Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

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Bread and circuses

March 21, 2019

If we are fortunate – and I have to count myself as such – then it’s possible to live more or less surrounded by people like oneself, with the same general interests and pleasures, a similar outlook on life, similar political opinions and perhaps religious or spiritual beliefs and practices

While this is very comforting and pleasant, I realise this has given me a rather limited picture of real life.

So, although 34% or so of the British electorate voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago, I’ve only ever had a conversation with one of them. Although I know a few people who are Conservatives (in the political party sense) I don’t have political discussions with them. Most people who I choose to discuss ideas with are as liberal or radical as I am. Thus we elaborate, explore and refine our own fairly narrow set of ideas, without ever being really challenged.

Then I look at the world out there, and read the newspapers (which reflect my own interests and opinions, of course) and it seems to be mayhem all around: crypto-fascists and sexists abound along with climate-change deniers, the super-rich and the arrogant entitled.

Turn all this on its head, and I’m pretty sure one might say the same about lots of other small groups of people, their beliefs and opinions: no contact, no discussion, no change. And yet, at some level, we also have to operate in the belief that most people are decent and well-intentioned, with the interests of themselves, their families, nearest and dearest at heart, just like us: we are all decent, and we are all ignorant and separate and divided from each other.

Partly, this is both necessary and inevitable: we can’t know and care deeply about everyone we see, no matter how we would try; we have to manage and get on with our own daily lives and survival, and inevitably we prioritise our time and attention, as well as our emotions. However, in my darker moments, I realise that there are some in the world who are perfectly happy with this atomisation, people whose interests it serves. Money – lots of it – can be made out of keeping us separated from each other.

Keeping us from understanding each other, through the media and propaganda, keeps divided groups of people who might otherwise find common cause with each other and then attempt – shock, horror – to change things in ways which those currently pulling all the strings might not like.

Divide et impera – divide and conquer – has been a prime mover of the powerful for centuries, millennia, as has panem et circenses – bread and circuses. Keep everyone in separate, manageable small groups and there will be no threats to the existing order of things; keep them well-supplied with things that take their minds off thinking that the system does them no service, and they will be less likely to ask awkward questions. Make survival a challenge for most people so they don’t have time to think about the system that makes it so…

This holds true now: anti-racists are busy demanding certain things, feminists demand different things; workers want this and the middle classes want that; environmentalists tell us that this is the most important thing to address whilst pacifists disagree and foreground something different. And what we must not realise, above all, is that it’s the current economic system that’s at the heart of everything that is unjust, unfair, inequitable, and that must surely be changed and transformed first.

That economic system works really hard to provide the bread and circuses: cheap food and clothing, endless entertainment, social media if you like or need that sort of thing; an ever-changing kaleidoscope of new culinary experiences from all parts of the world, bucket lists of expensive experiences and travels if you like to imagine yourself a cut above the hoi-polloi… it’s all the same thing, in the end: a diversion from what we must not be allowed to look at or think about in detail.

And if the fog-machine of the powerful breaks down, there will be vicious brute force to ensure that everyone knows their place: you only have to look back at British, American, Russian, Chinese history to see that. Again I find myself in the same place: able to see clearly enough what is going on, and what it would be good to change, and no idea at all how an entire species might find out, decide it wants change, and actually change things in a peaceful way so that everyone might share the benefits.

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

A13Vt7BNcvL._AC_UL436_I don’t often go in for biographies – perhaps less than once a year. However, I’d heard of this controversial biography of one of my favourite travel writers and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As an example of the genre it’s fascinating in the author’s attempts to analyse, understand and criticise his subject, who, at the same time, he clearly rates very highly; he therefore has also to admit and try to understand his disappointment. It becomes a critical investigation by a compatriot and admirer, uneasy about a lot of what he learns, but it doesn’t become a hatchet job.

Only a Pole could have written this book: there is so much context one needs in order to understand how Kapuściński, from the borderlands originally, and whose home therefore disappeared into the Soviet Union after Yalta, became a loyal Party member in post-war Poland: it allowed him to become a journalist, to travel widely and to develop his craft; it also enabled him to know the right people who could protect him when things became difficult. So Domosławski’s account and analysis of attitudes driving various groups in Poland is careful, detailed and very necessary.

