Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)


Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?


We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

Keeping sane amid the chaos

How (if you’re me!) to keep measured and sane amid the chaos.

For starters, two reminders from a Buddhist meditation handbook:

‘…one shouldn’t have a great deal of desire… one must be content, which means whatever one has is fine and right.’ ‘Whatever one has is fine and right.’ (My italics.)

‘The place where we stay should be free from a lot of activity and a large number of people… (we should reduce) our involvement in too many activities.’  Now there’s a challenge.

Then there’s something I’ve loved since childhood – watching cricket. I enjoyed England’s decisive and exuberant victory over Pakistan in the second test match that ended yesterday. Always good to head out to Lords or the Oval, or stand on the boundary at Cranham cricket club … (A friend reminds me of the joke – ‘God gave cricket to the English so that they should have some sort of idea of eternity ‘ – that was certainly true of the first test match. I was there.)

And moving out beyond the cricket field – out further into the wild, and the wilderness, into the countryside, to the coast, to the mountains:

(‘What would the world be, once bereft /Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left…’)

walk (or run) in the meadows and beech woods

head off down to Cornwall and walk around Penwith from St Ives, via Zennor and Land’s End and Porthcurno, to Penzance (carrying a tent and heavy rucksack in the hot sun a small downside, likewise the heat exhaustion!)

puzzle over the wild flowers (betony abundant in Cornwall – a small sense of triumph identifying it!)

listen or watch, or maybe both…

– two buzzards wheeling above me on the coast path near Treryn Dinas just east of Porthcurno, piping much of the time, occasionally they come together and there’s a scurry of wings, and they resume their circling. The following morning, 7.30, I’ve struck camp, and I’m on my way, light rain, grey out to sea, and they’re back there, ahead of me, still slowly circling

– the owl which I disturbed in the woods later that morning – it took off maybe only two or three feet away from me, a vast and silent presence, and a powerful absence, disappearing into the light at the end of the green tunnel behind me

– the sound of a soprano, yes, a soprano, from the Britten opera being performed at the Minack theatre a mile away, it was 9pm, and I was tucked away in my tent, trying to sleep…

– a yellow snail (a ‘white-lipped banded snail’), and a red-winged fly – the small and surprising things, which puzzle, and take the mind down from the high and inflated places to the simple and beautiful

– and back in the Cotswolds, a lesser spotted woodpecker now a regular visitor to the bird feeder and the birdbath in the garden, and the goldfinches

– and the long warm summer evenings, the stillness, and the small party which headed out onto the common at midnight to look for glow-worms

There is hope for the world yet.


The better side of business

Zenpolitics and enterprise. Bedfellows? I’ve two very different contributions to the subject.

One is inspirational, Vincent Kompany, the Manchester City and Belgian captain, writing on the subject of Shared Goals, in an interview with Matthew Taylor, in the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) magazine:

‘Too often we’re forced to make a choice between charity and business. Of course supporting charities is very important and there need to be dedicated areas for charities. But I think we need to close the gap between the two – entrepreneurial and charitable – because there is a huge middle ground there, where there are still a lot of projects worth bringing to completion, that are going to have huge long-term benefits for society.’

Referring specifically to football, he argues that it is ‘more and more… damaging for a brand to just be focused on profits without having a plan that can make other people benefit… One of the biggest examples to me of this is the pricing of a tickets in England…’

The other contribution – a recent House of Commons debate on the subject of tax. Tory MP Alan Duncan referred to people on the other side (meaning the Labour benches) who ‘hate enterprise’. Much of the rest of his speech was intemperate and best forgotten. His jibe begs the question – what do we mean by enterprise?

Vincent Kompany has a much better understanding than Alan Duncan, particularly if we note that Duncan’s comments were during a debate on tax havens.

We have one definition of enterprise – the pursuit of profit for its own sake.

And a second – enterprise which, to borrow Kompany’s words, closes the gap between ‘the entrepreneurial and the charitable’ – combining both a private and a public good. Capitalism drives the world economy, it’s high energy, and competitive – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Likewise football – high energy and competitive! Think last evening and Chelsea drawing with Spurs – arguably too competitive. Be that as it may, we need entrepreneurs who are aware of the social impact and benefit of what they do, at the same time as looking to make a profit for themselves. The best entrepreneurs will plough a lot of that profit back into the country, new ventures, charities, sport and other forms of social support.

