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Where We Are Now. (Or Why We Still Need The Labour Party in Scotland – Heaven Help Us).

9 Feb

I don’t really like politics and, as a rule, I’m wary of people who do.

On the other hand, I have little patience with people who ‘don’t do politics’.

That’s because, while I don’t like politics, I do recognise that politics matters and the reason for that is because when things go wrong in politics, people get hurt and when politicians are allowed to operate without proper scrutiny, you can guarantee that things will go wrong.

So there we are.

Political engagement is necessary in the same way that locking your front door and guarding the PIN for your bankcard is necessary.

And, of course in political terms, we’re having some interesting times in Scotland at the moment. Not perhaps quite as interesting as they were during the Independence Referendum campaign, but they’re still interesting.

There’s been a lot of comment about the aftermath of the referendum and, in particular the peculiar ironies of the respective prospects for Labour and the SNP.

Put very simply, and just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t noticed, the SNP should be in the doldrums because the Scottish electorate (in their collective wisdom) rejected independence, and Labour should be doing very well. As it is, however, all the available evidence suggests that it’s the SNP who’re doing well while Labour is in the doldrums. More than that, some polls suggest that Labour may be facing a complete disaster in the forthcoming election.

Reactions to this oddity vary from elation, on the part of some SNP supporters, to perplexed indignation on the part of a good few unionists. And not all of those perplexed indignant unionists are Labour supporters.

Now, I’d have to say that I have no great love of the Labour Party.

Having lived my whole life in West Central Scotland I think I can claim to have seen the worst of Labour. I’ve seen Labour dominated local authorities behave with callous arrogance towards the people who voted them into power and I’ve watched local democracy being reduced to petty vicious squabbles between different factions of the Labour Party. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the spectacle and I don’t think any of it has been healthy for democracy or for the people of Scotland.

Having said that, I don’t think this malaise was due to some peculiarity of the Labour Party as opposed to any other party, I think it’s the inevitable consequence of any party staying in power for too long.

This is why I think that, in the longer term, the most significant even in Scottish politics since Devolution wasn’t the Independence Referendum, I think it was the replacement of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition with, firstly and SNP minority administration and then by an SNP majority.

Obviously, it was this event that allowed the referendum to take place in the first place and the general consensus seems to be that, whatever the referendum result, the campaign itself brought a huge number of people into politics who would otherwise have been disengaged and, therefore, disenfranchised.

(As an aside, I would mention that, while many of us think this was a good thing, there are some career politicians, notably Jim Murphy in a recent interview, who still like to present the referendum as being nothing more than a distraction. The theory seems to be that Scottish independence was nothing more than a vanity project on the part of the SNP in general and Alex Salmond in particular. I would have thought that the 84% turnout would have been pretty conclusive evidence against this theory, but apparently not.)

The significance of this change of administration, for m, isn’t so much about the wonders of an SNP government, although in general and with some grumbles on various issues I do think the SNP have done reasonably well in

government, it’s far more to do with removing Labour from power.

The response of the Labour Party to this loss of power has not been intelligent. Firstly we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Wendy Alexander trailing down to the Labour Party Conference in order to, in so many words, apologise for the Scottish Electorate having failed to follow the established script by not voting Labour.

(It’s tempting to describe this behaviour as ‘sheep-like’, but whenever you’re appalled by the votes cast by the electorate; you have to consider the available alternatives. Back in the eighties the re-election of Thatcher was described by at least one American commentator in terms of an exercise in masochism, but this simply ignored that fact that for much of the eighties the Labour Party was divided and shambolic and totally incapable of inspiring any degree of confidence in anyone but their most partisan supporters. Similarly the past 70 years or so of Labour rule in Scotland has partly been due to the lack of a viable alternative. The SNP, until the advent of the Scottish Parliament, was little more than a pressure group, much like the Liberals in the rest of the UK, who could cause the odd by-election upset but not form a government).

This particular incident might not have mattered too much if Labour had shown any recognition that there was a reason why they were voted out of government. (And it’s worth noting that in the 2007 election that resulted in the SNP minority government the Lib Dem vote held up quite well, it was the Labour vote that fell away).

Of course, we’ve heard all the usual platitudes from Labour politicians about ‘listening to the Scottish people’ and addressing the ‘real’ issues. (As opposed to what? Addressing the ‘unreal’ issues, presumably those that the people who beat them in the election are addressing).

What we haven’t seen is any lessening in the Labour Party’s collective sense of ownership of Scotland. Essentially the Labour Party in Scotland still seems to see itself as the ‘natural party of government’ in Scotland (in much the same way as the Conservatives have tended to see themselves in the UK as a whole).

This is not healthy. It’s not healthy for the Labour Party and it’s not healthy for Scottish politics more generally.

The reason it’s unhealthy is very simple. It effectively denies the Scottish electorate a viable alternative to the SNP as a party of government.

Essentially the position is this.

If Labour regains power in Scotland as things stand, they will simply assume that the past few years in opposition were just some inexplicable glitch that they can now ignore. It will, in short, be back to politics as usual so far as they’re concerned.

To me, and I think to anyone who really gives a damn’ about Scotland, as opposed to blindly following the interests of any one party at the expense of Scotland and the people of Scotland, this is not acceptable.

So for me, Labour is unelectable. And they will continue to be until they accept on a profound level that they are simply one of a number of options available to the voters. And, more to the point (and here’s the really important bit) that they have to work for the Scottish people in order to earn the power they’re given. (This is something all politicians will claim to believe, but few really believe if they can only get themselves elected into a safe enough seat).

But if Labour is unelectable, then in practice the SNP is the only option as a governing party. (My natural sympathies are actually with the Green Party, but at the moment but it would be rank folly to suggest that they’re likely to form a government in the foreseeable future).

If there is no viable alternative to the SNP then they will continue to be re-elected until they become every bit as corrupt and arrogant as the Labour Party has become.

For me that would be a tragedy.

That’s because it seems to me that the worst thing that can happen to the voters in any given constituency is to become a safe seat for anyone. The only politician worth a damn’ is the politician who’s in office, but who sees a real prospect of being voted out of office. Where a politician, or party, sees no prospect of being elected, or where they’re in power and see no prospect of ever being voted out of office, they’re in a position to take the voters for granted. This inevitably leads to self indulgent navel gazing, infighting and all the other nasty habits we’ve seen in Labour (and the Conservatives) in Scotland for years.

Labour must, therefore, learn humility. (Which, in my opinion, they won’t under Jim Murphy’s leadership). For their own good and, more importantly, for the good of Scotland, and even more importantly for the good of the people of Scotland.

All the polls seem to indicate that Labour will face a disaster at the next election.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what they need. But, even for someone like me who has no great love of the Labour Party, it would be a disaster if Labour was wiped out in Scotland just as comprehensively and (apparently) as permanently as the Conservatives have been.


Prince Andrew and the Value of Pyrrhonism

24 Jan

Actually this isn’t very much about Prince Andrew, but the ongoing story about his alleged sexual activity with Jane Doe 3, also known as Virginia Roberts does provide a convenient example of why Pyrrho of Elis was probably right on one or two points.

At the time of writing, the situation is that Prince Andrew has been named in a lawsuit, to which he is not a party, as someone that Virginia Roberts was allegedly forced to have sex with while she was under age.

(The age of consent in Florida where this sexual contact is alleged to have happened is 18, Ms Roberts was 17 at the time. A quick search of the Internet reveals that the age of consent varies from 12 to 20, depending on where you happen to be at the time, with some countries having no specified age of consent, other than the onset of puberty. A legally defined age of consent is a pretty blunt instrument, but in the context of protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation any instrument, however blunt, is better than none at all.)

So far as I’m aware, Prince Andrew is not, at present, the subject of a criminal investigation. Possibly, given the nature of the allegations, he should be, but in any case he has certainly not been charged, as yet, let alone convicted.

Which is pretty much the point. In the various legal systems operating in the USA, the UK and various other countries, an accused person is presumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.

So the law presumes that Prince Andrew is innocent. This is a centuries old tradition and probably a pretty sound system since the alternative, a presumption of guilt, while it might be convenient for the law enforcement community, would seem to have disturbing implications for basic human rights.

Of course, a quick glance through some of the comments on social media would indicate that not everyone is willing to assume that Prince Andrew’s innocence, but that’s their business.

What seems to be at odds with the presumption of innocence is the relatively recent practice of treating all allegations of rape and sexual abuse, at least initially, as being truthful. This new approach must be a step forward, since the long-standing practice of treating such allegations with scepticism, or even downright dismissal has allowed a number of sexual predators, notably Jimmy Saville, being allowed to go unchallenged and also added to the trauma suffered by victims/ survivors of sexual offences.

But where does that leave the person who is accused of committing these offences?

Well, nowhere really.

Or at least nowhere different from where they would have been anyway, because in reality, the way that an allegation is received by the authorities need have no impact at all on how the alleged perpetrator is treated when he (or occasionally she) is investigated by those same authorities.

So the conflict is more apparent than real when it comes to the legal system.

You could even argue that by adopting a more receptive approach to people alleging sexual offences, the presumption of innocence is not being challenged, as much as it’s being extended to the accuser as well as to the accused. All we’re really doing is assuming that the accuser is not guilty of lying any more than the accused is guilty of the offence they’ve been accused of.

On the other hand, this conflict seems to be much more real in the media and in the minds of the general public.

I think this is because of a confabulation in the minds of people unclear on the basic concepts.

The presumption of innocence is a matter of law. Not a matter of fact. The fact that, in this instance, the law presumes that Prince Andrew is not guilty has no bearing at all on the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do and whether or not he is actually guilty of some form of sexual misconduct. It is a simple recognition of the fact that we don’t yet know what those facts are because the evidence hasn’t even been collected, let alone tested in court.

In the same way, the fact that police officers are now encouraged to take a more receptive approach when dealing with allegations of sexual offences has no bearing on whether or not those allegations are actually true. And it

certainly doesn’t mean that every accusation of sexual offences must, of necessity, be true.

The plain fact is that whether or not we like it, and whether or not it happens to fit with our personal set of hang ups and prejudices, people lie. Not everyone, and not all the time, but often enough to make caution advisable.

It’s also a matter of fact that some people are guilty of offences that they are never convicted of, while others have made allegations that have turned out to be false. (Which is not the same thing as an allegation that is not proven, or even one that’s not provable).

Which brings me to another, somewhat vexed question. In the UK any alleged victim of a sexual offence is entitled to privacy in the sense that their identity cannot legally be disclosed in the media unless they explicitly waive this right.

This right seems to be justified in as much as sexual offences still appear to be woefully under reported and if anonymity will encourage victims to come forward, without significantly undermining the rights of the accused, then it seems little enough to offer.

Some, often those who have been accused of sexual offences, have supported the idea that this right to anonymity should be extended to the accused until, or unless, they have been convicted.

This idea has some justification. An allegation of sexual offences can be incredibly destructive and, while this may be no less than the perpetrator of sexual offences deserves, it can’t be deserved in the case of someone who is not, in fact, guilty.

The opposing view is that publicising the fact that someone has been accused of sexual offences can encourage others to come forward with further allegations. This has to be a good thing if those new allegations help to secure the conviction of a sexual predator, a point that seems to be particularly relevant when the accused already has a high public profile. (Jimmy Saville again provides a useful example, even if he was, regrettably, dead before the allegations could be tested in a court of law).

On the other hand, there is also the case of John Leslie.

Put briefly, Ulrika Jonsson wrote about having been raped early on in her career. She did not name the perpetrator of this alleged attack, but inevitably rumours began to circulate. John Leslie was named, albeit inadvertently, as being the subject of these rumours (although not by Ms Jonsson, who has never confirmed or denied whether or not he was the person she was referring to). And the fact that Mr Leslie was named publicly seems to have been instrumental in several other women coming forward with allegations. John Leslie was charged in relation to these new allegations, but later the charges were dropped.

