'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter, He divided his kingdom in three, Hope is a hare that swam in the water. A third lost to flood, a third went to slaughter, Squandering life on a spree, 'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter. Fire and thud, blood and splatter, Death in an outhouse, why he not she? Hope is a hare that drowned in the water. Plaguing the mud, a vengeful Creator, Joy was locked up with a key, 'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter. Slaughtered and burned, the scarce born creature, Mammon wants milk for his tea, Gone is the heir, blood rinsed with water. Gone are three thirds, despair comes after, Crazed in the field, unable to see, Found is the heir, blood's thicker than water. 'A man had two sons’; but one was a daughter. Poem by Alan McManus 20th Feb.'17 Publicity photo from: www.thelevelling.com
1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.
Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.
I wrote this as US journalists were silenced by a mixture of amazement and embarrassment that anyone could tell such blatant lies. Due to a computer upgrade, I’ve only now been able to publish it. Since then, events have only confirmed these words but the words and actions of the Donald have gone beyond my fears.
We all know that the crowd of Inauguration supporters of US President Donald Trump was not ‘the biggest ever’. He knows it and his toadies know it. The only defence they can come up with for such a blatant lie is that other presidents have not told the truth. So why tell it? Why was this (after the photographs in the Oval Office of him signing something to apparently initiate the repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the removal from the White House website of the pages dedicated to LGBT people and Climate Change) the first move in the game he’s playing?
The Donald, as he is known in the Scottish island of his mother, is extremely thin-skinned. So the embarrassment of the silenced journalists at the press conference is that proper to the witnesses of folly. Part of it is about face-saving. He may be a political opponent but it’s painful (especially in the German sense of embarrassing) to witness someone making such a social gaffe. This goes beyond his ridiculously worn tie, his wild gesturing, his apparently quoting a Marvel villain in his first presidential address. And the accompanying amazement is that anyone could be so blatant. If we go high when they go low, can we even stoop to contradicting a lie that everyone knows to be a lie – including its source and supporters?
Yes. It’s important that we all, always and everywhere now, continue to contradict the lies. Even when they are obvious. It’s very, very important. Because the battle over the control of social discourse began with this first move. The point about the story of the Emperor’s new clothes is absolutely not that he was naked or that a small heroic or naïve child pointed this out. The point is that the trickster was confident that he could control the social discourse. To see and see again and not see the truth; to hear and hear again and not hear the truth. It needs repeating. It’s important that we all, always and everywhere now, continue to contradict the lies. Even when they are obvious. It’s very, very important.
We need to do that whenever and wherever his toadies lie; and they are legion and so are their spreading lies. But that’s not the way to deal with the Donald. The mistake that oppressed groups make time and time again is to confuse the ability to predict the behaviour of their oppressor with his or her motivation. [I’ve plagiarised this piece of wisdom from somewhere I’ve forgotten, so if you know the source please let me know on twitter @gumptionology.] The motivation of the new President of the United States, whom we may have to put up with for some time (‘we’ being Earthlings) may be discovered in the work of the greatest and most undervalued philosopher of the 20th century, Robert M. Pirsig.
He writes: “The cause of our current social crises […] is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. […] I have a vision of an angry continuing social crisis that no-one really understands the depth of, let alone has solutions to” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ch 10). Pirsig published wrote those words in 1974 and the book reflects his experience of the division caused by, and that caused, the American-Vietnam War.
The sequel, Lila (1991) develops his solution to this angry social crisis and as his first work was “an inquiry into values”, his second was “an inquiry into morals” (subtitles of Pirsig 1994, 1991). He sets up a hierarchy of morals, of patterns of values, drawing on an ancient philosophical tradition. But where others (such as Aristotle) saw only higher and lower beings, Pirsig sees levels of quality and their complex interaction as the lower levels simultaneously support the higher levels and constantly attempt to bring them down. So it’s not only these levels of morality that are in a hierarchical relationship, it’s their conflicts. [My critique and development is here]
An illustration. Contrast the social ease of (former) US President Barack Obama with the awkwardness of President (elect) Donald Trump. Now ask what it is that these two individuals value. For those schooled in Pirsig’s philosophy [actually it’s metaphysics but, if that word causes you anxiety, call it ‘ontology’] this question is key.
While Barak Obama is a master of social quality and is now focussing on intellectual values (truth being one of them and respectful dialogue with other, opposing, thinkers a way to discern truth more clearly) Donald Trump, who was a handsome young man, has infamously struggled to master his biological urges and is desperate for social esteem.
