Saturday, 26 January 2013

Reasons Not To Be Cheerful

We may all excuse ourselves for being miserable in January because Monday the 21st. is reckoned to be the saddest day of the year. I'm unsure about the criteria of measurement but perhaps they include some of this past week's hardships such as the obligations to get back to work, pay the latest round of inflated utility bills and maintain our new year's resolutions. Assuming, however, that the summation is an average there will be some people who are feeling unseasonably cheerful right now. To them I say don't be smug, the bulk of the year hasn't happened yet so there is plenty of scope for misery to befall you.

Coinciding with Miserable Monday this year was a downfall of snow which disrupted the routines of millions, caused the cancellation of meetings, the extension of journey times and the thwarting of many a good intention. But for some of us snowfall may be a positive experience. People in the news media, for example, thrive on the opportunity to show footage of the white stuff and tell stories of disruption, incompetence and disaster; weather forecasters relish the chance to adorn mundane meteorological maps with amber and red warning triangles; dads get to rummage through the garage for the sledges they stowed away last spring and school-teachers plan their extra holidays the evening before predicted snowfall. I'm not so sure kids like school closures though: I remember the walk to school through snow as an adventure in winter wonderland - crunching through the drifts, snapping off icicles to suck and testing the frozen surface of every puddle and, during breaks in lessons, competitions in sliding and snowman-building and mass snowball fights: so much more fun than staying at home.

The snow may have added to your seasonal gloom or distracted you from it but, to my mind, the major misery-inducing factor was the tax payment due by the end of the month. I acquiesce with the general principle that taxation is a fair way to fund the infrastructure needed by society but a recurring question presents itself as I am about to press the 'transfer' key. What will the government do with our money? Will it invest in education to produce long-term benefit for the whole of society or fritter it away on politically motivated projects that mostly reward vested interests?

 In theory we control this via the ballot box but the reality is not straightforward, as is illustrated by our government's response to recent violent developments in the North African Maghreb. I note that we taxpayers are being primed for a protracted extension of the "war on terror" in yet another hot and dusty region and I am concerned at the glib employment of sound-bites to sustain the argument. To call someone a terrorist implies that their motivation is to terrorise others, which is to distort by simplification the complex circumstances which lead to violent conflict. Many who had been called terrorists by colonial powers were, from their point of view, freedom fighters using whatever means they could to win their cause and who, having eventually won the battle, emerged as political leaders of independent states.

In the Maghreb there are many stories: a long history of nomadic tribes being dispossessed by imposed political boundaries; tribal rivalries; the recent collapse of dictatorships and the ensuing power vacuum into which are drawn criminals, racists, and religious zealots, as well as political factions. The one constant in the storyline is the fact that it is a fight for control over the region's resources and the involvement of the Western powers, however described, is part of that story.

Perhaps if I paid my tax in little instalments I might be lulled into not thinking too much about how it is invested: as it is I am convinced that killing 'terrorists' will not be as profitable in the long term as ensuring that schools remain open when snow is on the ground.

Saturday, 19 January 2013


If a culturally inclusive society is what we should be working towards, then a small step was taken this week when friends invited me to their son’s Bar Mitzvah. I was both pleased and encouraged by the invitation: pleased to be included in their family celebration and encouraged at the prospect of progress towards cross-cultural understanding - our best hope of resolving persistent social conflicts. Plus, I was intrigued to compare their religious ceremonial with that of my own, Catholic upbringing.
In the event I noted some similarities: the use of an ancient foreign language, reference to revered texts from antiquity, glistening paraphernalia stashed behind velvet curtains and, of course, an unquestioned belief that God is looking on. The differences I observed (leaving aside any theological issues) were cultural rather than symbolic: the ceremony had an informal, friendly aura and seemed relatively unstructured. Being used to solemn, joyless Catholic services with their emphasis on obedience to the hierarchical structure, I was anticipating that someone would step forward and take charge of the proceedings. But it didn’t happen and I was won over in the end by the relaxed acceptance of individual expression that prevailed throughout.
There was, however, a lengthy prelude of worship and prayer during which I was faced with the dilemma of how to appear interested whilst not actually understanding anything (being an outsider is never a comfortable experience, no matter how welcoming the hosts). So, whilst cultivating what I hoped might be a suitably reverent facial expression and looking around for anything which could occupy my otherwise blank mind, I became obsessed with the prayer-shawls which the men of the congregation were wearing. They are of ancient design and not really fit for purpose since they slip from their shoulders every few seconds and have to be continually hoisted, flicked or flung back into place in a distracting bustle of activity. Before long I had drawn a mental blueprint of an improved version which incorporates some shape and structure to hold it in place. During the mingling at the end of the ceremony I had to restrain myself from enthusing about my new design for fear of alienating the traditionalists.
But, for the atheist observer amongst the Godly at worship, there is more to ponder than paraphernalia. When the two great social bindings, faith and culture, are so completely alloyed that one does not exist without the other, how does one group tolerate the other’s point of view? Bar Mitzvah for Jews, like Confirmation for Catholics, represents dedication to a religious format which dictates certain cultural mores. Isolating the two is problematic, as shown by the recent legal rulings concerning an individual’s right to put religious beliefs before public duties and the ensuing backlash against what has been called “aggressive secularism”. And the current argument about same-sex marriage that rumbles among the clergy of the Church of England, predicated as it is on a belief that marriages are sanctioned by God, will never be resolved until God’s will can be agreed upon.
I have been invited into churches, mosques and synagogues, appealed to by Jehovah’s Witnesses and preached at by proselytisers in the street. I would like to be optimistic about social integration but history demonstrates that it is usually a temporary accommodation which lasts only as long as suits whichever party holds sway: hence my concern that the door of the Schul was locked and attended by a security man.