Now, whatever the actual facts underlying any of these allegations, and I do not care to speculate on this subject, the fact remains that, John Leslie was never convicted of these alleged offences and remains innocent in the eyes of the law. But in spite of this, he has still paid a price simply for being accused.

And this brings me, at some length, to Pyrrho of Elis and to Pyrrhonism.

Pyrrho of Elis was initially a painter who later diverted to philosophy. He wrote nothing himself and what was recorded of his doctrines by his pupil, Timon of Phlius, has been lost.

Pyrrhonism could be summarised very briefly as the doctrine that nothing can be known for certain and therefore the only viable conclusion is that we should suspend judgement.

Pyrrho was apparently held in very high esteem, both by the Elians and the Athenians and the reason for this would seem to be the courage and integrity with which he sought to live by his doctrines. (No small feat, as a matter of fact. In the early 1600s a number of European intellectuals suffered from a ‘pyrrhonist crisis’ and although opinions differ (appropriately enough) it has been alleged that Robert Boyle, the Anglo-Irish polymath, may have been brought close to suicide over pyrrhonism).

So pyrrhonism is tricky.

Doubt is disturbing for most people and not everyone can cope with it.

Certainty is much easier for most people, even, and perhaps especially, when there is no real basis for it.

So most people will jump to conclusions and, worse still, cling tenaciously to those conclusions even in the face of solid evidence.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter. It makes very little difference on a day to day basis whether or not the average person in the street believes in ghosts or extra terrestrial life. It may not even matter too much whether someone is a creationist or believes in evolution by natural selection.

But sometimes it matters very much what people believe. And that is never more the case than when it comes to apportioning blame.

After all, there is something mean spirited, not to mention arrogant, in the presumption that we can ‘know’ someone’s guilty when they’re never had a fair hearing. Just as it is arrogant and mean spirited in assuming that someone is lying when they make accusations that we find disturbing.

In this context pyrrhonism has its place.

Not Telling Anjem Choudary to Shut Up.

18 Jan

It was recently reported that Anjem Choudary had claimed that Muslims don’t believe in freedom of expression.

My immediate response was to suggest that if Mr Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

I’d like to expand on that a little.

Essentially the argument would run as follows.

Mr Choudary is reported to have claimed that Muslim’s don’t believe in freedom of expression.

If this statement appears to be excessively cautious it is worth bearing in mind two things;

1/ Anjem Choudary is a controversial figure and there is a certain class of journalist who would not be above misrepresenting, or even inventing comments that are attributed to him.

2/ It is stock in trade for controversial figures to make controversial statements and then, when challenged about them, to deny ever having made them. Or claim that those comments were taken out of context and that they somehow didn’t mean what they appear to mean when taken in context.

Mr Choudary would doubtless identify himself as a Muslim.

Others may claim that Mr Choudary isn’t a real Muslim and doubtless there are many Muslin’s who disagree with him on various points. This is not relevant to my argument, however, because what is important for my purposes is that Anjem Choudary would claim to be a Muslim and, as a consequence, the claims he makes about Muslims apply to him.

Therefore, and assuming the above to be correct, Mr Choudary does not believe in freedom of expression.

It is inconsistent (if nothing worse) to exercise a right that one does not believe in.

Mr Choudary, assuming the above to be correct does not believe in freedom of expression.

Therefore it would be inconsistent (if nothing worse) for Mr Choudary to exercise the right to freedom of expression.

(Outside of logic, consistency is not always a virtue, but inconsistencies between stated principles and actual behaviour are seldom commendable).

This brings me back to my immediate response to Mr Choudary’s reported statement, that if he doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, then he should shut up.

Except, of course, that I am not really telling Anjem Choudary (or anyone else) to shut up.

In the first place, my statement was conditional. That is it all hangs on the word ‘if’. It is only if Anjem Choudary doesn’t believe in freedom of expression that he should shut up. If he believes in freedom of expression, then of course he has every right to exercise that freedom, even if he uses if to talk complete and utter crap.

In the second place, I do believe in freedom of expression, therefore, and as a matter of principle, I’m not generally in favour of telling anyone to shut up.

Nor am I greatly in favour of condoning violence as a response to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as Pope Francis seems to be.

I do not believe anyone should expect a punch, as the Pontiff apparently does, as a response to anything the say, or write, or draw. And here, the law seems to be in agreement. If I were to act on the Pope’s apparent position and punch someone because they said something offensive about my mother, then I would expect to be charged with assault.

I would also venture to suggest that if I were to punch a hypothetical creationist in response to some comment about the theory of evolution by natural selection that I happened to find exasperating, then I suspect that both Pope Francis and Anjem Choudary, amongst many others, would be incensed by my violent suppression of this hypothetical creationist’s expression of their religious faith.

And this, I think goes to the heart of the whole thing.

No one would try to suggest that I would be justified in punching anyone because they made a disparaging comment about my favourite TV programme. Nor would I expect much sympathy from the Pontiff, or anyone else, if I assaulted someone over a dispute about politics, philosophy or the price of cheese. And I doubt if even Anjem Choudary would object to the freedom to express an opinion about any subject other than religion.

It is only in matters of religion that these men of faith find that freedom of expression is problematic.

(Pope Francis was also reported to have suggested that anyone making an insulting comment about his mother should expect a punch. I would respectfully suggest that this is nothing other than a red herring, however. The Pope may well be deeply protective of his mother’s reputation, but I doubt if he would really punch someone for making a derogatory remark about her. It’s clearly freedom of expression when it comes to religion that he’s talking about).

Of course all this comes in the context of the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and what it all boils down to is men of faith claiming special privileges for faith. And incidentally indulging in a spot of victim blaming.

Their position can be boiled down to the following.

