this land I give you these blankets.” The fact that in the native culture ownership of the land was actually impossible: they did not have the European concept of property. But a deal is a deal said the Europeans from the firing end of a musket – who can argue with fire-power?


AP Thornton in his magisterial study (sadly out of print but worth reading if you can get it) THE IMPERIAL IDEA AND ITS ENEMIES has detailed how the (mostly) British and French banks wheedled the King to borrow ever more money, then turning the screws on him. His only response was to tax the people, who rebelled against this. The most perspicacious Egyptians saw clearly that the tax was going right into the European banks, in the form of interest – the rates were exorbitant.


People soon showed their dissatisfaction with their King and with European intrusion, and began to form the first nationalist groupings in 1879, with army general Ahmad Urabi a major leader (see a pattern emerging?). The UK and France intervened militarily (another pattern), bombarding Alexandria and crushing Urabi’s Egyptian army at the battle of Tel el-Kebir.


The result, as we all know is that the British resorted to annexing Egypt, to protect their financial interests and their share of the Canal which allowed the easy shipping to their other colonies in Asia. They did not dare to call it a colony, but it was. Ostensibly annexed in order to sort out the Egyptian finances (i.e. debts to British banks), the British soon started treating the Egyptians like colonised peoples. The brutality of the British occupiers at Tel El-Kebir and later incidents prompted many neutral Egyptians to join the nationalist movement. But it was not just about brutality, which was relatively rare. It was the condescension, the financial rapacity, and above all the disregard and disrespect that the British have for all their colonised peoples that rankled to the heart.


The best way to see how this operated is not through reading despatches or official documents, but novels and stories. Algernon Blackwood’s The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath is a fabulous example (get it free here This is how well to do bourgeois English people viewed, lived in and treated Egypt. Orientalist fantasy for the past, mingles with a general disdain for the modern people, who rarely appear as characters in British fiction set in Egypt. Even Lawrence Durrell’s wonderfully-written Alexandria Quartet betrays the author’s lack of knowledge of, and general uninterest in, Egyptians – apart from a thin layer of mysterious foreigners and doomed Christian aristocrats To get a sense of what the occupation felt like you have to go to Egyptian writers, notably Naguib Mafouz.


By the early 20th century Egypt was an occupied country with a strong nationalist movement, but at the same time it was a country that was being rapidly modernised. Industry, cinema, cosmopolitan culture, all were being established and creating a vigorous, diverse and modern society. Egyptians started to make capitalism work for them: figures such as the nationalist industrialist Talaat Harb were in the forefront of creating the modern country. Harb (among countless other ventures) founded Studio Misr the first major Egyptian film studio, establishing Egypt as the world centre of Arab language film-making. And the rise of the Egyptian workers movement also beings here. (It is not reported in western news that worker’s strikes and actions have been constant and ongoing in rejection of both the Mubarak regime and the MB.)


It is the murky secrets surround the struggle of Egyptians to rid themselves of the British occupiers that the rots of the MB lie. These roots are indeed murky and for this reason there has always been a distrust toward the MB among some Egyptians. Many questions remain unanswered ( What was the MB’s relationship with the Nazi party, whom they supported? How instrumental were they in ejecting the Egyptian Jews?


Some say that the MB organisation are a British creation. Others assert that, instead, the British found a way to employ them in their favour, to weaken the nationalist Wafd Party and its national unity idea against the British occupation. As a student of British colonial history, I am quite convinced of the latter idea (explored in the book at the above link) which Thornton and other authors suspect also. It fits with the British modus operandi, then and now A few weeks back the Daily Telegraph (the conservative party newspaper) made a throwaway comment that “there is a long standing relationship between the MB and sections of the British government” Which was news to me, given the relentless scaremongering about Islam and so on since 2001, maybe even since 1979 if we count Iran. Yet when I thought about it, it makes sense. Britain and the west in general are really just about money, and they will get in bed with anyone who will ensure they can make money. Of course they have nurtured the MB all through the era of Nasser and probably after. Weird that this rather puts the UK and US on the same side as Zawahiri. Yet this support also must have given a false sense of support to the MB, and like the 19th C Kings before them, put them into a relationship of trust that can only be broken.


Yesterday on the news BBC reporter Tim Whewell marvelled that the Egyptian people seem to be so keen on demanding secularism that they are willing for the army to crush the MB. Of course it is far more complex than that, but reporters speak in sound bytes. What I thought was bitterly funny is that he wondered at the fact that “many of them devout Muslims”. Well yes; if you are devout you especially do not want your religion to be made a political football; you do not want terrible things to happen in the name of your religion. If I were a devout Catholic, I’d be more outraged at the things that errant representatives of the Church have done, than would an atheist.


Let us not forget the role of the media in not only keeping us under-informed but also in giving us vicarious thrills: “Watch live coverage as Egyptian security forces surround a Cairo mosque full of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on Saturday as protesters planned fresh marches after street battles left more than 80 dead.” How exciting. So, let us watch people die as a substitute for actual information.


The fact is that we in the West are under-informed about what is happening in Egypt. We are even less informed about how the legacy of colonialism runs like a raw, bloody thread through all of this story. And we are even more unformed about the financial deals that have taken place and which lie behind the ostensible support or non-support by our leaders.


But the last word really is not mine, it is this:


“what is happening in Egypt is now an internal matter, and we are the people of Egypt commissioned Egyptian army and police to deal with the elimination of the terrorist group and will not allow any state whatever to intervene in this matter. Egypt is a sovereign state.”



