“May you live in interesting times” – two political classics and why we need them more than ever

‘May you live in interesting times’  is an English expression which is said to be translated from an ancient Chinese curse. Laced with irony, it conveys the danger and the associated anxiety when national or international events  seem to go through periods of intense change or activity. I don’t know about you, but it certainly feels to me that we are living in interesting times at the moment! It’s not so much the political turmoil (British, European, global) that bothers me, I suspect every generation experiences times when world events seem dangerously unpredictable. No, it’s more the way that power is exercised by a small group over a large group and how the small group gets the large group to behave in particular ways that benefit the small group. I’m talking about lying with impunity, inequality and abuse, distorting evidence (especially about climate change) and stirring up hatred. These things frighten me more and have the potential to damage more of us than the ‘threats’ others would have us fear, for example, North Korea, terrorism or immigration.

In recent weeks I have turned to two very important books which have sharpened my understanding of our present situation. Whilst on holiday in the Summer I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and I have been listening to 1984 by George Orwell, a book that I last read whilst at University.

2017-11-12-21-46-11.jpgI read A Clockwork Orange on my husband’s recommendation, straight after he’d completed it – it’s one of his favourite films, which we have watched many times, but neither of us had read the book. It’s quite short, but also quite hard-going as it is narrated by the central character, Alex, who speaks in ‘nadsat’ a kind of teenage vocabulary of the future, based loosely on Slav languages. I read it with a glossary (though Burgess intended that it should not be), but after while I found I did not consult it, and it flowed better just to read it and understand the sense, if not every word.

It is a book about violence and hatred, between generations, between genders, between different social groups. It is also about social isolation, about fractured communities and about a violent experimental penal system where punishment is presented by the author as nearly as vile as the original offence. Parts of it are difficult to read because of the violence (there is a terrible rape scene at the beginning when Alex and his ‘droogies’ (friends) go on a drink and drug-fuelled rampage through the town), but mostly because it is profoundly disturbing as an example of how a society, or parts of society, can be persuaded to act in the most vicious ways, and how this is driven by collective approval, the power of the group. It is a book about collective moral failure and the breakdown of the social contract which maintains order.

I listened to 1984 on audiobook over a period of several weeks in my car. There were moments when I had to pull over, aghast at what I was hearing. It was written in 1949 and I first read it lazily and only partially in the late ’80s, when I was 19 or 20. At that time the book was only 40 years old, and it was amusing that it described a future society in a year that had already passed (just as Space:1999 became ironic at the start of the 21st century!) The book is now over 70 years old and, frankly, parts of it could describe the world we live in today, our ‘interesting times’. The book describes a totalitarian state, Oceania, said to be based on Stalinist Russia, led by an omnipotent strongman Big Brother. The world is divided into three power blocs – in addition to Oceania there is Eurasia and Eastasia – who are perpetually at war. The constant state of war justifies the indefinite suspension of human liberties and the permanent control not only of human action, but of human thought. Offenders are eliminated, cruelly, and power is exercised through fear.

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Ministry of Truth? A new statue of George Orwell was unveiled at the BBC headquarters in central London this week. The author worked at the BBC for a short time during WW2.

In the context of our own ‘interesting times’ the themes which disturbed me most were, firstly, the ‘cult of personality’ – Big Brother is all powerful and his power is conferred by an artificially inspired devotion. I’ve decided you can have too much personality in a leader and it is overrated. Secondly, ‘historical revisionism’ – populations are manipulated all the time by being told subjective versions of events, both past and present, that suit the teller and are politically expedient. Extremists and the seemingly not-so extreme, are guilty of this, it seems to me. And finally, “2+2=5” – we all believe we think for ourselves, but human beings can be persuaded to think the unthinkable, or believe what is objectively untrue. From big business marketing (corporations who deliberately befuddle our notions of ‘want’ and ‘need’) to political spin (like the numbers attending a political rally, or how happy they are to be there) to selling whole populations a pup, it seems they will dare to persuade us of anything. I fear 1984 could be renamed The 20-teens.

Do you think we are living in ‘interesting times’?

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Book review: “Jo Cox: More in Common” by Brendan Cox

No-one could forget the terrible events of June 16th 2016, the week before the UK referendum on exiting the EU, when Jo Cox, the British MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, was brutally murdered whilst in her constituency. It was shocking on so many levels. Firstly, that, in the midst of a profound expression of our democracy (which I believe we should never take for granted), campaigning during a referendum, one of our most conscientious and hard-working elected members should be killed for doing her job and what she believed in. Secondly, and most upsetting to me and, I’m sure, to many others, that a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, a daughter, should lose her life and all those close to her should lose the most important person in theirs. It was truly awful.

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In the days that followed, campaigning in the referendum was suspended as the news reverberated around the world. Support was shown and condolences sent by dozens of world leaders, not least President Obama. Jo’s death had a huge impact. So many had felt the insult to our democracy. In those subsequent days and weeks, we also learned much about this young woman and her life, and the loss felt even greater.

