Category Archives: just me then

To you, with regard

So what have I been writing about, these last couple of months (to a lack of interest which has, frankly, exceeded my low expectations)?

Well, I’ve been thinking about death; about the way that death affects us and appears to us; and about what we can infer from that about life and how to live it. Just the big stuff, then.

In post 1 I talked about the impassable, indescribable devastation that is being bereaved, before mentioning a curious experience which I and others have had after losing a loved one, and which seems oddly to be evoked in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. As I said in post 3, it’s as if for a moment someone is telling us “it’s all right”; let’s not beat about the bush, it’s as if they’re telling us “it’s all right”. I talked about this in more depth in post 8, suggesting a possible psychological mechanism for it while also accounting for my sense that it’s an essentially benign, constructive experience.

More broadly, what’s interesting about experiences like these is what they tell us about how we imagine personal survival, or rather how we imagine personhood: that intuitive sense of individual identity as something essential and even indestructible. I talked about this sense of there being an irreducible core of individual identity – the soul, roughly speaking – in post 2, with a bit of help from Neil Hannon. In post 4 I contrasted Emily Brontë’s frankly panpsychist articulation of her own sense of irreducible identity with Robyn Hitchcock’s frankly materialist version; I discussed these, together with George Eliot’s unsatisfactory but intriguing attempt to square the circle (eternal life, but not for people), in post 5.

As well as being a useful corrective to the mystical individualism of Emily Brontë, George Eliot’s social perspective – her sense that we may live on through our influence and our contribution to the continuing life of the human race – connects with another intuition: the sense that, if we are each an individual with a unique identity, it is possible for us to develop those identities while living together. The sense, in other words, that it is possible for humanity, as a whole, to be humane; to be kind. I pursued this sense in post 6 through some of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, as well as relating it to the person-centred psychology of Carl Rogers (Rogers and Vonnegut are a good fit).

All of which is a kind of backdrop for the thought-experiment which I’d been carting around since last December, which I revealed to the world in post 7 and then debunked in post 9. Post 7: suppose that we survive eternally after death, our identities formed by the life journey we completed before dying. Wouldn’t we find ourselves suddenly in the benign presence of everyone there is – our worst enemies included? And doesn’t this give us the strongest incentive to live at once the fullest life and the best, kindest life we possibly can? (See the post to have it set out in detail.) Post 9: suppose, conversely, that our life journeys come to a full stop when we die and our unique identities are mercilessly snuffed out; doesn’t this indescribable, impassable devastation find its repressed reflection in fantasies of eternal, harmonious, individual survival? And doesn’t the ridiculous horror of death actually give us an even stronger incentive to live a fuller and a kinder life, while we can? Again, see the post to get the detail (and for a rebuttal of the Atheism Fallacy of which I am rather proud).

On a personal(!) note, I started this series rationally convinced that the Heaven fantasy I’d come up with was just that, a fantasy; all the same, I found it a very appealing fantasy, and did wonder if dwelling on it over several weeks was going to induce some sort of conversion experience. I’m glad I risked it; here at the end of the series I’m more certain than before that this life is all we get. If we want a moment worth waiting for, we’re going to have to make it.



To you, with regard (8)

And the voice said: “This is the hand, the hand that takes…”

Location: a busy street in a south Manchester suburb, on a sunny Saturday morning. We see PHIL coming out of a newsagent, a hessian shopping bag in one hand. A passer-by accosts him.
VOICE: Phil, could I have a word?
PHIL recognises the voice, turns towards it and answers without thinking.
PHIL: Sure, what’s it about? Oh, wait…
Seeing the bystander who had addressed him, PHIL freezes and shrinks back. His mouth moves uncertainly before he speaks again.
PHIL: You… I’m sorry, have we met? I know Jan had family, but…
The bystander returns PHIL’s baffled gaze with an expression combining patience, impatience and amusement.
BYSTANDER: Phil, it’s all right. You can say what you see. What was your immediate reaction when you heard my voice?
PHIL: I thought you were Jan.
BYSTANDER: And what was the one possibility you utterly refused to consider?
PHIL: That you were Jan.
JAN: Well, then. Which way are you headed?

PHIL and JAN walk up the road in silence. Eventually PHIL finds his voice again.
PHIL: So, you wanted a word?
JAN: Thought you were never going to ask. You’ve been thinking about regret.
It’s not a question.
PHIL: Well, since you… And thinking I’d never see you again… I mean, we had that disagreement… more of a misunderstanding really… and I never went to see you when you were in the… before…
JAN: Before I died, no – no, you didn’t. It’s all right, don’t worry.
PHIL: Don’t worry? That’s just it – if I was worrying I could do something about it. I’m a bit past worry.
JAN: You’re not, though – that’s the point. You’re not even on the same track as worry. I’m not explaining it very well – have a word with this gentleman.
They are approaching a bridge over a canal. A path branches off from the pavement to run down beside the canal. A FAIR-HAIRED MAN, wearing flared jeans and an embroidered waistcoat, has just pushed past them onto the path.
JAN: Not so fast! Peter, a word?
PETER BELLAMY stops, turns and grudgingly walks back to join them.

PHIL: You’re… you’re actually him. You’re actually Peter Bellamy. I don’t know what to say.
PB: Stop there, I should, you’ve already given me my next publicity campaign. “Peter Bellamy – He’s Actually Him.” How can I ever repay you. Don’t answer that, for God’s sake. My amazing talent of actually being Peter Bellamy doesn’t seem to pull the crowds somehow.
JAN: Come on, Peter, give it up – stop pretending that stuff still matters. Actually it’s regret that I was wanting to talk to you about – I was wondering if you could say a few words on the subject to my friend here.
PB: Oh, very well. [To PHIL] I guess you regret never having met me, or even seen me, when you could.
PHIL: Well, yes. I mean, I was thirty years old when you… I wasn’t into folk back then, but I’d been into Steeleye Span…
PB: You said it, not me. Go on.
PHIL: I had Pentangle albums, I’d gone to Lark Rise… But somehow I never even heard your name till much, much later. I’d heard one track by the Young Tradition, but I didn’t get it at the time – I just thought you sounded like a bunch of mad Yorkshire reactionaries who were determined to make themselves sound as antiquated as possible.
PB: Did we record with the Watersons? I don’t remember.
PHIL: I didn’t have a very good ear for accents. So when I found out what I’d missed – how much I’d missed – who I’d missed… It felt like claiming that I was into classical music when I’d been living round the corner from J.S. Bach and never known.
PB: You weren’t, though, were you? Living round the corner, I mean. Going to the same folk clubs, whatever.
PHIL: Well, no, our paths didn’t cross, that was…
PB: And you were talking in the pluperfect, which is a dead giveaway.
PHIL: Sorry?
PB: “How much I had missed” – pluperfect. You’re thinking in the pluperfect, and that’s why you’re wrong – and that’s why it’s all right. For a start you’ve got to distinguish between ‘losing’ and ‘having lost’. Losing is when you’re clinging on to the rockface and feeling it slip away from under your fingers; lost is when you’re falling, or when you’ve fallen, and it’s all over. Losing is sitting by the phone all day with the growing certainty that it isn’t going to ring; lost is remembering that day a year later. Or you can think of it in terms of songs. Take Reynardine or the Recruited Collier – some song that you sang a couple of times when you were just getting started and never thought about since.
PHIL: And will probably never sing again.
PB: And will probably never sing again – exactly. That’s lost. But you learned those songs, once – you learned the lines, forgot the lines, struggled to remember the lines, got them, lost them again, learned them again… That’s losing.
PHIL: I suppose so. But where are we going with this?
PB: I was planning on a bit of a walk by the canal, but since your friend roped me in… No, the point is: how do you feel about not knowing the second verse of Reynardine, or the penultimate verse of The Recruited Collier?
PHIL: I’d never really thought about it. Nothing, really – I don’t make any claim to know those songs.
PB: Although you did once?
PHIL: I did once, but they’re gone. They mean nothing to me.
PB: And those are songs you used to know. Suppose you heard that there were some interesting songs in a book you’ve never seen, and that the only copy’s been lost?
PHIL: That would be sad, but I wouldn’t regret it personally – that would be like taking responsibility for something that never happened or never could happen.
PB: And yet you think you regret not meeting someone you never could meet, not hearing music you never had any chance to hear. It may be sad – it might have been good if those things had happened – but there’s nothing there to regret. Your life is your life; what happened, happened. It’s all right. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to resume my walk, and if you won’t excuse me I’m afraid I’m going anyway. Val de ree, and so forth.

PHIL and JAN are standing side by side on the bridge over the canal, leaning over the parapet and looking out into nothing. For a few minutes nobody speaks. Eventually PHIL sighs.
PHIL: That’s reassuring up to a point, but surely there are things to regret in situations like…
JAN: Like mine?
PHIL: Yes! We shouldn’t have fallen out, I should have explained myself better, I should have made more of an effort… All those things I could have done, and now I can’t.
JAN: Now you can’t. Tell me, what would you think of a religious leader who said that everyone had a moral duty to avoid anger, pride, lust and the rest of them at all times? No exceptions – anyone who committed any of those sins, even inside their head, would be drummed out of the church. What would you think of that approach?
PHIL: I’d think that was cruel and exploitative, as it’s a standard that almost everyone is bound to fail.
JAN: Almost everyone, yes. And what would you think of the idea that everyone has a moral duty to go back in time, after they’ve sinned, and avoid committing the sinful act?
PHIL: I’d think that was ridiculous – you can’t have a moral duty to do something impossible.
JAN: No indeed. And you can’t have a duty towards someone who doesn’t exist. Maybe you did the wrong things back there, or not enough of the right things, and maybe you’ll want to do better if you’re in a similar situation in future. But you haven’t got anything to regret. You don’t owe me anything – how could you?
PHIL: So maybe I did owe you something…
JAN: And maybe I was well aware of that. Or maybe I thought you owed me something different from what you thought you owed me; maybe I would still have thought you owed me, even if you’d done everything you thought you ought to do. Whatever. The point is, that story’s over now. You can’t owe Jan something if there isn’t any Jan for you to owe anything to. Try and do better another time, but apart from that, go on, go in peace. It’s just you now.
PHIL: I suppose… when someone dies, we lose the person, but we also lose the whole entanglement of expectations and obligations and shared understandings and misunderstandings and grudges and guilt that grows up around a relationship over time. Laying all of that down, letting it all blow away, isn’t the same as having the other person actually tell you they don’t care about any of it, but it could feel like that. I suppose it’s the difference between a debt being settled and a debt being cancelled – which is to say, if you’re the one with the debt, there is no difference. Losing somebody is pain, but there’s also a release: a chance to wipe the slate, let all the nonsense go, see the person as they were and feel your affection for them as it was. A chance to hear those words –
PHIL straightens up, steps back from the parapet of the bridge, looks around. He is alone.
PHIL: “It’s all right. It’s really all right.”

To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).


Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

To you, with regard (3)

Not the Victorian poetry – I’ll get to that soon – but a footnote to part 1. In that post I wrote briefly about the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are they that mourn’ in particular :

where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon

Karl Dallas on Peter Bellamy:

We met for the last time on November 5, 1990. It is surprising to me, in retrospect, that though we had been close for a quarter-century … I’d never done what I could call a “proper” interview with the man I’d always regarded as the primus inter pares of the post-MacColl revival.

We settled down on a Monday afternoon for a trawl through all those 25 years, talking about influences, pursuing that endless and ultimately fruitless search for a definition of folksong. Playing back the tapes today, the man lives again in my head as I transcribe the over two hours of conversation, the chuckles and belly laughs, the way he could bat a question back at me like a Wimbledon champion going for game-set-and-match, the muscular integrity of the man.

He was bitter over some things, and I felt his bitterness was wrongheaded, telling him so. That difference spilled over into the interview as published in Folk Roots, and after it appeared he sent me an annotated copy of it, indicating where he felt I had got it wrong. I was hurt by his criticism (we critics aren’t used to subjects who bite back) and for the first time I felt estranged from him. We never met again, and when he died I wondered (as I am sure must many of us) what part I might have played in his decision to take his own life. Of course, each of us has the right to end our story as we wish; to deny that right is to deny our very humanity, I do feel. But the guilt remains.

Looking back, as I re-play the tapes, I have to admit that the article I wrote was a great missed opportunity. By concentrating upon his strictures upon the folk scene (and some of its leading protagonists), I missed the greatness of the man, his enormous humanity, his wonderful contribution to the joy that this process we miscall a revival has given us all. At the funeral, I was still in shock, burdened by guilt. As I knelt in the chapel, I felt Peter’s very presence. He seemed surrounded by light. And I distinctly heard his words, in that unmistakable blend of Norfolk vowels and English grammar-school education. “It’s all right,” he seemed to be saying. “It’s really all right.”

I felt something similar – although much less intense – after my friend Les died recently. Although he was a huge influence on me musically, we were never at all close, partly because we didn’t agree on the types of music we really valued. I wasted a lot of energy alternately resenting not being in with Les’s musical ‘in crowd’ and reproaching myself for not making more of an effort to join in. Ideally I should have talked about it with Les, but he was never particularly voluble – and how do you talk to someone about the fact that you’ve never been close? Anyway, I was fortunate to be among the musicians at the get-together after Les’s funeral, where there was a small display of pictures of Les through the years, many from long before I’d known him. As I looked at the pictures, all that resentment and self-reproach came churning back up like indigestion. But then I felt… not Les’s presence or anything like that, but I did feel precisely those words: It’s all right. It’s really all right.

