Saturday, October 23, 2010

Memories Of Dodgy Evenings in Camden Town

There is something about pool halls. It’s the brightly lit expanses of green, speckled with garish, clashing colours, sharply defined but randomly distributed, contrasting with the penumbra in which the figures move, the walls barely discernible and the corners invisible but full of strange things, not all of them imaginary. They are filled with noise, with the smell of cheap tobacco, of stale beer and day-old sweat. Voices grate against harsh music, music that was never popular, and is out of date but not enough to be golden or hallowed. There is a sense that many things are being talked about that probably shouldn’t be, and that some of that talk is about you, and whether you are the right kind to be there.
A Modern Narcissus Looks into his Own Soul

A pool hall is not a snooker club. A snooker club is a place you go to have a drink with friends and take serious pleasure in knocking balls around. As a teenager I went to one regularly, and that’s what we did. It wasn’t seedy or run down. It could have done with a bit of paint and some new carpets, but you could laugh there and the owner didn’t have a cosh behind the bar.

A pool hall is not for playing snooker in. The snooker is not even an excuse, it’s no more than atrezzo. No one takes the potting of balls seriously for the sake of it, but because there’s money, or reputation, or a girl at stake. No one laughs. No one has shaved for at least two days. No one has new clothes, or clothes that look as though they were ever new, or fashionable, or clean. There are very few women, and you wouldn’t take them home to meet your mother. Money changes hands for any number of reasons, not much money, and very quietly, but every penny of it matters. Nothing is what it seems. A game is not a game, but a challenge; a greeting is not a courtesy but an invitation, to something unspoken, and both greeter and greeted must understand perfectly the context, the tone and the relationship between them in order to interpret the words properly; a drink is not refreshment, but a debt or a bargaining chip; a cue is not a tool, but a weapon; and a girl is not a creature of God, she is a visiting card, gold plated, and God help anyone who suggests the gold is not pure.

I used to play in such a place, in a back alley in Camden Town, because snooker as a competition between chaps had become boring. It was much more fun there, and much more interesting. We were the only ones who enjoyed it, the only ones to ‘goodshot’ each other, the only ones who left before closing time. We weren’t right for the place and we knew it. We weren’t like them, we belonged to the light, and it showed. We couldn’t be trusted. But it was fun while it lasted.

Opposite, on the other side of Camden High Street, was a pub called the Brighton. Long gone, and unlikely to be missed. It was green, with lamps outside, a bit like the pavilion, I suppose. Not a lot, naturally, but I imagine that was the idea. A 60’s kitsch kind of thing, rather horrible. It didn’t bother about closing time, and sometimes seemed the right place to go. It was sparsely patronised, entirely by drunks. And not happy drunks, people who got sloshed in each other’s company and talked rubbish, or got happy, sad, angry, omniscient, etc, not even working men who relaxed at the end of the day or the week by getting smashed. These were men whose whole identity required them to be so severely intoxicated they could hardly move at all, much less speak. They were mostly Irish, mostly old, and they mostly ignored each other. They sat in silence, in comfortable seats, sofas I seem to remember, and experienced the sensation of being pickled, which was what they were and what they did. Even drunks usually like to enjoy, or otherwise be aware of, the sensation of being drunk. These were not interested in knowing they were even alive, and if they had died they wouldn’t have noticed, much less cared. Neither would anyone else. They were clearly alone, all of them, and had been for years.

The barmaid was the only woman in there, middle-aged, taciturn, and as raddled with drink as they were. She didn’t speak, either, or smile, or even care who we were or what we wanted. No curiosity or social interaction, not even an attempt to do what she was, presumably, paid for, beyond pouring the beer and taking the money. I wonder if she lasted longer than the pub did.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How To Create Immortality

Inspired by this post by Vincent at A Wayfarer's Notes, I reproduce in their (probably overlong and largely obvious) entirety a few thoughts I had some time ago when thinking about the same subject as the book of Ernest Becker that he comments on- how we deal with the knowledge of our own mortality:

a)       There are those who are barely aware of their own existence
b)       There are those who are not able to understand death
c)       There are those who live as much as possible in the detail of the moment
d)       There are those who fill their time with things to which they give importance, and impose that feeling on others.
e)       There are those who seek immortality through their children or their fame.
f)        There are those who fear death.
g)       There are those who embrace death.
h)       There are those who talk all the time, or watch the television.
i)         There are those who think they will be remembered, and try to be satisfied with this.
j)        There are those who believe they have done what they were meant to do with their life.
k)       There are those who fill their lives with the products of reason, using the time that they have.
l)         There are those believe they will earn immortality after death.

