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Saturday, 10 January 2015

The age of self-censorship



I’ve nothing against the various displays of 'solidarity' with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m sure the folk at the demonstrations mean well, but all of that #jesuischarlie and candlelit vigil stuff won’t amount to a hill of beans. If the demonstrators think they are protecting freedom of speech, I’m afraid they’re a bit late. We gave that up when we embarked upon the age of self-censorship. 

Historians might quibble about the date, but I reckon the age of self-censorship started in 1989 when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Some of us jumped up and down at the time and demanded a vigorous response from the authorities. Instead of lying low and apologising for Rushdie’s ‘offence’, I thought we should have printed hundreds of thousands of copies of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and distributed them free in schools, libraries and health centre waiting rooms. I thought we should have filled huge skips full of these books and left them in every town centre, just to make a point. We should have done something like that because the point was worth making. The bedrock of our civilisation is intellectual freedom and we should have been confident enough to send a clear message to the medievalists: Feel free to practice whichever religion you want, believe whichever ancient fairy stories you like, but do it in peace. Do not seek to impose your views and your rules on people who do not follow your beliefs. It’s really as simple as that. If we’d made our position clear at the time, we might have saved ourselves a whole heap of trouble. Instead, we’ve seen our political and cultural leaders retreat from their responsibilities to protect the ideals they’re supposed to hold dear. 

I don’t blame the fundamentalist nut-jobs for this state of affairs, because fundamentalist nut-jobs have being doing fundamentalist nut-job things for centuries and will no doubt continue to do those things. There will, alas, always be a tiny but violent minority of fundamentalist nut-jobs and one of the things about that tiny but violent minority is that they tend to notice when people cave in to pressure. And we have, since 1989, been doing a lot of caving in. In the years since the Rushdie fatwa, who knows how many authors and journalists have excised characters, themes or lines from their stories and articles because they feared reprisals from fundamentalists? 

Of course, it’s impossible to quantify things that only might have existed, but it is possible to judge things that have happened. Only a couple of years ago, the Obama administration asked YouTube to remove a video that had (allegedly) set off attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi. Then, to compound this craven stupidity, the de facto leader of the western world made a speech to the UN in which he said that “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Prophet Mohammed”. Really? Imagine, if you will, how folk would have reacted had George W. Bush said “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Lord Jesus Christ.”   

As long as we keep re-drawing our line in the sand, we’re heading for our date with destiny: the point at which there will be no-one willing or able to stand up to the fundamentalist nut-jobs. And, as we re-draw that line, we become acclimatised to the idea that a British author might have to go into hiding because of the ‘actions’ of one of his fictional characters; we become acclimatised to the idea that a Dutch film maker can be murdered because he makes a film critical of a certain religion; we become acclimatised to the idea that the headquarters of a Danish magazine can be fire bombed because it prints some cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea of not publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea that police officers, civil servants and journalists will suppress factual accounts of grooming and gang rape for fear of ‘causing offence’.  

When the ‘blasphemous’ publication of cartoons led to the attack on that obscure little Danish magazine in 2005, not a single British newspaper or magazine acted in solidarity with their fellow journalists. Not one editor had the guts to publish the cartoons and say: ’This is what all the fuss is about’. Of course, they all composed editorials declaring their abhorrence of intimidation and violence and their unshakeable belief in our rights to freedom of speech, but -for the sake of not offending sensibilities- they decided against publishing the cartoons. Not one of them would do it.
  
And here we are again, pretending to show solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo outrage. Except, when The Telegraph published an article on the massacre, the cartoon image of Mohammed was pixelated in order to obscure the view and avoid causing offence. The BBC website invited historian Tom Holland to write an article on Islam, but refused his request to publish the cartoon. As David Dimbleby revealed the other night on ‘Question Time’, it is official BBC policy that: “the prophet Mohammed should not be represented in any shape or form”.  
Amol Ragan, editor of The Independent stated that his “every instinct” was to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but he decided that it was “too much of a risk”. He admitted that he was “very uncomfortable” with this. One is tempted to point out that so he should be, because he’s supposed to be a journalist. 

