Thanks very much to Stephen E. Andrews for this youtube interview for his Outlaw Bookseller podcast, providing an overview of all my books. Steve is based in Bath, in Somerset, and his extraordinarly encyclopaedic knowledge of books is matched by his infectious enthusiasm. I first met him when he invited me to give a talk in Bath’s Waterstones.
I’ve always thought that there were two types of understanding. The first is to know, as a matter of fact, what something is or how it works (as in ‘the moon is a ball of rock: I know that because I’ve been taught it’). The second is to really feel a thing to be true (as in ‘wow, the moon really is a solid ball of rock’). I think the second meaning is close to the word grok, as coined by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land. It feels precious when it happens.
But if ‘Type 2 Understanding’ were simply about being able to relate something unfamiliar to with something with which we are already familiar in an intuitive, tactile kind of way, would that really be understanding?
When I say that, for instance, ‘I would like to feel I really understood the theory of relativity,’ what I mean is not that I wish someone could take me through the maths, but that I would like someone to be able to explain it to me in a way that would make me feel at home with it, which in my case usually means by analogy with something I’m already familiar with. The trouble with that is that it is circular. Physics is supposed to explain familiar things like, for instance, why solid objects fall to the ground. If those explanations were dependent on analogies with familiar things, we would be back at the beginning.
(I think of certain diagrams of gravity in which a large mass has caused a deep dent in space-time towards which other spherical objects, such a steel balls, roll: these make intuitive sense because we know steel balls would roll down a slope towards a hole. Gravity feels to have been explained to us by analogy with… gravity.)
Actually, I’m not sure that even mathematical explanations take us out of this circle. Aren’t they just a much more rigorous way of explaining what we don’t know in terms of what we have decided we already know?
But then, what would real understanding be? What else could it be?
Actually, I’m not sure Type 2 Understanding really is about causes and explanations. I think when I grok something out there in the world -which is a precious experience, as I say, and one that only rarely happens – it’s not that I can suddenly provide explanations, it’s more that explanations are no longer necessary. I’m just briefly very powerfully aware that the moon (or the tree, or whatever it is) is really there, and that I am really here, and that we are both in the same world.
I proposed the song ‘5.15’ as theme music for my previous post. The Who, from my perspective now, seem to me to have represented better than anyone else what it was like being an alienated adolescent in the 1970s. And, of their many takes on this subject, ‘5.15’ (about a stoned teenager riding a commuter train out of London) is, I think, the best. So many things are captured in this song – the free-floating sexual frustration, the sense of detachment from the adult world (‘Why should I care? Why should I care?’) – but my favourite verse is:
Magically bored On a quiet street corner Free frustration In our minds and our toes Quiet storm water M-m-my generation Uppers and downers Either way blood flows
‘Magically bored’ is perfect!
See also, obviously, ‘My Generation’, its stammering refrain referenced in the above verse, but for me in particular ‘See me feel me’ is the other stand-out. This is more of a fragment than a song, but its eight, several times repeated, opening words can still bring tears to my eyes, so powerfully do they represent the longing and fear of a 16-year-old from a somewhat dysfunctional family who has never been kissed, never even met a girl of his own age in a social situation, who has only just begun to make real, if rudimentary, friendships, but knows that in another year, he will have to go out into the world.
It’s an odd thing. To my 16-old-self, anyone over 40 was in some way emotionally already dead (‘…The things they do look awful cold/ I hope I die before I get old…’), so, if he could see me as I am now, that adolescent me would probably not recognise me as being in any way like him, but I feel an affinity with him all the same, a greater affinity, in a way, than I feel with all the other iterations of me that have existed in the years between. Why is that, I wonder?
Perhaps it because, now, past the age of retirement, with my bus pass and my pension (yes I know, baby boomer, alright for some… etc etc), I have reached a kind of second adolescence, when I am no longer required to go to work every day or to have long-term plans, and when I can, if I wish, spend a Tuesday morning sitting around for several hours, listening to songs, and asking myself what they mean to me. The difference, the magical difference, is that I no longer have to cry into the void ‘see me, feel me, touch me, heal me’, because I have the things I feared I would never have. I feel seen, touched, understood.
[Soundtrack for this post: 5.15 by The Who.]
A short while ago, in a more than usually neurotic moment, I briefly persuaded myself that I might have lung cancer. (As far as I know I don’t.) This made me think of a time, over half a century ago, when I was 16. Our school had organised a lecture about the harm caused by smoking. The doctor who gave the talk had some bucket-like boxes on stage with him and at a certain point, he opened these up and, to our slight incredulity, took out a number of cancered lungs, flattened and encased in clear plastic, which he passed round for us to feel. The healthy parts of the lung felt soft and spongy, he pointed out, but the cancered parts were hard unyielding lumps.
