Wednesday, December 26, 2018

My Log 675 Dec 26 2018: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 111; What used to take me four days, now takes me six weeks: the long haul through Bleak House, enlivened all the way by the author’s brilliant word caricatures

I must have begun to read Charles  Dickens’s monumental 880-page novel, Bleak House, about six weeks ago. Normally the only book- reading I do is in bed, before or after sleeping. So it does take some time to plow through a huge book. What takes me six weeks nowadays once took me four days: but that was in the first gush of youth,  undertaking my brief and only post-secondary studies, when I was able to whip through War and Peace in double-quick time. At the time I was told by a notable literary critic who was my tutor for six months, that this was Dickens’s greatest novel, and I have since found other critics agreed. But myself I rather doubt that.
For one thing, I was never too clear until well on through the book exactly what the plot was: of course, it starts in the first paragraph with an unfavourable description of London with its terrible fogs and dampness and many horrible 19th century streets, and by the third page the court case known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce makes its appearance, with a strong intimation that it contains all that is worst in English law, that it is little more than a scam designed to rob innocent people of their money, and that no one can be expected to make any sense out of it.
In the following pages, Dickens describes his immense catalogue of characters, more than 60 of them by any count, and each of them delineated by some overwhelming characteristic that whenever they appear is repeated so that they become memorable. Unfortunately it was never made entirely clear, at least to me, just why the major characters around whom the novel flows, Esther Summerson, Richard Carstone, and Ada Clare, three orphans, who might generously be described as upper middle class little twits, were the subject of this suit, involving their guardian John Jarndyce, who has since been described by Vladimir Nabokov as “one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel.” From my curmudgeonly viewpoint, crouched in the corner, Mr. Jarndyce, as with many of Dickens’s characters, seems far too good to be true, even though he comes out in the end as having been entirely true to every noble thought and action known to human beings.
Dickens wrote and published the book in serial form over19 months between March 1852 and September 1853,  with about three chapters per month. He must of necessity have felt the need to continue entrancing his readers, so each chapter must surely have contained at least one of his memorable caricatures. And it is this huge novelistic energy at the novelist’s command that has always, in my eyes, differentiated Dickens from every other writer who has ever lived.
Anyway, rather than weary readers with details of the somewhat convoluted plot, I thought I would mention a few of these caricatures. Having captured something essential to their characters and outlook with a single phrase or idea,  the novelist never relaxes that hold over them. Mrs Pardiggle, for example, introduced early in the book as a woman obsessed with doing good works for the poor, is always portrayed in that way to the very last pages,  handing over their allowances to her five children, and immediately insisting they donate the greater part to charities, like “Alfred, my youngest (five) who has voluntarily enrolled in the the Infant Bonds of Joy,” while Alfred, clearly dissatisfied with this disposition of his allowance, scowls unremittingly in the background.  Mrs Jellyby, a woman so obsessed with the conditions among the Boorioboola-gha tribe in distant Africa, that she has failed to notice the dire condition of her many children, who are filthy from head to toe, resumes:  ”It is gratifying…. It involves the devotion of all my energies…and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that you never turned your thought to Africa….the finest climate in the world.”
“Indeed, ma’am?”
“Certainly. With precaution. You may go into Holborn, without precaution and be run over. You may go into Holborn, with precaution, and never be run over.  Just so with Africa….If you would like,” said Mrs, Jellyby, putting a number of papers forward, “to look over some remarks on that head and on the general subject, (which have been extensively circulated) while I finish a letter  I am  now dictating…”
