Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Vox Political on the Mail’s ‘Worst Crisis Since Abdication’

April 26, 2015

There’s been talk this week of Labour forming some kind of pact with the SNP. Some of this has come from the SNP themselves, who have been keen to show their voters that a vote for them will still leave Scotland with power in Westminster through a weakened Labour party forced into coalition with them. Sturgeon’s predecessor, Alex Salmond, was heard at one point making a joke that he was already writing Labour’s budget.

Much of this also comes from the Tories, who are trying to scare the electorate with the prospect of a Labour/SNP coalition raising taxes and breaking up the three-hundred year union between England, Wales and Scotland. This reached its most extreme point so far, when the Mail on Sunday quoted Theresa May as declaring that this was Britain’s greatest constitutional crisis since abdication.

Even the guests on Andrew Marr’s show this morning thought that this was going too far, and smacked of desperation by the Tories.

Mike over at Vox Political has this article on it, Mockery of May and the Mail: Worst crisis since when? Mike points out the irony of this headline. A coalition between the SNP and Labour, which Ed Miliband has said will not happen, is deemed by the Mail to be worse than the abdication of Edward VIII, a Nazi supporter. The same Daily Heil was that was run by a Nazi sympathiser with a hatred of Jews at the same time.

The twitterati have also found the Mail’s hysteria immensely funny, and have produced their own list of crises that are as bad or worse as the abdication. Like having to tell Jeremy Clarkson his dinner’s not ready. Or finding out that Button Moon wasn’t real. Even John Prescott cracked a joke at the paper’s expense, tweeting about how he had to eat fish and chips without vinegar.

Mike goes on to quote the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, who said May was entitled to her opinion, but she was wrong to impugn the legitimacy of a free and fair election.

The cartoonist Gary Baker also stated that it was a good job May didn’t have real issues to deal with, like child abuse, otherwise her comments would seem puerile.

Mike’s article can be read at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/04/26/mockery-of-may-and-the-mail-worst-crisis-since-when/. Go there and see some of the things that count as a terrible crisis of the same magnitude as the abdication.

The Mail, of course, has a very long history of making hysterical claims about the effects of a Labour government. Remember how a decade ago there were reports of an asteroid out in space that was poised to smash into Earth, ending life as we know it? Private Eye spoofed the Mail by producing a mock Daily Mail headline declaring that due to the asteroid, house prices would plummet and Labour was to blame. Which pretty much describes the Mail’s fixation with mortgages, house prices and the Labour party.

Behind May’s comment there are some very sinister implications. By declaring a coalition between SNP and Labour a crisis of the same type as the abdication, as Patrick Wintour points out, she seems to imply that the results of an election between the two would be invalid. If that’s the case, then what is she implicitly suggesting? That the election result should be declared null and void? New elections held, until the ‘right’ party won, and the union was safe once again? Or perhaps she thinks that, in the event of such a coalition, Cameron, Farage and Clegg should seize power at the head of the army, and rule as a military junta? Thatcher was a big fan of General Pinochet after all, and Cameron strikes me as a man, who would just love to be Britain’s General Franco. And if the Scots ever voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, would May then recommend that the army should be sent in to stop them seceding?

Now I don’t actually think the Tories believe any of this. It’s just rhetoric to scare the voters, just like all the scare stories in the past about Labour being really a front for the Communist party, ready to turn Britain into a Soviet satellite. Frederick Forsythe, one of Thatcher’s favourite novelists, wrote a book about that way back in the 1990s. Needless to say, Maggie liked it enormously, as it reinforced her own bonkers paranoid suspicions about the British Left.

The Soviet Union, alas for the Tories, has vanished along with the rest of the Communist bloc. And as most of the Russian oligarchs are now funding the Tories, they can’t run another Zinoviev letter scare, like they did with the Sun in 1987. So they’re reduced to running bizarre headlines like this in Daily Fail.

It’s ridiculous, but the superpatriots in the Tory party will believe it. Along with the Kippers. In a recent interview with the Scottish Herald, David Coburn, the controversial UKIP politico declared that living in Scotland was like Communist Czechoslovakia. Somehow, I can’t see anyone who really grew up in Communist Eastern Europe agreeing. Like the Czechs and Slovaks, who have come over here since their countries joined the EU.

