‘They fight’.

November 7, 2010 1 comment

One of the most notorious stage directions in theatre is:  ‘Exit pursued by bear’, from ‘A Winter’s Tale”.  Actually for Shakespeare this is quite verbose, as more often than not his directions use even fewer words, one of the most common being… ‘They fight’.

We cannot possibly know what the fight scenes were like in Elizabethan theatre, whether they demanded as much specialist knowledge as they do now in theatre and film.  What we do know is that when they go wrong they really go wrong.  I saw a production of ‘Macbeth’ once in Stratford.  It was directed by the usually reliable Adrian Noble, and would have been fine if it were not for the melodramatic fight scenes, so over-the-top they had us chuckling throughout.  Finally, when Macduff burst through the floorboards to confront Macbeth, he was greeted not only by an indignant Macbeth but also by howls of laughter from the audience.  We should have been in awe, not in stitches.  It was one of the rare times I actually checked the credits to see who the fight director was, and discovered that he had previously worked on the comedy series ‘Blackadder’, which made a lot of sense.

As long as we have the technology to watch movies – who knows how this world will turn out – we will be able to appreciate and even study the choreography of their fight scenes, and give credit where credit’s due, at least to some extent – for it is not always clear how much is decided by the director, the choreographer, the fight director and even the actors.  It’s a collaborative process – all we can really surmise is when it works and when it doesn’t.

Is it even important?  Joss Whedon  – creator of ‘Buffy’, ‘Dollhouse’ etc. – once said they put so much emphasis on story and character development, when it came to a fight scene, they’d think at the last moment, ‘Oh yeah, we’d better put in a fight now’.  This is a surprising statement, and not that believable – I suspect some modesty is at play here – because you can witness some spectacular fight scenes in his series ‘Angel’, where the protagonists use the walls, the ceilings, anything in bizarre three-dimensional dances that must have required considerable forethought.  A later episode ‘Waiting in the Wings’, where the Angel team go to the ballet for the evening, seems a natural development:  also, one of the actresses, Amy Heckerling, was a ballet dancer herself, and the lead dancer in the production, Summer Glau, consequently became a big star in movies and TV.  In its sister show, Buffy and her cohorts and her enemies may not have always provided quite the same balletic qualities in the fight scenes, but there is a subtle language going on.  (It’s not always ‘Let me answer that with a head-butt’.)  In Year One our heroine is clumsy, uneven in her fighting; Year Two sees more confidence and ease; Year Three she meets the ‘dark slayer’ Faith who has a tendency to jump into lethal situations without any procrastination; by Year Four she has incorporated this and other techniques into her own style, even jumping into Hell not knowing if she’ll get back – by Year Seven she has accumulated all this knowledge and more techniques into her own style, always adapting, always thinking on her feet.  Her fighting has become her language.

Fighting as dialogue has always been a staple of comics.  When Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ films came out, as much as comic fans may have enjoyed them, there was general disappointment at the titular character himself:  whereas in the comics, Batman was always defined in part by his grace and skill in combat, this was sadly lacking in the films.  The villains were great, but somehow the quintessence of a good comic book was still absent.  It was clear that cinematographers, and subsequently most of the world, continued to misunderstand how comics worked.  The first sign of a change was the release of ‘Blade’, where the movements of the main character seemed absolutely right.  But a film about a daywalking vampire was bound to be too bloodthirsty for mainstream audiences.  The real change came with Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’.  Singer seemed to understand the deeper ramifications of the comic, very cleverly and disturbingly opening with a scene in a concentration camp, then having the climactic scenes set symbolically and ironically on Ellis Island.

But it was the fight.  It was the fight on Ellis Island between Wolverine and Mystique that told me comics had finally arrived in cinema.  Brutal, deadly, elegant and beautiful, as the two danced and wove between each other, eluding and parrying, blowing mock-kisses, kicking and cutting – this was how it had always been done on the printed page.  There was something uplifting about the experience.

