July 25: do I eat a dead man’s chicken?

When you are reading a novel or watching a film, you often become aware of the schematisation of the storyline, what in modern media jargon is called the arc. In a modern thriller you can almost set your watch for the timings of the first car chase; a story is plotted so that every detail has a subordinated relevance to the monolithic plot. No details are unaccounted for.
In fact, the pleasures of a fiction are in part the fact that the material is streamlined into the thrust of the dominant narrative, but also in part the randomness of material that does not fit into an overall scheme, the pleasures of what is not accounted for. The 19th Century novelist Emile Zola is often characterised as an overly controlling narrator with a didactic socio-economic programme behind every storyline, his version of ‘naturalism’ which aimed to document in a quasi-scientific way the culture of the time. But in Zola, as in any great creator of narrative, place is left for the random, the stuff that doesn’t fit, for it is often there that the most acute insight seeps through. In his early novel ‘Therese Raquin’ (1867) the central scene of the text is the murder of a husband by his wife and her lover. The trio have ordered a chicken in a river-side restaurant and taken a boat out on the Seine for an hour while it is being cooked. The husband is drowned during the boating trip on the river and the killing is passed off as an accident. In the description of this scene Zola tangentially notes the presence of a boat of rowers (‘canotiers’) a little further upstream. They are the ones who come to the aid of the victims of the apparently tragic accident that leaves Camille the husband dead. They help the two survivors, Therese and her lover Laurent, make it to shore. The charming random moment in the narration of the murder comes at the end of the chapter when Zola drily notes that it was the rowers from the rowing boat who ended up eating the dead man’s chicken. This tiny detail shows the range of Zola’s empathy. He is not just subordinating all the narrative to the admittedly key murder, he also sees the incident from the perspective of the peripheral characters of the rowers, who are (we imagine) left with the moral decision of deciding on whether or not to eat the roast chicken of a dead man, now going spare. Zola pans out and shows us the action from a wider, more quotidian perspective, which is also more realistic as we the readers mostly play the roles of the canotiers (the rowers) in life, peripheral observers of high drama. But we all have our own moral issues, however minor. Mostly the questions for us are not: do I murder a man who getting is in the way of what I want but, rather, do I eat a dead man’s chicken?

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July 18: a symptom of the condition it purports to address

The ongoing fad for clean and healthy food is a symptom of the condition it purports to address. The preciousness of the ingredients; the fastidiousness of the procedures; the ignorance of the cultural circumstances that most people live in: these are part of the problem. Aubergine, asparagus and artichoke (the A vegetable triumvirate) trump carrot, cabbage and cauliflower, but you’ll be paying four times as much for them, and, over and above the economic argument, most households have a tradition of the C vegetable (it’s the culture, stupid!). Hummus, for some reason mostly to do with convenience, is the king of the British fridge. It sits in splendour on the second shelf (the prestige shelf) and although in itself is mostly good for you, its reputation as a virtuous snack means that it is over-consumed. Prissy cooks, bully cooks, snobby cooks, entitled cooks and celebrities doing a bit of cooking all get their half hour of prime time, just enough time to make us under-eat or over-eat, to make us feel guilty or poor or unglamorous or ignorant or cowed. It’s rampant denial or rampant indulgence so that contemporary pathology now lives itself out primarily through the stomach. Denial is the new king of the iron throne (I refuse to mention gluten again because at this rate they will put it on my tombstone). Food is a sorry indicator of an infelicitous modern trend, namely, that health, mental or physical, comes by not doing rather than doing.

