Chris Norris

Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.

The Trouble with Monsters
Saturday, 02 September 2017 12:55

The Trouble with Monsters

Published in Poetry

The Trouble with Monsters

by Chris Norris

Quick way with monsters: send a hero out
For mortal combat: sometimes he'll prevail
And kill the beast, while other times he'll fail
And it will be his death that ends the bout.

The point is, those old poets had it right,
Those Greeks, and Romans, and the guy (or guys)
Of Anglo-Saxon stock whose epic vies
With theirs as Beowulf goes forth to fight

First Grendel, then his mother, she whose sheer
Brute strength and monstrous bulk he hacks to death
But only to yield up his dying breath
In the last act of his renowned career.

cn beowulf

We have our modern monsters, but they tend
More often to emerge from some bad place
Within our home-domain, not some wild space
Beyond it where all codes and kinships end.

From every source these modern monsters spring:
From corporate culture, from the daily trade
In weapons of mass-murder, from the made-
To-measure ranks of lying hacks who bring

Our daily news, from the assorted fools
And rogues lined up for a safe Tory seat
Post-Oxbridge, or from teachers keen to beat
The kids just like in their old public schools.

CN bj 20145 Boris Johnson wins seat MP

But now we have new monsters of a kind
Unknown in earlier times because their lair
Is deep within a psychic space they share
With fifty million others of a mind

To have their worldview, politics, and sense
Of right and wrong conditioned daily by
The sorts of TV show that amplify
Bad vibes long quelled in reason's self-defence.

It's monstrous emanations such as these,
Rough beasts that slouch from all our TV screens,
Whose aspect takes us closest to those scenes
Of epic strife and somehow holds the keys

To all our deep-commingled dreads and fears,
As well as savage impulses that drive
The moguls and press-barons to connive
At each assault on decency's frontiers.

CN adolf hitler reichskanzler 1933

Our last real monster turned up nine decades
Back and did all the usual monster-stuff -
Killed millions out of some long-rankling huff,
Laid countries waste, recruited his brigades

Of street-thugs early on from folk bereft
Of money, life-hopes, pride, or self-respect,
And so, like Grendel, carried on unchecked
Till desperate remedies alone were left.

Now we've another monster on the loose,
One just as bad in many ways and worse
In some, since we've now further cause to curse
The advent of a president obtuse

And infantile enough to blow us all
To kingdom come if goaded by some stray
Remark, or say 'Just weather!’ come what may
Of hurricanes by way of wake-up call.

CN dt

We think 'if only', and routinely hold
Them in the highest honour, those who tried
But failed to stem the rising fascist tide
By monster-slaying, some of them extolled,

Like Bonhoeffer, as heroes with a claim
To sainthood while so many others, known
Or unknown to us, left their safety-zone
To venture on a last and lethal game.

Our current monster preys on all the ills
Of ignorance, stupidity, and greed
That fed his viewing-figures and his need
To see that every whim directly spills

Into the Twitter-sphere no matter if
It's sub-moronic, apt to spark a war,
Designed to show a hapless aide the door,
Or his last shot in some crass ‘fake news’ tiff.

Yet it's a case borne out by monsters down
From Roman times that they're no less a threat
To humankind for being apt to get
Their kicks in imbecilic ways, or clown

It up at just those times when all depends,
If not on their appearing wise or shrewd,
Then on their not indulging some wild mood-
Swing prone to make new enemies of old friends.

That Mark One monster might have been dispatched
At any time from nineteen-thirty-three
To forty-four, a fine thing – you'll agree –
Since who’d blame plotters for a game-plan hatched

To rid the world of one who, as things went
In brutal truth, survived to leave his mark,
As will this monster if left to embark
On half the crimes that seem his fixed intent?

That's why they got it right, those epic bards,
About what's best to do when monsters strike
And why perhaps, in special cases like
The present, it's the role of bodyguards,

Not some resurgent Beowulf, to show
The highest civic virtue and the sort
Of courage that inspired those long-ago
Folk-heroes to cut monster-stories short.

CN Karl Theodor von Piloty Murder of Caesar 1865

 

Grenfell: for the victims
Saturday, 26 August 2017 15:38

Grenfell: for the victims

Published in Poetry

Author's Note: Joyce Grenfell (1910-1979) was a British actor, singer and stage entertainer who specialised in comic monologues and achieved huge popularity in the decades following World War Two. Among her best-known imaginary monologue-speakers was a teacher of very young children, among them George who was more than once asked to stop doing something (nature undisclosed). Grenfell Tower was named in her memory.

