Thursday, 31 December 2009

Millennium dreams

The children stayed up to mark the moment when 1999 slipped into 2000. I think we toasted the new millennium. There was a crash of fireworks and a splatter of colour in the sky. Then came the sound of people laughing and singing. I opened the door and saw a dancing procession of neighbours and friends doing the conga round our cul-de-sac. We left the door open and joined in. Suddenly it seemed that the future could be filled with trust and friendship.

Before that, we'd been watching the celebrations from the new Millennium Dome and flashes from around the world. I recall Tuvalu, Sydney and Paris. I remember little of Britain's Millennium celebration. Tony Blair and his family were there, still glossy with the people's love and trust. I noted that, of all the celebrations shown from all over the world, ours was the only one with a guest list and entrance fee - others were free and open to the public. George Carey as archbishop of Canterbury had insisted on a Christian element to the event. He was a late addition to the programme and was squeezed in long before midnight. He stood in the centre of the vast dome and the words of the Lord's prayer echoed emptily. The audience seemed rightly embarrassed - religion was out of place in this monument to commercial sponsorship.

At some point before going to bed, I rang my brother in Canada. "This is the voice of the next millennium," I declared. Looking back on the 20th century, it seemed possible that I'd reached a better time. The Berlin Wall had come down, apartheid had ended and it still seemed possible that the divisiveness and hatreds of Thatcherism would be pushed back. The afterglow of the 1997 election still shed a little light, even though I hadn't brought myself to vote New Labour. I mistrusted the surface shimmer and worried about the number of times Blair urged the voters, "Trust me." Honest people rarely insist that they tell the truth - they simply speak.

On the morning of 1st January 2000, hope persisted. Nations and people could work together. If we couldn't save Tuvalu from global warming, surely we'd welcome its dispossessed people. Perhaps as a world we could learn to love the stranger, just as the dancers in the streets welcomed all comers, regardless of origin or ability. I chose to take the conga as my symbol of the millennium rather than that exclusive, expensive party in London which I'd watched at a distance through the glass of my TV screen.

I don't know when hope dispersed.

I'm not sure it's possible to recover that hope. But the people I meet are so much better than party politicians, gearing up for the election, suggest. There's much more to human beings than the hatred of strangers and blind pursuit of personal profit.

I don't think I'll be able to celebrate the new decade. But, when midnight tolls, if I'm still up, I'll toast it with a small glass of Jura malt, hoping for hope in 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Surveillance in the snow

Snow isn't a problem here - we could cope with a few more inches. The problem is the cold. As people walk in the snow, or as cars drive on the less-travelled roads, the snow turns to slush. Then it refreezes. I don't need to head to an ice-rink for thrills - between home and the station I slide precariously every few yards. My new technique for walking involves checking for crisp, snowy patches and cluching at walls, fences, lamp-posts and railings. What was usually a walk of less than ten minutes required concentration. balance and quick reactions. As my feet slid away from me, I bent my legs and caught hold of the railing, pleased to have avoided a serious tumble.

I was determined to have a day out. I'd booked leave - I'd told my friends I would do something special, even if my ambition had shrunk to a china boot filled with gluhwein and a visit to the exhibition at Nottingham Castle. I was feeling good about it. If nothing else worked out, I could always settle down in a warm café with Les Misérables.

I rang the castle in advance. The man who answered assured me that it was open and, more importantly, that the steep path up Castle Mound was well-gritted. He didn't mention that the steep pavements in the way to Castle Mound were glazed with ice and compacted snow. I staggered and slithered uphill, looking anxiously at the other tottering pedestrians who seemed more practised at walking on ice. Somehow I didn't topple down the slope but, carefully taking small steps, passed the Robin Hood statue and reached the castle gate. At last there were clear paths. I walked up the slope, delighting in the sight of the black branches above the snowy bandstand; the small, cold Christmas tree and even two or three warmly-wrapped children playing in chill of the white playground.

Perhaps an exhibition of art inspired by prisons and surveillance wouldn't have been everyone's choice for a day out but it suited my mood - and my sense of questions that matter in Britain today. I walked up the stairs inside the castle and into the exhibition. The first two exhibits are probably the ones that will stay longest with me. Louise Bourgeois's "Cell (Eyes and Mirrors)" may not comment on wider social and political questions in any obvious ways but it evokes the horror of being imprisoned and watched. It seems right that this horror should provide the basis of any political consideration of prison and surveillance - surely horror is the natural reaction to both.

I don't always spend long in video installations but I caught Manu Luksch's Faceless shortly after it had started and stayed nearly fifty minutes till the end. The film consists entirely of CCTV images, following rules set out in a manifesto. CCTV has also inspired the story of the film, which is told in a voice-over by Tilda Swinton. Again, the film isn't a direct comment on contemporary life - it's set in a future envisioned according to the CCTV trail each of us leaves every day. I emerged disturbed and impressed by the way blurrily familiar CCTV film had been turned into narrative with actors and choreographed dancers performing amid passers by for the mechanical gaze of the cameras.

I blinked as I emerged from the viewing booth and caught sight of the "Millbank Penitentiary" a model by Langlands and Bell of a now-demolished panoptical prison. The idea of the pantopticon was originated by Jeremy Bentham. It envisaged prisoners kept in separate cells, never seeing their fellow inmates but believing that they were watched at all times. A modified version has influenced prison design for many years. Bentham thought up the design as a benevolent model that would achieve reform of the prisoners. When developed to the extremes of Bentham's vision, many prisoners went mad.

I wandered into the next room. The gallery was empty apart from me, the attendant and a man leaning over a computer at a desk. I smiled at the attendant as I passed him and began to concentrate on the exhibits.

First I gazed at a history of imprisonment and death in Nottingham Castle. The past seemed to blend into present as I saw the orange jumpsuits in a nearby photo.

Then my attention was caught by what looked like Lego boxes opened up and spread out on the wall. Looking closely, I realised the scenes involved black-clad armed guards herding, beating and executing white skeletons. The notice beside gave the title and artist: "Concentration Camp Series" by Zbigniew Libera. I gazed some more.

They had captured my attention more than the flayed man in the Marc Quinn sculpture though pictures of Quinn's work had drawn me to the exhibition. Christine Borland's "Air Heads" were similarly powerful but I was following a different trail of thought. I looked at the words projected on the wall ahead of me.

"LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS," I read. "The lady with the LROB bag looks at the Lego posters." I paused and checked my bag. It's my favourite fabric bag from the London Review of Books. I was being watched and my actions were being described in large letters on the wall.

I looked round. The attendant was still sitting in the corner. The man with a computer on his desk was typing. I read an earlier entry projected on the wall. It referred to "desk man." Desk man was watching me.

I tried to forget the presence of desk man and gazed at an exhibit which invited members of the public to operate a surveillance camera. But the exhibit was enclosed in plastic - I couldn't see how this should be done and wasn't sure I wished to watch anything like that, not even plastic trees and houses. I moved on, out of sight of desk man. Looking up at the wall I saw that my uncertainty about the exhibit was now described for new visitors. I moved into a corner where I felt sure I'd be out of sight. Then I saw the joystick to move the CCTV camera. I touched it tentatively and moved it just slightly, catching a plastic house and tree in a dark noose of shadow.

