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August 17, 2009

The Kellogg’s Optivia Question and Guilty Clicking

There’s currently an TV advert for Kellogg’s Optivia, where renowned chef Aldo Villi (I don’t know the world of celebrity chefs well enough to know whether to put sarcastic quotation marks around either or both of renowned and chef) strides purposefully into an outdoor market, where he is met with calls of “Morning, Villi!” from a ethnically diverse group of marketholders – their diversity presumably necessary so that you know that Optivia isn't one of those racist cereals you've heard about – and as he marches through the market, Villi embarks on a list of stupid diets and boring, boring dietary warnings. Finally he stops and poses an exasperated question: “Wouldn’t it be nice to hear what you should eat, instead of what you shouldn’t?”

I’m sure you can guess where the advert goes from there – and that alone is a clear reflection upon how inspired Villi’s question is, simply in terms of the pure rhetorical legwork. In one fell swoop, one glorious phrase, Aldo Villi effortlessly presupposes and draws us into an ethereal, impossible world. Is this instantaneous re-ordering of our world not artistically up there with Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning... and with When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug...?

Though, of course, while Kafka presupposed worlds of perpetual and insurmountable injustice or worlds in which clerks suddenly transform into emotional, misunderstood insects, Villi instead constructs a world where we care who he is and really do want him to tell us which cereal to eat. Yet taking Villi as the philosopher which we know he must be, perhaps there is something that does speak to the zeitgeist in his question... The Optivia Question.

In the European elections last June, remember how the main political parties really shot themselves in the foot, droning on and on about how people shouldn’t vote for the BNP, without ever getting into the minutiae of why the BNP are wrong and, more to the point, why their own political party is right? Really it just added to the apathy because after all, we don’t vote against people, we vote for them.

In those weeks it certainly would have been nice to hear what we should vote for, instead of what we shouldn’t. We want strong opinion from our leaders, even if we don’t agree with the opinion. We want things to differentiate them from each other, we want something to get our teeth around and really we want to be led, but that’s something that only a strong leadership would ever find out because if asked, that’s not what we would say that we want.

People always say that the public should have more say in policy, but do we actually think that? Wouldn’t we rather have brilliant politicians with brilliant minds introducing brilliant ideas? It seems like when we say that it would be better if politicians looked to us for direction, we haven’t really thought carefully about it; but that’s not our fault either, it’s their fault for asking us, because of course we haven’t thought carefully about it – that’s not our job.

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In the Totnes by-election a couple of weeks ago, the Conservatives held the first ever open ballot in UK politics. They gave the electorate a list of candidates and let everyone choose who the Conservative candidate would be. The reasons why it worked are obvious, but what’s extraordinary is David Miliband talking about this political homogenisation being the future.

Since the party still select the shortlist, the open ballot doesn’t really offer more choice or any more connection with the voters. All it does is generate some publicity and an entirely false connection with the public. It’s essentially just a little reality show. (Actually that’s not a bad idea – a 2012 by-election, ten prospective Labour candidates face off on ITV1 running through a series of increasingly tenuous tasks whilst living in a house together and trying to avoid elimination – it's Politics Idol!)

It’s not for the public to decide on who the Tory candidate is, that’s not when we come in. It’s each party’s own job to vet the right people and then pick them, either in private or at party meetings. Then we know that each candidate was picked because they represent the party. Under the open system, who knows what you represent?

The winner in Totnes, incidentally, was the only candidate with no political experience. Now, of course there was more to her winning than her not being a politician, but I wonder whether a single circulated flyer on the candidates could really have conveyed any sophisticated differences between the candidates; it just peddles easy answers. And would enough people be interested in a sophisticated argument anyway? It doesn’t take many minutes of trawling through YouTube comments and the Have Your Say forum on the BBC website to hammer home quite how many inexplicably angry, borderline deranged shouty people there are in the country who feel that their opinion is absolutely worth sharing.

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One of the tools on the BBC website is a real-time Top 10 Most Viewed Stories Right Now list. This is a fine, useful, interesting tool. What worries me is a recent article in the BBC Magazine, where one of the editors explained how the BBC have a practice of analysing this list and the number of “clicks” articles receive in order to see which stories most interest people so that the BBC can thus decide which stories they cover in the future. Again, the danger here is of us ourselves defining our own landscape.

