Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of John Wilson. Or to put it another way, it’s the 105th birthday of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and quite a few even better novels.
I was reminded of the opening lines of his two volumes of ‘Confessions’, his entertaining, erratic and often entirely fictional autobiography: “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there’s no excuse for being idle now.”
It’s a quote I often recall. In fact, over a decade ago, when I was embarking on doctoral research into Burgess, I was invited to write about the quotation which most inspired me. I chose this one, because it inspires and chills me in equal measure. That article can be read on this site, but I’m reappropriating it below, because you never know when the vicissitudes of the internet will darken a site forever. At least this one I can keep an eye on.
Happy birthday, old droogy. I raise a glass to you, and perhaps a cheeky smoke too. You’ve had your time, and you definitely earned your eternity.
On initial encounter, this quotation from the beginning of Anthony Burgess’s ‘Confessions’ appears to be the Protestant work ethic expressed by one of late modernism’s greatest lapsed Catholics. But it is so much more than it seems.
In that first word ‘wedged’, we have the entirety of the existentialist condition succinctly summarised, the Beckettian paradox of ‘I can’t go on; I’ll go on’. We are, says Burgess, trapped in this plane of existence. There is no point debating it or fighting it. A calm acceptance of our lot is the principium mobile towards any meaningful achievement.
The ‘eternities of idleness’ is problematic. It suggests that there is some form of existence beyond this one from which we emerge and to which we depart, static states in which nothing can be achieved. This posits, perhaps, an afterlife and behind it a God-figure. Equally, it may be read as agnostic. We cannot know anything beyond the parameters of our existence and anything that may occur in such realms, should they exist, cannot influence our here and now.
That ‘idleness’ is perhaps judgemental; it suggests languid rest amid the clouds with the angels, but primarily it sets up the denouement of the statement, in which there is ‘no excuse for being idle now’.
It is a call to arms, an order to act in the face of existential malaise. Privileged to exist, we pay for that privilege by being required to do something meaningful with it. Burgess does not seek to define what is meaningful in this sense and what is not. He leaves that to the individual reader to define. For him, obviously, it meant artistic creation, both in literary and musical forms. But he does not prescribe this path for anyone else.
Fundamentally, this quotation always struck me as a kindly and paternalistic guidance from Burgess. He does not wish to see anyone waste a single moment of their finite existence. He desires that we live in the now, smelling the coffee and flowers, rising above our solipsism to perform, to act, to make an optimistic and definitive step towards engagement with our surroundings and with each other. He asks us to reach out and form communicative connections with our surroundings.
Anytime I have found my mind wondering, my heart slackening, I take solace from this quotation which then drives me back into the chair to write, back to the task in hand, back towards interaction, towards engagement, towards the completion of meaningful activity.
It is a warning of mortality couched in stern but highly optimistic terms. It offers us purpose.
When I was a journalist, I used to embody the maxim from James Joyce’s Ulysses that ‘sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof’. Or, to use an almost equally antiquated saying, today’s news wraps tomorrow’s chips.
In other words, it’s kind of a foolish enterprise to pontificate (as I am about to do) on matters which are kinetic. Tomorrow, next month, in one hour, the situation will change, radically. One’s assumptions, presumptions and conclusions are at best provisional and likely to become hostages to fortune very quickly.
An additional relevant point is that I’m not any expert on Ukraine. I’ve never been there. I’m not Ukrainian. Of course those attributes haven’t stopped others from spouting their tupennyworth of verbiage, so why should I be shy? At least my lack of knowledge doesn’t feed into the principals in this scenario. I’m not advising world leaders or directing the opinion of nations.
Ordinarily, I’d be silent, on the basis that when one is silent people may only presume you are an idiot, without you providing the incontrovertible proof thereof. But the current crisis in the Ukraine shows a risk of spreading, virus-like, to affect the rest of the planet, and I live here too, so on this occasion I’m prepared to take the risk. I will attempt to be brief, hence the bullet point format.
The Ukraine is seen by Russia at their sphere of influence. Specifically the Eastern provinces are highly culturally Russian. The Kiev government has not been keen to accommodate this and has banned teaching in Russian in schools, and all discussion about reconsidering Ukraine’s borders. One presumes this Russophobia is a reaction to the occupation/annexation/secessation of the Crimea. Nevertheless, it means that Ukraine, in its current form, is unlikely to be preserved.
