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

Wednesday 29 March 2023

The Cradle of the Revolution

The title of this post comes from road signs around the Chateau de Vizille, in south-east France; while every area tries to find something to boast of on the brown promotional roadside panels (spare a thought for Selongey, which can’t manage anything more exciting than ‘Birthplace of the pressure cooker’), the numerous additional official signs for Vizille, with its Museum of the Revolution, suggest it is a source of local and national pride.

Recent events across the Channel have prompted a number of comments about the French tendency to adopt violent protest as a first measure rather than a last resort, suggesting that this is because of the impact on the national psyche of having had a revolution in the past. I’d go further; what happens every year on July 14th is not merely a commemoration of historical events but an occasion to take to the streets and rejoice, despite the fact that the Revolution, founded in ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, quickly degenerated into horrific brutality, mob violence and calculated mass murder. When you have been brought up to applaud a history like that, what’s a bit of stone-throwing or arson between class enemies?

Back when I was teaching French, our regular end-of-year project for year 8 was based on an information pack published in France for foreign children studying the language. A cheerfully colourful comic strip booklet told the story of the Revolution, from the anti-royalist riots in Grenoble which began it all and the storming of the Bastille to the months of the Terror - complete with graphic depictions of the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - followed by instructions for making tricolour rosettes and Liberty bonnets out of crepe paper. There was even a cassette and a songbook so that pupils could join in with ‘La Marseillaise’ and learn ‘Ça ira’, the anthem of the sans-culottes, with its lilting dance-tune and jolly refrain, ‘To the lampposts with the aristocrats/ ...we will hang them!’ (although mercifully it did, at least, omit the final lines; ‘And when we’ve hanged them all/ we’ll shove a spade up their arses’).

Since the young generally have an insatiable appetite for the gorier bits of history, it’s easy to see how French schoolchildren, provided with similar teaching materials as part of their national curriculum, could accept the violence of the Revolution as a matter of course; it’s those of us who discover the details as adults who are made queasy by descriptions of the unspeakable behaviour of the bloodthirsty mob and the callous attitude of the intellectuals who provided the driving force behind it. 

Those protesters destroying public property and attacking the police have been reared from an early age to admire and celebrate a movement which, in addition to regicide and the mass murder of thousands (including children) purely because of their antecedents, eventually turned on its own and killed dozens of eminent social reformers, scientists and writers, men and women alike, who shared the same ideals but dared to criticise the direction events had taken and the atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

If ever there was a culture in the so-called civilised world which turned out citizens primed and ready for mass protest and violence, surely this is it.

As an aside, the last Bastille Day celebration I attended in France coincided with the local Fire Brigade’s annual knees-up (which started at 4pm after the parade). By the time the town fireworks got going at 11.30pm, most of the firefighters had been drinking for over seven hours, which was unfortunate as a stray rocket set fire to the roof of the nearby chateau.

I shall long cherish the spectacle of the duty fire engine stuck firmly in the castle gateway while its (sober) driver speculated aloud about the ancestry and personal habits of the two inebriated colleagues who had tried to direct him through the narrow entrance.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Bloody Cheek!

The classic example used to define chutzpah is a young man murdering his parents and then demanding that the court show mercy because he is an orphan. 

This week, I think I’ve found another, albeit on a lesser scale, from some members of the health workers’ unions. I’ve just had an email from the NHS blood people - I get these from time to time thanks to a relatively uncommon and particularly useful blood type - inviting me to make a donation as soon as possible. Like all their communications, it’s heavy on the emotional blackmail -‘save a life’, ‘we urgently need your help’’.

This urgency, they say, is because stocks are very low indeed due to bad weather and ‘industrial action’. The email doesn’t indicate whose industrial action is to blame, but a quick search confirms that, sure enough, there were blood donation staff joining the merry throng of NHS workers on the picket lines in the recent strikes.

That is their legal right, of course, but, given the unions’ claims that the system is already over-stretched and operating with minimal margins, it seems a bit much on the part of those who walked away from this ‘vital’ process and missed a couple of days of legalised vampiring (as well as costing management time to deal with the disruption) to expect the public to rush to make up the resulting deficit. 

Friday 17 March 2023

‘...not with a bang but an insta’

It would, in a slightly perverse way, be comforting to think that, should our civilisation fail, the end would be brought about by something on a cosmic scale and completely beyond our control; a massive asteroid, perhaps, or an alien invasion.

Science fiction writers have added a moral dimension with inadvertently self-inflicted scenarios involving nuclear disaster, rogue AI or global pandemics spread by mass air travel, not to mention my personal favourite, triffids; less spectacular but there’s still a certain element of grandeur involved (except, perhaps, in the case of zombies).

