Still Fighting

It’s easy to give up on politics and politicians. In a sense, that’s what has already happened. Around this time last year, many people in Britain, fed up with austerity measures and unemployment, decided not to engage in politics. They didn’t listen to cogent arguments or evidence. Instead they joined a movement of emotions and voted to leave the EU. Likewise, in America people, fed up with grid-locked legislation and the paralysis of their personal finances, also decided not to engage in politics. They either joined a similar movement of emotions or they didn’t vote at all. The result, as we all know, was Trump. I don’t mean to oversimplify these events – we all know that racism and sexism play their parts as well.

As a consequence of these electoral debacles, many people have been energised into political action. Online protests, petitions, marches, rallies and media-generated debates have erupted on a scale not experienced in my lifetime. But now the wind seems to be changing. Following the recent UK General Election, where a hard-Brexit government lost its majority, there is talk from politicians and in the media of a much toned-down Brexit, possibly keeping the UK in the single market and/or the customs union (among other things).

I went to a Pro-EU rally this past weekend, marking the one-year anniversary of the vote to leave the EU. It pains me to report that this rally was poorly attended.  Maybe some 300 people were there.  I wonder if this slight change in the air, this post-election awareness, has made people complacent. Do they believe that it will all work out for the best? That a hard Brexit or the economic downturn from any type of Brexit will never happen?  If they aren’t complacent in their thoughts, perhaps people were suffering from a bit of protest-march fatigue or were simply enjoying the beautiful weather that sunny Saturday afternoon.Cambridge 2nd march 1.jpg

As for me, I’m still in the fight. For those out there who don’t know me, on a personal level I don’t have much of a fighting spirit. I’ll argue to a point, but as soon as I realise that I’m overpowered or that my opposition is mentally/psychologically ill, I back off. I realise that there is no point wasting energy or keeping myself in a victim position. Of course, it’s easy to feel overpowered by political movements and governments. But then I remind myself that I’m empowered as a taxpayer and a voter and that participating in protests is a step out of the victim position. Wasting energy? I don’t think so. But I have to admit that it can be tiring. The opposition knows this too. I think it’s important that they (the Brexit and Trump supporters) do not wear us down.


Leadership – Part 1

The results of last week’s General Election in the UK leaving us with a hung parliament are in large part the result of a paucity of leadership in the main political parties. Jeremy Corbyn, though credited with running a good campaign, still did not get the most votes.  He has spurred divisions in his party and regularly vacillates on his and his party’s position on Brexit – the central issue of the election and Britain’s economic future. Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May have both blatantly placed party politics above the people they represent. Sturgeon’s threats of another Scottish referendum while Scotland is failing under the weight of its own economic and social problems are hardly inspiring. May tried to sell herself as leader of the nation in a muddled campaign that never addressed the welfare of the nation or how Brexit was going to be realised and implemented or what it would mean for individuals and their communities. The LibDem’s Tim Farron, who has done the right thing by stepping down, committed the classic error of not leading by example – he may have voted in favour of gay rights and reproductive rights for women, but doesn’t personally support these rights and actively supports a church that condemns them.

This has left me wondering about what makes a good leader. People often point to Churchill as an example of a great leader. He may have been a very good leader, taking his people through difficult times. But he was the man for the moment and one who got wrapped up in the cult of his own celebrity. Napolean’s leadership has left historians divided for centuries, and I won’t go into all of that here – note the title, this is a topic I’ll return to. My point here is that it’s hard to find a so-called great leader who wasn’t at the same time highly flawed as a leader.Leadership 1C

As I write this piece, news and analysis are unfolding about the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. Among the analyses was this comment in this morning’s Guardian editorial:  ‘Leadership requires courage, imagination and empathy.’ The article goes on to point out how May has failed as a leader in the aftermath of the tragedy. This too is an example of the idea of good leadership being apparent by its absence.

One of the most important books that I’ve ever read and one that I dip into from time to time is John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership, an adaptation of Lao Tzu’s teachings. Though published in 1985, I first read it in the early 90s when I was in a miserable job situation which ended so nastily, it put my academic career on hold for years. I soon realised that this book’s true value is in being not so much about leadership, but being about living in harmony with others. It made me understand the failings of the leaders around me and to see myself as a leader in my own ways. In brief, leadership is a role that we all play at different points in our lives. It’s not exclusive to the manager, the director, the team leader – leadership is about service to others.

With this in mind, I close on a quote from Heider which PM May and other political leaders could benefit from:

The wise leader is like water. Consider water: water cleanses and refreshes all creatures without distinction and without judgment; water freely and fearlessly goes deep beneath the surface of things; water is fluid and responsive; water follows the law freely. Consider the leader: the leader works in any setting without complaint, with any person or issue that comes on the floor; the leader acts so that all will benefit and serves well regardless of the rate of pay; the leader speaks simply and honestly and intervenes in order to shed light and create harmony. From watching the movements of water, the leader has learned that in action, timing is everything. Like water, the leader is yielding. Because the leader does not push, the group does not resent or resist.’

