He had not cried when he heard the news of his mother death nor had it left him shattered. He was sorry, but only in some ordinary way. Hers had been a long life and, for most of his, they have lived a continent apart. They had never been close, and her passing left a mark but not a gap.
At her funeral, sensing his brothers’ grief, he wondered if what he felt was sadness. There was definitely something, but it was not that emptiness that inhabited him when his Gran died, or again, later, when his father went. No, not sad, not grief, he decided. It was regret – regret that things turned out the way they did.When the war ends, his mother decides to return to her original country, an ocean and a continent away. She takes his younger brothers with her, but not The Boy. He is left behind with his father. Divorce follows.
The Boy is not yet five, and does not understand much of what is happening. Or perhaps he does, but assumes this is somehow normal. Then, one day, his father disappears and he finds himself the property of his huge extended family; now with this aunt, then with that. Some aunts he knows are his father’s sister, but with others he cannot quite work out how they come to be his aunts. Maybe, he concludes, they are his father’s cousins. Perhaps the nicer ones are Fairy Aunts. He is not yet five.
Soon after his fifth birthday, The Boy sees his father again, in hospital. He, the father explains, was brought here the day he disappeared, because he was ill and nearly died. Now he is getting better, but slowly. He will rest here in hospital for some more months and then will go to the country. The Boy will stay with the aunts. Which the Boy does.
The Boy does not understand the world, its changeability, its uncertainty. All he knows till his mother leaves is a steady universe. A colonial cottage in a large garden. His brothers in their double push-chair, propelled by Nanny; him in a swing swung high by any available adult. Mother and Father coming home from work. Tea on the veranda, piggy-back rides on his dad’s back, all round the garden. Then, after bath time, dinner at the great mahogany table. Bedtime stories, sleep. Now all that’s gone, leaving just the ever changing circuit of the aunts.
But The Boy does not forget his mother. He remembers her smelling of sweet soap after her bath. Her dabbing on mercurochrome when he falls off the tricycle, grazing his knee. Her sitting him on the gate post, and keeping him safe as the troops march by at the time of the lunatic riots. Her telling his father that The Boy doesn’t have to eat fried onions if he doesn’t like them. The Boy does not stop loving her. The eulogy dragged on, the unfamiliar facts of his mother’s life unrolled. Times of hers that he did not share, had no knowledge of. It seemed to him that there were in surprising number. His thought drifted. He wondered again about his absence of grief or even of personal loss.
Was this wrong somehow? Shouldn’t the death of his parent have a greater impact? Was he deficient in some way, emotionally lacking? He thought that maybe he owed it to her to be more moved than he was: that the failure to be sad, to grieve, might somehow be an offence against the very basic human instinct, the Biblical commandment, to honour your parents. But the instinct is just that, an instinct, he figured, part of the tools for survival in a species whose offspring take a long time to mature. Not needed once childhood was over. Anyway, the instinct was to honour and cherish, but did that have to include loving as well? Now, still not quite six, The Boy lives with his father’s parents. He can read, although he does not yet go to school. He has few friends, but he is close to Stanford, the trainee gardener. Stanford is 15, just up from the country, illiterate and with a most disruptive stammer. This latter he shares with The Boy. The Boy’s stammer is new, it started a year ago. Stanford has had his all his life.
Each day, over an open fire in the yard, Stanford cooks lunch for himself and the head gardener, George, in a one gallon cooking oil can, empty now of oil and with the lid carefully cut off. It is always a murky soup or a stew, the ingredients uncertain but usually there are bits of salted pig’s tail and cornmeal dumplings; and yams, green bananas, okra and scotch bonnets, grown in the patch by the fence shared with the Police Commissioner’s land. Sometimes there are lumps of king fish, or pork or chicken or all three together.
Some days the gardeners allow The Boy to share their lunch. When The Boy asks what’s in the stew, Stanford tells him it is su-su-su-su-su-su-snake. The Boy believes him but does not stop eating. He wipes his small enamel bowl clean with a chunk of hard dough bread. He tells no one in the house of his lunches with the gardeners.
I must admit that I have never bought a copy of Charlie Hebdo; nor, before last Thursday when a friend lent me his copy of the last edition before the massacre in Paris, had I ever read one.
When I first came to live in France, I glanced at a copy or two in the local maison de la presse, and found that I didn’t get the humour, what little of it I understood. I prefer my satire a bit more subtle than Charlie’s. I settled instead for the occasional purchase of Le Canard Enchainé – the satire was as strong, but subtler. I understood more and got a decent proportion of the jokes. Still, it’s years since I have read even that.
Like everyone else in France, I was deeply moved by the events here last week – the bad and the good: horror at the nihilism of the massacres at the editorial offices and the supermarket; pride that the people and the state for the most part supported the victims right to their freedoms to express their views or shop in safety and peace; amazement at the bravery of the heroes, police and civilian, of the week; happiness at the peaceful turnout on Sunday to show that we are not afraid.
