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Art and the Office for Global Improvement

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Our coffins are really luxury homes for the spirit. Each comes with a fully modifiable interior – and a lifetime guarantee.’

More than 70 years ago George Orwell wrote his essay ‘Politics and the English language.’ He wrote it because he had become very critical of the way English was being used – especially in relation to Politics. But his criticism was not simply confined to the use of English in political writing and speech-making. He disliked, for example, any deceptive or misleading types of communication. There’s no doubt he would have been appalled at the false claims made by advertisers and the absurd simplifications that are now part of media culture and which are even typical of the BBC’s news broadcasts. Orwell was worried that since there is a relation between language and thinking then the poor use of English would lead to poor habits of thought. He realised that all sorts of euphemisms were being used in politics to disguise awful truths. He also identified the fact that the ready availability of phrases, metaphors and expressions such as ‘in the cold light of day’, ‘when all is said and done‘ or ‘the acid test’ was beginning to supplant both careful thought and fresh, clear, truthful  communications. Orwell came to the conclusion that people were becoming almost robotic in the way they expressed themselves. [In this context, he even railed against the use of the expression ‘we stand shoulder to shoulder with you…’ yet we still hear this worn-out unimaginative phrase today.]

He proposed that we stop the decline of the English language by first thinking clearly and then deciding what we wish to say. We should avoid pretentiousness and slovenliness. We should avoid pompousness; we should try to speak and write clearly and simply – and certainly not in those terms which tend to mystify the reader or the listener.

I was reminded of Orwell’s essay (and of similar classic texts such as ‘The hidden persuaders’ by Vance Packard) when I visited the annual MA degree shows held at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. I always enjoy going to the exhibitions because the work shown is stimulating, often unexpected and distinctly contemporary. The work reflects a dominant ethos in the arts whereby the artist expresses their engagement with the world as they find it; more specifically, there is usually a very serious aspect to the work. It often deals with the hard questions to do with love, death, identity, estrangement, alienation and suffering. It also deals with the burden of culture.

My overall experience at the degree show was to enjoy a momentary transformation: I was transported from the ordinary everyday world to that of the extraordinary and novel. As usual, I admired the care, skill and artistry of the makers of glass and textiles and illustration. As usual, I was intrigued by the short films and the animations. But, partly because I produce work in the field of ‘fine art’ I always look to this group of artists for the most provocative, or surprising or bizarre works. I look to this domain of work to ‘wake me up.’ And I was not disappointed.

Six students were exhibiting in the Fine Art section of the show. Accompanying their work were texts. I read them in the free catalogue provided by the University. (Actually the texts were often rather too obscure or too convoluted or simply strained the language too far for much of it to be particularly clear! That is a shame; the art world seems overly wedded to the esoteric. In so doing it continues to practice exclusiveness.)

The ‘loudest’ work of the six was, in its way, the most straightforward. It aimed, in a post-Orwellian way, to lampoon and ridicule the vacuous slogans that we find ourselves reading in newspapers, on television screens, in emails, on advertising posters, through computer-mediated communications – in fact, everywhere we look. Hilary Champion, the artist and activist who had made the work, told us in no uncertain terms to ‘Breathe responsibly.’ (!)  She had covered a large wall with several posters each containing the slogan ‘67% of your concerns are unwarranted ‘, a slogan that, at first glance, might have seemed plausible, but was in fact, a complete invention. She wanted to confront the ‘ludicrous’ claims that various interest groups make about life, or their politics, or other people’s politics, their products, their points of view etc. etc. and to do this she had created The Office for Global Improvement. But this Office for Global Improvement is a fiction. It doesn’t exist – yet in a way it does: it’s curious – we are, in reality, immersed in the messages conjured up by the non-existent Office for Global Improvement …

We had, too, the opportunity to engage directly with her work: we were invited to contribute our own completely meaningless and fake slogans or messages as we participated in the Office for Global Improvement. She underlined the fact that we are in a ‘post-truth’ world.

I thought this was terrific. I immediately dashed off a couple of slogans but then I had to take my wife to an airport so I did not spend more than five minutes on the task. I wrote, for example, ‘Our new streamlined aerodynamic digitised thinking guarantees super-plus success.’ (Stupid nonsense.) Then, and later, I ended up laughing out loud on the way back from the airport as I dreamed up a whole range of almost-believable pieces of similar non-sense.

Here are a three:

Blue sky thinking is O.K. but when it clouds over try indigo thinking.’

Without you the biosphere would be incomplete. Stay with us and help to keep things whole.’

Each journey begins with the first step and ends on the edge of infinity. So just walk.’

