The world de-mystified

We, the people on this crazy planet, seek at one pole to identify, and work with, the world perceived as gaia, the mother of life, and at the other to command it: nature as enemy, to be tamed in what William James described more than a hundred years ago as ‘the moral equivalent of war’. The latter has indeed been the direction of travel for in the Western world for several hundred years, but we were, until even as late as the mid-20th century (if we exclude the USA and Europe), still getting no further than the edges.

Central Asia and Tibet were lands of mystics and Buddhists. There lay ancient paths to wisdom. Now those paths have been wiped by Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Britain may have governed India but its impact on Hindu and Muslim culture was minimal. A piece is a recent Economist highlighted how Indian cinema, Bollywood, while as popular as ever is now accessed in rural communities not by showings at the traditional communal fairs known as mela but in the privacy of private homes, which may be no more than shacks, via mobile phone.

The Economist also recently ran pieces on the railways which had opened up the Middle East in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. East briefly met West in conditions of harmony, even if old attitudes to the Orient hardly budged. Tracks now run as far as borders, or have been torn up. Out of connection we brought division. And another piece describes and evokes the last kampong, or village, in Singapore, where the long-established Land Acquisition Act allows unrestricted development, the commercial maximisation of limited space.

The world has been thoroughly demystified.

Now we have Elon Musk seeking to re-make the world, and the solar system, in his own image. Tesla is green. He is scornful of climate change deniers. But he’s also loading the atmosphere with thousands of miniature satellites as part of his Starlink communication programme. From the distance in space where he or his satellites look back in the earth individual citizens are invisible.

Time Magazine made him their Man of the Year. ‘This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit: clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, the brooding, blue-skinned man-god who invents electric cars and moves to Mars.’

This is close to worship. You lose one deity, you create another…

Another aspirant deity out in California is libertarian Peter Thiel. Thiel, David Runciman writes in the London Review of Books, ‘rails against the use of public money for the betterment of people’s lives, especially the poor. Who are politicians to decide how we should live? The state only exists to protect the lives we build for ourselves, including the wealth we acquire along the way.’ Monopoly is the logical aim of any good capitalist.

A favourite book of Thiel’s is The Sovereign Individual (published 1997), co-authored by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, William. The authors predict ‘the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by workers’.

Thiel ‘helped to bankroll the Seasteading Institute, which aims to create independent, ocean-based communities free from all government control.’ He was ‘an early vocal champion of Donald Trump’s presidential bid’. (All quotes are from David Runciman’s article.)

So where does that leave the still small voice of Zen, so optimistic in 2009. Where does the ordinary guy fit in? Likewise, run-of-the-mill limited-term democracy? And the big issues of migration, the armaments race, land use, species survival?

Thiel we can shunt off into one of his Seasteading communities. The state could build it for him.

And let’s have Musk focused literally down to earth, where he’s doing some real good, and could do so much more. But his mindset… he is a commander. He doesn’t do humility. We have messed up the environment and using the same machismo approach that landed in this mess he thinks he can put it right. I don’t share his premise. But we could use his ideas and energy. He could use our humility, but, well, let’s face it – that won’t happen!

Richard Dawkins comes to town

Saturday morning, 10am, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Richard Dawkins has been woven into our lives if not our rainbows for a few decades now. I can still remember reading The Selfish Gene. It’s somehow associated with a bus from up north heading down to London, sitting near the front, with big views either side of the motorway. Yes, it changed how I view the world.

Before last Saturday, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I’d not heard him speak in person. Interviewed by Matthew Stadlen, who he knows well, it seems, not least from previous interviews, he was as direct and blunt as I’d expected.

One cheerful discussion was around whether ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’ would have been a better title for that famous book. But it wouldn’t have had much of a zing to it, but there’s certainly a good case for arguing that genes are operating altruistically, since our survival, and progression up the evolutionary ladder, is tied intimately to our genes. Where they go we follow.

Genes have our interests at heart, though watching The Mating Game last night I was rivetted, as, accompanied by David Attenborough’s whispered, I-don’t-want-to-interfere’ voice, a male praying mantis manages to get its head bitten off by a larger female and yet, abdominally alive for several hours, still manages to mate. At the same time it provides the female with sustenance to feed the brood which will in due time follow. The male is allowed no time to rejoice in successful procreation.

