Friday, December 21, 2007

Blame the nomad

There's something about nomads, travellers, gypsies and tinkers that disturbs us respectable stay-at-homes. It's deep in our belief systems, this anxiety, and goes beyond the rational suspicion that if you are going to be encamped on the horizon by tomorrow's sunset, you are beyond vendetta, you will have nothing to fear if you dally with my women and steal my hard-earned treasures.
When I was last in Zambia, in Lusaka, there was a new conviction that crimes and nuisances, tears in the public fabric and insult to the body politic, formerly attributed to taxi drivers and other resident criminals, had suddenly become the work of the Somalis; the Somalis being an encampment of maybe a hundred and fifty destitute and timorous refugees down by the market.
They were no doubt up for a bit of stealing, these Somalis, how else should they live? But they certainly didn't have the logistics, the numbers, the fire power or the energy to accomplish one percent of the wickedness carelessly attributed to them.
And when foot and mouth disease struck Britain and decimated the sheep and cattle population a few years ago, a Northumberland farmer's wife wrote a column in the Guardian, describing in workmanlike but heart-rending paragraphs what effect this scourge had on farmers and their families.
Only once did she entirely lose her cool, right at the beginning of the outbreak. She described how a lone mountain biker had ridden across the county, along footpaths closed by Defra, spreading the risk, almost the certainty, of cattle annihilation as he went. So subtle had been his subterfuge that he had closed all gates behind him, moving like a shadow; in fact nobody had actually seen him, this spectral traveller. The only undeniable evidence of his passage had been tyre tracks, mountain bike tyre tracks, the tread pattern unmistakable and always the same, reported from every corner of the county.
So that was that then. It wasn't the squalor of farming practices, the incompetence of Defra, the idiocy that reigns in Whitehall and at Westminster that brought the plague upon good country folk. That would be too complicated. No, it was an invisible nomad, a lone mountain biker.
The American artefact of Al-Qaeda follows the same pattern. That the interdependencies of interest and relationship among Saudi Wahabis, the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency, the poor and dispossessed who struggle to survive the thuggery of the US-Israeli axis, and a hundred other islamic groupings; that all these might be the complex cause of falling towers and exploding trains, is unnecessarily complicated for White House and Pentagon purposes.
No, keep it clean. Blame the global nomads.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Protect and Survive

Back in the 1980s I enrolled on a course called “Protect and Survive”. One evening a week a retired Wing Commander would train us in leadership; not just any leadership, but how to lead our Cumbrian villages through a nuclear holocaust and out the other side into a changed, sure, but recognisable and sturdily surviving England.
Yes, equipped with only the Wingco’s wall charts and some brown paper and sticky tape, we were going to protect our villages against thermo-nuclear bombs. Fission-fusion bombs. With brown paper. Multi-megaton jobs. Paper. Brown. You heard right the first time. British, you see.
Our Wing Commander, he was about eighty, was out of his depth. Sure, most of our group were decent right wing citizens who believed, or affected to believe, the drivel the Wingco regaled us with. But two of us were sceptics and, in my case, a dirty rotten spy. I was a member of an anti-nuclear (weapons and reactors) group, and I used to report, in a light hearted fashion, on the Protect and Survive course. I also used to ask the Wingco probing questions, continually and repetitiously, like a backwoods John Humphrys . Maybe I should have anticipated the heart attack he had six weeks into the course (not fatal, I’m glad to say, and not actually in front of us). I’m sure it was nothing to do with the strain of explaining to me yet once more about the brown paper.
The new Wingco was younger and more savvy, and was keeping a special treat for the last session of our Protect and Survive course, before certificates were handed out to the successful. The treat was the denouncing of a traitor, a traitor even now in our midst. He read excerpts from my light hearted and abusive accounts in our trade journal, Cumbrian Owl. He spoke of honour and gentlemanliness. He implied I had none.
Injudiciously, I had included in my reports thumbnail sketches of my Protect and Survive, by now ex-, colleagues, including the lady amongst us. This was damnable. Especially the false eyelashes.
There was muttering. Remember I was in border reiver country. Death meant little up there. I was scared. Charm was my only hope. When the session had been wound up, I went and talked to the new Wingco for ten minutes, bygones be bygones and all that, making sure that I walked with him all the way to my car. Once on the road I drove like hell, waiting for lights to swing out of a side lonning and get on my tail. Not just paranoia. Two of the course members belonged to a rifle club and had made, more than once, strange enquiries about what would be done with the residents of Dovenby Hall Mental Hospital in the event of a nuclear attack; they were volunteering to “look after things”, they said. They said they were trained.
I didn’t want them to follow me home.
Recently it has been officially admitted that the whole thing was a cynical farce; that brown paper over the windows does not save you from the thermal radiation, nor a stout kitchen table from the blast of even a small nuclear weapon in the vicinity. It was idiot propaganda which fooled only a small, gullible and officious section of the rural population.
The “Protect and Survive” episode seems relevant to our attempts to halt global warming.
It is clear to all but the most simple minded that the British Government has neither the will, the understanding, nor the courage to take measures against global warming. It’s true Gordon Brown holds a set of strong, almost absolute convictions on twenty crucial matters of ethical and practical concern, but then again he simultaneously holds the equivalent set of strong, almost absolute convictions which are diametrically opposed to the first. Like he believes in reducing relative poverty, and simultaneously he believes in the superiority of “business”, especially American “business”, to all other forms of human aspiration and achievement.
So, with global warming, he believes, or articulates belief, in the absolute priority of the human species working towards a sustainable existence. And simultaneously he believes that we must construct more motorways, airports, power stations, he believes in the complete deregulation of “business”.
And his actions, as always, promote the second set of beliefs. So all the sustainable stuff is just “Protect and Survive”; propaganda produced by idiots for idiots.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Sundance Kid meets his nemesis