The fundamental misunderstanding as far as this one is concerned is that too much faith is being put in our click. Clicking on an article doesn’t necessarily mean you’re interested. You might click on an Amy Winehouse story – that doesn’t mean you care about Amy Winehouse or think that Amy Winehouse stories are in any way a thing to be encouraged; it just means that you’re bored and you’ve read everything that interests you today (and that if she’s going to die soon, I suppose that might be glanceworthy). Yet as far as this click system is concerned, you’re absolutely interested in Amy Winehouse. As interested as you could possibly be. Online newspapers do not offer us the opportunity of the guilty glance across the page at the lightweight stories before we return to sober things; your guilty glance has become a guilty click, has been duly logged and will now go towards making all news media more lowbrow.

The same problems face the open candidate selection. Whatever state you think politics and the BBC are in at the moment, over-reliance on the consumer is only going to make them worse, but I can’t help but feel that the superficial bounce of loud people of thwarted ambition being pleased that they are being listened to might blind the producers to the fact that in reality, picking a box doesn’t mean we like the box.


June 26, 2009

Wimbledon, Iran and National Identity

This week, Iran's possible push toward what could be the most important political upheaval of this generation has been largely relegated off the front pages by the news that, amidst a tidal wave of tennis matches where players ranked higher than their opponent won and players ranked lower than their opponent lost, there occurred a number of tennis matches involving British players in which exactly the same thing happened.

Alright, Anne Keothavong lost to a lower ranked player, but it’s OK because afterwards the press made her cry. They achieved this worthy feat by intimating, with a tact not seen since Rick Salomon dedicated his sex tape with Paris Hilton to the victims of 9/11 (seriously), that in losing her tennis match she had let the British public down.

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It’s often suggested, by those sublimely troubling people who bemoan the passing of the good old days, that the British national identity has been or is being lost. Well, ignoring the vast swathes of British tradition that we should all rightly forget, the simple truth is that tribalism is alive and well, just in all the wrong places. It was certainly in the reporting of the Air France plane crash earlier this month, where for nearly a day the nationalities of the dead were unknown and ethnocentrism didn’t know whether to rule the day or not. If all the casualties were French, it just wasn’t a big story, but one British person could elevate it right up to the top of the bulletins.

If this was our predicament, imagine the quandary facing American networks, where FOX can call a daily news segment ‘Around the World in 80 Seconds’ without any trace of irony, and where Tarantino's prescribed banality of what the French call a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese was actually quite fascinating. (Incidentally, the French also call The Louisiana Purchase, ‘Le Vente de la Louisiane’ - The Louisiana Sale. One can only imagine the extent to which you could blow the minds of a few of the passportless...) Eventually the nationalities were revealed, and the story about five Britons dying quickly superseded the story about 228 people dying.

I’m not suggesting that this was inappropriate, just that the idea that national cohesion is crumbling is nonsense. Certainly in sports, we are astonishingly quick at getting behind British sportsmen, forming an opinion on them and, of course, appropriating the victory for ourselves. We watch, and it’s instantly as if we have been getting up with them for 5am training sessions for years and been supporting them around the world. It’s almost as if we know anything about them beyond their names and faces.

For some reason the British players having a poor Wimbledon matters to the British consciousness. British first, tennis second. Only once the Brits are out will tennis fans revert to their genuinely favourite players (while the non-tennis fans will just switch off), because national affinity subsumes all else. Isn’t it all just a bit too colourless? ‘We are all patchwork,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment plays its own game, and there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.’ Whilst it is fine to support your country, it seems as if the act of the nation getting behind a sportsman is too often devoid of that sober self-awareness of the inconsistency of our beliefs and actions needed to really apprehend that enviable complexity of character that Montaigne describes.

Consider the Hatton-Mayweather fight last year. Ricky Hatton’s favourite comedian is Bernard Manning, he is mates with Noel Gallagher and Roy Chubby Brown. He’s an unprofessional loudmouth throwback, an arrogant, painfully small-time embarrassment. Mayweather is a great of his generation, the simple illustration of what a modern fighter should be, quicker, smarter, wittier, more professional, better to watch artistically, aesthetically and strategically than Hatton. But Ricky is British and so, unsubtle as it may be, we should all get behind him.

