Sunday, 29 July 2012

An opening

Cynic though I sometimes am, I warmed to the Olympics opening ceremony.   Yes, I know it cost a lot and I know the performers were volunteers and that there are numerous problems with corporate sponsors and the treatment of dissent.  I might not have watched the ceremony had my daughter not been one of the volunteers but, once I'd got used to the style, I found a great deal to love.

It's easy to be critical of the account of history, especially since there was so little time and so much was going on.  I glimpsed the suffragettes but only learned later that the Jarrow marchers were also present.  Perhaps the Chartists were somewhere around though I don't think the Tolpuddle martyrs or the Diggers were included.  They didn't represent the the Commonwealth either - perhaps the execution of Charles I was judged unsuitable for all sorts of reasons - and Britain's uncomfortable colonial history was omitted.  But Blake's "Jerusalem" made a good starting point and the complexity of the Industrial Revolution - with its excitement, achievement and damage - was stupendous.  I'm still thinking about the implications of conflating Shakespeare's Caliban with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Perhaps because it appeals so strongly to my imagination, it's made a slight adjustment to my views of the 19th century.

I expect most viewers took what they wanted from the ceremony.  Some of my friends lauded J.K. Rowling. There was great enthusiasm for James Bond, the Queen and the corgis.  Mr Bean had even more fans than Simon Rattle.  I was thrilled to see a huge CND symbol in the arena, even though I understand that it was there as part of the history of Britain in the late twentieth ceremony.  But a huge number of people were excited when the letters "NHS" appeared.  Most people in Britain still agree that being able to go to the doctor and be treated in hospital when necessary without worrying about money is one of the great achievements of Britain's welfare state.  As the story of the health service was entangled with children's books, it wasn't surprising that villains from children's literature appeared to attack children in hospital nor that nurses and a number of Mary Poppinses finally defeated Lord Voldemort.

But perhaps the best thing about the opening ceremony was that it showed so many people what they love about Britain: its countryside, its industrial achievement; its literature;  its music; and above all the huge mixture of ordinary people who mostly live happily together, enjoy life and like one another.  It was an optimistic and hopeful picture of life here today, appropriate for the short period in which, in theory, there should be an Olympic peace.  I liked the way the peacemakers handed the Olympic flag to representatives of the armed forces, because, if we're ever to build peace, we'd be wise to involve armies in the movement away from violence.  

The parade of the athletes, many grinning broadly as they entered the stadium, fitted well with the show as a whole.  I know it's not always like this but I'd like to think of the Olympics as somewhere in which competitors form friendships across national boundaries and despite suspicion and conflict.  I'm also happy to celebrate the huge variety of people who take part in sports for love of it and who often aren't very well-known.  Since I joined a fencing club, I've learned about the amount of dedication shown by people in "minority" sports.  At my fencing club the coaches are unpaid (but qualified) volunteers and members of the committee donate their skills in such roles as web-designer, accountant, social secretary and armourer so that the club can keep its fees down and welcome members of the basis of interest.  It's given me a great respect for people involved in sport.

It seems that Danny Boyle's vision is one of peace, freedom and equality - one in which the contributions of all people are valued.  It's a fantasy, of course, and I see the strength of the objections.  People say it all costs too much in an age of austerity,  that it's a bit unreal and that sport isn't for everyone.  People quote Juvenal and talk about "bread and circuses" - some of them go on to ask "where's the bread?"  I can see their point.  They see sport and the arts as an extravagance when we need to to campaign once more: for the health service, for workers' rights, for food for the hungry, for an end to torture and oppression, for the welfare state, for equality, for freedom. I want all those things but I want circuses as well.  

Juvenal saw bread and circuses as something that distracted the people from Rome's serious political purposes.  He didn't like the people much.  For him they were the enemy of political decency - and he didn't reckon he belonged among them.  But I am happy to be one of "the people."  For me there's a different way of expressing what I want.  Just over a hundred years ago a poem declared that a life devoted to work and survival was not enough.  Two lines have often been repeated:

 Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
 Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

 I want a world in which people experience delight as well as having enough to eat.  I don't think art and sport necessarily turn us into passive consumers of whatever the government says.  They can bring people together and widen their knowledge and understanding of the world.  They can set the imagination and intelligence alight, and bring people who would not normally encounter one another the joy of engaging in a shared activity.  They can give us some idea of how much better the world might be, even though they leave us with the task of achieving it.  

