Not any question, but A Good Question. Most questions have already been asked by someone, somewhere, so I don’t imagine it will be a new question I come up with. But perhaps it will an old question framed in a new context. I don’t know, because I haven’t come up with it yet. When something floats around like this, just out of reach, in the ether, everything feels odd. I don’t sleep well. Snapshot memories come back vividly – they too are transformed by a new context: thinking about the same old thing but in a different way is a surprisingly challenging process. Thinking without words. This sounds impossible, but it can be done. After all, what else do we do before we can speak, as babies? Not think? Or after we have lost the power of speech through illness, age or accident. Not think? Of course we think, just differently. And because the majority of the world are thinking in language-based forms, those of us forced into a visual thought pattern are pushed to the margins of both the world’s and the world of our usual selves.
Perhaps you do it yourself, when you dream. Waking dreams are where good thoughts arise. I am hoping that the question will emerge from one of those in-between states, when it is ready.
That title says ‘Michelangelo’ in Armenian. Ain’t the internet a wonderful place? I don’t recall the blog having any Armenian visitors before. Today we had two.
I don’t whether Michelangelo is big in Armenia, but why not. After all, he wasn’t just a painter and sculptor either. He used to doodle and scribble words and lists on his drawings: mundane notes like shopping lists and bills and profundities such as “Desire engenders desire and then leaves pain”.
Here’s a poem by him, translated by John Addington Symonds.
Celestial Love by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
O mortal thing enthralled these longing eyes
When perfect peace in thy fair face I found;
But far within, where all is holy ground,
My soul felt Love, her comrade of the skies:
For she was born with God in Paradise;
Nor all the shows of beauty shed around
This fair false world her wings to earth have bound:
Unto the Love of Loves aloft she flies.
Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.
Not love but lawless impulse is desire:
That slays the soul; our love makes still more fair
Our friends on earth, fairer in death on high.
Murdoch tells the Leveson inquiry that in a telephone call the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, declared ‘war’ on his company. Something you’d remember, right?
Gordon Brown tells the Leveson inquiry that there was no such call.
We could toss a coin for who is telling ‘the truth’ and charge the other party with perjury, or we can, as I attempted to in yesterday’s blog post, analyse the language, the content, and the anatomy of memory to see what comes up.
The bone of contention: there was a call -v- the call never happened
Of course there was a call between Murdoch and Brown, more than one over the years, but a call in 2009, some time after the Sun had withdrawn its support for the Labour Party, is the call in question.
Brown says ‘the call did not happen’. What he means, perhaps, is that the call did not happen the way Rupert Murdoch says it did. Murdoch, and I find this surprising, given the way memory works, was able to briefly quote, apparently verbatim, not what just he said to Mr Brown, but what Mr Brown said to him.
Brown does not remember making a threat. Murdoch remembers the exact words. Telling the truth under oath is a problem, because you can tell the truth only according to what you recall of the time, or the conversation in question. I can barely remember what I said to someone last week. If you were ask me to recall a conversation in 2009, verbatim, I don’t think I could. Not even if it was really important, or emotional. Those kinds of conversations tend to be remembered like impressionist paintings, all loose brush strokes and overall tones. A telephone conversation is even harder to recall than a face-to-face one, because you have far less sensory information to lay down as a memory. It’s a voice coming out of the receiver – no particular visual impressions at all.
If either of Brown or Murdoch had a copy of the call, then, that would really be evidence. As it stands, we are left with this: two powerful men’s impressions of a conversation, amongst many, that they once had.
Brown will be personally invested in being the kind of statesman, or just man, that does not make threats. It’s hard to say what Murdoch is invested in, in terms of his own public image. When he appeared before MPs, on the custard pie occasion, he seemed, at times, for all the world like a fragile and doddering old man. Now, a few months later, this image is turned on its head as he puts in a polished performance of high detail memory recall worthy of Derren Brown.
I don’t believe Murdoch’s verbatim account but neither do I believe that Brown would remember exactly what he didn’t say to Murdoch, over the years. Murdoch’s business is headlines, on balance I can’t help but think that in putting those headline soundbites directly into Brown’s mouth, he has revealed the values and ethos that have got some sections of News International where they are today.