In ‘Avatar’ when Neytiri first appears in front of Jake Sully to save him from the pack of wolf-creatures, she launches herself into the fight as if flying.  Her opening move is akin to a ballet leap.  Throughout the movie, the Na’vi fight with a grace illustrating their harmony with nature, in contrast with the corporate-sponsored marines.  Furthering this contrast, the Na’vi fly on huge bird-like creatures, the human soldiers using hard metallic machines for their ‘shock and awe’.

Also, the Na’vi would move amongst the trees, using verticality as much as horizontal movement.  This is interesting – and tribute to James Cameron’s detailed envisioning – because research a few years ago came to the conclusion we are doing our backs in by living two dimensional physical lives.  Think about it.  We design our pavements, our homes, our offices, to be as flat as possible.  But we evolved amongst the trees and our spines rejoice in flexible movement.  And when we’re not living in flatland we’re sitting in cars or other vehicles, forcing our spines into more unnatural positions.  Kids know better – I knew one whose preferred mode of transport across the classroom was leaping across desks – so when they’re ‘monkeying around’ we should maybe learn a thing or two rather than admonishing them.  Apparently some offices have adapted their terrain as a result of this research, incorporating uneven carpeting, hillocks in corridors etc.  I wonder what the mailman, let alone Health and Safety make of that.

Even as chimpanzees, we would climb.  A biologist would say to seek food or safety, but a poet would take it further.   It is said that Nijinsky appeared to defy gravity when dancing, staying suspended in mid-air longer than was theoretically possible.  And this is what good fight scenes are like when the grace of dance is brought in.  It is about defying gravity.  In this way it is not about real life, it is about the poetry of real life.

W. B. Yeats seems to capture this perfectly in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’:

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

W.B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)

It seems therefore that a good fight scene may require experience and realism if authenticity is required, such as in a convincing war movie like ‘Platoon’ – but for science fiction, theatre, or anything requiring a strong dose of imagination, then poetry has to be brought in so that the line between fighting and dance becomes so fine it is invisible.

Then, gravity may be defied.

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‘There Are Two Types of People in This World…

…those who put their butter in the fridge and those who don’t,‘  or so one of my more popular quips goes.  It’s a deliberately silly statement, designed to provoke and tease, which it does.  People think about what I’ve said, then more often than not, come back forcefully with, ‘What about if you don’t eat butter?’ or ‘What if you live in a cold house, then the fridge is unnecessary?’ or, most interestingly, ‘What do you think that says about me?’.

Of course, it doesn’t say anything about you, it’s a simple statement, an observation, which may or may not be true, that has no deeper meaning whatsoever, and certainly no judgement.  But people often react as if it might do.

So you can imagine the general outrage at another statement in my mock-list, ‘There are two types of people in this world…those who know why Star Trek is important, and those who don’t.’ Often the latter react angrily with lines like ‘I don’t give a **** about Star Trek’, ‘I hate the series’ or ‘I’ve never even watched it!’, not realising that puts them even more firmly in the second category.  Their mistake is they take it as a value-judgement, which it isn’t.  It’s simply an observation, as with the butter, which may or may not be true.  Also, I should add, there are plenty of people who watch Star Trek and don’t really get its significance.  (I could also add’, there are two types of people in this world:  those who create dumb dualities and those who don’t. Wonder which one I fall under.)

My own awakening came many years ago when a friend asked me to record an episode of  ‘The Next Generation’ called ‘The Defector’, as I had access to satellite channels and he didn’t.  I took the mickey mercilessly (‘You sad geek’ etc.) but agreed to do it.  The TV was on as I started the video tape recording, and I was immediately astounded to be launched straight into a rendition of ‘Henry V’.  Mesmerised, I continued to watch as the story unfolded into a tale of loyalty and trickery, with dramatic yet economic dialogue.  I was sold.  I had had no idea that something of this depth and perspicacity existed on television.