I remember, too, the evening of the day I heard my friend Madeleine had died; I had a whisky and a hot bath, and suddenly nothing was wrong, everything was perfectly, blissfully all right. It wasn’t just exhaustion (or alcohol); I remember reflecting on how strange this feeling was, even wondering vaguely if it was a stage of grieving that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had missed. I went to bed and slept like a contented child. (Then in the morning it all began again, of course.)

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

I’m not insisting on the reality of these experiences. To put it another way, I absolutely am insisting on the reality of these experiences – they did really happen – but I’m not insisting there was anybody there but me. I do think there’s something interesting here, though.

To you, with regard (2)

THE STORY SO FAR. At the back end of last year (shortly before reading The Thing Itself) I had a weird idea – and though the dream was very small, it would not leave me…

A riddle:

I’m the darkness in the light
I’m the leftness in the right
I’m the rightness in the wrong
I’m the shortness in the long
I’m the goodness in the bad
I’m the saneness in the mad
I’m the sadness in the joy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the ghost in the machine
I’m the genius in the gene
I’m the beauty in the beast
I’m the sunset in the east
I’m the ruby in the dust
I’m the trust in the mistrust
I’m the Trojan horse in Troy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the tiger’s empty cage
I’m the mystery’s final page
I’m the stranger’s lonely glance
I’m the hero’s only chance
I’m the undiscovered land
I’m the single grain of sand
I’m the Christmas morning toy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the world you’ll never see
I’m the slave you’ll never free
I’m the truth you’ll never know
I’m the place you’ll never go
I’m the sound you’ll never hear
I’m the course you’ll never steer
I’m the will you’ll not destroy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

I’m the half truth in the lie
I’m the Why not? in the Why?
I’m the last roll in the die
I’m the old school in the tie
I’m the Spirit in the Sky
I’m the Catcher in the Rye
I’m the twinkle in her eye
I’m Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly”
Well, who am I?

Apparently Neil Hannon’s Mum got the answer straight away; I suspect his Dad did too.

NEXT: late Romantic poetry, Rogerian psychotherapy and The Sirens of Titan. Not necessarily in that order.

Not writing

“I haven’t written a thing since last October!”

The thought came to me with an alarm-clock-like jolt: – yes, it really is that time (of year)! And what have I been doing?

When I was insecurely under-employed, I shared an office for a while with a rather senior but semi-retired Law lecturer. When lecturing ended after Easter, he was off, generally in a camper van: “I aim to spend the dark months teaching and then spend the light months travelling”, he told me once. If that were me, I thought at the time, I’d at least spend the light months writing

Here we are in the middle of June – pretty light – and I haven’t written a single damn thing since October. What have I been doing all this time? Teaching, obviously – this year just gone, I delivered all the teaching (and assessment) on two optional third-year units, along with sizeable chunks of a Foundation Year unit and an MA unit. Then there was marking, which remains the single most intellectually exhausting task I’ve ever carried out in my life. But none of that’s writing.

At least, it’s not writing writing. But some of it does involve writing, in the old-fashioned sense of forming words out of letters in a visual medium. Here’s a rough list:

Review of a new edition of a textbook: 1,000 words
Student references: 1,000
Small grant bid (successful): 2,000
PG Cert ‘reflective writing’ assignments: 8,000
Contribution to large grant bid (unsuccessful): 8,000
Assessment feedback: 144 essays + 40 exams + 6 dissertations = ~20,000 words
Emails: 1200 emails = ~60,000 words

Fair amount of writing involved in assessment, it turns out. (Not many words per essay, but you do have to choose the right ones.) And those emails! Never mind the constant drizzle of incoming email (28 yesterday, none of them from students); I’ve sent 1200 emails in those eight months. That’s 150 emails per month – five a day, seven days a week. For comparison I totted up the number of emails I’d sent from my personal account; the total was 150 for the entire eight-month period.

So it turns out that I have in fact been ‘active’, as they say, when it comes to putting words on screen (and in some cases even on paper). I’ve written around 100,000 words since last October – twelve academic papers’ worth. It’s just that three-fifths of them have been in emails – and most of the rest were ephemeral too.

Oh well, back to work.

He knows so much about these things


Eddie Izzard, interviewed (paraphrased?) in the Times magazine’s “What I’ve learnt” column, 7th May:

I’m not a transvestite. I have some of the same genetics as women, so I’m transgender. When I see a pair of nice heels I think, “Yeah, that could work. That could be kind of fun, kind of sexy.” Anyone can feel that. We’re obsessed with the differences between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina. Everyone should calm down and take a chill pill.

There is, as you’ve probably noticed, quite a lot of this stuff around at the moment. Opinions are divided – rather bitterly – as to just what it is we’re seeing. Is it a liberal movement, a claim for rights by a new constituency – are transgender people a disadvantaged and hitherto overlooked minority, whose struggles for recognition the rest of us should support? It’s worth pausing here to say that if that were all we were talking about, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about: singling out Sally (who I know or suspect to have been born male) for any kind of special treatment is no more appropriate or justifiable than doing so with Sam (who I know or suspect to be Jewish). That’s not controversial; it’s barely even political. In most social situations, the liberal assumption of universal human equality gets us all where we want to be: people are people, and that’s the only starting assumption anyone needs.

But it sometimes seems as if the trans thing is about something more than that, or something else entirely. Is it a more unsettling form of radicalism, a new wave of gender-subversive activism which seeks to challenge the pink/blue girl/boy female/male binary order most of us live in, rather than staking out a place within it or alongside it? Or is there something else again going on – something not particularly radical or even liberal? I mean, what does “a pair of nice heels” have to do with anything?

I was troubled by Eddie Izzard’s comments – not to mention his decision to rewrite his own identity as transgender rather than transvestite. (He’s been out as TV since the early 90s, but to my knowledge he’s never claimed to be transgender before this year.) I flashed back to this LRB column from a few years ago by an occasional cross-dresser: “I like wearing a dress and tights, and I want to look good in them, and I like being addressed as Stephanie … I like my life as Stephen just fine, so long as I get to be Stephanie now and again”. I wondered, is it wearing a dress or is it ‘be[ing] Stephanie’? Does Stephanie ever wear trousers? (My daughter’s been in trousers since she could walk – she only frocks up for parties.) The writer attends a makeup workshop at a trans convention:

The workshop itself was helpful but intimidating. ‘To be born woman is to know,’ Yeats wrote, ‘Although they do not talk of it at school,/That one must labour to be beautiful’: adults who weren’t born as women have a hard time learning later on. Among the lessons of the session were that girlish looks need more blush, sophisticated adult looks less, though they may need more mascara.

Heels and genetics, mascara and being ‘born woman’. The slippage goes both ways: first, wanting to look like a girl – to present in ways that have been coded as female – turns into being female; then it seems that being female (as 51% of the population are generally agreed to be) requires looking like a girl, labouring to be beautiful, dragging up. Just as it did in Yeats’s day, and just as it seemingly always had done. There’s a wrong turn somewhere here.

I was also reminded of a friend of mine, and of what we talked about one time when I dropped in on him just before Christmas. I found him and his family – wife and two kids – putting up decorations. They had some long, heavy coloured tinsel garlands, for hanging on the wall in swags; when I came in my friend had two of these draped around his neck like feather boas, and was giving one of them a twirl. The effect was very camp, but not in a mocking, exaggerated way; he looked remarkably comfortable like that, twirling his boa, chatting with his kids. I said “oi, Conchita!” or something similar. We got talking about Eurovision, and we agreed that Conchita Wurst’s performance had been stunning; my friend said what an amazing moment it had been when Conchita won, how inspiring and how right it had felt. (I remember we both avoided using the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ – Conchita this, Conchita that…)

Later, we talked some more about camp and about drag. My friend said he and his wife had bonded, years ago, over the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frank in particular – that ‘sweet transvestite’, somehow coming across as both fussily camp and powerfully macho, in heels, stockings and a basque. Role model? I asked. He laughed – well, not exactly… but it would be nice sometimes to have that element of display, you know? I guess I was spoiled by glam rock… (And we talked a bit about Bowie.)

Later still, my friend said to me, You know, my best friend at school was always a girl – always. Well, not when we moved and I went to a single-sex school – but right up till then. Other kids said we were going together – when I was eleven or twelve, this was – but it wasn’t like that. From about the age of six it was always a girl I looked to, when I wanted someone I could talk to properly, someone I could trust. And of course when I started having girlfriends that’s what I wanted from them – someone to trust, someone to talk to. Always wanted to start with that, not with the dancing and flirting and silly fun stuff. Probably missed out. But I wouldn’t want a relationship that wasn’t based on it – friendship, I mean.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever told you about my trans period. Mmm? (I tried not to look startled.) No, I know I haven’t – I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone. I would have been about fourteen, struggling a bit with puberty. I was an intellectual little sod and I had very mixed feelings about being permanently randy, like you are at that age: puritanical mixed feelings, mostly. Basically I hated my body. I was at a boys’ school by this time, so I had lots of exposure to the less attractive side of masculinity – rugby, bullying, people going on and on and on about sex… I used to read the Guardian, including the women’s page; I had several female role models, people I’d always looked up to – older sisters, a godmother – but not much in the way of male ones… It all stacked up. Long story short, I turned against maleness in all its forms & decided that I should have been a girl. But I did have enough self-awareness to realise that if I were a girl I would still be attracted to girls; in my diary I referred to myself as a male lesbian.

You go through a lot in your early teens. Oh, you do – you try things out. It must have been around that time that I converted to Buddhism for a week; it wasn’t meant to be temporary, but it just happened it was the week before Easter, and on the day itself I had an intense emotional response to Christianity and promptly converted back. This lasted a good bit longer than that, though. It wasn’t an intellectual pose, either; the consciousness of not being a girl made me genuinely unhappy for quite a while.

What happened then? A couple of things. One was that I told my best friend, who was taken aback, but not in the way I’d expected – it turned out that he’d been working up the courage to tell me exactly the same thing about himself, and he clearly felt I’d stolen his thunder. I don’t remember ever discussing it with him again. But his actual sex life took off quite soon after that – and that he did discuss with me – which made the whole thing a bit academic. (I saw his name in the paper the other day, incidentally; he’s OK, and still a bloke.) The other thing I did was tell my Mum; she was sympathetic, but took the view that I should think about it for a good long time before committing myself to anything I might regret. She recommended Jan Morris’s Conundrum, which I got out of the library.

The classics, eh? Oh yes. Mum recommended Orlando, too, but I was more curious about somebody who’d actually been through it. The main thing I remember is how certain Jan Morris was, after completing gender reassignment, that she felt different, thought differently and even saw the world differently: she was more emotional than he had been as James but less interested in politics, and she’d acquired the ability to look at distant objects and see them as toys. (“So you see, Jan, these are small, but those are far away…”) I ran some of this past my mother; she didn’t quite give it the Nora Ephron treatment, but she was distinctly unconvinced. That stayed with me; it may have occurred to me even then that the qualities I admired, in the women I admired, didn’t include susceptibility to flattery or tolerance of being overcharged by tradesmen.

The other thing that stuck in my mind from that book, oddly enough, was Jan Morris’s retrospective celebration of the joys of being James Morris. There was a certain kind of energy and physical confidence which (Jan believed) went with being male as well as young and fit; and there was the memory of having sex with his (and subsequently her) partner, for which Jan didn’t see any need to apologise. “For when your lover pants beside you he is not necessarily enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility” – but this is your lover, and he is panting beside you, and that’s not nothing. It makes me think now that there might be loads of heterosexual men out there having sex without “enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility”, whatever that actually means; but Jan Morris didn’t reflect on that. Anyway, it was a small but definite influence on me, that book; a reality check (it can be done, she did it!) but with a bit of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” thrown in (…and now she likes men holding the door for her?).

So you didn’t want to… Transition? (He grimaced.) No, there was no danger of… But actually, you know what, I’d say I did: I transitioned into being the person I wanted to be. It took me a few years, but I got there in the end. I remember thinking 27 was a very good age to be. Things have got better for me since then – much, much better. But by the time “Suedehead” came out I pretty much knew what was what.

Why do you telephone? Why indeed. Great unanswered questions of our time.

So what was 27? Mostly, 27 was not being one of the kids any more; it was feeling that I didn’t have anything to conform to any more – or to rebel against conforming to. It made everything a lot simpler. What was the person I’d wanted to be, after all – the person who I’d thought couldn’t possibly be male? Someone like my mother, my godmother, my aunt – someone intelligent but also caring, sympathetic but thoughtful, cultured but funny…

Sounds like quite a family. OK, someone like an idealised version of those people. But you take the point. Wanting to look good was part of it – I was so disappointed when I discovered ‘menswear’! – and wanting to move with a certain amount of grace, not just barging through everywhere. Hating my body was part of it, too; thankfully I got past that, eventually. But mostly it was about the kind of person I wanted to be – and after a while I found I could try to be that person without worrying, or being made to worry, about being a man. I mean, once you get to 27 there aren’t so many people calling you a ponce for using long words, or telling you that boys don’t talk about their feelings. There aren’t so many people policing the way you move or the clothes you wear, come to that, so you can pick up that side of it as well.

I don’t know if a 27-year-old woman would agree with that last part. Perhaps not. And that actually relates to one of the things that bothers me about the trans moment we seem to be in, culturally – the draggier end of it, anyway. Femininity seems to have become a site of transgression for men without ceasing to be a uniform for women. I’m willing to bet there are workplaces out there where a man who came in wearing makeup would be frowned on less than a woman who came in without it – he’s being bold and transgressive, she’s just not making an effort. It’s as if patriarchy reserved a second-class space for women – a space for emotion, not logic; for the body, not the mind; for falsity and display (“paint an inch thick”), not for the unadorned truth – and now men are even entering that space. While still trying to keep women inside it – we frock up to play at being something we’re not, but for women femininity is what they are. (When we’re talking about trans we always seem to be talking about women in the end.)

Aren’t you over-thinking this? What about that confused, lonely teenager who just wants… What about him? Didn’t I just explain that I was that teenager? I’m prepared to believe that my gender dysphoria was milder and more short-lived than many other teenagers’, but you’re not telling me that it wasn’t genuine. Besides, if it was mild and short-lived, mightn’t the reaction it got have something to do with that?

Are you complaining? No, I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m saying is that the guarded tolerance with which my mother greeted my story gave me no encouragement, and no condemnation to react against either. I was left to share my feelings with my best friend, with my diary and with a book by Jan Morris. All of these did something to keep those feelings alive, but after a while I got interested in something else and they faded away. And, thirteen short years later, I was 27. It was a hell of a slog getting there – “will Nature make a man of me yet?” and so on – but growing up usually is.

So my message for that confused, lonely teenager is: “Hang on. You’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be. You can be the person you want to be; you will be the person you want to be. And it doesn’t have to involve surgery, or drugs, or cross-dressing, or even changing your name.” (Although I was obsessed with changing my name when I was a teenager – the search for the perfect pseudonym occupied me for years.)

Should we call you Conchita after all? No, no, it was my surname I wanted to get rid of – I couldn’t imagine becoming a rock star with a name like mine. And it’s true, I never changed my name and I never did become a rock star.

So, “hang on”… And is that what you’d say to teenagers who think they might be gay? Should everyone wait till they’re 27? No, of course not. I would advise fourteen-year-olds not to think that whatever they’re going through is necessarily going to last forever – but they’d never believe me, so there’d be no point. But seriously – when I was seven years old I wasn’t attracted to women; I also wasn’t a practising Christian, a Labour voter or a well-meaning middle-class Guardian reader. My parents expected me to grow up to be all of those things – that was our house for you – and so it came to pass, by and large. But if I’d grown up to be gay, or a militant atheist, or even a Tory, it would still have been a story I could tell from a shared beginning, a story that could make sense. By contrast, my parents didn’t have any expectations that I would grow up ‘as’ a boy – they knew I was a boy, from the moment I was born. (So I was a boy who didn’t like football, who liked wearing bright colours, whose best friend was a girl – so what? Still a boy.) To say that your entire past is a lie – not that your beliefs or your desires have developed in ways you didn’t expect, but that you never were what you were – is an awfully big step, for you as well as for everyone around you. Besides which, saying what you’re not doesn’t enable you to say what you are. You may have a deep-rooted feeling of revulsion against the sex you were born into (I remember that feeling), but you can’t possibly feel that you are the other sex – you’ve no idea what being the other sex is like. I’m a straight, Labour-voting mild agnostic, but I know from personal experience what it’s like to believe in an empty and meaningless universe, what it’s like to vote against Labour and what it’s like to be attracted to another man. What it’s like to have periods – or what it’s like not to have a prostate – I can’t begin to imagine.

All this is without getting into what committing to a trans identity, particularly as a young adult, will commit you to from that point forward. At the very least, going down that route is letting yourself in for years of distress – that’s what I’d say to that teenager. This isn’t about intolerance or prejudice; it’s changing something fundamental about yourself, socially and culturally as well as physically fundamental. I can’t think of a bigger change you could make, with the possible exception of some forms of extreme body modification. So yes, if you possibly can, hang on. But it’s a hopeful message as well – not just “hang on, don’t risk it”. “Hang on – you’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be.”

Some would say you’re trivialising… Yeah, maybe. As I say, it’s possible that the gender dysphoria I experienced was an unusually mild and fleeting thing; maybe most kids identifying as trans these days ‘just know‘ who they are, undeniably and unshakeably, and know it from an early age. But I’m not sure. I saw some research the other day vindicating the reality of trans kids’ gender identification. One way we know that trans identities are real & deep-rooted, apparently, is that trans kids tend to socialise and bond with kids of their adopted gender, not their birth gender. So, there you go – me and my female best friend, what does that tell you? (Or should we be asking about her and her male best friend? Good heavens, what kind of weirdoes were we back then?)

At the end of the day, I can only picture the cultural landscape that would face me if I were an unhappy fourteen-year-old boy in 2016, and if I’d become convinced (as for a time I did) that being the wrong sex was the root of all my problems. I picture it and I wonder. I think of the resources of information, support, validation and enablement which I’d be able to find and tap into, and I wonder what my life would be like by the time I got to 27, or even to 21. I don’t think it would have gone the way it did. I might have ended up perfectly happy; I don’t believe in the inevitability of trans misery. But I do believe that there are many routes that most lives can take, many ways that most people can find to be happy – 14-year-old people especially. And if there are many routes to happiness, it seems like a good idea to choose a route of minimum self-imposed transformation and maximum self-acceptance – acceptance of your life, your body, your self.

That sounds like the cue for a song. What, ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’?


Mostly harmless

At the LRB blog, Bernard Porter reminisces:

When I went up to Cambridge in October 1960, I found myself, for the first time, in the company of public schoolboys. … They were all very pleasant to me, despite my ‘Estuary’ accent and the fact that I had lived at home during my school years, and I made close friends with a number of them. But there was always this barrier – of adolescent experience – between us. They knew things that I didn’t (and vice versa? perhaps).

One thing was the proclivities of one of the fellows, the Rev. E. Garth Moore, notorious in public school circles as a sexual predator: they felt they needed to warn me, as a comparatively plebbish ingénu. ‘If Garth invites you to tea in his rooms,’ one of them told me on my first day, ‘don’t go. We know about him. You won’t understand.’ I think they were trying to protect me from embarrassment more than anything. It was kind of them. Anyhow, I did get the invitation, and politely turned it down.

This prompted a memory which I’ve never written about before. It wasn’t so much submerged, let alone repressed, as ignored; not in a locked cupboard of memory but in plain sight on a neglected shelf. I’ve never told anyone about it, but there’s a lot on those shelves that I’ve never told anyone about – the time the electricity meter broke, the time I nearly didn’t see Douglas Adams, the time we found the funniest line in Shakespeare… As a rule I haven’t told anyone because I didn’t think anyone would be interested. But maybe this one is worth bringing out.

So. Quite soon after I went up to Cambridge in 1979, I received an invitation to breakfast with Dr Pars, one of the college’s two resident retired fellows; the story was that the college had done away with lifetime residence and dining privileges several years earlier, but that Pars and one other don had hung on to theirs and were determined to exercise them to the last (as indeed they did). Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends, ‘Pars’ to everyone else – was 83 at the time.

Pars, anyway, entertained me and another undergraduate to breakfast in his rooms; I gathered on the grapevine that he was working his way through the first year intake. It was a civilised but not particularly comfortable occasion. The other student was a woman – the college had just started admitting women – and Pars seemed very solicitous in pressing food on her (“I do hate it when people die of hunger at my breakfasts”); she was rather posh and was very gracious with him. I remember there was a fruit course, complete with appropriate cutlery; I ate a banana with a knife and fork, which was fun at least. Then there was a second breakfast invitation, for me and another undergraduate (another man this time); he was a third-generation student at the college, and Pars had known his father (and quite possibly his grandfather). This somehow led to a theatre outing for the three of us (Frederic Raphael’s From the Greek). When Pars sent me an invitation to afternoon tea in his rooms – just me this time – I thought things were looking up. The cakes were nice, the tea was good quality and Pars confided that he too preferred China to India; it was all very civilised.

In retrospect it looks very much like a selection process, but nothing of the sort occurred to me at the time. The breakfasts – and the play – were rather a bore, but having a (very) senior don take an interest in one and serve one China tea in his rooms… well, I was on the Left, but I wasn’t immune to this kind of thing; I’d read a bit of Dornford Yates in my youth and always thought it sounded like fun, the fox-hunting apart.

Then I got a letter from Pars, saying that he’d previously sent me an invitation to the Club (or possibly The Club) and been disappointed to have no reply – but, “as an invitation to the Club was not the kind of invitation one refuses”, he would expect me anyway. Date, time, place – it may even have been at the Master’s Lodge – guest of honour so-and-so, dress lounge suit. (I don’t know if the lost invitation was some sort of ploy or if Pars forgot to send it. There’s very little chance of it actually having got lost, en route from one side of the college to the other.)

Now, I’d never heard of The Club – I’ve never heard of it since, come to that – and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But I thought it sounded appropriately privileged and inner-circle-ish, and I thought I’d give it a go; I was also slightly concerned about the potential ramifications of refusing, given that this was not the kind of invitation one refuses. My main worry was establishing what a lounge suit was, and – once I’d worked that one out – checking that I looked OK in one of the old suits my father had presciently given me before I went up. (I’d had them altered to fit my measurements, which at the time included a 28″ waist. I didn’t get much wear out of them.)

It was all very new and mysterious. I wrote, asking for advice, to a family friend named Keith – the son of a friend of my mother’s, to be precise. He wasn’t a personal friend – he was nine years older, a daunting gap at that age – but he’d graduated from the same college a few years earlier with a degree in archaeology, and had been very helpful when I was about to go up. I wanted to check out what I was getting into, and possibly show off a bit (“been invited to this thing called The Club, whatever that is…”). He replied, “I wouldn’t worry, Pars is pretty harmless these days.” Worry? Pretty harmless these days? I knew what Keith was – what he must be – referring to, but the thought had never crossed my mind until that moment; I hadn’t been worrying, but I was now (pretty harmless, these days?). What kind of ‘Club’ was this?

Keith was living at home at the time, in between research trips centred on shipwrecks, so I was able to ring him and ask what, precisely, he was saying about Pars. He laughed it off – oh, there were stories, you know… I didn’t know. Oh, you know… choirboys running screaming from his room in a state of undress… It’s all a while ago now – I mean, he’s an old man! I should go, it’ll be fine. Talking to Keith – who was a lovely bloke – reassured me greatly, even though he was actually confirming my suspicions. I rang my mother; she was rather brisk, and said that at this stage I was probably going to have to go, but pointed out that if necessary I could always make my excuses and leave.

So I went. It was a piano recital; there was assorted seating dotted around a rather large (and well-lit) room, there were twenty or thirty people, and I think there was wine. Looking around, I could see that the company was mostly male, but not entirely; some of my more lurid fears dropped away. I could also see that everyone else there was in their thirties or over; I was the only student. I didn’t recognise anyone, with one inevitable exception: Pars. He was sitting on a sofa, and patted the cushion for me to sit next to him. The pianist was introduced and began to play – some classical piece that I didn’t recognise. I noticed Pars nodding and tapping his foot to the rhythm of the piece; I thought this was surprisingly uncultured and concluded that he wasn’t really enjoying the music. Then I noticed his hand, which was on my thigh, just above my knee. He let it rest there for a while then squeezed, as if he was assessing the meat on a cow’s hindquarters. Then he patted my knee a couple of times, and left his hand there.

After the recital I made straight for the door. The Club seemed to be a perfectly innocuous cultural society, and perhaps it really was a privilege to be invited; I hadn’t actually been molested as such, either – nothing had happened. All the same, I had had my leg fondled in public – and, what was worse, Pars had effectively shown me off to the assembled company as his latest (potential) conquest. It was a deeply humiliating experience, and I wanted no more of it. Happily, Pars didn’t pursue me – literally or metaphorically – and I never had anything to do with him again.

I wasn’t angry, though, so much as ashamed; the indignity had been forced on me, but it felt as if the resultant shame was all mine. Shame led to guilt and self-reproach – why didn’t I say no? why hadn’t I said no before? why did he pick me – was there something about me? I told my parents and friends about what had happened (I don’t think I said anything to Keith), but the idea of reporting Pars in some way never occurred to me, and if it had I would have dismissed it. After all, what could I accuse him of? What had actually happened, really? No bones broken, eh? And I’d done all right out of it, hadn’t I? Poor old Pars, he’s harmless enough, it’s sad really when you think about it… So people would have said – or so we thought people would say – back in the 1970s. Even writing about it now, my initial impulse was to change names and details, to protect the… well. So hard to think of it as something that he should have been ashamed of, not me; so hard to think of it as something to feel angry about, not guilty.

Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends – died in 1985, aged 89. The saddest part of the story is that he outlived Keith, the maritime archaeologist. Keith died in 1980, aged 29. He’d just surfaced from a dive in a Scottish loch and was standing in shallow water in a ‘hard’, pressurised diving suit, with the helmet off. A freak wave knocked him off his feet, the suit filled up and he couldn’t get back to his feet; he drowned in four feet of water. Although I never knew him well, I still think of Keith from time to time – I’ve never forgotten him and hope I never will. I’ve never forgotten Pars, either, but I live in hope.


Hold on to the paper

I did something a few weeks ago which I hadn’t done for 22 years. I threw away a copy of the London Review of Books; volume 37 number 1, more specifically.

One down, 531 to go. I stopped throwing the LRB away quite soon after I first subscribed. The first copy I’ve kept, the LRB for 25th June 1992 (volume 14 number 12), features reviews by Gabriele Annan, Frank Kermode, Richard Mayne and George Melly (who wrote about Magritte). Contributors who are still with us included John Sturrock, Blair Worden and Hilary Mantel (“Her new novel, A Place of Greater Safety, will be published by Viking in September.”)