It has been claimed in recent years that many of these caricatures are based on real-live people whom Dickens did not especially admire. The writer Leigh Hunt is one, mercilessly made fun of in the character of Mr. Skimpole, a man insisting always on being recognized for his childlike characteristics, and his total unfamiliarity with money, which he never has any of, but nevertheless manages to spend a good deal of other people’s after they have taken pity on him and given him what they can afford.
Others, while retaining that element of exaggeration which is a mark of Dickens in full flight, are quite touching, brilliantly delineated, and so memorable --- for example, the teenage boy Jo, malnourished, neglected, convinced he knows nothing and will never amount to anything, and yet a youngster with evident smarts that should have served him well if only just one person had ever taken an interest in him. Several theatrical performances have in recent years been built around this character and his pathetic condition.
“….he sees a ragged figure coming cautiously along, crouching close to the soiled walls --- which the wretchedest figure might as well avoid --- and furtively thrusting a hand before it.  It is the figure of a youth, whose face is hollow, and whose eyes have an emaciated glare. He is so intent on getting along unseen that even the apparition of a stranger in whole garments does not tempt him to look back. He shades his face with his ragged elbow as he passses on the other side of the wall, and goes shrinking and creeping on wirh his anxious hand before him and his shapeless clothes hanging in shreds. Clothes made for what purpose, or of what material, it would be impossible to say. They look, in colour and in substance,  like a bundle of rank leaves of swampy growth, that rotted long ago.”
This is a boy, surely meant to represent many of the dirt-poor, who has known only one thing as he has hung around in a slum known as Tom’s-All-Alone, trying to earn a few pennies as a street sweeper but always enjoined by police and busy-bodies in general, to move on, to move right along.  Eventually, this unfortunate creature, who never hurt a fly in his life, simply gives it all up and dies on the street.
There is no doubt who are the villains in Dickens’s world: they are the lawyers, from the most powerful like the scheming snd heartless Mr Tulkinghorn, who has so successfully ground money out of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that when it is finally settled, the fortune expected by his young victims has already been spent in fees, and who, in the book’s major plot, eventually got his in the form of a deadly bullet; and Mr Vholes, who has squeezed every sign of life out of the aforementioned Richard Carstone, one of his clients, so that he, too, before the last word is written, dies of total inanition.  And the aspiring lawyer Mr.  Snagsby, so full of himself that, although having been rejected as  suitor by Miss Summerson on his first application, nonetheless appears after passing all his exams, to renew his application, only to be rejected again with contumely.
It is the middle-ranking persons in the English class system who seem to have appealed most to Mr Dickens, and they appear in this novel in the form of Mr. George, a sturdy soldier home from the wars, who is wrongly suspected of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s murder, and who foregoes the invitation to join his long-lost brother in his prosperous business, in favour of pursuing his family’s destiny by becoming the strong right arm of Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, (as he is always described by the shrewd detective, Mr Bucket  --- said to have been the first detective ever to have appeared in a work of fiction). Sir Leicester is a pompous ass, kept in a sort of diminished power by the sheer force of tradition, and his continuing hold over his tenants;  and it is his wife, the beautiful Lady Honoria, wrapped in her haughty sense of superiority, around whom the greatest plot contrivances revolve: she is revealed to have been shamed by a pre-marital affair, the issue from which is the one of the major female characters in the story. My Lady  dies from shame at the prospect of her indiscretions being revealed to her husband.
Ah, well, I have fead once more, and found it, like all of Dickens’s work, full of interest and pleasures, and what I find to be the enthralling vitality of this great writer. No wonder I have always  loved Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, to name only four that I could re-read with even more pleasure.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

