uncosy catastrophes

September 22nd, 2017

Ever since I finally got round to reading The Death of Grass I have been snacking on the novels of John Christopher (Sam Youd) a British writer of appalling fecundity who was active from the fifties to the Eighties at least. According to his Guardian obit he wrote up to four novels a year and it’s not surprising that there was a certain amount of repetition. Some fraction are being republished — rather as the works of Jack Vance are — in a limited edition, which led me to his other famous adult novel, The World in Winter; and I’ve just finished Pendulum, published in the late Sixties.

They are all catastrophes, in which the breakdown of large-scale civilisation produces a breakdown of the small structures of morality: men emerge as killers and rapists; women as tough and resourceful victims. In The Death of Grass, the catastrophe is a plague which starves most of the world by annihilating rice, wheat, barley, and all other grains. Only potatoes remain as a source of carbohydrates. In The World in Winter it is an ice age, with glaciers returning almost all the way down to London, and white refugees fleeing in boats to Africa, where they are not welcome. In Pendulum, the most dated, it is a Sixties apocalypse: Britain goes broke and gangs of “yobs” on motorbikes take over.

The breakdown of moral order is extremely well done in the first two books and genuinely shocking. In both cases there are conflicts of duty, difficult to resolve. Two brothers end up fighting to the death over possession of a potato patch. A man must choose between loyalty to the friend who saved his life, repeatedly, and to his wife who is pregnant possibly by another man. People find themselves doing things which neither they nor the reader thought themselves capable of, and we care. The scene setting is also extremely well done, especially in The World in Winter. 

Pendulum is much the weakest of the three, though I still gobbled it down. Read fifty years later, it’s mostly illuminating for showing how the fears of Daily Mail readers and Brexit voters have evolved and been racialised in the intervening period. The hero is a successful and decent businessman whose wife is a bit of a bleeding heart liberal. He is loyal to his family, for whom he generously provides. The only cloud on his life is the presence of yobs from the local estates, who vandalise his outbuildings and roar about on motorbikes.

His sister in law is conducting an affair with an unscrupulous and demagogic sociologist, who emerges as the sinister power behind a movement of student revolt. The students — get this — are rioting because their grants have not been increased in line with inflation. The sister in law is a complex and interesting character, with a keen interest in sex. She sees right through her lover, but enjoys, as she later realises, being able to despise his weakness and hunger for affirmation. She also takes up with a police inspector, with whom, she thinks, she has nothing in common but limerance.

Eventually, the students and the yobs combine, as in the cultural revolution, and take over the government. The police stations are sacked and many are killed. There is a wonderful parody of a sycophantic Time leader praising this development. The police inspector takes shelter with his lover and they move out to the mansion in the country. But that has been commandeered by the yobs, and the owner’s family are confined to a couple of rooms at the top of the house.

Things get worse, in ways both predictable and surprising. Eventually, the yobocracy is overthrown by a fundamentalist Christian uprising — this is surprisingly plausible — and the decent hero ends up in a work camp in the outer Hebrides for helping a yob whom the mob has beaten half to death. The sister in law finds a rather implausible and fragile happiness with the policeman, whose taciturn, competent pessimism turns out to conceal enormous courage and decency*.

So, it’s a straight and skilful exposition of the provincial conservative worldview: hard work and providing for your family is good. Students, layabouts, oiks, and sociologists are all enemies of the people. Religion is good but impractical until it turns bad and frighteningly practical. Women are strong, resourceful and full of agency, but still dependent on a good man to love them. France is remote and hostile but America is benign and will help as much as it can.

But there’s a sort of innocence about this which I don’t see in today’s right wing press. For one thing everyone, to a first approximation, is white. Only at the end, when some characters are sunk in extreme poverty, do they come in contact with a black family, whose cooking smells. But the underclass has not been racialised at all, and class substitutes for Islam as the expression of alien cultural difference.

Then there is the aforementioned idea of student grants.

There is the way the bad times come as a surprise: no sense that the world is rigged against decent people, though there is of course a powerful sense that the world is rigged against decency itself. But that’s tragedy, not resentment.

At the end of the book there are blurbs, in Amazon fashion, for others republished in the same series. In one, a small party get trapped in tunnels under a mountain, and have to make their way for days towards an unknown exit. In another, a small group is trapped on a desert island, and must struggle against the elements etc etc. I was reminded of Robert Graves’s squib

 
He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits The formula for comic rabbits paid
Alas, he found he could not change the tragic habits
The formula for drawing comic rabbits made.
 
  • Bet you didn’t see that coming.

