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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.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Surfing against the zeitgeist



After their triumphant televised gig from Hyde Park, the critical re-appraisal of Jeff Lynne’s ELO continues apace, with articles appearing in various ‘proper’ newspapers testifying to the quality of their music. Although I’m glad to see them get what they deserve, this kind of thing just reminds me how silly it is to pay too much attention to music journalism, to "fashion-monging boys, that lie and cog and flout".
For those not old enough to remember, it was precisely the opposite of ‘cool’ to like ELO in the late 70s, when the rock cognoscenti would heap opprobrium on them at every opportunity. The fact that they were clearly a quality pop act counted against them. Certain bands (usually accomplished musicians who had paid their dues over many years on the club and university circuit) were seen as the ‘enemy’ by portions of the British music press, some of whom believed that punk had ‘happened’ in order to rid the world of light and shade. Surfing against the zeitgeist, ELO represented the epitome of naff. I remember one particularly silly example when the band was butchered on Radio One's Round Table because -in the opinion of some jerk on the panel- the French bit of the lyric on Hold on Tight sounded more French-Canadian than 'genuine' French (clearly a heinous crime). When I was young and impressionable, it was difficult to own up to liking stuff that had not been approved by the taste-makers in the music press, particularly the resident high priests at Sounds and NME. Nobody wants to betray their own generation and there was a time when admitting that you preferred ELO to the Sex Pistols would have been a hanging offence. 

By today’s standards, the band took the long road to stardom. Their early records showed promise, although some of the songs were overwrought and stodgy and the sound was often grittier than it had to be. After three albums in which they couldn’t make up their mind about whether they wanted to be heavy (always seen as a good thing) or light (almost never seen as a good thing), band leader Jeff Lynne finally hit his songwriting groove on ‘Eldorado’. For the first time, an orchestra and choir were hired to expand the musical palette (on previous albums, the cellists had been overdubbed). That fourth album marked the spot where the focus moved joyfully and unashamedly to the tunes.  
By the time they hit the high spots in their catalogue (‘A New World Record’ in 1976 and ‘Out of the Blue’ just a year later) ELO had graduated from the dingy hinterland of prog rock to become a sophisticated pop act on the way to selling 50 million albums. The visual template for tribute acts was set at this point, with Jeff adopting that ‘shaggy perm, beard and shades' look. It’s clearly a disguise, because he is essentially a modest and unassuming bloke who chooses to put his art front and centre of our attention. It’s not about him, the image is suggesting; it’s about the tunes. It’s about the sound of the music. 

I can think of loads of acts that I listened to in the late 70s /early 80s that don't do anything for me now; by contrast, the albums from ELO's imperial phase still sound fantastic. There are many things to love about their music (personally, those ‘major to minor’ chord changes on songs like Livin' Thing and Turn to Stone get me every time), but there is no point in trying to analyse why it has taken some people so long to work that out. There was a time when nobody would have admitted to liking them and at least that seems to have changed. It could be that some folk have mellowed with age, or perhaps new listeners are just experiencing the music without having to put it through the 'cool /uncool' cultural filter that was compulsory in the fallout from the cultural revolution of the late 70s. Either way, I'm just happy to enjoy the moment and hope that it encourages Jeff Lynne to hit the road once more, hopefully with something resembling the spectacular combo that featured at Hyde Park.

In the meantime, here’s a link to one of my favourite internet musical discoveries. It’s the Sunflower Orchestra performing their version of one of ELO’s most beautiful songs. Other than the fact they are Polish, I know nothing about the Sunflower Orchestra. It looks like their gig took place in a community centre with maybe twenty folk in the audience, but the performance was measured, dignified and faithful to the melancholic beauty of the original. For someone not noted for being much of a lyricist, Jeff Lynne comes up with a lovely image on the chorus in which he expresses loss, regret, longing and the ebbing away of hope with this single evocative line: 
My Shangri La has gone away, faded like the Beatles on Hey Jude.” 

Who needs to surf the zeitgeist when you can write like that? 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sticks and stones



For all that it had its high points and low points, there are things about the referendum campaign that Scotland can be proud of, not the least of which is the fact that so many folk turned out to vote after a debate that was –for the most part- reasonably civilised, if often rather light on content.  Those of us who voted No should be mindful of the disappointment that our friends and neighbours on the Yes side will be feeling.  I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted had the vote gone the other way, but I do know that I felt just as strongly about my vote as my friends on the Yes side felt about theirs. I had to be prodded with a big stick before making my move and it was only in the last couple of weeks of the campaign that I realised just how strongly I felt about it. Had the Yes campaign prevailed, I would have been very disappointed indeed, but I’d like to think that I would have had the grace to accept the result. I’d like to think that I would not have disdained my fellow Scots for deciding to take that leap of faith.  And, if there had been a ten-point margin in the polls and 28 out of 32 local authorities had voted Yes, I don’t think I’d have been asking for a recount.

