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Can anything be funny?

Can anything be funny? This is what you sometimes hear. And the implication is there behind this that you are a bit suspect if you think not. That you may even be a closet Daily Mailer. Wanting to censure and censor and that perhaps you should lighten up.

Can a rape joke ever be funny?

You hear this question posed from time to time and its one of those tedious misunderstandings. This is the reason why we should teach philosophy in our schools. So that we may think more clearly.

The question arises because it is badly put. And then people argue, and there is very often a good chance that they agree on all the points. It’s just that they don’t know exactly what is being framed for debate.

Lets string it out.

Is rape funny? Inherently. I would say no. Nothing’s inherently funny, and certainly not that.

Can a rape be described in a way that conforms to the conventions of a ‘joke’? Well, probably. But then anything could. But why would you do that? And does that make it funny? Its more complex than that.

Let’s take another example – when Billy Connolly made that joke (it was a throwaway line to be accurate, but that’s not really important), about a man called Ken Bigley who was being held captive in Iraq and threatened with beheading about ten years ago. Was it funny to make a joke?

To make light as his wife waited at home to hear if he had been released or if he had been murdered.

What larks.

But let’s pretend that it was. Or more precisely, let’s say that it followed the conventions of what we understand a joke is (double meaning revealed at the end, an upending of our expectations, whatever).

Whether or not it does is not the (friggin) point.

It can be a ‘successful’ joke (so well timed and following the conventions adequately) or it cannot be. The question is whether it is in good taste to laugh, sneer, or make light of someone else’s suffering.

I believe it is not.

(We must also address ourselves to the mechanism of the joke. The thing that it is predicated upon. Let’s take a Thick Paddy joke. Which you never hear anymore, why’s that I wonder. Because people said enough is enough.

So, if you do, for example, actually believe that Irish people are thick, then if the joke is well told you will laugh. But of course to get to that point you would have to believe that people from Ireland are all largely the same and that, as I said, they are not as intelligent as most other people. In short you would have to be a cretin.)

So there’s another reason why most of these jokes aren’t funny. That have no truth in them and for a joke to be funny it must contain truth. A joke after all is a short short story. It must have something we empathise with. Something we understand.

Similarly, I believe that not wanting to make light of sexual violence, rape, misogyny or racism does not make me a prude or a stick-in-the-mud. But rather it makes me a thoughtful person who does not want to make the world a very slightly nastier, violent, misogynistic or racist place.

And crucially when there is violence at the heart of your ‘joke’ – that for me strips it of any humour. I don’t have to suppress my laughter. It’s just not there. I just listen to these sad sacks – that bearded basstad springs to mind – and I think how lazy are you? How misguided. Am I laughing along? No I am not.

Not a stick-in-the-mud, but someone who wants to say, no I won’t be complicit, in this. No, I’ll stand in opposition to that.

And that’s why rape jokes aren’t funny.

It’s like laughing at someone who has had a (prat)fall but who is then lying prone, bleeding and in distress. Hilarious, huh?

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On being a new Dad….

I wrote this for the Tufnell Park Parents Support Group Newsletter (est 1748) and they published it.

*

I’m with William Goldman…..

It was when I was surrounded by women that it came to me. Things often do then.

It was just me and the Boy, and eight women : 4 mums and 4 little girls. I was apprehensive. I had had a feeling this might happen and sure enough I was the only one. The only Dad. The only male (apart from the Boy). It felt a little strange.

I thought, they’re all going to be judging me. They’re all going to think, I’m coming up short and I haven’t dressed him right and I’m not paying him enough attention. And then I thought, maybe I have more than the usual amount of sick/spit-up/food on me, (that was his anyway). Cause you know, some is ok. There is a tolerable amount. In fact you could almost say you need a little bit on you – to show you have been trying – getting stuck in and focusing on the child and not yourself. ‘what, that, oh its porridge, must be from breakfast, can’t stop on the way to a play date….’whoooshes past.

Anyway so there I was trying to look both nonchalant and attentive. Which is hard. Cause you see, at that time I had only been doing my day-with-the-Boy for about 6 weeks. And I had only just managed to start getting out of the house. Most days were spent almost… very nearly…getting on top of things and then, at around 3 the tide of toys and my fatigue would overwhelm and I’d sort of give up the idea of getting outside. Put it off to next week…

But I’d done it. We were out and about. We’d dropped-in to the wellbaby centre on North road. I was getting the Boy weighed and you know checked over, plugs and points, by the nurse.

