Archive | October, 2012

What’s Wrong With Thinking?

14 Oct

Everyone has his or her own opinion about what constitutes “rubbish.” This especially applies to an opinionated person like yours truly. Why do you think I write a blog? We can all more or less agree what to throw in the waste-bin, but viewpoints wildly differ about what is good, bad or indifferent in the world of culture, be it music, literature, drama, art or whatever. One man’s “load of rubbish” is another man’s masterpeice. The Tate Modern’s famous “pile of bricks” or Tracy Emin’s unmade bed with condoms, spring to mind. Yes, it’s simply a matter of personal taste. I love the Impressionists, the Expressionists and the Secessionists — in fact anything ending in “ist” seems to do the trick for me. Just joking of course. I also like the Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.

  When an aquaintance at a party described her experience at a Take That concert as “awesome”, I was convinced that she was  about to say “awful”, which is my opinion of that pathetic, middle-aged, “boy” band. I would reserve the over-used term “awesome” for a 3 hour gig by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band or an evening with the exquisite Mary Chapin Carpenter or any concert by David Byrne, with or without his Talking Heads. We both produced, faint embarrassed smiles to cover the obvious gulf between our musical tastes. It’s just part of being human. We all make our differing choices and clashes of opinions abound. It’s healthy. For instance, phenomenal sales would indicate that E L James’s ” Fifty Shades of Grey” is a great novel, but for many others, including myself, it might as well be called ” Fifty Shades of Cr-p.” What’s wrong with reading something by: David Mitchell, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler or any number of subtle, intelligent modern novelists? Come to think of it why aren’t Tolstoy or Dickens near the top of the best-seller lists?

  I’m actually pleased that I am judgemental to a certain extent because it means that I am actively employing my brain to form a reasoned judgement about something, rather than just following the tide of hype. I’m proud to be a human-being and not a sheep. In the same vein, I’m not getting excited about J K Rowling’s first “adult” novel. That description gives the game away that her much vaunted Harry Potter series was really just for impressionable kids. I found them : obvious, formulaic, derivative, gimmicky and thus boring. I had to read one in order to “teach” it to my English set. They got bored too, maybe sensing my lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t waste my time with the rest or with the equally gimmick-ridden films with their heavy reliance on special effects to cover up the banality of the plot. Maybe J K’s new work could be re-named ” The Emperor’s New Clothes” as, in my opinion, that would neatly sum up her literary career so far.

  So we all have our opinions about what is good and what is rubbish unless one is merely wanting to go with the crowd and always agree with the majority. However, what really intrigues me is that, particularly in the world of television, increasing numbers of people seem to be deliberately choosing to indulge in “rubbish.” Is this part of the oft quoted “dumbing down” of our society, especially in the world of entertainment?

  One of my Facebook “friends”, a well-respected ex-colleague, actually announced this preference for rubbish on her status update. She wrote — “Well that’s the walk over, now time to watch some rubbish on daytime TV” ( or words to that effect.) When I naively asked her why she deliberately chose to watch rubbish, her reply was brilliantly succinct:- ” Switch brain off!” Is this a different approach to entertainment  ie– allowing it to turn you OFF rather than turn you ON?

  I consider myself entertained if my brain is stimulated and engaged. I like to be presented with something that is: clever, interesting, funny, ironic, thought-provoking, surprising, even challenging. I love nothing better than when someone or something plants a new idea into my mind, something that increases my understanding and appreciation of life and of the world I live in. That’s what entertains and satisfies me — the opportunity to switch my brain on and develop it in some way. If, on the other hand, I was presented with something that was : obvious, trivial, cliched, pedestrian , stilted or unoriginal, then I would feel that my time was being wasted and/or my intelligence insulted! That’s why, for instance, I shall be reading my book tonight instead of watching the contrived, safe and predictable shenanigans at “Downton Abbey” on ITV. My wife Chris ackowledged in series 2 that Downton was mostly rubbish. Some of the plot developments were farcical apparently. Yet she and millions of others are now glued to the screen for series 3. It is one of the most popular dramas on current TV despite being regularly derided by the critics. The Guardian man compared it with Classic FM, probably meaning entertainment that is provided in easily digestible chunks and not presenting much of an intellectual challenge. My daughter Catherine commented that it is a great programme for multi- tasking to. In other words, you don’t have to concentrate very hard to follow it and understand the characters. It seems to be a dramatic equivalent of easy-listening, MOR music. It fills in the background and helps one to relax. The comparison with Classic FM is appropriate as this very popular radio station  just plays digestible extracts from the most popular classical pieces, much easier to cope with than listening to all 4 movements of a symphony or concentrating throughout a whole opera. This in turn may help to explain the decline of the album in favour of the random i-pod shuffle. Could it be that many people are now just not willing to concentrate for very long anymore and are not particularly keen at working their brains? Being an ex school teacher this trend is obviously anathema to me. Watching cardboard-cutout characters( eg The stiff upper lipped, deferential butler, the fiesty Dowager or the headstrung young Lady) and following predictable plotlines is not my notion of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. My idea of a good gripping drama is the Danish thriller ” The Killing ” or the brilliant American series “The Wire”, both of which presented in-depth, multi-dimensional pictures of the societies they were set and lots of food for thought. Now that’s entertainment!

  Perhaps the main attraction of “mediocre” programmes is that they do NOT provide any intellectual challenge, allowing one’s over-active brain to take a break. One can view them with one’s brain largely disengaged. In fact, the very act of watching may well help push the switch into the off position. A younger- generation relative recently announced that she needed to watch some rubbish as she wished to relax before returning to work the next morning. I have also known people who have watched endless repeats of “Come Dine With Me” or “Location, Location” in order to switch off or zone-out. Maybe Reality TV, Daytime TV or  trashy “page-turning” novels ( sometimes known as beach or airport reads), serve the same broad function of alchohol. They help to obliterate the tedium of everyday existance. They also provide a temporary escape from the stresses and pressures of modern life. Post war Hollywood musicals and rom-coms served much the same function in 1940’s and 50’s cinemas, except that Doris Day or Katherine Hepburn had just a touch more class than Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell. ( in my opinion.)

  I know it’s very important to relax or chill, as they say. I usually do so by listening to some soothing music, going for a stroll or having a nap. I have also always wanted to try out meditation or have more than the occasional massage. A relaxed meal with family and/or friends is also very calming. But when it comes to literature, art, TV, film etc , I like to be be stimulated. Just as I avoid junk food I also avoid junk entertainment. I could never deliberately watch ” rubbish” in order to switch my mental faculties off. That would go against the grain. I spent my entire  career encouraging young people to actively exercise their brains! So, for much of my spare time, I prefer to be challenged and stimulated. As another friend commented: ” What’s wrong with thinking?” In my view, life is far too short to consciously waste it on self-acknowledged garbage. But then again — it’s all a matter of opinion!

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