The rivers swarm with fish

Sometimes a piece of writing that presumably wasn’t intended to be poetic at all has a poetry all of its own. The following is the section on flaura and fauna from the Wikipedia entry for the Russian island of Sakhalin. (Why was I looking at the entry for Sakhalin? Because, like Judith Schalansky, I love to go to islands in my imagination that I know I will never really visit. They too have a special poetry.)

The whole of the island is covered with dense forests, mostly coniferous. The Yezo (or Yeddo) spruce (Picea jezoensis), the Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis) and the Dahurian larch (Larix gmelinii) are the chief trees; on the upper parts of the mountains are the Siberian dwarf pine (Pinus pumila) and the Kurile bamboo (Sasa kurilensis). Birches, both Siberian silver birch (Betula platyphylla) and Erman’s birch (B. ermanii), poplar, elm, bird cherry (Prunus padus), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), and several willows are mixed with the conifers; while farther south the maple, rowan and oak, as also the Japanese Panax ricinifolium, the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), the Spindle (Euonymus macropterus) and the vine (Vitis thunbergii) make their appearance. The underwoods abound in berry-bearing plants (e.g. cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, red whortleberry), red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa), wild raspberry, and Spiraea.

Bears, foxes, otters, and sables are numerous, as are reindeer in the north, and musk deer, hares, squirrels, rats, and mice everywhere. The bird population is mostly the common east Siberian, but there are some endemic or near-endemic breeding species, notably the endangered Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Sakhalin leaf warbler (Phylloscopus borealoides). The rivers swarm with fish, especially species of salmon (Oncorhynchus). Numerous whales visit the sea coast, including the critically endangered Western Pacific gray whale, for which the coast of Sakhalin is the only known feeding ground. Other endangered whale species known to occur in this area are the North Pacific right whale, the bowhead whale, and the beluga whale.

Beautiful!

Population

I saw this post some months ago and saved it because it jarred and I wanted to write about it.  It’s a review by Abigail Nussbaum of the movie Avengers: Infinity war, and I came across it on Twitter because someone posted it as an instance of a really good review.  I daresay it is a good review at that.  I’ve never seen the movie so I can’t comment. What troubled me was the following paragraph:

It should go without saying that Thanos’s overpopulation bugbear and his proposed solution for it are hideous claptrap.  Reducing a population by half, whether through violence as Thanos used to do, or by making people simply disappear as he wants to do with the Infinity Stones, would result in immediate economic and industrial collapse, and therefore mass starvation and most likely war.  It should go without saying, but because Hollywood continues to linger in the grip of Malthusianism decades after the rest of the world saw it for the racist nonsense that it is…

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie and don’t know who Thanos is, but if he’s proposing genocide that is clearly VERY VERY BAD INDEED.  No dispute there!  But, unless I’ve completely misunderstood her, what the reviewer seems to saying (and she’s not the only one I’ve heard say it) is that the very idea that overpopulation is a problem is ‘hideous claptrap’ .

Really? 

I’m 63.  I’m living on a planet whose population is over seven and a half billion, which is getting on for three times what it was when I was born.  It’s a planet in the middle of one of the great mass extinction events of its history, a planet where the biomass of human domestic animals is now greater than that of all other animals of similar size, a planet where human activity has destabilised the climate itself and is threatening to acidify the ocean to a point that marine animals with shells may not be able to survive.  And I personally am so far from seeing the idea of overpopulation as claptrap that I find it hard to imagine being inside a head that thinks it is.

It seems I’m with Hollywood on this one.

It’s true that population is not on its own a reliable indicator of the human impact on the rest of the planet, because the impact of any one human being is dependent on his or her behaviour.  If we eat meat and diary products, for instance, we have a much greater impact than if we are vegan, because meat and milk production are, in nutritional terms, far less efficient uses of land than growing edible plants, meaning that much more land is needed to feed a meat or cheese eater than to feed a vegan.  In the same way, if we drive a car and use aeroplanes, we will have a much greater impact than if we only walk or use a bicycle.  And if we have a centrally heated house with a TV, a fridge and a washing machine, our impact will be much greater than if we live in a hut and don’t use electric power at all (although it must be said that, even if we rely entirely on firewood for heat and light, that can still have a considerable impact.)  

