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Maureen Lipman: we all need a shoulder to whine on

The beautiful enigma of empathy and our capacity for creativity are what define us.

A word in your ear: we have an instinctive need to listen
and share but also to seek compassion.
Photo: Phil Willis/Millennium Images

What makes us human? The beautiful enigma of empathy is the first human quality that comes to mind. We grit our teeth when we’re told to “walk a mile in my shoes”, “put yourself in his place”, “eat your chard – they’re starving in Africa”, but the prompt is always necessary. Empathy is a rare quality, as we discover when life makes us look for a shoulder to whine on. And unlike generalised kindness, which most people possess, it involves a subtle shift of priorities that only comes, like perfect pitch, as a gift.

Most actors and writers have it in spades, possibly because they need immediate access to the emotions of others. Maybe the membrane between the characters we play and write and our own selves is sometimes so wafer-thin that identification bleeds in. Empathising can become obsessive and those politicians and philanthropists who devote their lives to it often seem unable to feel it for their own families. “I don’t feel terribly grandfatherly towards my grandchildren,” said a friend. “Well, learn to,” I replied tartly, “because they’re the ones who’ll decide which home you’re going into.”

But are we alone as a species in feeling empathy? I watch David Attenborough programmes with the reverence I’d give to God. The elephants that return to the scene of the poacher’s crime each year to grieve for their murdered; the nursing cat, high
on hormones, suckling orphaned ducklings; the Labrador that waits daily by the bay to swim with a lonely dolphin. Are they not displaying instinctive, shared compassion?

No, I need to look further to find the quality that marks us out and makes us human. Could it be the awareness of our own mortality? A moment stands out in my own life, during my husband’s decline from multiple myeloma. It’s a crisp April day and I’m wheeling him through a north London park after laboriously springing him from the hospice. Bundled up in an oversized overcoat, an unlikely tweed cap on the vulnerable head where soft black hair once sprang, he surveys the silver birches fringed by blue crocuses, the flying Frisbees and the shuffling spaniels, and turns radiantly to me: “Look at it all. It’s all just . . . wonderful, darling . . . isn’t it?’’ I feel, empathise with the nostalgia, pain and joy behind his words . . . and his jolting realisation that his time is up.

With this memory comes the reminder that he left a legacy. Not just a family, who will leave their own, but more than 250 plays for television and screen, written, perhaps unconsciously, against the ticking of the clock. With, as Andrew Marvell said, “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”.

That brings me to our next, and possibly most important quality: creativity. Touring a play around England recently, I filled my days exploring the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the Millennium in Sheffield, the Holburne in Bath, marvelling again at the human need to paint, pot, sculpt, stitch, decorate, pin to a wall, use in war, use in worship, steal, acquire, display. Back in town, the Colombian exhibition at the British Museum is a catwalk, fashioned from pure gold, dating back to the Incas. To them, a trove of everyday decorative artefacts; to ambitious Spanish warlords, a coveted stash, worth killing for, to bankroll Europe.

One doesn’t need to be a creative genius, of course, to create. The letters written from a trench, a boarding school or a far-flung land, the crocheted baby bonnet, the antimacassar destined to sit invisibly beneath an aspidistra all its life – all these sprang from the same spark of creativity. So, too, did the crystal radio, the scratchy voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a disc collated by an owlish BBC boffin, and the delicately coloured-in birdwatching book. I have a treasured Florence Greenberg recipe book, pages stained with onion tears, which transports me back to the thousand gracelessly received meals my mother cooked for us. I have the 19 scrapbooks she kept of my career: every show I acted in, from Doctor Faustus at Newland High School to Oklahoma at the National; every small triumph and every puffed-up interview I ever gave.

There is such a strong need within us to say: I made this. I was here. This is my mark. Think of me.

The dictionary says creation is “to bring into being or form out of nothing. To bring into being by force of imagination.” I don’t entirely discount the bowerbird’s need to build an elaborate shrine of beads, glass and twigs, but that, like Jane Russell’s pneumatic bra, is for procreation, not posterity.

Yes, I think what most defines us as human and distinguishes us from other species is our creativity. And that’s what ultimately makes us divine – darling!

PS: I haven’t even started on the human sense of humour because, to me, it’s there in all of the above. In a theatre, laughter indicates an audience’s understanding (empathy); humour flashes unexpectedly like sun through our awareness of mortality; it powers some of the most serious creativity – and to explore it in full, I’d need 700 more words and as many jokes.

The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times