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Tuesday, 27 July 2021

A Day Trip to Boulogne 1958


I was born and grew up in that part of north west Kent now disappeared into south east London, most obviously as London’s Thamesmead which overlays what were once separately named marshes along the south banks of the Thames. On old maps they are blank spaces overwritten with Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes; I guess that the new development was not designated Thamesmarsh because suburban planners prefer to evoke the quaint.

The people most familiar with the old marshes were the large population of gypsies who, once the Kentish fruit and hop picking seasons were over, settled there for the winter and turned to hawking and scrap collecting to tide them over until spring. Rag ‘n’ Bone! Rag ‘n’ Bone! cried the man atop the cart pulled by some skin and bone old nag. It was a way of life largely destroyed by the great North Sea flood of January 1953 which swept away the gypsy homes and forced most into modern housing.

The gypsies had a champion in a local Labour MP, Norman Dodds, whose autograph I collected at a fete to celebrate the Coronation of Elizabeth the Second in the summer of 1953. Earlier in the year, the new Queen had visited evacuees in Erith, the borough’s streets crowded with people hoping to catch a glimpse; I was one of the hopefuls. The centre of Erith, with its modest set of jetties and wharves, abutted the river and separated the western marshes from the eastern Dartford Marshes, also blank on maps except for the isolation hospital at Long Reach, built directly onto the riverside and thus enabled to receive smallpox patients brought down by barge from London. The hospital was spoken of in my childhood as if some haunted house not to be approached.

Dartford itself was my birthplace and until the age of eighteen I lived there and in neighbouring Crayford, Slade Green, and Lower Belvedere. The last had a fine view across the river towards the Ford of Dagenham, at the time the largest neon sign in Europe. The river was busy with ships destined for London’s docklands, but small ports downriver still handled cargo. Ford had its own deep water dock and a short railway to handle the coal for its power station and steel for its foundry which arrived by ship. Its neon sign faced directly onto the river. But despite the Clean Air Act of 1956, thick fogs on the Thames were still common, the booming of foghorns background noise in the everyday life of those who lived along its equally shrouded banks, the giant neon light often no more than a blur.

London was easily accessible by train for a day trip, though the journey was not particularly pleasant. Trains were worn out, and the great metropolitan terminus of Charing Cross had lost whatever past glamour it may have possessed. Travel in the opposite direction was reserved for summer holidays. If you lived in the arc of north west Kent, then the holiday destination of choice (if choice there was) would be one of the resorts scattered along the east Kent coast, starting at Herne Bay and proceeding clockwise through Margate, Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Folkestone, and even down to Dymchurch with its caravan sites.

In the summer of 1958 - I was eleven in the July - I was taken on holiday to Folkestone, staying in a sea-front boarding house, un-named in my memory though I recall it as coming complete with meals taken in the front sitting-room. I passed the first week with my mother and the second with my father - they took turns because there was a pram and toy shop in Dartford to be kept open; today’s version of the premises opens for much longer hours as a kebab.

On his own, my father was free to be more adventurous and came up with a scheme which would have horrified my mother: we were Going to France, which would be an entirely new experience for both of us. He had discovered that on offer from Folkestone were Day Trips to Boulogne, the voyage to be effected aboard the MV Royal Daffodil built in 1938, knocked about a bit on Channel crossings during the war, and now returned to its original purpose of providing outings for English holidaymakers. The boat has long since gone to meet its maker but, of course, it Googles.

Also of course, neither of us had passports. That did not matter: you did not need one. Your day trip ticket came with a one-day disposable “passport” which was not even a proper identity card since it did not bear a photograph; you simply filled in the flimsy bit of card which came with your ticket. This scheme had been introduced in 1955 in the interests - modest as they may now seem - of the East Kent and Nord pas de Calais transregional economy, though transregional economy was not a term then in use.

My father sent his wife the obligatory postcard: black and white, view over the beach and out to sea, not quite a panorama. He records that we are outside a café, that I am eating a huge Ham Roll (long) with coffee - presumably not the Camp coffee which we had at home - and that he has a pocket full of Francs which will pay for the meal billed at an astonishing 570 of them. The stamp on the postcard claimed from his pocket another eighteen.

