Wellington is still blessed with some very good secondhand bookstores and I’ve never read any Henry James.
I’ve got to the bottom of the first page. So far it’s very Jane Austen-ish.
Wellington is still blessed with some very good secondhand bookstores and I’ve never read any Henry James.
I’ve got to the bottom of the first page. So far it’s very Jane Austen-ish.
Life During Waugh-Time
‘What is a “canty day”, Dennis?’
‘I’ve never troubled to ask. Something like hogmanay, I expect.’
‘What is that?’
‘People being sick on the pavement in Glasgow.’
Not a bad quote to start the New Year with.
It’s from Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. I’m gradually catching up on some novel reading – very gradually. It has not been a good time for relaxed reading.
But anyway, reading takes you out of the day to day issues, and the not-so-day to day issues. I haven’t read as much as I would have liked this last year, which worries me less than the fact I haven’t written as much as I would have written.
Anyway, here’s some of the best.
Waugh’s ‘Loved One’ – a black tale about pet cemeteries in Los Angeles – isn’t his best. Better, much better, is Put Out More Flags, which I also read this year and which is one of the funniest novels I’ve read for years.
Almost every page has a gleeful gem. It’s set (and written) in the depths of World War Two, and features a bunch of over-privileged bright and artistic but useless young things suddenly faced with having to become useful in the face of Hitler.
As is often the case with Waugh’s better novels, it stems from his own deep, and often justified, self-loathing.
Which doesn’t matter. It is funny, and well-written funny. One of the useless young things muses that he could claim to be a conscientious objector ‘but I’ve made such a thing of being someone without a conscience it would be a denial of everything I stood for if I said I have a conscience’.
He then ponders that, if he hasn’t got a conscience, why should remind saying that he does?
The main protagonist, Basil Seal, tries to calm his terrified girlfriend that she shouldn’t be afraid of the air raids given her artistic ambitions: an air raid, he tells her, is ‘just the thing for a surrealist – it will give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about it on places, you know’.
There’s a hilarious sequence of events around the publisher recruited by the Ministry for Information who brings with him a couple of statues to furnish his office and – even better – with which to annoy and sorely vex the other bureaucrats.
It leads to a memo headed Furniture, supplementary to official requirements, undesirable aspects of.
He seems back a memo headed ‘Art, objects d’ , conducive of spiritual repose, absence of in the quarters of advisory staff.’
He gets or rather another memo is the circulated headed “flowers, framed photographs and other minor ornaments, massive marble and mahogany, decorative features of, distinction between.”
And so on.
The sequence is so hilariously strange – remember it is set when Britain Stood Alone, the blitz and all that – that it probably actually happened.
It’s a good read. Every page is a joy.
Carry On Up the Aro Valley
‘I’m sorry Steve..I don’t know anything about Gorgon except their name. But in Greek mythology, Gorgon symbolises primal darkness. Mystery. Devouring sexuality. These values speak to my community’s everyday values.’
‘I stand for all those things too,’ Steve pleaded. ‘And I also stand for balanced budgets and sensible solutions.’
We should have more elections like the one in Danyl McLauchlan’s latest novel, the second in his Aro Valley series, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley.
Perhaps with the character of Steve leading a putative Blue-Green party. He seems perfect for it.
I enjoyed the first of the Aro Valley books: this one is better, more laugh out loud moments. The atmosphere is better realised – strange and at times quite cinematic.
There is a genre I’ve heard called Happy Gothic and while I’m not really sure what that actually might be but I suspect this fits the bill. Well, maybe not happy. The main characters, Steve and Danyl, are hapless and bewildered creatures, acutely conscious of their own intelligence and also acutely conscious of their inability to do anything particularly useful.
Aro Valley is, as it is in the first book, a portal to another world, full of uptight characters, at odds with the world who have found a haven of sorts in the alternative inner-city Wellington suburb. Oh, and whose perceptions may have been affected by various substances.