Sadly, it’s looking more and more as if the end will be a combination of terminal dumbing down and bitter political infighting. With hindsight, we could have seen it coming; the internet gave us a tool beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations, so what did most of us do with it? Shopping, lolcats, belfies, hot and cold running Kardashians and all the rest (blogs too, of course).

Above all, the social media genie, once out of the bottle, has set about undermining our society from within, providing the perfect medium for narcissism, misinformation, witch-hunts and denunciations, all played out in public for the delectation of the masses - the perfect counterpart to the circuses of the Ancient Romans. 

The instantaneous knee-jerk posturing of social media is fuelling an increasing polarisation as our society fragments into tribes - us (right) and them (wrong) - according to one’s opinion on the issue of the day; humans being what they are, it isn’t long before the tribe determines the opinion rather than the other way round. As far as Brexit, gender or the British Empire are concerned, we are effectively involved in wars of religion, whether we know it or not.

Worse still - since those are, at least relatively serious matters - is the growing infantilism recently embodied by news coverage of one Liana, who filmed herself on tiktok copiously weeping because some social media users had been rude about the name of her child (Koazy, since you ask) or the petty squabbles surrounding the antics of various footballers’ wives.

It’s all starting to look horribly like a fast track to hell in a handcart and, given the wedge of diversity staff and green policies being driven into every pillar of our social and material infrastructure, the collapse is gathering pace. We might be able to slow the decline - for a start, it would help if if Instagram’s estimated 1.47 billion users didn’t spend an average of half an hour a day gazing at their own and each other’s navels - but I suspect our time is up, just as it was for the Ancient Romans, the Aztecs or the Moche.

How humiliating, though, to descend into barbarism in such a trivial and meaningless way!

Monday 13 March 2023

Lineker: biting the hand that feeds him

Politics and contract issues aside, I can’t help feeling that, for me, at least, the Gary Lineker affair boils down to a question of manners.

Lineker may or may not be directly employed by the BBC - the matter is currently under scrutiny as there’s a substantial potential tax bill involved - but his status as a paid pundit surely brings with it some social and moral obligations towards the organisation which offers him a weekly platform to exercise his specialist skills and whose metaphorical bread and salt he has eaten for decades.

It’s a bit like a wedding singer being found in the hotel bar after the reception making loud and occasionally offensive comments about the local mayor (even though the bride and groom have already asked him to stop); he may not be breaking any rules, but it does show a lack of respect for the bridal party and reflects badly on the people who who hired him.

There's something embarrassing about the whole business; this is a grown man with a successful media career employing the sort of Hitler-based comparison that was used as a last resort in acrimonious student debates back in the days of Margaret Thatcher (and my misspent youth). We used to call it ‘dropping the H-bomb’ - the nuclear option which effectively ended the discussion, since any attempt at remonstration could be howled down with gleeful cries of ‘fascist!’ (‘pig’ was an optional extra). 

It’s taken me all weekend to work out of what - or whom - all this was reminding me but I got there in the end...

Thursday 9 March 2023

The Decline and Fall of the Little Red Hen

Once upon a time, this was my favourite book - which, judging by recent posts on Primary education websites, shows I was a precocious proto-capitalist; these days, if their approving teachers and parents are to be believed, children are likely (with, I suspect, some prompting) to say that the hen should have shared her loaf of bread with the other animals even though she did all the hard work to produce it.

It wasn’t just the satisfactory ending that appealed; like the other Ladybird story books of its vintage, it’s an aesthetic and linguistic gem, with detailed illustrations clearly drawn from life - the hen scratching in the dirt to plant the seeds is a delight - and a keen sense of rhythm pervading the text:
“Who will help me to plant these grains of wheat?”  asked the little red hen.
“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the rat.
“Not I,” said the pig.  

By the mid 1990s, the style is very different. Gone are the lifelike animals and the lovingly-detailed rural settings; instead we have a flat and dreary cartoon with a corresponding lack of complexity. While the language remains relatively unchanged, the ‘other animals in the farmyard’ have become ‘her friends’; a patronising gesture in keeping with the simplification of the illustrations, all doubtless intended to make the book more ‘relatable’ for modern children.

Another couple of decades and the complex and detailed illustrations of the original have been replaced by a faux-naïf style in which the animals (the pig having been unaccountably replaced by a dog) have acquired clothing and are depicted in an anthropomorphic style oddly reminiscent of “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. The language, too, has been sadly debased:
“Will you help me to plant the wheat? “ asked Little Red Hen.
“No,” said the cat, the rat and the dog.
All these changes are, I fear, symptomatic of a wider malaise. I’ve often wondered how the sophistication of Ancient Roman art and literature could have given way to the Dark Ages and what it must have looked like to those living through the change.

