Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”

Henri Bergson

My wife was very keen to watch ITV’s new autumn drama “Vanity Fair”. We had seen the trailers and these had piqued her interest and indeed it did look like a well made adaptation with high production values. However, I didn’t share her enthusiasm as I knew little about the book, other than its title and author, and it looked like another boring period drama and unlikely to be to my taste (I remembered the boredom of the Downton Abbey and later Poldark years). However, I also knew it was very unlikely that I was going to win control of the television remote control on those nights and therefore needed a coping strategy.

It then occurred to me – I have never read any William Makepeace Thackery!  I have seen the book many times but its size and weight have always been off-putting.  Casual glances inside the covers, and the illustrations inside, tended to confirm my suspicions that it was too dated and I’d be unlikely to enjoy it. But these trailers made me think, why is this book still successful after so many years?  I could understand its success when it was published in serial form but why are people still reading it ? I decided that rather than wait for the television version I’d try reading the book. If nothing else came of it I could be a smug know-it-all when we watched the program later on.

I am glad I took this course of action. Not just that I read the book but also that I read the book before I saw the adaptation. The adaptation does not do the book justice. The book is a genuinely funny and biting satire. It excoriates the wealthy, the titled, the self-seeking and reveals their failing through their greed, lust, infidelity, duplicitousness,  and vanity. It is a story, as Thackeray says, without a hero – no-one is safe from criticism and ridicule. Much of the writing is dated and the allegories and symbolism, as is much of the humour, relies on a knowledge of both the history of the period (Napoleonic Wars) and classic mythology. I have to confess I was glad I was reading this on the kindle as at a press of a button I could find out details on historical or mythical characters such as the god Hymen (The god of marriage as I was surprised to learn). However, despite this his humour is still wicked enough to cause one to laugh out loud (to the annoyance of my wife as was reading this in bed at night)

The television adaptation does help in that it removes some of the hurdles of the text being antiquated but I fear that it also changes the book such that it looses its heart. Some of the changes I can fully understand. Thackeray was not an abolitionist and he held quite clear racist views. These are clearly shown through the characters of Mr Sambo (‘Sam’ on the television) and Miss Schwarz (who is invisible in the TV drama). I can understand why the racist jokes were omitted but fear that this might suggest that well regarded writers in the past were not tainted with unpleasant opinions. In this book it is important to keep in mind that, although all the characters are sinners, not all men are equal in the eyes of the author. On a similar vein the TV drama seems less able to portray Becky in the harsh light of the text. She is portrayed as a feisty go-getter and we rather skim over her picaresque period of decline, her manipulativeness, her abuse and neglect of her son and her possible role in two deaths.  Thackeray was able to display the shocking immorality of his puppets, it seems that this harder to do in our modern age.

I wonder if this problem of the adaptation is also why the humour fails today, When written its audience would have been well aware of the literary allusions employed by the author. Indeed it is likely most of them would have read about Vanity Fair in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. They would have shared a  Christian moral code and would have been very well aware when the characters in this tale transgressed, no matter what sugary words they employed in excuse. The gaps between apparent moral society and the real actions and intentions of the cast would be very clear and I am not sure that this is the case with a modern audience.

There was “no hero” in the tale I read, but the adaption possibly created a heroine to dull the edge of this literary weapon. This did blunt the whole enterprise and the television drama did, as I feared, largely end up as a period drama – lots of good costumes and a fair bit of romantic intrigue. Certainly not the funny biting satire that I had enjoyed reading. Though I did manage to become the smug know-it-all that I had hoped.

5star

Drifting towards the rocks.

Drifting towards the rocks.

It is increasingly apparent that the left has abandoned its originators. It was through the struggles of the working class that many of the present left wing organisations were born. These movements had their roots in the organisations formed by the working class to protect their interest and promote their advancement. The trade unions were the stalwarts of the Labour Party in Britain, and to a degree remain important today, but few on the left today have more than a vague awareness that the other strand which pushed the development of the left was Christian thinking. As Morgan Phillips, when General Secretary of the Labour Party said “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism“. In any event, any link between the Labour Party and working class organizations and culture has largely atrophied and disappeared. Now, like many organisations on the left, is more concerned with identity politics and intersectional theory than with any class struggle.