I could go on and on. But I rather liked the one I created about coffins. It’s the one at the beginning of this text. (Up there.)

I loved this piece of work partly because it lies in the broad tradition of radical psychology and it resonates with some of the great critical literature such as Koestler’s ‘Darkness at noon‘ or Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’; it also emphasis the role of the artist-as-critic and therefore resists the idea that ‘anything goes.’  Hilary Champion has seen how ludicrous the corporate world and the communications that characterise our culture – from top to bottom – have become. Oh dear: There’s almost no escape … (But of course there is …)

Conclusion: Some essential reading might re-inforce the idea of the Office for Global Improvement: Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media‘ might be a good place to start.

P.S. I had the chance to have a short discussion with Ms. Champion and, although I am getting worse and worse at having a normal conversation, I enjoyed our short encounter and respected her integrity.

Footnote: The photograph shows an elusive figure on some stairs at the Office for Global Improvement.

Footnote 2. I would have liked to include a more extensive reference to Orwell’s essay. I think that his remarks on the use of ‘meaningless’ words – amongst which he included the word ‘democracy’ – are particularly relevant today. He thought that in certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning and he then also emphasised how many political words were being ‘abused’; for example:

The word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something undesirable”. The words – democracy, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice – have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country ‘democratic’ we are praising it : consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.

And they are. There’s no doubt about that.

But so are the ridiculous percentages that are attached to statements about who and what we are. These statements pass things off as objective and scientific but omit any reference as to how they were arrived at and the degree of confidence we might feel in them. (See: Hilary Champion’s ‘67% of your concerns are unwarranted.’)

I would also have liked to include some references to the appraisal of Orwell by George Bott, an appraisal that was written in 1956 and published in his introduction to a volume of Orwell’s ‘selected writings.’ Bott notes that:

Political action for Orwell had to be judged by its effect on people; he did not ask, “has production gone up?” or “have we maintained our international prestige?”; instead the old-fashioned question, “has this action made people any happier?” The morality of politics was his concern and he realised only too well how many crimes are committed in the name of political expediency.

Bott continues by saying:

Clear writing and clear thinking are impossible in a totalitarian state and Orwell constantly pleaded for people to recognize that there was a connexion, a very close connexion, between the decay of language and the stifling of freedom, that the immediate enemies of truthfulness are the Press Lords, the film magnates and the bureaucrats.

Nowadays we would have to supplement the list of  ‘the enemies of truthfulness ‘ by adding any person, corporation or institution concerned with ‘image-management’ as well as just about anyone involved in selling their goods or services. This is truly the age of seduction, truth-shaving and manipulation.

 

 

Salisbury – a very English funeral

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My aunt Pauline Catherine Adlam was born on 1st May 1927 and died on 12 July 2017. She was 90 years old. On 11 August her funeral service took place at the Chapel in Salisbury’s Crematorium.

She was my only aunt and we got on very well together. Over the course of my life I did not see her very often but, for reasons unclear, she and I always found humour in the ordinary events of life; and, although, for her, life was a serious enough business, she had a great sense of the absurd. Her daughter, my cousin Nicola, had determined the nature of her funeral service and she had invited me to say one or two words about aunt Pauline either during the service or afterwards at the post-service reception in an hotel in Salisbury. We decided that I would not speak during the service but subsequently in the hotel. (What should I say? I’ll come to that in a moment.)

Part 1.

At 1 p.m. on 11 August my wife, brother and I set off from Farnham in Surrey for the funeral In Salisbury, Wiltshire. (In fact, I had to drive like the wind because we were held up by road works and traffic jams.) But we made it to the Chapel moments after the order of service had begun. As we entered the music playing was ‘English’ – it was Elgar’s Nimrod from Enigma Variations.

Then the service unfolded. As it did it underlined the defined Englishness of both my aunt and the city of Salisbury:

The first hymn was the 1906 English Hymnal Version of John Bunyan’s ‘To be a pilgrim‘ – then a reading of Wendy Bradley’s poem ‘God looked around his garden.’ My aunt’s character and values were then profiled by her cousin Clive Adlam and her daughter Nicola. Clive – who is now well over 90 years of age – told us of her very early years in Salisbury and how she was, in a sense, wedded to the city and its proud heritage. He spoke using a style of story-telling that is plain, simple, personal, anecdotal and without affectation. It’s not a style of speaking that, nowadays, we hear very often. (We learned for example, that Pauline taught herself to tap dance and then put on a show for her friends and relations using a makeshift stage. The audience was charged a penny or so for this long-ago show.)

