Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why UKIP should shut up

Here’s why UKIP and others should shut up. This is not a sudden realisation – dear God, I’ve thought and felt this for a long time. Rather, I would like to think this is something akin to what far greater people than I would have described some 250 years ago as a self-evident truth.

As I write, it is Christmas afternoon. I am on the island of Tenerife of the Canaries, and it is 26 degrees Celsius and sunny. All is well.

Apart from one thing. One of my family was admitted to hospital earlier today with pneumonia. The immediate prognosis seems good and they should be fine, but this is nevertheless a grim and undesirable state of affairs.

At present, they are in hospital, being tested, observed and cared for. As far as I know, no questions were asked about their eligibility to receive this care, and they were submitted to analysis as quickly as possible.

What an utterly humane and proper way of doing things. Is that not the same thing you would do if a stranger arrived at your door with a serious injury? Treat first. Ask questions later. At any rate, it strikes me that asking any questions right now would be most inhumane. If they turned up with a claim for long-term care, having traveled solely for that purpose, then maybe (and I stress the word "maybe"), but, as it is, having suffered a severe but immediately short-term illness, care is necessary.

By now, you will have seen the analogy which I am drawing and abducted from that the argument I wish to make. Being benevolent to strangers is exactly what a modern country should aspire to do.

I know that things are more complex than that. I know that one has to consider national income, national expenditure, the global economy, population growth, and so on and so on, but UKIP (and indeed many others) and not asking questions about those things, though they are willing to deputise them into their arguments. They are asking questions about what sort of country we should be with relation to outsiders. What should we aim to be?

Well, my response to that question is that we should aim to be an inclusive country, a generous country. We should be a country that, as far as we can, aims to be charitable. We should take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses as much as we can, and not treat them with suspicion, disdain or even hatred but with the simple capacity for human generosity and compassion.

My stating of this, at this particular moment, stems from the most selfish premise: you too could be in need. But how much better would it be for a nation to be generous simply for the sake of it. This is one of the major questions facing the UK as we head into 2015. Let us hope that we can answer it selflessly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Defence of Active Abstention

Voting for the sake of it is not enough. If change is going to come, we must be the source of it.

A few years back, during one of the omnishambles that have festooned this Parliament like writing upon biblical walls, I declared that were there an election the next day I would abstain. I was met with howls of reproach: “However you vote, you must vote.”

The last is a sentiment I too have frequently expressed down the years. It is notable, looking back on this year’s European elections, that my exhortation was down to stopping UKIP rather than a romantic appeal to the joy of the democratic process. That more prosaic tone does indeed reflect my increased feeling of disillusion, and as the General Election of next year draws ever closer, I find myself less and less able to back any party.

Nevertheless, the expectation is that I must vote. To not do so is a dereliction of my democratic duty. After much consideration, I must disagree and speak out in defence of active abstention.

The vote is one part of our democracy. It is certainly the most thrilling, and in many ways the most important, but it is just one part of it. I enjoy voting. I take pride in it. I value my vote and would not carelessly refuse to use it. I have turned out in every election I have been eligible to vote in, and I can only think of three occasions out of ten when I really felt that my vote counted in some small way. Two of those were European elections conducted under PR. The other was the vote for London Mayor, where my defiance in voting for Siobhan Benita, was somewhat masked by the futility of then having to vote for one of the two major candidates, neither of whom I particularly liked.

It’s not exactly a great hit rate is it? All of the others have been conducted in safe seats for one party or another. My vote made little difference. It was either a shout into a storm or a whisper in a chant. The conclusion is this, my vote, far more often than not, gives me little impact on the way my country is governed.

Besides, if I were still to vote I would still have to vote for one party that I find unacceptable on one level or another. I do not expect to go to the polls every election wholeheartedly believing in the party I will vote for, but I would like to go to the polls just once and be able to vote in a positive frame of mind.

The options in front of me have steadily strayed from anything that I might recognise as viable. They have become tortured, twisted, tribal, gutless prattlers, solely interested in their favourite game of politics and not at all in good governance. Politics is their sport, Westminster their Wembley, and The Andrew Marr Show their match of the day. Every single beat of a five year parliament is a point-scoring operation against the other side, and if it’s choice between good government and good politics, it is always the lesser motivation that wins. My vote will not change that mortifying fact about our politics.