We felt the lumps, and they were nasty, but we were unmoved. After the lecture was over, my friends and I headed off to one of our usual smoking spots to roll up moist, aromatic Old Holborn tobacco into unfiltered cigarettes, and draw in the rich, tarry smoke. I smoked so greedily back then that I often finished when my friends still had half a cigarette left, and tried to scrounge drags from theirs. If I smoked a manufactured cigarette, I would draw on it so hard (my poor lungs!) that the filter sometimes fell apart in my mouth.
Remembering this from the perspective of someone who thought he might have lung cancer, I felt briefly angry with my past self for his utter indifference to my well-being, but the feeling didn’t last. The thing is that, while I can remember being that 16-year-old, and still have that 16-year-old inside me – for better or worse, it was the most intense and vivid time of my life – the reverse is not the case. I was not inside him. He had no sense at all of his future self in fifty years time. Me, as I am now, was a complete stranger to him, far more so than, say, my grandfather, then just 7 years older than I am now.
In fact, never mind fifty years time, I had no sense of myself in five years time, no idea where I was going, let alone how I was going to get there, other than a vague sense of wanting to be a writer, or a rock star, or something of that kind, which I suppose represented the possibility of being able to continue to play, to hold onto some aspect of being a child.
All I really understood was the tiny universe of my school where I lived as a boarder, cut off from the rest of the world. The one imperative I felt was a need to draw a line between myself and the adult world, and the values and forms of authority that the adult world accepted. Even to think about my future in a constructive way would have been to do what the adult world wanted me to do, so that to attend to what the doctor said, and do something about my smoking, would have been a kind of surrender. To free myself from the past, I had also to deny my future.
That’s how it felt at the time, and even now I can enjoy in retrospect the feeling of defiance involved in rejecting prudence, forethought and common sense as so much boring, grey, bourgeois claptrap. Of course, I now also see the fear and desperation that lay behind this -and the timidity that actually controlled me – but it wasn’t just fear, it was a need to break free from a stale mold that others wanted me to fill, even if this meant casting myself naked into the world, and even if it meant doing myself harm.
Speaking very broadly, the political choice in many western countries boils down to whether heredity or merit should be the basis of structuring society. (Or so I suggest.)
Those on the ‘heredity’ side argue that people should be allowed to accumulate wealth, keep it, and pass it on – along with he benefits that come with it – to their children or whoever else they wish. This idea obviously appeals to those who are already rich, which is why the rich tend to support parties that espouse it. But it also appeals to those who aspire to be rich, or for whom financial success is the primary metric by which they measure their success in life. It also appeals to people who just dislike the idea of the state interfering in their affairs.
All political factions promote and defend certain interests, or classes, but they also promote moral principles that seem to endorse the stand they take. They fly flags, as it were, that give moral cover to the preferences of the interests and classes they support. Parties that support the hereditary principle – we call them right-wing or conservative- tend to fly one or more of the following flags: FREEDOM, FAMILY, TRADITION, PROPERTY RIGHTS, LOYALTY TO ONE’S OWN, OPPOSITION TO OVERBEARING GOVERNMENT. Their opponents see these flags as nothing more than a cynical cover for self-interest.
Those on the ‘merit’ side, on the other hand, argue that heredity is a bad way of determining who rises to the top, it holds back people from poor backgrounds, and gives a free ride to people from rich ones. We should all be allowed to rise on the basis of our own talents and hard work. This idea appeals, of course, to those who have themselves risen to – or maintained- their present position through their own talents and hard work, and to those who feel their own talents and hard work have been held back, or have not sufficiently been rewarded. And it appeals to people for whom the metric by which they measure their success in life is not simply money, but things like educational attainment, professional esteem and recognised achievement. So the ‘merit’ idea tends to appeal to people such as academics, artists, journalists and other professionals, who earn a living based on their own knowledge and skill, and in a context where non-financial metrics of success are available. (I’d suggest, for instance, that more such metrics are available for, say, a university lecturer, than for the owner of a haulage business: the former can become eminent among her peers for her knowledge, her publications, the originality of her thinking. The latter is, of necessity, more focused on making money as a way of showing that she is doing well.)
