Truth Won’t Out?

At some point in the Harry Potter series when Harry is being unjustly defamed, Mr Weasley says to him: ‘As the Muggles say, truth will out!’ Speaking as a Muggle, I used to think ‘truth will out’ too but now I’m starting to wonder – will it? And if it does, will it make any difference? If people are so mired in alternative scenarios, will anything convince them that they’re wrong? Will anything change the minds of Trump supporters who still believe, despite everyone saying in tones of increasing weariness, ‘there’s no evidence’, that the election was ‘stolen’? Who believe that like King Arthur (only much less noble) Trump will return? It’s hard to imagine the Donald chuffing along banging two coconuts together and telling his citizens in mild tones, ‘I am Arthur, King of the Britons, come back to rule you all’ but I’m sure that’s what his supporters expect to happen any day now (for coconuts read private jet, of course).

Over here there are signs that the appeal of Johnson is losing its sheen. But will the truth about this government ever come out? And if it does, will his supporters believe it? And what about those who think Covid is a hoax? Will anything convince them?

I think at this point we should turn to C S Lewis. In The Last Battle he shows how a group of dwarfs, by being determined not to be ‘taken in’, refuse to believe the evidence of their senses and instead reconstruct it in some other way. When they are given a delicious feast, rather than accepting this as a sign of their mistake, they persuade themselves that they are in fact eating scraps from a dungeon floor; they literally cannot see the light because they believe themselves to be in the dark.

This is exactly what happens with prejudice. Say there is a general opinion that women can’t do bricklaying. Does this opinion change when a woman builds a wall? No! She is categorised as unnatural, not a ‘proper woman’. When a person’s mind is made up – or to put it another way, when prejudice is ingrained – not even a whole building site full of women will change it. On the other hand Murray believes he can win his second round match and he wins it – though not before putting himself and us through the wringer as he usually does. So if seeing is not believing, maybe believing is seeing?

What I am seeing but not believing is this sodding weather. It’s June, FFS, and it’s 14 degrees! I think I’ll decide to believe that it’s 25 degrees and sunny. Will that work?

Kirk out

54 Tyres!

The cycling is already making a huge difference to my well-being and I’ve even lost a couple of pounds, so that’s all good. But there was no bike ride yesterday as we went to visit my granddaughter. It was great to see her; she’s doing very well and constructing fairly complex sentences. We took her a couple of books and she let me read them to her, which is an advance – not having seen us much in the last year she’s been a bit wary. On the way back we counted the number of abandoned tyres on the motorway – between here and Doncaster, a distance of about 64 miles, there were 54! 54 abandoned tyres! How does this happen? And why are they left there? When all other debris is gathered up from an accident, why are there so many abandoned tyres propped up or lying against the central reservation? I think we should be told. When we got to Junction 23 we found it was closed due to road works so we discovered a delightful diversion via J 22 by way of the B591, a lovely twisty road that takes you through Charnwood and right into Loughborough.

I’m very keen on B roads; they’re a much-neglected feature of our infrastructure and often way more interesting than A roads. They’re definitely nicer than motorways, and the time you ‘save’ going by motorway (although that ‘saving’ is a dubious benefit) is amply compensated by the interest of the journey. B roads have a history which motorways lack; they’re often built on Roman roads (we used to live on the old Fosse Way) and you can observe the houses, the farms and the countryside. This is nothing, of course, to what cycling shows you; going to Quorn the other day, even though I was mostly riding alongside the A6, I could observe the hedgerows as I went past and enjoy the blossom. I have a feeling that someone’s written a book about the joys of B roads, but I could be wrong: unfortunately all Google shows me are the Norfolk Broads.