So, what am I to do? Continuing voting in elections were my vote doesn’t count, casting my franchise in the direction of the party I dislike the least? No. The cure for this malaise must run deeper than that. It lies in a wholesale change and reinvigoration of our politics, and this is where the other tools of our democracy come into play.

My next election is in Cities of Westminster and London: Tory Majority of 11,076. Once again my vote will not count, and I feel uninclined to compromise myself by voting one way or the other as it stands, in which instance spoiling my ballot is the only course of action. What will have more impact is writing letters, campaigning on issues I believe in, and – above all – debating freely and openly without prejudice whenever and wherever there is an appetite for it. All these I must do more of, and I reckon so must a fair few of those reading this.

Suddenly, my tone has swung from the prosaic back to the romantic, and how dearly I would like the vote to be a romantic thing once more. To a certain extent, we get the politicians we deserve. Our current dearth is in part the result of our apathy. If we can reverse that, imaginatively, creatively and at every opportunity then we will be on a better path to a better future.

I am not saying “do not vote”. I am merely asking you to assess a person by the sum total of their democratic activity. After all, a person who votes as a matter of routine is on a par with the person who never goes close to a polling booth, for they have forsaken vigilance, and vigilance is demanded of us all.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Our United Future

Today is the first day of the future. But don’t worry. So is tomorrow.

For so long, this has been the implication of our politics, and for so long this is what we have grudgingly accepted. No more. From this day, this hour, this moment, we are to begin to make strides to a better state of affairs.

The seismic nature of the Scottish Independence Referendum has finally triggered genuine introspection. From this, I believe we can draw a huge amount of hopeful activity to shake up the status quo that so clearly dissatisfies the vast majority.

Just look at the turnouts in Scotland. It is nearing 90%. No General Election has come even remotely close for over 20 years. This debate has vitalised and engaged its electorate, and haven’t the rest of us in England, Wales and Northern Ireland felt somewhat envious?

Huge numbers of us, be us Labour, Liberal, or Tory, Plaid Cymru, Democratic Unionist, or Sinn Féin have identified with the grievances and frustrations that Scots have had the fortune to be able to express, and many of us have also felt this for quite some time. Enough is enough.

It seems ridiculous to me to suggest that a disunited Britain benefits any of us. The capacity that comes from pulling together our immense resources can generate so much good. However, having travelled across this country, met people from many backgrounds, and experienced the huge levels of division that live and breathe every day in this land, it seems equally ridiculous to me to suggest that Westminster is the best place to generate policies that can benefit both London and Lanarkshire, both Guildford and Grimsby.

It is a source of immense pride that we live in a country that celebrates difference: a nation that seeks to find and fortify unity, rather than impose it from above. However, we should acknowledge that a consequence of that is that the needs of different parts of the country vary hugely from one to another. Local areas are the best informed to make their own decisions about their own needs.

We can unite, we should unite, we must unite on the things that are most important to us. We must unite for our mutual security. We must unite in order to continue to run one of the best International Development funds in the world. We must unite to pursue good whenever we can in international relations. For that we need to be together. Nevertheless, I do not think that the concerns of the Home Counties should dictate the governance of Glasgow, and I think that that is a two-way street.

Of course, the situation is more complex than that, and I cannot convey in a relatively brief blog post how I would propose to deal with the ins and outs. However, I have no doubt that it can be comprehended and conveyed. For too long, bold and brilliant ideas have been shot down as “too risky”, “too costly” and, worst of all, “too difficult to implement”. These are not sufficient arguments. To believe that they are is a failure to engage. Playing it safe has left us with a populace who are disaffected, disheartened and divided. This must stop, and now is the time.

I dream of a politics where the people feel empowered: where we can debate and feel like we can make a difference. I dream of a nation where we can see the everyday suffering that rock concerts don’t raise funds for, and think that we ourselves have the means to effect some positive change to rectify it. I dream of a politics defined by its people, inspired by its people, and valued by its people. I believe that this is within reach.

