Opinion

Race – this stupid, outdated idea needs to be retired

Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

I guess I’m lucky.

I grew up in a household which didn’t put race on the agenda in the way I’ve now realised many others did when I was growing up in the 70s.

Yes, my dad repeated “jokes” he’d learned as a wartime kid, and, yes, I repeated others that bobbed my way like crap down the cultural sewer pipe, little stinking pellets of unthinking stupidity and careless cruelty.

I hang my head and see it now as the squawking of a parrot mimicking sounds from its environment. We were deeply ignorant and didn’t have the knowledge, perspective or conceptual tools to look deeper into what those supposed jokes said about English culture’s view of non-white people. My youth was stupid, un-self-aware, but not deliberately cruel.

There was plenty of encouragement to get nasty. The obnoxious stereotypes of On The Buses, even the clumsy comedy of Love Thy Neighbour which portrayed a racist white neighbour living next to an intelligent, kind black couple, casual jokes in the playground and simplistic mud hut representations of other cultures and all the other indications that Britain had not learned to deal with race issues was part of my childhood’s psychic background. I took race for granted, I suppose.

Growing up on a housing estate in Hampshire in the 70s, I rarely saw black people. Dad had been a naval officer and in a naive way asked anyone of colour where they were from. I thought this was normal, and continued doing so into the 1990s, until I at last thought about the implication that it was telling them that this was not their home. I cringe at the thought of it.

And yet, on another level, we had a girl at school, Yolande, with dark skin and beautiful long, straight black hair. I really liked her because she was basically a nice person – kind, calm, friendly, considerate. Her parents were from somewhere foreign – somewhere exotic – but I never asked her where she was from, because her house backed on to the school playground. So that’s where she was from. She was just another friend at school and I didn’t really think of her as different, or one of the black people that the jokes were told about.

I first encountered active, aggressive racism when I heard another girl schoolfriend shout Sambo at her. I was about 8 years old and I found the incident baffling. We had a book called Sambo at school, but it was about this smart African kid who outmanoeuvred a tiger by turning it into butter. It was a fantasy with a positive hero, and it just didn’t map onto the real world, or on to Yolande. None of it made any sense to me, yet my friend was angry and shouted that word and many others at her, telling her to go back home. Which was odd, because she was in her back garden at the time.

I was disturbed by this first real encounter with actual race hatred. I’m sure I had absorbed racist views from society, in the same way I did sexist ones, but I didn’t know yet that I was a naïve racist who just went along with many of the norms in the culture at the time.

I had no idea what the cultural attitudes I grew up with meant to others because I only thought about myself and my attitudes. Thinking about the lived experience of the people around me who were different from me came much later. It started with the study of English Literature, where I learned to think through other people’s experiences, and that learning is still going on now as I cringe at some of the things I’ve said in the past, usually not maliciously or deliberately, but out of yet more white, male ignorance.

Every day as I grow older, race seems to come up as a discussion point, and I admit that same sense of bafflement I had as a child continues. Because the more I think about the word race, the more I realise I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

Just recently I received another perspective on this word race from an unexpected source.

I have been been reading The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace as part of research I’ve been doing.

Wallace was the man who came up with the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin. Wallace even minted the phrase survival of the fittest. He was an extraordinary man, spending 8 years in what is now called Indonesia, living on numerous islands among the natives, collecting tens of thousands of specimens for the Royal Society, making observations of the natives while he shot, captured, catalogued skinned and pinned birds, butterflies, weevils, animals – basically anything non-human that lived.

His interest lay in the diversity of species across Indonesia. His theory was that the animal productions of the massive 1700-island archipelago were divided into two distinct and separate groups depending on which of two continental plates the islands were found on. Hence, in the eastern side of the archipelago tree-climbing kangaroos and birds of paradise related to Australian species are found. In the west, we see tigers and babirusa pigs related to species from the Indian subcontinent.

Sometimes the islands might be 15 miles apart, yet their evolutionary spheres are completely separate.

The creatures he wrote about have adapted to their surroundings and specialised into particular species. They thus have particular qualities. The tree kangaroo in New Guinea climbs trees to escape predators, and has adapted to do so more recently, which is why they aren’t very good at it. A species of oriole bird on The Moluccas mimics the colouring of the honeysucker bird, since the latter has strong claws and beak to deter predators, or an insect may look exactly like a leaf to camouflage itself.

And so Wallace categorises each animal, looking at its strengths and weaknesses, seeking to discover why they have evolved to a particular form. Sometimes he refers to the family of parrots as the “parrot tribe”, an odd use of the word which hints at the process of division and categorisation going on in Wallace’s mind in other areas, too.

Toward the end of the book, things take a new turn.

Just as has already done with the birds, insects and animals, he now starts to classify the races of people living in Indonesia and their (what he considers to be) inherent qualities. As he does so, the colonial European attitude is laid bare.

I should be clear. Wallace is not an out-and-out racist or unquestioning imperialist. His book is fascinating in part because he uses his studies of the nature of beetles or the modifications of butterflies and the treatment of the native tribes to reflect on the way society does or doesn’t work, advocating for regulation of the free market – at times even taking a near-socialist stance.

At other times he speaks of the Dutch imperial system in glowing terms as a kind of benign paternalistic institution good for all members of society, in contrast to the British free market philosophy which he argues inevitably leads to lower wages and poverty. It is a very particular view that misses the exploitation and brutality in the Dutch system. He seems to mistake native resignation to oppression for satisfaction.

Wallace talks about savages and primitive societies all the way through his book. Just as he does with the other animal productions of the archipelago, he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different natives. The highest form are the Malays, he contends, while the lowest form are the Papuan savages.

One line in the book, viewed in the light of what happened in Europe with Hitler’s equally unscientific racial theories made my blood run cold:

We most of us believe that we, the higher races have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring nearer.

Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol II, 1869

Here, Russell Wallace kicks over his scientific background and falls straight back into superstition. Variation thus far has only been presented as an adaptation to environment. Now, however, there is a goal, an endpoint toward which evolution is aimed. This implies intention and direction, which is very different from the unconscious mechanisms of adaptation he has been writing about before.

Suddenly, we are no longer looking at people as well or ill-adapted to their environments. He has added metaphysics to the discussion.

