My article in The Sunday Times.
Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable – Albert Camus
Violence is to man, what dust is to decay; it is a by-product of what makes us who we are. It’s in our blood to spill blood. Camus got it right on both counts: we cannot, and should not, ever look to justify violence, but we cannot deny its permanence either, or its deep-seated part of our nature. Violence shapes us just as much as music or education, so we should not flinch from looking at its ugly countenance, or attempt to peer past it towards some idyllic notion, ensconced in a sleepy valley of denial.
Asking the question if we can get beyond violence, or live in a world without its presence, is akin to asking if goodness can exist without evil? No, is the short answer: our actions will always cause reactions. The idea of ‘a world without violence’ cannot stand empirically: violence is an axiomatic part of our human condition just as much as greed, envy or lust are, and it applies to our nature as inherently as the basic laws of physics.
As Camus said, violence is inescapable; it’s part of the absurdity of life. The violence of necessity is something else, however – contra Camus, it is both justifiable and, because of its existential threat, allows us to avoid and neutralise many more potentially violent scenarios. A violence of necessity keeps a check on our baser instincts; it provides a natural order to things and has allowed humanity survive this far.
There is what we can call ‘macro-violence’, relating to Thomas Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, and state force, life is likely to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. A state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been.
We can also consider ‘micro-violence’, which George Orwell understood when he wrote, ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ Part of the reason we find so much stock in Orwell’s writing is that his voice never quivered – and when it came to the possibility of the humanitarian need for violence, which sounds oxymoronic, he never shirked then either. Orwell was a democrat, and at heart a pacifist, but he understood the necessity of violence, its function.
He foresaw how violence was being used in the corrosion of communism and socialism and how Stalin exercised power by homicidal brutality. Orwell understood how Nazism utilised violence to further its sickening cause; he was one of the few to wake up early (Winston Churchill being another) to the understanding that this type of violence needed to be faced with the violence of necessity – imperative for halting Hitler’s fanaticism, and Stalin’s demagogic brand of thuggery if the time came to do so. (History shows that Joe was a much cannier operator than Adolf though; Stalin knew when to sit down at the table or when to kick it over.)
Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and witnessing the ugly face of Franco’s future autocracy helped him understand that the only way to stare down a menace such as fascism and totalitarianism was by taking up arms; in order to ‘Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose, to drive the shadows back’, to use Philip Larkin’s phrasing.
The nature of violence and the intrinsic role it plays in our lives has always had an inner working on my idea of self. For example, all my life I wondered if I could take a punch. And as chance would have it, three came along at once to answer my ruminations. After thirty or so years of conjecture, I found out I could take a biff to the old cranium and solar plexus. I took three punches from two men to be exact (to take a punch; it sounds fine when one says it, but looks strange when written down, with the verb turned on its head), two from the initial agitator and one from his rather large friend, his blow being the decisive one. I had replied in kind beforehand, with two strikes upon the provoker. I connected with my right, and a surprisingly good left, so much so that it hurt my hand. But the final punch I suffered landed right on a sweet spot: my left eye, and settled any dust kicked up in the dispute. It was the strike that cut the lights.
Of course all of this is in my mind’s eye. But I imagine the punch was thrown with a technique that would have had me applauding if I’d been sitting ringside watching a prizefight. Instead, I was busy getting on with the unfortunate business of becoming acquainted with the ground. In my case, Saturday night was not all right for fighting.
(Those that sing about fighting don’t tend to do much, really – the old Blues men apart of course, some of whom lived their lives as an eternal scuffle.)
The fellow I encountered had either boxed a little in his time, or was ‘handy’, in the street-fighting man sense of the word: the type used to knocking down selves, not putting up shelves. The boxing supposition might have saved my grounded self, however, as I lay face down in a neighbourhood that becomes filled with testosterone-soaked air at the weekend. For the shot that drops you does just that – it brings any debate to a close. There is an Irish phrase that encapsulates the perfect punch: ‘he softened his cough for him’. This type of manoeuvre is usually reserved for use upon lairy loudmouths or uncouth slabbers, and I’d like to assure you, dear reader, with a degree in modesty, that I am neither.