Thoughts on this subject were stirred last night MV5BMzc1MDY3NDIwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkwNzU0MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_when I went to see the Swedish film “The Square” which won the Palm D’or Award at Cannes. I’d heartily recommend this film to anyone who has not yet seen it as it is a biting, vicious satire which is genuinely funny but also very thought provoking. Although the main target is the “Art World” it also takes aim at the progressive elite who run our charities, government quangos,  health boards, government enquiries and generally wield a large part of the day-to-day power in our society. These people talk the talk of inclusion, accessibility, sharing and caring and empowering the powerless, but rarely do they walk the walk. As the film reveals they often have a deep seated fear of the poor and have much more interest in satisfying their own needs. In the film they create art to show they care for their fellow man but fail to recognise their fellow man in need when they pass them in the street.

On the left the politics of identity and intersectionality may have been able to help some groups. Although the womens’ struggle and the fight against racism seemed to be being fought with success before this new theory took the high ground, and it is arguable how much added benefit these theories have had in advancing the causes of women and minorities in western societies. Sometimes the focus on cultural issues, and cultural identity, has indeed been counterproductive when one considers the struggles of women, or homosexuals,  in Islamic countries where a blind eye has been turned to horrific events and support has been denied to those struggling for liberation. But there has been also an unintended negative  consequence of these theories. Now there is a problem of what to do with white working class men and boys.

These individuals have found that ‘class‘ does not count in the hierarchy of victimhood. Poverty and powerlessness do not, in themselves, interest the left. Their struggles are no longer what drives the progressives and their culture no longer has any interest to them. When they think of white working class men they think of brutes, loud scary people with opinions they reject, the wrong ideas on Brexit and immigration. often with attachment to old fashioned cultural constructs and morals. They just don’t fit. In the world of the media and the arts they have all but disappeared. Working class men make up a third of the population but they will not be seen in our plays, films or television series except as in small roles as bigot No#1 or possibly as a wifebeater. In between the programmes on television, the adverts will show every demographic possible with the exception of white working class men. They are an embarrassment which will hurt sales, best to hide them away.

We have a culture that despises them, as Frederick Mount in his book “Mind the Gap” reported they have been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. They have no political project promoting their aims and therefore is is no surprise  that as a group they are suffering badly.   In education, according to the 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades of any ethnic group. In employment and housing they are also steadily failing. These effects should have been anticipated.

The final, probably unintended, consequence of these changes should worry us all. These people who have a proud tradition of fighting for equality and for the moral good have shown themselves able to transform society. Their rejection by the left and progressive movements creates a vacuum. We can hope that new movements will form and pick up the struggle for social improvement. However, recent experience in Europe and America makes me fearful that other political movements will move to fill this vacuum. I fear it is easy to sell a project based on hate and anger to a group that has been marginalised, alienated and held in contempt. Vengeance is a powerful motivating force !

We need a progressive movement that includes everyone, particularly the majority of working class men and women who make up our society. We need to stop defining ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and trying to create our power bases and start defining what we want a good society to look like. We have to start to think we can change society and that we all have something to gain in the future. As Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” – we all do  – because if we don’t Trump, Orban, and Le Pen are only the first glimpse of our future. We still have a chance to stop it.

 

Liar (ITV). Keeping the plebs ‘on story’.

Liar (ITV). Keeping the plebs ‘on story’.

 

There was never any tension in this drama. We knew from the outset that it would be, like all the others, a play in which the woman was the victim telling the truth and the man was the villain. I mean, could you imagine the playwright writing that the woman had told lies ? Think about it. Miscarriages of justice are staple fare for film and television drama; the innocent accused of murder, the unfortunate either deliberately or by coincidence accused of fraud or deception.  Dramas of good people trying to clear their name and reveal the truth are mainstream and common. However, though they will consider many crimes (murder, arson, theft, assault, causing catastrophic calamities) they never involve accusations of rape. That would be going ‘off message‘ and suggest that, however rarely, it is possible that the victim is not the woman but the man having been falsely accused.

This drama never deviated from the standard message. Like all clunky propaganda it beat us about the head with the party line. Listen, it said, it doesn’t matter if she has made unfounded accusations in the past, it doesn’t matter if the evidence doesn’t match her story, it doesn’t matter if she has been psychotic and held erroneous beliefs before, it doesn’t matter how you might construe her behaviour that evening – it’s simple stupid – she says she’s the victim so she is the victim.  Victims never lie.