But I’m not telling you anything obscure. The only piece of information in the previous paragraph which can’t be found on the LRB Website is Hilary Mantel’s contributor bio – its 1992 version, that is. The same goes for the text of the reviews themselves – Sturrock on Proust, Kermode on Ahdaf Soueif, Mantel on Charles Nicholl. Whether I hang on to the paper copy or not, all those reviews will remain available to me for as long as I remain a subscriber, the LRB remains solvent and the Internet remains.

Never mind the content, though – what of the document itself, its inscape, its irreducible papery thingness? As an object, volume 14 number 12 consisted of 28 large, deckle-edged, four-column pages (very large; the pre-1997 LRB always put me in mind of the Beezer). There was advertising, but not very much of it – only two internal full-page ads (for Index on Censorship and Granta), one column of classified ads on the last inside page. There were those author bios, tersely written but elegantly worded (“George Melly is a jazz singer and an art scener, and was a friend of Magritte.”). The cover for that issue was a striking – and huge – shot of David Sylvester (“art scener extraordinaire”, presumably according to the same unknown hand). And there were photographs. To a much greater extent than the present-day LRB, the 1992 version often ran pictures illustrating or accompanying a piece; in this issue we had a 1973 shot of Ian McEwan and a ‘thirties’ photographic portrait of Magritte. But the journalism itself is all on the Website – where it’s easier to find, much easier to search and not a great deal harder to read.

Now, twenty-two years is a long time – and twenty-two years as an LRB subscriber is a lot of LRBs. Having kept them stacked behind the sofa for quite some time, in the early 00s I succumbed to an advertisement for binders and rehomed my collection. The binders are big, solid things, which would grace any library reading-room; they hold the actual papers by means of 24 long cotton threads, running top to bottom, onto each of which you thread a single copy of the magazine, open at the centre pages. It’s easier to do than it is to describe, although not by much; it was a long evening when I stocked my first ten binders. I got up to fifteen before temporary poverty dissuaded me from getting one for the year just gone; after that the moment to order another binder or two never seemed to arrive. At the start of this year I had fourteen and a half years’ worth of the LRB in binders and another eight years (192 issues) in a pile in the corner of the room.

Which is where they remain, at least for now; I crossed a line the other week, but I’ve only committed myself to throwing away post-2014 issues. I’m not sure how long this position will hold, though. Returning to the 1992 volume or half-volume, what strikes me is… well, two things, one which I fully expected to find and one which took me by surprise. Firstly, it’s hard to find your way around. Flipping through the pages, there seems to be no particular likelihood of fetching up at a front cover, let alone a Contents page; the collection truly becomes a ‘volume’, one long, unordered series of reviews, pictures, Letters to the Editor. Secondly – and this probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did – it’s very easy to get lost in it, in a good way. Lighting by chance on a Contents page, I find that A Place of Greater Safety was reviewed (fairly favourably) by P.N. Furbank in the 20th August issue. The same issue featured pieces by E.S. Turner, Paul Foot, Mary Beard and Marina Warner, a Diary by Christopher Hitchens and letters from Michael Horovitz and Kurt Vonnegut; the cover was a very striking (and huge) shot of Carolyn Steedman, whose collection Past Tenses is reviewed by Patrick Parrinder. All that (and, of course, more) in one issue. It goes on: I turn a few pages and I’m reading – or at least having the option of reading – Perry Anderson on Thatcherism; Amartya Sen on Darwinism; Jenny Diski on Madonna; Adam Phillips on cross-dressing…

I once found a small stash of LRBs in a dentist’s waiting-room; the unexpected pleasure was blunted slightly by the realisation that they were all issues I’d read. But only slightly – you can’t remember everything you ever read, after all. I would be happy, more than happy, to sit down with that 1992 volume of the LRB – or any of the other fourteen – and work my way through, given a spare couple of days or weeks. But if I had any questions I wanted answered or memories I wanted to track down – even if I wanted to check something that had caught my eye in one of those issues I’d just leafed through – the Web site would win over the bound volume every time. (What was it that Craig Raine was saying about Kipling? Ah, here we are. Bookmark that.) And that goes double for the issues from between 2007 and 2014, standing forlorn in the corner of the room, unbound and unconsultable. I’m afraid their days are numbered.

But what to do with 528 LRBs, 336 of them in binders? How to dispose of them? Into the recycling, a year at a time? Surely not. Perhaps I’ll give it a bit longer, rather than rushing into anything. It’s been 22 years, after all.

Update I wrote this post with the LRB blog in mind; this was perhaps a bit quixotic, not to say cheeky, given that the LRB is still selling binders. I’ve kept to my resolution of throwing away new LRBs when I’ve finished with them, but it seems to have had the unintended consequence of making them harder to finish with: my backlog of part-read issues currently stands at four instead of the usual one or two, and I’ve only recently got it down from six. As for this blog post, the LRB turned it down – which is why you’re reading it here – but they did made me a present of some more binders. Which was nice.

And find out what’s behind it

Cross-posted from ¡Vivan las Caenas!, where a series of retrospective posts is currently under way. This one is essentially ‘my life as a mature student’, and features what I didn’t realise then was the beginning of my interest in the law.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”
– T. H. White, The Once and Future King

I was 30. After graduating I’d spent a year on the dole – you could do that back then – before getting a job as a computer programmer. (I’d been a member of the college Micro Society and spent many hours writing Atom BASIC.) Eight years after that, in my third job, I was getting rather bored and very demotivated: work just seemed to be a series of tasks to which I had no commitment, to be judged by standards I barely understood. (“Ennit all?”) I found interest elsewhere, as a member of the Socialist Society and the Socialist Movement, and as a writer for Tribune, New Statesman, Lobster and the SM’s short-lived paper socialist (grandparent of Red Pepper). In the pub one night, after a meeting of the Manchester Socialist Movement group, a guy I knew slightly mentioned that he’d signed up to do a part-time degree. It’s embarrassing to recall how transformative this tiny encounter was for me. It didn’t so much plant a seed as decontaminate the soil – suddenly, absurdly, there was no good reason why I shouldn’t do another degree. Or rather, suddenly there never had been. (So you can change the past!)

But what and how? I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and that didn’t seem to be English any more. And was it an MA I was looking for? I considered going straight for an MPhil, or a doctorate at a pinch; I got as far as making a shortlist of two alternative thesis topics, one on the experience of UFO encounters and one on computing in business. (At least one dodged bullet there.) On reflection – and after taking advice from my former Director of Studies – I decided that an MA would be more straightforward and less lonely. It took a while to find the right course – it had to be part-time, for one thing – but eventually I embarked on an MA in Politics and Contemporary History at Salford. The course was modular, but in my case covered International Relations (which was awful), Nazi Germany, Resistance in Occupied Europe, Collaboration in Occupied Europe (which was fascinating) and Post-War Italy, with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle. I graduated with a Distinction, and was encouraged by more than one of my tutors (finally!) to think about a doctorate. I made a second and more realistic shortlist of topics: resistance in Vichy France (with a particular focus on groups and individuals which (arguably) played both sides of the street, such as Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalisme movement); or radical movements in 1970s Italy (with a particular focus on those which (arguably) had a Situationist influence, such as Gianfranco Faina’s armed group Azione Rivoluzionaria). My tutors all agreed that, while both these topics were interesting and appropriately specific, one of them was pretty well mined out while the other was still honkingly obscure. So I set out to write a group biography of Azione Rivoluzionaria. Unfortunately they turned out to be just a bit too obscure, so I did this instead. (Looks pretty interesting, eh? Has your library got a copy?)

As for the law, consider a couple of themes I touched on in the previous paragraph: the challenges to political normality represented by the Nazis on one hand and the Situationists on the other. My fascination with the Nazi period (I can’t speak for anyone else’s) stems from the regime’s effort to normalise inherently destructive and corrosive values: to build an enduring system based on aggression, competition and brutality, in all areas of life and at all levels, undermining and corrupting cultural and institutional survivals from the old regime. (In little more than a decade they managed to build alternative forms of politics, an alternative (anti-semitic) form of Christianity and – of course – an alternative criminal justice system. There were cases of blatantly political prosecutions being dismissed by the judge, only for the suspect to be re-arrested as he left the court and taken into ‘protective’ custody by the Gestapo.) By looking at collaborationists, in particular – and respectable Nazi sympathisers such as Douglas Reed and Arnold Wilson – I thought we could think our way inside the genuine appeal of what is to us an obviously vile and unsustainable project. The Third Reich had a life span of less than a generation, so inevitably most Nazi supporters came to the Party as adults: did they all have 180-degree conversions, or were there areas of overlap between the National-Socialist project and other, legitimate political ideologies – and, if so, what could those overlaps tell us? In short, I was very interested in alternative normative systems, and in the idea of treating our own norms as just one set among others. At the other political extreme, the Situationists were a classic example of a radical group whose intellectual ability and self-confidence enabled them to develop and maintain a set of political norms quite distinct from those of the mainstream (to the end of his life Guy Debord was proud of a line of graffiti he’d written as a teenager: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS). The question here was less of overlap than of availability. May 1968 suggested that, given the swift kick of a general strike, entire towns and cities could jump the normative tracks and exist, at least temporarily, in a universe where spontaneous co-operation was the norm and wage labour was an aberration. I remembered Henri Lefebvre dismissing the Situationists as a band of dreamers: why, they even imagined that there could be a spontaneous general strike, in France, in the 1960s! The question of what makes a good normative system – one, potentially, better than our own – seemed to be a live one.

Those late-70s Italian movements, for their part, had it all: the dawning dreams of a world made new and the queasy horrors of political violence, plus a conflicted relationship with an uncomprehending official Left – which itself embodied an alternative system of values, in more or less compromised form. The law does start to show itself here as a field of contention: I was very struck by the legal amnesty achieved following the Hot Autumn of 1969, such that offences committed during the strike wave ceased to have been crimes. I also remember a debate in the Italian parliament as to precisely what happens when a Molotov cocktail goes off: if the explosion had been classed as a mechanical process rather than a chemical reaction, Molotovs would have been classified as weapons of war and their use would have carried much higher penalties. Politics, as Green Garside never said, is prior to the vagaries of the law – but those are some interesting vagaries.

Although I’d hit a dead end with Faina and Azione Rivoluzionaria, material on the broader topic of the radical movements of the 1970s (and their interaction with the Italian Communist Party) was surprisingly abundant. A couple of years earlier I’d taught myself Italian by brute force (reading a book about the Situationists with a dictionary next to me); I now took my Italian to the next level by much the same method, using Nanni Balestrini’s wonderful novels Gli invisibili and L’editore. (The first page of Gli invisibili took me most of a day: “the… the corridor was, was lined with… with what which whatly did what and made it look like a what?”. The entire book’s written without punctuation, which didn’t make it any easier. But I got there.) I discovered Primo Moroni a matter of months after his death (damn it), and corresponded more or less briefly with Steve Wright, Steve Hellman, Dave Moss, Donatella della Porta, Nanni Balestrini, Olivier Turquet and Gennaro Barbarisi (the writer of an opinion column in a 1976 edition of l’Unità). I carried out research in Colindale (Corriere della Sera on microfilm) and at the University of Reading (l’Unità in hard copy – the only place in the UK which held it) and presented my work in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes; I didn’t get to Italy, though (no budget).

Along the way I also discovered Alfred Schutz, read a lot of Rorty and a fair bit of Dewey, and sketched out a reconciliation of Bhaskar’s critical realism with Schutz’s social phenomenology; as well as blowing Rorty out of the water, this theoretical synthesis was going to give a definitive non-Foucauldian account of the relationship between power and truth. I should probably get back to it some time. Or maybe not. One of my first tutors on the MA had pointed out that I tended to take on too much and range too widely; clearly, I still had that problem. I began to realise how much of a problem it was a few years later, when a friend who was launching a new journal asked me for an 8,000-word paper and I turned in 16,000. (To his great credit, he spotted a way of turning it into two separate papers – and took both. Most editors wouldn’t be anywhere near so accommodating.) It’s a familiar pattern, recurring in a slightly less disabling form. The unique me-ness of me! All right, so I could play with ideas, but I wasn’t going to play with other people; I mean, I couldn’t, really. I’d do it over here, in my own way; it’d be brilliant, but nobody was going to see it till it was finished. I’d be uniquely brilliant! (Ta-da! Sixteen thousand words! How good is that?) Or, if necessary, I’d be uniquely useless; that would work, in its own way. (Eight thousand – eight, not sixteen! How can I be so stupid?)

While all this was going on, I was freelancing as a writer and researcher – I’d left IT for a job editing a computing magazine shortly after starting my MA, and left that job after three years to start work on my doctorate. Lots of writing to a deadline and editing to a word count, lots of instant research, lots of playing with sources and story-building – ask me anything about Wallis Simpson, or Jasper Maskelyne, or Helen Keller… What I didn’t do, while I was a postgraduate, was teach; I did sound out one of my tutors about the possibilities of teaching work, but I rapidly concluded that the day rate for technical journalism was better – I mean, much better. (Plus I could do it without leaving the house, or interacting with anyone except by email.) This was probably a mistake.

