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 solitarly 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 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.

Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

(Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank.)

I’ve just read this book, but it was first published at the tail end of the Obama presidency. It articulates concerns I share and have attempted to express here a number of times: the growing invisibility of class as a social division (as compared to other divisions such as gender, sexuality etc), and the way that political parties on the political ‘left’ have ceased to identify with the interests of working class people and becoming instead the mouthpieces of the liberal professional class.  Frank is writing specifically about the American Democratic party.  This is ‘still a class party,’ he says. ‘In fact [Democracts] show admirable concern for the class they represent.  It’s just that the class they care about doesn’t happen to be the same one that Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.’*

Frank asks why the Democrats are ‘so bravely forthright on cultural issues’ [by which he means ‘culture wars’ issues such as abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage…] and yet ‘their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy.  What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question [massive and increasing inequality of wealth] is beyond their control?’  He notes that the standard explanation for this is the power of money and the ability of moneyed interests to influence politicians through campaign finances etc, but he suggests that this is only part of it.  He argues that there are ‘different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them -the hierarchy of money- many of the Democrats’ failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning and status.’  He goes on to say that ‘We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase “the One Percent”; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative however, what we need to scrutinise is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status.’

He observes, ‘We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place…we think of them merely as “the best”.  They are where they are because they are so smart…’  Ceding authority to professional experts is, he acknowledges, ‘tolerable to a certain degree -no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example…. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as “social trustees”?  What happens when they abuse their monopoly power?  What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?’

Myself, I see this happening around me all the time.  I don’t mean by this – and I don’t think Frank is saying this either- that the professional class is acting in its own interests knowngly and cynically.  We human beings have a need to see ourselves as ‘the good guys’, and we rationalise our self-interest in various ways as being in the common good.  What I see is liberal professional people telling each other, sometimes pretty stridently, that they are the real left, the real good guys  (being as they are against sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc), asserting that their view of how the world should be run is simply correct (because they, after all, are the class of experts), and becoming increasingly hostile to the elements of their own working class that no longer accepts their authority.  Like all powerful classes, they (and really I should say we because it is my own class I am talking about!) believe themselves to be both entitled and virtuous.  One of the great things about being a highly educated elite which is against sexism, homophobia etc etc is that you can be pretty certain that the less educated, less intellectual part of the population will tend to subscribe to more old fashioned views than you do on gender, sexuality and so on, thereby making it rather easy for you (in spite of your privileged position) to claim the moral high ground.  You just have to keep class off the agenda.

‘When the left party in a political system severs its bonds to working people,’ Frank observes, ‘-when it dedicates itself to the concerns fo the particular slice of high-achieving affluent people- issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.’  I have certainly noticed over my lifetime how the idea of social justice has gradually stopped being about reducing disparities of wealth, and has come to be about equal opportunities, about ensuring that everyone can make use of their talents.  As Frank notes: ‘Another term for this understanding of equality is Meritocracy, which is one of the great defining faiths of the professional class.’  He quotes the journalist Chris Hayes** who writes:

The areas in which the left have mad the most significant progress -gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination- are the battles it has fought for making the meritocracy more meritocratic.  The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats – collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality- are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview.

The trouble with meritocracy, it seems to me, even if such a thing could ever be achieved (which is dubious given that successful meritocrats can easily ensure that their children get a head start in the supposedly meritocratic race), is that it has nothing to offer to people who are not especially talented or skilled: and after all, half of the population  is by definition of average or below average ability.  And this is the trouble even with the idea of meritocracy as a desirable political goal.  A meritocratic culture is one that celebrates high achievers, that fetishises exeptional ability  and exceptional attainment (Frank describes this very persuasively), and has no interest in those who are merely ordinary.

This fact may rebound on the ideology itself, though.  Frank observes that, although the Democratic Party (like the British Labour party) consciously uncoupled itself from its old blue collar allegiances, it nevertheless assumed that it could continue to rely on blue collar votes because working class voters had nowhere else to go.  Recent events, in the US and America, suggest that this assumption may be spectacularly wrong.  As the musician Brian Eno observed:  ‘There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it because we didn’t make it. We expected we were going to be the revolution.’


*Frank doesn’t discuss the British Labour Party at all, but its own transition is, in a way, even more striking, given that the much older Democratic Party has represented all kinds of interests over the years (including those of slaveowners and segregationists) but the Labour Party’s very name reflects its origins as a party specifically created to ensure that the interests of the working class were represented in Parliament.