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A Hellish Morass of the Demoralised, Poorly-Paid and the Back-Stabbing: Life at the Bottom of the Civil Service

November 23, 2013

I’ve been doing a course run by one of the local further education colleges and held at one of Bristol’s museums these past two weeks, intended to give the unemployed some of the skills and qualifications to help them find work. It’s been fascinating meeting the other people on the course, and hearing their stories and views about employment and the Job Centre. They’re a very mixed group. Some are intellectual and academic, while others’ skills and experience lie in the practical, manual trades. Listening to them, it’s a complete mystery why some of them don’t have jobs. There are a few, who have been out of work for a couple of years, yet are clearly articulate, capable and willing. Several have been on other courses before. Several of them have suffered from bullying employers in what were blatantly cases of constructive dismissal. Many also have been badly treated by the Job Centre.

One of the gents on the course has worked at one time in the Civil Service. It is not a job to which he wishes to return. He stated that at the lowest levels – that of the AAs, it is extremely poorly-paid, and the other employees are personally treacherous in their desperation to move on. AA stands from ‘Administrative Assistants’. Their job is basically going round taking claimant’s files to those higher up the chain of command, to the AOs, who interview clients, and the EOs, HEOs and office managers making the decisions. They also deliver the mail. According to this fellow, the pay is below £7,000. As a result, many are forced to ask for advances on next month’s salary in order to make ends meet. What he found shocking is that they were so acculturated to this exploitative arrangement, that they accepted it as normal. He also was shocked and disgusted at the amount of back-stabbing he had encountered amongst them, as each one fought against the others to climb up the corporate ladder. From the way he describes it, it sounds very much like he was glad to leave the job. It sounds very much like Thomas Hobbes’ ‘war of each against all’, with personnel, who are very definitely nasty and brutish.

This is very different from the civil service AAs I met in my career over twenty years ago. I don’t know how much they were paid, but they were largely a very good-natured, cheerful bunch, who got on well together, while doing their jobs efficiently and conscientiously. That, however, was over two decades ago, and clearly years of re-structuring by Blair and now the Coalition has taken its toll.

I don’t think this fellow is alone in his feelings about working in the Civil Service either. I’ve met other civil servants, who were bitterly disgusted at their working conditions and the poor management from above. They too, wanted to get out of it.

Now this reflects very strongly on IDS’ claim to leadership quality. Ian Duncan Smith has made much of attending Sandhurst, even if there are considerable doubts about whether or not he actually graduated. He desperately wants the public to be impressed with his alleged leadership ability through his claimed rank in the army.

Well, the treatment of the employees in the civil service seems to disprove this.

It hardly needs to be said that the armed forces are tough environments. Discipline is rigorously enforced, frequently through lurid personal abuse screamed at you by the Sergeant Major. However, team work, and a paternalistic attitude by the commanding officers are also vitally important. Conservative opponents of Bush’s Neo-Con policies and the invasion of Iraq within the US military were highly critical of the extreme individualism and personal touchiness of the Neo-Con political advisers they were required to obey. They derisively referred to them as ‘chickenhawks’, because despite their belligerence and willingness to expend lives, they personally had never seen combat, and had frequently done their best to make sure they had avoided military service. They were also greatly unimpressed by the fact that only two of Bush’s army of advisers ever did team sports. The army, at least in the US, liked team sports because the survival and effectiveness of troopers in combat depends on their working well as a team, not as a group of individuals. In team sports, like American Football, no single player was more important, or immune to criticism for poor performance than the others. It didn’t matter if you were a great quarterback, if you dropped the ball, you could still expect to be bawled at by the coach, like anyone else, observed one female general. She stated that Bush’s Neo-Cons could never handle professional criticism as a result of their not playing such sports. When their judgements or decisions were criticised, they took immense umbrage as if it were an attack on them personally. Other officers have been critical of the way the armed forces has stressed individualism in its recruiting drive, and its apparent omission of how much teamwork and the active subordination of individual interests to that of the group plays in the forces as a whole. One senior officer in the US army voiced his low opinion of its recruiting slogan ‘Be an army of one’. He stated it was ridiculous, as the army was one of the biggest, least individual bureaucracies there was. Despite the horrors of war, it was the camaraderie that many soldiers found in the army and the solidarity they experienced with their fellow squaddies that they enjoyed, and which has been celebrated in literature, songs and poetry, like Kipling’s.

