I Am a Racist

I’m going to hold my hand up here and say, I am a racist. Not that I think the murder of George Floyd was a justified act, nor the killing of Trayvon Martin or Stephen Lawrence or any of the black people who have been killed by the police or whose killers have gone free because black lives matter less. Of course I don’t think that. Of course I want to protest about it and put a Black Lives Matter status on my Facebook page and read about it and go on protests. Nor do I think it’s insignificant that BAME people are suffering much worse from the virus and from its economic effects; nor do I think it’s unimportant that we have far fewer black people in Parliament or at the top of business or any other area you care to name. I’m your standard white liberal anti-racist. Why then do I say I am a racist?

I say that because time and again I am ashamed to recognise in myself attitudes of inequality when it comes to race. Stereotypes, value judgments, attitudes laid down long ago have festered unrecognised and although, since they arrived unconsciously it wasn’t my fault, it is my responsibility to get rid of them. Just as in the garden I’m not responsible for the horsetail rearing its ugly mane everywhere, it is my job to get rid of it. (Except you can never get rid of horsetail, but that’s another story.)

I suspect we all have subtle racism inside us; I remember a guy I once knew who was setting up some kind of Oriental business, I forget what. He sounded British but looked a little Middle-Eastern and he told me one of his parents was Iranian. ‘I expect we’re all a little bit racist,’ he said, and I didn’t want to agree but he’s right. If the face doesn’t fit we don’t buy the product, and racial stereotypes are as much a part of that dynamic as gender and class. I’ve caught myself thinking ‘what’s he doing here?’ when I see a black guy behind the counter in, say, a bank; and though I immediately tell myself off for the thought, it’s there; it arises: it’s in me. And we can blame whatever we like; our upbringing, the media, stereotyping in the arts; but at the end of the day it’s our responsibility to confront our own racism and deal with it. Get rid of the horsetail. I wonder if peeing on it would help? Knowing horsetail it’d probably encourage the bloody stuff. As to racism I guess it’s like getting rid of any unwanted characteristics; guilt or self-loathing or fear. We just have to work on it; recognise it when it rears its head and teach ourselves to think differently.

Back in Loughborough it’s not quite business as usual but it’s getting there. One thing I definitely haven’t missed is the traffic, and there is definitely more of it around. It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just the volume of traffic, but it’s not. It’s the behaviour; the aggression, the impatience, the revving of engines and jumping of lights and worst of all the parking on pavements. As a pedestrian you don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe crossing the road or even walking on the pavement, and I don’t think that’s paranoia. Yesterday there was a car parked half on the pavement, half on the road, as the driver had stopped to take a phone call. OK full marks for not driving whilst on the phone but they had stopped right on a bend where you can’t see traffic coming, giving me the choice of either walking out into the road or pushing past a wet hedge. I chose the hedge and as I pushed through I made a gesture indicating the lack of space and mouthing the words ‘Not helpful.’ They did not look apologetic but at least they looked at me; it’s infuriating to be ignored. There was a side-road a little further up; they could have turned in there instead. They could have apologised. I’d have felt better instead of feeling that I don’t matter.

It’s the tiniest thing beside what’s happening to black people in the US, to feel that you as a pedestrian don’t matter, that your needs are not important and that you can be threatened at any moment by those with powerful engines, but perhaps it gives us a tiny inkling of what it might be like to be black in the US (and elsewhere). So let’s say it again: pedestrian lives matter, all lives matter and BLACK LIVES MATTER.

from Black Lives Matter Facebook page. Image removed on request

Kirk out

What is Truth?

From time to time this blog will wax philosophical and grapple with the hard questions – and today we consider the question posed by Pontius Pilate to Jesus: What is Truth? I’ve always thought Pilate got a bad press; he didn’t after all want to condemn Jesus and like any politician he was just looking for a way out. In the end it was the Pharisees who killed Jesus; the Romans were merely the instrument, though god knows they were hardly pacifists.

It’s easier in a way to say what truth is not: or perhaps where it is not. It is not in government briefings, that’s for sure – these have not been so much economical with the truth as austere with it. It is not in any of Dominic Cummings’ ‘explanations’ of his recent outings (this episode of Have I Got News for You takes him apart brilliantly). There is a saying that truth will out, and sometimes it seems accurate. But it doesn’t always. Will we ever know who Jack the Ripper really was? Or why Dominic Cummings actually went to Barnard Castle?

