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.

Let’s hear it for ideas and intellect

I note that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a new exhibition, opened last month, on the history of enslavement in the Netherlands and its former colonies. Shouldn’t we be doing the same? Wasn’t slavery an integral part of the socio-economic system out of which grew our own?

I’d thought until recent years that the genie was out of the bottle. There would be no going back. But that’s what our government, by attempting to repress debate, is trying to do. Ideas, intellect, social responsibility, compassion – they should be driving the modern world.

Compassion, at a government level, went missing in the years of (unrestored) welfare cuts in the Osborne era. Now after fifteen months of Covid it’s been rediscovered by the government, and commoditised. It has a value, it can be directed. ‘Penny Mordaunt, a minister responsible for social contingencies and co-author of “Greater: Britain after the storm”, wants the state to harness those who volunteered to battle coronavirus, directing them towards “national missions such as elderly care”.’ (The Economist)

These are the carers who battled away through the years of government austerity cuts. They have been there, all the time. Unrecognised. Now they have ‘utility’.

Intellect, ideas… we have a government scared of universities, scared of academic debate, scared of museums. And the mood is picked up by the dominant media (all right of centre, save for the Guardian and the Mirror).

David Aaronovitch had a considered piece on the subject of restitution in a recent edition of The Times. The Benin bronzes feature. So too the ardent decolonisers, who scorn museums as great colonial hangovers. We have the liberal leaders of the British Museum and the V&A, the likes of Tristan Hunt and Neil MacGregor, ‘with their talk of “universal” institutions.’

What he doesn’t address is the stonewall refusal of the right-wing to recognise there’s any kind of issue. But that refusal is there in the article’s headline, which I trust Aaronovitch didn’t approve, ‘We can’t allow radicals to strip our museums.’

The Times is sometimes in danger of being little more than alternative Telegraph. There is in this case nuance in the article – but the headline suggests a rant.  It’s white and black post-Brexit world where we must take sides.

Two pages back in the same issue we’d an article by a young guy called James Marriott headed ‘Academic intelligence is absurdly overvalued’. As an example: ‘I spent most of a term studying 17th century sermons.’ I did something similar in my time reading history at Oxford. But I also studied the Crusades, the American Civil War, the Renaissance, the medieval world, and I damned well thought about them – and had to get my ideas down in essays. I applied my critical faculties to history, and that’s what I still try to do.

Marriott waffles about ‘practical intelligence which is to do with the “tacit knowledge”’ of how things work and how  do get things done’. History would appear to have been a wasted education in his case.

We’d also a Times leader arguing against ‘taking the knee’. A posh white-man’s newspaper – is that really how The Times sees itself these days? It’s for the players black, white, African, Asian… it’s for them to decide. They are close to discrimination. They live with it. Not the editors of national newspapers.

John Witherow, as editor of The Times, and an employee of Rupert Murdoch, has a difficult tight-rope to walk. I can see that. The country needs a paper like The Times. I will continue to read it (and other papers as well of course!), and read between the lines.   

A little bit of lobbying – revisited

(If you read my last post you might want to miss this. It is simply a shortened, and updated, version. Last time there was too much Adam Smith, however fascinating he might be.)

We have finally put austerity behind us. We’re no longer frightened of deficits, here or in the USA. $1.9 trillion is Biden’s rescue package, and then some. More than ever, in these times, we need financial probity. How government interacts with the private sector, in all its aspects, is a key issue for our time.

As a convenient reminder, we have the lobbying scandal involving Cameron and Greensill Capital. And in the last two days we learn that, in March last year, Boris Johnson was exchanging text messages with his friend and Tory supporter Sir James Dyson. We needed ventilators quickly, Sir James could provide, and Johnson promised (‘“I will fix it tomo!’) no negative tax implications for Dyson staff who came to the UK to help.

It was a time of crisis, Johnson argued in the House of Commons. That doesn’t excuse. It only exemplifies how government without proper supervision, of the kind exemplified by the government’s plans to reduce the scope of judicial review, can operate via back doors and personal contacts. Whether ‘cronyism’ is the appropriate word I’ll leave for the reader to judge.  