I got in there, and thought, I’ll show them. I’ll exhibit some intensive parenting – a deft mix of caring and practical chops the like of which they’ve never seen. But the Boy was not co-operating. He was fast asleep.

So I got my book out and looked in-control. Oh yeah, just reading ma book while the Boy is sleeping. Mr Cool. But then I thought, they might be thinking why isn’t he checking on him. Typical man….

So I read a couple of pages and checked on him. Moving his blanket about pointlessly, sort of sniffing at him. This I kept up for ten minutes, shuttling back and forth every two pages looking like a neurotic eejit. Which in fairness I was a wee bit.

That’s when I looked around and realised that no one was looking really. And certainly not judging. Or if they were it was maybe to admire that a Dad was out and about with his boy.

And why not? Because nobody knows anything (as William Goldman said about making movies). Not when you are new anyway. And most of them seemed pretty new to the game, like me.

You see, as you know, when you are a New Parent (and maybe especially a New Dad) you are assailed with information about HowToBeAParent/Dad. But an awful lot of it is contradictory.

Get black out blinds for their rooms and don’t make a sound. Make sure there is plenty of noise and varying light lest they get too precious about sleeping. Strict bed times – you’ll get nowhere without that. Make bed time fun – don’t get hung up on exact times. Controlled crying – eminently sensible. Are you some kind of Victorian cur who is going to leave your child wailing through the night you utter utter…. But Gina said… TURMOIL.

And you think this is too much. I don’t know what I am doing. And you don’t. But that’s ok. None of us do, not really. Not even the ‘experts’ agree. And the parents who say they know only think they do, if you see what I mean. Some parents are just lucky – and then they attribute their child’s good behaviour to their parenting. But you what, Prefect Parent, you may not actually be the agent of change.

Look, if you get out the door, get to the swings, have a bit of fun and get him to eat something you can consider yourself a success. Bonus points if the food is green.

In truth, some may be better at some bits than others, but there’s innate ability in all of us and plenty of love to make up for any cack-handedness or lack of a knack with a push chair or a bottle steriliser.

This is what I got, as I waited for the Boy to tip the weighing scales. No one knows any of the practical stuff. And I realised that the Mum’s don’t have a monopoly on how to look after the babies. Don’t worry about that, they really don’t – and don’t use it as an excuse!

A great deal of parenting is beyond us. I don’t mean it’s out of reach – I mean it’s in the everyday intangibles. Its unknowable. The books are full of contradictions and none of them seem to say or acknowledge that there is almost certainly not a one-approach-fits-all method and that the best thing is to read widely and take from them what you think is sensible and appropriate for your baby. That’s my advice.

Keep trying different things. Watch them and see what they respond to. The best parenting is done through the eyes, the ears and the hands. Pay them attention and affection, if you do that they will pay the same back to you in spades. It’s that simple. They are far more interested in sharing their experience with you. This is enough. Be privileged, get your head down and get stuck in. Mum or Dad, as far as they are concerned, it’s all good.

Right. Time for a story and bed. For me that is, he’s had his already….

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Love is a comma.

Love is a comma. Placed by a hesitant hand. Love is a hopeful phrase uttered through a shy smile. Love is a pause. A suspense. A lacunae in which to drift with another. It is a time and a place in which you were better and freer and more perfectly formed than ever before. It is a surrender to the eternal rushing that is within and without.

Then you realise that this pure love is transient. The essence can only linger for a while and then recollection takes over. Take care.

Love you see is the thing that makes us old. It is the memory of a cherished unalterable book: but not the words. It cannot be returned to.

The memory of it will change as you do. So put love away and wait.

Cherish it sparingly. Look for it passively. (Good luck with that.)

Love can only be joined. It will find you. Hopefully.

And remember that perhaps something comes after. And if it does come again – this impostor – be welcoming but wait. Be wary. Take care.

Love must be lived and then left. Don’t look back.

It is frail but not meek, and utterly unconquerable.

 

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On the public debate on atheism.

There is, it has been said a kind of bland agnosticism in society and that most of us carry round. I think this is probably true. But it’s not an informed choice. Most people are too busy with their day and daily to get to grips with their beliefs about this sort of thing. Religion for most people in this country has absented itself. We don’t concern ourselves with issues of faith, belief and of the role of the Church in Society.

To be honest I think most people are like that about most things most of the time. Not the chattering classes of course. But that’s not most people.