NATO did promise, under Bush, not to expand to Russia’s borders, then did exactly that, repeatedly in the Baltic states. Russia is not pleased about this and has attempted to address it in a number of ways. Both Yeltsin and Putin actually applied to join NATO, and were turned down, because of course NATO’s creation and existence is in opposition to Russia. This means that Russia is aggrieved. It doesn’t make them the victims of the current situation, far from it, but that situation derives from the former.
Beyond both the debatable legitimacy of the USA (or indeed NATO or the EU) involving themselves in the Ukraine arena, and the clear unpopularity among the American people for another foreign war, especially one with Russia, there’s the fact that Washington got completely blindsided by Putin this time. They clearly didn’t foresee that he would endorse the kind of colour revolution which the US has been tacitly and overtly supporting in a range of locations. He’s played them at their own game, and they weren’t prepared for that.
This situation is DANGEROUS and fundamentally destabilising to global geopolitics. Already the Baltic states are nervous. But they’re always nervous. More concerning for Moscow is the issue of the US locating missile launch sites in Poland, ostensibly aimed at Tehran but tacitly able to reach Moscow in minutes. One might argue this in turn is a reaction to Russian nukes in Kaliningrad, pointing towards Europe. But what we need is a DE-ESCALATION not an escalation of threat.
What happens in the Ukraine will have knock-on effects across the planet. Not just the possibility that Europe, which receives over 40% of its heating gas from Russia, will freeze, but also massive touchpaper issues like Taiwan. Washington and NATO have positioned themselves such that they must implement serious reaction, as they’ve repeatedly threatened, if they deem that Putin has indeed invaded Ukraine. Putin has already been driven into restoring the old alliance with China, and China will be watching avidly to see how Washington responds to Donbass. There are contradictory precedents all around, and we will no doubt hear of them all. But if NATO/US do NOT react to Putin’s colour revolution in Donbass, China will definitely be emboldened in relation to Taiwan. But if they DO react, these are nuclear powers we’re talking about. The world itself becomes at risk.
As is ALWAYS the case when war-war looms large, what we need is more jaw-jaw. It’s time to talk, with everything on the table. Maybe we need to commission a conference to redraw some borders in Eastern Europe. Maybe we need to stop backing Russia into a corner and into the arms of Xi and China.
Maybe we need to consider what a ‘world beyond five’ might look like seriously. Maybe it’s time to discuss taking nukes off the table for good, from EVERYONE, including other hotheads like India and Pakistan, and, yes, Israel too. Everyone. Maybe it’s time for cool heads to prevail. Am I confident this will happen? Not really, no. But this is another Cuban Missile Crisis, taking place this time when we are ALREADY at a mere 100 seconds to midnight on the doomsday clock, and when global co-operation is needed as it has never been needed before, to address existential risks to us all, like the climate crisis.
Ukraine is under threat tonight (maybe not tomorrow hopefully, but tonight, yes). And we are ALL Ukraine. We are all at risk. It’s time to sideline the sabre-rattling media, the warmongering neocons in Washington, the bored Russian generals, and the neo-Nazi militias in Ukraine and get the grown-ups talking. To do otherwise is potentially suicidal.
Post-Script: It’s always beneficial to recall Field Marshall Montgomery’s rules of military strategy, iterated here in the NYT during the Vietnam War: “The United States has broken the second rule of war. That is: don’t go fighting with your land army on the mainland in Asia. Rule One is, don’t march on Moscow. I developed those two rules myself.” (New York Times, July 3, 1968.)
I’m in this anthology, the distilled essence of Coventry’s legendary Fire and Dust poetry nights.
I wouldn’t claim to have been the most regular attendee at their monthly events. Working full-time as a lecturer tends to get in the way of a rich and fulfilling social life, especially during marking time!
But I always felt welcome there, as indeed does everyone who has read their work at Fire and Dust. Unlike some poetry groups, F+D always fostered a very open, supportive and warm environment. It is the opposite of elitist, in other words.
However, that doesn’t equate to lower standards. Every event they ever ran had an excellent contemporary poet headlining, and the open mic sessions were astonishing in the range of different voices, bewilderingly eclectic at times as this anthology indicates, but always engaging, intriguing, thought-provoking and passionate.