Her daughter Nicola spoke of her mother’s love of fashion and good clothes and how she was well-known in the department stores and other good-quality retailers in Salisbury. She told us about her mother’s love, too, of animals – especially stray dogs and cats – and how she had taken a baby hedgehog to the protection of a vet so that it might survive the oncoming winter. She spoke of her mother’s amazing breadth of general knowledge as well as her more radical political views.

Both Clive and Nicola introduced lots of charm and humour, irony and wit into their ‘memories of Pauline’. I think that’s very English.

We were reminded too, during the service, of our Uncle Tom Adlam who had won the Victoria Cross for extreme bravery during the war and how he continues to be honoured in the cathedral city of Salisbury.

We then heard two more poems, one by Mary Lee Hall, opening with ‘If I should die and leave you here awhile be not like others sore undone who keep long vigil …’, and then Mary Elizabeth Frye’s ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’. We were, in effect, enjoined not to feel sorrow but to appreciate a life that, despite hardships and disappointments, was a life well-lived. I think that’s very English too.

And then perhaps the most English of all Englishness came at the culmination of the service with the hymn ‘Jerusalem‘ followed by the almost crystalline spiritual beauty of Vaughan William’s composition, the ‘Lark ascending.

Of course there were a few tears during the service – but not many.

Part 2.

Afterwards, in the reassuring surroundings of an hotel in Salisbury, the traditions of the English continued: We even had tea with scones. The mood was one of happy reflective sobriety. Cousin Nicola then invited me to speak. I had prepared an intermittently rhyming poem that took as its inspiration the wonderful and famous work by Jenny Joseph entitled: ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.’ I imagined some of the things my aunt would wish to do both in this world and the next. It’s not easy reading one’s own poem (and hoping not to stumble over the words …) – but this is what I said:

When I pass over to the other side – I’ll shake things up – well, just a bit. (Or more)

I’ll spend my pension on Courvoisier and truffles – and splendid Tutti Frutti gelatos.
I’ll style myself – like Audrey Hepburn – and drive an orange Maserati –
And get a dragon tattoo …

And have a ‘tea and toast’ stall at Glasto – and sing with Chic – ‘C’est chic’ – and duet with Jonny Depp.

I’ll have a band – with a drummer named Hercule Poirot.

I’ll do the Generation game with my nephew Christopher
And banter – back and forth with Brucie.
I’ll even do a twirl or two.

They’ll be free parking in Salisbury.
And we’d light up the cathedral spire – and broadcast slogans –
like ‘America first, Salisbury second’, or ‘Trump and May – just go away‘ (or worse).

I’d make an app to teach cats how to Miaow in Harmony,
I’d restore that nice policeman to his beat
And give knighthoods to firemen and women – and nurses and paramedics
And make a potion just to spread celebrity amnesia.

(Actually, people would remember their manners !)

I’ll have a blog – ‘Pauline’s Planet’ – and learn to hack –
– And then send rockets haywire and turn the traffic lights purple – on Fridays.

And then ….
I’d go on heaven’s ‘Love island’ and meet a man called Arthur Frost.
We’d win of course.
And live my life with him again – and always, too, with good old Nick.

Yes, when I pass over to the other side – I’ll will to make things better.

And even if this old world has gone to hell in a hand basket –
We’d all laugh – and always more than thirteen times a day.

Yes, when I pass over to the other side – I’m not so far away.
Remember me and beam and smile – if only for a while.’

Thankfully it was well received. (And my cousin Nicola wanted to have a copy.)

 

Footnote: My aunt was married to  Arthur Frost. It was a very successful marriage. And sometimes she referred to her daughter as ‘good old Nick.’

 

Quiberon – a place by the sea

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He was asked, ‘Which do you prefer, the Ile de Re or Quiberon?‘ Unhesitatingly he replied: ‘Quiberon.’ In many ways I was not surprised. Whilst the Ile de Re has become one of France’s tourist-laden ‘hot spots’, Quiberon is less trendy, more reserved – and has successfully preserved a kind of environmental integrity.

Quiberon is a slightly unusual place because of its geography. It lies on a small peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic ocean, that part of the ocean which runs up against the southern coasts of Brittany in France. It has an interesting history (it even once played host to a battle between the English and the French) but now finds itself a place designed primarily for tourism. A majority of those tourists are french.

In certain respects Quiberon, in late spring and summer is idyllic. Unusually, nowadays, a majority of the houses that stretch out from the main town itself are charming, individual and really attractive. The commune has resisted the dreadful ordinariness of the modern ‘lotissement’ (the housing estate) that confers such a deadening banality on so many developments in France (and England). The houses in Quiberon have dark blue shutters and lots of exposed granite walls – along with roof tiles that are solid and reassuringly natural. The gardens enjoy roses and hollyhocks, the impressive agapanthus, hydrangeas and all sorts of kitchen-bound aromatic herbs.

The peninsula of Quiberon has two sides: a protected eastern side where all manner of water sports and marine activities are practised and a ‘cote sauvage’ – a wilder rocky coastline – where the Atlantic rollers break, people (understandably) are advised not to swim – some do – some, sadly, drown – and surfers perfect their elegant skills. Painters of seascapes find all they will ever need to portray as they look out from the shores or cliffs of Quiberon. It’s a healthy part of the world: You walk, you swim, you sail or canoe, you ride bicycles – and you get a sense of perspective…

It’s the kind of place where, on a moonlit night under the bright stars or through the coming to an awareness of the lovely stones bathed in a crystal-clear water, you think that Kant was right to claim that the beauty of nature is unsurpassed.

But one thing struck me about Quiberon that raises worrying questions about the presenting nature of French (and English) society. It is this: In the months of June and July – a time of year when Quiberon is singularly beautiful (the flowers are blooming, the days are long, the skies are gorgeous) – a huge majority of the visitors are retired people. They amble around and sometimes it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that they really do not have enough to do. It’s as if they are treading water – waiting for something to happen, looking – and vaguely hoping – but hoping for what?

I think it strange that, in our forms of society, we’ve succeeded, in producing a kind of economically inactive wodge of so many retired people – whom social theorists like Slavoj Zizek might even deem ‘useless’. They are not necessarily useless; they may, back home, help with charity work or with looking after their grandchildren or supporting the arts – and they may help our societies by communicating worthwhile norms of conduct. But for me, there seems an enduring unfairness to the whole thing. I can’t help feeling that there is a sort of exploitation going on – that the retired ‘haves’ are living off the backs of countless ‘have-nots’. And I imagine that lots of these older retired people would have the skills and experience that could be put to far better effect than merely strolling around, distracting themselves, waiting for the next meal or next weather forecast.

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A short note on our shared humanity

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One of the most interesting features of certain writings in philosophy is the inclusion, by their authors, of specific characterisations of humanity. Although this is not their main goal philosophers (perhaps with the help of the research findings from psychology) advance propositions that tell us what people – what we humans – are really like. Geoffrey Warnock, for example, asserts that humans are subject to various limitations – such as limited rationality, limited co-operation and limited sympathy and that the function of ethics is to combat these limitations.

A more general characterisation of humanity is found in Richard Taylor’s wonderful text on ‘Metaphysics.’ I have spent many hours thinking about some of Taylor’s observations and, after referencing some of them, I shall draw a conclusion about something that worries me.

First, Taylor introduces his readers to the branch of philosophy called ‘metaphysics’ by rejecting, point blank, the idea that people in general have any genuine grasp of philosophy or philosophical thinking. He thinks that whilst ‘it is true that all people have opinions, and that some of these – such as views on religion, morals, and the meaning of life – border on philosophy and metaphysics few people have any conception of philosophy, and fewer still have any notion of metaphysics.

Second, through his way of clarifying the nature of metaphysics Taylor leads us to an observation about humanity: he turns to William James who defined metaphysics as ‘nothing but an unusually obstinate effort to think clearly’ and he asserts that not many people think like this, and do so only where ‘their practical interests are involved’; he then moves on to propose a general characterisation of ‘humanity’ by recognising that ‘what first claims the attention of all creatures is the need to survive and, this being reasonably assured, the need to exist as securely as possible. All thought begins there and most of it ends there.

If there is such a thing as a pure ‘anthropology of the psyche’ I imagine that this would be one of its central findings: we worry about a) survival and b) security; and if the idea of security is expanded to include securing our wealth, status, position and power – then it seems plain that these concerns occupy much of our thinking. Taylor goes on to say that ‘we are most at home when thinking of HOW to do this or that.’ I think he is correct. My sense is that, in general, people are most concerned with the practical problems of living – and continually ask questions about how to solve their problems of living. This includes dealing with all the people that they encounter. (And this may be very troublesome!)

In contrast to this most general and characteristic way of thinking, metaphysical thinking is reserved for those relatively ‘rare’ reflective creatures who concern themselves with the ‘whys’ – ‘with questions that it is perfectly easy never to ask in ones whole lifetime.’ These questions consider the most basic problems of existence – such as ‘identity’, the apparent distinction between body and mind, – and  death, with language and thinking, with the possibility of God, with fatalism, with freedom and determinism, time, causality and so on. But by implication, and following William James, Taylor is really saying that metaphysical thinking is not whimsical; like good art, it is sustained hard work.