In abhorring Hatton, I was glad that our environment isn’t quite equivalent to that of the US, where that barbed epithet 'Unamerican' can still be used to stifle all sorts of rational opinions even half a century after McCarthyism. But the topic of Britishness does seem to play on people’s minds and often bubbles up into popular debate. When it does, myriad lazy hacks inevitably descend, constructing those articles that at some point consult either the list that starts with A Sense of Fair Play, the list that starts with Imperialistic Arrogance, or the list that starts with Cricket, Civic Societies and the BBC; none of which really pass hazily in front of our eyes when a Brit wins a gold medal in canoeing.

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Just as there’s a narrative to every national identity, there’s a narrative to every national identity crisis. Going back to Montaigne, the difference between us and ourselves is also that difference between us and how we see ourselves. On a large scale that’s all a national identity is, because such things are only ever a concern of the country itself. Do the French talk about the British rolling landscapes, rich language and a deeply instilled sense of law? Of course not, they call us Rosbifs and get on with their lives. (What a thoroughly even-handed nickname that is, by the way – could the same be said about ‘Frogs’?)

Put another way, perhaps the story of national identity is the story of a country’s relationship with its history. Speaking as a literature student, the modern American condition often seems to be about the search for definition, while the modern South African one resists and pre-empts definition and tries to redefine itself; the 19th century Indian condition was one of self-mythologising, in an attempt to kickstart a proud tradition. The modern British condition is perhaps characterised by a concern over a loss of an identity that, in truth, rarely existed in the eyes of the world – and when it did exist it was because it was earned, and those kind of reputations need to keep being earned.

We all know John Major’s much-derided old quote that in fifty years warm crickety beer will remain; I think it is an excellent misty-eyed dampener to alarmists, because a third of his fifty years later, such things have remained. These days Major's quote is a great argument against encasing Britishness in protective glass. We should celebrate a fluid Britishness as a triumph of progressive individuality, and blogs are a great example of this – they show that generally we have nothing substantial to contribute, but we can if we want and that’s the most important thing.

That’s one reason why Ayatollah Khamenei’s paper-thin anti-British posturing is ill-advised beyond simply being a signal of his desperate diversionary tactics. In holding the West responsible for the Iranian protests and the protestors’ two-way media empowerment, Khamenei illustrates perhaps the most impressive tenet of the Western philosophy – its glorification of individuality and its constructed framework that offers anyone the potential to make their voice heard, regardless of how asinine their two cents may be.


June 12, 2009

Can Nick Griffin Save TV Journalism?

It was like the awful double-act that a TV executive thinktank might put together to host a quiz show that covered all bases. John Humphries, the Radio Four rottweiler and undisputed monarch of politics over cornflakes, took on the newly elected MEP for the North-West and leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, the Monday morning after the fascist party won their first two elected representatives. The listening population edged forward on their seats in anticipation.

Cue disappointment immeasurable as, somehow or other, the rottweiler forgets how to ask a single challenging question. In the course of that morning show, Sarah Montague took UKIP leader Nigel Farage to task for campaigning on allowances whilst himself taking an annual allowance upwards of £2 million, then Humphries appeared to actually put shadow chancellor George Osbourne up against the studio wall (listen for the thud) for the Conservatives’ planned MEP union with Czech Global Warming deniers, and finally Harriet Harman was dragged into the studio and firmly rebuked by Humphries for, strangest of all, letting the BNP in; but the interview with Nick Griffin was so placid (on the rottweiler’s end, anyway) that it was really only livened up by the fact that Nick Griffin had seemingly been up all night punching railings and was rather grouchy.

The discussion reached something approaching complete farce when the angriest man on radio delivered the damning verdict to Mr Griffin that he felt that there was perhaps ‘something not quite right’ about the BNP policy of denying membership to non-white citizens. How could he let Griffin get away with quoting percentage values as proof that the regional BNP vote had increased, when their raw vote in their two successful constituencies had clearly decreased? How could he allow Griffin to dismiss the past of fellow BNP victor Andrew Brons as youthful folly, when he has been a bona fide fascist for fifty years and has left a trail of rather unsavoury evidence behind him, endorsing the bombing of synagogues and leading marches shouting, ‘We’ve got to get rid of the blacks’?

