Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The sparrows outside the window

I am, I confess, a birdwatcher.

Not in the traditional sense. I rarely go out with the express intention of spotting birds, rather it's something I do when already out. I'll own up to keeping a list, but that's mostly for the benefit of my son, who didn't display much interest in the natural world until he realised there were lists where you could tick things off, that it could be quantifiable: like collecting football stickers. I hope that having been sucked in by ticking boxes he'll end up just appreciating them for what they are.

This is the simple pleasure I've arrived at. And, to be honest, I don't have room in my head for every variety of bird (I used to, it's how I bonded with one of my oldest friends), these days I'd struggle to tell my sedge warbler from my reed warbler, and whilst I do follow rare bird twitter accounts, and was excited by the arrival of black terns at mere sands wood last summer, that's not really what gets me going.

I like the prosaic birds. I've blogged before about the pied wagtails that hunt on the flat roof at work, and about the point where feral pigeons end and wood pigeons start. And now I'll sing the praises of the family of house sparrows nesting in the ivy outside our bedroom window.

It's a sure sign of spring when one morning I'll suddenly hear the chatter. and it is chatter, rather than song, which I think in part is why we warm to theese gregarious, garrulous birds. There's a real sense of life and activity which, in a house with three small children in, is entirely relatable.

Their proximity is of course another reason why these birds are dear to a lot of people's hearts, they're called house sparrows for a reason, after all, and for many they'll be the bird they see most often. But that, to me, is part of the point as to why they should be appreciated.

I suppose the point of this post is to say find a way to take pleasure in your immediate surroundings. Yes it's a thrill to watch an osprey pluck a fish from the water, and a source of pride to say you've seen x amount of passage migrants. But for me, lying in bed and listening to the sparrows argue is a bird-watching pleasure that's hard to beat.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Virtue signalling for fun and profit

Oh I got into an argument on Twitter.

You may have noticed, there's a lot of that sort of thing about at the moment. I'm not about to go over already well-trodden ground. We all know the bigots are slithering out of the woodwork. You don't need me to point it out to you. But one aspect of their current standard practice is causing me considerable disquiet.

It's the phrase "virtue signalling". Generally used to dismiss somone who's said something vaguely liberal, or left leaning. Y'know, like maybe we shouldn't make thousands of child refugees sit in a dismal camp, prey to traffickers. Possibly, being the world's sixth largest economy, we could maybe afford to take a few more.

You're just virtue signalling, cry the trolls from their bedroom in their mum's house. You wouldn't have them come to live with you.

Of course; because not being able to fit a refugee into my terraced house is exactly the same as a GOVERNMENT not being able to fit a refugee INTO AN ENTIRE FUCKING COUNTRY. Likewise

Now, I understand why the ranks of keyboard warriors wold object to the sanctimony of celebrities. I really do. It's very easy for a Gary Lineker or a Lily Allen or a JK Rowling to say things like hey, maybe not all Muslims are terrorists, the smug bastards. What do they know about not getting blown up by Muslims? Pfft, I was suicide bombed three times on my way to Subway. Bloody celebrities. AND they were out of that weird rubbery "chorizo". Bloody liberal elite.

So someone says something you disagree with and you cry "virtue signalling" which, as far as I can work out, translates to "you're clearly a nicer person than me, so I'm going to dismiss your argument by implying that you're a hypocrite even though I don't know you and I have no way of knowing whether or not you'd have a problem with a refugee family moving in next door. Because this means that I don't have to face up, in my scarred heart of hearts, to the self knowledge that actually I'm a nasty fucking bigot." This is the eternal problem of the dogmatic (both right and left, this could just as easily have been a post about the unwise bandying around of the word "Nazi"), a degree of hysteria which closes down the possibility of rational debate. An immediate dismissal of differing views.