There are chunks which cry out for cinematic treatment – if Sir Peter Jackson wants to capture his home city’s more idiosyncratic aspects, and also make a good comedy, he ought to start by looking at this book as a basis for it. (And it would take a film-maker of Jackson’s skills to capture the book’s otherworldliness). The sequence with characters trying to dodge a dog by running around Aro Valley under a bathtub alone is one I found difficult to read without picturing on the screen.
The trick of writing upright here
The work of another Wellington writer, Ashleigh Young’s ‘Can You Tolerate This?’ came trailing such an aura of acclaim I was a bit wary. Not dismissive, exactly. I’d seen her be interviewed by Toby Manhire at LitCrawl, and she was clearly someone to be taken seriously – quiet and thoughtful and seemingly a bit bemused by all the fuss.
The book won a global literary prize, forget the name of it, but it was huge and came with a sizable cheque.
The book really is that good. It’s a collection of thoughtful essays which sort of circle their themes and build over the course of the book. The writing is a delight – it is the opposite of what I call Ham Writing, which constantly calls attention to itself. But, from the memories of growing up in a central North Island town, to descriptions of yoga and chiropractic therapy (the title comes from a piece on the latter) it is writing which draws you in.
There is also something distinctively Kiwi about it. It is not just something explicit like Young’s description of getting messages from her brother, on his great OE:
‘In a way these emails reassured me that the world outside of New Zealand was still just the wor.d. It wasn’t automatically special by virtue of being far away. People had jobs and ate meals and got drunk and fell in love out there. Live continued there just as it did here, only wth different rhythms and weathers. This simple fact felt like a revelation to me.’
As has been for a lot of us. But it is more in Young’s way of sort of sidling up to her subjects and themes which seems very unassumingly of these shores, something that would have been grown and developed in these slender islands. You can be very identifiably Kiwi without having to rave about the All Blacks or don a swandri or call everyone ‘yous jokers’ and Young very much is.
Scott the one-off
Tom Scott was an early hero of mine. I’d decided, more by ruling out what I did not want to do, to aim for journalism by the end of my school years. And I was interested in politics, and current affairs, generally.
Scott was in trouble for being a journalist at the time: he’d been kicked out of Muldoon’s press conferences, mostly, from what I could make out, for writing the kind of things I had a tendency to blurt out in class in the general direction of my teachers.
Journalism would do, I figured, until I worked out what I really wanted to do.
Scott did not just write – and draw – about politics. He also wrote about what it was like to cover politics. His columns in the Listener – which I used to devour in the school library – were full of colour about being in the Press Gallery. It sounded fun, if a little hair raising at times.
His memoir, Drawn Out, contains a few excerpts from his columns from the time – I haven’t checked back, simply because I don’t need to. Many of them are burned on the mental memory disc.
It has a lot about his awkward upbringing, his strange and tense, angry and sad relationship with his dad, who dubbed him ‘Egghead’.
In fact, Scott senior is perhaps the greatest comic character in the book, and perhaps in Scott’s life. One way – perhaps the best way – to cope with a father figure like this is to turn him into a comic character, and you can certainly see Scott doing this.
When Muldoon kicked Scott out of that press conference in 1980, Scott’s dad personally wrote to Muldoon. ‘Egghead had it coming!’ he cackled.
Scott muses that, after receiving this letter, Muldoon was not as hostile as he had been in the past, and that perhaps the old bugger was a bit more sympathetic.
Drawn Out is also a reminder that Scott’s one-off nature is that he can write as well as he can draw. Again, not in an ostentatiously, Ham Writing, sort of way.
But in a way that tells a story, tells it well and tells it memorably. His memoir is a joy to read, even if at times the life has not been a joy to live.
‘Totally written off, but there’s laughter at chaos…’
Which is a line from one of the Verlaines’ magnificent early songs. Roger Shepherd’s ‘In Love With These Times’ borrows its title from another of the first wave of Flying Nun bands, this time from the Clean. (it was also used for a Flying Nun compilation in the late 1980s).
It might seem an unusually cheerful title for a book about Flying Nun – after all, wasn’t the label’s stable notorious for bleakly gloomy music, jangly ennui and, to quote yet another lyric, ‘a depressing sense of the heretofore’?
