Month: January 2017

Orchestrated Rage

screen-shotPersonally, I find the tribalism associated with mass protest narcissistic,  nauseating, ineffectual and frequently calamitously ill-informed. The Women’s March on Washington, a celebrity-endorsed event planned for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, was, it seems, backed by a who’s-who of far-left organizations, including scores of groups financed by billionaire George Soros. Watching a few of the events around the world, they all seemed to be following a well-schooled narrative, shaped by the Left who implant the delusion that Trump is going to invade their uteruses and redefine how they choose to use them. Realistically, the organisers whose agenda is by no means loving, peaceful or inclusive, rode the wave of disappointment that their girl didn’t win and they don’t approve of the replacement because he uses immoderate and often combative language.

It’s been instructive to watch how a simple narrative has been systematically hijacked so that almost everyone can latch on to one or other of many and varied grievances, both fictional and factual. Linda Sarsour helped organize the Women’s March on Washington. She is a Muslim civil rights activist who opposes Zionism and has connections to family members who are supposedly imprisoned in Israel. The poster girl for the enlightened Muslim left is an influential endorser of the BDS movement hence a perfect rock-thrower at the phenomenon that is the new occupant of the Oval Office.

In deeming Donald Trump to be unfit to hold public office, in distorting what he says and does and then turning him into a monster on the basis of those distortions, his opponents are setting themselves against the very democratic system they supposedly wish to defend and are themselves unleashing the hatred and violence they affect to despise. What is more worrying is the sense of entitlement they feel.

The reason for such disproportionate, indeed almost pathological behaviour is obvious. Left-wing “progressives” regard themselves as the elect who alone are qualified to wield power. This breathtaking, almost Promethean hubris has arisen because, schooled in 70s social science and political rhetoric, university teachers in the West have taught their children well and they obediently trot out the Marxist platitudes of their mentors, often with woeful ignorance of the relationship between cause and effect. They alone know how society must be refashioned to bring about the transformation of human nature and the utopia of universal equality. The fact that they have now lost power is not just a setback. It simply cannot be allowed to happen.

I watched a hilarious video of an Australian presenter as he interviewed protesters in London as they milled about, waving placards with mostly meaningless slogans on them. Most were unable to sensibly defend why they were there and what exactly they were protesting about. If the presenter pressed them to explain themselves, most could not, managing only a few parroted slogans about misogyny and abortion rights. If he probed more deeply they shuffled off, declining to engage him further. Unpicking some of the organising principles and closing my ears to the primal screams, I sensed little more than a gigantic wave of carefully orchestrated rage but with its fair share of internal strife since the knock-on effect was to divide by grievance groups. Who should speak first, and who needs to be quiet? White women need to sit down and shut up. Muslims, especially if they wear a hijab, can speak. Black lesbian women should have priority. They get a voice. Privileged people (i.e., everyone who isn’t me) don’t, thus I have no right to open my mouth.

There has to be a more civilised way to express an opinion than Madonna’s colourful profanities in her role as spokesperson for the masses. She’s worth millions, and this apparently gives her something to say that’s worth hearing. Nothing said about the millions of women who slid into poverty over the last eight years, instead, we got this: “I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House … But I know that this won’t change anything.” Metaphor or not, collecting approbation from the hip millenials has done her ratings no harm.

The 45th POTUS isn’t the most cultured ballerina onstage. Yes, he has a lot to learn about politics and, more importantly, diplomacy. It may turn out that Trump is not fit for office since it remains to be seen whether he’ll listen to good advice. In the meantime people in funny hats should just sit down for a while. If you’re offended, get over yourselves.

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A Clearing in the Silence

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Eversley, Hampshire, UK

I have left teaching, I think. Or, perhaps, like a fickle lover, she has left me and we have, for the most part, gone our separate ways. Pedagogy has a lot in common with theatre in its grandeur and savagery – somebody once must have attempted a correlation between teachers and members of amateur dramatic societies – I suspect the correlation is significant. I count myself fortunate, some of my classes are etched almost permanently on my memory, those who allowed me the latitude to be myself. When a teacher gets up in front of a class, he is at once onstage, a Macbeth or a Chaplin.  He is both instructor and entertainer, ignobly so since such a life is spent imitating heroes instead of listening to the heart. Sometimes, however, in the words of the old Quaker phrase, we might do well to ask ourselves “before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”I take this to mean: “Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” For it is this that is communicated most effectively in all the unspoken interactions with student groups, whose job it is to seek out cant and hypocrisy wherever they may find it, jeering with the crass voice of the young.  And, of course, these random conversations do not only happen between students and teachers. The class may be immeasurably larger and the stakes higher than success or failure in an exam room but the 45th president of the USA might be well advised to self-examine from time to time, since his own future path is likely to be one deeply unfamiliar to him.

In retirement, as in taking an oath of office, it is not a bad thing to reappraise and actually pay attention to the small voices of the heart in light of changing circumstance, when the past indeed transforms into a foreign country. The exercise might be compared to how we perceive art; Jeanette Winterson, the novelist, had this to say: “Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language.”

