Monday, March 26, 2012

Whose Hand on the Trigger?

A man in France decided to murder seven innocent people in cold blood. Three of them were soldiers and two were children. It is widely reported that he shot an eight-year-old girl in the head at close range. A thoroughly evil bastard.

He had reasons for making these choices. What they were we can only speculate, but unless his mind was not under his control there was a process of thoughts that led to doing what he did.

What he did, let us remember, was not to express anger, or to attack symbols, but to murder children. Once that is glossed over the importance of the event is lost, and the truth is forgotten. It is possible that he murdered those children and adults as a manifestation of a diffuse hatred that he refused to address within himself.

His reasons for choosing those specific people may not have been personal, it seems more likely that they represented to him something he had chosen to hate, rather than being, themselves, the object of that hate. It’s probably similar to the motivations of the components of mobs who, when finding an excuse to rampage together, identify members of certain outgroups as legitimate targets for violence

Many commentators are too grand to get close enough to the action to see what is really happening, and so they waffle about contexts they don’t understand and attribute motivation and final responsibility to whoever it is they always attack. This is good politics, but it isn’t truth.

His choices were, naturally, influenced by those around him, by his upbringing, by the company he frequented and the people whose moral authority he gave weight to. It is perfectly possible that he was taught to hate, and that his murderous violence was irresponsibly cultivated by others. All of which places an important part of the blame, not on events and circumstances a long way off and outside his direct experience, but on the people close to him who persuaded him that he could affect those events and circumstances by murdering children.

His actions may well have been another example of belief in the magic of symbolism. Aware of but not wanting to recognise his inability to change anything real by his own actions,  he convinced himself that murdering children was such a big thing that in some way it MUST bring about the change he wanted.

The murderer is beyond answering for his actions. Some of those around him might still have to do so.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lucia di Lammermoor

Your blogging hedgehog likes the Opera.  I'm not a buff, not having had the opportunity to watch much over the years, but I go when I have the chance and I always  enjoy it. I listen to the live performances from the Met and watch on the TV on the rare occasions there is any. Recordings almost invariably lack something, and compilations of arias are like watching highlights of old cricket matches. Not the same thing. The Three Tenors are not for me. Opera is a spectacle, a show, and admiring the technical ability of Plácido Domingo as he sings a nice song out of context is a cold, abstract pleasure, lightyears away from watching him perform Siegmund at Covent Garden.

We don't even have a proper theatre here, so the cultural offerings are minimal. There is an old cinema which is often used as a theatre, a stage was added years ago, but it's small, the sound quality is poor and there is no orchestra pit. A reduced orchestra sits literally under the stage. There is an outdoor space which is good for performers with powerful voices or microphones, music and opera, say, though not theatre as such, and in any case it's rarely used. And a new theatre is allegedly being built, but I'll believe it when I see it.

This is just my reaction to a performance I experienced. It's 'what I did last night', not a review for the New York Times. And it's as I wrote it, not adapted for consumption by the reader.

Lucia di Lammermoor. The whole thing is coloured for tragedy, except the chorus which a couple of times thinks it has something to celebrate. The production was cheap but with some imagination. The directing was poor, lots of walking very slowly across the stage for no apparent reason, people standing in the wrong place and moving in the wrong ways. And some of the acting was terrible.

Dolores Lahuerta was Lucia and she was very good indeed. She seemed a bit shrill in the first act and I wondered how she would handle Il Dolce Suono, but, although she cheated a bit on the highest, most difficult part, (and I'm not going to blame her for not being Joan Sutherland) she gave a brilliant performance in which she took control of the stage, the cast and the entire theatre and sang lke a woman mad with love. It's not easy to do that. Not easy at all. It was wondeful to listen to and to watch. I didn't want it to end. For nearly 15 minutes (I think) she had the entire theatre scared to breathe in case it provoked her. Terrific stuff it was.

