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Alison Lurie and the way we were

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There is something peculiar and unsettling, about Alison Lurie’s novel, ‘Love and friendship’. It is peculiar because her book is set in a time in which I once lived  – and despite that time being more than half a century ago it all seems very familiar; in many ways I still live with and through the ideas of that time. It is unsettling because the realities that Alison Lurie describes show the necessities for cultural change. In ‘Love and friendship’ she evokes deep and enduring features of East Coast North American culture. I think she does this exceptionally well and profiles not only the way a certain class of white educated people spoke to each other but also she identifies the firmly established attitudes of both sexes in relation to their opposite sex. She published her novel in 1962 and it plainly reflects the beliefs, manners and even some of the cultural norms of the late 50s and early 60s: She shows us the life and outlook of both women and men; it is the women who are more or less condemned to a life of ‘support’ and ‘mothering’ and all the old cliches depicting the ‘second sex. And she also points to the fact that the men can ‘get away with it.’ For example, one central character is a philanderer, womaniser, heart-breaker and all-round self-indulgent chap – but who is accepted in the community as if it doesn’t really matter. He enjoys ‘playing’ with the fairer sex and in the culture of the times it was somehow, ‘OK’. She also makes explicit the nastiness facing gay people – people who love but ‘dare not speak its name.’ Gay liberation was still on the horizon.

Alison Lurie’s book is excellent because it really does succeed in bringing to life the conversations, private thoughts and the intellectual deliberations of her subjects. In so doing she not only lays bare the endemic sexism of the times but she also pinpoints an essential problem facing ‘the intellectual.’ She does this by reprising their long established worry – a worry made explicit in some of the following remarks – written in letters to a friend by one of the faculty members of the un-named New England university college. In those letters the author writes:

Really: Does any kind of intellectual argument or process have more than the most superficial effects? Sometimes I’m tempted to regard the whole enterprise … with immense indifference. [The local people say that] ‘They talk a lot up at the College’ – but life is going on somewhere else.’

In another letter the same author:

The College is not a microcosm of the world. The world … is a disorderly dirty scrapheap. The College, on the other hand, is a botanical or zoological garden, where each flower has its cage, each beast has its metal identification tag.

This latter observation is one that particularly troubles me. I used to work in a college and one of the charges levelled against it by perhaps a majority of the mature students was that it ‘wasn’t reality.’ It was, in fact, an unusual piece of reality – one that was set apart from the ‘dirty scrapheap’ of life. And the question that forced itself upon me was simply this: Did anything we did really make any difference? Did it (as the author of the quote above notes) have only the most ‘superficial’ effects?

For many of our students the effects were at best temporary: the real issues for them lay in the realities of the practical world.

And this leads me to a broad criticism of academic courses that think they can enhance practice: What is lacking in all those courses that are supposed to enhance practice is a good theory of practice itself. Practice takes place in the realm of felt experience – and this experience is significantly different from that generated within the academy. Practice is about dealing with power, the a-rationality of others – and always entails improvisation. Practitioners have to be strategic and sense how best to respond to dynamic situations. They cannot rely on the application of rationally derived rules. They cannot rely on the exhortations of the academic.

I have read some of the criticism (that is mainly very positive) of Alison Lurie’s book and although the critics agree that she provides a marvellous portrayal of a culture and society that has gradually given way to something apparently more equal and a trifle less sexist the critics seem to miss the point about the entirely different games that have to be played in order to succeed or be effective in the different realms of practice. The College environment is a kind of ‘botanical garden’ – a world within which complex games are played; it enjoys luxuries that do not apply in those other ‘outside’ worlds. But those other worlds are themselves laced with moves and counter-moves, feints, deceptions and endless hurdles to overcome. The world is a scrapheap and the rose garden is the exception.

Overall though, the emergence of the Me Too phenomenon underlines the fact that the sexism and exploitation which Alison Lurie highlighted in 1962 is still obviously manifest in western society. It’s plainly worse in many other cultures. And this shows just how slowly a culture actually changes. Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) theory gives an excellent account as to why this is so.

Post script: My friend, the writer and thinker Peter Villiers, also worked with me in the same College. He would argue that one of the best ways of effecting progress towards rationality and justice was through the methods that we did actually use: thus, day after day, we provided our students with the opportunity to discuss their professional problems and their varying solutions with each other. And what emerged was an appreciation of difference – and a recognition that there were always alternative ways of securing worthwhile ends. In a sense they were ‘comrades in adversity’ and, with a bit of luck, we helped them consolidate their values through the process of debate and discussion.

‘In my life’ – Judy Collins and Alison Lurie

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Each Easter I run a quiz for the family: the quiz has questions on many topics but tends to reflect European and American culture; it includes two music rounds and one picture round. The quiz can last for a good two hours and the teams compete with each other to ‘win’.

