Thursday, 5 July 2012

Some metaphors write themselves

There is a plot afoot. The President of the United States is on his way to Westminster Hall to address the great and the good of British politics and international diplomacy. Nearby an ambulance has crept through the cordoned streets of London with a cargo of four Islamic terrorists, a heap of explosives and a traffic warden, bleeding profusely.

The leader of the group, Jones, has come up with an ingenious detonation technique. Each terrorist will wear a jacket packed with six kilos of nitroglycerine, a detonator and a mobile phone. Jones's mobile has the four numbers on speed dial. One at a time he can "get them on the blower", triggering the detonator.

But something is troubling Dean, a young Wolverhampton lad from a troubled upbringing, who has fallen under Jones's spell. His leader can ring the other three but if Jones rings himself the phone will be engaged. How would Jones's jacket go off when nobody can ring him?

"That is secret, Dean."

"Well, I think we should be all in this together."

The above didn't write itself - it's a précis of part of the plot to Boris Johnson's 2004 novel Seventy Two Virgins (the quotes are straight from the book, Harper Collins 2004), predating by six years David Cameron's "we're all in this together" party conference speech.

There are further twists to the plot which give another spin on the metaphor, but which I shan't spoil here. The book is worth reading, it's a fast paced comedy thriller, but Boris doesn't need the cash so pop down to your local library, if such a thing exists.

Other gems between its covers include an MP's voluptuous and American female assistant named Cameron (I kid you not) and an amusing security turf war between Deputy Assistant Commissioner Purnell of Scotland Yard and U.S. Colonel Bluett (how are the Olympic plans shaping up?).

Anyway, some metaphors write themselves.

Illustration by Chris Bienvenu.

André - Twitter @seldonmoore

Monday, 21 May 2012

Queen's Park Book Festival and beyond

The weekend passed in the pastoral surroundings of Queen’s Park with the taste of the cream of a burgeoning literary scene of a corner of west London.

I know I wasn’t alone in promising myself as I left that I’d make savings from somewhere (pub? Radio 4? Twitter?) to raise capital to read.

-Alex Bellos? A philosopher exploring pop maths.
-Melissa Benn and Owen Jones? The future of the left? I’m certainly looking.
-Dean Atta? Poetry alive.
-Rosa Rankin-Gee? A tale from (near) my homeland.
-Maggie Gee and Marina Lewycha? How have I not?
-Edwyn Collins? Rebuilding his life after two brain hemorrhages – His performances of Home Again and Losing Sleep on Saturday had the fire.

And, of course, to write. If you’ll forgive the indulgence, my last fiction project, 97 short stories in 95 days, She’s Elvis, is here

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Islington Gazette - highlights

So, since the end of January I've been working Fridays at the wonderful Islington Gazette. Here's a selection of stories and features:

8/2/12 The rainbow flag over town hall:

16/2/12 When Occupy went to school.

26/2/12 It's the month of love! What does the person on the street think of Islington?

3/3/12 Dry cleaning for 50 years. But can it last?

10/3/12 The gentleman Ken Loach at Reel Islington Film Festival.

11/3/12 Jeremy Deller: “I’m an active observer of protests but I’m not an activist. That’s just how I do it. I’m not at the front line, I’m at the side. That’s my role.”

23/3/12 Dog plop vox pop.

30/3/12 Dexter Fletcher brings Wild Bill to the borough.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Ken Loach, of course

“Obviously the Falklands dispute is absurd. All of Latin America believes they’re Argentinean. British settlers arrived there as recently as the early 19th century. There should be a negotiated return to South America, taking into account the rights of the people living there. It’s hard to see how the current situation could be sustained.” Interview with Ken Loach at Reel Islington Film Festival 24/2/12
It’s 1982. Sean Penn has just appeared in Taps, a film about cadets occupying a military academy due to be shut down by the man in favour of more commercially viable ventures. Roger Waters has written the screenplay for The Wall about a soul losing touch with reality; a soul whose father died during the war and who sinks in despair at his world, sucked into Nazi fantasy. Confused political messages? Morrissey, the master of confused political message, is forming The Smiths.
And the Falklands conflict.
A few confessions:
I’ve seen Taps but remember nothing about it. This is a tenuous ‘then and now’ link but the word ‘occupy’ does jump out. I grew up on Guernsey where ‘occupy’ signifies five years of German rule, but right now ‘occupy’, in much of Britain and the US, represents protest. That, at least, has been achieved. Sean Penn occupying a military academy to keep it open is a curious juxtaposition.
I’ve never seen The Wall or cared about the Floyd. From the Wikipedia page I take it that this latter fact will be an obstacle to deciphering a barrage of hallucinogenic symbolism. Having said that, year by year I discover music, film and literature which I really should have ‘got’ earlier. Let’s not rule it out.
The Smiths being a case in point. I was too young first time around but it was only a couple of years ago that they clicked with me. Morrissey is the master of confused political message except, perhaps, on animal cruelty. Agree with him or not, but there he appears consistent.
I interviewed Ken Loach at a screening of The Wind that Shakes the Barley, his controversial film about the struggle against colonial rule during the Irish War of Independence. On its release the Daily Mail asked: “Why does Ken Loach hate his country so much?” a headline for which Morrissey would slaughter cattle.
Loach doesn’t hate his country although he may think little of certain aspects of it, and certain of its residents. And neither are his politics overtly confused, though you may disagree with them. The debate over the Falklands is, as with most land disputes, couched in terms of Nozickian entitlement theory: individual natural property rights on a first come first served basis.
At the Q&A after the screening he said: “We’ve got to a stage where people don’t think there’s a choice. Social ownership is the choice. It’s the only alternative we have.”
A faltering free market with the help of the Occupy movement has shown that this debate is still alive. And the Falklands debate persists too, and is not so cut and dry as often presented.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

"He thinks he's people!"

So says Mrs Crabapple of Santa’s Little Helper. In the context of the Simpsons it is arguable that he indeed does.
There is a dolphin named Kelly in Mississippi whose star is rapidly rising. She was trained to clear up litter from her pool and rewarded with food every time she removed a bit of paper. So far so cute but Kelly had a thought. She realised that by hiding a piece of paper and tearing off a smaller bit to give her trainer each time, she could reap multiple rewards. An entrepreneur! How Dave must rue Britain’s chronic dolphin shortage!
But Kelly’s ingenuity doesn’t end there. When she one day caught a gull and presented it to her trainer she was given an extra large fish. This set the cogs turning and before long she was teaching ‘gulling’ to the little ones, using a small fish as bait. A mercenary! How I long to insert a Navy SEALS joke here!
Kelly’s story is not new, the Guardian reported it in 2003, but she is back in the papers today as a group of scientists and campaigners have called for a formal declaration of rights for dolphins and other cetaceans. With the aid of her story amongst many others the argument goes that we are now sure that dolphins are sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to justify rights not dissimilar to those recognised for humans. In other words, dolphins are (non-human) people.
I certainly don’t wish to argue here that dolphins are not deserving of rights. In fact I think it likely that sooner rather than later mankind’s attitude to other animals will and should go through a paradigm shift. However, the assertion of ‘peoplehood’ is being made with scant attention to the vast literature on this question. What is at issue is: How do we decide on the objects of our moral system?
Kelly is clearly intelligent to an interesting degree but intelligence isn’t a good indicator of what we deem worthy of ethical treatment. My friend’s 6 month old son Shane couldn’t come up with a gulling scheme for extra snacks but in the event of a fire at Seaworld (you get the point) I’m afraid that it’s him I’m rescuing first.
Perhaps the fact that Shane will become intelligent matters? Not when you consider the range of inflictions that people suffer, limiting their brain power. Valuing the potentially intelligent above the less so in a fire would seem a repulsive way to approach a rescue.
Self awareness may seem like a better indicator of where we should focus our moral intentions but there are other problems here. It’s the suffering itself that we generally see as something to reduce in society, not someone’s awareness that they are a person and are suffering. My awareness that I am someone suffering from excruciating toothache is nothing compared to the damned excruciating toothache itself.
One of the rights for which campaigners are pushing is the right not to be held in captivity. Would Kelly’s awareness that she is in captivity matter? Undoubtedly it would in some way, but awareness isn’t necessary for the moral judgement. If a child is raised by a brutal father in a situation of extreme psychological control, the child may not be aware that her freedom is restricted yet we still judge that she is mistreated. If I don’t realise that a housemate is putting rat poison in my coffee every morning and making me ill, I’m still being wronged.
These questions and many like them mean that there is no clear set of conditions for ‘peoplehood’. A common view is that there should be some kind of sliding scale in how we treat the animal kingdom depending on, say, intelligence. But this runs up against the same problem with valuing intelligence in this way.
One answer may be simply to draw a line under humans; we’re all equally worthy of moral attention but the animal world we’ll work out as we go along. This however is clearly racism: I’m more important than you for no better reason than that you’re a different species.
I, of course, offer no answer here as to how we should view Kelly. These are ongoing debates in the academic world. And I am very sympathetic to the suggestion that we should modify how we treat other creatures. But to skip over difficult questions is likely to damage such a cause in the long run, and is at least intellectually dishonest. Furthermore as computer technology and bioengineering develop the issues will arise again and again.
The arguments in this article are of course well trodden and I have no bibliography to hand.
The following are some of the news links.