When Thierry Frémaux, artistic director of the Cannes film festival, held the traditional press conference in April to announce the lineup of the 72nd edition, one big name was conspicuous by its absence. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the auteur director’s take on late-60s, Manson-traumatised Los Angeles, was, Frémaux said, “not ready”; its failure to meet the deadline would be a big loss for the festival, depriving it of one of its favourite master directors and the immense firepower of its cast – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Al Pacino.
Fortunately for all concerned, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did manage to make the party: Frémaux was able to announce its inclusion a few days later, saying that Tarantino “has not left the editing room in four months”. Having won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest award, in 1994 for his second feature, Pulp Fiction, Tarantino will be able to join the other big beasts in Cannes, including the UK’s Ken Loach (with gig economy drama Sorry We Missed You), Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar (film industry memoir Pain and Glory) and the Dardenne brothers from Belgium with radicalisation drama The Young Ahmed. A Hidden Life, a new film by another American auteur, Terrence Malick, about anti-Nazi activist Franz Jägerstätter, is also due to premiere at the festival, but Malick has been a famously elusive figure for decades and is not likely to attend.
Behind the hoopla and star power, however, a number of controversies lie in ambush. Tarantino himself could well be in the firing line, as critics wait to see if Once Upon a Time in Hollywood crosses the taste and decency line in its treatment of the real-life savagery of the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, the then-wife of film-maker Roman Polanski. Tarantino’s films have a record of extreme violence, and the director himself has not emerged from the industry reckoning over #MeToo with much credit, after accusations emerged of his treatment of Uma Thurman during the making of Kill Bill for which he apologised, and his 2003 comments about Polanski’s 1977 sexual abuse case, in which he said Polanski’s 13-year-old victim was “down with it”.
Small improvements have been made with the introduction of family-friendly facilities, such as a nappy changing area and list of childminders; these complement the hotline to report harassment that was set up last year. On the other hand, the decision to honour veteran French actor Alain Delon with an honorary Palme d’Or has been greeted with dismay by campaigners, who point to Delon’s history of misogynist comments and far-right politics. French feminist organisation Osez le féminisme said: “Cannes is sending a negative signal to women and victims of violence by honouring Delon in spite of the fact that he admitted to having slapped women.” Frémaux responded by saying: “We’re not going to give the Nobel peace prize to Alain Delon … He is entitled to express his views. Today it is very difficult to honour somebody because you have a sort of political police that falls on you.”
Cannes’ other exposed flank is its continuing row with streaming giant Netflix, which remains unresolved. French distributors reacted angrily after two high-profile films – Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories – distributed by Netflix appeared in the 2017 competition, despite the streamer’s refusal to adhere to the French practice of giving films a 36-month exclusive window to cinema showings. Netflix boycotted Cannes in 2018, giving its plum project, the Alfonso Cuarón-directed Roma to Cannes’ Italian rival, the Venice film festival. No Netflix films will appear in 2019 either, although it appears the leading contenders – Martin Scorsese’s mob drama The Irishman and Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers investigative story The Laundromat – were not going to be completed in time.
The family of Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the original Star Warsfranchise, has announced his death on Twitter on Thursday. He was 74.
Mayhew died on 30 April in his North Texas home surrounded by his family,the statement on Twitter said. He is survived by his wife, Angie Mayhew, and their three children.
Following roles in the original Star Wars trilogy and episode three of the prequels, Mayhew “fought his way back from being wheelchair-bound to stand tall and portray Chewbacca once more in Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, his family wrote. “He put his heart and soul into the role … The relationships that began then grew into the friends and family he would love for decades to come.”
The family will hold a funeral on 29 June and in early December 2019, there will be a memorial for fans of Chewbacca in Los Angeles at the fan event Empire Con LA. The family suggested fans and loved ones donate to Mayhew’s foundation in lieu of flowers or gifts.
Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga, paid tribute to Mayhew on Twitter, saying he was “the gentlest of giants”, “a big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile”.
“I’m a better man for just having known him,” Hamill said.
Mayhew was a minor actor working shifts as a hospital orderly when he was cast as Chewbacca the Wookiee in the first Star Wars film, 1977’s A New Hope. The 7ft 3in tall actor was cast partly because he was taller than the 6ft 6in actor David Prowse, who played villain Darth Vader.
A fan favourite, he went on to play the character in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, as well as two of the new generation films in the Star Wars saga: 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and 2015’s The Force Awakens.
Mayhew’s role was predominantly physical; the distinctive groans of the character were made instead by sound designer Ben Burtt. Yet despite heavy make-up and costume, Mayhew managed to bring an expressive subtlety to the character that resonated with audiences.
Mayhew’s family said on Thursday that his dedication to the role “showed in every frame of the films from his knock kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth.”
Mayhew’s health had declined in recent years, culminating in spinal surgery last July.
Basketball player Joonas Suotamo (who is 6ft 11in tall) took over the role of Chewbacca in more recent Star Wars episodes, sharing the role with Mayhew in The Force Awakens, taking over for The Last Jedi in 2017 with Mayhew acting as a consultant, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, currently in post-production.
Actors and public figures have paid tribute to Mayhew on social media. William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek, expressed his condolences on Twitter, remembering the times he saw the actor at conventions over the years.
JJ Abrams, cowriter and producer of a number of the new generation Star Wars films, posted a handwritten note to Twitter, saying “Peter was the loveliest man… kind and patient, supportive and encouraging. A sweetheart to work with and already deeply missed.”
Robert Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, which has owned Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise since 2012, expressed condolences on behalf of the company.
In wrapping up in six, albeit lengthy episodes, Game of Thrones was always setting itself an invidious task. Long-term watchers of the show have been forced not so much to suspend disbelief as to throw it out altogether like a boy from a tower. Cross-country journeys that once took half a series are now being completed in half an episode to speed things up. The writing of George RR Martin is much missed; the ruminative, witty, mordant dialogue has been pared to the bone. Tyrion has been a particular victim of this – his contemporary sensibility sidelined as events reach the brutal end, his humanism an irrelevance, sacrificed for spectacle.
The Bells gives much for those disaffected to feast on. First up, the sheer ease with which Dany, her surviving dragon and her armies conquer King’s Landing. Hadn’t we been led to believe that her forces had been weakened and that Euron’s scorpion super-weapon, which already downed one dragon, would make for a more effective defence shield? Apparently not. As for Dany herself, her descent into dead-eyed vindictiveness has been too steep, in keeping with the general, compressed feel of this series. Was the killing of Missandei really enough to tip her over this particular edge?
Then there was the much anticipated Cleganebowl, which, like much of this episode, felt like it was pandering to the expectations of a generation steeped in the hyperreal visual language of computer games. It felt placed there purely to live up to a promise; Gregor is unmasked, like a wrestler, revealed as apparently undead as he is able to shrug off a knife through the brain as a mere flesh wound. Both tumble into the fiery depths in what presumably must be declared a draw. Varys’ downfall seems uncharacteristic, another victim of dramatic haste; why did he play his hand so early?
Add in the hideously naff, fourth wall-breaking last words of Euron (“I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister”) and there is much to be dissatisfied about in The Bells. However, for those of us who have invested a significant fraction of our lives in this show, have built up a mountain of goodwill towards it, there is no walking away at this stage and for all its faults, The Bells, in its morally pyrrhic victory, was emotionally eviscerating.
This, after all, was the moment longterm fans have been dreaming of for years; to see that smug, crooked half-smile wiped off Cersei’s face. It was still locked on as the episode advanced. Indeed, as Dany and her dragon begin to lay incendiary waste to her first line of defence, you think; this is too easy. Too one-sided. Every previous battle scene has seen a final twist, a fightback against seemingly impossible odds.
Not tonight. You soon realise that the fall of King’s Landing and the doom of Cersei is inevitable. The only question is, how will the fatality occur? In the meanwhile, the carnage made me think of the closing stages of the second world war. The horrors inflicted on Dresden. The Russian army sweeping across Germany. Hiroshima, even. (Initially, the dragons seemed like metaphors for nuclear weapons; then they felt busted down to effective but vulnerable military aircraft; now, even down to one, they are nuclear again in their destructive capacity).
