A re-examination of Autumn cosiness

It’s now officially Autumn. The academic year has already begun at schools and universities, bringing with it the ‘back to school’ insinuation of a time for bookish solitude and reflection, and as the weather changes, we’re everywhere reminded of the pleasures of staying at home for traditional stodgy fare, the comfort of knitted jumpers and hands clasped round steamy cups of tea.

This of course is very evocative stuff, but what is it that really brings this desire to withdraw in cosy contemplation to the warmth of our homes as soon as there’s a whiff of a bonfire in the crispening air?

I have my theories. It could be that it’s merely an agrarian, and by extension, a pagan vestige from a time when the making of hay had come to an end, thus beginning the long wintery slog. Or does it go so far back as to be a more inherent, Stone Age impulse? Like our seasonally reliant ancestors, do we feel the urge to recede out of the cold and into ourselves in order to bear the coming winter?

It seems likely that the answer as to why we find Autumn so suggestive and compelling in this way is a mix – made up of an atmospheric Northern European culture, itself a result of a cold Northern European atmosphere.

The culture part is of course no longer physically defined in reality by toasty fireplaces, leather-bound books and pipe tobacco; nor with our ubiquitous hum of electricity is it particularly marked by darkness, quiet or even much introspection – but still these images persist vividly, both in our media and advertising, and in fact are so engrained as to be advanced by successive generations of these industries axiomatically.

Indeed, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead fascinatingly noted in Adventures of Ideas, some aspects of society are questioned by no part of it:

“When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents to all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.”

And so one of our epoch’s unconscious presuppositions is that Autumn must be spent mostly indoors, eating ‘comfort food’, while trying to conjure romantic Victorian or Edwardian sentiments – now usually achieved by watching how it’s done on the telly.

Making reference to Whitehead’s above assertion in an essay of his own, Gore Vidal was inspired to enlarge on the point, saying: “Writers of fiction, even more than systematic philosophers, tend to reveal unconscious presuppositions.”

At the time, he mentioned this in reference to the work of a novelist, John O’Hara. However, Vidal was always the first to say that our epoch’s prevailing fiction is not the novel at all, but rather television programmes and advertising. And so by this logic, it’s tempting to think that for every episode of ITV’s Victoria we watch and with every advertorial invitation we have to ‘snuggle’ or ‘curl up’ and get ‘cosy’, ‘comfy’ or ‘toasty’ with a big cup of hot chocolate or bowl of stew, we are in fact witnessing the pulsating shared subcortex of our society, reacting as if metabolically to the drop in temperature – which is an interesting thought to mull over while you toast your marshmallows.

And so for now I lay down my fountain pen with an unusually audible throat clear. I snuff a candle and creak my way past the open hearth in my tassel-corded dressing gown, where I take to my bed to dream of golden leaves and pumpkin soup. You can wake me in the Spring, after we’re over the Dickensy Christmas bit.

 

 

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Owen Jones: Podemos, Syriza and no Left Unity

Podemos representative, Eduardo Maura

Podemos representative, Eduardo Maura

This week the Guardian’s Owen Jones has written an article on the rise of Spanish leftist party, Podemos. The Podemos representative, Eduardo Maura whom I discussed in a previous post has been hosted in the UK by Left Unity for the past couple of months and has accompanied them for their national conference in London last weekend (Nov 15-16); it was he who Owen Jones spoke to for the article.

What was most notable to me about the article was that Jones made no mention at all of Left Unity, when it was clear that he must’ve met Eduardo Maura as a result of him being in London for the Left Unity conference. Surely if Left Unity is entertaining representatives of Podemos in order to learn lessons from them and to inspire their own supporters it would be prudent of an influential leftist journalist to at least acknowledge their existence? Indeed, he even makes the case for an equivalent party in Britain, yet still fails to mention them:

“But our political system is in crisis too. Discontent is bubbling away. The combined totals of the two main parties are plummeting. If the political elite continues to fail to meet people’s needs and aspirations while wealth and power are redistributed to the top, then who knows?

However, in slender defence, just before this paragraph Jones does express the opinion that:

“…such parties cannot simply be transplanted from one country to another: cultural and political contexts differ; the problems of Britain and Spain are often similar, but differ in scale and specifics. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system represents a formidable block on any new party emerging.”

However, this is quickly expunged when in the very last sentence of the article, Jones says:

“Maybe – just maybe – a party that sets its sights on the powerful, rather than the poor, will end up thriving instead.”

Owen Jones

Owen Jones

So why doesn’t he make one mention of Left Unity if that’s what he believes?

It’s a shame because the article had a lot of important points to make; one of the most interesting things said in it was based on what Maura told Jones:

‘…Podemos has undoubtedly thrived only because it has shredded the old left rulebook… it’s clear that Podemos is now surging because it eschews standard leftwing terminology. “In order to do politics differently, we need to do language differently,” Podemos’s Eduardo Maura tells me. “When you do politics, one of the things you have to ask yourselves is – what are you aiming at? You could aim at people who already have a political identity, who are an already signed-up leftist. We are trying to talk to people who don’t necessarily have this kind of identity.”’

This chimes well with what I’d been discussing in my previous posts: namely that the Left must update if it wants to challenge the Right in the scramble to control the ‘anti-politics’ sentiment in Britain.

In his article, Jones also mentions Syriza – the Greek equivalent of Podemos. This party’s representative at the Left Unity conferences over the past few months has been Marina Prentoulis, who spoke alongside Maura in Birmingham in September. I emailed her a few days after this meeting about my belief that the Left is often blighted by clichés and old-fashioned language and she obliged with a response:

“…the main point is how can we move away from the old left which is tired, old and for the most part uninspiring. I personal [sic] spare myself and others the traditional Marxist analysis and language and try to go back to the basics- justice and equality. The problem is that we cannot change the Left if we stay outside it. This is not only in relation to the British left but for the Greek Left, the Spanish etc. This is why younger people find participation in movements more promising. If however we could bridge the two, Left and movements, I think a spectacular change would be possible.”

So it seems both representatives of these successful foreign parties recognise the need to update the Left’s image and to stop the use of worn-out phrases that are often so exclusive of those who don’t wish to be stereotyped as a ‘right-on’ lefty.