My Log 674 Dec 23 2018: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 110; 30 years since Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent; a book that, to my surprise, confirmed all the doubts I always had about journalism

It is 30 years since I reviewed for the magazine Canadian Forum a new book on the media that in the intervening years has turned out to be the most influential book ever written on the subject. The book was Manufacturing Consent, co-written by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, and it almost completely demolished most of the myths by which most journalists lived, and still do.
I am indebted to Richard Gizbert, the experienced Canadian journalist, graduate from Algonquin College in Ottawa, who runs Al Jazeera’s programme The Listening Post, a weekly critique of  media around the world, for drawing attention to this anniversary of Chomsky’s ground-breaking work. He whistled up Chomsky from Tucson, Arizona, where he presumably now lives, for an interesting reminiscence covering the present work of the media, and its behaviour.
Gizbert says that every journalist working on his programme has been influenced by the book, which doesn’t really surprise me. But I have to say--- blowing my own horn a little ---  that when, in 1988 I read the book, nothing in it surprised me, except that I was reading  from such an authoritative source and with such overpowering factual backing, confirmation of opinions I had held about the press almost ever since I got my first job as a journalist in 1945. It was my clear-sightedness about the nature of the press as the propaganda arm of the capitalist economic structure that caused me to quit every job I ever had in three newspapers in New Zealand, one in Australia, one in England, and three in Canada. Given my political views, picked up as I grew to maturity under a Labour government, it was obvious I could never have what one might call a career in journalism, or at least not in any one position on any given newspaper. I had observed that no matter the country, the bare fact that newspapers are always owned by wealthy people, and serve their class interests, means that the same characteristics are to be found everywhere.
This scepticism led me to be always somewhat negative to professions of journalistic faith such as are enunciated from time to time by journalists’ organizations, and even more so in relation to publishers. Before interviewing Chomsky, Gizbert produced an animation showing that  the first  problem with Western media is that it is controlled by major corporations, susceptible to pressure from advertisers, and open to manipulation  by governments, business conglomerates and other major forces, who, collectively, impact on the practise of journalism by enforcing an establishment consensus against which only the occasional nonconforming practitioner can hold out. Gizberg said  that when the book was written some 50 corporations controlled the media in the United States, a number that has shrunk to six in the present day.
The only way out of this for journalists, as I can testify from my own experience, is either to practise  self-censorship of varying degrees, or to quit (both of which stratagems I used at varying times). Gizbert quoted what he said is a well-known passage in which on one occasion Chomsky was asked by a BBC journalist “how can you know I am self-censoring?” Chomsky’s reply was straight to the point:  "I'm not saying you're self- censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting." This is so obvious, yet it is a truth that many journalists of my acquaintance over the years have steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Let’s face it, only the guys (and women) who believe in the prevailing political consensus ever get to the top jobs.
Chomsky told Gizbert that the title for his book originated with Walter Lippman,  who he described as the leading public intellectual of the twentieth century, who said that a new art in democracy was manufacturing consent, so that the ignorant and meddlesome outsiders (“his phrase”, commented Chomsky), the population, will be passive and acquiescent and will accept the rule of the responsible men, people like us. “Within a framework that determines what to discuss, what not to discuss,” commented Chomsky,  “if you look at the structure of the media over the years, it is performing very much as one would expect.”
Gizbert used a phrase from the book that encapsulates for me what I have always believed instinctively about the press in which I worked, a quote that spoke of   it as a “propaganda model…that traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.”
It has aways impressed me that the reliance on advertising in itself  has provided almost non-stop propaganda for capitalism, even squeezed in between and sometimes right into programmes otherwise designed for the public interest. (That explains why, when my children were quite small, I would line them up while the ads were showing on TV and we would all  shout, "Lies, lies, lies!" They have grown up to be quite sceptical).
In my relatively enfeebled present condition, unable to walk more than a couple of blocks, I have taken to watching a lot of television, recording many programmes for later viewing, and switching almost compulsively between a variety of outlets, such as the CBC, the BBC, AlJazeera, and RT, while taking in every day the news published by The Guardian, The Washington Post and the few other newspapers that have managed to survive without having to charge for their web sites.
Their political programmes, when carefully watched, have this common thread, that each of them seems to be animated by a prevailing consensus beyond which they very seldom step.  That is as true of the BBC, so widely admired an institution, as any other, as recent coverage of the Brexit fiasco indicates.Their reporter Stephen Sacker, who runs in Hardtalk a programme purporting to put tough questions to everybody, is sometimes driven almost to hysteria when he is called on to defend the prevailing British (and Western) political consensus against interviewees who argue for other values. Certainly the guests chosen to comment every day on Canadian politics by the CBC represent a very narrow consensus of political outlook: each programme nowadays has its own “power panel”, as they call them, made up of rightward-thinking people who leave no doubt as to the acceptable orientation of our national institution.
With the rise of  what is now called “fake news”,   and the alarums raised by it among responsible commentators, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the need for facts, as if facts, (I quote here the late, great Irish journalist Claud Cockburn)  were lying “about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days, waiting to be picked up by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market.”
He added, something I wholeheartedly agree with: “Such a view is evidently and dangerously naïve. There are no such facts. Or if there are they are meaningless and entirely ineffective; they might as well not be lying about at all, until the prospector --- the journalist --- puts them into relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel.”
What I have always complained about is not that journalists are restricted from expressing their views: it is simply that the vast majority of those views are carefully chosen by their employers to support their economic and profit-making purposes. Those who choose not to go along with this usually hidden process, are, in the end, simply pushed out.

Friday, December 21, 2018

MyLog 673 Dec 21 2018: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 109; A curmudgeon I may be, a grinch, not so much: reflections on having Christmas in midsummer

