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Marrakech – a study in beauty

On the edge of the medina in Marrakech there is a place …

The philosophy class takes a decision

Who learns what?

The Nubian museum in the upper Egyptian town of Aswan is beautifully conceived. It has all sorts of detail on the history of the Nubian people and their culture; its dim intimate lighting produces a semi-religious effect and leaves one feeling reverence for the works on display. In addition to a number of lovely artefacts the museum also has life-size models that simulate or momentarily capture vignettes of Nubian culture. The scene in the photograph shows one of those models. It looks as if some sort of lesson or transmission of information is taking place. But what? It rather obviously suggests a structure of power, control and authority  – although the emotional content of the scene remains elusive and undecidable. I liked looking at the scene – particularly because it emphasises the power of words and the way reality and belief are mediated through language – through the stories that are told. It reminds me that children are not really in a position to challenge the content of the culture within which they are situated.

The scene might well have a much wider cultural resonance. I have enjoyed various accounts (for example, those by Josef Skvorecky  or Herbert Kohl or Paolo Friere) that describe the way an education for the development of our sensibilities can be brought about by a single committed teacher. Skvorecky does this brilliantly in his short story Emoke – a story which contains an impassioned description of the way a lone village schoolmaster brings joy and imagination, sensitivity and enlarged thought to the children of an isolated mountain community.

Part of the goal of our philosophy class is to enlarge our thought! But, in contrast to the model in the Nubian museum, we do not have  a single guide or teacher. We have to sort it out for ourselves. In each seminar one of the participants leads a review of the text we are studying and the rest of us respond. The responsibility to lead the seminar is taken by a different person – so everyone gets a chance to lead twice a year. And today was a special day because we chose the next book that we will study for the forthcoming year. We had to make our choice from the following six titles:

The technological society by Jacques Ellul

Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick

Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis

On Science by B.K. Ridley

Moral Clarity by Susan Neiman

The essential Mary Midgley (edited by David Midgley)

Each of the six books was reviewed by one of the group – and then a reasoned account was given as to why it might be worth our while studying it. I commended On Science by B.K. Ridley – partly because I’ve neglected any study of science for years. I would like to know more about the strengths and limitations of science. I didn’t really do the book justice and I failed to convey the spread of issues which it examined. (There was a definite reason for my failure: underneath it all I had an ambivalence towards the book. I wasn’t at all sure that I really wanted to study it. But I still should have conveyed more accurately what the book was about.)  As a whole, the group was drawn either to Robert Nozick’s work ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia‘ or to selected excerpts from Mary Midgley’s published papers and books; in the end, we opted to study ‘The essential Mary Midgley‘. It looks like a very good choice.

The philosophy class – a photograph

Who speaks first?

We have spent the last year studying all the chapters in Brian Magee’s book, The Great Philosophers. Each chapter has required one month’s close study followed by a two-hour seminar. Soon, we will choose a new book. But just before we do – before we leave the study of the conversations in Magee’s book  – I have chosen a photograph (the one shown above) to suggest what it is like to get going with philosophy – especially through the mode and mood of dialogue.

The River Styx and The Rolling Stones

Homage to the Stones

The Rolling Stones are outside science because they are an unrepeatable occurrence. They belong to the sphere of natural magic. This is plain to see in the wonderful film ‘Crossfire Hurricane’. And the Stones – in their transformation from primal menace to heritage treasure – reflect something really positive about the open society of the UK – and beyond …

Post Script. I have a made a playlist of 100 great songs. Two of them are by the Stones: ‘Dead Flowers’ and ‘No Expectations’. But if I were to compile another list it would have ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Ruby Tuesday’.

Styx and Stones: themes in UK culture, now

Yes to all

Even though this is about the UK I’ll begin in New York City: on 10th Avenue near to Central Park.  I’m working with a diverse group of post-graduate students. They have cool names like Leonardo, Jean-Baptiste and Rosalita. We’re doing an exercise that I use to explore a nation’s culture. At the end of surfacing all the myths and symbols and power structures (and loads more about the nation) the students search for a summary – for what lies at the heart of US culture: What will they say?  I wait … then they say:

It’s about ‘we can do’. That’s the national culture. We can achieve anything if we put our minds to it, if we want it enough.

It was a great start: these bright, street-wise people didn’t mess around: ‘Can do’ in mind and body. And then we went on to the ‘no frontiers’ idea – which also lies at the heart of US culture … and so on. Since those explorations of US culture I’ve been wondering about the UK. What’s UK culture all about now?  Here are some trends:

There’s Exploitation: Everything is so much stock to be set upon. If ever a culture was like a mine it’s the UK. From ‘Flog it’ to the mania about ‘Houses as investments’ – it’s all about getting the most out of resources – and, all the while, en route to paradise. What paradise?  Well, a glass of wine on the patio. (And, make sure you ‘show it’.) A gravestone made of gold.