Hi Capet,
Congratulations on being a granddad. 87% of it is good, but let me tell you, not all. On Saturday, for T's 13th birthday party, we went to Laser Quest . Now, though renowned as a modest chap, I may have let it be known that while I was at Blundell's I was just about the best shot in the world, ever. So it was with a gentle sense of almost regret that I realised by just how much everyone else was going to fall short of my Deadeye Dickdom.
After the first round - you know the kind of thing, charging through a crepuscualr labyrinth, firing from the hip, all scores computerised, team and individual - T came top, L's partner a close second, J fifth; and me tenth and last, behind the two eight year olds - who, as J needlessly pointed out, travelled together, and therefore should have aggregated their scores as one individual.
During the interval I consulted about tactics, methodology, all that kind of thing.
The second round I cannot bring myself to describe.
So while being a granddad is full of pleasures and wonders, it is not entirely so. I cannot account for the sense, not just of wounded pride, but of existential hurt, made worse by the fact that B and his eight year old friend, despite knowing about my heroic stature as a marksman, up there with Arjuna and Apollo, were so unsurprised by their beating me that they left it unremarked. Is it possible that they take some things I say with a pinch... ?
No, I'm too hard on myself.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

mobile phones

According to Carphone Warehouse most teenagers would rather give up sex than their mobile phones.
One of the problems of growing older is that you know from experience that the old lose touch with the world, and therefore you know it must be happening to you, but you're not sure how.
It's not the intelligence that diminishes so much. It's that the human brain is very good at loading culture (all the non-biological stuff that was not part of you when you were born but is now) but not so good at erasing it. This is not a design flaw. A huge part of the brain would have to be devoted to working out what should be dumped, and how the mind should restructure itself to deal with the absences. Much more effective to use the whole brain to load and run culture; it's a big thing the brain, and by the time it's full the body will be fairly clapped anyway.
But that's why old people can't quite mesh up with the modern world, language and thought-wise, and why teenagers tend to sigh a lot and shake their heads. It doesn't matter to teenagers of course, and it shouldn't really matter to us, who should be getting ready to go, in our own good time.
Mobile phones are a clear site of the kind of evolution which leaves us fading into the past. They have transformed human culture in a couple of generations. For me a mobile phone is just a fixed phone that works anywhere. But to the young the mobile phone is a whole inner universe, and their interaction with the world, its connections and its potential, their inner picture of what human life is, is as different from mine as mine is from my parents', who never really knew what a computer was.
I can try to imagine what this virtual world which you can only enter through the practised and evolved use of the mobile phone is like, but I will be wrong, completely wrong.
Today on the bus I watched a young woman hold up her mobile for her mother, a large woman, more butcher's slab than catwalk, to do something fascinating but repellent with her nose stud in. As in a mirror. When there were mirrors.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Race, intelligence, and the good doctor

