Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 23 September 2023

‘All of Them Witches’

It’s probably a good thing I never went into business on a grand scale as, yet again, I appear to have been overestimating the intelligence of the American public.

A K Hart’s recent thought-provoking post on the resurgence of myths in modern society touches on a theme which has made several appearances here in the past few weeks: 

Myths facilitate mass assimilation where technical explanations do not. Myths provide simpler and more widely accessible ways to guard against surprises, just as belief in witchcraft did. Burn the witch and if that doesn’t work there must be another one lurking somewhere.
The parallels between today’s Western society and the witch hunts of the past are increasingly inescapable; a preoccupation with conformity to a set of puritanical standards and a willingness to condemn and punish those who violate the norms imposed by fanatical believers are, sadly, with us again, this time with social media pouring oil on the flames, not least by encouraging the resurgence of the idea that, whatever goes wrong, someone, somewhere must be to blame.

Some weeks ago, I mentioned a competitor on ‘Masterchef’ who produced a witch-themed dish, inspired by an American movie, to ‘take the judges back to seventeenth-century Salem’. At the time, it baffled me since it was surely common knowledge that there were no witches there; just a group of unfortunate townsfolk (including a four-year-old child) who, for a number of reasons, found themselves falsely accused by a group of young girls supported by fervent religious fanatics.

As anyone who has experience in dealing with teenage girls en masse could tell you, it is highly plausible that a mixture of mass hysteria, religious indoctrination and groupthink led to this terrible situation, particularly if some of those concerned had eaten rye bread contaminated with ergot, now known to cause convulsions, itching, parathesia and psychosis. Add in the petty disputes and prejudices of a small town and potential for settling old scores and you have a situation where the false accusations would be readily accepted by the authorities.

It would appear, however, that such a rational approach is beyond many; while researching a previous post, I read that a substantial proportion of the million or so tourists who visit Salem every year apparently come for the ‘spooky’ atmosphere and the association with ‘real’ witches. Thanks mainly to film and television - not to mention Young Adult fiction - people are flocking to ‘Witch City’* and they are unlikely to be disappointed; the town is bursting with witch-themed attractions and entertainments. 

It would be tempting to regard this as merely a celebration of fiction - much like the hordes of Goths who descend on Whitby in tribute to Bram Stoker’s most famous novel -  but these tourists are visiting the scene of real-life events; to embrace the witch narrative is, subconsciously, to endorse the activities of those responsible for the trials and executions, a worrying attitude in a country where, in a recent online poll, 21% of respondents claimed to believe in the existence of witchcraft and black magic.

It is, I suppose, evidence of the growing appeal of superstition described by AK Haart and a frightening indicator of the public willingness to disregard rational explanations - and, in this case, the judicial murder of twenty people and the imprisonment of many more. In a culture where student essays defend Abigail Williams in ‘The Crucible’, it’s hard not to believe that the recent shift towards equating victimhood with credibility and a growing demand that those dissenting from current orthodoxy should ‘correct their thinking’ risk creating perfect conditions for a new generation of witchfinders.

 *It is rather fitting, somehow, that they are celebrating their history-that-never-was in the wrong place; most of the trials and executions took place in Salem Village, a separate settlement, five miles away from Salem Town and now known as Danvers.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Sweet Counterblast

One of the notable features of the small town where I grew up was the local soft drinks factory. Thanks in part to the Temperance movement, many small towns in Scotland and Wales had independent producers  and ours was a gem. Tucked away in a cobbled side street in an old stone building, it had a small and spartan shop - just a table and a few shelves of bottles - where you brought your wooden crate of empties to replace them with full bottles of lemonade or swapped your finished soda syphon for a fresh one.

Half a century on, the local factory is long gone and, in the supermarket which now stands on the site, the shelves groan under the weight of soda cans and two-litre plastic bottles, but more has been lost than the parochial simplicity and the clink of glass. Thanks to the sugar tax, it is now frustratingly difficult to find lemonade or other fizzy drinks in which the only sweetness comes from natural sugars. For all the outward show of choice - a bewildering variety of flavours where we once swithered between lemonade, orangeade or cream soda - the options are few and far between for the shopper who wants to avoid artificial sweeteners.

The result of this, according to various smug reports, has been a reduction in childhood obesity, although one might argue that it is impossible to ascertain the exact effect in such a complicated area and numerous studies suggest that, in the long term, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked to health problems including weight gain. The NHS has jumped firmly (and predictably) on the bandwagon, advocating the selection of ‘lower sugar’ and ‘lower fat’ snacks, desserts and drinks where possible*.

It’s a classic ‘nudge’ situation, using price, availability and persuasion to change consumers’ behaviour, with a hefty dose of Nanny-knows-best thrown in, but the vast increase in what we in the Tavern refer to as SOSS (Sod Off Sans Sugar) and FOFF (Fuck Off Fat-Free) products is drastically reducing the choice available for those who prefer their food and drink to be free from lab-manufactured additives (or to avoid the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners).

While larger companies have generally gone down the route of using artificial sweeteners rather than passing on the tax to customers in the form of higher prices, one avenue still remains open for those trying to avoid them; at present, small producers whose annual fizzy drink output is less than a million litres a year are exempt from the sugar tax. Their products tend to be found only in local bars or farm and village shops but they represent a tradition well worth preserving as well as a pleasing way to exercise individual choice and fight back against the nudge and I urge you to seek them out where possible.

*Its ‘healthy living’ web page recommends replacing chocolate (ingredients, at least before the ‘nudgers’ got there with the vegetable fats and emulsifiers: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla) with ‘a lower calorie hot instant chocolate drink’ (ingredients: Whey Powder, Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Skimmed Cows' Milk Powder, Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Coconut Oil, Polydextrose, Thickener:Guar Gum, Carrageenan:, Salt, Maltodextrin, Milk Protein Concentrate, Flavouring, Sweetener:Sucralose:, Anti-caking Agent:Silicon Dioxide:, Stabiliser:Potassium Phosphate.)

Sunday 17 September 2023

... as Christian does

Much has been made of the recent Times survey of the clergy and its conclusion (built on the somewhat sandy foundation of a 25% response rate) that Britain is no longer a Christian country.

Our distant rural forebears charted the year by the Christian festivals - Lent, Easter, Lady Day, Lammastide and so on - and attended church services as a matter of course but, for the most part, religion as practised by the general population of England was, as Elizabeth I pithily expressed it, not a matter for ‘making windows into men’s souls’ as long as they observed the correct rituals and obeyed the law of the land.

This tolerance, however, will not do for today’s C of E, at least in the experience of one of the elders of Clan Macheath. She isn’t religious but believes strongly in the importance of the village church both as a vital part of the local heritage and a hub at the centre of a small community; for her, it’s always been a clear case of ‘use it or lose it’, supported by a keen appreciation of ecclesiastical architecture, choral music and the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.

For years, she attended Matins (but not Communion) most Sundays, helped with the various flower festivals, fetes and celebrations and placed her widow’s mite in the collection plate, but that’s all over now thanks to what she calls ‘the P45 sermon’, in which the vicar made it clear that those who do not actively profess sincerely-held Christian beliefs should not be attending services - non-Communicants especially should get confirmed or stay away.

Quite apart from the incongruity of a supposedly Christian church telling people they are not welcome, it seems more than a little short-sighted to alienate members of the already-sparse congregation. The original impetus seems to have come from the Diocese, but this particular vicar seems to be pinning his hopes on recruiting the young; toys litter the side aisles, even though there are only ever a tiny handful of small children in evidence, and the church has expensive new amplifiers for electric guitars.

