The Life & Opinions of Mr Crow

Artfully Worded Argument

They Have You In Their Sights

The Life & Opinions of Mr Crow

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Targets used to be something to aim at (see illustration). Nowadays they are (a) a means of control and (b) a sure fire way of screwing up the systems they are meant to regulate. Nominally introduced to ensure that certain services are being delivered or improved  (sales, hospital care, student retention etc.), they have evolved into the main point of the exercise, whatever that may be. Want to cut hospital waiting lists? Then do as many ingrowing toenails as possible and hey presto! you have met your target! Need to keep a tight hold on the hospital budget? Then avoid all those expensive life-saving therapies and operations, and concentrate on – well, toenails, obviously. Hand-in-hand with the tick-box, targets are the bureaucrats dream, positive-performance indicating and cost-cutting everything in sight!

A trainee English teacher once told me that his supervisor had demanded that he un-interest his students in the…

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A Bluffer’s Guide To Great Books: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s one of the C20th’s super-novels –Nineteen Eighty-Four!

A warning, a prophecy, or just a story?

In retrospect, it can be seen as all three. Indeed, it would appear to have over-fulfilled its literary quota and moved from being a Sci-Fi inspired future-history novel, to become a piece of historical fiction. The old, worn-out debate about its prophetic significance has gone by the board; look around you – do you get the feeling you are being watched?

But the significance of this novel is not merely that it pointed the way, however doomily, but that it did so so thoroughly, so tangibly, so well. The grit, the dust, the despair: one can taste all three in Orwell’s carefully constructed dystopia; the terrible gin, the awful food, the rickety cigarettes, and not just these – the chained-up words, the visible thoughts, the cowering fears and traitorous dreams..

John Hurt as Winston Smith
John Hurt as Winston Smith | Source
Suzanne Hamilton as Julia
Suzanne Hamilton as Julia | Source
Richard Burton as O'Brien
Richard Burton as O’Brien | Source

The Main Characters

Winston Smith works for MiniTru (the Ministry of Truth – in other words, the totalitarian government’s propaganda arm), where he destroys inconvenient facts and replaces them with suitable fictions.

An Outer-Party member, he was married, but is now separated and lives alone in a grim little flat inVictory Mansions.

There, in an alcove hidden from the prying eye of the telescreen, he writes treasonable thoughts in a recently purchased notebook. He is, in the words of the regime, a thought-criminal. He hates Big Brother (the notional leader of the Party and the state) and hopes for a future when humanity may once again live and think freely.

Julia is a worker in the Porn section of MiniTru, and despite her apparent fidelity to the cause of the Party (which includes membership of the AntiSex League) she is also a thought criminal and rebel, who takes delight in having illicit sex with as many Party members as she can. The thrill is as much that of revolt as it is of sensuality.

O’Brien is an Inner-Party member whom Smith takes at first to be a part of the secret opposition. He is in fact a stalwart of the Party who draws Smith out and then imprisons, tortures and brainwashes him.

The 'Book'
The ‘Book’ | Source
Goldstein - the author of the 'Book'
Goldstein – the author of the ‘Book’

The Plot

Winston Smith commits thought-crime by ‘secretly’ writing anti-Party slogans in a newly acquired notebook.

He attracts the attention of Julia (another undercover rebel) and O’Brien, an Inner-Party member.

Julia and Winston visit the countryside and make love. They later rent a room where they continue their illicit affair.

O’Brien invites Smith to his apartment, where he hands over the latest edition of the Newspeakdictionary, which contains within it the subversive Anti-Party book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.

Winston and Julia are arrested in flagrante delicto by the Thought Police and taken off to the Ministry of Love where they are tortured (Smith by O’Brien, in reality a Thought Policeman) and only released when they have both been thoroughly brainwashed into accepting Big Brother.

Manuscript
Manuscript

Words, words, words

Nineteen Eighty Four (amongst other things) is a primer on how to write – including how not to write, if you aspire to being a compleat human being. Unsurprisingly, Orwell attaches great importance to words, and much of the novel centres around what is and isn’t said, and especially what is sayable. All sorts of things get said, and then unsaid. Some things get said that should never have been said, and can never be unsaid. “Do it to Julia!”, for instance.