Third, Taylor asserts that although we are potentially creatures of reason – and that we are distinguished from most other animals through our rational powers we, in the main, do not deploy these powers to anything like their full extent. After noting that metaphysical thinking begins not with things that are proved but with things that are believed he provides a paragraph containing a rather devastating remark in which he reveals a particular and enduring feature of humanity:

He writes;

Now the intellects of people are not as strong a their wills (their wants), and they generally believe whatever they want to believe, particularly when those beliefs reflect upon their own worth among others and the value of their endeavours. Wisdom is thus not what they first seek. they seek instead, justification for what they happen to cherish…

Sadly, I think Taylor is correct. People, as he asserts, ‘generally believe what they want to believe’ – even in the face of facts that might, in principle, contradict or negate their beliefs. And if those beliefs are particularly cherished then the resistance to alternative points of view or to contradictions is even stronger.

This makes for a sobering reflection: as the students of human behaviour, such as Leon Festinger and Gerard Egan, have pointed out, humanity is proportionately more arational than rational.

In the end what worries me is not only my own inclination to ‘hold on’ to certain beliefs that remain un-inspected (or are based on a very inadequate mix of fact and information) but also that most of our information sources are partial and much of what we absorb is biased. Our psychology does not, in the main, equip us for understanding. It helps us solve the practical problems of living but what we believe is not necessarily founded on fact or arrived at through reason.

And if, super-added to this, is the tendency of people in general ‘to believe what they wish to believe’ then it may be very unwise to ask a nation’s citizens to make hugely important decisions – especially decisions involving the future of that nation. After reading about the reasons people gave for voting in the 2016 referendum held in the UK (about whether or not to remain in the European Community) it is plain that what counted were their pre-existing beliefs. Yet it is clear that many of these beliefs, many of which were ‘cherished’, reflected limited knowledge of the ‘facts’ as well as the international arrangements constituting the European Community. Worse, most had no idea about the conditions which gave birth to the very idea of a united Europe …

If people are inclined to believe what they want to believe – and if those beliefs incline them to remain blind to the facts – then it is impossible for me to conclude other than that it was a very bad idea to hold such a referendum.

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England – A metaphor

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The English artist had painted a picture: a haunting powerful image – brilliant, disturbing and charged with emotion.  It was hanging in Bologna’s ‘The Artist’s Space.’ It struck me as a telling metaphor for England; that is, England now: an England pushed to the margins; under pressure; suffering … almost as if subject to abuse.

Divided and adrift. And it’s the deep divisions that continue to matter. Resentment, fractured … something is lost …

Pushing itself to the margins …

And the painting seems to ask: Can’t we do better than this? Can’t we?

[The artist who painted this untitled work is the sometimes enigmatic and always supremely gifted Ian Woodard. At least for the moment, he has abandoned England – for the delights of the Italian city and more, including Sicily. Perhaps Tuscany, too … ]

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The photograph above shows a beautiful space in the Municipal Art Collection, located in the Palazzo Comunale, Bologna, Italy – along with two paintings ‘in the English style.’

Learning from the practice of psycho-therapy

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Shortly after her last therapy session with Dr. Irwin Yallom, his patient, a 45 year-old woman (called M.), wrote and posted a ‘sad’ letter to him. The letter included the lines:

I always imagined that you might write something about me. I wanted to leave an imprint on your life. I don’t want to be “just another patient.” I wanted to be “special.” I want to be something, anything. I feel like nothing, no one. If I left an imprint on your life, maybe I would be someone, someone you wouldn’t forget. I’d exist then.”

M. had presented Dr. Yallom with a seemingly insurmountable challenge: her life had been a ruin and, in all honesty, it stood every chance of remaining a ruin. As her letter showed, she was still, despite some progress in therapy, on a knife-edge: she remained liable to deep (and suicidal) depression; she might even be moved to end it all…

However, Dr. Yallom did write about her. Her existence did matter to him (and would still matter even if he wasn’t around).

In so doing, he provides us with a vivid and riveting account of what it is like to try and establish an effective therapeutic relationship with a person in such deep distress. His task was enormously difficult because M. was locked within the wreckage of her life; rarely had Dr. Yallom met anyone with so much self-hatred. Things really did look hopeless. She was a ‘misfit’. But this was really ‘her depression talking’. In fact, M. was not only an exceptionally intelligent person but also a creative and highly attractive woman.

