Category Archives: up to my eyes

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.

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Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (3 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the Potter books has led to a typology of world-building, including a frankly undisciplined digression into the mechanics of the Discworld series. Back to Potter…

Rowling’s world-building in the Potter books isn’t a weak form of nuts-and-bolts world-building, or of numinous, alt-religious world-building, or of satirical or polemical world-building. It’s type #4: a hazy amalgam of all three, covered by repeated register-switching between them – snatches of magical history or supernatural zoology here, mystical invocations of Love and Courage and Sacrifice there, broad satire of bureaucracy and the press over yonder. Hence also the continual revelation of new plot-mechanical devices throughout the seven books – and beyond. By the time you’ve finished the series, it seems a miracle that anyone ever gets anything done in the Potterverse: the combination of Apparating, the Floo network, the Imperius curse, Polyjuice Potion, Felix Felicis and Time Turners would seem to create endless opportunities for common-or-garden crime, never mind more elaborate shenanigans involving conspiracies to corrupt and subvert. On the other hand, most of those things would make life a lot easier for the police – who would also find it very useful to be able to invade other people’s minds and extract their memories for permanent, world-readable storage – so I suppose it would all balance out.

If the magic is over-cranked, everything that isn’t magic is underpowered, dimly-lit, thin. The main currency is common-or-garden gold (arbitrage much?); children are educated from the age of eleven without any exposure to science, mathematics, English literature or foreign languages; and the very language of magic itself is… Latin. But not just Latin; it’s Latin with errors.

Brief digression on Latin with errors
David Langford suggested that the innermost sanctum of the Department of Mysteries is given over to the book of ultimate power in the Potterverse: a Latin dictionary. It’s a nice idea, but in fact Latin on its own wouldn’t get you very far. It’s true that “crucio” means, precisely, “I torture”, while “confringo” and “impero” [without an i] are close to their ‘wizard’ equivalents, translating as “I shatter [something]” and “I command [someone]” respectively. Similarly, “exspecto patronum” means “I await a protector”, while “sectum semper” roughly translates as “[something that’s been] permanently cut”. I remember a character in a kids’ book explaining his sudden fluency in Italian by saying that he already spoke Spanish, and “if you relax your shoulders and think about spaghetti Spanish sort of turns into Italian”. Speaking as a part-time Italianist may I just say, No, it really doesn’t – but if you don’t look anything up and stop stressing about the details, Latin does sort of turn into spell-language. But only ‘sort of’. “Expellimus” [without the ar] has nothing to do with one person disarming another, as it means “we drive [something] out” – and I can’t do anything at all with “wingardium leviosa”. Never mind the W (or the word ‘wing’ for that matter); never mind that ‘leviosa’ seems to be formed by bolting an adjectival suffix (-osus) onto another adjective (“levis” = “light”); just look at the word-endings. Is that -ium a neuter singular or a non-standard genitive plural? Either way, what’s it doing with that -a? Similarly, “prior incantato” is Latin, and a possible sentence fragment, although it doesn’t quite mean what Rowling wants it to – “the previous person [who did something] with the enchanted thing [is doing something]”? – but “priori incantatem” just… isn’t. The lack of grammatical agreement is painful once you notice it. Rowling’s recent announcement that not every person in animal form was an Animagus – that there was another, hitherto unsuspected form of theromorph, the Maledictus (“maledictus” = “cursed man”) – was irksome enough for anyone who dislikes the smell of wet paint; her subsequent observation that “Maledictuses are always female” was the grammatical icing on the cake.

It’s bodged, it’s slapdash, it’s thrown-together, it’s (perhaps surprisingly) not where the author’s heart is.

Compare A Wizard of Earthsea: everything in that book is about the journey of the young man at its centre, a man discovering his power, overestimating his strength and finding wisdom by coming face to face with his own death. It’s numinous world-building, a world built around the humming magic of a single big story. There is a nuts-and-bolts element to it, but it’s reined in; there are maps (and what maps!) but you only really care about the islands for the part they play in Ged’s story – and for the sneaking sense that other islands are the setting for other stories, just as meaningful and compelling as the one you’re reading. The message of the book pervades its world-building; the whole book sings.

The Potter books are nothing like that. They aren’t even very much like the Narnia books, which seem to offer a closer parallel: the evolving Narnia series exhibits a similar kind of wild fertility and reckless pluralism, and a similar tendency to veer between all three of the main types of world-building. (Even the books set in Narnia itself might as well be set in different countries, so different is the use they make of their shared setting.) And yet, and yet. Put it this way: do the Narnia books sing? Are there resonant characters, themes, images, scenes that seem to sum up an entire book, justify an entire book’s existence? In reply, may I simply refer you to the golden chesspieces in the long grass, in what turn out to be the ruins of Cair Paravel; or to Jill and Edmund trudging through the oddly laid-out stone passageways in the land of the giants (‘UNDER ME’) – or Prince Rilian with the madness upon him; or to the shabby apocalyptic double-act of Shift the ape and Puzzle the donkey in a lion’s pelt; or to Edmund’s dragon skin, or the Island of Dreams, or Reepicheep in his coracle; or to the Wood Between The Worlds… or to as many examples again from the first book alone. (I’m reining myself in now, but I can’t forbear to mention the mice and the ropes. The mice! The ropes! Blimey Charley.)

Ahem. The world-building of Narnia is clunky and full of register-hopping – here a stab at in-world history and geography, there a heavily signposted swerve into contemporary social satire, and always an unsystematic sprawl of mythical beasts and characters – but there’s something about Narnia itself that outweighs all that. It’s a numinous world, almost despite itself: it’s shot through with Lewis’s intimations of Heaven as a “land beyond“. Imagine a state of being that would encapsulate the most real and true experiences one could have in this world and make them more real still; imagine a state that one could only hope to reach through trust in the loving power of something immeasurably greater than oneself. And imagine Narnia – not as that place or that power itself, but just a bit closer to them… Further up and further in!

Potter, on the other hand… well, what is Potter about?

NEXT: OK, chief, what is it about? You tell us.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (2 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a meditation on the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’, non-metaphorical readings of the Potter books has led to the suggestion that the world-building of the ‘Potterverse’ may be at fault.

There are, I think, four main approaches to world-building in fantasy:

1. Nuts and bolts
A troll’s stolen your blanket. Where are you going to get a new one? Fortunately it’s Thirdday, and market day in Cedar Lake is Fourthday – and Cedar Lake is only twenty thryms away, so if you saddle up your quaghorn and ride all day and all night you’ll be there in good time. Unfortunately the road to Cedar Lake passes through the Merry Green Wood, which – despite its name – is dark and treacherous at night, so you’ll have to find another route… And so on. Nuts and bolts world-builders really do build a world – not only can they show you Cedar Lake on the map, they can tell you when and how it was founded, and about its longstanding rivalry with Willow Bank a thrym and a half up the river Hak. None of this need have anything to do – perhaps, should have anything to do – with anything we’re familiar with in our own world; there is no focus-pulling, no shock of recognition as the metaphorical import of a local detail hits home.

What’s interesting about this approach is that, although constructed worlds certainly don’t have to make sense, once you’ve accumulated a certain level of detail they do – at least to the extent that the edges all join up, and the world-builder can answer any question that may arise. (The real world isn’t that different: ‘Why Maundy Thursday’ is actually a perfectly good question, with an answer that makes sense on at least one level. (Latin, apparently.)) And there’s a certain satisfaction in that, even if after a while filling in the blanks gets to feel a bit like, well, filling in the blanks. Moreover, beyond a certain point what you have is, basically, a whole world, which in itself is asking to be compared with our own: here are the kind of things that people can do in this setting… Elaborate and painstaking though this type of world-building typically is (arguably has to be, if it is to be successful), in another sense it’s the most basic; it’s certainly the most undirected. You focus-pull the whole world or none of it.

Then there are two approaches to world-building that do relate to, or reflect on, our experiences in the world we know.

2. Spilt religion
We don’t have any experience of magic in this world, but we do – collectively – have experience of the supernatural, in the form of religion. Hence the second approach to world-building, which is light on geography and heavy on numinousness (is it numinousness, numinescence or numinosity?). This is the approach Mark Kermode is fond of lampooning in sword-and-sorcery films – “Lord Biddly-Bong armed with the Sword of Fiddly-Flop,” and so on. The grammar of a world like this isn’t religious, but it is religiose: it’s filtered through some combination of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Latin Mass. So if there’s a lot of kneeling in reverence, with people being addressed as supreme high lords and kings; if you’re dealing with a lot of hierarchies and/or family trees; if a lot of characters and things have Big Important Names; and if spells and incantations in incomprehensible languages are a big deal – then it’s a fair bet that the magic that’s ultimately holding up this particular world is the magic that’s practised in church on Sundays. (This isn’t a dig at Tolkien – he knew perfectly well what he was doing.)

3. Spock’s beard
A second kind of reflected world is the parasitic world, a world whose roots in our own aren’t hidden. Satires and political parables obviously come under this heading, but it also covers utopias, near-future projections, what-if’s and alternative histories told in the form of fantasy (Star Trek was a mine of those). The mark of a world like this is that you don’t have to ask how it would all work, because you already know: it works just the way it does in our world. Either that, or it works on the basis of rules and mechanisms that are hidden or disavowed in our world, but brought into the open in the fantasy; or else it doesn’t really work at all, thanks to the exaggeration of trends which, again, exist in the world we know. There aren’t so many titles of nobility or neologisms in a world like this, and there are a lot more jokes.

Some worlds in this category are parasitic on fictional worlds; Discworld is an unusually well-developed example of this approach. Or rather, it began that way and then changed. Or rather, it began that way and in one sense developed in that way, although… hold on, let’s do this properly.

Brief digression on Discworld
The first couple of Discworld books set out to be a kind of Tough Guide to Fantasy Land in fictional form; we see the tropes of post-Tolkien, post-Conan fantasy through the eyes of a literal tourist, accompanied by a local informant who is also an amoral, self-centred cynic. As a result, ironic distance between the narrative voice and the world-building is built in; the world is constantly having to be explained, and it’s explained very much in terms of which bits will hurt you and which will let you stay out of trouble and mind your own business, preferably while getting drunk.

[Author’s note: Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land was in fact published in 1996, thirteen years and approximately 28 books after The Colour of Magic, so perhaps she was setting out to write TCOM/TLF in encyclopaedia form. Or perhaps this analogy doesn’t really work.]

[Author’s note to the author’s note: if 28 sounds like an awful lot of books, that’s partly because I’m counting books other than the Discworld novels, of which only(!) 17 were published in that period. It’s also because, once you start looking at Pratchett’s complete bibliography, it’s really hard to arrive at a definitive number of books (do you include the Maps? the graphic novels? the Josh Kirby art books? The Annotated Cat?). But fundamentally, the reason why 28 sounds like an awful lot of books to complete in 13 years is that it is. The man just wrote.]

Discworld stays parasitic – right to the end, it’s always in some sense ‘about’ this world – but it doesn’t stay put. The first major development is when other characters, in addition to the rather one-note Rincewind – whose emotional repertoire doesn’t run to much beyond cynicism and panic – start to act like people rather than fantasy characters. Specifically, they start to look beyond the plot and think about the world they’re in, and in particular about what this world is like to run. Granny Weatherwax is the first, followed by Vetinari and then Pratchett’s greatest (and favourite?) creation, Vimes. The invention of politics, in other words, is what keeps the Discworld series fresh, after that first volcanic surge of creativity had died down. (Bear in mind that there wasn’t a ‘Death series’, a ‘witches series’ or a ‘Watch series’ when Pratchett wrote Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards!; they were just the fourth, sixth and eighth Discworld books, all of which appeared within three years of the second.) I remember an Interzone article from around the time of Guards! Guards!; the author cited one of Vetinari’s more jaded observations, on the difficulties of governing a city full of thieves, idiots and idiotic thieves, and expressed concern for Pratchett’s state of mind – might it be time for him to give Discworld a bit of a rest? He had no idea – but then, neither did any of us.

Pratchett always seems to have been on the lookout for different ways in which Discworld could reflect our world; the first ‘political’ books were rapidly followed by a cluster of books (not the most successful) in which elements of our reality literally leaked into Discworld (e.g. Moving Pictures), and a series (e.g. Hogfather) in which Pratchett’s borrowings from myth and legend were explained as free-floating story elements, drifting through the multiverse and spontaneously instantiating themselves. Finally, Discworld seemed to embark on a process of convergence with the Industrial Revolution, from The Truth (the press) to Raising Steam (the railways). However many details were filled in, though, the edges never quite met; the contours of the map were always shifting as new stories emerged and needed to be told – driven ultimately by what Pratchett had to say about our world.

Hail and farewell, Discworld; what an amazing achievement that world was. (But always – as I was saying – a parasitic world.)

4. Wet paint
So there are nuts-and-bolts worlds, numinous worlds, parasitic worlds; lastly, there are (in the immortal words of Helga Hufflepuff) “the rest”. These are worlds where somebody’s set out to achieve something quite specific – a religious parable in which the humblest are elevated through unmediated communion with Jesus Christ; a satirical wish-fulfilment fantasy in which an orphan is hideously mistreated by grotesque parent-substitutes but discovers he is vastly more powerful than they are – and then lost interest in the necessary world-building, but ploughed on with it anyway. These are bodged-up worlds, without any consistent register; the local effects often work brilliantly, but the whole doesn’t even try to hang together. It’s not a world reflecting and meditating on the religion and wonder that we know; it’s not a world reflecting and lampooning the society and politics we know; and it’s not a world existing independently, an island entire of itself. It’s just… well, here’s a world, and here’s a story, and here’s another one. The telltale sign of a world like this is the continual discovery of new wonders, mysteries and other plot mechanisms, as the developing stories require. The Queen proverbially thinks the world smells of fresh paint; characters in worlds like this have a similar experience, as the sets are continually dressed and re-dressed around them.

NEXT: …and we’re back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (1 of 5)

Attention conservation notice: five-part series on world-building in fantasy fiction, focusing on Potter, Discworld, Narnia, Earthsea and Middle Earth in descending order. Nothing obscure. Not entirely uncritical of JKR. May contain Moomins.

Adam:

One thing that sometimes surprises me … is how wedded [sf/fantasy] fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of the resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world … That Harry Potter and his friends don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we’re on solider ground with brass tacks. We’re not, of course; but we often think we are.

I’ll also pull in an interesting comment from Greg Sanders on Adam’s post:

I think your coda does a good job of explaining the fairly short half life of many series and worlds for me. The longer series go that take their representations seriously, the more they often become about their conceits, their world building, past volumes, and less about the representation and metaphor that made the original so exciting.

As some series progress, author as well as fans succumb to brass-tacks-ism, investing less in what’s supposed to be going on in the imagined world than in the puzzle-solving challenge of filling in the map – as if to say, “we’re ‘ere because… it’s there because it’s there… because we’re ‘ere…”. As time goes on the map has fewer and fewer blank spaces – despite having been more powerful when it was half blank. Remember Discworld, and Pterry’s successive statements on the question of maps – that the Discworld was unmappable, then that the Discworld was unmappable but a map of Ankh-Morpork was a different question, and finally very well, there you go, here’s your map. But Discworld, despite some similarities, is very different from the Potterverse – particularly on the ‘brass tacks’ question – as I hope to show later on.