Back from the jungle to Cheltenham. What I miss, and I’m more aware of this from a front-row seat, so not more than a few yards away, is the absence of a human dimension in his projection of himself as a scientist. Human beings of social, cultural, mixed-up, error-prone, imperfect beings. The human dimension doesn’t get a look in.

Take religion as the classic example – and Dawkins’ favoured territory. For my part, it’s so closely tied with ideas of love and compassion, and security, and re-assurance, and atheism does such a bad job of providing any substitute, that you’re throwing out a great chunk of human civilisation if you dismiss religion. The easy target of a personal god is only one manifestation. The instinct to believe or, if not to believe a such, then find re-assurance somewhere beyond ourselves, is innate to human beings.  Science, you could argue (and it would be interesting to do so!), is skeletal without it.

On climate change there was something similar. Dawkins didn’t mention the human dimension, and all the actions that will be required of us if the no-more-than 1.5% increase above pre-industrial levels is to be achieved. (‘What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg’ would have been a good question.) He accepts Global Warming, and responded (I read) positively to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. If only, he once commented, Gore rather than Bush has won the presidential election in 2000. A few hanging or dimpled chads changed the world. But his focus last Saturday was only on the science.

We have the surveillance state that is China on the one hand, and the spectre, so appealing to one section of Republican opinion in the USA, of scary Peter-Thiel-style libertarianism on the other. We need to promote the human dimension across the board, at all times, in all things. The religion-versus-atheism debate is old hat. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, atheists – we’re all in this together. Science must be and remain the servant of humanity, and without that context it can become so easily, as China demonstrates, the instrument of an authoritarian state.

(I’d like to chip in here with comments on Steven Pinker’s new book, Rationality. But I haven’t dipped into it yet. One comment from a Guardian interview from last month: ‘If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life.’ There’s the rub, of course. We don’t reason ‘properly’, and the application of reason doesn’t always lead to the same conclusions.)

Dawkins signed off with his thoughts on the transgender debate. Men and women are defined by their chromosomes and whether or not they are born with a penis. That is the biological definition. How they define themselves to themselves and to others is up to them.  No questions from the audience, so no debate ensued. But Dawkins had been clear, as always – the science must prevail.  

Hassan Akkad – a Syrian refugee

The Cheltenham Literature Festival ended yesterday. The beauty, and the challenge, of a book festival is the range of voices you get to hear. In my case it’s included Michael Wood talking about China, both his TV series, and recent book; Hassan Akkad, Syrian refugee and author of a new book, Hope Not Fear; Richard Dawkins, single-minded in his advocacy of science; and Colm Toibin, talking in inimitable Irish style about a sometimes very taciturn novelist, Thomas Mann, the subject of his latest novel.

Hassan Akkad, speaking in one of the small, almost off-festival venues, was for me the stand-out event. I mentioned that events can challenge. This one did. How might we, how might I, in our comfortable lives, do better. It’s not enough to read, or write blogs.

‘Hope Not Fear’ is the title of his book. Both are primary emotions. They are basic to our lives, as near opposites as can be. Imprisoned after demonstrating and film-making in Damascus, tortured, invited to meet Assad, re-imprisoned after that bizarre meeting, tortured again, both arms broken. A refugee in this country since 2016, he filmed his journey from Syria, contributing to a film which won a BAFTA.

Discovering that there was a condition known as PTSD made a big difference for him: he realised the fear and anxiety he felt was something others experienced, and could be treated. Listening to him talk his hands moved nervously, and yet his smile was wide and infectious. So much better hope than fear.

He would want to bring his children up in the UK. And yet he wants to go back to Damascus. How might the future work out not just for him, but for the world, someone asked. He smiled. How do you answer a question like that. Talking to people, taking someone in need out for a coffee or a meal – that was the gist of his answer. If we talk, if we’re open, if we care.

He volunteered as a cleaner early in in the pandemic, working with a remarkably multi-ethnic group of volunteers. Appalled by a government decision to exclude cleaners and porters from the NHS bereavement scheme if they died from coronavirus he put a film addressed to Boris Johnson on Twitter which was instrumental in changing government policy.

As a country, as a people, we welcomed him. But our politics has puzzled and disappointed. After a society in Damascus where stability hinged on notions of shame and honour, he’d expected to find the openness and freedom he’d briefly found as a demonstrator in Damascus, only to find a Britain radically divided in its politics.

It helps to be reminded how others see us, and how far in recent years we’ve fallen short. In the Britain he’d read about, the ministers responsible for the egregious early failings of our response to the Covid crisis would have resigned. None have. What message do we take from that?

There’a vulnerability about Hassan Akkad. He’s been through more than most of us could ever imagine. We should listen.

And so the Empire lives on….

I visited Daylesford in the Cotswolds yesterday, famous for its farm shop, and explored its vast and well-tended (woodland and pasture and water meadow) estate. How many I wonder connect the estate to Warren Hastings, famous, or infamous, as the 18th century governor-general of India, and subject of remarkable impeachment proceedings (beginning in 1788) when he was labelled by Edmund Burke among other epithets as ‘shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious’.

The East India Company in the 18th century was the forerunner of the Raj. But it was back then in essence a trading company, militarised under Robert Clive, not least to combat French influence on the sub-continent. Trade brooked no rivals. The moral conscience of the nation was stirred, but trade had its own momentum. In Burke’s words, ‘(the Company appears) more like an army going to pillage the people under the pretence of commerce than anything else’.

Ten years later (1799) victory over Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, ensured control of southern India. ‘Scarcely a house in the town [Seringapatam] was left unplundered,’ Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, wrote to his mother. The loot was extraordinary. It overwhelms our museums.

How, I wondered, does trade morph into empire, when the exigencies of trading relationships are replaced by the subjugation of whole populations? Local agreements with Indian merchants required local representation, which in turn required residence, and defence of person and property, and of commercial privileges – which extended so easily into a pretence, and then a reality, of empire.

William Dalrymple’s monumental history of the East India Company (‘The Anarchy’) is marvellous on the subject. Also worth reading is Sathnam Sanghera. He’s the Wolverhampton-born son of Sikh immigrants, and a journalist on The Times. His new book, Empireland, pulls together in one short volume many of the elements of our imperial legacy – loot, immigration (‘we are here because you were there’), identity, legacy, amnesia, trade and slavery.

Trade is to the forefront today. Literally today. The commission appointed by Oxford’s Oriel College to review the college’s decision to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has decided against its removal, and the college has concurred in that decision. The protest group ‘Rhodes must go’ is up in arms. But the ground has shifted even in the last year. The government’s proposed legislation would have had all plans to remove statues called in, and probably overturned.

The growth of Empire was linked to specific products. Rhodes is associated with southern Africa and diamond mining. He founded De Beers. The slave trade and the sugar plantations of the West Indies were synonymous. Cotton textiles were one of the mainstays of 18th century East India Company trade.  The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 prohibited their importation, but not raw cotton, opening up later in the century to the import of raw cotton from slave plantations in the southern USA, and creating the conditions for the rapid development of the cotton industry in late 18th and 19th century Lancashire. India became a major market for Lancashire cotton. Indians had no choice in the matter. The connection between slavery, trade, and the industrial revolution is direct.

I speak as a Manchester man, proud of his city. Do I feel guilt? No, that’s not a helpful emotion. And if we apologise – who would do the apologising? And who to? Look over the Channel and see the quandary the French have over North Africa. Macron described the Algerian War as a crime against humanity. But no apology as such has been – or I guess will be – forthcoming. You could argue that those who should be apologising are those of us who still maintain some kind of ‘imperial mindset’. Who still have some notion of British exceptionalism. Look across the pond to America, where ‘exceptionalism’ is also rife.

Brexit evoked comparisons with 19th century free trade and revoking the Corn Laws. But back then we controlled our markets, controlled the seas, and enforced tariff-free trade, always to our advantage. We crushed domestic production in India to create a vast market there for our own goods. I’m researching my great-grandfather’s business in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – cotton country despite being over the boundary from Lancashire. Did his business, as a merchant tailor with a wide reach, extend beyond Manchester to overseas markets?

There is a curious reverse colonial mentality among some well-known supporters of Brexit. The EU is turned into a surrogate empire, and the only way we can reassert our status is by turning back the clock. And so the British Empire lives on….

The subject, as Sanghera found, is vast, and I’ll limit myself here to one further comment, on the subject of religion, and muscular Christianity, and the role of the missionary. I recently read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It’s a short, and remarkable novel, drawing on Achebe’s own family’s direct experience, which, despite having sold twenty million copies worldwide, had passed me by. Missionaries find their way to a Nigerian village, and the old customs of generations are undermined. The old gods don’t stand a chance. One missionary employs a softly softly approach, another brings in the might of the district commissioner, and you realise how imperial power married to a religious conviction re-casts a proud people as inferiors.

