Category Archives: Opinions

Opportunism knocks

Edward, you can’t always rely on your charm.

I have started a Masters course in France, twelve years after beginning my Bachelors in the UK. I am currently in the middle of the first semester and the projects, both academic and personal, are piling on: essays, job searches, magazine layout, reviews for terribly written books and the almost literal unicorn called ‘Pantomime’. And while I am not unused to having a lot on my plate, this time it feels like I’ve made a greedy miscalculation at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I was walking through a shady woodland yesterday and considering my professional future. It suddenly struck me that it has been difficult for me to opt for what my grandma calls ‘a career’, namely because that requires me to commit. And commitment requires work. What can we replace work with? Charm. But it won’t last forever, as my Latin professor told me.

A friend informed me that Boris Johnson does not work, contrary to the tried and tested method of actually successful Prime Ministers who spend 18 hours a day working. When I confided in a colleague about the giant to-do list, she said “Well, you’re just going to have to work like a doctor”. So, that means I’m going to have work as if I have a real job? 

I suppose, going back to school was all about stepping out of my comfort zone after all. What’s terrifying is that I am used to physical endurance, but not mental. I can build caravan decks all day, all week, but I can think for at best half an hour before I need a break. And that 30 minutes of writing has just finished.

Hic labor, hic opus – here is the work, here the toil.

Tolstoy Playing Football

There is an argument that doesn’t sit very well with people because it defies everything they have learnt about History: one man cannot change the course of historical events. Tolstoy in War and Peace is a staunch defender of this idea, arguing that Napoleon did nothing, that greater forces were at play, and that the macro overcame the micro.

Over the summer, I tried to convince a friend, a dyed in the wool rationalist, of this fundamental shift in my own thought. He would respond, “So do you think Ludwig van Beethoven had no effect on music? Do you think Martin Luther King Junior’s fight led to nothing? And what about Leo Tolstoy himself?” And the infuriating answer that I would give was ‘no’. 

It’s so baffling, isn’t it, to think in this age of agency that the series of events that led us to this moment are not the result of individuals. The image of our DIY society crumbles when we consider that a great network of pulses and vibrations is responsible for who we, as humanity, are. And that therefore everyone’s actions are responsible for what happens, even when History takes an extremely dark turn, and we don’t even know it.

It’s a pretty hard idea to grasp, but I think an analogy with football can help. (Disclaimer: I am no football expert, but I have seen enough games to know why the off-side rule matters).

Here we go: a football match is a battle and the league is a war. The managers are generals, the owners of the club politicians, and the players soldiers. Everyone watching the match are civilians, while everyone commenting the match are journalists, consultants or pub pundits. 90 minutes is an arbitrary timeframe, just like dates and years to define different periods. And a goal scored and subsequent win, loss or draw are those things we call ‘events’, the spume on the wave of History.

I could go further and talk about local and national economies, the reputation of towns, advertising, international repercussions and the different interpretations we can have on the course of events.. But I fear becoming fanatic. Suffice it to say that the analogy holds up and I hope you, reader, can agree. 

Can we therefore say that a football team wins a match because of one person? Sure, they might have scored the winning goal, but there are an infinite number of variables that lead to that goal being scored: the weather, what they ate for breakfast, their childhood, what was going on three weeks ago, the look someone just gave them, a fan shouting loud enough to be heard, and so forth. A manager might take a team to win the league, maybe even twice in a row, but would the pundits pin all the victory on one person? And what about the other way round, when relegation comes knocking – surely that is more the effect of bad training, itself a result of bad choices made by people who do not actually play on the field?

If we then apply this lens to History, the Tolstoy argument becomes clearer. All the more so because it has many more factors, some that are either only known for an instant, or unearthed years later with more evidence. 

As luck would have it, Blackburn Rovers – my home team – lost 7-0 against Fulham on Wednesday night. As I rarely go to matches, living abroad, my friends and family pinned the blame on me. It’s football superstition, of course, but I’m convinced a slither of this joke was true. Because I was at Ewood Park on 3rd November, the home team had their heaviest defeat ever.

This is clearly absurd. Why? Because one person cannot influence History. 

The time I didn’t head-butt someone

‘What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?’

They were out in the open at last and Gatsby was content.

‘He isn’t causing a row,’ Daisy looked desperately from one to the other. ‘You’re causing a row. Please have a little self-control.’

‘Self-control!’ repeated Tom incredulously. ‘I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out…’

I glanced at Daisy, who was staring terrified between Gatsby and her husband, and at Jordan, who had begun to balance an invisible but absorbing object on the tip of her chin. Then I turned back to Gatsby – and was startled at his expression. He looked – and this is said in all contempt for the babbled slander of his garden – as if he had ‘killed a man.’ For a moment the set of his face could be described in just that fantastic way.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

My girlfriend and I went to a Halloween party on Saturday night and as we were leaving I walked up to a man, saying nothing, and squared up to him. His face went from confusion, to realisation, and settled finally on indignation.

