writing

So, should we ban books?

BBC News – Why are parents banning school books?. US parents have been waging war on books they don’t want their teenage children to read, it emerges. This is partly a difference in the way the US operates — in a nation where even police chiefs are elected, it’s no surprise that a parental petition can put a book on the banned list — and partly in what US parents expect. Although we would deny it for ever, there is much more of a culture here of ‘school knows’ best, and much more a culture there of ‘parents know best’. If you’re inclined to deny this (and, seriously, who would want to admit it?) look at the proportions of home-schooled children in the two countries. Or, if you don’t have time to check the figures, just say the words “home schooled kids” and “home schooled children”. Which rolls off the tongue more easily? The American version.

I relocated a copy of Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children on Amazon the other day, and I’ve just been rereading it. I have to say that I do agree with a lot of what she says, particularly the difference between books for children, and books about children. During my teenage years I was introduced to a number of books at school which are considered by teachers to be ‘classics’ and — according to my conversations with teenagers since then — seem to be pretty much de rigeur for a proper education. Stan Barstow’s Joby, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Oliver Twist are all books which I hope I will never have to read again. They are all books about children, but not really for children. The really depressing thing is that I loved reading William Golding at university. The Spire, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin (which I think I’ve referred to elsewhere as Prester John — I’ll have to track that down and correct it, since Prester John is a book by John Buchan), and Darkness Visible are all dark but hugely enjoyable. I just don’t want to read Lord of the Flies again. Nothing about Joby, which, in the hindsight of a more educated adulthood appears to be a kind of Sons and Lovers for teenagers, would ever persuade me to read another Stan Barstow book. Ditto The Catcher in the Rye. Dickens I love, but would read almost anything by him in preference to Oliver Twist which is forever spoiled for me by having read it at school. I am fortunate that I was only exposed to passages from Great Expectations, and so was able to enjoy the entire book (which wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be like) when I was old enough to make sense of it.

On the other hand, The 39 Steps, Twelfth Night, the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and most of the other books written for adults which I read at school before I was sixteen have stayed with me. I knew I was entering an adult world when I read them, and was happy to read about adults doing adult things. Reading about children catapulted into a tawdry and unpleasant adult world — in other worlds, books about children deprived of their childhood — merely left me miserable.

This is all to the point because The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are both on the top ten list of books which American parents have tried to ban. As with most of these things, I feel the arguments for and against (at least the ones in the BBC article referenced above) rather miss the point. It’s not the sexual explicitness of The Catcher in the Rye which makes me never want to read it again, but rather the general miserableness.

According to Joan Aiken (op cit), children will typically read 600 books in childhood. Her salutary warning to any budding children’s author is that all 600 have probably already been written, so you need to have a pretty good reason for bringing another one into the world.

I don’t propose the banning of anything that isn’t actually illegal, and I wouldn’t support it if someone else proposed it. I was privy to some extraordinarily unsuitable books as a child, and I don’t think they particularly did me any harm. But books which are on the curriculum are quite different from books which are in the school library. On the curriculum, every child in the class has to struggle through it. I’ve read some appallingly negative Amazon reviews of A Wizard of Earthsea, one of my favourite books, by children who were forced to read it. I love that book, but I can see why being made to work through it would suck the life out of it for anyone.

If I were called in to give a view, I would suggest keeping two kinds of books off the curriculum. First, I would (along with American parents) exclude books which made extensive use of ‘bad language’. I accept the argument that children know all the words already. If they’re reading The Catcher in the Rye they may be surprised at the quaint terms of  ‘goddam’ etc, which no-one says now. But putting them in a book on the school curriculum robs them of their counter-culture value, and it also normalises and formalises the use of abusive language. I’m not suggesting that children shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye. But any thrill they might get out of reading a ‘rude’ book will be destroyed by reading it in class. It isn’t the book I object to (though I’m still not going to read it again) but the making official.

Secondly, I would pull all the books off the curriculum which are essentially about childhood being taken away from children, especially the ones written to improve humanity in some unspecified way. I know I sound like a Daily Telegraph reader in putting this, but those books made me miserable, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone else. Do I really need to know about the abuse poured out on Oliver Twist or David Copperfield? As literature, as a novel written for adults and read by adults, fine. The Catcher in the Rye rose to popularity not because of its teenage audience, but because of adults who loved its counter-culture evocation of teenage rebellion, and decided that teenagers ought to read it.