When the church closed for lockdown - a massive error of judgement; aside from the obvious spiritual considerations, the high ceilings and under-floor heating meant it was probably the safest indoor space in the area - the vicar confined his ministry to Zoom calls and WhatsApp, ignoring the many elderly parishioners, including the bereaved, who weren’t online; my relative and her friends asked around but found no one who had received a phone call from him, let alone a socially-distanced visit in person.*

Faced with this desertion in a time of need, a mutual support network evolved within the churchgoing community and extended its sphere into the wider village; parishioners checked up on each other, ran errands and passed on news of where help was needed or where a phone chat might lift someone’s spirits. Several of the people who kept this going throughout lockdown and beyond are among those now cast out by the vicar for being insufficiently evangelical or for the sin of not having being confirmed in childhood.

In this question of faith or good works, who, I wonder, is actually living according to Christian principles?

*By way of a contrast, a recent newspaper article described a vicar who, for as long as the churches were closed, made himself available to all by sitting outside his church door for three hours every Sunday, rain or shine..

Friday 15 September 2023

Credit Where Credit’s Due

One of the hallmarks of what passes for fame today - as manifested by a host of ‘influencers’ and television personalities - is having a ‘clothing line’, a collaboration where the celebrity earns money by endorsing a range of apparel, generating sales from social media publicity and the inevitable press attention. 

For the most part, the celebrity's role in the process is to select items from the manufacturer’s range of possible garments (I believe the influencers’ preferred term is ‘curate’, as if they were the Elgin Marbles or impressionist paintings); aside from superficialities such as colour or trimmings, all the labour over sketchbook or sewing machine is done by nameless employees of the company.

This week has seen a similar attempt to cash in on celebrity in a novel sphere, so to speak; the 19-year-old star of the TV series ‘Stranger Things’ appears on the cover of a new work of fiction as the author, even though the actual composition of the thing was the work of a ghostwriter. 

Apparently Ms Brown contributed to the process with ‘a couple of Zoom calls’ and some WhatsApp messages about her relative whose wartime experiences inspired the story, but the writing itself - the flesh and bones of the book - is the work of a woman as sidelined on the cover as the staff in the design studios where celebrity-endorsed garments actually take shape.

In the words of Longrider, who, with a number of highly readable works (and some wonderful characters) to his name, is better qualified than I to comment on this story:

Writing a novel takes a bit more than sending messages on WhatsApp. You have to be able to craft your story, build worlds and learn how to write prose and dialogue in a way that is digestible to the reader without jarring. In short, it takes effort.

Celebrity autobiographies have long used ghostwriters - a mercy, given the tortuous grammar and paucity of vocabulary of some sporting or TV personalities - and it’s common practice for accounts of real-life events, where the emphasis is on documentation rather than creation. Fiction, on the other hand, is an art form which relies heavily on the quality of the author’s prose to create a self-contained world and set the tone of the narrative.

I wonder whether Brown feels any moral qualms at passing off another woman’s work as her own or whether, as a true child of her time, like the influencer who talks of ‘designing’ a sportswear collection, she believes that her own limited input is all that matters.

Thursday 14 September 2023

On Fermi’s paradox

 I can’t be the only who thought of this...

Meanwhile, the natural forces on planet Vogsphere brought forth […] elegant gazelle-like creatures with silken coats and dewy eyes which the Vogons would catch and sit on. They were no use as transport because their backs would snap instantly, but the Vogons sat on them anyway.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

...when I read this: 

People taking selfies with ponies at a tourist hotspot caused a new-born foal to fall to its death from a cliff.

Never mind splitting the atom; I’m inclined to believe that, Adams’ fictional creation notwithstanding, we are completely alone in the universe because no civilisation could ever survive its equivalent of the smartphone and social media.

Sunday 13 August 2023

The Writing on the Wall



The discovery that one can buy shit-jumbles word clouds as wall art (see previous post) raised an interesting analogy, and, perhaps, a suitable musing for a Sunday post. 

Once upon a time, the walls of many British and American homes were adorned with texts of a religious nature - ‘Thou God seest me’, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ - often carefully crafted by friends or family members. These days, the writing on the wall is likely to be rather more secular (and effort-free); a plethora of mass-produced variations on ‘Love’, ‘Home’ or ‘Happiness’ can be picked up from the supermarket shelves along with the bananas and yoghurt, while larger framed or self-adhesive versions can be acquired at the click of a mouse. 

All of this got me thinking; for whom is this display intended? The framed religious texts of bygone ages were intended to serve a spiritual purpose for the occupants of the house; a comfort in hard times and a reassurance of divine protection, perhaps, or an exhortation to stay on the straight and narrow. While such texts, whether embroidered, carved or hand-written, were often a demonstration of skill and diligence of the part of their creators, the choice of subject matter reflected a greater purpose founded in belief. 

Today's words on the wall are far more likely to be aimed at impressing an external audience; social media has provided a way to share the contents of a private space with the world in general and show that you are keeping up with fashionable trends. While I can see the appeal of a specimen of elegant calligraphy as something to enjoy in one’s own home, much modern word art, bypassing the levels of interpretation required by more complex images, is designed to send a direct and somewhat peremptory message about what the observer should think or feel, making it the perfect art form for today’s lazy and emotionally incontinent social media culture.

Rather like the lettering on a bowl labelled ‘Dog’ - the dog can’t read and no one else is likely to eat out of it* - the content of today’s secular domestic texts is largely irrelevant to those living with them. However beautiful the lettering, written instructions to ‘cook’ and ‘eat’ in the kitchen or ‘wash’ in the bathroom are surely an exercise in redundancy, while a loving family is hardly likely to need a word cloud to testify to their mutual affection (though it’s grim to think that there are probably deeply unhappy homes out there lavishly decorated with words like ‘BLESSED’, ‘FAMILY’ or ‘HOPE’.)

Where our forebears would surround themselves with texts reminding them of a higher power, the focus of mass-produced word clouds leans heavily towards self-congratulation and outward show. Religious word displays and scripture quotations are still widely available, of course, although, in keeping with the spirit of the age, the painstaking craft of the past can now be replaced by wipe-clean vinyl, but, for the most part, the performative aspect of today’s word art is a striking testimony to the destructive cult of the self and the dual powers of ego and social media.

*update - just when you thought the things couldn’t get any more ridiculous: personalised word clouds for your dog, available in 17 different colour schemes...


Wednesday 2 August 2023

Lost For Words

Some years ago, a work colleague, having been on some kind of development course, was appointed to ‘cascade’ the content down to the rest of us, including the classroom use of what she called a ‘word salad’. (Unfortunately, it being an utterly unmemorable term for a completely pointless exercise, I had difficulty recalling it afterwards and somehow replaced it in my mental lexicon with ‘shit-jumble’, which has been my private name for the things ever since.)

It was thus something of a surprise that, looking for an example to illustrate the previous post, I found no online reference to ‘word salads’ as an educational tool. Instead, the Oxford Dictionary defines a word salad as ‘a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words’, while Merriam-Webster goes one better:

‘Word salad began as a term used in psychiatry to describe the nonsensical syntax of the mentally ill. [...] In recent years, however, a slightly different use of the term which means something closer to “nonsense” has emerged. This use of word salad usually reflects a judgment on the logic or intelligence of a person’s language, rather than on the person’s mental state.’

Given that the ‘word salad’ was enthusiastically taken up by the management and the more progressive staff, I’d say that hits it pretty squarely on the head. Despite having negligible educational value, subject-related word salads soon adorned everything from classroom walls to exercise books, while pupils were even being set to create them for homework using off-the-peg software (not exactly a demanding task; with the help of an online thesaurus, the one above took about five minutes from cut-and-paste to publication, including time to try out three different colour schemes).