Nigeria was still a colony in my early childhood, and we collected for the work, as a teacher, of a local lady who’d been a missionary in Nigeria all her life. I claim to be a Christian. Can I apportion right and wrong here? Can I have any sympathy for a tribal society in which superstition and shamans called the tune? One God better than multiple gods? Of course. But hand in hand with mission work went subjugation. Subjugation dehumanises.  That is a terrible consequence of empire. It also took root, after more open-minded beginnings, in 19th century India.

We were by that time, in the UK, moving beyond the slave trade. The campaign for its abolition was led by William Wilberforce. But Wilberforce was deeply religious and Indian religions were for him no more than superstition. Conversion was a Christian duty, and implicit is the sense of superiority which characterises the missionary. ‘They’ lack something that ‘you’ have. An attitude in the Raj that had terrible consequences, not least the Indian Mutiny, and more than sixty years later the Amritsar massacre.

I’m a child of empire, and I’d love to think that my children’s generation could see the last of them. But old attitudes live on, and America and China are sharpening up their spheres of influence. How empires of the future might differ, are already differing, from the empires of the past, is another story.

A little bit of lobbying on the side

Remember Philip Hammond desperately trying to balance the books as Chancellor? Now all the talk is of how foolish Osborne was to batten down for so long. And it looks as if Hammond wasted his time. Expansion and big rescue packages and capital spending are the order of the day. In the USA, the same. Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue package. And big plans for infrastructure. The debate in the USA is whether it will cause inflation to get out of hand. The Economist is putting out dire warnings on the one hand – but supporting a big spending approach for the EU on the other.

How government interacts with the private sector will be more than ever in the spotlight. The lobbying scandal involving David Cameron and Greensill Capital is just one example of how this relationship can go wrong.

Adam Smith provides context. He tends to be associated, by way of a selective reading of The Wealth of Nations, with a freewheeling free-market philosophy. By which bad behaviours might be somehow balanced out by good. Not so, as his ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ reveals. ‘It carries within it a crucial Smithean insight, that innumerable human interactions can yield vast but entirely unintended collective consequences – social benefits, yes, but also social evils…’ (Jesse Norman, ‘Adam Smith, What He Thought And Why It Matters’)

There is a good, and ‘Smithean’, argument to be made as follows. In a commercial society we are all merchants. The pursuit of wealth is of itself a good thing (depending on how ‘wealth’ is defined). The desire for human betterment drives that process. War and violence have, for all of history, brought about division. Commerce binds us together.

But over-accumulation, growth for its own sake, inequality, the pursuit of self-interest, the handing-on of wealth from one generation to the next – wealth for its own sake and not as the driver of a society’s welfare – they are among the great enemies. The fact that David Cameron’s activities were ‘legal’ exemplifies, all the more, how easily the pursuit of wealth as an ultimate social good can be corrupted.

Jesse Norman, who is incidentally an Old Etonian, and Tory MP (read into that what you may), has an intriguing paragraph in his biography of Adam Smith: ‘Yet as technology spreads big data, insider knowledge, digital technologies, there are increasing dangers of a new tech-enabled crony capitalism: a self-reinforcing cycle in which greater insider power encourages the development of bent markets; these in turn create popular demands for more government regulation, create more complexity and opportunity for lobbying, a further boost to the power of insiders, and so on.’

‘What me, guv?’ I can imagine Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. We’re, many of us, wary believers in market capitalism, where market forces ‘drive prices down and quality up, and consumers have a very wide choice’, in Norman’s words. We’re talking of food, clothes, everyday items.

Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans. (They were of course unknown to Adam Smith.) Greensill Capital, advocacy for which got Cameron into trouble, was a clever financial idea (I wondered about the term ‘ruse’) where business bills are settled immediately for a fee, assisting thereby with the issue of late payments.

Now, as much if not more than ever, with big money and big contracts in play, we have a whole new raft of opportunities for crony capitalism, re-working old business and school networks, rent-seeking, inside knowledge, and conflicts of interest. More than ever we need to be wary – to be aware.

Heading off at a slight tangent there’s a paragraph from an American author*, writing on the subject of meritocracy, I’d like to quote: ‘Someone who wants an elite income … must do one of a narrowly constricted category of jobs, heavily concentrated in finance, management, law and medicine.’ Teaching, public service, ‘even engineering’ don’t get a look in. (How medicine and money came to be quite so conflated is a uniquely American story.)

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, wanted to be part of that big-earning brigade, with big stock options on offer.

Many had a high regard for Cameron. He will be wondering how he surrendered it so easily.  

And finally …I’m intrigued to see how the Daily Mail is trying to turn the lobbying scandal into a plot by Labour anti-Brexit insiders within the Civil Service trying to blacken the government. It goes with Palace ‘insiders’ telling us what really went at the funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

Don’t believe a word of it.

*Daniel Markovits, ‘The Meritocracy Trap’, quoted by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books)

More thoughts for the day

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has the nation in mourning. We have something we, most of us, agree on. He was a good man, who, as Prince Albert before him, used his position to advance a wide range of good causes – the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme above all. He was also a fine cricketer, which does count for something.

And Rachael Blackmore won the Grand National quite brilliantly: the first woman jockey to do so.

The BBC ran tributes across all stations to the Duke. But elsewhere…

Hungary: ‘The last radio station that is critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is due to go off the air.’ Poland: ‘Media freedom …now faces its greatest set of challenges since 2015 as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media … ‘ Both reports are dated February 2021. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia the independence of the state broadcaster is also under threat.

As for the BBC, we’re used to grumbles from left and right about bias toward the other side. Now the left, obsessed by its own squabbles and with a wholly outdated understanding of the working man, and with minimal support in the popular press, has lost all influence. Murdoch, on the other hand, that happy paragon of all that’s best in Aussie and American, is unchallenged. The Sunday Times on the Greensill collapse and David Cameron: hammering the Tory old guard might just suit Murdoch’s politics. Should I be suspicious?

Maybe now, with arch-disruptor Cummings consigned to outer darkness and Covid and the Red Wall north and big spending to focus on, the government will worry less about the BBC. They can burnish their social conservative credentials by insisting refugees go through official channels, as if any refugee has access to such things. They can espouse freedom of speech (in the face of ‘no platforming’) and mock wokery, but legislate to limit freedom of assembly. We will see how far they go.

I referred to ‘an outdated understanding of the working man’ on the left. That takes me to Red Wall seats ‘up north’, and the smart housing estates that are popping up everywhere, where houses are cheap, by comparison to London, and the standard of living, despite lower wage and salary levels than down south, relatively high. That is the new north, and it’s this that is probably driving the big increase in the Tory vote.

The old working class before the WW1 was instinctively conservative and Tory. They knew their place. The new prosperous working class has more confidence, they doff caps to no-one, and they’ve bought into what may or may not be the fiction that they have in the new Tory dispensation a recognised and valued place.

I’m reading Jesse Norman’s splendid biography of Adam Smith. Why would someone of Norman’s obvious sanity be serving in a government where pragmatism and the wide sympathies as evinced by Norman can be in short supply?Norman, on the way Friedmanite economics distorted and still radically distorts what Adam Smith really stood for, is revealing. Peter Kellner in the current edition of Prospect has a letter which suggests we should see the Tory party in terms of a Vann diagram, with old-style conservatism overlapping the new ideological variety. Norman maybe is the true conservative, and he needs to be in there to make certain the ideologues don’t take over.

And, finally, how the 18th century prefigured the 21st. Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, which had been a major port serving Europe for hundreds of years. His father was Comptroller of Customs for Kirkcaldy. The big switch over to Glasgow and the Clyde, and the American trade, not least tobacco, was already happening. By the 1750s Glasgow was importing more tobacco than all the English ports combined. It was the American economy that intrigued Smith. He looked west, not east. We have that dilemma to this day. Do we look west, or east? Glasgow ironically is now a stronghold of support for Scottish independence, and the Scot Nats look to Europe. England on the other hand would love that US trade deal….

Thoughts for the day

I posted this five minutes before I heard that Prince Philip had died. I’d have delayed a day had I known. He’s been around all my life: my first memory is the excitement when it was realised his car would be passing the end of our road on a visit to Cheshire. I must have been 6 years old. He was, in modern parlance, a bit of a legend. I’ll miss not having him around.

*

My aim is to stay within the three minutes or less allocated to Thought for the Day on the Today programme on Radio 4.

Thoughts, not thought – misunderstanding the Astra-Zeneca risk; ‘truth’ and Boris Johnson; and Anthony Blunt and Karl Marx on the one hand and Tory ideologues and Ayn Rand on the other – the dangers of early student allegiance being carried over into real life.