The odd idea that being concerned about population is ‘racist’ originates, I imagine, from a time when people in wealthy countries expressed concern about the rapidly growing populations in developing countries without acknowledging that their own extravagant patterns of consumption were at least as much of a problem.  I get that. But still, it is pretty poor logic to take from that the idea that concern about overpopulation is necessarily racist per se

The fact is that all human behaviour impacts on the environment and the impact of any given human behaviour has to be multiplied by the number of people on the planet who behave in that way.   A billion people driving cars X number of miles per year generates a billion times the amount of carbon dioxide as one person driving a car X miles per year.  A billion people clearing forest to grow crops to eat will need a billion times as much forest as one person.  Etcetera, etcetera. So, yes, population is only part of the story, but it is an indispensable part nevertheless.  Say the human race were collectively to change its behaviour in such a way as to reduce the impact of every person on the planet by 50%.  The population only has to double for the benefit of that change to be lost. And since, however much the human population increases, the surface area of the planet remains unchanged, it must be the case that, for any given pattern of human behaviour, however frugal, there must be a physical limit to how many people the planet is able to support.

Which takes me to the second charge made (in this particular film review but also elsewhere) against the idea that overpopulation is a problem.  Not only is it racist, but it is Malthusian. 

The implied argument goes something like this:  We know that Malthus was concerned about human population, right?  We know that his predictions were wrong.  We also know that some of what he said was pretty obnoxious.  QED being concerned about overpopulation is ‘Malthusian’ and therefore both wrong and obnoxious.  Right?

Wrong!  That’s not a logical argument at all.  We are not living in the age of scholasticism, and arguments do not stand or fall on the authority of whatever famous name happens to have become associated with them.  Calling someone a ‘Malthusian’ for being concerned about overpopulation, like calling them racist, is not an argument at all, it’s a way of shutting down argument altogether, it’s an exercise in denial.

Haunted by the Future

I’ve just returned from Novacon 48 in Nottingham.  I’m very grateful to the organisers and members for making me so welcome.  The following is the text of my guest of honour speech.  (I am not a literary historian obviously, so this should be read as the impressionistic ramblings of a writer rather than as the authoritative statement of a specialist.) Continue reading “Haunted by the Future”

The Mind is Flat by Nick Chater

If I were to describe this book as superficial (which I would) the author should perhaps be pleased, for he sets out specifically to show that the mind contains no hidden depths.

Nick Chater starts with visual perception and he shows that we actually see much less than we think we see.  This is something that’s struck me before.  For example, focus on an object in front of you, a mug for instance, and then, without moving your eyes, notice how little else you can see while you remain looking at the mug.  You’ll find that, even in the immediate vicinity of the mug, your visual field is a blur. Apparently if you get someone to read a page of text on a screen, and change all the words except the ones they’re looking at into rows of x’s, they won’t notice the difference!  And something I didn’t know until I read this book is that the blurred forms you see at the edge of your field of vision aren’t even in colour.  (I tested this myself and it’s true!).

This is all fascinating stuff (and I  enjoyed reading about it), but I take issue with the author when he asserts that our impression of seeing the whole world in front of us is an ‘illusion’ (the Grand Illusion as he calls it), and even more so when he calls it ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’.  Our perceptual apparatus isn’t just presenting us with the raw sensory data, that’s true, but that would be pointless, and its job is to assemble fragments into a stable and coherent sense of where we are.  But why on earth call the result a hoax?   A radar screen shows incoming planes in the vicinity as blips.  These are refreshed with each new sweep of the continuously revolving antenna and in fact the antenna is only detecting a few of those planes at any one moment.  But does this mean it’s just a hoax or an illusion that makes us think those blips show the positions of all the planes in the vicinity?  Of course not.  What the screen shows is an approximation perhaps, but that’s not the same thing as an illusion at all, and it’s an accurate enough approximation for air traffic controllers to safely manage incoming planes at busy airports, day in day out, for months and years on end.

Having discussed perception, Chater then goes on to talk about cognition.  Just as experiments on perception show that we see much less at any given moment than we might think, so too do experients show that our thoughts are much more circumscribed than we might imagine.  In fact, at any one time, we can only pay attention to a very limited number of mental tasks.  I can drive and sing.  On a clear straight road, I can drive and list prime numbers (I tried it out recently).  But I can’t drive, sing, and list prime numbers all at once.   In fact, Chater suggests, our sense of a rich mental life with many layers is a hoax, just like the illusion that we can see a rich detailed exterior world.  ‘Our thoughts are not shadows of an alternative inner reality to be charted and discovered; they are fictions of our own devising, created moment by moment.’  Even emotions, it seems, are ‘just fiction too.’

