Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

March 19, 2020

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Defoe was born in 1660; the Plague Year was 1665, so this purported account is clearly a very clever fabrication by a master journalist who has some claim to being the first real English novelist.

From the outset his account is presented as a ‘journal’ – so a truthful account by someone who was there and observed and lived though those times; verisimilitude is assumed, and a wealth of local details and knowledge of London establishes the tone of a historical account. There are dates, street-names, figures from the contemporary Bills of Mortality, and stories presented as truthful because acquired from others who were also there at the time.

The scene is established with general historical details in the opening section, after which the narrator introduces himself and his work, and insinuates himself into the historical narrative. It’s clear that Defoe’s is a clever construction, as there is much here that would be commonly available and accurate information, into which he can weave various ‘fictional’ elements that obviously may have some basis in truth… “as I was informed” is a frequently used tag in this narrative.

There are tales of horror and shocking behaviour as well as tales of selflessness and even heroism on the part of some: here is Defoe the journalist with an eighteenth-century eye for good copy.

There are a number of lengthy digressions from the factual narrative, which give more depth and colour but must either be completely fictional, or elaborations based on tales which circulated at the time. It’s interesting to see the early attempts at presentation of dialogue in these early days of the novel: it’s actually set out as if it were a drama script.

Re-reading (after over 30 years) at this particular moment, I was obviously going to notice comparisons with our own day, and these leapt off the page from the beginning: the fake news and concealment of the situation when it began – as seems initially to have been what happened in Wuhan in China – and the rich running away from danger, with rip-off merchants and rogues homing in for a quick buck wherever opportunity offered itself. Defoe details the massive economic consequences to London (and England) of the plague outbreak, something that we are equally focused on at the present. And people can be ill and contagious without exhibiting symptoms: contagion is passed on by the apparently healthy. In the seventeenth century, it was not known that fleas were the plague vector, although there are some hints at the concept of bugs or bacteria when theories about the ‘miasma’ or corrupt air are outlined…

It’s a difficult read, because Defoe is working his way to a narrative style which was only fully to flower much later in the eighteenth century: the overall feel of the work is rambling, disorganised and repetitive: there is no real sense of structure, and there are no chapter divisions. But the main downside for the contemporary reader is the almost complete lack of variation in tone, which leaves the reader feeling tired, and also inclined to skip over tedious sections of narrative: there is nothing to ‘grip’ in the sense of plot development. The lengthy section devoted to the three men of Wapping and their travels about the outer London area are probably the most interesting and closest to what a twenty-first century reader expects from a narrative.

Zoran Nikolic: The Atlas of Unusual Borders

February 17, 2020

71fgJcLE8kL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Some of my regular readers will already know of my fascination with maps and atlases; if you don’t then a quick search of the blog will convince you. Here is an at the same time fascinating and utterly bonkers selection of weird borders between nations, their origins (when known) and how they have developed, and also why such anomalies haven’t been ironed out.

Despite the crucial nature of borders to the entire premise of the book, on the maps they are not always clearly enough labelled or demarcated for the reader to be able to follow the author’s explanations; the maps are somewhat stylised, and a better use of colours would have helped, I feel. Most of the enclaves and exclaves are very small, so the maps necessarily lack helpful context for one to orient oneself. A smaller cut-out map with the larger surrounding area, perhaps?

I can’t finish this post without a reference to Brexit, I’m afraid. For an entire adult life, travelling through Europe, I have pretty much been able to ignore borders; on a train you often don’t know when you leave a country, while on a road a different country is marked by the same kind of sign that tells you you have arrived in a different town or village. Now I am going to have to get used to borders again.

It was clear while reading the book that in many of the places Nikolic cites, the EU means that the significance of the borders he shows and the differences they demarcated are diminishing, if not vanishing; his examples remain as historical weirdnesses and nothing more. The EU is about co-operation across boundaries, making life simpler, sharing resources, spaces and languages. The UK has withdrawn from all this and it’s very sad…

Not the news

February 13, 2020

The_Times_04_09_39_460    I know I’m not the only person who’s concerned about what’s tritely labelled ‘fake news’. I’ve tried to think through what is actually going on, from the perspective of someone who’s kept himself well-informed over a lifetime.

