Archives for posts with tag: Life

Hermit_ionescoReview of the novel ‘The Hermit’ by Eugene Ionesco

One of the most famous philosophical maxim’s is ‘The unexamined life is not worth living (1)’. Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s only novel ‘The Hermit’ (1973) (2) is the absolute embodiment of this aphorism, albeit the conclusion presented being that, actually, life isn’t worth living examined or not.

An anonymous clerk inherits a small fortune which permits him to quit his meaningless office job where he is at most distracted to derision by the romances and mini-dramas that play out before him. On his last day, the clerk and his colleagues retire to the local restaurant for drinks out of social duty more than actual like of one another. This is where Ionesco excels: a complete affinity for the everyday interactions of ordinary people, especially their subtexts and suspicions masked by social airs and conformities. It’s what makes ‘The Hermit’ an interesting study of late 20th century man without being particularly kind about him.

Yet somehow we readers warm to the rich hermit who has now moved to the suburbs of France but still within reach of the all-important restaurant where he can gorge himself whilst watching the world go by and satisfy himself about his suspicions of the people that pass in the street or spy on him behind net curtains. And so our sympathies for the hermit begin to wain as he descends deeper and deeper into paranoiac excursions compelled by his own loneliness. Imagine a French bourgeois Charles Bukowski where, like Buk, there’s plenty of drink and little work, but here women are replaced with a seething disdain for fellow man writ large and even existence itself.

Temporarily distracted by a brief and dour affair with a waitress, her leaving triggers a full-on descent into darkness. This descent coincides with the onset of events a bit like Paris 1968 and the unrest arising but as a fantasy of revolt and revolution akin to that kind of civil spark. Soon, though, there’s blood in the streets and shootings, which to me felt like the fall of Yugoslavia happening just a few streets away. Rather than engage, our protagonist for the most part sets himself as observer whilst workers drink up their wine with revolvers in their pockets and rifles at their side waiting to return to the barricades. The hermit questions the point of revolution, and makes no distinction between left and right, love and hate, participation and non-participation even as violence erupts around him, on the periphery. We’re never told what’s happening, like the hermit we just experience the outcome, just as he experiences life in general from the outside.

Later still the revolution now perhaps just a mess of reactionary forces and then even worse just factions of the same side in some areas (a nod to the example of the anarchists and communists during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps?): but everything is questioned and assessed for its value and meaning albeit without consequence or engagement.

At one point the hermit muses that he wishes he’d study philosophy more, to be able to understand the meaningless of the universe as he sees it and perhaps therefore find some kind of purpose.

Best known for his absurdist plays like ‘The Chairs’, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Lesson’, Ionesco spent most of his life in France and was amongst those who formed the theatre of the absurd in the 1950’s. This novel is at its best when it observes our ordinariness.

Ultimately ‘The Hermit’ is a downbeat analysis of humanity not least since the absurdity of life being meaningless is, in this instance, not providing us with freedom from restrained opportunity or social structures like the church and such like as the existentialists argued. Only love hints at the possibility of meaning but the sad fact is that the hermit in question, despite all his fair riches, just isn’t very good at it.

At one point a waitress observes of him: ‘You keep to yourself too much, Monsieur.’ To which he replies – summing up the book entirely – ‘I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by the crowd. By the crowd or by nothing.’

‘The Hermit’ is a gloomy book and yet engaging until the end even as it becomes more and more absurd. In that absurdity it also becomes more satirical, almost a different book. Yet somehow its pace from the banal to the absurd works – it makes the essence of the absurd all the more believable.

I don’t know why Ionesco never wrote another novel, returning to plays and literary criticism. This might be a shame, as the tension of an impending insurrection is palpable in the second half and the descent into loneliness compelling in the first – and because of this the scope of this possibly allegorical sweep of humanity and the universe of emotion and reality means the work takes on a wider importance than its easy-to-read style would suggest. Moments of cynical humour show Ionesco as a master of timing and that ability to make an unappealing protagonist a figure of our continued interest is always the mark of a quality writer. Worth reading. Worth living.

 

  1. Spoken by Socrates through Plato’s Apology
  2. I was reading the 1983 English translation published by Calder – looks like it’s currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online

mwftearth_coverThe Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis

I’ve said it before in The Clarion: I am not a fan of sci-fi. Last time I was talking about ‘The Death of Grass’, which left me horrified. It was written with the calibre of John Wyndham, but will all the nightmare of the best apocalyptic fiction.

And it is therefore with equal surprise that I discover that it wasn’t a one-off experience. Despite some reticence I really enjoyed Walter Tevis’ novel ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’, famously brought to life as a film of the same name in the 1970’s by visionary director, Nicolas Roeg.

Both books don’t feel like sci-fi at all, much to the credit of the quality of writing itself. In fact, Tevis’ other famous novel was ‘The Hustler’ (also made into a famous film), which is a gritty tale of pool sharks.

My edition was the original film tie-in, with a painting of the iconic image of David Bowie as the mysterious Thomas Newton/alien. A version of this also appeared on Bowie’s own ‘Low’ LP sleeve and while the paperback states the music soundtrack would be ‘available on RCA’, this never happened, although Bowie is said to have scattered musical doodlings for or influenced by his role in the film across albums in the 70’s. Indeed, another image from the film appear as the cover of ‘Station to Station’.

For sure, it is now hard to think of Newton being anyone but Bowie, and this is to the film’s credit. The casting and feel is spot-on and mirrors the book beautiful – complements it where you, like me, have seen the film, but have yet to read the book. And the book is far better as it simply doesn’t have those wayward forays into sexual exploration and nor do we have to endure occasionally shaky-acting.