But hang on.  There is a rich external world out there, that’s not disputed.  So, insofar as there’s an illusion going on perceptually, it’s not the existence of that world, it’s the fact that we imagine ourselves to be taking in that world whole and all at once, whereas what we’re really doing is forming a (pretty serviceable) impression of it a little bit at a time.  And surely the same is true of our inner life?   The fact that I am not thinking lovingly of my children at every moment in time, doesn’t mean that it’s just an illusion that I love my children, any more than the fact that I’m concentrating on my computer screen just now doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a garden through the door to my right.

The funny thing about all this –and Chater does acknowledge it himself- is that, in order to dismiss depth, he has to introduce an incredibly powerful unconscious mechanism.  He argues that our sense of having a coherent self is an illusion that is being constructed for us in the moment by this powerful unconscious process, with the the result that, though we imagine that we are drawing on some inner self,  in fact ‘we are quite literally making up our minds, one thought at a time’.    So, in other words,  our sense that our thoughts come from something complicated inside us is an illusion being created for us by… well… something complicated inside us!

He doesn’t have very much to say about how this mechanism works -the book concludes with a slightly hand-wavy paeon to human imagination- but clearly it must draw on memories of previous experiences .  It follows, surely, that this very powerful and complex unconscious process is actually not just making up our minds for us out of the blue but is rather surveying the relevant parts of our vast existing store of knowledge and experience, much in the same way as when we are walking down a road, our perceptual apparatus surveys the relevant parts of the external world.

Et voilà!  Depth is back again with a different name.  (Chater himself speaks of ‘an ever-richer web of connections across our mental surface’.)  It is a vast and complex inner landscape, but one which (as few  of us will be surprised to learn), we cannot see in its entirety all at once.

*  *  *

One thing that strikes me about this book is that, while it describes as an ‘illusion’ or a ‘fake’, impressions of the world assembled by the sensory system from fragments, it is happy to present a version of the world that is also assembled from fragments, in this case controlled psychology experiments.  Not only do these experiments (fascinating as some of them are) constitute discrete and pretty miniscule glimpses into the operations of the human mind, but the interpretations placed on them seem extremely questionable.

For instance, he describes a series of experiments in which people make different choices depending on how the same options are presented to them, and suggests that this demonstrates that ‘preformed beliefs, desires, motives, attitudes to risk lurking in our hidden inner depths are a fiction’.  There’s ‘no point wondering,’ he says, ‘which way of asking the question…  will tell us what people really want… not because our mental motives, desires and preferences are impenetrable, but because they don’t exist.’    This is an extraordinary bold claim to make on the basis of a few experiments in which people are offered some rather artificial choices.  And it seems to me that a much simpler explanation of the findings of these experiments is that people have competing wants (for example, a desire to make money, versus a desire to avoid risk), and that, depending on how questions are put to them, different wants come to the fore.

I want to keep fit, I also want to eat ice cream.  In my experience this can lead to decisions which contradict one another.

*   *   *

So much of what we think we know about the world is shaped by the paradigm through which we choose to view it.  The Freudian approach (which, with some justice, Chater disapproves of) involved getting people to lie down on couches and ramble .  Not surprisingly, it generated an elaborate and convoluted model of the human mind.  The experimental approach which Chater favours involves highly controlled experiments in which a single variable is manipulated and some other very specific variable is then measured.   There are many advantages of this kind of methodology but, since it quite deliberately excludes almost all of the multidimensional complexity of the thing being studied, I don’t find it suprising that it results in the impression of flatness.  Or an illusion of flatness, we might call it.

Tintoretto

My wife Maggie and I recently spent a few days in Venice. Extraordinary place. It’s has been going round in my head ever since, even in my dreams, like some kind of mystery my brain is trying to solve.

But leaving all the rest of it to the side, here is just one thing we saw there which in itself keeps going round in my head. It’s in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name (which you can see across the water if you stand outside the front of the Doge’s Palace) and is a painting by the Venetian Renaissance painter, Tintoretto: The Last Supper.

The original is getting on for six metres wide, so you need to make this picture as big as as your screen can make it if you are to get any sense of it.  The thing that struck me at once, not even knowing yet who the artist was (I am no art buff), was the drama and almost eerie immediacy achieved by the arrangement of the figures and by the sharp contrasts between light and shadow.  I suppose by far the most well-known picture of the Last Supper is the famous mural by Da Vinci, which is at least as dramatic as this one in terms of what is going on between the characters, but nevertheless seems to me (on the basis of reproductions) to be much further removed from the viewer, much cooler and more static.