To further the insult, about six hours earlier an equally docile interview with Nick Griffin had been conducted by election fixture David Dimbleby. What’s perhaps even more surprising in this interview is Dimbleby’s attitude. His face really is a picture throughout. He’s smirking. His face is transparent: he’s out-of-sorts, he’s unnerved, he’s disgusted but above all, he really doesn’t take Griffin seriously. He looks like he doesn’t know where to start, or how to start, or indeed whether to start an interrogation. He doesn’t know what to take issue with, and what to let go. In the end he doesn’t answer back, doesn’t take issue and lets Griffin air his views while he sits in mild acquiescence.

These two encounters, in the course of one night, show how perplexing the bind in which the BBC are finding themselves is turning out to be. For years they have taken the policy that the BNP are not to be offered the publicity of direct debate. This was always a problematic policy: the BBC can’t help but talk about the BNP at each election because the faint chance that they might get in is the only vaguely dramatic electoral story. Consequently, for the last decade the BBC have usually treated the BNP like a kind of excommunicated dirty uncle, never seen but – always at the same times of the year – talked about amongst circles of adults in hushed, disapproving and apprehensive tones.

That is no longer possible. The BNP are now a legitimate political party and deserve airtime. Denying them this airtime just gives fuel to their – now reasonable – complaint that the mainstream media are unfairly marginalising them and that they are the true anti-establishment party.

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What these recent sorry attempts at BBC journalism have illustrated is a problem that is so well-known and so accepted that it’s rather boring to even comment upon - the overwhelming reluctance in mainstream media to offer intelligent factual debate. To illustrate how bad things have become, a few weeks ago I saw the key prosecution witness in the abuse cases against the Catholic Church in Ireland appearing on brittle argumentathon HardTalk on News 24. He wasn’t there to be grilled in the slightest, but they must have reasoned that putting him on this show was the only practical way to have a 25-minute conversation on TV.

You simply can’t conduct lifeless interviews with the BNP, since so much of what they argue is predicated on straightforward lies and misinformation. If, as a news agency, you do not challenge clear misinformation then by association you are promoting it. And whilst producers may be rather apathetic about whether they offer sustained challenge to centrist spin or not, the espousal of unambiguously fascist views does not a Bafta-winning network make. Furthermore, the BBC has all that public responsibility malarkey. If ITN conduct a half-arsed interview with the BNP, that’s a shame; but if the BBC do it, they’re failing the nation.

So the BBC are messily scrambling about, trying to find the right journalistic stance. Take the recent egging of Griffin: How much coverage? What tone? Should the report condemn the protestors? Should it cover the content of the BNP press conference which was taking place when the protestors arrived? In the end, they fudged the issue somewhat, reports showing the press conference but with the reporter talking over Griffin’s speech, and the newsreader conducting a phone interview with Griffin entirely based around asking him how much publicity he thinks this will create.

Simply asking Griffin if his party is racist, as they normally do, is no longer sufficient. They need to find a new tone, and when they do, it will have to be one far more incisive than in recent years. The skills have not died in the BBC journalists, you only have to look at the occasions when the varnished News 24 automatons get a little bit riled by an interviewee and you see the sparkle return to their cold, lifeless eyes as they hesitantly recall why they got into journalism in the first place.

The BBC have certainly not forgotten the content and word-order of their original ‘inform, educate, entertain’ manifesto. Take their wonderful Poetry Season - the antithesis of The Millies, The Sun’s annual military awards on Sky, inasmuch as the Poetry Season is watched by no-one but is so indefinably and fundamentally necessary. For me, the highlight of the Poetry Season so far has been Simon Armitage’s geographical retracing and lyrical retelling of the 14th century Arthurian spin-off Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Incidentally, no-one knows who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight but given the author’s disposition for lists, I suspect the recently departed Just A Minute polymath Clement Freud).

