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Is Belgium a failed state? Only if the West is a failed civilisation

Is Belgium a failed state? Only if the West is a failed civilisation

Ghent Festival: This stage built across a canal is dedicated to world music. It is one of several of a similar size across the city.

Ghent Festival: This stage built across a canal is dedicated to world music. It is one of several of a similar size across the city.

On 19 November, Tim King, Politico’s Brussels sketch writer, penned an article claiming ‘Belgium is a failed state‘, subtitled ‘Brussels’ nest of radicalism is just one of the failings of a divided, dysfunctional country’.

I’ve thought long and hard about this accusation, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the charge is simply false — unless we want to count the whole of the West as a failed civilisation. I’m not alone in this view. Former US ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman has argued that if Belgium is a failed state, the US is Afghanistan. He points out that, on the Global Peace Index, Belgium is the 14th safest country in the world. Having not visited all the other ‘safe’ countries, I can’t really comment on that, though I would say I was surprised to see it ranking above the Netherlands. For comparison, the United Kingdom is 39th. That is something I can believe.

I lived in Belgium for just less than ten years. I was working for a volunteer youth movement, so we lived in the ‘bad’ bits: Gilly in Charleroi, Ougrée Bas in Liège, the Brugsepoort in Ghent. My wife, before we got married, lived in Schaarbeek, where she learned to speak Turkish and was the guest of many Turks and Armenians.

Tim King makes a lot in his article about the district of Molenbeek — one my wife knew well — and how, anywhere else, this would have been sorted out long ago. This is the district linked with the extremists who attacked Paris. His argument is that its situation made the kind of radicalisation we’ve seen more or less inevitable.

In one aspect, he is right. Molenbeek, along with Gilly, Ougrée Bas, the Brugsepoort and Schaarbeek, could have been ‘sorted out’ much better than they have been.

However, I also grew up in Stechford, Birmingham, and I lived there for twelve years after we left Belgium. At one point, the Hodge Hill constituency, which covers half of Stechford, was the most deprived constituency in England. Mercifully, it isn’t any more. (Lest you think this will be a gush of self-pity, I now live in the marvellous Warwickshire countryside, not far from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.)

Denmark and the Netherlands are pretty consistently nice, but most of the Western world has its Molenbeeks and its Stechfords. We cannot blame the Belgians without looking at ourselves—a point that Gutman makes very well. It is safer to walk through Molenbeek than parts of New York, Washington and Los Angeles. I might add that it’s safer to walk through Stechford as well.

Tim King’s wider point is that Belgium is dysfunctional. It has multiple layers of federated governments which don’t necessarily work well together. It also had a period of 589 days without an elected government in 2010-11, because the French and Flemish language groups could not agree who should be in charge.

If you’re not familiar with Belgium, I should explain right now that French versus Flemish is the fundamental concept in Belgian culture. The southern, French part, know as Wallonia, though the Wallon language is actually extinct, covers a bit more than half of the area and has slightly less than half the population. The Flemish part, Flanders, which speaks ‘Zuid Nederlands’ for which there is no adequate term in English other than calling it ‘Flemish’ or ‘Dutch’, covers the north. It industrialised later than Wallonia, and so has less heavy industry but is generally more prosperous. The two meet in Brussels, where everyone seems to speak Flemish and French with amazing fluency, except in ethnic minority suburbs such as Molenbeek and Schaarbeek, where there are still many people who primarily speak Turkish or Arabic, and for whom most Brussels jobs are therefore unavailable.

By any Anglo-Saxon standard, not having a government for 589 days and having six or so layers of government with (as King points out) 19 communes just in Brussels, (itself about the size of Birmingham), Belgium’s civil organisation is chaotic. The oddness of the situation, and the fact that there are two police forces, has been frequently pointed out in such cases as the Marc Dutroux scandal, the assassination of André Cools in the 1990s, and the never-dying Belgian obsession with SRDA8, aka Operation Gladio. King describes an incident where a joyrider crashed outside his house, and the police recommended that he sort out the insurance with the other damaged vehicle’s owner. This he gives as an example of police incompetence. The funny thing is, more or less the same thing happened to me in Stechford.

Looking at King’s impressive list of articles (I couldn’t find a CV or bio), he’s obviously been writing about Belgium for a long time, and has covered the emerging news with a great deal of diligence. I wonder, though, just how embedded he is in Belgian culture. The Belgian way of doing things is to sort them out as between friends. Belgians are always threatening to call the police (especially if you’re a foreigner), but if a police officer does wander up, she or he usually tries to calm the situation, talk people out of escalating, assist with getting the traffic flowing or sorting out whatever problem there is, and leave the situation without having to take things further. British policemen have told me that they look to do very much the same sort of thing. Perhaps the difference is that Belgians are much more amenable to being talked down (a sweeping statement I know, but I’ve been observing both cultures for a long time). If someone is still cross, their friends usually try to calm them.

The fact that Belgium was able to survive, and, indeed, thrive for 589 days without a national government is a testimony to the fact that this can work at a national political level, not just at the level of arguments between neighbours. Equally, when seen in that light, Belgium’s multiple layers of government are part of its resilience, rather than a dysfunction or a weakness.

It is relatively easy to find things to laugh about in Belgian bureaucracy mainly because the Belgians themselves make laughing at bureaucracy part of their national hobby. The British do this, much to the bemusement of Americans, but the Belgians do it more. Despite the fact that most Belgians affect to have a low estimate of politicians, there are always enough people to fill up the various layers of elected office—by contrast with the UK, where many parish councils carry vacancies over a period of years.

What is a state for?

The question that King does not answer, in maintaining that Belgium is a failed state, is what a state is for. The implication of his article is that a state is for the prevention of terrorism. At least, it is Belgium’s inability to prevent radicalisation which caused the atrocities in Paris. I would question which state actually is able to prevent radicalisation. More importantly, it seems to me that if that is where the bar is set, then North Korea and Cold War era East Germany would be successful states.