Other definitions – social enterprise, cooperatives, on a small and a larger (John Lewis) scale. And there’s scope for enterprise in public services, though I wouldn’t argue for re-nationalisation. Public ownership and enterprise aren’t easy bedfellows.

And Buddhism? Buddhism is about letting go, curbing the acquisitive instinct, recognising the impermanence of everything in the world. Viewed another way – it’s about change, and that of course is exactly what enterprise has to be. And it’s about compassion – and we have Vincent Kompany’s comment that ‘we need to close the gap’ between the entrepreneurial and the charitable.

Change and progress and enterprise have always produced casualties, with the Victorian Poor Law and workhouses as the extreme examples. But link compassion and enterprise, bring the entrepreneurial and the charitable closer together – and we could make a different and a better world.

As Vincent Kompany suggests, this isn’t a utopian ideal, but something that can become part of business, already is for many – part, put simply, of the way we do things.

A sceptred isle

I’ve just watched Kipchoge win the London Marathon in the second fastest time in history. About 1 1/2 hours faster than my best time! I’ve run five and I’d love to do another, but I guess I’m getting just a little bit too old….

(I was out running this morning, up on Painswick Beacon, with a view west for sixty miles, well into Wales. And there were carpets of bluebells, wood sorrel hiding beneath the trees, violets and cowslips underfoot as I crossed the common, and even the golfers were friendly…)

Back to the London Marathon, I love the fact that it brings the big wide world to London, an incredible international event, and won by Boris Johnson’s favourite nationality, a Kenyan.

This is the world I want to be a part of. Do we start with Britain, then admit, yes, we are Europeans as well – and then reluctantly accept that we might just be citizens of the world – or indeed deny the fact – claim that it’s enough to be English. English, note, not British.

Or do we start by asserting that we’re citizens of the world, and let everything follow from that. It’s easy to say that Britain should come first, especially if we grew up when there were still great swathes of pink (the old empire) on maps of the world. But we do well to remember that we are exceptional as British not as lonely flag-wavers but in the context of the big wide world. Blinkers do not serve us well.

All our yesterdays are no substitute for all our tomorrows. This sceptred isle is part of a continent, and we’d do well to recognise that.

Three political issues – getting it wrong

One or two political issues – London, and election for mayor coming up this summer, and the Europe referendum. And a third – Adidas withdrawing athletics sponsorship.

Three egregious examples of getting it wrong. And they’re all three in their different ways about identity – our identity as Londoners and as Europeans, and in the Adidas case, brand identity.

The Tory candidate for London mayor, Zac Goldsmith, was on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday. He accepts that the London building boom under Boris Johnson has pushed prices up beyond what ordinary Londoners can afford, but he still claims Johnson’s London to have been a great success story. A very partial success. Goldsmith claims to have a plan, should he become mayor, but such is the gap between average house prices and the income of the average Londoner, it won’t be enough to subsidise first-time buyers, and reductions in housing benefit have already made life much harder for low-income earners. Johnson has at the most basic level failed Londoners, and that point needs to be drilled home.

Goldsmith is a confessed eurosceptic, waiting on the result of Cameron’s renegotiations, a state of being which doesn’t impress me. Europe is a matter of identity, and part of our identity is as Europeans. The EU is a remarkable achievement, the benefits historic and tangible, but change and reform have to be ongoing – as they must be for any large organisation. The muddled scepticism and brave imaginings (of a brighter future outside) of the Tory right are a major obstacle to that process.

Adidas: it’s withdrawing its sponsorship I assume because it’s worried about damage to the company name and brand.  Did it take into account the damage it will do to athletics? It’s the athletes and not the IAAF which will be big losers. Make reform a condition of future sponsorship, yes, but don’t withdraw it altogether. The damage to the Adidas brand is to my mind now – their act of withdrawing sponsorship.

Who do we want to be? If we’re Londoners, London should be for all its citizens. We’re British – and we’re Europeans. As for Adidas, they and their brand should know be judged by what they give, and not by what they take away.

Country notes

The early sun below the hill was turning the dawn clouds orange as I ran down the hill this morning. The electric fence has been moved and the cows, Belted Galloways, now graze the eastern side of the common, whereas before they roamed more widely. I have to avoid cows pats and there are big dents in the hoof-trodden earth.

