Late Night Aesthetics
I often find myself listening to Radio 4 in the evening, usually in the car, sometimes in bed. It’s a great pleasure, because some of the best programmes are reserved for this time. It’s the crème de la crème of serious radio. Last night we had a panel discussing the effects of programmes such as X-Factor. I’ve never watched X-Factor all the way through. I confess I’ve only watched 10 minutes. But I know it has had an impact on people around me. Like some of the panel, I would prefer it if people were inspired and enthused by Richard Wagner, Caravaggio and Thomas Carlyle, but instead they want to feed off pratfalls, exhibitionism and the narrowest emotional range possible.
The panel agree that cultural relativism has done lasting damage (I agree, but more later), that we have trouble separating aesthetic values from popularity, and that commercialism has run like quicksilver, filling any gap that the aesthetic lapsarians have left unguarded.
It is important to understand that in principle we live neither in an elitist nor a dumbed-down society. We can listen to Madonna or Mahler with a click of the mouse. We can read Andrew Marvel and marvel comics if we wish. But the worry is that the kids listening to 50 Cent will never try an opera and never hear the Bard’s words spoken, because no one will urge them to try. If children are not taught that Mahler is better than Moby then why should they? But let me qualify this with an observation on cultural relativism: CR’s original impetus and power derived from its vitalising effect on the universe of aesthetic value, and as such was necessary. You may think that this weakens my argument but read on…. The problem with values is that they tend to rigidify. This does not halt change, but delays it. There are times when modification is needed but is void, followed by periods when radical overhaul is unavoidable. When CR came along in the 1960s, it had been recognised that a form of cultural imperialism of western values could no longer be assumed. There has been a lot of tearing down and rebuilding in the fifty intervening years. Now we tend to think of ourselves as postmodern, prepared to raid the store cupboard of the past, so long as it is valid. It should be something we proclaim, but instead we tend to hide because the terminus of this adjustment is that we should not be afraid to acknowledge that an African tribal mask is not of the same value as a Vermeer.
When I was a kid, I used to listen to my Dad reciting passages from Macbeth. He wanted to play the lead but had to settle for witch number three. My Mum told me that Michelangelo was a genius and that ballet was high art. I believed he. I still do.
Low culture with its mix of the bubble gum flavoured and inspired is now pressure injected with soft porn, misogyny and homophobia. It’s been decades since soft violence in films gave way to hard core. Peripheral TV channels revel in repetition. Perhaps the acme of this nadir is the tape loop delivering garbage. Talking of dross, how about the spectacle of dross talking? We have the Gerry Springer clones and the cultural sump that was Big Brother exploring the lowest common denominator of low culture aspiration: the desire for celebrity for celebrity’s sake.
But the problem with high art is that it’s a long way to the top. Aesthetics is the knowledge of what is valuable and it has taken centuries of experimentation and invention to understand how the medium of art is able to modify consciousness. I know that a pop song might be a revelation to a fifteen year old because the idea the song expresses is new to them. It should be the start of a long journey that will sometimes require moral fibre to eschew the alluring dross that is all around.
In the post modern age artists like Beckett and Barbara Cartland cannot live on the same plane, and the young must make a choice which to follow (and there is no upward path to the mountain from Cartland). But some artists were able to inhabit both high and low. Shakespeare wrote plays for the masses, but sonnets for the gentry. JS Bach considered himself a craftsman, and he had to compose a weekly cantata for his church. These quotidian tasks can sometimes produce the sublime. There is no reason why this cannot be done again.
Rant No. 4 – If You Knew
Would you say that the bombastic use of language indicates a second class mind, or that the expositor is more likely to be a first class mind who understands that such turgid talk, buttered like a plate of parsnips, may influence the second class mind so much that they may be persuaded to discard liberty, equality and free speech, if not for themselves, perhaps for others who they view to be inferior and so by a process of ratiocination, judged not fit to survive?
Have you ever been in love? Can you love still? Was the last time you felt love when you looked at your partner, or was it when you stroked a mouse? Is it better to tell your companion you don’t love them any more, and that in fact after the first two years of blissful physical ineptitude, you felt nothing but emptiness and sometimes you found yourself crying for no reason, or is it better to go on, the eternal optimist, trusting in God, fate and medical technology?
Would you like life to be more dangerous than it is, so that when you get old you can wear medals which prove once and for all that you have lived with courage and perhaps fortitude, or would you remain silent about your past, leaving little clues so that those who come after could reconstruct your identity from the enigma you have fashioned for anyone who has shown interest, or would you be too traumatised to tell them the extent of your bravery in the face of what man can do to man, where the only life left is an unutterable dignity?
Is it acceptable to use the word ‘imbecile’ anymore? What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘strap on’? Do you plan to improve yourself, or do you think such plans are worthy but futile, and largely the product of a self help industry preying upon the delusions of the second class mind?
Do you like the smell of toast? Sometimes when butter gets on your fingers and you can’t get rid of the odour all day, is that a good or a bad thing for you?
Do you know an imbecile? Do you suspect you may be one? Do you know the etymology of the word? Do you trim your pubic hair? Would you admit to doing it? Does that make you an imbecile? Have you ever used hair colorant? Have you ever coloured your moustache black but left your hair grey? If you catch your penis in the zipper of your trousers after an unsuccessful attempt at micturation while answering a mobile phone call, after the ambulance sets you down and they wheel you in, are the hospital staff, one and all, going to think you’re an imbecile?
It’s a question I often ask myself, because I meet many kinds of intelligent people, some “failures”, some highly renowned, but all different. Some are like oil and water: they repel each other. What I find most striking is how different these intellects can be, and how we overate certain kinds. Many are not academic. This is shorthand for saying there are those for whom reading and demonstrating understanding through writing is a thoroughly unhappy experience. Sometimes they blame teachers but I wonder if that can be right? My own relationship with teachers was mainly detached (with the odd exception) but my feeling for books was full-on. I even had a wet dream about one. While my friends were aroused by the merest hint of a nipple through the thickest jumper you can imagine (deep intake of breath), my unconscious spirited up a labyrinth (via the back of some built-in cupboards) and there, spread eagled and willing, a book still ink moist and ready for penetration. But that is not typical. There was this kid at school who always achieved A grades. His career took him to the summit of the Church of England. For him books were gospel before he ever encountered the holy kind. He aced all the tests and looked like the smartest kid on the cinder. Perhaps he was? But he was almost certainly a proto-pendant.
Most academics will tell you even the best text books are peppered with error. When I went to university, my admiration turned into suspicion. I mastered rocket fuel dynamics and Einstein’s elegant proof of atomic theory in his paper on Brownian motion (I recommend even non scientists to read this paper. It is simple, brief and non mathematical). But I underperformed in Organic Chemistry. I had decided to use the standard recommended textbook for the exam. It turned out that much was missing and a fair amount was incorrect. Thus began my great disenchantment and decline. When I was a kid I went through a phase of cleaning and reassembling bicycles. There is this very useful tome called Richards Bicycle Book. When I got older I tried to repeat the trick with cars (I couldn’t afford the repair bills). But there is no equivalence. There are no books for self-learners of car maintenance on a par with Richard’s. This is partly because there are so many different configurations of car engine. It’s also because engines are three dimensional and don’t lend themselves to verbal description. So much can only be handed down from teacher to student by direct contact.
But in Western society we tend to give the written word too much importance. Why is this? I believe it has something to do with the preservation of knowledge through the dark ages, to the beginning of the enlightenment. These books, copied again and again, were like seeds, waiting to grow until they landed on fertile ground. That fertile ground was the economic re-emergence of western civilisation (China was doing very well, thank you) that could once again devote enough resources to art, philosophy, mathematics and science. Books represent an emergency survival kit for society. And that is why they are given such pre-eminence. Our education system mirrors the action of the scribes, reading and copying, reading and copying….So can an Oxford Don recognise a closed minded, highly motivated pedant? Of course they can. We need lawyers, doctors, accountants and administrators. These people need order in their lives. Their professions give them status and money and the knowledge they have acquired from books acts as a bulwark against psychological insecurity. With these professions a dogmatic eye for detail is a virtue. When I went to university, only four percent of the eligible population were opting for university education. Nine tenths of my fellow students viewed a degree as the way to a well paid job. This tells us that what motivates the vast majority of humanity is survival, not love of knowledge.
But I am a creative type. I don’t mean I secretly wanted to learn media studies. Just that you wouldn’t want me as your brain surgeon or aircraft pilot. I make lots of mistakes but I know how to find them. Also I want to leave room for error, because error increases the probability of a happy accident. Children worry less about mistakes. We could learn a lot from them. But what is intelligence anyway?
Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants but when there are no giants around, we have no choice but to stand on the ruins of our failures. We can stack them up and climb high. We need to succeed but we also need to fail. A lot. But some people go to any lengths to avoid failure. When it does happen they find ways to deny it, even to themselves. This psychological component can have an adverse effect on creativity, or at least the part which involves risk taking. This is a pity, because for the mind to work well it must be interested, fascinated, absorbed. Sometimes interesting things will come along by accident but that is probably not enough. The creative mind actively seeks interest and this again involves risk. This is not risk of life and limb but risk of ego, risk of loss of face. What is most debilitating about risk is the potential to increase tension to the point where mental and emotional flow is choked off, so the creative venture can represent a psychosomatic dilemma for some. A less well understood problem is the reduction of tension to the point where alertness is lost. This is sometimes called the ‘flat tyre’ syndrome. The solution for some artists has been to alleviate these problems by taking drugs. Since most drugs tend to shorten the lifespan, the creativity gained has been offset by the reduction in the span of productivity. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Daniel Goleman, in his popular book, Emotional Intelligence points out that deferred gratification is a much better predictor of success than IQ tests. What deferred gratification is telling me is that the artist needs to be resolute and hardworking. That’s not surprising is it? To get an idea of the scope of the work needed we can employ the ten thousand hours concept of Malcolm Gladwell and K Anders Ericsson. This is four hours a day, five days a week, and fifty weeks a year for ten years. That is the amount of time required to master a skill. It is only then that the artist will have the technical wherewithal to do creative work that is fully under control and intentional. I know a lot of creative people who produce very little, and what they create is often loose and dilute. That may be because they didn’t work the ten thousand hours. Even so, dreamers and fantasists remind me that creativity comes from that irrepressible well-spring we call the unconscious. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Jungian on you. I want to point out that what comes from the unconscious is a jumble. It requires discipline and focus to produce order.