The gate to the law (part 1)

So why all the legal stuff? I seem to be posting little else these days; I’ve even started a separate blog, devoted to one specific corner of legal theory. Am I a lawyer? (No, I’m a lecturer in criminology.) Have I got a legal background? (No.) Is it connected with my work? (Well… no, not really. Not just yet.)

So what is the fascination of this (very specialised) field of study? And what has it got to do with my actual academic career – particularly bearing in mind that I began this career fairly late on (it’s my third, roughly speaking), and it took me several years of hard work to get across the starting line? It’s taken me long enough to get to here, in other words, so why am I digging over there?

I’ve been wondering about this, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Here’s the first instalment, at least; the rest will appear on another blog.

BROD: Then there’s no hope?
KAFKA: Plenty of hope, endless amounts of hope! But not for us.

It begins, as far as I can make out, with damnation. Continue reading

A Doctor writes

I’ve tagged this post ‘flummery’, which I think was the category I chose for chatty and personal posts of no enduring value. As well as ‘flummery’ I find I’ve got categories for ‘drollery’, ‘foolishness’, ‘idiocy’ and ‘tosh’, not to mention ‘saying the thing that is not’; I must have had distinct purposes for each of those, although I’m not sure now what they are.

It’s a while since I last posted here; there ought to be a third ‘Dangerous decisions’ post, for one thing. Over the last month I’ve been working on a long and autobiographical post, which I began in an attempt to answer the question “why all this legal stuff?”. It’s got so long (and so autobiographical) that I’m now planning on breaking it up into sections and publishing it on another blog.

Also, I’ve recently been reminded that I’ve written a book – or, more to the point (and rather to my surprise, if I’m honest) that it’s still selling. For new readers, my book (publisher’s page) is an academic hardback on the radical social movements of late-1970s Italy and their relationship with the Italian Communist Party; I called it ‘More work! Less pay!’ and chose a rather dramatic cover image, which you can see to the right of this post. Shall we hear a bit more about the book before we go on? I think we shall.

In the mid-1970s, a wave of contentious radicalism swept through Italy. Groups and movements such as ‘Proletarian Youth’, ‘Metropolitan Indians’ and ‘the area of Autonomy’ practised new forms of activism, confrontational and often violent. Creative and brutal, intransigent and playful, the movements flourished briefly before being suppressed through heavy policing and political exclusion.

‘More work! Less pay!’ is the first full-length study in English of these movements. Building on Sidney Tarrow’s ‘cycle of contention’ model and drawing on a range of Italian materials, it tells the story of a unique and fascinating group of political movements, and of their disastrous engagement with the mainstream Left. As well as shedding light on a neglected period of twentieth century history, this book offers lessons for understanding today’s contentious movements (‘No Global’, ‘Black Bloc’) and today’s ‘armed struggle’ groups.

I’m afraid that both the cover image and, more importantly, the title were ill-chosen – partly because you basically have to read the entire book to discover what they refer to, but mainly because the phrase “more work, less pay” is, frankly, a bit of a downer. I don’t believe in magic, but I do think that words are powerful: if you were choosing between my book and one called Chimes of freedom or A brighter tomorrow or ‘Rich, lads, we’re rich!’, I think the negative connotations of my title could easily nudge it down the list. And when you’re dealing with academic hardback prices, it’s not going to be on thousands of lists to start with. (An academic paperback might be – but that would mean selling out the hardback print run.)

Still, when it came out it did sell quite a few copies – albeit not enough to sell out the print run – and apparently the publisher is still getting orders coming in. Good! (And if your nearest academic library doesn’t have a copy, why not?) Interestingly enough, several of the sales were ebooks, going for a bit less than the hardback; these (as far as I can tell) are library ebooks, made available through the Manchester Scholarship Online service. I’m in two minds about this; it means more eyes on my work, which is good, but it doesn’t bring the paperback edition any closer.

In other news, I’m horribly stuck. (In terms of writing, that is – real life is trundling along.) I’ve got no teaching this week – and I’m on a part-time contract anyway – so I resolved at the start of the week to clear some admin, get some student support in place, check the rest of the term’s teaching, answer emails as they come in obviously… and then devote myself to writing. Proper writing, that is – as distinct from ‘student support’ and ‘answering emails’, which between them involved writing about three and a half thousand words. Writing, hurrah!

Or maybe not. I’m partway through a paper (with a deadline) which is on a topic that passionately interests me, and I can’t think where the argument’s supposed to go; I go blank when I look at it. It’s a real block; I’ve always had difficulty motivating myself to write when deadlines were a long way away, but this is worse. I think part of the trouble is just that it is a topic that passionately interests me – all through the years I worked in IT, I did the autodidact thing: I would seize on scraps of time (evenings, lunch-hours, the bus to and from work) to read, and write, about the stuff that interested me in the way that work didn’t. And here I am, writing about precisely what interests me, in work time – well, I did some of that too, but here I am doing it for work. It seems to set the bar much higher – if I fail at this, where do I go?

Academia seems to be a weirdly scary place, albeit that it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting and no micro-management. (I remember the reaction of a colleague when the department we were in piloted timesheets for lecturers. Fresh out of IT, I just thought “yes, that’s a timesheet”; I was on the point of explaining how five minutes was roughly 0.01 of a standard day, so if you thought of it in terms of multiples of five minutes… Then I saw the expression on my colleague’s face: it combined affronted horror with an element of genuine bafflement. The pilot wasn’t a success.) There’s not much danger that your boss will tell you to get something done yesterday, but you will be strongly encouraged to seek out opportunities to shine – and, when it comes to it, you may just sputter out. (All very gouvernementale.) The nightmare scenario isn’t that your boss sets you an impossible task, in other words – it’s that you do. The glory’s all yours, if it’s recognised; so is the ignominy.

Oh well, back to the old drawing board. Wish me whatever it is that enables a climber to avoid looking down. Luck, possibly.

Hart and me

About two months ago I started reading H.L.A. Hart’s Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy. I’d read Hart’s The Concept of Law and found it fascinating; it sets out a model of the law to which I’m strongly opposed, but it does it in a way that leaves very little purchase for criticism. I took the volume of essays out from the library on a whim a while ago and started reading it in June.

About six weeks ago I started writing about Hart’s Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy, and once I’d started I found it hard to stop. By the time I reached the end of my mental list of issues on which I felt I needed to make some comment – if only to clarify my own thoughts – I’d read another thirteen papers (by Duxbury, Dworkin, Ely, Gardner, Green, Keating, Kramer, Lyons, Mackie and Rawls) and written fifteen blog posts, totalling just under 30,000 words.

I don’t know if there’s a paper in there anywhere; I’m self-taught in this area (my background’s in history) and my arguments are probably fairly basic. But I’ve enjoyed doing it.

For future reference – if only my own! – here are links to those fifteen posts, with a representative quotation from each one. Share and enjoy!


The first three posts are in response to the 1976 paper “Law in the perspective of philosophy”.

Some baby! (Hart on Nozick) (800 words)

“For Hart, a model of justice was first and foremost a model of justice as it was administered in the real world: if such a theory pointed us in the direction of greater, less compromised or better-distributed justice, so much the better, but its first hurdle was to fit the reality of justice as we knew it. In Hart’s view, by defining justice in terms of principles which could only be realised in Utopia, Nozick had succeeded only in severing his own ideal of justice from the common-or-garden justice about which other theorists wrote.”

Hart, Nozick, Dworkin (in that order) (2400 words)

“Dworkin’s argument against other-directed preferences seems to boil down to saying that majority votes – and utilitarian greater-good arguments – are problematic when they justify things that are wrong; the question of what actually is wrong remains open (and, I would add, political). It could be argued that these considerations of value pluralism have nothing to do with equality of respect – in other words, that these are arguments we would have been having anyway – but in fact that’s the point: Dworkin’s metric gives us no guidance precisely when we need it.”

Earthbound skyhooks: Rawls and Dworkin (also responds to the 1973 paper “Rawls on liberty and its priority”) (1400 words)

“Rawls – like Dworkin – takes what appears to be a very different and much more worldly approach than a frank utopian like Nozick, but on inspection there’s something quite different – and stranger – going on than a simple opposition between utopianism and realism. The difference between Nozick and Rawls isn’t that Nozick built castles in the air; it’s that when Rawls built his castles in the air, he built them on the ground.”


The next six posts all address arguments in “Rawls on liberty and its priority”, taking into account Rawls’s responses in his 1982 lectures published as “The basic liberties and their priority”.

Hart on Rawls – 1 (2100 words)

“although Rawls treats his basic liberties as discrete and distinct, to the extent that they can be balanced against one another there must be a Liberty behind the curtain which they jointly make it possible to approach – or at least a Liberty-stuff which they each in their different ways produce. If this is the case, the basic liberties are not fundamental, but different aspects or facets of the production of fungible Liberty-stuff, or of the approach to an ineffable Liberty. And if that’s the case, clearly Rawls’s list can’t be taken as definitive; the possibility that it might need to be lengthened, and – more disruptively – the possibility that it might be appropriate to trade down one or more of our current list altogether, can’t be avoided.”

Hart on Rawls – 2 (1900 words)

“Either the conflict between rival liberties can be resolved in principle (in which case let’s get on and see how we can do it), or it can’t (in which case we are leaving a lot of important questions to be settled politically – and it’s not clear what philosophical work the basic liberties are doing). Rawls appears to be putting forward a middle position, in which conflicts between liberties can be resolved at the level of principle but we don’t know how. If, as Rawls seems to be suggesting, the key factor in making the resolution philosophically possible is the nature of the adjudicator – the “representative equal citizen” with her Good-oriented rationality – then we don’t seem to be saying much more than that people would get on much better if they were nice.”

Hart on Rawls – 3 (1600 words)

“There is no theoretical or practical difficulty encroaching on liberties so as to prevent harm; societies do it all the time. However, justifying those restrictions in a coherent and generalisable way has proved to be a serious challenge for political philosophy. Rawls, oddly, doesn’t seem to say much about it, other than to rule it out on principle – because a liberty should only be curtailed for the sake of a liberty (of greater significance). Can this be accepted, and if so how?”

Hart on Rawls – 4 (2300 words)

“Rawls assumes a society of free and equal persons, each of whom is capable of two things: social co-operation, subject to the demands of fairness and promise-keeping which can be called ‘reasonable’; and ethical deliberation, within the framework of logic and value which can be called ‘rational’. In terms of entry requirements for the world of his model, Rawls has set the bar surprisingly low. To derive the priority of liberty – or any other of Rawls’s apparently idealistic or counter-intuitive formulations – we may not need to assume a world of model citizens; perhaps all we need to do is to assume that everyone is capable of working together and valuing one set of ideas more highly than another”

Hart on Rawls – a review (1500 words)

“I sense that Hart saw a deep equivocation here, between a model which could exist (in the sense that it rests on valid assumptions about human nature) and one which could exist (in the sense that the model itself represents an imaginable society). It may be that Rawls only saw himself as developing the first of these; however, to the extent that such an abstract standard can be a driver for reforms to the society we have, it must surely be possible to envisage reforms which would represent steps towards it, even if they were fated never to reach it. And, if Rawls’s model is supposed to represent something approachable (even if not attainable), we’re back to the original question: why are his subjects so nice?”

The names of the Rawls (1400 words)

Rawls, quietist: “the ideal outcome seems to be, not merely a system without injustice, but one without conflict. The point is not that conflicts of interest and diverging preferences would be taken into account, but that they would always already have been taken into account. I find it hard to reconcile this line of thinking with Rawls’s evident assumption that political processes would operate in his imagined society; I’m not sure what point politics would have. This is not, in other words, the work of someone who believes that human history has always been and always will be driven by scarcities and conflicts of interest.”

(The other names I tried out are ‘bourgeois liberal’, ‘right Libertarian’, ‘Right Hegelian’, ‘utopian’ and ‘Pragmatist’ (note capital P).)


The next post stands on its own, as does its infamously difficult subject:

Mutterings in favour of Kelsen (in response to “Kelsen visited” (1963) and “Kelsen’s doctrine of the unity of law” (1968) (2000 words)

“Hart’s arguments against Kelsen are both meticulous and dense, but they take two main forms: demonstrations that one of Kelsen’s assertions cannot be logically sustained, or has unsatisfactory implications if assumed to be true; and demonstrations that, even if true, the assertion would not do the work Kelsen claims that it does. I’m certainly not in a position to say anything authoritative about Kelsen, let alone rebut any of Hart’s criticisms. In this post I want to take on an easier target: Hart’s bafflement.”


Finally, a series of five posts relating to Hart’s debate with Lon Fuller. The focus is on Hart’s concessions to natural law theory, taking into account two papers by David Lyons. Hart suggested that Lyons’s arguments – supporting a position on natural law in some ways more severe than Hart’s – might prompt ‘considerable modification’ of his own position, although he did not (to my knowledge) follow up this suggestion.

Hart and natural law: the three concessions (2200 words)

“There are certain adverse outcomes to which we are all vulnerable, in any imaginable human society, and which – crucially – we can all bring about in others: anyone can kill or be killed, steal or be stolen from, abandon or be abandoned. Hence a certain minimum, presumptively universal, content to the law, which can without too many problems be called natural. (It might seem that deprivation of human kindness – abandonment by one person of another – is considerably less serious than robbery or violence. But consider that, in most cases where one adult can be said to abandon another, it will be unclear who has deprived whom of kindness. Ideas of abandonment come into play – and into the realm of the law – where one party is need of care and/or the other has a duty of care.)”

