Category: Uncategorized

Rabbiting On Again

Words.
No shortage, is there?
Words, words.
Dictionaries and thesauruses are full of them.
Words, words, words.
Airwaves are abuzz with them.
Words, words, words, words.
Persuaders, hidden or otherwise, bend our ears and break our spirits.
Words, words, words, words, words …

And so, before contributing a further fourpenny-worth to the existing word-mountain, let’s pause a moment to consult two world-renowned authorities on the higher arts of human communication … Chas ‘n’ Dave … whose cheeky erudition goes some way to excuse a whiff of political incorrectness:

You got more rabbit than Sainsburys … honest to goodness, has a better line of poetry ever been written? And if it has, might it have come from the pen of this cheerful geezer?

Talking in Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

by Philip Larkin

Putting two and two together – and probably coming up with five! – it appears that too much rabbit and related background noise from outside can drown out the delicate inner promptings that allow for meaningful human communication. And if you’ll forgive the comparison of blogging into the blank aether with talking in a darkened bedroom, you may also accept the notion that uncertainty about reception can make it hard to string words together online.

As a little kid I had an invisible friend. I only ever confided in him while sitting on the toilet. I called him Naughty Man and his supposed worldly wisdom must have made him an ideal audience for my secret confidences. Perhaps I was aware that the real people around me could only take so much. Communication breakdown begins early and always remains a possibility, which is probably why I (and, may I suggest, we?) need art to bridge the gap. And comedy. Both bring perspective.

Here are some more rabbits if you have the stamina, though a minute or three might be enough to give you the idea!

Unsettling, isn’t it? That bloke Kafka hardly knew what he’d started, shuffling off his mortal coil before most of his work was published and after leaving strict instructions that it should all be burnt!

It’s easy to view the wind out there as cold and unforgiving. So it’s a comfort to know that people whose talents I admire and even envy can also struggle to express themselves. But where I whisper into a zephyr, in the intimacy of a personal blog, they often have to shout into a maelstrom.

Image result for joni mitchell quote on music corporations

Another musician-turned-painter was Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. The short film that follows offers a great insight into what made him tick as an artist – it’s also, at least to my ear, hilariously funny. The wobbly footage shouldn’t impair enjoyment too much.

He dedicates his music to animals and children. How cool is that? If I’d known about Captain Beefheart as a kid, it would certainly be him I’d have confided in! He would have known all about the glory of words as well as understanding their limitations.

Hmm, maybe there’s a connection …

Advertisements

A Word to the Wise

I’ve never been one for New Year Resolutions. There’s a natural rebel inside me who kicks against rules of any kind – especially those I try to impose on myself. I mean, really, who wants to be told what (and what not) to do by a finger-wagging fool who can’t even follow his own instructions?
And yet … come the turn of the year I always feel in need of a little gentle encouragement. I’m looking for inspiration from someone who’s been there, done it and bought the T-shirt. And who better than Anton Chekhov, a physician who was also a playwright often compared to Shakespeare and perhaps the most influential short-story writer of all time?
Image result for anton chekhov
First, a few random quotes …
Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Love, friendship and respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.
Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.
We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.
People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.
Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.
Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.
In a May 10, 1886 letter to his brother Alexander, also a writer, Chekhov noted six principles of a good story.
  • Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature.
  • Total objectivity.
  • Truthful descriptions of persons and objects.
  • Extreme brevity.
  • Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype.
  • Compassion.

 

Finally, here are a few pieces of encouragement and advice Chekhov wrote in letters to Russian writer Maxim Gorky in the late 1800s.

 

“You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story ‘In the Steppe,’ it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic—that is, when you describe a thing, you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art.

There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.

Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?

I will begin by saying that to my mind you have not enough restraint. You are like a spectator at the theatre who expresses his transports with so little restraint that he prevents himself and other people from listening. This lack of restraint is particularly felt in the descriptions of nature with which you interrupt your dialogues; when one reads those descriptions one wishes they were more compact, shorter, put into two or three lines.”

 

Like all good teachers he begins by praising achievement before offering a single word of criticism – and even then he is constructive, offering his student a positive way forward.

Don’t know about you but I can’t think of a better way to start 2019!

Let’s hope it’s a good year for us all …

Post Haste

As someone who tries – and frequently fails – to post on WordPress at least once a week, I decided to look at the sites I follow to see how often they publish. How long was it since their most recent post?