What I get from this painting was a powerful sense of what a mysterious, explosive, dynamic thing a moment actually is.  Everyone in this picture is present at the same point in time, but no two of them have the same sense of what is going on.  A couple of disciples towards the left of the picture, for instance, seem to be involved in a conversation of their own that may not even be connected with the famous event unfolding in the middle of the table (an event to be re-enacted over and over again for the next two millenia, including on the altar immediately below where this picture is hung!)  The disciple immediately to Jesus’ left seems withdrawn into his own throughts as he watches, perhaps to avoid having to engage with Judas sitting opposite him. Judas, as jealous people passive-aggressively do when trying to undermine someone else’s big occasion, seems to be trying to draw into conversation the disciple being given bread by Jesus.  The waiters are getting on with their various jobs: at the near end of the table one of them is asking one of the disciples whether he wants anything else and the disciple is very clearly indicating with both hands: ‘Not now.  Something important is happening.’  The semi-transparent angels meanwhile swirl above the scene, drawn in by what  (within the terms of this story, obviously) they already know is an event of cosmic significance.  Everyone is experiencing this moment in a different way, so that it will explode outwards into the future in many different directions, but, in this instant, they are all in one room, and the same light falls on all of them.

Venice is full of huge Tintorettos.  There are lots of them in the Doge’s palace (including some incredibly detailed and energetic battle scenes, which I admired but was not particularly moved by).  And the Scuola Grande di San Rocco has three whole floors of them.  Most of these didn’t do much for me, I have to say, but they build up to a gigantic, twelve metre-wide Crucifixion in a side room on the top floor which rivals, and perhaps surpasses, the Last Supper for sheer energy.  (Again: you need to make this image as big as you can to get any sense of it: it’s packed with detail.)  As with the Supper, everyone is seeing different things and many are completely missing the famous drama going on immediately above their heads, but it is a single moment nevertheless, and the whole thing blasts out at you like an exploding bomb.

Mere presence

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson (published 2004)..

Two sisters grow up in a small  town in Idaho beside the large lake that claimed the lives of both their grandfather and their mother, and the railway bridge that spans it.  Their grandmother looks after them until she too dies, and then two great-aunts who are more accustomed to  shabby-genteel life in a hotel room than  managing a household with children, and then finally their odd, solitary, distracted aunt Sylvie, who has lived her life as a transient, picking up work here and there, riding in boxcars, gathering odd little yarns from passing acquaintances.  The sisters and their aunt live a deeply eccentric life, largely cut off from the rest of the community.  One of the sisters (Lucille) eventually breaks free of this, the other (Ruth, who is also the narrator) does not.

An important character in this book is the material world -the lake and its shores, the house, the bridge- which for a lot of the time is Ruth’s (and her aunt’s and her sister’s) main companion.  Here, for instance, Ruth and Lucille are out by themselves on the frozen lake.  Over on the shore fires are burning in barrels to warm the townsfolk who come down to skate on the ice, but the two sistes, typically, are far out at the extremity of the area that is swept of snow to provide a skating rink :

The town itself seemed a negligible thing from such a distance.  Were it not for the clutter on the shore, the flames and the tremulous pillars of heat that stood above the barrels, and of course the skaters who swooped and sailed and made bright, brave sounds, it would have been possible not to notice the town at all.  The mountains that stood up behind it were covered with snow and hidden in the white sky, and the lake was sealed and hidden, yet their eclipse had not made the town more prominent.  Indeed, where we were we could feel the reach of the lake far behind us, and far beyond us on either side, in a spacious silence that seemed to ring like glass.

Or here is a beach on the lake:

The shore drifted in a long, slow curve, outward to a point, beyond which three step islands of diminishing size continued the sweep of the land toward the depths of the lake, tentatively, like an ellipsis.  The point was high and stony, crested with fir trees.  At its foot a narrow margin of brown sand abstracted its crude shape into one pure curve of calligraphic delicacy, sweeping, again, toward the lake.

These are empty vistas.  Their emptiness is part of their mystery and their allure.  But human relationships are evoked with the same elegance and economy. Here is Lucille beginning to pull away from her sister Ruth and from the eccentric isolation of their life with Sylvie.  Ruth has gone to fetch a dictionary at Lucille’s request (in order to find out what ‘pinking sheers’ are, Lucille having decided to make herself some decent clothes from a pattern) and, opening up the book, she finds it full of dried flowers, carefully pressed there by their long-dead dead grandfather:

“Let me see that,” Lucille said.  She took the book by each end of its spine and shook it.  Scores of flowers and petals fell and drifted from between the pages.  Lucille kept shaking until nothing more came, and then she handed the dictionary back to me.  “Pinking sheers,” she said.