Faith is really terribly, terribly important.

Faith deserves a specially privileged position in the world.

Faith is so important, in fact, that if anyone questions, challenges or makes fun of faith then a violent response is not only justified, but even commendable.

The satirists at Charlie Hebdo regularly made fun of religion.

This was an attack on faith.

This is not acceptable.

Therefore it was perfectly all right to shoot them.

Of course, Pope Francis would reject any statement quite this stark, but he was, in effect, saying that the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack were asking for trouble and that, to some degree, they deserved what happened to them.

One wonders how he feels about Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Perhaps he would feel that this sentence is excessive, but it is implicit in his position on insulting faith that some degree of violence would be justified. Perhaps a punch, rather than 1,000 lashes, but the difference is one of degree, not of principle.

As for Anjem Choudary?

Well, I don’t know, and don’t care enough to find out, whether or not he has actually condoned the murder of satirists. I respect his right to say what he wants on this or any other subject, even if he does not respect mine, but I also claim the right not to pay any attention to it.

And maybe that’s the point.

I won’t punch anyone for insulting my mother, I’ll probably just ignore them. I won’t punch someone for mocking or disagreeing with my beliefs. I might argue with them, but I won’t resort to violence. I believe in freedom of expression and the price I have to pay for that belief is that I have to put up with people saying things that I disagree with or that I find offensive.

I don’t think that price is too high to pay, but it would seem that some, notably men of faith who would doubtless claim moral and spiritual superiority over an atheist like myself, either can’t, or won’t, pay that price.

Have a jolly, merry…. Whatever.

21 Dec

Some things are terribly predictable at this time of year; they just go with the season.

In particular, there’s bound to be someone who wants to talk about the ‘true’ meaning of Christmas.

Then again there’s bound to be someone who’ll point out that Christmas is a festival that was co-opted by the Christian church.

And there will doubtless be someone to point out how many of the customs and practices associated with Christmas actually have nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with pre and non-Christian belief systems.

And there’s also liable to be someone who points out how many of our time honoured Christmas traditions are actually quite modern in their origins.

Needless to say, the scholarship behind these claims tends to be patchy in quality and this usually gives rise to all sorts of debate, often ill tempered, and usually just as patchy in the quality of its erudition.

Being a scholar much in the tradition of patchy erudition myself, I’ve formed the vague impression that most cultures that have their origins in parts of the world where the winters are cold tend to have some sort of festival, usually timed for whenever the weather can be expected to be at it’s most inclement.

These festivals usually seem to involve people getting together, often with people they never see at any other time of the year, in order to eat and drink and pretend to have a good time while all kinds of subterranean tensions seethe away under the surface.

Obviously these festivals are a product of pre-industrial societies, industrialised, urbanised societies tend to be less influenced by the changing of the seasons, but the habits of an older society do tend to persist, even if they do evolve over time. And as a result we’re stuck with the dubious pleasures of Christmas with all its mongrel inheritance.

Naturally, there are all kinds of interesting (or at least semi-interesting) common features and contrasts to be found amongst the various ways that people celebrate towards the end of December throughout Europe, and in those parts of the world influenced by European cultures. There should be no big surprise about that; most of these cultures have diverged from common roots in similar environments.

What’s much more interesting is that there should be a parallel to our Christmas in Native American cultures.

What I’m referring to, of course is the Potlatch.

Potlatch is, in fact quite a general term and covers a variety of customs that were current in a number of different cultures on the pacific coast of North America.

This environment was very rich in resources that could be harvested throughout the summer and autumn, but the winter was incredibly harsh.

As a consequence, everyone worked hard to lay in provisions while they could and then, when the weather turned nasty, there was very little to do except eat, drink, tell stories, sing songs and generally enjoy the fruits of all that hard work you’d done earlier in the year. And at the potlatch there was even an exchange of gifts.

Each potlatch was hosted by a kinship group, (sometimes called a house or numaym) or more precisely by an aristocrat of the kinship group and the whole point was to invite all the other neighbouring kinship groups partly for a celebration, but also to conduct a certain amount of practical business. There were always tensions and rivalries between the different kin groups and these rivalries and tensions had to be expressed and managed, preferably without out and out warfare.

And the way these tensions were expressed and managed at the potlatch was very largely through the giving of gifts.

So on the face of it, the potlatch seemed like quite a jolly custom

Unfortunately, there was a darker side to the potlatch. As I’ve suggested, the people who gathered together during the potlatch were not necessarily the best of friends and, as a result, the gift giving tended to have a competitive edge.

This competitive edge led to an escalation in the value of the gifts being exchanged until, according to the classic accounts, the whole thing became utterly ruinous. (Accounts differ, however, and various aspects of the potlatch may well have been exaggerated by the various people who described it, since they all had agendas of their own).

Of course, the potlatch was criminalised by the Canadian and American authorities. This was because it offended against the prevailing notions of industry, thrift and prudence prevailing amongst the uptight white eye community, but the custom persisted since it was closely linked to the religious beliefs and cultural identity of the Native American peoples who practised it.

So there we have it.

People on different continents with completely different cultural backgrounds getting together with other people they don’t like in order to munch their way through copious amounts of food while exchanging of gifts at ruinous expense. And all with the threat of criminal proceedings following closely in the aftermath.

A typical family Christmas, in fact.

So whether you’re celebrating the birth of Christ, or the winter solstice, whether it’s Yule or Noel or just a chance to take some time off work and overindulge a little, have a happy whatever, try to be nice to each other and always remember the words of the song,

Hallelujah noel be it heaven or hell,

The Christmas you get you deserve.

(I Believe in Father Christmas – Emerson, Lake and Palmer)

Brainssssss (Or Why We’re All Looking Forward To The Zombie Apocalypse)

7 Dec

On the face of it, The Zombie Apocalypse may not seem like something we should be looking forward to with eager anticipation.