My online searches eventually bore fruit; it turns out that my colleague (or the leader of her course) had the official name wrong, although she was well up with the Zeitgeist. The ‘word cloud’ has broken free of its original purpose - facilitating the analysis of metadata by visually representing keywords weighted by frequency or significance - and taken the corporate world by storm; its combination of eye-catching display with easily-generated content makes the concept irresistible to a certain type of manager - as well as being very tempting to teachers looking for an instant result with minimal effort.

The word cloud - or word salad - used in this way is a perfect manifestation of style over content, shouting keywords in a nonsensical context on corporate documents or the walls of offices and public buildings everywhere (and even, bizarrely, in a domestic setting). If you set out to design something that screams ‘shallow thinking’ or ‘empty PR gesture’, you couldn’t do much better; to borrow a singularly apt description from Shakespeare, it is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

(Although I still prefer ‘shit-jumble’.)

Friday 28 July 2023

Sucker Ponchos

If ever there were a news item one fervently hoped would turn out to be a hoax, it is the description of ‘gratitude ponchos’ enthusiastically shared online by an academic involved with NHS staff training.The accompanying image shows employees wearing the ponchos - made by cutting a hole in pieces of flip-chart paper - standing in a line (wouldn’t a circle be more efficient?) while colleagues supposedly write supportive and positive messages for them on their backs.

Now I’d like to think of myself as a reasonably responsible and well-mannered individual, but I can’t be the only one thinking that, should my employers try this (and should I be unable to think of a plausible excuse to leave), I would be sorely tempted to produce something entirely out of keeping with the wholesome and affirmative intentions of the organiser. I admit it would be a low blow, especially when someone’s back is turned, but it would be hard to resist, at the very least, some sort of backhanded compliment:“You seem to have an amazing ability to identify with Year 10” perhaps, or “Your lessons always sound so lively from next door”.

Disturbingly, such a scenario is not at all out of the question; in recent years, those of us with a sense of humour have struggled valiantly not to laugh during an earnest staff training session on ‘the coat-hanger of innovation’ - complete with gift-wrapped packs of clothes-pegs for each of us “to hang our ideas on the thinking line” - and silently applauded the dignified and erudite Head of History who, when a guest speaker concluded a particularly meaningless stream of pretentious  psychobabble and asked if there were any questions, replied, “Yes; am I alone in having absolutely no idea what you are talking about?”

What worries me is that, at least in the NHS, this adviser seems to believe that the poncho* initiative, rather than eliciting universal derision (and possibly some interesting anatomical artwork), would be be taken seriously by the participants and produce the desired collection of suitable compliments to ponder and appreciate at leisure. Either she is spectacularly deluded - always a possibility in academic circles these days - or she is confident that the workplace is populated by complacent drones who would not dream of subverting such an exercise.

If it is the latter, she may have reason, al least if our recent staff training days are anything to go by; it’s noticeable that the healthy scepticism and sotto voce observations on the more egregious staff training antics are, by and large, confined to the older staffroom demographic, while the most recent recruits - the ones ready to denounce any colleague who fails to adhere to modern orthodoxy - are far more willing to play along, accustomed as they are to mass virtue-signalling and observance of progressive rituals.

A family friend, born in 1930s Germany but now a proud British citizen, says that, in her opinion, the rise of the Nazis could not have happened in Britain because of what she calls ‘the ever-present voice in the back row’: the quick-witted irreverence and mocking of pomposity inherent in our culture. It is, as my mother says, ‘in with the bricks’, a part of us which has survived wars, religious oppression and hard times but is now under threat as never before from the media-backed forces of political correctness and groupthink.

Still, let’s not give way to pessimism; when it comes to staff training days, here’s hoping that the younger generation will eventually grow up and stop doing as they are told!

*Do you think we could persuade the Mexicans to go after her for cultural appropriation?

Sunday 23 July 2023

‘And did those feet...’

Things have been rather quiet here partly because I’ve been doing a lot of walking in various scenic locations, much of it in the company of venerable but intrepid members of Clan Macheath.

Thus it was that I recently tackled a section of the Cornwall Coastal Path in the role of guide, Sherpa and helper-over-stiles to an assortment of female relatives in their eighth and ninth decades. They are a jolly and talkative bunch and, as we progressed merrily along, they were keen to explain how much of their enjoyment of the walk stemmed from their shared appreciation of a television series on the area - and, indirectly, of its presenter, Michael Portillo.

“Just think,” exclaimed one of them in awed tones, “he probably walked along this very stretch of path!”  “Ooh yes!” cooed the others, stopping for a moment’s reverential contemplation of the vista once enjoyed by the politician-turned-broadcaster. The ladies in question are relatively apolitical - although one did go rather pink as she recounted how a canvassing Nigel Farage once shook her by the hand (rather literally, I gather; she’s not very big and he was rather enthusiastic) - but Michael Portillo clearly had the collective seal of approval.

What was particularly interesting, though, was the revelation, in the discussion which followed, that none of these ladies wants to vote Conservative. They concede that they might be obliged to do so in the case of potentially disastrous local candidates for the other parties, but they are unanimous that they have had enough; enough of Party infighting and backbiting, enough of pointless targets and ill-informed virtue-signalling policies, enough of the myriad shortcomings of the NHS and, above all, enough of being, as one of them put it, ‘farmed’ by the state for fees and taxes while their interests are largely ignored.

Quite rightly, they point out that they survived bombing and wartime disruption as children (one was actually born under the kitchen table during an air raid) and then endured years of rationing for the common good. They and their friends have worked hard, many of them in public service, and raised families and have, as they see it, a major stake in the society they helped to create in the post-war decades, but now they feel utterly abandoned by a government which expects them to do everything online and stands idly by while they are vilified for their age, presumed opinions and supposed ‘privilege’.

Since election strategy, like so many other things these days, is in the hands of statistical computer types - not to mention people of an age to dismiss the elderly as irrelevant - I wonder whether the Conservative party may be under the mistaken and patronising impression that these older voters will stick to their previous voting patterns. Truly we live in interesting times!

Saturday 17 June 2023

No Country For Old Men (or Women)

The Guardian reported this week on the record number of teachers baling out.

The latest workforce survey by the Department for Education (DfE) found that 40,000 teachers resigned from state schools last year – almost 9% of the teaching workforce, and the highest number since it began publishing the data in 2011 – while a further 4,000 retired. 
From observation, I’d guess that the 40,000 includes many who have opted for early retirement but are still technically of working age; this represents something of a looming crisis because, while the government points out that nearly 48,000 joined the profession in the same year, this is not like-for-like replacement. The current orthodoxy - that teacher training is all - means that experienced specialists in Physics or Chemistry could well be replaced in the A level classroom by NQTs with, say, a Sports Science degree from a former polytechnic (assuming the school finds a new physics teacher at all).

From friends and family to chance meetings on walking holidays or elsewhere, we are encountering newly-retired teachers in their fifties all over the place, many of them in the shortage subjects like Physics, Chemistry or Modern Languages. Being in the business ourselves we know that, unless they have other sources of income, these teachers will have taken a substantial financial hit to get out before the age of 60.

The Guardian doesn’t have to look far for an explanation:
Teaching unions blamed poor working conditions and the long-term erosion in pay for the exodus, while Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “This is yet more evidence that this incompetent Conservative government has created the perfect storm in recruitment and retention of teachers. 
With rather more of a worm’s-eye view of the situation, I’d beg to differ, at least over the direct culpability of the government. True, older teachers have long been accustomed to seeing their incomes outstripped by friends who went into other jobs or professions, but those who objected would have left years ago, while younger staff went into the profession knowing the pay structures. Government initiatives do make extra work and complicate the job, certainly, but they have far less impact than the day-to-day frustrations generated by the antics of senior management - at least the sort of heads and deputies who manage to impress interview panels and climb the greasy pole In today’s climate. 