Much as GoT fans might feel robbed of satisfaction by the rushed handling of this final series, they are robbed more pertinently of the satisfaction that Dany’s revenge could be a clean, sane and surgical routing of evil dictatorship; a liberation. We are implicated for having rooted for this. We sense in this episode its mass impact. As Jon and Arya survey the charred ruins, they are reminded, as are we, that war is not just about victory but the unleashing of hell, creating fresh monsters.
In the wake of The Bells, Game of Thrones has left itself a huge mess to clear up in the final episode. From a dramatic perspective, things are not likely to end well, with so little time left. Perhaps it would be best if it did not even try to wrap everything up; in life, nothing is resolved, the world ploughs chaotically on, and such has been the length of this series, and its parallels with human history, that it has felt like life itself. Better maybe if everyone and everything were simply burned to a crisp, as so much was this week. And then it’s done and we can get on with our lives.
“It is a very quick casual sketch of Leonardo; it is the closest that we get to a snapshot of Leonardo during his own lifetime,” said Clayton. “It may be trivial as a work of art but it’s hugely important, even moving, as a record of the man himself.”
The sketch’s display was announced on the 500th anniversary of the death of one of history’s greatest polymaths, a man who was an extraordinary artist, inventor, engineer, mathematician, architect, map-maker and more.
The drawing will be one of 200 going on display in the largest exhibition of Leonardo’s work in more than 65 years. It is on a double-sided sheet of his studies of a horse’s leg, made in preparation for an equestrian monument commissioned by Francis I of France.
“Sheets of paper could be picked up in the studio and used by Leonardo’s pupils and companions as rough paper for sketching things on,” said Clayton.
The assistant sketched a smiling youth and the old, troubled, bearded man. “I think it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is an image of Leonardo, sketched rapidly under who knows what circumstances.”
The similarities between it and Melzi’s formal sketch seem obvious when seen side by side, particularly the shape of the beard which at the time, around 1517-18, was unusual. Leonardo would have been “one of the few bearded men around at that time”, said Clayton.
The melancholic expression chimes in with feelings that historians know Leonardo was experiencing at the time. He was around 65 years old and he knew he was dying. A paralysis in his left arm had left him unable to paint.
It is not the first time that the idea of a second sketch of Leonardo has been articulated, although it has largely fallen through the gaps of art history. Kenneth Clark, in his 1935 catalogue of the Leonardo drawings, mentions it as an aside.
It was purchased by a buyer acting for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince,Mohammed bin Salman, and was expected to go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Ever since that display was postponed the heavily restored painting has been completely unseen, shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories.
Some experts still doubt its authenticity. “For what it’s worth, I believe it is [a Leonardo],” said Clayton.
“My opinion is not a controversial one among Leonardo scholars … the more somebody knows about Leonardo the more likely they are to accept the painting and the people who have been saying ‘no, Leonardo would never paint anything like that’ tend to be people who, to be frank, aren’t great Leonardo scholars.”
The comedian Freddie Starr has died aged 76 at his home in Spain, according to reports.
Posts on social media pages claiming to belong to Starr appeared to confirm the news.
“This is Freddie’s manager. Just to confirm Freddie has passed away. R.i.p to our greatest comedian of all time,” a brief statement on Facebook read.
Merseyside-born Starr was the lead singer of the Merseybeat group the Midnighters during the 1960s and rose to national prominence in the early 1970s after appearing on Opportunity Knocks.
His body was reportedly discovered by a carer at his apartment in Mijas on the Costa del Sol.
A neighbour, who asked not to be named, told the Mirror: “His carer found him dead in his chair at around 3.30pm. Police arrived first and then later an ambulance arrived and he was taken away.
“His next door neighbour, who is a nurse, said he was definitely dead. She said she thinks he may have suffered a heart attack.”
Another neighbour added: “He’s been quite ill ever since he moved in and has barely left his apartment since moving in a couple of years ago.”
Comedian Bobby Davro tweeted:
Another fellow comic, Jim Davidson, also paid tribute:
At the height of his fame, Starr was known by fans for his eccentric and often unpredictable behaviour.
In 1986 he was famously at the centre of one of the best-known newspaper headlines when The Sun splashed with: “Freddie Starr ate my hamster.”
The story claimed Starr placed the creature between two slices of bread and ate it at a friend’s home after returning from a performance in Manchester. But in his 2001 autobiography Unwrapped, Starr said the incident never took place.
He took part in the 2011 series of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! but dropped out due to ill health.
A meal of fermented egg and a camel toe forced Starr to leave after he suffered an allergic reaction and had to be taken to hospital.
Medics advised Starr to drop out of the competition in case his illness flared up again.
In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, he revealed he moved to Spain following the ruling, which left him facing a bill unofficially estimated at about £1m.
He told the paper: “No matter which way I turned there was a fucking revolver pointing at my head so I thought ‘I’m not going to tell anyone, I’m just going to get on a plane and go to Spain, the place I love, and this is where I’m going to die’.
“I didn’t even know how high the legal fees were until after I’d left Britain.”
He added he had not moved “to deliberately get out of paying” and had planned to emigrate regardless of the outcome.
Fans have followed – and pored over – the incredibly long, detailed and complicated narratives of the Marvel Universe and the Westeros saga for a decade. Will we ever scale such heights of geekdom again?
In our speeded-up world, last weekend could be considered uneventful, but in one respect it will go down in human history. This was Peak-Geek Weekend – a moment of unprecedented, unrepeatable pop-cultural excitement – that was global in scale. Never, in the field of human geekdom, has so much geeking out been done by so many, over the long-awaited climaxes of two of the most supremely geeky properties ever made.
At the cinema, Avengers: Endgame set itself up to become the biggest film of all time, smashing box-office records like Hulk with a headache. It took more than $1.2bn (£920m) in its first five days: the biggest movie opening in history by some margin, and the fastest any movie has ever passed the $1bn mark. Meanwhile, The Long Night, episode three of season eight of Game of Thrones, took small-screen TV to movie-theatre dimensions: the most expensive single episode ever filmed, of one of the most watched, streamed and pirated series ever.
It’s not just the numbers that single out Avengers and Game of Thrones; it is the fact that both are incredibly long, complex, detailed narratives that fans have been following for about a decade. Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of a multi-stranded, fiendishly interconnected superhero saga that has played out over 21 Marvel movies, beginning in 2008. And that’s not including the myriad Marvel TV series. To be fully prepared for Endgame, fans will need to have watched an estimated 122 hours of Marvel content. It is a similar story with Game of Thrones: last Sunday’s episode was the 70th instalment of the epic saga. So far, its followers have consumed about 70 hours of violent, labyrinthine Westerosian power-politics, and have just three episodes left. While we’re at it, let’s not forget another colossal, geek-friendly saga is coming to a climax this year, with Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker – the finale to a triple trilogy that began more than 40 years ago. Will we ever scale such heights of geekdom again?
This is not the first time in modern history a hit movie or TV show has monopolised the conversation, of course. Yet there is an extra dimension to this nerdy focus. Dallas, for example, had far higher viewing figures than Game of Thrones, and half the western world might have asked: “Who Shot JR?” But that was about the extent of audience curiosity. Few fans were interested in poring over the Ewing family tree, or scrutinising the wording of Cliff Barnes’s contract with Jock. We have devoured long-form shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and admired the scope and depth of the stories. We’ve happily traipsed to James Bond films for half a century. But there was little urge to discuss their finer plot points, ponder their mysteries and catalogue, cross-reference and analyse their stories as there seems to be now. Titles like Avengers, Game of Thrones and Star Wars are firmly in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, which lend themselves to that level of detail.
Geek status used to connote a small subsection of society who took an obsessive interest in stuff the mainstream didn’t and invariably paid the price in terms of social exclusion. Now you’re an outcast if you’re not into stuff like Avengers or Game of Thrones. Everyone wants to talk about this stuff – with friends, on social media, in online forums, with colleagues, with complete strangers. Either that or they are actively avoiding talking or reading about this stuff because they are not yet up to speed and must preserve their spoiler-free purity at all costs – which is harder than ever now everybody’s talking about it. On Monday, child actor Jacob Tremblay said that children shouting Avengers: Endgame spoilers at other kids amounted to “bullying”. And finally, there are the people who take pride in not engaging with any of this stuff and have no idea who Thanos or Daenerys Targaryen are – so they talk about that instead.
Where once speculation on the nuanced points of such programmes was limited to online backwaters, now it’s all over the place. Media outlets, this one included, run thinkpieces that ponder them from every conceivable angle. From Thor and fat-shaming, to Arya Stark and gender issues, from 20-minute YouTube dissections of Endgame’s ending to the New Yorker’s recent contribution, An Art-Historical Analysis of Cersei Lannister Sipping Wine.
Politicians and pundits even feel obliged to pepper their communications with references to them. “If we don’t vote for the Brexit deal tonight, in the words of Jon Snow, ‘winter is coming,’” warned Michael “relatable” Gove this year. Donald Trump is also fond of tweeting wearisome Thrones-styled memes, with slogans such as: “Sanctions are coming” or: “The wall is coming”. He has done it so much, HBO asked him to stop. To be fair, Thrones’ creator, George RR Martin, responded to Trump’s election victory in 2016 with his own “Winter is coming” prophesy, but he’s allowed to.
We have been scaling this nerd mountain for some time now, steadily placing geekier personalities at the helm of the movie industry (Steven Spielberg is still at it, alongside upstarts such as JJ Abrams, Edgar Wright, Phil Lord and Chris Miller) and the tech industry (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs). As well as superheroes and fantasy dynasties, this trend has made modern heroes of geeky outsiders such as, say, the Stranger Things posse, the IT Crowd, the Big Bang Theory team, hacker-with-dragon-tattoo Lisbeth Salander, or unthreatening beta-males such as Seth Rogen, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera and Simon Pegg. Not to mention Donald Glover, who once joked: “I’m a black nerd, and that shit was illegal until, like 2003.” Apple product launches are now cultural events and Comic-Con is as cool as Coachella.
Now that geeks have inherited the earth – or pop culture at least – do terms like “nerd” hold any meaning any more? Outsider status used to be part of what it meant to be a geek or nerd, but that’s difficult to claim now that everyone’s in on it. When the president of the US is referencing Game of Thrones to gloat at his adversaries, and kids who would have been bullied for their geeky interests are now themselves accused of being bullies, we appear to have come full circle. Abrams, a self-identified geek, acknowledged that the meaning has changed. “When I started, a geek was an undeniable loser,” he told the Guardian in 2011. “Long-necked, trips over his own feet, a complete outcast. And now geek means someone who likes science fiction. When I was a kid, it was a huge insult to be a geek. Now it’s a point of pride.”
Yet that pride can be corrosive. Along with the general rise of online bigotry and incivility, we have seen uglier extremes of geek culture entering the mainstream in recent years. There was Gamergate, for example, in which female game developers and critics of video game sexism were subjected to abuse, death threats, rape threats and doxxing (discovery and revelation of personal information such as home address, phone numbers and bank details) by a vengeful, anonymous online community. A similar hate campaign – Comicsgate – was directed at comic book creators deemed to have embraced progressive, feminist or leftwing values, on the part of what could be seen as afar-right geek fringe. One comic’s artist claimed they were “standing up against what they see as a hard push by social justice warriors into their hobby”. The hatred has also been directed at movies, such as 2017’s The Last Jedi and Black Panther, whose foregrounding of women and people of colour prompted similar coordinated attacks to to manipulate their ratings on the reviews website Rotten Tomatoes.These contingents no longer represent modern pop culture, says Michi Trota, a Chicago-based writer and editor of the sci-fi/fantasy magazine Uncanny. “There’s still a common misperception that nerds are primarily cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white men who are socially awkward and/or not good at sports,” she says. “It’s incredibly frustrating how this misperception persists, because it’s such a narrow view of who geeks are and can be, and it contributes to a lot of problems with things like misogyny, racism, ableism, cissexism and heterosexism in geek culture.”
These elements reveal how geek culture can be policed from within as well as without. It is no longer a matter of the mainstream rejecting sci-fi nerds and comic-book fans; now it is the other way around. The “outsider” status can lead to claims of victimisation, and an impulse to attack and exclude others. A 2012 essay by the academics Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles refers to geek status as a “simulated ethnicity” – a term they use “to describe the way geeks melodramatically cast themselves as members of a marginalised identity to foreground their validity and authenticity”. Portrayals of non-alpha white males, in particular, in popular culture, have cast geekdom as “a put-upon status equivalent to the markedness of a marginalised identity such as that of a person of colour”.
As a Filipino-American woman who has seen every Marvel movie at least once, Trota says she finds the whole “oppressed for being nerds” narrative extremely frustrating. “Not only have marginalised people experienced actual oppression in the form of systemic barriers, state-sponsored hate and attempts to curtail or outright remove our civil and basic human rights, we’ve also had to deal with those same white male nerds telling us we had to ‘prove’ we were ‘real nerds’ according to their narrow, arbitrary standards … or [deciding] they were going to harass us right out of what they considered their exclusive clubhouse.”
In that sense, at least, the mainstreaming of geek culture has removed these gatekeepers. There are no longer “real” geeks and “fake” geeks any more. We are all on a spectrum that permits varying levels of engagement. As the sci-fi writer and geek champion John Scalzi put it: “Geekdom is a nation with open borders. There are many affiliations and many doors into it … Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think – and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking – that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing.”
Which is not to say that there are no issues of representation in mainstream geek culture, looking at, say, the lingering orientalism in the Marvel Universe (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One makes a return in Avengers) or its representation of women of colour (you can count them on one hand, and they’re all secondary characters). Or the levels of female nudity and sexual violence directed against women in Game of Thrones. There’s certainly room for improvement but, as Martin Luther King wouldn’t have said, the arc of nerdery is bending towards justice.
Perhaps the question now is, how much more do we need? Rest assured, plenty is available. Marvel and DC have movies mapped out for the next decade and beyond. Star Wars has its spin-off TV series, The Mandalorian, teed up for next year. HBO is mulling over Game of Thrones spin-offs. And that’s before we even get to Avatar sequels, the Lord of the Rings TV series, Harry Potter movies and so forth. How much is enough? Will we ever be inclined or able to invest so much time and devotion into such epic series again? And if we do, what will we get out of it?
When reaching for epically long texts that have undergone as much analysis and discussion and devotion as our current pop culture properties, the only ready comparisons are religious ones: the Bible, the Koran or the Talmud. Sci-fi and fantasy are like a secular religion now. We congregate in large numbers to watch them, we devote hours of study to them, we support them financially, we adorn ourselves with their merchandise and we get very angry when others speak against them. Clearly these worlds must give us more than just popcorn escapism. But what? Spiritual guidance? Transcendence? The illusion of control in a chaotic world? Perhaps it is simply connectedness. Outside the pop-culture bubble, religious and political hatred divide us; by comparison, stories such as Avengers and Game of Thrones unite us on a planetary level. That might not solve any real world problems, but more than ever it is something to value.
In November 1999, as the phenomenon reached its climax, Pokémon graced the cover of Time magazine; the accompanying feature described Pokémania, the fanaticism the game franchise inspired, as “a multimedia and interactive barrage like no other before it” and, less flatteringly, “a pestilential Ponzi scheme”. Eventually – outside Asia at least – Pokémon, like most children’s fads, faded from the mainstream.
“When I started my website back in 2003, Pokémon was dead,” says 30-year-old Jon Sahagian, editor-in-chief of the fansite pokebeach.com. “People in schools didn’t talk about it and scoffed at me and the few other fans who ever expressed any kind of interest in it.”
Yet Pokémon somehow continued to maintain a dedicated fandom; enough to see it estimated to be the highest grossing media franchise of all time. Now, with the release of Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds, this month, the franchise gets its first ever live-action film. Not only is it expected to be a box office hit (and potentially the most successful film based on a video game ever), early reactions indicate it is cleverly positioned to appeal to both die-hard fans and those who don’t know their Squirtles from their Sobbles. The stage is set for Pokémania to return.
Unsurprisingly, Pokémon passed Bill Nighy by in the 1990s. The 69-year-old actor was, by his own admission, “generationally disqualified” from Pokémon. In fact, when he took on the role of anthropologist and entrepreneur Howard Clifford in Detective Pikachu, he says, “you could have written what I knew about Pokémon on the head of a pin”. But his participation in the film demonstrates Pokémon’s mesmeric charm and curious pulling power: he fell in love and has now genuinely joined the Pokéfandom.
“I did a crash course in Pokémon lore and bought every book available, including the deeply impressive Pokédex,” says Nighy, referring to the Pokémon encyclopaedia. “I love the collecting. When I get around to it, I’m going to download the [Pokémon Go] app and go to Strasbourg. Someone told me they went Pokémon hunting in Strasbourg, which made an impression on me.”