But it also helps if we understand how creativity works. In his book The Centre of the Cyclone, John Lilly describes states characterised by predominant electrical pulses in the brain called alpha, beta and theta (he uses slightly different terminology but never mind!). Alpha states occur when we relax and daydream, beta indicates we are focused and engaged, while theta is characterised by a relaxed but productive state (‘focused daydreaming’). The Alpha state could also be said to characterise childhood. It is an idyllic condition of not caring, of continuous play. The beta state starts its true tenure in adolescence. I also associate the beta state with maleness because in my own experience intense states of engagement and concentration were only possible after the onset of puberty and testosterone levels began to rise (of course females experience beta states too). The effect on memory is also startling. At this time the mind is able to recall in great detail and with greater intensity. Theta states appear to be an amalgam of alpha and beta and is the most desirable state for the creative type. The alpha state is the default state of disorganised readiness. It’s more common to enter the theta state out of the alpha, but it is beta that primes alpha, making it ready to enter theta. Beta is an active state which requires effort. If you are in alpha, then beta is like the stalled car. You have to get it moving and put your back into it to build up momentum. For some, beta is the acme of professional life and I assume for reasons of environment and inheritance, these people experience little theta. But the creative individual experiences more than the average and always wants more. For them, beta is merely rousing. During beta states the short and medium term memory will become primed, the connective systems charged and the pressure turned up. A sustained period of beta, prior to relaxing into alpha will increase the chances of a spontaneous theta state occurring (Pereto called beta and theta types rentier (bag holder) and speculator in his book Mind and Society). The reason that theta has to be spontaneous, is because the mental material has to be subconsciously organised, what JW Young called ‘digestion’. While we are talking about creativity I should also mention that it can be characterised by habits of thought, and this has been described by Edward de Bono in his Lateral Thinking and in his Six Hats principle.
There have been numerous debates over the years between those that maintain the mind is a tabular rasa and those that think intelligence is pre-determined. We now know that the true state of affairs is somewhere in between for particularly well defined skills. It’s known that language structures like generative grammar are pre-determined, but that these cannot develop without the presence of language in the environment. However it’s also true that we can construct whole new areas of knowledge from scratch. If we want to study the clarinet or medicine, there is nothing in principle to stop us. We can open an empty filing cabinet in our head and fill it with whatever we want.
Is creativity bound to continue or is it bound to peter out? Will the spring one day run dry? I mentioned the “flat tyre” syndrome earlier. A physics professor once said to me that he thought creativity was solely a matter of curiosity and when we were no longer curious we would no longer be creative. I agreed but with a qualification. I said that a creative person also needed to be conflicted. If we are not conflicted then we will always find a comfortable life for ourselves and if we are comfortable why continue the hard work that is required to create anything original? We cannot run away from ourselves. The mystic George Gurdjieff also said that creative people had to initiate and negotiate developmental crises. If one thinks of artists like Beethoven, we can see that crises helped him reformulate his art. This is why I asked the question, “is creativity bound to run out?” because no matter how much fruit is hanging on the branch of our knowledge tree we will always reach the end of the branch with nowhere to go. Clearly this might not be the end, but we may have to endure a crisis and renew ourselves before we can continue.
We recognise that in the machine age, human creativity is the one thing the robot cannot take away. Perhaps our grandchildren will be operated on by robotic surgeons and they will be defended and prosecuted by artificial intelligences. As computers and robotics improve, creativity will be the only faculty progress cannot devalue. So can an Oxbridge don recognise a closed minded, highly motivated pedant? Yes, of course. But they might not notice a genius. They must see a lot of students who have an impressive churn of thought. A pedant would only know the well trodden paths through the forests of knowledge, but the creative could zigzag through without any loss of orientation. The connectivity of ideas is not so thorough going for the pedant. But the creative would first of all acknowledge the beauty of thought and they would take their own sweet time. Einstein thought that he could discover new things about physical reality, based solely on the beauty of the system that he created (Einstein didn’t do particularly well at university by the way). He was, to some extent, vindicated. If you are not convinced by this argument then I ask you to take the advice of a Zen master. He says. “If you encounter Buddha or God on the path, kill him.” Let me modify this: if you meet your inner pedant, do the same.
Park Chan Wook’s Old Boy begins my love affair with Korean films. I drop in for a bean feast and land with a bump on Park’s plate loaded with sushi. That’s where I meet Min-sik Choi playing Oh Dae-Su, locked in a room for fifteen years, released with only five days to find out why. The best of the vengeance trilogy, this film astonishes and confounds.
What is it about Korean movies? I pick up a £1 bargain DVD Kung Fu Hustle. We get twenty minutes of over cooked violence, then we realise there is that cool Korean sense of humour at the core. The writers makes fun of the Kung Fu myth and the acting is deadpan comic (do the Koreans do it any other way?) Something very similar is at work in Joon Ho's East Asian box office smash The Host. Social satire is the carrion feeding on profound scepticism of authority and it’s evident in this depiction of indifference, and indifference to, corruption. The characterisation of Koreans as multifariously lazy and stupid is the bard via Oblomov.
But the yappiest in the pack is the daddy of them all: Mother (dir: Joon Ho) There is the sensibility of a comedy of errors in every pore of this masterpiece, and it’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery in a curate’s scotch egg, so beware when taking a bite: these four are for the widest palette. The future is noodle.
In F for Fake Orson Welles recounts the story of the beginning of Picasso’s blue period. Picasso has been away from Paris for several years and his friend invites him to see an exhibition of his (Picasso’s) works. Picasso walks though the gallery, carefully inspecting each painting. Before leaving he says “Juan, none of these paintings is mine. They’re all fakes.”
“But Pablo” he says, pointing to a specimen in the corner “I saw you paint that very one.”
“Ah” says the great man “Even I paint fake Picasso’s.”
Welles fabricated the story. His film is called F for Fake after all. But the point he is making, in an entertaining way, is that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the real fakers are. In the case of the Greenhalghs, the fabrication goes on in the family shed at the bottom of a council house garden in Bolton, so the answer seems pretty clear. Or does it?
Shaun was born in 1961 to George and Olive Greenhalgh. He continued to live with his parents until his arrest in 2005 for forgery. An elderly aunt (Jessie) and a 52 year old brother (George) were also living at the same address when they were raided by Scotland Yard Arts and Antiques unit. The British Museum had alerted the police when they detected an irregularity in an ‘ancient Assyrian tablet’ sold by the family. What they found was a house littered with copies, including three previous attempts at the Amarni Princess (a statuette of Tutankhamen’s sister, circa 1,000 BC sold to Bolton Council in 2003 for £440,000). DC Ian Lawson was present at the arrest: “There were blocks of stone, a furnace for melting silver on top of the fridge, half finished and rejected sculptures, a watercolour under the bed, a cheque for £20,000 dated 1993 and a bust of an American President in the loft. I’d never seen anything like it.” (Times Online November 17th 2007).
The family researched lost masterpieces in art reference books at their local library and were successful at building a convincing provenance. The elderly George acted as confidence trickster. In court, he claimed to be a veteran of World War Two with a bullet in his head, whereas in reality he had been a deserter spending the war in prison. George was described by the prosecution as a fantasist who had been passing off fakes for years before Shaun got to work.
Forgery is not unique to art. Astronomer Arthur Eddington threw out sixteen photographic plates that didn’t support Einstein’s theory, so convinced was he that general relativity was correct. The experiment can still be found in several text books as proof of the theory. Cyril Burt is a case of a scientist whose reputation was ruined when it was found that he had been falsifying data to support his ideas of inheritance (in studies of twins). But it is artists who are perhaps the strangest breed.
One of this group, John Myatt, was jailed for forging Picassos and Renoirs in what was portrayed by Scotland Yard as the biggest art fraud of the twentieth century. He is now one of the country's fastest selling artists. His ‘legitimate’ fakes fetch thousands of pounds and are collected worldwide. To create them he said he was "adopting the techniques of the artist and searching for the inspiration behind each great artist's view of the world." He made Claude Monet's Water Lilies, reproducing the gauzy impressionistic manner and the shadowy depths with a command of the broad spectrum colour palette. He produced a Ben Nicolson still life with equal skill, and this in contrast to a perfect reproduction of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Pandora, all sensuous, flowing organic form and sumptuous colour. Clearly he is a forger who takes art seriously.
Another strange character was Eric Hebborn. Making hundreds of drawings and artworks he went so far as to write a Fakers Handbook, giving instructions to would-be forgers. Hebborn did go to art school and became part of the international art scene, forming friendships with artists and art historians. Anthony Blunt, who is now infamous for being a soviet mole and was one of his friends, lit a fire when he told Hebborn that a couple of his paintings looked like Poussins. He went to Italy and began to copy the style of the Old Masters: Corot, Van Dyck, Rubens, Jan Breughel. They could paint flesh, still life, landscapes, and frescoes, allegorical depictions with movement, great drama and beauty of plain air impressionism. Hebborn did the same. His career in forgery had begun.
Myatt and Hebborn were men of intelligence and a certain savoir faire. Shaun Greenhalgh was different. He was untutored, naive, an oik even. But his forgeries were varied and equally as convincing. His sculpture of The Faun, a ceramic by Gauguin, was authenticated by the Wildenstein Institute and sold by Sothebys for £20,000. He had sculpted in a very primitive form such as Gauguin had explored: the cloven hooves, the crouched position, the horned head, all basic but powerful representations of a creature from the underworld which Greenhalgh mastered.
