Book Review : Running with the Firm by James Bannon

runningwiththefirmPlot Synopsis

‘Of course I’m a f**king hooligan, you pr**k. I am a hooligan…there I’ve said it…I’m a hooligan. And, do you know why? Because that’s my f**king job. – James Bannon’s response when asked by a fellow undercover officer if he was getting too involved in the violence.

Running with the firm tells the true story of police officer James Bannon detailing his two years undercover with the football hooligans that made up the notorious Milwall firm.

Review

Some set ups for stories I find inherently interesting no matter what guise they appear in. Cops going undercover into a dangerous situation where one wrong move could result in their heads being kicked in or worse is one of those stories. Even better though in “Running With The Firm” the story is true.

“Running With The Firm” is a really enjoyable read.  James Bannon gives a warts and all, 3D portrait of himself and his work. Non-football/sports fans may not think this book is for them but I would argue strongly that this isn’t the case.

Football is really just the backdrop of Running With The Firm as the book is much more of a character study of someone under extreme pressure.

I don’t know if it is correct to call the main character in a non-fiction book the protagonist but what the hell. The protagonist in Running With The Firm is genuinely interesting.

Bannon admits that as he gets more and more involved in the life of a hooligan that there are things he enjoys about it. He talks frankly about the surges of adrenaline he gets in the moments before and during the violence. He talks frankly about liking some of the hooligans.

Bannon is open about how at times he pushes the envelope about what an undercover police officer should do. To gain the Firm’s trust he puts himself at the front of acts of violence and he is honest enough to point out the concerns some of his fellow undercovers have about this.

The book is about more than violence though. The most enthralling part of the book is the frayed relationship he enjoys with his girlfriend and the flirtation he has with the barmaid at a Milwall hooligan pub. To add some extra complications said barmaid is the sister of one of the leaders of the firm.

By laying out the temptations that assaulted him and explaining just how he made the decisions he did Bannon is able to give the reader some idea of what it must be like to serve as an undercover police officer.

As a point of comparison I read Donnie Brasko a few years ago and I didn’t come away with such a felling of what it must be like to be an undercover officer. Scared of what you are doing but also addicted to to the thrill of the danger

Political Ramifications

Perhaps the aspect that would make the book most interesting to non-football fans though is the political/moral issues that the book throws up.

Firstly, there is the issue of romantic entanglement with people whilst you are undercover. Bannon just about manages to avoid succumming to temptation. Recent revelations however have shown that undercover officers in far less dangerous positions that Bannon didn’t exercise such discretion. Bannon doesn’t pass judgement on this himself writing that such as choice must be up to the individual officers but does say that in his opinion ‘fraternisation’ should only occur when it presented the only viable way of gaining the target’s trust.

This is an interesting point though. Would it have been right for Bannon to get involved with a woman if he knew that doing so would get him in a position to get lots of intelligence on the Firm’s activities? I really don’t know but that of course is what makes Running With The Firm an interesting read. It is a book of grey rather than black and white. 

Secondly, Bannon is very honest in his criticisms of the police. He talks about travelling to a Milwall away game against Middlesbourgh (I could be wrong about the team) and how the home fans spent the entire afternoon hurling fistfuls of concrete at the Milwall fans. Meanwhile the cops did nothing. To make matters worse the police essentially join in with the home fans by wading into the crowd to beat and arrest Milwall fans for little to no reason. He is also very clear about how just generally incompetent the police forces as an organisation often were and likely are.

In light of the ongoing revelations about Hillsborough and other scandals this is particularly interesting.

The politics of it all brings me to my only reservation with the book. Since Running With The Firm is a personal memoir with a tight POV focus we never really get a sense of the wider politics of the football hooliganism. There is little sense of the larger picture of what was going on.

If, a bit like a Michael Lewis book, “Running With The Firm” had done this wider picture stuff as well as the personal stuff I would have no hesitation in declaring Running With The Firm to be a classic. As it is though it is just a very good book. I’d recommend it.