Losing his head and believing himself accused of a more heinous misdemeanour, he sounded like a little boy caught in flagrante delicto. He protested to his friends: “I didn’t know her boyfriend was there! I didn’t. Honestly, I didn’t!”

I immediately understood that my action was un peu too much and it was then my turn to be like a child who doesn’t want to be found out. So I handed him one of my two remaining beers and said that I had made a mountain out of a molehill. He took the beer, but didn’t pipe down. And so I thought the best way to act was to do nothing and wait.

If you are still with me, reader, and haven’t been offended by my display of literal gorilla tactics, I would like to reflect further on my action. What we have here is one man intervening as, or so he perceives, another man tried to chat up his girlfriend. And I have seen fights break out for much less than this.

There were, of course, many ways that this situation could have been handled differently: I could have spoken to my partner and explained how I was feeling; I could have kissed her passionately in front of the unlucky suitor; or I could have ignored it until we left and then quietly have mentioned it on the walk home. 

I am not a violent man. Had I been, the incident would have escalated. But I have grown up around violent people. At the age of eight, I was supposed to fight someone in the playground, but cowered under a table inside. At twelve, I was repeatedly and variously accosted for wearing Harry Potter glasses. During my teen years, I learnt how to recognise and avoid violence on nights out. And in my first week of Oxford, a fellow Northerner head-butted someone and knocked the guy’s two front teeth out.

As the quotations above show, self-control is a class issue: the ability to remain calm, even as another man is trying to make love to your wife is the sine qua non of old money.

Only, I am not from old money. And while I might be able to recognise a Cézanne from a Seurat, in moments of whiskey and pretentious chancers, my class flares up, like a swollen ankle.

So I hobbled home, leaning on my partner, and we dissected the events together: you can take the boy out of the North, but you can’t take the North out of the boy. 

A Class Act

After six weeks of a Masters programme in Paris, it is the half-term holiday and I am going back to Lancashire for a short visit. It is a moment to restore and prepare for the next slog, which culminates just before Christmas.

Sociology is an important element in the course and while in the first half we have examined critical theories (Benjamin, Adenauer and Habermas), the next part will involve a sociological autoportrait. 

Bourdieu’s last published piece in 2004 (Esquisse pour une auto-analyse) was an exploration of all things cultural that made him. It is an attempt to understand which environmental factors have played a role in one’s becoming: how did Bourdieu, son of a working class family in rural southern France, end up becoming one of the country’s most important thinkers?

The first, instinctive, response is to say that he was very, very clever. But in a world where there are many very clever people, this kind of answer no longer cuts the mustard.

The second response then is to look at his upbringing and to recognise that a cultural world beyond the one he was born into moulded him. It gave him an understanding of another modus vivendi, and allowed him to move beyond his class.

The rest was probably just hard work.

When I learned about the specifics of this final task – namely that we will have to analyse our own upbringing through a Bourdieusian prism – I almost spat out my caviar. I have spent the last five years trying to understand what happened when I was at Oxford University. They were five years of my life that took me from Lancashire and spat me back out in Paris. There was a baptism by fire of social mores, academic rigour, and class protocol. Not just the place, my degree (Latin and French) was and continues to be a quagmire: What are you going to do with Latin? Where do they even speak it? You wasted at your time at university, didn’t you?

Here I am now, though, writing with a Waterman in the Historic Library of Paris, living by the Pompidou Centre, studying at the Sorbonne, and wondering what strange web of agents and actors led me here.  

No Time To Write

Spoiler alert

Friday night was Bond night (because the Brothers Karamazov at the Théâtre de l’Odéon was, alas, sold out) and I’m suddenly not satisfied with my simple Swatch. And I’ve also started wondering whether the Paris Metro really is all that great – wouldn’t it be comfier and sexier to whip about in a Land Rover or Aston Martin? And what about my own run-of-the-mill holidays to rainy Lancashire? I should be off to the south coast of Italy to burn my secrets in the balmy Mediterranean air.

The film has mixed reviews, which I suppose I’m ambivalent about. Some say it lacks balls (too soon?), that it’s a three-hour perfume ad or that killing James is just unforgivable. Others will say that Bond in love offers more depth to the dialogue, that the colouring and cinematography are beautiful, and the timing is slick.

Personally, I enjoyed it, despite being worried that I had selected a dubbed version due to the pesky first scene in French and was wondering whether we’d have time to get over to the 21h30 viewing that I know is VO. But I didn’t look at my (now unsatisfactory) watch once and I felt the appropriate emotions when the action indicated me to do so. 

While Bond struggles with conflicting feelings over the possibility of domestication, here I am having to get up at some ungodly hour just to fit some writing in. I guess you and I are not so different after all, Mr Bond.