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

Earth Day

It’s Earth Day today, a day when we try to stop doing all the things we normally do which f*** up the planet but which at the moment we are largely not able to do anyway; and it occurred to me that there’s a profound connection between caring about the earth and being grounded. If you have a connection with the soil; if you walk on it, grow stuff in it and nurture it, you become quite literally earthed. You are more stable, less likely to short-circuit, less likely to fly away into realms of psychosis. Nowadays if I ever feel a psychotic episode coming on I stop whatever I’m doing and just stand, feeling myself connected to a particular point in space and time. I am also convinced that our habit of flying not only damages the planet but disconnects us in every way from the earth.

Right now though I’m quite connected to ancient Greece: yes, my long-awaited book came yesterday and I plunged right in.

It’s a little daunting as it’s designed by Warwick University for philosophy students to learn Greek so they can read Plato in the original, and has chapters on various declensions, conjugations and tenses. Greek has three voices (practically a Greek chorus, lol) – active, passive and ‘middle voice’ and an ‘aurist’ tense about which I know nothing whatsoever. But hey, if philosophy students can do it, so can I.

I get extra brownie points today because I started work at 6 am. Yes, you read that right – 6 am. From time to time I get these ideas about getting up early and working right through: this is quite unrealistic because I generally work best in fairly short bursts, but today when I woke at 5.30 and felt I wouldn’t get back to sleep, it seemed meant to be. So I dressed and got to my desk and lo! by half past I’d run out of notebook. So another careful trip to the shops is in the offing.

Incidentally from a mental health point of view I’ve found that getting up early or going to bed late can induce psychosis. These are times when other people are not around and when daily activity is suspended, so they’re good times if you want to meditate but bad times if you need to be earthed.

Happy Earth Day.

Kirk out

The Daft Night of the Soul

I think the marriage vows ought to go like this: ‘to love and to cherish, to make each other laugh, to have and to hold…’ If they were I’d have done well lately, as I’ve been amusing OH with my recent attempts at a SWOT analysis. On a sheet of flip-chart paper I’ve put things on post-it notes and stuck them under four headings: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. A SWOT analysis is a standard business practice for thrashing out problems; it’s also a good thing for individuals to do on themselves. One of the typical questions interviewers ask is, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ to which the savvy applicant will answer by listing their strengths, and if pressed on weaknesses may say something like ‘I have a tendency to work too hard.’ LOL.*

OH was amused by my SWOT analysis though because at first I had nothing in the Strengths, Opportunities and Weaknesses columns but a cluster of little coloured Threats all flapping in the breeze of the open door. It stayed that way for a week or two – but now it’s changed because I’ve added some Weaknesses. Good eh? I daresay I’ll get around to S and O some time, but for now I’ve got plenty of TW.

One of my Threats (I’m not going to list them all) is The Dark Night of the Soul. This is a fear that if I progress in life, at some point it’s all going to fall apart, so the safest thing is to stay where I am. I hadn’t quite identified this fear before, but it’s a very real one – and this morning it occurred to me that if you do fall into a black hole, one way out might be laughter. I wonder if Dante ever thought of that? There aren’t many laughs in the Inferno, but perhaps there should be: it’s no coincidence that some of our greatest comics have suffered from depression. Spike Milligan, Robin Williams and Stephen Fry all spring to mind (though Fry is of course much more than a comedian) and I’m convinced that laughter is a good remedy for depression. So maybe in Opportunities I’ll put The Daft Night of the Soul.

There! I’ve made progress already. And it’s only nine forty-five.

I’ll probably post more about this later as I think it’s important.

Kirk out

*(Only better of course, because no interviewer would actually buy that.)

Let Me Splain it to You

Just in case you’re not familiar with the word mansplaining, it refers to the tendency of some men to inform women of what they already know. A good example is this, which happened to me a few months ago. I met a man at a Council of Faiths meeting and as soon as I told him I was a Quaker he proceeded to give me a run-down of Quaker history.

The starting point seems to be that we need to be kept informed and they are the man for the job. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that we might know this stuff already – that we might even be experts in our field – that, god forbid, we might actually be able to tell them something about it! No. They are like search engines picking up on a word and spewing out information on it. Except that I haven’t googled anything and I already have the information, thank you very much.

Of course as the definition above suggests, man– is not the only kind of –splaining. I may in the past have been guilty of whitesplaining, telling people of colour about their own culture or religion, though I hope not; there’s also ablesplaining, which I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you as you already get the idea.

Basically all types of splaining are about power relations. It’s about saying ‘I know more than you about this,’ even when it is blindingly obvious that the person concerned is living with whatever ‘this’ is and is therefore the definitive expert. It’s about positioning yourself above the other person, being the expert, the spokesperson.

So now I’ve explained this, you can stop bothering your pretty little heads about it…

Kirk out

It Ain’t Tosh, it’s Santosh

I know I’m bombarding you with posts at the moment but the brain is very fertile right now and who am I to resist? So as a companion piece or riposte, if you will, to the last post here is a tried-and-tested method of dealing with perfectionism, called Santosh.

It’s a Sanskrit word meaning ‘contentment’ (the very sound of it is comforting, and that’s no coincidence, as I’ll explain) but not the lying-on-the-sofa-watching-TV kind of contentment, if indeed that is contentment at all. No, it’s the contentment that consists in being satisfied with what you’ve achieved, no matter where you might end up. To paraphrase Kipling, it’s meeting with triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same (Kipling was born in India and was very influenced by ‘Eastern’ thought.) Anyway, leaving Kipling on one side for a moment, contentment or santosh is the practice of being content in the moment with what one has achieved. It does not imply self-satisfaction, nor does it prevent future progress; in fact I would suggest that without santosh there is no real progress.