I lay a-bed this forenoon, anxiously trying to think of something to write about. At first I had the impulse to begin a piece with the sentence “I absolutely abhor Christmas,” but it required only the forethought of a moment to reject the idea, even though it may be true.  For it would broadcast forth an incorrect impression of my character. Not merely that of a grumpy curmudgeon sitting in my chair glowering out at the world, to which characterization I gladly assent. But rather that of a grinch, a miserly harridan taking pleasure in nought, to which I do not confess nor agree in any particular.
Although it comes hard upon me to describe anything good about
Christmas, perhaps I would be better employed trying to remember the sunny, laughing days when, as a child and youth the season fell in the middle of summer, flanked on both sides by a December free of schooling, and a January basking in the warmth of persistent sunshine, with no overhang of the threatening classroom until the beginning of February. Oh, yes, those were the days.
No doubt someone was preparing the great summer feast of roast lamb, but as that was going on in the kitchen, I was usually on the courts playing tennis with my young friends, mesmerized even at so early an age by the short shorts and lissome legs of the girls. We were allowed to use the courts free of charge, even to wander through the golf links, hitting the ball along, from tee to tee, hole to hole, taking our time so long as we didn’t get in anyone’s way. And that is where I developed my feeling that has remained with me to this day, that it is wrong to have to pay for exercise.
Clearly the open spaces were our oyster.  We roamed from public park, to football field, to cricket ground, to tennis court, wielding the necessary limited equipment --- ball to kick around, bat and ball to hit out with, racquet to supplement the net and paved court for a game of tennis, the courts always lying there, constantly available, just waiting for us to turn up. Little enough equipment that every kid could afford, leaving few of us with residual doubts that maybe some of us might be deprived by our parents not being able to afford even a second-rate racquet. Hardly any of us had our own cricket bat. They were provided by the school, or the team,  and we didn’t really have them available often during the holidays.  So it was off to the courts for enjoyment, pure pleasure, on those long summer days when it was still light at 9.30 or even later.
From the age of 1l to 17 I was in school while the war raged around the world.  My four older brothers were called into the armed forces, and two of them served abroad, in Italy, Egypt, the Pacific, while all I did was run and jump, hit balls back and forth, race around the track, and find excuses not to fulfil the obligations on schoolchilden to do improving work for the war effort in our holidays --- thinning turnips  on the farms was the favourite occupation at the time.  I used the excuse that my family’s construction business was regarded as an essential occupation to pretend to be working there, and I actually did one morning of work washing windows on a newly-erected school. One of my brothers stayed at home to keep the essential business working. He was disgusted by my interest in sports to the apparent exclusion of almost everything else, decided I would never be able to keep a job, and until he joined me in the 1960s in London, was never convinced that I actually worked for a living. When I left the country in 1950, he told his sons, “His ink will run dry eventually, and then he’ll bloody well starve.” He was a remarkable fellow who could do anything superbly well that he took an interest in --- he could build his own house, make beautiful tables with tiny pieces of inlaid native woods, could catch the limit bag of fish every weekend, make the garden sprout vegetables like never before, he had a golden touch  --- but these were all merely peripheral interests. His obsessive interest was in his business. For him, the rest of the world was conspiring against his business, that was his mindset. He died young, worn to death by his business.
My eldest brother was enlisted  in the Air Force, but was too old--- and had too many children, eight of them, eventually ---  to be sent abroad, and the other two, on varying assignments in Egypt, successively fell for a beautiful Egyptian girl, Greek in origin I believe, whose family was one of those who entertained the troops on their furloughs in Cairo, an adventure that set my young heart aflame.
Sorry, somehow or other I have been deflected on to my family, which one of my sons keeps telling me should be the subject of a great novel, but these few words are about all I want to write about them.
I was born in the tiny farming village of Wyndham, where I lived until I was seven,  when we moved to the nearby city of Invercargill, which prided itself, accurately, on being “the southernmost city in the British Empire.” I was frequently sent back to Wyndham to my aunt for holidays, where I used to pretend to go rabbit-hunting, since rabbits were a plague whose lack of predators meant that they were capable of laying the countryside to waste. Of course I never caught a single rabbit, but the farming village lay between three small rivers, and had a huge recreational area set aside, so it was a great place for a kid to explore. For one holiday I was sent to another cousin who had a farm on the south coast, and there, a cousin of my own age introduced me to the wonders of masturbation, and he made some suggestive remarks to the farmer’s daughter and her boy friend, and I was sent home in disgrace, without ever knowing what I had done that was so wrong. I didn’t meet that farmer again until more than 60 years later, when he asked me if I was still a Communist.
But there you go, a kid cheerfully growing up while running and jumping ceaselessly, what did such a kid know about real life? Very little, I can assure you.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

My Log 672 Dec 6 2018: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 108; Like Horatius at the bridge, Ms. May, gripped by an heroic, blind courage, valiantly defends the survival of her nation; but others desperately wish for some other outcome