Every year, the city of Ghent hosts the Ghent Festival. There are festivals right across Belgium, but Ghent’s is (depending on how you count) the biggest in Europe. Almost everything is free: bands, theatre, exhibition, street art, it lasts for nine days, and features a dazzling display of all kinds of everything. The city of Ghent owns most of the equipment used for the festival. So, what does it do with it for the rest of the year? The answer is, it stores it at the ‘Stedelijke Uitleendienst’ — literally, the civil lending service. Any local organisation can then book equipment, pay a small deposit, and take it away to run whatever events they see fit. This means that there is an all-year-round access to free lighting, PA equipment, marquees, and everything else you could want to run your own mini-festival. You can also get sport and exhibition equipment from the same place. Ghent is not unique in this regard.

We spent part of this summer in Antwerp. Along with all the other things we looked at, we went to a consultation exhibition on redevelopments to the town hall.

This model shows Antwerp as it was when the town hall was originally constructed.

This model shows Antwerp as it was when the town hall was originally constructed.

You may wonder what any right-thinking person was doing going to a consultation event in their holidays. However, the exhibitors had constructed a mini-museum taking visitors through the history of Antwerp, the history of the town hall in context, the original plans, famous events that had taken place there, and finally through to the proposals for renovating it.

Having run several consultations in the UK, I was staggered by the level of creativity which had gone into it, and by the sheer delight of the result. A good half of the visitors (charge, € zero) that day were from outside Belgium.

Belgium has invested in the arts to a staggering extent. In the UK, there is always a struggle to draw in new audiences and to make the arts relevant across all communities. In Belgium, art spills out onto the streets on a daily basis, both in the pure sense, such as the Ghent festival, and in the applied sense, such as the Antwerp consultation. Something like 3/4 of all the Graphic Novels published in the world come from Belgium.

Graffiti art in the ghost-village of Doel, scheduled for demolition.

Graffiti art in the ghost-village of Doel, scheduled for demolition.

Even the graffiti achieves a status rarely afforded in the UK. Where Banksy has had to contend with local authorities removing his work, Belgium has at times committed whole streets to it. The ghost village of Doel, scheduled for demolition for the expansion of Antwerp’s harbour, is a veritable museum of street art.

Belgium does not have an NHS, but it does have a state-organised and supported hybrid system with low cost health insurance which delivers more or less the same result. Many Belgians argue that it is better (I would argue the opposite, but that should hardly surprise anyone).

For centuries, Flanders and Wallonia were the battlefield of Europe. The landscape round Ypres was engulfed in the First World War, the Belgian cities were severely damaged in the Second World War. The battle of Waterloo was fought not far from Brussels. It was regularly occupied by enemy powers. Whereas every village in Britain has a war memorial, every town in Belgium has an ‘executieord’. The commemorative text is not ‘we remember the dead…’ but ‘on this site, the following were executed’. Every village in Wallonia, certainly in the early years I was there, had an annual procession of old men and women in black berets: resistance fights from the 1940s.

On the road between Ghent and Zelzate, there is a large lump of rusty steel on a pedestal, with the legend ‘First steel in Flanders — 1967’. When I first arrived in Belgium in 1983, they were still ploughing with horses on many farms. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that, everywhere you go, you see echoes of poverty. The house my wife lived in before we got married had no flushing toilet. I lived with some other lads in a house which would have been categorised in the UK as a slum.

That was the 1990s. I went back there recently. A great deal of it has been demolished, and replaced with modern housing, or with open, public spaces. Churches which are now surplus to requirements (Belgium has secularised much more rapidly than Britain) have been converted into concert halls, or donated to voluntary movements, including the next wave of contemporary churches.

If a successful state is one which protects all its neighbours against terrorists — Tim King’s argument — then not only is Belgium a failed state, but so are most of the states in the Western world. Terrorism is international, hard to predict. A country with 10 million people can’t afford to run its own GCHQ. Nor should it need to: that is part of the point of the co-operation on which I believe the future of Europe, including Britain, depends. If, on the other hand, a successful state is one which has been able to reinvent itself from having been the kicking-ball of Europe, and has created a society with low crime, safe streets, and where the arts and culture flourish, then Belgium is doing very well. There are more famous Belgians than you might think.

Not that we should be blinded by this: Belgium has a lot of work still to do on integration of ethnic minorities (and it is salutary for those who think that integration has gone too far to look at the Belgian experience), on sex trafficking, on financial fraud and on low-level political corruption. Every state, though, has its areas where it needs improvements.

The atrocities in France last month should make all of us reflect on how we can build a more integrated society. Blaming the Belgians, though, is simply foolish.

Why we need less morality, not more

Morality. Of all types of opinions, we hold our moral ones most tightly, utter them uninvited most frequently, and are most outraged when they are breached. The sub-text of every tabloid shock headline is ‘and this should not be’. In journalistic and political writing, all we have to do is preface our complaint with ‘it is an outrage that…’, and we know that we have gained some kind of an aura as moral pundits, superior to those we criticise.

One of the very best places to find moral outrage is Facebook. Once the hangout of students and other cool folk, Facebook is increasingly populated by grumpy middle-aged people and others whose intent it is to police the moral values of, well, everyone. Students and other cool folk long ago migrated to Instagram and Whatsapp, and, as often as not, maintain their Facebook accounts just to keep in touch with grumpy relatives.

Alongside the personality quizzes, pseudo-maths puzzles, (where have the pictures of cats gone?) and general chit-chat, Facebook is the best place to pep up your daily moral outrage by seeing pictures of things you don’t like, with comforting text implying that you are a morally superior being by not liking them. If you are of a liberal tendency, you can be outraged by Republicans, right-wing Christians, oil companies and -ists of many kinds. If you are of a conservative tendency, you can be outraged by Democrats, extremist Muslims, feministas and -ists of most other kinds. If you sit somewhere in the middle, pictures of an empty House of Commons debating something important may well fill the gap.

