Chemo

I wrote a post exactly a year and a day ago, in which I reflected on my feelings during a brief period when I neurotically imagined I might have cancer. This is funny because I actually do have cancer right now (though not the kind I feared), and am midway through an 18 week programme of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is unpleasant. I spend a morning every three weeks having powerful toxins put into my veins and my spine. I’m aware of the poison in my system straight away, but after about 5 days it dominates everything. (And it is poison, though it’s designed to kill cancerous cells before it kills too many others). I feel exhausted and slightly nauseous, there is a permanent unpleasant taste in my mouth, and food tastes absolutely disgusting, like glutinous cardboard. Even water tastes unpleasant. For several days in each cycle it’s almost impossible to eat at all, and I don’t feel up to doing anything except lying down and trying to dissociate from my own experience.

Gradually this eases. It becomes easier to eat, though it remains a rather revolting experience with no pleasure in it. (I never realised until now how much the little treats that are meals help to get me through the day.) For the final few days of the three week cycle, I start to feel a bit more normal, and up to doing things like gardening jobs. Then the whole cycle begins again, but with the twist that there’s a cumulative aspect to it, so that the nastiest bit lasts longer and is a little more unpleasant each time.

During the first cycle I attempted to do some writing, but I’ve given up on that. I’ve pretty much given up on serious reading too. Not only food but pretty much everything else is polluted by the poison. My book diet is mainly audiobooks that don’t ask anything of me, but simply pass the time, or help me to settle into sleep. I’m currently listening to Sherlock Holmes stories, though I’ve never been interested in crime writing: the simple formula chunders round, the problem is resolved without my having to care about anything, and another 45 minutes have gone by.

Giving up on writing isn’t just about lack of energy, it’s also about what’s in my head. This process makes me aware of the disgustingness of the body, of being trapped in the body, no matter what, and my mind goes very quickly to places of horror, those awful places in our world where people would do anything to be released from existence, but must continue to exist anyway, and continue to inhabit the bodies that torment them.

I mean, who would want to read anything that continued for any length of time in the mood of this post?

Reports from the Deep End: a J. G. Ballard Tribute Anthology

I’m delighted to have a story in this Ballard-themed anthology, which will be out in the autumn (Nov 7th) – and in some very fine company too. I’m a big admirer of Ballard, particularly his short stories.

My contribution to this collection is called ‘Art App’. Ballard was an exceptionally painterly writer. His stories are not primarily driven by plot or character development, but by the accumulation and arrangement of very powerful images. I tried to honour Ballard’s attachment to Surrealist art and, in particular, to the work of Max Ernst, whose peculiar vision I only really became aware of as a result of reading Ballard.

The Eye of Silence, by Max Ernst

Nature

I watched the BBC series Wild Isles, presented by David Attenborough. It was beautiful to look at, but it left me wondering about ‘nature’, as presented by these programmes.

In the first episode we were shown a pod of Orcas off the coast of Shetland (or was it Orkney?). I’ve watched enough of these shows to know the kind of spectacle we can expect from Orcas – they typically harry their prey to a slow and terrifying death and I still vividly remember, from Attenborough’s Arctic show, the closeup shot of an exhausted seal looking straight at the camera, as orcas dragged it off an iceberg to be torn to pieces. It felt wrong to be staring into its eyes.

This time round a baby seal, which had swum out some way off the shore, was caught by a member of the pod. The orca then took it, still alive, to a group of its companions, where, after a certain amount of playing with its victim, the successful hunter demonstrated to younger orcas -Sir David sounded quite aroused at this point- how to hold it under water and drown it.

Later on, though, we were shown an orca that had itself drowned in a fishing net. Sombre music played. This drowned cetacean was apparently a tragedy, while the slow torment of the baby seal had been presented as something rather thrilling. Why, I wondered? Why should I care about one and not the other?

The same pattern persisted throughout the series. Predators hunting and killing -and quite often targeting the young of their prey- dominated most episodes, and were presented as an exciting spectacle, accompanied by rousing, if sinister, music,as you might hear in an action scene in a movie. We were being offered animal-killing as a voyeuristic entertainment, not unlike the animal slaughters that the Romans put on in their arenas, except that this was ‘nature’ so we could savour it guilt-free. But then there would be a sudden switch of tone and talk about the fragility of ‘nature’ and the need to protect it from the depredations of humanity. I found this no longer worked for me. I grew bored of the slaughter, and even sickened by it, and it certainly didn’t put me the mood for ‘only man is vile’ pieties. My thoughts were more on the lines of Kurtz in the Congo jungle: ‘The horror, the horror.’