Children’s books from the very earliest age are filled with the world of moral choices. The broken promise, the lie that comes back to haunt, the misguided attempt to test someone’s loyalty are all tropes that every child comes to recognise from children’s television if not from books. The books I didn’t like removed any sense of moral choice, replacing it, if with anything, only with a sense of shame or confusion.

The pre-eminent example of this tendency is Lord of the Flies. Lord of the Flies, of course, is William Golding’s answer to the Victorian classic The Coral Island. In The Coral Island, the shipwrecked boys organise their own lives on Victorian principles, navigate by dead reckoning, and minister to dying pirates. Golding — as he explains in his book of essays The Hot Gates — reasoned that this is not really what would have happened. What would really have happened is, without the civilising effect of a social contract mediated by adults, teenage boys would immediately revert to a neo-pagan barbarism, brutalising the weak and establishing a tribal hierarchy where the chief holds the power of life or death over his enemies.

But is this really what would have happened? Thanks to twenty-four hour worldwide news, we now have many reports of children who have become isolated and had to fend for themselves. There are communities of street children in many cities, and there are places where the average age of population is around 15. I can’t claim to have made any kind of a study of the many articles I’ve read over the last ten years which relate in some way to groups of children forced — for a while, or longer — to fend for themselves, but I’ve never read an account of children reverting to savagery, whereas I have seen quite a few which are touching or even heroic.

I recommended to my nephew that he read The Coral Island to prepare for writing about Lord of the Flies. The funny thing is, he enjoyed The Coral Island much more. Lord of the Flies was perhaps important in the development of modernist thought, and it reflected the ideas of its age. But it does not reflect the ideas of our age, nor of anything which might objectively be described as ‘true’. And it suffers as a story from having a beginning and a middle, but more of a stop than an end. Running from the hunters, Ralph ends up on the beach where he encounters a naval officer from a rescuing ship. Suddenly the story is over. There is no reckoning up, no settling of scores, no resolution of tensions. Lord of the Flies may well be a great book (I would argue that it is — for adults), but it isn’t especially a well-constructed story.

Now that we have firmly left modernism behind, it is perhaps time to revalue the modernist canon of which books teenagers should be reading.

So that’ll be Harry Potter all round…

What is Romanticism?

Back in the old days, my tutorial partner and I were given a simple essay title: “Emily Brontë — romantic realist. Discuss”. My tutorial partner wrote an exemplary essay which explored (as far as I can remember) every aspect of Wuthering Heights. She has gone on to become the successful novelist Clare Chambers. I, on the other hand, flummoxed around for a week trying to find out what ‘romanticism’ was. I read several books on it, and, in the end, wrote an essay comparing Brontë to Keats, who was the only ‘romantic poet’ that I knew much about. Our tutor did his best to be kind about it, but it was fairly clear that I had neither grasped Romanticism, nor made any particular application of it to Wuthering Heights.

So, off and on, I have been thinking about ‘what is romanticism’ for the last twenty-five years. In the hope that it may save someone else twenty-five years thinking about it.

In considering Romanticism, I have been trying to draw the threads together of Brontë and Keats, since that is where I began, medieval verse romances, such as Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, the Romantic period in classical music, including Beethoven and Schubert and above all Wagner, the German philologists of the late 19th century, Marxism, Nazism, the play (and film) Cabaret, and the modern obsession with Vampires, which functions in a totally different way from the modern horror-trope of zombies and other undead. I want also to consider romantic views of science and history, and the connection all this has to ‘romance’, which from time to time is declared dead, only to rise again from the merely erotic.

If Wikipedia had existed when I wrote my original essay, I would probably have gone to the Wikipedia article on Romanticism. I would, I think, have been just as misled as I was by the half-dozen or so books on Romanticism that I read when preparing for it. 1 The Wikipedia position — at the time of writing, and it will no doubt evolve — is that Romanticism was a movement or an era which began in the second half of the 18th century.

