AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Saturday, 30 January 2016


Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize in 2010

Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson is coming out this month with his most recent novel 'Shylock is My Name' (Hogarth, 2016). He has also written 'J: A Novel' (2014) and 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010 and winner of the Man Booker Prize . An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.

Here some of his articles on THE INDEPENDENT:

Sorry. You need a username and a password to access this column. Don't have them? Tough!
Why is there so much rage on our streets? Look no further than the bitter passwordless

At a time when there is much to fear, few to trust, and not a damn thing to believe in, may I hold out a flickering torch of hope. I have struck a symbolic blow. I have said no. En oh – NO! Enough is enough. Enough usernames, enough PINs, but above all enough passwords. Now I expect other victims of the relentless march of online passwords to join me in my campaign. Let’s all say NO TO PASSWORDS.
I have been chafing against the imposition of the password for some time, but the last straw was an invitation to speak at a literary festival on a date and at an hour I could only discover if I “accessed” my “profile” saved under the “mailings icon” on their “authors’ website”. Don’t let the correct use of the apostrophe fool you. Everything else about this invitation is fatuous. “Access” as a verb is a hateful coinage, invented by computer folk to make the process of looking something up sound busy and scientific. In fact, most of what we can be said to “access” is either trivial or filthy. When we do call on the internet to provide a worthwhile service – to find a poem we don’t have in any of our anthologies, for example – we don’t say we are “accessing it”. We don’t “access” Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset. We look for him, and when we’ve found him we read him. If anyone should know that, the organisers of a literary festival should.
And what’s this about a “profile”? Do they mean my name? Do they mean the information I require, such as the date and time they would like me to speak? If so, why don’t they save us all the bother and just tell me? Friday at 4 pm, Mr Jacobson, see you there. Anything further – my age, my shoe size, the state of my teeth – I don’t need to “access my profile” to discover because I already know it.
The assumption is, however, that I have nothing better to do than arse around (indeed that I can’t wait to arse around) locating the “mailing icon” (“icon” being another instance of computerese coined to make a childish activity – the equivalent of colouring in – sound like an adult one) in order to gain entry to a place I have not the slightest desire to visit, let alone “access”, namely the “authors’ website”. But even that isn’t enough. I have to drop whatever else I’m doing, the novel I’m writing, the Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset poem I’m reading, the alms I’m distributing to the needy, and go there “as soon as possible”.
Is there no end to their impertinence? Reader, no, there isn’t. Having chivvied me to go post haste where no grown man or woman could possibly want to go, they then tell me I cannot go there without a username and password. Given that my username turns out to be my actual name I am compelled to wonder why we need the term username at all. Or is “username” set to replace Christian and surname? “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” “That, sir, is my username, yes.”
Which brings us to the password. And with the request for the password comes that sentence from online hell, “If you have forgotten your password, you can reset it by following the link on the log-in page.” Ah reader, how many and how long are the hours we have spent following links to reset a password we see no reason to possess by logging into a log-in page impossible to log into without a password. You want to know why there is so much rage on our streets and unhappiness in our homes? Look no further than the bitter frustration of the passwordless, forever chasing their own tails in pursuit of a key that can only be accessed by the key they’re trying to access.

It’s possible there are people who love having passwords because passwords remind them of the games they played in primary school, not letting the girls into the boys’ toilets until they gave the secret watchword, which might have been schopenhauer17 or weewee2, I can’t remember. Or they might love them, as some love putting figures in columns, because they are clerkly by nature. Such people will no doubt have books to keep their passwords – in a little red book for their smartphone passwords, a little blue book for their banking passwords, a little yellow one for adult content and literary festival passwords – and what is more will protect these books from being accessed by the inquisitive by assigning them each a password.
I have a book in which I write usernames, PINs and passwords but never know where I’ve put it. Since I’m not such a fool as to bank online I don’t have any precious secrets in this book and so don’t care who reads it. There is nothing I don’t want anyone else to read in the aforementioned “profile” of me either, in which case why do I need a password? In order that no one should have a better idea of the time and day I’m speaking than I do? As for my shoe size, it’s a 10, G fitting.
I voiced my objection to all this, anyway. “Life’s too damned short for passwords,” I emailed the person who’d invited me, no matter that she’d asked me to communicate any problems via, of course, their authors’ website. She emailed back, explaining how I could get a new password, and telling me the festival was too busy to deal with individual authors except online, though she would be pleased to “resolve the issue on the phone”. So that would have been two emails and a phone call to tell me what she could have told me in the first place in a single line had she not been too busy to do so.
I haven’t made the call. There is no “issue” to “resolve”. I don’t want a password to speak at a literary festival, that’s all. And I don’t want to see a literary festival in snivelling thrall to the techno-inanities of nerdspeak. It’s time to stand up and be counted. Let’s all access the no icon.