Hart and natural law: Lyons on formal justice (2300 words)

“In [one hypothetical] case, we know that the law is just and that a just decision is, at least, highly likely; in [another], we know that the criteria given by the law are not just, and that the possibility of a just outcome is vanishingly small. Can we still speak of injustice being done by a capriciously varied application of the law – perhaps, if the judge delays three days before passing sentence, rules on a second case in five minutes flat and reads the third sentence in a silly voice? This, surely, would be a violation of fair official treatment of which even the acquitted defendants could complain, and which would make the position of the defendants in the nightmare scenario still worse.”

Hart and natural law: Lyons on Fuller (1300 words)

“[Lyons writes:] ‘we cannot learn what use of sanctions is (or would be) unjust simply by understanding what the law is. We need to know what constitutes an injustice. And so far, our understanding of what the law is tells us nothing about that.’ On the contrary – Fuller might have answered – while ‘our understanding of what the law is’ may tell us nothing about injustice, our ordinary-language understanding of injustice tells us that the imposition of laws which could not be followed would constitute an injustice. The question of justice is engaged by the process of ascribing, to some individuals but not others, the social status of having broken a law; break the link between this status and those individuals’ past freely-chosen actions, and injustice necessarily results.”

Hart and natural law: the three concessions reviewed (3000 words)

“A striking virtue of Fuller’s argument is that it considers legal systems as a whole, arguing that they may exhibit the same merits and defects in many different ways. An individual law may be unfollowable for reasons of content, structure, administration or enforcement: because it clearly requires the impossible, or because it is drafted so badly as to be incomprehensible, or because it is liable to be changed without warning, or because it is only capriciously enforced. With this in mind, it is worth recalling the first aspect of the minimum content of natural law – the substantive element – and asking whether it may have any bearing on the other two, wholly or partly procedural, elements. If laws – some laws – are required in any conceivable human society, for the sake of bare collective survival, does this tell us something about the nature of law? Might it be appropriate – natural, indeed – to take as a starting point the assumptions that (contra Lyons) law does in fact embody the value of justice in society, and that (contra Hart) this value is of supreme moral importance?”

Hart and natural law: reactions (2900 words)

(On three papers by Matthew Kramer, Leslie Green and John Gardner)
“Kramer’s critique of Lyons is excellent, and his position on procedural justice – that it is a virtue but should not be seen as a moral virtue – seems authentically Hartian; I was not convinced by the argument by which he supported it, though. Green fills out the legal positivist background very usefully, as well as alighting on a potential connection – not necessarily one Hart had in mind – between a procedural morality of law and the minimum content of natural law. Gardner’s paper does an excellent job of presenting Hart as a liberal idealist, albeit one with a neuralgic reaction to the word ‘morality’; the argument is very much in line with my own thinking about the law, but as an interpretation of Hart I found it less persuasive.”


Hart, Nozick, Dworkin (in that order)

There was an old person of Ware,
Who rode on the back of a bear:
When they ask’d, – ‘Does it trot?’–
He said ‘Certainly not!
He’s a Moppsikon Floppsikon bear!’
Edward Lear

Another couple of notes on current reading.

Herbert Hart’s essays “Between utility and rights” and “Rawls on liberty and its priority” make some interesting critical points on Nozick, Dworkin and Rawls – to be precise, the Nozick of Anarchy, State and Utopia, the Dworkin of Taking Rights Seriously and the Rawls of A Theory of Justice. I’ll cover Nozick (again) and Dworkin in this post, Rawls in a separate post.

Hart’s comments on Nozick are a bit less knockabout than the comments I mentioned in the previous post, but no more favourable. Hart presents ASU as one long series of exercises of the definitional fiat: if you define the right to own property as fundamental (and not, say, the right to life), and if you define taxation as logically equivalent to forced labour – one of several hyperbolical flourishes which Nozick seems to use both for effect and in earnest, in a “ha ha only serious” sort of way – then it follows that only the most minimal of minimal states can be legitimate, and so on. (Hence Nozick’s iconic status with right-Libertarians and other anti-state economic liberals. To be fair, Nozick’s model also has some far from conservative implications when it comes to present-day property ownership, given that only freely-undertaken transfers of title are treated as legitimate – and this with a fairly demanding definition of ‘free’.) If you define your terms thus and so, in other words, the model you build will give the conclusions you’re looking for. I don’t know if Hart ever read Schutz, but reading this paper I was strongly reminded of this passage, which forms the conclusion to Schutz’s essay “Common sense and scientific interpretation of human action”:

The relationship between the social scientist and the puppet he has created reflects to a certain extent an age-old problem of theology and metaphysics, that of the relationship between God and his creatures. The puppet exists and acts merely by the grace of the scientist; it cannot act otherwise than according to the purpose which the scientist’s wisdom has determined it to carry out. Nevertheless, it is supposed to act as if it were not determined but could determine itself. A total harmony has been pre-established between the determined consciousness bestowed upon the puppet and the pre-constituted environment within which it is supposed to act freely, to make rational choices and decisions. This harmony is possible only because both, the puppet and its reduced environment, are the creation of the scientist. And by keeping to the principles which guided him, the scientist succeeds, indeed, in discovering within the universe, thus created, the perfect harmony established by himself.

Defining people as independent property-owners – rather than, say, as interdependent community-builders – Nozick succeeds (indeed) in discovering within the universe, thus created, the perfect harmony established by himself.

But perhaps this isn’t the worst thing a political philosopher can do. To be more precise, for me this sort of frankly other-worldly (u-topian) system-building isn’t the most difficult or annoying thing a political philosopher can do. If Nozick stacked the deck – or rather, substituted a pack of cards of his own design – it’s no more than Marx did. What I find far harder to deal with is an approach taken by both Rawls and Dworkin (what little I’ve read of them), which I’d characterise as a kind of mundane idealism. It’s not that they don’t have ideas for a better world, or that they don’t build systems – Rawls in particular could never be accused of either of those failings. It’s that the ideas they have, and the systems they build, are tethered to (their) contemporary social conditions in ways I find unpredictable, arbitrary and unjustified. Marx had his blind spots – Kate Soper said once that when Marx dreamed of being able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner“, she wanted to know who had made the dinner – but the human fundamentals he starts from are pretty fundamental (they don’t include money, for a start). Both Rawls and Dworkin seem to bob back and forth between blank-slate system-building and the most cautious, considered, Overton window realism, in a way which (for me) makes them very hard to get to grips with. The effect is to build an ideal world on some curiously unexamined foundations – as if to say that, come the revolution, we could spend the morning hunting and the afternoon lobbying our MP, then rear cattle in the evening and write a letter to the Guardian after dinner.

Hart wasn’t a Marxist – and he certainly wasn’t a utopian – so these aren’t exactly his criticisms of Rawls or Dworkin. But they’re not a million miles off. In Taking Rights Seriously, Dworkin presents individual rights in terms of the need to guarantee equal respect for all. Rights are thus a brake or side-constraint on the utilitarian pursuit of the common good; Dworkin refers specifically to ‘anti-utilitarian rights’. The idea is not simply that utilitarianism may sacrifice any individual’s freedom and well-being for the greater good of society, and that inviolable individual rights will prevent this happening; the problems with this superficially attractive idea were pointed out long ago (see previous post). Dworkin’s argument starts further down the line, conceding that some freedoms should in fact be sacrificed for the good of society, but maintaining that others should not – as we do when we argue that teachers should be free to punish children in their care but not to use physical force; or, that employers should be free to terminate employment after a disciplinary offence, but not to do so on the grounds of religion or ethnicity. In making statements like these, Dworkin argues, we are effectively mapping out a set of (anti-utilitarian) rights. But what are the boundaries of this set of rights and how can they be identified?

At this point I would be inclined to shrug and misquote Harold Macmillan – “Politics, dear boy, politics”. (Or – stretching the Macmillan image a bit – “Struggle, dear boy, struggle”.) Dworkin, who was made of sterner stuff, argued that the rights which should be protected are those which would qualify on utilitarian grounds – or (what amounts to the same thing) those which would gain majority support in a free vote – under certain conditions. The key condition is that the preferences to be considered in the utilitarian argument – or (less straightforwardly) the preferences on the basis of which votes would have to be cast in order to be valid – are self-directed; other-directed preferences would count for nothing. So, for example, “All in favour of making Wesleyan Methodism the state religion” is (arguably) self-directed but wouldn’t pass. “All in favour of freedom of worship for you and your family” is self-directed and would pass. “All in favour of denying freedom of worship to Wesleyan Methodists” might pass, but it’s other-directed and so shouldn’t be allowed to. Hence, freedom of worship is an anti-utilitarian right. If other-directed preferences are allowed to count, Dworkin argued, the effect is tantamount to double-counting: I’m not only getting what I want (freedom for me) but negating someone else’s vote for what they want (no freedom for Wesleyan Methodists). On the other hand, if other-directed preferences are not expressed (or even felt) – if nobody, or hardly anybody, wants to deny anyone freedom of worship in the first place – the right ceases to be anti-utilitarian, fades into the background and ultimately ceases to exist. If you can get the same result by referring to “rights”, “common sense” and “the way things are done”, few people will choose the first option – or have any need to.

Hart finds all of this puzzling. (As an aside, the more I read Hart the more I envy anyone who knew him – let alone anyone who had him as a supervisor. I imagine that his expressions of puzzlement were a warning sign that you would come to fear, or relish.) The idea that rights – not the expression or effective assertion of rights, but the rights themselves – are time- and place-dependent is a stumbling-block; as Hart points out, this would mean that citizens of the most liberal and empowering society would have the fewest rights, which seems counter-intuitive to say the least. Hart’s argument focuses mainly on the (metaphorical?) image of double-counting and the idea of other-directed preferences, both of which he finds to be much more slippery, and harder to generalise, than Dworkin acknowledged. The idea of double-counting, in fact, he simply finds incoherent, once it’s generalised beyond simple examples of policies which explicitly disadvantage a targeted group – do we add one for every individual (other than the voter him or herself) who is either benefited or disadvantaged by a vote, since our vote counts for one extra vote for or against their interests? (And if so, how many valid – single-counted – votes would be left?) Hart finds the broader idea of other-directed preferences more substantial but just as problematic. He notes (using slightly different terms) that Dworkin would count a heterosexual voter’s opposition to gay rights as an other-directed preference; he then asks why, if the same voter came round to supporting gay rights, this preference would not also be considered ‘other-directed’ and hence inadmissible.

Two answers seem to be available, both difficult to argue. Hart’s own conclusion is that discounting positive other-directed preferences in this way would be absurd. We could theorise this position by argue that other-directed preferences should be seen as admissible – and, perhaps, that they should not be seen as other-directed – when their tendency is to promote overall equality of respect. The problem with this argument is that it relies on smuggling substantive ideas of the good back into an argument which purports to float free of them. Which is to say, the concept of equality of respect does not, in itself, give us the means to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples of the ‘other-directed preference’. Shaw’s inversion of the Golden Rule – “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They may have different tastes.” – is glib and shallow, but it remains (annoyingly) pertinent. If I believed that human flourishing was best secured through the institution of heterosexual monogamy, I could argue that those social arrangements which promote it pay the most respect to all individuals, however uninterested in that institution they might be at the moment. Encouraging the expression of homosexual feelings would then be a disrespectful other-directed preference, despite its superficial liberalism: it would express the contemptuous view that some people were unable to overcome their base and self-destructive urges – as if to say that the liberal response to alcoholism was to set alcoholics free to drink themselves to death. Equally, it could be argued that laws mandating maximum working hours or a minimum wage are not founded on respect for the worker (or self-respect for oneself as worker) but on other-directed disrespect for the employers who would be inconvenienced by them – a prejudice against business which should not be given consideration. And so on.

Alternatively – and more consistently with the letter of Dworkin’s argument – we could argue that even altruistic other-directed preferences should not be counted: that only the preferences of those directly affected should be taken into consideration. The problem with this approach is that it would delegitimate social solidarity among anyone whose shoe didn’t pinch in exactly the same place, depoliticising rights discourse to a disabling extent. It would, for example, make it inadmissible for supporters to advance the rights of a group whose members were not themselves demanding them – a familiar scenario in the context of groups as disparate as children in care, migrant workers and abused women. Something like this does in fact appear to have been Dworkin’s position, although he avoided its more alarming implications by supplementing his modified version of preference utilitarianism with deontological arguments. In other words, he held that altruistic other-directed preferences should not in fact be counted as individual preferences, but that they should be attended to as the expression of views which might be independently (‘ideally’) correct, irrespective of how many or how few people held them. By this point, though, we are not so much smuggling an idea of the good into a utilitarian argument as moving out of the utilitarian argument altogether to shack up with an idea of the good.

Whichever way you take it, Dworkin’s argument against other-directed preferences seems to boil down to saying that majority votes – and utilitarian greater-good arguments – are problematic when they justify things that are wrong; the question of what actually is wrong remains open (and, I would add, political). It could be argued that these considerations of value pluralism have nothing to do with equality of respect – in other words, that these are arguments we would have been having anyway – but in fact that’s the point: Dworkin’s metric gives us no guidance precisely when we need it. Hart concludes by casting doubt on whether it is possible to derive anything of substance from the notion of equality of respect: after all, a law forbidding the practice of any religion is just as equal in its respect for belief as a law allowing complete religious freedom. (Both have an impact on the lives of all believers – and no non-believers.) In terms of equal application, Hart adds ghoulishly, “kill everyone” is just as good a command as “kill no one”.

