Category: rant

Non, je ne regrette rien (1/3)

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till its gone?

Joni Mitchell’s ironically chirpy chorus seems to gain traction with the passing years. Big Yellow Taxi links her feelings of personal loss to the destruction of our common environment and thereby suggests a deep connection between private and public worlds. No man is an island, of course, and if you try to live in a bubble it will sooner or later go … er … pop!

That last sentence also summarises the story of The Omega Man, a 1971 movie which conjures up dystopian visions of a future where disease has triumphed over human ingenuity. We follow one survivor patrolling shockingly empty city streets, stealing into a movie house to watch a 1969 documentary which followed almost half a million people at the festival cheerfully billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”.

He appears to know only too well what he has lost. The significance of things, it turns out, only becomes clear when what they are not throws them into sharp relief. Value is comparative.

Sometimes the comparison can be painful. Often laughter acts as an analgesic. I laughed the other day when I heard a newspaper cartoon described on the radio: a mushroom cloud rises in the distance and one diner says to another, ‘Ah, to hell with it, pass the egg salad!’

Gallows humour, perhaps, but with it comes perspective. This isn’t that. Science in a nutshell. We might not know what this is but we know what it isn’t. A theory can only be proved false, not true. It might fit the observable facts but another theory yet to be invented might fit them better. And what if more facts come to light?

The same applies to beliefs. I might believe in fairies – might even tell you I’ve seen them – but I won’t be able to persuade you until you’ve witnessed them with your own eyes. Not unless you’re peculiarly pliable. Which you aren’t, of course. You need first-hand evidence.

Image result for conan doyle fairies

Convinced yet?

Your silence speaks volumes. Permit me to put words in your disenfranchised lips. You would rather be hung, drawn and quartered than give any credence to this ludicrous Edwardian fraud involving painted paper cut-outs.

In fact, you would go further and reject all photography as an unreal fabrication which reduces our beauteous, infinitely varied world to a grubby hall of distorting mirrors or a grotesque chamber of lifeless waxworks. A photograph, you maintain, is the lie at the heart of advertising and the fake news that blinds us to what is real. You warn that its glossy surface of just two dimensions can turn us from active participants into passive spectators, obsessed with appearances and hooked on visual cues to the detriment of deeper understandings. Those ignorant primitives who reacted to photographs of themselves with terror that their souls had been stolen were, you cry, not so ignorant or primitive after all!

Wild though your demeanour seems, you have a point. There are now so many photographs in the world that their value has hit rock-bottom. The problem is that they lack any kind of context and have become drained of meaning – much as all those washed-out photos of us with our long hair, wide flares and tank tops have leached colour. Interesting that the black-and-white pictures taken by earlier, less snap-happy generations seem to have retained their power.

Image result for 1930s depression photos
If black-and-white wins, perhaps it’s because it doesn’t pretend to be real. It offers a
representation of the world that allows natural light and shade to define relationship
without the distraction of man-made colour. Industry has a lot to answer for.
My text has slipped into an odd spacing, which may be a sign that the WordPress
household gods are angry. Time to wind this post up, methinks, with a promise – or
threat, perhaps – that there is more to come: childhood, creativity, context, character,
conservation, connectivity, collectivisation … and that’s just the words beginning with
‘c’!
I feel a three-part post coming on. I’m not a systematic thinker and depend on one thing
leading to another. When the trail goes cold, it doesn’t do to pretend you’re close to the
quarry. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
There’s no better way to end this effulgence than to quote my cousin, who ended her
latest e-mail with this confession:
My mind is like a crazed Beagle, following threads of criss-crossing scent.
I suspect there’s something in the genes … or in the water!
Ah well – nothing ventured, nothing gained! In the immortal words of The Little
Sparrow …
Au revoir!

 

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Pedagog!

Nobody likes criticism but, as the Great Sage Mary Poppins once opined, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

By the end of my time in teaching the consensus was that you should aim for five positive comments to the little darlings for every negative one. A worthy ideal, indeed, though I’m pretty sure I never achieved that ratio myself.

I can’t even boast of satisfying Pink Floyd’s demand for no dark sarcasm in the classroom … well, when they stopped us walloping the little whelps what other weapon would work?