A few minutes later the words on the wall said that I had touched the joystick but hadn't moved it. I stayed out of sight and was glad when a family came into the gallery. Desk man shifted his attention to them and I sidled out into a suddenly sinister collection of Victorian paintings. Every model seemed to be a victim of the artist's gaze.

I made my way down the stairs, uncertain whether desk man - or some CCTV operator - was watching my back. Then I paused in the café for an excellent macchiato and mince pie. I took out my copy of Les Misérables. Jean Valjean has eluded Javert again and is carefully staying out of sight. Reassured by a fictional past, I headed out of the castle to meet my children and enjoy a celebratory gluhwein in the Old Market Square.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Blue tinsel

Perhaps it's the bitter cold or the recession. Perhaps I've missed - or avoided - most of the good Christmas displays. But Christmas decorations seem a little sparse this year.

I don't mind a lack of decoration - it makes the good displays I discover more delightful. I was cheered to find that this year's moving displays in Town Hall Square, Leicester show Paddington Bear and friends and a lively Christmas scene from Wind in the Willows where even the stoats and weasels are having a happy, if malevolent, time. There's the usual nativity tableau as well. Outsiders sometimes assume that Leicester downplays the religious elements of Christmas but posters advertise both the religious festival and the secular feast. Even Advent celebrations (at the cathedral, I think) were proclaimed on official posters.

I don't remember any decorations at Nottingham Contemporary when I made a return visit but there were real carol-singers: the choir of St. Mary's in the Lacemarket. They were dressed in everyday clothes and standing in the gift shop, books of music on the floor before them. I came upon them as they were half-way through "Silent Night" inGerman. It's not my favourite carol but the beauty of the voices held me. I stood to hear a succession of traditional carols from "Hark the herald angels" with descant to "Adam lay y-bounden." As they finished and I went out into the winter dark, I felt more in tune with Christmas than I have for many years.

The memory of the carols helped me through the crowded shops. The queues haven't been long this year - I hardly had to wait in the Post Office when I took my parcels to be weighed and stamped. Perhaps that's why I didn't pause to observe the decorations.

But I have noticed one trend - or perhaps it's a trend from previous years that I didn't notice before. Every so often I encounter blue decorations: blue trees, blue fairy lights and blue tinsel. Gardens that were once bright with white or coloured fairy lights now glow ominously in the falling snow. Walking through streets, I find I'm watching out for faint blue sparkles rather than the old-fashioned red and green. Perhaps blue is supposed to be tasteful. I prefer cheerful vulgarity.

I haven't seen many Christmas tree lights shining through house windows. This strikes me as strange - but that's absurd. As usual, I'm late with decorations. Our decorations are still in the roof and I'm unlikely to get the tree sorted before Christmas Eve.

I'll get the cards up soon. I've enjoyed opening Christmas cards this year. I like seeing the designs friends have chosen or created, reading the messages and hearing snippets of news from the past year. I wish I'd written more in the cards I sent and that my handwriting was better.

Perhaps I should buy some new tinsel for the tree and even a couple of new decorations. I hope I can find things in red, green and gold for my slightly tatty dark-green artificial tree. It won't be tasteful at all but it might be quite cheerful. It may even remind me of my childhood and add some extra comfort as I continue reading Les Misérables.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Voilà Jean

It seems as though I've always known the story. Before I first read Victor Hugo's story in my early teens, there was a classic comic - then a BBC Sunday evening serial. Perhaps my mother told me the tale - it was certainly one of her favourites. Cosette, Marius, Fantine, the Thenardiers and, above all, Javert and Jean Valjean weren't just characters in a book - they were part of the mythic structure by which I understood the world.

These days, fewer people read Les Misérables. "It's too long," someone told me last night." "I was put off by the musical," another commented. "I've read The Hunchback of Notre Dame," was another defence, as if one Hugo novel could stand for all the rest. Mind you, I haven't read much by Hugo. I'd like to find time for the late novels L'Homme qui Rit (The Man who Laughs) and Quatre-vingt Treize (1793). But before I do that, I have to finish Les Misérables and I'm still only 260 pages in. There are about 1200 to go so I'll be busy reading over Christmas.

Last time I tried to re-read Les Misérables, I picked up my old English-language version. It's a bulky tome from Collins, with mock-leather binding and pages as thin as any Bible's. I thought it the height of elegance when I was 13. A few years ago, I found the prose style dull and was bored by Hugo's sententious moralising. I put it down again.

This summer, in one of the French bookshops at South Kensington, I picked it up again - perhaps in an abridged edition - and the magic returned. I hesitated, thought I might buy a copy, then left the shop. I was having a small economy drive and wasn't convinced I'd get through more than a chapter. Besides, the exchange rate means that French books are no longer as cheap as they were. I thought I'd get over it. But throughout the autumn I found myself looking for copies in English bookshops and secondhand shops, checking the prices on-line and wondering if perhaps, for Christmas, for my birthday, I should buy myself a copy.

I didn't expect to find the three-volume paperback edition in the Canterbury Oxfam shop. I checked carefully to ensure it was a complete text, looked at the price (£4.99) and reflected that, even if I didn't read it, Oxfam could do with my money. Most of my long journey home was consumed with work but on the tube, on the bus, when waiting at stations, I started to read ... and I found it hard to stop. Even now I don't want to blog about Les Misérables - I want to read it, and I'm tired from reading it last night when I should have been catching up on sleep.

The first eighty or so pages dragged slightly - they focus on the good bishop who changes Jean Valjean's life. Maybe I needed to read myself into the book or just to get used to Hugo in French. Once Jean Valjean arrived, I found myself at risk of missing my stop on the bus. I've even walked along the road while reading - something I haven't done for at least forty years.

Perhaps it's the focus on the poor that commands my attention. I may respect the bishop but I care about Valjean, Fantine and the other "misérables" of the book's title. Reading in French makes me consider what "misérable" means. It's not "unhappy." I've seen the word translated as "wretched." But surely in France where Catholicism and the Latin Mass were so important, there's a connection to the Latin prayer "miserere nobis" - "have mercy upon us." Many of the people in Les Misérables are wretched and unhappy but, above all, they need and deserve mercy.

Hugo's conviction that mercy is a greater human responsibility than truth, justice or any other accepted virtue is startling in today's society. Mercy isn't restricted to the cute or angelic. When Jean Valjean first appears he is compared to a brute and an animal. His grievances about his treatment in jail have placed him outside human society. He's never been a great part of it. He doesn't even have a proper name. Hugo explains that he's inherited the name "Valjean" or "Vlajean" from his father and that it was simply a corruption of "Voilà Jean" - "There's Jean." He's an individual who has been despised all his life and who has learnt to hate in return.

In Les Misérables, Hugo insists that human beings can learn and change - that mercy transforms lives and communities. He was writing against the trend in his own time. Les Misérables was published in 1862, five years before Zola's
Thérese Raquin, the first of a string of major novels which proclaimed the belief that humans were controlled by the circumstances of their lives and had no means of escape or power over the events that affected them. I may care about Zola's characters but his view of the world doesn't fit the people I encounter.