The family likes the quiz and, at its conclusion, they each get some sort of reward for their efforts. For example, for one of my daughters I have chosen three vinyl records and a bottle of Bulleit Rye; One of the records is by Memphis Minnie, one is from the celebrated Blue Note club in New York and one is by Judy Collins. The one by Judy Collins entitled ‘In my life’ was produced in 1966 and hailed as a new departure for a folk singer. (I bought the record in 1967 and was always slightly puzzled about it: I think this was the year when the counter-culture really took shape and the record was marked by an emerging originality.)

For some of us – including me – the 1960s allowed our imaginations to ‘take off’; we were freed to live and mediate experience through our imaginative powers. It was a good time and often an exhilarating time.

By chance at the same time I selected Judy Collins’ (1966) ’In my life’ as one of the vinyl records for my daughter I came across an old edition of a paperback book by Alison Lurie. The book was first published in 1962 and my copy looks terrific. Its title? ‘Love and friendship’.

The book is a fascinating read because it reveals aspects of East Coast American culture that prefigure the counter-culture of the mid and late sixties. She shows us (in 1962) the divide between men and women, girls and boys; there are marked class distinctions and there are patterns of interactions that are subtle, intricate and constrained. There are old stoves, galoshes – and people write letters; no one says ‘cool’ or ‘like’ … but the people are – well – they are primed for the ‘new’.

I think the book is tremendously interesting because it can be seen as a description and analysis of a culture that no longer exists. There are glimmers of its legacy in works such as Joan Didion’s ‘Where I was from’ and the kind of aside mentioned in ‘Billy Lynn’s long half-time walk’ when its author refers to ‘old money’ – but overall, the world that Alison Lurie describes and portrays is gone. The contrast say between ‘Love and friendship’ and any of the more contemporary work by Bret Easton Ellis underlines the striking shift in aspects of the American way.

Lurie’s book is excellent because, in addition to showing us how certain Americans lived and thought in the years immediately preceding the Hippy movement and the Woodstock phenomenon, it includes an exploration of relationships – but it also has moments of intellectual reflection – the kind that make me stop to consider what I have just read; Here are two of them:

In a letter reflecting on teaching at a college somewhere on the east coast of the USA a writer-in-residence responds to the judgement that a fellow academic’s whole career has been ‘a failure’ with the observation:

What is success, after all, but the proof that one has come to terms with society.

And:

Writing comedy is a dangerous project; One … lays oneself open to the fatal accusation of having no sense of humour, to which there is no comeback. The tragic position is much more impregnable; critics who are not moved by one’s tragic works can always be called shallow; they have, obviously, no sense of compassion.

In addition there are references to Emerson and Thoreau and Descartes and there is an insight into how the humanities could be taught imaginatively and rigorously. (There was no internet; students had a few books and actually were required to demonstrate that they could think for themselves. Alison Lurie even provides her readers with a sample assignment from an Humanities course!)

This kind of book and the type of education it profiles stands as a sociological document – as an indicator of the striking shift that has taken place in American culture (a shift paralleled in UK culture). And this takes me back to the Judy Collins LP ‘In my life’: on it she includes songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, Donovan as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In each song the lyrics have a depth of meaning. In those days we listened to the songs and tried to make sense of the words. Those words cultivated our imaginations and our sensibilities. As a result we could, if we wished, detach ourselves from the material world. We could live through ideas, hopes and dreams. I think it is far harder to live like that nowadays.

P.S. The photo is taken from International Times – when the music was changing and the walls of the city shook.

 

Tracy Chapman – at Roseland, New York … and so it goes on.

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I was in New York City at the dawn of our new millennium. One of the people staying with me on West 54th street said that Tracy Chapman would be ‘just down the road’ giving a concert in Roseland. So we went. He secured some last-minute tickets and we arrived just in time for her ‘set’ to begin. It was a great night – strangely hypnotic – and the lighting was mesmerising. Tracy Chapman performed most of the songs on her new album ‘Telling stories’.

She did not play her early song ‘Subcity’ which was not surprising but nonetheless I would have liked to hear it. I would have liked to hear it because a few blocks north of me a kind of cardboard city existed. It was just up the road from the site of the John Jay College of the City University, New York. (That’s where I was teaching.) Cardboard city was a version of Tracy Chapman’s Subcity. This was a place where people barely survived – barely existed. This was ground zero minus 1. This was the underclass.

Whilst I was in New York I thought a great deal about the various lives played out by the people of the great city. I thought about the bejewelled beauties going in and out of Trump tower and I thought of the contrasts – and of my students who were coming to the College from the distant parts of Queens and Brooklyn, the Bronx and even further – from Philadelphia and so on. Things were not easy for them. Life, as Tracy Chapman said was ‘hard’. It was hard for many of my students and some of them thought that the dream was over; in its place, there’s was to be a never-ending struggle.

