Being Human

19 04 2009

[You can listen to this episode here.]

From time to time we are all astonished by the capacity of humankind, seemingly ever-expanding to greater and greater extremes.

Behind all the cynicism and flippant accusations of steroids, who could fail to be impressed by Usain Bolt’s casual shredding of the World Sprint Record at the Beijing Olympics last year?

We salute the formidable achievements of explorers and mountaineers such as Sir Edmund Hilary, Ranulph Fiennes and Ellen MacArthur. Quite aside from their physical prowess, it is at their psychological stamina – their determination to defeat whatever nature should throw in their way – that we marvel.

Even in the field of technological advancement it is easy to forget just how far we have come. A recent article on the BBC News website reported not that there six men and women living in a space station orbiting the earth. Rather, the point of interest was the disagreement over privileged use of the onboard toilet.

Intellectually it is harder to measure our achievements as there are no clear measurements of success. We cannot rate the validity of Newton’s theories in terms of points won, or hurdles jumped. Nevertheless, we cannot deny that our understanding today of the world, of ourselves and of our existence is vastly more sophisticated than might be expected from a bundle of ultimately primitive beings.

All of this – the great libraries of Alexandria, the logistical complexity of the Roman Empire, the construction of the Great Wall of China, the plays of William Shakespeare, the genteel beauty of Venice, the slick rhythmic revolution of the Steam Engine, the renewed artwork of the Renaissance – all of this is put sharply into perspective by one brief television clip.

It is the footage of a Home Secretary’s husband being reluctantly shoved in front of the media, to read out an apology hastily scribbled onto a scrap of paper. The apology was not for watching pornographic movies, per se. That in itself, though rather embarrassing for the chap, does not yet count as a scandal. Rather it was for attempting to charge the cost of his private indulgences to his wife’s parliamentary expenses account.

Humans may be capable of the most incredible achievements, but evidently we also have the capacity to remind ourselves of our less attractive sides.

The field of politics, more than any other, demonstrates the human tendency towards failure. Perhaps this is unfair. After all, the Bankers don’t seem to have done too well in recent years. Pete Doherty or Amy Winehouse can hardly be seen as the music industry’s equivalent to sainthood. Even the church, as we are all painfully aware does have its failings.

But the world of politics is unlike any other, in that it operates in the full public glare, and relies entirely on public money. I sense that ultimately nobody really minds what politicians get up to in their private lives unless they achieve one, or both, of two things. The first egregious mistake for any politician to make is to appear to be having more sex than the rest of us. The second is to be doing so at the public expense. That was, after all, the clincher for Mr Jaqui Smith, Richard Timney.

I can’t imagine being the Home Secretary’s husband can be much fun most of the time. Certainly, in recent weeks it will have been particularly uncomfortable. But Richard Timney can take some comfort from the fact that he now joins a distinguished group of political figures felled by scandal.

The Tory government of the 1990s was a bountiful harvest of amusing scandal for the tabloids. Top of the heap has to be David Mellor. Widely regarded as the ugliest man in Britain, Mellor was Culture Secretary or the self-styled ‘minister for fun’ when his dealings with his secretary were brought to the nation’s attention.

From this distance in time it is impossible to tell whether popular opinion was more stunned by his reported insistence on wearing the strip of Chelsea Football Club while making love, or appalled by detailed discussion of toe-sucking.

Of course we are not unique in the UK for our scandals. Only very recently a man called Troy Buswell was installed as Treasurer of the state of Western Australia. At first glance this may appear as remarkable only for the incongruousness of placing a multi-billion dollar budget in the hands of a person named ‘Troy’.

However, his appointment is more remarkable given that he used to be the Leader of the Opposition in that State. However, in August of 2008 he was forced to step down from his position after it was revealed that he had been sniffing the recently-vacated chairs of his female colleagues.

Buswell could not be accused of abusing public money. Nor could it be said that his behaviour suggested he was getting a great deal more sex than the rest of us – in fact, it was more indicative of the opposite. Nevertheless the circumstances were so absurd, and so humiliating that he was forced out of office.

Australia, though, has its exceptions. Kevin Rudd, the massively popular new Prime Minister Down Under, had his own share of scandal during his election campaign. The incumbent leadership of John Howard discovered details of publically-funded trip Rudd had made during his time as a senior civil servant. It turned out that, between high-level diplomatic meetings, the Australian Taxpayer had subsidised Rudd’s visit to a lap dancing club in Manhattan.

John Howard confidently predicted that such revelations would wipe out Rudd’s leadership in the opinion pools. As it happened, Rudd’s lead grew and he went on to steal the premiership. It turned out that Rudd’s supposed failings actually endeared him to the Australian. They showed that he was human – a dinkum Aussie.

Perhaps it is a result of all these failures that we have come to associate being human with falling short of an ideal. The phrase is never used at the other end of the scale, when somebody excels. That is not treated as humanity, but as genius – some small way to divinity.

Well it has been a great joy in the recent weeks to be reminded of a couple of examples of such genius. 2009 marks the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Henry Purcell and last week marked the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of the first production of Handel’s Messiah. Between them Purcell and Handel did more to shape English music than can be properly understood.

Moreover their legacy for us today is a collection of music that has never been matched, nor is ever likely to be. In particular, Purcell is remembered for his ‘Funeral Music for Queen Mary’. Handel, for his Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and, the grandest Oratorio of them all: Messiah.

There is no other piece like it – split into three parts, telling the story of Christ with words from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Remarkably Handel wrote the whole epic piece in just over three weeks.

At the conclusion of the second part, Handel wrote what must now be the most recognised tune in music: the Hallelujah chorus.

There is a tradition in England that at the moment of the Hallelujah chorus the audience stand. It is said to originate from the time when King George II first heard the piece. We cannot be sure why the King stood, thus prompting the whole audience to do so, but there are three theories:

First, that he was standing in recognition of the Christ’s position as King of Kings. Second, it has been suggested that the King was so moved by the music that he felt compelled to stand in its honour. Third is that the King was merely standing in response to the excruciating pain emanating from the gout in his leg.

I suppose we are all human after all.

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