Truth is like gold; it must be tested before being accepted as real. Truth can come from any source, though trust must count for something and those who lie for a living must expect to be routinely disbelieved even when they tell the truth (a stopped clock is right twice a day, it’s just that without another clock you can’t tell when.)

Is beauty truth, as Keats put it? And if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does that mean truth is there also? The trouble with where we are now is that truth is plural. There’s your truth and my truth, and they run on parallel lines or else go off at tangents. There may seem to be a consensus but as social media highlights, there are raging whirlwinds of opinion in all corners of society. Yes, everyone has a right to be heard; but not all opinions are equally valid, and without proper debate the truth of them can never be tested. We’ve moved from a situation where only the elite were purveyors of truth – like dealers in indigo in ancient Rome – to a situation where everyone has their opinion and the winner is the one who can shout – or shoot – the loudest. It may look like freedom but it’s actually a free-for-all: equality plus competition equals mayhem.

What then do we need? I would respectfully suggest the following list, which is far from exhaustive:

That no-one, not even scientists, has a monopoly on truth. Truth may come from anywhere but, like scientific theory, needs to be subjected to rigorous debate and testing.

That the polarisation of debate leads to a fragmented and chaotic society. I generally do not unfriend people I disagree with on Facebook (unless they become abusive) but the tendency of Facebook to become an echo chamber tends towards the maximum.* Unless we’re careful we can spend all our time talking to people who agree with us or abusing those who don’t.

That we need open, honest and above all respectful debate. Everyone, no matter who they are or what their position in society, has the right to an opinion. But like scientific data these opinions must be tested rigorously, by being subject to question and debate. It is not a denial of someone’s free speech to suggest that they are talking bollocks; nor is it abusive to demolish their argument. But all too quickly such debates end in abuse.

That we need more face-to-face contact. People are rarely as rude in real life as they are on social media; plus the extra-linguistic factors help to convey what mere printed words cannot. Tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, body language – these all help us to understand what the other person is saying, and emojis are no substitute.

This is not rocket science. So when lockdown ends, let’s get to it!

Kirk out

* The second law of socioodynamics, perhaps?

And guess what I found after posting this? I found this:

How Did He Die? Alas, He Died of Plot

Since I’ve been reading both Hilary Mantel and Heresy, the book given away with it, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction. Until Mantel came along this was not a genre I’d read much, not since going through a Georgette Heyer phase in my teens at least. But along came Wolf Hall and of course I had to read that, and then its sequels. I don’t think it’ll start me reading other historical fiction, though you never know; when I struck out into the unknown terrain of Rebus’s Edinburgh I had no idea that it would lead me to Peter May, Nicci French and Peter James. So we’ll see.

The thing about historical fiction is that unlike crime fiction (unless you choose to write about an actual crime) the plot is already there. History is already written and unless you play about on the borders of fantasy you can’t have Henry VIII sticking with Katharine of Aragon or Elizabeth I marrying Francis Bacon. Historical fiction sticks to the facts and plays around them; so with Thomas Cromwell Mantel takes the known facts and from them constructs a character utterly unknown to us until that point. The plot is there but the characters are all to play for.

Not so S J Parris. Yes, she takes a world where Protestantism is still struggling to establish itself, where Catholics are being weeded out and brutally murdered; and centres in this world the character of Giordano Bruno, himself a Catholic visiting Oxford to give a lecture on the Copernican view of the universe. Yet where Mantel entirely enters her world, lives in it, inhabits her characters and thus allows us to live there too for a span, Parris’s characters are little more than ciphers awaiting the dispensations of the plot. There is no reason why any of them should die, apart from reasons of plot. Why did so-and-so die? He died of plot. Two characters have already died of plot and I suspect there are many more to come. Basically this is Agatha Christie in Elizabethan Oxford, and the research is front and centre: whereas Mantel’s historical details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, Parris gives us great wodges of exposition until like a tormented Catholic we cry ‘enough! No more!’

There are difficulties at times with Mantel’s style – it can be a little convoluted but it is never, ever clunky. She knows the effect she wants to achieve and like an artist applies layer upon layer to build up a complex and subtle effect. Parris, on the other hand, tells without showing and her dialogue is lengthy and at times much too modern.