And, just to be certain (in case you had any doubts) it doesn’t matter how handsome and successful he is , how believable his story might be, it doesn’t matter that he is a caring and kind doctor, it doesn’t matter that he is a single parent bringing his son up alone after being widowed, it doesn’t matter what he says – he is the man and all men are rapists. He is the one lying.

This was not drama. This was not an attempt to show something that is usually hidden from our view, this steadfastly ploughed the accepted furrow. This was not an attempt to subvert harmful stereotypes or caricatures, this play had the standard new-age tropes a plenty. This did not try and foster sympathy for a currently abused or disadvantaged group. It did none of these laudable dramatic aims. This was simply a play to make sure the plebs “get with the programme“. It was preparation for the jury room. If you find yourself on the jury remember there is no need to weigh up the evidence, no need to consider the testimonies, no need to seek the truth. Because, we already know the truth, just stay strong and remember “the victim never lies”.

I have not seen, and may never see, the final episode but I’d wager it will be the last stage in the public education. It will be an episode which shows how terribly wrong things go when the victim is not instantly believed. If the episodes so far have not made it clear enough this is just the warning of the harm you can do when you step out of line.

 

Propaganda like this is so crude in its socialism-vs-capitalism-propaganda-poster-1crafting that it resembles the Soviet posters with capitalist monsters (looking like the fat controller from Thomas the Tank Engine) debasing heroic proletarians, or the Nazi equivalents with hook-nosed Jews preying on the fair Aryans. As they become more  crass they become more transparent, Hopefully people will see through them and they will loose some of their effect. Hopefully, because this is no way to improve society for women and men. Indeed, this probably worsens matters by continuing to attempt to polarise the argument when it is clearly the case that the truth is equally important to women and men.

jew0295e59a781Although the writers, Harry and Jack Williams, may deserve  (for crimes against drama) the unjust and distrustful culture they are helping to create the rest of us don’t – but we may be obliged to share it. A future where prejudice reigns is unlikely to be a better one for our sons or our daughters.

In Praise Of Failure.

In Praise Of Failure.

I watch and listen to my grandchildren growing up and I am aware of a major shift from the days of my youth. It is clear that rewarding and praising children is seen as very beneficial, as has always been the case, but it is also clear that there is a new emphasis on avoiding rebuke or expressing disappointment. There seems now to be a drive to give praise whenever possible, I note the most prosaic of actions being flattered and the most quotidian of results being rewarded. Failure seems something to be ignored, something to be avoided, something that needs to be brushed under the carpet and ignored.

In discussion with my offspring it seems that they are keen to keep any feelings of disappointment, or recognition of failure, away from children for a long as possible. Games are organised so that everyone wins and all get prizes, the belief is that this strategy will aid self-confidence and self-esteem by avoiding damaging early criticism. But is this the case?

Self-esteem arises from our awareness of our talents. It is recognition of our worth based on our achievements. Any self-esteem gained through empty praise of unremarkable actions is surely false. An ego based on such flimsy foundations would indeed be weak. The stimulus of praise to guide us to achieve will be missing and it might prove difficult for children to know how to aim their endeavours.

The absence of the experience of failure will also mean that the child misses out on a vital corrective experience.Wisdom is created by experience, we need to know what fails so that we can avoid mistakes in future.  Since the ancient Greeks we have know that we need to try things in which we fail in order to develop :-

“Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise,
has established his fixed law—
wisdom comes through suffering.
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
so men against their will
learn to practice moderation.
Favours come to us from gods
seated on their solemn thrones—
such grace is harsh and violent.”

Aeshylus

and this is echoed in the maxim “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” (Albert Einstein)

So far, I think most people would agree with me about the usefulness of the corrective effects of failure. But I feel that there is another wider reason we need to be able to compete and to learn what it is like to fail.  When we compete and win we learn about areas in which our skills excel, we learn which skills we possess in which me might take some pride and our confidence and esteem are bolstered as a consequence.

When we fail we learn another vital lesson, we learn that others may be better than us. They may be smarter, faster, stronger or wittier than we are. It is important to recognise this.  We are born egocentric and self-centred we need to learn that others are separate and equal characters. We need to know that in some areas other people may surpass us and that we are not the unique focus of the world. It is this balance of aiming for self-actualisation while at the same time respecting the autonomy and equality of others which allows us to develop fulfilling relationship in the world and to develop our character. Our individual and collective future depends upon this and I hope we are not undermining our options by these changes.