‘We have normality. Anything you still can’t deal with is therefore your own problem’ 

‘One of the most blissful joys of the English language is the fact that one of its greatest practitioners ever, one of the guys on the very top table of all, was a jokesmith. Though maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Who else would be up there? Austen, of course, Dickens and Chaucer. The only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare. …

[Wodehouse] doesn’t need to be serious. He’s better than that.. He’s up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you’ll find Bach, Mozart at Einstein Feynman and Louis Armstrong in the rooms of pure creative playfulness.’ 

– Douglas Adams
For the first time in years I’ve re-read the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy series of books.

The work began life as a radio serial and which I fell in love with when I heard it on National Radio – the old 1YA – in around 1979-80. My schoolmates were baffled when I started raving about this show – radio programmes were Not Cool, at least, not when they were on National Radio, and I was somewhat prone to these decidedly unfashionable enthusiasms.

The same schoolmates were, two years later, in love with the show when it appeared on TV. I never liked the TV version (nor, I later discovered, did Adams).

But in recent times, I’ve e decided that Douglas Adams was a seer, a prophet of our time – in ways which were not readily apparent when the series first appeared, at the tail end of the ’70s.

This is not so much about working out that, as was revealed early on in the series, that the meaning of life might happen was 42.

This was, I suppose, interesting but ultimately unhelpful.

Some of the other material in his “increasingly inaccurately named Trilogy”   – the five books of the hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy series – was prophetic.
In particular the ‘B Ark’ which features in the second book.

The idea here is that the planet Golgafrinchin discovered that it was about to be destroyed so it loaded all its people onto three ‘Arks’ to colonise a new planet.
All the leaders, the scientists, the engineers the people that actually made stuff they got put on the ‘A’ Ark.

The folk who had to actually do all the grunt jobs – the workers –  got put on the ‘C’ Ark

On the ‘B’ Ark were put management consultants, hairdressers, the marketing people, public relations executives, and so forth. Oh, and telephone sanitisers, a group which seem to have attracted Adams’ particular attention for some reason.
The two heroes, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, find themselves through a series of improbable events on the B Ark which, they discover,  is headed for planet Earth.

The captain of the B Ark spends time in the bath, again for reasons which are not adequately explained.

It also becomes clear, after a few pointed questions, that the ‘B’ Ark is programmed to ‘not so much land, as such’ as crash onto this new planet.

It also becomes painfully obvious to Arthur and Ford – though not so much to the colonists on the B Ark – that the  Golgafrinchins didn’t actually send either the A or C Arks but they simply loaded a bunch of people who weren’t much use onto the B Ark and told them a covoluted cover story story as to why.

We could try this sometime ourselves,  maybe.

But that isn’t actually my main point.

What I find intriguing to be thought-provoking right now, is that these this group of management consultants and so forth, who land on prehistoric earth and quietly take over from the cavemen, decide to adopt the Leaf as their common currency.

This works very well initially because they all become immensely rich.
The trouble is that they then get a problem with the overvaluation of the currency.

And it is recommended, “in order to obviate this problem, and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and…er, burn down all the forests. I think you’ll all agree that’s a sensible move under the circumstances.”
Any parallel with the quantitative easing by central banks since 2009 – how many trillion US dollars is it now? I’ve lost count – should be obvious. It’s why global share and property markets have gone berserk. Asset price inflation is an amazing and scary thing on this scale.

The main question for us, now.  is what happens when someone decides to do the equivalent of burning all the forests down.

The other one is the Planet Krikket, which features in my favourite of the book series, ‘Life The Universe and Everything’.

This is always been my favourite. It is darker than the others – according to a recent biography of Adams he wrote it when depressed. Krikket is a planet of gentle, peace loving folk who believe they are alone in the universe, but when they discover they are not, the shock to their worldview is so great they decide the only thing to do about it is wipe out the rest of the universe.

So this gentle, peace-loving race turn into a group of genocidal maniacs.

It’s a bleak view of what happens to human beings when confronted with something which utterly challenges their assumptions about life.

It’s also depressingly accurate, in many cases. The “wiping out” can be metaphorical rather than literal – thankfully, it usually is, and I suppose this is the lesser of two evils.

But it is still wrong. And all too human.

 

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.

Thought for the Day…

‘We assume that every time we do anything we know what the consequences will be, i.e., more or less what we intend them to be. This is not only not always correct. It is wildly, crazily, stupidly, cross-eyed-blithering-insectly wrong.’