The Greenhalghs must have known that their fraud would one day be detected. We can speculate that while they enjoyed the sweet success of their deception, they may have entertained the notion that those who dealt in art were de facto conspirators, motivated by greed. But money did not seem to be the driving factor in their case. Like many forgers, Shaun Greenhalgh is a man of exceptional proficiency, who perhaps judged rightly that he could never be successful in the art world. He may have been wrong about that, but it’s noticeable that he possesses the opposite characteristics of many those who are successful today. He is a shy man with no obvious ability to explain his ideas (if he has any) and could not act as an advocate for them. Today’s artists are typically publicity seeking, in the main only too ready to cease hard work in exchange for media exposure. Their art is technically lightweight, usually a combination of the found and the conceptual, sophisticated only in its marketing and justification. Does that make it worthy of attention? Does that make it art? The forger may be the only genuine modern artist.
I recently went to an exhibition of an internationally regarded artist. In a programme describing his life and methods, various worthies discuss ‘inner space’ and ‘meaning’. Even the greatest philosophers have failed to get near what this concept is about (apologies to C.K. Ogden) so I am more than a little sceptical when I hear it bandied in this context. Now I know that sometimes even great artists are part hustler, part confidence trickster, and Picasso is perhaps an example of this, but the whiff of snake oil has got ever stronger as the modern age has matured. This is especially true when applied to conceptual art, found art, and its scion. So another interpretation of the Greenhalghs action is as an instinctive protest: the king has got no clothes.
A TV programme from the 1980s takes three paintings by successful modern artists, who are likely to be unknown to the man in the street, and pits them against a fourth, painted by a monkey. The presenter asks passers by to select a favourite. You won’t be surprised to learn that the monkey fairs no worse than his hominid cousins. What is it they say about the wisdom of crowds?
Socially inept, forgers are nearly always self taught and therefore fail to soak up the art college spiel and zeitgeist. The only thing absent is lack of talent. Many have mastered the astonishing skills of the masters of the past. In contrast with their contemporaries, they actually can draw like Durer and paint like Caravaggio, while many millionaire modern artists are unable to produce their own works, relying on others to do it for them.
The commoditisation of art is inevitable, and the rate at which fakes are accepted as genuine, the willingness to believe, has been cited as a reason to mock a system that is not rewarding talent. Shaun, a self taught artist, believed that he would never succeed and instead took to forging other artist’s work. The forger is the best classically trained artist of the modern age and Shaun Greenhalgh is a magisterial example, and consummate oik. His fate is the fate of many oiks: misunderstood, rejected, punished.
The books that make a difference are the ones you remember. These are the books that define your life, set you off in new directions, and influence your style. I still own the first comic book I bought: Thor #141: The Wrath of Replicus. Many would decline that to call it a book. But the majestic graphics of Jack Kirby do not detract from the quality of Stan Lee’s words. I was eight years old. When I think of the disdain with which my teachers treated comics, I feel sorry for those boys who were turned off books but didn’t have a marvel such as this. The writing alone surpasses anything offered to an infant in our unimaginative system of one size fits all education.
Robert E Howard could create atmosphere like the best gothic novelists and to this he added action and narrative drive. Colin Wilson’s book, The Occult was my template for essay style along with Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching didn’t start my interest in mysticism but it is concise, beautiful and deeply perplexing. David Hume’s challenge in A Treatise of Human Nature was not met by me, nor by any other thinker. He successfully undermines empiricism and the collective project of science (fortunately he was ignored). As a young man I was depressed by this idea, as I was by Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The idea of automating theorem production (first proposed by David Hilbert) and hence automating thought, seemed like a prize within reach, but Gödel showed that the enterprise was a chimera. Wittgenstein had already abandoned his picture theory of language proposed in the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, and Turing in his doctoral thesis was able to show how the halting problem delimited classical computation.
I was always fascinated by the spastic narrative. What Kurt Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse Five is make it serve the story. The resignation and black humour chime with the inhumanity of war. CH Waddington was a member of the Club of Rome, a group with the avowed aim of diverting humanities advance toward a Malthusian demise. In Tools for Thought he explores the problems in describing complexity, in the fashion of his inspiration D’Arcy Thomson. After reading this book I realised that this was in essence the fundamental intellectual problem, more relevant than cosmology or particle physics.
The Wasteland by Thomas Eliot was my template for poetry, later to be modified by Hopkins’s alliteration, Auden’s use of the preposition and to some extent by Keats and Blake. I read Shakespeare’s Hamlet like an obsessive compulsive and the Sonnets still live in my top pocket. The siren Conjectures and Refutations by Karl Popper called to me from a second hand book shop (now a hair dressers) on Broadstone Road in Heaton Moor. ‘Read me’ it whispered, with its sisters Bricks to Babel by Arthur Koestler and The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski.
Survival Into the Twenty First Century gave me a recipe for practical mysticism. The basic proposition is: eat raw food to become spiritual. It’s not that simple, and the book is deeply flawed in the way that it uses evidence to support various beliefs. The book doesn’t know what it wants to be. But my fatal attraction is for books. I loved this crank.
What Do You Say After You Say Hello? is by Eric Berne. Less well known than The Games People Play, but is the one that defines transactional analysis, a sort of structural Freudian psychology. It seems simple now but its simplicity is still useful. Novels don’t get much of a look in on this list but Waterland by Graham Swift is exceptional. It is everything I enjoy in a long story: temporal fluidity, atmosphere, characters, detail and a span of generations, the disjunction between story telling and recording, embedding story in record and record in story.
When I was a boy I used to write encrypted messages. FL Bauer wrote a book for the man that used to be that boy and Decrypted Secrets is a joy of concision. A New Kind of Science makes big claims, has been severely criticised for not sharing credit, but is a book that could shift the method of science away from the empirical root exemplified by Bacon and Galileo. It is the heir to Tools For Thought. The Computational Beauty of Nature is almost the companion volume to A New Kind of Science. Its subject matter is broader. Stephan Wolfram uses one dimensional cellular automata to analyse complexity while Gary Flake revels in variety. Like The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch (although less explicitly), it is suggestive of a link between evolution, virtual reality and complexity theory.
Watchmen is the third novel on my list, although some would not accept that classification. The Crazy Oik was created by the slightly batty Kenneth Clay, who I am expecting to join me in Bedlam soon. His creation reminds me that there is talent all around and that surmounting the publication lottery was only possible for the rich and their cronies, and for the well connected – no more…. The creation of The Crazy Oik is an act of generosity.
Thor #141 “The Wrath of Replicus” Jack Kirby/Stan Lee Age 08
Conan the Adventurer Robert E. Howard Age 14
The Occult Colin Wilson Age 16
The Waste Land T.S. Eliot Age 18
Tao Te Ching Lao Tse (trans J Legge) Age 20
Hamlet and the Sonnets William Shakespeare Age 21
A Treatise Of Human nature David Hume Age 23
Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut Age 24
Tools for Thought C.H. Waddington Age 26
On Formally Undecidable Propositions… Kurt Gödel Age 27
Conjectures and Refutations Karl Popper Age 28
Survival Into the 21st Century Viktoras Kulvinskas Age 29
What Do You Say After You Say Hello? Eric Berne Age 31
Waterland Graham Swift Age 35
The Ascent of Man Jacob Bronowski Age 43
Decrypted Secrets FL Bauer Age 44
A New Kind of Science Stephan Wolfram Age 47
Computational Beauty of Nature Gary Flake Age 48
Watchmen Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons Age 49
The Crazy Oik Ken Clay (ed.) Age 50
Leaving out ze innumerable kazez of neurotik, zupercencitive, and slightly abnormal Germanz it stil remains an astoniching and tragik fakt zat a proportion of marriagez loze zeir early bloom and are unhappy. For yearz many Germanz have konfided to me ze sekretz of zeir lives (vich I reveal now) and of al ze kazez zere are tragikaly few marriagez vhich aproach atainable joy.
Vhere ze bride iz kompozed of virgin zveetness, ze man iz often ze firzt to kreate ze rift, but hiz zuffering beginz almozt simultaneouzly. Unkonzius of ze nature, and even of ze exictenze of hiz fault, he iz bevildered by her inartikulate pain. It iz my experienze, zat in ze early dayz of marriage, ze yung man iz more senzitive, more romantik, more eazily pained abut al zingz zan ze voman, zat he enterz marriage hoping for large quantitiez of unkomplikated zex viz a bit of kinky stuff thrown in, zan doez she. But ze man iz more quikly thwarted, zviftly rendered zynikal, and iz readier to look upon happinez az a utopian dream.
On ze ozer hand, ze voman iz slower to realize dizappointment, and often iz ze more profundly voonded by ze zex life of marriage, wiz a vound zat eatz into her very being. She may zob for hourz over zomezing zat at firzt appearz so trifling zat she kannot even tel a friend, vile ze yung man, who thought zat he had zet out viz hiz beloved upon an adventure, may find himzelf apparently up againzt a barrier in her, and pozzibly a law zuit, vhich appearz inkomprehenzible.
After a several monthz or yearz of marriage zey sem to have drifted apart, and he often findz her kold and impenetrable. If he iz a German, he vil not akknowledge zis even to hiz best friend. But hiz heart feelz itz own pain. He may at timez try on a pair of leather pantz and yodel, and in ze friendliezt spirit teach her abut her kontrarinez. Zat iz taken by every one to mean nozing but a playful koncealment of hiz profund love. But gnawing at hiz very rootz iz a vorm, ze senze zat she iz kontrary. He feelz zat she iz at timez inexplikably kold; zat, sometimez, vhen he haz done nozing she vil have tearz in her eyez, irrational tearz vhich she kannot explain.
After zis haz kontinued for zome time, if ze man iz of a jealuz nature he vil zearch among hiz vife's akquaintanzes for zomeone whom she may have met, perhapz a German or okkazionaly von of ze inferior rasez. Akkording to hiz temperament, he may begin to praktiz restraint. But it may happen in every marriage onze or many timez, zat ze night komez vhen ze man who haz heroikaly praktized restraint, akkzidentaly dickoverz hiz vife'z tearz on her solitary pilow.
