Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Rhodes not taken

After a period of consultation the governing body of Oriel College has decided that Cecil Rhodes will continue to overlook Oxford High Street from his lofty alcove. Not having been consulted I wasn’t required to form an opinion, so it was only when I heard the news and felt my own disappointment that I knew what I thought. Five minutes reading some of the hair-raising pro-Rhodes comments on the Telegraph website strengthened my sense that an educational opportunity had been missed.

I have considerable sympathy for whoever had to make the decision. They have taken abuse from both sides – from some of the protesters, naturally, for deciding in favour of the status quo, but also from the noisier supporters of the status quo for even entertaining the possibility of doing anything else. But I’m sorry there wasn’t space for a more imaginative solution.

Whatever the protesters were hoping for, and whatever images are lodged in our minds by the words Rhodes must fall, moving Rhodes from his prominent position above the door need not have involved toppling him like Saddam Hussein. A less dominating place could have been found, where his figure might have been joined by representations of some of the victims of his imperialist practices, and a more appropriate gatekeeper chosen for the High Street site. What an opportunity that would have been to commission some new sculptures, providing employment for artists, and engaging students and the public in a greater understanding of the issues!

Some argued that any such compromise would lead to a political cleansing of the nation’s statuary, licensing iconoclastic mobs to tear down images of anyone whose views have fallen out of fashion. Like most slippery-slope arguments, this doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Perhaps there will be a clamour to have Churchill removed from Parliament Square. Perhaps enraged environmentalists will occupy the centre of Monmouth until Charles Rolls is taken down from his plinth. As soon as either of these campaigns is launched, you can sign me up for the opposition. But there’s no universal principle that statues must never be moved, and we should consider the case of Rhodes on its own merits.

People have been saying that we mustn’t rewrite history. But we rewrite history all the time. It’s what historians are for. What we shouldn’t do is erase bits of history and pretend they never happened. That Cecil Rhodes existed, that he donated a substantial amount of money to Oriel College who named a building for him, and that his statue has stood over its door until now are historical facts that should not be forgotten. That shifting demographics in the Oxford student body and evolving attitudes to Britain’s imperial past have brought about a campaign to have this statue removed is also a historical fact, and I hope that won’t be forgotten either.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Recycling Shakespeare

Hogarth Press has commissioned a series of ‘retellings’ of Shakespeare plays. First to appear is Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale.

It’s one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote. His mastery allows him to get away with plot developments that would seem absurd in other hands. On the flimsiest evidence, Leontes, the King of Sicilia, is suddenly infected with such intense sexual jealousy that no one can prevent him from destroying his marriage, wrecking a life-long friendship with the King of Bohemia, and tearing his family apart. The progress towards disaster, which would have been enough for an entire play earlier in Shakespeare’s career, is packed into the first half, and we are brought at breakneck speed to a calamitous low point in time for the interval. When the second half begins, sixteen years have passed, and the son and daughter of the two estranged kings are now sufficiently grown up to engineer a reconciliation, which Shakespeare completes with some audacious stage magic.

In The Gap of Time, Winterson relocates the story to a world loosely recognisable as the present, where people use technology and make their money by running hedge funds and designing online games. She’s a hugely inventive writer, and part of the fun of this novel is seeing how she finds contemporary equivalents for the various characters and narrative developments.

The problems spring partly from the shift from drama to prose narrative. Her version, already lacking the dramatic immediacy of Shakespeare’s, necessarily requires more backstory and more elaborate narrative mechanisms. The cause of Leontes’ jealousy is, for Shakespeare, as inexplicable as love itself. The novel form, however, seems to demand a psychological explanation. The process by which the disputed child is abandoned in Bohemia, startlingly simple in the original, becomes cluttered with practicalities and still remains barely credible. Winterson’s writing is never dull and is at times beautifully lyrical, but its cleverness tends to hold the reader at a distance.

It makes me wonder what these retellings are for. As a publishing project I can see the appeal in matching up successful novelists with familiar plays. But loving a play, as Winterson clearly loves The Winter’s Tale, is an odd reason to rework it. Perhaps the strength of the series will reveal itself when the motives are more complicated. Coming next is Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice. Jacobson is quoted in the press release as saying that "For an English novelist Shakespeare is where it all begins. For an English novelist who also happens to be Jewish, The Merchant of Venice is where it all snarls up.” There is a conflict to be resolved here, perhaps even a score to be settled. This seems like a more promising starting point.

Next up is Anne Tyler’s take on The Taming of the Shrew, a play that cries out to be rewritten. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary stage production not making some radical attempt to subvert its central meaning. I’m curious to see what Tyler makes of it.

This piece has appeared previously in The Bangladesh Daily Star

Saturday, 26 December 2015

How dangerous is Trump?

I'm useless at reading the mood of the American public. Wherever the pulse of the US voter is, my finger is nowhere near it. But it turns out I’m not alone – no one saw Trump coming.

Who are these potential Republican voters who are keeping him at the top of the opinion polls? Why would Christians like him, or tea-party types? Rick Santorum has a 25-year marriage, 7 children by the same wife, and solid conservative positions on all the issues that have apparently been stirring up the Republican base since Reagan first mobilized the ‘moral majority’. The libertarian Rand Paul plans to curtail the power of the government, promising to reduce America’s military commitments abroad and its prison population at home, while cutting taxes and welfare. But in the polls they’re both nowhere, along with a dozen others.

The fact that I personally don’t like Trump is, of course, entirely beside the point. I didn’t like George W Bush either, but I can see why he got conservative voters excited with his cowboy boots and cheeky Texan grin and his recovered-alcoholic born-again credentials. Why don’t those same voters see Trump as a sleazy rootless urbanite who shouts Big Government every time he opens his big mouth promising to fix something?

Of course, what Trump would actually do, if by some weird mischance he found himself elected President, is anybody’s guess. Most candidates trade in vague aspirations and make promises they would never be able to fulfil. But they generally attach themselves to some value system – theological or economic – or at least stitch together some unlikely rags-to-riches story to affirm their belief in the American Dream. Trump doesn’t seem to do any of this.

It makes you suspect that for a lot of Republican voters the traditional ideological issues have just been flags of convenience all along. Trump’s rivals earnestly flourish their Bibles and their copies of the American Constitution and the public isn’t buying because Trump is giving them permission to let their ids off the leash. Meanwhile, the serious money men, who think of themselves as the Republican establishment and don't care a jot about constitutional or ethical issues, just want a president who can be relied on to cut taxes, reduce regulations and keep America and the world open for business. Trump can’t be relied on to do anything except promote Trump.

Of course poll numbers are not delegates. Trump knows how to draw a crowd, offering a potent mixture of jokes and outrage with the occasional opportunity to rough up a heckler – all these delights without being required to think. And when asked, in the casual way of opinion polls, which of this long list of candidates they’d most like see in the White House, a lot of people probably just opt for the name they recognize. Winning caucuses and primaries is a different matter. And even if Trump pulls it off and gets to be the nominee, current polling suggests that he's alienated too many voters to beat either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Hillary accuses him of being a recruiting tool for jihadis, but it’s hard to believe that Trump's bombast does more damage to relations with the Islamic world than bombing raids and drone strikes. Even so, he shouldn't be dismissed as a joke. To American Muslims he’s doing actual harm, having appointed himself cheerleader-in chief for hate crime. He’s also lowered the level of public discourse to the point where discriminatory policies are being given serious airtime.

And if his campaign implodes before the Republican convention, there’s a seemingly more plausible candidate poised to gather up his supporters. Ted Cruz as President – now that's a really scary thought. I can't imagine why anyone would vote for him. But what do I know?

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Why are we still talking about this?

When I was a child ‘correct’ was for sums and spelling. In novels, people who upheld old-fashioned standards of social behaviour were sometimes called ‘correct’. At some point in the 70s some people on the Left started scrutinising each other’s language for deviations from a new kind of correctness.

In the 1950s Nancy Mitford had popularised the class distinction (first defined by the linguist Alan Ross) between U and non-U vocabulary. Now we had PC versus non-PC, a whole new way to make people feel bad about the way they spoke. The phrase was always going to be a hostage to fortune. There’s something joyless about enforcing correctness – it feels like a narrow achievement.

It wasn’t aimed at the grosser forms of verbal abuse – governments were passing laws against sexual harassment and incitement to racial hatred – and it didn’t touch circles not already inclined to watch their language. As the American sociologist and cultural commentator Todd Gitlin put it, the Left ‘marched on the English Department while the Right took Washington’.

