Great Barrier Myth

Sunday Times November 15 2009

In an age where divides have crumbled, are we really more connected?

One of the most surprising items I’ve ever found on a hotel bill was, “Wall – £50”. It followed a night in a slightly faded seaside hotel with, perhaps, the most shockingly beautiful woman I had ever talked into spending a night away with me.
Sadly, what was meant to be a night of passion turned to one of compassion as we sat on the bed emptying the mini-bar. She sobbed about her rotten ex-boyfriend and how difficult it was to find men who didn’t just want her for her body and I crossed my legs and nodded with “new man” sympathy. The climax came when she smiled through streaks of mascara, squeezed my hand, and passed out.
“Wall? What wall?” I waved the bill at the concierge. He calmly led us back up to the room to show us a maze of cracks in the plasterwork, stretching far and wide, radiating from behind the bed.
“It’s probably this,” he said, wobbling the headboard slightly, “knocking the wall.” He glanced at my pants-achingly gorgeous companion before giving me that sly smile shared between men that simply says, “you lucky dog.”
“Knocking? There was no…” I stopped when I saw the concierge’s look of unalloyed respect – who am I kidding? – jealousy. The wall wasn’t just a wall. Walls don’t have ears, they have mouths, they speak. This wall was speaking; it was lying, but speaking all the same.
It’s one of our great gifts, or curses: the ability to read almost anything into almost anything. Our evolutionary survival depends on us being able to find symbols in the inanimate, to read the signs of danger, or food, or who might actually put out when you invite them on a dirty weekend.
The concierge was simply doing what we have always done, found the story he wanted written on a disinterested wall. Through history we have constructed walls to define ourselves, our spaces, our defences, reaches, limitations, and to tell the stories of what we have achieved or have the power to do. They defend, detain, and declaim.
This cracking wall declaimed a fantastic story, one with a happy ending. Had Banksy himself broken in and graffitied a pornographic stencil of us going at it doggy style, he couldn’t have made the symbolism any clearer.
And now we’re commemorating twenty years since the cracks appeared in that wall uber-symbolischten in Berlin, but as the breaking down of symbolic walls go we could also be celebrating the anniversaries of Pink Floyd’s, “The Wall” (30 years), the Stonewall riots (40 years) and the mother of all symbolic collapsing walls, the one we forgot to remember, Wall Street (80 years).
Through most of human history walls represented the solidity and power of civilizations, from Jericho to Troy, the great China one to Hadrian’s Hibernian, medieval city-state fortifications to the peacefully soaring, deceptively delicate, gothic cathedral walls that hid their secrets in flying buttress; for centuries our walls mirrored the development of our genius.
In fact, from Hiroshima to Dresden, Coventry to the Somme, one of the 20th century’s most defining symbols is a wall teetering on collapse.
Perhaps it was an empire crumbling, and two world wars when the wholesale destruction of walls became routine and sharing commonplace, but after an era when they had proved useless as defence and only burrowing underground assured safety, the wall appeared somewhat obsolete, it became a potent symbol of old ways, class distinctions and social barriers.
The late 20th century was rife with disassembling divisions, philosophers “deconstructing”, old school ties and union strangleholds prised apart. From the culture of “open plan” and atriums, to the expansionist middle-class habit of “knocking through”, if there was a wall it was in the way. A world without walls beckoned. Walls were an anathema and even today, knowing how charged the word is, the Israelis will only refer to the West Bank wall as a “Security Barrier”.
But in architecture the century marked the birth of a new “curtain wall”. Skeletal girder construction meant buildings no longer needed the support of external walls, they could be clad in delicate glass – and weren’t they though? By the 1960s, the idea that one of our traditional four walls was transparent and no longer defended privacy had become entrenched.
In Joe Orton’s 1965 play “Loot”, his Inspector Truscott accepts a bribe saying that it will “go no further than these three walls.” He gets a laugh because he momentarily recognises the setting, the reality that the audience is present and watching. Actors had long referred to a “fourth wall” as the invisible one through which the audience observe, but Orton’s illusory removal of it was a prophecy for our age. Our generation has grown up aware that we are always on show.
We accept even welcome the omnipresence of CCTV or celebrities famous for being famous. We stare through the one way mirrored walls of the big Brother House with no sense of impropriety. Our cultural storytellers, books and movies, abound with the meta-fictive – where the role of the reader or creator is recognised within the work itself.
But, the danger in breaking walls, is breaching security. Our 24 hour, always on show, transparent fourth wall defines us through our insecurities. We Web 2.0, face-space, blog and twitter in fear of our own solipsist identity crisis: Do I still exist if there’s no one to watch me doing it? Aren’t we asking with each wink, nudge and poke, not “are you still there?”, but “am I still here?”?
The truth is we haven’t broken any walls, we’re still alone, we’re still strangers to our neighbours, we’ve just made an opaque wall more transparent and insidious. Where do we defend our image, detain our “friends” and declaim, “I blog therefore I am”? The Facebook message wall.
It seems the chance to show off was always too seductive.
“Right,” I smiled at the concierge, “sorry about the damage,” and handed him my credit card. As Pink Floyd will always taunt me: “All in all you’re just another prick with a wall.”


