The last post was a result of musing on what a silly old buffer Sir Robert Winston is, and wondering why C list celeb scientists like him and Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield are encouraged by the comfortable, middle-low-brow guardians of public opinion to patronise and mislead us. Winston has a snip in g2 today, his usual chuntering guff. It’s about religion. It shows no sign of reflection, analysis, reading, understanding. It’s not so much that a lot of it is wrong, it just does not begin to address the issues he pretends to address. Assertions like “Nor should we blame religion for the various Crusades in Europe” puts us in an intellectual landscape I guess well below five good GCSE passes, and the second rate biographer’s habitual “would have”, as in “We had less protection against repeated changes of climate than other species - yet we survived. Human spirituality would have played an important part,” are an embarrassingly clumsy way of lying about what we know and what we don’t know. I want to know whether this is important, this substitution of comfortable, soft centred irrational guff for stringency. It may be. Politicians and corporations thrive on it, because it’s a camouflage for convenient lies. (“The science tells us...” has the same intellectual standing as “The Pope tells us...” as if Science was an oracle which you visited and it gave you a precise and unambiguous answer*). Demagogues thrive on the kindly wooliness of pundits. It allows Tiny Tony Torture to pretend that it is of no importance that for cash he’s handing out control of schools to bigots who believe in Creationism. It allows the idea of intelligent design to be presented as if it were other than pure tosh, as if Occam had never flashed his razor. It allows despicable buffoons to pontificate about torture on the basis of an idiot hypothesis about one terrorist knowing where the bomb is that is going to blow up the whole planet, but refusing to reveal all without being given a good torturing. (For a reworking of this argument see More thumbs up for torture, though I rather fancy substituting Blair and his cabinet for kittens.)
Society today is genuinely nicer than it was even twenty years ago. We are more tolerant, more accepting, less judgmental (I’m not, but most people are). But with every good a bad creeps in in disguise. Sir Rob is clearly a good and kindly man. I think his celeb status allows him to seep a sort of chronic poison.
*A Greek philosopher walked into the mountains because a fortune-teller told him he would die that day with a blow to the head and he wanted to be away from people and the tall roofs of houses from which hard things might at any moment plummet down. So he walked into the wilderness and passed the day far from the works of men. At evening as he turned for home an eagle flying high in the sky dropped a tortoise on his head.
Man Mandir Palace, Gwalior fort. Terror. It started as just claustrophobia. The guides there were adolescent tearaways who thankfully were easily distracted by their preferred pastime of hurling stones off the battlements onto what or whoever might coincide with their trajectory a hundred metres below, so when we declined their services they didn’t follow us and lurk. The Mughal Emperor Babur described the place as "the pearl amongst the fortresses of Hind," and the fortifications, stretching around a three kilometre long plateau are wild, ruined, melancholy and largely deserted, just the odd group or family here or there, strolling up on a crumbling wall above a colonnade of a hundred arches, picnicking by the scrub-filled remains of a tank while the kites and shikras turn on the warm upcurrents. A place full of Chirico shadows and ghosts. The Palace in one corner of the fort is Fifteenth Century, and the upper floors are like in other Rajput palaces, cool and airy with carved sandstone screens. But there were subterranean wonders as well, and we had to shuffle about in the dark among the bats to find the way, which was down narrow curving steps within the ten metre thick walls, right angle turns, flights of steps dividing from flights of steps, one ascending, one going down. We weren’t alone, there were courting couples and families here and there, also finding their way, but encounters were sporadic, there were giggles and little suppressed screams and more muddled cave noise. Then we came to a round chamber of grey stone entered through an arch, with a big central dome supported by a circle of heavy pillars. Somewhere off it we found another flight of stairs, very narrow, leading upwards. At the top was a chamber identical to the one below. It should have been all right. I’m not susceptible to claustrophobia, and as is clear in the photograph there is an aperture in the outside wall, so you always know which way you’re facing. The narrow flights of stairs, dark and too low, would have been the place for needing to get out. And yet there in that spacious chamber I felt first anxiety, then terror. It wasn’t an overpowering terror, I didn’t feel the need to scream or run madly is several directions, in fact I could note it as terror and deal with it; but it was definitely terror and nothing else. Our retreat was easy. There were other steps upwards, and soon we were back among the bats in the nether halls of the upper palace. Why the terror? The last Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had probably murdered one of his brothers there, though I didn’t know that at the time, and there would have been torture, but of what medieval fort or palace anywhere in the world is that not true. And I really do not believe in fluences, presences, hauntings. I think it was something specific, the leaving of one chamber that was aesthetically impressive, and yet can have had no humane purpose, and the unforeseen arrival in another, vertically above it, and identical. A part of the brain assumes that you have made the walking in a circle mistake and ended up where you started. But the body remembers that you have climbed dark steps and descended none, so you can’t be in the same place. And then the mind body synthesis, that it is rationally impossible that you are in the place you started, and yet you are - and the inevitable subconscious hypothesis, that however many stairs you climb or descend, and despite the fact that you know which way you are facing because of the stab of light through the outer wall, each flight will always end up in this round pillared chamber, until you die.
“Those saddhus would sometimes come to Dewas and bless the Palace, and demand a hundred rupees each. Malarao would speak them as fair as he could and give each of them one rupee. They then cursed the Palace and returned to Ujjain.” E M Forster, The Hill of Devi
A puzzle had remained from the Sravana Belgola some years ago. Jains, or at least the monks, do without everything except air. Sometimes they just stand in the forest, naked, for years on end. Less ascetic Jains, those who are not monks, tend to be rich. This is because it is a central tenet of Jainism that no living thing should be hurt; they wear cloths over their mouths to prevent tiny insects wandering in and perishing. The prohibition on hurting anything cuts out most occupations - abattoir work, warfare, construction, agriculture, fisheries. In fact the only thing a Jain can decently do is to go into trade or the financial sector, where you would be unlikely to crush or maim any living thing. Great wealth aside, there is little to suggest acquisitiveness should be a Jain characteristic. Jainism, like its more or less contemporary Buddhism, was not in its origins a religion. It was an atheistic philosophy of how people should live and die, running alongside the Vedic profusion of gods that was later to become Hinduism. Nonetheless temples were built, the Luna Vasahi on Mount Abu among them; around the year 1231, all marble. The sculptors were paid each day for marble shavings by weight in silver, and for marble dust by weight in gold. It took fifteen hundred craftsmen twenty one years, or some combination of those numbers, to complete one of the most fractal buildings in the world. In places the marble is so thin it is slightly translucent. There is a monolithic dome carved as diminishing pendant coronae of lotus petals. Every surface of pillar, lintel and arch is the marble equivalent of filigree. It, the temple and its detail, are mesmerising. In the Sravana Belgola those years ago there were big signs everywhere saying Only Make Donations at the Door. Our priestly guide spend an inordinate time distinguishing between each of the fifty two thirtankaras in their niches. Then, in the particularly deep shadow of a pillar, he said, “OK, you can give me the cash now.” In the kind of panic you might have when doing your first street drug transaction I handed over whatever we were going to donate to the temple. The rest of the guided tour passed quickly. Then by the door the same priest sat cross legged and invited us too to be seated, before asking what money we were going to reneder unto God. “B-b-but-but...” I said and on the spot developed a steely intransigence in the face of exotic men of religion demanding gifts which I have held on to ever since. And I mused on how this unembarrassed personal greed squared with standing in the forest so the vines grew round one’s legs and trunk, taking nothing from the world but air. Brahma is likewise free from desire for transient matter, so there are hardly any Brahma temples in India. Pushkar is one of the exceptions. The Brahma temple there is very small, very old and as we were there for the main religious festival of the year, very crowded. The previous night we had walked through the town along the narrow busy streets. Young men approach, press rose petals into your hand, tell you you must throw them into the water. We prevaricated but soon we found ourselves, J and me, down on a ghat, looking over the spangled lake, clutching our rose petals damply while a young Brahmin in jeans led us in prayer and incantation. First we prayed for our family and friends, then we did a bit of hari Krishna ’n’ Rama-ing (I hadn’t realised Hindus were responsible for this, I thought it was anorexic people with bad dress sense and possible mental health issues), then our prayers homed in more specifically on the Brahmins of Pushkar, of which it turned out there were some two thousand, all dependent for their livelihood on nothing but generous and loving donations from such good people as ourselves. It turned out that virtuous and generous people like ourselves gave surprising amounts, a sum of a million rupees was mentioned, though in the end our young spiritual guide said twenty quid would be sufficient. At this point I noticed my sister who had been praying and incantating much more brusquely than we, a little removed to our right, now stalking up the ghat, looking severe. Enough. I gave the man of religion twenty rupees. He was angry, indignant, insulted. I was haughty and authoritative. That or nothing. The man of religion flounced up the steps cursing. I gave the lad who was protecting our shoes ten rupees. He was angry, indignant, insulted too, even more theatrically than the Brahmin. He gave the note back. I said that or nothing. He tried to return it once again. It dropped in the dust. Where maybe it still lies. Up in the street I asked my sister what she’d given her guru. She said, “five rupees, and he was lucky.” But she had the authority of the wedding mangalasutra round her neck. Acquisitiveness is the Brahmin's right. And the reputation of Brahmins spherical with gluttony is no cause for shame. The gods themselves are worldly creatures. Outside Pushkar on two adjacent conical hills are two other temples, one to the wife of Brahma, Savitri. She is estranged from the godhead because a long time ago, when she was away, Brahma invited a tribal girl to take his consort’s place in an important ceremony. In the year 2002 the priests of the Savitri temple brought a case in the regional court against the priests of the Brahma temple. Their argument was that Savitri had been forced to divorce Brahma because of his betrayal, and thus had been forced to decamp to a temple some distance from the town and its lake (created by Brahma when he dropped lotus petals on the earth), decamp to a temple what is more on top of a steep and rocky hill which people were disinclined to walk up; so no money could be made from worshippers, and the goddess was without financial support; and therefore the god Brahma, in the form of his temple managers, owed Savitri, in the form of her temple managers, alimony. Quite a lot of it. Brahma’s infidelity, albeit only a ritual one, had occurred a couple of millennia back, and the question of backdating the payments is germane. The legal arguments are complex, the implications of victory for the Savitri faction incalculable. The case drags on - maybe for another two thousand years. At Mount Abu we had a charismatic guide, a young man with compelling eyes who was already going places in local politics, a champion of the poor. He spoke fluently about the Jain religion, and at last answered the question of the venality of priests in Jain temples. Jainism, he said, is not in that sense a religion, and they don’t have priests at all. The guys who look after Jain temples and stash the loot are, of course, Hindu Brahmins. J said she’d also asked the guide about the standing in the forest not eating for a year thing. He’d looked at her for a few seconds, raised an eyebrow a millimetre, and looked away.
This is from Aniruddha Bahal’s Bunker 13. Bahal is the journalist who did a sting on Indian defence procurement which exposed the BJP Defence Minister of the day in naked bribe-taking and caused Vajpayee’s government such embarrassment that the Minister had to step down from office for a few months until the hub-hub died down. Bunker 13 is gung-ho and laddish, violent and amoral, the `you` narrator is a bit irritating and the final twist is maybe sentimental, but it’s a terrific book. The following says something about torture, which a couple of British people on The Moral Maze, one apparently called Melanie Philips, were discussing as if it were a slightly dubious but guiltily pleasurable consumer product from Tesco. A journalist is talking to Major Kholi of the indian Army up on the Kashmir LoC. She asks him about torture. “The locals coming back after three months of Mossie mumbo-jumbo and basic arms training know no secrets that we can squeeze out of them. We just ask them their name. They don’t want to tell us, we don’t waste our calories kicking their balls. We cook some name up. Exercise our imagination. Shift our workload to Srinigar where the guys are trained for sorting out confusion. They have procedures. They open a file in the name we have given the Mossie. Then they interrogate the fucker twice a day for three months, sponge him of all he knows and transcribe what he says on white sheets of paper and run it through their encryption machines or whatever the fuck they have there. But the basic problem remains - the guy knows nothing. So he has to keep inventing stuff to keep the guys off his back. And when you are tossing data out of the blue you don’t often remember it the same way the second time around and you end up contradicting yourself. That’s the opening the interrogator is looking for to prove to himself that you are hiding something and so he extends your interrogation schedule by another month. At the end of it your average Mossie just goes dumb, he has a problem even getting the alphabets right. When you get to that stage the interrogators at Papa 2 jump you to the list of hardcore nuts. Once you get to that status...” Bunker 13 is published by Faber, 2003
A quick question to an old friend, a professing Hindu, a Professor, a man of science and the Enlightenment. “Do you believe in Ganesh?” “Yes.” “Right. Me (that’s me, writing this), if I was living in a farming village, for a year or so, the life of a villager, working, dawn to dusk, poor, after a bit I’d go along to the temple with everyone else, if it was a Ganesh temple the god and I would begin to share a history, transactions and undertakings, promises fulfilled or not, on either side, good things and bad things, to me he’d begin to have a personality, a history, a strong psychological presence. In that sense, and it’s as good a sense as any, Ganesh, to me, would exist. “But, do you believe in Ganesh as a discrete being, entirely independent of human consciousness, and a being who is aware of his own existence?” This test can be applied to other deities
I stood back from the narrow path to let a guy leading two late adolescent camels past. Wherever you were you were quite close to several of the animals. I was not paying so much attention, but my head was already turning as I registered a loud crack, a jolt and, focus now on the offending beast, I saw an oblique withdrawing leg, and a head, turned half back towards me, and an eye that wished to meet mine, to register that this was not an act of random violence. That registered, it turned away. Then the physical sensation. A camel’s foot is like a boxing glove. It hit me on the outside of the thigh well above the knee, and at the point of impact there was no bruising or pain, but the force bent my leg in the direction the knee joint is not articulated to bend. It was OK, I could walk, and actually I felt a gammy leg was quite appropriate, a bit Raj. But the paranoia was much worse. There were maybe ten thousand camels there in the desert scrub outside Pushkar and none, as far as the eye could see, kicking anybody. There was a whole lot of camel noise, groaning and wheezing and existential protest, but no violence. Except this one camel, which had kicked me, deliberately, clearly, because the foot came out at forty five degrees to just where I was standing; and, from its expression, knowing exactly who it was kicking. Either, this was revenge for some slight or wrong in other incarnations; but you would have to believe in reincarnation for that. Or, and this is how I calmed my rising sense of persecution, the stupid animal had mistaken me for someone else. Before, I had worried about the technique of sticking a piece of wood through camels’ noses as a sensitive lever to which to attach the reins. Now I found that practice not so much of a concern.
I was nothing but a tourist. India is a vast place, in population, populations, and all four dimensions including time, going back to the Harappans. I’ve just spent three weeks there as a tourist. So, like walking to the sun, you start where you are, walk for ever, and the sun’s still up there where it always was. I’ll leave the aesthetic, which is another dimension through which India seems to extend indefinitely - the Taj Mahal, the most clichéd example, when it first comes up in its entirety through the East Gate is beyond cliché. I only went to see it because my son and Siraz down the garage said I must. It never occurred to me that a building could make me feel like crying, or seem the only perfect thing in the world. There, seduced already, wandering off into the transcendental in which I absolutely do not believe. (The appearance of the Taj is theatrical, it is revealed quite suddenly as you walk towards a high ogee arch in a screening wall). No, what most impressed me about India was that wherever you are, wherever you look, nearly everything you see is made there. When I came back and saw Britain briefly with a tourist’s eye, what impressed me was single human beings with self esteem hovering around the hundred per cent mark, accelerating and decelerating their persons across this minute fraction of the surface of the planet in vehicles weighing three tonnes that will do 200 KPH. This is the Jeremy Clarkson universe, of idiot fantasy. You know that Britain manufactures practically nothing, yet has “the fourth largest economy in the world”. You wonder of what this economy consists. Then you realise that if you take all your credit card debts, consolidate them, and transfer them to a single credit provider, then such a transfer, for each average UK adult (excluding mortgages), adds nearly £8000.00 to “the economy,” and the aggregate of such debts is over one trillion (or one hundred thousand million) GB Pounds. That’s how we have the Fourth Biggest Economy in the World. We add up all the negative numbers, and then multiply them by -1. We are doomed, doomed. In India, performance and speed are not at a premium. There are a few Hondas and Toyotas and a lot of cars and motorbikes made under licence, Maruti Suzuki, Hero Honda, but practically all of the lurch and honk and flow of the traffic is India manufactured and not going very fast, and the 1948 vintage Ambassador, though much evolved, is still the official vehicle. This seems true of most other stuff, televisions a cookware and textiles and clothes and food and diesel generators, so you get the impression that India could be cut off from the rest of the world for a year or two without suffering too much. Well, it would need fuel imports. But otherwise, they could survive. India does not seem much in need of the global liberalisation, the Fourth Largest Economy in the World voraciously asset-stripping their utilities to fund our one trillion personal debt, as preached by Tiny Tony Torture and his Chums. In India, where one human being in six lives, 60% of all savings are held by people who work outside the formal economy. I don’t know what that means in fiscal terms, but clearly all these millions of people do not work in the “financial sector” or as hairdressers. And that’s the first photo. It looks down from Jami Masjid, and if I’d had a better zoom would take you into a dark ravine, the end disappearing in haze, like something in a computer game, with complex bridges of gloomy wires and pipes and girders bridging between the cliffs of dwellings piled up like natural formations almost as if they’ve been hewn out of a substance half way between mud and rock. These narrow streets are there in every town in India, millions of them, and from a distance they feel almost frightening in their multiplicity, their burden of population, the mystery of what goes on there in its uncataloguable recursive diversity. And yet, two things. Walk down one, and you are among human beings who are about their own concerns, who do not notice you unless they want you to buy something. You are immediately part of the seethe and flow. The walls either side are stained ochre or grey, dull and gloomy, and there is dust and rubbish of course, though not so much of either, but in among all this is paint and decoration and shopfront after shop front, business after business, palm reading, CT Scans, retailers of every sort, stone masons, a shrine to Ganesh, Internet cafés, opticians, ayervedic massage, a rubber manufactory, bicycle shops, pharmacies, anything you could expect and among it a lot of other stuff you might not. And the second. I have to quote from memory from Parvan Varma’s book on India because I must have left it there: the average family may well live in a dark hole in the warren of Old Delhi, but they will have room there for a washing machine, a cooker, a fridge, a television, music centre, God, his consort, and maybe a wall mounted fold down dining table. And they will be buoyant. (Varma is more elegant than that, But I have the gist.) So that’s the strongest impression an idle tourist has brought back from that triangle between the Himalayas and the three seas that meet at Kanniyakumari; the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea; a place where rickshaws have mobile phones that you can hire by the minute to trade in diamonds, arms or bullion on platforms beyond the imaginings of - well, me anyway; where the Mafia is endemic and everywhere, and driving an economy that has tentacles all over the earth; whose intellectual capital in science, technology, IT, and trade is also spread over the earth; where Tata and Ashok lorries are transporting steel by the millions of tonnes over narrow roads; whose diaspora, the NRIs or Non-resident Indians, will remit about $500 billion to the homeland over the next ten years. History moves on to a place where we are not.
