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Another outsider: Anita Brookner

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Anita Brookner was born in Herne Hill, south London. Her parents were Polish Jews and although she was schooled in England and subsequently enjoyed a brilliant academic and literary career she reported that she ‘never felt English’.

She said:

I’ve never felt at home here. People always say I’m so serious and depressing, but it seems the English are never serious – they are flippant, complacent, ineffable – but never serious – and this is maddening.

She has a point.

Sometimes it might be better if the English were less complacent and disseminated less an air of their own assumed ‘superiority.’

But the upside of Brookner’s observation concerns  the ability of the English to see the funny or absurd side of most things; a current of humour – and therefore of ‘perspective’ and optimism – runs through the national psyche. Overall a culture that is well-equipped to have a good laugh (about this, that, and the other) and to laugh at itself is deeply reassuring. It helps people to live a good life.

Neil Richards – moral philosopher

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Neil Richards reflects one thing that is right about the UK and one thing that is plainly wrong.

He is a philosopher. He has studied Kant and he certainly knows the famous works of John Stuart Mill; he has a tendency to insomnia and, during his sleepless nights, he used to read Wittgenstein. (He thoroughly enjoyed engaging with Wittgenstein’s striking insights.) He knows the Greeks – as well as the pre-Socratics. He has a deep knowledge of moral philosophy. He has been concerned to develop applied ethics – especially in relation to the wise use of power.

I first encountered Neil Richards in 1981 when I was working for the government. We met by a rose garden: Neil came towards me, beaming, arm-outstretched, ready to shake my hand, the hand of his colleague, for he too was working for the government. He immediately declared that he was very interested in psychology although he hated psychologists because, they, in part, had been responsible for creating exams like the 11 plus. Neil thought it wrong for the results of one exam to consigned youngsters to a kind of inferior status and existence.

Through the process of gaining an excellent first degree and then a proper full-time Master’s degree he developed and extended his very considerable intellectual powers. Neil had faced up to the problems of real scholarship: his degrees mattered. His Master’s meant that he really did know about philosophy and the philosophy of education. (This achievement illustrates the good thing about the UK: you can overcome the past. You can overturn the existence into which you, or me, or any of us, as Heidegger had said, are ‘thrown’. The bad thing about the UK is that many of us are still liable to be born into a miserable environment from which it is very difficult to escape. (But I am rather stating the obvious. Cela va sans le dire)

As Neil Richards reflected on the world about him he found dullness and stupidity and un-inspected views wherever he looked. Neil, though, was someone who really could think for himself. He realised that maybe Socrates had ‘got it wrong’: for most people it seemed that the un-inspected life was worth living. He was critical of the narrowness of British thinking – especially empiricism – and of anyone who thought that life could be reduced to sequences of reward and punishment. He wanted people ‘to look upwards’ – to look at the fabulous creations of fine architecture, to listen to the grandeur of opera, to engage with the glory of the classics. And, he wrestled with the limits of the perfectibility of man.

Neil had been born at the beginning of the 1940s. That made a difference. He was just a little too old for the sheer fun of the mid and late sixties. Life, for Neil, had always been a serious business. He saw directly into the tragedy of the human condition. And, he didn’t, for one minute, discount Nietzsche. But he insisted that Nietzsche should only be read ‘in small doses’: ‘Watch out’, he said: ‘Don’t go too far down Nietzsche’s road.’ He said this to me when we discussed Nietzsche’s brilliant demolition of the moral schemes that informed so much of our culture’s moral conduct and moral feeling.

Neil Richards had, in 1981, been given the task of establishing a framework for police professional ethics. And this had caused him to be a troubled man: ‘Am I up to the task?’ he asked himself. But, he was. In the face of comparatively little directly relevant published work, Neil, bit by bit, began to elaborate a model that eventually came to be acknowledged by the Council of Europe as underpinning the development of Europe-wide police forces. However, back home, in the UK, Neil Richards was not properly appreciated. Worse, he was sometimes seen as ‘weird’ or eccentric or even dysfunctional. Of course, he was none of these things. He was just more informed and more intelligent than the people around him. Culturally the UK had begun to turn its back on the fine arts of the mind; surface was beginning to triumph over depth, quickness over the painstaking search for the truth, image over substance, the body over the mind: The new managerialists couldn’t cope with Neil.

His original work proved to be entirely successful and helped to foreshadow a ‘quality of service’  philosophy that was launched in 1992 and was (is) supposed to provide some of the principles upon which current policing in the UK is based.

However, he knew that you can’t ‘do’ ethics quickly; you have to ask the most fundamental questions of all (the ‘big questions’ as William Ker Muir puts it) and you have to face the limitations that afflict just about every person on the planet. He determined that a major function of ethics was to curb our limitations. He rejected the idea that ethics could be reduced to matters of taste. He understood that whilst style, taste and the realm of aesthetics are hugely significant in human life – and, in many ways make life worth living – they are not to be confused with the hard questions, the concepts and discourses concerning integrity, virtue, courage, loyalty, what it is to be a morally ‘good’ person, and, what moral values lie at the heart of liberal democracy. These questions and concepts are not independent of culture – but the frameworks they provide help to sustain a way of life that is, for the moment, better than certain alternatives.