Newspeak

In Orwell’s terrible world, Newspeak words have become so well established that they are themselves almost as real as chocolate bars once were and, conversely, by the operation of these new words, certain other things lose their substantiality. Such as Love, Peace and Freedom. Orwell was a big fan of Swift and in Gulliver’s Travels the academicians of the Grand Academy of Lagado, have begun to replace words with the objects themselves. In Airstrip 1, words are beginning to replace other words, and with them their attendant ideas and emotions.

Ratting

At the heart of the novel is betrayal – the betrayal of one’s real thoughts and feelings; the betrayal of others, even lovers; and perhaps above all, the betrayal of language, that slippery swarm of referents, made manifest in Smith’s Room 101 horror of horrors – rats.

Before
Before
After
After

The Historical Background

Orwell was a socialist, not a communist – and certainly not a Stalinist. He had already fallen foul of the Communists during the Spanish Civil War whilst fighting for the Nationalist side. The communists were supposed to be on the same side as Orwell and his POUM* comrades , but they had a different agenda, and that did not include the support of a party with Trotskyite origins.

The Stalinist style of government was totalitarian, and pursued much the same policy as IngSoc, the Party in Orwell’s novel – everything was subsumed to the interests of the Party and had little to do with the liberation of the workers, or anyone else for that matter. The point of the Party is the Party itself, and both IngSoc and Stalin’s regime employed much the same terror and propaganda methods. In particular, Winston’s rewriting of history was commonplace in the Soviet Union (see illustration), as well as spying on the populace by the security services. The only difference is that Orwell’s Party is technically more sophisticated and much further advanced in the destruction of ordinary language and prevention of Thoughtcrime.

Orwell was long dead when CCTV and electronic spying became so prevalent, but he would have recognised the totalitarian implications of our modern system of public surveillance and may have had a lot to say about our modern version of the telescreen – the computer with a camera attached.

You have been warned!

*Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista/Workers’ Party of Marxist Unificationx

A Short History of England & All That

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When God invented England, he determined that it should be neither too big nor too small; neither too wet nor too dry; neither too ugly nor too beautiful, etc. etc.

God realised he would need a very special people to inhabit this country, a people subtle enough to appreciate this temperate land, so he invented the English, a race that not only spoke a language that almost anyone could understand, but also with the best accent.

From then on it was up to the English to make the most of their God-given gifts, and my, what a success they made of it.

By keeping foreigners at arm’s length by inventing the English Channel, the English nevertheless let a few foreigners in, mainly to civilise them (the Romans are perhaps the best example).

Once the Romans had left, England let in some Germans and Vikings, whom they also civilised.

After a while people stopped coming, so the English went out of their way to reach them by taking over the world, even New Zealand.

Along the way England invented Shakespeare, the Union Jack and Churchill.

The Union Jack is the best flag. Some other countries tried to copy it but with limited success (see the Tricolour, the Stars and Stripes and other Red, White and Blue flags). The most successful imitations just stuck the Union Jack in the corner of their own flag (see Use in other flags).

Having won the First World War, the Second World War and the 1966 World Cup, England continued its civilising vision by inventing the BBC, The Beatles and Monty Python.

Eventually, it invented me. Job done!

THE END

Review: Kenneth Tynan – Diaries

Interested in swearing, smoking, spanking and the theatre? Then this is the book for you. Otherwise, it’s still interesting. Tynan met almost everyone (who’s anyone) noting it all down in his diary.

Tynan

K.T. is best known for being a theatre critic, the first person to say ‘f**k’ on British TV, and the force behind the sex review O Calcutta! “(O Calcutta!” is an Anglo-Saxon bastardisation of the French “O, quel cul t’as!”).

He was precocious and literary, and somewhat theatrical, adopting an idiosyncratic manner of smoking the many cigarettes that eventually killed him, holding each between the first and last two fingers.

He liked spanking and bottoms, and at the National Theatre worked alongside Lord Olivier for many years. He was married. with a girlfriend and died somewhat prematurely of emphysema.

Oxford and after

Tynan studied English Literature at Oxford under the supervision of C.S. Lewis, (of Narnia fame), a convert and proselytizer of Christianity. In the Diaries Tynan often makes reference to Lewis, fondly remembering his kindness and wisdom.

Having already made something of a name at his school (as a dramatist and actor), Oxford helped him put the finishing touches to his theatrical reputation, which was then only enhanced by his often acerbic dramatic criticism and his co-production of the ground-breaking sex-revue Oh! Calcutta!

Other than writing for The New Yorker a number of well-received portraits of various luminaries (Groucho Marx, Johnny Carson and Mel Brooks amongst others), his greatest achievement seems to have been as dramaturge (a kind of in-house critic) of the newly-established National Theatre, alongside its director Lawrence Olivier.

Work, Colleagues & Friends

As well as being fascinating about himself, Tynan gives accounts of many of the famous people he knew and worked with, sometimes retelling others’ anecdotes, not least Marlene Dietrich’s story about going to bed with Jack Kennedy.

There are numerous stories and pen-portraits of famous actors and directors, from both the British stage and Hollywood, few of them very flattering. Pinter, John Osborne, Warren Beatty and Vivien Leigh all get a mention. Really, the list of stars is too long to note here, but almost anyone who was anyone figures.

He is also interesting about other less well-known figures, such as a an old friend he suspects of being a CIA agent, and a young women he shelters, knowing her to be a West German terrorist.

Disappointments and Money Worries

Despite his high-standing and well-deserved reputation as a critic, Tynan reveals himself as a rather disappointed man, growing increasingly lazy, disenchanted and frustrated. He writes less and less (the Diaries become his main literary outlet) and fails to produce the film he is keen to work on (mainly due to the failure of various ‘investors’ to put their money where there mouth is – most notably John Paul Getty Jnr).

Anxiety about his work rate and sense of achievement is equalled only by money worries (Martin Landau, the actor and film director) takes forever and a day to return borrowed money. Nevertheless, he spends money he does not have on a fairly luxurious lifestyle – buying a Jag, hosting exclusive parties where he provides very fine food and wine, as well as gustatory trips to French Michelin-starred restaurants.

Sex

His sexual preferences are for S&M, mainly spanking, which he indulges in with a girlfriend (and others) whilst married to his more ‘normal’ wife (who herself has affairs). But rather than coming across as a member of the dirty mac brigade, he portrays himself as a something of a sexual revolutionary, attempting through his theatre work and in his private life to liberate himself and others. He, however, never entirely frees himself from a sense of guilt with respect to his sexual ‘perversions’.

Tynan interviews Olivier

and

Vivien Leigh!

Just Not So Story

Just Not So Story

Crows who wear the supernatural grave
black jacket of the robber, coat fantailed
and woven from the colours of the night
now glimmering and glistening in the light
once sported iridescent tales
equal to in subtlety and craft
th’ pea-brained peacock,
in shape and function as
the startling black white blue and green sheened
magpie princely prince/princess of thieves.
And once there was a time when Crow was White
as forsworn sins, his eye only of that
darker hue, a deeply darker blue than
bottle-flies that grew in Lazarus’s skin.
What had caused his coat to fleck and char?
An envious heart, a covetous eye?
Or was Apollo’s breath enough to scar
His throat and make him sing alone his caw!?

The Multiverse

The Multiverse is an even stranger place than you might imagine, although a good imagination will help in conjuring up what it is like.

Whatever you could possibly imagine has happened, is happening and will happen (again).

For instance, not only was Elvis your Dad, but you are Elvis, and his Dad.

My nose hairs are attached to a billion Thunderbirds puppets, by which means I manipulate their universe. No, really.

What else?

Oh yes, God exists. And doesn’t.