**From Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.   (A book I have not read.)

Two short stories by Ursula Le Guin

Many people are writing just now about Ursula Le Guin, who died on Monday, and her many works.  As my own small tribute I will say that she was the author of two of the best short stories I’ve ever read, not just in SF, but in any genre, each in its own way as near perfect as a story can be, yet very different from each other.   One of them is ‘Semley’s Necklace’ (aka ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’), the other is ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas.’  (If you don’t like spoilers of any kind, best not to read the following, although I’ve tried not to be too specific.)

‘Semley’s Necklace’ draws on the Norse myth of the Brisingamen necklace, which belonged to the goddess Freyja (itself a favourite of mine).  But Le Guin transposes it to an interplanetary setting and gives it an entirely science fictional twist based on the extreme time dilation that is predicted by the theory of relativity when a starship travels at near light speed.  Although she herself comes from an aristocratic background, Semley feels inadequate by comparison with her husband’s people, who are wealthier than her own, and sets out to recover an heirloom that belonged to her own family and will, she believes, put things on a more equal footing.  She succeeds in her mission, but tragically fails to understand the implications when told she can reach it in a journey that will only last a single long night.  The story is very human, genuinely tragic, and at the same time utterly science fictional in the best possible way, melding its very different elements perfectly.  And the plot, the structure, the pacing:  well, it simply doesn’t get any better.

As to ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’: it’s sometimes said (and I agree) that, in SF, the world functions as an additional character, but in this story, the world is the main character with the only other real character being the narrator.  There is no dialogue, and no one is introduced by name.  The story is simply the description of Omelas, a wonderful city, a beautiful and tranquil place, which is introduced to us as its citizens are celebrating the first day of summer.  Indeed the narrator, in a way that reminds me of a move made by Jane Austen once or twice, at one point invites the reader to add details of their own to make the world as much to their liking as possible.  Of course, it does feel too good to be true.  The narrator acknowledges this but then adds a devasting twist which suddenly makes Omelas seem all too real.  It’s an extraordinarily original and very disturbing piece of writing.


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.

Hate-filled ignorant scum

I’ve been struck for some time by the increasing invisibility of working class people in Britain.   Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I’ve been struck by the increasing invisibility of class as a social division.  The concerns of progressive-minded people have shifted away from class to other divisions -gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability- to a degree that, as Owen Jones points out at the beginning of his important book, Chavs*, the kind of derogatory comment that would be completely unacceptable if applied to, say, an ethnic minority, or to women, or to people with disabilities, can now be quite openly made about people who are working class or poor.  This was particularly evident to me in the wake of the Brexit referendum.  I was very stuck, not only by the way that liberal middle-class Remain voters tended to characterise working-class Leave voters as ignorant, stupid, bigoted and racist, but also by their shock at being defeated.  Many Remain voters, it seemed, only knew folk who voted Remain.  There was a whole bloc of people out there, whose lives and opinions they knew almost nothing about.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s working class people were not invisible in the same way.   The city I grew up in, Oxford, was at that time a major car-manufacturing town.  Trade unions were powerful working-class organisations and, though I came from a middle-class and not particularly political background, in my teens I would have been able to name probably nine or ten trade union leaders in the same way that I could name senior government ministers.  Changes since then have not abolished the working class, but fragmented it, disempowered it and rendered it invisible as a class to the point that some middle-class people, who clearly lead very sheltered lives, now speak of a classless society, or a post-class society, or of us ‘all being middle-class’ now.

The changes, described in Owen’s book, include, the dismantling of much of manufacturing industry, the attack, begun by Margaret Thatcher, on trade union power, and the deliberate policy of the Thatcher government, through the selling off of social housing, to encourage as many working class people as possible to begin to think of themselves as middle-class home owners, or at least to drive a wedge between them, and those that remained in social housing.  The Labour Party, a party originally established with the precise purpose of ensuring that working class people were politically represented, was to carry on with this programme.  Under New Labour, as Owen notes, the idea of emancipating the working class people morphed from improving conditions for the class as a whole, to helping individual working class people to become middle-class.  The emphasis shifted from ‘equality’ to ‘equality of opportunity’.  ‘The new Britain is a meritocracy’, Tony Blair said when he came to power, though the term ‘was not originally meant to describe a desirable society…[but] was meant to raise the alarm at what Britain could become’ (Chavs, p 96).