a)       Some people do not have the problem of mortality because there are scarcely aware of it. The young, the very stupid, the totally uneducated. They are aware only of the present, and probably have no ability to conceive their own non-existence. The instinct for self-preservation is there, but conscious thought is very limited, to immediate needs and desires, and they have no need otherwise to occupy their minds.

b)       Some people are of such limited intelligence that they cannot understand the concept of death, because, living, they cannot conceive of not living. They may fear hurt, which is within their experience, but not death itself, and they therefore have no need to deal with it. This is a very special case of a), which is concerned with people who, able to reason, at least in some measure, do not do so sufficiently even to be fully aware of their own existence as thinking beings.

c)       Some people concentrate their minds on the little things of the moment, and give their efforts to them and think that this is what matters. Thus they do not have to think of the bigger things. These things are always minor. Often they cannot understand anything on a larger scale. They have a problem with life as well as with death.

d)       Some seek things to do constantly, within the scope of their own competence, so as to be always busy with things that they choose to believe are important, such as housework, work itself, club activities; broadly speaking, all those things which ‘must be done.’ These differ from c) in that they have a wider vision and are capable of organising themselves and others, but because of this they impose themselves on others. But all they are doing is inventing ways to kill time, and are wasting their lives.

e)       Some actively seek to leave a legacy by which they will be remembered. Or getting their children to do it This usually means seeking fame, getting written about, a monument erected, and hoping it will not die before you do. Those who are moved to seek fame usually find this easy to believe.

f)        Some fear death. That is they are not able to use the means most people use to avoid the direct contemplation of it. They can often do nothing useful nor interesting, nor can ignore it nor accept it, nor pass time painlessly in any way. Their life is a continuous, desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable. Such people do not truly live, but in this they are not alone.

g)       Some seek death, directly, by suicide, or indirectly through dangerous activities. Suicides, of course, act through fear of life, not love of death. Others renounce life by giving it no importance, joining dangerous professions, engaging in dangerous sports and activities, defeating their fear by challenging it and, ultimately, attempting to know death and despise it, even, perhaps, to love it. The saints have desired to die and to be with God, and others are prepared to die, or are even desirous of dying, in the name of some belief, principle or position. It is another way of confronting death by finding something to which they can give greater value than life. Perhaps these are separate groups, since many are moved by courage to do what they think is right, rather than seeking courage by doing them. These are not, I think, the same thing. There may be three groups here

h)       Some try to fill their lives with entertainment. Unlike d) they do not pretend that their activities are important. They consume sensorial input in a passive fashion, without thought or consequence. These are the ones who spend much of their lives watching television, sleeping or having long conversations about nothing, full of gossip, criticism, remembrance of other occasions on which they have sat around talking about nothing… Anything will do that makes time pass painlessly. These wish to approach death without even noticing they are moving. And there are many of them.

i)         Some achieve acceptance by a more passive means than e) or j), by coming to believe that they will be remembered at least by their family and friends by neighbours, people they might have helped, and so they can believe that they will continue to live in the minds of people around them. How little they know human nature.

j)        Some are able to believe that their existence has a purpose, that they have discovered it and can carry it out, and that, then, they will be able to accept the end of life. These purposes are very varied, and include raising children, achieving some position in a profession, performing some symbolic personal act (defeating a fear, righting a wrong, visiting somewhere, doing something difficult…) These people are able to believe that what they do matters to others, and will still matter when they are dead.

k)       Some attempt to fill their time with reason and the products of reason. Not idle contemplation of art or thought, which comes under d) or more commonly h), but active study and understanding of anything which comes within the scope of reason. Art and learning are the main areas. Since man is both rational and mortal, these people see the best way of living, of being human, as using the time they have as efficiently as possible, and using it for the things which should matter to rational creatures. True learning is understood and aspired to by few, and is very hard to achieve. Most are not interested in it. Even the educated, and those who teach others, including at the highest levels, rarely have any real interest in reason and learning. There are many academics who churn out ideas of varying value and originality, but genuine scholars are very, very few indeed. And they are often unappreciated or even despised by their more pedestrian and self-obsessed colleagues.