I don’t have much to add to the millions of words that have already been written on this subject. Just a little corrective to a common misunderstanding of freedom of speech in France shown by much of the Anglo-Saxon press.
France prides itself on it’s tradition of freedom of speech and the long revolutionary tradition that underlies it. But it is wrong to think that this freedom has no limits whatsoever. Indeed it has both legal and social restrictions; the first is rigid, the latter more elastic. One example of a legal restriction is the Gayssot Act, of 1990, making it illegal to question the existence of crimes that fall in the category of crimes against humanity as defined in the London Charter of 1945. So, Holocaust denial is a crime in France, for the press, for politicians …. well, for everyone. Interestingly though, efforts to extend the Gayssot Act to denial of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey early in the 20th century was found to be unconstitutional because it violated the right to freedom of speech!
There are many other such restrictions, the kinds of limits that you would expect in any civilised democracy where the rights to life and liberty are respected. The sort of things Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court had in mind when he wrote in a famous judgment:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
Social restrictions to freedom of speech exist in all societies, very often in the form of taboos, religious and otherwise. As you would expect, as religion declines in France, the religious taboos become fewer and fewer, as the presence of a strong anti-clerical element in public and private life, and the existence of Charlie Hebdo itself, demonstrates. The social and political taboos are harder to define but they are there, and they still occasion self-censorship. One clear area is in matters of sexual activity, which are generally seen as private and beyond public comment, although in the case of politicians and civic leaders, this is breaking down. None the less in many ways, in France, the right to privacy trumps the right to free speech.
So when you read in your papers, or hear on your TV, about the Frenchman’s absolute right to untrammelled free speech, remember that this is not really the case. It is arguable that the French have more freedom of speech than most. The existence of Charlie Hebdo may be evidence for this, in which case long may it continue to keep pushing the boundaries. But total freedom of speech – the total right to say anything you want, true or false – does not exist in France, nor for so many good reasons, can it ever exist in any civilised society.
But there is a question that the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and by extension the attacks on freedom of speech, raises: what about the offence I cause to others when I exercise my right to freedom of speech, even if I stay within the legal and social constraints? Do the offended not have rights, among them the right to be offended and the right to hit back?
Sloths, in general, tend to avoid hard moral and ethical questions such as these. But the events of last week force us all, sloths included, to try to answer.
As I see it, if freedom of speech gives me the, albiet limited, right to offend, then it gives the offended the right to be offended. It also gives them to right to act on that offence, but with the proviso that they act only within the same constraints as me. So they may attack me in voice or print , publish cartoons attacking me or my ideas, try to persuade others to have nothing to do with me; but they may not punch me in the nose, set fire to my house, bully my children, nor slaughter me and my colleagues in an editorial meeting or at the supermarket.
Further, freedom of speech gives me the right to criticise, to correct and to mock what another person believes, including social, religious and political belief, even if such criticism, correction or mockery causes offence, because these are matters of opinion, and we are all free to hold what opinions we like no matter how ill-founded. (Yes Virginia, despite the limits on expressing them, you have the right to hold any cock-a-mamie opinion or belief you want. Just keep them to yourself!) Beliefs are elective, and we choose to adhere to them, or not, and such choices are open to criticism. Pope Francis is wrong to claim that faith is beyond mockery: he may have been born Catholic and a believer and he elects to remain both. I was born Catholic and a believer, but I elect to remain neither. We are both open to criticism and mockery for the views on faith we hold, and the views themselves are also open to mockery.
However, freedom of speech does notgive me the right to criticise or mock another person for what they are. No attack on matters of colour, ethnicity, gender, looks, physical handicap, etc. is ever justified. What people are, is not elective, it is forced upon them at birth or by happenstance, and, because they cannot change, they may not be criticised or mocked. It is wrong to gun people down in a supermarket. It is doubly wrong to gun them down because they are Jews. Or French. Or in wheelchairs. Or gay. Or blue eyed.
I probably will continue not to buy or read Charlie Hebdo but I think it is a healthy sign that it exists. That said, and in a spirit of solidarity, I am happy to say ‘Je suis Charlie‘, just as I am also happy to say, ‘Je suis Ahmed‘ and ‘Je suis juif‘, but most of all ‘Je suis humaine‘*
I found this long article among some old papers I was clearing out. It was written in 1980, a year after the death at the age of 87, on May 14th 1979, of the Dominican writer Jean Rhys, one of the most outstanding novelists of the 20th Century. It was rejected by both the New York Times and the Washington Post magazines. “Not sufficient interest in Jean Rhys at this time” one features editor wrote to me. Perhaps now there is sufficient interest. The original title was ‘A Day in July 1969”.
This is an edited version of the original post. I thank Professor Emeritus Mervyn Morris for his very helpful comments and for reminding me of my duty to my reader to wield the editors red crayon with greater ruthlessness. 2/11/201
“Take her a bottle of Scotch” Diana Athill, her publisher said. “She’d like a bottle of Scotch.”