Good generals also frequently have a paternalistic attitude to the personnel under them. Nicholas Courtney, The actor, who played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart in Dr Who remarked in an interview that a good commander looks after his men. This was explain the Brigadier’s decisions in combating the various alien invasions and attempted coups by mad scientists, which plagued Earth regularly during his long career with the Doctor. Now these adventures were clearly fictional, but the ethos guiding the Brigadier’s treatment of the men and women under him in UNIT is real. General Sir Peter de la Billiere, who is very definitely an Eton-educated member of the establishment, states in his memoirs that he found out that one of the key leadership skills was looking after one’s troops. This didn’t mean being soft with them, but it did mean you took more care of them than you did yourself.

Almost none of this seems to be present in civil service that has been created and over which Ian Duncan Smith and his fellows preside. There clearly is no comradeship amongst people, who are all bitterly fighting each other for the merest chance of promotion. Neither can one see a paternalistic attitude amongst the senior staff and ministers, when they have increasingly inflated salaries while the people on the lowest rungs of their organisation are reduced to asking for advances to cover their inadequate pay. One can find accounts of great generals, who personally risked their careers to get their troops the equipment they needed despite the obstructions of the army bureaucracy. There’s a fictional description of such in Bulgakov’s The White Guard, set during the Russian Civil War in the 1920s. IDS certainly doesn’t seem to have fought to improve conditions for the civil servants under his management. Added to this, there is the personal cowardice of IDS himself. Like the Neo-Cons described and derided by traditional American Conservatives, IDS appears unable to take professional criticism and reacts badly when he meets it. He has repeatedly failed to meet opponents of his welfare reforms, and avoided answering questions by parliamentary committees. Once upon a time, generals led from the front. IDS, it appears, prefers to be well behind lines so he doesn’t have to take the flak dished out to his troops. And as we’ve seen, if he can’t legitimately get his way, then he reverts to bullying. No wonder he may have been returned to his unit.

This, then, is the state of the civil service under Ian Duncan Smith. It’s badly led, with no team spirit or esprit de corps, at least at its lowest levels. There it is a poisonous hell of back-stabbing by the desperate and demoralised, acculturated to poor treatment and poor pay. It’s little wonder that the civil servants in turn mistreat and abuse the job seekers and other benefit claimants. And all while IDS and his fellow ministers vote themselves increasingly bloated salaries. This constitutes the Tories’ ideas of leadership and ideal social conditions in modern Britain.

The Ballardian Totalitarianism of Cameron’s Britain

November 17, 2013

Last Thursday the Mirror ran a story reporting the Conservative’s deletion of their election promises from their website. They noted that this was the re-writing of history like that done by Big Brother’s totalitarian dictatorship in Orwell’s classic 1984. It was Orwell, who coined the classic statement that he who controls the past, controls the present and future, though he phrased it far better than my own memory allows here. The Mirror also reported that, astonishingly, Conservative Central Office attempted to defend their actions with the excuse that they were trying to help visitors find their way around their website better. The Mirror did not, however, pick up the similar totalitarian impulses behind this attitude. While Orwell’s description of the way absolute dictatorships distort and re-write history is well-known, this last aspect of such tyrannical regimes is far less famous. It comes not from Orwell, but from that old author of transgressive SF, J.G. Ballard.

Ballard’s novels and short stories, such as High Rise, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition and Super Cannes, are set in depersonalised, alienated futures, inhabited by psychopaths and characterised by social breakdown and savage, extreme violence. His novel, Crash, filmed in the 1990s by David Cronenberg, is about a subculture of the victims of motor accidents, who gain sexual pleasure from car crashes. The novel itself was so shocking that the publisher’s reviewer wrote a note about it say, ‘Author mentally deranged – do not publish’. Cronenberg’s film was so extreme that it sent the Daily Mail into another moral panic. Acting once again as the guardian of the nation’s moral purity, the Mail launched a campaign against it and the film flopped as a result. Many see it as a classic of SF and transgressive cinema. Ballard himself was completely different from the violent and psychotic characters in his work. Visitors to his home were surprised to find him living in respectable suburban domesticity, caring for his sick wife and raising his children. Listening to his cultured Oxbridge tones on the radio brought to mind a gentleman, who enjoyed a good malt and a good cigar, and whose favourite reading was Wisden, rather than the delineator of brutal violence and bizarre and extreme sexuality. Ballard is now recognised as one of the great SF writers of the 20th century, and his work has garnered respect outside the SF ghetto in the literary mainstream. This is partly due to the way it examines the role played by the media, including news reportage, in shaping the post-modern condition.

