Posts Tagged ‘tv’

I still pay for a television licence, but I can’t remember when I last watched a scheduled broadcast. I used to listen to the BBC on my morning commute, but not for years now. As for commercial radio you know how that goes? You eventually find a tune you like, but before you settle into it, it cuts to an advert followed by a load of verbal drivel from the DJ. So, if I want music I bypass the radio, plug in the Android and listen to MP3. If I want debate or current affairs, I go online, listen to a podcast on a topic that interests me. It cuts out the adverts and the false adversarial baying, and it restores a contemplative calm to the day.

I still have a TV, left over from the noughties, but I only ever cast media to it from other online sources. Broadcast media is expensive to produce and, in a bean-counter culture, the key performance indicators are listener numbers. How do you grow and hold an audience? You present a diet of inflammatory material with the intent to create outrage.

We see this in the mainstream TV and print media, where intelligent and genuine debate is obsolete. But its most prevalent on Social Media, where outrage is manufactured and monetised to a fine science. This was brought home to me when searching online for material on the history of philosophy. That search took me to Bryan Magee and a series of broadcasts he did in the nineteen eighties. What struck me was that such material would never find air-time now. If you want it, you have to go online, but to a layer of the web beneath the bubble-gum of social media.

Yes, the Internet is a repository for all that is the worst in human thinking, but also the very best. It now hosts some of the finest contemporary thought, and acts as curator of our past, preserving valuable material that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Culturally, we have reached a point of transition. We’re living in the so-called post-modern era, but post-modernism has stalled. It has lost itself in a tangle of ideologically defined oppressor/oppressed relationships and has birthed a bewildering spawn of identity politics and endless cultural wars that defy common sense. This basically means any one of us can identify as being the member of an oppressed group. It also means each of us can be accused of oppressing someone else, even if we’ve never met them. Heavens, I sound like a Tory!

The cultural periods of human history mark the stages of our evolution as a species. When evolution stalls, it back-tracks to the last known good position and tries another way. The chaos we see now is the vacuum left by evolution on its hasty retreat from leading edge post-modernism, away from the venal tribalism it has led us into.

Many thinkers have sensed this. Some are pessimistic and predict our demise in the flames of anarchy and planetary heat-death. Others see a glimmer of hope in various online voices. But that debate is complex and subtle and must avoid the outrage between artificially inflated tribal camps. It’s therefore not a debate you’ll ever find in the mainstream news broadcasts, or the magazines now.

Its nexus is an informal group of thinkers and facilitators, the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Some of its voices, like Ken Wilbur and Jordan Peterson have been around for a long time. They come from a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and psychology from spirituality and tech. The result is a penetrating analysis of our present ills and a potential way forward. But it involves breaking the post-modern grip. This is already happening anyway. We see it in the reaction of politics. Culturally, the leading edge has adopted neo-Marxist ideals, and the mirror-image of that is political authoritarianism, and proto-fascism. It’s a bewildering paradox to bear witness to.

One of the most influential voices against post-modernism in recent years has been Jordan Peterson’s. What’s striking about Peterson is the degree to which the mainstream pundits, both left and right, misrepresent him. Claimed by the right for his critique of the left, Peterson is a-political but possibly slightly left-liberal. To know him though you have to engage with his material, read his books, sit through his online-lectures. This also takes you to the heart of the intellectual dark web. If you’re looking for sound-bites to define this movement, you’re not of the movement, more the subject of it.

I’m very much of the left when it comes to my own politics, but the left has taken particularly ill to Peterson and that puzzles me because I find him tremendously enlightening, and I can only conclude it’s a tribal reaction to someone telling you something you don’t want to hear. Indeed, his critique of the radical neo-Marxist left, is sobering. As a moderate leftist who has never read Marx, I am mindful of its post-revolutionary slide into the Gulag. The radical Marxists who run our university Humanities departments, seem to have forgotten it. Instead, they have created for us a thousand identity barriers for us to trip over, while leaving out the fact we are, above all human.