The left eye sees: a flicker of movement, a slant in the light, brilliant white followed by pitch-darkness and then something I don’t see much of nowadays – the gradual sight of tarmac forming right before my eyes.
Yes, I took the shot. I took the shot. Then my legs buckled, causing me to fall on my left side, meaning not only did I have a large shiner and closed-over eye the next day, but, to complement it, also a nasty weal above what remained of my eyebrow.
Needless to say it could always have been worse. But I think the aesthetic of that last blow was so right somehow – I’m surmising outside of myself here – that nothing else could have been done to improve upon it, except perhaps the fellow raising a triumphant right hand and walking back to his corner. Both sides had come to agreement; the two of them walked off and I stayed put. And after a few moments, I dragged myself to my feet, bloodied and sore. On a blustery spring morning, I had as much control over my movements as I did over the weather. But I moved on defiantly, to continue my walk home. And all the while, I was thinking, so this is what it feels like; this is what it feels like.
Many commentators write about the underlying causes of violence, which are usually listed as poverty, inequality, and abuse of alcohol or drugs and so on. But we are made aware of violence from an early age: parents and elders often tell children ‘don’t let anyone else fight your battles for you’. As the psychologist Steven Pinker says, we really ‘are creatures of a violent world, biologically speaking – watching violence and learning about it is one of our cognitive drives.’
One such place we watch and learn about it is in the schoolyard, with its war zone state of mind. Children can be the most violent of us all, and when they are, there lies the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.
Scenarios are quickly forced in our faces where one has to stand one’s ground, or risk being exposed as a pushover or weak for the rest of one’s days; there are exceptional occasions when one needs to resort to violence to hold the line that’s been drawn.
In the feral surroundings of an all-boys Catholic school, I saw the existence of violence almost on a daily basis. Sometimes casual, other times brutally calculating. Here, I saw the purpose of violence, its role; used many times for bad reasons, some times for good, such as when the picked-on puny boy finally cracks and strikes back at the bully, who is shocked into stasis. At times likes these, I fondly recall how the herd of boys would fall in behind the upstart, cheering him on, while their scorn would rain down on the vanquished. Even young boys understand the value of the underdog’s victory, for somehow we know it is a status that will befall us all at some time in life.
One example sticks in my mind. We milled around the schoolyard during our break as usual, several hundred boys aged from eleven to sixteen. One of the regular ruffians started in on a new boy, only to discover to his dismay that this pocket-rocket knew something of what AJ Liebling called ‘The Sweet Science’ i.e. boxing.
The little chap unleashed such a flurry of punches that it sent a surge of electricity through the hundreds of other boys, who wanted to view this assured act of pugilistic justice taking place; we were drawn to it. A rush of bodies swarmed like angry bees around the fight, forcing it to progress towards the high-wire fencing enclosing the yard. The wave of bodies ebbed and flowed. As the fight came to a crashing end, when the small chap landed a plum right-hook, the weight of the crowd caused a crush that flopped upon the fence, flattening it like a pancake. The bars and wires were bent outwards so that they touched the ground – the fence looked like a half-completed wicker basket – causing the collective to let out a mighty roar, as they collapsed in a scrum. But the energy, the energy! Some boys were super-charged; they scrambled across the mesh and broke for freedom before any teachers could arrive on the scene.
Alas, the rest of us dusted ourselves down and went back to class with the sound of the bell ringing with what seemed more of a rage than usual. One person was glad to hear the bell: the bully, dazed and confused, and in the unusual position of nursing a bloody nose. I also caught a glimpse of the practitioner of Boxiana, smiling, unmarked, and being patted on his back with hearty congratulations. He looked like a fun-sized Gary Cooper.
As I walked back, I thought at the time, this is probably the most important lesson I will learn today, or most days for that matter. We dragged our heels back to the classroom, but as the asphalt settled again over the schoolyard in the morning sunshine, I had wondered how something could come so quickly, and disappear just as fast. I also appreciated that this thing, call it violence of whatever you wish, never goes away.