I don’t know how these things went in America, but in Britain, by the 1980s, with Thatcher in power and Murdoch buying up the press, political correctness was regularly being mocked in the tabloids with tales of the ‘looney left’. Apparently the Inner London Education Authority had forbidden teachers to speak of blackboards. ‘Chalkboard’ was the preferred PC usage. Was this true? Who knows?

Political correctness was always a redundant concept. Its territory was already covered by three other categories: accuracy, politeness, and euphemism. All the satirical jokes came under the third heading – calling short people ‘vertically challenged’, for example. As for accuracy and politeness, they’re timeless values that need no apology, though they probably demand more conscious effort in inclusive, multicultural times.

Having been taken over by the Right as a stick to beat lefties with, PC was long ago rendered meaningless by misapplication and overuse. Any perceived infringement on individual liberty, from the arrest of a householder for shooting a burglar to the EU’s legendary ruling against curvy bananas, might be condemned in The Daily Mail or The Sun as ‘political correctness gone mad’ (as if those papers recognised any sane kind).

Forty years on, you’d think the concept would have burnt itself out. Who would have imagined that it could form the basis of a whole US presidential campaign? Overthrowing political correctness has become Trump’s only coherent promise to the nation. Vote for me, he seems to say, and you too will be free to spread slanderous generalisations about Mexicans, make up statistics about black crime, insult women for not being attractive enough, impersonate disabled people, and finally come out of the closet about hating Muslims.

Speaking in Donald Trump’s support last week, Republican Senator Steve King said that ‘political correctness has people walking on eggshells’. How squeamish they must be about causing offence, these Trump supporters, and how they must long to be liberated from the anxiety of hurting other people’s feelings. A vote for Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Undergraduate poem comes to light

In 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism. This wasn’t his first offence. A few months earlier, a seditious poem of his had been published anonymously with the title On the Existing State of Things. For two centuries, all copies were thought to have been destroyed. Now one has been acquired by the Bodleian Library.

A newly discovered poem by Shelley is literary news. A few commentators have also been excited by the way its radicalism resonates in our own times. A reference to a victim of imperial expansion, who

… in the blushing face of day
His wife, his child, sees sternly torn away; 
Yet dares not to revenge, while war’s dread roar
Floats, in long echoing, on the blood-stain’ed shore 

spoke to some of Syrian refugees and, specifically, of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. Such images haunt us, and it doesn’t take much to bring them to mind. 

When it comes to human suffering, there’s no question that 18-year-old Shelley’s heart was in the right place. He was in favour of 'peace, love, and concord' and opposed to tyranny. None of this is surprising. More interesting are the ways in which the poem fails.

Written in heroic couplets, it harks back to the style that dominated English poetry in the 18th century. The more brilliant exponents of the form shaped it into a perfect vehicle for satirical argument. Alexander Pope’s couplets are crafted so that every word counts and the music of metre and rhyme seem effortless. In his Essay on Man he describes humankind as 

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

What in Pope’s hands seem easy, other notable writers failed to achieve. Samuel Johnson, celebrated for his prose more than for his verse, began his poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (based on Juvenal’s Tenth Satire) like this: 

Let Observation with extensive view
Survey Mankind from China to Peru.

Coleridge would later expose the emptiness of this couplet, by rewriting it: 'Let observation with extensive observation observe mankind extensively.'

With his friend Wordsworth, Coleridge was engaged in revolutionising poetry, writing about the lives of ordinary people in accessible language and using verse forms drawn from oral tradition. It’s puzzling, then, to see Shelley, a young radical of the next generation, reaching back to a form fashionable in the previous century to make his radical statement, and importing with it a lofty tone and a weakness for abstraction.

Nothing here suggests that its author would go on to produce a poem such as Ozymandias, which says more in 14 lines about the destruction of tyranny than On the Existing State of Things manages in 172. And it does nothing to stave off a time when Percy Bysshe might be referred to as 'husband of the visionary novelist, Mary Shelley'.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Strange motivations

I’m grateful to the novelist James Meek for introducing me to a new critical term. Reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Purity (‘From Wooden to Plastic’, LRB, 24/09/15), Meek writes that the first appearance of Leila Helou “is couched in the leaden terms of the Unaccountably Disrupted Normal: ‘Ordinarily, Leila looked forward to travelling on assignment…. But from the moment she arrived in Amarillo, on a commuter jet from Denver, something felt different.’”