Also, bands out of that stable rarely wrote or sang about being in love with anything. Whatever ‘Tally Ho!’ or ‘Frantic Drift’ or ‘Doomsday’ might have been about, it wasn’t about being in love. (Well, Doomsday, maybe. )
Shepherd’s title though is apt because it is about ‘those times’. He captures the atmosphere of late 1970s and 1980s New Zealand rather well, or at least how it was for a lot of younger New Zealanders. New Zealand was by that time the Orphan of Empire, adrift in the south seas and living off what had been built between 50 to 100 years before and staring at a gradual decline.
The feeling – as noted above, alluded to by Ashleigh Young – that what actually mattered was happening elsewhere was even stronger then than it is now.
Flying Nun bands, at least the first wave, came mostly out of Dunedin for several reasons, and only one was because of that town’s notorious scarfie culture.
Dunedin was where that first wave of New Zealand prosperity grew first and grew strongest – refrigeration of lamb from the port, destined for the Old Country, back in the late 19th Century. By the time Shepherd’s book starts, the sheep’s back was breaking, and only kept in traction by subsidies.
A feeling of past boom, impending decline, if not catastrophe, hung over the country’s prospects, and in Dunedin, surrounded by buildings and institutions built for a long-faded boom, allied with that city’s much commented Scot Presbyterian legacy, did the rest.
Without making it all that explicit, the early chapters of Shepherd’s memoir carries the vibe of the time. And, of course, without necessarily setting out on a mission to do so, he and his label managed to push back against that sense of inevitable decline.
When bands like REM and the Smiths started appearing in the mid-1980s, you could listen to them and go, Oh, yeah, that’s the sort of thing that’s been coming out of Flying Nun since 1981.
By then, of course, the label was moving on and up.
Shepherd records – without excessive self dramatisation – his own battles, with alcohol, with recalcitrant bands and with the industry one might be tempted to call Big Rock.
Anyway, worth a read. It’s not just about the bands or the music. It’s a slice of New Zealand history, and an important one.
Postscript: As you can see from the photo, there were some other books as well. And, by the way, others not in the photo. But I’m tired. Maybe another day.
‘He laughed to free his mind from his mind’s bondage.’
– James Joyce
‘ You come to him like Bill Grundy to Siouxsie Sioux and the Sex Pistols: “Say something outrageous”. Meades does his best, though, alas, what once seemed outrageous now sounds merely presidential.’
Ian Samson, reviewing Jonathan Meades’ latest book in the TLS.
Love the way he jabbed both tangental references in there.
The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood Jonathan Cape 2015
“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, 10 minute reveries.” – James Wood
Which is not a bad thing to do over the summer break, all things, somewhat leisurely, considered.
Especially if the yeast is also the stuff contained in a nice lager. Cheers, everyone.
This review has in fact been sitting in the draft folder for nearly a year* – in a completely unplanned way, I seemed to have a lot of books about books, and they were all damn good, often better than the books they were about.
The main post at the time was this, involving Clive James, amongst others.
Wood is similarly analytical and, like James, in a determinedly non-theoretical style. He might though, in fact, refute the “analytical” tag: a lot of the criticism he most likes is ‘not especially analytical but is really a kind of passionate reader description’.
That rang a ding of appreciative recognition with me: the basic question of ‘what’s it like?‘ can be over analysed, and certainly over-theorisied.
It is, he says, ‘a way of writing through books, not just about them…. One has the great privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing:
‘When Coleridge writes of Swift that he “had the soul of revelation but dwelling in a dry place”, or when Henry James says that Balzac became so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual”; when Pritchard laments that Ford Maddox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes – these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in the so-called “creative” work.
‘They are speaking to literature in its own language.’
He muses that our life stories have no shape or more accurately nothing but its presence until ‘it has its ending; and then suddenly the whole trajectory is visible’.
Julian Barnes has similar thoughts in some of his recent writing, prompted in his case by a funeral, and it takes the old brain down some channels of thought which move away from literature and onto religion, or at least questions of a ‘what’s it all mean??????!!’ nature.
