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Thursday, 14 October 2021

They/Them? A Very Critical Look at Self-Identifications

 


I’ve never liked being called by positional names or displaying symbols of such positions. So though married for a long time, I never wore a wedding ring. Nor did my wife who never changed her name, used “Ms”, and was irritated (as I was) by Christmas cards addressed to Mr and Mrs T. Pateman.  Our generation? Born in the 1940s. Outside of university settings, I never used my academic title.

I encouraged our children to use my first name and now do the same for my grandchildren. But the encouragement was never a demand and is now generally ignored, except by one grandchild. As a result, I now sign emails as Dad x but persist in signing birthday cards to grandchildren with a cartoon which has so far allowed me to completely avoid Grandad x

So I was not immediately unsympathetic to those who want to be called They/Them;  for many years in my writing I have used they as a generic, having tried the clumsy he or she and the stylistically disastrous App. which mechanically alternates he and she.

But something doesn’t seem quite right in what’s happening now. I accept that my own past preferences could be considered to some degree prissy or attention seeking or narcissistic. But what is happening now strikes me as massively - and not much more than - prissy, attention seeking, and narcissistic, with added readiness to affect offence or worse if not properly noticed. And it does seem all very much more about having a one-up Twitter identity rather than about relations with intimates.

To me it looks like this: middle-class young people,  burdened with names and expectations which they cannot always live up to, mostly at university or recently graduated, are making themselves appear special by turning themselves into They/Them on grounds that they are non-binary. The threshold for entry into this special class of people has not, to my knowledge, been disclosed unlike the titles which Debrett’s regulates. Is it enough to paint your finger nails in non-matching colours? No, but only because no more than self-identification is required, is that not so?

So it is irrelevant for me to muse whether in the past I was, unwittingly, non-binary because I changed nappies. Or because I entered my home-made jams into village horticultural shows. Or because even on the most charitable interpretation my sexual encounters never (sometimes to a partner’s disappointment) achieved the expected binary climax of Wham, Bam, Thank You, Ma’m? No, it’s not feminine or effeminate traits, nor the desire to avoid toxic forms of masculinity, which make you non-binary. It’s brass neck or, to put it in more modern terms, a sense of entitlement.

I look at the images on Google and think to myself, This is just fashion and will mostly be abandoned within a few years just as most of us gave up fairly rapidly on Carnaby Street and Flower Power. But while it lasts there is a big difference: current self-identifications are moralised and essentialised to the hilt. Hence, the offence if you don’t take them seriously enough. Rather like bearded young men in theological seminaries, our They/Them people are utterly convinced of their own self-righteousness - that their choice has real existential depth and the fires of Salem await those who can’t see it.

To be honest, I simply don’t believe many of the self-presentations, partly because the choice so obviously opens career opportunities in the crowded field of desirable, non-manual jobs - well, not just non-manual; preferably media-related. But non-manual is a good start; people on building sites tend to get on with the job; They/Them is not a priority which clearly rules out building sites as workplaces. But university seminars can grind to a halt over naming protocols. After all, seminars are not that important: if you pay your money, you’re going to get a two one anyway unless you make the mistake of studying a STEM subject.

I suspect too that They/Them is attractive to boys more than girls; the girls can always build online Presences by taking their clothes off and for some that earns daily mega-bucks; the boys remain in less overall demand with clothes off - girls remain obstinately more  interested in brains and personality - and so the boys have to find other ways of building a path to alienated Twitter success.

There is another dimension, that of the private and the public. At universities in the 1960s, people were lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, kinky (sometimes quite imaginatively so, given the absence of accessible porn and sex toys). They might let you know this or they might not. But it was not the primary way in which they defined themselves: like everyone else, they were studying Maths or History; they were Conservative or Labour or Revolutionary Socialist. That has now changed; it is “gender identity” (especially if you are white) or, more seriously and convincingly, ethnic identity or religious identity which trumps everything else. And “trumps” is not a bad word here because very little of it seems to have anything to do with progressive politics in its usual sense; some of it seems to me frankly far to the right, in the hunting grounds of those who bully and intimidate TERFS, people who to me are simply the feminists - or descendants thereof - from whom I learnt my feminism back in the 1970s. They had and have a coherent set of critiques of patriarchal societies; our modern gender theorists - if "theorists" is the right word - have so far done no more than replace argument with intolerant, incoherent mystifications. There is no coherent argument or theory which supports the (bourgeois? neo-fascist? entitled?) ideology of self-identification. Hence the immediate recourse to outrage and witch-hunting.