Which is, I think, my big problem with it. It indicates no desire for engagement. In much the same way as one side uses "snowflake" and the other one "fascist". Now, I'm probably being too even handed here, but y'know, that's just me, I'm reasonable. The fact that I've taken pains to point out that there are inflexible arseholes on both sides of the debate shouldn't really imply equivalence, this does seem to be largely a problem of the right. But we should try to understand them, rather than condemn. How's that for virtue signalling?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A new authoritarianism

According to Theodor Adorno, elements of an authoritarian personality type include:

"Blind allegiance to conventional beliefs about right and wrong

Respect for submission to acknowledged authority

Belief in aggression toward those who do not subscribe to conventional thinking, or who are different

A negative view of people in general - i.e. the belief that people would all lie, cheat or steal if given the opportunity

A need for strong leadership which displays uncompromising power

A belief in simple answers and polemics - i.e. The media controls us all or The source of all our problems is the loss of morals these

Resistance to creative, dangerous ideas. A black and white worldview.

A tendency to project one's own feelings of inadequacy, rage and fear onto a scapegoated group"


Any of this sounding familiar?

The pace of events since June 23rd last year has been hard to keep up with, but the train of events set in motion by the Brexit vote is, somehow, impossibly, accelerating. The election of Trump has added fuel to the fire in this country in unexpected ways. Now, I'm not here to express alarm at what Trump's up to, there are plenty of other places that you can go to for that. The summary dismissal of vast numbers of state department staff, the hounding of an independent judiciary, the demotion of the heads of the military and intelligence to be replaced by Steve Bannon. These are all the acts of a dictator, one intent on grabbing as many of the levers of power as he can. Preparation for a coup d'etat as Yonatan Zunger persuasively writes. I have some issues with his analysis, but even if you accept a quarter of it, it's more alarming than any president since Nixon (and the fact that Breitbart has been quick to rubbish it rather lends it credence.

No, I'm more concerned with our country's response to him. Or rather, our government's.

They just love him. What a hoot that Trump guy is.

Well, okay, no, they don't, clearly they don't. Beneath the fixed grins they clearly find the man as appalling as the rest of us do. But if there's one thing the conservative party loves, it's money. And if there's a chance to get their snouts in the trough, they'll take it. And given that a pretty big trough will be whisked away the moment we trigger article 50, they've got to find another one, somewhere, anywhere, and it doesn't really matter who it belongs to. So Trump gets offered a full State visit. Something which doesn't happen to US presidents in their first term as a rule. Within a week of being elected. Fancy that. It's almost as if Theresa May knew that if there's one thing Trump loves above all else, it's the aggrandisement of trump, and what better way to do than some good old British pomp and circumstance. Clever move Theresa, got him onside early, nice one.

But there's a problem. The populace, as a rule, isn't a big fan of Trump (nor, for that matter, is the US one, strangely). We're not overly enamoured of ther whole "grab 'em by the pussy" thing, and quite a lot of us have been making our displeasure known, one way or another. May's got a bit of unrest on her hands. marches, petitions, all at a pretty sensitive time, what with the article 50 bill starting to inch it's way through the house.

Enter the press. Aticles in today's Express, Mail, Sun and Sane Melanie Phillips thinkpiecing in the paywalled Times all laying into opponents of Trump.

One of the most visible elements of authoritarianism is a tame press, and it would appear that Theresa's got this lot on lockdown.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The unwritten places

I've been reading Roger Deakin's Waterlog, a moving and stille vocation of the seemingly faintly transgressive act of wild swimming. Being someone who tends to go against the grain, I've got a lot of sympathy for Deakin's cussedness, and determination to swim wherever the hell he pleases. This isn't, however, intended to be a book review, I'd recommend it,by all means, you should check it out, but it was one idea that came from the reading which particularly stuck with me.