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Scientism and fundamentalism (in honour of Jerry Coyne)

July 1st, 2017

Below the fold is a piece I wrote for Zia Sardar’s magazine Critical Muslim. It’s rather long, partly because it contains an insertion on Sam Harris and torture. Although younger readers will not remember the new atheists this is a reminder that they could be quite as nasty and silly as traditionalist Catholics. Read the rest of this entry »

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Statistics from the Mail Online

December 14th, 2016

Mostly for my own amusement, I have written a twitter bot which examines the front page of the Mail Online once every hour and tweets out statistics of interest. You can follow it at the unfortunately named @mailtits account.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Jack Chick and hell

October 26th, 2016

Jack Chick, who has died in Los Angeles at the age of 92, was one of the most extraordinary, industrious and humourless comic artists of the 20th century. He claimed to be the most published author in the world. In an apparently unending series of pocket-sized cartoon tracts he laid out an idiosyncratic fundamentalism in which everyone who was not a Protestant Christian was in imminent danger of death followed by eternal torment.

Ecumenism had no charms for him and bigotry no terrors. He wrote and published tracts like “Are Roman Catholics Christians?” He even published the full length book “Convert … or Die! The Catholic Reign of Terror in Yugoslavia”. Both these, and more, I bought from a Christian bookshop on a trip to Belfast during the troubles. In that setting, they seemed less hilariously funny than when purchased from the Protestant Truth Society in Fleet Street.

Perhaps the vilest of all his works was a comic called “Lisa”, still available on the web, where Chick has become the subject of ironic attention. In this, Henry, a middle-aged, man loses his job, “and my wife had to go to work”, so naturally he turns to porn and starts to abuse his fourteen-year-old daughter. When his neighbour finds out, the girl is shared between them. When the family doctor discovers this, he explains that only God can save Henry. But it turns out this has nothing to do with what Henry has done to his daughter.

“You were going to hell before this ever happened, Henry … You say you’re good, but the Bible tells us that no man is good, no, not one. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
So the doctor gets him to pray and at once “
I feel different, Doctor … I feel clean. God has forgiven a horrible wretch like me. Oh Thank you Lord. You’re such a merciful and wonderful God to clean me up. I’m so grateful.”
After the epiphany he goes home and tells his wife about Jesus. She testifies in turn that she knew all along that he was abusing their daughter because she herself had been abused by her uncle. But Jesus saves her, too. In the last frame, the happy parents summon their daughter, who appears clutching a teddy bear.
“We’ve got wonderful news, Lisa. Your daddy and I will never hurt you again … Really, honey. We love you, and Jesus loves you too.”

Self-righteous and self-pitying, profoundly misgynistic, deaf and blind to the reality of evil and suffering, the Christians in Jack Chick’s little tracts add up to an entirely damning indictment of fundamentalism. Quite possibly, a tract like Lisa strengthened some Appalachian child abuser in his crimes. There is no suggestion anywhere that secular justice might be involved in the process. In the end, even the Chick organisation withdrew the tract from sale, and expunged its memory from the official web site.

The other thing that makes Lisa noteworthy is that it is one of the very few Chick Tracts that deals with anything recognisable as evil. As you read through the rest, it is almost impossible not to start laughing out loud, not just because of the puerility of the drawing and the story lines. There is also something fundamentally absurd and inadequate about the targets he uses to illustrate the depravity of our times. Feminists, evolutionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, players of Dungeons and Dragons, people who celebrate Hallowe’en, Witches, Jews, Rock Musicians, Gay people, Roman Catholics, Liberals – in all this library of paranoiac fantasy there is hardly anything that could worry a normal person, still less frighten them.

On reflection, this may be the secret of the appeal of Chick-type fundamentalism. It’s paranoia as entertainment, since no one could possibly be frightened of most of the things that terrify him. And then there are the sudden awfulnesses where he demonises (literally, of course) the groups that large numbers of American really do hate — Gay people, Muslims, and educated women. That’s when the paranoia stops being funny and you feel like one of his characters, suddenly borne off by an angel and dropped into hell.

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Tove Jansson’s Autumn Song

May 28th, 2016
This is a rotten although pretty literal translation of Höstvisa (Autumn Song), a poem by Tove Jansson which I found through a line in PO Enquist’s Liknelseboken. I have lost all of the rhyme and most of the swing of the original, but I think what remains is still worth posting.

