This is our truth, tell us yours
Anyone who works in a corporate or organisational development environment is likely to have encountered ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ It’s a staple part of the library of managers expecting and encountering change. It is also, as we professionals like to say, a steaming pile of bollocks. Exactly how bad it is is exemplified by the way the author thinks its message needs to be explained in a prologue to the cartoon movie; I can honestly say that being shown this movie by an eager but emotionally unintelligent management consultant was more revealing, and more embarrassing for both of us than if he’d shown me a video of him having sex.
That anecdote, and that movie, came to mind because of this tweet. The idea that people should ‘put a brave face on it’ is deeply embedded in our culture. It’s even become a feature of the cult of World War Two that Jem wrote about here. Lost in that prevailing narrative of World War Two is any sense of a counter-narrative that explains the wildcat strikes, the soldiers parliaments and by-election successes of the Common Wealth Party. Rather than putting a brave face on it, individuals, even in significant groups, were pursuing alternatives which undoubtedly led to the crushing defeat for Churchill in 1945.
Who Moved My Cheese is a parable about acceptance, about putting a brave face on it and accepting prevailing conditions as they are. No-one in the book questions why the world is a maze. It is anathema to the authors to ask who distributes the cheese, or why, and dissent or critical thought is seen as weakness or immaturity.
One of the risks as we mature is an unwarranted nostalgia for a past that never really existed. Nevertheless, in the narrative narrowing about World War Two, so that every soldier becomes a hero, and every tragedy an opportunity to put on a brave face, I sense shifting goalposts, a choice on the part of those who have media influence to elide from history those who did not put a brave face on it, but instead looked sceptically and quizzically at the world around them.
It’s telling that one of Orwell’s least discussed of the books he wrote during World War Two is the one that most exemplifies not putting a brave face on it. The Lion and the Unicorn is a reaction to the worst of circumstances by imagining what better circumstances could look like, to look above the walls of the maze.
Key to understanding The Lion and the Unicorn though is not its politics, but its introspection. It is as much a book about the English as it is a book about socialism, epitomized by this passage.
England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted passage, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.
Instead of putting a brave face on the future, perhaps, as a nation, we should look into our soul, our national psyche, and ask how we have come to this point. Perhaps, unlike the Littlepeople of the preposterous parable about cheese, we should reflect on how we came to be in a maze, unaware of where the cheese comes from or who controls it. Or to put it another way, if the goalposts move, the sanest question to ask is not where, but why? A brave face may be less use than a sceptical one.