I have been carrying a little string of thoughts in my head for several weeks. They make a point I haven’t seen being made elsewhere and which might be worth adding to the mix. Maybe it would be of interest to someone passing, even throw some further light, however dim and peripheral, on what’s happening around us, or at least offer a perspective on it.
But aside from my desire to add my own tiny drop to the daily word-lake, I knew that writing the thoughts down would simply relieve me of my own silence. Staying silent feels too much like being rendered silent and somehow adds to the tension and grief of difficult times. You feel more of a victim if you’re not talking. Talking brings your own unique creativity into the picture, your own small but fervent being out into the avalanche of things. It may be delusional, yet it seems truly the case that “having your say” is good for the health. It helps to have a meaningful hearing, as well.
But I have found it really difficult to get started. To an extent, I’m used to that, of course, or to some version of it. Before take-off, you need a count-down. Before sitting for any exam, you might find yourself listing excuses for not turning up. It’s part of realising what it is you’re about to take on. It’s part of getting ready.
But my recent difficulty feels different. It’s not that I don’t know what I want to say. There is a clear line of thought which I can see ahead of me and want to explore and which I do seriously think might have some small value, if I can do justice to it.
So it’s something else, or something more, that’s been causing the blockage. I’ve had a few thoughts about that too and am giving it its own post and title here. Perhaps then, and only then, I’ll be able to apply myself to the first post, the one still waiting for me !
I think the issue is that the need to make sense of things, and then to put that into words, is a fundamental one, basic to being human, basic to staying more or less afloat through the day. Just to achieve some coherence, however briefly, can improve morale, keep the forces of chaos at bay, the brain buoyant in the flood of present events. Coherent commentary can’t stop the wrong things happening. But it can at least take their measure, find their shape, look them in the eye.
But “making sense of things” feels especially hard these days, the struggle for coherence especially daunting. And on top of that, I feel a greater than usual sense of hopelessness. It feels even more difficult than usual just to put sentences together, string an argument across the gulf. It’s like building a tower in a shattered landscape. Is it worth the effort ? Truthfulness, or at least a genuine aspiration to truth-tell, is the only mortar conceivable. But does that mortar still work ? Is anyone still interested in truth ? Actually, at present, speaking in words feels less like building a tower than putting up a little sandcastle with a paper flag on it. The flag says, hey listen, I have something I want to say, something that matters. Then the tide comes in, with a roar. There is no matter, roars the tide. Just force, chaos, unstoppable fury. Nothing matters.
It is surely a factor that language is an especially damaged currency in our time. The Lie has stolen all the words. The catchy sales slogan or computer-game image has swept reality from the reckoning. What words are still meaningful, uncontaminated by the all-pervasive Lie ? What language is still un-befouled, clean of desecration ? What words still hold good ?
Here, for example, is the UK Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, on the Nolan Principles of appropriate conduct for public life in our democracy : “The precious principles of public life – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times,” he writes. Or someone wrote for him.
But the same Mr Johnson who might or might not have written those words never stops lying. His words on the Nolan principles – just another sleek and smirky lie, further befouling and making nonsense of the standards of behaviour the words set out and which, in reality, he treats with contempt or simply ignores. His own immediate gratification in being at the centre of things, soaking up attention, freed from restraint, is Mr Johnson’s only measure of good. It is on public record that he has been sacked twice for lying. I do keep going on about this, I know. But it is a very large elephant in every space occupied by our nation’s elected leader, in every human encounter in which he is engaged, at any level, at any time. It is a mop-haired mammoth, smirking. To have been sacked twice for lying is a remarkable record by any standard, possibly unique in this country and far beyond. In “normal” circumstances, such a record would (and should) make him unemployable. And yet we allow this man of bad faith, this anti-social element, this repudiation of all things honourable, to run the government of our country, in these critical times. And two years on, despite a disgraceful record as leader throughout that time, he is still astonishingly popular. What does that say ? What does it mean ?
It does all rather take one’s breath away. Short of breath as one is, words are even harder to come by than usual. What is there left to say ?
But every day, knowledgeable and observant journalists and feature writers keep reaching for words, and often those I read seem good to me, they make sense, and are therefore reassuring in some fashion. It is helpful to hear a sane and honest voice making sense of something, throwing light on a small patch of the darkness and turmoil.
But, even in those cases, what are the words doing, really ? Are they setting any weather ? Do they do anything more than make the writer and some readers, (the majority of whom are already sympathetic, of course) feel a little better – temporarily, at least ?
I have used the adjectives “sane” and “honest.” I assume these are attributes that are still valued. I need them to be. But are they, in this era in which Johnson is popular, in which Trump can still retain a rapturous following ? Do “sane” and “honest” represent a position worth defending, worth championing, worth trying to restore ? Is there any lasting value in writing anything at all ?
There. The question asked, this piece is finished. Perhaps the next piece will come easier, now. I shall write it in good faith, on the assumption that there is still such a thing as good faith, that we can’t do without it and must somehow remain loyal to it and fight for it. I shall write my next piece to the best of my uncertain ability, as truthfully as I can, in the shaky belief that it is worth the attempt.