But putting aside the movie, Tevis’ work is full of compassion, longing and thought on the notion of being a stranger in a strange land. It has more to do with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Bell Jar’ than it does traditional sci-fi. The writing is taught, dialogue believable and pace just right. At times it reminded me of ‘The Swimmer’ (also a famous book and film), and at others’ a feature-length and more mature ‘Twilight Zone’ or ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is also a deeply humane book. It takes the concept of a looking at man through the mirror of an alien point of view. But that alienation is one many of us feel. We feel it when we are teenagers and when we are alone in a crowd in a foreign place or visiting a new city. We feel it with wonder when we see ourselves in a moment of silence looking at art in a gallery or catch ourselves aware of ourselves as a species when at the zoo. But most of all, we feel when the world – full of humans – seems incredibly lonely.

Newton feels the gravity of earth heavy on his disguised frame; but he feels the pointlessness of existence and man’s folly just as heavily: “a heavy lassitude, a world-weariness, a profound fatigue with this busy, busy, destructive world and all its chittering noises.”

The novel ponders quietly the big themes without pushing any particular agenda or world-view. Newton considers, for example “this peculiar set of premises and promises called religion.” But finds solace in some types of music.

Providing counter-balance is Professor Bryce. He’s not quite the narrator and certainly not entirely likeable either. In the movie he’s an aging playboy, but the novel gives his character more tragedy and more drink. Imagine Charles Bukowski as a failed university science professor. He’s not an idiot and indeed, it is through his fascination with Newton’s inventions which drive the narrative to a truly horrible conclusion where, as Tevis puts it, the reveal has the monkeys performing the tests on the humans.

In their parrying Newton and Bryce become friends, comrades and critics. They argue over the philosophical position of science and its funding: “Somebody has to make the poison gas.” And this leads us with the primary concern of the novel: the destruction of mankind by his own kind.

This is a moving and tragic novel of apathy and alienation. It is expertly crafted and still yet a page-turner.

You might think that  – written in 1963 – and famously filmed in the 70’s with a very 70’s ‘feel’ ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is set in the 1970’s, but in fact it is set in the then future of the mid-late 1980’s. It predicts global nuclear war within 30 years of that. Of course, the Cold War was raging in the 60’s and Tevis rightly predicted it would still be so by the 1980’s. But the fall of the Soviet Union was not something explored then. This does not make Tevis’ forecast flawed as the same deadly arsenal continues to exist today and, as we see in recent months, it no longer requires opposing ideology to create the tension between old and emerging super powers: resource and territory dispute continue to be enough. It is a warning that we can all yet fall to earth.

 

My latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article (this is the submitted, unedited edition – expect the print edition to probably include different photos).

A review by C. Spiby of the photographic exhibition ‘Coalfaces: A Mining community in photos – Bargoed in the 1970s’ at the Winding House, New Tredegar, Newport, Wales (to Spring 2014).

Unlike the immediacy of photojournalism, the photo essay requires a photographer to immerse himself within his subject’s community. To even hope of capturing a real sense of social documentary, he must mine the spirit of a place and that of its people. Only the best photographers achieve this. Fewer still can present art over mere representation. But that’s exactly what Kjell-Ake Andersson has managed to achieve in this humbling collection of 1973 photographs exhibited under the title ‘Coalfaces’.

Moved by Eugene Smith’s 1950’s work on the subject, Andersson spent months living in the Welsh mining community of Bargoed. He rented a room with a local miner and with his host departed for work each morning to the pit. Eventually the young Swede was accepted by his subjects, thus allowing him to capture them at their most natural. In the evening he and has family mined the pubs and clubs in much the same way, embedding himself into their trust.

The collection, very simply but sympathetically and respectfully presented in this charming museum in New Tredegar, Newport (barely miles from Bargoed itself), is a masterful example of social realism of the highest quality. Consider the composition of ‘Marleen Wilkins in the family home, serving tea’. Andersson could not have predicted how kitsch the patterns of the carpet, wallpaper and tabard would be in the eyes of today’s viewers, but it is in this detail that Andersson proves a master of construction: the patterns – busy as they are – don’t clash at all; rather they flow in perspective and to me speak volumes of grace under pressure, pride, hospitality and fortitude.

‘Interior of George Pub, Arbergoed’ is equally arresting, whereas others remind me of Don McCullin’s British social documentary work. Then there’s his character study of Les Hughes; Andersson is multi-talented. Only the rugged beguiling landscape that surrounds his subjects is missing in his portfolio.

Life is clearly not easy at all, but neither is it hopeless. In virtually all the photographs based in social settings there is laughter and a real community spirit. At home it is peace, family responsibility: the day to day graft of making ends meet. At its core, of course, are the pits, the workers and the baths – the relentless before and after shift faces. The ghost-like whites of miner’s eyes and the dirt of labour.

Coalfaces2
The Winding House and Caerphilly Borough Council deserve recognition for bringing us this free exhibition, but also widening its appeal with a range of 1970’s commodities, National Coal Board paraphernalia (you can almost smell that distinctive odour of the NCB donkey jacket) and a selection of artefacts from the pit itself as well as Andersson’s original 35mm camera and that edition of LIFE magazine which featured Eugene Smith’s photos which gave Andersson the push to move his family to Wales.

Coalfaces1
A real treat is the family photo album with a wider range of Andersson’s photos from his time in the area. What we might use to store of shoddy family snapshots, Andersson offers as a wider portfolio, simple and unabashed. Such a pity those included don’t feature in the otherwise well-produced catalogue, let alone in the exhibition itself.