Not all working class people can become middle class.  ‘If everyone became middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call-in centres?’ (Chavs, p 250).   And not everyone has the same aptitudes.  But the shift of emphasis from improving the condition of a whole class, to helping people with the necessary abilities to leave that class and join the middle class, means that those who are left behind can be blamed for their own problems, and the poorest among them can be described in terms which, if applied to ethnic minorities rather than social classes, could have come straight from some 1930s Nazi tract:

‘…that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country…good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and are incapable of feeling love or guilt’ (Carole Malone, News of the World, cited in Chavs, p 22)

One of the interesting points raised by Owen, and one which very much chimes with my own experience, is that denigration of working class people isn’t confined to the right-wing of British politics, but can also be found among liberal and even left-wing people.  I read an article in the Guardian a few years ago, reporting on a poll which found that the middle class was now more ‘left-wing’ than the working class.  And in the comment thread I came across the following, offered, as far as I could tell, without conscious irony:

… [The working class] consistently vote against their own interests. I have always imagined that the reason is that they think they are “middle-class” as was my own family’s delusion. However, I suspect that the real reason is that they are just hate-filled ignorant scum and we middle-class people should just say fuck them.

Hate-filled, ignorant scum.  ‘One of the ways people have made their snobbery socially acceptable…’ says Johann Hari (cited in Chavs, p 116) ‘[is] by acting as though they are defending immigrants from the “ignorant” white working class’.  Indeed some commentators quite specifically contrast hard-working immigrants with lazy good-for-nothing British workers.  Writing in the Times in 1994, Janet Daley (cited in Chavs, p 118-9) characterised British working-class people as a ‘self-loathing, self-destructive tranche of the population’ and contrasted them with the ‘religion, cultural dignity and… sense of family’ brought by people from ethnic minorities, who were only held back by the ‘mindless hatred of the indigenous working classes, who loathe them precisely for their cultural integrity…  I fear long after Britain has become a successful multi-racial society, it will be plagued by this diminishing…detritus of the Industrial Revolution’.

*   *   *

I heard a lot of that kind of talk from Remainers in the aftermath of Brexit.  But it seems to me that describing working class British people as ‘hate-filled ignorant scum’ and contrasting them unfavourably with immigrant workers was never exactly calculated to endear them to the European project.

*References are to the new 2016 edition of this book, published by Verso

Optimistic writing

Science fiction is usually set in the future.   It’s true that quite often it is only nominally the future -much science fiction is set in worlds that are no more plausible as a depiction of a real future than, say, Arthurian romances are plausible as depictions of a real past-  but even so, one of the functions that SF performs is providing an imaginative way of thinking about where we may be headed.

An SF writer must primarily be a story-teller, though.  There has to be tension and jeopardy in the imagined world, in order to generate a story.  Fictional utopias, worlds where all humanity’s problems have been solved, are notoriously screamingly dull.  (Which sometimes makes me wonder if we would really even want to live in a utopian society, or whether, like David Bowie’s Saviour Machine, we’d feel compelled to destroy it in order to get away from the tedium of it all?)  It’s much easier to set an interesting story in a dystopia, or at least in a world which is at least as flawed as the present, and I’m not sure its even possible to set an interesting novel in a utopia unless the utopian society is placed under some kind of external threat ( as in Huxley’s Island, or Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

I mention all this because I like to read about positive developments that might improve things in the future, and as someone who writes about the future (and worries about it, as we all do), I always feel that I’d like to disseminate what I read, but in fact it is very hard to do so through the medium of SF.  I think maybe I just need to accept that non-fiction is a better medium for writing about such things.

the switch cover

The Switch (by Chris Goodall) is a very readable book about the hopeful possibilities arising from the fact that solar power is becoming cheaper year on year, to the point where it will soon be a much more cost-effective source of energy than fossil fuels.  Early solar panels cost many thousands of dollars per watt of power,but ‘by the mid 1970s the figure had fallen to $100 a watt.  Now the cost is about 50 cents and the decline still continues’ and ‘in the sunnier parts of the world, photovoltaics already offer electricity at lower total cost than other forms of power’.  Even in more northerly countries, PV [photovoltaics] is dramatically reducing in cost: ‘In Britain the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels has already pushed PV almost to cost parity with planned gas-fired power stations’.  And ‘because PV is so utterly reliable and almost maintenance-free, it is a perfect investment for pension funds seeking consistent yearly returns for the thirty-five years of a panel’s life.’

But there’s an obvious problem with PV which is that sunlight isn’t constant and can’t be turned on and off to meet demand.   Actually no other source of power can be turned on and off at will like that without at least some cost, but clearly PV doesn’t work at all in the night,  generates power in the middle of the day whether it is needed or not, and generates less power when the sky clouds over, even if more is actually needed during those times.  Most of the book is therefore about developments around the world aimed at addressing this problem, which the author sees as eminently surmountable.