-Douglas Adams

Six Blankets in the shape of a cross – an Everest epic

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vintage Books 2012)

‘We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn. 

Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.’

Everest-wallpaper-cb1267712137
Chomolungma/Sagamatha/Everest. From the North side.

So wrote George Mallory of his first attempt at climbing Mt Everest, three years before he was to make his more famous, and fatal, climb.

By a neat coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Wade Davis’s mighty book on the expeditions undertaken by Mallory, and others, in the wake of World War One just as the fillum ‘Everest’ appeared in the cinemas.

This latest fillum is, of course, about a later and much more famous, at least to contemporary generations, attempt on Everest, even if at least one of the participants in the actual climb has damned it as being less-than-accurate.

The Wade Davis book, though, is one of the most absorbing things I’ve immersed myself in for a long time.

It is only partly about the climb itself: it is very much about the culture and circumstances of the mostly young men who were involved in the first serious bids on the mountain in the years after the First World War.

And, as a semi-aside, they also made the first ever film of the mountain, recently restored and online here. It, too, is compelling, for all its primitive technology and for the fact the film makers couldn’t get beyond a certain point.

The theme of the book is how the climbers – some not so young – were driven by the trauma of World War One, and also by the uneasy feeling the sun which shone on the British Empire was moving past the meridian.

The leader of the first expedition, Charles Bruce, had received  bullets through both legs at Gallipoli and lost one of those legs.

He had been told to retire home on his disability pension and advised to take things easy.

Above all else, doctors told him not to attempt any strenuous uphill walking.

You have to shake your head in admiration at anyone who can so comprehensively ignore medical advice.

But the book is peopled with such dotty, obsessive but often quite gentle eccentrics. The contrast with the more consumer-ist approach of  today’s Everest industry could not be more profound.

These were men who had no need of a ‘bucket list’. They had seen too much of life, and death, for such a thing.

The man who made the first film of Everest,  John Noel, had witnessed the first gas attack on the Western Front in 1915 – one where a fellow officer described men running back with bulging eyes and tearing at their throats as the gas caused a chemical reaction in their lungs which meant they drowned in the poison. ‘I have never seen men so terrified’ he wrote.

Noel himself was wounded in a shell burst the same day and as well as having severe head and other injuries was suffering from neurasthenia by the time he was invalided out.

Another member of the expedition, Howard Somervell, had been a medical officer in the trenches. Working as a surgeon, Davis writes, Somervell,

‘appears to have dealt with the war by maintaining a process and highly disciplined focus on the abstract possibilities of the academic moment. In his free moments he would go sketching, to the most humble objects of nature with his heart yearning to treat every animate being as worthy of respect.’.

There is a nice piece on him here – including the nugget, not mentioned in Davis’s book, that in 1924 mountaineering was an Olympic sport and those on the team which attempted Everest were given medals that year.

Many of the men had been in the Himalayas and wider central Asian region well before they tried to climb the mountain.

Howard-Bury travelled to the region before the war, going through the Karakorams and Kashmir, learning, in the end, 27 languages and closely studying the culture and in particularly the religions of the region. In 1911, aged 31, he inherited his family estate and was able to “retire” – and immediately used his wealth and leisure to trek through the Silk Road and Mongolia, into Russia.

He bought lilies in Omsk and planted them at Belvedere; he bought a baby bear as well who he brought home. The bear grew to seven feet tall: Howard-Bury kept fit by wrestling with it.

‘He spent his time collecting plants, taking notes, and living a life of freedom and whimsy…..He was not a man ready for war, and yet when it came he returned immediately to his regiment.’

He was also at Loos and Ypres. And the Somme. Davis sketches the outline of these battles, and what utter carnage they were.

Ordered at one point to take a group of men and dig a communication trench, he found they were digging not through the earth, but through layers and layers of decaying bodies of men who had fallen in previous battles. “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots”.

Throughout the war he kept a regular diary – he was, says Davis, a brilliant and observant writer.

Howard-Bury was captured in the final German offensive of the war: his regiment was right in the forefront of the attack and few survived.

The social and cultural aspect of all this has been much written about: Davis also has an eye for the economic scale, with the arresting fact that between 1918 and 1921 the effect of  death duties and other taxes meant a quarter of all English land would change hands – a change in property ownership of a scale only seen once before, when William the Conqueror marched in. Not even Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the English Civil War saw anything like it.

