…when good men look on and do nothing

By now, child abuse allegations against at least three high-ranking politicians are swarming across social media, smearing their subjects across continents from West to East. Such is the power of the internet when harnessed to the rule of a mob. I have no way of knowing whether or not the allegations are true or false;  whether they began as brave exposure of deeply concealed fact, or opportunistic traducing of innocent men.

The shouts of ‘cover-up’ bring onlookers tumbling from their beds: the very suggestion that the ‘Establishment’ has  conspired to conceal heinous crimes against children has led otherwise temperate commentators to bay for blood.  Already this morning I have seen the torches of the righteous turned into dark alleyways, alleging the involvement of ‘freemasons’, ‘public schools’, ‘Tories’,  and other bogeymen. Were they whipping up  suspicion of ‘Jews’, ‘Communists’, or ‘Women’ then the crowd might more readily recognise the historic dangers of  allowing a genuinely felt sense of outrage to become a tool for exploitation.  After all, what exactly was behind Phillip Schofield’s stunt on camera yesterday? Genuine outrage or naked opportunism? What was behind the Prime Minister’s response? Concern for the principles of justice, or  an intemperate link between homosexuality and paedophilia?

Mass hysteria does nothing for justice except to deny it to those who most deserve it. It seems sometimes that we have not moved too far from the seventeenth century; from the exploitation of child witnesses in the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, or the community hysterics that led to the deaths of the notorious Salem Witches in America.

While the Twitterati feast on the allegations currently being passed around like dancing girls at an orgy, it is worth remembering that crimes such as those alleged against the children in care in Wrexham are still happening today, and not all the perpetrators wear a blue rosette. In May this year, nine men were convicted for their part in running a child sexual exploitation ring in Rochdale that accessed some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Like so many abuse victims, the first child to make allegations was not believed. There is now an enquiry into that first, failed police investigation.

For these crimes to succeed, ordinary, good people must first look the other way, satisfy their own disquiet, quell their instincts, make snap judgements and most of all – fail to listen and fail to act. All of us -onlookers and commentators alike – are part of the society within which these criminals continue to operate, and avid participation in an internet witch hunt is no way to salve our consciences.

John Stuart Mill gave an opening address to the University of St Andrews in 1867 in which he said:

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

Shine torches in dark alleyways, yes, but better we should keep our lights firmly switched on in the first place.

Posted in The Big Questions | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sorry to disturb – can I just say…

… I haven’t blogged for a little while. I’d like to pretend that instead, I have been wearing my fingernails down on the keyboard while yellow sheets of typescript spill off the edge of my desk. The Great Novel Takes Shape, that sort of thing. And it’s true, I have been writing. Quite a bit. But the real truth is that  Life keeps getting in my way, and I keep stopping to sort it out.

The autumn term starts, the house settles down after a long summer, and after several weeks of eating rock buns and drinking tea the builders  have left as well.  Time to write.

Nope. The good old family jinx decides that it would be fun to wake up. No sooner have I taken coffee to desk than a ghostly figure with squeegee and bucket appears beside me.  “We ‘ave a Leak in the Cellar”, announces Mrs Mop, otherwise known round here as the Harbinger of Doom. I spring into action (yes, seriously), isolate the pipe and turn it off. Sadly it is the rising main, which means no water to upstairs. I call the plumber. [Memo to self: next time remember to check that teenager has not left her taps ON before reconnecting the water…]

I’m sure that Hemingway probably shot interruptions, or plyed them with whiskey until they stopped bothering him. I become distracted instead by investigating the writing habits of real authors. I aim to identify one who can cook, clean, study, shop, use Facebook, keep up an ongoing relationship with a plumber AND win Book Of The Year.

No such luck. Not amongst the greats of literature, anyway. Charles Dickens, writing to Wilkie Collins in December 1852, congratulates WC on his ‘admirable writing’, and for his skill in avoiding the ‘conceited idiots who suppose…that any writing can be done without the utmost application, the greatest patience, and the steadiest energy…’ (Letters of Charles Dickens, ed Jenny Hartley, p 249 ).  He could have added ‘….and without interruption.’