Yes, the whole thing is crude (especially the way the photos are framed) but this only adds to the charm of an unmissable exhibition of the heritage of a nearby area, and near history.

‘Coalface’ shows what Thatcherism destroyed. The 70’s is nostalgia for my generation and beyond, but driving around on a fine autumn day trying to find the venue (not the easiest!) I couldn’t help feel that today the place seemed soulless. That sense of community eroded by out-of-town supermarkets, let alone the general malaise of modernity which has closed public houses all over the country, took Bingo out of the social club and into massive megaplexes. Andersson’s photography does that rare thing and captures the soul. And it does so in all the black of coal, and the innocent white of the wedding veil.

This FREE exhibition runs until the Spring of 2014. Find out more at www.windinghouse.co.uk – for sat nav use post code NP24 6EG

Last night, as I watched probably one of the best concert films I’ve ever seen it struck me just how boring they are.

The appropriately titled ‘Don’t Think’ sees the Chemical Brothers attempt to make a proper film of a concert. Their conceit is to put the viewer both in the crowd and enjoy the super-clear visuals close-up (which you couldn’t if you stood at the back).

Then I spotted the problem: these films always fail because there’s no narrative.

To be fair, ‘Don’t Think’ tries to be as immersive in the gig experience as you can possible be without bobbing up and down in your lounge rammed with strangers in a Japanese subway-like bouncy huddle. But you’d still have to watch the thing in the dark and at maximum volume to get 1/10th of the feel of a real gig. And that’s why most of the concert films I’ve seen don’t even clock that figure.

When I was younger, the music used to be enough. But that would be denying the spectacle of seeing your heroes prance about in all their self-satisfied glory, performing vastly inferior versions of the great album tracks you love, which somehow managed to elevate my appreciation of the event. Van Halen’s ‘Live without a net’ captured Eddie Van Halen at his peak. But it also gave us Sammy Hagar instead of David Lee Roth, and a drum solo (that’s right a drum solo – even in jazz drum solos never work!) from Alex VH. It was a curious mix of admiration and disappointment stretched over an hour and a bit.

Then there’s the advent of the voyeuristic take on concert films. The first I saw was Metallica’s ‘Cliff ‘Em All’ – a tribute to Cliff somebody (their former bassist who died before his time), mixed with their own sardonic take on the moniker of their own ‘Kill ‘Em All’ album. Here we saw the band at their most jokey and knockabout but this managed only to destroy the doom-laden seriousness of their image I had been so attracted to in my brief spell of metal (I quit Metallica and metal writ large at ‘Master of Puppets’, after listening to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for the first time on my way back from the Monsters of Rock festival in 1988).

Music is about music, not the jokes, personalities, banter (Jim Morrison in ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’), tricks (Eddie Van Halen) – it is the songs themselves that matter.

OK, you say, what about Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’? Bubbling mud aside, that’s about the performance, you cry. There’s even no audience! True. But prog rock normally had its own imaginary narrative. Unfortunately it is often naïve and, in Floyd’s case, a bit sixth form. Which can also ache boredom 21minutes in to the same song. It’s a performance of tracks better played and recorded in the studio. Nothing more.

Still, by the time I attended what I regard as probably the best gig – DJ Shadow during his Private Press tour – the music was finally accompanied by visuals that were actually in complete time with the music. This meant visuals in synchronicity of this level were, however, only able to step up to fill the void of having no lead vocals which is often missing in much electronic and sampled music. It was, however, a brilliant show. The songs were great, loud, brilliant renditions of the album tracks, complemented by superb visuals, guests vocalists (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) and expert turntablism. Josh too was a refreshingly honest musician who admitted mistakes and shared his dissatisfaction with you when he made them. Of course, in the euphoric atmosphere we missed them completely anyway, but his authentic care for the music and performance was admirable. He thought he was a dweeb, we thought he was a genius.

When I saw the concert film of Shadow’s show later released on DVD, however, I was disappointed. It bore no resemblance to the experience I had that night in Bristol’s Academy. The songs were the same, the visuals the same but it was drained of all its life. The gap it revealed was the thing that is the essence of good art: it is that which distinguishes a masterpiece from a cheap fake.

I guess that is why even ‘Don’t Think’ occasionally breaks away to a strange outside the arena trip, where the movie switches to a segmented music video-style. It seems to do this because the vast backdrop of lights and animated video visuals by now are becoming tiresome.

And you could forgive them this foray: the Chemical Brothers had previously shown great form with their music videos. But on the whole I find music videos are another grossly uneventful experience. Exception to the rule, their ‘Star Guitar’ sees the rhythm and video as one. Then their brilliant choice of Spike Jonze to direct their ‘Elektrobank’ promo delivers a fantastic homage to 80’s triumph of the underdog-type movies typified by things like ‘The Karate Kid’. I recommend you YouTube it, not least since it stars the lovely Sofia Coppola (who Jonze would eventually marry).

But note, these all have narrative of a kind and a short duration and that is why they work.

The concert film has a long duration and no narrative. They’ve tried to fix the problem by ramping up the immersive vibe, but fail to realise that not everyone will play the film at full volume during a house party on an elevated large flat-screen. They’re fixing the problem at the wrong end. They’ve done a good job, but it is still boring by DVD chapter 14. I found myself skipping chapters. Next. Next. Yeah. Next. End.

Here’s my theory proven.

‘Don’t Think’ includes a CD version of the gig. Boring; I’ll never listen to it. Prefer the original album tracks they’ve laboured over so lovingly.

Compare this, however, to a CD of music from movies that use music well. Like, for example Wes Anderson’s ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’: a truly brilliant film and, um, fantastic soundtrack CD which my family all enjoy.