The results of this little survey surprised me. Just 13% had posted within the previous 24 hours. The other 87% had posted as follows:

13% in the last week
14% in the last month
36% in the last year
10% in the last two years
14% no information, presumably deleted

Another way to look at this, I suppose, is that 40% are frequent or infrequent bloggers and 60% are no longer active. It seems harsh to unfollow people but I’d like to whittle down the list so that I can concentrate on those who publish fairly regularly.

How does this compare with your experience, I wonder, and how would you deal with the percentile categories above? All comments gratefully received!

 

Image result for percentage chart cartoon

No Sex, Religion or Politics

These five words – according to my dad, a conscripted soldier in WW2 – constituted the unspoken rule that helped prevent unproductive arguments in the officers’ mess. I can see why. Vital to get on with people you don’t really know when you have to work alongside them in hazardous conditions.

Perhaps blogging isn’t all that different. No point falling out with each other over minor cultural differences when we all face major threats – largely of our own making – such as gross inequality, environmental damage and international conflict. I don’t know about you but all my instincts cry out for cross-border cooperation, our only real defence against these common enemies. As the age-old saying goes: United we stand, divided we fall.

It’s eight whole days since my previous post and high time to publish again. I was planning something uplifting, even utopian, only to find there’s an elephant in the room. It’s a big one, maybe a bull, and the smell of dung is now overpowering. I sure in hell can’t step round it so will tread very carefully and call it … the ‘B’ word!

Not that I’ve anything original to say on the subject. Like many others – on both sides – I’m all talked out. But here are two items I’ve found in the vaults. No idea where they come from but each, in its own way, is rather striking.

The UK Referendum in June 2016 asked:

Should we

Leave the EU
or Remain in the EU.

Simple. Well, for the 16.1 million who said Remain it certainly was, as it meant no change. All 16.1 million who ticked remain knew exactly what they voted for.

But the 17.4 million who voted to Leave without any true facts, figures, analysis or research voted for a personal version of “leave” as they could not possibly know what the end result would be. Hence all the Remainers spoke with one voice but the Leavers presented the Tory government the absolutely impossible task of reconciling 17.4 million different versions of Brexit.

After two years we have now seen this for real. It was never possible to deliver an exit that would satisfy all the Leavers.

In other words, here is a complex issue reduced to a simplistic binary choice and Parliament – the authorised decision-maker in a parliamentary democracy – reduced to the lowly status of a rubber stamp. No wonder they’ve fallen asleep on the job.

Image result for rubber stamp

Today’s cancelled MP vote means this unfunny farce is certain to rumble on through the so-called season of good cheer. Perhaps we ought to keep calm and turn the whole bally shooting-match into a Panto, along the following lines:

 

Image: CharityLawyer

Vault Finding #5

In this raid on the archives, I’ve paired one of my earliest posts with an unpublished draft on the French Situationists. With a bit of luck, you can’t see the join!

Image result for you can't see the join morecambe and wise 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 youngsters 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 …

Well, I said we behaved ourselves but we probably weren’t above adding the occasional daft moustache or blackened tooth to advertising hoardings that showed people leading impossibly perfect lives. We might even have changed the odd word here and there … 

That ever-perceptive poet Philip Larkin captured the historical moment much better than I can:

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards.

from ‘Essential Beauty’

That small cube? Oxo, of course, the magic ingredient without which family life was incomplete … nay, inconceivable! 

Image result for oxo advert

Image result for oxo advert

Surrounded by such propaganda, how could us kids have known that while we roamed those 1950s streets a bunch of French intellectuals were turning our natural instincts into a whole new heavyweight philosophy?

We didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia, of course, without which the following mock-academic account could not exist:

With cultural roots in Dadaism and Surrealism – and political roots in Marxism – the Situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly-lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, towards individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.

Another important concept of situationist theory was the need to counteract the spectacle – essentially the mass media that reduces free citizens to passive subjects who  contemplate the world as no more than a consumable resource. The method the situationists adopted was the construction of situations – moments of life deliberately contrived for the purpose of reawakening authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life as adventure and the liberation of everyday existence.

The dérive – a French word meaning ‘drift’ – is a revolutionary strategy originally put forward in 1956 by Guy Debord who defined it as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

It involves an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Though solo dérives are possible, Debord indicates that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions.