I picked one up at an off-licence in Paddington and now, as we twisted through the Devon countryside, it lay on the back seat of the taxi beside my tape recorder.
It was late in July, 1969. Two years before, I had discovered Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, her novel telling the story of Antoinette Cosway, the first Mrs Rochester, but seen not from Jane Eyre’s perspective. The first Mrs Rochester was a Jamaican Creole, and in Rhys’ novel we follow her voyage from her marriage to Rochester at her home in Jamaica, through the unhappiness of the crumbling marriage on Rochester’s estate in Dominica to the final, terrible scene in the attic of Thornfield Hall. It shows Antoinette’s progression through a number of alien worlds, in which she is gradually lost to view as she becomes the seemingly mad Bertha in the attic. But Rhys’ Antoinette is not the dangerously exotic Creole of the European fevered imagination portrayed by Brontë, but a real person, torn apart by the clash of the two cultures that define her as a Creole and by European ideas of racial and cultural superiority.
The exact meaning of the term ‘creole’ is hard to pin down; it differs from island to island. Although it had its origin in Portuguese, where it meant a European white person born and raised in the colonial empires, by the end of the 18th century it came to mean people of mixed African and European origins but whose looks and culture were closer to their European than their African ancestors. ‘Light-skinned’ was the label often attached to them. Although white people considered them to be better than the free or slave black people, they nevertheless saw them as somehow tainted and dangerously exotic.
Rhys was a Creole from the British colony of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. For the most part, her heroines are Creole women coming to terms with European life and attitudes. An odd feeling of not quite fitting in bedevils them. I had wanted to meet her for a long time and it had not been easy to arrange a visit to her home in Devon to record an interview.
The sun shone as the taxi entered Cheriton Fitzpaine. It was a hot day and at first we could not find Landboat Bungalows. When we did, they were not picturesque, but part of a dull terrace, disappointingly low and mean and small and much too grey.
I walked up the short path clutching the bottle of Scotch, past a few scrappy bedding plants wilting in the sun. Before I could reach it, the door opened and an elderly man in a clerical collar came out, followed by a small, grey haired woman in an old, well cared for grey suit.
“We saw you arrive,” she said and introduced me to the man, a retired Church of England vicar who lived in the village and came from time to time to chat about books. “Goodbye Mrs. Hamer” he said and set off down the path.
Jean Rhys, known in the village by the name of her third husband, was much smaller than I had expected. Her large, fawnlike eyes dominated a face that in its late seventies still spoke of the prettiness which had earned her the nickname ‘The Dresden Doll’ during her career in the chorus line before the First World War. Her hair had recently been set and she wore a necklace of large wooden beads.
She showed me into the sitting room and I hit my head on the lintel as I entered.
“It’s dreadfully low for you.” she said, “Are you alright?”
I gave her the Scotch.
“Oh! that is kind of you. We’ll open it later.” She took it through to the kitchen.
“I’m a bit alarmed about this interview.” she said when she returned. “I tire easily and sometimes have difficulty getting all the answers right.”
I tried to reassure her, told her it did not matter, that we could edit the tape. We discussed how we would order the interview, worked out a system of signals for when she wanted to rest. She asked me about Jamaica. Had she got it right in Wide Sargasso Sea? (She had never been there.) We swapped the names of friends and relations back in the Caribbean and came up with some we had in common. She spoke of her brief visit back home to Dominica in the 1930s.
“I’ve never been back, you know. I don’t know anyone there anymore. I’m quite out of touch now.” A long pause. “No, that’s not quite true. I know the editor of a newspaper in Dominica.”
She lapsed into silence, staring out the window.
Then she said, suddenly “I’ve lived here six or seven years. I loathed it at first; then I got resigned to it. Fixed it up, found it better. I miss a lot living in Devon, miss meeting the people who wrote to me after the books were re-published. I don’t think I’m liked in the village, they think I’m strange. I’d like to get away but I won’t now.”
Today, 4th October, is the anniversary of the death of a remarkable educator, poet, librarian, pacifist, producer, theologian, pastor and thinker. He changed the lives of thousands of young Jamaicans at a time when there was little available to nourish their minds, by simply introducing them to books, and art and poetry and music. His legacy is all too rarely celebrated, except in the hearts and memory of those whom he most influenced, two generations of now old and middle aged Jamaicans, from all backgrounds, whose intellectual life he enriched and whose future he improved.
He was Robert Godwin Beresford Verity – Uncle Bob – born in Belize in 1911, son of an Afro-Scottish Belize creole mother, the concert pianist Lena Isabel McDonald, and a Scottish-Huguenot father, Douglas James Verity. With his four brothers and sisters he moved to Jamaica in 1917, where he grew up and became 100% Jamaican, devoted to its people, their welfare, their freedom and their independence.