The brother Enrico had a poor voice and was a terrible actor, almost embarassed about being on the stage. Not a tyrannical figure at all. The lover Edgardo had a nice voice but was a wimpy type, not one to dedicate his life and death to a woman, and not someone a woman like Lucia would die for.

The first scene of act three between Enrico and Edgardo should be dripping with tension and menace. They are two brave and powerful men who hate each other and don't kill each other only because they each have an idea of honour that stops them short for different reasons. Instead they looked like a couple of nerds playing at being hard. The whole show failed because of that.

And Edgardo's final death scene, coming after Lucia's, is likely to be anti-climactic and struck me as too long, but with this chap playing the role it almost became ridiculous. A pity, really. Presumably Donizetti knew what he was doing and placed it here for a reason.

The orchestra, a local one,  was good, and I liked the conductor. The choir was also local, experienced and competent. The flautist, a young blonde woman, who was on the rostrum for the mad scene also did a good job. So a varied evening, cuarte's eggish, but when it's all you've got you learn to enjoy it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Free Speech

(Inspired by a link at England Expects)

I believe in free speech, but…

Many people say this who do not believe in free speech, they believe only in the freedom to say the things they want to hear, and in nothing else.

But others have difficult articulating what they presumably mean, which is simply that they disagree with what has been said. We have become so used to the idea that what is considered offensive must not exist, that it becomes difficult to say that you dislike or disapprove of something without there being an implication (you hear it yourself in your own words) that it should be banned. We are so used to imagining that the state will use its power against anything which is held to be ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unacceptable’ that even many who do understand freedom and believe in it are moved almost by instinct to clarify that by criticising someone’s words they are not trying to ban them. They often seem to be so clumsy at making this clarification that it appears they are doing the opposite.

Is it not possible to take issue, to address, to criticise, to dissect, to despise, the ideas of others, without wanting to call on the law to shut them up? And without even appearing to do so? It is surely not beyond the wit of the average man or woman to disagree, vehemently, viscerally even, with someone else's ideas, without demanding that they be prevented from having those ideas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring, Whither Hast Thou Sprung?

A few days ago I wrote that spring started here weeks ago, and we were looking forward to it merging with the summer. I wasn't trying to crow or in any other way lay claim to some form of vicarious superiority over those who are still wearing scarves and gloves to go out, I was just explaining how things are different here, and how we experience them. Apparently I didn't make this clear enough to the Fates, because yesterday, on the traditional first day of spring, I had the following conversation with a class of 12-year-olds:

Boy (Excitedly, looking out of window in a manner suggesting he found the novels of Walter Scott rather dull): "Mr Hickory, sir, it's snowing!"
Self (With professional scorn honed over many years): "Be quiet, you stupid boy; of course, it isn't."
Chorus of boys and girls: "Er, yes, it is, sir."

And indeed it was. Briefly, turning quickly to rain, but yesterday was as cold and miserable as mid-December in Dundee. Spring felt a long way away, and still does.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Things we Believe

God is not the only thing created within us that we need to believe in as something real, outside us. Truth, morality, good and evil, beauty, the English language, the universal supremacy of Accrington Stanley FC even though they haven't won anything for 100 years...

All of these things spring from the interplay of various aspects of the things that make us human, and there is no particular reason to believe that they respond to anything external at all. But we need them to exist. Even if we have to invent them for ourselves.

We believe in the existence of simple solutions to the problems that blight our lives. We invent courses of action and decide that they must achieve a given effect. We replace ignorance with knowledge, doubt with certainty, by making stuff up. It’s a very human thing to do.

I mentioned the strike called by the far left over here. The leaders have their own- pretty transparent- reasons for doing so, but the activists and members who follow them will be doing so because they are unhappy with the economic and labour situation in Spain and want to do something. That it will not solve anything doesn’t matter. Something must be done, and this is something. It is symbolic, but symbolic solutions are psychologically very important.