Podemos representative, Marina Prentoulis

Syriza representative, Marina Prentoulis

In regards to what Marina Prentoulis says above, there is another thing that should be learned by the British Left as a whole: it must find a way to bridge the gap between activism and politics in order to appeal to an increasingly ‘fractured’ political demographic.

The youth wants ‘action’ through strikes and marches (such as the Indignados) and the older generations want ‘reform’ through the agreed political process. Yet while the youth are outside politics looking in, they can’t instigate any workable changes; and while the older generations are inside politics looking out, they’re essentially neutered by the media and political establishment to the point where they’re just as hopeless.

It would be interesting to see if Left Unity had indeed learnt from this notion after their time spent with Podemos and Syriza; it’s just a shame Jones didn’t attempt to find out.

Because in the end, the struggle to piece together the Left is the same struggle to piece together an individualistic society. However unromantic and un-nostalgic it may be, this can only be overcome with forward-looking techniques – as Podemos has used – along with a riddance of hypocrisy and downright fucking-about, entertaining champagne socialists like Russell Brand – and it’s up to the likes of Owen Jones to make sure that the alternatives to this are known.

 

Sainsbury’s Won’t be the Last to Exploit WWI

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Soldiers of the Christmas Truce

In a previous blog post I discussed how the First World War is undergoing a transformation that is allowing it to be exploited for entertainment purposes – and so it seems the misuse of the conflict’s memory rages on. And who else could do it better than a giant money-grabbing supermarket?

Sainsbury’s’ latest Christmas advert centres round the WWI trenches and the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. On a budget that must have rivalled an HBO production, the supermarket chain has managed a poignant, believable and heartrending advert – and this is what’s so disgraceful about it.

It begins with soldiers in a freezing trench, lit by the glow of lamps, singing as the snow falls. One young man receives a care parcel containing a photograph of his sweetheart along with a bar of chocolate – a welcome replacement for the stale old biscuit he’s been considering.

Christmas day breaks and unexpectedly the young soldier decides to put his head above the parapet, hands raised. As the German soldiers stand-to and aim their rifles at him, a soldier from within their ranks calls for them to hold their fire, as he tentatively pokes his own head up, hands raised, shaking with cold and fear.

Both men have gone over the top and suddenly each is joined by his comrades. The two first men meet and shake hands and in an instant no man’s land is a flourish of jubilant soldiers. Footballs are kicked, photos are taken or passed round and food is shared – just as it actually happened. And just as it actually happened, these merriments didn’t last long, and the soldiers are soon forced to pack up and return to their positions to continue the hostilities.

At this point in the advert the first German soldier puts his hands in the pockets of his greatcoat that he’d put down to play football, only to find the British soldier has secreted his chocolate bar as a gift. As the British soldier once again sits down in his trench he opens a tin box to find a solitary stale biscuit.

This of course is the most emotional part of the advert, but I’d prefer not to dignify it by describing it any more. It’s enough to say the advert ends by fading into the Sainsbury’s logo and then into the slogan “Christmas is for sharing”.

Profit is king

The whole story of the Christmas Truce has always been incredibly inspiring and at the same time unbearably heart-breaking. The idea that men bound to kill each other could put it all behind them and embrace their mutual compassion has made it a significant point of reference for military history, psychology and humanity, indeed, since it happened. Then the idea that as nations we were so close to just once saying no to the establishment in the name of solidarity; and to then have it all dashed, at the expense of millions of dead and millions of broken families, leaves all who know the story ultimately cold at the thought of it.

This is why it’s a travesty that Sainsbury’s should profit from this.

Not one person should profit from this.

Imagine showing it to a veteran of that war now – someone who was there at the truce. Imagine you are him at the time, having that great inundation of emotion and pride for this one act; then living through four years of hell (if you managed to) and going through the rest of your life blighted by what you saw, with only this one memory of the Christmas Truce to console you.

Then after you’re dead and after all your mates from the same war are dead – and only then, because none of you can disagree – it’s used to sell Top Gear DVDs and vol-au-vents; mobile phones and frozen prawns; celebrity hardbacks, tacky decorations and even a ‘WWI-style’ Taste the Difference chocolate bar – along with the usual surplus choices, including fifteen types of butter and twenty types of toilet roll. How do you feel now?

I do hope you haven’t forgotten the turkey – you simply have to have a turkey. One of millions slaughtered after being kept for months in a square foot of shit-covered floor scattered with fellow dying turkeys. ‘Don’t worry madam, they were in a windowless barn, not a trench. This one only had a minor lice infestation. C’mon, you saw the ad, Christmas is for sharing!’

Indeed, what is better to share than a mutantly-enlarged bird buckling under its own weight with its toes cut off; only having been allowed a semblance of life so it and its kind can be massacred and frozen for your convenience? It’s tradition, you know.

And what great consumers of ‘tradition’ we are in this country – as long as it’s peddled by huge companies intent on taking our money. The saccharin Coca Cola and John Lewis  adverts (which Sainsbury’s is clearly trying to outdo, shamelessly hiding behind its support for the British Legion) are the prime examples of this; somehow having – for millions of people – come to epitomise a holiday based on a 2,000 year old Middle-Eastern religion by way of the Roman Empire and adapted to fit a Pagan calendar .

It has only been over the last decade that companies have clamped so tightly onto our emotions at a time that was primarily intended (religious sentiment aside) to simply have a break from work and spend some time with our families. Now it seems this can only be achieved once you’ve forked out a year’s worth of savings, while the likes of Sainsbury’s hold back on taxes by having subsidiaries in offshore tax-havens.

And so it seems the newest ‘tradition’ will be to milk the emotive power of the First World War to sell excessive amounts of crap to people who don’t need it – people who all the while are slowly forgetting (or being made to forget) that this war was essentially built on the same greed and monopolism and empire that huge corporations such as Sainsbury’s now stand for.

In my previous post I also facetiously mentioned what a travesty it would be if Sylvester Stallone played the goalkeeper in a Christmas Truce spin-off of Escape to Victory. Well, it wasn’t quite that; but by god they’ve done a good job of paving the way for it.

Loving By Henry Green

Loving

Loving is one of the most well-known novels by a most unknown author – Henry Green (1905-1973).

Often described as being utterly unique, much of Green’s work reached critical acclaim during his lifetime. His friends and admirers who judged him weren’t nobodies either; they included novelists Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Grahame Greene, John Updike and at one time, whilst a casual member of the so-called Birmingham Group, poetry giants WH Auden and Louis MacNeice.