In Pirsig’s hierarchy, the social transcends the biological and supports/ tries to bring down the intellectual level of quality. In other words, while Barak Obama is secure socially and can use this security to further develop his evident intellectual gifts, Donald Trump has a legacy of lack of sexual self-control and his social acceptance is even more precarious now that he is so much in the harsh glare of global media attention, most of it antagonistic. Intellectual values (truth being one of them and respectful dialogue another) are appropriated on the social level of quality as no more than competing discourses. The winner is not the most truthful but the one who can force his or her preferred discourse to prevail. Adolf Hitler spoke of ‘the Great Lie’ that only needs to be constantly repeated to be eventually accepted as truth. There may be a lot of this in the days and months (and years?) ahead.
So how do we deal with the Donald?
Impeach him! (there’s enough evidence)
Resist him (there’s enough will)
Give him what he wants.
No, don’t stop reading in disgust, think! He has no real interest in the treatment of any particular group of people or system of economics or even (perhaps) in money. He wants the social esteem that accompanies being recognised for a good performance. Which is why the comments of Meryl Streep on his performance got to him so much [again this thought is plagiarised]. Knowing this, we can not only predict his behaviour but also understand his motivation. Demonising him won’t get us anywhere (and, with his thin skin and finger on the nuclear button, may be highly dangerous). Understanding him will.
So it may not be very revolutionary advice, but if your organisation wants an incredibly powerful and wealthy patron, now is the time to ask. Put up a plaque, invite him to cut a ribbon, control very carefully his verbal discourse but play up the positive symbolic action and he’ll lap it up. Just be prepared to take it down quickly once he’s impeached and to justify your dubious means with excellent humanitarian ends. But realise that as a human being dominated by intellectual values is a philosopher, and one dominated by social values a performer so one dominated by biological values is an animal. So surround him with burly men to physically block access to any women. This is a petulant and dangerous tyrant (think Joffrey in A Game of Thrones) whose real ambition is to be esteemed as a magnanimous and magnificent president of the Rotary Club.
His inability to comprehend the use of diplomatic discourse, the rule of law or even martial strategy, show him to be a mostly biological being. Physically blocking people from entering what he perceives as his territory, sexually invading the personal space of women, trusting to brute force in unplanned military maneouvers, even his attempt at shoulder-bumping and cheek-brushing former President Obama (and kissing a male colleague on the forehead) these are the hallmarks of a brute not who only subverts but profoundly misunderstands social values.
I think the Donald has realised that we (Earthlings) don’t think he’s okay and therefore he’s decided we’re not either. He looks angry and unhappy, and is blaming anyone but himself for his lack of success in this new position which he expected to bring him popular acclaim and had brought him quite the opposite. So the brash clown in his quest for celebrity has become a bully and the bully a tyrant. He’s treating the Oval Office as a board room and the role of president as that of majority shareholder. His constantly televised performance of that role (being filmed signing executive orders and holding them up to camera) is not just playacting, not now, because these speech acts and written orders have presidential power.
His campaign was conducted with an incoherent but strategic bricolage of appeals for and promises of support: for the ‘rust belt’ un(der)employed, for big business, for small business, for White racists, for Latinos, for Blacks, for Americans, for Republicans, for the political elite, for those against the political elite, for homophobes, for LGBT people, for Democrats for Bill Clinton, for Democrats against Hillary Clinton, for those for/ against public healthcare. The campaign never made any sense. The only group he consistently opposed (and mentioned in his Inaugural address) was foreign Muslims whom he classes as terrorist suspects. Why single out this group when the Christian right also hate LGBT people? Because, if you can’t unite people with love (and, unlike Barak Obama, the Donald just doesn’t have that gift) the easiest way is through fear.
So while we should be afraid (and should be doing everything to counter lies and get out the truth so he is impeached and jailed) we should not be paralysed. If we have to put up with him for months or years, we need to learn how to deal with him.
Understanding someone’s primary value conflict is the key to understanding their motivation. Donald Trump feels good, feels moral, when he manages to control his libido and does the right thing (the accepted thing) socially. The infamous wall is the keystone of his version of the New Deal, a public works project he can sign off to get the rustbelt back to work. Except it’s not going to work. The very last thing the post-industrialised world needs is a massive, unsustainable public building project. If he invested money in organic garden allotments, it would make more sense. It just wouldn’t make the news or be popular with his rabid supporters.
