Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Lyres and Lutes vs Liars and Looters

"Every shop in Clapham high street appears to have been looted. The only shop that has escaped is Waterstone’s.” BBC Radio (via Nick Green)
“This fire he beheld from a tower in the house of Maecenas, and being greatly delighted, as he said, with the beautiful effects of the conflagration, he sung a poem on the ruin of Troy, in the tragic dress he used on the stage.” Suetonius, Life of Nero
“Why read literature? The answer, in a nutshell, was that it made you a better person. Few reasons could have been more persuasive than that. When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps [...] to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory
“I think elephants are overprotected. But what do I know, sitting in my ivory tower?” Milton Jones
[Nursery teacher to prospective parents] “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous, and sometimes frightening place, while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.” New Yorker cartoon
I’m not going to speculate about the causes of the rioting in London (and now beyond). I learned from November’s student protests and the events in Stokes Croft in Bristol earlier this year, for both of which I was able to talk to trustworthy eye witnesses, that media reports about such things don’t always match reality. This time I’m a long way off and can’t pontificate to any purpose – having said which, I found this post by a London ex-teacher depressing and inspirational in equal measure.
Instead, I want to ask some related questions to which I don’t know the answers. They’re in my mind right now, because when cities are on fire it’s hard not to wonder whether sitting down to write a fantasy is the very best use one could make of one’s time. Am I not fiddling (or playing the lyre, to be historically pedantic) while Rome burns? So this post is really a rather pathetic whinge about what I should be doing with my life, but I’ve disguised it by putting it in the form of a Cosmo personality quiz. No one will notice.
Got your pen and paper? Here goes...
1) Why was Waterstone’s left untouched, when the rest of the street was looted? Is it because:
a) Looters don’t read.
b) Readers don’t loot.
c) Looters do read, and they have such an ingrained respect for bookshops that they would never dream of breaking into them.
d) Books don’t have the same re-sale value as iPhones.
2) If concentration camp commandants can relax with Goethe, and Nero can burn Rome to make an aesthetic backdrop for poetry, is literature:
a) The opiate of the masses and a decadent distraction
b) A tool to help you become a better person.
c) Its own justification.
d) Irrelevant.
3) What’s the most valuable thing that children’s writers can do for children?
a) Teach them the truth about the dangerous world out there.
b) Help them to envisage a better life, and a better world to live it in.
c) Give them experience of timeless pleasures.
d) Make them literate so that they have a useful transferrable skill when they grow up.
Now, let’s see how you scored:
Mostly a): You’re a bit of an anarcho-cynic, aren’t you?
Mostly b): You’re an idealist with a social conscience – books really can change the world!
Mostly c): You’re an aesthete - you might as well be going round with a teddy bear named Aloysius.
Mostly d): You, by contrast, are a philistine who knows the price of everything and value of nothing.
So, dear Abbatistas, what were your results?


catdownunder said...

Oh dear b-b-b - does that really make me an idealist with a social conscience? I just have to believe in the b-b-b options or life would be just too depressing!

Catherine Butler said...

Well, there's nothing wrong with being an idealist with a social conscience!

Keren David said...

Anarcho-cynic..but not prepared to be defined by a label...

Cathy Butler said...

That's just what an anarcho-cynic would say!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

To answer your question Cathy I think writing is the best use of your time - we need you!I have spent ages mulling over the questions wavering over options and in true Cosmo style looking at categories first. The only shop untouched in my area was MacDonalds there are no bookshops.

frances thomas said...

I think I must be an anarcho-cynical-liberal aesthete

Nick Green said...

Oddly enough, it did occur to me that the looters avoided Waterstones because they were... afraid.

Afraid of the silent, vast, potential energy in all those millions of pages. Afraid that they might accidentally look at a book and 'get educated'. Not that they thought these things consciously, but that the sheer aura of books, like the silence of a religious building, acted like a kind of force field. That they have learned to shun books so well that, like the Delta children in Brave New World, they react to books with something like a phobia.

That's my nonsense for the day.

Catherine Butler said...

Nick, that's an interesting theory. Perhaps we should carry copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix rather than pepper spray when alone at night, as a deterrent to assailants? If the worst comes to the worst, we can hit them over the head with it.

The Time Sculptor said...

A very thought-provoking post, thanks. Maybe looters avoid books for the same reason vampires avoid garlic?!
Jane Gray

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes... I like Nick Green's theory. But my bag's quite small, I wonder if a condensed version of a book has the same power.
Living in London in the heart of this and seeing TV footage of a rioter stop to 'help' a fellow rioter with blood streaming from him, and then pilfer the injured person's backpack, convinced me that dystopic novels (as defined by a nightmare version of society) are closer to the real world after all.

Susan Price said...

Wonderful post, Cathy. I come out as a Philistine, by the way.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

need to correct my comment... the injured person wasn't a fellow rioter but a Malaysian student who was having his backpack rifled through.

Catherine Butler said...

Yes, I saw that footage, too, Dianne - horrible.

Also, on a less grim note, I saw a man from St Paul's in Bristol saying how he'd seen rioters being dropped off in the area by car. One can only hope it wasn't by their parents...

Leslie Wilson said...

In 2006, I was reading 'What use are the arts?' while waiting in the Radcliffe Infirmary for surgery for my spinal tumour, being starved every day on the off-chance of being fitted onto the list. I couldn't intellectually find any justification for the arts, but when I couldn't sleep at night and was really scared, facing, as I was, the possibility of paralysis, I used to walk to the window at the end of the corridor and look at the Observatory, whose wonderful lines soothed and comforted me. So emotionally, I was proving in no uncertain terms that the arts are some good.
Nice provocative post, Cathy. I didn't do the little exercise because I am deeply resistant to that kind of thing.

Miriam Halahmy said...

The pen is mightier than the sword. I will carry on writing, but I will also carry on trying to listen and talk to as many people as I can.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Great blog. Yes, yes, YES!

P.S. I live in Clapham Junction and that Waterstones wasn't the only shop not to be looted, but it makes a jolly good story!

P.P.S. The answer to Q #3 is surely ALL OF THE ABOVE!

Leila said...

Good post!
Literature *is* a tool to help you become a better person - but a tool is no good without the will to use it.
And if a person has the will to be a better person, it won't matter if they are illiterate.
Books can make you a better person, but only if you are the kind of person who wants to become better in the first place.