Archives for posts with tag: State Power

This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

khatch1
Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

khatch2
The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.

Advertisements

from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley  Clarion magazine

THE LEFT INSIDE column by C. Spiby

Things are getting a little ugly. Especially in Falkirk where the CLP is in a fizzle thanks to UNITE the union bombarding the local party with its members in an attempt to get the next Parliamentary candidate to be their preferred candidate.

While I see that, theoretically, an infiltration of any kind is dangerous, an infiltration of working class-conscious trade unionist is – SURELY – what Labour needs right now.

In fact, I wholeheartedly support it.

But there is a split of opinion as to Ed Milliband’s plan to re-boot the role Labour has with the Trade Unions. Even Len McCluskey endorsed the idea that the scheme might mean thousands of new official working class members paying their way in the Party ‘officially’ (rather than paying by default). The doom-mongers, however, see the move as an attempt to sever the historic link (which is probably why it got the support of Tony Blair!) and in doing so lose the Party millions in vital funding.

If the doom-mongers are right, then this leaves the door wide-open for the Party funding machine to head out and woo more donations from big business and the rich.

What started as a call for ‘8 hours for work – 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose’ spawned a workers movement. Workers coming together in union to end the tyranny of employers. The call went out in 1868 for the first Trades Union Congress.

The struggle for workers’ rights commenced and gathered pace with the rise of each challenge, each success and every knock-back. As Billy Bragg calls ‘There is power in a union’ and as is the popular noise of each and every protest the world-over: ‘The workers united, will never be defeated.’

But there were defeats, so we must take the latter as a rallying call – a call to metaphorical arms. For it soon became clear that to really change things, representation in Parliament was necessary. And thus the move toward a social democratic socialist party gathered pace. In the wake of the 1906 general election the Parliamentary Labour Party is born.

This history lessons informs us that something on both sides of the link has failed. The Unions has weakened their relevance (mostly through the actions of Tory Parliaments), but also the in the Labour Party has swung rightward for fear of militancy. Strikes – never popular – have ceased being the tool and call of the downtrodden worker as the right and the media present it as one massive, self-indulgent inconvenience for the rest of society. And in doing so breaks society.

Without Labour there’d be no welfare state. Without Trade Unionism there’d be no Labour.

The question is one only of relevance.

Now is the time for those Trade Unionists to re-embrace their Party. And to do it through the front door.

OTHER MATTERS But then there’s murkier water ahead with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. My personal beliefs seem out of kilter with my Party, although I will reserve full judgement until the final General Election manifesto is ready. So it is up to us to make sure they hear our voices on the topics we are moved by and join in at www.yourbritain.org.uk (the Party’s policy development platform).

So it is with relief that our leader e-mailed to remind us that…

“Only One Nation Labour will repeal David Cameron’s Health Act and put NHS values, not Tory values, back at the heart of our NHS. Our NHS is at the heart of what makes Britain great. Labour will always make safeguarding its future a priority. [a]”

Previously he let us know about some of things his leadership had on the agenda…

We all know Labour in 2015 will have less money to spend, because the Tories have failed on the economy. So we are going to take action on the big problems our country faces to control spending:

  • Cut costs by helping the long-term unemployed back to work
  • Make sure jobs are well-paid to reward work, so the state does not face rising subsidies for low pay
  • Get the cost of renting down by ensuring more homes are built – thereby reducing the welfare bill
  • Cap social security spending by focusing on the deep-rooted reasons benefit spending goes up.

This builds on an earlier message from Ed Balls, of the shadow Treasury. He said…

Tory economic policies aren’t working. On living standards, economic growth and on deficit reduction – they’ve got it wrong, and millions of people are suffering the consequences. It doesn’t have to be this way.  [c]

My worry is that these messages are being overtaken by noise from Labour vs the Unions. What the movement needs is a united voice and united message.

[a] E-mail from EM 2/7/13.

[b] E-mail from EM 6/6/13.

[c] E-mail from EB 3/6/13.

We started by looking at architecture, noting that postmodernism is two fingers to the rigid, utilitarian elegance of modernist forms and structures.

Philosophically, it is a fashionable utopia of no utopias. It labels a stylistic zeitgeist of a certain time, now past. The V&A call the era that “defies definition; an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, postmodernism was a visually thrilling multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.” [1]

It is an amorphous, wry dare to accept so many viewpoints and meanings as to be elusive and virtually meaningless. In its plurality of truths it resists a consensual truth upon which we can build knowledge, even if it requires a consensus to achieve its own existence.

Despite this ambiguous fluidity, it is remarkably linear in its succession of its predecessor. But this presents its first downfall. Where, for example, does one place the architecture of Gaudi? Was he a modernist, or a pre-Postmodernist? I don’t think we can just drop him into art nouveau on its own. Then compare to Hundtwerwasser’s building – is that postmodernism, or eco-modernism? Or new-wave nouveau?