So wrote Ernst Junger: ‘Man is born violent but is kept in check by the people around him. If he nevertheless manages to throw off his fetters, he can count on applause, for everyone recognizes himself in him. Deeply ingrained, nay, buried dreams come true.’
It is time we reached the fork in the road up ahead, signposted ‘Passivity and Diplomacy’ on one side and ‘Violence of Necessity’ on the other. I wish to state unequivocally that I would always choose to travel left, given the option, to use discussion to solve any dispute in life. This choice did not work for me recently (sadly) but it did allow me a deeper understanding of the human condition, and it is this: the right turn, marking violent action, will never be bypassed completely, whichever side you are on, and we should acknowledge this fact. Yes, this road will take us on journeys that are wrong from the outset, and which will end at dark, destructive destinations, but it will always be there; the road less taken or otherwise. Bob Dylan’s lyrics should still ring true in our ears: ‘Democracy don’t rule the world/ You’d better get that in your head/ This world is ruled by violence/ But I guess that’s better left unsaid’.
Violence has taken on a new identity on the global stage of the 21st century. Countries no longer officially declare war, but instead violence takes place on sliding scales of aggression. Diplomacy is reduced to nothing more than window dressing as a consequence, and is of little use to citizens who shake in the shadows cast at noon. If we in the west wish to maintain the values that we hold dear, then the violence of necessity will always have to walk hand-in hand with diplomacy. We need to speak softly and carry a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt put it.
On a metaphysical level I wish that the world was less violent, but we cannot deny that it is part of the balance that keeps order on the nature of things. ‘It seems disingenuous to ask a writer why she, or he, is writing about a violent subject when the world and history are filled with violence,’ wrote Joyce Carol Oates, which I will use as part of my defence against criticism in writing this essay. For there will always come a time when men will choose to go to war, for a justified reason (‘When bad men combine, the good must associate’ noted Edmund Burke) or not. There will always be a time when a man will strike another, for no reason or otherwise. A world without violence is like a world without sin – an unreachable aspiration because of our animalistic natures and instincts. It is the fundamental existence of violence and its inherent threat that is key to maintaining order in our lives, and we should accept that a surety of force keeps us in check; what Steven Pinker calls the ‘pacification process’.
The point has been made before that you never need an argument against the use of violence, but you need one for it. Well, this, to an extent, is mine. Most of us may not be for violence, but we know what violence is for; it will always be with us, so we need to get over our guilt if we must call upon it. For society to endure, we need a violence of necessity that correlates. The German thinker Walter Benjamin was being realistic when he stated: ‘there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. In the final analysis, violence of necessity can be used to stem the tide of mania, stop injustice, defend those who cannot defend themselves, or to stir change in a stinking pot of misery and misfortune. We, mankind that is, will always be the spoon of disorder, but the onus is on us to take a firm grip of it.
Excellent article from the New York Review of Books:
When the renowned architecture writer and broadcaster Ian Nairn visited Derry more than fifty years ago, the title of his essay was both concise and reflective of his ever-present pragmatism. ‘Proud Derry’ was the summation of his feature on the North’s second city, written in December 1961 for ‘The Listener’ magazine; a series then collected and updated several years later in a volume called ‘Britain’s Changing Towns’.
Much of Nairn’s work has long been out of print but thankfully this anthology is available again in a beautiful copy published by Notting Hill Editions. Something resembling a Nairn revival is afoot as well, with a book on the irrepressible writer recently released by Gillian Darley and David McKie (Words In Place), while BBC4 ran a programme on his life on 20 February.
Nairn’s ruminations on Derry are wonderful to read. He must have felt comfortable there: Nairn did not suffer fools and was always direct in his manner and writing. When he visited a place, he not only studied the bricks and mortar surrounding him, but he concerned himself with the heartbeat of somewhere too, visiting the local shops and pubs and getting to know local people. How else could he have come up with this nugget about an economically choked Derry, which nevertheless was continuing to breathe with some degree of dignity: ‘If there were only rags to wear (here), they would be worn with a swagger’.