Donald Trump self-identifies as the true  President of the United States and about forty million American adults accept the self-identification, based on no evidence at all. It must be something in the drinking water.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Keir Starmer and the Contribution Society

 What follows is the second chapter (of 26) in Trevor Pateman,  The Best I Can Do (2016) available from Amazon or Blackwell.co.uk. It has not been updated



Bus Passes and Benefits


I’ve never claimed my Free Bus Pass. I would be ashamed to wave it while paying passengers watch. Imagine that it was Coloreds who paid and Whites who didn’t .Where I live, looking at workers boarding the bus and paying their fares on the way to low-paid jobs, that’s not far from the reality. Nor is it far from the reality that poor people pay and better-off Over Sixties don’t. Yet the Over Sixties, quite solidly and sometimes fiercely, now seem to believe that they have a Human Right to bus travel paid for by others – even though Bus Passes are a very recent invention. How did this come about? The fault lies with our political parties, always looking for cheap ways to gain the favour of those most likely to vote. Any party now proposing to withdraw the passes would face a backlash of unreasoned wrath. My Benefits, right or wrong!

Bus Passes are not Pensioner Passes. You qualify by virtue of reaching your 60th birthday, well below the ages at which most people qualify for state pensions. At sixty, many people are still working, their children are gone, and they have paid off mortgages. They are better off than at any time before. Many of those waving Bus Passes – of course, not all – are better dressed than they have ever been. They can afford to be. Eventually, they will become old and even frail. It’s always stressful to watch a frail elderly person board a bus, struggling with shopping bags and sticks. They don’t need a Bus Pass any more. They need a once-a-week Taxi Pass. Or, rather, they need adequate pensions. Free bus passes are not only electoral bribes; they are also one of the cosmetic means by which feckless governments have sought to disguise the inadequacy of State Pension provision in the UK.

In relation to former earnings, that pension is much lower than the European average: about one third against an average of a half across twenty-seven other European nations. Our governments have been too fearful to force people to pay enough into retirement income schemes to fund adequate pensions and reluctant - until absolutely forced by a huge rise in life expectancy- to raise the pensionable age. Until very recently in the UK, the State Pension age for women was set at sixty. Men at sixty-five. No one challenged that extraordinary bit of entrenched sex discrimination. It had its origins in discriminatory thinking: women filled up the workforce during two world wars and thus qualified for pensions. But allowing them to take their pensions at sixty was also meant to ease them out of the workforce, leaving more room for men who had fought. Over time, the discrimination transformed from discrimination against women to discrimination in their favour. But for decades no one challenged it.

Self-respect is very much connected to the ability to make your own choices. Older people generally benefit from walking or even cycling but politicians want you to take the bus. The bus companies are happy enough; they get paid. The Bus Pass is a clunking decision by politicians to make choices for you: Here, my good woman, take this Pass and use that bus over there! And show some gratitude!

In a better world, older people would dispose of enough income to make their own choices and thus maintain an important aspect of personal dignity. It would be acceptable to withdraw the Bus Passes and add to the State Pension the equivalent of the money saved. All that you lose is the self-satisfied smile of the politician who wants you to doff your cap and thank him (Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone).

*

The Bus Pass is a symptom of a deeper problem which resides at the core of the British Treasury and the way it relates to British governments. The Treasury hates two things above all: ring fenced money and entitlements. It is committed to the ideas that all revenues should go into a single big undifferentiated Pot under its own control and that all outgoings, whether to government departments or citizens, are a matter of discretion. That is, of course, an understandable way for a Treasury to think. It gives you the maximum of flexibility in what is often – thanks to politicians – a struggle to make the books balance. But it is also completely symbiotic with the interest of party politicians. They too want maximum discretion.

Let me give one example. British prime ministers now normally want to pick at least one war to fight during their time in office. These wars of choice can be vote-winners. They allow the prime minister to walk tall. Mr Cameron was deeply disappointed in 2013 when he was not able to get his war in Syria, supporting Syrian jihadis. He had better luck in 2015 when  Parliament agreed to his new plan to attack jihadis in Syria. It put him up there with the Big Boys. But equally a government going to war does not want voters to think about the financial costs. The last thing it wants is being forced to impose a War Tax. That would make voters think twice about their gung-ho enthusiasms for bombing far away countries. Fortunately, the Treasury pot is usually big enough to absorb the costs of a small war, one which sticks to the cheap route to failure, that of bombing civilians. Money can be shifted between notional budgets and, if not, borrowing can be discreetly increased. But when monies are ring-fenced and there are entitlements, it becomes more difficult. As a result of this way of thinking, both Treasury and politicians are committed to the ideas (though they would never admit it) that All Benefits are Voluntary Hand Outs and No Benefits are Entitlements. In other words, citizens have no rights.