I had Francs in my pocket too and spent them on a toy car which was different to those we had in the shop back home: it had plastic windows and doors which opened, very advanced features I can assure you. I was wearing a raincoat, rain being a permanent possibility on English seaside holidays, and disembarked at Folkestone, hand in pocket, clasping tight the car, not declaring it to the officers of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, sternly present to greet us. I was excited to be carrying contraband. But the booze cruise and tobacco cruise had yet to be invented and I have no recollection of my father carrying anything or other passengers struggling with overloaded bags. A Day Trip to France was a bit of an adventure, that’s all, and did not require even a word of the language.

We had been to France and I had discovered that, if you lived in Kent, you had a Near Abroad where they do things differently. It had been the Near Abroad for generations of English people and - belatedly it’s true - became even nearer with the advent of the Hovercraft and, much more importantly, the Channel Tunnel. But for an eleven year old boy from a modest background, a 1958 Day Trip to Boulogne provided the introduction to a wider world.


For a less pastoral account of childhood, see my memoir I Have Done This in Secret (2018) available in illustrated hardback from Amazon or at a discount from Blackwell's:


Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Ceci n'est pas un Headline


Young woman brutally beaten by thugs while defending friend from heinous homophobic abuse



This headline from Pink News of 21 July 2021 puzzles me. Is the paper worried that readers may not end up on message if they aren’t supplied with the brutally and the heinous? Well, that was a concern they had in the old Soviet Union where readers had to be guided, rather clumsily, to the right response. And it was indeed true, you could not entirely rely on Soviet citizens to be on message, especially as the message did change fairly frequently. But I doubt that is really a problem for Pink News. Very few people are in favour of women being beaten by thugs (though they may have  no specific issue about young women); nor are they sympathetic to those who shout homophobic abuse, even if it's because their objection is a general one about shouting abuse rather than specific to homophobic abuse.  So I wonder what is the function of the brutally and the heinous? Perhaps they are just the nervous tics of an insecure intern? 

Soviet-style control anxiety also shows itself in British celebrity gossip magazines which never, but never, print a photograph of Prince George; they only ever print an adorablephotograph (it’s one word, really). All royal babies are by definition adorable though that does not prevent the fact being spelt out. But, perhaps unfortunately, it does not serve to distinguish babies from dogs which - at least when owned by celebrities - are also adorable.

But what then is the function of adorable? I suppose it conveys a sense of the writer as someone who is permanently elated and effusive, rather like a party host who reckons that tonight is a wonderful occasion and everyone looks wonderful and isn’t it wonderful that you were able to come. The cleverness of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight is that it manages to reclaim a trite (over-used and unthinkingly-used) expression and make it meaningful again. But I don’t expect any celebrity magazine anytime soon to pull off the same trick with adorable. The word is totally fucked.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

That Diana Statue

The following letter was published in The Financial Times on 18 June 2021, uncut from the version I sent them:

Statues which reproduce the bodies of dead individuals in metal or stone are a bad idea, full stop. This ghastly genre has never produced anything of artistic merit or aesthetic value, which is a main reason why - to be honest - only dogs and pigeons take an interest. Neither the “wokes” nor the academics who feel under threat from government policy, as they appear in “The Battle over Britain’s history”, (FT Weekend, June 12), challenge the genre; they seem to think that introducing more “diversity” into this bizarre world of effigies and mummies would solve the problem. It won’t, not least because heroes are never saints and reputations wear out faster than stone or metal. So: No More Statues! Our public spaces are cluttered with too many of the damned things already and the more that can be got rid of the better. And just to avoid a mis-reading of my argument: Collective memorials, like the Cenotaph, are entirely different in character which is why they are more readily appreciated both as prompts to remembrance and as works of art.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

London, Statues, and Sadiq Khan: a contribution to debate

What follows is the complete text of one chapter in my book Between Remembering and Forgetting published in 2020 and easily available on Amazon and at  Buy the book and you will find a photograph of Coles's Truss Manufactory included ....


