chabonsby

Words and such.

Nothing new under The Mail

The Daily Mail’s website recently became the most popular news site online, and whilst this is primarily down to becoming a tawdry gossip mag, it has also been racking up the hits with a string of bizarre pieces of short fiction. These have primarily concerned some psychosis or other of the nationalist right, such as an imminent invasion of the Falklands, Iranian agents trying to mortar the Queen, or the world’s weirdest nuclear bomb providing the fireworks at the Olympic opening ceremony.


The words ‘An artist’s impression’ no longer have any meaning.

They’re actually rather entertaining, and the fun Dominic Sandbrook had writing about the ‘Islas Malvinas’, a traitorous Sarkozy and a captive Prince Harry was infectious. Primarily, however, they’re ridiculous fear-mongering of the jingoistic class the Mail specialises in. The suitable reaction is clearly a mix of disgust and bemusement. Mostly I’ve gone with the former, but I’ve just come across something that puts this nonsense in a new light.

I was reading up on author and ‘Walter Mitty figure’ William Le Queux. Famous in equal parts for his nonsensical boasts and his nonsensical books, Le Queux’s apogee came with the massive success of “the Invasion of 1910,” a masterpiece in early 20th century Germanophobia. What drew my attention most about the work was that it was serialised in the Daily Mail. This was amusing enough in itself, but much more entertaining was that the fact that the Mail thought the book insufficiently terrifying to their Home Counties audience, and so asked Le Queux to rewrite the German’s invasion plans to include more Mail reader’s backyards. The result was a massive increase in circulation, and the Mail hasn’t looked back. I guess some things never change, although you get a lot more Kelly Brook with your chauvinism these days.

Apparently incoherent admiration

Edit: I’ve been warned this post is excessively boring.

A lot of the people I admire have starkly different opinions to me, and this is not exactly a new issue for me. My growing obsession with Reinhold Niebuhr has brought it to the fore however, and of late I’ve been pondering my admiration for George Kennan. It was always obvious to me that he was somewhat conservative, but a recent biography reveals the father of containment to be really rather regressive. According to a friend of his cited by author John Lewis Gaddis: “George is ultra-conservative. He’s almost a monarchist.” Kennan’s affection for his idea of a halcyon 19th century America is symptomatic of a pretty much archetypal ultra-conservative attitude. It would be fair to say that for all my flirtation with conservative ideas, I’m a world away from that kind of thinking.

Reinhold Niebuhr himself was, of course, always something of a leftist. What we don’t have in common, however, is a deep religiosity. Arguably the 21st century’s leading American theologian, Niebuhr’s entire world-view was informed, if not defined, by his faith. Whilst I spent much of my youth a Roman Catholic, and accept that those origins retain an immense influence, I’m certainly not one for the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ. I may well take a much kinder view of religious faith than many non-believers, but I’d still argue that there is a substantial difference in mindset between the believer and the skeptic. Perhaps even a bigger difference than between a conservative and a socialist.

I’m a political realist, which isn’t all that unusual for a vaguely centre-left type these days, so is the answer simply that I’m able to divorce my ‘international politics’ and my ‘domestic politics’? Indeed is it that I’m merely separating different aspects of these people’s worldviews? Unfortunately not, because I don’t simply agree with Niebuhr’s understanding of political action, or Kennan’s take on superpower foreign policy, I admire the men themselves, and a few others who don’t make easy bedfellows. I’m a left-wing atheist who admires a protestant minister and a political revanchist of the first order. Exactly how unusual is this, and where does it come from?

I suppose it’s worth considering the extent to which this can go the other way. Not my loathing nominal ideological allies, there’s no surprise there, but avowed lefties who are admired by some on the right. Usually due to readily identifiable integrity, bravery, or a dedication to personal freedom. The brave and committed Peter Tatchell is a good example along these lines, although the fact that he’s openly gay rather limits his appeal for many on the right. Then there are those who remain resolutely left-wing, but happen to have an affection for the use of force. And there always going to be those who simply aren’t very left-wing at all, like the coalition’s favourite ‘red’ Lord Hutton.

