April 09, 2013

Thatcher Is Gone: May We All Rest in Peace

I am a product of Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom. I served as guinea pig for every educational experiment she launched during her Premiership, and lived within sight of the pithead at Cadley Hill, which finally closed in 1988. I saw friends risk their liberty over the ill-fated Poll Tax and stood on the sidelines of a culture marked by the bleakness of strikes, the violence of football fans, race riots, class division, and the immanence of the IRA. My England of the 1980s was a grim, knee-capped, hopeless era in which Thatcher brandished a political crowbar. I have no fond affections for her, her ideology, or her political legacy.

 Cadley Hill, 1984

That being said, and with Glenn Greenwald’s important intervention in mind, I see no humanity in dancing on Thatcher’s grave, or on anyone else’s for that matter. I do not understand how so many characteristically reasonable people – people who spend their lives looking for intellectual angles on everything with an ever-refining insistence on nuance – can take pleasure, and I am discerning an abundance of genuine heartfelt glee, from the death of a person. This kind of people bemoaned the crass triumphalism of Joe Public in America on the death of Osama Bin Laden, but happily celebrate the enfeeblement and subsequent miserable demise of a compatriot. If Thatcher was criticised for commodifying the individual, de-humanising society in the process, then the vacuous danse macabre instigated by her death seems to testify to the depths to which that de-humanisation went.

Schadenfreude is, quite obviously, not typically a particularly English quality. At the moment, however, one wouldn’t know it. By all means speak ill of the dead, but in the name of humanity stop raising a glass to death. It is unbecoming of the dignity that so many people who detested Thatcher claimed to wish to uphold.

March 10, 2013

Taxi-Driver Wisdom

It took me 49 hours to get from Ottawa to Berlin, largely thanks to one airline’s inability to be an airline. A conversation with said airline might proceed thus:

Own planes?
Rented space at airports?
Got customers?
Got any idea how put those pieces together in a workable system?
Er, well…
Trained your staff?
They don’t go by train…

(Yes, Air Canada, it’s you).

But the vagaries of travel do give one time to think, as well as ample opportunity to hear the wisdom of taxi drivers, whose lives tend to operate only between airport and city, even if once or twice they have made terrible and unforgiving journeys of their own. In fact it is the likelihood that your taxi driver is an immigrant of some kind that gives him – it is usually a him – his wisdom, for in many cases it means he has suffered. All the tedious miles ferrying us from pillar to post have given him sufficient time to reflect on the causes of that suffering, and the inordinate number of bigots he has met in the back of his cab have given him cause to reflect on the length of the roots of the evil that has been done to him. You may not always agree with your taxi driver, but should he wish to talk I suggest you listen. It is rarely dull.

One of my many couriers during the chronic pain of my latest Odyssey is a Moroccan Arab. He used to work for the East German embassy in Rabat. He liked Germans. Organised minds. Efficient workers. But everyone had a problem with flags back then and, come to think of it, the biggest problem with the world now is people with flags. Whether it’s Russians putting a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, Canadians waving flags on the ridiculously partisan Canadian coverage of the Olympics (who would want to miss another valiant third place finish?), or the Americans sticking flags everywhere and especially where they’re not wanted, the world’s problems basically boil down to flags. From the DRC and Rwanda to China and Taiwan, to Argentina and the UK, the flag – and the nationalism it stands for – is the fundamental barrier to us all getting along. For our problems are common, and we are all enslaved to the interests of a few who esteem themselves superior.

At the eye of the storm are the greetings-card manufacturers who have managed to sell Father’s Day to an all too compliant Western culture. Humanity should begin with family, not be in thrall to corporations who tell it when to love. He doesn’t need a day picked out at random for his son to say ‘Happy Father’s Day’, any more than he needs a government to tell him to love, protect and nurture his son. These relations existed before governments, before capital, and before flags. He put his son through college. It’s what dads do. His son bought him his taxi last week. It’s what sons do.