Thus, the Malay people have a superior moral sense, which Wallace argues is part of their race. Evolution then, is not only a physical adaptation to the environment. The same process of evolution leads to moral improvement, and the state of a nation’s morals is another indication of the stage of evolution of the race formed from it.

Wallace elucidates further: some of the groups of savages he has encountered are immoral and lazy as a racial trait, while another race of savage is energetic, and though ill-disciplined shows great promise in having a moral sense.

This racial theory of morality has deep problems. Not least the lack of any scientific evidence for it.

His idea of a racial teleology is an adaptation of an old idea. Throughout the millennia, prophets have promised us perfection. In the bible, we are offered a New Jerusalem, a perfected world and society in which, in Christian terms, the virtuous dead are resurrected and literally build a perfected heaven on Earth once those who don’t fit in are removed from that perfect society.

Here that same old idea surfaces, now recouched by Wallace in terms of human evolution – an evolution that includes morality.

How can that be? In reality, moral traits that in one situation are considered anti-social or dangerous are in other situations exactly what society demands.

Recently a man was attending a conference in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, when he realised that a terrorist in a suicide vest was killing people outside. Seeking a weapon, he snatched the horn of a narwhal from the wall and tackled the killer.

The man, Steven Gallant, said he simply acted on impulse without thinking. He was proclaimed a hero. His story, however, is more complex than that. Gallant was on day release to attend a prisoner rehabilitation course. He had been imprisoned for his part in the premeditated murder of a violent offender who had himself been acquitted of the attempted murder of a prostitute. The man that Gallant helped beat to death had been so severely mutilated that the ambulance crew were unable to find his mouth.

Where is this evolutionary morality Wallace claims exists? The very same traits of willingness to use sudden extreme violence without considering the consequences were present in both cases. One is interpreted as immoral, the other as moral. In fact, in the former case Gallant might argue that he was acting under moral compunction to set right the scales of justice. In the latter, he acted on impulse. His own view of matters might well be the reverse of how others judge it.

If one wants an example that answers European stereotypes of the savage rather than with the higher race Russell Wallace suggests is a European trait, we need to look a little closer to home than the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace goes on to elucidate his view, and we realise that he believes the perfectly moral citizen will be in accord with a perfectly moral society:

What is this ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain, that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,—a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization, to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.

It is both absurd and simultaneously seductive to a European. In Wallace’s view, evolution will take us to societal perfection, and Europeans are nearer to it than savages. Europeans have a heightened moral sense, they are superior, better, higher – while the rest of humanity is either being driven by evolution to become like Europeans, or is savage.

We have in Russell Wallace an early view that, taken on one interpretation, could lead to a theory of eugenics and fascism, and on another to an idealised Utopian socialist state. Both require a single standard which everyone must meet – not necessarily so with socialism, but that is how it has been interpreted by the great monocultures of the 20th Century that called themselves socialist or communist.

And then, just when we think he is irredeemable for his strange blindness to the failings of the higher race of Europeans that at the time were oppressing huge tracts of the globe, the paragraph below follows on from that above:

Now it is very remarkable, that among people in a very low stage of civilization, we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour’s right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.

Is it it possible that once more we are seeing what appears to be an adapted religious idea shaping Russell Wallace’s world view? The description of an idealised humanity in its most atavistic form has an echo in Christianity after all. If primitive humanity has an innate goodness about it, then it is similar to the innocence Adam had before The Fall.

If this is colouring his thinking, it is yet more illogic and superstition. It is romanticising noble savages as much as his racial theories malign them.

Well, you may ask, what has all this to do with race?

The point is a simple one, in the end. The imprecision of thinking, and the use of taxonomic analogies from the study of nature was overlaid by men like Russell Wallace onto a consideration of the different cultural, intellectual, psychological, moral and biological variations to be found in humans and used to hierachise those variations in terms that were hugely tainted by prejudices and a sense of superiority. The term race itself, then, is tainted by ideas of racism from its earliest uses. Race is a term when it is applied to humans that very roughly equates to species, or sub-species – and from very early on it has been a way for Europeans to distinguish themselves as somehow superior. All of this is inherent to the Russell Wallace’s use of the word. And Alfred Russell Wallace was by no means a far right bigot when compared to other Victorian gentlemen.

The word race, springs from a muddled set of European values designed to evaluate, belittle and censure those who are not like us. This process of judgement is absolutely central to the term, and I don’t know how you can talk about race without those unconscious judgments being present.

That, I believe, is why we need a new word when we talk about the biological diversity that is humanity. The word we use now is crass, outdated, and just not up to the job.

Birds of Prey is at the front line of the culture war, and it’s a crying shame.

The culture war is here again, just as it always is when a female-centred movie appears on the scene.

From some predictable quarters, criticism of the movie has been damning, with a kind of self-satisfied “told you so” coming out of the more insecure, scared and genuinely obnoxious parts of the anti-woman breeding pits of the internet, where some of its least sanitary keyboardistas moulder in their own (unsurprising) celibacy.

Some hostile reviews have basically ballached that movies that don’t include men in their rightful places as kings of a universe in which scantily-clad females prepare themselves for mating in a lardaceous teenager’s fantasy harem are somehow a Marxist attack on Western culture. A quick check of their posting times shows a whole raft of this type of negative review came out before or just as the film was released. No gender agenda here, then.

I do have to wonder what goes on in the minds of fellow males so bereft of self-knowledge and with such fragile egos that they can’t accept a movie in which women are the main drivers of the action.

A search down the twitter feed of many critics, and of their blogs, reveals that (surprise, surprise) many of these same voices attacked previous female-centred movies with exactly the same arguments. It is instructive to see how many now critiquing Birds of Prey by saying it doesn’t have the integrity of Captain Marvel (whom some now hold up as a kind of ideal female-led movie), were in fact dissing the very same Captain Marvel at exactly this period in its release and had predicted failure because the lead was a woman. It’s almost like you’d think they wanted female-led movies to fail or something? Shurrrrly not?!?!

(For those who can’t read this:
“She doesn’t change, grow, or develop… She’s still the same destructive, immature, selfish arsehole she was at the beginning…” – – yep, sounds like a feminist all right.
The replies are equally as insightful.)

Some more philosophical critics attempt to draw a deeper moral lesson with the slogan “get woke, go broke” from any movies that don’t chime with their limited world view. (Remember, that’s a world view in which women submit to their every whim while looking like porn pros with spray-on clothes about to do a spring break shoot.)