Accordingly, it has been disappointing to hear and read some of the things that have been said in the aftermath of the vote. It’s as if some folk are unwilling, or unable, to appreciate that it is possible for people to look at exactly the same information but arrive at completely different conclusions.
One common observation is that No voters somehow forced Scotland to miss an opportunity. This overlooks the fact that something is only an opportunity if the person who is offered it perceives it to be one. I might, with the sincerest intentions, offer you an ‘opportunity’ to invest in my new business. In such a case, you’d expect to consider the pros and cons before making a judgement about whether or not the likely outcomes of that opportunity outweighed the possible risks. Most people would apply this logic in their everyday lives, so why shouldn’t they have applied it in a decision about the fate of their country? It was incumbent upon the Yes campaign to persuade enough people to vote against the status quo; for a variety of reasons, most of the Scottish electorate was not convinced that the opportunities outweighed the risks.

Surely only the most deluded Yes supporter can believe that the way to rebuild an independence campaign (which is a perfectly legitimate aim) is to start by traducing 55% of the population? But voting No, according to some, was equivalent to expressing a desire to see more food banks, the dismantling of the NHS and the west coast of Scotland obliterated in a nuclear attack.  Reading and hearing some of the more hysterical stuff, I’ve wondered if the folk who say these things are aware of the contradiction between, on the one hand, their claim that they want to create a newer, fairer, more compassionate Scotland and, on the other, the fact that they are willing to describe 55% of the electorate as fools, quislings, cowards or – my personal choice of nadir- victims of Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition in which hostages start to have positive feelings towards their captors. Presumably the folk who level that accusation are angry about all of those English tanks rolling down our streets and the occupying troops arresting anyone who has red hair or who is wearing a kilt. Pathologising the enemy within was an old Stalinist trick.  ‘If you don’t agree with us’, so it went, ‘there must be something wrong with how you think. Perhaps some time spent in a correction centre will help you to see things our way.’ This is, in essence, a totalitarian impulse and one which has no place in a civilised polity. 

It is clear that, for some folk, political discourse is underpinned by a received narrative which allows that the left somehow occupies the moral high ground. It’s a nonsensical idea, but at least one of the positive side effects of the referendum is that more people will now recognise it as such. Some of my No-voting Labour friends were stunned at the extent to which their intentions were impugned during the campaign, but I merely welcomed them to the club; for anyone who sits to right of, say, Andy Burnham, this is what it’s like all the time.   

This desire to dismiss opponents as stupid, selfish or uncaring has long been one of the great limiters to mature political debate and we’d all be much better off without it. Many people don’t seem to understand that to attribute negative emotional or intellectual characteristics to folk who don’t agree with you is not a political argument; it’s the absence of a political argument.  I can understand why it might make people feel good (and by ‘good’, I mean ‘superior’) to dismiss their opponents as stupid, selfish, or –in the case of the independence referendum- ‘scared’, but all that does is absolve the accuser of the responsibility of actually winning an argument. When you use tactics like that, it doesn't say anything about the other side; it says something about you.

Politics isn’t a vanity contest about who purports to ‘care’ the most; it’s a marketplace of ideas, a push and pull of competing philosophies focused on how best to manage resources.  And, however some folk might choose to deny it, the truth is that these conflicting philosophies generally want the same thing: the greatest outcomes for the greatest number of people. A political stance that, primarily, makes you feel good about yourself is hardly a political stance at all, because politics isn’t about you and it isn’t about me; it’s about us. It’s about how we come to an accommodation with each other, how we find ways to co-exist peacefully with people with whom we may have very little in common.
History tells us that there is no such thing as a perfect world and no possibility of perfecting humankind. In the imperfect world we inhabit, politics is -and always will be- a series of compromises between intention, imagination, utility and will. Sometimes it will be pretty and sometimes it will be ugly, sometimes poetry and sometimes prose. Grand ideas are all well and good, but the little details are usually what count the most. As PJ O’Rourke succinctly puts it: ‘Everyone wants to save the planet, but nobody wants to help mum do the dishes.’

All of the available evidence tells us that the left is correct about some things and that the right is correct about others. Anyone who thinks that politics really is as simple as ‘agree with me = good, disagree with me = bad’ simply hasn’t given it enough thought.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Think of a number you don't know



My youngest son, who is 16, was voting for the first time in this referendum. He was really interested in the issues and often asked me what I thought about this or that. As a parent you have to walk a fine line between, on the one hand, passing on some of the stuff you have learned and believe to be true and, on the other, avoiding dumping your prejudices on an impressionable young person. Just because I’m a jaded old fart doesn’t mean that I want my son to believe everything that I do. I earned my degree in scepticism through age and experience, but I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny my boy his right to youthful idealism. Whenever we talk about stuff, I do my best to point out both sides in an argument and encourage him to make up his own mind, rather than take his old man’s word for it.      