                                                                              Let Us Forget


We are afraid of forgetting. From school days on, we are chastised for it and as we sense ourselves ageing become terrified of any forgetfulness as if it can only be a premonition of much worse to come. At school, we got gold stars for remembering and now in our diaries dutifully note birthdays and wedding anniversaries shameful to forget. The diaries themselves are usually printed with reminders of dates we are expected to remember – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day (such is modern romance). 

The United Nations encourages us to remember a quite different list, to be found at and currently extending to one hundred and fifty six days, beginning with the International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Holocaust on 27th January and ending on 20th December with International Human Solidarity Day. The month-long breathing space before it all starts up again is partly owing to the congestion created by the different parties of organised Christianity who remember Saviours born on different Christmas Days. Partly also to the fireworks and inebriation obligatory at New Year. Some of the UN days have a tragic connecting logic: World Tourism Day on 27th September is followed on the 28th by World Rabies Day. Other juxtapositions suggest something else: World Philosophy Day on 15th November is shortly followed on the 19th by World Toilet Day, a delight for fans of Rabelais and Mikhail Bakhtin.


Our obsession with not forgetting anyone or anything is exhausting. We are trying to remember too much and we don’t know how to prioritise, as the time managers might put it. As a result, not only do we have over-stuffed diaries but - to take something I want to discuss - over-stuffed city streets cluttered with bronze and stone effigies, monuments in perpetuity to personages who were erected in order not to be forgotten.


Many tourists visiting London will already know that it is Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But other characters are memorialised there, asking for whose names would put an end to anyone’s aspirations to become a TV quiz millionaire. Nobody knows, nobody cares, but if I have driven you to your smart phone you will discover that they include George IV (who contends for the title of England’s most dissolute king), General Sir Charles Napier (“the best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing”) and Major General Sir Henry Havelock (Memoirs of the Afghan Campaign). You don’t even have to make it up.


At the edge of the square, a backdrop to King Charles the First on the inevitable horse was once provided by large bold letters arranged downwards through three storeys and drawing attention to Coles’s Truss Manufactory. They have long since been removed, despite the apostrophe being correctly placed1. But take down those other monuments to past glories because we now no longer have any use or have simply forgotten?  Oh no. They are history, they are heritage. True, no one is corrupt enough to claim that the monuments have artistic merit. No one even tries that on. I defy you to find an aesthetically pleasing, artistically significant monument to a dead king or general bigged up on a plinth or a horse or doubly on both. You might, I suppose, try the Bronze Horseman – the equestrian monument to Peter the Great in St Petersburg. But then look again and you’ll see that it’s the nameless horse which is the success story, not the toy rider. One day they will erect Vladimir Putin and sit him on a motorbike; there will be much knowledgeable discussion of the bike.


I realise that there are people now who want to bring more balance, more diversity to our city streets and squares, people who want to big up a different kind of person. It’s been done recently in London, where in Parliament Square the bronze effigy of a suffragette now stands among the dead men: Millicent Fawcett holding a tea towel to advertise the firm of Gillian Wearing. It’s dire, and necessarily so. If imagination does not extend beyond bigging up in the traditional mould - bronze or marble, on a plinth, upright bearing, best foot forward, chin up, strong gaze towards heaven - then you reduce the challenge and energy of your revolutionaries, your radicals and feminists, to fit the smugness of your generals, your slavers and those famous only for their accident of birth. Get rid of them all. Have the courage of your own forgetting. But also have the courage to remember in different ways – how is it that we have limited them so disastrously?


Memory starts out as personal memory. He was killed in the war, and she remembers him and will remember him until she dies when all will be forgotten. In peacetime, if he had died in a car accident, then neighbours and friends would rally round. In wartime, it is quite different. Everyone has their loss, their losses. Likewise, in a mining disaster when many die it is a community which is affected as well as families and individuals.  So instead of those who have not suffered rallying round those who have, we have shared suffering, shared grief. In that context, it is not surprising that people should look towards shared remembering.