Be restless, be determined and do not relent until we have earned that system. Only we can seize it, and now is the moment.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Autumn’s Eve by Putney Bridge

Grey light over the undulating tress of the Northbank
As the river flows to the darkening East.
August 30th, and sullen mood
Or defiant glee grips the passers-by,
Here on the South.

The workers are returning to throng
In the crowded city
With tans fading to memories
And a chill wind blowing from
Tropic Hurricanes.

Do not go my love.
You shone so fierce
So soon ago,
Unwitting of your warmth.

You remain,
Hidden behind the sky I see,
That was yester blue.
But night will come, and then

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps like dawning hope through night
To break red or gold or hidden again
On the whim of the wind.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sonnet VI


Oh be a rose that is preserved through frost,
From bloom to bloom, surviving through travails;
For though thy heart doth groan its beats through loss,
Yet make thy soul a diamond that prevails.
Just sheer affection makes me smile at thee,
When you dance through my dreams within the night;
For you’re the best of all that I do see:
A precious jewel transfigurèd with light.
Oh do not doubt that I am not alone
In thinking you most beauteous in compare.
Thou art most sweet e’en in thy darkest tone,
Like songs from birds across the coldest air.
Preserve thyself to give the world its sun.
Thou art a hope that makes all battles won.

(C) Jack Blackburn, 9th June 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Dawkins Condescension

This morning, I saw the following on twitter:

It’s one of those pictures of a notable person accompanied by one of their quotes, thereby lending the words a tremendous sense of import and idolising the figure who delivered them. Very rarely to either of those elements live up to the billing lent to them by this format.

This particular one was tweeted by a fan of Richard Dawkins to the man himself, who promptly and humbly retweeted it. What makes this activity particularly odd is that both follower and leader appear to think that they are highlighting something wonderfully insightful, but the extraordinary thing about the quotation is that the insight it contains is so blindingly obvious.

Frankly, what Dawkins has noticed here is just as perceptive as noting that English people tend to have eggs and bacon for breakfast whilst Americans have pancakes. Surely it is one of the most blatantly obvious facts about the world that different cultures have, over the course of the millenia, developed different responses to the various phenomena and challenges we face, whether that be the need for calories in the morning, or dealing with human spirituality and existentialism.

The discovery that there are different religions and that they tend to be tied to particular cultures is not revelatory at all. What is fascinating is that those religions have generated so much extraordinary work in art, literature and philosophy; that they have inspired such dedication; that great thinkers have found a lot of common ground between religions and have suggested what the phenomena of religious faith might actually be about beyond a relatively primitive belief in a bearded chap in the sky.

However, Dawkins has no interest in all of this. He finds it better to be smugly superior and dismissive, whilst being facile to boot. It’s not that he doesn’t have a point. Undoubtedly, he has a number of valid contributions to make, but you cannot be considered a genuinely valuable contributor to any debate unless you are willing to engage with all of it. Dawkins needs to arrest his condescension and begin to consider the possibility that the holders of religious faith may well have many valid points of their own, and that they are a great deal more intelligent than he cares to think.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Addiction

The shocking death of Philip Seymour Hoffman (covered on this blog yesterday) has once again brought the subject of addiction into sharp focus. Last night, Will Self gave an eloquent and personal insight into addiction and drugs, and heroin in particular, on Newsnight (a programme also worth watching for Richard Curtis’ description of the actor and his work), and what came across from his words was that the nature of addiction remains thoroughly mysterious.

At the end of last year, I wrote a rather angry piece attacking Peter Hitchens’ smug, sanctimonious and thoughtless approach to something he didn’t see as a problem so much as a crime against the self. What appals me most of all now, looking back on it, is his certainty. How can he possibly be so certain of his view of addiction, when even the most banal experience of it yields few truths and plenty of bewildering murkiness?

When I think of addiction, I first think of the extreme examples. I have never known someone who has been wrestling with an addiction to an illegal drug when I knew them. I know plenty of people who take illegal drugs. My instinctive response to a number of these individual cases is that they are playing with fire, but also that they know it. They are the lucky ones. As Self noted last night, it takes a number of decisions to get addicted to a substance.