As the blogger David Budge put it:
'I get why journalists are scared of offending Muslims. I just don’t get why they’re journalists'.

So, good people, go to your demonstrations and your candlelit vigils. Tweet your hashtags and put your Je suis Charlie badges up on facebook. Feel free to live in the hope that it will make some difference. But if any of those murderous thugs are watching, the stupid folk who think it’s their duty to slaughter the infidel, how much notice do you think they’re going to take?    

What we need to do is to re-draw our line in the sand, but let’s move it a little bit in the other direction. Let’s do something that makes a positive, celebratory statement about how much we value freedom of speech. Something that will tell the medievalists that, instead of picking on little magazines, they will have to take on every publication in the land. Let’s do something that really does say: "We are all Charlie Hendo."
   
I make this appeal to all newspaper and magazine editors: Please, print an image of the prophet Mohammed. Do it on your front page and explain why you are doing it. Do it to make a point about freedom of speech. Do it to express the right of those with no religious affiliations not to be bound by the rules that believers are bound by. Do it, not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but to celebrate a sensibility that has evolved over several hundred years of conflict and socio-political development throughout a continent. It’s the sensibility that embraces the most important diversity of all: intellectual diversity. Do it, if you think that value is worth sticking up for.   

But if you can’t do that, please stop insulting our intelligence by pretending that your actions are informed by ‘respect’. At least be brave enough to call your reluctance to publish exactly what it is: fear. There’s nothing wrong with being frightened; being frightened in the face of intimidation is part of our survival mechanism. But if we don’t republish those cartoons, all we’re doing is letting those poor French journalists take the bullets on our behalf. So if you can’t at least honour their bravery by republishing the work that got them killed, please don’t write about showing 'solidarity' with the massacre victims. Please don’t come out with any more fatuous pieties about how we’re all going to live together in perfect harmony. Please don’t patronise us with more rubbish about your staunch support for freedom of speech, because all you’re doing is redrawing that line in the sand, that line we’ve been moving since 1989.   

So please … print a cartoon. 

Or just shut up and admit that we are now in the age of self-censorship and that the bad men with the guns have already won.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Sackcloth and ashes



What were the people in charge of Oldham Athletic thinking when they thought to recruit the convicted rapist Ched Evans? Did they think that they could sneak this one under the radar? When someone at the club raised the idea of signing the disgraced footballer, surely it must have occurred to them that there might just be a bit of a backlash? They must have considered the probability of some awkward outcomes if they went through with this deal; the likelihood is that, at some point in the process, they probably believed that they could just tough it out.  

Evans is a convicted rapist and, we may assume, not a very nice man. On a personal level, we may be entitled to our misgivings about this deal, but the law has already exacted its penance and there is no compelling moral obligation for us to go above and beyond that; any judgement we make will be entirely subjective. If company A thinks it unacceptable to recruit a convicted rapist, it will act accordingly. But company B is entitled to come to a different conclusion and may believe it appropriate and fair to offer this offender a chance to earn a living and to rebuild his reputation. Accordingly, Oldham Athletic should sign Ched Evans, or decide against signing him, based on what they think is the right thing to do, not on how the notion goes down on twitter, which is what appears to be happening. After news of the deal was leaked, the club appeared to take cold feet. The official statement on their website states that: “Whilst acknowledging the considerable media attention, we continue to have conversations with representative bodies such as the PFA and will conduct due diligence with regard to any decision we make on this matter.”