I would have been misled by this because, to establish whether Brontë was a romantic, it would have only been necessary to place her in the history of ideas. But people are still writing romantic literature now — Mills and Boon continue to do a roaring trade — and many people consider themselves to be more or less ‘romantic’ without committing themselves to any particular movement of literature or art. More importantly, romanticism of the kind that exists now existed long before the Romantic Era, and draws its name from the medieval verse romances, of which the most famous was the Roman de la Rose. A movement in its own time, perhaps, romance transcends modern genres. There is romantic science-fiction, for example Dune or Rocannon’s World, and science-fiction which is absolutely not romantic, such as the original Foundation Trilogy. There are romantic detective novels, such as Murder Must Advertise, and anti-romantic detectives, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. We have romantic fantasy, of which Tolkien’s Silmarillion is as good an example as any, and, by the same author, the entirely unromantic Farmer Giles of Ham. Romantic Comedy is such a staple of summer and Christmas film releases that it has its own name: Rom-Com. There are romantic thrillers of which the James Bond series are probably the best known, and utterly unromantic, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, although alert readers might consider that The Honourable Schoolboy was a romantic thriller. But, going back, it would be hard to make the case that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was not in some sense romantic, and even more so for Romeo and Juliet, whereas Richard III clearly is not. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contain stories which are clearly romantic — the Franklin’s Tale, for example — whereas others, such as the Miller’s Tale, are clearly as far from romance as is possible to get.

I could explore exhaustively all the characteristics of all the things which are referred to as ‘romantic’ or ‘examples of romanticism’, but, again, I would still be misled. This kind of ‘literary criticism by numbers’, now substantially aided by the internet, does not get us very far.

Ultimately, ‘romantic’ and ‘romanticism’ are words which communicate more or less what we mean. But, no matter how much the literati and the art-historians would like to control the term, ‘romantic’ is a word in common use, and, well, we know it when we see it. Perhaps my biggest problem in writing the original essay was that I failed to take into account that our own intuitive sense of what the word means is more important than any screeds someone else has written about it.

But, in coming to terms with this, I would like to suggest that my other original instinct was perhaps not so far wrong, because it seems to me now, considering political, scientific, literary, historiographical, theological, philosophical, musical and art-historical forms of romanticism, that it was Keats who more or less nailed it in one:

[Referring to a Greek vase, in Ode on a Grecian urn]:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 2

It is the equation of truth and beauty — though we will need to look a little more closely at what is ‘beauty’ to unpack this — which is at the heart of romanticism, at the heart of what we call ‘romantic’, and at the heart of some of the catastrophically bad consequences of taking romanticism from the realm of art into the realm of politics.

The German Romantics considered their movement to be about ‘Sturm und Drang’ — Storm and Pressure. By this they (I believe) meant that their movement was about the things which excite the greatest emotions. You have only to listen to the music of Wagner, or, indeed, to Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata to hear composers attempting to create the maximum level of emotion through music. There are no ‘nice tunes’ in the Pathétique, but it is hard to listen to it without being sucked into its emotional tide. In this sense, not only Mahler, but also Stravinsky are romantic composers. Indeed, the first performance of Stravinsky’s Sacre de Printemps (The Rite of Spring) created so much Sturm und Drang that it caused a riot. This is by strong contrast with the impressionist, or we might perhaps say symbolist writing of Debussy in Chansons de Bilitis, a similarly pagan-inspired theme, but written laconically, like a dream, something which he takes further in the hauntingly disorientating Syrinx.

I would like to suggest that beauty of the kind Keats described is not only ‘Sturm und Drang’, but anything which creates a feeling of beauty in the unobserved observer. It is this mediation through the unobserved observer which is essential to romanticism. Life, as a general rule, is not beautiful in the sense the romantics would talk about it. Even when it is not cruel, apparently meaningless, trivial, boring or spiteful, it is simply not organised enough around what we would most like to see to make it ‘beautiful’. Once a day we get a sunrise and a sunset, and, because they organise everything into a world of different colours, strong, long shadows and the centrality of the sun at the horizon, we generally do regard them as beautiful. Online stock photography sites state in their guidelines that they are not interested in pictures of sunsets. Why not? Because almost everyone who has a camera has at some point tried to photograph one, and, generally speaking, these pictures look ‘nicer’ than the run of the mill disorganised shots which most photographers take.

