Saturday, January 23, 2010

Good moaning

It is like birdsong in the Greek spring, a constant accompaniment to English life. Moaning, incessant moaning. Cameron spouting drivel about "broken Britain"; the papers full of accounts of the alienated misery of modern human relationships caused solely by email; of why bloggers coarsen everyday life; of how the English language has been ruined by texting. Then there was the snow - why oh why are we not in a constant state of readiness for the sort of extreme weather that hits us once every thirty years or so and lasts three weeks at most?

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the Guardian, here comes Simon Jenkins - moaning - moaning about archaeology. Yes, archaeology. Or as he likes to think of it, the worship of relics.
The BBC relic department (once called history) now incants hourly radio plugs for MacGregor's 100 objects show. ... MacGregor speaks of his museum objects in hushed and reverential tones, so as to enhance their aura of holiness. ... The objects are like icons behind a Byzantine screen, over which we hear only the chant of the saintly MacGregor.
It's only a bloody radio programme, and rather a neat one at that. Then there is more ...
Museums have given this object worship a metaphysical clutter like that of the 8th-century Council of Nicaea, which ordained that no church could be consecrated without a true relic. ... Museum staff are trained to behave as acolytes to their objects, swearing allegiance to the gods of authenticity and locationism. They don their chasubles and scrape, analyse, clean and study – the meanest shard taking on a spirit that passes mortal understanding.
And on and on, until we get to the final reason why we apparently go in for all this relic worship. I bet you can guess. Dead right, it is all the fault of the internet.
The craving for authentic objects is another manifestation of the longing for the real, for an escape from the tyranny of the lighted screen, the keyboard, the world wide web. When the eye rises blearily from the LED it seeks reality above all else, something not machined, not plasticated, not back-lit, not plugged into the wall.
No, please god no.

I do historical research and I never get over the sheer, visceral thrill of actually touching original documents. But there is a difference. Just because I am holding a letter written by Peter Kropotkin does not mean that I think that I am going to be cured of whatever ailment is affecting me, miraculously lose weight or be swept up into heaven. Instead, there is an historical interest in the contents certainly, but there is something more, a sense of the reality of the past, of real lives with their own ideas and aesthetics, with their practical, everyday concerns, the very stuff of history. Then there is the excitement of research, of unearthing something new, clarifying ideas, the sheer pleasure of intellectual inquiry. It is brilliant, and anything that conveys that thrill to others is something to be encouraged and celebrated, not sneered at with a self-satisfied intellectual disdain at the inadequacy of the lower orders.

So here is a resolution for the day. Stop it. Stop moaning. Stop it right now. And I will stop moaning about people moaning too.


mikeovswinton said...

I think I read somewhere that it was Simon Jenkins who persuaded a (commendably if this is true) sceptical Tony Blair to continue with Michael Hesltine's plans for the Millenium Dome. If this is true, and any light anyone can shed on it because I've forgotten where I heard it, would be welcome, then I think we know all we need to know about Jenkins. Mind you, I'm not moaning. I beleive the O2 arena is rather good for concerts.

mikeovswinton, not a Simon Jenkins fan said...

Private Eye used to call William Right Fogg, or Billy Mogg as Dave Cameron has asked him to style himself when on duty in his daughter's mooted seat, "The Times's resident hole in the page". I was going to say the same of Jenkins and the Guardian. But on that analogy, the bloody thing would resemble a culender.

mikeovswinton said...

A bit of googling suggests that Jenkins did indeed persuade Mr Tony that the dome was a good idea. I wonder what he has to say about that now? Don't think he'll be devoting one of his fatuous columns to that topic any time soon.

Anton Deque said...

You touch upon an important feature of modern life. No serious person may be happy. To be happy is to be simple minded. The domination of the means of production and distribution in the west means that more are seemingly better found than at any period in history. Instead of producing the contentment and space to consider the meaning of life, this has lead to its opposite, a morbid concern for those minor irritants our predessors would have shrugged their shoulders at if at all. The question is now "what makes people angry?" not "Why?"

Jenkins' article sounds like someone scraping the barrel for something to fill up a column.

Nicole S said...

Anton Deque: In answer to your question about what makes people angry: