Saturday, 30 January 2010

A Beautiful Magician

I was in a shop yesterday. It had piped music playing over the PA. One of the tracks had a young male voice singing the old Sting classic ‘Fields of Gold.’ It was that sort of voice that gets on in the commercial world, the sort that wins TV talent shows: cold, dull, characterless - at best ‘correct,’ but nothing more. All ego and no soul.

The version I have is the one sung by Eva Cassidy. I don’t think any song sung by any singer has ever touched me as much as that one sung by her. It illustrates perfectly the difference between real music and the drab, lifeless stuff that makes a lot of money and projects its purveyors into the empty world of celebrity.

Of course, I never knew Eva Cassidy, but it seems she didn’t seek celebrity. It’s possible she never even knew how good she was. By all accounts she was a brilliant light that burned briefly and intensely, as the purest lights often do, and then went out early. I like to think she has returned to the realm of angels, whence she came.

For what Eva Cassidy possessed was the ability to take a lyric and a melody, and mould it into magic. How she did it, I don’t know; I’m not a magician. All I do know is that listening to her is a unique experience. I like a lot of singers, but none has quite the magic she had.

Blessings Eva Cassidy, wherever you are now. Thank you for the magic.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Bankers from Another Planet

Another news report captured my attention today. It seems the hundred or so British partners of the Goldman Sachs banking empire have voluntarily undertaken to restrict their salaries and bonuses for 2009 to a mere £1m each. The report said this was a ‘substantial sacrifice.’ Oh good; I do love to see people making sacrifices. Of course, many of the executives at sub-partner level will continue to receive much more than that. I suppose that’s because they’re nearer the poverty line. I’m reminded of the many books and films in which beings from another planet take over the world.

But then, I happen to subscribe to the view that the physical universe is just one level of illusion, so maybe none of this matters very much.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Our Democratic Duty

There’s a general election looming in Britain. It will be won by either the Conservatives or New Labour, with the Lib Dems in third place. It’s been that way since before Adam knew what fig leaves were for. It used to matter which party won, but it doesn’t any more because the major parties no longer provide a well defined choice between ideologies. Mrs Thatcher killed off the Tories; Tony Blair did the same for the Labour Party. In modern Britain, commerce is king and the new god is the free market economy. That means that all three major parties now tailor their policies to the same section of the electorate – the flock of brain-dead sheep known collectively as Middle England. The political parties and the conformity-obsessed public feed off each other in a state of complacent symbiosis, convincing one another that everything is all right and that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

Each time there is an election, focus turns to the question of low voter turnout. The politicians like to call it ‘voter apathy,’ conveniently forgetting that they have become among the least trusted body of people in the land, and that they are not actually giving us any choice in what we’re voting for. I, for one, have stopped listening to senior politicians. There’s no point, because almost everything they say falls into one or more of five categories. It’s either pointlessly predictable, evasive, manipulative, untrue, or just plain stupid. They’re becoming worse than advertising executives.

And yet the bastions of Middle England tell me that I must vote. Democracy was hard-won, they say; it is my duty to choose one candidate over another. No it isn’t. Firstly, if the major parties are all offering pretty much the same thing, then the concept of democracy is an illusion. More to the point, however, is the fact that democracy does not require people to vote for one or other of the candidates. The point of democracy is that it gives everyone a choice. If you don’t like any of the candidates or what they stand for, your democratic ‘duty’ is to abstain. Telling people that they have to vote for somebody they don’t want is the very denial of democracy.

And so I intend to go to my polling station in May and see who is standing in my constituency. If I don’t find a name there that I feel I want to vote for – which will almost certainly be the case - I will mark my ballot paper ‘none of the above.’ The paper will be considered ‘spoiled’ and discounted, but at least I will have honoured those who fought for democracy. I will have done my duty.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Trouble with TV Documentaries.

In the ocean of mindless drivel that constitutes most of the modern TV schedules, the documentary should stand out as a welcome landfall for the discerning viewer. Documentaries, we are led to believe, are intelligent, authoritative and impartial. Unfortunately, it isn’t so. Many years of studying them have revealed that there is much about them that is questionable. They have five characteristics that give me cause for concern.

1 It is common practice to offer some entirely speculative thesis at the outset, and then proceed on the dishonest assumption that it is proven fact.

2 They are often blatantly manipulative. They will claim to be offering a balanced view of some controversial subject, but they subtly manipulate the viewer into accepting a preconceived opinion. This is often done by careful selection of spokespersons for the conflicting views. Those speaking for the acceptable view are good communicators, and look safe and presentable. Those speaking for the opposing view are usually poor communicators, and have something about their appearance that the average viewer will find menacing, or at least unsatisfactory.

3 They like to hook the viewer’s interest by presenting an opening mystery. Then they proceed to “solve” the overall question, but conveniently forget to address the mystery. I once saw a documentary on the unexplained mass deaths of Harbour Porpoises. The opening mystery was that the animals had no external signs of injury. The hour-long programme finally concluded that they had been beaten to death by Bottlenose Dolphins. So why were there no external signs of injury?

4 Sometimes they even contradict their own commentary. A documentary on Mediterranean volcanoes claimed, in the first half, that the problem was exacerbated by the fact that “the prevailing winter wind is easterly.” They repeated the statement in the second half, but replaced “easterly” with “westerly.”

5 It is not uncommon for them to make the most blatantly inaccurate statements, suggesting that the writer simply doesn’t know the subject. One documentary about Queen Cleopatra claimed that “At the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire stretched from North Africa in the south to Hadrian’s Wall in the north.” The average British school kid knows that Britain wasn’t even a Roman province at the time of Julius Caesar; and that Hadrian’s Wall was still two hundred years in the future.

