Beauty persists

It seems that, unfortunately, normal service has been resumed. We again have reports of terrorists running lethally amok in our capital city catching us unawares at rest. Three are dead and other remain critically ill in hospital. The public have decided that mass demonstrations are now safe despite what the medical experts warn. Each day reports of crowds packing our town centres show us just how transmission of a virus can be facilitated. Even the Germans have got in on the act with rioting reported in Stuttgart yesterday. Never one to follow experts, Mr Trump has decided that, like the other demonstrators, he can hold rallies without even insisting that masks are worn. It seems that surprisingly his supporters had more sense than he did and stayed away in their droves. The R number has jumped up again in Germany after initial excellent results, and we can see the increasing rates of infection in America especially in the South where it is going to play havoc with an elderly, diverse population with high levels of disadvantage. There is little to lift the spirit watching this slow-motion catastrophe unwind

This was never going to be a short game. We knew from the start that this we were in this long haul. We managed phase one but seem to be failing in the second round. We are acting as if we have won and starting to celebrate. It is a little like the scene in the movie when the psychopathic killer has been beaten after the lengthy fight. The heroes, in victory and relief, don’t watch as the dead villain’s hand creeps towards the gun. Like them we are about to discover that round two has just started. This is the round when we try and create a new way of life despite the presence of the coronavirus. It is no longer just adequate to hide away, we did that and regrouped, now is the time we need show we have learnt the lessons on social distancing and changing our behaviour. It is now we must learn how to live and work without being physically close. We have to find alternative ways of doing things. We shouldn’t be waiting for the pubs to reopen, or the package holidays in sunny climes to restart, we should be thinking what we can do instead of those activities.

There are potentially many improvements that might follow these changes; necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. There will be unexpected bonuses. It is highly likely that Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is going to lose him the election later this year. While not a foregone conclusion it is nice to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I am not sure Biden will make a great president but feel pretty confident in saying that he (and just about anyone else) is going to be better than the present incumbent. But there will be major challenges. The economic downturn that we are about to face is going to demand major political change if the years of increasing inequality and globalisation (which has benefitted capital at the expense of labour) are to be reversed. Other wise we can expect that the debt, as always, for the pandemic will fall on the shoulder of the poorest in our societies – the people who worked to pull us through this nightmare will be the one’s who have to pay to ensure that the wealth of the privileged is not threatened. When I look at the parties on the left in Europe and America, I am not sure that they are ready for this task. Unless they drop their focus on identity and individualism and regain their focus on the structural class and democratic issues, they will prove to be irrelevant. Not just irrelevant but worse – counterproductive – as they set one group of the working class against another and fail to mount an effective fightback. If they fail, then there are groups emerging on the right who will propose themselves as the saviours of the poor. The greatest risk factor for the development of fascism is economic collapse and the fear it engenders which make strong, tough talking leaders dangerously attractive.

While I get depressed, I try to take my own advice and try to find new ways to live happily. My social activities are minor and infrequent now, and I need to learn how to find pleasure in other ways. I used to enjoy concerts but these are unlikely to be a feature of my life for some time. However, we have thousands of hours of music and concerts available to us already. I have found that going back to look and listen to some old favourites obviates the need to find the new and fashionable. There is so much music I have never heard already recorded and available that I could never sate my appetite even if another new work were not created (Though I am sure that they will be).

It is a shame, but I can never describe music to someone else. The pleasure that it gives is personal and, I find, impossible to put into words. I am going to end this piece with the gift of a piece of music for you. I could use words such as sublime, beautiful, heart lifting, magnificent and they would all be correct, but they only tell you what the piece does to me. However, I trust that most of us are in essence similar and, whether you like this piece or not, that you will recognise the emotion and hope in this piece. A species that can create something as beautiful and powerful as this is surely going to knuckle down for the long battle against this virus and win.

Voces8 with Edward Nimrod (Lux Aeterna)

Chip Shop Blues

I was quite unsettled during my recent visit to the chip shop. I was perhaps already feeling unsettled as I went in, as I was breaking all of my good New Year’s intentions. I had intended not to eat take-aways, I’d intended to prepare our meals from scratch and to maintain a healthier balanced diet. But we’d had a difficult cold and wet day in the fields and the chip shop’s warm smells and bright lights were irresistible. I had done my usual trick of thinking of excuses : I had always said I should eat more fish and I guessed potatoes in chips are, in fact, a vegetable. I’d also worked out my escape strategies; eating less the next day and doing a but more exercise to compensate. I am a master of self-deception and despite the guilt I was initially quite content standing in the queue, in the warmth, smelling the chips and vinegar, while I waited for them to deep fry my order.

