Saturday, 30 June 2012

The absence of Zeus

I wasn't planning to see the Olympic flame.  There's so much that's wrong about the Olympics, especially as it's currently run.  I worry about the way Londoners were uprooted, and the excuse for surveillance and repression - similar concerns have been raised about most cities where the Olympics have been held.  When I'm told that London's aim is to rival Beijing, this adds to my concern.

Then there are the lesser worries.  The sponsors are omnipresent and often absurd.  There are concerns about drugs and cheating.  These aren't new.  The Victorian establishment may have idealised sport, by which it meant the amateurism of gentlemen, but the roots of the Olympic games are rougher.  I've been looking at the kind of competitive sports described by Homer - for instance, the funeral games described in Book XXIII of the Iliad.  There's nothing gentlemanly about them.  The competitors want the very costly prizes promised to the winners and they are quite happy to cheat if that will help them win.  The most common form of cheating involves asking for help from a friendly god, as the gods are usually willing to skew the results by tripping up an opponent or giving horses extra speed and strength.  And when the event is over, there are rows between the competitors and appeals to the judges.  Modern-day sports seem pretty fair and restrained by contrast.

But the Olympics evoke the idea of Greek sports so perhaps it's only right that I ascribe my encounter with the Olympic torch to the intervention of Zeus.

My plans for the day were simple: I would mix some necessary work with a trip to the supermarket and a necessary journey to the bank.  If I got those done in the morning, I'd have the rest of the day clear.  I didn't count on the rain.

It wasn't ordinary rain.  It was a long, drenching downpour accompanied by long rumbles of thunder and occasional lightning.  It was more dramatic than any rain I've seen this summer - and that's saying a great deal.  I noted that the Olympic torch relay, which had reached Nottinghamshire, had been halted by the weather - and that the torch itself took a lunchbreak.  That was when I began to blame Zeus.  After all, he's the king of the Olympian gods and responsible for thunder and lightning.  I wondered idly whether Zeus sent the weather as a sign of his displeasure or a particular indication of his pleasure.  Whichever it was, it delayed my plans.

I reached Nottingham and the bank just before closing time.  There was a high stage in the Old Market Square.  To one side was a large, shiny cauldron, ready to receive the flame. Crowds and souvenir-sellers were beginning to assemble.  There was a light drizzle and the sky was getting greyer.  I wondered how long it would be until the next downpour.

Curiously, I began to wander round the sponsors' stalls.  They wanted to give me free things - strange items that made loud noises, objects with a possible sporting connection or even free drinks.  There was the opportunity to be photographed with an Olympic torch.  I took it, as the queues were short.  I had no problem with accepting gifts from a bank, an electronics firm and a soft-drink manufacturer - after all, it wouldn't make me more likely to buy or recommend their products.  I noticed that Nottingham people were much keener on collecting freebies than on buying officially branded Olympics souvenirs - there wasn't much enthusiasm at the stand selling mementos of the torch relay.

Gradually the dark clouds receded.  Instead the sun came out, the rain evaporated from the pavements and Nottingham was filled with an unfamiliar warmth.  Perhaps Zeus was being benevolent - or perhaps he had lost interest in the torch-bearers.  Most likely he was absent.  I know from Homer that he often goes on trips, sometimes pursuing women but often to attend feasts.   Once Zeus had departed, the weather had an unfamiliar warmth.  

I strolled away from the market square towards Nottingham Contemporary.  A few people were sitting on the base of Weekday Cross and the outdoor tables of the bars and cafés were all occupied.  A waited and gradually a gentle crowd - mostly parents with young children - gathered.   Mostly they were quiet but a group of Brownies sang while brandishing a large replica torch made from cardboard.  Sponsors arrived and distributed flags and souvenirs.  The Nottingham Contemporary zebra emerged from the gallery and shook hands with the children.   Community police and organisers erected barriers to close the road but there weren't enough barriers to line the pavements - but the children sat patiently on the kerb, waiting.  If there was any shoving or complaining, I didn't see it.

The first part of the procession was a convoy of police on motorbikes.  The children applauded and waved their flags.  Some of the policemen waved back.  There were lorries, cars and vans (several from the sponsors) as well as occasional cyclists.  No-one was sure wh they were but we applauded generously as they smiled and waved.  A coach driver did an imitation of the royal wave - or perhaps his arm was getting tired.  One cyclist carried a typed sign telling us that the flame would arrive in six minutes.  Suddenly I realised that the people smiling and waving from one of the cars were Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.  They had an Olympic torch with them and had been skating with it in the Ice Centre.  Now they were on their way to take the torch at the next stage and run together with it to the Old Market Square.  I managed to take one, rather blurred photo - proof that I had seen them.  Then we waited again.

