The next post will be on or before Friday 19th April
COME BACK, SPITTING IMAGE
About a week ago something quite remarkable happened to me, which is to say I have never experienced anything like it in all my 68 years. I was sat in all innocence in my Kythnos house of an early evening, musing vaguely about the business of mimicry, human mimicry that is, as in the debatable and, as a rule, downmarket entertainments of TV Impressionists and Tribute Bands (qv the Jimi Hendrix tribute band from Hexham, Northumbria, UK called, right, you’ve guessed it, ‘Jimi Hexham’). Those impressionists not only mimic, they also strive to ‘imitate’ in every possible sense the original models, and if there were any justice in the world they would be rewarded according to the brilliance of their imitation. Sadly, that isn’t always the case, but that in any event is a distraction from my story, because the extraordinary thing that happened next was my mind suddenly seemed go into freefall and started thinking about all other examples of imitation to be found in that capacious entity called the Cosmos. By which I mean within the human and the animal, and why stop there, the botanical and even the immaterial and transcendental context. Before I knew it, I started to think and with a considerable degree of dizziness that I had found myself a new Universal, a new Explanation, a New Imaginative Key to Human Knowledge…me the as a rule humble Kythno-Cumbrian who hitherto had discovered precisely nothing original in any field of human endeavour, other than my one and only invented culinary dish (roast potatoes in orange juice, olive oil and basil, in case you are wondering).
Let me explain. Suddenly, after thinking for some time about the most illustrious TV impressionist of recent years, Scotsman Rory Bremner (born 1961) and his satirical imitations of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, sundry US presidents and the like, I began to ponder all other examples of Imitation and as in an escalating whirlwind, there seemed to be no recognisable end to them, and more to the point they seemed to subtend almost every example of human and non-human endeavour. I need to stress that I had never once in all my life thought anywhere along these mesmerisingly reductive lines, and in such a rapid synthesising manner, and that the realisation came altogether gratuitously, more or less dropped on my head, rather than me striving to make any conceptual connection.
Here for example, and by way of starters (you will no doubt think of your own variations), are some examples of the ubiquitous phenomenon of Imitation Writ Large…
Both psychologists and linguists tell us that when an infant learns how to speak, they do so by Analogy and Imitation of their role models, customarily their parents, but also of course their siblings, TV programmes, playmates etc. They only learn to speak at all because seemingly, of their own volition, they decide to imitate, or let us say if they didn’t imitate their models, they would end up borderline mute and sadly disadvantaged for the rest of their life. Of course, their progress as they start to copy their learning templates is far from perfect, as like inadequate TV impressionists or inept tribute bands, they cannot get things right in one go. Hence unlike their Mum (even if when the wine is going down well, she is sometimes given to the hilarious colloquial) they will say ‘Me like Smarties’, as they cannot cognitively distinguish between subject and object, between who or what does the deed, and who or what they do it to. Ditto you rarely hear a 3-year-old resorting to the subjunctive mood as in, ‘Would that you made a lot more money Dad, so that we could have Sky Digital and 500 channels…’ for instead they will innocently lisp, ‘Me like Sky TV ’ an infant variation on, ‘me would also like the Moon.’