If the Oldham officials arrived at their decision after some serious discussion, they might at least have tried to ensure that they had arguments robust enough to stand up to scrutiny. If you’re going to make a decision that some folk will regard as controversial, you should be prepared to take a little flak from social media. Some people might think it rather dismissive to describe an online petition signed (so far) by 45,000 people as ‘a little flak’, but I chose those words deliberately. There are many wonderful things about social media, but there are also some significant downsides. Twitter, in particular, provides perfect conditions for two of the most tiresome species known to humankind: those who seek to offend and those who seek to be offended. At times, it seems little more than an echo chamber wherein the like-minded can get their righteous kicks by acting like a 21st century equivalent of the lynch mob. It is interesting to note that the anti-Evans petition was started by a blogger whose commitment to justice is so principled that he or she writes under the pseudonym ‘Jean Hatchet’.     
What are the special conditions about this case that make Mr. or Ms. Hatchet (and those who signed the petition) believe that the law is inadequate and that Ched Evans deserves additional punishment? Are there any other professions to which these special conditions should apply? Are there any other crimes to which these special conditions should apply?  

We either believe in the principle of the rehabilitation of offenders, or we don’t. If we wish to make exceptions, we should perhaps vote for people who will put these exceptions on the statute book. But if we’d rather let subjective morality usurp objective law, if we’d rather label for life those we would disdain, we might as well go the whole hog. 

We could make all convicted offenders wear sackcloth and ashes. Or better still, we could tattoo the word ‘criminal’ on their foreheads. 

Here’s another idea: why not chop off the hands of anyone who steals?

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Making an album, part 5: In search of the perfect pop song



One fine morning a few weeks ago, I emerged from sleep with a tune in my head. The tune was ‘Late for the train’, the final track on ‘Love Bites’, the second album by the English post-punk band Buzzcocks. The imprint of that tune, deeply encoded on some neglected neural pathway, provoked an early-morning flashback so vivid and poignant that -for a brief instant- I was once again a spotty teenager in love with that band and their music. The tantalising, sleep-charged echo of ‘Late for the train’ fooled the adult me into believing that he was the teenaged me, a kid buffeted by the turbulence of hopes, fears and passions that he hoped would somehow propel him through an exciting world of possibilities. Alas, the tangibility of the moment was all-too-brief and I was soon back in the present, wide awake to the fact that I’m an adult comfortably tethered to my responsibilities.   
The flashback, however, had reminded me once more of how potent pop music can be. Like the powerful scent of cheap perfume, even the tawdriest manufactured pop ditty has the potential to evoke powerful memories. It can make you smile, laugh or cry; it can make you remember people, places and things. I like pop music more than I like any other art form. At its best, I believe the popular song to be one of humankind’s great achievements, because something wonderful and transcendent happens within certain intoxicating combinations of rhythm, melody, notes, voices and words. Pop music, in that sense, is capable of achieving artistic perfection, although it would be difficult for any two people to agree on a definition of perfect pop; some might even argue that there is no such thing.  

But let’s assume for the moment that ‘perfection’ is possible; what would the ingredients of a perfect pop song be? At the risk of stating the obvious, it has to be popular; it can’t be too alternative, too under-the-radar. It shouldn’t overstay its welcome and should probably be able to accommodate mainstream tastes. It can be breezy (like 'I get around' by The Beach Boys) or menacing (like 'Every breath you take' by The Police), but definitely not dreary. It can be populist and perhaps even a bit lightweight; it should be catchy, but not annoyingly so. 'Itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini' is catchy, but it’s catchy in the same way that scabies is catchy.
A great pop song can be very much of its time, but should also have that elusive element of timelessness. You shouldn’t have to say: ‘you had to be there’ or ‘you had to be on such-and-such a drug’ to appreciate a truly perfect pop song. Some songs are so closely identified with the era from which they emerged that they are eulogised mainly by the folk who lived through their glorious flowering; others rise above their milieu to achieve greatness. 'Smoke gets in your eyes' by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach is a wonderful song that was written for a musical in the 1930s, but you don’t need to have seen the show or to have lived through that decade in order to appreciate it. 'Penny Lane' by the Beatles evokes a very particular time and place, but you don’t have to have lived in Liverpool in the 1960s to know that it is a great pop tune. In many cases, you don’t even need to understand the lyrics to appreciate a great song. 'Sir Duke' by Stevie Wonder waxes lyrical about the contribution that black artists have made to American popular culture, but you don’t need to ‘get’ the words to be moved by the joy and genius in the music.  