Eventually there was another convoy and we could glimpse the torch behind a coach.  Then the torch-bearer came into view.  Someone said he was called Baz and that he ran a boxing club.  We clapped, cheered, waved and made a noise - and, as the torch-bearer raised the torch aloft, I found I was unexpectedly moved by the event.  The wasn't a glossy star or a photogenic youngster but an older man who looked like someone I might meet in the post office, greengrocer's, library or bus queue.  I was pleased with how he looked and that I could applaud a local man who had helped others through sport.  He ran holding the torch with the smoothness of an athlete.  

I suppose we saw him for a minute at most.  He ran comfortably down the hill to the next "kiss-point" - the toe-curlingly embarrassing name for the point at which the flame is passed from torch to torch.  But for a moment I did feel, against all my expectations, that I had witnessed something that mattered - something as simple as a man holding a torch and running down a Nottingham street.

It doesn't solve any of the problems with the Olympics and I still have considerable respect for the anti-Olympics protesters, who are asking necessary questions.  But the part of the torch relay I saw was impressive, for all its questionable history.  I hope that the children who watched and cheered remember the event.  I'd like to think that they might take from it a sense that they can witness and take part in history and that important events take place in their own streets.  Unlikely, perhaps, but there was a gentle kindness in the occasion that let me dream, if only for an hour or so.

Later I mingled with the huge crowds in the Old Market Square.  There too I noticed an unfamiliar gentleness.  Local schoolchildren were performing on the stage as the flame burned in the cauldron.  Then the flame was transferred to a small lantern and taken away.  Apparently even the Olympic flame has to be put to bed at night.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Pretty policemen and agents provocateurs

When I arrived at university, one of the first stories I read in a student publication was about police spies.  It said that for the entire summer vacation, two policemen, disguised as hippies, had been instructed to punt up and down the rivers watching out for students or other layabouts smoking pot.  They may have enjoyed their summer but they never managed to catch anyone.  A cartoon accompanying the story showed two policeman, dressed as stereotypical hippies but wearing policemen's helmets.

I don't know whether the story was true.  I do know that, in the three years of my first degree, I was never offered cannabis or any other illegal drug.

At the time, the story just made me laugh.  It fitted with the comforting view that the police were so incompetent at going undercover that, if they tried, they'd fail amusingly.

A little later I became aware of a more disturbing story circulating about the activities of some police forces - and I heard this so often and from so many different sources that it seemed quite evident that it was true.  This was all back in the 1970s when homosexual acts in private between consenting adults aged 21 or over had only recently ceased to be a crime.  I suppose this affected the arrest totals of many police forces.  However it remained illegal for a man to solicit sex with another man, raising an interesting question as to how gay men were ever to form sexual relationships.  Several police forces went beyond looking out for gay men meeting one another.  They sent policemen in plain clothes (known as "pretty policemen") to places where gay men met so that, if a man mentioned the possibility of sex, they could whip out the handcuffs and arrest the man.  There were stories of pretty policemen who did their best to ensure gay men would make advances to them.  It all seemed fairly disgraceful to the policemen and forces involved and I'm glad to say that the practice seems to have died out.  I don't think today's police would countenance such activities.  I don't think the government would allow it.

But I have been disturbed by what I've learned in the last year or so about the activities of undercover policemen.   There are plenty of cases of companies going under cover to spy on their opponents.  The McLibel case in the 1990s revealed that seven spies working for McDonald's had infiltrated the small London Greenpeace group so that at some meetings the infiltrators were in a majority.  The campaigning organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade was infiltrated by a man who worked with them first as a paid volunteer and then as their paid Campaigns Co-ordinator.  He was also being paid through a company working for arms muanufacturers British Aerospace.  According to the Sunday Times story which uncovered this espionage, he was one of half a dozen paid infiltrators.  Although it's a national organisation, CAAT is pretty small.  

At least when McDonalds or BAe engage in infiltration and spying they merely lower my already low opinion of them.  I had occasionally visited McDonalds with my children when the McLibel trial began but after I heard about the infiltration and spying, I initiated a family boycott.  Some people may find James Bond glamorous but I reckon there's something rather sickening about spies.