A bit of moral outrage seems to tickle a spot in most of us. Newspapers have been selling on that basis for years. Far be it from me to try to limit people’s access to moral outrage. However, I do want to argue that such outrage is not a part of our moral sense at all, and that it can be quite dangerous: my ability to be outraged by, say, Donald Trump, can easily give me the impression that I am a moral person.

Our very best moral outrage is naturally reserved for hypocrisy. Ever since Jesus pointed this one out, it has been a perennial favourite. Most of us are able to keep in mind the things that we oppose. If we catch ourselves doing them, we generally drop our opposition to them and get wound up about something else instead. By this means, we can retain our stance against hypocrites, while making sure that we do not fall into their category.

Hypocrisy, though, is the symptom, not the cause. It is an outward expression of our natural and innate tendency toward self-deception. That we have learned to catch ourselves (usually) before making hypocritical statements merely demonstrates that we have gained some skills in thinking before we speak, at least in regard to a rather unfashionable vice.

Let me attempt to delve a little deeper.

The foundation of our shared morality—it seems to me—is in an innate sense which we all have which is often referred to as ‘conscience’. Our sense of right and wrong is intuitive rather than rational—at least, for things which are ‘obviously’ right and wrong. Some people have argued that conscience is identical to empathy, but I think this leads us very quickly into a cul-de-sac. The two senses overlap in many cases, but there are issues of morality such as stealing from a corporation where it is very hard to argue that the failing was an empathic one.

To some extent, what we regard as conscience is heavily shaped by upbringing and by society around us. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating with your fork in the right hand and your knife in the left, but for most British people, this prompts the same kind of reaction as the temptation to take a larger slice of the pie than the next person. However, anyone who spends much time with children (or who remembers what it was like to be a child) knows that ‘it’s not fair’ is a cry that does not have to be taught. Whether children get the notion of fairness from their parents or not, it is one that resonates early on, and is much more easily retained than that business with forks and knives, even though it is an abstract concept.

Here is the tricky bit. For most of us, when we are deciding whether something that we are contemplating is right or wrong, we consult our conscience. If introspection does not give us an immediate answer, our moral reasoning tends to proceed on the lines of ‘this is like that, and that is wrong’. 1

However, when making our moral pronouncements about the behaviour of others, we tend to first try to articulate a rule, and then apply it to other people. Making moral pronouncements would seem to be merely a distillation of our sense of conscience, but is it?

A few months ago, there was an article on the BBC website about filtering on motorways when three lanes are brought down to two lanes. According to the article, correct driving is to remain in your lane as long as possible. When filtering from the right, it is the other drivers’ responsibility to let you in. Interesting as it was, the article was nothing like as interesting as the comments that followed it. The language people were using was the language of morality, and, as the debate progressed, there were real signs of outrage. Just last week, LBC showed a cyclist and taxi colliding, and asked ‘but who is in the wrong?’ Perhaps the headline drew in those most interested in a moral debate. Either way, the language of the debate was moralistic, not technical.

It should be quite evident that the Highway Code is not a matter of intuitive conscience. It is a set of conventions for driving which form the basis for passing the UK driving test. As any driver coming from mainland Europe or the USA can attest, the most fundamental UK convention, that we drive on the left, is not intuitive at all. It certainly isn’t a matter of superior morality. What’s more, when a UK driver goes to Belgium and drives on the right, they are not being hypocritical by doing so.

I give this example because I hope it shows that our willingness to make moral pronouncements and then to reason from them is not actually a function of our moral sense at all. The commentator who argued (with quite a high implication of moral outrage) that it is a driver’s duty to filter as soon as ‘lane closed ahead’ was signed up (and the many who agreed with him) was doing exactly that. Most of the commentators on the LBC thread (at least, when I last looked) did exactly the same thing: they first created a ‘rule’, and then applied it to the situation. In most cases, the rule they created was not in the Highway Code at all, and the commentators who argued from the Highway Code were often dismissed by others.

I don’t intend to make a pronouncement about the cyclist or the taxi driver. What I’m more interested in is this as an example of our delight in rule-making and pronouncement.

Any system of justice, of course, relies on being able to make pronouncements. Roman law, indeed, relies on written rules, and even Anglo-Saxon precedent law has come to rely increasingly on regulation, often codifying what was previously judged on precedent. But law and morality are not the same thing, and were never intended to be.

While legal regulations have mushroomed, popular moral prescriptivism has exploded. In the last few days I have read articles and seen memes that tell me that it is immoral to explain things, immoral to accept refugees if there is any homelessness in one’s own country, immoral to own guns, immoral to control guns, even (I assume in jest) that it is immoral to put up Christmas decorations early. Political Correctness brings with it an ever tightening set of strictures, but its opposite, US Republican-style anti-political correctness, seems just as laden with rules, just about different things.

There are only three moral thinkers who, to me, have contributed substantially to the debate, and all of them have sought to reduce a super-complexity of moral rules down to just one or two positions.

John Stuart Mill, building on the work of Jeremy Bentham, posited Utilitarianism as a single moral theory which allowed us to dispense with other rules. I don’t agree with Utilitarianism, but I recognise its importance. The notion of ‘the maximum good to the maximum number of people’, when taken alongside minimising harm, is a framework which large, impersonal bodies, such as corporations and governments, can use effectively in many circumstances. There are lots of examples of where applying Utilitarianism would produce a result which was unjust, or even evil, and many of these have been condensed into moral philosophy puzzles involving crashing trams and other such crunch cases.

Immanuel Kant proposed the notion of a Categorical Imperative, which is “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction”. From this he derives: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Further, “Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.”

Kant’s notion of the Categorical Imperative is widely cited (though not quoted) as something which it is not, quite. On that, more in a moment. On grand moral questions, it is well worth asking “if I did this, and it were to become the universal rule, would I be happy?” However, on day to day moral questions, issues of personality and personal style crowd in. As an Extrovert Intuiting Thinking Perceiving person (though I’m actually borderline on three of those), I have a view of the kind of things that make me happy, and which I think would make everyone happy. Some people do want a world full of parties, trying out the latest gadgets, bright clothes, late nights and loud music. To others, this would be hell on earth. One of the reasons for the explosion of new moral prescriptivism is that many people now imagine that they are legislating members of humanity.

