Blog Number 38 [Sunday 12th July 2020]
You might have noticed the change of title of my blog. More than 100 days have passed since lockdown began. Given that M and I started locking down on the 16 March, a week before the government sprang into belated action, we are 12 days into the next hundred days. Who knows how many more there will be after that? The more literal minded of you [Evelyn, Tim] objected to my calling it solitude given the presence of M, who some have unaccountably deemed the star of my blog. Admittedly, M and I can spend several hours in different rooms sometimes, as now, separated by two storeys and so out of contact. M or I will sometimes attempt to converse by shouting loudly but this tends to lead to confusion, viz.
‘John, can you…[indecipherable]…Sainsburys order?’
‘Sorry, I can’t hear you. I’m coming down.’
‘I’m coming up.’
We meet halfway, each exasperated with the other, and a rather strained conversation ensues. If you live alone, at least you are spared these sort of exchanges. I accept that, sometimes in the silence of complete solitude, you might yearn for any conversation even strained ones. Zoom calls are all very well but the voices are disembodied and on Zoom, especially with multiple participants, conversation rarely flows. Like last night at the virtual Rose and Crown:
[Tim] What do people think of the article on cancel culture?
[Richard] What is…[Bill] Do you mean J K…[John] What article are you…[Paddy]…in the FT?
Tim repeats the question speaking loudly drowning out all the others. Unusually there’s complete silence for two seconds. Then another fragmented overlap of voices. Another silence. [Chris quickly jumps in] Has anyone read the article apart from Tim?
No one has.
[Chris] Mind you, that’s never stopped us discussing things before.
Tim agrees to email the article to everyone and being Tim, he does it there and then while the rest of us try to talk sensibly about testing. Bill tells us, as he did last week, about something called cellular immunity which I again fail to understand. I put this down to his being well into his second glass of red wine though it is more likely my fast deteriorating brain. No, Zoom or its equivalent is no substitute for a real life conversation. And the disembodied voices in phone calls or on the radio are not the same either. My daughter Kate has Lola for a companion but her conversation is limited to meows and it is usually [always] when she wants something [food]. So as a fair-minded person I have amended the title.
This is all somewhat of a digression. I had set out to write about fiction. This is because the University regularly and optimistically sends me a magazine called Oxford Philosophy and in it there’s an article on fiction. I started reading it though immediately ran into some difficulty. The second sentence reads thus: Our ability to understand fictions is philosophically perplexing because, like the contents of assertions, the contents are often non-literally conveyed. Hmm. Later the author claims she is puzzled by the existence and nature of fictional entities. She gives the example of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and concludes there is no woman such as Austen describes Emma as being. This raises the problem of what kind of entity Emma Woodhouse be, if indeed, such an entity exists. Of course it does. If you are an Oxford Philosopher anyway.
That triggered a memory. In November 1963 having applied to the Queen’s College, Oxford to read Psychology and Philosophy I was interviewed by two ancient philosophy dons [well, they seemed ancient to me]. I was politely asked if I would consider a hypothetical situation. Equally politely I agreed to do so. I was to discover that hypothetical situations are dearly loved by Oxford philosophers. ‘If you see a man attack and kill another man in the street,’ I was asked, ‘can you be absolutely sure he is guilty of the deed?’ Even at the callow age of 17 I knew that the answer could not possibly be yes. I waffled a bit, concluding that it might have been a drug-induced hallucination though I hastened to assure them that I had never taken any such drugs. Once I had started on my degree I found that Oxford philosophers liked to question absolutely everything. What is truth? What is fiction? Frankly, unless you were of a certain frame of mind, it was a tedious business. The title of J L Austin’s book, How To Do Things With Words, gave the game away. Doing clever things with words was not my idea of what philosophy should be about. What I wanted was to eavesdrop on the conversations that Sartre and de Beauvoir were having on existentialism in Les Deux Magots on the left bank of the Seine. Or so I thought. When I eventually got around to reading Sartre, I found it was a tedious business too, if in a different way. Maybe philosophy was just not for me. It seems Oxford philosophy hasn’t changed much in the intervening decades. You still have to be clever with words. However, I recall one bright moment in the morass of words and meanings I struggled with and that was another book by J L Austin. It was Austin’s choice of title, Sense and Sensibilia, that brought a smile to my lips though as I recall there were not many laughs in the book after that.
Fiction takes me for some reason to our not-so-great leader. In the House of Commons this week the PM flailed away under Keir Starmer’s forensic questioning. It’s an unequal contest. Bojo was like a tired and wounded bull being tormented by a calm and confident matador. Whichever way he turned, the matador was there flicking his cloak and brandishing his sword. This week Bojo’s startlingly inept statement that care homes “didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have” was subject to the Starmer’s inquisition. Care home staff are up in arms, Starmer said, and being a QC, he provided actual quotes. Would the Prime Minister like to apologise to the staff of care homes? After all they were not responsible for the NHS unloading so many patients on them who were untested for the coronavirus. Or for the dearth of proper protection equipment. No, Bojo wouldn’t for he doesn’t do apologies. Why not? Everyone makes mistakes and to make a simple apology could only be beneficial to him, winning him favour. No, the Cummings-Johnson line is never look back, never apologise and carry on regardless of what the little people think. That’s you and me by the way, the little people. Bojo’s strategy, if that’s not to grand a word, is to lie, and then lie again. He had never blamed care home staff [first lie] who were the most wonderful of the little people, doing a fantastic job for peanuts admittedly but Rishi will have some dosh somewhere to dole out. The problem is, he goes on, that no one knew about asymptomatic transmission back then [second lie] and it was all very well Mr Hindsight, his juvenile epithet for Starmer, criticising now. Actually asymptomatic transmission was known about in January. It may have been that Bojo didn’t actually know this for in the early stages of the pandemic he was largely absent, having important things to do like sort out his divorce and check online for the best dirt bike he could have fun on at Chequers. He had missed 5 Cobra meetings after all. Well, people didn’t tell him they were on, did they? And Dom thought Cobra was a complete waste of space anyway.
The trouble is when you lie repeatedly, you cease to know what the truth is. You create a fictional world in which you are always right – the Trump way par excellence – and the distinction between fact and fiction is forever blurred. Truth becomes what you want to be true. Or what you can get away with. Inconveniently, however, facts have a way of staying around. And liars get found out. Think of the damage done to Blair’s reputation by his claim that Iraq had missiles of mass destruction capable of being launched in 45 minutes. It was a lie and it didn’t take long for that to be evident. Cynics that you are, you may be thinking all politicians lie. Perhaps they do. But some do it more than others, and to some, like Bojo and Trump, it’s a long-standing character trait. Good leaders – oh, where are they? – know that people need to believe in you and the best way to achieve that is to tell them the truth.
I decide to ask M what the difference is between fact and fiction. I tell her I’m planning to write about in my next blog.
‘It’s simple,’ she says. ‘What I say to you is fact. What you write in the blog is fiction.’
‘That’s not fair.’ [When people say ‘That’s not fair’ it means it is].
‘Did I ever say, ‘quality time’?’
‘That was weeks ago! I can’t believe you are still on about it.’
‘Weeks ago or not, did I ever say it?’
I wish I had never broached to topic. I am beginning to feel like Bojo when questioned by Starmer.
‘Okay. I was merely embroidering, you know, trying to make the blog read well.’
‘It’s not a tapestry. So maybe less of the embroidery and more of, what shall I call it, ah yes, the truth.’
Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. Otis Redding made this song famous. Here’s a multiple singers/buskers version of it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Es3Vsfzdr14
And here’s the real thing, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTVjnBo96Ug