But let’s turn to the serious and pragmatic post-infant business of doing and achieving. When a grown child or an adult for that matter, learns any new educational or manual skill, they obviously do so by studious imitation. A 12-year-old for example learns how to solve a mathematical equation by imitating the teacher’s favoured method, and if they are unable to do that, they cannot learn the skill. That said, the important empirical variable here is the teacher’s mode of explanation, for if the teacher summarises their method badly or ambiguously, then the child cannot see how to do a successful imitation. This was in fact my own painful case, back in Gothic West Cumbria in 1963, when our incredibly foul-tempered, ever-salivating and aged spinster maths teacher Miss Puckridge told us all that in order to solve a simple equation, we must gather the x’s on one side and the numbers on the other, and to do this we must ‘change the sign and add’. It was that last bit that made nil sense at all to me, it might as well have been salivated in Elamite or Middle Vandalic, for what so-called signs must I change and to what else must I add the incomprehensible bastards? For long and fretful weeks I couldn’t get my equations right, until I confided with my older brother, and he immediately showed me a method as clear as day, and I have been able to solve 2x + 6 = 12 ever since, and it has been a considerable consolation to me in all life’s trials, as I’m sure you can appreciate. Likewise, and crucially, an apprentice plumber learns how to unblock a domestic drain and to make an entire household happy instead of forlorn and dysfunctional, by following closely their boss’s instructions, by imitating their method, both by attentively watching and carefully listening. Ditto any yoga student in an evening class in Stow on the Wold or Piddle Trenthide or London SE21 learns how to get the utthitaparsvakonasana posture right by imitating Margie the teacher’s instructions to the letter…and if they don’t, or do it carefree and blasé, or when full of 15% wine, they might do their back in for the next 20 years and need more than yoga to sort it out…
A conceptual distance from the learning of skills, whether intellectual or practical, is the business of living a whole life according to moral, ethical or spiritual direction. When it comes to instructive role models striving Christians are adjured in the Biblical Epistles, to walk in the ways of the spiritual giants, meaning to Imitate the Saints. This is never going to be easy of course (especially the outlandish business of loving your enemies) no more than advanced plumbing skills or advanced mathematical calculus are ever going to be easy. One has to follow/imitate strict spiritual rules or strict spiritual directions in imitating the saints, and one way to start is with the Ten Commandments, which as one theologian has wisely pointed out are not called the Ten Suggestions…though most of us prefer to act as if that is exactly what they should have been called. By the same token, pious Hindus read the hallowed Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, urges them to imitate his own example, and do their designated duty without attachment to either Reward or Loss, to either Pleasure or Pain. By which discipline, which is to say by learned imitation, they will not by their actions create Karma and thus will be freed from the cycle of Death and Rebirth called Samsara.
Then there are matters of a more diversionary, not to say glamorous nature. When an actor acts, they imitate the character as portrayed by the dramatist for the stage or the TV or film screen, and if we are lucky, they perform the sleight of hand of making us suspend disbelief and believe, almost as a child would, that we are watching real people in real dramas doing real and engaging things. Of course the number of variables here is considerable. Great acting comes by the actor imitating the subtlest depths and nuances of the character, assuming the character has any depth as rendered by the playwright. At this point, crucially the world divides into those who like Drama and those who prefer Melodrama which is also known as Soap Opera. The latter regularly concocts serious, even tragic, even devastating issues, but instead of rooting them in Credible Character, roots them in acceptably narcotising Stereotype. This same narcotic works as an analgesic, hence there is no Real Grief nor Real Rage nor Real Terror nor Real Joy in these prime-time TV melodramas. Their 2-dimensional characters are not and never will be real, for the simple reason that their feelings are, qua the audience’s wishful thinking, manufactured or cooked up by the obliging soap dramatist, which is to say they are not viscerally nor imaginatively felt by either dramatist or audience. None of which would matter all that much, until one reflects that some of the most powerful people in the world, e.g. political celebrities like Trump and Putin talk exactly like lead actors in the strangest soap opera, and Trump at his verbal worst conveys nothing but undiluted and incontinent melodrama. Even more worrying, almost every politician in the world, including the UK Labour and Tory variety, resorts, on hypnotised autopilot, to soaplike truisms, inasmuch as those godawful things called Political Speeches are never about itemised, specified and checkable realities, but instead a set of vacuous cheerleading motifs, full of indefinable wholly fictional entities (and very downmarket fiction at that). For example, slogans like ‘The British People will not accept this travesty of justice’ is surely the purest meaning the rankest bog-standard soap opera. For at some point, anyone remotely sane would surely ask themselves, who are these so called homogeneous and united British People when they are at home, in front of their flat screens and their TV dinners and their exercise machines and buy one get one free online vitamin pills? Can you see them, smell them, hear them, touch them, as something describably and ontologically real? Do they seem, these redoubtable ghosts, invented by cheery politicians, like genuine human beings or more like lathered soap? What exactly do they look like, smell like, feel like, in their so-called reality? Where exactly do you find them, and does it involve turning over a stone? How many times a minute do these phantoms check their smartphones, and does this make them in any sense more or less like a 24/7 soap that has been sold all over the world in 17 languages?
