Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Brexit - The Limits Of Democracy & Free Speech?

There are (at least) two sides to every argument. And that means there will always be adherents of both sides. How do you decide which is right, or at least the correct path to follow? Well science is usually a good way to go, we don't have all that many flat earthers around these days, though they do still exist. Same as those who believe as per the Old Testament that the Earth was created just a few millennia ago and in just seven days. Science suggests that there is actually a higher level of 'truth' and 'fact' and empirical evidence that ought to be able to be employed to convince hearts and minds. But not all issues are able to be proven by scientific fact. Slavery was (eventually) felt to be a morally reprehensible institution, but it still took the carnage of a civil war to see it abolished in the US, rather than Congressional voting. So, unfortunately, might is also a way of prevailing in argument.

Democracies have been pretty good at avoiding outcomes whereby questions are settled by force, (at least where internal issues are concerned, not so good where the decision is to go bomb another country). The nature of representational democracy being, in the main, the two sides debate, take a vote, the majority wins and the defeated accept the decision honourably. However, you might interject that the notion of honour is a class-based one, as tends to be the make up of most parliamentary memberships. You might also reasonably aver that those interest groups with the money to influence or buy professional lobbyists, also distort this notion of honourable and fair debate. But perhaps the notion of honourable acceptance of decisions is breaking down anyway.

The trend was perhaps symbolised by the statement during the Brexit referendum campaign by Leave campaigner Michael Gove MP when he said that the public have had enough of experts. He was tapping into an emotional seam; there are so many people feeling disenfranchised and economically lagging behind others, who felt that the status quo and all the old, established arguments had delivered nothing to them. Gove just gave them a mandate to dispense with belief and trust in experts, because experts hadn't got it right in their case and made their lives better. So science, statistics, economic forecasts, none of this is going to wash with them. Hence when the referendum comes along, it gets (perfectly understandably) hijacked as a means to express the disenfranchisement and misery swathes of people feel, and very little to do with the EU itself. The EU is swept up as the villain, hosting many other grievances which actually it bears minimal responsibility for causing: migrants, sovereignty, detached political elites, are historical and cyclical targets for blame, only here they are all pinned to the mast of the EU for causing them. 

This is not a UK/Brexit only phenomena. Climate change science is denied, especially in the US, with powerful pre-existing economic interests in the oil industry funding lobbying and advertising to blur the scientific narrative by blowing enough (hydrocarbon) smoke. Currently they have the ear of the President, which means they also have the support of his electorate who probably don't care all that much about the fate of the planet's future, they have more pressing economic and identity issues. So science is taking a hit. And the role of force to settle arguments rather than debate is on the rise, witness the 'Gilets Jaunes' taking to the streets in Paris, again a cohort of the populace who feel utterly disenfranchised by the ruling class and damn well want to let them know. And not politely either (again, a class division over what is 'proper', polite behaviour.  

You can make an argument about anything and you will find supporters taking to social media to air their particular side. Compromise seems impossible, while these days an honourable acceptance of defeat in debate is far less tolerated; you have your view, it's perfectly legitimate to hold such a view, therefore it must be recognised and legislated for, is now the prevailing assumption. Because this is no longer a debate about ideas, but has become heavily invested with emotion, with identity, people will not simply admit that they lost the argument. To do so is perceived as denying their existence, their identity and their rights. Democracy may just have hit its limits, because our societies are so divided between the two or more sides of any argument you care to raise. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Retelling Of Myths In Modern Fiction

I am not a fan of myth. While it served a purpose once in pre-history and may be interesting to study from a sociological and anthropological perspective now, in a modern world with greater comprehension of cause and effect so as not to have to prescribe supernatural causes to natural phenomena, I can see no place for myth to still resonate.

In this video I explore this and go on further to explain why I am not interested in modern retellings of myth in literature.

Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Politics & Fiction

I regard myself as a political person. I also regard myself as a political writer. Whatever that means... 

I've written a novel about homegrown terrorism. My current novel is about post Peace Agreement Northern Ireland and also has a character who launches an assault against the symbols of patriarchy. So two absolute touchstone political themes given the centrality of Northern Ireland to the current Brexit farrago and the MeToo movement.