But I had only just started.  I was convinced of the literary merits of the series, and soon realised the scientific validation too, with the show constantly employing the services of science advisors.  The prophetic nature of Star Trek is well-known – we are all using communicators now, though we call them cellular or mobile phones; it may be a long time before we can transport entire people instantly elsewhere but this has now been achieved with sub-atomic particles; and when remote operators were being trained to use the Mars Rover, they designed it visually as an Enterprise Holodeck as that made their work easier.  And that’s just a few examples.

Even then, this is not what most interests me about the Star Trek phenomenon.  Now I’m not enough of a trekkie to be sure of my facts, but from what I’ve read the show’s legendary creator Gene Roddenberry experienced something of an epiphany when serving in the Korean War.  He had looked around at the carnage and mayhem, and in his moment of clarity realised ‘this is not an intelligent species’.  The imminent destruction of humankind seemed inevitable, as numerous dystopian views of the future in science fiction stories predicted.  Roddenberry could see this, but then he thought, ‘What if, somehow, we get through this and build a better, more advanced society, what might it look like?’.

His ideas are not that far removed in sentiment from John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, with no war and no superstition, but a fair, rational society where there is no longer need of money, and isms such as racism and sexism things of the past, like a bad dream.  This ties in with my previous blog where I mentioned a Type ll civilisation, though in reality scientists think that when we do reach Type l we won’t want to go into Space quite yet, being more than content on Earth.  Roddenberry, as usual, was a bit ahead of himself, and ourselves.

That Star Trek is very much relevant to the present, is confirmed by the account Nichelle Nichols, who acted Uhura on the original Star Trek, gives in her autobiography when Martin Luther King persuaded her to stay on the show as she was doing so much to promote racial equality in the world.  There is a further anecdote relevant to this, when Whoopi Goldberg as a little kid sees Uhura on the show and yells to her mother, ‘”Momma! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!”.  As a consequence, Goldberg became an actress and later signed up for a part in ‘Next Generation’ for a fraction of her normal fee. Nichols meanwhile, started working for NASA in order to recruit – successfully – more minority and female personnel.

‘The Next Generation’ had more direct input from Roddenberry, with less interference from the studio, than any other ‘Star Trek’ series.  It remains therefore perhaps the truest to his vision.  A common criticism however was that it was – unlike the original – too staid, the actors and writers having to work under too many constraints.  There is a momentary break from this in one episode when Deanna Troi is unwinding in her room, about to indulge in an orgy of chocolate consumption, when she gets called by the Captain to come and see the opening of a giant worm-hole in the galaxy.  She walks to the reception, as ordered, muttering miserably to herself, ‘Of course I wouldn’t want to miss the opening of a giant worm-hole…’  It’s a moment of true life, the individual rebelling against everything around them, but only too singular in the philosophical oh-so-civilised melodramas of the ‘Next Generation’.

It’s a small criticism, all the more diminished by the scale of what Star Trek has accomplished, yet even this small criticism has been negated with the recent ‘Star Trek’ movie by J.J. Abrams, which throws us right back to the adrenaline rush, the sense of adventure,  of the original series, and even more so.  Once again, it seems  ‘Star Trek’ needed to take a break in order to come back revitalised, bolder and stronger than before.

So if you haven’t discovered yet the extraordinary phenomenon that is ‘Star Trek’, then now is the perfect time to get on board. Oh and if you’re persuaded by the stereotype, that it’s only for sad members of the male gender, many years ago I was told by three separate women after phoning one evening not to visit them ‘until Next Generation was over’ .  Then was given precise time and co-ordinates as to when that would be.

May we all live long and prosper.

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Another Civilisation About to End. Must Be Wednesday.

September 9, 2010 2 comments

On the eve of my departure from Athens, I am haunted not just by the end of another wonderful journey, but the emotions brought up whilst exploring the marvellous temples of ancient Greece.  These were particularly poignant at the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. 