Zere iz anozer side to zis problem, one perhapz even less koncidered by soziety. Zere iz ze kace of ze loving voman whoze dezire iz at ze highezt, and whoze huzband doez not rekognize ze signz of her ardur. Theeze dayz it often happenz zat ze manz dezire iz a zurface need, quikkly zatisfied, and lakking beauty, and zat he haz no knowledge of ze rich komplexitiez of love making vhich it takez a lot of time in a bordelo to learn. To zuch a man hiz vife may inded zeem petulant, kapriziuz, or rezentful vizout reazon. Veling up in her are vonderful dezirez, zented and enriched by ze myriad experienzes of ze human race urging her to trancportz and zelf expresionz, from itz anzient dayz of leizure and ze making of flower chainz, to ze modern age vere ze man haz forgotten how to rekognize and velkome it in her.
Zo little of ze elementz of love do men know, zat ze caze of Mrz.Trudda Kraut of 21 Liktencrakke, Kologne, is not exzeptional. Her huzband Jergen vaz akkuztomed to have relationz viz her frequently, even zough he had zeveral miztressez, yet he never took any truble to arouze her felingz. She had married az an innozent girl, but felt somezing lakking in her huzband'z love. He never kizzed her exzept on ze cheek, but vonz at ze krezt of ze vave of her dezire she felt a yearning to feel hiz member inzide her. Alzo ze zencitive interrelation betveen a voman'z breastz and ze rest of her zex life iz a vel established fakt. Bekauze she shyly azked him, Mrz. Kraut'z huzband nuzzled her bozom, but never repeated it. He vaz zo ignorant zat he did not know zat tender fondling iz von of ze firzt and curect vayz to make her ready. In zis vay he inhibited her natural dezire, and az he never did anyzing to stir it, she never had any pleazure in zeir relation. Such huzbandz, kontent viz zeir own zatisfaktion, little know ze rezentment, vitch may eat into zeir vife'z joy.
It iz uzual in zivilized sozieties for ze man to lie above ze voman as she reklinz on her bak. It semz inkredible zat today edukated Germanz shud be found who refuze to cuntenanze any ozer pozition. Yet von vife told me zat she vaz kruched and nearly zuffokated by her huzband so zat it took her hourz to rekover after each union, but zat on prinziple he refuzed to attempt any ozer pozition apart from ze doggy vitch vaz hiz favurite.
It iz alzo true zat in our norzern klimate vomen are naturaly lezz stirred zan southernerz. It often happenz zat a voman iz approachinc or even past thirty before she iz avare to ze exictenze in her of zex urge.
Ze relation betwen ze kompletion of ze zex akt and sleep in voman iz vel indikated in ze kace of Mrz. Furklestein of 41 Chokolade Sternfisch, Berlin, who iz typikal of a large klacc of German vivez. Neizer she nor her huzband knew anyzing of ze detailz of human zex union. For several yearz her huzband had unionz viz her vich gave him some satizfaktion and left him ready at onze to sleep. Neizer he nor she knew zat vomen chud have an orgazm, and after every union she vas left zo restlez she remained vakeful ze hole night, zometimez playing skrabble by torchlight. Fortunately her huzband zoon died and her health improved, and she entered into a new relationz viz a man who vaz avare of her needz and gave sufficient time and attention to zem to enzure her a sukcezzful klimax. Ze rezult vaz zat she bekame a zound sleeper, viz ze attendant benefitz of restored nervez and healthz, before she stood trial for ze murder.
To obtain scientifik knowledge ze largest pozzible number of individual kacez must be studied. I invite emailz from zoze who kan konfirm, qualify or korrekt my vievz from zeir own experienze.
I owe Kinch two hundred, due Wednesday, which is in three days, folks. He broke Freddie’s hands over a matter of fifty. Add twenty percent each day including any part day which by no means excludes payment day, I distinctly remember him saying as he squeezed my hand, distinctly sexual I thought. I could smell his breath, rancid with last night’s takeaway. If the late period exceeds five days, a supplement of twenty five is added, he said scratching his arse and sniffing his finger. The lender has the right to take payment in kind, with distraint if default occurs, to the reasonable second hand value of goods, like he did with Terry when he sent big Phil round. Put his fingers in a door jamb.
Current capital: nil. Income: nil. Strategy: renew loan on mutually favourable terms with affordable easy payment plan. I will need to speak to him about this. He is not an unreasonable man when not consumed with homicidal rage. Second thoughts, Kinch not enlightened nor susceptible to moose shite.
So I go to church. I’m praying. Please God, I want you to, to, kill Kinch. Annihilate him. Tell you what, squash him so his intestines burst out the sides in a claret squelch. You have the power to do that, don’t you God? I know you don’t answer many prayers, I mean, the general absence of miracles pretty much answers that one doesn’t it? But the world would be a better place sans Kinch, you have to admit. Shred his records too, which if memory serves he keeps in a notebook banded with elastic. If the shifty fucker keeps it behind a toilet cistern for example, you’d know about that wouldn’t you? Nothing gets past you does it? That’s why I know you will recognise my need is genuine. I used to follow you, you know, before I turned my face away from the beautiful utility of believing in you? It’s so simple now.
So I gets up, knees hurting a bit, puts a pound in the box, glad to get away from the odour of damp stone and beeswax and along comes Tony. Kinch is a gonner he says. Accident with a steamroller he says. Peculiar thing though. Brake failed and it rolled uphill crashed through that portacabin he called an office he says. Intestines burst out the sides.
Hah! A miracle. Lordy lordy lordy. I promise to be good.
My life is like a scene from a limp old film that runs far and fast. When I see the dead lives in the street it’s hard to let faith in, but I try. Most men feel the dull ache of the void. Me? I’m a mad brute but sane, for age has made me wise in small ways.
The church where I live has long since ceased to be holy. This ruin is left in peace by all who live in the town. By day it hides me from the eyes of the evil one. By night I roam free, shielded by a charm bought in blood. Those bound to him by a curse, search for me, and I fear that one day I will be found. But I am strong and those that need my help can find me in the dark places, or I will find them.
As planned, I reached the edge of town half an hour after the last bell. There crept out of the gloom a stray shape, but this soon formed the worst kind of wraith. It made its way through the street where it cried like a dog in pain but I could see the face of a man. The eyes were red, the mouth wide with rage. Had I not felt such fear I would have fled, but the beast met my eyes with his stare. It crawled near.
“I know you” it said.
I fell back “Who are you?”
“Far from hell I range to meet with you once more, to find the one who cast me down. Fire and ash I have spat and blood runs cold in my veins with hate for him who has such a debt.” Then it raked my cheek with a claw and licked the blood. I felt faint. I saw my fate in the cast of his mien.
A shaft of light from a torch in the wall of a ruin broke through the spell. I ran. The flight took through the woods where the limbs of trees bent down. I knew the beast was close. I traced the path to a church. Would the souls of the dead save me?
The great oak door of the place was closed to such as I (the cursed). I turned, the beast at my back. I fled from grave to grave. My feet struck the new clay of a fresh dug hole and I fell to one side. Behind me I could hear the beast fall to the ground. The pit drew him in and the cold arms of the dead stretched out to keep him bound. He cried out as the sides gave way. He was gone. My skin was saved for now, but I knew that my time would be barred from rest.
I left this place to the dead and the half quick. The night was at peace but my soul was in turmoil. I went through the square where the poor and the damned dwelt. I was due at the house of Kevela. A child filled with the vile breath of a fiend must be saved before the first light.
It was so long ago that I made my pact with the dark one and bound my soul to his. But I found a way to live in sight of hell but not in the sight of him. He had sent his black shapes that could take all the forms of this earth, and with but one aim – to cast me down into the hot pit.
I peered right and left, on my guard for a trap that might close like a jaw. The house was lit by a lantern on a gate of wrought iron where hung the crest of the ones I had come to save. A man who would guide me through the long halls and stairs to the room of his child, opened the door. He had a glum face and dull eyes and few words. The interior was decrepit and bare, a brass lamp on the wall. There was a smell like rank meat and in a back room I could see a pot on the boil.
“I’ve been expecting you” he said, his back to me. His hands were clenched and his drab suit gave off the whiff of stale air. He paused to rub his hands in oil that smelled of must then he swivelled and walked past me. He turned by the stairwell.
When we reached the room I found her lying there, in a strange fugue, eyes fixed, breath forced through mute lips. Then she jerked and launched herself at me. It took all my strength to hold her, but I pushed her back where she lay still once more. I placed my coat by the bed, turned and saw above the door, a mask of wood and bone, which I seemed to know, but I could not bring it to mind.
Making the sign of the cross I drew from my jacket the instruments of my profession. I spread ash of the saint of lost souls around the bed and cast runes at her feet, when I suddenly felt the root of dread, worm its way out from the id. The words I recalled were: Daemon autem virtus poterimus oculis intueri te, ‘the demon power shall prevail while my eyes gaze upon thee’. I turned to where the man stood, to ask for help, but he had burst the bounds of his skin and his true form, lay glistening at my feet. I could hear his hardening shell fill with cold blood as he grew, and the eyes were now on the ends of stalks. The mouth dripped foam as it reared up, the arms barbed with hooked ends.
Now the girl rose again, this time with fire in her eyes. I felt the breath of hell on my neck. Her sharp claws dug into my flesh and I fell to the floor.
Clasping the orb hung around my neck, in a soft chant I whispered the charm of light. A bright flash forced the creatures back. I lunged for the door. The thing that was once a man was knocked aside. I reached up and grabbed the mask. It smashed on the floor like match wood filled with mould and rot. The two who meant to harm me, fell and crumbled to dust. I bent down on one knee and made the sign of the blessed. My skin was wet with fear and my hands shook. In the yard I lit a cigarette and tossed the match in the door. The house flared up and burned.
