A city subordinated to the virus

In the late 18th century, William Blake wrote a poem, ‘London’, that depicts the city subordinated to trade.

I wander through each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow …

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Blake originally wrote ‘dirty’ street and ‘dirty’ Thames, but, as Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (p.148), the change of adjective introduces the idea of ‘chartering’: the organisation of a city in terms of trade.  As he wanders through the streets already (in 1794) under the control of the Corporation of London, Blake notes people bound by ‘mind-forg’d manacles’: the religion that keeps the child sweeping chimneys, the patriotism that emboldens the soldier to defend the king.  But mainly he hears the curse of prostitution and the commodifying of relations that spreads both mental and physical plague.  All these, Blake implies, derive from a social system where people have to sell themselves to survive.

Perhaps our current time is the first period for several hundred years when the city is not subordinated to trade.  The stores are closed.  The streets are almost empty.  Metal beer barrels line up outside the deserted pubs.  There is less traffic and less noise.  The air is cleaner.  Most people are indoors, learning to live without the constant pressure of work.

I’m not suggesting that capitalism has been magically transformed.   But perhaps the lockdown is producing a change of consciousness.   Economic fundamentalism has failed to prepare us for or protect us from a natural and predictable occurrence.       Faced with the prospect of people dying from starvation as well as from the coronavirus, the Conservative government is supporting the population with sums of money that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.  Homeless people are being housed.   Those self-employed or on short-term contracts can hope for government funding to tide them over.   Those on permanent contracts but currently without work because of government restrictions on social gathering will receive 80% of their normal income.

Much of this promised support has yet to come through, and some people may not be caught by the safety net.  But even Boris Johnson accepts that there is such a thing as society.  Perhaps – just perhaps – we can look forward to a somewhat more caring and communal future.

Coronavirus: an existential view

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The Monatti, illustration to Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, ca. 1895–99

As the reality of the coronavirus lockdown begins to take hold, popular searches on Netflix include movies titled Pandemic and Quarantine – and sales of Albert Camus’ 1947 Nobel Prize-winning novel La Peste (The Plague) have increased by 150%. La Peste chronicles a fictional outbreak of bubonic plague at some time in the 1940s in the Algerian coastal town of Oran, the town in which Camus lived during the war, separated from his wife and mother in France.  Oran is also the setting of some of his other novels.

Camus is known for his existential philosophy of the absurd.  Le Mythe de Sisyphe, written a few years before La Peste, elaborates the myth of Sisyphus’s punishment by the gods: to push a rock to the top of a hill and let it roll down to the bottom, a task to be repeated for eternity. This represents the absurdity of life, in which, as Dr Johnson wrote in 1782:

Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.

Sisyphus, according to Camus, lacks hope but is nevertheless happy: he is clear sighted about the nature of life.  Existentialism teaches that all we have is the facticity of existence. We have no illusions about the afterlife, or even about the nature of life on earth. Camus tried to avoid anthropomorphic descriptions in his novel L’Etranger, written in the same year (1942) as Le Mythe de Sisyphe. According to Alain Robbe Grillet (in Pour un Nouveau Roman), this attempt was not successful: the book didn’t establish a “separation entre l’homme et les choses”.  Perhaps La Peste is more successful in suggesting the absurdity of existence in an alien yet familiar world. “The first thing that plague brought to our town was exile,” the narrator writes.

As Bookerworm notes, La Peste seems prescient in its description of a city similar to those around the world currently under lockdown after a plague epidemic, the citizens condemned to an abyss of nonexistence. Oran’s bureaucrats, like President Trump and others in recent history, dismiss the plague as merely “a special kind of fever” until the evidence becomes undeniable and under-reaction is more dangerous than over-reaction. But the plague in Camus’ novel is metaphorical as well as literal. The plague is an allegory of fascism and, by extension, of mechanical, unconscious living. The citizens who are dutifully oblivious to the true situation represent the French citizens who colluded with the Vichy regime of German occupiers. Parallels with our current world situation press themselves on us, despite our social distance from mid-century Algiers. It is many years since the pestilence of Nazism, but the rise of an intolerant and aggressive nationalism in both the US and the UK demonstrates that, in Camus’ words:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.

Today, news reports daily inform us of the rising curve of death. Bookerworm states that we cannot but reckon the absurdity and impotence of human lives when hundreds of people are dying lonely without their dear ones near the bed, saying their last goodbye through video chat before being unceremoniously cremated.  What has changed over four centuries?  In Italy, many learn in school about the dreaded Monatti who, preceded by the ringing of a little bell, retrieved corpses on carts during the 17th-century Milan plague.