Nonetheless, when applied as a personal code, Kant’s view is, I think, preferable to Mill’s, and Mill’s to today’s ad hoc prescriptivism. Mill’s needs a calculator to operate, whereas Kant’s needs a bit of introspection.

The moral thinker (it should surprise no one that I make this claim) who I think takes us the greatest distance is Jesus of Nazareth. He proposes two ‘laws’: ‘Love the Lord your God’, and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. When pressed on ‘who is my neighbour’, the answer is ‘anyone you encounter’. His other formulation is ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative is often confused with this last pronouncement, typically referred to as the ‘golden rule’. Its negative form, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do to you’ is relatively widespread before Jesus, but he is credited as being the first to put it forward as an injunction to ‘do’ rather than than ‘refrain from doing’. It differs from Kant’s in that Kant is saying that you should only do that which you would want to be a universal rule. Jesus’s is more direct: ‘would you want it? Then do it’, and requires nothing in the way of extended introspection.

What Mill, Kant and Jesus all have in common is that they are proposing one or two simple rules by which moral agents (ie, us) can evaluate the actions we are about to take. Mill’s view can be applied retrospectively, in the sense of ‘did that produce the maximum good?’, but that is not its intention. In each case, they are rules for us, rather than rules for us to impose on others. Indeed, neither Kant’s position nor Jesus’s can be applied to someone else. I cannot know whether, at the time, someone did something because it was what they would want done to them, or because they wanted it to be the universal rule, or for entirely selfish reasons.

If we could simply wipe out all the extra moral rules, the extra bits of ethics, custom, judgement, prescription, outrage and memification, and go back to any one of Mill’s, Kant’s, or Jesus’s formulations—in other words, have less but better morality, rather than more but bittier—then we would be in a much better position to evaluate our own behaviour ahead of time, and be possessed of a much better understanding that it really isn’t our business to evaluate other people’s.

So, for everyone poised to create that new meme, or to post an outraged remark on Facebook or as a comment to a BBC article, or to pen the newspaper article that prompts storms of outrage, or to make a speech in the House of Commons denouncing this group or that group, or to create new legislation that forces people to behave ‘better’ (whatever better is), let me offer one final moral remark, also from Jesus of Nazareth: ‘Do not judge others, lest you be judged yourself.’

Show 1 footnote

  1. Piaget, followed by Kohlberg, of course, argues that this is the form of reasoning only engaged in by those who are relatively morally developed. However, experimental evidence has not generally supported their view: we see quite sophisticated moral reasoning among children, and, indeed, children’s literature which is popular among children tends to have an intuitive rather than rule-bound moral sense.

For NaNoWriMo writers: how to make it through the middle

Aristotle famously wrote that every story had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

He was right, but how he explained what that meant has been widely misunderstood, or, at the most charitable, widely ignored.

In the One Basic Plot I set out to show how, with a very small tweak to his argument, Aristotle gives us the fundamental unit of story-ness (or plot), which is the double-reversal. However, if you are embarking on your first (or fifteenth) 50,000+ word opus this November as part of NaNoWriMo, the middle bit of the story may be giving you quite a lot of trouble.

Over the last six years, I’ve been sent dozens and dozens of newly published books to review by Amazon (I get to keep the books). Judging by what I’ve read, a lot of authors struggle with the middle, and the agent-publisher-marketer system which used to rely on the first fifty pages and now seems to rely on just the first ten pages makes far too much of a strong premise and a strong voice, and far too little of a story which is enjoyable to read all the way through. I frequently wonder if any of them ever read deep enough into some of the books to ask themselves: ‘will anyone think of the poor reader?’.

A really great beginning will serve you well, and a really strong double-reversal at the climax will make the book memorable. But it’s the middle that makes the book enjoyable. If by page 120 you, as the reader, are flagging, and by page 150 losing the will to live, there is actually no virtue in continuing. If the story is worth telling, then it’s worth experiencing all the way through. If that experience actually isn’t worth it, then the story was never worth telling in the first place.

Someone (I will try to find out who) said that British fiction is largely a beginning and an end, separated by a muddle. All too often true. At least, true today. Go back to the 19th century, the golden age of the novel, before film, radio and TV took on the mantle of stories worth enjoying for their own sake, and quite the reverse is true. Middlemarch is almost all middle, and all the better for it. Dickens’s novels rarely have dramatic climaxes (the exception being A Tale of Two Cities, which is allegedly the biggest selling work of fiction ever, and widely regarded as one of his least successful novels). If you read through Wuthering Heights to find out what happens at the end, then you have missed the point of the story.

Even some of our 20th century modernist classics are stronger in the middle than at the beginning and end. Lord of the Flies stops, rather than finishes. The main interest of the Catcher in the Rye (actually, not much interest to me, I’m afraid) is not finding out what happens to Holden Caulfield at the end. The end of Nineteen-Eighty-Four is dismal, but the middle has redefined many of our political concepts.

Reach back further to Shakespeare, and the strange power of most of his plays is in the middle acts. In story terms, we could jump pretty much straight from the witches to the demise of Macbeth, as Hollinshed’s chronicle more or less does. It Acts ii-iv that take us through the darkness of the human heart.  We do not watch Hamlet to find out if Hamlet survives (the clue is in the title, ‘The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’), exciting as the ending is.

Stories need great premises, especially in today’s competitive market. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had decided to set the Hobbit in 1920’s Warwickshire, or if CS Lewis had decided to save on the production budget and kept the Pevensie children in England. A Game of Thrones could be entirely played out in the school playground, as A Game of Conkers, but nobody would bother to read it, and the TV series would be less interesting than the Grange Hill box-set.

Equally, they need great climaxes. The modernist (and post-modernist) literary conceit of focusing on the ‘important’ things rather than plot just makes for dull works that most people only read if they have to.

However, it is the middle which makes the story one that the reader wants to dwell in and come back to again and again. We, too, want to journey through Middle Earth, fight dragons in Earthsea, find our way into the heart of the Congo, watch the doomed romance of Winston and Julia blossom for a while, marvel at how Lizzie does not see that Mr Darcy is perfect for her, and hope (even though we know it is a vain one) that Cathy and Heathcliff will get together.

How it’s done

So, what constructs of middle always work, and, more importantly, what ones never work? Let me first reiterate what I say in the One Basic Plot. Although the device of the double-reversal is fundamental to story-ness (it is the one basic plot), there are not seven, or seventy-seven or seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven approved plot structures which work, while the others don’t. Story can take an infinite number of directions. Particular genres may have a standard plot, but even in these genres, avant garde figures are at work to subvert them, developing the plots that everyone is going to copy in the next cohort.

However, that’s not what you got this far to want to hear. So, while I am adamant that you can’t just take a formula and apply it, there are some aspects of middleness which could help you out.

Just before we go on, let me say that when Aristotle says a beginning, a middle and an end, he does not mean that stories should be in three parts, and he is not recommending a three part structure. All that he means is that the beginning is the parts of the plot which do not follow from anything else in the story, and the end is the parts of the plot which have nothing following them in the story. The middle is what necessarily and logically proceeds from the beginning, and necessarily and logically causes the end. You can have any outlandish premise you want as the beginning, and you can finish the story in the most unsatisfactory state at the end, or both, provided that what happens at the end is the necessary result of the conditions of the beginning, and the route there is through the middle.

Option 1: A simple journey plot (not necessarily heroic)

It’s occasionally argued that all stories are either ‘going on a journey’ or ‘a stranger comes to stay’. It shouldn’t take you too long to come up with some counter-examples (The Midnight Folk, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, to name but a few), but it is true that these two particular premises have proved remarkably fruitful and have given rise to very many different kinds of stories.

If you’ve studied (heaven help you) plot theory, then you have probably learned about the Heroic Journey. My advice on that is: forget everything you learned about it. Put it out of your mind, and just think of a regular journey. Think of a journey that you have been on, which was worth retelling afterwards, and which people actually wanted to hear about.

I can guarantee it had one particular element that the dull stories of journeys which you never want to hear (and certainly don’t want to see the video of) don’t have.

Ok, so, your journey began by setting off. This is intrinsic to journeys.

Your journey finished (unless you are still travelling) by arriving somewhere. It may not be the place you intended, and it may be back home after abandoning all your plans, but if you’ve finished the journey, then there was a place where you were when you finished it.

So far, so dull.

The journeys that are worth hearing about are the ones where something went wrong in the middle.

Typically, for a journey, this involves a selection of the following:

  • There was a mishap, accident, or even an attack
  • You lost your bearings and got lost
  • You saw or experienced some things which were remarkable, and, even if you’d have preferred not to see them, were things worth relating which you wouldn’t have seen if you’d stuck to the ‘right’ route
  • At a particular point, travel fatigue made you almost lose hope of arrival, and you just wanted it to be over, even if it meant abandoning your destination
  • At another point, the fascination of what you did find made you (or one of your companions) lose sight of the ‘real’ purpose of the journey, even if, afterwards, you concluded that the detour was what made the journey special

Whether your journey is in the company of a real tiger, an imaginary tiger or a Tigger, entirely solitary, with two friends up a river, or alone across the desert, the combination of mishap, losing direction and finding something that was otherwise unfindable (for better or worse) will resonate with readers, will allow them to explore the wonderful world you have created, in the company of the wonderful characters you have given them, and gives the necessary space between things starting at the beginning, and immediately finishing with the climax.

Imagine how the Hobbit would have gone if Gandalf had a Portkey. He would have arrived at Bag End, bundled the dwarves and Bilbo to the Lonely Mountain, and all but the first and final chapters would be averted. It would have been George and the Dragon, but with a diminutive gang rather than a bloke on a horse: fine if we were looking for some more patron saints, but not much of a story. Without the journey up the Congo, Heart of Darkness would be no more than the tale of an unsatisfactory inspection. As it is, Bilbo finds a ring, and Marlow discovers that cannibals are more human than Kurtz.

For you, the hard-pressed aspiring NaNo-novelist, the most important thing about a journey is that it has distinct stages. You can literally plot it out, on a map, with times and dates. You can work out all the logistics of how the journey is supposed to go, and then work through all of the mishaps of how it actually goes.

Journeys give you a lot of scenery to describe, if describing scenery is part of the delight of your story, but they also strip the characters back to their fundamental resources. They cannot call round on their friends for assistance, dig things out of the lumber room, hide in the drawing room from unwanted guests, or even, often, seek the assistance of sympathetic police.

Definitive, by its title if by nothing else, in the journey-as-middle stories is Around the World In Eighty Days. The premise, a simple wager, is dealt with quickly enough. The climax, where Fogg accidentally wins the bet he thought he had lost through the intervention of the International Date Line, is highly memorable, but it is also only a few pages long. The bulk of the book is middle, and it gives Jules Verne ample opportunity to write about everything he likes to write about, and for the reader to marvel in it. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth are by no means as successful. Under the sea there is just more sea, and the journey to the centre of the earth is largely caves, with some imaginative embellishments.

So, if stuck for a middle which is more than just a muddle, option 1 is to separate the location of the beginning and the end by a journey. You can, of course, have the beginning and the end at the same place (this is what happens in The Alchemist), but there is a certain sense of futility in the journey if you do.

Option 2, though, may be more in your line if  you are focused primarily on character.

Option 2, a simple disruption plot

Pixar, or Disney, or one of them, I am told, tell stories that begin ‘for years everything went as it should, and then something happened which changed everything’.

This is a more general version of ‘a stranger comes to stay’. Essentially, it is a basic disruption plot. Everything was fine, but something changed.