As we become more polarized, culturally and politically, the moderates of both camps, left and right, find themselves without a home, find themselves de-platformed from the mainstream for wanting to discuss what, in post-modern terms, are now taboo subjects. So they’ve begun to coalesce around this intellectual dark web. Here the moderate leftists and conservative thinkers engage in meaningful conversation. Online, they are unhindered by sound-bite culture, and don’t need to curtail their presentations to suit a snappy TV editorial format. Peterson’s lectures can last for hours, yet he attracts millions of viewers, so there is a hunger for this material, a hunger for a way out of the bind we find ourselves in.

We are all a mixture of good ideas and bad, we all hold a piece of the truth. Therefore, the way ahead can only be the vector sum of all the truths, as articulate, thinking individuals open themselves up in non-adversarial discussion. But to get to that point requires a degree of sincere debate that is no longer possible via the usual mainstream channels. If you vote conservative I call you a right wing nut job, and you call me a lib-tard commie bastard, both of us intent on nothing more than saving face. That’s a zero sum game, and we should all know the extremes at both ends lead to murder and to lost generations.

With the rise of social media and surveillance capitalism, the Internet looked set to ruin us, and it still might. I don’t know to what extent the Intellectual Dark Web can influence the debate back to common sense, lurking as it does beneath a surface scum of click-baity dross. It seems an unlikely place for the intellect to regroup and to pivot post-modernism away from the disaster it seems to be openly courting. But for now I am lending it my optimism.

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aylesburyI took the conveyor of the living dead, the M6, south, picked it up from the East Lancs road, let it carry me down to the M5 intersection, a run of about ninety miles. It took three hours, an hour longer than it took in 1985. Goods wagons formed a fairly solid convoy, swelling both the inner and the middle lanes, all the way. Only a fast car in the outside lane, and a driver with no imagination could have reduced the journey time, but only then by a smidgen and it did not seem worth it to me.

Road works and the sheer heaviness of traffic joining at various junctions slows progress to a clutch-foot killing stop-start. The last ten miles to the M5 were like that. It’s always like that now, seems a little worse each time.

Things picked up from the M5, finally managing a decent cruise speed on adequate roads – the M42, and the M40 to Bicester. Then it was the arrow straight line of the old A41 to Aylesbury for the night – all told, another hundred miles, which, by contrast with the conveyor of the living dead, took just a couple of hours. I conclude the North is being crushed under a weight of rubber, and heavy goods in transit.

I was driving a hired car, one of those suddenly controversial Volkswagens, an iced white 2.0 L diesel Passat. Its generous proportions kept me sane in heavy traffic, and it went like a rocket on those finally open stretches of the M40. I set the Satnav to ping me if we went over 70, and 70 felt as sedate as 30. It is a beautiful machine, state of the art in automotive design, responded to the pedal with an assertive rush and a growl of the turbo, yet barely consumed a quarter of a tank of fuel.

Still, I do not envy the company rep who drives these sorts of distances every day, though I suppose one must get used to them. I am certainly less fatigued by a six hour drive now than when I was young – although I remember journeys like this taking much less time twenty years ago. My average speed was 38. It used to be 45.

council offices aylesburyI saw little of Aylesbury, rolled in at rush hour and with the sun just setting. The civic building, the so called Frank’s Fort rose, an ambitious 200 feet, an early 60’s dour grey monolith, illumined by its multitudinous windows. The last rays of the sun picked out the glass and lent it a fantastical appearance, dominating the town in the gathering dusk.

Although this was my first visit to the town, I’d already driven in the day before, in virtual mode at least, looking for the hotel on Google’s marvellous Streetview thing-a-ma-bob. It lent an eerie sense of deja vu, seeing those junctions, the roundabouts and the skyline once more, when I drove in for real. I found the turning for the hotel with the combined help of Google’s preview andmy “CoPilate’s” Satnav precision, and there I pulled in safe at last to rest. I remember we used to manage such navigational dead reckoning with nothing more than a sketch map and a bit of common sense. I wouldn’t like to try that now. Is the world more complicated, or am I just older and slower?

