Category Archives: popular singing groups

Something really fishy: Oh, Ramona

Here, then, is what I think is going on in Leon – or Ramona, as it should probably be called; Ramona and Grace in Cyberspace, perhaps. At any rate, here are the lyrics again, corrected (again) and this time with character attributions. I’ve reordered the three “suites” (“Leon takes us outside”/”The enemy is fragile”/”I am with name”) but otherwise left the unknown bootleggers’ handiwork pretty much intact. Reading the observation that “Leon takes us outside” is the only suite with both a start and an ending, I was tempted to reorder the “tracks” more comprehensively, but in the end I decided that the chaotic ending of “I am with name” makes a more fitting conclusion than the dreamy slow fade at the end of “LTUO”. I did move the “Stuck in a Web” monologue down a bit, though, on the basis that we should meet Baby Grace Blue in the outside world before we hear her cyberspace avatar. (Assuming that is who’s speaking at that point, which of course is debatable.)

Anyway, here’s what I ended up with. Share and enjoy!

Leon Blank: “25th June, 16th, Wednesday, July 6th, 2001 midwinter, June 6th, Wednesday, August 18th, 9th, 1999, 12th, Michaelmas, August, 13th, October 13th, afternoon, in view of nothing, 2001, Martin Luther King Day, 12th, August 13th, 17th June. 19th January, midwinter”

Narrator: “First time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek. The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…”

Nathan Adler: “I never see English anymore. Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of cantaloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’ – as sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck, or the foot on my ankle, or the car in my garage, or the wife in my kitchen, or a cloud in the sky, or a cow in a field, or the sun and the moon…. holy sun!”

Narrator: “We go through the crowd in Oxford town, moving on the sidewalk, faces to the ground. Oxford town…”

Rock star: “You got a breath-filled crowd here tonight, Eli!”

Nathan Adler: “Someone once said that beauty is only a deep skin. Why, it’s always been a stone in my flesh, I’ll tell you that for nothing. You’re better off without it. I mean, who eats the hard skin now? It ain’t Ramona A. Stone, that’s for sure. That don’t-wanna bitch is hanging around with cannibals, producing shots of white babies fastened to the arms of blind heifers. All the babies left home and the sky’s made of chrome – a breath-filled sky and it’s made of chrome. It was the night of an OK riot – she swanned along the street with her waving hair and her research grants… Choc-a-bloc babies in the heart, a block of black decay in the room – O what a room it was, what a womb, what a tomb it became! I’d rather be an OK riot; I’d rather be chrome than stay here at home. Don’t go near the bones, Leon can you hear? Get away Julie, don’t go there, there’s really a lot to fear. A breath-filled crowd, they might be super loud. They eat the hard skin, they sit on the lamplight, they’re white and black and loud. I’d rather be sitting on a cloud, I’d rather be eight foot loud, I’d rather be chrome. Well, I’ll bitch slap her home – I’m gonna be chrome! Beauty is a stone! I wanna be chrome!

Protector: “Friends of the Trust, you’ve been a breath-filled crowd tonight! You’ve been positively fly boys! We are surely on our way upon that superhighway of information. As far I’m concerned, you are all number one packet sniffers! So sing with me. We’ll creep together, you and I, under a bloodless chrome sky. We’ll find the small things, you and I; we’ll just have small friends, you and I; we’ll be small together, you and I. We’ll end together, you and I.”

Nathan Adler: “Huh! As far as I was concerned, there was always the slime end of the silicone chip biz. It seems that Ramona and Leon had just spiralled down into the cesspool. Like I always say, a person who loses a name feels anxiety descending. But hey, if I heard it right, she was always behaving like some don’t-wanna bitch. She was a well-blind woman, he was a well-intentioned man; this makes for a bad end. As I always said, it would end in chrome. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

Narrator: “Oh Ramona, can you hear me?”

Connoisseur: “What are you in terror of? Life needn’t step on baby fingers. The minutes fall, and the daemons find their ways unencumbered, half dead, poisoned by their own fatal art. Each dirty tune produces its own nobility of form; each pays a different piper – a daft pauper. O machine, how did we fail thee? I guess I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives[?] are broken and bent, like a wall strangled by ivy -”

Nathan Adler: “I remember a dame called Ivy – drove around in a hearse. Some way south on Oxford Town, near the mosque. Graffiti, cappuccino, you name it – they had it all. Those were the days. In those days everyone was psychopolitical – not the humbug packet sniffers they are now. Take Leon… please!”

Connoisseur: “The editors have done an excellent job. The selections are generous, the notations are scrupulously scholarly. To believe that the quality of a CD-ROM can be conveyed through translation may seem presumptuous, but I believe the enterprise is greatly successful.”

Narrator: “This is a magnificent achievement, a major triumph of Wolof music; a truly precious addition to the sum total of Wolof in English.”

Connoisseur: “The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired”

Narrator: “The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired. It leaves nothing to be desired!”

Voices: “Nothing to be desired!”

Narrator: “Mind changing! Mind changing! Change your mind changing! Stand by!

Voices: “Nothing to be desired!”

Narrator: “And there’s nothing to be desired – if not fishy! Nothing to be desired! Nothing! Nothing to be desired! It’s your mind changing!”

Radio announcer: “In far off California, there is no natural plan. Its mighty branching and its preponderant boughs weigh heavy on a Sontag morning.”

Baby Grace Blue: “Test, testing, testing. This… Grace is my name. And, and there was… It was a phot… a fading photograph of a patch, a patchwork quilt. And they’ve put me on these… Ramona put me on these interest drugs, so I’m thinking very, too, bit too fast like a brain patch, like I’ve got this… this soul brain patch, and it’s got… I got the shakers on it with this neuro-transmitter. And… they won’t let me see anybody except the breeders in the enclave and the check players, and I can still hear some…. if I want to sometimes and I ask I can still hear some pop… popular musics and aftershocks. And they say what… they say what were… what were you doing? what was I doing when I saw the small friends? And I said that I’ve been watching a television of, a television of Jeffreys In the Press, about the British revolution and something about the second Protector, who was a news coaster in the homelands – yes, the new homelands. And then I recognized the small friends because one of them was a very infamous, and he was a grand visioner, he was the grand visioner, the one who was on a television, who made soul patches the law, and… that’s all I can remember. And now they just want me to be quiet and to worship the lot, and I think something is going to be horrid.”

Director: “Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? I gave up flogging in Oxford. The enemy is fragile! Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?”

Narrator: “It was just a fading photograph, slumped on the black leather sofa, glass fronted, forgotten by the last tenant.”

Director: “Who will rid me of this shaking head? Who has seen this furious man? The enemy is fragile! But he has no… The enemy has always been here. You could have been fighting to the death, but no! Well, wrap up and we’ll go dancing, Leon! Dance fishing? Something in her mouth. There’s something in her mouth, something mysterious. Between patois and Beckett. I bet it is a speech.”

Narrator: “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st century. Phase techniques, and rich 21st century Spanish incantations.”

Director: “You are: a permutation! You are: a patois! You are: Chinese poetry! You are: something mysterious! You are: speed through delay! You are: patois and Beckett! You are: fighting to the death! You are: flogging! You are: something really fishy! You are: whispering! You are: warning!”

Baby Grace Blue: “I think we’re stuck in a web. A sort of… nerve net, as it were; a sort of… nerve Internet, as it were.”

Voices: “Red dog! Red dog!”

Baby Grace Blue: “We might be here for quite a long time – here in this web… or Internet, as it were.”

Voices: “And, and, and red dog!”

Baby Grace Blue: “Got to get away, get away, got to get away”

Algeria Touchshriek: “My name is Mr Touchshriek, of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy. I sell ache shells off the she-sores and empty females. I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr Wolof Bomberg, a reject from the world-wide Internet. He is a broken man; I am also a broken man. It will be nice to have company; we could have great conversations. Possibly, just maybe, after a nice cup of tea, from a trip of the tongue we’ll creep together down a memory lane, and then we’ll be young and full of bubbly ambition, instead of the slump males that we are. Looking through windows for daemons, watching the young advancing, all electric… A small shop on the corner is really no more than a dark spiral with no end. I’m in a street behind the Museum of Modern Parts. The buildings are close together, no more than ten feet between one side of the street and the other. There’s not much in the way of daylight, but at least we don’t get the rain, which is a blessing. Some of the houses still have inhabitants in them; I’m not sure if they’re from this country or not. I don’t get to speak much to anyone, or that sort of thing. If I had another broken man – oh, I dream of something like that.”

Touchshriek (fading): “Not sure if they’re from this country or not…”

Touchshriek (full volume): “I mean, who am I supposed to be driving?”

Director: “A snapper with a foetal heart who resents all stupid questions, Ramona A. Stone put her arms around a boy – the golden boy with a lion’s heart, the boy who lives outside, an urchin among immortals. Leon! Lift up your eyes! The very stars are calling! Your name is Leon, Leon is your name! Murder you will do! Leon, lift up your eyes! [repeats with variations and embellishments, rapidly becoming unintelligible]

Ramona A. Stone: “I am with name, I am Ramona A. Stone. A night fear female, good timing drone.”

Narrator: “And she should say:”

Ramona A. Stone: “Twitch and scream, it’ll end in chrome, the night of the female good time drone.”

Narrator: “And she should say:”

Nathan Adler: “A person who loses a name feels anxiety descending – left at the crossroads between the centuries, a millennium fetish.”

Narrator: “And she should say:”

Ramona A. Stone: “I am with name, I am Ramona A Stone”

Narrator: “Anxiety descending, anxiety descending…”

Anxious man: “I won’t eat me, it will hide me, he should take them, I won’t tell it, she can’t take them, it will do less, he said tell it, he said smell this, he should do this, he should be there, she can’t hide me, he said do less, he said tell it, I won’t take them, she can’t eat me, he said kill that! He said take them, he said be there, I won’t kill that, it will be there, she can’t eat me, I won’t hide me, it will tell me, he said hide me, I won’t be there, he said hide me, he said be there, I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that, it will take them! They won’t tell it, she can’t be there, they won’t hide me, he should hide me, they won’t hide me, she can’t be there, it will hide me, he should eat me, he should take them, he should take them, I won’t kill that, they won’t be there, they won’t tell it, I won’t take them, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me! They won’t do less, he said tell it, they won’t take them, it will hide me, it will smell this! They won’t kill that, he should hide me, I won’t hide me, she can’t be there, I won’t tell it, I won’t eat me, they won’t tell it, he should smell this, he said be there, he should kill that, I will take them, they won’t eat me, she can’t eat me, I won’t hide me, they won’t do less, he should eat me, he should hide me! They won’t smell this! She can’t tell it! I won’t be there! He should eat me! He said tell it! Smell this!”

Nathan Adler: “Old Touchschriek was a domain name server, suspected of being a shoulder surfer or finger hacker. This old guy didn’t know from shit about challenge/response systems – he was way back in the age of cellular clones. We knew that Ramona A. Stone was selling interest drugs and magic cookies; she got males all hung up on her mind filters. She was a router and a swapper – she was, if you don’t mind me saying so, a fuckin’ update daemon. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to when it all began.”

Ramona A. Stone: “I was Ramona A. Stone. I started with no enemies of my own; I was an artiste in a tunnel. But I’ve been having a MIDI-life crisis and I’ve been dreaming of sleep and apemen with metal parts. I’ve spat upon deeply-felt age – come to my real goddess! I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham[?] sky. I’ll get the funny-coloured English… Oh… we’ll creep together, you and I. We know who the small friends are. My, this is a crazy world. At this time, you could think of me as a ‘syllannibal’: someone who eats their own words.”

Lounge singer: “We’ll creep together, you and I. Just a trip of the tongue from a slump male – a mumble slouch unreal… (How many a true remark!) We’ll creep together, you and I. Way back in the Laugh Hotel, I’ll reel out the window…You die for diamonds but you won’t live for love!”

Leon Blank: “She’s a don’t-wanna bitch, behaves like a don’t-wanna bitch, but she is all I’ve got.”

Ramona A. Stone: “I am with rose, I am with babies, I am with chrome, I am Ramona A. Stone. It’ll end in chrome. This is the chrome, my friends, the chrome.”

Nathan Adler: “Then there was nothing left to do but to bring on the Nut Soldiers, round up the packet sniffers and clear up what remained of that sensational mouth. It’s sensational, her mouth – just a little untight. Excuse me while I wax poetic. The ashes that ran, fleshy debris and silicone chip-bits, electrocutes the evil and smells. Thank you. For me, it’s like plain chaos, and I am the fixer.”

MC: “Thank you very much! Well, you asked for them, so here they are – The Leek Soldiers! Twist, fly boy, brace for me, twist, fly boy, wrecked, flexed, heaven erect, brace for ready, twist, fly boy! Twist hardware, push the ziplock, twist hardware, melt them, wreck them, break through, go for the flare, fly boy!”

Nathan Adler: “At this time, before you could say boo to the goose, Leon was up on that oh-so-heavy party stage, with a kris-kris machete. He could not wait for 12 o’clock midnight. He slashes around, cuts a zero in everything – I mean, a zero in the fabric of time itself. I says to myself, Whoa! Quelle courage! What nerve!”

Anxious man: “They won’t kill that it will hide me he should take them I won’t tell it she can’t take them it will do this he said tell it he said smell this he should do less! He should be there she can’t hide me he said do this he said tell it I won’t take them she can’t eat me he said kill that he said take them he should be there! He should do less!”

Expert: “Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Don’t make me laugh! A 19th century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old West. Someday the Internet may become an information superhighway. Do not make me laugh!”

Narrator: “It was a great conversation.”

Comic (with ventriloquist’s dummy): “Hey Bunny, say goodnight” [“Say goodnight”] (repeats with variations)

Comic: “Hey hey, here we are back at the Laugh Hotel! [“Back at the Laugh Hotel!”]

Comic: I was sittin’ there at the Laugh Hotel the other night looking for window daemons, when in comes this Leon in a jungle weed, a mumble slouch unreal, maybe a triple-lock, a trip of the tongue from a slump male…”

Algeria Touchshriek: “I’m Mr. Touchshriek of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy, and I sell ache shells off the she-sore and empty females. I met Leon once. Bit of a dark spiral with no end, I thought. Sunday mail-over with his deeply felt grace.”

Something really fishy: The chrome

1. We’ll creep together

If Leon isn’t about art, flesh and the millennium (as its traces on 1. Outside would suggest), and if it is about something – not just a free-wheeling verbal jam session punctuated by recordings of crowd noise – then… what?

I’d suggest that the lyrics evoke a number of weird and problematic scenarios, each of which had fascinated Bowie for years at a time and some of which fascinated him now. Picture a charismatic leader, someone who could summon thousands of willing volunteers to fight for him and – just as importantly – hold millions of spectators in passive, fascinated thrall, each one convinced that they had a personal relationship with the great one. (Imagine that, eh?) Picture individuals so powerful, and/or so glamorous and charismatic, that they could bend others to their will without compunction, exploiting and even destroying young, innocent victims. Picture an art scene whose high-status experts and connoisseurs combine impeccable taste with utter creative exhaustion, and whose every innovation comes from the street – from artists and practitioners who have no savoir-faire but have creative energy to burn; imagine the role of fixers and impresarios in a scene like that. (Alternatively, picture a pop scene… Bowie once characterised 1. Outside as a follow-up to “Please, Mr Gravedigger” – and perhaps Leon is the follow-up to “Join the Gang”.) Picture a drug which seems to admit users to another, better, reality, and which progressively occupies their lives and soaks up their will to the point of swallowing them up completely. And picture an individual who gets caught up in the wheels of one, or more than one, of these glittering but brutally exploitative relationships, and whose mind and identity come unglued as a result.