Dworkin replied to Hart’s criticisms, in a paper with the unhelpful title of “Is there a right to pornography?” (try googling “Dworkin pornography” and see what you get). I have read it – the section on Hart at least – but I’ve got to admit defeat. I’m honestly not sure what Dworkin was saying, although there seemed to be a certain amount of question-dodging and subject-changing going on. I can recommend John Hart Ely’s 1983 paper on the Dworkin/Hart exchange, “Professor Dworkin’s External/Personal Preference Distinction”; Ely engages much more closely with Dworkin than I have the energy for, but he ends up seeming equally unimpressed (“Professor Dworkin has led us a merry chase, but each of the alleys has proven blind”).

Hart seems to have found Rawls considerably more substantial than Dworkin; he praises A Theory of Justice highly. But issues remain.

The gate to the law

The other day I was reading what I believe is the latest (and trust is the last) instalment in the long and almost epistolary debate between Matthew Kramer and Nigel Simmonds on the inherent morality of the law. (Nothing to say about that at the moment.) After following a few footnote references a song came unbidden to mind:

O Lord, won’t you buy me a sub to Jurisprudence?
The papers of interest are so multitudin’s!
Worked hard all my lifetime – ain’t no Homo Ludens –
So Lord, won’t you buy me a sub to Jurisprudence?

Or, more wistfully,

I often dream of reading Jurisprudence
I recommend it to selected students
I dream of it constantly
Accessed through the British Library,
Oxford or Cambridge,
Or Birmingham…

My institution, in other words, doesn’t subscribe to the journal where some of the key debates in a topic that fascinates me are being carried on. (As indeed most institutions don’t – the list above is exhaustive as far as I know.) There’s a simple solution, of course; it’s called an inter-library loan. The only problem is the opportunity cost – by which I don’t mean the (fairly trivial) effort of going to the library and filling in a form, but the fact that deciding to do so would inevitably remind me of all the reading I’ve already got queued up (physical books included). So for now those papers by Simmonds, Gardner, Finnis et al are just going to have to wait.

Getting introspective for a moment, Jurisprudence and its non-availability are a bit of a Russian doll for me. A series of worries and fears are nested behind my resentment of not being able to get hold of it: the suspicion that if I had those papers I wouldn’t get round to reading them; and that if I did it would just be an intellectual hobby – I wouldn’t actually be able to use them, e.g. by writing anything (or anything I could get published); and that, if I wrote something properly theoretical and got it published (which is a big if), I still wouldn’t be in the kind of job where writing this kind of stuff was expected and approved. But perhaps those aren’t independent worries; perhaps it’s just an inner voice saying yeah, but it wouldn’t work… And actually that’s precisely what I don’t know. (More to the point, I don’t know how going down that route would work, or what precisely it would lead to.) So perhaps I just need to give it a go and see what happens. Including an ILL for an issue or two of Jurisprudence – at least, once I’ve got through the backlog.

I’m also wondering about further qualifications. Getting a Graduate Diploma in Law would take two years of fairly intensive part-time study (where the year runs October-June). I could do the same thing by taking Open University modules; this would take four years of what would also be fairly intensive part-time study (year running February to October). Comparing the OU option with the GDL, the prospect of taking twice as long for the same qualification at once attracts and repels me: it would be a good learning experience, but do I want to commit that much time and effort? There’s also the fact that, while getting some Law under my belt would suit me personally, it wouldn’t benefit me greatly in the job I’m actually doing – and doing the degree would make me ineligible for research funding from some sources, which would be a positive disadvantage.

Don’t know where I am with that; all comments welcome. In the mean time, here’s the abstract of a paper I’ve just had accepted for publication (Journal of Criminal Law):

New ASBOs for old?
The Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was designed as a civil/criminal hybrid, preventive in structure and with a largely undefined object. After 2002, legal challenges to the ASBO led to the use of justificatory arguments from cumulative effect, and to the introduction of new measures which offered to regulate anti social behaviour in more legally acceptable forms. The Coalition currently proposes to replace the ASBO with two new instruments: a post-conviction Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) and a wholly-civil ‘injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance’ (IPNA). While the CBO and IPNA build on this history, it is argued that they do not represent a new approach to anti social behaviour so much as a continuation of the ASBO by other means.

And the abstract of a paper I’ve just submitted to a conference next year on “Penal law, abolitionism and anarchism” (feat. Joe Sim and Vincenzo Ruggiero):

Law after law? Abolitionism and the rule of law

Liberal legal theorists have argued that the law has an inherent morality (Simmonds 2007), making it an intrinsically valuable social project, and that the institutions and practices making up the rule of law encapsulate key virtues of the concept of law (Waldron 2008). However, the rule of law as we know it is predicated on two concepts which are alien to anarchist and abolitionist perspectives – the state, its authority ultimately guaranteed by unchallengeable coercive power, and its antagonist the rights-bearing, self-interested individual. Can we think in terms of the rule of law without invoking state coercion or competitive individualism? Is the morality of law an ideological construct specific to the era of capitalist competition, or does it embody ideals which would remain valuable in a society not predicated on capitalist economics and state coercion? If we assume that such a society would have its own (rule of) law, how do we envisage transitional or prefigurative forms of law? This paper suggests some provisional answers to these questions, drawing on contemporary jurisprudential debates and on studies of the alternative legalities imposed by gangs and ‘armed struggle’ groups.

Now I just need to write one explaining the connection between those two…

That would be an ecumenical matter

Small personal update. I’ve just spent two days on a bid-writing retreat, organised to support people working in Humanities departments at my university – criminologists (like me), sociologists, linguists, historians, geographers and a lawyer or two. ‘Retreat’ was the operative word – it was a very quiet two days, rather solitary in fact. This was very much thanks to the venue, a huge Victorian house run since the mid-70s by a Christian community. One door had a sign saying that the room beyond was reserved for quiet meditation; it turned out to be a large, light and well-furnished living room, in which I could have meditated quietly for hours or more. The atmosphere was scarcely any less tranquil when the room had been occupied by five people staring at laptops.

I had a bit of trouble with my bid. I got a permanent position in 2010 and applied myself fairly concentratedly to teaching for the next couple of years. Now that I’ve cleared a bit of time and headspace for research, I keep finding I’ve had a brilliant idea which somebody else has already researched or written about – very often within the last two years, infuriatingly enough. (Or, most infuriatingly of all, a brilliant idea which has superficial but obvious similarities to part of a research project that somebody else has carried out within the last couple of years. Not that I’m bitter.) Anyway, I ended up essentially ripping up my original idea and starting again – a productive but difficult process which can’t really be done while sitting in front of a laptop. Standing up is involved – pacing, ideally; there is generally speech, also, or muttering at the very least.

In search of a room to pace and mutter, I found myself in a sunroom on the first floor. I did some quite useful rethinking, then looked around and noticed the books. I’d seen a couple of bookcases around the place and taken a vague bibliophilic interest in the religious texts in them, but the books in the sunroom were something else. There were books in that room I hadn’t seen in five years – ten, even: books that I’d last seen on my parents’ bookshelves. (My father died in 2001, my mother in 2006; they were both pillars of the local church and had been all my life.) Then I noticed the chairs – two in particular out of the many armchairs in that one room (that house was extraordinarily well upholstered). They were old-style high-backed armchairs, well-used, in covers with a light-coloured William Morris-ish floral pattern. I’d seen chairs covered with that particular material before – specifically, I’d seen them in my parents’ living room. When we’d set about clearing the house there had been some discussion with a Christian group, although it didn’t come to anything (fire regulations); I wondered for a moment if some less discriminating charity had come back later and scooped up chairs and books and all. They would then need to have transported them to the other end of the country, though, which I realised was unlikely. It was an odd moment. At the end of the first chapter of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The unconsoled (very minor spoiler), the narrator looks around his Central European hotel room and is reminded momentarily of his boyhood bedroom, before being struck by the realisation that it is his boyhood bedroom – the room he remembers so fondly has been rebuilt in this distant city, especially for him. This was a bit too close to that scene for comfort.

But of course (I reminded myself) there are lots of armchairs out there covered with Morris-esque florals. And, when I really looked, it turned out that most of the books I’d recognised actually weren’t books I’d seen on my parents’ bookshelves – not within the last ten years, at any rate. They were books, and authors, like these:

Michel Quoist
Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)
Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be)
Don Cupitt
Rollo May’s Love and Will
The Truth of God Incarnate (this stood out a bit; it was written as a riposte to The Myth of ditto, which would have fitted much better but wasn’t there)
Bias to the Poor
Colin Morris (Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor)
The ‘Honest to God’ Debate (although not John Robinson’s Honest to God itself)
The New Inquisition (a critical commentary on the excommunication of Hans Küng)
a book taking a positive view of Taizé
a book taking a positive view of Pentecostalism

And now the trapdoor of memory really opened. Never mind ten years, these were books I hadn’t seen in thirty years or more; many were books I hadn’t even thought of in thirty years. They were still instantly familiar: they gave me the same kind of jolt of recognition that you get when you dream of meeting someone who’s died – “why did I think I’d forgotten you?”. (Even as I write it I’m struck by how eerie the simile is, but it is apt. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, and I think books are particularly rich in them.) Some of these were books that my parents had had in the house where I grew up, and turned out when they moved to Brighton in the mid-1980s; some were books that had been on the lending shelf in our local church, or on the freely-lent-from bookshelves in the Rectory, where the Rector’s wife used to keep open house for artists, musicians and local kids.

In short, as I looked around that room I was breathing the air of a certain kind of church in the 1970s (where ‘church’ means the community more than the building). I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. As well as being ecumenical as regards other Christians, being a Christian in a church like this meant being non-literalistic and generally non-doctrinaire on the Christian story itself. (When David Jenkins said that the Resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, he was very much talking our language: as if to say, we’ll concede the flesh-and-blood resurrection if that means we can talk about what the Resurrection actually means. Shame it didn’t come across like that.) It meant not believing that you, or your church, had all the answers, or that anybody did (apart from God); it meant not worrying too much about being saved but believing that there was work to be done in this life (in the words of the Christian Aid motto, “We believe in life before death”). More specifically, it meant taking Jesus seriously when he talked about the eye of the needle and giving away your coat and the sheep and the goats. The Christians I met when I went away to university were all about Biblical literalism and accepting Jesus as your personal saviour; it was like going from seminars on number theory to being drilled in multiplication tables, badly. I never really went back to the church after that; I visited my parents’ new church in Brighton a few times and got to know the vicar (he preferred ‘priest’), but it wasn’t the same kind of church – higher, quieter, more doctrinally orthodox, less radical politically.

All of this is, of course, rather a long time ago; when you’re looking back at the age of 52, the people you had around you in your teens are often not there any more. Around 1979, the Rector moved on and was replaced by a new Rector (who didn’t much hold with the intellectual stuff and certainly didn’t hold with the ‘open house’ thing). Around 1984, my parents moved to Brighton. In the 1990s, the Rector died (fairly young, unexpectedly), and the new Rector retired (I don’t know who replaced him). The years since 2000 have seen the deaths of my father, the vicar in Brighton (who also died young and unexpectedly), my mother and the Rector’s widow. (My entire academic career to date has taken place in the same period, and most of it since my mother died – a disjuncture in time which made it particularly poignant to be faced by those books in that setting.) It’s as if the books had outlived their readers. Michel Quoist and Teilhard, Honest to God and Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor: names like these make up a picture, for me, but it’s not a picture I can easily check out with anyone else. Memory can be lonely, even when it’s supported by tangible things; perhaps especially then. Maybe that’s another, not too strained, reading of sunt lacrimae rerum – “these are the tears of things”: tears which the things keep to themselves until somebody strikes the rock and draws them out.

All this in a few minutes – it was a dense experience as well as an odd one – in between pacing and muttering. As for my bid, having abandoned something about subjective experiences of procedural justice, I came away with an idea about subjective experiences of the rule of law – much more exciting. (It actually is much more exciting as far as I’m concerned, which hopefully will make for a more persuasive bid; I should certainly be able to dedicate more of myself to it.) It would make a better story if I said I would now be conducting research on the inter-generational construction of non-denominational religious identities, or something, but reality is obdurate. Besides, I need to keep something for the blog.

It’s over there, it’s over there

I’m slightly long-sighted; I prefer to have the screen a good long way away from me when I’m working. Flat screens and compact keyboards make this more feasible than ever before. Unfortunately this also opens up large expanses of empty desk space, and you know what they say – nature abhors empty desk space.

I was looking for my library card just now – not my work library card or my main library card, but the card for the libraries in the next council area along, and not the actual card but a little dog-tag thing they gave me with my number printed on it; I’m sure I last saw it on my desk. (I wanted it because I’d cleared my browser history a week or so ago, in a vain attempt to get my bank’s online system to do what they said it should be doing, and it wiped my login for the OED online. Did you know you can log in to the OED online with a library card? The actual OED, online – check it out.)