In one of my other lives as a teacher of photography, the thing I most struggle with is helping people to choose the point of view, and subsequently the crop, which lends the most organisation to the picture, so that it moves from being ‘life-like’, which most photography is, to ‘beautiful’, which most photographs are not, even when they are pictures of things most people regard as beautiful (cats, flowers, sunsets).

An interest in beauty, though, is not unique to Romantics, any more than Sturm und Drang is. If anyone wants to see an entirely unromantic example of both Sturm and Drang, they need look no further than Hieronymous Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross. This extraordinary painting, which you might mistake as being the product of a modernist art movement, though it was made in 1490, has both storm and pressure in abundance, but no-one looking at it would consider it remotely ‘romantic’. Nor, perhaps, would the people who use the word in the way Keats used it consider it ‘beautiful’. It is, in a certain sense, a very beautiful painting. I used to live in Ghent and visited the museum of fine arts fairly frequently. T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is full of Sturm und Drang, but it is not remotely a romantic poem, and, again, it’s unlikely that Keats would have described it as beautiful.

The kind of beauty Keats was referring to is a scene which, by being depicted and framed, and thus making us the unobserved observer, is complete, organised, and speaks to the emotions in a way which gives a sense of infinity, as we say in photography. This is the ephemeral quality he is trying to grasp in Ode on a Grecian Urn, where, because they are static, the lover is never quite able to catch hold of his beloved, and therefore remains forever in an ecstasy of chase without capture. The original life behind the scene may not have been beautiful at all — it may have been sordid, or violent, or merely a deep disappointment. But once captured for ever and depicted, it becomes beauty.

Let me broaden this, lest I fall into the trap of talking about Keats at the expense of the rest of romanticism. Essentially, I am arguing that romanticism is what you get when the artist, in whatever medium, organises the internal reality of the work of art to coincide with that which is most beautiful (be it beautifully sad, tragically wasteful, joyous, exalting, or whatever other kind of beauty appeals). Some stories are implicitly very beautiful. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, which has been reworked many times in many centuries, is implicitly so, and it’s very hard to do anything to it which stops it being thus. There is no way of portraying Orpheus descending to the underworld to rewin his wife by the power of music, only to be thwarted because he fails in the prohibition to not look back, as something cynical, tawdry, sordid, commonplace or coincidental. Other stories, however, cannot be made romantic without making them mawkish, sentimental  or twee. It was Oscar Wilde, reflecting how tastes had changed in just  a few years, who said: “you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh” at the death of Little Nell in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl is another example, as is — though many readers will dislike this — the murder of Alec by Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy needs to have Tess put to death ‘by society’ in order to achieve the particular ordering of life which he is presenting, which forms the substance of the ‘beauty’ of the story, that a pure woman is persecuted by society and eventually put to death, through no real fault of her own. Aside from the murder and execution, Hardy’s account is fairly compelling. A beautiful but naive girl from a poor family is preyed on relentlessly by Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, and mistreated and insulted by those around her, either from jealousy or (in Hardy’s view) priggishness. It would be hard to believe that these things didn’t happen, and hard not to shed a tear for all of the girls misused in this way, and who then bore the consequences of them. But Hardy is looking for the ‘final-blow’, as Mahler might have put it, and this must be death, if his character is to be raised to the tragic heights of a Macbeth, a Hamlet, a King Lear or an Othello. Unfortunately, the British legal system of the time, with all its faults, did not allow for a woman to be executed simply because she was naive, had been seduced, or had had more than one lover. 3. The only crime for which Tess could be executed which would not also demean her with its pettiness would be murder, and Alec was, as the saying goes, asking for it. But the character of Tess which Hardy has taken many pains to present to us would have been entirely incapable of any such deed and, if she had done such a thing, would have gone through many crises of conscience afterwards. Hardy’s romanticism gets the better of him, and we have the casual triumph of ‘beauty’ over ‘truth’ which is the dark side of the romantic movement: when the truth is not beautiful, the truth is altered.