Nairn wasn’t being blithely flippant in writing this. He understood the turbulent history and tough topography of Derry – a border location suffering from the effects of partition; a divided community; a port town hit hard by the shipyard closure in 1924; and a place long forgotten by London, despite its strong Plantation links and the original idea of Derry being a ‘little-London-in-Ulster’. In his essay, Nairn gives the powerbrokers an angry blast of his horn: ‘if the experts at the Treasury were forced to live in Derryfor six months to experience the exact result of their abstract fiddlings with the Bank Rate, it might be a very good thing’. A similar charge could easily be made today, as London-centric politicians and financial analysts trumpet a UK-wide recovery, which in reality seems to have stalled outside Watford.
Despite his acknowledgement of Derry’s many problems in 1961 – high unemployment, lack of investment, its remote location, and a frosty relationship with its privileged cousin Belfast (what has changed, you may ask?) – the place entersNairn’s imagination, describing it as ‘one of the most unexpected and paradoxical of our cities. For every hundred Englishmen who know York and Chester, how many know Derry?’
It is significant that Nairn places a pre-Troubles Derry firmly within the UK (our city) yet never reverts to the Anglicised title ofLondonderry. Instead, his recognition of Derry’s English character is more nuanced: he sees it in buildings such as St Columba’s Church, with its ‘cockney’ details which ‘hammers home the London connexion’. Other buildings and places he notes with appreciation include Bishop’s Gate (‘compact, tough design’), the ‘suavely done’ Walker’s Column (which was permanently damaged by an IRA bomb in 1972) and the residential St Columb’s Wells, marked out for how a city can work for people first and foremost; keeping social patterns intact, or as Nairn wanted, ‘the crazy human touch’.
Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ when he made his first splash in the 1950s with the ‘Architectural Review’ in a special issue titled ‘Outrage’, in which he railed against the ‘steamrolling of plane into one mediocre pattern’. Pugnacious from the outset, he started writing for the Observer, Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, with his searing prose shaking the town-planning establishment with articles such as ‘Stop The Architects Now’. It is little wonder that he is not widely read by architects and that this book is his first to be in print since the 1980s. Along with his vivacious, and frequently funny writing, his outsider status is also probably the core of Nairn’s appeal: no architectural training, no public school, no Oxbridge. He looked at and recorded this art form (and profession) with new and uninhibited eyes. Nairn wanted preservation on the one hand yes, but engaging modern architecture too, while reputations meant little to him, as he travelled from place to place by train or in his tiny convertible Morris Minor.
Getting back to his essay on Derry, Great James Street also suitably impressed him, as did Clarendon Street (‘elegant and stately as anything in Dublin’) with their buildings decorated with distinctive doorcase and fanlight. However, he reserved his highest praise for Derry’s Court House, ‘Derry’s best Georgian building’, he writes, marking out the white sandstone brought locally from Dungiven to build it in 1817.
Nairn was an enthusiastic imbiber and, although the habit was eventually his undoing – he died of cirrhosis of the liver aged only 53 – he was a solid believer in the role the pub had to play in society; just as important to the local fabric as the corner shop, the local bank branch or the butchers. A pub is a place ‘to shake off loneliness without being in anyone’s company’ was his melancholically, typically poetic judgment. Sadly his thirst was not sated in Derry, with Nairn bemoaning the lack of pub decoration compared to Belfast (particular appreciation is given to the Crown Bar) and the problem is little rectified today, had he the opportunity to visit, with few pubs giving little sense of history. In fact, a few of them feel like they’ve been cobbled together over the course of a weekend. Another great void in the city is the long-departed Café Nobile on the Strand Road, a place that surprises Nairn with its ‘high-backed dark wooden benches and marble-topped tables’.