The ties that bind are such that no adversity of circumstance ought to bring them down. A stupid woman once told him how she left her husband for a younger man. He asked if she loved her husband. She said she used to. This concept did not fly with our man, who could not grasp the notion of a love that passes. I’m sure the woman had an unpleasant ride, but our taxi driver’s grip on the truth, full of innocence and naiveté and yet, paradoxically, tainted by experience, has a compelling quality of frankness, simplicity, purity.

I’m sorry to leave my chauffeur when we arrive at the airport. I know I’m not going to have any company for another day. But I am reassured that the shortness of the average taxi ride, and the high volume of stranded frequent flyers, means that the wisdom of the taxi driver, such as it is, will be dispensed hundreds of times in a week. Some passengers might emerge from the back of the cab feeling that the number of tips they have received en route surely merit the large one they are about to give in return.

March 08, 2013

What Happened to Feminism?

Yesterday I read this story about a San Diego teacher who was ousted from her job for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, while the school in question subsequently hired the impregnator, irrespective of his premarital sowing. It is retrograde, despicable, and utterly unsurprising. In January, eminent professor Mary Beard suffered a torrent of misogynistic abuse after her appearance espousing progressive politics on the BBC. And it seems that however vile the abuse gets, veiled under the anonymity of the ethereal realm, there is some brute in a suit prepared to apologise for it. Meanwhile, the most popular ‘news’ website in the world, the Daily Mail online, is one long screed of misogyny, salivating over tits and ass while scorning the weight tribulations of minor celebrities. 

What is so shocking about it all is that it is so commonplace than nobody is shocked. Worse still, there is an abundance of women who will deride feminists, stubbornly refusing to engage in their own interests or to see the structural chauvinism that continually works against them, whether it be their exclusion from the top ranks of the corporate world, discrimination in the workplace and unequal pay, lack of suitable maternity benefits, sexual objectification, domestic violence, or a host of other malignancies that continue to blight our society. It is International Women’s Day. If you’re a half decent man, you’ll stand up to be counted among those who want to end the injustice. You’ll encourage the female naysayers to show solidarity, and you’ll do this not just today, but tomorrow and everyday, so long as is necessary. 

March 05, 2013

Treadmill Punishment

The Victorians knew the meaning of punishment. Among their more arcane penalties was the treadmill – a large wheel turned by a captive human-cum-hamster, to no apparent end. It was designed to wear down prisoners through constant physical exertion and mind-numbing boredom. It was de-humanising, turning the person into part of a meaningless machine that turned only to turn. Across the world, sedentary office lackeys now willingly pay for a similar privilege.

Our forebears would be perplexed in the extreme by our need to contrive exercise. Our lives are such that physical activity might not happen at all in the normal course of things, and the most shocking part of that commonplace is that we do not dispute the fact that it is ‘normal’. Actually, the sedentary existence, broken only by a perceived need to eat enormous amounts of fat and salt, is unique among mammals – an astonishing testament to human conceit, as we have driven ourselves so far from animality that we have bypassed civilisation and emerged as mere automatons. In a last-ditch attempt to wrestle back our dignity, not to mention our waist lines, we mount moving belts and other stationary calorie eaters in order to extend our meaningless existence. It’s amazing to me that boredom is not a bigger killer in the decadent West.

I’m given to reflect on these things because I’ve just spent some time on a treadmill. I only ever go to the gym when I stay in hotels in winter. The street is otherwise my pounding place of choice, where to run is an end in itself, an essential human activity, and a central pillar of our distinctive evolution. Somehow, despite everything, the emptiness of hotel gyms appeals to me, notwithstanding the tedium of the punishment. No jocks; no posturing; no people at all, actually. In the interest of not losing the edge on my fitness, I resort to – become – the machine.