Romantic writing, when used for fiction, in the hands of a master writer, has produced some of the greatest literature in the world. Ultimately, for a novel to be satisfying, we want the threads tied together, we want the good to be victorious and the wicked punished, and we want other characters to know that the good character was good all along. We want love to be fulfilled, even if this is beyond the grave (Wuthering Heights, to return to where we began), and profound to displace the commonplace while Platonic concepts such as love, honour, heroism are shown to be written into the underlying laws of the universe. We want this all the more in fiction because we rarely see it in real life. This fits naturally in with what romanticism is about, though that is not to say that a-romantic writing cannot organise these things equally well, and to equal satisfaction.

In the hands of a lesser writer, we see the fingerprints of romanticism when characters go out of character for the sake of plot symmetry, when things which are possible but unlikely (to go against Aristotle’s famous dictum) happen to make the story work, and when symbols get confused with real objects, and the relationship between the two is left unclear.

In the hand of a poor writer, we either get so much sturm and drang that the pages become choked with it, or the story does become hackneyed, mawkish, sentimental or simply predictable.

If these things are kept only within the realms of literature, painting or music, then no harm is really done (though realism may well have been damaged).

However, the close of the German romantic movement really did result in a fatal confusion of what was beautiful and what was true. At the start of the stage musical Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood’s character Cliff Bradshaw is told by the border guards that he will find Germany a very beautiful place. The story goes on to point out the constant dichotomy between what is beautiful and what is real, right up to the point of Bradshaw’s departure, where the border guard asks him if he found Germany beautiful.

This is all very well as the musical of the play of the novel by a young homosexual man who experienced Nazi Germany first hand, but Isherwood’s instincts in describing the roots of Nazism are not simply a response to the way in which Nazis viewed unconventional sexual orientation. Hitler’s philosophy grew directly from his interest in Wagner, and from the writings of Nietzche, though this is not remotely to suggest that Nietzche would ever have approved of where Hitler took them. In desiring beauty, Hitler was drawn to the beauty of Teutonic mythology, and to developing his own myth of the beautiful Aryan. From there, it is a short step to the superiority of the Aryan over other races, and from there to the superiority of the beautiful Nordic-looking Aryan — tall, blonde-hair, blue-eyes — and a hatred for those factors which might corrupt it. Coupled with a romantic view of science, which enabled Hitler and his followers to imagine they could take enormous shortcuts in the evolutionary process, they were left with a mandate for eugenics and what would now be termed ethnic cleansing.

I am not remotely suggesting that Romanticism leads inevitably (or even frequently) to anti-Semitism, totalitarianism or any such thing. But the equation of beauty and truth — the world as organised by the shaping, unobserved observer versus the world as it actually is — leads us into a world of false steps if we take it from fiction into reality.

Let us return for a moment to Emily Brontë. Was she a romantic realist? Of course she was. The characters drawn in Wuthering Heights are extreme, violent,  dangerous, mad. But there is no essential improbability in their actions once you accept the premise that so many people of such passion and violence, or at least vindictiveness, should be inhabiting such a small part of the country. The realism is made more patent by the inclusion of the drab narrator Lockwood, and his fussy narrator the nurse, both distancing us from the extraordinary characters, and presenting two layers of unobserved observer, though even Lockwood is eventually dragged into the story, albeit in only a transitory fashion. The romanticism is obvious in the way that the entire tale and its characters are constructed to unleash a maximum of passion and have things taken all the way to their logical (from a plot point of view) conclusion.

But this gives us an important counter-example to the notion that romanticism and realism are opposites. True, much romantic literature is unrealistic, but much unromantic literature is also unrealistic.  Romanticism is really the opposite of the world-weary cynicism which we see in most of le Carré, Raymond Chandler, the early TS Eliot, William Golding and the author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Romanticism is one antidote to the claim that everything is meaningless. In Romanticism, the answer is that the world is shot through with meaning, and that meaning is linked to what stirs the emotions when observed. It is not the only antidote. The world can also be seen as shot through with ironic purpose, with spiritual purpose, with moral purpose, bound together by a social contract, or held together by immutable scientific laws. Romanticism is just one of the many meta-narratives — things which explain everything — which the post-modernists have been trying to escape from.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. I am not criticising Wikipedia here — to me, the encyclopedia which we make ourselves is one of the best things about the internet, part of my GWAFFTEY (Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, eBay and YouTube which defines the majority Web 2.0 experience). However, it is a summary of what has been written, not a place to find insight or understanding. It is this fatal misprision which has misled many students who, up against deadlines, believed they would find in Wikipedia what they failed to glean in proper research.
  2. Keats is quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds in this
  3. Dorothy L Sayers solves this problem rather better in Strong Poison, and perhaps Hardy would have been wise to pay more attention to the then brand-new writings of Arthur Conan Doyle on a certain Mr Sherlock Holmes
Beyond GWAFFTEY — GWAFFITEY?

