Friday 25 October 2019

3. Alice in Wonderland - The Ditch

'I would like to see these scribes,' Alice said to Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'where are they?'
'I sent them to the House,' Mr Comings-and-Goings replied eagerly.
'Let's go,' said Alice.

Together they scurried down a straight, wide road till they got to an old, tired palace full of corridors and uniformed servants. 
'We go into the gallery,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings. 'I sit up here so that I can signal to Johnson what he has to say.'
'Doesn't he know himself?' Alice asked.
'Of course not,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings contemptuously. 

The moment he opened the door into the gallery, Alice heard and felt a great roar and babble of voices. She looked down and saw hundreds of people all talking at the same time, waving bits of paper, standing up and sitting down, snorting and snoring, sneering and jeering, slapping and clapping. Some were making sheep noises, others pointed and performed exaggerated nodding movements. Others shook their heads and smacked the palms of their hands on to their faces. Yet more made repeated appeals to the ceiling or beyond to the heavens. 

Alice looked more closely and she saw the sneery cat Mogg, who was stretched out along one of the benches waving a paw in a languid sort of a way. Nearby was Johnson the dog who was shouting even louder than everyone else. 
She caught him saying, 'And I would suggest to you, quo quis quint, quis quo.'
The brought huge roars of approval from the people behind him.

'Why are they doing all that...all that...?' Alice's voice petered out as she tried to think of a word to describe what she was looking at.
'Don't you think it's marvellous?' Mr Comings-and-Goings said, with his eyes gleaming.
'No,' said Alice, 'not really.'
'Oh well,' he said, 'you wouldn't understand. The worse it gets in here, the more Johnson can say that he's saving us.'
Alice was still puzzled.
'We keep saying it's a "zombie parliament",' Mr Comings-and-Goings shouted over the top of the noise, 'and my dog Johnson is going to save the country from the zombie. It's marvellous,' and he clapped his hands together like an excited child.
'Can we go now?' Alice said, 'I thought we were going to meet the scribes.'
'Well actually,' Mr Comings-and-Goings said, 'one or two of them are just sitting further down the line from us, but most of them are waiting in the Lobby for me to give them some Anonymous Sauce,' and he pointed down to the big Anonymous Sauce bottle in his bag.

As they got up to leave, Alice heard amidst the din a louder shout from one side of the House shouting, 'The Ditch! The Ditch!'

'Why are they saying that?' Alice asked.
'Oh  you don't want to know that,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings.
'But I do,' Alice said in her usual curious way. 

When they reached the Lobby, the scribes rushed up to Mr Comings-and-Goings like eager chickens clustering round a farmer at feeding time. He responded by handing them the Anonymous Sauce and they soon drank it up, apart from one who, like the group in the House, kept saying, 'The Ditch! The Ditch!'

Alice went over to her. 
'Excuse me,' Alice said, 'what is this ditch? Where is it?'
'Aha,' said the woman, 'it's actually not a ditch. I mean, it's a ditch that is both a ditch and not a ditch at the same time.'
'Can we go there?' said Alice.
'In a way, yes, and in a way, not.'

The woman led Alice out of the House and very soon they got to a sort of a drain or gutter.
The woman pointed at it.
'Is that the ditch?' Alice asked.
'It's "a" ditch,' the woman replied.
'I see,' said Alice which in all truth wasn't true. 
'When might it be "the" ditch, then?' Alice asked again.
'October 31st 2019,' said the woman very clearly.
Alice looked closely at it.
'What will happen then?' she asked.
'Johnson is going to come along, lie down in it and die.'
'Oh,' said Alice suddenly feeling sad for Johnson. 
'No, no, no, no need to sound sad,' said the woman, 'it's never going to be a ditch. It never was.'
Alice really was confused now.

Just then, a bunch of the scribes rushed past, with Anonymous Sauce round their mouths, shouting 'Zombie parliament! Zombie parliament!'
Alice watched them.
'Don't they want to know about the ditch?' she said.
'Not any more,' the woman said, 'the ditch was yesterday.'

Alice stood and wondered. The ditch was going to be October 31st but it was also yesterday. 

How very, very confusing, she thought. 

Thursday 24 October 2019

Reflections on difference between Johnson and Corbyn in PMQs,

Johnson displays all the mannerisms of someone who had a lot of space and time to learn a particular way of performing . He extends sentences through repetition and illustration, full of 'fillers' like '' delivered in non-hesitant way as if even the 'er' has authority. He is happy to string 'oral formulas' together - long established rhetorical devices and mannerisms that he would have learned in debating societies at school and university. At the heart of all this is a kind of role-play. He imagined himself being the speaker and performer he is now, and role-played it for many years. We might call it 'entitlement' - and it is - but the entitlement is brought about through a kind of play, playing with what he thought he could become. One indication it's a 'play' is that one of the routines of debating societies in posh schools is that you're encouraged to take up positions you don't believe in: you just play at it, for that particular debate - and then switch.