As well as the wacky and profound, the <multiverse inevatibly offers all sorts of horrors with which we must deal. Just think what it’s like on the Other Side(s).

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

If you don’t believe me, try Which Universe Are We In?

Sovereignty & The Nation State


An open letter to the Master & Fellows of Gonville & Caius College

May I say that I was at once heartened and disappointed by the announcement of the THE COLYTON PRIZE FOR POLITICAL THOUGHT. I think it is splendid that we should offer such a prize for strongly expressed opinion on the political health of the nation, and although I am not eligible to enter, I could not resist the opportunity, however slight, of making my views clearly known in the manner outlined by your advertisement, and hope that you can find the time to listen, as it were. I hope you will forgive me if I overstate some no doubt readily apparent truths in doing so.

The prize question assumes the existence of a free society which might allow of itself some entrenchment in those areas of national discourse such as the question of sovereignty, the effectiveness of the parliamentary system and our heritage. My idea of a free society differs quite considerably from one that could be entrenched by means anything remotely like today’s parliamentary system, or be compatible with more conservative notions of sovereignty in terms of the nation state, although I see in our heritage an answer.

Mergui_Archipelago

Archipelago

A free society presupposes the freedom of the individual, and just as we could hardly describe a volunteer army in the midst of battle as completely free in the sense of each soldier doing just as they would wish (although that no doubt happens), a free society suggests willing cohesion, and if we are not bound by the chains of the oppressor, we are at least much more than an archipelago of islets, and may regard ourselves as bound to get along.

So co-operative activity, whether in extremis or in just electing an MP, requires that we act to some extent in consort, but it seems that if our ‘free society’ is to exist, it requires that we sacrifice some apparent individual freedoms. I cannot treat my neighbour just as I please if I wish to live peacefully amongst others, and for all manner of reasons: he might hit me for one, and if not, might get all sorts of other agencies on his side to restrain me. But am I also expected to surrender my freedom to act decisively in determining how my life takes shape and what is done in my name?

Wikingerschiff_Oslo

Vikings

The sovereignty of the nation state is the question currently so hot that our political masters (with some notable exceptions) dare not let it pass their frostbitten lips. But what is the nation state for? Presumably to protect the individual freedoms of its members against the incursions of other less democratic forces. But for the fact that there are other sovereign states whose collective will, however proportionately expressed, might be to knock us silly and suck us dry, we would have little or no need for the notion of a sovereign state; so, to that extent, our existence as a nation state is determined, it seems to me, by other nations. Now what kind of sovereignty is that? Certainly it is better to have a united kingdom than to be entirely overrun by Danes, but are the Danes nowadays so fierce?

Philips-Wouwerman-The-soldiers-squad-with-sutlers-and-children-S

The soldiers squad with sutlers and children                                  Philips-Wouwerman

European Union is of course the greatest threat to national sovereignty for many a year, and as long as this threatens in the form of subsidiarity, I see little to complain of. I am not of course suggesting that subsidiarity is ever likely to be fully implemented by an overmighty bureaucracy or even a council of ministers hungry for power, but in principal it does offer a way out of the tensions that inevitably occur when people are governed rather than governing themselves. What is English or Irish, or indeed British, will remain, and we may even find ourselves thrashing the Germans once more, but this time in a hundred Sunday league football matches, rather than relying on a few professionals followed by an army of disoriented sutlers.

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It is some leap from the rights and responsibilities of the individual to the question of the operations of national sovereignty, but that after all might be only because the present link is tenuous to say the least. Once of course, there was no question of me having any voice in the affairs of state, but I might nevertheless have had a voice about my own immediate future – indeed if the case merited it I would have had the ear of the King, and a feudal one at that. Nowadays I am lead to believe that my vote, my one small part in that mysterious phenomenon, the voice of the people, somehow determines our foreign policy in Rwanda. And of course, it does – as long as I am on the winning side. For the sad truth is of course, that however much I might want such-and-such to be ‘our’ policy, and no matter how many of my compatriots might agree with me, if I haven’t backed the winning horse, then my ticket is worthless.