There are a number of layers to this.  One is to manage demand more effectively.   There are already schemes whereby companies are paid to enter into an agreement to cut energy use at short notice when there is a spike in demand, which can often be done without affecting productivity.  For example, a papermill produces pulp and stores it, and then turns the pulp into paper.  Provided there is a sufficient store of pulp, pulp-making can be paused at any point, without reducing the overall output of the mill.  In the same way domestic fridges and freezers can be turned off for short periods without ill-effect and chargers for electric vehicles can be set to stop charging at periods of peak demand, and resume charging at periods of lower demand.

Another way is to store the energy.  Pumped storage – that is: using surplus power to pump water uphill, and then allowing that water to flow down through a turbine to generate power at times of energy shortage- has been the main means of doing this on a large scale, but there are a limited number of suitable sites for this.   There are also new solar powerstations being built which, instead of using PV, concentrate solar energy to generate heat that can be used to power turbines even when the sun is down (Morocco has made a big commitment to this approach and is currently developing the largest such scheme in the world).  Increasingly though, large-scale storage in batteries is becoming an option, because batteries are reducing in cost year on year, much like PV, albeit not quite so quickly.   In countries where there is steady sun throughout the year, this book suggests, a combination of PV and banks of batteries may on their own be able to provide sufficient power for household use.

However in countries with long, relatively dark winters, batteries will not be sufficient.  The later chapters of this book explore emergent technologies, not yet as far advanced as PV or batteries, which can use surplus power to synthesise  fuels, by extracting hydrogen from water and combining it with carbon dioxide to make methane or ethanol.  One of the attractive things about this approach is that there is an existing infrastructure of storage tanks and pipelines which are currently used for fossil fuels, as well as gas powerstations that could equally well run on synthesised fuel.   The book describes a range of different approaches being taken around the world towards mimicking what plants do naturally, using sunlight to make fuel, and doing so on a commercial scale.

I couldn’t make a novel out of all this -perhaps some people could, but I couldn’t- and yet it is a fascinating story.  I guess the truth is that the really creative people here are not story-tellers who imagine worlds, but the scientists, engineers,  entrepreneurs and politicians, who actually make things happen in the real world that we all inhabit.  I know that a lot of people would argue that the rate of change towards these new technologies is still far too slow to tackle climate change, but that’s a question about political will.   The political choice to shift away from fossil fuels is only even theoretically possible if viable alternatives are available.  The encouraging story this book tells is that they are, and getting more viable all the time.  The other encouraging point -and I’m simply not qualified to judge how realistic it is- is that a time is arriving where market forces themselves, regardless of politics, will pull us in the direction of solar power and power storage, and away from fossil fuels.

The Party is Over

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, c100 CE: Satire 10.77-81)

A public that pays more attention to reality TV than its status as free citizens cannot withstand an unremitting encroachment on its liberties by calculating, unscrupulous and power-hungry leaders (Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, 2012 CE)

The party is over

I haven’t even finished reading this book yet, and I may well have more to say about it later.  It is packed with sharp, pithily expressed and extremely scary observations about the break-down of the American political system and its corruption by corporate money.  A Republican who worked as a staffer in Congress for nearly 30 years, Lofgren is pretty scathing about the Democrats, but his most bitter attacks (at least so far) are directed against his own party which he describes as becoming less and less like a political party and more like ‘an apocalyptic cult’.

What he really exposes is a kind of doublespeak in which strident claims to be defending something – the constitution, liberty, democracy, the national interest- are used to conceal attacks on that same object.  ‘Let us now dispose,’ Lofgren writes, for instance, ‘ of the quaint notion that the present-day Republican Party is conservative.’   He defines the GOP, as it now exists, as a ‘radical right-wing party’, which doesn’t really conserve and protect anything, for all that it invokes the memory of a romanticised past, but seeks to completely transform society in the interests of the very wealthy* using whatever means possible and with a kind of Leninist ruthlessness.

The American political system works in a very different way from the British one, but there is much here that is familiar to a British reader all the same.  For instance:

The GOP reflexively scorns so-called elites (by which it means educated, critical thinkers) to mask the way it is utterly beholden to the true American elite.

I am particularly struck by Lofgren’s observation that the current Republican Party deliberately seeks to undermine the credibility of government itself:

Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government – i.e., the Republican Party – will come out the relative winner.

Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.