And, at last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle, it struck me that its rise and fall is shadowed by the rise and fall of Western affluence.

Professor John Clarke, used the catalogue for the recent V&A exhibition on the art and style of Postmodernism as his starting point. Accordingly, postmodernism starts on 15th March 1972 with the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

This recalled Dominic Sandbrooks’ recent BBC2 series ‘The 1970s’ which touted a similar line and to some degree therefore corroborates the received wisdom that the decade of my childhood saw off the drab, utilitarian age of Modernism.

But this denies the purpose of many of those then-dream homes in the sky estates. Post-war Britain needed mass housing and the working class slums of the pre-war years failed to provide a model a modern Britain needed. As Le Corbusier says ‘The house is a machine for living…’ [2] In the same way you could say the NHS is a modernist idea: a modern state response to a problem facing society at large. And it was the right solution. It represented a modern yet utilitarian approach to healthcare, free at the point of need, invested in by the state – through National Insurance – to deliver a modern service for the modern age.

But postmodernism is a purely middle-class pre-occupation of the well-off and, as Prof. Clarke put it – it is often humorous and ‘superficial’. It cannot see the value in modernist expressions of utility, grace in form.

I can’t remember who it was (Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps) but a famous modern-era architect once suggested that they’ll never better the symmetry of the perfect utilitarian home: the snail’s shell.

For their part, a postmodernist would paint a ‘for rent’ sign on the snail. A witty aside. Perhaps even some well-placed cynicism of the commodity age. An expression. All these are well and good. But it pales compared to the natural symmetry of the snail ‘s home, which modernist strived to provide for fellow man.

So, what sounds like a permissive, liberal tendency comes across as a petulant, noisy show-off screaming for attention while the rest of us just get on with some work, try to make ends meet.

Even 9/11 – touted as the end of Postmodernism – is a uniquely Western perspective. Something dreadful has happened to us in the West so we arrogantly reassess our own preoccupation with the ‘designer decade’. And yet what was also missed by the postmodern story we heard last night, was that the year postmodernism begins (in  1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project), the two towers of the World Trade Centre are also completed. Here was see a very modernist structure.

Politically the anti-globalisation movement that came to maturity in Seattle 1999 tried the same amorphous approach favoured by the postmodernists, as has Occupy. Only to realise that without a programme, a shared vision of what is necessary then the demands of its movement will be lost in the noise of its complexity and variety. That is why the movement relented and finally published exactly that last week.

To be able to reflect oneself, one needs form. One needs a boundary that differentiates itself from the multiplicity of background.

Postmodernism is supposed to be liberal and a form of anti-authoritarian expression. It rejects the grand narratives. But look for a moment at cornerstone postmodern artworks like Mendini ‘s ‘Destruction of Lassu chair’ (photograph 1974) and you see a shouty rejection of the past, which seems to me remarkably authoritarian. Burning chairs OK? What about burning books? And if it’s not destroying stuff, it’s taking the piss. Does that make Monty Python pre-Postmodernists? The Goons? When does Dada end and postmodernism begin, then?

No this kind of anarchism exists without co-operation. It is self-indulgent relativism where every view of the world is valid but without consensus and coherence, useless and often meaningless.

Drawing on the NHS parallel I made earlier – where do we find ourselves now? In the boom-years of the 1980s, I imagine that private healthcare rocketed. People could afford to reject the state for something ‘better’. Conservative capitalism now reigns supreme. It even wants a slice of the state pie (and the Tories are giving it to them starting with the hideous Health & Social Welfare Reform Bill passed a couple of months ago).

To survive the post Postmodern age, conservative capitalism create an age of austerity. It must re-embrace the grand narratives of ‘isms. Conservatism.  Be it liberal conservatism or Christian conservatism. Professor Salvoj Zizek, meanwhile heralds the return of proper socialism – communism. But all these must seek out their place in the return of fundamentalisms.

THE TINTERN PHILOSOPHY CIRCLE MEETS EACH MONTH ON THE 3RD TUESDAY. WE ARE A PUB PHILOSOPHY GROUP, MEETING AT 7.30PM AT THE ROSE AND CROWN. WE ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHY PROFESSORS IN OUR GROUP, AS WELL AS A LIVELY AUDIENCE OF ACADEMICS, PROFESSIONALS AND LAY PEOPLE SUCH AS MYSELF.

NEXT MONTH’S MEET IS ON 18TH JUNE AND WILL BE LEAD BY PROFESSOR X OF CARDIFF UNIVERSITY (WHO LEADS THE PHILOSOPHY PHD PROGRAMME THERE, AND WHO IS A RESEARCH PROFESSOR ON DECONSTRUCTIONALISM AND A BIT OF A SPECIALIST ON JACQUES DERRIDA) BUT ON THIS OCCAISION WILL BE DISCUSSING THE TOPIC OF ‘PHILOSOPHY OF POETRY’.