The obvious way to create entitlement to benefits is through insurance schemes. People pay into the scheme and, at the same time, they are informed of their entitlements under the scheme. That is what Britain’s National Insurance system was once supposed to be about. But now it isn’t. No one pays in anywhere near enough to accumulate entitlement to the benefits they can claim. Nowadays, it is merely a concession to the idea that there can be benefits to which you are entitled because you have insured for them. If the Treasury had its way, even that concession would be abolished. The Treasury loathes the idea of insurance. It gets in the way of tax and spend. The Treasury has almost a winning hand in one simple fact about our psychology. We hate it when we see money removed from our pay packet before we even get it: Pay as You Earn taxes, National Insurance. If National Insurance was for realistic sums of money we would hate it even more. But when it comes to paying 20% Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy – well, we don’t even notice it (often we don’t see it separately itemised). This is the Treasury’s winning hand – taxes we don’t notice. Not only that, such invisible taxes are not linked to any specific government expenditures. The Treasury gets just the kind of money it wants, money it can use as it (or its political masters) please. In addition, VAT quietly and effectively reverses the progressive character of Income Tax and produces the desired overall result that the poor pay a higher percentage of their income in tax than the rich.

The symbiotic Treasury - Politician commitment to avoiding entitlements and favouring handouts immediately opens the door to the parlour game known as Benefits Scrounging, in which the winners are those who work out every handout for which they can make themselves eligible and promptly claim them all. Those who celebrate their 60th birthday by claiming their Free Bus Pass are benefits scroungers. They have no entitlement to the pass, they have done nothing to deserve it, they often don’t need it – but it’s there, a handout, yours for the asking.

 *

 

We have an increasingly shaky idea of what it means to be a citizen. The benefits culture, created by politicians and sustained until very recently by an all-party consensus, has been disempowering. It encourages childishness at election times as voters shop around looking for the party which offers three for the price of two. No more than that. No expectation that you think about the future, about your children and grandchildren; certainly no expectation that you think about right and wrong, justice and fairness. An obvious route towards re-building ideas of citizenship involves, among much else, dismantling the Handouts culture and re-instating the idea of a contributory system: you pay in for health care, unemployment benefit, and pensions. That must be the expectation for nearly everyone, with a non-contributory but generous social safety net principally for those who are born disabled or become so. It also involves challenging the Treasury - Politician collusion. There is no reason why money should not be ring-fenced, why taxes on X should not go towards paying for Y and only for Y. If politicians want a war, then they must use a War Tax to pay for it. If voters want a war, then they should be obliged to put their money where their flags wave.

Probably the only interesting alternative to this approach is the idea of a universal Citizen Entitlement to a flat monthly income about big enough to live on. Everyone would get it, regardless of income or age. For those in work, for example, it would simply lower their tax bill. For those not earning, for whatever reason, it would be a handout but without the disfiguring features of the electoral bribes currently on offer to selected groups, most obviously and repeatedly in the UK, the voting over 60s. The idea has the merit of threatening the destruction of a thousand benefits bureaucracies, most of which end up in the newspapers for incompetence of one kind or another. So it is a sleek proposal. It has the de-merits that it hands money to people who don’t need it and, in practice, will still have to include small print provisions for special cases like those of people whose disabilities oblige them to make use of expensive equipment or carers. From where I am coming from, universal citizen entitlement has the demerit that it puts all citizens in the position of state dependents. I have yet to read an argument that persuades me that is not the case.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Defending Dogs from Humans: a Case against Pet Ownership

 

Defending Dogs from Humans

 

[Dogs]… are the ultimate reminder that there is more to life than a smartphone

 

Gillian Tett, FT Weekend Magazine, April 13/14 2019


It being the opinion of some philosophers that the absence of an alternative has a great deal to do with the faithfulness of spaniels.


George Eliot, deleted sentence from Silas Marner.


*

 

In many - maybe most - countries, dogs are bred to satisfy the needs of humans. Some of those needs seem to me strong enough to justify the breeding; in this category I place sheep dogs, sniffer dogs, guide dogs. Those dogs are usually well-cared for. Other human needs I am doubtful about, including those identified by Gillian Tett in her “The Truth about Cat and Dog Owners”

 

At the top end, exotic dog brands are created to satisfy a demand for status symbols which fit into a designer handbag. Some of those exotic dogs suffer from chronic health problems which are reckoned a small price to pay for the exoticism. Far from providing a status symbol, ownership of such dogs ought to downgrade the owner’s status as it would if the symbol was a dwarf or a black slave. Likewise, some dog breeds are engineered to create attack animals, and that should also be  cause for concern.

 

But the vast majority of dogs are bred to satisfy ordinary human needs for companionship or to compensate for chronic emotional problems. It’s not that easy to find a dog owner who does not have fairly obvious emotional needs or problems to assuage for which a dog has been selected as the drug of choice. Those problems are evident in the way dog owners address their dogs and talk about them to others. The stand-out literary representation of the situation is to be found in J R Ackerley's My Dog Tulip.

 

From the perspective of the owners, the wonderful thing about dogs is that they are liable to Stockholm Syndrome; they adopt the values of those who have taken them hostage. Occasionally, a dog will go on the attack, but not against its controller; the victim is either a complete stranger or else a child in the same house. But most of the time, dogs are compliant in a way that other human beings aren’t. Part of being mentally healthy is being able to accept that other people don’t always want to run fetch or sit up and beg. Some people can’t come to terms with that and that’s probably a mental health problem in itself, or a sign of one.

 

The dependence of owners on their dogs is not just a worrying psychological fact; it is also a significant social problem - and a growing one, since dog ownership is ever-increasing partly due to the advertising efforts of very large pet food corporations. They encourage the dependency in exactly the same way as the purveyors of alcohol and tobacco. Their advertising is long overdue for the same kind of regulation as applies to the promotion of other drugs, though I am not sure how you regulate sentimentality. You can’t just proscribe doe-eyed, floppy-eared doggies; maybe you just have to ban all pictures of dogs in dog food advertisements.  They are exploitative of canines who have not signed consent forms and do not get paid. They feed the traffic in dogs.

 

The dependency would not matter so much were it not for the fact that it spills over into a variety of social nuisances. Rather like street drinkers who scatter cans and piss on the pavement, dog owners think that public space exists for the benefit of their pets, that the main function of public space is to provide convenient pit stops for dogs. If dogs did not shit and piss, you can be absolutely certain that very few of them would be taken for such regular walkies.

 

Though in my country (Great Britain) it has now become more common for dog owners to Pick Up - and what does that tell us about their state of mind, for goodness sake? - they have at the same time become more grandiose about their own entitlements. A few decades ago, it was unusual for dogs to be allowed into shops, restaurants, offices, schools, hospitals, trains, buses …. Now they are everywhere and there are moves afoot to get them into the last hold-out against their presence, rented homes. So if you live in a converted Victorian terrace house with no sound-proofing and grubby public areas, prepare for the next deterioration in your quality of life. The dogs are coming.

 

Ultimately, we should consider a ban on the breeding of dogs as pets. That would be in defence of the dogs against humans. Such a world is a long way off. Right now, one public policy aim should be to marginalise dog owners in the same way that smokers have been marginalised. Huddled in doorways for a fag break, there is now no disguising the fact that theirs is an addiction which other people, who were once forced into the role of passive smokers, now refuse to share. It took a long time to reverse the grip of Big Tobacco over our lives.

 

In relation to dogs, the place to begin is reversion to how things were before. Dog ownership should be taxed as it once was, very much for the same reason that alcohol and tobacco are taxed. The taxes discourage use but also pay for the clean-up costs of other people's addictions: the street mess, the hospital admissions. Second, we should re-introduce the old policy of Dogs not admitted. Hospitals, chemists’ shops, schools, anywhere that serves food and drink - these are obvious No Go areas. In relation to public recreational space, a good starting point would be to exclude dogs from half of them. Parents of young children, especially, would welcome this. Weekend football and cricket players would also welcome playing fields which do not do double duty as dog shitteries.

 

I like animals. I am uncomfortable with human dog-dependence, so obviously a symptom of emotional and psychological difficulty; but more to the point, I am tired of dog owners’ sense of entitlement, their sense of privilege in which their rights trump those of dog-free people. It should be possible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant without someone else’s dog under your feet and go for a walk admiring the scene, rather than keeping your eyes down for the dog shit.



Written 2019 in response to Gillian Tett's article

 

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Keir Starmer, Rosie Duffield, Sajid Javid and trans people's rights: pausing for thought.