Grief fades with time, and so too does memory. If we are afraid of that, or guilty about it, then one function of a shared ritual of remembrance is to keep the memory alive, perhaps even revive the grief. In some ways it seems a bit perverse; in other respects, we might argue that nothing is ever truly forgotten, no grief ever truly exhausted and so it is better to return, from time to time, to the scene of the crime committed against our hopes and happiness. Or at the very least to show some respect, especially to the memory of those who died that others might live.


In New South Wales, the Mount Kembla mining disaster of 1902 killed ninety six miners leaving thirty three widows and one hundred and twenty fatherless children in the adjacent mining village. We can be sure that none of those children are still alive, but an annual commemoration of the disaster still takes place on the 31st July and the memorial erected still stands. Why? Well, probably some children of the fatherless children are still alive and their lives were no doubt marked in some way, probably a very significant way, by an event which preceded their birth. The disaster is part of their history, even part of the history of one or two further generations.


The last Holocaust survivor will die in the near future, but the Holocaust will take much longer to die in the lives of its children, grand-children, great-grand-children. Eventually, however, it will become one of those things which took place a long time ago and in another country, rather like the Conquest of the Incas which is not now marked by solemn occasions anywhere, though its horrors have been amply documented, and for centuries, in historical works.


But it is not just for short-term memory purposes that people want the monuments, the commemorations, the days of remembrance; they want them to remind us of something, to teach us a lesson. We learn early on that life is about being taught lessons. Mount Kembla reminds us of the negligence of mine owners, one of the most enduring negligences, still delivering its deaths on every continent. So the point of the commemoration, one might say, is directed beyond and outside the circle of those who were most immediately and intimately affected. That, of course, means that there is the possibility of a tension arising between the needs of those directly in line of the hit and the motives of activists and ideologues. It is a commonplace that suffering is hi-jacked, agitators heading to the scene, the current disaster cut and pasted onto the standard issue placard. The Holocaust is well on the way to suffering a similar fate, not so much remembered and grieved over as used to coerce.


Such mismatches between suffering and how it is made use of are most obvious in the ways in which nation states officially recognise the war deaths of those they have sent to fight and, sometimes also, the civilians who were victims of the enemy. In the old Soviet Union, the party line dictated that the twenty million casualties in World War Two could only be memorialised by huge and brutal installations which suggested the crushing might of Russia and the iron will of its fighters. But those memorials - lacking any elements of simplicity, intimacy and privacy - must surely have left those still grieving with feelings of awkwardness and confusion. It could have been done differently.


One day during a 1998 holiday, I walked around the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan. My attention was caught by a very large painting (196 x 250 cm) which depicts all kinds of simple but very colourful flowers stuck in jam jars, often only a few to a jar, lined up in rows as if on shelves, some pieces of fruit also scattered around. I smiled, felt warmed, but also felt that the painting expressed some sadness. I looked at the gallery description. It told me that the painting - by Martiros Saryan and dated to 1945 - was a tribute to Armenians who had fought in the Red Army, both those who survived and those many who died. I was astonished and moved. I now saw the jam jars placed on simple graves with whatever flowers were to hand, and imagined the actions and feelings of those who bent to place them there. Perhaps also, the flowers could belong in the centre of kitchen tables, set to celebrate a safe homecoming.


If that second way of seeing the painting is legitimate, then Saryan has done a very interesting thing. His painting allows for the expression of both sadness and joy. If we follow through that idea, it suggests that our habit of firmly separating celebrations from commemorations or remembrances, gaiety from solemnity, should at least sometimes be disrupted. It often is at modern funerals which try to celebrate the life of the deceased instead of mourning their passing. That has its dangers. It may work well for a professional colleague or even a friend of long-standing. It may be harder for those still punched into immediate grief and, worse, little more than denial if they seek to find laughter simply because too much embarrassed by tears.


But even with that caveat, we need to loosen up, be more imaginative about the ways in which we choose to remember as well as more willing to acknowledge and even welcome the fact that we forget. For the present at least, all new statues should be firmly off the plinth if the best we can come up with are effigies in the style of mummification originally favoured by the nasty party of humanity. Those old statues put up to forgotten bit-players of Empire should simply come down. They have had their day.


