Whatever | November 2009

Whatever | Militant atheism
Please, Prof Dawkins, can I be a quiet, passive atheist?

WhateverGodNov09

As a pacifist, and a coward, I’m really not looking for a fight. But argy bargy is brewing in the ideological playground, and rather than skulk off or adopt the scarf of the side most likely to emerge victorious, I propose we have a discussion first. What I’m actually saying is: I want to talk to you about God.

Does he/she/it exist, or not? That is the question at the heart of the 21st century’s most fashionable philosophical face-off – one that appears to have been artificially hotwired into life by a small but vocal group of deity-intolerant academics, writers and trendies, led by dashing evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, lapsed liberal and scourge of “the three great monotheisms” Christopher Hitchens and Jewish American author with issues Sam Harris. (I’d call them atheism’s cheerleaders were they not so palpably cheerless.)

Whether by accident or intelligent design, Not Believing In God has been elevated to a creed all of its own, with its own gospels – The God Delusion, The End Of Faith, God Is Not Great – and O-come-all-ye-faithless proverbs, plastered on the sides of 800 buses nationwide earlier this year (“There’s probably no God: stop worrying and enjoy your life”). The bus campaign, as inversely evangelical as any doorstepping Jehovah’s Witness, was funded by donations to the tune of £140,000 – a clear sign that the secular are taking up alms.

I should declare if not an interest, then certainly an anomaly: I don’t believe in God either. I sang O Jesus I Have Promised and learned cute Bible stories at school, but failed to make a meaningful metaphysical connection. At a base theological level, I’m with Dawkins. Bizarrely enough, I’ve even shared a variety bill with him: last Christmas’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, an evening of comedy, music and science curated by Robin Ince and New Humanist magazine. It was literally secularism as a bit of fun, like new toilet book The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.

WhateverGodNov09

My worry is the growing militancy of the atheist lobby, which is where me and it part company. As far as I see it, not doing something is by definition a passive activity. If anything, my lack of faith is an absence, a void, a missing jigsaw piece, not a soapbox from which to convert others to my non-cause. I don’t follow cricket either; but as long as cricket fans don’t come round my house and threaten me with bats, we can bump along without incident. I certainly don’t regard them as brainwashed numbskulls for their lifestyle choice. And yet, in The God Delusion, which I found compelling and repulsive in equal measure, Dawkins suggests that people “cling to religion” because “they have been let down by our educational system and don’t realise that non-belief is even an option.” In other words – idiots! – they’re too thick to be atheists. This is fighting talk.

I have no more affection for gay-hatin’, creationism-lovin’, suicide-bombin’ fundamentalists than you do – they give the Gods that go with them a bad name; the hardcore Morrissey fans of religion – but the “new atheists” can be just as actively belligerent and blind to reason, without spotting the irony. James Wood, writing in the New Yorker, asserted that the new atheism is “necessarily a kind of rival belief.” Christian theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion Alister McGrath pictured Dawkins “preaching to his God-hating choirs … clearly expected to relish his rhetorical salvoes and raise their hands high in adulation.”

In his bracing tract Straw Dogs, political philosopher John Gray hits upon something that helps decode the virulent fundamentalism of Dawkins and his disciples: that their battle is not against God as much as it is for Science. Gray writes that Science, which brooks no wimpy notions of doubt, now claims the authority once commanded by the Church: “It has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.”

WhateverGodNov09

There seems to be a significant and meaningful crossover between the anti-God lobby and the pro-Science lobby, as if a faith in one is antithetical to a faith in the other – which leaves the majority of Christians who use hair dryers, read weather forecasts and take Ibuprofen in a vast grey area. But Dawkins’ actual title at Oxford until 2008 was Professor for Public Understanding Of Science, a chair funded by a software executive and space tourist. Even his academic post had the whiff of propaganda about it.

I propose a splinter group for quiet, passive atheists. We will hold no meetings, write no books, seek no voice, just get on with not believing in God, peacefully, in the comfort of our own homes. If we had a slogan on a bus, which we don’t, it would be: “There’s probably no God; when does Marple start?”

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Whatever | January 2009

Whatever | Animal racism
Is the gun-toting “management” of the grey squirrel class war?

WhateverShootingJan2009

This year I have mostly become obsessed by the Mitford sisters, those intrepid darlings of the decadent Vile Bodies era who dallied at both poles of political extremism, Unity befriending Hitler, Jessica running away to fight Franco, while Pamela, a lesbian, became an expert in rearing chickens. Their collected correspondence, Letters Between Six Sisters, spans virtually the entire 20th century, touching on everything from appeasement to the Kennedy assassination.