 

 

Review of Robocop (2014)

robocopRight off the bat I feel I should warn you that there will be spoilers in this review. I’m not going to go out of my way to provide spoilers and I don’t think the plot is one which is going to be ruined by discussion of the plot but if you want to see the film completely fresh don’t read this.

Also I have never seen the original Paul Verhoven Robocop so I am going into this blind without any nostalgia for the franchise. Although I suspect this might work to the film’s advantage.

The start of this film is gripping. The MGM lion appears and instead of the usual thunderous roar you get this weak growl. This certainly got my attention. What was happening? The ‘roar’ becomes vocal exercises and we fade in on Samuel Jackson.

So right off the bat the film has got my attention. I’m watching it in Imax. Middle of the row Friday midday and Samuel Jackson appears on the screen. Things are going great.

Jackson begins doing his Fox News slight parody. I say slight as it is not far out enough to make you laugh but is instead close enough to the truth to make you ever so slightly uncomfortable. Again well done film.

The Novak factor (Sam Jackson’s show) has an exclusive report inside the US Military’s Combat Machine program. Novak gets passionate but not quite ranty (yet) about how great the machines have been in bringing ‘freedom’ to the world and what a shame it is they cannot be used in the USA to increase freedom at home.

Again this is great. It is the kind of provocative stuff you wouldn’t see from a typical Blockbuster. It is at this point you realise that this film is set maybe at most a decade into the future if that. The exact date is never revealed but what you get is our world today but with electronics more interlinked into the home and holograms on TV. This is a smart choice from the film-makers. Given the increasing use of drones and technological surveillance in the world today. Setting the film a few years into the future is a great way to make it seem more believable and relevant.

A special report from downtown Tehran begins where the US military is “bringing unprecedented levels of freedom” to the area. The citizens of Tehran come out onto the street to be scanned by these machines.

Now this is the best scene of the film. Stealth drones rush over head and US military machines pour down the street. It is a scary display of force. Meanwhile the news-reporter talks about how happy the Tehranians are to have this force in their city. How it has increased their freedom. It is obvious 1984 ‘doublespeak’ and you see an attack begin to develop as the terrorists sneak along the roofs.

Their goal is to not kill the reporters but to “die on film”. They attack the machines and are just wiped out. The son of one of the attackers runs out brandishing a knife at the drone. He is just annihilated. It is shocking. It is great film-making. Like Hitchcock in Physco they have got you rooting for the ‘bad’ guy. You don’t typically want terrorists to win but I would have been quite happy to see the machines get blown back to circuit breakers.

This is the high point of the movie. The rest of the film never quite demonstrates just how powerful these machines are. As such it is never that great an action film or that great a film that is trying to make you think about the use of machines.

In large part this is because, the film draws back from the international side and world building to focus on the use of machines for domestic law enforcement. As it does this there is no focus on whether civil liberties and freedom are being crushed and the consequences. The politics is stripped out and we are left with a by the numbers action film.

So just a few thoughts about this. Firstly, Michael K Williams aka Omar from the Wire omarappears in this film as Robocop’s partner. I struggled to believe that Omar would get put in hospital whereas the guy from the Killing, who becomes Robocop, would survive long enough to be blown up. Omar would have been a much more better Robocop.

Secondly, Gary Oldman really does carry the film along and give you a reason to keep interested. His acting is fantastic. His acting is also necessary because after one Robocop action scene its all a case of been there done that.

Robocop fight scenes are essentially just massive amounts of force bullets flying everywhere as Robocop walks through the raining ammo to slay with brutal efficiency. This is all a bit dull after the first time. Plus this film is a bloodless so you don’t even get the pleasure of seeing bit of brain splattered everywhere or ridiculous over the top deaths. One scene in particular is just darkness lit by muzzle flashes. It wasn’t the most exciting.