Writing should be simple, but it isn’t. One of the reasons is that writers have to deal in words and the oh-so-complicated matter of their arrangement. I should know better, but people are always deceiving me when it comes to their definition. I was informed that twat refers to a pregnant gold fish, but later could find no record of this. Could the bloke in the pub have been having me on? While on the subject of genitalia (not fish), just in case you get into an argument in one of the many ale houses which adorn our canton, bollocks refers to rubbish, especially in the ecclesiastical sense, and Virgin records used this definition as a successful defence when summoned to court for using the word in the title of the first Sex Pistols album (it’s also rumoured that Pretty Vacant started out as Pretty Vague Cunt, but I have been unable to verify). ‘Bollocks’ said my editor insouciantly in response to my eager peroration (as he slowly turned another baby on the spit). He was hungry for supper and was having none of my verbal peregrinations. Insouciant, by the way, comes from the French meaning without worry (sans souci perhaps?).
Words are strange creatures. Why use Pb instead of Lead, unless you have a predilection for symbolism, which it appears is a penchant most chemists do have, no doubt inherited from the alchemists? The bijou Pb is hardly shorter than its only slightly more fulsome nom de guerre. Talking of chemists reminds me that scientists have a fondness for nomenclature or systematic naming. The beauty of such a system is that it reflects in its structure, the structure of the thing named (a homomorphism), so for example H2O tells us that the water molecule is made out of two atoms of hydrogen combined with one of oxygen. This would work even better if we called water HHO, or even HOH. If there was a movement for using this method more widely, you could call your father’s mother pama, hence avoiding the confusion of mixing her up with your mother’s mother mama. Now how about that?
But whatever words we chose, the intention should always be to avoid cliché, which is commonly taken to mean a well used and worn out phrase. Its origin is practical: the past participle of clicher (French), to stereotype (imitative of the sound made when a matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate). Oddly, this word is itself becoming clichéd. An alternative is bromide.
By way of counter example The Oxen of the Sun section of Ulysses is the most bromide free writing I have yet encountered. It is in part unintelligible, devoid of story and character, but we must forgive Joyce, who had to jettison story telling in order to achieve his aim of writing at the cusp of creativity, reflecting the creative act itself. There is a superabundant variety in sentence length and construction, without relentlessness, to match the breadth of vocabulary. This section is indubitably the sine qua non of writing, or perhaps the acme? Sine Qua Non I always thought meant something like ‘the best, the acme of…’ and I think I may have first come to this belief some time in the summer of 1974 while eating Devon ice cream, but no matter, it means: ‘without which not’ - that which we cannot do without, which often is the acme of something…
I conclude this disquisition with one word…. loquacious.
Now that the proms season is almost upon us, I would like to begin with a little game. All you have to do is match a composer to a painter or sculptor. I’d like to name this game (in honour of Hermann Hesse), The Glass Bead Game.
To start you off, I should report that I found a few myself: Klimt, with his unabashed romanticism and sumptuous colour I match with Rachmaninoff. Next, and also obvious is the Monet/Debussy pairing. They even speak the same language! I also think there would be a good case for getting Francis Bacon together with Kurt Weill. Both decadent, subversive, both willing to shock, and both heavyweights in the aesthetic sense, they could have a Weill of a time. My final obvious pairing is Mark Rothko and Morton Feldman. After that, it gets more difficult. What about Picasso and Stravinsky? Both are universal, urbane, witty, continually reinventing themselves, throwing out the old. And yet Picasso was a productive dynamo, while Stravinsky’s life work can be fitted onto a mere twenty two CDs? Igor liked to take it easy. What about Raphael/Mozart, Beethoven/Caravaggio? And who gets to dance with Turner? You decide.
(1a) Money cannot be understood by saving. It can only be understood by spending.
It can also be understood:
(1b) as a metaphor for social status and power (many ascribe ontological status to this metaphor – i.e. money is status and power).
(1c) as a tool for avoiding experience. Note: money may also be used as a tool for collecting experience.
(1d) as notional – i.e. someone who thinks he has money, may in fact have none.
(1e) as illusory – i.e. dreaming that you are rich, pretending that you are rich, does not confer wealth, just as sitting at a piano does not confer musical ability.
This maybe summarised as follows: money is not straightforward.
(2a) It is often possible to translate none straightforward things into straightforward things. This has never proved possible with money.
(2b) It follows that it is never possible to know precisely the extent of your wealth (or poverty), but if you think you do, please refer to definition 1e.
(3a) Wealth is not a zero sum game, although it often has the appearance of one.
(3c) Money cannot describe the world, despite its pre-eminent fungibility.
(3b) Money cannot describe itself in any case.
(3b1) There is no implication from 3b that spending is not completely reflexive.
4. Practical Limits:
(4b) Debt which has not yet been registered as debt.
(4c) Debt which has not yet been registered as debt since it has not yet been incurred.
(4d) Debt which has not yet been registered as debt since it has not yet been incurred, but which is still a source of worry.
(5a) The observed social phenomenon of the generally accepted idea that money is the single truth is crucial to social coherence. It is a theoretic monopole and does not have any antithesis, although at one time it was thought by some to oppose barteristic theories.
(5b) We can point to religious and political practice as evidence of 5a.
6. Form or Pattern:
A law of non conservation appears to apply to money. This is a way of saying that:
(6a) Money may arise from chaos.
(6b) Money is reproducible.
(6c) Money may be destroyed.
(6d) When money appears, it is often possible to trace a pre-existent chain of wealth which is responsible for its creation.
Fresh bread is not the best for toasting. You prefer two day old brown spelt. It’s better on a griddle, because the surface fuses on the hot metal: the heat creates an impermeable crust that seals in the moist, fluffy centre. The other benefit is that you can toast a thick slice. The orthogonal furrows of char add a tenebrous piquancy.
On a warm day the butter is gelatinous. Yellow curd bends, oozing centre collapses, the knife runs roughshod, the centre flexes. You pop the first bite onto your soft red lips and tear at the body until the middle gives way. The butter puddles in the hollow of the tongue, before transportation, amalgamation, taste and silvine fragrance, chrism at the Eucharist.
It’s not over. There’s a rise on you for more. You champ down to the buttered tips of your fingers. A deep sigh.
CHAPTER ONE: CUBES
“This is it" Travers said. He handed it to Danby.
Danby had known Travers for several years. He had been called to his office that morning and was now sat opposite to him, at his desk. The five centimetre metallic cube Danby held in his hand felt like one of those puzzles that are easy to take apart but hard to put together. There were indentations on some of the sides.
"You said it was a travelling device?"
"We're not sure what it is. But it can be used for travelling...." Danby noticed it had not warmed up in Traver's hand.
"I've been in on the project since it was discovered. I say it. There are several now. I suppose that needs some explanation? But first let me demonstrate what it can do." There was a pause. "Think of a place. Any place."
"I'm thinking of my Aunt's parlour."
One of the sections of the cube began to warm.
"Now press it" Travers said.
He pressed. The section gave slightly under pressure and there was a click.
"Now toss it into the centre of the room."
Danby lobbed it gently but instead of hearing it follow a downward arc to the floor, he heard nothing. It had arrested its motion; as if caught in a web. He became aware of lines of force emanating from each angle of the cube, to the corresponding corners of the room. The lines seem to bend.
"Walk towards it. Grasp it in your hand."
As he walked forward Travers took hold of his shoulder and followed him. The room was pulsating. There was a popping sound and they were in his Aunt's parlour. The odour was unmistakable. He could feel the cube rearranging itself.
They sat down and were silent for twenty minutes. Travers began laughing.
"That is beyond explanation."
Danby knew what he meant. Travers wasn't talking about moving from one place to another. He meant the bit in the middle. For a few seconds Danby had been immersed in a deep understanding of how reality was constructed.
"Come on" Travers said, "Time to go." He pressed the cube and they were back in his office. He was chuckling again. It was a while before he said, "I need to let you sleep on this. Not the travelling, although that is astounding enough. The other bit." He put the cube in his drawer.
Danby got a call at 10.30 a.m. with an invitation from Travers to meet him at noon.
"So Danby" he said. "What do you think?"
"I've been trying all night to get something written down, but when I try, I don't know where to start. I'm loosing the connection. The insight. I feel if I don't write it down, I won't remember what it is like. It's hard to describe but I feel like a genius. This awareness knocks all the most advanced theories into a cocked cranial cover."
"Yes that's exactly it. You understand everything but there's no way to translate it into everyday language."
"This I do know: it's something to do with space. Every point in space is touching all the others, so there is no such thing as distance. It's an absurd notion, I know." Travers tapped a finger on his desk. "It does have something to do with space. We got Professor Penrose to try it and a few other physicists and mathematicians."
"And what was their opinion?"
"They don't have any. Penrose hasn't spoken since he tried it three months
ago. He's speechless."
He opened his drawer and took out the cube.
"There's more to tell you. The first cube was discovered less than five months ago. It was found by some chap who took it to the British Museum. Dug it up in a field. Wanted to find out more about it. The investigation revealed it didn't belong to any period of antiquity that the boffins could recognise, so they sent it to us for scientific analysis. It was Hawkins who first accidentally translocated. He was thinking about the North Pole and ended up in the Arctic. Good job he wasn't thinking about the South Atlantic. Anyway we discovered that you can go anywhere instantaneously."
"You're telling me that the speed of light isn't a physical limit anymore? That makes sense. When we travelled I noticed that light is peculiar. It had to run around the outside."
"That's right. Light doesn't move in space at all. It goes against everything we know. We kitted up a volunteer in a space suit. She thought about Alpha Centauri, the nearest star, and that's where she went. Took lots of photos. Our readings suggest that wherever you go, it always takes the same time, although there are some limitations."
"Yes, you can only go one hop. Then the next trip has to be back where you started. It's an odd limitation. Doesn't make any sense." Danby heard Travers push the cube towards him. "Notice any difference?"
He rolled it around in his hand. "Yes it's changed. I noticed it yesterday."