l)         Some use religious faith as a means of dispensing with the need to value life, or to allow themselves to imagine that they will, if they suffer in life, be rewarded with a much better existence when they die. An afterlife is perhaps the most widespread motif in all human culture, being practically universal, it would appear. It is an inevitable practice of reason to invent untestable beliefs that satisfy it that it will avoid extinction. For the individual, however, belief in a form of immortality is not an especially efficient way of accepting death. This is clear from the fact, as expressed above interrogatively, that few people indeed lose their fear of death through a professed belief in an afterlife. Those who believe heaven is a wonderful place show a great reluctance to go there. It is, therefore, a palliative, a preparation, to reduce their horror of the moment when they contemplate it and when it eventually comes. This apparent contradiction, apparent only since the belief is not usually what it claims to be, is recognised and accepted culturally: we consider mad any man who seeks death by suicide or extreme recklessness for the sole purpose of being with God. (The motives of the recent Muslim suicide bombers are doubtless very complex, but bravado and a deep-seated hatred are surely much more immediate motivations than the belief that they will go to paradise.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hazlitt on Economic and Political Literacy

Hazlitt, in his 'Economics in One Lesson', has many interesting things to say, things which really should be learnt and understood by those who take our money or want to decide how to spend it. One observation he makes is the following,

"Finally, by the greatest miracle of all, this world of superinternational controls and coercions is also going to be a world of "free" international trade! Just what the government planners mean by free trade in this connection I am not sure, but we can be sure of some of the things they do not mean. They do not mean the freedom of ordinary people to buy and sell, lend and borrow, at whatever prices or rates they like and wherever they find it most profitable to do so. They do not mean the freedom of the plain citizen to raise as much of a given crop as he wishes, to come and go at will, to settle where he pleases, to take his capital and other belongings with him. They mean, I suspect, the freedom of bureaucrats to settle these matters for him."

That seems pretty clear, and sounds about right.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Van Rompuy Again

Politicians and bureaucrats love to spend our money on themselves, for their pleasure, love of luxury, sense of self-importance, or just to show they can. It's in the nature of people who are drawn to that kind of life that they will abuse the money that they are given to control, and that others of their kind, who are also looking to get their hands on some of it, will acquiesce in the sharing of power over it, in legislating or defending the need for such spending, and so making it all nice and legal, or at least make it impossible to find mechanisms to stop it happening.

Thus we have an insignificant bureaucrat from Belgium, a man with the charisma of a used teabag and the appearance of a child molester auditioning for a minor role in the school play, whose job exists not from necessity but as a result of private agreements between other bureaucrats who expect to find it useful at some stage, and who was given that job precisely because he won't be able to do anything with it- he's a placeholder, his very function is to be nobody, he is useful because he isn't Tony Blair, he isn't Felipe González, he is isn't Romano Prodi- we have this non-entity whose life is not in any danger and whose death would pass unnoticed outside his family, provided, at our expense, with a chauffeur driven car full of armed policemen, while countless thousands who really do live under a direct threat- from a violent ex-husband, thuggish neighbours, the local crooks, the drug gang that controls the area they have no option but to carry on living in, the guntoting friends of Adams and McGuinness, for being the wrong colour, the wrong sex, attending the wrong church, having the wrong opinions, doing the wrong thing with their dangly bits, or for no reason whatsoever- are told to go home and lock the door because there are not the resources to protect them properly.

Van Rompuy, like most of the unelected, unaccountable and irrelevant penpushers who use our money to make their bodies rest more comfortably and their egos shine more brightly, is robbing us because he can, because collectively they have the keys to the safe, and they have learnt to work together for the good of all of them.

And even to those who actually do matter in some way, because they have been specifically chosen by the people to represent them in certain matters, because the position they occupy does have a symbolism that would be affected by an attack on them, because their activities are important to a large number of people and could not easily be carried out by someone else, and who are under a real threat, I say this: You went into this for the money and the power, not to improve my life or anyone else's. Any risk attached to that decision is your problem, not the taxpayers.

It may appear to be a small matter to excite my ire in this way, just the use of an official car for a private journey, but it is corruption, and serves as a very clear and concrete example of what is going on everywhere the unaccountable are spending other people's money. Our MP's pay themselves, with our money, a sum that they choose, without asking us what we think they are worth; MEP's claim for expenses which they have never paid out, they claim for attendance when they were not there, they do no real work, as the Parliament has no power and they almost never pay any attention to the people they are supposed to represent. They are mostly glorified lobbyists, representing special interests to the Commission. This corruption is well documented on a massive scale, and is protected by the rules that they make themselves, and by the culture of entitlement which they have spent many years creating and normalising.

Power not only corrupts, it attracts the corrupt. The purpose of government, we fondly think, is to protect the nation and to organise, collectively, such things as are better done that way. This is total bollocks. The purpose of government is to make politicians powerful and their courtiers rich. It has, and never has had, any other purpose, from its earliest days in the tribal group in the savannah. Democracy is a deal by which they let us throw them out every five years in exchange for our promise not to slit their throats in the mean time. Both sides interpret this agreement with a certain amount of freedom, but it can, at times, work quite well. But it should not be confused with government by the people. It isn't, and probably no such thing is possible. Democracy is a way of controlling the state, not of turning the people into the state.

