29 January, 2016

Learning From History - Not Rewriting It.

The threatened statue above the entrance to Oriel College
In my last blog I commented upon the various explosions of moral outrage that university campusus across the western world have experienced in recent months as students went out of their way to illustrate their lack of maturity – or, as writer Clive James commented, reinforced the view that the only thing “quick about them was their ability to take offence”. In the UK the most obvious example of this has been the long and drawn out campaign to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College Oxford because of his links with Britain’s imperial past and the colonisation of Africa. Today, the University has announced that they will not be removing the statue. A spokesman for the University said:  “Following careful consideration, the college’s governing body has decided that the statue should remain in place and that the college will seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there...... we have received overwhelming support for keeping it... including comments from students and academics, alumni, heritage bodies, national and student polls and a further petition, as well as over 500 direct written responses to the college,”. Within that announcement there was also the inference that many large donors to the college and the wider University had indicated that should the statue be removed they would withdraw their financial backing which might ultimately total about £100 million.

It would be easy to criticise the university and suggest that in taking this stance they are merely thinking of the financial implications of bowing to pressure from the students - they don't want to lose valuable income by giving in to the students' demands. Well, as is so often the case, moral principles can easily be muddied by less worthy considerations but for me, whatever the university’s reason, they are acting correctly.

I suspect that despite his many failings Rhodes (on the right)
 will ultimately be remembered more (and maybe more kindly)
than the gentleman on the left, the leader of the
Rhodes Must Fall Campaign

Critics of the statue have argued that Rhodes’ imperialist legacy should not be celebrated. The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement said the statue was representative of Britain’s “imperial blind spot” and should be taken down. Brian Kwoba, one of the campaigners, said Rhodes was “responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies......... The significance of taking down the statue is simple: Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue of Hitler? The fact that Rhodes is still memorialised with statues, plaques and buildings demonstrates the size and strength of Britain’s imperial blind spot.”

Mmmmm! In the politically correct world that we now live in the viewpoint of the campaigners has an awful and perverse logic about it. We have learned to watch our words and be very careful of our displays of support or criticism of many aspects of everyday life.  It is rare indeed for me to read a newspaper and not read somewhere in it that some  dispute is raging about ageism or sexism or some other “ism”. Any one of us – but especially those in the public domain - can be vilified (especially in these days of social media) because of our stance on some issue or a thoughtless, or even well-intentioned, comment. Increasingly it seems the thought police are watching and listening at every door and window.

Flanders and Swann - poking gentle fun at 
themselves, society and the world 

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I read a letter in the Guardian. It followed a series of letters brought about by the continuing discussion here in the UK about whether England should have its own national anthem. As the United Kingdom has become more diversified and Scotland and Wales have gained their own regional governments the question has been increasingly asked should we English have our own anthem for use, say, when the England football team play as representing England and not the UK as a whole? Many suggestions have been made for this possible anthem – William Blake’s great poem “Jerusalem” (And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green......” set to Hubert Parry’s stirring music has been much favoured but the discussion has also brought up many flippant suggestions. In the Guardian one gentleman took me back years when he suggested the wonderful Michael Flanders and Donald Swann song “The English, the English are best.....”  Flanders and Swann were a musical comedy duo at their height in the 1950s and 60s. Flanders wrote most of the words while Swann was responsible for the music. Flanders had suffered from polio in the mid 40s and so used a wheelchair on stage while Swann sat  the piano and played. The two performed comic songs and monologues and were regulars on our old black and white TV set when I was a child. They played to packed theatres in London and many of their witty and clever monologues have become very much part of the history of theatre, music and, one might say, the English culture. They might be considered a bit twee and old fashioned now but I guess that there are few children, even today who will go through nursery, school or childhood without, at some point, coming across the marvellous Hippopotamus Song: “Mud, mud glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood....!” Their songs and monologues were entertaining, clever and full of acute observations of people, events and places; filled with wit and irony they were scathing (but never hurtful or malicious)  social commentaries. Their humour was penetrating and subtle never unpleasant or gratuitous. So when I read in the Guardian the suggestion that “The English are best....” might be a good national anthem I was immediately taken back to another time when political correctness was quite unheard of and would have been immediately quashed had anyone been pompous, arrogant or immature enough to try to display it:

The English
(Flanders & Swan)

The rottenest bits of these islands of ours
We've left in the hands of three unfriendly powers
Examine the Irishman, Welshman or Scot
You'll find he's a stinker as likely as not

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

The Scotsman is mean as we're all well aware
He's boney and blotchy and covered with hair
He eats salty porridge, he works all the day
And hasn't got bishops to show him the way