thumbs up and down

In considering the relation of national and individual sovereignty, we must of course consider the question of foreign policy and what the implications might be for one that attempts to express the considered views of all the people. It goes without saying that a nation cannot have more than one foreign policy; and it is certainly the case that if a nation state pursues two different foreign policies, it can hardly be said to constitute a nation state. But that doesn’t mean to say that such policy needs must be determined by one party alone. The winner-takes-all aspect of our parliamentary system means that the true manifestation of the voice of the people – namely the voice of all the people – is never heard, only a section. Certainly, the true voice of the people is at odds with itself, discordant, contradictory and scary, and it is perhaps for these reasons that it is best ignored.

the-egg

But there is a means by which it might be tuned, and that is by the operation of the principles that govern all gatherings of people that are not subject to an oppressor and may in that sense be described as free: that is of course by freely bargaining and trading off their individual freedoms, just as they have always done, and have had always to do. So does this mean that our foreign policy must now be as the curate’s egg, only good in parts? Or will it simply be neither one thing nor the other? Or might it be just exactly what most people didn’t want, but for the sake of a free society as a whole, and by means of all round compromise, will put up with? For if a nation cannot agree on its foreign policy, can it, I reiterate, be described as a sovereign nation?

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This all leads, obviously enough to the question of coalition governance, and while the Daily Mail would no doubt throw its arms in the air and cry ‘Anarchy!’, these forms of government do function, Germany being, presumably, a shining example. Rich, successful, powerful and prone to totalitarianism, consensus politick seems to work very well in our reputedly authoritarian neighbours. One might ask how successful this form of government would be if it were obliged to take into consideration all forms of opinion, but there seems no bar to the number of constituents a functioning government might be composed of. Governments, after all, are always made up of people, and unless we wish our representatives to be as the Stepford Wives, we must expect them to have their own opinion, however much its individual flavour might be lost in the cocktail of policy.

Indeed, fears for the cohesion of such a singular ‘voice’ might be assuaged if we consider the tendency for apparently chaotic events on the small-scale to cohere on the macroscopic. Whether or not we would find ourselves getting along well with Germany or declaring war on Mars, I cannot predict, but at this stage one begins to wonder if any such reservation as to the results begs the question as to whether we are living in a free and democratic society at all, where wars are declared in the name of Her Majesty, but not necessarily with my consent.

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But is the nation’s constitutional health, in terms of its necessary metamorphosis of some individual freedoms and views into collective ones, merely a question of proportional representation, or some other electoral catalyst, however unsatisfactory? Say that the three main political parties achieve through the means of multi-member constituencies, proportionate representation in the House of Commons – and there, I have given the game away already – for surely it is the people that they are meant to be representing, not themselves? And yet it seems that that our democratic system functions on the premise that it is not the individual’s freely expressed opinion that counts, but whether it is fortunate enough to correspond with those of one of the three parties that are prone to providing us with our MPs. It is a case of whatever you want, as long as it is red, blue or yellow.

Of course I am in the fortunate position of being able to stand for election myself, and in that way I may attempt to extend my freedoms by turning my considered aims into realities, or in other words, by making laws. But do I really have to stand as a full-time MP, requiring the majority of tens of thousands of individual votes from people I don’t even know (and who don’t know me), just so that, as far as I am able to influence my fellow MPs, I might extend my freedom to choose my own destiny? If this is the case, surely the system might be streamlined if nothing else?