Nairn wrote about the lack of many new buildings to look at in Derry in 1961, however he does give reference to Altnagelvin Hospital (designed by Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall, creators of the original Gatwick Airport Terminal). He recommends that the building is best seen coming from Belfast, with his usual tuneful phrasing: ‘the eastern front, square-on in the morning sun fixes you with its complicated skip of balconies as a good jazz rhythm would…’
Summing up, Nairn captured the strong soul of Derry and how its practical problems forged much of what is likeable about the place: it is a town displaying something approaching good grace in the face of strong adversity. It’s worth quoting him in full here: ‘a less proud place would have had its spirit broken under its crippling topographical disadvantage. Derry needs help, and its pride is not the false variety that would scorn assistance.’
Nairn returned to Derry in 1967 to find that little had changed although he does refer to the developments in ‘Irishtown’ (the Bogside as its better known) and the large rebuilding operation, taking place at the time.
The final thought of his essay proved he was no great reader of the political wind blowing round the buildings he was weighing up: ‘the tension has lessened: the six and twenty-six counties may have begun a slow growing-together.’ Nairn seemed blissfully unaware how the system of gerrymandering was rotting the heart of the city at the time. In his defence, considering how quickly the Troubles erupted, he was not the only observer caught on the back foot and any foundations of fraternity Nairnhad in ‘67 would depressingly crumble over the coming years. But if he was alive and returned to Derry today, one would hope that he could see some of the invisible scaffolding helping the Maiden City get up off its knees, in order to stand tall once more.
A recent lazy weekend off was filled with my first-time reading of Michael Frayn’s bittersweet journalism romp ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ – and a combination of belly-shaking laughter and nostalgic, almost mournful sighing duly ensued.
Written in 1967, the book, although fiction, came from the pen of someone who worked for both the Guardian and Observer newspapers, so you can be sure substantial chunks of the story were experienced first or second hand by Frayn, with only the names being changed to protect the not-so-innocent. It has a surreal workaday heart at the centre of it all, describing the golden age of Fleet Street, where entropy abounds and Frayn’s writing is as mirthful and easy to read as anything from the playful jottings of Wodehouse.
The book rings with truisms that will probably always be part of a journalist’s Sisyphus-like existence: “I toil all the hours God made at this job and somehow I feel I never quite get on top of it. It’s like trying to fill a bottomless bucket. You just about get next week’s stuff straightened out – and already it’s gone, it’s used, it’s forgotten and the week after is on top of you.” Or the book’s main protagonist, John Dyson, experiencing one of those days when the headline will just not come, albeit for good reason in this case: “(He) sat hyper tensely clenching and unclenching his fingers, trying to think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism.”
Frayn’s work, including earlier novel ‘Tin Men’, deserves to sit along side Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ for biting humour and describing (tongue placed firmly in cheek, or not) that least noble of trades: journalism.
Reading the book forty-five years after it was written has also given it the unlikely guise of a social-historical document – for the only thing that dates the work is that it’s of a time, and industry, that sadly no longer exists.
You will find plenty of journalistic time capsules in Frayn’s amuse-bouche that are probably as scarce in a modern newspaper as (say) an under-worked hack, empathetic accountant, or big-hearted manager: for example, there is Dyson perpetually complaining of feeling too sleepy in the afternoon to get any work done – while each day promising vainly to cut out the beers over the two-hour lunches. Why did He create so few hours in a day in which to edit the nature notes and crosswords, bawls our ink-stained, paper-swamped anti-hero.
Then we have Dyson’s colleague, the old-timer Eddy Moulton, who collates the “In Years Gone By” column with the kind of vigour that could almost equate to somnambulism, except he doesn’t move around that much. Elsewhere, over at the ‘coalface’ of the picture desk, there is the coarse chief Reg Mounce, who, after being given his written notice by the editor “to make other arrangements”, walks defiantly around the office asking which smart bastard is behind the gag. “For no one in this newspaper gets the sack. This isn’t the Express you know!” fumes Mounce. His anger is partly fuelled by no one seeming to know what the people-shy editor looks like (imagine that form of restraint in today’s endless tirade of media talking-shops). Meanwhile, the book’s summation of journalist’s expenses is best left for you to discover – if you haven’t done so already – and allow yourself a bittersweet chuckle eating your pre-packed lunchtime sandwich, while chained to the desk.
