Guy Cranswick's Blog

July 2, 2020


[image error]©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on July 02, 2020 21:02

June 5, 2020


The political scientist, Ivan Kratsev’s theory of how the former communist bloc copied the West, goes something like this: after the fall of the totalitarian socialist states, they imitated the West – the winners –because the rich democratic countries had stuff, and their people wanted the same lifestyle as the consumers of Rotterdam, Milan and Toronto. This entailed copying everything from economics to political rhetoric.

In the last decade, the emulation has waned for many reasons, not least because of the duplicity of the West.

This is a nice twist because lying was a hallmark of the European communist states. The countries were built on it in every facet of life. Consequently, from the Baltic to the Black Sea jokes made fun of this social fact. Lying was endemic and had few serious ramifications; though viewers of the series, Chernobyl, saw how the practice could lead to devastating consequences.

It’s now clear that imitation works both ways. The furor over the UK prime minister’s top aide’s lockdown breach has caused furious commentary, and the government’s reaction compared to a banana republic; yet closer examination of the notorious event exemplifies how an old liberal democracy copied a Soviet satellite.

The aide’s explanation for breaking the rules used many techniques that Politburos in the communist bloc employed; no one believed it. Only the grammar and punctuation made sense.

British government ministers chorused an approved message, despite the ridicule and incredulity it aroused.

And then there was the aide’s revision a document which inserted an item after it had become very important but which kept the document date as a year ago. In the former totalitarian regimes prescience was the mark of a great leader.

As to why the aide merited such loyal support, the Ceaușescus provide a clue. Romania’s dictator, Nicolae, and his wife, Elena, had a unique grip on power, based on terror, deception and their marriage vows. Power is a motive in itself and never surrendered; something both Nicolae and Elena proved right to the end. They were shot.

It will take a future Marx to decode whether the British episode is the tragedy or farce stage of history.

Now that it has happened, we should lie: there is no reason in which it makes rational sense to do otherwise.  The success of the DDR, PRB, RSR, ČSR and other communist bloc countries, all attest to it.

By way of compensation, there should be a flourishing of jokes and stories which mordantly celebrate deceit and mock the pretensions of the liars.

In the meantime, here’s Ivan Kratsev talking about trust in 2012. Prescient, huh?

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on June 05, 2020 03:07

May 17, 2020


It’s odd that the series Hollywood is attracting such disapproval. For decades Hollywood’s been called a dream factory and the series appears to deliver, albeit at a much higher degree, the signature product intrinsic to most movies and TV shows.

Forensic analysis and criticism for the show’s multiple violations of historical fact has been scathing but it’s hardly news.

The film and TV industry tends to treat history as a costumed tapestry; a stylish tableau upon which old cars and dresses look even more appealing.

Some productions are more scrupulous about the past but the sweeping generalization has its own evidence.

Facts are useful insofar as they may enhance a story. Where they do not, they are discarded and new story lines, characters and events are inserted to fit the production. Hollywood took this industry practice to the ultimate degree and changed everything. Not history anymore but illusion.

Rewriting aspects of events and characters may be required to broaden appeal and mitigate investment risk. Historical verisimilitude is not obligatory.

Biographies are massaged to make personalities more sympathetic and the real person’s faults minimized. Such manipulation runs through other genres too: dramas which underline cherished beliefs and social institutions conform to the same templates.

The spur for the series Hollywood was to create stories which the real people never had. That reason from the show’s instigator merges reality with fiction, an occupational hazard of the industry. Consequently, the revision is necessarily anachronistic in order to redress our ancestors’ errors.

The conundrum is that it doesn’t change anything; the record is the same, there is no restitution, nor expanded understanding of the time and historical context.

It’s a nonsensical delusion, a puerile moral claim on the past, which despite the high minded aims, does not consider the misunderstanding it may engender in its audience.

When political parties are caught making fake videos of their opponents, they are censured.  The test for fictional TV series is different because it’s consumed as an idle fantasy. The distinction undercuts the ambition of the fictionalized history.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on May 17, 2020 19:03

April 30, 2020


We have all learnt new words and some smattering of epidemiology in the last two months. It’s probable that the metaphors of health and viral danger will be incorporated in our speech for some time.

The Guardian analyzed Boris Johnson’s first speech after his return to health. It showed that his choices of words and metaphors had shifted. Initially he described the pandemic in martial terms: of battles and armies, of fighting readiness and weapons. It’s a hackneyed form of expression used by business executives and politicians, a cliché despite being able to galvanize understanding.

After his recovery Johnson called the virus a mugger, a cunning assailant; the enemy transformed from a foe who observed the rules of warfare into a guerrilla fighter, a dishonorable, disguised enemy.

