Wednesday, 23 April 2014

St George’s Day


St George’s Day is a good opportunity to think about the concept of ‘Englishness’, and of nationhood in general. Being the child of two countries myself, it is an idea which I have often come back to in my life. I was born and raised in New Zealand, and will always consider myself a Kiwi through and through, but from a young age my father was keen to stress to me that I had another heritage, one which was hard for me to understand or experience given the distance between our respective islands.

That being said, New Zealand is a Commonwealth country, and you do not have to look far to see the influence the Empire brought and left behind. Culturally, New Zealand is young, and still espouses many of the values of the motherland. It was not so long ago that New Zealanders saw it as their duty to send soldiers to fight alongside others from the Commonwealth in both world wars; but times are changing, and should a similar event occur today, I am not sure where the public sentiment would lie. While no one would doubt the moral aspects of protecting the world from the Third Reich, this was not necessarily the principal reason for New Zealand’s involvement. A call to arms for our people today would (and has) involve a serious questioning of the rectitude of the actions and stated aims, as evinced by our limited involvement in Iraq.

The national day of New Zealand, Waitangi Day, is (unlike St George’s) a national holiday. The national holiday really. And yet it is the most divisive day the country sees. It has become little more, in political circles, than a stage for airing grievances of the native people against the Crown. These grievances, and the issues arising from them, I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that I feel a day which could be a celebration of New Zealand and New Zealanders as a whole, has become a day in which the split between Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders is the focal point. Seek out Waitangi Day in London, and you find the opposite: a day of celebration, of our drinking culture and some of the less dignified aspects therein, of our young country’s myths and icons, from Shortland Street to taniwhas, beached whales to inflatable sheep.

Times are changing in New Zealand, and immigration and distance from the motherland cause shifts; very soon the Union Flag may be gone from ours altogether. Things are moving in Britain too. The Scottish independence movement has gained force, to the point that a referendum is to be held. Much debate has been waged, and unfortunately substance has been lacking from a lot of the rhetoric. I have yet to hear cogent arguments from either Yes or No campaigners, and so I undecided about my position on this. Now, it is not really important what my thoughts are either way, since I will not have a vote, but I would like to think that the implications of staying or leaving are clearly and fully understood by those who will. There is no doubt that the Scottish people have a right to self-determination, and there is no doubt that, if properly informed, they will use their votes wisely. It is the information which worries me.

Perhaps I have not been looking in the right places. Those who want independence talk about freedom from a parliament which makes decisions with the best interest of others in mind. Those who want to retain the union talk about the shared traditions and the strength of a kingdom united. Both these arguments have merit, but what I want to see are details. If I were Scottish, I would be even more concerned with the details, but being English is not to say that I am without an interest in the proceedings. Whatever happens, it’s important that the outcome is not clouded by bitterness or ill-feeling, and that the decision is respected. Together or apart, the nations of England and Scotland will always share the same island, and their interests will often coincide.

Compare the Scottish, or Irish, sense of national pride with a sorely subdued English one, where the national day is not celebrated with a holiday, where the George’s cross is flown rarely. Why is this? Is it, as I have read, because the Scottish and Irish are keen to promote their identity, subdued as it was for so long? That the English have no real ‘enemy’ to define themselves in opposition to? Is it because the Cross is viewed now as a symbol of racist nationalist movements? Does PC culture prevent a country from recognising and being proud of its identity?

If so, then more’s the pity. I see no difference between an Englishman celebrating St George’s Day and an Irishman celebrating St Patrick’s. Both are equally entitled to be proud of their heritage and to express that pride in a civic manner. Both are members of nations with achievements to boast of, and (let’s face it) other, less glorious moments.

Being English is not as much of a sin as Mel Gibson would have you believe. Modern sentiment seems to portray the historical English as arrogant, class-bound, conquerors, who subdued the world and forced their way of life upon many. And this is in many ways accurate. But if a modern, enlightened sentiment (correctly) refuses to hold modern Germany to account for its actions in the previous century, why does it seem to still be prejudiced against Englishmen and women whose ancestors may or may not have been involved in colonial horrors. And, why does it seem to ignore the same horrors perpetrated by other European powers. Is it the relative success of the British Empire (note, not the English Empire)? Perhaps if I were from a Spanish colony, the same attitude would prevail towards the modern Spanish, but this would be an equally incorrect attitude.