I met with no one on the long way home
The evenings grow cold and stretch far ahead
Come comfort me a little for I am tired now
And suddenly so dreadfully alone.
I never saw before that the darkness is so vast,
I walk and think of all those things I ought
There are so many things I should have said and done
And there’s so very little that I did

Hurry, beloved; hurry to love
The days are darker for every minute
Light our candles; night is close:
The flowering summer soon will be gone

I’m looking for something perhaps we’ve forgotten
which you might help me to find
One summer passes, and it’s always just as brief
It’s the dream of what we could have gained.
Perhaps you will come some time before the dusk grows blue
before the meadows are dry and empty
Perhaps we’ll find each other perhaps we’ll find then
a way to make everything flower

Hurry, beloved; hurry to love
The days are darker for every minute
Light our candles; night is close:
The flowering summer soon will be gone

The storm out there has slammed the summer’s door
It’s too late now to wonder and too late to search
Perhaps I love you less than I did before
But more than you will ever know
Now we see all the lighthouses down the long coast of autumn
and hear the lost waves wander
One thing only matters and that’s the heart’s desire
And to be together with one another.

Hurry, beloved; hurry to love
The days are darker for every minute
Light our candles; night is close:
The flowering summer soon will be gone
You can hear it done as a song, rather beautifully, here

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A sermon for Terry Pratchett

March 16th, 2015

Many years ago, I was asked to preach a sermon at Wadham College. I hemmed and hawed a bit, saying this really wasn’t my line of work, but they were pressing. So I wrote something, and spoke it. When Pratchett died I dug it out for a look. Here it is

This is not a sermon, so if you’ll forgive me, I’ll start without a bad joke.
We’ll have some Terry Pratchett instead.
Pratchett, for those of you who have not met him, is an extremely funny writer who has written a series of mildly improbable books about a flat world which is borne through the universe on the back of a giant turtle. If I were Terry Pratchett I would add a footnote to that description saying that he is sometimes a less funny writer, too; and a footnote to that footnote saying he is very fond of footnotes.
Apart from the turtle and being flat and so on, the Discworld is really very like our own. That is where the comedy comes from. It has folk music, which must be preceded by a long melancholy chord drawn out like a string of snot to give the onlookers time to get way. It has cats and kings and cabbages. Bits of it are like Ancient Greece and bits like ancient Egypt. There is death — a very important character. And there is magic.
Pratchett’s world is full of gods and wizards and magic that works. People are wholly comfortable with this, and atheists can only be identified by carbon dating; you take a handful of the carbon that used to be an atheist and date it. So it’s not very like our world after all.
I like this because it is a completely pragmatic attitude to magic or the supernatural, and in that sense it is rather realistic. Because if there is one thing that people nowadays do to distinguish themselves form people a hundred years ago, it is to play with myths. There are lots of deep cultural explanations, though myself I blame LSD as much as anything. It gives people a kind of provisional attitude to reality which is hard to shake off, and fairly catching.
So people are able to enjoy myths without wondering too much about whether they are true. They work. Some of the more popular myths we play with are ideas of character, or personality, and of soul. None of them are wholly satisfactory: indeed the crisis in the idea of the soul is one of the root causes of the difficulties for religion at the moment. It wouldn’t be a difficulty if we didn’t have souls, or at least something for which soul is the best world. But we do, as a matter of experience, and we can’t work out how they can exist when they are transparently not things.
So this is puzzling. In case you thought that I could untangle the puzzle, I can’t. As far as I can see, I have a mortal soul, and there’s an end to it.
Now Terry Pratchett is not, so far as I know, a Christian, and the religions that feature in his work are either pre-or post Christian. There is a pseudo-aztec religion in some jungle; a bunch of philosophers in the Greek city-state, and a whole load of pyramids somewhere in the desert. There are also some wonderfully tatty new-age witches, whom I am sure I have met at the Aquarian shop in Saffron Walden, browsing the shelves for crystals, and books on homeopathy for cats.
But one of his books does deal directly with religion, and I want to talk about it as a way of looking at what happens to Christianity in a post-Christian age.
Small Gods is a book about belief. The central god is smaller than he wants to be: he has changed into a tortoise, and he can’t get back. In fact, people keep mistaking him for a tortoise. Worse than that, eagles keep mistaking him for a tortoise, and trying to drop him on rocks to see what the insides taste like. The only person who can believe in him is a very stupid and straightforward novice called Brutha. Note that Brutha does not choose to believe in the great god Om (temporarily the small tortoise Om). He hears the voice of the God and he has no choice. Experience comes before belief.
Now Brutha is already part of a religion; and this religion, organised around the worship of Om, is utterly repulsive. It is, I think, a folk-memory of Roman Catholicism as refracted through nineteenth century prejudices and given a heavy top-dressing of Richard Dawkins. There have been a series of prophets, who have gone out into the desert to take dictation from the great god, and come back with ever more ridiculous and inflexible commandments. Its main business is torturing people, and its main office-holder is Vorbis, an exquisitor. Lower ranks do the inquisiting. Vorbis organises and supervises the torture, out of pure curiosity.
The idea of a man who will torture for interest, rather than pleasure, is a more subtle sort of evil than you would expect to find in million-selling fiction.
The great enemy of Vorbis’s repulsive state is a simple, philosophical, peace-loving, democratic (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) bunch of greeks, of whom the shiftiest are the philosophers. After the usual failure of all the best-laid schemes, the evil Vorbis, the saintly Brutha, and the divine tortoise end up wandering in the wilderness together.
There they meet thousands of other gods: disembodied voices twittering in the wilderness for people to believe in them. There is even an anchorite, a hermit who lives very happily up a pole, hallucinating sensual delights while he lives of brackish water and the occasional lizard. This is a book about belief.
Somehow, the simple, trusting Brutha gets them all through the desert, where he has refused to abandon the evil Vorbis; and as soon as safety is in sight,. Vorbis clunks him with a rock and strides back to proclaim hiself the next prophet.
At last we have reached the state where the paragon of evil is at the head of the religion which encapsulates every evil. At this point, God steps in. Om is, as I was saying, a very small god. But he knows he cannot let down the one man who aboslutely believes in him, for without believers, he will himself be annihiliated. So he goes for a walk, until an eagle finds him. But once the eagle has gripped him in his talons and is gaining height looking for a rock to drop him on, he extends his neck from his shell and grabs the bird by the negotiating parts. I think this is a theological novelty. So the eagle drops him not on a rock, but out of a high, clear sky onto Vorbis the high priest, who is preparing to have Brutha burnt alive in front of a huge crowd.
And of course, at this tremendous demonstration of divine power, the crowd is filled with belief. So the tortoise God Om is instantly restored to something worth believing in. He throws a few thunderbolts around and rushes off to Heaven — a place reserved for the superior class of God. Here he headbutts the doorkeeper, thus proving his own ontological superiority and fitness for the place.
At this point something weird happens. Brutha, the man, teaches forgiveness to God. He tells Om at his moment of greatest power that he will not worship him if he is unjust. On Discworld, it works. Om strong-arms the other gods into arranging a lasting peace in the war between Omnia and its neighbours.
Brutha, when he finally dies, finds Vorbis waiting for him in the afterlife, which is a simple desert. You have to walk across it alone. There are no other people, and no gods. Vorbis has waited a hundred years, or a thousand eternities, as you prefer, and is still huddled where he started, unable to bear himself. Brutha picks him up and helps him to start moving.
And that’s the end.
The book of Job it isn’t.

