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?

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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

Doing a Turing test

Turing-HarrisonFord

Recently I initiated an online chat with Apple support because I had a problem with my iPhone. The agent, Jayson, told me to turn the device off and on, but this didn’t fix the issue. Jayson then suggested I have the phone serviced by Apple, and arranged an appointment with the ‘technicians and geniuses’ in a local store. I thanked him and this exchange ensued:

Jayson
You’re most welcome! Thank you for your kindness, understanding & patience. Much appreciated John! Was I able to help you today?

Jayson
By the way ~ May you have a prosperous 2019!

John
Thanks for your help.  Bye now.

Jayson
I really appreciate you John, Don’t forget to eat your breakfast, lunch & dinner okay,? Its been my pleasure assisting you today, again my name is Jayson. Have a great day and take care always~

Jayson
All is well! You deserve the best in life and Cheers for a great 2019!

TuringTestRunning a very elementary Turing test on this dialogue reveals that Jayson is an artificial rather than human intelligence.  He (it) says things that no adult human agent would say in this situation. Yet Jayson’s mistakes are almost human, like those of a toddler learning to use language. He writes his own name phonically rather than conventionally. He can’t deal with my question – beyond the standard remedy of turning the device off and on – and so passes me on to the adult Apple technicians and geniuses. Unlike a traditional machine, he expresses affection and care: he wishes me a prosperous 2019 (in March) and reminds me to eat regularly, as his parents might have told him. No human programmer would make these mistakes; Jayson’s algorithm needs the capacity to adjust its warm, supportive language according to the season and the relationship.

Within a few years, it will become much more difficult to know whether one is ‘chatting’ to a human or machine agent (although we shall probably assume the latter). And this of course raises the question of the nature of knowledge: given appropriate technology, could a machine learn so adequately that the distinction between human learning – a activity of the embodied mind – and machine learning is elided? In Bladerunner 2049, there is no evident difference between the humans and the replicants. In Cultural Literacy (1988), E D Hirsch states that researchers in artificial intelligence have concluded that knowledge is the key component of all cognitive skills: ‘Once the relevant knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows’. Machine learning, according to this view, is not a mere simulacrum of human learning, but its paradigm.

This view clearly has very profound implications for educational policy, and aligns with current influential views on the teaching of language.

To be continued …

Flares of memory

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My grandmother to the left of me,  my brother and father, in 1955

I remember as a boy visiting my widowed grandmother, who lived nearby.  Sometimes she emerged from the smoke of a bonfire at the end of the garden. As a young woman, around 1905, she worked in a photographer’s shop in Ealing.

The bonfire this afternoon was higher than my waist.  I needed my raincoat, hat and boots in this chilly autumn weather.   I dropped the matches as I tried to bend into the centre of the laid branches.  I thought I might fall as I held onto the upper branches of the bonfire, scrabbling in the darkness.  Should I be doing this kind of thing at my age?

I follow Fred into the dark room, as he calls it.  I haven’t told my mother about my new work in the photographer’s shop.  Fred is only a few years older than me.  My father certainly wouldn’t approve of his daughter working alone with a man in the darkness.  My eyes slowly grow accustomed to the red glow of the safety light. I can see the outline of Fred on the other side of the table, pouring chemicals into a metal developing tray. I’m scared, but excited.  Should I be here?

Having located the matches, I reached down and struck the sandpaper edge of the box. Sodden with paraffin, the rolled pieces of newspaper soared orange, leaping into the dry stacked wood and beyond the green branches.  It reminded me of the magnesium flares we used in night photography – fifty years ago now, before my marriage, India, George’s death and the return to England.

Fred lays the photographic paper in the dark developing tray. In the dim red light, milky white patches appear.

I stood back. Already the fire was crackling and thick grey smoke was streaming upwards from the leaves and branches.  The heart of the fire was ravenous, all consuming, transforming green shoots to black char. Small pieces of burning paper arose and descended.