Just joking, aren’t I? The only time I tried to hit a kid was circa 1974 … and I missed.

One thing I was proud of, however, was my marking. Those red-pen comments of mine were miniature – and sometimes epic – minor masterpieces. At their best, they conformed to the following 4 principles.

As I said, nobody likes criticism … unless it comes in the form of suggestions for improvement on near perfection. Tell us how wonderful we are – it is, after all, no word of a lie – and we can take the truth no matter how brutal. Call us morons and we turn a deaf ear.

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

It was the very least I could do after all that heavy irony in lessons …

 

Image result for sarcastic teacher

 

Image:ViralSpell

 

 

Communication Breakdown, Part 2

As 2016 finally implodes in a shitstorm of fake news and false facts, I find myself in need of consolation. If I was a hedgehog, I’d hibernate. My previous post ended in a soothing flurry of proverbs but their analgesic effect has now worn off, so here’s another one:

‘When the heart weeps at what it has lost, the spirit laughs at what it has found.’

Arab proverb

Gulp, think I’m going to have to wait a while before that one works!

In the meantime, here is some music:

Hmm, that’s blown away a few cobwebs, if only because it was 1970 and not 2016! My life was ahead of me then, all speculation and no nostalgia. Who was it said, I wonder, that nostalgia is not what it was? I reckon we were the first mass-media generation and the fusty old past was a backward-looking book we were only too keen to close. Like Bob Dylan, we went along with Rimbaud’s injunction that it was necessary to be absolutely modern. Adults in the 1950s, wearied by the war, usually seemed happy enough to let us get on with it. After all, our freedom was what they had been fighting for.

And by comparison with children today, we were allowed to run pretty wild. But don’t run away with the thought that it was a golden age. My cousin Helen makes this thoughtful observation:

As children spawned just after WW2, we remember what it was like before the screws tightened on British society: schools were often appalling, there was little Health and Safety, and we had rights now gone for ever thanks to Thatcher and Blair. While this meant industrial accidents, child deprivation and unfairness, it also meant freedom to protest. Freedom of action. When in Marrakesh for my 60th, I was overjoyed at the lethal collapsed pavements which we had to navigate to avoid breaking our ankles. I felt once again the thrill of being in control of my own path – literally! I suppose what I’m saying is that you need some danger, mayhem and confusion as the crucible for inspiration and change. What have we lost in our present over-protected first world?

We learn best through trial and error: without mistakes, no achievements. How else can we grow up and not just older? Here is Helen again:

Young adults today don’t know anything different from the over-scrutinised, coddled society we have today. They don’t suffer from the feeling of loss of rights. How much more obedient will future generations be? They will accept without question their body-chipped, iris-recognition life. We also have to be vigilant for signs of the return of repression under the excuse of protection and safety.

We have always been contaminated, heavily, with the infantile responses programmed into us by all the “Sit still, be quiet, do as you’re told” directives of childhood: but looking over the parapet today it seems (Warning, generalisation alert!)  that younger generations are lacking in the cussedness, determination and daring that makes my generation such an inconvenience to the Establishment when we cross swords with it.

1984 has been and gone, with no obvious sign of Orwell’s Big Brother, but soon enough our every move will be followed by the often shadowy forces of control and commercial exploitation. Can you have a true democracy where adults are, in effect, infantilised? Helen traces the problem to our shallow ‘soundbite’ culture:

I blame the internet in part – the tsunami of information which helps to desensitise compassion and stifle curiosity. But why be curious anyway? The apathy of today is a realistic assessment of our political system. When you’ve grown up with celebrity culture, naturally you’ll be more interested in the Kardashians than the fact that there’s been a 6.5 earthquake in the third world.
Helen and I used to exchange long illustrated letters in our early teens and we’ve just resumed our correspondence on, ah yes, the internet! Perhaps we can prove Marshall McLuhan wrong when he said The medium is the message … in our case, I very much hope and believe, it’s not the how but the what!
Anyhow, no more talk of hibernation, I’m inspired to write and post an epic poem in defence of freedom before the weather closes in completely …
Image result for sun and storm

Work is a Four-Letter Word

 

Thought I’d begin my rant on the subject with this little film. It’s only a few minutes long but makes its point so eloquently I almost don’t want to add anything else.