The Astra-Zeneca vaccine: there should be only one way to present the data. How many cases, how many deaths, the total number of people vaccinated, so, for example, 79 cases and 19 deaths out of 20 million people vaccinated. A one-in-a-million risk of death. We need upfront and absolute clarity on this, Also, what the instance of this kind of blood-clotting is in the non-vaccinated population, so we can compare, and appreciate how marginal is the increased risk, if it exists at all, over and above the existing risk we run of this kind of blood-clotting.

Cognitive bias, which is so little appreciated, comes into play in a big way.  We hear there are nineteen deaths out of twenty million. We can as readily visualise a million, or maybe something more like ten thousand, than we can twenty million. Lower numbers are easier to grasp, and the lower the number the higher the perceived risk…  Just let that word ‘risk’ out if the bag, and you’re in trouble. (Comparisons to the likelihood of deaths on the road really do not help at all.)

Moving on, there’s a well-known quote, which goes as follows:

‘There will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI and NI to GB because we are going to come out of the EU whole and entire. That was the objective we secured.’

Peter Oborne has documented in his new book, The Assault on Truth, all the instances of Boris Johnson lying in public statements and to parliament. We are so used it we assume it doesn’t matter. The ‘real’ truth will somehow out in the end. But the story once out is out there, and even if we discount the amiable jocular manner the damage is done. When is the prime minister serious? Is he ever? Should we trust him on vaccination data, and how they’re interpreted?Thank God we have chief scientific advisers alongside. Watching Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s rival for the leadership, on TV talking about the vaccine crisis two nights ago: how refreshing to see a politician on top of his brief.

Watching the Channel 4 programme, Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, a documentary as clumsy as its title (at its worst implying that appeasement and Nazi sympathies were natural bedfellows – with newsreel footage edited to promote that impression). I puzzled over what is, for me, the real story. Why a 1930s Cambridge undergraduate from a super-privileged background should support a regime which would put the proletariat in charge and consign the likes of him, Blunt himself, and Guy Burgess to an early and likely unpleasant death. And ‘support’ to the extent of betrayal. What came after the war is best seen as one almighty covering of tracks, rather than continuing Soviet allegiance. (How much did Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother know? That is a good story. And his fate had the cover-up failed?)

University is a time when you crystallise your view of the world. What you might have half-sensed at  school becomes full-bodied. William Hague speaking to the Conservative Party Conference aged 14 was worryingly early. No-one should be so sure so young. Students experiencing eureka moments reading Ayn Rand, and holding to that allegiance until at least some sense in knocked into them in later life. Marxist students evolving into Militant, but remaining resolutely distant from the ordinary working man. Hippies … outsiders, who stay outside, and remain resolutely harmless. And today we have woke and anti-woke and no-platforming. I’m not saying we should deny our early allegiances. But we should allow life experience to temper them with sharp doses of reality.

More ‘thoughts for the day’ to follow….

Flying the flag

In yesterday’s news we had government minister Robert Jenrick ‘flying the flag’ on UK public buildings (the government will be making it a regulation), and displaying the flag prominently behind him in a BBC interview – and gentle comments from BBC journalists about the prominence of that flag being turned against the BBC. All staged in the cause of the new hard-right Tory jingoism.

Cass Sunstein’s new book This Is Not Normal is just out. Timely: it’s what Jenrick and other revanchist (meaning ‘recovering lost territory’) Tories are about. Trying to change the ‘normal’. Taking us back. Politics as a battleground. He won’t change the younger generation, so why polarise other than for electoral advantage – unless he really believes that we can turn back history by endless harping on about the past.

I’ll give no ground to anyone when it comes to pride in country – and that means patriotism. I’m English, and I’m British.  But I’m not lost in past glories, nor do I believe that we as a nation are better than other nations. What I want our focus to be on what we can offer other nations – and what they can offer us. Bringing the world closer together, while retaining our identities.

We polarise at our peril. We desperately need shared conversations and shared conclusions.

Zen is about being comfortable in the moment, and that means not grasping on to something – ‘grasping’ is a good word here. Not craving something you can’t have – in this context, the past. Or trying to define the future in terms of the past.

You can’t go back there. You can prop up all the ancient statues, send demonstrators down for ten years according to new draft legislation – but you can’t go back to the past.

Statues commemorate ‘heroes’ who died a natural death. Let their statues do the same. They occupy some important public spaces. Maybe a 50-year year max lifespan before they’re taken down – a hundred years for a big hero?