Some history

This text was given to me by the Egyptian person who wrote it, a person uninvolved in politics


Brief history of Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam

1. Muslim Brotherhood is an Egyptian group founded in 1928 by Hassan ElBanna. We saw in Egypt that the group was a reaction to the collapse of the khelafa of the Ottoman empire, seeking a substitution political formation

2. as the very theory of the MB embraces the concept of khelafa it had to fundamentally reject the notion of the nation state, starting above all with the nation state of Egypt – both because this is where they were, and it’s also because Egypt is the oldest nation state on earth. And therefore they were banned and rejected by Egyptian establishment.

3. for being kept in the dark and banned since their existence they had to depend on foreign help for their funding and exile existence outside Egypt; therefore over the years they collaborated against Egypt with every foreign secret service that we know. That includes collaborating with the Nazis against the British and the Jews in Egypt.

4. Both President Nasser and President Sadat, who were in their early political life members of the MB, knew the kind of danger that ideology represented, and kept the lid on them most of the time.

5. In the early 1950s Egyptian philosophy scholar Said Kotb was awarded his PhD in the USA for writing the second phase of Hassan El Banna’s theory, which subsequently led the way to political Islam as we now know it. Although Kotb was executed by President Nasser, his influence lived on and spread outside Egypt and that is why the first postage stamp of the Irani Revolution of 1979 has a picture of the Egyptian Kotb on it, not Khomeini

6. during the late 1970s and 80s the CIA recognised the power of political Islam as a tool of fighting social and Marxist influence coming from the eastern bloc during the cold war (basically the idea being, if the masses can go Islamist they will never look at Communism)

7. That was Sadat’s mistake: agreeing to this deal and letting them loose in Egyptian society – starting with the university union elections, thinking that he can keep them under control and get them back to the closet when he wants. That was proven wrong on the 6th of Oct 1981 when they collaborated with ex president Mubarak and many foreign secret services to assassinate President Sadat.

8. In the 1980s and early 90s Egypt, especially Cairo, experienced an IRA-like wave of bombing organised and led by MB and new-born Islamic groups and sub-branches. They all launched assassinations on some of Egypt’s finest writers and thinkers. They stabbed Egypt’s biggest writer and Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz in the neck. Luckily he survived. But the secular economist and intellectual Farag Fouda, like many others, did not survive the attack.

9. Also, during the 1980s, Mubarak was encouraged by the CIA to release these criminals from jail to send them all over the middle east spreading their ideology, fighting and recruiting fighters from around the middle east to fight the Russians in Afghanistan (1979-1989).

10. After 9/11 Mubarak with Britain and America found that the MB is a convenient tool to help n polarising society and dividing it, to create evidence that justified George Bush’s “war on terror.” This period was very interesting as all the enemies that America and its allies seemed to be fighting were actually all made by the American system headed by the CIA: such as the Political Islamism in general, Saddam Hussein (CIA number 1 guy in Iraq), Bin Laden CIA Number 1 “freedom fighter” who hid for years in the tunnels designed by the Americans to fight the Russians!

11. With the start of the second decade of the 21st century, all nations on earth started to get agitated on the street because of the way they are governed under the name of “democracy”. Their leaders spend their budgets on “holy wars” that serve only Anglo-american corporations – it is done in our name, and the name of democracy. While we are starving, having no medicine, no job, no education. All over the planet, and that includes many places in the USA.

12. Egypt was one of those countries that wanted to join this global liberation movement. Because Egypt is in the “middle east” their actions suddenly became designated and labelled “Arab spring” to disconnect it from the global cause. And when the Egyptians peacefully managed to move a military dictator, the whole revolution was hijacked as they were given in the “election” no choice but to choose between a member of Mubarak’s cabinet or a member of the MB. Of course you are crazy if you vote for a member of the Mubarak government again! Therefore the MB won by a minute majority. Now its clear this was intended to set an example to what is to come in any other stage for “democracy” in the middle east.

13. It is important to be aware that the support by the USA for the MB is similar to their original support for Saddam. They are keen on creating and exploiting Sunni-Shia division as a tool against Shia Iran. As a so-called Sunni group, the MB is potentially an ally against Iran. By the way, the Sunni-Shia division has never been part of the Egyptian consciousness.

14. During the last 2 years Egyptians watched their society being dominated and destroyed every minute by a minority of freaks who used every single old tool to harass the nation and to kill the freedom of speech, as well as inventing new tools of horror such as gang bang and deliberate sexual harassment of Egyptian women on the street, a phenomena that never existed in Egyptian society before the last six years.

15. Between the 29th of June and the 3rd of July 2013 more than 30 million Egyptians from all walks of life gathered in the streets of Egypt creating the biggest political human gathering in political history (said The Guardian) and demanded to take control of their country. And they did. Helped and supported by the Egyptian army which is part of the nation for thousands of years. The army did not start the protest; the army did not joint the protest; the army stepped in after it was clear the protest was bigger than anything ever seen and that it was not possible for the people to just go back. And for those who don’t know, every single Egyptian male spends at least a year of his life as a member of the army; we are all army). The people gathered to overthrow Morsi and to kill and bury the MB as an ideology forever.

16. Egyptians are farmers by nature. They know how to grow a tree, they know how to protect a field and they know how to chop any evil plant that might find its way into their field trying to corrupt their crops. The MB, as an organisation and as an ideology, is the root of a tree that branched widely in over 40 countries from the USA to the mountains of Tora Bora . We Egyptians know that to kill an evil tree you destroy the roots. And the rest of the branches will just die out.


Thornton, A.P. The Imperial Idea and its Enemies (1959), Doctrines of Imperialism (1965)

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