March 01, 2013

Temps perdu

I just spent 21 hours getting from Berlin to Ottawa via Frankfurt and Toronto, incorporating a snow storm, several hours of delays, and doubtless more than a week’s worth of salt intake. I’ve crossed the Atlantic at least 50 times since 2005, and I took 29 flights in 2012 alone, so I’m well past the excitement factor, through acute boredom, and settled into a benumbing routine of an alcohol-soaked bad-movie haze. Parts of trips like this are actually pleasant, in the same way that an overcast Wednesday afternoon can sometimes feel comfortingly melancholic – a warm blanket of depression, the indulgence of which involves endless pots of tea and chocolate and ends up being a kind of happy-sad sugary caffeine kick. No one can contact me on travel days. I do not feel guilty for watching 7 straight hours of movies that I wouldn’t otherwise pay to see. I set my watch back at the start of the flight, drink scotch as a pre-lunch aperitif, wine with my slop, and cognac with my coffee, without worrying that I’m half-cut at, technically, breakfast. The sun is over the yard arm somewhere, right? And when you’re in the air it’s easy to imagine that you could indeed be anywhere. There’s an alchemical mystery about flying. Aside from take-off and landing, there’s no notion of movement or speed, no landmarks to mark the passing of geography. One embarks a giant metal tube, sits for half a day, and disembarks. And in the meantime, the airline has seen fit radically to alter the outside scenery. Sometimes in my Truman-Show anxiety moments I wonder if flight is really real.

If there were doubt, jet lag would dispel it. The hours lost on short days, the hours gained on long days, not to mention the entire days lost in transit, all seem to count. Awake with jet lag is closer to an hallucinogenic experience than to tiredness; asleep with jet lag is closer to coma than to rest. I’ve had fits of hysterical laughter, strange impulses of aggression, bouts of talking gibberish, and the odd feeling that gravity is no longer at full strength. In a Subway sandwich shop in Auckland in 2005, in desperation after 25 hours in the air, I experienced all these sensations in quick succession. Hunger laughter melted into an I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-bread-I-want rage, followed by some impossible suggestions for sandwich fillings and the distinct impression that my feet weren’t really touching the ground. I blamed the Singapore Slings.

I have tried almost everything to shake the desynchronosis funk. Drinking less or not at all doesn’t help, merely depriving me of an explanatory factor and inducing paranoia; drinking more doesn’t help either. I once got stranded in Montreal for five hours and accidentally got drunk before take off. The hangover started an hour into the flight and lasted two days. I’ve tried staying awake, becoming delirious. I’ve tried going straight to bed, inducing insomnia for days. I’ve tried exercise, pushing my body to wake up in the short term that it might sleep better come the night, but find that the runner’s high induces a crash that only exacerbates the problem. Over the years I’ve basically come to expect this temporary madness. It’s part of a life’s experience – an opening of a perceptual door or the closing down of one’s humanity. If you can live with yourself with jet lag, stripped down and deprived of higher functions, then you’re probably a thoroughly decent sort under regular conditions.

Ultimately, the only thing with which I cannot reconcile myself is the loss of time. The travel time, as I say, I can live with as a sort of self-piteous luxury. It’s the days afterwards, operating at half speed, that really gall. The one thing I haven’t tried is writing. Perhaps it might fire the synapses such that the mind is stimulated, reset, re-engaged. Time lost is a physical problem, but what of mind over matter? You have just read the experiment.

February 23, 2013

Sympathy and the Legacy of Complacency

When the going is good, the corrupt, the corpulent, the anti-intellectual, and the gourmand get their day. If the going is good for a while, these guys get their feet well and truly under the table. It’s a mighty job to get a placeman to give up his place. If we live in an era devoid of political nous, in the midst of a dearth of brilliance and of the spluttering rhetoric of leaders who cannot lead, we are not the first:

In the courts of princes, in the drawing-rooms of the great, where success and preferment depend, not upon the esteem of intelligent and well-informed equals, but upon the fanciful and foolish favour of ignorant, presumptuous, and proud superiors; flattery and falsehood too often prevail over merit and abilities.

We have probably all slaved in environments of clientism and nepotism, where the face-fitting yes-men contort their mediocrities into pleasing shapes for the sake of scraps from the table. Now it is a pervasive Occidental malady. The cultivation of flattery endured for long enough that the cultivation of talent went begging for infrastructure. The man of vision thumps his fist on the table in frustration, but is swept along in a rushing torrent of ephemeral images, of passing fads, reality ‘stars’, and auto-tuned politics. He’s just another piece of noise.