Lastly, although the film does stray into the cliched man’s wishes versus the programming of the machine it did this better than most other films. Why it happened was explained instead of it just being a triumph of the human spirit; humanus ex machina.

I would give this film three out of five. It is decent but not good.

I wasn’t bored watching it but I was only gripped in the fantastic first scene. That first scene showed me why Robocop was worth remaking. If they have continued to push the boundaries of comfort by making the film explicitly political it could have been a great film. The action would have mattered more as there would have been stakes behind it. It’s hard to care too much about robots or faceless criminals.

It’s worth seeing for that first scene and Samuel Jackson though.

So overall, a missed opportunity. Oh and the Imax gave me a headache.

Chris Christie and liberal media double standards

You may have noticed that GOP governor Chris Christie has gotten himself into a bit of trouble recently by causing a traffic jam on a bridge. It is of course right that questions are being asked.

What I want to know is why the media is not also focusing on the staff of a dangerously liberal President whose staff did the same thing and were caught on video tape doing so! This was filmed for an NBC documentary.

The establishment strikes back on World War One

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Narratives are important in politics. I’d go so far to say they are key. In today’s modern society (although the same was almost certainly true for supposedly ‘less’ complex societies) there is no one

single cause for anything. It isn’t much of a rallying cry or newspaper article to say this though. Arguments therefore tend to focus on one clear simple story to explain things. Rather disturbingly this was the same line of propaganda use by Goebbels and Hitler.

Greedy bankers for example were an important cause of the Credit Crunch but they were not the only cause. Politicians and the media focus on bankers and bonuses however, because it gives them a clear repeatable narrative. Equally, the EU has had many good and some bad effects on the UK life and there are still greater areas where it has had little or no effect at all. Listen or read anything about the EU in the British press however, and you are likely to get a very unambiguous Brussels is bad/evil/a dirty kraut empire message.

A simple clear narrative is the stuff that day to day politicking is made of.

With this in mind the nascent discussion over WW1 and its centenary this year is particularly interesting. The standard conception of WW1 has been shaped by anti-war poetry such as Wilfred’s Owen ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and more entertainingly ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’.

These narratives of WW1 both focus on the futility of the war and the idiocy of the upper class ‘donkeys’ that led an entire generation ‘lions’ to their deaths. WW1 broke forever notions that people should be kept in their place and that ruling elites were to be trusted for they know best.

Dan Carlin had a nice line about this in his most recent Hardcore History podcast saying that

Here’s the thing this war (WW1) is going to teach. If you watch the charge of the light brigade and you think it is a magnificent brave a doomed attack on the part of incredibly courageous men what happens if after the charge fails they send another one and the same results occur and then they send another one and the same results occur they do it again and again at what point does this wonderful doomed romantic celebration of the military heart become something obscene”.

WW1 hammered home lessons of regarding war and authority that still resonate today. A number of right wing politicians such as Michael Grove, Nigel Farage and conservative newspapers such as The Express and The Telegraph don’t like this very much though. They are attacking this prevailing idea of WW1 as being lefty fantasy. They want to build a narrative that stresses how Germany caused the war (on balance I agree with them) and how patriotic the British soldiers were.

These revisionist ‘historians’ are for example pointing out that General Haig was quite liked by the men he commanded even though his tactics killed a lot of them. They present this fact as if is was some sort of zinger that decides the argument. There is no reason why it should. A personal endorsement from the soldiers to their commander doesn’t really hold any wider significance about WW1 then the popularity of George W Bush in the USA to this day should tell us about what a cold analytical verdict from history will say about his presidency.

So whilst these right wing revisionists focus on building a narrative of WW1 being about heroic self-sacrifice. A war akin to WW2. They want to ignore the lessons the war taught about the blinkered nature of elites and class.

They want to change the narrative of WW1 so they can begin to take Britain back to a time where the people in charge (people like them) were respected and seen to be competent. The public should not fall for their game.