Photo by Nick Webb, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A touch of class

I haven't read Shades of Grey.  Having seen numerous blogs and articles about the book, I used Amazon's "look inside" feature to get some idea about it - and I peeked inside a copy in Waterstone's.  At my age, I don't need to worry what other people think of me, and I expect fellow travellers assume I'm reading erotica when they see me with my kobo.  (At the moment I have James Joyce's Ulysses open and Zola's L'Argent - both pretty dodgy books in their way and immensely enjoyable.)

However the fuss about Shades of Grey has led me to think about the kind of book it is.  It's fanfic, obviously - and because it's Twilight fanfic it's not much to my taste.  It's porn so not rooted in realism or good writing.  And it's also romance with all the usual baggage that entails.  Its heroine is young, innocent and adoring while the hero is enormously rich, terrifically sexy, and enormously damaged.  Her role is to rescue and adore him.  His role is to give her extravagant presents, including - and this is where I'm almost hooked - a valuable first edition.

Romance is an odd genre with a curious descent.  Part of it is a male genre - it comes from the seduction narratives of courtly romance.  In these the woman are praised for their exceptional beauty and virtue.  There are traces of this in Elizabethan sonnet sequences.  Shakepseare's sonnets reverse some of the usual conventions; the fair youth is praised for beauty and virtue while the dark lady is seen as both desirable and dangerous.  This enables Shakespeare to emphasise another aspect of this kind of romance: the suffering endured by the male lover. 

Romance also has roots in the spiritual journals often kept by Puritans.  This may sound unlikely but, because they were concerned with the soul and the interior life, spiritual journals naturally recorded emotions.  Samuel Richardson's 18th-century novel Pamela, which is clearly a fore-runner of today's romantic novels, comes out of that tradition, with its focus on the struggles of a very young maidservant to retain her virtue as he male employer makes repeated attempts to seduce and rape her.  In the end her virtue and beauty win him over.  Richardson was an influence on Jane Austen, who turned his third novel, Sir Charles Grandison, into a play, and I think it likely that the plots of his novels, if not the novels themselves, influenced Charlotte and Anne Bronte.

It's also common to find the roots of contemporary romantic fiction in fairy tales, particularly those written or adapted by Perrault, such as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty".  But although the structure of these stories is quite like contemporary romantic fiction, the stories themselves lack two aspects that are key to romance as written today.  They don't have an interior narrative and the women tend to be curiously passive in terms of the romance plot.  The heroines marry princes because that is expected of them and not because they love or desire princes.  Fairy stories of this era are largely concerned with actions and appearances.  The feelings of the character are irrelevant.

Contemporary romance has quite a lot going for it.  It values women's feelings and says that their desires are important.  It also suggests that the choice of a partner is both difficult and important.  However, there are also shortcomings to the form.  It tends to treat the achievement of a partnership or marriage as the culmination of women's lives, though sometimes there is a brief epilogue, usually involving pregnancy or the birth of a child.  Plainly this ignores most of women's lives and relationships.

Heterosexual romantic fiction (the vast majority) has another worrying aspect.  The hero is typically richer, more powerful, older and taller than the heroine - and usually of a higher social class.  The attraction of the heroine is almost always based on a combination of innocence (not necessarily virginity but relative inexperience), modesty (she doesn't realise how attractive she is) and adoration of the hero despite his flaws.  But while the heroine looks up to the hero, she is often also a mother-substitute who tends to some hidden anguish or moral flaw - she has to heal him while she adores him.  The heroine is permitted some liveliness of speech - today she is often characterised as "feisty" - and she is allowed a character and a career.  But the only model for romance that women are offered involved both admiring and tending to the hero.

There's nothing wrong with admiring some aspects of a partner.  Indeed, it's pretty normal given that adults prefer partners of whom they think well.  And there's certainly nothing wrong with caring for a partner who is in need of care.  But there's something wrong with the kind of transaction romance offers if on one side the man provides money and power while the woman offers adoration and nurturing.  It's not an equal relationship - and surely all of us, men and women, want more than that, even in our fantasies.

It was reasonable for Elizabeth Bennett to fall in love with Mr Darcy when she saw what a big house he owned.  In the early 19th century a woman of her class without much money was much better off if she could marry a fortune.  In the mid 19th century, Jane Eyre followed the conventions of her time by insisting on legal marriage, although her inherited wealth would have passed to Mr Rochester when that marriage took place.  Perhaps it was as well that, when they finally married, he was maimed and even less attractive than before.