Although he has since parted with his beloved Pokédex (donated to a small boy in Victoria, British Columbia), Nighy talks excitedly about a number of extremely rare Pokémon items, including a limited-edition Pikachu (“Pikachu, who can resist!?”) presented to him by the CEO of the Pokémon Company.
He has even brought hefty Pokémon pieces home to decorate his house. His character had a palatial office with “ancient Pokémon wall hangings, punched out in ancient stone, or at least given the appearance of that,” he says. “I now own them. They are absolutely enormous. They weigh a tonne. They’re in my cellar at the moment because I have to find a wall strong enough to hold them.”
Like most fans, Nighy also has his favourite Pokémon. “The ancient Mew was probably my top, top favourite because he’s just majestic and he was the very first ... He was elegant and powerful.”
The creator of Pokémon is video game developer Satoshi Tajiri. His vision was simple: players would explore the fictional region of Kanto catching, training and battling 151 creatures called Pokémon, including the franchise mascot, Pikachu. The games had a heavy emphasis on collecting (Tajiri collected insects as a boy) and trading (it was impossible to catch them all without trading with a peer).
He pitched the game to Nintendo in 1990 and, six years of arduous development later, on 27 February 1996 Pokémon Red and Green were released in Japan for Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy system. When the games made their international debut as Pokémon Red and Blue in the autumn of 1998, it coincided with the launch of the trading cards, an animated series and a feature-length animated film.
Since then, the universe has expanded. Every new “generation” of Pokémon is marked by the release of a new video game and more creatures; the current total is 807 spanning seven generations. There are more than 100 additional video games, an animated series with more than 1,000 episodes, 21 feature-length films, 11,000-plus trading cards, and innumerable action figures, soft toys and comic books.
Pokémon fever has ebbed and flowed over the past two decades, but this year it is ratcheting up again. Pokémon Go, the phenomenally successful2016 augmented-reality app that saw players risk their lives, was still the fourth highest-grossing mobile game in March 2019 (developers Niantic claim the app has been downloaded 850m times). While two games released last November, Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee, have so far sold a combined 10.63m units. The next video game instalments – Pokémon Sword and Shield – are coming in November, ushering in the eighth generation. And fans cannot wait.
“Whenever a new generation of games comes out, it’s like a huge wave,” says Paul Franz, editor of Pokémon fansite pokejungle.net. “We’re having Sword and Shield later this year and the interest in the fandom is gonna be peaking for a little while. I feel like the cycles go for two to three years, so I think this is going to be a high point.”
“I’ve been joking for a while that 2019 is gonna be the new 2016, which was the new 1999,” says 32-year-old Joe Merrick, freelance writer and full-time webmaster of serebii.net, a website he started at 13, which he says is the biggest non-Wiki Pokémon fansite on the internet. Traffic to his website is as high as it has been since 2016, and Merrick feels this year could be the biggest ever for the franchise.
“There is a concerted effort to appeal to the original fans,” he says. “Nostalgia is definitely an element. You’ve got people in their late 20s and early 30s who loved Pokémon when they were growing up. They’ve now got kids and say: ‘I remember this, we should get our kids into it.’ That’s definitely a good marketing tactic.”
The last big year, of course, was 2016, when Pokémon Go was released. Twenty-eight-year-old Marti Bennett, a freelance writer and Pokémon content creator on YouTube and Twitch, recalls the sudden excitement of everyone else joining in with his long-term passion. “I’d go into work and get five people bombarding me as soon as I entered the door: ‘Marti what’s all this Pokémon Go stuff about?’ [It was] the first time in the six years I’d worked there that they ever showed any interest.”
Almost overnight, the app’s staggering popularity made it inescapable in pop culture. It was the 90s all over again but with adults on iPhones rather than kids on Game Boys. Now a cutesy, childish universe felt mature and genuinely relevant. For 29-year-old YouTuber, Reversal, it was also a lucrative turning point. Reversal grew up playing the original games in the Netherlandsand grew out of them as a teen; then Pokémania hit him again with Pokémon Go. To say he takes Pokémon Go seriously is an understatement: he has travelled the world to try and catch them all (his next trip is to Singapore for an event called Safari Zone). He has registered having walked more than 4,500km on the app, caught 150,000-plus Pokémon and won upwards of 10,000 battles. When his friend spotted a nearby Girafarig – a Pokémon that had long eluded him – Reversal left his house immediately. It was 3am. “He texted me: ‘It’s here’,” says Reversal. “I went out and live-streamed it. I looked for it for about an hour.”
Before Pokémon Go, Reversal’s YouTube channel had more than 100,000 subscribers and he focused on mobile games such as Boom Beach and Clash Royale. When he turned to Pokémon Go, not everyone was thrilled. “I alienated the entire fan base,” he says. Yet soon, his audience had grown to three times its size. Reversal is guarded about money, but his channel has more than 337,000 subscribers and he says that he is much better off financially. His most-watched video – an eight-minute clip of him hatching rare Pokémon eggs – has 3.9m views.
But more traditional elements of the community are also attracting new, young fans. The competitive scene – where players battle with their virtual or trading card Pokémon – has flourished both locally and at the annual Pokémon World Championships (this year in Washington DC).
Sixteen-year-old Connor Pedersen, who is based in Sacramento, California, was the runner-up in the card game senior division finals last year. Before tournaments, he says he spends five hours a day practising with his cards (of which he lost count at 10,000). “I’ll do one marathon day where I’ll play 10 hours a day, like two weeks before the tournament,” he says.
Pedersen estimates he has made $30,000 in winnings so far, and plans to keep going for five years. But he says it’s not about the money. “I play it because I want to win the Worlds [Championships],” he says. “I’ve gotten so close so many times. There have been three years in a row where I’ve been in the top eight but I wasn’t able to win.” (He wants to be the very best, like no one ever was).
He is not the only one. James Evans, 15, from New Jersey, was the 2018 world champion for the video game senior division and has played in more than 50 tournaments worldwide. This year, like Pedersen, he has graduated to the masters division, where he competes at the highest level.
“I’ve been able to fight in a few major events and do pretty well in the first year,” he says. “Right now, my Pokémon career is going pretty well.” He estimates that practising and playing in tournaments takes up 40% of his time and – with the help of some very supportive parents – he travels all over the world competing (he’s been as far as Australia). Evans even has an arrangement with his school for additional time off, so long as he makes up the work.
“I would love to have this as my job,” he says. “I remember my grandfather asked me this question last year. He was like: ‘So when are you gonna quit this Pokémon thing?’ And I got really serious and was like, ‘Never!’”
Evans hopes the renewed interest in Pokémon this year will benefit the competitive scene. “Not only are we going to see a lot more people playing the game generally, but I think more people are going to gravitate towards playing competitively,” he says.
Among the Pokémon faithful there is a feeling of vindication. Los Angeles-based Sahagian has been a fan since the original games were released in the US. “When I go out and about in the world I’ll have some merchandise, like stickers on my car or a Pokémon backpack,” he says. “Pokémon just means so much to me. I’ve dedicated my life to bringing fans together to talk about it.”
Sahagian no longer feels alone. “We live in the age of Marvel movies being the top-grossing movies of all time; this is the age of the nerds now,” he says. “I think fans are much more willing now to show their excitement for the franchise. If they were hiding before, now they are more willing to be more open about their love.”
The landscape remains as it was then,” says Mark Worthington, waving across marshland and poplar trees laden with mistletoe. He stands beside Pegasus Bridge, across the Caen Canal at Ranville, Normandy, taken on 5 June 1944 by an allied advance party that arrived to clear the way for D-day, and the liberation of western Europe.
Worthington, curator of the Pegasus Bridge commemorative museum on this site, proceeds to the cemetery of British soldiers killed on, or soon after, D-day – rows and rows of lost lives. In the graveyard of the lovely church next door “are German graves, and that of the first man to die at D-day, on Pegasus Bridge, Pte Den Brotheridge” – of whom a statue was unveiled in Portsmouth during the week of our visit to Ranville, where it later went for display. This June marks the 75th anniversary of D-day, last of the commemorative five-year “big ones”, which will be attended by heads of state and veterans alike.
But there is this other thing hanging in the misty coastal air – Brexit, and its effect on the bond forged by D-day. This strangeness propelled a friend and colleague, Rémy Ourdan, of Le Monde, and I to travel both coasts – English south and French north – and report for our respective papers on their shared sea and history of interdependence and rivalry.
