You and whose army?

I haven’t been posting a lot lately and when that happens it tends to be because I am too busy with work, or the family, or I’m just too tired… or not in the mood… or… well, given that this is an unpaid endeavour any reason is as good as another isn’t it? I mean, when people aren’t paying us to do something then we have to really want to do it if it’s going to get done at all. I don’t get paid for gardening (or even tidying my garden) and guess what? Yep, I don’t do a helluva lot of gardening because I hates it.
Writing this, on the other hand, I do enjoy so I get to it when I can. Would it be better if someone paid me? Probably. Possibly. I know I like being paid to do things. Would it be better if I got paid to do gardening? Same answer. I would be more likely to do it, but I would still dislike the entire process. Which leads me neatly to Brexit… Ha! You weren’t expecting that were you? Well, stick with me, the connections are a bit labyrinthine but they get there in the end. My opinions on Brexit are well known. I have a European wife and children so even if it were not the most massive incident of economic self harm ever known, even if we would all be better off financially, I would still hate it. And given that it will have an immediate impact on where I live out the rest of my life I do tend to read a lot about it. Which brought me (at 4am) to this.
A citizen’s assembly. Now the first time I heard about this I thought it would be a dozen people like a jury but it turns out that it isn’t. In the Irish referendum on abortion they had a citizens assembly of 100 people and according to Gordon it went off without a hitch. No yellow vests were spotted as far as I know and there seemed to be a remarkably calm transition – with no need for the rise of the far right. Now, this is Gordon Brown – a man I would not trust to bring the correct change back if I sent him to the shop for a pint of milk and 20 Lambert & Butler – but since the idea was originally Irish I managed to put aside my initial reticence and ended up with an even bigger proposal.
Still a crap idea.

The Irish Citizen’s Assembly didn’t just meet once and have a chat – they met over 5 weekends and didn’t just talk about abortion. Which got me to thinking… did they get paid for that? And yes, I am Scottish, why do you ask?
picture of money that isn’t a pound or euro
I mean, that’s five weekends you’re talking about there. As a man with a young family I get enough abuse if I work even one day on a weekend and whilst I am not moaning about that it did raise the thought in my mind… well, why shouldn’t they be paid for it? There they are thinking about what to do with the ageing population in Ireland, or climate change or whatever… seems to me only fair. Then I thought… paying people to solve problems… that’s a neat idea. I wonder why no one ever thought of it before? And of course they have, but they f***ed it up and invented politicians by accident – a group of adults who act like teenagers and believe that a good excuse is the same as a job well done. So they decided to leave it to business instead and discovered that the money became the problem instead of the solution. Clearly we are in need of better people to address these issues. People who either don’t care about money, or don’t need it. People who have time on their hands and no clue what to do with it…. I think I might know some. Imagine a society that had at its disposal a group of activists. An army of social activists that is. Not political activists you understand, not people dedicated to a single party or cause, but to society as a whole. Look at the problems we currently face. Brexit, climate change, immigration (or the lack of it)… take any issue from a huge global problem such as automation and employment down to the personal difficulties of loneliness and mental health. Then add an army…
Hmmm…not quite
It will come as a surprise to many of you (as it did to me) that the idea we really need was in the Daily Mail all along. What we really need here is conscription. I have an acquaintance in Israel – he is a young and talented film maker who could have avoided his national service in the infantry simply by joining the communications corp or whatever. In the end he chose not to – he joined the infantry and spent two years scared shitless. I am old enough to have known people in France who had to do their national service – and they generally did choose the communications corp, or did their public service in some other institution like a museum or some such. That is to say, they spent time working in their community – and we could do with a bit more community could we not? Imagine if, instead of being conscripted into the army, you were told to do your public service in the community. What issues might we be able to tackle? What great problems might be lessened with that dedicated workforce? You won’t need it everywhere – the Queen and her family don’t really need checking up on despite their advanced years. And you wouldn’t have to pay the Queen’s rate for a bit of community work either. I’m not talking about people marching up and down here. This isn’t a ‘STAND BY YOUR BEDS!’ proposition. No, I’m talking about a vast swathe of the country’s young people (all of them really) delaying the start of their post-school life for a while. I’m talking about Etonians working with the homeless in Manchester or Glasgow. The privileged working alongside the less fortunate for a few months and learning something of life beyond their entitled bubble. Equally it is a chance for those less fortunate to get mobile. Maybe you want to live in your home town your whole life? That’s fine… just as soon as you’ve done your bit for the landscape or whatever. I know people in my home town who have no idea about foreigners, folk of a different colour or even other local authority areas… and they are happy to hate all of them. Can you imagine people hating Polish folks so much if they have had a chance to work with them and meet them and talk to them since they were in their late teens? Can you imagine Brexit happening after 20 years of this when every Polish person who has grown up here has had a chance to work on an equal basis with everyone else?
The disconnect between the politicians and the voters, in my opinion, has never been wider – and it needs narrowing. If we did this then we might have some chance that the professional political class to come would have a notion of what ‘real’ life is like. It becomes more difficult to hate people you have lived and worked beside and that’s all I am proposing here. Everyone does the same thing… no one is disadvantaged by delaying a year because the intake for university or whatever is the same for everyone equally – except you get people with a little more life experience when they do arrive. Wanna take a gap year? That’s fine. You can do that just as soon as you finish this.
Just to confirm – you can still join the army if you want to – nobody is stopping you – or you can try a bit of social work, or get your driving license so you can work the mobile library/foodbank/ blood drive van. And just before you say. How will we pay for it? We already do pay for it. The knock on costs of cleaning up the environment/ dealing with the elderly/ drug crime and addiction… ach, this could help all manner of things. A society that spends money on the defence of… itself. And you don’t even have to wear a uniform.