Or ‘Jungle Book’? Or ‘The Accidental Tourist’? Or ‘Schindler’s List’? Or ‘The Double Life of Veronique’? etc.

My point is that you can watch these as movies and enjoy the music as part of the overall experience or independently on a music CD. A CD of a concert film is just dull – therein lies the problem. As a Marxist, of course, I see the phenomenon as nothing more than a means of selling us more of the same content a different way so we buy and re-buy that same content, all the while lining the pockets of the record company while the band probably can tick off another contractual commitment.

Concert films are just dull.

Even supposedly the greatest ever – ‘Woodstock’ – is only truly interesting the first time. And this is precisely because it has the narrative of the documentary story revealing just how chaotic and difficult it was to setup and keep from falling apart. After that it is a game of ‘Oh look, it’s so and so.’ And ‘Who’s next?’  Again though, the actual quality of the music is poor compared to the original studio tracks those artists recorded. I once stayed at house of a friend’s brother in Manchester. The brother had an LP of the Woodstock concert. Blimey that was a downer. Overlong clanky noise. Three tracks in, it was a relief when my friend suggested we listen to some Jesus & the Mary Chain instead.

So, concert films are just dull, precisely because of the music.

Feel free to post your objections and suggestions for exceptions to the rule. I will probably remain unconvinced, but you never know – open mind and all that…

DJ Shadow’s last tour saw him hide for most of the show in his globe and project 360 onto the globe. Very clever. But now we have a live visual audio show which really won’t be the same on DVD. See it live only.

My lime and sea salt dark chocolate bar tasted more like mint. And with all its packaging and air miles, like guilt.

Last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle was lead with a talk by Prof. Herbert Giradet entitled ‘Eco-Philosophy – new parameters for thought and action’.

Giradet is well qualified on his subject. He’s a UN Global 500 award-winner for outstanding environmental achievement; a documentary filmmaker specialising in ecological and ethno-environmental concerns; has written books on these topics and acts as an international consultant on the issues; and finally he’s both a visiting professor of the University of the West of England and chair of the Schumacher Society.

In his talk he was careful not to present an argument, but rather he shared the evolution of environmental thinking as charted by the simultaneous destruction of it, which happens to run parallel with man’s spread across the globe and incessant rise in population.

But statements of even agreeable opinion can be received somewhat disappointingly for a pub-philosophy audience, even if his presentation was no less alarming and interesting because of it.

Nonetheless some good observations shone through. Man is unique in nature as the only bio-technological being. Nature creates no waste. Tourism means alienation from nature even if it means appreciation.

The case for re-habitation was also covered – something of a local touch-point with wild boar having been reintroduced into my local area (the  Forest of Dean) but with mixed opinion flying around in the local rags. For my part it made sense that anything that, as Herbie phrased it,  ‘reinstates the natural un-interfered environment’ is a logical position, but how far do we push that position? All the way until our eco-fundamentalism becomes dangerous? Let’s say it is about the reintroduction of wolves (which I recall is happening in parts of France), and there are a couple attacks on dogs or children, for example – is that too far? Or is that merely man’s penchant for species-ism as Peter Singer might have it? (Incidentally, Singer wasn’t even mentioned, which surprised me as I have heard many a commentator (from Einstein onwards) suggest that vegetarianism is one of the most effective means of mitigating some of the unravelling environmental disaster we’re idly witnessing).

Thoreau, however, was of course mentioned, but my memory has it that while his intentions and articulations were all well and good, even Henry David himself only spent two years at Walden. Out of this arose the disquieting thought: are we actually capable of the environmental breakthrough eco-philosophy strives for?

Then came the bread-and-butter of environmentalism: un-reflected use of natural resources, from the industrial age onwards. On the other side, ‘deep ecology’ proposed a world that sees the inherent worth of all livings things. But I didn’t have the gumption to ask our speaker whether he was a vegan or not.

Nonetheless, one quote Herbie cited that I particularly admired but hadn’t heard before was E. F. Schumacher’s…

“In our victory in the battle against nature, we will find ourselves on the losing side.”

Later, and another pint of ale, and as it hadn’t come up already, I asked about the correlation of class to environmental activism. Our speaker acknowledged that much of the resistance to ecocide had come from the middle classes, but didn’t elaborate on the fact that, IMO, that’s probably a significant contributor as to why we’re unable to procure the necessary change.

Then there’s the issue of who chooses the watershed of what is acceptable exploitation of nature? Is it the philosophers, scientists and ecologists; or is it the people; perhaps it is our government, or is it nature herself? The evening was beginning to sound a bit pedagogical: the ill-informed and self-serving ignorants needed to be taught a lesson, for their own good. Some believed that nature would do this herself, as she has with famine some have contended, but others saw this as the need to reflect and reconnect.

Most of all, as a Marxist, I was underwhelmed that the greatest iceberg in this Titanic dilemma was clearly capitalism. But Herbie argued that actually the problem was merely a certain type of affluence; unfettered materialism. Again, who chooses the watershed?

Most disappointing was an interesting aside as we stumbled into George Monbiot’s recent acceptance of nuclear power.

Prof. Giradet told us that he used to be good friends with George (someone who I admire much, though I have yet to be convinced of his support for nuclear power), but that the nuclear stance was just ‘too much’.

‘Why?’ We asked.

‘Well, George likes the sound of his own voice.  And his position is so far from where it was two or three years ago.’

Ouch.

Suddenly we seemed to be missing a big chunk of wisdom. There was a massive hole in the room which we normally fill with philosophy. I left disappointed.