I should by rights be nauseated by the privileged, ball-going, cousin-marrying exploits of these tweedy scions of the gentry. Instead, they have captivated me. I like to think they represent the last of a doomed uberclass, their extinction predicted by Orwell in The Lion and The Unicorn and memorialised in 1954 by linguist Professor Alan Ross: “A member of the upper class is no longer necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class.”

But don’t be hoodwinked by John Prescott’s claim that we are all middle class now. I recently opened the Observer magazine and staring back at me was the objectionable 6th Baron Redesdale, a congenitally balding 41-year-old in checked shirt and hacking jacket, standing in one of his several hundred rural Northumberland acres and toothily guffawing for the camera as he held out a dead grey squirrel by its lifeless tail.

WhateverShootingJan2009

Redesdale, a Liberal peer, really hates grey squirrels. He and his all-weather army of volunteers have killed 19,500 of them in 18 months, ethnically cleansing England’s northernmost county. They are the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, whose patriotic, conservationist aim is to restore the native red to rightful prominence by trapping and shooting greys “just behind the ear – if you hit them in the middle of the skull you can miss the brain”. Britain’s greys carry a strain of parapoxvirus that kills their shy, russet cousin, outnumbering them by around two million to 140,000. Thus, the population must be “managed.”

Now, I’m a townie. I’m typically squeamish about talk of genocidal culls. Worse, I’m one of those animal lovers who actually thinks the world would be a better place if it was run by cats. (Well, we’d certainly get more holiday.) I’m also a Darwinist, and if one breed of squirrel does better than another, who am I to arrogantly step in and redress the balance? Sorry to namedrop, but as the vegetarian Paul McCartney once said to me, “A fox’ll kill a sheep. It’s nature. I understand that a hawk kills something. It’s his gig.”

Equally, it’s the grey squirrel’s gig to be hardy and predator-free. Don’t start waving the blunderbuss around like you own the place – even if, due to some hereditary accident, the paperwork says you do. It’s like those simpletons who coo at a nice robin on their fencepost at Christmas but say they hate pigeons. The pigeon’s most heinous crime is to thrive. Why? Because we stuff muffins and croissants into our mouths while we walk along the street and strew crumbs everywhere. To favour one bird or squirrel species over another, particularly on the basis of fur colour, is surely a form of racism.

Listen to the braying Lord Redesdale: “Dipton woods: we took 2,000 out. If you clear a woodland you suck all the surrounding population to it. Then you hit ’em again. Suck ’em in, hit ’em.” Sorry, is he reading from Beatrix Potter or Andy McNab? “In the winter there’s no cover. They all get together in the cold. You can get eight or nine with a couple of shots. All huddled together. We annihilated them.”

WhateverShootingJan2009

At a decisive House of Lords debate in March 2006, one Lord Chorley warned of the grey menace, even now scurrying across Europe: “There are three colonies in Italy, at least one in the process of crossing the Alps. If they get to Germany there will be a complete invasion.” It’s an unsavoury mixture of incipient island paranoia (“They come over here, they take our dreys”), nostalgia for a lost, Baden-Powell era (It was the Scouts founder’s inaugural camp in 1907 on Dorset’s red squirrel stronghold Brownsea Island, which helped popularise Nutkin as a symbol of English heritage) and a macho trigger-happy bloodlust redolent of tiger shooting in the Raj. It could make class warriors of us all, even in a post-Obama utopia.

The killing joke is, it was the colonial toffs who brought grey squirrels over from America in the first place, as pets. And a pair escaped. Oh, and Baron Redesdale’s name is Rupert Mitford: he’s the great nephew of my six favourite aristocrats. Well, Unity’s pal would have been proud of him.

Published in Word magazine, January 2009

Whatever | June 2009

Whatever | Hero worship
Heroes, princesses and saints: how do we escape the age of the overstatement?

WhateverHeroesJune2009

I don’t wish to blow my own trumpet, but I recently performed a heroic act. A woman dropped her suitcase on the London Underground and got her foot stuck in the gap between train and platform. In one bound, I picked up the case and helped free her foot. I was like the gallant Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, rushing to Elinor Dashwood’s aid when she sprains her ankle in the rain. I must stress that it was no more than anyone else would have done. I must also stress that I didn’t actually do it.

I found out about my own heroism while listening to genial Jon Richardson on 6 Music; the grateful damsel had emailed his show in order to publicly thank me for my chivalry as part of an ongoing quest for “good deeds”. But it wasn’t me. I wonder if perhaps it was the left-wing comedian Mark Steel who freed her stuck foot, as I am often mistaken for him.