A UK parallel is the relentless attack on the quality of public services, which is always ostensibly in the name of making them better, but which in fact reduces the standing of the services themselves.   But we also have a culture of cynicism about politicians and government in general, and I’ve long thought that (for instance) leftish comedians should be more aware of whose interests such routine and unfocused cynicism actually serves.

*Interesting fact: according to Lofgren under Eisenhower’s Republican presidency in the 50s, the top rate of income tax in the US was 91%.  Even the new leadership of the British Labour Party, characterised by many as unelectably left-wing, only proposes a top rate of 50%.

The violent faith

The grail legend has always had certain hold on my imagination since I encountered it as a child, and I’ve often thought about using it in some way in a story.  Partly for that reason, and partly because I’m perennially fascinated by the way that stories evolve over time, I recently read a translation of the original grail romance by Chretien de Troyes and then an interesting book* by Richard Barber which looks at how the story has changed over the centuries.   It was a bit of an eye-opener.

One point that Barber makes is that the original grail stories were written for a particular audience. These tales of knightly valour were written for real-life knights and, like so many books still do, served the purpose, among others, of flattering their readers.  For instance, looking at the original de Troyes story, and at the extracts of other medieval versions cited by Barber, I was struck by the amount of bling involved. You are constantly being told about the beautiful and costly possessions of the knights and ladies in the story, and being reminded that such things are their due as members of the gentry.

More chillingly, in one early thirteenth century version of the story (The High Book of the Grail), we are reminded of the business of those real life knights:

…the Good Knight went out to scour the land where the New Law [i.e. Christianity] was being neglected. He killed all those who would not believe in it, and the country of was ruled and protected by him, and the Law of Our Lord exalted by his strength and valour. (Barber, p 51)

The High Book was dedicated to Jean de Nesle, a leading figure both in the brutal Fourth Crusade against Constantinople, and in the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars that followed . I happen to have also read a book** recently about the latter.  Ordered by Pope Innocent III, it involved (among other things) the massacre in 1209 of the entire 20,000 population of the town of Beziers.

* * *

All this came back to me when, reading the commentary around David Bowie’s death, I was reminded that there had been some controversy about Bowie’s ‘blasphemous’ use of Christian imagery in his video for ‘The Next Day’.  And I was particularly struck by a comment of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey:  ‘I doubt that Bowie would have the courage to use Islamic imagery. I very much doubt it’.

What a strange and revealing remark.  People like Bowie wouldn’t mock Christianity, he is really saying, if they thought they might be killed for it.  And Carey should know!  His own Anglican church is the largest denomination in the English-speaking world, after all, not as the result of kindly Episcopalians gently persuading Catholics and others of the error of their ways, but through the use of violence and terror.  Read Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels for a description of a process which included, among other things, monks who refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the English church being publicly castrated and disembowelled.

* * *

Yes, and in the same way, the reason that there are no Cathars today in the South of France is not that the Roman Catholic church engaged in rational argument with that version of the Christian faith, treating its beliefs with respect, and showing the kind of sensitivity to the feelings of its adherents that Bowie was told off for failing to exercise. No. Cathars were hunted down, tortured to make them inform on one another, and burnt alive until their entire faith was completely exterminated.  In one case, the Catholic authorities learned that an elderly woman had asked for the Cathar equivalent of the Last Rites. She was taken from her death bed and thrown onto a fire.

The versions of Christianity that we know today are actually only a small subset of the ones that have existed in the past, and the Cathars are only one example of the alternatives that were annihilated by the violence of their more ruthless or more powerful rivals. It’s interesting to consider what kind of effect this Darwinian process has had on the content of Christian belief itself.  For a religion, too, is a story written for the benefit of an audience, and this religion, in the form we know it —the form that now asks for its feelings to be respected—was written for generations by or for those who regarded killing and torture as legimate ways of treating those who disagreed with them.  Lord Carey’s strange comment suggests to me that he and his church have a long way to go before they fully recognise the implications of that.  It reminded me of a husband telling his wife she ought to be more grateful that he doesn’t beat her any more.

*Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: the history of a legend.  Penguin.
**Stephen O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy: the life and death of the Cathars.  Profile Books.

The high priest of swimming pools

Whatever else there is to be said about J G Ballard, he is surely the high priest of the swimming pool. Bleached empty pools appear over and over in his work (dating back, I suppose to the empty pools left behind in the international enclave in Shanghai as wealthy expats fled the advancing Japanese). In his hands they are wonderfully and seductively apocalyptic. No one else writes as he did about the glamour of annihilation.