That a subscription was raised to put up a monument in perpetuity places no obligations on future generations. Let us continue to have the history books about English public school boys trained to put down Indian mutinies and Afghan defiance. But since we have forgotten their names and if, perchance, do remember but no longer admire, the statues should be cleared off the streets, out of the parks, and removed to some outdoor museum – or sent to the scrap yard since they have no artistic or aesthetic value. There would be no vandalism involved. Private graves in cemeteries are eventually bulldozed to make way for new coffins or simply to create public green spaces. No one much cares, though one might want to save for museum purposes the occasional drooping angel to illustrate how monumental masons have conceived drooping angels through the centuries. Likewise, one might reserve a few Queen Victorias and Lenins for the clinical gaze of the historians.


A private subscription or a centuries-old governmental decision cannot take away from us the right to control our own public spaces. We are the ones who have to live in them now and, if the corpses mummified in bronze or stone are forgotten or disdained, they should go. We redecorate our private living spaces, we re-furnish our rooms. There is no reason why we should not do the same with our streets and other public spaces. I know that the urge to clutter public space is very strong – municipal authorities abhor a vacuum and will never miss an opportunity to put up yet another street sign. But we should resist the temptation and if we want to install new things, then we should think more widely and look to the merits of temporary installations, of things which change through the seasons like plants and trees, of objects which are less literal and less static, like fountains -  almost everywhere a neglected genre of public art. We should be more willing to recognise that most heroes are local heroes and temporary ones too, more suitable for writing about in history books than parked on a plinth on our pavements, their only devotees pigeons and dogs. 


There is something to be said for a cityscape where all that is solid melts into air. It has been rammed into us from childhood that forgetting is a fault. We should challenge that. It’s only human to forget and we should sometimes accept our humanity. Those men on plinths had their time and now we have ours. If we are afraid of them, it is only in the Oedipal way that Don Giovanni is afraid of the ghost-statue of the Commendatore. From time to time, such fear is overcome and the statues of Stalin and Saddam Hussein are pulled down to public glee. Since we have largely forgotten them, there’s not much glee to be had in pulling down the bit players, the Napiers and the Havelocks. It’s merely a task for municipal authorities, charged to sustain public spaces which are a pleasure to share both with our friends and the ever changing cast of strangers who come and go. All might take passing delight in a less literal cityscape, furnished with fountains and avenues of trees but not with bodies in rigor mortis petrified on pedestals. For those who deserve to be remembered, there are much better ways of prompting our memory2.


1.      In Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold is horrified by the backdrop standing where it ought not which was reason enough to search for the photograph; Arnold has no qualms about Charles the First.


     2.   This essay was written before I read David Rieff’s excellent book In Praise of Forgetting (2016). Rieff takes a cue from Josef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982) and probes the idea that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering” but “justice” (p. 91) and expands this by introducing the term “peace”. It is forgetting which often enough enables peace, even without justice; in contrast the demand to remember links easily to the demand for justice, understood in terms of crimes and punishments. Rieff mobilises some significant examples of historical moments when forgetting has been accepted as a way out from conflict, yielding peace even if it does not deliver justice. He references the end of white rule in South Africa, Spain at the time of Franco’s death, Chile in 1990, the 1995 Dayton accords in Bosnia, and the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Ireland.


Tuesday, 12 January 2021

On Binary Oppositions



Either the human mind has a natural bent towards binary oppositions or else it is the instinct of the herd to seek them out, or both. Some are short lived and abandoned, others long lasting and fiercely embraced. They create problems of one kind of another, thanks to that wretched thing called “reality”.

So the doctrine of Heaven and Hell is no sooner promulgated than some wit points out that human beings - real people - are rarely, if ever, paragons of virtue or totally sunk in vice but rather a very ordinary mixture of good and bad. So how are they to be divided when the path branches up to Heaven or down to Hell? Enter the theologians, a new caste of men (and I write men deliberately) brought into being by the advent of written-down religions and only too happy to engage with any problem which would  help keep them in employment for a couple of millennia. Even today, the government of my country thinks the vexatious problem of Heaven and Hell important enough to pay decent taxpayer-funded salaries to the experts. One day, take a look online at just how many Christian theologians the universities of Oxford and Cambridge still find room for. They provide excellent board too; and at high table the toast is to the Awkward Squad which keeps them in business.