“What will we do with these flowers?”

“Put them in the stove.”

“Why do that?”

“What are they good for?”  This was not a real question, of course.  Lucille lowered her coppery brows and peered at me boldly, as if to say, It is not crime to harden my heart against pansies that have smothered in darkness for forty years.

A theme that runs through the book is the paradoxical nature of loss, the way that something or someone lost can be a  much bigger matter than the actual presence of that something or someone would ever have been.  Lucille is fighting this when she hardens her heart against the flowers.  And it is her that manages to escape the odd solitary menage she shares with her aunt and sister.

Towards the end of the book, Ruth reflects on how how she and Lucille lived lives dominated by the shadow of their mother’s absence.  But…

…if she had simply bought us home again to the high frame apartment building with the scaffolding of stairs, I would not remember her that way.  Her eccentricities might have irked and embarassed us when we grew older…  We would have laughed together at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous.  Then we would telephone her out of guilt and nostalgia, and laugh bitterly afterward because she asked us nothing, and told us nothing, and fell silent from time to time, and was glad to get off the phone.

Ruth’s degree of insight stretches credulity a little here.  One accepts the literariness and poetry of Ruth’s voice as a device, but it is hard to believe that this drifting isolate, looking in at the world from outside, could really acquire any kind of understanding of the bitter, guilty dutifulness of the middle-aged grownup children of a not-very-satisfactory mother.

But never mind.  What I got very powerfully from this book -and I keep coming back to it in my mind- is a demonstration of how absence becomes addictive.  Look at the photo on the cover.  How much more myterious and alluring is the part of the railway track in the distance that is disappearing into the mist, than the part in the foreground you can see perfectly clearly.  Dwell too much and too long on absence, and mere presence will never be enough.

Parentless

It’s nearly a year since my mother died.  My father died a couple of years previously.  So I am parentless.  There’s been a difficult period of adjustment to this fact, but I’m finally beginning to get used to it.  It feels good.

I was present at the moment of my mother’s death but I felt nothing.  I felt a stony absence where one might expect feeling to be.  It was the same at her funeral.  To this day, I have not shed a single tear for her.  (I only shed a couple for my father.)   Immediately after my mother died, I sat alone with her body for a while. I didn’t speak to her, and I am still careful not to speak to her as some people like to do to their dead. I do not want to give any sort of house room to the idea that she might be alive or listening.  Nevertheless, as I sat by her body, I imagined she spoke to me.  As it became more gaunt in the final days, her face, with its prominent nose and pointy chin, had become a little witch-like, reminding me of her sharp face in pictures from my early childhood which always stir in me a certain icy fear.  And now, alone with her body, I imagined her saying to me in a harsh, mocking voice, ‘Don’t imagine you’ve got away from me because you never will.  Now I’m inside your head.’ I didn’t literally hear this, but it was vivid enough to frighten me, and I had to resist an impulse to run from the room.

I should be clear that she had never actually spoken to me in that way since I was a child.  She was no monster.  She had a number of admirable qualities.  She was creative and talented and liked to laugh. She was a good neighbour.  I don’t think, generally speaking, that she was deliberately cruel or unkind, and I completely understand that there were reasons for her limitations.   She was also very affectionate towards me and, a lot of the time, I enjoyed her company.  But my absence of grief tells me one thing that I wasn’t entirely sure about until now: I did not love her.

It feels wrong to say it, it feels ungrateful, it feels disloyal, but love isn’t something you can just switch on.  Undoubtedly my mother deserved to be loved, and I performed, as best I could, the part of a loving and affectionate son.  I’d even say the affection was real.  It just wasn’t love.

My mother said to me on more than one occasion that she herself was only capable of loving anyone if she pitied them.  This explained a lot.  I’m simplifying of course, but there was a sense in which, when we were children, you simply couldn’t get loved by her by being brave or healthy or happy.  On the other hand, if you were sick, or maimed, or distressed, my mother, who was a doctor, was always interested, to the point  that there was often rivalry between myself and my siblings not to be the best, but to be the most wounded.