Birdsong author, Sebastian Faulks, is one of his very few present-day fans, and one who subscribes to the unrivalled high esteem in which Green was held by his contemporaries. Saying ‘very few fans’ is an inescapable truth, but is a disservice to Green’s work – it gives the impression that his lack of current admirers is deserved. This is not the case.

It remains a mystery why Henry Green (born Henry Vincent Yorke) could be lauded as one of, if not the, greatest writers of the 20th Century by the literary colossi listed above, and yet be consigned to the mercy of serendipity today (I only found out about him looking specifically for writers with a connection to Birmingham).

Faulks believes it may be that modern attention spans just aren’t up to the job, which is why you don’t hear much about him anymore – this might be an accurate appraisal considering Green’s unfamiliar style of prose.

But to me, the similarity of the characters, setting and plot with those of Downton Abbey is unending – and this show’s popularity demonstrates that there’s at least an appetite for what Henry Green wrote in Loving.

In fact I sometimes wonder if the programme raised a few eyebrows amongst the holders of Green’s estate. After all, how often can you take more than your fair share of inspiration from preexisting critically-acclaimed literary excellence that everyone has somehow forgotten about? Suffice to say I’d bet my manor house Julian Fellowes has read Loving – and what good taste he has – just a shame about the result of it.

Because whereas Downton is full of unnaturally suggestive facial expressions, novelty innuendo and deus ex machina; Loving is subtle and crafted with a paternal care for every detail – with no shortcuts. And the details described are in no way synthetic – Henry Green’s genius is that he picks up on the things we notice every day, indeed, without noticing. This making conscious of the unconscious is wholly satisfying for the reader and is quietly astonishing when it means you’re able to predict how a character will act because you’d have done exactly the same thing.

This, however, doesn’t mean the book is predictable – Loving doesn’t follow a familiar literary narrative but rather it has all the obstacles posed by the social constraints and downright banality of real life. For example the frequent passages where the Kinalty servants are sat joking in their dining quarters are always fraught with anxiety that someone will take the joke too far and the scene will break down into passive aggression – a fear at any real-world formal dinner table, and one which Downton Abbey attempts to channel regularly; but of course without the surreptitious build up that Green simply owns.

Indeed, in his memoirs, Pack My Bag, Green said:

“Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go. Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone …”

Surely this alone demonstrates Green’s commitment to realism – Loving shuns the black and white omniscience towards its characters and readers that most novels profess, in favour of seemingly impartial and greyer observation – as if Green simply started spying on the book’s characters a few days before we did.

This diversion from normal literary practice on Green’s part nudges a question into view, albeit a platitudinous one: how well do we ever really know someone? Our nearest family members, friends and partners are often our greatest sources of mystery, because they’re who we would like to know about most. Sebastian Faulks says we feel protective over the characters in Loving, and I agree; it’s as if they’re our family, and our sentiments accord. I say with embarrassment that a couple of times I confused the likes of Kate and Edith with people I know in real life – often in the form of: ‘Was it you that said that? Oh wait, no.’

Take another look at the passage from Green’s memoirs above. It’s in itself beautiful and full of the rhythm which makes Loving flow so lyrically in places – until, as he often does, Green almost rebukes the reader for getting carried away by delivering a burst of prosaic triviality or sometimes cruelty – such as when Raunce’s Albert gets a slap across the face from Kate during a picnic on the beach.

Henry Green

Henry Green

Green’s insistence on prose drawing tears out of the stone of course applies to any emotional reaction from the reader, as long as it’s cultivated naturally – hence why so much of Loving is genuinely funny, but never really as a result of a joke or a pun. Just as in any television comedy, the funniest moments are when characters you’ve gotten to know suddenly act outside their usual personality or say something they wouldn’t otherwise say. For example, the sincerity of Raunce’s suggestion when discussing Mrs Welch’s craftiness that he’d “choke the life out of ‘er by pokin’ a peacock down that great gullet she has” is simply hilarious and is a line you must stop and savour for a moment before reading on. In fact the inspiration for the novel speaks immeasurably of Green’s comic intentions when he first sat down to write it:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: ‘Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.’ I saw the book in a flash.

This also shows just how unwavering Green really was when approaching human behaviour; Loving is an utter stockpile of humanity and is unrivalled by other novels that attempt a similar level of realism.

The best praise I can give this book is that once you’ve finished it, for a moment you genuinely believe that you’ll get to know the characters more at a later date, as if you’ll somehow get to bump into them and find out how they’re getting on. And then you realise once again that Green has dunked your head in and out of the pool of fiction so much that you’re no longer sure of the distinction between it and reality. Much like how it takes time to realise you can never again talk to someone you know who has died; the loss of this book comes over sudden. Similarly this is when the reflection begins; you realise that this was its natural lifespan – more could have been said, but then it always could.

Loving is a book about love in all its forms: noble, possessive, unrequited and circumstantial. It’s about the complexities of love, not just the extremities, and it’s about the defensive nature of it: the emotional sparring matches and struggles for ascendancy in an idealised future despite the impending threats to it – along with those yet to be revealed.

It’s also about how an author can love a set of characters, and it’s about how a reader can love them too; and seemingly unconditionally at that.

Left Unity: Podemos, Syriza and the Lamentations of the Left

ken

Left Unity calls itself the “new party of the left in Britain” and its intentions seem clear: “…to offer an alternative to the main parties’ agenda of blaming the poorest for society’s problems and destroying the welfare state.”

The party and its ideals came about after a call by famous director, Ken Loach (pictured above), on Question Time for there to be a real alternative to an increasingly neoliberalist Labour bunch. It formed in November 2013 and has since become increasingly active across the UK – now arising as a small but repetitive bleep on the radar of the left-wing press, including the New Statesman.

Over the past week, Left Unity and Ken Loach have been on a public meetings tour accompanied by representatives of successful European left-wing parties, Podemos (from Spain) and Syriza (from Greece); two parties that sprang from the ‘Indignados’ (Indignants) movements in their respective countries after their economies collapsed at the beginning of the decade.

Both of these parties have since found themselves burgeoning with support and success. Podemos now has 5 representatives in European Parliament and is chasing down the PSOE (Spain’s Labour equivalent); while Syriza is top of the Greek polls and on course to win in the next general election.

