Never mind that; it’s not reality either. I wonder, sometimes, whether there’s a real world that we’re just not seeing. Not in any religious/supernatural sense: I just wonder whether we're capable of reading reality. What was that line? Burnt Norton, T S Eliot. "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." And for that reason perhaps, human kind fails even to see it. Our minds are constructed within a defensive perimeter of preconceptions, assumptions, confirmation bias. We see reality through a glass with our imagination's film version of life projected onto it. [Sorry. I seem to be channelling some weirdly pretentious psychobabble at the moment. Keep reading. It might wear off.]
Not him again, please. We follow the US president’s Twitter feed, because it’s a source that’s worked for us in the past, and we miss the obvious fact that he’s just a fallible human being like the rest of us (spoiler: there's more on Donald Trump below the picture - sorry). Fallible in his own way, sure, but you try walking a mile in his shoes. We’re saddened at the departure of [insert name here], and the reports take on a standard format: she was so influential; she was kind to me; here’s an example of her wit. An album of previously unheard out-takes will be released in time for Christmas.
But we miss the truth of things. We overlay everything with its - his, her - role in the human drama. Films adhere to a structure; so do books, myths, leaks, rumours; so does life as we know it. For example, smoke billowed out over the centre of Falmouth on Sunday morning. I saw it as I turned onto Clare Terrace, looking for a parking space. A small crowd had gathered to watch those great clouds of black and grey smoke rising over the densely packed houses.
I joined them and we stood and watched as the fire didn’t rage out of control, the area wasn’t evacuated and firefighters weren’t drafted in from other towns. Perplexing, almost, and we all knew what should have been happening - but this fire wasn’t sticking to the script and it didn’t demonstrate anything about global warming - somebody had just lit a bonfire. [The clouds weren't that great; the houses aren't that densely packed. Whenever actors in a drama ask a question, they insert the word "exactly" for added emphasis. How exactly do you want this, inspector?]
We could, of course, and did, rush to judge the perpetrator of Falmouth’s Downtown Bonfire Shock for contributing a small collection of particulates to atmospheric pollution, but - hey. Pile of garden waste. Box of matches. Well-thumbed copy of What we did without even thinking about it before everybody got so cross about everything (William Essex, Imaginary Books, 2018). The thought comes into my head that intent matters. Intent is the difference between manslaughter - didn’t mean to cause death - and murder - set out to kill. In the context of midtown bonfires, getting rid of garden waste by burning it is a different offence from setting out deliberately to pollute the world.
Seriously? Back to Trump again? But we kind of take the opportunity, don’t we, to condemn? Donald Trump is now filtered down to us by journalists he’s antagonised in the past. And that’s fine because they give us what we want. Speaking of which - sorry, this is an absolutely screeching handbrake-turn of a subject-change but I have to write about something other than The Man - there was a thing in the paper the other day - no doubt picked up by broadcast media, but I missed it - about UK government proposals to regulate “wood-burner fuels”. Yes, wood. Burners of wood. The fuel they burn. You spotted the oxymoron. But also coal. We’re burning inefficiently wet wood, apparently, which means global warming is our fault, and anybody who burns house coal is even more to be condemned.
I love this one. I spent a whole day grinning at the thought of all those legislation-writers compiling lists of exemptions. Under the heading of “unintended consequences”, let’s imagine the Winter of Discontent that would ensue if, say, crematoria were suddenly (unintentionally) banned from burning anything at all except government-sanctioned lengths of wood dried in accordance with the regulations set out in appendix blah blah blah. Would they be banned from cremating, you know, actual bodies? Or would bodies have to be seasoned and dried in accordance, et cetera? What about hospital incinerators?
And now we’ve veered off into history. Imagine those racks of bodies, hanging up to dry. A feature of the original Winter of Discontent, back in ‘78/’79, was the strike by eighty gravediggers (union members, part of the wider industrial action; I’m abbreviating a complex situation, and possibly a full account should be included in one of the lessons of history we’re supposed to learn). Eighty gravediggers went on strike, and Liverpool City Council hired a factory in Speke to store bodies. The factory began to fill up at a rate of 25 bodies per day (Wikipedia). Solutions proposed by official spokespeople - aloud, in the presence of journalists - included: grieving relatives being allowed to dig their own graves (you know what I mean); the Army doing it; private companies getting involved. Oh, and it was suggested that the dead could be buried at sea. [The gravediggers eventually settled for a 14% pay rise.]