Living Blamelessly

Sunday Times March 15th 2009

Open Minds: Why have we stopped being responsible for our own actions?

At school we all envied Sammy.  When we were splashing through freezing slimy puddles, spattering our legs with foul smelling mud, he was warm in the library clutching his “note” perpetually excusing him from the cross country.  In fact, having been diagnosed with mild dyspraxia, Sammy’s note was continually updated by his concerned parents, who excused him from all sports for his entire school career.

Today, the envy has gone.  Sam has lived as if he always had a note excusing him from any of life’s adventures.  At thirty-eight, his circumference has been multiplied by pie; chronically obese, he suffers from continuous vertigo, countless phobias and desperately unhappy singleness.

Had he been born twenty years before, or to a less privileged class, his dyspraxia would have just been called “clumsiness”, for which there was no known note.  Possibly, the habit of exercise and a modicum of practiced coordination may have been acquired at an early enough stage to save him from such a waisted life.

Perhaps Sam was genetically “programmed” to end up like this but I have a terrible feeling that it wasn’t his genes or his dyspraxia that did for him, it was his “note”.

But don’t we all have, or long for, our own notes?  The desire for something that will excuse us, or our children, for acting as we do – rather than as we imagine we should – seems an almost quintessential human urge.  Each advance in the human sciences is a step towards that Holy Grail: The Universal Excuse Note.

From Humanism to Phrenology, social theories and the genome project, we have quickly hijacked each philosophical, sociological or scientific finding to furnish more excuses for our own uncivilised conduct.

Personally I have, I think we all have, a “note” constantly lurking in my brain, waiting for the moment I’m caught being me, and not being the someone I know I really ought to be:

To whom it may concern.

Please excuse Marius’ borderline racism today; he is just trying to conform to the social pressures of his background.  Please will you also excuse him from any punishment for cheating on his wife – I’m sure you understand that he is merely a hostage to his selfish genes vying for survival. Lastly, if you catch him picking his nose, please will you excuse him as he is, after all, only a slightly evolved chimpanzee.

In the last few years, with advances in electroencephalograph (EEG) scanning, the brain and its workings have become the latest fodder for our universal “note”.  The Scientific American publishes a monthly magazine devoted to the brain, the Science and Self-Help sections of bookshops are bursting with brain books and you can tell when something has become truly ubiquitous – there’s a “Rough Guide” to it.

As our understanding of the workings of the “normal” mind, and the chemicals that are released in the face of various stimuli, improve, lawyers – and parents – are armed with an ever more sophisticated arsenal of mitigating and evidential factors.  Today, a murderer influenced by the chemical surges of pre-menstrual tension, though an apparently normal part of body function, is not a murderer.  Or, as I recently had to explain to the parents of two of my son’s school mates, “My son’s not actually an aggressive bully with a proclivity for sticking heads down toilets, he is suffering from melatonin underproduction and struggling to manage his teenage testosterone spikes.” I could tell from their contrite gawping that they quickly understood he was just as much a victim as their own little oiks.

If we, apparently, cannot control the chemicals and processes of our minds and bodies that effect our behaviour, are we actually responsible for anything we do?

At what point will we recognise that “my” brain, “my” rushes of adrenalin or floods of pheromones, is “me”?  If, when healthy, we can’t or won’t, even take responsibility for our own brains – and by association our own minds – then we are in danger of losing our identities, our individuality, ourselves.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why are we looking for excuses, but why do we feel so guilty in the first place?  Before humanism, we saw evil, or vanity, or stupidity, we did awful or idiotic things, but we had the ultimate “note”, “The devil made me do it.”

Now, though we’re still reaching for excuses, albeit more “scientific”, to apparently act like the venal selfish animals we are, the very fact that we’re looking for a “note” means we also recognise when we’re failing to be what we aspire to be: better. There’s hope!