Left Unity, however, as one man put it during this meeting on a rainy night in Birmingham, are still meeting in the back rooms of pubs. This was ironic considering it was an ex-Quaker meeting house – but still, the point stood: why is it that the Left has blossomed on the Continent and it seems to languish here in Britain?

It certainly isn’t a case of time or preparation: Podemos was founded in January 2014, winning 8% of the EU election vote after only 4 months of existence.

Sure, Left Unity has had some successes: it started with 10,000 people signing a petition to encourage founding a new party of the Left after Ken Loach’s appeal; it has subsequently garnered 2,000 members. But that’s pretty much it in real terms. In fact, the stats just listed must in themselves demonstrate something: that there is a distinct lack of parity between wanting a real alternative and actually getting behind it in this country.

Anger is of course one of the most mobilising political emotions, and things have certainly been angry in Spain and Greece. However, a lot of people are angry in Britain: the people being taxed on their spare bedrooms; the disabled people being forced to work when they physically can’t; the people with unstable and precarious jobs and the people on wages too low to afford a human existence. These are all very angry. So why has this anger translated into leftist success in the Mediterranean, and in Britain we’ve got UKIP?

The supposed reasons are myriad, hinting that Mediterranean grievances are worse than our own: a) Spain and Greece’s unemployment rates meant a lot of people had time on their hands to be spent on political resistance and organisation b) Thousands had already been mobilised in protests over austerity, which left a strong legacy c) Wages don’t match inflation and d) Most of their populations feel as though Germany and the Troika are holding them to ransom. The dire nature of these problems is probably why the two countries have gotten so politically active in recent years.

However, it’s only this last grievance where comparisons can’t really be drawn with Britain – yes their versions are more extreme but overall the situation is pretty much the same. So to simply say that Spain and Greece’s situation is more extreme than ours as an explanation as to why British support is drifting towards the right-wing “anti-politics” movement as opposed to that of the Left is reductive and rather unsatisfactory.

One of the least obvious points which at first only hints at an explanation for Britain’s journey away from the Left was made during the Birmingham meeting. It came from the Syriza representative, Marina Prentoulis (of the University of East Anglia), who asserted that it’s time for the Left to “leave behind the 20th Century” – a statement that was received with the most enthusiastic applause of the night – she said no more on the matter, but keep this in mind, the audience loved the idea.

Why then, say 15 minutes later, did nearly every contributor from the audience mention something to do with the glory days of the Left just after 1945? (not just in reference to the Ken Loach film The Spirit of ‘45). And why also did a few speakers address those in the room as ‘comrades’ as if we were huddled together at a Leninist rally in 1920s Petrograd?

It’s enough to turn your brain to borscht. All these apparent progressives who clapped and cheered at the idea of drawing a respectful line under the past wanted discussion to concern nothing closer than a time before most of them were even born. And frankly, using historically appropriated words like comrade, to someone of my age (25) – the age that efforts should be made to appeal to – is utterly contrived and self-indulgent, not to mention a major turn-off.

This is one of the main reasons why the Left is stagnating in the UK.

Why can’t contemporary issues and policies and solutions be the main focuses of discussion? Some of the people present at this debate were so narcissistic it was painful; endlessly reeling off the contents of their CVs before asking questions that were mostly related to themselves.

The 60 or 70-odd-year-old woman sat next to me was begging to be heard, saying that her question was relevant to each one just asked for about twenty minutes like a petulant child, until eventually she was allowed to speak. The only sympathetic looks I got for having to sit next to her were from a young couple obviously just as annoyed at her conceit as I was. No one else batted an eyelid.

Her question was regarding how Podemos managed to get round the traditional media whitewash that often faces many up-and-coming Leftist movements. Eduardo Maura, its representative, answered ‘social media’ and went on to detail how. The woman responded under her breath saying in all seriousness: “Oh, well that’s me disenfranchised.” At which point she began talking to her friend without listening to the answer she so desperately wanted to hear. Hold on, I thought you’d come to learn how they had achieved their success?

It’s this sort of approach to leftist politics that is so damaging – of course it’s not wholly representative, but it does demonstrate the kind of intellectual masturbation that is at its most comfortable when done with the left hand. At least the Right talks in real terms – and about the future too; the real future, not the future wholly in relation to the past.

The overstatement of the political impact of social media is well-documented. The Arab Spring wasn’t sparked by a 140 characters online. It was sparked by over a million characters in Tahrir Square; who in turn had responded to one character who felt he had to burn himself alive to get his point across.

However, when Podemos have won 5 seats in the European elections after only 4 months of existence, despite being labelled terrorists and being whitewashed by traditional media, you’ve got to take what they say on board. They’ve collected over 700,000 followers on Facebook in just 10 months – and this isn’t just a cynical win in secondary school popularity terms. This is unedited direct access to people’s eyeballs via their mobile phones 24 hours a day.

Just like a football manager must do to succeed in football, the Left needs to realise that the game of politics is not only reliant on the old dogs, but also the young talent if it wants to avoid becoming the political equivalent of Alan Hansen.

It’s time to move on. We should never forget what was achieved in the past but that shouldn’t be all we strive for. It’s a very different world now and it’s time to act accordingly – even 1945 was modern once.

How The Left Was Lost

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Political commentators are constantly saying that left-wing politics is adrift. ‘Fractured’ is a word often used to describe it, and there isn’t much to suggest otherwise.

With no cohesive sentiment or aims it seems those who class themselves as leftist simply can’t get their act together in a way that would concern the established centre-right.

One of the reasons for this dawned on me last Sunday the 28th of September, as I looked on at the protests in Birmingham while the Conservatives held their party conference at the International Convention Centre…

By no means a majority, but a significant peppering of each protest group looked as though they’d just come from a Cuban revolutionary work camp circa 1968 – the men with their ripped jeans, ponytails and camo jackets with the obligatory sewn-on symbols of rebellion; the girls with round-lens sunglasses, rainbow braids and wooden beads – both sexes with neon hair colours and a couple of jester hats thrown in to update the look to about 1990.

And I thought, Jesus. Hasn’t all this crap been done to death?

To now state the cliché that I’m “all for people looking how they want but…” in defence of my apparent superficiality would be inaccurate.

Of course I agree with freedom of choice. The thing I disagree with is contrivance. It’s damaging to a cause. And contrivance is no more abundant than in the ‘right-on’ sorts that pervade nearly every activist movement today.