I believe, however, that a great number of left-wingers who are lionised by sections of the right are just myopically represented, somewhat like my intermittent and mostly misplaced affection for George H. W. Bush. The biggest example of this would have to be the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitch may well have been in favour of the Iraq war, but so were Johann Hari and Juan Cole. He may have had a kind word for Bush the lesser, but so would I if you narrowed his scope down to, say, AIDS in Africa. Hitchens was a contrarian first, polemicist second, and probably a socialist about fifteenth, but he definitely hated the right. Along similar lines, vast swathes of the modern right on both sides of the Atlantic have a bizarre fixation on noted socialist George Orwell purely because he was anti-totalitarian. My personal favourite along those lines has to be John McCain’s avowed admiration for the hero of Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. Does everyone’s favourite failed presidential candidate not remember exactly what the admittedly fictional Robert Jordan was doing in Spain?

Actually this last one rather brings me towards my explanation for the apparent incoherence of my admiration. I mock McCain for liking a fictional communist guerilla, but he admires him for the same reason I admire plenty of people I disagree with on a great many things. It’s not about the specifics of politics or ideology, it’s about character. McCain loves Jordan for the same reason most people like Hemingway’s creations; their stoicism, their honour, and their much-vaunted ‘grace under pressure’.* I admire Kennan and Niebuhr for their character, although their’s is primarily to be found in their writing rather than their actions. In fact, as an aside, I’m coming to suspect that a person’s international politics may well be more truly representative of who they are, certainly more than their attitude towards welfare or gay marriage or banking regulation or anything along those lines. This is my realism speaking here, obviously, but international politics is much starker, and much less dependent on context and culture. Therefore is it not much more likely to reflect the truth about someone? I remain deeply bemused by nominal conservatives, avowed heirs of Burke, who love nothing more than to call for yet another armada of unforeseeable consequences such as a war with Iran. The state can’t regulate banks because central management of the economy is too utopian an ideal, but we can light a bonfire under the Middle East and be certain that good will come of it? That’s not conservativism, that’s just a heady mix of chauvinism, ignorance, avarice and jerking knees.

I digress. Niebuhr preached the social gospel, Kennan longed for aristocracy, and I’m something approaching a social democrat†, but what we all share a resignation about the limited capacity of human action, an awareness of the immense damage invariably wrought by overreach, and a desire to still strive for betterment. To sum it up in a phrase: righteous prudence. Hemingway actually fits nicely, as he was all about accepting the truth about the world, but never resigning oneself. And again he is a hero of mine with whom I would have stark differences of opinion. Whatever their politics or opinions, these men always strove to be clear-headed, realistic and thoughtful about their goals, accepting of the immense limitations of human action and their own capabilities, and bold enough to try anyway. Or, in other words:

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

So how better to close than with probably my favourite contemporary thinker, the never knowingly left-wing Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is perhaps most famous these days for his championing of Obama (a man who may well fit the criteria I’ve been expounding on) but he is, by his own proud admission, a proper tory. And a conservative intellectual at that. He is also happily married to another man, a devout Roman Catholic, an avowed drug user and an academic. The man is the living antithesis to the unexamined life, so whilst he possesses the prudence characterised above, he also shares the second part of what makes someone draw my admiration. He has real integrity. Once a proud fan of George W. Bush, and a significant proponent of the Iraq war, he now condemns military adventurism in the bluntest terms, and is one of the leading critics of Bush’s legacy. Some would argue this apparently abrupt change shows a lack of integrity, but in truth it shows quite the opposite. He has not changed his mind on a whim. He has been honest with himself, and has truly examined his beliefs, the evidence, and the changing facts on the ground. Subsequently he has accepted that the Iraq War has been a disaster, and that the Bush way of doing things has lead to gross immorality, reckless imprudence, and horrific divisions within American politics.

Andrew Sullivan has remained intellectually honest throughout, despite all that assails such an attitude in the modern world, and he has shown immense integrity. Niebuhr was famed for the supposedly dramatic shifts in his opinions, Kennan spent decades railing against the cold war that many consider him to have designed, but they always stayed true to their underlying righteous prudence and integrity, and so has Sullivan, and so, I can only hope, will I. That’s why I admire these men, despite my many and varied disagreements with their views, and that’s why they are as close as I come to having heroes.

