Gerry Rowe

Gerry Rowe

Gerry Rowe is a writer, disgruntled minor functionary, and a Labour councillor in Chepstow.

The Death of Stalin
Saturday, 28 October 2017 16:39

The Death of Stalin

Published in Films

Gerry Rowe is disappointed by The Death of Stalin.

In Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’, the object of satire is a thoroughly British media company owned by equally feared and reviled tycoon Royston Merchant, never himself seen on screen. Who in their right, lefty mind wouldn’t have laughed at the egotistical antics of insecure editors and managers, presenters and journalists, as their ambitions and prejudices came into weekly mutual conflict?

Despite the inclusion of 30 seconds of topical news jokes, Drop the Dead Donkey didn’t rely on hard news for laughs, sensibly enough. Hard news is seldom a laughing matter. Drop the Dead Donkey created a parallel comic world in which the balance between plausibility and absurdity made it possible to laugh wholeheartedly.

Iannucci’s The Thick of It targeted a media-enhanced perception of New Labour politics as a perpetual war waged by spin on substance. It too benefited, as popular entertainment, from eschewing close examination of real events such as the financial crash. Malcolm Tucker may have been loosely based on Alistair Campbell but there was no discussion of how the latter might have been involved in, say, the presentation of events surrounding Dr David Kelly's death. You could laugh at the Machiavellian spin-doctor, craven ministers and self-serving civil servants because the scenarios offered fairly harmless parody with which you could feel comfortable.

The problem with The Death of Stalin is not that the story of infighting in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following Stalin’s demise does not contain many elements of farce. The difficulty is that we are dealing with real people and events that, for better or worse, affected the lives of all of us both in the West and the East. The reality of what was done, good or bad, under the Soviet Union doesn’t get much of an airing in the Brian Rix style treatment of the death itself, and the comically-choreographed violence and jockeying for position.

While the evils on display are treated largely as comedy, the largely positive achievements of the Russian Revolution, which we’re celebrating this centenary year, and the Soviet state (overthrow of Tsardom, removal of the provisional government, rapid industrialization, great improvements in literacy and education, the defeat of Germany in the Great Patriotic War) pass unmentioned. Thus Beria, Khruschev, Malenkov, Molotov et al are made to represent little more than naked, ruthless ambition.

Iannucci will be well aware that mere farce is not up to the task of depicting history with any depth. One might therefore ponder why he opted to give this subject an inadequate treatment rather than, for example, the events surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There is a safer distance, in space and time, between us in Britain now and Russia in 1953. There is also a received wisdom here that the Soviet Union was an unmitigated disaster, creating a ready audience for tired jokes about failing lifts and lavatory cisterns. The film does nothing to challenge or undermine these reactionary stereotypes, and indeed the humour often relies on them.

If you have little knowledge of the events depicted, the relentlessness of the farce may cause you no problems. Very few among a full house were laughing out loud and hearty when I saw it. The film is watchable but best serves the unintended purpose of provoking thought as to how it might better have served its subject matter and audience.

Thursday, 10 December 2015 23:00

Short Story: 2019

Published in Fiction

“When did you last eat?” The woman’s voice was kindly yet matter-of-fact. The calm way her eyes rose from the paperwork to meet his suggested the case held no surprises for her.