I never saw anyone bored at Fire and Dust, and it remains one of the things I miss about England. And it’s proven to be a real incubator of talent too, with some pretty big names cutting their teeth there over the past near-decade.
So if you ever wondered how good the quality of contemporary poetry in the English West Midlands is, you should simply pop along, virtually or in person (they do both online and meatspace events now). Failing that, buying this anthology is the next best thing!
I saw an old photograph of the road where my house is recently. It dated from sometime in the early 20th century, and featured a horsedrawn hearse with four formally-dressed funeral directors smoking while waiting outside a church for the funeral service to end. It captivated me, the life-in-death-in-life of it. Alas, I can no longer find it on the interwebs, but it evoked an era possibly contemporaneous with this one, from 1914.
Picture taken from a gallery posted online by BelfastLive.
Anyhow, it inspired a bit of verse, written for no good reason in an approximation of iambic pentameter.
Molloy and Malone, Magee and Muldoon
Molloy and Malone, Magee and Muldoon
Wait by the roadside, Tuesday afore noon,
Outside the wee redbrick church that was built
With money raised from parishioner guilt.
Magee and Muldoon, Molloy and Malone
Come from the New Lodge, the Ardoyne, the Bone
To bury, when time comes around at last,
The dearly departed of all North Belfast.
Muldoon and Molloy, Malone and Magee,
Smoking in black suits of conformity,
Won’t darken the door of the chapel at all.
They prefer the bar, or the grey snooker hall.
Malone and Magee, Muldoon and Molloy,
Scowl at the sunshine which they can’t enjoy.
Theirs is the burden and theirs is the curse
To hoist us on their shoulders and into the hearse
The British currency, the pound sterling, takes its name from the fact that, when it first issued, it was redeemable for a pound of silver. That was somewhen in the late 8th century Anglo-Saxon period.
If we do the maths, based on today’s silver spot price, that means that the pound today is worth approximately 1/210th of what it was worth nearly 13 centuries ago.By contrast, the French managed to devalue their currency by more in just 18 months during the early 1790s, as did Germany in less than a year during the Weimar period.
The worst affected ever were the poor Hungarians in the immediate post-war period in 1945. They suffered that level of devaluation in under 6 days at peak. Armenia, Zimbabwe and Argentina have experienced similar horrors.
Why do I mention this? Because it still happens today. Last semester, in Turkey, I saw my wages collapse by more than half in two months. My colleagues there are still living through this. They suffer daily price hikes in fuel and food costs, with static wages. The Turkish people, like the Armenians, Zimbabweans, Argentinians, or the Hungarians, Germans and French of former times, have done nothing wrong. But they were the ones to suffer.
Hyperinflation is caused by only one thing – shitty governments implementing shitty policies. It destroys savings, commerce, and most importantly, lives. We don’t always think too much about Turkey in the West, but we should. Here is a country suffering a preposterously stupid government and massive devaluation of their economy, yet still accommodates 3.6 MILLION refugees.
It was a salutory lesson for me in macro-economics, and in human decency, to spend last semester in Turkey. My heart remains with them in their plight, and I hope to see them in better times soon. It is a beautiful nation with a beautiful people who deserve better.
A caveat: I am not, never have been and never will be an economist. But it doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to understand money.
It’s worth pointing out at the outset that this is less of a polarised binary than it may initially seem, of course, for a whole range of reasons. Firstly we can nibble at the roots of both immediate-to-medium-term predictions. What do we mean by ‘more religious’, exactly? Just because many more people in the next few decades will affiliate as Muslim or Catholic does not necessarily mean that the world will be more fundamentalist in its outlook (though that’s clearly possible.) They may simply affiliate as cultural positions, cherry-picking at dogmas and behaviours.
There’s not a lot of point in asking why about this, to my mind. Probably, issues like relative birth rates between religious communities and non-religious communities has a lot to do with things, I suspect. Geography, along with its varied sociocultural religious traditions, also play a significant role, as do the relative population decline (and geopolitical and cultural wane in influence) of the West, where atheism and agnosticism have been most notably prevalent since the fall of the formally atheistic Communist regimes in 1989/90.