I’ve been perhaps a little hard on Heresy. After all, I’m still reading it, so it has passed at least the first test of any book. And why am I still reading it? Because I want to know what happens; in other words, because of Plot. (And it is only fair to point out that others have enjoyed the books – there’s a series, apparently – much more than I.)

Kirk out

Things Fall Apart

My next read, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, fell through the letterbox on Saturday and I spent the morning getting through an alarming number of pages. At this rate I thought, it’ll only last me a day. I’d better ration it – and so I put it away and took out Heresy by S J Parris. This work of historical fiction (the initials perhaps a wish to disguise gender since studies have shown that male or gender-neutral names do better with publishers) was given away by Waterstones with each copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and I’m not sure it entirely did it a service since it almost looks like how to do historical fiction alongside how not to do it. I find it inexplicable how writers are often praised who have an unbearably clunky style, who tell instead of showing and who have characters conveniently calling each other by their full names so that we know exactly who they are (‘Ah, Sir Phillip Sidney! How goes the poetry?’ ‘Ah, Giordano Bruno, as I live and breathe! So you have come to speak about Copernicus’ theory that the Earth goes round the sun?’) OK so that’s not an exact quote, but it’s not far off. Still, in spite of all that it’s a reasonably good read – and I may come back to the question of how to and how not to do historical fiction. Not that I’ve attempted it myself; far too much research for my liking.

So what else did I do with my weekend? Saturday involved a lot of sitting in the garden, but by Sunday I could no longer ignore the rampant convolvulus and (gnashes teeth) horsetail and so I did enter the shed, gird myself with gloves and wellies, arm myself with the strimmer and sally forth to do battle with the bastards. I have driven them back but have no doubt they will advance again – are even now preparing an advance – and we shall have to do battle many more times ere the summer is done. Which at this rate will be November.

Weeds aside, there has been a Nigerian theme to this weekend. It is a frequent rallying cry of OH that men cannot be feminists because they cannot truly understand the female experience; OH therefore had a big problem with Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie’s talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (I had not so long ago read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the brief history of Biafra.) The Nigerian author delivered this TED talk to an audience of mostly black women (and some men) and there was a great deal of delighted laughter when she spoke about attitudes in Nigeria which, from what she said, seem to be parallel to attitudes here in the ‘fifties (I don’t say that to be disparaging, it’s just an observation.) Much of what she said was therefore familiar to a Western audience; but her insistence that men should be feminists also and that they have nothing to lose by so doing, was an important one, and something I feel we have yet to learn. It remains a source of regret to me that feminism in the West came of age concurrently with global capitalism and so has become imbued with the spirit of individualism and competition that Thatcher so vividly personified. We need to rediscover cooperation – and perhaps now is the time to do it.

Speaking of which I rounded off the day with this documentary on Dominic Cummings. I haven’t finished it yet but if I ever wondered whether people were caricaturing him unfairly, I wonder no longer. It’s a horror story. More of this anon when I’ve finished watching it but for now, tatty-bye and have a good week.

Urg. Now I’ve gone and reminded myself of Ken Dodd.

Kirk out

Are We Still Fighting Them on the Beaches?

It’s tempting to wonder how much of current British (or English) politics can be explained by the aftermath of the last war. With the 75th anniversary of VE day not long ago and with Brexit still hanging in the air like mustard gas, it seems to explain a lot, including why people might have held their noses and voted for Johnson. In fact as this Guardian article suggests they may have voted for him because of his faults rather than in spite of them. It was clear Johnson was a narcissist. He thinks of himself as Winston Churchill whereas the Churchill dog is nearer the mark. Cummings proposes; Johnson says ‘Awww yesss!’

Cummings, if reports are to be believed, is particularly good at three-word slogans. Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done – these were clear vote-winners. Stay at Home was even better as it had the virtue, unlike the others, of actually making sense. But there is a growing feeling that his slogans no longer make sense. Do Your Duty is particularly hollow coming from a man who thinks the rules don’t apply to him; and for those who fought in the war or did other duties as well as those unable to be with loved ones as they died, it is particularly insulting; and for these reasons I don’t think it’s going to go away.

But still, there are worse people in the world and one of them was Jeffrey Epstein. We’ve been watching a documentary series about him on Netflix and he’s emerging as a man who would stop at nothing in his need to control others, be they politicians or police officers or women or other financiers. Johnson is a narcissist, sure, but he wants to be liked; to be seen as a jolly showman, a master of ceremonies who shows up to bask in glory and use words like ‘fantastic’ and ‘world-beating.’ Surely by now it must be dawning on his supporters just how hollow these words are?