There are evidently many contradictions in Kapuściński, who carefully edited and altered his past when it suited him. It is hard to see when people are playing the necessary games and when they are genuinely sincere about the prospect of building a new society, though it does seem that Kapuściński was genuine in his support of the regime initially. People were seeking out parameters for freedom of action, as well as being idealistic supporters of socialism. And people needed to cover each other’s backs, and still do in the current poisonous atmosphere of Polish politics. Domosławski also explores Kapuściński’s contacts with the security services, and the self-censorship of some of his writing in order not to antagonise the US.

Kapuściński’s journalism developed detailed pictures of the Third World: he fell in love with Africa and Latin America. He rejects the exotic, and talks with ordinary people, developing at the time a new form of journalism much emulated today, spending much time in the middle of dangerous revolutions and anti-colonialist struggles against white rulers in the 1960s. He came to create legends about himself and his scrapes and escapades: Domosławski carefully investigates the myths about his contacts and connections with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, among others.

Although he was ultimately disappointed with the failures of African decolonialisation, it’s evident he was committed to the struggles of the poor and oppressed in the Third World, and socialist governments in Eastern Europe gave more than token support to some of these struggles. To me he appeared to be a man of a certain time and era who in a number of ways was gradually left behind or overtaken by events.

A good deal of Kapuściński’s journalism is still unavailable in English, unfortunately. One of his most well-known books, The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, can also be see as a fairly thinly-veiled allegory about the state of his own country in the 1970s. Domosławski analyses the qualities of his writing and what made him so popular and successful

There is much fascinating insight into the Solidarity period, the time of martial law and the new Poland which emerged in the 1990s, and evidently Kapuściński had trouble coming to terms with his own past after the fall of socialism, and how it might be perceived by the new era.

Kapuściński wrote committed journalism, in the service of a cause. From his wide experience, he made many very perceptive observations about globalisation, neo-liberalism and its effects on our world, and where these forces may be leading us. Although analysis and research, by Domosławski and others, reveal considerable errors, falsifications and inventions in his works, it is ultimately impossible to separate the man and his deeds from his origins and his time as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Literary reporting and journalism are not the same thing, and he was operating within a very different tradition of the press and reportage from the Anglo-American one by which so much is measured; the borders of journalism and fiction are fuzzier in his work. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on in English and I have enjoyed it very much; I can appreciate that the atmosphere and the commitment, the love of people and places shine through, and while I have been shown that there are factual inaccuracies deliberately introduced, for me this does not detract from a very important and enjoyable body of work.

On England

March 14, 2019

I like England.

I may have given the impression, particularly in some of my more political posts, of finding my home country reactionary, hidebound and stuck in the 18th century, and if I have, good because it is all of those things, and yet I like the place. And no, I’m not about to go all patriotic and John of Gaunt-y on you.

This country welcomed my father when it needed allies against Nazism during the Second World War; most grudgingly after the war was over it allowed him and his mates to stay: they didn’t have to return to the gulag. So without England, there would be no me.

As a generous and socially-minded place it nurtured me, via the NHS, through my childhood, with orange juice, rose-hip syrup and cod-liver oil, and extracted my tonsils. It ensured I had a good, free education, including as many years as I could possibly have at university, funded by student grants and without fees. When I was unemployed, it paid me benefits. I had a very satisfying career as a teacher and I have a pension which currently allows me to relax and do some of the things I enjoy most. And the UK joined the Common Market, which became the EEC and then the EU, and for my entire adult life I have enjoyed its increasing benefits, particularly to travel simply and freely about the union; travel has always been one of my favourite pastimes.