Back in the 1990s Radio 3 ran a short series of five interviews with writers, artists and scientists. Entitled Grave New Worlds, the series explored the transhuman condition. Amongst the guests on the programmes were the SF author Paul J. McAuley, the performance artist Stelarc, feminist writers on women and digital technology, and J.G. Ballard. The conversation got on to the subject of Ballard’s then recent novels, in which the heroes enter gated, corporate communities. Instead of peace and harmony, the heroes find that these communities are based on violence, in which brutal attacks on outsiders are used to bond together the communities’ inmates. Talking about these savage dystopias, Ballard stated that in his opinion the totalitarianism of the future would not use force, but would be characterised by servility and obsequiousness. It would claim to help you.

There is an element of this spurious claim in previous totalitarian regimes. At times both the Nazis and Stalin’s Communist states claimed to be somehow helping their victims. The propaganda films produced by the Nazis to allay international concerns about their treatment of the Jews, purported to show the victims of their deportations happily working on their new, luxurious plot of land in the special areas allocated to them in the East, rather than the violence and horrific, mass murder of the Concentration Camps. The Jews featured in these films were all forced to do so by the Nazis, the victims of beatings and torture before and after they appeared in front of the camera. Immediately after the filming was over, I believe some were taken away to be killed in the death camps.

Stalin’s propaganda for his collectivisation campaign similarly showed crowds of joyous peasants voluntarily entering collective farms bursting with food and abundance. Kniper’s stirring song, Wheatlands, written for this campaign, contains lines where the peasant subjects of the song declare that they weren’t forced iinto them. They certainly did not show the squalor and deprivation within the collective farms, nor the mass starvation caused by the campaign in the Ukraine and other areas of the former Soviet countryside.

Back in Nazi Germany, a group of shopkeeper’s in Munich took the Nazi’s professed commitment to the Corporate state at face value, and attempted to set up a similar corporation themselves. This new body was expected to regulate trade and prices. The result, however, was inflation. The Nazis reacted by dissolving it and arresting its members. They pasted notices over the arrested individuals’ shops, stating their offence and that they were ‘now in protective custody at Dachau’. This somehow suggests that it was for the victims’ benefit, rather than their punishment.

Ballard himself was a high Tory, who felt that increased legislation was stifling Britain by making it too safe. He wrote Crash while he was a correspondent for a motoring magazine. Driving along the new motorways, he felt the experience was too bland and antiseptic, and so in his imagination created a cult around a charismatic psychologist, Vaughn, whose members got their sexual kicks from staging the very accidents road and motor vehicle legislation was intended to remove. The violence in his novels, like Super Cannes, was a deliberate attempt by these societies to counteract the debilitating ennui experienced by their wealthy members by stimulating them at the most primal level through violent threats to their lives.

Now my memory of the 1970s was rather different from Ballard’s. Admittedly, I was only a boy at the time, but I do remember the road safety films. ‘Clunk Click, every trip’, with the vile Jimmy Savile, told you to wear a seatbelt. ‘Don’t be an Amber Gambler’ warned drivers of trying to rush through the orange light at crossings. There were also campaigns against drunk driving and speeding. Dave Prowse, the man behind the Darth Vader costume, appeared in one set as the ‘Green Cross Man’, helping kids cross the road safely. Alvin Stardust also appeared in one of these. Rather than the bland landscape of antiseptic safety Ballard complained about, these public information films traumatised a generation of children with images of mayhem, destruction and carnage. Cars were totalled, and drivers, passengers and pedestrians ground to bloody pulps on regular programming slots – usually just before Grandstand on Saturday afternoons. Rather than senses-dulling boredom, I’m surprised these films didn’t turn everyone watching them into quivering nervous wrecks at the thought of venturing out on the highway.

Despite Ballard’s own Right-wing political views, his observation that future totalitarian regimes will be manipulative and claiming to serve their victims, rather than adopting the naked use of force, does describe the style of Cameron’s own administration and its steady erosion of personal freedom. The ostensible rationale behind the Work Programme and Work Fare, is supposedly to get the unemployed back into work by helping them acquire the necessary skills and the habit of working. The terms and conditions imposed on Job Seekers by the DWP is presented as a ‘Job Seekers’ Agreement’, as if it were a bargain struck between two equal parties, and freely accepted by the unemployed, rather than forced on them through economic necessity. Esther McVey even had the gall last week to claim that the people suffering from sanctions on their benefit, were those ‘who refused the system’s help’. They were made to look like recalcitrant, who had gone back to recidivist scroungers, rather than the victims of a highly exploitative system that sought for even the smallest reason to deprive the poor of an income.