IN JULY THE TOPIC CURRENTLY BEING CONSIDERED IS ‘MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES’.

 [1] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/postmodernism as at 16/5/12

[2] Vers une architecture, 1923

The War (for Children’s Minds) by Stephen Law

{a review}

Many might recall Marx’s declaration that – up to his age – philosophers had sought only to understand or as he put it ‘describe’ the world, but the point was ‘to change it.’ This might be the kernel of many an activist but it is a quality not exclusive to socialism.

Many times in The Clarion I have argued that the way to truly change society is through education. But, in our time, education is the realm primarily of children. And this is why it is there that the battleground for reason is being fought.

Today’s teenagers are the ‘war on terror’ generation. They are borne of a war built on an impossible, unachievable abstract waged by fundamentalist positions of varying zeal from both Muslim and Christian traditions, charged with a bonus shot of Zionism. As Richard Dawkins warned in ‘The God Delusion’, the minds of these children will form the foot-soldiers of tomorrows’ war. Be this, as in the case of Palestinian teenagers for example, martyrdom (as so tragically documented in James Miller’s film ‘Death in Gaza’, which saw him shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Force) or the attack on reason in US schools. There 96% of Americans claim to believe in God and their authorities have banned books such as 1984 as well as, in some cases, the barest mention of scientific evolution, favouring instead what is righteous and good as dictated by the Bible.

All this, however, is wrapped in a paradox: while faith and irrationality might be at the root of more conflict now than in any time previous in the last century and a half, there is equally a decline at least in the Christian tradition in church-going and the role of faith in state affairs. And some would have it, therefore, a decline in morality. But does that really follow?

Welcome then teenage drop-out come post-man turned philosophy professor, Stephen Law and his ‘The War for Children’s Minds’.

Although primarily concerned with the issue of faith, it is not faith alone which Law sees as the problem – unlike Dawkins’ or Hitchens works have been characterised (although they’re more about reason) – but authority. And it is this difference in perspective which explains why obvious rebukes of the idea that only religion is synonymous with moral conduct don’t appear until page 158 (with the citing of Fukuyama).

Law’s book ‘Makes a case for a particular kind of liberal moral education, an education rooted in philosophy, not authority.’ That is, getting pupils to think independently, building arguments through rational persuasion at most.

Blair’s New Labour were (in)famous in providing the blue print for the Tories to encourage more faith schooling in the UK. But Law builds a steady case against the notion that faith has a monopoly on moral education. Instead he offers a list of skills the student might cultivate as opposed instead of deference to a higher authority just because they say so or it is written (where, for example, it is ordained that homosexuals or women are not to be treated as equals). Law recommends students be taught to…

  • Reveal and question underlying assumptions,
  • Figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
  • Spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
  • Weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
  • Make a point clearly and concisely
  • Take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting,
  • Argue without personalising a dispute,
  • Look at issues from the point of view of others, and
  • Question the appropriateness of, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings.

These are admirable qualities we could probably all use. And like most good advice, it is obvious and easy but I’d wager if we really adopted them well, we might just make the citizens of a shared world worthy of and for each other. And that’s probably why it hasn’t been universally applied, as it is not in the interests of the quiet authoritarians pulling the strings. Law reminds us that modern education only fulfils half its original intent – not to merely intellectualise – but also create good citizens. This just happens to be a view shared by those in favour of more authoritarian approaches; Law just disagrees on how that is achieved. And he offers a convincing case.

Law is concerned with many things, including the misunderstanding of Kant and the Enlightenment. He manages to stay just on the interesting side of argumentative pedantry but his simple, yet philosophical approach convincingly breaks down all the arguments of the authoritarians.

One problem is, of course, that authoritarians will never recognise themselves as such. Another is that they will misrepresent the liberal approach. But at Law points out ‘To say “You must judge what is right and wrong” is not to say “You must judge on a wholly shallow, materialistic, self-serving basis”.’ And yet this is the familiar argument against liberal education. Law refutes the claims that liberalism is relativism and encourages anarchy in the classroom. Indeed, how could that possibly deliver a structured approach to thinking? Law rejects authority which dictates what is to be believed, rather than instilling the means to think for oneself.

An oddity of many philosophic debates (as a visit to the Tintern Philosophy Circle (each 3rd Tuesday in the month at the Rose and Crown 7.30pm) will often testify), is that it isn’t long before the topic of Nazis turn up. And Law’s book is no exception. I guess this is because the Nazis are such a milestone in amoral conduct they off a good example of how supposedly rational beliefs become policies that can carry a whole country into mass extermination (and by, um, ‘authority’ no less).

Here Law rightly draws on Milgram’s 1950’s psychological tests which sought to understand how Nazi concentration camp guards qualified their actions by claiming ‘they were only following orders’ and – so Milgram thought – to prove that it could never happen in the USA. Instead, Milgram found that actually ‘65% of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to so by a white-coated authority-figure’. Law argues that it is only, as Kant says, through ‘the courage to use one’s own reason’ we might question such authority.

