Last night I went to a Halloween thing at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. There a friend and I got talking to one of the organisers of last night’s International Chessboxing Championship.
Chessboxing is a new (for London) combination sport consisting of four-minute rounds of chess interspersed with three-minute boxing bouts, up to 24 minutes or 11 rounds in total. Last night’s champion, who looked battered but less so than practically everyone else (what with it being Halloween), told me that his interest in chess had preceded his interest in boxing. He looked like a beaten-up chessplayer from the chin up and a boxer from the neck down. The neat thing about chess boxing is that the worse you box, the worse you will perform in the ensuing chess round. Brilliant! I think not. I object to it. I think that chessplayers who are fretting about their masculinity would do better to immerse themselves in, say, the pugillistic pursuit of political blogging where anybody can feel like a man regardless of gender. Boxing and the watching of boxing is simply one step back from lynching and public executions and no amount of chess will change this. The promoter did seem to understand me – he was merely unmoved. Would I ban it? Banish it to Essex with the pit bull and cock fights and the bare knuckle boxing? No. But it is complete idiocy to box.
The costumes at the Halloween thing were as fantastic as you might imagine in that neck of the fashion and media woods. There were some brilliant corpse brides, a man with a noose, a robot, a shipwrecked maiden with a deathly pallour and a tea clipper made of bamboo fixed to her head, a geisha with an opium pipe, a french maid cleaning up a murder, a huge pink rabbit, zombies, zombies, zombies, bandaged zombies, a witch and the crew of a crashed plane. Matt had a bloody eye applied by a make-up artist who was with our group of friends, and I had a bloody nose. Walking there from London Bridge I’d passed so many living dead that I thought my highly realistic nosebleed would be understood as bit of festivity. And so it was until we left (when the music started getting ironic) and walked onto an N8 on Bethnal Green road. We were on the top deck on the seats just behind the stairwell and everybody who left and looked up did a wide-eyed double-take. A few people – by all appearances the kind of people you’d imagine might actually bust your nose – even asked us if we were alright. Walking home from the bus stop we passed the police detaining somebody at Fullwell Cross and the look on the face of the policeman who noticed us was priceless – startled, appalled, confused by our equanimity, poised to take details and taking a few moments to realise we hadn’t just been attacked.
This afternoon Matt and I watched Persepolis, an animated film from last year based on an autobiographical graphic novel about the childhood and and early adulthood of the Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi. She lived through the revolution of ’79, the installation of the ayatollahs, the ensuing bloodbath of a war with Iran and the general repression of the Iranian regime. Marjane is the daughter of communist sympathisers descended from the Persian Shah Nasser Al-Din. Things were very hard for her family and several of were executed first by the Shah and then by the Ayatollahs.
It is a beautiful film of vignettes. As a little girl she order God out of her life after her uncle is killed by the clerics. The west arms both sides of the Iran Iraq war. Marx occupies the same part of the heavens as God, interrupts his conversation with Marjane, and their advice doesn’t conflict – “La lutte continue”, ventures Marx with one eye on God, who accedes. The anarchists in Vienna (where she is sent to school) complain crassly about having to spend Christmas with their parents. As she says, “The government had nothing to fear from these anarchists”. In the new Iranian regime, a pious window-cleaner who defers all difficult questions to God can rise to a position of dizzying responsibility. Marjane’s mother and grandmother are splendidly mutinous while outwardly acquiescent. The Ayatollah’s police officers are dedicated and unintelligent enforcers but entirely without sadism. Appealing to their humanity – whether empathy or bribery – gets people out of many dangerous situations. “Diabetes? Like my mother.” and they release the grandmother. And yet people are arrested and killed in huge numbers. A young communist woman is to be executed and because it is illegal to kill a virgin, a guard marries her first. Marjane’s courtship with her first husband Reza is fraught. By betraying an innocent man to the police she diverts their attention from the fact that she is waiting to meet him in a public place wearing makeup. Soon afterwards as they are driving together she is arrested as an unchaperoned woman and faced with a fine or a whipping. To escape this harassment she marries him prematurely and when they split her friend informs her that every man will expect her to sleep with him.
Watching Persepolis I realised that it’s not cowardice but graphic violence that has driven me from stories like these in recent years. I’m entirely susceptible to attempts to beat me round the eyeballs with soft vulnerable human bodies and tortured human minds, and in fact it’s the best way to mentally torture me. The episode of Spooks where the agent was ducked and eventually murdered in the deep fat fryer. The torture scenes in Pan’s Labyrinth. The beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I feel sick, I can’t sit still, I screw my eyes shut or leave. I don’t know why – it’s just me. But in my adrenal state I get angry that torture and murder should be faithfully reproduced, sold and passed off as entertainment, or even edutainment, for 60 or 90 minute slots after which the credits roll, we change channel and go on with our lives. Talking to almost everybody else they say “It’s just a film, it’s not real”, but this seems to me irrelevant. I wonder whether anybody who has actually been on the receiving end of violence would want to make a film like Spooks, Pan’s Labyrinth or Saving Private Ryan. Marjane witnessed sporadic violence and pretty near constant menace and yet Persepolis was a devastatingly clear film which left me upset and comprehending, rather than reeling with horror.
There was a time about ten years ago where everybody in my life seemed to be Iranian – my supervisor, my employers, the bloke I was seeing. The bloke I was seeing was a gynaecologist who had been denied by law the right to practice the family profession and was in England retraining as a medical informatician. My supervisor took his British wife back to Iran to visit his family and she was stopped by a police officer for having some hair showing. When my employer heard that I had seen Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, he asked me what I thought and the first thing I said was that I had found it amusing, and I will never forget how his face fell. I didn’t know a thing back then.