But back to Potter and brass tacks. To borrow Adam’s term, there’s something slippery (or perhaps, something insufficiently slippery) in the assertion that Harry & co “don’t literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels“. It’s certainly true that when we read about Harry’s courage and agility (with magic), Hermione’s resourcefulness and ingenuity (with magic) or Ron’s dogged persistence (with magic), the clause in brackets is the least important part; the magic isn’t what the books are about, any more than Hamlet is about a poisoning in an orchard. But Harry Potter does literally have magical powers (in the world of the books) – just as it’s crucially important to Hamlet (and to Hamlet) that Hamlet’s father has literally been killed (in the world of the play), despite the resemblance which Adam points out between the killer’s supposed M.O. and a well-known metaphor for giving bad advice.

That said, there’s a crucial distinction between those two worlds. Poison isn’t commonly administered aurally, but the reality of poisoning – and of assassination generally – was known to Shakespeare’s audiences as it is to us. (Nor does the ghost of Hamlet’s father make a better dividing line: our breezy confidence that apparitions of the dead aren’t part of the natural order wasn’t universally shared by Hamlet‘s original audiences, any more than it is by the characters in the play.) By contrast, Harry Potter’s magical powers, in and of themselves, correspond to nothing in our world: there’s a suspension of disbelief involved, and once you’ve made it different criteria apply. Boggling at the amazing things that can be done with the flick of a wand is no more appropriate than Arthur Weasley marvelling at the Muggles and their elec-trickery. This in turn means that nothing which happens through the medium of magic has to rhyme thematically or make any kind of poetic sense, any more than the details of diurnal contemporary reality make poetic sense in mainstream fiction. Sectumsempra is a curse which magically inflicts a deep flesh wound, incurable by non-magical means. Why ‘Sectumsempra’? In that world, it just is – you might as well ask why Maundy Thursday, or why Armitage Shanks. Reality doesn’t have to make sense. The same goes for Rowling’s world-building more generally: it’s just the furniture for the story arc, and within that for the characters and their relationships. As teenagers with fairly limited life experience, Harry and Ron wouldn’t understand, or need to understand, the Ministry of Magic – any more than Jennings and Darbishire need to understand the Home Office – so we don’t need to understand it either.

In short, the outlandish elements in the Potter books don’t have the same focus-pulling doubleness (“now you see metaphor, now you don’t”) as the outlandish elements in Hamlet. Moreover, this isn’t despite the fact that Potter’s magic is even more outlandish than what happens in Hamlet, but because of it. Hamlet is a densely textured story studded with weird and unworldly details, set in our world; watching Hamlet you’re seeing what you’re seeing, but you’re also seeing something else, something that tells you about your own world. The Potter books tell a fairly straight story, set in a world which isn’t like ours; reading Potter, you’re reading what you’re reading. In that world, everything is brass tacks, magic included.

The mundane case for the mundane defence rests, in a mundane sort of way. I don’t think it’s satisfactory, though – in fact, I sense that the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’ readings of Potter has something to do with a weakness in the work, and in particular in the world-building.

Next: nuts and bolts – do we need them?

To you, with regard (6)

Humanity is what we are: we’ve all benefited from other people being humane, we’ve all been humane to others, nothing comes more naturally.

Humanity is an accomplishment: even though everyone can treat others humanely and everyone deserves to be treated humanely, most people, most of the time, don’t and aren’t.

Humanity is utopian: a society where everyone was humane to everyone else all the time would have to be a subsistence-farming commune or something (and we suspect that it would get dull after a while).

The frustrating sense that all three of these statements are true – that society would be so much better if it were built on the care that we naturally, unthinkingly feel for family and close friends, but that this would be a titanic undertaking and we’re unlikely ever to see it – runs through a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There’s a character – I can’t remember which character or even which book – who decides to go and live in Indianapolis; he knows nothing about the city, but he’s read that Indiana was the first state to give Native Americans the vote and he thinks that whoever lives in a place like that must be pretty decent people. He arrives in Indianapolis in mid-winter; not knowing anyone and with nowhere to go, he spends the night on a bench at the bus station and freezes to death.

A similar story in a non-political vein, from Slapstick:

I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency”. I treated somebody well for a little while, or even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in return. Love need not have anything to do with it. …

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

And, from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, here’s the blessing that Eliot Rosewater imagines himself pronouncing over newborn twins in lieu of a conventional baptism:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. 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.”

The quiet frustration in that ‘God damn it’ always chokes me up – as if to say, it’s not hard; it really shouldn’t be hard.

Someone else who grappled with the challenge of kindness was the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Here’s a statement of his therapeutic credo, from a 1957 paper.

For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:

  1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
  2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
  3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
  4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.
  5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.
  6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of construc- tive personality change will follow.

There’s a certain amount of throat-clearing and scene-setting there, as you can see. For our purposes the key conditions are the ones listed above as 3, 4 and 5 – what the therapist needs to do, or more precisely how the therapist needs to be. (Rogers and his followers later generalised this model to other settings, notably education (where what was at issue is not so much ‘constructive personality change’ as personal growth).)

The three key attributes, then, are congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. Congruence can also be thought of as genuineness: the point is not that you feel perfectly integrated into the situation you’re in, but that you’re not managing the situation by faking or putting on a performance; you’re integrated in the sense that there’s no break between the ‘you’ who’s in the situation and the ‘you’ who you feel you are. So you don’t censor your reactions or tailor what you say to the role you’re playing; if you’re bored or frustrated, you ‘bring it in’. Empathic understanding means that you try to appreciate the way that the client’s feeling and get a sense of how they’re responding to the place that they’re in. Unconditional positive regard, lastly, is just that: the words, at least, need very little translation. The concept can be hard to get across, though: the idea of helping your patient feel good about herself, whatever she brings to you, can seem a bit counter-intuitive (let alone applying the idea to students). But the idea isn’t to approve of everything your client does, so much as to convey love and support for what she is – a good person, deep down, or at any rate someone with the capacity to be a good person. Unconditional positive regard is another way to talk about having faith in someone. Rogerian therapy is about sending an unhappy person the message that it’s possible to express one’s feelings spontaneously and honestly without worrying about it (congruence), that their feelings are worth feeling and expressing (empathic understanding), and that the world is a better place for having them in it (unconditional positive regard).

Back to Vonnegut; The Sirens of Titan this time.

It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day-without-end and the cold hemisphere of night-without-end that makes Mercury sing. Mercury has no atmosphere, so the song it sings is for the sense of touch. …

There are creatures in the deep caves of Mercury. The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy. The creatures cling to the singing walls of their caves. In that way, they eat the song of Mercury. …

There is no need for a circulatory system in the creatures. They are so thin that life-giving vibrations can make all their cells tingle without intermediaries.  The creatures do not excrete. The creatures reproduce by flaking. The young, when shed by a parent, are indistinguishable from dandruff. There is only one sex. Every creature simply sheds flakes of his own kind, and his own kind is like everybody else’s kind. There is no childhood as such. Flakes begin flaking three Earthling hours after they themselves have been shed. They do not reach maturity, then deteriorate and die. They reach maturity and stay in full bloom, so to speak, for as long as Mercury cares to sing. There is no way in which one creature can harm another, and no motive for one’s harming another. Hunger, envy, ambition, fear, indignation, religion, and sexual lust are irrelevant and unknown.

The creatures have only one sense: touch. They have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.

The first is, ”Here I am, here I am, here I am.”

The second is, ”So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

“The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.” It’s not hard.

NEXT: so, where’s all this going?

 

And I must agree

I’ve been thinking for a while – a phrase which here means “a couple of years” – about adding to my occasional series of book reviews. Something about why Light left me feeling simultaneously awestruck, existentially uprooted and in need of a wash; or how The Star Fraction brought me out in a mild case of conspiracy mania, but Descent didn’t do a thing; or how Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell only really works if you read it as a secret history of the actual England; or the roles of psychosis, neurosis and therapy in the Frieda Klein books; or the artist’s eye and the problem of genius in The Maker of Swans; or what was actually going on in The Thing Itself (although I might need to re-read it first).

But I’ll start with an easier one: what’s wrong with Paula Hawkins’ phenomenally successful novel The Girl on the Train?

1. The girl on the train

First problem: there is no girl on a train. The main character commutes into London and consequently spends a fair bit of time on trains, and she makes an observation which is central to the main plot (or seems to be) while looking out of a train window; but that’s about it. The plot mutates part of the way through, but in neither of its forms is it actually about her. In any case, she isn’t a girl. Admittedly, different people draw the age boundary between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ at different points – 16? 18? 21? – but it would be a very odd definition of ‘girl’ that included somebody who had (a) got a job (b) got married (c) bought a house (d) tried and failed to get pregnant (e) suffered from depression triggered by (d) (f) got divorced (g) moved out to live in a friend’s spare room (h) become an alcoholic (i) lost her job and (j) spent two years(!) concealing (h) and (i) from all around her. Not to mention that she describes herself as getting married seven years before the period of the novel and moving into her first house aged 26. Once I’d realised that I was reading Scenes observed by a woman on a train I started to wonder if an actual girl on a train was going to figure in the narrative later on (oh, that‘s what…), but no.

2. The narrative voice(s)

The book has three narrators, whose names are helpfully given at the start of each chapter. Saying that this sort of thing was done better by William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf would be a bit beside the point – their audiences were very different from Hawkins’ – but I will say that John Wain did it a lot better, and nobody even remembers John Wain these days.

Here are our three narrators:

My phone beeps. There’s a message on it, received hours ago. It’s Tom again. I don’t what to hear what he has to say, but I have to, I can’t ignore him.

No one comes. The lights are on, but no one comes. Perhaps he has seen me outside, lurking, perhaps he’s upstairs, just hoping that if he ignores me I’ll go away. I won’t.

I’m upstairs, in the bedroom. Tom’s watching TV with Evie. We’re not talking. It’s my fault. He walked in the door and I just went for him.

As Kevin Rowland might say, their internal monologues are various (various, yeah, various) but they’ve all got one thing in common: they all sound the same. Hawkins’ idea of character differentiation seems to consist of having them talk about different things. So voice 1 (who’s an alcoholic) talks about how delicious her first (or second) cool (or warm) drink tastes; voice 2 (who’s wild and impetuous) talks about feeling frustrated and cooped-up in the hell that is suburbia; and voice 3 (happy young mum) says things like “treated myself to a very cute Max Mara mini dress (Tom will forgive me once he sees me in it)”. But they all talk the same way. Like this, in short sentences. Then longer sentences, ungrammatical (mimicking speech patterns), sometimes creating a sense of urgency by going on just a bit too long. Then short ones again – I mean, obviously.

All this might be bearable if the characters themselves were… well, bearable, or even if they were annoying in interesting ways. (Read Some Effing Dickens! Or listen to the Archers, for that matter.) Even to say that the three narrators talk about different things does Hawkins too much credit; they all spend most of their time talking about the same thing – themselves. Internal monologue is a wonderful thing in the right hands; in the wrong ones it just gets you endless sentences beginning with “I” and “My”.

3. The present tense

As the three extracts above suggest, the book’s written in a breathless present tense, as if spoken by the three narrators. Not only is each chapter headed with the name of its narrator; each chapter – or rather each section within a chapter – also has a date, giving the effect of a series of diary entries. The chapters belonging to one of the narrators take place over a different, longer time period than those of the other two; just to make sure we don’t miss this, the section headed Thursday, 11 July 2013 is followed by a chapter headed with a different name and the words: One year earlier: Wednesday, 16 May 2012. This system makes it very easy for readers to check what’s taking place before what, and lets us know when the earlier timestream starts to catch up with the other two; there’s no other justification for it, though, which is to say that there’s no justification for it at all within the characters’ own reality. For instance, there’s never any suggestion that any one of the narrators is particularly obsessive about dates – or that any of them actually is keeping a diary. It isn’t even suggested that the narrators are reconstructing events after the fact – a plausible framing device that Hawkins could easily have helped herself to, had she not used the ‘diary’ format for all three of the narrators.

Perhaps the thinking was that endless present-tense narration would be disorientating if readers didn’t get regular reminders that time was in fact passing. If so, it would have been much better to ditch the commitment to use the present tense, which Hawkins does in fact abandon whenever it starts to be too much trouble. And it is trouble, writing in the continuous present; that’s why it’s so effective when it’s done well. (Read some effing Silverberg – “Passengers” for a start, and “Sundance” after that; a day or so after, perhaps.) Here are our three narrators again:

‘Did you see this woman on Saturday night?’ he asked. I stared at it for a long time. It seemed so surreal having her presented to me like that, the perfect blonde I’d watched, whose image I’d constructed and deconstructed in my head.

I turned up to my session late, and walked straight into his office without a word to the receptionist. He was sitting at his desk, writing something. He glanced up at me when I walked in, didn’t smile, then looked back down at his papers.

Tom rang me back – he was between meetings, he couldn’t come home. He tried to placate me, he made all the right noises, he told me it was probably a load of rubbish anyway.

Present-tense narration, indeed. Our narrators talk to themselves at great length and in what’s basically the same voice, beginning each day’s ruminations with a quick timestamp for ease of reference. Then later – when the plot starts to pick up – they tell themselves the story of what’s been happening to them and what they’ve been doing, in the past tense. Some events are still narrated as taking place in the present, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, other than to make the present-tense sections seem more gripping. As with the diary dates, it’s a completely spurious device.

4. Women and men

All this wouldn’t be so bad if it was fun to listen in on our narrators chatting to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s tough spending time with these people. The main cast is tiny – three women (the narrators), three men. The women aren’t women, they’re airheads: a drunken, neurotic airhead, a scatty, hippyish airhead and a smug young-married airhead. The men are drawn in less detail, but they’re all alike: they’re all strong, silent and secretive, and they’re all devastatingly attractive. One’s a nice guy – although he’s also a therapist, so it may just be the job talking – and the other two are jealous, possessive bullies and thugs; devastatingly attractive bullies and thugs, mind you. The two women who aren’t drunk are pretty hot stuff themselves – one of them comes close to seducing the therapist, which is of course at the top of page one on the Therapist’s Big Book Of Things You Must Absolutely Not Do. But I guess he’s too weak to resist her, what with being a nice guy and not a thug… ugh. It’s like a Mills and Boon with the masochism turned up to 11.

Each narrator goes in for a lot of flappy will-I-won’t-I-yes-I-will-damn-it equivocation, treading irresolute water for a while and eliciting our sympathy for her indecision, before deciding on a course of action and eliciting our sympathy all over again; it’s the kind of thing you used to see in short fiction in women’s magazines, like Bella‘s “Tales with a twist”. To be fair, when it’s done sparingly, and when you’ve invested in the character, getting inside her head in this way can work really effectively. When it’s done over and over again – over the length of a novel – it just seems mechanical and exploitative. It also uses up a lot more words than just getting on with it would do – which may also have been a factor in those Bella stories, of course. And how our narrators like using up words! Was a character thinking about work as he put on his shirt and tie? Yes, he probably was. More specifically, he was “probably running through his schedule for the day – meetings, appointments, who, what, where.” Oh, that kind of schedule.

People do go to work – or rather, the men do; not one of the women has a job. But for the most part work is something that people just disappear off to and come back from. Even outside work, nobody has any hinterland at all – nobody reads books, nobody watches films, nobody even watches TV as far as we can tell. They go shopping, they go to the gym; the alcoholic goes to the pub, the young mum goes for coffee with “the NCT girls”[sic]; and, er, that’s it. About two thirds of the way through somebody mentions a band she used to listen to, and it’s like opening a window in a stuffy room.

And then there’s

5. The plot

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. An awful man was rejected by the Army and trained to be a surveyor instead (he just did, all right), then conned lots of money out of his parents and got married to a woman who worked in PR (no, I don’t know what he spent it all on). She couldn’t get pregnant, got depressed and started drinking heavily, and he started an affair with a woman who worked in a gallery. He also started threatening his wife and beating her up, but only when she was too drunk to remember what happened the next morning. Then he divorced her and married Gallery Woman, had a child with her and started an affair with the (married) childminder, who promptly got fed up with being a childminder (but carried on with the affair). Meanwhile PR Woman had taken to getting horribly drunk and harassing, or stalking, Awful Man – although very often when she did this she was too drunk to remember what had happened the next morning. When less drunk, during the day, she caught the train into London – where she worked until she was sacked for being drunk – which she could afford to do because reasons. ♠She got into a habit of looking at her old house, and then looking at the house a few doors down where Former Childminder lived with her husband, who was in fact a Very Slightly Less Awful Man. One day she saw FC kissing another man. In fact, Former Childminder had been seeing a Nice Therapist about her traumatic (but unrelated) backstory, and had fallen for him horribly, as patients in therapy often do; it was innocent! In any case, she’d decided to break off the affair with Awful Man. She then told her husband about it; being awful himself, he attacked her violently. She escaped and met Awful Man, who took her away in his car and (being a lot more Awful than she, or indeed we, had realised) killed her. PR Woman, who was in the area at the time stalking Awful Man, saw them in the car, but she forgot all about it the next day, due to being drunk. She then read about FC’s disappearance, put the police on to Nice Therapist, got him arrested and ruined his life, went and introduced herself to VSLAM under false pretences, tried to put the police on to VSLAM instead, and generally got in everyone’s way. (You can’t help feeling there’s a decent black comedy in here somewhere.) Eventually she remembered what she’d really seen and tried to rescue Gallery Woman from Awful Man. He admitted everything, there was a confrontation, and the two of them killed him, in self defence, sort of, not really. At the end of the story PR Woman still hasn’t got a job, but she’s given up drinking and her mother’s given her a lot of money (“Mum was quite generous when she discovered everything I’d been through”), so it’s a kind of happy ending.

It’s pants. The plot is driven by two completely unbelievable characters, one of them the main villain: a failed squaddie turned surveyor(!), a con artist, rapist and murderer, who is described as irresistibly charming but consistently portrayed as a thug. It only works at all because it starts in medias res – at the point marked ♠ above – and fills in the backstory afterwards. The dice are loaded further by the interleaving of the victim’s story, told over a longer timeframe; this makes it possible to withhold the (crucial) information about her and the therapist for a long time, and postpone the murder itself for even longer. The interleaving and the timelag don’t seem to have any other justification, though; once again, a technical device is used for no other reason than to create suspense. Not too much suspense, though. If, for instance, the entire story had been told through the eyes of PR Woman, without the interleaved chapters from FC’s point of view, the truth about the murder would have been deferred even further, leaving us in some doubt right to the end of the story. Running a supposedly unreliable narrative alongside a perfectly truthful account of the same events lets readers feel a frisson of doubt without ever really losing the comfort of omniscience.

6. Boozing, bloody well boozing

And what about that unreliable narrative? Everyone says this book’s got an unreliable narrator. It hasn’t. An unreliable narrator is a voice that tells you what the character believes (s)he’s seeing – or wants to believe (s)he’s seeing – but also lets you know that that’s happening, and leaves you not quite knowing what you can believe. (Read “Sundance”. Read some Ruth Rendell, come to that.) What we’ve got here is a narrator who drinks till she blacks out and wakes up not remembering the night before. Sometimes the memory comes back later, and she tells us what it was. Sometimes another memory comes back and she decides the first one was wrong, and she tells us that too. We know we’re reading a narrator who doesn’t know the whole story – and by the end of the book we know we’ve just read a narrator who was sometimes mistaken – but at no point do we know that what we’re being told isn’t reliable. Once again – yet again – a technical device which can be used to do amazing things is being used, clumsily, for no other reason than to postpone a crucial revelation.

I referred to two completely unbelievable characters, and the main narrator is the second; she’s nothing like any alcoholic I’ve ever read about, or any drinker I’ve ever known. She doesn’t seem to have an addict’s craving for alcohol; the way that she describes her longing for a drink, it’s not something she needs to make her feel normal or get her through the day. It’s just… a drink; she just really, really likes a drink.

The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip.

I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do.

I finish the second can and make a start on the third. The blissful rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream lasts only a few minutes and then I feel sick. I’m going too fast, even for me, I need to slow down

(Halfway through the third drink? Never mind an alcoholic, she isn’t even a seasoned drinker.)

The pleasure she takes in the drink – in every drink – seems all wrong, as does the variety: red wine, white wine, pre-mixed G&Ts, shots of Jack Daniels (none of your rubbish)… It’s like a non-drinker’s idea of what it would be like to have a drink problem: alcoholism as a really extreme form of self-indulgence.

But it doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it serves its purpose. The booze, like most other things in this novel, is only a means to an end: the blackout. She drinks, she gets drunk, she remembers nothing. In a suspense novel that derives most of its suspense from withholding information, this is mightily convenient.

7. Tales with a twist

I suppose I should conclude by saying something positive about the book, but – without recourse to lying, distortion or cheating – I’m not sure what it would be. I wanted to carry on reading until I’d finished it, I’ll say that much. But that’s not so much praise as testimony to the effectiveness of its narrative devices. Beyond that, I don’t think it has any value at all. The characters are paper-thin, the story’s ridiculous, the gender politics is truly awful, and everything else in the book is a manipulative and rather badly-executed contrivance with no internal justification – the multiple narrators, the multiple time frames, the ‘diary’ structure, the amnesia.

But I guess the success of the book does tell us something interesting. You’d think that, as between the proverbial “good story well told” and a rather poor story dolled up with literary tricks and twists – it’s being told backwards! she’s a boy! they’re all ghosts! – the latter would only work on the jaded palates of the literary fiction crowd. The success of The Woman Who Saw Something From A Train – a novel which is nothing but literary devices, to the point that it would fall apart without them – suggests that there’s a real appetite for writing that takes readers outside their narrative comfort zone, even if it only goes a little way outside and doesn’t end up anywhere interesting. That’s encouraging news, at least for lovers of literary technique.

Mr In Between

This is interesting:

It’s fair to say that this view of the speaker in question wasn’t universally shared:

Follow the links to Twitter for more – much more.

The responses to Ms Blackman-Woods have generally accused her of misrepresenting the speaker, and by extension the mood of the meeting (As she’s subsequently made clear, she left after the speakers – and was presumably notified of the vote later on – so any misrepresentation of the meeting as a whole is only by omission.) I think this misses a trick. Let’s say that the speaker did indeed ignore Johnny Mercer’s advice and accentuate the negative, perhaps by stressing the reasons not to vote for Owen Smith. Let’s say that he did also say things that could be classed as ‘nasty’ and ‘abusive’ – perhaps because he said things about the visiting MP that she didn’t particularly want to hear. (According to reports from the meeting, the speaker did point out that, although Ms Blackman-Woods was willing to speak for Smith in Carlisle, her own constituency party in Durham wasn’t holding any nomination meetings.)

Let’s say, in other words, that what Roberta Blackman-Woods said in her tweets was simply, literally true – in the sense that the speaker nominating Corbyn did say things that were negative and things that were abusive. Where does that leave us? Is Ms Blackman-Woods now blameless when it comes to misrepresenting the meeting? Why, or why not?

My own view is that telling a story is about a lot more than enumerating events – a meeting took place, somebody spoke, a negative comment was made. The story that you tell fits into the expectations your audience bring to it; the details of the story that you tell don’t need to be plentiful or fine-grained, as long as you’ve gauged your audience’s expectations correctly and evoked them effectively. The story Roberta B-W is telling here, clearly, is the story of Corbynite abuse and intimidation: the story of the know-nothing mob that’s supposedly invaded the Labour Party, whose members bombard their opponents with negative and abusive comments, respond to disagreement with bullying and have nothing to offer but negativity (so that it’s “mystifying!” if a fair vote goes their way). This is why there are so many responses to her tweet from indignant – and I think, in many cases, genuinely surprised – members who feel the meeting as a whole was slurred as uncomradely and abusive. Which it wasn’t – RB-W didn’t even stay for the discussion – but those were the bells that were rung; that’s the story that she invoked, even if she wasn’t overtly telling it herself.

A story about people being aggressive and intimidating can have serious consequences, if it acquires legs; indeed, this story has had serious consequences, both directly (the cancellation of party meetings during the leadership contest and the suspension of three CLPs) and indirectly (in the hardening of attitudes among members, who oddly enough don’t much like being denounced as an ignorant mob). One way of ending this post would be to suggest that Roberta Blackman-Woods and others like her could take a bit more care over what they say; words have consequences, stories have real world effects, and just because people think of themselves as the innocent targets of verbal aggression, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of dishing it out – sometimes more effectively than their aggressors.

The more I thought about this, though, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the ‘Corbynite angry mob’ routine was going to be abandoned any time soon, by Roberta B-W or any of its other parliamentary exponents. Because, when you get right down to it, it’s all they’ve got. They can disagree with the mood in their CLPs (and other CLPs entirely), and take issue with the arguments being advanced; they can even argue that their arguments have a special right to be listened to – as MPs, they know a lot about what it takes to get elected, after all. But when it comes to knock-down open-and-shut arguments – the kind of argument that leaves your opponent unable to speak – they’re at a disadvantage. Party members can always appeal to democracy: it would be a brave Appeal Court that ruled that the Labour Party isn’t a democratic organisation – and if it is, the views of the members really can’t be ignored. The only way to trump this – and hence the only recourse of MPs who find themselves at odds with the membership – is to claim that the membership isn’t really the membership. These aren’t party members, they’re entryists and people manipulated by entryists; this isn’t internal party democracy, it’s bullying and intimidation; it’s not the self-assertion of a new social subject, it’s a nihilist wrecking attack; it’s not a crowd, it’s a mob. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Matthew Arnold’s reaction to the “Hyde Park Railings Affair” in 1866, when a crowd of people who had converged on Hyde Park for a rally, and who were being kept out of the park by the police, gained entry by breaking down the railings. Arnold pronounced that we were seeing the emergence of a new social subject, and one which never should have been permitted to emerge:

that vast portion … of the working-class which, raw and half-developed, has long lain half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor, and is now emerging from its hiding-place to assert an Englishman’s heaven-born privilege of doing as he likes, and is beginning to perplex us by marching where it likes, meeting where it likes, bawling what it likes, breaking what it likes

You’d never guess from this that the rally in question was in favour of universal manhood suffrage – or that the second Reform Act would be passed the following year.

Something is happening in the Labour Party, and it’s happening at the level of the constituency parties and the individual members. When someone is calling it names from the vantage point of a position of power in the party, there’s not much point asking them to engage more constructively; the chances are that they’ve recognised that a thriving ground-level movement is a potential threat to their position. Remember your Dylan:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall

Heed the call – and get out of the way.

As for those who are determined not to get out of the way, the rhetoric of the ‘angry mob’ is always likely to be their first choice (although it would be nice if they at least kept the Nazis out of it). There’s not much point explaining patiently – time and time again – that criticism is not necessarily abuse, that raised voices are not necessarily intimidation, that assembling in numbers is not thuggery, and so on and on. What we can do is recognise it, and – perhaps – learn to ignore it, treat it as a form of bullying and rise above it; reasoned rebuttals take time and energy, and it’s not as if most of the people saying these things are likely to listen. “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin'” – a battle for the Labour Party, anyway. If we lose, the terms of debate will shift; the ‘angry mob’ story will enter the record and all the other stories will be buried, only to be disinterred in thirty years’ time by some curious doctoral student. Best make sure we win.

 

 

Off a-mollocking

Pardon the long silence. I’ve got a post planned and another started, but today I want to ask a trivial but urgent question: why adapt Jamaica Inn? Specifically, why would you adapt Jamaica Inn for TV if you’re completely out of sympathy with the book, or (more charitably) believe your audience will be completely out of sympathy with it?

I’d never read any Daphne du Maurier (or wanted to), but I was a bit short of light reading when the BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn loomed up in the schedules, so I read it over the weekend. It’s a good read, if not always a comfortable one. The first thing to say about it is that atmosphere is everything. From the first chapter the book sets up a very strong opposition between the determined but powerless virtue of the heroine Mary Yellan and the uncontrolled brutality of the huge, violent inn-keeper Joss Flynn; the sickening fear that Mary will be drawn into his power through no fault of her own, and will be broken by him, is set up even before the two have met. There’s a lot more in the book – the romantic fiction sub-plot revolving around the dominating and devil-may-care Jem (“I’ll … take you home to your aunt, but I’ll kiss you first, whether you like it or not”); the excursions into Mary Webb territory, with odd meditations on the pagan past and bursts of nature mysticism; the strange but apparently sympathetic figure of Francis Davey, albino intellectual vicar. But, like Davey’s paintings, it’s all coloured by a strange and compellingly doomy atmosphere, a sense of a virtuous and independent-minded heroine who is threatened with being destroyed and has no power to resist.

To say that somebody could be ‘destroyed’ is obviously figurative – and there is a persistent, unspecific sense that something very bad is likely to happen to Mary. But Du Maurier does something rather clever at this point: she has Joss threaten Mary quite specifically, both with physical violence and with rape, and then tell her that he won’t be carrying out the threat. The reasons he gives for staying his hand vary – at one point it’s because she knows to keep her mouth shut about what goes on at the inn, at another it’s because he likes her independent spirit; obviously, this gives Mary a deeply mixed message. He underlines the point by having Mary work in the bar – which comes to life once a week, in a hellish vision of (male) violence and dissolution – and then telling her that he was the only thing keeping her safe: “Because you’re my niece they’ve left you alone, my dear, but if you hadn’t had that honour – by God, there wouldn’t be much left of you now!” Joss has the delicacy of an abuser, working away to undermine his target’s independence and ensnare her in contradictions (he holds back because he respects her independence, but she’s only independent for as long as he holds back). He’s also a brute, in word and deed (“Now get out, and if you ever ask me a question again I’ll break every bone in your body”). He’s an extraordinary character, and not without a ghastly kind of pathos.

Joss’s violence threatens to destroy Mary not only as a romantic heroine but as an independent person (“I’ll break you until you eat out of my hand the same as your aunt yonder”). The cowed, neurotic figure of Aunt Patience is an object lesson for Mary – this is what she could be reduced to. Patience also provides Mary with a reason to stay at Jamaica Inn until such time as she can get her away – although it’s not clear, to Mary or to us, how she could ever manage this. The threat to Mary’s independence and self-respect is all-pervading; even Jem, whose male power is depicted as alluring rather than threatening, talks of sex in terms of destroying Mary’s individuality: “Do they make you different from other women, then, down on Helford river? Stay here with me tonight, Mary, and we can find out. You’d be like the rest by the time morning came, I’d take my oath on that.” Later in the book, when Mary narrowly escapes being raped and is bound and gagged by two different people, spending most of one crucial scene face down on a beach, the irruption of actual brutality doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s the breaking of a thundercloud which has been building up for two-thirds of the book.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned smuggling – or the worse crimes of which Joss is also guilty, a darker secret lurking behind the relatively open secret of the wagons unloading at midnight. The smuggling is actually fairly incidental to the book: all that matters is that there’s something very bad going on at Jamaica Inn (something which everybody there can see but nobody must talk about), and behind that there’s something even worse (a dreadful secret, kept hidden behind a locked door). Joss is at the core of the book: first he’s set up as a monster of psychological abuse and physical brutality, then he’s depicted in his element, as the landlord of an inn which is only ever frequented by people equally grotesque. The smuggling is part manifestation of Joss’s monstrosity, part answer to the question “how does he make it pay?”.

It’s a very powerful book, but – it’s worth saying – it’s also a very odd book. Until the denouement opens the plot out a bit, only six named characters appear, Mary apart – and five of them are out-and-out grotesques. (The exception is Squire Bassat, the magistrate and sole local representative of law and order, who is at once distant, ineffectual and threatening: when he visits the inn in Joss’s absence, Mary finds herself lying to him, her desire to protect Aunt Patience pushing her further into complicity with Joss.) It’s a vivid study of brutality – psychological as well as physical – and of a certain kind of abjection, both of which are very strongly gendered: throughout the book Mary dreams of buying her own farm and working it alone, “like a man”. One way of understanding the book is perhaps to see it as a fantastic, almost fairy-tale meditation on the conditions for women’s independence in a male-built world – much more of a real possibility when Du Maurier was writing in 1935 than in the book’s early-nineteenth-century setting, but still far from being a problem that had been solved.

If you watched the first part of the BBC dramatisation last night, you won’t have seen very much of this at all. What you will have seen is this. (Italics = element not in the book.)

After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan leaves behind her childhood sweetheart Ned and travels to Jamaica Inn. At the coach’s final stop before crossing the moor, she leaves the coach and bumps into Jem Flynn, a handsome young horse thief. The coachman refuses to take her to Jamaica Inn, so she asks around until she find somebody who will. At Jamaica Inn, her aunt and uncle are not expecting her. Joss Merlyn, her aunt’s husband, is a relatively small and nondescript man with a powerful physical presence. “Is she tame or does she bite?” he asks rhetorically; Mary bites him. Her Aunt Patience is a faded beauty with a spirited and independent nature, although she admits to being frightened of Joss. She is actively involved in Joss’s smuggling operation and justifies it to Mary; Mary disapproves of smuggling because her father was killed by smugglers. Serving at the bar, Mary hears one of Joss’s customers, a man called Zeb, sing a dirty song under his breath while following her around the room; the man tries to rape her and is prevented by Joss. Later, Mary sees Joss murder a man called Abe, an associate who is suspected of informing on him; Joss is reluctant to kill the man, but does so on the instructions of a third man, who is hiding in the store cupboard. The following day, Joss, Patience and some associates make a trip to the coast (in daylight) to retrieve some merchandise which has been thrown overboard; Mary goes along and takes an active part in the salvage operation, hauling on a rope at the head of a group of men. Mary goes to the nearest town and looks for a constable, but is dismayed to find that the local constable is Zeb, the man who had tried to rape her. She finds herself in the local church, where she meets the Reverend Francis Davey, who has a pleasant manner and an unremarkable appearance; he lives with his sister Hannah (their housekeeper, Beth, is the girlfriend of William, the man who had arranged for the merchandise to be thrown overboard). The vicar is called away to speak to a parishioner whose husband Abe had not come home the previous night. On the way home Mary runs into Jem, who rescues her from a bog when she blunders into it…

Enough already. Really, it’s an adaptation in much the same sense that Fifty Shades is an adaptation of the Twilight books. The writer seems to have had a positive compulsion to change the book – altering everything from tiny details (Aunt Patience not having got Mary’s letter) to characters (spirited Patience, conscience-striken Joss, philanthropic Francis Davey). Entire scenes have been invented without regard to plausibility: it’s specifically stated in the book that smugglers don’t collect contraband mob-handed and in broad daylight; Mary, a Cornish native but a newcomer to Jamaica Inn, does have the sense not to wander into a bog but doesn’t know the way back to town. The adaptation even short-circuits a major plot point: the idea that Joss is taking orders from somebody else is floated a couple of times but never seems very believable; it is only confirmed that he had been taking orders when the identity of his boss is revealed, and (in the book) both revelations are equally shocking. (In the book, incidentally, Joss has sole responsibility for the murder; the victim is not a suspected informer but an unnamed man who wanted out of his partnership with Joss. Mary only has circumstantial evidence that the murder happened at all, and nobody else ever refers to it.)

The result is a dramatisation with too much plot, too many characters and too little atmosphere – and a disastrously misjudged reading of the character of Mary. In the book, Mary’s passivity is key to both her virtue and her weakness -attributes which in turn are central to her character: she stays behind the bar, she refuses to have anything to do with anything illegal, and when she does venture out of the inn she’s forever getting picked up by a man in a coach and ending up where he wants to take her. Mary striding through a landscape of thinly-drawn but vaguely believeable characters – instead of a gallery of brutal and mostly nameless grotesques – is bad enough, but the real problem with this adaptation is that it has Mary striding anywhere. The book is all about a helpless but virtuous woman who can only dream of being independent, and the men who – brutally and subtly, viciously and sympathetically – arrange her life around her so that she can never achieve that dream. Lose that and you’ve basically lost the book.

Update The second instalment was, if anything, even less faithful to the book: in the first quarter of an hour there was only one scene that came from the book at all (Mary confides in Francis Davey that bad things are happening at the inn), and even that was barely recognisable. Some of the set-piece scenes were there – Joss’s horrific account of wrecking, Mary’s meal with Jem, the trip to Launceston – but even here fidelity to the book was kept to a bare minimum. (“I thought you had a house,” said Mary to Jem as they sat outside his tent in the woods. You’re not the only one.) The revelation of the identity of the Big Bad, Joss’s unseen superior – a genuinely shocking moment in the book – was thrown away; a weirdly irrelevant sub-plot about Francis Davey running a soup-kitchen was bolted on, as well as a downright unbelievable sub-plot about Mary’s father having also been a smuggler. (Aunt Patience is Mary’s mother’s sister; Mary and her mother were from a completely different part of the county. The women in that family must just have had a thing for smugglers). Above all, the character of Mary rang false, over and over again – and in the same way. In the book, Mary didn’t respond to Joss’s confession with anger and defiance; she didn’t tell Jem to serve himself (in fact she cooked the meal herself, after sweeping up); she didn’t kiss Jem first; she didn’t agree to get a room with him; and she certainly didn’t dress in breeches for the trip to Launceston. (And when she was frocked up, it seems highly unlikely that she would have ridden astride.)

I suppose I can understand somebody reading Jamaica Inn and finding Mary a bit wet and domesticated, but at the end of the day it’s what’s on the page – and with good reason. You can’t replace Mary with an Independent Woman without losing any claim to historical accuracy, or – more importantly – without doing violence to the entire structure of the book.

That would be an ecumenical matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the spaces the text affords (4/5)

All clear? Sorry that last instalment was so long; hopefully this will come out a bit shorter.

Here’s a passage from Hillel Steiner’s contribution to A debate over rights which stopped me in my tracks when I read it: I had to put the book down to work out what was going on, which involved staring into space for most of the next half hour.

Suppose you and I conclude a contract which imposes a duty on you to make a payment to my brother: he is the third-party beneficiary of our agreement. According to the Will Theory, I am the only right-holder involved in this arrangement. … According to the Interest Theory, however, not only am I definitely a beneficiary but also my brother, as another beneficiary, is also a right-holder in respect of your duty. …

One apparent difficulty raised by this view is the danger of a proliferation of right-holders. For if my brother proposes to use that payment to purchse something, then it looks like his vendor is a fourth-party beneficiary of my contract with you. …

Bentham suggests that a person is properly included in the set of a duty’s beneficiaries only if the breach of that duty would be a sufficient condition of that person’s interests being damaged. This test obviously does supply the requisite surgical remedy by cutting my brother’s vendor (and her successive beneficiaries) out of that set.

But (Steiner continues) can Bentham’s ‘sufficient condition’ test be defended in its own right, setting aside the fact that it is useful for anyone who wants to uphold an Interest Theory of rights?

If I supply you with the security codes for a bank vault, I supply a necessary but insufficient condition of your robbing that vault. Our ordinary understanding of ‘interests’, it seems to me, is such that my action would none the less count as detrimental to whatever interests persons have in that vault’s not being robbed. And if that’s so, your failure to pay my brother does count as detrimental to the interests of his vendor, whatever Bentham may say to the contrary.

If our ordinary understanding of ‘interests’ is such that supplying you with the security codes for a bank vault counts as detrimental to whatever interests persons have in that vault’s not being robbed, then your failure to pay my brother does count as detrimental to the interests of his vendor. Ow. You may now stare into space.

Steiner’s responding to Kramer, who sets out Bentham’s test in the course of his exposition of the (or an) interest theory of rights. The set-up is essentially the same, but it’s worth paying attention to the way Kramer phrases it:

Suppose that X has contracted with Y for the payment of several thousand dollars by Y to Z. Suppose further that Z plans to spend all of her newly obtained money on some furniture from W‘s shop. In this scenario, W of course will have profited from Y‘s fulfilment of the contractual obligation. Now, given that the Interest Theory ascribes a right to Z – a right that is probably not enforceable and perhaps not waivable by Z – must it also ascribe a right to W?

Kramer describes Bentham’s test in these terms:

any person Z holds a right under a contract or norm if and only if a violation of a duty under the contract or norm can be established by simply showing that the duty-bearer has withheld a benefit from Z or has imposed some harm upon him. Proof of the duty-bearer’s withholding of a desirable thing from Z, or proof of the duty-bearer’s infliction of an undesirable state of affairs on Z, must in itself be a sufficient demonstration that the duty-bearer has not lived up to the demands of some requirement.

So, what about X and Y?

Bentham’s test will work very smoothly when applied to the scenario of the third-party-beneficiary contract. To prove that Y has breached his contractual duty to X, one need only show that Y has inexcusably failed to make the required payment to Z. In other words, one need only show that Z has undergone an unexcused detriment at the hands of Y. Establishing that fact is sufficient for a successful demonstration of Y‘s breach of duty. Hence, Y‘s duty to X under the contract is conjoined with a duty owed by Y to Z; Z, in turn, holds a right to be paid by Y. …

While a demonstration of Y‘s inexcusable withholding of the requisite payment from Z is sufficient to prove Y‘s breach of contract, the same cannot be said about a demonstration of Z‘s failure to buy furniture from W‘s shop. Z‘s abstention from any purchases cannot by itself be adduced as sufficient grounds for concluding that Y has declined to fulfil his contract with X.

Now that is clear.

Steiner’s suggestion that Kramer doesn’t justify Bentham’s test independently of its utility for the Interest Theory seems ungenerous at best; Kramer’s position, as in the third-party-beneficiary example, is that when it’s applied to a problem in interpreting rights, Bentham’s test works – which is to say, it gives legally unproblematic, logically defensible and intuitively plausible answers. Steiner also appears to have got Bentham’s test backwards – the point is not that “the breach of [the] duty would be a sufficient condition of that person’s interests being damaged”, but that damage to that person’s interest is sufficient to demonstrate breach of a duty. If effect B (e.g. damage to interests) is sufficient to demonstrate cause A (e.g. breach of duty), cause A is a necessary condition of effect B; it may or may not be a sufficient condition.

Setting this aside, let’s compare Steiner’s two scenarios. In one, I make a contract with Bertram to pay money to Charlotte; I renege on the contract, leaving Charlotte out of pocket and unable to buy goods from David. In the other, I am employed by Bertha as a security guard. I break my contract of employment, enabling a burglar (Eric) to rob Charles’s bank vault; this is to the detriment of both Charles and his depositors, including Dawn. Intuitively, Steiner argues, we would say that David does not have a case against me, but Dawn has. However, the interest theory (as qualified by Bentham’s test) would disqualify Dawn as well as David; this, for Steiner, suggests that either the test or the interest theory itself is flawed.

There are three main possibilities in interpreting these two scenarios, depending on how we read Steiner’s two claims: that they both involve an indirect victim who would be disqualified from any rightful claim according to Bentham’s test; and that the second of them involves a victim who should not be disqualified. The possible readings are:

  1. The two scenarios are comparable; the indirect victim should be disqualified in one case but not the other
  2. The indirect victim should be disqualified in one case but not the other, but Steiner is wrong to say that the two scenarios are comparable
  3. The two scenarios are comparable, but Steiner is wrong to say that the indirect victim should not be disqualified in the second case; in fact the indirect victim should be disqualified in both cases

If either reading 2 or reading 3 is sustained, Bentham’s test survives unscathed.

Let’s consider reading 2: that there are significant differences between the two scenarios. Is this the case? Certainly, where parties C and D are concerned, we’re dealing with a loss in one case and failure to achieve a gain in the other – and there’s a criminal offence in one case but not the other – but their positions as third and fourth parties are the same.

A second complicating factor is my degree of responsibility for the loss. As we have seen, Steiner suggested that in betraying the security codes I furnished Eric with “a necessary but insufficient condition” of robbing the vault. Steiner’s formulation is terse and potentially misleading – it is unlikely to be the case that my misappropriation of the codes is the only possible route to robbing the vault. The thinking here seems to be that the capacity to enter the vault undetected is a necessary condition of robbing it, and my giving Eric the codes is a sufficient condition for him to acquire that capacity. This is more elaborate than “A contracts with B to pay money to C”, but I’m not sure it’s much more elaborate. The only significant difference is that it requires the intervention of (yet) another party, in the form of Eric – and since his function is to commit a criminal offence rather than to do anything legitimate, his agency can be bracketed out. To clarify this point, suppose that I let Eric get in by leaving a skylight open, and he made off with some bolts of fine and expensive fabric. Now suppose that Eric decided not to go out that night because it was raining – and the rain got in through the open skylight and spoiled the fabric. Unless the wording of my contract as a security guard was unusually precise, nothing would change significantly between the two scenarios as regards my responsibilities, or my relationship with Bertha, Charles and Dawn.

Another complication – although in this case it’s a complication that positively helps Steiner’s case – is my indirect relationship with the bank. If I were employed directly by Charles, it would be arguable that the third-party beneficiaries of the contract were, precisely, Charles’s clients, meaning that the two scenarios were not comparable. I think this would be a confused line of reasoning; if I work in security for a bank, the benefit accrues directly to the bank and only indirectly to its clients. Indeed, it could be argued that the bank is its own third-party beneficiary: as a bank guard I contract with the deposit-holding wing of the bank to keep those deposits secure, the benefit accruing to the trading wing of the bank. In any case, assuming that I work for Bertha’s security company removes this asymmetry.

In short, reading 2 can’t be made to work; the two scenarios, although superficially very different, seem to be directly comparable. But is Steiner right to suggest that my actions in the second case were detrimental to the interests of Dawn, the indirect victim – and that this casts doubt on the utility of Bentham’s test? I’m not convinced that he is. What, after all, is Dawn’s case against the bank? Something turns, perhaps surprisingly, on the nature of Dawn’s loss. If Dawn is simply a depositor, it’s not clear that she has sustained any loss at all. Banks don’t hold our account balances in the form of stacks of notes – which is just as well, seeing that they don’t go into the bank in that form, by and large.  Money is supremely fungible. To say that I have a balance of £X is to say that the bank undertakes to pay me up to £X without asking for anything back; the bottom line of a bank statement is effectively a promissory note, a promise “to pay the bearer on demand”. It may conceivably be that Dawn urgently needs a sum of cash the day after the burglary, and that Eric has emptied the vault to the point where the bank is unable to make the payment, but this is a second-order problem relating to the relationship between Charles and Dawn; Dawn’s interests as an owner of property, some of it in the form of bank deposits, are not affected by the removal of folding money from the vault. Not only are the two scenarios are directly comparable, it seems; the relations between third and fourth parties (Charlotte and David, Charles and Dawn) are also directly comparable, and equally disconnected from the relationship between me, Bertram/Bertha and Charles/Charlotte. Whether Charles is able to carry on business as usual with Dawn is not determined by my breach of contract with Bertha, any more than whether Charlotte is able to spend money with David is determined by my breach of contract with Bertram.

It could be argued that this whole line of argument is misdirected, however. Steiner refers, not to bank depositors in general (whose interest in bank vaults not being robbed seems to be surprisingly limited), but to “whatever interests persons have in that vault’s not being robbed”. Let’s suppose, then, that Dawn does have an interest in the vault not being robbed, in the sense that it holds personal items which would be hard or impossible to replace. I stop carrying out my duty to Bertha, to benefit Charles by securing his premises, with the result that Dawn suffers a permanent loss (from Eric or possibly from bad weather). Surely this is a case of a genuine fourth-party beneficiary (or victim)? I don’t believe it is. The loss in this case is not in fact to Charles but, directly, to Dawn (or, at most, to both Charles and Dawn): I have permitted the removal or spoilage of Dawn’s property, giving my actions just as direct a relationship with Dawn’s interests as if the burglary had taken place at her house. Dawn has a claim against me to the extent that I have undertaken, explicitly or implicitly, to protect her property as well as Charles’s. And, I would argue, if I am placed in the position of protecting premises whose contents are both vulnerable and irreplaceable, I (or my employers) have made just such an undertaking and thereby acquired a liability to the property’s owners. To the extent that the third-party beneficiary of my contract with Bertha is Charles and not his depositors, it seems to me, it must be open to Charles to keep his depositors out of the picture as regards the relationship between him and Bertha (and, by extension, me). If it is not possible, Dawn and other depositors cease to be fourth parties and become third-party beneficiaries in their own right.

My reading may be challengeable, but it seems to me that Steiner’s attempted disproof of Bentham’s test has led us instead to a demonstration and restatement of the test. In a contract with a third-party beneficiary, fourth-party beneficiaries are those who have no right under the contract, as a detriment to them does not suffice to prove breach of the contract. If detriment does prove breach of the contract, the supposed fourth party is in fact an unanalysed third party.

As I said at the outset, I’m keeping an open mind about the Interest Theory of rights, at least in Kramer’s form; my temperamental inclination is more towards some form of Will Theory. But, to the extent that an Interest Theory requires to be delimited by Bentham’s test in some form, and to the extent that Steiner’s argument aimed to undermine Bentham’s test, I’d say that the Interest Theory is looking pretty good so far.

Next: some thoughts on two brief passages by John Gardner (one on tort and torture, the other on road markings and the minimum morality of law). After that I shall probably have to get back to work.

If you lie to me (2/5)

More about A debate over rights (Matthew Kramer, Nigel Simmonds and Hillel Steiner).

My route into legal theory was via Simmonds and Lon Fuller (or Pashukanis, Simmonds and Fuller to be precise). Matthew Kramer is very much on the other side of the debate when it comes to Hart and Fuller (when it comes to Kramer and Simmonds, come to that), so I have to say I wasn’t expecting to find his contribution to the book particularly congenial. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised by the power and cogency of his arguments. I read most of the book enthusiastically and at speed, but Kramer’s section in particular; I found myself muttering some of his conclusions out loud as I read them, not as an aid to comprehension but just because they were so well written. I’m not sure that I endorse his version of the interest theory of rights, but I did notice that Simmonds’s trenchant attacks on interest theories left it largely unscathed (as Simmonds in fact acknowledged). But, as I said, I’ll return to this question another time.

For now, here’s a passage from Ronald Dworkin which Kramer discusses briefly.

Dworkin:

In many cases … corresponding rights and duties are not correlative, but one is derivative from the other, and it makes a difference which is derivative from which. There is a difference between the idea that you have a duty not to lie to me because I have a right not to be lied to, and the idea that I have a right that you not lie to me because you have a duty not to tell lies. In the first case I justify a duty by calling attention to a right; if I intend any further justification it is the right that I must justify, and I cannot do so by calling attention to the duty. In the second case it is the other way around.

Of course, if rights (privileges) are by definition correlated with duties, it cannot make a difference “which is derivative from which”. So what was Dworkin talking about – is there any way to maintain Hohfeldian correlativity while maintaining that there is a significant difference between “I have a right not to be lied to [by you]” and “you have a duty not to tell lies [to me]”, such that information would be lost if we replaced one with the other?

Kramer suggests one line of interpretation:

Dworkin might be referring only to justificational correlativity (and derivativeness) rather than to analytical or existential correlativity (and derivativeness). That is, he might be referring to levels of priority within a justificatory argument only – and not to levels of priority within an analytical exposition or within a legal system. If so, then Dworkin is not proclaiming that Hohfeld’s Correlativity Axiom somehow fails to apply to the legal positions commended by duty-based and right-based theories.

On this reading, Dworkin is not claiming that the paired right and duty are non-correlated, but only that their relationship will be explained in different ways in different situations: as if to say, I might justify the physical challenge of an uphill slope by calling attention to the aesthetic quality of a downhill slope, or vice versa, and it makes a difference (to me and my interlocutors) which is derivative from which.

This is fair enough, but it seems a fairly meagre basis on which to claim that “[some] corresponding rights and duties are not correlative”. Can Dworkin’s argument be grounded more securely? I think it can, in two ways, although neither of them actually challenges Hohfeldian correlativity. In one case the difference which Dworkin detects between the right-not-to-be-lied-to and the duty-not-to-lie rests on linguistic imprecision. The additional information which, Dworkin argues, is carried by one formulation as compared to the other has actually been read into it; if the distinction had been spelt out, it would have become clear that the right and duty being discussed were not a logical pairing and the appearance of an exception from correlativity would have disappeared. In the other, the additional information needed to create the asymmetry derives from a particular reading of the concept of rights – one which is tenable and quite widely used, but is also quite incompatible with Hohfeld’s model.

The first way to salvage Dworkin’s argument rests on generality. Note Dworkin’s phrasing:

There is a difference between the idea that you have a duty not to lie to me because I have a right not to be lied to, and the idea that I have a right that you not lie to me because you have a duty not to tell lies.

Emphasis added. And this is true: there is a difference between the statement that I have a right not to be lied to by anyone, including you, and the statement that you have a duty not to tell lies to anyone, including me. But this says nothing about correlativity. In the (unlikely) case that I hold a privilege of not being lied to against any and every person I come into contact with, this correlates with a duty on the part of each of those individuals. My privilege against you lying to me is one element of this set of privileges against the world in general, and is precisely correlated with a duty on your part. A similar argument applies in the case where you are under a general duty not to lie. All Dworkin is saying, on this argument, is that general privileges don’t correlate with specific duties – which is to say, privileges and duties don’t correlate if they are imprecisely formulated.

Perhaps this wasn’t Dworkin’s reasoning; perhaps the line quoted above is just a case of hasty phrasing or unfortunate editing, and Dworkin’s thought would have been represented just as well (or better) by this formulation:

There is a difference between the idea that you have a duty not to lie to me because I have a right not to be lied to by you, and the idea that I have a right that you not lie to me because you have a duty not to tell lies to me.

Can we make this work, in analytical and not merely justificatory terms (there is a difference between the idea)? Only with difficulty, I think. But there is one angle worth looking at, which I’ll call the argument from confidence. Suppose that Dworkin’s argument implicitly concerned, not a “right not to be lied to”, but to a “right to the confident expectation of not being lied to”. Such a right would certainly seem to carry a derived (and not correlated) duty on others not to lie. If the duty not to lie came first, on the other hand, there would be no question of confident expectation: your duty not to lie to me gives me the right to feel, not confidence, but certainty that you will in fact not lie to me. There seems to be an asymmetry between the two pairings.

But what is this ‘confident expectation’, and why – in the teeth of the text – have I introduced it? I’m thinking now of a conception of rights which is far removed from the level of specificity on which Hohfeld’s model works so well. Suppose that when we invoke rights we’re talking about a kind of potentially universalisable framework of moral duties and privileges governing all social interactions: a framework which we (the community which recognises those rights) aspire to implement as a coherent whole, not least through the law, but which is always necessarily a work in progress. Suppose, in short, that we’re talking about something much closer to Fuller’s “morality of aspiration” than the “morality of duty”. The argument from generality is relevant here: in this situation, any right I might have not to be lied to by you would derive from a broader right not, in principle, to be lied to by anyone. But on this aspirational reading of rights, I would have no absolute right not to be lied to, by you or anyone else. I would have a right to the confident expectation of not being lied to (by anyone), by virtue of my membership of a community which upholds the right not to be lied to as an aspiration; at the same time, I would know that aspirations are not duties, and shortfalls from aspirations – and trade-offs between conflicting aspirations – are always a possibility.

This would not release you from any duty not to lie to me, however. My right to the confident expectation of not being lied to by you is only a duty-generating right in principle, all other things being equal, and only you can know in a given situation whether all other things are in fact equal. That said, if the description of the relationship between you and me is updated to include the line “Phil has the right to the confident expectation of not being lied to by you”, the way in which this new information should influence your behaviour is fairly clear. The associated duty is not correlated, but it derives directly – albeit that, in the unpredictable complexities of social life, it would not derive predictably or uniformly. In short, this way of conceptualising rights leads naturally to the asymmetry which Dworkin identifies in an apparently symmetrical pairing of right and duty.

Dworkin’s argument can be salvaged, then, by the simple expedient of stripping out the specificity, precision and duty-orientation of Hohfeld’s model and replacing it with a conception of rights based on a society-wide morality of aspiration, from which duties could be generated only unreliably and by derivation. In short, the ‘confident expectation’ reading would involve completely abandoning Hohfeld and using a schema which makes no claim to correlativity. The ‘generality’ reading rests on a verbal quibble and disappears if we use more precise phrasing, while Kramer’s own explanation – the ‘justification’ reading – would deprive Dworkin’s argument of the significance he seems to claim for it.

I think we can conclude that the project of reconciling Dworkin’s argument with Hohfeld’s framework has been tested to destruction.

Next: Simmonds and Steiner, and Simmonds on Steiner.

Whose pigs are these? (1/5)

Whose pigs are these?
Whose pigs are these?
They are John Potts’
I can tell them by their spots
And I found them in the vicarage garden
(Traditional)

I recently read A Debate over Rights: Philosophical Enquiries by Matthew Kramer, Nigel Simmonds and Hillel Steiner. I enjoyed it enormously. Over the next few days (or weeks) I’m going to post some thoughts which the book sparked off, focusing on points which puzzled me or seemed to need more developing. The next three posts will document some lines of thought which the book sparked off, and which I’ve been worrying at ever since. Post 5 will be devoted to some thoughts on a couple of essays by John Gardner, which don’t entirely belong with the other posts but need to be go somewhere. I’m not, at this stage, offering any kind of engagement with A Debate over Rights as a whole or with the authors’ main arguments; in fact there won’t be anything (for now) about Simmonds’ contribution, or very much about Kramer’s. I’ll re-read the book once I’ve finished the series, which will hopefully prompt some more thoughts.

This first post is going to provide a bit of theoretical background. The three essays making up A Debate over Rights all begin from the logical model of “jural relations” set out by the legal theorist Wesley Hohfeld (1879-1918). Before getting to the specifics, it’s important to note that all Hohfeld’s relations apply in principle between two people and in a particular field of action. For example, Jay’s desire to wear a hat might be protected from Kay’s attempts to thwart it by a right of non-interference – a “liberty” in Hohfeld’s terminology. In this example, this specific liberty would only make a very small and local contribution to Jay’s freedom of action: it would say nothing about anyone else’s ability to stop Jay wearing a hat, or about any non-hat-related coercion Kay might want to exercise. This is a fundamental point about Hohfeld’s scheme, which can have the unfortunate effect of making it seem weak or trivial in comparison with the grand canvases on which human rights discourse generally works. It’s anything but, as hopefully will become clear.

Hohfeld’s table of relations begins with two pairs of oppositions:

Privilege :: Duty

Liberty :: No-Right

Each pairing obtains, as I said above, between two people and in one sphere of action. Crucially, the elements of these pairings are correlated; where privilege exists on one side, duty exists on the other, and vice versa. If A has a duty towards B as regards x-ing, then B has a privilege in respect of A where x-ing is concerned. Say that you have promised the verger that you’ll unlock the church on Sunday morning. This is a useful thing to do and will benefit lots of people beside the verger, but your duty to do it is a duty towards the verger – just as the verger’s justified expectation that the church will be unlocked is a privilege with regard to you, not to the world (or the congregation) in general. (While Hohfeld’s model derives from and fits most naturally into the sphere of legal rights, it can be used productively to talk about purely moral rights, as in this case.) Some writers replace Hohfeld’s term ‘privilege’ with the more familiar ‘right’, or else ‘claim-right’; another way of formulating B’s privilege in this example is simply to say that B has a right to the fulfilment of A’s duty. (I don’t say B has a right to expect the fulfilment of A’s duty (although this would read more easily), for reasons that I’ll come on to later.)

It’s important to note that this is a relationship of logical, not practical, entailment. In other words, my duty to you in a given area is not something that needs to be done in order to fulfil your privilege over me in that area, which would otherwise exist unfulfilled or in a kind of potential state. My duty is the relationship between us (in that area), viewed from my perspective; your privilege is that relationship as it looks from your standpoint. This is the case even if the relationship was created for the sake of creating the duty, without any thought to the privilege (or, conceivably, vice versa). In Kramer’s formulation, someone who constructs an uphill slope in their garden will necessarily build a downhill slope as well, even if their sole reason for doing so was the aesthetic effect of an uphill gradient.

As for the second pairing, here we enter the territory of rights of non-interference. If A has a liberty towards B as regards x-ing, then B has no right to prevent A from x-ing – in Hohfeld’s (only slightly different) terms, B has a ‘no-right‘ towards A in that area. Many of the entitlements we usually refer to as rights are liberties in Hohfeld’s terms: if I have a right to free speech, this means precisely that I hold a liberty to speak, as against others who might interfere (principally the government). Liberties often take much more specific forms: someone may have a ‘right’ to set up in business (in the form of liberties held against the local authority, the police etc) but not have any ‘right’ to carry on that business without interference (in the form of liberties held against local rivals who might undercut the business, customers who might go elsewhere, employees who might go on strike, etc).

There are diagonal as well as horizontal relationships within the table. The opposite of a privilege is a no-right; the opposite of a liberty is a duty. These are logical opposites, such that – in any given social relationship and sphere of action – one party has either a privilege or a no-right towards the other, and either a liberty or a duty.

Two further pairings can be dealt with more briefly. These follow the same basic structure and apply it, reflexively, to the granting and varying of rights.

Power :: Liability

Immunity :: Disability

If A can alter B’s legal standing in respect of area z, A has a power over B in area z – and, by the same token, B has a liability in respect of A in that area. Equally, if A is unable to alter B’s legal standing in respect of area z, B has an immunity in respect of A in area z – and A has a disability in respect of B in that area. Powers are the opposite of disabilities; liabilities are the opposite of immunities.

As noted above, Hohfeld’s opposites – the diagonal pairings – are logical opposites. I found it useful to think of them as dichotomous variables: for any given social relationship and any given sphere of activity, you either have a liberty or a duty towards the other party, and (at the same time) either have a privilege or a no-right. The members of the liberty/duty and privilege/no-right pairings are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive: there is no social relationship and no field of activity to which they don’t apply. There’s no ‘off’ position, in other words. The man I happen to sit next to on the bus has no influence on my later, independent choice of sandwich for lunch – but this is not to say that there is no Hohfeldian relation between person A (man on bus) and person B (Phil) in area y (sandwich choice). Rather, there is a relation of liberty (on my part) and no-right (on his).

The exhaustiveness of Hohfeld’s opposites has some particularly interesting – and easily overlooked – effects when we start to put the two pairings together. Some privileges, and some liberties, can be waived: the verger may let me have a lie-in from time to time; I may let my colleagues put in a collective sandwich order and override my personal preferences for a while. In the first case, where I have a duty towards the verger in the matter of unlocking the church, the verger has a power (of waiver) over that duty – and I have a liability, in the sense that the duty may be altered without my say-so. The second case is more complex. If I have a liberty (towards my colleagues) in the matter of sandwich choice, they by the same token have a no-right towards me; strictly speaking, it’s that no-right which I have the power to waive. Again, powers correlate with liabilities: my colleagues are under a liability, in the sense that their exclusion from input into my sandwich choice may be revoked by me, and not by them.

But remember: the opposites are dichotomous, and dichotomies are jointly exhaustive. Anyone who is owed a duty which cannot be waived does not hold a power of waiver, correlating with a liability on the part of the duty-holder. Instead, they hold a disability (of waiver), which correlates to an immunity from having the duty waived on the part of the duty-holder. There is no sphere of activity and no social relationship which cannot characterised by either privilege or no-right, and by either duty or liberty. And there is no relationship – of privilege to duty or of liberty to no-right – which is not further characterised by either power (to waive or vary) or disability, and by either liability or immunity. John Potts enjoys the privilege of ownership of some spotted pigs, and the liberty of non-interference with that ownership, as against the no-right and duty not to interfere of you, me and the vicar; he also has either the liberty to graze them in the vicarage garden or (more probably) the duty to refrain from doing so, combined with a privilege or (again, more probably) a no-right over the vicar himself in the matter of grazing rights. Viewed in this light, so far from being limited to minute and artificial examples (Kay’s duty not to prevent Jay from wearing a hat), Hohfeld’s correlatives and opposites seem to describe the entire social world – albeit that they describe it in impossibly minute terms, a map even bigger than the territory.

One final point, for now: one of the key points of disagreement between Kramer and Simmonds – indeed, one of the key points at stake in the book’s debate over rights – concerns how to conceptualise these xs, ys and zs which make the Hohfeldian model tick. I may have a liberty towards you in a given area, coupled with an immunity as regards any attempt on your part to waive your correlative no-right – but what are these ‘areas’ that we’re talking about? Are they interests, and if so how do these interests work? If they have the cast-iron, logical-entailment structure of a Hohfeldian correlative pairing, how can they be balanced against other interests? If they aren’t balanced against other interests – if they’re a set of fundamental interests which take absolute priority over other, more fungible interests – then what subset of interests can they possibly be? Alternatively, are Hohfeldian rights a way of building a Kantian model of the will of the individual, expressed freely and without any necessary conflict with other individual wills – and if so how do we make them work in the real world?

I have no idea how to answer any of these questions – not that they’re easy questions from anyone’s perspective. The contrast between ‘interest theory’ and ‘will theory’ models of rights is a major bone of contention both between the authors and among the other writers discussed in the book; I’ll come back to it myself another time (probably after I’ve re-read the book).

Dear Mr Echo

The council are consulting on the future of our local library and leisure centre. I say “library and leisure centre”, and that seems to be what we’re likely to end up with, but they’re currently two separate things; the library, in fact, is a Carnegie library, built before the First World War with money from the great American Republican philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Republicans were different then.) And I say “consulting”, but they’re doing it in their own particular way: they state that they’ve identified the three key priorities in libraries’n’leisure, and then ask if we’ve got anything we’d like to add.

The key priorities are:

  1. Facilities should be sited whenever possible in community hubs tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the surrounding neighbourhoods, where residents can access activities, information and advice and use self-service in one place.
  2. The Council should continue to work with commercial partners and external funding bodies to provide new facilities with the aim of improving customer satisfaction levels and reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

Auf Englisch:

  1. Facilities should be sited … in community hubs … activities, information and advice … in one place.
  2. The Council should … work with commercial partners and external funding bodies … with the aim of … reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute … journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

In descending order of enthusiasm, I’m at best neutral about #3; it smacks of drawing circles on a map around three or four shiny new High-Quality Pools and closing the rest. I suspect that all Manchester residents do already live in reasonably easy reach of at least a ratty old local pool, and I suspect more people get more use out of pools that way. I’m suspicious of #1, particularly when the ‘facilities’ we’re talking about are (a) leisure centres featuring a swimming pool and (b) libraries – I can’t see any benefit to anyone in having a swimming-pool in a library, or vice versa. (Has somebody misread Alan Hollingshurst?) As for #2, no, I don’t believe that this is what the council should do; in fact, I think this just what the council should not do. This is a simple case of robbing Peter to pay Paul: the only way that running costs can be reduced (while also making a profit for those “commercial partners”) is by finding the money from somewhere else, by making users pay a bit more on the door or by driving down salaries and service levels. You’d end up, all being well, with a lower council tax, higher per-usage charges and lower salaries, and with profits being taken out of the system – all of which is, of course, the precise opposite of the principles on which council-funded services were set up in the first place.

But there wasn’t a box for that. So I contented myself by adding a fourth priority

All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality library.

Curious omission, that one.

There was also some stuff about what we’d like to see in our shiny new leisure centre (didn’t answer, never go) and what we’d like to see in our shiny new library (I carefully ticked everything that you can only do in a library – see below – and left everything else blank). Then I completed the demographic information at the end, which seemed more like owning-up than usual (Oh, OK, it’s just another Guardian-reader…). And now they’ve consulted me.

There are also proposals – or advance warnings – for what’s going to happen to the Central Library, which has been closed for refurbishment for a couple of years. Things don’t look quite as bad as Jamie suggested – it will be a library, with books – but I think he was right to be suspicious. Highlights:

New ideas, new technology and new storage methods mean we can accommodate a better, more modern library service and accommodate partner organisations, but still streamline and open up spaces, making a feature of this building’s impressive architecture.

We don’t want the new library to just be a place where you come if you have an essay to write. We want you to relax there, meet your friends, drink coffee, enjoy performances, go online or just browse for a few impulse take-home treats. We want you to consider the Central Library home-from-home, open for longer and open for everyone.

They’ve been talking for some time about doing something new and different (but library-based) with the Town Hall Extension. It turns out that the Town Hall Extension will house the extended Central Library (not to be confused with the Central Library, which will be in another building). The extended Central Library will offer… oh, everything. Well, nearly everything.

The extended Central Library will be integrated with a customer service centre providing a one stop shop front for Council services. Open for longer than ever before; the library will be packed with all the things you like best, from best-sellers to DVDs, music and computers. There’ll be something on our shelves for every taste.

This is where new technology will really play its part in making the library more convenient than it’s ever been. You’ll be able to browse online, then call to pick up what you’ve chosen, then issue it yourself with your library card. You’ll be able to download e-books and audio books from home or in the library.

Everyone will find a niche in the extended Central Library, there’ll be songs and stories for little ones in a bright and exciting children’s zone; young people will have a place of their own with computers for school or for gaming, plus books and study support. There’ll be a decent latte in the café and a comfy place to sit while you sip it. We’ll have quiet places and noisy places, you simply choose where you want to be that day. New layouts and technology will enable all types of visit, from groups working collaboratively on projects through to those who want to read the paper in peace.

To sum up:

In the past, libraries were all about books. Now they’re about people.

I responded to the consultation… no I didn’t, there wasn’t one. All of this is coming, ready or not – “quiet places and noisy places”, “partner organisations” and all. But the City Council’s Web pages all have a little “Was this information helpful?” feedback widget, like so:

So I left a comment there. I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, but you never know. It’s just a grumpy pushback, but sometimes a grumpy pushback is all there is to do. Here’s what I wrote:

Perhaps that last paragraph was meant to be provocative. If so, it’s succeeded.

What is the one thing that you can find in libraries and nowhere else? Books. Physical books, to search or browse through at random; books you’ve heard of but never seen, books you never knew existed, books you always wanted to read, books you never knew you wanted to read. Books that can be borrowed at no charge. Books, and lots of them.

A library is a place of discovery: it’s not a place to go for something you already want, it’s a place to go to find out what you want. And I know this may sound boring – I sometimes think the definition of a librarian is somebody who’s bored with books – but shelves of books do that job better than anything else. All that information, all those ideas, all those stories, packed into an object that fits into your pocket – and next to it, another one, and another, and another.

There’s no better aid to literacy – at any age, but especially for kids – than shelves of books, freely accessible, not being pushed at you by educational diktat or marketing hype, just sitting there waiting to be picked up and read. There are only two places in the world that can offer that, particularly to a child; one of them is a home well supplied with books, and most kids don’t have one of those. The other is a library. Turn a library into a cool multi-media meeting-place that isn’t “all about books” and you destroy the library.

Manchester City Council is one of those councils that were so Labour in the 80s that they effectively had a (right-wing, old-school) Labour council and a (left-wing) Labour opposition. The latter eventually took over, and they’ve been running on self-congratulation and a vague sense of shiny new radicalism ever since. Essentially they were New Labour avant la lettre, and they’re still New Labour now. And they’re still in charge.

I don’t remember Guildford

It’s Edward Lear’s bicentennial this year. I’ve always had a fondness for Lear. I grew up reading his poems; the Complete Nonsense was one of the first books I read cover to cover, and almost certainly the first book of poetry. It paid off; when I took the Cambridge entrance exam – back when you could get into Cambridge by putting on a performance in the entrance exam – I answered a question about the Romantics by writing about Lear’s verse. I may have been inspired by a running joke in John Verney’s novel Seven Sunflower Seeds in which Berry, the narrator, is told to read the whole of [King] Lear for an essay, gets the wrong end of the stick and sets about reading the whole of [Edward] Lear – the limericks, the long poems, the stories, the travel journals… (Great writer, John Verney.) I saw Lear – as did Berry and presumably Verney – as an overlooked poet of yearning and melancholia, with a late-Romantic suspicion of society and belief in the solitary imagination.

There was an Old Man in a boat
Who said, ‘I’m afloat, I’m afloat!’
When they said, ‘No! you ain’t!’
He was ready to faint
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.

They do tend to do that kind of thing. Here’s George Orwell on Lear:

“They” are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that “They” would do.

Getting the bit between his teeth, Orwell goes on to suggest that “the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes”. Nonsense isn’t just nonsense; even the limerick about the Old Person of Basing has a subtext:

There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.

Orwell:

It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are “They”, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.

In similar vein, Michael Rosen (whose post inspired this one) writes:

nonsense is not without any sense. It nearly always creates something new which doesn’t tally with aspects of the world or aspects of texts which we regard as normal or conventional. So it frequently offers parallels, parodies, inversions and distortions. I guess we find a lot of this funny or attractive because it breaks up the world or texts we live with under compulsion and necessity.

He’s not wrong – Orwell wasn’t wrong either. But I feel that this argument, like Orwell’s, misses or underrates something very important about Lear’s “nonsense” work, and about “nonsense” works in general (although I think we now have other names for them). (Just as my own teenage idea about Lear as an Arnoldian post-Romantic is an interesting angle, but plainly isn’t the whole story.)

I’m thinking of the element of play, which may have no point at all or even be ostentatiously pointless. Consider Lear’s limericks, with their famously near-identical first and last lines. W.S. Gilbert couldn’t be doing with them and wrote this brilliant parody:

There was an Old Man of Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When they said, “Does it hurt?”
He said, “Not very much,
It’s a good thing it wasn’t a hornet.”

(Best recited quickly.) But I think Gilbert’s sarcastic worldliness was also a way of being tone-deaf or missing the point. Put it this way, going nowhere is what Lear’s limericks do. Take that Old Person of Basing: reduced to its essentials, what his poem says is

There was an Old Person of Basing
Who made his escape from Basing

The poem undoes itself, in other words – by the last line there isn’t an Old Person of Basing. It reminds me of children’s rhymes that end by deconstructing themselves, or of this short piece by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms:

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.

He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing to speak of! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.

We’d better not talk about him any more.

The movement of thought is ostentatiously, extravagantly pointless, as if to say: “I’m telling you something worth hearing… oh, no, I’m not! I’m making sense… oh, no, I’m not! I’m talking… oh, no, I’m not!” A lot of nonsense work (although I think we now have other names for it) performs this kind of defiant doodling and rug-pulling; Edward Lear certainly did.

We can see what’s going on a bit better if we insert Lear into his tradition: what I think of as the great tradition of Basingstoke. (Lear never actually referred to Basingstoke in his verse, but the Old Person of Basing is close enough; it’s about a mile and a half, to be precise. Moreover, Basing has priority over Basingstoke, historically if nothing else; Basingstoke is first recorded (in the tenth century) as Basinga stoc, which translates as “satellite settlement dependent on Basing” or more loosely “Basing New Town”.) Back in 1997, Michael Dobson noted the recurrence of Basingstoke in his LRB review of a collection of nonsense verse. Take this, from the “Water-Poet” John Taylor (so called because he made his living as a wherryman):

This was no sooner knowne at Amsterdam,
But with an Ethiopian Argosey,
Man’d with Flap-dragons, drinking upsifreeze,
They past the purple gulfe of Basingstoke

(“Upsifreeze”, apparently, is an adverb meaning “to alcoholic excess”.) A couple of decades later an anonymous poet invoked Basingstoke for no apparent reason at all:

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true,
The Sumnors and Bailiffs were honest men,
And Pease and Bacon that year it snew.

Basingstoke seems to have been a byword for solid English mundanity, whose appearance instantly accentuates the nonsensicality of nonsense verse, even at the time of the Civil War – which is remarkable in itself, given that the town saw a lot of action during the war: Basing House was Royalist, Basingstoke itself Parliamentarian. (You won’t find Basing House on the map now.)

But it didn’t end there. Back – or rather forward – to Gilbert, a writer who knew how to play with words but was never quite content just to play. He strikes me as a conflicted writer, somehow. (Yes, it’s Taking Victorian Comic Writers Altogether Too Seriously Week at the Gaping Silence!) I get the feeling that Gilbert could write so well, so quickly and so playfully that he distrusted his own fluency and wanted to puncture it somehow. In Ruddigore the character of Margaret, otherwise known as Mad Meg… well, I’ll let her tell it:

Margaret. …when I am lying awake at night, and the pale moonlight streams through the latticed casement, strange fancies crowd upon my poor mad brain, and I sometimes think that if we could hit upon some word for you to use whenever I am about to relapse – some word that teems with hidden meaning – like “Basingstoke” – it might recall me to my saner self. For, after all, I am only Mad Margaret! Daft Meg! Poor Meg! He! he! he!
Despard. Poor child, she wanders! But soft – someone comes – Margaret – pray recollect yourself – Basingstoke, I beg! Margaret, if you don’t Basingstoke at once, I shall be seriously angry.
Margaret. (recovering herself) Basingstoke it is!

Using Basingstoke as a cure for nonsense, while maintaining perversely that it teems with hidden meaning, seems typical of Gilbert. (As Dobson points out, the character of Mad Meg was based on Elvira, the intermittently sane heroine of Bellini’s I Puritani, whose madness derived ultimately from the English Civil War – the war between, among other places, Basingstoke and Basing. Coincidence? Probably.)

Can we extend the Basingstoke-nonsense connection into the twentieth century? We certainly can, and things get more interesting when we do. Here (in full) is Henry Reed’s 1941 poem “Chard Whitlow”, a parody of T.S. Eliot:

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.

There are certain precautions— though none of them very reliable—
Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
By any emollient.
I think you will find this put,
Better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Will extinguish hell.”
Oh, listeners,
And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
(Which is also the silence of hell) pray not for your selves but your souls.
And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain..

What connects this quiet and precise parody to the older nonsense tradition is its dogged absurdity, the care which Reed takes to speak in Eliot’s late voice while saying almost exactly nothing. (As we get older we do not get any younger – and I love the image of the poet in front of a Third Programme microphone, solemnly apostrophising the listeners who have turned off.) Parody very often has this quality of nonsensical play; one way, and one of the more enjoyable ways, to undermine the text you’re parodying is to keep the form and remove the sense. You’re reading something dignified and meaningful and then… oh no you’re not; the rug is pulled, and you’re just reading some meaningless doodles. Some of the best – and funniest – comic writing is in the form of parody, in my experience – Dwight MacDonald’s Faber anthology of parodies is one of my very favourite books. It’s a form that gives the writer endless scope for going wrong, writing differently… writing nonsense.

Monty Python eventually got round to Basingstoke, too, but it took them a while. It was the third episode of the final series, and everyone was getting a bit tired by then, so there’s something rather laborious about the result.

Fawcett Sir, we all know the facts of this case; that Sapper Walters, being in possession of expensive military equipment, to wit one Lee Enfield .303 rifle and 72 rounds of ammunition, valued at a hundred and forty pounds three shillings and sixpence, chose instead to use wet towels to take an enemy command post in the area of Basingstoke …
Presiding General Basingstoke? Basingstoke in Hampshire?
Fawcett No, no, no, sir, no.
Presiding General I see, carry on.
Fawcett The result of his action was that the enemy …
Presiding General Basingstoke where?
Fawcett Basingstoke in Westphalia, sir.
Presiding General Oh I see. Carry on.
Fawcett The result of Sapper Walters’s action was that the enemy received wet patches upon their trousers and in some cases small red strawberry marks upon their thighs …
Presiding General I didn’t know there was a Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (slightly irritated) It’s on the map, sir.
Presiding General What map?
Fawcett (more irritably) The map of Westphalia as used by the army, sir.
Presiding General Well, I’ve certainly never heard of Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (patiently) It’s a municipal borough sir, twenty-seven miles north-north east of Southampton. Its chief manufactures …
Presiding General What … Southampton in Westphalia?
Fawcett Yes sir … bricks … clothing. Nearby are remains of Basing House, burned down by Cromwell’s cavalry in 1645 …
Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.
Presiding General (incredulously) Cole Porter … who wrote `Kiss Me Kate’?
Fawcett No, alas not, sir … this was Cole Porter who wrote `Anything Goes’.

And so wearily on. I think part of the problem is that, while the sketch has floated free of its parodic moorings – at least, it’s hard to see what this would be a parody of – it doesn’t have the free-ranging inventiveness of the best nonsense. (Even that sober Henry Reed poem has its stirrup-pump and that quietly ridiculous age joke.) But Basingstoke abides.

Parody – and the über-parody of absurdism, parodying form as well as content – was one place where nonsense found a home in the twentieth century. The other major stream of twentieth-century nonsense derives from Surrealism; in his piece on Lear, Orwell writes in passing:

Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common.

Much freer associations of ideas and images have been possible in poetry since Surrealism – and perhaps, in English poetry, since Dylan Thomas in particular; he could rattle off the bizarre combinations of imagery without a care, and on some accounts without much thought either. (A. J. P. Taylor recalled that he once saw Thomas revising a draft of a poem by methodically crossing out all the adjectives and replacing them with alternatives chosen at random – “Makes it more interesting for the readers, see?” On the other hand, Thomas was having an affair with Taylor’s wife at the time, so this perhaps isn’t the most reliable testimony.) Nonsense has come back in under the banner of the ‘surreal’, in poetry and especially in song lyrics. In the present day, when song lyrics are described as ‘surreal’, I think a lot of time what we’re hearing is what an earlier age would have called nonsense. That said, it’s arguable that nonsense always had a home in songs, if you looked in the right places – i.e. not too high up the cultural scale:

The grey goose and gander went over the green
The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune,
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune!

The collector who noted down the earliest version of this song (in 1891) added: “Many years ago, this used to be a favourite song round about Leeds, though a very silly one. … Before railways and cheap trips acted like general diffusers of London music hall songs, suchlike ditties in country districts were common in the kitchens of quiet public houses .. I need scarcely say that this delightful production would be sung only after a certain degree of conviviality had been reached.” When better?

Whether it derives from capital-S Surrealism filtering down or subterranean folk nonsense seeping up, a lot of contemporary song lyrics are written in a ‘surreal’ register. When James Mercer sang

You’re testing your mettle
With doeskin and petals
While kissing the lipless
That bleed all the sweetness away

you could just about follow the train of thought if you tried (mettle/metal?/petals/soft/kiss/lipless/skull?/bleed/desiccate?…), but a large part of what makes the lyric work is the way the images bounce off each other without hanging around long enough to make sense: it’s a refusal to communicate, but a playful one that (paradoxically) invites the listener to join in. There’s a similar but more extreme effect in one of Paddy McAloon’s first Prefab Sprout songs, “Don’t sing”(!):

Like most I come when I want things done
Please God don’t let that change!
(The anguish of love at long range)
Should have been a doctor-O,
Then they could see what they’re getting.
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
They ask for more than you bargain for and then they ask for mo’, oh, oh
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
That’s a feast that the whisky priest may yet have to forgo, oh, oh
Rob me of colour and make me sound duller but never go away

“Don’t sing”, indeed – everything about that song is fighting against the condition of being a song (the ridiculously forced rhyme on “mo'”, the transparently fake folkie touch of “doctor-O”) – and fighting against the condition of having something to say or saying it intelligibly. (On the other hand, I haven’t read The power and the glory, which seems to be referenced here; it may all be in the book.) At the same time, with each successive line you’re right there with the singer, feeling what it’s like to have your mind full of stuff that doesn’t quite fit together.

Not that nonsense (which we now call by different names) is always about refusal and frustration. Sometimes it just lets the language play, takes it for a walk, lets it go… somewhere else. Take the Beta Band’s “To you alone” (lyrics, presumably, by Steve Mason):

She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…

Hearing that, you know just what he means. Actually, no, you have no idea what he means, but you feel what he means. Or rather, you feel what he’s doing, even if you can’t begin to say what it means. It’s an Escher castle in words – an impossible construction, one that can’t really exist; and yet there it is, between your ears.

One final example:

I often dream of trains when I’m alone
I ride on them into another zone
I dream of them constantly
Heading for Paradise
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

I often dream of trains when I’m awake
They ride along beside a frozen lake
And there in the buffet car
I wait for Eternity
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

Robyn Hitchcock, who else. It’s striking that the insistent real-world detail of “Basingstoke or Reading” makes the image more dreamlike, more nonsensical: “Paradise or Basingstoke” on its own would just be bathos, and would have an artful, deliberate ring to it. The prosaic phrasing of the second verse – the first line especially – comes with a similar kind of depth charge of strangeness.

To envisage the world as it is, and yet entirely other

Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon

Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,–
One old jug without a handle,–
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò

– that’s nonsense (although we generally now have other names for it). It’s a form of mental exercise, I think. Above all it’s a form of play, and requires no more justification than that. For a moment, as the poem or the song occupies your mind, you’re thinking differently, experiencing the world differently, making sense of it differently. Or, for a moment, not making sense at all. Just for a moment.

Let’s eat some toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the blog, it’s great.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

As long ago as Long Ago, and as Long Ago Again as That, the City of Peking in the Ancient Land of China rang with jubilation and rejoicing; for a Son and Heir had been born to the Emperor Aladdin and the Empress Bedr-al-Budur

the Grand Vizier summoned a Special Meeting of State in the White Lacquer Room of the Imperial Palace. You may judge for yourself the importance of this Meeting, when I tell you that His Gracious Majesty the Emperor Aladdin presided over it Himself. Others present included the Lord Chamberlain; the Prime Minister; two Senior Generals from the Palace Guard; the Master of the Horse; the Mistress of the Robes; and an Unidentified Friend of the Master of the Horse.

‘Your Majesty!’ began the Grand Vizier imposingly. ‘Also Lords and Ladies of the Imperial Court! Also the Friend of the Master of the Horse. We are met here this evening to give Formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the birth of a Son and Heir to our Celestial Emperor of all the Chinas’

Thus chapter 1. In the next chapter, time having passed in the mean time, Aladdin’s son and heir comes of age, a topic discussed at an equally important meeting attended by the Prince himself and both his parents:

‘Your Imperial Majesties!’ began the Grand Vizier, imposingly. ‘Also, Your Imperial Highness! Also, Lords and Ladies of the Court! We are met here (all except the Friend of the Master of the Horse, who has been sent to his Room till Tea-Time) to give formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the Very Important Event of the Coming of Age of the Heir Apparent’

From Noel Langley, The Land of Green Ginger (1937 and 1966). It’s uncanny.

Update What I really find hard to comprehend is the glacial pace at which this story’s moving. Liam Fox seems genuinely not to have any idea that he’s done anything wrong, and the government hierarchy seems pretty nonchalant as well; the idea seems to be that he’ll be hung out to dry if and when the story becomes too embarrassing, which by implication it hasn’t done yet. Perhaps it’s deliberate news management; certainly it’s made life difficult for the BBC news, which has been left without any editorial stance on the story, other than noting that suspicions continue to grow that Fox may at some time possibly have done something that people might consider wrong in some way. This page is comedy gold; I like the 11.35 quote from Nick Robinson to the effect that Fox is telling people he’s the victim of a “hate campaign”. I may be out of touch, but I don’t think Liam Fox is hated by anyone who doesn’t know him personally – he’s not that important. If he’s the victim of anything, it’s a “WTF did you think you were doing (and who are you anyway)?” campaign. Interesting line of defence, too:

friends have also rallied round to help defend his corner, telling Robinson Werritty was a “a groupie who kept turning up pretending to be something he wasn’t”

(A ‘that’ would have helped there. Robinson Werritty – who’s he?)

The point here is that, even if that were true (which I don’t believe for a moment) it would still suggest that Fox was a bumbling incompetent who should be sacked pronto. Werritty “kept turning up” and helping himself to a seat at the conference table – and he just let him sit there? Why, exactly?

Final (genuine) quote from Fox, asked to identify the unnamed friend who was staying over the night his flat was burgled:

For the sake of clarity,
it wasn’t Adam Werritty.

Kadoodle-oodle-skippety-wee!

One cold May morning in June

Ken, in comments at B&T:

I find Douglas Adams’ comic writing deeply melancholic to the point of being depressing, and Terry Pratchett’s quite the opposite. I suspect the difference has to do with the sense of underlying logic in Pratchett, versus the sense of arbitrariness and absurdity in Adams. I get the same sense of arbitrariness in what I’ve looked at of Sharpe, and I didn’t like it at all. Same with (closer to home) Robert Rankin.

Jasper Fforde, that’s what I say. But I’ll get back to that.

I tend to agree with Ken about Adams & Pratchett. The thing about Hitchhiker is that it makes perfect sense as a Cambridge revue sketch, i.e. something whose writer is trying to flatter and stay one jump ahead of a clever but cynical audience: hence the wordiness, the displays of erudition and worldly-wisdom, the dash for the next gag. But I think the darkness which is overpowering by the time of Mostly Harmless was always there, and I suspect that it’s related. One of the few snatches of HH I caught on the radio, back in 1978, was the digression about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division (“the only part of the Corporation to show a consistent profit in recent years”) and how its giant illuminated motto – “Share and Enjoy” – unfortunately now appeared to read “Go stick your head in a pig”. The explanation was followed by a hideously atonal vocodered jingle, beginning “Share and enjoy” and ending (of course) “Go stick your head in a pig”. A basically rather grim idea is taken further and further, with an odd kind of doggedness, culminating in a deliberately unpleasant jingle – which itself goes on just a bit too long to be amusing. It’s strange and rather gruelling stuff; I remember thinking at the time that this wasn’t exactly light entertainment. (You can hear for yourself. Share and enjoy!) And that’s not to mention Slartibartfast’s melancholia –

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.
Arthur Dent: And are you?
Slartibartfast: Ah, no… Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.

or the appallingly dark comedy of the basic setup: the Earth has been destroyed and nobody cares. If you were going to take it really seriously, you could say that Marvin’s function is to make Arthur’s predicament even more desperate, by effectively blocking off the escape route of outright depression. Arthur is a thin character – one of those Boring Ordinary People who the Pythons kept returning to, upwardly-mobile Oxbridge snobs that they were – stuck in a mindbendingly ‘thick’ situation, and doomed to make jokes about it. Which nobody hears.