Thank you for your attention. Tomorrow we shall relax by talking about hedgehogs, which I enjoy much more than this depressing stuff.

Friday, October 15, 2010

EU Papershuffler is Afraid of His Shadow

Apparently van Rompuy (Google him, he thinks he's important but I can't be bothered to explain why) used official cars, paid for by you and me, of course, and they're not cheap to run, partly because they're run by bureaucrats, to go on holiday with his family this summer. For 'security reasons'.

I know people like that like to imagine they matter in some way, but whatever makes him think someone is going to kill him? No one even knows who he is, and no one cares what happens to him. The EU taxpayer wouldn't care in the slightest even if he were targeted by some crazed gunman or terrorist with a grievance. He is of no personal relevance to any of us, and his position, which is meaningless anyway, would just be taken by somebody else. He probably imagines the symbolism of such an act would be comparable to that of the murder of JFK. It isn't worth bothering to try to explain to him what he really means to the people.

If he is concerned for his safety, he can pay for his own security. He earns enough. Or he can go and sweep the streets and he won't have to be paranoid any more. Why should we pay for his delusions of grandeur? It is simple corruption, and contempt for the people who do real jobs or live under genuine threats to their safety (and there are millions, even in Europe).

Monday, October 11, 2010

On The Nobel Prize

I see that the Nobel Prize for not being George Bush has been given to a Chinese dissident, currently in prison for trying to gain greater freedom for himself and his countrymen.

While it’s quite possible to carp (it is hard to see quite how this squares with the promotion of peace congresses and the reduction of standing armies, it might well be possible to find more deserving people around the world, and the choice is clearly a political statement) the award is undoubtedly in the spirit that Nobel intended, the statement is the right sort of politics, and Liu Xiaobo has genuinely worked to make life better for his fellow man, risking, and ultimately forfeiting, his own comfort and liberty to do so. So, well done, that man.

China is a little freer because of what he has done, and a little more so today, because of the Nobel committee, who seem to have got one right for once*. Freedom, prosperity and peace tend to go hand in hand, and one day, in 30 or 40 years time, the Chinese press will have given up politics and will be full of articles moaning about those bloody Europeans with their round eyes, strange religious practices and smelling of milk, coming over here, taking our jobs.

*I also notice that the Literature prize has gone to Mario Vargas Llosa, a great writer, not tediously leftwing in his work, and not, as far as I know, in his life, either. Something of a novelty. If it weren’t for his pathological obsession with getting some form of detailed and slightly peculiar sex act into almost every paragraph he would probably be even better. But he’s worth reading which, in a writer, is the best thing there is, and the only thing worth rewarding.

On Fait la Chasse du Porc Sauvage

Regular readers will know that one of the ways your humble blogging hedgehog keeps himself in insects is by working as a translator and interpreter. These are two rather different skills, in fact, and I more a translator than an interpreter. Interpreting at the highest level is something that needs to be practised constantly or you lose the sharpness and instant command of lexis and nuance which is absolutely essential. An interpreter who hesitates is lost, as the tide of words at a conference or business meeting waits for no man.

Proverbs aside, I don’t practise constantly and I don’t interpret at the highest level, but I can do it in other, slightly less demanding circumstances and from time to time I am contracted for that purpose.

Another thing about interpreting, which you would have thought was fairly obvious but apparently isn’t, is that interpreters specialise; you interpret from one, or sometimes two, specific languages, into your own native tongue. It is not simply a question of knowing some generalised ‘foreign’. There are people who fail to grasp this, including people who should know better. I work for the courts occasionally and the last time they rang it was to interpret for a man who spoke Hindi and Bengali, but not English.

‘So you can’t help, then?’ asked the judge, getting to the point in a sharp and practical manner. Since the accused seemed an educated chap it crossed my mind to try it in Sanskrit, if only because it would have made a great story, but I could see it ending rather badly, and I dared not.

‘Afraid not, Your Honour,’ I declared. ‘Maybe we’ll have better luck next time.’ And I was sent on my way. They paid me anyway, since it’s someone else’s money.

On another occasion I was asked to interpret for the judges at a dog show. It wasn’t for the show itself, where communication seems to be done by a form of sign language, but beforehand, to keep them busy and stop them getting in the way while everything was organised. A simple enough task, it should have been. Except that they were French, and spoke no English. Again we had hit the problem of generalised foreign.