What does it mean, anyway, to save time? I guess it means spending less time doing the things you don’t enjoy in order to spend more time doing the things you like. But do we? Have you ever added up the time you’ve saved and asked yourself what you’ve done with it? Albert Camus had this idea that the best way to appreciate time was to stand in a queue and leave when you get to the end of it. That doesn’t sound particularly positive to me, but I do try when standing in a queue to appreciate the time and notice what’s around me or observe my thoughts, rather than getting impatient. Of course I could probably have saved time by using a different checkout but what would I do with that golden minute I’d saved?

Maybe every evening we should count up the time we’ve saved and do something definite with it. Play the piano, learn a language, take up a new hobby. Or maybe just do nothing at all…

I’ll leave you with a quote I came across the other day in the Guardian:

‘Being a productive member of society is now a 24-hour project that consumes all the space needed for inner development.’

I may come back to this in another post.

Kirk out

Have the Lights Changed?

I slept really well last night, so naturally I feel exhausted. Why it should be that after a crappy night I can be really productive but after a good night of the deep and dreamless I’m fit for nothing is just another one of life’s mysteries. Hey ho, onwards and upwards…

I’ve been thinking lately about this whole watched-pot-never-boiling phenomenon. I always assumed it to mean that a watched pot never seems to boil because you’re watching it and because the time goes slowly when you’re waiting for something to happen – but now I’m beginning to wonder. Is it possible that the thing you’re watching – in this case an inanimate pot containing water being agitated by heat (is water inanimate? That’s an interesting question; I guess tap water is) – that this inanimate object can be affected by your observation of it. Is that possible? And if so how would it work? It’s mysterious, but I’m convinced this is a universal principle of human life; that the thing we are watching, waiting for it to change, will not actually change until we take our eye off it.

It is undoubtedly true that time is distorted when you’re waiting impatiently for something. It used to seem to me that traffic lights took several minutes to change, but one day I timed them and I found on average it was 20-30 seconds; not long at all. Some take longer, naturally, depending on the road conditions, but really 20 seconds is a very short time so I’m trying to train myself not to watch them but to think about something else. The number of traffic lights the average driver will encounter in a day, you don’t need that level of impatience in your life.

But is it actually true – could it actually be true – that things only change when you look away? I know that many a time I’ve sat drumming my hands on the wheel, got distracted by something on the pavement and only realised when somebody toots me from behind that the lights have changed while I wasn’t looking. Like the Beatles’ man who blew his mind out in a car, I didn’t notice that the lights had changed. But it isn’t just traffic lights where this happens: I firmly believe that if you have a problem, no matter what it might be – whether financial, logistical, emotional, psychological – you can wrestle with it and try different solutions but in the end it will only change when you’re not looking. Sometimes change can be so subtle and gradual that rather than turning from red to red and amber and then green, it gently shades through the different hues of the rainbow and you realise that while you were looking the other way the lights had changed.

What do you think? Is this something you’ve experienced? Is it a universal phenomenon?

I think we should be told.

Kirk out

Why Oh Why Oh Why?

Every parent knows that at around three or four years old your child will go through a ‘why?’ phase. Doesn’t matter what you say, they just keep on asking why. Why is the playground? Well, it’s so children can play. Why? Because children like playing. Why? Because play is how children learn? Why? Because that’s the way children are made. Why? And so on. OH is the only parent I have ever known who has exhausted a child’s ‘why’ phase, delighting in these questions and giving the fullest possible answers until the child gets fed up and decides it’s just not worth it. I tried various tactics such as ‘why do you think it is?’ but the child was wise to that and just kept on pumping out whys until I asked myself why I’d ever thought being a mother was such a great idea. But I also think OH came up with the best explanation of the ‘why?’ phase, which is that the child just wants you to keep on talking and has fixed on the word ‘why?’ as the best way to achieve this.