Got all that? Now, imagine that they’re all the same thing. Imagine that “art scene” and “drug” and “political leader” aren’t quite what those words usually mean, but…

…the Internet.

Yes, I know. But bear in mind that the Leon sessions took place in 1994 – the first graphical Web browser was only released that year. Bowie was a very early adopter. And it’s probably fair to say that what he was envisaging was something more like the immersive 3D fantasy of “cyberspace” – some kind of combination of VR/AR, Second Life and Google Earth – than the ubiquitous but stubbornly screen- and text-based medium we now know. There, in cyberspace, new charismatic leaders could recruit devoted followers from around the world, and attract an unlimitedly vast audience of spectators; new art-forms could arise from every inner city on the planet and be instantaneously communicated to the arbiters of taste, or else bypass them and go direct to a world-wide audience; while the experience of cyberspace itself might become a drug like no other. Culture would change; language would change; even the way people think would change, accelerating to match the speed of computing – and perhaps going beyond the capacities of the unaided human brain. Indeed, this world would create untold new opportunities for people to go astray, to lose their minds or throw away their lives – and for unscrupulous people to exploit and debauch the innocent.

This, I think, is the world of Leon. Here, for example, are the second passage of text in the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, and an extract from the third:

The first time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek
The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…

Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of canteloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’. As sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck…

Setting aside the weird fascination with boils, what’s going on here? When would you put a boil on someone’s neck, and when would a rip run down your cheek? I’m picturing avatar construction, glitching slightly: ‘my’ cheek is the cheek of my Street Fighter, my Second Life skin, my Mii. (1994, ladies and gentlemen.) And when do you see a red sky with writing in it, as clear as the nose on your face? This is Augmented Reality territory, I think – what we’d now (after Pokemon Go) consider a gamification of everyday life. Only without the game, or – apparently – the screen to see it all on, or through. This seems like a massive leap beyond the technology we know, but it’s worth remembering that the technology we know wasn’t a reference point in 1994: smart phones, and tablets with cameras and Internet connectivity, were still a long way off. Instead, the narrative of Leon seems to see cyberspace as something you enter, or jack into, in person – perhaps through drugs, perhaps through some kind of implant like Larry Niven’s drouds (consider Ramona A. Stone’s “MIDI-life crisis”).

And, as with drugs, you can get into it, or you can get deep into it. I think this is the significance of the ‘blood-red sky’, and the pile of canteloupes for that matter: the speaker is in, but he’s still walking around this world as well. Go deeper – replace AR with VR, give up on the physical world altogether in favour of an immersive, 3D experience of cyberspace – and something else happens to the sky:

The babies left home
And the sky’s made of chrome

We’ll creep together, you and I
Under a bloodless chrome sky

From a blood-red sky to a bloodless ‘chrome’ sky – and on to vague but ominous statements such as “this is the chrome” and “it’ll end in chrome”… But why “chrome”?

2. Leon: a glossary in three parts

Computing terminology

NB With few exceptions, these terms do not have these definitions when they are used in Leon.

challenge/response systems: “An authentication method used to prove the identity of a user logging into the network.” (PC Mag Encyclopedia)
crawler: “a program that searches for information on the Web … widely used by Web search engines to index all the pages on a site by following the links from page to page” [NB does not appear in Leon; see creep]
daemon: “a Unix/Linux program that executes in the background ready to perform an operation when required”
domain name server: a server within the Domain Name System (DNS), “the Internet’s system for converting alphabetic names into numeric IP addresses … a hierarchy of duplicated database servers worldwide”
finger hacker: someone who acquires passwords, PINs etc by watching the finger movements of people entering them; see shoulder surfer
information superhighway: “A proposed high-speed communications system that was touted by the Clinton/Gore administration [1993-2000] to enhance education in America in the 21st century … with the explosion of the Web, the Internet became the information superhighway whether it was ready for it or not.”
MIDI: “a standard protocol for the interchange of musical information between musical instruments, synthesizers and computers”
packet sniffer: “software that captures packets transmitted in a network for routine inspection and problem detection”
router: “device that forwards data from one network to another”
shoulder surfer: someone who “[looks] over someone’s shoulder to obtain passwords, PINs and other security codes being entered”; see finger hacker
silicone chip: misspelling and/or mispronunciation of “silicon chip”
swapper: operating system software responsible for “replacing one segment of a program in memory (RAM) with another part of the program and restoring it back to the original if required”
update daemon: see daemon
window: delimited area of a computer screen, element of a graphical user interface

SF terminology

brain patch: a permanent upgrade to the brain enabling direct access to cyberspace; also soul patch
chrome: apparently a one-word synonym for immersive cyberspace, seen as a powerful and seductive experience but liable to drain the life of anyone who strayed into it. Evokes William Gibson and possibly Frank Zappa.
creep: always ‘together’ (the phrase is used by four different characters); apparently a gratifying shared experience of venturing into cyberspace. Possibly an alternative/garbled version of ‘crawl’ (cf. crawler)
interest drugs: psychotropic drugs tending to accelerate mental processes; used with brain patch and mind filters
magic cookies: see interest drugs
mind filters: either synonymous with brain patch, or a semi-permanent intermediate stage between interest drugs and brain patch
soul patch: see brain patch

Other (possibly derived from cut-ups/Verbasizer)

anxiety descending: unclear why anxiety should descend, unless it’s an image of anxiety descending on somebody
breath-filled crowd: presumably a crowd of people who are present in person rather than having sent their avatars
don’t-wanna bitch: a reluctant female
fly boys: probaby a term of approval
freckham: “I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham sky”; unknown
gadives: “I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives are broken and bent”; unknown
hard skin: something that may be eaten or hidden; associated with beauty (which Nathan Adler characterises as “a deep skin” and “a stone in my flesh”); possibly a shameful reminder of the body’s physicality(?)
Laugh Hotel: apparently a venue where art dealers / talent scouts / abusers can pick up fresh talent
Leek Soldiers: unclear; see Nut Soldiers
mumble slouch unreal: this phrase is used by two different characters, but the sense and even the wording is uncertain
Nut Soldiers: unclear; see Leek Soldiers
OK riot: a riot which is seen as safe(?), possibly because participants are not physically present(?); compare breath-filled crowd
slump male: an ageing, burnt-out male
small friends: contacts who facilitate a journey into cyberspace (see creep); possibly avatars of an exploiter who stands to gain from new recruits, possibly autonomous software agents (see daemon)

3. A cast of thousands

There’s no way to be sure how many characters there are in Leon. On one run-through, noting down a new character every time I heard a voice I couldn’t be sure I’d heard before, I got up to 28; this didn’t include any ‘chorus’ voices, such as the ones which join in on “Nothing to be desired”, so presumably a really scrupulous count would return a total in the 30s. A more parsimonious accounting – making a few assumptions about continuing characters and relegating those chorus voices to anonymity – gives a figure in the mid-teens; still quite a few, although several only have one appearance or even one line. I should also acknowledge that how some of the characters relate to the storyline is less than clear; sometimes, perhaps, it really was just Bowie having fun doing voices. Here’s what I’ve got, though, listed in order of appearance but with minor characters given separately.

Major characters

Leon Blank: a young (performance?) artist who comes to the attention of Ramona A. Stone and begins a relationship with her; he is then enlisted by her (or by the Director) to carry out a killing, or possibly to investigate it or be framed for it (or both).

Nathan Adler: a private eye; a disjointed and unreliable narrative voice, appearing more than any other character but not saying anything about himself. Offers a disenchanted outsider’s perspective on cyberspace (“the slime end of the silicone-chip biz”); reminiscent of Blade Runner, particularly the original version (with voice-over). (NB Blade Runner also features a character named Leon.)

Protector: according to Baby Grace Blue, “the second Protector” took power after “the British revolution”; he is also referred to as one of “the small friends” and as “the grand visioner … who made soul patches the law”. This appears to be the same person heard addressing an adoring crowd in upper-class Received Pronunciation, commending them as “number one packet-sniffers” and offering to “creep together” – and “end together” – with them.

Connoisseur: a voice with the affected tones and high-RP diction of a caricature aesthete or critic; think Brian Sewell.

Baby Grace Blue: victim of kidnapping by Ramona A. Stone, possibly working on behalf of the Protector. Ramona puts Grace on “interest drugs” and has her record a statement, which Grace ends by anticipating that something “horrid” is going to happen to her. What does happen to Grace is not known, although it appears at one point that she (or her consciousness) is “stuck in a Web”, i.e. permanently uploaded into cyberspace.

Director: a person who recruits Leon and alternately scolds and encourages him to carry out unspecific acts, possibly including murder. May be Ramona A. Stone herself, but probably an employee or associate.

Algeria Touchshriek: a shopkeeper (possibly a pimp or procurer), conscious of his advanced age and low physical status as a “slump male” or “broken man”; Cockney accent. Owns a shop close to the Museum of Modern Parts[sic]. May have connections with Ramona A. Stone; claims to have met Leon only once.

Ramona A. Stone: a former artist, whose works appear to involve babies, turned art world impresario. Also, apparently, a drug dealer and an explorer of cyberspace, possibly involving body modification (cf. Orlan, Kevin Warwick). Named by six characters, herself included. By the endit appears that Ramona‘s physical body has been dismembered; her voice continues to appear, and on one occasion refers to herself in the past tense (“I was Ramona A. Stone”), suggesting that Ramona has been uploaded into cyberspace.

Anxious man: a man in the throes of a mental breakdown, apparently triggered by being asked to do, and/or being threatened with, something unbearable (“I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that”…). Possibly Leon(?).

Minor characters

With the exception of the first, each of these voices only appears once; they can be considered as a collective Chorus, helping establish the Leon universe by highlighting details and/or reiterating comments by main characters.

Narrator: a default category for appearances by Bowie using an unaffected singing voice or his own “David Jones” speaking voice.

Rock star: American accent.

Radio announcer: American accent.

Lounge singer: sings a version of “We’ll creep together”.

MC: introduces the Leek Soldiers.

Expert: comments (in a German accent) on the Internet as an information superhighway.

Stand-up comic: does a fast-talking but unfunny ventriloquist routine followed by some fast-talking but unfunny verbal comedy. American accent.

4. Who’s there?

So – finally – what happens in Leon, and who does it happen to? It’s not – like 1. Outside – the story of the ritual art-murder of Baby Grace Blue, although it seems unlikely that Grace is alive and well by the end of the story. There’s no Minotaur, for a start – no death-crazed sadistic artist – and only a passing suggestion of pre-millennial psychosis. It’s the story of a world where fleshly bodies and physical presence are strictly optional, generating equal and opposite fascinations with transcending the physical body and with fleshy physicality itself (the babies, the hard skin, the breath-filled crowdthe breeders in the enclave, that sensational mouth). Primarily it’s the story of Ramona A. Stone, artist of human physicality, cybernaut, psychonaut, impresario and recruiter, variously seen making art with (or from) babies and their mothers, wading into a riot “with her waving hair and her research grants”, and disappearing into cyberspace so completely that even her body is reduced to ash. But it’s also about Leon, who may or may not have done something terrible, and may or may not have been driven mad as a result; about the ‘small friends’ who lure Baby Grace Blue (and others) into cyberspace, one of whom appears (just by the way) to be the charismatic dictator of Britain; and about the joys of “creeping together”, for everyone from that dictator’s followers to “slump male” Touchshriek. It’s a story of art, and drugs, and death, and madness, and sexual exploitation, and political Supermen – all fictionalised through the master-trope of cyberspace. Short of including the Compuserve address for the Free Tibet campaign, it couldn’t be much more on-brand for Bowie, or much more on-trend for 1994.

There were problems with it, though. It wasn’t an album, not as such (a stipulation which has all the more force if we remember that the 70 minutes we can hear stands in for 30+ hours of tape). Musically it sounds loose and unfinished – it sounds like a series of jams, in fact, which is of course what it is. Some of them sound pretty good, but none of them is really ready to go as a song (although a couple of the instrumental pieces would work as they stand). And lyrically it’s – not to put too fine a point on it – weird as hell. The manifold loose ends (what did happen to Baby Grace? why is that man having a breakdown?) aren’t the problem; if anything the problem is the reverse, the coherence of the world-building. We’ve got a whole fictional world here, with its own politics, its own artforms, its own language and – in particular – its own voices. We’re ushered “outside” by Leon Blank, mumbling an incomprehensible series of dates; then there’s a single verse sung in Bowie’s familiar voice, but on inspection that’s incomprehensible too. From then on we’re very largely in the hands of Nathan Adler, who speaks and sings in an unprepossessing growl reminiscent of the Residents and – despite his gumshoe stylings and verbal tics like “as I always said” – plainly isn’t speaking contemporary American English. Outside? We’re inside; the door’s swung shut and locked us into an alien world for the next seventy minutes. Happy landings!

Bowie had only ventured into concept-album territory twice before, with Diamond Dogs and before that with Ziggy. Both involve building a science-fictional world, but neither of them has anything like this all-enveloping quality; in fact, both albums are extremely loose, apparently by design. “Dodo” and “Alternative Candidate” – cut from Diamond Dogs – plainly belong on that album, which you couldn’t say of “Rock’n’roll with me” or “Rebel Rebel”; it’s not hard to imagine a Young Americans version of “RNRWM”. (Just as the non-album “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” are pure Ziggy Stardust songs – unlike “Moonage Daydream” (written for Arnold Corns) and “It ain’t easy” (a cover which Bowie used to sing with his mates).) And this was very much the approach that Bowie would eventually take with 1. Outside – there was a concept, but there were also some banging tunes, and then there was some other stuff that he was into at the time. Which made life more interesting for Bowie himself (who got bored very easily) and it also made the whole thing more commercial – so really, everyone was happy. It meant that the Leon tapes got left behind and forgotten, but who cared about that? (Who knew about that?)

So Leon was a one-off: despite his fondness for characters and voices, Bowie had never done anything like this before, and never really would again. It was a curiosity – and, at least in its time, an unreleasable curiosity. But what a curiosity!