Whilst exploring a series of Tarns in the Welsh Rhinog Mountains, Deakin discovers some ruined outbuildings, not marked on the map. It is this fact which pleases him most, the idea that we don't know everything, that maps can be wrong. I'd extrapolate further that this is a delight that life still has a bit of mystery to it (what on earth he'd make of Google Maps is anybody's guess, I imagine that for him they'd be something else stripping magic from the world). In this section he makes passing mention of "The Unwritten Places" (now, I note in researching this post, the subject of a 2014 book by Tim Salmon), wild parts of the northern Greek mountains, left off the map to avoid taxation by Turkish authorities (there's possibly a trite joke there to be made about Greeks and taxes, but I can imagine Nigel Farage making it, which is as good a reason as any to steer clear).

What spoke to me is that there is still a possibility of stepping off the tracks, in this hyper-scrutinised, over-exposed world in which we find ourselves living (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of writing this in a blog, you would perhaps prefer me to be scribbling it on the wall at the bottom of a well?), the idea of places being unwritten, as that allows tus the possibility to write our own scripts, which is, in the New Year, what we're all trying to do, after all.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

There are no easy answers at a time like this.

The (not entirely surprising, post-Brexit) win of Donald Trump in the US presidential election is one of the more seismic events of what could reasonably classed as "quite a lively year". There's going to be a lot of bollocks talked about it over the coming weeks and months, so I thought I'd get my half-baked theorising in early, in order to bugger off birdwatching, or listening to the cricket or something, anything, less distressing than the thought of a Trump Presidency.

And no, there aren't any easy answers. But there are a few things worth noting.

After the EU referendum, it was easy for those of us on the Remain side to point and say "racism". But anyone capable of a little reflective thought will have gone "Well no, not all of them. That's not possible, there must be other reasons." So it is with Trump.

I do not doubt for a fraction of a second that race played a part, or, for that matter gender. It is a truth that white men will always vote for white men. But it's also true that Trump won states which, for the past two elections, voted for a black man. So it can't all be about race. But does race play a part? Sure. Trump was endorsed by the KKK. It's galling to see the Klan's leader tweeting #Make AmericaGreat and #LockHerUp. It's galling to imagine the leader of the Klan having anything other than a painful urinary tract infection, I grant you, but to imagine the fucker happy? Well, that's a bit much. I do not doubt that some of Trump's supporters are racist. But I'm not stupid enough to imagine they all are.

How about Misogyny? A definite contender for sure. The thought of a woman as president is just too much for men who have no problem with a man who "grabs them by the pussy". Yep, there are definitely a bunch of woman-haters in the trump vote. And not even the overt ones, there are the ones who just shrug off his outrageous statements on abortion, his objectification, even his acts of sexual assault and, lest we forget, rape. Yep there are plenty of people willing to overlook all that (including, and I'll stick this bit in bold 52% of white women). But are all Trump voters by definition misogynist? I doubt it.

So, to recap, not all racist, not all misogynist.

Then we get to the working class argument, beloved of George Galloway and the Brexiteers. The vote to leave the EU and the vote for trump are of the same cast, a howl of working class outrage, the "left-behind". Those who've seen their livelihoods destroyed by the remorseless forces of globalisation (or foreigners, depending on which paper you read). Yeah, not bad, this one might have some legs with anyone who's ever drawn a link between the destruction of manufacturing bases and a general decline of living standards amongst working class communities. Which would be anyone who was awake in the eighties. Yes, this one's a little more plausible. But the ethnic minority working class vote was solidly Clinton, so, not all the working class...

Which is a bit of a tricky one, anyway. the Brexit vote revealed the vast gulf between the traditional Labour vote and what the modern Labour party stands for. Likewise, the republican Party, the friend of Wall St and Asset-strippers everywhere is the one that's talking about coal-mining and bringing industrial jobs back. the democrats are suddenly, shockingly, in the position of finding themselves spun as the party that's AGAINST the working man. Quite a neat trick to pull off, and largely what Osborne was trying to do to Labour prior to May's night of the long knives (normal Tory service was resumed when May started banging on about grammar schools, not a massive vote-winner in industrial heartlands).

