Our New Frontier is a Nice Place

“Xinjiang Hao” is one of my favourite songs. It’s a propaganda ditty from the Mao era, which charmingly recites all the reasons that China’s “new” frontier is a wonderful place. There are run-downs of natural resources, and lists of local fruit and veg. There’s a chorus that always brings a tear to my eye: “Our beautiful fields and gardens, our beloved Home”, and an oddly plaintive, clingy refrain that seems to be actually begging the listener to visit. Here is a rather eurotastic version, featuring some sultry bimbling and a prancing idiot who appears to be trying to play his own leg as a musical instrument.

This is, largely, how Xinjiang looks whenever it’s mentioned on Chinese telly – joyful dances and graceful dark-haired beauties. Back in the time of Empress Wu, her adviser Judge Dee suggested that she steer clear of Asia’s arid heart, thereby leaving it to her enemies to waste their energies crossing its forbidding deserts before they reached her borders. But Wu, and subsequent Chinese rulers, expanded the realm far to the west along the Silk Road, exposing China’s flank to a long, modern, festering border with all those Central Asian republics we tend to lump together as “The Stans”.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is a fast read. Despite its 350 pages, some of the chapters are only a paragraph long, although author Nick Holdstock has artfully imposed a seasonal and narrative structure over what clearly began as scattered diary entries from his time in the remote town of Yining. The result is a welcome addition to the English-speaking world’s small supply of books about Xinjiang, China’s landlocked new frontier and place of exile.

Holdstock’s book is unlikely to lead to a flood of tourist trips. Like Mannerheim before him (who was underwhelmed with the place), and Eric Tamm in Mannerheim’s footsteps, he describes a drab, dusty dump you’d have to be mad to visit, with nosy, snotty children, world-weary cab-drivers, and wheeler-dealers selling condemned blackcurrant juice. As for Things to Do, there’s always the cockfights, clamorous karaoke bars and pink-lit brothels. “Anyone wishing to launch a cultural pogrom in Yining,” Holdstock observes, “would be hampered by the shortage of targets.” There are none of Youtube’s pretty Uighur dancers here, nor much in the way of homespun shepherd wisdom. Instead, Holdstock finds squalid slums of crumbling concrete, apples that almost break his teeth, and a drunken, drugged-out population of no-hopers and spivs.

Arguably, one finds what one is looking for. Holdstock’s book is boldly formalist, discussing only what he sees and stumbles across. He doesn’t go out of his way to find natural beauty or local colour; instead he lets Xinjiang dig its own hole. Apologists and propagandists for Xinjiang describe lush green hills populated by gambolling sheep, glittering mosques, happily dancing natives (a recurring stereotype that clearly winds the locals up), and quaint folk traditions. But many foreign observers (well, so far in my reading, all of them) instead outline a tense, jumpy borderland in a permanent stand-off between restless native Uighurs and unwelcome Han colonists.

Holdstock is uncompromisingly even-handed in his treatment not only of the region, but of its contending interest groups of clueless bigots, smug religious fanatics and downtrodden peasantry. Irritated in equal parts by squabbling Muslim factions, undercover Christian missionaries and listless Chinese bureaucrats, Holdstock is a Canute-like figure, teaching English to students with little hope of escape, and railing against the jobsworths who won’t sell him a bus ticket.

He has an ear for the long silences and dispiriting platitudes of stilted intercultural conversations, but also for sudden, unsettling outpourings of emotion, when his Chinese colleagues feel they can open up, and he often wishes they hadn’t. The stir-crazy Holdstock grows so bored with frontier life that he actually looks forward to seeing a horse get butchered, and is frustrated even in this simple ‘pleasure’ by the interfering authorities.With comedic haplessness, he also embarks upon a grand enterprise to expose a kind of international espionage (I won’t spoil it), only to repeatedly shoot himself in the foot regarding contacts, evidence and subterfuge. That’s not to say a whole lot happens – this is not a plot-driven narrative – but it amply, and damningly conveys the loneliness and tedium that is surely a hazard of the job for many teachers, missionaries and diplomats in all the inhospitable corners of the world. If anyone had a romantic idea about Xinjiang (or China, or Cambodia, for that matter, where Holdstock winters for an interlude among stoners and paedos), The Tree That Bleeds tramples it in the dust.