After the war, notes Davis, many who had served in the trenches wanted to go “anywhere but home”.

‘The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre….In the months and years after the war the essence of death became redefined, even as survivors sought new ways to deal with the inexorable separation it implied.’

Davis quotes Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé, her brother and two male friends and who wrote she had “no one left to dance with. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead, and would never return.”

The book is peopled with dotty, strong-minded eccentrics, not all who saw war service. There is Charles – later Sir Charles – Bell, the envoy in Tibet, who loved the locals and who, after one of the early expeditions, forbade any removal of rocks for geological purposes because it was upsetting local religious sensibilities.

In fact, the climbers were not removing rocks – Tibetan lamas had got the wrong impression of what was going on – but Bell was appalled by the climbers’ dismissive reaction when he passed on local concerns.

There is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent of colonialism here – in fact ‘undercurrent’ is an understatement. Bell was another odd mix: he insisted on always wearing uniform when meeting Tibetan leaders, as befitting the dignity of a British official, but he would also avoid going outdoors in summer during daytime, like the lamas, because moving around would kill insects and Buddhists believe taking any life is wrong.

And Mallory?  He seems to have been a star even before Everest: a mix of brilliance, good looks and athleticism left him trailing clouds of still mostly anticipated glory, if such a thing can be imagined. He was singled out early as a vital part of any expedition – in fact, the best hope of getting to the top of Everest – due to his climbing ability.

There is a vignette of his first glimpse of Everest – noted in Howard-Bury’s diary: unable to sleep, he had risen to watch the sunrise and was pottering around on the pass where they had camped, ‘still clad in pyjamas and bedroom slippers, gazing at the mountain’.

The final, disastrous attempt, is covered in depth: Mallory and his climbing partner, Irving, disappeared into the mist on the mountain and fellow climber Noel Odell, thought he had seen them close enough to the summit to have actually made it there, even though they did not make it back.

Mallory was to complain to Noel he had not come to Tibet to be a film star: one of Davis’s points is despite this it is precisely what Mallory became, in life and – especially – in death. The film made by Noel became a hit at the still-silent cinemas.

Noel could only – especially with the heavy film equipment of the time – climb so far up the mountain. He was to wait: geologist Odell climbed further and watched his friends disappear. As relayed in Noel’s film, they waited longer than they knew they should have had to if the climb had been a success: eventually, the signal came.

Six blankets, in the shape of a cross, in the snow.

By the time this happens, on page 549, the reader is so wrapped up in the tale it is difficult not to feel the dismay.

The book goes on to cover future, abortive bids to get an expedition going, which ran afoul of politics. Hilary’s 1953 bid is, of course, mentioned in an epilogue, and there is the more recent discovery of Mallory’s body, where it is, and what it means for claims he and Irvine got to the top but never made it back.

I’ll leave that to you to find out about that. Read it. This is one of the best books, on any subject, I’ve read for a long time. Occasionally I’ve felt the writing could have been given a bit more pep and pace, but that is a minor quibble.

I love this book, and I haven’t said that about any book for a very long time.

Terry Pratchett, writing, and God

There’s a feeling that I think is only possible to get when you are a child and discover books: it’s a kind of fizz: you want to read everything that’s in print before it evaporates before your eyes.