For a long time I've heard stories about state infiltrators in political groups.  I didn't think too much about who organised them.  I'd probably have thought it was the secret services, whoever they are.  I wanted them to be something shady because I didn't want to put a face to them.  I've been involved in some left-wing, mainly pacifist campaigning.  I don't want to discover that my friends aren't my friends at all - that they're pretending to like me and share my ideals so that they can spy on me, for money.  And I don't want to look at the people who really are my friends with suspicion, because if I began to do that, how could any friendship survive?

But in the past year or so it's become evident that that the state infiltrators might be quite close to home.  Mark Kennedy worked as a serving police officer by infiltrating protest groups, some of them near where I live.  I don't know if he went on the same anti-war marches but it's possible.  He looks vaguely familiar but that's all.  At least I wasn't one of the women campaigners with whom he had affairs, while concealing the existence of a wife and family elsewhere.  As the story of his spying became public, other spies were unmasked.  Some of them had affairs with activists too.  Some of them fathered children.

The police response to this was to say that the spies were "grossly unprofessional," "morally wrong" and "rogue."  My assumption was that at least, after this, the behaviour of police spies would be reined in.

I was wrong.  The Home Office minister Nick Herbert has stated that police acting as undercover spies should be allowed - in certain circumstances - to have sex with activists.  I don't know what that makes the government.  Paying someone to have sex with people as part of a job isn't quite the same as being a pimp, although morally it seems roughly equivalent.  In a few countries encouraging the deception might count as inciting rape - but this wouldn't be the case in English law.  I expect the women who have been deceived feel pretty damaged by it - especially if they have had a long-term relationship and a child with the spy.   But it's not something I want my government to permit, organise or encourage.  I think it's wrong.

I'm relying a lot on instinctive reactions here.  So I thought I'd better consider other circumstances.  What if the police spy was infiltrating an extreme right-wing group?  Would I think this worthwhile?

I dislike extreme right-wing groups, particularly those which incite racism and carry out racist attacks.  I want them to stop doing this.  It's possible an effective infiltrator would find a way of stopping them.  But I'm still not happy about the spying.

Anyone who infiltrates a group has to take part in its activities.  Police spies risk arrest when they break the law - Mark Kennedy was arrested on more than one occasion.  If they reach a position of power - which must be their aim - they need to suggest activities and encourage them.  So the police spy infiltrating a racist group might need to establish his or her credibility by abusing people on the grounds of their race, by spraying racist graffiti on walls, by suggesting groups to be targeted on a demonstration - even by initiating or taking part in racist violence.  This comes close to acting as an agent provocateur by encouraging people to break the law.  I don't want any police officer to do this, however noble the initial aims.  Nor do I want any police spy to be expected to have sex with a racist as part of his or her job.  

Doubtless some people - including members of the government - will say I'm being naive.  But I think members of the police who go undercover as spies cease to act as upholders of the law and move into a shadowy area of questionable morality.  When Nick Herbert endorses undercover policing and says that police spies may have sex with activists to reinforce their cover, he may speak for the government, but he doesn't speak for me.  I wonder whether the majority of voters - or the majority of police officers - would agree with him.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The battle of e-readers

I resisted for a long time. I like paper.  I like the sensation of holding a book in my hands, feeling its weight, leafing backwards and forwards.   I like using postcards and bus tickets as bookmarks - I leave them in the books I have finished, then find them years later.  This helps me reconstruct the experience of reading.  "Ah yes," I think, "that is where I was so concerned about Jean Valjean that I missed my stop," or "How sunny it was when I first followed Little Dorritt across the iron bridge."

My children persuaded me.  Indeed, they forced my hand by giving me, as a most generous mother's day gift, a kobo e-reader.  I'd begun to wonder how e-reading would feel but resisted the experiment.  Now resistance was useless.  I had an e-reader pre-loaded with a hundred books.

When they chose a kobo, my children respected my concerns.  I do my best to avoid Amazon and won't have anything to do with the kindle.  There are many reasons for this.  Amazon has a bad record for its treatment of employees.  It avoids paying British taxes.  Worst of all, it is trying to take such a position of power in the international marketplace that it risks establishing a near-monopoly position in which it would control authors, editing, bookselling and the way in which people read new books.