Perhaps Herbie is an eco-fundamentalist after all.

But this might just be one position that no matter how fundamental, is in our own interest.

Perhaps eco-fundamentalism is the only valid fundamentalism.

After all, you can’t get more fundamental than the all-omnipotent and all-ecompossassing nature of  nature herself. She is in the stars, and our neurons, our hearts and amoebas.

 

{the next meeting of the Tintern Philosophy Circle is on 15th may at 7.30pm. We are a pub philosophy circle group, and all are welcome for only £2. Prof. John Clarke will be leading the next session with a talk entitled “Philosophy AFTER post-modernism”}

Most if not all the campaigns and struggles that I have been involved with have failed. But as any seasoned fellow traveller will tell you, that alone is not a reason enough to give up the fight. It only begs that we fight harder.

One way to do this is to learn from our campaigns. Forest of Dean Against the Cuts spearheaded the local SOS Again campaign, seeking to keep local community health services within the NHS. It opposed the formation of Gloucestershire Care Services (GCS) as a non-NHS, non-public sector provider of local health services.

But it was the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Morning Star group which kicked off local opposition against the savage cuts in public spending with UNISON’s Peter Short taking some of the lead. After a couple ofmonths we connected with a fledgling Forest of Dean group. Both sent coaches to the March 2011 march for Public Services in London, which was still seeing activists arrive at Hyde Park as the speeches came to a close at about 4pm that afternoon.

The Forest side of the Morning Star group joined what had now become Forest of Dean Against the Cuts. But the national movement faltered. For sure, UK-Uncut was doing good work with their bail-in’s against legal tax loop-holers like Vodafone, but it was Pete Stanway of the Forest group who brought to the local agenda the issue of community hospitals and health services that were under direct threat through the creation of GCS.

GCS had all the right acronyms: it was to be a CIC(Community Interest Company) created in the guidelines of the SET (Social Enterprise Trust). But, as we warned, GCS was not a charity, and it was not part of the NHS. And it was not in the public sector even, irrespective of how it classified its surplus, not for profit or otherwise.

FoD Against the Cuts bailed-in into Lydney Tesco to highlight the price of public sector cuts, which would, of course, affect the health budget. Meanwhile Tesco was named amongst the biggest legal tax avoiders. There was an almost weekly rant by the group’s activists in the letters pages of the local press, and gradually the profile of our opposition was steadily raised. We were aware, however, that we couldn’t fight a battle on two fronts. The national NHS reform bill and public sector cuts were an entirely different issue to the formation of GCS. What was happening locally was, instead, a warning of what would happen nationally under the reform bill. Either way, the GCS takeover would happen irrespective of whichever way Parliament would vote on the national issue.

So, the takeover of formerly NHS-run local community health services by GCS became the sole preoccupation of the group, which was guided by the 1st October 2011 go-live of the new company.

We believed that few people knew of this out-sourcing, and ever fewer had had the opportunity to voice their opposition to the most fundamental change to our local community NHS health services.

Out of this anxiety and tight deadline arose our first strategic error. In a rush to oppose the formation of GCS we were sloppy with our wording of the petition. It referred to the ‘privatisation of community services’ with specific reference to Lydney and the Dilke hospitals. In my opinion the word ‘privatised’ is publicly loaded with ‘profit’, and this is exactly as Harper read it, and rejected it. Thus when we presented the 2,000 or so signatures to Mark Harper MP, he discounted the claim out of hand and would not countenance any public debate precisely because of the petitions’ wording.

Granted, a Tory MP is unlikely to rebel against his own government on the national issue (of the NHS reform bill), but on the local issue of GCS we at least had Harper on the fact that he had come out in favour of the SOS campaign first time around, when he was in opposition. What should have been awkward and embarrassing for him was brushed aside because of his rejection of our petitions’ claim. No wonder he was happy to write and explain this personally to all 2,000 who had opposed the take-over.

We argued that the spirit of the petition revealed that there was a real fear among the public, that the overwhelming majority of those asked to sign did so gladly and had heard nothing of GCS and the changes –highlighting the lack of proper consultation. But while this enabled us to dissect his position, it still didn’t change the fact of the petition’s wording which is how he was obliged to accept it. Incidentally, when pushed on why he wouldn’t hold a public meeting and/or debate on the topic he simply declined saying ‘He didn’t have to,’ and ‘Didn’t want to.

Our meeting with Harper wasn’t helped by a number of us seeking to oppose both the local issue and the national NHS reform bill at the same time. This presented a mish-mash of opposition based on ideology alone, not solid argument. He clearly thought we opposed what was happening by default and took none of our claims seriously. These two separate issues was used by Harper to belittle our concerns for attempting to mix them. Despite assurances that we knew they were separate we failed to present a coherent opposition at that meeting and had no solid demands of our MP. He was good enough to entertain our views for 45 minutes or so, but that was the extent of it. Otherwise we had handed him a useless petition which he would rebuff in his own letters to signatories, and without a voice for our argument.

Bruised but undeterred we sought to organise our own public meeting. We arranged good speakers from both the Royal College of Nursing and UNISON NHS.

But here again, we failed to present an entirely coherent front sending mixed messages over whether or not people should challenge GCS execs at a forthcoming presentation to the Dean Health Forum, for example.

We did, at least, have a letter prepared on the national issue and Diana Gash personally delivered the letters to Harper’s Westminster office on the day of the Bill’s next reading in Parliament. But Harper was undeterred and supported the Bill’s onward progress.

Someone in the audience that night raised what seemed like an odd question at the time, asking why hadn’t we done something before? October by that point was barely weeks away. This seemed obtuse – we are all voluntary activists trying to do what we can with what we have – but, on hindsight, it was a point well made, even if the questioner didn’t realise how pertinent their enquiry actually was.

