Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

I recently cycled along the River Lee Navigation. For those of you who are not acquainted with one of London and Hertfordshire’s (a county just outside the British capital to the north) most picturesque routes I would strongly recommend that you keep it in mind if you ever visit the UK. The unbroken path is perfect for walking and biking. I have made this trip before but on this occasion I went much further up.

Travelling from someone near east London up to Cheshunt the journey took me through some of the most scenic open spaces ever. As it is the custom with me when I am cycling on a traffic-free route, I went into reverie mode, whilst at the same time paying close attention to the path and the people walking or cycling on it.

I do not know if poetry has the same effect on you, fellow bloggers and readers, but in my case I have always seen it as evocative. A poem like Ode to a Nightingale makes me think more of the feelings that led Keats to compose the piece and the sentiments it continues to trigger to this day. The bird in question becomes secondary or even non-existent.

This is exactly what happened that day on the towpath of the River Lee Navigation. Perhaps it was the peace around me, the calm water, the stationery boats, the slow pace, both amongst walkers and cyclists and the overpowering sense of history that triggered off a deep spiritual connection to my immediate environment. As I neared the Lee Valley White Water Centre I saw a wall (or the remains of it) on my right handside with a crack running down the middle. I stopped on one side of the path for a couple of minutes and watched the concrete entity closer.

In the context of everything I had seen so far the wall was ugly. It broke the harmony of the urban and rural mix I had cycled past up to now on my way to Hertfordshire. Yet, all the same I felt that there was a reason for that wall to be part of this bucolic landscape. All of a sudden, lines from Fleur Adcock’s poem Against Coupling came to my mind. I could not remember the whole piece (I very rarely remember entire poems by heart) but I did recall the following verses: “There is much to be said for abandoning this no longer novel exercise/for not’ participating in total experience’.

The strange thing was that whereas Fleur was writing about the need for occasional alienation in a couple (temporary “uncoupling”, if you like), I was looking at the wall in a whole different light. To me it was an object that refused to conform to the beauty standards that the canal had unwittingly imposed. It was an unremarkable wall by any definition. One that could be found anywhere else in the world: South Africa, Thailand, Cuba. However, to me it only made sense in that moment, surrounded by cormorants, herons and oak trees.

I carried on, still thinking of the odd relationship between that wall’s ordinariness and inelegance and the canal’s exuberance. And how poetry married (at least in my head) the two of them somehow.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th February at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thoughts in Progress

In Denzel Washington’s latest film, as both actor and director, there is an unusual supporting character. Fences features a baseball hanging by a thin rope in the back garden of the house shared by Washington’s Troy, his wife Rose (played by Viola Davis) and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo).  Though inanimate, this ball serves as a witness to all the tribulations of this black family in post-war US. Hit every which way by Troy and his son Cory, this baseball is also a metaphor for how we shape our lives and how far we can go in determining our own destiny.

To me this baseball also reminded me of the recent US election. Before you close down your browser sending my post in the process to the land of oblivion, I would like you to give me a few minutes of your time. I am fully aware that we are all now pretty Trumped-out (his latest press conference being a case in point. How low can the guy go? Well, you ain’t seen the bottom yet, I suppose). The dust has now settled. To quote Leonard Cohen: “Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich”. Except that it was not a good guy who lost but a woman.

It would be arrogant of me to attempt to figure out why Hillary Clinton lost to a misogynist, racist, sexist and xenophobe. Plenty of opinion pieces have been churned out since November. But what I cannot stop thinking about is the reasons why her manifesto might not have struck a chord with most voters. To recap, Clinton lost the election, but won the popular vote. You could say that electoral changes are needed urgently in the US and you would be right. Yet, that would be like trying to hit that ball in Troy’s garden out of the park. That ball ain’t going nowhere.  It’s still hanging on a rope.

Team Clinton bashed out a series of proposals and ideas that they thought would capture the public’s imagination. Overall, I thought, sitting comfortably on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, that they banked more on the Trump’s machine imploding than they themselves causing their explosion. Wrong. When your opponent realises that the ball you’re hitting is not moving, they grow stronger, not weaker. In order to get at Trump team Clinton had to untie that baseball and play real ball with it.

That would have meant casting your net much wider, beyond identity politics. I will not delve deep into identity politics in this post because I am in the process of drafting one up on the left and the case for/against identity politics.  The truth is, however, that Clinton got caught up in a feminist/multicultural/gay-friendly agenda. Nothing wrong with that. But what is eating most Americans right now is where the next dime is going to come from.

When Barack Obama entered office in 2009, one of his first actions was to summon the top banking executives. Remember that this was post-2008-crisis and Wall Street was on its knees. The usual villains, politicians, had been given a short-lived respite, to be replaced by bankers. At that point president Obama could have asked for the moon to be delivered on a silver plate and every single person in the room would have coughed up enough money for a space expedition leaving the next day. But Barack dithered and bankers smelled blood. Instead of the far-reaching economic reforms that were needed then, all bankers got was a slap on the wrist and, guess what, within a couple of years, the multi-million-pound bonuses made a comeback.

This was the financial situation Clinton inherited as the Democrat front-runner. Never mind the fact that under Obama more jobs were created than during Bush’s eight-year reign. Never mind that Obamacare became an immediate safeguard for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of families. The crux of the matter was still, a lot of rich people were getting richer and poor people poorer. Obama, for all his credentials as a liberal and the hope he represented, explicitly stated in that strikingly beautiful poster (remember?) was seen as part of the same machinery that had ceded ground to China and had allowed Putin’s Russia to start calling the shots on the international stage.

By the time Clinton entered the frame, the electorate was jaded. Cynical voters are the toughest to turn around, especially if one of the candidates comes from what could be assumed to be a dynasty (Bill Clinton served two terms as president. Chelsea Clinton has already been discussed as a possible candidate for 2024 or 2028). It was not Clinton’s fault that the election went to Donald. It was, as I said at the start, a combination of factors. One of them was the Democrats focusing on policies that might have gone down well with the already-converted but did very little to enthuse the fence-sitters, the refuseniks, the hard-to-reach.

Donald Trump is not infallible and he definitely is not unbeatable. I seriously doubt he will be re-elected in 2020. But, and this is an important “but”, for the Democrats to win the White House again, they will have to untie that baseball and take it to places where they are rarely seen, engaging voters whom they barely know or whose views they disparage. Clinton got the vote of mainly poor, young, Latin and black women (four different categories in themselves).  Trump’s camp was the beneficiary of chiefly white women from a working-class background and rural areas.

An average baseball game lasts nine innings. We are barely in the bottom of the first. Hitting a baseball on a string makes good practice but it is not the real game. The real game is won by the team with most runs. Already team Trump has made a few gaffes. What Democrats need to do now is to capitalise on those players who have reached base. What’s the next step: steal or sacrifice bunt, or both? How about going for the big swing? Whatever happens, it is about putting runs on that scoreboard. Untie that baseball and hit it hard. Just hit it as hard as you can.

© 2017

Next Post: “Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd February at 6pm (GMT)


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