After hunting scenes, the next most frequent dramas depicted in these shows are the endless combats between male animals fighting to obtain, or defend, access to females. In one episode a huge, repulsive male seal spotted an equally huge and repulsive rival that had emerged from the sea, and flopped and wriggled his blubbery bulk across the sand to do battle. They ripped each others flesh, they roared, they reared up to look as big as possible. The much less repulsive female seals meanwhile hurried to get their babies out of the way, because the males in such battles are apparently so indifferent to anything except their need for dominance, that they will crush their own children to death without a thought if these are foolish enough to get in their way.

It all felt rather familiar actually, like the story-line for much of human history. Not so much a case of ‘only man is vile’, as ‘nature is vile, and we’re a part of it.’

See also:

‘Vermin’

Interview with Stephen A. Andrews

Thanks very much to Stephen E. Andrews for this youtube interview for his Outlaw Bookseller podcast, providing an overview of all my books. Steve is based in Bath, in Somerset, and his extraordinarly encyclopaedic knowledge of books is matched by his infectious enthusiasm. I first met him when he invited me to give a talk in Bath’s Waterstones.

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Understanding

I’ve always thought that there were two types of understanding. The first is to know, as a matter of fact, what something is or how it works (as in ‘the moon is a ball of rock: I know that because I’ve been taught it’). The second is to really feel a thing to be true (as in ‘wow, the moon really is a solid ball of rock’). I think the second meaning is close to the word grok, as coined by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land. It feels precious when it happens. Rather as love feels precious when you suddenly really feel it, and you don’t just know it’s in there somewhere.

But if ‘Type 2 Understanding’ were simply about being able to relate something unfamiliar to with something with which we are already familiar in an intuitive, tactile kind of way, would that really be understanding? When I say that, for instance, ‘I would like to feel I really understood the theory of relativity,’ what I mean is not that I wish someone could take me through the maths, but that I would like someone to be able to explain it to me in a way that would make me feel at home with it, which in my case usually means by analogy with something I’m already familiar with. The trouble with that is that it is circular. Physics is supposed to explain familiar things like, for instance, why solid objects fall to the ground. If those explanations were dependent on analogies with familiar things, we would be back at the beginning.

(I think of certain diagrams of gravity in which a large mass has caused a deep dent in space-time towards which other spherical objects, such a steel balls, roll: these make intuitive sense because we know steel balls would roll down a slope towards a hole. Gravity feels to have been explained to us by analogy with… gravity.)

Actually, I’m not sure that even mathematical explanations take us out of this circle. Aren’t they just a much more rigorous way of explaining what we don’t know in terms of what we have decided we already know?

But then, what would real understanding be? What else could it be?

Actually, I’m not sure Type 2 Understanding really is about causes and explanations. I think when I grok something out there in the world -which is a precious experience, as I say, and one that only rarely happens – it’s not that I can suddenly provide explanations, it’s more that explanations are no longer necessary. I’m just briefly very powerfully aware, not that the moon is a ball of rock, because I know that anyway, but that it is really there, and that I am really here, and that we are both in the same world. Which actually is also what love is like when you really feel it. I am here, and you are there, and we both really are together in the same world.

Kite Strings

I’m not a fan of big C Conservatism, but I have a definite streak of small c, in that that I am suspicious of the impulse to trash traditions, rules and taboos, just because they are traditions, rules and taboos. To re-use a metaphor from one of my stories, a kite string may seem to be holding back the kite that strains against it, but in fact provides the rigidity that enables the kite to fly. Cut the string and the kite comes flopping down.

It’s not a universally applicable metaphor, obviously, but it’s worth thinking about before cutting a string (the monarchy, for instance?). I think I see society as a huge kite with multiple strings: you can cut them, but don’t cut too many at once, and don’t cut them without putting new ones in their place.

One of the objections I have to big C Conservatism as it exists now is that, at bottom, it is not actually conservative in the small c sense. It postures as small c conservative by ritually defending certain old fashioned symbols, but this is largely cosmetic. Modern political Conservatism, in fact, is a reckless cutter of kite strings. Greens and socialists are, in many respects, more conservative than Conservatives.