*As per usual this image slightly misrepresents what Hemingway was really about, much like the much-vaunted ‘Papa’ image does with the man himself. I imagine I’ll tackle this in detail at some point, but for now, here’s the background to McCain and Jordan, and a perfect example of the misrepresentation I’m talking about. It contains substantial spoilers for For Whom the Bell Tolls though, so be warned.

†I believe the technical term for this may well be “New Labour”, but that’s far too disturbing a truth to face up to.

Links iii

An old article here, but as it’s about history that hardly seems to matter. Robert A. Caro hints at a take on LBJ I wasn’t aware of. I’d always presumed that somewhere along the line he’d had something of a damascene moment about civil rights, but it appears to be the case he was just staggeringly dedicated to becoming president at all costs.

A fascinating example of the clumsy attempt to apply history to a modern issue here, as Piers Paul Read blames the Dreyfus affair for modern France’s militant anti-clericalism. He may well have a point, but in this article at least it seems rather tacked on to the fascinating history.

Melvyn Bragg is even more fascinating a character than I knew, and the kind of example which has slowly edged me away from an instinctive opposition to selective education. Perhaps more interesting here is Carole Cadwalladr’s mildly combative and self-absorbed interview style, which actually just about works. The interview also has the most ‘Guardian’ comments section you’ll likely ever read, if that takes anyone’s interest.

I adored the West Wing, but always found myself bemused by the notion that President Josiah Bartlet was a great liberal hero, not least because he faced the exact same struggles as Clinton and Obama with republican majorities and appeared to get even less progressive legislation passed. It was inevitable, therefore, that I’d enjoy this piece from Ian Millhiser. I wonder if Jeb was demonised in the same way the last two real Democrats to occupy the oval office have been. I suppose his happy marriage and his not being black would have helped undermine the rightist hate machine

There’s not really much that’s worth saying about this one that the title doesn’t convey: The Most Beautiful Yet Precariously Placed Monasteries on Earth.

Here’s another old article, but I actually read this one long time ago, and it happens to have stuck with me. Recent developments have brought me back to Michael Lewis‘ wonderful exploration of Greece’s then-developing, and now absolute, financial catastrophe. Bound to leave the reader shocked by the extent to which Greek society was absolutely shot-through with irresponsibility after jumping on the EU gravy train, this is long-form journalism at its finest.

In light of my next major post this is awfully relevant. Maurice Glasman argues that Edmund Burke is one of ‘the left’s favourite Tories’, whilst taking some enjoyable pot-shots at the tediously false dichotomy of left and right. Of course the title is mildly problematic, I doubt you’d have been well received had you called him a tory to his face, but Burke is definitely one of this lefty’s favourite conservatives.

Coriolanus

I saw Coriolanus recently, and decided I’d attempt to review it. A straight-up film review is rather new for me, and I’m still undecided as to whether to include a star rating…

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, as far as that statement has any meaning. It was certainly a complete novelty to me. Concerned with a legendary Roman general’s tempestuous relationship with home, I found it very thematically appealing, whilst still being able to see why it hasn’t had the success of Shakespeare’s most famous works. I don’t mean to review the play especially, as although it’s compressed it’s still, I imagine, mostly there. I’m more interested in the filmic aspects, not least because it’s a debut feature. Actually, as an aside, I’ve never really taken time to think about my attitude towards the filming of plays. I’ve always thought that with the dialogue mostly already written, it’s just not at all similar to other forms of adaptation.