This race and intelligence stuff that James Watson
has shovelled into public space - by chance at the same time as nooses are beginning to appear in New York.
The other night I listened to Richard Lynn on The Moral Maze insisting, as he often does, that "science demonstrates" that, on average, the Chinese (a nation) have an "IQ" of 105, White Europeans (a colour) an "IQ" of 100, other East Asians (fairly large grouping of populations, nations and cultures) 95, and "Sub-Saharan Africans" (another fairly large grouping of populations, nations and cultures) 85.
There are the obvious points to make about this, and they have been made very well many times before. Just the sloppiness of the Professor's categories is probably enough. Yes, Lynn is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. He comes across as a pleasant man, scrupulous, rational, polite, and big-hearted enough to say that sub-Saharan Africans are not inferior in everything, and in some respects make better athletes than people like him - as do, he didn't add, horses. And he has huge professorial confidence. But he doesn't come across as particularly... I hardly like to use the word. Anyway, he's ever so good at meta-statistics, and I'm sure that makes up for other deficiences. But I make a human, not a scientific point when I suggest that there will be a thousand upon thousand contexts across the world in which many professors, just like me who am not one, will come across as socially, technologically, intellectually derelict idiots.
Lynn is certainly not a scientist, in the sense that Watson or Feynmann or Heisenberg are or were scientists. He's a statistician and pundit. Science needs phenomena to prove itself. IQ is not a phenomenon. It is a statistical derivation. It is circular. It describes nothing except what it describes, its own artifact; which correlates to swathes of human behaviour, sure; so does astrology. But that to which IQ correlates, that really very big complex of phenomena, is undescribed by it; is not yet reproducible or even producible. What IQ pretends to lasso is much more complex, in the sense of having an in practice unquantifiable number of examinable bits, than say the movement of the planets, or the human genome. It really needs labouring how complex, interdependently multi-factorial, and so far undescribed or unquantified is the thing with which IQ correlates.
Professor Lynn's statistics are impeccable - well, actually even that isn't necessarily true - but they describe only themselves, and then Lynn appends to them a crude fiction of races, scores and intelligence.
A bit of a midget then. But if he were to confront the phenomenon of culture, he might gain some stature. By "culture" I don't mean the "Western culture" sort of thing, or "the arts" sort of thing, I mean the inputs and outputs of the human brain and its referents, where there are such, in the physical world, from the edge of the universe down to where all disappears in quantum strangeness.
Take for instance a brick. A specific brick, and every brick there's ever been; the bricks that made the widest single span arch in the world in Parthian Ctesiphon 2600 years ago, the bricks on a modern housing estate or littering a child's bedroom floor. And add the virtual existence of everything that is brick, there in the brain, modified by every instance of brick that comes in as language or sight or touch; and then whenever it goes out again - as a bit of language or a painting of bricks or a brick made or laid - infinitesimally, or sometimes crucially, modifying what brick is out in the world. That's culture. And it's not just bricks. It's - the next thing that comes into your head; and the next thing that goes out of it, as language, as cooking, as anything, continuous with the origin of mankind, and our final demise.
That's why its almost unquantifiably big.
The brain is one part of individual and collective human development, and of all human behaviour. And culture is the other.
It follows that human behaviour, including the kind of behaviour that IQ tests are supposed to measure, is dependent not only on the exact physical conformation of the brain, but on the subset of culture which is processing that brain and in turn being processed by it. That is why even a Professor Emeritus might find himself anywhere in the world in a thousand situations where he might, to people as narrow and judgmental as himself, appear to be nothing but a gormless lump.
Until we make more progress in describing culture in this wide sense, and categorising its elements and all the things that have to be done before its phenomena can be subjected to scientific scrutiny, we cannot pretend that IQ tests do anything but give an indication of how closely members of a given population are likely to exhibit behaviours resembling the behaviours of the population of China, or of successful academics in small damp universities in racist provinces.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Blair, Anthony, the memoirs

One of the strange things about the world of human beings is our - it's formal name is hypocrisy, but that makes it sound like a rather unusual sin; it's our ability to argue righteously from principle as it suits us; and then to argue the absolute opposite, equally righteously, from different principle, when that one-eighty degree slew suits us in turn.
We all do it, or all of us who are complex enough to be normal. We listen to our nearest and dearest in tacit disbelief as they say exactly the opposite to one person that, under symmetrical but reversed circumstances, they have asserted to another. The only person we don't hear doing it is ourselves, or if we do, if we catch the slight grating of principle on contradictory principle, we are very apt with the lubricant of buts, of the circumstances being quite different - often by which circumstances we mean the personalities involved, or the degree of our self interest or, most importantly, the immediate focus of our emotions, feelings, our beliefs.
This translates into the political sphere. It allows Gordon Brown - it is only worth castigating politicians we have some hope for, however residual, however vain - to write fulsomely about Aung San Suu Kyi in his book on courage, while actively avoiding a single gesture towards the Burmese military dictatorship that might upset the true lords of New Labour, the North American Government, and "top businessmen". And it allows us all to believe opposing things that the simplest logic demonstrates to be mutually exclusive or contradictory.
So, Blair, Anthony, his memoirs. One of the central principles of crime and punishment, as expounded by Blair, Anthony, himself, forcefully and on numerous occasions, is that the criminal should not gain from his crimes; not even by writing books about them. The money instead should go to the victims or if, as in this case, many of the victims should be dead in their thousands and tens of thousands, the loot should go to the bereaved and the suffering, malnourished, maimed, humiliated and robbed who survive.
But of course in all justice, by all sense of what is right and proper, of what is owing to the virtuous and is the just deserts of the evil-doers, the proposal that a British Prime Minister is also a criminal is an obscene and preposterous suggestion. No leader on our side is ever guilty of their enormities. The worst one can say of them is that they did a thing in which they devoutly believed. More saint really than sinner.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Being looked at