Consider the case of someone (I know wherof I speak) who is overweight and desires to be slim. Their life may be dominated by self-disgust and thoughts of how they would like to look. But far from being a spur to achievement this is an obstacle because acceptance is lacking. Unless you can accept where you are – however briefly – you can’t move on: it’s like trying to find your way somewhere by putting the wrong postcode into your satnav.

Sanskrit is an ancient and astonishing language, and one in which sound and sense work closely together. This can be seen more clearly in the practice of mantra where a word or phrase has a meaning, a sound and an appearance, each of which can be used for meditation.

T-t-t-t-t-that’s all folks!

I miss seeing cartoons on telly.

Kirk out

Two Steps Forward, One Sideways, One Pirouette with Half-Pike and Turn, a Demi-Step Back and Then…

If I were any good at drawing I’d be able to do you the perfect diagram of what progress is like for me. It’s pretty much like the above: just when you think you’re getting somewhere and start to go ‘Aha! I see where this is leading!’ you find yourself not so much on a conveyor belt as a waltzer-cum-trapeze swing which lurches you in unpredictable directions, up and down and round and across and through… and my theory is that, in the immortal words of Chicken Run, this is about all of us. There are aspects of the self which lie hidden and forgotten until they surface, and in order for a person to progress, the whole self must move – which in my case involves the amalgam of complicated twists and turns detailed above. And so it is of late: for some reason over the last few days I’ve come on by leaps and bounds; I’m like the child at the head of the group who rushes on and keeps yelling to the others to catch up. But the others take their time. They need to explore a bit more, they have to be sure we’re going in the right direction. They consult maps and compasses and take a long, tedious time discussing it.

In the end I suspect that the self is not one person but legion, and that at any one time we happen to choose whichever part of us suits the situation we’re in and forget about the others for a while. But they will not be left behind; sooner or later they’ll make their presence known and we’ll have to let them catch up. It’s very trying, when you want to be cool and famous, to have to accommodate the legion of ruminating Quakers that live in your underclothes; you begin to feel like the young and sprightly leader of a coach party of shambling octogenarians. Yet there is nothing to be gained by chivvying them along; they will go at their own pace no matter what you say.

Actually I’ve no idea where I’m going with this post. But I’m sure one of the guys back there will have an idea. Hey, you guys! Where am I going with this? Anyone?

Aha! I sought inspiration from Proust and came across this, a questionnaire which he filled in twice in his life. I’ve missed out some of the questions but here are my answers. You might like to do it for yourself – it’s much better than those silly Facebook questionnaires.

My favourite virtue – compassion

My favourite qualities in a friend – sense of humour

My chief characteristic – complexity

My main fault – lack of physical courage

My favourite occupation – writing or socialising in the pub

My idea of happiness – it’s better not to have ideas but take happiness where you find it

My idea of misery – losing my family and friends

My favourite hero/ines in fiction – Pierre Bezuhov and Elizabeth Bennett

Try it for yourself. And don’t forget my 500th follower will get a FREE ebook of poetry or, if you prefer, a guest blog spot.

Kirk out

We’re All Editors

Lately as I have two projects waiting to be edited, my thoughts are on that process; what it means, what I’m aiming for, how to go about it, what to put in, what to take out and when to stop (always a problem as I can’t help going through taking out commas and putting them back again.) But whether or not we write, we are all editors of our lives: we edit our thoughts, our speech, our actions and our memories. This is not necessarily done with malicious intent – it may often be necessary – but sometimes like spring cleaning it’s good to take out the mind, give it a good deep clean and see what’s lurking at the back of the cupboard.

We all live in societies, and these societies make certain basic demands of us; that we behave in a certain way towards each other and avoid certain words and phrases. At best these are reasonable, such as the demand that we should not run another car off the road or barge into other shoppers in the mall or steal an old woman’s purse. Those who flout these rules are punished (yes, even Prince Phillip was forced to give up driving.) At worst the rules are oppressive, but in every case, as Orwell observed, we learn to edit our thoughts as well as our behaviour.

Then there’s the editing of memories. I know I do this a lot and it’s quite disturbing: for example, when I’ve had a terrible evening out I may well edit it the next day and replay it as ‘not too bad.’ Is that dishonest or is it merely a wish not to dwell on the negative? On the other hand I’ve had experience of editing a positive experience to make it so-so – and why would I do that? Is elation too hard to cope with? Is it easier to have a homogenised life?

Editing the memory is something we all do but it can be terribly dangerous. We wonder how those concentration camp guards can live with themselves – well that’s how. They just don’t remember it like it happened. And don’t even get me started on Donald Trump. I could say that the invention of videotape means people can’t get away with false memories, but as we know, videotape can also be edited. Not to mention faked. Hey, ho.

As for us ordinary, non-Nazi mortals, we probably can’t help editing our memories but we can stand back and observe; notice that it’s happening and ask ourselves why.

Today’s editing is that I shall be cutting the p-word out of my life. I shall be forgetting all about p*l*t*c* for the day and going to Leicester where I shall enjoy the shops and cafes, go to the Mothercare closing down sale and visit a friend in hospital.

But first I have to edit this post…

Kirk out