Summer of Rockets – a personal review

I finally got round to watching Summer of Rockets, Stephen Poliakoff’s latest BBC serial, and the first since Close to the Enemy in 2016. It is a more intimate piece of work than some: The Lost Prince for example he set in Buckingham Palace to cover the outbreak of the Great War and what followed, which is a grand theme, but in Summer of Rockets Poliakoff confines himself to a season and, while there is a grand theme and threat of war, it is the personal which predominates.

The series is available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer and is worth a look.

Poliakoff is rightly renowned as a playwright, and this is his most personal work to date, to the extent that it has been described as semi-autobiographical, for the central character, Samuel Petrukhin, is based on Polikoff’s father, with the detail an amalgam of his father and his grandfather and in the frightened little boy, Sasha, we see the writer himself. The writer is quite explicit about the origins of the characters in his article on BBC Media Centre.

In Summer of Rockets, grand politics is played out, but through the filter of the personal.  The scene is set in the summer of 1957 (which was the summer following the Suez disaster, and the beginning of the Macmillan ministry, and the summer after Khrushchev crushed the Hungarian Revolution).  It is also the summer after the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana, beginning the dismantling of the Empire. The Cold War was very real and close and the threat of nuclear obliteration hovered in the background even as the summer parties continued.  The fear is an explicit background theme and motivator, but not central, we eventually find.

The characters are set up early: Samuel Petrukhin (played by Toby Stevens): entrepreneur, inventor (with all the detail taken from Poliakoff’s father), and signalled as a good egg from the beginning; Miriam his wife; Hannah his daughter, a reluctant debutante; and his quiet, inquisitive son Sasha.

Petrukhin is an outsider:  a Russian and a Jew, and in trade. He craves high society, but cannot be accepted, except through his accidental friendship with the Shaw family, the ultimate insiders.  This status as an outsider, locked out of the echelons of society he observes, is the major dynamic to the plot.

Richard Shaw (played by Linus Roache) is an MP and well regarded, a war hero, with connections in all the highest places, and his wife Kathleen, playing the perfect hostess, living the summer idyll in a grant country house (where writers like to place secrets in dark corners). Kathleen Shaw is played by Keeley Hawes, who is barely off the screen these days, but the screen does not seem to mind. Here too is the genial Lord Wallington (Timothy Spall, brilliant as ever), the dark genius of we know not what.

The third node is Field of MI5 (Mark Bonnar), who has decided that something is going on at the Shaw household.

Much the plot is in Samuel Petrukhin’s observations – as an eternal outsider ever tapping at the window, he observes from the outside and serves as the voice and ear of the audience.  At the same time his children observe at their own levels and are confided in at points by grown-ups, again serving as proxies for the otherwise puzzled viewer.  This is a technique Poliakoff has used before – The Lost Prince was about the events leading to and through the First World War with the prince of the title as an observer and an innocent confidant.

Interestingly, even with a large cast and some wide settings, Poliakoff manages to keep the feel intimate.

The characters set up, the plot is drip-fed to us, as each side confides in the Outsider. MI5 is full of Soviet agents, according to Lord Wallington, who simply wishes to expose them; and the Shaws are the centre of a plot to launch a coup d’état according to Field. The credibility of each side ebbs and flows as the episodes progress, and Petrukhin is forced one way and the other, by his need to prove his patriotism, his social climbing, his commercial dependence and his friendship with the Shaw family. In this tension flows the plot, as Petrukhin lurches between the two sides, never knowing whom to trust.

We now know, years after the events, that MI5 was indeed stuffed from top to bottom with Soviet agents and useful idiots.  Many off the failures of those years and the loss of national confidence can be put down to the poisonous influence of Communists in the system. That year, 1957, was a turning point in a way – many vocal Communists in literature and academia changed their opinions radically when the Soviets crushed the Hungarians in the winter of 1956 but the true believers stayed even when the nature of Communist brutality was clear, and in the Summer of 1957 they were in place deep within the state.

In reaction, was there a faction ready to overawe the government, stand against dissolution of the Empire and purge socialism from the system?  Quite possibly, though nothing came of it.  This was a tense age in much of Europe and Africa, but surely not in the perfect English countryside?  Maybe not then as portrayed, but in the 1970s there were voices who spoke of creating private armies to keep order as the Wilson government appeared to be sliding towards a mixture of totalitarianism and anarchy.  The horrid images in Anthony Burgess’s 1985 seemed close to a future reality.

In the drama, Petrukhin is dragged back and forth, unable to know whom to believe, little events leading to sudden suspicions and changes in direction – the MI5 dog who understands Russian commands, the General who spits anti-Semitic tropes, the attempted assassination, but of whom and by whom?  The audience is kept in doubt just as much as Petrukhin, its voice.

This being the BBC, you do not expect the Commies to be the baddies in the end (and in any case their influence was too undercover to make for good drama). It is a beautifully constructed piece for all that, helped by the writer’s personal investment in the emotion.

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Puritans and the Pilgrim

The Church Times (which may be some readers’ favourite journal) carried an article recently by Dr Nicholas Fisher, ‘Standing down the Puritan Penumbra’, celebrating the work of Symon Patrick, who played a crucial part in defending the settlement of the Church of England after the Restoration. It is not just a subject of interest to church historians but it contains a strong lesson about the nation’s social and political divisions in our own day.

The history and the conflict

In the 17th century, the Church of England commanded the moral teaching of the nation and potentially its whole social outlook, and so control of it was key to controlling the ideology of England.  The Church’s official doctrines included freedom of conscience in that only the Bible is an absolute standard, but secular authorities would frequently find an excuse for punishing dissentient speech.  (Thomas Hobbes was accused of atheism for some of his ideas even though fully concordant with the Bible.)

Therefore the church in England and in Scotland was a battleground, much as media regulation is becoming a battleground for us today, and dissent from the established church would be punished not for doctrinal reasons, but to control preaching.

At the Civil War, Parliament’s Puritan faction changed the polity of the Church of England, abolishing bishops and replacing dioceses and bishops with presbyteries and assemblies. It was a classic political case of the means to an end which became an end in itself, or the fringe demand, put just to be sacrificed in negotiation, which became an unshakable demand.

The old order was restored at the Restoration but it was not a foregone conclusion: Pepys in his diary confides that the King may be forced to concede to a Presbyterian church. In the event, the bishops returned, clergy were required to conform, huge numbers of clergy left to form non-conformist congregations, but it was not over:  strong voices still pressed for the abolish prelacy, to turn the Church of England into a Presbyterian church.

The pressure for Presbytery was strong and growing, and each fault in a bishop, or any slippage towards ceremonialism was held as proof of lapsing towards Roman ways. The move to Presbyterianism was made to feel inevitable.  That is echoed in every age: imperfection is held up as utter corruption and the word ‘inevitable’ breaks resistance. You may think of your own examples.

Into this stepped a clergyman, Symon Patrick. He could see that the Puritans were gaining the upper hand, and so he wrote ‘The Parable of the Pilgrim’, about a pilgrim trying to travel to Jerusalem, and first seeking a reliable guide.

I cannot say the Patrick’s Parable is a gripping read.  It is for from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. (written in the same age).  It was popular though, and is credited with convincing the King and the establishment that Presbytery was not inevitable nor the will of the people, and that the public mood was for the old ways.

The argument and the outcome

Patrick’s theme in essence was that the Church of England is a reliable guide, and the non-conforming Puritans are a violent, extreme faction who were responsible for the Civil War and would cause another one.

He does not claim that the episcopal version of the Church had the sole claim on truth and does not accuse the non-conformists of false doctrine, except in as far as they claimed to have a monopoly of the way to salvation and of acceptable practice. This then is a key: we are the reasonable men; they are dangerous extremists; remember the horror of the late war, as a revival of it looms in their counsels.

The result was effective: public opinion turned strongly in favour of the bishops, and the Puritans shrank back.  However it also encouraged the secular authorities to impose malicious penalties on non-conformity.  Whether Symon Patrick had that in mind I cannot say, but it makes it uncomfortable to read the triumphalist tone in the Church Times article, perhaps just an echo of the inevitable affection of a biographer for his subject.