Growing up, neither school nor sport enchanted him, to his teachers despair. He preferred retreat into the imagination, into music and literature, art and drama. He wrote from an early age and was a talented pianist and cello player. He was an untidy boy and grew into an untidy man – his bowtie forever askew, his jacket crumpled, his hair too long for the times. But he had a magnetic and loving personality, and a burning intellect, which made even the fastidious oblivious to the untidy exterior, revealing underneath an organised mind, with a vision of how things could be and a determination to bring them about.
He lived his adult life in three acts – Ill Health, Creation, and Ministry. After school, he studied for the Catholic priesthood, at Campion House, Osterly on the outskirts of London. A bit to his own surprise, he was a good student, and made excellent progress through the early stages of the novitiate. But, two years in, he contracted TB and was forced to abandon his studies. There followed long years battling the disease – in the days before antibiotics, this meant long stays in cold air sanatoria, improvement, recuperation at home in Jamaica, relapses. He wrote for newspapers when he could, and music criticism for the New York Times when he was in the US for a surgical lung collapse.
It was the operation that both nearly killed him and saved his life. It was a new procedure; Bob was only the second person to survive it. It lasted over five hours and was carried out without anaesthetics. He said that, to cope with the pain, he gripped the hands of a young intern so hard, that the imprints of his nails were visible in the young man’s palms for weeks after. But the operation was a success, and he eventually recovered, closing Act One.
In August 1939, recovered and healthy, he left for Europe and a job in Norway to get experience he could use at home in Jamaica. He never made it to Oslo; during a stop over in London he was summoned back to Jamaica by his father who realised that war in Europe was about to break out. In London, he also met Jacqueline, and in a whirlwind romance, married her. They arrived back in Jamaica on the day that Britain declared war on Germany.
At the prompting of his future brother-in-law, Philip Sherlock, Bob Verity now joined the staff of the Institute of Jamaica, where the creative phase of his life began. At this time, Kingston, and all of Jamaica, lacked any facility where children could explore the world of books, or music, or art. Bob and Philip had the idea that they would create a place where children could have access to books and records, paintings and sculpture, free of any charges. Not only would there be libraries and galleries, there would be classes, where children could learn to draw and carve, make pottery and music. This would be The Junior Centre of the Institute. Bob was tasked to make it happen.
And happen it did. Despite the war, and shipping restrictions, a new building to Bob’s specification was built and filled with books, in time for the opening in 1940. This took place on a Saturday morning, so that children could come in, register their membership and pick up their readership cards. When the staff arrived at the Centre to open up, they found a queue of children starting at the front gate and stretching back three city blocks. As the staff prepared for the 8 o’clock opening, more and more children arrived.
To deal with the rush, every available adult was given a table, a stack of forms and membership cards, and a rubber stamp with the new monogram designed by Edna Manley, the sculptor. Even Bob’s 7-month pregnant wife was summoned in to help with the deluge of children. Enrolment was limited to 10,000 places and it was expected to take two years to fill that number. By late afternoon, however, it was clear that there would be more than the ten thousand turning up. By six o’clock the queue was still as long as in the morning, and children at the back of the line were turned away. It was after nine that the last child, the 10,000th member, was processed.
Within weeks it was clear that the Centre, one of the few of its kind anywhere in the world, was a huge success. Children streamed in to use the reading rooms and borrow books. Bob insisted that the library should offer a wide range of popular fiction and non-fiction titles, as well as the classics and important reference works . The books had to be challenging and enjoyable. The Hardy Boys and Just William shared shelf space with Popular Mechanics and the Junior Encyclopaedia. But standards were high, and Enid Blyton never made the cut.
Each book in the library had a lending slip inside the front cover. Bob had the words “This book is alive” printed below the Archangel monogram, along with a plea to the children to treat the book as a living thing. The children however needed little encouragement to look after the books and their enthusiasm for their contents was astonishing.
Edna Manley, an enthusiastic supporter of the Centre, roped in a number of artist friends, and soon after the opening day they began art classes in the purpose built studio on the first floor. A young multi-talented librarian, Carmen Lawrence, started teaching music, and dance classes were soon added with help from Ivy Baxter. These activities grew and prospered, and are still going on today at the Centre. Out of them grew three great Jamaican schools, for art, music and the dance. These have now come together in the impressive Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
Throughout all of this Bob Verity was ever present. He enjoyed the company of the children and would feed off their ideas and opinions. He was known as Uncle Bob to everyone, and the door to his office just off the front lobby of the Centre was open to everyone – child, adult, or tramp off the street. He always said that he had 10,000 children, and they always came first in his thinking. His own child, Jeremy, didn’t seem to mind being the 10,001th!
He lavished love on everything he did, and in the continuing success of his creation, the Junior Centre, that love is returned. It is appropriate that his memorial stone is in that front lobby for all of the successors of those first 10,000 children to see.
Uncle Bob’s innovations didn’t stop there. He initiated and presented Lunch Hour Concerts in the Institute of Jamaica concert hall, a tradition that carries on today at the Edna Manley College. He obtained a budget to acquire paintings for the IoJ exhibition gallery, which became the foundation collection of the National Gallery of Jamaica, a department of the IoJ that was his creation.