We can similarly query the inevitability of the singularity, though there is absolutely no doubt that currently we are in an a spiral of increasing datafication of our world, as Douglas Rushkoff persuasively argues in his relatively recent neo-humanist book Team Human. And why is the world becoming so? As Rushkoff and others point out, it is in order to feed the development of Artificial Intelligence, which concomitantly makes us more machinic as a consequence. (This is again very well argued by Rushkoff.)
So, on the one hand we have a more religious population coming down the track, but on the other, that population will inhabit a world which requires them to be ever more machinic, ever more transhuman, conceived of as data generators and treated ever more machinically by the forces of hypercapitalism.
Let’s say that, as it looks today, both of these trends seem somewhat non-negotiable. Where does that leave us? A dystopian perspective (or a neo-Marxist one) might be that we will enter some kind of situation wherein a religion-doped global majority are easily manipulated and data-harvested by a coldly logical machinic hegemony (which the current global elite seem, with irrational confidence, to feel they will be able to guide to their own ends and enrichment.)
I feel that such a simple filtering into Eloi and Morlocks is unlikely. Primarily this is because I have (an irrational?) confidence that a degree of rationality is likely to intervene to mitigate the very worst excesses of this binary. Unlike Marx, I don’t consider those of religious faith to be drugged morons, for a start. Some (probably a large majority) of our finest thinkers throughout history into the present day have held religious beliefs which in no way prevented them from innovating in science, philosophy, engineering and cultural thought.
Similarly, I believe the current existence and popularity of leading thinkers expressing a firm affiliation with organic humanism (or to put it more accurately, a deeply suspicious antipathy to the alleged utopia of transhumanism) is a strong indication that a movement in defence of organic humanism is coming to the fore of our collective consciousness, perhaps just in time for us to consider the challenges of potentially imminent rule by the algorithms.
Thinkers like Rushkoff, or Yuval Noah Harari, have clearly expressed this concern, and I believe it is implicit in the work of many other futurists, like Nick Bostrom too. If it wasn’t, we would likely not have had the current explosion of interest in issues like AI ethics, which seek to explore how to mitigate the potential risks of machine disaffiliation from humankind, and ensure fairness to all humans who find more of their lives falling under algorithmic control.
But how might we explain this apparent dichotomy, and how might we mitigate it? Steven Pinker’s recent book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters may offer some assistance.
Pinker summarises rationality as a post-Enlightenment intellectual toolkit featuring “Bayesian reasoning, that is evaluating beliefs in the face of evidence, distinguishing causation and correlation, logic, critical thinking, probability, game theory”, which seems as good a list as any I could think of, but argues that all of these are on the wane in our current society, leading to the rise of a wide range of irrationalities, such as “fake news, quack cures, conspiracy theorizing, post-truth rhetoric, [and] paranormal woo-woo.”
If, as Pinker argues, rationality is an efficient method mankind has developed in order to pursue our own (organic and human) goals, such as pleasure, emotion or human relationships, then we can conceive of it in terms divorced from ideology, as method rather than ethos. It’s possible, then, to conceive of, for example, people rationally pursuing ends which may be perceived as irrational, such as religious faith.
Pinker believes that most people function rationally in the spheres of their lives which they personally inhabit – the workplace, day-to-day life, and so on. The irrational, he argues, emerges in spheres we do not personally inhabit, such as the distant past or future, halls of power we cannot access, and metaphysical considerations.
Humans have happily and successfully been able to shift between these two modes for most (if not all) of their existence of course. As he rightly points out, there was no expectation to function solely rationally until well into the Enlightenment period. And indeed, we may add, in many cultural circumstances or locations, there still is no such expectation.
Why does irrationality emerge in these spheres we cannot access? Partly it is because the fact that we cannot directly access them opens up the possibility of non-rational analysis. But also, as Pinker notes, because we are disempowered in such spheres, it is uplifting psychologically to affiliate with uplifting or inspiring “good stories”.
We need not (as Pinker might) disregard this as a human weakness for magical thinking. Harari has pointed out that religion functions as one of the collective stories generated by humanity which facilitated mass collaboration and directly led to much of human civilisation.