Neil should have been awarded an honour for his work and the struggle he undertook. He never was.

Footnotes:

Some of Neil Richards’ very early work was republished in 1993. See: Richards, N. (1993) ‘A plea for applied ethics’ in: Thomas R. (ed.) ‘Government ethics’, Volume 1, Cambridge, Centre for Business and Public Sector Ethics’

Some later work includes:

Richards, N. (2003) ‘Strategic depth: the core values of policing’ in: Adlam R. and Villiers, P. (eds.) (2003) ‘Police Leadership in the Twenty-First Century’, Waterside Press

Richards, N. (2010) Police Loyalty Redux, Criminal Justice Ethics, 29:3, 221-240,

The photograph shows a notice board for the philosophy faculty in a beautiful university somewhere in Europe.

And, finally, this note raises a serious question about who gets to be ‘honoured’ in the UK.

Susana Silva: by the river, under the stars

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There she was, standing, alone. Alone – with her guitar. Evening was approaching. Soon she would be under the stars. Before long she could be looking at those stars, looking into eternity. She was singing. I stopped to listen. She sang from the farthest reaches of her soul – from a space that only the poets know.

We’re by the great river Thames in London – near to the concrete beauty of the National Theatre.

Who is she?

She let us know – quietly and gently – like a zephyr’s caress, like the perfume of spring; she let us know through her singing and her presence and her place by the river.

And she let us know, most simply, through a piece of cardboard: next to her, and on the ground, lay a flake of her life: upon that rectangle of cardboard she had written her name – and she had added a little symbol of love, an outline of love.

What did that symbol of love tell me? I wondered: maybe she was born in those years that followed the Beatles and ‘All you need is love’. Maybe …

But now she is singing – so I look at her – her face, her expression and the way she plays her guitar. And I look at her guitar. It has a patina, a shine – a soft shine. It reflects the twilight …

The sun’s going down.

In the winter light, in the dimming winter light, I see the first star. Above us, a dusky blue-black; below, a silver glint on the river.

I listen to the sweet sadness of her songs – and then walk on. I remember her name, the name written on that piece of cardboard. Her name is Susana Silva.

That night I discover a little more of who she is through the blue electrons of the online-world.  Bit by bit I learn about the things that matter to her.

The night-time notes told me that Susana likes Etta James and Alanis Morrisette. Have you ever seen that time when Alanis Morrisette gave us Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean homesick blues’? She just walked out on stage – alone – with no props – and she stood there and faced her audience and she sang strait and true. Those eyes, that gaze…

I looked out of the window again. The street light flickered and then, as if a ghost had stopped a candle’s flame, it shone no more. I looked into the quiet of the night. Then, in imagination, I saw Susana singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alexandra leaving’. I heard her singing his ‘Story of Isaac’. I heard her sing the poetic bliss of those songs.

I learn, too, that Susana has been influenced by Maria Gadu – the Maria Gadu who showed us the genius of Jacques Brel’s work as she sang ‘Ne me quitte pas’ and then the heartache of love lost – in her duet with Tony Bennett as, together, they sang ‘Blue velvet’:

She wore blue velvet
Bluer than velvet was the night
Softer than satin was the light
From the stars

The night is closing in.

I read on: she tells me that she’s from Portugal.

Years ago a man from Portugal told me about the importance of the music that is special to his country; it’s called Fado. He said: ‘You can’t come to Portugal without being touched by Fado. You can’t be born in Portugal without Fado becoming a part of you.

As I looked out into the amber glow of the streetlights I thought of her singing and in it I heard a touch of Fado. Fado? It’s the ancient music of Portugal – all mournful tunes and desolate lyrics; it’s often about hardship; it’s tinged with melancholia and of hope-abandoned.

I turned away from the online world. I recalled those moments earlier in the day when I first heard Susana sing: Yes, she blends the old traditions of the wandering minstrel and of folk blues with the new post-Dylan age and makes it all her own.

When she first arrived in London, she had only herself to rely upon. Everything was down to her. She had to sleep under a bridge. It’s hard. It’s very hard when you’re out there on the streets alone. I remembered how I used to hitch-hike around Europe sometimes sleeping rough – on park benches or the beach or under bridges. And bridges, like music, are a going across …

Susana Silva wants, through her songs, to bring warmth and pleasure and joy to us – in the face of this sometimes ravaged, cruel and desolate world. She does. She expresses in her songs the deepest feelings of love and loss and hope. Like Joan of Arc we see the glory in her eye…

Footnotes:

First, the photograph shows a piano in a beautiful old room waiting for a musician to play.

Second, on 27 November 2011, Fado was inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. It is one of two Portuguese music traditions on the lists, the other being Cante Alentejano.

Third, information on Fado can be gathered from a number of sources including the cultural historian Rui Vieira Neryas as well as Andreas Dorschel’s ‘Ästhetik des Fado‘ in: Merkur 69 (2015), no. 2, pp. 79–86