Buried at sea. Yes. The suggestion was made, hypothetically but by the government-appointed authority figure handling the crisis, that if the number of unburied dead exceeded the available storage capacity, or, y’know, hung around too long (they were in plastic bags with a bury-by date six weeks out), they could be taken out to sea and tipped over the side. Or, given that the government was speaking about letting relatives do the digging, perhaps a pop-up industry would have appeared - trips around the bay, bury your auntie on the way.
You've lost the plot completely here. What would that have done for fish stocks and the fishing industry? A lot of good, obviously. In fact - think of the environmental and economic benefits all round. Maybe we should applaud initiatives to restrict the burning of anything other than government-approved small blocks of wood. Crematoriums - enough with this "crematoria" nonsense - could go into the smoked-fish business. And meat. Biltong. Cheeses. Think of those former fishing villages, suddenly busy again. Think of the blog post to be written about the row over the banning of black life jackets. "We have to be able to see mourners, if they fall into the sea," said a spokesperson. And never mind the Marie Celeste - Uncle Albert's Funeral chugged off into the morning mist, never to be seen again.
Sometimes, on a moonless night, when the wind's in the east and the tide's running hard against the shore, it's as if you can hear the cries of lost mourners coming to you from somewhere far out, towards the rocks where legend tells - sorry. We're not going there either. Uncle Albert sleeps with the fishes, and the rest of it's just the kind of silly story that crusty old seadogs tell credulous tourists in this kind of sleepy, out-of-the-way blog post. After lunch, the tour bus is going to take us to the gravebuoy-making factory on the edge of town.
Burying people on land is just a cultural norm, after all, as is cremating them. As a seafaring nation set fair to leave its mooring next to France and the Netherlands, ta-rah boom crash, maybe burial at sea would be a fitting tradition to adopt - but let's not get into The People and their Votes. We could do burial at sea. It would very quickly become an ancient tradition. Leave it at that. Just as we all know what is meant by the term “funeral pyre”, so we all have a mental picture to go with “burial at sea” - although the ranks of sailors in white uniforms and the bugler are extras - please see the published list of charges. Yes, the body is wrapped in white, like a plaster cast, but no, you can’t draw on the wrapping.
I’m in favour of thinking outside the box, even if the box is a coffin. And - oh! I don’t believe this!
I don’t believe this!
I'm okay. I just need a moment.
That's it. He's gone. Totally gone. I started writing this post with an idea that I was going to say something about the confirmation bias we apply not just to the news but to the world around us. Confirmation bias is “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.” Thank you, Wikipedia.
I wanted to write about that and started the post with that in mind. I even looked up cognitive bias as well. That would have come into it too. But the post kind of got away from me, somewhere around the bonfire I think, as posts do, and I started on a speculation (oh, this is embarrassing) as to the kind of wood that a wood-burner would burn if a wood-burner could burn - actually, couldn’t burn any old fuel. Then the Winter of Discontent, then the bit where crematoriums became niche smoked-food restaurants, emporia probably, then Uncle Albert chugged into view, then ... everything went a bit hazy, but there were these voices, crying out, and I wanted to go to them, and then…
...and then I sat back, raised my mug of coffee in my right hand, and with my left hand, idly typed “burial at sea” into Google. And I discovered...
Yes! It’s an option. Already, albeit in a small way, a tradition. You can be buried at sea. But would you believe it? There’s a dress code. And a whole collection of rules. This absolutely is a British tradition waiting to be adopted by the rest of us.
So here's my style guide for the big day. If you want to be buried at sea, you must wear “light, biodegradable clothing”, bright colours acceptable, and you must carry identification. No, really: if you drift, and you’re caught in a fishing net, the fisher folk will want to know who you are. I imagine you’ll be included in the part of the catch that’s returned to the sea, but that’s not specified (I’m getting this from the BBC). Your coffin should have holes in it, and it should be weighted down.