But if we were to agree, with Rushkoff and contra the transhumanists and posthumanists, that the correct response to an ever more algorithmic existence is not to adapt ourselves to a machinic future, but instead to bend back our tools to our human control, then how might rationality assist that?
As a mode of logical praxis which is nevertheless embedded in and consistent with humanist ideals, rationality could function well as a bridge between organic human values and the encroachment of machinic and algorithmic logic. The problem, however, is how to interpolate rationality into those spheres which lie open to magical thinking.
It’s clear that the retreat into atomising silos of woo-woo, fake news, conspiracies and nonsense is not a useful or coherent response to the rise of the machines. Spheres like the halls of power must therefore be rendered MORE transparent, MORE accountable to the body of humanity, and cease to be the fiefdoms of billionaires, corporations and their political puppets.
However, obviously this is much harder to apply to issues of metaphysical concern. Even rationality only takes us so far when considering things like the nature of love or the meaning of life, those metaphysical concerns which, though ultimately inaccessible, nevertheless engage most of us from time to time.
But mankind developed religion as a response to this a long time ago, and has continued to utilise, hone and develop religious faith as a communal experience, bonding mechanism and mode of collaboration. And religion has stood the test of time in those regards. Not for all, and certainly not for those post-Enlightenment exclusive rationalists (ie agnostics and atheists, a population seemingly destined to play a smaller role in our immediate future, according to current prognoses.)
If the positive ramifications of religion can be fostered, in a context of mutual respect, then it seems to me that there is no inherent contradiction or polarisation necessary. Indeed, a kind of Aquinian détente is perfectly possible. Rationality may be our best defence against an algorithmic hegemony, but rationality itself must acknowledge its own limitations of remit.
As long as the advocates of exclusive rationalism continue to view religious adherents (without distinction as to the form of their faiths or the presence or absence of fundamentalism) as their primary enemy and concern, they are in fact fighting the wars of a previous century, even while the bigger threat is posed by the hyperlogical opponent.
We therefore have a third option on the table, beyond the binary of gleeful acquiescence to algorithmic slavery (transhumanism) or a technophobic and Luddite-like retreat into woo-woo (which is equally no defence to machinic hegemony.) An accommodating rationality, operating as it always did in the spheres we do inhabit, has the potential to navigate this tricky Scylla and Charybdis.
To paraphrase someone who was not without rationality, we could usefully render unto rationality that which is open to rationality, and render unto God (of whatever flavour) that which is for now only open to God.
But we do need to open up some spheres to rationality which currently are not open to most of humanity – the power structures, the wealth imbalances, the blind gallop into faith in the algorithm. Because, pace the posthumanist faith in a benign singularity, there’s no guarantee that machinic merger or domination will preserve us, and even if it does, it will not conserve us as we know ourselves today.
A few people have asked me if I’d seen Branagh’s sepia-tinged movie about Belfast. I haven’t. I also don’t intend to. I’m sure it’s great, but it’s not for me.
I grew up literally one street away, the other side of a fence we euphemistically call a peace line. That fence is there today. It wasn’t there in the Seventies.
In this Google Maps image you can see where my house was (those ones are new). You can also see KAT (standing for ‘Kill all Taigs (Catholics)’ written on the wall. That’s today, nearly three decades into a peace process. If you can’t imagine what it was like at the height of a civil war, there’s plenty of archival news footage available.
I expect Ken would have made a very different movie had he grown up in the city at that time, as I did. Actually, I expect he’d not be making movies at all. So no, I haven’t seen it and won’t see it. It’s not something I care to revisit, in Ken’s sepia tones or in any other format.
It’s not a tribal thing. I’m proud of Ken and always have been. I’ve loved his work since the ‘Billy’ plays. But Ken’s Belfast and mine, though they almost overlap, are hugely different. When the civil war euphemistically known as the ‘Troubles’ erupted in 1969, Ken’s family quite sensibly emigrated.
What they left behind, and what my family moved into (after being threatened out of their home in a different part of town), was a North Belfast that quickly became a patchwork quilt of paramilitary loyalties, rival tribalisms, brute violence and war.
I really admire Branagh for never shying away from his origins, and also for the sensitivity he has always brought to the topic. But, to use a word in today’s parlance, I find this somewhat triggering. More pertinently, I’m not the intended audience for this.