Corbyn, on the other hand, clearly doesn't behave as if this particular kind of debate is what he's done a lot of. His tradition of speaking in public is the meeting, single speeches, trying to convince people of a particular way of thinking, a particular politics. A combination of him and his team are pursuing a line that what Corbyn should do at PMQs is just patiently make points. He should be as accurate as possible, citing examples and statistics. This is essentially legalistic in tone and method and though it is in its own way 'performative' it isn't the kind of performance that comes from speechifying as combat between posh boys, and the 'debating society'. Corbyn's use of words and speech comes from the idea that you speak from conviction or belief and not from role-playing.

Just to be clear, none of what I'm saying here is necessarily about 'effectiveness'. They are observations about why their two methods are so different.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Alice in Wonderland at Number 10 - the Sauce


In fact, Alice changed her mind, and before leaving found herself alone in the room with the ever-furious Mr Comings-and-Goings. Her eyes drifted towards the table where she was surprised to see a large bottle full of some kind of liquid.

Oh, she thought to herself, I wonder if this is anything like that peculiar drink I had before. She looked to see if this bottle also had a label on it saying, 'Drink me' . Yes it did, but this time the bottle bore another label, saying: 'Anonymous Sauce'.

That's funny, she thought, the sauce bottles at home say 'Stokenchurch and Wilmslow Olde Englishe Sauce', but this one just says 'Anonymous'.

She reached out for the bottle, but Mr Comings-and-Goings spotted what she was doing and said with a rather alarming tone of voice, 'That's for the scribes, not you.'

'Can I try some,' said Alice, 'after all, it does say, "Drink me" on it?'

'O very well,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'I firmly believe people should do what they want.'

'Do you?' said Alice.

'No,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings.

Alice reached forward again, took the bottle into her hand, opened it and sipped a tiny amount. It had a strange, tangy taste but even as she had that thought, something stranger started to happen: she heard herself say things that she didn't think.

''s been revealed that Mr Dominic Grievous Bodily Harm, who had been at the Party, eats children...'

'Why did I say that?' Alice said interrupting herself.

'I did tell you that it was meant for the scribes,' Mr Comings-and-Goings said with a knowing smile.

She wondered who these scribes were and asked him so in her usual direct way.

'Here!' he said crossly and pressed a button on a box at his side. A voice came out of it speaking in clipped but confident tones.

''s been revealed that Mr Dominic Grievous Bodily Harm, who had been at the Party, eats children...' the voice said.

Alice could hardly believe her ears. Wasn't this what she had just said? She glanced back towards Mr Comings-and-Goings.

He was still smiling but was now looking with great fondness at the Anonymous Sauce.

'It's like playing a musical instrument,' he said more to himself than to Alice, 'we feed them the Sauce, they say the words...'

"Well, I shall tell them,' said Alice, 'I will warn them that they are saying things that they don't think. And it's just you and whoever cooked this Sauce who are doing this.'

'And who, in the whole wide world will believe you or will care?' said Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'you really are a foolish little girl.'

I'm not, thought Alice, I really am not, and resolved to find these scribes and tell them what was going on.

Alice in Wonderland visits Number 10

Alice walked on.

In front of her was a door with a number on it: 10. She knocked and  an invisible man pulled the door open. The moment she was inside she heard shouting and being curious, she put her head round the door frame of the nearest room. 

An extremely angry man, who she would later hear was Mr Comings-and-Goings, was screaming at a large white dog. This was Johnson, the house dog at Number 10. 

'You shouldn't have mentioned ditches!' Mr Comings-and-Goings was yelling at Johnson, 'Why did you talk about ditches?'

'Mea culpa non cupola,' said Johnson blearily, whilst keeping a firm eye on a rather splendid steak and mushroom pie that was sitting on the sideboard. 

'O what does that mean?' said Alice brightly.

'How should I know?' said Mr Comings-and-Goings furiously.

'It means...' said Johnson sidling ever nearer to the pie, 'my fault but not my domed ceiling.'

'But that doesn't make sense,' said Alice crossly.

'That's the point,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings. 'Whenever he gibbers away with that stuff, all the scribes over there think that he's the most brilliant dog that ever barked. That's all that matters.'

'Are you entering him for some sort of competition? I love competitions,' Alice said, her eyes shining with expectation.

'Yes,' snapped Mr Comings-and-Goings, 'and we've got a lot of work to do getting him cleaned up in time for it. He's been pole dancing.'

'But...' Alice started to say but she was interrupted by Mr Comings-and-Goings:

'Enough questions. I don't like answering questions. If you want to ask questions I have other people to do that.'

