Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Orange-Drink Lemon-Drink Man

In Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Rahel suggests that Ammu marry the villainous but outwardly charming drinks vendor. Instead of getting angry with her, Ammu explains that she is just going to love her less for the rest of their lives.

I've been wondering (mostly in solitude) whether it is just paranoia and propaganda to say that a decline in articulacy and a stifling of communicability have changed our society. For me, there have always been Priests who reduce inexpressible feelings to stale sentimentalities; barroom philosophers who preach all the more agressively because they know how clueless they are; people engaging in "banter" that's a transparent attempt to destroy each another's self-worth (the give away is that it isn't funny).

Since I've been out of academia, I've accepted that time spent enriching and time spent socialising are mostly seperate.

Last night I walked through some woods that I'd only half dicvovered before. I got to the point where I'd always thought there was a dead-end, but it split into two paths. There was a flat surface that I ha to throw a stone into to figure out it was a pond, plus I love the sound of footsteps on wood over water. Eventually, the path led onto a road that was closed late last year because of an inevitable fatality.

I took my shoes and socks off and felt the soil, bark and shrubs between my toes, remembering why we evolved toes. Running beside this path are new flats and houses and appartment, so despite the almost complete lack of a moon there were few shadows to dive into if anybody caught me and thought me mad. But nobody was around.

I'm glad I don't have to crave human contact too often.

Friday, April 20, 2007

More Alastair McIntosh

In his Chapter, 'The Womanhood of God', Alastair McIntosh argues that post-Reformation theology in these islands has been necrophilic: obsessed with death, and what would happen thereafter. It hasn't been about seeing death as reuniting us with the soft soil from which new life can grow, but has been the outcome of fear-driven, victim-blaming, dominator-wins history. This is 'a politically constructed churchianity rather than the spiritual dynamics of cosmic love that Jesus actually taught.'

12 pages later, he quotes Sophia in Proverbs 8 (philosophy: philo - sophia means "lover of the Godess of wisdom").

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth -
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world's first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens,
I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him like a master worker
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

And now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
waching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favour from the Lord;
but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.

McIntosh himself said that some of the sentiments expressed in his books would be dismissed by Christians as too Pagan, and dismissed by Pagans as too Christian. But when we celebtrate things, whether our religion, culture or anything else, we often underestimate its unexceptionality. The similarity, and possible universality, is illustrated by the poem that Robert Graves asserted should be the beginning of the study of Englsih Literature, The Song of Amergin. According to legend, it was recited by the Milesians as they first landed in Ireland from Spain to defeat the Tuatha de Danaan and banish them to the world of the invisible (think the line from the Corinthians that's quoted in
Pilgrim's Progress, "that which is seen is temporal, that which is unseen is eternal"). For the second time in the history of this blog, I'll quote the text of the Song of Amergin (there are several translations, this comes from Chet Raymo's essay The Music of What Happens.

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the hawk on the cliff.
I am the dewdrop in sunlight.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the deep pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the meaning of the poem.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?

I am the god that makes fire in the head.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It's a cloudless mid-May Sunday afternoon in 2004. Two boys, all biceps, and two girls, all chest, are watching their two housemates have a casual kickabout.
Without warning, one of them smashes the ball as hard as he humanly can. It lands inches away from the glass wall of the nearest pub and bounces to safety. As the giels recover from the shock, the boys offer their amused assessment of what they've just witnessed:

"No go" repeated in a caricatured Northern accent.
"That was like the John Smith's advert: 'ave it!"
"It was like something off Jackass."
"It was like a Roy Keane pile-driver."

It would be absurd to compare such a harmless incident to Monday's shootings in Virgina. However, having skimmed through James Delingpole's How to be Right in Waterstones yesterday, I've been thinking about some of the issues he brings up: liberalism, egalitarianism, indiscipline, the youth of today. I thought an incident that involved staggering inarticulacy, complacency, callousness, and indifference that can all be partly blamed on the forces in question, was a good place to start.