Something really fishy: Doing the voices

Emmanuel Shadrack, this is your life!
This is your life, Mr. Shadrack.
Your life, Mr. Shadrack!
Your LIFE, Shaddy-addy-addy-adrack! Your LIFE!
Billy Liar (film script)

Leon brought together two long-established but rather subterranean strands in David Bowie’s work: characters and voices. Story songs were part of Bowie’s repertoire from the very start; his 1967 “cabaret” album was full of them, and even some of the post-Mod singles he released the previous year have narratives of a sort (“The station seems so cold, the ticket’s in my hand”, or more cheerfully “I feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and I dig everything”). Fairly early on he started keeping the stories anonymous – we never learn the name of any of the London Boys, or the Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud – but proper names contined to feature from time to time, from Mary (alias Tommy, alias Eileen) of “She’s Got Medals” to Lorraine of “Watch That Man”, Jessamine of “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, Elizabeth of “African Night Flight”, Vivian of “Bus Stop”, Shirley of “Bleed like a craze, Dad”… it goes on. And his early work – up to about 1974 – was absolutely littered with named fictional characters, especially single-named characters. There are fifteen of them on the 1967 album and its accompanying single (plus another six who also get a surname); as late as 1972 the three songs “Star”, “All the Young Dudes” and “John, I’m only dancing” namecheck ten fictional (or fictionalised) characters between them (as well as Nye Bevan).

In the decade before Leon, Bowie had been simultaneously at a commercial peak and in a creative trough. In the mid-80s he’d tried out a few story songs with characters (“Tumble and Twirl”, “Shining Star”); then, in the harder-edged Tin Machine years, he’d switched to songs which named real people if they named anyone (Madonna, James Dean, Sugar Ray Leonard); The Buddha of Suburbia splits the difference, giving us “Shirley” (and “Charlie”) but also King Kong and Elvis (who, as you may remember, is English). What hadn’t featured since 1974’s unreleased Tommy Tinkrem was characters with both a forename and a surname – and before 1974 you have to go right back to the 1967 album and single, unless you count 1968’s (unreleased and downright obscure) Reverend Raymond Brown. Twenty years later, out they come: Marion Brent and Frankie Mear, allow me to introduce “Mr Touchshriek (of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy)”, “Mr Wolof Bomberg” and “Ramona A. Stone”, to say nothing of “Leon” [Blank], “Baby Grace” [Blue] and the (unnamed) narrator himself, Nathan Adler.

As for the voices, what do “We are Hungry Men”, “Please Mr Gravedigger”, “The Laughing Gnome”, “After All”, “The Bewlay Brothers”, Bowie’s version of “See Emily Play”, “Future Legend”, “Fame”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Scream like a Baby”, “Magic Dance” and “Untitled No. 1” have in common? (There’s an argument for including “The King of Stamford Hill“. The real heads can also have “Over the wall we go” and “When the fire broke out on the Rio Grande”.) The Gnome is the clue, of course: these are all tracks where Bowie, sometimes unaided but usually with studio assistance, did voices. There are more of them, and over a longer period, than you might expect; this was clearly something he was good at and enjoyed doing.

So that’s part of what Bowie was up to in that studio in Switzerland in 1994. He hadn’t really had fun with voices – on record at least – since Scary Monsters, and he hadn’t done proper characters for absolute yonks. How about letting it all out again?

This was clearly a fairly fluid, unboundaried process. I said in a previous post that, while musicians like Gabrels, Garson and Kızılçay aren’t going to have any difficulty jamming, a writer like Bowie doesn’t improvise songs. That said, what does seem to have happened in a couple of places is something very reminiscent of Billy Fisher’s empty-office improvs in Billy Liar:

The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired
It leaves nothing to be desired
Nothing to be desired!
Nothing to be desired!
Mind-changing!
Mind-changing!
Change your mind changing
It’s your mind changing…

Your mind, Mr Shadrack! It’s your mind changing!

Or take the passage at the end of the “The Enemy is Fragile” suite, which I’ve tried and failed to transcribe several times, and which actually includes the phrase

Leon, lift up your eyes! Your eyes! Your… eyes!

Leon is being addressed here in an operatic baritone, whose exaggerated yet strangulated delivery is oddly reminiscent of later Scott Walker (in a bad way). As far as I can make out, the exhortation is made in the name of “sun-drenched Cecil”, who is possibly being referred to as “Cecil Nostrum” and possibly as “the Inoculus”. At one point the singer seems to want to tell Leon to “be immortal”, but he repeatedly stops at the T after rolling the R extravagantly – “be immorrrrrt!”. Repetitions and variations – including some sloshy Sean Connery-isms – continue for some time. Much of it is mumbled or swamped by the musical backing, but some comes tantalisingly close to being decipherable – for example, at one point the singer repeats a phrase which I hear as “heaven’s hold”, but Chris O’Leary thinks is “tennis balls“. I can at least agree with Chris that after this the song “devolves into sheer babble”.

Improvisation, repetition, free association… babble. Even if it had a title, that song would never be in anyone’s Bowie Top Ten; it was probably more fun to be a part of than it is to listen to. And that suggests one way of looking at the Leon sessions more broadly: it was an outburst of repressed creativity (that Bowie probably hadn’t even realised had been repressed), and it went all over the place – as outbursts tend to. Here a treated voice or two (“say goodnight, Bunny”), there a cut-up lyric (“OK riot”, “breath-filled crowd”, “slump male”), everywhere a sprawling, punning game of word association football. Hence Mr Touchshriek’s sinister stock-in-trade of “ache shells from the she sore”; hence Bowie making lyrics out of an imaginary (?) review of a CD-ROM and his own (Eno-supplied) character profile; hence, even, the leap from Samuel Beckett (supposedly one of the key influences of alt-Bowie’s “live abstract poetry”) to Thomas Becket (“Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?”).

On this argument, to say that “Be- immORRRRRT!” and “shun-drenshed Sheshil” are a bit of a mess, considered as lyrics, would be true but would miss the larger point: it’s all a bit of a mess. The heart’s filthy lesson and the rest of the “1. Outside” stuff – modern art’s fascination with human frailty considered as a form of pre-millennial psychosis – came along later and pulled it all into shape: that was why Nathan Adler was investigating Leon Blank, that was what was so menacing about Ramona A. Stone and so creepy about Algeria Touchshriek… The solution to the mystery at the heart of Leon is that there is no mystery at the heart of Leon. There’s nothing to be decoded. (Nothing to be decoded!)

Perhaps – and perhaps there’s a bit more to it than that. Let me take you back to where it all began.

 

 

Something really fishy: 2. Outside

Exegi monumentum aere perennius [I have created a monument more lasting than bronze]
– Horace, c. 13 BCE

The heart’s filthy lesson falls upon deaf ears
– David Bowie, c. 1994 CE

[Author’s note: the factual details in this post are derived almost exclusively from Chris O’Leary’s indispensable Rebel Rebel and his Website Pushing Ahead of the Dame. The speculations are all mine, though.]

While Leon clearly isn’t a finished work – apart from anything else, Bowie never finished it – I think it does have a certain weird coherence; it is possible to ask what it does, what ideas it plays with, what it’s about. One way in is to ask what Leon‘s not about. The only elements of Leon which saw the light in officially sanctioned forms are those that appear on 1. Outside – so what’s that about, to the extent that it’s not Leon? What are the non-Leon elements of Outside – which songs, and which themes, either predated the Leon improvisations or post-dated them and arose separately?

More of 1. Outside falls into these categories than might immediately be apparent. As well as the six character “segues” (five of which first appeared in Leon), both “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” and “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” are clearly based on Leon characters and plot strands (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” even opens with a reference to the “Laugh Hotel“). In fact, the two tracks rather neatly bookend the Leon story – or at least the 1. Outside version of the Leon story. The story ends with “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, which provides a brisk summary (“Baby  Grace is the victim, she was fourteen years of age”) before cutting back to the wrongly convicted Leon Blank, in prison, deprived of an artistic (or any other) career, working on his appeal and counting the days as they pass. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, meanwhile, sets the stage for Leon by introducing the central character – “Detective Professor” Nathan Adler, specialist in “art crime”, who we hear making increasingly stressed voice notes for a colleague called ‘Paddy’. (Shades of Agent Cooper and the unseen ‘Diane’ – not the only respect in which the Leon story echoes Twin Peaks.) The final, spoken, words are crucial:

Paddy – what a fantastic death abyss! Tell the others.

(The words are unclear in the album version, but there’s a bootlegged studio runthrough which clearly shows that ‘death abyss’ is the phrase – as well as showing how distinctive the rhythm of the final version was, with its casual combination of slamming heavy metal and springy syncopation.)

Why would an art specialist be a connoisseur of the ‘death abyss’? Also, what is the heart’s filthy lesson – and why does it fall on deaf ears (a phrase which I have just mistyped as ‘death ears’ for the second time in succession)? The quotation from Horace points the way. The heart’s filthy lesson is simply that the heart is just that, a heart – a very complex lump of muscle, but a lump of muscle for all that, and as such not something that can be relied on to go on functioning indefinitely. The heart’s filthy lesson, in other words, is that we’re all made of meat and we all die – and it falls on deaf ears because artists have spent the last 2,000 years staging increasingly elaborate denials of this inescapable fact, despite themselves falling victim to it at about the rate you’d expect.

And enter Nathan Adler: how would it be, Bowie asks, if art did a 180-degree turn, from denying the meat body and its death to embracing these things – making them art’s central theme? Considering Chris Burden (one of the sources for “Joe the Lion“), considering (allegedly) self-mutilating artists like Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, considering Damien Hirt’s bisected cadavers, might it be that this pivot was already happening – and might the growing sense of pre-millennial tension make it happen faster and with more extreme effects? Instead of building palaces of ideas on the denial of the “death abyss” which lurks beneath all human achievement, might art critics and theorists switch to staring into the abyss – and seeking out more and better abysses to stare into?

The Leon story – or at least a Leon story – starts right there, just as it comes to a dead stop in Leon Blank’s prison cell. These two tracks and the six ‘segues’ apart, however, 1. Outside material is surprisingly hard to locate relative to Leon. The male singer of “We Prick You” is enduring an aggressive interrogation and fantasising about sex by way of escape; it may be Leon Blank, but then again it may not. The paired tracks “I’m Deranged” and “No Control” express Bowie’s new-found interest in outsider art – and his longstanding fascination with the relationship between creativity and mental illness – but no connection is suggested with the deranged or out-of-control artist at the hidden heart of the Baby Grace story. Indeed, in another case the artistic theme and the Leon narrative seem to have been mutually exclusive rather than complementary: supposedly Bowie scrapped the Leon-related lyrics to “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” in favour of an alternative set of lyrics about English landscape artists, and had to be persuaded (by Reeves Gabrels) that this wasn’t a good idea. (One such artist was David Bomberg, whose name at least made it into Leon.)

Then there are another four tracks which rework earlier material. “Hallo Spaceboy” derives from an improvisation by Reeves Gabrels and a lyric by Brion Gysin; “Strangers when we meet” first appeared on the (unjustly neglected) Buddha of Suburbia album; the title track “Outside” dates back to Tin Machine; and “Thru’ these architect’s eyes” is one of the two new compositions on 1. Outside which had been begun before the Leon improvisations, and is in any case about architecture (the visual arts again).

So: six Leon character pieces, three songs set in the Leon-verse (stretching a point for “We Prick You”), three songs about art (including “Architect’s Eyes”); and three assorted reworks. But that’s not all; the album (which is rather long, let’s be honest) also includes another four tracks, or two pairs of tracks – or, more precisely, one pair and an overlapping group of three. The second new composition begun before the Leon sessions is “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”, whose ungainly title seems to both state and obscure the dark central theme of the Leon/1. Outside story. We’re looking into a created “death abyss” again, but we’re looking through the eyes of the person creating it: somebody driven by a compulsive fusion of an artist’s desire to create and a sadist’s desire to cause pain, resulting in torture and murder experienced (by the artist) as the creation of an artwork. The murderous artist announces and defines himself in “The Voyeur”, after which we hear him at work in the deeply unsettling “Wishful Beginnings”:

Please hide
For the pain must feel like snow
You’re a sorry little girl
Sorry little girl

“Wishful Beginnings” can also be seen as one of a group of three tracks, together with “The Motel” and “A Small Plot of Land”. Following on from the cover version of “Nite Flights” on Black Tie White Noise, these three tracks represent a renewed engagement with Scott Walker – an influence who would continue to fascinate Bowie at least until The Next Day (cf. “Heat”). As of 1994, it should be noted, Scott Walker hadn’t released an album in ten years. Bowie was thus embarking on the Quixotic – or Pierre Menard-like – project of following in Walker’s footsteps, in the knowledge that Walker had moved on in the mean time.

When recording on 1. Outside was finished, Scott Walker did in fact release another album – 1995’s Tilt; it sounds nothing like these songs. That said, the project of treading in Walker’s imagined footprints was surprisingly successful – sonically on the eerie “Wishful Beginnings”, lyrically on all three. Consider:

Poor dunce
Swings through the tunnels
And claws his way

And the silence flies
On its brief flight
A razor sharp crap shoot affair

We flew on the wings
We were deep in the dead air
And this one will never go down

These are extracts from three different songs, each of which includes much that’s more prosaic and less unexpected, but they do suggest that Bowie had put in some serious listening. From the album Nite Flights on, Walker had a unique style – at once declamatory and evasive, lyrical and brutal, epigrammatic and disjointed – and this is, if not that, very much in its neighbourhood.

Some of David Bowie’s best and most interesting work arose out of a collision between different themes or strands of work – which generally indicated that Bowie had got bored with one thing (and/or felt he’d mastered it) and picked up another. Diamond Dogs is the “unwritten 1984 rock opera” album, but that only accounts for three tracks (four if you include the unreleased “Dodo”); it’s also the album on which Bowie takes on contemporary dystopian SF (the opening narration, the title track and “Skeletal Family”); and responds to Lou Reed, who’d just released Berlin (the “Sweet Thing” suite and the alternative “Candidate“); and meditates on being a rock star and the gap which now existed between him and his fans (the two central tracks, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock and Roll With Me”). Thematically it’s a mess, in other words – you could just about say that “Rebel Rebel’, “Sweet Thing” and “Diamond Dogs” are all ‘street’, while “Diamond Dogs” and “Big Brother” are both ‘sf’, but really, those are three very different streets (and two very different forms of sf). (And I haven’t even mentioned the music, which at one point goes from Isaac Hayes to Jeff Wayne in the space of two tracks.)

Something similar seems to be true of 1. Outside: it’s an album with a group of Leon tracks and a couple of new tracks inspired by Leon; it’s the album where Bowie “did” Scott Walker (“The Motel”, “A Small Plot of Land”, “Wishful Beginnings”); it’s the album where he put some of his thoughts about art and artists, outsider artists included (“I’m Deranged”, “No Control”, “Architect’s Eyes”); and it’s also the album where he parked some other material that he wasn’t finished with, and/or that didn’t seem to belong anywhere else (“Outside”, “Strangers”, “Hallo Spaceboy”). (No wonder it’s so long.)

The question then is where we put “The Voyeur”, taking into account that it was begun before the Leon sessions – and in particular whether we consider it, and “Wishful Beginnings”, to be part of the Leon group. As told in the 1. Outside booklet, the Baby Grace story features an unnamed artist who carries out some form of ritual murder and desecrates the corpse in the cause of art, but I wonder if this represents a later fusion of the story told in Leon with the artistic concerns of 1. Outside. If we put “The Voyeur” and “Wishful Beginnings”, along with “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, into the “thinking about modern art” section of 1. Outside – “thinking very dark thoughts about modern art”, specifically – and assume that Leon didn’t originally tell the story of a “ritual art murder”, where does that get us? Does taking the ‘Minotaur‘ out of the picture make Leon harder to understand – or easier?