That’s it for a month. Always the way, I was just beginning to get a feeling for the place, come across people who have things to say that I’ve never heard before, in ways I’ve never heard them said before, and yet I recognise them, I don’t understand them but I know what they are - and I have to leave. It started a long time ago. Brother in law and me at the table after supper, bottle of whisky, and after an hour or so it arrived out of the haze as a notion that BiL’s family sort of owned in a kind of a way the Palace Train in Rajasthan and that we were going to do a tour, a sort of Rajput progress like a medieval monarch’s court, Pritviraj III or one of the more luxurious Plantagenets; except none of us are remotely Rajput or medieval, even BiL, who is by I think what we now call heritage a Brahmin from Mylapore, though otherwise a medical man from Seattle. Fairly soon after this conversation it was impressed upon us by the cold light of day and BiL’s sister, who still lives in Mylapore and lacks the romantic imagination of the exile, that the family had no connection whatsoever with the Palace Train, and we’d have to pay for those manifest pleasures though, as she also pointed out (she has a degree in economics as well as a Pujah room dedicated to the Lord Shiva), we couldn’t possibly afford it. So then it was to be a more modest tour of Rajasthan, with the close Mylapore relations, which suited us fine. But when it came to the final arrangements, through Anthony Ratnaraj of Thomas Cook of Chennai, it turned out that the in-laws would be on pilgrimage in Vanarasi, and Uma and Ravi and family would be holidaying in Tuscany, and we would be going to Rajasthan with four, not to put too fine a point on it, Americans. Only one of whom, BiL, would be in any remote way Indian, and another of whom would be my sister, and the other two I know nothing about at all except that they live in Baja California and make balsamic vinegar from their own grapes - commercially I think. Now I have to say that even before our joint invasion of foreign lands and the bombing in Delhi, (which anyway seems to be a local matter for which nobody can blame even Bush and Blair), this was not quite what we had in mind. It’s not the risk of kidnap or explosion, which is remote. It’s the... you know what it is... ...sitting having breakfast in a hotel in Malawi in the sixties. The kids were very little, the sun was on the lake, there was some sort of parliamentary conference on, and there were about forty Malawian parliamentarians in suits. It was all calm and civilised. Then a family of Americans came in, and sat against one wall. I remember looking up and there was the American father, eating toast with his mouth open, looking around him, sort of stony faced, chewing, studying, and I suddenly felt like what it must be to be an animal in a zoo... So it was that that I had hoped to avoid. Like I suppose most tourists, I always want to blend into the native background, be ethnic and demotic and witty and knowledgeable in twenty different dialects - which only makes my demeanour as an unbending witless farangi all the more obvious [variations of the word farangi, deriving from the Frank during the crusades, go as far east as Islam, certainly to Malaya]. Anyway, I’ll take notes and hope to be back round the beginning of December. Keep on moving outwards.
Look I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but this suppression of terrorism bill, the glorification of terrorism bit, where it says that it is a criminal offence to glorify acts of violence even against a repressive régime; well, we know about the Mandela situation and that’s not really a problem because it’s obvious which side Labour would be on that one, I mean illegal imprisonment and torture on one side, people who might later disapprove of water privatisation on the other - come on! I think people who raise the Mandela situation are being a bit disingenuous. But what worries me is, didn’t George Bush Senior actually suggest to the Southern Shias of Iraq that they made an insurrection (an insurrection cannot be totally non-violent, surely) against their government; before quite properly leaving their government to massacre them. I know the bill doesn’t apply retrospectively, and I’m sure George W has already given explicit instructions to our chap that all Americans are exempt anyway, but even so, it’s sailing a bit close to the wind isn’t it.
Just went to hang the washing out and a heron came high over the woods on the warm south wind, spiralled down just off the stall, silver wings curved like paragliders, secondaries wiffling, and landed in the weeping willow to take the morning sun. I used to think herons were craggy and solitary birds without much sparkle. Not now. In winter I can watch goosanders fishing for rudd on the millpond while I’m shaving. There'll be a heron on the bank, galumphing up and down with sideways hops like an overexcited adolescent football coach. It has reason. The goosanders work by diving and driving the fish in towards the edge, where the heron gets its share. Once I saw one too impatient to wait. The ducks were in the middle, resting and preening. The heron took off, flew across and plonked down amongst the affronted sawbills, floundered around a bit flapping its wings, and managed to lift off back to the side before it got waterlogged. I don’t know whether it was a bad mistake, a sad over-identification with another species, or an under- subtle message to the goosanders to get a move on with the fish-herding.
So it’s one thing to arrange for the death of thousands of unknown foreigners far away, another to challenge the hard men in your own back yard, the kind who use mobile phones while they’re driving as if the iron will and adamantine fist of Labour was as a genteel belch and a toy poodle’s turd, who hunt foxes as if the rule of Parliament was implemented by school crossing wardens, and who now want you to share their smoke, down your throat, and fuck you, tosser bar worker. Yes, Smiling Tony's penchant for short brutal men with a big pull with the military or the Mafia or the smoking rubber boys has let us down again.
Blair, his Sicilian connections, his Christian Fundamentalist enthusiasms, his search for a New Order, his NGO government, his mind-cloned ministers, his hireling parliamentary party, what’s that got to do with education? Well, it seems that when a British Government reaches its final bunker stage of eye-rolling decadence, it has to, as a parting gesture and rite of passage, Destroy Something Big. John Major’s victim, the railways, looks a bit modest now, a measure of the man. Blair is going for the throat. As he’s always said, Education, education, education.
Those who are still members of the Labour Party might make excuses. They might say, “He’s really trying to do something good. He has mistaken the condition of London for the condition of the country, as British politicians are inclined to do, and to find a quick fix for the shortage of school places in the capital he has imposed on the whole nation what might be a viciously wrongheaded and over-reactive and short-term remedy, we’ll go along with you on that, but give the guy his due, he’s doing it in the, okay mistaken, belief that one size, anarchy and chaos and religious superstition and bigotry sure, but we are enforcing choice (or whatever the advantage of the Blair plan is supposed to be), fits all. Agreed, we have a Leader who is prepared to destroy in order to create, who has always been unabashed by a Year Zero sense of history, but you have to allow Him his Greatness and His Legacy. He has done so much for us. We must take the rough with the smooth.” They may say, these yet supporters of the Labour Party who will soon be holding street parties to welcome the New New Labour Nuclear Age. But their excuses no longer convince. They still revel in the “Portillo moment”, these Labour Party Members, the instant when poor Michael’s face dropped on the announcement of his defeat. I voted Labour then, I had been a member of the Labour Party in the days before it became an agency of post-Thatcherite `modernisation` and police and intelligence service-driven repression. But poor old Michael Portillo now - sure he was a bit of a dickhead with his SAS guff and all, but like the Duck of Edinburgh, compared with the Labour Party, you look back on him as an all-round decent guy.
Think what we could have voted in then, if Labour had not been what they are, what Blair, to give him his due, always asserted that they would be. In the eight years that Labour has been in power, we might have: Built the schools that they promised, rather than failing to, then privatising education; Developed a public transport policy, and an energy policy, with all the innovation and economic development that that might engender; Rationalised defence policy, bringing to an end the post 1945 era, removing from taxpayers’ shoulders the burden of the defence industry, which I guess history will show as being the largest single criminal, in the literal sense, organisation in post-war Britain, and removing us from our obsequious subjugation to America; Reformed our abysmal criminal justice system in a way that actually addresses the problems of criminality; and, closely related to this, addressed our largest, in fact overpowering domestic problem, the American-style gap between the rich and the poor, which the Labour Party affects to care about, even though it’s the lifeblood of their ideology.
They have destroyed, and they have created the metastases of a corrupt neo-liberal post-democratic state. With the destruction of the education system, the process will be irreversible. That is the Labour legacy. That, and the only country in the world where the purchase of SUVs, and popcorn in cinemas, is on the increase. Oh smell that Labour fart in your face.