In fact, from a socialist perspective, our history is rich with those who questioned the established authority and challenged them in order to change the world for better. What is somewhat lacking here though is that which Marx set out – the means to change the status quo. At the risk of sounding like one endorses Pol Pot’s Year Zero: revolutionary action – in this case the means to ignite Enlightenment for modernity.

A liberal approach to character education won’t emerge of itself. It needs to be policy won by evidential argument, or if not grown organically by educationalists themselves. But I say what better place to start, while we wait for policy-makers to catch up, than in the home?

For his part, Law suggests some training for specialised teachers. After building such a convincing case, this solution seems rather lightweight.

In his defence, however, Law does cite cases where philosophy in schools has not only drastically improved critical thinking skills and reasoning, but there’s also evidence of side-benefits too both in general educational improvement, as well as better behaviour and attitudes, particularly on moral issues like, say, bullying.

So my major political conundrum (the myth of the rational voter) isn’t yet solved, but at least the debate as to how to positively influence change has begun with this highly recommended, mindful book. Buy it, read it and then buy a copy for the Head of your local school.

I am not a fan of sci-fi: never have been and probably never will be. Or so I thought.

Like every other boy of the 1970’s I loved love ‘Star Wars’ but it wasn’t until the early 80’s with the BBC’s adaptation of ‘The Day of theTriffids’, and then ‘Threads’ did a certain breed sci-fi come to affect my whole outlook on life. Frankly, at the time I thought we were doomed. Borne of these are the beginnings of a political awakening that took another decade to bear fruit.

Both were imaginings of terrible fictions. ‘Threads’ seemed all too real and hypothesized nuclear Armageddon, whereas the BBC’s updating of the John Wyndham’s novel presented a different side to social destruction –giant, man-killing plant aliens. The genre was known as post-apocalyptic, and is an awkward addendum to sci-fi genre. They were fictions based on supposedly scientific possibilities. Indeed, ‘Threads’ was the first mass understanding of the nuclear winter hypothesis which was a debate still raging at the time – making even surviving a nuclear holocaust so terrible as to warrant questioning the point of living.

But I was slightly too young to remember the silent killer at work in the BBC’s 1970’s post-apocalyptic series ‘Survivors’.

This time it was an invisible means of destruction: disease. Watching the 70’s series on DVD today, I can see now that had I been just a bit older when it aired, it would have marked me as indelibly as ‘Threads’ would later in the 80’s.

Written by TV sci-fi supremo Terry Nation (who also gave us Blake’s 7 and many a Dr. Who storyline) it supposes the very real threat of a deadly epidemic and the social decay and terrible anarchy that arises out of the entire destruction of the state. These are topics I have written about before in The Clarion with my review of ‘The Death of Grass’ (by John Christopher) and to a degree in my explorations of modern utopian writing (all share communes and different social codes among their defining features). Nation, however, was at pains to distance his new series from his sci-fi work stating that “Survivors has its roots in the future, as it were, but it’s not science-fiction. It’s not going into the realms of the impossible; it’s skating very close to the possible,” which I guess is why the series still holds my interest, despite Nation’s other portfolio.

Indeed, the Radio Times write-up for ‘Survivors’ (it was shown on BBC1 over 3 series from 1975) cites a line from the show which sums up perfectly its preoccupation: “Incredible, isn’t it? We are of the generation that landed a man on the moon and the best we can do is talk of making tools from stone.

‘Survivors’ is at its best when it questions our assumptions about how stable our society really is. How civil we might truly be under great duress, and what happens when we peel away the froth of our consumerist lives? It pokes around in moral dilemmas not usually broadcast in BBC dramas at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Today or in the 70’s.

Jenny, Abby & Greg (L to R). The face Jenny is pulling is because they've just found the body of a man hanged for looting a supermarket.

Lucy Fleming is the likeable constant, but where as heroine ofseries one (Carolyn Seymour as Abby Grant) is admirably driven she remains fairly impenetrable and one dimensional. What is to be commended, particularly for the age – as this still happens too infrequently today – is that the producers accepted a female as the lead character in what was on the face of it an adventure series. Granted, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was also around at the same time, but they were impeccably hair-sprayed icons drawn by men of what women heroes ought to be like (and with a male for their boss, no less). Even ‘Wonderwoman’ was busty and pouted silky lip-gloss. By contrast Abby Grant crops her hair as she sets out on the road into a post-apocalyptic British countryside, her dead husband sprayed across the lounge sofa.

The camera follows Abby in what could easily have turned outto be classic Twilight Zone territory (“Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one.”) only to reveal to the audience the parallel story of Jenny Richards (Fleming) and then separately again the incredibly annoying Jackanory-esque tramp-comes-good storyline of Tom Price (played in a ridiculously Dickensian turn by Talfryn Thomas). But once modern viewers adjust their grins at the tragic fashion and 70’s BBC acting, the strength of the stories and other characters comes to the fore.