Something really fishy: Leon

David Bowie’s 1994 sessions produced anything up to 30 hours of recordings, most of which has never been released either officially or unofficially. Three segments totalling about 70 minutes have been leaked, under the fan-assigned name “The ‘Leon’ Suites”; some elements of this are familiar, having been reworked and incorporated into 1. Outside, but most – the great majority – isn’t. This, in fact, is the missing link (or one of them) between Eno’s multilingual future space-jam and Bowie’s pre-millennial art-ritual murder plot. Among other things.

Here (as far as I can tell) are the lyrics to the Leon Suites. Apart from regularising the spelling and punctuation, and correcting mishearings in a couple of places, I’ve only made a couple of departures from the texts a couple of people have put online. There are no breaks or track titles in the leaked material, so I’m treating the whole thing as a single piece of work. I haven’t incorporated the (sometimes speculative) character names, for similar reasons. I have set most of the spoken-word passages as prose (no line-breaks) and in quotation marks. I also admitted defeat on the final song of the third suite, which rapidly degenerates into what may be patois – or indeed Wolof – but is probably just nonsense syllables. (Phonetic transcriptions are available, but they’re not very enlightening.) Rather than spend half an hour deciding what to put down – for example, whether Bowie was singing “sun-dressed Cecil” or “sun-drenched shizzle” (neither of which makes any sense at all) – I’ve just labelled the whole passage as “[incomprehensible]”. This does mean that the Suites end on a bit of an unsatisfactory note – but then, they do. The running order of the Suites comes courtesy of an unknown bootlegger; nobody knows, or indeed ever will know, what Bowie would have preferred – other than what he did prefer, which was to forget about the whole thing and work on something new instead. Which was, after all, his established approach, ever since the time that Tony Hatch failed to make him a star with a song that sounded a lot like “Downtown”, and he decided to model himself on Anthony Newley instead. But he left some intriguing material behind as a result and a few outright mysteries – and there isn’t much more mysterious in his catalogue than the “Leon” suites.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

THE “LEON” SUITES

“25th June, 16th, Wednesday, July 6th, 2001 midwinter, June 6th, Wednesday, August 18th, 9th, 1999, 12th, Michaelmas, August, 13th, October 13th, afternoon, in view of nothing, 2001, Martin Luther King Day, 12th, August 13th, 17th June. 19th January, midwinter”

The first time that I felt your grace
A tear [pronounced ‘tare’] ran down my cheek
The first time that I saw the boil
Put it on the neck…

“I never see English anymore. Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of cantaloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’. As sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck, or the foot on my ankle, or the car in my garage, or the wife in my kitchen, or a cloud in the sky, or a cow in a field, or the sun and the moon. Holy sun!”

We go through the crowd,
In Oxford Town
Moving on the sidewalk,
Faces to the ground

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Oxford Town, Oxford Town…

“You got a breath-filled crowd here tonight, Eli!”

“Someone once said that beauty is only a deep skin. Why, it’s always been a stone in my flesh, I’ll tell you that for nothing. You’re better off without it. I mean, who eats the hard skin now? It ain’t Ramona A. Stone, that’s for sure. That don’t-wanna bitch is hanging around with cannibals, producing shots of white babies fastened to the arms of blind heifers.”

All the babies left home
The babies left home
And the sky’s made of chrome
A breath-filled sky and it’s made of chrome

It was the night of an OK riot
She swanned along the street
With her waving hair and her research grants

OK riot, OK riot
It was an OK riot
With waving hair
OK riot
It was an OK riot
OK riot
With waving hair

Choc-a-bloc babies in the heart
A block of black decay in the room
O what a room it was, O what a room
What a womb, what a tomb it became
I’d rather be an OK riot
I’d rather be chrome
Yeah I’d rather be chrome
I’d rather be chrome
Yeah I’d rather be chrome
Yeah I’d rather be chrome
Than stay here at home

Don’t go near the bones
Leon can you hear?
Get away Julie, don’t go there,
There’s really a lot to fear

A breath-filled crowd
They might be super loud
They eat the hard skin and they sit on lamplight
They’re white and black and loud

I’d rather be chrome
Yeah, I’d rather be chrome
I’d rather be sitting on a cloud
I’d rather be eight foot loud
I’d rather be chrome
I’d rather be chrome

Well, I’ll bitch slap her home
I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be
Gonna, gonna, gonna be chrome
Gonna be chrome
Beauty is a stone
I wanna be chrome
I wanna be, wanna be chrome

“Friends of the Trust, you’ve been a breath-filled crowd tonight. You’ve been positively fly boys. We are surely on our way upon that superhighway of information. As far I’m concerned, you are all number one packet sniffers! So sing with me:”

We’ll creep together, you and I
Under a bloodless chrome sky
We’ll creep together, we’ll creep together,
We’ll creep together, you and I

We’ll find the small things, you and I
We’ll just have small friends, you and I
We’ll be small together, we’ll be small together
We’ll be small together, you and I

We’ll end together, you and I
We’ll end together, you and I
We’ll end together, we’ll end together
We’ll end together, you and I

“Huh! As far as I was concerned, There was always the slime end of the silicone chip biz. It seems that Ramona and Leon had just spiralled down into the cesspool. Like I always say, a person who loses a name feels anxiety descending. But hey, if I heard it right, she was always behaving like some don’t-wanna bitch. She was a well-blind woman, he was a well-intentioned man; this makes for a bad end. As I always said, it would end in chrome. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

O Ramona, can you hear me?
O Ramona

I am with name, I am with name
I am Ramona A. Stone
A night fear female
Good timing drone
I am with name, I am with name

I am with name, I am with name
I am Ramona A. Stone

“And she should say:”

Twitch and scream, It’ll end in chrome
The night of the female good time drone
I am with name,
I am Ramona A. Stone

“And she should say:”

“A person who loses a name feels anxiety descending – left at the crossroads between the centuries, a millennium fetish.”

I am with name, I am with name,
I am Ramona A Stone
I am with name
Night fear female
Good timing drone
I am with name
I am Ramona A Stone

“And she should say:”

I am with name
I am Ramona A Stone

“Anxiety descending, anxiety descending…”

I won’t eat me, it will hide me
He should take them, I won’t tell it
She can’t take them, it will do less
He said tell it, he said smell this
He should do this, he should be there

She can’t hide me, he said do less
He said tell it, I won’t take them
She can’t eat me, he said kill that
He said take them, he said be there
I won’t kill that, it will be there
She can’t eat me, I won’t hide me

It will tell me, he said hide me
I won’t be there, he said hide me
He said be there, I won’t hide me
They won’t smell this, he should hide me
I won’t kill that, it will take them
They won’t tell it, she can’t be there
They won’t hide me, he should hide me

They won’t hide me, she can’t be there
It will hide me, he should eat me
He should take them, he should take them
I won’t kill that, they won’t be there

They won’t tell it, I won’t take them
I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me, I won’t eat me

They won’t do less, he said tell it
They won’t take them, it will hide me

It will smell this!

They won’t kill that, he should hide me
I won’t hide me, she can’t be there

I won’t tell it, I won’t eat me
They won’t tell it, he should smell this,
He said be there, he should kill that
I will take them, they won’t eat me

She can’t eat me, I won’t hide me
They won’t do less, he should eat me
He should hide me

They won’t smell this!
She can’t tell it!
I won’t be there!
He should eat me!
He said tell it!
He said tell it!
He said tell it!

Smell this…
Smell this…

“Old Touchschriek was a domain name server, suspected of being a shoulder surfer or finger hacker. This old guy didn’t know from shit about challenge response systems – he was way back in the age of cellular clones. We knew that Ramona A. Stone was selling interest drugs and magic cookies; she got males all hung up on her mind filters. She was a router and a swapper – she was, if you don’t mind me saying so, a fuckin’ update demon. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back to when it all began.”

“I was Ramona A. Stone. I started with – with no enemies of my own; I was an artiste in a tunnel. But I’ve been having a MIDI-life crisis and I’ve been dreaming of sleep and apemen with metal parts. I’ve spat upon deeply-felt age – come to life, goddess! I’ve hid my hearts in under a freckham sky. I’ll get the funny-coloured English… Oh… we’ll creep together, you and I. We know who the small friends are. My, this is a crazy world. At this time, you could think of me as a ‘syllannibal’: someone who eats their own words.”

We’ll creep together
We’ll creep together, you and I
We’ll creep together, you and I
Just a trip of the tongue
From a slump male
A mumble slouch unreal

“Maybe a true remark”

We’ll creep together, you and I
Way back in the Laugh Hotel
I’ll reel out the window
You die for diamonds
But you won’t live for love

She’s a don’t-wanna bitch
Behaves like a don’t-wanna bitch
She’s a don’t-wanna bitch
But she is all I’ve got
I am with rose, I am with babies
I am with chrome
I am Ramona A. Stone
I am Ramona A. Stone
It’ll end in chrome
This is the chrome, this is the chrome
My friends, the chrome

“Then there was nothing left to do but to bring on the Nut Soldiers, round up the packet sniffers and clear up what remained of that sensational mouth. It’s sensational, her mouth – just a little untight. Excuse me while I wax poetic. The ashes that ran, fleshy debris and silicone chip-bits, electrocutes the evil and smells. Thank you. For me, it’s like plain chaos, and I am the fixer.”

“Thank you very much… Well, thank you very much… Well, you asked for them, so here they are – The Leek Soldiers!”

Twist, fly boy, twist, fly boy,
Brace for me, twist, fly boy
Wrecked, flexed, heaven erect,
Brace for ready,
Twist, fly boy, twist, fly boy!

Twist hardware, twist hardware,
Push the ziplock, twist hardware,
Melt them, wreck them, break through
Melt them, go for the flare
Fly boy, fly boy, fly boy, fly boy…

“At this time, before you could say boo to the goose, Leon was up on that oh-so-heavy party stage, with a kris-kris machete. He could not wait for 12 o’clock midnight. He slashes around, cuts a zero in everything – I mean, a zero in the fabric of time itself. I says to myself, Whoa! Quelle courage! What nerve!”

They won’t kill that, it will hide me
He should take them, I won’t tell it
She can’t take them, it will do this
He said tell it, he said smell this

He should do less!

He should be there, she can’t hide me,
He said do this, he said tell it,
I won’t take them, she can’t eat me,
He said kill that, he said take them,
He should be there!

He should do less!

“Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Some day, some day. Some day the Internet may become an information superhighway. Don’t make me laugh! A 19th century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old West. Someday the Internet may become an information superhighway. Do not make me laugh!”

“It was a great conversation.”

“Hey Bunny, say goodnight”
– Say goodnight
“Say goodnight Bunny”
– Goodnight Bunny
“Say ‘goodnight’, Bunny”
– Say ‘goodnight’, Bunny
“No no, say ‘Goodnight’, Bunny”
– Say ‘Goodnight, Bunny’
Say ‘goodnight’, Bunny’
– Goodnight, Bunny
Say goodnight, Bunny
– Say ‘goodnight Bunny’

“Hey hey, here we are back at the Laugh Hotel! I was sittin’ there at the Laugh Hotel the other night looking for window demons, when in comes this Leon in a jungle weed, a mumble slouch unreal, maybe a triple-lock, a trip of the tongue from the slump male…”

“I’m Mr. Touchshriek of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy, and I sell egg shells off the she-sore and empty females. I met Leon once. Bit of a dark spiral with no end, I thought. Sunday mail-over with his deeply felt grace.”

“What are you in terror of? Life needn’t step on baby fingers. The minutes fall, and the demons find their ways unencumbered, half dead, poisoned by their own fatal art. Each dirty tune produces its own nobility of form; each pays a different piper – a daft pauper. O machine, how did we fail thee? I guess I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gathers are broken and bent, like a wall strangled by ivy -”

“I remember a dame called Ivy – drove around in a hearse. Some way south on Oxford Town, near the mosque. Graffiti, cappuccino, you name it – they had it all. Those were the days. In those days everyone was psycho-balletic – not the humbug packet sniffers they are now. Take Leon… please!”

“I think we’re stuck in a web. A sort of… nerve net, as it were; a sort of… nerve Internet, as it were.”

Red dog, red dog, scum, red dog, scum, red dog, red dog, scum, red dog, scum

“We might be here for quite a long time – here in this web… or Internet, as it were”

And, and, and, and, and, red dog

Got to get away, get away, got to get away
Got to get away, get away, got to get away
Got to get away, get away, got to get away

“The editors have done an excellent job. The selections are generous, the notations are scrupulously scholarly. To believe that the quality of a CD-ROM can be conveyed through translation may seem presumptuous, but I believe the enterprise is greatly successful.”

“This is a magnificent achievement, a major triumph of Wolof music; a truly precious addition to the sum total of Wolof in English.”

“The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired”

“The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired”

It leaves nothing to be desired
Nothing to be desired!
Nothing to be desired!
Nothing to be desired!

Mind changing
Mind changing
Change your
Mind changing
Mind changing
Change your mind changing
Mind changing
Stand by
Mind changing
Mind changing
Stand by
Mind changing
Mind changing
And there’s nothing to be desired!
Nothing to be desired!
Nothing
If not dishy

Nothing to be desired!
Nothing!
Nothing to be desired!
It’s your mind changing
Mind changing
Change your mind changing
Mind changing
Change your mind changing
Mind changing
Change your mind changing
Mind changing
Change your mind changing

“In far off California, there is no natural plan. Its mighty branching and its preponderant boughs weigh heavy on a Sontag morning.”

“Test, testing, testing. This… Grace is my name. And, and there was… It was a phot… a fading photograph of a patch, a patchwork quilt. And they’ve put me on these… Ramona put me on these interest drugs, so I’m thinking very, too, bit too fast like a brain patch, like I’ve got this… this soul brain patch, and it’s got… I got the shakers on it with this neuro-transmitter. And… they won’t let me see anybody except the breeders in the enclave and the check players, and I can still hear some…. if I want to sometimes and I ask I can still hear some pop… popular musics and aftershocks. And they say what… they say what were… what were you doing? what was I doing when I saw the small friends? And I said that I’ve been watching a television of, a television of Jeffreys In the Press, about the British revolution and something about the second Protector, who was a news coaster in the homelands – yes, the new homelands. And then I recognized the small friends because one of them was a very infamous, and he was a grand visionary, he was the grand visionary, the one who was on a television, who made soul patches the law, and… that’s all I can remember. And now they just want me to be quiet and to worship the lot, and I think something is going to be horrid.”

“Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy? I gave up flogging in Oxford.”

The enemy is fragile!
The enemy is fragile!
Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?

“Hello Leon. Would you like something really fishy?”

“It was just a fading photograph, slumped on the black leather sofa, glass fronted, forgotten by the last tenant.”

Who will rid me of this shaking head? Who has seen this furious man?
The enemy is fragile!
But he has no, has no
The enemy is fragile!
The enemy has always been here.

