Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

Farewell to the EU

September 22, 2018

I am becoming more and more despondent as the days tick by to 29 March 2018…

It was during a conversation with a Luxemburger whose studio I’d rented for my last walking holiday, that I realised I’d spent my entire adult life as a citizen of, first the European Economic Community, then the European Community and finally the European Union: I was 18 when we joined back in 1973. Although I felt happy then joining all our neighbours in the twelve (as it was then), two years later, in my serious but short-lived very left-wing phase, I voted for us to leave, in the first-ever referendum. We didn’t, I got over it pretty quickly and over the years came to enjoy the – mostly unseen – advantages that being part of the union gave us. Travel gradually became so much easier as borders, though still visible, disappeared in practical terms as one made one’s way about the continent. The quaint old idea of the ‘duty-free allowance’ of cheap booze as you came home vanished, and you could bring back anything you’d paid VAT on in any European country. Because travel was easier, I went to more places, experienced more of life and customs in other lands.

The real border shifted to the Elbe: Eastern Europe was still much harder and more complicated to access, but eventually with the fall of the Soviet Union, other Eastern nations eagerly joined the EU and those borders also vanished… Money – exchange rates and currencies was still rather a pain until 2001 (I think) and the advent of the euro; I’m still cross that we never joined as that would have completed the simplification of movement and travel.

Forty-six years later, all this is due to come to an end. If I can get to a port, and I have secured (bought) my authorisation to travel to the Schengen area, I could still go for my walking holiday in the Ardennes. But I will need to go to a post office and queue up to buy at least one kind of international driving licence if I’m taking my car, and currently I don’t know whether I will need to buy any form of extra, special insurance for my car – a replacement for the old ‘Green Card’. I think my EHIC – which entitles me to medical treatment on the same basis as citizens of the country I’m visiting – may still be valid, but I don’t know. I’m assured that it won’t suddenly cost me extra to use my phone while I’m abroad, but I’m not convinced. And I’m pretty sure that it will all be horrendously expensive, given that the value of the pound is likely to decrease still further.

First world problems – I’m complaining about my travel and holidays getting costlier and more complicated. I’m retired, and don’t have to worry about work: plenty of my fellow-citizens are likely to suffer rather more than I will. It’s the tiny-mindedness and the short-sightedness of what we are going to do to ourselves that appals me, our insular inability to see any of the bigger picture or to find common cause with others in an attempt to solve the real and pressing problems facing our continent, and our world. Never mind, when it comes up for renewal in 2021, if I still need one, I can have a nice blue passport… and if even if we are no longer in the EU, I shan’t feel any less European myself.

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Frank Trentmann: Empire of Things

July 28, 2018

41dDMxF43uL._AC_US218_I have to say that, whilst this book made very interesting reading, it was also quite hard going, partly because of the vast wealth of detail and examples Trentmann uses, and also because the subject is so all-encompassing it meant that it was often hard to follow a particular thread clearly and coherently: the whole felt a little shapeless at times. But our obsession with stuff, and acquiring more and more of it, is a rather more complex issue than I had imagined. In early modern times there had been various sumptuary laws restricting conspicuous consumption on religious and moral grounds.

Trentmann notes a post-Second World War shift to a focus on creating wants, as he looks at what we prize and value, and why that should be. Over centuries we have moved from producing what we need – self-sufficiency and survival – to selling our labour for cash in order to buy things, and this clearly led to the development and manipulation of demand. The shift from rural to urban living was responsible for creating the ambience for higher consumption by reducing opportunities for self-provisioning. Ownership and consumption of stuff gradually became part of how people defined and saw themselves.

Quite early on I felt any reference to Marx’ analysis of labour and production was lacking, and when Trentmann did turn to Marx he was rather simplistic, dismissive even, in his treatment, though it is true that the latter was – as far as he got – more interested in production than consumption; nevertheless Marx’ analysis of changing labour relations over time fits in well with the development of greater consumption, and capitalism in general, I think.

Far more data is available from the nineteenth century onwards, with the growth of the ‘science’ of economics, so the book largely concentrated on the time from then, rather than comprehending the last five centuries as the book’s blurb suggests. However, Trentmann’s debunking of various myths about consumption, and his tracing of a process which can be seen to have developed slowly over centuries, is interesting. For instance, labour-saving devices actually led to the invention of new chores, and the adopting of higher standards and expectations as people became more competitive. And then there are the tricks and deceits of multinationals involved in the marketing of ‘heritage’ through so-called ‘farmers’ markets’ and ‘local’ food – yet another pricey brand, in the end. In the end, it is all about re-cycling money: higher wages and more leisure time = more goods can be sold, whatever they are; now, the opportunity for profit is even greater as the emphasis on selling services rather than goods, develops.