However, he may even eventually realise that he can get the attention he craves with good behaviour. He could even change. He could even realise that popularity is not the only good. Miracles do happen. Meanwhile, the Donald’s biggest personal challenge is not getting caught consorting with other women when his wife is in New York. His biggest professional challenge is working with other elected officials, who are not going to put up with his autocratic ways any more than did the honourable Senate supporters of Julius Caesar. And as for the battle over the control of social discourse, how on earth did he imagine that he could win that by alienating actors, journalists, the judiciary, the White House staff and the intelligence services?
The great apes, for all their power, control their individual biological urges in order to interact socially. Most human beings learn to do this in infancy. Some take quite a while longer. Perhaps the promised presidential jobs might include a primatologist.
Thanks to Paul Brennan who has released his photograph, ‘Silverback Gorilla profile image’ into the public domain.
It wasn’t what it said on the tin. The expected evening of witty political satire of the state of Trumpton, which I took to be implied by the title, didn’t happen. However the unexpected is to be expected at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow, especially when Melanie Combe of Dead Funny Theatre is in charge.
Except she wasn’t. Her NY comedy mentor started off this draft show & tell of his weeklong improv workshop with quite a lot about him and quite a big push of his merchandise. And the ‘tips jar’? This would have been better at the finale or the interval and someone else acting formally as front of house at the start might have avoided the mobiles ringing, pointed out loos & exits and explained the refreshments situation. (There weren’t any.)
The comedy didn’t really happen till the improv in the 2nd Act, which was amusing and often clever. During the 1st Act, I felt the Fourth Wall was a clear glass oven door through which we could see the mixture start to rise. And a rich mixture it was. I’m used to theatrical self-revelation and, while it is often self-indulgent, these four poignant offerings showed potential.
One, delivered lightly to cover up tragedy, begs to become a Death in Paradise type 1 Act; another the kind of one woman cabaret that Cat Loud does so well (catch her at the Ed. Fest.) the third left me more interested in the actor (who was very flexible and inventive) than the narrative of boyhood dreams meet reality, and it was a gift to glimpse some of the raw material of the playwright, principal & director of Dead Funny Theatre whose work is normally hilarious. Melanie is bringing out a show soon and I plan to be there, holding my sides and laughing out loud.
[Trigger warning for Evangelicals: have hot sweet tea on hand and keep breathing]
Have you ever planned scripture readings for a wedding? The conversation usually goes like this:
– Right, flowers done, what’s next? Readings. Thoughts?
– Em, how about The Good Wife, then 1st Corinthians then the Wedding at Cana?
– Sorted. Next. Top Table placings. It’s a nightmare!
Okay it’s not exactly careful discernment of liturgical appropriateness but if you get the readings wrong no-one will shoot you. However, if you mess up who sits at the Top Table…
The stage after this is to run the readings by the vicar/priest/minister who will look them up in the lectionary. Because (surprisingly to some) when we read from the Bible in church we don’t actually read from the Bible. Readings in the lectionary are read as edited chunks of verses of scripture (missing out, for example, Biblical verses referring to the size of the male member of your enemies and those that compare an unhappy woman to a bear in the corner of the attic). I’m not making this up, you know!
This gets more complicated, still on the theme of weddings, when another language is involved. Usually Latin. Now like many Roman Catholics [I did warn you and there’s more to come] I can get through Adeste Fideles without a hymnbook and once asked a woman making a wedding video why she’d backed it with Miserere Domine. However, stop most Roman Catholics halfway through reciting the Credo from a service sheet and ask what the next sentence means and you may get a rather vague reply.
My point is that we tend to do things conventionally. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic composed of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet so it fits into the lectionary perfectly; 1 Corinthians 13 comprises 13 verses but the last verse of the previous chapter gives it context and it may be shortened to end with ‘love does not come to an end’; verse 12 of John 2 may be missed out as it links the Wedding at Cana to the next story. These textual decisions are usually made with the presiding minister in much the same way that an actor will discuss cutting lines with the director. For some weeks after the Epiphany, social media was full of Evangelical hatred against St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow; against the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth and against a young Muslim woman who was invited to read at an interfaith service. None of these ‘Bible-defenders’ followed the clear Biblical instructions regarding raising concerns with a brother in faith (kindly, gently and in private) and the ultra-rightwing backlash (some of which had to be reported to Police Scotland) is sufficient evidence of the precarious state of love, peace and understanding in the USA and UK in recent months – which was the motivation for the inclusive service.