My interaction with news dates from my earliest years. We took the Daily Mail at home, and listened to the news on the BBC Home Service. That was what was available all those years ago. My earliest memories are of my parents’ anxious faces as they listened to the news of the Cuban missile crisis, their shock at President Kennedy’s assassination, which came in a newsflash just as we children were being sent off to bed, and the news of the death of Pope John XXIII.

I was fascinated by other newspapers and regularly took myself off to the reading room of Stamford Public Library to leaf through the Times and the Daily Telegraph, and take in The Christian Science Monitor (which arrived there daily) and India News. At boarding school we read the Times and the Guardian, and the latter soon became my lifelong newspaper of choice. And when we finally got a television at home, we watched the news.

The thing was, in those days you couldn’t really avoid the news. Most households took a daily paper, often two on Sundays: we took the Sunday Pictorial (which eventually became the Sunday Mirror) and the News of the World, until our mother vetoed it because of its salaciousness. If you paid money for a newspaper, you read it, or much of it, and were consequently reasonably informed. If you listened to the wireless (I love that word!) you got the news whenever it came along. And there were regular news bulletins on the TV, too.

Now, think through what has changed. There are so many TV and radio channels where there are no news bulletins. There are enough TV and radio channels for enough people to avoid the news completely, and if you consume your music through apps like Spotify, there’s no news, just like there’s none on Netflix and other streaming TV channels.

The internet has massacred the printed newspaper: papers like the Mirror, Sun, Daily Express that used to sell four or five million copies a day now sell a tenth of that number. People do not read newspapers, by and large. News has migrated to the internet, and most people’s expectations are that it will be free. I do not pay £2.20 a day for a printed newspaper any more, and haven’t done for years. Some newspapers have paywalls; I don’t bother. So even though I have a wealth of free news available to me, somehow I am less informed, because I don’t read everything in that day’s Guardian – I don’t even know the totality of what’s in it. I skim, superficially, like a wasp – because it’s free, it has less value, less significance. Interestingly, the printed news and analysis I pay 5.40€ per month for in Le Monde Diplomatique, I still read from cover-to-cover.

News has become more trivial, more personality focused. Is this perhaps the result of the changes I’ve outlined above? I think the two phenomena are linked. I’ll listen to radio news in the car while I’m driving, for as long as I can bear it, but I don’t bother with television news any more.

So, I consider myself pretty well-informed, and yet I’m clear that I graze the news. I’ll also admit this is partly an age thing: I’ve seen a lot of it before, and I know that my opinions and actions aren’t really going to make any difference in what’s left of my lifetime. What about the millions who avoid the news almost entirely?

Newspapers have no obligation to be objective, and so news and commentary or opinion pieces have long been jumbled together. The terrestrial TV stations in the UK are by law obliged to be politically balanced or impartial. Social media can do what it likes, and we know where that has taken us: anyone can post anything they like, pretty much, truth or lies, and nobody can do much about it. For all their hand-wringing pieties, the US giants of social media don’t really have a clue what goes on on their platforms, nor do they care as long as the bucks continue to pour in.

Somewhere it seems to me that all of this ought to matter deeply, to concern all of us if participating in a democracy means anything to us. And yet, apart from a relatively small number, it really doesn’t. And there are plenty of people, organisations and companies who will do very well indeed as democracy dies. It’s not that I think that as a society we used to be well-informed, just that now I feel we are much less informed, and also much more susceptible to ignorance and disinformation. And that cannot end well. Nor do I have a realistic solution to offer.

Thought for the day

January 31, 2020
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

MEDITATION XVII
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

A tragedy and a shame

January 18, 2020

I was just about to turn 18 when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973. So I have lived my entire adult life (so far) as a European citizen, and have always thought of myself as European first, and English/Polish second. I will also admit, to my shame, that, swayed by Trotskyite propaganda, I voted for us to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum.