I suspect author Terry Pratchett, somehow, kept this kind of fizz in his heart when
he wrote. It’s an excerpt from his recent collection of non-fiction, A Slip of the Keyboard.
 Pratchett seems to have maintained within himself how it felt to be a child – a knowing, clear-eyed child, for all that. In another piece in the same collection he writes of his first visit to a department store, at the age of around five: “I remember it in colours so bright that I’m surprised the light doesn’t shine out my ears.”
We lose one of the funniest, deep, thoughtful and above all humane authors of our time.
It is rare to get those qualities all together. Often funny is not humane or particularly deep. Deep and humane is often a bit po-faced. 
But with Pratchett, you can get shrewd and often sharp insights into the human condition, next to bad puns or references to old-and-sometimes-a-bit-dirty jokes. 
He was, proudly, a ‘fantasy’ writer – the only one, personally, I’ve ever bothered with (Tolkien, who inspired him originally, left me cold).
But he could be very sharp about such literary distinctions. ‘Magical realism’ he says in one of the pieces collected in A Slip of the Keyboard is a  term ‘invented by critics to describe fantasy fiction written by people they were at university with.’ 
And he makes what should be – but isn’t – the fairly obvious point that all fiction is fantasy.
‘What Agatha Christie wrote was fantasy. What Tom Clancy writes is fantasy. What Jilly Cooper writes is fantasy – at least, I hope for her sake it is.’
The problem many have had with him is not so much that he is a fantasy writer, he suggested: ‘as a genre fantasy has become quite respectable in recent years. At least it can demonstrably make lots and lots and lots of money, which passes for respectable these days. But I’m a humorous writer too and humour is a real problem.’
That problem is people – well, the kind of people who tend to sit in literary judgment – can  be a bit overly straight-laced and frightened of not being taken seriously, so they confuse humour with not-being-serious. 
The problem is we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious isn’t serious….
Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole when seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.
This isn’t the only time he cites Chesterton: to those who deride his books as escapism, or worse, and bad for children,  Pratchett returns to Chesterton’s insight into a child’s world. 
The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragon can be killed.
 And since Chesterton’s time, Pratchett notes darkly, we have learned many of the dragons are in our own heads. 
Pratchett’s Discworld novels are set on a world that is ‘a world and a mirror of worlds’ –  and sometimes the mirror, as is the nature of mirrors,  shows things we would rather not be shown.
There is evil: Carcer, the villain in Night Watch, is pure gleeful psychopathy (and what a great name for a villain  – evocative of cancer and something coldly, viciously knife-edged).
There are torturers in several books: it is part of Pratchett’s clear-eyed, unsentimental look into human nature that their workplace has coffee mugs with ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’ etched around them. 
There is – whisper this – the death penalty – Carcer is hanged, in the end, and in a sidebar to one of the Lancre witch novels, the villagers hang a child killer after the deeply, fearsomely moral witch Granny Weatherwax delivers the judgment ‘finish it with hemp’.
But when the villagers pronounce  ‘justice was done’ she wheels on them for their smugness, telling them to go home and pray to whatever gods they believe in it is never done to them. 
Ah, yes. Gods. There are plenty of these in Pratchett’s Discworld – many are rather common, living it up in their celestial realm known as Dunmanifestin’. There is the ‘Oh God’ of Hangovers, and various gods which are vaguely Scandinavian, or at least north European, turn up in several books, generally not really knowing what is going on. 
Gods are mostly, in Pratchett’s Discworld, bumbling and careless of the people who worship them. This is, again, an example of both Pratchett’s wisdom, humour, and humanity.
Perhaps the most explicitly theologically focused of the Discworld series, Small Gods, contains a desert to where gods who are no longer worshiped are banished. The more true believers a god has, the greater the creature they can manifest themselves as.
The great god Om, who supposedly has an entire, viciously theocratic state of Omnia worshipping him, manifests himself only to discover instead of some fearsome beast he is a rather slow, one-eyed tortoise. 
Only one, decent and earnest but rather thick monk, named Brutha,  genuinely believes: everyone else just believes in the terror which will come their way if they are suspected of heresy. 

And then there is neighbouring city state of  Ephebe, which is like a parody of our vaguely received ideas about Ancient Greece: the place is full of philosophers leaping out of baths or arguing in pubs. 

The greatest of these philosophers is Didactylos, who lives in a barrel (both the name and the residence are neat historical jokes) and who describes his philosophy as

 a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, “You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink. Mine’s a double, if you’re buying.”

 Hogfather, a kind of satire on Christmas, climaxes in an exchange about why beings such as the Hogfather,   Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, gods and demons, have been invented by humans.
It is significant who the question is asked of: Death. 
It is one of Pratchett’s best jokes-that-is-more-than-a-joke that Death – who talks in a VOICE OF DOOM LIKE THIS – is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire series: he has a huge, if puzzled and often inept, care and concern for humanity.
I don’t think Pratchett ever said so anywhere, but I’m convinced Death represents Pratchett’s own view in his novels.
It is the culminating joke on the more overtly intellectual critics who annoyed Pratchett so much: not do much a post modern Death of the Author, more a case of Death as the author.

Sensible Susan, Death’s granddaughter, wants to know why people need such beings: Death’s reply shows he has learned a few things in the course of his work.

The exchange makes explicit what is implicit in much of Pratchett’s work and  is worth quoting in full.
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. 

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”


MY POINT EXACTLY.