Indeed, the stylistic approach to leftist politics is just as exclusive as the ubiquitous blue ties and suits of the grassroots Conservative support that filtered into the canal-side bars surrounding the ICC once the speeches were over. As I watched these little Camerons and Camorenesses walk past, ostensibly neutral passers-by pointed them out in ridicule – myself, then engrossed in a game of spot-the-toff amongst the hi-vis police vests and G4S polos, wondered facetiously which would be the one to eventually privatise the NHS.

Can you spot them?

Can you spot them?

Just as much as I don’t want to be part of this crowd, I don’t want to be identified with the mass of pseudo-revolutionaries and their culturally appropriated dreadlocks – despite sympathising with most of the views they were espousing on the day; whether concerning climate-change, the badger cull or the effects of neoliberalism and capitalism.

This is a huge shame since it’s a position I’d wager most people share with me, given that the majority of people don’t look like either of the groups described above.

The main point I’d like to submit here before exploring the aesthetic argument is an intellectual one. It’s this: those on the Left are now frozen stiff by archaisms, nostalgia and charlatanism – constantly trying to evoke either the revolutionary glory days of the 1910s or the heady days of the 1960s, while not having been alive to see them.

Is that an early 1980s Rodney Trotter on the left? Oh no, it's a modern day Communist

Is that an early 1980s Rodney Trotter on the left? Oh no, it’s a modern day Communist

While UKIP has adapted and modernised its approach (the Paddy Power ad being a prime example) and made huge ground in offering people an alternative to the mainstream parties, there has been no such surge on the Left, which continues to outsource to half-arsed disparate activists who see their politics as more of a lifestyle choice than a way of inciting any change – a proclivity that the establishment is more than happy to allow.

The things the Left once stood for such as fairness and open-mindedness no longer have their consolidating effect because there’s too much uninformed superfluous bullshit in between.

UKIP doesn’t have this problem; its MPs, candidates and supporters are defined simply and almost solely by what they stand for – even if it’s only to get another pint. For much of those on the far-left it’s different: they’re defined by what they appear to stand for. Indeed, it now seems enough to just wear what’s expected of someone with developed, radical opinions than to actually have them; in essence to have not been there but still got the Ché print T-shirt.

How did the Left become so regressive? And what good are all these signs and symbols when they’re no longer culturally – or even their primary requisite – politically relevant?

This would perhaps explain the stupefying recognition afforded to climate-change denial, or at least why the eco movement has taken such a long time to gain popular support (which it is still doing). The fact is that being tarred with the ‘hippie’ brush is undesirable and thus many people, who would otherwise actively support the cause, are put off by the image of straggly goatees and tie-dye. Incidentally, the same goes for flip flop wearing Greenpeace street fundraisers who I suspect see their job as a good way of getting phone numbers off girls they fancy rather than donators.

In fact, leftist causes have over the past couple of decades been hijacked to get sensitive beardy types laid by sensitive un-beardy types. All the while the population has been courted by the further-right, which has advanced timely policies to receptive audiences – who to me it seems could quite as easily have drifted to the further-left, were there someone not wearing hemp representing it.

This last image is of course an exaggeration, but it serves a purpose by existing at all. You knew the image I wanted to conjure and you knew the word ‘hemp’ was used in the pejorative sense despite it being a noun. Therefore, the problem is real.

The solution then is to legitimise the Left in the eyes of the general public. Lose the dated symbols and unwashed aesthetic.
The ideals are necessary but they must be updated and reattributed to the present. For example, the instances of religious infringement on freedom of speech and the arts and the schooling of children should be fertile ground for the proper Left to plant the seed of unity amongst ‘fractured’ groups.

But so many on the Left can’t decide what to do about this. They know they stand for freedom but they think their job as liberals is to be walked all over – as long as they’re passive they’re in the right. Once again, the establishment is more than happy to let them to fall into this trap.

There are some signs of fresh activity on the Left. There’s a new party called Left Unity, which has arisen after a call from Kes director, Ken Loach to create an alternative to Labour with the grand aim of ultimately replacing it.

There’s much promise within the policies of this party and it’s one to keep an eye on. However, they, like many of their contemporaries, seem to be wavering on this last issue of state and religion, and whichever side they come down on will certainly influence any success they have in the future.

But for now there’s a load to be done to defibrillate the true ways of the Left. The first requirement is to dispel the myth of liberalism, to let people know that it isn’t a by-word for beatific pacifism; that it actually represents the uncompromising demand for freedom, justice and equality.

And with the berets put away it’s these values that’ll be the ones to reinvigorate a once ambitious left-wing; as long as they’re read from modern, reasoned and discussed policies and manifestos, and not from a piece of scrap paper found in Swampy’s old army surplus coat.

Don’t Sacrifice WWI for the Sake of Entertainment

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With the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War being remembered this year, television has seen a great upsurge in WWI based drama and documentary.

Harry Patch of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was the last surviving ‘Tommy’ to see service in this terrible war; his death in 2009 and those of his comrades before him seems to have spelled the end of how we portray the events of that time. Now there’s no longer a living person who saw the fighting it seems the conscious (but necessary) blind deference that once ring-fenced the topic of WWI is beginning to give way to a more critical questioning of events in TV documentaries – Were we right to go to war? Why did we go to war in the first place? And was it worth it?

This is a shift that is incredibly important to our understanding of WWI. To publicly come to the point where we can actually ask ‘was it worth it?’ and be prepared to answer honestly is essential to extract the ultimate value from the lessons learned. It and questions like it are ones we can ask only now, without the danger of upsetting those who believed the cause was right and good, or likewise those who thought the cause was flawed but would disapprove the notion that many of their comrades died for no discernible purpose whatsoever – we are still coming to terms with this possibility.

In the meantime the loss of these last survivors of the conflict is having another effect. Not only has it altered how we approach the war intellectually, it’s also allowed a shift in how the war is portrayed artistically; a fact which is particularly noticeable in the instance of television, whose approach to the First World War is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.

The apparent rush to secure the imagination of today’s young people appears to be the incentive. This is the first generation to have no possibility of a living link with the conflict; a fact which has resulted in a youth-orientated stylisation of a story that we’re used to being told through factual historical representation, high literature and poetry (if only the televisual adaptation).