In fact, the issue only came to light after we had repeatedly been fed by GCS and its allies that the decision to outsource the services was not made by GCS, but by the board of the Gloucestershire Primary Care Trust (PCT) and that we had to direct our questions and opposition to them.

In what I see as the last days of the local campaign, we finally got to the nub of the problem and it all began with New Labour. In reality we had missed the policy created by the former government which gave rise to GCS, and the legislation which sought to split commissioning of services with provision. The stark reality is that we had missed the point at which our opposition should have started.

The original SOS campaign had halted closures of our community hospitals, but in its wake the New Labour government had created the NHS Operating Framework (in2010). This sought to split PCT commissioning so that they couldn’t be providers and commissioners of their services at the same (you will recall the new NHS reform bill seeks to achieve this with GP commissioning and ‘any willing provider’). This has left the door wide open for what many see as creeping privatisation in the NHS.

All of this should have been uncovered at the start of our campaign. We had passion and anger in spades, but I feel we failed to take responsibility for our claims and for the detail. Of course, as a member of the group I too hold that responsibility and had failed.

We missed the boat and should have opposed the original policy and legislation first came into being. Perhaps it was – but I am unaware of any such local attempt to oppose it, and therefore any such attempt failed.

It was all too little too late. We had some victories, though. Ironically, the local Labour Party executive issued a statement against the formation of GCS, pushed by our lobbying of it.

As the countdown to the 1st October transfer finally came a last minute legal challenge seems to have postponed GCS at the last breath. This seeks to oppose the transfer based on irregularities of the tendering process. But in a letter issued to GCS staff on the back of the challenge, the PCT said: “If taken to its logical conclusion the challenge would mean that community services would be competitively tendered with the result that bodies both within and outside the NHS sector could respond.

Well, YES, that was kind of OUR point, which is why we were worried. We don’t want private companies wading in. But you can be sure the PCT will hide behind the policy instruments. Even if we won that contest, we’d actually be bringing forward our worst fears. It is a risky strategy.

Perhaps a groundswell will enable us to oppose the national policy now – now that we can see the consequences of it. But I rather doubt we will get the Tories to reverse it when their national NHS reform bill seeks to put the GCS project example into legislation at best, ‘any willing provider’ at worst.

The lesson learned is that we came to the argument too late. For sure, we asked GCS some embarrassing questions in public meetings and got about 100 people to our own meeting at the Miner’s Welfare Hall. But the question really was spot on when it was asked ‘Why haven’t we done anything before?’

This is more philosophical than it first appears.

How is it possible for activists let alone concerned citizens to be aware of all policies, legislation and boardroom decisions and their ramifications all of the time? Whose duty is it to impart this information? How accessible is this information, both physically and intellectually? How can we hold governments and local public bodies to account, particularly when policies go across the floor from Parliament to Parliament even with a change of government?

Perhaps it is this powerlessness which is truly the best example of what it really means to be living in a ‘Broken Britain’.

Perhaps it is from this powerlessness that the ‘occupy’ movement is drawn. The anti-war march of 2003 proved that marching alone probably isn’t enough anymore.

This is a personal view and does NOT represent the views of Forest of Dean Against the Cuts, The Clarion or the SOS Again campaign. On the national NHS reform Bill, please ensure you write to as many Lords as you can to ensure they don’t allow the Bill to proceed.

Someone offered the phrase that we see moral thought ‘through a glass darkly’ and this was certainly true of those of us listening to Prof. Billington talk on ‘Absolutism vs Relativism’ under the influence of Thwaites’ dark and silky Crafty Devil beer.

Although I agreed with his position favouring relativism over absolutism, I felt cheated by the quality of the argument. X vs Y presupposes equal weight will be given to both sides. But it wasn’t. In fact I couldn’t recognise any difference in the presentation of absolutism from authoritarianism, but there was plenty of favour for relativism through the denigration of absolutism, particular in reference to the examples cited which were all based on a fundamentalist view of religious thought.

As an atheistic agnostic I have no time for supporting such views, but it wasn’t right to characterise all absolutism with that single brush.

Moreover, I felt – as is often the case I am finding – that the binary presentation of things was in itself at fault. And here’s why.

It is my opinion that we – as civil society – intuitively need the absolute rule of law just to get by. This is why we are, on the whole, happy to consent to it. That doesn’t mean all laws are right all of the time, but they offer a framework that applies to all fairly (putting the financial aspects of the role of lawyers aside). We want to live in a world where there’s some order which prevents others from stealing from our homes or endangering our loved ones etc.

So I contest some absolutes are accepted, not entirely and not always in all circumstances, but mostly. Another example would be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You might feel they’re not worth the paper they’re written on. Perhaps, but with an ideal of what is shared as acceptable behaviour for individuals and states, then the building blocks of civil society is built on potentially immoral quick-sand. With the UDHR there’d probably be no Amnesty International and without Amnesty or Human Rights Watch more abusers might well get away with an awful lot more. Today’s moral ideals could shape tomorrow’s laws.

Of course, an absolute right might be the status quo the next one day, enshrined by law as with the suffragette moving or gay rights. These weren’t universally accepted as absolute rights and in some places still aren’t. But social and cultural advance sees the ideals of a few become the absolute rights of potentially all.

Having argued that some absolutes work well, I think ALL the rest is relative.

We can see this is many religious texts which have their commandments. These happen to coincide with many of the base ideals of what civil society should be based on – but don’t themselves mean all religous texts ought to form the abolutes themselves.