After all, it will doubtless be a source of some inconvenience to those who become zombified and I dare say the rest of us will face some appreciable degree of hardship, and probably even some risk to life and limb, as we seek to avoid joining the shambling hordes of undead flesh eaters.

On the other hand, there will definitely be something of an up side to all the devastation, carnage, cannibalism and general mayhem.

For one thing the Zombie Apocalypse will be a great leveller. Social, racial and class differences will finally be put in their rightful perspective by the general and shared need to avoid being munched on by the walking dead and, as a result, the world will finally become a true meritocracy. Only your skill and judgement in staying alive will count. Other factors will be irrelevant.

Another point is that, in the face of wandering herds of ravenous brain-dead cannibals, you are likely to find that all those troublesome worries and concerns of day to day life in our allegedly civilised society will lose their importance. Worries about how you’re going to pay the bills, what you’re going to get your granny for her birthday, how to avoid all that humiliating deference you have to show your moron of a boss will fade into the background as you find yourself much more focussed on the really important things in life. Things like finding a safe haven, scrounging food and choosing a suitable weapon with which to fend off the zombie hordes.

You may also find yourself making new friends and gaining new skills.

People that you would normally avoid, or even look down on, will all of a sudden be revealed to be persons of merit worthy of your esteem.

For example, the red-necked survivalist named ‘Cleetus’ or ‘Bubba’, whose banjo playing always used to irritate you, will now be your best pal. After all, who else is better placed to offer help and advice when fortifying and modifying your newly acquired vehicle in order to create the supercharged, armour-plated and fully zombie-proof battle wagon that you’ve always wanted?

After all, who else can boast the skills required to sneak around in the dark, despatching zombies efficiently and with the minimum of fuss and brain splatter? And who else can brew up moonshine in a still improvised from assorted household goods?

Of course a certain number of practical issues will need to be addressed. First and foremost, you will need a suitable choice of attire, and I would suggest a practical, rather than aesthetic approach here.

Leather, for example, can be very stylish and should also be bite resistant. Mail armour would, of course, be preferable and would give a rather fetching, slinky look to one’s ensemble, but it is rather heavy, by no means rainproof and also has the disadvantage of being somewhat hard to come by this century.

Kevlar, on the other hand, is not only light and flexible, it’s also hard wearing and has the advantage of being cruelty free. The uninitiated may well assume that kevlar is difficult to find, but any decent biker shop should have a wide selection of garments made from kevlar and other durable, weatherproof materials. These garments can be expensive to buy, at the moment, but this consideration will, of course, be quite irrelevant in the event of the zombie apocalypse.

Another important decision to be made will be in the matter of weapons.

In the United States, particularly south of the Mason Dixon line, firearms will be relatively easy to find. In the United Kingdom, however, while you may be able to find a shotgun without undue difficulty in rural areas does, you will be hard pressed to find any kind of gun without a good deal of effort. Unless, of course, you happen to have criminal tendencies, or be fortunate enough to be a close acquaintance of someone who does.

This should not be a source if undue discouragement, however, because while firearms can present certain advantages in the matter of fending off marauding zombies, there are also disadvantages to this option.

Clearly the ability to despatch a zombie at some distance is desirable, and a bullet in the head will do the job quite efficiently, but the difficulty with guns is that they are of limited value without ammunition. And ammunition is quite heavy to carry in bulk and does tend to run out at the most inconvenient times.

As an aside, it is worth noting that so many people come to grief by persisting in the habit of shooting zombies in the chest. Clearly this is a waste of time and ammunition. The only way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain, therefore you must ALWAYS go for the head shot.

Unless of course one is threatened by a large number of highly mobile zombies in which case the precision required for an effective head shot will be difficult to achieve. In such circumstances it can be advisable to aim for the legs. This will not kill the zombies, of course, but it will slow them down quite considerably. Zombies may well feel no pain, but even the undead can’t run, or even shamble, on shattered leg bones, so they will be restricted to crawling, or dragging themselves along using their arms. This will then allow an opportunity either to retreat or to despatch the zombies on an individual basis.

But in the absence of ready access to firearms, one can always opt for a bow, although this requires almost constant practice to maintain an appropriate level of skill. Or a crossbow, a weapon that requires little more skill to use than a firearm, and is considerably quieter, but is every bit as useless as a gun once the ammunition is gone. Having said this, at least a crossbow bolt is reusable.

Regardless of one’s access to any of the above weapons one will always need a backup for when the ammunition runs out or the zombies get to close and what this boils down to is the choice between a sharp implement or a blunt one.

Either way, the length, weight and even the aerodynamic qualities of the weapon should be taken into consideration.

In particular, you need a weapon that is long enough to give you sufficient reach to keep the zombie out of biting range, but one that is not so long as to be difficult to wield.

One of the reasons why the Scottish army were defeated at the battle of Flodden, for example, is that they had been rearmed with 15 foot long pikes, which were considered state of the art weaponry, but which were, in the absence of proper training, unwieldy and virtually useless. James IV would have been better advised to have let his soldiers use the weapons they were used to.

In a similar vein, one should also choose a weapon of sufficient weight to be effective, but not so heavy as to be too tiring to use repeatedly.

The aerodynamic properties of a weapon may seem to be quite marginal, but if one is faced with a large number of zombies requiring repeated strikes, this apparently marginal factor may become quite significant.

These are, of course, matter of personal choice and will depend on the physique, fitness and skill of the individual.

Choosing between a sharp or blunt instrument is also a matter of individual choice. A sharp implement will appeal to those who favour decapitation over bludgeoning, but one must be aware of the risk of blood spatter which, depending on the variety of undead cannibal one encounters, may represent a significant risk of infection.

Something that is far less a question of personal choice is the matter of who to despatch and who to allow to go on living. Clearly those identified as zombies, or those infected persons who are likely to become zombies, should be dealt with firmly and decisively. Those who are not infected, should however, on the whole, not be killed.

Clearly, if we are to act on this principle we will need to have a robust and accurate means of identifying who is, or is not infected.