Look here is a here is a boy boy boy a nice boy a nice nice boy He in a Buick and beside a girl a girl a nice so very nice so High they angels in the sun in Santa Ba. Is that the worse can be, the worse of worse? Commy da worse! Dacoke dacom yes/no. I da dreamer dreamer dream Dacoke? Dacom? Yes/no
(Liberte. Choosey, me. Come and see my choose. Brainout on liberte my choose. In puddle outsida my house The worms of death In mud outsida my house The worms of death In mud insida my house The worms of death I drinka water of The worms of death My choose, on liberte.)
High on the peaks of liberte I dream There came a Snake-eye dragging shitta gold, Anjellydad of death, who viscerate stiff dogcleaned spine from bluejean shape like me - Skull gone, by which us know we very own.
To keep my choose, I dream Anjellydad Sweat dustbowl with me brow Torture me make drogue Dicker drogue for liberte Make angel chile with jelly tits in Buick Snort. And then he look surprise - Outraging Drill blood outa me.
I was listening to this elderly buffer on PM and thinking how he came across as straightforward, honest, even modest, certainly unprejudiced. The interview came to an end and they said "That was the ...". They've done our heads in. Eight years under the Blair gang and even the Duke of Edinburgh sounds like a paragon of liberalism.
So there I am sitting in the second pew from the front, all done up in a suit and a black tie because it is a funeral, and my cousin Lady Something is just in front to my left, and I am in a state of severe nervousness because though I have no truck with the English aristocracy or the Anglican God I am not often in the presence of either and the sheer unfamiliarity, the almost certainty that either the earthly representatives of the Anglican God or an aristocratic relation will say something or do something that I do not understand and I will just stare with my mouth open and then reply, not in a witty and urbane way which might go slightly over their heads as I would wish, but with something unambiguously stupid; when the younger cousin who is directly in front of me turns and hands me what looks like a nasal inhaler. I look at it. She looks at me. I stare fixedly for some time at the little brown glass, fluted bottle. It has a rubber bulb on top, connected within no doubt to a glass tube which slides up the nostril before the intra-pharyngal squirt. Nothing useful comes to mind. I turn to my helpmeet on my right, but apparently she has decided to sit this one out and is studying the pipework of the organ. I turn back. Finally I brandish the bottle and say, “What is it?” The cousin mutters a proprietary brand name which I don’t catch. “And what’s it for?” I ask - not, as retrospectively it will appear, out of prurient curiosity, but because it might give me some hint as to what I’m meant to do with this, even between cousins, fairly intimate bit of gear. She sighs heavily - it’s their father, a lovely gentle man, whose life, now over, we have come to celebrate, in fact that’s him under the flowers up by the altar. “It’s supposed to calm you down,” she breathes. I’m even further at a loss. Is my agitation that obvious to someone sitting with their back to me? Suddenly, saving inspiration. “Why don’t you take some?” I suggest. She seems pleased that the contempt which up to now was intuitive has met with the clearest empirical justification. “I would," she says, " if I could get the sodding top off.”
In the same way that avian flu might make the genetic jump to human-to-human infection, boys’ wankmags have jumped from fantasy to meta-fantasy. In between the garbage on C4 about flying saucers last night (for third order wankers. What , me? No, no, in my case, I was watching out of intellectual curiosity; as a male Member of Parliament might enter a brothel [they do of course, most working days, but as the other party close of brackets close of brackets. The advert was for a cars boobs and music weekly, but the theme was that the target wanker was a new man, with a beautiful girlfriend, who lived with him, maybe on a yacht, and he helped her with the housework, every day except Tuesday, when his magazine came out. I think I got that right.
Just read an extract from Robert Winston’s book The Story of God [Transworld £18.99]. I’m sure Winston is tip-top at the day job, but who buys this twaddle? It will of course be a best-seller for Christmas, and it’s clearly well researched, but it is equally clearly written for dim and ignorant people who like being heavily patronised. There are millions such, but do they buy books? Especially books about the evolution of the idea God? Maybe there really is a voracious reading public sandwiched somewhere between people who are a little hazy about where their brains actually are, and people who can work out roughly what a neurotransmitter is without having to lie down with a bag of frozen peas on their foreheads. Oh yes? Which leaves this as just another publishing scam; put out a book by a “world renowned scientist”, at Christmas, with the title “The Story of God” and then chortle over the ratio of the number of people who buy it, as a present maybe, to the number of people who read past page 17. 23367 to 5 would be about my guess. There are classic science books that make you see the world in a different way. Some of mine: The New Science of Strong Materials and Structures: Why Things Don’t Fall Down by JE Gordon. After I read these I started looking for the balance of invisible forces in cathedrals, bridges and aeroplane wings as we were taking off, where before I’d just seen masses of stuff. QED: the strange theory of light and matter by Richard Feynman. Socially Feynman was probably a bit of a fantasist, but this book makes you feel for a while that you can understand the iridescence on a puddle in quantum terms. Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennet: It isn’t explained, of course, but if you want a read that will blow away with a dry desert wind the cobwebs of religious dualism, this is it. Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene is the trailblazer, but this book explains an awful lot about evolution, and pre-empts all the impenetrable idiocy of “intelligent design”. Isaac Newton by James Gleick: A short and simple book about the unsurpassed achievement of a very strange but somehow sympathetic fellow. The silhouette of an apple by the falling moon explains what is usually the Dandy‘n’Beano image of a bump on the head. Phantoms in the Brain: Human Nature and the Architecture of the Mind by VS Ramachandran: Down to earth and mysterious about pain and the brain.
Oh, and while I’m on books that changed the way I see the world, Salman the Solitary by Yashar Kemal. It’s nothing to do with science, it is fiction, it was written years ago, it’s a good read once you get past all the butterflies and eagles at the beginning, and it by the by makes clear that the invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia at the behest of a couple of jerk-off politicians and the weapons and oil money was always unlikely to be a good thing for the rest of us.
All a lightyear beyond Winston. Here’s an example of his writing: “Some of the genes [for religion] likely to be involved are those which control levels of different chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain,” Apart from the general informational slop, when someone says to you in that kindly but maddening voice, “called neurotransmitters,” you know they are patronising you. Either these chemicals are neurotransmitters or they’re not, to me just as much as to you, mate. And: “...because of slight changes in spelling of the DNA sequences (a so-called polymorphism)...” We usually say “so-called” when we mean that the label is a pretence, a sham or a boast. And the twee little metaphor of spelling to make it easier for us poor dears to understand is just bollocks. DNA sequences don’t spell anything. The sentences should read something like: “...because of slight changes in the DNA sequences (polymorphism)...” I suspect it is then exposed as further bollocks. Surely a change in a DNA sequence isn’t called polymorphism. Taxi for the good lord.
Kids’ birthday parties. This one was in a room three stories high, full of slides and tunnels and swings and pools of plastic balls “And”, said my son breathing deeply, “great, it doesn’t smell of piss." For two hours lads and lasses with a median age of six tore up and down ramps, slid spinning and swerving down tubes of dark, played hide and seek. At one point there were five in the chilling area with its small chairs and tables. The three girls still had their cardies on and were sitting elegantly chatting, with lots of eye contact and meaningful gestures. The boys had their shirts off and sat on the backs of their chairs with their feet on the seats, sweating and silent. It was the girls, though, who came to the adults in tears, because of emotional anxiety or strain, unkind things said or nothing said at all. Next evening I was watching three of the lads fighting, all-in wrestling, pummelling with hands and heels, heads and knees, jumping on each other, sitting on heads, rolling and thrashing, total commitment to whole body impact. They were young animals. They were five, six and eight years old. It was just before bath time, and the five year old was on the point of complete exhaustion. Every minute or so he’d take ten seconds out, lie absolutely relaxed, then throw himself squealing and growling back into fray. When he could hardly stand I sent them all off to the bath. No tears before bedtime, though they had all taken bumps and thumps that under other circumstances would have sent them squalling to their mums. I’m no fighter myself, a physical coward in fact. I would endure a fair amount of humiliation to avoid the pain of a fist in the face. But fighting is in the culture and the nature of a lot of males. In the old days men from my village used to meet men from Lizard on the cliffs above Dollar Ogo and fight. Later, in Cumbria, Workington would fight Whitehaven, Aspatria would fight Maryport, Wigton would fight among themselves and everyone would go to Carlisle for a Saturday night punch-up. I was discussing all this with my son, father of the five year old, how natural, even hard-wired fighting seemed to be. Sure, he said, when he was younger, a good fight was the pleasantest way to finish a night out with the lads. The sociable fight, like the little lads’ rough and tumble, is fighting as sport, groups of four or five against each other, in there with the fists by choice. I once heard a woman speaking, a Quaker pacifist, about the moral necessity of knowing how flesh and bone feels against the knuckles. She said that the most dangerous men are not those who know that feeling, the potential crunch. The ones we should fear are the clean and obsessive ones who have always shunned the violent contact of their own skin with others’, who cannot fully imagine the reality of bloodied stumps and splintered bone; they, she said, will be the ones who will give word to launch the missiles and bombs against unknown people far away, the ones whose damage to the human frame will come by the ton.
