Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Small World Stars

Is it me, or is a nasty screw being turned increasingly on our affairs?

I ask this question in the wake of news released this week that caning in schools is being mooted as a potential solution for dealing with unruly school kids, not just by the usual suspects with fond memories of how “birching never did me any harm”, but also (alarmingly) by increasing numbers of parents.

My stand on this is a simple one, namely that discipline based on fear is no kind of discipline at all. I’m long enough in the tooth to recall the cane being used at a few of my earlier schools and it seemed to me to offer no deterrent whatsoever — my friends and I still got beaten up and had our bikes stolen, and at least one of the kids responsible went on to murder a three year-old girl in cold blood. In that sense, the end of corporal punishment made no difference to me: I was never on the receiving end of the cane and never behaved in such a way as to fear its potential lash.

What disturbs me about all this now is my own naivety. I had always presumed that the abolition of corporal punishment in schools was a done deal, a necessary step in the advancement of human wisdom that would never be overturned unless the planet was invaded by space Vikings with a penchant for pliant wood. Like George Michael’s appeal to teenage girls after he put on weight and started crashing cars, the whole thing looked like a goner from the 70s onwards. But of course, the human race has a proud history of being a bunch of grubby little shits and I suppose it was only a matter of time before all that shittiness resurfaced, masquerading as “common sense”.

Where this leaves us now is open to question. My hope is that the punitive resurgence of which this whole caning thing is but one aspect is yet another spectre raised whose phantom spooking won’t make it to the rattling objects stage. On the other hand, five years down the line, we may all be party to parliamentary debates about the differences in degree to which children of varying ages may be lawfully chastised: raps on knuckles for the over 12s and light slaps for the foundation year, perhaps? Whatever happens, the dial is evidently flickering on this one (and others like it), and its new location on the scale is as yet unfixed. There’s still time to look at what we currently have and ask searching questions about its value. An overly lax and tolerant approach which is fuelling a national demise? Or reason in spite of our beastliest instincts?

I mention this because my novel (details in menu bar) is set against a softly pre-dystopian background which is registered as normal on the dial by all the main characters and world inhabitants. Quietly, I ask: What is ‘normal’ and how do we decide? There are no armed police enforcing the laws of a draconian government nor any kind or perceived oppression, yet in the version of England I present, the dials have been fixed in place for so long that no-one has the faintest recollection of where zero is. Acts of barbarism that you and I would find abhorrent are everyday events in this world of the numbed, and grubbiness hovers in the background of the plot, ever present and taken as read, like the low, incessant rumble in Eraserhead.

In one scene, my protagonist stumbles into a crowded market place on his way across town looking for romance. As he pushes his way past a crush of bodies outside a glitzy TV showroom, he finds himself party to a weekly social event taking place across the nation. Thursday night is National Execution Night — and this week, some hapless female from the underclass is being strung up from the gallows. Gangs of lads await the spectacle with their fags and lagers, businessmen discuss proceedings on their mobiles, and housewives squeeze their buggies to the front of the mob: it’s what you do. When I wrote the scene I had the intention of making things as impossibly grisly as I could — “turning up the dial to 11" if you like. So in addition to the to the central spectacle of someone being hung or electrocuted on live TV, there are X Factor elements and sprinkles of game show pizazz to jolly along the vengeful bloodlust. In my version of post-millennial England, you, dear viewer, can pledge cash to raise the stakes and vote for the manner of death, content in the knowledge that your hard-earned money will be used to help the needy. After all, you can recoup the lot by betting on how long the victims manage to string it all out — along with a range of other Double Yer Money variables. As the heartbeat and breathing stats flash from the HD over your fireplace like cartoon KERZONKs and KAPOWs, how pleasing it is to know your vote came top of the heap this week. Dirty chav stole money from a pensioner and now she’s getting her come-uppance: your come-uppance. So sit back and watch your quid being well spent. Look! A little Downs boy is initiating the proceedings. Officials point him to a lever and encourage him to pull — but bless his little heart, he needs some help. From the split screen, the victim’s brat of a kid wails into the night as her mum spins and kicks from the rope. The commentator makes a joke about women footballers and bemoans the “waste of a nice pair”. Then the body is cut down from the gallows. The Downs boy makes his way to the super sparkly lever as the crowd chants Go Spacker Go. Three. Two. One. And the hounds are released from their traps.

It’s still as much of an outlandish nightmare scene as when I wrote it in 2008 — only it kind of isn’t. Odd though it seems to me, the dial on reality is notching closer to that of the spoof world of my imaginings. Of course we’re not about to hang people in front of their kids on live TV as a way of fixing Buggered Britannia, but as a society we were once told didn’t exist, we do seem to be developing something of a hunger for a return to beating, shaming and incarcerating ourselves out of harm’s way.


fairyhedgehog said...


Caning in schools? That is so not on. I really thought that we were past all that too.

Isn't it worrying when you think up the worst dystopia you can, and then realise that it isn't beyond possibility after all.

jjdebenedictis said...

This is a great post. You make some solid points about the real world, then move on to describing a pretty gripping scene from your book. Nicely done.

Yeah, I don't remember corporal punishment being effective either. We have to figure out how to teach kids to value moral behaviour, because as detestable as humanity often is, usually we're pretty reasonable and kind. We need to consciously teach people to value that human legacy, not our legacy of violence.

Whirlochre said...

Hog Of All Good Things
It was never 1984 we had to worry about.

It may be that some of us are more genetically predisposed to pick up sticks than others but until we actually do it, we only have potential rather than experience. Endorsing such things under the auspices of education seems to me to be a monstrous denial of our humanity.

stacy said...

That's really a shame. There are no easy answers nowadays, but some people will keep looking for them.

Fresh Garden said...

I agree with Stacy, no easy answers... sigh...

Whirlochre said...

Thanks for joining in the debate, guys.

stacy said...

Things are moving that way here, too. I'm wondering how far the pendulum has to swing before people see how wrong it is.

Whirlochre said...

Quite far, usually.