A monopoly in the production and reading of books would be a disaster, not just for book-lovers but for all who value history, free thought and the exchange of ideas.  Imagine a world where one company provided the only access to the means of reading and also controlled and selected what was available to read.  Even if the company began with the most benevolent motives, it would be bound to select certain titles for promotion above others and to give low priority to those it reckoned would be least profitable.  (All companies have to take account of economics.)  I'm not a great proponent of free-market capitalism but, when it comes to books, I'm with Milton in believing that we get nearest to truth - or progress - when ideas from numerous sources are allowed to clash with one another.  My preference for avoiding Amazon is a small act of resistance.  And in the matter of e-readers I was particularly determined to avoid Amazon.  

As I understand it (and I'm not highly technically aware) mobi - the format used by the kindle - locks readers into the kindle and Amazon.  By contrast epub - the rival format - allows users to switch from one kind of reader to another and import books from a range of sources.  While this over-simplifies the conflict - it is, for instance, to have a kindle-reader installed on a pc or an ipad - there are plainly problems in Amazon's approach and these are intensified by their offer of better terms to self-published authors who are prepared to make their work available through kindle only.  I can't comment on the quality of their books because I shan't be reading them.

For me, the kobo will never supersede books.  It does less than them.  However it does mean that I can leave the house knowing that I have, at the latest count, 176 books in my handbag.  They are mostly 19th century works - free and out of copyright.  I have most of them as paper books as well.  But there are exceptions.  I've managed to find books that are obscure and out of print - and I've obtained books in French that aren't easy to find in England.  It's great for bus and train journeys and I'm old enough to appreciate the ease with which I can enlarge the font when my eyes are tired.

So far I haven't read a great deal on my kobo.  I enjoyed Bel Ami (in French with the original illustrations) and, in honour of the Dickens bicentenary, I re-read Little Dorritt.  Now, attracted by the title, I've turned to Zola's L'Argent.  It will take me some time to get used to Zola's sentence structure.  

But I've noticed something about reading on the kobo that I hadn't expected.  It makes me focus on smaller sections of text - just because the page is smaller than the double spread of a paperback.  That means that the books which are most pleasurable are those which are densely written or which require careful attention.  The works of Dickens and books in French are ideal but I can't imagine wanting to read a modern thriller in English on my kobo.  I can't read poetry on it either - epub seems to lose the layout which is such an important element.  So it's a rather old-fashioned means of reading and I'm enjoying its old-fashioned elements.

I wonder if e-readers will last in their present form.  I rather hope they do as they're very convenient and a good aid to concentration.  But the popularity of multi-media tablets suggests that literature in its wordy form may give way to something more complex, where words, sounds and images are mixed and where pathways through the work are multi-linear and even driven by chance.  The literature of the future may mutate into a cross between the experimental novel and the computer game.  It may even return to its oral roots and become more of a social and communal experience as readers take the opportunities offered by the internet to read and respond together.

But meanwhile I'm loving my solitary experience of the 19th century.  As my train passes flooded fields I'm plunging back in time and wandering through the crowded backstreets of London and Paris.  I recommend the journey.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

What's so bad about Cyclops?

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm re-reading the Odyssey. It's many years since I last set out to read it cover to cover.  On this occasion I've chosen the E.V. Rieu translation, published by Penguin - not poetry but a quick and pleasurable read in prose.  It's probably the best translation if you want - as I do now - to read for the story.  

At times I'm struck by how familiar the people seem.  I've reached Book IX, where Odysseus meets Nausicaa, the young princess.  It's a hilarious encounter.  Nausicaa is by the stream with other young women, doing the laundry when Odysseus, who has been shipwrecked on the shore, wakes up from the bed of leaves he has made in the nearby woods. He needs to ask for help but is faced with a problem - he is completely naked.  In the end, he does he maintains his modesty by holding a branch in front of him - and decides it is best not to ask for help in the usual way by kneeling before the princess and clasping her knees.

The comedy of Odysseus' situation develops - and then it gives way to something rather different.  Odysseus becomes a guest in the household of King Alcinous, and, after all the rituals due to a guest (bathing, feasting, libations, drinking and so on), Odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventures. For instance, he explains the way in which he and his men would raid settlements, kill the men, rob the settlements and enslave the women.  There is no moral justification for this - it's treated as a perfectly ordinary way of carrying on so long as there is no breach of the obligations of hospitality.  By contrast, the behaviour of the Cyclops is seen as deeply shocking, in ways that the editor of the Penguin edition points out.