 

This seems likely to remain a hot button topic for the foreseeable future, capable of acting as a wedge issue in the United Kingdoms' next General Election. Below is a 2016 essay in which I tried to set some of the controversies into a broader context; it appears in my book The Best I Can Do (2016). In a re-write I would want to include separate consideration of the position of intersex (hermaphrodite) individuals who are marginalised in the current debate and only mentioned here. 

The book (paperback) is available on Amazon and at Blackwell (though their website is currently down).


 

Passing for Female?

To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course. The issue those practices address might be put like this: When can and should we accept someone’s own word that they are who they say they are? When can and should we accept that they are what they say they are? 

I began to think about identity and self-identification partly because of a well-publicised spat at Cardiff  University. In 2015, Germaine Greer, writer and celebrity, author of The Female Eunuch and other works, was invited to lecture at Cardiff. It nearly didn’t happen because the women’s officer of the Student Union there, Rachael Melhuish, got up a petition to No Platform her: Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering transwomen and denying the existence of transphobia altogether. Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society. As an example of her “transphobia”, Greer was notably called out for the use of the expression “ghastly parodies” to describe those whose birth sex was Male but who subsequently choose to present in society as women, either with or without surgery. Greer refuses to accept the self-presentation or, at least, some of those presentations. In contrast, Melhuish aligns herself with those who think that people should be allowed to self-identify their gender and be treated accordingly. That is in line with the policy of the National Union of Students. How plausible is that position? It seems to me that it helps if we consider the argument in the context of other cases where identity questions arise.

Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on). This is justified as an anti-fraud / anti[1]money laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”

Compare situations in which you are simply asked to declare something and that’s it. When you go into hospital you are asked to declare your religion and they just write down what you say. This will affect how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. You declare and no one queries it. Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than enter Christian churches. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m  certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case …

But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In England, school admissions provide a good example. Since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into nice middle class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation? Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.

In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group. In this case, people have a  self-interest in making accurate self-identifications.

But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for white and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-white, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict and the anxiety that you may be found out. On the other side from "Passing for White", when forms of positive discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. It is not unknown for people to choose to “Pass for Black”.

But most of the time in daily life, people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.

 *

Now let’s go back to the Melhuish – Greer conflict. I have always understood that a man who dresses as a woman is correctly described as a transvestite and that a man who in addition has undergone hormonal treatment or surgery is usually described as a transsexual. More or less the same categorisation can be made in relation to women who present themselves as men. Neither category tells us anything about a trans person’s sexual orientation. Nor does it actually tell us much about their gender since it is not spelled out what it is to present oneself as a woman (or when  the transition is made in the other direction, a man). The National Union of Students wants us to treat the presentation of self as unproblematic (“My Identity Is Not Your Business”, Resolution 106, December 2015) whereas I thought that a great deal of social theory and most feminisms from Simone de Beauvoir (at the latest) onwards were about it being extremely problematic.

Does it mean in the M to F case presenting oneself according to the local gender stereotypes of what it is to be a woman? Does it mean presenting oneself as a woman in one’s dress and the public toilets you enter? Does it mean signalling to men that they should treat you (according to the conventions in place) as a woman? And likewise, signalling the same to women – so that, for example, you can claim admission to “Women Only” meetings? Does it mean signalling to others that you feel more comfortable presenting yourself and being treated as a woman (whatever that happens to mean), pretty much regardless of how you dress, what toilets you use, what personality traits you display, and so on?

The basis of a 2015 film, David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl, originally published in 2000, offers - perhaps unwittingly - answers to some of these questions. It does not stay close to the true story which inspired it, but nonetheless it allows us to see what some of the real-world issues are. A large part of the narrative is about a man, Einar, passing as a woman, Lili, in various ways, some of them morally dubious: for example, when through your dress, you misrepresent your sexual identity to someone you want to seduce or be seduced by.

Whereas feminism since the 1960s has most often been about challenging conventional gendering, urging women to be more assertive and men less macho, women to be less obsessed with their appearance and men less demanding in that regard, Eberhsoff’s transgender character embraces wholly conventional gendering but simply switches sides. That appears to be the case for some contemporary real-life switchers: they accept the existing conventions on both sides, but switch allegiances.

Passing as a woman normally involves more than asking to be labelled a certain way. The exceptions are provided, notably, by cases – largely in the past - where birth-sex women cross-dressed as men in order to gain admission to armies, medical schools, and so on, but who did not in any way feel that they were something other than women. There were also cases where men cross-dressed as women, usually for nefarious purposes like escaping military service or gaining access to places where young females could be found who might be available for heterosexual sex. But the most obvious cases of cross-dressing occurred (and still occur) on stage where the Pantomime Dame or the burlesque Drag Queen have for a very long time (centuries?) presented a comedy of “ghastly parodies” . Sometimes these parodies appear off stage and may have been in Germaine Greer’s mind. Would the defenders of trans people’s rights welcome a Pantomime Dame to a Women Only meeting?