“The day before yesterday.” William Stokes invested the reply with the measured control, all self-pity suppressed, he’d cultivated along the downward curve of the last few years. Don’t force the conversation: you piss them off when you pitch your plight higher than their ability to respond. Stokes had learnt that hunger, unless prolonged for days, was not such a big deal. In some ways it was purifying, almost narcotic, allowing your mind the wings that a diet of carbohydrate would ordinarily deny it.
“Why haven’t you eaten?”
“Can’t afford to.”
“Do you budget for food?”
“I have no budget. I owe £20,000 to the building society, two years council tax arrears, no income. I sleep rough.”
“Do you work?
“I can’t focus on anything. I had jobs but I couldn’t keep up.”
“Job Seeker’s Allowance?”
“I’m not fit for work. Missed an interview, so I got sanctioned.”
“Emigrated? Died in last year’s unrest? Maybe they have no internet access, same as me.”
“What does your doctor say?”
“That he can’t help. He hints that blood tests revealed something but I’m not within their reference range for treatment. Says there’s a lot of it about, it’s not well understood, treatments are experimental and the drugs are scarce. I’m not yet a serious enough case. Tells me to go down the public library and cheer myself up re-reading the archived copies of the Daily Gruel, reliving the life of our glorious leader who led us into a land of unfettered markets in which poverty is but a bad memory.”
“Did you try that?”
“I told him I can’t re-read them because I was never able to read beyond the front page headlines back in the days of choice. Hardly spirit-lifting. Is understanding the free market essential to health? I’d ask him if I dared.”
Stokes remembered the medic’s look of judgement. He plainly regarded Stokes as obtuse or wilful, a bit of a difficult case. The doctor had impressed on him that the Daily Gruel was the only remedy left since the cuts and it had been quite good enough for millions. What made Stokes think he deserved special treatment? He should just get on with it. Didn’t he understand there was a crisis on and that we were all in it together?
Stokes had known what to say to that. Nothing. More will come of nothing with people like that doctor.
The lady wrote on a pad of headed paper and handed him the torn off sheet.
“Take this to your doctor.”
“To him? What’s this?”
“There’s a new policy that can only be unlocked by a referral from me or a vicar. None of those left so take this from me. It recommends you to your physician for a new programme that people in your position seem to benefit from. I don’t know much about it but there are hints that the trials are going really well. You need a bit of good luck. I think you may have found it.”
Six weeks later Stokes entered the surgery of Dr Brown, a country doctor long past retirement date, sporting an overly cheerful grin, stout brogues to match his name and a houndstooth sports jacket.
“Ah, Mr Stokes, what can we do for you today?”
“The CAB have asked me to give you this, Dr Brown.”
The smile relaxed slightly as the good doctor assumed a confidential air. “Ah, I see. So, you managed to persuade them that you need a bit more help, eh? Well, I think you might have made progress on your own with a little more effort, but it is not my privilege to argue in such cases.”
He reached for his pad and wrote a letter through a prolonged, mysterious silence, passing it to Stokes to read.
‘Dear Sir or Madam
I am referring William Stokes to the drug bank. He complains of hunger, a sense of alienation and victimisation, lack of money and prospects, chronic lassitude, generalised non-specific malaise. I can’t find anything organically wrong with him. He has not benefited from the Daily Gruel cure. I am afraid that neither I nor the social and medical services of Rightown have anything more to offer. Whilst he is not as compliant as I would wish, as his physician, he is well-meaning enough. I do hope you will be able to help him.
Peter Brown, MD’
“You don’t need an appointment. Just take it along to the town council house between 3 and 5 on Tuesday afternoon, press the buzzer for attention and wait in the upstairs room. I can assure you that no patient I’ve referred there has ever come back to me for further treatment! Give it a try. Nothing to lose, eh? I’m pleased for you. I couldn’t have opened that door for you unaided. So glad you went to the CAB. Good day, Mr Stokes.”
Stokes said nothing.
At 4pm in early January the council house was already dark. Just inside the doorway was a buzzer with a sign inviting him to press it for attention before making his way upstairs to wait. He complied. Some of the oil lamps had burnt out but he managed not to trip and fall where the banisters had been removed for firewood. He walked through the door frame into the upstairs room and sat, alone, at a formica table standing on worn, grey carpet. And waited, alone, till he heard the front door slam shut and a light footstep ascending the stairs with practised tread. A gaunt figure appeared in the door frame; he could make out a blazer with an indistinct circular motif on the breast pocket. The figure said: “Mr Stokes, we’ve been expecting you. Sorry it has taken so long for us to meet.”
“Who are you?”
“We’ve been watching your case, Mr Stokes. Wondering how long before you would visit us. Some make their way here much quicker. You’ve put up with a lot. Anyway, I’m glad to say your troubles are over. We had to stop running the foodbank. Too many hungry people. We ran an alternative solution for a while but it was … messy to implement. Fortunately for you our friends at Capsule Inc. have come up with a great alternative. They make a little money, we get to alleviate hunger and the mind’s quest for sense in the absurd, and you, Mr Stokes, are going to be a beneficiary. Doesn’t that sound splendid?”
Stokes said nothing.
The stranger flicked open his briefcase and tossed a pharmaceutical carton on the desk. “Three times a day. You won’t appreciate the full benefit of this cure unless you combine it with a thorough read through the Daily Gruel archive. Come back in three months. Goodbye.” And he was gone.
Stokes took up the packet and headed toward the empty warehouse by the river he called home. Nothing to lose. Stopped to take his first pill furtively at the old parish pump. Slept better than in years and woke without any pang of hunger. Up to the library via the pub. Read the Daily Gruel for the month of August 2002, and the front pages dedicated to the problems caused by foreigners.
‘Migrant health tourists force full-scale privatisation of our NHS.’
‘Lesbian migrants’ bastard brats take our kids’ school places.’
‘Black gay migrants buggered my bulldog.’
‘Trotskyite Transylvanian transvestites trussed me up like a turkey says decent, honest, white, male heterosexual in search of harmless fun while wife away on shopping trip to Bath.’
Stokes settled down for a good read for the first time in years. As the hours went by he felt a growing gratitude to the Daily Gruel, to Dr Brown, to the CAB, to the person at the town hall and in particular to our glorious leader for having saved the nation from a tide of foreign scum lapping at the White Cliffs of Dover.
It was great to be alive, British, free of hunger and fully happy.