Home ownership led to the idea of individual rooms, either for specific activities or individuals, and thence the need for things to fill them. Increasingly, statistics demonstrate that the affluent society is about ordinary rather than conspicuous consumption. Concomitant is the necessary growth of consumer debt to sustain it all, and also the growth of public squalor as private affluence increases, and we are told that we prefer to have more of our ‘own’ money to spend on things…

More insidious is the position of the intellectual elite’s self-proclaimed position as guardians of ‘civilisation’, attacking mass consumption and seeing the masses themselves as spoilt children, permanent adolescents caught up in the cult of self.

Why do people imagine they need all this stuff? Perhaps to make up for the increasing dullness and pressure of the routine of work? In the end, self-fulfilment through stuff… Consumption itself takes time as well as money, contributing to the feelings of stress, so we are time-poor but have lots of things instead. Pope John Paul II spoke eloquently about the loss of balance between spiritual and material values.

Most interesting to me: Trautmann’s analysis of how and why Eastern Europe failed in terms of satisfying its consumers. Overall, not a book I’d recommend as a casual read; I’m glad I bought it and read it but felt it lacked political bite: issues are presented, but no solutions offered. And clearly we cannot go on like this.

Note to editors: mid-Atlantic production values for books can lead to nonsense: what on earth is ‘Scottish whiskey’ (sic) for heaven’s sake?

On the NHS

July 5, 2018

I try to avoid political posts, as I’m of an age where the state of our country and the world makes me want to rant. Today, however, is quite a special day for us British, and I want to pay tribute to an institution which I have been fortunate enough to be able to take for granted for my entire life.

My mother trained as a nurse and worked for the NHS right at its very beginning; one of my sisters is currently a children’s nurse in a specialised burns unit. The NHS isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s there. It doesn’t look after my eyesight, and I’ve chosen not to let it look after my teeth. But it did wonders for my deteriorating hearing in the final years of my teaching career, and it has helped me carry on walking normally with my wonky feet. So far I’ve never needed treatment in A&E, but I know many who have. And, pace any US readers, it’s there, without any need to flash a credit card at the ambulance driver…

The NHS may exemplify the nanny state; if so, I’m all for it. If I am to have any loyalty to a state, to which I constantly pay taxes, I’d like to feel it’s looking after me in return. And there are precious few things I can feel proud of in my country today. I feel much safer with the NHS behind me than I do with all the ridiculous amounts of money wasted on weapons and armaments.

People complain that the NHS wastes money; I’m sure it does, but no more than any other branch of government – we just rarely get to hear about how much the Ministry of Defence wastes, or the Department for Education: what the NHS does is visible to everyone.

I like the idea that the NHS sprang from the idea that one of the basic necessities of life, decent healthcare, should be equally available to everyone, without anyone having to worry about the upfront cost. To me, there are quite a few other necessities that deserve a similar approach, but I won’t go into that at the moment. I said earlier that I take the NHS for granted; so do we all, I think. And it needs to be paid for, and I, for one, don’t resent what I have paid towards it. People are living longer – and I hope to be one of those – and have expectations about more complex levels of treatment than used to be available: we need to accept that all this needs to be paid for, and agree to it. If taxes need to rise, so be it.

When people talk about the nanny state and the way it ‘interferes’ in our lives, I find myself thinking that actually rather more nanny state might be a good idea in some ways: if the government is looking after us, why isn’t it being more active in regulating the junk that is sold as food and drink, and which contributes so considerably to health problems for so many? Then the NHS would have more money to spend treating unavoidable illnesses…

But I was going to try and be non-political today. I was political here, if you want politics.

So, thank you to the NHS for taking out my tonsils, for providing rose-hip syrup, orange juice and revolting cold-liver oil to build me up as a child, for the scary visits to what we called the ‘prick shop’ for our childhood jabs; for all the GP visits, blood tests, heart investigations, checking my poo for bowel cancer, and I don’t know what else. Without presenting me with a bill at the cash-desk. An organisation I have always felt proud of.

On fake news and no news

May 24, 2018

I like to keep up with what’s going on in the world, and I’m increasingly concerned at the narrowing of what is on offer in conventional newspapers and other mass media. Radio news is increasingly trivialised, even on the BBC, and as for TV news, well… editors set an agenda but what it’s based on, one is never quite sure. So, given the time constraints, someone has selected quite drastically what we are going to be told. And I remember someone once calculated that if you took all the words actually spoken in a half-hour TV news bulletin and set them out on paper, they would fill the equivalent of a couple of columns of a broadsheet newspaper. Hardly very informative, then.