I’ve found that one or more of the above shortcomings attaches to nearly every documentary I watch these days, be they scientific, historical, geographical, social – whatever. I watch them carefully now, for it isn’t sufficient to understand their analysis of the subject; it is also necessary to analyse the documentary itself, and choose what to believe and what to ignore.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Sublime Irony

I watched a TV report tonight, on the clearance of Palestinian dwellings in and around east Jerusalem. Men, women and children were in tears as they were evicted from houses their families had lived in since 1948. They watched helpless as their homes were bulldozed. The talk was all of ‘rights,’ ‘ownership,’ and an ‘eviction budget’ that had to be met. I know little of Israeli politics, but I have to wonder why the talk should have to be about rights and ownership, instead of compassion and justice. Some might accuse me of being na├»ve and unrealistic. No, I’m not; I’m just being human. It fills me with dread when I see young Israelis waving the Star of David triumphantly, while their ethnic inferiors suffer. There is a sublime irony in seeing the Israeli police behaving like the SS. Sometimes I lose faith in the human race.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Master Race

I have heard people argue over which of the creative media is the senior one. ‘Opera,’ say some; ‘drama,’ say others. For me, there is only one answer: music, in its simplest and least pretentious form. Drama, opera, painting, literature – all need the filter of the intellect to fully appreciate them. Not so music; music goes straight to the heart. For me, that makes it the most powerful and profound of all forms. And the purest exposition of music is the female voice. It helps if she is singing in a language foreign to the listener. Music needs no human language. It is, in itself, the universal language of the spheres. It’s why I prefer to listen to Gaelic songs rendered in Gaelic. If there is a master race on this earth, it has to be the musicians.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

A Fine Perversion

I am frequently struck by one of the many double standards endemic in western culture. If a roughneck teenager goes out into a public park one day armed with an air rifle and shoots a swan, the whole of ‘decent’ society bays for his blood. Press and public alike demand that the police catch him, lock him up, and throw away the key. A smartly dressed man wearing the uniform of the shooting party, on the other hand, can take his shotgun and slaughter as many pheasants, partridges, grouse etc as he likes, and be regarded as a respectable, upstanding citizen.

Human beings are unique in the animal kingdom. We have power, high intelligence and the potential for ethical consideration. We can choose to abuse and exploit the other animals, or we can choose to protect them. I wonder when the human race is going to mature sufficiently for everyone to realise that the latter is the only proper option. Until we do, I will continue to list hunting for recreation as one of the great perversions of human society, along with warmongering, slavery and paedophilia.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Values

Several days on from the appaling earthquake in Haiti, I read today that the international community has pledged £200 million in aid. Another news report I read rceently said that British banks alone give £50 billion to their executives in bonuses. The Duke of York says we shouldn't be concerned about the size of bankers' bonuses because, in the world of international finance, it is a paltry sum. So what does that make the international aid effort?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A Brief Bio

Having spent several decades trying unsuccessfully to write fiction, JJ Beazley was pleasantly surprised to be suddenly handed the gift in the summer of 2002. He still doesn’t know where it came from, but he does know what precipitated it. It was seeing a tree shake violently and unaccountably one windless night in July, and it was hearing a low, menacing growl in a quiet country lane a few nights later. He wrote both incidents down and extended them into a short story called More Things in Heaven and Earth. The first draft was rough, but it was recognisably fiction in form and mode of expression. Needless to say, it has been polished a little since then and was included in the first issue of the Candlelight anthology.

Forty two more short stories and a novella followed, and twenty five of them have now been published with a couple more waiting in the wings. Since he is what most people would describe as ‘weird’, the majority of his stories are speculative in nature. He finished his first, and probably only, novel last winter. Or maybe it would be truer to say that he took a journey which became manifest as a novel.

He knows his fiction will never make him rich or famous, and neither would he expect it to. He wrote the stories that wanted to be written. Whilst it pleases him that some of them might be enjoyed, their value to a reader was never really the issue. Whether any more will ever be written remains to be seen.

He lives the life of an English peasant in a small house in the depths of rural Derbyshire. He does so alone and is presently unemployed, which means he is rather worse off financially than most English peasants. He takes comfort from the fact that poverty helps to ward off the smugness and conformist attitudes common among the better off.

He tries to live life simply, not only because he’s poor but also because life makes less and less sense to him the older he gets. He knows what he likes – the scents of nature, the communion of animals, burgeoning spring growth, acts of kindness, Scotch whisky, English beer, good coffee, peace, plain speaking, humour, freedom. He knows what he dislikes – right wing bigotry, left wing bigotry, the totalitarian hypocrisy of modern Liberalism, racism, materialism, religious intolerance, excessive state control, the growth of global capitalism, aggression in pursuit of power or wealth, people who claim that because something can’t be proved ‘scientifically’ there’s no reason to believe it can exist, instant coffee. In fact, he generally dislikes most things with ‘ism’ – including atheism - on the end because they tend to discourage free thinking.

What he doesn’t know is why he’s here, the extent to which ‘here’ is truly real, what he should be doing about it and whether it matters anyway. These shortcomings make it difficult for him to relate to the majority of people in modern culture. The following facts disturb him:

That most people still think the government is running the country.

That most people still think that happiness increases in direct proportion to material prosperity.

That most people still think that those at the bottom of the social heap are there because they are either lazy or stupid.

That most of the women he finds attractive have parents who are younger than him.

That many of the animals he most admires would probably eat him if he came face to face with one of them.

It’s hardly surprising that he lives alone.