The hotel was new, parking on the roof. Steel-lined elevators took me down to the newly refurbished waterfront of the Grand Union Canal, all clean lines and crapless. Barges gurgled in anachronistic contentment at their moorings, looking out across a wide paved piazza, to the clean white edifice of new office blocks – citadel of the homogeneous modern workplace, potential of a thousand souls sitting behind computer screens in open plan.

The hotel was quiet and comfortable. I did not venture out, but ate in the  somewhat Spartan cafe. I was one of perhaps twenty diners that evening, and the only one not peering at a hand-held screen, because I’d left mine in the room and felt conspicuous without it now, as if sitting there without trousers. The wall mounted TV was tuned to Heart radio which jarred somewhat. I counted only two staff. My meal was an hour in coming, industrially bland but adequate. They did their best, were smiling, friendly, outnumbered.

Corporate efficiencies are often times impressive in their attentions to the removal of detail. The bathrooms no longer furnish little blocks of soap. Besides the cost of them, there’s the time penalty in servicing the room. Much more efficient is the foam dispenser, but as a guest I do not like to wash my face with it. Instead, I subvert the system by foreknowledge, and bring my own soap.

The room rocks, vibrates to the beat of my heart. In fact it is my heart, a slow pulse that travels the length of my body. Fatigue of the road, I suppose. I write a little. Update the journal, run through another draft of the Sea View Cafe, in so far as I have it down to date. Fin and Min are becoming much loved companions now. Then I channel-zap the wall mounted television. Entertainment ranges from the banal to the grotesque. I find little to linger upon except a curious episode of Stargate Atlantis.

This holds my attention for a while, partly because I realise it has a female lead at the upper end of what Hollywood would consider a permissibly attractive age. Any older and it might become confusing for the audience. Women any older than this struggle to find parts in movie drama unless they are playing the stereotypically annoying old person/grandmother, and certainly not as a potentially romanceable lead. It is as if the writers of visual fiction consider a woman to lose her power when she is no longer capable of Galatean transformation.

I was never a Stargate Atlantis fan, but like much of TV drama aired any time between now and 1975, I have probably seen it before, soaked it all in to the subliminal zone from where a passive suggestibility arises. Sci-Fi, Kitchen Sink, Police drama, Soapy Suds – all are interchangeable, each derived from the other in an incestuous orgy of diminishing returns.

When I think of my own stories I am as guilty of this as anyone, my unconscious suggestibility raising the age of romantic leads as I have aged myself until, I note, I broke the half century, when I time-locked the male at 45, and the female at around 38, thus exposing my own inadequacy and prejudice at the same time. I apologise to women who are older, plead only that it may be I am considering myself no longer substantially active in this way, that I must rely on imagination and memory from here on in.

By lunch time the following day I am on the M5 again, approaching Birmingham, heading north. Home by tea time – another two hundred miles of nose to tail, a round trip of four hundred miles.

Eleven hours in a car.

It is a strange meditation to be on the road for so long. One cannot switch off, obviously, since driverless cars are as yet only a promise of the near future, but neither can we allow ourselves to become coiled tight in readiness for a collision or we would not last an hour on the roads as they are now. Relaxed focus is the key. The company rep must have it in oodles. My mind wanders, thinks, channel zaps strange things.

I wonder if I have thought them all before.

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I’m not seeing the world in much depth at the moment. I know this because I’m growing once more prone to irritation, to entanglement in emotional snares. I should be old enough and wise enough to avoid such things by now, but instead seem at times set to become one of those grumpy old guys who shouts at the radio.Hopefully I can avoid this fate but the signs are not promising. I shouted at the radio last night, on the long, sticky commute home, then again at the TV, at the po faced presenter announcing with barely subdued glee the latest bit of grim news, of why we should be afraid, that the sky is falling and the world is going to hell. And all that.

So I took a walk, a circuit from home that included a large bite out of the Lancashire plain. It was a humid evening after heavy rain, the tracks just drying out. There were muddy puddles to splash through, and the meadows steamed sleepily, slugs and snails making their glistening trails as they slid ponderously about their business, unconcerned by the stupidity of men or the quest for wholeness.