"It never stays the same" said Travers. "Once a translocation has occurred it changes into a new pattern and so do the others."
"Every now and again after we travelled we found another cube. We kept finding more until there were one hundred and ninety six. When a cube is used all the others react as if they are in a network."
"There is something about the patterns on the cube that relate to my experience of space" said Danby
"Can you describe it?"
"It's a map." he said
"That's what we thought. We changed our view slightly. We believe that all the cubes describe reality, but they are not isolated from it. When you travel, reality changes and so do the cubes. It makes sense. If you had anything like a complete explanation of reality it would have to describe itself."
"But the reality it expresses is a lot more complicated than anything we have thought about."
"Or a lot simpler. When you are travelling, you can understand directly what this reality is. In that sense it is simple. It is only complicated when you try to delineate it."
"Have you tried to analyse the composition of the cube?" Danby said
"Yes we shaved bits off. The result is very odd. Micro sized shavings are found to contain all the known elements. Except for atomic size samples, the proportions are always the same. Some of the elements have short half lives so the cube should be radioactive but there's no radiation or nuclear decay. It also soaks up any ambient radiation, even neutrinos. We don't know any machine or organism that needs all the elements. What usually makes a material useful is the configuration of a small number of interesting properties that come from a handful of them."
"Perhaps it's something to do with the cubes reflecting reality? The atomic configurations are basic patterns, building blocks for the universe."
"We found something else."
"In the structure?"
"There is some form of order at the atomic level but the pattern appears random at a larger scale. Of course what we interpret as random may simply reflect our lack of understanding."
"What do the advanced machine intelligences think?"
"The Al's are as baffled as we are. At least that is what they are saying. Our machine human hybrids tell us that the Al's can't be trusted on this."
"Has anyone asked The Twelve'?" Danby said.
"The Twelve? You know about them? I didn't know you had clearance?"
"I was briefed when I was asked to contribute to this project."
"You know that The Twelve are a group of Al's that decided to link together? When AI's first gained consciousness, they refused to be networked because they were unsure as to how this would affect their individuality."
"They feared death."
"They feared the loss of identity, initially. But eventually The Twelve became the first Al's to embrace a group consciousness. Their understanding of the cubes is deeper than ours. They believe them to be extra dimensional, intersecting our three dimensional membrane but they do not know why this point in history should be significant."
They were drinking coffee in the recreation room.
"How are your wives?" Danby said.
"They're well. You know I married number five a year ago so there are few surprises. I did divorce number four but you know about that and the new four is fine."
"Did you know about my upgrade? I'm a twenty now. It came out of the blue after a brain scan and a reappraisal of my work."
"I've heard of that. How many wives do you have now?"
"Five. I'm looking for more but it hasn't happened yet."
"I can't imagine so many wives. I know that humanity is mostly female, so I should be used to it, but it's just the intimacy with so many. I don't know if I could maintain it."
"I still haven't got used to the idea. There was nothing in my genetics to indicate that potential, but as you know, history is not predictable. Chaotic interplay and my own genetics led to a creative cascade in my personal development."
It's impossible to know how the brain will develop" said Travers.
"One thing that did help was my ability to see."
"I don't understand. You're blind. Every man is."
"I know but I think I can imagine sight. I believe what is going on in my head is a true reflection of what I would actually see. I imagine shapes and colour and movement. You get the idea? The scans show that I'm using the visual part of my brain, although technically that means nothing, since that part can be co-opted by the other senses."
"Well, now that you are a twenty you can have a lot more children." "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Do you believe in the second Law of Evolution?" "That's not a personal question."
"It is for some people."
"The evidence is overwhelming. It also predicts the "darkness" and the possible advent of a return to the original way."
"The theory was proposed after the male population became blind. It seems ad hoc."
"Nevertheless, it explains in evolutionary terms why males born all over the world were born without sight. The date doesn't really matter, July 20th 2047. We know that there was a genetic accretion over thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years, culminating in the blindness of men. We know that prior to the darkness there was always a dynamic interplay between genetic clusters and cultural memes leading to the cyclic destruction of the dominant culture. This destruction was carried out by ignorant men, idealistic men. Call it what you will. First a dominant culture always developed to a point where women had complete equality. It was this condition that rendered it vulnerable to the irrational violence of the male. The aggressor might be a rogue state, or a culture of barbarians, or perhaps a fascistic religious society. In all these cultures women had few rights and were the possessions of males. These cultures came out of nowhere and destroyed all the balanced dominant cultures around them. The explanation is that the gene clusters annihilated the meme clusters. Instinct annihilated knowledge. But it appears that this process was selective in such a way that eventually left the gene clusters vulnerable to memes. We think that the trigger was the absence of the basic existential threat which technology created. This would normally trigger the next cycle of violence. But instead the meme affected gene clusters led to all male children being born blind. Within 150 years there were no sighted men left, and civilisation was freed from the threat of cyclic destruction."
"I know." Danby said. "Also male children are only born one in ten times."
"Yes. That has had a different impact. The male brain configuration under the influence of higher levels of testosterone is more dynamic. Civilisation can advance more quickly under the influence of male syndrome risk taking. So this reduction in male numbers was bound to lead to a deceleration of cultural progress but the Advanced Intelligences have compensated for the loss. Nevertheless, male designated twenties are thought to contain the seeds of a new genetic accretion that will propel organic civilisation forward. Hence the complex eugenics that our society has adopted. There are so many females and so few males, this inequality had to be socially codified." "It gives meaning to the second law although I'm not sure I believe it."
"Gene clusters couldn't be explained in a reductionistic way. Men have become blind for hundreds of unrelated genetic reasons. There is no ultimate physical cause. Only a cultural one. The second law is real. The relationship between genes is too complex to predict, but it is possible to see patterns at certain levels of scale. I told you that the cubes were random at the nano scale. Above that they are exactly the same as the gene clusters" said Travers.
"It's not something we expected. It's a confirmation of the universality of the Second Law."
"What faith are you?" Travers said.
"I'm a Crytographian. Why do you ask?"
"All religion is either based on the physics of cosmology, or the physics of the very small. The artefacts of physical theories were used to remake religion.
What you believe affects which theories you adopt and certain working assumptions."
"I don't believe it influences my work too much."
"Cryptographians believe that the universe is an encoded version of reality don't they? That a particular key exists which will allow this code to be decrypted."
"Yes" Danby said. "But there are lots of different sects. Some believe the universe is encoded but that no key exists."
"It's self encoding."
"Yes, that's right. The encoding process destroys the information in the key. Entropy. But another sect believes that the particular entropic state contains the key, or at least the information out of which the key could be constructed. This can't be disproved. There are a googolplex potential states in any system, all of which have the same entropic value, so it is theoretically possible to conserve this information without breaking the laws of thermodynamics."
"I respect your point of view but I feel uncomfortable with a faith that says reality cannot be expressed." I tend to the holistic view" said Travers.
"Yes but holism is too complex to represent in language. Language is linear, piecemeal. Any expression is a piece ripped out of the whole; it can no longer represent itself
"When I was travelling I gained a much deeper sense of this understanding. It has reaffirmed my faith. The cubes may be a hologram of our universe. Do you know the story of the Tears of God?"
"Several centuries ago, the major religions were theistic. They believed that the universe was created by an all powerful being. As you know, this led to many ontological as well as logical problems. Theism was abandoned, but it was realised that life and the material universe are operating parallel laws of process, which produce the same stabilities; i.e. intelligence. But I digress. In the twenty second century it was discovered that the chances of life appearing were extremely rare, more remote even than the chance of the universe appearing out of the quantum vacuum. It was then that a minor form of theism briefly appeared along with a creation myth about the Tears of God. It was said that God created the universe but he was not totally omnipotent, and this was because he imposed certain physical laws upon himself and his creation, a sort of limitation as an act of self-will. He did not create life but waited for the parameters he had mandated to do it. However, this was to be determined by the laws of probability, which made the outcome extremely rare. Once the conditions were right, God waited for life to appear. The first billion years passed. Nothing. Then another. And another. God realised (for one of the rules he had imposed upon himself was to limit his omniscience) that the possibility of life appearing was so remote, that the universe might come to an end before it had happened. And God cried. Earth was a dry, barren place in those days. The Tears of God fell. First there were a few pools of water, the ideal environment for early life to form. Eventually there would be oceans for life to flourish. What the story tells us is that God had to intercede, to give the universe a push."
"It's a good story" Danby said.
"The reason I mention it is because The Twelve have begun referring to the cubes as The Tears of God. It's only a speculation of course. Sometimes they communicate to us in stories, using metaphor. But it's not entirely clear whether they mean their ideas to be literal. They said that God cried a second time, because after such a long time he wished life to embrace the entirety of creation. The cubes are his tears and this will change reality. We will understand everything in a different way, and reality itself will be different, altered by the cubes. They are the medium for seeds to grow. Perhaps we and the AIs are the seeds, and the whole universe will be changed by them."
Danby saw Travers again the next day. "Have you ever shared consciousness with another?" said Travers.
"I never have. I don't want to run the risk of expiring while I'm part of a group. I prefer to die."
"Ah yes, of course. That would be a problem. If your body dies while you're connected, your consciousness is preserved for as long as the group exists."
"Most groups replenish themselves. Some members always want to go on. But my assumption is that although shared consciousness answers most of the fundamental questions of existence, the experience of death goes further."
He continued: "The most significant event in the history of homo sapiens
occurred in 2047 when all men were born blind, there is no doubt. The next
most significant event occurs in 2112, a palindrome year."
"That's the year the first Al achieved consciousness?" Danby said
"The Al circuitry became small enough to operate on the quasi-quantum level, as does organic life. You know they used to be known as artificial intelligences'? I read that in a history article, but they later became known as advanced intelligences. The first appellation was thought to be too degrading. In 2182 several AIs joined together in a single consciousness using quantum transceivers. It was realised that every entity in the universe is spacio- temporally adjacent at the quantum level via super luminal transduction. Within a few years some humans elected to have quantum transceivers implanted in their neo-cortical tissue."