The dérive‘s goals include studying the terrain of the city (psychogeography) and emotional disorientation, both of which lead to the potential creation of Situations.

A détournement‘rerouting or hijacking’ in French – is a technique developed in the 1950s and defined in the Situationist International’s inaugural 1958 journal as “the  integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”

It has been defined elsewhere as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” – as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.

Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political hoaxes and stunts, an influential tactic called Situationist Prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the anti-consumerist culture-jamming movement in the late 1980s.

Its opposite is recuperation, in which radical ideas or the social image of people who are viewed negatively are twisted, commodified and absorbed in a more socially acceptable context.

Yeah, don’t get me started on how Tin Pan Alley moguls turned the exciting runaway underground of 1960s sounds into the long slow mogadon-music snooze of the 1970s. You’ll never hear the end of it …

I’ll end with a short clip that shows how people behave online compared with face-to-face!

 

Vault Finding #2

Continuing my trawl through old unpublished drafts, here are some random thoughts on the rules of arguing that still seem timely and relevant:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”Arthur Martine

Worth remembering, I believe, especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” is too often a menace of reacting rather than responding but it needn’t be this way. We can be critical while remaining charitable, aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett – the American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist – questions our current everyone-is-a-critic culture.

In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking – noteworthy for the significant value it places on ‘the dignity and art-science of making mistakes’ – he offers what he calls ‘the best antidote [to the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent’:  a list of rules formulated decades ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  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.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments. There is far too much shouting from the battlements. Comments that wholly diverge from the above code can and should be ignored, I believe, but merit response if they show understanding – or at the very least acknowledgement – of other points of view.

To anyone who views this as an unrealistic and naively utopian approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing – it transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion. When commenting on students’ written work, I tried to start with something I’d liked – it opened them to criticism.

A polite preamble means we don’t have to hold back when it comes to expressing our own disagreements. When the gloves come off we can employ Susan Sontag’s three steps to refute any argument – find the inconsistency, find the counter-example and find a wider context.

Image result for susan sontag

There’s a worrying lack of evidence behind much that is published online.

“Fake news is a real cause for concern on social media, particularly on Facebook, where unverified information and outright lies can swallow up facts and truth. That’s a frightening concept when 62% of American adults access news through social media.”

Iman Amrani, Guardian, 26.11.16

But it’s not an entirely new phenomenon.

“Back in the 1990s, the internet pioneer Josh Harris tried to sound a warning – but at that early utopian stage, when the web was assumed to be decentralising, democratising, enlightening, almost no one understood what he was saying. Later, in 2002. George W Bush’s own Voldemort, Karl Rove, chided a reporter by saying: ‘People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of the discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works any more.’ The gnomic taunt caused more bemusement than consternation at the time, but Rove was ahead of the game.”

Andrew Smith, Guardian, 26.11.16

This article goes on to talk about ‘post-truth’ where ‘facts become secondary to feeling; expertise and vision to ersatz emotional connection’ and ‘retro-truth’ where ‘a proposition is judged not by whether it is true or false when stated, but whether it has the potential to become true – like energy waiting to be released from the atom’.

I am the master of the universe.

(Well, thought I’d run it by you again to see if there was any take-up. Some of you might care to get a little campaign going on my behalf. I wouldn’t acknowledge it at first, of course, but don’t fret – in private there’ll be plenty smiling and waving practice!)

Yes, I jest, though my hectic humour hides a serious point. More and more these days I find a purely rational response insufficient. To inoculate myself against the poison I must infect myself – a small dose in the relatively safe form of art to build up my immunity. Art is ambiguous – no easy answers to be found there – but dives below the surface where fake news floats.

Listen, if you like, and maybe read …

 

I am the centre of this universe
The wind of time is blowing through me
And it’s all moving relative to me
It’s all a figment of my mind
In a world that I’ve designed
I’m charged with cosmic energy
Has the world gone mad or is it me?
I’m the creator of this universe
And all that is was meant to be
So that we might learn to see
The foolishness that lives in us
And stupidity that we must suss
How to banish from our minds
If you call this living, I must be blind
Songwriters: David Brock / Nik Turner
Master of the Universe lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Images: Brain Pickings & Wikipedia