I met one other person, a woman walking her dog. As we approached each other from opposite directions, I looked at her, intending to give her a polite smile, (to be translated as “I’m harmless”), but she was otherwise engaged, talking animatedly into her ‘phone. I noted how her dog shuffled along with a reluctant gait and what appeared to me to be a dejected expression, as if the poor beast lacked attention and had long given up expecting any. I reeled the smile back in, did not bother to say hello, and carried on my way.

The plain is not an overly stimulating place, no sense of Wow in the scenery, just a gridwork of straight tracks, laid down in the long ago, and always disappearing into the distance like an artist’s simplistic study in perspective. The tracks are flanked by deep, almost defensive ditchworks, also thorny hedgerows barring access to the vast meadows beyond, where they grow wheat, potatoes, carrots, oilseed, sprouts, barley, cabbage, and weeds. But for all this seasonal vegetal variety, the view is unchanging, the only real interest being in the sky which is at times a wide and ever moving canvas of delight.

Last night it was beautifully animated, the dusky hour rendering broody contrasts in colour and a full pallet: vanilla, tobacco, washday white, murky grey and steely blue. The atmosphere was dynamic, displaying the whole geography book of cloud types – the low and creeping, the exuberantly puffy, and the ominously towering, and I could see heavy showers slanting down as they swept the horizon. We lacked only lightning bolts to complete the story.

It being a circular walk, I met the woman again some thirty minutes later, still talking into her ‘phone. I did not bother to look this time, but kept my eyes alternately on the track, and on the sky.The dog’s spirits had not rallied much. In its weary glance I caught a twinkle of past memories, of balls tossed, of splashing shoulder deep in ponds to fetch sticks, of having ears fondled and belly tickled, tongue lolling at the simple pleasures of a dog’s life. But such things were a long time ago, I suspect.

There were just two of us out that night, but only one of us had noticed the sky, and the fact of my wry observation of this fact told me I wasn’t really seeing it in much depth either. What was it to me that the woman had spent the whole time talking on her ‘phone instead of being simply “present” in the world? What was it to me she might have seen more in that night’s episode of East Enders, or Corrie, or Emmerdale, than in that glorious dome of sky? Why could she not have talked instead to her dog? Made him happy instead of trailing him along like just another dull task in hand? What was any of that to do with me?

Ah, but when we are out of sorts and irritated by what we see as the apparent shortcomings of others, I find it is usually something in ourselves that’s crying out for attention. And is depression of the spirit not always presaged by the black dog that’s given up on expecting to be noticed?

Reading back into my diary, peeling away the years, I feel a greater depth in my words a decade ago than now, and fear more recent times have fetched me up in shallow waters. But then again I find passages that suggest I have always felt this way, that an aversion to shallowness is one of the permanently bounding conditions of my psyche, the other being a paradoxical fear of drowning in waters that are out of my depth. So I oscillate between the two, reaching back into the past for that mythical hoard of depth and wisdom, and fearing tomorrow for its inevitable loss.

It was a shame though, I mean that the woman missed that beautiful sky. Feeling my own presence beneath its dome, I was granted sufficient grace to return home in less of a mood for shouting at the radio.

How often though we hurry by, lost in the world of our thoughts, or caught up reacting to the thoughts of others. The whole of human society is made up of the things we either think or have thought into being, and much of human thinking is prone to fault, yet still it consumes us; we think that to think is the most cherished of all human gifts. By contrast, the world does not think at all. It just is, and this lends it a stillness which, if we can only transcend thinking for a moment, allows to to see ourselves in the wider context, in the third person so to speak, as a portal of life, unique and sparkly-small beneath that simple dome of sky.

There are those who live to move and shape society by influencing thought, but I am not one of them – at least no longer. I accept this may be a fault, that there may be things, thoughts I possess, that might be of benefit to the world, but in the world of thought, influence must be won, fought for, talked for animatedly like the woman on her phone. And I am not a talker, not a fighter. I am too remote, withdrawn from the world, and by ambition set only to become more withdrawn, an ever greater space between myself and the noise of thought and the glitter of the ten thousand things.