There is, Woods says, a struggle within a novel between present and past, instance and form, free will and determinism, secular expansion and religious contraction.
‘Authorial omniscience has such a fraught history: the anxiety is partly a theological one and has the unresolved nature of the theological argument. The novel seems foreverrunable to decide whether it wants to revel in omniscience or apologise for it, foreground or foreclose it. Should the novelist intervene and interrupt or withdraw into impersonality and frigid indifference?’
The most important part of the book is the middle part entitled Serious Noticing , beginning with comments on the Chekhov story called “The Kiss” which focuses on just that, at length, and the different perspective two parties had on that kiss. Wood expands into writing about noticing: Chekhov, he says, ‘appears to notice everything’.
Details in ‘The Kiss’ represent a point in that story where “form is outlived, cancelled, evaded.
‘I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them.’
* A lot of these posts are first drafted at odd hours, when trying to get back to sleep after dealing with various family health things. There’s about 120 odd half/three-quarters written drafts in the folder. I suppose everyone needs a hobby.
It also contains the most subtly double-edged disclaimers I’ve ever read, by reviewer James O’Brien about one of the authors under review:
‘To declare an interest, we once shared desk space on the Daily Express, but he gave little indication then of possessing the powers of diplomacy and affability necessary to enjoy the trust of all the furiously warring factions within both sides of two even more furiously warring armies.’
‘There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.’
H L Mencken.
To which I can only say, ‘Cheers’. Though I’d query the “too much”.
Shots by Don Walker (Penguin) 2010
Well some of us are driven to ambition Some of us are trapped behind the wheel Some of us will break away, Build a marble yesterday And live for every moment we can steal Conversations, Conversations Shouting out across an empty station...
‘Conversations’, the opening track of Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts, is the sort of song which critics call ‘full tilt’, but it isn’t so much full-tilt as almost overbalancing itself with its own speed. Fast and frantic, it captures the band’s own desperate ambition.
Not so long back, interviewing the man who wrote it and most of Cold Chisel’s songs, keyboard player Don Walker, Kim Hill suggested that people had a lot of fun to his songs, but they’re mostly quite sad songs.
Walker sounded somewhat nonplussed.
“I might have to go and have a look at meself”, was his response.
Difficult to tell if he was being serious. He sounded serious, certainly, but Walker has that dry Aussie humour which can be taking the piss when it is sounding most serious.
It is a brand of humour which often serves as a guard, especially when confronted with that kind of sharp personal insight Hill delivered during the exchange.
I found myself recalling that interview as Hill interviewed Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer of that band, Cold Chisel, last weekend.
Barnes’ memoir has just come out and it’s a lot about surviving what was basically an abusive childhood and adult alcoholism.
Barnes writes in that autobiography that despite their very different backgrounds, that it was as if Walker had read his mail.
Walker wrote most of Chisel’s songs, and I’ve thought for a long time that those songs – certainly his most famous ones, the ones he did with Cold Chisel, are about having a good time while you’re having a lousy time.
Back when they were in their heyday, I can remember having one of those intense conversations about music which you often have at that age, and distinguishing between the two big Aussie bands of the day, Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel.
Aussie Crawl were about pure hedonism, having a good time: Cold Chisel was about having a good time even though you’re having a lousy time, I vaguely remember proclaiming, probably while waving my arms around and just before falling off my chair.
This is kind of a definition of soul music (the having a good time while having a bad time thing, I mean: not so much the waving arms around/falling off chair thing), I think: if you listen to classic soul, by which I mostly mean the Stax-Volt Memphis brand but also the best Motown stuff, it is about dancing while feeling lousy about your life.
There’s a whole lot of socio-economic and political reasons for that aspect of soul music, most of which should be fairly obvious to anyone with who knows a bit about history and retains a bit of empathy.
It applies, perhaps less politically than in the music made by American blacks, to other rock music: the Who’s Pete Townshend, when his band was trying to pretend to be Mods, suggested the Mod ethos not so much about solving young people’s problems as allowing them to dance all over those problems. (although dancing to the Who’s music, is, I think, a bit problematic).