Instead of being a guide, as the title suggests, it is actually an A-Z, not unlike a disproportionately politicised riposte to the decidedly leftist Is It Just Me or is Everything Shit? It rants about many predictable things: pro-Eurpoean and pro-Palestinian bias at the BBC; Britain becoming the world's endearingly dippy rich uncle over the Make Poverty History campaign; and a supposedly limp-wristed egalitarianism that has allowed Polytechnics to call themselves Universities without raising their standards.

The book is, unsurprisingly mean-spirited and distortive. But just as the third point is lent some credence by the afore-mentioned incident, it begs questions. If the Right has such a love affair with Free-Trade that unashamedly swallows everything, why is it the left that perverts tradition? Hasn't the undermining of education at least partly been down to the valuelessness of the Free Market? Hasn't the Market been responsible for the decline of traditional pillars of the curriculum like Classics, Latin and Greek and the rise of less 'academic' courses like Media Studies and Sociology? The main point against the BBC seems to be a lack of patriotism in war-time, but don't you just have to view Fox News to see how self-proclaimed patriots make poor journalists?

The most interesting subject to discuss though is Britain's perceived over-generosity. In The Myths We Live By, Mary Midgely argues that Enlightenment ideas of human rights and the social contract are horribly outdated. It made sense at the time that human-tights were the result of mutual obligation, yet this moral tradition has no place in a less manageable, globalised world. Our behaviour impacts far away people in ways that were until recently, impossible.

I'm interested in exploring the links, economic, spiritual, social, between us and those who've experienced things we can't imagaine. And reading another example of the left and the right tossing insults at one another encourages me to look beyond mainstream commentary to find the answers.

The pleasure is in the digging (eg the summer I spent digging to Australia when I was 9), and it's failing to seek an answer that leads to the kind of impotence, confusion and rage described at the beginning of this entry. I should know, I've been there.

Friday, April 13, 2007

This piece by Alastair McIntosh is an inspiration in light of last night's Channel 4 Drama The Mark of Cain . I think a lot about the Military with a mixture of distaste for Army Culture and guilt that I've never had to face hardships on the same scale: the pressures placed on soldiers and their families; the internal politics; what it must take to motivate oneself. The programme (although only a work of contentious drama)confirmed some of my worst preconceptions about the army and the people who make it up: mindlessly obedient, Machiavellian, politically motivated, and every character was either a moral coward or a bully.

My time in America taught me that some organizations are very good at convincing people that to disagree with their institutional values, is to be a weaker person. I think this is especially true of the military. I saw a picture in a Facebook group two days ago of General Tommy Franks with a speech bubble saying something like: "Next time you're home, and you see an anti-war protestor, shake his hand, and as you walk away, wink at his girlfriend because she knows she's dating a pussy." Then there is the cartoon that draws a scrawny crop-haired young man alongside a hulking, fully-kitted soldier. The young man has PEACE written on his t-shirt and the flower in his hand is drooping because of the stink lines coming off him. The soldier is carrying a little, dark-skinned girl (presumably away from danger) and the caption reads "Who has done more for world peace"?

Here are two of my favourite extracts from McIntosh's essay. These should lend insight into why he's such an inspiration.

"Violence, it is true, only understands violence, and it gets confused and has to think twice when faced with the opposite."

"If violence is the absence of love, nonviolence is about the presence of relationship. It is the means of connection with that which gives life.

That is why it's hard to explain in prosaic language why nonviolence matters and from where it derives its power. It's why many of those who argue for peace have difficulty in completing their arguments. The argument starts in this world, but doesn't end there. The suffering that we voluntarily take on is a birth pang, and you have to trust to life beyond life to get to full delivery. You have to remember that the greater part of our being can never be killed, and that God is always on the side of the suffering."
For somebody who didn't go to a 'proper' University to do my Undergrad, and didn't do a 'solid traditional' course for my MA, I feel alienated about most of the discourse that exists around Higher Education and the people who navigate the system. This has been compounded by three articles published in the Daily Telegraph over the last two days: one by Boris Johnson on Grade Inflation; one by Bryony Gordon on a generation of young men; and this morning's article by Jeff Randall on the cheapening of degrees

Certain things never get mentioned: a chosen course should be the subject that one finds most interesting and stimulating, not most difficult; many young people are imaginative, innovative and irrepressible, exams are always stressful, but to be able to sit in a library and study all day is, to some, a pleasure and a privilege; most so-called "serious" courses of what many Conservatives believe to be the Golden-Age of education (the 50s to the 70s) are more impractical for industry than much-maligned courses like Media Studies and Sociology.