In addition to charting the course of his work with M. and describing his testing experiences with her – including a powerful self-induced hypnosis in which M. revealed another powerful yet devastating ‘personality’ – Dr. Yallom also reached certain conclusions about what really matters in psychotherapy. Amongst these conclusions is a very profound learning concerning something at the very heart of the therapist/patient encounter.

He leads us to this major conclusion in the following way:

When I first began as a therapist, I naively believed that the past was fixed and knowable, that if I were perspicacious enough, I could discover the first false turn, that fateful trail that has led to a life gone wrong; and that I could act on this discovery to set things right again. In those days I would have deepened M’s hypnotic state, regressed her in age, asked her to explore early traumas – for example – her father’s sexual abuse [of her]- and urged her to experience and discharge all the attendant feelings, the fear, the arousal, the rage, the betrayal.

But over the years I’ve learned that the therapist’s venture is not to engage the patient in a joint archeological dig. If any patients have ever been helped in that fashion, it wasn’t because of the search and the finding of a false trail … No, a therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested: and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing. The drama of age regression and incest recapitulation (or for that matter any therapeutic cathartic or intellectual project) is healing only because it provides therapist and patient with some interesting shared activity while the real therapeutic force – the relationship – is ripening on the tree.”

And so Dr. Yallom devoted himself to being ‘present’ and faithful to M. In other words, he  rejected the ‘false’ personalties of M. – even though they could be beguiling – and he did his best to help M. do some sort of justice to the deep and enduring aspects of herself.

Irwin Yallom’s discussion of M., the individual therapeutic process and the therapeutic relationship is presented in a chapter entitled ‘Therapeutic monogamy’ in his book ‘Love’s executioner.’ I was given the chapter to read by a student in London who is currently exploring integrative and psychodynamic approaches to counselling and psychotherapy. I think it a frank, sometimes tragic, always sobering and very perceptive account.

Just a few people to love

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The narrator, who has two daughters, tells it like this:

There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love, it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.

I think the author of this text, Anne Enright, is right. Quite seriously, circumstances are presented to us in such a way that, really, there are not that many people ‘to love.’

And now, for some reason, I can hear the wonderful Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane singing ‘Somebody to love’ …

Footnote: The photograph of the lone tree was taken on the west coast of France near to La Rochelle, May 2017.

The quote is from Anne Enright’s brilliant work: ‘The Gathering‘.

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Time – and the Classics – and Juliet

 

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Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary – and so, in a way, she was. But she had also had the experience, for much of her life, of feeling surrounded by people who wanted to drain away her attention and her time and her soul. And she usually let them.

Be available, be friendly (especially if you are not popular) – that is what you learned in a small town …

Perhaps, too, in the big towns; perhaps in the cities, perhaps, even in the deserts …

Who is Juliet?

Well, Juliet first appears in Alice Munro’s powerful short story entitled ‘Chance’. It’s the kind of teaching story that would work in schools at least as well as a three-minute record – a record like ‘Don’t think twice, it’s alright’ or ‘San Diego serenade’ or ‘Comfortably numb’.

Alice Munro introduces her as follows:

Juliet was twenty one years old and already the possessor of a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She was working on her Ph.D thesis but had taken time out to teach Latin at a girls’ private school in Vancouver. She had no training as a teacher, but an unexpected vacancy at half-term had made the school willing to hire her. Probably no one else had answered the ad. …

She was a tall girl, fair-skinned and fine-boned, with light brown hair that even when sprayed did not retain a bouffant style. She had the look of an alert schoolgirl. Head held high, a neat rounded chin, wide thin-lipped mouth, snub nose, bright eyes, and a forehead that was often flushed with effort or appreciation.

And now Alice Munro gets a little bit more serious, a little closer to the grain:

Her professors were delighted with her – they were grateful these days for anybody who took up ancient languages, and particularly for someone so gifted – but they were worried as well. The problem was that she was a girl. If she got married – which might happen, as she was not bad-looking for a scholarship girl, she was not bad looking at all – she would waste all her hard work and theirs, and if she did not get married she would probably become bleak and isolated, losing out on promotions to men (who needed them more, as they had to support families).

Then she turns the existential knife even further:

And she would not be able to defend the oddity of her choice of Classics, to accept what people would see as its irrelevance, or dreariness, to slough that off the way a man could. Odd choices were simply easier for men, most of whom would find women glad to marry them, Not so the other way round.