We had the idea in Bayeux last autumn, from where the tapestry of the Battle of Hastings will travel to England, on a date to be arranged. Aware of its history, distant and recent, Bayeux is a town strewn with union jacks, stars and stripes and Canadian maple leaves, plus flags of all countries in the European Union. I tried to imagine an equivalent scene on the English south coast, and could not.
Neither can Worthington, from a Royal Navy family in Dartmouth, married to Nathalie from France, whom he met through a twinning exchange, and who curates another museum at Juno Beach. “I look at Britain as a European now,” says Worthington, “with not a little despair”.
“I owe my marriage to town-twinning”, says Nathalie, “and coming from here, feel protected by Europe. Pegasus Bridge should be built between France and England.”
Ranville is one of 70 memorial sites and museums across Normandy that commemorate what in France is called the Bataille de Normandie.And here, visiting, are three British veterans, including Frank Prendergast, one of 600 soldiers of the 7th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, who landed on Pegasus Bridge – 400 were killed – and a freeman of Normandy. “Pegasus Bridge had to be taken and held,” he says, “to keep German tanks off it – otherwise, no D-day.” He returns every year: “I love France, so many friendly faces. It’s hard – I’m usually the first person to cry – but the welcome is amazing, and they take what happened so seriously.
On Brexit, Prendergast is tactful: “We all make mistakes, don’t we?” Questioned by schoolchildren next morning, he is more robust: “Britain managed without Europe for thousands of years, and can again.”
From left: Frank Prendergast, with fellow veterans Fred Glover and Bill Gladden
The Memorial Museum in Caen is one of the great warfare museums of Europe; its scope widened and deepened to incorporate the setting of Holocaust by the passionate curator Stéphane Grimaldi. “Your south coast was for four years a first line of defence, facing an enemy,” he says. “Then Churchill helped save Europe, and said that Britain would be part of a Europe rebuilt by a Franco-German alliance. But I’m not sure the English realise that, preferring to see in him only the patriot”.
The Battle of Normandy has another narrative: Grimaldi has opened a further museum at Falaise, birthplace of William the Conqueror and site of a battle in which two-thirds of the city was destroyed by the allies. France lost 20,000 civilians during “liberation”, mostly to allied bombing, and they are the theme of this endeavour. Caen, too, was 35% ravaged, and the historian Anthony Beevor caused controversy ahead of the 65th D-day anniversary calling the bombing of Caen “close to a war crime”.
“These were sacrificed people,” says Grimaldi, “forgotten by history, which must always revisit itself in pursuit of truth.” He cites the trailblazing work of historian Jean Quellien, who “counted the dead, village by village, during the 1970s – the first time anyone had confronted that narrative”.
But public consciousness is more informed by ties to Britain, as we head west to Bayeux to meet keeper of museums Antoine Verney. “Here, we are deeply anglophile,” he says. “Look at our history: the Norman invasion, the hundred years war – but then the liberation, which defines our relationship.” Bayeux was taken without bombardment.
A statue on a roundabout on the outskirts of Bayeux depicts a soldier from the town’s famed tapestry
Brexit makes an ironic context for the loan of Bayeux’s tapestry, but local reporter Pascal Vannier says: “In this area, no one really talks about Brexit, and if they do, it’s: ‘Fuck it, let them leave’. But to an anglophile like me, it’s very strange – the sea between us brought us freedom.”
Le Havre is the French coast’s most charismatic city, Europe’s fifth port. It was once gateway to the world, along with Naples and Liverpool; from here, millions left to become America’s huddled masses. And like Liverpool, Le Havre embraced black blues and rock music from America faster than any French city – Paris was a jazz town – and that’s what Roberto Piazza, AKA Little Bob, talks about, at home beside the old bell tower on the docks, which summoned workers each grey dawn.
“Look!” – he leafs through his scrapbook – “350 English gigs in four years. I was bigger there than in France – the Marquee, 100 Club, Roundhouse, Dingwalls eight times!” Lemmy Kilmister played on his album of 1987, Ringolevio. “Rock is American and English, and we understood that immediately in Le Havre. Bands like the Stranglers would play here to warm up their most devoted fans in France and get a feel for it before heading on to Paris” – where Little Bob opened for them at the Olympia. On Brexit: “England made me, man – what the fuck are they doing? We love England – what’s the problem?”
Le Havre has its Simenon, crime-writer Philippe Huet, whose thrillers La nuit des docks and Les Quais de la colèreconstitute a Normandy noir. “People in Normandy turn their backs to the sea. Only Le Havre feels open to the oceans,” says Huet.
Rock singer Little Bob in Le Havre, France
But Le Havre’s “liberation” was a bitter one: whereas Caen and Falaise were bombed as part of the June advance, German “fortress” Le Havre was assailed from 29 August, after the allies had refused an evacuation of civilians offered by its commander. Some 2,000 were killed – and 19 German soldiers. “When the British entered Le Havre,” continues Huet, “there were no flags, no cheering – only an atmosphere of mourning.”
Elisabeth Coquart co-wrote books with her husband, Huet, among them the nonfiction Le Jour le plus fou: 6 juin 1944, Les Civils dans la tourmente (the maddest day: civilians in torment), published in 1994 and described as “the saga of the no-ranks who found themselves face to face with great history stuffed with glory and covered with medals. They tell it differently.”
She adds, on the current situation: “I’m sick of Brexit. If the English want to blame all their problems on Europe, then that’s another of their problems.”
Yet there is this connection: “Before 1872,” says Huet, “there was no football in Europe until the British started playing on Avenue Foch – and thus European football was invented: Le Havre Athletic was the first football club in Europe, thanks to the British.” The modern-day anthem of Le Havre AFC is sung to the tune of God Save the Queen.
Gilles Perrault, a novelist living at Sainte-Marie-du-Mont on the Cotentin peninsula nearby, recalls a nightclub in the 1980s called Exocet, after the French missile used against British forces in the Falklands: “They all supported Argentina,” he says. And Brexit? “If the English economy collapses, they deserve it. Who do they think they are?”
A woman walks her dogs near the coast at Ouistreham
We had arrived in Normandy from the northeastern coast, at Calais, where Rémy met me off a Eurostar so quick from London there’s barely time to browse Le Monde. But the ease of that crossing contrasts brutally with that to which residents of the now dispersed “jungle” aspire in the opposite direction – and sometimes pull off, thanks to derring-do, smugglers and luck. This is the new story of the shared sea, which occupies Laurient Caffier, a “humanitarian” smuggler who loses rather than makes money. He bought a boat, in which he shipped eight Iranians to Britain, with whom he maintains contact, in Farsi. A second voyage was intercepted, however, and Caffier given a six-month suspended sentence.
He shows pictures of the tortured bodies of his passengers – “persecuted because they were Christians”. Do you yourself believe? “No, I do this because they were tortured, not because they were Christians.” As for Brexit: “The harder the barrier, the greater the risk – and the higher the mafia’s price.”
We drive through Le Touquet – “Paris-Plage” – with its Westminster hotel, and Dieppe, where the Victorian fashion for sea bathing at Brighton was first imitated on the continent, and where impressionists from both countries convened to paint.
Back in Caen to catch the ferry to Portsmouth, there’s a final conversation with geographer Pascal Buléon, who co-authored (with his counterpart Louis Shurmer-Smith in Portsmouth) an atlas of what the French call La Manche – the sleeve – and we call the English Channel. It is bilingual, entitled in English Channel Spaces: a World Within Europe. “Eighty per cent of the world’s trade is done by sea,” says Buléon, “and 20% of that passes through or across the channel.” It is the busiest in the world, the waters are “very efficiently run, along what in France is called Le Rail – the sea lanes. It’s impressive that we don’t have shipwrecks.”
Shortly before dusk, we board at Ouistreham, port of Caen; it’s always an emotional moment. Hundreds of times I’ve sailed by ferry across this sea: in my childhood and 20s, the ferry was where life began; the “boat-train” to Paris and points south. Days when I wore Kickers shoes even though I didn’t like them, because they looked “continental”, and bought my first car, a Citroën 2CV with the steering wheel deliberately on the left, “wrong” side.