“You could have been fighting to the death, but no! Well, wrap up and we’ll go dancing, Leon! Dance fishing?”

Something in her mouth.
There’s something in her mouth,
Something mysterious.
There’s something in her mouth
Between patois and Beckett.
I bet it is a speech.

“Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st century. Phase techniques, and rich 21st century Spanish incantations.”

You are – a permutation
You are – a patois
You are – Chinese poetry
You are – something mysterious
You are – speed through delay
You are – patois and Beckett
You are – fighting to the death
You are – flogging
You are – something really fishy
You are – whispering
You are – warning

“My name is Mr Touchshriek, of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy. I sell egg shells off the shesores and empty females. I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr Wolof Bomberg, a reject from the world-wide Internet. He is a broken man; I am also a broken man. It will be nice to have company; we could have great conversations. Possibly, just maybe, after a nice cup of tea, from a trip of the tongue we’ll creep together down a memory lane, and then we’ll be young and full of bubbly ambition, instead of the slump males that we are. Looking through windows for demons, watching the young advancing, all electric… A small shop on the corner is really no more than a dark spiral with no end. I’m in a street behind the Museum of Modern Parts. The buildings are close together, no more than ten feet between one side of the street and the other. There’s not much in the way of daylight, but at least we don’t get the rain, which is a blessing. Some of the houses still have inhabitants in them; I’m not sure if they’re from this country or not. I don’t get to speak much to anyone, or that sort of thing. If I had another broken man – oh, I dream of something like that. Not sure if they’re from this country or not…”

“I mean, who am I supposed to be driving?”

“A snapper with a foetal heart who resents all stupid questions, Ramona A. Stone put her arms around a boy – the golden boy with a lion’s heart, the boy who lives outside, an urchin among immortals. Leon! Lift up your eyes! The very stars are calling! Your name is Leon, Leon is your name! Murder you will do!”

Leon, lift up your eyes!
[incomprehensible]

Something really fishy: 1.

In 1994, David Bowie – aged 47, with 21 studio albums behind him and nothing to prove – did something peculiar.

He booked a studio and assembled a four-piece band, all of whom he’d worked with before – Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine) on guitar, Mike Garson (Aladdin Sane/Buddha of Suburbia) on keyboards, multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay (Never Let Me Down/Buddha/Blah Blah Blah) on bass and Sterling Campbell (Black Tie White Noise) on drums. Then, under the supervision and direction of Brian Eno, they improvised – for several weeks. (“They” here refers to the four musicians; Bowie was in the studio, but spent most of his time painting.)

Building on whatever it was that had brewed over this period, Eno then came up with futuristic character profiles for everyone involved – including Bowie, himself and the two engineers – and they carried on working. Here’s Bowie’s profile:

You are a member of an early 21st Century “Art and Language” band. You make incantations, permutations of something between speech and singing. The language you use is mysterious and rich – and you use a melange of several languages, since anyway most of your audience now speak a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof. Using on-stage computers, instant sampling techniques and long delay echo systems, you are able to build up dense clouds of coloured words during performance. Your audience regards you as the greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry. Samuel Beckett is a big influence.

“a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof … Samuel Beckett is a big influence”. Make a note of that. (We can quietly ignore the “early 21st century” reference, though. It was the 1990s.)

The other players were also given pseudonyms, which were anagrams of their names: Mike Garson was “G. Noisemark”, Kızılçay was “Azile Clark-Iday”. Kızılçay’s profile told him:

It’s 2005. You are a musician in a soul-Arab band in a North-African role-sex club. The clientele are rich, sophisticated and unshockable – this is to the Arab world what New York was to the US in the Eighties. You play a kind of repetitive atonal funk with occasional wildly ambitious ornaments to impress your future father-in-law, the Minister of Networks for Siliconia, who is in the audience. You love the recordings of Farid El Atrache.

It was the kind of thing you either ‘got’ or didn’t, and by all accounts Kızılçay didn’t (“I don’t need a letter to play Oriental stuff”). To be fair, if you’re going to take on a futuristic imaginary persona, you might want to aim a bit higher than the house band in a sex club (something more like ‘greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry’, for instance). He probably wasn’t overjoyed to be confined to bass, either; when he’d worked with Bowie before he’d played keyboards and drums, and occasionally guitar, violin and trumpet. For whatever reason, Bowie dropped Kızılçay cold soon after these sessions.

Bowie himself wasn’t playing anything – not saxophone, not even his trusty twelve-string – which meant that he had a lot of time to fill. He also had a lot of work to do. Whatever music was eventually going to be created by G. Noisemark and Azile Clark-Iday (together with Elvas Ge’Beer and P. Maclert Singbell, I’m afraid), the chances were it wasn’t going to be instrumental. Bowie wrote songs: across those twenty-one albums there are, by my count, 16 instrumentals, and they’re confined to four albums (Low, Heroes, Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha of Suburbia). But he didn’t improvise songs – at least, not while working with a band, who were also improvising. If he were to improvise a song (or a whole set of songs) while in the persona of a renowned performer of “live abstract poetry”, how would that work – and (borrowing a question from Sudden Sway) how would it actually sound?

This is where things get confusing. We know where the process ended up: the album Outside (or 1. Outside, or possibly 1. Outside. The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-Cycle). Outside tells the story of a “ritual art murder” taking place on the 31st of December 1999 – more than five years in the future at the time Bowie began work – and introduces a whole cast of characters: Nathan Adler, art-world private eye; Baby Grace Blue, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered by a sadistic artist, who then put her body parts on display as an installation; Leon Blank, a young artist who appears to have been framed for the murder; Ramona A. Stone, the sinister art dealer who seems to have been involved; and the (even more) curiously named Algeria Touchshriek, an old shopkeeper whose involvement in any of this can only be guessed at. The actual culprit also appears but is never named (although canonically he is known as “the Minotaur”). The whole thing draws on Bowie’s involvement with the contemporary art world and expresses his longstanding fascination with religion and its replacements; beginning with the idea that suppressed religious urges were being discharged through the medium of art, he speculated that those urges would grow stronger as we approached the year 2000, ultimately finding outlet in what was essentially a human sacrifice.

(And then he did the voices.)

This is all well and good – albeit that it’s weird as hell and more than a little unpleasant, particularly the details of the Baby Grace ‘installation’ – but how do you get there from a band convincing themselves they’re playing in various 21st-century scenarios (Gabrels in “the Afro-Chinese ghetto in Osaka”, Campbell orbiting the moon) and a vocalist making sonic patchworks in “a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof”?

The answer is: Leon. Or Leon, or “Leon!” – or all three.

[to be continued]

Build A Better Yesterday

How could the film Yesterday have been improved? Over the fold, ten and a half possible improvements. Continue reading

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (5 of 5)

Do you know how tall he was?
Because that’s all that really matters
Do you know his mother’s last name?
Don’t you think that he’s divine?
You’ve seen the film, you’ve read the book,
You’re drinking vintage Elvis Presley wine
– Elvis Costello, “Useless thing” (from the sadly underrated Goodbye Cruel World)

THE STORY SO FAR: six main ‘plot strands’ have been identified in the ‘Harry Potter’ ‘series’. But is that all there is to it? And what has it got to do with the ‘brass tacks’ approach to fantasy? All will be revealed, hopefully.

There are, as we were saying, a whole series of plot lines in the Potter books:

  1. The Cinderella Factor (the cupboard under the stairs and how Harry escaped it)
  2. The Power Of Love (Lily’s sacrifice and its longer-term effects)
  3. Handsome Devil (Lily and Snape and Lily and James and Sirius and Snape and Lily)
  4. Noblesse Oblige (how the Malfoys (nearly) got in too deep)
  5. We’ve Got A File On You (the Ministry of Magic and how Harry very nearly didn’t escape it)
  6. We Could Rule The World (young Dumbledore and his special best friend)

The nobility of victimhood, I think, is the red thread that runs through plots ##1, 2, 3 and 5, contrasting with plot #6 (the false nobility of mastery) and to some extent with #4 (the false nobility of aristocracy). To put it another way, plot #1 – the Matilda plot, which appeared to have been shelved by the time Harry got to Hogwarts – is the master plot of the whole series: Harry is the victim who triumphs. More specifically, Harry is the sacrificial victim who triumphs by embracing his own sacrifice – and triumphs thanks to the strength he draws from the sacrifice of others, who had themselves each embraced their own sacrifice (first Lily, then Dumbledore, then Snape).

Celebrations of noble sacrifice are an awkward, self-contradictory thing in life: the person who did the noble deed isn’t there, while the people celebrating haven’t done anything. I tend to think self-sacrifice is overrated, both as a motivation and as an achievement; I firmly believe that Emily Davison intended to go home after the Derby, and I wonder if her death really gained the WSPU more than she would have given it in another five, ten or fifteen years of activism. (Clarence doesn’t tell George Bailey about all the people he could have inspired by dying heroically.) Even in the world of Potter, the canonical nobility of sacrifice is qualified by its uncertain effect: Lily’s death keeps Harry alive, but the only person who benefits directly from either Snape’s death or Dumbledore’s is Voldemort. (And if the magic of Lily’s love for her child was as powerful as all that – effectively rebounding on Voldemort not once but twice – you have to wonder why Voldemort’s curse couldn’t just have rebounded off her the first time round; it would have saved an awful lot of trouble.) Moreover, in the character of Snape Rowling comes uncomfortably close to endorsing the position that sacrificing one’s own conscience, so as to commit evil deeds for the sake of the greater good [sic], can be a form of self-sacrifice – a line of argument which rather uncomfortably evokes Himmler.

Nevertheless, I think this is the core logic of the books: Dumbledore as a willing victim, compromised by his thirst for power, but redeemed by his faith in Harry; Snape as a willing victim, compromised by being a Death Eater but redeemed by his love for Lily; Lily as a pure willing victim, ennobled by her love for Harry; and Harry as the Willing Victim Who Lived, mistreated by everyone from Aunt Marge to Lord Voldemort, but ultimately buoyed up by all that love and faith. The extraordinary range and variety of people who bully Harry also makes sense in this context: what else do the Dursleys, Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter and Rufus Scrimgeour have in common?

I suggested earlier that, although a lot of fantasy looks as if it’s set in a type-1 world – “here’s my made-up world, here’s a map and here are some stories set in it” – in practice successful fantasy worlds tend to fall into types 2 and 3, the ‘numinous’ and the ‘parasitic’. Both of these, in different ways, are animated by the aim of reflecting the world we know: ‘numinous’ worlds are about the meaning of life, ‘parasitic’ worlds are about how to run a country. (Earthsea is full of maps, but plainly numinous; Discworld has its own history, sort of, but it’s fundamentally parasitic.) I also suggested that even type-4 worlds – bodged-up, inconsistent worlds, like Narnia and the Potterverse – may turn out to have an animating goal, which in turn could be numinous/religious or parasitic/political; at least, Narnia certainly does, and its world-building is as bodged-up as you like.

I wonder now if, thanks to my starting-point with Tolkien and Lewis, I defined the category of the ‘numinous’ too narrowly; perhaps you can use fantasy to ask what life is ultimately like without involving religion, or anything like it. Consider the Moomin books: an awful lot of those stories are precisely about what life is like. What life is like, they tell us, is ‘sad’ – but, crucially, sad in different ways: you can be sad like Moomintroll because your friend’s gone away, or like the Muskrat because you’ve chosen the wrong personal philosophy, or like Moominpappa because you feel that you’ve done everything, or like the Hemulen because you have done everything (that you could think of), or like the Fillyjonk because nobody appreciates the effort you make just to hold it together, or like the Groke because you’ve got a chip of ice in your heart that nothing will ever melt. And all of those different sadnesses can lift, and give way to different forms of happiness, even if only temporarily. (Sometimes the Fillyjonk dances; even the Groke dances, once.) Or you can be like Tooticky, keep yourself to yourself, take one day at a time and not fuss about sadness.

Similarly, perhaps, with Potter and victimisation (a word which here means both ‘the process of being made a victim’ and ‘being picked on and bullied’). That ticklish focus-pulling between mundane and metaphorical levels of description – that sense that what you’re reading both does and doesn’t have a deeper meaning – is seen most clearly in the depiction of Harry as a victim. Is Harry’s endless suffering at the hands of his various tormentors an ordeal to be borne with dignity – and for which he’ll receive a corresponding reward somewhere down the line – or is he just a teenage boy having a really rough time of it? (A rich, athletic and nationally famous teenage boy having a rough time, admittedly. It must have been awful for him.) Come to that, was Dumbledore’s death pointless – or Snape’s? Or does each man’s embrace of self-sacrifice endow his death with power and virtue, thanks to some wrinkle in the magical scenery? Right to the end, it’s never entirely clear. (At the very end, of course, we learn that Harry has named his first child after both Snape and Dumbledore – but that doesn’t answer the question, so much as rephrase it in the form Is that all there is?) Those two things – the glory and honour of the ‘noble victim’ motif, together with the knowledge that being a victim is horrible and the never-quite-staunched suspicion that it actually gets you nothing but pain – may account for a lot of the appeal of Potter. Just as the Moomin books are a meditation on life’s sadnesses, the Potter books are a misery memoir.

But this brings us back to the sheer strangeness of the prevalence of brass-tacks interpretations of Potter; nobody treats the world of the Moomins as if it were real, after all. Why is it that, if I go looking for discussion of Dolores Umbridge, the first (and second, and third) thing I find is an elaborate fictional back-story for this fictional character, complete with her mother’s maiden name and her age when her parents’ marriage broke up? And not, for example, a reference to Eichmann in Jerusalem or “In the Penal Colony”; or a discussion of that name (“Pain, Indignation”); or a debate about how successfully JKR walks the line between disgust at a female character’s play-acting of a sexist role and sexist disgust at a female character’s play-acting. (Not a new question, that last one. “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”…) I could also ask why, when I finally do find literary parallels being evoked on one of these pages, they aren’t Shakespeare or Kafka but Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death and Toy Story 3, but that’s a slightly different discussion.

The only parallel I can find for Potter fandom’s investment in the reality of ‘their’ world is Tolkien fandom. Perhaps that’s all there is by way of an explanation; perhaps literalist fandom is just the kind of thing that happens when you have a story which focuses on ordinary characters making a big difference to the world, written by an author who’s keen to fill in the background. I’m not sure; I think the differences between the two worlds, and the kind of detail that the respective fans invest in, are too great for us to conclude that Potter fans are doing the same kind of thing as TLOTR fans.

Pedantic digression on abbreviations.
I keep having to remind myself to write TLOTR instead of the more familiar abbreviation LOTR. But the trilogy is called The Lord of the Rings for a reason. It’s not about the general idea that, if there were some important Rings, there might be such a role as Lord of same; it’s about the Lord of the Rings – and how he was defeated. I wonder what the vastly greater uptake of “LOTR” as an abbreviation – 119 million hits for LOTR without TLOTR, 96 thousand for TLOTR without LOTR – signifies.

Moving along… There’s a big difference between investing in the reality of Middle Earth and investing in the reality of the Potterverse. Getting back to our typology of world-building, Middle Earth is very much type 2; the world-building is numinous with a capital Nu. The reality you’re committing to, if you immerse yourself in the Tyler Companion or pore over Tolkien’s own maps (those mountains! that lettering!), is a reality that is always already metaphorical, a world in which (what are basically) angels do centuries-long battle with (someone who’s basically) Lucifer. The entire story of The Lord of the Rings apparently began with the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, which itself began with Tolkien’s fascination with the seemingly paradoxical idea that an eternal being (whether Arwen or God) might feel genuine love for a here-today, gone-tomorrow mortal (whether Aragorn or… you and me). This in turn grew out of Tolkien’s personal experience of the paradox of death – that the death of a parent, a lover, a friend is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to that person, and yet is experienced as an unbearable, earth-shattering tragedy, the one thing we could never have prepared for. (Cue the Daniel Handler quote: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”)

Put all that together and you have a view of the world – this world as well as Middle Earth – sub specie aeternitatis. Ahab: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” Ahab, admittedly, was crazy – and I’m not too sure about Herman Melville – but I think there’s something of this philosophy in Tolkien, and perhaps in any Christian author. (This world is certainly a ‘pasteboard mask’ in the Narnia books – but ultimately so is Narnia. Further up and further in!) The facts of everyday life, in this way of thinking, are a mundane backdrop, temporarily shielding us from a story that’s told in much bigger terms – the joy of absolute love, the threat of absolute loss; and that story, even though we only have access to it in rare and heightened moments, is our story, the story of our lives. I’m not saying all that is on every page of TLOTR, but it is in there somewhere. And it follows that to say you believe in the reality of Middle Earth is also to say you believe in life and death, good and evil, God and… certain tendencies to turn away from God. Big stuff.

Potter, not so much. The glory (or is it?) of the ennobling (or is it?) experience of victimisation (it definitely is) is the sore tooth that the Potter books keep going back to prod. But this cluster of ideas doesn’t really have any resolution; it only leads to savouring the put-upon wretchedness of being a victim, on one hand, and the vindictive pleasure of being a victor on the other. We aren’t brought up short by the sublime – confronted with something that exceeds anywhere that the hero, or the story, can go, in the same way that meeting God exceeds anything we can think and meeting death (or the Lady of the Cold) exceeds anything we can do. Rather, we’re left playing through an unresolved emotional conflict, with an endgame that reverses the players’ positions but leaves the conflict itself in place. Was everything Harry endured really necessary, or were people like Aunt Marge and Pansy Parkinson just really nasty to him? (And even if his suffering was necessary, did Dumbledore have any right to put him through it?) At the end of the series, does happiness reign, with people like Umbridge being punished appropriately, or has life returned to normal, with arrogant snobs like Draco Malfoy still contriving to fast-track their kids? If Umbridge is being tormented in Azkaban, is that something we can or should feel happy about? If Draco is still, well, Draco, is that something to feel unhappy about? There’s a satisfaction in playing it through, watching our hero repeatedly getting sand kicked in his face and then, eventually, turning the tables – especially when he tricks the system, turning the tables by being an especially good victim. But satisfaction isn’t resolution; there can be no resolution, because both sides of the opposition – victimhood and victory – are themselves impure, un-worked-through, unresolved. In short, an alternative title for Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass is Harry Potter and the Compulsion of Repetition. We have to keep going back to that world, and taking it on its own terms, for much the same reason that JKR keeps going back to it – because it’s not done yet. Another detail, another supporting character, another back-story plot-twist, another retcon, and it’ll be finished, perhaps… But it never will – or not without a change of narrative gear that would make the shift from The Subtle Knife to The Amber Spyglass look trivial.

Harry Potter will never approach the higher planes of meaning – big ideas entertained in tranquillity – frequented by Aslan, and Elrond, and Granny Weatherwax and Tooticky. The crushing revelation in book 7 that even Dumbledore was never really above the game – that he was a player, just as much as Rufus Scrimgeour or Narcissa Malfoy – eliminated that possibility. There is no good and evil in Potter, only people who dedicate themselves to the cause of good, or the cause of evil, with smaller or larger degrees of self-doubt and smaller or larger degrees of self-deception. Indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that those who don’t doubt themselves are deceiving themselves, and vice versa – Umbridge vs Dumbledore, Bellatrix vs Narcissa: “the best lack all conviction”, while the worst lack insight and honesty. What this means, though, is that both sides are impure; both can (perhaps) be forgiven for the bad, or condemned for their good, they try to do. It also means that the sublimity of death and glory is, for the most part, out of bounds; there is no noble victory and no obliterating defeat, only people fighting in the name of good things and people fighting in the name of bad things. We know how this goes: they’ll win, and lose, and win, and lose. Harry Potter will get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again. And then he’ll get knocked down, but then he’ll get up again.

I was a young man

It started (as things so often do these days) with a tweet:

As Alex commented, there are some interesting contrasts in there – particularly between 35-44 and 45-54, and then between 65-74 and 75+. Three age cohorts, then. Let’s assume that those _5 dividing lines are partially smoothing out sharper divisions ending with 0 rather than 5; there’s no real reason for this assumption, admittedly, other than the tendency for people to think in terms of being in their thirties or forties rather than being in the 25-34 or 35-44 age range. If that is the case, our cohorts looks like this: under-40s mostly pro-Remain; 40-70 fairly evenly divided, but with Leave sympathy growing with age; and 70+ mostly pro-Leave.

Why, though?

Kicking this around on Twitter, I thought of Douglas Adams’s dictum (from The Salmon of Doubt, which presumably means from his journalism) about technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think the effective opposition between 1. and 3. is psychologically true and useful to think with. It’s a bit disquieting – as it suggests that we’ll be equally positive about LimitlessFreeEnergy plc and Unmitigated Charlatanry Inc. if we come across them at the right time in our lives, and equally cynical about both if it’s the wrong time – but that’s no bad thing. I also think that something similar is true of politics and political change, with a couple of qualifications. First, we need to do something about that blank between birth and 15 – and should it really be birth? How much of anything do we retain from before the age of five, say? Second, 35 doesn’t look right for stage 3; I think what we’re looking at there is the point in life at which you’ve got a job, you’ve got somewhere to live and you basically know your way around, whereupon some clever bastard pulls the rug out from under you by inventing some la-di-da ‘spinning jenny’ if you please. Thirty-five seems very old to reach that stage – or rather, thirty-four seems very old still to be finding your feet and keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing. I wonder if Adams (who became a lifelong Mac user and advocate at 32) had his thumb on the scales at that point.

So here’s a modified set of rules, which I’ve modified some more by relating them to politics rather than technology.

  1. Any political development that happens before your fifth birthday is part of the landscape, for you; it’s how things have always been. This applies even if later changes appear to have reversed it – at a deeper level it’s still how the world is.
  2. Any developments that took place between your fifth and fifteenth birthday are done and dusted. Things did change, but those changes are over now and of no interest to anyone but historians; that’s how things are now.
  3. Any political development between your fifteenth and twenty-fifth birthday is a live issue – it’s important and, in your mind at least, it’s still up for grabs. Even if a particular controversy in this category seems firmly settled now, the position reached is still worth defending or attacking.
  4. Any new political development since your twenty-fifth birthday is less important, less relevant, and not final at all. If you’re in favour, it seems like a lucky break, a good result that couldn’t have been expected; if you’re against – or indifferent – it just seems weird and random. But that’s just what politics is like these days.

Now back to our age groups. Feast your eyes on this:

Not pretty, I know. (You should have seen the original version, with individual years on both axes.) You get the idea, though: each five-year cohort remembers each five-year period, and the events in it, differently. Like the sparrow flying across the mead-hall, our sense of historical events begins with a long retrospect of stuff that’s unproblematically part of the landscape (stage 1), passes through twenty busy years of political contention (2 and 3) and then enters the long decades (4) of disengagement and disorientation – longer the older we get.

Caveat: this isn’t about ‘for’ vs ‘against’, but about ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘new and different’ (or rather, ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘current and interesting’ vs ‘new and challenging’). I’m not saying all old people are bigots, in other words; I am saying that they’re predisposed to take seriously some attitudes which the verdict of time has classified as bigotry, but that’s a different proposition. My late mother, on this scale, would have been firmly in the “not entirely used to this” camp for most things that had happened since the War. She was also a lifelong opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, and of the laws that (for much of her life) upheld them. But the legalisation of homosexuality, say, was for her always something that had happened, and been brought about by forces unknown to her; it was an achievement, but one that had come out of nowhere and could easily have gone the other way. She was generally in favour of gay people living normal, indistinguishable lives – ‘gay’ just being one more character trait – but she didn’t fundamentally think that that was how the world was; she always had one foot in the world of Julian and Sandy (or rather the world in which Julian and Sandy were new and shocking).

What does this mean in practice, though? I’ll pick out each decade cohort’s head-year and look at some events and changes in each category, to get a sense of how different their mental worlds are. To reduce the inevitable repetition and heighten contrasts, I’ll omit categories 2 and 4 – the “how things are now” developments we witnessed in childhood and the “what politics is like these days” changes that came along after we were 25, when the real issues had already been established.

I am 20.
How things always have been: Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; no British Empire, no Cold War, no Communism; peace in Ireland; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people; legal abortion; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; 9/11 and the War on Terror; privatised utilities; academy schools; all-day pub opening; the Tories as transformed by Thatcher; Labour as transformed by Blair
The real issues: Brexit; Corbyn; Trump
My first general election: 2017

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is: democratic, efficient, well-regulated, progressive, but not socialist and not particularly friendly to anyone who falls by the wayside. The live issues are, essentially, the way that everything’s been thrown up in the air inside the last five years. The problems that occupied my generation don’t really figure. Last year I gave my third-year students a lecture on the Troubles; I might as well have been talking about the Wars of the Spanish Succession.

I am 30.
How things always have been: no British Empire; no Cold War; Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; privatised utilities; all-day pub opening; Thatcherism
The real issues: gay marriage; the Gender Recognition Act; the smoking ban
My first general election: 2010

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is pretty similar to the younger cohort, but with more of a sense that the programme of liberal modernisation is incomplete; the live issues are essentially continuations of that programme. I wonder how many #FBPE types are in their early 30s: the sense that a certain kind of regulated social liberalism is basically ‘in the bag’, that there are very few really big issues left to argue about, and that everything that’s happened in the last five years is irrelevant froth, all seems to fit the profile. (On the other hand, by this reckoning a fifty-year-old would see everything that’s happened in the last 25 years as irrelevant froth, which is surely overstating the case. But I think there is a particular mentality associated with having a recent time horizon on the ‘real issues’ category – the meaninglessness of current politics is accentuated and made poignant by the feeling that the ‘proper politics’ train has only just left the station, carrying our own sense of relevance and centrality inexorably into the past (along with David Miliband).)

I am 40.
How things always have been: no British Empire; the (second) Cold War; Britain in the European Community; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; Thatcherism
The real issues: New Labour; 9/11 and the War on Terror; peace in Ireland; academy schools; legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people
My first general election: 1997

The world, for this cohort, is inherently a regulated and liberal world, but one that was built in some long shadows – sixties social democracy on one hand (the Cold War, comprehensive schools), the defeat of seventies radicalism on the other. The implicit limits of progress are pretty tight. Similarly, this cohort’s sense of the ‘real issues’ is an odd mixture of tendencies towards greater regulated liberalism and away from social justice and civil liberties. (Tendencies, in both cases, which they may either support or oppose; younger cohorts don’t really have that option.)

I am 50.
How things always have been: no British Empire; a bi-polar world, but no Cold War; Britain in the EEC; decimal currency; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets; Enoch Powell
The real issues: Maastricht; the end of Communism; privatised utilities; the Miners’ Strike and pit closures; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; all-day pub opening
My first general election: 1987

The way the world is, for this cohort, is a country struggling to modernise after the loss of its imperial role. This group are likely to have mixed emotions both about the modernisation and about the imperial role, perhaps shifting with age. (Decimalisation is an interesting issue here; to have any memories of the old money you’d need to be over 55 in 2018.) Real issues, still at some level up for debate: more regulatory liberalism, plus (the defeat of) Communism, (the defeat of) the unions and (the advance of) the European project. This is the first generation for which major elements of the regulated liberalism project are up for debate, and the first in which ‘Europe’ in some sense isn’t a done deal (the next will be 70). This and the next are also the only age cohorts where recognisably ‘class’ issues are salient.

I am 60.
How things always have been: the British Empire in decline; the Cold War; Britain outside the EEC
The real issues: equal pay including ‘work of equal value’; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; metrication; compulsory seatbelts; the Three Day Week; Thatcherism and the Falklands
My first general election: 1979

The world, for this cohort, is an unfriendly place where a slightly reduced Britain goes it alone. The real issues are mostly about that push towards regulatory liberalism – for this generation the entire regulatory programme is a live issue, one on which it’s quite possible to argue both sides (note the appearance of metrication in this category). However, all this is taking place against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism and its eventual defeat by Thatcherism – something which this cohort shares to some extent with the previous one, although the key event here is the Three Day Week (effectively a defeat for the government) rather than the Miners’ Strike (a defeat of the union movement by the government).

I am 70.
How things always have been: the British Empire; the Cold War (and Korea); Britain outside the EEC; rationing
The real issues: colonial independence; Britain in the EEC; decimalisation; Enoch Powell and Powellism; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets
My first general election: 1970

The shape of the world, for this cohort, is an impoverished nation, making the best of the legacy of its imperial past. The first small moves towards modernisation and racial or sexual equality are very much up for grabs; other real issues are precisely about the legacy of Empire (colonial independence, relations with Europe, non-White British subjects). A 70-year-old in 2018 would have started earning money before pounds, shillings and pence went out (metrication came even later). Again, to say that these are live issues for this generation is not to say that this cohort supports them – or that it’s against them, for that matter; rather, this is the youngest generation for which these questions were generally treated as being unsettled, as still up for debate.

I am 80 (they can still vote, you know).
How things always have been: the British Empire, allied with the USSR and USA; no EEC; rationing
The real issues: the decline of the British Empire; the end of rationing; the Cold War (and Berlin)
My first general election: 1959

Perhaps the most disappointed cohort: the way the world truly is, for them, includes an imperial power that bestrides the world like a colossus. Significantly, the ‘real issues’ – the issues on which this generation first took (both) sides – include colonial independence and Suez. British power in the world – and the loss of British power – is a ‘hot’ issue for this generation like no other. Rationing is relevant here; an 80-year-old in 2018 would have reached the age of 15 before rationing of sweets ended, 16 before rationing ended entirely. Austerity? Been there, done that.

We carry the history of our lifetimes around with us, and the history of our world in our lifetimes – especially in our first 25 years. In particular, we’re carrying three big historical developments – or, perhaps, two really big developments and, in between them, a dog that barked for a while and then shut up. From 80 down to 50 we’re living in a world defined by the British Empire and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, with the big questions being about the legacies of empire and Britain’s redefined place in the world. From 70 down to 30 the big context is the long march of regulated liberalism, the melting-away of all the old common-sense prejudices and institutional barriers, the smoothing-down and boxing-up of all the risks and harms we used to take for granted. (Twenty-year-olds for their part are living in a world where this project has succeeded – and witnessing the return of political polarisation in the aftermath. Well digged, old mole!) In the middle, from 60 down to 40 we find a world characterised by class struggle – verging on victory if you’re 60, a gruellingly even match if you’re 50, firmly defeated if you’re 40. Class struggle makes the loss of an imperial role all the more challenging (or frightening) for 60-year-olds, and gives rights-based liberalism a cutting edge for both them and the 50-year-old cohort; for the 40-year-olds its defeat frames the liberal project differently, as the only reforming project in town. (If you put it all together, clearly the people with the broadest political vocabulary and the richest sense of possibility are those 60-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. The fact that I myself am closer to 60 than 50 is merely a meaningless coincidence, however.)

To get a clearer sense of generational change, we can think of pairs of neighbouring age cohorts as disputatious friends or squabbling neighbours, firmly united on some things and divided on others.

30 and 20 agree that we live in a safe, peaceful, liberal, regulated society, albeit one that doesn’t owe anyone a living. 30 knows that politics, as older generations knew it, is dead and gone. 20 disagrees; 20 thinks it’s coming back.

40 and 30 agree that we live in a modern, liberal, regulated, European society. 40 knows that there’s plenty more to be done, and that the liberal project may be threatened by external forces such as terrorism. 30 doesn’t agree; 30 thinks there’s not much to worry about, as the job is pretty much done.

50 and 40 agree that a relatively liberal and modern Britain has some sort of role to play in Europe. 50 knows that our involvement in Europe has definite limits, and that our liberalisation is built on the defeat of class politics. 40 is less conflicted; 40 knows that this defeat has been successfully completed, and that it needs to be entrenched in order to push liberalisation further.

60 and 50 agree that equality and public health are important; that working people don’t like being pushed around (although that doesn’t stop it happening); and that there’s a limit to Britain’s involvement in Europe. 60 knows that Britain stands alone, with no close European partners and only the relics of Empire, in a world overshadowed by Communism. 50 lives in a different world, one in which the threat of Communism is dying, the Empire is dead and gone, and Britain has gone into Europe – but only thus far and no further.

70 and 60 agree that the Empire is becoming a thing of the past, and that Europe and liberalising reforms are in the future. 70 knows that there are things to be said for and against these reforms, and wonders if we could have kept the old ways going. 60 thinks reform is going to be necessary but knows that working people aren’t going to put up with being pushed around, and/or that if you are going to push them around you need to push hard.

80 and 70 agree that Britain stands alone, as far as its European neighbours are concerned; that it’s in the nature of Britain to play an international role; and that Britain could yet play that role again. 80 knows just how imperial that international role was, and doesn’t entirely regret it. 70 knows that you’ve got to move with the times – including the possibility of engaging with Europe, as well as reform on issues like race and sex – but doesn’t entirely welcome it.

Perhaps there are three phases, corresponding roughly to the dividing lines I suggested initially. 70 and 80 grew up in an imperial or post-imperial world; 20 to 40 in a world of EU membership and liberal regulation; 50 and 60 in a more complex and contested world, where the first attempts to find a place in Europe and implement socially liberal reforms were cut across by class struggle politics (from the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974 to Thatcher’s defeat of the miners eleven years later).

Or there’s a shorter answer, which hinges on the dates of British accession to the EEC (1973) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993). The odd thing about these dates, though, is that the age cohorts they suggest are ten years out. (NB this paragraph has been updated: the first draft suggested that these dates did work. The first draft was wrong.) Before 1973 Britain wasn’t in the ‘Common Market’. In 1973, today’s 60-year-olds were 15, but 50-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that the European project as a whole is a live issue for over-60s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-70s.) Before 1993, on the other hand, Britain was in the European Community but not the European Union, meaning that the longer-term project of European integration – together with Britain’s weird patchwork of opt-outs and concessions – wasn’t an issue for anyone below 15 at the time. In 1993, today’s 40-year-olds were 15, but 30-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that European integration is a live issue for over-40s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-50s.)

Guess it’s the big generational shifts after all.

Updated: forgot the obligatory musical accompaniment. Hey, you young people…!

Written on your face

“Looking back on life is such a retrospective thing,” Pete Shelley once wrote (although he probably doesn’t like to be reminded of it). Actually, an awful lot of life is a retrospective thing. We all live in the past to some extent; if you didn’t you’d have terrible trouble finding the stairs.

Popular music is one of the more retrospective things, if you’re old enough not to be discovering it for the first time (and if you’re reading this, what are the chances?). I’ve written about Robyn Hitchcock three times on this blog before now, if you set aside brief references in posts on nonsense verse, dreaming and death (2006, 2017). In 2005 I looked back on a 1993 gig, and how Robyn dealt with hecklers during the introduction to a song about watching his father dying; in 2008 I saw Robyn on TV and looked back at my memories of seeing him live, going back to 1979; in 2009 I mused about a recently-completed paper (which would never be published) and a dream about Barack Obama, while listening to a song from 2003 in which Robyn looked back on 1976.

This really ought to make me feel old, but in practice very few things do that. What it does make me feel is slightly dizzy – not so much “the past inside the present”, more the past inside the past, inside the past, inside the past, inside another past – and all of those pasts inside the present, for now. (Will I be looking back on this post in a year’s time – or ten years’ time – and writing, In 2018 I looked back on...? Let’s hope so.)

And it’s been a lifetime
And with you I celebrate my life

I didn’t feel old when I went to see Robyn Hitchcock the other month (I did later, when I had to run for the bus home, but that’s another story). I was a bit startled by how old everyone else was, though – the venue (“Club Academy”, which turned out to mean the basement of the Students’ Union(!)) seemed to be packed out with grey-haired men, with a scattering of grey-haired couples. There were a lot of more or less smart-looking older men, a smaller number of ageing rockers and folkies and a few people who looked as if life hadn’t been very kind to them; what there wasn’t, as far as I could see, was more than a handful of people under 40. I realised what was going on, and wondered if anyone else had been in the audience the first time I saw Robyn, a Soft Boys gig at the Hope and Anchor in 1979; I tried to edit our over-55 selves into my memory of that pub back room, but we looked very out of place. Noticing the number of people checking their phones, I automatically edited my mental image accordingly – black or beige plastic, rotary dials, wires trailing – but now it just looked silly.

It’s been a lifetime – my adult lifetime, anyway. I first saw the Soft Boys a few weeks before I went up to university and last saw them shortly before I graduated, by which time they were in the process of splitting; in between I saw them another three times, including one gig where a couple of friends of mine had talked themselves onto the very bottom of the bill, as an unofficial (and unpaid) support act. I’d been trying vaguely to get started as a singer, and persuaded them to let me take vocals on one of their songs – the fact that neither of them knew the lyrics was what swung it for me. (No, they couldn’t just look them up. It was 1980.) So it was that I made my performing debut, singing the Stranglers’ “Grip” with the (loosely-defined) band Shovel Robinson, supporting (a couple of other bands who genuinely were supporting) the Soft Boys. There’s glory for you.

The last time I saw the Soft Boys was in 1982, after Kimberley Rew had formally left the band; the other three started the gig without him, and he only joined them on stage for the last few numbers. I only mention this because one of Morris Windsor’s drum pedals malfunctioned mid-gig, leading to a hiatus in which little could be heard apart from intermittent shouts of “Kimberley!” from the back of the room; to this Robyn responded, “I love Kimberley dearly, but he can’t be used for hitting a drum”.

I don’t remember seeing Robyn after that until 1993 (Manchester Academy, with the Egyptians – Morris Windsor and original Soft Boys bassist Andy Metcalfe).

The missing Avenger planes
Will never return to base
Don’t you wait up for them

How often have you boys said
“I ain’t gonna bump no more”?
We ain’t gonna bump no more

Over the subsequent 25 years (steady – touch of vertigo again) I’ve seen him another seven times – solo, with the Venus Three and with other combinations of musicians, including on one occasion Morris and Kimberley, of all people. But that 1993 gig still sticks in my mind: Respect material – still my favourite Hitchcock album – and played by the old gang, or 3/4s of it (supplemented by an additional guitarist). I’ve never seen staging like it, apart from anything else; rather than sit at the back behind a drumkit, Morris Windsor stood at the front of the stage alongside Robyn and Andy Metcalfe, behind a tiny and mostly electronic kit. (And a vocal mic, of course; three-part harmonies were always part of the deal.) The additional guitarist, whose name was Eric, was left to lurk at the back. At one point Robyn, Morris and Andy got into a semi-serious discussion of who’d worked with Robyn longer, who’d been there “at the start”; Robyn wound it up by saying, “Of course, Eric was there all along. Eric’s been there longer than any of us – it’s just that he’s only recently become… apparent.” The Yip Song was amazing (Morris’s ‘kit’ included a real snare), as was its intro; Robyn was on good introductory form generally. Other than that I mainly remember a couple of solo songs mid-set. Robyn did “I’ve got a message for you” and, seemingly irked by the number of people singing every single word back at him, went off-piste in the middle eight:

Though I’m not a piece of veal
Or a piece of beef
The way you sink your teeth in me
Is beyond belief!

I burst out laughing and clapped quite loudly – which Robyn responded to (I was standing right in front of him at the time) by going into an extended drunk-Elvis “Thankyou-ladeez-an-gennelmen-ah-thangyew-so-verr-verr-much” routine. So that was fun, not to mention a bit weird (“Ah felt like I was bein’ fitted with a new artificial arrrm…”).

In the same solo section, Robyn did “She doesn’t exist”, a song which (in 1993) I didn’t know but (at the age of 32) thought was quite pretty and rather sad. After the song I saw Robyn give his eyes a quick dab with a bar towel and thought, “that must really mean a lot to him”; it certainly didn’t mean anything to me. Twenty-five years later, at Club Academy, he did the song – again – as one of a few solo songs mid-set; as soon as I recognised it I thought, you utter bastard. Then stood there for three minutes with a wet face.

They didn’t do “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” the other night; I don’t remember if they did it that night in 1993, either, although it seems probable. I do know that Arthur Lee was another subject of which I was ignorant, back then. It was three years later that I met the friend who introduced me to the music of Arthur Lee and his psychedelic band Love. That in turn was seven years before she got to meet and hang out with Arthur Lee, which was three years before he died, which is twelve years ago now. The past inside… the past, inside the past, inside the present.

Meanwhile back at the Hope in 1979, Robyn’s switched to bass – a rather striking blue Danelectro ‘longhorn’ bass – and he and Andy are sharing the dense, skittery bassline of “Insanely Jealous”. On guitar, Kimberley is having fun experimenting with feedback and playing with the volume knobs – muting his guitar completely, hitting a chord and then fading it in or wa-wa-ing it in and out. And that’s just the accompaniment. When it’s time for his solo he goes… I wouldn’t say he goes crazy, exactly, not least because that would imply a strong contrast with how he was for the rest of the gig. It’s more that the solo lets him do what he does, only without reining himself in: when it’s time for his solo, he goes. He had – and for all I know still has – an extraordinary sound, reminiscent of Floyd-era Barrett and not really of much else; a kind of lucid, liquid howl. I remember that solo, the best part of 40 years on, and I remember Kimberley’s weird range of ‘psychedelic guitarist’ mannerisms – the gurning, the pouting, the chin-jutting, the Fab Four head-shaking… Kimberley always did have quite an impressive mop of hair, although the last time I saw it I didn’t immediately recognise it, or him (like Robyn, he seems to have more or less skipped ‘grey’ and gone straight for white).

And who is this, on stage with Robyn in 2018 at the rock and roll toilet that is Club Academy, rhythmically jutting his head and pouting, shaking a greying mop of hair as he gets stuck into the solo on “Insanely Jealous”? It’s Luther Russell, of course! Well, of course. And he’s pretty good; seems like a nice guy, too. He doesn’t quite have that sound, though (nobody does). More importantly, there’s never any danger that he’s going to pick the gig up and run off with it; never any question about who’s on stage with whom. It’s odd, though – while he’s no spring chicken himself, Luther would have been only just into secondary school when the Soft Boys broke up (not to mention being located on the wrong continental landmass). He must have watched a lot of videos – and I didn’t think there were any videos.

It was an odd gig; it mostly consisted of 1980s material, although Robyn was also promoting a limited 2011 album which has just had a full(er) release and – almost incidentally – a new album. The new album looks good, sounds excellent (some really nice, gnarly guitar sounds) and includes some of his best material in years; it’s even called Robyn Hitchcock, which might seem to suggest a push into a wider market. There weren’t any copies on sale at the gig, though, which may be why Robyn’s efforts to promote it were fairly perfunctory. That, and the difficulty of selling anything these days. “This is from the new album, which you can’t buy from us, although you can buy it… somewhere. But the music is available everywhere.” (On a side note, I ordered the CD direct from Yep Roc in the States. Postage was reasonable and HMRC didn’t make any trouble.)

Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God, you were beautiful
Oh God…
Mad Shelley’s letterbox is full of birthday cards

Alternatively, perhaps the passage of time has been weighing on Robyn’s mind as well. (Quick question: why would someone’s letterbox be full of birthday cards? Yes, that, obviously. But why else?) And perhaps Robyn’s opening remarks on reaching retirement age but still being on tour (he turned 65 in March) were more than just rueful banter. The past (“Insanely Jealous”), inside the past (“Chinese Bones”), inside the past (“Madonna of the Wasps”)… inside the past (“Sally was a Legend”), inside the past, (“Goodnight Oslo”), inside the present. You have been listening to: Robyn Hitchcock.

 

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 (9)

Let’s put the lid on this series, and when I say ‘put the lid’ I mean ‘pull the rug’. (This is the hand, the hand that takes…)

A number of things follow from the thought-experiment I’ve been developing. If, after you die, you are going to be uniquely and recognisably you for eternity, it follows that you should spend whatever life you’ve got becoming the best you that you can – the most fulfilled, the most fully actualized, the version of you that you would want to be if you had the choice. You are, after all, not going to get another chance; once round the circuit and that’s what you’ve got – that’s what you are – for ever and ever and ever. Secondly, if you’re going to be you for eternity along with everyone else, it follows that everyone else is going to count for exactly as much as you do. Moreover, on that immaterial, timeless plane their equal value with you will be inescapably obvious; empathy won’t be optional, over yonder. This rules out pursuing (what may appear to be) self-fulfilment by hurting other people, as doing so will land you with an eternity of apologies – an eternity of genuine pain, really. Thirdly, if everyone’s around forever, it follows that everyone who has ever lived or ever will live is (always already) around forever: when you check in, you’ll be rapidly introduced to your grandparents and great-grandparents, but also to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in whatever level of fulfilled self-actualization they (will eventually have) achieved before (they will have eventually) died. And it pretty much follows from this that, if you ever get the feeling that somebody up there likes you, you’re right, and you may well be feeling Somebody’s empathetic vibrations. (Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.) Only that Somebody isn’t Him, it’s just them; to put it another way, it’s just us.