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July 13: Oliver Cromwell gets his fifteen minutes of fame or the impenetrability of the modern sign

I was walking in Kennington Park the other day and I saw a young man with a tee-shirt that sported an image of Oliver Cromwell with the text beneath it that read Down with Cromwell. I was bemused and, as so often nowadays, unable to read whatever signs were being put out. I went through a few options in my own mind. Cromwell was a Puritan. Maybe the young man is a great advocat of the Cavaliers. He did not seem to be such an extravagant dresser (jeans and tee-shirt). Maybe Cromwell represents government austerity, although if this was a political slogan I would have thought that Cromwell’s advocacy of the people against the aristocratic cavaliers would align him more with Corbyn than with May. I could very well be missing a reference to some DJ or hip-hop band. I recounted the incident to a younger friend more au fait with younger generation trends but got no joy from him either. The sign that is being put out is impenetrable to me and, I would imagine, to many others too. We live in an era of sign overload. Our skies are sign-spangled. Tatoos, tee-shirts, logos; signalling has exploded, and, because we no longer live in a monoculture, not everyone (hardly anyone) can interpret the signs that are being emitted. Or maybe there is another explanation. You have to emit a sign. granted. But you don’t have to know or be particularly connected to the sign that you are emitting. What is important is that you are signalling your signalling. You are participating but you are not quite sure in what. It’s just fun to be a part of a conversation. That could be a young generation issue. You see this in small children and toddlers who are learning the ways of the world. They will ape something a grown-up has done without knowing what it means. It is the performance that interests them. And, after all, nobody can catch all the meanings of an act. That’s why we have semiologists and cultural critics. Whatever, it was nice to see Oliver Cromwell getting his fifteen minutes of fame for once, even though, like some bewildered contestant on Big Brother, he wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to be saying.

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July 10: I’d like to be a laundry packer, please.

I remember my sister telling me about a careers class she had at school in the late seventies. Helen went to a Secondary Modern School. She was aged fifteen and being prepared for working life. All the students were handed a questionnaire to be filled in with questions like Which job would you prefer to have? 1) Teacher 2) Doctor 3) Optician 4) Singer. The pupils excitedly filled out the questionnaires. The teacher gathered them in and then theatrically ripped them all up and dumped them in the bin. These are jobs you can never hope to have, she said. Then another set of questionnaires was handed out. Which of the following jobs would you prefer to have? 1) Laundry packer 2) Cleaner. 3) Cloakroom attendant. 4) Baby-sitter. She went on to explain: these were the kinds of jobs you could aspire to. Very cruel and demotivating, of course, though you see the idea behind it. Whether it was justified or not, the idea was to give pupils a realistic sense of what life could hold in store for them. Helen chose laundry packer because she wasn’t quite sure what it entailed..
We shoot forward to today and that notion has turned round 180 degrees. Now anyone can do anything. You can win X-factor and become a star. You can be on Big Brother and become a star. Your dreams can come true, no matter what your class, race, ethnicity, circumstances. Ther is no preparation for failure. There is only preparation for success. This is also abusive. The great sacred word ‘choice’, an inalienable human right, sits in splendour over all. Its self-evident dominion is illustrated by anecdote. Here, we read in a tabloid, is the story of boy who went from nothing to a fortune. What we are not shown are the fifty other boys who went from nothing to nothing or the ten other boys who went from being backed up by family assets to further success and fortune. The great swathes of facts would tell us that you do not, in general, escape easily, and, if you do, there might be some collateral damage.
Should we go back to the bad old days of hopelessness? No. But should we combat the tyranny of the American dream? Yes, we should. By the way, Helen isn’t a laundry packer. She made the jump to the first list and became a primary school teacher. But I wonder how many other members of her class made that same leap.

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July 4: the smartphone looms

Materialising from the ether, gradually taking on corporality first in the subconscious and now in the blundering consciousness, the smartphone is looming. I do not have a smartphone. I have tried to avoid its claims. I have been irritated by all generations who respond to its clamour with dreary predictability; the adolescent traipsing through town with her eyes on the screen and ears under headphones in a state of voluntary sensorary deprivation; the grown-up who will blurt out a piece of useless, dumb information at any moment (the maximum speed of a mature hummingbird; the longest giraffe neck ever recorded) as if he has found the answer to all life’s problems. And yet now I see it is becoming inevitable. Train and plane tickets will soon be only available on elctronic device (there are no men with caps behind counters anymore); people send me e-mails and I am expected to see them immediately; they try sending me photos to my decidedly unsmart phone (I don’t know where they end up? Parked in clouds? Stuck on an everlasting ring road?). It’s happening. History, my history, is revving up for a shift in its motions. I bow to inevitability. The smartphone looms.

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