No Kyle, the bat is to beat people with, not beat off to.

The moral such critics want to extrapolate is that “woke” movies won’t make money because that is not what the public want. Similar critics also described Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel as “woke” but then had to change their minds after their success. Which means, obviously, only a weak box office is an indicator of “wokeness”, not the other way round. Such inverted logic is like saying “trees being uprooted causes hurricanes.” Viewed like that, it’s quite amazing how accurate prediction of past events can be.

It’s true BoP has underperformed* – but it’s got nothing to do with the “wokeness” or otherwise of the movie. It is to do with not getting the marketing, messaging and even title of the movie right, rather than people the world over suddenly hating powerful women-led films that don’t revolve around men, as incels would have us believe. Manboys are just wonderfully sensitive to having their world view questioned, it seems, and basically get very bitchy and whiny when presented with something that does exactly that.

Anyway, with the incels dismissed, we then have supposedly pro-BoP lunacy.

BoP-heads are so enamoured of the movie, so the narrative goes, they are attacking its next rival, Sonic the Hedgehog with complaints of blasphemy and swearing (as if the R-rated BoP doesn’t salt itself with “fuck” all the way through) and advising families to ditch the digital woodpig for the blonde psycho with a mallet (as if that’s going to happen).

And this is where the twitterverse gets weirder. Because Sonic the Hedgehog is not actually out on full theatrical release in the US until 14th February, which means there’s been a whole week of people tweeting how they stormed out of it to watch Birds of Prey… and you figure that one out.

It’s enough to make you paranoid. Are we in the midst of social media psy-ops in which the spreading of contradictory information is designed to destabilise an entire generation of feminists and comic book nerds? Is some nefarious criminal hoping that the lack of narrative will thus become its own narrative of chaos that will bring down the West? Mwahahahaha!

It’s like a comic book.

A closer look at some of these hardcore BoP-stan profiles reveals a definite lack of right-on politics, or that they are such extreme SJWs they must be parody accounts pretending to be “woke” in order to troll… Maybe… And if not, they should be. I mean they are right out there on the fringes of the known universe, with their incel counterparts.

And so, what’s actually going on? Chaos reigns is one answer – which would suit Harley Quinn down to the ground. As to who is posting what, really? Who knows… Because by this point there is no grown-up debate to be had about what went wrong. The twitterverse is having a fit. Birds of Prey has become the kickaround for anyone in the culture war with an axe to grind, and this point right here is where it all descends into madness about who the fuck is tweeting about what and why…

Enough!

My advice to anyone seeing all this twitter crap is, unsee it, now.

Because it’s a crying shame. The movie is not anti-men, or about to collapse the world order in some cataclysmic femocalypse as some would have you believe. (I’m not sure a movie can do that anyway. It’s just a movie.) Nope. Birds of Prey is massive fun from explosive beginning to nutcracking end.

So, if you’re looking for a fun night out and you aren’t in that disproportionately vociferous minority of guys terrified of the women who don’t prostrate themselves before their throbbing maleness, give Birds of Prey a whirl. And if you’re a woman undecided – well, really – what’s to lose? The set design is brilliant, the cinematography pops with vibrant colours and the comedy really works.

That, for me, was the big surprise. It’s a comedy – a violent, raucous comedy about people standing up for themselves after being abused and bullied. That’s a universal message, and just because it happens to be women doing it this time round doesn’t mean it’s the end of the universe, or that us guys’ dicks will fall off when we step into the cinema or there won’t be movies with men as main characters ever again. Honestly, the fragile nature of psychologically-stunted boys who demand the world must be a kind of fantasy porn game in which they are treated with the same respect as the engorged member of Conan the Barbarian, is sad to behold.

Birds of Prey is a violent, joyous funny, movie with shades of the old 1960s camp Batman movie about it. What’s not to like?

Get out there and enjoy it.

*********

*Since writing this piece, I have reviewed the figures for Birds of Prey. As they stand at the end of the second weekend, it looks like word is spreading about what a good film it is.

US take now stands at $61.673m+, while the international take is currently $83.6m, making a global Box Office of $145m+.

These figures mean the whole “flop” narrative is going to have to be challenged. It’s an R-rated movie with a groundbreaking ensemble and none of the “big” characters such as Joker and Wonder Woman, or huge CGI budgets that led to wins for Aquaman and Black Panther.

This is a respectable take as we start Week 2. So, even the assertion that it has failed is wrong. I bought into that, like most others did.

The power of social media, eh?

Are we entering the New Dark Ages?

Today, I compare the fall of Rome and the rise of what used to be called the Dark Ages, and what’s going on in Europe today, to see if there are parallels and if we can understand our modern age a little better by reference to this period of upheaval in our past.

First, I should outline where I see us, now. What the EU provides us, we take for granted, so much is it engrained in our modern world view. The great successes of the West in the last 70 years can be quickly listed. They are co-operation, peace and prosperity, achieved after great loss of life and crippling expense which led to enhanced cooperation through sharing resources and pooling national effort. The flowers of this cooperation are supranational organisations such as NATO, the UN and of course, the EU.

Recent revelations about interference in European and US elections and in the Brexit referendum are beginning to uncover the shadowy network of agitators and corrupt businessmen aided by Russia who see such institutions as their enemy. It is no coincidence that Trump has criticised each, alongside other voices of the far right, such as Farage, Banks, etc, who remain instinctively tribal in their world views.

How have so many in the West forgotten that these organisations, though far from perfect, have helped maintain peace? The answer in part is that the generation who fought in the last war has gone, and their children (many of my generation) conceitedly believe that war and division could not happen again. Ironically, they believe it because there has been peace thanks to the very structures they now criticise – those supranational cooperative bodies, such as the European Union. When you point this out, they don’t believe it.

As a result, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the far right in the UK, interference in the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the popularity of Orban in Hungary and agitators such as Geert Wilders and Beppo Grillo rise to prominence. There has even been a rise of the far right in Germany, one of the great defenders of pan-Europeanism. The danger is that such forces will fracture Western civilisation, turning it away from cooperation, and making it intolerant, inward-looking, xenophobic and protective of national interests over supranational ones. This desire for protection will make our country and those we are newly competing against rather than cooperating with, weaker. The winners will be big business and the mafiocracy in Russia.