The papers also this week carried the news that the legislation proposed by the government to replace the ASBOs would also allow local councils to ban peaceful protests and demonstrations on the grounds that these constituted a public nuisance, or would annoy, upset or inconvenience local residents. It’s a totalitarian attack on free speech, but again masked by the claim that somehow people are being protected. Now the authorities will act to curb and ban demonstrations that may lead to violence or a breach of the peace, such as Protestant marches in Northern Ireland that go through Roman Catholic areas or demonstrations by the BNP or English Defence League that enter Black or Muslim areas. While the authorities’ actions against such marches are resented by the groups planning them, I doubt many people object to the bans on the grounds that the marches are deliberately provocative and would result in violence. Cameron’s legislation goes further than these entire reasonable concerns. Instead, they allow public protests to be banned simply because the residents in the area in which they are held may find them simply inconvenient, like being too noisy. The legislation’s main objective is to stop political protest. It is, however, disguised with the claim that it is giving local people the power to stop troublesome individuals upsetting the rest of the community, like the cantankerous pensioner, who was given an ASBO to stop him being sarcastic to his neighbours.

There is also something Ballardian about Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson’s own background. They were members of the elite Bullingdon Club after all, an elite society of the extremely wealthy. Even if they don’t go around beating, maiming and killing non-members as an exercise in corporate bonding, nevertheless they seem to have a shared contempt for the poor coming from their common background.

So Ballard was exactly right. The new totalitarianism does indeed claim to be helpful and somehow serving you, even as it takes it away its citizens’ incomes, their rights to free speech and assembly, and their pride. It’s just that Ballard got the political direction wrong. He thought it was going to come from the Left, rather than the Libertarian advocates of deregulation on the Right.

Charles Dickens on the Brutality and Rapacity of the Tories

September 29, 2013

Charles_Dickens_1858

Charles Dickens is one of the great titans of modern English literature. His works have been prized, celebrated and imitated since the publication of The Pickwick Papers . The book’s appearance prompted a horde of copies lower down the press hierarchy in the penny journals. The copyright laws were much less rigorous then, and so these, lesser novels all had titles similar, but not identical to those of Dickens himself. His book, Sketches by Boz, was taken and copied by one of the 19th century popular journalists, as ‘Sketchbook by’, followed by a name very similar to Dickens’ ‘Boz’. His books have been adapted into stage plays, films and musicals, most famously A Christmas Carol, which has twice been filmed as a cartoon, and Oliver Twist, which became Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver! His novels have also been frequently adapted for television. In the 1970s, for example, many of the Beeb’s period costume dramas broadcast on Sunday evening were adaptations of Dickens. I particularly remember Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.

Despite his deserved popularity and immense respect, I suspect Dickens’ status as one of the Great Men of English Literature has probably done much to put people off him. People have a tendency to distrust automatically anything that becomes official, established art. One way to guarantee that people refuse to read a particular willingly is to put it on the school syllabus. Moreover, modern audiences are also likely to be left alienated by some of the characteristics of much 19th century writing, such as verbosity and their sentimentality. Boys in particular are likely to be put off him because of his novels’ period character, which associates them with the great 19th century lady novelists Jane Austen and the Brontes. In Superman II, for example, Clarke Kent’s identity as a wimpish square is firmly established, when Superman’s alter ego announces he wasn’t around to cover one incident as he was at home that evening reading Dickens. One suspects that its the kind of literature that such narrow-minded upholders of bourgeois respectability as Mary Whitehouse liked. For those younger readers suspicious of Dickens, I strongly recommend his short story, The Railwayman. It’s one of the classic British ghost stories, and completely amazed me when I read it as a teenager with its complete absence of all the dullness, verbosity and sentimentality I’d expected to come across in his works. Today one of Dickens’ great champions is the thesp Simon Cowell, who has toured in a one man play about the great writer and his life, and even appeared as his hero in a episode of Dr. Who, with Christopher Ecclestone playing the Time Lord. The video below comes from the Guardian, and is on Youtube. In it, Simon Callow takes the viewer around Dickens’ London.