In such societies the abilities to please, are more regarded than the abilities to serve. In quiet and peaceable times, when the storm is at a distance, the prince or great man, wishes only to be amused, and is even apt to fancy that he has scarce any occasion for the service of any body, or that those who amuse him are sufficiently able to serve him. The external graces, the frivolous accomplishments, of that impertinent and foolish thing called a man of fashion, are commonly more admired than the solid and masculine virtues of a warrior, a statesmen, a philosopher, or a legislator. All the great and awful virtues, all the virtues which can fit, either for the council, the senate, or the field, are, by the insolent and insignificant flatterers, who commonly figure the most in such corrupted societies, held in the utmost contempt and derision.

These are not peaceable times. Far from it. But when we long ago bet our solid virtues on a pyramid scheme we scarcely thought how we might retrieve them once the sun ceased to shine. The British notion of ‘service’ has been reduced to James Bond quips and glib citizenship tests demanding that ‘foreigners’ know how to glorify General Gordon. To get it back, we need to know that there is something to serve. Citizenship is about belonging, but also owning. It is about acknowledging a mutual set of responsibilities, from the State to the individual and vice versa. There isn’t a lot of that spirit about any more. The phrase ‘we’re all in this together’ has been appropriated for a political slogan, heightening our distrust, and making us all the more entrenched in our view that, actually, it’s every man for himself. If ever we needed leadership, it is now. But where to find him or her?

When the duke of Sully was called upon by Lewis the Thirteenth to give his advice in some great emergency, he observed the favourites and courtiers whispering to one another, and smiling at his unfashionable appearance. “Whenever your majesty’s father,” said the old warrior and statesmen, “did me the honour to consult me, he ordered the buffoons of the court to retire into the antechamber.”

It’s not exactly hopeless out there, but if we were to cast around for a latter-day duke of Sully we might have to wait a while to find him. Trouble these days is that the throne room’s been flogged for a porn set and we’ve been living in the antechamber for years. There’s a party going on and everyone’s been hammered for a decade. We are utterly self-absorbed, racing each other to the bottom of the sleaziest autobiography charts.

All the quoted passages here are from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Smith knew that the essential corollary of the selfish was the sympathetic. To share the joys, but also the sufferings of one’s fellow man was the basis of civilisation. It is in a man’s interests to sympathise with other men, to care for his needs, to feel his pain, for in solidarity he increases the likelihood that, in his own pain, he too will find the succour of others. The Golden Rule, with its archetypical architecture of altruism, depends first and foremost on self-knowledge of self-interest: Do as you would be done unto. In our clamouring for the top, or in our struggle to avoid the abyss, we trample the man underneath us. The more we trample, the more damage we do to ourselves.

It really were better that we pulled together. The leadership for which we yearn can be sourced in each other. No amount of charisma in a suit is going to do it for us. It’s time to turn a clenched fist into an open hand. Who will be first?

February 22, 2013

Running Scared?

Over the Christmas holidays in Montreal last year there was a record snow storm. Eighteen inches fell in one day. Immediately afterwards the temperature dropped to a pretty consistent -20 Celsius, give or take wind chill. The city, which usually recovers from winter storms in a single day of ploughing and shovelling, was buried for a week. Perfect weather for running.

From my apartment downtown to the top of Mount Royal is an elevation gain of 495 feet, over about three-and-a-half miles. It’s not an unchallenging hill run at the best of times, but I’d never actually been up it in deep snow, even at a walk. Coming down is pretty taxing on the knees if you do it consistently, but I had no idea about how it would be on snow and ice. A city, I reasoned, is to be experienced, and laced up.

