Category: opinions

What’s Your Story?

I was struck by how well the following extract seems to fit my previous post, the Marshal Amp monologue, which features a character who rejects hard evidence that goes against his favourite story:

Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

The extract is from a newspaper article by environment campaigner George Monbiot who makes a powerful case for replacing our old, cantankerous narratives with a new and kinder story. The full article is quite long but, in my opinion, well worth a read:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess

 

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Image: TED.com

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Under Cover

The jocular tone of my previous post masked a deeper unease.

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For some reason, I’m finding it increasingly hard to write at any length. It feels as if joining up ideas has become, well, unfashionable. Old hat. Yesterday’s news.

Today it’s all about soundbites, slogans, headlines, jingles, tweets – short stuff that can be repeated over and over until it sounds like something you’ve thought up yourself. It’s rather like being in some great big whispering gallery.

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As social animals, we are attuned to voices. And our natural instinct is to be loyal to others. When their voices become fragmented, our own inner voices break out in sympathy.

According to The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron, seven inner voices are the enemies of creativity:

  • the procrastinator says later
  • the victim asks why me?
  • the talker dissipates the urge
  • the critic makes us nervous
  • the judge deems the act unworthy
  • the author is obsessed with reception
  • the capricious guest is inspiration

As for me, I’m going to start tomorrow – if the noisy numbskulls around here will let me – and what I write is going to be the life-changing story of absolutely everything unless of course it’s been done many times before by better writers than me, there isn’t something more useful I could be doing and there isn’t a chance in hell anybody might want to read it even supposing that damned elusive muse condescends to pay me a flying visit …

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Oh well, while I’m waiting, perhaps I’ll stick to the short stuff. If you can’t beat ’em join ’em, eh?

Regular readers will know that I’m fond of keeping it short. Acrostic poems, haiku, 100 word stories – all of them over, almost, before they’ve begun!

Blink and you’ll miss them. But I like the idea that you can capture a whole world in a small space. And focussing on technical constraints like word and syllable counts can stop you stressing about content.

How not what.

Them wide open spaces give me the heebie-jeebies. Not enough cover. Too easy for them to pick you off.

Unless, of course, you go by train …

 

The Whitsun Weddings

By Philip Larkin
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
    Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
    Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Source of Fake News Found!

Sometimes starting a new post is like turning over an exam paper to find there isn’t a single question you can answer. Like poor Manuel in Fawlty Towers, you know nothing.

Just such a calamity is described in a 1954 book The Exam Secret by one Dennis B. Jackson, BA (Hons):

What are you to do? Gaze blankly at the ceiling, awaiting divine inspiration? Panic madly? Sit gibbering? Hand in your papers and stalk out of the room grumpily? Throw a fit? Vomit? Despair?

No! You must do none of these. The situation is vital. There is a battle to be won. And the great weapon in your armoury is – “The Gentle Art of Bluff”.

You must “waffle”. And you must choose good questions suitable for “waffling” …

I well remember my dad chucking this book in the bin when he read this rather  questionable advice. My dad was an honourable and conscientious man who would have done enough work to answer every conceivable question they threw at him. By contrast, I tended to skimp on revision and was curiously attracted by the idea of lying to the examiners – which is what Dennis B. Jackson, BA (Hons) advocated.

He blithely suggested the unprepared candidate make up bogus quotations by imaginary experts while entertaining the examiner with plenty of little jokes and anecdotes. All would be well as long as you sounded purposeful and kept saying you were answering the question when you obviously weren’t. Helpfully, he provided a sample answer with lots of outrageous bluffing.

Hmm, so this is where all the trouble started!

Recently I picked up a second-hand copy of this book – a later edition – and noticed the following footnote from the publisher:

It is not the job of a publisher to be a censor … My own view is that exams are about the most beastly test which man has yet devised, and it’s time he found some truer method. Thus I feel the pupil’s integrity is not seriously damaged by the use of bluff when short of knowledge.

The point I want to make is rather to warn all that I think most of us would have to be awfully careful, especially in making up quotations, not to have our bluff discovered. Few are so gifted as the author of our book!

What a spoilsport! He admits himself the system is unfair. Well, I for one will continue to write about things I know nothing whatsoever about so long as the world keeps sending me questions I can’t even begin to answer …

 

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Image: Swanwick Hall

Non, je ne regrette rien (3/3)

Brave title, huh? And what a carefree fool was I to fill the first two parts of a three-part series with random musings in the vain hope that I would somehow be able to pull them all together in the third! My cousin’s beagle springs to mind, that sad mutt who follows threads of criss-crossing scent in the vain hope of catching something significant.

Do I regret starting this wild goose chase? Not allowed to, am I, with a title like the one above? So, nose to the ground and away we go!

My confessed failure as a systematic thinker means that I set great store by the intense moments of revelation that James Joyce called ‘epiphanies’ where all is seen, felt and understood in a flash. Art has a vital role in deepening our receptivity to such moments – my previous examples were the Charlton Heston character watching Woodstock and Joni Mitchell’s characteristic flashes of insight, so what better than to bring the two together?

You had to be there, right?

Well, no, Joni never made it to Woodstock because of the chaos on the roads. Frustrated by their absence from that epoch-defining gathering, she and Stephen Stills wrote this anthem while holed up in a New York hotel. It’s a song not of complacent hedonism but of aspiration and desire, the sources of its undeniable power. The future has yet to be found.

Just as great art is never an expression of unalloyed joy, so breakthrough science is never satisfied with untested hypotheses. We trust art when it confronts pain and we trust science when it battles falsehood. Fundamentalists of all stripes seek to limit the freedom and scope of art and science in favour of their own unquestioned nostrums.

Intolerant versions of all the major religions threaten to plunge the world into a new dark age of childish irrationality. Runaway nationalism threatens to raise the drawbridge behind globalism’s lucky winners, leaving the losers out in the cold. These scourges are the twin evils of Ignorance and Want that Charles Dickens unforgettably personified as two poor children 175 years ago in his deeply moral fable A Christmas Carol.

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And behind all this – some might say, a root cause of these problems – lies the pernicious philosophy that humankind is no more than the sum of its wants and preferences as expressed in a global market place. Inequality within nations espousing these mean-spirited notions is as bad as it was when Dickens worked himself to death in a supreme artistic effort to change hearts and minds. A new dark age looms where there is no such thing as community, where price is mistaken for value and where austerity bears down on the poor.  Here children are taught that the only status they can expect to be conferred on them in life is as consumers. Their parents, hardly less brainwashed, pass on a model of lifelong infantilism where the only gratification is consumption of poor-quality products.

Forgive my intemperance. I’ve just been reading a newspaper article which exposes the shortcomings of neoliberalism. It’s long but worth the effort, in my opinion.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world

And tomorrow we look after our 3-year-old granddaughter. We probably won’t play with her shop-bought toys but instead devise scenarios using pebbles, sticks from the garden, string, coloured chalk and kitchen pans. This will be her idea. I just go along with it. She seems to know what she’s doing.

Oh, and clothes-pegs … she loves the Woodentops. She can impersonate that baby to a T!

What I would regret would be to leave her with a world in an unstoppable vortex of ignorance, want and greed … or, more precisely, to leave her in such crazy turbulence without saying or doing something about it.

So here’s a shot across the bows. Whatever happened to freedom, equality and solidarity? And what on earth is so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Non, je ne regrette rien (2/3)

There are many things I ought not to have done in my life but, like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing. Those mistakes have made me the person I am today – more careful, more collected, more considerate than the callow and somewhat confused youth I once was.

Life, said the poet John Keats, is a process of soul-building – an extraordinary insight from one who had to cram a whole lifetime’s self-construction into 24 years. Terminal illness robbed Keats of his chance but sadly some young people with their lives ahead of them become so jaded that they toy with the idea of taking their own lives or even the lives of others.

My emergency message to them would be this Buddhist advice: don’t just do something, sit there. I’d follow that up with: hang on in there, my fellow-sufferers, give life a chance to work its slow magic and one day you too can reap the fruits that only time will bring.

To continue the metaphor: pick the blossom and the fruit won’t grow. Ripeness is all, as Keats’s adored Shakespeare once and forever put it. And as that famous modern philosopher Ian Anderson (aka Jethro Tull) once sang – and still sings – life’s a long song.

Ha, cue music!

 

I’ve said it before, but our certain knowledge that the tune comes to an end is what gives it sweetness. We share a common sense of its poignant, fragile beauty and if we have a purpose it is surely to cherish and nurture that sense in ourselves and in others. We cannot wish away pain but we can sometimes gain solace by subsuming it in the deeper communications of art. It won’t always be obvious what is meant because what is meant is sometimes too deep for laughter or tears:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Unsettling it may be but then so is existence. That’s probably the reason kids keep asking us all those crazy questions – who, what, where, when, why? I’m still a kid. What I want to know is, why do they keep asking me stuff I don’t know?