If pushed to come up with a definition, I’d suggest that perfect pop happens when there is a magical alchemy between words, rhythm, melody, voice and structure. A perfect pop song is probably something to which nothing could be added or taken away to improve it.

So what has any of this got to do with me? 

At this time last year, I wrote about my intention to record an album. Although I have not yet managed to complete this task, I’m probably about 65% of the way there. The project has taken some unexpected twists and turns and I’ve already changed my mind several times about songs, themes and the album title. I’ve narrowed the contenders down to sixteen songs and each of these is partly recorded, with some of them just about finished and others requiring a bit more work. Once that work is done, I’ll pick the twelve songs that sound to me like they will make most sense as a collection. Within this body of work, it would be ridiculous for me to claim that I have the remotest chance of creating a ‘perfect’ pop song. With respect to the criteria listed above, it’s clear that I can’t qualify in many of the categories. None of my songs are going to be ‘popular’, because very few people are going to get to hear them; none of my songs are going to remind anyone of an important time in their life; none of my songs will provide the soundtrack to anyone’s dream. There is not a single spotty teenager on the planet who will think that anything I write will encapsulate the equivalent feelings of lust, rebellion, restlessness, excitement and wonder that I felt when listening to that Buzzcocks tune.   

So why bother? I’ve asked myself this question many times and, if I had to boil the answer down to a single notion, it would be this: Let’s suppose I found a piece of driftwood on the beach and decided to take it home and sculpt something interesting out of it. Suppose I then decided to make an objet d’art for my garden. This artefact would be required to serve no other purpose than to sit somewhere and be pleasing on the eye. I might spend ages on this project – filing, carving, whittling, scraping, gouging and maybe some other associated words that you’ll find under ‘sculpt’ in a thesaurus. The process of creating that artefact would be rewarding in and of itself. The number of folk who’d get to see or appreciate my garden sculpture would be more or less irrelevant. If only a few friends and relatives ever got to see it, that would be fine with me.  

Accordingly, my satisfaction with making music resides in the peace that comes with the imagining act, the execution of creative impulses, the feeling of having brought a new thing into the world. It matters little if I am the only one who can hear beauty in any of these songs. When I listen, I can also hear the process and the goal; I hear echoes of everything else I have ever listened to; I hear inchoate ideas rescued from formlessness by the building blocks of melody and rhythm, random promiscuous scatterings of notes and chords arranged into order and harmony. From the chaos of noise and purposelessness, I hear the shaping of disparate elements into a brief illusion of meaning, into three and a half minutes in which the universe appears to make sense.                 

There are a couple of songs I’m working on for my album which –in my head at least- have the makings of ‘perfect’ pop songs, as long as we extend a generous definition of the word perfect to include ‘well-constructed songs that don’t actually make you feel physically sick’.   

I started work on this song -If she gets on my train- with the intention of writing something upbeat and life-affirming. It tried its best for a while, but has somehow ended up with a sting in the tail. The lyric tries to get inside the head of a guy who nurses a crush on a girl he sees every day when he commutes to work. At one point I imagined that there would be a happy ending, with him asking the girl out and them both living happily ever after, but I never got around to completing that draft; by the time I returned to the lyric, it seemed more appropriate to insert a twist. The protagonist is trying to imagine a situation in which he will have the courage to make an approach to the girl of his dreams, but with every situation he imagines (she gets on his train, she walks down his street) there is also the recognition that all he will ever do is continue to do what he has always done. He knows that he will never pluck up the courage to ask the girl out, so settles instead for running little fantasy scenarios in his head.
When I let a friend hear a version of this a few months ago, he suggested that I hadn’t quite nailed the ending. This led me to return to the recording with the idea of emphasizing the character’s haplessness in the fadeout. Rather than let him fantasize about the life he might lead with this mystery girl, the extent of his detachment from reality would be delineated by his repetition of the line ‘if she gets on my train, we could have a conversation’. By this point in the song, we know that he is not going to be having any conversation with that girl. In that sense, the fadeout is a little nod to the chilling climax of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian nightmare ‘Brazil’, in which the audience is led to believe that the hero (played by Jonathan Pryce) has escaped the rapacious clutches of the Big Brother state and is living in bliss with his sweetheart. The big reveal comes when we discover that he is, in fact, tied to a chair and under brutal interrogation; so complete is his abandonment of his awful reality that he has retreated to a safe place inside his head where he can run his fantasies even as the state thugs are pulling his nails out with pliers.          