With the death of those people who directly experienced the last great upheaval in Europe, the Second World War, history has been replaced by mythology. Instead of remembering that Britain relied on America, Russia and numerous European soldiers, agents and resistance fighters to prevail – all working together to ensure mutual survival – the post-War generation has grown up with the idea of British exceptionalism – a belief that somehow Britain doesn’t conform to and shouldn’t be constrained by international standards. In war, this little island wins against impossible odds (a false view, considering that Britain had the world’s largest Empire during this period), and it doesn’t have to follow the norms of peaceful international diplomacy. Much of this goes back to a pre-war view, when the Empire could “resolve” disputes with gunboats.

Whether this historical interpretation of Britain is realistic or not, in the modern world, the UK is not an exception. It is a country among countries of more or less equal standing.

Generation Brexit, however, is locked in the old paradigm of Empire. Many believe there was something benign about the British Empire. At the same time they accuse the EU of being an Empire, which they say is a bad thing in principle. None note any cognitive dissonance in these two views.

So we see the fracturing of the West, and the rise of new, localised power bases, some political, some business-related.

Is there a precedent in history?

Perhaps.

I have lately been drawn to study parallels in the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Rome. This period used to be called the Dark Ages, and though it is now deeply unfashionable as a term, it is perhaps accurate to use it when we talk about parallels with the modern day.

I should add that I am not by any means defending the principle of Empire here, nor am I directly comparing the EU with the Roman Empire, except on the broadest terms, that there was a pan-European administration in place during its existence.

As the Roman Empire came under stress from marauders from the 3rd Cenury on, its finely honed administrative structures adjusted to the new reality. Central control was lost. Yet the administrators continued on. These administrators comprised a cadre of selected officials who held the Roman Empire together. The Comes Palatinus was one such type of civil servant, who looked for some form of political continuity.

In the course of the various waves of invasion by successive tribes who broke the communication lines to and power of Rome, the Comes devolved from a selected regional administrator answerable to Rome to become a type of self-governing landed gentry appointed by the local king.

Meanwhile, the federates and buccellari who worked on the land were drawn to their local Comes for security in the face of so much upheaval. The estate of the Comes became the localised centre of power. In order to enjoy the protection of the Comes, the workers ceded their rights in the name of security, working essentially as slaves tied to a local magnate. The federates were former soldiers in the Roman Imperial Army who had claimed land in retirement, and also offered military service to the Comes. Thus a new and specific power relationship arose in Europe which will be familiar to us today, since this was the start of the European aristocracy.

The French word for Comes is Comte, meaning Count. These newly-created counts now began to bequeath their estates to their children, and so the hereditary principle saw powerful aristocratic families ruling over a serfdom. All this came from the collapse of  centralised power.

For centuries the counts sat alongside the newly-arrived Gothic, Visigothic, Vandal, Frankish and other kings, who took on the original Comes to continue regional administration after they seized power. Even as late as the 11th Century, there were aristocrats in Europe who claimed descent from Roman Senators of the Sixth Century CE. Thanks to the hereditary principle, their families were ensconced in local centres of power across Europe, styling themselves as Princes, petty kings, Barons and other such titles, alongside their barbarian overlords.

In all of this grabbing of power during upheaval, the common man suffered. Feudalism was born – a strict suppression of the labouring classes and a creation of a rigid, insurmountable hierarchy designed to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor.

So, are there parallels to be drawn with what’s happening in the modern world?

Some, yes. If Europe falls into disarray, expect corporations to create new centres of influence and power. Just as the Comes class claimed areas of Europe that became their personal fiefdoms when central power was weakened, big business will pick off aspects of the State. Businesses are already interfering in democracy, hollowing it out to make it a plaything that they can direct. Expect petty local politicians no longer constrained by international treaties to create local laws to suit the needs of business rather than the people. In the UK, this will see the feeding of the NHS to big business, the privatising of other State assets, the lowering of standards of health and food-related legislation, and the reduction of workers’ rights, in the name of competitiveness.

At the same time, we are seeing the rise of the super-wealthy in politics, some of whom pretend to be on the side of the common man. Take, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg, not a billionaire, but a multi-millionaire. He has no interest in the plight of the poor and dispossessed, but he does have an interest in being popular. His trademark appearance of a very polite comedy 1930s SS officer hides a truth we all can see. This man chimes with Generation Brexit’s desire to drag us back to a time we have nostalgised into a beautiful dream when “we” ruled the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump espouses the rights of the common man, because democracy is a numbers game and he calculates that the common man  is the most numerous. He has no interest in the poor, the weak or the dispossessed, but more in those who are aggressively jealous that their little patch of America will somehow be threatened by people less well off – which is largely a spurious fear.

In both cases, and in numerous other populist politicians, their appeal is that they protect the livelihoods and lives of “ordinary people”, a phrase that immediately creates an identifiable group to defend. Thus they gather their modern workers to their sides, who in their fear at the supposed upheaval around them (much of which has been created by the far right) can’t see that their own rights will be eroded and their lives materially impoverished by their leaders’ policies. Their future will be yet more enslavement to capitalist systems, with, for example, the lowering of food standards in the UK to a US level and the predation of US companies on the NHS. Neither of the men named above, Rees-Mogg and Trump (and there are plenty more) are representative of the interests of anyone other than the privileged, the wealthy and big business. Yet, the frightened people flock to them and their message. Each is indeed a new Comes.

Billionaires and their propagandists are also the new invaders and marauders of democracy. The representatives of big business, the super-wealthy, are the new aristocracy that will suborn the current administrative systems to their agenda. Big business has no interest in the common good or in rights, except insofar as they are lucrative. It instead seeks to create new power bases within countries, to hive off services formerly provided by governments and to reduce rights to enhance personal profit. This is why they seek to destroy supranational entities such as the EU, because larger cooperative entities are harder to control.

The great irony is that many critics of the EU talk about the supposed New World Order, when they are in fact enabling billionaires intent on wresting control from legitimate governments.