Far too many books about China are tiresome travelogues by chinless Torquils on a gap year, or earnest, uncomprehending Lucindas who think that readers will find their baffled musings endearing. I grew weary long ago of reading about how Daddy’s money and Uncle Jeff’s friend in Hong Kong pulled this string or wangled that boondoggle, all so little Rupert could chortle in a Clapham gastropub about the larks he had in Kunming. I am, to put it bluntly, sick of books about China that brag of the author’s ignorance. But there is none of that with Holdstock, who comes to Xinjiang in the noble, monastic penury of a Voluntary Service Overseas contract, and crucially has served time already in Hunan, thus inoculating him against any large-scale culture shock. Ignorance for Holdstock is not a badge to wear in place of content, but an alluring, whispering shadow over his whole stay, as he attempts to find out exactly what happened in a series of riots (or demonstrations) that were suppressed before his arrival.

Residing in Yining at the time of the Twin Towers attacks, he is drily cynical about the Chinese government’s attitude towards local unrest. There apparently “wasn’t any” until 9/11, when the Bush administration made it fashionable to rebrand reprobates as terrorists. Suddenly, everyone is jumpy about al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whereas previously the Chinese have been diligently saying that all Xinjiang is good for is a sing-song. Holdstock never really finds the answers he is looking for, but The Tree That Bleeds is all about the questions anyway.

I would like to believe that The Tree That Bleeds is subjective and one-sided, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Never having been to Xinjiang myself, I rely for my picture of it on the writings of others, who unanimously depict it as a miserable, god-forsaken place, ever since Marco Polo wrote of its howling winds and haunted sands. There are so few books about Xinjiang (go on, name five. I’ll wait…) that every new addition is welcome and Luath Press, a small Edinburgh outfit I’d never heard of before, is to be commended for taking a risk with Holdstock’s anti-travel book.

But Xinjiang can’t be as awful as he makes it sound… can it? Can it…? One day I shall find out for myself. Until then, I consider myself forewarned and forearmed.

The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge is out now from Luath Press.

New Finnish Grammar

One day, I asked my Finnish teacher if it was true that her language had 30 different words for snow. She fixed me with her big, blinky eyes.

“No, you poor deluded fool,” she sighed. “We Finns only have one word for ‘snow’. The trouble is, you English think that everything white that falls out of the sky is ‘snow’.”

Finnish actually has more than thirty words for frozen precipitation in a variety of forms, including a word for “powdery snow that’s melted just a little bit” (nuoska), a “thin bit of snow on top of ice” (iljanne), and even “the grey lumpy stuff that turns up when slush refreezes” (kohva). Finns have a similarly large number of words for “reindeer”, and an oddly precise verbal toolkit for describing cupboards. However, their language doesn’t distinguish between sponges and mushrooms, and a single vowel sound separates the differing semantics of “My shelves are nearly full” from “My madness is soon to end.”

Of course, there is nothing “special” about Finnish. Every language has its little peculiarities, evolved in reaction to particular situations. The Navajo don’t distinguish between pilots, insects or helicopters, while the Chinese have over a dozen shades of red. And Japanese has 1194 ways to say “I love you”, along with a culture that refuses to use any of them. Having studied many languages and mastered none, I always return with joyous appreciation to English because it is such a catastrophic car-crash of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and Viking Danish, with grammar rules deriving from several different countries, and a veritable multicultural bar-fight of contending nuances, much of which comes down not only to class, but to what someone’s great-great-great grandfather did for a living.

In his novel New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani latches upon Finnish as a test subject for the human condition. In 1940s Italy, an expat Finnish doctor finds a patient with amnesia so severe that he cannot even remember how to speak. Finding evidence on the man’s person that he is a Finn, the doctor begins to teach him Finnish from scratch. As Sapir and Whorf once argued with their Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, the language in which one thinks affects the thoughts that one can have. What if this man isn’t Finnish at all? What will this re-programming do to him?

And if he isn’t a Finn called Sampo Karjalainen, who is he? And who will he be when his brain is wired with thirty words for white stuff that falls out of the sky? There are numerous precedents in fiction, most notably the Kaurismäki film Man Without A Past, and many science fiction novels that deal with the power of language to shape thought. But Marani, a professional linguist, latches onto Finland and Finnishness itself for an extended meditation on human nature, patriotism and the soul.

Finnish has vowel harmonies and consonantal mutations like Turkish, and a cavalcade of odd little cases that make it infuriatingly precise. Most languages have basic items like singular and plural, nominative and genitive. Finnish has its own bonkers additions, like the abessive, which is the case you use for things that are nothing to do with you, and the partitive, which is a sort of superglue case to fix all the others.

Marani’s book returns to the age old tug-of-war between nature and nurture. Is Finnish the way it is because of Finland, or are Finns the way they are because of Finnish? He delves into the Kalevala, that crazy national myth of mighty duels over a sci-fi McGuffin, itself was knocked up as an exercise in bootstrap nationalism in the 19th century. He points to the savage rending of Finland into Reds and Whites during the Russian Revolution, an apocalyptic shattering of social cohesion that is still largely unspoken-of today, and yet which, only recently, I have still seen erupt into a bar-room brawl around me.

Talking to a Finnish history teacher this year, I heard the tale of her grandmother’s funeral, to which only a single cousin came. The reason: sixty years ago, grandma married someone of “the wrong colour”. Tellingly, I was not told which colour, Red or White, was wrong. It only mattered that the twain could never meet.

And, of course, there is Mannerheim, that national demigod – a former spy and orientalist, catapulted out of a dead-end military career into a role as the country’s leader in the unwinnable Winter War. Mannerheim, too, was a reluctant student of Finnish, living for most of his life with only a smattering sufficient to deal with the servants. It was only in middle age, called upon to deliver speeches to his public, that he swotted up sufficiently. Extant speeches show his Finnish to be halting and strangely accented – a sign that this hero of “Finnish” nationalism was a native speaker of Swedish, who had spent 30 years in the Russian army.

Marani is a good linguist, with a fine ability to romanticise issues that most people would find dull. He describes the construction of a Finnish sentence with allusions to orbits and trajectories in an imaginary solar system. He delves into the etymology of the simplest words with a verve that conjures wizards in primeval forests and witches chanting spells over swamps. He also writes himself a get-out-of-jail-free card, using his narrator’s student status as an excuse for numerous typographical and grammatical errors – annoyingly, even in a book that sings of the joys of vowel harmony, there are misplaced umlauts and errant letters.

One day, New Finnish Grammar is going to be a great movie. Some worthy agglutination of government funding bodies will knock up a Europudding that shoots in Trieste and Helsinki, starring a great Finnish actor like Mikko Kouki as the amnesiac Sampo. There is just enough plot in Marani’s narrative to sustain a movie, with cutaways to the essence of Finnishness, and fight scenes on the Eastern front against the Russians, perhaps even with magic-realist scenes that illustrate the wonder of Finnish grammar with Marani’s warlocks and witches, paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela come to life, or symbolic representations of what happens when a subject switches from accusative to partitive.

Well, maybe not the last. Three years into my Finnish lessons at the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, mere weeks away from attaining my Lower Intermediate diploma, my teacher coughed nervously, and told the class to prepare themselves for a Finnish bombshell.

“The thing is,” she said, “Finnish doesn’t really have an accusative case. Don’t panic, we can use the genitive or partitive just fine, but everything I have told you so far about the accusative has been a convenient lie.”

She patted the arm of one of my fellow classmates, who had started to sob.

“Don’t cry,” she said. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

60 Years Ago: Mannerheim's Last Battle

From Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy by Jonathan Clements, available now in the UK and in the US.


Mannerheim began his eighties still talking of responsibility and struggle. As he saw it, Finland still ran the risk of drifting irrevocably too far to the left, and he was determined to hold this off by the last means available to him – writing his memoirs.

‘Was it not my duty,’ he wrote, ‘now that the West seemed to have forgotten the gallant Finnish people, to communicate to all our friends near and far what I knew about its indomitable battle for all that a nation holds sacred, and had not my countrymen a right to hear my interpretation of the causes that had led to the position where Finland now stood?’

His decision was unsurprising, but also unwelcome to some of his successors. Mannerheim’s avowed intent was to educate the Cold War world about recent Finnish history, but his memoirs were sure to attract the attention of readers back home. President Paasikivi, in particular, fretted that his illustrious predecessor would write a tell-all book that was sure to land Finland in hot water with the Soviet Union, with which relations were still strained. Mannerheim did exactly as Paasikivi had feared but was steered into being less forceful in his published comments on Bolshevism and ‘Reds’, and also in his attitude towards the Swedes. In private, Paasikivi grumbled that if he paid heed to every one of the field marshal’s grim warnings then everyone in Finland might as well walk into the forest with a pistol and shoot themselves in the forehead.