One potential solution has been around for a very long time: Purgatory is the place where the problem of shades of grey is dealt with before a Final Solution is arrived at. But to the original objector, this is not so much solution as the ever-popular alternative of kicking the can down the road.

The Final Solution usually identified by those words was a rather shorter lived binary - twenty five years, max? - created by Germany’s National Socialists who having divided the world into Aryans and Jews faced a similar problem: some Aryans weren’t quite Aryan (maybe they had a bit of Slav about them) and some Jews were a bit Aryan, like those who had won the Iron Cross in World War One or who had one Aryan parent. The problem clearly needed to be turned over to the experts, in this case biologians and such like who might be able to give decisive answers - by which I mean answers which could be converted into useable bureaucratic forms. Hopefully, the experts could spin a convincing yarn to explain what quantum of Aryan blood in a person was needed to successfully dominate Jewish (or Slavic, though it never quite came to that) blood, and did it matter if it was in the male line or the female line, and so on. Nowadays, people with such scientific tastes have to look elsewhere for employment; maybe in the booming industry of conspiracy theories.

Running the Nazis a close second during more or less the same period were the Communists who had their own rival binary which divided the world into Capitalists and Workers, Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. Unfortunately, this was another case where Two Sizes Fits All clearly did not work, though perhaps it could be made to work. Stalin thought so: you just had to kill a lot of people. He reached that conclusion before Hitler reached his. This was another case where a cadre of experts was brought into being (or elbowed their way forward), the Marxist theoreticians tasked with the Problem of the peasantry and the Problem of the petty bourgeoisie, to name but the two principal ones. The theoreticians flourished in Russia and Germany and later France where the French government funded university departments of philosophy and sociology where these tough problems were traditionally chewed over amidst the smoke of state-owned and life expectancy-reducing Gauloises. I did recently try to re-read some of the solutions they came up with; if you have studied theology, or have a taste for it, you will enjoy these books which move concepts and scholastic distinctions around as if on some chessboard, everything agreeably fact-free. Try Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism (1975) [1].

Stalin had to fight an uphill struggle, largely because in 1921-22 Lenin U-turned and pushed through a New Economic Policy to replace the disaster of War Communism. Between1921 and 1928 the NEP brought economic recovery to the new Soviet Union - but at a price. Stalin didn’t like what he saw. Capitalism was making a re-entry through trade if not through industry (which remained in state hands); a class of petty bourgeois self-employed artisans and traders, the NEP-men, emerged who were not only not proletarians but also had the wrong ideas, whose “subjective” consciousness was not and could not be that of a Good Communist. Stalin, with the benefit of theological training, decided to apply the original Marxist binary, Proletarian or Bourgeois, without fudge and do what no one else had ever really dared: criminalise all self-employment and turn all those traders and craft workers into state employees, dependent on the state for their wages, their housing, and their ration coupons. Either you complied or you became a black marketeer - as former NEP-men often did, the ration coupons leaving much to be desired[2].  

In all three cases sketched above, intellectual labour is deployed in the service of practically-oriented politics. The priests sought hegemony over their flocks in the form of compliant behaviour and financial offerings; Heaven and Hell were the carrot and stick. Hitler wanted a Judenfrei world for reasons which may be a bit more obscure. Stalin wanted to run the whole panoptical show and turning everyone into a state employee, a prisoner, or a dead body pretty much achieved that goal. The white-collar theologians, biologians, Marxians have - for the most part - been compliant ancillary help to all such endeavours.

It is easy to add to the list of such binaries …. but don’t get me started. We all wish for certainties and easy allegiances when, really, they are only to be found in mathematics. When we do our sums, at least there a simple binary really does apply. Either we get them right or we get them wrong. We have culture wars because people missed their vocation as accountants.