George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer between 2010 and 2016. He – or his advisors – promoted the drastic and divisive creed of ‘austerity’ that inflicted great damage on many aspects of British social, communal and political life. The cuts to local authority spending on health and safety regulation were adduced by some as having contributed to the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower.

 

'George, don't do that': Joyce Grenfell in the role
Of hard-pressed infant teacher, trying not
To let it get her down or lose control,
But at a stage where things have clearly got
Just a bit much and now she's left in sole
Charge of this endlessly demanding lot
Of noisy five-year-olds. What really stole
The show was having listeners wonder what
He, George, was doing and how she'd cajole
Him out of doing it, first by a spot
Of gentle blandishment, then, as the toll
On her nerves grew, by adding just a shot
Of reprimand, and lastly – as the whole
Class seemed to sense a lesson gone to pot –
By one more plea before the bell, with droll
Yet perfect timing, closed her lesson-slot.

'George, don't do that': don't give us all that spiel
About austerity, the debt, how we're
'All in this thing together', or how we'll
Just have to pull our belts in and adhere
To your fine plan for cutting a great deal
With your old banker pals. We've done 'austere'
For long enough to guess it's us who'll feel
The pinch alright and them who'll stand to clear
A fortune when the billions you steal
From those who put the work in yield their year-
On-year fat bonus. Know what made it real,
What brought it home, that sense we had of sheer
Unutterable rage? That you could seal
Your devil's pact and no one interfere
To bring those crooks to justice or reveal
The swindle in a reckoning more severe.

'George, don't do that': for Christ's sake don't pretend
You haven't grasped the Grenfell link, or take
The standard Tory view that one can bend
The safety rules and regs for profit's sake
So long as those affected are low-end
In status terms, with no financial stake
Or friends and influence that might extend
Beyond their local patch. And, just to make
The point more plainly: when the plan’s to spend
A bit less on the stuff for those fire-break
Partitions in the high-rise towers, or mend
The cracks less frequently, it's in the wake
Of all your government directives penned
By jobsworth types who know just how the cake
Gets sliced. Losers and immigrants, my friend:
Don’t fret too much if cladding starts to flake.

You'll do that, George, you'll let the paupers fry
(Crass metaphor: forgive the vulgar taste)
So long as they're the ones who just get by,
Or don't, while you and your lot are well-placed
To fix it so that no-one gets a try
At changing things. If we lament the waste
Of talents, lives, or chances not to die
A needless death because you lot embraced
'Austerity', then no doubt you'll reply
With some glib chunk of right-wing wisdom based
On trickle-down. This aims to justify
What's really plain old dog-eat-dog showcased
In think-tank talk to stop us asking why
They've not run riot, those survivors faced
With the charred tower each day while some rich guy
Like you says let's not act with too much haste.

But how to stop you, George, how make the kind
Of full-scale revolution that they’ll need,
Those tenants yet to come, if we're to find
Some remedy for scenes like this and heed
The hard-won lesson that it leaves behind,
That blackened witness to the Osborne creed
That, by malignant chemistry, combined
Mammon with Moloch, your sharp-suited greed
With everything the system does to grind
Its victims down. But then, a point that we'd
Do well to keep continually in mind
Is how keen the survivors were to lead
Discussion back to life-hopes intertwined
With Grenfell Tower and show how we'll misread
Their testimony should our anger blind
Us to the fact that those hopes may succeed

Despite the heaviest odds. That's because they're
Flat contrary to every point of your
Unspoken doctrine: that the poor should bear
The greatest burden just because they're poor,
Or just because they've not yet done their share
To fill the vast tax-coffers destined for
Long-planned redistribution on the fair
(By your lights) principle which goes: the more
Ye have, the more shall what ye have declare
You worth ten times as much. The Grenfell score
Looks bad on your side, George, if we compare
Your moral credit-rating (through the floor!)
To high-rise tenants with no cash to spare
Yet with the guts and dignity to shore
Against disaster. 'Ta'en too little care'
You have, like Lear; these deaths you can't ignore.

 

 

 

The Greatest Gift of Boris J: A New Dunciad
Tuesday, 06 June 2017 15:13

The Greatest Gift of Boris J: A New Dunciad

Published in Poetry

The Greatest Gift of Boris J:
a New Dunciad

by Christopher Norris

The greatest gift of Boris J
Was having lots of things to say
That sounded smart but very soon
Revealed him as a prize buffoon.
His father quickly saw the boy
Was most unlikely to enjoy
Preferment of the kind that came
Of native wit, since just the same
Perception had compelled his Dad
To say of him: 'a splendid lad
But thick as two short planks'. Still he'd
Got on alright, maintained the breed,
Produced son Boris, raised the kid
To do the sorts of things he did,
Like spouting nonsense long and loud
To wow the plebs or please the crowd,
And made of him, in short, a fine
Addition to the family line.