Despite all of the above, with this being Shakespeare, the element most worthy of discussion has to be the performances. As per usual it’s a question of who could and who couldn’t hack the bard on screen. It take’s a certain knack. Fiennes himself I found a bit inconsistent, but when he was on form he was devastating, and he even spat. You don’t see that much spitting in films, in fact I’m not sure you see any. James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson were both having a great time, and were a joy to watch. Brian Cox was so utterly at ease with the material that And Vanessa Redgrave, well, cliches such as “tour-de-force” come hurtling to mind, but I think I’ll settle with saying she gives exactly the performance one would expect from her, and I can’t think of a greater compliment. Gerard Butler is never going to win an Oscar, but he’s well-suited to certain rules, and would get by here on quality of accent alone. The only real disappointment was Jessica Chastain, an amazing actor who just didn’t seem to me quite sure how to approach Shakespeare. Oh and of course, how could I forget, a certain…familiar face appears and tries his hand at acting. His cameo was great fun, and only a little bit distracting, but I’m not one for spoiling such things.

In terms of its setting, all the observations are obvious. Iraq, the Arab spring, Occupy, the modern media cycle, camera phones and so on all loom large, sometimes rather too unsubtly. Having said that, the portrayal of the media, and the citizens’ role therein, is rather impressive and timely. Fiennes’ work behind the camera did seem mildly amateurish at times, there is, for example, far too much shakey-cam. That said, I’ve already seen several worse-directed films this year, and perhaps he has a future on the other side of the camera, if he wants it. I’m not quite sure how I feel about actors making the switch, a lot of the time the end result seems like a vaguely ironic vanity project. Fiennes’ effort reminds of Drew Barrymore’s work on Whip It: the passion for the project shines through and that, combined with hugely talented casts, goes a long way to making up for technical limitations and inexperience. Besides, for every William Shatner there’s a Ben Affleck or Clint Eastwood, probably. Looking back, I feel I may have come across as not particularly impressed with Coriolanus, but I was, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes Shakespeare, and anyone who doesn’t, because there’s likely something wrong with them.

Links ii

Newt Gingrich is considered one of the leading ‘intellectuals’ of the Republican party, not least because he can hardly be called one of its moral champions. Daniel Larison helps remind us why the notion that Newt is one of the GOP’s best and brightest is so terrifying. I don’t doubt that he’s intelligent in some sense, but like most of the leading voices of the modern American right, he sure doesn’t sound it. And when it comes to international politics he, like the rest of them, comes across like a belligerent undergraduate.

Of course it’s easy to look intelligent when you’re sharing a podium with a raging lunatic like Rick Perry. A demagogue like him savaging a political party for being excessively theocratic is almost too much irony to know what to do with. As I’m writing this I hear that Perry has backed out of the race to throw his weight (and delegates) behind Gingrich. That’s a real nightmare ticket if I ever heard one.

When the question is raised of ‘why not attack Iran?’ is raised, it’s hard to resist the urge to scream ‘because it would be completely insane and wouldn’t even work’ in response. That isn’t terribly civil or productive, however, and so Elbridge Colby and Austin Long offer yet another detailed explanation of why it wouldn’t work and why, indeed, it would be more than a little irrational.

I’m old enough that I feel able to say stuff like this now: kids today are nuts.

A nice example of the hopefully burgeoning field of Batman studies here, as Taylor Marvin uses The Dark Knight to elaborate on the sheer gut-wrenching terror that any sensible person would feel at the notion of anarchy. He also provides a delightful contrast to the frankly daft notion that Nolan’s epic was intended as some kind of defence of the Bush administration. Instead, it is convincingly argued, The Dark Knight shows us the dangers of counterinsurgency. That’s right, The Batman isn’t Dubya, he’s General Petraeus.

Anyone who has ever studied the Cold War in the english language will, I imagine, be entirely unsurprised by this development. John Lewis Gaddis has written a biography of George Kennan. Jacob Heilbronn reviews, but in essence, if you know who both the author and the subject are, you’re probably going to want to read the book.

Finally, something a bit different. This Recording hosting an extract from a collection of Woody Allen’s writing. I’m not sure if this came before my favourite piece of stand-up ever, but they’re near enough identical so one is clearly an adaptation of the other. Many people will know that a third version exists, which I shan’t dwell on, suffice to say that while the written word is massively entertaining on its own, the greatest joy here is seeing the origin of something much later and much greater.