The techniques of big-budget American TV drama and even gaming are beginning to creep into the narrative and aesthetics and indeed, the whole ‘multi-platform’ approach to WWI: the most prescient example being the BBC Three drama, Our World War.

The trailer, which you can see [here] is currently being shown between BBC programmes.

The first thing you’ll notice about it is that amongst the explosions, machine gun fire, smoke, showers of earth and blood, and running and screaming men that were no doubt characteristic of one of the most sadistic wars in history, the accompanying heavy American rock music is gravely out of place.

This is indicative of the producers’ whole approach to the programme; the problem is that it’s just too glamorous. It may deal more closely with the graphic images of the war, which to be fair are based on historical accounts (and there are some poignant moments), but it does very little to advance the concept that it wasn’t just a time of great action-packed fun.

There’s even a BBC iPlayer spin-off interactive episode where you play a British Army officer forced to make real-time decisions such as whether or not to shoot an unidentified silhouetted figure coming down a hill or whether or not to execute a wounded German soldier while he lies on the ground.

You get an affirming green plus sign and some points when you choose to shoot the German soldier, as well as a clip of him being shot in the face at your behest.

The silhouetted figure coming down the hill turns out to be a fellow British soldier so you were right not to shoot if that’s what you chose. However, in a misguided attempt at unflinching retrospect, the game displays a red minus sign and deducts ‘tactics’ points for this because in 1916 you wouldn’t have had time to discern who the figure was; the game’s producers essentially rebuking you for not opting to shoot your own man, while neglecting to remember that you’re not in a trench holding a rifle, you’re in your house holding an iPad.

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The game did attempt to balance this concept by awarding or deducting points for ‘morale’ for such decisions. Will Storer, the project lead for the game, said of the system: “…scores whilst accurate, are somewhat unexpected depending on the scenario, an outcome which we thought reflected well on the hellish situations depicted within the story itself”.

This seems fair enough at first, but does it really excuse a BBC production about the First World War awarding points because you choose to shoot someone dead? And does WWI really need a game at all? The point-of-view and ‘down-sight’ camera shots used throughout the television series itself already make it feel like you’re playing it on the PlayStation or Xbox.

This type of portrayal is what those who fought in this war were striving against since they were there.

The squalor, pain, humiliation, fear, hatred, empathy and love are to name but a few of the myriad afflictions and emotions they focused on – as well as the dullness, the boredom and the infuriating pedantry and bureaucracy of the officer class. But these people are no longer here and so TV drama is able to change its approach, just like the documentaries have done.

The techniques now being used are unmistakably transferred from recent World War Two based productions such as Band of Brothers. This was a fine show in its own right but for a WWI drama to adopt its style almost wholesale is a mistake. The American soldiers in Band of Brothers were empowered and had a lot more licence to be gung-ho as they swept across Europe pushing back the flagging Nazis.  This was not the case for British soldiers in WWI who fought for years over a few yards of ground, and who were as powerless as their enemies.

WWII is of course the eternal Hollywood benefactor so it seems only natural to emulate its influence. It was being glamorised while it was still going on, and has been constantly revisited by films, television dramas and latterly computer games. The only benefit of this is that the heroic stories and sensationalised events depicted in them have always sparked a keen interest within young people, which has led to nearly every generation being familiar with the conflict. This conversance is important since there’s still much to be learned, not only in a historical sense but also in a moral and ethical sense, and only continued interest will encourage keen research in the future.

However, the problem with it is that many people now discuss WWII almost solely in relation to its media representation. A discussion concerning the escape by airmen from Stalag Luft III will inevitably conjure talk of Steve McQueen and his motorcycle daredevilry; the entire Death Railway won’t amount to more than a single Bridge Over the River Kwai; and the bombing of the Ruhr Valley dams will perhaps incite no more than a whistled tune (as in fact may the former two).

More recently Saving Private Ryan intimated that it was solely the USA that fought the Nazis, while Call of Duty World at War propelled the world’s deadliest ever conflict into little more than a struggle for player rankings.

Until now the First World War has been saved this kind of fate out of respect for those who were there. Their war was the first to be followed by remembrance rather than triumph, and melancholy instead of celebration.  The passive symbol of poppies was chosen because they grew out of the churned earth of no man’s land – a blood-red image of loss held up by the persistence of life. This came along with more abstract concepts such as the incomprehensible human sacrifice, only hinted at with each statue of an Unknown Soldier or row after row of uniform white granite headstones – and so the sentiment has stayed.

The likes of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves are still the gatekeepers to an authentic picture of the First World War. But despite their honesty being incredibly stark at the time, it seems less so now. Their work is flecked by noticeable constraints of traditional stoicism, stiff upper lips and understatement. And despite the authors’ sincerity, it is incredibly hard to make sense of something that you are directly involved in, tainted as your perception is by emotion and proximity. This probably means that the picture needs updating.

However, the glamorised path is not the one to choose. It leads to more of the inaccurate portrayals or downright populist silage that’s been tenuously attached to WWII because it saved the writers having to come up with an original context. Why bother thinking up a narrative when WWII is so conveniently and perfectly ready-made?

The BBC has made some great programmes about the First World War, and their attempt with Our World War to appeal to an only-just disenfranchised generation of young people is virtuous. But the immaculate dentistry and chiselled jaws of the actors hint at more than a coincidental attempt at sexing-up, while the head-cams and night vision shots are anachronistic at best and an anathema to taste at worst.

WWI should not simply be set on the same tracks to Hollywood as WWII. Do we really want to see Sylvester Stallone play the goalkeeper in a Christmas Truce spin-off of Escape to Victory? This of course would be a travesty for WWI. It was for WWII but we were too accustomed to even notice.

The First World War is solemn and delicate and is the epitome of the wastefulness of all British conflicts: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is still the focal point for public commemoration. This time shouldn’t be messed with by those who seek to exploit it or mistreat it like they have done with the Second World War.

The way to update our grasp of the subject is to allow our continued exploration of letters, historical records and contemporaneous accounts to inspire reasoned, heartfelt and candid literature, film and television – not gimmicks.

By no means should The First World War be a sacred cow, but by equal measure should it not be sacrificed. Of course we shouldn’t be afraid to re-approach the conflict so we can cover any gaps in our understanding and help prevent another such stupid waste of life, but not by undermining the victims who’ve already given theirs.

The only thing the veterans ever asked us to do in all their humility was to remember – so let’s.