 Spectacularly placed overlooking the sea, a connection is surmised and often seen with the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon on the mainland.  It has been remarked upon that our current civilisation’s claims to greatness would be Shopping.  If so, I wonder what will be left once centuries have passed to compete with the splendour of the Greek temples.  With Aphaia even the myth of her escaping Minos then seen to vanish at the spot where the temple was built, is resonant in the present day – it feels like the story was from last week. 

A civilisations’s rise and consequent decay is seen as the inevitable  part of a cycle in many cultures, much as the body also goes through growth and contraction, eventually going back into the earth from which it came.  The challenge for the spiritual seeker therefore is – paraphrasing Buddha –  to discover ‘that which does not die’. 

Is there a parallel challenge though for civilisation, or are we forever doomed to repeat the endless dance from birth to destruction?  This is an important question, for it looks like we are currently in the final days of our civilisation.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  If you want an easy guide to our end days read ‘The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight’ by Thom Hartmann; if you’re up for a good albeit disconcerting science read try ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond. 

To really put the final nail in though, Jane Jacobs’s  ‘Dark Age Ahead’ is difficult to beat.  Jacobs argues that it is difficult to know what happens in the dark age of a civilisation – think of the vagueness about King Arthur for example – but it is possible to identify five key indicators, any one of which will warn us of an impending dark age.  Our current, global, hi-tech society is displaying all five indicators.  I do not mean to go into these indicators here, but two of them are:  an unanswerability in authorities and a replacement of rational thought by sloppy thinking and superstition. 

A few people seem to be attributed the comment, ‘Civilisation is a good idea; we should try it sometime’, including Gandhi and Bernard Shaw.  This sentiment is echoed by the work of a Russian physicist Nikolai Kardashev in the 1960s.  Kardashev described three types of civilisations, with Type 111 having colonised large parts of its galaxy by tapping into the energy sources of the stars.  A Type l civilisation will remain planetbound for a considerable time, as it has harnessed the energy of its star – the sun in our case – and has created a truly planetary society that uses its resources wisely and is completely free of racial, sectarian and nationalistic nonsense.  With such a Utopia achieved, there is no immediate need to explore the further reaches of Space, as would be characteristic of a Type 11 (Star Trek-like) civilisation. 

Physicists tend to be quite positive about our current situation.  Michio Kaku for example sees the emergence of things like the Internet as evidence of our heading towards a Type 1 scenario.  But physicists tend to be dazzled by technology, and do not read books like ‘Dark Age Ahead’ or ‘Collapse’ where social and environmental degradation are listed quite alarmingly. 

Furthermore, environmentalists and biologists tend not to study psychology where the roots of our malaise can often be found, and it is there, I argue, that the solutions also lie.  (See my blog ‘Freedom, Or Something Just Like It’ for more on this.)

So can we do it?  Can we reach the goal of a Type 1 civilisation before it’s too late?  Because if we can, we may well have transcended the inevitable rise and fall of societies preceding this one, such as the Sumerian, the Greek, the Egyptian, and modern day empires like the British.  Well, the jury is still out, but time is a dwindling commodity and things do not look good.  The good news is that there are indications of a tentative reaching towards a more advanced state, as Michio Kaku and others claim, such as new evolving global economies, the internet and an awareness of global challenges rather than just local.  And the other good news is that change will inevitably be due to the actions of individuals such as you and me, and if each one of us does what we can, no more can be asked.

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Spirit of the Story

 ‘The Portrait of the Lady’ by Henry James has a beautiful opening sequence, written before the days of cinema, yet would make a cinematographer proud.  It is as if we are looking down from afar at an idyllic English scene where three people are partaking of their afternoon tea.  James manages to evoke a sense of peace and transcendence, even as he ‘zooms in’ on the three characters themselves.  There is also a suggestion of actual meditation, enhanced by any knowledge of the connections between tea and the practice (Boddhidarma supposedly cut off his eye-lashes to create tea-leaves in order to keep himself awake for meditation); so much so that one wonders if the English, whilst consciously invading the East, were unconsciously importing a new type of spirituality to their land. 