Here is an article from The Times that I cut out 2 days before A-Level results day 2004. It was a time when I was absorbed in my studies and other disciplines but knowing that a hard rain was gonna fall.

The Times Tuesday August 17 2004

Good luck, kids. There’s a lot more to making the grade than A-Levels.
Libby Purves

It’s A-Level results week. Rituals will take place. Newspapers will carry pictures of girls in tight, strappy tops, shrieking attractively. Education pundits will chunter about grade inflation. Ministers will say that whatever happens just proves what a good job the Government is doing.

Meanwhile, university admissions officers will sweat over figures praying that they were not so over-generous with offers that they end up with insufficient tutors or accommodation. In families where someone didn’t make their grades, determined parents will stand over sons and daughters while they phone the faculty in quavering voices to beg for clemency. There will be a political row about private schools.

And, most dispiriting of all, there will be a rush for “clearing”. This is a grim business whereby universities – desperate to get bums on seats – publish lists of vacancies, and students with bruised egos calculate whether Business with American film at Grubthorpe will prove an adequate replacement for Modern American History at Rummidge. Actually, it might. But it might not: and such decisions are over-hasty. You are 18 and terrified at being left out of the loop and not at “uni” like your mates, so you plunge. One in six of you then drops out, in debt and still without a degree.

By and large, it ought to be a hopeful week, a mass launching of keen teenagers into the first phase of adult life. Sadly, it often isn’t. There is unease in the air, born of the widespread questioning of exam standards, university admissions and degrees themselves. There is also healthy, but depressing, scepticism about the Government’s unsupported conviction that however much you expand Higher Education, a degree will confer higher earnings. In the name of this belief it insouciantly throws young people into enormous debt, and some cases endorses three years of drifting and dissipated idleness.

Moreover, hanging over even the happiest students is the uncomfortable knowledge that, on present trends, some eight million will be back home in three years’ time, living with weary parents and applying for even duller jobs.

It is not education politics I want to focus on, but something more primitive and individual. If the difficulties and decisions of this week make anything plain, it is the need for those setting out in life to have the best sort of confidence. This does not mean the insanely high self-esteem, all too familiar to employers, in which children are so overpraised that they come to believe that the world owes them a fabulous job just because they passed some exams. I mean a realistic confidence: self-knowledge, balance, a quiet awareness of what natural talents you have and how much you need to refine them.

It means intelligent observation of the real world – not the TV screen – and respect for the experience of your elders. It means a willingness to go on learning. It means being steady enough in your own emotional life, even during interludes of broken-heartedness, to endure slights at work without internalising them and wailing that you are a failure.

Real confidence means – well, just about the whole of Kipling’s If, really. It’s a lot to as. But you do see it from time to time, and its owners are blessed. They will not collapse in tears over their A-level results, or sign up for some pointless course and spend the next three years lying in till noon, alternately despising themselves and fantasising about being discovered by Steven Spielberg. They will stand aside, think carefully, then take their own path.

How can we grow such realistically confident people, willing to step away from the lemming mainstream, and trust both themselves and life? When I look around at the way we manage children from birth onwards, it seems to me that almost every trend makes us less likely to produce such steady beings. We have our babies in an atmosphere of febrile anxiety over everything from IVF to MMR; then we bombard them with material goods but with ever less parental time.

We send them, increasingly in their earliest infancy, into day nurseries whose basic flaw is demonstrated in that horrible BBC undercover film last week. It showed that where you have low-paid, low-status, pig-stupid employees, who don’t love your children, they will treat them badly. There have been various defences attempted – claims that the filming was unrepresentative, that hygiene flaws were no worse than many homes and that many mothers shout. But the sound of those girls’ loveless, contemptuous barking at confused babies was so real and frightening that even our dog got seriously upset, and came to sit shivering next to my chair for the whole programme.

What are these infants learning? That you must conform, sit on the correct mat, eat and sleep at the correct time, and never express your fear or loneliness.