It was nice to be a hero, however fleetingly, although sadly the word itself – once the evocative preserve of Greek myth, Hegelian Volksgeist, or at the very least Victor Mature – has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. We live in the age of the overstatement, where Jade Goody can be a “princess” by dint of dying, and a “saint” without any of the tiresome red tape of investigation, exhumation, veneration, beatification and the corroboration of at least one miracle. You can be a “hero” in the Daily Mail for refusing to sort out your plastics and glass in the recycling bins provided.

WhateverHeroesJune2009

The rot started with Diana’s death on August 31, 1997, when Tony Blair coined “the people’s princess”, and the princess’s people struggled to express themselves without recourse to the iconography of playing cards. A similar thing happened on September 12, 2001, when the US media indulged in an increasingly deranged hyperventilation contest, invoking nothing less than the rhetoric of the Bible and/or Winston Churchill.

Feminist writer Susan Faludi catalogued the farce in her book The Terror Dream. The New York Times set the overstatement ball rolling in an editorial that read, “If one hero has come to stand for all, it is the New York City firefighter,” later using the phrase “knights in shining fire helmets.” Under the headline, “The Firefighter: An American Hero,” People magazine testified, “It is the valiant warriors on a flame-filled vertical battlefield who have taken on the mantle of legend, like the Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain, or Leonidas’s 300 Spartans holding the line at Thermopylae.” The Wall Street Journal claimed that firemen “possess a gene lacking in the rest of us,” speaking of a “godlike prowess, beneficence and divinity.” President Bush, posing with firefighters and waving a bullhorn at Ground Zero, said, “These are the men who will fight our wars.” Actual firefighters admirably resisted sanctification of this kind, giving testimony about “inadequate communications capabilities” and “no command structure” – but such inconvenient oral histories were buried for three years.

New York governor George Pataki went further. He proposed that every single one of the 2,974 who lost their lives on September 11 (2,992 if you count the hijackers, which, oddly, he didn’t) be inscribed a “hero” on a memorial plaque. Families of rescue workers actually demanded a distinction between “heroes” and “victims”, at which a semantic tug-of-sentiment ensued.

WhateverHeroesJune2009

The Sun would have us believe that every single man or woman who joins the armed services is a “hero.” The newspaper’s laudable charity for wounded personnel, Help For Heroes, hammers this home, even though many are injured in the mundane course of duty. On April 15, for instance, the US Department of Defense [sic] announced the death in Afghanistan of a US corporal due to “injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident.” He was more heroic than me, or any Sun journalist – to quote Woody Allen: in the event of war, I’m a hostage – but how are we to distinguish between a soldier and a hero if you apply the accolade to somebody just doing their job?

It’s the same kind of breathless but self-defeating overstatement that, from a random recent sample, speaks of “anarchy unleashed” at a largely peaceful protest, or a life “snuffed out” when it simply ends, or indeed that Kelly Macdonald is “cinema’s best kept secret” when in fact she is just an actress who’s not especially famous. Smooth Radio recently advertised concerts by the “legendary Neil Sedaka”. Where does that leave music’s actual legends?

How much slower the “Pugh! Pugh! Barney McGrew! …” bit would have been on Trumpton had each member of Captain Flack’s brigade been dutifully acknowledged as a “hero” by narrator Brian Cant. In the event of an emergency, I’m Mark Steel.

Here is the mumblemumblemumble

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Two talking point TV shows on Telly Addict this week: BBC1’s top-notch Jamaica Inn, which found itself embroiled in a teacup-storm about the mumbling of tightly-wound character actor Sean Harris, whose performance as the dastardly Cornish innkeeper Josh Merlin was typical for him and catnip to his fans, but not helped in this instance by a “technical” issue that muddied the sound of the live broadcast of Easter Monday’s first episode. Cue: self-flaggelation by the Corporation on the News and elsewhere. (I watched it on catch-up, which suffered no such issue, so enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly – then again, I like straining to find the rhythm of a performance, if it’s well done – anyone who watched all of The Wire will understand how bracing it can be.) Also, there was the much-chattered-about Derek on C4, whose titular performance took flak when it first emerged, and to be honest, little has changed. Also, less controversially, unless you believe Bible stories to be sacred (so to speak), the Easter episode of the finite Rev on BBC2; and Boss on More4, which returned in confident style, even though its fate is sealed. And a bit of Mad Men that’s not a spoiler. That’s the kind of controversy I like to avoid.

Blue movie

Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

There are three distinct reasons why Blue Is The Warmest Colour threatens to be an uncomfortable watch. One, it’s a film about a lesbian relationship. If you are a heterosexual male – and I am not the first to entertain this taboo thought – discomfort might extend from a feeling of being unfairly judged by others for choosing to go and sit in a darkened auditorium to see two young actresses pretend to fall in love, because of the common heterosexual fascination with lesbian relations. I’m self-aware when it comes to my feelings about sex, which are frankly prudish and distorted by a deep sense of guilt about the “male gaze” and institutionalised sexism; and this makes me ill at ease around porn. You’ll know that the thumbnail sketch of Blue Is The Warmest Colour since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes is predicated on its explicit same-sex sex scenes.

