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.

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.



A Woman on the Edge of Time

AWomenOnTheEdgeIn 1965, shortly before Christmas, a young, ambitious mother of two children on the brink of publishing her first book of sociology let herself into a friend’s house in Primrose Hill, London, turned on the oven and gassed herself. It was an act with uncanny echoes of Sylvia Plath’s demise, which had taken place just two years earlier and two streets away. Her family was dumbfounded; on the face of it, Hannah had everything she could wish for – a loving husband in a successful career, two young boys, a promising academic career, good looks, money, friends. Only the title of her book, The Captive Wife, gave a possible hint at a darker truth, and only the friend whose house she had used knew that she ‘had been depressed in the days before her death.’ But life goes on and the devastated family kicked over Hannah’s traces, her suicide becoming the great ‘unsaid’. Until, that is, her younger son, Jeremy Gavron, decided he had to find out the real motivations for his mother’s act. A Woman on the Edge of Time is the story he uncovered and it is absolutely hypnotic.

How you tell a story – what gets left out, what gets distorted, where the emphasis is placed – is the theme that runs quietly through this memoir. The stories Jeremy Gavron had been told of his mother portrayed a ‘golden girl’. A friend described how ‘She was young, attractive, confident, bright, able; she brought an extra jolt to life. To succeed in those days women had to give up something – children, work, femininity – whereas Hannah wanted and appeared able to have everything.’ In family stories she featured as a force of nature: at eight she won a poetry contest, at twelve she was a champion show-jumper, at sixteen she left her progressive boarding school to become an actress at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and then after her early marriage at eighteen, she returned to her studies, researching a Ph.D while bringing up her sons. She was working as a professional reviewer, teaching at a fashionable London college and adapting her doctoral thesis into her first book in the final months of her life. What a strange story Hannah’s life became with her final tragic act; what an outrageous and inexplicable ending to an otherwise glittering Bildungsroman.

Jeremy Gavron began digging. He found his grandfather’s diaries; he questioned family and friends, everyone he could reach who had known his mother; he read her book and the letters she sent to friends. And gradually he pieced together a very different tale. His Hannah is indeed a courageous and headstrong young woman, wild at times, acting as if ‘the normal codes of behaviour weren’t for her’. She had a precocious and wilful sexuality that flourished in an affair she had with the headmaster of her boarding school. An affair that Gavron calculates, with a sickened heart, that she must have begun at 14. There was an almost desperate urge to get married, as if it was a troubling void that had to be filled. Hannah wrote to a friend ‘One of the awful things Frensham [their boarding school] has left us with is the feeling that if one is not in love with anyone in particular, life is very dreary.’ Acting never took off. The marriage soured and Hannah fell in love with someone else, someone she was working with, a man who unfortunately turned out to be homosexual though by this point she seems determined to act like that didn’t matter.

The most disturbing part of Hannah’s history surrounds her academic career in sociology. Hannah had researched and written her book about the stultification of domestic life, interviewing a number of women with young children and drawing on her own experience. Here was a woman with a lot of spirit and verve, way too much for the rigid constraints of the 50s and early 60s, and she was a pioneer before her time, without the sisterhood that feminism would offer working women later in the decade. Then she became aware that her applications for university positions were being stymied by the men she had to rely on for references out of pure misogyny. When Gavron takes the evidence he has gathered to a neighbour who is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, she points out that “The fact that Hannah was a strong personality wouldn’t necessarily have helped, she says; ‘the whole of that terrific force gets turned against herself.’”

Once I began this book, I absolutely could not put it down. It is beautifully written, with a limpid, open simplicity that is still full of nuance. Jeremy Gavron structures his researches terrifically well, so that even though I had the outlines of his mother’s life given to me in the earliest pages, I was full of curiosity to find out the devilish details of the other side and to see how he would interpret the results. And even when he believes he understands his mother’s act and can create a narrative of sorts, Gavron is still finding out new revelations that make him wonder whether he has the story right. It’s a brilliant investigation into the unsaid that forms a part of every family (if not quite so dramatically as in Gavron’s case) and into the slipperiness of storytelling. We need those stories if we are to have any chance of understanding experience, but stories seep over gaps and seal up perspectives that might need to be wrenched open again. It is also a valuable piece of social history in the way it creates shocking insight into the reality of life for women in the 1950s, when you really did need a man by your side if you were to have any self-esteem at all. And finally, I felt it was a moving tribute to a mother who had been loved without being known, and who was now known in all her flaws and failures, all the things she could not deal with and which led to her suicide, and who was loved even more now for being understood. The real tragedy of Hannah Gavron’s life is that she did not live to experience the sweet reparation her son could have given her.

Straight onto my best books of the year list.





Your Blog Post Might Change The World Yet

The SwerveIt’s been an appropriate time to be reading about the way that war and religion – and especially religious wars – have caused more trouble to mankind than just about anything else. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Swerve, he trots us through a couple of millenium of human history in which two very generalized modes of human existence – one based on civilized, intellectual pleasures, one based on the interplay of power and suffering – have come into conflict with each other over and over again. It’s a shame that the gospel doesn’t suggest it’s the geeks that will inherit the earth, as the historical evidence in this book proposes that we’d all be better for it.