I was on television the other day. Watching the recording afterwards was weird, like watching a ghost.
The human gaze assesses you. Addressing "the public" can be euphoric or horrible. The public doesn't have to fill a huge lecture hall. We've all been there in the school playground. It's the configuration that counts. It's you at the focus, and - it need only be three - the public arranged around you in that imprisoning curve, facing in. With rapt attention. Or excited anticipation of violence upon your person. Or active indifference, their stony gazes all slightly elsewhere.
This is the prototype public gaze. Anybody who has addressed the class, or the lecture hall, or the hobby or lobby or pressure group, and failed to make contact with a single pair of eyes, failed to elicit a personal response, even if it's only a puzzled frown directed into the inside of your head - but hopefully it's a nod and smile - will know the cold sweat, sinking horror, barely controllable urge to flee. Experienced mass communicators single out individuals for that reason, not just to display the human touch, but to be welcomed by another human being, to fend off the terror of isolation. Because our evolutionary group instincts are strong. We know that if we are isolated like this for long, they are going to kill us.
I hate being looked at. I am sitting at a meal, or standing at a party, and suddenly somebody will ask the question, whatever it is, that amounts to "Who are you?" "What are you? "How do you define yourself?" And because there is a lull in interest elsewhere, eyes turn towards you. And my top lip instantaneously bubbles sweat, and I panic, and gabble something along the lines of, "Nothing, really. Oh my goodness, just look over there."
But put me on a stage, or even give me my head in a bit of political street theatre, and I'm away. I can perform, but I cannot merely be, not in any open or transparent sense, in public.
Nevertheless situations arise. J, the other half of Ogo Press, has been writing round to friends, many from the middle reaches of the past, to publicise Torc. My god, what distinction so many of them have achieved, as writers, professors, directors, even a successful global investment fund manager. While I, well here am I, perfectly undistinguished, lacking the slightest blip of emininence.
Such as I am, like most people this side of the manic I guess, I spend time being quite depressed about myself and time feeling quite pleased. I brood on the fact that I am an idle waster, and then on the fact that I am brooding on my idle waste rather than getting on with the kind of energetic and in their own way world-conquering things that other people do. Then I have a cup of coffee, re-read a review, look at a bit of work, and feel quite self-assured. So it goes on, up and down and round and round until, I guess, we are run over by a bus or too old to care.
But now, on Amazon, in order to encourage people to buy this book - the commercial imperative - and to read it - the egotistical imperative - I have to write about myself, because Amazon suggests the publisher do that, and I am the half of the the publisher who is meant to have imagination. I have to make myself sound attrative, and dynamic, and exciting, and as close as decently possible to being a genius while still keeping the slight contact with "objective reality" that we politely refer to as the truth.
The post below is what I wrote - it's not on Amazon yet because they say it takes five business days; and maybe they have some sort of decency filter which vapourises hyperbole.
Was it hard to do? Did I quail and sweat and want to flee the page. Certainly not. I enjoyed it. You should try it. Write your own three line eulogy. It's pure performance, exhibitionism, a virtuoso act. Do it. Share my shame. Don't miss the opportunity. It'll become just another part of you, and one that's worth having.
But I still hate people looking at me.

Torc - ISBN 9780955590603

These short stories range from the familiar and familial to the bizarre and the, in that seductive "Oh no, oh yes, oh no" kind of way, quite shivery. There is human sacrifice by a Swedish summer lake, and the murder of a voluptuous American tourist in Spain's other Versailles by a guerrilla troupe of ultra-European actors. An invisible shepherd mines a golden sexual vein in a Greek palace three thousand years ago. An old woman has visions of eastern orgies and transcendental holiness through the hedge of her very English terrace garden. A young woman from a failing central African state, swathed in a burka, meets an M15 spook in a London park to address the matter of her president's forked penis and his predilection for the discipline of traditional nursing. Nearer home, a good husband dallies with his mistress while his wife takes a succession of driving tests; and an elderly couple visit a computer screen to be informed of the cosmetic, and other, possibilities of genetic engineering. Elsewhere, holy adultery is practised and explored while raging old men expound the Abrahamic law.