I went to a reading and discussion by Alex Preston and Oliver James. Alex is a novelist and Oliver James is Oliver James. It was very good. It’s always interesting to hear the motivations and the process of how a writer takes an idea and then turns it into a piece of fiction.

The discussion was based around Alex’s book ‘The Revelations’. It’s a fine book about the effects of an evangelical cult-ish religion on four friends fresh out of uni and struggling to varying degrees with life. He captures big themes of belief, faith and doubt very well in the intimate moments these four share. It’s very good. A compelling read and heartrending at times. I think an important book too. I would say that of course as my book shares a lot of the themes. But for me it’s very encouraging that there is – at last – a book in print about these issues.

But the discussion brought up a few things. I think the public debate about Religion and Faith and (the ‘new’) atheism misses a lot. It sets out some things that are wrong – or not refined enough.

For instance, that ‘Religion’ is not a monolith. Alex mentioned this last night. I don’t think any of us have a problem with the old woolly Rowany Williamsy bearded everything’s alright if you pop along to the Fete and the Christmas jumble CofE. Religion for people who don’t really believe – too busy with the school run and just want somewhere nice to get married in. Fair enough, my kind of religion.

But when people attack the new atheists its tends to be because they see that bug-eyed Dawkins man and they imagine him setting himself upon that nice Beardy man with his strident (correct) arguments and they think – that’s not very nice.

But I don’t think Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are that animated by that sort of religion. They are firstly motivated by the kind of religion that they have in America – that which (in a phrase from last night, is ‘punitive and finger pointing’ and invades the bedroom (and so your own free will) and tells you what to do and how to live and sows intolerance in society.

That is a good thing to get angry about.

And that is why the public debate about religion, like so many public debates, needs more nuance. We need to understand fully what people are saying and objecting to. Those people who blithely defend ‘Religion’ need to spend some time in a cult, or near someone who has had the best years of their life taken from them by such a Religion before they get fed up with Dawkins (et al) getting a bit cross. This kind of Religion is wicked and shelters under that misjudged tolerance.

For a great many people religion is not a comfort but a terrible burden. Many people, as Oliver James put it, need a good shrink and not a church to help them with life.

Something else that came up last night was that a great many atheists are atheists because it gives them meaning. Just like a religion does. It ‘places them in a narrative’ as the interviewer put it, rather well. Of course this is true. I call them badge-wearing atheists. They are getting exactly the same thing out of it as religionistas do out of their belief system.

And they are suspect. But that is not to say there are a great many thoughtful (generally more quiet people) who have useful, well founded objections and if you read the books by the New atheists you will see these things rather well articulated.

But Dawkins is not one of those people. He is an atheist because he is a scientist – he sees automatic respect given to something which does not deserve it. Something that directly contradicts things that he fervently believes in. You might say – well isn’t that arrogant of him. And those who hate his approach say – but yes it’s that fervent attitude that we don’t like. But he is so cross because the things he believes in have been forged out of a rigid system – the scientific method. Can you imagine the gall as the bishops come along and say – oh no, that’s wrong. Er, why is it wrong. Why? Oh you want a reason – ah, God said.

I kinda get why he gets cross.

The things that are in opposition are not in parity – if they were I could understand your position. That’s another thing the debate in the press often presents wrongly. Religion v Atheism watch as they go head to head. There’s no parity.

It’s magic and fear versus progress and learning.

People say what about the comfort it provides and the community spirit and meaning. But all of these thinigs can be found outside the church. It’s interesting that the things that people come up with are not of ‘faith’ or religion per se. And it’s also interesting that the best elements of the church (the more acceptable end of the religious spectrum that is) are actually clothes stolen from the enlightenment (Sam Harris).

Believe me there is a version of religion that is insidious and takes away that which is the best of us. And it happens at the personal level and increasingly at the political – and it has to be resisted. Unfortunately that bland agnosticism in society lets it get away with a great deal. We need people like Dawkins to get up, stand up, and cause a bit of a ruckus.

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Cool

Cool. An enduring word, and for good reason. It makes sense, it describes rather well what it is. To be cool, you’ve got to be cool. When things get tough – who gets animated and agitated and aggravated? Not the cool kids.

They leave it to others. They watch as the temperatures rises and others lose their, y’know, cool. Sweating, going red, maybe even hyper ventilating – as they watch you and wonder, what’s that like.