This is the world we can look forward to if we are not careful. We are in danger of entering a new Dark Age – one of Feudal Capitalism in which workers’ rights are stripped from them and business seeks to maximise profit at the expense of the most vulnerable, while central government is either suborned or powerless. It is in many ways analogous to the decline of structures across Europe in the 4th Century. This weakening and fracturing of the West is exactly what Russia wants, and this is why it has been helping to unleash the heightened passions of nationalism and xenophobia to sweep across Europe like waves of savage tribes, destabilising all in their paths.

That is the direction we are heading in, if Brexit and the rule of the far right are allowed to continue.

Can we do anything to stop it? Perhaps. To speak truth and resist wherever we can. That is a start. To do nothing is to resign ourselves to the New Dark Ages.

Disruption, Farage, Brexit – and the Winchester Gallop

Brexit has many historical precedents, all of them bloody, writes Matt Wingett.

When royal wannabe Harold Godwinson was blown off course and shipwrecked on the coast of Northern France, that disaster was bad for him, but very good for William the Bastard, who had already set his French Norman heart on the English throne. Because, what with furniture delivery services being in their infancy, and there being no customs union, how else could William get hold of the prized English throne, if not by invasion?

William needed a pretext. Being called the Bastard, he lived up to his name by tricking Harold into swearing loyalty to him. What’s worse, he did it while Harold unwittingly had his hands on a reliquary fully of bits of saints, so he definitely had to deliver. At least that’s how the Bayeux tapestry spins it. Which meant, when some years later Harold pronounced himself King Harold after the death of Edward the Confessor, William the Bastard had a reason to invade.

The point is, William the Bastard was devious, and knew how to use disruption for his advantage. 333 years of oppression by Norman and Plantagenet aristocracy would follow in England.

When the king formerly known as William the Bastard died in 1087, (a focus group having decided “The Conqueror” was a better brand), the tradition of The Winchester Gallop began. William Rufus made a dash from Rouen to the treasury at Winchester, determined to be declared King before anyone else took the gold – and succeeded in becoming William II.

Rufus was meant to be king. Imagine how much more important that gallop was for anyone who might face a counter-claim. Thus successive Bishops at Winchester shot eyes to the ceiling at the death of another monarch and waited for the clatter of cavalry in the courtyard. Because, with possession being nine tenths of the law, whoever held the country’s money held the crown. And who was a mere bishop to gainsay the intention of 20 titled thugs in armour waving swords, after all?

When William Rufus promptly died during a hunting “accident” at which his brother Richard just happened to be present in the New Forest (at a spot known as Rufus Stone, quelle coïncidence!) it was Richard’s turn to gallop northward and grab the gold and the power.

Other gallopers included the Empress Matilda, who had been left control of the country by dead daddy Henry I, but who was beaten to the gold by interloper King Stephen. This contretemps led to The Anarchy, which deadlocked the country in civil war for nearly two decades. Something that in the current state of Brexit play, with divisions all over the the UK, seems quite possible again.

A few hundred years later, London replaced Winchester as the centre of power, and so the Winchester Gallop was no more – but the seizing of opportunities caused by disruption remained.

Just so, when one June Wednesday in 1381, an army of 50,000 peasants parked themselves outside London waiting for the king to take up their cause against cruel landowners. As if the king wasn’t the biggest, cruellest landowner of all. (That’s how Royal propaganda works.)

King Richard II, a lad of 14 years, whose army had refused to fight the massive army of peasants, went out to treat with the peasant leader, proto-socialist Wat Tyler. Wat, not being well-versed in matters of courtly behaviour spoke to the king on equal terms, for which insult, one of Richard’s knights took a slice off him. With Wat unexpectedly dead on the ground and the peasant army just a few hundred yards away, Richard did the opposite to what most sane people would have done, and spurred his horse alone toward the peasant army, shouting to them “You shall have no captain but me.”

It worked. By the time the peasants had realised they’d been had, an army had at last been mustered from London to meet them. The ringleaders were arrested and in the usual way, many of the poorest and most idealistic died horribly in the aftermath.

This fake “man of the people” soon showed his hand. “You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues: rustics you were, rustics you are still. You will remain in bondage, not as before, but incomparably harsher. For as long as you live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful and loyal. Choose now which course you want to follow.”

So, what’s the lesson from these moments in history? For certain self-serving individuals, moments of disruption lead to opportunity. Caught up in all the noise, and either fooled by leaders to fight on their behalf, or tricked into believing them, it’s the common man who gets screwed, suffering from the ambition, egos and maniacal thirst for power of the ruthless who are quite happy to tip the country into a tail-spin for their own gain.

The rule is, when disruption occurs, psychos win.

Sound familiar? Because that’s exactly what’s going on with Brexit. The ringleaders of Brexit all personally having plenty of money, know they have nothing to lose, but thanks to the disruption that continues to swirl around Brexit, each has plenty to gain.

The language of disruption and conquest isn’t even hidden by Brexiters. Daniel Hannan, the modernday wild-eyed prophet of Brexit, proclaims Britain should be a “buccaneering” country. If ever there were a motif of redtoothed rapaciousness and theft, it is the buccaneer – a state-sponsored pirate. Mr Hannan would like to fit masts to the island of Britain, sail down to China, pound it from the shoreline and burn down the odd village or two like we did in the Opium Wars, another period of state-enabled jolly-rogering of other nations. Sure, it was post-buccaneer, but back then Britain could make up the rules without reference to anyone else, and did so at every opportunity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is another disrupter in the same vein. The disruption he seeks is in the financial markets, and the money he will make comes from hedge funds. Disruption = massive market movements, and in the wake of all that turbulence, Moggy just needs to gallop on his field hunter to the nearest internet hotspot to check his burgeoning treasury. There are even some sycophants calling for him to be PM and willing to back it up with violence. Not quite as glitzy as the chainmail look of former thugs, but you get the gist.

This extract from Jacob Rees Mogg’s twitter feed shows how sections of the country are keen to enable his power grab.

For Boris Johnson, the prize was always coronation. The disruption and strife that he exacerbated within the Tories he also still hopes to “solve” by being crowned PM. Think the same of Gove and numerous other Brexiteer Tories, too numerous to name. Our pain is their gain.

“Bad Boy of Brexit” Arron Banks is now sounding increasingly desperate on twitter to distract attention from growing interest in his alleged Russian-funded shenanigans by attacking the latest White Paper to come out of Chequers. Little did he realise that the chutzpah displayed in calling himself the “Bad Boy of Brexit”, might soon be hubristically translated to alleged “Lawbreaker of Leave”.

