Extraordinary complexity

We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.

The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for.  The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.

We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists.  We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking.  Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen. 

But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian.  Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.   

And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War.  The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage.  The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland.  The Russian revolution.  The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.  

All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today.  I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span.  My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board.  In the second war,  Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”.  As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol. 

How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it.  One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture.  A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia.  The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity.  Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper.  Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses.  Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

Jet: when Britain ruled the skies

Nostalgic, sentimental, patriotic, a little gushing, perhaps. These programmes are redeemed, for me, by the presence of Lord Tebbit. Tebbit is one of the few politicians who actually worked for a living before going into politics. We’ll learn a lot by him; when he goes, we shall not see his like again.

These programmes look back at the UK’s all too brief period of air supremacy in the ten years or so after the second war. It can be exemplified, distilled, as it were, by that image of a Vulcan bomber flying alongside a Lancaster. Two Avro machines, separated in design by a dozen years at best, but worlds apart. One, a creation of the late Thirties, the other, of the Atomic age.

We might look back on that period in the early 1950’s with a sense of wonder and not a little unbelief. From the end of rationing, until Suez, something golden was happening. A short renaissance of Empire, perhaps. A final gleam of sunshine out from under lowering clouds. A last fling of power; a final throw of the dice. We might well look back and feel justified in saying, hell, what went wrong? The historians might give a blunt one-word answer: Suez. But, it might just be a little bit more complicated than that.

Notwithstanding that potential complexity, it’s fair to say that our embarrassing failure at Suez was a milestone in the fall of the British Empire. After Suez, post-Imperial Stygian gloom. Before Suez, you might have kidded yourself, were you thus inclined, that the British Empire and it’s Commonwealth might have endured.

Directions were taken in those years that might have been otherwise. Were there really “cusp”points in those years? Could it have been different? Given the financial and economic reality – the Marshall Plan – post WWII, it seems unlikely.

But what, they built some magnificent flying machines.

Off the map, by John Harrison

John Harrison’s “Off the map”, is an account of an eccentric Englishman on an Amazonian journey.  I am never in the mood for English eccentrics, particularly when they are – as they do tend to be – not really eccentric at all, but just opinionated un-original anti-American lefties.

In Deorla Murphy’s foreword to Harrison’s “Off the Map” she writes “the Harrisons wanted to remain in touch with…life as it was lived…before technology rendered our survival skills redundant”.
This is the purest nonsense.  Technology has not rendered our survival skills redundant; it has only changed what those survival skills are. These people would reduce us to hunter-gatherers, and they should be stamped on from a great height!

Harrison writes of garampeiros (gold prospectors) “they are a different breed from the Brazilians who opt to stay at home. They are sharper, harder working, more adventurous and less tolerant of hierarchies and bureaucrats” [there is more.] This is a profound and powerful truth. It goes to the heart of what R.A Heinlein writes, that those who emigrate are inherently cleverer and more able than those who remain behind.  This description of the Brazilian Amazon frontier is most instructive.

Harrison can surely write the most excellent English, but he comes across as someone I’d not want to meet.

Churchill and Orwell, by Thomas Ricks

As ever in my book reviews, the word “readable” comes near the beginning and is intended as a compliment. As Orwell himself wrote, the writer should be doing the hard work, not the reader.

Three writers of the last century, have influenced me greatly. Churchill and Orwell are two of them. The third is Ian Fleming. I knew I had to have a copy of this encouraging and inspiring work, the moment I set eyes on it on the shelf in a bookshop in Sevenoaks. A single book about two of my favourite writers, it did not disappoint. Part commentary, part biography, it revealed things that I did not already know. It made me think about my own position – how was I like Churchill, like Orwell? How was I dealing with the Lord Halifaxes, the Neville Chamberlains, the Franklin Roosevelts, in my own life? Neither man was perfect; both had feet of clay. As much can be learnt from a study of their flaws and failures, as from their successes and their greatness.

Churchill, as well he might, tends to dominate that part of the work dealing with their actual lives – the biographical section. Orwell is predominant in the latter part of the book dealing with their legacy. Orwell, virtually unrecognized in his lifetime, is today considered one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Ricks argues that Orwell was and is the more influential author and “thought leader” for today’s world, even if Churchill was the more influential at the time. It was interesting to read of the two characters being unrecognised and “in the wilderness” at different times.

There were a few unsure steps and odd passages, some occasional gushing and some arguably unnecessary detail in places, but in general, this was an excellent and worthwhile read. It is amongst those books which I might call “life-changing”.