I have found it quite impossible not to be continually absorbed by the   British argument over leaving the European Union.
An elderly French-Canadian man who sits every morning in the coffee shop I frequent in Montreal has been convinced from the start that the British will find a way to finagle their way through to a successful conclusion.  “The English are very skilled at that kind of thing, you know,” he told me on Friday,  “…keeping at it, obscuring the issue, until somehow they sneak through to a solution.”
I am not so sure he is right on this one. Theresa May has been doggedly sticking at it with a stubbornness that has begun to seem almost fanatical, insisting that only she is serving the national interest with the “only” deal available from the Europeans, a deal that unfortunately is unacceptable to the majority of British members of Parliament. She spent Friday touring the capitals of Europe seeking “clarifications” to the confusing issue of the “backstop” on the Northern Irish border, clarifications which were not forthcoming.  However, back home, she refused to give in, insisting that clarifications were still possible, and she would return for another round of rebuffs (alhough she didn’t describe it exactly in those terms).
She seemed to be appealing to every English schoolboy to remember the story of Horatius at the bridge:
… the Consul’s brow was sad,
  And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
  And darkly at the foe;
“Their van will be upon us
  Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
  What hope to save the town?”

Then out spake brave Horatius,
  The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
  Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
  Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
  And the temples of his gods.

Before her weekend trip to save the bridge, as it were, the chairpersons of six select Parliamentary committees issued a statement warning that the “long-drawn-out arguments over Brexit, and delays in reaching an agreement on our future relationship with the EU, are having a serious detrimental effect on the conduct of wider domestic policy.”
In fact, important issues to do with a new ten-year plan for the health service, and a long awaited green paper dealing with social care, have simply been forgotten, and appeals to the Prime Minister that she pay attention to them have elicited no response.
According to an article in The Guardian on Saturday, one of the  many former Tory ministers (four or five of whom, and a passle of junior office-holders  have recently resigned from the government, unable any longer to support Ms. May’s deal), was quoted as saying:  “It is hopeless, brick wall after brick wall…. My worry is not just about the deal and the fact that she won’t get it through and the EU won’t change it. It is about the country and the economy. We can’t do anything because she just insists on pushing on with something parliament will never agree to, so everything else we should be doing doesn’t happen. The country is being deprived of a decent government.”
The Labour party would dearly love to vote her out of office by a no-confidence vote, but the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, which provides Ms. May’s slender majority, has said that while it will vote against the deal, it would support her in a no-confidence motion, so Labour simply would not have the votes to win, unless some Tory MPs joined them in protest, an event that seems  entirely unlikely. In addition to which Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has been lukewarm to the European connection all his political life.
John Crace, a Guardian reporter who makes fun of most politicians, wrote last week:
‘Let me be very nebulous.’ If only Theresa May could manage that then the UK might be in with a shout of surviving Brexit. Just a hint of a hint of certainty amid an ocean of vagueness might offer the faintest glimmer of hope. But all the prime minister can run to now is complete and utter despair. She has finally reached peak futility. Truly she is a leader for our times.
He says it can’t go on like this for much longer.
She is now experiencing a total systems overload… and  more and more resembles the lone, almost silent hero of a spaghetti western, armed only with a water pistol. We all know it will end in a slow-motion finale…. And what makes it even more weird is that everyone will be rooting for her. It’s a bewildering irony that the entire country can empathize with a leader whose most striking feature is her lack of empathy.
Some of the incidents reported by the eagle-eyed reporters are highly comic. For example, after Ms. May had pleaded with her caucus for support, her Attorney-general Geoffrey Cox 
strode out of the room and said over and over again in his booming voice that it had been a ‘strong prime ministerial performance, a strong prime ministerial performance’. He kept saying it all the way down the long committee corridor until he turned a corner and went out of earshot.
Meantime, those who insist on taking it seriously appear to be losing their sense of being in a TV reality show, and according to one report
in the Commons tea room a huge row broke out between Remainer Anna Soubry and Brexiter Boris Johnson that onlookers described as one of the most ferocious they had ever witnessed. ‘Where we are now is no good for anyone,’ said another Conservative MP. “We are back in the first circle of Dante’s hell – purgatory.’
The only new item this morning was that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had apparently turned up in Brussels to urge that the only solution was a second referendum, to which Ms. May --- or Maybot  as she is regularly styled by Mr. Crace --- responded with a notable sense of not seeing any humour n any of  this:
For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.
It is said to be unusual for a Prime Minister to attack personally one of his or her predecessors in office, but Ms. May seems to have convinced herself that only she, and she alone, is defending the national interest.
But then, these are far from usual times at the Palace of Westminster.
I eagerly await the next episode.