I’ll skip direct quotes from Adam Smith, but will include a pivotal quote from Jesse Norman’s book about 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…’

What intrigues me is that Jesse Norman is a Tory MP and Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and like Cameron, an Old Etonian. He will, I trust, have been making his views on crony capitalism widely known.  (There was, quite co-incidentally, a curious spat between Cameron and Norman over House of Lords reform back in 2012.)

‘What me, guv?’ I imagined Cameron as saying. The game is so entrenched. Market forces as experienced by ordinary consumers are one thing.  Financial engineering and derivatives are another story. Begetters of boom and bust, and multiple shenanigans.

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.

Cameron, a humble politician earning a relative pittance, stood to make a lot of money. Big share options were on offer. I sense he simply got out of his depth. That’s the kindest thing one can say.

And finally (as I mentioned in my last post) …I was 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 Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral between Harry and Kate and Will.

As always with the Mail, don’t believe a word of it.

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)

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’

A year-long foreign-policy review has come to this …

The government’s year-long foreign policy has come to this. The UK’s focus will shift focus towards Indo-Pacific countries, described as ‘the world’s growth engine’. This, Boris Johnson asserted in parliament today, will guarantee our future economic prospects. And – at the same time – justify Brexit.

We will also, according to Johnson, have to ‘relearn the art’ of competing against countries with ‘opposing values’. Which speechwriter I wonder thought up that apparently clever phrase, ‘re-learning the art’? To be cynical, we’ve managed it pretty well to-date with Saudi Arabia. And China’s values haven’t been ours for a good few years.

(I will leave aside for now the government’s plans to increase the cap on the number of nuclear warheads to 260.  It had been due to drop to 180 under previous plans.)

This is all simply nonsense, grandiloquent nonsense. Keir Starmer, wary of Brexit-constituency MPs among his backbenchers, appears not so far to have called it out. I trust he will – we need a clear distinction to be made between the government’s damn-the-consequences hard Brexit and the close relationship with the EU which a soft Brexit would have allowed.

This EU hatred is absurd and deeply damaging.

‘Shifting focus’ is Brexit speak, an attempt to cover the disaster of turning our backs on Europe, our own backyard, which was and is and remains our best guarantee of future prosperity. Our focus has to be on Europe and the Far East. Quite apart from neglecting the vast opportunities which lie close at home this new ‘strategy’ overlooks the much higher risk in trade with the Far East. Brexit was in part predicated on a trade deal with China… that isn’t likely to happen. And stretched supply lines are fine – if you shored up your supply lines close to home.

A further consideration – will any Far Eastern country give us a better deal negotiating on our own than we’d get negotiating with Europe? There’s this false notion that the EU is somehow laggard in this area.  There will be much analysis of this switch in our national priorities over the coming days – at least, I trust there will be. But let’s call it out now for what it is – nonsense.

I note also that the government wants the UK to become a ‘science and tech superpower’ by the end of the decade. As I do. Other countries will be pursuing the same goal. We have remarkable levels of cooperation across Europe at the moment, which are currently under serious threat. Do we really think we can go it alone?

I heard this morning our Foreign Secretary asserting that we are still held in the highest regard around the world… and that may be, despite the current government’s best efforts to undermine that reputation. We will re-instate, Johnson tells us, the 0.7% of GDP assigned to foreign aid ‘when the fiscal situation allows’ – as if this was some kind of policy success. 

There’s much more to be said. But will it be? Media and parliament are sadly emasculated. Who will challenge?

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.

Fog and politics

A single bird was in unusual and glorious voice in thick fog at the top of the Common this early morning.  It’s the first day of February. I slowed my run, and listened. As if to a nightingale in the silence. Also this morning a coup in Myanmar, and by lunchtime indications that the South African version of the virus has touched down in the UK. We’ve incipient vaccine wars with the EU, who I want to support, but who’ve made fools of themselves, turning on Astra-Zeneca, and threatening UK supplies.

