SPEAKERS’ CORNER | Give Pessimism a Chance.

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11

One of the more pleasant sides of pessimism is that the odds are overwhelmingly in your favour.

We all fail much more frequently than we succeed. Mistakes are made, cock-ups occur and we generally fall flat on our arse. For that one glorious moment when you mount the podium and lift the winner’s trophy high you’ll endure a dozen losses, humiliations, wounds and wrecked hopes. And weren’t the Rolling Stones simply deluding themselves when they sang that song about not always getting what you wanted, but if you tried sometime you might find you’d get what you need?

You might try. I wouldn’t put a bet on it. The odds are stacked against you.

In the end we are all tossed into the great midden of non-existence, and it’s hard to put a sunny spin on that. The universe doesn’t operate by the rules of a junior school playground where the nice kids all get gold stars, and the naughty kids get to stand in the corner and think about their behaviour.

Pessimists understand this. They take their motto from that great line in Ecclesiastes I quoted above, where the race doesn’t go to the swift.

Sometimes the race is rigged against the swift. Occasionally the race gets called off even though the swift have spent years training and striving and preparing to put everything they had into that final spectacular sprint to the finish line.

I’m talking about the news last week about 2023, obviously. When the race to become European Capital of Culture was called off cruelly, curtly, and quite discourteously.

There we were, all the competing cities crouched at the starting blocks, bids in hand like a relay baton, in the best cultural condition we’d ever been in, when time and chance in the form of the European Commission crept up behind us, snatched away the starting gun, pistol whipped us round the backs of the head, and booted us all smartly in the shorts for good measure.

Ouch, did that smart!

We didn’t deserve that. We did our absolute best. It’s simply not fair.

Our Optimist-in-Chief, Councillor Judith Blake, issued a statement expressing disappointment, frustration, regret, sorrow, and a determination to “remain fully committed to the excellent work that has already been carried out alongside our European partners to promote Leeds as a centre for cultural excellence and diversity and will continue to progress our ambitious strategy to put culture at the heart of everything we do as a city.”

Which is peachy, is it not? Positive. Aspirational. Uplifting.

And precisely the kind of cheery optimism that got us into this mess in the first place.

I don’t know what Leeds should do next. I don’t have a plan, or a strategy, or a steering group. I barely have a bloody clue. All I am saying is, give pessimism a chance.

Things can only get worse.

So its time to stop humming along to that dreadful D Ream tune and learn some Noel Coward lyrics.

Hurray, hurray, hurray!
Misery’s here to stay.
There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it’s no good whining
About a silver lining
For we know from experience that they won’t roll by,
With a scowl and a frown
We’ll keep our peckers down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread,
We’re going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.

One comment

  1. Hello again Phil

    You are not getting much response to your piece on pessimism so despite holding back for some time I have decided to pitch in, after all Sour by name sour by nature.

    I think you were on the right lines with your piece but there is so much more that could be said about the topic referencing it to “this great city of ours”.

    So, how can we approach pessimism, should we be pessimistic about Leeds, is there something inherent in the place itself which is pessimistic?

    I think we should also extend the idea of pessimism to include ideas of gloom, despondency, introspection and disappointment.

    I want to put forward three ideas about pessimism and then apply them to Leeds.

    The first is a medical model. Pessimism here might be linked to ideas of the depressive illness, the depressive personality, possibly bipolar disorder where periods of depression alternate with periods of elation and euphoria or maybe a loss of that essential quality of contemporary life “wellbeing”. In this view persistent pessimism might be seen as a symptom of some kind of underlying personality disorder which might or might not be treatable or managed by a talking therapy or drug regime.

    Second, perhaps pessimism comes not from an underlying disorder of the mind but from the rational outcome of learned experience. Repeated “failures” tend to reinforce the idea that to try again will produce the same result until rationally you could say why put yourself through the same demoralising experience again. This cycle could result either in self-abnegation or social alienation or both.

    Finally, several of the world’s Faiths (capital “F” here) and philosophies have something to say of relevance here. They argue that humankind is doomed to suffer in life either because that is simply how life is or because as an imperfect creature alienated from God suffering, despondency, guilt and feelings of pessimism are inevitable. Of course, Faiths usually offer some path to personal or at the end of the world some collective redemption for believers. But sadly, more secular outlooks no way out is possible.

    To apply these notions to a place is more complicated since one either has to say one is pessimistic about the place and its future or one has to ask whether there is something inherent in then identity of the place itself which is pessimistic, gloomy, introspective and disappointed.

    I’m going to reverse these two questions and ask first whether we can justify the view that Leeds itself is “pessimistic” in my wider sense. Obviously, one would first begin with the outsider’s cultural stereotype of the place as dour, insular, inward looking and parochial, always the victim of outsiders’ manipulation. Yet, also condemning itself in the equally stereotypical picture of canny self-centered Yorkshire man in the expression “Hear all, see all say nowt. Eat all sup all pay nowt and if ever thou dust owt for nowt allus do it for thee sen.” So, I’m going for answer there is a case to answer Leeds is pessimistic by nature.

    Is the city pessimistic by reason of medical pathology, by learned experience or by some deeper metaphysical issue?

    There’s quite strong case that there is a medical problem here. Far from being a source of prejudicial undermining external healers could be said to have tried on several occasions to intervene in the city’s malaise. In the 1950’s through to the 1980’s drugs in the form of funds flowed in the hope that the patient would heal itself through cleansing its clotted arteries and cleaning up its living environment. But this didn’t work very well so more radical surgery was performed from the 1980’s to 2010 with reorganisation of the external and internal organs of government and some judicial purging of radical ideologies. Finally, the patient was subject to a programme of radical bleeding and fasting in the hope that a leaner and fitter Leeds would emerge.

    You could even say the city is a bit bipolar having wild mood swings between the wild euphoria of the Leeds Renaissance and the Best City to the gloom and despondency of Two-Speed City and to the self- flagellating appeal for “compassion”. The treatment for this is more difficult to manage.

    Is it the learned experience of repeated failure that has caused this pessimism? Again, a case can be made. Modernisation in its several forms is now disparaged as a big mistake and misdirection whilst today the numerous policy failures are too embarrassing to mention. The expression “fail again, fail better” comes to mind particularly with regard to transport. The current compounding of today’s crises in education, strategic housing development, cultural policy, wide health inequalities, food, finance and fuel poverty, growing homelessness and care home quality decline suggest that beyond inner-directed pessimism the city faces some imminent nervous breakdown.

    Yet a comparison would suggest in the face of these challenges and policy failings which to a greater or lesser extent affect all cities in the UK some cities do it better for example around devolution. So, thinking metaphysically for a moment we could say that through their good works and public confession some cities and are striving for redemption whilst Leeds remains in the purgatory of its own self- denial. For deep irrational reasons to do with its identity it revels in its self- image as the canny victim, knowingly refusing any path to righteousness and therefore condemned always in the last instance to decline to gloom and pessimism.

    Take form this what you will be it is learned experience which has made me pessimistic in my analysis of the city and its futunes – the Capital of Culture bid being only the most recent additional example.

    Can I wish you and your readers a very “Sour” Xmas.


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