Which brings me onto the second reason for discomfort: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who won the combined acting prize at Cannes for their lead roles in the film, are on record complaining about the “horrible” way they were treated by director Abdellatif Kechiche. To be fair, this assessment was as much about the emotional demands of the roles as it was the gruelling sex scenes, but they did state that they’d never work with him again. It’s not easy to know that when you watch the film.

The third reason for trepidation was, for me, perhaps the most pressing. The film is 179 minutes long. It’s had rave reviews, mostly four- and five-star ratings, so it was vital that I saw it, but the prospect of sitting still for three hours was daunting whatever the subject matter. (When a three-hour film is compelling, such as the Romanian film Aurora a couple of years ago, it’s amazing to be able to lose yourself in it. If it’s a stinker, it’s an ordeal.)

Well, I steeled myself on all three counts yesterday and saw Blue Is The Warmest Colour and the first thing I want to say is: the three hours fly by. Clearly, it’s not a porn film and never was going to be, and although the couple’s first bedroom exploration – for the younger girl, Adele (played by Exarchopoulos) it’s her maiden Sapphic experience; the elder, Emma (Seydoux) is a seasoned “out” lesbian – goes on for a full and frank ten minutes, it’s both narratively and artistically justified. The build-up has been slow and gradual, and it explodes with pent-up feeling and, yes, love. The camera by definition exerts a “male gaze” – there’s a man behind it, and one whose tactics were “horrible” – but you are able to lose yourself in the story. It’s all about the story.

Onscreen sex has been getting more and more explicit for years in any case, and not just in foreign movies – think of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, or the English-speaking Intimacy – but at least in all of these cases, it’s a long way from Hollywood sex, that glossy, soft-focus, blue-filtered, slo-mo pantomime. The sex in Blue Is The Warmest Colour is corporeal, and sweaty, and urgent. There’s no saxophone, is what I’m trying to say.  The Hollywood kind is way more embarrassing. I’m not a lesbian, and I have never seen real lesbian sex, so I’ve no idea if lesbians smack each others’ arses as much as the couple of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, but it seemed a little excessive.

Moving on from those ten minutes to the other 169 minutes, what’s compelling and moving about the film is the acting. The two leads are definitely fearless for those ten minutes – especially as we know that scene took days to shoot – and deserve our respect and admiration. But the emotional ups and downs are even more demanding, and both, but especially Exarchopoulos (only 19 at the time), rise to the challenge. Utterly convincing. Kechiche’s technique of always framing their faces so they fill the screen, gives us access to some very clever acting. Adele changes a lot over the course of the story, as she has further to grow up, and she effects these changes subtly; she leaves school, takes a job as a classroom assistant, then teaches “first-graders”, and you can see her maturing as this takes place.

The story, partly based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a love story, but it’s also a film about peer pressure, expectation, nature versus nurture (both sets of parents are brilliantly essayed, but it is Emma’s, the more free-spirited and bourgeois, who create the little conservative, ultimately) and betrayal. It also touches on the buzz phrase “sexual liquidity”. Adele starts out as a heterosexual, seemingly finds her true sexual calling, then prevaricates. I’m sure this is common.

It’s not perfect. The colour blue is played heavy handedly. The scenes in the classroom where literature is dissected fall a little too neatly into the themes of the action. But overall, Blue is a seriously well-played saga that never drags. You could cut the sex scenes, or scenes, down to a minute or two and it wouldn’t detract from the story. But there they are. (The second, shorter one, feels hugely indulgent; it doesn’t move the story forward one iota. But I would say that.)

Not seen as many French films in 2013 as I usually do of a year – In The House, Something In The Air – but Blue Is The Warmest Colour reminds me of why I should remedy that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the language. Or simply the aspirational nature of French life: bread, cheese, philosophy, really intelligent seeming kids. (Positive enough stereotype for you?) In my lists, France seems to have been edged out by superior works from Germany, Romania, Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Ireland and Italy. Not that it’s a race. Except it is.

A writer called Nick Dastoor wrote a very pertinent, honest and funny piece in the Guardian called A Single Man’s Guide to Seeing Blue Is The Warmest Colour. (They should have added “Heterosexual” to the headline.) I was fortunate enough not to have to sit in the darkened auditorium yesterday afternoon alone, but I know exactly where he’s coming from. (Don’t go below the line, though, I warn you. Seriously. Don’t.)