Monday, 28 March 2011

Island Perspectives

 Peel Castle, Isle of Man

“It’s not normally like this,” has become the standard greeting offered me on debarking at the Isle of Man airport. The members of my family who live there claim I bring the sunshine with me, along with an atmospheric calm they find eerie. My father exclaims at the sight of a mirror flat sea, usually dappled by the wind whickering over its surface. My aunt remarks at the peculiar sight of smoke flowing straight up from chimneys rather than being whisked off over the rooftops. There is no chance to play the seafront game of catch-the-sandwich, as meals stay on their plates instead of flying from the café’s outdoor tables.

Whatever it is normally like in Peel, the contrast with my own normality is greater, and this is as wonderful a gift as the sunshine and glittering sea. As the London grime is gradually sand-blasted from my skin, and my legs bounce me over rocks and craggy hills instead of flat, gum-spattered pavements, the squashed parts of me revive.

There is a trick of the light at sea, which can make distant landmarks grow huge, then shrink and disappear entirely. Thus from Peel, if you stand on the sea side of the castle walls, you might see the Mountains of Mourne rising majestically as mountains should above the horizon, only to find the following day that the same strip of horizon is as bare as a scrubbed blue tabletop, with not a crumb of mountain to be seen.

Gazing at life through the distortions provided, not by mixing pockets of cold and warm air, but by routine, work, and the resultant daily effort to stay sane, similar tricks of perspective come into play. Sometimes I see myself clearly, a familiar if not exactly majestic speck floating in the midst of a gigantic world. At other times I can hardly see myself at all, and it can seem as though I have indeed sunk and been lost in a sea of necessities, requirements, duties and computer passwords.

Recently the self I know had been obscured in this way far more often than is healthy. But surrounded by the real, dazzling, freezing Irish Sea for the last few days, it bobbed back up again, and I was pleased to find that, despite having been below the water line for quite some time, no important parts were missing. My creativity had gone a bit wrinkly, but it revived remarkably quickly in the fresh air.

Even better, now that I am back in London my self is still growing clearer and clearer. This, I know, is because I am about to have a whole month off work to be only myself, with not one single gasping dip into the murky waters of office life. I am ridiculously excited about having this time, and about the unanticipated surfacing effect its promise is having on me. There is a darker side: extended periods away from ‘normal’ life like this are not frequent, and I wonder how long I would have had to wait without taking this break to be reacquainted with the parts of myself that had been longest out of view.

But, the Mountains of Mourne always reappear eventually if you walk around Peel castle often enough. I believe a dose of Isle of Man air, with or without the wind, will always bring my life, and my self, into better perspective.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Resuscitating a novel

This weekend I re-read the 15,000 or so words of a novel I started writing last year, and then abandoned. At the time I was trying to write something I believed would be more commercially viable than my previous efforts, having concluded that writing the kind of thing that I would like to read is not a great recipe for selling success.

Having just been through a phase of reading an awful lot in general, it was interesting to read something of my own that for once had been in the bottom drawer long enough for me to forget some details. I was pleasantly surprised, as the writing had soured in my memory until I believed I had written something I should be ashamed of. I hadn’t, and I might well go back to it.

The reason the novel had caused me difficulties to the point of giving up on it was exactly the same as the reason for which I had begun writing it in the first place: I wanted to produce something that might have commercial appeal. I’ve written here before about the division, in the minds of publishers at least, between literary commercial fiction. I’d also read urgent pleas from both publishers and agents that somebody would produce commercially viable novels that were as well written as their literary counterparts. So I thought, I might as well give it a try.

The defining characteristic of ‘commercial’ novels, apart from the obvious one that, when done well, they sell hundreds of times more copies than literary ones, seems to be that they must have strong plots. It’s not that literary novels don’t do plot, just that the latter kind of book can be interesting, original, and great without being a rip-roaring page-turner.

Personally I don’t find a brilliant plot enough to engage me. If the sentences are badly written, expressions hackneyed, or characters clichéd, I’ve given up before the end of chapter one. It’s a matter of taste, but I can’t get far enough into, say, a John Grisham novel, to even start to assess the plot, so turned off am I by the style. However, I know full well that this is not the case for a huge number of avid readers out there. Many don’t even notice the style of the writing, and in a way they are lucky, because it renders so many more stories readable.

So for my ‘commercial’ novel, I set about constructing what I hoped was a powerful plot, remembering to multiply the jeopardy with each step towards final resolution. I included elements of romance, danger, mystery and (dare I admit it) the supernatural. I created a defiant but vulnerable protagonist, and plonked her into a world where events would soon escalate beyond her control and would have changed her irrevocably by the time she was safely at the final page.

What made me cringe in the end was the self-conscious manner in which I had approached this exercise. I kept remembering the one piece of advice to writers that I’ve been able to take seriously in my creative life: at any one time, you should be writing the best novel you think you can. I doubted that was what I was up to in this case. The familiar creative dilemma reared its ugly head: should I sacrifice artistic integrity for the sake of some other (commercial) measure of success?

Pretty silly to worry, given that there was no real reason to expect this novel to be sellable finally. So now that time has passed, and my outlook has changed, perhaps I can reapply my artistic integrity and make this a great novel by my own standards. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Happy birthday world

I wrote a blog post on Friday 11th March. It was my birthday, but it was also the day the tsunami struck Japan, and within a few hours, anything I had to say seemed irrelevant to the point of being offensive.