That said, I think that in the matter of Sarah Brown’s apparent ongoing friendship with Rebekah Brooks, after the Sun ran the intrusive and apparently unauthorised story about the Brown’s son, Gordon’s Brown’s claim that his wife is ‘forgiving’ doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Whilst in office as Prime Minister, the Browns appear to have bitten the bullet and played the media game, whether they liked it, or approved of it, or not. I suspect at an intellectual level, Gordon Brown rigorously separates his public and private roles and it is this dichotomy that allowed him to make statements to Leveson that made some reporters ‘jaws drop’.
Mr Brown may not say what others think they saw, but that doesn’t meant that he recognised it himself, at the time, or as a memory now.
And does it really matter anyway? As the real evidence stacks up, that which doesn’t rely on people’s memories (which are notoriously unreliable), a blurry picture is emerging. A post-modern portrait in which it seems to me that certain sections of the press and some politicians have far too symbiotic a relationship for a country that likes to bang on about democracy and (mark you, Michael Gove) free speech.
As this inquiry churns on and on in the background of economic gloom and matching weather I have been interested to think a little about how it all works, not on a legal or regulatory level, but in the minds of those giving evidence and those charged with making judgements about the evidence.
Memories are not showreels, fixed in our minds for evermore. Memories are made up of a cocktail of chemicals and electrical energy fired around the brain, as neurons share encoded sensory information with each other, whilst creating new synaptic connections and neural networks, or something… What I am getting at, is, that a memory is not fixed. A memory changes in the recall, so it is a dynamic process and the way you happen to remember events becomes the strongest connection in your brain over time. Which is how we arrive at an inquiry to find that people remembering the same events are describing them in contradictory terms, whilst all still telling the truth.
So how does Leveson decide what is what in this jungle of interconnected, yet sometimes opposing memories? Well, I suppose he might consider who seems more consistent, more reliable as a witness, by examining whose testimonies have some underlying cohesion to them. If I were him, and I am glad I am not, I would also think about the personal story about the event that the witness has revealed in their recalling of ‘the facts’, because within the language used I believe there are some hints to a person’s inner processes and subsequent narrative about their public self.
Take George Osborne’s testimony about the BSkyB bid by the Murdochs. His tone and bearing appear equanimous, he sounds a reliable witness. He may be so. Examine the language he uses to rebut allegations that the Tories were somehow complicit in nodding the takeover through after the election, because they had already agreed to it prior to the election in return for support from the Murdoch press. He talks about a ‘vast conspiracy’ it being ‘complete nonsense’ ‘you have to be a real fantasist to believe that…’ ‘cunning plan’. He then concludes that the ‘facts simply don’t bear it (the allegation) out’.
So despite his apparent equanimity, George Osborne, rolls out this colourful and descriptive language to merely assert that the Conservatives followed ‘proper process’ in the matter of the BSkyB bid. This big gun language seems to have been specially drafted in by the Chancellor and, to my mind, sits outside his usual lexicon. There may be two reasons for this: one, that although he believes the facts do speak for themselves, they are somewhat thin on the ground so the forceful language is an attempt to fill the gap between evidence and belief, and two, that his fundamental belief that his political opponents are ‘fantasists’ who are willing to entertain ‘complete nonsense’ has strongly influenced his recall of events. His memories then, are not an account of the facts, but an account of his beliefs about the protagonists, including himself: Tory = rational and truthful, opponents and others not totally convinced = fantasists.
It’s not like that though is it? Most of the facts and ‘the truth’ are going to lie somewhere in the grey middle. With partisan evidence like this, I fear we are never going to get there. To me, and I don’t care for the guy – so take it as you wish, the language comes across as arrogant and self-serving and does not even hint at an interest in getting to the heart of what Leveson is all about. In terms of getting to the truth he may as well have said, ‘What? Me, Guv? Not me, Guv’ and left it that. Except that he’s not that humble and if he had it wouldn’t have got me thinking. I think it is almost possible to hypothesise that the strength of the memory does not guarantee its veracity. A vivid memory may not always be down to an accurate recollection of the original event, and may be more to do with the manner and narrative within which it has been repeatedly recalled since.
Next up, Gordon Brown, and what he said about his wife, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch.
I really try to catch myself if I start indulging in a bit of schadenfraude because, like sarcasm, it’s a largely distasteful practice. The last day or so then has been a real effort of will for me, as we have been bombarded with images of MPs eating hot pasties, sausage rolls and pies, talking about hot pasties, sausages rolls and pies and visiting purveyors of same.
I am not sure when I cracked the most. Perhaps it was when George Gideon Osborne was asked in a Select Committee when he had last entered the hallowed portals of a Greggs, or whether it was when Newsnight devoted time to the debate, or indeed was it when our own, dear pasty-faced, spam-headed PM was pictured (with crumbs down his front) eating some pastry product in 2010, albeit not the hot pasty he mendaciously claimed he had once purchased at Leeds station.
When a spokesperson for Downing Street is forced to clarify the Prime Minister’s pie-purchasing habits, then we can only surmise that the world is indeed an absurd place, in all the classifications of the word. When our much-vaunted democracy is employed by the government of the day to place piddling taxes on hot baked products, to bring a high street bakery in line with a global industry such as McDonalds, what else can you think but hmmmmm.
The Conservative Party carry on like a bunch of repressed Billy Bunters at heart, given the way they perpetually get themselves into trouble over their high-handed attitude to the foodstuffs of the rest of us. Who can forget John Gummer force-feeding his daughter a burger at the height of the mad cow outbreak, or Edwina Currie who, despite trying to laugh off Pastygate this morning on the radio – hahaha, has a public persona that will always be synonymous with salmonella in eggs. The only food-related hoo haa I can recall in the Labour Party was when Blair and Brown dined at Granita. It’s hardly the same thing.
And then there is the language of the Conservatives, mentioned in the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme this morning. Whilst the Labour contingent Eds Miliband and Balls hot-footed it down to Greggs to by a bag of sausage rolls, Francis Maude from the Conservatives was suggesting we fill up our jerrycans before we had supper in our kitchen thus painting a vivid picture of a landed gentry snacking on quails eggs and still holding a grudge against the *Germans.
To be honest, I am not in shock about that which their language purportedly reveals, most of us had worked it out anyway without an analysis of the Cabinet’s lexicon. They are what they are, the Conservatives. Yes, the big sticky clue is in the name. To conserve means to protect from loss or harm, to use carefully or sparingly, to avoid waste. It also means to make jam, chutney and pickles. Of course our Prime Minister shouldn’t bother to tell us whether he eats a hot pastry product, and he shouldn’t really need to avuncularly advise us to ‘top-up’ our cars in the face of a fuel tanker drivers’ strike. But the thing is the Conservatives just can’t help it, it’s in their DNA to protect us nitwitted ones from harm, to avoid us wasting their jam and petrol. As much as they want to shrink the state locally, when it comes to their own fiddling at a national level with the very fabric of our lives, down to what we might want to eat for lunch, or at a football game; or telling us when we should be prepared for things we could easily deduce for ourselves, well they just can’t help themselves.
And finally, aside from the nannying and the language, my more serious point is: how has it come to this? The absurdity of last week’s tinkering with the tax system resulting in VAT on hot pies on one hand, whilst with the other they hand back money to millionaires. And, we pay them to do it to us.
*Wehrmachtskanister is the German word for their invention that we call the jerrycan – literally translated as a canister that makes a dam or a weir. Who of us has one, or indeed the garage to put it in? My linguistic objection m’lud is: what would we be calling it in the Conservative Party today if it had been invented in Italy or Spain or anywhere else for which we could coin a derogatory nationalistic term as a prefix?
does not come from our eyes but from the rest of our brain…
So only 25% of the information that comes through our eyes from the outside world is part of our total visual experience. Perhaps, then, seeing is not necessarily believing.
That’s might be why the language of colour is so important in our perception of it.
And why we experience some colours differently *from others, and the same colour differently *from other people.
*Perhaps this should be differently to, too tired to investigate.