A Few Words on Brexit

As we were doing the supermarket shop this morning, we kept coming back to the subject, couldn’t quite leave it alone. I will admit that I am not dealing with it especially well at the moment – a little clue to which was my desire to snarl at a perfectly ordinary white-haired couple heading back to their car with the Daily Mail tucked under the man’s arm. But fortunately I am married to Mr Litlove, whose sensible perspective today has been: we have to understand this, and recognise the discontent and disenfranchisement expressed by half the voters on Thursday, and think about what we can do.

So here’s where I think the rot set in: I think the banking crisis of 2007 was one of the most mismanaged and shameful episodes in recent history. Not only did it show how corrupt and mindlessly greedy the financial sector had become, the subsequent disaster and double-dip recession it caused was never truly, definitively laid at its feet. There were no public reprimands, and none of the shake-up the sector obviously needed. It was a declaration that the super-rich were in charge.

And then I think that politicians have been heading down a slippery slope for decades now, out of touch with so many parts of the country, slick and superficial and performative, rather than genuinely concerned to find workable answers. All those spin-doctors, all those sex scandals and expense account fiddles, oh I can’t even be bothered to write about it. Who amongst us thinks that politicians are anything to admire? It breaks my heart that Jeremy Corbyn, who appears to be a genuinely principled and decent man, is unreadable in our current culture. We’ve lost the ability to pay attention to anyone who speaks quietly and sensibly and compassionately. Unfortunately, he’s the wrong man at the wrong time.

Globalisation has taken a heavy toll – we hear about all the problems in the world and we can’t solve them. And we hear about people like the Kardashians as if they were a family to whom we might compare our own. We’re told about all the money out there and all the trouble out there, and we’re encouraged to look all the time at this enormous picture of extremes that makes no sense but which we’re supposed to be a part of and which clearly is intended to threaten us. If people are pushing this hard for isolationism, then it must in some degree be due to a backlash against the idea of the global community.

And the biggest responsibility for all this has to go to the media, who work their little socks off to spread an atmosphere of fear and discontent. If people are afraid of immigration, whose fault is it? The media acts like an enormous lizard brain, screaming and yelling at the least hint of trouble, pushing us towards extreme reactions. And when it isn’t depressing us with the promises of disaster, it’s pedalling narcissistic envy of celebrities and the rich, putting them on pedestals, pulling them down. It sets an example which we cannot help but follow – look, this is how we treat other people, we point the finger of blame, we say others don’t deserve what they have, they make us feel not good enough, not rich enough, not safe enough and it’s always someone else’s fault. The media never takes responsibility for itself, and this is highly contagious.

So there’s a huge protest vote. But why did anyone think that leaving the EU would make any of our problems go away?

Notting Hill Editions sent me a book a few months back that was an argument for leaving the EU. Mr Litlove read it. Its suggestion was that, if we were to leave the EU, we could set up better economic deals for ourselves in the long term. But it would take about ten years to do so. If we were able to bear the difficulties of those ten years, and deal with them effectively, we might end up in a stronger position.

Now, I myself would not have chosen these next ten years as the ones to undergo further hardships, not just at the point where our economy is stabilising again. Nor would I have chosen to undertake a difficult and complex renegotiation of our trading positions at a time when we have no faith in our political leadership. If we had a united country, if we had leaders with strong, clear visions of the country’s future, if we had a buoyant economy, if we had anything in this tiny little island that was unique to us and valuable to the rest of the world, maybe then we could step forth into a brave unknown with some confidence. Instead, we’ve sawn off the branch that we’re sitting on, and we’re just falling.

And what to do about it?

Well, you will not be surprised (if you visit this site with any regularity) to learn that my solution at this point is for every British person to take a long, hard look at their attitudes. A long, challenging look. In the Daily Mail, which this morning proclaimed that Britain should ‘take a bow’, the editorial pointed out that holidays abroad would be more expensive, pensions would lose value and we have lost the right to work, travel and study abroad with any ease. There followed a string of comments from outraged people who apparently ‘did not know this would happen’. I read that Cornwall, which voted to leave the EU, has now registered a protest, demanding reassurance that it will continue to receive the same levels of funding as if we were still a member state. The Leave voters have complained a lot about being called ‘stupid’, but I am struggling to find an alternative adjective for these reactions. Perhaps, though, the people who are annoying me the most are those who are acting as if nothing is happening, as if the economy isn’t going to head into recession, as we know it will, as if the EU isn’t about to make us an example to discourage other referendums, as if Scotland isn’t about to leave the union. I will say this as politely as I know how: if you voted Leave, you are going to have to step up and take some responsibility for the crisis that is now going to overwhelm us.