I was not without appropriate equipment. Mrs. VB had sprung for the running crampons for Christmas for the very purpose, and strapping them on is the nearest a runner gets to the girding of loins. Layers of wicking clothing lay between me and the elements. The first part of the run is usually on sidewalks, but they were completely buried (as were the parked cars), so I struck out into the road, which at least had some tyre tracks to follow. The first half mile was maybe the hardest I’ve run. The snow was thigh deep in places, and getting the legs up and out of it soon started to burn. Meanwhile the feet were completely numb.

The main path up Parc Avenue was buried, but there was a clearing of sorts through the park to the west of the street, some of which had been ploughed for fire trucks. A mile or so in was the mountain trail – a smoothly ploughed path of crunchy ice. Near the bottom, the sledding community was in its element, but they soon petered out. After that there were skiers (winter’s cyclists, similarly annoying), snow shoers, and the hardy winter foot soldiers. One or two other runners were braving it. Thighs easing up; feet coming back to life.

Two thirds of the way up, the sun broke around the bend of the mountain path and lit up the winter like a torch. I’ve never seen a brighter light and the sheer beauty of the spectacle lulled me into a temporary forgetfulness of the lunacy of it all. Around the next bend, high up now, the wind could have cut a man in two, blowing snow sideways off the drifting piles like a sandstorm, and just as sharp, with the windchill factor now at around -30. The only people up here were other idiots.

Made it to the top. A glorious scene of shimmering metal and glass, surrounded by ice. Going down was quick, hard on the feet, and heavy on the thighs again once I reached those high drifts. Seven brutal miles later I was back, layered with ice and frost, ready to thaw, and eat.

Never again? Well, not until the next day.

February 21, 2013

Doping for Dopes

If it is true that cheats do not prosper, for a good while it must have felt to the cheats that they’d gotten away with a blinder. This has been a horrible period for sports fans, all of whom must now wonder, when they watch their heroes, whether what they see is real. If matches aren’t fixed for international gambling syndicates then all the athletes are on drugs, right? Hardly a sport has been left untouched by a tidal wave of scandals and suspicions, and somehow the honest professional, and even more so the amateur enthusiast, have been lost in the fray. The good guy can only take so much before the cracks start to appear. The cri de coeur happened today.

This morning Tony Thompson the boxer told the BBC that doping should be legalised. “I think they should allow doping, period, because for me it’s like the gun lawOnly the good guys are listening. It leaves the good guys without the guns. This is the age-old cry of the unjustly treated. Life-long believers in fair play and justice, they ultimately grow weary of losing to the cheat, or of competing on a distinctly uneven playing surface. It is like the dueller, having agreed the terms of engagement with his foe, turning up sword in hand only to find a pistol pointing at him through the murky dawn. It is a mismatch of epic proportions. The bullet wins every time. The virtuous fencer might be forgiven for thinking it were better had he too gone ballistic.

I wouldn’t forgive him. I’d pity him, but that would be just another kick to the puppy. I understand the plight of these fellows, but no upstanding man could endorse the institutionalisation of sport’s greatest wrong in order to level down to the moral poison of the fakes. If there were no honour in sport, and if everyone was hepped up steroids, then I’d sooner watch robot wars. There’d be no real difference. Sport, if it is to mean anything, has to be about the testing of the limits of being human, which is both good to do and good to watch. There can be no spirit of emulation if we cannot be certain that the spectacle is, essentially, a purely human one.

Tony Thompson has forgotten that sport isn’t simply about this competitor or that team. The public cares not a fig for how much money a man might win, but only that he might win fair and square. And if cheating is rife, then the fair man does not advocate that everyone should cheat. The fair man, believing in the true spirit of competition, sticks to his guns (or his weapon of choice). For that man knows that when he wins he will draw satisfaction from having won fairly. I have no idea what satisfaction the cheat derives from his own rocket-propelled ‘victory’. Money, fame and power are all ephemeral. They are the chimeras of our age. They have never been in the past and should not now be the reasons for sporting endeavour. I hope the good guys keep poking at this sore until the boil is well and truly lanced.