I’ve sampled all sorts of wonderful food and drink from all over the world, and yet nowhere else has TEA like we do here, proper tea made with leaves in a teapot. Lots of countries make very good beers, many of which I like a great deal, but nobody else makes anything approaching bitter. And – disloyal to my Polish roots, just as my father was, I have to say that I’ll take a dram from that close neighbour of ours in preference to a glass of vodka any day. I could never be a vegan because I cannot imagine a life without cheese, and our friends just across the channel make some stunning fromages, but again, given only one choice, I can’t decide whether it would have to be Stilton, or tasty Lancashire. And much as I love cakes of all lands, Yorkshire curd tart is pretty unbeatable.

You’ll notice I started with food…people who know me won’t have been surprised.

But my life’s work was all about our language, and that’s a thing I can wax lyrical about. I can speak pretty fluent French, get by in German, just about in Polish if pushed, and I’m learning Spanish at the moment. And – witness this blog – I read widely in the literature of many nations and languages, if mainly in translation. But no language comes anywhere near English, for size of vocabulary, powers of expression, complexity of poetry. We have Shakespeare. I could stop there; I’m not dismissing the greats of other languages and nations, but there is something special and enormous in the sheer variety, depth and power of our national writer. And we have Milton, and Jane Austen… and quite a few others who we could argue over.

We have some history, a lot of which we should be ashamed of: colonialism and empire and slavery. There’s the colossal act of cultural vandalism that was Henry VIII’s Reformation, too. But there’s our inventiveness – the Industrial Revolution (perhaps a double-edged sword, that one) – our explorations and discoveries: yes, white men discovering what was already there, perhaps, but nevertheless, that urge to get off our island and see what was out there. We have been on the ‘right’ side in some wars, although it would have been better not to be fighting in the first place. And somewhere there’s a tradition of tolerance that developed over a long period of time, that allowed us to accept and sometimes assimilate different peoples and ideas, giving them the freedom to be themselves while becoming part of England too. Over the years, my father came to appreciate that.

We are proud of our democratic traditions – Parliaments, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, extension of suffrage – though much of the time this wasn’t about empowering ordinary folk, but letting the less rich get their snouts in the trough occasionally. But for me, our problems now stem from our being stuck in the past, trying to live off our past reputation and greatness, unaware that we are actually a small, fairly remote and pretty crowded island, home to three nations not just one, and that our traditions and pageantry and royalty and aristocracy may look charming to tourists, but at the same time they are seriously daft as far as the twenty-first century is concerned. Poland had an elected monarchy once; it did her no good at all and when she finally regained independence in 1918, one of the first acts of the new commonwealth was to abolish the nobility – just like that. No need of guillotines or firing squads in cellars. End of.

I won’t live to see it, but what if England were able to conceive of a way of facing the century as a small nation that was a member of a much larger union or alliance, with a voting system which allowed a real voice to all its citizens (not subjects!), and putting the energies of its best minds to working in concert with the other neighbouring nations to address the real problems that face the planet? The successes and achievements of our past suggest we could make a real difference…

On frustration

March 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead!

No-one now living in Britain can avoid the utter chaos surrounding the Brexit negotiations and manoeuvrings; it really does feel as if the lunatics are running the asylum at the moment. I’ve been clear enough in a number of posts about what I think of the whole business, and what I really want to happen. And, as someone who thinks a lot about politics and the state of the world, I’ve tried to make sense of what is really going on…

It is evident that millions were persuaded to vote to ‘take back control’; it is evident that millions wanted to give politicians of all hues a good kicking. And the desires of those millions appear to have been hijacked by cynical populists. It is worth looking at what lies behind the wish to ‘take back control’. It is clear that larger organisations: multi-national businesses, and also the European Union, exert rather more control over our lives than the national and local governments which we elect. Multi-national businesses find it relatively easy to hide behind a smokescreen, as well as producing the shiny-shiny stuff that they then make us covet through advertising; the nasty bureaucrats of Brussels are a much easier and more visible target who have given us what? – a court of human rights, better working conditions, environmental protection and I don’t know what else. But they have also facilitated – no, wholeheartedly embraced – neo-liberalism and globalism, and helped multinationals trample on us in all sorts of other ways… even if the European project survives, surely it has to change in response to the concerns of so many.