Meanwhile, if imitation is such a recognisable universal and an essential component of what it is to be human, then you can start to feel a pessimistic fatalism when you consider the likelihood of children helplessly imitating the wrong role models, and with all its implications for the world at large. We have all known small boys with fathers who are openly vaunting, bumptious and puerilely competitive, and seen how those kids when they reach adolescence suddenly start to ape their father to a tee. The good news is that at least when it comes to learned social behaviour, Free Will is still a reality, and plenty of teenagers opt to become the opposite of their Dad, possibly because they felt too painfully the demeaning tail end of all that masculine competitiveness. It is an undeniable fact that plenty of boys with violent and abusive fathers end up violent and abusive themselves, but it is also a fact that many others decide to acknowledge their own vulnerability and closeted victimhood and make a crucial decision not to project, not to introject, not to act it all out for the rest of their lives, but to walk defiantly in the opposite direction of being kind and gentle to others.
There are clearly two principle varieties of imitation, that done in the crucial name of Learning and that done in the name of Diversionary Entertainment. The latter may be formalised and even provide a source of income as in TV Impressionists and Tribute Bands (The Beetles from Stony Stratford, The Rocking Stones from Todmorden, Elvis Preston from Preston, Lancs), or it can be informal as in the case of a schoolgirl doing a brilliant send up of her uptight PE teacher Ms Maggie McCorquodaile, she of the comical sniff, the surreal facial tic and the far too masculine voice. The schoolgirl mimic won’t make any money out of it, but she will have great cache among her pals as her imitation is so pitch perfect that she has almost stolen or encapsulated and thus neutralised Maggie’s Identity or even Soul by her magical mimesis. It is that love of mimicry which once in the early 1970s lead to a mindboggling show called Who Do You Do? on UK’s ITV, where the camera went repeatedly along a whole row of performers of both sexes, none of them virtuosos, who often did the same impersonations, and to such a degree of monotonous sameness the viewer would end up feeling dazed to the point of non- imitative inanition. Take-offs of mad TV scientists Magnus Pyke and David Bellamy, of Marlon Brando as the Godfather, of James Cagney and his You Dirty Rat, of WC Fields and Mae West (minus of course her admirably outrageous double entendre) of avuncular Labour PM James Callaghan, not to speak of Ronald Reagan’s avowed heartthrob Margaret Thatcher when she was in opposition pre 1979…
There is no radio equivalent of TV impressionists as far as I know, though I do vividly recall the truly surreal phenomenon of radio ventriloquists as in the runaway 1950s BBC hit, Educating Archie, Archie being a talking schoolboy doll. The TV variety has justly almost vanished from the screen, and for one very good reason. Mechanical mimicry in itself is not enough unless it reaches virtuoso heights and to do that it would have to get inside the original’s soul, every nook and cranny of it, and as if the impressionist were another Olivier or Gielgud or Plowright. As most UK impressionists tend to imitate topical politicians for easy laughs, they have the singular task of rendering wavering semantic vacuity, take it or leave it verbal imprecision, lack of a coherent and credible moral core, lack of a centre of existential gravity, whilst also conveying timid hypocrisy, timid double dealing, vain and forgettable mouthings, and all the rest. Bremner has survived longer than most as he does after a fashion take the piss out of politicians, but with nowhere near the scorn or mockery or seditious contempt that was so welcome in Spitting Image, the ITV’s satirical puppet show of 40 years ago.
The conclusion deserves a paragraph to itself and especially when we are all wallowing in the nightmarish morass of Brexit in April 2019. It is surely instructive that to get an authentic satirical edge, which is to say a moral weapon intended to pierce the thickest of insentient political hides, the creators of the show had to adopt a strategic and ineffable Double Imitation. The first Imitation was the Puppet Doll which imitated a Man or a Woman, and the second or Meta-Imitation was the Meta-Man or Meta-Woman which mimicked the Politician as he or she bluffed and blustered and shuffled into relaxing Soap Opera mode and who has been soaping and lathering and relaxing ever since.