There’s Simplification: The mass media – mass culture – is terrific at this. The news is structured in terms of simple dichotomies. ‘In depth’ analysis runs to three short paragraphs or 500 words. Taking time to think or make decisions is seen as ‘dithering’. Simplification is laid bare on all the reality TV shows. Imagine this: A famous man announces: ‘I don’t want to hire someone who’s going to fail.’ Pause. And then he says: ‘I want to hire someone who’s going to succeed’. But that’s all blindingly obvious. Wisdom on tap.

There’s Excess: a surplus; millions of channels, trillions of screens, choose this or that, customise, consume or die. The man who works at the council tip told me that, everyday, he had to look away: ‘You wouldn’t believe what people throw away.’ It’s the psycho-pathology of affluence.

There’s a big cluster of things around Human Rights: Human Rights underpins ‘Diversity’ ‘Difference’ and ‘Multiculturalism’. Everyone has a ‘voice’. There’s a remarkable readiness to assert the possession of a ‘Right’ – all sorts of Rights, in fact. Rights mean you deserve ‘Respect’. Nothing has to be earned. Rights are assumed. Easy.  Sound off.

There’s a massive issue about Trust: Everything points to the wall-to-wall decline in trust. We’d like to trust and we need to trust but we can’t. Correlated with this is the attack on authority: ‘They’re all the same: out for themselves.’ The consequence? ‘Well, if I’m not out for myself, I’m a loser.’ ‘It’s dog eat dog.’

In response to all the moral relativism, there’s the trick of the ‘Narrative’: The narrator tells his or her tale, ends with a conclusion, pauses and says ‘Or maybe not’. There’s a mantra too, which goes: ‘Well, we just see things differently. It only goes to show…’ The Narrative means we don’t ever get caught. We’re evasive. We pull the rug out from under our feet before anyone else can do so. We can always say: ‘It’s only a story.’ No strings.

There is an urgent need to ‘be someone’: The best forum name ever chosen was the man who went under the nom de plume: ‘2besomeone’.

And then there’s the Humour: There’s a kind of wall-to-wall mocking; sneering even. Everything’s a bit of a laugh. Nothing must be taken too seriously. ‘I look naff, you look naff, he looks naff, we look naff, they look naff.’ And it’s all very funny-ish. The UK does humour well. What’s it all about?

All around there are little emblems of the culture: Ads; wiggly girls; the body not the mind; Catch phrases: ‘Learn your lines well’; ‘Wing it’; ‘You’re only as good as your last game’; ‘What goes around comes around’; ‘You take what you can get.’  Mass culture props up an ideology: What ideology? The autonomous person, the self, getting his or her just desserts. From a ‘You can’t’ culture to a ‘You can’ culture.

How can we pull it all together? I think it’s about identity; it’s about the ‘individual’. We’ve gone crazy about the ‘individual’: ‘Everyone has a right to the good life, to be different, to flourish and to be an exhibit – as good as anybody else.’ BUT there’s a huge problem about this: put most simply, the individual doesn’t really exist. People exist in relation. People are suffused by others near and far. The individual is nothing without society. Even the ‘individuals’ that we see are dependent on the unseen souls struggling away to keep the show on the road. Better to say that we have centres of individual consciousness but we don’t have individuals. So, in a certain sense the UK is in trouble. A basic belief at the heart of its culture is far too narrow.

There’s one countervailing trend. It’s to do with care: Not the formulaic ‘duty of care’ but the simple business of knowing that someone else is in trouble and wanting to do something about it. In fact, you see this everywhere; Charity shops and volunteers and looking-after-lost-dogs. It’s the small-scale psychic glue that holds everything together.

However, there are two very positive aspects to UK culture that make it a good place in which to be. First, each of the trends has something very beneficial to offer: It’s good, for example, to make the most of resources; it’s good to be mistrustful or sceptical so as not to get conned; it’s good to have choice. And hard won ‘rights’ protect us from malevolent authorities. Second, and most significantly, each trend is a kind of thesis – to which there is an antithesis. If people are dissatisfied with things – with what has become a norm or standard – they are relatively free to react against it. Dissatisfaction fuels both artistic and cultural development. And one of the best exemplars of this was the phenomenon of the Rolling Stones. In the ‘60s they were the antithesis – the opposition to the prevailing cultural norms of the day. They were a perfect natural magic … and they’re still going after all these years …

Brooklyn: A study in beauty

Brooklyn – in pink and green

Brooklyn is famous for 1001 things. But I’m not sure that it’s associated with studies in pink and green.
(The photograph was taken using a Canon A1 camera and Kodachrome colour film.)

The colour of the sky

In 1971 Roger McGough finished a poem with the perfect line: The sky is the colour of old saucepans.

A thousand old-saucepan skies have since come and gone.

Well, today the sky is the colour of hope abandoned. Yesterday it was the colour of black-red roses. And the day before it was the colour of the fading ribbon on a soldier’s cold and lonely medal.

A letter from Paris – and a way of thinking about art

Paris: reflections outside the Louvre

I like Paris and I like London. London often strikes me as a bit of a shambles – a place in which I feel comfortable and in which I do not have to worry too much about what I look like. Paris is different. I enjoy the style and elegance of Paris. It isn’t quite like any other capital city that I know. I was there recently and it got me thinking about the nature of art and what it is to be an artist.

Whilst I was at Art College in England I had the impression that when it came to discussing art and addressing the question, ‘What is art?’ no one ever wanted to provide a clear-cut answer: we were, it seemed, supposed to think this out for ourselves. So I tried to do this. I began by using Wittgenstein’s idea that we should look at the things we call art (and the practices of the people we call artists) and notice how each bears a family resemblance one to another. There is no ‘essence’ of art. If someone does something or produces something that more-or-less resembles ‘art’ then he or she stands on the threshold of being called an ‘artist’. This is very liberating: most people clearly do things that resemble the things that artists do. However, I also think that artists do a little bit more than just making or producing things that resemble the work of other (recognised) artists: it seems that established or emerging artists are concerned to make a creative response to the way they experience the prevailing (and/or surrounding) society and culture. They engage with reality and, through the works that they make, they ‘tell’ us something about it. They may adopt traditional or original means to achieve their ends. Their ends may be outer in focus: they may want to say something about the world ‘out there’ – they may want to illustrate its beauty or highlight its cruelty. Or, their ends may be inner in nature: they may want to disclose something more distinctly personal. But whatever it is that they are doing, the artist expresses an intellectual and emotional response to the world within which he or she is embedded.

So, what happens when I’m in the reality of Paris? What happens when I walk down the streets or look at the people? Well, it’s almost impossible to ignore the aesthetic dimensions of life. Paris continually impresses with its artistic traditions and heritage. The buildings, the museums of art, the legacy of La Belle Epoque, the fashion houses and the presentational values of its citizens all offer a permission to enjoy ‘style’. It doesn’t matter whether it is the style of elegance, refinement and high culture or something more visceral and basic – provided it has style. This makes it a good place to be an artist. In Paris, you feel the presence of aesthetic sophistication wherever you go.  And, if I am correct that the artist is someone who makes a creative response to the world that swirls about him or her, then Paris is always a catalyst for making excellent works of art.

Footnote 1: Paris manifests several discernible forms or spheres of culture – such as a shared ‘international culture’ or an everyday ‘mainstream culture’. It also has a great deal of cultural diversity. All this serves as a support for the artist; he or she can engage with any – or all – of these spheres and manifest a creative response – as ‘art’.

Footnote 2: To complete this account  it would be essential to recognise that there is a sociological dimension to art: First, an artist has to communicate – to make their work public. The work needs to be staged  in some sort of appropriate context. On this point, Matthew Collings has noted that it may well be that there are ‘artists out there’ but if we don’t see their work we cannot say anything about them  nor can we apply any criteria that define their work as ‘art’. Second, as Collings implies, there is an ‘art world’: And, the guardians of that art-world community wield enormous power because it is largely through them that someone is legitimated as an artist.

A note on the English psyche

Just before the 2012 Olympic Games were scheduled to begin in London a sensitive and quiet American – a man who worked in a travelling theatre – said that he really did not like the ‘better than everyone else’ attitude that would, sooner or later, be displayed by the English. He simply did not like the slightly mocking tone that the English adopted when they were reflecting on other cultures. He thought that the English tended to look down a rather long nose at the conduct of people in nations other than their own. He was puzzled about where this outlook came from. If he is correct, I think there is an answer and it lies in something that is pervasive but often overlooked in the culture of the English.

A post on the BBC website helped me to get clear about this: the website offered its readers the chance to send in their ideas concerning distinct features not of the English but more generally of the British. The aim of the inquiry was to ‘help’ foreign visitors identify some of the customs that made for typical Britishness. Readers were allowed 212 words in which to outline a typifying custom or habit. I thought about this and decided to write out some lines on something that struck me as significant about the English (but not necessarily the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern Irish.) I knew that the various submissions would tend to pick out things like ‘tea’, ‘queues’, ‘newspapers that are about more than just news’, ‘the weather’, ‘the NHS’ and the (relatively) ‘unarmed police’ but I thought it worth going a little deeper than that: my focus was on the English psyche.