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

The Irishman now our contempt is beneath
He sleeps in his boots and he lies through his teeth
He blows up policemen or so I have heard
And blames it on Cromwell and William the Third

The English are moral the English are good
And clever and modest and misunderstood

The Welshman's dishonest, he cheats when he can
He's little and dark more like monkey than man
He works underground with a lamp on his hat
And sings far too loud, far too often, and flat

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

And crossing the channel one cannot say much
For the French or the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch
The Germans are German, the Russians are red
And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed

The English are noble, the English are nice
And worth any other at double the price

And all the world over each nation's the same
They've simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they've won
And they practice before hand which spoils all the fun

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

It's not that they're wicked or naturally bad
It's just that they're foreign that makes them so mad
The English are all that a nation should be
And the pride of the English are Chipper and me

The English the English the English are best
I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest

A modern day Flanders and Swann couldn’t get away with it in these politically correct times – some individual or pressure group would take them to task for stereotyping or belittling some minority group or other. However, I suspect that just like those Victorian masters of gentle comedy and social commentary Gilbert and Sullivan, were Flanders and Swann to return they could easily put together some musical offering that would very effectively prick the pompous balloon of political correctness and show it up for what it usually is - unpleasant, egocentric, shallow and misguided. Sadly, youngsters and those of a politically correct disposition of the 21st century would not understand the gentle irony and self-parody that Flanders and Swann were indulging in. The Rhodes Must Fall protestors and others on university campuses would see only what they wanted to see - a part of the establishment to criticise and attack because it does not conform to their limited view of the world and how they perceive it should be.  I doubt if the BBC would now broadcast "The English are best" for fear of some minority pressure group or other taking offence, and that is a sad indictment upon our times – that we have become so wound up in our own self. As Clive James says, our quickness to take offence is the only quick thing about us. We cannot anymore laugh at ourselves or each other; we cannot accept our differences and those of others; we want to totally eliminate every small thing that doesn’t  subscribe to our view of the world, its modus operandi and indeed ourselves. We know what we like and we like what we know.
Rhodes has to be protected by netting
from mindless vandalism by these immature
and rather dim students.

So, for me, Oxford’s decision to stand by their statue is absolutely correct and the two best comments that I have read belong to the university’s chancellor, Chris Patten, who told students that if they could not embrace freedom of thought, they may “think about being educated elsewhere”. Absolutely – if you wish to enjoy the huge privileges that Oxford and other such places bestow upon you, then you accept, too, the very foundations upon which places like Oxford are built – and that means its history, its culture, its guiding principles. If you don’t like the heat get out of the kitchen. The celebrated Cambridge classicist Mary Beard put another perspective on the situation when she told the students: “The battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self-confident sense of unbatterability.” Absolutely – we know that Rhodes would not be honoured in the same way today; times and beliefs have changed but a mature mind (which, it seems to me, is what most of these complaining students do not have) is able to accept this and see how far we have come – not simply eliminate the past and rewrite history. You don't change history or its symbols  by destroying it. There must be no room for revisionism or destruction of those things we dislike or disagree with. We learn from the past by engaging with it, debating and understanding it – and then move forward armed with these new bits of awareness and knowledge of the world and ourselves within it. I think the word for it is "progress"!.
Stained glass window depicting Cromwell's men trying
 to rewrite history by eliminating religious artefacts
 that offended them so

If we remove the Rhodes statue, then I wonder should we demolish all the English country houses and stately homes, built by the poor and inhabited by aristocratic and self-appointed betters, lording it over us? Should we blow up all the exceptionally beautiful churches and Cathedrals, funded and built by serfs and peasants of the middle ages to help a monotheistic religion keep them down and obedient? No, of course not. We can understand their historical context and still appreciate their beauty and be moved by them, or at least discuss the political and culture situation which brought them about. Throughout history people of all faiths and beliefs have gone around ransacking the past in self-righteous anger and indignation. It still goes on – witness Isis in the middle east – and we in this country have done the same.  Go to many of our great and ancient churches and see the damage caused by Henry VIIIs ransacking of the monasteries or by Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War. Stained-glass windows, altar rails, statues, even communion tables were destroyed as symbols of popery and idolatry. Everything had to go. Worcester Cathedral  was described by one Roundhead soldier as 'so vile, papisticall and abonimable…that it resembles Sodom and is the very emblem of Gomorrah, and doubtless worse.’ So, the organ was torn apart, windows and statues smashed, campfires were lit inside, and the aisles and choir stalls were used as latrines. Rochester Cathedral and even Canterbury Cathedral were subject to equally terrible acts of vandalism; it was an orgy of destruction. One zealous vandal, an otherwise respectable Suffolk yeoman called William Dowsing, kept a diary of his exploits: “Swaffham Bulbeck in Cambridgeshire 1643. 4 crucifixes and Christ nailed to them and God the Father over one of them, and we brake down a 100 superstitious pictures, and 2 crosses we took off the steeple, and 2 on the church and chancel…We digged down the steps, 20 cherubins…. At Babraham in Cambridgeshire, January 5, 1644. We brake down 3 crucifixes and 60 superstitious pictures, and brake in pieces the rails.”