The plumber sorts the problem, and leaves. A small pinhole in the pipe means new pipe with the price of copper at an all time high. Not to mention emergency call out fees.

Back to the book.

A couple of days later, the H of D appears again, more lugubrious than ever. “Washin’ machine’s broke. S’making a terrible noise an’ all”. Hardly surprising, says the repairman – trading name, The Saint, I kid you not – who arrives in his lunch-break to rescue my sanity.  The pump was full of golf tees; the golf tees won.

I pay the Saint, and interrogate HN on his return home. Golf tees are apparently a figment of my overactive imagination.

Back to the book.

Next time I am interrupted by Teenage Daughter. Yes, folks, while I was socialising with the plumber, we reached half-term. She wants to know if water should be dripping from the lightbulb in her ceiling. Mrs Mop attacks the carpet with the squeegee. I make a mental note to check if the National Curriculum includes Electricity as a topic  in science lessons these days.

The plumber attends again. Another pinhole in another otherwise perfect stretch of copper pipe. Plumber starts muttering darkly about suspect copper. I pay him to go away before he accuses me of buying my heating system off the back of a lorry.

Back to the book. Again. I try to remember WHY I am trying to write. Perhaps it would have made more sense if I had started doing this when life was less complicated and everything in my life was in bed and fast asleep by 7pm. But I’m not sure that I knew what was in my own mind back then, or understood myself well enough to stand outside my weirder thought processes and watch where they went. Instead I spent  too much time trying to ignore the stuff in my head and Have a Career, instead. The scars that resulted were acquired at consultancies and firms all over London. One or two of my former colleagues are probably still in counselling.

 Joan Didion  (in The Writer on Her Work; Janet Sturnburg)    explains why it took her so long to find what she was really about:

I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.

 Mrs Mop appears by me again, to fill me in on the latest domestic drama. She doesn’t know whether to start with the broken cistern in the boys’ bathroom, or the fridge which has decided to leak coolant all over the floor. I choose the cistern, on the basis that I don’t want to share my bathroom with a teenage male and that this therefore constitutes a domestic emergency.. I wedge the broken ballcock with a tube of toothpaste and recall the plumber.

Downstairs the broken fridge was full of beer. HN has authorised expenditure for a replacement . Really?

Sadly I am too busy watching my thoughts to go order a new one. Instead, here – with thanks to the wonderful www.brainpickings.org – is a poem by Charles Bukowski. I had never heard of him before I started pondering my frustration at being constantly interrupted,  but he gets it, perfectly.

so you want to be a writer

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you

in spite of everything,

don’t do it.

unless it comes unasked out of your

heart and your mind and your mouth

and your gut,

don’t do it.

if you have to sit for hours

staring at your computer screen

or hunched over your

typewriter

searching for words,

don’t do it.

if you’re doing it for money or

fame,

don’t do it.

if you’re doing it because you want

women in your bed,

don’t do it.

if you have to sit there and

rewrite it again and again,

don’t do it.

if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,

don’t do it.

if you’re trying to write like somebody else,

forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of you,

then wait patiently.

if it never does roar out of you,

do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife

or your girlfriend or your boyfriend

or your parents or to anybody at all,

you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,

don’t be like so many thousands of

people who call themselves writers,

don’t be dull and boring and

pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-love.

the libraries of the world have

yawned themselves to sleep

over your kind.

don’t add to that.

don’t do it.

unless it comes out of

your soul like a rocket,

unless being still would

drive you to madness or

suicide or murder,

don’t do it.

unless the sun inside you is

burning your gut,

don’t do it.

when it is truly time,

and if you have been chosen,

it will do it by

itself and it will keep on doing it

until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

Posted in Books, Family life, Life | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments