Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When to stop reading

What makes me put a book down, or stop reading an article or blog post? This was discussed at You Don't Say this morning. The answers so far aren't particularly revealing. One commenter said that she would stop reading if the writer showed ignorance of the rules of grammar and punctuation. It was inevitable that someone would say that, but I suspect it isn't actually true, not even in the case of the commenter who said it. Someone who stops reading because they detect non-standard grammar has too little imagination to gain any real pleasure from reading. I wonder whether that commenter enjoyed Tom Sawyer, or the books of Toni Morrison, or Sir Walter Scott?

What makes me stop reading is the impression that the writer has nothing to tell me. Cliché, self-conscious imitation, repetitiveness, incoherence, obfuscation, gratuitous reference to fashionable concepts, impenetrability, are usually signs of a writer who is not original, has nothing of their own to express, has found no voice with which to speak, or, at least, has nothing to say to me personally. Poor style is very off-putting, and nearly always accompanies lack of content (I'm sure there must be counterexamples); on the other hand, many great stylists have written with no great depth of content (PG Wodehouse being the first and finest example I can think off). Evelyn Waugh said that he considered writing novels to be an exercise in the use of language.

This is little more than a stray thought, but I ask the same question that John McIntyre asked of his readership: why do I stop reading? Because I don't expect to gain anything from it. The clues are the signs of lack of style and originality that I mentioned above. In technical texts my intention is learning, rather than pleasure, but lack of clarity in the language used is generally a sign that I will not learn what I wanted, and I will seek another source.

Another good reason to stop is when I realise I don't know why I'm reading something. Or, as another commenter says, that I am reading it because I want to have read it.

Good writing is a pleasure to read. There is plenty of it, and no need to continue reading something that doesn't satisfy you. But I wonder if what puts us off is in fact what we think it is.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

How Many Angels can Dance on a Pinhead?

Apparently people are much exercised about this question. Unable to satisfy myself on the point I asked a number of people for their opinion:

Theologians I consulted mostly suggested the church had little to say on the matter of an exact number, but that the angelic essence was concentrated at an indefinable point, while simultaneously permeating the entire universe of heaven and earth. The spokesman for the Church of England suggested that, in the light of this, the answer was whatever I wanted it to be. The Imam said that if by angels I meant djinnis, then they did not dance anywhere at all as it would be contrary to the will of Allah. A Roman Catholic priest said that he had recently attended a party on the head of a pin at which no fewer than 99 angels were present. It was late in the evening, however, and his testimony is open to question. Ian Paisley said the answer was the exact opposite of whatever the Papish infidel had said it was. A passing Salvation Army girl asked me what I was doing that evening but had nothing to say about angels and pinheads.

A noted philosopher prodded me repeatedly in the chest, demanding that I define angel, dance, pinhead and prove the reality of numbers greater than one, rejected the definitions and proofs I gave him, substituted his own, ignored those as well, argued  circularly, inductively, deductively, collectively, absurdly and ad hominem, declared at one point that no angels were Scotsmen, invoked and abused the shades of colleagues long dead, argued himself into and out of a corner on at least three occasions, and finally pronounced that the answer was somewhere between zero and infinity, depending on the nature of conceptual reality.

A spokesman for Dave Spart said that the removal of both angel production and dance teaching from the hands of rapacious capitalism had led to ever-increasing numbers of angels dancing on pinheads. He proved this by showing me an envelope which, he said, had that very morning held dozens of such pins with innumerable forms gyrating upon them.

A health and safety officer informed me that no angels could dance on a pinhead because it was forbidden. When I asked her to consider the matter independently of legal restraints she looked at me closely, pressed a leaflet into my hand and said she would around later to inspect my pins and test me on my knowledge of the relevant legislation.

87% of the statisticians I asked returned an answer that was within two standard deviations of 17. However, evidence suggests this is true of almost all questions put to statisticians. (For some value of almost).

A hippy said ‘wow’ repeatedly, while staring, mesmerized, at the head of a pin on which I, personally, could see nothing, Terpsichorean or otherwise. ‘Wow, man, there’s millions of them.’ He would not commit himself to a more precise figure, therefore all we can say is that he might have provided an order of magnitude for the lower bound.

Tony Blair stated through a spokesman who refused to give his name that, after consultation with Peter Mandelson and others, he knew nothing of any angels or pinheads, that it was a matter of collective responsibility in Cabinet subject to the immunity of office and anyway, he wasn’t there. I naturally accept his word on all these points.

Silvio Berlusconi did not feel competent to address the question, but, on being pressed, began to muse, almost to himself, “big enough and wide enough, maybe fifty, maybe sixty; very slim, very little clothes, maybe 70”, and hung up excitedly, thanking me for the idea I had given him for his next orgy.

Richard Dawkins was unavailable for comment.

I conclude from all of this that the field is scandalously under-researched and I have applied for a grant to spend the next three years investigating angels, pinheads, and the spatial and temporal relations between them. Artists can’t answer the question either, but they are in agreement that the clothing of angels is limited to wisps of diaphanous material that drifts across them in not quite random fashion. Between that and the dancing, I expect my research to be exhausting as well as exhaustive. I shall, of course, keep my readers informed.

Does Anyone Know...?

Why International rugby players put up with having their own bloody slaughter ritually and aggressively enacted in front of them every time they play New Zealand? Not having been able to watch a great deal of rugby the last few years, I'm not sure how they do in fact react, but they obviously haven't found a way to stop this hugely provocative spectacle. It should have been easy enough to laugh at them, ignore them, stroll away and chat among themselves, turn round and drop their trousers, invent their own threatening performance or, best of all, each player could walk slowly up to within three inches of his opposite number and stare him straight in the eyes. Given the way rugby players stare, the urge to continue with the ridiculous contortions would probably dry up very quickly. They might all end up fighting, but that would be a much better way to start the game anyway.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

In Praise of Serfdom

"Hello there John, nice to hear from you. Look, you don't want to go getting any funny ideas, do you? I mean we all think about it sometimes, but, well... Here's some stuff I wrote a while ago to answer exactly those doubts you're having. Hope it helps you:

Now a lot of people say that they want to be free. If they understood what freedom meant, they wouldn’t want it. Most of them wouldn’t, anyway. Freedom requires courage. Do you have courage? Freedom requires resourcefulness, energy, vision, relentless hard work. It requires the ability to do your duty to those who you have made your responsibility. Do you have these qualities? Are you prepared to strive, every moment of every day, to cultivate them? Are you prepared for the consequences if you are not suited to freedom? I think not.

You have certain aptitudes and qualities, I’m sure. Not as many as you think, but certainly some, and I’m sure they can be improved. You are thinking about this question, which is a start. But I don’t for one moment believe you have understood it.

I advocate serfdom because for the great majority of people it really is the best way to live. For me, too. I do not see myself as some philosopher king, condemning the rabble to tyranny in their own best interests while I live like a lord on the fruits of their labours. Not at all. I want to be one of them. In fact, I am one of them. Most people are serfs, in the sense that I use the term, and are quite happy with their lot.

Do not imagine that freedom means having a lot of money and doing what you want. There are those who inherit vast sums, never want for anything, never have to do anything they don’t wish to, and can, if they are lucky enough that their imagination matches their resources, live with very considerable freedom. But such people are few, and in any case, you are not one of them, so they cannot serve you as models.

Those people who make a lot of money have invariably spent most of their life working to do it. They have sacrificed their health, their family, their leisure, their youth and many other things you and I take for granted, for the success that gives them freedom of action in the later stages of their lives. Or rather, for the chance of success, because despite all that sacrifice, most of them never achieve a situation in which they can simply do what they want. Those that do reach that stage have lost any notion they once had of how to be free. They have acquired huge responsibilities which determine most of their actions. They only think they are free because they have control over a small part of their time. Some of them undoubtedly do achieve a considerable amount of freedom, but it was very hard won, and the great majority, despite everything, fail.

Try a little gedankenexperiment, as the old German physicists used to say. Imagine you are on a desert island. Well, not actually a desert island, but a small island. There are trees, plants, animals, rocks, the necessary things for life, but they need to be sown, hunted, collected, built, whatever. There are women in another part of the island, who are afraid of you and will only approach if you tell them to. You can take them as concubines, or slaves, or you can leave them alone. You are the king of your island. You can do whatever you want. But everything depends on you. You have to organize the hunting, the farming, the building, do all the heavy work yourself, look after your wives and servants and children. You’re free to starve, of course, but you won’t choose to, will you? If you get ill, you have to find a cure, or pray. If other men come to the island, you’ll have to fight them yourself. You want to make the time pass more quickly? Arrange a bit of cock-fighting, or a coconut shy. Or teach the women football. It’s up to you. You wanted to be free. You wanted to be left alone. Well now you are on your own. Did I mention you are also free to leave? Of course you are. How long do you think it would be before you built a boat?

Organise the women into a gangs to hunt and till and build, an army to defend the shores, capture the other men who arrive, give them tasks to do, think about it all, how to make it work, pair them off, invent a taboo to stop them being at it like rabbits, divide the food fairly, sort out the fights and the quarrels between them. Congratulations, you just become king. Are you enjoying it? Well, someone’s become king. What makes you think it’ll be you? Have you built that boat yet? Were you born to be a king? I don’t think so. I certainly wasn’t.

You may say you pay taxes, but you don’t pay enough to cover what you receive. You say that one day you will pay more than you get back. Perhaps you will. Then what? Can you choose to pay less? Can you decide what to spend it on? Your freedom, even then, is very limited. You will be expected to pay for your serfs, and told exactly how you must do it, while being a serf yourself. Politicians and the like will control every aspect of how your imagined freedom is used. They will tell you all the things they’ve decided you must do, or the things they’ve decided you can’t do. They won’t tell you why it has to be that way, they won’t give the real reasons. You don’t explain things to serfs. We who accept our condition don’t want to know. We don’t care.

The leaders aren’t free either. They have to spin dozens of plates around their heads night and day for the whole of their lives. If one plate falls, they could be sacked, voted out, knifed in the back, fed to the crocodiles. Could you live with that knowledge, never knowing when a plate might fall? Their freedom depends on an exhausting expenditure of energy and attention, and can be lost at any time without notice.

The truly free are the serfs, at least in the country you and I are lucky enough to live in. We don’t have to work hard. We could, if we chose, not work at all, though we would lose as well as gain by it- there are always trade-offs. We have no responsibilities. The companies we work for are someone else’s problem, so is our health, our safety, the education of our children, our entertainment, our transport. We can more or less demand that those we serve provide us with what we want. We have voluntarily foregone certain freedoms, it’s true, but we have gained a great deal by it. Unless you spent your time neurotically worrying about whether you possess some ideologically pure form of freedom- which I don’t-  serfdom is the best option in life.

Your mate,


Saturday, September 17, 2011

In Praise of Power

"Dear Mister Johnson,

You may serve or you may be served. That is how the world is. Now would you rather serve or be served? To ask the question is to answer it, and with that I have responded to your enquiry, I think.

Nonetheless you probably expect more, and I am prepared to give it to you. I would not expect you to understand so simple and yet so powerful a concept without a great deal of explanation. Moreover, I would not expect you to have the courage to understand it unless I gave you a thousand exhortations. You are not getting a thousand, but I will exhort briefly.

Power is everything. Power over others is what makes our own lives easier and more meaningful. Easier because, naturally, power is control over other people, so you can have them make your life more comfortable. More meaningful because you decide what you do, with the freedom from interference, and the scope of opportunity, that having others under your complete control provides.

It is not always the direct effect on our own well-being that is the end sought when exercising power. Control over others provides endless entertainment, as well as allowing us to satisfy our desires and confirm our prejudices. I can make people dance like Dervishes, while their faces contort with pain, uncomprehending horror, and what would be anger if they had enough spirit to feel that emotion. It is enjoyable enough for its own sake, but the knowledge that, if I didn’t do it to them, someone would be doing it to me, is particularly inspiring. As is the fact that both they and I know it to be otherwise pointless.

If I could I would control every single action and feeling of every single person on the planet. I would, of course, allow most of them to do as they wished much of the time, intervening only to my own advantage, or pleasure, or entertainment. They would believe that they had a certain amount of limited freedom. They would not know what to do with it, of course, they would beg to be commanded, but they would believe they had it, and they would value what little they thought they had. In fact they would have none.

Power is taken, not given. The world belongs to those who have the courage to take it. Most people are afraid of themselves. They don’t dare to believe that they could ever do anything. They seem to think they will explode if they try to do something to help themselves.

This is one of the greatest secrets in the world, my young friend. Almost anything is possible. It is merely a matter of doing it. The simple serfs who complain about their condition to each other do not realize that they have chosen to live as they do. Will power is not something you have, it is something you do. If you chose not to do something, it will not be done. If you want it to be done, but do nothing, it will not be done. If you act in such a way as to do it, however, it very probably will be done. Laziness and cowardice are what distinguish the serf from the master. Nothing else.

The prize for showing strength and courage is that the world is yours. You have everything and control everything. The price of their laziness and cowardice (and stupidity) is that they cannot call their soul their own. Which would you rather be, young man?

A common mistake, and a great mistake, is to imagine there is some kind of middle ground, a no-man’s-land where you can live quietly, being left alone, neither ruling nor being ruled. This is quite wrong. The solid middle class that keeps its head down, the aspirational working class that believes it is the salt of the earth, are serfs. Work is good, effort is good, but they are afraid, they have no vision, and they fall far short of even understanding what they have lost. This is good, of course, it keeps them happy and it means fewer people notice their serfdom. Once too many people become aware of it there can be a mass trying to change things, and power can only belong to a few.

There will always be rulers. Always, in any society, nation, group, family, wherever people are gathered together there will rulers. Anarchists and other fools dream their dreams of a society without rulers and without law, where everyone does what they wish and contributes freely for the good of all. Fools they are indeed. Anarchy cannot exist, young man. A state of anarchy is simply not possible in human society. Chaos, yes, briefly. Terror, yes, at times more permanently. But anarchy, no.

Communism cannot exist either, in the form that those happy theorists dream of. How could it? Everyone equal, everyone sharing? No rulers, only organisers? Absurd. Preposterous. Monstruously stupid. Those happy dreamers are culpable in their delusions. And they have been shown to be wrong a hundred times.

You might say that communism creates unrivalled opportunities for the exercise of naked power, and indeed it does, but it is not a satisfactory power. So little is produced in such systems that there is relatively little to control, little to benefit from. Those who have power in such societies are limited in their options and opportunities. They are constantly at each others’ throats. They can’t enjoy it as they should. And the serfs know perfectly well that they are serfs. They know they are the objects of repressive tyranny, they know who their rulers are and they hate them. It’s so much more fun when the poor serf thinks he has a bit of power. The way they look every time they try to exercise it and nothing happens it extremely gratifying.

Of course, in a tyrannical society it is still better to be a ruler than to be a serf, but it is in our interests (I say our, as I hope I can now count you among the converts) to nurture societies that provide wealth for us to enjoy, and apparent freedoms for us to subvert.

It takes a little work, it takes a little practice, but the rewards are such that the exercise of power is the only way to live a proper, fulfilled existence. And it is remarkably easy. If you believe in your right to give orders, no one will question you. That is how these things happen. Elections, standing orders, law, courts, constitutional, are ways for the cowards to try to control themselves. They are not for us. Depending on the role that you have chosen for yourself, or have found, you may be able largely to ignore these matters and let the little people play around with them in the belief that they afford some kind of protection. Nonsense, of course. Most people are indeed safe to lead their dreary lives without suffering more than mild, if constant, annoyance from the state, because they are of so little importance that we will not even notice them unless they get in our way. They think of this as freedom, and take comfort in the minor inconveniences with which we surround them, because they stupidly assume it represents fairness and the rule of law, concepts entirely of their own invention.

As I say, it is possible that you may have to take notice of some of these things, in order to play the games that make power so enjoyable. Many of us are able to ignore it all, and are quite happy to do so.

The human being is exquisitely designed. A great deal of the pleasure of exercising power is the knowledge of what it would be like to suffer as a serf. We are the same breed of creature, broadly speaking, as them, and we can imagine, almost feel if we choose, what it is to live as they do, to experience what they must suffer. I sometimes wonder what God does all dy. He can take no pleasure in torturing his creation, as he cannot understand what he does. We can. We know exactly what they are feeling, and it is magnificently entertaining.

I am disappointed, young man, however, by the end of your letter. You seem to think I can tell you how to obtain power, help you to get it perhaps, give you permission to have it, even. No, no, my young friend. I passionately hope this is due only to a slightly infelicitous phrasing of the remark. I can explain to you the virtues of exercising power, of choosing it over serfdom, and I hope I have done so. What I cannot do is give you power. It is not mine to give. It is yours to take. If you have to ask how to take it, you are already a serf.

Decide what you are, my friend, and join us. We must be few, but there is room for one like you. I truly hope to see you among us.

Sincerely yours,

J. Sunderland Fortescue "

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The End of Summer

The days are still hot and sunny.. The lakes are cool, attractive and inviting, like Greta Garbo or a Long Island Iced Tea. I have many things still to read, and many ideas that are waiting to be put into words. There are many paths I still haven’t taken and the rucksack is not yet a burden. But clients have been calling for days, work is arriving, and some of it cannot be done in my rural fastness. My presence in the city is required. It is time to return. The character in The Lotus Eaters who ends up living in a ruined shed and begging scraps of food says at one point that the purpose of work is to obtain leisure. You would have thought it would be so, but to many people it appears that their work is an important part of their identity., or an excuse to get away from their family, or something they feel better at doing than other aspects of life, or a way of passing the time. Well, that’s up to each one to decide. Since most of us have to spend a large part of our lives working it helps to have a satisfying reason for doing it. Mine is that I need the money, but I also enjoy most of what I do (given that it prevents me doing a lot of things that I would enjoy more, I can count myself lucky). There is still a major economic crisis in the wealthier countries of the world. To most people what matters is whether they still have a way of earning a decent living. In Spain there are over four million unemployed, and with the summer ending, that figure is likely to rise further. About the same number are uncertain about the security of their jobs, or are having to work twice as hard to earn something like what they used to. I’m in the last group, being self-employed, but I have found over the last couple of years that the work is there if I go looking for it and don’t mind working harder than before for the same money. Which means I’m one of the lucky ones, but the work actually has to be done, and so tomorrow I shall return to the city and be absorbed once more by the swell of working men who scuff their shoes on the pavement as they dawdle, hunchbacked and sullen, to the stand once more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Plot Lines

In pre-blogging days, when I could say things down the pub and sound clever, I used to say that once the Odyssey was written there were no new stories left to write. On the interweb you can't be so glib and breezy, because someone will ask you to explain or defend what you say. Which is as it should be.

Over at A Wayfarer’s Notes, a couple of weeks ago, I briefly intervened in a discussion of the blogger’s reaction to a reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh. An assertion I made was questioned and I intended to expand on my comment. The thread quickly transcended any minor point that I might have been able to make and became a mini-epic in its own right, with bloody fights, alliances made and broken and remade, peripheral skirmishes brought into the main action, and the final resolution, manifesting the triumph of the greatness of the human spirit, and, very unusually for a blog thread, the original point of the post was clarified, illuminated and understood. (And right at the end, just a tiny hint that there might be sequel in the offing...)

I do, however,  think that most, or all, stories, their plotlines that is, follow an essential, basic pattern:

People, context (where, relations, etc), unacceptable (because bad, unexplained) situation => acceptable (because good, desired, satisfying, coherent) situation through medium of central character

These can be exemplified by a few of the commonest types:

Personal achievement- boy wins girl, defeats baddie, etc

Public achievement- defeating enemy nation, monster etc

Mystery- resolution thereof

Founding legend, identity legend, justifying legend

Bildunsroman- growing and learning, reaching knowledge/maturity

I’m not trying to oversimplify, just to reduce the concept of story to a few basic elements which always seem to be present and to help us recognise that something is a story and not a different kind of text. Or perhaps it just means that I think it’s only a story if it has an ending.

There are, of course, an unlimited number of ways the basic story can be written, which is good news for those of us who go on scribbling.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Our Duty to the State

‘Ask not what your country can do for you...’ ... This has always struck me as a strange thing to say, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, whenever I try to say it naturally, it comes out backwards. I have to think for it to come out right. JFK was reading a speech prepared for a particular time and place, but it still doesn’t seem a natural thing to ask instinctively. Secondly, and conversely, although it isn’t natural to ask it, governments constantly proclaim their unique ability to do just about everything for us, and take a lot of our money to do it with. In one way, therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what our country can do for us. We should expect it to do things for us, and we should expect to be well rewarded when we do things for it.

I’m not a great fan of nationalism. A strong and stable nation is likely to be a peaceful and prosperous one, and that matters to everyone who lives in and forms part of it. A nation with a strong sense of identity is likely to provide its citizens with a strong identity too, and this is a useful thing to have. But blindly clinging to a sense of the nation that has never existed, blocking its borders against newcomers lest, the horror, something might change, is a debased and worthless nationalism. It is even dangerous, because it can easily be, and frequently is, seized on by those would be rulers of the divide and rule type who are prepared to get their hands dirtier than most.

Anyhow, a few basic rules:

The state* will always exist in some form. But the state is not society. In any society there will be people who control it, while considering themselves outside it and above it.

The individual owes nothing to the state. It is the state that owes its very existence to the individual.

The state’s existence can only be justified if it is useful to the individual.

When the existence of the state becomes more important than the freedom of the individual, you have tyranny. And misery. And murder.

When any ideology becomes more important than the freedom of the individual, you will have tyranny. And misery. And murder.

When most laws seem to have the purpose of criminalizing anything which inconveniences the state, rather than of protecting or enriching the people, you should be disturbed.

There are plenty of examples of this throughout the world in recent history. It really isn’t hard to understand that once you dehumanize people, and give others permission to dehumanize people and the conceptual structure with which to do it, they will suffer.

*By ‘state’ I don’t mean a country or nation, something with a physical and historical existence. I don’t mean society, as in the way which we organize ourselves and recognize (or don’t recognize) that we may have certain duties with regard to the others who make up the society we conceive ourselves as being part of. By ‘state’, here I mean those people and organizations who consider themselves separate from and superior to the rest of us, and whose main function is to perpetuate their own condition and sense of themselves.

Friday, September 9, 2011

No Iron King

I am still in the country, on the farm near the lakes I write about from time to time, eking out the summer as best I can. The work I have at the moment can be done here, but next week I shall have to start other work which requires me to be in situ, and so in a few more days we shall return home. But meanwhile, we have these few days...

There is no railway here. There never has been. There was no Spanish Dr Beeching, cutting off whole areas from contact by train, or saving the taxpayer many millions in the upkeep of unnecessary infrastructure and the salaries of redundant employees, depending on how you look at it.* The train just never got here. One line stopped about twenty miles west. Another passes twenty miles north, and you have to go a very long way south before you find another one. Villages down here are a long way apart, and it was never worth building railways to and from all of them. Not easy to connect them all up in a way that makes sense, either.

I don’t miss the railway here. It doesn’t seem the sort of place that should have one. A little halt just on the edge of our land, or better still a major junction, whence you can go directly anywhere, would be useful at times, but it would make it a different place.

It isn’t easy to see how you put a railway through just here, in any case. They had enough trouble getting the road through. Not the road itself, in fact, because the road follows the course of the old path, just wider and with tarmac. The path necessarily existed because the villages are obviously built in places you can get too. The ones that are easier to reach, or better placed for other reasons, acquired wider paths through greater use, and were earlier candidates for tarmaccing and highway coding.

And that’s the problem. The roads go where the paths went. There are still villages on the main road here, including ours, that don’t have a bypass because there is no easy way of going round it. The road goes straight through the middle. There is little traffic compared with other major roads, and so less incentive to find a solution. So the roads were not much of a problem, but widening them enough to be safe, straightening the curves, flattening the bumps and avoiding the village high streets was, and remains, a much bigger and more expensive problem. There is one point, where the road crosses the lakes, and goes through the little village that gives them their collective name, which would require a high bridge, a hundred yards high and a mile long, to take a bypass, or a railway line, across and around the village. It would be magnificent, I have partly designed it in my mind, and I would ask Santiago Calatrava to build it, but it’s not going to happen.

This post, like an unbuilt railway line, is going nowhere, so I shall just stop where I’ve got to, which is the ultimate fate of all such constructions. It has at least been bucolic and whimsical, which is what I was striving for.

*There are quite a few paths corresponding to old railway lines but they are nearly all left over when routes were changed or lines upgraded, rather than being closed down.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tyrants and Witchcraft

Would be dictators know that if they can give their followers permission to kill the people they don’t like, revolution will follow by itself.

Witchhunts are always with us. They are the means by which those who secretly know they are worthless get to feel superior to the people around them who make them feel that way. Being a witch, keeping a cat, not going to church, going to the wrong church, getting out of bed with the wrong foot, smoking, condemning homosexuality, not condemning homosexuality, having eyes the wrong colour, calling a black person coloured or a disabled person crippled, not believing in global warming or whatever the orthodoxy is.

Finding reasons to declare others to belong to some category of non-person has a number of important functions. It allows those who have a deep sense of their own inadequacy and worthlessness to feel that someone else is worth less than they are. It provides a sense of identity, and divides in-groups from out-groups, which is essential to our psychology. Most people are made very anxious by not having a set of external identities to impose upon themselves.

This is why the orthodoxy that serves to separate, in their own minds, the good from the ungood, is completely arbitrary. It doesn’t have to respond to any logic, or be consonant with any underlying morality, or even be internally coherent. All it needs is to sound right at a particular moment, and then it can be used to dehumanise those we dislike. Aside from the arbitrariness of what is right and wrong, another important characteristic is that the manifestation (or suspicion) of unorthodoxy trumps any virtue or strength that the person might otherwise possess, however many and however great.

People who are not unintelligent and think themselves rational can (for example) condemn democracy/capitalism/freedom because democratic/capitalist/free societies are not perfect, while excusing the abject economic and social failure of their favourite totalitarians as minor blemishes. I don’t know where I read the story of Giuseppe the Cocksucker, but it serves as a parable:

Said Giuseppe, “I built a factory here when the mines closed. I’ve employed half the village for fifty years. I rebuilt the church and dedicated a shrine to the local Virgin. I built a high school, a library, a clinic, a sports hall. I sponsor the football club. I take out advertising on every hoarding that’s unsold, and in every edition of the town newspaper. I run a fund that pays for young people to go to university in the city. I give every couple a car and a down payment on a house when they marry. I have nurses to look after the old people when they retire. Once I sucked a cock. Ask them who I am, go on, ask them. They’ll tell you, he’s Giuseppe the cocksucker.”

So who defines the witches of the moment? The subset of those who want to have control of others by dividing them who are able to make their particular hatred popular.

It is not unusual to see pacifists display murderous fury when their ideas are challenged. And the recent fashion for the end of the world by global warming has produced a particular virulent strain of misanthropic Malthusian, be it the world government fanatics, the advocates of stone age living, or the totalitarians who would dictate every mouthful we are allowed to consume and every step we are permitted to take. Prominent politicians and journalists on national newspapers are making comparisons with paedophiles and Nazis because not everyone is convinced that we’re all going to die in the next five minutes. The UAF, with the excuse of opposing the crude and sometimes thuggish racism of the EDL and the more genteel racism of the BNP, resort to every kind of mindless brutality. They are ‘right’, so they have permission to kill and destroy. It is a very common mentality, though not always expressed in the same fashion..

I suspect that a peculiar set of circumstances make these things easier to do in England. I visit about once a year and I am always struck by new things which NORMAL DECENT PEOPLE have discovered that NORMAL DECENT PEOPLE DON’T DO.  A television programme or newspaper gives prominence to a particular point of view, or political initiative, is sufficient to start people spying reporting their neighbours, shouting at strangers in the street, and pinning medals on themselves, for something which no one would have bothered about a short while before. We (I am English in case anyone was wondering) seem to be particularly malleable, especially susceptible to taking at face value some random commentators division of people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and constructing new beliefs about ourselves and others, a new ‘them’ and ‘us’, as though they were truths cast in stone from the dawn of time.

The number of apparently unexceptionable opinions that people feel entitled to shout abuse at you, or attack you, for expressing, or just for being suspected of holding, is disturbing. The number of things it is impossible to discuss rationally appears to be growing. I wonder where it will end.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Redundant Subsystems

Bureaucracy creates bureaucracy. Bureaucrats justify their existence by creating more work for themselves and people like them. Paperwork can expand without limit. Regulation, administration and control are very easy things to make. Bureaucrats essentially keep track of what everyone else is doing, including other bureaucrats. It is a perfectly simple matter to duplicate, or heptuplicate the work involved, and so justify the need for more bureaucrats and thus more bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are not noted for complaining that they have too little work.

The unproductive in a company will try to put themselves on a level with, or above, the productive workers. Their very inferiority, of which they are acutely aware, leads them to do this. They could assist productivity by acting as a central processing point for data, collecting information which will be needed by others and passing it on at just the right moment,  but they rarely do just that. There are many things that are required, not by the practicalities of the productive processes of the company, but by law, and it is here that the bureaucrat has fertile ground for self-importance. Since the work he does is not for the company’s good, but to satisfy external criteria, he does not answer to the company, and so can to a certain extent create his own work, bogging down the work of the rest of the company in order to feel more important about doing nothing serious.

Most of the public sector consists of departments full of bureaucrats that exist because someone has decided that they must exist. Most of them could be sacked and no one would notice the difference, except that many requirements of administrative law would not be satisfied. This would not matter either, and once this was noticed, the laws themselves could be repealed, or at least ignored.

But there is more to it than this. The laws that make these requirements are often the product of insistence by bureaucrats that such laws are necessary. The inertia of bureaucracy is such that it is extremely difficult to identify the most expensive and unnecessary bureaucracy, and political impossible to remove it.

There must be closed loops, entire systems within organisations, private and especially public, which exist only because the other bits exist. It should be possible, though it would doubtless be extremely difficult, to identify these departments and sections which create work only for each other, passing papers round and each inspecting the tail of the next in an intricate, pointless and very expensive circle. Then the whole lot could be extracted as a single unit and cast aside to eat itself.

These things are deliberately created in many cases. Legislators, elected or otherwise, because these days many council bureaucrats seem to have the authority to call into being regulations on businesses or individuals, or the council’s own system of operation- these things can cannibalise themselves to the point of incest- which then require inspectors to check that they are being obeyed, a dedicated legal team, and even special courts, to deal with breaches, and an army of paper pushers to tick all the boxes. In the end the law might even be created to keep busy the box-tickers who would not be needed if it weren’t for all the other people who are required because of the law. Remove the whole lot and the only thing anyone would notice would be a subtle sense of relief and more money in their pockets.

It is possible for this to happen in the mechanical world, too. I would love to hear of an example of a machine so badly designed that it contained an entirely redundant chain of parts, which existed only because of each other. It certainly happens with computer software, and I am sure there must be, perhaps in the Maximegallon Museum of Diseased Imaginings, failed inventions, even successful ones, with sub-systems that didn’t need to be there.

This idea can be extended to the natural world. The human body may well contain such redundant sub-systems. It certainly has redundant parts, but they have become vestigial. Are there any systems which have not been reduced to vestigiality because selective pressure has been unable to work on them as a whole?

Philosophy, too, and the world of ideas in general, is, I am sure, full of concepts which owe their apparent existence to other concepts which lead back in a chain to the original one. Spinoza springs to mind here, but much modern bullshit has the same problem.

In general it might be said that systems are susceptible to infection by redundant subsystems when a part is assumed to be necessary without determining conclusively whether this is true.

I think it’s time for a beer, before I disappear up my own navel, or am myself discovered to be an unnecessary part supporting the existence of a redundant subsystem.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


I have given up on Nietzsche. I said a few weeks ago that I wasn’t going to finish Also Sprach Zarathustra. I tried Ecce Homo, which is a good read, and tells you a lot about the man, but not so much about anything else. (It is supposed to be an aurobiography, and in any case, how can you resist a book with chapter titles like Why I am so Wise?)

It’s short and digestible, unlike Beyond Good and Evil which seems to start somewhere but then gets lost (at least I did) in a mess of false starts, contradictions, non sequitur, impenetrable discussions and what can only be described as (largely irrelevant) splenetic rants. I gave up.

It’s possible that I’m reading it the wrong way; it’s possible- indeed probable- that I am not as wise as Nietzsche, but I don’t feel that what I might learn from him is worth the time it would take to learn it. I also get the feeling that, when reading Nietzsche, you learn a lot more about Nietzsche than you do about philosophy, the world, life or any useful addition to your understanding of these things.

Perhaps that’s the point. Keep these books beside your bed, like those little volumes of meditations and aphorisms that Buddhists and Jesuits like to write. Read a few lines each night before you sleep and try to work out why he says what he says, why he is right or wrong and what it could mean to your own life.

Friday, September 2, 2011

When a Good Cigarette was Just a Smoke

I started smoking  when I went to London to study. I settled on Players Navy Cut very soon afterwards. I wanted to smoke non-tipped cigarettes because I liked the look of them; elegant, exotic, unfussy but classy. And they tasted better.  I had read about someone, a character in a book, who had been given the habit of smoking them ‘backwards’, with the name end away from the mouth. You can’t do that with tipped ciggies. I quickly developed a similar habit, pulling it out, tapping it once on the packet to tighten up the tobacco in the end that was going in your mouth, and then put it in directly that way, so it goes in ‘backwards’. Why on earth it should matter I don’t remember, probably because we were young and these things seemed important. Appearance and style do at that age, as you have little else.

I smoked Players because of that type they were the ones I liked best. Possibly the first I bought, so it might have been chance. There were others I smoked from time to time, as a change, to try them or because I couldn’t get Players at a particular moment. There was Woodbines, of course. Very good cigarettes. At the time they seemed a little small. (When I returned to England in the 90’s, on the other hand, I found Players too large or too strong and I smoked Woodbines for years.)

The ones I most often switched for were Senior Service, which were very similar but not quite so smooth. There was Park Drive, slightly smaller I think, in a packet with red on, and intended to be a little superior to the others. Good as well, they were. There was Capstan Full Strength, which were what they said they were. Smoke a few of those with your beer in the evening and next morning you could hardly breathe. I only tried them once or twice.