I was reminded again – now almost two decades later – of Tracy and her ‘Subcity’ when I was shopping in my home town: Outside a supermarket was a man – a destitute man – arranged on cardboard – and accompanied by his dear sweet dog. He looked in a really bad way. And all round him in the car park were the most superb cars you could ever imagine. It’s strange that this is the way things are. This man is part of our own subcity; And, here in the UK, subcity morphs into, overlaps with, the shabby desolate unkempt places (‘communities’) up and down the whole of the land.

As I walked home from the supermarket I recalled my days in New York and the early songs of Tracy Chapman. And I sang a few lines from the song that, once again, played its tune to me: I sang:

Won’t you please, please give the prime minister my honest regards for disregarding me …’

Here are some verses from Tracy’s original lyrics: It’s a good song and perhaps we should give it a higher profile than we currently do.

People say it doesn’t exist
‘Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man

Here in subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief
Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards
For disregarding me

They say there’s too much crime in these city streets
My sentiments exactly
Government and big business hold the purse strings
When I worked I worked in the factories
I’m at the mercy of the world
I guess I’m lucky to be alive

Here in subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief
Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards
For disregarding me

They say we’ve fallen through the cracks
They say the system works
But we won’t let it help
I guess they never stop to think
We might just want handouts
Way to make an honest living
Living – this ain’t living …

… What did I do deserve this
Had my trust in god
Worked everyday of my life
Thought I had some guarantees
That’s what I thought
At least that’s what I thought

I’d like to please give the President my honest regards
Oh, for disregarding me

PS: The photos above and below are taken from an early open-air concert in which Tracy Chapman performed. It is not Roseland.

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Jenny Lewis and my iPhone

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This is a post about a charming singer and my iPhone:

Quite how I came to have a record by Jenny Lewis I do not know. But there it is.

Maybe I picked it up after I had heard her version of ‘Handle with care’ on the radio. Her solo album (upon which Handle with care features) is entitled ‘Rabbit Fur Coat‘. It was released in 2006; and that was the year in which I acquired the record. So, on and off, I’ve listened to it for the last 12 years. I like her version of ‘Handle with care’: it should be an anthem for anyone who feels that they have been mistreated (badly).

Anyway, I have just discovered that Jenny Lewis is a ‘barf bag poet’. I do not know what a barf bag poet is – but it doesn’t matter. Except, Jenny Lewis is also a storyteller and in consequence, words are important to her; so, for her to say that she is a ‘barf bag poet’ must have some significance.

In a recent article I was told that plainly Jenny Lewis is ‘witty and engaging and curious – about the world, about relationships and how phones affect us all.’

And this is what she went on to say about iPhones – which is where I come into the picture:

Looking at a phone is like reading someone’s mind,’ she says. ‘So their mind is just sitting out on the table when they’re not in the room … So tempting.’

But has she ever succumbed to that temptation? ‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘It’s such an invasion of privacy, but also, sometimes, a necessity.’

However, her looking at the content of another person’s phone hasn’t always ended well; she admits this in her song ‘Taffy’, a ballad from her latest album, ‘On the Line.’ With reference to secretly looking into her partner’s phone the song includes the words:

As I looked through your phone – I am such a coward – How could you send her flowers?

And so, her curiosity about her partner’s phone led her to discover his infidelity: there it was, spelled out in digital clarity. The discovery was as she says: ‘very painful,’ but she adds:

I didn’t look [at his phone] because [I thought that] there was nothing in there. I knew something was in there and I found it.’

The strange thing is that I have an iPhone upon which there is virtually nothing. I have the phone a) just in case I have a stroke or a heart attack b) for when I need travel directions (although I have yet to go anywhere) and c) kept close to me when I’m painting – and my wife is out-and-about in her car; it’s there in case she breaks down or some crisis emerges. Most of the time my phone is switched off. So if Jenny Lewis found my phone what ‘sense’ would she make of my mind? I wish I could let her have it and discover how she would use it as evidence concerning the nature of my psyche – or use it in order to begin a conversation with her. That would be terrific.

Incidentally, Jenny Lewis is very attractive. The cover of her latest album bears testament to that fact. What’s more her song ‘Red Bull and Hennessy‘ is wonderful. I’m playing it as I paint a portrait of Kurt Cobain.

What a drag it is getting old …

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Years ago one of my daughters had the dubious fortune to be spotted by a ‘talent’ scout who invited her to be included on the books of a rather well-known modelling agency. She duly went along, had photos taken and appeared on the agency’s catalogue of seemingly beautiful young things. Various calls for photo-shoots and castings followed but in no time at all my daughter reported that, ‘It’s not really something I want to be involved with – I can’t stand the scene.

So she abandoned the idea and went off to study art and aesthetics.