Leadership 1B

Tautology is Tautology

PM Theresa May does like her tautologies. First it was ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and now ‘Enough is enough.’ In semantics such expressions are treated as p →p. In pragmatics, where context comes in, it’s p →p ~>p (that is, saying p →p implies something greater than just p). But I can’t say this is the case with May’s use of this rhetorical device.

‘Brexit means Brexit’ was rightly criticised by many as being weak and uninformative as the public didn’t (and still don’t) know what Brexit means. In the months following this confusing declaration, the May government has hinted at a Brexit that would take the UK out of the single market altogether – the one thing that most of the country, including a portion who voted to leave the EU, don’t want. What else does Brexit mean? Leaving the EU will affect a large range of statutes and issues, which still haven’t been addressed by Theresa May. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has become a blanket  to hide either the indecision and incompetence of those working on the Brexit project or to hide plans that would be unpopular with the electorate. Time will tell.

When I first heard May spouting out ‘Enough is enough’ in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack to besiege the UK, I had a personal recollection of the last time I heard someone say that to me. It was actually in an email, so I hadn’t heard it, but I had heard the writer’s voice in my head. Without going into the unpleasant details of the long email thread, I was being attacked by someone with emotional and learning disabilities, who – being a relative – I felt obliged to respond to. My efforts to defend myself and clear the air were met with even more hostility and false accusations. My emails became shorter and shorter, saying that I wasn’t going to engage in this type of communication. And then it came – ‘Enough is enough!’ I was being scolded. The person who had scolded me had run out of things to say when she saw that I wasn’t sparring with her. I fear that Theresa May has reduced herself to this. Like my reaction to the relative scolding me, I find it amusing and a sign of weakness.

Have tautologies ever worked? First of all, I should say that I’m thinking of tautologies in the strictest sense. I’m excluding expressions such as Yogi Berra’s infamous ‘This is like déjà vu all over again.’ I would call that a redundant expression used by an inept speaker. For some, Hamlet’s  ‘I’m reading words, words, words’ is also a tautology – for me, it’s repetition that effectively avoids and mocks Polonius.  Yogi Berra is not saying ‘déjà vu is déjà vu’ and Hamlet is not saying ‘words mean words.’ With that aside, here are a couple of notable examples of tautologies that do work.  Sometimes I find myself saying  ‘It is what it is,’ perhaps much to others’ annoyance.  For me, it’s a polite way of saying that you can’t change the situation so stop trying.

And finally, there is ‘love is love.’ It was just about to become worn out, having been  the name of a Culture Club song and appearing on cheery posters, etc, when it was rescued by LGBT activists. This soft approach reminds those who are against gay rights that it all boils down to love. What kind of monster would be against that or argue with that? Of course, the monsters still exist, but the vast majority of people have come to accept gay rights. This has proved itself a meaningful and worthwhile tautology.

Faulks – Where My Heart Used to Beat

I loved, loved, loved Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ novel about the horrors of the First World War that managed a complex love story at the same time. Where My Heart Used to Beat is also a meditation on the experience of war, but with a look at the lingering psychological damages many years after. Less of a war story than Birdsong, this novel’s protagonist, Robert, is also less likeable. He’s a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry who’s melancholic and unable to form meaningful relationships. At the start, he thinks and leads the reader to think that this emotional paralysis is due to the heartbreak he experienced while on leave in Italy. But as the story progresses, he finds himself undergoing a sort of talk therapy that makes him revisit his battle field experiences and to some extent those of his father, who died fighting in WWI. With this, his malaise takes on a new perspective and is part of a larger re-evaluation of the his life.S Faulkes

The narrative structure relays these events in ways that make this a page-turner and keeps Faulks on the ‘popular fiction’ bookshelves. But Robert is a self-made scholar whose interests in the classics and philosophy, set alongside the burgeoning field of psychology, make this a deeper, more literary read. In these ways, it stands up to Birdsong, but for me, didn’t have quite the emotional impact as this earlier work. And there were a couple of minor technical flaws in Where My Heart Used to Beat surprisingly not picked up by the literary editor.  But for Faulks’ fans, a worthwhile read. all the same..