The world I live in includes people who are cruel and vindictive like the Thenardiers. I've met plenty of people like Javert who obey laws and rules unthinkingly because they assume the forces of law government always know best - people who assume that the wealth and its trappings are a badge of virtue and respectability. But there are also many people like Jean Valjean and Fantine and even the Bishop - trying to do their best, making mistakes, giving way anger and misjudgement but also capable of enormous love and generosity. These are the flawed, good people who are willing to learn and change. They show mercy to others, even at great cost, because they also need and receive mercy.

It's not a very modern view of the world but I'm rushing back to it. I should be in bed asleep but Jean Valjean is on his way to Arras and I want to know - even though I know already - what happens next.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Fantine and the fascists

I could think of many better things to do. Even the housework was looking attractive. I do not like going on demonstrations and this one scared me. The English Defence League was planning to march through Nottingham and, reluctantly, I'd decided to join the counter-demonstration.

It was my son who persuaded me. At 18, he sees the issues clearly. I don't always agree with him but this time it really was simple. The EDL stirs up hatred against Muslims, hatred leads to fear, discrimination and violence - and if I'm not prepared to stand, visibly, against hatred, I have a responsibility for what happens in my absence.

I was afraid. I've known people who were beaten up by fascists, back in the days of the National Front in the 1970s. I knew that a minority of anti-fascists might also want a fight, however much the organisers urged a peaceful demonstration and reckoned my son might be particularly at risk since young men are often victims of attacks. "Dress carefully," I told myself, and chose a thick jumper and warm jacket, in case of inadvertent blows. I reckoned I also looked sufficiently ordinary to melt into the crowd if necessary. There would be plenty of crowds. The EDL had timed their demonstration to coincide with the homecoming parade of the Mercian regiment and a football match between Nottingham Forest and Leicester City. And then there was Christmas ...

Nottingham seemed as crowded as ever. A Salvation Army band was playing carols. Crash barriers were being set in place for the soldiers' parade. Skaters glided on the ice in the Old Market Square and a continental market had joined the traditional German market. Despite police warnings about public safety, there was no shortage of shoppers. I'd met an A-level student on the train who was so visibly a demonstrator that I introduced myself. He'd travelled alone and didn't know his way to the city centre so I led him to the Old Market Square where we started to look for demonstrators among the crowds of shoppers, Goths, stall-holders, army families and British Legion members.

I spotted a small group of badge-wearers near the stone lions of the Council House. Cautiously I scanned the badges. This was just as well. They included a small enamal badge with the figures "18". It could have been an advertisement for a lucky Lotto number but I doubted it. I've known for years about the Combat 18 code by which 18 stands for A.H., or Adolf Hitler. There seemed some irony that a badge-wearer combined his "18" badge with a Churchill "V for Victory" badge, but I decided not to stay and point this out.

We wandered past the stalls of Neapolitan treats and olive oil and the British Legion veterans holding huge flags. Eventually someone ran up to us. "Anti-fascist demo?" he enquired. "Other end of the square."

We joined the small group with its banners. I began to worry that my son hadn't arrived as planned. The music from "The Snowman" floated out from a nearby shop. Eventually my mobile phone rang - my son had joined the other anti-fascist demo, by the Royal Centre. I headed up to join him, glad to be a little further from the Combat 18 group.

Like most demonstrations, it was mostly rather dull. The group outside the Royal Centre waved banners and chanted slogans, watched by curious passers-by. We heard music that suggested the returning Mercian soldiers were parading. I said hello to a friend and joined in a few casual conversations but they petered out after a while. There were speeches which I couldn't quite hear. My son and I were cold and hungry so went for chips from a nearby shop. Then there was a vote and our group marched to join the other demonstrators in the Old Market Square.

There was a moment of pleasure as the stationary demonstrators cheered and applauded our arrival. Then we settled down to the cold and boredom of just being there. My son was joined by a friend. I eased my copy of Les Misérables from my bag, settled my reading glasses on my nose, and continued with the story of Fantine, who had just been abandoned by the father of her child. I looked up when a group of fascists emerged from the pub opposite. I couldn't hear what they were singing and shouting because the people around me were singing and shouting in response. There were police cordons in keeping us and them in place and we were divided by tram tracks. Travellers in the trams gazed curiously and some took photos on their mobile phones. A couple of elderly women walked between the opposing groups with heavy shopping bags. I spotted a couple of Nazi salutes from the group outside the pub. Behind us, the continental market was doing a good trade and the skaters continued to glide proficiently on the ice. Father Christmas and a snowman walked between the groups, escorted by a friendly policeman. Police dogs arrived, tails wagging, and won a predicatble "Aaah! aren't they lovely!" from the demonstrators, which struck me as very English. Everything became quiet again. I read some more.

After a while, I decided to leave the group briefly to buy some sweets to sustain me on the demonstration. I'd already been there for hours. I made my way to the loo in a nearby shop. When I came out, the demonstration was disappearing round the corner towards the castle. I ran after it and the police kindly let me through the cordon so that I could rejoin the demonstrators. I was a little worried as I knew the ELD was planning a rally near the castle - the statue of Robin Hood had been boarded up in preparation.

Of course, the police weren't letting anti-fascists and fascists meet. We were kettled in a short street but it was a benevolent kettle - people with small children were able to leave if they wished, so long as it was safe to do so. Members of the public walked past. The shouting and slogans started again. I returned to Les Misérables. Fantine had just met Mme Thenardier and her daughters. My son and his friend briefly left the kettle and returned with Chinese food and chopsticks. A policeman brought a bowl and water for the police dogs, to the approval of the dog-loving demonstrators. I met a woman of my own age who had joined the demonstration from her shopping expedition. "I think it's important to be here," she said, "just to show that we don't agree with the EDL." I agreed.

We seemed to spend a long time in the kettle and, after a while, we weren't allowed out - not even to put rubbish in bins. In Les Misérables, Fantine's daughter, Cosette, was being abused by the Thenardiers - I worried about her. There was some more lively shouting so I put my book away in case something was going to happen. It didn't. I asked one of the policemen if he knew the football score but he said they didn't get that information. Later I overheard a policeman say "3-0 to Forest" but I wasn't sure I'd heard clearly. Finally there was a speech to encourage us all. We were told that we had shown that this was our city, that Nottingham didn't welcome fascism, that the EDL hadn't attacked us as they threatened. Now we were going to march back to the old Market Square and disperse - in groups, we were told, for our own safety.

The message about marching back hadn't reached the police nearest the square and there was a pause when it looked as though we were going to be held in the kettle. But a couple of minutes later we were on our way back, cheered that we'd been there and that it was all over. We were just about to cross the tram tracks circling the Old Market Square when a number of screaming men hurtled towards us, unfurling banners. I saw a St George's Cross as well as two banners with the red hand of Ulster. I couldn't hear what was being screamed - just a furious screech of hate and threats.