And much good it did him – I don’t think! The students at Oxford – many of whom are in the UK as visitors enjoying the privileges of our country and this great institution are actively benefitting from Cecil Rhodes’ legacy as Rhodes Scholars. Such has been their anger and vitriol that the statue in question has to be protected by netting. This in one of the world's great seats of learning is entirely unacceptable and from my viewpoint not only destroys any valid arguments that these immature, and frankly not very bright, young things might have but also suggests to me that their place at Oxford should be withdrawn so that other wiser, more mature and more aware youngsters might profit from the experience.  They need to learn to tolerate and understand that with which we disagree or even despise. The alternative approach appears to be the destruction of that which we dislike or disagree with and the imposition of our view, and only our view. And  if history teaches us one thing it is that this avenue potentially leads  only terror,  oppression and dictatorial dystopian societies.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions but these campaigners need to understand that our history is the recording of mankind's ongoing journey  and it is ever moving forward. We should look back at our history and learn from our mistakes not destroy, eliminate or re-write it simply because it offends our own sensibilities and outlook.


26 January, 2016

Confused.......You Will Be!

The cast of Soap could never have imagined
the bizarre world in which we now live 
As  people get older they are supposed to become a little wiser. I once thought that this would happen to me but having reached my seventies I am increasingly of the view that rather than becoming wiser I am simply more and more  confused with the world in which we live. All too often I find myself thinking of the popular weekly American TV  sit-com called “Soap” which was screened about 40 or so years ago. It was a zany parody of TV soap operas. Each week the plots became ever more bizarre and melodramatic and each week’s episode began and ended in the same way – the words of which are still etched in my sub-conscious: At the beginning of each episode, an announcer gave a brief description of the convoluted storyline and said, "Confused? You won't be, after this week's episode of...Soap." And at the end of each episode, he asked a series of life-or-death questions in a melodramatic style such as "Will Jessica discover Chester's affair...? Will Benson discover Chester's affair? Will Benson care? These questions—and many others—will be answered in the next episode of...Soap." 

Every day that goes by, it increasingly seems that I shake my head in some kind of disbelief at what I read in the newspapers or watch on the TV news; increasingly,  world events and the bizarre behaviour, decisions and priorities of people (especially those in power) seem to me to resemble another episode of Soap – zany, slap stick, crass and full of black humour. Sadly, however, whereas Soap was a light hearted  sit com, world events and the times in which we live are deadly serious!

Puts in a nutshell the economic theory  and likely outcome of QE
One of the buzz words (if that be the right phrase) of the early 21st century seems to me to be “global” – global  warming, a global economic environment, global businesses vie for supremacy, the global market place, global economic meltdown .......and so the list goes on. No nation or business can any longer work in isolation, we are all interdependent. In the post war years it was often said that when America sneezed we on the UK caught a cold so dependent were we upon the economic might of the USA . Today, in the global economic environment any numbers of scenarios exist where what happens in any one nation can have profound effects upon what happens in others.

The truth of this has been made plain in the past few weeks. About a week ago diplomatic relations were largely “normalised” between the USA  and Iran after years of economic sanctions. The Iranian’s rightly felt this would mean a new age for their country and I read that big business in the west was gearing up to this new market in the middle east which had been largely denied them for several years. Everything seemed rosy and optimistic, but then of course, it dawned on everyone that Iran being opened up would also mean that Iran will understandably wish to trade their most valuable asset – oil.  The result? – feverish activity on the oil and stock markets of the world as an already depressed oil price fell further because of an anticipated glut of oil. In our global economic environment, the economic slowdown across the world but especially the economic slowdown in China and India has seen shares tumble and we are now, I read, in a “bear market” bringing back echoes of the 2008 crash. A weird sense of déjà vu is underpinning every news broadcast and headline!