Yet my books will not bring about any change. They will have not one iota of impact on these issues. Not just because a well read literary fiction book means having had up to 2000 readers, a tiny drop in the ocean when it comes to influencing political power. Even J.K.Rowling whose books have been read by millions, and significantly she got readers when they were young and impressionable, yet when she ventures to express a political opinion, her views are dismissed and she is told to concentrate on addressing what she knows about, boy wizards. Britain, the country that in the Brexit referendum were offered the opinion that we no longer trust experts, has never really trusted, or been terribly interested in the opinions of its artists, outside of their art.

Somewhat of a pity I think. SJ Bradley's book "Guest" asks the question how could the British state ever credit that it could penetrate environmental protest movements as threats to national security; and to allow the police force to plant undercover officers who set up false families with members of these groups to the point of siring children whom they then walked away from once their operations were deemed over. Her novel ought to prompt inquiries into both of these legally and morally dubious events. Haroun Khan's novel "The Study Circle" which represents every possible shade of thought, identity and values throughout the entire spectrum of British Muslims, should be compulsory reading for any politician who would review the anti-terrorist "Prevent" strategy, which is not fit for purpose and incidentally is racist in its profiling. I have an 18,000 short story/novella about youth knife crime. But amidst all the hand-wringing currently indulged in by politicians and the judicial system as another 5 young lives bleed out on London streets in the last week, would any of them in their calls for contributions of causes and solutions ever conceive of admitting the offerings of an author like me? 

So you can call yourself a political author and it really amounts to very little in reality. In my case my work goes a lot further than these specific issues. It is radical, calling into question accepted notions of the consensus of what we call reality, or truth. And especially the notion that out language develops organically and therefore is neutral since no one is in control of its development. But no matter how radical the challenges to received/accepted truths, they are only offered in the context of a work of fiction. Being radical within your narrative form may tilt at some sacred cows within the history and heritage of literature, but counts for precisely nought in the wider world. Fiction, by its very name, is largely offering escapism into the world of the novel, rather than direct engagement in the real world. It's called suspending your belief, not a great catalyst for real world analysis. 

All an author can do is contribute the ideas contained within their novels to the repository of all human knowledge and who knows, maybe it will eventually reach critical mass through readership to change people's perceptions. But don't hold your breath. Orwell's lacerating visions of Soviet Communism in "1984" and "Animal Farm" did nothing to hasten their collapse. And Harriet Beecher-Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" may well have influenced some thought in the Northern United States, but it still took a bloody civil war (fought as a struggle of competing economic and cultural ways of life rather than any idealistic liberty reasons) to dismantle slavery. 

You might also be interested in:
Can fiction writers also be political activists?
What Can Fiction Tell Us Of Real Life? 
Remembering Clause 28
The Author - holy fool or underground revolutionary?
The Politic Body - New Political Metaphors For A New Politics
Grenfell Tower Fire - A Dereliction Of Political Duty

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A Literary Scavenger Hunt Around Paris

Join me for my Paris vlog - invited there for an event, I took the opportunity of checking out a couple of Paris' most famous literary spots. Musing on art and death in Montparnasse Cemetery and generally being an Englishmen abroad. Enjoy! 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Remembering Clause 28

I recently read a (sub-)cultural history of the UK from 1967-2005 through the eyes of a Radio DJ who presided over that era with all its changing musical and social trends (You can view my review in the second half of this video). The author had given context to each chapter with an item from the national news from that year, which kindled my memory as much as the music he wrote about. What struck me in particular were the host of politicians who were brought back to mind, but who have long since disappeared from consciousness. Any legislation they were responsible for, has disappeared along with them; either repealed, fallen into disuse, or just being of utter inconsequence to deny them any kind of legacy in the history books.

However I want to talk about one MP in particular whom I will never allow to lapse from my memory, through his iniquitous contribution to the laws of the UK. His name is David Wilshire and he was responsible for one of the grossest acts of prejudice and inequality ever committed to the statute books. 

First some context, it was the mid 1980s, AIDS was just rising to the public consciousness and was being solely portrayed as a "Gay Disease" by media and Conservative government alike. The Left in the UK was very much on the retreat in the face of the typhoon that was Thatcherism sweeping away every single institutional form of collective organisation and action. However, there was one last outpost for the Left, local government in the large cities, where socialism held sway and indeed was the incubator for the current Labour Party leadership troika of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonald and Diane Abbott. These councils were committed to policies of equality and diversity and despite having their budgets slashed by central government, funded a few organisations whose mission was to support those discriminated against in society. These circumstances formed a perfect storm.