Novels have a very particular relationship with matters of the spirit, as expounded upon by the critic F.R. Leavis and the writer D. H. Lawrence early last century.  (See ‘The Grumpy Critic’, another WordPress blog, for more on Leavis.)  An important point made by both those men was that morality has a very different meaning to a novelist than to almost anyone else.  A poet, a scientist, a priest, anyone can afford to have a particular morality or rules of conduct, but a novelist has to be able to transcend their own bias.  For example, Tolstoy according to Lawrence, like all great storytellers had the ability to portray people of vastly differing outlooks on life and death; and he only really ‘lost it’ when his own personal Christian-social perspective took over.  As Lawrence puts it, one can trust the novel but the novelist is usually a dribbling liar.  And you just have to read some of Lawrence’s very personal diatribes or poorer novels to know that to be true!

What is demanded therefore of the novelist is the ability to stand back from oneself.  A good writer should be able to question themself to such a degree that they too can become a mere character in one of their stories.  One way to achieve this is to create a character that opposes your own beliefs, a devil’s advocate.  Writing stories like this becomes incredibly liberating, for you are now free from your self, and able to experience the universe as it is rather than how you wish it to be. 

Lawrence argued that the novel was the greatest of all art forms – and remember that he was also a poet,  painter and essayist – for only the novelist could get the whole of the person, other disciplines could only get aspects.  (If you are starting to get irritated by this paradigm, then maybe you’ll have some idea as to why both Lawrence and Leavis could incite so much antagonism from the art and literary worlds.  Even today they remain controversial.)

Going over the Leavis-Lawrence ‘guidelines’ there are certain recurring themes as to what actually constitutes great writing.  Morality we have just mentioned – albeit a different kind of morality from most.  Another important factor is that the writer must base what they write on experienced truth, more than imagination.  This may seem to get rid willy-nilly of all science fiction, but actually only most of it!  ‘1984’ for example was based on how George Orwell was experiencing 1948.  He saw what was going on around him and he used the future date as an analogy of real life.  Similarly, Ray Bradbury’s classic ‘The Pedestrian’ about a man arrested for walking in the city at night – simply walking – may seem prophetic but it was based on what actually happened to him over fifty years ago. 

 It doesn’t have to be your own experience necessarily though.  Joseph Conrad wrote ‘The Secret Agent’ and was so convincing in his portrayal of terrorists and government cover-ups that someone in power commented he must have had strong connections to that underworld.  Conrad, on hearing this, denied it, putting it down more – if I remember correctly – to his understanding of human nature and his studying of the news.  As a result, he wrote a book that is incredibly relevant to us today.  I myself, in more humble aspirations, draw on the experiences of past and present astronauts when I want to write about space travel, by reading their autobiographies, allowing their experience to inform my imagination.  This is to allow for the fact NASA have not allowed me yet on any of their missions.  (I must be the only person to have a restraining order in relation to a space agency.)

Another essential factor for the well-being of a story is life-affirmativeness.  Again, as with morality, the novelist is not required to follow the norm here.  Shakespeare for example can pile the stage with dead bodies at the end of one of his tragedies but one does not feel diminished from the experience; rather, one has grown from it.  Put me through an entire Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical though and I lose the will to live, though that is partially subjective.  Partially.  It is also to do with the contrast between real, profound, complex human emotions (Shakespeare) and simulated, over-simplified, exaggerated emotions (many musicals). 

Seeing ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘novel’ together, one asks just what is meant by a novel.  The term seems limited when it is clear we are talking about a ‘complex narrative structure’, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.  Also included though once we expand the idea of a novel, are movies and even TV shows.  Last night, watching a ‘Law and Order’ episode, I was once again taken by the realistic approach (that’s a plus for ‘experience’) but also, once again, depleted by the entire absence of joy or celebration.  I expect my storytellers to represent the whole tapestry of life, not just one or two colours.  Similarly, sitcoms tend to portray only the lighter side of life. 

There is also an emphasis on substance rather than style.  Lawrence  slated James Joyce for dressing old ideas up in a deceptively flashy style, and Leavis was controversial for recommending five English novelists above all others in his ‘The Great Tradition’ – namely Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and D. H. Lawrence – though with additional praise for Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’.  Applying similar logic to contemporary ‘complex narrative structures’, I cannot claim to know all the great movie makers in the world, but I would quite happily get rid of several highly regarded ones such as Spielberg, Scorcese and Tarantino in favour of Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai, David Lynch and Fellini.  I even argue sometimes when I’m feeling particularly contentious, that Fellini was the Shakespeare of the 20th century. 

So I think that’s enough contention for today.  But to finish on a simpler note, I still maintain that for all their complexity and depth, writers such as Henry James are great writers because they are great storytellers, and that remains at the heart of it.

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Update – August 2010

Well, I guess I can comfortably shirk any guilt-feelings about not writing anything for a looooonnnngggg time as nobody has visited for a loooooonnnnnngggg time!  Unless the stats are completely useless on WordPress, which I very much doubt.  But just in case any of you drop by soon, I thought I’d quickly put in an update.

The last I wrote I was hinting I might do a piece on the brilliant Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, but inspiration suddenly deserted me and it ain’t come back yet.  At least as far as the blog is concerned.  Otherwise, the work is pouring out of me as I concentrate on a new film script which also involves a considerable amount of research including visits to the National Portrait Gallery, HMS Belfast and (two days ago) a ride on a steam train across Exmoor.  I hope you find all that intriguing, rather than infuriating that I am not telling you any more.

Comic-wise, Pramada has just been in touch – hurray! – and even though he is about to move house has managed to plough ahead with more of the intense and brilliant art work for Omni’s first issue.

Being in London right now, I’ve taken advantage of the numerous comic shops and found Alex Maleev’s artwork on ‘Spiderwoman’ to be absolutely stunning.  Also, ‘God Save the Queen’ by Mike Carey and John Bolton was an unexpected surprise, a very Sandman-like foray into Faerieland and drug culture in London.  One of those really classic graphic novels that seem to escape other people’s notice for some reason (probably fashion).

And that’s all he wrote, as I’m completely knackered.  All this travelling, writing and research.  Phew.  But I will be back, honest.  As Pramada commented, this has probably been just a passive yin phase preparing for the busy yang ahead.   (Maybe you’ll all come back too!)


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Update – June 2010

Heck, well, there ain’t much of an update as guess what – Pramada’s gone AWOL again.  So with a rather valuable part of the team having disappeared once more, there ain’t that much to report.  However, if you haven’t checked out our site in the last few months, please do so as you’re really missing out.  With free wallpaper and a mini-comic now on the site, if that weren’t enough to tempt you, the Shop link to our products on Cafe Press is quite exciting.  With typical English parsimoniousness, I was taken aback somewhat at the prices for the water bottles, but got one anyway and was not only impressed by its sheer beauty, but was informed by a couple of world travellers that it was a high quality Sigg bottle and that the price was totally reasonable, maybe even less than usual.  So have a look at the Omni site if you haven’t recently.  You might see something you like.

As for me, I’m still flitting about between the Wales-England borderland and the beautiful South-West of England.  With all the community work I’ve been doing, plus various other adventures, I haven’t had enough time for writing anything but am trying to get back to that this week.