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Dickens is partly celebrated for his work defending the poor and describing the hardship and poverty of the lives of ordinary people in 19th century Britain. Indeed, his surname has become a byword for conditions of grinding poverty and squalor in the word ‘Dickensian’. Dickens himself consciously wrote some of his novels both as works of social criticism, but also actively to improve the conditions of the poor. Horrified at the respectable middle classes’ indifference to the suffering of the labouring poor, he wrote A Christmas Carol. This transformed Christmas from a relatively minor holy day into the massive festival that it is today. As a socially engaged writer, Dickens could and did write bitter pieces sharply attacking the Conservatives. In 1841 the Liberal magazine, The Examiner, published his ballad, The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version. It was a parody of a traditional ballad celebrating the virtues of the gentry. The hero of the traditional ballad shared his good fortune with his social inferiors, in the line ‘while he feasted all the great, he never forgot the small’.

Dickens wrote his satirical versions after the reforming Whigs had lost office and been replaced by Peel’s Conservatives, and the country was in the middle of a depression. The poem attacks the Tories for their corruption, brutal and oppressive laws, and their savage oppression of the poor to enrich themselves and the other members of the aristocracy. Cheekily, Dickens states as a direction for the poem’s performance that it should be said or sung at all Conservative dinners. It shows that what could be described as agit-prop literature long preceded the Communist party. The blackly humorous suggestion of performance venue and the bitter satire of the poem itself very much reminds me of the same mixture of humour and bitter social criticism in much contemporary radical, popular protests following 1960’s Situationism. This leads to the question of whether Dickens, if he were alive today, would be marching with the demonstrators, neatly attired in top hat and tail coat, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Here’s the poem:

‘I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and
chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once in hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory timnes;
Soon may the come again!

The brave old code, like Argus, had a hundred watchful eyes,
And ev’ry English peasant had his good old English spies,
To tempt his starving discontent with fine old English lies,
Then call the good old Yeomany to stop his peevish cries,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their fathers’ creed.
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed …
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

Those were the days for taxes, and for war’s infernal din;
For scarcity of bread, that fine old dowagers might win;
For shutting men of letters up, through iron bars to grin,
because they didn’t think the Prince was altogether thin,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

But Tolerance, though slow in flight, is strong-wing’d in the main;
That night must come on these fine days, in course of time was
plain;
The pure old spirit struggled, but its struggles were in vain;
A nation’s grip was on it, and it died in choking pain,
With the fine old English Tory days,
All of the olden time.

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the
land,
In England there shall be deear breat – in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, raly round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English ~Tory days; Hail to the coming time!

Great literature transcends the ages, and speaks eternal truths about human nature, politics and society. What is shocking reading this is just how much is true today. The line about the silence of the press in the face of horrific oppression and abuse just about sums up much of the modern press under Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay twins and the rest.

Source
Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013).

The Roman de La Rose and the Right to Beg in the Middle Ages

July 21, 2013

In the Middle Ages, as today, there was considerable debate concerning who constituted the deserving poor. There was no state provision of poor relief, and so the poor were reduced to begging and the charity dispensed by the churches and monasteries. There was a criminal underworld of fake beggars, and so writers and theologians thus discussed, who the people, who truly deserved charity were, and who thus had the right to earn money from begging. This debate is part of the Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meung, one of the great works of French medieval literature. One of the characters, False-Seeming, severely condemns begging by the able-bodied, who would otherwise be able to support themselves by working. False-Seeming does, however, present a list of the type of people, who should be allowed to beg. The list appears to have been derived from that of the thirteenth century Paris teacher, William of St. Amour. The list states

‘If the man is such an animal that he has no knowledge of any trade and doesn’t want to remain ignorant, he can take to begging until he knows how to perform some trade by which he may legitimately earn his living without begging.

Or if he cannot work because of a sickness he has, or because of old age or dotage, he may turn to begging.

Or if by chance he has become accustomed by his upbringing to live very delicately, good men commonly should then have pity on him and, through friendship, allow him to beg for his bread rather than let him perish of hunger.

Or if he has the knowledge, the wish and the ability to work, and is ready to work well, but does not immediately find someone who may want to give him work at anything that he can do or is accustomed to do, then he may certainly obtain his needs by begging.

Or if he has the wages of his labour, but cannot live on them adequately on this earth, then he may indeed set out to ask for his bread and from day to day go about everywhere, obtaining what he lacks.

Or if he wants to undertake some knightly deed to defend the faith, either with alms, or by cultivation of his mind, or by some other suitable concern, and if he is weighed down by poverty, he may certainly, as I have said before, beg until he can work to obtain his needs…

In all these and similar cases, if you find any further cases that are reasonable, in addition to those that I have given you here, the man who wants to live by beggary may do so, and in no other cases, if the man from St. Amour does not live’.