I’m being fanciful, but life is so much more fun that way. I came upon the following from a Buddhist commentary yesterday:  

‘But, if you have genuine insight and see clearly this bundle [life in all its aspects], constantly changing, now laughing, now crying, now being afraid, now having the silliest notions, now being quite sincere, now being very willing, now being compassionate: and you will see this bundle constantly changing through life; well, that is how it will go on.’*

I also read about a monk who would  ‘without breaking stride … gently close a gate that had blown open, and carefully pick up things that had blown down’. ‘Without breaking stride.’ Not easy I appreciate, but there’s a message here. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.

A quote from Sam Harris (see his app, ‘Waking Up’), an ardent secularist who learnt much from his stay in a Buddhist monastery, also caught my eye: ‘It’s in the nature of everything to fall apart… everything from our bodies, our relationships, our institutions, our understanding of the world … everything requires continuous maintenance…’

What struck me was that phrase, ‘everything requires continuous maintenance’. That’s what parliamentary democracy, deliberative democracy, open democracy, or whatever you call it – that’s what it’s all about. We’re in the here and now, and there’s much work to do here, not in some distant dream world.  

*from a commentary by the Venerable Myokyo-ni on ‘The Record of Rinzai’

Poetry and politics out of San Francisco

Ferlinghetti and Hirschman, and remembering also the Turkish writer, Ahmet Altan

Back in the 1950s and 60s people were living on the edge, as they are now, in Covid times. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. And by the 60s many of us were engaged in a fully-fledged protest movement. But we could be out there, talking, drinking, smoking, demonstrating. And a whole lot more.

I’ve been reading two San Francisco poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman. Back in 1953 Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights Bookstore, and in 1956 he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and after he was prosecuted famously won a court case asserting the right of free speech under the First Amendment. Some forty years later, in 1998, he was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate. Hirschman, in 2006, was the fourth.  

I had a Hirschman book on order… this was last Monday. The following day there arrived an email from a friend over in the States with a PS – had I seen the news, Ferlinghetti had just died. Aged 101. I’m sad, really sad, he’s gone. Amazed he was still alive.

Remember Howl? OK, you don’t remember. We weren’t alive or we were too young. But it’s a manifesto for anarchy, of a very 1950s and 60s kind. Not the destructive anarchy of the New Right of our own time. It’s the dream anarchy that the world will somehow set itself right. It’s just that ‘America’ is getting in the way.  Ginsberg celebrates ‘the best minds of his generation’, they’re ‘angel-headed hipsters … who poverty and tatters and hollowed-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’. It’s political – but it doesn’t have a prospectus. It just wants you to know that it scorns the whole crazy moneyed apparatus of society.

Ferlinghetti also had the anarchist instinct but he was a practical guy. Founded the bookstore, published Howl, won that court case. But he also knew how to hit home: his is a ‘concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness’. (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958)  Come 2007 he was more relaxed, the gentrification of San Francisco a big issue. But he was still campaigning for ‘poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that’s news’. Maybe the mass media might just print it, if it was ‘a new kind of news’. Though maybe ‘poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they’re saying what our materialist, technophiliac world doesn’t want to hear’.

He was also asking that big question – what exactly what is a poet? He’s like an acrobat ‘on a high wire of his own making/ … a little charliechaplin man/ who may or may not catch/her fair eternal form’ when she comes swinging toward him. That’s from ‘A Coney Island’. His ‘Challenges to Young Poets’ from forty years later keeps it simple: ‘Write short poems in the voice of birds.’

Hirschman was something else, a Street not a Beat poet, a radical communist. (His book, ‘All That’s Left’, arrived yesterday.) ‘It was the Street poets who united with common causes…’ He celebrated SF’s Cafe Trieste, where you’d find ‘local radiances like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’, and ‘the older Beats and Baby Beats and the commies, the surrealists, the anarchists, the socialists, the jazzmen, the urban screwballs, the walk-in weirdos’. From another age he remembered ‘Federico, who would die for poetry’ – Lorca was a hero. ‘The sinking house of the setting sun’ was how he characterised New Orleans after Katrina. And, remembering the Virginia Tech massacre of thirty-two people, he wrote, ‘and now you know what a market/in old Baghdad feels like.’.

