Saturday, February 11, 2006

Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island'

I've been re-reading this book, which ranks with George Mikes' masterpieces 'How to be an Alien', 'How to be Decadent' and other such (collected in 'How to be a Brit') as one of the most spot-on (and genuinely hilarious) commentaries on the foibles of the British ever written. Bryson is the sort of travel writer I love: his writing is always personal, not afraid of being irreverent and of making fun of what he finds funny (which, as befits a race as doggedly odd as the English, is many things), but his writing is always shot through with understanding and a genuine affection for those he writes about.

I nearly fell off my chair this afternoon as I read this bit. I was in a restaurant, and there was a potted plant behind me, so I'm glad of that 'nearly": it would have been uncomfortable if I had actually fallen off. As things were, the waitress thought I was losing it a little as I chortled into my espresso. Reproduced below is the mirth-inducing paragraph in question. As usual, Bryson gets it exactly right.

"Most of the other passengers evidently couldn't hear the announcements because when the Barnstaple train eventually came in, half a dozen of us formed a patient queue behind a BR employee and asked him if this was the Barnstaple train.

For the benefit of foreign readers, I should explain that there is a certain ritual involved in this. Even though you have heard the conductor tell the person in front of you that this is the Barnstaple train, you still have to say 'Excuse me, is this the Barnstaple train?' When he acknowledges that the large linear object 3 feet to your right is indeed the Barnstaple train, you have to point to it and say, 'This one?' Then when you board the train, you must additionally ask the carriage generally, 'Excuse me, is this the Barnstaple train?' to which most people will say that they think it is, except one man with a lot of parcels who will get a panicked look and hurriedly gather his things and get off."

Now, substitute either 'London Kings' Cross' or 'Cambridge' for Barnstaple in the above, and I've actually done a version of this, many, many times. And it's just absolutely true: nobody in England ever says something as simple as 'Yes it is'. It's always 'Well, I certainly hope so', or 'Well, that's where I hope it's going', or 'Pretty sure it is mate, but maybe the conductor will know?' or some such. And that bit about the guy who gets off in a panic: there's always one. Thing is, you do need to ask. For example, if you're trying to go into London from Cambridge, should you take the 10.27 that is on Platform 3 and will leave in ten minutes, or should you wait for the 10.43 which isn't here yet? A no-brainer, did you say? Not if I tell you the 10.27 will stop at every little, oddly-named country villager station en route - Shepreth, Meldreth, etc. - and not get into Kings X till 12.41, whereas the 10.43 is the nonstop (which of course means it only stops twice before getting to Kings X, probably at the improbably-named Welwyn Garden City, which sounds as though it should be in Wales anyway, and of course at Stevenage, which sounds like it's a railway dumping-yard) and will get you in an hour earlier. Now combine this with the fact that what's waiting on Platform 3 may not be the 10.27 at all, but may turn out to be the earlier non-stop from 10.13, which, having been held up due to signal delays at St. Ives, whence it originated, and you're in dire need of assistance from the BR man (though in my day he was actually a Railtrack man) walking around looking harassed and bitter at the state of the world.

Which all reminds me of the single most odd, and most funny, railway announcement I have ever heard. During the unfortunate period right before the railways in Britain were re-nationalised a couple of years ago, I was waiting for a train to somewhere or the other at London Waterloo. It was rush hour, and hordes of frustrated commuters stood around the giant display board where every other train was marked as being 'Cancelled'. As if this were not bad enough, every once in a while there would be an announcement along the lines of 'The 5.43 to Milton Keynes, which has been rescheduled to 6.37, is now cancelled.' You could tell that the person having to make these announcements was getting really stressed out by his job, and finally, at one point, he made the announcement which took the cake.

'Ladies and Gentlemen, Railtrack is sorry to announce that the 6.24 train to Exmouth has been cancelled because we can't find a bloody driver' (emhpasis on the bloody).

As Mastercard would say, priceless.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

I saw 'Brokeback Mountain' when it came out (eh, that pun wasn't quite intended...) and I was very, very moved by it. I've resisted the urge to write about it because I wasn't sure I was up to it. I still am not, but I just read an excellent review of it in the New York Review of Books, which I think is the first review of the many, mostly glowing ones that I have seen, which goes beyond the overused cliches about the supposed universality of the film's themes and recognises what makes it both so different from many other 'hopeless love stories' and, thus, so important.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Mohammed Cartoons Update

The most sensible commentary on the cartoon fiasco that I have seen thus far, from the Guardian. I particularly liked Gary Younge's bit, but both are well-written and worth reading, though they ostensibly express different viewpoints: in fact, they differ only in whose responsibility they emphasize; I agree more with Younge's emphasis.

Meanwhile, it appears that my comment about the disengenuousness of the editors/journalists involved in this supposed battle to preserve free speech was actually supported by some facts that have come to light: apparently Jyllands Posten was sent some cartoons by a cartoonist which were potentially offensive to Christians. Guess what they did? They refused to publish them, because .... they were offensive. These guys are not the ones one would want defending the bastions of free speech, which do need defending. If you have any doubts, read this.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

L'affaire Cartoons of Mohammed

Having been totally oblivious to this whole controversy (ah, there's that wonderful word again) about the Danish newspaper that published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, my state of blissful ignorance was invaded by headlines such as 'OIC calls for calm in cartoon row' and reports about the boycott of Danish milk products in West Asia. Anyone who's been reading the news knows the story by now, so I won't recapitulate, but I do have a few things to say.

First, I think that (some of) the cartoons were indeed offensive. Not so much because they were 'blasphemous' (I have very little sympathy for any religious strictures on how people must behave; naturally, I respect the right of those who do believe to consider themselves bound by these strictures, but I see no way to justify their imposition of these standards upon others. Thus, if you're a devout Hindu of the RSS dispensation (if I'm not already contradicting myself) you may consider it inappropriate to draw Saraswati in the nude, but you have no right to say that M.F. Hussain should share your stance and censor his art. Likewise, if you believe that the very act of drawing the Prophet is un-Islamic, then don't do it. But you cannot insist that other people do so. This is just my extreme distaste with organised religion coming to the fore, so I'll save that for anotehr rant.

To come back to my original point, I said that the cartoons were offensive because at least one of them suggested that Mohammed was a terrorist, and that by extension Muslims are terrorists. So, I think that the fact that none of the statements that I have seen from the Danish administration have acknolwedged that the content of these cartoons was potentially offensive, or insulting to a group of people, says a lot about the state of Denmark, if I may be permitted to channel the Bard. It says something to me about the view of Muslims that must be prevalent in a place where saying Muslim = Terrorist is an unproblematic statement. I'm not a Muslim, but I can see why this might offend an observant Muslim. In fact, it offends me, particularly coming as it does from within a country where Muslims are a small minority and presumably have little voice in the media, government, etc. It seems distasteful to demonise an entire community of people without basis and particularly where they do not have the power to demonise back. Distasteful, and stupid, and not particularly funny: but - and this is my next point - legitimate.

So do I think the cartoons ought not to have been allowed to be published? In a nutshell, no. And this is because, fundamentally, I do believe that freedom of expression is a very, very valuable right, but also that it's real value lies in its lack of limits. Words, actions, pictures, music all have the power to offend; this power is their true worth. If the only things that anyone ever said were pleasant and innocuous, we would not need to guard free speech so zealously. And we do need to guard it zealously. In my ideal world, nothing would not be fair game for ridicule, satire, or plain offensiveness. Yes, this is an extreme position. Yes, it would make for a noisier, more heated, less amiable discourse. Yes, I do repeatedly take offense at the rantings of the Christian and Hindu right wings, the ravings of fatwa-happy Mullahs, and the idiocy of many journalists. I get mad when Jerry Falwell and his cohorts demonstrate with banners saying 'Fags Must Die' or whatever. The institutionalised homophobia and sexism of the Muslim establishment, for example, makes me deeply uncomfortable. I would be happier if they were to change their minds. I wish that the NeoCons would see reason, would stop demonizing Arabs as terrorists. I could go on, ad nauseam. The content of much that constitutes public discourse is more or less offensive, sometimes deeply hurtful to me personally.

But I do not have any right to ask any of these people to shut up. To not say what they think. To force them to agree with me. I can debate, I can discuss, I can rant back, I can hope to persuade. If all else fails, I can choose not to listen, not to engage, simply to ignore. But I cannot under any circumstances ask for anyone's speech to be limited, however hateful, offensive, or derogatory it may be.

So do I then wholeheartedly support the editors of various European newspapers who have chosen to publish these cartoons? Unfortunately, I cannot say that I do. And this is because it is abundantly clear that these people are not in any way committed to the absolute freedom to offend that I'm holding up as a standard. The editor of 'Die Welt' was on BBC Newsnight and he made it clear that he would not, under any circumstances, permit an anti-Semitic cartoon to be published in his paper. And therein lies the rub. Because what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I've run out of cliches. But if the 'feelings' of Jews must be respected, so must the 'feelings' of Muslims, the 'feelings' of every conceivable religious/ethnic/linguistic group. My original point was that there should be no limits on free expression, however offensive a form this may take. But no limits means no limits, and unfortunately does not mean no limits only when it comes to Muslims. And here I doubt strongly the bonafides of these journalists and editors. They're no champions of free speech, merely people who want to use the idea of free speech to shield their own desire to offend a particular group of people. Several of the people involved appeared on Newsnight and the line they took was this: 'Look, we have the right to offend. So stop being offended, because you're in our country, and we make the rules'. And this is not acceptable. As instrinsic as the right to offend is the right to be offended. And if you're offended, you protest. So the only acceptable outcome according to me is this: I say whatever I want. You then get as offended as you want, and insult me as much as you want, right back.

Which sounds like a rather unpleasant state of affairs. And it might be. But the point of free expression is, hopefully, to lead to some sort of understanding of opposing positions, an agreement to disagree, at the very least. And positions can only be understood if they are allowed to be stated. What stands out most starkly to me in this entire imbroglio is the cussed immaturity of both sides. The journalists in question need to see why the analogies they make between Islam and terrorism are problematic and offensive. And those Muslims who are offended by the cartoons need to make a reasoned case for why they think they are wrong, offensive or distasteful, while recognising that people have a right to be wrong, offensive and distasteful. Offended Muslims need to recognise that free speech is a fundamental right, and that it includes the right to offend; but at the same time, the 'offending' journalistic and general establishment needs to get off its high horse and recognise that the actual choice of who to offend was consciously made, and owes as much if not more to a prevailing climate of Islamophobia as to the much-vaunted 'commitment to free speech'.

In the end, it appears that the European press, or at least it's right wing, has suddenly discovered Voltaire and his famous defense of free speech. I'd like to suggest that they take a step back and recall the words of anotehr person, who said: 'Everybody has the right to be stupid. Some people misuse the privilege'.