So-called serious ewspapers in the UK have become increasingly focused on celebrity and lifestyle, which is cheap froth and fills pages, and also opinions on every subject under the sun written by the yard by people who know not very much about a subject. So newspaper now have several times the pagination they had three or four decades ago, but far less actual news. And if you think about the difference that getting your information from a website makes: it’s potentially a bottomless pit of links and clickbait: how do you actually know what’s there, compared with being able to turn over the  pages of a physical newspaper and glance at ALL the headlines?

Our newspapers also – perhaps inevitably, but also because it’s easy – focus on the anglophone world. We’re an island, and even though we’re only twenty miles off the coast of Europe, news of that continent impinges relatively little.

Where is one to turn for reliable and in-depth information?

I cast my net quite widely. I keep an eye on the New York Times and the Washington Post online, and Le Monde as a window on Europe. There’s a weekly digest from Der Spiegel in English which is often quite interesting, picking up on things I’d never otherwise come across, or offering a different take on matters from the British press.

I’ve kept up with the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books as they both offer very detailed and lengthy comment and analysis of topical issues, sometimes linked to newly-published books, sometimes just because the topic is of moment.

My main go-to for its breadth and scope of coverage of world issues, from a left-wing perspective, with an environmental slant and a recognition of the entire world rather than just parts of it, for the last 20 years or so has been the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique. Despite its title, it’s not written for diplomats or about diplomacy! It is published in numerous languages including English, and seems to me to offer a comprehensive coverage that I’ve so far not found anywhere else, and I judge that it has kept me informed about aspects of world politics, society and the environment that I’ve rarely seen covered in our press.

What I find most alarming about all this, is that not many people realise the subtle and gradual changes taking place, and also how very much easier it is for everyone to avoid news altogether now, if they wish to, never mind being bombarded by fake news…

K & Z Weinersmith: Soonish

February 15, 2018

51hyU-PQsYL._AC_US218_When I actively think about it, I have to be astonished at the rate of technological change in my lifetime (I almost wrote ‘technological progress’ there, but paused…): from the black bakelite ‘push button B’ telephone to a miniature computer in my pocket, from being taken to visit the first electronic calculator in the district by our school maths teacher to… my laptop, from a black and white television with two channels to streaming almost anything on demand, from a children’s encyclopaedia to the internet.

This was an unexpected book – a birthday present – and I do like being surprised. The authors review and explain changes in various areas of technology that are in development and may affect our lives sooner or later… hence the title. They are very good at explaining why current ideas, machines and materials work, what their limitations are, and where it may be possible to go next. A good deal of very serious and hard science is presented and explained pretty clearly, with some humour, in a way that a non-scientist like me can usually understand (though not always without feeling a headache coming on). The chapters are helpfully arranged in size order, as the authors move from technological developments in space down to the micro-level, within the human body. The difficulties involved in automating certain complex processes are explained, and various routes and solutions are evaluated.

What surprised me quite a lot was the remarkable overlap between where science currently seems to be heading, and science fiction that I’ve read over my lifetime, for example everyday objects that can communicate with the user, such as abound in the novels and stories of Philip K Dick. You may be thinking, well, isn’t it obvious that SF would foreshadow what is coming up in reality? but not so. Much of what has happened in the recent past SF did not foresee, especially the incredibly rapid progresses in computing power and miniaturisation. You can read novels set a century in our future where they are using computers we would have found obsolete in the 1990s…

It may well be related to my age, but a good deal of what is up-and-coming scared the daylights out of me, particularly in the area of food; augmented reality (AR), which I’m quite interested in along with VR, also seemed pretty scary in terms of its full potential. As an arts and humanities person first of all, I’ve always been a little unsure of whether scientists are fully aware of the complexities and implications of what they are doing. We shall see – or rather, it’s probably the next generation that will…

Newspapers: do they have a point any more?

January 15, 2018

Today my newspaper of choice, which I’ve read daily for nearly half a century – The Guardian – became a tabloid. It looks okay, but no longer has anything which makes it stand out from any of the other dailies. The short-lived bold Berliner experiment ran out of steam and money: no-one could have foreseen how rapidly so many people would give up print for online news… and I found myself thinking: is there any real point to newspapers any more?