While even the most cursory visual examination may reveal those who are well and truly zombified, as they will

tend to be encrusted with dried blood about the mouth, lower face and chest, one may find that in conditions of poor visibility etc even a cursory examination may not be possible and in any case the early stages of zombification may not be obvious to the naked eye.

A detailed physical examination should determine whether or not someone has been bitten, but this will require the co-operation of the subject, which may not be forthcoming, and in any case a physical examination will require relatively close proximity, which may be inadvisable. Therefore other methods should be employed where possible.

One can, of course, carry out a careful observation of the subject’s behaviour in order to determine their level of physical co-ordination since a loss of fine motor skills is generally symptomatic of infection. On the other hand, some people are just clumsy, so this test cannot be considered definitive.

Alternatively, one may wish to engage the subject in conversation, as the infected will tend not to be great conversationalists. On the other hand an over reliance on the conversational ability of the subject as a determining factor may result in an unacceptably high attrition rate amongst the aphasic, or even just those of a taciturn disposition.

Significantly, one should not necessarily assume that someone is, or is about to become, a zombie simply because they hold and express views that appear to be inconsistent with higher cognitive function.

Therefore, decapitation of those whose taste in music, films or whose voting habits one disagrees with must, generally speaking, be considered excessive. A sharp blow to the head should be quite sufficient to the occasion and, if challenged, one can always cite the fact that zombies feel no pain and then congratulate the subject on having successfully passed the test.

Of course in amongst all the uncertainties resulting from the zombie apocalypse, there will always be some certainties that we can rely on.

The most notable of these are as follows:

1/ If you hear an unexplained noise from

a/ outside

b/ the cellar

c/ the attic

It is not the wind, the dust settling, or a stray kitten. It is DEFINITELY a zombie and you should take appropriate steps accordingly.

2/ If you see a young child wandering around on his/her own, do NOT approach. It is a zombie and should be despatched at your earliest convenience. (Actually the child may not be a zombie, but shooting irritatingly cute and precocious kids may be one of the great advantages of living through the zombie apocalypse. The true philosopher will always take his or her pleasures where he or she can.

3/ NEVER say any of the following

a/ I can handle this

b/ I think we’re safe now

c/ Everything’s going to be alright

d/ You know, I think Justin Bieber’s greatly underrated as a performer.

If you do, you WILL die a bizarre and horrible death.

4/ If a zombie appears to be dead, it isn’t. It’s just resting. Be sure and kill it before you do anything else.

By following these simple principles I’m sure we can all have a rewarding and enjoyable zombie apocalypse experience.

Lying Time

23 Nov

Up until a little over five years ago I had a reasonably sensible, secure job. Then, for reasons too tedious to go into, the place where I worked closed down and I was made redundant. Since then I’ve been in and out of work, taking whatever jobs were available, usually low paid and insecure, and frankly most of them have been pretty much of a slog.

I’m well aware that none of this is unique, or even particularly unusual, it’s the reality behind the much-vaunted ‘flexible labour market’ that our political leaders are so proud of. And anyway, it’s not my purpose to whinge about any of this. All I’m doing is providing a little background as an explanation of how I managed to get into a particular situation.

To continue, one of the conditions if entitlement for Jobseekers Allowance is that you have to be ‘actively seeking work’. This is not unreasonable; the clue is, after all, in the name of the benefit.

Needless to say, there is some flexibility in how you might determine whether or not someone is actively seeking work, and the exact requirement specified by the Department of Work and Pensions has varied from time to time. At the time I’m writing about the criterion was to engage in at least 20 work related activities per week. A work related activity, for those who don’t already know, could mean visiting a web site, submitting an application, engaging in some form of training or doing voluntary work if it’s likely to lead to some form of gainful employment.

So it was quite possible to meet the requirement if you were willing to put in a bit of time and effort, which, quite frankly, you should be if you’re unemployed and able to work. (The position is obviously quite different for those who are not able to work, but that’s another issue for another day).

On the other hand, whatever kind of work you’re looking for, the availability of suitable vacancies varies from time to time and sometimes you have to be a bit flexible in the kind of work you’re willing to do. And sometimes you may have to be a little, shall we say speculative in your applications. (I don’t mean by this that you should apply for jobs that you clearly and obviously aren’t qualified for, but if there are grey areas then you might as well exploit them. I think that employers who can’t or won’t be clear about the skills and experience they’re looking for have no right to complain if they’re swamped by unsuitable applications).

During one of the periods where I was struggling to find suitable jobs to apply for, I submitted an application for the post of ‘Mystery Shopper’. (I’m going to be a little vague about some of the details because I have a vague recollection of signing some kind of confidentiality agreement). The post required some knowledge of motorcycles, a basic degree of computer literacy and a confident telephone manner.

It wasn’t the kind of work I’d done before, but I’ve worked in call centres, ridden motorbikes and used computers. The post was low paid and temporary, with no prospect of advancement, but there wasn’t much else going that week so I submitted my application and moved on to the next thing.

Somewhat to my surprise I got the job.

I had assumed when I submitted my application that the job was to do with customer service and that I would be expected to declare my identity and purpose at the end of the call, since that was my previous, rather limited, experience of mystery shopping.

As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. The purpose of the call was to find out which products were offered by the retailer, at what prices and which, if any, promotions were mentioned.

And, of course, I was not under any circumstances, to reveal that I was anything but a genuine customer enquiring about the products on sale.

There are a couple of problems inherent in all this.

The first is that the job veered a little too close to fraud for my liking. I was, after all, obtaining a service through deception. (Which is not a bad definition of fraud when you think about it). But I assumed, since I needed the job,

that my employers had looked into the matter and assured themselves that what we were being asked to do was quite legal.

The second problem is less a matter of law or ethics and considerably more practical.

Most bikers know far more about the workings of their bikes and are far more actively involved in servicing and maintaining their bikes than drivers tend to be about their cars. A car driver, for example, could quite plausibly claim to have no idea what tyres you have on your car, but it would be a very strange biker who did not know exactly what tyres he, or she, was riding on.