Adams: dark. I think the darkness and the “sense of arbitrariness and absurdity” Ken refers to may go back to the same root. I wonder if, for Adams when he was writing Hitchhiker, the cynicism and erudition and wordplay was basically all there was – not in the sense that it was all he could do (we should all be so limited), but in the sense that he didn’t believe there was anything else that mattered. Bear in mind that he was only in his mid-20s when Hitchhiker went out – still very much in the “after Cambridge” stage. Being erudite and good with words is quite a big deal if you’re a student, and can have real rewards. Get to Oxford or Cambridge, and it’s easy to form a world-view which basically says that clever people get privilege, very clever people get lots of privilege and really clever people run the world. Coming down from Cambridge (in more ways than one), to discover that boring ordinary people in boring ordinary jobs were doing quite nicely thankyou, while clever people like oneself were scraping around to make ends meet… well, I found it a bit of a shock myself, and I wasn’t even a star at Cambridge. The world of Megadodo Publications and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is a world where knowledge and intelligence confer power, but only on people who are willing to misuse them. To some extent that mentality seems to have stuck, for Adams – there’s a cold wind blowing through a lot of his later work, from Mostly Harmless to The long dark tea-time of the soul: a mood not just of “this is all there is” but of “yes, this is all there is, you don’t have to keep asking”. You can see how he would have taken to rationalism and Darwinism – which, to be fair, do seem to have given him a sense that there was a there there, and consequently cheered him up a bit. (This theory doesn’t really account for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of his best works & also one of the most upbeat. Maybe he should have written more about music.)

It follows from all of the above that Adams was never a world-builder; I think he felt that the world we had was an absurd and rather shoddy mess which didn’t bear too much investigating, and any other worlds we visited would almost certainly be no better. He makes an odd sort of mirror image to C.S. Lewis in this respect. Narnia doesn’t hang together for five minutes – did Talking Foxes eat Talking Mice, and if not what did they live on? could Talking and non-Talking animals interbreed, and if so what would the offspring be? where are the female Marsh-wiggles, or the female Centaurs? and what the hell is Father Christmas doing there? But it doesn’t matter (and be fair, when you’re reading the story it doesn’t matter) because Lewis wasn’t greatly concerned about how this world hung together either. (He didn’t much care where the female Humans were for most of his life.) The only world that made sense, for Lewis, was Aslan’s Country; Earth or Narnia, they were all dim and muddled reflections, seen δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι. But the senseless and disordered worlds he imagined were still basically, ultimately, good and trustworthy places, because they were underwritten by that great unknowable original – just as Adams’s (a) weren’t and (b) weren’t.

Pratchett – who started out as a working journalist – took a very different approach when he started writing the Discworld series, and in retrospect it’s rather an extraordinary one. Pratchett designed a world which feels from the outset as if it ought to hang together (there’s work and crime and government and sex), but couldn’t possibly work: in the first few books there are huge white spaces in the mental map of Discworld, quite openly labelled “and then a miracle happens”. It’s a fantasy, after all; it’s a world where magic happens all the time. One of the remarkable features of the later books has been the way those white spaces have been progressively filled in: magic itself has been less and less of a deus ex machina and more of a source of power, like steam. Pratchett has a real sense of people living in society, and of society as an essentially orderly and comprehensible human creation – even if (as he suggests sometimes) the order rests ultimately on random violence, and comprehending society would involve learning things you’d rather forget. I’ve got a lot of time for the argument, advanced in Interzone at around the time of Guards! Guards!, that Pratchett is a writer of comedy in the fullest and most philosophical sense – comedy as a place where nobody gets hurt (except bad people) and the estranged lovers end up together again (usually), but where some real and serious ideas get played with along the way.

I’m interested in Ken’s other comments. I don’t like Tom Sharpe as a writer, any more than I like Howard Jacobson – Sharpe has a similar sort of thumping smugness, although he carries it off more lightly – but I’m intrigued by the comment about Robert Rankin. I’ve never read any of his stuff (although I do remember when it was actually happening) and I’d be interested to know where other people locate him on the Pratchett-Adams continuum (or should that be Lewis-Pratchett-Adams?).

Another couple of names for you. I like Malcolm Pryce. I’m not convinced his world hangs together, but it feels more solid than a simple burlesque; it’s authentically Welsh enough to seem believable (or maybe it’s just that I’m Welsh enough to find it believable). I’ve got an absolute tin ear for Jasper Fforde, though, and here again it’s something to do with arbitrariness: he really does seem to be making things up as he goes along, without even addressing the question of whether it hangs together. Time travel I like; the ‘banana’ scene in The Eyre Affair is tremendous. People entering books I like, and have done since Woody Allen came up with the idea in “The Kugelmass Episode”. But time travel and people entering books and an alt-historical authoritarian government and a literary popular culture… too much. Most of the way through The Eyre Affair I was convinced that we were going to find out how this world connected to, or diverged from, our own – that Fforde was going to reveal the Point of Departure – but it wasn’t to be. Maybe my expectations were the problem – maybe I should have relaxed and enjoyed the firework display – but it didn’t work for me.

What (and who) am I missing?

Avert your eyes from his gaze

Michael Gove is an enduring mystery to me. (For some time I was convinced that he was the same Mike Gove who ran the UK branch of the OS/2 User Group in the 1990s – something which would make him quite interesting in a perverse corporate-rebellious sort of way, as well as conferring considerable geek cred – but apparently that was someone else.) How on earth has such a sanctimonious nullity risen so far? He seems to be trading on a reputation as an intellectual, validated by his experience as a broadsheet journalist. But that just raises the same question in a different form: however did someone with so little to say, and such an irritating way of saying it, achieve so much prominence in the media? (He even used to appear on the Review Show, of all things – although on reflection that’s not such a surprise: even at its best that programme was basically a blend of heavyweight contrarianism (Paulin, Greer) with lightweight ditto (Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson), and these days the heavyweight slot seems to get taken by Natalie Haynes or Bidisha.)

Perhaps part of what Gove has going for him, from the Right’s point of view, is that he’s a good hater. The other week on the News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy recalled how Gove, in opposition and writing for the Times, had outed him and Linda Smith as SWP moles, infiltrating the commanding heights of Radio 4 comedy programmes so as to, er… have to get back to you on that. I was curious, and didn’t entirely take the story at face value (he’s a comic, he tells good stories), so I did some googling. Initially I thought Jeremy Hardy was talking about Revolutionaries with RP accents, a lump of Goveage that appeared in the paper at the end of 2004. (Some bloke on Twitter seems to have come to the same conclusion.) But on inspection that story was attacking the BBC for putting on Hardy & Smith (and Mark Steel! he’s another one you know!):

Radio 4 operates, as so many British institutions do, on two levels. Its structures reflect the natural conservatism of the British people, but the world view of its guiding spirits is more naturally radical, leftish and Guardianista. From the Royal Opera House to the Foreign Office, the same combination of traditional outward forms legitimising bien-pensant attitudes is at work.

The most successful leftwingers in British life have been those, such as Clement Attlee, whose personal style has been most bourgeois. It was no coincidence that, during the 1980s, the greatest threat to moderation within the Labour Party came from one sect, Militant, which insisted on a certain douce respectability from its adherents, demanding that they appear suited and tied, while other Trotskyists wallowed in combat-jacketed irrelevance.

The leftish bias in Radio 4’s content manifests itself subtly, yet insistently. Voices from the far Left such as Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy are introduced on the News Quiz, or given their own shows, in a way which gives no clue to their political shading. The station treats them as though they were souls with no mission save laughter, like Humphrey Lyttleton or Nicholas Parsons, but the humour of Smith, Hardy and others such as Mark Steel is deployed for a particular polemical and political purpose.

Which is a bit different from accusing them of infiltrating; an unkind way of putting it would be to say that it’s a higher level of paranoia – “actually it turns out they don’t even need to infiltrate, because actually the people running Radio 4 want them there…” (In passing, I was also struck by the reference to “commentators from the Left, such as Jonathan Freedland or Andrew Rawnsley”. Perhaps they’re sleepers.)

Then I found this from the New Statesman:

The red menace, like the poor, is always with us. We must all be grateful to Michael Gove of the Times for taking a fresh look under the bed. In two articles, he reports that Trotskyist and communist organisations, all “dedicated to eventual revolution . . . and hostile to private property and profit”, have sunk old sectarian disputes to become the Socialist Alliance. Inevitably, he finds they are behind the recent rail strikes and are set to tighten their grip on “a major British institution” (he seems to mean South West Trains). Worse, they have “infiltrated” the legal profession. But most damning is their “skilful manipulation of the media”. Socialist Alliance stalwarts such as Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith, disguised as comedians, get themselves on Radio 4, notably The News Quiz, where they “make jokes about the Conservatives and the government”.

Date: 21st January 2002. This looks much more promising. Googling found a copy of the first of the two articles, which is dated 15th January and makes quite interesting reading. (Pardon the long quote – this is actually a fairly heavily edited excerpt from the original column.)

The biggest component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers Party (SWP) … As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Solidarity Network, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers International, Workers Power and Red Action. What unites these groups, apart from membership of the Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government, and hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action.

Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Ramsgate is recorded. The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. … Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select candidates and vote on policy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.

The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights Movement run by Suresh Grover … More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance, has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South West Trains has given Tucker and [Bob] Crow the perfect opportunity to secure attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence, and strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step into his shoes as the union’s number three.

Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America’s own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear. Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties. The ISG believes that social democratic governments such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class” and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over “broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front.” Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election. Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.

The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30 strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises the class-consciousness of the rank and file.” The TUC fears that “if an extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways.” Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated disruption. It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.

Socialist Alliance, eh? Those were the days. But anyway… In some ways this is standard right-wing froth: note the entire paragraph about the relatively insignificant Red Action (you do realise they actually support the IRA?) and another about the totally insignificant SLP (Scargill, you know he really is a Communist?). What stands out is the level of detail, in those paragraphs and elsewhere. I mean, that’s some serious leftist trainspotting; I didn’t even know that about the ISL being affiliated to the SA. (The ISL is of course the British section of the Lambertist LIT, and – as Gove says – not to be confused with the ISG, which was the British section of the Fourth International.) Also note the tone: he knew who he hated, did Gove, and he hated every single one of them (or should I say ‘us’): he wanted there to be no doubt that he loathed the entire Left, from the Bennites leftwards. Which, ironically, rather undermines the effect of all that research (or all those briefings), once you start to put it all together: it’s not at all clear to me in what sense the harmless old Stalin Society was more “hard-line” than the anti-Leninist Red Action, for instance. But this infodump wasn’t really put on display for analytical purposes. We point, we jeer, we demand that Something is Done, without troubling too much about the detail (what exactly was a “ministerial hand” supposed to do about the menace of Stalino-Trotskyite railway chaos – arrest Bob Crow and put him on trial for subversion?). Then we turn the page, feeling worldly-wise and pleasantly outraged. Job done.

But, sadly, there’s nothing in there about the “skilful manipulation of the media”, or about the dastardly leftist comedy plot. So if anyone out there is in a position to leaf through the Times for the month of January 2002, hilarity awaits – along with insight into Michael Gove’s mental processes, although perhaps that’s less of an incentive.

In the mean time, consider this (paywalled) from Robert Hanks’s review in the current LRB of a new biography of Dennis Wheatley:

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. … In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

[after marrying] he continued the life of conscious hedonism, dressing and dining beyond his means, chasing (at times his technique seems to have verged on stalking) women, at one point installing a mistress in a flat. He built up an expensive collection of books, mainly erotica and modern first editions

His first published work, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was an immediate hit … A thriller set in Soviet Russia, it introduced Wheatley’s ‘Four Musketeers’: the wealthy, worldly-wise Duke de Richleau, a monarchist exile from France, and his young friends Simon Aron, a brilliant Jewish banker, Rex Van Ryn, a brash, genial American multimillionaire, and the comparatively colourless Englishman Richard Eaton, supposedly a self-portrait. The plot (a hunt for tsarist treasure, a Bolshevik scheme for world domination – plus a bit of romance) is a helter-skelter mess … the action is, as one critic observed, ‘essentially Ruritanian’, and Wheatley’s prose, overwrought and under-punctuated, barely readable.

You get the general idea. Wheatley was a dreadful man – an arrogant, snobbish, libertine mediocrity – who turned out really dreadful books (“Duke de Richleau“? would an editor who could spell have been too much to ask for?) However, he was good at marketing (before he ran the family firm into the ground, apparently, he was “something of a pioneer of wine bullshit”). And, while he was a man of fixed and rather strange ideas, his prejudices were entirely compatible with the maintenance of the status quo, which never hurts. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Wheatley still seems to have at least one fan:

one journalist wrote that Wheatley ‘of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall to his dark magic’. That was Michael Gove; the idea that a man who admires Wheatley is now in charge of the nation’s schools is more genuinely terrifying than anything Wheatley ever wrote.

Based on a novel

Something a bit different (and hopefully a bit briefer): some thoughts on the last two novels I’ve read.

The context is that, while I used to review books fairly regularly, I haven’t done it for years; also, I hardly ever buy hardbacks, don’t go out much and don’t buy many CDs. So if I tell you about the last new film I’ve seen it will either be something I’ve gone to with the family (Toy Story 3) or something I’ve caught up with on DVD (District 9, and what a film that was). My CD purchases are several months behind the reviews, and if I tell you about the last book I’ve read, it’s as likely as not to be something I’ve picked up secondhand or got out of the library. So this is an experiment in reviewing without any novelty value; reviewing for its own sake. The other bit of background is that I’m between novels at the moment, so these books are as fresh in my mind now as they’re ever going to be.

Right, better get on with it. The last book I finished was Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing; the one before that was

Scarlett Thomas, The end of Mr Y Continue reading

Both night and morning

“for Mr Ó Nualláin, ‘might have been’ has loomed largely in his college life – larger than his bantam strutting will admit”

“When Mr Fitzpatrick grows up, he will find that ‘might-have-been’ figures too largely in his own little life, as in everybody else’s, to be safely employed as a weapon against others.”

I’ve recently read No laughing matter, Anthony Cronin’s biography of Brian O’Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O’Brien). It’s one of those books that I bought on a whim but took a while to get round to reading, and when I say a while I mean ten or fifteen years. Having finally read the book, the delay seems horribly appropriate – this was someone who’d written two masterpieces before he was thirty, but then did basically nothing for the next twenty years. Reading the life backwards, as a biography inevitably does, makes him seem like a lifelong ‘might-have-been’ – even back when he was a might-have-been-to-be. (The exchange quoted above is from 1935, when O’Nolan was 23.)

It’s not a very good biography – Cronin knew O’Nolan and acknowledges assistance from his widow and several siblings, which may account for a slightly cramped, reined-in quality to some of the writing. There is too little on the great books (but rather too much on The Dalkey Archive, including a slightly embarrassing account of Cronin’s dismayed reaction to the work in progress); an account of the first Bloomsday celebration, in which Cronin and O’Brien were both involved, peters out midway without describing “the breakdown of the grand scheme”; there isn’t even a conclusion to the book itself, which simply stops at the moment O’Nolan dies.

What there is, though, is both suggestive and troubling. Continue reading

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