Back Saturday from three days in the Welsh borders, near Oswestry. Oswald’s tree: named for the defeated king and saint from whose dismembered body a bird picked an arm and where it dropped it a tree grew. I’m sure they have dismembered bodies in Game of Thrones, but do trees grow from arms? (Please advise.) We’re back in 642AD, so all things were possible then.

There used in the first half of the 19th century to be a racecourse on Offa’s Dyke above Oswestry, and the stone foundations of the grandstand still sit there, on the edge of the woods, a local equivalent of a Mayan ruin on the edge of the jungle…

Adjacent to the grandstand a common stretches east along the hill, and scattered across it last Friday were the remnants of a multitude, a small army, of snowmen which the locals must have had great fun building a day or two earlier. Now the snow has gone, but the snowmen remain…

I mentioned Game of Thrones. Also on TV, BBC TV, another army will be gathering, the Russian army, to face Napoleon, as the battle of Borodino looms. We’re back in 1812, and it’s War and Peace.

Zen hits the target

Not being one to waste a good quote here’s an entry I posted on Facebook just now:

‘The one who is good at shooting does not hit the centre of the target.’ (Zen quote.) Man U players are, we always believed, great at shooting. And they sure as hell ain’t hitting the target. I’m with my son – van Gaal out! This not hitting of targets has gone on too long.

Trying to relate Zen to everyday life should be easy – just go ahead and live – but something tangible, something you can get your boot onto, isn’t always easy to find.

This hits the target as Man U players can’t.

OK – and what does it mean? Zen koans are meant to be obscure. I’d interpret it as – if you try to hard, aim for the very centre then you reduce your chances of hitting the wider target. And my guess is that Man U players are simply too wound-up – simply trying too hard.

And just in case you aren’t a Manchester United fan of 60 years standing, Louis van Gaal is the Man U manager, and WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH.

The eagle and the geese

Nan Shepherd has won many followers since Robert Macfarlane brought her to our attention. In The Living Mountain she writes in a remarkable way about the Cairngorm landscape, conveying both its grandeur and its subtlety. Written during WWII it reads as if written yesterday.  Light and shadow, rain and snow, the passage of the seasons, affect mountains, but time is slow time, geological time.

I’m comfortable with slow time

She’d be the subject, I’d decided, of a short blog. Later that day I was watching a TV programme on Alex Ferguson (retired Man United manager) and leadership. I saw a link between the two.

Nan Shepherd, walking on Ben a’Bhuird:

‘Once some grouse fled noiselessly away and we raised our heads quickly to look for a hunting eagle. And down the valley he came, sailing so low above our heads that we could see the separate feathers of the pinions against the sky, and the lovely lift of the wings when he steadied them ready to soar.’

A page of two lay she focuses down on to the almost infinite forms ice and snow can take, depending on the surface and the wind. There’s an extraordinary level of close observation, looking up, and looking down. I love to investigate in my own walking, to get close, to see the shape and form of things, though I couldn’t ever begin to describe it as Nan Shepherd does.

Alex Ferguson…. he’d look skyward at the Carrington training ground and point out to the players a V-shaped flight of geese overhead, how they fly together, and take it in turns to lead.

‘I’m going to tell you the story about the geese which fly 5,000 miles from Canada to France. They fly in V-formation but the second ones don’t fly. They’re the subs for the first ones. And then the second ones take over – so it’s teamwork.’

Shepherd and Ferguson have one thing in common here – they looked skyward, and looked closely. Shepherd drew no conclusions. The simple act of observation was personal, and enough. For Ferguson, it took players (and Ryder Cup golfers!) by surprise – and they never forgot image or insight.

Any message in all this – only that we can be too earthbound!

Good ol’ cynicism

[Best to read my earlier blog, ‘Capability redefined’, before you read this one.]

Good ol’ cynicism – how to do away with it? Or at least keep it in check?

The day after five gold medals in the 2012 Olympics I remember a journalist remarking that no-one seemed cynical anymore. Or no-one dared to be. We were suddenly all positive, rejoicing, believing in each other and what we could achieve.

Now all that euphoria was likely to fade, and pretty quickly – sadly.

We’d have done well having dustbinned our cynicism to have kept it under a heavy lid. It’s a natural child of mistrust. We only trust our own perspective, our own but not other people’s motives. If we do occasionally show trust, among family or friends, or even at work,  we sure as hell don’t extend to a national level.