Walker’s memoir, ‘Shots’ only seldom alludes to influences such as this. His own early influences were jazz and country, while Cold Chisel has been more associated with pub/hard rock.
That said, there are enough jazz and country, as well as blues, influences, on Chisel, especially their earlier work.
This number – which closed their first album – shows singer Jimmy Barnes wasn’t just a shrieker: it is a song of summer regret and has a torch-like, almost jazzy flavour:
‘Lovers see the world through an old red wine
All the sounds of the blues, well
They just disappear
With a light like yours beside me
It’s been an old, old, red wine year.’
Soul, definitely: Chisel’s second vocalist, guitar player Ian Moss, consciously modelled his singing style on Sam Cooke and although Moss isn’t as good as that (unless your name is Al Green or Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles you’re not even gonna come in the same league) you can hear the influence. (Moss used to sing Charles’ ‘Georgia’ at Chisel concerts and he carries it off respectably).
Walker’s ‘Shots’ is, as he has said himself, not so much a memoir as a highly impressionistic travelogue of his time before and after, as well as during, Cold Chisel’s heyday from 1978-93.
It reaches a climax, and a crisis, at the time Chisel release their breakthrough album, East. The opening track from that, like ‘Conversations’ has a desperate headlong rush to it, especially when played live.
Lyrically, ‘Standing on the Outside’ is more linear than ‘Conversations’ – it has a similar mood to the earlier track and both were used to open concerts, but it tells a story as well. This live clip is from their final concert, and it shows them going out at their peak.
They’re playing their hearts, and guts, out here:
‘I wonder if other lives have a fulcrum, a few days or weeks that gather everything from decades before and fire it though into a trajectory pre-drawn for decades after…’
Walker ponders in ‘Shots’, referring to this period.
Just after East was recorded, and just before it was released, two friends of the band were killed in a road accident: one knocked out when it went into a tree and the other, conscious but struggling and insisting they get his mate out first when the vehicle caught fire and they both died.
‘Why that should have been the end of anything I do not know, maybe it just coincided with other things, but the end it was’, Walker wrote, years later, in the notes to the ‘Teenage Love” album. The final couple of years – including that farewell concert, the opening of which is that above clip, was, he wrote, a ‘long slow ugly vicious death… like clubbing a dearly beloved while they cling to your leg.’
It is a strange, jaundiced and in some ways odd read. Walker has a rare gift for a phrase: ‘someone whose dreams have strangled their common sense…’ he describes the funder of a concert in some bush backwater; ‘like trying to fuck through a tennis racquet’ sums up a particularly bad gig; young female concertgoers from the posh Victorian squattocracy, ‘rich girls who want to play out their hatred of any plans at all from anywhere up the ancestral chain’; or, visiting old haunts, ‘It’s like visiting your baby playground after you’ve sold your soul’.
There’s a cynicism, perhaps – a lyrical cynicism, certainly, but cynicism it is. Is Walker trying too hard here, perhaps? There’s what seems to be a deliberate, emotional guardedness, something which comes through in that response to Kim Hill’s question.
There’s a bizarre traveling the Aussie outback fantasy involving escaped Laundromat washing machines going rogue, roaming the badlands, breeding and ‘sometimes ending a decoy out on the highway in ambush, if you stop they kidnap you off and just wash the fuck out of you…’
The book is a neat, if offbeat, read. He comes at his subject – that subject being his own life, mostly – obliquely and from a skew-whiff angle. There’s a longer interview with him on ABC Radio here…
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (Belkanp Press, 2014)
This book contains a neat, telling little anecdote from 2001 when a proposed constitution was being devised for the European Union and the issue of the Christian roots of Europe was brought up.
There were vigorous pro and anti arguments- author Larry Siedentop notes the more vehement voices in favour were from Poland and the most vociferous against tended to be France.
The overwhelming feeling, though, he observes, was more awkwardness than anything else: ‘one of embarrassment, and an uneasy wish that the question would go away.’
The question did go away, because the proposed constitution was dropped.
It is that embarrassment that I find most interesting.