All this was only the start of the Creation Act of Uncle Bob’s life. For over 10 years, up to 1950, he was the voice of Children’s Hour on ZQI, the local radio service. He acted in plays and pantomimes. Between 1945 and 1970, he organised cantatas of over 300 voices on the playing fields of Wolmer’s High School, and, in 1955, Jamaica Bandwagon, a massive travelling road show featuring Jamaican music and popular performers which took place on a portable stage in the open air in all 14 parishes of the island. He was highly amused that all of this was in celebration of 300 years of British colonial rule, a rule he worked hard in his spare time to bring to an end.
He rescued the historic 100 year old cast iron Victoria Market, a derelict fruit & vegetable market on the water front at the foot of King’s Street, turning it into a remarkable Arts & Craft market, providing a huge space for the display and sale of Jamaican handicraft and fine art to local buyers and foreign tourists. The existence of the market encouraged a phenomenal growth in the handicraft industry in Jamaica and provided much needed new jobs for people with skill and talent. It is sad that, while the Crafts Market still exists, it is no longer housed in the old classic building; this was destroyed in a breath-taking act of vandalism as part of Edward Seaga’s project to redevelop the waterfront.
In the later part of this middle period of his life, Uncle Bob served as Principal of the Jamaica School of Art and then of the Jamaica School of Music. He was always proud that he helped encouraged Sir Willard White to give up the day job and become a professional singer.
In the 1970s Uncle Bob’s life changed completely, and in a sense he returned to where he had started. He left behind his secular activities and took holy orders as a Deacon in the Catholic Church. He married Carmen Lawrence, who had been his partner in the development of the Junior Centre, and succeeded him as Director when he left. He became a co-pastor at the UWI chaplaincy at the Aquinas Centre, Mona, and a chaplain at the University Hospital. He taught in the Theology Department at UWI.
In resuming his theological studies, he became an active participant in the worldwide debate on morals and faith that was part of the reforms of Vatican II. He was a pioneer in developing Catholic Social Action in the Caribbean. He also made a major contribution to the development of a Jamaican flavour of Liberation Theology, an important and little known body of work now once again worthy of consideration because it corresponds closely to the ideas and example of the new Pope Francis.
It may look like a coda to his career, but in fact it was as important a part of his life as anything he had done before. It was an outward expression of his deep spirituality and faith, which allowed him to be closer to his God while still serving those around him in need of loving care, support and guidance. The poor of his parish, the distressed in the hospital, and the students in the seminary were all now his children and he continued to change their lives until the end of his.
To know him, was to know someone gentle and loving, wise and learned, witty and humorous. He was often very funny. He had a massive store of jokes: some good, some corny, some you could tell your maiden aunt from Troon, others a little bit naughty. He was generous to a fault, and would often give away his last farthing, or pattie, but never, I think, his last scoop of ice cream. But most important of all, he was the most unprejudiced and forgiving person this sloth has ever met.
It is a truism that success has many authors, failure is an orphan. In some ways, Bob Verity’s life adds verisimilitude to the platitude. Our Jamaican social history is not very well recorded or very accurate. We do not seem good at diaries, biography and personal archives. Perhaps we are too busy to keep them. If you look around at the enduring legacy Bob Verity left Jamaica, you will see few mentions of his name. Credit for the creation of this or for that, is claimed or given to other people; he is often just written out of the history. This is not to say that those people are in any way unworthy. They were, most of them, involved in the work; but they were neither the architect of the vision nor the chief engineer of the build.
It must have irked a little, this lack of recognition, but I suspect not a lot. He was never vain about public honours, although he was proud of the C.D. and Musgrave Medals he was awarded, but largely, I think, because they were Jamaican. He also accepted an MBE, a colonial British honour. When chided by his son for accepting this Imperial bauble, he replied “Son, you can make a big gesture rejecting an OBE or a knighthood, but so many thousand MBEs are handed out, rejecting one would be feeble.”
Uncle Bob knew that the only recognition worth having, was to be remembered by all the ‘children’ whose lives he changed, and continues to change through the institutions he founded or helped build, and which still function today. It was his gentleness and love that built these things and changed these lives: that is his monument. So happy rest, Uncle Bob, you have earned and richly deserve it.
For a sloth, three-toed or otherwise, I am unusually garrulous. As a species we are shy and retiring. If we have thoughts, we tend to keep them to ourselves. What we think, and what we think of, usually goes unshared. Sloths rarely do social media.
But I am different. I am always happy, at a party, in a bar, over dinner, to talk, lecture sometimes, on almost anything. This often annoys my friends; why they continue to tolerate me, I don’t know. But there are many, many people who would rather be in Slough than exposed to my tedious flow. There is one, in this part of the forest, who, seeing my approach, develops an absorbed interest in the nearest verge, in each blade of grass, each tiny ant, each purple vetch; an absorption that lasts until I am well out of sight.
