Californian frontier

Long gone are the days when we had barbarians at the gates. The Romans had taken on the tribes and pushed them beyond the limes, and fortified the frontier, but there was always that threat beyond. When they broke through the limes from the end of the third century onwards the sense of fear and threat must have been palpable. Fast forwarding one thousand years the border between Christian and Slav, in what is now modern Germany, was for centuries a battleground, with death or slavery the penalty for defeat.

Such is the nature of frontiers, and death was an ever-present reality as settlers pushed the way west beyond the Mississippi in nineteenth-century America. California was the final frontier, but untypically it was a land without threat, from sea or land. The Spanish missions had deprived the indigenous Indians of their lands, and once the Mexicans had been expelled the way was open, with the high Rockies the last barrier, the California dream beyond.


California was the ‘golden land’ in American mythology. Joan Didion refers to a Faulkner short story of that name in her memoir, Where I Was From. How did the dream progress? First came gold, then the railway, then the land was parcelled out, and bought and sold, great landholdings accumulated, which in turn were sold off. The Sacramento valley was a swamp, 150 years on it is agribusiness taken to its furthest degree, with big dams ensuring the rivers always behave. It’s only 150 years since settlers were losing wagons and lives trying to beat the winter over the passes. Most lived and told the tale, the experience seared on memory, but many didn’t.

In Didion’s words by the 1880s Californians ‘had already sold half the state to the Southern Pacific [railroad] and [were] in the process of mortgaging the rest to the federal government’. She continues to chart a reality that never lives up to the high promise of the California dream. Such is the dysfunction of the modern Californian state I wonder if they’d be emigrating if there was anywhere left to go to. Instead they turn in themselves and protect what they have, building new prisons, cutting taxes so the state can’t fulfil its obligations, and showing the same paranoia toward immigrants as other southern states.

Silicon valley opened up a different frontier for California, entrepreneurs creating a reality quite different from the aerospace and agribusinesses that had underpinned the California economy for many decades. But the rest of the world, first Seattle, now New York and London, India, China, Singapore, is answering back with huge hi-tech investment. So that frontier looks dodgy too.


How quickly frontiers turn from opportunities into places to defend. We talk now of liminal experience, but we’re looking for challenges from a position of comfort, we’re frightened of the old frontier mentality. We like talk of being at the edge, but we want to be safe. In earlier times that wasn’t an option.

Where will the new barbarians come from?

Octavia Hill

Why do people radical in youth often become blinkered and right-wing in their older age, often throwing out the humanity and compassion that they felt when younger? We feel after a decade or two of adult life that we have the answers, we resort to our own big ideas, which readily turn into prejudices. Youthful ideals get left behind. Withdrawing into more private worlds, identifying with family rather than the wider world, we lose touch with the wider world, and with it our wider sense of compassion.

That’s how for years I’ve looked at the world, and how I’ve interpreted the political divide. It’s not so simple of course. One big idea of our time, now well-established in the centre ground of politics, is that entitlements and the culture that they encourage do more harm than good. True compassion lies in encouraging self-reliance. But taking benefits away can be a cold and cruel process, bereft of compassion. 

Two approaches, present and past, illustrate the dilemma. The second, Victorian, example doesn’t provide a solution, but it does point a way forward.                                                                     

Ian Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have much of common sense about them. The country is living beyond its means, and we expect too much from the state, too little from ourselves. But whichever report I read, whichever reform is discussed, I ask myself – where’s the compassion? How does this reform relate to the everyday realities of people’s lives. You’re in a corner, unemployed, employable in theory, but you’ve tried everything you can think of, maybe you’re depressed, not knowing what to do next, and some bright spark employed by the government tells them you could be working and your benefits are going to be cut. Maybe you’ll be shaken into action, but maybe that sense of hopelessness will just take a deeper hold. 

Going back 150 years, there’s an article about a wonderful lady, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, in the current National Trust magazine, arguably an unlikely place (as it is these days, not as it was founded) to find a social conscience.  She set up housing projects in London, back in the mid 1850s, backed by private investment, with housing managers who engaged directly the poor, tackling worklessness and homelessness. She was against government involvement, council housing, free school meals. Everything should be paid for, but no-one exploited. It was a great Victorian charitable enterprise, and that sense of charitable involvement is something that the state’s engagement with our welfare can take away. 

There are some remarkable social entrepreneurs in our own time, and we need more.

So  the same goal, but two different routes. One top down, the government pushing you deep into a hole in the hope that you will somehow feel empowered to climb out, and the other actively empowering you. Charity shouldn’t and can’t take over from the state, but they can be much more in balance. If there are more opportunities for hands-on charitable endeavour, will more people take them up?


Silent movies are more fun!

In cinemas today it’s as if we wear blinkers. We’re oblivious to those either side of us and we normally want it to stay that way. Watching The Artist last night I noticed how the audience for silent movies turned to the people next to them at special moments to smile or nod. The absence of any sound other than music left open the option of shared communication.

At the end in the movie they broke out into applause. That’s what I wanted to do last night. I wanted to turn and share the best bits with neighbours, and I wanted to applaud at the end, but the credits came up so quickly there was no time. Maybe they should change that now:  audience participation at that moment would round off what is a near-perfect movie experience.

Think of the other extreme, cocooned, watching some noisy blockbuster, in front of the TV, playing a game on your computer, completely immersed in your own private world. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. Silent movies were only one step removed from theatre, as The Artist demonstrates. I was reminded too of Cinema Paradiso where the combustible qualities of film stock were also very evident. George in The Artist loses his memories, the Sicilian village loses its cinema. But the village could also have lost a way of life, which it did when the cinema finally closed. Cinema then was a social occasion, a smaller screen, much more audience interaction, a sense of palpable social excitement.

All now gone.

No Country For Old Brits

Just finished a quick reading of No Country For Old Men. A landscape of violence, where even Sheriff Bell finds no hope, where the devil at work maybe the only explanation. Compare the very different noir landscape of Brighton in the recent Brighton Rock movie (based on the Graham Greene novel of course), Pinkie the Chigurh equivalent, the difference being that Pinkie is on his way down, faced with life and death decisions, where he chooses death, another person’s, each time. Chigurh is already there, the only decisions he makes are death decisions, save for when he tosses a coin to decide Carla Jean’s fate (the coin falls the wrong way), but even that palls before the degradation of Pinkie urging suicide on Rose.

That really is enough of that. I turned for restoration (by way of extreme contrast!) to January in Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm where there is peace in landscapes where man and nature have evolved side by side, rather than one all but seeking the destruction of the other. Texas may have redeeming features (we know Brighton has a few), but Cormac McCarthy sure as hell doesn’t want us to know about them.