On the ferry from Ouistreham to Portsmouth
But never had I been in the wheelhouse, and I tell Cdr Pierre-Marie Lejosne of Brittany Ferries’ Mont St Michel: “This is my boyhood dream come true”, though I preferred sailing in the opposite direction. There are more computer screens than wheels now, but still that focus among the crew, salty sea-dogs even in the 21st century. The wind is high, sea rough, spray wild – and a rainbow emerges from the heaving water.
Lejosne joined the line in 1991 as an officer from maritime school in Le Havre: “I’m a citizen of France,” he says, “but my life is on the sea.” Of Brexit: “England has always been an island, will remain an island and will need a rapport with the world.”
The lights of Portsmouth come into view as the words of that Bayeux reporter Vannier come to mind: “If you asked French people to name the port from which the D-day force sailed, hardly anyone would know.”
Buleon’s co-author of the channel atlas, the distinguished British geographer Louis Shurmer-Smith, is an OBE and has an honorary doctorate from Caen, where he is known as le Passeur – the ferryman, or smuggler, “of people and ideas across the channel,” says his wife Pamela, also a geographer.
“Seas,” he says, “have a tendency to separate people, while my life’s work has been to bring them together.” Shurmer-Smith has brought scores of students – and their research – to and fro under the Erasmus scheme, from which British youth now faces exclusion. “For a while, I was literally commuting on the ferry.”
But then he tells about a commission from Hampshire county council for a map of the county’s coast opposite that of Normandy. “They wanted the two coastlines to be symmetrical, but they couldn’t be: the French side is longer. Their suggestion: ‘Make Hampshire bigger’.”
The second world war has enthralled British imagination of late. We’ve gone from the country of My Beautiful Laundrette and Trainspotting to that of The King’s Speech, Dunkirk, Churchill and Darkest Hourwithin a year of each other – plus Journey’s End and Victoria and Abdul. Our war is less about its causes than about us.
Portsmouth’s D-Day Story museum has been revamped with families, schools and young people in mind, says Jane Mee, who is responsible for the relaunch at Portsmouth city council. “We wanted to bring the story alive, for young people to look for themselves at the story of servicemen their own age. It’s like reality TV. This is not the whole of world war two. It’s about D-day, honour, courage, even human frailty.”
Curator Andrew Whitmarsh says: “We wanted to tell a clear story, and you cannot do that if you broaden it too much.”
Rémy was surprised not to encounter more on the reasons for landing in Normandy, nor even the word “Holocaust”. Stéphane Grimaldi, who worked with the redesign team in Portsmouth, had said: “I kept emphasising that the liberation of Europe began on the site of your museum, but couldn’t get that across. The project had no ambitions towards the wider context, and that’s very British.”
Visitors at the D-day museum in Portsmouth
Portsmouth became the first local authority to unilaterally “leave” the EU in 2016, urging citizens to vote to do so. On referendum day, the local paper carried one word across its front page: NO! The city voted 58.1% Leave. The 2016 motion was secured by then Conservative leader Donna Jones. “Portsmouth,” she says, “has existed for a thousand years, part home to the Royal Navy. A military city, garrison town until recently. We are a predominantly white population, about 93%.”
But “our history is by the water and is made by what we make of that water. Trade is key to our destiny.” So why leave the EU? “Because of the unevenness of it. It just doesn’t fit Britain.”
The city leader is now Lib Dem Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who calls the 2016 manoeuvre “an operation by the Tories and Ukip. I’m only leader of this council because last year, six particular wards were up for re-election. If it had been all of them, Portsmouth would be a Ukip city.
“Perhaps all this is happening because we’ve never been recently invaded, and have no idea what that does to a civilian population, no idea of the carnage Europe has endured. One of the things that built the EU was knowledge of the cost of war.”
Vernon-Jackson enjoys exploring France’s Normandy coast and D-day museums. “Seventy there, one here. I think it’s about the liberation of Europe and defeat of fascism – a contribution to the whole. But most people here do what the Americans do: rewrite history to make it all about ourselves.”
Council leader Donna Jones on the ramparts of the Tudor fort in Portsmouth
Like almost every civic hall in Britain, Portsmouth’s flies the union flag without Europe’s stars beside it, as would feature on every municipal building in Europe. Next door is a pub proclaiming itself “Isambard Kingdom Brunel Free House”. It isn’t: it is Portsmouth’s branch of Wetherspoons, in which the chain’s owner, Tim Martin, launched his no-deal Brexit campaign tour in January.
Rob Silvester knows his mind. He was a leader of the fearsome Portsmouth FC 6.57 crew – named after the first train to Waterloo – which blazed a trail of aggro during the 1980s and 90s. He wrote a good book, Rolling With the 6.57 Crew, which mostly details fighting between Englishmen, but contains a bumptious account of the rout of Le Havre and Honfleur by Pompey fans on a day out to get a “friendly” match abandoned.
Now, Silvester’s Twitter feed mostly features his new cause: Ulster and UVF veterans. We met in 2003 when Portsmouth were on the eve of their first Premiership season, on which occasion he said, presciently: “Britain is an island, and Portsmouth an island within an island.”
We reconvene at the Electric Arms pub on Fratton Road, and it needs explaining to Rémy “that while everyone else gives the finger to say ‘fuck off’, we English give it two. Because when the French captured an English archer, they chopped off his fingers. But before Agincourt, the English showed ’em: ‘We’ve got the fingers’” – and Rob rolls a sleeve to reveal his tattoo: the archer’s “fuck off”.
Rob Silvester of the Portsmouth ‘6.57 crew’ shows off his ‘Agincourt’ tattoo
Silvester is too intelligent to rant. “I love France,” he says, “my dad took me to the Normandy beaches, and I take my son. And the closest I’ve been to tears recently was in Emsworth: this man with his medals on, in the supermarket. He’d been a sapper for the Royal Engineers, first on the beaches.”
“I’m a patriot,” he says, “I love my country. I don’t do politics, but Brexit is all about our identity. Britain invented the world, and it’s a mythic power.” After a few pints he laughs amicably with Rémy: “France, well, it’s just over the road. It’s a deep down hatred ain’t it?”
We proceed to the Mother Shipton, where last orders are a movable feast, and gracious hostess Andrea engages Rémy: “Do you live in Paris?” “Yes”. “Do you have children?” “Yes.” “Aren’t you worried about them being raped by refugees?”
If Le Havre has Philippe Huet, Portsmouth has Graham Hurley, whose south-coast thrillers, featuring detective Joe Faraday, have been adapted for French television and transposed to Le Havre as Deux Flics Sur Les Docks.
Hurley and his wife Lin moved along the coast to Exmouth, and sweeping views of the Exe estuary. Wetherspoons’ Martin is a neighbour and East Devon voted 54.1% Leave, despite the Remain university city of Exeter. “It’s deep Devon farming Brexit,” says Graham, “voting against all those subsidies they’ve enjoyed. But good air, the end of the line, I like that.”
Hurley has just received a letter from the mayor of St Gobain, Normandy: a roll of film was uncovered, which turns out to be one taken by Hurley for D-day commemorations of 1984. The mayor asks: would Hurley present a screening this anniversary summer 10 years later, “to emphasise the connections that unite us” in this time of Brexit? “Can you imagine that letter arriving in France from the mayor of a south-coast town in England?” asks Hurley.
On the seafront at Portsmouth
“Portsmouth” he says, “is the perfect place to observe Britain en pleine dégringolade– falling apart. As my detective does: alcohol, drugs, family breakdown. It’s all there in Portsmouth, inward-looking, claustrophobic, surrounded by fortresses.”
He recalls “a survey in primary schools: what frightens you most? First was drunk people. Second, the French. Because they talk funny.”
It is, he says, “a deepening of the dyke, higher than ever. Since I wrote those books, Britain has become one big Portsmouth.”
Along the Dorset coast at Weymouth, Just Military regalia shop on the pretty harbour side, sells Nazi daggers and SS uniform patches. Quite apart from that, Weymouth and Portland voted 61% to leave, among them Bert Lynam and Kelvin Moore, securing their fishing boats Jodye B and Rampant. It was off this coast that all-out scallop war with French counterparts erupted last August. “That’s why we’re leaving ain’t it,” says Lynam, “to get our waters back.” He explains: “We have an exclusion zone of six miles, while they have a 12-mile exclusion – well, that’s not right for a start, is it?”