It was the media ‘scene’ – the world of, for want of a better word, the ‘presentation’ that reared its awful head in an eagerly anticipated BBC television programme last night. The programme was ‘This Time’ – with Alan Partridge’ and I had looked forward to seeing it – mainly because there is something weirdly attractive about a certain genre of tragicomedy: All those programmes that caricature and parody the affectations of ‘being’ and comportment in the media-world and the world of the culture industries are often quite funny and at the same time revealing. They are funny because the occupational realities which they portray are often ludicrous; and, the gap between the real and the fake (or false) is nicely revealed. We often feel sympathy for the characters because we see that they are caught in this new world of short attention spans, wall-to-wall superficiality, and contrived story-telling. They all know that the whole enterprise is really a great big sham.

The programme ‘This Time’ had a go at amusing us with its manifestation of this aspect of the media-world.

But after watching 21 minutes of the BBC’s ‘This Time’ I switched the television off. If it was funny it was only funny because the rendition of the TV presenter was, in parts, a good portrayal of all those smiling twerps that front so many modern television programmes. As I watched the programme it was as if I could hear any number of well-known TV presenters rolled into one. It was almost embarrassing to have to endure their prepared scripts and their cliched statements and their having a ‘passion’ for this, that or the other. And the programme, ‘This Time’ was good to the extent that it revealed the ego-centrism of our current crop of presenters. (What a dismal corruption of the soul must have taken place!)

But that is just about all it managed to do. It went on – and on – underlining that same egoism, self-aggrandisement and self-absorption. To that extent it become tiresome. It failed because it showed a one-dimensional character – and, after a while, one-dimensionality is predictable and boring. Coupled with this I simply did not like the central character of ‘This Time’: He was unbearable. That’s why I switched the television off.

Oddly enough, I wondered if that was the ultimate goal of the programme: I wondered if the deeper message was (is) simply that there is such an excess of television coupled with the profound distortion of reality that is effected by the media that we should stop watching TV altogether.

Footnote: The line, ‘What a drag it is getting old‘ is taken from the Rolling Stones song ‘Mother’s little helper.’

Thinking about documentaries

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Nowadays I spend quite a lot of my time painting. And I paint a certain kind of portrait; in a certain sense my paintings are similar to documentaries: I’m interested in the concrete realities of people – and particularly their moods. I’m interested in discovering how well I can create a work that points to an objective reality and yet somehow embodies experiential subjectivity.

So, it’s not surprising that I have been interested in documentary film-making too. A long time ago I helped a student prepare their thesis on ‘art and truth’ in the course of which I read about ‘new’ documentary; it was this that helped me to develop a thumb-nail sketch of a theory of documentary. (However, I won’t elaborate on that theory here.)

Perhaps because I was first schooled as a scientist, I was always rather sceptical about documentary film-making: I had the feeling that the maker of such films was inevitably thinking about the reception of their work and therefore would use tricks and techniques to shape the form and content of the films. In other words, I believed that the film-maker would design a piece of film to tell an appealing or riveting story – and, in so doing, would, at the very, least gloss over or distort reality.

But Stella Bruzzi’s (2000) book suggested a corrective to my thinking about documentaries and early theories of documentary practices. Her book is a demanding read – and often couched in the kind of language that is rather obscure and a little bit exclusionary: she tends to write for academics and for people who are used to the discourses of critical theory and cultural studies – but she clearly knows her stuff and engaging with her writing is worth the effort. She includes references to all sorts of actual documentaries and her work culminates in an analysis and discussion concerning the most recent genre known as ‘performative’ documentaries. These are types of film that explicitly reflect performances – either that of their subjects or of the film-makers or of both. In these cases some sort of performance is made for the camera or in response to the camera – but this does not invalidate the realities that are under review.

Stella Bruzzi begins by setting out the objectives and the motivation for her book: she hopes that her writing will serve to invite the reader to re-assess some of the ways in which documentary film has been theorised and she wishes to bring the theoretical discussion of documentary up to date. She thinks that not enough discussion has been devoted to the character of modern documentaries and she asserts that a primary motivation for the book is to introduce an alternative way of discussing documentaries. Bruzzi then turns to outline what she takes to be the enduring ‘shortcomings and pre-occupations’ of documentary theorising.

First, she rejects the idea proposed by Bill Nichols that there has been a kind of evolutionary process at work in the development of documentaries. She does not think that earlier types of documentary – such as the ‘expository’ or didactic – have been superseded by more modern types in a process akin to Darwinian evolution. On the contrary, documentaries remain eclectic and take as their goal the accurate portrayal of a series of facts. There is no good evidence that they have developed from simple to more complex forms.

Second, she takes issue with the assertion that documentaries are doomed to fail because they cannot truly represent reality. She thinks that documentary film-makers always knew that there was a gap between representation and reality and that it would be absurd to think that representation and reality could collapse into an identical thing.

