Keep Calm and Carry On

June 11, 2009

Keep Calm SignI recently purchased a new mobile phone; generally speaking, I’m not one of those people who needs to replace his handset more often than he replaces his socks. However, I managed to save a fair amount of money on my monthly bill in the process and thanks to its wi-fi connectivity, now I am never far away from the internet, which is a state that warms the cockles of my heart.

Still, switching over does raise problems; I think most phones are designed to come with wallpaper and ring tones that are destined to irritate the user. I won’t go into the horror of a snippet of D-grade sitar music that was supposed to pass for a message alert, nor will I describe the bland seascapes that the manufacturer apparently believed would have mass appeal. It is all engineered, perhaps, so that one is compelled to spend more money in order to get the phone’s aesthetics into a pleasing state. While ultimately this was not my selection, I did linger on one candidate for the wallpaper image: it was a reproduction of a famous British World War II poster which read simply, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

This motto has become ubiquitous as of late. Earlier this week, during another of my strolls across the campus, I saw a student wearing a t-shirt with precisely the same legend. In April, the Daily Telegraph revealed who the hardest working member of Parliament was: it was Philip Hollobone, MP for Ketttering. Perhaps strangely, his photo revealed that he had the exact same poster in his office. I’ve seen it in other offices; I’ve even seen it recast as a bumper sticker.

Given its prevalence, one wonders what is the source of its appeal. After all, we’re in an era in which such ideas are subsumed by the notion of taking another pill or doing bungee jumping as a remedy to all ills; we would rather pretend to leap to our deaths than simply to sit quietly and do nothing outrageous. Just “keeping calm and carrying on” in light of contemporary mores seems archaic, passe. Perhaps it is merely the force of nostalgia that gives it its potency. Way back in the day when such posters were there to encourage the British public to do its duty, all there was apart from the occasional pint of ale to swallow day-to-day woe was comforting words.

However, there is more continuity for “keeping calm and carrying on” than there is for modern hyperactivity. Even during the Seige of Harfleur in Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Henry tells his troops:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man. As modest stillness and humility…

These days, we expect a hero not to preach stillness of any kind; rather like Superman, Batman or the X-Men, immobility is reserved for moments of sleep; one is either up and about with the blood pumping, flinging oneself into action or shut down entirely. There is no halfway state, there is no pause for contemplation.

If we take the point of view of the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and suggest that symptoms are messages arising from the subconscious, we perhaps should take the new-found prevalence of “Keep Calm and Carry On” as the collective psyche trying to tell us something. We have been through a period in which hyperactivity has not only been proven to be out of character, but also it’s been shown to be dangerous. We have had bankers and traders working in the City of London on 24 hour schedules, tossing back caffiene as readily as they sucked up greed. We have had frenetic buying and selling of property, passing cash and deeds hand over fist. The London Underground has been packed with miserable travellers going back and forth to their jobs, pushing themselves onward, spilling out days until the brief respite of holidays. But those holidays too require bundling oneself onto a bus or train and then flying out to some hot country where one dances through the night till one chokes on alcoholic soft drinks. And now, even the Government seems to think that a period of modest stillness is unbecoming; in order to prove his worth, Gordon Brown feels the need to throw out initiatives (such as electoral reform) like birdseed, hoping that the public will peck at the miniscule morsels of change and find them to their liking.

But perhaps the answer to many of our problems lay in something in simple as “keeping calm and carrying on”. The economic crisis is not the end of the world: things will rise as well as fall. Be patient, be persistent, be not possessed by panic: keep calm and carry on. The political crisis will end one day, though perhaps in a way that is not to Labour’s liking. Labour, however should not try to compensate for a lack of popularity by being overexcitable. Keep calm, be deliberate, and carry on. On a more personal level, when one is faced with a breakup or personal crisis, the answer is not to be found in booze or nights out or wallowing in bad relationships. Let the tide roll in, let it roll out again. Keep calm and carry on. Not every day is meant to be filled with sunshine or success, nor are they meant to be filled with complete tragedy; as Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If” stated:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

In other words, no matter what, keep calm and carry on.

Perhaps the phone wallpaper, the MP’s office poster, the bumper sticker and the young man’s t-shirt indicate we’re more ready for this message than we have been for quite some time. No doubt when economic recovery comes, we will hear the refrains of “Happy Days are Here Again” accentuated with a techno beat and feel tempted to let the pulse race and the acid house dance of modern life continue apace. But this would be to ignore the lesson of our times, and to set ourselves up for yet another fall. It may be more dull to be self-contained, rational, and peaceful; however it was this attitude that got Britain through the extreme of a war. It would be wonderful if it could get us through the rigours of normality.

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Prime Minister Faustus

June 8, 2009

Doctor FaustusAs a supporter of the Green Party, the results of the Local and European elections have rather been like receiving the same birthday present for the second year running, with the exception of getting a nicer card to go with it; it’s an indication that one is more well regarded, but the overall utility of what one receives hasn’t altered. Caroline Lucas and Jean Lambert have been returned to their posts. Brighton and Oxford are apparently daubed in shades of the brightest Green. The wider European result is also reasonably positive: there are now 50 Green MEPs, 9 more than last time. This is good, but it isn’t having Rupert Read in Brussels, nor is it, regrettably, the triumph that would have accompanied the Green Party defeating the BNP in the North West region.

My initial thought as to why we didn’t do better harks back to the eternal contest between spinach and ice cream. Spinach is preferable to ice cream in nearly every way: it contains more minerals, vitamins and fibre. It’s healthy, wholesome and good for you. If you pan fry it lightly in olive oil and with a pinch of cumin or black pepper, it’s delicious too. However the average person, given the choice, will generally pick ice cream over even the best prepared leafy vegetable.

Similarly, the Green Party is filled with wholesome, decent, ethical people who believe in caring for the planet and others. There are likely more PhDs as a proportion of membership than in any other political party in the land. The policies put forward by the Green Party are well thought out, written clearly, and presented calmly. This is the Green Party’s greatest strength; however it’s the political equivalent of spinach, and it looks like in some regions that there was a greater appetite for the BNP’s greasy doner kebab which will now fester in the bowels of the body politic for 5 years.

As unenviable as this situation may sound, it is far worse for the Labour Party. It’s one thing to lose a straight fight with the Conservatives. It’s quite another to lose to the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party. It’s still another thing to lose Wales, something which hasn’t happened since 1918. At this point one should pause and take in the significance of this loss: Wales, with its heritage of coal mines, unions and Anuerin Bevan, the father of the National Health Service, is the receptacle of the Labour Party’s soul. Furthermore, it was not lost to say, Plaid Cymru, which was what had been expected, it was lost to a political party which carries the stain of being alien to Wales and responsible for its coal industry being destroyed.

Votes bled away even in places like Sunderland; if Labour couldn’t win there, they may as well collectively disappear into the proverbial quiet office with a loaded revolver and a bottle of whiskey. That said, in some places, Labour died altogether: they came in fifth place in the South East, and behind Mebyon Kernow (in 6th position) in Cornwall. If the voters felt the Green Party was altogether too nice and correct and thus did not take the party to their hearts, their emotion insofar as Labour is concerned is apparently raw hatred. They have kicked and beaten Labour, and left a flaming bag of dog excrement on their front step. I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who actively works for them; this must be the political equivalent of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, with the strains of “Siegfrieds Tod” rising in the background as Gordon Brown, ever more grey and worn, soldiers on. Worse, Peter Mandelson, now bloated with power, appears to be pulling the strings.

Indeed, for the average Labour activist, a few lines from Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” seem apropos:

Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Thinkst thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

In 1997, the Labour Party said “Things can only get better” and swept to victory on a wave of popular support. I recall the May evening in which Tory seats tumbled like dominoes, taking out long-term irritants like Michael Portillo and Neil Hamilton. Pictures beamed in from throughout the country showing rallies in which smiling young people were touched by that most precious of emotions, hope. Surely from the perspective of Labour activists, this was heaven, filled with joys that seemed eternal at the time. Now in such bitter circumstances, hell is not confined to a particular place, it is all around them; it manifests itself in unpopularity, derision, anger.