The change of style and metaphor intended to alert the public that no one is safe; that the codes of military engagement are not suitable to this combat, instead, you are mugged from behind, unprepared, and shocked.  Just like the prime minister.

Such an alteration of usage reveals a limited understanding of the situation, and, like the application of sporting metaphors, the deficiencies of those metaphors to describe complex problems.

For me, one word captures this strange unsettling time. It is Hamsterkauf, the German for panic buying and hoarding, and so much more vivid, than its bland English equivalent.

German morphology makes compounds more easily than a bartender mixes a cocktail, and the image it creates is one we have seen with frantic shoppers furiously grabbing the last packets from shelves.

English has appropriated several German words; zeitgeist and schadenfreude make frequent appearances, and some others, like dreck and dumb, are fully absorbed.

While writing this I discovered that Deutsche Welle had seen the export potential of another German word into English with the provocative headline, When will hamsterkauf become an English word?  A red rag to Brexiters.

If there are any influencers left on social media, the import may seed through them, but as many of them seem barely literate in their native language that could take decades. Perhaps the fans of hard rock bands, Blue Öyster Cult, Motörhead, Hüsker Dü and Mötley Crüe might adopt it as it has an umlaut and that diacritic just says German.

Crises are catalysts for change, and with new and urgent needs we find words which fit our experience. The next time I see empty shelves, I know which word I’ll reach for.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on April 30, 2020 21:02

April 21, 2020


Over the extended lockdown there’s been some advice on how to deal with the isolation and uncertainty. To understand if our mood is more negative than another period experiencing the similar adversities, I read Samuel Pepys’s account of the plague in 1665. Perhaps Pepys’s society was better equipped to respond to the upheaval it brings than we are.

The sight of crosses on doors and discussion about the increase of the plague in London pepper his diary, but he is active; out and about in the day, at his business meeting people, although there is implied social distancing, as for instance, when he goes to another part of London; he is questioned about his health, as if he might have brought plague with him.

His own doctor was a casualty and his general sadness about the epidemic is solemn, but his tone is balanced, with thanks that he is not afflicted, that God protects him and that the threat will pass.

In this sense, their direct experience of pestilence gave them an insight to its duration. Pepys’s equanimity is not surprising: in his time human health was not guaranteed to be happy and life expectations were different; life itself was often short.

This attitude strikes an interesting counterpoint with our experience, with advice to manage boredom, frustration, loneliness, even anger in some quarters. It is likely that faith and the church aided people in Pepys’s day.

By chance he offers a way to remain positive and it doesn’t involve prayer.

On 15th August 1665, after rising at 4am, he writes that he recalls his dream from the night before. He was having a “dalliance” (his word) with Lady Castlemaine – the King – Charles II’s favorite mistress.

She was a great beauty; three years before, in August 1662, Pepys said he “glutted” himself looking at her at White Hall, and so on the night of 14th August 1665, in the plague year, he had a pleasing dream dalliance with her.

He says that, as it was a happy dream, we might have such dreams in the eternal hereafter, and that small contentment may alleviate our fears while the plague continues.

It’s not the best advice, and unlikely to impress the online counselors today, yet it suited Pepys, whose endurance carried him through the plague with that nocturnal wish fulfillment.

For the rest of us: stick with the daily walk, several good books, box sets, and eat plenty of vegetables.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on April 21, 2020 03:15

April 7, 2020


Half a century ago Joni Mitchell sang, “…you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone”.  The environment was the subject in the song, but the reason for quoting it now is that in a period of lockdowns, society itself is the thing that we took for granted, and now it seems gone. Replaced by a vacant parking lot.

That is how it appears to writers who have written society’s obituary. Using the tropes of country and western songs, extrapolated to forecasting, they’ve pronounced the sad passing of society.

But not all of us play pedal steel guitar while we isolate. Those of us with group resistance: writers, are relatively sanguine. In the New York Times, a writer said her current experience is marginally different to her life in the ante-COVID-19 world. Generally, I’d concur.

Perception is everything, and so radically has society been shuffled off its perch that many opine that we shall not see its like again. The world really has changed; irrevocably.

Having worked with statistics, I’d say three to four weeks of data, especially as dynamic as human behavior, is insufficiently robust to make a fifty year forecast. Not with any reliability. But in the opinion business, just run with cognitive bias.

Nevertheless there has been a pivot. Expertise in science, statistical analysis, medicine and other technical abilities have to a degree replaced celebrities and the effluent of social media. Even so, a mob of conspiracy cultists burnt 5G towers in retribution against the virus.