Then, of course, there’s Nigel Farage, whom I imagine one day in his youth saw the letters “N.F.” sprayed on a wall next to a swastika and took that as an omen. What gains are there for him?

Of all of them, Nigel is the most obvious. After the rigged referendum result was announced, Trump was soon calling for Nige to be made ambassador to the US. Disruption. Trump lobs a twitter-bomb, scares the markets, then while everyone is in disarray, sends in the tanks.

Of course, Trump’s blitzkrieg tactic didn’t stand a chance at the time, but it was a jab, a softening-up blow that cracked the surface and allowed a seed to be planted. Soon, other calls for Farage to be knighted followed – as did his faux outrage at not being so honoured when he knew there was no chance.

This posturing has a purpose – to create a narrative of grievance that at some point Nige will want to use while orchestrating the latest outcry. That may come soon. The EU has already said it won’t divide the Four Pillars of freedom in the EU. Yet this is what May’s White Paper wants. Very soon, May could be facing all-out revolt again*, or a collapse in her shaky government.

And in all that disruption? Watch out. The Winchester Gallop is alive and well, and Mogg, Banks, Gove, Johnson, Farage et al are saddling up.


*Since writing this piece, David Davis has resigned. Watch this space.

Ah. There goes Boris, like a great sulking parody of a colonial Viceroy, but with hair instead of feathers.


Further update, August 2019. Well, Boris Johnson is now PM, him having made the Winchester Gallop before all other successors, and the jester king is now threatening to wreck the economy for his own aggrandisement. Once again, he will not loose out. But the peasants he so royally promises to destroy adore him. Funny old world, eh?

Snow encounters

Sometimes when the cold grips the town it grips my heart, too, and I feel the need to get out in the snow and walk.

Just so in winter’s late flowering yesterday, when I headed out in a flurry of flakes and trod over the iced streets down to the sea, where the water was green against the white downs of the distant Isle of Wight and the grey sky above.

Cold. Ice cold. On South Parade Pier, a guy was shovelling a path through half-melted snow that had refrozen into a sheet of ice, while the sea rolled and scattered beneath him. At the pier’s far end, I took it all in, the sea, the sky, the ice in the clouds, the unforgiving breath of winter – and felt immune to it all in my sheepskin jacket. Warm. Toastie. Against all that out there.

Then I went through that little enclosed space, the Rose Garden. Thorned twigs were coming to life in this early spring, their jagged edges dark against the snow. I felt the need to sit somewhere, quiet, and allow the depression that’s got me at the moment to just sit with me. Depression, she’s an unwanted visitor, but I find that I can’t just rail at her. Every time I do, she settles in more comfortably. When depression begins to warm her cold hands on my heart, then I find it better not to complain too much, but to drop the pace of my life and accept her latest visit. Don’t overdo it, don’t give yourself too much to do, but don’t do nothing. Sit with her. Bear her.

So I made my way to the shelter that sits on the seaward side of the Rose Gardens, elevated and looking down from what used to be a gun emplacement in Lumps Fort, a long time ago. Thus, I mounted the ramp with a mind to sit and enjoy the snowbound geometry of the rosebeds.

At the top of the ramp there is an alcove in a wall, where once perhaps soldiers stored artillery rounds. A pile of cloth was stuffed in there I noted. Then, getting closer, I saw a rucksack, and realised it was a sleeping bag next to it.

The sleeping bag was not moving. Perhaps it had been dumped? But no, I could see a shape of a body. Suddenly afraid, I straightened and stood stock still, alert for any movement. There was none. I stepped closer and listened and could hear no breathing either and the fear grew stronger. Depression does this. It makes one less willing to face life, leaving one’s emotions all raw and ready to be stung and poked without any filters.

After a while, I walked away, not sure what to do. I took a breath. The image of the sleeping bag would not leave me and I went back. Perhaps I could get a hot drink. Chocolate or something. With a growing sense of dread, I continued to watch. No movement at all. Nothing to indicate a life in that snowbound scene. And so I walked over and said:

“Are you okay? Just checking in with you. Let me know.”

I watched and waited. And then, the sleeping bag moved and rolled over, away from me, and I could see it had its back to me, and whoever it was wanted to sleep more. I thought: Alive and was relieved.

“Do you want anything?”

But the bag just rolled itself up more, trying to get away from my voice.

I stood there a while and felt useless, and turned away, making my way round the snowbound edges of Canoe Lake. I felt pathetic for my ineffectuality.

On the far side of the lake was a man in a thin summer coat over a cheap jumper. I saw him talk to another morning walker, who looked embarrassed and walked on. When I got closer, I saw he had a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bench next to him.

As I went by, I was struck by his watchful calm.

He spoke to me:

“There’s a big snowball there, if you want to throw it,” and he pointed at a ball of dirty grey snow about 75 centimetres wide, the remnants of a snowman that some kids had built and others had kicked in with gleeful indifference.

“Shall I throw it at you?” I said.

He laughed, and we fell into conversation.

“I’m freezing,” he said.

I looked at him more closely. He didn’t look like a tramp. His clothes had a washed-out grey to them, and his trousers were dirty, but his skin was freshly washed and his hair clean. There was a look about him that said he was well fed, but his lips were grey and starting to go blue.

“Well, what are you doing, sitting out here?”

“I’m in a residential home,” he said with desperate passion. “But I can’t stand it. It’s an awful place, I don’t want to be there with those goons. They’re all in their 80s and I shouldn’t be there. I’m only 64.” He added the last with a pathetic plea in his voice.

“Can’t you move out?”

“My brother put me in there. My own brother – put me in a home and I can’t get out. And he’s got all my money. He’s got loads of money – a great big place in Hayling Island and just gave his kids £200,000 each to buy a house, and he puts me in a home I don’t want to be in.”

I looked at him for a moment. It was a strange story that didn’t quite make sense and I felt that I shouldn’t get tangled up with him. But then… he looked so desperate.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Donald.”

“Matt,” I said, and offered him my hand. He shook it and his was like a block of ice. I was shocked at how cold he was. He, actually, really was freezing, as he’d said. “You know, wine isn’t going to warm you up.”

“No. But I like the taste of it, you see. And I need to do something. And it’s only £4.30 from the Co-op, which is a cheap wine. It’s rubbish. But it’s a bargain. Do you go to any pubs?”