Father of the Man

I proposed the song ‘5.15’ as theme music for my previous post. The Who, from my perspective now, seem to me to have represented better than anyone else what it was like being an alienated adolescent in the 1970s. And, of their many takes on this subject, ‘5.15’ (about a stoned teenager riding a commuter train out of London) is, I think, the best. So many things are captured in this song – the free-floating sexual frustration, the sense of detachment from the adult world (‘Why should I care? Why should I care?’) – but my favourite verse is:

Magically bored
On a quiet street corner
Free frustration
In our minds and our toes
Quiet storm water
M-m-my generation
Uppers and downers
Either way blood flows

‘Magically bored’ is perfect!

See also, obviously, ‘My Generation’, its stammering refrain referenced in the above verse, and in particular ‘See me feel me’. This last (from Tommy) is more of a fragment than a song, but its eight, several times repeated, opening words can still bring tears to my eyes, so powerfully do they represent to me now the longing and fear of a 16-year-old from a somewhat dysfunctional family who has never been kissed, never even met a girl of his own age in a social situation, who has only just begun to make real, if rudimentary, friendships, but knows that in another year, he will have to go out into the world.

It’s an odd thing. To my 16-old-self, anyone over 40 was in some way emotionally already dead (‘…The things they do look awful cold/ I hope I die before I get old…’), so, if he could see me as I am now, that adolescent me would probably not recognise me as being in any way like him, but I feel an affinity with him all the same, a greater affinity, in a way, than I feel with all the other iterations of me that have existed in the years between. Why is that, I wonder?

I think partly it may be because, now, past the age of retirement, with my bus pass and my pension (yes, baby boomer, alright for some… etc etc), I have reached a kind of second adolescence, when I am no longer required to go to work every day or to have long-term plans, and when I can, if I wish, spend a Tuesday morning sitting around for several hours, listening to songs, and asking myself what they mean to me. (The magical difference is that I no longer have to cry into the void ‘see me, feel me, touch me, heal me’, because I have the things I feared I would never have.)

But it’s also partly because I have always tried in some way to be true to that 16-year-old, and not to embrace the kind of adulthood he despised. It seems odd in a way for a fully grown man, with a lifetime of experience to draw upon, to want to stay true to a clueless 16-year-old. But there it is. Foolish as he was, he saw something that I don’t want to forget. Like Wordsworth said (I’ve just looked it up! I had no idea it was him), ‘The child is father of the man.’

Cue for another song fragment from a man who burst up from a miserable childhood to explode like a firework into brilliant colours, and then crashed to the ground before he could finish writing the album this song was supposed to be part of.

Cancer? Who cares?

[Soundtrack for this post: 5.15 by The Who.]

A short while ago, in a more than usually neurotic moment, I briefly persuaded myself that I might have lung cancer. (As far as I know I don’t.) This made me think of a time, over half a century ago, when I was 16. Our school had organised a lecture about the harm caused by smoking. The doctor who gave the talk had some bucket-like boxes on stage with him and at a certain point, he opened these up and, to our slight incredulity, took out a number of cancered lungs, flattened and encased in clear plastic, which he passed round for us to feel. The healthy parts of the lung felt soft and spongy, he pointed out, but the cancered parts were hard unyielding lumps.

We felt the lumps, and they were nasty, but we were unmoved. After the lecture was over, my friends and I headed off to one of our usual smoking spots to roll up moist, aromatic Old Holborn tobacco into unfiltered cigarettes, and draw in the rich, tarry smoke. I smoked so greedily back then that I often finished when my friends still had half a cigarette left, and tried to scrounge drags from theirs. If I smoked a manufactured cigarette, I would draw on it so hard (my poor lungs!) that the filter sometimes fell apart in my mouth.

Remembering this from the perspective of someone who thought he might have lung cancer, I felt briefly angry with my past self for his utter indifference to my well-being, but the feeling didn’t last. The thing is that, while I can remember being that 16-year-old, and still have that 16-year-old inside me – for better or worse, it was the most intense and vivid time of my life – the reverse is not the case. I was not inside him. He had no sense at all of his future self in fifty years time. Me, as I am now, was a complete stranger to him, far more so than, say, my grandfather, then just 7 years older than I am now.

In fact, never mind fifty years time, I had no sense of myself in five years time, no idea where I was going, let alone how I was going to get there, other than a vague sense of wanting to be a writer, or a rock star, or something of that kind, which I suppose represented the possibility of being able to continue to play, to hold onto some aspect of being a child.