To be English is to have much to be proud of, despite what you may have been told. This is the nation which produced some of the finest minds the world has ever seen. Artists and writers like Milton, Shakespeare, Constable, Turner, Adams; pre-eminent scientists such as Darwin, Turing, Newton, and Hawking; philosophers Wollstonecraft, Mill, Locke and Spencer; a plethora of sportsmen and women; the list goes on. England has been responsible for numerous inventions (the refrigerator, binary code, the internet), and for many of the social and welfare advances we take for granted in a modern first-world country. While there is still work to be done, it is a bastion of progress, for the rights of women, for workers, in education and healthcare, in law and human rights. It is not for no reason that people from other nations seek at all costs to make a living here.

‘An imagined community’. This is part of the way people create a nation, a term coined by Benedict Anderson to describe the way people consider themselves as part of a whole, despite the fact that practicality dictates no everyday involvement between all the members of the community. If a nation is an imagined community, bound together by our sense of belonging and our common values, then a celebration of that nation is essential to its wellbeing. This is why I feel it is important to recognise and be proud of ‘Englishness’, and never to be ashamed of that identity and what it represents. This is easily done without any racist undertones or fascist agitation, as any good Celt will tell you.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Texas T

In many ways Texas was exactly what I needed. It was more than just a holiday, more than just a well-timed holiday. Here are some of the things which made it great for me.

Time away from work. This sounds obvious, and of course it is true in a basic semantic sense, but what I really was looking for at the time was a way to switch my mind off from the things I had been constantly considering, or stressing about, for the last few months. Details are unnecessary, but suffice to say that, through a series of coincidences, it turned out to be a very well-timed break. The problems have not disappeared upon my return, but just stepping back from them, and forgetting about them altogether for days at a time, was very refreshing. It also added much-needed perspective.

A chance to reconnect with old friends. This was the most important aspect of the trip. Firstly, there is the simple fun which comes from being with old mates, and reliving the old jokes which made those times so worthwhile, even when the jokes start to cross a line. Scott, Dave and I, through shared love of things nerdy, became close at University, and that will always be a great time in my life to think back on, representative of a burgeoning adulthood in many ways. It is a sign of great friends that when we meet again after so much time, it is like nothing has changed. It was also good to see Pam again and catch up with her about goings on in little old Aotearoa.

Secondly, through life, one will often have groups of friends who were important, and who, through memory, come to encapulate the (often rose-tinted) stages in ways which give rise to a certain nostalgia. This in itself is enlightening; but beyond this, it was great to be able to be there for a friend of mine as he embarked on the next stage of his life, and to be able to wish him well. Which brings me to my next point.

The Wedding. It was a lot of fun. For highlights, try the groom and groomsmen walking in to the Imperial March (cheers Lara), Dave's speech, which was hilarious, or my awesome freestyle rap battle with Scott. I can now say I am the winner of two rap battles, as well as a yo mama fight. And seriously, who doesn't like being at weddings? It's a lot of fun, a happy occasion, a chance to see your friends step up and make a commitment which will give them joy for the rest of their lives. I know marriage isn't all plain sailing, but just for one day it can be perfect.

New friends. One of the other good aspects of weddings is you often meet a whole new batch of people. The famed Southern hospitality did not leave us wanting. It was a lot of fun meeting Lara (the bride), and her family and friends. They were great to hang out with, and I even got to go shooting with Mike and the boys. Scott went so far as to say I was not as shit as he had expected, which almost sounds like a compliment to me.

Driving. Though I did have my share of stress and complaining, once the tricks of driving on the opposite side of the road were mastered, the experience was quite enjoyable. Even being able to successfully navigate ice-strewn roads was an achievement it is own way. For me, being able to drive around reminded me of the freedom which comes from having a car, something which I haven't really experience since I lived in New Zealand. And having conquered my nerves and succeeded in driving in the US, despite satnav errors and ice and six-lane highways, gives me a feeling of accomplishment I wasn't expecting.

Exploration. Another advantage of having what the Texans consider a 'mid-sized' car (six seater minivan), was the ability to get out and explore. Because of the snow and ice, I didn't make it to Louisiana, but I did get down to Austin and San Antonio, and I am glad I was able to do so. Not quite the Great American Road Trip I had in mind, but maybe next time for that. (Scott, let's do a road trip. By the time I have saved up to come back, you'll be able to drive there too.)