Anyway, I can’t see the dog-tag thing. What I can see, working roughly from right to left, is:

seven ink cartridges (various colours)
a 1 TB external drive, sitting on top of a seemingly identical 500 GB drive
two identical beany cats, sitting on top of the 1 TB drive
a camera (my son’s)
a watch (my wife’s)
a rubber (my daughter’s)
two cork-backed coasters promoting Caraca Cane Beer
a small cube of blu-tack
a pencil
four pens
a wireless mouse
a keyboard (viz. the one I’m using)
a two-level desk tray (don’t ask me what’s in it, we’d be here all day)
a beermat promoting a local beer festival
a Woodbine and Ivy Band badge
an onyx egg
an E-topup card for my phone (never used, no idea what it’s doing on my desk)
the security code for my wireless network, printed out in case I ever need to key it in again
a friend’s address
a screen (the one I’m looking at)
the stylish black screen cloth supplied with the Mac, draped over the iSight lens (I’m assured by those who know that there is no possibility of the iSight activating without me knowing about it, but I still prefer to keep it covered)
a small papier-mache capybara, perched on the screen cloth
a wired mouse, kept handy for when the batteries in the wireless ditto run down
a post-it note with some indecipherable notes in my son’s writing
an ornamental dragon and a pair of chopsticks, brought back by my son from his trip to China
a fortune-cookie motto (“When winter comes Heaven will rain success on you”), acquired in January 2011 and subsequently disproved
a headphone adaptor
two watch batteries
an MP3 player
a sandstone cat (bought many years ago, originally intended as a present for my mother but never given to her)
a papier-mache ornament consisting of two human-looking cats sitting on a sofa (a present from my daughter)
two different USB leads
three memory sticks
the screw-on handle for a digital recorder
another pencil
two pairs of in-ear headphones
two paperclips
a card-reader (from the bank)
a page-a-day Countdown calendar
several old pages from page-a-day Countdown calendars, for when I feel the need of a nine-letter anagram to solve (this rarely happens)
two rubber bands
a ‘medal’ awarded to my team for coming second in a local treasure hunt
a handwritten copy of the code for my wireless network
most of a bar of ‘espresso chocolate’ which tasted like it had chilli in (put to one side until I worked out whether this was normal)
a wireless router (with, may I stress this, nothing on top of it)
a tin of paperclips
an SD card (unused)
one of those little plastic bags with two buttons in that you get with a new jacket (jacket unidentified)
some very small post-it notes
a six-inch ruler (not mine)
four more beermats (awaiting conversion to two double-sided coasters)
a round wooden pot with a perpetual calendar set into the lid
a digital recorder
a recorder (the instrument)
a high G whistle
a D whistle and a C whistle, in a cloth bag
three more D whistles (on loan from a friend); there’s usually another one as well, which is the one I actually play
two plastic rods for cleaning recorders
another pen
a small plastic bag containing a zither tuning key, a length of wire and two plectrums
a printer
a box full of assorted software and PC games, sitting on top of the printer
several more PC games, sitting on top of the box
an AAA battery
another paperclip
an Arctic Monkeys badge
a pile of books and papers (mostly either work- or folk-related, although for some reason the book at the bottom of the pile is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
a book of folk songs
a CAMRA membership pack (wonder what’s actually in there? I’ve spent all the JDW’s tokens, I do know that)
an Olympics brochure
another pile of books and papers (almost all work-related, although for some reason the book at the top of the pile is Tom Phillips’ A Humument)

My desk, in short, has every convenience; it’s going to make life easy for me. Hardly any clutter at all.

Wish I knew what I’d done with that library card, though.

Update 18th May
Obviously(?) there’s no great significance to this post, which I wrote mainly so as to get posting here again (and partly to shame myself into tidying my desk a bit). But there is one odd fact to report. There’s one object which I didn’t include on the list, even when I read it through after publishing it and made a couple of additions for the sake of completeness (they were “another pencil” and “another paperclip”, just to illustrate the level of completeness we’re talking about). It wasn’t lurking in a corner, either; it was sitting straight ahead of me, front and centre, between the Countdown calendar and the two USB leads.

It’s a wristwatch; it’s stopped working, which is why it’s on the desk (along with the two watch batteries, one of which I’d bought as a replacement). It’s not just any wristwatch, either; it’s my father’s old watch, handed down to me after he died. My father was bedridden for several months at the end; in fact he was in a hospital bed, which my mother had installed in their bedroom so that she could carry on looking after him. Apart from books, my father didn’t have that many personal possessions when he died; most of his clothes had already been given away, partly because he didn’t need to get dressed any more but mainly because the bed took up so much space that the wardrobe in the bedroom had to go. The books, for their part, stayed where they were until my mother died a few years later. So this watch is one of the few things that I (or anyone) can point to and say, that was his. (Another is his desk – which is an old-style drop-front bureau, and for that reason alone was never cluttered; my son uses it for his homework now.) I wasn’t particularly fond of my Dad’s watch; it’s got a metal bracelet, which I don’t like, and my father had only got it relatively recently, so it didn’t have any history for me. I had to be persuaded to take it when he died; I’m glad I did, though.

This was only my third watch; the second, which I’d had since I was 15, was a mechanical watch (they all were then) which I’d bought from an offer on a box of cornflakes, of all places. It was my father who brought it to my attention and lent me the money – it was about £7, as I remember, which was quite a lot for the mid-70s but well worth it. (I’ve still got it, but after two big repairs, several new glasses and uncountable replacement straps it reached a point where the next repair would cost more than it was worth.) All of which means that the watch I’m wearing – bought at the age of 51 – is the first I’ve ever owned which hasn’t had strong associations with my father.

I’ve been wondering what to do with my father’s watch now that it’s packed up; it’s not going out with the rubbish, for obvious reasons, but it can’t sit on my desk forever (despite some evidence to the contrary). I’ll probably find where I’ve put my (maternal) grandfather’s fob-watch – which was also informally handed down by my mother – and put it with that.

It was an odd thing to leave out, really.

Let’s eat some toast

This blog seems to have ground to a halt rather. I’ve been busy (haven’t we all), and a lot of the spare time I have has been taken up by 52 Folk Songs (which is going well, but I don’t want to go on about it here again). Even the beer blog has been quiet, although not as quiet as this one – having a definite focus seems to help (“haven’t written anything about beer lately…”)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you’re not reading Michael Rosen’s blog, give it a go. It’s terrific. He’s got a lot to say, and it’s all good, or at least interesting; it’s mostly about education, but don’t let that put you off if you think you’re not interested in ‘education’. I wish he’d enable comments on it – he writes some really thought-provoking stuff, leaving me at least with nowhere for the provoked thoughts to go – but at the rate he’s posting at the moment it’s probably wise not to.

I don’t know Mike Rosen, although I have argued with him on blogs (mostly not about education). Like a lot of people, I first saw his name attached to children’s poetry, and children’s poetry of a particular kind. Now, I write (one doesn’t write about something, one just writes), and when I was at school I wrote a lot of poems; not because the teachers (or anyone else) wanted me to, but because it was something I enjoyed, felt I could do well, took pride in doing well. (Three slightly different things. I’ll come back to that.) And also because my older sister did and I admired her for it. I was an inquisitive reader and we had lots of books around the place – books we all valued, boringly grown-up books, weirdly grown-up books and (I think quite importantly) books that nobody valued at all; books we all thought a bit ridiculous, that were just there. (My mother’s incomplete Sociology degree had left her with a copy of Criminal Behaviour, by Reckless. What a book. Never once got it off the shelf.) What with the Important New Poetry anthologies and the Ridiculous Old Poetry anthologies, I read or skimmed through quite a bit of poetry, and I got interested in how you write poetry. So I wrote sonnets (both kinds) and villanelles (the proper tetrameter kind) and got into Gerard Manley Hopkins, and recovered from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (after reading a bit of Shakespeare) got quite accomplished at iambic pentameter; it reached the point where I could turn it out at will, to length, with hardly any strain and quick as speech, or hardly any slower. Only a few of my poems rhymed, but most of them scanned, and the ones that didn’t scan I was generally going for a Ted Hughes-ish solemnity, a “hear the silence around the words” kind of effect.

So that was poetry, and it was something I could do; I enjoyed doing it, enjoyed feeling I could do it well, took pride in doing it well. For a studious middle-class child – or perhaps I just mean “for me” – the thought of me taking pride in something I could do came with a definite corollary, which was that there were lots of other people (or kids) out there who couldn’t do what I could do. And this didn’t bother me greatly; if anything, I thought of all the things those kids could do (centring on sport and respect) and thought, well, at least I’ve got this. The thought of writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use – and reflective & creative language use being something that everyone can benefit from doing, especially children, the earlier the better – didn’t cross my mind. If it had, I would probably just have thought “they’ll be sorry…

Then along came this Rosen character with his “poems” that just look like somebody’s sat down and started writing – or not even that, just like somebody’s stood up and opened their mouth. Along came Rosen and “poems” that anyone could write. Seriously, anyone. You didn’t have to understand poetry first, you didn’t have to read poetry first, you didn’t have to make your language fit a metric grid (should be metrical, need to work on that) – you could just write about stuff, and that was poetry! I was appalled.

The rest of the story can be told quite quickly. I was wrong.

He was right (about the whole writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use thing).

And he’s still being right – or at least interesting – about a bunch of things, mainly but not exclusively related to education.

Read the blog, it’s great.

And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:


For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

Do you really want to be

Quoth John B, in comments on something else entirely at B&T:

Anyone who a) has career aspirations when they’re 17 and b) they’re not vet, doctor, scientist, writer or pop star, is a disturbing weirdo.


+ ACTOR & sportsperson, on reflection, but that genuinely is about it

I’m not sure, for two reasons. One is that being 17 now really isn’t what it was when me and thee were lads (unless thou art significantly younger than me). Snagging another B&T comment:

Life may have changed I suspect – or at least the balance of ‘acceptable to express hopes for the future’ may have altered amongst 17 yr olds. All this endless droning on about (i) the skills based knowledge economy and wot not; and (ii) the need to up our national game vis a vis the Asiatic surge to 21st Century dominance may have had its effect.

I’m certainly teaching students who have a much better idea of where they’re going than I did at their age. Come to that, my son has a much better idea of where he’s going than I did at his age, and he’s not even in Sixth Form.

More importantly, I’ve got a nasty feeling the disturbing weirdoes always did have the right idea. When I was 16 my career aspirations went something like this (in order of decreasing desirability and increasing realism – i.e. mentally insert “and if that doesn’t work out…” after each one).

  1. Poet, famous for writing poems that everyone thinks are brilliant, paid to write more poetry. Something like Dylan Thomas, only not drunk all the time. Not sure if anyone does that these days, but if they don’t I will.
  2. Rock star, kind of post-Bowie, bit intellectual, bit arty, costumes and dancing and so on. Something like Peter Gabriel. I could definitely do that, I’ve got the voice and I can learn the songs and everything.
  3. University lecturer. That would be OK, I’d be good at that. English or poetry or something. I could definitely do that.
  4. Journalist maybe? Can you get a job in journalism? What would you actually do?

By the time I was 21 and finishing my degree I’d crossed off 1. and 2. Unfortunately I’d also crossed off 3. – I’d got a look at the way graduate students studying English literature seemed to live, and decided it was simpliciter sanguinarius atrox (Joyce): privileged, unreal, pointless. Like the Leyton Buzzards, I didn’t want to end up posh and shirty – I wanted to work and get my hands dirty, or at least work at a proper job with an ordinary employer and a salary and hours of work and everything. Looking back, I’m not at all sure what was behind this impulse, although I think the Buzzards could have given me a clue if I’d listened more closely[1]. In particular, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that lecturers were employees too – and that graduate students, who weren’t even that, actually had things pretty hard. Really, I had it backwards – it’s not a life of privilege undercut by arid scholasticism, it’s a life of penury compensated by doing work you love. Perhaps the real problem was that I was in the process of falling out of love with Eng Lit, and it didn’t occur to me then to look further afield academically (and see [1]).

Anyway, I ended up as a journalist (and in answer to my teenage self, what you do is anything and everything that they ask you to do). After only nine years of writing for a living I managed to work my way into academia, and little more than five years after that I had a proper job. (Criminology, it turns out, is where it’s really at for me. Criminology and sociology. Sociology, criminology and the law. Criminology and socio-legal studies, and that’s my final offer.) Oh, and I’d worked in IT for eleven years before I managed to get into journalism, and I was on the dole for a good six months before I got my first programming job.

In short, I went into university with unrealistic dreams and came out with a goal that was realistic – there were lots of jobs in computing – but almost entirely wrong for me. (It wasn’t all bad. Coding can be fun, database admin is a good job in many ways and data analysis is brilliant.) It took me a good few years to get the boat turned round, and the key move was one I still look back on with mingled pride and horror, as it involved resigning from a perfectly good job with only a couple of months’ work lined up. (Twelve years on, I’m still not earning as much as I was paid at that job, even in cash terms.) It’s worked out, though, pretty much; arguably I should have stuck to one of my dreams all along (#3 would have been a good choice).

I don’t know, though. Settling for a job I didn’t enjoy, on the vague pseudo-radical grounds that most people had jobs they didn’t enjoy (and see [1]), wasn’t a good idea. The problem is that #3 and #4 were dreams, just as much as #1 and #2 – they were careers that were just going to happen to me somehow. I remember thinking that a medical student friend of mine was a bit strange because his dreams seemed to be so specific – from about 20 he knew what branch of medicine he was going to go into, how high he was going to rise (consultant), how much he’d be earning and what car he was going to drive. I realise now that they weren’t dreams, they were plans – and they were going to get him into his ideal career in a lot less than 20 years. (And yes, he is a consultant, and if he doesn’t drive that car it’s because he’s traded up.)

Still, who wants a life that’s been planned out? Me, I’d much rather be happy than right any day.


Don’t want to end up posh and shirty,
I want to work and get my hands dirty.
Middle-class boy brought up like me
Got to do something to earn credibility.
Don’t want my friends all looking at me
As a hoity-toity, airy-fairy,
Arty-farty little twerp!

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