The police escorted us towards our end of the square and formed two lines between us and the screaming men. Behind us the skaters were gliding, bizarrely, to the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory." The continental market was still doing well. A group of youngsters from the anti-fascist protest dodged out of the police lines and headed at speed towards the fascists. Had they been on a football pitch, their supporters would have been cheering - it was so elegantly done. Then, for ten minutes or so, missiles were thrown around the pub. I couldn't see exactly what was going on and shoppers still wandered between the two groups. Policemen on horseback moved in and everything quietened. My son and I discussed what would happen if a policeman rode his horse into the pub but it didn't happen. The police horses seemed incongruous as they stood quietly between a bus shelter and the Cheltenham & Gloucester Building Society.

It was time to go home to the housework. I decided against olives from the continental market but bought myself a Christmas doughnut from a German stall and headed for the train. Back home, I checked the reports of the demonstrations in the press - it seems that some of the EDL demonstrators attacked the police. Then I checked the football results. Nottingham Forest beat Leicester 5 - 1.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Miss Sayers and Lord Peter

My laptop continues to languish in laptop hospital. I have odd moments when I get at computers but feel strangely cut-off from cyberworld. Fortunately there are still books - and time to think about writing blog entries.

Like most people, I have a pile of popular fiction for soothing bedtime reading. Recently I've returned to Dorothy L. Sayers.

"But she's a dreadful snob," some people respond. "She's a tory writing about an aristocrat."

There's some truth in that but it's not the whole truth. In the later novels, written in the mid-1930s, she sees Lord Peter Wimsey's class as a problem - at the same time as suggesting it is dangerously attractive. This isn't unusual in the 1930s. Winifred Holtby's South Riding - certainly not a tory novel - makes the same observation and shares Sayers' belief that the power of the aristocracy is doomed.

Most recently I've been reading Gaudy Night and remembered the influence it had over my teenage years. It influenced me in two ways. Like many girls, I grew up in a society that was uncertain of the value of education for girls. I remember debates - even in the 1970s - about whether girls should enter higher education or whether this rendered them unfit for their natural destiny as wives and mothers. Sayers painted such an alluring picture of a women's college in the 1930s that I knew university was for me. At Oxford and later I met other women who chose Oxford because they had read Gaudy Night. I have to thank Dorothy L. Sayers for my three years there.

Gaudy Night - and Oxford - attracted me for another reason. Like many young teenagers. I'd fallen into the habit of convenient, self-protective lies. Suddenly, when I was thirteen, I wanted to change that. I realised that the world was confusing and difficult to understand - and that lies and deceptions made it harder to reach the truth. I made a resolution to stop lying.

In Gaudy Night the values that are repeatedly attached to universities and learning are associated with truth and integrity. The dons may behave badly at times but they value evidence, facts and honesty, even when honesty hurts. The subjects of their research - English prosody, the economics of Tudor England, and so on - may have no immediate relevance to contemporary life but the dons' aim is to uncover the truth in their chosen field. Their integrity is set in opposition to Nazi oppression and the risks women run if they submit to their husbands.

There are, of course, arguments against women's equality and education in the novel. Lord Peter Wimsey is never more admirable in my eyes than when he shows, without question, his support for women at universities and for honesty, whatever the cost. It's undoubtedly an idealised view of university life but there's a lot to be said for ideals.

My latest reading of Gaudy Night set me wondering what Dorothy L Sayers would say to a different Lord Peter: the head of the governments Department of Business and Skills, which also has responsibility for higher education. I must have been at Oxford at the same time as Peter Mandelson but I don't recall him there. As minister in charge of the universities, he doesn't seem to care much for some of the values Sayers cherished. While she foresaw the end of the House of Lords, I don't think it occurred to her that universities would be told to sell their scholarship for economic advantage.

Lord Peter Mandelson doesn't look at universities and see scholars motivated by the search for truth. If he saw that, he would probably think it a bad idea. Instead he sees them as part of the "knowledge economy," and wants them to make money and teach the skill of making money. Universities are instructed to teach their students "business awareness" and to ask business people (bankers, perhaps) to come into universities and design courses which academics will deliver. Educations is now a product consumed by students. But students are also the product of education. They are to be prepared for their consumption by business and government. Research is another product and will be judged not for its truth but for its impact on business, the economy and government policy.

Disagreement with government policy or uncomfortable truths about new products. business and the market are unlikely to have much immediate impact. I wonder what value Lord Peter Mandelson places on academic honesty.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


I'd never thought of the relation between magic and politics before. Perhaps that's because I still have an idealistic notion of politics. I believe it's the shared responsibility of everyone, not just a way in which professional politicians (horrible phrase) can achieve power, fame and personal advancement.

By a series of lucky coincidences, I found myself at the preview opening of the touring Magic Show exhibition whcih has just opened at Derby's QUAD Gallery. Gallery openings can be a bit dull. There's often free wine but there are also speeches and sometimes crowds so dense it's hard to see any of the work.

This was a bit different. There were still crowds, free wine and speeches but, after the necessary thanks - and people should be thanked - the speakers were so enthusiastic about the exhibition that even the children in the audience gazed in awed fascination.

The exhibition isn't aimed at children but there was sufficient for children to enjoy: posters, magically moving exhibits, a 3-D display that looked as if it were performed by miniature humans in a Lilliputian theatre. We gazed at the two plain sheets of A4 paper that danced together on a low wooden table.

Other exhibits reminded viewers of more sinister uses of magic. There was John Mulholland's booklet on magic for CIA operatives in a cabinet which also held Tommy Cooper's duck, as well as and pro- and anti-Hitler magic tricks. There was reference to the way the techniques of stage magicians had been used for one of George W. Bush's appearances at a Republican Convention. I was suddenly reminded of Tony Blair's words, "Trust me." "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy." This was disconcertingly like the magician's display of the empty box, the empty hat and the empty hands before handkerchiefs knot and separate, money vanishes and multiplies, and rabbits jump. The connection between magic and politics was perhaps clearest in Annika Lundgren's slide-show, though I never managed to watch it straight through from the beginning - I'll have to go back and see it all.

It set me reflecting about the way we see politicians now: the way journalists praise them for clever use of spin, a convincing image and successful stage management of party conferences. It's as though smoke and mirrors matter more than justice, truth, equality, liberty or any of the big abstractions I care about. There's a moment in one of Jasper fforde's Thursday Next books when she attends the live broadcast of a popular TV programme called Evade the Question Time, in which politicians win points for their success in spouting meaningless platitudes in response to questions from the public. Sometimes this seems so close to the truth that it is barely satire.

The evening also included a performance by Ian Saville, socialist magician and ventriloquist. The connection between politics and magic was overt, funny and self-mocking. The small children in the audience may not have understood jokes about hegemony and alienated labour, but they knew a good trick when they saw one and watched with wide eyes and delighted smiles.

Note: I was half-way through this post - just commenting on Tony Blair's words and looking for useful links - when a virus invaded my laptop. It felt like a particularly malevolent brand of political magic. I'm finishing the post on a borrowed computer.