There are certain subjects for which I reserve a very slothly reticence. These include feminism and feminist writings; the possibility of love; the state of English cricket; the rights, and wrongs, of both the Palestinian and the Israeli causes; the taste of bara lawr, laverbread; the hurts siblings visit on each other; the meaning of poetry; whether her bum looked big in this. The list goes on. It’s very varied: the important, the trivial, the purely academic, the highly personal.
Over the years that I have been unable to write or speak, about these things, but have never fully understood the reasons for my silence. It is not that I don’t have views, or couldn’t develop views, about them. I most certainly do and could. But on these subjects there is just The Silence of the Sloths.
Perhaps there is some sort of early warning system in the brain which detects a social minefield ahead, and inhibits comment? There could well be; evolution is full of such mechanisms to preserve the species. But if there is, in my case, it is highly dysfunctional. Where was it on all the occasions I bored a dinner table into slumber?
Could it be a fear of giving offence? In some cases, yes. But in general, I’m happy to discuss sensitive subjects like religion and politics and faddish diets, all guaranteed to cause offence to someone. And, anyway, who could take offence at thoughts on the meaning of poetry or the delights of laverbread?
Maybe these things are too painfully personal to explore, even in the privacy of my own head, much less in the open forum. In some instances, yes, but surely not in all. The case is often that I may be happy to discuss my last operation in great detail, but not my last visit to the proctologist. Both equally personal, both equally uncomfortable, so where is the logic in laying bare the one but not the other? Consider also that you may be prepared to discuss your own mortality, but do not choose to explore in public the reality of the process of your own death. But truly, in both cases, you could quite easily swap the subjects around and still be none the wiser about why you can talk about the one, but not the other.
Why is this? Why, when we struggle so hard to be logical, rational, consistent sloths, is the brain so capricious? Is there some survival value in this? And if so, why do some people have the enviable capacity to remain silent when they should, and speak only when wisdom dictates? Is that the direction in which the survival value works? It’s possible, because the silent man is less likely to provoke the deadly one.
Then, if judicious silence has survival value, why do so few people have the mechanism that promotes it? For I am not alone in this deficiency. It is my observation, speaking as a rather too voluble sloth, that the majority of us say too much, to too many people, all too often.
In the past, the harm done by engaging the mouth before the brain has had a chance to edit the content, has mostly been limited by the small group we can reach at the dinner table, the party or the pub. But in the new virtual world of instant communications, the likes of Facebook, of Twitter, and of WordPress, which powers this blog, allows all of us to speak our minds without fear of the consequences. That can be a good thing, but only provided that the mind is well prepared, and the words well chosen. But it can be incredibly harmful to us, and to others, when they are not. Pardon me for being a grouch, but a lot of what I see out there is pretty harmful.
Social communications tools can fool us into believing that, when we write, or speak, or make a video, and post it online, we are talking in a private space – a virtual dinner table, party or pub. But we are not. We are shouting to the world from a platform so vast in its reach, and so compelling in its influence, that Hitler or Stalin would have given half their empires to have it at their disposal.
Whatever we write or say in this space can come back to bite us; it can even destroy us, and those around us. Our words can be weapons of mass destruction. Already, global companies are trawling social media to build up our own words (and those of others) to use against us when we apply for jobs or ask for a loan or rent a house. I know of people who have been fired for comments they made, in privacy (they thought) online. If private companies do it, you can be sure that government departments are at it as well. And we haven’t yet touched on trolls…
So it would be best for us, for our own survival, to look into ourselves, and consider not only what we think, but what we should do with the thoughts we think. We need the wisdom to know which of these to communicate, how to phrase them and with whom to share.
Take it from me; you need the wisdom to know that it’s alright to leave some things unsaid.
In the first part of this post, I told you that my friend and sponsor, Jeremy, although Jamaican, a descendant of many national strands, felt a strong secondary attachment to his Scottish roots. That he was opposed to all forms of nationalism, which he felt were dangerous. That he felt conflicted about the Scottish Independence Referendum.
So now, at last, we come to the nature of his conflict.
Despite his feelings about nationalism, when it comes to Scotland, he finds himself deeply nationalistic.
“In the sixties,” he told me, “I was friendly with the Scottish journalist Bill Carrocher who claimed to have once edited the Rhum Muck & Eigg Times, but I doubt it ever existed. However, the BBC local radio in Gaelic for the Highland and Islands certainly did exist and Bill was its first manager. When I met him he worked for the Foreign Office and, would, after a few drams, most undiplomatically and loudly say ‘What I look forward to, is becoming Scotland’s first Ambassador to the Court of St James!'”
Bill was a very funny man and a great story teller, so at first Jeremy thought he was joking. Probing a little, however, revealed a serious thinker about the place of Scotland in the world and its need, as he saw it, to stand apart from the rest of the UK as an independent nation. Remember, this was before the arrival of oil wealth and the ravages of M. Thatcher on the Scottish social services and its industrial economy. Bill’s thinking was not a reaction to the devastation of Scotland wrought by London, but a thought through nationalism based on a long view of Scottish, and of English, history. “He made a very convincing case for Scottish nationalism.” Jeremy says. “My grandparents would have bought it. I nearly did, but in the end I held back, partly because of my mistrust of nationalist causes.”