And yet the existential view is not of despair. Having achieved clear-sightedness about the nature of existence, we can mobilise our human resources to deal with it. The tragic absurdity of the current global situation is that, despite warnings from the World Health Organisation as recently as 2019, and a modelling exercise in dealing with a pandemic carried out by a UK government organisation in 2016, none of their recommendations for protective clothing and necessary equipment has been fulfilled. The UK and US governments have been slower than others even in taking necessary action that doesn’t need equipment, such as social distancing. Despite the rhetoric, it is evident that the National Health Service was not prepared to deal with the Coronavirus. More than three months after its flaring up in China, equipment supply is still patchy. Mass testing, which elsewhere (China, South Korea, Germany and Italy) has helped isolate victims and slow the spread of the disease, has barely started in the UK.

It comes down to the state’s being prepared for foreseeable events so as to protect citizens. In La Peste, the hero, Dr. Rieux, says: “This whole thing is not about heroism. … It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” Another character asks what decency is. “Doing my job,” the doctor replies.  After the exile lasts for months, the residents of Oran learn that theirs is collective suffering and decide to fight it together.

Camus insists on the need for vigilance by all actors in the narrative of life. Dr. Rieux

knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory: it could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror.

The plague, he continues, never dies.  “It waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers for the day when it will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

Coronavirus Diary

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Teignmouth

Thursday 26 March 

I’ve stayed at home alone for the last two days. Self-isolating is the new expectation, and I’ve had plenty of writing to do.   Each day, I’ve spoken to two or three friends by phone or video link. 

Yesterday, the speaker on Thought for the Day (on the Radio 4 Today programme) compared the government’s call for social distancing and self isolation to God’s call to Mary to be the mother of Jesus.  Both of these, the speaker said, was a big ask. 

Judging by the change in the town over the last two days, people are responding to the call.  There was a short queue outside the Co-Op supermarket, three people standing two metres apart from each other, and we were allowed in only one at a time. Nearly every shop is closed and there are so few people on the street.  The woman serving in the bakers’ was wearing a mask, and she had blocked the door with a table so that I had to stand on the threshold at a proper distance. 

I’m sitting on the Den, a large area of grassland near the beach.   Almost no-one is in sight.  There is no noise of traffic.   Two women have just come and sat on a bench near me, sitting in the correct distance apart. The sky is wonderfully blue with very light cloud, and no jet trails.  The environment is drawing a deep breath of relaxation.                           

 

“When will you come back?” – training teachers in Zambia

Lusaka traffic jam, detergent hoarding

Nearly five decades ago, when I left university, I wanted to teach in Zambia. The prospect offered adventure in an apparently stable African country, using my interests in language and education to do some good. But other interests and adventures intervened: I got married and began my career teaching in England. This year, I fulfilled my Zambian ambition.

Despite its long name, TTCSZ (Training Teachers for Community Schools in Zambia) is a small charity, set up in England on the initiative of Lyn Hall from Huddersfield University with her friends Dr. Christine Mushibwe and her husband Shadrick.  The charity has trustees in both the UK and Zambia. The purpose of the charity, as the name suggests, is to prepare local teachers for the challenging task of teaching large classes in primary schools which are not funded by the state. I understand that “community schools” provide more than 40% of primary education in Zambia; perhaps another 50% of schools are state funded, and there is a small elite private sector. My three-week tour entailed my working in Lusaka during the Easter holidays with Lyn and local teacher trainers; we trained 26 local community school teachers in a classroom in a private Catholic school.

Divine Providence Convent School sign

Despite my career as a teacher of English in both the UK and the US, during which I wrote a doctoral study of adolescent literacy practices and became the editor of an International journal, I was apprehensive at the prospect of volunteer work in Zambia. I had never worked in Africa, I had never taught children of primary school age, and I had never trained teachers of such children. I felt almost totally unprepared.

Like the callow trainee I had been 50 years earlier, I turned to the textbooks and other materials provided. TTCSZ has a good collection of books about teaching in Africa, and Lyn has worked with previous volunteers to flesh out the Zambian statutory syllabus with detailed schemes of work. Amongst the teaching approaches recommended, I recognised Pie Corbett’s ideas on teaching writing in the primary school, along with material from the UK national literacy strategy on the teaching of early reading through phonics. My work involved not only training teachers on methods of teaching English also on the theory and practice of learning. Here the TTCSZ resources were especially strong, providing clear and interesting ideas and activities to develop trainees’ understanding of the ways in which young people learn.

My daily schedule started at 8:45 in the morning, when we shared breakfast with the trainees. The first session, from 9:30 until 12:00, concerned the teaching of English. After lunch, the second session, from 12:30 until 14:30, focused on learning theory. Then, after a short tea break, I worked with Lyn and other volunteers to instruct the trainers in ICT skills. TTCSZ provided laptops for these sessions: there were no computers in the community schools, and few of the trainees had a laptop at home, although nearly all owned a simple mobile phone. The day finished between 16:30 and 17:00, but the teachers seemed reluctant to leave, and most arrived in the morning well in advance of the scheduled start.

Zambia ICT Students

The first session on the first day started with introductions and and an overview of the two weeks’ training. The teachers learned that they would be assessed at the end of the second week by giving a short lesson to the group on a teaching topic of their choice; they had to complete a detailed plan for this, with rationale for each activity and its sequencing. This initial session lasted for about an hour, and then Lyn introduced me as the volunteer English teacher from the UK.  I read Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ to them and spoke briefly about the unity of English: that speaking, listening, reading and writing were not discrete “skills” but different facets of meaning making.

But it was not my English teaching that got me into the swing of teaching in Zambia and reassured me that I would succeed in what I had undertaken. Early in the first week, while teaching the second daily session, on learning theory, I suddenly felt inspired. I had already noticed the strong oral disposition of the trainees. Some of the initial sessions were taken by local teachers who have completed the TTCSZ training in previous years; the trainees responded to these almost as if they were in church, repeating the tutors’ more portentous statements and participating in enthusiastic performance of sound-letter correspondences, poems and songs. So, when I approached the theory of learning, including its humanistic, behaviourist, constructivist, visual, audio, and kinaesthetic facets (the last three collectively known as V.A.K), it suddenly occurred to me to summarise these in song:

Humanism … (two beats)
Behaviourism … (two beats)
Constructivism … (two beats)
V.A.K! V.A.K! V.A.K !

Very simple, but it provided an aide-memoire to the class, who enjoyed repeating it. I forgot about this ‘song’ in succeeding sessions, but was gratified to find the trainees repeating it as part of a tribute on their last day.

The reason for the teachers’ strong oral disposition became clear to me as the week went on. As I suggested above, it was evident that practices of church attendance influenced their teaching styles. I was aware that some of the trainees were also church ministers; indeed, one drew out in conversation the verbal similarity between “preacher” and ”teacher”. These would have gained an income from the church that would offset the little or no payment they received from their school. I was struck also by the enthusiasm with which the trainees from earlier years (who were working as tutors alongside us) had adopted the UK national literacy strategy recommendations that pupils should use sound and gesture to reinforce their learning of letter-sound correspondences. They would exclaim <a> as in <ant>, running their fingers up and down their arms to simulate a pincer movement of ants; or wave their arm in the shape of an <s>, while making the hissing sound of a snake. But this came from more than a liking of performance. I realised, after speaking to teachers during the first few days, that their schools had few if any books. To motivate and involve the students, sometimes in book-less classes of 50 or more, oral and gestural rituals were invaluable.

Teacher holding books

I slowly came to realise that the teachers’ enthusiasm for the work, and their obvious liking of their visiting tutors from England, derived from our offering them a vision of a world where books and facilities were plentiful and teaching approaches correspondingly sophisticated. Every day, we took into the classroom several large boxes of picture books and other resources; they were delighted to receive sacks of books and learning resources prepared by Education students at Huddersfield. We involved them in group discussion, making presentations and other activities that are, let us hope, still common in English primary schools despite the attempts of government to reintroduce a Victorian regime of drills and skills. One headteacher in particular, who I learned later ran possibly the most deprived school in Lusaka, with neither electricity nor water, was passionately committed to her pupils and hungry to learn progressive ways of working.