 

One Strike and You’re Out

No cuts

Why are we all so against people protesting? Every time there’s some sort of industrial action, the rest of us can’t help but show disdain for all those involved.

The news vox-pops will inevitably feature disgruntled Underground users who will decry tube staff for making them late for work; angry parents will bemoan teachers: ‘I have to go to work, why don’t they just get on with it?’ While public sector workers and unions are vilified for being lazy or for throwing their weight around.

Since when did we all become so sycophantic towards the capitalist system? So what if you’re made late for your job because a tube ticket office worker is trying to keep hers? Surely your boss understands that short of sitting on a bin lid and corralling a pack of stray dogs to pull you through the streets so you can arrive on time, there isn’t really much you can do. And surely your boss can take the hit of half an hour’s lost labour more than a mother of two can take 6 months’ worth.

So why is everyone so reluctant to show support for people who are standing up against the system? – Which probably has screwed you over at some stage and will do in a heartbeat anytime it deems you surplus to requirements.

Is not every victory won in the name of the average person one whose spoils we can all share in? You wouldn’t think it when you read the newspapers or switch on the telly after journalists have gotten a whiff of a strike – inevitably focusing on the effect it’ll have on people’s ability to go to work rather than the dispute itself or the intentions of those taking action.

Here’s an obvious yet increasingly novel set of sentiments: Every time teachers strike for payment increases or reduced workloads, their aims ultimately benefit us all because our nation’s children are better off for it.

When firefighters strike, it isn’t because they don’t do enough sitting around bored out their brains: it’s because when they are called into action they don’t feel properly trained or equipped to save our lives – and considering this work, risking their lives and being stretched across everything from putting out fires to cutting critically injured passengers out of sickeningly mangled cars, the right to a decent pension is fair enough.

And public sector workers who demand a pay increase, so their wages at least match inflation, are setting a precedent we could all benefit from.

But instead of consolidating with our fellow overburdened, underpaid citizens, many people take a stance that David Cameron could only dream of expressing i.e. calling such people leeches and selfish freeloaders and layabouts – without once stopping to think about their grievances or how their action could benefit everyone in the long-run.

So to anyone who has a problem with someone exercising their right to protest: remember that if it wasn’t for the likes of them you probably wouldn’t be allowed to vote or earn a minimum wage, along with many other civil entitlements and liberties you take for granted.

Rebels Without a Clue

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Fashions in clothes, music and lifestyle have defined British identity for centuries – but has it ever been as boring as it is now?

Modern taste in all of the above seems to be a fabricated rehashing of all that has gone before it.

The nation’s clothes come straight from photos of Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy, Paul Newman and Kurt Cobain, plucked by Topshop and River Island ‘designers’ and buyers; then homogenised, made to ‘look worn’ and sold at heftily marked-up prices considering the almost criminal manufacture costs.

The famous names above are just a few stalwarts of this tasteless yet acrid regurgitation, which also includes Jimi Hendrix, Audrey Hepburn and Steve McQueen  – all of whom have been milked for all they’re worth years after they’re all dead; their individuality being paradoxically made available to millions of people – most of whom weren’t even alive when they were.

Many of today’s most ‘rebellious’ teenagers consider themselves trendsetters for being adorned in multiple past decades’ worth of imitated fashion.

They’re convinced with absolute certainty that they’re channelling the original items’ initial qualities despite them being nothing but cheaply made modern replicas, often without even their original function: the sewn-in pocket hanky probably being  the most laughable example.

Their 1950s Wayfarer sunglasses have been reproduced by pretty much every shop on the high street but they don’t seem to mind; their 1990s-style hi top trainers are by design no different than they were 20 years ago, and the denim jackets they bought brand-new last week somehow already look 40 years old.

And those less ‘rebellious’ sorts left behind still demonstrate this retrograde tendency but are even more willing to conform to commercial brainwashing – they wear the preppy  50s-style Converse trainers but they also wear hippie Toms; they own a skinhead Fred Perry jacket but they also own a chav’s Nike hoodie. What conflicted hybrid of ideals and eras is this?

You don’t have to think very hard to realise that the clothes described above could now be worn by anyone below the age of 50 – such is the extent of market-diktat uniformity in dress and social outlook.

Look across your local shopping mall (now indisputably, though aptly pronounced ‘maul’ by most people) and you’ll see fully-grown men and women, teens and children wearing exactly the same clothes: mostly super-skinny jeans, trainers (usually Converse) or Toms and a graphic t-shirt and hoodie – the only difference among them is that the men have David Beckham-style sleeve tattoos, which he began almost 15 years ago.

This is a notion that is not only boring, but also quite embarrassing.

And it’s not just embarrassing because it represents the commodification of pretty much every programmed consumer in the country, but because it means that kids are too content to be like their parents, and parents are too content to be like their kids – something that would’ve at one stage been unthinkable.

Not only do nearly all age groups now share clothing tastes, they’re all pretty much listening to the same music, watching the same films and reading the same books; bungee-jumping off the pop culture cliff and cherry-picking bits to stick to themselves as they boing up and down, much like a dresser crab attaches bits of the seabed to its carapace in order to disguise what it actually is.

Now you see teenagers wearing Doc Martens and t-shirts with Rolling Stones lips emblazoned on them while their parents discuss One Direction in between committing hundreds of hours to reading Game of Thrones.

Oh yes, and both wear ‘onesies’.

It is now that the lines have begun to blur properly. Pop culture only looks backwards while its consumers only look to each other. Because of iTunes, kids buy into music their parents once did, then this taste spawns a modern imitation, which their parents in-turn consume along with them.

These musicians, just like the high street stores, don’t just provide a knowing nod towards a certain genre with enough changes to make it something in its own right; they impersonate them exactly, right down to the very last synth-beat, à la Haim or à La Roux.

The early 2000s acoustic guitar and falsetto vocals in Ed Sheeran’s latest barefaced reproduction of Justin Timberlake is bafflingly greeted without resistance – especially since Timberlake himself was never much more than a Michael Jackson impersonator. Timberlake (at the time of writing) is in the charts with a duet with Michael Jackson, digitally composed five years after his death.

And look at the likes of Mumford & Sons, who have incited very strong affection among the middle-aged and the young; many of whom quickly jumped on what they thought was a credible bandwagon due to the old-timey sound and tweedy style – they’re yet to find out it’s being driven by charlatans with stick-on moustaches.