Films of 2011

I went to the cinema twenty-five times last year, comfortably a record amount, and so for once I feel well-equipped to do the done thing at this time of year and list some favourite films of 2011. On account of my being British, some of the films might be considered ‘of’ the previous year. Award-hunting films tend to get released in and around the awards season in this country. So, for example, ‘The Artist’ would be considered part of this past year, and were I to count it so it’d most likely be top of my list. But I like calender years goddamnit, and this is my list, and so it will be a list of the top five films I saw in 2011. There’s nothing particularly unusual, as I never get to say anything at all obscure until years after its initial release, but I have, for once, seen a large proportion of the big-hitters this awards season.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS

I have to admit, having never seen a Herzog documentary before beyond this, I initially struggled to take it seriously. Once I came to terms with his, ah, unique vocal stylings, I was as enraptured as one would expect to be by high-quality images of utterly fascinating glimpses of the early history of humanity. Coupled with some wonderfully whimsical sections, in particular the unforgettable albino crocodiles, and it was a truly delightful and thought-provoking experience. It also conclusively proved the precise value of 3D once and for all: it has none.

SUBMARINE

A friend and I recently had a lengthy discussion about which British comedian needs to join Iannuci, Morris, Cornish and Ayoade in stepping into the world of filmmaking. The obvious candidate was Stewart Lee, so, come on Stew, get on with already. Whilst all of the above have produced fine work, it is Ayoade who shows the most promise, with this wonderful and stunningly genuine take on what it’s like to grow up and fall in love whilst having a weirder than usual adolescence. Anyone who was ever a teenage boy and doesn’t feel a significant affection for Oliver Tate either had a very lucky adolescence, or can’t really remember what it was like.

THE TREE OF LIFE

I understand the walking out. I mean, to my mind it’s practically a crime, but I understand it, it’s a challenging and unorthodox film. Those two people, however, who loudly complained and huffed out of the cinema during some of the most beautiful images ever committed to screen, they can go straight to hell. It is a film of three main strands, interwoven in remarkable ways, with Sean Penn’s part was comfortably the weakest and least worthy of discussion. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that second section is concerned with the origins of life, that it is is deeply moving, and that it is as beautiful as anything you’re ever likely to see on film. The third strand, the film’s real narrative, is ostensibly a semi-autobiographical exploration of childhood, but felt to me more like a religious experience-cum-philosophy lecture. I’m not sure you can ask much more of a film than that. Malick has given us an extraordinarily moving meditation on life, grace, memory, childhood and so much more, and if you can’t appreciate that then you should at least be able to enjoy the stunning cinematography, and if you can’t even enjoy that, well, perhaps cinema’s not really for you.

DRIVE

A real human being…

Drive is many, many things. A charming love-letter to the 80s, an unnerving and fascinating profile of how horrific violence can be born from the most noble of motives, an insight into into the truly dark side of Nemo’s Dad, an opportunity to stare at the stunningly beautiful Carey Mulligan without guilt because it’s what the protagonist spends most of the film doing, and, indeed, a really bloody well-made driving film. It’s all of those things and many, many more, but it was one thing above all else. It is the proud owner of the best soundtrack in recent cinema history.

…and a real hero.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

It’s hard to talk about this film without spoling it. On the other hand I’m told the central premise of a film doesn’t really count as a spoiler. On a third metaphorical hand, said premise was barely hinted at in the trailer, and few critics mentioned it in their reviews. Sadly, somebody told me that Woody Allen essentially turned one of his oldest and greatest bits of stand-up into a film about the dangers and joys of nostalgia. Had I gone to see the film without knowing this, presuming it to be a somewhat tired love-letter to the city of Paris, then I may well have literally cried tears of joy upon seeing who was in that car. Shortly after seeing the film I wrote an epic treatise on how wonderful it is, but it was so utterly gushing I’d be embarrassed to share it. To summarise: Woody Allen made a film just for me.

Here’s the full 25, in case anyone feels I’ve made a glaring omission:

The King’s Speech, True Grit, Never Let Me Go, Submarine, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Source Code, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, The Tree of Life, HP7B, Super 8, The Inbetweeners, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Midnight in Paris, Drive, The Ides of March, 50/50, Moneyball, The Thing, Arthur Christmas, Hugo

Links i

First of all we have an article from The Good Men Project, a site I have rather mixed feelings about. I am, however, very appreciative to Yashar Ali for introducing me to the term ‘gaslighting.’ There aren’t nearly enough academic terms named after Ingrid Bergman films.