The young woman, who received abuse from vile racist trolls for weeks, had the task of not only reading a portion of her sacred scripture (Surah Mary 19:16-33) and of reading it in a language not her own but also of singing it. This she did beautifully and we, the congregation, were much moved. Subsequently, Bishop Nazir-Ali (sensitive to the very difficult interfaith situation in Pakistan where he served for years) praised the good intentions behind the service but expressed concern over a reading from the Qur’an in a Christian place of worship. This comment contained no racist or other vile language and was in no way derogatory to Islam, to the reciter or to the clergy of St Mary’s Cathedral.
Sadly, the good bishop’s erudite words on the meaning of the Arabic verb yattakhida were misquoted by an online UK Evangelical site, by the BBC and by an ‘alt-right’ (we know what that means) site in the US. Ironically, not only does it remain unclear whether the ayah (verse) referred to was actually included unaware in the recitation (the angry monoglot WASPS who claim it was have been unwilling to name their ‘non-Christian Arabic-speaking source’ to me) but even were it so, the literal translation is of a denial of adoptionism. And a previous verse may be understood (by Christians) to refer to the resurrection. In other words, the Arabic recital (of that verse all the fuss is about) is in fact more Christian-friendly in terms of orthodoxy than the usual English translation would be.
Notwithstanding the good intentions of all, the already fraught interfaith climate and the fact that the literal meaning of the Arabic verse (that may not even have been recited) is orthodox for Christians, we (congregation, clergy, reciter, Muslim guests, online supporters) have all been accused of single-handedly bringing the reign of Satan down on Earth. All of us together. Single-handedly.
Well, admittedly, there are signs that we just must be in the Last Days (notably so after the 20th of this month) but for people of faith that’s where we always are. Because the Kingdom of God is always close at hand. [Like that cup of tea, go on, take a sip, you’ll need it]
Surah Qâf 50:16 informs us that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 13:2 enjoins hospitality to strangers upon us, reminding us that thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
It is our way in Glasgow, when vile people try to divide our united community, to run out to embrace each other. I was moved to tears by an Imam, in George Square in the centre of our dear city, when in another time of fear he recited the complete motto of the city of Glasgow attributed to our patron Saint Mungo:
Let Glasgow flourish, by the preaching of God’s word and by the praising of God’s name.
And we will flourish. Our loving, inclusive, united community will flourish because we trust in the promise that love wins. And even our atheist friends online have encouraged us to hold fast to that love. One woman said that she would not have come to a service but she understood why we celebrated the Epiphany together – because it was a sign of peace.
Lord of love, unite us in this sign.
(Thanks to Tony Melena for releasing his image “Unconquerable Love” into the public domain)
At least this time of the year, TV nuclear families are a little more extended. There could be up to 12 people round the table noshing into some unfortunate fowl. That’s three times the usual number because, as we know, the usual number of family members is four. Three of these have blonde hair, one has black hair, all four are White and nominally Christian and preferably Protestant (even if evidently Jewish). We know this because this is how things have always been. Always and in every place. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel; Abraham (and everybody else); Jesus, Mary and Joseph; all royal families and our own family. The one we all grew up in. It’s reassuring.
There are, it has to be admitted, certain types who have other ‘arrangements’. These people are usually foreigners, not nice, heretics, and noisy. Trains don’t run on time where they come from. In our TV town, neighbours greet each other and everyone leaves the door open. Even though they immediately plonk keys into a wee bowl on the wee table right next to the unlocked door. Well, we can’t expect TV to mirror reality exactly.
So where does this black haired White man with his Nordic spouse and offspring hail from? The answer’s in the question. The clues are an adjective and a verb. The verb relates to a greeting that was originally pronounced ave and in more modern times salve and heil. The adjective describes the location of this fascist fantasy.
Mediterranean fascists (normalised as black haired White men) fantasised about ‘raising the colour’ – that dreadful expression familiar to anyone with experience of colonial racism. Have you ever wondered why so many White women, as distinct from White men, feel the urge to dye their hair blonde? The black haired White husband with the blonde White wife and two Nordic children has become so normalised on TV portrayals of generic families that it’s now unremarkable.