“Doctor Faustus” perhaps is also apropos in another way. When I look at Peter Mandelson, I can’t help but think of Mephistophilis, the demon who tempts Faustus to sign away his soul. Like Faustus, Gordon Brown has apparently become very dependent upon his dark arts-versed companion; according to the Jackie Ashley in the Guardian:

Most of these friends, however, complain that he (Brown) just refuses to listen to anyone now except Mandelson.

For the idle pleasure of 24 years of Mephistophilis’ service, Faustus sold his soul to Satan. Brown seems content to sign away his for much less: at best, 11 months of continuance in Downing Street. It is as if he is echoing Faustus in the final scenes, awaiting being dragged off to Hell:

Ah Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
Stand still you ever moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day, or let this hour be but a year,
A month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent, and save his soul.
O lente, lente, currite noctis equi:
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike.
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

I can imagine Brown staring at the clock in his office, watching its black hands move slowly across its white face. It’s easy to envisage him begging the seconds not to tick, the minutes not to pass, the hours not to turn, and the sun not to set, so that he can relish and luxuriate in the joy of being where he is. But time does move on, and Brown marches towards a fate perhaps worse than to die and go to hell: he may gain a reputation as a failure. Should this scenario occur, he will not be able do anything in the public sphere without the taint following him; for a man who sunk so much of his life into the achievement of ambition, this is a terrible destiny. However, this is almost inevitable now; perhaps this is the reason why he fights so desperately, a panic which again finds an echo in Faustus:

Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God.
No no, then will I headlong run into the earth;
Earth gape! O no, it will not harbour me.
You stars that reigned at my nativity,
Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,
Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist,
Into the entrails of yon laboring cloud,
That when you vomit forth into the air,
My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,
So that my soul may but ascend to heaven.

But plead as he might, Faustus is torn limb from limb; it is a morality play. Similarly, the dismemberment of the Labour Party continues apace, but the question of what next remains: it has been rent from Derbyshire and Staffordshire, severed from power in Lancashire, thoroughly humiliated in Scotland. At what point, Labour activists are entitled to ask, do we allow ourselves to be bound to Gordon Brown’s fate? It is a question that should echo in the country more widely. We are likely to see panicked policy intent on avoiding the yawning gap that lay before the Government, which cannot be good for the nation; when the country needs spinach, they may be about to serve another helping of populist ice cream in the hope that sugary taste of cheap policies will make them loved again. But the love like that they had in 1997 is not destined to return; it has disappeared underneath the steamroller of a bossy, nannying, bullying, bureaucratic government. Both Mephistophilis and Faustus went to hell and did not come out of it. The best Labour can do for us is to end this perdition as soon as possible.

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The Verdant Revolution

June 3, 2009

One of my favourite words is verdant. In order to spare any readers the agony of consulting a dictionary, the word is defined as:

1. green with vegetation; covered with growing plants or grass: a verdant oasis.
2. of the color green: a verdant lawn.
3. inexperienced; unsophisticated: verdant college freshmen.

Woods in SpringtimeAll three definitions are congruous with my university’s appearance and demeanour at the moment. Yesterday, amid the bright, late Spring sunshine, I walked between campuses along a woodland pathway; not so long ago, the bare trees were unable to filter out the grey, dim light of a winter sky. Now there were green leaves to act as a filter to the hot sun, and the scent of honeysuckle and the sounds of insects buzzing filled the air. Verdant.

Beyond the path, there was the campus common; exams are nearly done, and the students decided to have an impromptu festival on the lawn. Bottles of beer and cheap alcoholic cider were in evidence. Books were thrown aside, sunglasses donned. It’s unclear how many were first year, second year or third years, but they had a freshness which came from the belief that the highest obstacle of which they could conceive had just been overcome. Crack a bottle open, listen to music, lay out on the lawn, life is good, thank God that’s over with. Naive. Young. Verdant.

Tomorrow is full of verdant possibilities too. As anyone who has been following the news for the past month knows, we have endured a period of drudgery and muck. But at the same time, there have been undeniable benefits: there had been legitimate concern that Britain had been succumbing to the lethal poison of apathy. When no one longer cares about democracy, that is the moment when liberty ceases to exist; the bland, grey corporatism of New Labour had seemed precisely calibrated to smother any instinct for freedom with its technocratic rhetoric and its bureaucratic impulses. As nauseating as the expenses scandal has been, its stench has awoken the public to levels of political awareness that I haven’t seen in over 20 years of living here; we will find out in the local and European elections on Thursday what precisely this will bring. Will we enter a time that will be verdant with the same weeds of corruption which will continue to choke the system? Or will it be verdant with new strains of political extremism which may strangle the nation’s traditions of decency? Or will it be verdant in a new way, in which a thousand flowers of reform will bloom?

The latter path is the most fascinating one, if the most complex. However, there are signs that we may go precisely that way: for example, a ComRes poll indicates that the Green Party has hit 15%, overtaking the Liberal Democrats. While this poll may be an outlier, it does match up with personal experience; two weeks ago, I decided to go out for dinner at a local restaurant. As I waited for my order to arrive, the two women seated at the table across from mine began to discuss politics; they were both middle aged, and judging from the way they had been complaining about their employer over their drinks, I guessed they worked in an administrative capacity. They were understandably furious at the Government: phrases and words like “pigs in the trough” and “sleaze” were used with all the vehemence and frequency of machine gun fire. They debated for a while what they should do about it; voting was an absolute necessity, they decided. They discussed voting for the UK Independence Party. However, they felt that there was something not quite trustworthy about them either: given the UKIP MEPs who have been thrown out of the party for financial irregularities, they were correct. There was no chance they would vote for the BNP. One then said that the Greens were trustworthy; the other lady agreed. Their tandoori chicken arrived, covered in onions and sizzling in an iron skillet; it was perfectly understandable that they abandoned politics at that point.

I felt like saying something or buying them another round of lager, but I wasn’t sure if activism in a curry house was a good idea; after all, what would it say about the Green Party if its message was “Vote for us, have a beer”? I slightly raised my glass to them without their noticing it and settled back into thought. This was just one curry house in a prosperous corner of rural southern England on a sleepy Saturday evening. How many other such conversations were going on, I wondered, in other curry houses, or down at the pub, or over a family dinner? How many of the arguments, disagreements and discussions came to the same conclusion? Could it be that the polls are wrong and the results will be even more dramatic than can be presently foreseen?

Speak it softly, but perhaps we are witnessing a revolution. The old way has been conclusively proven to be bankrupt, and the common sense of this aged democracy is telling the citizenry to shed it for something better. The institutions’ ramparts are being stormed, not by men with chiselled jaws like one sees in old Soviet art, but by secretaries and call centre workers, car mechanics and bank clerks, plumbers and bricklayers. I suspect that the queues to the polling booths will be full of them tomorrow, who by their individual marks on ballots, will call time on our present epoch. I will join them, casting my vote for the Greens where I can, casting my vote for other reformers if that option is not available to me. Then I will go home, and settle into a deep night of waiting for events to unfold. It will likely be a long evening, but pregnant with possibility and thus unmissable: it could be that by the time the dawn comes, we will be set on a course which will deepen a revolution. The Prime Minister may finally realise that he is lingering idly in the corridors of power though power has deserted him, and having supped too long on the bitter meal of futility, he may finally stand aside to let the cleansing effect of revolution do its work. Or, he may continue to believe in the myth of his own indispensability and remain resolved to stay; in which case the pressure could build to exploding point, and the revolution will do its work anyway. Revolutions, like Spring, have their own logic which cannot be constrained nor fully tamed: life bursts out in all its multitude of forms, as do ideas. We are verdant with both this June; it’s exciting to be witness to it and even more exciting to take part.

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Stalinism in Red, White and Blue

June 1, 2009

Josef StalinLabour’s listing ship of state continues to suck up the attention of the British media. It’s rather peculiar; after talk of duck houses and digging out moats, one might think that there can’t be much further to go. Anything else should be superfluous, if not dull. Yet, it’s usually at this brink of tedium that another unforeseen outrage explodes across the front pages of the newspapers. Today, it’s the allegation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made expense claims he shouldn’t have: this is an unacceptable paradox for a man who is charged with managing the nation’s finances.

The saga was infused with a further frisson of negative energy by Gordon Brown’s indifferent performance on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show. He talked far too much, appeared to lack any sense of inner discipline, and he managed to reveal some rather disturbing character traits. For example, he made it plain that even if the Cabinet told him to go, he wouldn’t. He also said that the expenses scandal offended his “Presbyterian morals”; though by rights the scandal should offend any coherent system of ethics, whether Presbyterian, Jewish, Hindu or Zoroastrian.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Thanks to Gordon Brown and his Keystone Cops administration, one of the more important stories out of America has been obscured: yesterday, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor in Kansas, was assassinated by a gunman named Scott Roeder. Dr. Tiller’s speciality was performing late term abortions, a practice which he vigorously defended to the end.

What is particularly disturbing about this incident is not just how heated the matter of abortion has become in America, it is the moral system that is being utilised in finding solutions to society’s ills. This is perhaps one area that Britain, as damaged as the political culture has been in recent weeks, is doing rather better than its trans-Atlantic counterpart; at least the ethos here hasn’t descended in some quarters into a form of Stalinism. Indeed, Stalinist ideas appear to be pervasive in America despite President Obama’s efforts to remedy the issue.

This statement should be made with a caveat: when I say “Stalinism”, I am not referring to some masturbatory right wing fantasy in which the President refashions himself as some “Great Leader” in the Kim Jong Il mode. Nor do I refer to neo-con paranoid dreams about Democratic economic policies that involve the state squashing private initiative in the name of central planning. I refer to something far more basic within Stalin’s philosophical mindset and far more insidious; allegedly, he once stated to his henchmen: “When a man is dead, he is no longer a problem”.

Of course, Americans would never consciously refer to Stalin in such a manner. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Karl Marx is right about one thing: the operation of an ideology requires that we do things without knowing we do them. This statement appeared in Marx’s “Das Kapital”, in a chapter which described the functioning of our economic relations: when we assign a value to a particular good and we work in a certain way, we adhere to a particular set of norms without thinking about it. This is evidenced in something as simple as the man who wakes up, gets dressed, buys a newspaper and sits at his desk and works on desgning widgets all day. His actions support the existing capitalist superstructure in satisfying his individual wants and needs, but he doesn’t know that he does it. It is only when we are exposed to the dynamics of philosophy or political economy that we start to become aware of these processes and question whether they are just.

Many Americans do Stalinism, but they don’t know they do it. They have no idea that they’re invoking old Uncle Joe whenever they say that the solution to a problem is merely to get rid of whoever is supposedly perpetrating it. Is Iraq building weapons of Mass Destruction? Blow them up; when a man is dead, he is no longer a problem. Is North Korea threatening its neighbours? Bomb them; when Kim Jong Il is eliminated, he will no longer present a danger. Is an abortion doctor creating an atmosphere in which tiny babies are being destroyed? Shoot him; if he’s blown away, he can no longer harm anyone.

Reason and history should indicate that purposeful annihilation of other human beings is a terrible means with which to try and solve problems. Stalin attempted to liquidate the kulaks (“rich peasants”) as a class, in order to make collectivisation work; the result was famine and an agricultural sector that never was able to supply the needs of the Soviet Union’s people. Shattering Iraq has led a body count of thousands of American troops, billions of dollars spent, and an unknown price tag yet to come in terms of regional instability, shattered lives, and the burning up of American credit. If North Korea is destroyed, what will happen to the starving people there? What will occur if they run across the border to China or to South Korea? Even the extreme anti-abortionists have managed to score an own-goal with shooting Dr. Tiller: surely they must know now that their activities will be policed more heavily by Homeland Security, and indeed, they have forfeited much credit in the court of public opinion.

However the ideology continues to permeate downward, seeping out of the halls of government and the camps of political activism into the darkest recesses of the mentally disturbed. One of the most troubling aspects of the Virginia Tech shootings was how the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, had cold bloodedly determined to go on the rampage in eliminating his classmates; when his peers (or “snobs” as he called them) were dead, they would no longer be able to torment him, he thought. This was the paradigm in action even within the depths of pathological behaviour.

The question remains as to how this red, white and blue Stalinism took root. I can’t help but recall Stephen Fry’s recent documentary which followed him through all fifty states. In Massachusetts, he stopped off for tea at the residence of a Harvard Professor of Divinity, who stated that Americans dislike complexity, even if an intricate answer was more interesting than a simple one. Stalinism has a brutal efficiency in its logic: it states the way to the promised land is paved with the bodies of society’s enemies. There is also a certain pioneer rapaciousness in its assumption that the end justifies the means. But complexity and truth dictate that a moral result cannot be achieved through an amoral method; human beings possess nuance and spirit which defies even the most brutal repression, which is why the Hungarians revolted against Soviet domination in 1956, Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest in 1968, the Poles rose up in the 1980’s, and why Communism was eventually toppled. Stalin’s immediate successors in the Kremlin were not immune to such impulses either; I recall visiting the graves along the Kremlin wall during my first visit to Russia in 1994. Eventually, my Russian guide and I came across Stalin’s tomb. It featured a stern-looking bust of the dictator which rested atop what I assume was a granite plinth. My Russian guide then informed me that Krushchev had Stalin’s coffin buried, and then had the grave filled in with cement.

“Why?” I asked.

“To prevent him from rising again, I think. Superstition.”

I noticed, however, that someone had laid a fresh bouquet of red flowers at the base of the marker. The body may not be able to arise, but the poison still flows through the veins of Russia, of Asia, and of the West. We continue to do it, but we mostly don’t know that we do it. We glorify violent solutions in both public policy and video games. Our notions of power and strength are more tied up with the ability to kill rather than the ability to think. We operate like puppets bound to strings in the performance of the ideology. We were told by the Bolsheviks that this was justified in the name of their Revolution, we are told by some of the minions of the far right that violence is justified in the name of the American Revolution, citing Thomas Jefferson’s importunate quote that the “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

However, this interpretation strikes a discordant note. The American Revolution (or War of Independence), for example, was actually a case of thought being more important than violence. The colonists repeatedly petitioned the British government for redress of grievances; armed conflict only occurred after the British government decided to use force. Note the inversion: taking up arms was not the first resort of the revolutionaries, but rather their last response to military coercion; furthermore, it was the complex, yet startling ideas that gave the Revolution its force, not a macho fantasy of mowing down redcoats. George Washington has somehow been swapped for Rambo and Stalin since that time.

We’re not immune in Britain either; after the victory at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was quoted as saying that saddest thing other than a battle lost, is a battle won. The same understanding of the tragedy of violence has faded. We have followed, albeit reluctantly, yanked along our puppet strings into many of the same cultural and political morasses. Perhaps the only shield against abject surrender has been the inherent scepticism inherent in Britain’s culture. This creates conditions by which the marionetteer is looked for, and the constraints are observed and loosened. Total freedom from such attachments is perhaps a fantasy for any society; so long as one nation remains bound by the ideology of violence, it is likely that all others will need to have a response ready. However knowing the poison is there is a prelude to a search for the antidote.

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Review: “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Joseph Fiennes

May 31, 2009

Joseph Fiennes as CyranoIt’s atypical to write a review of a play after it closes: perhaps such an item bears closer resemblance to an epitaph. However, it’s impossible for me to let a production of Cyrano de Bergerac to pass unnoticed.

I admit this is partially due to the fact that I am a Cyrano aficionado: this work has been an obsession of mine since an early age. I have several versions of the original and its translations, most of which were bought on sojurns to Paris; perhaps my most proud possession is a 1964 American hardback edition, which contains engraved prints of the various tableaux. I purchased it at a venerable place as well, namely, the Shakespeare Book Store near Notre Dame, which is where Ernest Hemingway bought his books.

I am compelled also, perhaps, because productions of Edmund Rostand’s classic are rare. There are good reasons for this; first, the running time of the play is in excess of 3 hours. The role of Cyrano is extremely taxing as a result: the sheer amount of verse that an actor has to memorise and portray with feeling is enormous. Furthermore, if it’s done in any other language besides French, it simply does not possess all of the author’s intent or meter. This issue is particularly troublesome as the play is comprised entirely of rhyming couplets. A good example of the problem arises from Cyrano’s “duelling poem”: in French, its refrain reads, “A la fin de l’envoie je touche!“. Its English counterpart, “At the end of the poem, I hit”, lacks a certain poetry, if not panache (a word imparted to the English language by Cyrano). Still, there are a few good English versions available, in particular the Anthony Burgess variant; however, for every Burgess, there are several that should be readily discarded.

That said, there is another, perhaps greater difficulty with Cyrano: it’s rare to see a man and a role match in a way that could be described as sublime, but just such an event occured when Gerard Depardieu donned the nose, cape and sword in the 1990 film version. Any other actor that wishes to take up the part has to do so in the shadow of that magnificent performance.

However, the play runs a risk of obsolescence if it remains trapped within the confines of a 19 year old French movie. The Chichester Festival Theatre run, limited as it was to just over three weeks, presented an opportunity for the work’s revival, particularly as Joseph Fiennes was selected for the lead role.

Fiennes is best known as a film actor; he has portrayed Shakespeare in the film “Shakespeare in Love” and Sir Robert Dudley in “Elizabeth”. However, he has recently returned to his Royal Shakespeare Company and Old Vic roots, and has stated he is more comfortable on stage than on the silver screen. Despite his excellent credentials, I was somewhat concerned about Fiennes’ suitability for the part, particularly as I was uncertain he could summon the primal force that Depardieu so readily accessed. In short, to make a mark in my recollections, this edition was going to have to rise above everything else I had absorbed.

Early signs were promising: as the lights went down, I noticed that the production utilised the limited space of Chichester Festival Theatre in a way that was refreshing and clever. The world of Cyrano and the audience were jutxaposed, with characters milling about the theatre as if 2009 and 1640 lay side by side without touching each other. This had the effect of making the audience more than mere spectators. We were locked in the play’s action, part of the scenery.

The play begins, appropriately enough, in the audience pit of a theatre. While the other characters were compelling, from the very first mention of Cyrano, we are anxiously awaiting his arrival. In the 1990 film, Cyrano stormed in with a violent outburst. In this play, his entrance was more of a contemptuous saunter. Fiennes rightly decided to be his own Cyrano, and while there was a few moments of adjustment on my part to the new parameters of the character, his portrayal was no less heartfelt or accurate. Depardieu’s Cyrano is the warrior, whose tough exterior belies the poet. Fiennes’ is the poetic Cyrano, who has a surprising capacity with the blade; Fiennes’ facility with the sword, even two swords at once, is impressive.

Beyond swordplay, however, “Cyrano de Bergerac”, above all things, is about blindness. Cyrano is blind to how easily love could come to him. The object of his affections, Roxanne, cannot see where love truly lies. I have read a preface to one version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” which stated Roxanne is a “silly little fool”; yet, without a Roxanne that a man of refinement and wit like Cyrano could potentially love, the drama loses much of its potency. Alice Eve in the Chichester production is perhaps the definitive Roxanne. She loves words and philosophy, but at the same time is more moved by the handsome face of Cyrano’s rival Christian than by Cyrano’s bravery and intellect. She is petulant, yet pretty, pretentious, yet sincere. In contrast, Christian, as played by Stephen Hagan, is a convincing dullard: the addition of a West Country rural accent to his character was a clever choice.

However, the play hinges on how much pain Cyrano can summon out of his predicament: here Fiennes rises to the challenge. His tears of loneliness are convincing, as is his lofty rhetoric when he allows his heart to soar. Perhaps the most successful scene is the play’s most bittersweet: Roxanne meets with Christian, and due to his stupidity, it is an encounter that turns sour. Cyrano, donning Christian’s cape and hat, then speaks to Roxanne from the darkness below her balcony, assuming the young man’s identity. He then pours out the contents of his heart to her, using words to say more than words could say; at this critical juncture, we need to feel Cyrano’s frustration at his inability to bend language to love’s purposes in the way he would like. Yet the emotion and the words are effective, and they move Roxanne to proclaim her love…for Christian. Cyrano’s suffering at having “laid the banquet”, yet remaining unable to enjoy the feast as Christian then does, is expertly done too; I must admit that hot tears welled up in my eyes.

The second act is also a great challenge. It takes place at the siege of Arras, in which Cyrano and his band of Gascony cadets are facing a vastly superior Spanish force. To make this scene work, we must have a sense of desperation, hunger and misery. This was done, in spite of the stage’s limitations; the costumes, make up, and even the spare lighting were perfect. The only way it could have been more convincing is if they had scattered dirt on the ground. However, this scene does expose one weakness of the production: there is a lengthy battle scene, during which there is a great deal of musket fire. While the noise is realistic, it is excessive, and not necessarily conducive to the play’s purposes apart from masking a large scene change in the background.

The final tableaux takes place many years later, and again it is an opportunity for Cyrano to shine. He is literally dying, and yet has a final chance to tell Roxanne the chapter and verse of all his grand emotion as his life ebbs away. Fiennes makes us believe he is on his way out, he has lost everything, but it is only love that matters…apart from his panache. At that point, tears did flow, followed by a moment of utter quietude. It took the audience a second or two to realise there should be a storm of applause.

Afterwards, I headed home, haunted by the poetry and the sad thought that I had just seen something that too few people have seen. There is no indication that the production is moving on to another theatre or another town. What has been done may lie buried; perhaps this review merely preserves a memory. But I hope that there are enough comments out there, enough affection and enough demand that another revival of this quality could one day emerge.

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Happy Birthday, Charles II

May 29, 2009

Charles III heard on radio this morning that today, May 29, is the anniversary of the birth and accession to the throne of Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1660 and 1685. In this instance, the mention was just a preface to playing a piece of music from the period; however, I had to smile. As a writer and an amateur historian, I have a rather special relationship with this king. Also, while I am generally no big fan of royalty or the institution of monarchy, I do have reasons to have sympathy for Charles.

It is a strange coincidence that I had been thinking about him recently. I use an exercise bike in the evenings, and in order to distract myself from the intense pain that this sometimes causes, I put on a DVD. This week, I had chosen a BBC miniseries about Charles II, without any conscious realisation of this day’s importance. As I sweated, toiled and suffered I was able at least to enjoy Rupert Graves’ sensitive portrayal of a complex man who seemed to have virtue and vice in equal measure. There are points in the programme where one cheers, such as when he defends religious toleration; other parts, such as when he gives in to the insane demands of his advisors and his mistresses, have all the allure of witnessing a giant car accident.


I have other reasons to recollect Charles II from time to time; the first piece I submitted for my Master’s degree course in Creative Writing was entitled “The Court Poet”, and told the story of a bard who had been hired by this monarch. While it was an amateurish effort on my part, it was a point of departure for all my writing afterwards; I was particularly proud of how I had captured the character of Charles’ famously boistrous mistress, Nell Gwynne. For example, after the poet presented his credentials to the king, Nell interjected: “He’s sweet. Are we keeping him?”

It was not until this morning, however, that I found out for quite how many writers, playwrights and poets for whom Charles also represented a beginning. I was previously aware that Charles tore off the constraints on theatre which had been imposed by Oliver Cromwell, his dictatorial and Puritan predecessor; indeed, during Charles’ reign, women were allowed on the stage for the first time. However, it was also said on the radio that he that created the post of Poet Laureate, a position he gave to the accomplished and inspiring John Dryden. Truly, Charles’ Restoration saw a rebirth in the arts, a revolution that perhaps secured Britain’s reputation as a centre of culture. This is a pride of place the nation holds to this day. In other words, I and every other writer, musician and artist in this country, owe him a debt of gratitude.