It occurs to me that Nick Griffin is, in his own neo-Nazi way, much like the Green Knight, gambolling into the comfortable, dependable old Arthurian court which has, in reality, been living on past glories and tired morals for far too long. Only by an ugly intruder throwing down the gauntlet, disrupting the decorum and challenging the way we define ourselves might we recapture the passion for those morals and remember why we fell for them in the first place. The Knight himself is not the challenge, the challenge is from ourselves, and these difficult times are the ideal environment for rebirth. Necessity, mother, invention.

Relegated to the lower order of the headlines for most of the week has been the news that from 2011 there will be a massive shortfall in the NHS budget. ‘The health service in England won’t survive unchanged,’ said the head of the NHS Policy unit. Some free services will undoubtedly have to go. But which should it be? IVF? Abortion? Prescriptions? Smoking-related diseases? Unfortunate as it will be that services are reduced, maybe we will be forced to re-evaluate what is really important to us, if we ever evaluated such things in the first place, and hopefully we’ll end up more empathetic because of it. Perhaps when circumstance reduces our city to rubble, we can see furthest of all. Perhaps we come out of all of these things stronger.


June 04, 2009

On Sentiment and Crossroads

Let’s all take a moment for foreign-language speakers trying to decipher this English colloquialism: ‘A tall drink of water’.

Definition:

1)     A tall person.

2)     An attractive person.

3)     A tall and attractive person.

4)     A tall and fragile person. Perhaps sickly and wan.

5)     An uninteresting person.

6)     A vacuous person.

7)     A person or thing that meets perfectly with one’s needs.

Whilst it is axiomatic that language is fluid, most of the time it is about as fluid as pitch. In the rare examples of genuine diversity of meaning, confusion is usually the end result. The aforementioned beverage illustrates one phrase that is clearly at a crossroads and in reality communicates less as a consequence.

The term ‘sentiment’ is similarly coloured by an indecisive history. It originated in the 14th century, at which point it was defined as an individual's view derived specifically from personal experience. By the 17th century, one might say ‘sentiment’ to describe simply how one feels about something. At this point, the term became something of a plaything for the ages: it was an Enlightenment buzzword frequently tossed in to mean countless variations upon the theme of a broadly emotional perspective; later, Sentimentalism – European and American, philosophical and literary – continued to drag its related noun in every direction. In the 19th century sentiment finally came to rest, meaning a feeling proceeding from or affected by emotion. However, how society felt about emotionalism (and how it felt about the classical definition of the heart as the centre of human thought) continued to characterise how disparaging or not the expression would be.

These days it really means all and none of the above. It sits cross-legged at the crossroads. A sentiment is at once a notion more elevated than ordinary thought and more base than ordinary thought. It is a refined, higher conception infused with heart as well as head, or it is a feeling tainted and dragged down into the gutter by its irrational elements. I thought of this word and its etymology yesterday when I heard the following statement on the value of today’s European elections from a guest on BBC News 24: ‘Elections are, at the very least, measures of public opinion.’ I loudly disagreed with my television. Elections are, at the very most, measures of public sentiment.

There is a story I heard once (from a professor at Warwick, come to think of it) about the 1970 General Election. Polls had Harold Wilson leading by double-figures in the days leading up to the vote, and the election-night coverage was as frivolous as ever, with cringeworthy, irreverent (and often musical) perspectives on the evening’s events, perspectives which contributed nothing to the debate except proving that instant political satire is harder than it looks. ITV’s coverage had an interesting choice, relatively new to television, a Working Men’s Club comedian. He would occasionally occupy the screen between analyses to deliver some humorous/xenophobic banter. Watching him perform a Benetton ad of offensive voices was a strange experience, like a capsule of a bygone era. It was as if they had invited him on to TV so that they could televise the last stand, as a generation was ushered into history by the Beatles’ best mate Harold Wilson’s re-election.

But as the results started to filter in, more and more constituencies were being taken by the Conservatives and it started to look like Edward Heath might get in. This was just two years after Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham, and suddenly the jibes of this comic took on a whole new perspective. They sounded utterly different in tone, purely as a consequence of the new context in which they took place. So what precipitated this new context? Opinion hadn’t changed – we can’t use a piece of paper with a cross on it to say that it did – the way people feel is so much more complicated than that. Something inconsistent and contradictory had happened that you can’t unpick with Powell and The World Cup and The Beatles. Sentiment had changed.

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In the past two days, two major Government ministers have left the cabinet. There will be a major reshuffle in the next few days, very possibly a change of Prime Minister and wholesale changes in policy. Doubtless this will be accompanied by mirrored policy changes from the opposition bench, and, of course, there may well be systematic uprooting of our entire electoral system. I feel like I’m voting in the dark.

In this election, it's easy to feel that our minds are being starved of rationale. Elections are crossroads, and sentiment is all we are being empowered with in order to choose our direction. Should a Labour supporter who doesn’t believe in Gordon Brown vote elsewhere, not knowing whether he will leave anyway? Who will this abandoned Government contain? At this crossroads the signposts have been blanked out, like the Home Guard did so many decades ago. Maybe democracy thinks our electorate are invading.

Of course, since these are European and Local elections the party leaders shouldn’t even be relevant but judging by the campaign leaflets which I have received, this is being run as a General Election dress-rehearsal and nothing more. Our own party leaders actively suppress any campaigning on the European issues. The UK is simply the only country in the EU which keeps its parties fighting European elections on national issues, with their party leaders as the party leaders.

In an ideal world, our heads would be fed with party policy on European issues, but instead our guts are fed with appeals to the spirit of the guillotine. As (only) the Guardian pointed out yesterday, the Conservatives have quietly announced that they are switching party block allegiances further to the right in the EU Parliament, and for this term will be banding with a Polish party of Queer-bashing fascists – they’ll sit together, they’ll share packets of crisps in the playground and everything. Why are we neglecting our rights to knowledge? ‘One certainly does work badly in spring,' Thomas Mann wrote in Tonio Kroger. 'And why? Because one’s feelings are being stimulated.’ Perhaps we need a Winter election.

UKIP and the BNP will probably do quite well too, since they - in their new role as comic book resistance fighters - protect the interests of the common man. Except that they oppose the minimum wage, two of the twelve UKIP MEPs have been ejected for fraud, and another, Godfrey Bloom, replied to Bishop John Sentamu’s fear that there are racist elements within the Church of England by saying, ‘I would have thought that the fact he was made an archbishop with a face as black as Newgate's knocker would belie that.’ It might also be nice to hear that a clothespegged-nosed vote for the BNP may not teach anyone a lesson but certainly will empower a fascist to go to Brussels with a £250,000 a year kitty and lobby on behalf of their own interests in an arena where they – people you wouldn’t share a comb with – will represent your country.

Intriguingly sentiment’s adjective, ‘sentimental’, has survived the etymological tug-of-war. It has a straightforward definition that we all know: analysis-free emotion in place of the more considered critique, stimulating or simulating a disproportionate response. I say simulating, because when we talk about sentimentalism, even when it’s genuine and private, it’s false. Yeats wrote that rhetoric is a quarrel with others, whilst sentimentality is a quarrel with ourselves. Both are our enemies today and I, for one, don’t know where to turn.


May 22, 2009

Suspended Swords

In Balzac’s The Finger of God, our favourite accident-prone French realist recounts how he watches from a Paris bridge while a jealous seven-year old girl pushes her little brother into the Bièvre River, drowning him. As the mother realises what has happened (but not necessarily who has perpetrated it) we leap forward an untold number of years. The mother and her remaining children have just come back from the theatre, downcast. All go their separate ways except the youngest son, a bawling baby at the time of the accident, who stays and recounts to a family friend how they had all fallen silent upon witnessing a scene of the play where a man drowns his son. The mother and daughter then re-enter the room and the girl flashes her mother a frightened glance, worried that ‘these remarks would aggravate the punishment hanging over her’. It is a mischievously ambiguous phrase. Punishment for the current embarrassment, or punishment for the long-ago events? Has she never been punished? Does her mother even know of her guilt? Intriguingly, as time passes, is the potential punishment increasing or decreasing?

I thought of this moment of fearful anticipation today as I read about the fate of Sir Peter Viggers, MP for the constituency of Gosport since 1974. A few days ago it was gleefully reported in the press that he claimed on his MP expense allowance £1,645 for a duck island in an act utterly within spirit and legislature of the rules as they existed at the time, and yet he has subsequently been forced to retire. That the rules need to change goes without saying; what struck me was that this bombshell came fourteen days into the series of revelations. I wonder what the last fortnight of Sir Peter’s life have been like?