Bill lived to see devolution and a resurgent Scottish Parliament, and was he alive today he would be out on the hustings pushing the Yes case with all his eloquence.
Part of Jeremy’s problem back then, and even now, was that, and still is that, other than the distrust of nationalism, any argument based on a long view of Scottish history, and it relationship to English history, is certain to be unreliable. Unreliable because that history itself is unreliable. The incompleteness of its sources; the partisan divisions of the peoples it records; the conflicts of ethnicity and language and culture and class and religion: all contribute to an absence of consensus even among Scots as to what happened and why it happened and what the true consequences were. “This worries me,” Jeremy has written, “for in my view a people who do not have a largely shared view of their history cannot have a largely shared identity.”
It is true that out of the devastation of the Thatcher years, a sort of Scottish identity seems to have emerged to which most Scots can subscribe. But Jeremy feels it is an identity based on a mythical Scottishness, one that papers over the cracks rather than repairing them. It is an identity born out of a reaction to English callousness, but does it have utility in a devolved or independent Scotland? He thinks not.
So, here is his conflict in a nutshell. His heart hopes for an independent Scotland. But his head tells him that there must be reasons stronger than just nationalism to occasion this constitutional rearrangement.
What could those be?
Well, firstly, a more reliable account of Scottishness than the kilts and haggis and peat fire mythology currently on offer. An account of Scotland and Scottishness which recognises the fault lines in the communities and offers a path to repairing them.
Secondly, a vision of what an Independent Scotland will be. It’s the same as the Polish Question at the start: Scotland, yes – but what sort of Scotland? Jeremy thinks that in the campaign so far, this question has not been addressed by the Yes campaign. It seems beyond the First Minister to rise above bully-boy posturing over the pound, or EU membership, or Anglo-bashing, to provide us with a comprehensive, solid vision of what an Independent Scotland will be like to live in, to be the neighbour of, and to encounter in the wider world.
Jeremy doesn’t have a vote in the Referendum. Even so, he is conflicted. While he wants Scotland to be independent, and would want to vote ‘Yes’; based on the uncertain prospectus the Scots Nats are promoting, his common sense would insist he vote ‘No’.
For Jeremy’s greatest fear is, that on the night of the referendum, when a resounding ‘Yes’ vote has rolled in, Alex Salmond, standing on the podium acknowledging the cheering crowds, will turn to his deputy, and echoing the words of the Robert Redford character in The Candidate, say: “What the f**k do we do now?”
I have over many years given great thought to the sorry state of our nations, the sad decline of the social contract, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the wealth and power of rich individuals and corporations. I have tried to understand the reasons for the rot, and imagine remedies, but this has been a slow progress, as sloths tend to do things slowly.
Today, I want to propose three simple reforms that in themselves cannot entirely remedy the situation, but will, I predict, start a wave of reform that should re-empower the powerless and harness the energy and creativity of the powerful in the interests of the commonweal.
Proposal No. 1.
Abolish the offside rule in Association Football
Football, the kicking only sort, is often called the ‘beautiful game’. But is it? Really? How can it be beautiful if it attracts so many unpleasant supporters worldwide? Men, mostly, easily prone to violence, racism, sexism and most of the other -isms that corrupt our world. Why doesn’t it attract more women? Why don’t you see more families at football matches? After all rugby, both codes, has great support from both sexes and all ages, who enjoy their game without the hatred, violence and crime that often marks soccer.
I believe it has something to do with the frustration of the relative absence of goal scoring in the modern professional game. High scoring games are more satisfying than goal-less draws, fans come away happier, and happy fans are less prone to vice. But as long as the offside rule applies, few games will be high scoring. So we should abolish it.
It’s a very simple rule change, and need not involve paying any monies to bribe any FIFA official, because each national ruling body can decide on implementing it without regard to what the others are doing. After all, the original codification of the rules of soccer was decided by one body without reference to any other.
The effect of the change will be immediate. Games will be improved because many more goals will be scored. The people who pay for the sport will be given more of what they pay to see, i.e. goals, and enjoy, the moments of triumph and despair as the ball bangs into the net. Violence will be reduced. First because of the joy spread by the multiplicity of goals and resulting happiness of the fans. Second, because so many of the occasions for argument and debate about whether a goal was a goal, whether the ref was blind, partisan or bribed, etc. etc. will be eliminated, significantly reducing the excuses for fights to break out.
Thus improved the game will attract a whole new audience. People like me, rugby league fans, who cannot be arsed to get their heads around a rule that nobody, least of all the participants, really understands. Women and children will be encouraged to take part in greater numbers, both in playing and in watching the game once the aggression and violence is reduced or eliminated, to the great improvement of all our lives.