Actually, you can have all kinds of disruption plots, some with no middle at all. Many short stories are disruptions with a blissful (or intolerable) situation which we can all picture sketched briefly in at the start, the disruption taking place immediately, and the story progressing swiftly to its climax.

However, a simple disruption plot lends itself very easily to a middle which is more than a muddle — though, be careful, because many of the British muddle-middles begin as disruption stories.

Think, for a moment, about a time your life was disrupted.

Some examples could be:

  • A new sibling, a new parent, or both
  • New school or new job
  • Coming into sudden wealth, or sudden poverty
  • Moving to a new neighbourhood or a different country
  • Starting a new project (dance classes, playing the bagpipes, restoring an old car)

As with the journey, many of these experiences don’t make for memorable stories. The ones that do tend to  be either unwelcome disruptions or disruptions where the implications seem at first benign, but become steadily more difficult as time goes on.

Probably the best known disruption story of Cinderella. It goes something like this: Cinderella, a Barbie-lookalike with an attractive disposition and a strong bond with her father, acquires a new step-mother and two non-Barbiesque step-sisters. Depending on which version you prefer, her father goes on a journey, dies, or just turns a blind eye, while the step-mother and step-sisters demote her to essentially serving girl in her own house. Unbeknownst to any of them, Cinderella has a fairy-godmother, who arranges for her to go Prince Charming’s ball. She amazes everyone, but flees to be home before midnight, leaving behind a glass slipper. The prince goes throughout the land trying to find someone who fits the slipper, until he finally finds Cinderella (her non-human Barbie proportions are the reason that no one else’s feet will fit it). They get married, and live happily ever after. Things do not turn out well for the step-mother and ugly sisters.

The simple disruption of the-girl-who-has-it-all suddenly not having it all works easily here. We can play out the implications of the step-females’ meanness more quickly or more slowly, or, as in Ella Enchanted, send our protagonist on a long and entirely unnecessary journey, or really do anything else we like. We need to be slightly careful about where we introduce the fairy godmother. She can be as powerful as we like if we introduce her early in the story, but she becomes progressively more like a deus ex machina if introduced too late, unless her powers are sharply curtailed.

The key to making the unwelcome implications of the disruption work is that Cinderella keeps hoping for the best, and doing her best. The storyteller can pile on the agony, as Cinderella persists in saying that things aren’t that bad, being nice to stray cats, and so on. Indeed, the greater the level of sympathy we can create for Cinderella, the more the readers, listeners or viewers are willing to accept her amazing good fortune at having i) a fairy godmother and ii) being the most beautiful maiden in the land.

For the hard-pressed writer, a simple disruption story can follow this plot:

  1. Everything went as it always had, until one day something changed
  2. At first the protagonist thought they could manage around this, and therefore not change their life
  3. The more they did this, the more the implications of the change disrupted things
  4. The protagonist reached the point of despair
  5. Something changes in the protagonist: either they embrace the new situation, or they resolve to fix matters
  6. Unexpected help from outside makes this possible
  7. After some wild ups and downs, the final result is not that what was is restored, but the new situation is even better

The audience resonates with point 2, because we have all done this. Change is part of life, but we frequently try to act as if it can be contained or ignored. The more we do this, the more inescapable it becomes, until we finally have to face it.

I suspect that Aristotle would have preferred the simple disruption plot to the simple journey plot. The journey is a physical device for separating the beginning and the end. Although the Shire probably can’t really be right next to the Lonely Mountain or to Mordor, because otherwise it wouldn’t be the carefree place that it is, there is nothing intrinsic in the plot that requires quite so many obstacles to be in the way. The disruption is more organic. It is only after a number of half-hearted or half-baked attempts to ignore it or skirt round it that the protagonist reaches the point of despair, and decides that something must be done. What that something is depends entirely on the nature of the disruption. What’s more, any amount of shenanigans, comic or otherwise, can take place both as the protagonist initially tries to ignore the disruption, and later as they do what they should have done right at the beginning.

Bonus: option 3 — the hero arrives

If neither the journey nor the disruption plot appeals, you might want something a bit more genre-related, in which case, ‘the hero arrives’ is a story line that has served many struggling writers.

The basis of ‘the hero arrives’ is that things have been going wrong for a while, and they have suddenly taken a turn for the worse. However, unlike the simple disruption, the story does not follow the self-help attempts of the people whose lives are being disrupted. Instead, an outsider arrives and sets about fixing things. However, in keeping with all post-classical heroic tradition, the hero is uniquely ill-equipped for the particular task at hand, either physically, mentally or emotionally. In retrospect, the monks/villagers/neighbours would have been much better off either living with the disruption, or paying off their oppressors—at least, this is how it seems mid-way through the story. By the end, things may have taken a different sheen.

To the struggling NaNoWriter, this can be a good way of getting away from the middle as muddle because, once again, the implications of the arrival of the hero can be worked through. Whether it is the Name of the  Rose, the Seven Samurai or Batteries Not Included, or, indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider, the arrival of the hero who either has a reputation or an enigma (but not usually both) is enough to provoke a response both from the people whose lives are being disrupted, and from their disruptors.

The plot can go something like this:

  1. Bad situation just got worse because of ultimatum from oppressors
  2. A hero arrives; he (or she) intimates they are just passing through
  3. The oppressed make pleas, or an offer, to the hero, which she (or he) turns down
  4. The oppressed decide to look for an alternative source of help
  5. The oppressors make threats and an offer, which the hero also ignores
  6. The oppressors attack the hero, as he now seems a threat to them, and are repulsed
  7. The oppressed recognise that this really is the hero they need
  8. The hero reluctantly agrees to help
  9. The hero’s inner weakness/fundamental flaw becomes apparent
  10. The oppressed see this, and decide they can no longer help the hero
  11. The hero stands alone (possibly aided by a plucky side-kick), having given his word to fight the oppressors
  12. At the last moment, enough of the oppressed rally round, and the oppressors are defeated
  13. Celebrations
  14. The hero leaves

Items 11 and 12 can do with some variations, as genre-savvy readers will see them coming at a distance. However, the basic shape of the middle rings true because that is exactly what we have all experienced when a stranger arrives, and everyone decides to make her (or him) their hero. First there is courting by one side, then by the other, then, generally inadvertently, one side pushes the hero into helping the other side. It is only then that we discover the hero is flawed, possibly in a way we are not willing to accept. Their popularity fades, but their heroic quality of keeping their promise shines. Eventually, enough of us are willing to rally round him (or her) to get the job done.