But whether or not children want to know why, adults certainly do. I’ve noticed that no matter what problems I’m going through, they always ease mightily when I know why. If I can see a reason for something happening, the clouds part and the weight is lifted; even though the problem remains, it doesn’t oppress me nearly as much. And so it was last night. I went to bed later than usual feeling properly tired, closed my book and laid my head on the pillow, wishing I could do what I did when I was younger and read lying down with the book propped up beside me. I closed my eyes. Instantly my brain started jumping like a hyperactive child. I tried all the usual tricks; whole-body relaxation, mental exercises and slow breathing – nothing worked. I lay awake for ages and finally fell into an unsatisfactory doze from which I awoke around six. I was very perplexed by this. Normally as long as I’m tired enough I’ll fall asleep without too much hassle, even if I do wake early. I lay awake wondering what could be happening. Was it a delayed reaction to the jab? And then it hit me: it was the tea! Yesterday morning I had a strong pot of tea, my first for ages, and this was the result. Immediately I felt lighter and even though I didn’t go back to sleep, I wasn’t worried about it.

No matter what’s going on in your life, it’s important to know why. And that’s why philosophy matters: science can give us the how but only philosophy can give us the why. Though I must say it’s bloody annoying not to be able to have the occasional post of hot, strong tea without suffering the consequences.

Kirk out

No Such Thing as Sociology?

I had the impression that sociology wasn’t much studied nowadays, but a cursory google search found more than a hundred courses, most of them sociology combined with other subjects but still. It was very much in vogue when I was at uni and I’m sure it’s a very interesting subject but sadly for my projected blog post, it’s still alive and well: I was going to have a rant about how, now that there’s no such thing as society, we’re not encouraged to study it either so there’s no such thing as sociology. But there you go. One thing I know is out of vogue is the study of philosophy – or so I thought, but a trawl of the nation’s universities brings up a hundred places you can study it. So what is really going on here and why do we never seem to hear about these subjects?

I’m fairly certain that in society as a whole philosophy is not much valued. I mean, when you work in the money markets what use are the novels of Plato? – to paraphrase the boring guy in Four Weddings and a Funeral. What use is it to spend three years of your life questioning the meaning of existence? I actually did some philosophy, though more or less by accident, when I studied French literature; Sartre and Camus straddle the boundary between literature and philosophy so you can’t do one without the other.

There’s a story told about the famous philosopher Socrates. He was walking one day with a pupil when a man came up to him and said, ‘What’s the point of philosophy?’ Without answering the man, Socrates immediately turned to his pupil and said, This man wishes to profit from learning. Give him a penny.’ Socrates had instantly divined that when the guy said ‘what’s the point?’ he was really asking, ‘Can I make money from it?’ and answered him accordingly. So what is the point of philosophy? Is there any point? Does it have to have a point? What’s the point of a new-born baby or a cloud that sheds no rain or a flower in the middle of a concrete slab? When it comes down to it, what’s the point of anything? And what do we mean when we say ‘What’s the point?’ What are we really asking?

On the whole I think we’re asking, what does it contribute to the world, by which we mean to society. What use is a flower growing in the middle of a patch of concrete? You could argue that it gives us hope in the midst of despair but what if nobody sees it? What’s the point of it then? What’s the point of a new-born baby? Yes, it gives the parents joy but you can’t eat joy, can you? And yes, it will grow up to be a useful and productive member of society and take care of its parents in their old age, but that’s way in the future. What’s the point of it now?

Some parents seem to take that attitude to their babies, farming them out to nannies and packing them off to school until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. Some societies take that approach to women, that all we’re good for is to provide children and do all the messy jobs men don’t want to do. The point of a woman is her function; the point of a baby is as a potential adult.

Balls. The point of everything is itself. And the point of philosophy is to study that.

Kirk out

All Right, You’ve Asked for It

Responses to yesterday’s post were very kind and basically said, carry on doing what you’re doing. So I shall.

I’d like to begin by considering George Floyd’s murderer. We can call him that now because he has been convicted of murder, as indeed he should. But what struck me all along apart from the sheer wanton brutality, was the man’s name, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin is French for prejudiced, as in male chauvinist, and I can never help wondering in these cases if there’s a connection between the name and the character.