Oh, and one final faux pas to be avoided - if anybody offers to embalm you before your burial at sea - refuse.
We are invited to believe that the president knew the two women. It is implied in the reportage that he behaved with them in ways that - well, if I’m still able to do what I’m imagining right now at his age, I’ll be happy about it. I’m not sure whether I’m assuming complete indifference on the part of the US electorate, or just realism - he’s a powerful man, and the #himtoo aspect is established. But I don’t see the indignation. Not the genuine indignation*. We are invited to be shocked, and therefore to vote against him. But while [whatever they’re implying] is the kind of thing we should be indignant about - should - the fact is, you know, we’re out here living in the real world. And what’s it got to do with his job?
You'll snap the handbrake cable if you go on like this. Meanwhile, back in the UK, the Chair of the Magistrates’ Association was reported as suggesting that criminals could be recruited as magistrates. The objective, apparently, is to increase diversity. People with minor convictions should not be excluded from sitting up on the high chair in court, banging the gavel and shouting, “Order!” Or something like that. I don’t think they get to wear wigs. But yes, criminals should be recruited as magistrates, was the gist of the story. [As you can imagine, John Bache didn’t go quite as far as some of the coverage suggests - but he did say that a “relatively minor criminal record” would be no barrier to recruitment. Er, according to the quoted remarks I read.]
The criminals-as-magistrates thing was about diversity, yes - magistrates are all [you can fill this in for yourself] of a certain age - but it was also about falling numbers. People - the usual people; okay, the usual suspects - just aren’t volunteering to be magistrates. The usual crowd’s not filling the gaps, so suddenly we’re open to recruits from the real world. So to speak. It did cross my mind that one solution to NHS staff shortages would be to have relatively undead patients wheeling the trolleys around, and no doubt we’ll soon be hearing from a government minister about a ground-breaking new initiative - which (would you believe it?) will just happen to cost less money - whereby older children in school will be recruited as classroom assistants to teach the juniors.
Is delegation of responsibility the same as abdication? No, of course they’ll be supervised. A single teacher will be able to supervise up to five classes simultaneously from a central point. Very efficient. Mental-health patients are already told to call the Samaritans when they can’t get through to their carers. Hospitals (and supermarkets) outsource their parking (and, hospitals, their catering). Prisons are run by private companies - did you see that recent story? The armed forces are sponsored by - no, wait. That’s a forward-looking statement. I don’t think the armed forces are sponsored yet. I’m quite looking forward to writing about that - but even more, to covering the arguments when it’s discovered that soldiers in war zones routinely unpick the more eye-catching logos from their uniforms.
The common thread here - somewhere in the US political system, two women are negotiating book deals; in a hollowed-out volcano somewhere in the Welsh mountains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld is filling out his application to be a magistrate - the common thread is not the clear evidence that the centre cannot hold, nor really the indifference - US voters don’t react to the president’s private (sic) life; honest people don’t volunteer to support the UK legal system. None of that. It’s the disconnect.
The cat does still have to be white, though. There are standards. All those journalists, putting together their “packages” about what the US president did or didn’t do with one or more women. Of course people should be shocked. Of course people should turn against him. But the world doesn’t respond to those stimuli any more. Those buttons are still there to be pressed, but they’re no longer connected to the public nervous system. This is populism. It’s not anger. It’s just that people aren’t listening any more. All that just isn’t relevant to their lives. Being a magistrate is - huh! If they want me to volunteer, they should make it easier.
One day, not far from now, the clerk of a magistrate’s court will look up from his paperwork, at the start of a new day, and say, “Oh, hello. Back so soon?” Yes, I am back again, but I’m not the accused this week. I’m the magistrate. “Really? In that case, turn left through the door. Yes, of course you can take your cat.” And I’ll go left through the door, find the court, take my seat. First offender - ah, yes, I was expecting him. Repeat speeding offence. In that ridiculous car of his. Now, let me see, the maximum penalty…
*Among the journalists, I mean.