In the early days when it seemed like it would all blow over, did he revel in the embarrassing Labour revelations – as the Telegraph certainly did, like the Heather Graham character in Boogie Nights, kicking the bloodied, helpless but admittedly obnoxious and morally bankrupt Labour frat-boy in the gutter until the screen goes blurry (and the fact that in this metaphor The Daily Telegraph is a roller-skating porn star makes it all the sweeter) – or was Sir Peter consumed with fear that he would be among the most persecuted when the Conservative revelations came?

Did he know how bad his expense claims were? Or more to the point, how badly would they play? Did it even matter back then? In the first days, MPs were contrite-bullish or smarmy-bullish depending upon their own preference – note Alan Duncan’s stomach-churning display on HIGNFY on 8th May for an example of what now seems like a spectacular misjudgement of public mood, but in fact wasn’t at all jarring at the time. But a week of revelations went by and the tide was turning. Suddenly party leaders were falling over themselves to act more decisively than the rest, a false moralism swept through Westminster (yanking the Speaker out by his flannel trousers as it departed) and the landscape had most definitely changed. And the Telegraph continued to keep Sir Peter’s expenses out of the public domain.

I get the impression that what seems to frustrate many people now is not the expenses scandal (they already assumed all politicians were on the take) or that early indignation from the MPs that the information was released (they already assumed all politicians were self-righteous, arrogant, iniquitous despots who sit down to pee). Instead, what was upsetting was the full-face change of line about five days into the drama. Suddenly ‘The system has to be changed...It’s an absolute outrage.’ This is something they were outright bullishly defending until twenty minutes ago. Do they think we’re all stupid?

The fact was that their reaction yesterday and how much hilarity it generates when juxtaposed with their reactions today didn’t matter, they had to change. They realised public opinion on this issue was stronger than they thought, and so they adjusted their policy to better suit the public emotion. Hell, populist democracy. But how could they be so openly two-faced? That’s clearly NOT really what they think, so how can they say that it is?

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Honne and tatemae. There is no direct translation from the Japanese, but in essence, the first is our informal personal reality, the way we act when we are at our most open and pared down; the second is reality as filtered through social parameters, with all its social constructs for the sake of politeness, political correctness and all those things which are actually great that no-one seems to like. But the Japanese do – tatamae is explicitly not a lie, it is a different way of acting, just as real and true as you are with your lover in your most private moments. Just two sides of life.

When we ask one another how we are doing, we may not mean it but we do mean something, and what we mean is not less valuable than a 'straight' question would be. It is about acknowledging that there are two kinds of honesty. The truth of telling our grandparents how much we liked the socks they sent us is a lie, but it is also an ineffable, cavernous expanse of a truth. Similarly, a politician’s overnight personality change is a function of the voice of his constituents (even the ones who didn’t vote for him) and a manifestation of the contemporary power of the public and the press.

In January this year, Bahamian Parliament opposition MP Kenyatta Gibson crossed the floor to join the Government. He justified his move eruditely by saying that the Government would help his constituents the most: what else was there to it? He was a representative of his people’s will, nothing more. ‘I recognize that this is not a PLP seat, nor is it an FNM seat. This seat belongs to the people of Kennedy. All of the people of Kennedy,’ he said. The public think their politicians are the worst in history, more distant and more arrogant, but in fact Parliament is more dependent on the public than it has ever been. The press is so sickly that it will need to body-hop to another host or it’ll die within the decade, but it can certainly still set the agenda for its own ends so long as it has some cash and a narrative arc. Naturally then, politicians don’t always say what they believe, but that doesn’t make what they say untrue.

Two realities on equal footing, neither morally superior, is certainly not something European realists like Balzac would have found palatable: it is wholly oriental. But everywhere, people are interacting with others their entire lives with some silent mutual agreement to limit themselves to tatemae.