Now I read French well enough, and I speak it after a fashion, but that fashion can be seen in the title of this post, which is a verbatim answer I gave when asked what the men loading rifles into their cars were doing. Experts in the Gallic tongue well notice there is room for improvement. Had I had time to think, I would have made a better attempt, I would at least have remembered the word ‘sanglier’, but that’s the thing about interpreting- you don’t have time to think.

So there I was, through no fault of my own, taking a professional fee for doing the job of a rank amateur. To point out that I wasn’t really up to the task would have been useless, as the organisers were far too busy to look for a replacement, so I just got on with it. It went remarkably well, in the end. Everything that needed to be communicated was communicated, they were kept away from the preparations for the show, and they went off quite happy.

Due to another little mix-up of that kind I suspect there is a farmer somewhere outside Dublin trying to raise pigs on hazel nuts, and wondering why they are so expensive to feed and the meat doesn’t taste anything like what he tasted in the south of Spain, when I told him that’s what they fed on.

It all serves to make life a bit more interesting.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Things we Learn from Darwin

I'm reading 'The Descent of Man', which I had never read properly before; I had only read bits of it and read about it. It's fascinating for many reasons, and from the perspective of 150 years later, when far more is known about the subject than Darwin could ever have imagined (and far more is still unknown than we can imagine now) one of the most interesting things about it- and about 'On the Origin of Species', too- is the relentless, unforgiving scholarship. He spent decades documenting every aspect of the subject before he began to advance ideas, and he spends much of the book presenting that research as the essential background for what he has to say. It's what any scientist should do, of course, otherwise what he says would be idle speculation, and would tell us nothing but what he would like to be true.

With Darwin there is nothing idle, no unquestioned assumption, no glossing over the uncomfortable or inexplicable in the rush to show us that he is right; he has looked into every detail himself, confirming or rejecting what he has heard or imagined, or he has spoken to experts on those details and satisfied himself beyond doubt that they know what they're talking about.

This is not to say that he was in fact right in everything he said, and in every possibility he advanced, but his remarkable mind, and his unswerving dedication to the search for truth, took him as far as it was possible to go at that time.

The book contains hundreds of little anecdotes, incidentally told to support every, apparently minor, observation that he makes. Here I offer you one that I struck me as particularly curious:

'Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than ATTENTION. Animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey. Wild animals sometimes become so absorbed when thus engaged, that they may be easily approached.

Mr. Bartlett has given me a curious proof how variable this faculty is in monkeys. A man who trains monkeys to act in plays, used to purchase common kinds from the Zoological Society at the price of five pounds for each; but he offered to give double the price, if he might keep three or four of them for a few days, in order to select one. When asked how he could possibly learn so soon, whether a particular monkey would turn out a good actor, he answered that it all depended on their power of attention. If when he was talking and explaining anything to a monkey, its attention was easily distracted, as by a fly on the wall or other trifling object, the case was hopeless. If he tried by punishment to make an inattentive monkey act, it turned sulky. On the other hand, a monkey which carefully attended to him could always be trained.'

Text plagiarised from Project Gutenberg, to whom be life, health and strength.

In Which I Make A Surprising Confession

'Two Little Boys' is a very good song.

There, I have said it, and I feel purged and clean, a simpler, purer hedgehog. Rolf Harris has been guilty of many crimes against taste, and took particular pleasure in perpetrating them on British television, but this is a great song. Of course, it's a children's song, you wouldn't try it at karaoke night down the Blind Beggar, you wouldn't want to hear it more than about twice a year and I don't see Bruce Springsteen covering it in the near future, but it is a finely crafted song, linking a simple, homely tale with an equally simple but horribly dramatic one, in an imaginative, elegant fashion, telling a tragic, but ultimately mundane story with humanity and power.

I am moved to make this admission by Ben Goldacre over at Bad Science, who, in the course of explaining possible flaws in a study of an aspect of human behaviour, tells the story behind the song, which I was not aware of:

'When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Rolf Harris chose to take his own song “Two Little Boys” with him. When war broke out, Rolf explained, his father and uncle had both joined up, his father lying about his younger brother’s age so they could both join the fight. But their mother found out and dobbed them in, because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing both her sons so young. Rolf’s uncle joined up 2 years later when he came of age, was injured, and died on the front. Rolf’s dad was beside himself, and for the rest of his life he believed that no matter what the risks, if he had been in the same infantry, he could have crawled out and saved his younger brother, just like in the song. Rolf played “Two Little Boys” to his grandmother just once. She sat through it quietly, took it off at the end, and said quietly: “please don’t ever play that to me again”.'