Monday, 23 November 2009

After the murder

Murders always draw crowds. People hang around the site. These days little offerings of flowers in cellophane appear, sometimes with childish mementos - teddy bears and consciously cute toy animals.

The murder of an archbishop in his cathedral just after Christmas created a sensation. He was stabbed to death in a tussle for power between church and state. His death was a victory for the church over the English crown. Sometimes states and their rulers go to far and have to retreat.

The archbishop was Thomas Becket, Henry II's worldly chancellor who shifted his loyalty to the church when he was ordained priest and, the next day, created Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas was murdered at the end of 1170. Two years later he was declared a saint. Four years after the murder, Henry II walked barefoot in penance through the streets of Canterbury while monks flogged him. I bet the tourists loved it.

They weren't tourists in the modern sense, of course. Mediaeval pilgrims got more than souvenirs, though there were plenty of those - every site of pilgrimage had special badges for sale. It's easier to understand that now than the religious impulse, especially since the religious element was so much taken for granted that it's hardly discussed, except by people who mock it or disapprove. I can just about understand the attraction of a partial or plenary indulgence, which offers time off Purgatory, although my protestant upbringing taught me that Purgatory was a fable. But the urge to go on pilgrimage seems more complex that the simple exchange of hardship now (with a bit of tourism thrown in) for the relief of suffering later.

These ideas have whirled round my mind since I visited Canterbury at the weekend. It was a brief trip to see my daughter but she needed to dye her hair and I liked the idea of a couple of hours of solitary tourism. I thought I'd go to Evensong in the cathedral. I like Evensong, especially when it's sung by a good choir, although I fear my motives were more secular than religious.

I didn't make it. Arriving at a quarter to four, I discovered that Evensong had begun half an hour earlier and, if I wanted to enter the cathedral, I would have to pay the £7.50 admission charge. I decided against it and wandered off, looking for somewhere else to visit.

I must have walked past the Eastbridge Pilgrims' Hospital on my last visit to Canterbury but this time I glanced inside, saw that the admission charge was a mere £1 and decided to look round. The man on the desk talked about the history of the hospital and then I was left to wander round the hospital itself - now below street level - and the refectory and chapel outside.

I was glad I went in. According to the notice, the building was for poor pilgrims - people whose pilgrimage involved sleeping in fields and under bushes on the way. At the hospital they would receive a place to sleep - not a bed but shelter and a shared rush-strewn alcove. Then there would be a meal upstairs and opportunities to pray.

It hadn't occurred to me that there were poor pilgrims. I've read Chaucer, writing a couple of centuries after Becket's murder. He left me with the impression that pilgrimage was an amusing Spring excursion for the rich. But this twelfth century foundation offered shelter to those who couldn't afford a night's bed and breakfast in one of Canterbury's expensive inns. I began to think about the nobleman who founded the hospital. All the notices gave was a name - and the suggestion that the money he gave ran out quite soon. I wondered what had prompted him to found the hospital and what he thought of the poor pilgrims who stayed there. I read that another early donor was Roesia, Becket's sister. I'd never thought about Becket having a sister or how his family might have felt about his murder.

The hospital seemed a warm, friendly place and I was sorry to leave. There was a chill in the dark street outside. On the bridge a young man was bedding down with his dog, wrapping a sleeping bag and blanket around them both. He drew an old black bottle from his backpack, removed the stopper and took a swig. I hurried on to the station.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Between downpours

There were ten minutes to go when I got off the train at Nottingham station. I took the exit by the tramway, then headed up Middle Street to Weekday Cross. It didn't take me long to distinguish the art gallery. It glowed pale gold and dull green in the unexpected sun. I still wasn't sure about it - it looked like corrugated metal and slightly out of place among the older, weathered buildings.

During the past few months, I gradually became aware that the new gallery was planned. A stall in the Old Market Square gave me a badge saying "nottingham contemporary" in mirror writing. I wore it for a while and people were puzzled. Then there were complaints in the newspaper - how could anyone spend so much money on something so pretentious and unnecessary as art?

Suddenly there were stories about the opening - in the national press. Critics praised the building and visited the opening show: works by David Hockney and Frances Stark. I realised that today was the opening day and wanted to be there at the very beginning. So I climbed Middle Street and joined the queue penned in crash barriers.

I had only five minutes to wait. It gave me time to look at the unobtrusive details which recall the lace which was made by big, noisy machines in this part of Nottingham. Then a few ragged voices round the corner shouted "Nottingham Contemporary" and we shuffled in past cameras, microphones and a pair of fluffy zebras posing for photos in the gift shop.

Once in the gallery, I forgot about the building and started to look at the work. It's the opposite to the Guggenheim in New York. I was there nearly thirty years ago and I've forgotten the paintings - I just remember the long curving slope that led me past them. It's a beautiful building and I'm glad to have visited but if I were an artist I woudln't want my work displayed there.

The first two rooms showed work by the Californian artist, Frances Stark. At first I couldn't appreciate the flimsy collages with tiny writing and then, suddenly, I began to smile. I was looking at a drawing in which trees were made of words - the letters of the words separated into leaves, turned into birds and flew away. The first works had acclimatised me to the artist's humour and delight. I saw that around me other people were smiling too.

Frances Stark's work is full of transformations. I began to pick up themes: birds, telephones, dresses, words. In the largest exhibit three women I saw them as women - were both telephones and performers. I stopped trying to explain the work to myself and settled down to enjoy the resonances. I thought I'd like to go round again but could see the queue outside. It wouldn't be fair to go round twice while other people were waiting. "I can come back another day," I thought, "- several other days." It was a cheering thought.

Because of the crush, we were asked to take the simplest route through the museum. I saw the David Hockney exhibition backwards. It focussed on his work in the 1960s and the first thing I noticed was the huge, familiar canvas (borrowed from the Tate) of A Bigger Splash. This was Hockney newly sure of himself in California, painting sprinklers and swimming pools. In the next room Hockney was less secure. Although he drew himself beside Gandhi and Walt Whitman, he didn't claim equality with them. Each of the two famous men has a brief descriptive phrase summing up his influence. The unknown Hockney is tagged only with the words "I am 23 years old and wear glasses."

I thought I knew Hockney but much of the work on display was new to me. The drawings were a delight, especially the series illustrating poems by Cavafy and the reworking of Hogarth's Rake's Progress with Hockney as the rake arriving in California. Hockney's life unspooled further to his art school days when his work clearly came from the same tradition as Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Now, of course, his small rebellions - his insistance that life painting was not merely an objective organisation of shapes, his declared preference for male models, his startling obsession with the beauty of Cliff Richard - seem to anticipate his later works. But there was also the possibility of other paths - directions Hockney didn't take.

I spent an hour and a half in the four main galleries - not enough to take it all in. Then I wandered into The Space, a performance and display area where children and adults were encouraged to respond to the exhibition by making card models in gold, green and black. I picked up some card, wrote on it, and eventually fumbled my pieces together. One of the assistants optimistically assured me that my bulging box-like shape was "good - it looks like a building." She took it with several others and addded it to the display. I wandered into the café-bar.