Despite the sometimes uneven nature of his reign, there is much to learn from his political philosophy as well. One of the first reasons why I felt obliged to write about him was the discovery of his creed, which in some respects mirrors my own: according to the historian Antonia Fraser, his earliest tutors advised that he should be sceptical and moderate, and to be suspicious of ideologues. This was rare advice given the period in which he lived; his was a time in which oscillating between extremes seemed to be the norm. The Tudors, the predecessors to the Stuarts, had put England through periods of rampant Protestantism and heretic-burning Catholicism before settling on middle-way Elizabeth. James I, the first Stuart king which followed Elizabeth’s reign, was a middle-way Protestant, but his son, Charles I, was so determined to impose High Church Anglican religious harmony on the entire British Isles that he managed to provoke a civil war, which ended with him with having his head chopped off. Charles II’s brother, James, later James II, also had problems with extremes: he was a Catholic, and couldn’t stop himself from flaunting his faith to a nation that had reached a more-or-less Protestant settlement. James II was dumped by Parliament and the Dutchman William of Orange in 1688, in what later became known as the “Glorious Revolution”.

Charles II, in contrast, radiated good sense. He was pragmatic when he needed to be: in order to gain the throne, he was willing to cut a deal with the Scots and convert to the Presbyterian creed. This deal fell through, however.

After he was restored (thanks to the chaos left behind by Cromwell’s death), he had Catholics in his government; perhaps this may have been because he was la closet Catholic, he certainly converted to to the faith on his deathbed. That said, during his reign he remained a Protestant king; he understood that ideology should end where good governance began. As such, his overall emphasis was on religious toleration; he had little patience for rabble rousers like Titus Oates. He also acted as if he didn’t quite believe in the fire and brimstone that the religion of the age seemed to summon at every possible instance; while the BBC miniseries is just a drama, it is telling that one of its most effective passages occurs after the Black Death has struck London in 1666. A representative of the city comes to visit Charles in Oxford and informs him of the widespread belief that somehow the vistation of the disease is due to the immorality of Charles’ court. Charles replies, “Curious then that we continue as gaily as we have before, meanwhile it is the poor people of London who are dying.” I have no idea if he said these exact words; however the point is, given his track record, it sounds like something he would say.

The other appealing aspect to his character is his mercy. The country was in sympathy with him upon his restoration; he could have used this in order to gain a greater measure of revenge on those responsible for executing his father and depriving him of the throne. Indeed, there was a list of 50 people who were purposefully excluded from Charles’ amnesty; however, out of these, only 9 were executed. The rest were merely imprisoned or simply excluded from office. “Blood lust”, another feature of the age, was simply not part of his character.

There is a downside to Charles, however: while he was moderate in many respects, he did believe in the absolute authority of the monarchy. He dismissed Parliament in 1679. He was also less than honest: he signed secret treaties with France, and took Louis XIV’s money to help sustain his reign. His ideological suppleness was interpreted negatively by wits of the age, including John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester:

God bless our good and gracious king,
Whose promise none relies on;
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

But having heard this, Charles’ response was not to get angry, but to reply:

That is true; for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.

It’s difficult to be too harsh towards someone who possessed so much candour and good humour. However, apart from fits of Restoration revivals and the occasional documentary or miniseries, mentions of Charles II are limited in comparison to those of Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria or Henry VIII. One can understand the emphasis on Elizabeth, given how she led the country into a prosperous age and was key to defeating the Spanish Armada of 1588. However, Henry VIII was a syphilitic wastrel who bankrupted the country; he dragged the nation into Protestantism only to get money by raiding Church property and to have more chances of fathering a son with a greater variety of women. Queen Victoria had a lot of children, and for good or ill, thus managed to perpetuate the same genes throughout most of the royal families of Europe; in terms of actual progress, however, much of that died with her husband the Prince Consort Albert. After Albert departed, Victoria succumbed to ceaseless and petulant mourning; the monarchy had to be pushed back into public affections by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. In contrast, Charles II seems unpretentious, quick witted, aware, and astute; he is definitely not getting the prominence he deserves, nor the recognition he should receive from those involved in cultural pursuits. So perhaps it falls to me, as one of his few open admirers, to raise a glass on this day and say heartily: wherever you are, Happy Birthday, your Majesty.

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The Case Against Starbucks Capitalism

May 28, 2009

A Cup of CoffeeI don’t like Starbucks. But then again, I know what real coffee should taste like.

After I graduated from University with Honours in 1994, I was given a vacation in Kenya as a reward. I remember the morning after I arrived in Nairobi: the hotel’s dining room was painted a bright yet mild yellow, and was bathed in a golden equatorial sunlight that filtered in through a set of French doors. Coffee was brewing in a large copper and brass contraption that sat next to my table. It steamed and puffed like an old fashioned locomotive, churning and percolating its magic brew. When the cup was brought to me, I immediately got a blast of rich coffee scent. Intoxicating. I lifted the cup and took a sip.

There are some coffee snobs who compare the flavour of the beverage to wine in terms of complexity and depth; this was the sole instance in my lifetime in which the metaphor seemed justified. My eyes flew wide open and my mouth was awash with fresh tastes which hinted at chocolate, whiskey and a touch of vanilla. I sucked it down in one gulp and asked for another, and then another. This proved to be a mistake: the coffee fresh from a Kenyan plantation proved to have more caffiene than its stale, supermarket-bought counterpart. Fortunately, as a newly minted graduate, my over-exhuberance could be written off as a natural result of completing my course of study.

Starbucks, in comparison to that seductive Nairobi brew, tastes scorched beyond all recognition. I am reminded of how Bell Irwin Wiley wrote in his seminal work about the typical Confederate soldier, “The Life of Johnny Reb”, how sometimes the greycoats were obliged to burn peanuts to create a coffee substitute. Starbucks coffee tastes engineered to make one demand either a sweet pastry or sugary syrup to counteract its bitterness. On those rare occasions where there is no other alternative, I drink it, but with extreme reluctance.

Beyond providing a bad cup of coffee, however, Starbucks also provides an interesting example which shows much of what afflicts Western capitalism. The term “casino capitalism” has been used to describe the behaviour of the financial services industry. This phrase is accurate and illustrative: banks “bet” large sums of money on high risk investments, rather like a down and out gambler in Vegas taking another chance at the craps table; the difference being, of course, that the banks were using other people’s money rather than their own.

But what of the rest of the economy? What of the Wal Marts, McDonalds, Tescos and yes, Starbucks? Surely they do not fit the same “casino capitalist” mould – after all, many of these firms are still making money and they’re not directly “laying bets”. However, just because they are profitable doesn’t mean they’re not doing damage. Indeed, by looking in more detail at Starbucks rise, and subsequent problems, we can see many of the issues they create.

Starbucks began in 1971; at first, it was not a cafe. Rather, it sold coffee beans from a small outlet located in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. It was a rather bohemian enterprise; it had been founded by two teachers and a writer. In 1982, they changed emphasis and began to sell brewed coffee as well as beans. In 1987, the business was bought by the coffee shop chain Il Giornale, which subsequently changed its name to “Starbucks”. Since that time, it has been on a path of relentless expansion, putting outlets in places as far afield as Hong Kong. It later struck a deal with the book chain Barnes & Noble to provide coffee in its establishments, and has been doing so ever since.

We can see an arc in operation here: first, there was a small, local business, which was there to provide a decent living for its owners and to provide for local needs. Then, it was picked up by a larger company, which utilised its brand and humble origins to market a fantasy: namely, that each branch of a mass chain is somehow replicating the spirit, if not the intent, of the original. It then continues to penetrate the market to saturation point, even going so far as to infiltrate other large chains to spread its influence. But what is lost in the process is the dynamics which drove the success of the original: people liked the original Starbucks because they knew the owners and the owners knew their customers. The relationship meant that quality products were supplied. Because Starbucks is now a giant corporation, by definition it lacks the intimacy to maintain that link to the customer: rather, it is using its vast network to define what a cup of coffee should be. This is an inversion of Adam Smith’s ideas about capitalism; he stated in the Wealth of Nations that the invisible hand of individual needs and aspirations would drive the satisfaction of those demands by a responsive business sector; what he did not fully foresee, nor could fully foresee given his context, was a scenario in which companies had sufficient power to dictate what customers want and what they receive.

Indeed, Starbucks has been very aggressive, particularly in the United States, in obliterating alternative definitions of coffee. On visits to America, I have witnessed the curious phenomenon of seeing Starbucks very closely placed together: in less than one square mile, I saw four. Two were on the same block; albeit, one was inside a Barnes and Noble. The sole alternative within this area of suburban New York was a Dunkin Donuts: yet another chain, although it is not precisely competing in the same sector as Starbucks, which is apparently going for more “aspirational” customers.