My favourite, for example is that of super-bitch Anne Tranter and Vic who she leaves for dead in a quarry once she realises he cannot supply her with riches now that he’s tragically crippled by an accident. Then there’s the poetic child-killer in series two and capital punishment episode in series one, both of which feel like Amnesty International had a hand in the writing.

Of course, one of the recurring themes is the nature of community and the role of leadership, be it within our ragtag group or across the other surviving communities and bandits the characters stumble across. Alongside this is the pressure that “Our civilisation had the technology to land a man on the moon, but as individuals we don’t even have the skill to makean iron spearhead”. The realisation that scavenging will only last so long comes to the fore and without a sign of a state forming any time soon, there’sa quick return to self-sufficient agriculture, with all its pitfalls and trials. This is not ‘The Good Life’.

Upon completing production of the pilot episode, contracts were drawn up in January 1974 and the show commissioned around the theme: ‘Bubonic plagues sweeps the world, killing all but a handful of people who escape to the country with absolutely nothing and who start civilisation again from scratch.’ But the response to Nation’s series was mixed.

The Times was expecting classic sci-fi in the Dr. Who mould from Nation and was therefore rightly disappointed. The Guardian for its part was just underwhelmed (‘a perfectly passable pastime’). The Daily Mail, however,got it on the nail when it compared its greatest strength to HG Wells’ War ofthe Worlds in which ‘extraordinary events are set in actual, small-scale landscapes’ – which is why the work reminded me of ‘The Death of Grass’ (and toa degree, John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’) – all of which seem set in a comfy version of the British countryside which we’ve come to love through thelikes of Betjemen, the Hovis ad or ‘All Creatures Great and Small’. And that is why so much of it is so simple yet effective.

Some of this is owed to the ‘feel’ of the work. While the opening title theme is infectious (ahem) and the titles sequence explains all we need to know about the origin and spread of the disease, it is interesting to note that it wasn’t a clever directorial instruction to omit incidental music, but a BBC strike, which lead to a very tight production schedule and hence no budget or time for music. This probably inadvertently adds much to the silence of dead Britain. It obviously works, because there’s still no incidental music by the end of the final third series.

It is also with some interest then that I discovered that much of the farm the group settles in during series two is not far from Monmouth. In fact, there’s quite a local link. Series one saw shoots in Evesham, the Pitville Circus in Cheltenham, various locations around Ross-on-Wye, Llanarth Court in Monmouth but was mostly shot in Herefordshire’s Hampton Court. By series two Callow Hill Farm near Monmouth came the setting for the fixed commune.

Alan W. Turner’s biography of Nation lays the departure of the shows’ creator to a split with co-writer Jack Ronder. The two had differences over the series’ direction and once Nation had also fallen out with the producer, Nation withdrew from his own project altogether. Besides, by this point Brian Clemens, who Nation had worked with on shows like ‘The Avengers’, filed court proceedings stipulating ‘Survivors’ was his idea in the first place’. The project seemed diseased on every level.

Somehow it survived. A second series was commissioned and Nation penned a novelisation of his version of the story – now a collectors’ item. For TV, Series two (1976) sees the departure of Abby Grant and a change of setting and I think it is all the better for it. It does suffer from the problem in TV series where one remarkable thing has to happen after another for fear of losing audience interest (but that could also be said of ‘The Archers’, albeit on a slightly smaller scale and perhaps less deadly). This sadly misses the point, of course, that ordinary post-apocalyptic life had itself WAS extraordinary to us viewers watching from the lap of technological luxury and leisure.

Series three took the show to its conclusion (1977). It still had the essence of what Turner commented was Nation’s premise, a “western, the struggle against nature and the attempt to establish a morality in a lawless land.” But now it was more about adventure than character and smaller domestic struggles. The search for engineer Greg Preston becomes more than annoying and dampens the effect of the ‘Survivors’ as a whole.

Of course ‘Survivors’ received the inevitable modern BBC remake. And like many updates it revels in sensation, where remarkable things have to so exciting and bombastic as to be inane. Zombie-apocalypse movie and video games are now ten a penny and with them, the danger of something as benign as a disease just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In many ways, however, the real world is more frightening. Remember BSE, driving past foot-and-mouths bonfires, bird-flu? And the impending influenza epidemic we’re due?

Yes, ‘Survivors’ is old-fashioned. But it is a unique piece of British TV history, trapped in time in this vast DVD box set.

SOURCES: ‘Survivors’ the complete series on DVD; ‘The ManWho Invented the Daleks: the strange worlds of Terry Nation’ by A. W. Turner(Aurum Press, 2011); http://survivors-mad-dog.org.uk/

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).