I told him I did and so we passed the time. At one point he said.

“How long can you go without food?”

“What?”

“Days? Weeks? The landlord who runs the home, he fasts for a month,” he said, seemingly baffled. “His name is Abdullah.”

“Ah, well, you see, they can eat at night, just not in the daytime.”

“What’s the point?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. He says he’s 12 stone, but he’s half the size of me. With a shiny head.” He looked at me. “I say he’s like a little black ant.”

The words he was speaking told me little and much at the same time. Snippets of a life, like a jumbled book of postcards.

“You can’t stay out here,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“I’m not going back there,” he replied, adamantly.

“Couldn’t you go and sit in the library? At least it’s warm.”

“Where’s that?”

But then he dismissed the idea out of hand.

He was getting colder by the minute. I could see it.

“Look, do you want to get a cup of tea? I’ll get you one,” I said, and pointed over to the Canoe Lake cafe.

“That’s very kind.”

I reached in my pocket and realised I didn’t have any cash on me.

“Wait. I’ll be back.”

When I got back from the cash point, he stood up and walked with me on unsteady feet.

He sat down to drink his tea and was shaking so much from the cold he could hardly hold the cup. I need to warm him up, I thought, and so I carried on chatting with him. Depression, I suppose. It helps me to help other people. Distracts me from myself.

As we talked, we began to loop around the same subjects. He reintroduced himself to me, and asked my name again, then told me he was in a home and couldn’t stand it. He would mention other housemates, and then, after a brief digression, go back to them again. “We argue,” he said. “I can’t stand them.”

At another table were some Down’s Syndrome people, talking loudly – out on a walk to see the snow. One of them was squawking and grunting, and Donald became agitated.

“Who are these people?” he asked me, clenching his jaw. “Who are they?”

He had his back to the group and seemed so angry that he couldn’t look round at them.

“They’ve got Down’s Syndrome,” I said. “They can’t help it.”

He looked at me and forced a smile. “Nor can I,” he said.

As he talked more and I began to see the pattern of his conversation, I realised that he was probably in a home because he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t hold thoughts for long, and drew on older memories. Everything recent was blurry. At one point he told me that he’d had his wallet stolen, then that he was due an inheritance, then that his brother was keeping the money from him, looping and looping around.

I went to the counter and asked the women if they’d seen him before. One of them had.

“He’s in a home,” she said. “A really awful place. I’ve heard it from someone else, too. The other guy, his window is smashed and hasn’t even been fixed. He was in here, crying.”

I sat with Donald a while longer, and then, when I saw that he’d warmed up, left him with a pot of tea and headed out.

I realised he needed better care than he was getting. That he needed medical attention and his case dealt with properly – and if that were done, he could go to a place where he would at least be a little more happy. One thing was clear. The way things were now had led him to hypothermia in the snow.

A few days earlier, I had been in Waitrose, and overheard an old woman complaining about the homeless begging outside.

“It’s just so awful having them here. Why can’t they move them on? Or get rid of them?”

“I know,” said the shop assistant. “They come in here, and it’s really offputting.”

“And they’re conmen,” she said. “They’ve got places to go, they just can’t be bothered to work. They sit out there all day, and they could be working. Why aren’t they working? How do I know they’re homeless? They’re not homeless. They’re just begging because they’re lazy.”

She said it with authority. She had obviously read it somewhere.

It was then I realised the lack of imagination of so many of us, who can’t see the other stories of people’s lives that don’t fit our world view, and how easily people can fall through the cracks in society’s imagination. And at that moment of a lack of imagination, we fall back on defensive positions that feed on the worst of us. Her incomprehension that in modern Britain, people could be homeless made me wonder how far removed her world view is from mine.

Yet, how easy it is to be vulnerable. How easily Donald had nearly made himself seriously ill by just slipping outside for a few hours to sit on his own. How easy it is, in our precarious world to slip. How, by making tiny mistakes, we can end up freezing on a park bench in the snow, or sleeping in an alcove, with no-one around to care.

Observations in Paris 1: A Trump Voter

Met a Trump voter in Paris. She was actually really an intelligent woman, which surprised me, because, I admit, I’ve built a stereotype of racist rednecks full of bigotry and hate being solely responsible for Trump’s rise to power. She was an ex-school teacher, very brainy and smart thinking, extremely curious about the world in general. At one point early on, she asked:
 
“How come the rest of the world knows so much about American politics? They know stuff here that we don’t even know in the US.”
 
I said to her: “Well, if America’s going to take on the role of self-appointed leader of the free world, then we’re going to want to have a say in where we’re being led.”
 
Those two words “self-appointed” shook her. She asked me what I’d said and took a while to process it. As far as she understood it, the US had unwillingly taken the burden of world leadership. That is a central point of the American psyche that I had never noted before. That they think they’re doing us a great big favour by making the world bow to American policy because “democracy”, and that it isn’t that after World War 2 we all needed to band together out of necessity because we needed each other to face down Communism.
 
With the end of the Soviet Empire and with Trump now actively in bed with Putin, that mantle “leader of the free world” suddenly seems out of date.

The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

Wonder Woman – three themes that made me cry

SPOILER ALERT: This blog discusses plot points and scenes within the movie Wonder Woman.

Okay, so it’s pretty slushy to admit to crying at watching a superhero movie. They never normally get me like that… but Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman did, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

There’s a complex mixture here, but much of it is not to do with the story but the themes it explores.

Theme 1: The awakening to new consciousness of the idealistic individual.

One of the main recurring themes in the movie is what happens when ideals meet reality.

A set piece early in the movie explains the mythical origins of the Amazons to the young Princess Diana of Themyscira. In the myth, mankind is created both good and noble by a benign creator, Zeus – but is corrupted by Ares, the evil god of war.

It is a mythical representation of the human condition echoed by several myth cycles – though not the Greek myths, which have an ambivalent view of the gods and their attitudes toward humanity.

In the Greek myths, the gods are spiteful, jealous, capricious, devious and vengeful.

In fact, the Greek gods are all the things people are because they are the personifications of the different drives of humanity. They are thus archetypes. So, evil doesn’t really fit easily into their pantheon in the way it does in the myth cycle in the movie.

The myth that most closely correlates to the myth told by Hipolyta – the story of a benign creator god whose creations are corrupted by a malevolent lesser god – is something far closer to home: it’s the Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity. Rather than echoing the realities of human psychology, Judaeo-Christianity presents an idealised humanity that adherents are invited to aspire to.

Hence the Amazonian myth depicting man’s fall into crime and war is a version of Adam’s Fall. So far, so exotic and so familiar. But the Amazonian story differs because Zeus is a limited God, and creates the Amazons to bring love to the world, intending through love to tame the evil of corrupted men. (This is a big departure from Christianity, which sees physical love as an evil and Eve not as a saviour, but a transgressor.) That Zeus’s attempt to bring an end to strife through love should fail and that men become the oppressors of the Amazons, who in turn rise up against them, is a novel mythical element, and radical.

The war that ensues among the Gods leaves Zeus, the creator god in mortal peril, threatened by his son, Ares. In his dying act, he grants to Queen Hippolyta her wish for a child – and animates the clay model she has made, thus creating Diana – and grants to the Amazons Themyscira. The Paradise Island is a place where Diana can grow up in safety, away from the malevolent influence of the injured and weakened god Ares, whom unbeknownst to Diana, she has been created to slay.

But what is interesting about this set piece early in the movie is that this story is told in a story-book way, with story-book images. It is not convincing on the screen, because it is a caricature of whatever “really” happened in the Amazonian past. That ambiguity – the story of a child’s myth and the truth behind it – is central to the film.

One of the strands that runs through the story is Diana’s crucial realisation that her world view which is founded on this simplistic conception of the nobility of man and the valour of war is wrong. She realises her moral view which is that all of what she calls evil flows from a single source – Ares – is simplistic, and misunderstands humanity. Like the Christian who grows up to realise that a Devil is not necessary to make men do bad things, she realises mankind is driven by internal desires for power and domination, and also by love and noble acts. Philosophically speaking, it makes the drives called “good” and “evil” immanent within each human being, and does not make humans the toys of supernatural elements.

Though not in the film, once this question is asked, it leads to further questions. Is there evil? Or is there simply the behaviour of individuals seeking to control resources and have dominion one over the other? Does the whole concept of evil itself collapse? It is that equivocal nature of morality as no longer a simple question of good versus evil that Diana struggles with toward the end of the movie. And it really got to me. I admit it!

There is also a beautiful integrity to the story in this regard. Remembering that the Amazons were created to bring enlightenment to man through Love, it is therefore apt that her love of Steve Trevor in the end means that she forms a bridge of understanding of mankind. In the end, she recognises the folly in man, but also sees his nobility.

Her internal story of development, the central part of her Bildungsroman, is her movement from a place of naive belief in a myth to a deeper personal understanding of humanity through her own experiences. Because of that experience, she judges that mankind is worth protecting, even though he is flawed.

This awakening to adult consciousness and the redemptive power of love after grappling with simplistic notions of good and evil are central to the story. It is a pretty universal theme, and a mature one.

Theme 2: A fascinating clash of world views.

Another of the main themes of the story is the clash of world views. Diana comes from an ancient warrior culture, full of myth and low in technology. In it, women are the soul arbiters of their own fate and are used to attaining high office and demonstrating physical prowess. It has magic in it, and Diana herself is a goddess.

The world she enters is the world of men, with all its mundane harshness and cruelty, grime and disdain for women. Several scenes jump out to show the jarring interface between the two worlds, perhaps well symbolised by the arrival of Steve Trevor’s aircraft as it crashes through the surrounding mists and magic of Themiscyra. Suddenly, 20th Century culture and technology arrive in 2nd millennium BC Greek culture.

There are numerous examples of the mismatch between the two, which leads to some glorious comedic moments. Congratulating an ice-cream salesman on the product he sells is a beautiful moment of naivety in Diana. The whole set piece of getting Diana clothes suitable for a 20th Century woman is hilarious. The discussion of whether she and Steve Trevor can “sleep together” on the boat away from Themiscyra is beautifully handled in its understatement and as an elucidation of his warm, morally solid character.

Then this clash of cultures shifts into drama. Diana’s lambasting of generals for hiding in an office rather than fighting alongside their men, her shock at the treatment of soldiers and her realisation that war leaves indelible marks on people’s bodies and minds form part of her development. Next comes the dramatic shift, when she arrives on the battlefield and faces No Man’s Land. “It’s called No Man’s Land because no man can cross it,” Steve Trevor tells her. The understatement here is perfect. And so the moment we’ve been waiting for – of the woman hero in battle begins. That scene is just extraordinary. The figure of a woman on the battlefield is so full of conflicting emotions for me that I tear up thinking about it now. It is perhaps one of the greatest emblems of the mismatch of our culture and hers that it so draws the eye – a woman fighter on the battlefield would have been impossible at the time and we know it, and yet we are beguiled by the thought of it and by the heroism of this wonderful and naive hero.

Theme 3: A woman who enters the world of men for the first time.

One of the things that makes Diana such an appealing character is her fearless curiosity and her mental poise. When she sees Trevor’s airplane crash land in the sea, her instinct is to swim toward it. When she sees a man naked for the first time as Steve Trevor gets out of the pool he is bathing in, she assesses his physiology with unabashed curiosity, never having seen a man before. Then she asks him about his watch, and what it does. The scripting is brilliant: “You let such a little thing control your life?” she asks.  And yes, we all know that clock and cock are being spoken of in the same breath.

Her curiosity about the world of men leads her to experience its indignities with good humour. She tries on the clothing of the 20th Century woman, bringing her own cultural traits to bear. Looking at a silk bodice she says: “This is what passes for armour in your culture?” The way she is assumed to be an intruder in counsels of war because of her sex is handled without preaching, but simply by showing her confusion at why one should be excluded for being female. She does not rant, she does not rail. She simply rises above the question and stays true to her goal, to get to the war.

Later, the incredibly tasteful way that she takes Steve Trevor as her lover, revealing a kind of vulnerability, is also done with exactly the right tasteful approach. And this is no unnecessary romance bolted on to the storyline. The relationship between Trevor and her, their love, is central to her commitment to the world of men and to her defeat of Ares.

These are just a few examples of the themes in this movie. It repays rewatching with treasure after treasure.

There’s no doubt about it, I too have fallen in love with Wonder Woman.