Third, she recognises that the makers of documentary are in fact far less worried about the apparent limitations of the documentary form than academic theorists. In other words she finds that the practice of documentary film-making is aware of theoretical concerns – such as the contrast between appearance and reality – but is not impeded or thwarted by such considerations.

Fourth, (and with good evidence) she thinks that documentaries always reflect a dialectical interplay between maker, subject and audience. This is not fully grasped by earlier theorists. Indeed, just to underline this, James Pope – a modern non-fiction film-maker – remarks that a key question asked before a documentary gets made is ‘why now?’ (I.e. What is the case for making a documentary now?) And this question inevitably focuses on whether or not there is an audience for the work – along with thoughts about what sort of reception might be given to the work. Thus, he emphasises film-making strategies that consider the reality of contemporary audiences and how audience characteristics, tastes and concerns are factored into the documentary-making processes.

Fifth, Bruzzi thinks that, to a greater or lesser extent, some sort of performance is intrinsic to documentary. It may be explicit; thus documentary makers such as Dineen and Broomfield include themselves as central performers in their work; it may be more subtle: the maker may design their work so that it is something performed for an audience. (After all, a documentary is necessarily a communication – otherwise there is scarcely any point in making the thing.)

James Pope, in his reflections on modern types of documentary, has addressed the nature of the performative documentary: he notes that the ‘performative’ is really a development of the participatory mode of film-making; he thinks that the ‘participatory’ type simply reflects the fact that the film-maker is present in the film, asking questions of contributors – and that a truth arises as a result of that interaction. (Truth is therefore dynamic and emergent.) However, he is clear that in the performative documentary the experiences and background of the filmmaker are highlighted, so that the interaction produces a truth that is more evidently subjective. But the presence of subjectivity does not deny the objective. The categories subjective and objective are not mutually exclusive.

He also neatly points out that in the performative documentary the film-maker is ‘performing themselves for the camera’; this is an important observation and coincides with a broader philosophy of art. (Philosophy of art holds that you cannot ‘get’ the work unless you ‘get’ the artist.)  He continues by recognising the fact that in making themselves ‘obvious we, the audience, know that the results of the film are influenced by their own knowledge.’ In consequence, James Pope rejects Roland Barthes’s perception of the ‘death of the author.’ In modern documentary authorship is alive and well.

In conclusion, the main ingredients in a documentary are the film-maker, the subject and the audience. And, far from failing to access, cheat or distort reality, the documentary can allude to or highlight a piece of the world that is, in some sense, irreducibly ‘there.’ It is not possible for reality and representation to collapse into an identical unity. But it is possible for a plausible narrative and a series of images to combine such as to communicate, sensitively, an actual state of affairs. On a personal note, I think that the documentaries featured in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ selections are excellent examples.

Into this I was born …

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I think it best to begin with a reflection. It’s a reflection about racism in Britain: I’m wondering if we should all start with the idea that rather than deny racism we should take the view that perhaps a majority of people in the UK are racist. In the place in which I worked for many many years I was used to hearing people say: ‘But I’m not racist.’ Sometimes though I would reply: ‘I think it would be remarkable in our culture not to be racist.’ My reflection was brought about while reading a brilliant novel. What novel? Well, I’ve been reading (slowly) Andrea Levy’s book ‘Small Island.’ It is a splendid and sobering read. Quite how the author managed to find such evocative and authentic ways of using the english language I do not know. Her style is remarkable – and her riveting characters are brought to life through her literary skills.

Her book explores the experiences of four people; two are Jamaican and two are English. (In fact, lots of other characters appear but the four main characters form the central core of the book.) Their lives in the two countries before the second world war, during the war itself and then the post-war years – especially 1948 – are described. And life, more generally for those other characters in both countries is also profiled. I was fascinated by the way the environing cultures were portrayed – especially because I was born into the post-war UK world that Andrea Levy describes.

Something features in her text that has been, to a certain extent, seemingly overcome in the modern contemporary UK. The people – almost all the people that we meet in her book – suffer; and, in the main they suffer hardship. They also suffer emotional hurt and pain. The England that Queenie and Bernard grew up in – lived and endured – was not an easy place in which to be. It was often uncomfortable – and not at all glamourous. And the Jamaicans, Hortense and Gilbert escaped their small island only to find themselves on a bigger small island – that was decidedly and horribly racist.

In many ways I was lucky because, before I had any real idea of the world around me, I was taken off to Singapore and spared the murk and gloom of postwar Britain. And in large part, I escaped the racism. My father played a hugely important role in this because (somehow) he decried racism. And my mother knew how ridiculous it always was to stereotype a people. In Singapore I lived amongst Europeans – and rubbed up against the places and spaces where different ethnicities got on with their lives. They were mainly Malay and Chinese. (The Chinese sculptures were simply spectacularly weird.) And I never heard my parents find fault with any of these different peoples.