I read this next article quite awhile ago, but it’s so precisely geared towards my views I’ll take any opportunity to try and convince others to read it. Nathaniel Philbrick explains how a book about 19th century whaling* remains supremely relevant to our lives and our world today.

Here’s a piece from Wired about some research which backs up my long-held suspicion that it’s really hard to emote via text-based communications. The internet makes sociopaths of us all…

Gary Dorrien elaborates on one of my favourite subjects, Niebuhr’s influence on Obama. Mostly he just talks about Niebuhr’s regularly misunderstood philosophy, and how stunningly right it feels when you really get to grips with it. Needless to say Niebuhr is a huge influence on me, and I’ll probably do a blog post on him at some point. Hell, I’ll probably do a PhD on him at some point.

I have a huge interest in Afghanistan, indeed it was, in part, the subject of my MA thesis**. At present that interest has waned somewhat, due to the sheer misery involved in trawling through that nation’s recent history. Indeed Jon Lee Anderson’s look at Afghan Maskharas is a perfect representation of most literature on that particular nation, being equal parts fascinating, disturbing and disheartening. What’s a Maskhara you ask? Think Court Jester-cum-Assassin and you’re, well, about a third of the way there.

Lee Siegel provides another in the genre of ‘articles I read awhile ago about how a great American novel remains as vital as ever in modern times’. I was reluctant to urge people to read Moby Dick, because it’s quite an undertaking and you might well hate it, but if you haven’t read the Great Gatsby then you really must, if nothing else it’s shorter than some of my posts. Also of note is that I read this article waiting for a friend in a train station. After seeing my reaction to a certain comparison Siegel makes as she approached me, she claimed it was the first time she’d ever seen me smile.

Next up Daniel Blumenthal makes a bucketload of points I don’t especially agree with. What I do agree with, however, is describing delusional beliefs in IR as ‘unicorns’. There’s not nearly enough that’s adorable about International Relations.

You know how sometimes you hear about other people’s wonderful teachers and wish that you’d had him or her, or even just one John Keating of your own? Well, I wish we’d all had Al Vernacchio. A great profile, of a great man.

I’m not entirely convinced by Professor Cole’s theory here, but I do think it serves as a good example of both the possible unintended consequences of a foreign policy decision, and also the way in which politics hinders statesmanship. Both are obsessions of any realist, and I’m almost certainly one of those.

Finally, Amanda Marcotte guests on Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog to explain how awesome Britta Perry clearly is, and how we should burn this godforsaken world if Community gets cancelled. Hmm, perhaps she merely implied the second bit, either way, Team Britta.

*This should probably be the book about 19th century whaling, but I suppose there may be others, and good luck to them.

**The whole anonymity thing is a joke when you consider how freely I throw out personal details.

New Year’s Resolutions

As far as I can remember I made no resolutions last year. That’s most unlike me, so this year they’ve returned with a vengeance, not least because the new year also brought a significant change in my personal circumstances. I’ve tended to scribble them down in the back of my notebook, in vaguely coded shorthand, which isn’t always wise. One from two years ago reads ‘Make Imminence’, and since about a week after I wrote I’ve had no idea what it means. This year’s list is coded more sensibly, and is as follows:

31st December 2011
-Health
-Appearance
-Niceness
-Direction
-Girlfriend
-German

They may look like categories, but each has a very specific meaning. Which, of course, I shan’t disclose. You can probably guess the last one.