May be funny but sadly true - this economic theory is
what underpins the Davos summits
We’ve been here before and each time I watch the news or read my newspaper I seem to see the same tired ideas and excuses being rolled out by increasingly unbelievable people. Since 2008 unimaginable amounts of money have been poured into various institutions and organisations – under the loose heading of “quantative easing” in the vain hope that this would somehow make everything right. It hasn’t – all it has done is make the obscene and mind blowing gap between rich and poor even greater.  It was patently obvious in 2009 when these vast chunks of money began to be poured into a failed banking system already awash with corruption and slush money  that this Q.E. policy would fail. The money was supposed to kick start the world’s economy; all it did, as everyone knew it would, was kick start another round of huge banking bonuses and shore up a discredited bank and finance system. If the world’s governments were going to kick start their economies the money should have gone straight into the pockets of the population to increase their spending power and thus encourage spending and growth. Instead it went straight into the wallets and purses of the world’s mega rich, making them even richer. It never did and never would achieve the claimed “trickle down” effect to benefit everyone.

Well, of course the Swiss enjoy the Davos summits.
The world's mega rich come and billions pour into
shady Swiss secret bank accounts. What's not to like?
To compound this, last week the great and good, the “masters of the financial universe” met at Davos for their annual get together. And, as they did we learned that 85 people hold as much wealth as the poorest 50% - or to put it another way 1% of the world’s population  own more wealth than the other 99%. And since 2008 the situation has been getting worse, not better; the share of the world’s wealth owned by the best-off 1% has increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% in 2014, while the least well-off 80% currently own just 5.5%. On current trends the richest 1% will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by the end of 2016. In 2010 some 388 people owned the same amount of wealth as 3.5 billion people – by this year that was down to 80 billionaires owning the same as 3.5 billion.

I cannot but agree with the comment from Oxfam on this state of affairs: “Do we really want to live in a world where the 1% own more than the rest of us combined? The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”  Quite. Sadly, however, I don’t see anything changing soon – or even within my lifetime. The world and its leaders seem quite happy to wring their hands but at the same time pursue the same clapped out policies that the masters of the financial universe in Wall Street, the City of London, Shanghai, Davos and other financial hot spots spew forth while 99% of the world scrambles for the scraps from their tables. Should we be surprised by this? Of course not.......it was always bound to happen as governments like our own poured huge amounts of cash into the pockets of those wielding financial clout and dressed it up by calling it “Quantative Easing”. Confused I am. Angry you bet. I’m confused that the world seems unable to learn from previous experience and I’m angry because as each week passes we see not only the economic gap widening between the haves and the have nots but as a direct result we see extremism becoming more apparent in society. Equal societies are known to be fair, just, moderate societies. Any 1st year student of society and economics will tell you that unequal societies tend to always foster greed, envy, frustration, anger and extremism. It’s written in the stars but we choose not to see it – we just keep doing the same thing over and over. As Einstein reminded us  “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – we seem incapable of taking this idea on board!
Millions of Americans actually see this man
as their next president - the most powerful man on earth!
Frightened - you should be  - of both him and them!

Picking up the insanity thread from that thought, hardly a day goes by without my seeing the frightening visage of lunatic extremist Donald Trump plastered across the media – and in the last few days this laced with the equally frightening face of Sarah Palin. Despite the latest scientific research highlighting the consequences of global warming Trump, Palin and huge chunks of the GOP are in denial on this matter. Trump keeps a straight face while he tells us that global warming is all a cunning plan thought up by the Chinese  (The script writers of Soap would have been proud of that zany sub plot!). Of course, pundits assure us Trump can never become president. Well, maybe that is true, but what I find bizarre, confusing and truly frightening is that this man actually has followers. Can there really be so many lunatics in the USA who would actually vote for someone who is almost frothing at the mouth .... beware,  these people walk amongst us! Trump and Palin would have been absolutely type cast for star parts in Soap and yet here they are with millions of followers chanting their names like mindless religious zealots. Each utterance from Trump is more bizarre than the last – his persona, his policies (such as one can establish) and his beliefs truly frightening – and the really disturbing thing is that all the other Republican contenders for the presidency are variations on a theme. In short if one wants to vote Republican in America then it is pick the screwball. Oscar Wilde appears to have hit the nail on the head when he commented a century ago that America is “the only society that has gone from barbarism to decadence without a civilization in between”
No comment necessary