That sort of question may be a way into thinking about the whole issue. If you would not admit a Pantomime Dame, my guess is that is because you think they are simply a man pretending to be a woman. Fine, it’s not really in dispute. Next question: How about an old-fashioned male-to-female transvestite who cuts a very striking figure in high heels and booming voice? Is that person more than a Pantomime Dame, but just off-stage? If so, what makes the difference? What has to happen to qualify that person for a "Women Only" meeting? Do they just have to Pass in the way that the Dame and the old fashioned transvestite Fail, namely, the ability to Pass? And who is to make up the rules and judge who Passes?

Germaine Greer has said that "just because you lop off your dick it doesn't make you a woman". This is obviously true: men have their dicks lopped off in car crashes, industrial accidents and - most frequently - misadventures with military high explosives. Few of them breathe a sigh of relief or think "Now I can be the woman I always wanted to be". Greer is saying that even if you lose your dick as part of a self-mutilation or voluntarily undergone medical procedure, that in itself is not sufficient to make you a woman, not enough to get you into the "Women Only" meeting. That seems correct: you need a supporting story which explains why you did it and how it forms part of the "woman" identity you are claiming. It seems to me quite possible that someone whose dick is intact could have a stronger claim than a dickless person to be regarded as a woman.

Rachael Melhuish is right in this: people who are gratuitously offensive to others generally deserve a put-down of some kind if we can be reasonably clear what we mean by “gratuitously offensive”. Greer has always been foul mouthed and blunt and that is one reason she achieved iconic status as a feminist. If she thinks an argument is ridiculous, she will say so and that does not always go down well. It’s not obviously the same thing as being gratuitously offensive. It is not offensive to shred a bad argument; it is one of the things students are supposed to do.

*

Freudian psychoanalysis is hated only and always by those who insist that we are always who we say we are and what we say we are. I am a kind and loving person, always – and if you dispute those Facts, I will cast you into outer darkness. But most aspects of our selves are not things we can will, and those who believe that the will can always triumph are doomed to failure. My will won't triumph over my toothache and I can’t will away primary sexual characteristics or even many of the secondary gender characteristics I have acquired. Several critics of the NUS’s recent positions use the word “fascist” or allude to it (as I have done in referencing Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will ) in describing its politics. I think this is because of a suspicion that there is a background belief here that all of life is about resolutions, decisions and will-power. Take away the reference to Fascism and an alternative might be to call such beliefs The Anorexic Mistake. They are beliefs which cluster around the idea that we can subject our bodies and ourselves entirely to control by our will power.

I realise that earlier I used examples – the Pantomine Dame, the Drag Queen - which may seem trivial, though that’s a familiar device to clarify complex issues and it sometimes works. But in reality, from what I read, trans people have much more difficult lives than the Pantomime Dame, as do Hermaphrodites - Intersex persons - who start from a different anatomical situation. It is hard and often enough anguishing to realise that you are only going to feel more authentic, more comfortable, more desirable if you shift into a mode of self-presentation which asks other people to reclassify your gender, more or  less regardless of the state of your sexual organs.

But just because it’s hard does not mean that a Narrative of Suffering or a Hard Luck story on its own should open the doors to the Women Only meeting. The narrative needs to be convincing and the story true. In the UK, a 2004 Act of Parliament attempted to deal with the matter by creating a Gender Recognition Panel. It may be that the legislation will need to be modified but it seems to me unlikely we will conclude that so little is at stake that anyone can self-declare who and what they are for all purposes. Those who appear to want simple self-declaration to suffice are arguing for something which can place others at risk of harm – it has occasionally happened already that males with heterosexual interests and a tendency to violence declare themselves women to gain access to Women Only spaces.

So the stories we tell cannot always let us off the hook of other forms of accountability. Likewise, just because you may encounter hostile or dismissive reactions does not mean that you are automatically to be reckoned morally superior to those around you. You will still have your own weaknesses and unkindnesses – things which make every[1]one uncomfortable with themself at one time or another, things which we would like to wish away with a “No, that’s not me”. We can never be entirely who we say we are or what we say we are. That's just one of life's unfairnesses. But at least it applies to everyone.