Conspiracy theories are fun, but like a lot of fiction they don’t tell us anything about what’s going on at this moment. What to put in their place? I suggest the Scientific Soaperama. It goes like this. You make up a character, let us say, Tony Blair, you make up the back story of his inner life, then you use your invention to predict the behaviour of the real Tony Blair. This is actually quite scientific; you know, making predictions based on a hypothesis and all that. I’ll start with mine. Tony Blair sees himself as being a member of a triumvirate; him, George Bush, and God. Of these three, God hasn’t said a dickybird for the last one thousand three hundred and seventy three years, so He’s very much a silent partner. If He’s still there. George Bush, well, he admits himself that he has problems with human language. So that leaves Blair. Tony Blair is the voice of the triumvirate. And the other two, President of the USA, Creator of the Universe, whatever, are just there to make up the numbers. The role of the triumvirate is to bring about the New World Order. We don’t have to ask ourselves what that might look like. Like it’s precursor, Democracy in Iraq, we’ll worry about the New World Order when it happens. But I think we can tell from the kind of thing that Blair likes and the kind of thing he doesn’t like, the kind of thing the New World Order will be. When it arrives. So Blair’s motivation, the grand motivation behind all the little projects like taking his country to war in Iraq, becomes clearer. When he says, with that modest but slightly worrying intensity, that he himself personally believes that we, meaning I think the human race, will look back at this time and see it as a turning point in human history, that’s not a politician’s get out, that’s not Okay I fucked up but give it a rest will you. That is putting Tony Blair, the only one with a proper speaking part in the Triumvirate, at a pivotal, perhaps, when all is told, the pivotal point of human history. That is what he is journeying towards. Not just greatness, but... Maybe, when Blair rather tetchily refuses to say if he and Bush prayed to God down on the ranch in Crawford, maybe his irritation is at our inability to catch on. Maybe Bush and God were praying - no, let’s be serious. The thing about the Scientific Soaperama is that the hypotheses are just that, they don’t claim to be true. I certainly don’t think my hypothesis describes the totality of Tony Blair - presumably even world class statespeople are officially recognised as clinically insane if their condition merits it, but Blair is not clinically insane. It’s true that people who are in positions of great power for too long - about six weeks - become functionally crazy, because they never get the feedback the rest of us get. We’d all love to develop delusions of grandeur but friends, family, workmates conspire against it. And we know that delusions of grandeur don’t do much good to the deluded in the long run, look at poor Old Ma Thatcher; geriatric, her criminal past cemented forever into her son’s disgrace. Blair hasn’t gone that far yet, and I’m sure in his domestic, his family, his business, his recreational life he’s as sane as the rest of us. I’m also sure that in these things he’s a banal and tedious man. He does not interest us. But as a politician, he interests us a lot, and will continue to do so. Much of his political behaviour seems irrational and extreme. But every time he does something that makes you shake your head in disbelief, try seeing him as the voice of the triumvirate, the Great Helmsman of the New World Order upon whom History will gaze back in awe; the, white-haired maybe, voice weaker, but still tall and proud, the first and greatest and for ever Prince of Peace and Universal Government. And see if he makes a bit more sense then.
A week ago while he was stuffing his common cold virus-smeared and latex-covered fingers into my mouth (he did an excellent job on my root canal and I didn’t get a cold) the dentist explained to me the new terms and conditions they will be working under from April 2006 (See Infection below). He explained the old and the new set-ups clearly, and I understood everything that he said. On the BBC World at One on Friday there was a report on exactly the same thing by, I guess, a professional journalist. I tried to recognise in her staccato rambling the situation which the dentist had so clearly described. Zilch. Absolutely fuck all. The journalist’s story was a succession of uncontextualised and therefore opaque soundbites from various branches of “the authorities”, spattered with completely meaning-free links by the journalist herself. If she had the remotest idea what she was talking about she was clearly determined not to share it. Of course it is impossible for a news story to contain zero information, even if the information it does contain is attenuated and a long way from anything approaching the actual, but I reckon for vacuous gormlessness that news item was near the top of the pile. It’s the second time I’ve criticised the BBC in a week, but in fact I’m a big supporter. The huge advantage this and other democracies have over dictatorships is nothing to do with a way of life or a sense of fair play or any of that self-serving crap. It’s because historically a huge system of checks and balances has evolved, an elaborate political immune system, of which the World Wide Web is a recent and now a vital component. The diseases this immune system partially protects us democracy-dwellers from are tyranny, torture, crime, false imprisonment, war; all the things that have also, along with the immune system, evolved within h. sap culture. At the moment the Government, the Labour Party, the far right press are the principle vectors of these diseases. The BBC, though weakened by attacks from Labour for truth-telling, is still a voice, a vital component of the checks and balances. And in itself and at its best it is one of the great cultural wonders of the world, particularly BBC radio. It deserves the strong support of all of us who realise that (in CuriousHamster’s words) Orwell’s 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual. That wasn’t what I started off to say. What I started off to say was that this garbled twaddle about dentists’ terms and conditions from News at One was by no means unique. The Guardian (another vital component of the immune system, despite the sneering of self-styled realists) often runs stories which can make no sense even to the person who wrote them. It seems that some journalists settle down to the keyboard without taking five minutes to work out the basic coherent structure of the situation, system, whatever it is that they are trying to tell us, so they write in a state of almost unsullied ignorance. Instead of description and explication, they seem to think that a jumbled and partial mosaic of surface features will do;and, such is their arrogant idleness, that if they can’t be arsed to understand the logical infrastructure of their subject matter, then nobody else could either. Any old garbage and a few buzzwords like implode and epicentre will do. And this isn’t just trainee journalists. Science stories are often written by a named Science Correspondent, and demonstrate that a named Science Correspondent can make just as much of a baboon’s arse of a story as someone straight out of journalism school. Don't they have sub-editors any more?
So it seems the Cheyney Rumsfeld gang want to send a few missiles over to I-ran, and Dubya’s rent boy is doing the dirty work, his little white arse all of atremble with excitement. Why do we have to do the work of the Labour Party for it? They’re like rabbits in the headlights. Or maybe they're scared of the Prevention of Terrorism act. Rightly so. But come on, you Party Faithful, do you want a police state or don't you? It should be plastered on every available space all over our island. BLAIR OUT
Sometimes, with a fight, the truth gets through. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Back in the eighties Warren, a pathologist, realised that inflammation of the stomach lining, all the ulcers and pain, were probably caused by bacteria, and not spicy diet and high living like the doctor said. Radio 4 six o’clock News had the story of this Nobel prize on Monday, at admirable length, but never mentioned the name of the offending bacterium. I wonder why. In the summer an old friend came back from distant parts where he works, for a holiday and routine check-ups. On the day he was leaving he told me he had been prescribed antacids by the doctor because of his chronic gastric problems, indigestion and discomfort. Did the doctor mention helicobacter pylori? I asked. My old friend gave me that look that is a very English thing, the dismissal of someone who has pretensions to knowledge which is not officially or by custom and practice theirs. I clattered on anyway, casting little bacteria shaped pearls. But no, the doctor hadn’t mentioned it. And now my friend is back in distant climes, and he’ll still be suffering from burning pain below the ribs. There were always big problems with Warren’s and Marshall’s discovery. It was an item of faith in the medical world that bacteria could not survive the acid bath of the stomach. It was an item of faith to which drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline would tolerate no heresy, because GKS made a lot of their profits out of Zantac, an antacid that ineffectually treated the symptoms of helicobacter pylori infection without addressing the cause. People could swallow the stuff for years on end, never getting better, slowly getting worse. And the worse they got, the more dependent they became on Zantac, which at least briefly alleviated the pain. So a simple one-off cure for gastric ulcers would be a disaster for GSK. The result was huge rubbishing of Warren and Marshall’s new theory, slagging off and belittling of Warren and Marshall as scientists and human beings, lies and denunciation worthy of an Ibsen play. The battle of GKS against two Aussie researchers with nothing but the “bloody obvious” truth on their side wasn’t so difficult anyway. A lot of medical training, and medical wealth, is predicated on the products of the drugs industry, and most doctors are not naturally attuned to science. And it’s got to be said that, though things should be getting better with the huge rise in standard of entrants to medical school over the last thirty years, some doctors still seem a bit dim, and no doubt my friend’s GP was just such a one. So he suffers. But it’s his own fault because he did that very English thing of looking at me with embarrassment and fear when I used an unauthorised octosyllabic term. That’s my main point. We should get over it. The BBC should have named the bacterium involved. Without that name, sufferers are powerless. And I suspect that’s the idea, even if it’s half formed and latent. The term helicobacter pylori is still presumed by BBC News to be the rightful property of an élite. To give it to the rest of us would demystify that élite, would turn us from patients who were “under the doctor” into people who could say, ”What about helicobacter pylori, then, mate? Have you thought of that?” I assumed both the BBC and the medical profession had got over this mystifying élitism years ago. Seems not.