I imagine that she is correct: ‘Odd choices’ are probably easier for men. But, odd as it may seem, I think it’s still a good idea to read at least some of the classics …

Footnotes:

My reference to the idea of learning from a ‘three-minute record’ is a direct quote from Bruce Springsteen’s song, ‘Bobby Jean’.

Alice Munro published her collection of short stories ‘Runaway‘ in 2004

It’s life and life only: Anne Enright and ‘The Green Road’

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It was the darkness of sleep just before the dream.

What makes Anne Enright’s novel ‘The Green Road’ so good? I think it’s to do with the strange and very personal form of companionship that it provides: by getting inside her characters’ minds she touches the ebb and flow of her reader’s mind. (Or at least, my mind.) But it’s also to do with the fact that her brilliant perception exceeds whatever a social scientist might achieve. She brings to life the intimate worlds of people located in space, time and culture. Always strikingly clever, she is often very very funny; she’s a devastating realist. So, for these qualities alone her work is remarkable.

The Green Road’ tells us about five characters (along with a number of others) who emerge from a family home on the west and Atlantic coast of Ireland – and who find themselves grappling with the extraordinary transitions of late twentieth-century Irish society. We begin by learning about Hanna, a young girl living in the family home in County Clare (1980), then her brother, the beautiful Dan – who ends up surprising and surpassing himself in the Gay culture of New York City (1991), next, his sister Constance – now a working mother – in Limerick (1997) and, finally, the fourth of the siblings, Emmet, who is working as an aid worker in Mali (2002). And then we dwell in the company of their semi-impossible mother, the cultured Rosaleen, who continues to wreak psychological havoc – especially upon her daughters. Rosaleen, a widow, continues to live in the memory-laden southern Irish family home.

In its way, ‘The Green Road’ might be read as a distinctly feminist text: the women continue to be bogged down by their responsibilities and the wretched fall-out from the prevailing social norms. Constance, for example, is left not only to cope with the traumas of breast-cancer screening – which her husband blithely ignores – but also with the ghastly task of doing a huge Christmas shopping for a last family re-union. She spends a fortune and yet still forgets the Brussels sprouts; she then realises she’s forgotten a number of other de rigeur yet stupid excesses of the late-modern western Christmas. It’s laced with bitter-sweet humour; it’s all very tragic and desperately typical. (And, of course, the Brussels sprouts get burned, charred, carbonised.)

More generally, modern life, as Anne Enright, shows, has gone slightly round the bend…

One of the reasons this is such a terrific book is that its author successfully identifies the fact that only certain words get said, and that contemporary characters are drenched in contradictions. Their private thoughts, their private truths, are often hidden – and at the same time, these private thoughts turn out to be temporary positions only to be unseated by counter positions. In fact, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her expressive portrayal of character: nothing is overly resolved. She also provides great insights into love and whether or not some people can ever achieve ‘love’. There’s a sustained and frank depiction of sexual activity – which lies, mysteriously, somewhere between the loins and the mind. (Or one and then the other.) The descriptions are vividly secretional and always tinged with failure, the failure to find the ideal or to find perfection.

When the family members finally re-convene for a last Christmas in the original family home – the encounters are scarcely bearable as each one of them tries to cope with deep psychogical distresses and the torments of values and beliefs in conflict. Rosaleen, the mother, for example, bates Hanna (who is now an aspiring actress but who has hardly ever been able to get any work) with the insouciant yet needling remark:

You have a heart-shaped face, I always thought. An old-fashioned face. You were born to play Viola.

Yeah, Well.’ said Hanna.

No?’

Sure,’ said Hanna.

Well you are an actress,’ Constance said, trying to keep the inverted commas out of her voice.‘

Yes I am an actress,’ said Hanna. ‘Yes, that is what I am.’

Well then,’ said Rosaleen, in a soothing tone.

I just don’t,’ said Hanna, ‘I don’t.

Work?’ said Emmet …

Jesus Christ,’ said Hanna losing it. ‘I Just Don’t Want To Play Viola.’

I don’t know how you can say that,’ said her mother, Rosaleen, sadly.

And so on – and so on – as the family drives itself nuts.

Later Anne Enright tells us that:

Rosaleen was impossible to please: The world was queuing up to satisfy her, and the world always failed.

The extraordinary anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing once published a marvellous book entitled ‘Knots’ which was all about the way most of us, particularly in families, get caught up in webs of psychological tension and which cause us terrible pain. And this almost perfect novel provides a beguiling and affectionate example of these awful and excruciating familial ‘knots.’

