There’s a comedy trope that I think of as “second person confession”. The person starts telling a generic story in the second person, except that the details of the story start getting weirdly specific, morphing into an embarrassing or disturbing confession. Something like, “You know how it is, you’ve just been working all day, you come home exhausted, you want nothing more than to eat a sandwich and zone out on the couch. And then you get a call from some guy you barely know, who wants to meet up for some reason, and you’re about to tell him to fuck off, when he reminds you that you’ve known each other since the summer when you were 17, and he’s the only person who knows where you hid that body…”
So, Boris Johnson, the cringeworthy master of does-he-mean-this-to-be-a-joke, commented recently on the need for all of us lazy British workers to get back to the office, in these terms:
My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.
Thinking back to his pre-election bus hobby, it makes me wonder if there’s some embarrassing story about cheese that he’s trying to push down in the Google search rankings…
The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?
My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.
It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.
Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.
There’s a tiny lake in Oxford, Hinksey Lake, between a park and the railway tracks, somewhat used for recreation. I was there recently for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I found there were new signs warning people away from swimming — too little avail, as far as I could see — because of the danger of industrial waste dumped below the surface. I could think of many things you might call such a location, such as a “hazardous waste site” or “industrial trash dump”. But in Oxford they call it a “site of industrial heritage”. Sounds like something you might want to make a point of visiting.
Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw does not like the new French film Deception, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, based on one of Philip Roth’s many pseudo-autobiographical novels. And one of the things he really doesn’t like about this French film is that… it’s French.
Desplechin doesn’t change any nationalities. His Roth is still supposed to be American, and the object of his love is still English. But Desplechin casts French people, speaking French. Denis Podalydès plays Roth and Léa Seydoux is the English actor. So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.
C’est pas vrai! A French director cast French actors in his film, and let them (I’m trying not to hyperventilate here) speak FRENCH! How could this be allowed to happen? He seems to have gotten the Hollywood rule, that European characters (of whatever nationality) are always supposed to be played by British actors, exactly backward!
Could you imagine a critic commenting on a film by a British or American director set in a non-English-speaking country, that complains that the director cast British or American actors speaking English, which completely misses the nuances of dialect differences?
Spielberg doesn’t change any nationalities. His Schindler is still supposed to be Moravian, and his antagonist Amon Göth is still Austrian. But Spielberg casts British people, speaking English. Liam Neeson plays Schindler and Ralph Fiennes is the Austrian Nazi. So the fundamentally important, dramatically savoury difference between them is obliterated.
I mention this particular example because I do recall seeing a German review of Schindler’s List that did complain about the dialect issue, but only as an issue about the dubbing by the regular German representatives of those particular British actors, speaking their regular high German. No one would have suggested that an American director really should have made his film in German to begin with.
It would be a drastic understatement to say that people are confused by the official advice coming with respect to social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Some are angry. Some are appalled. And that includes some very smart people who understand the relevant science better than I do, and probably at least as well as the experts who are advising the government. Why are they not closing schools and restaurants, or banning sporting events — until the Football Association decided to ban themselves — while at the same time signalling that they will be taking such measures in the future? I’m inclined to start from the presumption that there’s a coherent and sensible — though possibly ultimately misguided (or well guided but to-be-proved-retrospectively wrong) — strategy, and I find it hard to piece together what they’re talking about with “herd immunity” and “nudge theory”.
Why, in particular, are they talking about holding the extreme social-distancing measures in reserve until later? Intuitively you would think that slowing the progress of the epidemic can be done at any stage, and the sooner you start the more effective it will be.
Here’s my best guess about what’s behind it, which has the advantage of also providing an explanation why the government’s communication has been so ineffective: Unlike most other countries, which are taking the general approach that the goal is to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible (though they may disagree about what is possible), the UK government wants to slow the virus, but not too much.
The simplest model for the evolution of the number of infected individuals (x) is a differential equation
Here A is the fraction immune at which R0 (the number that each infected person infects) reaches 1, so growth enters a slower phase. The solution is
Basically, if you control the level of social interaction, you change k, slowing the growth of the cumulative rate parameter K(t). There’s a path that you can run through, at varying rates, until you reach the target level A. So, assuming the government can steer k as they like, they can stretch out the process as they like, but they can’t change the ultimate destination. The corresponding rate of new infections — the key thing that they need to hold down, to prevent collapse of the NHS — is kx(A–x). (It’s more complicated because of the time delay between infection, symptoms, and recovery, raising the question of whether such a strategy based on determining the timing of epidemic spread is feasible in practice. A more careful analysis would use the three-variable SIR model.)
Suppose now you think that you can reduce k by a certain amount for a certain amount of time. You want to concentrate your effort in the time period where x is around A/2. But you don’t want to push k too far down, because that slows the whole process down, and uses up the influence. The basic idea is, there’s nothing we can do to change the endpoint (x=A); all you can do is steer the rate so that
The maximum rate of new infections (or rather, of total cases in need of hospitalisation) is as low as possible;
The peak is not happening next winter, when the NHS is in its annual flu-season near-collapse;
The fraction A of the population that is ultimately infected — generally taken to be about 60% in most renditions — includes as few as possible of the most at-risk members of the public. That also requires that k not be too small, because keeping the old and the infirm segregated from the young and the healthy can only be done for a limited time. (This isn’t Florida!)