My disquiet started as I watched the television high up on the wall behind the deep-fat friers. It was tea-time and the television was tuned to a music video station, MTV or something similar, and I started to watch the performances. I didn’t know any of the bands or songs and, to be honest, I couldn’t see myself rushing out to a record store to rectify my ignorance. Though not my taste, the music was unremarkable pop music. What was remarkable were the videos that accompanied the songs.

The themes of the songs, as far as I could judge, were as paeans to the singer’s virility, if male, or pulchritude, if female. I guess so many songs are, but these seemed less subtle, less sublimated than I recall songs from my youth. The men all described their unbounded stamina while the womenrihanna-small_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengruma invited you to compare them with other less-fortunate women. Both suggested you’d be better to drop your current partner and choose them if you wanted any chance at future happiness. But is was not the shallow lyrics, nor such a carnal view of love,  that made me feel out of time, it was the accompanying videos.

The videos were comprised of very attractive men and women dressed in very little at all. The dancing, as far as it went, comprised thrusting the genitals, buttocks or breasts towards the camera so as to make their pulchritude fill the frame. Sometimes, lest the viewer had missed the point, it was necessary to jiggle the body parts to catch the attention of anyone who was not paying heed. These movements were coordinated into dance scenes when the dancers skilfully simulated sexual acts with each other just in case the viewer had not got the point of the endeavour. The crassness of the videos unnerved me and set me to thinking about the changes that have occurred in my life and set me to worrying about the future my grandchildren will have.

When I was an adolescent, and my life focussed on sex and all matters sexual, we would sometimes sneak into cinemas showing adult films. At sixteen we could sometimes fool a lackadaisical adult on the desk at the cinema that we were of age to enter. When successful I was able to see films, in technicolour, and with sound, of women with few clothes and some brief nudity. At times I and my friends would see actors simulate sexual acts which were less explicitth than the video in the chip shop. The films I was watching in a public space, at tea time, were stronger than I had seen illicitly in cinemas where the wearing of a raincoat was almost compulsory. Times have certainly changed. Early evening music entertainment in my childhood was a man, with a variety of colourful jumpers, singing while in a rocking chair. To spice it up some dancers may have bounced demurely in the background to the beat of the music. (Val Doonican won all the NME awards in 1965 !).

I worry about these changes not because I fear the effects of nudity nor erotica. These are pleasurable. I fear these changes,  as I feel pleasure, like many things, is relative.  Much of the pain and pleasure we experience in life comes from the change from state to another. If you lived on a very plain diet of beans and rice then the excitement of a meal in a middle-price restaurant would be major. The epicure or gourmand, however, will not be able to enjoy ‘bangers and mash’ after a life of ‘larks tongues in aspic’. The baseline setting of our lives determines what it takes to excite us, to please us or to upset us. I think that there is a danger than this turning up of the background noise of erotica is dangerous.

When we are young we are driven to seek pleasures and focus easily on the erotic. The background setting in the 1950’s and 60′ was quite low. Modesty was considered important and as a consequence it was quite easy to be exciting and sexy – raising hemlines in to 60’s caused a stir as did the wearing of a bikini. Young boys could be excited by an underwear catalogue as it revealed the bra under the blouse. However, the excitement caused by these glimpses of nethergarments had exactly the same frisson as the excitement that boys and girls experience today when they see something risqué. But they start much nearer the top of the scale. My scale started with the excitement of seeing a ‘bra’ or a ‘leg’ and rose from there. When you start with simulated sex and crotch shots there is not a lot further to go. Therefore I fear that the total amount of pleasure that can be experienced will ultimately be smaller.

We know forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest and it is important that we keep some pleasures in reserve. By withholding gratification we allow the potential pleasure to build. If we try and enjoy everything at once we  rob it of its value and end up less pleasure than we could have enjoyed. As in the warning of “Brave New World” we could end up with a world of frequent sexual activity but little enjoyment from it. Standing in the chip shop I felt I was almost there already. I felt as if  in a scene from Blade-runner, in a brash, noisy, gaudy future with images and video all around, all senses stimulated and all pleasures offered but with little prospect of happiness. Next time I’ll peel some potatoes and put some carrots on to boil, it will be safer.