In early January one of the saddest photographs was of a tearful President Obama moved to tears when giving yet another speech about gun crime in the USA. You could see in his face the anguish, the anger and the frustration at the power of the US gun lobby. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Second Amendment in general or the specific issues related to gun ownership in the USA I cannot for the life of me understand why Americans cannot see and begin to comprehend the fact that they are out of step with the rest of the world. Obama has hinted at this on numerous occasions: "......this society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do just unbelievable damage. We're the only developed country on Earth where this happens. ... And it happens once a week. And it's a one-day story....... The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It's not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyone else. Well, what's the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that's sort of par for the course." Spot on, but this is one conceptual leap too far for your average American. The quality of debate and the position of those in favour of no gun control verges on  parody that American comedienne Tinah Faye caught well a year or two ago when she impersonated Sarah Palin and said: “I believe that if everyone had guns then there would be fewer guns in stores”. Sadly, however, the real thing is no less frightening in its stupidity; just before Christmas Sarah Palin tweeted that “Jesus would fight for our second amendment” . This pearl of wisdom was based upon a verse in Luke’s Gospel (Ch  22 v 36-38). "Jesus is a proponent of carrying" Palin explained because he “encouraged his apostles to procure a couple of swords”. You really couldn’t write a script for all this – no wonder Obama wept – and to coin a phrase I suspect that Jesus did too
When Tina Faye did this impersonation of Sarah Palin
millions thought it was the real thing.

While thinking of the American political scene I am reminded of an item I read a few days ago.  A number of Margaret Thatcher’s private papers  de-classified at the new year came into the public domain after thirty years of secrecy.  It was both saddening and frightening to read that at the height of Soviet/American cold war confrontation President Ronald Reagan was advising Margaret Thatcher to read Tom Clancy novels since “they are a perfect yarn” and “give an excellent picture of the Soviet Union’s intentions and strategy”. So, despite millions of Americans paying their taxes to fund the CIA and the biggest military and nuclear arsenal the world has ever seen, it all boiled down to Reagan – a politician very much in Trump’s mould, extreme and only single figure IQ points above feeble minded – basing his views of Russia and its potential policy on the scribblings of a populist author of cheap paperback fiction. Again, it would have made  a classic story line for Soap – but it was terrifyingly real. And, as Trump now struts across the presidential  election platforms, déjà vu,  here we are again.
Not quite foaming at the mouth but certainly intellectually
challenged.  But, hey, he found an exciting paperback with
lots of easy words and simple ideas to guide him!

In the UK, as I guess in every other country, we now find ourselves increasingly looking behind us to see if a terrorist is lurking. Politicians of every hue amazingly keep their faces straight as, after each terrorist outrage, they solemnly announce that terrorists will not win – we will carry on as before. Nothing will interfere with our rightful business of everyday life they tell us. And yet,  when we arrive at the airport the security is ramped up even more, professionals and others are daily instructed to monitor potential extremists and radicals, more and more armed response teams “safeguard” our streets and governments across the world assume more and more “rights” to pry into or emails, monitor our phone calls or infiltrate our private and personal worlds. So much for not changing our everyday lives! And, incredibly, we blindly accept it and assume that it is necessary. What has happened to us? What did our forefathers fight for in the in their many quests for equality, freedom of speech and democracy when our own governments and the rich and powerful gathered at Davos can so easily usurp these basic elements of democracy.

Yes.......whole swathes of the population are clamouring to give up their basic rights
This week a BBC  journalist,  Rana Rahimpour, was prevented from flying to New York because she had dual citizenship – UK & Iranian. Everyone agreed that it was “unfortunate” and that it was an unintended “side effect” of the current legislation......but, we shrug our shoulders and accept that  is modern life now. Indeed, so successful have politicians been in convincing us that we can only be protected if we are willing to have some of these basic rights impinged upon that great chunks of the population now despise these basic rights so much that they wish us in the UK to remove the Human Rights Act from the statute books!

Would he vote for Trump?
The late Lord Bingham, the country’s most eminent judge and former President of the UK Supreme Court asked, just before he died the rhetorical  question “Which of these rights would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any of them un-British? There may be those who would like to live in a country where these rights are not protected, but I am not one of them” Exactly, M’lud! – and yet we read daily that much of the Tory party, UKIP and the tabloid and right wing press – especially the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail – are keen to do away with the Human Rights Act. Clearly all the fools are not on the other side of the Atlantic chanting Donald Trump’s name – our own right wing is equally challenged in the brain cell department.
It could never happen........could it?

It was with black humour that I read recently that a 10 year old Muslim boy and his family in the UK suddenly found themselves  at the sharp end of the UK security services when he was reported to the police by his school. The boy’s crime? - he wrote a story in lesson and wrote that he lived in a “terrorist” house when he meant a “terraced” house. This truly is the stuff of Soap – the writers of that glorious spoof could not have come up with anything so bizarre. The story was largely denied by the police but had sufficient substance to illustrate  the world we have created when experienced  teachers, professionals, feel so pressured that they blindly report a child of ten. Should we be surprised that radicalism and extremism flourish in the face of such as approach? Of course not.  Confused? -  I am, and not a little angry because this stupid, stupid policy thought up by stupid, stupid people is not only increasingly impinging upon  my basic rights and freedoms that are the bedrock of a free democratic society but just as worryingly it is making me ever more suspicious of my fellow man and woman. In short, it lessens my humanity, a state that I doubt the power brokers at Davos or Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher know very little, if anything, about.