But not all their complaints are directed at Brussels. EU quotas, says Moore, are so quickly met by large British ships that “there’s nothing left for us little ones”. Moreover, adds Lyman, “the quotas that IFCA (regional Inshore Fisheries and Conversations Authorities, which try to conserve stocks) give us are just as severe.”
A fisherman in Weymouth
Brighton is an anomaly along the coast, counting the only parliamentary constituencies to vote to Remain – apart from Falmouth and Truro – by 68.6%. The town of Graham Greene’s Pinkie is now capital of British bohemia, singularly tatty but chic. And if funky Brighton plays jester to the patriotic coastline, its jester residents are the cartoonists, Steve Bell of the Guardian and the Observer’s Chris Riddell – those who tell truth to power by laughing at it.
Riddell, until recently children’s laureate, receives us in the wonder of his studio. “We have wonderful murmurations of thousands of starlings here in Brighton, but also murmurations of people,” he says. “Brighton is cosmopolitan, tolerant – has been since the 60s and 70s, when so many of us came as students and never wanted to leave.”
The Big Issue and the union jack in Remain-voting Brighton
But there’s no port; Brighton’s cosmopolitanism comes from leisure and learning, and being what Riddell calls “London-on-Sea”. On the other hand, he adds: “There’s terrible deprivation. I do live drawing gigs on estates where children have never even got as far as the sea.”
Brexit is “a fault line,” says Riddell, but for a cartoonist “also a godsend. It’s our privilege to be able to portray something without having to describe it, and Brexit has all the metaphors we could ask for: we’re actually going over our own white cliffs of Dover!”
Arron Hendy, editor of the Argus in Brighton, is a man of the entire coast: born in Weymouth before his career proceeded eastwards to Bournemouth, thence Southampton, finally here. “Bournemouth’s more well-to-do, but Southampton’s another thing: I covered the crime beat, a place of petty squabbles that became major violent incidents.”
Why did the coast vote Leave? “Age played a part. A lot of retired people who are bored and don’t like foreigners. I’m not sure that coastal towns do look out to sea. There’s no connection between this coast and France. Not many people could name five places on the other side. We used to have pen pals we’d write to and stay with – not any more.”
For all the cosmopolitanism, Brighton still has that edge, and I posit that Pinkie never really left. “Pinkie never left,” agrees Hendy, “but he’s not at Kemptown races, more likely out on a stag night. And so many others arrived – this is the San Francisco of the south coast.”
The coast road from Brighton to Dover is a quintessentially English corridor of B&Q and KFC, thickets of union flags and St George crosses. I’d warned Rémy along France’s open roads about the ghastly congestion along ours, and against taking a train: that morning’s edition of the Argus had a wraparound cover on the latest rail failures.
Traffic and traffic jams of a different kind are at issue in Dover, through which 17% of all UK trade passes.
An English flag hangs from the balcony of a house in Dover, as cross-Channel lorries pass
People here know all about Operation Stack, whereby motorways become waiting lanes when weather prevents ferries from sailing. They are familiar with signs reading: “Port of Dover. Traffic management and berth improvements. Co-financed by the European Union”, with a flag of circled stars – for now.
There are stars, too, on a wall – but one is being chipped away by a man on a ladder: not for real, but in Banksy’s marvellous mural.
Dover voted Leave by 62.2% – and Sam Lennon, veteran reporter on the city for the Kent Mercury group, says what everyone thinks: “no one has a clue what’s going to happen.” He cites one report predicting: “one-minute delay in customs means a 20-mile tailback”. “You’d be surprised how little contact there is between here and Calais, although it’s our twin,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who goes for business, and you don’t hear French in Dover. It’s a place of passing through, and I think the drawbridge will come up after Brexit.”
Richard Christian – head of communications for the Port of Dover – is son of a clergyman and descended from Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny on the Bounty. “I’m surprised they gave me job on a docks!” he jokes.
The figures are staggering: “The naked eye does not see what is actually happening,” says Christian. Each year, 11.8 million foot passengers and 2.5m trucks pass through “with at least one person in each – up to 10,000 lorries on a busy day”. And the crunch: “98% of goods that pass through Dover is trade with the EU.”
“We’ve always said that whatever happens post-Brexit, we can maintain the flow, if pre-declaration of goods and pre-clearance are done away from the port. There can be no additional checks at the actual border,” says Christian.
The economy depends on a functioning port, such as “the automotive industry, where assembly lines operate with tiny windows for parts delivery, otherwise they break down. We might be on the sea, but we must function like any landlocked country.”
Banksy’s mural of EU stars decorates the approach to the docks at Dover – where 62.2% of the population voted Leave
Wind cuts the surf, and rain falls without relent; ferries are delayed and access to the port gridlocked, affording a glimpse of what Dover faces if the pre-clearance scheme is not arranged. Don Harris waits in a hotel lobby to board the ferry on which he works – “supposed to have left this morning, but stuck in Dunkirk.”
“I used to work in the port”, says Anna at reception. “I know what it’s like backed up – always worse on Tuesdays, for some reason.”
“Nah”, retorts Don, “it’s Remain scare tactics – we’ll be fine” – and we discuss Banksy’s mural. “At least the man on the ladder’s getting on with the job!” says Don.
The journey from Bayeux to Banksy might as well end at the beginning. A lone, modest but elegant, commemorative column on the beach at Houlgate marks the point of William the Conqueror’s departure, with 700 warships, to invade England. They landed on 28 September 1066 and – as every schoolchild is taught – routed King Harold’s English army at Battle, near Hastings.
At the museum in William’s castle at Caen, curator Jean-Marie Levesque waves towards his wall of books and journals: “About 85% of them are in English,” he observes. “There’s a strange fascination with that defeat.”
Levesque points out that “people know less about the violence of the Norman conquest – more about the Domesday Book”, and he’s right: the two invaders – Normans, and Romans – founded Britain on the basis of our subjugation, but we prefer not to see it that way.
When the Battle of Hastings is re-enacted each year at Battle Abbey and Battlefield, crowds “cheer King Harold and boo William”, says Roy Porter, curator of English Heritage buildings in the south-east.
He takes us to the Abbey grounds where Harold fell, and around the battlefield, casting a scholarly eye over events of that day: “You don’t get any English account until 60 years later.”
In the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio by Guy, bishop of Amiens, “Harold is not shot in the eye,” says Porter, “he’s hacked to death with axes.” Unlike the most famous depiction of a battle ever rendered: the tapestry en route for Britain and, Porter hopes, Battle Abbey.
On the ramparts at Caen from which William himself gazed seaward, I venture to suggest to Levesque: most kind of your president and colleagues to lend the tapestry, despite the affront of Brexit, but what we really need at this juncture are the 700 warships and another invasion from this shore. “We’ll be accepting refugees,” he replies, with a half-smile.
The French view, by Rémy Ourdan of Le Monde
Ed Vulliamy and I travelled to Normandy twice last year. The first time was in June, around the time of the D-day commemorations, for a conference on the Bosnian war – a conflict we both covered 25 years ago – at the Memorial Museum in Caen. The second time was in October for the Bayeux awards for war correspondents. It was then, at the bar of the famous Lion d’Or hotel, where both De Gaulle and Churchill had come during or after the second world war, that Ed suggested we visit the Channel coasts together before Brexit. The idea was to travel both coasts in search of what, over centuries, has brought the two countries closer, and what drives them apart. We travelled, one could say, between the historical bookends of William the Conqueror and D-day.
Two battles – Hastings in 1066 and Normandy in 1944 – that changed for ever the destinies of the two countries, and, in the case of the latter, the destiny of the world. Two landings also both on the news agenda: 1066 with President Macron’s promise to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to England after the rupture of Brexit, and 1944 with the 75th anniversary of D-day on 6 June.
We visited historians, museum directors, geographers, writers, and people more concerned by recent history and current affairs such as port administrators, fishermen, rock singers and football fans. We listened to stories about centuries of war and hatred, from anglophiles on the French coast and francophiles on the British one. We met French-British families, for whom Brexit is a tragedy, regardless of whether they feel “European”, and those with both pro and anti-Brexit views on England’s south coast.
A statue of a Norman soldier in action on the site of the Battle of Hastings in Kent
People living on both coasts talk about the age-old enemy and shared history, but the conclusion of the trip might be that they don’t really know each other, or don’t really care about each other.
