Darren McGarvey (2017) Poverty Safari.

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Darren McGarvey was talking about his book in Dalmuir library on Wednesday. He spoke with passion, without notes, for over an hour. That takes some doing. I said to him  I knew before I’d read his book I’d probably agree with what he was saying. He’s one of us. There is different names for it. He calls it ‘the underclass’. It’s in the title. Poverty Safari: Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass. Words matter.

I’d just call it working class. There’s no under about it. The benchmark is The Ragged Trousered Philantrhopist a book set in the early twentieth century but with many lessons that are still relevant today, perhaps more so, with all the flag waving at the royal wedding yesterday.

I read his book on Thursday. I’ve made some notes which some might call a review. I’m a reader, which, of course, gives you superpowers. The most powerful pieces of Darren’s book are the stories about himself and his family. His mum was an alcoholic who died aged 36 when Darren was 17. They lived in Pollock. Darren no longer lives in Pollock.

If he gets married £30 million of public money will not be spent on security for his wedding. Millions more on cleaning up Pollock before and afterwards.

Darren asks is in what ways are the old me different from the new me? Robert Burns in his address To A Louse nailed the posturing of the middle classes.  O Jeany, dinna toss your head/ An’ set your beauties a’ abread!/… O wad some Power the giftie gie us /To see oursels as ithers see us!/ It wad frae mony a blunder free us, /An’ foolish notion:

Knowing yourself is a religious calling. I’m quite attached to such foolish notions. And I certainly don’t know myself, but through reading I get to know others better.  I’m biased. I like calling Tory scum. I’m quoting Nye Bevan, but nothing much has changed.

Chapter 30, ‘The Metamorphosis’:

 I never got sober, at least for any length of time, until I admitted to myself that many of the predicaments in my adult life were of my own making. This, of course, is another taboo subject on the left. The idea of taking personal responsibility wherever you can and that is an important virtue in life.

Let’s look at AA’s Big Book and the (moral) premise made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Saul on the road to Damascus became blind. Something like scales fell from his eyes. Darren has taken a moral inventory, and having taken the mote out of his eye thinks he can see clearly. I don’t believe personal responsibility is taboo on the left or right. I do believe that the Tory scum sell fear and sow disorder. The only monopoly they acknowledge is the monopoly they have on virtue. And I’m with Blaise Pascal on ‘the only shame is to have is none.’ Look at Grenfell tower and weep as the Tory leader and Tory scum at the Royal boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea council scuttle away from responsibility and play the blame game.

One of the vices Darren admits too is junk food. I watched kids in the playground running about yesterday. One of them was a fat kid waddling about chasing his friend. It made me sad. I felt sorry for the boy and others like him. But far more dangerous is junk ideas. Unthinking with other’s thoughts.

By now, I’ve hopefully established that one of the biggest problems we face as a society is stress; how is shapes us as individuals, families and communities; how it directs the thinking that drives our behaviour and things we do to manage it; and how these coping strategies impact our families and communities. Stress is the connective tissue between social problems such as addiction, violence and chronic illnesses as well as the crises in our public services. I’ve even argued that stress even plays a part in shaping the tone and substance of our political debate and subsequent direction of our society.

Poverty is not about a lack of money. Eh, aye it is Darren. That’s the message Jeremy Corbyn is selling.  The default setting for Tory scum is it’s not only about money. It’s their fault. Those people are not one of us.  George Osborne picks on those outliers, people like Darrren’s family to peddle the idea that resources are wasted on them. They create caricatures and peddle them as propaganda that are fed back to us by the media as the truth. We self-mutilate with these lies.

Show me the money. £50 million of public money paid to rich kids in Grammar schools. And as Thomas Piketty showed gathering historical data this is a worldwide trend of money moving from the poorest to the richest citizen at an increasing rate, most notably, in the richest nations of the world. Britain is a good place to live if you’re rich.