‘Taking back control’ is a nice, and meaningless form of words: ordinary people don’t have and never have had any power other than through withdrawing their labour, and those politicians urging us to take back control have been at the forefront of limiting ordinary people’s right to strike.

Giving politicians a good kicking seems to me a laudable aim at the moment: in my time I have gradually seen the notion of public service demeaned and denigrated, insulted and diminished, and not just by those of a Thatcherite persuasion, but by many who should know better. Too many politicians are now mere venal careerists with their snouts in the trough – and I’m not just referring to my own country although that is the one I know best. And yet, the opportunities for giving those politicians a meaningful kicking are non-existent, particularly in our antediluvian electoral system. Cue the populists and faragists and other mischief-makers who exploit popular frustrations, but have no solutions to offer and are merely edging their snouts nearer the trough…

The right wing are making hay at the moment, unsurprisingly, because it’s always easier to shout abuse, find scapegoats and cause trouble than it is to come up with clear and feasible ideas that might make a real difference. The left has undergone a crisis over the last twenty or thirty years, as a result of the deliberate unleashing and encouraging of selfishness during the Thatcherite era; it cannot counter the waves of shiny-shiny stuff everyone is supposed to be able to buy now that they pay far less in tax and are therefore so much more in control of ‘their’ money. The left does not seem to be able to find an analysis that will allow it to propose a society that takes care of all of its members, nor to convince people that if they want good quality public services, pensions, social care and the like then it does have to be paid for, and that it is worth paying for. Meanwhile some died-in-the-wool dreamers of a new Jerusalem want everything to get far worse so that they can then make it better?

The final elephant in the room behind our Brexit chaos is of course immigration, and refugees, and it’s here that the real nastiness comes out of the woodwork. We could go a very long way towards diminishing the numbers of refugees and their desire to come to the West by not creating the conditions that make them leave their homelands in the first place – by not attacking their countries, fighting our wars in their countries, selling weapons to them and other countries who fight wars in their countries. Immigration is a rather more difficult issue. It’s easy enough to demonstrate factually the economic benefits of immigration. But when people in small towns feel as if there are too many non-natives around, what can we say? There is surely added pressure on jobs, schools and health services: here, neo-liberalism, austerity and the long-cultivated unwillingness to pay taxes are largely to blame. It ought to be possible to encourage greater integration of immigrants, but we are a small island, a much smaller country than Germany or France. And would we not have a better chance of addressing such issues working together with our European neighbours? It is also clear – although not widely known – that current European legislation would allow us here in Britain to do much that we have been told we need to ‘take back control’ in order to do.

Where I’ve got to is my usual paralysed understanding of the issues and what is going on, coupled with the inability to do anything, or to see a way out of the mess.

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

On responsibility

January 24, 2019

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that I’m a thinker and not a doer by nature; from this blog you can see I read and reflect and write a lot. I’ve been considering this in the light of what I perceive to be the parlous state of the world at the moment, and wonder what my contribution has been.

From my teenage years, I’ve been aware of the state of the planet and the effects of pollution on it, after reading The Doomsday Book by Gordon Rattray Taylor, an eye-opening moment. This led me to explore the realm of speculative fiction, in which writers consider what ifs, both in term so what may happen if things get worse, and what we may do to improve things. So the fiction of John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, for instance, is balanced by the more positive imaginings of Ursula Le Guin and Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia), and I spent several years researching into science fiction with a social slant in my younger years.

I’ve worked for food co-ops and housing co-ops, as radical alternatives to the usual ways of feeding and housing ourselves, and learned much from those experiences; I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years, converted others, spread the message about responsible eating. I have done my best to recycle, and not to over-consume (I’ll polish my halo now).

As a career, I taught, in secondary schools, and think that I always did my best to have students read and discuss texts of all kinds that would make them think about the world they were going to live in and the choices they would make. I was radical without preaching, and enjoyed playing devil’s advocate, as many of my former students would recognise. This was a difficult but enjoyable line to tread, and one I feel I had no choice about; only once did a parent challenge me about my political views in nearly 30 years.