I was in the mood for self-indulgence and ordered an espresso. I was sitting in a draught. There was no more sunlight outside. Rain battered against the door. Two bronzed young men wearing brief swimming trunks and carrying towels wandered in confidently from outside. Had Hockney known, perhaps he would have been at the opening - though I suppose there's plenty of tanned male beauty elsewhere.

I drank my espresso and shivered out into the street. I could hear music - "The Bare Necessities" from Disney's film of The Jungle Book. The zebras were dancing under a canopy. A waitress gave cake to the people queuing in the rain. I read the slogan on the window of Nottingham Contemporary: "International art. For everyone. For free."

I'll be back.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Derby revisited

I went back to Derby. I was determined to see L'Armee du Crime. This time I'd checked with QUAD that the film had been properly ingested. My cold was a bit better. Something at the back of my mind warned me that I wasn't quite well enough but I was fed up with limitations and headed back to the cinema.

I think this is only the second French film about the Resistance I've seen. The first, L'Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), shook me with its darkness. It began and ended during the occupation and showed members of a Resistance cell punishing their own members - always with execution - when any disobedience made the group vulnerable to betrayal. Although I knew that the Occupation ended, there was no happy ending of Liberation.

The title of L'Armée du Crime suggested a dialogue with the earlier film. There are other similarities. The film is similar in shape: it begins and ends during the Occupation, shows a key character being captured early in the film and ends by explaining what happened to the surviving characters. But there are key differences.

In L'Armée des Ombres, the main characters are members of mainstream French society who therefore seem to represent French opposition to Nazi occupation. I may be misrembering, but the film seemed to me as shadowy as its title. Shades were sombre as though brightness had been leached from the film-maker's palette.

L'Armée du Crime, like the recently-released photographs by André Zucca, has sequences of light. There are moments of happiness when Paris is, as one of the characters says, "beautiful". Ordinary Parisiens get on with their lives in technicolor. They - like the Resistance members and Nazi occupiers - have picnics, enjoy food, sing and make love. The Nazi occupiers who are killed and blown up by the Resistance are not deeply characterised but - perhaps more disturbingly - are shown enjoying life in Paris. The stroll in the sunshine, look at the Eiffel Tower, attend a book launch, chat with laughing young women in the doorway of a brothel. Neither they nor the Resistance members have lost their capacity for happiness.

Inevitably the light and happiness is in tension with darker events. Communist prisoners are executed in revenge for every Nazi killed. First ten are executed for every one Nazi, then twenty. A policeman who seems as kindly and anxious as every hero of a police procedural sighs as he reports a woman's anxieties about her neighbour - and sighs again when he watched the neighbour being tortured. Jews, trusting the French commitment to the "rights of man" stitch yellow stars onto their clothes. Then they obey the French policemen who cram them into ordinary buses on their way to the internment camp at Drancy. The buses roll past ordinary Parisiens who are unconcerned.

As the film proceeds, the contrast between everyday happiness and the cruelties that ordinary people would rather ignore becomes sharper. A soundtrack of Charles Trenet singing "Je chante" plays as a Jewish restaurant is smashed. Human beings are tortured in a cellar and no-one - not even the victims - questions that this is how things are. Outside is familiar Paris. There is still sunlight and beauty.

This isn't a film about typical French heroes defending their country from an external invader. Its focus is the cell led by the Armenian poet Missak Manouchian. Almost all the cell members are immigrants or stateless refugees. Manouchian's father was killed in the Armenian genocide and the group included Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Romanians and Spaniards. Some were Spanish Civil War veterans. Several were Jewish. Most were Communists and the story begins with news of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, which brought the Nazi-Soviet pact to an end, heightening the vulnerability of communist exiles in France.

The decision to resist violently is not treated lightly in this film. Manouchian in particular, chooses to abandon his ethical principles. But there are no easy choices for the members of this Resistance cell. Most of them risk death merely by being "untermensch." But the official poster - l'affiche rouge - issued after their death failed in its attempt to show the cell members as criminals rather than liberators. Its description of the activities of the Manouchian group led to the accolade "morts pour la France" (died for France).

It's a long, complex and gripping film. I walked away from the cinema reflecting on French response to the film. Although it was shown out of competition at Cannes - and despite the director's reputation - the film did badly in reviews and at the box office. I wondered whether this was caused by the film's implicit response to L'Armée des Ombres. It's an uncomfortable film, given the way the Liberation of Paris is currently perceived: achieved by the Resistance with the support of the people of Paris. I wondered uncomfortably how current anti-immigrant feeling had worked against the film. Imprisonment and deportation of refugees take place regularly - in England too - to widespread silence from the safe, passport-holding citizens of Europe.

I was nervous on the dark, damp and empty streets that led to the station. After all the violence of the film, I was alert to the risk of attack. I glanced ahead and tried to check no-one was lurking in the shadowy spaces behind bollards or advertisements. Gradually, as the few strangers on the roads failed to attack me - I think they were more concerned with getting home or to the pub - I became calmer.

There was some time to wait before my train. I took up the recommendation of a commenter on my previous post and enjoyed a swift half in the Brunswick, a restored Georgian pub with micro-brewery. It's very convenient for the station and I hope to go there again when I'm next in Derby. A £1 cone of chips from the Station Fish Bar provided a warming supper as I headed home.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Station approaches

I'm never quite sure if I like Derby. Of the triangle of East Midlands cities, it's the one I know least. I'm more often there to change trains than to visit. But on impulse I decided to catch the train. There was a film I wanted to see at the Quad - the recent French film, The Army of Crime - and, after five weeks of overwork combined with a succession of viruses, it seemed splendid to be heading out for a treat on a Friday afternoon.

I found to my delight that I was once more able to run for the train - it was a very last-minute decision - and, once on the train, reflected that my life was suddenly becoming quite self-indulgent. I'd been to a bonfire, firework and pizza party the night before and now I was off to the cinema. By the time I arrived in Derby, I'd decided I liked the city. Perhaps I could even move there, one day. I considered the advantages: good train services, easier access to the Peak District, the Joseph Wright paintings in the museum, the Victorian market hall. Above all, it would be a new place and I would feel as though I were starting life again. I started to think about small, manageable houses without gardens and in good repair. I tried not to think about the horror of moving or getting a house in sufficiently good order to be shown to buyers.

I can never remember the quickest way from Derby station to the city centre. I took a slightly complicated route, past small modern factories and the huge Westfield shopping centre. It all seemed slightly dull in the November drizzle but I reminded myself that this was my afternoon out and determined to enjoy myself.

I'd never been in the Quad before and this wasn't a good start. I'd just got my money out when I saw the sign "An Army of Crime - cancelled, replaced by Casablanca." I asked what had happened but didn't exactly follow the answer: something about the equipment failing to "ingest" the film. "Is it digital?" I asked, in an attempt to understand. I didn't understand at all. Apparently digital films have to be ingested at least two hours before the screening. However a new copy was on its way. I bought a ticket, with cash, for the early evening screening and headed out in the rain to explore Derby.