I could go on.......and on......and on.......! But I will end with this final series of observations. A couple of weeks ago the Labour politician Dan Jarvis made what I thought was a spot on comment. He was discussing the current in-fighting in the Labour Party and suggesting that rather than fighting each other party members and MPs should concentrate on fighting the Tories. During his argument he said “The reality is that we have created an interest in ourselves which is not entirely helpful”.  He was not wrong – and not only about Labour Party politics. The popularity of the selfie photograph bears witness to this as does the growth of social media sites (including probably this blog!). We have all become obsessed with ourselves and our views, desires, fears, wants, ambitions and the rest; as the advert for women’s make up says “because you’re worth it”.
Don't you dare offend our sensitivities - we are too important
and narcissistic for that!

During the past few weeks this tendency has come to light in a number of ways but particularly noticeable on university campuses across the world.  Back in October the  American Yale University made the headlines when students demonstrated and eventually forced a couple of senior lectures to stand down following a dispute about Halloween. The bizarre  story was a complicated and sad verdict on what passes for higher education. The university, prior to Halloween, sent a reminder to students that Halloween celebrations should not cause distress to others by the wearing potentially racist costumes such as red Indian head dresses, turbans or wearing face paint. Some took exception to this reminder and thought it limited their freedom of expression but the whole thing got out of hand when a husband and wife (both lecturers) waded in. One said that perhaps the original reminder was unnecessary and that students in higher education should have the brains and maturity (my words) to be able to distinguish actions that might cause distress or that were unacceptable. This not unreasonable viewpoint was followed by her adding that such is the situation in the modern world that there seems “no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious....” I suppose that she was saying political correctness is going too far. The lecturer’s husband also commented that “if you don’t like the costume that someone is wearing then look the other way or tell them you’re offended”. The result of all this was mass demonstrations and the lecturers eventually being forced out. Sensitivities had been offended.
Greer upset the sensitivities of transgender people.......hmmm!
Well, maybe my sensitivities are upset by the stance of such people.

At about the same time as this was going on the renowned feminist author Germaine Greer was “platformed” when she planned to speak at Cardiff University. The students there took exception to Greer’s views because of her stance on transgender issues and refused to allow her on the “platform” to speak. They didn’t like what she might say so banned her. When I read this I was reminded of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' comment: "When I sit down with people from different cultures or belief systems I don't set out to agree with them but to understand". Maybe these students and transgender supporters should take on board a little of Williams' humility and wisdom.

Nor have the “dreaming spires” of Oxford exempt. from all this angst. Just before Christmas a pressure group of students lead by a student from South Africa  Ntokozo Qwabe demanded that the statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed from Oriel College because of his record of colonialism in Africa. Rhodes bequeathed 2%of his vast estate to Oriel and this has, amongst many other things, funded the world renowned Rhodes Scholarships. What started as a minor campaign has grown to mammoth proportions. The common  thread, as with the Greer platforming and the Halloween antics at Yale is simply that these spoiled academic "high flyers" (I use the term loosely), like so many in modern society, don’t like their sensibilities to be offended. They are the ultimate selfies, unable to see the bigger picture, unable to see beyond their own little world, unable to understand that there are things out there which offend. Like Snow White’s wicked step mother, they can’t handle what the mirror tells them so they wish to smash the mirror because it shows them what they do not like. What I found especially worrying about the Rhodes fiasco was that I visited the Facebook page of Ntokozo Qwabe to find out  a little more about him; it was desperately sad. His posts were embarrassingly pathetic – lacking substance and showing gross immaturity. Certainly not the writings, insight or thoughts of someone who is a student at Oxford  – and as with Trump it was  especially worrying that his “followers” also seemed so immature and inept. The future is indeed bleak if these “bright young things”  are the best that we can look forward to.
Ntokozo Qwabe - a young man whose
ill thought out views and immaturity
are staggering -how did he get into 
Oxford in the first place?