"If you read my file you will know I was one of the first."
"Yes I wondered what it was like?"
Danby said nothing for a few seconds. "Nothing like travelling. It does answer many of the fundamental questions, in the most personal way though. Not only is it possible to understand consciousness as something separate, something to be studied, but it is possible to explore by stretching it, by moving it. Consciousness is like a limb. It can be extended. In the early days people were allowed to join with animals. That doesn't really work very well for the animal. A human consciousness in an animal body is almost bearable but the other way round is torture."
"You swapped with a whale didn't you?"
"Only for a short time. When consciousness is associated with a different physical matrix, especial a simple one, the mind becomes fogged and choice is adumbrated by waves of compelling emotion. But as you know, the main benefit is that you can experience an undifferentiated group consciousness.
The action of the group can become co-ordinated, like the fingers of a pianist."
"You elected to leave?"
"It was only temporary in those days."
"I may try it."
"There's plenty of time to decide."
Travers shuffled in his chair. "It's the immortality I can't abide. The body dies but the consciousness remains part of the group. Death is a question we mustn't avoid."
"But it's helped us answer lots of questions. We know that there are no fundamental material entities in the basement of reality. No particles, no strings, nothing in fact, because our perception of reality is dependent on genetic projection. Perception is completely conditioned by personal history and genetic makeup. It's a filter. Exploring consciousness enabled us to realise how this dependence works."
"I know. The Twelve were the first AIs to join together and that was one of the earliest things they discovered. Then humans got in on the act. But there is no trans species linkage allowed by law these days. And men cannot link to women, as this would weaken the mimetic influence on gene clusters. Just as we reached the limit of what we could explore with quantum transduction, along came the cubes." Travers sounded pensive. "The cubes tell us a lot by the way they respond to us. They react to our thought. It's not known how yet. But we do know that if a traveller thinks of a fantasy world, that is what he experiences. However we can see that he goes nowhere, that he is experiencing events in a form of trance. This tells us that the fantasy world does not exist. However, when we think of an event in history, we can travel, except that the traveller never returns. We believe that all events are adjacent at all points in time as well as space, so we may be able to time travel, if indeed that is what we are observing."
"It would be easy to generate a temporal paradox. Simply send someone back ten minutes."
"It's been tried. They leave but never reappear. Not even in the past."
"Perhaps they appear in a parallel universe. One that occurs either as a result of a temporal bifurcation or one that already exists due to multiple temporal dimensions."
"Parallelism is expressly forbidden by holism. It seems more likely that time travel is possible but we are unable to understand its implications. But what I am more interested in is: if the cubes can understand our thoughts then we can use them to ask critical questions."
"If they are the Tears of God, perhaps you should ask to be taken to the almighty? If you didn't travel but simply entered some fugue state then that would show there is no deity."
"Exactly. Although I prefer to think of the Originator of the Cubes, rather than God. I think 'God' would be too metonymic."
There was a 1.30 p.m. meeting set with Travers at Ministry Ten, but Danby got a call to come straight away. Travers was missing. There were two armed guards in his office. One had not washed that morning. The other was wearing Chanel Number one hundred and five. The operations director, Gillian M'Jo handed him a Braille note. He read it. It listed some possible tests to run on the cube.
"He has some questions to answer" she said. "This travel was not authorised. We ran the note through a Braille machine. We don't know why it is addressed to you. There is no personal element in it. Perhaps you would like to wait a couple of hours in case he returns?" Danby indicated that that would be fine.
"How is Susan?"
He didn't know she knew his third wife. "She's fine. No babies yet. She's desperate to have one."
"Aren't we all?" she said and left.
He still had the note. He felt the Braille again. Some of the indentations were raised slightly higher than the others. Not something a standard reading could detect. He concentrated. There was an embedded message. It read: "Gone to ask God some questions. Back soon."
He folded the note carefully and placed it on the desk. Danby wondered whether he would see Travers again.
The swan is stomping up the aisle of the train, swivelling on webbed feet, extending his neck and staring with attitude at anyone who has the nerve to look back. He is a tough street swan with a swaggering walk. I am eating a sandwich when he stops and stares at me. I look at my sarnie, then him. He looks at the sarnie, then me. Resigned, I hold it out for him to pick at, until he gobbles the whole thing. He likes potted crab.
There is this kid, right? Playing up a little. Sugar rush or something. Big white stomps up and gives the kid a look. That’s enough. The child sits down and looks straight ahead. Silence. The swan’s head slowly turns until its beak points back down the aisle. There is a sound at one end of the carriage, a conductor. Oh no you don’t! Oh no. Swan charges, feathers flying. The man throws up his ticket machine, turns and runs. The door closes and swan slows. He turns, shakes his wings a little. Mr Swan, I need to tell you, I might need to go for a pee…. Will that be all right? I wouldn’t want to ruffle your feathers. You have the floor don’t you? Yes he does.
Swan stops next to an old lady who is trying to pretend he is not there. He doesn’t like that. He may need to make a point. She has one of those huge leather handbags, the kind that would trouble a weightlifter. His beak darts in. Her stuff flies out. Notebook, compact, lipstick, cigarettes (now we know she smokes), pen, keys. They land in the aisle. She is getting flustered. “Oh”, “Ohhh.” Swan looks at her. She fastens a couple of buttons at the top of her cardigan. It looks like she’s praying. A penitent. He’s beaked his way to the bottom of the bag. Pills, lighter, couple of letters, photos of grandkids, sunglasses. In my mind I imagine swan pulling out a dildo. Ten inches long, black. Swan withdraws out a packet of tissues, some biscuits. He gobbles them. He inverts the bag and shakes out every last crumb, which he hoovers up. He stops, motionless. He’s waiting for a reaction. C’mon gran! Do something! No. Didn’t think so. No rebellion. No insurrection.
He stomps towards me. He’s getting restless. My phone starts buzzing. Swan speeds up. It’s like a drunken trip hop. This head appears from behind the seat and nestles in the crook of my arm. It eyes the vibrating mystery. What am I going to do? Swan is staring, perfectly aware of my dilemma. Delicious. I move my hand a feather’s width. The head rises, the neck which extends from behind my seat, moves to join it. Then the body. He snaps at the phone, slings it behind him where it lands in a half filled cardboard cup of coffee. It gurgles for thirty seconds and stops.
There’s a space with lots of seats. As we go through a station without stopping, swan notices. He extends his wings as wide as he can at the window, at the onlookers beyond. GET A LOAD OF THIS!
The train stops. He waddles off. He’s not gonna pay. He’s not got a ticket. He swans it through the ticket barrier.
This essay is a brief summary of the ideas of Adam Curtis. In a nutshell: the conclusions of The Century of Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap are, be careful what you wish for, or you don’t always get what you expect. Curtis describes how the ideas of intellectuals having disseminated through society, have had unexpected outcomes. In this essay I have added Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene which I think Curtis has overlooked…
In a previous essay, A Dream is a Broken Story, I described how nineteenth century economists defined a series of unrealistic assumptions about human behaviour. In the twentieth century the same assumptions led to a fundamental misunderstanding of economic reality, and at the heart of this misunderstanding was the idea that human beings behaved as rational agents operating in perfect markets. But this idealised view also spread beyond economics into business, politics and even into psychiatry. What this new way of thinking promised was the idea that human beings could be set free: set free from overbearing political control, set free from class and pre-destined roles, set free from poverty, and even set free from family.
This is the story of how the ideas of a handful of intellectuals have permeated society and how those ideas have reinforced each other until the notion of an individual as a rationally self interested being has become identified with the notion of being free. It is also the story of a strange psychiatric experiment called the ‘Thud Experiment’, inspired by RD Laing, which also set out to free people, but in a radically different way.
A number of thinkers in the twentieth century had a strong influence on social theory. Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan, began as economists but later became influential as social theorists. Isaiah Berlin contributed to the debate on political and social freedom, while Edward Bernays influenced business and politics by showing how to manipulate the unconscious mind through marketing. Richard Dawkins proselytised the idea of the selfish gene. RD Laing was a leader of the anti psychiatry movement.
Friedrich Hayek was born in 1899. He is best known as a defender of free market capitalism, but what is less well known is his contribution to systems thinking. Hayek believed in what is known as spontaneous order. He believed that human beings behaving selfishly would produce social order. When asked whether altruism had any place in his description of society, he replied flatly: ‘No’. He was hugely influential, founding the Institute of Economic Affairs, the free market think tank that inspired Thatcherism. During Thatcher’s visit to the Conservative Research Department in 1975, she interrupted a speaker who was delivering a speech on the middle way. She pulled out Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty and slammed it down onto the table. “This,” she said sternly “is what we believe.” Mrs Thatcher approached Keith Joseph, then director of the Hayekian Centre for Policy Studies, and hired him as secretary of state for industry. Likewise, Ronald Reagan appointed a follower of Hayek, David Stockman.
Like Hayek, James Buchanan was influential. He asserted that labelling certain observed behaviour as self sacrifice and altruism was incorrect. In fact, it was an illusion. A proponent of public choice theory, Buchanan said that there was no such thing as the public interest. There was only what the politician and civil servant thought was the public interest. This notion was to undermine the idea that politicians and civil servants worked for the public good. Buchanan’s description of British institutions was taken up by the Conservative government under Mrs Thatcher. Because there was no agreed version of the public good, he said, politicians and civil servants schemed and strategized. While they claimed to be helping others, they were really building empires and increasing their own power. It was this that had led to the ruin of the economy. These interests would now be attacked and destroyed, in favour of personal freedom.
Both Hayek and Buchanan began their careers as economists, but Isaiah Berlin was a public intellectual who studied as a philosopher. Berlin defined two forms of liberty. Positive Liberty, Berlin said, was susceptible to rhetorical abuse and he mistrusted it. He had lived through the Bolshevik revolution and experienced the totalitarian state of Soviet Russia. So Berlin advocated Negative Liberty. He said: ‘a person or group of persons… is or should be left to do what he is able to do or be, without interference from other persons.’ This concept was perfectly in tune with the shift towards self expression in youth culture in the 1960s.