But isn't it time for a different kind of romance in which the partners share what money they have - and it may not be much - and help and nurture one another?  I recall the ideal of a loving, equal comradeship, which was not unknown when I was younger.  It's present even in some unexpected 19th century novels.Perhaps the most unexpected is Dickens' Little Dorrit, with its conclusion of a marriage in which both partners together "Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness", without the corruption of great wealth.  Although the novel ends with marriage, it doesn't treat that marriage as the culmination of the characters' lives.  Instead it indicated that they have a future.  

The final sentence is one of my favourite endings of any novel: 

"They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

That's the kind of partnership in which I'd like to believe - and it may be a more enjoyable and plausible one to imagine in these difficult times.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Saying [uz]

I didn't mean to go to London. I'd thought about Tony Harrison's poetry reading. I saw it advertised and considered buying a ticket. Then I realise it was on the evening of a day when I was working and that I'd have to rush to London after work and get home again the same evening. I thought about how tired I'd be, and how much the train tickets would cost. Plainly it wasn't sensible.

I blame Twitter for what happened next. I just glanced at my Twitterfeed – I don't have time to read every tweet of every person I follow – and saw a quiz question from the Poetry Society, offering tickets to Tony Harrison's reading as a prize. I knew the answer. I didn't stop to think but tweeted back to them – and won the prize. A journey to London still didn't seem sensible but, after a little dithering, I began to realise it was inevitable. I wanted to go.

I first became aware of Tony Harrison as a playwright and translator. I was still at school when I saw his translation of The Misanthrope – into heroic couplets, I think – at the Old Vic. It was clear and witty. It was more than a translation; instead of its original setting in the time of Louis XIV, Moliere's play was transposed to the Paris of Charles de Gaulle. And despite the outstanding acting of Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg, what struck me most was the pulse and neatness of the verse.

Harrison's poetry took longer to reach me. My reading has always been a chancy affair. Then I chose books following from the advice of others, because a couple of lines quoted in a review startled me into a response, or because of an encounter in a library or bookshop. I found Tony Harrison's collection Continuous in a second-hand shop and, in a quick glance through the poems, realised that there was something in the voice that interested me. It took me a while to read more but, as I did, I recognized not only the complexity and the wordplay. This was a poet who was saying something important – and something that mattered to me.

Harrison's work is grounded in his two experiences I share: a sense – emphasised by certain teachers at his schools – that he could never fit into the cultural life of his country because he was born into the working class, and a yearning to acquire knowledge and articulate it. These experiences are part of what fuels his sequence from the School of Eloquence but they are amplified by his awareness that in gaining the education he desired he lost the close communication with his parents that he knew in childhood.

I'm not sure how much that was caused by education. Children often do find a separation from their parents and education may be merely a convenient way to name it. However when a child begins to move in cultural circles which are peopled mainly by those who seem rich and self-confident, the child's apparent confidence among such people can add to the parents' sense of awkwardness, even as they enjoy their child's success. When that is allied, as so much is in Britain, to a rigid class system, the high class barriers – which really do exist – are bound to underline and intensify the separation of child and parent.

Harrison's reading at the Purcell Room began with some of his public poems, which characteristically move from a small personal perception: in one poem the starting point is fish-scales scattered as cormorants fly with gasping fish in the sky above Lindisfarne Castle. From this sight, glimpsed through a train window, the poem moves to consider history, war, politics and the tragedies of past and present life.

The length, scope and formal exactness of his public poems - often published on the news pages of a newspaper - makes them unusual. When Harrison said that his chief influence and model for these works was the messenger's speech in Greek tragedy, I suddenly understood what he was doing much more clearly. The messenger, who arrives towards the end of the play to explain what has happened, is not a major actor in events. He is someone who is on the edge of the action, who is not in himself particularly important but whose role is to tell what he has seen as he saw it. It's a good position for a political poet since it is neither powerful nor directly preachy. It is based in the “I” of personal experience.

I was glad that Harrison's reading included some sonnets from the School of Eloquence sequence. They are what is known as “Meredithian sonnets” and have sixteen lines instead of the usual fourteen. This allows for a more sustained conclusion or reversal than is possible in the fourteen lines of the Shakespearean sonnet. The poems were interspersed with illuminating anecdotes. Before reading “Classics Society,” Harrison explained that, as a schoolboy, he was instructed to translate all Greek and Latin into a high-flown language. This led to some absurdities. Translating a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus, Harrison had a character who was the Roman equivalent of a policeman saying “Move along there.” The schoolmaster crossed this through and substituted the more elevated command: “Vacate the thoroughfare.”

Harrison also recalled overhearing a woman in the audience for The Misanthrope say (and I paraphrase from memory for I was listening too intently to take notes): “What a command of the English language, my dear – even though he comes from Sheffield” This led Harrison to address the question of his own articulacy. He added to the little poem “Heredity” the recollection of his father's deep shyness.

This made me return with renewed understanding to Harrison's concern to speak for the working class now and in history. The idea of someone speaking on behalf of a class makes me uneasy. I think that the problem is not so much that the working class are silent but that they are often unheard. The problem lies with the powerful who may mock but rarely listen.

But I share is Harrison's anger – an anger which plainly lives on. I have heard recordings of Harrison reading his paired sonnets “Them and [uz]” but I have never heard such anger in them. Harrison takes the teacher's contempt for him and his Leeds accent, expressed in the lines “You're one of those/ Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose” and turns it back against the teacher, using his knowledge to insist that poetry does not come only in Received Pronunciation. The voices of poets of the past have, as Harrison says, been “dubbed” into RP as a foreign language film is dubbed into English – and much is lost in the translation.

I can't give details of all Harrison said or all that he read. I was moved – as he was – by the poems grieving at his parents' deaths. There was also a more hopeful poem – though against a dark backdrop – which Harrison had addressed to his grandson Alfie. On this occasion he read it for the first time at a reading with his grandson in the audience. But one of the final poems came from a play – Harrison's adaptation of Sophocles' Trackers of Oxyrhyncus, which exists only in fragments of papyrus. I have neither seen nor read the play but when I heard the speech I wondered how I could have missed it.

 Harrison's introduction explained that the play had made allusions to the cardboard city that grew up beneath Waterloo Bridge and in other sheltered spaces on the South Bank in the 1980s. It was where the homeless lived and established a community. I remember walking past on occasions; it was not a dangerous place. In the end they were moved on, their homes were dismantled and the area was cleansed. I don't know where the people went.

But the fate of cardboard city and its people was beyond the scope or Harrison's reading. Instead he offered a speech in voice of the satyr Silenus, brother of Marsyas, who was flayed alive on the command of Apollo for daring to learn to play the flute. The satyrs – half man, half goat – are allowed to be comical and inexpert but the Olympian gods will not permit them to be are capable of art and culture. In the speech Apollo stands by, playing the lute as Marsyas is tortured to death. At the end of the speech Silenus resolves to conform and know his place – to take the safe option.

It's a while since Harrison has given public readings. He claims that he was prompted to resume by the discovery that newspapers are updating his obituaries ready for use. But judging from this reading, he's still unwilling to take the safe option. His anger persists and he still uses his poetry as a weapon to attack cruelty and injustice. And the rhythms still sing and the words play on.

 My very brief visit to London brought another joy.  For the first time in more than thirty-five years I encountered the English teacher who taught and encouraged me in my last year and a half at school.  She was also at the reading.  She was an excellent teacher who shared her love of literature and I owe her a very great deal.  Thank you, Miss Hann.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Professional demands

I do not want to be called "professional."

Some of my friends and most of my colleagues think this is odd.  After all, the word "professional" is a term of praise - isn't it?  

But if you go back a little bit, you can find other uses of the term.  There are many theological attacks on those who are called "mere professors of religion."  They are seen as people whose entire concern is with formalities and outward show rather than real belief and action.  Within my lifetime the term "professional woman" signified a prostitute.  And the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers a sense in which "professional" is uncomplimentary, giving examples of people who treat themselves as commodities.  One of the examples is the old term "professional beauty."   

It may seem rather strange to go back to earlier meanings of the word.  We all know that language develops and words change their meaning.  But in an important sense, those older meanings of the words cling around the term "professional".  

I'm not so worried about the idea that people are paid.  I like my job - well, most of it - but I do it for money and I don't need to be coy about the fact.  If I weren't paid I couldn't do it.  But jobs - particularly those jobs that are labelled "professional" - can take more than the energy and dedication with which most employees perform their primary work.  They can, by degrees, sap the integrity of those who work.