Proposal No. 2
Royalty is an anachronism. It underpins a system based on rank, privilege and inequality. It breeds a fundamental injustice in any state where it is established, and we would be better off without it. But how to get rid of it in a civilised, graceful way? Without chopping off heads, for example?
I propose that in all monarchies worldwide, the government should sell off Royalty to the public in a grand IPO. Arguments that the public already owns Royalty are just so much legalistic nit-picking. Shares in Royalty could be offered in the first place only to citizens, or in the case of the United Kingdom to subjects, of the country concerned.
Based on previous experience, once trading in the shares begins, people will sell them off at the first opportunity, and pretty soon Royalty the world over will be owned by International Corporations, hedge funds and Sovereign Wealth funds, mostly that of China. It won’t really matter that Royalty will be in the hands of foreigners, after all, in many places, it already is.
After some years, Royalty enterprises will be owned by the giants of the entertainment business – Sony, Time Warner, Disney and the Murdochs. Even Lego might have a go. After all they are already in Windsor with a Legoland, so it would be natural for them to expand it into Royal Lego Windsorland. Or perhaps Lego should settle for a smaller monarchy, perhaps Belgian, and then there could be real competition with Royal Windsor Disneyland up the road?
The benefits of this are threefold: money for the various governments at the initial sell off; profit for the citizens when they sell on their shares; and the greater competitiveness of the newly privatised Royalty will generate greatly increased direct and indirect income year on year for the nations.
How come Mrs Thatcher didn’t think of this?
Proposal No. 3
The National Lottery of Life
Over the last forty years, wealth, influence and power have been concentrated in fewer hands. The vast majority of people around the world have become poorer in real terms and have lost the power to control the people and corporations that control their lives. I have a simple proposition which, if implemented, will correct this drift in very short order and restore our world to some sort of balance.
Each country should institute a National Lottery of Life. There could also be Regional Lotteries of Life to take care of supra-national agglomerations such as the European Union.
The National Lottery of Life would work like this:
Each month the names of say 10,000 of the movers and shakers in any country would be put into a grand tombola basket. The exact number is immaterial, but it should be based on the size of the country and, more importantly, the number that makes up its power broking elite.
Whose names would be included? Well the politicians, obviously. Top civil servants. Church, Temple, Mosque and Synagogue leaders. Judges, top brass in the military, police and security services. Leaders of industry and business. Bankers, lots of bankers. Influential journalists, actors, entertainers. In fact anyone with significant quantities of money, of power and of influence. Probably not Royalty, we took care of them in Proposal No. 2, but many of their hangers on would be in the tombola.
The exact details of the qualifications needed to be one the list needs to be worked out, but when it is, it must be published widely. This is nothing less than a totally open lottery.
So now we’ve got all the names in the basket. Here’s what happens. Every fortnight, or every month in countries with small populations, a draw is held. This must be available to everyone to witness if they want to, so Saturday night TV would be a good medium. So far not much different from what happens every Saturday night in most countries.
The draw would consist of pulling out an arbitrary number of names; ten would probably be the optimum. Great care must be taken to see that the draw is truly random. If this proposal is to work, no one must be able to suggest that power, or money or influence could affect the outcome.
Now the people whose names are drawn are given this challenge: “We will place at your disposal all the facilities of the best film makers and writers, to create a 10 minute TV package justifying your position, wealth, etc. and your continued existence in our nation or, possibly, on earth. We will give you two weeks (or even a month) to do this, but at the end of it you must return and, on the next edition of The National Lottery of Life, play your film to the watching nation, which will decide in a telephone vote whether, or not, you will continue to enjoy your power, wealth, influence or life.”
A bit like Big Brother, or Strictly Come Dancing, but without the tacky ‘E List’ celebs.
Winners in The National Lottery of Life are returned to their normal existence, and their names removed from the tombola for at least three years. Losers, sadly – or maybe not sadly – are taken out and disposed of in any way a particular nation sees fit.
Of course I realise that to be a totally fair lottery, we will need to put in the names of good people alongside those of the bad. That means, there will be a fair smattering of ‘National Treasures’ – Sir David Attenborough, Dame Maggie Smith, bloody Stephen Fry. But, because it will be a perfectly fair process, they will not have to worry, everyone will vote them winners. In fact I have already written Sir David’s script. It consists of simply one sentence: “My name is David Attenborough.” That’s it – he wins. Not so sure about Stephen Fry though.
Wondering how this benefits the nation? Well it’s this. Once The National Lottery of Life is up and running, every time a civil servant or politician makes a decision that affects our lives, he or she will pause, and think how they will justify it in their 10 minutes on the NL of L. Every time a banker decides to pay himself a gigantic bonus or a business leader decides to pay herself 175 times what her average employee earns, she will pause and think of her 10 minutes in the limelight. Every time a bishop or imam issues some bull or fatwa in the name of God, they will pause … well, you get my drift.
If we adopt The National Lottery of Life, I promise you that the level of attention that the rich and powerful pay to our welfare will increase a thousand fold.