Beyond GWAFFTEY — GWAFFITEY?

Web surfing in Armenia

A teenager surfs the net in Stepanavan, Armenia

The popularity of yesterday’s article GWAFFTEY — is Web 2.0 now just eight things? took me slightly by surprise. Within 12 hours Google was listing 220 links to it. My contention was that just eight brand concepts — Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, FaceBook, Flickr, Twitter, eBay and YouTube occupied the majority of people’s idea about what online life was like in the Web 2.0 world. They are all massively different — strongly differentiated from each other, and each at the top of their categories, which is why they also occupy the top spot for each of their categories in the Alexa rankings. But they are all to some extent attempts to regulate the internet, bringing their own set of rules to bear on what you can do, or how you should do it, or how it will be ranked and appear to others.

Of course, I missed (because it isn’t in the Alexa rankings, and was therefore not quite in my original remit) the ultimate walled garden internet presence — iTunes. Mind you, iTunes is not  Web 2.0, because, strictly speaking (though it depends how you want to define it), iTunes is of the Internet but not of the Web. But add iTunes into the mix and we have GWAFFITEY — easier to pronounce, and probably more memorable. GWAFFITEY also makes a link with an off-line world concept which explains much of the popularity of the rankings game which is played avidly in one way or another on all of the sites I’m talking about.

  • Google — it’s all about getting high on the rankings. Much money changes hands in both black hat and white hat Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Being at the top isn’t just a game; it can be the life or death of your business.
  • Wikipedia — writing text which stays put and doesn’t get deleted or altered by the next person is a real passion for some people. Occasionally (although it shouldn’t), edit-wars erupt, with two people repeatedly editing and re-editing the same text, unwilling to allow someone else to have the last word.
  • Amazon — for user generated content on Amazon, high rankings are coveted, strongly defended, and, occasionally, sufficiently important for some people to cheat for.
  • FaceBook — perhaps the clearest proof that “everything which is counted becomes for some a competition” 1. Just listing the number of friends is enough to get some people trying to beat other people.
  • Flickr — not to everyone, but the photo ratings and rankings are important to some. The comments can be quite brutal, as well.
  • iTunes — some App writers have already been chucked off iTunes for allegedly manipulating their position on the rankings. This is understandable (though inexcusable — there is a difference) for paid apps where people are making money, but competition appears just as fierce for unpaid apps, which is why, very early on, Apple stopped allowing you to view all the latest apps in chronological order, to prevent people gaining more coverage by simply resubmitting their app frequently with minor changes.
  • eBay — high seller ratings are coveted because they assist sales, but buyers can also be jealously protective of their buyer ranking
  • YouTube — popularity is intensely important, not merely as personal satisfaction, but to breed more popularity.

In all these things, people are staking their claim to a particular coveted area of the net. Which, I am told by criminologists, is exactly what graffiti artists are doing in the off-line world. I used to live in an area of East Birmingham, UK, which was high in anti-social behaviour. Something you learned very early on was that if graffiti appeared, you needed to deal with it quickly. If not, more would follow, swiftly. The reason was that (apparently) graffiti artists really do see their work as something worthwhile, and they want it to remain. Places where graffiti is cleaned up are not popular, because the graffiti is impermanent. This is also one reason why some graffiterati paint in unfeasibly awkward places, not because they are channelling Michelangelo and imagine they are doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but because the chances of their work being removed by owners and authorities, or altered or covered up by other graffiterati is limited.

In other words, GWAFFITEY sites allow web users to mark out a tiny corner of territory on the web. You can do this on your own website or blog, of course, but the vast majority of sites get very few hits. This is why sites like Tripod and AngelFire, once ubiquitous across the web for their cheap and cheerful personal web-spaces have all but disappeared (once independent competitors, they are both now part of Lycos). After all, what’s the point of marking out a piece of territory that nobody else will ever see?