These absolutes are not absolute for all time, but they‘re also not entirely relative either. As Macke said ‘There are no objective values.’ I agree. A plurality of moral dilemmas and outcomes and circumstances (place, time, cultural heritage, education, moral intelligence and experience) all add up to one’s decision. Some of these decisions will be framed by ‘almost’ absolutes (let’s call them absolute-lite) such as the rule of law or the UDHR. But all others require that we consider the issue at hand ourselves based on our relative standing – the accumulation of our consciousness experiences.

Thinking along this line, I tried to trap Prof. Billington, asking in which camp would he place utilitarianism. Categorically he replied relativist. Regrettably we moved on to another question before I could counter whether he thought the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number was a good absolute.

Frankly, I don’t care because the answer IMO, if there is one, is that it is a bit of both – the plural.

I think it was wrong to give absolutism a reputation of purely being irrational authoritarianism, even if I believe that the vast majority of moral choices are relative. We ran out time before I could posit the thought experiment that if ‘one day we woke up and found all views on moral issues were good (not only of intent but outcome) but absolute – would he still favour relativism?’

On the face of it absolutism in its rawest form doesn’t make any sense. But absolutism-lite does. The two are different and the latter is not relativism.

‘Through a Glass Darkly’ happens also to be one of my favourite Ingmar Bergman movies. Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day.

The next pub philosophy meet will be on November 15th (usual time 7.30pm at the Rose & Crown in Tintern). Tim Cross is offering an ‘All you can eat’ buffet of modern philosophical thought, focusing mostly on his special areas of interest (conceptual philosophy and linguistics).

Another month, another philosophy circle meet. This time it was Prof. Ray Billington on the ‘Philosophy of Ought’.

His evening of ale, anecdote and debate focused less on logic and meta-ethics and more on the moral implications of the word. He offered 3 differing definitions of ‘ought’.

Firstly, ‘ought’ as the expression of expectation based on experience (derived from probability and suitability).

Secondly there was what one ought to do in terms of conduct, that is, a qualitative instruction normally offered in one’s interest, probably with the expectation of a positive outcome. This last definitive runs into the third, with ‘ought’ being a moral obligation inherited from some authority.

The latter begs the question from where does this moral obligation arise? On what authority is ‘ought’ assigned?

As usual God came up a lot. I guess that’s omnipotence in action. But as an atheist/agnostic, I put that aside, rejecting the very idea of a supernatural moral authority as a premise worthy of pursuit. There was, however, an interesting segment on whether one could logically arise ‘ought’ out of an ‘is’. For example: Jesus IS perfect and we therefore ‘ought’ to follow his example. Why? Or, just because God is our creator does not necessarily mean we ‘ought’ to follow his bidding.

No, ought, to me and a few other Darwinians (we shall call them, heathens they shall call us) in the room saw ‘ought’ as a manufactured expression of compulsion. It is an idea of what the self feels compelled by or what we feel should compel others.

I offered the example that although we could not know, it is highly unlikely that animals have a concept of ‘ought’, even those that are comparatively complex and intelligent, such as apes.  This would therefore show that is probably only something that we exhibit out of our own creation. As highly sophisticated animals, we have created the idea of ‘ought’ but it does not mean that ‘ought’ exists, in terms of a moral obligation. I felt pretty much the same about ‘time’ last month.

I used the brain in the vat example. Dave – our brain in the vat – wakes up each morning and says ‘Blimey, I really ought to do 50 push-ups each morning.’ Here we see the idea of the compulsion, but the inability for Dave to actually achieve it. But this makes the idea of what Dave ought to do no less compelling.

Some offered that ‘ought’ requires a capability and goal. That’s fine, but it is still only the expression of a compulsion, and – like most expressions – once the context of a self among many selves is added, the expression of the desire and ability to achieve it will differ from person to person to end up so internalised in one’s own reality as to be virtually meaningless.

Ayer says this kind of ‘ought’ all comes down to personal interest. And this is where the assertion of ‘ought’ might be, we Darwinians felt, a hang-over from our compulsion to merely survive. As usual, there was a rumble of discontent amongst our number and crass remarks about Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’, which he himself declared dissatisfaction with (as a title) in his Introduction to Robert Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Co-Operation’, which I still haven’t read – I guess I really ought to…

Anyway, IMO the issue came down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Again. This is an expression of what drives man. The base needs are those required of survival: food, water, shelter etc. and as society becomes more advanced and affluent, we have the liberty of time and actualisation of self to start considering.  Historically, ‘ought’ may well have been tied up first with obligation to the group or clan, a higher need that pure self-survival, but this can still be interpreted as part of the wider survival mechanism.

Then, as man becomes more complex and starts on this thing we call civilisation we move up the needs chart to actualise abstract ideas based on our reflection of self and wider (society). Or, in social systems, the conduct inherited through the system itself.

With a nod to Ockham, this explains the misinterpreting of the compulsion quite well without having to magic-up a supernatural (or otherwise) higher authority on whose bidding we ought to follow. Don’t over-complicate things – the simplest answer is probably the most likely. If unpalatable as the Richard Dawkins’-bashers misunderstood.

My question to Ray was: ‘Who do we betray most if we ignore what we ought to do – the idea of ought or our free will?’

I never got a satisfactory answer (why would I possibly expect one from a Professor of Philosophy?) and as soon as we had thrown free will into the mix there was no discerning whether ‘ought’ fed into free will or arises in spite of it. At one point, however, someone from the floor reminded us that it was Kant who said (something like) ‘because we have a sense of ought, we have free will’. I am not sure I have enough understanding of his intensions here, but it does suggest that ‘ought’ feeds into free will and that Kant accepts ‘ought’ as an idea.