None of these factors alone led to a Trump victory, but it was a toxic brew of all of them, combined with a general distaste for Hillary herself, which did the trick, I suspect. Sitting here in the aftermath I'm trying to work out where on Earth we go next.

What seems clear is that society is more polarised than ever before. I'm a left-leaning, highly-educated liberal. So you'd expect me to be spitting bile about the result, but frankly, I don't see the point. As far as I can see, it's the left and centre's inability to engage with traditional bases which has caused this (and, for that matter, Brexit). I'm figuratively laughing my tits off at some of the tripe being spouted by the Labour far-left this morning about how "Establishment politics is dead" and that this is somehow going to lead to the anointing of Corbyn as PM.

It isn't.

What it is is the rise of a xenophobic populism which appeals to the scared and disenfranchised, with a few racists and swivel-eyed loons hiding behind the vast mass of pissed-off, let-down people. What it is is a vote for "anything's better than this", just as Brexit was. And for as long as those of us on the left refuse to engage with the vast majority of reasonable people who've done an unreasonable thing, this situation will only worsen. And we will become less and less relevant to the national debate, easier and easier to characterise as the "liberal elite."

It's incumbent upon all of us to call out any form of discrimination wherever we see it, true. What it is not in our gift to do is to sneer at the spouters of this bollocks. Engage, argue, win. One voter at a time. It's all we can do.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Digging in the crates

I've written before about the sheer overwhelming amount of text there is in the world (at least I think I have, I should have anyway, I think about it quite a lot), and I've been reflecting on that as I've been going over old work.

As someone who feels compelled to write, but not necessarily compelled to do anything with it, I have over the years amassed a vast amount of journals, notebooks, old word files in the dustier corners of my hard drive, all filled with poems, stories, half poems, half stories, ideas, occasionally the odd line that I liked.

I've been going through them, i rather felt bad that something might be languishing in one, half-decent but long-forgotten, it's been an interesting exercise. I'm calling it "rescued poems" and as and when one gets rescued, I'll pop them up on coastalblog's sister blog, The Armchair Dissident. It's the least they deserve.

Monday, August 29, 2016

News tinnitus, status quo bias, writer's block and fear of failure.

I had rationalised my writer's block as simply the world being too absurd to comment upon. You'll be familiar with the old story that, when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace price, the satirist Tom Lehrer retired, as satire couldn't compete with reality. So it's been with me, in retreat from the sheer insanity of modern political discourse I felt no urge to comment upon it, felt rather that a period of looking the other way was in order. And is so often the way with me, withdrawal from one part of the writing process lead to complete withdrawal from all of it. Plus I was too busy at work, it's not fair on the family for me to be locked away with a computer, I need some time doing nothing. Many reasons.

Well, that's what I told myself, anyway.

Then I read an interesting piece by Oliver Burkeman. Now, I've never been much of a one for self help and analysis, I think mentally I've lumped it all in the bin marked "hippy bollocks" along with crystals, hypnosis and all the other crap all the superannuated lovechildren in Boscastle cooed about. Everything I left behind without a backward glance. The good and the bad. I'd snort at the idea of therapy, nothing in life that can't be cured by going for a run, or, if that fails, getting drunk. But something in this piece struck a chord, I mmd at it, and went about my day.

I am right, by the way, that most things can be cured by going for a run for, as is so often the case with me, it was on a run that this piece then dropped into my brain, which had obviously been performing a number of subroutines as the miles wore on. One of those things you're thinking about without realising you're thinking about it. Click, click, click, oh of course.

It suddenly became clear that my semi-retirement from writing was due to not really seeing myself as one any more. I was keeping the status quo going, chef, businessman, husband, father. Writer was falling further and further down the list due to my inertia. Due to being afraid of considering myself a writer. Fear of failure, fear of rejection.

It was around about the eighth kilometre that I thought right, okay. Be a writer. So I am.