Having seen what has happened to the little red hen in a scant fifty years, I think I am starting to understand.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Ex Libris

If you have a racist friend,” sang The Special AKA in the 1980s, “now is the time for your friendship to end”. In a climate where accusations of racism are flung about for the flimsiest of reasons, today’s Guardian readers presumably conduct regular purges of their address books to ensure their social contacts meet the requisite purity standards.

A while back, Julia had a piece at Orphans of Liberty quoting a Guardian writer who clearly applies the same methodology in other areas:

The big book purge began when I decided to go through the shelves and discard any book I was vaguely embarrassed to have in the house, for reasons of quality, subject matter, politics or author (look at your shelves and you probably have your own equivalents).”
Well, no, actually; by and large, if I choose to give a book house room then I will feel no embarrassment about it whatsoever. In the unlikely event of the writer of that article visiting my home, she would probably reach for the smelling-salts when faced with the collection which has absorbed most of my spare cash for half a century or more; from the ‘Just So Stories’ of early childhood to the vintage science fiction I discovered at 8 years old (scaring myself silly reading ‘The Day of the Triffids’ under the covers with a torch) and the ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure stories I loved in my teens, there’s enough politically incorrect material there to ensure no Guardian reader would ever speak to me again.

While some of these writers express prejudices and opinions which would no longer be acceptable in polite society, I see no reason to deny myself the pleasure of revisiting old favourites as a result. An open-minded reader will surely neither approve nor ignore the outdated attitudes but simply accept them as a product of their time, much like the (to us) mawkish sentimentality that permeates late Victorian and Edwardian fiction.

Given what has recently happened to the works of Roald Dahl, I have no doubt that future editions of ‘Beau Geste’, ‘Prester John’ or ‘A Town Like Alice’ - if published at all - will be censored to better reflect today’s attitudes in the same way that old photographs and film posters have been altered to remove evidence of smoking; it would be hard to find a better metaphor for this intrusive nannying than the airbrushed images of Churchill and Brunel sans cigars.

It seems unlikely that we will ever reach a ‘Fahrenheit 451’ scenario (unless the Corbynites get into power, in which case we will have far worse things to worry about) but, should it ever come to an inquisition into the contents of our bookcases, I can’t be alone in saying that they will have to prise ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (and all the others) from my cold, dead hands.

Friday 3 March 2023

Not any more, Omar!

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit 
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, 
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (FitzGerald translation)

Ah, simpler times! To compare the past - the domain of the ‘perfect’ tense in the sense of something finished and complete - to a piece of writing was once to acknowledge the permanence of the act of committing words or images to a surface.

It’s a pertinent reminder of the stability that our forebears experienced; to know that the past was  unalterable, even if recollections might vary. This was the security which Orwell showed being violated by the revisions conducted within the Ministry of Truth - a horrifying but distant dystopian vision for his 1940s readers which, 75 years later, is in danger of becoming an everyday occurrence.

We’ve long been accustomed to believing the evidence of our own eyes and, subsequently, the use of filmed or still images as proof. In the era of deepfake and AI generated imagery, we need to revise this urgently, but at least we have been abundantly warned of the possibilities.

Far more insidious is the alteration of texts stored on our own hardware. Nanny Knows Best has a chilling account of kindle owners finding that copies of Roald Dahl works they already owned have been subject to the recent much-publicised revisions without their knowledge or consent. It’s chilling to think that a kindle library - bought and paid for - could, at any time, be censored for violating today’s standards, regardless of the political or social climate in which it was written (and what, I wonder, would amazon do if asked at a future date to hand over details of customers with a liking for Rider Haggard, H P Lovecraft or John Buchan?).

It extends well beyond kindle, of course; the Tavern’s wise woman - 84, sharp as a tack and equipped with an eidetic memory - reports that BBC news stories which she has read in the early hours of the morning are often substantially altered by breakfast time, presumably as the day-shift editors arrive and contribute the correct spin. This being so, can we be sure that any past report has not been subsequently altered without trace?

How long do we have, I wonder, before this kind of thing spreads to society as a whole - or has it already done so? Having seen how medical records can be altered or disappear, I am willing to believe the same thing could happen with police, judicial and employment documents - to say nothing of Government records - leaving no trace except a history accessible only to technicians inside the organisation.

We’ve seen a lot of this quote from George Orwell recently, but, under the circumstances, I think it bears repeating as often as possible:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.