But when I returned to England in 1956 it was clear – as Andrea Levy demonstrates – that racism was pretty much normal and pretty much everywhere. In Singapore I had been spared the unremitting social ‘programme’; put differently, and following Bourdieu, I had been spared this aspect of the habitus of the British. Racism and ethnocentrism were, for me, puzzling. But I was not spared some of the imagery that helped to create and sustain racism in British culture; there was an obvious imbalance in the media portrayals of black and white. And perhaps most significantly, it was in the speech and sentiments of so many white English people that I heard derogatory or nasty comments about, as they would say, ‘our coloured brethren.’

Andrea Levy includes several references to this kind of talk in her book. A striking feature of her text is that even in the late 1970s I would still hear groups of public service workers use the same language. (Whilst at the same time denying the fact that they were ‘racist.’)

Here is an episode that I have taken straight from her ‘Small Island’ which nicely captures the post-war reality. And the key point is that this social reality endured and continued to generate racist outlooks into the 1970s – and beyond …

We are in London. It is 1948. Gilbert, a black West Indian man born and raised in Jamaica, is trying to find work. He served in the RAF during the war and was based in the UK. He begins:

‘See me now: I am dressed no longer in my RAF uniform of blue but still, from the left, from the right, this West Indian man is looking just as fine in his best civilian suit. I have a letter of introduction from the forces labour exchange concerning a job as a store man. I take it to the office of the potential employer.

I enter and am greeted by an Englishman who smiles on me and shakes my hand.

Come in. Sit down,’ he tells me. A cup of tea is brought and placed beside me. All good signs – I have the job. I comfort myself. The man takes up the letter to read the contents. Everything is in order.

So you were in the RAF?’ he ask.

Yes, sir.

I was in the RAF. Where were you stationed?’ There then followed a short conversation about those days, before the man said: ‘Myself, I was in Falmouth’. For the next hour I am having to shift delicately on my seat and pinch myself so my eyes do not close, while this man acquaint me with his time on radar. On a pause between his breaths I shrewdly remind him of the job I had come to see him about. Was it to be mine?’

No sorry,‘ he say.

His explanation was that women were working in the same factory. Not understanding his meaning I said that I did not mind. He smiled and then he told me, ‘You see, we have white women working here. Now, in the course of your duties, what if you accidentally found yourself talking to a white woman?’ For a moment the man sounded so reasonable, so measured, I thought him to be talking sense.

I would be very courteous to her,’ I assured him.

But he shook his head. He wanted no answer from me. ‘I’m afraid all hell would break loose if the men found you talking to one of their women. They simply wouldn’t stand for it. As much as I’d like to I can’t give you the job. You must see the problem that it would cause.

Once my breath had returned enabling me to speak I asked him why he could not have told me this an hour before I still had feeling in my backside. He tell me he wanted to be kind to an ex-serviceman.’

And so it went on. Gilbert reports that ‘In five, no six places, the job had gone for, it vanish – with one look upon my face.’’

Even when he gets a job as a postal worker collecting and delivering mail in the Victoria district of London he meets terrifying and intimidating racism from fellow workers – and, for fear of losing his job, he decides that the best strategy is ‘hanging his head’ and simply bowing to the abuse.

I’ve been very interested in the culture of the United Kingdom ever since it became necessary for me to have some grasp of it in order to fill my professional role. I spent a lot of time listening to people talking about their attitudes including their attitudes towards immigrants. My sense remains that a part of the deep psyche of the white English (especially those aged 50 or more) – is that it is, at best, wary of ‘foreigners,’ and at worst cruelly racist.

Andrea Levy’s book is brilliant because it reveals the limited sympathies of the people of the United Kingdom.

Post Script

The photograph at the top of this post features the great American jazz and blues artist Billie Holiday singing the song,  ‘Strange fruit‘.

Words and identities …

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Words speak us more than we speak them.’

This wonderful line was recently spoken on television by John Malkovich. He was playing the role of the famous detective Hercule Poirot. I think the line can mean two things:  First, we ‘give ourselves away’ through the words we speak; they serve as identifiers of who we are – our status, quirks, habits of thought and so on; they are, in a sense, markers (and the skilled detective can use this information to good effect). Second, the words that are ‘out there’ in the world tell us more about who, in general, we are than we can ever manage, on our own, to say.

In a different context – in this case an interview – John Malkovich was asked, among other things: ‘Which book changed your life?’ – to which he replied:

‘So many, but certainly ‘The Sound And The Fury‘ by William Faulkner. “No battle is ever won, he, William Faulkner, said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”’

(And the photograph  above? It was taken in London close to St. Pancras station)

 

Stasiland: how some stories are told

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Stasiland: I was given this book as an early Christmas present. Its author, Anna Funder, presents an account of the experiences of people who lived in what was once the German Democratic Republic – i.e. East Germany. Their lives were lived under the oppressive conditions of State Surveillance. Initially in Anna’s book we meet ‘Miriam’ who tells us about her life in East Germany. Miriam tried to escape to West Berlin when she was 16 years old. Her escape attempt was very nearly successful but, following her capture, she was subjected to terrible interrogation and subsequent imprisonment. Her life was then rendered entirely tragic when, some years later, her partner Charlie, who was also seen as a subversive, died in prison. She did not accept the authorities’ account that he had committed suicide.