And so to my final example of these university fracases - Harvard and other US (and British) universities  – didn’t want to be outdone by Yale and Oxford for sheer lunacy! In  recent months I have  read that  law department were having increasing problems when teaching about crimes such as rape. The subject matter and the necessary examples that were to be considered where increasingly off limits as students felt threatened or had their sensitivities injured. Course leaders are having to give “trigger warnings” prior to the lecture to warn students that some of the material might be difficult to handle or upsetting.  One law lecturer was asked by a student not to use the word 'violate' in class—as in 'Does this conduct violate the law?” – since she found the term upsetting. Another  law lecturer put it well when he said “We are raising a “wussified” generation of lawyers....Students are saying, ‘I don’t want to hear anything that disturbs me.’ But, how are these lawyers going to do what lawyers have to do, which is to stand up to judges for clients and causes?.........This is our basic heritage.......If they’re so “wussified” that they can’t hear the term rape, it sends tremors down their spine – who’s going to stand up for either defence or prosecution” Quite!

Just like the Rhodes protestors, the Halloween whingers and the Greer platformers these “wussified” (what a wonderfully descriptive word!) young people are a sad reflection of the times in which we live where a  distorted and narcissistic view of self passes for wisdom. Any one of the campus scenarios mentioned above would have made admirable content for Soap – except, I suppose, that had one of those scenarios been built into the story line no one in the 1970s or 80s would have believed it. It would have been too bizarre and unbelievable even for Soap!

The scriptwriters of Soap could never have come up with this!
Journalist and writer Clive James put it well in his Guardian column a week or two ago when he said “In the universities of today, wise academics preface every lecture with trigger warnings, in case something they say should cause offence to the kind of student whose quickness to take offence is the only quick thing about him or her”.

And that, as I noted above is a worrying thought.  If our brightest and best on western university campuses display these ill-considered and immature characteristics, if our leaders display the wisdom of Trump and Palin, if the wealthiest  and technologically most advanced society the world has ever known is unable to enact simple laws to limit the almost daily mass shootings in its schools and shopping malls, if world leaders are so ill advised that they use cheap paperback  fiction from a third rate author to inform their decisions or if we continue, as Einstein reminded us, to adopt the politics and economics  of the lunatic by using the same failed policies such as Q.E. or the war on terror time after time after time even though we know the results will always be the same then no wonder our world is in the state it is in and to paraphrase Soap “Confused we will all continue to be”!

12 January, 2016

"Exploring Strange New Worlds.....To Boldly Go!"

My blogging has become rather sporadic over the past few weeks. The Christmas period and all that it entails has been the main factor but there have been other issues. Firstly I’ve been busy with U3A (University of the Third Age) matters having just assumed the role of membership secretary of the local branch.  But the  most significant reason for my lack of presence on the blogsphere is because I have newly discovered interest which has increasingly called upon my time!
The opening pages to "Girl on a Train" and "Candlelight"

Just before Christmas I joined one of our local U3A groups – a creative writing group. It was not an easy decision because although I spent much of my life in the classroom developing children’s writing I had really done little myself – certainly not writing as an adult or for adults. It was a bit of a step in the dark and for me a little daunting. Our small group meets every couple of weeks. Prior to each meeting we all write a short story or poem on a pre-set theme. We then take our efforts to the next meeting, read out our work to the rest of the group who then make suggestions and comments on its quality and format. Some of the themes we have tackled so far include “Girl on a train”, “New Year Resolutions”, “Candlelight” and so on. The group leader will, at the end of the year, draw up an anthology of a cross section of the efforts.

From the moment I put pen to paper (or rather lap top to printer) I was hooked. It was complete escapism. Quite unlike blogging (or at least my blogging) it took me into different worlds. I love blogging; it allows me to be a grumpy old man, to comment and moan about politics and world events and to set out my thoughts on a subject of interest. But this was something quite different and has increasingly fulfilled a different part of my consciousness. I could never, I think, give up blogging but this short story writing provides a different avenue for my interests.

For the first time I really understood why great authors (or maybe actors or song writers) often say that they are compelled to write, act or sing. As soon as I put the metaphorical pen to paper I am in a different world and a different person – inhabiting the world of which I am writing and the persona of the character involved. To say that is liberating is, I think, an understatement. Once I am in that different world I am thinking of, enjoying and worrying about the lives of the characters in my story not my own; I forget my own world and its ups and downs and become part of a new reality which, of course, I can escape from at will as soon as I switch the lap top off! Blogging allows me to explore my own personal world but short story writing allows me to escape from that and explore a make believe world, someone else's reality!

David Bowie as his alter ego Ziggy Stardust
Today we have learned of the death of the legendary David Bowie. I have never been fan of Bowie or his music but I cannot deny his fame, his world stature and how he has profoundly influenced generations. A few minutes ago I was watching a film clip of him speaking  in which he said “It’s [writing songs] more than a drug it is just something I have to do. I could not live without it”. Well, I’m no David Bowie but having, through writing a short story, experienced the joy and liberation, of being able to suddenly inhabit a different world and different persona, I think I am able to appreciate a little what he was saying.