*

In The Finger of God, the sword of Damocles never falls on the young girl, but Sir Peter was spared such indistinct conclusions yesterday when his expense claims were published and he was forced to retire. It was just garden work, it was no moat, but like the equally toxic swine flu it appears that it’s best to get a Telegraph revelation good and early before it turns into something more vicious. And the extent to which the rules have been broken really doesn’t seem to matter, because Peter is broadly bad and Peter has gone and that’s that.

Damocles is an especially apt precursor for Sir Peter: the original Damoclean story has one aim, and that is to warn of the natural burden of positions of power. Cicero picked it up a couple of centuries later and twisted it, with an ambition that may seen more than familiar in the press at the moment, and used it to condemn the wealthy full-stop. He argued that the story of Damocles was a parable to stoicism and a life of humility and virtue. The press now wield the same cowardly scythe, merrily ripping through the old guard of British politics in an undoubtedly dangerous situation. Distortions printed – how many times can you fit ‘Gordon Brown’, ‘£6000’ and ‘brother’s housekeeper’ into an article without any explicit accusations of wrongdoing? – which may be retracted the next day but they can’t ever be taken back. Laura Brown, the aforementioned World Leader’s brother’s wife wrote a piece for the Guardian last week, and what came across for me was feeling utterly powerless against this tidal wave of News, and it just flushes over you one morning and immediately sets. It solidifies around you and instantly starts becoming History, before you’ve ever had the chance to straighten it out and pick up all the trash floating in it.

In Balzac’s story, a blustering clerk of the family asks the little boy the name of the play that they have been to see, and the clerk splutters when he is told that it is ‘The Valley of the Torrent’, since as a title it doesn’t even make sense. Then he sighs: ‘In these days the principal attraction lies in the scenic effect, and [in that way] the title is a capital advertisement.’ When the first strike of the story and the marketing value of it is the most important thing, we all have cause to fret. Everything becomes less valuable when nobody cares about what’s in that tide and who’s sending it down.

The debate about the Telegraph’s motives and responsibilities is too vast to address now, but I would like to mention that Martin Salter, Celia Barlow, Geoffrey Robinson (Labour), Adam Afriyie, Richard Benyon, Philip Dunne, Anne Milton (Conservative), and Rob Wilson and David Howarth (Lib Dem) live outside London and claimed none of the allowance that they were utterly entitled to. That’s far more than should - and hopefully will - be forced to resign by this marauding lynch mob, and so the simple mathematics of the situation is that there are some good eggs, some bad ones, many mediocre ones, and in about the ratios one would expect. That story won’t sell newspapers, fine, but it also won’t help get centrist parties elected.

As usual, Balzac gets florid at the beginning of his story and enthuses over the vast beauties of central Paris. But in Finger of God he’s in a militant mood, and launches an assault on the city’s small-minded critics: ‘I thought bitterly of the scorn with which even in our literature we affect to hold this land of ours, and poured maledictions on the pitiable plutocrats who fall out of love with fair France, and spend their gold to acquire the right of sneering at their own country, by going through Italy at a gallop and inspecting that desecrated land through an opera-glass.’ And that’s it: sneering at the countryside through an opera-glass on a galloping horse. What better way is there to describe the selective eyesight of a press insidious, self-congratulatory and built upon in-house perks, spewing fake vitriol over their pages over an accidental claim for the likes of 78p worth of cat food by people who have spent upwards of thirty years doing jobs for which they are vastly over-qualified and over-worked because when they were young they thought it would be cool to be a part of how things work?

Their job is certainly to tell the 'truth', but the term is just so loaded. Ten years after Balzac published The Finger of God in its serialised form, he collected it together with a few other pieces, and with some minor rewrites republished it as a novel, A Woman of Thirty. Our story, The Finger of God, found new life as Chapter Four, unchanged but for the names. Balzac is rightly lauded as a founding father of European, salt-of-the-earth realism; even his lesser characters are dense, problematic and flawed – he makes Dickens’ minor characters look cut from paper – but the truth is found in his product, not his processes, and the same should be said of the modern MP. There must have been a strange sense of familiarity when, a decade later, those who had read Finger in the newspaper were to pick it up in novel form. I would think that everyone but The Daily Telegraph will be hoping this is one newspaper tale that never returns with a new cast.

(I used the Ellen Marriage Translation of 'Une Femme De Trente Ans', 1842)


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