I have known a few recovering drug addicts. The one I knew best was in fact a close family relative. After injuries in the Second World War, he was treated with an excessive amount of morphine – heroin – and became addicted. He was a private man and did not like to discuss it, but he made it clear that there was an intense agony in his recovery. This was no rehabilitation. The drug was simply and abruptly withdrawn. Given the circumstances of his exposure to the drug, he was fine once the withdrawal symptoms had passed, as he was unlikely to have any opportunity to procure anymore of the substance. Nevertheless, it was something that on some level left its scaring.

These are the extreme examples I personally know of, but they are the least of the cases of addiction of which I am aware. My family have always been heavy drinkers, my father is a heavy smoker. I know countless smokers, and have known many drinkers who can knock back a flood of the stuff in no time at all. I myself drink far too much, and my flirtations with tobacco have always led to moments of some difficulty when I decide to stop. Biochemically, I must surely be an addict. I have to think that I shouldn’t have a drink of an evening, rather than have the thought that I might like a drink occur to me on occasion. I can resist it, but there is no denying that there is a compulsion there.

The ease with which I have developed these responses means that I have no desire to toy with any further highly addictive and potentially dangerous drugs, but I like to think that it also means that I have some understanding of how easy it is to fall into such a condition. I rather hope that should Peter Hitchens’ have the clarity of mind for but a moment to see the addiction that may well be around him, he may admit that things are not as simple as his blinkered view appears to allow.

Addiction, much like that other great, human, biochemical obsession of romance, is something that we cannot escape or ignore, but also a phenomenon that we do not comprehend, despite centuries of experience, investigation and thought. Perhaps that is why there is such an extensive but utterly vague lexicon concerning it. We have competing ideas of what constitutes an “addict”, or what symptoms demonstrate that a person has a “problem” with a substance. Perhaps, like love, “you know it when you see it”, but that approach allows for numerous mistakes (in both phenomena).

We cannot sit in judgement of others on this. We must not condescend or elevate ourselves to some higher place above those who vigorously wrestle with the illness of addiction. We must educate using the rare facts that are available to us. Certain people like to think of addiction as a scourge that only afflicts the poor and the downtrodden. Even if that were the case, which it resoundingly is not, it would be no excuse for ignoring or resenting their plight. Addiction has been with us since the dawn of humankind, and it isn’t going anywhere. We are built with this vulnerability inherent within us. A crucial step must be to have the humility to acknowledge that.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

“He was very much an actor’s actor.” Well, there’s no denying this oft-said platitude from the last few hours, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was so much more than that. Being an actor myself, my social-networking feeds are filled with my fellows, and yet the outpouring of respect and sadness at his tragic death yesterday from an apparent drug overdose has come from all sections. He had the ability to enthral all who watched him, and, if he is to be reduced in headlines and obituaries to “an actor’s actor”, than it should be noted that he is that because he excelled in the profession, and that his achievements in his craft were inspirational to others who employ it.

Meryl Streep, who acted opposite PSH in the intelligent and gripping Doubt (d. John Patrick Shanley, 2008), described him as “fearless”. Fear is the great barrier to art. It is the feeling that keeps pages blank on writers’ desks, and keeps beautiful voices silent when the music starts. When it came to his craft, it seems clear that PSH was fearless: fearless in his search for the truth of his characters, fearless in his self-exposure, and fearless in his honesty.

This unrestrained courage, though, did not manifest itself in the histrionics that many confuse with honesty. Hoffman’s voice was the whisper in the storm. There was always a sense of something incredibly torrid raging beneath the surface, and we were being shown it with the slightest mannerism, or flicker of the eyes, or tremor in the voice. This quality was gripping – mesmeric – and was apparent in everything he did, whether it was his considerable arthouse work, or his thoroughly enjoyable and effective contributions to big blockbusters. His recent appearance in the second film of The Hunger Games was a mark of this, as he quietly suggested a calculated air to his crucial character of Plutarch Heavensbee.

His was a talent of awesome rarity, honed and trained, and then focussed by himself every time he took to the stage or stood in front of the camera. Every actor knows how hard it is to deliver just one good performance. Hoffman never failed to deliver anything less. How tragic then that he died so terribly young. At the age of 46, one suspects that he may not even yet have been at the midpoint of his career. One can now only imagine what he would have gone on to do.