In writing this I am reminded of a comment that I know well and which suddenly popped up the other night as I continued to read David Kynaston’s mammoth and brilliant history of post war Britain. I am currently reading the second volume – “Family Britain” – which covers the period 1951 -1957. (see blog  “When is austerity not austerity?” 23rd Nov. 2015) Kynaston spends a good deal of time describing and commenting upon the advent of TV and its growth in home ownership in the early and mid fifties. At about that time the BBC undertook a survey amongst children about their views on this new bit of technology which was finding its way into  front rooms across the nation. Children were asked (amongst other questions) whether they preferred to listen to a story on the radio or to watch it on TV. The majority opted for the TV but one boy answered that he preferred the radio version because  “the pictures were better”. When questioned further on his reply he made the perceptive comment that his imagination allowed him to picture the events and characters in the story in whatever way he wanted and, he added, what he imagined was invariably better than which he saw on TV. In a way, he suggested, was that he was almost part of the story and not simply an outside observer.  I know exactly what he meant.

The statue in Berlin  to remember the
children of the kindertransport
We live today in a world where everything is made visual. Little is left to the imagination. Our films and TV depict  everything in the raw – violence, sex, excitement, horror and the rest. Nothing is left to one’s imagination or to nuance. We live in a world of text messages, Tweets,  Instagrams or Facebook  where brief simplicity is the required format. There is no place in the world of Tweeting for nuance or subtly - to coin a phrase, it has to be "in your face". Millions will write something as simple as “feeling happy today” and then, in case we didn’t understand this message, place a smiling emoticon at the side to ensure our comprehension. Not a week passes it seems without a new virtual reality game coming onto the market. At Christmas my three grandsons sat glued in front of their new Xbox  Star Wars games zooming across outer space, shooting aliens and visiting new planets  - each one more bizarre and  extravagant than the last. There was no need for an emotional or imaginative involvement or attachment – simply the ability to press the button quickly. No tears were shed when someone was blown up, no pain was felt, no thought was required. In short this really was virtual reality – it was reality without the aspects that make up actual reality:  hope, fear, doubts, joy, sorrow, ambition, desire and all the other qualities that define us as humans. It is the reality of the machine not of the human.

But reading, and now for me writing, allows me to enter a different world from that in which I exist. I can be who I want and live the life of that person; relive their hopes and fears experience their desires and their excitements. In my story about the "Girl on the train" (in fact, I wrote two stories on this theme!) I imagined an elderly woman, who as a young Jewish girl,  had travelled, as Europe plunged into war, on the kindertransport from Berlin to the relative safety of England. Lottie (the name I gave her) by chance and after more than seventy years discovers that her twin sister is still alive in Germany. I tried to tell the tale, build up a history of Lottie and understand her feelings and those of her family as she made her trip back to Berlin to see again the sister that she had not seen for more than a lifetime. In another of my short stories ("Candlelight") - this one based on fact -  I imagined that I was my elderly grandfather who in 1919 after the first World War wrote to the War Commissioners in London pleading for an increase in his disability pension because of the wounds that he had sustained in battle (see blog “Touching the Past” 21 Feb 2011). I tried to understand what he would have felt - a proud tradesman incapacitated and unable to provide properly for his young family - and what might have gone through his mind as he sat down one night in March 1919 to write his letter by candlelight.

Mine is not great literature – not even good literature; it is not the work of a budding Dickens or Jane Austen. It will never be published nor would I happily display it on line. It is simply for me and allows me in a curious way not to just write a story but to explore what it might be like to be another person and experience what I think might be their dreams or fears. When writing about Lottie or my grandfather I could not possibly even begin to understand their feelings or life – I am not a woman,  I have never experienced the horror of war, never had a twin sister, never had to write a begging letter........... . But I can imagine it and that, I think, is important  for it helps one to understand the actions of others.
The starship Enterprise "boldly going" to  new  worlds!

So, I will have to juggle my grumpy old man blogging with my new found interest of becoming the next Dickens. I don’t think, however, that Dickens or Hilary Mantel or Salman Rushdie need fear for their popularity or sales. My writing is simply an enjoyable and cathartic experience not for the consumption of others (I’m even rather embarrassed about showing my work off to my wife, Pat when she asks to read it!). In the immortal words of the Star Trek title sequence it simply allows me to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before”   (apologies for the split infinitive!) or as the boy said to the BBC all those years ago to enjoy “the pictures in my head!”