I didn’t completely get this until sometime into adulthood.  Indeed I think that for a while I myself bought into the idea myself that love and pity were synonymous, and (even more weirdly) that being maimed was synonymous with being lovable. (Thank god, I was past this before my own children were born.)  But the fact was that revealing your wounds to my mother, while it would certainly attract her interest, came at a great cost.  She would want to wallow in them, to build them up and make them define you, and to discuss them with her friends, much as other parents discuss their children’s changing circumstances and achievements, the latter being things that, like my father, she showed remarkably little interest in.

There was also an ever present risk that she might suddenly turn, for though she preferred us to be wounded, she did not want us to be more wounded than herself. The competition to be the most wounded was one she saw herself as very much part of and, if you made her feel that her position was challenged, her frightening, sudden, witch-like anger might suddenly flare and she’d tell you that your problems were nothing compared with hers.

So I learned as an adult never to reveal anything of my inner self, and certainly not to tell her of any problems I might have.  We developed a not-unpleasant, bantering, affectionate kind of relationship which I think she enjoyed, and often I did too, but I did not trust her with my core self, or anything even close to it.  In fact I think I was around forty before I learnt to trust my core self with any other adult at all.  And I guess that explains why it was possible for me to feel affection for her (which, after all, you can feel for people you don’t know very well),  but not love, which surely requires that you are able to make contact, to some degree, at a level that feels like your core.

I know what grief feels like.  Grief is like a hard cold wall, seperating you from something precious that someone gave you and that you can never, ever have from them again.   Her death has not separated me from something precious and  I have not grieved for her.  It’s true that I have often grieved, over my life, for the absence of something I would have liked to have had from her and my father, and, in the aftermath of their deaths, I have certainly recapitulated some of that.  (Four months after she died I saw a news story about the death of the ‘clown of Aleppo‘, a brave young man who did his best to cheer up the children there, and for a short time I was quite beside myself, though it was the first time I’d ever heard of him!)  But that’s another matter entirely.

I find myself thinking of suns and black holes.  Both have gravity, and both can draw other, smaller bodies into their orbit, but suns give out warmth, and black holes suck it in.   I would have liked parents who could warm me, but at least now they can no longer suck away my own warmth.  And I don’t even have to feel badly about depriving them of it, because at last those two needy people no longer need anything at all.

Crash

The most serious car crash I have ever been in happened nearly thirty years ago.  We were driving from out of town towards the Elizabeth Way Bridge in Cambridge, returning from a trip to the sea, and my wife was just stopping for a red light at a pedestrian crossing, when a young man coming in the other direction at about 70MPH lost control of his scooter as he came down the bridge, veering wildly across the road to smash right into the front of our car.  The engine compartment was crumpled like a carboard box and the scooter lay in pieces on the road.  We were showered with fragments of our own windscreen.  There was a stink of smoke and hot oil.

I wasn’t sure what to do, but having established that none of us were hurt beyond a few small scratches, I climbed out of the car.  The scooter rider had somersaulted right over the roof of the car and was sprawled on his back on the road behind us.   He was unconscious.  His skin was grey with shock.  The only sign that he was alive was a pop-pop-pop of his breath coming out through his lips.  I had no idea what to do for him, and was in no state to think clearly about anything at all.  (Later it made me think about soldiers in wars, facing traumatic events, one after another, for hours on end: Tom Hanks in that amazing scene in Saving Private Ryan, standing in the middle of  the Normandy landings in a kind of disconnected fog.)  Other people took charge of him.  An ambulance came.  He died in hospital that same night.

People came out of houses and from the cars that had stopped behind us to attend to the injured man. Someone invited my family into their house and made drinks for our frightened kids: my oldest daughter aged three managing her fear by announcing things very loudly and firmly to everyone present.  Someone else came out with a fire extinguisher and sprayed it over our crushed engine. The whole thing -our adrenalin-flooded bloodstreams, the nearness of death, us being the centre of attention, the sudden emergence of a kind of temporary community from behind the closed doors of houses and cars- had an eerie, unreal feeling.

The next few days were strange.  A police officer came round and so did the parents of the dead man who the police had put in touch with us. He’d been their only child, and had just left their house after a meal when he had the crash.  (He’d been through a difficult time, they told us, but they’d been hoping that he’d begun to turn a corner in his life.  They had barely begun to process what had happened.)   And we experienced something that I wouldn’t have anticipated or thought possible: every few minutes for the next couple of days, the crash replayed itself in my head.   I almost literally heard and felt the moment of impact, over and over again.  My whole head ached with it.