I must have spent two and a half hours wandering, mainly gazing in shop windows in the hope that I'd feel inspired about birthday and Christmas presents. Then I thought I'd return to check that the replacement copy of the film had arrived and was being ingested safely.

The courier, due at two, hadn't arrived and it was nearly four. I decided to wait in the faint hope that the film would arrive and sat in the foyer, leafing through the film programme. The woman running the box office was suddenly concerned about my wasted afternoon and offered me a complimentary drink from the bar. I asked for a pot of chai so I was at least warmer when the news came that the film had been cancelled. The box office woman gave me my money back and offered me a complimentary ticket for any film in November. I accepted, though I'm not sure I'll make it to Derby again. But the kindness began to make up for my disappointment. I finished my tea and headed along the damp, dreary route past the overhang of the Westfield centre and bleak garages toward the railway station.

This time I managed the quick route and noticed the attractive railwaymen's cottages close the station. There were a couple of promising pubs too and an excellent chip shop. I began to fantasise about moving into one of the railwaymen's cottages. I thought I'd like being near the station. I always enjoy the possibility of easy escape. And I liked the idea of living in a railwayman's cottage. My dad was a railwayman - he worked as a fitter on the London Underground for 39 years and still takes an interest in trains.

I was unexpectedly tired when I reached home. I should have picked up some work but felt unable. I went to bed with a couple of books and decided I'd have a lie in on Saturday. But in the morning I felt the after-effects of the Derby drizzle. I had a bad cold and was aching too much to go anywhere. I coughed, spluttered and slept.

I have stopped dreaming of a move to Derby.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

What is poetry for?

I was lucky enough to hear Tom Leonard read his poems a few weeks ago - the second time I heard him. The reading ending with questions and someone asked what started him off writing poems. I didn't expect him to mention Stephen Spender. But he did. He spoke of finding an exam paper in the school playground when he was 15 or 16 and on that paper he read Spender's poem "The Express." Tom Leonard mentioned that his father worked on the railway so he took an interest in the subject. But I wonder if he'd have been so interested in the poem if he'd encountered it in a classroom or exam.

I had some wonderful teachers who loved poetry and did their best to convey that love. (I also had one dreadful teacher who achieved the remarkable feat of making me dislike Hamlet). I've also tried to teach poetry within the English syllabus. It's an exciting and infuriating task because the teaching of poetry tends to talk round the central questions of what poetry is and what it is for.

If you're studying poetry for an exam, every poem turns from a thing of wonder to an object which must be interpreted, analysed and defined. I recall how, when I was in the the 6th form, my fascination with the poetry of John Donne was overshadowed by the question of what constituted "a conceit" and how I should write about the poetry in an essay. The thrilling oddness of Donne's images was smoothed away by the need to explain them in neat paragraphs about compasses, the opening up of the "new world" and so on. I was lucky that the craft elements of poetry were taught with encouragement to try things out - at least I learnt about metre, rhythm, cadence and form by writing rather than, as so many of today's students do, by a mechanical process of counting syllables and memorising Greek-derived terms.

I wouldn't condemn analysis of imagery, content, politics, craft, etc. - they are all enjoyable parts of the experience of poetry. But they aren't the main part and they don't answer the question of what poetry is for. Academic study of poetry often aims for a total solution - to explain away everything. But I don't believe any poet who has just finished writing a poem thinks, "Oh good! I've just written a wonderful set text" or longs to be set in an exam.

League tables and the need to measure degrees of success can easily limit the way in which poetry is read. "What does that image mean?" students are asked, "Can you identify the metre?" or "What is the poem's political perspective?" While the most sensitive and sophisticated response might confess uncertainty, students learn young that there are right or wrong answers and that a poem, like a quadratic equation, is there to be solved. Its component parts are pegged out and labelled and its political stance is subjected to praise or blame. Any pleasure gained prior to a solution is treated as purely incidental.

In most seminar rooms or classrooms, there's someone who ventures the opinion that a poem means whatever the reader thinks it means. It doesn't, of course. Wordsworth's daffodils remain yellow spring flowers however you happen to see them. The reader who think that daffodils looks like gladioli or Martians is making a serious mistake. And yet that insistence on the importance of the reader does say something important: it resists the stock definition that "solves" the poem and recognizes a transaction between the words on the page and the reader for whom they are meant.

I took a series of seminars and asked students to find poems they liked which puzzled them - poems that resisted an easy analysis or solution. And then I asked the students what they liked about those poems. They were hesitant at first - afraid of giving wrong answers or sounding silly. But as I scribbled their answers down, I realised we were getting closer to the answer of that impossible question "what is poetry?" And the answers were a helpful reminder that poetry isn't there so that people can pass exams - it's there to be enjoyed.

Here are some of the things students liked about poems:

- the sound of poems
- the way poems sing
- the way poems look on the page
- simple images
- seeing things in a different way for the first time
- playing with words and forms
- mystery
- the sense that there's a deeper meaning that can't quite be reached
- snatches of sense
- concentration
- weirdness
- unfamiliar words
- not understanding
- the puzzle

Students started to remember the way poetry seemed to them when they were very young. They recalled nursery rhymes, nonsense verses and magical, powerful words that they didn't fully understand - like swearing. We were, at least, on the edge of finding out what poetry was for, even if we couldn't quite define it.

At it's best, for me at least, poetry is to do with lasting wonder and the kind of mystery evoked by W.S. Graham's poems "What is the Language Using Us For?" When I read the first stanza of the first poem while browsing in a bookshop, I knew this was magic. I was swept into the mystery of the words:

What is the language using us for
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

You can read the rest of this poem - and the others in the sequence - here.

I don't want to stop and analyse the poems - I want to read and revel in them. An analysis would merely skirt round the edges. I could learn about the W.S. Graham's craft as a poet - and that would be useful - but the mystery would remain. The most apt response isn't an academic essay but closer to "Wow! I want to read that again," or even, "I want to learn that by heart."

Schools and universities are right to teach skills of analysis and puzzle-solving. But they run the risk of being constrained by what is easily tested and measurable. You can't grade students on the enthusiasm with which they say "Wow!" or give them marks for saying that a poem is an insoluble mystery. Yet their sense of awe and mystery may be as close as any of us gets to understanding the nature of poetry.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Back to the blog

It wasn't swine flu. I didn't have the cough or the sudden high temperature. It was just the usual sort of autumn virus.

For a week or so, everyone except me seemed to have a virus so it wasn't surprising that I succumbed. It wasn't a good time. Taking time off work would have placed an impossible strain on colleagues, who were also working while ill. And adrenalin got me through the last week and a half, though not as successfully as I would have liked. Last Saturday involved six hours of non-stop talking, which became croaking and finally a hoarse whisper. At home everyday tasks like loading the washing machine or putting out the wheelie bin required sustained concentration. Away from work, I didn't go out or blog. Instead I huddled pathetically in an ill-made bed, grateful when the cat purred on the pillow beside me.