In the process of destroying its heritage, Starbucks has attracted criticism along the way. Fair trade coffee only represents a portion of its offering, thus they help perpetuate the production of non-fair trade coffee and the poor working conditions this entails. A Starbucks in Beijing’s “Forbidden City” was closed in July 2007, due to Chinese objections: they felt that the company represented a divergence from the nation’s customs and heritage. Unions have had reason to complain as well; for example, in March 2008, Starbucks was ordered to pay $100 million in back tips to its employees, which the company had originally paid to shift supervisors.

However, all this grasping and expansion has led to an end nearly as bitter as the coffee they sell. In July 2008, Starbucks was forced to announce the closure of 600 of its outlets, due to oversupply. However, perversely, Starbucks has made it very difficult for another firm like its original self to emerge from the wreckage. The two primary losers are those who work at Starbucks as they will find their skills in a state of oversupply as well, and the customer, who will continue to be pushed a (purposefully?) inferior product.

If this phenomenon was merely confined to hot drinks, we probably could rest more easily. However, we see this scenario also when Tescos or other large supermarket chains push out the local butcher or green grocer. We also witness this process in operation when Wal Mart kills the local department store, and McDonalds knocks out the family diner. We lose quality, we lose locality, and we lose sensitivity, all in the name of brand status or price. It’s regrettable now that one can’t wander to Pike Place Market and find three idealistic entrepreneurs offering their roasted coffee. It’s lamentable one can’t drive to Vermont and find two hippies in a shed mixing their ice cream with care and creating batches of sweet creamy goodness of which no two will taste precisely the same. Perhaps the most damaging illusion that corporations sell us is that we can have this and even be environmentally friendly and ethical, despite the fact that their wares are mass produced and marketed.

Government can help, of course. It can change its policy mix to favour small businesses, and enforce tougher social responsibility and environmental legislation. However, it will lie with us, the consumer, to do something which doesn’t come naturally: embracing the inconvenient. We will have to go further to find the small local butcher, or visit the diner, or buy that individual mug of Joe. If we don’t, government measures will fail, as money will continue to invigorate the Starbucks of this world. If consumer behaviour does change, however, it may be possible to see a day bathed in less than equatorial sunshine where a cup of coffee can bring a smile to one’s lips rather than a wince and a poke in one’s conscience.

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The British National Party Replies

May 27, 2009

British National Party Salute72 hours after I posted an item in which I accused the British National Party of treason, I have received 3 items which heartily disagree with my views. I am rather disappointed. I thought that having poked the BNP with a stick, there would be a lot more squealing.

What is particularly interesting about these three items is that they all have a familiar echo; I’ve seen much the same said at other websites, with just a few changes in word order or emphasis. It would not surprise me, given how inarticulate the average British National Party member seems to be, if there was a document which provided a standard set of responses to posts like mine. That said, a public service may be achieved by repeating them here: at least the propaganda gurus down at BNP headquarters might realise they need to come up with something new. Being wrong is one thing, being dull is quite another; the pro-BNP responses I’ve received managed to be both.

The first bit of “diss mail” comes from someone who identifies himself as Colin Davies. He writes:

I think that you are totally miguided by the BNP priorities. It is ok for the likes of you to accept all immigration from Europe Asia and the rest of the would as most of these people would like to kill our Queen and are traitors. I as now have always opposed entry into the EU from the 1970’s and my grandfather fought for the likes of you to be able to live in a free country. But he fought to free us from German occupation in WW1. Now we are being infested by people from abroard who take British jobs and our benefits. Keep Britain British and our defenders like the Ghurkas who will defend who system not try to bomb it. If we were striker on immigration the London bombings etc would not have happened. I can only hope that your family are a not a victim of terrorist attacks before you come to your senses.

This post is a good example of how the BNP substitutes paranoia and phony history for reason and fact. First and foremost, the idea that “most” immigrants want to kill the Queen is patently absurd; it is a “fact” for which there is no proof. Indeed, the vast majority of migrants to this country work, pay taxes and live quietly. Given the security lapses around Her Majesty, if Mr. Davies was correct, surely she would have been killed already. The numbers he suggests make it logically impossible for it to be otherwise.

Now let’s deal with his assertion that his forebears fought for liberty; as I have previously mentioned in my blog, my forebears did their bit too. However, the idea that what they fought for in World War II is preserved by an ideology whose heritage lies with the people they fought against is patently ridiculous. It may be worth recalling how the most visible symbol of the resistance to fascism during World War II, Winston Churchill, felt about Hitler. He stated this clearly in a speech to the Allied delegates in June 1941:

…nothing is more certain that every trace of Hitler’s footsteps, every stain of his infected, corroding fingers will be sponged and purged and, if need be, blasted from the surface of the earth.

The British National Party, perversely, has tried to claim Churchill as one of their own; however, Churchill’s own grandson has labelled this hijacking as “disgusting”. Just so.

In short, Mr. Davies’ missive is a crude appeal to patriotism and shame. It’s trying to substitute emotion for facts; such an exchange is not a particular tradition of these Isles.

The next piece of negative commentary which flowed my way came from a Dennis Whiting:

If the BNP is racist” (that weasel word!) then the whole of our British literature and culture is “racist”. Shakespeare in Henry V saw the Englishman as distinct from the Scotsman the Irish man and the Welshman and certainly from the French foe. Why then today is it impermissible to see the Englishman as distinct from the Pakistani the black African or the Chinaman? G..K. Chesterton hit the nail on the head when he wrote in his poem The Secret People
“But we are the people of England and we have not spoken yet”
It is unfortunate if the BNP in our attempt to play the demeaning party political game come across as a bit vulgar and strident, but we have a lot to be strident about! And incidently that dismal clown Gordon Brown stole the slogan BRITISH JOBS FOR BRITISH WORKERS from us, not the other way round.

This has a number of false assertions to begin with – first and foremost, racism is not the same as identifying a place of origin. What is racist, however, is to discriminate against someone because of where they come from. Furthermore, it is also racist to exclude someone from the national community on the basis of their place of origin, or indeed, where their parents or grandparents came from. Mr. Whiting, it would seem, would like to salve whatever passes for his conscience by bandaging it with Shakespeare’s text.

As for “vulgar and strident”: this is not how the British National Party “comes across”, vulgar ideas on racial superiority were part and parcel of the founding ideology of its predecessor, the British Union of Fascists. Vulgar ideas which prejudge Muslim citizens are inherent in the BNP’s present creed. Furthermore, one can’t come across as more “strident” than by being a paramilitary organisation, as the BUF was; it is also telling that the modern BNP have attacked anti-racist demonstrations, such as in Hull, last December. Such “stridency” is not just immoral and undemocratic, it’s illegal.

The final bit of post was sent by a respondent who calls himself by the curious moniker of “Decent” and hails from Australia. He wrote the following:

You may harp and whine over the BNPs pedigree[which is rather horrid], you may waste away the hours on your imagined steady ground of a cultural “Britishness” that cannot exist when the people who made that culture die out, but in the end you cannot do anything to stop what is coming.

And thanks to people like yourself the BNP probably cant either.

Because for all its faults both real and imagined its the only group in the UK who seems the slightest bit interested in representing the indigenous population.

And before you carp on about the “nation of immigrants” rubbish the last major population transfer to the UK was some 1400 years ago, if this does not qualify as “indigenous” then neither do the Maori of New Zealand, and I dare you to argue that with them.

The Indigenous population of the UK will be replaced, and the culture of openess and tolerance you seem to worship will die out with them, currently the only contender to form the next culture of the British ilses (sic) is Islam, I hope you live long enough to realise just how very wrong the choice you have made was.

While I commend him for realising the history of the BNP is horrible, the author of this missive has a rather curious manner in responding to a post which he says is “harping and whining”; the same accusation could be legitimately levelled at him.