In plot terms, this cannot help but work: the points of tension, hopes, fears and double-reversals are built into it. However, it is much harder to write convincing characters this way (or, possibly, it is just as easy, but the plot itself is so easy that often we don’t bother). Often, this story will be told with the hero, the oppressors and the oppressed all as figures rather than characters. Their shadows loom much larger than their souls, to borrow a phrase. For this reason, although we are fairly certain that the character played by Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars is the same as the one in For a Few Dollars More, largely because the title of the second film implies it, it is altogether less clear that the more complex character of Il Bueno, Goldie, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the same person. He has the same laconic style, but we really don’t know enough about his personality from the first two films to be able to marry it up with the rather more developed personality of the third. Stories, be they written, stage, TV or film, about heroes do tend to deal with the figure of the hero, rather than the actual person.

Over to you

I am not recommending these three middles, merely illustrating them. Still, if you’re stuck to know what to do, any one of them will work. However, if you have a little more time, and are more intellectually adventurous, you can use the same technique which created them to do something more organic with your own premise and climax. All three of these work—time and again—because the middle as described genuinely is a logical consequence of the beginning, and the end of the middle. The technique of simply asking ‘what would naturally happen’ can be applied to any premise. At some point, there has to be an injection of character. Given situation A, what kind of character is going to give us the most interesting ride to the end. What would they naturally do? Why wouldn’t that work? What would they finally do? What would happen then?

It is this questioning of cause and effect which Aristotle believed was intrinsic to the best stories. Two and half millennia later, I have yet to find a theory which betters his.

Do great employers hire the most motivated staff? Not necessarily

It’s a common trope of business motivational writing that GREAT companies do GREAT things such as [produce your own list of what sounds GREAT]. When you then look for the evidence of these things, it turns out that not only is the evidence unavailable, but no one is actually gathering it.

One of the versions of this trope is ‘Great companies hire motivated staff’, which is also a version of ‘Four star people hire three star people. Five star people hire five star people’.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people for jobs, and sifted through more than a thousand closely written application forms. For one admin job, we received 158 applications. For a graphic design job, 97. I think it would be rather crass to suggest that the people we hired were five star, and the others some lesser category.

But what about motivation? Is this the key employee quality? Should we hire on that, and does it define us as an organisation whether we do or not?

I have to say I disagree.

Good companies may hire motivated people. Great companies motivate people whether they were motivated to begin with or not. There are lots of people out there who, for whatever reason, are currently lacking motivation. They may have been through depression, have been damaged by a previous re-organisation elsewhere, be going through bad personal circumstances, or for whatever other reason.

I had the privilege in two organisations within the NHS of being part of a team which lifted one organisation from bottom 5% for staff motivation to being the top #1, all within two years, and, in another organisation, for helping to lift staff motivation from bottom 10% to top 10% within 18 months.
Most people go through cycles of motivation during their careers, but a great organisation can make work meaningful and inspiring even when a person is at a low ebb. Great organisations are empowering communities, not merely successful cherry-pickers of motivated recruits.

The NHS is perhaps a little unusual. There really aren’t enough nurses to go around, which is why it recruits heavily among overseas staff (and would collapse if it couldn’t have them). There are perennial dire warnings about the demographics of GPs. What’s more, the relatively frequent reorganisations mean that staff and employers are often put together by TUPE who did not choose each other. Whether the staff you get are motivated or not may depend much more on the predecessor organisation than on your hiring skills.

Let me say here that, by comparison with averages for the private sector, the NHS scores very highly for staff motivation in its annual staff surveys (though, like most of the public sector, it also tends to have more staff sickness, which is often a corollary of low motivation). As my old boss used to point out, no one in the NHS comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. As an organisation dedicated to caring for people based on their need rather than their profitability, it should not really be a surprise that most people who work there do it because they think what they are doing is important.

Nonetheless, there are some quite significant variations from organisation to organisation, and also from type of organisation to type of organisation. Some kinds of work are intrinsically more draining than others. While most jobs involve periods of greater stress, the job of a paramedic, for example, is always about stress. In most instances, they are either attending a call in order to save a life, or attending a call which turns out to have been a waste of time — such as the occasion when a resident rang up to say she had a broken leg. When the paramedics arrived, the lightbulb on her staircase had gone and she wanted it changed. She argued that if it wasn’t, she could fall and would break her leg. It would be hard to imagine a more demotivating situation for the staff who attended.

The NHS is quite a good testing ground for theories about staff motivation. With 1.8 million employees in England, even quite small organisations (by NHS standards) can be employing thousands of staff. One of my observations is that very few management mantras (like the one about the five star people) can be applied in a blanket fashion. Another is that there is very rarely a single factor to point at (which is what management mantras generally attempt to do).

However, given that two of the organisations I had the privilege of serving with did manage to ‘move the needle’, I should perhaps offer a couple of thoughts about how some do manage to motivate previously demotivated staff.