By contrast, if you have a FaceBook page and 100 friends, chances are that you will get vastly more exposure through them than if you ran your own site. If you write an Amazon review on a popular item, and it manages to survive the predations of the NVTs [ 2. Negative Vote Truncheon — a term in vogue with the Amazon.co.uk Vine community ], then you may well end up with tens of thousands of people reading it. Make a contribution to Wikipedia on a popular subject and — if it sticks, which most doesn’t — millions of people will look at it. Write a hit App, and millions may be carrying a piece of your intellect around in their pockets for years.

In a world of ever increasing personal insignificance, GWAFFITEY allow those who wish it to find as much as they want of their fifteen minutes of fame.

Suddenly, the comparative popularity of these sites against the specialist communities, the commercial content providers and the home-designed (non-blog) websites becomes easy to understand.

Show 1 footnote

  1. I just made that up, but it sounded good so I’ve put it in inverted commas

In 2010, demand better

British democracy has three problems. The vast majority of votes make no difference to who forms the government. The system persuades governments to go for short term wins at long term cost. Many politicians believe, or have believed, that you can get away with it.

Actually, we don’t have to have any of these things, and in 2010, we are in a position to demand better.

MPs are only beginning to get the message that they can no longer get away with it in the way they once did. Even that really only applies to expenses. I discovered recently that one MP was writing to newspapers to praise himself for not having to repay expenses, while at the same time making a profit of £1 million on a second home whose mortgage had been paid by the taxpayer. Clearly, he still believes he can get away with the second part, as long as he isn’t stained by the first. Some MPs appear to believe that they can conceal their background of privilege. Others appear to believe that past criminal behaviour will never come to haunt them. Many seem to think that a safe-seat means the electorate will never hold them to account for any of it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we should. Letters to the MP. Letters to the local newspaper. Reminding ourselves and our friends that we don’t have to put up with it. Changing the way we vote.

The bi-polar parliamentary system ensures there is little continuity from election to election. Even a party winning a second term can abandon the promises of its first term on the grounds that it has sought a new mandate for a new manifesto. More importantly, although it will probably be blamed for things which it does which later turn out poorly, it can almost guarantee not to be blamed for things which it doesn’t do. We are only in the situation regarding climate change now because successive governments did nothing. In the 1980s, instead of using North Sea oil money to build an infrastructure which no longer relied on fossil fuels, we spent the money getting ourselves out of recession and back into boom-and-bust. True, at the time we were mainly worried about when the oil ran out, and to a lesser extent about pollution. But both of those, if acted upon, would have been enough to help us stave off the catastrophe our grandchildren will now face. We don’t have to have two big parties which hate each other and use every opportunity to ridicule each other and scupper one another’s plans. Of course, any attempt to change this is met with the argument “this is how things have to work”. But they don’t. Other countries, not just the ones we tell jokes about, have multi-party systems, and parties and politicians are held responsible over the course of several parliaments.

In 2010, we can insist on grown-up politics. We can demand that our elected leaders work together for the common good. We do not have to tolerate bickering in the House of Commons. Once again, it will only change if we make sure our politicians know that it is what we expect and demand.

We now face the prospect of a General Election whose result may well be decided by ten or so swing seats up and down the country. No party is predicted to get anywhere near 50% of the vote. But one party or another may well discover it can form a government based on how many of those swing seats go which way. Those ten seats have, between them, less than a million voters. Turnout is likely to be around 70%. The winner in each of those seats will probably be winning with 35-45 per cent of the votes cast. The actual majority is liable to be 3-5 per cent in each of those seats. Which means that the fate of 61 million people may be settled by the swing votes of less than 100,000 people. In other words, less than 2% of the voters will decide the fate of all of us.

We all laughed at the way George W Bush won his first term despite the fact that most people voted for his opponent. But our system is more laughable than that.

We almost certainly do have to put up with this in 2010. We do not have to put up with afterwards. Again, change will only happen if we make it clear that this is what we want, and we are prepared to change our votes to get it.

In 2010, we can demand better. And we owe it to ourselves to do so.

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