As we learn more about Miriam, Anna Funder pauses to make an observation about how we tell the story of our life and of  ‘who’ we are. She makes the following observation – after first hearing Miriam’s account – and writes:

Some people are comfortable talking about their lives, as if they can make sense of the random progression of events that made them what they are. This involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life; a conviction that cause and effect are linked, and that they are themselves more than the sum of the past.’

It was this particular short piece of text that led me to put her book down and think about what I had just read. It may be that Anna Funder’s comments are immediately understood by the majority of her readers. However, I know myself – and I know that I can ‘get the wrong end of the stick’ so I need to make sure that I have properly understood what I am reading. Added to this, my initial reaction was that, although I am reasonably comfortable talking about my life, I am now in the first phase of old age and this makes a difference as to how I think about just about everything: in fact, I certainly do not experience a ‘kind of forward-looking faith in life.’ If anything, I realise that I may not live for that much longer and, therefore, it is difficult to have any sense of a ‘forward-looking faith in life.’ My horizons are limited. So, since my first reaction was not entirely to agree with her remark I wanted to try and make sense of her serious observation.

First of all, I think that it is plainly true that ‘some people are comfortable talking about their lives’ whilst others are not. In fact, I do not think that my mother was ever particularly comfortable talking about her life. Why? Well, I think this is because of the devastating traumas that she suffered – first as a refugee and second as a result of her mental illness following the birth of her third child. And my father-in-law had very little to say about his life; he plainly had a dreadfully restricted childhood and was singularly  disinclined to dwell on his early or even later life experiences.

But Anna Funder actually goes on to note that those people who are comfortable talking about their lives seem to be able to ‘make sense of the random progression of events that made them what they are.’ This, I think, is a very interesting statement. But I asked: Is that what those of us who are (or were) comfortable talking about our lives actually do? Long ago, in their investigation of a person’s personality and character, the social psychologists and anthropologists Clyde Kluckholm and Henry Murray had acknowledged the role of chance (of randomly occurring events and happenings) in the formation and unfolding of a person. It certainly seems as if we are all subject to a huge number of random events and some of these can really make an enormous difference to our lives. Yet we probably do find a way, in the stories that we tell, to create a rather non-random account of how we ‘got’ to where we are. I think that this must be because we live according to some sort of hierarchy of plans, projects and values and they serve both to motivate us and to guide us towards some sort of future situation. Is Anna Funder saying this? Is she saying that, despite the truly enormous number of random events that befall us, we are disposed to create accounts that subsume or ignore these events and tell the story of our lives as if it were proceeding according to some plan and intention(s)? I think she is: she is probably saying this because her next sentence declares that this making sense of our lives (which involves a kind of forward-looking faith in life) includes ‘a conviction that cause and effect are linked …’

On reflection, I think that this is true; we probably do, in the main, live through ‘hope’ – which must be a kind of ‘forward-looking faith in life’ – and we do, indeed, live through the belief that ‘cause and effect’ are linked. This is obvious if we imagine a young person taking the kind of steps that they hope will lead to a job or career and their version of the ‘good-life’. (Doing this will lead to that.)  Yes, cause and effect are understood to be linked. However, as I noted above, I am fairly certain that as a person ages – and begins to face the approach of their death – there must be a diminishing of any ‘forward-looking faith’ in life.

In the last part of her observation, Anna Funder writes that whilst people have the conviction that, in their lives, cause and effect are linked, they are not ‘the sum of the past.’ Again, I had to think about this: I suppose that if we were just the sum of the past, then our lives would be denied the possibility of transcending that past. However, I have some difficulties with accepting her assertion because, following Pierre Bourdieu, it does seem as if we are inextricably formed by our past and that just about everything we do reflects our past. So, if we are not the sum of the past, what exactly is Anna Funder talking about? Unfortunately she does not tell us. I think she must be referring to the immaterial aspect of ourselves – that aspect that moves across time, that looks back and which, perhaps more importantly, looks forward (in imagination) to possible states of affairs – to possible conditions and experiences that are always and necessarily more than just the sum of our past. I think she must be identifying the active ‘I’ that is at the very core of our being and which makes and sustains our sense of an integrated self.

Overall, then, Anna seems to be saying three things:

First, those of us who are comfortable talking about our lives do seem to overlay all the myriad happenings that we experience with a coherent story. Perhaps much of the oddness and maybe even some of the significant chance happenings in our lives are not included in our accounts.