The inevitable result of this is that you can’t really phone a retailer and just ask what’s available. The expectation would be that you would know what products you’re using on your bike and that you will want the same again unless you’re not happy with the product you’re using. And since we were discouraged (to put it mildly) from claiming to be unhappy with any specific product, in case the distributor ever heard the call. And since we were also required to claim to be the owner of the bike, as opposed to someone calling on behalf of the bike owner; the options for getting the retailer to offer products were limited. (Non-existent in fact).

The job was further complicated by the fact that our calls had to be based on a scenario specified in the computer generated form we were supposed to use and, quite frankly, some of those scenarios were totally implausible. (For example we would be given a product to enquire about that would be totally unsuitable, sometimes dangerous or even physically impossible to fit, for the bike specified in the scenario).

After a while, and one or two really uncomfortable phone calls, you would learn to spot these scenarios and, with a bit of research, you could adjust the details to produce something more workable.

Another problem with the job was that, after a while people start to recognise your voice. This is less of a problem with big retailers, or outlets in big cities, but when you’re calling a small shop in a small community you’re very quickly going to find yourself being asked why you called the week before asking about components for a completely different bike.

And, of course, people don’t like being deceived and having their time wasted.

Of course some of the big retail chains have staff who are employed to do nothing except answer the phone and give quotes. It doesn’t matter much to them who they’re talking to or whether or not the call results in a purchase. But there’s a real problem when you call a smaller outlet where time spent answering phone calls is time they can’t spend on doing something else and where they don’t always have a quick and simple way of providing quotes for products and sometimes have to phone their own suppliers.

So it was not, all things considered, my all time favourite job. The fact that we were also put under intense pressure to meet targets that were, in my opinion, quite unrealistic, just made the whole thing worse.

In fact, I think the only positive feature of the job (and a somewhat dubious positive) was that I learned how to be quite an efficient liar. This was not a skill I had any particular ambition to develop. As a general rule I prefer to be reasonably honest most of the time, but the circumstances didn’t seem to allow me much choice. (Bear in mind here, that if I had simply resigned from the job, I could have been considered ‘voluntarily unemployed’ and therefore not eligible for benefits. And since I’m not independently wealthy, I have to either work or claim benefits. I don’t have a third option).

So I stuck with the job until the end of my contract and I learned to lie.

The essence of being a convincing liar, I discovered is in having access to sufficient detail. This does not mean volunteering huge amounts of detail. That can be just as much of a give-away as being too vague. It’s about having the details worked out in advance so that they’re right there, in your mind, ready to be used if the need arises.

To give an example. If I had to call up about a particular set of tyres for a particular bike, I would have some idea of what kind of bike I was talking about, what it would be used for and therefore what kind of tyres would be appropriate to fit on the bike. (Hard wearing tyres for a tourer or commuter bike, softer tyres for a racing bike etc).

I would also have some sort of idea of who I was pretending to be.

Sometimes I was using the bike for day to day travel and I would have a pragmatic approach, other times the bike was pretty much of a toy and I was willing to be quite extravagant. Quite often I would have just bought the bike second hand and be looking for advice about whether or not the tyres fitted by the previous owner were suitable.

Sometimes I would be an experienced biker who was confident in servicing the bike, more often I would claim to have a friend who would help me out with these things since it allowed me to plat dumb if I had to.

There were also times, if I was challenged on something and I didn’t have the information I needed to give a sensible answer, when I would claim to be phoning for a friend who had tinnitus and couldn’t use the phone very easily. (This was frowned on by my employer, who always wanted us to claim to be the bike owner, but it was a workable scenario).

Of course quite a lot of retailers wanted to call me back with the information I had asked for. This was generally because they didn’t have the information to hand when I called them, but I think it was also, sometimes because they knew perfectly well that some of the calls they received were bogus and they were trying to see if I was a genuine caller. (A mystery shopper typically won’t want to give their phone number; most legitimate callers will be quite willing). In this situation, I would claim to be working in a call centre and therefore unable to take personal calls. I would then suggest calling back ‘on my break’. This had the additional benefit of giving me a lot of flexibility about when I called back. Call centre workers work all kinds of shifts and therefore they can have breaks at any and all times of the day.

The call centre scenario had the additional benefit that I could claim, quite plausibly, that I wasn’t allowed to have a mobile phone while I was working. Many call centres are very strict about where and when employees can have their mobile phones switched on, particularly if they have access to customer’s bank or credit card details.

So, in a nutshell, the secret to efficient lying is to have a scenario worked out in advance. To start by giving just enough information to get by but be able to provide more detail if and when challenged. Oh, and be confident. You can tell most people almost any load of old tosh provided a) it doesn’t contradict anything they already know and b) you can create the impression that you know what you’re talking about.

And don’t worry too much about the people who claim to know when someone’s lying to. The people who can actually do this are few and far between, your chances of meeting one are slim. As for the rest, they’re generally the easiest people to deceive since they’re starting off from a position where they’re already deceiving themselves.

After six months my contract came to an end. And I would have to say that I was quite happy about that.

Like a Detective Story – But With a Lot More Helicopters

9 Nov

Saigon… shit.

The first line spoken in Apocalypse Now.

Of course the film starts with the sound of the fan set into ceiling of Captain Willard’s hotel room (or is it a helicopter) then the images of yellow smoke, palm trees and a napalm strike all played out over ‘The End’, by The Doors.

(It has been said so many times before, but while the Vietnam War was such an incredible disaster, not only for the US, but even more for most of South East Asia, the sound track really was outstanding).

Captain Willard goes on to muse that ‘everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over I never wanted another.’

When I mentioned to someone, some years ago, that I had always felt that Apocalypse Now was a lot like a detective story I was laughed at and never really got the chance to explain or develop my idea.