The idea of banning McDonalds or modifying my own lifestyle and taking personal responsibility reminds me of a conversation I had with someone that was on a macrobiotic diet. He tried to convince me that if Hitler had been on a macrobiotic diet the Second World War wouldn’t have happened. Stress and a poor diet were synonyms for each other. They changed the world.

A wee story. Wullie, a successful business man, with the big house and a mobile home worth the price of a house thinks people in Drumchapel and Ferguslie Park are lazy bastards that don’t want to work. He can say that because he was brought up in Ferguslie and moved to Drumchapel. Both areas are poor by any measure, but he is now relatively rich. Lived experience trumps the paper tigers we put on the page to fight our rhetorical battles. This is Wullie and Darren’s strength.

Darren’s message is the personal is political. A throwback to the counterculture of flower power and the sixties. Yes, it’s true. Undeniably so. But let’s not forget people who hold the big stick and take delight in beating you with it for your own good belong to one class and we belong to another. They have won the propaganda war. We have lost most of the post-war gains that were made up until around the mid-seventies and they have gone back to the ways of the rich. The billionaies. Oligarchs. The 1%. The upperclass.  We the working class are being fucked over good and proper (no excuse for the language) and they want us to smile and say thank you. Fuck you, I say. Fuck you, Maggie Thatcher and all Tory scum. That’s personal. That’s political.  Moral inventory, let them make amends for the damage they have wrought on people like me with their foodbanks and hatred of us and I’ll change my point of view.   More chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely.

 

John Lewis-Stempel (2016) Where Poppies Blow. The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War.

 

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John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow is a hotchpot of different things. That’s usually a criticism, but in this case this is the books strength. Pre-war England is the baseline, a kind of Arcadia to which the British soldier on the front’s mind often returns. Fuck off I say to that kind of crap. The majority of troops came from slum housing and if they were lucky enough to be in regular employments worked between 12 and 15 hours a day for 364 days a year and were considered old by the time they were thirty and ancient by the age of forty. Yet trenches that divided warring nations were a great leveller. An officer, which was a shorthand for a gentleman, and the working class, really were in it together and shared the same bit of dirt and while the former had it slightly easier with better rations, where more likely to end up dead or injured.  Britain, generally, was an animal loving nation, regardless of class.

The other great social leveller Robert Burn recognised in his poem ‘To a Louse’ was lice. ‘Lice observed neither rank nor class.’  A ‘cootie hunt’ was the creed of the trenches. Rats were also fair game, but this war the British soldiers lost. Rats outbred any attempts at controlling them and corpses galore to feed on they grew to the size of legend and treated the living and the dead with equal contempt. One of the positive effects of German gas attacks was it killed many of the rats, but they quickly recovered a decomposed foothold.  Fungal infections such as clostridium perfringes, ‘Trench foot’ sent 20 000 to hospital in the first winter of 1914-15 and this was combined with bacillius fustiformis helping to produce the ulcerating gingivitis ‘Trench Mouth’. Foot and mouth disease wasn’t confined to animals. A Great War for microbes.

Just under a million British army hospital admissions for sickness were made in 1918, with just under 10 000 deaths. At the end of the war 500 permanent cemeteries were created with 400 000 headstones. [Compare this to the over 27 million and upwards killed in the USSR to give you some idea of scale, or indeed, the almost 500 000 American troops sent overseas to Vietnam ostensibly to fight Communism in 1969].

At the end of the War To End All Wars the Animal War Museum’s plaque in Kilburn commemorated the 484 143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks, hundreds of dogs, carrier pigeons and other creatures that died working for the armed forces.

In contrast, 11th November 1918, 735 409 horses and mules and 56 287 camels were given their demob papers. Their fate, like the working class soldier, was to be put on the market. The book ends with a quote from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade End: ‘How are we to live? How are we to ever live?’

I prefer Burn’s version: To a Mouse:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominon

Has broken nature’s social union

And justifies that ill opinion

…But mousie, that art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft a’gley,

And lea’s us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy…

 

 

Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

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Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?