Shortly, against my will, I will cease to be an EU citizen. To all of my readers in Europe I say that for me this is a tragedy. In my years of travelling, pretty much all of which has been in Europe, I have grown to know and appreciate what we have in common as well as how we differ from each other as individual nations, and what we share feels so much greater than what separates or divides us. I have also learned the deeper meaning of the European project and its symbolism for those nations on the European mainland who suffered so much during the two world wars of the last century: this is at the root of Britain’s fateful decision to leave. We have never been occupied; we have not experienced such horrors as Auschwitz, Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane on our soil.

There are times when I have felt that the EU was basically a neoliberal capitalist club; those aspects still anger me. And yet, the EU is not the unbridled capitalist chaos that is the USA, nor the thinly disguised dictatorship that is Russia, nor the surveillance and pollution nightmare that China seems to be; it is a wavering outpost of social-democratic, welfare state society that by and large seems still to espouse some of the freedoms and decencies hard-won after two world wars on its soil.

And so I do regard our departure as tragic.

But it is also a matter of national shame. Such a major decision, the full implications of which are still unknown, and the full effects of which will take several years to become clear, was taken by a minority of the electorate; in the recent election which allowed the steamroller to proceed, far more voters supported remain parties than those advocating departure: that is all history now, except for the disgrace that is our electoral system, and the disgrace of the liars who manipulated, cheated and deceived the nation’s voters.

Once we were a nation with a huge empire, built on conquest, racism and slavery. The price of US assistance in the last world war was the relinquishing of that empire. And yet, shamefully, we still try and behave like a world power, when we are only a small island off the coast of a continent, and now of far less importance, significance or influence than we have been for the last half-century or so. We are a country living in the past, unwilling to look at, never mind embrace the future. We can blame politicians of all hues for failing to engage with the European project properly, when, given our economic weight, we might have a major influence on the shape of the entire project.

So, shortly, our country severs the ties. I don’t accept that rupture. I will not ‘get over it’. I will not ‘make friends’ with the liars, idiots and crooks who engineered it all. I shall continue to see myself as a European first, I shall continue my travels in Europe and my encounters with its people for as long as I am able, and, as I always have done (bar that 1975 aberration) I shall continue to argue the case for the UK being a part of it all.

Friendly greetings to all my European readers!

Thirty glorious years?

January 1, 2020

The French, in their supremely French way, have long referred to the years 1945-1975 as ‘les trente glorieuses’, thirty years of success, happiness, greatness and I don’t know what else. And it’s an interesting window through which to look back over my lifetime.

There was a determination to improve everyone’s lot after the horrors of the Second World War, and, as Europe re-built (with American help) there was an economic boom; most people’s living standards improved immensely as did their housing, health and life expectancy, especially with serious development of welfare states and the creation of organisations like Britain’s National Health Service and the European Union.

I grew up during this time. Life wasn’t easy, but the state looked after our health (who remembers free NHS orange juice, rose hip syrup and cod liver oil?), promised retirement pensions of a sort, provided unemployment benefits, and gave me a decent education, including a free university education through which I was supported by grants not loans.

It was a period where there seemed to be some kind of parity between the two sides of the economy, workers and bosses, although there was much conflict, and eventually the bosses had had enough and brought in Reagan and Thatcher’s economic neoliberalism to smash the power of workers for good. We are all still living with the consequences of this.

I do recall some grim times towards the end of the seventies. But what I don’t recall are food banks and thousands of homeless people living (and dying) in the streets of one of the richest countries on the planet. I don’t recall it being incredibly difficult for young people to try and buy a home. I don’t recall people on non-existent work contracts, not knowing whether they would have work the next day or not. I don’t recall being fleeced by companies for the essentials of daily existence like water power and transport.

It’s a truism that as we get older we get more nostalgic about the past, and tend to see our younger days through rose-tinted spectacles: as we grow older, life nears its end and we look back to those earlier, more carefree times when we seemed immortal, and surely those were better days?