Trying to understand a moral meaning of ‘ought’ was, to me, as futile an exercise as asking ‘what is good?’ No wonder utilitarianism came into discussion at one point.  And the question of whether ought can arise from an IS, presupposes that ‘ought’ is itself a valid moral construct, which I cannot see it is. As Mark pointed out it is probably nothing more than a neurotic dilemma.

Oh, and just to be clear, I accept but am not entirely satisfied with the clumsy use of ought which can be used to express an expectation of the outcome of some test, as witnessed by some earlier evidence. But this is just a fuzzy version of IF / THEN logic. With morality being amongst the most fuzzy things in philosophy and, indeed, life – ‘ought’ of that kind belongs, IMO, in the dustbin marked ‘words surplus to requirement’.

Debate over. Now we really ought to move on to something else…

The next meet is our annual garden party, with the next regular meeting at 27th September with Prof. John Clarke talking on Bertrand Russell and Francis Bacon, both of whom have a link with Tintern (with Russell being born just up the road) and thus the talk/meet will form part of the Tintern Festival. Meetings kick off at 7.30pm and normally take place in the Rose & Crown pub, in Tintern.

by Magnus Mills

This remarkable novel deals with the love of labour. And it does so uniquely. Imagine William Morris writing Emmerdale, all wrapped up in with a Wickerman touch of paranoia.

All Quiet on the Orient Express takes as its main theme the efforts of one man seeking to employ himself creatively in spite his newly borne freedom. In this sense it is an existential work but in an incredibly banal yet paradoxically readable way. Apparently on his way to travel to India, our protagonist is diverted by one and then another job for Mr. Parker, owner of the campsite he happened to be staying on come end of season. The endlessness of the chores recall Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, but this is a thoroughly English book and it is as interested in the value of work as it is in the absurdist, Kafkaesque situation.

In some senses the novel is a frank piece of rather old-fashioned social realism – imagine kitchen sink transposed to the twisty lanes and farmyard fronts of the Lake District a la Postman Pat or Whistle Down the Wind. But there’s a twist to this texture where on the surface of things nothing much happens at all. For example, one of the most dramatic moments is when our quiet antihero is painting a gate and a visiting milkman accidently knocks it over spilling its contents all over the roadway. He makes the best he can of a bad job by turning the splodge spillage into a green square and that’s just what this book is about: the struggle to be creative in one’s work despite the attempts (deliberate or otherwise) to disrupt the quiet peace of crafting an end-product. And, from a narrative perspective, the incident is an important one.

The mystery of local folk, especially Bryan in his cardboard crown and the various sidelines of Mr. Parker are both captivating, and the characterisation excellent.

The feel of its setting – the Lake District and, most notably its pubs – and of local, rural Britain is pervasive and, I’m sure for any British socialist, the book is contagious in its depiction of the leisure found in creative labour or being at rest while at work, as well as being at true rest (boat-rowing on the lakes or evenings at a warm pub playing darts with plenty of Topham’s Ex on tap).

On the other hand, the noise of interpersonal relationships and common misunderstandings disrupt this pleasure. Indeed, the coy politeness of our protagonist is the reason why he takes on so many tasks of which hold scant personal gain and it is this that often sees him exploited. These are things that spoil the beauty of the realm of physical, creative work. It is the labour itself that rewards the worker with a reduction of his world, personality and anxieties, no its capital value. It’s like gardening – the people’s art; a love of life through labour.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Marx, Morris nor Engels but a Cistercian Abbot (Andre Louf) who once wrote ‘We must work with some material substance that resists us, and against which we have to pit ourselves to reshape it.’ [1] Just as Magnus Mills has crafted a book of deceptively simple words and slender paragraphs, our protagonist labours before us fashioning a work of brilliant social realism, deadpan humour and life-enriching fiction. Indeed, I immediately sought out more Mills, which is as a reader has to be the best kind of recommendation.

[1 cited in Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams’ (Faber & Faber, 2007)]

Last night’s talk at the Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle was on the philosopher, David Hume who’s 3rd centenary of birth is celebrated this year.

Prof. Ray Billington led with a picture of Hume’s life. An atheist or at least agnostic, Ray presented Hume as a man in despair at the conclusions of his life’s work in philosophy. His scepticism leads him to an almost existential crisis: philosophy had failed to explain the nature of man.

‘There is no God. There is no such thing as a soul.’ Were phrases that Ray used to paraphrase Hume’s spiritual position, but where his forbears  – like Berkeley – believed the mind of God gave us our thoughts, the new age of doubt (science, discovery and the reformation) led to a scepticism where the truth needed to be tested from sense experience. Newton presented a testable methodology of observation and experiment which could describe the external world; Hume, having banished the role of God wanted to do the same for the inner world of human nature.

His failure to find success in his philosophical exploration of human nature was the cause of this existential crisis, a crisis of wisdom no less.

My understanding of John Clarke’s presentation has me summarising the problem as…

Reality is not ultimately knowable

Hume concluded that we cannot truly know reality, only our perception of it.

Dissatisfied, he only finally found peace of mind in the fact that the machine of nature itself enables us – as part of nature – to save ourselves from this scepticism.

The world of objects exists beyond us. Nature has endowed us with the means to accept causation in the world which cannot be truly proven. It is benign if not good. And it works as an acceptable consolation for philosophy’s failure to test reality.

Hume therefore is kind of a pre-Darwin Darwinian: nature has given us the natural instinct that the universe is regular – but philosophy can’t prove it – that is the nature of nature. And that’s something even we atheists can believe in.