Jo’s husband, Brendan, became famous overnight, a role he would never have wanted. The grieving widower, the father of two shocked and grieving young children (then aged just five and three), the spokesperson for his late wife and all the good and powerful things she stood for. He was frequently on our television screens, looking dazed and gaunt, in Parliament, just days after Jo’s death, hearing MPs’ tributes, at a memorial event in Trafalgar, attended by thousands. It is a wonder how he got through those days.

It is thirteen months since Jo’s death and Brendan has been busy. He has set up the Jo Cox Foundation which seeks to promote fairness and tolerance in the world through practical actions. He has also published this book, which is part biography of Jo, partly an account of loss and, I suspect, part catharsis. It is rare that I have sat down and read a book in a couple of sittings over a weekend, but this book lends itself to that kind of immersion.

First and foremost the book, for me, provides an intimate glimpse into the architecture of grief. We will all experience grief in our lives, but most of us will never have to lose someone in the circumstances that Brendan lost Jo, that their children lost their mother. The pain is profound. We see Brendan go through all the stages we are familiar with – shock, denial, etc, though he clearly fights very hard against anger, and seems to have won. He describes in detail the unique way that nature enables children to process it. In the midst of his own grief Brendan’s primary concern was to support his children through their even greater loss to ensure that it was handled in the best possible way. Brendan talks about taking advice from experts in child psychology on how he should talk to them about their mother. The overwhelming consensus is that children should be allowed the space to grieve as they need, in their own unique way, and that it is important that we do not impose adult preconceptions and expectations about their level of sadness. For a young child, losing a mother is a profound and life-changing event that will affect the rest of their lives and it is so important to handle it right.

The sadness in this book is at times unbearable, but Brendan also writes with joy too. He provides an account of Jo’s life, her humble family background and childhood, her life as a student at Cambridge and her early achievements in a career that was destined to be stellar. Brendan, in providing this account, is honouring his late wife and the enormous achievements she made in her short life. There is a definite sense that the best was yet to come.

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox, maiden speech to Parliament, 2015 

 

Finally, the book is a love letter, a tribute from a bereaved husband to the woman he clearly loved so deeply. His love drips from every page. Some of the detail he gives is surprisingly intimate almost too much for me as a reader. The kind of small details of a relationship that couples normally only share with one another. But then you remember that Brendan no longer can, and his sharing with us feels all the more poignant.

The book is structured so that parallels are drawn between events in the months following Jo’s death and important stages in Jo’s life. For example, the account of Jo and Brendan’s time working in America and joining the Obama presidential campaign is given alongside an account of Brendan’s visit to the White House with his children, at the invitation of President Obama.

It is an incredible book and all proceeds from sales will go to the Jo Cox Foundation. It is hard to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but it felt like a very important read. It has certainly caused me to reflect, and the lesson that comes from it, for me, is along the lines of that old truism (with apologies for misquoting) that it’s not the years in your life that really count, but the life in your years. And Jo certainly packed a lifetime’s worth in her 42 years.

An emotional read, but highly recommended.

If you have read this book, I’d love to know how it affected you.

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Book review: “WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere” by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel

I plan my reading a good few weeks in advance, partly because planning is what conscientious bloggers are supposed to do (so I’m told!), but also because I always have such a substantial TBR (to be read) pile, that the only way I can excuse my excessive book-buying is to write down my intention to read them all! It seems that for the next few weeks I am planning to read a number of what might be described as feminist books, starting with the one I have just completed and which I’m reviewing here today.

WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere demonstrates its feminist credentials by encouraging a “sisterhood” in which women support and encourage one another. That is quite an ambition, given that we live in a society which often seeks, or so it seems to me, to set women against and in competition with one another. Anderson and Nadel deplore the scandal of inequality in our society which they seek to counter by encouraging us all to strive for a fairer and more just world for ourselves and for others.

2017-07-26 20.42.01 I am an admirer of Gillian Anderson, not since her X-Files days, but since watching The Fall, the hugely popular television drama about a misogynistic and brutal serial killer in Northern Ireland, in which Anderson played the beautiful, enigmatic, but also rather damaged DSI Stella Gibson. The drama ran for three series between 2013-2016 and I was hooked. (It also starred Jamie Dornan, which helped). Jennifer Nadel, Anderson’s co-author, is a former journalist, writer and activist. Both women are open about their experiences of depression and poor self-esteem, despite their hugely successful careers and enviable lifestyles, and this book is their account of recovery and a ‘guidebook’ for other women who may be suffering from mental health issues.

To that extent the book is very much a self-help guide, but it is also provides a roadmap for women to avoid depression, suffering and, in their words, live “a more meaningful life” by offering nine principles for living.  Before discussing the nine principles, the authors set out four essential daily practices which, they say, we should all be incorporating into our lives in order to achieve greater peace. These are: showing gratitude, being gentle with ourselves and others, taking responsibility for self-care, and meditation.

“Taking care of yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually is a profoundly political act”

The nine principles are: honesty, acceptance, courage, trust, humility, peace, love, joy and kindness. Each of the principles is discussed in a separate chapter and there are exercises and instructions readers are invited to undertake to get the most out of the book. There are also individual paragraphs from each of the authors scattered throughout where they reflect on their own experiences. They rail against fear as a barrier to woman achieving happiness and their potential and they discuss at length what they call the “Toxic Cs”, the five bad habits of the ego – Comparing, Criticising, Complaining, Controlling and Competing. They offer instead Compassion, Cooperation and Connection.

There is a great deal in this book which makes sense. It is well-written, well set-out, the motivational quotes are well-chosen and I found many of the exercises useful. I liked its gentle approach; some self-help books can come across as self-righteous and are self-congratulatory exercises by an author wanting to tell us how well they have done. This is not like that. I have already given this book as a gift to a dear friend who I thought could benefit from reading it. I think its audience could be clearer: it talks about “addiction” as one of the ways women can sabotage themselves. For most women who read this, that is not going to mean drug or alcohol addiction, I imagine, but it could apply to weight problems or other subtler ways that we become reliant on repetitive behaviours as a coping strategy. Some women who may benefit from the book may therefore not see it as for them.

I enjoyed reading this. I borrowed it from the library but think I will buy a copy as I could see myself dipping into it quite regularly. Recommended.

Do you find self-help books useful?

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Book review: “Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it” by Evan Davis

I love Evan Davis; I think he is probably the cleverest journalist on telly at the moment. I marvel at his ability to cut to the core of an issue and his mastery of material across a broad range of topics. His analytical ability, tenacity and eloquence made Newsnight unmissable during the UK election campaign earlier this year. I actually felt a bit sorry for some of the second and third-rate politicians he had to interview at times because he was clearly so much cleverer and in command of the brief than they were! He never goes for the jugular though, as Paxman used to, it’s just more like watching a grown-up talking to a child.

Post truthThis is actually my July reading challenge book, which was to borrow something from the library. I read it in virtually one sitting on a train journey to London. For a weighty non-fiction book it’s very readable and the writing is resonant of Evan’s relaxed and articulate presenting style. There were parts where I could almost hear him reading it out. There are many references to the help and support he has had in the acknowledgements, so I’m sure he had plenty of research assistance (how could he not – with Newsnight, The Bottom Line and Dragon’s Den he is a very busy fellow!), but the authorial voice is definitely authentic, and I would bet it isn’t ghost-written, which just makes me love him all the more!

The central premise of the book, and indeed which lends him his title, is the concept of “post-truth”, which was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year in 2016 and is defined as:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

For Westerners, key events which have lent prominence to this concept are, of course, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. More latterly, for those of us in the UK, the British election campaign is pertinent to the discussion, though the book was written before it was announced.

The book is divided into three sections: What, Why and How. In the first part “What” Evan (is it okay to call him that? I spend most weekday evenings with him, after all!) deconstructs his subject, looking at the various forms BS takes in our society today. His starting point is the professionalization of the information industry and the increasing desire to ‘sell’ rather than ‘tell’ in order to further a cause. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the unprecedented amount of information that we as citizens and consumers have access to, our weak ability to navigate it makes us vulnerable to those who would convince us that their particular interpretation of the facts is the one and only truth.

If you were unhappy with the UK European referendum campaign (regardless of which side you were on) or opposed the election of Donald Trump, there are times in the first section where you will be screaming “Yes, yes, yes”, but the second part is more sobering as it looks at the social forces that have enabled BS to become the new norm. Basically, we are all at least a little bit guilty. Haven’t we all, at some point, slightly misrepresented ourselves, or exaggerated our strengths in order to achieve something? Have you ever overstated an achievement on a CV, pushed up a price estimate of a job, in the knowledge you’ll be negotiated down by a percentage, been a willing accomplice in overpaying for desirable commercial goods (mobile phone, car, clothing, etc) simply to get a bit of the status that rubs off from owning it? We’re all at it. And as for those of us (irony alert) who might look down on the poor unfortunates misled into voting for the ‘wrong side’ Evan simply says the

“Disposition to accept bullshit probably derives from a sense of tribalism fuelled by feelings of grievance. The bullshit becomes more than just a signal of tribal allegiance; it becomes a way of strengthening a sense of membership of the tribe.”

In the final section of the book, Evan flags up a number of ways that we can all halt the rise of the post-truth tendency. He acknowledges that, basically, we get the BS we deserve, so the power lies with us to change it. Firstly, he says

“Where you have a craving for something to be true, apply a double dose of scepticism to anybody telling you that it is?”

We all have to do more research to ensure we are given the full facts and hold professional communicators to account rather than be complicit in the deception, what he refers to as “information hygiene”. (Using product X will prevent condition Y – show me the evidence?)

This book is quite an accomplishment which made me think very hard about the world we live in and what I am teaching my children. Undoubtedly, we all need to improve our skills when it comes to challenging what we are being told. A fascinating and engaging read on a very current issue.