I seem to remember something called Pall Mall, and a type of Chester or Kent. Vague memories, possibly wrong.

My flatmate brought me back a pack of Sweet Afton ("Flow gently sweet Afton among the green braes, flow gently I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise"; Rabbie Burns dixit) from Ireland, I think (maybe something wrong there). They were similar to Park Drive, and the packet was worth displaying on the mantelpiece. I wish I’d kept it.

In Spain I started smoking Bisonte and Tres Caravelas, which were similar in that they were red tobacco and non-tipped. Both about the size of Woodbines, narrower and shorter than Players. But they were poor quality, very rough, and I switched to Ducados, black tobacco, which I smoked there until I gave it up seven years ago.

Have I missed any?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Vanished Trades

I might have done this before, but perhaps I only thought about it.

The world changes, and the tasks it requires of its workers change as well. If you have no training in anything but a single basic skill, and that skill becomes redundant, you have a serious problem. Or a small business with narrow margins and no flexibility where demand just stops as custom or technology changes. There are, in theory, solutions to this problem. You can retrain for something else, you can do wholly unskilled work, you can retire early, or you can find some quirk to keep people coming when the original need has gone, but none of them solve the essential problem. You are no longer needed.

In England as a child, I remember a knife-grinder coming by from time to time. My grandmother had the coal delivered in sacks by a large man with a small lorry. The ice-cream van came past every weekend and was there at every gathering where therer might be children. Some local brewers still used horse-drawn drays to take barrels to the pubs, because that’s what they’d always done. I can just remember a rag-and-bone man on a cart (I think it's a real memory, it's hard to be sure). Those trades are mostly gone now. Shoeshine boys, who I never saw back then- they had already disappeared- are back at work at railway stations and in busy streets, but now they charge a lot of money and buy a permit for their pitch from the council. The demand is manufactured, I suspect, from a kind of romantic nostalgia that has become briefly fashionable, and will soon die out again.

Here in Spain there are relicts, or relics, of these and other trades, old men who are no longer needed, and cannot adapt. Some struggle along as best they can, others still search for the odd customer who will pity them, others sit miserably on benches in the square, the tools of their trade beside them, staring uncomprehendingly at a world that they have long ceased to be part of. They are a specific type, from a specific generation, too old to be anything but what they are. They may have no pension because they were never brought within a system that didn’t exist when they began working.

Many have spent their lives on the road. The knife-grinders went from village to village playing a tune on a whistle so that everyone knew they were there. There are two left in the town where I live. One is used as an errand boy by the stallholders at the market. In the old days the butchers and fishmongers were his biggest customers, but knives have changed. Those who remember him from the old days help him along. Another one still rides his old moped around the streets, hoping for a customer. He wouldn’t know what else to do. They both look hopeless. (I’m not romanticizing this, or trivializing it. I know them both, and they share a look of desperate misery, as though their lives have been taken from them. They interacted with the world through their trade, and now they have no way of belonging.)

I haven’t seen the old shoeshine boy for a long time. He used to sleep on a stone bench in the square during the day. He can’t have shined a shoe in many years, and I doubt he ever will again.

Mrs Hickory remembers the hawkers and pedlars who used to go around the villages, and would come to the farm, with packs in which they had an amazing number of things. Later they had vans, but people stopped buying that way. There is still a carpet-fitter and upholsterer who goes from place to place in an old van with his tools and his samples, and a recording played through a megaphone over and over again telling you who he is and inviting you to get your carpet relayed.

It isn’t just the street traders. Aging barbers who learnt as teenage apprentices, or during military service, wait in tiny, sawdust covered shops for the customers who are prepared to accept what little they can offer. We all go to unisex stylists these days, even those of us with no interest in our hair and ever less hair to care about. The stylist can’t shave you, but we shave ourselves now, even when going to weddings, and the only skill the old barbers have to themselves is not needed.

Cobblers survive in dusty shops smelling of grease, by mending old suitcases and handbags, and putting thicker soles on commercial shoes that have worn thin. I still know one who can make shoes himself, but business is so poor he can no longer afford to maintain his machinery, and most of the work is done in a factory that he contracts out to. This raises the price even more, and so almost nobody asks him for shoes any more. He sells shoe polish and accessories, does the odd repair, and is waiting until he can no longer work, and has to stay at home all day, or join the old men in the square.

Some are happier than others, but what they have in common is that that they chose their trade badly, and were gradually pushed aside. It doesn’t matter if they had savings, or if social security looks after them well. Their role, their sense of their place among us, is gone.

On the other hand, entire industries die, and skilled labourers who never expected to have to learn to do anything else can find it hard to recover. My personal thoughts on Arthur Scargill and the economic insanity of paying people to do unproductive work notwithstanding, when a whole area depends largely on one trade, and the world turns and that trade is no more, whole towns must feel like that shoeshine boy.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Thomas Hardy’s reddleman. A specialist trade if ever there was one. Did it die before he did?