[1] And for an alternative approach from the same period, I recommend The Petite Bourgeoisie, edited by Frank Bechhofer and Brian Elliott (1981) and especially the chapter “Artisanal Bakery in France …” by Daniel Bertaux and Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame.

[2] The peasants and the pen-pushers were also nationalised, though some of them too became black marketeers, the pen-pushers falling into that category when they circulated poems under the counter or just read them to friends. You could lose your life for doing that, as did Osip Mandelstam for the Stalin Epigram of 1933.

Friday, 30 October 2020

Deeply Held Beliefs


What is the difference between a deeply held belief and a belief? The former is probably one which will not easily be given up in the face of apparently invalidating evidence or argument. Indeed, there may be unwillingness to give it up in any circumstances and the believer may acknowledge that by saying the belief is a matter of faith, that they are willing to believe even what is absurd (Credo quia absurdum).

At the same time, someone who tells you that something is for them a deeply held belief may also be warning you off: don’t try to get too close to my belief, don’t offend me by criticising it let alone scoffing at it, acknowledge my entitlement to believe what I like. And, perhaps remarkably, the deep believer often gets their way: other people tip-toe round deeply held beliefs for fear either that they might cause upset or incur some swift punishment for temerity. Deep beliefs can secure you remarkable privileges.  

Two paragraphs down and things aren’t looking good for deeply held beliefs. They already begin to sound like things we could best do without.

Beliefs which their holders characterise in this kind of way must have some kind of history. Are the beliefs or the way they are characterised recent inventions? I am going to guess they are. What are now characterised as deeply held beliefs started out as a new way of pledging allegiance, most obviously to one of the religions which depend on writing and  which began to get themselves organised more than a millennium ago now. That you could recite a long set of beliefs from memory became the proof that you weren’t faking it, that you really were one of us. The demands made on believers were sometimes considerable: the Church of England started off with thirty nine articles of belief and still keeps hold of them. True, it’s not any longer expected that anyone now deeply believes all of them or, indeed, any of them. Nowadays, the test of allegiance may be no more than a contribution to roof repairs. But that was not always true. Like many religious organisations, the Church of England has known better days and but for endless free publicity provided by the Royal Family and the BBC would trouble us as little as the closer-to-the-spirit-of Christianity non-conformist churches.


The alternative to deeply held beliefs are beliefs which we accept as vulnerable to evidence and reasoned argument. People who hold their beliefs in that kind of provisional way are not only better company but safer drivers. At times, they will be as useful in the same way as a canary in a coalmine. They will be better guides when it comes to getting out of a fix. A politician who does not know how to make a U-turn is not to be trusted, no more than someone whose car has no reverse gear.

During a pandemic, deep believers will be the ones keen to keep their churches, mosques and synagogues open, at all costs. They will pay the price - God will single them out for special disfavour (see now footnote *) - but everyone else is made to suffer too.


My younger self was far too pre-occupied with his beliefs and completely inattentive to his dispositions. I can only say that I think this not an uncommon mistake. Theologies of one kind or another have their strongest appeal to the young, to seminarians and students, historically more or less exclusively male castes. Sometimes whole lifetimes are then devoted to elaborating the initial stock of beliefs, taken from one of the well-known tried and failed models. But quite often, people realise that such beliefs are not enough to sustain a life, their enthusiasm wanes, and they become more human. This benefits all of us.

Dispositions matter: generosity and kindness, cruelty and meanness, fairness and thoughtfulness, jealousy and vindictiveness. Of course, those dispositions are often presented as beliefs: young men claim to kill in the name of some article of their religion. They don’t say they kill for the glory or the thrill, though often it seems clear that they do.  If it was really a matter of belief, how come nearly all the killers are young males and not more evenly distributed across the entire community of deep believers, female as well as male, old as well as young?