I think it’s got several sources. One is the largely unexamined assumption by educated Westerners that while Christianity might be part of their heritage it is a heritage which belongs with childhood and should be left in the intellectual kindergarten along with psychological equivalent of fingerpainting and peeing in the sandpit.
But whether or not you’re a Christian believer, Siedentop argues, it is clear that for whatever reason there was a ‘moral earthquake’ shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Christianity, he says, changed the grounds of human identity because, by combining Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism derived from later Greek philosophy, it emphasised the moral equality of human beings.
That was new. It meant that the moral equality of human beings was more important than any social roles they might occupy.
And that presumption of moral equality is at the root of modern secular liberalism.
His argument is endorsed – though Siedentop is not mentioned – in this piece from last week in the New Statesman, which I’m grateful to Philip Matthews for posting on the Twitter.
Historian Tom Holland notes that his own researches into the ancient world showed him the values of Greece and Rome were further from our own than we often realise: he concludes, more or less, that what made the difference, what caused the change, was the ‘moral earthquake’ Siedentop writes about.
Siedentop gives Paul rather than Jesus most of the credit for this, asking rhetorically, at one point, whether Paul was ‘the greatest revolutionary in human history’.
I’m not so sure he gets the balance quite right: Christ’s instruction, ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s’ has for a long time seemed to me to be the most subversive religious instruction in history.
It set up the question of what one does, in fact, owe to the secular authority/state, and what one owes to one’s God/conscience.
Setting that boundary was not just the source of the Reformation but also the Enlightenment and beyond.
I suspect we are going to have to fight that battle again: the information revolution, the tools I am writing this article on and you are reading it on, is increasingly blurring the boundary between what belongs to us as individual citizens and individual souls; and what belongs to the great collective, whether that collective is the government, Facebook or some other global entity, or just the social media chorus crowd demanding we share our private selves.
But Seidentop – the first ever holder of a university post for intellectual history in the UK – is less concerned with this and more with highlighting the debt modern secular liberalism owes to Christian thought.
He points out that so far as is known, the main themes of the Jesus ministry were repentance, the imminent end of the world, and a God who loved all human beings, including and especially ‘the least of these’.
There was no unanimity at all amongst Jesus’s followers about his mission: some seeing him as a political leader while others believed the ‘kingdom’ spoke of was of a more mystical realm.
Paul took this and fashioned it into something more. Paul turned those teachings into the ‘moral earthquake’ away from patriarchal family and the tribe as the agency of immortality.
With Paul, individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.
Paul, whose writings on Jesus are the earliest we have, translated the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ into Greek – and translated the idea of the Messiah in the process.
When he began talking of ‘the Christ’ – the son of God who died for human sins and directly offers each individual the hope of redemption, Paul shifted the concept from one who would deliver Israel from its enemies to one who would offer salvation to all humanity. The Christ stood for the presence of God in the world, and offered each individual their own salvation – on an equal basis.
Which is pretty radical stuff. It was morally radical because it overturned the presumptions of our natural inequality based on social categories.
‘For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour, the unthinking application of rules. For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. That is how Paul turns the abstract and potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it was an almost ferocious moral universalism.’
This meant that, below the surface social roles and divisions of labour, there is a shared reality: ‘the human capacity to think and to choose, to will’.
Siedentop then takes the reader from Paul through the Gnostics, onto Augustine, and through to the medievalists such as Abelard, Aquinas, and Ockham, right up to the edge of the rise of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism – where he stops.
The epilogue, ‘Christianity and Secularism’ which summarises his arguments, is worth reading alone. Christian ‘moral intuitions’ – his phrase – and way of thinking, thought patterns and habits of mind, (my way of putting it) lead to liberalism and beyond, to the modern, secularism of today.
Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed between the 16th and the 19th centuries follows the pattern developed by canonical law between the 12th and 15th centuries. The sequence of argument, Siedentop says, is extraordinarily similar.
That sequence begins with the insistence on equality of status of all human beings, with this idea based on a range of basic human rights. It concludes, he says, with the case for self-government.
The war between religion and secularism is ‘an intellectual civil war’ because of the shared moral roots of their arguments.
‘Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the church in the formation of their culture?’ he asks, rhetorically.
Secularism, he says, is our belief in an underlying, moral equality of humans, and this belief implies there is a sphere in which ‘each of us are free or should be free …it is a sphere of conscience and free action.’
This ‘central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity’ is its legacy to the world.
Finally he argues the failure to understand the shared moral root with Christianity means there is a tendency to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism.
That underestimate leads, he concludes, to modern ‘liberal heresies'”.
The first of these is to reduce liberalism to merely the freedom to make a buck, and, more generally, ‘a crude form of utilitarianism’.
The second is a retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civil spirit and political participation, something which ‘weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require.’
In his final sentence he asks ‘if we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’
I’m not so sure about that ‘shape’ – it’s a bit too evangelical for my tastes.
But we need, I think, to better understand and appreciate the depth of our own moral tradition – not to convert or ‘shape’ others in any way, but to understand what shaped us.
This is the latest post in my self-imposed Recommendation Rule. The Recommendation Rule states that if I recommend a book to someone I then have to do a blog post about it.
The first one was The Strange Death of Liberal England, written up here.
This latest one is going to be a particularly efficient post for two reasons. One is because I’m going to cover more than one recommendation.
The second is that it covers two books I am always recommending to people.
They don’t have a lot in common otherwise.
So, chances are I won’t have to do another one of these recommendation posts for a while.
(That said, there is a bit of a backlog building up. Memo to self: stop talking to people about books.)
(Yeah, like that will happen.)
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World By Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate) 2004.
For all those po-faced and pompous dullards who have been intoning ‘post-truth politics’over the past few months as if they have discovered something new, Wheen was there more than a decade ago. And he was less inclined to assume that this sort of thing belonged only to one side of politics.
He is also funny and intelligent. This is a truly great book: most of it hasn’t dated (apart from the cover-photo: today those people would be holding smart phones) and its bracing, excoriating scorn for the delusions of our age is a literary tonic.
Even the index in this book is funny E.g. “Philip, Prince: enjoys flying saucer review, 136; praised by extra-terrestrials, 137 – 8”.
“Merton, Robert: says markets are not too volatile, 272, loses fortune because of market volatility, 273.”
“Blair, Tony: … Claims descent from Abraham, 165; explores Third Way, 226; likes chocolate cake recipe, 51…”.
And so forth.
Wheen has a – mostly – sure eye for the follies of our age, along with the ability to write about them with a caustic if occasionally unfair wit.
But underneath the wit is a moral seriousness.
‘Even intellectuals who respect enlightenment values often seem reluctant to defend them publicly, fearful of being identified as “imperialists” or worse. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore. Some are manifestly sinister, others seem nearly comical… Cumulatively however, the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation, especially as many of the new irrationalists harkt back to some imaginary pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden age.’
Wheen begins in what he sees as the fateful year of 1979, with the ascension of both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher.
I think he’s a little hard on Thatcher, to be honest, even though she was never my kind of conservative (too ideological and too humourless). And most of his policy points skewer phase one of monetarism, which was ditched around 1981 because, ironically enough, the only way to restrict the money supply to the degree required would have involved the kind of fortress economy approach to capital controls more suitable to an extremely socialist economy.
He does also take some well-aimed potshots at Ronald Reagan’s rather fiscally careless enactment of supply-side economics.
And then he moves on to the whole New Age movement, the bizarre blend of all that hippy childishness and pomposity which was carefully and lucratively folded into the self-help and the management guru movement and industry.
The most important chapter I think is ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’ – on the rise of post-modernism, post-structuralism and all that. Derrida, Foucault, and their addled disciples get a thorough and highly deserved going over.
‘Although much post-modernism made no sense, it is nonsense with a purpose: by using quasi scientific terminology the po-mo theologians intended to explode the “objectivity” of science itself. The fact they knew nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry was no obstacle.’
He has much fun with Luce Irigaray who attacked Einstein’s E=MC2 as being a ‘sexed equation’ as it privileged the speed of light over other less masculine speeds. and suggested the reason sites are not unable to arrive at a successful model for turbulence was because it viewed the concept of fluid as being feminine.