The Colosseum

Or as we call it… the internet.

What people are we? Hidden in plain sight. Who dare not go out in our true clothing? Dare not show our true colours. No. We cower behind aliases and pseudonyms and user IDs – we shroud ourselves in anonymity then sally forth into battle imagining ourselves as some sort of Black Knight or Lone Ranger entering the fray when we are merely bystanders, crowd members, baying voices in the mobs that create the noise of the internet.
Twitter Poll !!!
And who then are the real combatants? For it is surely combat this feels like. There is precious little healing going on. No hands across oceans, no meeting of minds for grand endeavour… at best an isolated soul can find a kindred spirit and perhaps a small suffering is alleviated thereby. But is this rare? Or is this happening all the time and it is simply too quiet an event, too subtle for us all to notice in the tumult that is modern day communication? How did we all get to be so angry… constantly? Imagine, if you will, that you could hear the internet… all the time. Would it not drive you mad? Well, in a way, we can. It is on our social media, it is on our historic media, it’s on the page and in the airwaves. Then, even if you were to avoid all of that, your friends arrive and promptly start repeating all that they have seen and read. It is endless. As if a mass of people had shown up at your house and just simply started banging on the windows and shouting through the letter box.
Hey snowflake! Wanna chat?
We are constantly bombarded and the resulting disorientation leads us, understandably to dissatisfaction at best and utter fury at worst. And is this anger not the cause of even more anger? When someone shouts at me do I not respond in kind? Of course I do.
You can’t beat a bit of reasonable discussion
And so no wonder we enter the fray in a guise other than our own. No wonder we buckle on the armour. We have moved the public discourse of the forum across the city into the colosseum and we sit, waiting for someone to be fed to the lions, baying for blood with the rest of the crowd. We’re not there to hear the information. We’re there to pick a side in the hopes that our side wins and we can feel better for the slightest fraction of a second or morally superior for even longer when someone says something we don’t like.
Oi!! I’m offended by that.
But the plebs attending the colosseum had a a few advantages over us in this regard. Actually way more than a few but let’s ignore things like the weather and cheap tickets and just take the biggies.
  1. Anonymity – Sure Claudius Drusus sitting next to you might just remember your face and think badly of your language but for the most part the poor christian in the pit isn’t going to remember you after the lion does get him. Also the lion doesn’t care either. Whereas in our internet you either take time to ensure your anonymity or that drunken tweet comes back to bite you on the arse later.
  2. It was a social thing – you weren’t sitting in your domus and shouting at the slaves. You went to an event – it was a day out – where you got to shout at someone else’s slaves. Here and now you are just annoying the family.
  3. It was obvious who was paying. If a senator or consul decided to sponsor a few games they did it openly. It was the equivalent of a political action committee. Julius for Senate! No sneaky viral attack ads here, no Russian trolls – just a bit of wild boar hunting and prisoners v leopards.
The more I think about it the more I like the colosseum better. We should ban political spending and advertising on the TV. Make them pay for local events where the politicians can come and sit with us as we watch PR men and hackers slug it out in the ring. With added lions, naturally. Can I just ask those that know me and live close by? Can we do less in Colosseum and more in the real world? I know some are spread far and wide but can we make time, this year, to just meet for a while? The best things I did last year I did in the real world. Went to a Grand Prix or a protest march or even just round to a pal’s to watch a football match. A dinner with friends or a night out… a card game. These are the times new memories are made (when we can remember) and even though I do things online a fair bit I cannot count one single thread on facebook or twitter amongst the top 100 events from last year or any year. It seems that ‘social’ became a fast thing, An easy thing, that is done whilst sitting in your shorts and wearing your oldest t-shirt I’m sure social isn’t supposed to be that. Thumbs up if you agree. Thumbs down if I should be put to the sword.