And then there’s the fear factor. Barely a week seems to go by at present without news that yet another unfortunate teacher has fallen foul of the management over issues of gender or allegations from pupils and, in cases like the subject of the previous post, it’s increasingly hard to escape a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’, especially given the way some younger colleagues seem ready - or even compelled - to harangue their elders about gender identity and white privilege at every opportunity. With pupil behaviour plumbing new depths and orthodoxy saying ‘believe the victim’, teachers are more vulnerable than ever before to accusations from all sides.

One school I know publishes a staff list in order of arrival at the school (the list was recently reinstated after a brief hiatus when one of the high-ups apparently decided it was too divisive or hierarchical or something) and it highlights what may be a national trend; twenty years ago, the majority of those named were long-serving teachers who had been at the school for ten years or more, last year, three-fifths - sixty percent of the teaching staff - had been in place for less than five years.

This influx of mainly younger staff, together with the resulting lack of continuity and stability for staff and pupils alike, is changing the nature of the working environment, creating an embattled older minority of teachers wearied by virtue-signalling brash young colleagues, endless awareness courses and pointless schemes and initiatives, all the while living in constant fear of denunciation for saying or doing something which would have been perfectly acceptable a decade ago but which, today, could end a career or worse. Small wonder, then, that many are choosing to retire early, despite the financial penalties.

It’s nothing new for older staff to feel under-valued in a progressive climate and children will survive this as they have survived previous upheavals in education, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated at the wasted opportunities and the vast amount of wisdom and experience being lost from the system. 

Wednesday 14 June 2023

“I saw [insert name here] with the Devil!”

Another day, another witch-hunt.

This one (updated here) concerns an experienced History teacher in his fifties working in supply who, despite initial reservations, agreed to cover a year 7 science lesson for an absent colleague, teaching from National Curriculum resources on puberty. He thought the lesson had gone well but, at the end of the following day, the supply agency contacted him to tell him there had been a complaint.

Apparently the pupils, two of whom had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, were upset by his attempts to explain and contextualise the information and had accused him of crude gender stereotyping; instead of dealing with it internally and asking him to clarify the matter, the school had reported him directly to the local authority safeguarding body.

The authority immediately cleared him of any wrongdoing (and, he says, ‘criticised the school’) but the head still chose to escalate the matter and referred him to the DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service, the body which clears teachers to work with children - or bans them from doing so). The DBS finally confirmed last week that there was ‘no case to answer’ but the damage has been done; the referral must be reported to all prospective employers for the next five years and, as numerous unjustly wrecked careers will testify, head teachers often prefer to believe there’s no smoke without fire. 

From professional experience, I’d say this whole business smells very odd indeed. Covering a single lesson for an absent colleague in another department almost always means providing supervision while pupils complete set tasks or homework; it is very unusual for a non-specialist cover teacher to be asked to present new material to pupils, let alone deliver a lesson in such a sensitive subject area. 

As for his alleged comments, he is supposed to have crammed a surprisingly large amount of offensive gender-stereotyping into a single lesson and the phraseology sounds interestingly uniform in tone and language register. Mr Higgins describes the allegations as ‘untrue’, taken out of context or the result of a misunderstanding - to that list a cynic might be tempted to add potentially leading questions, unwitting or otherwise, on the part of those investigating the affair.

(On the subject of the reliability of pupil recollection, I was once summoned to explain why a year 7 pupil had written, for homework, a poem about ‘punishment beatings’ and ‘guts hanging on barbed wire’, which he insisted had been the subject of my English lesson. It took the demonstration of twenty-odd rather wobbly but uniformly charming haiku about trees, clouds and flowers to convince the management that, prompted by the mention of Japan, he had spent that part of the lesson daydreaming about his favourite [and completely age-inappropriate] WWII computer game).

All in all, it looks suspiciously like a set-up; a humanities supply teacher instructed to deliver a science lesson - on puberty, of all things! - without being informed that the class contained two pupils with gender dysphoria. For the head teacher then to ignore the findings of the local authority safeguarding committee and go directly to the DBS - a course of action usually reserved for serious concerns about sexual or physical abuse - suggests that someone was determined to ensure Mr Higgins would never teach again. 

It’s always possible that a young or inexperienced head was manipulated by a cabal of aggressively self-righteous pupils (the world of ‘The Crucible’ gets closer every day; it’s worth bearing in mind that the real Abigail Williams was only twelve years old) but, based on the hostility of some younger colleagues towards those of us deemed deficient in virtue-signalling fervour* and their apparent lack of any sense of humour (or proportion), I would not rule out the possibility that Mr Higgins, possibly unwittingly, gave offence to a militant activist among the staff (or senior management) who decided, for the greater good, to remove him from the profession by any means possible, including exploiting his willingness to help a colleague by teaching a lesson completely outside his area of expertise.

*As an illustration, I once had to defend myself against another teacher’s accusation of endorsing misogyny and promoting ‘toxic masculinity’’ while teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’, a GCSE set text; apparently, when quoting from the text, I failed to include sufficient condemnation of Steinbeck’s attitude to women. (I should, perhaps, point out that I am, unequivocally, female).

Friday 2 June 2023

‘Double, double, toil and trouble,..’

‘Masterchef’ isn’t the sort of place where one would expect to find inspiration for social comment but I’m still mulling over an odd moment in one of the recent rounds where a competitor was discussing his plan with the judges.

“I’m taking you back to seventeenth-century Salem” he said, explaining his witch-themed creation of a cauldron-based dish served with a ‘monster’s eyeball’ and brightly-coloured slime and accompanied by a pastiche of the witches’ incantation from Macbeth. It was undoubtedly creative (albeit in a rather lowbrow trick-or-treat way) and apparently very well executed but I was finding it hard to concentrate because I was still struggling with his original comment - after all, wasn’t the whole point that there weren’t any actual witches in Salem?

I’ve mentioned ‘The Crucible’ a couple of times recently - the parallels in the world of social media and public life are, alas, inescapable - and, in the course of research, discovered that the social media generation may be interpreting the plot in a novel and somewhat disturbing way. By turning Abigail Williams into a victim and casting the townsfolk as the villains of the piece, the way is opened for a reading in which “I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil” can be accepted as a believable statement.

The aspiring chef’s conflation of the Salem witch-trials and Macbeth was apparently inspired by a film -  a product of the usual Hollywood dumbing-down and distortion of history - about actual witches in seventeenth century Massachusetts, presumably leading to the same sort of muddled thinking which has people believing that Frankenstein was a monster with a bolt through his neck. Apart from sadly traducing the innocent (200 accused and 20 executed in a relatively small community), this confusion completely undermines Arthur Miller’s allegory and the point he was making about the evil of witch hunts.

In a world where Oprah fans, defending an imposter who promoted a false misery memoir on the show, can condemn ‘the facts squad; these people make me sick!’ and Prince Harry opines ‘There's just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts’, the play’s courtroom scene becomes a veritable quagmire of shifting truths and values - a problem which has chilling implications for the use of a jury to decide legal cases. If Abigail is assigned the moral superiority and credibility now accorded to victimhood, goes the argument, her truth must be valid, ergo Goody Proctor must be guilty of witchcraft.

Even before this shift in values, my faith in trial by jury was irretrievably undermined when, after some years in a different subject area, I took over another teacher’s English GCSE class and read their coursework essays on ‘Macbeth’; I still shudder at the thought of an innocent defendant trusting in the verdict of jurors who, a few years earlier, despite having read the play and watched a film version, struggled to identify the murderer of Duncan (or, in one case, insisted that it couldn’t have been Macbeth ‘because it’s never the person you think it is at first’).

With the concept of truth under attack from all directions and in an increasingly complex world, trial by jury may be reaching the end of its usefulness as an institution; what hope is there for justice in a world where people believe there really were witches in Salem?

