Iphigenia’s sisters

They knew about humanity, the ancient Greeks, and for all the high-flown verses about gods and monsters, behind it speaks man, and our own struggles, which are timeless.

Iphigenia the daughter of Agamemnon, fairest of Mycenae, came to Aulis to see the fleet readying to sail to Troy, promised that she would be married there to Achilles, bravest of the Achaean princes. Instead she was bound hand and foot and slain by her father on the altar of Artemis: a sacrifice to the goddess to procure a wind to sail by.

And behind them, without saying a word, stood Odysseus, wisest of the Greeks.

It is only a legend, I hope, but it tells of a reality. Agamemnon, chief of the kings of the Greeks, had two personae: as a king and as a man. To his wife, Clytemnestra and to his daughter he was a man, a husband and father, but the massed bands of Achaea saw only a king, with public duties, and no private motivation was permitted.  As a father he loved his daughter without question or condition; as a king he was expected to think only of the benefit of the nation, and the knife that fell on Iphigenia was that of the king.

(Somehow, Clytemnestra did not see it that way and therefrom runs the tragedy that befell the king on his return from the ashes of Troy.)

It is a false dichotomy: the king is a man. Public opinion, and a wife’s opinion, differ on this point. Thomas Hobbes was not around in that age to be consulted: perhaps if Odysseus had felt ready to open his mouth, he might have been as wise, but the wrath of a mob of soldiers is not to be chanced.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia was for the public good, as the Greeks saw it: a ‘scientific expert’, an augury, insisted that the fleet could not move without this blood sacrifice, and with all the eyes of the nation upon him, Agamemnon the king wholly suppressed Agamemnon the man, and lifted his hand against the latter’s own daughter.

Later poets struggled with this story. Some had Iphigenia spirited away by a goddess at the last moment and left to live out a happy life in green meadows far away, because no man can bear the idea of what the tale describes.

Reaching behind the horror, it all seems familiar. We do not want our governors nor their advisers to be anything other than the public personae with no personal connections. We gawp and giggle at the private life of King Henry VIII, but he too was suppressing the man in favour of the king, casting off queens to further the dynastic stability his father had won through blood in order to achieve peace, and to that end, marriage was not a private contract but a matter of state. Henry at least never killed any of his children, though Peter the Great did. Iphigenia though was innocent and sacrificed to the superstition of the day.

We who would see countless of Iphigenia’s sisters and brothers cast upon the altar of expediency and form, misjudge our motives. If we expect governors to be men and women of the people, we must expect them to be people, to love their children and sacrifice themselves, not their children. Indeed if a governor cannot be human, he cannot govern, and he must rule other as they are human: as Hobbes observed “He that is to govern a whole nation must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but mankind”. If the Press are indeed the Fourth Estate, they must accept the humanity of their subjects, but that seems unlikely: there is news in praising selflessness upon the altar even if it is self-interestedness disguised as selflessness.

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I have watched the press-pack and timorous MPs demanding a human sacrifice as the price of leaving the government alone, and making the news not breaking it, so today I leave the field to Rudyard Kipling:

IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: –
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

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Demanding sacrifices to the baalim

We have not progressed out of the ancient days of superstition and blood religions. We hold ourselves out as sophisticated people, but the populace calls for blood sacrifice.

In the days of the prophets of Israel, the people demanded modernity, and for them, being modern meant following the religious practices of the people around them, who worshipped several gods represented as carved idols, the baalim, or just as Baal encompassing them all. The religion of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob was portrayed as old, as out-of-date, eccentric in the modern world. This was a theme throughout Biblical times. The priests of Baal looked sophisticated in rich gowns, no doubt with high-flown language and mysterious words that sounded as if they had authority beyond the understanding of man. These things impress the weaker mind, which is all of us really.

The priests of Baal called for blood. They sacrificed children alive on burning altars. At that everyone should have turned with revulsion, but it was made to seem logical, or as a proof of how powerful the priests and their timber gods were. Once they had established the power of life and death, resisting them became very hazardous. The Kings of Israel, that is of the rebel northern kingdom, succumbed often to these foreign blood-thirsty religions, but it may have been because of the feelings of the people pushing them there. Other kings remained nominally attached the Law, but permitted baal-worship, and even patronised it.

The words of the prophets of Israel weep for the children.

We are not so different in our day. We expect our rulers, and their political advisers, to be held to different rules, which we can never bear ourselves, and to sacrifice their own children in the name of the fashionable practices invented from our own heads. We think we are the modern ones, but behave no differently from the ancients.

To the general crowd, the rulers of the people are just more wooden gods, to be tolerated in the hope of another harvest, but like the baalim, they can in reality do no magic. The when the harvest fails, we want to cast them onto the flames of their own altars. When the paint chips away and the common people see that these are not gods in Whitehall but fallible men like us, the fury knows no end – they must be cast out, burned, insulted before their families, besieged in their houses, condemned as the worst deceivers, until they in turn can be burnt as a sacrifice to the unseen forces.