Saturday, 12 January 2013

Clever Clogs

Tradition dictates a set date for the taking-down of the Christmas decorations. Those of you who actually know it probably feel just a little bit smug when the time comes and the rest of us are caught napping. “Still got your tree up then? It’s bad luck, you know!” you say, with a shake of your head implying exasperation at having to deal with dim-wits. But we deserve your admiration, not your pity for, despite the annual recurrence of the event, we will never be able to remember the date and have therefore developed coping methods. My own relies more on instinct than calendars. I sense the point in time, when the ennui that descends after December 27th has been banished by the last fling of New Year’s Eve, the reluctant drift back to work has begun and decorations no longer feel appropriate to the prevailing mood. But, just to be sure, I check that the inflatable Santa has been removed from the Town Hall square before I start.
Decorations are soon stripped and put away (once the date has been ascertained) but disposing of the cards is not so straightforward. They must first be sorted according to various criteria: those from people I meet frequently are binned after a final, respectful appraisal; those from people I would like to meet more frequently are put to one side as reminders to act; those from people I am content never to meet again are binned heartlessly and those from people whose identity is a mystery are allowed a final examination before I bin them as well. There is also a sub-group of cards which are too beautiful to throw away and these may be put aside to be enjoyed as works of art – and then turn up, months later, under an accumulated pile of assorted papers and stuff.
But it’s not all straightforward: some of the cards contain inserts such as news-letters or change-of-address notices (alas, no cheques), all of which must be dealt with. This year a note fell out of an otherwise unremarkable card from a first-time correspondent – someone whose identity was not easily recalled. But it was no ordinary note: it comprised a narrow strip of thick paper, unfolding to about 12 inches long, on which were printed two lines of bold, black type:
 “I wanted to let you know that in October 2011, after nearly forty years of marriage, Tom left me.
Inevitably it turned out that I had been replaced.”
These words were fraught with betrayal, heartbreak and consequent bitterness but, given that this was the first ever postal communication from a somewhat obscure family acquaintance whom I had met only once, my reaction to the news was more curious than empathetic. Why had she not sent this in December 2011? Was she perhaps expecting him to come back home for Christmas? Moreover, it did not fall easily into my system of disposal - in fact it remains on my desk defying all attempts at classification, challenging me to take some meaningful course of action. The best I can currently offer is a little advice based on Freud’s theory of repression: shove all your unwanted memories into the subconscious. Accumulated scientific data consistently adds authority to his idea and suggests that the ability to repress thoughts and to ‘move on’ is quite useful as a way to avoid depression.
Incidentally, the same research data support the theory that people with the ability to remember a lot of facts and figures (know-it-alls) are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to making clever decisions. It seems that their brains become so clogged with details that they are likely to miss the overall point of an argument or thesis. They just can’t see the wood for the (Christmas) trees.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Catching Up

The long, dark evenings of winter, especially over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, have given me the chance to watch more TV and so catch up on things I may have missed. It is apparent that I have missed much more than I imagined - and I'm not just talking about the programmes.
Here is a good example. Back in 1967 I saw The Beatles short film called Magical Mystery Tour which, I have to admit, I didn't really 'get' at the time. Despite being a big fan of their records, the film seemed to me to be at cross-purposes with their artistic direction. But having just watched a documentary about the making of the film, followed by a showing of it, everything at last makes sense (sort of) and I can appreciate now that they were trying to achieve something more than just making popular records. My original failure to grasp the concept of their film was due to the fact that my expectations of their future output were based on my experience of their previous output; or, to put it simply, my imagination had failed to keep pace with theirs. There are, no doubt, many gifted people who 'got it' first time but I, it seems, just liked their tunes.
And those who don't 'get it' are condemned to the wilderness of unenlightenment.  'Real' artists don't feel the need to explain their work: they leave it to professional critics to analyse and interpret while they themselves revel in the mystique of creativity and get on with the business of staying one step ahead of the worker bees. This practice goes all the way back to the 5th Century BC, according to this limerick:
There once was a sculptor named Phidias
Whose manners in art were invidious
'Till he carved Aphrodite
Without even a nightie
And shocked those whose taste was fastidious.

As Pablo Picasso declared, "Taste is the enemy of creativeness". Those artists who abide by established conventions simply reproduce more of the same.

My lately acquired understanding of Magical Mystery Tour whetted my appetite for some more retrospection. Next on the programme was a biography of Roy Orbison. What did I really know about him apart from the facts that he had an amazing vocal range, wrote very unusual songs and fought a losing battle when it came to looking cool? He always stood outside of the mainstream of my interest but his artistic talent was indisputable. Well, I learned that he was a very nice human being, a modest man who was exceptionally talented and that the defining factor of his artistry was the unconventional structure of his songs. Picasso had hit the nail on the head.
By now I was getting curious about other artists I had under-appreciated in the past so when a programme devoted to David Bowie's performances came up I was on the sofa. I can actually remember where I was when I first saw a photo of Bowie (a very uninspiring place, as it happens). The image was arresting because he looked so different from any of the other musicians around at the time. He had an aura of glamour and I realised subsequently that his music depended on a degree of contrived theatricality. I preferred heads-down, no-nonsense musicians such as Stephen Stills, Roy Harper, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett and others with a gritty disdain for glam-rock. And so I left Bowie for others to idolise.
Forty years later and the Bowie programme entertained but did not enlighten me. Apart from a few nerdy facts relating to writing and backing credits, I gained no insights. Relieved that I had not missed the artistic point, I was able to relax and admire his constantly transforming visual and musical act - and to become fixated by the progression over the years of his orthodontics. When it comes to Bowie, maybe I did 'get it' first time around.