The A Slip of the Keyboard collection, mostly of unpublished articles and lectures, also has a magnificent short piece on ‘The God Moment’ written after some British newspaper suggested he had found God. 
“I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.’
Pratchett has though always refused to join the ‘religion is the cause of most of the wars/torture/etc.’ school of thought. 
While not believing in ‘big beards in the sky’ he was brought up in a traditional Church of England home, ‘which is to say that while churchgoing did not figure in my family’s plans for the Sabbath, practically all the ten commandments were obeyed by instinct and a general air of reason, kindness and decency prevailed
…possibly because of this, I’ve never disliked religion. I think it has some purpose in our evolution. I don’t have much truck with the ‘religion is the cause of most of our wars’ school of thought, because in fact that’s manifestly done by mad, manipulative and power hungry men who cloak their ambition in God.

But he wrote of recent moments of feelings of transcendence, of ‘the memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was okay and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace.

Where did that come from?
Me, actually – the part of all of us that, in my cause caused me to stop and listen in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alum…’
‘When the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet, beyond the grasp of Hawking.
 It doesn’t require worship but I think rewards, intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.
I don’t think I’ve found God but I may have seen where gods come from.

"I have learned from my mistakes and I am sure I could repeat them exactly"

Peter Cook died 20 years ago. A brilliant mess.

What this excerpt hints at, fleetingly, is how eerily his E L Wisty character foretold John Major.

Apart from all the usual highlights, he also enlivened some absolute rubbish – and in the last 20 years of his life  he appeared in a lot of rubbish.

My favourite is the fairly messy ‘Whoops Apocalypse’ where he appears as a bonkers, belligerent British Prime Minister, inspiring his countrymen with the words ‘We didn’t win at Dunkirk by running away.’

The Long Shadow of the ‘Stones

It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were  Keith Richards muses in one of the more thoughtful bits in his autobiography, Life.