Fat people believe that if they follow the instructions their friend, a book, a website or some out of work actor has endorsed they will become thin. The actual mechanism doesn’t seem to matter, whether there is one and how it works. The important thing is to perform the symbolic, ritual act of eating the lettuce leaf or whatever it is.

Ritual magic should not surprise us at all. We still do it, and we always will, while we have imperfect reason and self-consciousness. Much of our life is based on it. We need to believe in the reality of the things we create. Some of them probably are real. Others are not. In a way it doesn’t matter. Only our belief in them matters.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Archaeologists, and palaeoanthropologists, like one to one correspondence between bits of earth, the lumps of rock and bone that they find in them, and the time. This coherence keeps things simple. They like to be able to say ‘this was a Neanderthal site from 55ka and so we know that the parietal bone of this and therefore neighbouring populations was slightly more robust than in Northern Europe, the disposition of at least one of the bodies tells us that they buried their dead, further symbolic behaviour is shown by the paintings on the walls, the metal rings which might have been put on their fingers, the traces of ochre with which they painted their faces and we see that they also ate shellfish, possibly in a ceremonial fashion…’

Believe it or not, they like to be able to say things like that. But there are sites, many sites, which are not clearly and pristinely associated with one time and people and activity, but are more like these mysterious young women who at the age of 18 have 5 children by 6 different fathers, and 3 of their former boyfriends and at least two of their current ones are in prison for beating up blokes they caught her with in the toilets at the disco. Like her, such sites are ‘associated’ with just about anything and anyone who set eyes on them. (I say mysterious because, although they are all over the Daily Mail, and entire neighbourhoods seem to consist of nothing else, when I was young they were bloody hard to find.)

Anyhow, one such place is Oretum, in the south of the province, a hill on the very banks of the river Jabalón. It’s primary interest is as the capital of the Iberian tribe the Oretani, but from the Neolithic onwards, it seems everyone has been using it. The Iberians, Celtiberians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and the mediaeval and modern Christians have all been there and left traces of their occupation.

You need someone to tell you what all the bits are, and to try to string together the story of the place and relate it to the rocks and the river and all the rest, and to other events in other places. I didn’t have that, but it’s fun to have a look around. I had ridden there and had to ride back, so it was a quick covering of the ground, during which I discovered I had no battery in the camera, and I had to start pedalling again. But it’s curious to think that thousands of years’ worth of individuals have lived and dies at that spot, in a great variety of ways.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


We measure out our lives in innumerable ways. Landmarks are all around us, waiting to be used for the purpose of telling us we are a little bit older. We struggle through time, and frequently we must cling for rest to a Friday night, a Christmas Day, the first swallow of spring, the first and last leaves of autumn, the sun going down behind the hills or the houses across the street, an equinox, a solstice, another birthday, another beer.

Spring is short here. Winter turns into summer over the course of a couple of weeks. Around the beginning of March, each year, you suddenly notice that you aren’t wearing your coat, then a few days later you’ve put your sweaters away as well. Before long we will be looking for the shade when we go outdoors. There isn’t a real autumn either, but summer has a long, long tail which we call autumn until some time in November.

So there is no spring, and yet we clearly distinguish the start of spring. Several things happen at once, some public, some private. The weather changes, as I said, and with it comes a tangible sense of openness and cheerfulness. People immediately appear outside bars as though by magic, as if they had emerged from hibernation. The square is full at ‘cañas’ time, and the pavements are no longer for walking quickly along with your coat buttoned up but for standing on and talking to friends on at the window of your favourite bar.

The water birds reappear on the river and start to breed. I saw the first lamb a couple of weeks ago. Soon the days will become longer than the nights and the clocks will go forward, but, symbolic as these things are, they arrive rather late to mark spring here. We’re already there.