But with or without Johnson I think the illusion largely remains in this country that we can ‘go it alone’, both economically and in every way. The tragedy of global capitalism is that we have global trade but parochial attitudes, whereas it ought to be the other way round: ‘think globally, act locally’, not ‘buy globally, think parochially.’

Kirk out

What Do You Think of it So Far? Rubbish!

British readers of a certain age will get the reference right away. At a certain point during their show, Ernie Wise would turn to Eric Morecambe with a hopeful boyish grin and say ‘What do you think of it so far?’ to which Eric would always reply ‘Rubbish!’ So – what do you think of it so far? It’s pretty rubbish, isn’t it? We have the worst death rate in Europe, a chaotic response to the crisis and a government advisor who breaks his own rules and refuses to apologise and a Prime Minister who by backing him, jeopardises not only his own position but the standing of his government. Rubbish barely covers it. As Marina Hyde points out in the article I quoted yesterday, Boris Johnson wanted to be Prime Minister. He wants to have been Prime Minister. It’s just the bit in between that he struggles with. What a clown.

So let us consider the opposition’s response. I’m reserving judgment on Keir Starmer; I don’t see him as another Blair, as many on the left have suggested, though he’s certainly not another Corbyn. He seems cautious in his approach, which may be because that’s his nature or may be because he’s wary of taking too many risks at this stage. It’s the predicament of every Labour leader; with most of the press automatically against you, do you pursue a radical agenda or do you play it safe? Either way you can’t win. But since I was highly critical of those who never gave Corbyn a chance, I feel duty bound to give Starmer a chance – at any rate his current policy of standing back and letting the government destroy itself seems a sensible one.

Speaking of duty, I see Johnson has had the temerity to call on the public’s sense of duty in co-operating with the ‘trace, track and test’ programme; and many of today’s headlines rightly call upon him and Cummings to lead by example. Johnson seems to be getting daily further out of touch with public opinion. Well, this is what you get for electing a narcissist.

Kirk out

‘No Such Thing as Society,’ Implies Cummings

If you think about it, the recent actions of Dominic Cummings illustrate perfectly the Thatcherite maxim there’s no such thing as society.* In putting himself and his family first, in neglecting the needs of others and the common good, he exemplified that maxim in action. Me and mine come before you and yours; that’s what it boils down to, plus an egoistic plan to interpret the rules in your own way. Supposing we all did this? Supposing we applied our own interpretations to, say, the speed limit? I might say ‘Well, I know it’s supposed to be thirty round here but it’s fairly quiet so I choose to interpret the speed limit as forty-five.’ Or, on the motorway I might say ‘Yes I know it’s actually seventy but I take that as a rough guideline. The road is clear so I interpret seventy to mean up to eighty-five.’ And so on. This is the worst kind of egoism and yes, we are all prone to it; I cannot hold my hand up and say I’ve never broken the speed limit. I find it very hard to stick to thirty mph on a straight road with no traffic; I am often tempted to exceed seventy on the motorway. However, were I caught I would absolutely expect to suffer the penalty. I would I hope admit my mistake.

* To be fair, Thatcher may not have been suggesting that people should be quite as selfish as this implies. She was telling people to look after themselves and their families first; it was an argument against the state rather than ‘society’; however it has been interpreted by Left and Right alike as a call to rampant individualism.

And therein lies the problem. Had Cummings only apologised his job would not now be under threat. Had he acknowledged the insult to the rest of us who followed the rules; people dying alone, people unable to see dying members of their family, people risking their lives to self-isolate; his job would not now be under threat. Instead he came up with an ‘explanation’ that insults not only our suffering but also our intelligence. Yes, we are all prone to error and should be slow to judge others who err. But as Rev Richard Coles pointed out (on his Facebook page) you cannot be a law-maker as well as a law-breaker. You must hold yourself to a higher standard. Cummings must go – and the sooner the better. Now. Today.

And here, Marina Hyde in the Guardian has a brilliant and witty analysis of why Johnson is reluctant to sack him.But I shall conclude with some words of Oscar Wilde might have uttered in this situation: ‘Never speak slightingly of society. Only those who can’t get into it do that.’

Kirk out