It's no wonder why the latest protest against Israel's separation wall has gone awry

When emotion rules, every fool thinks that he is holy. Knowledge is a sort of sacrilege
Members of Pallasos en Rebedia, which translates to Clowns in Rebellion, at the wall separating Israel with the West Bank
Members of Pallasos en Rebedia, which translates to Clowns in Rebellion, at the wall separating Israel with the West Bank
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Nothing beats a biblical admonishment. “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, the Gospel according to St Matthew. “The simple inherit folly: but the prudent are crowned with knowledge”, Proverbs. “For we are but of yesterday and know nothing”, the Book of Job. “You need to shut the fuck up”, Penn and Teller.
In this age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge, we could do with a few more exhortations to quiet. “The rest is silence,” said Hamlet finally. Even the wordiest of men know there’s a time to button it. Whereof one cannot speak, etc. In fact, that sentence doesn’t quite mean what it seems to mean and it wasn’t Jesus or Hamlet or even Penn and Teller who delivered it. It’s actually the concluding sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work whose title alone scares me off. I find understanding Eric Cantona hard enough.
I once gave a character in a novel my inability to get past the same point in any work of philosophy, that moment when seeing is suddenly occluded and you know you can go no further. Page 14, paragraph 3, it always is. I can best describe the experience as believing you are talking to a sane man only to discover, in the opposite to a flash of light – an explosion of obscurity, let’s call it – that you have all along been talking to a blithering idiot, though I accept that the blithering idiot is probably me. Upset by my bemusement, a distinguished Oxford philosopher kindly began a correspondence with me in the hope of removing this recurring obstacle to my comprehension. 
Lucid letter followed lucid letter. Yes, yes, I saw it. Thanks to him, the word “epistemological” was no longer a problem. The term “logical positivism” neither. Another fortnight of this, I thought, and I’d be reading Heidegger for light relief. But then, in what turned out to be his final letter, came page 14, paragraph 3, and I was hurled once more into the Stygian night.
All this is but a prologue to my admitting that I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up. 
Am I thinking of anyone in particular? Well yes, although it is invidious to choose a fool from among so many, yes, actually, I am. And it is not a single fool but a whole troupe of them. Fools by profession, whose folly takes the form of political intervention. You will have guessed that the fools in question are the Spanish clowns who stripped off in front of the separation wall in Bethlehem the other day, to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian cause, only to discover that they had thereby enraged the very people they had thought to help. “Disrespectful”, “stupid” and “disgusting” was how Palestinians described their actions. And of no value whatsoever in their struggle against Israel. Every struggle has its dignity.
To be clear, I abhor the separation wall. It is an eyesore in itself and makes tangible the failed diplomacy and cruel short-sightedness that causes such misery in the region. No Palestinian can see that wall and not wonder if the Israelis mean it to stay there for ever, a constant reminder of what they never intend to change. I have been to Bethlehem and breathed the poisoned air. Build that wall and you might as well expunge all hope.
That the wall has done the job for which, in no small part, it was intended, cannot be denied. Fewer bombs now go off in the cafés of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This is not a negligible consideration. Viewed utilitarianly, it justifies its construction. But when hatred festers in human hearts, no edifice of brick or steel will subdue it. What the wall prevents other means will be found to enable. So the infernal logic continues. Hate, bomb, wall, hate, and anyone’s guess what happens next.
What makes the Israeli Palestinian conflict tragic, Amos Oz has long argued, is that it pits right against right. More recently he has spoken darkly of wrong against wrong. Either way, as he describes it, Israelis and Palestinians are partnered in intransigence and despondency. It is, in the end, irrelevant and meddlesome – and so far has been of little assistance to anyone – to apportion sympathy or blame. Whoever would effect change must act in full possession of what makes this tragic situation tragic. And to be in full possession of a tragedy is to understand what has before happened and been decreed, what immemorial fears and bloody histories motivate the actors, on what wheels of fire they are bound, how all participants explain justice and injustice to themselves. And should heed Othello’s plea to Lodovico: “Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.”
Naked of knowledge and imagination, and mouthing banalities – “When you stand before this shameful fence all humanity is naked” – the Spanish clowns rushed in, buoyed by their own conceit. Were ever fools more ludicrous in their folly, or solipsists more the victim of their own unenquiring solipsism? That they knew so little of Palestinian culture as to be unaware what might constitute gross indecency to a religious people only shows how little they knew – and how little they thought they were obliged to know – of the place in which they’d made their intervention. We can guess how much they knew, or cared to know, of Israeli culture. 
They are not alone. When emotion rules, every fool thinks that he is holy. And knowledge? Why, knowledge is a sort of sacrilege. Who needs it, anyway, when you can pick up what to feel from any foul rag-and-bone shop of hand-me-down convictions, put on a clown’s nose and drop your pants. Though we are but of yesterday and know nothing, we will not let ignorance stop our mouths. 
Whereof one cannot speak, yet one will.