          But every idyll has an end,
And so the time arrived to send
This none-too-promising young chap
Somewhere to plug the three-year gap
Between school and whatever kind
Of job Dad's city friends could find
To put his way. In short, he'd not
The brains to mix it with a lot
Of clever kids from grammar-school
Or comprehensive whom he'd fool
With one of his set-piece displays
Of blustering, but who might raise
Some question as to whether he,
That loud-mouthed bully-boy, should be
Received amongst them in a place
Of higher learning. Such disgrace,
His father feared, could so affect
Poor Boris that it wholly wrecked
His chance of spending those three years
On sundry ways to keep his peers
From finding out the little trick
He'd learned for not appearing thick.

CN1
          So off he went to Oxford where,
Great tricksters all, they didn’t care
Too much about the curious lack
Of evidence with which to back
The perfect self-assurance that
Came of his having got off pat
The sorts of stuff that went down well
With tutors not allowed to sell
A place at college but inclined
To favor those with whom they wined
And dined. The trick: pretend that you're
A clever chap who knows the score
Alright, but just pretends he's dumb
For laughs, though really (as they'd come
To know if things went wrong) you played
The game of a buffoon who made-
Believe he’d brains enough to take
A jester's role. If he could fake
It well enough then soon he'd get
The hoi polloi onside and let
Them count him just a harmless clown
While commentators had him down,
Obligingly, as more clued-
Up inverse Coriolanus who'd
The vulgar turn of speech to bring
The mob on board but the true ring,
To ears attuned, of one whom it
Best suited now to play the pit
Against the gallery. He’d show
(For those onlookers in the know)
How the best minds could always hide
Their true intent or send us wide
Of it if we’re the sorts of folk
Not smart enough to get the joke.

          Yet knowing types were taken in,
Just like the mob, because their spin
Was one that opted to rehearse
The Boris line, not its reverse.

CN2                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Else they’d have quickly found him out
A genuine fool (of this no doubt)
Though one who opted to regale
The world with an unending tale
Of follies that could only strike
His classy chums as too much like
Their own for them to think of him,
The Johnson chap, as simply dim.
That’s why their preferential view
Revealed a brilliant thinker who
Exploited every chance to sus
His various publics out, and thus
Did more than anyone to keep
The dogs of class-war safe asleep.

          His father realized early on
That fortune had not blessed his son
With brains enough to make the grade
Against those upstart sons of trade
Who nowadays aspired so far
Above their station as to bar
The Boris-types from grabbing all
The academic prizes. 'Call
Me prejudiced', Dad said, 'but I'm
Resolved my idiot son will climb
As high as I did up the tree
Of unearned wealth and stand, like me,
Foursquare on privilege and rank.
Not like those redbrick kids who bank
On brains to get them good degrees
Instead of knowing how to please
Some well-placed person who can tip
His friend the wink or quietly slip
A word into the Master's ear.
He’ll see exams don't interfere
With the arrangements put in place
To make quite sure we don’t debase
The currency by letting brain,
Not wealth, direct the gravy-train.’                                             

CN8

          Then Father, warming to his theme,
Worked up a further head of steam
As he recalled again how his
Own alma mater did the biz
For Boris, let him in with no
Hard questions asked, refused to toe
The line on widening access, and
Allowed him full scope to expand
His range, not of ideas or thoughts
But handy friends. They were the sorts
(His Dad reflected with a sense
Of grateful pride) who’d recompense
Their pal with favors far beyond
Whatever hike might correspond
To coming out with a starred First,
The prize for nerdy blokes who nursed,
So Dad assumed, some petty grudge
Against the rich. This made them drudge
Long hours in libraries instead
Of making friends, getting ahead,
And plugging any deficit
Of intellect or mother-wit
With smooth talk of the kind that went
A whole lot further to augment
The family fortunes. Yes, they still
Found a few scholarships to fill
With all those intellectual types
Or state-school kids. Whence all the gripes
About the sorts of rowdy stuff
That happened when the fights got rough,
Or when the Bullingdons decreed
Some hapless scholar had no need
Of trousers, books, or things defined
As smacking too much of the mind
In quiet revolt against the brute
Assertion of a creed to suit

CN4

That drunken mob. But it's a case,
Here as in all things, of 'the race
Goes to the fittest', which translates
In Boris-speak as: choose your mates
With care and then they'll help you fix
Things up – friends, enemies, odd tricks
To balance books, a bob or two
In leaner times, and chaps to do
The necessary when it comes
To stuff best handled by your chums
Like claiming debts, or settling scores
With bigger blokes, or routine chores
Like squaring chappies who don't quite
Latch on. Those chappies may be bright
Yet miss the finer points involved
In how such matters get resolved
Amongst the smart set who've received
Their drill in what to do when peeved
By such slight upsets. 