Life is like a…

No it bloody well isn’t

And this my fine friends is the folksy wisdom of Forrest Gump which was released in 1994 and is therefore coming up on it’s 25th anniversary. What I’m about to say tends to attract funny looks and cold shoulders. There are things that people can agree to disagree on – like Marmite (it’s not a foodstuff) or the justification for auto tune (nope, never, ever) but equally there are things where I get the feeling I am so right it might well look to the casual observer that I am wrong. Forrest Gump is one of those things – I hate Forrest Gump. Which is to say that I hate the movie. Forrest Gump isn’t a real person – can we just make that clear? If he was a real person I would have nothing against him and I would wish him every success in his prawn selling endeavours. But he isn’t. All the same, when you tell people you don’t like the movie they tend to react as if you said you hate puppies. Or that you really admire the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The movie was a huge hit when it was released and to be honest that was one of the reasons I think I might have been set against it at first. I really struggle to like the ‘big’ film of the year since they invariably disappoint compared to the build up. Some of them manage it eventually Jurassic Park; ET- The Extraterrestrial and so on. Forrest Gump came second in overall box office and it scooped up awards the same way Forrest scoops up shrimp. It won oscars, it won golden globes… it was bloody everywhere and the line above about the chocolates became an instant quote. Going from nowhere to everywhere in the space of a few months and even to this day if you type “life is like a….’ into google then it comes up top. Even before Life is like a book. It is now so well known that it has become a cliche; a generally accepted truism that is no longer examined despite it being the dumbest simile on film. Life isn’t like a f***ing box of chocolates and in the last defence of this film I will ever give neither the author nor the film makers would have wanted it to be taken as true. It is merely an example of how Forrest Gump sees the world. That one line is a microcosm of his character and the film but it is also a perfect example of what goes wrong with this film. What do you mean you haven’t seen Forrest Gump? Sheesh! Okay, I’ll come back to the chocolates.
Forrest Gump is the eponymous hero in a tale spanning several decades. Forrest has a low IQ (75) but is kind, open-hearted and always does the right thing. He excels at football, goes to Vietnam, meets the president and finds himself involved in various famous events of the time. Disaster befalls him and his companions on a frequent basis but he retains a sunny disposition for the most part and ends up being fairly famous and rich. All of which is fine, but what’s it about? Well that’s the problem you see. The film starts with this feather falling from the sky…
And it’s erratic descent to Forrest’s feet is as much of an explanation as you will ever get or need for the plot of the movie. Forrest is the feather to all intents and purposes – blown hither and yon by unseen forces and having as much about say in it as the feather does in the main. Are there good bits? Of course there are, this is not a badly made film in any way – and you have to feel sympathy for Forrest or there is something missing in your soul. He is a victim of circumstance and everyone should feel sorry for the victim. But Forrest Gump is a singular movie because he is a singular character. I did suspect that he was, perhaps, the ultimate stoic – a near perfect example of that philosophical school invented and espoused by Zeno of Citium and other ancient greeks as well as Marcus Aurelius, Derren Brown and my mate Allan who lives in Thailand.
zeno of citium not my mate Allan
I won’t go into the details of stoicism (it can be long and winding road) but I had thought that it was much to do with retaining an equanimity about events – regardless of whether they be good or bad – as I searched for a good reason to champion this film. If Forrest Gump was merely the embodiment of something then I could like him. But he isn’t. It turns out that a stoic has one thing that Forrest does not – and that’s a vision of the future. As a character Forrest initiates nothing, wants nothing (except maybe Jenny) and makes no moves towards achieving anything that he might desire – and as a film educator it drives me nuts. Every time I go into a classroom I am trying to tell the children (or adults) about character and story. We all do the same. Films are about characters and characters want something – which they don’t get right away. Otherwise there would be no bloody film. Think of any other film you’ve ever seen and the chances are high that there is a central character who wants something and a variety of obstacles in their way. It’s storytelling 1.0.1. Except not in Forrest Gump – he’s a blank slate- and the film shouldn’t work, but it does. We are encouraged to just drift along with him as his life is turned upside down by random events – Jenny, Vietnam, Storms and shrimp… it pains me utterly because we are looking for meaning where there can be no meaning. The critic Roger Ebert at the time wrote: Watch him carefully and you will understand why some people are criticized for being “too clever by half.” Forrest is clever by just exactly enough.
Now that I write this it occurs to me that it is not the film, nor the main character that I dislike but the reaction there was to it. Back in 1994 it was championed as a better, more innocent view of the world. Forrest Gump, in the movie and as an aspect of the movie in the real world was famous because of his inabilities, not because of his abilities. There is the whole attitude that we are better off not worrying or thinking or having ambitions and we can still make a success of life. No. No you don’t. I’m not having any of it. The film makers might not have intended it that way but anything they meant to achieve by having Forrest only get to normal school by his mother sleeping with the school principal is lost in the folksy charm of Forrest and his chocolates. And this is why we come back to the box of chocolates. The screenwriter and film makers I am certain did not want that line to become a cliched truism in the world. The line is intended to let us know how Forrest thinks – not how we should think. “Life is like a box of chocolates, cos you never know what you are gonna git”
Really? I do know what I am getting, they tell you on the side of the box, which is why I grab the orange cremes before anyone else. Life is shit sometimes (even for Forrest Gump) and the last box of chocolates I read didn’t have shit-flavoured truffles wrapped up inside.
25 years have passed since Forrest Gump appeared. Damn! I guess life really is like a box of chocolates. Turn your back for a minute and there’s hardly any left.