Keith and Charlie {screenshot from recent Glastonbury concert]
‘I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. Image is a long shadow…I think some of it is that there is so much pressure to be that person that you become it, maybe, to a certain point that you can bear’.
I’m not sure if the Rolling Stones were the first band to self-consciously try to create a “legend” around themselves. Obviously, every rock music act, successful or otherwise, has tried to create an image around themselves. It goes with the territory.
But the ‘Stones set out to go beyond that, it seems to me, and to build the whole ‘outlaw’ thing around themselves. ‘The Rolling Stones are not so much a group, they are a way of life’ their first manager proclaimed sometime during that self-consciously legend-making time of the mid-60s.  And they decided to live up to that – the songs which were as much image making as music making (Sympathy for the Devil, Stray Cat Blues, Midnight Rambler, etc etc etc….)
The journalist in me finds all this a bit bogus. I love the music the band did, between 1968 and sometime towards the end of the 1970s (their last good album, ‘Tattoo You’, came out in 1981, but it was mostly outtakes from the 1973-78 period. I’m in a minority here, I know, but I think it’s better than ‘Some Girls’ – the groove tracks Tops and Slave have a real grinding funk missing off the more acclaimed 1978 album).
But what strikes me is some of the “legends” don’t quite ring right. Back in the late 90s I read a biography of Richards (very much an “as told to” effort by a transcriber by the name of Bokris) which had a number of claims Richards is careful to leave out of his official autobiography.
The Birth Legend is the best of these – born in the middle of a bombing raid.
‘Hitler had me marked!’he proclaimed to Bokris.
Weerll..maybe.
Richards was born in December 1943, and its a fact of history that most of what was left of the German Luftwaffe was on the Russian front, or converted to night fighters and trying to defend the Reich (December 1943 was the height of Bomber  Command chief Arthur Harris’s expensive and bloody ‘Battle of Berlin’) at that time.
And Richards, as a bit of a war buff, probably knew this.
So that Birth Legend sounded a bit bogus – and Richards, notably,  doesn’t repeat it in his official autobiography.
He specifically dumps on the ‘Keith gets his blood changed before every tour to flush the heroin out of his system’ legend – a throwaway comment to get rid of pestering journalists, he reckons.
That’s got the ring of truth to it.
So, the ‘Stones play Auckland tonight and I’m not bothering going. Garth Cartwright, in this week’s Listener, mentions something I’d also noticed from the more recent clips of the band in concert –  Keith is barely playing.
But if you look at them, here, playing ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, they’re in full flight – Richards playing to drummer Charlie Watts, whose precise, spare, neat drumming is the anchor which allows the rest of the band to meander off in their ragged fashion.
The whole band is playing their guts out here. They mean it. They’re not posing in this clip, they are playing. If you look at recent clips, there seems to be a lot of posing.
So this tour is about the legend, not the music.  And forgive me for being a cynical, black-hearted journalist, but I’m a bit allergic to self-conscious legend making.
Of which there has been much around the band. I’ve been de-toxing from the recent general election campaign madness by reading rock music autobiographies for some light reading.
Well, I says ‘light’–some of these buggers take themselves awfully seriously (looking at you, Townshend, Morrissey).
The Keith book caused a stir when it came out because he was so rude about lead singer Mick Jagger: the reviews mostly focused on the claim Jagger slept with Richards’ partner, Anita Pallenberg (which was not a new revelation) and also that Jagger has a small todger (which was, although given the way Sir Michael has put it around over the years, there must be a fair section of the female population – and if legend is true, one or two of the males – for whom it wasn’t such news).
He is also very rude about New Zealand’s very own Dunedin, during the ‘Stones first visit in the mid-1960s  – ‘I don’t think you could have found anything more depressing anywhere. The longest day of my life, it seemed to go on forever. ..Dunedin made Aberdeen seem like Las Vegas. Boredom is an illness with me and I don’t suffer from it, but that moment at the lowest ebb. “I think I’ll stand on my head, try to recycle the drugs”.’
Which, you have to admit, is pretty funny.
The public sledging of Jagger was already 15 years old when the book came out: they had a massive public spat in the mid-80s when Jagger recorded a couple of solo albums, and when the ‘Stones came to do their next album it was full of songs about fighting.
They even built what  – to me –  is their last great single around this, One Hit (To the Body) : the accompanying video shows Richards and Jaggar shaping up to each other (look at the clash around the 2 minute mark) and according to Richards’book, they nearly came to physical blows during the filming of this.
Personally, I smell more self-conscious legend creation.
But there is still the music – and that’s what matters here.  When I was growing up in the late 70s, the ‘Stones were on the radio a lot, but it was either the then-current stuff – Miss You, Faraway Eyes, and Beast of Burden off of ‘Some Girls’, or the Big Ones from the sixties/early 70s (Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, Jumping Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Women mostly).
Oh, and they were on the news bulletins, obviously. It was around the time of the legendary (there we go again) Toronto drug bust, when it looked like Richards would go to jail for drug trafficking.
I couldn’t have been less interested in the drug aspects (all that stuff struck me as being a bit silly, and still does) but I loved the guitar sounds. Most of the radio at the time was disco (or so it seemed) and there is something about the kerrang of an electric guitar and the swing and punch of a good solid rhythm section which still gets me.
But because I always liked to know the history of everything I got interested in, I started reading about this outfit….first year away from home, at Wellington Polytechnic, discovered the tape library and borrowed ‘Let it Bleed’and ‘Beggars Banquet’.

From the opening bars of ‘Gimme Shelter’   (this version, live from the late 1990s, is pretty good) I was hooked.

I bought my first copy of ‘Exile on Main Street’, second hand, in Cuba Street’s Silvio Records that year  – the first album I’ve ever bought on the strength of knowing only one track.

Still probably my favourite, the superb Tumbling Dice, of course: love the drunken skid of guitar at the start, then Watts rights the song with a couple of precise drum strokes.  (there is a *great* live version from the mid-1990s here, on Martin Scorseses’s “Shine A Light” film.)

I’m now on my fifth copy of Exile. It takes a while to get into, this album –it’s a double album which means almost all reviews call it “sprawling”–but its mix of country, blues and rock is something other, lesser bands, have been trying to recapture ever since.
This one leapt out at me the first time I spun that tape, and I still love it.
Torn and Frayed is *very* country, reflecting the Gram Parsons influence on Richards at the time. And, again, it is about the legend of the ‘Stones and of Richards in particular:  all about a band, and a guitar player ‘Joe’ who needs ‘codeine’ to fix his ‘cough’.  Umm, yeah.
Still. Magical track. As someone observed a few years ago, during the height of the alt-country thing a few years ago, ‘Alt country is just what the Rolling Stones were doing between 1968 and 1972″. Here’s your proof.
Jagger himself doesn’t like Exile much – too ragged and disorganised, apparently – and Richards has a final jab at him on the subject:
‘Whenever I heard “Oh we don’t want t go back and recreate Exile on Main Street” I’d think “I wish you fucking could, pal!”‘
Yeah, me too.