Ill-treatment of non-conformists was unprincipled and counter-productive. Since the Restoration, the non-conformist churches and the Church of England have had a mutually supporting role in their mutual antagonism: the non-conformists are often the conscience to admonish the Church of England when it goes wrong, as it frequently does, and they allow preachers to speak out, on matters such as slavery and false doctrines, where the Anglican structure encourages silence and bland following of liturgy. At the same time, the Church of England provides a structure and written standard against which the non-conformist churches may be measured in case they are tempted to stray, as they do without structure: the Quakers have ceased to be Christian in any meaningful sense.

The lessons into modernity

In our own day, the moral teaching of the nation is secularised. Novel, irreligious doctrines coming out of nowhere are established and pressed upon us by secular authorities and those who set themselves up as authorities. Even of the Church of England is complying.

The argument in Patrick’s Parable holds good today: the Puritans who claim a monopoly of truth are dangerous, and while their positions and arguments may be within the wide cast of honest opinion, they cannot be allowed in charge.

However the position of our own day is reversed from the Restoration period: the establishment has been seized by secular Puritans, little different from those Patrick describes in his Parable of the Pilgrim. They act in the way he warns, and without any apparent sense of irony the New Puritans are ready to accuse dissenting, conservative-minded folk of being dangerous extremists, and spit hatred at them in the name of opposing hate.

The New Puritans are not a myth, as case after case demonstrates: careers ruined, businesses closed and intimidated, others harassed by lawsuits. In this, the radical New Puritan may act as legislator, judge, jury and executioner. After the Long March Through the Institutions, establishment positions are held by left-wingers, so there is little resistance.

Now we need non-conforming commentators. A secular Symon Patrick in our own day would face ostracism, even in the cowed Church, as he would be writing outside the establishment. Maybe it would be coming too late: Patrick wrote to prevent a takeover, but for us, that takeover has happened.

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Magical Scottish town appears briefly from the mist

Culture correspondents from several national newspapers shocked when a whole city appeared from nowhere. Reporters dispatched to cover the Festival was delighted at discovering a beautiful city, called ‘Edinburgh’, which they had never heard of before.

One BBC correspondent expressed his delight at the appearance of the town out of nowhere, reporting a place of beauty, with a fairytale castle and a mountain in the middle of the town. Old hands assured him that Edinburgh appears for just three weeks in the summer and disappears from sight in the media as if it had never been there.

Others reported the suddenly irrupted town to be filled with theatrical and musical events, and people pretending to be comedians as well as a few off the telly.

To avoid shocking readers, writers have agreed to report on the comedians competing for the best one-liners, leaving reports on ground-breaking performances of Peer Gynt and The Crucible to the back pages of the Guardian where no one will read them, or the front pages of the Guardian where no one will read them.

4IR: understanding and fear

Alan Mak MP recently wrote a series of articles on Conservative Home about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which its aficionados dub ‘4IR’.  The excitement and the possibilities echo through the whole piece.  The IT revolution is exciting and inviting of innovation that has transformed life as we could not have imagined not just in my lifetime but the last decade, and the next leap can make new transformations we can barely imagine.

It is a promise of the future but also the reality of the present:  we are deep within the ‘third’ industrial, revolution, the computer revolution, and ‘4IR’ is all that follows or might potential follow from it: beyond apps to artificial intellegence, robots, synthetic biology, ‘the internet of things’, augmented reality, biohacking, and more we cannot yet conceive across the world and beyond it. It is the fusion of technologies: you might say that 4IR geeks must step out from their screens and create real things in the real world.

Is it true that no new thing has been invented since the 1950s- 1960?  Then we saw the first hovercraft, lasers, maglev, the silicon chip – all since has been the improvement of existing technology.  The latest Tesla may be a revolutionary car it is a car, and nothing Henry Ford would not recognise.  Since the IT revolution, innovation has shrunk to the confines of a screen, and has changed the world from there, but it is limited.  The promise off the next stage, this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is to bring all the strands of technology, from Boulton-Watt to Microsoft. Together to do new things which each alone cannot achieve or even conceive..

