Monday, 22 September 2014

The Great Leap Backwards

Preparations for the Great Leap Backwards began in October 1927. According to Wikipedia that’s when the first feature film talkie was released - The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson.

From this small beginning the world changed forever as a number of social trends began to march in step.

Firstly the moving image became an important part of life all over the developed world. Not just for entertainment, but news, information and commentary. Although books had become much cheaper and lending libraries were popular, the moving image gripped its audience in a way books would never emulate.

Cinemas were built in every town, cities had lots of them. Only a few decades later the moving image entered our homes via television. The conquest was complete.

Secondly as the twentieth century progressed and in spite of wars and financial disasters, the developed world began learning how to feed and house even the poorest of its citizens.

These two factors brought out something fundamental about ourselves, an issue we must have missed while still hypnotised by the moving image. Something to do with how we deal with the real world – how those dealings can be subverted by security and physical comfort.

In a way this something is merely the circus of bread and circuses, but much more powerful, intrusive and sinister. As the moving image and comparative prosperity took hold of our lives, intellectual curiosity began to wane.

Today, nearly eighty years after that first talkie, we are losing the urge to know in favour of an urge to be entertained. With it comes a deep-seated love of show and display - a love of theatre. As if life’s edge has been dulled by comfort and prosperity, as if a less basic need slipped into the driving seat while we were queuing up to watch the latest blockbuster at the Odeon or switching on the box for an evening of family entertainment.

Display has always been important to us, as it is with other animals, but without the sharp edge of survival – well the arts of display seem to be all we have left to push us on into our brave new world.

Perhaps we thought intellectual curiosity was enough to spur us on in spite of our full bellies, but apparently not. Curiosity is intimately linked with survival and we’ve dealt with survival. For now. Folk memories of genuine poverty and real hardship are disappearing from the reach of living memory.

The recent Scottish Referendum was pure theatre, rational argument very much noticeable by its absence. Instead we had the unedifying sight of political theatre and its emotional power to get those metaphorical bums on seats. From economic summits to Prime Minister’s Questions, from elections to great debates, it’s all theatre.

Even the mad murderers of ISIL seem to be gripped by a grisly sense of theatre. Black uniforms, sinister headgear and black flags. All theatre. Grim, deadly, insane and even juvenile in some respects, but still theatre.

Science is certainly drifting towards theatre and away from a knowledge culture. Climate change is pure theatre, always was. Take leading actors on the climate stage. Al Gore, Vivienne Westwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting, Emma Thompson... 


But it's just theatre – nothing else, nothing deeper, nothing demanding, nothing intellectual. Forget the science - the names topping the bill tell you all you need to know about the show. Apart from who dunnit.

Climate impresarios rope in celebrities, fashion designers, artists, pundits and assorted thespians with limited knowledge of the science because they don’t need it. They have their lines off pat. It’s what they do, why they are able strut their stuff on the climate stage without knowing anything worth passing on.

Staying with science - how about physics? Multiverse theories? They look like theatre to me. The vast drama of the cosmos, the thrilling strangeness of untrammelled scientific conjecture, the mysterious depths of untestable notions. Bums on seats matter, even in relatively small and publicly supported theatres such as this.

All the world’s a stage – literally. Yet if people are to be liberally rewarded for acting a part, for learning a narrative instead of the truth, then we cannot use the cold blue light of reason to show us the way to anywhere worth visiting. 

So lots of drama but no happy ending.

A sense of style

From BillR

Sunday, 21 September 2014


“My boy,” said an aged Father to his fiery and disobedient Son, “a hot temper is the soil of remorse. Promise me that when next you are angry you will count one hundred before you move or speak.” 

No sooner had the Son promised than he received a stinging blow from the paternal walking-stick, and by the time he had counted to seventy-five had the unhappiness to see the old man jump into a waiting cab and whirl away.

Ambrose Bierce - Fantastic Fables (1899)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Global Pact

Via my recently invented time machine, here is an extract from a short essay written a thousand years hence by an anonymous scribe of the Second Enlightenment. Titled The Rise and Fall of The Global Pact , it is dated September 3014.


As most of us know, the Global Pact was founded in the late twentieth century although its roots had been growing for decades, possibly as far back as the late nineteenth century.

However, what many people do not realise is that in those far off days it was not known as the Global Pact. The name did not become common until about 2100 when the United Nations formally announced that nations no longer existed and changed its name to The Global Pact.

So what exactly was The Global Pact, why did it arise and why did it collapse with such devastating consequences?

Firstly it is important to recognise that The Global Pact was a technical religion, truly global and designed for everyone but the administrative elite. It was many things to many people, but primarily it was a system of belief supported by incredibly detailed doctrines, laws, regulations and ultimately enforcement.