Going back to the immediate aftermath of the crash itself, one thing I remember, because I made a particular point of remembering it, is me telling my future self, ‘Looking back on this, with all the strangeness, all the heightened physical arousal, all the drama, it may seem to have a kind of glamour, like the glamour that people imagine that war has.  But I’m telling you now, it is not glamorous, not in any way.’

* * *

I’ve just read Ballard’s Crash, which of course is all about the glamour of car crashes.  Although I’ve read a lot of his work (I’ve written about some of it here, here and here), I’ve avoided this book up to now, unable to face its perversity.   But I’ve finally read it, 44 years after it came out.

By all the rules Crash ought to be completely unreadable not only because of its subject matter -the whole book is about a sexual obsession with car crashes- but also because, in common with other books of Ballard’s, it lacks the progression, the unfolding, that you expect in a novel.  The third paragraph is already talking about ‘windshield glass frosting around her face like a death-born Aphrodite…  her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer’s medallion, his semen emptying across the luminscent dials that registered for ever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine’.   The narrator (a character teasingly named Ballard) is hooked on this stuff pretty much from the off, and the rest of the book is filled with scenes and language of this kind, which get neither more nor less extreme.  In place of progression, the book remorsely repeats, over and over, the same basic ideas.  Again and again we are presented with mixtures of some combination of blood, semen and mucus with engine oil or coolant.  Again and again the image recurs of parts of the dashboard imprinted on the human body.  Again and again the characters obsess about matching the angles of the human body (intact or mangled) and the angles of sex, with the angles of a car in its smashed or pre-smashed form.

And yet it is readable. It is actually a lot more readable than many more conventional novels I’ve read or attempted to read recently, and I’m trying to work out why.

For one thng, as I’ve noticed before, Ballard’s books work like paintings.  Words have necessarily to be read one at a time, but the time element is much less important in Ballard than is conventionally the case with novels.  What emerges is not so much a story as a picture, very detailed and intricate, which all that repetition, like repeated brush strokes, serves to consolidate in the mind.

Ballard’s writing is also emotionally very cool.  Characters are never appalled, or terrified, or horrified, or grief-stricken.  At most they are ‘uneasy’ or ‘unsettled’.  And they are viewed with a cool eye too.  There’s no authorial judgement on them.  These people are driven by a bizarre sexual obsession but the way it is presented doesn’t really invite a sexual response or even a response of disgust or revulsion, in spite of the extremely graphic details involving ‘faecal matter’, ‘anal mucus’, ‘vaginal fluid’ etc etc  You could say the presentation is clinical, but it also makes me think of the psychological phenomenon called dissociation, an emotional detachment from reality.   In psychology, dissociation is typically a defensive response to a reality too terrible to process (again, I think of Hanks’s character standing dazed on that beach in Normandy), and in a book like this it serves the same kind of function for the reader, making it possible to continue through material which otherwise might drive one to fling the book away.  Only later, as I gradually processed what I’d read, did I see that I’ve been presented with a vision of modern consumer society as pornography, as artifical images that are simultaneously hyper-seductive and completely dehumanised.

The other thing that keeps you reading is simply the intensity of the vision:

We had entered an immense traffic jam. From the junction of the motorway and Western Avenue to the ascent ramp of the flyover the traffic lanes were packed with vehicles, windshields leaching out the molten colours of the sun setting above the western suburbs of London. Brake-lights flared in the evening air, glowing in the huge pool of cellulosed bodies. Vaughan sat with one arm out of the passenger window. He slapped the door impatiently, pounding the panel with his fist. To our right the high wall of a double-decker airline coach formed a cliff of faces. The passengers at the windows resembled rows of the dead looking down at us from the galleries of a columbarium. The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.

* * *

It was planes rather than cars that did it for me as a child, and specifically war planes.  It was that same glamour, that same intoxicating mixture of speed and modernity and death.

I remember when I pretty small, maybe 6 or 7, I developed for a while a fear that a plane would crash into our house.  I never told anyone about it, but it haunted me continuously, day after day.  But even then I didn’t stop playing with planes.  I can even remember noticing the contradiction once while playing on my own, noticing that I was living in fear of planes, even while I fantasised about being a fighter pilot.  I had compartmentalised my mind so effectively that planes could simultaneously be objects of desire and objects of dread.

This makes me think of Ballard’s childhood experiences in Shanghai, described in fictionalised form in Empire of the Sun.  Surrounded by horrors, completely in the power of enemies, he learns to admire and be excited by the things that most threaten him.  I guess this was where he learnt to separate emotions from phenomena in that way, so fundamental to his writing voice, that allows him to explore territory where almost no one else would go.