Food. If you are on my facebook, you will have seen (some of) the food pictures I took. I can't move to the US, because I would probably have a heart attack within a year. For some reason the decadence and ridiculous nature of the food appeals to me, as well as the genuinely gourmet meals you can find. I almost got shot for eating ribs with a knife and fork, and I had a chocolate peanut butter fudge ripple cheesecake which kicked my ass. Who leaves half a cheesecake? And pancakes. They have the best pancakes. Now I must wait for the ihop to become genuinely international, rather than just 'World Series' international, and bring an outlet to London.

Texas was not exactly what I expected, what with 27 degree weather one day followed by snow and ice the next. But the people were so polite, and it's nice to be called sir every now and again. All-in-all it was a great time, refreshing and exciting for me, and a place I would definitely go back to. And not just for the pancakes.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Music

The subject of what makes good music is as problematic as the same question posed of any art form. Inherently subjective, there are nonetheless a few qualities which we might point to as indications of why one musician or band is better than another.

Emotion: good music, in my opinion, evokes emotion. It does so by its nature. It makes you feel exhilarated, crestfallen, pensive, joyous. The addition of clever and profound lyrics serves to add poetry to an already potent mix. The right song can motivate you to dance even when your blisters have blisters; it can drag that last ounce of energy out of you and make you spend it all in one last whirl. There is nothing like the perfect song coming on the radio at the right time, making that road trip sing along ecstatic. The end of the night slow dance is beautiful and honest. Well, honest in its own way.

The connection to memory is also important. Songs evoke nostalgia, they bring us back to times and places we'd forgotten. They make us feel young, or old. This in and of itself may not be a key to whether the music is good, but being tied to a memory of a person or a time can make a song powerful, and that power can certainly be good.

Now, I don't like to think of myself as a music snob, and certainly I am not well-educated enough to put on airs of any sort. However, I think it is reasonable to assert that when a song is written for the primary purpose of making money, it loses something. The artist who wrote it, if indeed it was an artist and not a businessman in one sense, ceases to be focused on the creation of art for its own sake, and more on the marketability of the end product. Does this automatically produce bad music? No. But it tends more toward a product than a work of art.

Now, some might argue that the popularity of mass-marketed music proves it is just as good as music made for its own sake. I would argue against this using the following points. Firstly, popularity does not necessarily indicate good art. I know this seems contradictory, since it is possible to define 'good' art as that which is enjoyed by the greatest number of people; the only thing I can say is that I believe good art stands the test of time. If the popular music of today is remembered well in fifty years, and I'm talking beyond album sales and chart numbers here, then perhaps it can be judged an artistic success in one sense.

The second point is that the charts, and popular music, is self-created. People with money pay for their artists and the music they have invested in to be promoted. The songs get played on the radio, and so they are in the charts. To a large extent, money makes popular music, rather than the music itself.

That said, if it were completely terrible, would the music last? Perhaps not. My final point in this regard is that much popular music relies on an understanding of a human enjoyment of basic rhythms and formulae. Check out the Axis of Awesome's Four Chords video to see what I mean (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I). This may be 'catchy' music, but it is hardly original.

So, does originality matter? After all, Shakespeare took older stories and reworked them in majestic ways, and he is, in my opinion, the greatest artist of all time. Perhaps the genius is in making your own stamp, in how you add beauty and pieces of yourself to the work. Call it subjectivity, but I am just not sure that Maroon 5 fall into the category of musical geniuses. (That being said, I can listen to some of their music, so maybe I am a big hypocrite.)

The last thing which springs to mind is skill. Compare the skill of Jimi Hendrix with that of Will.I.am. How does the mastery of the guitar on songs like Purple Haze and All Along the Watchtower (I know it's a cover - still brilliant) compare with the inane rhymes of My Humps or Let's Get it Started? I leave you to your own conclusions.