Here are my observations:

  1. It is worth investing in how you treat your staff.
    I was myself at quite a low ebb when a new chief executive bobbed up in the organisation I was in. One of the first things he said to the senior team was that his previous organisation was in the top 10% for how it treated its staff, and he was going to do the same for us. At the time we were in the bottom 5%. I have to say I didn’t entirely believe it was going to be possible. Nonetheless, a year later we moved from being a borderline pass on the Improving Working Lives (IWL) standard to being just 1½ % off the theoretical maximum score in the enhanced standard, and (as we understood) the top organisation in the NHS. It was a year after that our staff satisfaction scores put us the number one in our comparator group.
    What’s really interesting is that he didn’t say ‘top 10% for staff motivation’ (which would have made it up to the staff) but ‘top 10% for how we treat our staff’, which made it our responsibility.  That was what the IWL standard measured as well.
  2. Build in many places…
    The IWL standard was interesting because it examined a range of things. If memory serves me right, there were 14 different areas, and each of these were broken down into sub-categories. A mammoth effort in one area would not have shifted the dial. As a title for a book “198 different aspects of how to create a better working life for your staff” is probably never going to be as big a seller as “The One Thing You Need for a Motivated Workforce”, but my experience in the NHS, in charities and in the private sector is that doing 198 things quite well creates a bigger change than doing one thing absurdly well and leaving the rest look after themselves.
  3. …and they will come, in time
    Staff motivation, as measured by staff surveys, in my experience, tends to lag, for better or for worse, about a year behind the things you do to influence it. Acknowledging the contribution of the Communications team that helped to facilitate it tends to lag two years behind. Staff engagement is never going to be a quick fix. After all, these are the people who know more about your organisation than anyone else, who have watched leaders come and go, who have seen many promises made and perhaps fewer fulfilled. If previously demotivated, they are the most cynical observers, if highly motivated, they are the most persistent champions.
  4. Ask them
    Our journey into comparative bliss began with a focus group day entitled ‘There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch’ which, as it happened, included lunch. What was important about it was that, based on our 14 areas, we asked a lot of questions, listened to a lot of discussion, and went away and implemented what we learned. This might seem obvious, but it shouldn’t be: many learning exercises in many organisations are conducted without any real impact on what is done. They are used to confirm plans already in motion, not to direct them. One of my actions was to go off and create an intranet based around how the organisation perceived itself. We called it The Street, because someone had said that the organisation was like a commercial High Street, where people were all working away in their own buildings, but had no idea what people were doing in the other buildings.
  5. Trust them
    The aforementioned intranet, The Street, had three components. One was a searchable shared drive (it was the 2000s) which contained all of our policies and other corporate documents, so people could get them whenever they wanted. It took the time to find something down from ten minutes to just a few seconds. One was micro-sites for each department, so they could tell each other what they were doing (each one was a ‘building’). The other was open forums.
    Subsequently, after everyone started to want to know about how we were making the progress we were making, we did conferences about intranets. It was always open forums that scared senior managers in other organisations. The underlying fear was ‘if we allow people to say anything they want, won’t they just complain?’ Given that we were coming from a very low level of staff motivation (compared with the rest of the NHS), that could particularly have been a problem for us. But it never was. There were three elements to this. First, a very simple policy. We told our colleagues that they could put anything they liked, as long as it wasn’t illegal, unprofessional or offensive. Nobody had to trawl through pages of policy documents to find out what they could do. Second, we guaranteed anonymity. Rather than linking their intranet user names to their Outlook logins, we let people sign up with whatever name they wanted, as long as it wasn’t impersonating another member of staff (which would be unprofessional) or was an offensive word. They could even have more than one login, if, for example, they wanted to say some things anonymously. You might imagine that this would be a greater incentive to complain, but it wasn’t. The third element was that the forums were humanised. The Chief Executive had a ‘café’ with his name on it, and he got involved in conversations that took place there, rather like a café owner might with his regulars. When people did have something they wanted to raise, they did it in much the same way that they would have done if he was in the room. Over the years that followed we explored all kinds of issues on the forums, as well as buying and selling lots of second hand goods (the Swap Shop was always the most popular) and telling many jokes (the Comedy Club was the second most popular). We were also able to do a car park consultation, which, for those who have never done one, is the most contentious staff issue in most NHS organisations. One of the responses literally brought a tear to my eye. Someone said ‘In the past I wouldn’t have thought anyone was listening, but now I know you are…’ and, later, in regard to an unresolved car parking issue from years before ‘I know that would never happen now’. In the four years The Street ran before I moved to a different organisation, we never had to go down a disciplinary route for things posted there. In just three or four cases we had to warn someone.
  6. Reward them
    Reward and recognition programmes may seem twee, but when an unsung hero goes to the front of a room with 300 people in it to receive an award from the Chair, and everyone applauds, it’s worth any amount of internal newsletters and motivational emails. It’s not about the value of the award, it’s about the fact that the organisation, without any cynicism or qualification, acknowledges people for what they put into it, irrespective of status or time served.
  7. Keep talking
    While communicating more is not itself the answer, open channels of communication are essential if an organisation is to be self-motivating. Many organisations are quite good at downwards communication, from management to staff, reasonably good at upwards communication, going the other way, and terrible at sideways communication, where staff who don’t work with each other share their thoughts with each other. Up-down, whether you have a traditional pyramid structure or a management-trendy inverted pyramid, is fundamentally hierarchical. There is a necessity to that, organisationally, but the ground swell of ‘we are all in this together’ comes when everyone feels they can talk to everyone. In another organisation the directors invited everyone to coffee on Tuesday mornings, and spent most of their time pouring the coffee. The point was not for staff to meet directors, nor even for directors to demonstrate servant leadership (itself essential to any genuine change in how an organisation sees itself) by pouring the coffee, but so that people could mingle, chat, joke and get to know each other.
    Hard-pressed communications teams should remember that everything should be ‘as human as possible’. When cross-organisational communication is discussed, many departments will immediately decide they want a newsletter, facilitated by the comms team. Most of these newsletters will only last a few issues, and more time will be spent creating them than is ever spent reading them. That’s not what I mean by sideways communication. Simply organising space so that people eat their lunch together, and creating opportunities for them to mingle will do far more than any number of newsletters might.

Well, those are seven observations. You might ask, is this just opinion, or is it evidence based? Actually, both. We evaluated projects rigorously over the years and got some very accurate numerical pictures of what was going on, and were able to correlate with changes in perception internally and externally. On the other hand, what you take a way from those kinds of evaluations is all a matter of opinion. These are my view. I welcome others.

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