Umberto Eco, in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, an archaeology of fascist family memory, shows just how explicit was the erasure of multicultural Mediterranean identity in children’s and adult literature sanctioned by church and state in Italy and Spain during the reigns of Mussolini and Franco.
This erasure continues today. Extended families are like unexpected gifts of puppy dogs. Just for Christmas. They have no place in today’s TV nuclear family. Fascist dictators may have initially encouraged large families, with the connivance of the Catholic Church, but family size can always be altered at the convenience of the state. ‘Two will do’ is a eugenic command that TV has obeyed.
So when you see a Mediterranean patriarch with his peachy Uberwife and a pair of apple cheeked children, think about all the households you know, with all their other arrangements. Think about how this TV fascist family makes them feel.
It’s not all tutti frutti, is it?
Thanks to Karen Arnold for releasing ‘public domain vintage painting of a family outing’ into the public domain.
Don’t introduce characters like this:
Lesbian transsexual Orcadian Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski (KFL for short) swinging single and sole proprietor of Deli Smelly, San Francisco’s waterfront’s latest and tastiest locally sourced organic Wiccan charcuterie – because, hey, meat may be murder but business is business – backflipped her perfect twentysomething bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a bençao capoeira kick that sent the head of her android Sensei, Maximilian 3PO-Boombox, spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede. Where all earthlings and earthcities were now located. Cos of the Pulse.
Readers won’t know whether they’re reading Anna Karenina, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rotary Spokes or a Culture novel. Mostly they’ll just be confused. The author of this kind of fiction is generally the graduate of a creative writing course whose enthusiastic teacher has encouraged the class to ‘create diverse characters’. The result is like one of those toys that switch heads, trunks and legs – and what is supposed to be entertaining ends up as incoherent. Add to this confusion a method of direct exposition from narrator to reader similar in style to the rapid reading of T&Cs on adverts, and enjoying this style of writing takes a lot of hard work.
I admit that the opening scene of the first book of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries throws a lot at the reader all at once. However the reader is in the mind of the protagonist, and narrators are always unreliable. Tricks of the Mind is driven by a frustrated libido that makes Bruno mad, bad and dangerous to know. So when he enters, to find the object of his affection exercising on the hearthrug, his erudite consciousness is trying to focus on anything but the cheekily handsome face, glistening hard muscle and skimpy shorts of his cocky Cockney flatmate.
Readers hardly ever need to know a character’s surname, and the practice of varying between first name and surname (very common in thrillers) can cause them to lose the plot. Readers also don’t need to know everything at once. Let’s slow that example paragraph down:
Konstantina backflipped her perfect bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a kick that sent the head of her Sensei spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede.
Now it’s recognisably Sci-Fi girlpower chicklit. Let’s add some indirect exposition.
“Nice bençao!” rasped a metallic voice from the corner, “I told you the Terran martial art of capoeira was worth mastering.”
“Max it’s so creepy when you talk with your head off! Reattach!”
“And it’s very disrespectful when a student addresses her Sensei by its first name during training.”
“I mean no disrespect, Sensei 3PO-Boombox, I guess my mind is on the opening of the Deli tonight.”
The android reattached its head before replying. “Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski, your ancestors from far-flung Terra did not colonise this moon for the sole purpose of the provision of charcuterie!”
I still don’t want to read it because all it’s giving me is information. When I care (marginally) more about the Yodayadda of a robot than the preoccupations of a lovely young lady, something is clearly wrong. Let’s try another tack:
Konstantina was almost afraid to touch the shimmering green fabric. The fragile tunic, gift of her Orcadian grandmother, was one of the few remaining articles of clothing made on Terra. There were no silkworms on Ganymede. A silk tunic belonged in the Hall of Memory. It should not be worn by the sole proprietor of Deli Smelly on her opening night. Not even if Ivanya would be there. Not even if she would be sure to notice that the colour, exactly, matched Konstantina’s eyes.
She glanced at the chronograph, sighed, and replaced the garment in the alcove at the back of her cave. She just had time to fit in a combat training session with Max. It would clear her head.
Okay, now I care. I want to bomb the deli, for its silly name, I want to know how this tunic is expected to survive (in an alcove, in a cave, on a far-flung moon) and I also want to know what happened to Grannie and if there’s life on Earth. And more about Max. Cos he’s probably dead fit and I’m going to be terribly disappointed if I find out he’s made of silicon and not carbon. Maybe. I’m not that bothered about Ivanya (I mean why does our lovely girl have to work so hard?) but I might be if she’s Max’s fiancée. And he’s secretly planning a sex change but is kidnapped by the besotted Tyrant of Ganymede. I want to know now. I know it’s got silly but, admit it, so do you!
