Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

Umberto Eco: Chroniques d’une societé liquide

October 1, 2019

81H7hoBex5L._AC_UY218_SEARCH213888_ML3_   This is the final collection of Umberto Eco’s brief, regular newspaper and magazine columns, and it has had me thinking more widely about the writer and his reputation.

Often his pieces are brief and laconic, frequently they are still relevant years after they were written; sometimes they have dated terribly, and sometimes they come across as the ramblings of an older man who doesn’t fully get the modern world. And certainly, whoever thought all the stuff about Berlusconi ten years later would be of interest to a non-Italian audience wasn’t really thinking very clearly…

Writing like this does come across as an art form which isn’t always successful: Eco is sharp on the current craziness of so many wannabees craving fame and stardom, via reality TV and the web. He’s good on technology in general, clearly demonstrating that almost everything that we use and/or rave about now actually has its origins in the 19th century. He sees our collective sense of the past and the idea of history gradually eroding, vanishing. And his musings on information overload and the almost impossibility of verifying and trusting any of it are even more relevant now, several years after his death. At the same time, while he’s fully cognisant of the astonishing speed of technological change, many of his responses to the internet and electronic communication are already outdated and surpassed. He’s also very interesting on our contemporary fear of silence.

It is journalism, which does date: the old adage about yesterday’s newspaper being only good for lighting fires or wrapping fish and chips in is still valid. When Eco casts his net wider, and when he’s reflective rather than just ranting (although very entertainingly), he is at his most provocative. Where are all the women philosophers? What do we mean by freedom of speech? At these times his columns show an awareness of the complexity of society. Only monotheisms seek to conquer others and impose their faith, and of the three, Judaism has never sought to do that. I’d never looked at religion quite like that.

Eco was a polymath, and someone whose writings I’ve admired greatly and for a long time. But I found myself briefly thinking about his reputation, and how long people may continue reading his works. A few of the essays may survive, the serious criticism and philosophy perhaps. To me, he remains pre-eminently a novelist, and a mediaevalist, which is why I think that only two of his novels will continue to be read. I did try re-reading The Island of the Day Before, and it was a chore; I haven’t attempted Foucault’s Pendulum again, and I don’t know that I will bother with any of the others, except Baudolino and The Name of the Rose, which I still believe are superb.

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On peace and forgetfulness

September 26, 2019

When I reflect on my life, and seek the source of the contentment I feel in my later years, I am drawn back to feelings of gratitude for the greatest thing of all: that I was born, grew up and have lived in peacetime.

I have benefited from peace in Europe; I have been incredibly fortunate. Yes, I’m well aware that we had our own civil war in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century, that Britain has been involved in wars in many parts of the world, and that Europe had its own extremely nasty conflicts when the Federation of Yugoslavia collapsed in the aftermath of the fall of communism. For me, and many like me, that was the stuff of newspapers and radio news bulletins. I’m aware that there was the Cold War: I think we also had saner and more intelligent politicians in those days…

I return to this idea of peaceful existence more and more often, because I see it under threat, by neglect, by those who should know better, by those who don’t think, and by those in positions of power who are acting irresponsibly. For example, many of those of the older generation, who support Brexit, are wont to bang on about the wartime spirit, the spirit of Dunkirk, that got us through those times and will get us through the coming chaos. And I think, not only were most of those people not alive during that war and even conscious of that alleged spirit – my mother who was a schoolgirl at the time, remembers sheltering under the kitchen table from German bombers on their way to and from Hull – but they will have grown up after the war in the times when everyone did pull together to rebuild the nation, and with the benefits of the greatest British achievement, the NHS. So yes, such people make me angry.

Time leads us to forget. We’ve been at peace in our corner of the world for a very long time: three quarters of a century next year. Most people now only know from history books where vile racism and nationalism lead. They do not imagine, cannot imagine, such perils ahead of them now.

My own family history, which I’ve referred to often enough in my blog, also makes me aware that most Britons’ notions of war are not those of other Europeans, who experienced occupation, starvation, deportations, persecutions and executions. You only have to visit battlefields anywhere in continental Europe, and memorials in any country to discover the traumatic effects of war, to see where entire cities and towns had to be rebuilt. Wherever I travel, I see and hear evidence of European nations determined to collaborate, to ensure that the horrors of the past do not return, their determination not to forget. Dad’s Army, the Blitz, and ration books are not how the rest of Europe experienced the Second World War.

Because in a sense peace is an absence – the absence of war – it’s hard to see its benefits. Then I visualise these advantages disappearing overnight, as, for example in former Yugoslavia or in Ukraine, and I can see how truly fortunate I, my family and almost everyone I know has been.

On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

On my newspaper collection

May 29, 2019

I have collected newspapers since I was a child. I don’t know where the fascination came from, but I think my early exposure to foreign languages developed it. I loved to look at the different mastheads, comparing what information they showed, the colours they used, how modern or antiquated they looked. Friends and relatives found the idea just a little cracked, I think, but they humoured me, often bringing a paper back from their travels; teachers at school did the same.

Different countries and languages did things differently; there were newspapers that completely eschewed photographs – Le Monde until the 1970s being one of them – or carried advertisements on the front page instead of news – The Times did this until the mid 1960s. When we travelled to Poland for the first time in 1970, I was astonished by the newspapers of Eastern Europe. Most of them only had four very flimsy pages, with absolutely no advertising. They were all published by the central committee of the national or local communist party or equivalent, and almost all carried the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite!” in their respective languages as part of the masthead. I still find the notion of newspapers and magazines without advertising very attractive today, although they exist almost nowhere, now.

I gradually became more fascinated by two things: newspapers in different languages and different scripts than the Roman alphabet, and newspapers from the past. When I was a teacher, my students were always ready to bring back a paper from their travels or holidays. It took me a long time to get a school student to bring me back a newspaper in Maltese, which is the only Arabic language that uses the Roman alphabet, and I’m still hoping to get to know someone heading to Mongolia, for I’d love a newspaper in that script… Some of the alphabets and scripts from the Far East are absolutely beautiful. Of course, I can understand very few of the languages, but it’s amazing how much logic, photographs and knowledge of what a newspaper is for, will allow one to deduce. My copy of Al Ahram (from Cairo) came in very useful when we were studying poems from other culture and traditions, as part of GCSE English – it was a graphic prop to show the class how the language and news of another culture could be completely inaccessible to us Westerners, and brought a sense of perspective, reminding us that there were other worlds and cultures out there, which were not ours.

As time passed I became increasingly fascinated by newspapers from the past, how different they were, and how they presented events with immediacy, unlike reading about those events in a history book. I had a phase of scouring derelict buildings for old newspapers, and was once lucky enough to come across a huge pile of them from 1939, before and after the outbreak of war, in a shop that was being refitted: no doubt the builders thought I was crackers but they happily gave me them…

Equally I realised that newspapers recording major events were worth keeping – all those reporting the first moon landing, various royal weddings and deaths, 9/11 and the like. Also I kept first and last editions of various newspapers as they appeared in and disappeared from circulation.

So, I’ve indulged an oddball hobby for most of my life, and have several crates of newspapers of some value in the attic, though whether I can ever bear to part with them is another matter. Printed newspapers are slowly dying out in the internet age; even I no longer buy them in order to keep up with the news. I toyed with the idea of journalism as a career possibility, having worked on the students’ union newspaper at university, but ultimately decided against it as a less safe one than teaching, and I cannot say that I regret my decision.

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…

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…

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