Does a name make any difference to who you are? Would I be the same person if I were called Rosemary or Petra or Delilah? I can’t imagine being called anything but Liz (if this puzzles you check out the page Why Sarada?) But while Sarada was a name I chose, I only partly chose Liz, cutting it down from my birth name Elizabeth as soon as I hit puberty. Nobody calls me Elizabeth nowadays, on pain of – well, a pretty stern ticking off.

Last night I was watching a film about my namesake Liz Taylor. Burton and Taylor is an interesting biopic, focusing on the time after their second marriage and divorce when they collaborated on Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The film points up the difference between Richard Burton, who was a consummate actor, and Taylor, who was a star. Men seem to have found her endlessly fascinating but I think I’d have had no patience with her at all, always turning up late with armfuls of shopping and a gaggle of pointless yapping dogs. On the whole I think I prefer actors to stars.

So my question to you today is, who are the greatest actors around at the moment, whether on film, stage or TV? Pick one male and one female. I’m going to go with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keeley Hawes .

Kirk out

You Can’t Watch the Same Box-Set Twice

I have yet to come across Heraclitus in my Greek studies but it was he who famously said, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’ If you think about it, this is true for two reasons; first because the river is constantly moving and is not the ‘same’ river as it was even a moment ago; and secondly because you are not the same person as yesterday.

This requires some thinking about. We tend to view natural phenomena like rivers, mountains, seas etc, as fixed and discrete objects. Yet they change every day. Rivers change in a more obvious way than, say, mountains but even a mountain is different from moment to moment and never more so than in these days of climate change. (Incidentally I think people should stop climbing mountains, especially Everest which is now so litter-strewn as to become an object of global shame; not to mention the cost to Sherpas in rescuing people.) But we don’t even need climate change for Heraclitus’ comment to be valid, and even such a fixed object as a house is different in many ways from one day to the next. The air in it is different; objects are moved, even the atmosphere changes according to who is there.

The other half of the equation is the change in us. We are not the same from one moment to the next, though we imagine ourselves to be. This ‘persistence of being’ is necessary if we are to function at all; yet at every moment cells are dying and regenerating, our thoughts are changing and our emotions are changing. Even if we think we stand still or go round in circles, we are mistaken; there is no standing still and every circle is in fact a spiral, as Dante well knew.

Nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise to find that I can still get something new from watching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. The best novels give something fresh with every new reading: can the same be true of TV? Happily it can. For my money the Beeb’s 1996 version is the best Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen: I could write reams about the music, the settings, the costumes, the houses and the parks, but this time around it was the acting that caught my eye. Being someone who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag it’s always been something of a black art to me, but I found myself noticing more details this time around; nuances of voice and expression; the reactions of figures in the background, all of which mirror the subtle ways in which Austen herself builds up her effects, layer upon imperceptible layer. There’s very little in the way of ‘action’ in the modern sense – no car crashes or fights, no police chases, no glitz or glamour, no distractions. Nothing is hurried; the series takes its time and in six hour-long episodes (happily made in the era when an hour was an hour, not fifty minutes plus recaps and previews and trailers) the action unfolds. Though not everything in the novel is covered, no sub-plot is neglected and the ironies of the original emerge without being glaringly signposted. Those with selfish intent end up achieving the opposite of their aims; and as Miss Prism so keenly observed, the good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I think Mary Bennett is a sort of Miss Prism and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a prototype Lady Bracknell…

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:

Wealth is Wasted on the Wealthy

I had an idea or two in mind this morning but now they’ve flown, and I’m feeling a little like Fran in this clip from Black Books when, given a job as a favour from one of Manny’s underworld mates, she is asked to give a presentation with no clue as to what her job is about or even what the company does.