Like art, or a presidency, being retired is alien. It may be compared to riding a metro system whose directions are in an unfamiliar script, like Russian or Thai. Information about the route is indeed available, but not to me. Its grammar and syntax lack certainty and the familiar comfort of precision and its demands may be less capricious but no less urgent. One may choose to walk unwillingly along the paths it prescribes, along roads well-travelled but unfamiliar, or, sometimes, to sit and wait in the clearing in the silence, listening to the birdsong of the heart.

Stories

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-8-46-19-pmToday is my birthday. I am sixty five years old with more stories to tell than listeners to hear them. Is this unusual? Not at all; we are all storytellers and we learned to tell stories by listening to the stories of others and making them our own. When I was very young, every afternoon, I ‘Listened With Mother’. The soothing, cultured tones of the announcer, Daphne Oxenford, asked me “….are you sitting comfortably?” to which I nodded mutely at the radio. She went on “…then I’ll begin.” She told wonderful stories about Andy Pandy, the Flowerpot Men and Muffin the Mule. Ironically the first airing of the show was on my birthday, but two years before I was born. It ended with: “Goodbye now, ’til tomorrow. Goodbye.” at which I wept inconsolably.

As we grow older, we encounter more and more complex stories — in literature, film, visual art and music, also in our own myopic stumblings through the labyrinth of existence — that give us a richer and more subtle grasp of human emotions and of our own inner world in all its chaos, unpredictability and disorder. We follow news, real and fake and the wiser among us have learned to tell the difference. We used new, strange words to frame our thoughts – the adjective ‘post-truth’ being the ‘word of the year’ last year. It means that objective fact has given way to and is less influential in shaping public opinion than feelings and emotional appeal. ‘I saw it on Facebook, so it must be true’ means that I have freely decided that I want to live in some post-truth world.

I spoke with a friend a while ago who told me, unblushingly, that he had stopped reading fiction altogether, concentrating on biography instead. At first, I thought that he had reduced the inner life of his imagination to something disappointingly two-dimensional and monochrome until I realised that he was able to reach into a different reality, actual circumstance, happenstance and context clothed with meaning, overlaying it with his own emotional veneer – a satisfying, vicarious journey.

This year, I shall listen to a lot of music and read a lot of stories, the real and the imagined,  and I’ll think about what the stories I encounter mean for my own life and lives of those I love. In that way, I will not be alone with an empty self; I will be enriched, and, much more importantly, there will be enhanced possibilities of real communication with others. As C S Lewis put it: “we read to know we are not alone.”

Smugly Holmes

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People who watch ‘Sherlock’ fall into two categories, those who have never heard of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and those who have read every word, often multiple times and are phenomenally quick at picking up original allusions. It was delicious in the early seasons to see how adroitly the production left tantalising clues, hints and half-sentences to the original stories, like a screened version of ‘Where’s Wally’.

Not living in the UK, I had to resort to a pirated version of Season 4:01 the day after its New Year’s Day screening to over eight million, and was looking forward immensely to the experience. But, the game is afoot no longer. It’s time to reboot the drive, look again at the source material and stop making the modern incarnation of the famous detective into a rather scrawny James Bond who is expected to punch well above his weight and who clearly suffers from adult ADHD. It has all become too incestuously pleased with itself, and Steven Moffett and Mark Gatiss are spreading themselves, perhaps smugly,  rather too thinly. After three brilliant seasons, the supply of jam has run dangerously low and the white, tastelessly bland bread is becoming visible underneath. Watson’s bouffant hairstyle and a raggedly aging Mary have begun to look a touch threadbare about the edges. Holmes has moments of sheer irritating adolescence and the quick-fire lines look a lot more wooden and scripted – perhaps Benedict C is himself finding the role tedious. Turning a Shakespearean heavyweight loose for an extended period on material having a hard time holding itself together must be tiresome. Mary’s role was most probably enlarged to fulfil some feminist agenda, and as most of us know, ideology is the death of art – herein lies the spoiler, in case you haven’t seen it.

I’ve been an admirer of ACD and his brilliant creation since scraped knees and short trousers – we dressed strangely in the 1960s. The angular Basil Rathbone’s early determination and later the incomparable Jeremy Brett with those brilliant violinist’s hand gestures made me want to actually wear a black frock-coat. The movies were swashbucklingly bearable; I hated the American reincarnation with a female Watson and the first seasons of the current embodiment tingled every nerve of verisimilitude. ‘The Six Thatchers’ just didn’t, not for me. Not least because the original ‘Six Napoleons’ concealed a much more romantic secret than a flash drive – the black pearl of the Borgias – and it took quite an elastic stretch to compare Thatcher’s legacy with that of Napoleon.

There were, however, quite a number of real and imaginary hat tips to the originals – one on Mycroft’s fridge, of all places. He grabs a takeout menu which comes from a restaurant called “Reigate Square”, a nod to the name of a short story that appears in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – ‘the Adventures of the Reigate Squire’. Don’t blink. You’ll miss it. Question to scriptwriter, can you really ever envisage MH actually ordering a takeaway?

Not all is lost. There were enough loose ends to provide an interesting patchwork for the newer Holmes with a little more depth to his emotional repertoire to weave into something interesting.