And yet, I do feel very strongly that as a society we have lost something since those remote and more innocent days. Increasingly I have the feeling that those 30 years may have been a blip in our country’s and the world’s history, a very happy and fortunate time for those (like me) who grew up and enjoyed their younger years back then. I’m not enjoying growing old, and yet I’d not swap my time for the life of someone thirty years younger today.

The Doomsday Book

December 29, 2019

61YJkcWyBfL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Way back when I was still a schoolboy I bought a remaindered book in a sale: The Doomsday Book, by Gordon Rattray Taylor. This must have been in the very early seventies, and I was reminded of this book and the way it shaped my life, when I came across a dusty and ancient copy of the book again a couple of weeks ago.

It was what would now be called popular science, and it was, as I recall, one of the earliest books to try and draw public attention to the problems of pollution, as these were known, seen and understood half a century ago. I remember being utterly shocked and horrified at the grim prognosis then, and vaguely recall a follow-up from the same author, called something like The Population Time-Bomb. For me, these were the first wake-up calls, the first awareness that as a species we were not innocent in our effects on the planet.

A few years later, as a student, I became a vegetarian, for health and ecological reasons, and began to try and be more careful about my impact on the planet. Over the years I have striven not to be wasteful and not to make trivial or unnecessary purchases; as re-use and recycling became more possible, I’ve tried to do these to the best of my ability, too. Lest anyone think that all I’m doing is virtue-signalling, I’ll admit to having owned and used a car for the last thirty years or so, although I’ll balance that by saying that I have never flown anywhere.

I know a good many people who have tried to operate in a similar fashion throughout their lives, too: I’m a member of a small food-buying co-op which comprises about a dozen households. And yet, as I read about the horrors of the climate emergency engulfing the planet, I feel increasingly that we’ve been pissing into the wind, or re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I’m horrified at the world in which my children and grandchildren will have to live and grow old in. Where have we gone wrong? Because surely my generation bears a large share of the responsibility.

Our economic system has proved wonderful at making and selling stuff, and hiding its effect on our planet and on our individual health. And I’m not meaning to start an argument with feminists when I say that the system, over the past couple of generations, has engineered a shift in society and consumption habits which has meant that to support a family and a household and provide it with all the stuff it needs, it now takes both parents working.

Back in the days of the Cold War we used to talk about humans being the only species which had developed the means to destroy life on its home planet – and we meant through the use of nuclear weapons. Now we are managing to do it – a tad more slowly – through the manufacture and consumption of material goods.

I am incredibly pessimistic about our changing anything. First, the economic system will resist any attempt to curb its excesses: we can see that already. Second, we love the conveniences we are offered and don’t see the waste: the huge amount of energy needed to run data-centres so we can have everything in the cloud; the stupid waste of plastics in wrapping food, making one-use cups and bottles; the phenomenal amount of pollution created by cars… and so much more.

There is one factor I have identified and begun to think about over the last few years: the hippy movement of the late sixties and early seventies. It was all about self-liberation, breaking free of constraints, individual self-development – laudable aims in themselves, but so easily manipulated and perverted by the economic system into a chase after material objects and possessions, and the right to individual fulfilment and happiness through stuff. And because it was about individual happiness – allegedly – it gradually erased any reference to, or appreciation of anything shared or collective, including the shared planet. And it seems to me, once those floodgates were opened, the end was on its way. I’m as guilty as the rest of my generation here: the feelings of liberation were wonderful, and the costs only gradually became clear… and what we can now do about it, eludes me.

Living the nightmare

December 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

Like most of my friends and acquaintances, we went to bed last night feeling very grim, and woke up to our worst nightmare. Today, I do not feel that this is my country. Mr Johnson can say all he likes about uniting the country, but the fact for me that is most salient is that only 47% of the electorate voted for Brexit parties, so I’m not sure how he plans to square the circle. And, as we say round here, I wouldn’t believe him if he told me today was Friday.

The most basic insanity about Britain is our prehistoric electoral system. And both major parties defend it: winner takes all. You get the chance to wreck or demolish everything your opponents spent years doing. That’s not a recipe for successful politics, or running a country. We had a chance, in a referendum (!) to change the system, and the main parties wrecked it.

Then we have a mass media which is two-thirds owned by foreign billionaires. Enough said. I don’t know of any other country which allows this.

For years, we have lived in a one-party state, with no real or effective opposition. The Labour party has been hijacked by a leftist cult more interested in ideology than cultivating and nurturing its natural base of supporters, and the result of that is clear today. Those manipulating the party thought it was better to plan for a socialist Jerusalem one day, than deal convincingly with today’s issues. There was no clear policy about the EU or Brexit, and that vacillation helped poison opinion. Even as we went into the election, Labour and the Lib Dems were more interested in biting each other than the real enemy.

What are we faced with now? One thing I can lay claim to, and that’s my years; today I think we are in a far worse place than 1979, when the Thatcher nightmare arrived. The country is utterly and irrevocably divided. We are about to give up membership of the largest trading bloc, and attempt to go it alone, or maybe become the 51st state of the union. It has become fashionable to knock the 1970s. There were a lot of things wrong in that decade – I know, because that’s when I became an adult and first voted – but there were no food banks and no thousands sleeping on the streets every night. That is an appalling indictment of our society, and especially of all those who voted Conservative yesterday. Society was more caring of its less fortunate members in those days. And we weren’t fleeced left, right and centre by privatised companies owning the basic necessities of daily life like power, water and transport.

My generation wanted a better society. It has failed ignominiously, allowing inequality, poverty and racism to thrive. As for the future of the planet, do you think that will get a look-in during the mad, money-grubbing bonanza that will be unleashed as everyone tries to grab a bigger slice of the smaller post-Brexit cake? I try to find a bright side to look on, and the only one I can see is the younger generation today, who seem to have different ideas and different goals and commitments: I hope they are more successful than we were(n’t). But I have to end on a gloomy note: I fear for the future because I fear civil unrest and even violence lurk on the not-too-distant horizon. We are living in very dark times.

On rank insanity

October 25, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

When I read that there has been a survey of over 4000 people, that shows that over 70% of ‘leavers’ and nearly 60% of ‘remainers’ think that violence towards MPs would be an acceptable part of achieving the Brexit or non-Brexit that they want, I no longer recognise that country I was born in and have lived almost all of my life in. I am utterly ashamed to be part of it. My father found a haven here during the Second World War, and then eked out a difficult existence after it, when he and his compatriots were basically surplus to requirements for a lot of the British people. I cannot imagine what he would have made of the current situation.

I make no apology for saying that I have always regarded the idea of leaving the European Union as an act of rank insanity that will impoverish us economically and culturally, and further diminish our standing and status with the rest of the world (although that last may not be such a bad thing). I am proud to have been a European citizen for my entire adult life, and will feel the less when I am only a British one.

No British politician has behaved honourably in this entire proceeding, except perhaps the Speaker of the Commons. The referendum was only ever an attempt to reconcile warring factions in the Tory party, and Cameron was an idiot for allowing it, especially when the parameters were so vague. Farage is a racist and a hypocrite who can protect his family with citizenship of another EU state and fill his pockets with an MEP’s salary and pension. May was out of her depth, Johnson is another liar and hypocrite. Corbyn has dithered and played games just like his opponents, and the Lib Dems do not shine any whiter even if they do espouse what I ultimately hope for. Over my lifetime, our politicians seem to have become ever more self-serving and venal.

I honestly now have no idea what to hope for; although I’d class myself as reasonably intelligent, I find it almost impossible now to make any sense of all the permutations of possible outcomes, but unlike Johnson and his ilk, I don’t just want to ‘get it over with’. I would like the country to find its sense of tolerance again, and to treasure that which it can be proud of, especially the NHS; I would like us to be in the centre of the scrum, struggling to make our Europe a better place. At the moment, I honestly think that if I could rewind the clock some 30 years, I’d leave; certainly I’m rather envious of various friends and acquaintances who did…

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