He also quotes Barbara Ehrenreich as asking, rhetorically, whether it matters if ‘some French guy’ wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one: she answers her own question by pointing out it doesn’t matter much, really, – except that on US campuses, ‘such utterances were routinely passed off as example of boldly “transgressive” left-wing thought’.
Wheen, as a former editor of Marxism Today and a socialist himself, identifies this kind of frivolous academic obscurantism as being fatal to the Left.
This is Wheen’s main point, I think, and it is a neat paradox that he uses humour, aggressively and effectively, to make it.
You will find few people so tediously serious as the kind of folk who come up with that type of “boldly transgressive” notion outlined above.
Yet this over-earnest self-righteousness is a carapace over something essentially frivolous, childish and irresponsible.
Wheen does the opposite. He uses humour to make a serious, grown up and responsible case for facing things as they are, rather than taking refuge in mumbo jumbo of various kinds.
This shift by academic humanists and social scientists towards such ways of thinking betray the ‘progressive’ heritage, he argues.
His star witness is Alan Sokal, who pointed out it would be impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity are no longer valid.
Sokal came up with one of the great hoaxes of the last 25 years of the 20th century when, in 1996, he contributed to academic journal Social Text a paper entitled “Transgressing The Boundaries: Toward A Transformative Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity”
It was entirely comprised of post-modern mumbo-jumbo and meant nothing.
The editors of academic journal Social Text who, as Wheen acidly notes, ‘must have noticed the supposedly imaginary external world from time to time, not least when the sun rises every morning’ read it with some enthusiasm and published it with acclaim.
When he revealed the hoax, he was vilified because it was felt he had betrayed his own side by showing the post-modern emperor was wandering around the nudd.
Social Text’s editors accused him of exposing them to ridicule from conservatives, which, in any point-missing championships, would be through to the finals without dropping a set.
From there, Wheen travels via the Princess Diana cult, the fraudulence of Al Gore, fundamentalist religion of all kinds, and the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
You do not have to read any of these academics or politicians or management gurus to read this book: their ideas are, unfortunately, embedded in the lymph nodes of our time.
But Wheen writes better than any of them, and he writes for the intelligent non-academic reader.
It is a great read. No one will read it without disagreeing, probably very strongly, with some of Wheen’s points.
It will make you laugh, it will make you annoyed, but most of all it will make you think.
And you can’t ask anything more of any book.
The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco by John Birmingham (Duffy and Snelgrove) 1997.
‘Aristotle said if you hold your farts in you die. I’m not sure where he said that but some big university guy told me so it’s probably true. Kind of wished I’d kept it to myself though. Our place wasn’t worth living in after word got around and I had to take a long and eventful road trip t to get away from it.’
That’s the opening paragraph. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Picked this one up at Wellington airport, many years ago, before a flight to London. Got some funny looks on the LA leg of the flight as I kept collapsing in hysterical laugther.
Really. It is that good.
Okay, the humour is Aussie, blokey, and will be highly offensive to a lot of people. It contains sex, drugs, gambling, and Pauline Hanson.
There are jokes at the expense of goths, vegans, lesbians, the Queensland police force, Social Security bureaucrats, real estate agents, and people who voted for Pauline Hanson.
But it is an uproarious tale, one which accumulates in an incendiary finale which reminded me of Spike Milligan’s ‘Puckoon’ novel.
The book is a kind of sequel to Birmingham’s more well-known ‘He Died With a Falafel in His Hand’ and features a number of the same characters and/or contributors to that earlier book.
For the uninitiated, “Falafel” is that book many of us who spent formative years in flatting situations (‘share housing’ to use the Aussie term) have muttered about doing: writing a book about some of the strange people and stranger behaviour of those people.
Birmingham actually did it, in the mid-1990s, and it became a play and a film. It was though a series of episodes and vignettes.
‘Tasmanian Babes’ has a plotline, with heroes, villains, and jeopardy.
And comic relief. Bundles of it. It is very much a book to read if you need to cheer yourself up.