Fred picks up the paper and moves it into the fixing solution in the adjacent tray. I can see figures, on a beach perhaps, the sky in the negative image darker than the sea.  Will I be able to do this work, produce pictures out of pungent chemicals in a blackened room lit only by a safety light?

The fire was dying along with the sun as I gathered my tools and walked through the garden towards the glow of the living room.  Another day of my later life.

 

 

 

Anthropomorphic crabbing 2

I say: Shouldn’t we put the crabs back in the water? There are so many crammed together in the bucket.

Syd says: Don’t worry!

Bibi says: Crabs live together.

So we give them some bacon.

And let them out to ‘race’ to the quay edge …

One fell on its back on a ledge

But we got a stick

And knocked it into the water.

The meaning of the Passion is not just religious

Dali-Christ

On Good Friday, I was very moved by a fine performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the chapel of New College, Oxford.  This was not specifically because of the religious significance of the words and music.  I don’t believe in the Bible story as a literal account of events, but I do think that the story of Christ’s passion has the resonance of great literature because it is so much about everyday human life, today as twenty centuries ago. The word passion, of course, refers to suffering as something that both has to be endured and is fully felt in the body.  Christ’s suffering is evident, but many people endure great physical and emotional pain in their everyday lives that is hidden and private.  The passion of Jesus Christ, whether read in the pages of the New Testament or heard in the Bach oratorio, channels the feelings of many.

Is a story of betrayal – several betrayals – and of heroism; a story of the use and misuse of political power, of “false facts”, and the compromises required by circumstance.  Judas, one of Christ’s disciples, betrays him for ”thirty pieces of silver” to a detachment of troops and officers from the Jewish Chief Priests and Pharisees, who are jealous of Christ’s influence with the people.  Simon Peter, another disciple, enraged, attacks the High Priest’s servant; but he later denies three times his association with Jesus.  When the High Priest asks Jesus about his disciples and his doctrine, Jesus replies:

I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing … Ask those who heard me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.

One of the officers interprets Christ’s testament of openness and honesty as insolence, and strikes him with the palm of his hand: “Do you answer the High Priest like that?” They take Jesus to the Praetorium, where Pilate, the Roman governor, has ultimate legal power.  Pilate asks to know of what Jesus is accused, but is diverted by an answer that asserts authority without evidence: “If he were not an evildoer we would not have delivered him up to you.”  Pilate has the ambivalence of a sensitive colonial authority.  He finds no fault in Jesus, but doesn’t want to contravene the law and customs of a subject people.  Having interviewed Jesus again, he asserts strongly: “I find no fault in him at all,” and attempts to resolve the situation by following the custom that one prisoner should be released at the Jewish celebration of the Passover.  But the crowd cry for the release not of Jesus but of Barabbas, a robber.

I find it impossible to read or hear this story without being reminded of the everyday betrayals, small or large, that we commit and experience; of the recent spread of “fake news”, with its emphasis on the “fact” rather than the evidence; of attempts to avoid offence and displeasure that merely worsen a situation.  Pilate asks, in response to the Pharisees’ insistence that Jesus be crucified: ”Shall I crucify your King?”  With acute mendacity, they reply: “We have no king but Caesar!”  During the performance in Oxford, the near-shouting repetition of the chorus (representing the crowd) that they preferred Barabbas to Jesus was to me a sickening recollection of the populist preference of Trump over the previous president.

Pilate attempts to redress the situation by insisting, against the wishes of the Chief Priests, that the the crucified Jesus be labelled “The King of the Jews”.  He replies with dignity to their protests: “What I have written, I have written.”  But the fact remains that crucifixion was the supreme Roman punishment, used to humiliate and degrade as well as to execute.  The soldiers at the Cross think it normal to strip the body of clothing.  This, as Katie Edwards and David Tombs have recently pointed out, was done to humiliate the captive and expose him to mockery; it is sexual violence or abuse.  In this respect, too, the meaning of The Passion is not confined to the history of religion.