Back home, after breakfast I take refuge from all that’s happening and about to happen by putting, with my partner, Hazel, a few more pieces into our 1000-piece jigsaw. Jigsaws like early-morning runs (pilates for Hazel) can be surprisingly therapeutic.

I needed a little therapy. It’s a morning when the news gets you down. Might the answer be to walk away from it all? Does politics, as a discussion in the current edition of Prospect, has it, really matter? Academic Freya Johnston is pitched against old-school politician, Malcolm Rifkind.

Politics for Johnston is inseparable from the public dislike of politicians. ‘One reason that polls demonstrate indifference to politics is the public contempt for politicians.’ Rifkind accepts, as I do, that ‘normal people are more interested in their own well-being than by what happens on the national stage’. But on the plus side he quotes the vision of the politicians behind the launch of the NHS. Johnston ripostes that ‘rather, it responded to increasing social and cultural pressures’. Politics is of course the interplay between the two, politicians and public. Aneurin Bevan, who championed the NHS in parliament, was a good guy, and a hero. (We do need more like him.)

The exchange was depressing, with both sides reduced to quoting Jane Austen. Johnston needs reminding we are in a world of stark dualities, good and evil, compassion and cruelty, and, yes, liberal democracy and various forms of often brutal autocracy (and Trumpian shades inbetween). We can take nothing for granted. Public opinion does need to engage, whether it likes it or not.

Both the Economist (23rd January) and TLS (8th January) have featured a new book, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, by Marc Stears, which doesn’t shy away from voters’ disdain for politics and politicians. On the one hand we’ve the ‘technocrats’ of the Blair/Cameron era, on the other the ‘ideologues’ and zealotry of the Labour left. In both cases it’s ‘direction by others’. (Brexit has landed us instead with the zealotry of the Tory right, and their market obsessions.)

Stears argues for another approach, ‘the politics of the ordinary’. He likes the JB Priestley of ‘English Journey’. Nothing sentimental. Ditto George Orwell. We’re reminded of the Orwell aphorism that ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’. Community engagement is fundamental to the picture, but I’d argue it’s not enough. Nor is the top-down, vote-buying capital investment the Tories talk about.

A genuine change of direction won’t come about by asserting that good sense and communitarian spirit will somehow win out in the end. But it would be helped by connecting ordinary folk, the you and me, and the next road, and the estate beyond the main road, with the economic and business as well as the social life of a community.

It would require a revival of a style of local government and local engagement that underpinned our politics until quite recent times. It would also involve short as well as long supply lines. Local suppliers employing local people to provide goods produced at a local level, alongside local services. Creating a landscape, a literal landscape, of SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises, with government money supporting local business in a way people can connect to.  

It’s a direction of travel, not an easy answer. And it doesn’t discount the need for political and economic expertise, elites if you will. But it does require, and here I’m with Stears, that elites aren’t self-referential and self-serving, that they’re always connected, and don’t automatically renew.

I’m not arguing we turn our backs of the global world, or that we shouldn’t trade with Japan or South Korea or even China, but we do need a fundamental shift in the balance.

In this context I can’t let Freya Johnson get away with her ridiculous statement that ‘indifference [to the business of government] isn’t necessarily something to be lamented. It might even be strength’.

A few old-style ‘tribunes of the people’ might help. Marcus Rashford as he might be in a few years time. Trade unionists, remember Ernie Bevin and Jim Callaghan, brought hard experience from street and factory floor to government. It’s not so easy these days, but it’s that kind of connection from the street level via councils and other assemblies right up to parliament and the Cabinet that we need. I’m not against the occasional toff – we just need to mix them up with a few folk who’ve cut their teeth at a local level, and can bring a certain street-fighting capability to the business of government.

The obfuscations of 24-hour news, the miseries of Murdoch and Fox Media, the oddities of the Daily Mail – we have to do better. We thought the half-truths of social media were bad enough. Then came alternative truths, with conspiracy theories hot on their heels. We need an entirely different route, and disengagement Freya-Johnston-style from the process would be utterly foolish.

She’s an easy target, Freya Johnston, and I should dwell on her. Best to end by repeating that Orwell aphorism, ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.