 *

At the back of my mind I have this thought. The history of medicine is littered with histories of doctors doing terrible things to people, supposedly to "cure" them of this or that. Some of the medical techniques employed to re-configure sexual characteristics have been around a long time: sheikhs had eunuchs in their harems, the Vatican had castrati in its choirs (until 1913 or 1959, sources differ on the dates), German sex clinics began offering operations in the 1920s, chemical castration was around in the 1950s to punish homosexuals like Alan Turing, the major industry which services the desire for larger breasts is very well established. The range of surgeries and chemistries available continues to grow. But there is a possibility that a hundred years from now, those who by then believe themselves to be progressive and humane may regard at least some of those techniques as barbaric - even when self-chosen - and as falsely offering cures for catastrophic dilemmas which require other modes of approach. Even now, when I read up on the history of Lili Elbe [Lili Elvenes] (1882 -1931), the so-called Danish Girl, I find myself uneasy when I discover that her fourth and final surgery, submitted to when she was 49 years old, killed her. It was carried out in Dresden and involved the unprecedented transplant of either ovaries or a uterus. It reads just too much like an irresponsible medical experiment conducted on a vulnerable person who was past normal child bearing age. Worse, it occurs in a political context where medical irresponsibility was soon to achieve political sanction and encouragement. Dr Warnekros who operated on Lili in 1931 joined the Nazi party in 1933. Put into that kind of context, sex change operations at that time belong to the same world as medical experimentation on those who had not consented, to forced sterilisation and other eugenic policies which culminated in the mass killing of the mentally feeble and physically handicapped.


Thursday, 16 September 2021

Lord Frost and Imperial Measures

 

This is a short extract from my book The Best I Can Do (2016), available from Amazon and Blackwell

….. The UK has a pre-modern political system - a Ruritanian monarchy with the usual trappings of odd local rights and privileges (ownership of swans and such like); an unelected and completely corrupt second chamber; a first chamber designed to remind its Members of 19th century public schools. Those members have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, the House of Commons, despite modest changes, remains submerged under fatuous rituals designed to create a backlog of real work and thus to stop as much change as possible. It is made tolerable to Members of Parliament only by the availability of large amounts of subsidised alcohol, recently revealed as the secret ingredient in the famous rowdiness of the House of Commons.

But even where politicians are open to change, they have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry, Shan't! Can't! Won't! As a result, for example, the United Kingdom has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. But teachers had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas) and market traders saw the chance to become Metric Martyrs, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our Tradition and Heritage to have fourteen pounds to the stone and , er, eight stones to the hundredweight (which is not one hundred but one hundred and twelve pounds ) and, your turn, how many hundredweights is it to the ton unless it’s a short ton ….and so eventually the European Union gave up in the face of irredeemable stupidity. We were granted yet another opt-out.

As a result, the UK remains pre-modern, with an incoherent jumble of systems in use. Just visit any supermarket. Here you can find pints for some liquids, litres for others. Grams and kilos on one shelf, ounces and pounds on another. In Cornwall, maybe they still sell potatoes by the gallon. Weigh yourself on the bathroom scales, and some of us will use pounds and stones and some kilos. Medications are normally measured in milligrams and grams, millilitres and centilitres and not everyone understands what that all means so there are occasional disastrous results. Go to a fabric shop and you may find meters or you may find yards. Buy petrol and it's in litres, but distance measurement is in miles not kilometres. And, to rub it in, road signs show fractions of miles rather than decimal points of miles - as you approach the Channel Tunnel, you are counted down from two-thirds of a mile to one-third of a mile, a final flag-waving Work-That-Out-If -You-Can optout from new-fangled and, above all, foreign systems.

Two hundred years or more ago, as countries entered the  modern era, so they unified, simplified and extended the reach of systems of weights and measures. Local and highly particular traditions disappeared as did local currencies. The decimal system and the metric system are the expression of this move to the modern era, and their near-universal adoption is one of the enduring achievements of the French Revolution. It was a political achievement but the actual work was done by mathematicians and scientists of the first rank – Condorcet, Laplace, Lavoisier. They tried to work with British and American colleagues – Thomas Jefferson notable among them – but both those countries turned up their noses at what the French were proposing. It took Britain until 1971 to decimalise its currency and 1984 until the anomaly of a ½ penny coin was removed.

 But we still haven’t made it into the modern era. Children learn how to use bits of different systems and none of them very well. They have no idea of how powerful a tool a unified system can be. They simply become good at bodging which is fine for a nation of bodgers. It’s obtuse to expect children to be good at maths when their culture constantly tells them to muddle through with anything to do with numbers.