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But to be serious once more, what is required, I suggest, is an extension of local democracy, or rather the radical shift of power centres away from national government and down to the level of the parish, or even the street. Until neighbours are left to determine, amongst themselves, how they wish to live together, with their actual, individual decisions represented at the level of inter-communal conferences, then larger scale national, consensual law-making, and indeed national sovereignty, are fictions that presently discredit the very name of politics, not to mention sovereignty. It is a sad day when questions of sovereignty are almost exclusively ones about whether or not sausages should be weighed and paid for in pounds (however important that might be), when the question might be whether we have as individuals any sovereignty at all to determine the sovereign wishes of the nation.

alfstatue

It is in our heritage that we may see something of this approach in practice, can we not? We have a jury system that is empowered to decide the guilt or innocence of our fellows: if we are prepared to entrust one of our most basic freedoms to such a system, why not entrust our other freedoms, but this time one where our own voice counts in the verdict? (The provisions of the current Criminal Justice Bill suggest the Government does not share this faith, unfortunately.) The Anglo-Saxon’s was apparently a system of local participatory democracy, with free men reporting to the King through an alderman. Well, aldermen may (or may not) have a similar function nowadays, but we still know the meaning of the word moot, and we will sooner or later have a King, and one quite probably community-minded at that. It may be suggested that such an antiquated system, however adapted, would not be sufficient to rule our complex society, but the fact of the matter is that it was just such a system that was the first in Europe to assess and collect a land tax, as
I am sure you well know.

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Now, we may cast about for more contemporary exemplar, but of course, just such a one exists right under your very nose, if not mine; namely the Fellowship itself, which in its wisdom has instituted a prize that invites discussion about a free society. In a society that conventionally aspires to freedom, but which really has not been invited properly to consider how it is constituted, or even what its aims are, the essay prize, I believe, can be only for the good.

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My D*d Was A Bastard

The Wee Babby

                 Himself

1920’s Kesh must have  been a great place to be a bastard.

Despite its railway station, it was a small rural community that more probably resembled the 19th (or even 18th) century than it did the 20th. Village gossip (everyone knew everyone else’s business) would be exchanged at the market as well as the two watering holes (The Mayfly Inn & the village pump), and boy there must have been some proper tittle-tattle when it was discovered that my grandmother, Margaret, had become pregnant by a local copper.

The McClintock’s had been, up that point (21st June 1926) a well respected family of Protestant joiners. The (unmarried) brothers lived with their unmarried, but fecund sister in a house next to the Inn.

When my Dad turned up all hell was let loose. Never mind the embarrassment, feel the shame. My grandmother was given the choice of leaving the family home or getting rid of the baby. She chose the latter, and my father was farmed out to a number of protestant families (none of which kept him or looked after him particularly well).

One day, my father’s ‘Granny’ was alerted to a ‘pining’ baby sitting alone on the kerbside (he must have been a toddler by then) and decided she would foster him. The amazing thing was that she was not only considerably poorer than the McClintocks (who were not poor at all) but she was also a Catholic.

Residing in a converted garage with a curtain dividing the sleeping from the living quarters, and with her own children to feed, Annie McCaffrey (who I regret never having met) strikes me as some sort of wonder woman, and I know that my father felt much the same about her.

As for the McClintocks, I have felt nothing but contempt for them, although I suppose one ought to take into consideration their Victorian mores and the claustrophobia of a tiny village. Nevertheless, upon the death of the only remaining sibling, the house was cleared and a tiny white coffin was discovered, no doubt intended for my infant father.

Return of the Native

Da has the last laugh!

   Dad has the last laugh!

It was the ’50s (although, according to my mother it may as well have still been the ’20s), and having done well, my father returned with his new, English bride. Now my mother is content to describe her origins as working-class, but she might as well have been Lady McClintock as far as the villagers were concerned (for instance, the village women were amazed to discover that she did her own washing!). Shown off to the locals (including the shabby genteel owners of the ‘Big House’ on the hill) a visit to my grandmother’s was inevitable. Invited into the McClintock residence, she was surprised to find my father still standing outside, as was the tradition. Up until that point my father had never entered the ancestral home…

It is a sad, but inspirational story. From his poor beginnings, my father would revisit Kesh on a regular basis, weighed down by two O levels in English Literature, a wife, a house and two children, and welcomed by his many friends. I get the impression that Kesh has at last entered the 20th century (and perhaps even the 21st), and may one day welcome me back as the oh-so-nearly not to be scion of the this perhaps not so singular family. I do hope so.


Christopher Archibald McClintock, 21st June 1926 – 20th May 2010