Politically I have supported organisations which espoused issues I felt strongly about – CND, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association; I can’t remember ever having been a member of a political party, which I know some may think is a fault. I have always voted: I believe this is a civic duty, and anyone who doesn’t vote has no right to complain about the outcome of an election. I have never voted Conservative, and could not. I have never supported tax-cutting, privatisation, selling-off national assets. But obviously we have benefited (?) financially, in crude terms of having more money in our pockets…

At one level, I can tell myself I’ve done OK there: smug, white, middle-class, keep your head down. But. When it came down to choosing a career, I chose something safe – teaching – rather than anything which challenged the current order, though it was a career of service, which I think is important. When it came to having a home and family, I went down the conventional paths; we have a decent home in a decent town, and decent pensions. I drive a car, but do not fly. So I’m not completely blameless in terms of environmental footprint.

And yet this is clearly not enough, either for me, or for my generation: during the time of our stewardship and responsibility for the planet through our political and economic decisions, things have gone from bad to worse. We haven’t been responsible for events like the two world wars, but we have surely benefited from warmongering policies followed by our governments and allies, and the continuing exploitation of other countries by our companies and businesses.

Now that I’m retired, I feel as if the baton has passed to younger generations, who I hope will have more clarity of vision and courage than ours, which has benefited from the sixty-plus years of peace since 1945 and the welfare state put in place after it. I’m not happy with where my generation has left things, and often ask myself: could I – should I – have done more?

Thirty glorious years?

January 24, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

The French call the decades in which I grew up ‘les trente glorieuses’ – the thirty glorious years, harking back to (another) lost golden age, in this case of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity as their country, along with others, gradually recovered from the nightmare of the Second World War, in an era of relative peace, security and a real welfare state. And no, I haven’t forgotten that this was the era of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; I do feel somehow, though, that saner heads were in control then, than are now. Then, both sides were almost too afraid to do anything really risky, and we did all survive the risks of nuclear annihilation.

Those decades were also the years when the European project was hatched and developed, bonding nations ever more closely in the effort to ensure that the nineteen thirties and forties were never repeated; so far they haven’t been. Looking back on those years now long ago, I’m quite happy to have grown up during them; yes, I know I would say that, wouldn’t I? But they were relatively prosperous, carefree and stress-free times, compared with today.

Something happened at the cusp of the seventies and eighties which began to throw everything out of kilter. Reagan and Thatcher came to power in the West and unleashed a wilder form of capitalism based on selfishness and unrestrained individualism – perhaps an inevitable outcome of the urge for individual self-expression and fulfilment seen in the sixties and seventies, but definitely driven by people with a much harder-nosed agenda than the blissful hippies that some of us once were… and there was the determination, too, to destroy the Soviet bloc by out-spending it, which ultimately succeeded. Having family who lived behind the Iron Curtain, I know how much they craved our freedom and prosperity, and yet it’s now evident that not everyone saw 1989 as an unalloyed blessing.

All the cards were thrown up in the air, and the extremely wealthy, those inveterate gamblers with other people’s lives and money, have never been happier, or wealthier.

And in my declining years I have a sense of living in a far more perilous world than the one of my youth. Terrorism and extremism of all kinds are widespread. The environment – seas and climate – is in serious danger, and there seems to be little sense of urgency about dealing with looming disasters. People have lost faith and trust in politicians to serve their countries and societies, electing the likes of Trump, voting for Brexit, allowing demagogues like Erdogan, Orban, Le Pen and others to make the running and set the agenda. I am also quite aware that the world I have been writing about is the West, where I live, and which I know, and that the experience of much of the rest of the world has been very different.

I have not chosen to be a political activist myself; in my career as a teacher I always strove to make future citizens think carefully about the world they lived in and the effects of choices they might make, and to beware of anyone who offered easy and simple answers to the worlds’ problems. And I cannot put my finger on what has gone wrong, but I do not feel optimistic about the future of the planet or the species. The generations who lived through the world wars and who used to warn us have died, and left us to unravel the lessons of history ourselves. Fail.

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