The moral is this: dysfunctional and, more generally, sub-optimal states of institutions and practices can persist indefinitely. They don't necessarily get eliminated any more than do pandas (who are terribly ill-adapted to their environment and generally miserable in consequence). All that happens is that people are generally miserable as they see their societies and economies grumbling and stumbling along, their politicians still aspiring to nothing more than an Opt Out from the modern world.

But people won’t do anything about it. They made their vows long ago.

Friday, 10 September 2021

A Church of England Christening: Ultimate Wokeness?

 

The newspapers tell me that Harry and Meghan want to have Lilibet baptised into the Church of England, ideally in the private chapel of Windsor Castle; Godparents as yet unnamed.

The Church of England, despite its status as a state church and its enormous property empire, is very much down on its luck, and has to trim with the winds - fortunately, it has a lot of previous experience. So the words it now uses  for the Christening Trade aren’t quite those it used back when I was given no choice in 1947. Here are the instructions handed out at the time to my godparents and which would also have been those in place for Prince Charles in 1948:



Click to Magnify



It's all different now and I have cut and pasted from the C of E's website the latest version, rather more Laura Ashley and chilled white wine than the 1947 version -  notice the nice generic "themselves", unfortunately attached to a singular "child".

https://www.churchofengland.org/life-events/christenings/guide-godparents/godparents-promises 

In the christening service, you will make some big promises to support your godchild throughout their life. You could talk to your own vicar about what these promises mean, or join with your godchild’s parents when they explore what a christening means. If you’re wondering what these promises might look like in practice, or how you can begin, explore our links for some simple ideas.

These are the first things you’ll be asked in the christening service:-

  • “Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ?”
  • “Will you care for them, and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church?”

To the questions above, the parents and godparents answer: “With the help of God we will”.

You will then be asked some questions which you answer on behalf of a child who is too young to answer for themselves:

  • You will be asked to turn away from all things that are against God – the wrong in our own lives and to stand against the wrong in the world.
  • You will then be asked to turn positively towards Jesus, the companion and guide for the amazing journey ahead.

Alongside your godchild’s parents, you will

  • Give your time to your godchild to talk to about the bigger questions of life – questions about hope, faith and love.
  • Model and encourage them to develop Christian values – being kind and compassionate towards others, being generous towards others in need with time or money and standing against things in the world that cause injustice and suffering.
  • Pray for your godchild through the ups and downs of their life and their faith journey.
  • Show them practically how to make good choices in life, for themselves and for others. This might mean talking to them about how to stay healthy, how to resist temptations that can harm us and other people, how to care for God’s amazing world and how to handle peer pressure as they grow older.
  • Help them to learn more about the Christian faith, through their church and in other ways. Going to church with them, talking about what the Bible shows us and helping them learn how to pray are all brilliant ways to support your godchild.
That whatsoever king may reign, Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.


Friday, 13 August 2021

Mikhail Eisenstein and Sergei Eisenstein: Father and Son

In the mid 1990s, I made a trip to Riga and wandered the streets taking photographs. The photograph above shows detail from a Jugendstil building in Elisavetes iela. The building was designed by the architect Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 - 1921) - you can find better, more recent images of the same building on his Wikipedia page. Mikhail Eisenstein was the father of the Soviet film maker Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898 - 1948) who began his career as a student of architecture, but parted ways with his father during the Russian Revolution. Looking at the enormous heads atop the building in Elisavetes iela, I imagined that despite their political differences, the son owed to his father the idea of using - in Battleship Potemkin and other films - images of vast and sometimes grotesque heads.

(Republished from an old Blog to answer someone's question)

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:

https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/search/author/Trevor%20Pateman

 

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 won't end up on message unless 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? Or maybe the tics take their inspiration from television's Canned Laughter, still in use after all these years just in case you don't find American comedy all that funny.

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.


Added 31 July 2021:

Today Pink News is taking a different approach:

‘Beautiful’ queer woman and her dog both killed in ‘gruesome’ murder while walking in the park



Adding quote marks doesn't really solve the problem; it's still a control-anxiety introduction to the story. Compare and contrast with another murder reported in today's Independent:

Woman found beheaded on sidewalk in Minneapolis suburb


That's a news headline; and it does its work without suggesting  that this crime is newsworthy because the woman was young or 'beautiful'.


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 Blackwells.co.uk  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 http://www.un.org/en/sections/observances/international-days/ 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.