The Tintern Pub Philosophy Circle met the other night to discuss How We Might Get Human Rights. The discussion was lead by Tim Cross and covered the development of Human Rights as a concept from Hobbes, Locke, the US & French Revolutions and finally to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The premise for the inception of these articulations of rights was that life was for many people pretty cruel and a bit crap, but that we could make it less so.

To me, this seemed an iterative problem. If you consider recent human rights catastrophes (say Rwanda, Sudan, Chechnya or the gassing of the Kurds) then the various evolving declarations of what constitutes human rights appear like a utopian contrivance with serious failures (those catastrophes just mentioned). It is probably precisely because life is pretty cruel and a bit crap that we have failed to guarantee these rights and apply them universally.

To put it another way without a morally and actively courageous state, law and global governance this roadmap to civility will be challenged if not overrun by the weakness of those state governments, as we have seen in those very same examples.

This can be observed by the impotence of the United Nations over Iraq etc. but is probably best illustrated by Linda Polman’s seminal work on the topic ‘We Did Nothing – Why the truth doesn’t always come out when the UN goes in’.

The floor of our pub philo circle seemed to agree that such declarations were merely political posturing and generally not worth the paper they’re written on.  I was not so sure. While I raised my former observation, I qualified it with the fact that we ought not to slip into binary thinking here. That is, some expression of human rights is better than none, despite its failures. To qualify this I cited Amnesty International’s work on both individual cases of prisoners of conscience and Amnesty’s pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a tool by which we can hold signatories to account. It’s no guarantee but, it’s better than nothing – for the reasons just cited.

A little later the debate took a very un-philosophical and strange turn where different members of the floor argued on the original of human rights, not least since Tim had started only with Hobbes. He conceded that of course, the notion of rights and welfare existed prior to this but qualified his starting point as the point of the modern rise of Human Rights as we know it today (by the UN declaration), and the fact that we only had 2 hours. Undeterred, some cited Christianity as the original while other argued Hinduism. I thought this was a flawed distraction to the point at hand but still offered – in an attempt to deaden the avenue – that IMO rights probably arose in an evolutionary sense from the first days of society – probably at group level – where co-operation met language to form a consensus to the general good of all members of the group (within a certain hierarchy). I think we can map that through to today’s articulations of Human Rights consistently from this. Certainly it appeared to kill that part of the debate off, either from ridicule or reason – you decide.

So back to the main debate. In conclusion the most perplexing thing about human rights is that, philosophically, it is a paradoxical notion. To gain rights one has to relinquish certain liberties. By policing rights we absolve ourselves of certain rights.

From a Practical Philosophy point of view Chris Gifford observed that in his teaching of Amnesty’s work with young children, they demonstrated a universal and unsolicited innate sense of fairness and justice. This runs counter to the long-running argument as to whether rights can be natural or are only conferred. Indeed, Chris’s point means that that debate takes a new direction: about who creates these rights. Again, from a pragmatic approach, consensus and co-operation take the lead here and, while people die, it is an arbitrary debate.

My personal summary was that declarations of human rights offered the wrong answer to the right question, but that this answer was better than none at all.

Perhaps human rights is an expression of civilisation which while best informed by reason is, philosophically, above logic – so far – or at least so far as its paradoxical reasoning, on the whole, eludes us. It is a mechanism which, at best, sometimes works. But its failure is deadly. Its non-existence apocalyptic.

REVIEW: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation (Travels in the World of Nuclear Weaponry)’ by N. Hodge & S. Weinberger

There were tests on living creatures as well. Because pigskin is remarkably similar to human flesh, the U.S. government experimented on live pigs. Tests in 1957 exposed some twelve hundred pigs to atomic detonation.

This is a strange book. Much like the Missile Defence Programme itself, it is presented as one thing but is, in fact, something else. Whereas Missile Defence was sold to the world as a defensive measure, in reality it was an offensive means of getting one’s enemy to believe you could withstand a first strike and thus break the M.A.D. doctrine which guaranteed mutual destruction to your advantage. And therein lay the end of deterrence.

Here, I detect the heavy hand of the Bloomsbury marketing office: ‘A Nuclear Family Vacation’ has no family about it and as such is a rather lazy play on words, and it is hardly a travelogue as the sub-title and ironic cover of my edition would have you believe. Instead what we get is an extended journalistic foray into the development of the United States nuclear defence programme. And it reads like the kind of article one might expect in the Sunday supplements, albeit stretched over some 285 fairly laborious pages.

The most despicable line these Cold War enthusiasts reveal is the deadly lamenting of the end of the Cold War itself. Engineers, scientists and contractors seem to openly regret the end of so-called hostilities between the US and the Soviet regime. With funding removed there was, before 9/11, no role for development in a world where mutually-assured destruction guaranteed jobs for what seem like unashamedly candid hotheads who believe in the myth of the great American dream.