At that, a tall, thin, cat with a sneery look on its face, appeared from behind the Grandfather Clock. 

'Who is this nosy, little girl?' said the sneery cat.

'I don't know and I don't care,' said Mr Comings-and-Goings as he tapped the barometer on the wall and saying what sounded to Alice like very rude words.

'Who are you?' said the sneery cat directly to Alice.

'I'm Alice,' said Alice looking back at him, 'and who are you?'

'I am Mogg,' said the sneery cat, 'for I am the cat that purrs beautifully.'

'Cats do,' said Alice, 'there's no need to say that as if you're special.'

'What an odious little specimen, you are,' said Mogg.

They were interrupted by a very loud bell. 

'Get up!' shouted Mr Comings-and-Goings to Johnson. 'You've got to go to the House. If you lose this one, you're for the ditch.'

'Can I take that rather delicious-looking pie with me?' said Johnson mournfully.

'No!' screamed Mr Comings-and-Goings and pushed Johnson out the door and he was followed soon after by the sneery Mogg. 

I think I'll follow them, thought Alice. 

And she did. 

Wednesday 9 October 2019

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell - a review

'The Explorer' by Katherine Rundell is a story about four children who crash into the Amazon 'jungle', survive, meet a lone 'explorer' living in an ancient deserted 'city', leave and very briefly meet up many years later as adults.

It's in some ways a very appealing, tension-filled novel, in which we very soon care about the fate of the children with events seen from the point of view of the older boy, Fred. It seems to have been treated in the children's book world as a 'good book'. Stylistically, there are some intriguing things about the way it's written: odd, quirky dialogue, sudden surprises and shocks, and a particularly odd and intriguing character with the 'explorer'. It's both an adventure and a mystery.

What happens if we chart or map the story using two theories: intertextuality and the notion of the 'colonial gaze'? Intertextuality is not an objective method. You can (perhaps should) use it in order to pursue how it is 'I' react to a story. If I do that, then as I read the book, I found links, memories and reminders of many other texts: 'Swiss Family Robinson', Narnia, Famous Five, 'Lord of the Flies', 'Northern Lights', 'Heart of Darkness' and Genesis - The Garden of Eden story. That is, the motifs, dramatic moments or scenes in the book had echoes (for me) in these other stories. The structure of the story involves the children falling out of the sky, separated from their parents or carers, thrown together, in a 'jungle' - an unknown (to them) place, uninhabited by humans but full of creatures some friendly, some dangerous (to them). One creature is 'attached' to them - a sloth. They meet a strange unknowable man who gives them knowledge but is also judgemental, giving a knowing commentary on them, and the world. We discover that his son died and this changed him. He passes on crucial knowledge which enables them to escape - though this escape is not a banishment. Even so, he urges them to do it. This strange man lives in some sense beyond what is known, though they have reached him through finding a map - also a kind of knowledge. It is possible to see the book as these 'innocent' children finding 'knowledge' which then leads to their exit from a kind of Eden, apparently untouched by humans other than the odd signs from the 'explorer'. He incidentally forbids them to go to his inner sanctum - an instruction they disobey. 

For me, then there are the motifs of the fiction that I mentioned but the overriding myth working in the novel is the Garden of Eden story with its core idea of innocence and knowledge. The motif overall seems to be the 'Robinsonnade' of the enforced departure of the 'western' person/people, the managing or coping with the hostile environment of the 'uninhabited' or nearly uninhabited world and the return from it through the ingenuity of the western protagonist.

If we put the notion of the 'colonial gaze' into the picture, we see that all events in the book are seen in narrative terms through the eyes of Fred, the older boy. Other points of view are revealed to us through dialogue, ie what people say. When we ask the questions of any passage 'who sees', 'who speaks' (ie 'point of view') this shows us who sees what. This is what carries the 'ideology' of the book, the ideas and attitudes of what is sometimes called the 'implied author'. (We don't know if it's the 'author's intention'.) This seeing and saying can be called a 'gaze'. Who does this gaze belong to: white European or post-Columban children and a man. The 'nature' being looked at is uninhabited but invaded by these people and treated as hostile. Clearly, this is not the only gaze available in fiction and I found it strange that it's uninhabited, an echo from the colonial era of treating whole swathes of the earth's surface as 'terra nullius' even though it was in fact inhabited. This territory (in the book) is then occupied, traversed, and treated ultimately as 'belonging' to at the very least the 'explorer' who is trying to keep it secret from the rest of the world but also for him, as if he is the person entitled to guard it, own it even. He has the arcane knowledge needed to tame it and work it to his benefit. 

For me, the book has as its core two guiding myths: the Garden of Eden and the 'colonial gaze' of western entitlement. As an adult reader in 2019, this made me uncomfortable, even as I was 'attracted' to the story and 'cared' about the fates of the children and intrigued by the 'explorer'.