Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Manchester: red in tooth and claw Part 1

Blogging has been on the backburner for the last couple of weeks as the final countdown to the submission of my thesis creeps ever closer to single figures. The manuscript goes to my 'super' on Friday this week, and then I only await his green light to send me scurrying around to the printers. For the first two years of my thesis, Professor Knapp chanted the soothing mantra, 'Don't get it right, get it written'. Since last November, he has changed his message to 'Don't get it written, get it right'.

So, in an effort to 'get it right', I have just spent a few days back in Manchester, beavering around the John Rylands Library like a good 'un, in the hopes of putting some order into my chaotic PhD. Manchester, I should say, is also 'my home town', a phrase which conjures up memories of Tom Lehrer,

"I remember Sam, he was the village idiot,
And though it seemed a pity, it was so,
He used to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done because he was the mayor's son".

Well, we don't remember Sam in Manchester. But we might, however, remember Ryan Florence, the feral youth - or 'hoody', as he must now be known - pictured last week on the front of every tabloid newspaper, pointing his hand like a pistol at the back of the Tory leader, David Cameron, while the latter minced around Ryan's run-down estate thinking of Bold Reforms. Cameron sounds hollow at the best of times, but when one thinks back to his remark made some months ago, that what hoodies were lacking was affection, one can't help wondering if a cynical mind might not now add 'and a real firearm'.

Cameron, give him his due, is right of course. But his laudable calls for the promotion of fatherhood and family - in a nation which this month also witnessed the gunning down of three adolescent boys under 16 - ring hollow when contrasted with his craven genuflections to every socially liberal doctrine imaginable. But, what is a man in need of election supposed to do? Middle England wants all the virtue of responsibility, and all the pleasure of irresponsibility. It wants all the sense of community, and all the indulgence of autonomy. David can tut-tut over all that dreadful slaughter, as long as his solutions don't offend the conscience of social liberalism. Hand-wringing is in, as long as it's only handwringing and worthy resolutions.

Ryans have been living on housing estates or in terraced prisons around Manchester for more than 200 years. I wouldn't be surprised if Cameronesque hand-wringers had also been looking on and tut-tutting at the feral poor for about the same length of time. After all, the first thing disaster attracts is rubber-neckers. The disaster of industrial Manchester was so great, or rather, it's capitalism was so pure - which amounts to the same thing - that even the French refer to it as the 'Manchester school'. Marx parked his broad backside on the benches of Chetham's Library behind Manchester cathedral and dreamt up such solutions as would make thirty million Ukranians in the 1930s wish he'd never been born - that is, if they had the strength to think while dying from hunger. But Marx - let's give the other side their due now - got the 'alienation' bit right. One cannot help wondering what he would make of the spectacle of the equally broad-bottomed conservatives of our days nodding in agreement with him.

The trouble now of course is there is such a perfect collaboration between the 'spectacle' of modern consummerism and the pleasures of its Ryans and Camerons - the Gameboy and the Electionboy - , that one wonders how these two unhappy beings will ever cease their association.
To leave aside that long-term problem for a moment, mention of the French makes me reflect on one consolation Ryan and his Manchester hoodies undoubtedly derived from last week's news: the defeat of Lille by Manchester United, the Red Devils, in the Champions League. What a satisfying thing it was not only to witness the defeat of a French side, but a defeat inflicted with such exquisite Mancunian ruthlessness. And how amused we all were to see Lille's desperate and ludicrous attempts to get the match replayed. Chesterton seized this perennial Anglo-French tension in a matter of lines:

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made.

Funny the differences in the English and French mentalities. The French expect everything to be intrinsically just, and that is why they practically spat their dummy out and almost refused to play on after Ryan Giggs's crafty goal. The English on the other hand see this as a matter of fairplay; if you suffer injustice, well, just get on with it, because one of these days you'll get more than your slice of the cake.

I'm undecided as to whether those possibilities cast any light on the Ryans and Camerons of this world. But I am toying with the idea that a solution might call for the development of a new form of politics: footocracy. Ryan and David can pick their teams and then play 45 minutes each way against each other. Neither would feel alienated, neither would be unfairly advantaged, and both would be knackered at the end - an outcome that would make both the streets of Manchester and the corridors of power a safer place to be.

The only remaining question is: who would play in red?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bur Under the Conscience

It looks inevitable that this week I will only think about the blog when I have little time to jot down any more than vague ramblings. 'What's new?' I hear you say. Well, okay. It is a fair point.

But in good old blog tradition, let me ramble. The PhD is in a delicate state presently. Monday simply had to be a day of rest, or at least a break from the laborious process of proping up the rushed arguments and wild citations mascarading as proofs in Chapters 1-4. Accordingly I spent most of the day making job applications.