Farnham, Surrey – with love from Woodstock, Alabama

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Well, I’ve finished listening to the absorbing and egregiously brilliant podcast ‘Shit Town’. I’m told that it’s been an enormous success in the USA; it’s received very good reviews in the UK too. I’m not surprised. It’s one of the most intelligent forms of social-psychological inquiry I’ve heard.

The podcast tells an extended story about people and personality in the small town of Woodstock (i.e. Shit Town), Alabama. Except it does much more than that: it presents a meditation on time, meaning, sexuality and values. We learn something about the power of a particular social milieu. We hear the deeply personal stories that people come to disclose – if ever they have the chance so to do. (Most of us don’t get that chance.) The characters are fascinating – and they have wonderful names – like Boozer and Shyler and Olin. It’s also an insight into local Alabamian culture as well as suggesting major themes in the national culture of the USA. Central to Shit Town is the art of horology – and the account makes use of the horologist’s understanding and craft in two ways: first, just as a clock can be marked, over time, for good or ill, so might a person be left scarred or might flourish over the course of their lives; one moral of the story is simply to highlight the damage that we can do to people through carelessness or downright abuse. A second reading takes the broken clock as a symbol of America. The once great achievement of the USA is now, in a sense, broken. And the question is how to fix it rather than ruin it completely.

Shit Town is a delight to hear: often the dialogues are just plain hilarious. Sometimes the accounts are poignant or tragic or heart-rending. Many of the people who are interviewed in the podcast speak eloquently and with charming clarity. I have the feeling that American english is beginning to outstrip all other forms of english …

However, It got me thinking about the town in which I live. That town is Farnham in Surrey, England. It’s supposed to be one of the better towns in the south of England.

BUT I came to the conclusion that Farnham is a ‘Semi-shit town’.

Why is that? Well, it’s something to do with the old hop fields at the back of where I live. They’re adjacent to me – and run up against my garden. (The original hops still grow on the margins and even creep into and over my hedge. I like to collect the ripening hops at the end of the summer. The hops want to keep on growing. They are important moments of history.) The town could have decided to do something worthwhile with these ancient fields. But no. The fields are going to be built on; there will be a high-density housing development. On paper it all looks very nice. BUT they certainly do not need to stuff more houses into a town that is already well on the way to becoming a well-heeled version of Shit Town, Alabama. The demise of the hop fields is perfectly emblematic of everything that is going wrong with Farnham, Surrey.

This is just one example. There are many many more. But one will do.

Farnham is becoming visibly degraded despite it’s image of being a ‘craft town’ or an ‘historic market town.’ It’s becoming over-developed, clogged with traffic, polluted and crude. It’s shabby and incoherent. What a pitiful piece of town management it represents. What a complete lack of imagination …

Farnham, Surrey nicely sums up the prevailing south-of-England culture: It’s a culture dominated by ROI – by return on investment – of setting upon things as if they were mines or resources ready to yield something – anything – that is profitable. (Just as Heidegger foresaw.) It’s a culture dominated by the pleasure principle. Consume or die.

There are practical models of sustainable development – but it’s hard to see any evidence of their realisation in Farnham, Surrey. There must be ways of developing towns that are fit to house the human spirit; I wish Farnham could be one of them.

P.S. John B. McLemore, the central figure in Shit Town Alabama, around which the whole series constellated, was despairing because he saw that the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and that very few people were ready to do anything about it. Impossible as he may have been, he remains an inspirational figure.

At the conclusion of Shit Town its producers publish some of the details contained in a final text left by John B. McLemore. He writes:

I’ve spent time in idle palaver, with violets, lyer leaf sage, heliopsis, and monkshood, and marveled at the mystery of monotropa uniflora. I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks, and pines, even when no wind was present. I have peregrinated the woods in winter under the watchful guard of vigilant dogs, and spent hours entranced by the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds, entire forests, within a few square inches. I have also run thrashing and flailing from yellow jackets.

Before I could commence this discourse [i.e. the final note], I spent a few hours out under the night sky, re-acquainting myself with the constellations like old friends. Sometimes I just spent hours playing my records. Sometimes I took my record players and CD players apart just to peek inside and admire the engineering of their incongruous entrails. Sometimes I watched Laverne & Shirley or old movies or Star Trek. Sometimes I sat in the dark and listened to the creaking of the old house.

I have lived on this blue orb now for about 17,600 days, and when I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelops so many persons, both young and old, I know that if I die tonight, my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots. Additionally, my absence makes room and leaves some resources for others who deserve no less than I have enjoyed.

Footnote: The reason that I think American english is beginning to outstrip the forms of english spoken in the UK is because of the richness of its new metaphors and similes – as well as its sheer inventiveness and evocative power.