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Nuclear, nucular or just unclear?

Three characters in the thriller I watched last night were discussing a mission: the first described how they would approach the ‘nucular’ missiles and the second answered with a point about their ‘nuclear’ warheads, while the third simply talked about the ‘nukes’ (which was a bit of a cop-out if you ask me).

I might not have noticed had I not been listening to BBC sounds last week and happened upon a drama in which the heroine - a doctor - repeatedly used the pronunciation ‘nuculus’ when referring to the nucleus accumbens in the brain (as ‘the Nucleus Accumbens’ was the title and theme of the episode, she did this quite a lot). This pronunciation wasn't, as it turns out, simply put on for the role; astonishingly - for purists at least - the same actress was subsequently chosen to narrate a docu-drama about the nuclear - ‘nucular’ - disaster at Fukushima.

In both cases, I found myself wondering what happened behind the scenes. Each production presumably has scriptwriters, editors and directors, all of whom might surely be expected to point out such a glaring mispronunciation. Were they too much in awe of the actors to criticise, I wonder, or did they fear it might be seen as some kind of discrimination? Or maybe, as I have found in the classroom, an habitual employer of ‘nucular’ is unwilling or unable to change however many times you ask.

Experience suggests that it is more common in people with dyslexia, which is understandable, but one would expect some outside input if they persist in using it in a professional context. Some very unexpected people do it; I’ve encountered it from highly intelligent A level Physics candidates (anecdotal evidence even implicates Marcus de Sautoy, occasional broadcaster and Oxford Simonyi Professor for the Public Advancement of Science) and I have heard it used several times in TV documentary programmes over the past few years including - again surprisingly - one on submarines and another on the Cold War.

There are times when it starts to feel like a form of gaslighting, or possibly one of the Asch conformity experiments; I know that my version is the correct one, but so after so many repetitions of the other, I can feel myself starting to question it. The dictionaries are reassuringly unanimous, so it isn’t a valid alternative (in any case, given the spelling, it would be hard to see any justification for that hypothesis); how, then, does it find its way into so many broadcasts?

One explanation might be that the production team themselves pronounce it that way - in which case the rot has set in deeper than I thought - or have heard it mispronounced so often that they don’t notice it; in any case, I can’t dismiss the possibility that I am in a pedantic minority and nobody else is bothered by the inaccuracy. According to some sources, George W Bush pronounced it correctly until he began his White House campaign, at which point he adopted ‘nucular’ to sound more folksy and approachable (although I just found it terrifying that he said it like that and they still put him in charge of the things).

I suppose there, is, at least, an upside to all of this; if, back in the days of ‘Protect and Survive’, someone had told me that, forty years later, I’d be bothered by the way people pronounce ‘nuclear weapons’ rather than dealing with their aftermath, I’d probably have been profoundly grateful for such a trivial preoccupation.

Saturday 27 May 2023

A Moment in Time

 How long does a moment last?

No, it’s not the opening of a romantic novel or a prompt for mindfulness meditation; I’ve been wondering because of the recent news coverage of the e-bike crash in Cardiff. 

Numerous news outlets accompanied CCTV footage of the bike being followed by a police van with the statement that it was filmed ‘moments’ before the collision, even though the actual crash site was half a mile away and the published timelines suggest an elapsed time of roughly 90 seconds to two minutes - long enough for the riders to evade the police by passing through pedestrian-only access to another street where the van could not follow.

Oddly enough, a ‘moment’ was once formally recognised as one-fortieth of a solar hour, which averages out at 90 seconds (medieval Europeans, following the practice of Ancient Rome, divided the time between sunrise and sunset to give 12 hours, the length of which varied according to the season). The advent of mechanical clocks made the unit obsolete but the word endured, if in a more flexible sense.

These days, you are most likely to encounter it in phrases like “take a moment to consider...”, “the moment of truth” or “he hesitated for a moment on the edge...” and in the word ‘momentary’; substitute ‘90 seconds’ in any of these and they lose their implied fleeting nature (this also seems as good a place as any to cite the somewhat disturbing landing announcement from USA airline pilots; “We expect to be on the ground momentarily”).

Consciously or not, I suspect that most viewers or readers would understand from today’s usage that ‘moments’ implies a matter of seconds, not a minute and a half or more, yet multiple news reports - including the BBC TV news at 6 and 10 - persisted in using the word to accompany the images, effectively suggesting that the police van was in close proximity to the bike when the fatalities occurred (interestingly, the Mail altered it to ‘minutes’ some time after publication). There have been other subtle linguistic variations too; the words ‘chased’ and ‘pursued’ appear in most sources, while a relative few have gone with ‘followed’ and ‘tailed’ (surely more accurate, given the lack of lights and sirens in the broadcast clips).

It’s often hard to tell whether the wording of reports is original or the result of the common ‘churnalism’ method of recycling the output of other news sources. Even allowing for this, the prevalence of words like ‘chase’ and ‘pursuit’ suggests there may be an agenda at work, particularly given the widespread media use of a photo from 2016 showing the boys as young children (and, gruesomely, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the widely published picture of the two 10-year-old girls whose murders in Soham sparked a massive outpouring of national grief in 2002) rather than their more up-to-date images, artfully costumed and posed to suggest gangland culture.

It’s fair to say that Britain’s police as a whole have not exactly covered themselves in glory recently (although, as with any public institution - including my own field, education  - I feel one should say a word on behalf of the many decent and conscientious souls trying to do a good job amid the furore) and it would appear that the media have decided upon a role as self-appointed instruments of retribution, spurred on, in some cases, by a spurious conflation of police and government. Since the general public are often inclined to emote first and ask questions later (if at all), this strikes me as intentionally playing with fire.

It’s a known fact that hot summers produce civil unrest and we have a population smarting under the legacy of lockdown and the high cost of living and primed by constant provocation and grievance-mongering in the media - social and otherwise. Just at the point when we need to be able to call on a strong force to protect law and order (or life and property), there seems to be a concerted effort at work to undermine the last shreds of authority vested in the police - an effort on the part of the very (and possibly only) organisations with a great deal to gain in the event of mass disorder.

Sunday 14 May 2023

Divided by a Common Language

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock.” (Mary Gentle: ‘Golden Witchbreed’)

Citizens of the United States frequently present us with a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale. They look and dress like us, they speak our language (more or less) and their customs and manners aren’t so far away from ours, and then they suddenly turn round and serve you a cup of lukewarm water with a tea-bag on the side.

Just how far removed we are, at least as far as their media are concerned, was recently shown by the New York Times’ confident assertion that, on the day of the coronation, Royalist Britons had ‘dined on scones, scotch eggs and breakfast pie’ and ‘sipped tea or drinks like Buck’s Fizzes, a non-alcoholic version of a mimosa’. The NYT has form in this area; it’s not so long since it claimed that we were living ‘in swamps’ on porridge and mutton, an assertion so preposterous that it could only be the result of a bizarre folie à deux on the part of the publication and its readership.

There’s misinformation on both sides of the Atlantic, of course, and, for all we think we know about them, some of their habits seem downright baffling - take, for instance, the mystery of curtains. I hate to say it, but it’s become something of an obsession; I find myself repeatedly distracted during a film or television drama by curtains left wide open at night even when the characters are engaged in amatory or nefarious activities in brightly-lit rooms, heedless of curious passers-by (or assassins, depending on the plot).

Of course, in general we know far more about them than they do about us thanks to the magic of television and film (as well as the American novelists widely read in the UK). Some of this is due to the relative scale of output but there is also an element of wilful parochialism which finds its way into the most trivial of settings; one of the funniest things about Roland Emmerich’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was the contrast between the well-groomed American meteorologists striding through shiny hi-tech offices and their sepia-tinted British counterparts huddled round outdated computers in a cramped and scruffy bunker.

