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Rules for living

08 December 2017


“THE moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.” Alfred Noyes’s poem The Highwayman may not be to everybody’s taste, but there is an honesty about his use of that fantastical metaphor that necessarily alienates the reader and tells us in no uncertain terms that we are experiencing literature.

Not all metaphors are so brazen. As Zia Haider Rahman argued in A Picture Held Us Captive (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), our public discourse is full of metaphor that regulates our assumptions and behaviour.

As advertised, the programme created expectations of a glib jolly; but Rahman’s unusual programme was something more incisive and revisionist than that. His case-studies came from the worlds of science, economics, and business, and, in each, he managed, at least for this listener, to uncover the cognitive templates that successfully structure our thinking.

Private Eye has run for many months now a column that ridicules the over-use of DNA with reference to people’s habitual behaviours. It has become a comedic cliché to declare that, for instance, queueing is in the DNA of the British people. Yet the assumption that underlies it is insidious: that DNA constitutes the instruction manual for life.

We heard from Steven Rose, who began his critique of this position with a passage from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene in which the author likens the seeds of a willow tree to floppy discs. Epigenetics, like computing, has moved on since then, but the notion that DNA holds the code of life has as tenacious a grasp on our imaginations as the Holy Grail did on the minds of the medievals.

In a period of austerity we have accepted the metaphor of the National Credit Card which must be paid back, and of the quasi-ethical requirement to “balance the books”. Neither of those is a necessary truth, the economist John Weeks says; and, even if you disagree with Weeks’s alternative paradigm, it seems healthy to be questioning whether the economics of domestic life is really a suitable way of understanding the national debt.

Linda Pressly’s report for Crossing Continents (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) was an excellent metaphor; for it presented a story whose significance we all immediately understood. The annual horse show at Kibbutz Alonim, in northern Israel, attracts horse breeders from throughout the region, including Palestinians from the West Bank, whose narrow streets include stables for some stunning Arabian colts and mares.

Pressly followed the progress of two West Bank breeders as they prepared for the show, managed the administrative anxieties of crossing the border with horse in tow, and then tried to win one of the most prestigious competitions.

There was success and heartbreak in equal measure, as well as an encounter between a young Palestinian and his idol, a top Israeli breeder with decades of success behind him. You could imagine the story being given the Hollywood treatment, with world peace breaking out after the dressage; Pressly, instead, dealt honestly with the immersive business itself, and left the emoting to others.

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