                              That’s the best
Thing about Oxford and the test
Of how much it can do to boost
Your real life-chances, get you used
To spieling confidently when
You’re talking utter tripe, and then –
Should some smart-arse presume to take
You up on it – get chums to break
A bone or two. They’ll help repair
The social breach lest more of their
Prerogatives be stolen by
Those pushy redbrick alumni.

CN5

Thus Dad again: 'Think, if you will,
How vain the effort to instil
Wisdom or knowledge in a mind
As primitive and unrefined
As that which he inherited,
My son, from ancestors long dead
And brought to that pluperfect stage
Where his meanderings let us gauge
How far it’s gone, our family tree,
In its decline to idiocy.
Those Oxford tutors know the ropes;
They get their share of wealthy dopes
And so adjust their teaching plan
To suit the individual man
(I'm told some colleges accept

download

Girl students now, but that's best kept
Well under wraps).

                 Where was I? Yes,
His Oxford tutors took a guess
That Boris likely wouldn't shine
In scholarship but might do fine
In other ways if they could build
Constructively on unfulfilled
Potential and so stretch his few
Poor talents till one hardly knew
How few and poor they were. The task
Was somewhat eased, in case you ask,
By his strong tendency to big
Them up and then, should someone twig
How perfectly absurd the boast,
Repeat it louder till the most
Determined sceptic had to stop
His ears and let the matter drop.

          That gift they cultivated, plus
His way of making a great fuss
About his always being right
On every topic. This despite
His almost always being wrong,
Which didn't much affect the song
And dance he made or help him learn
From his mistakes, unless to turn
The volume up and shout them down,
Which hugely bolstered his renown
Among the likewise challenged bunch
Of hangers-on. They had a hunch
That this might be their own best way
Of keeping mockery at bay,
This Boris-wheeze of talking crap
But getting everyone to lap
It up because he put in lots
Of pompous words and filled the slots
That English nonsense failed to reach
With foreign nonsense. This they’d teach
Him every day, his tutors, so
That soon he’d be prepared to go
Out in the world and not let on
How dense he was.

              The handiest con-
Trick was the schoolboy one that took
No more than a quick, furtive look
For Latin tags or quotes. These fall
Conveniently to hand on all
Occasions when one’s tried and failed
To think of something that availed
Last time to hide one’s total lack
Of gumption. Plus it takes a smack
At those who’ve missed out on the rich
And many-sided culture which
Lies open solely to the sons
Of privilege. For they’re the ones –
Contest it as you will – whose sense
Of taste and native competence
Allows them that especial ease
Of access that the legatees
Of vulgar ignorance should just
Accept since their condition must
Exclude them from the magic zone
Where class and classics greet their own.

CN6

            So thought his Dad, though that old block
The chip was off maintained his stock
Response whenever someone had
The cheek to call his son a cad.
Else they might raise the question why
He sounded such a clever guy,
With all those long words and his air
Of having such a natural flair
For languages, yet somehow got
Mixed up when faced with on-the-spot
Collocutors who went off-script
Or TV panellists who quipped
About him in satiric mode,
Thus disrespecting every code
Of media etiquette. This left
The poor lad totally bereft
Of words beyond the tongue-tied yawp
Or snorts of rage at which they'd gawp,
Those interviewers prone to think
Him super-smart since told to link
Up with his media-savvy team
Of PR heavies whose regime
Imposed strict limits on the scope
For doubt. For it's a slippery slope
From slight misgivings they might feel
To counting him an imbecile
And so thenceforth according scant
Attention to his mindless rant.

             All this his father deemed a mere
Reflection of the need to sneer
At intellects above their own
Among the rabble, or those known
As rabble-rousers in the crew
Of ex-chums. Must be that lot who
Spread all the nasty stuff around
Announcing that he'd now been found
A fool, an ignoramus, and
The kind of bloke they couldn't stand
To think they’d just last week embraced
As sharing their superior taste.