Parties that support the merit principle tend to fly one or more of the following flags JUSTICE, EQUALITY, FAIRNESS, RATIONALITY, SCIENCE, EXPERTISE, OBLIGATIONS TO THE WORLD IN GENERAL, A BENIGN AND INTERVENTIONIST STATE. Their opponents (of course) dismiss these flags as a cynical cover for self-interest. (For instance, while the partisans of ‘merit’ esteem scientific expertise, its opponents sometimes suggest that so-called experts are merely bigging themselves up into to enhance their own standing and make money. There is sometimes something in this.) These days, we tend to refer to those on the ‘merit’ side as liberals or ‘the left’, though both these terms have meant different things in the past, and they have certainly not always meant the same thing as one another.
Few people, even the most conservative, would completely dismiss the argument for ‘merit’ (though you only have to read a few novels from a couple of centuries ago to see that, in the past, earning a living through ones own professional skills was seen as much lower status than living on the rents from accumulated capital). Similarly, in practice if not in theory, few people, even on the ‘merit’ side, completely dismiss the hereditary principle. Even people who vote consistently for parties that are on the ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ side, tend to accumulate at least some wealth if they can, and pass at least some of it on to their children.
But one point that isn’t so often made is that both heredity and merit entail a good deal of luck. It’s lucky to be born rich, yes, but it’s lucky also to be born with above average ability or a special and marketable talent. Some people are born with neither – a lot of people actually – but they have to choose between the parties of ‘heredity’ and those of ‘merit’, asking themselves under which kind of regime – which set of flags – will it be more comfortable to live? Their choices have been less predictable of late. And perhaps this is wise. It’s never a good idea to let people assume your support can be taken for granted.
‘Individual gestures are futile, what’s needed is structural change.’ The great cop-out of the well-to-do lefty.
Suppose a man is caught in Thailand having sex with a thirteen-year-old boy. In his defence he says he agrees completely that the whole underage sex tourism industry is wrong, but there’s no point in him personally changing his behaviour because the industry is going to continue whatever he does, and what’s needed is structural change. Convincing?
Having a 3 year old granddaughter has got me thinking about children’s games. There are two kinds, I think. I’ll call them role play games and literal games. Role play games are the ‘let’s pretend’ kind: cops and robbers, mummies and daddies etc. Literal games are the kind where no pretence is required but the players agree to follow a set of rules and to pursue some goal that the game itself defines: tag, for example, or any sport.
My dear granddaughter is too small to make this distinction. All games are role play to her. If she and I play hide and seek, she will hide in the same place every time it’s her turn to hide, and still expect me to search the house for her, muttering ‘where can she be?’ When it’s her turn to seek she will still go from room to room telling herself ‘no, he’s not in there’, even if I’ve stayed put and simply pulled a rug over my head. She enjoys the game very much (as I do!), and is always charmingly delighted to find or be found, but it’s all role play. A rule-based literal game is either beyond her or, perhaps more likely, is simply of no interest.
Thinking about it, I realise that most games are a hybrid that includes both role play and literal elements. Monopoly for example is a literal game, in the sense that it has formal rules and a set goal, but a lot of the flavour of the game comes from the fantasy element provided by pretend money, rent and so on. Would it have caught on if the properties were just called ‘colour squares’, the money was just called points and instead of ‘go to jail’ the card just read, ‘move counter to square ten’?
How about a game like football, though? In a way that is a purely literal game, in that the players are not pretending to do anything they are not doing in fact. But football fans don’t follow it as a literal game. To be sure, part of their enjoyment comes from admiring the skill of the players, but much of the excitement comes, doesn’t it, from that powerful identification with one side or another, which allows supporters to refer to ‘their’ team as ‘we’ – and from the whole mythology that is constructed around the teams: their histories, their reputations, their ancient rivalries… Formally speaking, football may be a literal game but its phenomenal popularity comes from a role play game that’s built around it, in which fans ‘pretend’ they are directly involved in the contest and are not simply observers and paying customers.
I was born without this particular gene myself, but otherwise sensible grownups have assured me that they can feel emotionally devastated when ‘their’ team loses. It’s safe emotional devastation, though, isn’t it? Not like the kind that comes from being dumped by your partner, or your house burning down. Role play is meant to feel as real as possible without actually being real: real enough to provide some catharsis, not real enough to upturn your life.
And now I’m on this track it strikes me that, even for the players of apparently literal games, there is a psychological role play going on, for otherwise why would it matter if you won or lost? People who enjoy playing literal games are not dispassionately following rules. They are engaged in a psychodrama about overcoming danger and obtaining mastery.
For some people, this isn’t ‘real’ enough, and they need to do things that really are objectively dangerous like free solo climbing, or becoming a mercenary. And here we move beyond games into the ‘real’ world, which itself consists of activities that resemble literal games – you follow certain rules in pursuit of goals such as money or success – but often get their flavour from the possibilities they provide for psychodrama, and very often require the playing of roles.
So on reflection the distinction between literal and role play games seems less clear than it did when it did when I started. At some point my granddaughter will no longer be satisfied with pretending to hide and pretending to seek and will want to really hide and really seek – but the pleasure she takes in the game and her motivation for playing it may not be so very different.
I have a story which I wrote when I was four or five.
The full text is as follows:
Once upon a time there was an old man he lived in a church but he didnt like it
The man cried very loud so he said I want a house to live in
He heard the door bell He peeped out of the window and saw somebody he would like
Now it was evening and the person said can I live with [you]
Yes please said the man
I will said the person.
They lived in a lovely cottage and they loved it and they wouldnt move house again
A smart car came to fetch the person but the person said I dont want to go
and the man in the smart car said you must go
and the old man shot the man in the smart car
Funny thing is, the story works pretty much like the stories I still write. It takes things from my own life and and mixes them up with imaginary things. There are recognisable autobiographical elements: I had not long moved from a terraced house to a large hollow house which might well have seemed like a gloomy church.
Sometime before that, when I was less than 2, so it may well already have been outside of my conscious memory, an au pair girl who had looked after me – and (or so I now hypothesise) was warm and fun compared to my depressed and unpredictable mother – had returned to Germany, presumably collected in a car (by a boyfriend, perhaps, or maybe just a taxi driver?)
I’ve been told I was very distressed by this, so it seems to me that this story might have been a rewrite of that painful scene but with the difference that its protagonist had some power – murderous power, no less! I like the old man’s smile as the smoke and flame comes out of his gun.
There’s a primitive magic in stories and pictures. It’s as if at some level we think by naming or depicting things, we can control them.
It’s interesting to me how the old man is allowed an age and a gender, but ‘the person’ is given neither, even though in the pictures she is clearly a woman or girl, as if this someone I wasn’t supposed to name. (Or maybe I was just coy about admitting I liked girls.) I like how the old man reaches out towards her from his window with both arms when she’s still outside his front door.
I’m still dislike the idea of moving house – and have lived in my present home for forty years.
I was having a dream which I wasn’t enjoying: it was one of those anxiety dreams where you are trying to get somewhere but are constantly thwarted. I was dimly aware that I was dreaming, and that I would prefer not to be, but I had no idea how to stop, or where I would find myself if I did stop.
Coming to a busy city park, I approached a group of people and asked them for their assistance with waking up. But they assured me that this truly was the real world and not a dream, pointing out to be me how detailed the scene was and assuring me that you don’t get that kind of clarity in a dream. I remember in particular they pointed out how you could see every single brick in the wall of a nearby building.
I still wasn’t convinced, but I could see these people weren’t going to be any help to me, so I turned away and somehow, by a great effort of will, I abolished the world I was in and found myself instead in a strange dark place, with two windows whose curtains were very dimly lit by the street outside. It seemed as strange as anything in the dream so far, and I didn’t immediately recognise it, but it was in fact the bedroom where I’d been lying asleep.
Experiences like this have, I’m sure, contributed to the idea that this world we inhabit isn’t the final reality, and there is another world beyond or behind or beneath it. And I have to say that, though on the whole I don’t think there’s world beyond this one, I can’t really see any good reason to completely dismiss that line of thinking. After all, the park in the dream world really did feel real, and even though I had already had some sense of a world beyond, I didn’t doubt that those people I talked to were real people who might really be able to help me.
Recently I came across this conversation that took place sixty years ago between C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss. In particular I was struck by what Lewis had to say about his novel Perelandra (aka Voyage to Venus), which is set on a Venus almost entirely covered with ocean:
‘The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labors in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then, of course, the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.’
Amis observes ‘that [having to make something happen] frequently taxes writers very much’. Readers want a plot – I do myself as a reader – but it isn’t necessarily what most interests the writer about their book. (The narrator of my novel Tomorrow, who wants to write a book that works without a plot, is a case in point.)
Aldiss, on the other hand, is surprised to learn that Perelandra‘s treatment of the Christian idea of the ‘fall’ was not the starting point, and was only developed in order to make the imagined world come alive.
I was surprised too. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, like his more famous children’s books about Narnia, is so very much infused with Christian themes, that one assumes that they were his original purpose in writing them. But Lewis wanted to write about a world with floating islands. The reason he came up with a story that included those themes, is that he understood the world in those terms.