He leaves behind a body of work that assures him a place in the pantheon of greats, and yet the circumstances of his death – apparently an accidental overdose of heroine – seem to highlight a deep struggle within himself. He had recently relapsed into substance abuse, a condition he had apparently fought for all of his adult life, and his friends have spoken of someone who wrestled deeply with himself. His own words in a Guardian interview from 2011 now have an eerie resonance:

“It’s a real struggle to connect. When I was younger I really wanted to explore, you know, sexuality, and having to connect to people and how hard that is and how inadequate we all feel. … I think everyone struggles with self-love. I think that's pretty much the human condition, you know, waking up and trying to live your day in a way that you can go to sleep and feel OK about yourself. When I was younger I wanted to really show what it meant to have such doubt about yourself, such fear. … It's not so much self-loathing as fear. You're just scared to venture out. … I had insecurities and fears like everybody does, and I got over it. But I was interested in the parts of me that struggled with those things."

As should be clear from how he was viewed, it seems faintly extraordinary that he should have had these struggles, and yet it is painfully believable. The fearless artist was in fact consumed by fear.

There was some consternation from certain individuals about the level of prominence given to his death by the news programmes last night, perhaps bemoaning our celebrity culture. Let us be clear: though Hoffman was famous, he should not be labelled with that increasingly pejorative term of celebrity. He was much more than that. He was a beautiful artist whose work enriched the lives of many.

Yet there is one greater reason why the awful tale of his death must be told. It runs deeper than the necessary warnings about addiction. It is about insecurity. It is about the countless people who struggle with that every day. We all have insecurities, but for some the internal fight with them are much more harmful than it appears to be for others. This fact needs to be acknowledged.

The story is about those who feel alone, lacking in self-worth. What you choose to draw from it is your affair, but for me the sad story of this genuinely inspirational figure at least has the power to tell all who struggle that they are not alone. Quite the opposite, they are in very good company, and that the love and sadness displayed after this tragic loss shows that there are those who crave to help.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Evening Star

She will come as a vision in the meadow:
As the summer's evening sun
Trickles down the westward sky.
She will come gently in her loveliness,
Beautiful and slow.

She will come as a bright day's warmth
Amidst the winter's chill;
As the February hour that steals
Another minute's light from the dark.

As a peace after the tumult,
As birdsong in the spring's morn,
As a brook in the fastness of the forest,
As the whispered promise of dawn,
She will come,
And past pains will rest at last
Sleeping deeply with present joys.

She will come at her own time,
Upon her own day, at our own rhythm,
When the steps of the dance are such
As to unite us out of this heady swirl.

She will come as a lone star
Peering through the dark clouds of the night,
And by that slender, shimmering light,
She’ll lead me home. Home. Home, again.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Notebook: Intellectual Dishonesty in the Press, Gove's Gory Commemoration, and Sexism in Sport