The articles in Le Monde were published two weeks ago, on 11 and 12 April, as a series. 12 April was one of the deadlines for Brexit, ultimately postponed again. In Paris, where very few people would know about 1066 or the hundred years war, readers were impressed with how local and family memories in Normandy could still invoke centuries-old conflicting stories.
French readers wrote to me saying they never thought about the 20,000 civilian casualties of the Battle of Normandy in 1944, killed by the British and American liberators of Europe – a kind of taboo in France, but a memory still very much alive from Caen to Le Havre.
This trip reminded us that whether one is pro or anti-Brexit, pro or anti-European Union (and some of the French people we met would for sure be “Frexiters” if they had the chance), that shared history is a centuries-long process.
However passionate people in the UK are today about Brexit, Nathalie and Mark Worthington, a French-British couple who both curate second world war museums in Normandy, told us, while walking in the Ranville war cemetery (where lie the British soldiers killed during the capture of Pegasus Bridge, a few hours before the D-day landing): “When we are angry or when we simply have a bad day, we come to take a walk here, between the first soldiers killed for the liberation of Europe. We will never live through worse than what they lived through.”
Since Theresa May invoked Article 50, there has been a mystifying surge in video games set in Britain. They come in all shapes and sizes, from Nintendo’s Pokémon Sword and Shield, which riffs on the architecture of Oxbridge and London, to PanicBarn’s anti-Brexit polemic Not Tonight. Most began development long before the EU referendum, but they are useful explorations of national identity at a time when what Britain stands for is hotly contested.
Gary Younge has described the Brexit debate as a clash between stories about Britain’s past and our ideas of Britishness. How, then, might these video games help us think about what Britain is today?
In the 9th-century, Britain was not one but several nations, a mass of warring Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Viking kingdoms. This is the backdrop to Creative Assembly’s Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia, a turn-based strategy game whose political turmoil unfolds across a verdant table-top diorama. Territories shift from season to season, rulers are murdered and their successors overthrown. The beautiful interface imposes calm; it’s inspired by artworks from the period, notably, illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.
Thrones is a raucous reminder that today’s borders are the product of centuries of invasion and migration. There are Welsh tribes in the game’s Scotland and Viking communities scattered from present-day Northumbria to the Irish coast. Creative Assembly was especially keen to capture the impact of Viking expansion. “The old political order was completely swept aside by them, leading to the rise of Alfred the Great,” says Jack Lusted, game director. “It shaped how the nations of these islands formed. We also wanted to capture the variety of the time period, the many different groups and peoples that called these islands home.”
Paradox Interactive’s Europa Universalis IV – whose Britain-focused expansion, Rule Britannia, launched last March – takes place centuries later, after England’s conquest of Wales and the establishing of what is now the Anglo-Scottish border. It’s a strategy game like Thrones, but it puts you at a greater remove, guiding a single nation within a formidable simulation of global politics. The game is a love letter to European imperialism, boosting your domestic standing when you seek war, but it’s also a useful portrayal of interdependency, teaching that nations are defined by more than their terrain.
To build a prosperous England, for example, you’ll need to attend to the great European cities that feed trade routes across the North Sea. Like May’s struggling government, you’ll need to consider your responsibilities towards expats, who may drag you into bloodshed if another nation lays claim to their city. Like Thrones of Britannia, the game draws on historical record and asks what-if? There’s a timeline of fixed events, including the hundred years war but you are free to depart from it. You might decide not to form the United Kingdom at all, or conquer England as an Irish ruler.
Where Europa Universalis IV romanticises conquest, Failbetter’s exploration game Sunless Skies is a different cup of tea. It’s an eldritch, steampunk send-up of 19th-century Britain, in which Queen Victoria has extended her rule across a curiously vegetal solar system. There are drifting factory worlds, inspired as much by Einstein as Dickens, where time is slowed so that labourers can work more hours and side stories that recall English attempts to erase the Welsh language from British education. There are also jokes about blue passports.
The game’s deconstruction of empire draws on consultation with Indian designer Meg Jayanth, and is lent venom by an awareness of how Britain’s colonial crimes have been whitewashed. “It’s very easy when you’re writing a period piece like this to slip into the myths of empire, the idea of it being all thrusting and entrepreneurial and admirable,” says Chris Gardiner, narrative director at Failbetter. He suggests that these myths are more common today than in the 19th-century, as nostalgia clouds condemnation: “There were conversations in parliament, letters written to newspapers. It was an active topic of discussion and now it feels less so.” Failbetter is able to stand apart from all this, Gardiner suggests, because its audience is largely made up of Americans, which obliges it to consider Britain’s imperial fantasies through non-British eyes.
Windrush Tales, a forthcoming illustrated text-based game from Chella Ramanan and Corey Brotherson, is another investigation of Britain from the outside in. Set in the 1950s, during the formation of the Commonwealth, it is the story of two Caribbean migrants adjusting to life in the UK. Besides celebrating Caribbean influences on UK culture, the game aims to convey the day-to-day experience of racism. “When you get turned away from the church because you’re black, you get to decide how you respond to that,” says Ramanan. “Are you resigned to it? Are you angry? What do you do?”
Ramanan and Brotherson are of Caribbean descent and their game was once a troubled ode to multiculturalism. “The Windrush generation was the founding generation of the NHS,” Ramanan says. “There’s the legacy of all that labour – it helped build Britain.” In the wake of 2018’s Windrush scandal, the project has taken a bleaker turn. “My dad and uncle are no longer here and I’m glad they can’t see where we are now, because it would make them so sad and feel betrayed. I think people will know that the experiences that people had then, that are seen in the game, are experiences people are still having.”
Where Windrush Tales reminds the player that racism is commonplace in modern Britain, Canadian developer Compulsion’s We Happy Few makes forgetfulness a theme. It takes place in a Kubrickian parody of the 1960s where conformity is taught through regular rounds of Simon Says and grinning bobbies clobber anybody who looks glum. According to Compulsion art director Whitney Clayton, this speaks to a running theme in British TV and film where “everything is sort of rigid and perfect, but it’s all just surface.” The game’s influences stretch from Keeping Up Appearances, Roy Clarke’s 90s satire of class pretensions, to Edgar Wright’s clownish village adventure Hot Fuzz.
If We Happy Few exposes the link between nationalism and the burying of history, it is also a hopeful game that revels in the social revolutions and counterculture of its era. “Enthusiasm for the future was a big theme I ran with for the art direction, and it made for really strong metaphors,” says Clayton. “You have these crumbly old Tudor buildings and then you have sleek plastic technology.” There’s a desperation to this optimism, however, as a country estranged from its own past casts about for distraction. “They’re looking toward the future in this really extreme way.”
Set in the 1980s, White Paper’s narrative adventure The Occupation calls to mind another British dystopia, the grimy bureaucratic nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984. As it begins, a rightwing government passes a repressive law following a bombing allegedly carried out by an immigrant. You play a reporter investigating the attack across four hours in Turing, a fictitious city inspired by White Paper’s native Manchester. Besides celebrating British music with an original score of faux-80s punk and pop songs, the game examines the role of political reporting before the advent of round-the-clock news.
“People generally believed what was in the papers,” says Nathaniel Apostol, narrative and audio director. “And if the only information they had was what they were given, how interesting would it be to play as a journalist who’s going to decide what the player sees?” The Occupation feels just as relevant to today’s media ecology as that of the 1980s. It channels the information overload of the smartphone age, asking you to parse a mass of contradictory evidence against the clock.
The final stop on our tour of virtual Britains is Forza Horizon 4, the work of Leamington Spa-based Playground Games. A racing game that unfolds across the British countryside, it reduces the country to its geography, minutely recreating the effects of rainfall and summer heatwaves on dry stone walls and purple moorlands. With no residents, save cheering bystanders, this is a postcard Britain that exists out of time and which seems to tell no story at all.
The portrayal is rife with intriguing ironies, however. It removes London from the picture, coincidentally recreating the socio-economic and, arguably, cultural gulf between Britain’s capital and the rest of the country. And for Playground Games, designing Forza Horizon 4 has been an opportunity to see Britain through different eyes and consider it as part of something bigger. “It was kind of a rediscovery for me and our team members of what Britain is like, its beauty and history, and it’s been refreshing to hear how British people respond to that,” observes Ralph Fulton, creative director. “And to hear how people from other countries respond to it as well. The funny thing is that although we probably don’t think about it while we’re living here every day, Britain is an exotic, interesting place.”