(This seems to happen to me quite a lot. It’s frustrating. It’s one reason for starting a blog, however, because now I get to develop my ideas without being interrupted).

So anyway, I still think of Apocalypse Now as a kind of detective story, and more specifically I think it’s a lot like the kind of ‘hardboiled’ detective story that was often adapted into film noire in the 1940s and 50s. (Even if it does have a lot more helicopters than say The Big Sleep).

On the face of it this might seem like an odd idea given that classic film noire were shot in black and white, very often in highly claustrophobic settings and usually lit with the intention of creating deep and unsettling shadows around the main characters.

Clearly none of this applies to Apocalypse Now.

The look of the film as about as far removed from classic film noire as you can get. To illustrate this point, Willard says of one of the other character (Mr Clean of the South Bronx shithole) that ‘the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head’. And between them Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro (his cinematographer) capture that light and space beautifully. It really is a remarkably beautiful film to look at.

Having said that, many of the later scenes are dominated by shadow and darkness, and it seems to me that the firefight at the Do Lung bridge acts as a transitional scene, both in the look of the film and in Willard (and the viewer’s) perception of the war.

I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that this scene portrays a confrontation between light and darkness. (Which could have been nothing more than a clichéd metaphor for the conflict between good and evil, but in this case, the conflict seems much more elemental and amoral than that). But I think it goes beyond just the look of the film.

Up until the scenes at Do Lung the war has seemed to be efficient on a tactical level but lacking in strategic purpose. (Kilgore’s assault on the Vietnamese village is supremely effective, but his purpose seems to be as much about securing a beach to surf on as following the orders he apparently never received to help Willard on his mission). At Do Lung the war lacks even the tactical coherence Kilgore can offer.

This point is brought home to Willard when he asks one man who’s in charge only to be asked ‘ain’t you?’. The point is reinforced by Roach, (a disturbing, almost shamanic, figure who effortlessly drops a 20mm grenade on a VC soldier apparently by pure intuition) who, when asked if he knows who’s in charge, just says, ‘yeah’, and then goes about his (possibly drug fuelled) business.

From this point on it becomes clear that this war isn’t just misguided and brutal, (most wars are) it’s downright insane.

From this point on we move through dense fog towards Willard’s confrontation with Colonel Kurtz.

These scenes are pretty much dominated by shadow. (To a degree this was forced on Coppola because Marlon Brando he put on an enormous amount of weight and was apparently so self conscious about it that he insisted on being shot entirely in shadow – call it a happy accident, or maybe just making a virtue of a necessity).

So you could say that Martin Sheen’s scenes with Marlon Brando are the only ones that are truly reminiscent of the visual style of film noire, but I think there’s more to it than the use of shadow as a visual metaphor.

I suppose it starts for me with the voice over. Not an obligatory feature of detective stories, or even film noire. You don’t find it at all in such classic film noire such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. But it was common enough in film noire nonetheless and it also refers back to the first person narrative that was such a common feature of the pulp fiction that was so often the source material for film noire.

There is also an element of enquiry in Willard’s mission. His orders are to ‘terminate’ Col. Kurtz’ command and the instruction to pick up information along the way is almost an aside, but that isn’t quite the way the mission actually plays out.

In essence Willard, and the audience through his eyes, is learning about the war and about Kurtz. He’s gathering evidence, almost inadvertently, but the physical journey towards Kurtz in the patrol boat is matched by Willard’s progress towards understanding the man he’s been sent to kill.

What’s unusual for a detective story, and it’s definitely not what the Army wants, is that, however reluctantly, Willard is gathering evidence that turns out to be for Kurtz’ defence, not his prosecution.

And as in any decent detective story, there’s even a crime. Kurtz is accused of murder, the reason given for his execution, although it’s a charge that, as Willard notes, makes about as much sense as handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

This brings me to another feature of Apocalypse Now that I find reminiscent of film noire, and more generally the ‘hardboiled’ school of detective fiction, which is the fact that Willard the (sort of) detective can’t trust his (sort of) client, the army. (By this I mean, not the ordinary soldiers, but the ‘four star clowns’ as Willard calls them, who’ve sent him on his mission.

These people give Willard some information, but not enough for him to fully understand what he’s doing and what information they do give him seems to undermine the case they’ve made for wanting Kurtz dead.

This leaves Willard is in the dark, metaphorically if not literally, the imagery actually gets darker as Willard learns more. This tells you something about the nature of what Willard is learning, but is also indicates that as Willard gains in understanding he loses whatever certainty he started out with.

And in Willard himself we even have just the kind of flawed central character that we’d expect to find in film noire. Most detectives of the ‘hardboiled’ school were distinctly compromised as champions of truth and justice. (Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe is a bit of an exception here, he was a knight in a slightly threadbare suit, rather than shining armour, but a chivalrous figure nonetheless).

When we first see Willard he is alone, drunk and naked in his hotel room and one of the first things he tells us about himself is that, on his return to the United States after his first tour of duty he hardly said a word to his wife until he said ‘yes’ to a divorce.

He’s not exactly the clean cut, all-American hero type, then. For most of the film he’s a passive figure, observing as he’s ferried up the river, passing judgement, but seldom acting. When he does take the initiative, however, it is shocking. He seems to instinctively understand Kurtz’ views on ‘clarity’.

“…what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”

Or as Willard puts it, “It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.”

This is the opposite of the dreamlike state that so many of the characters in Apocalypse Now seem to inhabit, from Kilgore and his beach party to the USO sending Playboy models into a war zone, to the ‘timid lying morality’ that Kurtz claims to be beyond. The same ‘morality’ that is behind Willard’s orders to kill Kurtz.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters. More than you find in most detective stories anyway. And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.

So Apocalypse Now is a bit like a detective story. And it does have a lot of helicopters, more than you find in most detective stories anyway.

And like the best of the ‘hardboiled’ detective stories, the ones that adapted so easily into film noire, it is about truth and evil, but not good and evil, because there’s precious little ‘good’ to be found in these stories.