Jack with book bag

This realisation, towards the end of my first week, gave me the spur and knowledge I needed to complete my work in a way I knew would be valuable. I would indeed be able to teach English as a unified subject, and encourage the teachers to be proactive in their extraordinary difficult situations. If the schools lacked books, we would make them. The teachers would engage in meaningful writing and produce resources for their pupils and themselves. We would draw on both personal experience and cultural tradition, and the intersections between these. English lessons became occasions when the teachers told each other and then the whole class significant moments from their lives, and then wrote them in whatever narrative or poetic forms they chose. They also used me and each other as their audience for traditional stories that often featured mythological human/animal characters.

young man writing

class focused on writing

By the beginning of the second week, we were nearly ready to make books. At Lyn’s suggestion, we bought several roles of plain anaglypta and cut them to make multiple-paged “big books”. The two and a half hour session when the teachers worked on these had an atmosphere of collaborative concentration that any hard-pressed UK teacher would die for. Because we had spent several hours in preparation before the teachers finally wrote up their stories, many of the books were very well-designed, interweaving text and image appropriately. However, most of the stories were very unlike stories written for children in the west. Poverty, illness and death (sometimes associated with HIV) were not unusual themes; in some stories, but by no means all, God or a sprit was invoked as a support. It was clear that, in Zambia, stories do not necessarily end happily.

Zilole title page

I photocopied every story and hope to publish some of them to raise money for the community schools. The teachers gave me and Lyn a wonderful send-off, with singing, dancing and presents: I have never felt so appreciated as a teacher. They asked us: “When will you come back?” – and I hope to return next year. Given the degree of poverty amongst these schools and these people, it is very encouraging, especially in these times in the west, to see the spirit of hope and productiveness that sustains teachers and pupils in conditions that we would find less than intolerable. But it is also an indictment of the state of the world that these appalling disparities are allowed to continue.

Trees at Belsey Bridge

The lime

is old and tall; fresh branches

protect its base with leaves.

The alder

has multiples of branches,

A spray of witch’s hair.

Leonardo’s arboreal Glad Day.

The swing

and goalposts in the playground

are sawn cylinders.

The fir is covered

with dangling clumps

Of serrated leaves,

but its trunk

Is densely wound and bound

with leaved ivy.

Other firs

are naked to their head.

Tall chimneys lift the house behind.

Where does the short avenue

of four tall trees

lead?

Us

 

Jordan Peele’s Us opens for the Easter holidays on numerous screens, as suits a film that is at the same time a genre horror with nods to Don Siegel, Steven King and Wes Craven and a powerful metaphor of the age of Trump and Brexit.  In 1986, young Adelaide King (Lupita Nyong’o) watches a TV commercial for the charity event ‘Hands Across America’, which enlisted 6.5 million people to form a coast-to-coast human chain to oppose poverty.  She visits a boardwalk funfair with her parents and is traumatised by meeting a mirror-image self in a deserted fun house.  Returning thirty years later to the area with her husband Gabe and children Zora and Jason, she and her family are attacked in their guesthouse by four uncanny doppelgängers in red jumpsuits, armed with giant scissors. These are ‘the Tethered’, an underclass condemned, like the Morlocks in H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine (filmed in 1960 by George Pal), to live underground deprived of the life chances of their surface-world contemporaries. These, however, are not so much ‘other’ as the same.  During a night of threat and violent conflict, a terrified Adelaide asks her alter-ego Red who the Tethered are. Red answers, ‘We’re Americans.’ And, in a poignant twist, it is finally revealed that Adelaide is in fact Red, who took her place that night in the funhouse. As the family drive away, the Tethered spread across the country in an an echo of ‘Hands Across America’.

The film has moments of unexpected humour.  During the fight, someone screams at Ophelia, an artificial intelligence like Apple’s Alexa, to call the police: she responds by playing the track  ‘Fuck the Police’.  In a brief break from conflict, Gabe references Home Alone; the children have never heard of the film, and Adelaide tells her husband that conveniently placed electronic toys won’t stop the doppelgängers.  More portentous is a resonant reference to Jeremiah 11:11 (‘I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them’).  As no-one has hearkened to them, the Tethered have risen against structural deprivation.

On the will of the people; or, the right to change one’s mind

IMG_0672 A banner above a crowd of two million at the People’s Vote demonstration in Westminster on Saturday 23 March 2019

This post is written mainly for friends abroad who ask what is happening to the UK, but the idea of “the will of the people” affects us all.

Theresa May, Prime Minister (for the moment) of the UK, has repeatedly claimed that Britain is leaving the European Union (the process known as Brexit) because this is the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum, which she is pledged to deliver.

The phrase “the will of the people” has accrued complex meaning. To some, it represents a promise which, if broken, will destroy democracy in the UK. The government promised to implement the decision of the majority in the referendum, and people will lose all faith in the political process if this doesn’t happen.

This view disregards the fact that, legally, the referendum was advisory.  It required Parliamentary ratification. Ironically, one of the demands of those who campaigned to leave was to restore parliamentary sovereignty (which they claimed had been lost through membership of the EU).  Parliament should have reflected on the result of the referendum.  Even at the time, there were several cogent reasons to doubt the wisdom of the majority in this case.