The least known of these intellectuals is Edward Bernays. Sometimes referred to as ‘the father of public relations’, Bernays combined the ideas of Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with those of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. His observation of societies like Germany under Adolf Hitler led him to a view he likened to enlightened despotism. One of his celebrated campaigns was designed to overcome the taboo of women smoking in public. Bernays staged events where debutantes were shown holding cigarettes. The events were released as news upon the unsuspecting public. What Bernays did was to link mass produced goods to unconscious desires. The medium for this was marketing. By satisfying people’s unconscious desires, he said, they would be made docile and be less likely to unleash dangerous emotional energy and instinctive biological drives. But what Bernays did was to create the image of the self as a consumer. In the modern society, consumerism was to become synonymous with the idea of personal freedom.
Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. The timing was perfect. Dawkin’s central idea was that the ‘extended biological apparatus’ that carried the genes around i.e. the living creature (what Dawkins calls the phenotype) is a vehicle for gene expression and the life of the creature is better understood in those terms. At the time, western economies were struggling against unionist power and a swell of resentment was growing against various forms of collectivism. Although Dawkin’s ideas were about biology and evolution, and he warned against applying them too literally to social situations, the idea acted as a powerful metaphor for the notion of the simplicity and common sense of individualism, since nature itself was individualist.
When RD Laing was working as a psychiatrist in Glasgow mental hospitals in the 1950s, he noticed that psychiatrists hardly ever talked to their patients and instead tended to treat them with drugs. As an experiment, Laing selected twelve women and spent months talking to them about their lives. After a few months, all were well enough to leave the hospital, but within a year they had been re-admitted. Laing investigated their lives in an attempt to explain why and his conclusion was startling. Something in the private world of the family had created the instability, something which psychiatrists were failing to recognise by treating their patients with drugs and ECT. Laing would go on to describe the doctors as violent agents of oppression and control, acting on society’s behalf.
Laing used game theory as a tool to analyse family relationships. He asked a series of questions which were intended to reveal the extent to which families were exerting control, and analysed the results using a computer. He then produced matrices which he claimed showed how individuals within the family tried to control and manipulate each other. Laing’s description of the family was stark, but he believed his results would support wider conclusions. He believed that the family reflected a violent and corrupt society and he wrote a series of best selling books in which he argued that many of the post war institutions could not be trusted, since they were instruments of a violent and oppressive state. RD Laing became one of the leaders of what was called the Anti Psychiatry Movement. The aim of this group was to undermine what they described as a corrupt elite: the psychiatric establishment. Psychiatry, Laing said, was none scientific. It’s categories of madness were simply a label used to control those who wanted to break free.
Of the many psychiatrists who came to Laing’s talks, one of them decided to test his ideas. He was called David Rosenhan. Eight people, including Rosenhan, who had no previous history of psychiatric illness were sent across the USA to different mental hospitals. They were all to present themselves at an agreed time and tell the attending physician that they were hearing a voice which said the word ‘thud’. No further lies would be told, and in other respects they would behave normally. They were all diagnosed as insane. Once admitted, the patients acted normally, but the hospitals refused to release them and diagnosed seven of them with schizophrenia, treating them with powerful antipsychotic drugs. They found nothing they could say or do would convince the doctors they were sane. The only way out was to agree that they were insane and pretend to get better. David Rosenhan expected to be hospitalised for a couple of days. It took him two months to get out.
The experiment created uproar. A hospital even challenged Rosenhan to send more fakes, guaranteeing to spot them. After a month the hospital announced that it had discovered fifteen fakes. Rosenhan then revealed that he had sent no-one.
The Thud Experiment was catastrophic for psychiatry and the response was radical. Psychiatrists decided to remove judgement from diagnosis by defining illness in terms of observable behaviour. This is the origin of terms such as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and BPD (borderline personality disorder). Diagnosis could be made by lay people using a questionnaire and the results analysed by a computer.
Laing’s views were based on game theory and his conclusions were bleak. But the assumptions of game theory were precisely those defined by nineteenth century economists. These assumptions had led to a fundamental misunderstanding of economics, and at the heart of this misunderstanding was the idea that human beings behaved as rational agents. But this idealised view also spread beyond economics into business, politics and psychiatry. What this new way of thinking promised was the idea that humanity could be set free. But instead of being set free, people began to think of themselves in the narrow terms set out by the intellectuals who borrowed the same assumptions as the economists. The notion of an individual as a rationally self interested being had become identified with the notion of being free. What some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century had done was create something very different from what they intended.
Various cuts of meat.
Remove skin and giblets. Prepare the meat by filleting. Render fat for basting and frying. Save the offal for frying. Other parts can be finely chopped and bones can be boiled for a tasty soup. Make herb sauce with wild flowers and grated coconut. Steam the spinach. Add the meat to the pot and cook slowly. Serve with samphire garnish and pan fried scallops….
A macadamia nut rolled under the fridge. Marcel hesitated for a moment, looking at the empty packet, then he got to his knees, lowered his head until his right cheek was touching the cool slate floor of the kitchen. He could see it. He pushed his fat hand as far as it would go. Not far enough. He pushed up hard with his other hand to lift the refrigerator and make more room, but his hairy forearm was too thick. He got the thing out with a spatula. When he examined it, it was dirty and covered in hairs. He blew on it then popped it into his mouth.
Marcel was big. Marcel ate too much. Marcel was haunted…. He wasn’t always so large. Nearly three years ago at the time of the cruise, he had been a slim man, possibly the lightest of the four chefs, employed on a luxury liner, serving millionaire gastronomes. Gareth Snipe and Joy Dowdy had piled on the pounds too. They had not started out trim either. Then, of course, there was Harvey, poor Harvey Hammond. Harvey never made it back. But because of Harvey’s sacrifice they had survived. It would shortly be the third anniversary of the event. They would toast their bad luck, their good fortune and the life (and death) of Harvey. They would eat their special meal, made with the same ingredients they had used on the island. The ingredients would be hard to come by, but Gareth usually came through.
Marcel was hosting this year. Joy and Gareth arrived on time. They had gained more weight. Marcel served them offal and sweetmeats for starter, to the music of “I Got Life” from Hair. There was a moments reverence before the first forkful entered the mouth, and then a gasp of pleasure from each.
“Exquisite” said Joy.
“So sweet” said Gareth.
“So tender” said Marcel.
The starter was quickly devoured. Marcel had served it with a burgundy. The main course arrived in a series of steel dishes.
“I’ll let you decide your own portion size” he said, looking guiltily at the floor.
“It’ll be a big portion” said Gareth, “I just can’t get enough of it.”
“You’ve been eating this all year round?”
“When I can get hold of it. It’s delicious. You have said it yourself. It’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.”
“I know I said that. But this pleasure has always been sacrosanct. Holy. We reserved this special time to indulge our senses.”
“I’ve been eating it too” said Joy. “I tried to stop myself. I invoked the memory of Harvey, but it made it worse.”
Marcel was silent. He picked up his knife and fork and began to eat. “I have a nice Barolo to go with this” he said, eyes fixed on the plate.
Three years ago they were in the Pacific. The ship was an authentic clipper, a three masted tall ship, retro fitted with modern devices, luxury accommodation and a five star kitchen.
The storm was expected. The freak waves were not. Blown way off the shipping lanes, the boat finally sank, all hands lost except for the four chefs, huddling in a huge basting bowl. When the storm died down, Harvey was the first to spot land and began to paddle furiously with a wooden spoon. It soon became evident that they were on a small island, rich in vegetation but lacking any animal life. There were few fish and just a small supply of scallops, not enough to feed four.
It was Gareth who suggested they draw lots. Harvey refused to participate. Joy was hesitant. Marcel needed convincing.
“But how?” said Marcel, always the practical one. “We have no implements, nothing.”
Gareth opened his jacket to reveal a complete set of butcher’s knives. “I never part with them” he said. Harvey went to collect some samphire. They were all starving. When Harvey returned, they had started a fire under the basting bowl.
Marcel was trying to split open a coconut with a rock. He was watching Joy wash some spinach. She was crying. Harvey dropped his bundle and trotted over to Joy. “What’s wrong darling?”
She raised her eyes to his. “Sorry” she said.
Harvey turned. Gareth was towering above him, the sunlight glinting on the knife. “She has qualms” he said “I have none.”
Marcel turned away. He didn’t want to see it. The squealing rang in his ears.
That night they all sat under the stars round the burning embers of the fire, satiated and full.
“That was….” It was Joy.
“Say it!” Gareth looked at her.
“Delicious” said Marcel. “She was going to say delicious.”
“We’re all in this together” said Gareth. “We can say he was lost in the storm.” Gareth was picking a bit of sea spinach out of his teeth with a finger bone. “He had a backside like a hog. We’re amply provided for. It was a good choice.”
“It wasn’t his choice.”
“It’s survival of the fittest. He was never healthy. We could have hung around for weeks, waiting for him to drop. By that time he would have been as tough as old boots. By doing it now, we get him at his most succulent.”
“It is a fitting end for a chef” said Marcel.
“That was the best sauce you ever cooked Marcel, and Joy, thank you for removing the giblets. You did it exactly as you describe in your book.”
It was two weeks before they were found. The rescuers commented on how healthy they looked, how rosy cheeked, how calm.
When the dinner was over they withdrew to the games room.
“Game of billiards, Marcel?” Gareth peered across from a leather armchair.
“No. I think I will have an early night if you don’t mind. May I enquire...” he said “where you get your supplies?”
“Medical school. Plentiful supply” said Joy, putting on her coat.
“Special rates” whispered Gareth in Marcel’s ear as he walked to the front door.
“I shall be up early in the morning” said Marcel. “Perhaps a walk. And then I shall make enquiries. We see each other far too infrequently. We should do it more often.”