Talking of big questions, this astronaut comes back from the red planet and all these scientists cluster round asking, Is there life on Mars? The astronaut replies, Only on Saturday night …

Ah, punchlines … as Terry Jones of Monty Python realised, Spike Milligan showed that if the sketches are funny enough (funny haha or funny peculiar), you don’t need ’em! Spike who, you ask? All is explained in my previous post (and lovesick fan-letter) https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/spike-in-audience-ratings/

Where was I? Oh yes … art … as opposed to kitsch, perhaps. The difference? Kitsch is considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but is sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. Kitsch, in other words, is cliché. Whereas art seeks to give voice to what is yet unspoken – to discover the key to a once and future kingdom.

Perhaps.

If anyone ever deserved to feel regret it was Pandora who turned a key in the forbidden lock and unleashed blind hate, conflict and ignorance upon the world. But without those awful furies how would we be able to picture the love, peace and understanding that underpins the still unwritten constitution of our new realm?

Do I regret embarking on this further raid on the inarticulate? In a word, non! Besides, there’s Part 3 to come, when all these disparate strands will miraculously weave themselves together into a set of new clothes fit for an emperor … whoops!

 

 

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Image: Totally Kathy 

Swings and Roundabouts

Two years is a long time to spend in the blogosphere and I find my thoughts tracking  back over those 211 posts – a little over one a week by my reckoning – to consider what, if anything, they signify. Worth remembering, I think, what I wanted to achieve – here’s a mash-up of the first few posts:

My voyage of exploration begins. I want to recapture the spirit of childhood, when we would set out from home with the deliberate aim of getting hopelessly lost …

I find it sad that children today don’t occupy the streets and open spaces like we did when I was young. There have always been risks in such freedom but we made a habit of going around with our friends, rarely if ever alone. We knew the dangers and were able to avoid them. So many kids were out and about, there was safety in numbers. With more adults around, too, we behaved ourselves most of the time because we didn’t want to get into trouble. In this way, we learned how to take responsibility for ourselves.

Sitting alone in your bedroom is not a healthy substitute, especially when you factor in the online risks and bad cyberspace influences that would shock many parents. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, I’m afraid. Let’s make the open air a place for children again, providing proper facilities and a sensible but not stifling adult presence. It would be quite a challenge but I can’t think of a better way to create the communities of the future.

I love the idea that when you start saying something, you don’t know where you’re going with it …

Hmm, not sure all those lofty declarations of freedom have borne fruit. More often than not, my writing is tightly controlled: acrostic poems, haikus, hundred-word stories. Such constraints enable me to turn out posts on a semi-regular basis but there is a danger that they can become somewhat glib and formulaic. I’m wondering what became of my desire to go off-piste once in a while, starting stuff I wasn’t sure I could finish with my adult dignity and amour propre still intact!

Two years ago Obama was still in the White House and the United Kingdom still in the European Union. The future – always glimpsed through a glass darkly – at least showed signs of being recognisably and reassuringly like the past. But now all bets are off. I’ll risk a wild metaphor and say we are adrift in a sea of raw emotion clutching at puny straws of reason. At times like these, I sometimes think, only the heightened language of poetry can hit the spot:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
                                        from The Second Coming by WB Yeats
 Anyone dismayed by the surfacing of ugly prejudice in their own societies will find the poem’s final imagery disturbing:
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds …
… And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
A while back I created an imaginary town called Bafflesby because I had a strong urge to send up the sort of blinkered thinking that threatened values I grew up with:  the likes of tolerance, empathy, clarity, openness.
Just recently I’ve found it hard to invent new scenarios because it turns out that truth really is stranger than fiction. What with all these alternative facts and all this fake news, truth is a now a character in a costume drama. Remember those cheesy sword-and-sandal epics where the Romans wore wrist-watches?
Truth is now so strange that complete strangers come up to me and say, You couldn’t make it up! It’s true. I can’t. If I tried, it would be like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Actually I’m hoping he’ll get bored running around and come sneaking back home for some hay and a nice rub-down. In the meantime, I’ll read Private Eye to discover how to poke fun when things stop being fun.
I suppose most countries have satirical magazines which probe wrong-doing and parody folly. What about those in your neck of the woods? It would be good to hear about any.
Private Eye’s covers are an art-form in their own right …
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Laughter is the best medicine, they say. They would say that, wouldn’t they, as it’s also much cheaper? But I don’t want to end this post on a cynical note. I played with my little granddaughter today and we just followed our noses, making it up as we went along. You don’t need toys when the whole world is yours for the taking.

Watching a bit of telly is OK, though, when invention begins to flag. And YouTube is a great way to explore past and present together. She loves the Bill & Ben colour animations – though not the ponderous old black-and-white string-puppet versions we had to endure. But I did get her to watch this little gem from back in the day, when grown-ups could poke fun at themselves without losing their dignity … and we both laughed like drains!