What makes me despair is this: the years since the Second World War have been some of the most peaceful and prosperous in UK history. And what have we done with them? We have worsened climate change and destroyed the environment, we have put house buying out of reach of our children, who are now leaving university with massive debts (when we had our education for free!), and we have voted to shut them out of Europe, out of 27 countries where they could have lived and worked. And we have just voted to set back scientific research for the foreseeable future – there’s a reason why 105 university Vice-Chancellors wrote jointly in favour of Remain, pointing out how dependent their research was on European collaboration and funding. We have not made a better world for our children. We haven’t even preserved the one we had. And now we’re reducing their opportunities to find solutions and improvements. We are what we do (being complicit is an act) and we have been selfish, profligate and greedy.

There’s been a lot of talk about wanting Britain ‘back’, in a loose, unspecified kind of way. Essentially it’s been a euphemism for xenophobia. But if there’s a Britain I’d like to see back, it’s the one I’ve read about in novels – which makes me think it must once have existed – where people didn’t have much, but what they had they were ready to share with anyone who was suffering. They seemed to pride themselves on being able to help others in need, on forming strong communities, on recognising the bonds of humanity that draw us all together, regardless of all other circumstances. I am not a Christian myself, but I feel at the moment the loss of Christian ethics, which were deeply woven into the social attitude in a way that made people feel they knew what they ought to do, even if they couldn’t always do it. There was a time when, if you had a standing in the community, if you had status or wealth, then you had a responsibility to care for others less fortunate. There was definitely a time when being civil and polite showed you to be a decent person, and it made the wheels of life turn more smoothly. There was a time when humility was a real virtue, before it was replaced by self-righteousness and entitlement. If we are forced now to return to a pre-WW2 state, then it will only work in any way if we can adopt some of these pre-war values. Returning to the 1930s with the attitudes of 2016 is going to be a complete disaster.

Here’s a few more things: we’re going to have to get over this ridiculous resentment of people who actually know things in favour of our personal, uninformed opinion. If we’re to move forward into this uncertain future with any hope, we have to listen to those with good ideas and experience and insight. We’re going to have to figure out how to build bridges again with all those Europeans we’ve just offended, putting their own countries at risk of further economic instability, because we can’t just work in isolation, not any more, not in this world. We are going to have to find ways to ask a great deal more of our politicians and our media – and to understand what that ‘more’ might sensibly and usefully look like. We are going to have to give up being fearful all the time of things that have a tiny statistical risk, and learn to fear the real dangers that stalk us: self-absorption in our own self-pity, for instance, the pleasure taken in being stubborn for the sake of it, the refusal to take responsibility for our own situations.

Because finally, ultimately: we have all lived through good times and bad times, and so we must surely know by now that happiness and contentment are not dependent on external circumstances, but on our own attitudes. If things are wrong in our lives, it is usually because we are standing in our own way.

We must surely know by now that feeling good about ourselves lies in our ability to do good things, to act well towards other people, to take responsibility for our fates. Great networks of self-justification, great conspiracy theories of blame pointed at people we scarcely know, living in a bubble of self-reassurance, these only provide artificial happiness, manufactured out of artificial ingredients. No, if we have any hope for what lies ahead it has to be grounded in the understanding that working hard and taking pleasure in doing a good job, whilst caring for others in our community are the valuable skills and attitudes that are available to us all. Goodness knows in the coming years, we’ll need them.

Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.

Being Right Is An Emotion

The following is a post I wrote much earlier in the week, but I’d decided not to publish it because I felt.. oh I don’t know, like I didn’t want to get involved in the madness of the referendum. And then that poor politician, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed yesterday by someone who – so it looks at present – was completely carried away by an opposing political conviction. And so I’m posting after all, because we really do need a sea change in how we stage public debates.