In any event, he (purposefully?) ignored the history that I laid out before him: that Britain was made by waves of immigration, sometimes mass immigration, and its culture now was realised through an eventual working through the event with the new arrivals. For all his concerns that British culture is being somehow “swamped”, which is rather curious considering his distance from it, he has failed to learn its cardinal lesson: Britain is a flexible, adaptable country that evolves over time, and gets ever richer in its heritage as time goes on. The United Kingdom is not alone in this, in fact, no culture is ever set in stone: trying to harp back to some mythical golden age is unfounded, because it never existed. The Saxons weren’t happy about the arrival of the Normans either, and unlike the recent arrivals, the Normans carried all before them by use of the sword. Some immigrants will bring downsides with them; there is no denying this. However, plenty of “native” citizens have downsides too: if he doesn’t believe this, he should see what happens outside some of the pubs in London after 11 PM on a Saturday. To hit on race and ethnicity as the central problem of the age is to ignore and obscure the main problems that face society such as poverty, education and law enforcement; far from helping, embracing the BNP would accelerate the decline, because their priorities would distract from actually doing any good. Furthermore, they would stigmatise a large portion of society, at a time when the emphasis should be on pulling together. Finally, catering to a simplistic prejudice is not how a civilised society operates, nor is compromising its morals; indeed, if we surrender to the BNP approach, we give up one of the principal achievements of Western society, namely, a consciousness of when it does wrong and ought to do better.

I have no doubt other such messages will come my way. However, if they merely repeat the same themes, they will not be worth repeating here.

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Education, Education, Education

May 26, 2009

I’m not a big fan of Georg Friedrich Handel’s operas. For those who aren’t familiar with his favoured genre, baroque opera, the music contained therein usually has two modes: recitativo and aria. Arias are the actual “songs”, while recitativo is dialogue which is sung in a somewhat staccato manner. The latter, particularly if it’s in a language I don’t speak (usually Italian), gets somewhat irritating after a while.

That said, I recently encountered a piece which was an exception to the rule. BBC Radio 3 has been running a season of Handel’s works, and in order to fill the schedule, they have had to dig deep into the archive. The process of excavation led to the discovery of a gem: “Admeto, re di Tessaglia”. I switched on about halfway through; listening to Radio 3 is part of my homeward bound routine and the opera kept me company in the car. In Act 2, Scene 6, there was an aria entitled “Da tanti affanni oppressa”, sung by the soprano Jill Gomez, which is a little over seven minutes of musical ecstasy: the instrumental portions and the Ms. Gomez’s voice combined to create an emotional churn which almost moved me to tears. It also nearly made me drive into the divide in the middle of the dual carriageway.

Jill Gomez: "Da tanti affanni oppressa" from Handel's "Admeto"

Fortunately, I arrived safely at home. However, I have since reflected on why the aria was able to move me so deeply. After all, it was first performed in January 1727, and thus was about as far removed from my cultural milieu as it could possibly be. But the same could be said about much of the music I admire: if asked to name what’s on my iTunes playlist, I would generally indicate classical composers, ranging from Beethoven to Bruckner. This appreciation has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Slavoj Zizek reminded us in his documentary, “A Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema” that desire isn’t natural, it’s taught: I only know what I want because I have learned to want it. But from where did this education come? Surely it wasn’t just my parents, although my father has a love of classical music, his focus has generally been the works of Verdi and Puccini. My mother too likes the genre, but her interest is mostly limited to the works of Edvard Grieg.

Upon reflection, I owe much of my passion for music to my piano teacher, an elderly nun who went by the name of Sister Jeanne d’Arc. I was very young when I was introduced to her: however I still recall going to a piano room in a nunnery next to my old school which was painted grey and had the odd scent of baked bread and old pages. Sister Jeanne d’Arc was grey haired and wore gold wire-rimmed spectacles, a white cardigan and a dark blue headscarf. Every week, I sat at the keys of a slightly out of tune piano, with its massive yellowing keys barely responding to the touch of my small fingers. Admittedly, I was a mediocre student and I didn’t enjoy practising. At the same time, she instilled in me a love of Beethoven, Scott Joplin and Brahms which unlocked the door to further musical explorations. Shortly after CDs hit the shelves for the first time, I used my youthful pocket money to buy a box set of “Carmen” which starred a young Jose Carreras and Agnes Baltsa; I still have this set, and now an accompanying collection of albums that fills several rooms.

I have developed other appetites. I likely would not have gained my insatiable love of history if I didn’t study with Mr. Harper, a kind Jamaican gentleman who taught me American history. He encouraged me to read outside the texts I had been given. I would not have had the ambition to be a writer without Mrs. Lee, who taught my first Creative Writing class, and was receptive to my youthful, halting experiments with prose. I would not have gained a new passion for studying Islamic philosophy was it not for the advice and support of my PhD supervisor, Aamer Hussein. The colour, flavour, texture and joy in my life are in part due to the teachers that have crossed my path, who influenced me, and who are with me still.

To be a teacher, then, is to be in receipt of a remarkable gift: we not only have the power to help young minds prepare for the world after school, but we can assist in the process of appreciating life’s pleasures and passions. We can expand horizons. We can help potential emerge from the shell of hesitation. It is a profession which changes the world by simple, everyday steps.

However, as cliched as it may sound, it is a trade that is not fully appreciated. I am involved with my local union and thus get a ringside seat to the conflicts between academics and management; recently, staff were offered a laughable .4% pay rise by university managers. While negotiations are proceeding, it seems unlikely that this deal will change substantially.

Because of my position, I also often hear about teaching standards and how they’re skewed. I recently was at a dinner in celebration of Norwegian Independence Day, as my grandfather would have done were he still alive. I sat next to a grey haired gentleman from Yorkshire and his Norwegian wife; as soon as I mentioned my profession, he informed me of the experience of his teenage daughters. Their education had been far too focused on passing multiple choice exams, in his view, rather than gaining knowledge or understanding. I can’t disagree: it’s another piece of evidence of how the government has consistently failed to understand the difference between must and should. They must adhere to the rules, but they should have a moral understanding, for example. Similarly, they feel they must test, but they don’t realise they should create an environment where students learn to think. The problem with this, however, is that “should” doesn’t fit Labour’s “ticking of boxes” management style: emphasis on “should” is far fuzzier, more artistic, however it is the only means by which thoughtful individuals are produced.

I am concerned that because of the targets, the lack of funding, and the strict application of central government control, that teachers themselves sometimes lose the plot. I got a good dose of this fear recently in discussion with one of my students. At the end of term, I am obliged to make myself available for consultation. While this sounds ponderous, it is often the most fulfilling part of teaching, because I can give feedback on a one to one level. In turn, I learn from my students what precisely is going on with their work.

However, I also learn things which make me despair. For example, a young female student of mine told me that a teacher of hers in secondary school had said that “women authors don’t write epic novels”.

“I beg your pardon?” I asked.

She said it again.

I wasn’t sure whether my head was going to explode or if I was going to yield to the swear words welling up in my throat. I settled for taking a deep breath.

I then informed her that her teacher was wrong; I told her the first example that popped into my head, namely that of Lebanese author Hanan al-Shakyh, who wrote a novel entitled “Beirut Blues”. While this novel reduces the war in Lebanon to a personal level, it is no less “epic” for that; indeed, it is all the more powerful because it brings the horror of war to a level which can be related to on an individual level. My student smiled in a reassuring way, but I wasn’t certain if that was for my benefit or due to her actual belief. But just as Mrs. Lee had encouraged me to open up my writing and Sister Jeanne d’Arc had given me a love of music, here was an example of teaching’s remarkable power being used for ill ends: who was that teacher to say that women can’t write epic novels? Who was he to say that my student couldn’t write one? Surely if such a barrier existed, it was his duty rather to say that it needed to be obliterated, not endured. Surely this is the point of all education: to eliminate barriers of ignorance and let the light of understanding and potential flood in.

Soon, Britain will have a change of government. I am extremely sceptical that the new lot (unless we get a Green government) will make academic pay any better. I don’t believe that they will fund the humanities properly. I certainly don’t believe they will make more places available. But what they can do, at no cost, is perhaps change the emphasis. The United States, bound as it is to standardised exams, needs this as well. The change begins with understanding that the teacher’s role is far more than helping students to become literate and numerate: those are important, but without the capacity to think, appreciate, and yes, enjoy, culture is lost, and the goal of achieving a society of self-actualised, responsible individuals stretches out of reach. I would like to be optimistic that such a shift is fated, and that sunshine is right around the corner; I don’t think so, not yet. Until then, I hope that my colleagues and I will do enough to keep the dream alive.

