Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Of Bread And Circuses

Juvenal referred to it as ‘bread and circuses’, George Orwell characterised its worst excesses as prolefeed, and Victorians despaired of the corrupting influence of the penny dreadfuls. It’s plain to see, then, that our love affair with escapism through entertainment is almost as old as society itself.

Marxists, echoing Juvenal’s and Orwell’s sentiments, fear that focusing on the narratives of fiction – be it classic literature, blockbuster films, or soap operas – would distract the proletariat from their struggle towards revolution. In many ways they’re correct; even now, the politically aware cringe as the country invests more attention in TV talent shows than in the comings and goings of our politicians. But perhaps we overlook a significant point – perhaps these distractions are important precisely because they allow us to escape from our reality.

Times are hard, and they’re hard for almost everyone. Perhaps what we really need is to escape into someone else’s life for a while; to try out a different set of burdens like a different suit of clothes, to look out on the world from behind another pair of eyes, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

The shoes may take us across Dartmoor pursuing a gigantic hound, or to Stonehenge with our doomed love, or to the shores of Innsmouth fleeing unthinkable horrors. They may stand on the green grass of the Shire, the cobbles of Edinburgh, the grey earth of Winterfell or the dusty concrete of London Below. But they bear us away from our own lives, our own problems, and permit us to lose ourselves in impossible and fantastic worlds.

We submit to almighty terrors, to wrenching losses, to every twist and machination of vindictive fate, because we know we can close the book and walk away. We can explore our own strength and character without having to experience what Shakespeare called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. Here we test our emotional fortitude, pitching ourselves against blow after blow to examine how well we weather the storm.

We solve mysteries, protect the innocent, play the hero or the villain. Often we don’t decide which we are until the end. We meet soldiers, lovers, wizards, murderers, queens, poets, tyrants, heroes, angels, vampires, monks, prostitutes, revolutionaries, scholars, searchers and seekers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children. And in time, inexorably, we begin to care.

We dedicate precious time and space in our minds to these characters. We despair that the word ‘character’ makes them sound so flat, so trivial; to us, they are people. We give them sequels, films, TV shows. We make them real in our heads and then we try to make them real in the world. We share them with our friends, discuss incarnations and iterations – are Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and John Rebus really so different? Whose face does each of those names conjure up?

We need stories. Like dreams, we use them to explore and make sense of the world. They speak to us about human nature, the subtle dance of interaction and disclosure that takes a lifetime to master. Stories are how we investigate and memorialise our humanity. Stories are what make us human.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Too Many Protest Singers, Not Enough Protest Songs

Today we buried one of the most politically important Prime Ministers this country has ever seen. That, I’m afraid, is the last good thing I can find to say about her. Like many people who were left high and dry by her policies, I had little time for Thatcher, her cabinet, or her legacy. While I agree that it’s distasteful to publicly celebrate her demise, I was secretly pleased to observe that her detractors marked the occasion with a uniquely British and increasingly popular form of protest – inflating the sales of a particular song to register their protest through the UK Top 40 chart.

In a post-Blair society where a million people can march on Westminster and be utterly ignored, it seems the nature of protest has changed. The UK pop charts, formerly the record of an important yet ephemeral cultural progression, have become the battleground for all manner of political and personal rebellion.

For years, music has been an indicator of politics, ideology and cultural identity. Now it’s become a means of registering dissent in a public arena in a manner totally removed from its previous efforts. Gone, perhaps, are the protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan; here instead are Cowell-baiting online campaigns featuring Rage Against The Machine, inspired and perpetrated by web-savvy millennials who have identified the potential that rapidly advancing technology can provide.

A disenfranchised public, seemingly aware that placards and chanting no longer carry as much weight as before, can now convey their anger and disapproval by purchasing a 79p download from iTunes. Surely even the most broadminded futurologists would have failed to envision such a development in technologically-enabled civil disobedience.

It’s not a flawless system by any means – on this most recent occasion, the BBC declined to broadcast the entire song, and their track record for banning controversial songs has been a matter of discussion for decades. Fortunately for those trying to make a point, the nation’s news media have not been reluctant to publicise the campaign; even as they condemn it for its disrespect, they provide the oxygen of publicity.

Of course, the nature of the legal download system – the only way to perform the act of protest is to purchase the track from a recognised provider – means that to register our dissent we must indulge in a singularly undemocratic act; we pay to protest. But contrast this with the alternatives and the recommendations of the new process become clear – rather than travelling to London, marching and chanting, and risking arrest if the protest degenerates into violence, the objector can make their point simply by clicking the button marked “buy”.

Should we be shocked that political dissent has now been rendered marketable, and that profit can be derived? Maybe, but we should be more grateful still that individuals still want to protest.