PactPol was the global policy function, the key top level directorate.
PactBank was the global bank. There were no others.
PactTech provided global technical support.
PactFarm grew the food.
PactTruth provided publicity, languages and iKid - or infant induction.
PactHealth looked after euthanasia and abortion.
PactGuide was the global paramilitary police force.
PactFun provided all global entertainment.
PactRole slotted everyone into a suitable career.

And so on.

There were many other directorates and sub-directorates, but these main directorates give a flavour of the overall picture.

During the preceding century leading up to The Global Pact, many changes took place. Too many to list in this brief review. For example, science disappeared into PactTech. Religion was absorbed into an advisory sub-directorate of PactTruth although it took another two centuries for things to settle down here. PactTruth and the formidable might of PactGuide were tested to the full.

By the early twenty-first century the trend towards The Global Pact had become obvious. A large number of mostly middle class people saw the advantages of discarding their opinions in favour of a host of official doctrines. Almost as if they knew The Global Pact was coming, even if not in their lifetime.

In those days there were early Pact-type doctrines with a variety of names such as political correctness, environmentalism, equality, science and so on. They encapsulated not ideas, but doctrines to which one might safely and even stridently adhere. Many adherents seem to have known, or rather sensed that The Global Pact would one day demonstrate their sagacity in dumping their individuality with such abandon.

Eventually, about five centuries ago, The Global Pact embraced everything. Every person on the planet knew nothing, did nothing and said nothing which did not conform to The Global Pact. Generations lived and died within the same Pact as moving from one Pact to another was discouraged unless demographic change had made it necessary.

For example many generations of the same family might live their entire lived within PactFarm or PactFun. They never knew anything else and thanks to PactTruth and the iKid infant induction scheme they never wanted anything else.

In 2120 the achievement of a permanent global utopia was officially declared by PactPol. An entire year of celebrations was organised by PactFun with mandatory attendance enforced by PactGuide.

So why did such a comprehensive and benign system fail so suddenly and so drastically? Why did PactPol not foresee the problems? Why did PactGuide fail to keep order as cities ground to a halt and endless warfare and riots sent us back to the Dark Ages?

There have been many theories and no doubt there will be many more. My inclination is to go for the simplest. I think the fundamental problem lay in PactTruth.

Nobody actually knew what was going on.

Friday, 19 September 2014

The two black wings of self

I wished to believe myself angry, but really I was afraid; fear and anger in me are very much the same. A friend of mine, a bit of a poet, sir, once called them ‘the two black wings of self.’ And so they are, so they are...!
 John Galsworthy – A knight (1900)

Crude it may be, but to my mind the Scottish referendum is well summed up as a battle between fear and anger - the two black wings of self. The Yes camp was angry with Westminster and the No camp fearful of change. Both strove mightily to stoke their emotional engines but fear always had the edge. We live in a fearful age.

The AV vote referendum was much the same and there is no reason to suppose an EU referendum would be any different. The establishment knows how to use the endless subtle pressures of fear, knows too well how potent they are.

In any event it isn’t easy to whip up anger over abstractions such as democracy, accountability or even lying and corruption. For one think, angry criticism is being choked off by the pervasive pressures of political correctness. An intemperate outburst could have the police knocking on your door, an association of ideas which is surely deliberate. Expect more of the same.

So angry words are being squeezed from our language. Not primarily because they offend, although that is the official narrative, but because anger has far too many political hazards for a morally corrupt establishment. Anger rocks the boat - fear doesn't.

To a large degree I think we have the BBC to thank for this deplorable state of affairs. That and our collective laziness. Fear of change saturates BBC output. Not overtly, but covertly in an endless unwillingness to engage with anything genuinely radical.

Comedy and satire are fine as long as they don't quite hit the target, but any serious challenge to the status quo is always beyond the BBC pale. The abode of extremists. A fearful place where decent folk never go. Room 101.

To my mind the important message is one we knew already. It is better to vote against the big three parties than to expect Cameron to deliver a fairly contested referendum. He knows the value of fear and probably knew he was unlikely to lose Scotland. He also knows he is unlikely to lose the EU if voters are foolish enough to trust him. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The limbo of forgotten races

I tell you what it is, the place is a sink, and if God Almighty doesn’t wipe all this sort of person off the face of England, it’s because He means the poor old country to go right down into the limbo of forgotten races!

Ford Madox Ford - The Simple Life Limited (1911)

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A joke memory

Three of us, all blokes, were tootling down the M1 in heavy traffic. For some reason we began a brief conversation about jokes. Did we know any? Well we didn't because we aren't the kind of people who remember jokes so that conversation didn't last long.

I started me off on a train of thought though - how many people do remember jokes and why do some of us forget them so easily? I must have heard thousands of jokes but in the car couldn't recall a single one. None of us could.

Maybe jokes lack hooks which attach them to our longer term memories. Maybe they aren't socially useful, or at least many of us don't find them socially useful because we don't want to be labelled as a joker. Such people aren't taken seriously and most of us don't want that.

Is that anywhere near right? I don't know, but it's interesting. I'll mull it over before looking up some internet opinions.