To Become a Warrior 2017

I first wrote ‘To Become a Warrior’ in 2002.  It was published in Interzone, and subequently in one of Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best anthologies.  It’s about Carl, a poorly educated, not particularly bright young man who’s been left outside of the prosperous, liberal society of which he is nominally a citizen, and his recruitment by a murderous gang of ‘shifters’ who want to take the world back to the world of the Vikings.

It was one of a number of stories set in this world, the first being ‘The Welfare Man’ written in 1993.   Judging by reprints in anthologies and reader’s polls, they have been among my most popular stories.  However, I didn’t include them in either of my story collections, choosing instead to incorporate them into my second novel, Marcher.

My work as a social worker – when I wrote the story I was only a couple of years on from working as the manager of a social work team- had given me a powerful sense that even a prosperous, economically booming, middle class town like Cambridge (where I lived then and still live now), has another side to it, people who share no part of the prosperity.  There was the famous Cambridge, with its beautiful old buildings, its ancient University, its IT and biotech industries, its bright, educated, liberal-minded citizens, and there was this alternate Cambridge which no one comes to visit, where I would go as part of my job.

When I incorporated ‘To Become a Warrior’ into the novel Marcher, I shifted from first to third person, added and changed details to make it fit in with the rest of the book, swapped around some characters, and gave the story two additional endings, in keeping with the novel’s theme of branching time lines and alternate presents.  Below, I have restored the original first person short story, except that  this time I have opted for one of the other endings.

I’m putting it out here now to mark the inauguration of Donald Trump.   A clamour of rage and fear is going up today from the members of, so to speak, my own tribe, the liberal middle class.  We see everything we value under threat, and we look around for people to blame.  But I have a strong sense, which I’ve tried rather clumsily to explore in previous posts (for instance this), that we ourselves must take a share of that blame. If you leave people outside, they turn to others who offer to take them in.

Anyway, here it is in full, ‘To Become a Warrior ‘ to mark this historic day:

Continue reading “To Become a Warrior 2017”

The smartsplaining voice

There’s a lot of talk these days about a growing contempt in the world for evidence, for experts, for reason itself.  It’s a real concern. Not much hope for the future if decades of meticulous scientific work on climate change can all be tossed aside by know-nothing ‘common sense’.  Not much hope for a decent society if obvious lies can be uncritically accepted as true, while facts are dismissed out of hand

But another kind of ugliness that’s been coming to the fore lately is the voice that says, in effect, we smart people know best, and those thick people should just shut up and wait to be told what’s good for them.  Weary, angry, contemptuous: the smartsplaining voice, it might be called.

Clever educated people who are good at reasoning, should be careful not to assume that this alone makes them right.

I remember once in my social work days, visiting a barely literate client and her saying to me resentfully at the end: ‘I suppose you’re going to go away and write this all down, aren’t you?’  However reasonable I was, however conscientious, the fact remained that my interpretation of events was going to go on the record, and hers was not.

A few years later, after a change of job, I acquired a reading ticket for the Cambridge University Library, and had the habit for a while of sitting in the cafe over there to write.  As I half-listened to the people at the tables around me, academics and students coming and going with their cups of coffee and tea, I noticed that I could go all day without even once hearing a regional accent of any kind, only the distinctive drawl of the British private school system.

There’s no question in my mind that every one of those people in the library would have been much better at rational argument and far better-informed than that former client of mine in her council house three miles away.  But every one of their arguments, however beautifully constructed, would necessarily be based on their own experience and what they’d read, and I’ll bet that neither their experience nor their reading equipped them to know anything about that woman’s world.  (This is true of me too, incidentally, although my former job afforded me small glimpses into it.)

So when some of them become politicians, or economists, or entrepreneurs, their judgements about the world, however carefully reasoned, will take almost no account at all of what that woman feels, what’s important to her, how she imbues her life with meaning.  Their judgements will, on the other hand, be very amply informed by the needs of people like themselves, what’s important to them, what imbues their life with meaning.

And that makes me think that what may look like a revolt against reason itself, may be in fact be a revolt against a class that is very good at reasoning, and very good at explaining why the world ought to be run in a way that suits that very same class.   Not revolt against reason as such, in other words, but revolt against reasoning that (however unintentionally) is rigged in favour of the reasoners.   After all, if you’re good at reasoning, you’re good at rationalising too.

Which is why I think that members of that class, including me, would do better to think about what we’ve been excluding from our view of the world, than to dismiss whole groups of people as ignorant thugs.