Second, most people reveal that they have or had a ‘forward looking faith in life.’ They were or are hopeful – and they organise their life such that events might lead to hoped-for outcomes – that cause would precede effect. They have the idea that their life is ‘going somewhere’. (This, though may change as a person grows older.)

Third, a person is not simply ‘made’ by the past and determined by the past; they do not, in the accounts they give, construe themselves as constituted simply as the sum of their past. They have something immaterial about them that is future-oriented. And this reveals the power of the human imagination. In imagination we create possible futures.

What must have helped Anna to derive her conclusion was not only her theory of personal-story-telling but also the fact that Miriam, after the death of her partner Charlie, had led her life in a kind of ‘non-time.’ Anna writes:

For Miriam, the past stopped when Charlie died. Her memories of picnics, or cooking meals or holidays, her real life, are memories of where ‘she’ is a ‘we’ and those are the things that she and Charlie did together. It is as if the time after his death doesn’t count. It has been a non-time laying down non-history.

I am one of the lucky ones. To date I have not experienced a kind of ‘non-time’ nor a ‘non-history.’

For me, her text certainly has the power to help us consider what is entailed when we ‘tell’ the story of our lives. And more: in the New Year I will visit the Stasi Museum in Berlin and Anna Funder’s nightmarish accounts will certainly haunt me: they will, I know, be my shadowy companions.

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Paris – a book shop

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In a few hours I was to return to England. A majestic deeply orange and crimson sunset the night before had prefigured this glorious November day: the sun shone and the sky was high and white and atomic blue. And so the day began.

Years and years ago I had passed in front of the remarkable bookshop that is named ‘Shakespeare and company.’ But I had almost forgotten what it was like so I decided to spend my last hours in Paris walking down to the Seine and re-visiting that special place. I was also searching for a second-hand illustrated book that I had seen in a Paris book stall a few days earlier. I had hesitated to buy it and by the time I had resolved to do so the book had gone. Maybe ‘Shakespeare and company’ would have the book …

There is a wonderful series of monuments that I passed on that splendid day; amongst them was the Musee des Arts et Metiers (full of inventions) and the cloisters of the Lutheran church, the Église des Billettes, and the ‘Centre Beaubourg’ – with its high art and celebration of all the rejections of artistic convention and tradition. There’s the wonderful Tour St. Jacques – and then all the lovely bridges that cross the Seine and the views of Notre Dame – this time from the back.

One of the most attractive features of the Seine is that it lent itself to the eyes of the Impressionists with its huge ripples that are such a pleasure to paint – and its various shades of green or grey or sky blue. If you follow a ripple you get lost in a kind of visual impossibility: nothing stays the same. And just to help the artist, leaves, the colour of raw sienna or Vandyke brown or lemon yellow, still cling to the many trees that line the quays of the river. There was even a huge slow-moving barge that edged into view as I was crossing the bridge. I had to stop and watch its dignified progress. Maybe Marcel Proust had once seen the same barge!

Then I was over and onto the left bank: it’s a nostalgic realm, once a place of the great writers and poets and playwrights and philosophers – all those people who, not so long ago, made Paris the artistic and ‘ideas’ capital of the western world. Their ghosts and echos remain. But now it’s a space for rich Americans and rich Asians – and rich but discreet and elusive French – and droves of alert tourists looking for the paradigm photo. (Oh well.)

I’d forgotten where ‘Shakespeare and company’ actually was; ‘Further on, past a small square and turn to the left and then you’ll see it’, a woman in a bar told me. She was right.

The bookshop is a kind of ‘must see’ and ‘must visit’ if you’re in Paris and wish to enjoy the high points of printing press culture. It’s here that words matter. I loved the place. Outside there were signs telling you which department was where and there was an homage to Walt Whitman – quite high up on a wall. Outside, too, there was a small table with a chess-board top. I sat at the table and my wife took a photo of me. I was looking for a pencil at the time. Nearby there was a small stall selling second-hand books at very reduced prices. Frantz Fanon’s ‘Peau noire masques blancs’ was there. (A propos literature, his observations include the remark “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.” His more famous remarks concerning the psychological effects of colonisation are devastating.)

Inside there were sections on cinema and poetry and the classics and – well sections on everything really. And there were serious literary types and lots of young students from all over the world who were insouciantly ignoring the signs: ‘No photographs please’.

I couldn’t find the book I was searching for.

But I did find an area with a host of books concerned with the feminist struggle – and I thought that they would serve as a valuable resources to complement the International Day for ‘The Elimination of Violence against Women’ – which is taking place on 25 November. Moreover, I discovered that in various bars and restaurants all over Paris, debates and discussions have been planned to take place all through the night in an attempt to develop theory and practice in relation to the prevention of such violence against women.

It was now half past three in the afternoon. My train would be departing for London from the Gare du Nord in a few hours time. What a shame I could not find that book.

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