Being nobody, going nowhere – the Buddhist meditation. I am nothing. Our only purpose in life is our awakening to that sobering revelation, or if we already suspect it, then to its acceptance, that life is a journey to nowhere if it does not lead eventually into silence, into the realisation of nothingness. But this is not the nothingness of a dead thing, but the emptiness of pure presence and one has only to experience the most fleeting moment to feel also the joy in it and to know viscerally, this is a direction that is intrinsically true and worth the years of nurturing.

I do hope that poor dog cheered up when it got home.

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slarts1_001I find my dreams are mostly wordless. They are filled instead with an imagery from which understanding and meaning flow naturally, and in a way that suggests it is the verbal language we adopt in waking life that slows cognition, renders it as something pedestrian and ambiguous. Last night I dreamed I had returned to college, a late middle-ager, older even than the oldest of my tutors. My course materials consisted of a set of antiquated 35mm slides, arranged in a specific order. At some point a young girl in my class, a fellow student, had upset the slides, tipped them out into the dust and was building them up into random piles, losing for ever their original intent, mangling what I had taken to be the coherent run of their narrative, thus denying me what I had thought was progress. I was frustrated by this, but the tutor shrugged it off. It didn’t matter a damn, he was saying. The images had no meaning in themselves, no meaning either in the way they had been originally presented, but there was always the potential for meaning in some new way of seeing. Later I drank whiskey with him in the late of night. We were joined by the janitors of the college who had left their brooms, and we sat together simply as men around a table, thus transcending the usual order of things, at ease with one another in the shared intoxication of a higher truth.

The imagery of dreams renders the message itself at least vivid. Whether we interpret it correctly is a question of experience, openness and self-honesty. There was much more to this dream that I have recounted here – or indeed that I can remember – but for now the bit about the images seems clear and is the impulse behind this latest flurry of words. The dream speaks not only of itself but of the way the mind, steeped in the material world, often-times loses that looseness of interpretation, a looseness that would render the meaning of much we see about us equally and transparently numinous.

Instead, we are presented daily with a procession of imagery, ever brighter, ever sharper in detail, yet we remain lost to its deeper meaning and fall victim instead to a form of blindness, a form of corruption in which we are all complicit, as both viewers and suppliers of that imagery. To whit: my blog gained a new follower at the weekend. The Gravatar, the image, was of a pretty young thing, but alas her blog was not a blog but an online emporium selling “lifestyle”. I was supposed to click, to fall in love with her, to want to share in the myth of her promises, and buy something. This was imagery corrupted into the service of commerce, and follows on, with a curious serendipitiousness, from my earlier meditation on the corruption of our thoughts, and how we are supposed to trust and interpret things, how we are supposed to know what’s true.

The dreaming steals imagery from waking life, in the case of my dream here, from my distant past, but presents them as a reflection of something contemporary, of a pattern of thought or emotion that is emerging or seeking recognition within us. Time spent in contemplation of the dream image will usually yield an insight that is true and which will free us, while imagery of the real world, taken literally as it is, seems only to ensnare and enslave, seems only to bind us up with its falseness, with its corruption, because such images do not come from the deep collective well of the unconscious, but from a far shallower place. Still, they can be useful, if we can only see through them.

Have you noticed how television soaps occupy the prime times of our weekday scheduling? From seven ’till nine they recycle their circular plots of thwarted hopes, putting on hold the lives of tens of millions who are for ever pining for a resolution to storylines that will in fact never end, to witness at last those happy endings but which are already dissolving into conflict before the kiss of that apparent resolution has dried upon the protagonists’ fevered lips. Winter is indeed a hard time to be living in a household inured of its soap opera – nowhere to escape the fucking things! Drugs, rape, murder, deceit, and all before tea-time; a world without foundation, and in eternal free fall, This is our daily bread.

And then comes the news bulletin, a continuation of the same, a showcasing of sensational imagery: Terrorism, sexual perversion, political corruption, war and economic decline. It’s largely factual, one would hope, but sadly literal in its shallowness, and my how they trumpet and crow, eroding bit by bit our confidence in the comfortable circumference of our lives. They press us inwards, back upon ourselves, then vent us into a closed vessel, imprison us in a world where we need no longer think, and where our every fear is perpetually realised!