But one bright moment in the fuzzy gloom that has descended on me ever since my glasses needed changing was the rediscovery of Stephen Fry's glorious 'Jeeves' and Hugh Laurie's marvellous 'Bertie Wooster'. Dad's new DVD machine and 20" TV - 20" screen, woooooooooooww - has never seen more worthy service. Goodness, Wodehouse was a philosopher, even if he somehow got embroiled with the Nazis! I must glean some of Bertie's gems and relate them on this august forum, before I return to Lyon on Saturday. Here's one. 'You cannot be blamed for somehow becoming engaged to Honoria Glossop, Jeeves. Honoria Glossop is an act of God'. How very true that sounds, especially applied to certain females!

Another philosopher who has wandered into my life, but who this time was on the Nazis' hitlist, is the incredible Dietrich Von Hildebrand. Here's another worthy subject for more blogging at a later date. You have to admire anyone who was writing about the 'Metaphysics of the Community' in the 1930s, an age when metaphysics was discredited, and community was thought of - bizarrely - as communist. More on him in due course.

Meanwhile, with less than 50 minutes to go before Lent, I must go and mediate on all possible meanings of the word 'repent'. If only it was the same as the Latin 'repente', which is so beautifully rendered in French as 'rapidement'.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Erratic service

The old blog has taken a backseat this week as I travelled back to the UK and began the final push for the submission of my thesis. Still, the old brain (the old Brian) is grinding away in the background, especially with a view to completing the User's Guide to WHY? in the next day or two.

I cannot decide at the moment if the thesis is a new, original and substantial contribution to scholarship, or a total dog's breakfast.

More thoughts on this very soon.

Anyone for some pedigree Chum?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Death, death, death!

Positively my favourite moment in cinema comes from the third part of Lord of the Rings. The Roherim - if that is the spelling - arrive during the battle of the Pelenor Fields (?) before Minas Tirith ... I think Tolkein fans will simply have to attribute my erratic spelling to my virus ... and King Theoden rides along their ranks shouting "death" and touching all their spears with his sword. I know it doesn't quite happen like that in the book, but so what? It is great cinema, and I still remember watching it for the first time, and feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as, to the accompaniment of the folksy violin Rohan melody, the horsemen of Rohan charge to their death or to the destruction of the forces of Mordor.

Death is much in the news at the moment. I refer not to the death everyone seems to be so excited about. I refer rather to the death of Ian Richardson whose demise deprives us of one of the greatest Shakespearean actors since World War II. I was alarmed when I saw his picture, since at first I thought Charles Dance had shuffled off this mortal coil, and that, accordingly, the portrayal of the Dickesian baddy was perhaps at an end. That day will surely come, but thankfully not yet. But what struck me about Richardson's obituary was not his many achievements, but the sheer humility of the man, notably, his avowal that it was Alec Guinness who had taught him to act for the camera.

In the way my mind is wont to wander these days, I took off on a flight of reminiscence about Sir Alec Guinness, whose My Name Escapes Me is No. 2 on my list of all-time great autobiography titles (No. 1 being Eric Sykes's inimitable If I don't write it, nobody will). Guinness made his money late in life thanks to negotiating a royalties deal for his minor role in Star Wars. Musing over the script of the first film, Harrison Ford told George Lucas candidly, 'You can write this shit, but you can't say it, George.' Which, of course, makes Guinness's achievement all the more commendable.

If there is any synchronicity here, it is simply that this is the second time this week I have stumbled across the Guinness trail. I covered a review of David Lean's Great Expectations with my cinema class the other day, in which film Guinness plays Magwitch, if I am not mistaken. And, feeling great sympathy for my students, whose course requires them to watch the appalling Paris, Texas, I recommended Guinness's tour de force Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he plays eight members of the same family, all of whom are assassinated. Death, encore une fois. It is hard now to get the measure of such a thing. I cannot think of any film that even comes close to this vauderville-like capacity for make-believe and acting acumen, all wrapped up in the same performance. Eddie Murphy has since caught the vauderville, but hardly the acting acumen. (Can I have 'acting acumen' or is that forbidden by the Abused Alliterations Act?). I found myself walking away from the cinema class, thinking it was about time I taught the students the expression, 'Mine's a Guinness'.

Which all brings me in another word-association-football kind of way to the news from HQ that my eldest nephew and godson has done us all proud and turned in a sterling performance as Mercutio - Death, once again - in Oldham Sixth Form College's production of Romeo and Juliet.

He's a talented chap, and so, in the time-honoured family tradition, I couldn't resist a swipe at him this evening.

'So', I texted him, 'I heard you died on stage'. And apparently, it just sailed right over his head, for he thanked me in his response.

I'd probably have to be a Richardson or a Guinness to get that line just right.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

You can't hide your tired eyes

The saucer joke of Monday's post was too close to the truth. I am struggling a bit with computer screens at the moment, so probably no more posts until the weekend. I might even have to start printing things to edit them. Imagine going back to paper. Positively medieval!

Monday, February 5, 2007


The landlady mentioned yesterday that she thinks I am losing my marbles (and she only just noticed!). I don't know about losing my marbles but everything is a bit on top of me at the moment. My eyes are going like saucers from staring at computer screens, I've begun eating raw fish, and it is said that ghastly whispers can be heard coming from my room at night which sound like

'Myyyy Thesisssssssssss (gulp).

Time for some Wordsworth, me thinks:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Friday, February 2, 2007

WHY? A User's Guide Part I

There is an urban legend which recounts the story of a prospective student going to sit an entrance examination for one of the Oxford colleges. The professor who set the entrance examination that year was something of a clever-dick, a man anxious to keep the standards in college as high as possible. Accordingly, he pored over the problem he wanted to set the prospective students with more than his usual scholarly assiduity.

When our prospective student opened his paper during the examination, his eyes fell on the following instuctions:

Please answer the question as fully as possible. Ask for extra sheets of paper as necessary.

Question. Why?

Answer. ...


After the examination, the examiner, our clever-dick professor, bowled back to his Oxford fellow's den with something of the effeminate bustle acquired by many disorganized intellectuals. Donning his reading glasses, and opening the first paper in the pile of examination papers (as it happens, the paper of our prospective student), his eyes fell on the following response to his carefully crafted puzzler:

Question. Why?

Answer. ...Why bloody not?


The legend is enticing, although one has to suspect that if it is true, the student in question had already decided he would not go to Oxford and that he might as well pass out of his interview with flying colours (to use those famous lines from the cartoon legionary Beau Peep: 'Have you heard of the expression "with flying colours?'" 'Yes?' 'Well, I have to tell you that you failed "with flying colours"').

There are all kinds of formulations of the question 'why', but the most memorable, at least in the twentieth century are associated with war. I grew up in the age of that anti-nuclear war poster with the mushroom cloud and the word "Why? across the bottom. The one artistic gaff in the Sergei Bondarchuk's wonderful film Waterloo, sees a British Grenadier drop his rifle in the midst of the battle and start running about yelling 'Why?' like some mad Greenham Common peacenik. To be fair, its artistic highlight is also during the battle when the music of a waltz, danced in an earlier pre-battle scene, accompanies a slow-mo passage of Wellington's cavalry at full charge.

Robert Graves did his own marvellous version of 'Why?' in a poem the title of which escapes me for a moment. He takes the Romantic convention of the lonely man wandering in the wood, and blows it to pieces. His lonely man in a wood is a dead 'Boche' whose decaying body has turned green and whose face is a mass of coagulated blood.

But, heck, this is the Internet, and so, in a clickstant, I can find it:

'A Dead Boche'
TO you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
"War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

Obviously, there are different questions tied up in all these examples, but they all go back eventually to 'why?'

How does one begin to answer such a question? It depends I suppose what level you are speaking about. With minimal technical difficulties, the 'why' of the pathologist is going to come down to about the same, regardless of whether the subject is lying under the sunny canopy of a forest in the Ardennes or on a chilled mortuary slab. The physical 'why' eventually comes down to a cessation of the biochemical system suporting life.

The human or philosophical 'why' is more elusive; of that there is no doubt. The frustration captured by Graves and even by Bondarchuk's Napoleonic peacenik used to be called the 'problem of evil'. It goes a lot further than the battle field, of course, even if its most potent symbols are found there.

But this is a blog, not a thesis, so I'll cut to the chase.

There has to be an answer to 'why?'. How we actually comprehend the answer is quite another matter. Some people regard it as an agnostic mystery that is destined always to be obscure. Others, like me, are happy to confess the mystery, but live, waiting for some kind of understanding slowly to emerge from the sometimes awful silences of God.

But there has to be an answer, even if it difficult to discern. The alternative is simply too terrible to contemplate. This is not because absurdity in itself is too terrible to contemplate. There is no time now to deal with Freud's reductionism about religion, but it can pretty safely be concluded that it is not a flight to an ideal world of childhood; more like an adult opening of eyes to one's own limitations and those of one's existence. Tragedy and comedy either have a hinterland of meaning; or, as for Ionesco, it's all just tragedy in the end, even it it's comedy.

No, it is unthinkable – pace Freud and Ionesco - that 'why?' should not have both a hinterland and an answer. In that case, 'why?' means nothing at all, or at least no more and no less than anything in a universe of absurdity.

And in that case, 'why?', as our prospective Oxford student could have told us, might as well be rephrased:

Why bloody not?