Thank you all for your visits – though you have been quiet this past week or two, I guess we’re all chilling out a lot in the summer weather, or at least those of us in the northern hemisphere are anyway.  A few blogs are beginning to sprout in my neo-cortex, and it’s a just a matter of waiting to see which one makes it to the light next time I visit this dashboard.  So far an examination of  a particular Hong Kong movie genius is the most likely candidate.  Drop by in a couple of weeks to see!  Even in this lazy weather I should have managed something by then.

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Freedom, Or Something Just Like It

This is something just hot off the press. It is loosely to do with Omni, in that over the course of the comic’s storyline we explore a world which is struggling to be reborn as a sort of Utopia, a place where everyone can be happy and fulfilled. But really that’s just an excuse to come back to a common theme in my work and studies, which is to do with what is wrong with people, with society, that we seem hell-bent on self-destruction, and how can we remedy this? That is a thesis in itself, or innumerable theses, and already I have devoured books on the nature of social capital as well as several on the psychological dark side of humanity. I regularly meet and work with people who strive for a better world, sometimes environmentalists but not always, and some sort of a picture has started to form. I am convinced, for instance, that until a recognition of the prevalence of psychopathy in society comes about (about 1 in 150 people are psychopathic) then very little progress can be made. That is a subject for another day, but an interesting indication of a healthy society was presented to me in an odd way, reading Philip Zimbardo’s book ‘The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil’. Professor Zimbardo was the instigator behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1970s. For those who don’t know, the experiment involved dividing psychology students up completely randomly into prison ‘guards’ and ‘detainees’. There were rules clearly in place, including the banning of any violence whatsoever, but within days the experiment had to be abandoned because it turned seriously nasty, with the ‘guards’ exhibiting sadistic behaviour, and even Zimbardo himself caught up in the ‘game’. There is much more to be discussed here, of course, but this is not the space. I do though recommend the book to everybody, I actually believe it to be one of the most important books ever written because of what it reveals about human nature and what we can do to stem our destructive forces. What I did when reading the book was something a bit unusual, something I don’t think even Zimbardo has done.

A main thrust of the book is the argument that we need to employ situational psychology rather than just individual psychology to understand what happens in groups. For example, Zimbardo was brought in as a consultant to work out what had happened in the infamous Abu Graib prison in Iraq; one of his conclusions was that the guards were as much victims as the detainees due to the oppressive and fascistic conditions forced upon them by those higher up.

My approach to the book was that I took note of a lot of throwaway lines from Zimbardo, lines where he simply mentions in passing the conditions necessary to create the oppressive nature of a prison. My thinking was that we all live as slaves or prisoners anyway, to varying degrees – slaves to society, to work, to fashion, to ideology; so if I could list the key elements needed to create a ‘prison society’ then the opposite factors would theoretically create a free, liberated society. ‘The Lucifer Effect’ is a long book and I managed to extricate a large number of key factors of oppression. So what follows here is only a short list of oppressive factors and their counterparts:


Deindividuation – make people conform

Disruption of circadian rhythms – e.g. force people to go to bed and wake up at certain times

Indiscriminate punishing- ‘the law man beating up the wrong guy’, as David Bowie put it

Minimal body contact

Problems always perceived as individual

Lack of answerability in authorities

Lack of choice

Increased passivity – keep ’em watching TV but never actually getting involved with anything

Diffuse time – where no day is different from any other

Separation from Nature

Gender segregation


Individuality- encourage people to be themselves

Following natural rhythms e.g. teenagers should get up late and study late, workers have siestas

A just system emphasising social rebalancing rather than punishment

Hugging etc.  Go Latino!

Recognition of situational psychology, where the context needs to be considered

Answerability and transparency from those in charge



Sense of progression and cycles – celebrate birthdays, times of year etc.

Contact with Nature

Gender integration and equality

So there you have it. It’s inevitably overly succinct, but I thought just as a bullet-point summary of my recent work on this subject, it may well suffice. Have a look at the list and decide for yourself: how free are you?

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