It didn’t take me long to settle on the heading, The best in the world – under which I wrote: ‘Visitors to England should never ignore the fact that the English have an underlying sense of their own superiority. Through the medium of television, the newspaper, everyday chit-chat and story-telling, the English – largely unconsciously – are programmed to believe that they have exported civilisation and invented the really important things in life – both here and abroad; the English believe that they not only brought order and cool administration to raucous and superstitious cultures but also modelled the proper virtues – such as politeness, self-control, clear-headedness and discipline. English history is a celebration of firsts  – from electro-plating to football, from the tin can to the steam locomotive, from the world-wide web to cultural diversity: ‘After all, we did it first; we discovered it’. The English do not think that they owe much to their cultural neighbours in Europe or North America or Africa – to ideas such as ‘democracy’ or to social arrangements such as ‘organisation’. And, of course, the English trump all-comers with their supreme sense of irony and the extraordinary richness of their humour.  Of course, a foreigner must never draw attention to (or question) the inviolable principle that ‘the English are the best in the world’ – a principle which lies at the heart of the English psyche. That would be bad form.’

I know that this is not a popular thing to make explicit. But, I’ve continued to test the idea that there is something in the cultural programme that comes to structure the English psyche in this way; and, it really does seem that the English are forever being told about the terrific achievements of their countrymen and women: the inevitable inference drawn, the only possible inference, is that the English are somehow special and a bit better than all the rest.

It may be that this is all good for the confidence of the nation. It may be that this helps the country to ‘punch above its weight.’ But it is a view that is highly partial, conducive to prejudice – and often absurd.


Going to university in the 1960s was unique because the degree courses unfolded in a time just prior to the dominance and hegemony of screen culture. It was an age in which people were bearers of narratives rather than bearers of slogans. It was also a moment in history that was very sensitive to the presence of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war; back then we never quite knew if we would suddenly be destroyed – blown to smithereens. And so, because there were less distractions than now and because we wanted to escape from the insanity of mutually assured destruction (MAD) we did a lot of talking and a lot of debating. We were, I think, still living in the days of an oral culture.  In addition to talking, we read, listened to music, went to see plays and seriously considered choosing alternative life-styles – alternatives to the conventional ones that were on offer. In all of this we were helped by those texts that presented a critique of the established order: Nietzsche, Orwell, Marcuse, Fanon, Goffman, Laing and Illich were de rigeur.

As the discussions took place I realised that I was not at all well-educated. I wasn’t even that articulate. And this was brought home to me when I ended up sharing a house in the country with a number of students who were studying in the Arts faculty. They really could use English well. So, in my third year (of a four-year first degree course) I decided not to attend any lectures and I devoted myself to reading the classics of literature in an effort to make up for my relative ignorance and lack of education. Already the house in which I was living was functioning like an alternative community so it wasn’t difficult to spend the day reading and thinking – and all the while gradually losing contact with the world outside. Often I would sit by a log fire with a novel in my hand and, after a day’s reading, I would play bridge with the students who lived upstairs. Soon I began to live with little idea of date and time. I had no watch and no calendar. Sometimes I would even wake up in the morning and have no immediate idea of what season we were in.

I read the French writers, such as Sartre and Camus and De Beauvoir; I read the Russians and I loved the way the world slowed down as I read Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. I read some of the new German authors and I was astonished by Gunter Grass’ ‘The tin drum’, a book that I still love. Kafka’s ‘The trial‘ was remarkable: it left me exhausted. But I also read some British writers – such as Graham Greene and Mervyn Peake.

At the end of the year, I did, at least understand what words like ‘incipient’ or ‘inchoate’ or ‘isomorphic’ actually meant. I think that I had also begun to develop an enlarged thought and some appreciation of ‘difference’.

Peake’s Titus Groan was, for me, a masterpiece. I still think it illustrates one of the very best uses of a magically evocative English language. I’m not sure I ever recovered from the experience of entering the crumbling Gothic world of Gormenghast and I eventually came to work in a place (a government institution) that resembled Peake’s labyrinthine fantastic creation. I sometimes made this plain. And that was not such a good idea: the authorities were not pleased. But probably the most significant thing about reading Mervyn Peake was that his story-telling induced a dream-like experience  within which I could dwell and enjoy a psychological space one step removed from the world.