With proposed new legislation being considered by Parliament to further restrict the funding for local government, David Wilshire tacked on an amendment called "Clause 28" which stated that a local authority 
"shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

The Bill with this Clause 28 was passed into law, thus enshrining prejudice, discrimination and homophobia within the British constitution.  Even at the time there were those dubious as to how a legal definition of 'promoting' could be established, but the mere notion that someone's sexual orientation could be determined through proselytising or whispering in the ear is as old and pernicious as saying that homosexuality and pedophilia are one and the same. This is further added to by the phrasing that a loving homosexual couple can only be a "pretended family relationship". 

Such logic represents prejudicial thinking and bigotry and nothing less. It is of the same warped logic that views Jews as controlling the world's finances, or that non-white races are inferior. It is buttressed around religious notions of family and children and all manner of biblical citations against same sex relationships. 

I wrote to David Wilshire MP to register my objections to a law that would not impact on me (unless one of my as yet future progeny identified as gay), but to my very marrow I felt was unjust and inimical to peaceful,compassionate living together in our societies. He wrote back saying could I address my concerns with my own local MP rather than bother him? I wrote back pointing out that this had been his personal amendment and therefore not unreasonable to request a response. He never replied to that. (This represents a failing in UK democracy, since all MPs represent a political party and if yours happens to be in a party with no power through being out of government, then they have no means of addressing any national issue that divides according to party lines).

Clause 28, as so many laws in the UK, proved unenforceable, because they are so badly drafted from a legal point of view despite the Parliaments of that era being dominated by MPs who were formerly lawyers. It was constantly being challenged as to whether it only covered the local councils themselves (who were responsible for state schools), or whether it extended to teachers, headmasters, school governors and guidance counsellors. The law wasn't used in an active way to prosecute anyone and was eventually repealed in the 2000s. It achieved precisely nothing other than to chill coming out, to deny opportunities for school guidance counsellors and to deal with anti-gay bullying in schools. 

What it did do was galvanise the Gay Rights movement in the UK and irony of ironies has led to where we are today legislatively, with gay marriage enshrined in law and homosexual partnerships broadly accorded the same status in law as heterosexual ones including child adoption. So much for the "pretended family relationship". 

I don't do political marches on the whole, (I dissect the purpose and efficacy of the political demonstration in my novel "Not In My Name"). But I marched against Clause 28. And it was the most enjoyable march I have been on. Through an actress friend of mine, I ended up marching with her under the "AARGH" banner of cartoonists and graphic novelists. AARGH stood for "Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia" and was started by the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. I've still got the issue of the original comic somewhere. The publishing company was called "Mad Love". 

No one remembers David Wilshire MP because his squalid little piece of legislation has been buried by events taking their course, to see such a mindset very much a minority position a mere 30 years later. However, there are still unpleasant echoes from that time, in that transgender people are facing claims that 'vulnerable' children can be convinced that they are in wrongly gendered bodies, that transitioning can be 'promoted' where its notion otherwise would not exist. We also still had a member of the UK Independence Party recently claiming that UK floods were a punishment from God for legislating gay marriage into law. So still some prejudicial barriers and thinking to be conquered then. Still, on the plus side, a likely further irony of ironies, is that the Anglican Church may very well destroy itself as it is split down the middle over gay priests, so where will that leave Biblical 'proofs' and citations against homosexuality? 

However, even if Wilshire has all but disappeared from people's memories, I just want to provide a coda on his fate. For a man who apparently believed in the sanctity of the family, even back in 1988 he was living with a partner as a commonlaw wife. A wife whom he employed in his Parliamentary staff and proceeded to channel public funds into a company nominally run by her. To such an extent, that his own local Conservative Party association wanted to replace him as their MP and under pressure he decided not to run for the constituency again. For a man who claimed that Clause 28 was not about bigotry, but about the use of taxpayers' money, funny thing was he wasn't above using taxpayers' money to make outrageous claims for decorating and refurbishing his second home in London -  this for the MP whose constituency was next to London Heathrow airport and therefore of dubious legitimacy that he even needed a second home in London in order to carry out his Parliamentary duties.  