And when someone refuses to do something “on principle” the one thing you can be reasonably sure of is that they take a peacock pride in themselves. What does “on principle” add to just refusing to do something? You are a soldier lined up facing a hostile crowd. Your commanding officer orders you to fire into the air, you do, and the crowd turns around and runs. You are then ordered to lower your gun and shoot those fleeing, in the back. You could turn to your officer and say that you won’t do that “on principle” or you could just carry on firing into the air and hope that those alongside you do the same. What matters most in the heat of the moment is not your principles but that those running have a chance to get away - and silent mutiny will be at least as effective as grandstanding.


Beliefs are very over-rated. Most of us have far too many for our own good and even more so for the good of others. And we are terribly interested in what other people believe (heresy-hunting alive and well) when really we should be more interested in their dispositions and their circumstances. Is this person disposed to kindness? is an important question. Do they believe in the thirty nine articles of the Christian religion? is not, ever. Can people afford accommodation for themselves which is light, airy, dry, warm, spacious, and secure? is a great deal more important than whether they believe in the one hundred percent social construction of gender identities (ninety nine percent will not do).

I am still overweight with beliefs, but trying to slim down. As for deeply held beliefs, they are the mental equivalent of obesity. Both Ockham’s Razor and simple considerations of mental hygiene ought to persuade us that when it comes to belief we should travel light.

Footnote added 2 February 2021: This prediction turns out to be true. Today's Financial Times publishes a graphic showing United Kingdom COVID mortality rates by religious affiliation. In the period 2nd March to 15 May 2020, mortality per 100 000 affiliates was highest among those who identified themselves as Jewish with Muslims coming in a close second. The numbers then decline through the following categories: Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Other Religion, Religion not stated  ... and, finally, at around half the Jewish rate, "No religion". 

You can interpret the figures in many ways; I just think God has had it with "Religion" - terrible track record when you look at them all -  and has decided to support the other side.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Radical Philosophy

I had a partner who teased me whenever I informed her that I’d worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased.

Recently, I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been revived. The old one started in 1972 and ran to two hundred issues before running out of steam. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy [1] -  I had the thought (in my own head), Isn’t the expression radical philosophy a pleonasm?

All philosophy tries to get to the root/s of things, to get beyond the repetition of conventional thoughts, the reliance on unchallenged assumptions, the polite acquiescence in received wisdom. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar that it is too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick, and you will find it hurts you more than it hurts the root.

But to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is too limiting, anyway. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book Changing The Subject (2017) and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. Marx was very explicit about the change he wanted to make: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. [2]

It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s)[3] that when a scientific revolution occurs, it’s not just a theory which changes. It is the questions asked, the bits of the world which seem in need of study, the definition of the subject itself. Geuss is casting the history of philosophy as possessed by a similar dynamic. 

But for both science and philosophy, it does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is art and literature which might be described as philosophical and which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or suggest we might be better off shifting ourselves into a different one. William Wordsworth seeks to refresh, to re-imagine our familiar world, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday as Coleridge puts it in Biographia Literaria

In contrast, there are those who use literary and theatrical techniques of estrangement or alienation to upset our habitual responses, hoping to lead us into questioning the normal, into imagining a world different from this wearying reality of ours. In the recent past the names of Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht [4] are closely linked to such an approach, but the techniques are not new. They are deployed in a long procession of older works in which the morals and manners of other cultures are held up as mirrors to our own: Montaigne's sixteenth century essay "On the Cannibals" is an early example.

Of course, art and literature and philosophy too are often enough produced as comfort food, offering no challenge and packaged like candy. On that, my philosopher’s advice is to refuse substitutes and only curl up on the sofa with real ideas and fairtrade chocolate. [5]

[1] “Sanity, Madness and the Problem of Knowledge”, Radical Philosophy, 1, January 1972, pp. 22-23. Now at 
[2] . The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, dating from 1845.
[3]  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
[4] “English Formalism and Russian Formalism”, in my Materials and Medium: An Aesthetics (2016), pp. 71-80.
[5] Here Dr Pateman enters into competition with Dr Peterson who in 12 Rules for Life (2018) recommends a masculine diet of Heidegger and fry-up breakfasts. Cousin Medicine publicly despairs of us both but kindly whispers, Peterson’s diet is much worse.