In sum, then, a curate’s egg of accomplishment.

Whether everything, including social life, has fundamentally changed will be clearer in time, but having been deprived of sport, live entertainment and culture, it seems certain that we’ll leap back into events, with real face-time, with new vigor. In this sense, we know what has disappeared and we don’t want to lose it again.

For twenty years digital life was vaunted as the future, but the lockdown experience will probably renew social customs, especially as they will be won back slowly and progressively as health security can be assured.  By comparison, the virtual life of digital connections may be relegated to a particular era which had run its course.  Not extinct but without the status it once had.

The way things are now is only a suspension, postponed for a short time, but not gone. Not really gone. Because no one wants another parking lot.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on April 07, 2020 21:52

March 22, 2020


Due to the extraordinary locked down situation, it may seem a good time to tackle the big tomes: Tolstoy, Proust or the complete works of Shakespeare. If so, that is probably going to end like many New Year’s resolutions.

And when it comes to some of Shakespeare’s comedies, I’d take dental surgery without anesthetic accompanied by Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony, rather than endure the Bard’s jokes.[image error]

Books which explain, or mirror, the current circumstances in order to make sense of it, would be an obvious criterion for a recommendation. In that column, the Camus classic is certain, although I haven’t seen it proposed, and I haven’t read the French media to see if it has been chosen.

On the other hand, the chance to escape and a regain a sense of normality is compelling. There’s more than enough material to choose from, whether the classics through to contemporary works.

If stories aren’t satisfactory to fill the lazy time, non-fiction can fulfill the space. An imminent sales surge about medical histories and epidemics is likely. And just as likely economic history too as we understand the changes ahead.  Waugh’s A Handful of Dust colors the reality of that world in the early 1930s.

I have a few books to read, or re-read, but no recommendations: I suspect at this time the familiar and comforting will have the highest appeal and value.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on March 22, 2020 16:40

March 18, 2020


A mynah hoarder and their stash.

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©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on March 18, 2020 01:38

March 9, 2020


Analogies to a movie are often made during a crisis, as if the occurrence could only be created in the imagination, and manufactured with the special effects budgets of the film industry.

The current viral emergency reminds me of Buenuel’s film El ángel exterminador; but not because of the title, rather how social conventions crumble. In Buñuel’s film, and perhaps, even more so in Thomas Adès’s opera, anxiety erodes years of education, good manners and holidays in all the best places.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on March 09, 2020 17:33

March 1, 2020


The BBC said last week that its changes to some classic books in their TV adaptations were updates for today’s audience. That seems quite reasonable because an audience has to connect with a story and updates in character and dialog, which are more contemporary in tone, may help make a dramatized book more appealing.

A more infamous instance of this modification is to bowdlerize a text: that is a practice named after the doctor who cleaned up Shakespeare and made it more presentable to delicate minds. He gave King Lear a happy ending.

BBC updates and bowdlerizing hardly seem comparable yet to bowdlerize is to expurgate a text, to modify it; it also means to simplify and distort in style or content. Anachronistic amendments, such as are common films and TV, are bowdlerizations.

All adaptions of Anna Karenina are bowdlerized: only a third of the novel appears, using the tragic love story, eschewing the other two major stories, making only a cursory glance to the Kitty and Kostya marriage, and cutting all the material on agrarian economics and farm mechanization.

Bowdlerization is risible but very common.  The paradox is that we believe we want the authentic artistic voice, but occasionally a book and its views need revision to fit with our shibboleths.

Classic works have elements which disturb audiences and that is an incentive for directors to intervene.  In part this is also a sign of market forces: another production of Hamlet needs a gimmick, as does another production of La Traviata.

Opera is especially prone to alteration. With a popular repertoire of fifty major works change/updating is inevitable in order to refresh the stock.  It’s not certain though that these are all bowdlerizations, the integrity of the work is upheld while it is made over in setting and presentational style, a fact that does not quell the rage of conservatives who can’t abide any change.

Sometimes the updates are successful but it is not assured.  They don’t tend to appease our prejudices, if anything, they strive to be more disturbing, more revealing. The refiguring is a rebalance to works which were composed under stricter censorship, either ostensibly, or in a general sense in the social world of the time.

Bowdlerization arrogantly aspires to a pompous moral state by omitting awkward characteristics, and redressing embarrassing elements, and thereby confirm anachronistic attitudes. It perpetrates a fraud on its audience.

Just as we look at the past with incredulity, and frustration at its injustices, it is likely that in a hundred years robots will shake their heads at our attitudes and prissiness.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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Published on March 01, 2020 00:21