I may be getting a cold. It’s a bit hard to say at the moment because I’m not what you call a morning person, and the symptoms of just being up for the first couple of hours are fairly indistinguishable from slight illness, from, for instance, the beginnings of a cold. I could test the cold hypothesis by having a strong cappuccino but I’m a bit of a health freak and I only have one cup of coffee a day. I learnt the technique from my step father. When he was eighty seven and had long survived being given six months to live (seventy one, lung cancer gone metastatic - he did give up smoking) his doctor told him he ought to cut down his alcohol consumption to just one drink a day. A month or so later I went down to Cornwall to keep an eye on him while my mother was having a retina reattached. The first evening I went into the kitchen and he was standing by the sink with a large full wine glass containing, nominally, his Gin and It. It was a lesson in titration. He took a swig, shivered, topped the glass up with water, took another swig, shivered slightly less and so on until there was enough room for the vermouth, then retired to the “drawing room” to sip the rest. “What was going on there?” I asked, and it was then he explained about doctor’s orders and the one drink a day. I didn’t say anything about the doctor not necessarily seeing one drink in terms of half a pint of gin. My stepfather only lasted another seven years. I’m not surprised. On this basis I limit myself to just the one cup of coffee a day, at around 10 am. It’s like rocket propellant. It’ll be time to switch the machine on soon. Until then I won’t know whether I’m getting a cold or whether it’s just the symptoms of it's being 9.21 a.m. - nine minutes before I switch the machine on to warm up. The reason I think I’m probably getting a cold is that I went to the dentist yesterday to have the impression for a crown done. The received wisdom is to go to the youngest dentist you can. They are just out of dental school and have learnt all the latest techniques, and will be keen to get things right and make a good impression. Recently my wife had an emergency appointment and the dentist was so young that she had a picture of her pet rabbit on the wall. Presumably it was a rabbit blessed with the same sort of longevity as my stepfather. But I go to the senior partner and we are on fairly good chatting terms which means in part him talking me through what he might do and what he’s actually going to do and why his chosen path might or might not be a good thing. So before I sat down he told me he had a cold and he hoped I didn’t get it. Well, I thought, masks, rubber gloves; possibly not. (It’s OK, the espresso machine is on now. Twenty nine minutes to go.) I was there an hour. At some point we had moved from global warming - the dentist's wife was going to get a Prius, the Toyota hybrid, seventy miles to the gallon - to next April’s changes to NHS dentists’ employment terms (which I won’t go in to, but sound like short term New Labour wonkery). At one point of great tragedy and drama he wandered away from me entirely and I think rather lost track of what he was doing because he then decided that the temporary crown he’d put on was rubbish and he’d do it again in a slightly different way. But I did notice that his mask had slipped down and he was gently rubbing his nose with his finger - nothing gross, no latex up the nostril, but definite contact. My wife has an important job and is very good at being tactfully but unquestionably authoritative. I am the reverse in every particular. If I had been my wife the dentist, senior partner or no, would have scrubbed up again quickly, efficiently, cheerfully. But I’m not my wife. Rather I thought, well yes, if he has to scrub up every time there is the slightest danger of infection he’d never get anything done; and if you start thinking about all the things they put in your mouth when you’re at the dentist and where they’ve been, you’d just never go. Also, though I once held forth at some length about the fish at a restaurant in Carmona, that was in Spanish, and somehow different. I’m actually English, and so I feel, what the hell, I don’t want to make a fuss, and I might get a cold on the bus for that matter, and he’s already miles behind schedule because of outlining the new arrangements vis a vis NHS dentists from April 2006 and having to do the temporary crown a slightly different way, and anyway he’s got his fingers back in my mouth now so the moment has passed. The coffee machine is a new kind - I avoided the ones that you put sachets of glug in the top, it still uses proper ground coffee, and it froths the milk with genuine, not synthetic, steam; but it doesn't force the water through the coffee by boiler pressure, it has a little electric pump that clatters and hums away. Gaggia it is not and I was a bit pissed off at first because I didn't realise about the pump when I bought it. But as they point out, it delivers the water at a precisely calibrated pressure and temperature. And it does work very well, the coffee just tastes of coffee. It is now one minute to ten and soon I may know whether I have a cold or not.
Some songs have a sort of immortality, or the nearest we can get to it, they’re like DNA, they just go back and back. They change the whole time, like water flowing into water, ripples cutting across ripples, but they still have their ancestry, different families, different nations. And no matter how far back they divided from the songs we know, the songs of our own ancestry and childhood, we human beings, as we listen, still recognise those alien vocalisations as song. Songs are the only sure form of time travel, they take us back to an epoch before history, so far back that we were not yet quite human, we didn't yet have speech. Robin Dunbar - the name should belong to a singer, and maybe he’s that too, but he’s a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology - speculates* that language did not evolve in the way usually supposed, by a proto-genius pointing at an elk and going “Ug”, and at a horse and going “Ug ug”. That’s a pretty unlikely story of the evolution of human language. Instead, Dunbar thinks that language evolved from singing - not a romantic notion, there’s statistics and neuroscience in his argument; basically social apes sustain the peace and coherence of the group by mutual grooming; once feeding and sleeping has been done, there are only so many hours for grooming; and as the social group gets bigger, there is just no longer enough time for all the grooming needed to hold the group together. Yet human groups went on growing. What was the binding force that kept them from continually splitting into little apelike bands?Dunbar suggests that singing, way before articulate language, did what grooming had done before; but now the binding force was song; first choric contact calls, but transmuting over millennia, or maybe quite suddenly, over a few sunrises and sunsets, when that first one heard it inside her own head as well as through the ears, looked another in the eyes and repeated it, and so on, for ever, into music. Maybe it’s that distant music we can still hear in today’s song, way down beyond mere language.
I want to work on an opera, most likely a film opera, around the evolution of song and language. Dull? It won’t be. It will be moving, spine tingling, sometimes funny. I do know what I’m doing, I’ve had plays on already, among other places at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and West Yorkshire playhouse. So I’m looking for a composer of genius, but so far hardly known, maybe totally unknown. If you are such a composer, or know such a composer - not necessarily coming up through the ranks of a school of music, but one who knows what you’re doing - and you want to write an opera, get in touch and we’ll talk about it.
The the moral and intellectual squalor of the world of politicians, like the banality of evil, is so tedious and repetitive that I had not intended... OK, one more time, and then never again. The Prime Minister, according to the lead story in the Guardian, is completing his tour of duty as Baroness Thatcher’s second son by trying to reprise the al Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia. In return - it’s like a fairy story - Blair has to do three things. He has to send back a couple of Saudi exiles for torture and beheading - no problem there, unless those fucking (Anthony’s word) judges interfere. He has to call off the Fraud Squad’s investigation into the Saudi/BAE corruption case - the same one which might eventually get round to exposing the Maggie/Mark/Saudi corruption issue; so Anthony will be doing double good there, as long as those fucking (God-loving, Creation Theory supporting Anthony’s word again) judges don’t lay their shrivelled stinking libertarian necks on the line over this one. And, completely trivial, the prime Minister has to make BA start landing in Riyadh once more. Terrorist threats? Tony lands in Riyadh quite a lot, so what’s the problem? My main puzzle over this is not that Blair should behave in such a way. Not at all. That is Blair, the whole Blair, and nothing but the Blair. The puzzle is that I know decent, and I mean this seriously, good people, the kind of people who will not invest in shares because they don’t believe in capitalism, who still support Blair, or at least support his government, as if the majority of Labour MPs, who keep Blair in power and will no doubt today give him one of those unbelievably demeaning and ridiculous standing ovations - as obscene as were they to shed their clothes, face their idol, and masturbate in unison - as if that fawning rabble were any better than the mere negative of their boss. The reason these good people, who work hard for Amnesty and believe in Human Rights and Civil Liberty, give for such apparent moral schizophrenia is that this government has put much more money into hospitals, schools and so on than the last government. So they have, but only it seems to fatten them up for private sector profit. That is happening and will continue to happen at an accelerating rate. When it has happened, when we are in the condition of America, Old Labour Blair supporters will say, “We did not understand, because they said they wouldn’t. Patricia Hewitt said she wouldn’t privatise the National Health, so how were we to know that she was lying?” How indeed? It is assumed that when Blair leaves Government, the remains of the Labour Party, and perhaps our shores, he will become immensely rich. How is not specified, but both the above ventures should be worth a few tens of millions to that fine man of religion.
Just looking back over the previous post, it raises the question of, if politicians are a necessary evil, because of the way we human beings are; a necessary evil like religion and police; how come that here in Britain, and everywhere else, there are things, many things, which are good, and admirable, and sometimes downright marvellous, like the Muslim medical doctor who came to lunch last Sunday who had started a school for the profoundly deaf in Mirpur? And that's the answer. What is good on this planet in the human as opposed to the natural realm is done by people, millions upon millions of us. Sometimes politicians can act as people. But it's not usual.