Hence the messaging problem: It’s hard to say, we want to reduce the rate of spread of the infection, but not too much, without it sounding like “We want some people to die.”
There’s no politic way to say, we’re intentionally letting some people get sick, because only their immunity will stop the infection. Imagine the strategy were: Rather than close the schools, we will send the children off to a fun camp where they will be encouraged to practice bad hygiene for a few weeks until they’ve all had CoViD-19. A crude version of school-based vaccination. If it were presented that way, parents would pull their children out in horror.
It’s hard enough getting across the message that people need to take efforts to remain healthy to protect others. You can appeal to their sense of solidarity. Telling people they need to get sick so that other people can remain healthy is another order of bewildering, and people are going to rebel against being instrumentalised.
Of course, if this virus doesn’t produce long-term immunity — and there’s no reason necessarily to expect that it will — then this strategy will fail. As will every other strategy.
The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.
This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.
It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.
None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”
I just started reading the book Magic for Liars by Sarah Galley. I’d purchased it because of a short review, but by the time I got to read it I’d completely forgotten anything about it, so I was bemused to discover that it is sort of a hard-boiled detective murder mystery set in a boarding school for young magicians. It struck me then how odd it is that “boarding school for young magicians” has turned into a whole genre, spanning a range of works for young people and adults, and now starting to colonise completely different genres, like detective fiction.
So far as I can tell this is largely an Anglo-American literary phenomenon (though Harry Potter is certainly very popular throughout the world), and I suspect that it reflects a natural response to the class system and the power that is accrues to elite education. Surely an uneducated Briton, seeing how a mediocrity like Boris Johnson can be elevated to a position of power on the basis of pairing his hail-fellow-well-met demeanour with the Eton-Oxford training can’t really imagine what they’re learning there, but supposes it must be some sort of deep magic. That’s why the spells in Harry Potter are all Dog Latin: Unexceptional people go to these weird schools, learn these dead languages, and end up ruling the world.
Update: I have deleted a comment asserting a common etymology of magic spell and spelling (learning to write). The words (as Maria Christodoulou pointed out) in fact have completely different roots. (I’m not sure where I got this false etymology from. I would have sworn it was Mary Daly, but while Gyn/Ecology has lots of (sometimes dubious) wordplay on spell and glamour, the association spell-witchcraft-learning is not there.
For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.
— Mark Twain, Autobiography
The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because
It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.
This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.
The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”
I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.
(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)
I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.
Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.
On moving to the UK almost a dozen years ago I quickly noticed that the one thing that unites the political establishment, left and right, is that they don’t like foreigners. Or rather, maybe better phrased, they may personally like and even admire some foreigners, but they recognise that such exotic tastes are not for everyone, and that disliking foreigners is a valuable national pastime, deserving of their official support.
And so, after claiming through the Brexit campaign that it was all about national sovereignty and repatriating billions of pounds for the NHS, and having spent the better part of two years diplomatically digging a grave for the national future, the Tories strike on bedrock: We have betrayed national sovereignty and destroyed the national economy, but it’s all worth it because we still get to kick out the foreigners. Or, in the prime minister’s words:
“Getting back full control of our borders is an issue of great importance to the British people,” she will say, adding that EU citizens will no longer be able to “jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that the subset of British — or, given their current fragile mental state, I should perhaps call them Brittle — voters who voted Leave with the thought uppermost in their minds of improving the prospects for Indians to migrate to the UK was… less than a majority. But even more striking, EU citizens who moved to the UK over the past 40 years, following the same agreements that allowed Brittle people to seek work and better lives anywhere on the Continent, are retrospectively branded as “queue jumpers”, the most rebarbative class in the English moral order. Theresa May is summoning her countrymen and -women to defend a fantasy queue.
In the 1990s the German media teemed with entreaties to tear down the Mauer im Kopf, the “mental wall” (a phrase of the author Peter Schneider that actually long preceded the fall of the physical wall in Berlin), as a necessary prelude to a stable national identity, and a democratic and prosperous future. Maybe the Brittles need to dissolve their fantasy queues, to break up the Schlange im Kopf, before they can start building a new nation on the rubble they are making of their past.
Is the phrase diddly-squat obscene? I’m wondering because the word appears in Boris Johnson’s latest newspaper column:
the reality is that in this negotiation the EU has so far taken every important trick. The UK has agreed to hand over £40 billion of taxpayers’ money for two thirds of diddly squat.
It’s not that I find the word personally offensive — I’d rank it as low- to mid-grade obscenity — but surprising and out-of-place. Even for the desperate-for-attention Johnson this seemed like a surprisingly inappropriate word choice, simultaneously childish and scatological, rather like an eight-year-old trying to impress with his newly acquired potty vocabulary.
But maybe the word has different connotations in the UK than in the US — or maybe even within the US opinions differ. To my ear, the “squat” here is a more graphic substitution for “shit”, and “diddle” has the slang meaning of illicit groping or intercourse. The OED tells me that the original form — apparently American — was doodly-squat, with “doodle” a now rare slang term for excrement.
Anyway, I certainly hear the word as scatological, but I wonder how others perceive it.