The danger of the “note” will always be that we start to believe it and allow ourselves to stop striving; as Sam did.

Sammy’s parents, concerned for their child, gave in and encouraged Sammy to do the same.  Dyspraxia is, after all, a neurological disorder.  Had they looked deeper at neurological findings, they would have discovered that brains, especially young ones, have a phenomenal ability to “rewire” themselves through familiarity and conditioning.  It’s called “learning” or, if you prefer, “the process of creating new synaptic pathways in the brain”.

It seems counterintuitive to take the punishment, to run the race, to pound through the stinking puddles rather than find an excuse, but tearing up your own “note” might just be the best thing you’ll ever do.

Storm – Tim Minchin

This is brilliantly funny poem which just reminds me I’m not alone in my scepticism.

Sins of the fathers (… and the mothers)

The Good Childhood Inquiry claims that almost all of the problems now facing young people stem from the culture of “excessive individualism” that has developed in recent decades.

Daily Telegraph 2nd Feb

I know I’m not unique in having a childhood in which my father was, usually, just a tuft of thinning hair sticking up over the newspaper at breakfast and the footstep that instilled a panic of correction in the evening.

In contrast, a recent BBC news interview with a manager at Asda, charting how the downturn was affecting spending, revealed that steaks were down and mince was up, all luxury items were down but the strongest sales in the shop was still children’s clothes.  “That’s the last thing people want to make cuts on,” said the manager.

Are modern parents really the awful selfish individuals this report makes them out to be?  Or are they working hard in the face of the terrible nagging guilt that this survey torments them with.  Does any parent, however wonderful, ever feel adequate?

By no stretch of the imagination did I have a deprived childhood, but I still grew up wearing hand me downs.  I didn’t play in state of the art safety-conscious colourful playgrounds but in building sites and ad hoc adventure playgrounds.  There were no theme parks or all day children’s TV channels.  I would love to have had playstation, computer games, ipods or at least parents who had been brought up on touchy-feely family shows like Roseanne and even the Simpsons rather than the war time austerity, children-seen-and-not-heard, shell shocked, post Victorian generation who brought me up.

It is hard to believe that parents really are any more selfish today than they were when I was growing up.  I’m not going to try and argue that selfishness is such a common human trait that the sooner children work out how to deal with other people’s selfishness, the more savy and able to survive in the big world they will be.

But I do see and meet parents every day who are prioritising their children and are constantly aware of them.  Practically everything we do is for our children and their wants, even if it means working away long hours to achieve these things.  Today, even the children whose families have left them shamefully uncared for have, at least, a swathe of backups and schemes to try to prevent them falling through the net and, when all else fails, childline.

But, if parents are no more selfish or even less selfish, than they used to be, why are children aparently so unhappy with their lot?  Could it possibly be that they simply have higher expectations then any generation before?

Maybe children are less fulfilled actually because parents have proritised them so much.  Perhaps these selfish venal little beasts have realised that they can be more demanding and are disappointed when parents don’t follow through.

Yes consumerism doesn’t help.  What goes on in a child’s head is pure logic: If there is a disneyland or nintendo, and they look like they’re fun things for children, why don’t I have it?

Perhaps the ideas of unconditional love are difficult for families who have never experienced the fear and poverty of wartime to drive home the primacy of family and love over material accumulation.

But it is simply vicious and unhelpful to criticise parents who, on the whole, do want what’s best for their children in this difficult age of excess.  The downturn has been a blessing for many parents who have struggled to find a reason to deny and curb childhood consumerism.

The report that criticises mothers who go to work rather than live below the breadline but “with love” is just irresponsible and, simply, wrong.  Parental absence is a perrenial factor of childhood, whether it is war or work that takes parents away.  Just witness children’s literature from its beginnings in the Victorian period and note how little parents are involved in the stories of and for children.  The distant Blyton Mother or her deus ex machina Uncle, did Alice even have parents?  Or in fairy stories, the father who goes or the mother who dies and is replaced by a competitive stepmother.

In many ways the absence heart fonder/familiarity breeding contempt cliche spins it right.  Often we value our more absent parents because the limited time with them is precious and our memories are clearer rather than the blur of constant presence.

For anybody who has seen themselves in this report and finds guilt touching their nerves, take heart.  No matter how much you give your children albeit in time or gifts or love or attention, they are always as aware of you as you are of them – it will stay with them for their whole lives.  Remember, as they become adults and want to define their own individualism they will always blame you for their flaws and problems and you will have to bear that.  But that is love, and which ever path you picked, love is why you do what you do.