A comment on a recent post reminded me that this pro-USA depiction extends into more solemn settings, citing the film ‘U-571’, which shamelessly rewrote history to credit the Americans with the capture of an Enigma cipher machine. The comment led me to the words of the film’s screenwriter, who, years afterwards, admitted that he had ‘distorted history’ and ‘would not do it again’:

"It was a distortion...a mercenary decision...to create this parallel history in order to drive the film for an American audience.” 

It’s a telling quote, an explicit admission that, while the USA is home to many rational and objective souls, a significant proportion of supposed adults of voting age need to have past events rewritten and tailored to their own interests in order to capture their attention, and it lends a worrying aspect to Biden’s evident anti-British bias; a powerful but childishly self-centered nation so beset with misinformation about us, both past and present, is a dangerous beast to have loose in the world.

Hands Off My Saucepan!

If you have watched television news in the past few weeks, you have probably heard the UK  entry for the Eurovision Song Contest: an upbeat number from one Mae Muller (who, oddly for someone representing the United Kingdom, has apparently tweeted that she hates Britain):

Eurovision songs tend to the musically predictable but this one has more than the usual touch of comforting familiarity, for some at least. The first time my 85-year-old mother heard the chorus, she exclaimed ‘But I know this!’ and began singing virtually the same tune in Welsh. 

It’s familiar for me too, of course; I don’t speak the language but many of my family do and I’ve heard ‘sosban fach’ (‘Little Saucepan’) sung for as long as I can remember. For many people of Welsh descent, it is, to use my mother’s phrase, “in with the bricks”.

See what you think (I’ve used a modern version for better comparison):

It seems peculiar, but there seems to be nothing linking the two online (unless it’s on Twitter, which remains firmly outside my ken). Admittedly the scale only permits a certain number of musical combinations and similarities do arise -  my old music teacher would blend the Hallelujah Chorus with ‘Yes, we have no bananas’ as an illustration’ - but this does seem more than a coincidental resemblance.

Do you think it counts as cultural appropriation?

Saturday 13 May 2023

You Heard It Here First

Reflecting further on the mean-spirited carping about the royal family’s balcony appearance (previous post), I wonder whether some commentators, at least, were all geared up to denounce what happened in the Abbey for being too white or male but found themselves instead watching a ceremony which did a pretty good job of ticking diversity boxes, leaving them casting around elsewhere for a suitable cause of outrage and, bizarrely, landing on the heinous crime of a family in resembling each other and failing to marry suitably diverse partners several decades ago.

Away from the furore - and let’s now get as far away from it as possible - the ceremony actually showed how far we have come since the last coronation, where female participants, with one obvious exception, generally stood around looking decorative. This time, with little prior fanfare or fuss, centuries of tradition were put aside, not least with the involvement of female bishops, in ways which would have had our ancestors gaping in astonishment.

Along with Baroness Amos proclaiming the monarch, Penny Mordaunt’s turn as the Lady of the Lake and the heart-warming appearance of Floella Benjamin, splendidly bejewelled and ermine-draped as if equipped from the world’s best dressing-up box, the coronation ceremony brought us the joyous spectacle of Princess Anne striding out, in the words of the Times’ Janice Taylor, like ‘a swashbuckling lady pirate’ in a plumed hat and floor-length velvet cape under which, in anticipation of the equestrian duties to follow, she wore uniform riding trousers and a business-like pair of boots.

I have to admit that it was more than a little gratifying to see that a post I wrote some years ago was actually pretty near the mark:

Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, princesses came in two varieties. There were the fairy-tale ones in books, whose royal status unaccountably enabled them to spin frogs into gold or identify stray vegetables in their bedding, and then there was the real-life home-grown version, an energetic outdoor type with a no-nonsense style and an HGV licence who was not above telling intrusive photographers to "Naff awf!" 

Even her wedding, that ultimate opportunity for frills, furbelows and fantasy trimmings, was relatively devoid of story-book razzmatazz; as she walked up the aisle to the sound of trumpets, it would not have been a surprise to learn that, under the severe lines of her dress, she was wearing comfortable boots and possibly even a pair of jodhpurs. 

It is one of the most touching aspects of the whole occasion that the King asked his sister to hold the office of Gold Stick in Waiting, a position which, behind all the Tudor heraldic weirdness, effectively makes her his official bodyguard. It’s the ultimate in asking someone to cover your back - quite literally - and who better to do so than a woman who, once upon a time, responded to an attempted armed kidnapping by sitting tight and telling her would-be abductor “Not bloody likely!”?

Update: it is somewhat galling - or alternatively further proof of my prescience - to find that the Daily Mail has, this morning, published an article on HRH’s popularity with Gen Z:


Thursday 11 May 2023

Sticks and Stones

Now the dust is settling after the coronation, the papers are getting worked up over the 4,165 complaints received by Ofcom about Adjoa Andoh’s on-air description of the group on Buckingham Palace balcony as ‘terribly white’. The remark was undoubtedly crass, not to mention illogical - this is, after all the royal family - but is it really as newsworthy as all that?

Some of the uproar must be due to context; in recent years, the phrase ‘hideously white’ has been used by, among others, Greg Dyke (on the BBC), Andrew Lloyd Webber (on British theatre) and Rupa Huq (on pretty much everything else). That ‘terribly’ - even if it were intended primarily as a quantifier - put Andoh’s remark in the same territory and was bound to raise a few hackles as a result, while Paddy O’Connell effectively poured petrol on the flames with his response to her on his Radio 4 programme - ‘you have nothing to apologise for’, ‘you haven’t upset anyone’.

While I can see why people might, in a kind of ‘sauce for the gander’ way, want to join in the condemnation, there is surely little to be gained in responding with the same kind of thin-skinned, prickly outrage we deplore in today’s student culture and among the easily - or professionally - offended. In this case, with a certain element of do-as-you-would-be-done-by, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe that, caught up in the occasion, she spoke without considering how her comment would sound to viewers who had tuned in to watch the coronation.

It may be a telling indication of her thought processes - in fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Adjoa Andoh owes the spectacular good looks which kick-started a long career in the public eye to her dual British and Ghanaian heritage, so, for her, family gatherings will naturally be associated with a mixture of ethnicity. To that, one can add a lifetime spent in theatrical or television circles and in the capital, where multiculturalism is the order of the day and activism is generally seen as a good career move. When you have a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a nail; while the ethnicity of the various participants in the ceremony was clearly at the forefront of Andoh’s perception, to many others (fifty-somethings, at least) the most remarkable thing about the sceptre bearer was probably not that she is black but that - wonderfully! - she is Floella Benjamin from ‘Play School’.

Andoh’s presence on screen during the ITV coronation coverage was presumably entirely due to her role as an Georgian aristocrat in a newly-released Netflix costume drama - we are, in effect, back to the blending of artifice and reality (see previous post). She was hired for her celebrity status, not to provide in-depth analysis or background knowledge; her mistake here was failing to distinguish between the people associated with the King’s public position and a group largely composed of his close blood-relatives (who, unsurprisingly, are the same colour as he is) and, crucially, expressing this in potentially derogatory terms.

There’s a danger that, like over-tired toddlers after a party, some people are seizing on the opportunity to make a disproportionate fuss in order to fill the gap left when the excitement dies down. Either she intended to provoke, in which case the less media follow-up the better, or she spoke in haste and unwisely and genuinely regrets her words. It is human to err, and we’ve all made ill-considered or badly phrased remarks at times; I don’t necessarily agree with O’Connell but now, surely, it would be a good thing for people to accept it as such and move on.

Monday 8 May 2023

Trial by Netflix

The 2022 Netflix series ‘Hollywood’, a work of fiction set in the 1950s, centres around the making of a film about a (real) British actress, Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by throwing herself from the top of the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign in 1932. 

In the series, the part of Peg in the film is initially intended to be played by a white woman, reflecting her Welsh origins. However, a talented black actress impresses the production team and, in the face of strong opposition from the public and the studio establishment, the decision is taken to cast her in the title role - a demonstration that they are casting based on talent rather than skin colour (well, that and her being the director’s girlfriend).

So far so good; however, things now start to get complicated. Firstly, the production team decide there is a problem with the character’s name, which will also be the title of the film; ‘Peg’ (a childhood nickname taken from an Irish play) ‘sounds too white’, so they change it to ‘Meg’. Then, as filming gets under way, some of the characters start to question whether it is right for Hollywood’s first black leading lady to play a character so crushed by despair that she kills herself; this, they say, would imply weakness and reflect badly on black women in general. As a result, an emotional final scene is added in which she is persuaded to climb down from the sign and survives.

There’s a story there, but it’s not necessarily the one Netflix originally set out to tell. The series reveals a great deal about the unjust treatment of minority groups in 1950s Hollywood (although it seems to me that, if you are demanding equality of opportunity, it undermines your cause somewhat if the first thing you do when you get it is embark on a campaign of special pleading) but much, much more about Netflix screenwriters and their attitude to the facts behind the story; the writers of ‘Hollywood’ have their characters comment on many issues but not one of the fictional team ever asks whether it is really appropriate to make such drastic alterations to the life story of a real person or considers the effect on her living relatives.

We’ve become accustomed to Netflix ensuring that the facts don’t get in the way of a good story; from the intrusive fabrications of ‘The Crown’ to the character assassination of Rachel Williams, friend and victim of the fraudster Anna Sorokin (aka Delvey). Under the strapline ‘based on a true story’, real events and sensational invention are seamlessly blended until many viewers are unable to separate fact from injurious fiction, as a quick trawl of reader comments on royal news stories will easily demonstrate (I suppose this is mainly due to a desire to create ratings-boosting drama in ‘The Crown’, but knowing that Meghan and Harry are on the Netflix payroll does lend it a rather sinister aspect).

It’s nothing new, of course; real events have been fictionalised for as long as people have been telling stories, although the visual element gives film and television an unprecedented spurious authenticity - our monkey brains still want to believe the evidence of our eyes. Unfortunately, such distortion is capable of doing a great deal of harm, as is the case with the recent film ‘No Limit’, which claims to be inspired by a real-life free diver, Audrey Mestre, who drowned when her ascent equipment failed. The dramatic potential of the true story was not enough for the film-makers, who, presumably in script conferences and discussions similar to those portrayed in ‘Hollywood’, decided to imply that their heroine’s death was the result of deliberate sabotage by her husband.

While the film begins with a disclaimer saying that it is ‘a work of fiction’ and that any resemblance to real people is ‘coincidental’, there is also a statement that it is ‘inspired by real events’ and, at the end, a photograph of Audrey Mestre appears on screen along with an account of her death (all according to news reports; I haven’t watched it). Unsurprisingly, Mestre’s widower is now taking Netflix to court and speaking publicly about the distress this film has caused to him and to his wife’s family by the implied misrepresentation of their relationship and the suggestion that he was the cause of her death.

This willingness to distort true events and the lives of real people for gain implies a breathtakingly level of arrogance on the part of the writers at Netflix and those who approve their  projects. It would be interesting to know how much thought is given to the people whose actions, words and relationships they are misrepresenting; whether they are aware of the potential damage but deliberately choose to continue despite the harm they may cause or whether, like their fictional ‘Hollywood’ counterparts, they are happy to rewrite history, apparently oblivious to  the fact that they are exposing real human beings to the judgement of a misinformed mob.

Friday 5 May 2023

Tactical Voting and the Electoral Dark Arts

The news in the Times this week that Labour had been sending ‘campaign improvement boards’ - groups of ‘experts’ from headquarters to check up on and advise local party organisations ahead of these elections - didn’t come as any surprise, given my experience of student politics in in the 1980s.

Back then, we sat at the feet of officials sent out by the Labour Party’s youth wing to to explain to us exactly how to set up tactical voting for student union elections (a complicated business before the widespread availability of personal computers to do the number-crunching) and just how far a smear campaign could go without breaking any rules.

Those of us who expressed concern about some of the methods being advocated in the workshops were offered plenty of reassurance; our actions might be morally dubious, they said, but when faced with the urgent necessity of removing Margaret Thatcher and preventing the Tories damaging the country further, we were acting in the greater good, the end clearly justifying the means.

IThis was in the days of Red Wedge, where the purchase of a concert ticket automatically enrolled you in the Labour Party; this was hailed as a great success, although, in fact, it was the Party’s subsequent claim that the rapid and vast increase in membership was evidence that the people were spontaneously turning against Thatcher which put the final nail in the coffin of my faith in it as an institution.

Those who were less hampered by moral scruples and stuck with the Party despite the dishonesty and the prevalence of what later came to be known as ‘spin’, must, by my reckoning, be old enough to be in senior positions by now either at a local level or as part of the higher structure; perhaps some of them may even be among the visiting improvement board members who advised the local parties this time round, still peddling their strategies to do down their opposition at all costs.

Back in the days of a two party system, there was a simple progression; in the common version of an often misquoted (and frequently mis-attributed) saying, ‘if you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart: if you are still a socialist at 40, you have no head’. These days, when misguided and self-indulgent youth is prolonged beyond all previous limits, many more former Red Wedge supporters must have found a political home in the Liberal Democrats.

There is certainly an air of familiarity in Ed Davey’s complacent acknowledgement that tactical voting could work in the next election, along with the local leaflet his party sent out some weeks ago recommending applying for a postal vote to bypass the photo ID requirement at the polling station. Where the Lib Dems go, the other parties will doubtless follow to avoid being placed at a disadvantage.

It seems odd (but somehow inevitable) that, with more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before, we are at risk of being reduced to a nation of low information voters (see previous post), our votes - the precious reward of years of campaigning and struggle by our ancestors, male and female - no longer truly our own but simply fodder for the ever more complicated tactical machinations of our political masters.

(A tip of the tricorn to AK Haart and the much more elegantly laconic post which inspired this ramble: https://akhaart.blogspot.com/2023/05/turned-away.html)


Monday 1 May 2023

Pin the Tail on the Donkey

 With less than three days to go until the Council elections, I have to admit to being rather baffled.

I’ve searched the internet and scoured the local news websites but, for all intents and purposes, our independent candidate doesn’t exist. He’s named in the official lists, of course, but apart from that, there is nothing out there to indicate his policies and principles.

Since I, like many others, am thoroughly disgusted with party politics, his independent status should make him an appealing option, but what if he’s passionately committed to meat-free council catering or low traffic neighbourhoods? That appears to be the case for those independent candidates who, in the local paper’s cursory and county-wide rundown of party policies, banded together to explain how they aligned with the Greens on certain issues but, as our candidate wasn’t one of them, there’s no way of telling.

As for leaflets, we’ve had one from the Conservatives and two from the Lib Dems, all mainly telling us how the other parties have got it wrong (the Lib Dems, with a certain cavalier attitude to veracity, state that the requirement to show photo ID is “part of a Conservative government plan to make it harder for people to exercise their right to vote”). The local community magazine is no help - although it’s good to know that the WI are holding a coronation-themed cake sale on Friday - and the nearest thing I’ve found online is a supporters’ forum for the local football club which is trying, with limited success, to ascertain what each candidate thinks about their plans for a new stand.