In a way, my job is done. So I’ve just fired myself.

Ha, that’s better! The burden of having to fulminate against such an obvious target was beginning to weigh heavy. Who doesn’t curse their job several times a day? And who needs an old codger like me, long-since retired from the wearisome world of work, to kick against the pricks he no longer has to suffer?

Don’t get me wrong. I liked teaching … whenever I had the time and energy to do it properly. Teaching is simple. You choose a topic that interests and perhaps even excites you, organise the lesson carefully (leaving as little to chance as possible while making sure you can take advantage of any unexpected developments) and then engage with the students proactively to stimulate an active response which keeps the inquiry going into future lessons and down avenues where you will learn as much as they do.

Most of your energy should go into three tasks: prepare, teach, mark. Instead you are dragged into a hundred and one side-tracks devised by people who are not practising teachers yet think they know better than dedicated professionals what needs to be done. And on top of all this unnecessary office work you have to try and keep the kids on task. Result: an exhausted profession and a big recruitment problem.

Teachers in the UK aren’t badly paid but a job that takes up so much of your time should be rewarding in every way. Teaching should be the best job in the world. Nothing demoralises you more quickly than realising that for no fault of your own you’re not really getting to grips with what needs to be done. And meaningless work is soul-destroying, as the cartoon so clearly demonstrates.

Hmm, thought I’d sacked myself …

 

Images: http://www.opusbou.com.ar and www.picshunger.com

Our Complaints Desk is Closed

                                                A long rant followed by a short poem.

I find it harder and harder to cope with big ideas. They loom above me like giant unstable airships, making me want to let go and run. Instead I hang on like grim death, risking imminent immolation or a sudden short flight ending in a very long drop.

Even worse is that big ideas force me into using metaphors which lumber out of control like maddened elephants into crowds of innocent and slightly bemused bloggers who … well, you get the picture.

This, in case you hadn’t noticed, is one of my pour-myself-a-drink-and-see-what-comes-out posts. (I just poured it and noticed it was Guinness … )

Believe it or not, this post has a subject and it may be that all this frantic jocularity is a way of ducking it. It’s a big idea, you see, and there could be a touch of stage fright before launching into a heavy monologue. But if I don’t get going soon, I will soon be talking to an audience of three … me, myself and I.

Oh well, anything’s better than being in two minds about something. At least a three-way split offers a chance of adjudication …

OK, enough wisecracking, already! Big ideas need big build-ups … just hit play!

I’ve just poured another Guinness in the hope that I’ll hit my stride soon … ah, begorra*, I’m talking about the bloody mess we’ve left the next generations to clear up – more specifically, the ecosystem. It’s the elephant in the room, all right, and like the blind men in the old story we can’t even agree what it looks like. It doesn’t appear in economic models and it doesn’t get discussed at cocktail parties.

( * that was quick, maybe Guinness is good for you … )

We just don’t seem to have the language, do we? There is climate science, of course, but for too long governments have been playing divide-and-rule when it comes to results. Pure science is systematically underfunded and the self-interested opinions of corporate science – biased almost by definition – are taken far too seriously. Money, alas, talks louder than morality.

Image result for Shut Up and Take My Money

And don’t get me started on the creationist idea that we’re all part of a master-plan to improve the universe. In my bleaker moments I’m with Bill Hicks that we’re a virus in shoes.

The trouble is that the more miserable you make people about this stuff, the more they retreat into denial and comfort-eating … meant in the broadest sense (no pun intended!) as consumption, much of it conspicuous. In the absence of meaningful community, two killer syndromes loom like giant airships, etcetera … (a) our self-esteem comes from the way our lives look to others and (b) self-gratification takes centre stage.

It doesn’t help that we’re dragooned into nation-states. Countries who’ve had the cream aren’t about to set an example to countries who haven’t by switching to low-fat yoghurt … oh, these blasted metaphors! What I mean is, our bling and binge culture may be the death of us.

Says he, polishing up his post and swigging down stout … ah, but let me tell you, it’s an agonising business tackling big ideas!