February 19, 2013

Horse, Of Course

The people of Europe are growing hoarse. In the past month there’s been much whinnying about the adulteration of processed food. The media – old nag – is chomping at the bit. Politicians are staggered. The food industry has been nobbled. The public’s disgust is unbridled. The whole mess is stickier than a glue factory. Bored of this extended pun? Me too.

The consternation about horsemeat masquerading as beef is off target. There is a criminal mastermind out there somewhere who knows how to make labels. That’s pretty much it. Whoever is behind it should be found and prosecuted. If there’s horse tranquilizer, or whatever it is, in the human food chain, so much the worse. But it seems to me that most of the complaints aren’t about these things. They’re about the thought of eating horse.

Nobody, to my knowledge, has complained about the taste. Thousands of people have consumed what they presumed to be beef dinners – burgers, lasagnes, etc. – and so far as I can tell not one person noticed that the thing sticking to their MSG-encrusted palate wasn’t what it purported to be. This is just as you’d expect. After all, if you’re buying frozen processed meals one might assume you’d eat anything, without too much of a care for what it is. But the after knowledge that said processed lump might have been a Romanian cart horse has produced a cacophony of self-conscious hacking (no pun intended this time), at least in the UK. Why?

The French know

Culturally, we do not eat horse. This is somehow ironically indicated by the popular refrain, ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’, which is now presumably in decline. Why we do not eat horse (unlike the French, and many other nations) is a mystery as enigmatic as the dietetics of Leviticus: horses are noble (they aren’t, but several hundred years’ worth of being held up as aristocratic mirrors has cemented the quality); horses are intelligent (pigs, anyone?); horses are working animals, not food animals (oxen are different why?). There is no explanation that does not ultimately rest on some anthropocentric, and anthropomorphic, conceit. The image, for example, of a graceful hunter, topped by an exemplar of virility in hunting pink, does not translate easily to the recipe pages of the national cuisine (and we don’t eat fox either, for similarly confounding reasons).

If we could just stop tripping over each other in our bid to be more appalled than the next, there’s surely an opportunity here. The criminal mind has shown the way. If horse meat is so much cheaper than cow that it’s worth risking an international scandal to make a few bucks on the sly, then some enterprising knacker ought to try a national marketing campaign to sell horse for what it is. ‘Times are tough. Beef is expensive. Why not be a little daring? And in any case, you’ll never taste the difference’. 

February 18, 2013

Ecce Homo

Behold the man. Flesh and blood. Broken. Passionate.

Baldung Grien, Schmerzensmann [Man of Sorrows], 1511

In one of the more curious English etymological journeys from Greek (pathos), ‘passion’ now stands for ardent enthusiasm or, worse, lust. But in its oldest and most enduring sense, passion refers to suffering. It is a corporeal ordeal bound in an emotional expression of anguish. It is pain, of the body, of the heart.

I’d have made a hopeless utilitarian. There are plenty of them still kicking about, but I pity their plight. ‘All pain is bad, umkay?’ The sentiment has a hollow, modern ring suggestive of double-entry bookkeeping and facts in boxes. It seems inescapable to me that the human has always been defined in some way through or against pain and suffering. From pain we derive meaning, sense of purpose, sense of gain and loss, sense of identity. The significance of flesh and blood – our substance – is its tenuousness. We are morbid creatures. We tear and bleed. Around us and in us ‘nature’ struggles. Out of Victorian conceit we’ve been wont to talk of the survival of the fittest, beating our chests as if the civilised world somehow had a monopoly over the category ‘fit’. The flipside of that expression is the suffering of the majority, the struggle, through pain, to death.

This is not meant to be bleak. Through struggle we strive, and in striving we become. Pain moves us, physically, affectively. It holds up to us our limits and dares us to transcend them. Through adversity comes clarity of purpose. The worse the ordeal we come through, the more resolute we are. Just as there is no courage without fear, there is no purpose without pain. Think of all the people who claim they will ‘re-evaluate’ their lives after painful experiences. There is truth in cliché.

Ecce Homo: Behold the man. Through passion – in pain – significant. 
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