We should not however get carried away with imagining that the new age is unimaginable.  It is called the ‘fourth’ revolution after those of steam, of electricity and of computers.  As we saw the previous upheavals, so we see this one, and we can learn not to underestimate it, nor to be afraid of it.

It is no different from the others.  This new revolution is governed by pure Adam Smith logic, as have been the preceding industrial revolutions and all innovations since man first lifted a hunting spear:  if there is incentive for an individual to innovate then he will innovate, in order to make his work less boring or more profitable.

If the system were ever established that takes from a man all that he can produce then there is no incentive to innovate and society ossifies:  Smith identified this deadening factor in the feudal states of his day.  Innovation and the motors of prosperity existed only where a man could earn more by working hard and innovating, and were strongest in America, as land rents were low. In the French countryside a seigneur would take as rent the whole increase in production, and as a result tenant farmers made no innovations, but lived from day to day. It was in the towns, freed of this system, that new machines and techniques were developed, and in Britain both town and country fizzed with innovation, leading to prosperity for all: profit for the innovator and cheaper goods for the customer.

The deathly feudal system is in vogue today: its idea of taking from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, is a cornerstone of Marxism to which Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell are devoted, and a large section of the unthinking population too.

There is fear over the new industrial revolution.  This too is nothing new. The Luddites, Captain Swing, and all machine-breakers did what they did convinced that machines would take their jobs and leave them to starve.  Today, identical fears are heard, and those most vocal about it will tell the world on Twitter and Facebook, while sending out for online pizza.

The lesson of all revolutions in innovation has been that it can produce unexpected prosperity in all society, with new jobs arising where others are lost:  as less work is needed, there is time and energy to do more work, and new prosperity opens up new opportunities.  If a ship once took a year to build from timber and can now be built in two months, then that is not five out of six workers on the scrapheap – it is building six ships in place of one, or building them bigger for new cargoes, or building them of steel.

When robots take jobs, as they will and must, it is to make consumer goods more affordable and industrial processes cheaper, and it creates more jobs, and less backbreaking ones.

Each sudden change produces fear and protest – when the mines closed in the 1980s commentators thought the mining villages lost to poverty forever, but they throve, with more jobs there now than ever before, and jobs that do not involve crawling through a mine in the blackness waiting for a cave-in, and retiring with lung disease.

The future is good.

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Rules for conservatives?

In 1971 Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals transformed political discourse. Do conservatives realise what is being done every time a new, mad radical campaign appears? Have they read the playbook and know how to respond, and do we need “Rules for conservatives”?

In 1971 Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals transformed political discourse.  Do conservatives realise what is being done every time a new, mad radical campaign appears? Have they read the playbook and know how to respond, and do we need “Rules for conservatives”?

The Rules were written to empower powerless communities, but empower activists, whose ideas are not always benevolent, or sensible even if meant well.  In the final rule, “polarize” encapsulates the division caused, leading to hatred.  Taken as a whole, the Rules are wise, effective and frightening in their implications and effects.  Maybe they encapsulate things that have gone before in politics, which are most effective when stirring hatred and division, and we might be grateful for Alinsky’s honesty about that.  We still have to see it for what it is though.

Creating resentment, creating a belief that the other side hate you and conspire against you, and that therefore they are an enemy to be treated as vermin – that is the Marxist approach assuming all human relations are about class war and class oppression, and it is evil.

An American commentator did write a “Rules for Conservatives” in response.  Apparently it is written from a particular American perspective, and a couple of reviews suggest it is more a jeremiad than a programme for action, but without reading it I cannot comment further.

How would Rules for conservatives be framed and how would they differ from Rules for Radicals?  We could cut out the hatred and division, the demonization of the other side, but that is the most effective part of the Rules.

A key approach surely must be to stay calm so as to portray yourself as the calm, rational side, then to combat assertions with facts and statistics, and to expose expressions of hatred for what they are.  From this, some rules might emerge.

Another approach is the establishment one; namely to welcome the radical in, appear to embrace their idea, examine it and take it in hand, for taxpayer’ money to be spent on it, so the radical can go away and work on something else, while the establishment smothers the idea they took on.  Brexit has been like that.