Sometimes when I am standing at the bus stop I think that Tony Blair may turn out to have been one of the most destructive prime ministers of the last hundred years. I don’t think this only at the bus stop but I do think it with particular intensity if the bus I am waiting for is late or absent, because then I think of all that he has not done, transport, appropriate future technology, anything involving thought, energy, insight, hard decisions, rather than piffling, strutting, the easy business of killing people far away or slagging off workers in the public sector. I do have a car in fact. It’s a car suitable for its purposes, capable, I believe, of more than a hundred and twenty miles an hour and with a fuel consumption, according to the onboard computer, of fifty one miles to the gallon. That’s one of the bad things about buses round here. It would be much cheaper to drive my car the three miles into town and back than take the bus. I know that an economist would say this is not so, but economists, like Tony Blair, don’t live in the same world as you and me. Economists are going on the total cost of the car over the period I own it, and dividing that by the journey into town, and coming out with something ridiculous like £7.20. Whereas I am not in a position to not have the car, and to have never had the car, for and only for the time I am catching the bus into town, and then to have the car again in the evening when I want to go and see You and Me and Everyone we Know at the NMFTP. Either you have a car or you don’t. And as I have one, it's cheaper to pay the fuel cost - 70 p as against £2.30 to £3.00, depending whether you get the fascist lady - and drive into town like all the rest of the twats with big credit cards and those Vauxhall Vectras with all the silver trim on the boot. But I don’t, I catch the bus:
1. Because I can read the London Review of Books on the bus. I used to find that I spent so much time reading the LRB that I never had time to read the books it reviewed (part of this is that the reviews are often so long and so absorbing that by the time you’ve finished one you’ve more or less read the book anyway.) Now I confine the LRB to the bus. This rationing system is such that LRB-wise I am just turning the corner into this millennium, but that in itself dishes up an ironic take on recent history. Did you know for instance that the Americans first became directly involved in Afghanistan in 1979. They wanted the Russians to invade so they could knock the shit out of them. To bring this about they supported an insurrection against the régime of Hafizullah Amin. The insurrection the Americans supported was triggered by the Afghan central government’s intention that girls should be educated equally with boys. It was a fundamentalist Islamic insurrection against sex equality in education that the Americans supported. That was a cracking idea, was it not? And that's the kind of thing I think about in connection with Tony Blair when I am standing at the bus stop and the bus for which I am going to spend £2.30 to get to town and back (unless I get the fascist lady) fails to come. 2. Then I don’t have to park the car anywhere. (Still on reasons why I take the bus). I get off in the middle of town. I get back on again near where I happen to end up. 3. Public transport is a good thing, not only environmentally but socially. It would stop twats of both sexes in Vectras, Tigras, Volvos, BMWs, Mercedes &c retaining their totally irrational and unjustified sense of self esteem. The admiration for the modern car and metonymically for its driver is a form of pornography, a specious appetite feeding on itself, impossible to satisfy.
The reason that Tony Blair does bad things (almost exclusively) and fails to do good things (almost exclusively) is that he taps into the kind of irrational self esteem that not just the twats in cars (in a condition of almost religious exceptionalism, I am not a twat when I am in a car) suffer in excess, but into the even more turbo-charged self-esteem of “businessmen”, off-the-scale corporation bosses, major criminals, and all the other alpha people to whom Toady is a creepy-crawly groupie. Listen to him talking to Murdoch about the BBC’s coverage of New Orleans. Just how sick should any politician make you feel? This was going to be about how Tony Blair’s withdrawal strategy from Iraq may be presenting him with some problems, but his withdrawal strategy from British politics looks simple and effective. Scorched earth. Provided it’s done thoroughly it never fails.
We are sometimes told, even by non-religious people, that religious people are better people than non-religious people. What? The Pope, Tony Blair, Mullah Omar? I don’t think so. However, when extensive and well set-up studies indicate that members of an organised religion, any organised religion, tend to be healthier, happier, longer lived and richer than we poor atheistical sods, then we may have to accept that that is true. But what to do about it? It’s another of those placebo effect problems. Suppose I have a searing pain in my left leg. I go to the doctor and she prescribes a new wonder drug specifically designed to remove not only the symptom but the cause of a searing pain precisely and only, by lucky chance, in the left leg. I take the capsules and my ill is, OK not cured, but considerably alleviated. I ring the doctor and say, “That worked,” because I believe in scientific medicine and the necessity of feedback. She says, “Interesting... because in fact that was just saline solution in a brightly coloured capsule.” Next week the pain returns. What do I do? I now know that the contents of the capsules cannot physically connect to my pain. They may have gone some way towards curing it when I believed they were the newest wonder drug, but now I know they’re salt and water, they’re not going to work. I may half believe that they’re half going to work this time because they worked the last time, but this will be a very attenuated placebo effect, and will probably be extinguished by scepticism and a growing sensation not unlike agony in the left leg. The placebo problem applies equally to religion. Suppose, with the aim of upping the health, wealth and longevity counts by a significant factor, I decide to turn a blind eye to the woman-murdering, child abusing and genocidal tendencies, and join an organised religion. There is still the problem of belief. In practice I’m enough of a sceptic to know that you only have to fake the belief to get the benefits of social networking and support which a religion provides, but that’s not enough. I want the whole package. I want the the buoyant sense of self-worth and well-being that can be derived from the knowledge that I am truly and eternally significant in the great scheme of things; and this requires true, not feigned belief. How do people do that, believe truly and sincerely? It is a commonly held view among Muslims that the fatwa was put upon Salman Rushdie’s *Satanic Verses* because the novel suggests that the Prophet went with prostitutes. But that is only a blind, a safe explanation for the unlettered rabble. What was really troubling about Satanic Verses was that in it the Prophet’s amanuensis started making little changes as he wrote down the Revealed Word; first just like changing an “a” to a “the”, but a little more adventurous each time as he established that the Prophet didn’t notice the errors when he read it back. This suggestion was Rushdie’s crime. All great religions are finally dependent on the word of God, as revealed by his prophets (and the occasional angel), and if the word is corrupt in a detail, then it is corrupt in all, for God cannot be Wrong (Clerics try to get round this by saying it’s not God who’s wrong, it’s human understanding of his intentions, but that’s a hopeless fallback position, because then they personally have to claim exemption from this faulty understanding, and if they’re talking the same old bollocks, we’re unlikely to believe them). In the first centuries of Christianity men and women of faith fought out at great length, by burning each other at the stake, what the Word of God had been, precisely and exactly, and they had a finalising ratification (oh, the vanity of human aspirations) at the Conference of Nicea in the year 325 of the Christian calendar. Thence the Creed. Maker of Heaven and Earth? Bollocks is a strong word with which to characterise all religious belief, but really! If anybody ever reads this post, and they are religious, let them give me an example of a religious belief that is not claptrap and tommyrot - that is, something about God and His sphere of operations, not about humanity; “Thou shalt not kill” is not a religious belief. See, it’s a weakness of God (He’s like Tony Blair in this, unsurprisingly) that He has powerful notions about everything, and thinks He has the moral and political authority to impose his notions upon everybody else. At the moment He’s very interested in prawns (God, not Blair). He’s still thinking about it, but He’s more or less decided that Muslims can eat prawns if they are coastal dwellers, where prawns are fish; but not if the live far from the sea, where prawns are insects. There are two worrying things about this. The obvious is that with all the ills of humanity God should be working on the ethics of prawn consumption. But the other is that the Muslim clerics who discuss this weighty topic don’t recognise that there is something slightly odd, given the well-inland provenance of their Prophet, about devoting so much time to the dietary laws of a people who dwelt near the coast of Palestine some way to the north and several thousand years ago. And this burst of activity among those who became the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims in Western Asia raises other questions about God. There’s a cracking review of *God: An Itinerary* by Régie Debray in the London Review of Books 17/02/2005, and I quote Brian Rotman the reviewer:
“But first, He who started it all: why did the Eternal One arrive so late? What was He doing during the 1.4 million years since the Acheulean carvings in Africa? Or the half million years since humans harnessed fire? Or the stretch of time since the cave paintings? Or more immediately, why didn’t he appear earlier in the four thousand years of human religious practices - of burying the dead and believing in an afterlife? Why did he wait for Abraham to make His covenant with (a portion of) mankind?”
Rotnam finishes his review with an assessment of the present state of play of the most lethal Religion of the Book:
“In thrall to the Bible and convinced once again of its Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism continues to remake the world in its own image. The Jewish claim to be chosen by Yaweh, appropriated by the Puritan founders, ends up as America’s inevitable - God-ordained - global mission.”
Life, with added health, wealth and longevity? Not worth the price.
I don't notice many adverts, but there's one of those romantic autumn holidays in the Highlands sequence - sailing boat across the stormy loch, skirling muzak, moody gazing over hills and glens - which must be set to become a classic. I can't describe the foreground precisely because that's not where my attention is; it's something like a girl in a Jaeger-style woolly hat, tendrils of dark gold hair stirring in the gentle Highland breeze, gazing rightwards, probably moodily and romantically, out over the water with just the intimation of dusk or more properly gloaming, anticipating peat fires, whisky in fine cut lead crystal and maybe a touch of the most soigné carnality after the salmon and grouse, when her boy friend, in the distance beyond her profile, walks towards the waterside and with perfect timing, seconds before the end, bends double and throws up all over the pristine Scottish pebbles.