If you know anything about Cyclops, you probably know that they are one-eyed giants who practise cannibalism.  But in the world of the Odyssey, their size and cannibalism aren't the only strange things about them.  There are also two important things they do not do.  They don't build ships - and as a result they don't trade or have the habit of visiting other communities.  And, even more significantly, they don't meet in assemblies to conduct business and make laws.  Although there are social interactions - Cyclops listen out for one another and come to one another's help - each family has its own individual laws and customs.  In other words, they don't take part in politics (the word comes from the Greek polis, which means the city state).  They live entirely private lives.

Odysseus and a group of his men are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus.  There they observe his domestic arrangements.  He is an efficient farmer - even a kindly one, by today's standards.  He lets his flocks into the cave at night where he milks the ewes before putting their lambs back beside them.  This seems to suggest that he takes only the superfluous milk, which he uses to make cheese.  In the morning he lets the sheep out to graze.  But he starts to eat Odysseus' men, two at a time.

When Odysseus sets out to trick him, he does so through a version of gift-exchange, which Polyphemus seems to recognize in a limited way.  He gives Polyphemus fine and very strong wine and Polyphemus reciprocates by promising that he will eat Odysseus last - not a very adequate response.  But the wine renders Polyphemus drunk - there's a particularly disgusting description of him vomiting as a result, and bringing up chunks of the men he has just eaten - allowing Odysseus and his men to blind him.  This will give them the opportunity to escape when Polyphemus next opens the cave.

This set me reflecting that, while we would agree that Polyphemus is wrong to eat people, the other standards by which Polyphemus shows his lack of civilization apply less today than they did thirty or forty years ago.  We may not eat strangers but the idea of hospitality as a virtue seems to be slipping away.  In the Odyssey, whenever a courteous stranger arrives and asks for help, the rules of decent behaviour dictate that he will be given a bath, food and drink before he is even asked his name, that he will be provided with somewhere to sleep and will be given generous gifts.

In the time of the Odyssey, a properly-evolved society is also seen as one in which there is a widespread obligation to take part in political decision-making: to work out, through talk with others, what laws should apply.  There aren't equal societies - slaves don't take part in politics and women's status is mostly based on their relationship to men.  But it's not a dictatorship either - decisions are made after discussion.  Speaking well in public forums is valued as much as action.

When I think about society today, it has more in common than the life of the Cyclops than I would like.  The life we live is largely private - solitary or with family and friends.  Most talk and grumbling about politics takes place in the private sphere and without any sense that it will change anything.  Our society doesn't do much to welcome strangers either.  At least we don't eat them.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

a tentative return

I'm not sure that I've missed blogging.  I've been away for almost a year - not away from home, or away from my computer, but away from the practice of sharing selected thoughts with anyone who is tempted to stop by my blog.

It wasn't a momentous decision.  For some months I'd been running out of time to blog.  I had plenty to say - my brain didn't stop working and I continued to react to the world.  But work was taking over much more of my time and I also felt an inclination to spend more time in writing poetry and fiction.  And, as I stayed away from the blogosphere, the idea of a return seemed increasingly momentous - and I feared the extra demands it would make on my time.

Perhaps I also needed some time away.  Sometimes an absence from engagement in a particular activity provides a useful opportunity to reflect and gather thoughts together.  I'd like to think it's been a helpful pause as well as a hectic one.

But I've decided to return, and for no better reason than this: it's a rainy afternoon and I felt a sudden inclination to go back to Blogger.  If I were living in the time of the Odyssey, I'd say a god moved me.  That's what people in the Odyssey say when they make a decision for which they can't account in any other way.  I'm re-reading the Odyssey in the moment so that way of seeing the world is much in my mind.

I had a few ideas about what to say in this post but I'm still distracted by blogger's latest re-design.  Like most people, I'm conservative in familiar practices, which is a way of saying I don't want to relearn things I think I already know. (I still cook in pounds and ounces.)  I'm still trying to work out how to find the various functions I need on the dashboard, and hope I am doing everything right.  It's uncomfortable to be so uncertain about something I thought I could manage.  Perhaps soon I'll be used to the new design.

Meanwhile, I think I'll leave this where it is, add a few labels, press publish and see how this works.  If all goes well, I may post again soon.  If so, I'll try to write something with a little more substance, in case my readers are still out there.  And if you are, hello!