It is doubtful if Frayn would recognise much from ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ in modern media, even if we strip away the book’s parodic veneer; the DNA, if not the culture, has changed significantly and it is unlikely that any newspaper would have such a melange of misfits as those so wickedly sketched by the author.
One theory for this is that the media has now become a genuine career choice for the aspirational classes whom before would have only considered respectable subjects such as medicine, law, and banking etc upon leaving university. Now, they also look towards the trade (or ‘profession’ as they like to call it) of journalism. Not long after I started out in newspapers, one storied writer proudly explained the lay of the land to me: “journalism was always the last refuge for the scoundrel. No more. We are being forced out by the conscientious.” The scowl with which he told me this could have turned the milk in my coffee.
Another reporter I spoke to recently postulated “too many pen pushers, bean counters and clock watchers have made the business of journalism safe, boring and cosy.” (His phrasing made me think of Wodehouse’s creation: Psmith, and his rallying call for a quality press. After taking over the editorial reins of gentle lifestyle journal ‘Cosy Moments’, the wacky eponymous hero makes a radical change to the editorial line and begins a social justice publishing campaign. Inevitably those dark forces with vested interests start to lean on Psmith, upon which he spunkily declares: “Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!”)
“Nowadays,” continued my erstwhile companion, “a reporter’s job is a glorified office job; stuck at their desks, which are scattered with boxes of herbal tea, their five-a-day fruits and ready meals, while they source their stories through Facebook and Twitter.”
The antithesis to this and someone you could have found in ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ was journalist and bon vivant Noel Botham (the legendary French House pub in Soho, which he part-owned, was his office); Botham was described by John Dale in a ‘Press Gazette’ interview before his death in November as symbolising “free range against the battery farms of Canary Wharf and other media plantations” (The old hack used to soften up his interviewees with lashings of champagne). Another example of the ‘old-school’ is the late Derek Jameson, who became a renowned editor of several national newspapers after working his way up as a copy boy from the East End of London.
Jameson frequently lamented the idea that the media was becoming elitist and how someone from his background wouldn’t stand a chance nowadays. The Sutton Trust, which was established in the UK to promote social mobility and to highlight educational inequality, carried this argument further. It noted in its most recent report on the educational background of journalists that more than half (54%) of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the UK’s entire school population. Meanwhile, a separate survey of journalists and editors suggested that the latest new recruits to the national news media are even more likely to come from privileged backgrounds than those from previous generations because of low pay and insecurity at junior levels; high costs of living in media centres such as London; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; and a bias towards those with family or personal connections within the industry.
The high number of (mainly unpaid) internships currently being offered by media outlets – which, depressingly, in many cases are jobs dressed in poor clothing – also means that only those from advantaged backgrounds can take up these positions, while others are squeezed out.
The age of ‘celebrity’ has not helped journalism’s cause in the last decade either: whether you are a beleaguered, everyday hack peering into that shallow, cheap, infantile puppet show and trying to generate ‘stories’; or you’ve been handed your own column on the basis that your face is either pretty enough or your opinions sufficiently ugly. Frayn’s book was somewhat prescient in this regard – his main character Dyson harbours a long desire to break out of his station in the back office of the paper and become known by featuring on TV programmes dealing with such glamorous issues as race relations, or drainage in Africa. He soon realises better and intuitively goes back to his, if not noble, then at least habitable calling. For there is a common misperception, especially by those standing outside the fishbowl looking in, that working in the media is somehow glamorous; perhaps that was true during the gilded age of Fleet Street and it may also be true of the elite band referenced in the Sutton Trust report. But the media is no different to our society, sadly: the top five per cent bask in the spoils, while the rest have to pick up the toils of the trade, editing the equivalent of Dyson’s “The Country Day By Day” column. Someone has to do it, however banal it may seem.
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