Actually no – cool people do not notice the uncool. They just aren’t there. Look, what I am saying here is this: cool people are cool. They are not easily roused. They do not become ruffled. They are….. smooth.

They stare into the middle distance and look as if they are thinking about a really fantastic party they were at recently. 

So how? Well if I knew that, things would be a lot easily. Cooler. But I think I know one important way to avoid it. Don’t tell your kids they are going to fail. No one does this overtly. Well not many. But there is a slice of the population – and I think this is a class thing, that are prone to telling their kids that. And they do this because it’s part of their culture. why?

Well at some point – long time ago – if you did upset the wrong people, if you failed, then you were likely to lose whatever job you had, and starve.

I don’t know. Probably. It’s just a theory.

But there’s definitely a correlation, with class, y’know. Think of the people you know who are cool. Who ask for things in a way that never considers for a moment, that they will be turned down (but still they remain likeable, and that’s the epitome of charm by the way). And that all comes from one place: its manners married to a gentility that is bred out of an environment where they were confident of their own abilities and success. No one tells them ‘you are going to fail.’

Ever.

Now I don’t think this happens so much anymore – it’s very fashionable to tell your kids they will succeed in everything – and there’s plenty wrong with that too. But if you move around in a space where success is expected – it will come. Success begets success. That’s the secret of success, and class and cool.

Probably.

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Death of the album….

The era of the album is over. This we know. It ran from the 70s when the guitar came of age and the supergroups ruled the music world and its last great flowering was Britpop– a time when there were a loads of really good albums out there, Blur and Pulp and Oasis’s (whats the story) Morning glory? Loads more.

But what killed the album? The Internet? Yes probably. Well definitely. But you know what helped? CDs.

They are / were at once clinical and ugly. Clean and dirty.

When they first came out people moaned about the too clinical thing, for ages – that the sound was too ‘clean’ and how could you listen to blues on a CD!

I never really got that. I mean yes, there is something irresistibly atmospheric about that scratchy old needle picking some blues or a bit of piano jazz off the vinyl – but come on – we could have lived without that.

But what I really dislike about Cds is that they are so ugly. Vinyl is covetable. Vinyl has, or had allure. Has – it won’t die, and no wonder. The huge black shiny disc, that needs caring for. TLC applied through little soft cloths and unguents and sprays in wee bottles. That shiny line down it when it’s been well polished.

The huge picture on the front – those mad double albums (gatefold sleeves I think they were called) that opened up, the lyrics and all that space for the words and thoughts from the band – the liner notes.

Liner notes, they even had a name for it. Sometimes interesting, often funny or just self-indulgent, it was all good. The name for them by the way, comes from the notes put onto the protective sheets that used to line the album itself back in the day when they were a bit more fragile.

Yes the albums, the covers, the material itself, like jeans, they all just seemed to get better with age. I loved the way the corners of them got frayed – but they looked better for it.

Compare all that with the CD. The plastic cases that grow tarnished – kinda cloudy – and covered in scratches with age. And how those cases so often crack on one side. The little booklets, just too small to take to your heart. Too fiddly.

Yes I am nostalgic. And yes you have to move on – but it’s always sad when we upgrade and its not as good as we had before. When things denigrate – like light bulbs…. Can’t they be environmentally friendly and actually shed light adequately too?

No… oh right.

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W. B Yeats on writing.

‘Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking’. W. B Yeats

This was tweeted by ‘Bigsmoke’ (@bigsmokewriting) on Twitter (other social Media sites are available, actually not sure if anyone else does a Twitter-like site, but that is not important right now).

Now I replied saying ‘that’s all very well for him as he had a good hammer.’ Tres drole.

But what he’s saying is that you just have to work hard. That’s saying a mouthful. We all know, I think, how we have to apply ourselves – draft and redraft, edit, edit and cut back.

The books and the websites with writing advice and tips are good – really useful at times. But a lot of it you should know, it should come through the effort. It does help of course and it can short cut the process, but you have to sit down and write and get better through the unconscious process. The unknowable process.

And yes, part of this – the message comes across over and over – is that its going to be blood sweat and tears all the way (unless you are one of the handful of naturals, gifted individuals whose innate abilities chime completely with this thing we call a novel).

Perhaps that’s what he was getting at – William Butler – when he wrote that you can choose the life or the work. And what Hemingway meant when he said pithily ‘a writer applies himself, he applies the seat of his pants to the seat of his chair.’

I think that’s ok. I like a long slog. It’s a good job….

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