But he has an eye for the full kind too, as here from Cocaine Nights:

Sprinklers sprayed across the lawns, conjuring rainbows from the overlit air, local deities performing their dances to the sun. Now and then the sea wind threw a faint spray across the swimming pools, and their mirror surfaces clouded like troubled dreams.


Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh

do no harmOccasionally I wonder about the point of fiction.  Why make stuff up when there is reality itself out there to write about?  I bought Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, for instance, but once I’d read Natascha Kampusch’s amazing 3,096 Days – few books have made a bigger impression on me: I wrote not one but three posts about it here – I was just no longer interested in reading a piece of fiction about being confined to a single room, however interestingly written or well-reviewed it was.

Do No Harm is a series of scenes from the professional life of a consultant neurosurgeon, a brain surgeon, and, like many other people, I found it utterly compelling reading in a way that I’ve not found any book for a long time.  Why sit behind the eyes of constructed phantoms, I find myself thinking, when you can sit behind the eyes of a real flesh and blood human being?  (I hope this mood will pass!  It’s a bit like being a vicar who suddenly doubts the existence of God.)

As a general rule, I am not very interested in medical matters.  Having been brought up by a doctor, I feel I’ve had enough of the whole medical worldview to last me a lifetime.  Brain surgery, though, is a particularly pure and existential activity, not only because it involves working with the seat of consciousness itself, but because the decisions and actions of the surgeon, second by second, can have huge life-long consequences both negative and positive.   It was this that fascinated me: the business of working in a field where decisions are necessarily probabilistic, and practitioners have to cope with that fact.

In one chapter for instance, Marsh describes the case of a woman who discovers she has an aneurysm (a bulge coming out of a blood vessel, which can burst at any time).    She is perfectly fit and well, and the options facing her are (a) doing nothing, and living with the relatively small possibility that the aneurysm may at some point suddenly burst causing a stroke which may lead to death, paralysis, inability to speak, or a vegetative state, or (b) having the aneurysm closed off with a tiny clamp which, if successful, will remove that long-term threat, but carries a small risk of causing a catastrophic haemorrhage which will have any one of the above effects not in the future but immediately.   The woman elects to take the risks of surgery, and it pays off.   She doesn’t know how close it came to going wrong, when the clamp malfunctioned and refused to detach itself from the instrument used to put it in place.   In a lifetime of neurosurgery, Marsh has of course had to deal with many situations where the dice came down the other way: he’s had to go and see patients who’d been functioning perfectly normally who his own interventions have (in his own blunt but completely accurate word) wrecked.   He’s had patients thanking him for transforming their lives, but also patients angrily accusing him of negligence and incompetence when things didn’t work out so well.  The title, taken from the Hippocratic Oath, is ironic.  It is impossible to do no harm.

Marsh is disarmingly frank about the psychology of all this, the manoeuvres he uses to distance himself, the dread he feels at having to face patients and relatives when things have gone badly, the cockiness when things go well.  He admits on one occasion to reducing a man to a vegetative state when he went too far on a tumour removal operation (it had been going on for 18 hours!) and that part of his motivation had been to impress a senior.   He admits to sometimes carrying out operations that his head says will do no good at all, simply because he can’t face closing off the last avenue of hope for desperate people.  Its a very human voice throughout, and often funny, specially about the idiocies of managerialism.

I don’t know whether I possess the intellectual ability necessary for brain surgery, but I know for certain I don’t have the manual dexterity (do they actually test for this, I’ve often wondered: the book doesn’t say!)  I also don’t have the steadiness of nerve required to keep on going, without panicking, whether things are going well or not, or the resilience required to live with the memories of all those ‘wrecked’ people, and all those angry grief-stricken loved ones.   However, as a child and family social worker and social work manager, I did work for 18 years in a field which was similarly involved in making huge decisions in conditions of uncertainty.   No one died, as far as I know, as a result of decisions I played a part in, but there are certainly a lot of people who might have grown up in completely different families if it wasn’t for me.  I find that quite haunting enough.

Marsh says somewhere in the book that the hardest part of being a brain surgeon is the fact, per se, of dealing with suffering and death, but the decision-making, the knowledge that however hard you try, there may be bad outcomes for which you will be responsible.   I’m put in mind of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt which one of my daughters used to have pinned up on her wall:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Rather purple prose perhaps, but I think what fascinates about Marsh’s book is the perspective of someone who is, in Roosevelt’s words, “actually in the arena” and therefore necessarily “comes short again and again”.