Don’t chuck everything at the reader all at once. You are the creator of this world and of these characters. Take the reader gently by the hand and lead on, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs as you go. Remember, if you write, you’re a writer. Even God put in the best part of an intensive week of practice before creating human characters. Let yourself make mistakes, and above all enjoy it.
I have to sign off, I’ve suddenly developed an interest in Sci-Fi…
Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her ‘Re digitized public domain illustration of a black and white human hand writing with a pen’ into the Public Domain.
I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.
Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.
I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.
When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:
‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’
‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.
The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.
I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.
This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.
On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.
Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.
Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.
Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.
And that makes a difference.
Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.
(Contains blatant advertising, sage advice, bleeding hearts, stereotypes, humbug, nuts)
I don’t have the stats, but I imagine the number of Americans shooting family members goes up during the festive season. We can hardly blame them. This post focuses on that annual family horror called Christmas but some parts may be applicable to other feasts involving relentless and compulsory goodwill; the forced proximity of adult siblings, in-laws and outlaws; sleet; treacherous pavements; overindulgence in stodge, sugar and alcohol; and the worst TV.
So how can you survive Christmas?
- Get the good food in first. That’s the basic advice of Body-Logic, so you don’t need to buy it now (but if you do, it’s available as an eBook). You’re less likely to nibble if you’ve feasted first. And let’s face it, it’s the one and only time of the year where anything as sickeningly nutritious as Brussels sprouts makes you feel sentimental.
- Plan your TV/DVD/online watching. It can actually be enjoyable to watch a film all the way through with selected family or friends. It is even possible to do so without addictively checking your phone for such urgent texts as: wotcha doin am wachtin fillum sborin? This countercultural practice may even increase the attention span of your hyperactive progeny to a length marginally greater than that of goldfish.
- Retreat to your room/ broom cupboard with a good book. Some discerning readers have decided to catch up on the Bruno Benedetti inclusive mystery series (in print or eBook). And who am I to stop them? The benefits of reading an up-and-coming author is that it’s dead cool and you can shame your friends who have never even imagined that a mystery series could be inclusive. This will then activate FOMO. So you can be quietly smug.
- Announce to the festive fiends frequenting your living-room and drinking all your sherry that, unfortunately, you have a paper/report on [anything but try Education, Philosophy, Alchemy, Sports Science, Social Work, Renaissance Studies, Quantum Mechanics, Music, Art, Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen] to hand in at the start of the new year. So you just have to read Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality from cover to cover (in print or eBook). In the airing cupboard, the only place that’s warm.
- Dance. Seriously. Relocate the coffee table, push back the chairs, forcibly remove all the headphones from all the teenyboppers under 50 and elect yourself DJ Dictator. Command the stereo/ space-age musical docking device and get the tunes on. Jumping up and down, even gently, is THE BEST THING for lymphatic drainage. It’s the new blood pressure. It sorts everything. Google it. Ask your doctor. Get with the programme.
- Walk. Take the dog. Take the neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have one. Believe me, this is a very welcome gesture. Yes I know old Mrs Biddy next door has taken the trouble to clear the pavement outside her prefab and hasn’t put down salt so it’s now a popular neighbourhood slide. But (hu/wo)man up [told you I was inclusive] and cross the road where the pavement’s less treacherous. That’s sidewalk for our North American readers. You can even seasonally greet your neighbours. This is compulsory all over Scotland after midnight (AND NOT BEFORE!) on New Year’s Eve and voluntary during the year. It provides a nice alternative to shooting them.
- Limit the time you spend together. Less is far, far more. Don’t say “come for Xmas”, say “come for Xmas dinner, we’re at church in the morning and out in the evening so we have the whole afternoon to spend with you”. Relief on the other end of the phone. Even the most trigger-happy relation should be able to keep it together for four hours. That includes time taken to unwrap presents and visitors and bundle them back into the car. God will forgive you for lying about church-going. She’s like that. And if you do do church, do one that preaches love, not hate.
- Watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life if you must. Once you realise that one’s US military recruitment propaganda and the other a hymn to that oxymoron ‘compassionate capitalism’ it rather takes the sheen off the screen. I much prefer The Muppets’ Christmas Carol or The Bishop’s Wife for nostalgia. If anyone suggests The Grinch ask them, seriously, whether they would like to be trapped in a lift (elevator) with Jim Carrey. The correct answer is “no”. Don’t, whatever you do, make snow angels. This unbearably middleclass act of kinderkitsch is only allowable under coercion of a loaded firearm – and even then needs a careful weighing up of the pros and cons.
- Act out your own murder mystery. Use one of those DVD & flashcard boxes if you wish, or use this wee festive freebie HERE. It may serve to sublimate those homicidal tendencies.
- Give thanks. Use it as an alternative grace, sat round the table eyeing the fair-trade veggie feast (no harm to no fowl). Introduce it with “let’s all mention just one thing we’re grateful for this year. 10 seconds each. Clockwise. I’ll start”. If there’s 10 of you that’s already more than a minute and a half.
- It’s only once a year.
- Put these numbers on speed dial: 999/ 911; Childline; RSPCA; The Samaritans.
Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Christmas Crackers‘ into the Public Domain.
Murder at the Manor
A Festive Murder Mystery in 1 Act
By Alan McManus
Murder at the Manor was first produced by my friends and family, at home in Paisley, on Mother’s Day, 2012. These several pages containing the play, Murder at the Manor, and list of publications may be distributed online or in print form, together but not separately. The play may be edited. No charge or voluntary donation may be requested for any copy or performance of this play – unless the whole sum is donated to the Dr Hadwen Trust (drhadwentrust.org)
COPYRIGHT Alan McManus 2012
Miss Marple Acute Observer Older lady
Olga Volgavitch International Jewel Thief Younger lady
Brigitte Movie Star Younger lady
Hank Film Producer Younger gentleman
Mrs Bantry Lady of the Manor Middle-aged lady
Col Bantry Lord of the Manor Middle-aged gentleman
Buttons Butler Younger gentleman
Andrea Police Photographer Younger lady
Inspector Japp CID Middle-aged gentleman
Revd Green Vicar Middle-aged gentleman
(roles may be doubled)
The action of the play takes place over 24 hours, in Bantry Manor.
Time: The Present
Scene 1 – Diningroom. Dawn.
Everyone (apart from Inspector Japp, Buttons and Andrea) sits round the table, at breakfast.
Buttons (knocks on door, comes in) Excuse me, Sir.
Col Bantry (surprised) Well speak up Buttons, my breakfast kippers are getting cold!
Buttons (coughs) There’s some body in the Library, ma’am.
Mrs Bantry (annoyed) Well bring them in, Buttons!
Buttons (grimaces) Can’t, Ma’am. She’s been murdered.
Brigitte (screams) Murdered!
Hank (pats Brigitte’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!
Miss Marple (looks at Mrs Bantry) Perhaps, Dolly, we should call the police.
Mrs Bantry (sighs) Oh, very well. Murder! At breakfast! With guests!
Revd Green (hopefully) Is there any more tea?
Olga Volgavitch (frozen in the act of getting more food) I vosss here all ze time, eatink ze kipper, niet?
Everyone looks at Olga Volgavitch, suspiciously.
Scene 2 – Lounge. That Morning.
Everyone is present, having tea. Miss Marple is knitting. Andrea snaps snaps, snappily.
Japp (stands at fireplace, hands behind back) The name of the deceased is…
Miss Marple Inspector, I don’t think we should say the name of the body in the Library just yet, you know.
Japp Miss Marple, who is in charge of this investigation?
Miss Marple You are, Inspector, naturally. I just wondered if you had considered the begonias.
Japp (shakes head, ignores Miss Marple) The name of the body in the Library is… (chokes, falls to ground)
Andrea (screams, snaps a snap of the Inspector) Someone do something!
Miss Marple (looks up) Has he turned blue, dear? (Andrea nods) Well I expect it’s cyanide. He’ll have about three minutes.
Col Bantry (looking round wildly) The police photographer’s right! Someone do something! He’s only got three minutes!
Buttons (helpfully) I could boil him an egg?
Brigitte (screams) Murdered!
Hank (pats Brigitte’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!
Olga Volgavitch Izz too late! Heez goose is cooked!
Brigitte (stops screaming) Goose? I thought it was an egg!
Buttons (to Mrs Bantry) What, eggactly, would you like me to do with this one, Ma’am?
Mrs Bantry Oh shove it in the library with the other one. Honestly! What will we do now?