Every so often I noticed a subject for a blog. "I must write that down," I thought, but didn't. It seems a little late for my thoughts on the forthcoming government by the Bullingdon boys. I'd have liked to discuss the background to the postal strike and the need for a national, well-managed mail service but an article appeared with more knowledge and thought than I could provide. Others have written well on the recent political impact of Twitter. I managed a couple of tweets myself, mentioning Berlusconi, Blair and Jean Sarkozy. I felt old.

Meanwhile, I noticed reports on the economy. Some people said the crisis was over. Others predicted a steep rise in unemployment. Goldman-Sachs, which took public money, gave a lot of it to its employees in bonuses and was startled that anyone should object. Politicians competed in the savagery of the cuts they promised, assuming that voters would elect the candidate who threatened most jobs and the swiftest sell-off of public assets and resources. And every so often I met someone I knew who was threatened with redundancy or had lost a job.

Commentators assume there's a sharp line dividing those with jobs from those without. They assume the employed will spend until the economy surfaces from recession. I doubt that's the case. People live in families and circles of friends. Surely we'll help families and friends to purchase necessities before we head out on the extravagant spending binge urged by economists? That's enough to bring down a society built on debt and the sale of services and luxury goods.

Perhaps it's time to tear up the old model and start again. But where do we go from here? Can we really progress through co-operation when hatred and bitter competition have grown so strong?

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Goose Fair unvisited

I learnt about Goose Fair on my first visit to Nottingham, twenty-one years ago. The traffic jams were the first clue that something was going on. "Goose Fair," locals explained, and later, leaving Nottingham, I gazed at the huge expanse of fairground lights and wished I were among the crowds clutching bags, purses, toys, balloons and children as they swarmed around the vast site.

No-one is quite sure of the origins of Goose Fair. A book from the 1930s comments snootily that it is "not of any high antiquity, for the earliest mention of it is in 1541." People in Nottingham know that's rubbish. The fair celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1994 - I was there with my parents and children. More recently, writers have suggested it's more than 1,000 years old. It won't be long before someone establishes that it was set up by Druids or visited by Alfred the Great or Julius Caesar. But in fiction it was certainly visited by Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which captures some of the wildness.

My mum didn't see the point of fairs - all that money for a short ride when you could buy a good book or a theatre ticket instead. But I loved the thrills, the garish prizes, the crowds, the shouting, the smells and the tastes of fairground food. I don't think I've ever bought the Nottingham speciality of "cocks on sticks," usually bought with a giggle from a stall-holder who was bored with the joke years ago and is more concern with the quality of the lurid confections. But it was at Goose Fair that I discovered the joys of hot mushy peas, seasoned with pepper and mint sauce and eaten from a small tub.

It's proper Goose Fair weather today: cold, windy with the possibility of rain. Sometimes the crowd stomp and teeter through mud to the cakewalk, the gallopers, the big wheel, the hook-a-duck stalls and all the other rides and games of chance. Bad weather is no excuse for missing Goose Fair though it drives many to the Scouts' simple brick building where the sale of tea and sandwiches to sheltering crowds probably funds activities for the following year.

I'd like to go to Goose Fair again though I no longer have the excuse of taking children. I can hardly take a tall 18-year-old to hear the ringing of the Goose Fair bell or suggest he hold my hand if he's scared by the rush of the Magic Mouse or the neon skeletons of the ghost train. Perhaps next year I'll take my camera again or see if a friend wants to experience the rides. This year it would definitely be unwise. I've pulled a muscle and don't want to risk the pain of jostling crowds or further damage that might be caused by the attempt to maintain my balance on the jiggling of the cakewalk. Tying my shoelaces is quite bad enough though I'm surprised to discover that attempting to stab people with an epee turns out to be an almost pain-free experience.

Perhaps next year I'll find time to go on the quiet first afternoon, when rides are cheaper. I may even stop at one of the fortune-telling booths in the neighbouring front gardens - not because I believe in fortune-telling but because I'm uneasy about the rules banning fortune-tellers from the Goose Fair site. When I first moved to the East Midlands, people said openly that gypsies weren't allowed on the Goose Fair site. The current rules simply say that fortune-telling and character-reading are banned.

The wind is getting stronger - it just threw one of the wheelie bins to the ground. I reckon I'll be warmer and more comfortable indoors - and I have the fifth Thursday Next book to finish.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Who pays?

Apparently we saved the banks. Now it's time to face the question of who pays.

The political conferences are full of politicians competing as to who can be the most threatening, though Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, ditched the word "savage" at the last moment and chose instead to talk of "serious cuts."

The Confederation of British Industry, combined with university vice-chancellors, has decided that students should pay for the university through higher fees, higher interest and cuts in grants. Oh yes, and their degrees should do more to train them for work in industry. Leaving aside the question of why students should pay to be moulded in the way employers demand (shouldn't they develop a capacity for original thought that enables them to remake industry and shape the future?), there's clearly a problem in the economics of what the CBI and vice-chancellors suggest. The economy needs money now - the suggestion that students are lent more money from 2010 or 2011 won't bring in any repayments until 2013 at the earliest, even if all graduating students walk straight into well-paid jobs.

It's an uncomfortable time. There are plenty of shrieks of "Not me!" which is to be expected. But there's also a great deal of finger-pointing, usually at individuals and social groups. Comments in newspapers and on-line forums are directed at the usual groups: immigrants, asylum-seekers, single mothers, the poor, the unconventional. "Punish them!" editorials and commentators demand. Facts on how little the poor and needy receive in benefits are no use - anecdotes of luxury are everywhere. Nor does it help to point out that the poor have to spend most of the money they receive, thus returning it to the economy. Spending by the poor is instantly labelled fecklessness.

I don't have a solution - I can't see any way of finding these impossible sums without hurting the economy more and damaging even more individuals. (Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan would save money and lives, but it wouldn't be enough.) Every cut brings its cost. There are bound to be cuts in public servants who include nurses, teachers, ambulance drivers, cleaners, lollipop ladies, and many others on whom we rely. Most will be entitled to redundancy pay and benefits - and in many cases it won't be enough for the rent or the mortgage. The newly unemployed will become the newly desperate. They will cut their spending (savagely, of course) and this will have an effect on all the businesses which depend on selling services and minor luxuries. Lots of small and large businesses are just keeping going. With less money coming in they will first shed more staff - that's even less spending money in the system - and then collapse.

The government has to look for cuts which affect the fewest people and from which the economy can recover most quickly. Logic points to taxing the rich and inherited wealth - money that doesn't circulate in the system. It's not going to happen. There are too many millionaires and too few paupers in government. But even taxing the wealthy won't solve the problems. I don't know if the kind of redistribution and rationing employed in World War II would help. My mum remembers the Second World War as a time of plenty after the scarcity of the 1930s - rationing fed children who were used to going without. But I'd worry about the centralisation and trust in government that requires, particularly when I look at the way the three main parties are funded.

The more I listen to political debates, the more I realise that no-one has a solution. I hear stale rhetoric and the rehearsal of prejudices and realise these are going to influence what happens next. It's going to be nasty. I don't want to speculate any further. I'd rather not think about the future but it's lurking and waiting to hit me in the face.

Note: the illustration is by the street artist Meek. I hope s/he doesn't mind my use of it.