The specific focus of the story is one book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who in the winter of 1417 made a spectacular discovery in a German monastery. Looking for lost texts from the classical world, he found a copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) a book that had been written some fourteen hundred and fifty years earlier. This book was a doozy; it suggested that the universe was not created by the gods, but was constructed from infinitely small particles, that moved about, collided, came apart again. Everything in the world was the result of a swerve, in which one atom swerved into and combined with another, and this in a process of ceaseless, dynamic movement. That swerve ‘is the source of free will’ because it is random and not predetermined, and it also means that the world was not created especially for human beings – it just happened. And so, if all organised religions are just delusions, as Lucretius’s vision argued, and when we die there is no afterlife, then it’s pretty pointless to organise life around our fears of divine judgement. The essential point of existence was to increase pleasure and avoid pain. Lucretius was profoundly influenced by Epicurus, who advocated for a life of simple, immediate pleasures, and not as later discrediting critics argued, for mindless hedonism.

This was dangerously heretical stuff to be broadcast in the fifteenth century. But Poggio was one of the breed of ‘humanists’ who loved and revered the classical world, and who adored books – they were his comfort and his escape from a life that was constantly threatened and full of conflict. Because of his gorgeous handwriting skills, Poggio had risen to the grand position of the pope’s apostolic secretary. It was a good job but a difficult life in a papal court that was riven with corruption. Poggio’s boss, Baldassare Cossa (John XXIII) came from a family whose business was piracy, and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about him. Except, maybe, that at the time Poggio worked for him, there were three Popes knocking about Europe, all claiming to be the real one. (And Cossa had already poisoned a fourth.) Well, this situation was eventually resolved by a huge meeting of the authorities in Constance, Switzerland, to which all the popes (reluctantly) came. The aim was to settle on one pope and also to sort out various issues with heresy – for instance, the intolerable lobbying of church reformer Jan Hus, a Czech priest. Hus repeatedly attacked the clergy for their greed, hypocrisy and immorality (there was a roaring trade in ‘indulgences’ which, if you paid good money for one, would supposedly make the going easier through purgatory). He felt the state should control the church and that laymen should judge their spiritual leaders. ‘An immoral pope could not possibly claim infallibility.’ Well, yikes, thems were fighting words, and deeply unpopular ones. It was very unfortunate that they were mostly accurate and true.

How it all shook down is also very informative. Essentially, realising which way the wind was blowing, Cossa made a run for it and went into hiding. He was tracked down and imprisoned on a count of 70 criminal charges. Ironically enough, he ended up in the same prison as poor old Jan Hus, who had negotiated a safe passage to the conference only to see it blithely ignored. Cossa bought his release, and enjoyed a quiet retirement. Hus was taken to the stake and burned. Poggio, unemployed, decided a little holiday might be the thing, and so, enamoured of Germany and ever more in love with the classical golden age, he went book-hunting.

Greenblatt is – or at least seemed to me – very good on the vast ocean of lost texts that had been created in the classical world but were abandoned and neglected in the Dark Ages, but this has been one of the contentious parts of his book. Thousands of works came out of Greek and Roman philosophy, but since they were mostly written on papyrus, climate and bugs were their major destroyers. However, Greenblatt argues that it was a change in ideology that made the most important difference, and he uses the great library at Alexandria to illustrate his point. This library was essentially a world class university, to which scholars and researchers were invited and where the foundation for calculus, hydraulics and pneumatics and our understanding of the body were discovered. It was a vast treasure trove of learning. As such, it recognised no distinctions in doctrine – all knowledge was valuable. But the Jews and the Christians who lived in 4th century Alexandria were not happy at all – they only recognised the one god, and so this polytheistic environment was anathema to them.

The spiritual leader of the Christian community, Theophilus, set mobs of Christians onto the pagans, which resulted in riots and mass destruction. Then Theophilius’s successor, his even more brutal nephew, Cyril, demanded the expulsion of the Jews. He came up against an extraordinary young woman, Hypatia, who was beautiful and intellectually gifted. She was the representative of the pagan intellectual elite, most unusually for a woman. Hypatia supported the Jews. And so, Cyril sent out his henchman to whip up a frenzied mob. They pulled Hypatia from her chariot, stripped her, flayed her, then dragged her corpse around the city and burned it. Things were never the same again afterwards, Greenblatt suggests. It was the end of an era – ‘a loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality’. Superstition took the place of open-minded intellectual debate.

Now, Greenblatt’s book has been highly criticized for what is seen by some as too great a simplification of the cultural shift, and a disservice to Christianity. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what you think. I felt that he wasn’t arguing that all kindness, pleasure and academic research ended when Europe embraced Christianity; but that it was harder to think clearly with the thumbscrews of the Inquisition hovering at the back of your mind. It seems fair enough to me that Lucretius’s text would be seen as a wildly inflammatory document when set against the reality of fifteenth century Italy. But also, that there might be a small band of brothers who would find its ideas radical but tempting. Greenblatt’s implied claim, that it was the book that tipped intellectual culture towards new, modernist ways of thinking is probably a bit much. But he does make of its life an impressive and highly engrossing story. I knew absolutely nothing about this part of history, and I found it fascinating.

And in the light of recent events, I also found it sobering. I know I bang on here a lot about tolerance and compassion, but I cannot regret it. I don’t think we’ve ever come to terms with the innate violence of human beings, and perhaps most dangerous of all, their fervent desire for retaliation. Across history, this desire has been successfully pitted against thought, consideration and contemplation; we still scorn intellectuals and prize strength and a show of might above all else. This is a very good book for hearing the lessons of history speaking loud and clear to us. Oh wouldn’t it be good if one day, we could finally listen.