One reason was that it was such a small majority of voters, and a distinct minority of the electorate. 17,410,742 people (51.89%) voted to leave. 16,141,241(48.11%) voted to remain. The turnout was 72.21%. Thus the majority comprised just 34.73% of the electorate. In matters of governance, the size of a majority matters. Democracy requires the consent of the governed, and, if a sizeable number disagree with a policy that affects everybody, there will be trouble.

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Another reason that was apparent from the start was that people had to decide on the basis of incomplete and, in some cases, misleading information. The best-known example of the latter was the claim that the National Health Service could benefit by £350 million a week if money that was currently sent to Brussels was retained by the United Kingdom.

brexit-bus

It became evident early on that many people were deciding not on the basis of a rational analysis of the economic and social benefits and detriments of leaving Europe but on the basis of inchoate feeling. This feeling was, and remains, the most difficult aspect of Brexit.  The impulse to leave is fuelled by a feeling that life in Britain used to better for the British.   It is a UK version of Donald Trump’s populist call “Make America great again” (including its racist connotations, as in the examples below: the Leave campaign emphasised the issue of immigration).  It is fuelled by the social and economic deprivation and inequality contingent on the housing, employment and education policies of recent decades.

The referendum wasn’t prompted by any democratic impulse to meet and resolve such difficulties. David Cameron, Prime Minister in 2015, wanted to assuage the resentment of the right wing of the Conservative party that had for decades sought separation from Europe.  The rise of UKIP (the small but extremely right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party) threatened him with the potential loss of votes, party members, and the loyalty of his parliamentary colleagues. As some of the placards at the recent Westminster demonstration stated, the result has been an Eton mess.

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And so a process that was prompted by a party political strategy has ignited a cauldron of conflicting ideologies and potential violence. In all this, the phrase “the will of the people” has been repeated ad nauseam to justify the implementation of Brexit, whatever the cost. As I write, I hear on the radio that plans are being made to use part of the M20 motorway as a holding area for the hundreds or thousands of goods vehicles that will be delayed if the border controls are re-established. And it is evident that no coherent plans exist to ensure the continuation of food and medical supply chains and the just-in-time transportation of vehicle and electronic parts to and fro Europe in the process of manufacture.

At this eleventh hour, we need to change our minds, and reconsider what we mean by ‘the will of the people’. The first thing to be said is that the phrase has a dishonourable place in the history of fascism. Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda film of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg is titled Triumph of the Will.  The “will”, here, is the power of a mass movement. The associations of “the will of the people” with Nazism resurfaced in November 2016, when the Daily Mail published a headline and associated article about the three judges who had ruled that the UK Government would require the consent of Parliament to give notice of Brexit.  The headline and story chillingly echoed those published in a German newspaper of 1933.germany1933people-judges-jpg_large

Here, the “the people” are represented as an oppressed multitude whose authentic “will” is denied by established power.  Again, Trump draws on the same structure of feeling in his campaign rhetoric, inciting the audience against those who, he implies, are not on their side.

In a parliamentary democracy, the will of the people can be expressed in broadly two ways: directly, by such means as a referendum or petition; or indirectly, via Parliament, which is elected by the people. Today (Tuesday 26 March) it appears that Parliament will take hold of the Brexit process.   There is a faint hope that it will enact the delegated will of the people by considering all the circumstances and making a wise decision. And there is the possibility of a second referendum. Thirdly, and most intriguingly, a recent petition (on a government website) to revoke Article 50 (which gave notice of the UK’s leaving) and stay in the European Union is gathering signatures at an exponential rate. This may yet prove a game changer. As my daughter said: “Who needs a referendum when you’ve got the internet?”

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The will of the people – or of many people (police estimated  2 million) — was strikingly expressed in a People’s Vote rally in and around Parliament Square on Saturday, 23 March. I went with my daughter, who climbed on a traffic light to escape the swirl of the crowd and take photographs.

People filled every inch of space. The photos cover a 200 metre crawl from Trafalgar Square to near Parliament Square, where we gave up and turned round to move equally slowly towards Embankment underground station. Here announcers threatened closure because of the crush. The atmosphere was both good-humoured and deadly serious. The will of the people is evident in the pictures.

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For a structural analysis of the issues and a view on the unrest that is likely to follow Brexit, see this: https://www.quora.com/Will-there-be-riots-if-Brexit-does-not-happen/answer/Richard-Lyon-41?ch=10&share=fdbcb7e5&srid=u41Ur