Indeed, the subsequent resurgence of the moustache as an acceptable fashion statement is in itself a manifestation of this lack of originality and over-reflexivity; one not only worn on the top lip but on almost every type of clothing, jewellery and crappy point-of-sale merchandise such as mugs and pencil-toppers – even adorning a pair of Toms footwear in a maddeningly unashamed exercise in commercial symbiosis. If facial hair can be commoditised then what is there left?

It seems the large part of the younger generations now don’t want to stand against anything; a disposition which was once their defining feature.

They would rather have a black and white photo of James Dean on a printed t-shirt than actually be a rebel without a cause; all the while sharing crudely mocked-up images of life advice quotes on Facebook, often from mutually conflicting historical and cultural figures; the kind of which are shown below, only slightly embellished for illuminating effect, although I’m sure this exact combination could be found somewhere if you were inclined to look. Just type ‘life quotes’ into Google to see what I mean…

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They think this kind of thing is inspired.

In actuality it’s banal at best and excruciating at worst. They refuse to say no to this kind of inconsistency, they consume and regurgitate without question and have no desire to resist and carve their own path, even just to show themselves they can – which surely at one time was good practice when learning to fight for things that really mattered.

Perhaps this is a good point: did the newly coined ‘teenagers’ of the 1950s, who shirked their parents’ influences and began listening to Rock ’n’ Roll  in their bedrooms, grow up to become the archetypal 1960s activists who shaped the world we now live in?

This then would explain why any current activist movement is usually bereft of any definable common cause, with the likes of the 2011 England Riots starting off as a march against alleged police misconduct, and ending with people trying on trainers to make sure they looked good before looting them.

Who knows where this cultural stagnation will lead? And as Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan said looking at a zip that opened to no pocket: Who the hell even cares?

Orwell in Marrakech

Orwell in Marrakech

In 1938 George Orwell visited Marrakech, Morocco in order to aid his recovery from being shot in the neck during the Spanish Civil War. He spent around six months there and wrote this essay in that time. It begins in an evocative and narrative style not often associated with his dispassionate, factual approach:

“As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later. The little crowd of mourners-all men and boys, no women–threaded their way across the market-place between the piles of pomegranates and the taxis and the camels, wailing a short chant over and over again.”

He then goes on to describe in more detail the difficult lives of these local people as they attempt to engineer a living working twelve hours a day that affords them nothing but the clothes they stand up in:

“When you walk through a town like this — two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in — when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces — besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects?”

It is with this passage that the crux of the essay becomes apparent. He has discovered a subconscious affectation – that he has not been seeing human beings as, well, human beings.

I use the word ‘subconscious’ deliberately as his people-blindness was not an issue of moral negligence, it was a merely a symptom of the time in which he lived, which is why, despite what he writes being based on uncommon experiences and from a personal perspective, he feels it acceptable and justified to apply the habit to his readers by speaking to them directly. This implication in itself, with no knowledge of British Imperial history demonstrates that only a minimal amount of courage would be necessary on his part to admit he is guilty of disregarding scores of people simply because of their poverty and indeed, their skin colour.
Today such a shameful admittance would take far more courage. After all, we are progressive, with a diverse society, equal rights and crucially no empire.

So why is it so little has changed? Why is it such people are still treated as if they are nigh on invisible?

We are all aware of the conflict in Syria and the hundred thousand plus people who have been killed. Some will have heard of the conflict occurring in Sudan and the thousands that have been left dead. Although not many could have heard the UN declare its highest level of emergency for the two million people in need of aid in the Central African Republic because three months later it only has 16% of the funding requested.

As I write this none of these subjects are featured on the news.

Of course Britain is one of the most charitable nations in the world. However, this is a fact familiar to us because it is so often cited by our government and especially David Cameron. This tends to trigger an alarm in those of us who are always sceptical of Westminster trumpet blowing. Is giving money really as effective as giving a damn? The pitiful response to the ongoing crisis in the CAR appears to be case in point that you have to give a damn before you open your wallet anyway. Perhaps David Cameron likes to mention our charitable nature to exonerate him from stronger political action. He certainly fell back on the idea once his proposal for intervention in Syria was defeated in the Commons.

Is this something we the public do vicariously then? We get to a point where we care as much as we should about an issue, shake out our pockets and walk away. In this respect we are more admirable than Orwell’s visualised audience because we at least care in the beginning. However, when one considers the ease at which we can now access information about these problems it is not the huge step which it at first appears.

This trend of short term reactions to long term problems is insidiously damaging. I am not saying that overnight solutions such as Red Nose Day are bad; I am saying they take the onus off politicians to put pressure on despotic regimes, corrupt officials and terrorist groups. We should have learned this lesson in the aftermath of Live Aid. Because when such telethons and events are over we can all stop giving a damn and subsequently, our money.

We are indicted further still when Orwell compares seeing a group of women carrying heavy loads of sticks with seeing a donkey carrying a heavy load of sticks:

“But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing — that was how I saw it… Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on Moroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it. There is no question that the donkeys are damnably treated… After a dozen years of devoted work it suddenly drops dead, whereupon its master tips it into the ditch and the village dogs have torn its guts out before it is cold. This kind of thing makes one’s blood boil, whereas — on the whole — the plight of the human beings does not. I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact.”

Seventy five years on, the Donkey Sanctuary charity receives millions of pounds more in UK donations than does Amnesty International. Once again the prevention of human suffering is a disproportionately low priority but keeping donkeys on premium acreage with sea views is obviously a matter of major concern.

In this case I wonder why Orwell neglected to comment. He obviously saw the irrationality if not the immorality of such a concept. Perhaps because he himself was guilty of this mind-set he felt unjustified to pass judgment. Or perhaps his dispassionate reporting of the facts, at odds with the emotive start of the essay was intended to frame how illogical it can be to care for animals at the expense of human beings, not partly, but wholly. After all, he does not describe these people as partially visible, but invisible.

And it is this revelatory style, if taken on more comprehensively and enduringly by the media, that would do more to change attitudes and cure myopias than around seven hours of multimillionaires looking down-lens telling you to throw some cash at the world’s problems. Just so you can climb into bed around 2am and sleep soundly, despite the fact you intend to bequeath your entire estate to a gummy donkey that already has a better pension plan than Sir Fred Goodwin.