Enough about me for now, the main purpose of this post is to discuss the concept itself. I was inspired to do so by a handful of ruminations on the subject I came across this morning. Charlie Brooker is as enjoyable as ever, railing against the pointlessness of indulging in self-loathing, before moving on to some tried and tested everyone else-loathing. All very enjoyable, but mostly irrelevant to what I wish to discuss, aside from his first line, which I will get back to later. More pressing is the hypercritical take from ex-libertarian Will Wilkinson, who has two main points. Firstly, you can’t force yourself to want things:

Wanting to want or not want to do something is a pickle we can’t trick ourselves out of by harder meta-wanting. Either you somehow alter the first-order desire (all riches will flow to she who holds the secret) and, as Yoda says, do or do not, or you don’t, and you do or do not do what you wish you wouldn’t. Better to just note the conflict between what you want and what you want to want, and not make such a big deal about it. You can’t feel bad about breaking promises you never made.

I happen to disagree entirely on this point, due in part to reading about behavioural sciences, but primarily due to personal experience. If you’re willing to work at it, you have a lot more control over your brain than you may well realise. His other point I’m far more sympathetic to, that the whole ‘new year’ business is utterly arbitrary:

And why wait? What does the time it takes for Earth to make it ’round the sun have to do with your regimen of self-improvement? Nothing. You didn’t get fat last year. You’re getting fat right now, always, unless you know it and act like you care, or you’re a communist who lives on kale. Anyway, the Earth’s trip around the sun holds altogether too much sway in our lives. Why not count in full moons? Why not?  Why the best books of 2011? A year is too short. You can’t read all those books.

I do wonder how much his politics inspires this position. If you’re far from fond of government then it stands to reason that while you’ll accept the seasons as immutable, the whole concept of a standardised year which ends in the middle of one of those seasons should make you uncomfortable. He has a point, we shouldn’t feel like those aspects of our lives that we can control need to match up to the calender year, but the year itself, well, it’s an ancient and entirely inoffensive construct. This is all a sideshow, as what really matters about a new year’s resolution, like any form of self-improvement, is whether it works. Conventional wisdom suggests that resolutions are doomed to fail, often within a few days. I presume there are studies out there on the topic, quite possibly proving said ‘wisdom’, but I’m far too lazy to look at those properly. I do, however, remember once seeing that someone did a study which suggested people stick to somewhere in the region of 20% of resolutions. So, instead of an in-depth literature review, we shall consider my own resolutions. Last year was irresolute, but 2009 and 2010 are easy to find, and conveniently there’s been at least two years since I made them:

31st December 2008
-job Education
-Drink water more
-Exercise
-___ with ____
-learn German
-learn to cook
-relearn Maths

Well, I’ve mostly failed these. I decided within about three hours of making this list to go back and do an MA, which I did, so there’s a success, and I did learn to cook, which I still do very regularly. Oh and the blanked out one I did manage, but it remains classified. The spaces are on the written page, but I always knew what that what meant. As for the failures…I wanted to ‘relearn’ maths because I looked at an old GCSE revision guide and was largely stumped, but I never made any serious effort on that account. I have some German, and I’m forever meaning to pull it up to a decent level, but, again, little effort to do so in 2009. Exercise…well, I did lose two stone that year, but I never really found a proper exercise regime, there was never the necessary consistency. And note that it’s not “drink more water”, I just aimed to have water take the place of other drinks more often, and it didn’t really work out either.

31st December 2009
-14
-chew
-Francais
-fish
-Make Imminence
-Lift
-Contacts

Absolutely no success this time. ’14’ was an aim to get down to 14 stone, and I’m not there even now. I’m losing weight, sure, but more slowly than your average corpse. ‘Chew’ is an interesting one, suggesting I should chew my food for longer, and I’ve never been able to stick that. I think that should count more as a permanent suggestion. You can see that for some reason I swapped out German for French, a language I known even less of. The less said on that the better. ‘Fish’ implies I should make the jump from pescetarian to vegetarian, which is a daft idea which should have been and thankfully was quickly forgotten. ‘Make Imminence’…as I said, your guess is as good as mine. ‘Lift’ suggests I start doing weights, so I could handle physical tasks with greater ease, but I never really got around to that. And ‘Contacts’ means contact lenses, and I’ve still to look into that.

So, three out of fourteen, not far short of that 20%. That’s the first lesson then, make less of them. I’ve made just the six this year, so clearly I’m learning that lesson. Finally we come back to Mr Brooker, who opened his article with this line:

New Year’s resolutions work like this: you think of something you enjoy doing, and then resolve to stop doing it.