Oh sausages, I’m going to cut to the chase! We need a blessed miracle to get out of this hole and I don’t mean the one in the blinking ozone layer – concerted action on that, by the way, shows what we can do when we have a mind to get together. As a non-believer I’m not holding my breath for any manna from heaven (or pie in the sky, for that matter) but I do admire the liturgy and litany of religion, so here is my attempt to graft it on to a more pagan life-focussed viewpoint in sonnet form … something of a hymn, as it turns out.

It’s worth remembering, I do believe, that the word ‘ecology’ has an ancient root. It comes from Okologie – Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” + -logia “study of”.

 

        Noah's new age prayer

o Gaia hold us rapt within your arms
that life be one with love and one with all
let sense be always open to your charms
and spirit never falter at your call
o Gaia keep our step upon the way
that leads to wild places sacred shrines
where pilgrims catch a glimpse of yesterday
and dream of leaving children cryptic signs
o Gaia turn our thoughts to simple joys
and tune our hearts to nature's steady beat
that we might hear the hush beneath our noise
and feel the dance begin to move our feet
for only celebration stirs the blood
enough to build an ark against this flood

 

 

Brexit Blues

I posted this on Facebook because I was tempted to unfriend people before remembering it was against my principles. The internet is supposed to be helping us create a better world, right? No point just preaching to the converted …

 

Facebook is now awash with nasty gloating from victorious Leavers and anguished laments from disappointed Remainers. I have a perhaps unusually wide range of Facebook correspondents but  I won’t be unfriending anyone.

In return, please don’t bombard me with blatant propaganda or personalised attacks because I want our country to rise above the slanging match we’ve had for far too long and begin a rational, inclusive and even forensic national quest to establish future policy directions we can all agree on.

My pre-referendum posts might not have floated your boat but at least I tried to emphasise hard facts over misleading fictions. And the post-referendum reality is that we face an uphill struggle. We need politicians who can step up to the plate and become statesmanlike, by which I mean, men and women who serve the interests of all sections of society and can perform convincingly on a world stage.

Such people seek the widest possible international cooperation to tackle cross-border issues like trade, crime, poverty, war and environmental damage. Forget the demagogues and mavericks and buffoons. They’ll make us a laughing stock at a time when we need to recover our human dignity and build a common identity. We must keep the equal rights our citizens gained as members of the EU. Decent people seek solidarity and not division. As John Donne said, no man is an island.

We have taken a leap into the dark and people have a perfect right to be angry and fearful. We’re in unknown territory. And if you head off somewhere weird, expect to hear from me.

Don’t worry. You can always unfriend me.

I’ll let you know if I get any response.

A Shrine to Lazy Bones

The inspiration – if you can call it that – for this poem came from two news items. One concerned the fact that the life expectancy of UK men shows a bigger range between rich and poor than at any time in 150 years. That’s 150 years of social legislation gone down the tube. The other concerned state primary schools, where 6 year olds have gone on strike to protest against the introduction of yet more new tests. The background here is that British children are amongst the unhappiest in Europe.

So the rich are living longer and their children are exempt from stressful early testing. Liberty is become licence, it seems, cut loose from equality and humanity. The changes began with the mania for deregulation back in the early 80s when our handbag-wielding leader proclaimed there was no such thing as society, only individual men and women. My question would be, was she just stating a fact of life or making a prophesy of a nasty future where survival of the fittest is the only creed and a notional afterlife is the only consolation for the losers?

The historian EP Thompson believed the 19th Century working classes desperately oscillated between politics and religion, depending on which of them offered more hope. If it is to be religion’s turn again, let’s at least make it one we can all agree on. My religion would involve a common belief in the sacredness of life itself, a fusion of freedom and equality and humanity that would stop the crazy see-saw.

A Shrine to Lazy Bones

Two spectres haunt this house of humankind
And stalk the hall to keep us in our room.
At dead of night we wake with troubled mind
To fears of open lock and closing tomb.
Two spectres: one the ever-hungry ghost
That shrieks for more and more, the more we give -
A cuckoo in the nest, our children lost
To parents much too busy just to live.
The other spook's a mirage: heaven, hell -
And life a dress rehearsal for their sake.
When kids - all work, no play - are saved by the bell 
Then wonder not, but sleep till death awake.
To exorcise these household demons both,
Let's re-enchant the world and worship sloth.

 

Image: http://www.kennethdepoorter.be