How to survive this onslaught of imagery? How to identify the corruption? Well, we can always ask ourselves, as in the interpretation of a dream, what part of me is reflected in this thing shoved daily in my face? Why does it grate upon me so? Or indeed why does it seduce or tease? Thus, as in the dream, the image itself is seen to be meaningful only in the sense that it is reflective of something inside of us. Thus the image, no matter how corrupt, loses both its power and its intended misdirection, and leads us instead to a deeper connection with our selves and the deeper nature of all things.

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cool catI did an odd thing this morning – I deleted a post I’d put up the night before. First time I’ve ever done that. It was a poem called “Safe in the Shire” and was basically about the violence and suffering we see on the TV news every night, and how it creeps into our bones, paints the world as a very bad place and tells us to be afraid – to be very afraid. It was a clumsy swipe at the perpetrators of that violence but also at the media for their emotionally manipulative reporting of it. I basically called them both stupid, and I called myself stupid for feeling safe and remote from the suffering, that all I had to do was turn off the TV and everything would be okay, when it clearly wasn’t. I pulled it this morning because I feel my voice is weakest when I adopt a certain tone – a negative tone. As a weapon against the forces of evil and the media, it’s about as effective as a wet dishcloth against a Kalashnikov, or like a mouse spitting in the cat’s eye.

Speaking of cats, I’m away from home at the moment, cat-sitting at my sisters house. The silence is astonishing, and the cat’s needs are refreshingly basic – just food, water, and a voice to keep it company. I can say anything I like to it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the tone that counts. They are sensitive creatures, cats, and can feel the vibes of a room through their whiskers. I speak kindly to the cat, and I mean it. I ask its advice. I ask if it’s still raining outside. I ask its opinion on the upcoming local elections. The cat is patient, but cannot hide the fact it thinks I am a little strange.

I like both cats and dogs – dogs can be tremendous fun, but of the two I am more of a cat person. I give it space. It comes and goes, shares the firelight with me for a while, then slips out through the flap. I asked it about the poem just now. It’s obviously gone away to think about it.

I’m pretty sure I know the answer. We have to be ourselves. There is indeed great suffering in the world and, beamed daily into our homes, it can affect our lives in two ways. It can make us fearful of the world, and it can harden us, render us insensitive, because it’s a distant suffering and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we shut it out. Neither is a good thing. It chips away at our humanity. It festers. It erodes our compassion for our fellow man. But I cannot counter a negative with another negative. That’s a dark game against a grand-master who’s always going to be several moves ahead. And I’m trying to see the positive, trying, like the cat, to tune its whiskers into that which makes me purr. For the cat I’ve discovered it’s a simple matter – tap the spoon against the food dish. Big purr, and I’m the cat’s new best friend. There’s positive for you in the cat world! But for humans it’s more complicated, and it isn’t helped when every image we have thrust upon us is a bad one.

So I pulled the damned poem, scrunched it up and tossed it into the electronic bin as petulant nonsense. Instead, I counter the bad news of the world tonight with the simple pleasure of being back in the house where I was born, the house where I grew up. It’s not much of a weapon, I suppose, against the forces of evil, but it’s the most sincere thing in my armoury right now, and therefore the only thing I have that’s worth anything. I have such fond memories of this place, and of my parents – both gone now – and for whose lives, unknown to the world, I give thanks. Yes, there is great suffering, the causes being always, as Krishnamurti taught us, the defective thinking of man. And as a man, I cannot counter it with yet more defective thinking, because that’s only going to make things worse. We have to be positive, even if all we have left to us are the smallest things. I was raised in love, in this house and I remember it. I feel it most strongly, and I offer it back to the world, instead of that stupid poem.

The cat’s in again, looking at me. It’s either come to tell me I’m on the right lines, or I should put another log on the burner.

“Don’t sit the fire out, Michael.” That could be my mother speaking.

Cool creatures, cats.