David Wilshire, most people in the UK are unlikely to have ever heard of you, or certainly couldn't recollect you. But I will never forget your name, nor will I ever forgive you your bigotry. 

Related posts:
The Grenfell Fire
I Stand With The National Gallery 27

Sunday, 28 October 2018

11th Century Forest Folio - Flash Fiction

In the days before their wood was pulped for paper to record our stories and lore, the trees ranged tall and proud. Their canopied shrouds woven so dense as to shutter the pagan sun and shackle its chains of stippled light like that inside a cathedral. Thus was it hallowed and christened a Black Forest. The heathen wind beat at the foliose awning demanding its own profaning passage, but it too was unable to part the green sea’s verdant vault. Its bellowing huff only gusted voice to the boscage, stirring the leaves prattle and prating. Suspire and susurration. Their steepling descant the canticles of the forest. Cowled monks up in the gods looking down on the Mystery Plays enacted on the apron of the forest floor. Their incantational exegesis prompting the actors yonder, the same as ants palpated the aphids marching up and down their bark.

Who be those actors? Why they are the shadowy figures without shadows, moving across the leaf litter in the perpetual crepuscular gloom. Red crosses embroidered the length of their surcoats. Or crudely bodkined into the coarse jerkins of their peasant retinue. Emblazoning the furious stigmata of a turn-the-other-cheek god. Their hearts basted in Christian love and Jesus' blood. And then this tenebrous cortege is gone like dissipated rime. Confettied under the wedding troth arch, without any especial espousal nor sermon from the congregation above. For all the inflorescent chatter, do you notice what is absent from among this frondescence? Not a single birdsong to counterpoint the sonorous umbrage. For even a goshawk would be hard pressed to navigate any arrowed path through the copious legion of tree trunks. The aerial choir has been denominated utterly for the arboreal and to stand no avian parishioners.

Without birds, the forest floor was assigned the unchallenged kingdom of insects. Beetles, spiders, woodlice, weevils, earwigs, ticks, grasshoppers, crickets, centipedes and millipedes, patrolling the fallen leaves of oblation. In light of the lack of wind to disseminate the pollinated spores, and the dearth of birds to have the seeds strewn from their brimming maws, the insects are bringers of life and futurity to the trees. But still they also retained their customary character as equerries of putrefaction. The leaves they worked on the ground were desiccated, shrivelled and withered. Wizened blades curled back over, in contorted supplication for vain grant of continued life. Culled and purged, adrift of their ligneous lineages. Packed down upon one another. A tumultuous tumulus. A more brittle rustling patter under the tread of unseen trespassers, than that of the crepitation high above. Parched voices. Dried out and arid, their swathed wreaths are not those crowning triumphal evergreen firs and pines, rather those marking death. Preserved, frozen in the convulsive bearing of their deathly descent. A stopped up scream, released and reprised solely under the boot of human tread, or the padding of insect tarsus and palp.

Yet they are not solely respiring about their own demise. They have preserved an echo across their wan brown corpus. Victim speaking unto victim. Every crispy purl a murmured lamentation to a person slain by those shadowy knights. The hatred locked in their cruciform breasts, passing down like sap through their stride and graving its impression into the skein of the leaf litter. Each sepal a memorial flame for those who have no altars or grottos of their own to hold any such candles of commemoration. The Jews’ churches having been razed, their quondam settlements erected in clearings in the forest, now themselves cleared and returned to the bosom of the earth, the bones of their people to the soil. Soon there would be no sign that they had ever dared to carve out some land for themselves they had once called home. It was as if the knights had been summoned up by the forest to reclaim its dominion from these trespassers. Their sacred mutual blood bond to extirpate all usurpers both here and in the holy land. Each year retold by the tramp of the local villagers, the woodcutters and charcoal burners, the poachers and smelters who are deaf to the tale drummed up by their own boots. A fresh carpet folio of leaves each year, though gradually more of the forest would be cleared, greedily gobbled up by the town of Mainz, where in time the printing press would arise to preserve a definitive record and the leaves would have to recite the litanies of death for the People of the Book no more. But in a deeper time, considerably removed from before trees were culled for printing paper, their ancestors lay pressed and pulped far subterranean and submerged. A fuel source markedly outstripping that of charcoal and timber and one that would power the factories of death that would burn the descendants of the surviving Jews of Mainz, Worms and Trier.