By contrast, the latter-day Ferlinghetti could be whimsical, a poet to smile and relax with in poems such as the ‘Green Street Mortuary Marching Band’. But he was still the same man. ‘To the Oracle at Delphi’ talks of America as a ‘new Empire … with its electronic highways/carrying its corporate monoculture/round the world’. (San Francisco Poems, 2001)

Hirschman never let up – hasn’t I’m sure to this day. You may or may not appreciate his encomium on Fidel Castro. But in the case of Mumia (Mumia Abu-Jamal) he drills his message home. Black Panther background, sentenced to death for murder in 1981, commuted in 2001, still in jail, many still arguing his case and his cause. Mumia has studied, taken a degree, written books, and inspired, all from jail. Hirschman imagines his final victory – ‘your victory will be the priceless uplifting of the human spirit’.

He refers to Mumia as the ‘Nazim Hikmet/of the American grain, that Turkish poet who/spent 26 years in prison…. No amount of bars/or shackles can chain/the revolutionary impulse/of the human heart’.

Mumia’s case still divides America, along party lines, Right and Left. I am, over in the UK, in no position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his conviction. But the reference to Nazim Hikmet does strike home.

In our own time, as some of us are planning holidays in Turkey, we have the extraordinary and vicious incarceration of Turkish journalists and writers (and teachers and lawyers and many others) under the Erdogan regime. One is the writer Ahmet Altan, arrested in 2016, then released and re-arrested the same day. Now serving a life sentence. In his book (smuggled as extracts from jail), ‘Never will I see the world again’, he writes:

‘Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends…I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or to go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze at the sea…’

It’s a long paragraph. And it hit me hard.

Getting yourself noticed

My recent reading has as always taken in various reviews, articles, books. One day last week they seemed to come together, on the theme of ‘getting noticed’. But not in the sense of shouting from the rooftops. This blog is after all combining ‘zen’ and ‘politics’. In politics you do have to make yourself heard. Zen exists below the radar. And ‘getting noticed’ doesn’t mean you won’t be as quickly forgotten.

Mary Wollstonecraft did get noticed in her own time. And then she was all but forgotten. Proto-feminist, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, resident in Paris during the Terror, she was also mother of Mary Shelley, by William Godwin. (Grandmother of Frankenstein you might say.) She died in 1797. Godwin’s biography of his wife published the following year did her no favours. The opposite. ‘The more fully we are presented with the picture and story,’ Godwin wrote, ‘the more generally we shall find ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’ He was wrong, desperately so. Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want all feeling in stripping his wife naked’. (See Richard Holmes’ This Long Pursuit.) That was mild compared to other execrations.

It’s taken two hundred years, but in our time she’s celebrated.

For someone totally different – I chanced on Hans Keller, refugee from Hitler, BBC musicologist, influential post-WW2 and through to the 1970s. Keller was in the Reithian BBC tradition, which had as its aims to ‘educate, inform, entertain’. Classical music was party of that educative purpose.

Wollstonecraft has found herself on the right side of history. Not so Keller. He wrote in 1973: ‘If we can bring ourselves to learn and practise the art of not listening to the radio, of turning it off… radio can become a cultural force of unprecedented potency.’ ‘As Nicholas Grace reviewing a new biography of Keller concludes: ‘Keller’s island of Reithian paternalism was soon to be swept away by a digital tsunami.’ (London Review of Book, February)

He may be all but forgotten, but how we listen to music, and how we concentrate when listening, they are still issues, and extend well beyond the confines of music.

Wollstonecraft and Keller brought to mind a few heroes of mine. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who became a leading Civil Rights campaigner in the USA. George Orwell of course. He understood the absurdities of power better than anyone. It’s why he remains a point of reference for so many of us today. One example in my reading from last week. ‘Nationalism,’ Orwell wrote in 1945, is ‘the political doctrine of a delusional fantasist.’

People had hopes back then that we’d seen the back of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. But nationalism still rides high. And Orwell remains as relevant as ever.

This is where where I could so easily veer away from Zen, from the pursuit of wisdom, if you will, to raw politics. I could list the hyper-nationalists of our time. From Putin across and down. Or the petty nationalists. I could include the UK reducing its foreign budget, and that would take me right back into the mire.

Also, in an earlier version of this blog I had Ed Miliband and Keir Starmer not getting heard. Rafael Behr in the Guardian suggesting that part of Starmer’s problem lay in ‘a lack of rudimentary storytelling’. In UK politics Covid and Brexit are the dominant stories. The story of the old Toryism of Major, Heseltine and Clark has all but disappeared: no-one is doing the telling.

They will find their way into future blogs. This blog has been about under the radar. We could all add the names of poets and novelists and adventurers and scientists. Just for now, Wollstonecraft and Keller, Orwell and Merton must suffice.