In the last few days of the campaign, with the country seemingly at fever pitch, some of his friends posted pictures and videos from a ‘Yes’ rally in the centre of Glasgow. He was obviously excited by these events, intoxicated by the overwhelming positivity and sheer sense of occasion. Scotland, it seemed, was on the verge of something momentous. “Wow” he said, “look at the number of people who are in George Square.” There were a few things I thought of saying at that point, but I settled for posing him what seemed like a slightly abstract question. “That’s impressive” I said, “but how many folk aren’t there?” I wanted him to understand that impressions, opinions and moods are formed through how we respond to the information we choose to absorb. If that information comes from only one or two sources, our view of the big picture is likely to be incomplete. Without wishing to come over all Donald Rumsfeld, I wanted my son to be aware that, in every situation, there are things you think you know, things you know you don’t know and, sometimes, things you don’t know that you don’t know. There were lots of excited and committed folk in the square, celebrating their common cause, but elections are not necessarily won by the people who take to the streets. The numbers registered for this referendum were well in advance of anything witnessed at recent elections, but what did we know about all of these ‘new’ people who had never voted before? And, more to the point, what did we not know about them? 

It seemed to me that the people who favoured Yes were generally quite happy to let you know about it; they certainly outnumbered the people who were willing to state a preference for No. But lots of folk were keeping conspicuously quiet about the referendum. It was clear that not everyone was being swept up in that seemingly unstoppable tide of momentum. As the campaign built to a climax, I concluded that many of the folk who were playing their cards close to their chest were likely to be No voters. I pointed out some time ago that the Yes campaign had gambled with their ‘No Tories in Scotland’ policy. It seemed to give out a clear signal that a certain section of the electorate (i.e. disaffected Labour) was being targeted and that another section was being told that their votes would not be required. I understand why the Yes team felt that they had to take that gamble; they simply could not have captured that disaffected Labour vote by also attempting to woo big and small ‘c’ conservatives. But the picture they based this calculation on was only focused on the things that they knew. 

The Yes team knew that 16.7% of the Scottish electorate was willing to vote Conservative at the last General Election. What they perhaps hadn’t considered was the fact that these people consistently voted Conservative in the full knowledge that, in a 'first-past-the-post' system, they had absolutely no chance of winning. That’s quite a significant statement to make, one that should perhaps have made the Yes team consider the possibility that even more people might have voted Conservative if they felt they had a chance of getting representation. And what the Yes team didn’t know they didn’t know was just how many of those newly-registered referendum voters might naturally be inclined to take a conservative (small c) option on such a contentious issue as the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The fall-out from the Thatcher years has encouraged some people to take it as an article of faith that Scotland has an inbuilt left-leaning majority. Many seem to have forgotten that the Conservatives are the only party ever to have won a majority vote in Scotland in a general election. The country may have changed a lot since 1955, but not to the degree that the Conservatives have been wiped from the political map. Admitting to being a Conservative in Scotland is viewed by some as akin to admitting to being a child molester, but some traditional ‘conservative’ values (hard work, self-reliance, financial prudence) are actually held by many Scottish people. The perception that conservatism is a toxic brand may be true when it comes to public declarations of political allegiance, but it can hardly be described as electorally toxic when the Tories -in spite of everything- consistently poll similar numbers to the LibDems. In private, many folk hold ‘small c’ conservative views, so the Yes team was not only writing off the votes of that committed 16.7% of the electorate (412,855 people); it was writing off the votes of an unspecifiable number of people who: 
a) may have been inclined to espouse conservative values 
and b) may have been incentivised by the prospect that their vote, for once, might actually make a difference in Scotland.   
The Yes team couldn’t possibly have known what that number was, but they appear to have overlooked the possibility that it might have been quite big. As it turns out, the number was big enough for Yes to lose in 28 out of 32 Scottish local authorities. The more voters that turned out, the more likely they were to vote No; of the 24 regions with the biggest turnouts, 23 of them voted against independence. The two regions with the lowest turnouts –Glasgow and Dundee- both went to Yes.     

The referendum process excited my son and made him think about lots of things. He’s a wiser and more politically engaged person now than he was a month or two ago. He understood what I meant by that question about how many folk weren’t at the demonstration. He understands that forming a political view isn’t about re-tweeting one-liners from acerbic comedians or posting links to propaganda sites. He understands that the world is more complicated than some folk would have us believe. He understands that it’s not only worth giving a bit of thought to things that he hadn’t previously considered, it’s also worth considering the possibility that there are things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

Scotland is going to be just fine if his generation grow up understanding that when people say something is a ‘no brainer’, it usually means the exact opposite.