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A lot of Gaul: why Asterix is better than Tintin

We are living through a glorious age of rewrites, reversions, pastiches and homages, and the continuation of the Asterix series is a prime example of how well this can work.


Image: Les Editions Albert Rene

Asterix and the Picts
Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad
Orion, 48pp, £10.99

“The Year is 50BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely . . . One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.” By Toutatis! They’re still holding out – over half a century since they first appeared in the magazine Pilote, founded by a group of young French comic writers and illustrators, including René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, in October 1959, and a full eight years since the last Asterix book. Indeed: bis repetita placent!

After much wrestling and wrangling, a new Asterix book finally comes thundering off the presses, fists flying and Latin tags a-whirling, ready to fill Christmas stockings around the world – in an astonishing print run of no fewer than five million.

The indomitable Gauls have now been battling against the odds for years. Goscinny, who wrote the words, died in 1977 and the series might well have come to end there and then with Asterix in Belgium, if it hadn’t been for the illustrator, Uderzo, deciding to soldier on and continue with the series alone. He went on to produce another ten albums – of, it has to be said, rather variable quality.

Trials then followed tribulations: when Uderzo sold his rights in the series to the publishing giant Hachette in 2009, his daughter, Sylvie, wrote an open letter to Le Monde condemning him for selling out to “les hommes de l’industrie et de la finance”, and for betraying the values of Asterix and everything she had been brought up to believe in: “l’indépendance, la fraternité, la convivialité et la résistance”. A bitter court case followed. A series of live-action Asterix films – starring Gérard Depardieu as Obelix, the role he was born to play – broke records as the most expensive French films ever made, yet were all pretty terrible. Uderzo’s last story, Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005), in which Asterix and Obelix battled aliens, was, frankly, feeble.

But now is a moment of rebirth and reinvention. Uderzo has recruited a new writer and an illustrator – Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad – and handed over the menhir-sized baton to a new generation. In an introductory note to the book he wishes his successors well: “Congratulations to Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad for having the courage and talent to write and draw the new Asterix album.” So is it courage? Or sheer foolhardiness?

Actually, Asterix and the Picts marks a respectable return to form. The story concerns the plight of a Pictish warrior, MacAroon, “from distant Caledonia”, who has been washed ashore in Gaul and whom Asterix and Obelix obligingly help to return to his home country, rescuing his beloved, the red-haired Camomilla, from an evil rival chieftain, MacCabaeus. There is the usual battle with pirates and with a sea monster called Nessie, and the characters are represented in all their ludicrous glory: Getafix, the village druid; Vitalstatistix, the chief of the tribe; Cacofonix the bard; Impedimenta; Geriatrix; Unhygienix the fish vendor. (Interestingly, the translator, the ever-fastidious Anthea Bell – whom we have to thank for translating the mildly amusing French dog Idéfix into the truly magnificent Dogmatix, and the dutiful old French druid Panoramix into the delightful Getafix – has outlasted her French begetters and now finds herself working with Ferri and Conrad.)

The storyline lacks some of the complexity and subtlety of the early books and there is more than a touch of cute about some of the illustrations, with Camomilla looking suspiciously like a Disney princess, but nonetheless it’s good to have Asterix back.

The real question is why bother at all to try to keep the series going, except – obviously – as a marketing and franchising operation? We are living through a glorious age of rewrites, reversions, pastiches and homages: the past few years have seen an excellent new Sherlock Holmes, in Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk (2011); two new Bond books, courtesy of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks; and a new P G Wodehouse out for Christmas, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, again by Faulks, who is emerging as the modern English master of mimicry.

The novel has always been a weird, self- regenerating, recombinant form but the long-form comic is arguably only now discovering its true powers and possibilities, from Joe Sacco’s serious reportage to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novel Boxers and Saints – so why return to the scene of past glories, like a Dogmatix to its vomit? What’s in Asterix’s magic potion?

Perhaps it’s simply the appeal of the underdog. Asterix is clearly for children, and for losers: it depicts a world where ungovernable appetites are momentarily sated and fulfilled. Growing up, one knew instinctively that Tintin and his adventures represented a world of adult meanings and responsibilities, unattainable sophistication and privilege. The Tintin books were for the sort of people who went to actual France on actual holidays; the sort of people who might read the books in the original French.

Asterix, with its absurd levels of comic-book violence – all those swirling stars and sticking-out tongues, black eyes and bumps to the head – was for anybody and everybody. It was the sort of thing you actually wanted to read. One could imagine a Tintin book as a gift from a benevolent godfather but you discovered Asterix for yourself, well-thumbed and plastic-covered, in the grubby wooden dump-bins of the local library.

The difference between these two great texts – or text-types – is revealing. According to the novelist Tom McCarthy, “The difference between Asterix and Tintin is like the difference between a Quentin Tarantino and a David Lynch film. One’s witty entertainment, the other’s great art.” There are a number of false assumptions about higher and lower degrees of art in McCarthy’s claim but he is certainly on to something.

What he may be on to is the age-old difference between different modes of storytelling, as defined by Erich Auerbach in “Odysseus’ Scar”, the famous first chapter of his book Mimesis (1946). Here, he contrasts a style characterised by “externalised, uniformly illuminated phenomena . . . connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground” with a style characterised by the “externalisation of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity . . . permeated with the most unrelieved suspense . . . and ‘fraught with background’”.

Tom McCarthy prefers “great art”. And why not? I happen to prefer entertainment.

Tintin is basically a do-gooder; Asterix and Obelix are a couple of lads with moustaches, out on the lash, wearing comedy trousers. Tintin abides by a strict code of ethics; Asterix and Obelix are always up for a fight. Tintin is about the process; Asterix is all outcome.

Above all, in Tintin there is a vast predominance of plot machinery, a superabundance of codes to crack and enigmas to solve. But in Asterix the plots are simple and the end result is always assured: the Romans are always beaten, there is always a banquet. Every Asterix album is really just a copy of the very first one, Asterix the Gaul (1961). Nothing changes. Tintin continually aspires to be more than itself, or what it was: Asterix is what it is. Defending his work, Goscinny once remarked, “Our only ambition is to have fun.”

This does not mean Asterix is merely witless and vulgar. Certainly, there is much in the books that is old hat and hackneyed, but then Tintin is often pretentious and affected. Hergé seems to have written primarily for his own pleasure and satisfaction, without reference to the needs and tastes of others – and as a consequence Tintin can now seem rather quaint and dated, a work of whimsy subject to the strange and incommunicable demands of its own laws and desires.

Asterix, on the other hand, always was the product of several sets of hands and minds, and so it achieves the level – almost – of epic. In the end, who cares who draws the pictures? Who the hell was Homer?

Ian Sansom’s books include “The Norfolk Mystery” (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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