Then we send them to school. Where we repeatedly test them on a rigid curriculum; this has its advantages, but conducted in large class groups it means that teachers are hampered in their instinct to respond with joyful humanity to children’s individual curiosity. Lessons are “delivered”, increasingly often by untrained classroom assistants, so there is less scope for questioning than there should be. Yet it is permission and time to question which best breeds confidence.

We lightly cause them grief by divorcing; yet at the same time we are so terrified for their physical safety that we barely trust them to go out alone, certainly not to converse with interesting strangers. Trash TV and aggressive computer games are their companions. Small wonder if fantasy grips adolescents as the family erodes. I sometimes think that the best hope for the next generation is that this lot watch The Simpsons: they at least do family life con brio and con amore.

As they grow older, we do allow them out, there to be exploited by cynical pop and fashion industries. We kowtow to an ersatz teen “culture” which is heavily sexualised. Many, in consequence, have full sex too early, assisted by sex educators handing out condoms and morning-after pills; again there is damage to developing confidence. You might think that such affair would be a maturing experience, and maybe where true love is concerned, they sometimes are. But social research proves that boys do it to prove they aren’t gay, and girls do it because the boys put pressure on. The result is that before the age of 18many children have suffered at least one full scale sexual betrayal, given themselves totally and then been dumped and traduced as a bad lay. This emotional battering may harden them outwardly, but I do not think it builds the kind of realistic, relaxed confidence which carries you happily through the transition from to adult life.

These are social trends; of course there are exceptions. There are happy, preoccupied geeks, swots, bookworms, nerds, Goths and hippies; there are children whose upbringing has been steady – or eccentric – enough to make them immune to the cruelties of fashion. There are adolescents lucky enough to have adult mentors who help them to real satisfying mastery – whether of a guitar or of a boat or a charity fundraising effort or a poetic form. There are young people who would please Kipling: who fill the unforgiving minute, trust themselves, can dream without making dreams their master, handle disasters and keep their heads – even about A-level results – when all around are losing theirs.

Of course there are. May they flourish. All I am saying is that an awful lot of verifiable social trends militate against the rising generation turning out that way. Our culture reflected in our media, is nervous, materialistic, petulant, self-indulgent, emotionally incontinent, ignorant of its roots and morbidly obsessed with appearances.

To emerge from it calm, graceful, generous, modest and hardworking is quite an achievement. More than any A grades. Good luck, kids: it’s you that count, not the label.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

My attempts at writing fiction as an undergrad....

the first drafted piece I handed in of my dissertation had a response consisting of five words(and five punctuation marks) at the bottom:
Plot? Psychological insight? Social insight?

The characters were based on various Warringtonians (mostly bar-room philosophers) and teachers I'd had in my life. They tended to involve imagined relationships between people from entirely different compartments of my life.

I had to go back almost a year to a response to a novel I'd begun to find the key as to how to turn things around. I must have written 2000 words (of 6000) in one sitting, and in the middle of this was a paragraph that wasn't revised or particularly thought about, was highly elliptic but was apparently bursting with yearning and pathos.

Then, a short story called Drizzle was my first wholly successful piece in writing about vacuousness and banality in a way that wasn't vacuous and banal. It had three main characters, an alcoholic, living in his brother's house in Suburbia and struggling to find inspiration for his poetry; a young piano teacher, teaching the daughter of the man who was her favourite school teacher, and an eleven year-old boy playing football on his own, and what's going on in their, in various ways, limited imaginations is infinitely more vivid than the outer world: the lazy canal that the ball nearly rolls into; the garage door that it thunders into; the Grade 1 piece that the girl is teaching.

In the two and a half years since I wrote 'Drizzle', I have gained immeasurable insight into this vacuousness. About eighteen months before I wrote it I was having a conversation in somebody's basement and after about half an hour of being there he started to giggle and tell me that a mutual acquaintance of ours had jumped off a bridge and died. I've learned since that, while this guy is an extreme example, he is a mere microcosm of an indifference and an arbitrary cruelty that is very common in the world.

In an atmosphere that generally resists scholarly thought, whose idea of 'making conversation' is actually the opposite of mutual communication, and resists imaginative activities that aren't passive, I feel as if I'm making progress.