It started with a Blackberry Passport and ended with the Vodafone manager threatening to punch my lights out
It seemed that in order to find out whether I wanted to buy the phone, I had to buy it

So how loud does your voice have to be before someone thinks you’re shouting? How sharp your reprimand before it will be described as threatening? And how close do you have to be to someone before you can be accused of being in his face? These and similar questions will be addressed below. But I can tell you the answer to all of them now. And it’s the same in every case. Not very.
Anyway, I was curious about this mobile phone I’d been reading about. The BlackBerry Passport. A giant of a phone that would be ideal, I thought, for a man with fading vision, stubby fingers and no interest in selfies. It’s possible you can take a selfie with a BlackBerry Passport but it’s so heavy you won’t be able to hold it up to your face long enough to strike a becoming pose. I should say it “looks” so heavy because so far I haven’t been able to lay hold of one. Indeed, it was in the hope of being able to do just that that I breezed, all innocence, into a Vodafone shop in the vicinity of Covent Garden. I won’t be any more specific than that. It’s not my intention to encourage copycat visits.
Two assistants were talking to each other at the counter. They didn’t look up or ask if they could help me. I found a BlackBerry Passport the size of War and Peace glued to a display table and enquired if they had one I could pick up. One of them shook his head. I wondered, in that case, how I could discover how heavy it was and what it felt like in my hand. The other shrugged and said I couldn’t. How then, I wondered, did people discover if the phone was suitable to their needs. “They buy it,” the first assistant said.
I thought I ought to be sure I’d heard what I’d heard. “So you’re telling me,” I said, “that in order to know whether you want to buy the phone you have to buy it?” “Yeah,” one of them said. “But we haven’t got any anyway,” the other added.
There’s a tide in the affairs of men, and all that. Swept on by that tide I approached the desk and expressed surprise at their way of doing business. I was a Vodafone customer and felt I had a right to expect a certain level of politeness, not to say helpfulness, from Vodafone staff. Were they here to sell phones or weren’t they?
It was at this point that a third person, wearing some sort of anorak and sitting at a little table near the counter, told me not to shout. I told him I hadn’t at any point raised my voice. I had expressed exasperation, which was not the same thing. “Don’t shout at my staff,” he repeated, though the only person shouting was him.
Since he had in this way declared himself to be a manager – a sub-manager as it turned out – but hadn’t stood to address me, I sat to address him. “If you’d heard the tone in which your staff answered my enquiry,” I said – letting the idea of professional derogation hang in the air between us – “you would understand why I spoke to them as I did. They were rude, I let them know I didn’t like it. I didn’t shout.”
“Get out of my face,” he said, getting into mine.
What happened next, how this led to that, how the two original men took turns to say, “If you know what’s good for you you’ll get out of this shop”, how the third man threatened to call the police, how I told him to call who he liked, how after no policeman arrived I decided life was too short for this and rose to go – still ignorant as to the configuration of the Blackberry Passport – all this I will not trouble you with. But as a parting shot, because I felt the event needed a finale, I called the sub‑manager a clown. Whether he’d trained to be a clown and failed, or whether his wife had run off with a clown, I had no way of ascertaining, but if he’d been in my face before, he was out the other end of it now. He reared up from the chair in which he’d all along been sitting. “Come back at six o’clock when I’m not wearing my uniform and say that,” he said.
So there you have it: in the space of 10 minutes I’d gone from making a modest enquiry about a phone to being threatened with having my lights punched out. And the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker tells us that violence in civil society has declined.
I wrote to Vodafone’s chief executive, thinking he’d like to know. I was contacted with a number to ring, but it was just customer services – the place you go to complain about your bill. They offered me £30 for my inconvenience. Just think, reader: if I’d gone back to the store at six o’clock and been knocked senseless by the sub‑manager, they might have offered me £50.
Whether the person who made the offer believed me when I told him money wasn’t the issue, and whether I should have believed him when he told me the case was being investigated, I don’t know. But I am not living in suspense.
There are several conclusions to be drawn from this, the more obvious, regarding the part faceless multinational companies play in raising social tension, I leave readers to draw for themselves. But we have reached a pretty pass when the surly, the disobliging and the downright rude believe they have a human right never to be admonished. Of course, no one should be abused, but a rebuke is not abuse. First we couldn’t slap a child, then we couldn’t tell him off. Now we cannot tell off anybody.
Politeness is a two-way street. We’ll be sorry when the public, tired of being treated with contempt and held in queues when it complains, decides to pull the whole lot down.