We gain far more by trusting than not. Trust doesn’t require that we’re innocents – we won’t find ourselves overrun by charlatans. But we will find ourselves able to have better conversations, more open-minded debates, longer-term viewpoints, make more considered decisions – and expect and even encourage politicians to change their opinions should circumstances require.

But who will stand up against cynicism? It’s more fun to be cynical – and of course much of the humour we love depends on it. And humour is big time  – and I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it. I’m sucked into cynicism as easily as the next man.

So for me as well as the next man we need a few more Olympic moments – and hold on to them a little bit longer.


Truth, Zen, a German mystic, Luis Suarez and more – all in one blog!

Truth, Zen, a German mystic, Luis Suarez and more ….

That would be one hell of a short blog. But this one rambles a little. Be warned.

Zenpolitics has to be about truth, so let’s get philosophical for a few moments. Meister Eckhart, who appears later – who he? A medieval German mystic , with a Zen sensibility.

Philosophical about truth. Uruguayans would take on the British media in a new war of Suarez’s teeth if they could. Our same bulldog media take on FIFA, and they have a good case it seems, so why is it that the rest of the world doesn’t fall into line behind the seemingly self-evident truths our friendly media unearth. And we’re in a minority of 26-2 over Europe: a partnership with the less than savoury Hungarian government is no place to be.

Truth treads a light step but once we mess around with it, personalise it, over-egg it, turn it into an attack dog, it loses its way.

Truth, we’re told, is relative to each individual. So too goodness and justice. We accept that the perspective of each of us is different, each individual, family, tribe or nation, and that means our values are different, and what is self-evident truth for one is an arrant falsehood for another. We reinforce our beliefs with myths, consolidate them into prejudices, and willingly retreat behind them to find security.

But there is another truth, defined by awareness of an alternative point of view, belonging to another person(s), another country, taking into account also their habits and their wider world. Before we pronounce we instinctively allow for the fact that on any issue there could be anything from a nuanced difference to an opposite position, held maybe with a passion equal to our own. I say ‘instinctively’: we can’t deliberate before every decision. All we can be is aware that the other person’s point of view may be as valid as our own. We respond of course to evident wrong or evil, but we recognise integrity.

We can also be guided by whether our actions are such as to engender trust. Trust recognised and reinforced facilitates human interaction, distrust undermines lives private and public – alliances are hardly worth the paper on which they are inscribed, they exist out of convenience, a nation is deemed perfidious as the French viewed Albion. Convenience and self-interest and the pursuit of power have of course driven human history, and it’s only in our day when there’s a possibility of a higher diplomacy that we can even consider that trust could mean something.

Even more powerful would be a simple sense that goodness is a natural human state. If we persist in believing in present-day man as an evolutionary compromise with the violence that is innate in all species, or more specifically the genes of all species, then all morality must be relative to its age, conditioned by the circumstances that create harmonious survival, and a utilitarian happiness which we seize upon while we have it. If on the other hand we recognise goodness and truth as innate, indwelling, to use Meister Eckhart’s phrase, it becomes a mighty sword, simplifying our lives as we seek out the wider good and the good of others rather than our own. To quote Eckhart: ‘Goodness is neither created nor made nor begotten, but it is generative and gives birth to the good man.’ Goodness is more than indwelling, it is universal. We as individuals are part of it, by our very existence we subscribe to it. ‘Goodness reproduces itself and all that is in a good man. It pours being, knowledge, love and activity into a good man, and a good man receives the whole of his being, knowledge, love and activity from the heart and core of goodness and from it alone.’

Goodness and truth are co-terminous, they cannot exist without each other. They make a mighty force if only we will recognise it. It may be that our personal philosophies or theologies can’t accept goodness as having a separate, overarching, indwelling existence. But if we can at least recognise the extraordinary transformative power of goodness, we loose a mighty force into the world.

Goodness and truth are then no longer relative. They are the criteria by which we judge every action, and in time they become instinctive, so that there is no other way to act. We may argue the correctness of an action, but the integrity of the individual and the argument behind that action we would have no reason to doubt.

An attainable utopia? For individuals at least? Maybe not the wide world or our country or even our local patch. Not yet. But it is the necessary, the only first step, on the path to a better world.