Once, newspapers were the only news; first radio and then TV scooped them. And now the internet offers instant updates. Once newspapers offered news; now they try to offer everything: a whole range of features, opinion, columnists trying to be funny, cookery, lifestyle, advice on relationships. Once newspapers had relatively few pages and were readable on the day of publication in a reasonable space of time; now there are pages to plough through. Once the Sunday paper was a treat to gorge on.

I only occasionally buy a print Guardian at a weekend, and when I do, it’s frustrating, because I’ve read half of it before, at different times during the week: online articles aren’t attached to particular days, and the overall effect is to make it even less likely I’ll bother with print. And I suspect I only look at about a quarter of what appears online, anyway.

I could never have imagined life without my daily dose of print, and yet, here I am, reading the paper online every morning – no more cold and wet trips to the corner newsagent. It comes rather cheaper, of course, and this is an issue for all newspapers: where’s the money? The Guardian seems, slowly, to be finding its way with a subscription and donation model, helped by the web broadening its world readership. And I grind my teeth about the random and irrelevant US and Australian stories. But they get some cash from me because I love the online crossword app.

The Times disappeared behind a paywall, but I won’t give money to Murdoch on principle, end of story. The Daily Telegraph, which I used regularly to look at to see what the enemy was up to, has developed a ‘premium’ (ie give us money) label for an ever-increasing number of its stories, and this has led to a bastardisation of good journalism, in that most stories now begin with a couple of paragraphs of knitted words that tell you nothing, in order to tempt you to stump up money to read the real article just as it disappears behind the paywall… ha ha, fooling no-one there… On the other hand, I do have access to far more titles, whereas I only ever bought one print newspaper a day.

As I grow older I regularly have to remind myself that I’m not the regular or average punter that most newspapers (or shops, for that matter) actually want; I’m on the margins, looking for something that doesn’t really exist. When I began reading newspapers, I wanted (and found) the news reported clearly, fully and intelligently, and some detailed and thoughtful analysis to develop my understanding of issues. That’s pretty rare now, particularly the analysis, for which I’ve gone to a French publication, Le Monde Diplomatique (there is an English edition) for the last twenty years. English newspapers are full of rent-a-scribe columnists paid by the yard to pontificate, to provoke or to try and be funny, none of which is terribly useful in terms of trying to understand an increasingly mad world.

I can’t see print newspapers existing for much longer; I can see them shrinking to weekly publications focused on analysis rather than news, although I suspect the ‘infotainment’ angle will still dominate. There will be far fewer of them. Someone will eventually sort out how to make micropayments work, I hope.

The thing that depresses me more than anything is the large number of people I see picking up and paying for the Daily Mail, imagining they are buying a proper newspaper, rather than a nasty, right-wing propaganda-sheet. It says something about the very sad state of this country at the moment.

On avoiding Marx

December 15, 2017

51OL0gW4-wL._AC_US218_Although I’ve always been on the left in terms of politics, I’ve managed to avoid engaging with Marx for most of my life. I may have read The Communist Manifesto at some point in my student days, but I can’t remember. I did have to read some chapters that Marx wrote about literature when studying for my MA, and we also grappled with some other Marxist critics such as Lukacs, but I remember very little of what they had to say on the subject. Marx is difficult, and the doorstep tomes are off-putting.

And yet, I’ve always been drawn to what I’ve known and understood of Marx’s analysis of economics and history, because what I have known of it has seemed to make sense, and because some over-arching theory of how our world works is needed in order to help us to change it, if that is what we want to do. I’ve been interested, throughout my adult life, in sexual politics, and also environmental politics, but also aware of the Marxist notion that the class struggle is the primary one, and all the others are sidetracks, which get in the way of changing things, and which, of course, the dominant class is very happy for us to get sidetracked down: those energies that might be used in demolishing the system are dissipated…

This has come to seem ever more true to me in recent years, as the world has appeared, over the course of my lifetime, to have become ever more stuck; I am struck by our inability to learn from our horrendous past, by our ability to destroy our environment without a thought, by our ability to be seduced by consumer trash, by our acceptance of politicians’ and economists’ lies….

A few years back I came across the writings of David Harvey, who has been teaching Marx for about forty years or so; his book The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism provided a useful introduction, and then I discovered that a series of his lectures on the first volume of Marx’s Capital was available for download (here). I’ve recently discovered that lectures on the second volume are available too…

It’s taken me a while to get round to listening to them. They were recorded, not very professionally, in actual lectures, so the sound quality isn’t brilliant – there are frequent pauses and he rambles at times as lecturers do, and students’ questions are largely inaudible – but Harvey takes you through what Marx is saying in detail, explaining and clarifying, pointing out the salient points of the analysis, and most helpfully, relating them to the present day economic situation. It’s not easy listening, and I did find myself zoning out at various points, but I saw how Marx’s analysis fitted together and made sense, and I saw the totality of its scope. I found myself thinking not, ‘here is the answer, Marx says it all and this is what we need to do’, but ‘this is a clear and comprehensive analysis which makes sense as a whole, and is better and clearer than anything else I’ve heard or read… here is a template for viewing and understanding the world’.

What comes across is the inter-relatedness of everything, and the enormous difficulty of changing things. There are more questions than answers, it seems to me. Is democracy the best form of government, for a start? Because if you want to get on with making the world different, it will certainly take more than the maximum five-year time-frame of democracy. And perhaps democracy is only a bourgeois concept anyway, actually serving the interests of relatively few people? Maybe the Chinese, who can take the longer-term perspective, will have greater success in addressing the challenges the planet faces… What do you do with the small groups of vested interests who will fight tooth and nail to retain their power and privilege, even if outvoted in a ‘democratic’ election? Though I do not for one minute approve, I can understand why the Bolsheviks behaved as they did… HG Wells imagined world government, and surely change would have to be planet-wide to address humanity’s problems, but I see no signs of that happening…

Currently then, I’m still stuck with my feeling that we are not a very intelligent species and that there is probably no way, at the moment anyway, of us all coming together to build a better world, without a great deal of violence… and that is a contradiction in terms. But Marx’s analysis makes sense to me, and until someone does better, it’s the best we have…

Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

Literature and terrorism

August 24, 2017

Recent events in Spain and else where turned my thoughts to this topic: pretty nearly everything in real life has been the subject of fiction at some point…

When I think about how terrorism has been portrayed in novels I’ve read, I instantly go to Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent is the best example I know. Written a century ago, it’s still a masterpiece of the suspense genre, as Conrad uses his technique of non-sequential narrative to great effect. So, from the outset we know there is a terrorist outrage in London, but we don’t know who carries it out, or the consequences, until much later in the book, and it’s the narrowing gap in our knowledge that draws us ineluctably and frighteningly forward. It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, so I won’t… but the interplay between the plotter and his wife is marvellous.

The time when Conrad was writing was the epoch of nihilism, as well as that of plots against the Russian monarchy, so terrorism and its consequences rears its head in other of his novels, too, perhaps most notably in Under Western Eyes. And Conrad’s attitude to terror and what it seeks to achieve seems to mirror ours today: the perpetrators are warped and deluded people, devoid of conscience and humanity, expecting their outrages to change people’s minds and bring about some kind of momentous change, which it never does: the innocent die and life goes on.

If our minds unconsciously turn to the Middle East when someone mentions terrorism, then perhaps we should go back further in time, reflecting on the Western interference in other nations’ affairs, which is allegedly the prime mover for many of today’s attacks. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, John Watson is an ex-army doctor who has served in Afghanistan and been invalided out because of an injury from a ‘Jezail bullet’. So we’ve been interfering in that country for a century and a half, and still haven’t learned our lesson. In Naguib Mahfouz‘ brilliant Cairo Trilogy, for a vast part of which we are unaware of British rule in Egypt, a demonstration against it suddenly intrudes with powerful and tragic consequences when the beloved son of the family is killed. Remind me again, exactly why the British were ruling Egypt?

A more modern example I’m aware of is in Michel Houellebecq‘s novel Platform when Islamic militants attack a holiday resort favoured by Westerners; Julian Barnes, in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, recalls an actual incident when hijackers took over a cruise ship in the 1970s 0r 1980s, I forget which…

I’ve mentioned before how much of the world that was open to us to travel in my younger years is now closed to us because of the risks and dangers: no more hitch-hiking along the hippy trail through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to India. And it’s rather more perilous for travel writers to make their way through such countries, too. Gone is the physically arduous but not politically risky travel of the 1930s; people still make their way through the territory, but always looking over their shoulder, aware of the possibility that some group may find their presence unwelcome and challenge it, or worse.

I know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place largely because we in the West think we have the right to do what we please where we please, economically and militarily; equally, it’s perfectly possible that if we weren’t behaving like this, maybe some other nation would. Lines we drew on maps over a century ago are still wreaking havoc on lives in the Middle East and by proxy here at home, and it seems to me that very few people are minded to ask the right questions about what should be done.

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

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