All I really understood was the tiny universe of my school where I lived as a boarder, cut off from the rest of the world. The one imperative I felt was a need to draw a line between myself and the adult world, and the values and forms of authority that the adult world accepted. Even to think about my future in a constructive way would have been to do what the adult world wanted me to do, so that to attend to what the doctor said, and do something about my smoking, would have been a kind of surrender. To free myself from the past, I had also to deny my future.

That’s how it felt at the time, and even now I can enjoy in retrospect the feeling of defiance involved in rejecting prudence, forethought and common sense as so much boring, grey, bourgeois claptrap. Of course, I now also see the fear and desperation that lay behind this -and the timidity that actually controlled me – but it wasn’t just fear, it was a need to break free from a stale mold that others wanted me to fill, even if this meant casting myself naked into the world, and even if it meant doing myself harm.

Heredity versus Merit

Speaking very broadly, the political choice in many western countries boils down to whether heredity or merit should be the basis of structuring society. (Or so I suggest.)

Those on the ‘heredity’ side argue that people should be allowed to accumulate wealth, keep it, and pass it on – along with he benefits that come with it – to their children or whoever else they wish. This idea obviously appeals to those who are already rich, which is why the rich tend to support parties that espouse it. But it also appeals to those who aspire to be rich, or for whom financial success is the primary metric by which they measure their success in life. It also appeals to people who just dislike the idea of the state interfering in their affairs.

All political factions promote and defend certain interests, or classes, but they also promote moral principles that seem to endorse the stand they take. They fly flags, as it were, that give moral cover to the preferences of the interests and classes they support. Parties that support the hereditary principle – we call them right-wing or conservative- tend to fly one or more of the following flags: FREEDOM, FAMILY, TRADITION, PROPERTY RIGHTS, LOYALTY TO ONE’S OWN, OPPOSITION TO OVERBEARING GOVERNMENT. Their opponents see these flags as nothing more than a cynical cover for self-interest.

Those on the ‘merit’ side, on the other hand, argue that heredity is a bad way of determining who rises to the top, it holds back people from poor backgrounds, and gives a free ride to people from rich ones. We should all be allowed to rise on the basis of our own talents and hard work. This idea appeals, of course, to those who have themselves risen to – or maintained- their present position through their own talents and hard work, and to those who feel their own talents and hard work have been held back, or have not sufficiently been rewarded. And it appeals to people for whom the metric by which they measure their success in life is not simply money, but things like educational attainment, professional esteem and recognised achievement. So the ‘merit’ idea tends to appeal to people such as academics, artists, journalists and other professionals, who earn a living based on their own knowledge and skill, and in a context where non-financial metrics of success are available. (I’d suggest, for instance, that more such metrics are available for, say, a university lecturer, than for the owner of a haulage business: the former can become eminent among her peers for her knowledge, her publications, the originality of her thinking. The latter is, of necessity, more focused on making money as a way of showing that she is doing well.)

Parties that support the merit principle tend to fly one or more of the following flags JUSTICE, EQUALITY, FAIRNESS, RATIONALITY, SCIENCE, EXPERTISE, OBLIGATIONS TO THE WORLD IN GENERAL, A BENIGN AND INTERVENTIONIST STATE. Their opponents (of course) dismiss these flags as a cynical cover for self-interest. (For instance, while the partisans of ‘merit’ esteem scientific expertise, its opponents sometimes suggest that so-called experts are merely bigging themselves up into to enhance their own standing and make money. There is sometimes something in this.) These days, we tend to refer to those on the ‘merit’ side as liberals or ‘the left’, though both these terms have meant different things in the past, and they have certainly not always meant the same thing as one another.

Few people, even the most conservative, would completely dismiss the argument for ‘merit’ (though you only have to read a few novels from a couple of centuries ago to see that, in the past, earning a living through ones own professional skills was seen as much lower status than living on the rents from accumulated capital). Similarly, in practice if not in theory, few people, even on the ‘merit’ side, completely dismiss the hereditary principle. Even people who vote consistently for parties that are on the ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ side, tend to accumulate at least some wealth if they can, and pass at least some of it on to their children.

But one point that isn’t so often made is that both heredity and merit entail a good deal of luck. It’s lucky to be born rich, yes, but it’s lucky also to be born with above average ability or a special and marketable talent. Some people are born with neither – a lot of people actually – but they have to choose between the parties of ‘heredity’ and those of ‘merit’, asking themselves under which kind of regime – which set of flags – will it be more comfortable to live? Their choices have been less predictable of late. And perhaps this is wise. It’s never a good idea to let people assume your support can be taken for granted.

See also:

Trust