Actually, forget that. I think we'll be able to go on glorifying terrorism as we always have. I hadn't spotted that Charlie had wheeled out the Blunkett gambit; you know, where you produce four clauses which march in step with New Labour post-democratic authoritarianism with such military precision that the Conservatives can do nothing but applaud, and then a fifth too preposterous even for that angenda, which you can then drop with much trumpeting about public debate and listening to the electorate.
General Augusto Pinochet of Chile Islam Karimov of Afghanistan President George W Bush of the US of A President Ariel Sharon of Israel Osama bin Laden of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe Prime Minister Anthony Blair of Great Britain Mohammad Sidique Khan of West Yorkshire President Vladimir Putin of the USSR That Christian git who wanted to murder President Chavez Radovan Karadic and Vlatko Mladic of Serbia
Please add to the list. Candidates for glorification must conform to the definition of terrorism proffered by the United States' ambassador to the United Nations: “We affirm that the targeting and deliberate killing by terrorists of civilians and noncombatants cannot be justified or legitimized by any cause or grievance. And we declare that any such action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to carry out or to abstain from any act, cannot be justified on any grounds and constitutes an act of terrorism." [lifted from A big stick and a small carrot].
No, wrong, wrong, wrong, I never said Kevin Pieterson looked like Jeremy Clarkson. A man who can wear a skunk on his head while scoring a century for England, on a knife edge, when all about him are losing theirs, is nothing like a... What I actually said was Clark Kent.
Kali Mountford MP House of Commons London SW1A 0AA 10 September 2005
Dear Kali Mountford, New Labour’s non-reciprocal extradition agreement with US Thank you for your letter of 08 September 2005. I note that the non-reciprocal agreement with the US to extradite UK citizens to the US on the say-so of a US court is dealt with by the Minister of Trade and Foreign Affairs. I’m afraid that whatever his reply, it may be inappropriate to our new circumstances. Then, we regarded all things American, their foreign policy, their homeland policy, their prison system, their educational system, with stars in our New Labour eyes. Now we see little but corpses, corpses in the streets of New Orleans, corpses in Iraq, maybe soon corpses at Guantanamo Bay. Iraq - Haliburton. New Orleans - Haliburton. However, I look forward to Ian Pearson’s reply. Maybe it will after all dispel my doubts. Yours sincerely,
Oh my sisters and my brothers, is it choice which makes us unhappy. Like Imelda Marcos with her countless shoes, too much becomes an illness. And so with our choice of partners, there is so much gorgeousness out there. But each one in some way flawed, or wrongly specified, or underperforming on some parameter, or liable to sudden malfunction, or in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act for designated soul-mates, or scuffed or damaged, or too loud, or too faint; or just something you can’t quite put your finger on. Seems it wasn’t always like this. Lawrence Stone in Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 puts happy, or at least tolerable, marriage-type partnership during most of that time down to just two things: one, late marriage; two, the early death of at least one of the partners, usually the man (Stone confines himself to heterosexual relationships, we needn't) Romeo and Juliet mislead us. Most men couldn’t afford to get married until their thirties. And then they mostly died in their forties. Their widows tended to be younger and still bouncy. And merrier - there were a lot of unattached young men around. Stone reckons ten years or so was about as long as a couple had to be able to stand each other before death superseded the need for marriage guidance. So how to account for a long and apparently happy partnerships today, for Golden Weddings and those Darby and Joans in their nineties, aliens to our world, but still apparently happy in theirs? At a party back a while there were a few of us in the kitchen, discussing big rows we’d had, the depths of marital or quasi-marital excess and violence, saucepans so badly dented they needed replacing, doors requiring serious carpentry, the thrown egg still on the wall a week later because neither launcher nor target saw it as their role to remove it - how angry must someone be guilty of making you before you throw an egg at them? Among all this battle-scarred rabble was one sweet faced angelic girl who said, “Me and John have never had an argument.” “What?” We said it in unison, and a little too loudly. “There never seemed anything important enough to argue about.” Within three weeks, with hardly a word no doubt, the angel and John had parted for good. If you are together for a long time, and you are not zombies, then this is probably going to happen. You are each going to grow apart from the other, and after seven or twelve or however many years, you are going to really fall out, and go your different ways, and hate each other. And then with luck you are going to talk, and go on talking, and gradually discover the person that the other has become, and it will all be very painful, but if you are lucky you will like, maybe love the person the other person has become, and vice versa, even maybe love them better than the person you liked or loved all that time ago, if you can quite remember who they were. And that is maybe how it works; a bit like an arranged marriage, only not at the beginning, at half time, or the first interval. I’m not advocating arranged marriages, though I have relatives and friends for whom they have worked very well. But I’ve never quite believed the slogan “What people want is more choice” either.
Maybe some of the many millions of readers who make their daily pilgrimage to this blog have been puzzled by President George W Bush’s Freem Moxy. Courtesy cartoonist Steve Bell, Freem Moxy is the way Bush's pronunciation, and his understanding, of Freedom and Democracy sound to English ears. Thus Freem Hain Turrs, or merely Hairs of Freem; and their opposite, Frensa Freem (the British New Labour party). Had an excellent weekend with Nephew and wife from Seattle (see Injun Country below). They were stunned by and admiring of the depth and energy of the BBC’s coverage of the New Orleans catastrophe, human and geographical, of the reporters’ horror and anger at the suffering of those left behind, at the callous, arrogant and cowardly behaviour of the US authorities - “just as if they were in Iraq” - which would be intolerable in a Western European country. Then we went to Fox news, which showed only water and fires, no human beings at all. Then to UK CNN, which was introducing a statement by the Mayor of New Orleans - one we’d already heard on the BBC. The Mayor was angry, critical, and black. After about thirty seconds there was a cut back to the studio and a disturbed looking CNN anchor woman talking silently into her mike. Then she said “We’re having to leave that story early,” and went on to something less newsworthy. In the USA itself this kind of censorship is apparently more smoothly done behind the scenes. Our American relations (Seattle is a city that dissents from the Cheyney agenda) were ectstatic at these revelations of the way Freem Moxy works. They were ashamed of Bush and all that he stands for. We had to keep saying no, no, don’t worry. We understand. We have Blair.
Mohammad Sidique Khan’s video performance exemplifies the downside of religion. People of religious conviction, whatever it is, will deny this, they’ll say, no, that is only a perversion of religion; the true religion (whatever it is) has no part in these extreme, outrageous and criminal beliefs and acts. But clearly murder and partial genocide are as much a part of any effective religion as love and charity. Not that the religious would want them to be, but that they are. All you have to do is look at the corpse count racked up by any major religion. Robin Dunbar in The Human Story ascribes four functions to religion:
Providing coherence for the world in which we live Allowing us to feel we have greater control Enforcing rules about how we should behave in society Allowing a minority to exert political control over the community
All this is arguable, but it looks accurate to me. And from this it is pretty clear that religion and politics are difficult to distinguish once you leave out the bollocks. Tony Blair, George Bush, Mohammad Sidique Khan, Arial Sharon all sing from the same hymn sheet. It’s just that Sidique, having no armies or missiles, didn’t have the technology to kill nearly so many people.
So it’s worth looking at what Mohammad Sidique Khan was saying, for it’s major logical flaw. He said, in a nutshell, that “you” - meaning me - are responsible for the death of “my” - meaning Sidique Khan’s - brothers and sisters, his co-religionists. And therefore "I" am going to kill "you" (clearly not the actual me in this case, or not yet, because I am alive and listening to Sidique’s video). "I" am going to go on killing "you" (clearly not I, Sidique Khan, since he is now dead, but the “I” of what he pretends to be true Islam) until "you" stop killing my brothers and my sisters. It sounds logical. And yet there flows directly from it the unforgivable stupidity of killing not only the infidel, but Sidique's own “brothers and sisters”. Whatever his apologia for his acts, they in practice constitute, not glory, but the hysterical fascism of the adolescent male in emotional extremis. And yet, by all accounts, Sidique Khan, except for this one deviation - and clearly it was a deviation which built over the years - was an admirable, kind, generous, well liked man. The logical flaw in his argument, compared to what he did, is trivial, and I’m sure if it had been pointed out to him it would have made no difference. But it is this. If I am responsible for Blair’s invasion of Iraq, for Blair’s enthusiasm for the policies and person of George W Bush, by extension for the extremes of Israeli policy - and I am - how does that responsibility come about? It comes about because I was born into an electoral democracy (the severe limitations on our elective dictatorship is another question.) You cannot choose where and when you were born. You cannot choose who you are. Sidique acknowledges this in his unconditional assertion that I am responsible. And where was Sidique born? West Yorkshire. By his own argument he is as responsible as I am. And his own argument is correct. And this is where the fascism of religion comes in, the legitimising of racial or religious exceptionalism and a higher calling which overrides all other ethical codes, charity, love, neighbourliness, which overrides every human virtue. And all effective religions share this fascism as a central component, a “special power”. So Mohammad Sidique Khan, this kind and admirable man, appealed to this “special power” in order to justify his project - like Blair, like Bush, like Sharon, like the House of Saud, like bin Laden, like the Pope, like all true religionists. Mohammad Sidique Khan is no better than the rest of them.