The rich – or at least those who comment in public on the issue of wealth inequality – are fond of saying that they ‘earned’ their money and therefore have a right to keep it, thereby implying that poor(er) folk just don’t work hard enough. There also seems to be an attitude that they know how to handle wealth, whereas poorer folk wouldn’t be able to. There may be some truth in this; a number of people who’ve won ridiculous amounts on the lottery fritter it away and end up as poor as they were before. But it’s about the mindset. How rich do you feel? Do rich people really, genuinely appreciate what they have? Or do they take it for granted and only want more? How many yachts is enough?

Of course ‘the rich’ are not a homogeneous group, any more than ‘the masses.’ It all depends on your perspective; when you look at crowds from a distance, people appear much closer together than they are in reality. So that although ‘the powerful’ (who are largely contiguous with ‘the rich’) always pull together when threatened, at other times they are probably further apart than we imagine. Like Orion’s belt, they only look like a constellation from where we’re standing.

I’m working on supposition here, since the wealthiest people I know have large houses in the suburbs and a social conscience; I don’t know anyone with a private jet or an estate or a fancy yacht, let alone any owners of multinational companies or bosses who get six-figure bonuses. (My brother-in-law did once have a boat but it sank a couple of years back after he’d spent years doing it up.)

But do rich people actually appreciate how rich they are? I suspect they don’t; furthermore I suspect that, just as I have no concept of what it would be like to have millions in the bank, so they have no idea what it’s like to worry about the rent or to choose between heating and eating. As Paul McKenna says, after a certain point it’s not about what you have but your attitude towards it. Are you poor in mind? Do you always want more? Do you compare yourself with others who have more? How rich do you feel? To be ‘poor and content’ may be a mealy-mouthed cliche but if you’re rich and discontented there’s nowhere to go. You’re on a treadmill.

So: as Fran so helpfully says, what are we doing? What’s it all about? Is this the best that we can be?

What am I doing here?

Watch the clip – it’s really funny.

Kirk out

PS I’ve recently learned the Greek for rich, which is ‘plautos’. Hence ‘plutocrat.’

I Falsed When I Should Have Trued

Joy! My Chocolate Bossa CD came yesterday. I’ve had a listen and I really like it. I shall listen again this morning.

I’ve been thinking about truth and lies. I guess, as both Liar Liar and The Invention of Lying illustrate, that most of us usually try to tell the truth most of the time. There has to be a good reason, something that trumps the truth, for us to tell a lie: fear of being sacked, perhaps, or reluctance to hurt someone. In any case as Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’ He was perhaps being disingenuous but it’s a good question and as I’ve recently found the Greek word for it, aletheia, it seems a good time to ponder it (actually to tell the whole truth, lol, I did know the Greek word already as it comes into Phillip Pullman’s alethiometer.)

But my concern this morning is with the difficulty we often have in telling lies effectively. In certain situations it can be hard to lie convincingly, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the panel game The Unbelievable Truth. It’s also on TV, called Would I Lie to You? but I haven’t watched it as I don’t like TV panel games. The idea in The Unbelievable Truth is that each member of the panel gives a short talk on a subject, all of which is false apart from five truths which they try to smuggle past. There’s obviously a great deal of skill to this, in trying seamlessly to work in five truths to a series of falsehoods; and the best players usually mislead the rest into identifying falsehoods as truths and vice versa. But what I’ve observed is that it’s often the rhythm that gives you away. Somehow those inexperienced in this game, no matter how clever their ruses, always give it away by telling a truth on the fourth ‘fact’ or by changing the tone of their voice or giving other cues. On the venerable TV series Call My Bluff where contestants had to give three definitions of a word only one of which was true, control of facial expression was key and those with the deadest pan, so to speak, killed it. So what I’m saying I guess is that the truth always wants to come through and most of us find it hard to suppress that.

All of which reminds me of this Peanuts cartoon about True or False tests where instead of studying Linus adopts a strategic approach: Image removed on request

Kirk out