Because of subjectivity, we can never really say that one song is better than another, even if it is more skilful, more passionate, more original, more about the music than the selling or the image. But we can say that money often distorts art into something else, something worse. And we can still, in our own minds, love good music and hate Justin Bieber.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Death and all his friends

It seems the older I get, the more I consider the end of my life as a real situation. It would seem that, despite evidence to the contrary, we humans often assume a certain fixed length of time, and even though we know there are no guarantees of that time, we plan for it and keep it in the back of our minds as a deadline, if you will. This in mind, I often wonder about that undiscovered country, usually when I lie awake of a night. And despite the fact that I can find no compelling evidence for an afterlife of any sort, beyond the reintegration of my constituent matter into the ecosystems of the Earth, the fact remain that I cannot, nor can anyone, be certain. Therefore, as Peter Pan once said, to die will be an awfully big adventure, but it will also be a tad scary.

There are many reasons why I would want an afterlife to be real, and many people I know who believe in one because of these reasons. I can't see that the desire for something alone is sufficient evidence to assume it is true, and so I resolve to use the one life I can say for certain exists, in the best way possible. I think this is a healthy attitude and one which would be beneficial to the world as a whole. If you knew that your actions, for good or ill, were only measurable by the effects they have on others here and now, wouldn't that make you behave better? Maybe not, but the world now is hardly a bastion of altruism, despite threats of everlasting torment or some vague reward of milk and honey. In fact the promise of rewards after death can lead to the most terrible behaviours. I need not give examples here; just watch the news.

I think the worst thing about the fact that there might not be an afterlife, is I will never get to say I told you so.

If I am honest (and I like to think I am), mostly the thought of death as unpredictable motivates me to write more; there are a few projects I have had in mind for a time now, which I would really like to get finished. Some of these have yet to even be started. The thought also motivates me to exercise and get well, but I find that I am often more resolved during my midnight musings than when faced with a day of jogging and broccoli.

There are certainly many pros to being dead, and I will not borrow a format from Bobby Gaylor and say that I will not miss exercise, cereal, tooth maintenance, pregnancy scares, getting fatter, pain (both emotional and physical), stressing about money, boring jobs, or funerals. On the other hand, if it's possible to miss things when dead, there are a lot of things I will definitely miss: the satisfaction of finishing a novel, and having people read it, of having done exercise and feeling that warm tiredness, clean sheets after a hard day, talking to girls, and all the other things you do with girls, music and the emotion it brings, a nice cup of tea, too many different types of food to mention, Christmas with family, drinks with friends, dancing until dawn, talking shit even longer, looking good in new clothes, watching excellent movies over and again, or for the first time, waking up and realising it's Saturday. There are so many things I could do over and over again, perhaps even forever, but most definitely for the rest of my life.

The problem is, I don't want to ruin the time that I have now worrying about it being over. Like being at a concert and constantly checking the time so you can rush off to get the last tube. It puts a cloud over the whole thing. So, I will try and use the idea as motivation, and deal with the inevitable when it happens. Or maybe, have my consciousness put in a robot, and live forever.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Grammar Nazis

Firstly, let me say how completely apt I find the term. It is not excessive or overblown in the least to compare persons pedantic about spelling and punctuation, with a regime which committed acts so horrific, and with such a mechanical ruthlessness, as to cause them to be burned into our collective consciousness forever. I can only imagine my friends must feel the same revulsion when visiting Auchswitz as they do when I point out to them a stray apostrophe or comma. It seems entirely likely that the disgust I feel for an incorrect use of there/their/they’re is the same feeling provoked in members of the Nazi party by Jews and homosexuals.

Sarcasm aside (well, no promises), I would like to examine my own pedantry in this regard. I have been thinking about the possible reasons behind my own irritation, and have come to the following conclusions:
 
OCD: Yes, this must be one of the main reasons, surely. I have a certain feeling that things should be done in a certain way. With language, even though the rules are sometimes arbitrary and often based on archaic rules which themselves were founded on an attempt to force the English language into a Greek or Latin mould, there are rules nonetheless. The wrong word in the wrong place, the wrong spelling, these things just upset my sense of things in their right place.

Communication: I honestly struggle sometimes to understand just what the hell people have said. Is it possible for things to get to the stage when I simply cannot communicate with people who have been taught and who speak the same language as me? I suppose it happens sometimes, verbally, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not as if the problem is likely to creep into the academic field, hospitals, the military, the legal profession, or other places where it could do real damage, is it? Or is it? I have often received emails from my colleagues which I had to spend time deciphering, or which required me to call them to explain just what they were trying to say. This leads nicely to my next point.

Standards (a): a friend of mine said to me that she doesn’t bother writing correctly online because it’s too much of an effort, and that she only takes care when at work. This, to me, speaks to a lowering of standards outside the workplace. Sure, I understand that behaviour is often different in different contexts, and that there is value in switching off from work, but I also feel that this excuse misses the point. I believe that if you write poorly at home, those errors will creep into your professional work. Good habits are hard to form and easy to use. There is also the question of why you would want to be any less thorough at home. It makes sense to be switched on at work, but I take pride in my writing whenever I do it.

Standards (b): Another point which occurs to me is the idea that it is somehow ok to lower standards outside of work in the written word. Imagine if I applied this principle to mathematics. I doubt my local supermarket would be impressed when they asked me for £15.31 and I handed them a tenner. When given a quizzical look, I doubt the explanation ‘it’s not like I’m at work’ would fly very far.

Beauty: True communication can be beautiful. The right word in the right place; a semi-colon well-situated; words well-used have the power to transcend themselves and become true art. Good writing is like the most moving music; bad writing can be like hearing foxes screech mid-coitus at three in the morning.

Superiority: Perhaps it just makes me feel smarter than other people. Or, perhaps, more disciplined. Perhaps it is just a personal OCD, as mentioned, and it hurts me that the people I know care less about the subject than I do. These points must all be true in some respect.

I know people see my criticism as a personal attack, that they feel as if I am calling them stupid, rather than exhorting them to try harder. (Actually, some people I am just calling stupid. You know who you are.) I know some people just plain do not care. But knowing does not help me avoid the shudder every time I see those greengrocer’s apostrophes. The epidemic shows no sign of abating, so for now my plan involves cursing at my computer screen and the occasional sarcastic or corrective Facebook comment. If you are a victim of such, don’t think too badly of me. Or at least, don’t compare me to a racist, genocidal maniac.

p.s. there will probably be some errors in this very blog. For these, I apologise unreservedly, and blame Word’s autocorrect function.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Entropy

A few years ago I mentioned to one of my uncles that the years seemed to go by more quickly than they had before, and he told me that they only get quicker from here on in. At first I wondered why this should be, until I realised that, if you really think about it, it’s completely logical. As humans, our perception of time can be as important as the independent, ‘true’ rate of time. When you were five, a year constituted fully one fifth of your life; when you’re fifty, it will constitute only one fiftieth. The result: a year will seem ten times as fast to a fifty-year-old as it will to a five-year-old.
 
Knowing this objectively, however, does little to remove the subjective feelings the passage of time engenders, in much the same way as knowing that thinking about a song and then hearing it on the radio later that day isn’t ‘weird’ at all (consider all the songs you think about which do not turn up on radio later the same day). What I mean is, because both of these things are processed by our minds in a certain way, they bring up feelings which it is difficult to rationalise away.

There are, of course, other events, both external and internal, which drive our sense of time. Our progression through various stages of schooling; the maturing and, later, decay of our bodies; our journey through various relationships to a family life, in various forms; the changes in our various tastes and in our emotions. All these things, as well as the rhythms of day and night, month and year, summer and winter, combine to add to our sense of time’s flow.

The other factor we must consider is entropy, the driver behind the wheel of time’s arrow. This direction, from past to present to future, is written into the fabric of the universe. (Perhaps this is the true existential meaning behind the otherwise vapid pop group’s moniker.) ‘Things fall apart,’ Yeats famously wrote, his subdued fanfare proclaiming the emergence of modernism, ‘the centre cannot hold.’ I have no idea whether Yeats were a physicist or not, but to me his words are entropy translated for humans. Things decay, bodies wear out, people grow old.

Now, that fact that our ultimate fate is in dissolution, even for our universe (see ‘heat death’), can of course have a bearing on the way we view our lives, can bring a sense of futility to our actions. I myself have been tempted by this view from time to time. But to think in this misses a key component of human happiness: our enjoyment is always in the present. To know a moment will end, a house may burn, a love will die, does not prevent one from enjoying those things now. In fact, this knowledge can bring a certain relevance to our enjoyment, a determination to live in the moment and make the most of the joy we have.
 
‘Death is the mother of beauty.’ So wrote Wallace Stevens (yes, more poetry; get involved), and such is an essential facet of our experience and our appreciation of those people, things, and times which we find wondrous and worth having. Time will ultimately kill us, but, in a curiously human way, it is only because of time that we are able to experience beauty at all.