Before the news started arriving in this part of the world, I was prancing around my bedroom, reacquainting myself with the more esoteric elements of my wardrobe. While dressed in a blue chiffon dress from a Parisian vintage shop, sipping gin, the subject of dress and how clothes make us think seemed like a great topic for a post. The contrast between that lighheartedness and the monumental changes taking place in Japan concurrently has become greater and greater as the days have passed, until I felt guilty in retrospect for my celebratory state of mind.

As a philosopher it’s easy come back at this. At any one moment, we might argue, things more terrible than we can imagine are happening to people somewhere in the world. How many birthday cakes were being cut and savoured as 9/11 unfolded? How many people experienced the most happy, satisfying year of their life at times when hundreds of thousands suffered and died through war and famine?

I’ve been one of them, the generation who became immune to Oxfam campaign photographs and Band Aid appeals. So now, when I find myself engaging mentally and emotionally with events in a farflung place, affecting people I know no better than those alive 200 years ago, I doubt my own integrity.

This is philosophically more complex. If I am moved to think in depth about the struggles in Libya, trying to empathising with people there and considering both the personal and political effects of day to day horrors, this is surely better than dismissing it as just another page of the newspaper. I could argue that I’m finally mature enough (read devoid enough of self-obsession) to be genuinely concerned, finally able to engage with affairs of this scale and import. If I feel a sense of responsibility to follow and understand events in Libya, it is because that is the appropriate response that I have so far failed to have to equivalent world changes.

However, there is nothing special about now, for me as an individual. I do not expose myself to more news sources than before; I have not visited more places that have since become the subject of our bulletins; at 32 I have not reached a magic turning point of universal empathy and concern. Why on earth should I feel such a deep tug when I listen to reports from Libya that I have to turn off my portable radio, lest I weep in the street?

A friend proffered an explanation that again, I suspected of being too generous. It’s because this is true revolution, he said, it is people like us fighting for what they have wanted for so long. This thought does move me, I admit. To feel that something is so worthwhile that one should risk one’s life for it is a profound state that I don’t think I have ever experienced. But given that, how can I genuinely empathise? Would I feel just as moved if I were to read a piece of fiction that gave a superlative description of equivalent happenings?

I doubt I’ll ever be able to answer these questions, so for now I will have to live with my unjustified sense of engagement with distant people in the world, and wonder what will unfold next 11th March.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

How happy are you?

Happy People

Last night I listened to Charles Seaford deliver a short talk on the concept of well-being as a policy driver. Mr Seaford is co-founder of Prospect Magazine and as a member of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) co-wrote their paper ‘Measuring Our Progress: The Power of Well-being.’ The paper is a contribution to the current debate on measuring progress in terms of something other than economic growth, viewing the latter as a means to an end – that end being the flourishing of society in some broader sense than just increased economic wealth and power to consume. It proposes means of measuring well-being, and ways to ensure the results influence policy in such a way as to increase this across the population in a sustainable fashion.

Having grappled for a long time, and disagreed, with economic models as ways of defining, predicting and prescribing human behaviour, I have a long-standing interest in the idea of improving human situations in ways that go beyond the limits of economic agency. I’ve also written here before about the detrimental effects of confusing means and ends. What are, and should be, our ultimate goals, or ends, as human beings in our societies?

Seaford’s talk highlighted two distinct answers to this question, which he described as Aristotelian and Benthamite, but that needn’t be thought of that way. Answer A (Aristotelian) defines the end as a kind of flourishing, a state of gratification perhaps, that results from fulfilling one’s purpose and acting out what one finds valuable. Answer B (Benthamite, after Jeremy Bentham) defines the end as maximum good feeling, or happiness, this being a simpler, more hedonic notion of happiness-as-pleasure than the kind of goodness-through-value in answer A.

To illustrate the current state of things, he quoted an email from a minister complaining that he was an Aristotelian about well-being in a government full of Benthamites. The minister was railing against an approach that thinks of well-being as feeling good, regardless of whether that good feeling has come via a kind of human flourishing based on good social function and personal fulfilment.

For example, some studies show that having children decreases the amount happiness (in the narrow sense) people experience on average, but the measures used here disregard the sense of fulfilment experienced by many through parenthood, despite the added stresses. Having children may not make you happier on average, but this disguises the deeper, more complex gratification involved.

There are myriad problems with measuring well-being through subjective reports, and the debate is still raging about quite how to phrase the all-important questions that will go into the Integrated Household Survey to create this data set. I have many other questions around the notions of well-being and happiness though. One, that has arisen from reading Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness, is whether flourishing, or fulfilment, really does lead to good feelings in the way that the NEF’s dynamic model supposes.

Seligman points out that while some people experience strong highs and lows, feeling sad at failure and happy at success, others are set at a more even keel; they may experience gratification when they achieve in valued areas, but this doesn’t necessarily make them feel happy in the simpler sense of feeling good. Of course, taking an average from enough data ought to control for these differences in affective feeling.

Secondly, I wonder whether the notion of fulfilment, of living a good life by enacting what one values, is a notion that makes sense for everyone. Particularly in the current climate, the notion of good functioning within society is something that won’t be much valued by, or even make much sense to, some people.

Likewise some of us crave fulfilment – creatively, as parents, or entrepreneurs – while others appear to be perfectly happy simply living comfortably enough to indulge favourite leisure activities. Is the latter kind of life less of a good life than one spent in endeavour to fulfil one’s perceived purpose? What if a person has no sense of a personal purpose, but simply intends to enjoy the ride?

I know what I need to do to feel that I am flourishing, satisfied with life and even, dare I say it, happy. Developing policy to maximise these across society is an incredibly complex business, but any attempt to do this alongside minimising the negatives is, in my view, a step in the right direction.