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The British National Party: Traitors in Our Midst

May 24, 2009

Bloody Nasty PeopleI’ve had the rare privilege of telling one of the leaders of the British National Party precisely what I think of him and his creed on national television. The occasion was several months ago, and it was on a BBC programme entitled “The Big Questions”; I was in the studio audience. I had to get up early on a Sunday morning to attend; it was surreal to drive to Southampton with the orange and purple colours of early dawn painting the blank canvas of the empty motorway. My mind protested the violation of the normal rhythms of the week. Surely, it told me, the best thing to do was to turn around, go back to bed, then wake up late, drink coffee, and read the Sunday papers. I did not expect that my presence would add much except an additional face to the crowd.

For those who are familiar with the programme, it may come as a surprise that the space in which it is held is quite small. In this case, it was in the gymnasium of a large school. However, the normally generous room was stuffed with seats, set decorations and the electronic accoutrements that live television demand. I took my place in a row near the back, and was seated next to a prospective Labour Parliamentary candidate. We chatted for a while; we had been informed of the topics beforehand, and they included a debate about evolution, another about motherhood and lastly, one about whether or not members of the British National Party should be allowed to work in public services such as education and health.

For those who aren’t familiar with the British National Party, I need to digress into a bit of history. In 1932, the British Union of Fascists was founded and led by a former Labour minister and MP, Oswald Mosley, who wanted to create a political front which was modelled after those spawned by Mussolini and Hitler. Mosley’s “Black Shirt” group found most of its strength among the deprived of East London; at its height, its membership reached 50,000, and they were occasionally engaged in pitched battles with their Communist rivals. War with Germany and Italy quickly led the Government to ban the BUF in May 1940; however, it was not entirely snuffed out. Activists like A.K. Chesterton kept the embers burning in spite of fascism’s eventual defeat in World War II: the refusal of the ideology to lay down and die later led to the foundation of the National Front, which then was succeeded by the British National Party. The BNP was established in 1982.

Let us be absolutely clear: beyond its pedigree, the BNP is connected in thought and spirit to some of the most loathsome ideological positions in Europe. One of their “founding fathers”, John Tyndall, wrote a book in 1962 entitled “The Authoritarian State” which directly stated that liberal democracy was some sort of Jewish plot for world domination. The BNP’s present leader, Nick Griffin, wrote in 1996 in a book entitled “The Rune”, that “I am well aware that orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated or turned into soup and lampshades. I have reached the conclusion that the ‘extermination’ tale is a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter witch-hysteria.” He also is on record denying that the gas chambers existed, in spite of the fact that anyone can go visit Auschwitz and see that they did.

Griffin, however, is sufficiently clever to realise that the anti-semitism of the 1930’s doesn’t resonate with modern British voters. He has since changed focus to immigrants and in particular, made clear his dislike of Muslims. In a BBC documentary aired in 2004, Griffin stated that Islam was a “wicked, vicious faith”.

The BNP has made electoral progress, particularly among disaffected Labour voters; for example, they have 9 local councillors in once solidly Labour Stoke on Trent. Furthermore, they have a member of the London Assembly, Richard Barnbrook. Barnbrook was the only prominent official of theirs who was brave enough to appear on “The Big Questions”.

Seated a few metres away, I thought he gave every indication of a man who was thoroughly in love with himself and having difficulty keeping that passion restrained in public. He wore a buttoned up jacket that had been carefully pressed so as to eliminate any trace of wrinkles. Every hair had been sprayed into a particular position. He was sweating and a touch red-faced. He may have been trying too hard to appear respectable, and perhaps because of the extremity of that effort, he came across as a phony from the get-go. I did not recognise him at first, however; based on his waxy, dogmatic visage, I thought he was likely to be one of the militant Christians who wanted to deny evolution. The music then rose, the cameras went on, and the presenter Nicky Campbell began the show with the evolution debate.

It turned out that the evolution denier was an amiable middle aged man in a grey suit who spoke very gently. While I disagreed with him, his faith was rather touching. Following this, the motherhood debate (i.e., whether or not the demands of modern society were diminishing good parenting) revealed the first of the BNP men: he was a grey haired man in the livery of an Anglican vicar. He outed himself when he implied that women were better off “barefoot and pregnant”.

Finally, we came to the BNP debate. It may not have come across on television, but Barnbrook had an almost falsetto edge to his voice when he was defending himself against accusations of racism. The audience, to their credit, wasn’t having it: he attracted fire from nearly all quarters. The debate seemed to go around in circles for a time; unfortunately, it lingered in the territory which the BNP wanted it to remain: namely, the implicit suggestion that freedom of political association and entitlement to work for the government were one and the same.

After holding up my hand for so long that it felt like my elbow had ossified, I was finally called to speak on the matter:

“We are talking about two separate things,” I said, “one is the right to freedom of speech, the other is the right to participate in public service. The public has the right to expect its services to be delivered without prejudice and we don’t have that certainty with the BNP.”

Barnbrook’s voice squeaked again in reply, and he repeated his anti-racist credentials: why, his fiancee had a mixed race baby whom he loved very much and he had served as a teacher to students of all races. His assault on common sense would likely have continued had not the music raised and the programme ended. After, I noted that Barnbrook and his vicar colleague departed the scene as quickly as possible.

It’s alarming how readily groups of maladjusted hysterics like the BNP exploit our present circumstances. It is entirely possible that they will attract enough votes to have a representative in the European Parliament. It is also possible that they will increase their share of the vote in local government. People are bewildered and enraged by the financial crash and the corruption of Parliament: the position of the BNP far outside the normal political process helps them. Gordon Brown also accidentally assisted them by providing their latest motto; in one of his speeches, he stated one of his priorities was “British jobs for British workers”, this slogan is now plastered all over their propaganda. Furthermore, because they are the bottom feeders of democracy, the BNP don’t mind playing on the fears of the electorate in whatever way they see fit. Meanwhile, they have the nerve to claim, like Christ, they have been persecuted, and that Jesus would vote their way too.

All this is rather rich coming from a party which deserves a moniker that is beyond fascist, beyond repugnant, beyond racist: traitor. This is not a reference solely to their BUF pedigree, but also to the fact that their ideology exists in direct opposition to the values for which this country stands. Britain has long been a nation of immigrants: in antiquity, it was a place that the Celts called home, then the Romans, then the Angles and the Saxons, then the Normans. Huguenots came from France to practice their Protestant faith. Oliver Cromwell gave sanctuary to the Jews. While there have been fits of violence and persecution (particularly of Jews and Catholics), the nation’s history is one of new arrivals, the nation and the immigrants coming to an accord, and life carrying on, the country’s cultural wealth having increased in the process. To deny the continuing role of diversity in British society is to turn one’s back on what precisely has made the United Kingdom’s story largely one of the triumph of liberty; furthermore, given how widespread the legacy of immigrants remains ingrained in the nation’s heritage, BNP supporters are likely spitting on the generous spirit which enabled their existence as “British” in the first place. I may be more aware of this than most: while I come from an English-speaking country and I am white, I too am an immigrant, and I have been privileged to integrate the thread of my life into the very broad and multicoloured tapestry of this country.

It’s not clear what the BNP’s destructive efforts are all for; after all, BNP councillors have proven to be as corrupt and untrustworthy as any member of Parliament. In 2007, Barnbrook was forced to discipline them in a letter which was distributed nationwide. It can be said that far from representing a break with the norm, they are just a more venal variant.

Fortunately, the danger the BNP represents is pronounced to the point that the normally apolitical and mild Church of England felt obliged to take a stand. Every other “contender” party in the next election has also made their distaste for the BNP clear. However, we should not be afraid to point out that the BNP’s chosen label, in the final analysis, is a contradiction: far from being British, they are the heirs and practitioners of an alien ideology, far from being national, their appeal is limited to few constituencies, and far from being a party, they are a gaggle of thugs which hopefully the British public will be ready to dismiss on June 4.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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