Despite the politicians’ concerns, Mannerheim was left to write his memoirs in peace with the help of a small staff of assistants. He seems to have originally planned on doing so in Kirkniemi, a manor house he had bought in what is now the Helsinki suburbs, but continued ill health lured him out of Finland to Switzerland in the late 1940s. ‘If on this earth there is a place to be found which is dedicated to forgetting,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘it is Switzerland, with all the convenience which makes life easy, hotels, communications, order, food and the beauty of the landscape, but above all, the mountains, the Alps which give the impression of being somewhere in the atmosphere, above the clouds, between earth and sky.’ Mannerheim also observed that Switzerland, unlike so many other parts of Europe, had been spared the damage and destruction of the war – it was, in many ways for him, a reminder of the lost Europe of his younger days.

His circle of true friends, always small, dwindled predictably in old age. ‘I begin to see only graves around me,’ he commented, although his dry melancholy was economical with the truth. In fact, he spent much time in the company of a new lady companion, the elegant Countess Gertrud Arco-Valley. Some 30 years his junior, the divorcee countess was a friend of Mannerheim’s younger daughter and was often seen accompanying him on his travels.

Mannerheim spent increasing amounts of time in hospital, troubled in particular by stomach and intestine problems. A perforated ulcer nearly killed him in 1946, and kidney stones and haemorrhages laid him low in 1948. He began to lose weight drastically, and is noticeably thin and frail in the photographs of him at the clinic in Val-Mont, Switzerland, where he both took spa treatments and continued to work on his memoirs.

In early 1951, Mannerheim was hospitalised again in Lausanne with a distended abdomen, and had emergency surgery for a blocked intestine. It was, he joked with his surgeon, his last battle, and one that he was likely to lose. He said his goodbyes to those around him on 27 January, and fell into a sleep from which he never awoke. His heart stopped half an hour before midnight, although in Finland’s time zone it was already the following morning – the anniversary of his decisive strike against the Reds in the Finnish Civil War of 1918.

Leaping Through Clouds

There’s always something new to say about Carl Gustaf Mannerheim. And I don’t mean lurid innuendo about his private life, or schmuck-baiting insinuations about his sexuality. Finland’s beloved Marshal is orbited by a publishing industry that now includes a Mannerheim cookbook and a Mannerheim comic, with a history that touches on a dozen countries. He was a truly cosmopolitan figure, the “last knight” of the Tsarist aristocracy and a hero of the nascent Finnish nation. He saw the prophetic trench conflict of that grotty little war between Russia and Japan over Manchuria, and he witnessed the twilight days of two empires.

His epic ride across Asia in 1906-8 would have been the crowning glory of his career, were it not for the intervention of wider world events in his forties. But with a life overshadowed by his role in the Finnish Civil War and World War Two, his arduous reconnoitring of China remains largely forgotten. Across Asia, his mammoth account of his journey, was not published until 1940, and even then in a limited run of only 500 copies. It has taken until the 21st century for the scholar Harry Halén to publish a restored retranslation that brought Mannerheim’s Asian adventure to a wider audience, and several further years for someone to publish the inevitable companion, a modern travelogue that traverses Asia in Mannerheim’s footsteps – The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China.

Author Eric Enno Tamm is a journalist with firm ecological credentials and no fear of rattling cages. Applying for a visa in Vancouver, Tamm finds his path blocked by Chinese officialdom, but this only spurs him even more to imitate his hero. Forbidden entry as a Canadian journalist, he wings it in true Mannerheim fashion, by travelling under an Estonian passport. And off he goes, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, leaving a trail of irritated guides, furtive contacts and frustrated jobsworths behind him, contrasting Mannerheim’s accounts of Chinese militarism with his own 21st century perspective on what China is doing to its own environment and citizens.

Tamm’s quest is resolutely, bullishly inquisitive. He is arrested and interrogated by the Turkmen police before he even reaches China. He pokes his nose into the activities of clandestine missionaries, quotes harsh criticisms from named sources, and chronicles ecological disasters along the way. He has an eye for the fabric of life in Central Asia: not only the subtle exclusion of Muslim locals from a hotel restaurant that does not serve halal food, but also giggling tourists in shorts blundering around a sacred mosque, and the zealots who think they should be murdered for it.

His journey is riddled with historical coincidences and parallels. He enjoys the allure of “new bottles for old wine”, such as the paradoxical insistence of Maoist doctrine on blind faith, or the suggestion that the Red Guards who once smashed temples of Confucius could only become such fanatics after being raised in an essentially Confucian culture.