(The Romance of the Rose, Charles Dahlberg trans., (Princeton 1971) 200-1).

With the exception of the case of the man, who has been brought up delicately, and the knight, these are all cases that apply today. Unfortunately, there were also the medieval equivalents of Atos and the present Tory government to tell them that they shouldn’t get any money because they were scroungers. Nevertheless this demonstrates that as far back as the Middle Ages, theologians and secular writers were prepared to defend the rights of the poor to charitable relief and support.

Source

Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (Stroud: Sutton 2004)

Old Nubian Words and Phrases

June 28, 2013

The Nubian language belongs to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family of African languages. It is spoken by about a million people in Egypt and the Sudan. In 1977 there were about 500,000 speakers of one of its dialects in Kordofan in Sudan, and another 175,000 speakers in the country’s Northern Province. The Old Nubian language was written in the Coptic script, with the addition of three letters taken from the ancient Meroitic alphabet. Christian religious texts were translated into Nubian from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. I’ve decided to give an idea of what the language and its religious literature was like by posting here a few Biblical and other religious phrases with a translation and the individual words and elements of the language’s grammar that make them up.

Subject marker added to the final consonant of a word: -i
Definite article ‘the’, -l.
Ngod, ‘Lord’.
Ngod.i.l., ‘the Lord’.
Istauros, ‘Cross’.
Istauros.i.l., ‘the Cross’.
Particle added to indefinite nouns, such as ‘a man’, ‘a dog’, etc, to make them the focus of a sentence: -lo.
Parthenos, (from Greek), ‘Virgin’.
Tu, ‘stomach.
Dzunt.ung, ‘to become pregnant’.
Parthenos.i.l.lo tu.lo dzunt.u.ng.arr.a -‘(Behold) a Virgin shall be with child’ (Matthew 1.23).

-n: shows the genitive.
Angelos – ‘angel’.
Ngod.in angelos, ‘the angel of the Lord’.

Ted – ‘Law’,
Tidzkanel, ‘fulfilment’
Ted.in tidzkanel, ‘the fulfilment of the Law’.

-U – relational marker linking adjective to noun. Adjectives are always placed before the noun.
Ngok, ‘glory’.
Istauros.u ngok.ko – ‘the glorious cross’.
-U is also used as a relative pronoun.
Till, ‘God’
Ngod.u till, ‘the Lord God’.
Ngiss, ‘holy’.
Parthenos.u ngiss.u Maria ‘The holy Virgin Mary’.

Ogidz – ‘man’,
On/ un – ‘to love’
Ogidzdz.u tillil unil, ‘a man whom God loves’.

-Ka: marker of oblique case.
Tan – ‘his’
Windz – ‘star’
Ngal – ‘to see’
Kin – to come’
Tan windz.i.ka masal.(n).osk.i.lo nga.s.in kas.s.o.si.n, ‘We have seen his star in the east and have come’.

-ketal – from
Aul – ‘saviour’.
Kim.m.a sion.i.a ketal aul.el ‘from Zion the Saviour will come’.

I’ve taken the above examples from the notes I made a long time ago from a book on the various languages of the world, written for librarians. The statistics for the numbers of speakers in Kordofan and North Province, Sudan, come from Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul 1975)

Albrecht von Haller: 18th Century Scientist, Poet, Novelist and Church Planter

June 11, 2013

I’ve mentioned the great s18th century Swiss scientist and anatomist, Albrech von Haller, several times on this blog. Von Haller came from Berne in Switzerland, and was a pupil of the great Dutch scientist and doctor, Boerhaave. He was a student at the universities of Tubingen and Leyden. After graduating, he moved to London and Paris before finally accepting a post of Gottingen University, which had only recently been founded. He simulataneously occupied the chairs of anatomy, botany and medicine there for 17 years. It was under his management that Gottingen university managed to become one of the leading centres for medical research and teaching in Germany, so that it was compared to Leyden in the Netherlands. While at Gottingen he wrote 13,000 scientific papers. He also established botanical gardens, wrote a flora of Switzerland, and the first textbook solely devoted to physiology. This was in turn greatly expanded into the eight-volume edition published in 1757. This has led some historians of medicine to see von Haller as the founder of modern physiology. He also wrote novels and poetry. He was a man of deep religious faith. He founded churches, and his best-known poem, Die Alpen (The Alps) of 1729, considers God’s glory in the grandeur of the Swiss mountains. He was an evangelical Protestant with inclinations towards Pietism, but could also be strongly rationalist, so that he has been described as ‘thinking like a rationalist, and believing like a sincere Christian’. Clearly von Haller was a man of deep faith and a scientific and literary genius, who managed to combine literature, science and a deep commitment to Christianity in his career.