Put all of that together and it follows fairly directly that – to quote myself – it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

Now, let’s say that none of this is true. Syllogism: animals die, their bodies rot, and no trace of them is ever perceived again; human beings are animals; therefore… Alternatively: everything that exists can be observed in some reliable and predictable way; evidence of survival after death has never been reliably and predictably observed; therefore… Let’s say that death is the end – of everything we know, think of or can imagine. No eternal presence; no timeless, dimensionless tuning-fork note; no reuniting with lost ones, meeting heroes, apologising to enemies; no warm buzz of omnidirectional empathy. Our existence through time isn’t superseded (sublated) into eternity, it comes to a stop and is cancelled in a single terminal moment. Our unique identity isn’t perfected and eternally preserved, it’s lost amid a million others and eventually forgotten, with a million others. What follows from that? Where’s your laundry list of moral precepts now?

One answer – widely attributed to atheists but mainly espoused by depressives, cynics, libertines and revolutionaries – is that if nothing lasts, nothing matters: you’re never going to be held to account for what you do, so why not do whatever you want? What’s interesting about this answer is the bad faith that lurks within its apparent logic. Look at the disjunct between the two groups I mentioned just now – those who are supposed to believe that they can do whatever they like without any comeback, and those who actually hold this belief and act on it. Revolutionaries and suicides believe that there is no future; suicides and cynics believe that nothing they do really matters; cynics and libertines believe that conventional morality is bullshit; libertines and revolutionaries believe that their own goals and desires are the truest morality. Most people in those groups probably do share the two key beliefs that death is the end and that there is no God to sit in judgment on us – but this basic atheist credo clearly doesn’t get us all the way to suicidal depression, revolutionary fervour or libertinism, or even to outright cynicism. On the contrary, one can believe that human life is made all the more precious – and the challenge of living fully together all the more important – by the fact that there is no life beyond this one and no chance of coming back for another try: you get what you get, and that’s it.

Hence the suggestion of bad faith. To spell it out, if we’re saying that if nothing lasts, nothing matters what we’re actually saying is that if nothing we can know lasts longer than human life – and if there is no agency higher than human life – then nothing matters more than my own decisions and impulses. Syllogistically, I would be bound by a higher morality in my dealings with other people if there were a God or an afterlife; there is no God or afterlife; therefore… The problem with this train of thought is that, unless you’re going through a crisis of faith, the belief that there is no eternity and no God doesn’t come as news: if you hold that belief, you already believe that that’s how the world is. But this means that the first half of the syllogism collapses: it’s like saying “if 0=1, morality is true”. (Don’t take my word for it, check it yourself – can’t argue with the maths.) What you’re really saying is, lots of people tell us what to do on the basis that there’s something higher and more permanent than the lives of people in society; there isn’t; therefore we can do as we like. It’s bad logic, apart from anything else: you’re jumping over the step where you establish that the lives of people in society don’t have any intrinsic value.

Which brings us back to our laundry list. If each individual is unique and intrinsically valuable, but each one of us is snuffed out, annihilated, when we die; if each person’s life is a unique journey to self-actualization, but each journey stops, never to be resumed, at the instant of death, however soon it comes; what follows from that? (Apart from a strong urge to put back my head and howl like a dog for my father, for my mother, for Madeleine, for Les, for every friend and relative who’s gone before and been taken too soon.) If my life is this bizarre hybrid of a treasure and a bad joke, and if everyone else is in the same position as I am (and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t), then surely Eliot Rosewater had it right:

At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

What I’m suggesting is that the whole idea of unique individual souls living on eternally – an idea which I’ve developed in a particular way in these posts, but which in itself is fairly uncontroversial among Christians – is an inverted reflection of the unbearable reality of death: death which ends time and extinguishes the individual. But this cuts both ways. Assume, in a kind of melancholic fantasy, that there is a God and a Heaven but that human life has no access to any of it – that some other beings are up there casting down their crowns around a glassy sea, while we poor homo sapiens die and rot – and certainly our lives would seem to be of little account. If there is nothing but human life (bounded by death), though, the scale we need to be working on is, precisely, the scale of human life bounded by death. And if, while we’re here, we’re each unique and valuable; and if, while it continues, each person’s life is a journey of self-actualization; and if each individual is ridiculously fragile and each life is absurdly unrepeatable; then it seems to follow – with, if anything, even more force – that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people.

And when we die?

Tonight we fly
Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

Tonight we fly
Over the chimneytops
Skylights and slates
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Over the doctor, over the soldier
Over the farmer, over the poacher
Over the preacher, over the gambler
Over the teacher, over the rambler
Over the rambler
Over the lawyer,
Over the dancer, over the voyeur,
Over the builder and the destroyer,
Over the hills and far away

Tonight we fly
Over the mountains
The beach and the sea
Over the friends that we’ve known
And those that we now know
Over their homes
And those who we’ve yet to meet
We’ll fly

Over the fathers
Over the mothers

And when we die
Over the sisters
Over the brothers

Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad
Over the children
Over the lovers

If heaven doesn’t exist?
What will we have missed?
Over the hills and far away
This life is the best we’ve ever had.

If you have been, thanks for reading these posts. I may publish a short round-up with links to earlier posts, but apart from that I’m not intending to continue the series. Normal service – i.e. closely-argued political nitpicking – will resume shortly.

To you, with regard (7)

BUFFY:
Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

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).

Schematically:

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 (4)

Three views on personal survival after death. (I was holding this post back until I had time to write some commentary, but if I do it this way you can decide what you think about them before I tell you what I think.) They date respectively from 1845, 1867 and 1998.

So: have a read of this.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

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.

Got that?

Now, take a breath and have a go at this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better – saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love –
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

And you know what to do with this:

Homework question: was that in fact three different views of personal survival, or only two? If two of them agree, which two?

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.

Woke up sucking a lemon

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

I’ve now written four follow-up posts to this post on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. I think by now I’ve said all I want to say on the subject. (I hope so, anyway – I’ve written 18,000 words already.) As a final postscript, these are some notes on reactions to the original post.

There was quite a lot of reaction to the post, and almost all positive; it was endorsed on Twitter by Frances Coppola, Declan Gaffney, Peter Jukes and Jonathan Portes, as well as being mentioned favourably on Stumbling and Mumbling and the Cedar Lounge. (Not a peep out of Wren-Lewis, though. Maybe another time.) I didn’t link to the column I was quoting, or name its author, the researcher he quotes or the latter’s institution (David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and Birkbeck respectively); I liked the idea of challenging (and hopefully demolishing) DG and EK’s arguments without actually giving them any publicity. Nevertheless, within 24 hours the post had come to both their attention, and I had my first critical readings – both from the authors and from their Twitter followers, although the latter didn’t say much about the post. (They were a charming bunch. One @-ed me in on a tweet telling DG I was a loon ranting into the void and advising him not to bother with me; he had an egg avatar and a timeline that seemed to consist mainly of insulting public figures and then complaining that they’d blocked him. I tweaked him a bit, asking who he was and how he was so sure I was a ranting loon. In reply he insulted me at some length, so I blocked him.)

The reactions from EK and DG were interesting. If you look at the original post you’ll see that I’ve retracted one point and expanded another quite substantially; each of these amendments was necessitated by a brief tweet from EK, and one which (in both cases) didn’t sink in until a couple of hours after I’d first read it. I still think his report’s dreadful, but on the detail level EK is clearly not someone to trifle with. DG’s response was interesting in a different way. When I accused EK of purveying unreliable stats, he reacted to the accusation by looking at my underlying argument, spotting the flaw in it and pointing it out to me; hence the retraction. When I accused DG of making a claim that’s straightforwardly false (In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority), he said nothing at all. He did respond to me, but not on that point, and not to very much effect. He challenged my point about the supposed rights of minorities, albeit rather feebly (as we saw earlier), but that was about it in terms of references to the post. Other than that, he accused me of facetiousness, pedantry and point-missing; he subtweeted me twice (that I know of), lamenting to his followers that he was having to argue with people who didn’t believe there was such a thing as ethnicity and/or believed that mentioning ethnicity was racist; and he repeatedly accused me of calling him a racist, and (for good measure) of calling “about 90% of Brits” racists. (This led to some short-form sermonising from one of DG’s followers about all these Lefties calling people racists all the time.) Needless to say, I hadn’t called anyone a racist. I tried to keep up the pressure – although most of the time it was more a matter of trying to keep him on topic – but it was a singularly unedifying series of exchanges. DG eventually cut it short, after replying to his egg-shaped follower and agreeing that I wasn’t worth bothering with.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other response – if it was a response; it may just be a curious coincidence. There’s a guy out there called Stuart Russell, who was formerly employed as press spokesman for the BNP; in that role, for reasons best known to himself, he went by the name of ‘Phil Edwards’. Russell seems to be rather proud of having a doctorate, as (unlike most PhDs I know) he uses his title routinely; his friends even seem to call him ‘the Doc’. I don’t know anything about this doctorate, and I’ve got no reason to believe it’s as fake as his pseudonym. I do know that if Russell was ever an academic it was a long time ago; company listings show him running a fireworks company in the early 90s, apparently alongside his father (search “Stuart Harling Russell” if you’re curious). Naturally the doctoral affectation carried over to his pseudonym, so Dr Stuart Russell became Dr Phil Edwards. Some years ago I tried to get the Guardian to refer to the man by his real name – instead of referring to him by my real name – but without much success. Anyway, Russell left his post (voluntarily or otherwise) when the BNP imploded in 2007 – and he was 64 then – so I hadn’t given him much thought for the last few years.

What should appear in my inbox, just as the DG/EK post was trending, but an email from “Dr Stuart Russell”, with some links to a purportedly libertarian site set up by Kevin Scott, formerly of the BNP (or “Kevin Scott BA Hons” as the site refers to him; they do like their credentialled intellectuals over there). A few hours later somebody else – a regular commenter on Chris Dillow and Simon Wren-Lewis’s blogs, whose name I’d last seen attached to a pro-DG comment on one of Chris’s posts – mailed me, claiming “Kev Scott asked me to send you the attached un-PC article in the Financial Times“. The attached article, of course, was the one by DG that started all of this. The question is whether my correspondent thought he was writing to Russell, a.k.a. ‘Phil Edwards’. (He clearly didn’t realise he was writing to me.) But if so, who did Russell think he was writing to? Has he retired and handed over to a new ‘Phil Edwards’, à la Dread Pirate Roberts? All very odd. What’s interesting, of course, that people in the ex-BNP area approve of DG’s column; if DG is sincere in wanting to hold the line against racism, it seems that racism is now so extreme that even fascists oppose it. Or rather, it seems that ‘racism’ defined as something distinct from ‘racial self-interest’ – which is the only form of racism that DG wants to oppose – is so extreme that even fascists are happy to oppose it.

In the mean time, someone identifying only as “Stu” (surely not?) has popped up in comments on the most recent post in the series, arguing strenuously and at some length against free movement in the name of workers’ rights. I may develop my own position on this one more fully another time; then again, I may not (there are other things to write about, after all). All I’ll say here is that one can champion the interests of the workers of one’s own country without being any more left-wing than Otto Strasser. When I see it asserted that “Socialism in a national framework is the only vehicle for positive progressive change“, I don’t think further debate is going to be particularly productive.

In another part of the nationalist field, Pat Kane put this interesting question to me:

As you’ll remember, my take on Harris’s calls for Labour to tell a “national story”, replacing nostalgic dreams of full employment with “ideas of nationhood and belonging”, wasn’t positive. In reply to Kane, I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison. Which is precisely why DG and EK’s legitimation of majority-group ethnic nationalism – White racism, in other words – is so dangerous.

Spitfires

As you can see, I’ve changed the title of this blog (although not the URL). I’ve got a bad habit of picking titles and catchphrases which are resonant but gloomy – the title of my book is a classic example. “The gaping silence never starts to amaze” is a nice line (it’s from a fairly obscure song by the Nightingales) but I thought we could all do with something a bit more upbeat. “In a few words, explain what this site is about.” says the WordPress rubric; I think the new title and strapline are a bit more informative, too.

The reference is to a song which a friend reminded me of (inadvertently as it turned out).

I first heard this song at a local folk club about a year ago, and it’s grown on me since then. It seems like a good song for where we are now; where we’ve been since the 16th of June 2016, really.

Spitfires (Chris Wood)
Sometimes in our Kentish summer
We still see Spitfires in the sky
It’s the sound.

We run outside to catch a glimpse
As they go growling by
It’s the sound…

There goes another England:
Sacrifice and derring do
And a victory roll or two.

From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl
Upon the lathe
It’s the sound…

It’s ordinary men and women
With an ordinary part to play.

Theirs was a gritty England:
“Workers’ Playtime” got them through
And an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told
In a voice that’s not my own
It’s the sound…

It’s a Land of Hope and Glory voice
An Anglo klaxon overblown
It’s the sound…

Theirs is another England:
It hides behind the red white and blue.
Rule Britannia? No thankyou.

Because when I hear them Merlin engines
In the white days of July
It’s the sound…

They sing the song of how they hung a little Fascist out to dry.

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…

The most cruel

Growing up in the 1970s, it’s hard to overstate how important the cause of Chile was. 11th September 1973 was, I suppose, a “naked lunch” moment – a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork; we knew who was on whose side, and what they were willing to do.

Joan Jara:

on the 18th of September … a young man came to my house, said, “Please, I need to talk to you. I’m a friend. I’ve been working in the city morgue. I’m afraid to tell you that Victor’s body has been recognized,” because it was a well-known — his was a well-known face. And he said, “You must come with me and claim his body; otherwise, they will put him in a common grave, and he will disappear.”

So then I accompanied this young man to the city morgue. We entered by a side entrance. I saw the hundreds of bodies, literally hundreds of bodies, that were high piled up in what was actually the parking place, I think, of the morgue. And I had to look for Victor’s body among a long line in the offices of the city morgue, recognized him. I saw what had happened to him. I saw the bullet wounds. I saw the state of his body.

And I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in the sense that I had to face at that moment what had happened to Victor, and I could give my testimony with all the force of what I felt in that moment, and not that horror, which is much worse, of never knowing what happened to your loved one, as what happened to so many families, so many women, who have spent these 40 years looking for their loved ones who were made to disappear.

But the real significance of 11th September wasn’t the treachery or the horrors of the coup itself, or the years of brutal misery that followed. The coup mattered because of what it destroyed: the beginnings of a radical social experiment, bringing millions of people a chance of a decent life, some power over their own lives, a bit of confidence in the future. The sheer joy of that period has never been captured better than in this song (which I’ve cited before but not linked). Listen to the middle eight – it’s as if Victor Jara’s saying, you get it now? being alive is good, being in love is great, but this – this is happiness! this is how we were meant to live!

Forty years after that hope was destroyed, let’s celebrate it. (Translation in comments.)

Maria,
abre la ventana
y deja que el sol alumbre
por todos los rincones
de tu casa.

Maria,
mira hacia fuera
nuestra vida no ha sido hecha
para rodearla de sombras
y tristezas.

Maria, ya ves
no basta nacer, crecer, amar,
para encontrar la felicidad.

Pasó lo mas cruel,
ahora tus ojos se llenan de luz
y tus manos de miel

Maria…

Tu risa brota como la mañana,
brota en el jardín
Maria…

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