Like Mannerheim before him, Tamm travels undercover. He gets annoyed with his interpreters and jumpy in the presence of the Army, ever unsure who has shopped him and who is watching. But he also meets the movers and shakers of his age, and powerful evocations of the past, such as his encounter with the great-great-grandson of the woman Mannerheim knew as the Queen of the Alai Kirghiz. Tamm’s text fleshes out Mannerheim’s journey with historical contexts and adds data unknown in 1906.

Tamm’s habit of adding tangents, breaking modern conversations with historical musings and flashbacks within flashbacks, creates a knowing pastiche of oriental story telling. Like the legendary Scheherazade, Tamm delays explanations and often throws in punchlines after long diversions. It is endlessly entertaining, but also a means by which some issues are first postponed, and then conveniently forgotten. It is, for example, unclear to me how he evades the canny diplomat Wang Jiaji, who rumbles him in Urumqi, and asks straight-up if he is “the Canadian travelling in Mannerheim’s footsteps.”

There is much written about photographs taken and images seen, but these are oddly absent from the book itself, at least in this hardback edition. For the full experience of “reading” Tamm’s journey, one must also have a web browser open to his richly appointed website of parallel resources. Tamm has shown himself to be a shrewd manipulator of modern media, and offers Tweets, Facebookery and a blog to enhance the experience. One wonders if The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds awaits a true destiny, perhaps after its US appearance, likely awards and hopeful best-sellerdom, when foreign rights buyers decide to incorporate pictures by both Mannerheim and Tamm into editions in French, Russian, Swedish, or Finnish – the most likely territories to jump at the chance for translation rights. I don’t see it coming out in Chinese in a hurry, though Tamm will take that as a compliment.

Tamm undertook his journey in 2006, and must surely have been planning to publish in 2008, on the centenary of Mannerheim’s return from the Far East, or 2009, the centenary of Mannerheim’s report on China. Perhaps because of the publication of Halén’s revised book, perhaps for complex reasons to do with award qualification and publicity, The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds has an official US publication date of 2011, but has sneaked out in hardback in its native Canada several months early, offering an irresistible temptation to anyone looking for an exclusive Christmas present for the Mannerheim fan in their life.

The book alludes to James Palmer’s Bloody White Baron as forthcoming, and includes Paul Pelliot’s Carnets de Route in its bibliography, although it does not dig too deeply into Pelliot’s rich veins of anti-Mannerheim invective. All of which I take to mean that Tamm’s book was delivered to his publishers at roughly the same time as my own – I only squeezed Pelliot in during the revision stage. If so, this would explain why there is no mention of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy in Tamm’s otherwise thorough bibliography. My book must have come out while his was going through galleys, which makes it all the more fun to find him elucidating points I only skim, or asking questions that my own book answers. Both of us break with tradition by making Mannerheim’s Asian trip the centrepiece of his life, contrasted with earlier writers who place WW2 in the foreground. Moreover, we are both unrepentant in our assertion that Mannerheim was a Tsarist spy, a concept that has been vigorously denied by at least one diplomat, although even at the time, I thought he protested a little too much.

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds is an anti-travel book, a guide to places no tourist in their right mind would ever want to see. Its author departs for home literally sick of China, coughing and spluttering, plagued by headaches and recounting multiple intestinal upsets. One sees, perhaps, what one wants to see, and Tamm has little time for uplifting local colour or heartwarming encounters. A trained observer of the land, but perhaps not of the people, he reads the environment well, even if his access to its inhabitants is limited. His book is a damning account of a China that looms over our future, a “coal-fired dragon” vastly more threatening than the tinpot empire derided by Mannerheim’s 1909 report, part of the onrushing, dark, satanic crescendo that Tamm calls the “din of the modern world.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.

The Courts of Chaos

Just back from Saint Petersburg, one of the most amazing cities I have ever seen, on the trail of Mannerheim as always, and also putting together material for another book project, about the activities of Japanese spies in pre-Revolutionary Russia. By the side of the glittering River Neva, I dropped in on Alexander Nevsky, at his last resting place near the Nevsky Monastery on Nevsky Place, at one end of Nevsky Prospect, the glorious boulevard that stretches all the way across the city to the Winter Palace.

I walked the whole length of it, breathing in the ghosts of Mannerheim and Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and stopped off at the Moscow Station, just off the Square of the Uprising with its soaring star-topped column, to see the schematic diagram of the Russian rail system, a hundred feet across. It is like a subway map of the gods, a to-do list for Princes in Amber, a Cyrillic alternate-universe version of the London Tube, where the East London Line terminates in Sarmarkand, and the Central Line stretches on not to Hainault, but to Alma Ata. After a name change and a switch in wheels, it continues on to Beijing and Vladivostok — and there is something wondrous about standing in a train station that will take you to the Far East. Near the Church on the Spilled Blood, I bought a copy of one of my own books in Russian, as a gift for our host Alexey.

