Sunday, July 31, 2005

Language as understanding

You could argue that while we have no language to describe, we have no understanding. When people say they can't understand the motivation of the suicide bombers in London, at the same time they are saying that they have no language to describe it. I thought when Police Commissioner Blair said they behaved like a cult, a death cult, that was it - he had classified them for us. It's a way of understanding Al Qaeda, a religious cult with a typical charismatic leader, and a typical tropism to suicide of the members.

I'm only referring here to the indoctrination of the cult members, their organisation and behaviour. The politics underlying the formation of the cult are more complex and are well-known. A lot of people agree on some of the politics, and are angry about the injustices, but very few are minded as a result to kill themselves and massacre the general public.

Equally when people talked about a clash of cultures or clash of civilisations, we were at a loss to know how to answer. Was it something observed, which simply had to be accepted? We hadn't the language to respond. That is why it seems helpful to me that the Spanish prime minister should call for an alliance of civilisations to combat terrorism. Even if it's embraced by the most guilty, as a sort of cop-out, I think it's a useful idea, a useful phrase, a worthwhile aim. It sounds very simple now, but until the language was adduced it was as if we were to some extent in a state of suspense and danger, a question was left hanging.

When the Spanish prime minister contemplated the problem, perhaps his thoughts constituted a search for the words, and his words are a gift to us, a gift of understanding conveyed in words. Not new words, but a classification of something unclassified, with a rightness, a sort of solution to a puzzle. The quest for understanding of something being a puzzle, and the words of explanation being the solution. It might be a solution instinctively known, and embodied in the behaviour of "right-thinking" people, but until the words were formulated there was a hunger, a need, an uncertainty. From uncertainty, fear and anger and then violence are born.

What is the sense of rightness, of solution that I feel on hearing these words? One person's solution may ring true to some people, but false to others. For me I think it's the extent to which the solutions, the new words, give hope and reassurance, and also propose a goal or direction to pursue that leads towards peace and security, away from war and the threat of destruction.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

On the train to Cardiff today

There was a very big man, who needed two seats, diagonally opposite me with a table between us. He was a bus driver, with vouchers that let him travel anywhere on Great Western for a fiver. He had a hot pie and beer for breakfast. A lot of crumbs were flying everywhere. He read a magazine about steam trains for a while. Told me all about the places he could go with his vouchers, up the Pennine way, Carlisle etc. He went to San Francisco last year. Not very many trains in America. Thirteen in the morning and thirteen in the evening rush hour and that's your lot, in San Francisco. It has a good underground, but it doesn't go very far. Las Vegas has no train station at all. The railway goes through but doesn't stop. We both agreed that was very funny. Our train was 20 minutes late, had to slow down because of some problem ahead. Nothing, apparently. Know how many late the trains are arriving in San Francisco from Chicago? 130. What, 130 minutes? Yeah. They had to follow behind a train two miles long full of pig iron or something like that, going up hills at about 12 miles per hour. Two of these things collided there some time ago head on, and the locos were flipped 120 yards away. Know how much one of those locos weighs? 160. 160 tons. Insisted on helping me locate the slot for my Bluetooth adapter on the back of my notebook computer, took command and slotted it in. He has one of them on his as well.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

2 minutes silence at Edgware Road

I was driving today near Edgware Road underground and got caught in the two-minute silence. Well I suppose that's an ungenerous way of looking at it, let me say rather I took part in the two-minute silence. All the traffic stopped for more like 10 minutes from 5 to 12 till 5 or 10 past 12 p.m. Workers came out of offices. Chefs with tall chef hats were among the staff from the Metropole on the corner opposite. People got out of their cars to look. The car radio announced it was on 2 minutes silence after the chimes of Big Ben. I couldn't see anything, but people ahead of me were looking across the road towards the station, so I assume there was some sort of ceremony. I saw more on TV when I got home. Staff from St Mary's Hospital came and stood in front of the main entrance, nurses, doctors. These were people who had treated the wounded. The Greek bus driver whose bus was blown up, gave an eloquent and marvellous speech. This man walked for 6 miles covered in blood in shock after the blast, but today he could have been a famous author or politician. We have great people driving buses and in all walks of life, you know, we just don't hear them often.