Today was the last day of the ski-jumping season, and the first of the Formula 1 season. Such things as these divide summer from winter for me. If you’re watching Daiki Ito it’s winter, if you’re watching Fernando Alonso it’s summer. One thing ends and another begins. So, adding all these things together, I decree that for me, spring has arrived, and that means summer is nearly here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

You Cough, You Die

In Hollywood, where nothing is real, there are rules that cannot be broken. Don't have sex in a horror film, that kind of thing. Retired cops only come back to be exposed as baddies. Regular but not star characters beg for loyalty only when they are about to betray the heroes. The ability to identify a Shakespeare character or a quote from Pope is a sign of great intelligence. And one cough means you are dying.
But why is an industry whose aim is to use money to create a market, to sell an intrinsically worthless product to those sections of the public which have least money to spare, and which depends for its wealth on societies which protect the ideas they disagree with, so quick to denounce, not only in its product but also in the mouths of the people who work in it, both capitalism and freedom of expression? Bloggers are always nutters or weirdos. And they’re always rightwing. Journalists are always good, and are always left wing. Companies are always bad, and invariably pollute the environment causing the deaths of polar beds, Chinese children, hope, civilisation etc. Money grows on trees and only government employees are doing any good for the country and the economy.
So we have established that Hollywood is, for some reason, filled with people who live like capitalists and preach like socialists. Perhaps successful film actors really do feel bad about having ‘obscene’ amounts of money and so they want to stop other people from having it. But footballers and other groups of wealthy, working-class people with access to the public’s ear don’t regularly pour into it the tedious results of undigested political musings quite at odds with their own actions and lifestyle.
But are all bloggers rightwing nutters? Surely not. It’s true that I eat babies (though not during Lent), vote UKIP and think I’m a hedgehog, so it’s just possible that the description might apply to me. And I have come across blogs written by illiterates of unstable character and low forehead, obsessed with any or every aspect of how ‘them’ are secretly conspiring with other ‘them’ to destroy the blogger and people like him who are the only ones who know the truth, even though the evidence is all around us and can be plainly seen. Some of them were rightwing, some were leftwing and in other cases it was impossible to tell whether they had any fixed or even coherent ideas about politics or anything else. A lot of bloggers seem to like young women with no clothes on, but I can understand that (I like them too, I just don’t blog about them). But many bloggers seem fairly normal people, you can imagine them interacting with the rest of human society with such competence that no one would know they blogged unless they brought the subject up. Some of these are clearly leftwing, if they are anything at all.
On the other hand, even if I fit the Hollywood sense of ‘rightwing nutter’, I’m not scheming to bring down civilization as we know it, assassinate Obama, expose the Bilderbergers, or whatever it is they think mad rightwing bloggers do.  So there are nutters, there are non-nutters, there are leftwingers, rightwingers and people who don’t even know what colour their government is. There are weirdos, normal people, clever people, stupid people, people with every interest, skill, information and obsession you can imagine, and quite a lot more that you really wouldn’t want to imagine. There are dull people banging on about the exact texture of the soil required for potting dahlias in early spring, and angry people shouting at the world because they don’t think it’s listening.

In other words, there is a bit of everything. The blogosphere is the world on a data stream. We’re all there. But in Hollywood, only deranged rightwingers who want to destroy the free world blog. Very odd. If I was a nutter who wanted to destroy the free world I wouldn’t publish it on the blog, I’d just write random stuff about hedgehogs and lakes and keep the details of the conspiracy in little black notebooks like the ones I’ve got hidden over there in my desk…

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On the Absence of Everything

Regular readers will have noticed that every time I try to analyse something recently, I end up discovering that it doesn’t exist outside ourselves. I shall soon become convinced that I am a product of my own imagination and that I am in fact projecting myself into being from a rarely-used area of the mind of some small green creature from Alpha Centauri who is experiencing a particularly dull Sunday afternoon. All of this is achieved without the use of mind-altering substances. Perhaps philosophical enquiry in itself alters the mind in unpredictable ways. Perhaps I should just watch the football. It would be much easier, I stand a better chance of understanding it and, unlike philosophical enquiry, you can drink beer while you do it without changing the result.