This was where Mannerheim commenced his two-year trek across Asia as part of what the Russians called the Tournament of Shadows, a journey that took him out across the Sea of Death to the edge of the world. At a cafe near the Museum of Russia’s Secret Police, I ate a meal that would have charmed Roger Zelazny, of dumplings from the Ural Mountains dipped in smetana, and dumplings from Siberia sprinkled with dill, seeing a slow transformation from west to east. Add soy sauce and chili, and you have jiaozi. Look east from Saint Petersburg, and the next border you cross can be China’s. Or Japan’s.

It’s hard to believe this was ever Leningrad. Someone has twisted the time streams, allowing the old imperial capital of Saint Petersburg to reassert itself with a vengeance, cramming the 20th century into the shadows. Golden, double-headed eagles shine on the tops of the lamp-posts, and the former Museum of Atheism has ben rededicated under its old name, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral.

Cameron's Artifice

I have been having a good giggle this week at the redesigned election posters at http://www.mydavidcameron.com. for readers outside the UK, this is a site that lampoons the opposition election campaign by inviting the public to creatively vandalise one of their posters. The example illustrated, by one Ian Yates, is particularly nice, although I am baffled by the UK public’s supposed indignation about one element of the campaign.

There are plenty of things to argue about in British politics — real issues like education, health, crime and defence. And yet a large proportion of this week’s debate seems to have been about the fact that the picture of opposition leader David Cameron has been *airbrushed*. As if this is some sort of sin against nature.

I find it odd largely because the newspapers and TV shows behind this furore will be fully aware that everyone is airbrushed. On my days as editor of Manga Max, Vanessa the designer used to spend hours touching up the covers, even though they were often supposedly flawless anime digital images to begin with. She spent similar intricate efforts making the insides of the magazine look nice. Few images available to the press are ever plug-and-play.

Back when I was a presenter on Saiko Exciting on the Sci Fi channel, there was a brief storm in a teacup over the revelation that I wore make-up on air. This was whipped up by some people who thought that there was something unmanly about it, as if I were duping the viewers by not letting them ogle my zits. The plaintiffs seemed unaware that everybody wears make-up in TV, because you’re sitting under zillion-watt lights that make you look like zombies otherwise.

Most large-scale advertising images are doctored. If you’re on an billboard at 1200 dots per inch, why on earth would you want to look bad?

This isn’t even new. There was a little squib of fun in the 1940s, when a British politician’s wife, Lady Diana Cooper, was amused to discover that the president of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was wearing make-up when he met her. She didn’t consider that Mannerheim was also meeting the press that day, facing down the world’s media, and hoping not to look like someone who had been living in a shed in the forest.

A digital effects technician of my acquaintance got his first break in the industry going through a film that you have heard of, frame by frame, gently erasing the blemishes from the face of the leading lady. An actress of whose career you are aware, sure to be named in the top ten actresses you come up with if I asked you to list them, has an asking price that includes a million dollar fund to clean up her image digitally. Now, politicians are not actresses, but give them a little credit. If David Cameron had a big spot on his nose on the day that picture was taken, only a complete idiot would run with it as a campaign image to get him elected.

In the movie field, there’s a broader issue. If you’ve got a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis the book, you may have already read my discussion of the possibility that animation is now perceived as a threat to “real” films. Some forms of artifice, it seems, are more acceptable than others. Special effects that make actors look good are welcome to many Motion Picture Academy voters. Special effects that make actors redundant are a very different matter — a large proportion of MPAA voters are thespians. As “animation” becomes so heavily integrated into special effects, and special effects so heavily integrated into live action, that we see “live-action” films that are almost entirely “animated”, the chance finally arises that a “best actor” award might go to a cartoon character, that a “best movie” Oscar might go to a… well, a cartoon.

You know, I don’t think David Cameron’s people are all that worried about the satire. I think they are telling themselves that no publicity is bad publicity, and, I suspect, storing up a whole series of stories about their rivals in the Labour party (shock!) wearing make-up and doctoring their photographs, ready to roll at the next news cycle. But as for David Cameron’s long-lost cousin, James, artifice is something to be proud of. He might even get an award for it.