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british and german casualties ww1 - wikipedia - Photographer Ernest BrooksOn July 28th, this year, it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. Already the commemorative columns and books are hitting the press. This is to be expected and indeed welcomed because the lessons taught by the trauma of the Great War cannot be overstated or too often repeated. But less expected has been an attempt by voices within the British establishment and the media to repackage the war in a less than cautionary light. Of particular note, TV presenter, historian and “personality” Dan Snow writes that most of what we think we know of the war is a myth, and that much of the bad press surrounding the war has been overplayed – that as conflicts go, it wasn’t so bad. Indeed he writes there is much in our (allied forces) conduct of the war to be proud of, and that far from being worse off, most men who fought were better looked after than they would have been had they stayed at home.

You can read that article here.

This came as a shock to me since my own impression of the war comes from other writings, all of which paint a very different picture, one that is much at odds with this rather more “upbeat” view, but the argument runs that the things I’ve read were written by authors equally bent on a re-visioning of the truth, so all we are left with now are the myths.

But what it was really like for the men who fought? Can we no longer get at the truth of it? Was it simply too long ago? Well, let’s not forget the personal accounts, both poetic and narrative. These words cannot be massaged to suit the prevailing mood of the times, and therefore remain for ever the most forcible in persuading us of the horror, the inhumanity and the sheer stupidity of war. In this centenary year, I will not be “celebrating” the conflict in the sense of making a flag-waving Jubilee out of it, but I will be marking it by reading more of the stories of those who fought: the colliers, the quarrymen, the farmhands, the weavers and the tram-drivers. They alone have earned the right to teach us the lessons that a certain class of society seems incapable of remembering for very long.

They are gone now, those men who fired the rifles beneath an unimaginable deluge of shells. The last of them was Harry Patch, who passed away in 2009. He did not speak well of the Great War, indeed he did not speak of it at all for eighty years. But their stories are written down for us, and we should make it our business to read them. The ordinary people of the world do not learn much from the careful analysis of historians and statisticians. We learn from others, like us.

I trust this revisioning of the conflict is not a first attempt at inspiring us still beleaguered Brits to a flag-waving patriotism, as a diversion from our continuing economic woes. Such things will not wash. Anyone who has traced their ancestry will be familiar with those trails lost in the mud of that gargantuan conflict; of grandfathers and great-uncles who did not return. It’s quite plain to me that something awful happened, something on a scale never before experienced, something that has left its mark on the memorials in every town and village in the land, and has left its mark too in the ancestral memory.

How all of this touches me is in part through the story of my grandmother’s brother who enlisted as a private in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, 2nd Garrison Battalion. He died in Salonika, in October 1918, aged 26. In my wife’s family, there are two other young men who served in the war. One was killed at Ypres, aged 19. His name is engraved at the Menin Gate memorial. The other, aged 21, was lost at the battle of the Somme and is remembered at Thiepval as one of the 70,000 “Missing”. Uncovering the stories of these young men still comes as a shock to the gut, even after a hundred years. It makes the remembrance personal and it exposes all historical revisioning as ultimately meaningless.

One of the ten myths “busted” by Dan Snow is the one that says most men who went to the war did not come back. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that said, but anyway it’s not true say the statistics, and the statistics may be right, for all I know. But what I also know is that of the sons of enlistment age I have chronicled among the ancestry of my own sons’ family, we have three who fought, and who did not come back.

It was Joseph Stalin who observed that the death of a single man is a tragedy, while the death of thousands is a mere statistic. To the politician, to the historian, to the chroniclers of war, sixteen million deaths can be counted and cut and spun at us any way they like. But the real story of war, its lessons, and the measure of its waste, can only be found in the hearts of the individual families for whom each man lost is indeed a tragedy, and one that still echoes down the generations.

I am not so naive as to think that war can always be avoided – sadly sometimes it cannot. But let those who would make war imagine first that it will be their own sons they are sending out under a rain of shells. Let the remembrance Sundays continue to be occasions for solemn reflection. It still matters that we think of this, and keep the lessons close. And let us keep also at arms length those who would paint a rosy picture of armed conflict, seeking to convince us those involved in it had anything like a jolly time. Let us remember too that from the higher human perspective, it is always war itself that is the enemy, the real struggle being against those so often intangible forces within the human psyche that would subvert a lasting peace in favour of yet one more bloody conflagration.


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