Revd Green (clearing throat) We could always have more tea?
Hank There’s more tea in that pot.
Miss Marple (looks up from her knitting) How do you know that, dear? Who was the last to touch that teapot?
Everyone looks at Hank, suspiciously.
Scene 3 – Diningroom. That afternoon.
Everyone (except for Inspector Japp, Andrea, and Buttons) is present.
Brigitte So we’re all trapped here in this haunted house with a maniac running round murdering people in their beds till the police get here!
Hank (pats Brigitte’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!
Col Bantry No one has ever been murdered in Bantry beds! That unknown woman who had the cheek to turn up uninvited and get murdered has nothing to do with any of us!
Miss Marple Are you sure, Colonel? Are you forgetting that incident in India?
Mrs Bantry Not Bombay Lil, Arthur, surely! I thought all that was in your dim and distant youth!
Olga Volgavitch But Bombay Lil was hunged by ze mob in Zaint Peterzburg!
Miss Marple Really? That was certainly the official story, but according to that nice Orthodox bishop down the road, she was rescued by her anarchist sister and died a sainted hermit in Siberia. And, according to Somerset House, you were that sister.
Hank (laughs) I’m not buying that! You haven’t had time to take do a roundtrip by train to London.
Miss Marple No dear. But I did have time to check online.
Revd Green Russians make great tea. They boil it up in a, whatssit…
Everyone looks at Hank, suspiciously.
Brigitte (pats Hank’s hand) It’s fine, baby. I’ll handle it!
Miss Marple (looks at Brigitte) The way you handled the begonias, my dear?
Everyone looks at Brigitte, suspiciously.
Buttons (knocks on door, comes in) Excuse me, Ma’am.
Mrs Bantry Not more bodies, Buttons!
Buttons No, Ma’am. Not more. Less! It’s the Inspector’s body. It’s gone!
Scene 4 – Lounge. Early that evening.
Everyone (except for Inspector Japp) is present, having drinks.
Col Bantry Well this is preposterous! One of us must have murdered both Bombay Lil and the Inspector and moved his body! And when I say ‘one of us’ I mean ‘one of you’! It’s definitely not either myself or Dolly!
Revd Green The bridge across the river is down. We won’t get out of here till morning!
Hank And the telephone wires have been cut.
Miss Marple Hank, dear, you really must get a mobile. How do you know the bridge across the river is down, vicar?
Olga Volgavitch Because he vent out ziss mornink, early, before brekfasst.
Brigitte And how do you know that? Spying on people, eh?
Mrs Bantry Actually I think she was stealing the silver. I was going to mention it but with all the murders I found I really didn’t care!
Olga Volgavitch Ok, I giff eet bak. Da?
Mrs Bantry Oh don’t worry. It was a wedding present and I never liked it. It’s all insured, naturally.
Buttons Good. Now I don’t have to polish it.
Mrs Bantry That will do, Buttons. Haven’t you got chores to do?
Andrea Chores! Silver! How can you, when my secret love the Inspector’s gone and been and got murdered and been and gone!
Miss Marple (puts down knitting, slowly) Well. ‘The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things.’ Many things that people wanted to talk about but were afraid to air. There never was a body in the library, but now Dolly has found out who’s pinching her silver, and that Arthur’s past is really past. Brigitte and Hank know they can rely on each other through thick and thin (as long as he gets a mobile). Olga realises that – apart from her dodgy accent and kleptomania – people are quite fond of her really. Buttons has discovered he’s a very good actor. The vicar now knows that he might be vegetarian but he’s a terrible old ham… and the Inspector…
Inspector Japp (comes in the door) … has discovered that it’s in the midst of all the drama that you discover the constancy of love! (gives Andrea a wee peck on the cheek). And what better day to discover that, than today!
Also by Alan McManus
Mrs Atkins remembers
Redemption (Scots and English versions)
The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries
Tricks of the Mind
Shades of the Sun
Tìr nam Bàn (forthcoming)
Dreaming Anarchy: a shut-eye view of a utopia
Only Say the Word: Affirming Gay and Lesbian Love
Body-Logic: the little book that makes a BIG difference!
Philosophy of Education
Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality
Religious and Inclusive Education
Masculum et Feminam: ‘Time for Inclusive Education’ and the conservative Catholic
(All sold on various Amazon country sites, in print and Kindle formats. Most in other formats on Smashwords and distributers: Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Nook etc.)