CN7
Truth is, Dad wasn't quite immune
To doubts on that score, but would soon
Suppress them when some cheeky cub
Reporter took his chance to rub
It in that his fine son was (let's
Say) just the sort of chap who gets
Thrown out of parties, or the sort
Who seems a few IQ points short
Of normal, or who, every time
He speaks, commits some hideous crime
Against the English Language. Still,
Though Dad had learned the put-down drill
To send them packing, he could not
Conceive what might have been his lot
In life, young Boris, had the fates
Withheld that gift which compensates
For defects of the mind or soul
With other benefits. These stole
A march on all the clever blokes,
Or nice-guy types, or other folks
More able but less well supplied
With skin like a rhinoceros-hide
And lacking his protective gift
Of being not the least bit miffed
At satire's barbs since wadded thick
So even the sharpest didn't stick.

            'Full many a flower is born to blush',
And all that, but before they rush
To judgment – so his father thought –
Perhaps those social levellers ought
To count the cost in man-hours spent
By Oxford tutors eminent
Enough to land themselves a post
At seats of learning coast to coast,
Yet now with naught to exercise
Their minds save trying to devise
New ways to keep a nincompoop
In check. Else he’d provide some scoop
For paparazzi keen to bite
The hand that any moment might
Give one of them a story sure
To hit the headlines and procure
Such short-lived fame as comes to those
Who hardly need to hold their nose
When tailing Boris. For the smell
Brings promise of more tales to tell
And lets them know, should any doubt
Remain, that they have all the clout
In market terms since no one reads
The nice stuff. Plus, raw sewage needs
At least as much disposal-care
As those choice items fit to share
With readers whose more sensitive
Olfaction means they’re apt to give
Both Boris and the hacks who thrive
On him scant licence to connive
At further lowering the tone
By any standard but their own.

CN9

          And so once more: ‘Where was I? Must
Have gone a bit off-topic just
When I got to that handy quote
From Gray, you know, the one who wrote
The Country Churchyard thing – but damn
Me, what a foolish chap I am
To keep on getting sidetracked. Three
Times now I’ve tried to say that he,
My Boris, isn’t half as bad,
As stupid, or as raving mad
As some make out, and every time
For some odd reason – one that I’m
Not up to sorting out – I veer
Off course and make the boy appear
A dunce, a cad, a perfect fool,
A dolt, a semi-witting tool
Of racists, and a chap you’d go
Long ways around to miss or throw
Clean off your trail. For should you meet
He’ll probably be quick to greet
You like a bosom-pal, until
You mention some outstanding bill,
At which he rings his city mates,
Informs them loudly how he hates
Your guts, then – like as not – just hints
He’d like to see your legs in splints.

          But that’s enough – can’t keep on track
As planned but will keep circling back
To all those things that I’d prefer
To brush aside yet still occur
Unbidden to me as I strain
And fail, and strain, and fail again,
Fail worse this time, to stick up for
That boy of mine and so restore
The family name. Truth is, it’s too
Much, even for a father who
Devoutly wishes to defend
His only son, this need to bend
The factual evidence so far
As to make Boris out the star
Yet helpless victim of a vile
Conspiracy with all the bile
That comes the way of anyone
As rich and famous as my son.

          But no, the truth will out: they're right,
And I'll acknowledge it despite
This vain attempt of mine to press
A case for the defence. Why stress
The soft stuff like paternal love
And private loyalty above
The rival claims of civic good
Or common decency that should,
So we're instructed, come to guide
Our acts and choices once untied
From those rogue impulses that rule
Our hearts and minds until we school
Them in more adult ways? Not my
Strong suit, this stuff, although I try
To take the Creon view and see
The problem with Antigone,
If you'll excuse the sharp descent
From their sublime predicament
To how I stall and beat about
The bush. Why can’t I come right out
With what I should have said straight off:
That Boris is the kind of toff
Who gets us fellows a bad name?

          Let’s face it, he’s the one to blame
If things go wrong with our old trick
For pleb-appeal. That lets us click,
Us Grade A types, with all those folk,
The Ds and Es, who like a bloke
Much classier than the Bs and Cs
Since quite at liberty to please
Himself in all he says or does,
Like setting lots of ears abuzz
With gibes about the middling sort
Of social climber. Why comport
With rules of decency or tact
Devised by parties to a pact
The main effect of which has been
To keep the have-nots off the scene,
As well as haves with wealth enough
(Inherited) to tell them: stuff
Your bourgeois virtues, stand aside,
And see us jump the class-divide
From A to E. But now he’s blown
The gaff, my wretched boy, and shown
That up as just the kind of ruse
That chaps like us will always use
To dupe the very folk who’d stand
To gain the most if our old brand
Of fake class-hopping were exposed
For what it is. So, chapter closed:
Just have to have to find another way
To con them, fight another day,
And forge anew the ancient bond
Of foule esclave and beau monde.