Revisiting Emily Dickinson

Occasionally the screensaver on my Kindle pops up with the dour face of Emily Dickinson. She has become one of the most recognisable faces in American literature. Yet, only recently has her life been transferred to the screen with Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion.  The film d’auteur has its tableau moments, which slows down the pace and might not appeal to some viewers. But I found this fitting with the nature of Dickinson’s poetry – her elliptical language could cause images to freeze in the air. I liked too that the film contained sharp, intelligent dialogue in keeping with the dialogic style of many of Dickinson’s poems.  At the same time, these dialogues – many between Emily and her sister – remind audiences of the social liEmily D 2mitations thrusted upon 19th century New England life, especially for women. Although mostly a contemplative and melancholic film, humour and wit are present in a way that I felt was realistic to the poet’s life (Dickinson scholars are free to differ on this point.)

I’m also grateful to this film for reminding me that Dickinson wrote some poems about the US Civil War. We tend to think of Walt Whitman as the Civil War poet and of war poetry as being a male preserve.  But here is a Dickinson sampling:


Inconceivably solemn!
Things go gay
Pierce — by the very Press
Of Imagery —

Their far Parades — order on the eye
With a mute Pomp —
A pleading Pageantry —

Flags, are a brave sight —
But no true Eye
Ever went by One —
Steadily —

Music’s triumphant —
But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near —

Since I was a teenager, I’ve liked Dickinson’s work, though I confess that there was a lot I didn’t understand younger. I think her writing and people’s understanding of it has been more helped by cognitive poetics (and other areas of literary stylistics) than by traditional literary criticism with its focus on biography, religion and history. Cognitive stylistics has shown how Dickinson manipulates grammar and word-choice to create different worlds that wrangle with, among other things, ontological questions. Here, I’m thinking mainly of the scholarship of Margaret Freeman, who gives a wonderful analysis of one of my favourite Dickinson poems:

A Spider sewed at Night

Without a Light

Upon an Arc of White

If Ruff it was of Dame

Or Shroud of Gnome

Himself himself inform.

Of Immortality

His Strategy Was Physiognomy.

(J 1138, lines 1-6; ms)

I think it’s time to return to this poet and see how I get on with her language and wisdom in my middle age.

Patriarchy and Harari

In Y.N. Harari’s book Sapiens, the bestselling author addresses the question ‘What’s so good about men?’ That is, why is patriarchy the dominant form of political and social rule across the world and existing in societies that had no previous contact with one another?Sapiens

In answering this, he rightly points to the flaws in the three leading theories on patriarchy.  The most common theory, that men have more physical power than women, is criticised by noting that women are ‘generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men,’ and history has shown us that those with more physical power tend to do more of the manual labour and that social and political power don’t require physical strength. The theory that men have come to dominate women because they are biologically more aggressive is also debunked by considering the fact that wars aren’t won by aggression alone. Many of the great world leaders, such as Julius Caesar, have been successful because of their ‘mildness and clemency.’ Here Harari also points out that if stereotypes are anything to go by, women are deemed to be better ‘manipulators and appeasers’ than men which you would think would make them more powerful in society. The other explanation that Harari mentions is the idea that over time male genes have become more ambitious and competitive while female genes have developed to become more submissive and dependent in order for her to raise children. It’s easy to punch holes in this one as certainly women could be dependent on other women, just borrowing men for their seeds. And there’s the fact that many aspects of raising children can be shared with men.

After all of this debating, Harari disappoints by simply saying that ‘we have no good answer.’ He goes on to acknowledge how women’s roles in Western society in particular have changed dramatically over the last century and claims to find it ‘bewildering’ that patriarchy continues.Women vote

This surprised me given his lengthy section on the Industrial Revolution. Certainly that has had an impact on women’s rights and roles. He seems to avoid the obvious, that the physical power theory held sway for some centuries, but that as our lives became less physically demanding, the playing field between men and women has levelled more. Leaving us with ‘why patriarchy still exists at all?’ What Harari fails to consider in this context (though he talks about it elsewhere) is the power of religious and social institutions, well established before the Industrial Revolution, that have put into place the ideas of male supremacy. Conservatism is a powerful tool . We’ve seen this play out over the past year in Britain and America, where people voted in favour of a time gone by. Women’s equality is another victim of this establishmentarian and illiberal thinking. Nothing ‘bewildering’ about these points.

Local Elections

It’s taken me a week, but I think I have recovered from the mini-depression left behind by the local elections here in South East Cambridgeshire. I credit my recovery largely to the power of satire – thank you, Have I Got News for You. And I must acknowledge the Trump administration, although they are not aiming to be satirical, they have certainly achieved it over the past week with the firing of FBI Director James Comey – a tin-pot dictator fires the man who is leading an incriminating investigation against him and claims that it’s because of the way the man treated the dictator’s rival which brought him to power in the first place. (But as I write this Trump has now contradicted his spokespeople by saying that it was the ‘Russian thing.’)

Our local elections this time around proved the stuff of satire by showing us once again how human beings do stupid things at the ballot box. Not so funny – and hence a week of the blues – has been the nastiness and spreading of false information that has marked this particular campaign.  It reminds me of J.K. Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy, where a parish council seat suddenly becomes vacant and the private wars and backstabbing begin.Labour window
Tory poster

Here in Ely, a group which calls itself ‘Progressives’ advertised itself as an alliance of progressive political parties, made up of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens. They even sent out social media postings showing a diagram of red, yellow and green stick people coming together to defeat the blue stick people, also known as Conservatives.

I clicked on their link expecting to see them supporting the Liberal Democrat in my ward for County Council. Much to my horror, they were telling people to vote Labour. Then I looked at other wards, and saw that the recommendations were either Labour or the Greens. No sign of the Liberal Democrats. This seemed odd to me as the Lib-Dems either won or came in second to the Conservatives in these local wards as long as I could remember.

I left a comment: What you are saying on your website doesn’t look anything like this diagram. Why can’t the LibDems have a win?

Response: We had been working with all 3 progressive parties for about 18 months but the local LibDem party decided [to] pull out last autumn. We’re hoping they will re-engage with us in the future.

Me: So you are only advising voters to vote Labour or Green? That doesn’t seem right. Especially in Ely where LibDems are more likely to beat Tories.

Other comments came flooding in with arguments and counterarguments. The most telling was when someone said ‘You’d rather attack the Lib Dems than genuinely try to defeat the Tories.’ The response was a ‘Yes.’

A few weeks later, the local elections were held. For Ely North, the Conservatives won with 49.3% of the votes, the Lib-Dems had 35.4% and Labour 15.3%. In Ely South, the Conservatives won with 46.1%, the Lib-Dems had 38.7% and Labour 15.2%. For both wards, these were high results for Labour compared with previous elections. If about 60% of their votes went to the Lib-Dems in the spirit of an alliance, the Conservatives would have lost. Clearly, divided we fall.

On James Baldwin

I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes of a Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them.  This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.

A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.

With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Iamnotyour negroBaldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.

Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday

I was drawn to this book by its author (loved Swift’s Waterland) and cover, a portion of one of Modigliani’s reclining nudes. I’ll confess that I was also seduced by the compact size of the novel of some 150 pages after having just finished a 400+ pager and having another literary brick waiting for me.

Mothering Sunday is a beautifully written meditation on events that take place in one day in Edwardian England in the life of a maid, Jane Fairchild. Although it says ‘a romance’ on the cover, I thought it more erotic than romantic. Jane has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham, a wealthy neighbour of high social standing who is already engaged to someone of a similar background. More than anything else this novel is a study of character, class and the way our lives can be altered by one incident.

Worth reading for the writing alone, this is a masterclass in controlled narrative, navigating a disrupted storyline with descriptive mood and motifs.

Below is another of Modigliani’s nudes, one which I personally prefer for its boldness – this is from 1916.mothering sunday 3

‘The Will of the People’?

Since the Brexit vote, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has been used not only by Brexiters, but more alarmingly by some of those who voted to remain in the EU. These people clearly have problems with basic maths. Only 37% of the electorate voted for the UK to leave the EU. Hardly the will of the people. If we looked to those who bothered to vote on 23rd June, then we can say that 54% of those voters were in favour of leaving the EU. A majority, yes, but still, not deserving of the nomenclature ‘the people.’ Moreover, this vote was on a simple in/out referendum. There are people who voted to leave the EU on the promise that the UK would remain in the single market. Others voted to leave on the promise of increased funding for our beleaguered National Health Service. Given the government’s insistence on a hard Brexit and the admissions that the NHS will not benefit from this process, the strength of the 54% vote is diminishing. It is less and less about ‘the people.’

So, why would anyone who voted to remain start using the phrase ‘the will of the people’? Those who immediately come to mind are Conservative politicians. At the parliamentary level, they’re standing behind their leaders, afraid perhaps to break ranks or just nurturing their own careers. But when this ‘will of the people’ phrase came up last night at a Mayoral Hustings in Ely, that was a more perplexing matter. The mayoral position covers Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough. Both Cambridge and Ely voted to remain, while Peterborough and the surrounding areas (Fenland) voted to leave. Yet, a few of the participants, including James Palmer, a Conservative Councillor, and the moderator, used the phrase ‘the will of the people’ as if it was the reason to support Brexit. No one else on stage objected to it or felt that it needed to be qualified.  Part of this could have been due to the limited time allocated to speakers. But I’m concerned that part of this shyness or perhaps compliance with such phrasing had to do with fear.ELy Cathedral hustings

Many of those who voted Brexit haven’t stopped campaigning. They’re all over the internet. Some are bullying. Their lapdogs are the tabloid press, whose barks persist and protect this angry mob. They can be scary. The normalising of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ by those who supported remaining in Europe for me is just another sign that the bullies have won. I remind myself and have perhaps said too often for those around me that Brexiters won the vote on the day, they haven’t won the argument.