I’d been reading William Boyd’s latest novel Sweet Caress: the many lives of Amory Clay (Bloomsbury, 2015) and had just marked this passage: “It was proving to be the strangest day, with my emotions veering around from soft and silly to cynical and uncaring; and my sense of adult responsibility seemingly switched off – what was I doing on this bike with Oberkamp heading to Highway 22? It was as if I was in some hallucinatory state.” By chance, Meek had provided me with a name for what bothered me about Boyd’s sentence. Oberkamp, an Australian journalist with whom Amory, a British war photographer, has had a one-night affair, is pursuing his Vietnamese girlfriend through Vietcong territory. Amory may well wonder how he managed to talk her into going with him!

I’m inclined to think that the behaviour of fictional characters should be self-explanatory. If the writer has to spend time justifying unlikely turns in the plot, something’s gone wrong. If a first-person narrator, as here, admits that her actions don’t make any sense, I want to say: if you don’t believe them why should I?

That’s my theoretical position, anyway. As a reader I find I’m much more easy-going. In some ways Boyd is a careless writer. But his brilliance more than compensates for his carelessness. I’m aware of the occasional rough patch but I keep reading. In fact, over the years I seem to have read all but a couple of his fourteen novels.

In The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993) Kay Fischer has been approached by a mysterious older man called Dr Salvador Carriscant. “I met Carriscant,” Kay tells us, “at the railroad station in Pasadena early in the morning. He had asked me to come with him to Santa Fe and, for some reason, and much to my astonishment, I agreed at once…”

One benefit of Kay’s astonishing compliance is that, as readers, we get to see what happens in Santa Fe. Likewise when Amory gets on the back of Oberkamp’s motorbike we all go along for the ride.

As a justification perhaps this puts too much emphasis on Boyd’s carelessness and not enough on his brilliance. There’s psychological insight here, as well as narrative convenience. Boyd gives us characters capable of sudden, reckless, self-damaging behaviour, whose lives are unexpectedly derailed by unconscious impulses. Some of his most memorable narrators look back on their lives as strangers to themselves, viewing the unlikely plot twists with as much wonder as we do.

Boyd reminds us that it isn’t only in bad fiction that the normal is sometimes unaccountably disrupted.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Tested to destruction

‘I have a higher IQ than Stephen Hawking. I have a higher IQ than Einstein.’  So said one of the boys competing in Channel 4’s Child Genius, which is run in association with Mensa, ‘the high IQ society’.   

Full disclosure: I have a lower IQ than either Hawking or Einstein. I know, because I was tested by an educational psychologist when I was 12 along with my three younger siblings – my mother probably negotiated a cut rate for the four of us.

Even fuller disclosure: I have a lower IQ than most of my siblings. You might think this explains why I believe IQs are a lot of hokum, and you may be right, though I’m inclined to attribute it to less subjective factors. I can’t remember what I thought about all this when I was 12, but since then I’ve interacted with a lot of people, and the idea that they could all be placed on a single scale and assigned a number that would tell me anything useful about them has come to seem increasingly absurd. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people a lot cleverer than me in lots of different ways. But I do think the different ways are as important as the cleverness, which can reveal itself suddenly in unexpected moments, or slowly over time.

IQ testing was once integral to British education policy. It came to light decades ago that Cyril Burt, the psychologist behind the tripartite system of secondary education established by the 1944 act, had falsified his research. In The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould raised the lid on the whole murky history of IQ testing, exposing the statistical fallacies, cultural assumptions and circular arguments on which the construct depends.

And yet as recently as 1994, a couple of American academics, Herrnstein and Murray, were willing to argue in The Bell Curve that IQ is real, measurable and resistant to change over generations – and that, by the way, the average IQ of African Americans was 15 points below that of white folks and likely to remain so.

At least Child Genius has a healthy ethnic mix. It is also essentially a game show, with ‘sudden death’ rounds that defy the most basic principles of educational testing, and therefore not to be taken seriously. It might be one of the more cruel examples of reality TV, exploiting children for our entertainment and turning their remarkable abilities into circus acts. But better that the concept of IQ should find its natural home here, alongside Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here than influencing public policy.