 

It’s bad enough that we have to live in a world full of gun crime and futile EU referendums, what’s really depressing me at the moment is the quality of debate surrounding them. I am continually horrified by the sheer awfulness of the example being set by people – politicians, the media – who are supposed to be in authority. You might think that the importance of the issues at stake would encourage those doing the debating to put their best brain in gear. But no. If there is some information to be had out there, it’s usually drowned out by the hysteria and the posturing.

I’m not about to tell anyone what to think. But I am going to ask you to consider for a moment how we think. How we might be brought to the best, most sensible and viable decision.

And here’s my first point: if we’re having a public debate, it’s because we need to make a community decision. Not a decision based on what I want, what I think, but a decision based on what’s best for a disparate group of people. A healthy community seeks difference – everyone thinking and acting the same all the time is called a cult. So people are being asked to do a really difficult but necessary thing. We all need to think outside our own personal concerns. We have to think about the young person we love the most, who is most different to us in terms of desires, interests and beliefs, and figure out how to keep society fair, safe and open as far as we can see into the future for both of us. That would be a really good outcome to our thinking processes.

Which makes the personalised and emotive nature of all current public debates a disaster from the outset. The more emotional a debate becomes, the more entrenched people become in their sense of what’s right. Because the sense of being right is an emotion. It’s a wonderful emotion. All that horrible feeling of uncertainty that existence brings, all the nagging fear and low self-esteem are wiped away in a great wave of pure conviction. The more others try to wrestle it away from us, the more tenaciously we hang onto it.  This makes it almost impossible for people to hear opposing points of view – literally, we can’t even hear them.

You may have come across the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1959. It refers to the extreme psychological discomfort we feel when we hold two contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time. This is such a painful position that we pretty much do everything we can – any old trumped-up (and I use the term advisedly) rationalisation will do the trick – in order to resolve the conflict. In fact the brain anticipates such awkward situations and heads them off at the pass using the strategy known as ‘confirmation bias’. We block all information that contradicts what we think and listen only to information that confirms us in our views.

But this makes for terrible decisions. We stop learning. We actually stop thinking altogether and just move into a defensive state. All to protect that gorgeous, delirious emotion of being right. Because in all honesty, we’re hardly ever ‘right’ in the accurate sense of the word. Most of the time, in most of our speculations, beliefs, choices and analyses, we’re only partially right at best, because life is a complex thing and we will insist on being right even in matters that have no factual basis. And let’s face it, even science, that great foundation of factual certainty, is constantly revising, updating and surpassing its knowledge. We have lots of convictions and fantasies based on hopes and fears and best estimates, but we ‘know’ very little indeed.

So! How do we make good decisions when we finally get our heads around the reality of our patchy and uncertain knowledge? How can we do the right thing, rather than the narcissistically-right thing? I have six guidelines (media, politicians take note) for creating a good and helpful debate:

1. The only arguments that carry real weight are those backed up by evidence. We need evidence.

2. Not all opinions are equal. In making a good decision we need reliable information, and that comes only from the most reputable, most unbiased, most experienced sources.

3. Speculation is not an argument. (This is the one I have trouble with Mr Litlove over.) Oh there will be speculations, for sure, but we must take them with a pinch of salt. I’m on fairly safe ground when I say that no one has yet figured out how to foresee the future.

4. There is the problem, and there’s how we feel about it. The chances are these two separate things are going to be continually entangled. But how we feel about the problem is probably going to be completely unhelpful when it comes to finding a solution. We need help to hold them apart.

5. Conclusions are what we end up with, not the place where we begin.

6. Doubt is sanity and absolute conviction is madness. Reality is always going to be more complex, dynamic and unguessable than any of us can imagine. Keep doubting.

 

 

The Other Part of the Reason…

Why I’ve been quiet, is to be found here at the wonderful Numero Cinq.

I’ve been writing about one of my favourite French authors, Patrick Modiano, whose name may be familiar to you after his unexpected win of the Nobel Prize for literature.

patrick modiano for numero cinq

His novels are almost ridiculously accessible – very simple and elegant language, very simple plots in which the main protagonist seeks the answers to some ongoing enigma, often concerning his own past, and yet immense psychological depth. He became famous in France for writing about the period of the Occupation, just at a time when the French were beginning to realise that their own history was much darker and more complex than was comfortable. I think he’s an amazing writer, and well worth your time. Lots of his novels are coming out in translation now, thanks to the Nobel, but my suggestion would be you start with either Missing Person or Honeymoon. And do let me know how you get on.