Initially, nuclear weapons were delivered by bombers lumbering through the skies and, like any aircraft, could be shot down. The advent of the ballistic missile changed the entire calculus: A nuclear attack with intercontinental ballistic missiles was nearly unstoppable. The ABM Treaty, adopted in 1972, helped preserve the Cold War’s nuclear balance of terror by ensuring that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would (with certain exceptions) deploy active defences against ICBM’s, thus guaranteeing mutual assured destruction. The treaty was seen as a landmark of arms control, limiting the need for new offensive nuclear weapons and reinforcing a key point of nuclear deterrence: the only defence against nuclear attack was massive retaliation.

Following 9/11 the Bush Presidency quit the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty and the military got the renewed funding it had been searching for since the end of the Cold War. Now missile defence had a new role with Iran and North Korea. Though, as the authors point out in a rare moment of rightful scepticism, not a single missile has been halted by Missile Defence Programme in realistic test conditions – the above passage suggests an acceptance of M.A.D. as a legitimate tool for peace (as opposed to eradication of nuclear weapons, which simply isn’t entertained throughout the book).

Look at the anger Bush’s policy has awoken in Russia. Even if, as the book claims, Russia missiles wouldn’t be the target of the Missile Defence in Poland and the Czech republic (as they are convinced their missiles would fly north across the Pole as the shortest route to the USA), the political message cannot be ignored. In kind, long-range Russian nuclear bombers have re-started their run-up against UK airspace (as – let’s face it – with Fylingdales, we’re little more than a radar outpost for the US military and it’s NORAD).

Hodge writes for Jane’s Defence Weekly and has also featured in the FT and Foreign Policy magazine. His wife, Weinberger, writes for Wired’s national security blog ‘Danger Room’ and has also appeared in the Washington Post. But their journalistic qualities need to be held into account. These people are definitely nuclear tourists and while they clearly know their subjects well and write on the history with authority, they seem to portray an ugly fascination with their topic and, like the military hotheads they interview, metaphorically rubs their hands with glee at the thought of a new generation of nuclear R&D. Not quite the un-biased, scientific view they should have presented. Perhaps Bloomsbury’s editorial team have themselves been nuked. To be fair, they rightly raise an eyebrow at the survivability argument of the US side and also point out that post-‘duck and cover’ the general consensus appears to be that protecting the civil population wasn’t really on their agenda. But these points paradoxically run counter to their implied view that the presence and continuity of nuclear weapons is not to be questioned, whereas the jobs of its committed servants re-appears in almost every chapter. If only they cared so much about humankind.

But I have to ask myself why did I buy and read this book? And why did I continue to read it when the repulsive lamenting of the good old days of Reagan and Star Wars became clear? What then is the appeal of nuclear weapons? The answer is simple: war fascinates. Its history and its depiction of the worst of human kind. From All Quiet on the Western Front and the poetry of Sassoon or Owen to movies like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. From the War Game to Threads. Only by recognising the worst in human nature can we hope to change. This book is a despicable reminder that, despite what the history books tell us about a period of time we’ve called ‘the Cold War’, US military staff sit round-the-clock, trigger-ready and morally bereft in their underground missile silos with 10,000 warheads at their disposal (with 400 more in Europe, many in the UK). Or humming around the oceans, waiting for politicians to fail, British sailors maintain Trident and its capability to leash death unto millions of innocent civilians. The authors end by stating that ‘It took a trip around the world for us to question the rationale behind the nuclear arsenal,’ – frankly they appear to be lacking in imagination. They sleep-walked around the world just as many people sleep-walked out of the Cold War not realising the nightmare was still a reality. What’s missing here and in the wider Trident debate is the child’s question – ‘Why?’ to which the response could be left to Albert Einstein when already too late he commented on the destructive power of the atom: ‘If only I had known, I would have been a watch-maker.’

Although John Christopher is popularly known as the man who brought us ‘The Tripods’, this seminal 1956 work in the cannon of apocalyptic fiction needs to be disassociated with the authors sci-fi credentials, deserving a much wider audience. Just as the William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ offered a grotesque analysis of the potential of cruelty of humanity, so ‘The Death of Grass’ offer us a taste of how civilisation can quickly crumble. And with it, all that makes up society.

The premise of the book is one now familiar with anyone who considered the possibilities of swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth, aids or avian bird flu. In fact, in 1999, a form of stem rust appeared in African crops which quickly became an epidemic spreading from Africa to Asia and the Middle East and destroying a large amount of cereal crop with it.

Anyway, take bird or swine flu – here is a direct correlation to Christopher’s terrible prognosis just as ‘Threads’ posed the interconnectedness of things – Christopher sees a rampant disease among grasses as the first domino which sets the path to the destruction of modern civilisation.