It seems incredible that, in a nominal democracy, voting in local elections can be a matter of either blind party loyalty or selecting - apologies to the gentleman concerned - a pig in a poke. If our political masters really supported our right to choose those acting on our behalf, at the very least one would expect the Council website, along with the required details of the candidates’ proposers and agents, to include a short statement from each candidate enumerating his or her priorities and intentions; since they took the trouble to write and tell us we’d need photo ID to vote, they could even have printed the statements on the back of the letter.

With virtually no information on which to base the decision, it becomes a random choice on a par with a blindfold guessing game or a once-a-year-punter’s bet on the Grand National - except that there’s no big payout if you win and the horse won’t have a say in how local services are run for the next four years. Still, to be cynical, it probably won’t make much difference in the long run: as the world-weary Polish saying on elections has it, ‘Same trough, new pigs’.

Update: further digging in the Council archives has revealed that he stood (unsuccessfully) for election in a nearby local ward in 2016; he was representing UKIP then, so I’m guessing it’s a ‘no’ on the vegan dinners and the road-blocks.

Sunday 30 April 2023

Thrown to the wolves

A minor but disturbing news story last week concerned a teacher in an all-girls school compelled by the management to apologise to a class of eleven-year-olds for addressing them collectively  as ‘girls’.

The story was picked up at the time by JuliaM, who drew attention to the lunchtime protest which followed the teacher’s refusal to comply with the pupils’ demand that she use the preferred pronouns of one of their number - a grievance, one suspects, which had sprung, fully-formed, into existence after the previous week’s assembly on gender presented by the school’s ‘equality and diversity prefects’.

The desire to impress one’s peers or a visiting speaker is an unpredictable force which often finds expression after ‘issue-based’ assemblies; I’ve seen the most unlikely pupils vying with each other to produce highly dubious first-hand descriptions of bullying, eating disorders or mental health issues in the led discussions which often follow and I suspect the aftermath of a presentation on gender would be no exception.

Something about this attention-seeking scenario and the involvement of older girls rang a bell so, following a hunch while writing a comment at Julia’s place, I rummaged around in the internet and, almost immediately, came up with this sample student essay on Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, based on the Salem witch trials:

 Although Abigail Williams is typically thought of as the antagonist of The Crucible, she is in fact a victim as much as any other tragic character in the play. The true antagonist of the play is the town of Salem itself, because of the judgemental and self-concerned people, and its oppressive views. (Sample essay from 123helpme)

This is not not an isolated example; there is a wealth of material out there drawing on the violent death of her parents and her affair with an older man to portray her as a sympathetic character driven by trauma and exploitation to rebel against the censorious townsfolk using the limited weapons at her disposal (conveniently ignoring the fact that she describes the fate of her parents while coercing the younger girls to support her machinations and that the whole plot arises from her desire to harm the wife of her former lover).

To portray Abigail as a victim is to upset the whole balance of the play, effectively reducing Miller’s explicit allegory for the McCarthyite persecution of alleged Communists in 1950s America to a seventeenth century version of the film ‘Mean Girls’ (2004), in which the actions of the accusers, while clearly reprehensible, can be understood and potentially condoned (or even applauded; it’s worth bearing in mind that, after the release of ‘Mean Girls’, a teen comedy drama based on a factual study of bullying and cliques in US high schools, schoolgirls in uniform-free countries began consciously copying the sartorial codes of the eponymous group).

While it would be reassuring to think that this paradigm shift is confined to unqualified students rather than academia and is mainly the result of immature teenagers identifying with and romanticising the character, in an age where the internet gives a spurious authority to anything put online it’s easy to imagine it taking hold in a wider context. More disturbingly, the growing cult of the victim makes it an increasingly attractive interpretation to those for whom participating in online witch hunts is becoming an acceptable way to approach any difference of opinion, thanks to social media.

It’s only a few weeks since I used the Crucible analogy* to describe young employees exerting undue influence over publishing companies or cultural institutions fearful of damaging social media campaigns over issues of race or gender; the experience of the unfortunate teacher at the hands of a group of unscrupulous, entitled (and ill-mannered) eleven-year-olds (and her bosses, who all seem to have gone down with a bad case of Witchfinder-General’s Knee) over gender identity suggests that the contagion is spreading into ever-younger cohorts.

Certainly the school management who offered their employee up in sacrifice on the altar of political correctness would be well advised to do a little research into both the real-life Salem witch trials and the actions of Mao’s Red Guard, a movement which combined the ruthless solipsism of adolescence with fanatical loyalty to an inflexible ideology. Now even their youngest pupils know how much power they can exert, who knows which members of staff could be next in line for denunciation? 


Sunday 23 April 2023

Negative Adaptations

As Radio 4 becomes ever more annoying and 4extra’s continuity announcers not much better, I’ve been listening to archive radio plays and serials on BBC Sounds. By giving us access to these older productions, the BBC is, presumably unintentionally, providing a clear demonstration of how much better they are than the majority of what we are being given today.

For a start, in the older productions, the lines are generally delivered more clearly; the actors, by and large, have better diction and vocal technique and the background noise or sound effects, having been used to establish the location, are muted or reduced while they speak. There is less reliance on gimmickry too; while random repetition, self-narration, choral speaking and other over-theatrical and experimental techniques will get you high grades in GCSE Drama or favourable reviews in the Guardian, they can become intrusive in most radio drama settings, particularly in adaptations of the classics and older texts.

Above all, the older dramatisations are relatively free from the BBC’s now seemingly endless attempts to shoehorn propaganda into everything. This is annoying at the best of times but feels like a violation when a much-loved favourite falls victim. I seldom go so far as to swear at the radio but the Radio 4 dramatisation of ‘The Cruel Sea’ a few years ago elicited one such outburst when a passage in Monsarrat’s book condemning the vulgar ‘Spivs and Flash Harrys’ profiteering from petrol brought in by oil tanker at the cost of human lives was radically altered to a snide complaint about ‘fat cats and businessmen’ using the hard-won petrol to ‘drive their Jaguars’ to golf clubs, race meetings and pheasant shoots. In the same way, the few scenes of ‘The Kraken Wakes’ which I caught by chance on a car journey were so heavily larded with pious references to climate change that I switched it off again in disgust.

Most of the manipulation is less overt than this, of course, but it is only when you listen to adaptations from decades ago that you realise how frequent it is in today’s output: like the proverbial boiling frogs, we have been subjected to the intrusion of modernising revision and political or environmental orthodoxy in creeping increments to the point that we simply don’t realise how much of it is going on or even notice it unless some particularly egregious example crops up. The same thing has been happening in television; compare the excellent - and generally faithful - 1980s adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Barchester Towers’ with today’s ‘Great Expectations’, complete with added explicit drug-taking and contrived references to the slave trade.

A. A. Milne, when he turned ‘The Wind in the Willows’ into ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, compared adapting a well-loved classic to leaving fingerprints in someone else’s bread and butter and recommended as light a touch as possible; by contrast, the BBC is not merely manhandling our cultural sustenance but dropping the plate on the floor and treading it into the carpet with muddy boots, while never missing an opportunity to preach at us through the medium of entertainment and doubtless enjoying a collective sense of righteous self-satisfaction that all of this is is entirely for our own good. 

As an antidote, I suggest the three-part serial which prompted this post, an adaptation of James Hilton’s 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon’, recorded in 1981 with Derek Jacobi in the lead role; the plot is followed faithfully, it is free of gimmicks and you can hear every word. More importantly, despite being partially set in British India and other far-flung parts of the empire, it is mercifully free from the kind of anachronistic multiculturalism and condemnation of the Raj that the BBC would doubtless see fit to inject were it being made today. If you know the book and it interests you, I recommend you listen while you can, before the Corporation’s Thought Police spot this dangerously subversive recording and withdraw it from public access.