That’s certainly a popular perception, and I think it helps explain why people’s resolutions are usually so far from resolute. Trying to stop yourself from doing something, something you enjoy, is an incredible challenge. While I’d never say you shouldn’t make that effort, I do think a new year, a supposedly hopeful time, is the wrong moment for it. Even considering my ridiculously low success rate, the ones which have worked have involved actively doing something, and I think that would be the best bet for any of us.

In conclusion, new year’s resolutions are bunkum, but only in the same way that the vast majority of attempts to control the human condition are. The best bet is clearly to strive not to stop something, but to start something, to be positive, even if it’s unlikely to work. And if the alternative is to not even bother trying, well then, there’s no great harm in using the turn of the year as inspiration, it’s bound to work for some people, and perhaps it’ll work for me eventually. If nothing else, it makes for a nice window into where you were at a certain time in one’s life, and we all love a little nostalgia, no?

On Blogging

Last night I was thinking about the process of blogging. That is to say, the form. I was drawn to the issue that I presume effects any would-be novelist, a category in which I sometimes dare to place myself. There has been so very much literature written that you find yourself wondering how on Earth you can ever hope to do anything that is at all, ahem, novel. Blogging brings with it a similar issue, but mostly to do with form rather than content. All blogs are concerned with the thoughts of an individual or group, and joining that cascade merely involves offering up one’s own thoughts. The problem is trying to do this in a manner which doesn’t feel trite. My solution, clearly, is to begin my attempt utilising WordPress’ default template. To be frank the only reason I brought this up is to make a point that occurred to me at the time. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that by this point more words have been written on blogs than in all the books ever published. Interesting though, no?

My girlfriend*, who insisted I start a blog (perhaps she sees me as a problem shared), was the one who inspired last night’s pondering. She was encouraging me to think about what I would actually put on a blog, and being an accomplished navel-gazer I decided to focus on blogging itself. I’m a specialist, but I think it’s a generation-wide issue. For whatever reason we’re all caught up on taking apart and experimentally putting back together; an entire cohort of Sternes and Joyces, but with more videos of cats. I suppose it’s all related to the problem of unoriginality mentioned above. At this point we’re just so absolutely saturated with worlds and ideas that inventing our own is effectively impossible. Of course, such concerns have been dominant for decades, and around for centuries, if not millennia. We’re hardly the first people to feel we’re slouching on the shoulders of some very tall giants, but we are the first people with the internet. Truly everyone is a critic now.

Don’t worry, dear non-existent reader, having now proven myself quite the dilettante I shan’t spend too much time with this pondering. It will come up again, I’m sure, but I’m a man of little intellectual confidence, so I don’t like to risk placing myself too obviously on Mount Stupid. I worry I live there, in a nice cabin, but when I’m feeling optimistic I like to feel I’m on my down towards that valley. So if I’m not going to blather on about things I know little about what am I to do? Say nothing…that would be and has been the obvious answer, but I’m striving to be at least a little more talkative. The solution, therefore, must be to talk about those subjects about which I know a little bit more than a little, whilst remaining aware that there is nothing about which I know a lot. Very Socratic of me. I suppose if I ever feel the need to really talk about something other than myself, and it can happen, I’ll put it here instead of my diary. Oh, and there will be links, lots of links, I read way too much not to share some of it, on the off-chance I ever do pick up a readership.

*Here’s a thing, I’ve decided to try for some vague notion of anonymity, while remaining aware of the nature of the internet. I’m actually a remarkably non-private person, if you want to find out damn near anything about me you need only ask, and, often as not, you need only stand within a few feet of me. The problem is that the only way I’ll get anyone to read the damn thing is to advertise it to people I know, and I can hardly pretend it’s not me. The reason it came up here is that said girlfriend suggested I come up with a codename for her, something akin to the Secret Service’s entertaining titles for their various charges. I shall put some thought into it. As for the anonymity, well, it’s not a big deal, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Um…

Hey [girlfriend who has asked I don’t mention her by name]. 🙂