Zarjaz! New Children’s Laureate Backs the Four-Colour Funnies!

June 5, 2013

Britain’s new children’s laureate, the Black writer Malorie Blackman, was on breakfast TV this morning talking about her views, work and desire to encourage more children to read. She came across as an extremely intelligent and dynamic ambassador for literature for children. She said she wanted every child in the UK to get a library card. This is undoubtedly, obviously a good thing – libraries are an essential for any civilised society, and encouraging them to use them is a major step in encouraging children not only to read, but to enjoy litaracy and learning. Another of her ideas is to set up a scheme whereby children can be encouraged to produce a piece of art, poetry, drama or music inspired by something they’ve read, and shown on the web. What cheered me the most, however, was that she defended comics as a means for getting children, particularly boys to read. The two BBC hosts, Bill Turnbull and Susannah Reed, asked her about the way boys stop reading. Blackman stated it was because they had so many other things competing for their attention, and that they were also reading for exams. She was keen to encourage boys to keep on reading, and remarked that comics and graphic novels were some of the things boys did continue to read. She and Susannah Reed particularly noted that the graphic novels V for Vendetta and Watchmen contained the type of gritty issues Blackman’s works also discussed.

I fully support her comments about the power of comics to get people reading. Much of the literature I read when I was a child consisted of the four-colour funnies and their British equivalents – a lot of Marvel comics, but also British mags like Action, Battle, their predecessor, Valiant, and the humour comics Whizzer and Chips, Cheeky, the Dandy and the Beano, and, of course, the mighty 2000 AD. They gave me access to a world of fun, adventure and wonder. They also had an educational value. Marvel’s Thor obviously drew on Norse mythology, which encouraged me to read more about that. The heroes of many of Marvel’s strips were scientists: Peter Parker of Spiderman, Bruce Banner of the Incredible Hulk, and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Their adventures were science fictional. They travelled to alternative dimensions, or different worlds in far-flung galaxies, and this did help encourage my own early interest in science, astronomy and space. I first heard of the Planck Constant in the pages of Hulk Comic. This was in a series of adventures in which the mighty green one shrunk until he was smaller than the above smallest unit of measurement, and so fell through the fabric of the universe onto a world in a subatomic universe. Many comics contained adaptations of classic SF and Fantasy stories, such as Conan. These encouraged their readers to seek out and read the original books. They also encourage a form of artistic appreciation, as people recognised and looked for the work of their favourite artists. Barry Windsor-Smith, who drew many of the Conan strips, is one of the very best known, as is Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in Marvel. Over this side of the Pond the great comic book artists include Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Steve Moore, Mike McMahon, Dave Gibbons and Glen Fabry, as well as the Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, to name only a few. The comics world just about encircles the planet, and their readers also have a taste for exploring the pictorial, fictional worlds of other nations and cultures. The great French comic artist and author, Moebius, aka Jean Giraud, was also read and received high acclaim amongst anglo-phone comics fans, and there is an English language version of the French SF comic anthology, Metal Hurlant, which he helped found. This interest in other cultures’ comics helped launch Japanese Manga comics in America and Europe.

Now I have to say that I never got on with V for Vendetta nor Watchmen. I didn’t really like the gritty realism of which they were apart, and stopped reading comics in the ’90s as they seemed a bit too bleak and grim. I far prefered lighter adventure material. The moral assumptions behind Watchmen, or at least the Watchmen film, are also highly questionable. A few years ago the Conservative Neo-Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, strongly criticsed the morality in Watchmen and showed that it actually didn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the two novel’s writer, Alan Moore, is still one of the finest working today and has done much to raise comics to the level of a respected literary medium. Comics can do a brilliant job of entertaining, amusing, provoking and stimulating children’s – and adult’s minds. Blackman is right in that they do encourage children, especially boys, to read. And so her comments are not only welcome, they are, as the great green editor of 2000 AD would say, ‘Zarjaz!’. I recommend her for enrolment in the Squax dek Thargo (Friends of Tharg) for her appreciation of thrill-power.