The Guardian's Selective History Highlights Need for Vigilance
It’s that time of year when the National Archives yield up more of their secrets. The fact that this even happens is underappreciated. Government secrets are necessary though undesirable (sorry, they are, but that’s for another blogpost), but the fact that we have a framework for the eventual release of (most of) them within a generation is rather good really.
As we move through the next few years, more and more documents will be released from the 1980s, a decade of unparalleled importance in the recent history of Britain. Individual newspapers will present their Pot Noodle Histories – quick and easy to make, maybe initially satisfying, but ultimately ghastly and bad for your health.
A particular area of interest is the revival of 2013’s favourite comparison: Mandela v Thatcher. The claim being advanced by The Guardian this morning is that Thatcher, contrary to the claims of her supporters, applied very little pressure on South African President PW Botha to release Mandela. This is presented under the broad historical statement “Margaret Thatcher 'made no case' for Mandela's release”, and the article has been doing the rounds on twitter. Interestingly, Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror decided to tweet this article, rather than using anything from his own paper.
As readers, we must be very careful here, because the statement in that headline simply isn’t true, and it is an example of how newspapers, particularly in the age of the 140-character-history, manipulate the facts.
The newly released documents from 1984 certainly demonstrate that Thatcher was not exerting tremendous pressure for Mandela’s release, but she was attempting diplomatic ways of influencing significant change in the Apartheid regime, having decided that isolation was not the best way to get peaceful progress in South Africa. These methods were, naturally, incremental.
By 31st October 1985, Margaret Thatcher wrote this letter to Botha, in which she explicitly urges him to release Nelson Mandela. It also shows how many plates Thatcher was spinning, throughout the Commonwealth and worldwide in the pursuit of her foreign policy. One can debate her decisions and question how successful and influential her tactics were, but the suggestion that she was a supporter of the Apartheid division is just plain wrong, nor is it correct to say that she “made no case” for Mandela’s release.
Now, in fairness to The Guardian, the article does detail a lot of facts that place Thatcher in a good light, noting that she told Botha that it was “totally unacceptable” that rights were determined by skin colour, and it is also made apparent that the Government at that time had supported calls for Mandela’s release. However, that doesn’t prevent the headline being poor history, and the structure of the article being such as to encourage a view of history that is erroneous but beneficial to that paper’s particular worldview. What that amounts to is total intellectual dishonesty.
We don’t tolerate this sort of nonsense from The Daily Mail, and rightly so. We must be consistent. Of course, all papers do this. As Charlie Brooker noted in his excellent 2013 Wipe, a large part of the job of newspapers is to spew the readers’ views back at them, and no doubt someone will find that the Mail has been hagiographic to a fault today (I refuse to take the Mail unless absolutely necessary). Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to be better. We should read wider, consider more calmly and, hard though it might be, resist the urge to reduce everything to 140 characters, nor to think that any single tweet contains the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Let This Be a Time of Remembrance, Not Sickening Commemoration
The Royal Mint has unveiled new designs for coins in 2014. Amongst them is the first of many commemorative coins to mark the centenary of the First World War. The design features the infamous poster “Lord Kitchener Wants You”. At the same time, Michael Gove has attacked dramas such as Blackadder for spreading left wing myths about the First World War, arguing that they have served to create a simplistic narrative where the blundering elite sent thousands upon thousands to unnecessary deaths.
The centenary is a deeply difficult time to navigate, but the government is botching it in typically schoolboy, Ripping Yarns-esque style. Whilst I agree with Gove that the common view of the First World War has become lacking in nuance and simplistic, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the conflict was preceded by the needless power-games of the nations involved, and defined by the obsolescence of their strategies and the incredible wasting of human life in absolutely hopeless and pointless endeavours. The horror of what happened (which, incidentally, Blackadder Goes Forth portrayed magnificently) is what must be remembered.
The Government’s rhetoric seems utterly opposed to this, seeking commemoration rather than remembrance and some kind of reconsideration of WW1 as a noble conflict. Gove sees it as a glorious fight against Social Darwinism. It wasn’t. It was the hideous extension of 19th Century wars of conquest, imperialism and pride, driven by opportunism, ambition and the lust for vengeance. Minting a coin to commemorate this, and using a poster which ultimately sent huge numbers of men to a vain and pitiless death, is just sick.

Sexism in Sport Remains Insidiously Present
There was a muted outcry at the end of the year, as Andy Murray went unrecognised in the New Year’s Honours List. Murray, who collected an OBE from the 2012 list during the last year, had been widely tipped to receive a knighthood after winning the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Titles last July. Meanwhile, Ann Jones, Ladies’ Singles Champion in 1969 received a CBE.
The expectation that Murray was to receive a knighthood whilst Jones has only just now received a CBE (largely in recognition of her work in tennis administration), indicates the persistent and irrational sexism that pervades our perception of sport in general. Tennis is now one of the most egalitarian sports in terms of pay, but we still seem to treat female players with less regard.
Whilst one may enjoy in a purely emotive way one gender’s game more than the other’s (perhaps enjoying the higher speed that the Men’s game is played at, for instance), it is ridiculous to treat the achievements of female players any less. Murray will eventually get his knighthood. He deserves it, but if that is so then Jones and Virginia Wade (the last female winner of Wimbledon, who currently has an OBE) should be Dames.