The rulers fallen from worship were just personae, a concept embodied in a wooden statue, are not are not seen for what they are: flesh and blood men and women, trying their best, sometimes failing, sometimes misunderstood, with real families and children. They are your neighbour and mine. That will not convince the mob, convinced that they have been deceived, unable to accept that faces on the screen have families and children they love unconditionally above all else, as any father and mother love their children, who act accordingly. That is not enough for the fury of the crowd – plaster gods should not be any more then the face on the screen and should not have wives or children: to enter into public life they must sacrifice their own children. The priests of the baalim are waiting.

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New Government slogan ‘to bring clarity’

Number 10 admits the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan was not clear enough in expressing the Government’s actual intention for the next stage to end the lockdown. It hopes that the new one will be better understood.

A government source says ‘Last week’s slogan was researched extensively and paid for expensively, but skirted round the intention. This time we want to be clearer about what we expect of the British people. We are closing in on normality. We do not want people to be lazing about at home the way we told them to. Soon more shops will be open, so if you want to go out and buy your children’s new back-to-school kit, or some sexy undies for your wife or your IT consultant, you’ll be able to.’

‘Our main concern is motivation, and we hope that we can reach the unreached majority with a more direct slogan:

Grow Up ► Accept some Responsibility ► Go to Work.’

Future direction of strategy is still uncertain: there are believed to be consultants working flat out to find new slogans to ensure that they are paid a fee and do not find themselves locked down out of work the way the rest of the country sis.

Regional variants have so far been resisted, to ensure a single, consistent, national message, except where it isn’t. However this week the behavioural psychologists hired by PR consultants, for a better fee, have urged the more slogans be deployed for local conditions and to cope with the needs of differing cultural nuances. These will be rolled out over the next few days, devised specifically for a fee multiplier.

One unnamed government source, currently working remotely from a police cell, said that ‘It’s a canny strategy to ensure all get a dekko at hods o’ new guidance’ and that he is confident that the new campaign rolled out across the nation will see a permanent improvement in behavioural attitudes and the PR consultants’ profit margins, until next week when a new campaign will be required to update and clarify the direction of the lockdown / end-of lockdown strategies as they develop.

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Question Time is meant to annoy everyone

Late this evening, but Thursday night is Question Time night. Locked down, distanced and audienceless it looks peculiar. It is also peculiar in not turning instantly into a shouting match.

We have Chris Philp, a junior government minister; Andy Burnham (by remote link from Lancashire); Camilla Tominey of the Torygraph; James Graham, the playwright; and Stephen Kinnock’s wife (introduced as the former Prime Minister of Denmark). Long discussion ensued about schools and coronavirus, contact tracing and coronavirus, Denmark and coronavirus. I miss the politics.

I miss the audience and their wild reactions because it part of the entertainment industry – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I miss those Corbynites too. They went apoplectic at anything, because they genuinely hated anyone who was not them. It sounds too much like a generalisation that Conservatives think Labour are deluded while Labourites think Conservatives are evil – it is true though. It is mad, but it gives a dynamic to the drama.

This week the debate is too subtle and we wait for Fiona Bruce to provide the provocation. She does it so pleasantly, and brutally, as a smiling assassin.

It’s almost pleasant to watch (if you ignore the fact that they are discussing a deadly pandemic. The old format was infuriating – I had to turn away often, to walk into another room, to gnash my teeth and bite my tongue so as not to shout at the screen. QT was revoltingly biased – one Conservative or Brexiteer baited by four malicious opponents, like tying a fox to a gate and letting hounds torment it. It is against everything I believe. Everyone I have heard discuss BBC’s Question Time agrees it is unacceptably biased against right-thinking people: Labour supporters and Conservative supporters are convinced it is weighted against them.

Wind back a little though: it must be that it must be like this. It must challenge and probe, and dig in the gaps in reasoning and policy. What is more, it must generate new thoughts. Opinions and trains of thought which go unchallenged in a safe-space bubble will ossify and self-justify themselves in their flaws. Every so often a loathed opponent will make a telling point, or give the lie to a preconception that overturns a conclusion built on false premise. It is needed.

They have had figures from Theatreland before, but mainly actors and subsidy-junkies. To have an entrepreneur playwright / producer on has been a valued perspective but some insight was missing. There is much talk of how badly the cultural industry has been hit by the lockdown, but it goes beyond the theatre: the audiences for the theatres fill the restaurants and cafés, and they come from across the nation and beyond to fill all the shops and venues of the town – the decline of the theatre strikes at all the West End’s commercial life.

Until there is shouting again there is less life in Question Time but we can hope that within a month or two it will be just as infuriating as it ever was.