Those already familiar with Waddington's style will recognise the slightly narcotic combination of the sensual and the cerebral, the arrestingly elegant and the look away crude. You are lulled as you are lured, charmed as blades are unsheathed, and you are left, more alive than before, with strange reflections playing across the shadows of your mind.

James Waddington has published a novel, Bad to the Bone [Dedalus 1998], which has been translated into French, Italian and Russian. Some of his short stories have appeared previously in magazines and anthologies. He writes and broadcasts on drugs in sport, theories of culture, the enigma of religion, bicycle technology; and any combination of any or all of the above.
© Amazon

Monday, July 30, 2007


The web is a wonderful place, and Torc appeared on Amazon without my contacting them at all. It's one of those useful but scary things, like being able to pay your car tax on line. How do they know whether you're insured or not? But they do - and that thing you were thinking about three hundred and seventy two seconds ago, they have that up on screens with your mugshot in the sidebar from Pontypridd to Llandudno ; so be careful. The DVLA in Swansea know everything. And they pass it on to Amazon.
Or the other way round.
Get a grip, man, get a grip. OK, just click DVLA Swansea and it should get you straight through to Torc on Amazon.
Or, if you want to go the conventional route, just click
Oh, and if you want to tax your car, click The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien aka Myles na gCopaleen

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


More than a year since I posted to this blog. The dark is closing in. The crows dodge closer each time they drop by. Each eye glinting towards me asks the same tactless question. Days ago I saw a figure on the road between the rocks, but it came no nearer.
The last wheat grains are gone. Larvae loop and slide in the dregs of the water barrel.
No, not really. I've been working on a book, Torc [October 2007].
You only publish a book yourself for one overarching reason - because nobody else is going to do it for you.
Once that is out of the way, there are other good reasons. You have total responsibility and, up to the time it goes to the printer, control. You learn a bit about typesetting and Photoshop and html. You can design the cover. You can give your existential angst a workout over fonts, kerning and the black hole of rasterisation.
Everything takes a long time. I spent most of yesterday just making a web page of review quotes from my last novel (that one published by a mainstream publisher).
Another thing publishing your own book does is raise the question, what's the point? What's the point particularly if, like me, you are not a writer of great significance. We won't necessarily agree who these writers of great significance are, but we know they exist. Last night I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half a Yellow Sun. Some books add to the cultural core of what it is to be human. This may well be one of them.
But, and it's an important but, there aren't so many. Off the top of my head, there's Orhan Pamuk's Snow , that kind of thing - and David Mitchell's Number Nine Dream and Cloud Atlas, Art Spiegalman's Maus and Yasher Kemal's Salman the Solitary; Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook. But how many of those are there from this and the last century? Not so very many.
Which leaves all the other books - including a lot written by "our greatest living fiction writers". And here suddenly we are in a different game, the game of what goes on in writing when one is not writing a work of enduring and universal significance. Which, nine hundred and ninety nine times out of nine hundred and ninety nine, one isn't.
But even with the not-at-the-core-of-universal-human culture books, there are two kinds of fiction, just as there are two kinds of reader. There are readers whose reading is like their conversation, a continuous rehearsal of what they already know; and those for whom reading is a leading part of the part of them that is always on the move, constantly exploring and engaging and changing.
So, I mean to say, where are you as a reader and where am I? Well, obviously!
That's why I write and who I write for; myself, in the second category; and you, likewise.
Take the shortest story in Torc.
When J read it, she said, "Why does it have to be a Jew?"
"Because," I said, "it's a traditional story. In the original story of Harun el Rashid and the seer, the seer was a Jew. Jews at that time in that place were not conceived of in the complex way they are now, after another thousand and more years of brutal history have gone by. Jews were respected and admired as wise and philosophical. That's part of the point of the story."
"But," J said, "you're not telling the story more than a thousand years ago. You're telling it now. Surely you've got to take the modern context into account."
"No, I don't think I do," I said - because once I've written something and I think it's good I get quite cross when anybody suggests I change a word. I often give way in the end, but with sorry grace, even when I know that I'm wrong and they're right.
So the seer remains a Jew, as he was in Harun's day. A Jew who makes an interesting but fatal mistake.
That raised questions twelve hundred years ago. And it raises the same, and other, questions today.