Behaving in a "professional manner" often means acquiring a veneer of false confidence which creates a distance between the "professional" and any member of the public.  This isn't something that I would always criticize.  When I go to see my doctor, for instance, I accept that she will adopt a confident and reassuring manner, even if she's just had a bad weekend and is personally feeling a little unsure of herself.  I don't mind the distance either.  She really can't ask all her patients to be her personal friends.  But I hope her determination to appear confident never gets the better of her honesty.  If one day she can't work out what is wrong with me, she'd do best tell me so and send me for tests elsewhere. 

While professionalism distances professionals from the public, it also draws professionals together in their workplace and can begin to separate them from the world in which others live.  Here it can be closely related to the kind of corporate loyalty which leads employees to forget to question what they are doing and why.  An inside account from an unnamed bank suggests how easily a number of professionals forgot about the ethics of banking practice and their responsibility to the wider society.  Instead they showed their loyalty to the well-being - primarily the financial well-being - of their employer and, as a group of professionals, broke the law.  Manipulating the Libor rate had an effect on the wider economy and on numerous individuals but some of the professional employees of the banks involved put the banks' interests first.  They placed the good of a corporation and the good opinion of their colleagues above the good of individuals.  They may also have broken the law, though that isn't yet clear. 
Almost all employers have a rule somewhere that employees must not damage the reputation of the company or institution for which they work.  It's a vague rule which employees have come to accept - not that they have much choice.   But what does that rule really mean?  

I take for granted the idea that I shouldn't tell lies about my employer and that I should behave in a reasonable way and work hard at my job.  I worry that the reputation rule may give my employer the right to police my private life or my public life away from work.  Suppose I, acting in a private capacity, go on a demonstration against the government or the arms trade, and am recognized by someone who knows me through my job.  Would this be regarded as bringing my employer into disrepute?  If my employer were dependent on government funds and good will, or if my employer wanted to make money by hosting a reception for arms traders, I might find myself in a difficult position.  I hope the clause doesn't extend so far.  If it does, it gives government and global corporations a very easy way of stifling dissent.  And it means that an employer can control my free time as well as my working hours.

But what if I wanted to tell the truth about my employer?  There are circumstances in which honesty would be seen as "unprofessional."  So would whistle-blowing, although society as a whole owes a great deal to whistle-blowers who have seen where their wider loyalty lies. 

The best employers I have worked for have encouraged open discussion and haven't been afraid of criticism.  They create an atmosphere in which the workers do their best but know that they aren't perfect.  Anyone who needs help or advice can ask for it.  If a worker sees that something isn't working, that worker is free to say so.  The aim is not to hide behind the mask of professionalism but to do the work as well as possible.

These days, however, the market is more firmly and forcefully present.  Everything seems to be for sale: sport, arts, education, health.  Every public good is forced into competition and instructed to sell itself and explain its value in solely economic terms.  Organisations concerned with sport, arts, education and health are told that their primary aim is to acquire customers, and that the approval of those customers is the means to acquire and retain sponsorship.  Every school and GP's surgery is busy competing with others and every sports team and art gallery spends days and weeks writing funding bids, surveying customer opinion and producing the kind of jargon that will enable them to keep going. 

No-one tells employees to lie but the rhetoric everywhere is about "marketing," "branding," "presentation" and "networking."  Apparently these are key elements of professionalism.  In these panicked times they make employees look inward, focus their attention on the survival of their own jobs, and discourage them from looking at any question larger than the immediate good of their own company or institution.  When the competition is so fierce, there's a danger that the competition will focus only on the first impressions of the "customer," whether a patient, a parent, a pupil, an enthusiast for museums or the local football team.  There's no time to consider the longer term or the good of the "customer" in five or ten years. 

But humans have a tendency to ask questions and make ethical judgements.  I can't stop questioning what my work is for and what its value is, and should be, in society.  These are difficult questions and may produce answers that go against my personal interests and the interests of my employer.  It's a dangerous path.  If I think too much, I may find myself saying something my employer doesn't like.  I could even be accused of damaging my employer's reputation.  Yet I believe in freedom of speech and I believe in speaking the truth.  It's a matter of integrity - and, next to integrity, professionalism looks pretty hollow.

 I hope my employer agrees.