As is often the case, the failure seemed more interesting than the success.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The wrong end of the telescope



There’s no accounting for taste. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ has had some mixed reviews, but I really liked it. A recurring theme among critics is that the film is over-sentimental, perhaps even ‘schmaltzy’. It certainly has a big focus on relationships, particularly on the one between Cooper (a star turn by Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy, played variously by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn. But just because something connects on an emotional level doesn’t make it schmaltzy; I get the feeling that some reviewers are uncomfortable with the film’s emotional clout and they deal with that discomfort by pretending to look down their noses at it. Or perhaps they think that a film purporting to have grand ideas about the future of civilization shouldn’t be slumming it in soap opera territory, getting bogged down in all that silly emotional stuff.  

One of the best things about ‘Interstellar’ is that it beats a drum for the indomitability of the human spirit. The bedraggled earth of the near future appears to be stripped of hope, ambition, or any semblance of the pioneering spirit. Cooper rails against this malaise, believing that humankind is (or was) capable of greatness: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars … now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
When he gets summoned to meet the teachers at Murphy’s school, we see the contrast between the world that he’s stuck in and the world he’d rather live in. The teachers point out the various ways in which his galactically bright daughter is ‘failing’ in her education; they are particularly concerned about her wasting time on ancient books that don’t adhere to the current intellectual orthodoxies. In this miserable, dust-covered future, where the earth has succumbed to blight and has turned its back on big ideas and big technology, school text books teach that the 1969 moon landings were faked for propaganda purposes. 
As a prissy young teacher, unencumbered by doubt, lectures Cooper about the ‘excess and wastefulness of the 20th century’, the look on his face manages to convey all of the rage, the betrayal, the bewilderment and hurt of a man who still believes passionately in the infinite possibilities of humankind, who believes that “we’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible”.   

I detect echoes of that fictional schoolteacher in the row over Matt Taylor’s ‘sexist’ shirt. The Rosetta mission scientist Taylor is part of a team that managed to send a vehicle on a ten-year journey of four billion miles in order to land on a comet that is hurtling through space at 40,000 mph. You’d think that might have been enough to impress people, but not everyone was happy. Some people chose to focus on the hideous shirt that he wore to a news conference, deeming the bozo scientist to be guilty of sexism.  
The argument, as I understand it, is that girls might somehow be put off science by the shirt’s subliminal message (namely, girls are not welcome in the world of science). Really? Does anyone believe that a bright kid sitting in front of her television, curious and excited about all of this astonishing stuff going on in space, will see a guy in a dodgy shirt and think: “I’m going to sign up for a ‘hair, nails and beauty’ course, because that man’s horrible shirt is telling me that science isn't for females"?  The notion is not only patronising rubbish, it’s insulting to that intelligent and curious little girl (not to mention the women working on the Rosetta mission).  

The evidence indicates that Taylor must be a very clever scientist, but I have no idea what he’s like as a human being. Given the scale of his achievements, I’d prefer not to judge him on one unfortunate item of clothing, but our burgeoning offencerati seem to believe that every aspect of human endeavour, every person doing every activity in every possible location, regardless of context, should be subject to the standards by which we’d judge a junior social worker on a ‘diversity awareness’ training course. The hive mind, alas, is governed by illiberal impulses. Its puritan obsession with minutiae is often not just about a failure to see the bigger picture; it’s about a refusal to acknowledge that a bigger picture exists.

The teacher in ‘Interstellar’ is a fictional character, put in a story to illustrate the idea of a spirit-crushing poverty of aspiration. I don’t know what the excuse is for the folk who, instead of looking up to the stars, are worrying about Matt Taylor’s shirt.