Things start as a distant rumble, in China. But soon the BBC news reports that the rioting for food (rice and wheat or barley make up the genus that is in the family of grasses) begins to spread Westwards through India and then into Eastern Europe. The Western world begins charitably – sending supplies, but soon the mass begin to question this policy as scientists fail to find a way to stop the virus from spreading.

John Custance – our protagonist – and his family make an early break for his farmer-brothers Lake District valley farm, where he too has been watching the virus intently and switched to planting only root vegetables. They escape just as London is sealed off by the Army. However, things turn quickly nasty at roadblocks or the roads to villages, now arming themselves defensively against the masses rioting in the cities. I guess this does sound far-fetched but Christopher reads like John Wyndham: characteristically British and reserved – both in content and style. And it is that British reservation which increases the terrible frankness of murder, rape, looting – the juxtaposition of the English countryside with its dead grass but profoundly ordinary provincial setting that makes it such haunting reading.

Although I found the opening annoying (there’s a poorly written segment where he said / she said / he said / someone said comes over as rather amateurish – it’s as if Christopher struggles with openings), once the pace quickens, so does the fluidity of the writing and I’m certain most readers will become compelled by the protagonists struggle for survival in a speedily crumbling world. Penguin reissued the novel under its Modern Classics banner – so it’s claims on our time as readers comes with good recommendation.

The Death of Grass’ does the social decay and lawlessness of an holocaust at least as well as the leading examples of apocalyptic film – ‘Threads’ or ‘The War Game’. As such it is chilling warning of how fragile our world might actually be.

(the  topic at last night’s pub philosophy meeting lead by Prof. John Clarke MA and Emeritus Professor of History of Ideas at Kingston University)

Some points I am still pondering – help welcome…

1. Can an argument, hypothesis or idea exist independent of the philosopher – as vehicle – who propagated it? When does a hypothesis become so consumed by adherence to an ideology by its vehicle that its value decreases? Is it when we get emotional about that ideology (as we rightly do with Nazism or Communism)?

Or, would Heidegger’s reputation be different were he not a Nazi?

What if he unconditionally recanted his Nazi Party membership? Does that actually matter? Is the hypothesis bigger than the man?

Many struggled with this last night, but other examples were offered – Wagner for example; have we dismissed his music because of his attitudes that seemed entirely compatible to his Nazi admirers? Jung has the advantage of admitting he was wrong to be involved with Nazis and their sympathisers and this appears to be hardly mentioned when talking of him and his body of work today and yet with Heidegger it is always mentioned as a defining context.

2. Did Heidegger really completely reject calculative thinking (in favour of purely meditative thought)? The answer from Prof. John Clarke was ‘no’, but it seemed to me that the attitude was more binary than not. This strikes me as somewhat asinine of someone purported to be among the most influential of thinkers in the 20th Century. Then again, I’ve not read his criticism of calculative thinking, but I am surprised he sees little value in it.

Instead, Prof. Clarke referred to Heidegger’s love of poetry and the almost Taoism of the meditative critique, but this is a paradox: poetry is full of rules, syntax, craft, a necessary mathematical pulse even – it’s more than aesthetic. I guess this is the danger of only a 45minute lecture on a complex man, especially when we warned that ‘Being and Time’ (Heidegger’s greatest work) is virtually unreadable.

3. The idea of anti-modernist attitudes was floated. It seemed to me from what we heard about Heidegger was that, actually, he would’ve been more at home/peace (and perhaps enjoyed a kinder audience) had he been born 60-70 years before and entered into the circles of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts bent of British socialism as opposed to the National Socialism of Germany in the 1930’s. The argument being that the zeitgeist at the turn to first-quarter of the 20th Century saw theological and philosophical challenges to meet modernism which was running away with itself – had taken the enlightenment too far. The volk were spiritually dissatisfied with modernism. Modern life is rubbish. It was technology-led and reinforcing a soullessness which was consuming faith, culture, socio-political issues as well as the aesthetic.

The example offered from our modern understanding modernism is the endless development of, say, TV from analogue to digital to micro gadgets replacing formerly cabinet-sized beasts of the lounge (and, I assume, the depreciation in quality content in light of the increase in means and technological advancement, which was implied but not actually cited). But, I objected, this criticism is not an aspect of Heidegger. In fact, I could not think of a single philosopher who actively embraces endless developments in pure technology and thus the implication of the contrary. And the reason is clear: it is not philosophers who occupy this realm, but the forces of economics.

Perhaps we could mention Marx, but I rather think we should separate his observations on economics from his pure philosophy. Marx philosophises on the exploitation at the kernel of capitalism, but capitalism is NOT a philosophy it is a socio-economic and political structure. So, still, can you think of a pro-technology philosopher? No. And I’ll tell you why because economics of this kind thrives on mindlessness not wisdom.

So I am not entirely convinced of the value of this if all philosophers are anti-technology by their love of wisdom alone; they can be against modernism and post-modernism, but not against pure technology just as they can’t be for it; it is a personal value judgement not a system of thought.