In the climactic scene of the book, Om says
I could destroy you utterly. I could crush you like an egg!
Yes.
You can’t use weakness as a weapon.
Why not? It’s the only one I’ve got.
Why should I yield then?
Not yield, bargain: deal with me in weakness. Or one day you’ll have to bargain with someone in a position of strength. The world changes.
Hah! You want a constitutional religion?
Why not? the other sort did not work.”
This is definitely not the book of Job. In a sense that is why the message of forgiveness, and constitutional deity which it teaches is so interesting. Religious doctrines are largely truths or aspirations about humanity. They are manifestos about our place in the universe. The message of Job about human helplessness may be in the long run more realistic. But I have to say that I like the idea of a constitutional deity. It speaks well for our confused century that someone can come up with it.
The way the world is, our descendants may well look back on books like this and regard them as lightweight or cynical and frivolous. They may even regard them as blasphemous. But I think we should be grateful to have lived in an age when this sort of witty optimism sold in millions.
As I said at the start, Pratchett is not a Christian, and his message is not, so far as I can discern a Christian one. But it may be a post-Christian message. It may be that his style of thinking about large questions and his style of affectionately distancing mythmaking are representative of what will triumph. It’s only a thought, to leave you with. But suppose we are leaving the era of father gods, not for mother gods, but for children gods, or maybe Brutha gods.

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David Hume on a sense of proportion

April 7th, 2011

Such a reflection certainly tends to  mortify all our passions: But does it not thereby counterwork the  artifice of nature, who has happily deceived us into an opinion, that  human life is of some importance?

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More hume quotes.

March 25th, 2011

Comment superfluous
When a philosopher has once laid  hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural  effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and  reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd  reasoning

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Hume shows up his publishers

March 21st, 2011

Longinus thought  himself sufficiently justified, in asserting, that the arts and sciences  could never flourish, but in a free government: And in this opinion, he has been followed by several eminent writers  in our own country, who either confined their view merely to ancient  facts, or entertained too great a partiality in favour of that form of  government, established amongst us. But what would these writers have said, to the instances of modern Rome and of Florence?
This is in the edition published by the Liberty Fund of Indianapolis.

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Small moment of pleasure

April 13th, 2010

Yesterday my colleague David Shariatmadari was commissioning a comment from Richard Dawkins. “I’m so glad you’re not the notorious Andrew Brown” said RD and added, eagerly, “Has he been fired?” No: sorry to disappoint you, Richard.

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